In the summer of 1967, Sue Bender saw Amish quilts for the first time, and found herself mesmerized standing before them. She was taken with their austere beauty; she became obsessed with them. The following Autumn she joined a quilting class and began to spend hours in her studio (where she worked predominanatly with clay) making quilt patches and moving them around to form various patterns. Whenever she could, she would go where Amish quilts were displayed. She wasn’t looking to buy, only to feel the calm they conjured in her, to ask herself the questions they evoked about the people who made them: what were they like? How did they live?
Many years later, in 1981, Bender saw three cloth Amish dolls in a folk art gallery in San Francisco. The dolls wore bonnets and long dresses and aprons, and they had no facial features. These simple, unassuming dolls had the same effect on her as did the quilts. That summer she and her husband drove to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, joining the other tourists who wanted to see the Amish way of life. Bender found herself uneasy, as if she and all the others were voyeurs gaping at and intruding upon the people who lived there. She asked someone at the tourist bureau if there was a place where the Amish didn’t “live in a fishbowl,” and was directed to a county in Ohio, several hours’ drive away.
In Ohio, she and her husband went from store to store, asking if faceless dolls were sold there. “The stores were hard to find,” Bender writes, “tucked away on back-country roads, looking like every other Amish house, a white wooden building with black trim, no sign outside.” Wherever they stopped, however, they were told that each Amish mother made dolls for her own daughters. Finally someone sent them to the home of two midwives, explaining that they made dolls for the babies born there and might be willing to sell one. Thus, they met Sarah, a freckle-faced, red-headed woman wearing a long, black dress and a kelly green blouse, who was both interested in and wary of Bender’s curiosity about the Amish. She invited them in, warming to them quickly, and agreed at last to send Bender two dolls if she understood — “I almost had to promise that I understood” — that the dolls were “nothing special.” Sarah sent them a few months later, and soon thereafter other women began to write Bender asking if she’d like more. “Over the next six months, I received twelve dolls from seven Amish women. The dolls surrounded me, silent and serene. I was overcome by the collective energy radiating from them.”
The following year, Bender realized that what she really wanted was to live with an Amish family. She told herself that she wanted to go as an artist, to learn about the people who made such beautiful quilts and dolls without considering themselves artists. “If my friends had suggested I was setting out on a quest,” writes Bender, “I would have said they were crazy.”
She sent hundreds of letters asking for direction, perusing quilting magazines for contacts, writing to anyone even remotely connected with the Amish. She subscribed to the Budget, the Amish weekly newspaper. After many weeks of fruitless search, a quilt dealer put her in touch with Gerry Smithson — an “English” man, as the Amish call outsiders — who owned an Amish general store in Brimfield, Iowa. Smithson invited Bender to come visit him and his wife for a few days. However, he didn’t encourage her in her dream of living with an Amish family. “It’s just not done,” he told her. This visit was canceled when Smithson called back with good news: he’d located a family that would let her stay with them. Thus, it was arranged that she would spend three weeks in Brimfield with Eli and Emma Yoder, their eleven-year-old daughter, Lydia, and Emma’s mother, Miriam. Bender arrived at their home in June and immersed herself in their slow, simple lifestyle. At the end of the three-week period, she realized that “it would be dangerous to leave when I felt so happy. I’d resent returning home. My spirit was being nourished, and I was calm and focused.” She stayed several weeks more.
It was two years later when she felt the need to return to the Amish. She had incorporated into her life some ideals she had come to value on her first trip, but she felt dissatisfied, as if she had succeeded only partially. She also wanted to see the Amish and her experience with them more clearly, to see what was real and what she had romanticized. She wanted “to complete the circle.”
On the very day that she had decided to arrange a second visit, she received a letter from Sarah, the midwife she had met on her trip to Ohio a few summers before. Now she wrote Sarah asking if she could stay with her. Sarah, who was single, lived with her sister and brother-in-law, Becky and Ephraim Beiler, and their nine children. They all agreed to receive her, and Bender spent the following summer with them.
Out of these two stays with Amish families comes Sue Bender’s Plain and Simple: A Journey To The Amish. In keeping with the qualities she admired in the Amish, Bender tells her story with simplicity, her language clear and unadorned, her tone quiet and unpretentious. Because observing the life of the Amish threw her own into question, she weaves descriptions of her experiences with candid discussions of the soul-searching they evoked. The result is a beautiful book.
We’re grateful to Sue Bender and to Harper & Row for permission to reprint the following excerpts from Plain And Simple.
