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9780062500922

Plain and Simple

Bender, Sue

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Twenty years ago, while walking through a men's clothing store in" Sag Harbor, New York, Sue Bender found herself drawn to an array of old Amish quilts that served as a background to a display of tweeds. She was immediately struck by their deep, saturated colors, the geometric simplicity of their design, and their quiet power. "They spoke directly to me," she writes. "They knew something.They went straight to my heart." That was the beginning of her "journey of the spirit."

Plain and Simple, illustrated with the author's own drawings, is the gentle, eloquent story of that journey. Bender, a wife, a mother, and a dedicated artist from Berkeley, California, sought out Amish families that would allow her-one of the outsiders the Amish call the "English"-- to visit and share in their daily fives.

In language as spare and vivid as Amish art, Bender recounts her venture into an entirely different world, the seemingly timeless world of the Amish, a landscape of immense inner quiet. With an inquiring eye, she describes the months she spent in Iowa and Ohio with two Amish families. She illuminates the everyday rhythms of their world and conveys the life of the people who taught her about simplicity, commitment, and the joy of doing what you do well.

In nine chapters, as interrelated and well-crafted as a classic nine-patch Amish quilt, Bender speaks to the seeker in us all and reveals how she was drawn to -- and changed by -- the Amish values of austerity, humility, and the ordinary. "How" they live reflects what they believe" she writes. "Their life is their art!"After living and working with these people whose values were so unlike her own, Bender was able to return home and rework her "crazy quilt" life into a new pattern. "I thought I was going to learn more about their quilts," she writes, "but the quilts were only guides, leading me to what I really needed to learn, to answer a question I hadn't yet formed: "Is there another way to lead a good life?"

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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.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

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."

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