Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Plain and Simple: A Woman's Journey to the Amish, by Sue Bender

I first read this book more than 20 years ago, at a very different time in my life. I was 40, getting divorced, working really hard, and raising two sons. Sue Bender's quest to find a simpler, more focused, and calmer way of living resonated deeply with me. Although I didn't go to stay with the Amish or even change my life after reading the book, I appreciated Bender's hard-won acceptance that fragility and strength, order and chaos, freedom and limits, independence and communality all exist simultaneously and that we find the best balance we can.

I decided to reread the book this weekend after completing a brutal slog through a project that was financially rewarding but an intellectual and physical grind. I again enjoyed reading of how Bender first became fascinated with traditional Amish quilts in her thirties, returning day after day to a shop where they were on display to soak them in. A few years later, she became interested in the simple faceless dolls that Amish mothers make for their children. Finally, 15 years after her interest began, she left her Berkeley home to spend several weeks with an Amish family in Iowa. Although there was much about the simple ordered life of the Amish she admired, she was also disturbed by the severe limitations on the Amish women's lives (and by their diet). When she returned to Berkeley, she was uncomfortable in her own life, though she knew the Amish lifestyle was not for her. Two years later, she spent time with another Amish family in Ohio--a much larger family in which the women had found ways to express their individuality within the confines of their culture (they also ate much healthier food). Again, when she returned to Berkeley, she longed to be able to recreate some aspects of the communality she experienced and was frustrated until she finally began to write about her journey.

I do have to admit that, this time around, I found it somewhat surprising that she spent five years agonizing as she wrote and rewrote this rather brief book. I don't mean to sound condescending, although I'm sure I do, but at this phase in my life, the lessons learned feel, in essence, commonsensical. They are elegantly presented, with the metaphor of the Amish nine-patch quilt used to advantage, and I respect the deep self-examination from which they grew. But they don't resonate quite as much.

Favorite passage:
Miracles come after a lot of hard work.

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