Plain and Simple: A Journey to the Amishby Sue Bender, Richard Bender, Richard Bender
So begins Sue Bender's story, the captivating and inspiring true story of a harried urban Californian moved by the beauty of a display of quilts to seek out and live with the/em>
"I had an obsession with the Amish. Plan and simple. Objectively it made no sense. I, who worked hard at being special, fell in love with a people who valued being ordinary."
So begins Sue Bender's story, the captivating and inspiring true story of a harried urban Californian moved by the beauty of a display of quilts to seek out and live with the Amish. Discovering lives shaped by unfamiliar yet comforting ideas about time, work, and community, Bender is gently coaxed to consider, "Is there another way to lead a good life?"
Her journey begins in a New York men's clothing store. There she is spellbound by the vibrant colors and stunning geometric simplicity of the Amish quilts "spoke directly to me," writes Bender. Somehow, "they went straight to my heart."
Heeding a persistent inner voice, Bender searches for Amish families willing to allow her to visit and share in there daily lives. Plain and Simple vividly recounts sojourns with two Amish families, visits during which Bender enters a world without television, telephone, electric light, or refrigerators; a world where clutter and hurry are replaced with inner quiet and calm ritual; a world where a sunny kitchen "glows" and "no distinction was made between the sacred and the everyday."
In nine interrelated chapters--as simple and elegant as a classic nine-patch Amish quilt--Bender shares the quiet power she found reflected in lives of joyful simplicity, humanity, and clarity. The fast-paced, opinionated, often frazzled Bender returns home and reworks her "crazy-quilt" life, integrating the soul-soothing qualities she has observed in the Amish, and celebrating the patterns in the Amish, and celebrating the patterns formed by the distinctive "patches" of her own life.
Charmingly illustrated and refreshingly spare, Plain and Simple speaks to the seeker in each of us.
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Read an Excerpt
How It Began
Can an object go straight to your heart ?
Twenty years ago I walked into Latham's Men's Store in Sag Harbor, New York, and saw old quilts used as a background for men's tweeds. I had never seen quilts like that. Odd color combinations. Deep saturated solid colors: purple, mauve, green, brown, magenta, electric blue, red. Simple geometric forms: squares, diamonds, rectangles. A patina of use emanated from them. They spoke directly to me. They knew something. They went straight to my heart.
That was the beginning. Innocent enough.
"Who made these quilts?" I demanded.
I went back to Latham's every day that summer, as if in a trance, not noticing it at first, just something I did in the midst of all the other things I was doing. Visiting the quilts became a practice, something like a spiritual practice, the one constant in days that were otherwise filled with the activities of summer.
I stared at the quilts. They seemed so silent: a "silence like thunder." It was 1967, and I was thirty-three years old.
I had seen lots of old quilts before, made by non-Amish women. They drew on an unlimited palette: plaid, polka dots, calico, corduroy, velvet. Their patterns were endless: Geese in Flight, Log Cabin, Bear Paw, Fans, Pinwheel, School House, Broken Dishes, Old Maid's Puzzle, Indian Hatchet, Crown of Thorns, and many more.
The Amish used the same few patterns over and over--no need to change the pattern, no need to make an individual statement.
The basic forms were tempered by tiny, intricate black quilting stitches. The patterns-tulips, feathers, wreaths,pineapples, and stars--softened and complemented the hard lines, and the contrast of simple pattern and complex stitchery gave the flat, austere surface an added dimension. I wondered if quilting was an acceptable way for a woman to express her passion?
I learned that the Amish used their old clothing to make the haunting colors in the quilts. Nothing was wasted; out of the scrap pile came those wondrous saturated colors. Like most deeply religious farm people, the Amish wore dark, solid-colored clothing, made from homespun material. But underneath, hidden from view, were brightly colored petticoats, blouses, and shirts.
Colors of such depth and warmth were combined in ways I had never seen before. At first the colors looked somber, but then looking closely at a large field of brown--I discovered that it was really made up of small patches of many different shades and textures of color. Greys and shiny dark and dull light brown, dancing side by side, made the flat surface come alive. Lush greens lay beside vivid reds. An electric blue appeared as if from nowhere on the border.
The relationship of the individual parts to the whole, the proportion, the way the inner and outer borders reacted with each other was a balancing act between tension and harmony.