— Dana Branscum
From the book Plain And Simple by Sue Bender. Copyright © 1989 by Sue Bender.
Reprinted by permission of Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.
lllustrations by Sue and Richard Bender.
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.
“Who made these quilts?” I demanded.
I went back to Latham’s every day that summer, as if in a trance. I stared at the quilts. They seemed so silent. It was 1967, and I was thirty-three years old.
The Amish used the same few patterns over and over — no need to change the pattern, no need to make an individual statement.
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. Grays and shiny dark and dull light browns, 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?
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.
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 judgements.
I divided my world into two lists. All the “creative” things that 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 obligations 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.
A part of me was quiet. It knew about simplicity, about commitment, and the joy of doing what I did well. That part was the artist, the child — it was receptive and had 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.
Though I never thought of buying an Amish quilt, I spent the next years searching for them. Quilt dealers who knew of my growing interest called when they returned from buying trips. Each time I made a pilgrimage to see them, I returned home calm. My head was filled with questions. What was the intention of the woman as she began making a quilt for her daughter? Was her life embodied in her quilt? Was she telling me something of her hopes and dreams?
It was hard to admit to myself what I wanted: to go and live with an Amish family.
Impossible, I told myself. Everyone agreed: no Amish family would take me in. They were religious, hardworking farmers. They didn’t reach out to strangers, and they didn’t try to proselytize. They chose to live apart from the world and its temptations.
I told my husband what I planned to do, shouting like a drill sergeant in heavy army boots, declaring my certainty, afraid that if I stopped long enough to take a breath and discuss it reasonably I’d lose my resolve.
I told myself I was going because I was an artist, curious to know more about these farm people who made quilts but never thought of themselves as artists. If my friends had suggested I was setting out on a quest, I would have said they were crazy.
Lydia was given the task of showing me the dishwashing routine. She was specific and definite, and I understood immediately that I would have to pay attention and follow her instructions exactly. The plastic dishes were first rinsed in one container, washed, and then rinsed in another container to save water. Then each dish was dried and put away. Each step was done with complete attention — a cup placed here, a dish lined up there, nothing random. Simple movements, simple activities, all adding up to an unspoken ritual they all understood and followed.
I smiled as I thought about how I did the dishes — a small symbol of the pride I took in thinking of myself as a free spirit. Dishes were high on my list of hateful chores. If I was in the midst of cleaning up and got an idea for work in the studio, I dropped everything and left the dishes half-done. Creative people could be disorderly and undisciplined, I told myself — and besides, that much routine and certainty would be boring.
That day we sterilized large glass jars, boiled the peas, and canned them, working steadily, chatting as we went along at an even rhythm, allowing the work to get done, task by task, an unfolding process. I watched each of them — marveling at their ability to be relaxed as they worked and to stay focused on one thing at a time. When we finished, we had forty jars of peas, each labeled and dated, to place in neat rows in the cellar.
The women moved through the day unhurried. There was no rushing to finish so they could get on to the “important things.” For them, it was all important.
Perhaps they had inherited the same routine from their mothers and grandmothers. It was clear someone had spent time thinking and planning how to do each task in the most useful and efficient way. Now it was automatic, the repetition ingrained; no time had to be wasted questioning how it should be done — they worked relaxed, unconsciously conscious. “We grew up learning to sew, cook, quilt, can, and garden,” Emma said, “hardly realizing when it happened.”
Which parts of today’s process were a chore? Which were fun? There seemed to be no separation for them.
Time was full and generous. It was as if they had uncovered a way to be in time, to be a part of time, to have a harmonious relation with time.
For me time was a burden. There was never enough of it. In Berkeley I ran around breathlessly rushing toward impossible goals — and to that vague “something out there.” When I explained how split I was, loving to do certain things and hating to do others, the women laughed and tried to understand.
“In 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!” Miriam said.
As the days passed, I felt I was living in a still-life painting. In the background was a soft, sweeping farm landscape, and in the foreground were many people, all busy doing their chores with silent grace.
Everything was a ritual. No distinction was made between the sacred and the everyday. Five minutes in the early morning and five minutes in the evening were devoted to prayer. The rest of the day was spent living their beliefs. Their life was all one piece. It was all sacred — and all ordinary.
Time was full and generous. It was as if they had uncovered a way to be in time, to be a part of time, to have a harmonious relation with time. For me time was a burden. There was never enough of it.
