Plain and Simple: A Journey to the Amish

Plain and Simple: A Journey to the Amish

by Sue Bender

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780062501868
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 10/25/1991
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 176
Sales rank: 195,932
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.41(d)

About 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.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

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.

"The Amish."

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.

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Plain and Simple: A Journey to the Amish 3.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 14 reviews.
autumnesf on LibraryThing 8 months ago
Woman heads to Amish country to try and figure out why she is so drawn to them and what she is missing in life.
haiku.tx on LibraryThing 8 months ago
Not so much a woman's journey to the Amish, as a woman's journey through the Amish. The author is able to obtain a privilege few of us will ever experience: staying with an Amish family (or rather, several) for weeks of her life. The look at the Amish that follows is fascinating, though I found myself fading out a bit toward the end, as there are a few chapters where her flow is not as smooth as it is through the rest of the book. She finds her footing again before the end however, and overall I recommend this book for at least a lovely and comfortable read, if not as a necessity for your private collection.
BookishDame on LibraryThing 8 months ago
I read this book when it first came out in the early 1990's and it was a fascinating book at that period of time. Not many had penitrated the mystical walls of the Amish, and there was a great revival interest in Amish quilts and other artistic wares. I personally made two treks to Intercourse, PA, in search of a personal view of the Amish and their museum of quilts alone!Sue Bender's book was enlightening, though it may not have always been generous to the Amish families she met. She was a researcher and a "seeker" who asked the tough questions, and really reported and commented on what she saw in terms of what she lived on the "outside." I found some of her thoughts and observations rather unfeeling and harsh. However, on the other hand, had she not brought them up, I would never have known about them!The Amish had much to teach her and me. I've not forgotten the lessons of the quilts. I've not forgotten the kindness and the open homes they shared with Sue. There's much to be found in this small book about sharing, love and kindness.I recommend it, and I'm going to read it again.Your Bookish Dame
PhaedraB on LibraryThing 8 months ago
I'm not sure why I'm keeping this book. Just thumbing through it, it annoys me as much now as when I had to read it for a grad school assignment. The author is an artist who developed a highly romanticized view of the Amish, based on her impressions of Amish quilts. She spends time with an Amish family, hoping that the simple life she interpreted from the quilts will soothe her own overwrought spirit.Except, she didn't want the Amish as they were. She wanted her internal storybook Amish. She is constantly amazed by them, as in "This supposedly unworldy young person, cut off from television, newspapers, movies, and radio, carried on a lively and intelligent conversation." I don't get the logic of that statement; it sounds like a 19th century anthropologist amazed by the cleverness of the locals. "The Yoders weren't poor, but their diet was awful..." she says, never stopping to consider that hard work might benefit from a heavier hand on the fats and carbs. Her fallen-from-the-fairytale Amish go outside her comfort zone when shopping: "I was surprised to see them buying deodorant, mouthwash, aloe vera skin lotions¿a lot of items I labeled nonessential." She says she wants to learn from them, but really seems to want them to have her taste: "In their world they chose well, but when faced with a bewildering array of choices in the outside community, they often chose unwisely. In fact, before the 1850s, when they led a spartan and isolated life, their homes were bare, but handsome. Now with affluence, many homes had fussy china proudly displayed in living room cupboards."This strange blend of arrogance and condescending judgment fills the book. My professor was appalled at my criticism of the book, but I was and still am appalled by the white-lady-among-the-natives tone the author took. At the end of the book, she says she experienced no life-changing amazing insights from her time with the Amish. The very fact she could make the judgments she made illustrates that fact louder than any explicit announcement. I give it two stars solely in acknowledgment of her ability to write a competent English sentence, which is no mean feat in this day and age.
dianaleez on LibraryThing 8 months ago
Sue Bender is an artist who first learned of the Amish through their remarkable quilts. Not satisfied to learn about them second hand, she was able through great perserverance to stay with two Amish families. Plain and Simple not only recounts these visits, it also chronicles Bender's own search for meaning, simplicity, and order. Bender's book was first published in 1989 and is considered a classic. It is well worth reading.
bookwormteri on LibraryThing 8 months ago
I am fascinated by the Amish and Mennonites and really just other cultures in general. I thought that this book would be a little bit more insightful or have more to say about the Amish than it did. Instead, it was one womens need for some tranquility and how she kind of got it through Amish quilting patterns. She did live with them for a very short time, but I just wasn't feeling this book. Pass, pass, pass.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The most shallow book ever written. How do these writers get published? I've lived among the Amish in Ohio for a large part of my life. The author could have shared so much more. The good, bad and ugly. I kept hoping she would share something! Nothing.
Fiddlesticks More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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!
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.