Plain and Simple
A Woman's Journey to the Amish
By Sue Bender
Illustrations by Sue & Richard Bender
Harper & Row Publishers, San Francisco [HarperSanFrancisco]
Chapter Eight - Lessons
"How is your life different?" friends asked. "How have you changed?" I hated the question.
"Give us answers," I heard, but the demand was really coming from me. I wanted to say, "Look at me. Look what I've done."
I wished I could say, "Simplicity, and doing your own cooking, and washing the dishes are wonderful pursuits and will make you happy."
But I wasn't happy.
"You haven't done anything because you have nothing to show for it!" a judging voice inside me said.
Maybe I should have been content to have experienced a way of life that had a quality that seemed elusive to me. Maybe I should have understood that the splendor of another's life doesn't need to be incorporated into one's own - nor is it possible.
But the need to produce something is so ingrained in me that I spent a very long time searching for answers. I still believed there was "something out there" and if only I could find it I could give myself a gold star for coming up with a happy ending.~~~
I had picked a practical people who value the "homey virtues." Is this how love affairs begin? Opposites attract? The Amish didn't talk about their values, they lived them. I couldn't live as the Amish, but I knew their spirit was there, inside, and that was as real as anything that was going on outside.
Now when I'm frantic, I feel particularly awful. "Rushing for what?" I stop and ask. It takes time for the "chatter" to quiet down - and in the silence of "not doing," I begin to know what I feel.
My lists are still full, often bursting with possibilities, but I can see what's filling up my life with busyness and what's important - even if I don't always act on that information.
Housework hasn't changed, but my attitude toward the work has changed. Early each morning I squeeze fresh orange juice for my husband, clean off the surface where the juice has spilled, look around the kitchen and take great pleasure seeing it sparkle. Then I go out for a long, early morning walk with a beloved friend. I don't have to try to make these simple activities more interesting.
Before the visit to the Amish, I was proud to make art-precious objects to be seen in a gallery or placed ever so carefully just in the right place in the living room, where they could be admired and protected.
Now, for the first time, I began to make practical ceramics that our family could use every day: dishes, bowls, and plates - sturdy objects, no two alike - irregular, ever so slightly off-balance, hand-painted, crooked black-and-white squares. Their role was to be useful, but I also liked how they looked and loved holding them in my hands. Deciding which cup matched the spirit of which guest gave me considerable pleasure.
When I had tried to achieve without first knowing who I was or what really mattered, the achievement was empty. Those first old quilts I saw - proscribed, ordered, and intense - told me something about the women who made them and their view of the world. I was beginning to understand that our attitude toward the world resonates in the objects around us. They reveal our intention.~~~
"Do you know what your trouble is?" a friend asked one day. "You're more an Amish housewife than you realize."
"How can you say that about me? I'm not an Amish housewife! That's a homebody, and I'm not a homebody. "
But it was true. Just as home is the center for Emma Yoder and Sarah and Becky, my home reflects who I am and what I value. My house is a self-portrait. It has an aesthetic leanness, a paring down that I have come to appreciate. That spare, quiet quality makes me feel calm.
And it's still a struggle. I have giant lapses - when the house is a mess and I'm frantically spinning, and I resent the time it would take to wash even one dish. At those times, when there isn't a single calm moment in the day, I think of the tranquility of the Amish and realize I've made a choice.
Unlike the unhurried and even life of the Amish, I did want to go overboard, be consumed by a project, and at times lose all sense of proportion. Maybe I needed to give myself totally to something, to feel the ache that goes along with the joy, to realize how much I have to give up when I'm being single-minded. What I carry in my heart is an awareness of the values intrinsic to their way of life, something to aim for.
Finding a balance I can live with - that's what I was after. The proportions need constant attention and readjusting. How much red, blue, and yellow do I need, both in my art and in my life?~~~
I had been afraid to tell friends what touched me most deeply, because it might sound simplistic, corny, banal. On one of those days when I was feeling particularly miserable, a friend told me about her six-year-old grandson who was helping his father puzzle out how to mend a broken lamp while his grandfather looked on.
"Do you know how talented your father is at fixing things?" the proud grandfather asked.
"Yes," the boy said with a serious expression on his face, "but do you know what he's really best at?"
"What?" the surprised grandfather asked.
"He's best at loving."
Is loving banal?
I went back to the dictionary and looked up banal. The first definitions were "trite" and "insipid." I knew that. But then I read on and found "commonness." Maybe the things we share in common are the most important things.
Is loving simple?
Listening to your head is not simple. Finding out who you are is not simple. It takes a lot of hard work and courage to get to know who you are and what you want.~~~
I never knew what to say if someone asked me at a party, "What do you do?" Artist, writer, therapist, wife, mother - I would be judged by the label I chose. The Amish make no distinction. No one is labeled cook, quilter, or housewife. In fact, standing out would be a sign of false pride. I remembered Miriam saying,
"Making a batch of vegetable soup, it's not right for the carrot to say I taste better than the peas, or the pea to say I taste better than the cabbage. It takes all the vegetables to make a good soup!"
Maybe one of these days I'll be able to give myself a gold star for being ordinary, and maybe one of these days I'll give myself a gold star for being extraordinary - for persisting. And maybe one day I won't need to have a star at all.~~~
Following a "path that has heart" offers many lessons.
I saw the old, folk-art image "heart in the hand." That's a fine guide, I thought. As an artist I started by using my hands, making things out of clay. Clay needed patience and respect. I could not will it to harden if it was a damp day. The clay took its time, and I had to learn to watch and listen - to yield to its timing. My task was to reconnect with my nature, a nature that had been bent out of shape.
If I had asked myself at age twenty, thirty, or forty what matters most in life, I would have said being independent and having many choices. But there are lots of things I didn't get to choose: the decent and loving family I was born into; the social, religious or economic circumstance of that family; or to be 5'10" tall, have brown hair, a thin frame, a hearty constitution, or a questioning nature.
When I stopped resisting, when I stopped trying to change, when I trusted that there was nothing missing inside, that I didn't have to choose between one part of me over another, I rediscovered me.
Reclaiming my past, knowing where I came from, getting to know and love my brother and cousins, wanting tradition, rituals, needing to have Thanksgiving dinner at my home every year for thirty years, and being an active participant in a culture that forever romanticizes change is what I am.
"The first principle of a warrior is not being afraid of who you are," a wise Tibetan leader once said. I was beginning to feel what he meant.
And I have another choice - to accept what I didn't get to choose. I could have wished for a calmer nature and on and on, a very long list, but what I finally get to choose is that tiny space between all the givens.
In that tiny space is freedom.
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