The quilts spoke to such a deep place inside me that I felt them reaching out, trying to tell me something, but my mind was thoroughly confused. How could pared-down and daring go together? How could a quilt be calm and intense at the same time? Can an object do that? Can an object know something?
How opposite my life was from an Amish quilt.
My life was like a CRAZY QUILT, a pattern I hated. Hundreds of scattered, unrelated, stimulating fragments, each going off in its own direction, creating a lot of frantic energy. There was no overall structure to hold the pieces together. The Crazy Quilt was a perfect metaphor for my life.
A tug-of-war was raging inside me.
In contrast to the muted colors of the Amish, I saw myself in extremes: a black-and-white person who made black-and-white ceramics and organized her life around a series of black-and-white judgments.
I divided my world into two lists. All the "creative" things--the things I valued, being an artist, thinking of myself as undisciplined and imaginative--were on one side, and the boring, everyday things--those deadly, ordinary chores that everyone has to do, the things I thought distracted me from living an artistic life--were on the other side.
I was an ex-New Yorker living most of the time in Berkeley, California; a wife and mother of two sons; an artist and a therapist with two graduate degrees, one from Harvard, one from Berkeley. That was my resume.
I valued accomplishments.
I valued being special.
I valued results.
The driven part didn't question or examine these values. It took them as real, and believed it was following the carrot "success" wholeheartedly. Didn't everyone believe in success? I never asked, "Success at what cost?"
A part of me is quiet. It knows about simplicity, about commitment, and the joy of doing what I do well. That part is the artist, the child--it is receptive and has infinite courage. But time and my busyness drowned the quiet voice.
In the world in which I grew up, more choices meant a better life.
It was true for both my parents and my grandparents. I was brought up to believe that the more choices I had, the better.
Never having enough time, I wanted it all, a glutton for new experience. Excited, attracted, distracted, tempted in all directions, I thought I was lucky to have so many choices and I naively believed I could live them all.
A tyranny of lists engulfed me. The lists created the illusion that my life was full.
I would wake at five A.M. eager to begin. The first thing I did was to compose my Things to Do list. This gave me great pleasure, even though the list was nothing more than a superimposed heap of choices, representing all the things I enjoyed doing and all the things I had to do, crowding and bumping against each other. Any organized person would have said "This is ridiculous. It's unrealistic. No one could accomplish so many things in one day."Plain and Simple. Copyright © by Sue Bender. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Meet the Author
Sue Bender is the author of Plain and Simple: A Woman's Journey to the Amish (HarperSanFrancisco). The book was a New York Times bestseller. A fascination with Amish quilts led Sue to live with the Amish in their seemingly timeless world, a landscape of immense inner quiet. This privilege, rarely bestowed upon outsiders, taught her about simplicity and commitment and the contentment that comes from accepting who you are. In this inspiring book, Bender shares the lessons she learned while in the presence of the Amish people.
In Everyday Sacred: A Woman's Journey Home (HarperSanFrancisco: now in its sixth printing), Bender speaks to our longing to make each day truly count. She chronicles her struggle to bring the joyful wisdom and simplicity she experienced in her sojourn with the Amish back to her hectic, too-much-to-do days at home. Bender discovers for herself, and in the process shows us, that small miracles can be found everywhere'in our homes, in our daily activities and, hardest to see, in ourselves.
Profiles and interviews with Ms. Bender, as well as book excerpts have been published in countless national publications including Reader's Digest, The Washington Post, Ladies' Home Journal, The Chicago Tribune, The Utne Reader, and W Magazine. She has also appeared as a guest on dozens of radio and television shows.
Born in New York City, Sue Bender received her BA from Simmons College and her MA from the Harvard University School of Education. She taught high school in New York and English at the Berlitz School in Switzerland. She later earned a Masters in Social Work from the University of California at Berkeley. During her active years as a family therapist, Bender was founder and Director of CHOICE: The Institute of the Middle Years. In addition to being an author and former therapist, Sue Bender is a ceramic artist and much sought after lecturer nationwide. She lives in Berkeley, California with her husband Richard, and is the mother of two grown sons.
