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Plain and Simple: A Journey to the Amish

Plain and Simple: A Journey to the Amish

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Plain and Simple: A Journey to the Amish

3.5/5 (22 ratings)
134 pages
2 hours
Mar 17, 2009


"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.

Mar 17, 2009

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.

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Plain and Simple - Sue Bender


I had an obsession with the Amish. Plain and simple. Objectively it made no sense. I, who worked hard at being special, fell in love with a people who valued being ordinary.

When I told people I wanted to live with an Amish family everybody laughed. Impossible, they said. No Amish family will take you in.

I didn’t know when I first looked at an Amish quilt and felt my heart pounding that my soul was starving, that an inner voice was trying to make sense of my life.

I didn’t know that I was beginning a journey of the spirit, what Carlos Castaneda calls following a path that has heart.

I thought I was going to learn more about their quilts, but the quilts were only guides, leading me to what I really needed to learn, to answer a question I hadn’t formed yet:

Is there another way to lead a good life?

I went searching in a foreign land and found my way home.

Perhaps each of us has a starved place, and each of us knows deep down what we need to fill that place. To find the courage to trust and honor the search, to follow the voice that tells us what we need to do, even when it doesn’t seem to make sense, is a worthy pursuit. This story is about that search.

Maybe you have a dream, incubating, not fully formed. Maybe you are on a similar quest. I hope you will listen to my story and at the same time hear yours. That way it will be our journey.


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 amnd 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.

Sometimes I would stop in the middle of the day, when the scene on the page looked especially chaotic, and rewrite the list, never thinking to take anything off, but hoping the newly transformed neat rows would overcome my feeling of being overwhelmed. It was a balancing act on one foot—even when I was doing something I enjoyed, my mind jumped about, thinking of what was next on my list.

I never thought to stop and ask myself, What really matters? Instead, I gave everything equal weight. I had no way to select what was important and what was not. Things that were important didn’t get done, and others, quite unimportant, were completed and crossed off the list.

Accumulating choices was a way of not having to make a choice, but I didn’t know that at the time. To eliminate anything was a foreign concept. I felt deprived if I let go of any choices.

By evening, the list had become a battlefield of hieroglyphics; crossed-off areas, checks and circles, plus the many temptations added during the day. The circles were there to

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What people think about Plain and Simple

22 ratings / 11 Reviews
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  • (4/5)
    Reading this slim little volume was like sitting down in your favourite armchair with a hot cup of tea at the end of a long day: soothing, comforting and deliciously peaceful. Built around Bender's fascination with Amish quilts, this is the story of how her interest became a full-fledged quest for a better and calmer life. Bender went to stay with two different Amish families over the course of a few years, and tried to use her experiences in their communities to pinpoint what was missing from her life and reframe it in a way that balanced Amish values with modern American living. Unexpectedly relatable, interesting and quite lovely.
  • (5/5)
    If you’re looking for an incredible story (that happens to be true) with a spiritual foundation, you’ve found it. A quick read that I was able to finish in less than a day, and I’m grateful I stumbled on it.
  • (1/5)
    Ugh. I have more to say about this 149 page book than I have the energy for tonight.First of all, this author is the kind of "artsy" that I find overwhelmingly irritating. Shallow, very concerned with making sure she appears "artsy", likes to use short stupid phrases that she thought up in the shower and hastily wrote out on the steamy bathroom mirror. Finds that she must use ALL the stupid short phrases because she's just so enamored with her own "artistic" talent that she can't bear to leave one of them out. It's hard to get past that and see her story.So, let's get past that and go on to her story. Basically, she observed a couple of Amish communities, played the Amish game for awhile, and then came home to find that none of it really stuck. I know this book is all about all the ways that it supposedly really stuck---but, no, she totally missed it.Several times she talks down her first hostess, Emma. Emma is stuck in a lifestyle, Emma has no voice, Emma has no passions..blah, blah, blah. The author obviously lives on staunch Feministic principles, so it's going to take more than a few weeks with the Amish to help her see the reality of the situation. At one point, when talking about a quilting day that her second hostesses had, she says they were, "seeking beyond the limits of their assigned roles" in having some women over for a celebratory quilting bee. She makes it sound as if they were living in rebellion by organizing something on their own, carrying it out to completion, and enjoying themselves through it all. No, actually, there is such a thing as being content, happy, fulfilled, satisfied, and blessed in homemaking. It's not a role forced on these women---it's a choice they've made lovingly, and peacefully. I feel like the author wanted them to defend themselves or to somehow see what they were "missing". As a homemaker, "submissive" wife, mother of many, homeschooler, wearer of dresses and long skirts, and grower outer of my longish hairer, I roll my eyes at the idiocy of this author. I stamp my clunky black nun shoe in defiance. I hitch up my skirt, hitch up my buggy, and say, "Nevermore shalt my bretheren, sisteren, and childeren be subjected to the smarmy, slimy wiles of the..."Ok, I think that's about all for now. Basically, I wasn't super impressed. BUT---I do love all things Amish and I really loved her quilt analogies. I also liked how she was pretty honest about her shortcomings. I just wish she wasn't so obviously proud of them, as well. It made it very difficult to like her.
  • (2/5)
    2 stars is pretty generous, in my opinion. This book seemed more like a book about the process she went through writing a book about visiting Amish families. I found myself wondering where I might be able to find the book she spent so much time "pouring her soul into". The book is largely spent talking about how incredible she is for having completed such a daunting task and is filled with many backhanded remarks regarding Amish communities. She comes off pompous and self-indulgent, not at all like the humbled, pious woman she paints herself out to be. Would recommend skipping this book.
  • (3/5)
    I enjoyed the insights in this book. I enjoyed the simple style. While I find the direction some of Bender's conclusions take to be a little confusing, I appreciated the overall idea.

    This isn't a how-to book about how to live simply, nor is it a book about the Amish, really. It's about one woman's dissatisfaction with her harried life and the path she travels to live more deliberately. She doesn't become Amish (sorry for the spoiler), but from them she learns some important lessons about the value of process and product, and about how living deliberately isn't about acting in a certain way but about keeping one's values in mind when making decisions. She takes these lessons into her life and, rather than changing her life entirely, she just incorporates the lessons and gives them her own spin. She learns to choose the life she lives rather than just living it by default, and that seems to be the biggest difference by the end of the book.

    I enjoyed watching Bender's growth from stereotype to an appreciation of the nuance in Amish society. She started out thinking of the Amish as all the same, part of a hive and indistinct as individuals, but she gradually learned to see them as individuals with similar struggles to ours. She gave an inkling of the differences between Amish sects, and I found it interesting to see that different communities have different rules while still remaining "Amish."

    I especially liked Bender's portraits of the Amish women and how they pushed the limits of the roles allowed them in their community in small and large ways while still keeping sight of the importance of family and community. I loved the Amish midwives. Bender talks about the calm and strength she senses when she's in the presence of one of the Amish midwives; this is just how I feel when I hang out with homebirth midwives, especially those who've been doing it for thirty years or more.

    I closed this book with a vague desire to quilt and to make my own clay dishes, but I think I'll table those ideas in the interest of simplicity for right now.
  • (3/5)
    Woman heads to Amish country to try and figure out why she is so drawn to them and what she is missing in life.
  • (4/5)
    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.
  • (5/5)
    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
  • (1/5)
    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.
  • (2/5)
    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.
  • (5/5)
    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.