“Why is the Amish land so beautiful?” I asked one evening. “What makes it feel special? I’m a city person, Eli, and I didn’t see a cow till I was twelve. I don’t know where the sun sets, or how to tell which way the wind blows, or distinguish one crop from another, but I have eyes, and I trust my heart. This land is loved.”
“The land is God’s,” Eli said. “It’s my job, and the job of every Amish person, to take care of it for Him. We mustn’t try to change or conquer nature or exploit the land. That would be going against God’s way.”
“His land must be honored,” Eli said, and he tried to feel close to God while he worked. As he talked, I saw the land as a living thing. I could feel his relationship with God and the land expressed daily, in infinite ways.
The Amish make a lifetime commitment to their land, and their religious beliefs even determine farming methods. Over the years they have learned that with patience and perseverance they can transform dry, harsh land into a workable field. They have devised innovative ways to improve God’s land without power equipment: the rotation of crops, the use of irrigation and natural fertilizers, and the planting of alfalfa and clover all help to revitalize the land.
Most Amish farmers own less than one hundred acres, keeping their farms small so horses can be used instead of tractors and neighbors can pitch in with the chores. In this way the community remains an intimate, manageable size. Brotherly love becomes an economic asset.
Their intention is to make things grow and do work that is useful. They work to work. Their work time isn’t spent “in order to do something else” — to have free time on weekends, go to a restaurant, or save for a vacation or retirement. They do not expect to find satisfaction in that vague “something out there” but in the daily mastery of whatever they are doing.
The Amish strive to create an ecology of no waste; the land supplies food for the family and the animals, and the family and the animals do the work. “Manure is our crucial crop,” Eli joked. “Tractors don’t make manure!” A horse reproduces itself, he explained, and a tractor only makes debts.
Eli refused to put up lightning rods to protect his home and barn from disaster. “You work hard, why won’t you protect yourself?”
“That would be interfering with God’s direction,” he said, wondering why I was making such a fuss. When he told me he had no property or life insurance, I was really concerned.
“What happens when a disaster comes?”
“Everyone comes to the rescue,” he smiled, making it sound simple. I must have had a strange look on my face, for he added, “You seem so worried. Really, there’s nothing unusual about it — we just pitch in. Nothing special about that.”
Miriam had said much the same thing a few days earlier. Amos, Emma’s fourteen-year-old nephew who had been hit by a car, was in a Chicago hospital. While Amos’s mother went to visit him, Emma helped with the housekeeping, and Eli helped out in the fields. When I told Miriam I thought that was very generous, she sounded surprised. “Oh, no, it’s nothing, really. It’s just our way.”
Caring for other members of the community was taken for granted. Retarded and sick people were not only cared for but thought of as a gift of God, an opportunity to express brotherly love.
I knew the Amish refused to accept Social Security and medical benefits, fearing they would become dependent on the outside community. How could Amos’s family afford his staggering hospital bills? “Oh, the Amish Aid Society takes care of that. We take care of our own,” Miriam told me.
“How do you raise the money?”
“We give as much as we can.”
These neighbors and friends had a kind of security I didn’t have. In times of sickness, accidents, financial setbacks, or natural disasters, they know support will be there. Miriam, who was seventy-eight and had sixty-three grandchildren, expected her children would want to take care of her as she got older, and it was hard for her to imagine anything else.
Brotherly love was their insurance.
Who is richer? I wondered. How rich and varied my life was in some ways, and how poor and disconnected it was in others. “Let’s pool our equipment,” I had suggested to a friendly neighbor when I first moved into my home in Berkeley. She thought that was a great idea, and for the next two years I borrowed her Electrolux vacuum and for two years she borrowed nothing. The third year I bought my own Electrolux.
Emma was surprised that I had left my husband to come and live in the home of strangers. I was ready to take on new adventures. When Gerry, the man who introduced me to the Yoders, invited me to join him and two Amish men in his hot-air balloon, I accepted. I was the first woman to go on the trip and was terrified every moment, but I went. From my perspective high up in the air, looking down at the patchwork of green fields, I thought it might be more fun to be an Amish man than an Amish woman.
Was Emma jealous of my freedom? Did she think me brazen to be so comfortable around the men? Was I having such a good time at her expense? I never saw her do anything unexpected. Did my presence in her home make her question her role or the strict rules that governed her life?