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Plain and Simple: A Woman’s Journey to the Amish is, I’m afraid, the sort of book I would probably never pick up of my own accord. Thankfully, my mom convinced me to do so, and any book recommendation from her has great weight, considering she doesn’t read much. To my delight, Plain and Simple turned out to be one of the best memoirs I’ve ever read. I think one of the reasons the book resonated with me was its applicableness to issues I’m dealing with in my life, but its message is one that anyone could benefit from. It’s full of the sort of anecdotes that will be lodged in your brain, ready to be accessed when a need arises. Bender’s struggle, sort of a mid-life crisis, really, is so relatable. She’s not going through a drastic, dramatic change, but she’s dealing with the confusion and muddled nature of everyday life, trying to figure out what her place is in her family and where she belongs in this world. The dilemma may sound mundane, but upon reading Bender’s story, I realized that these are the issues that we inevitably face, often over and over again. I also realized that I’ll be reading this book over and over again when I find demons of self-doubt have risen once again. A qualm I have with many books of this nature – self-helpy books – is monotony. It seems they always repeat the same “epiphany” in every chapter. The fact that this book weaves narrative with self-reflection helps eliminate this issue, but Bender also shows the reader how her epiphany evolved over time. Sometimes, in fact, she found that what she thought was a wise conclusion was, in fact, not, and she must keep looking for answers. In this way, Plain and Simple becomes less of a self-helpy book and more of a journey, an adventure. I also appreciated the insights into the life of the Amish. It was fascinating to learn that there is much variation between different towns and families. Bender relates her visits with various Amish families in such a raw, unpretentious way that I felt like I was discovering and learning alongside her. She never judged their way of life, forcing her perception of them on the reader, instead displaying all that she saw and allowing the reader to form an opinion of their own. This unpretentiousness is another factor that I loved. So often, I feel like the author of a self-helpy book is preaching to me. Bender never does this. She never proposes that she’s found the key to success and eternal bliss. Instead, she concludes with, “This isn’t a story about miracles, instant transformations, or happy endings. My journey to the Amish did not deliver a big truth. I’m not radically different. No one stopped me on the street and said, ‘Sue, I don’t recognize you. What happened?’ … And I am not wise. Not knowing, and learning to be comfortable with not knowing, is a great discovery. Miracles come after a lot of hard work.” This simplicity is what makes Plain and Simple plain and simple. The messages of this book are not going to go over your head or be too abstract to apply to your own life. There isn’t really just one message. This book is a buffet of ideas and food for thought, and you’re left to do whatever you’d like with it. I love this. I love that it means this book can be something different for anyone and that it can be something new every time its reread. Plain and Simple is whatever you need it to be.
I expected more of a history of the AMISH people but instead I got a history of the Author and her feelings. I heard in the book review that she had spent 6 months with them but the book said she spent 2 weeks. I was disappointed and thought the 10.99 price for 96 pages was not worth it.
I read this with a bookclub--did not expect to enjoy it, but at least it was thin! Surprise! I loved it! At the very least, this book offers an inside view of Amish life, but it's SO much more! Every over-achieving, over-scheduled soul could benefit from this book. It reminded me that the joy in life is only found through family, friends, and community. The true value in work is doing it well, for the benefit of all. The Amish understand that life's greatest rewards are right in front of them, but we spend all our time chasing what is often unfulfilling or unattainable. Few books I've read have enriched my perspective the way this one did!
I grew up in a small town outside of Phila., and went to Lancaster County often. I loved seeing the Amish and oftened wondered what their life was really like. I am now just 60, living in Arizona and a practicing Massage Therapist. I have several clients that are Mennonite, and one who left the Amish community. I have asked them many questions over the past several years. They love to talk and I have learned a lot. PLAIN AND SIMPLE is everything I have learned the Amish life to be. I so enjoyed reading this well written book.
For many years I have been interested in the Amish. I have also been interested in reading about how to live a simpler life, but haven't been able to find too many books on the topic. This is what I have been looking for. You don't have to be Amish to apply their principles of a simpler lifestyle.
I just finished this book, and I will say that serenity embraced me from it's pages. For all of us who long for a more simple and meaningful life within our families and our communities, it is inspirational.
Like Sue Bender, I, too, find the culture of the Amish fascinating. I have visited Lancaster on several occasions and there is something there that is undeniably peaceful. I would definitely recommend this to someone who not only is drawn to incredible Amish people but also knows there is a simple life out there waiting to be embraced.