It was difficult to be objective. Emma’s strengths were hard for me to acknowledge because I had spent my life running away from the domesticity that was the core of her life. Hesitant in the outside world, Emma was confident at home. Home was a sanctuary — God’s home, in much the same way that Eli’s farm was God’s land.
Emma had a clear picture of the right way to be. It is true that she didn’t get to choose it, but freed from the necessity to make choices, her energy wasn’t spent resisting or doubting her lot. She knew who she was as a woman. She knew that what she did mattered.
The knowledge that her role in the family was necessary for its well-being permeated her life. Her work was valued, she was valued. I never saw Emma or any other Amish woman look like or say she was bored or lonesome. She wasn’t sacrificing herself for the sake of her family. Making a commitment to marriage and family was seen as a worthy pursuit. All her duties were an expression of her love for her family and for God. The extra hours she spent quilting tiny stitches expressed her love for the person who would receive the quilt.
Emma seemed content. I thought a lot about that. Maybe when expectation matches achievement a person is content. Emma seemed more satisfied than most people I knew who had much more material success.
When I was seeking the special, only a few things measured up.
In the Zen tradition a person goes through years of work to achieve self-forgetfulness. The Amish almost seemed to have that quality in their genes. All equal, individually linked to God, each one knew that he or she was a necessary part in a larger universe.
At times, however, I found Emma’s humility stifling. It was the same with other Amish women. When I said that something they made was beautiful, they were unable to accept the compliment. Were they afraid that would be false pride? Did they allow themselves the pleasure I got from working hard on a project that turned out well?
I kept looking for the outlet for Emma’s creative energy. I knew it wasn’t quilting. Where was her passion? How was it expressed?
Finally I found it, right under my nose — Emma’s pocket of allowable passion.
An Amish woman’s garden is never inconspicuous. It sits right smack in front of the house for all to see. Emma’s garden was one of the spectacular ones, with masses of vibrant, dramatic, overabundant color. No “less is more” principle here. She spent hours tending her garden. No flowers were picked; they were there to be seen and savored. Emma, who often receded into the background, let her garden speak for her, let it sing out loud and clear.
It was Miriam who took me aside one day, like a child spilling the beans, and said, “Sue, see what my daughter did?’’
She had spelled EMMA in lettuce in her lettuce patch.
I came back from my adventure filled with strong feelings and impressions. Everywhere I went, people were curious. Like a Greek chorus they chanted, “Tell us about the Amish.”
Invitations poured in. Family and friends assumed I’d be eager to talk about the strange place I’d visited.
I had seen something, felt something, been part of something that touched me deeply, but I couldn’t say what it was. I couldn’t say anything. The silence puzzled them and disturbed me.
Was I silent out of loyalty or misgiving? What if I found the Amish wonderful but flawed? Would I betray them by finding fault? Maybe I wasn’t ready to trade my romantic eyes for clear ones. What if the journey was special to me and no one else?
Confused, I made a pilgrimage to the house of my neighbors, Ruth and Tino. They weren’t Amish, but they acted as a bridge from the Amish world to mine. Each time I stepped into their home, I left behind a world of frenzy and entered a tranquil place.
The Amish never talked about what they believed or why they lived the way they did. Ruth and Tino had made thoughtful, conscious choices about how they were going to live, and they could talk about it. I loved hearing their words.
But Sarah and Becky weren’t old-fashioned. They were two strong, dynamic women who had found ways to fulfill atypical roles for women within a supposedly restrictive system and yet still remain rooted to their home. They lived with a short cord and lived fully, while I had a long cord and was always tripping over it.
“What counts, Sue, is not the results,” said Tino, my dear friend from Sardinia, a sculptor, a poet, a wise man. “Final products are never satisfactory because the potentialities of a person are never realized.”
“Then what is satisfying?”
“It is the enjoyment of every step in the process of doing; everything, not only the isolated piece we label art. If accomplishing is the only goal, all that it takes to reach that goal is too slow, too fatiguing — an obstacle to what you want to achieve. If you consider the achievement not so great after all, if you want to rush to the accomplishment, it is an inevitable disappointment. Then you rush to something else. The disappointment is reaped over and over again. But if every step is pleasant, then the accomplishment becomes even more, because it is nourished by what is going on.”
I needed to hear his words.
“All the stages of one’s work have a poetic nature,” he continued. “No one gets paid for keeping his own tools cleaned. It is an act of real art; otherwise you don’t have a rapport with the tool; then it becomes a rebellious servant, not respected, not properly handled. If you don’t appreciate its weight and stay aware of the balance, one day or another it is going to hit your finger!”
I had to go away, to a foreign land in America, before I could see that the qualities I was looking for were here, practically in my own back yard.
My first week home in Berkeley was wonderful. Ready to start a new life, I cleaned my house, bought plants, got cookbooks out of the library, and slowed down my usual incessant work pace. “Simple pleasures can be transplanted,” I told myself. That sense of contentment lasted one week.
I didn’t feel at home in Berkeley, and I knew I didn’t belong in Brimfield. The tug-of-war of opposing values was starting again. Flapping my wings against my cage, earnestly and endlessly trying to change, to be one way or another, only kept me stuck and miserable.
I no longer felt calm. No one I knew valued “homey virtues.” Why should they? They were too busy, and these daily rituals were just hateful necessities to them.
I was now a misfit.
Helplessly, I watched my things to do list grow steadily more crowded. I had learned a little but not enough. I didn’t want to go back to the disorderly and frantic way I had run my household and my life. I longed to recapture the feeling I had doing chores with Emma, Lydia, and Miriam, but I found no way to recover those moments of quiet attention.
Only in the studio, working on my Amish quilt squares, was I able to bridge their world and mine.
“You love and admire and envy the Amish, but you can’t live like them,” a friend commiserated.
“I know that!” I snapped.
“Maybe you can’t bear to believe it,” she persisted. “It was a personal and almost perverse quest for a serenity and simplicity that is not in your nature to achieve. You are an artist, and you can’t be contained like the Amish. You’re too rebellious.’’
I received a letter from Sarah, the woman who had made the first faceless dolls for me. “Purple martins, sparrows, checkers are noisy outside, with spring freshness everywhere. Our life is going on so busy, and yet unpressured in a sense like you wrote.” I wrote back asking if I could visit her family.
Sarah, the red-headed midwife, who loved “catching babies,” had been corresponding with me for several years. We no longer needed an excuse to be friends. She consulted her older sister Becky and Becky’s farmer husband, Ephraim Beiler, and their children, Benjamin, Edna, Elizebeth, Rachel, Alma, Leah, Vernon, Eli, and Annie, who ranged in age from sixteen to one. Three weeks later the answer came: “Yes.”
I returned to the first Amish home that had welcomed me. Few cars found their way to this small country road in Ohio, tucked between two private rural lanes.
Two weeks and 3,865 dishes later, I noticed that the family had accumulated less than one tall kitchen-sized can of disposable garbage. Everything was recycled, and there was an exquisite order to the recycling: leftover food went in the slop bucket for the animals; whatever was unsuitable for the animals went into the compost. The farm and animals produced vegetables, milk, butter, eggs, cheese, meats, and tea, so there was little packaging to contend with. This family of ten ate three hearty meals a day and went to the supermarket once a month. Sugar, flour, oats, and breakfast cereals were about the only things they bought.
Becky had calculated how long it took to make mayonnaise by hand and decided it was cheaper to buy it at the store. Ephraim had picked Guernsey cows over Holsteins because they gave richer cream, which meant better butter, even though the Holsteins gave more milk.
When they discussed such decisions, it was never a matter of making a right or a wrong choice, but rather identifying their priorities and then choosing what worked best for them.
Change was viewed in a context of what was practical and useful. They had limits set by their religious principles, but once these were acknowledged, they seemed to have a great deal of freedom.
I hoped a baby would be born while I was there, but without a telephone, Sarah and Becky never knew when a mother might arrive on their doorstep. I wondered how they could make plans, but the women laughed at my concern. “We’re always here,” Becky said. “And on Sundays we take turns going to church — we belong to two church groups, and one meets one Sunday, the other the next.” They didn’t see not having a phone as a hardship or a restriction. Their rich and varied life was centered around the home. Sarah saw her chiropractic patients in a small new addition that Ephraim and Benjamin had built next door to the family’s house.
At 3 a.m. on the fifth day, I heard a knock on the door. “Would you like to see a baby being born?” Sarah whispered. Two minutes later I was dressed, finding my way gingerly down the stairs in the dark, wishing there were an electric light to switch on. Soon I met Wilma, an Amish woman, two centimeters dilated.
Sarah introduced us and showed me first how to find the acupressure point on Wilma’s feet, and how to press on her soles when the contractions were especially hard. “That seems to make a difference,” Wilma said sweetly, as I worked on her feet. I worried that I might feel faint when the baby was born. While I was debating what to do, Wilma, squeezing my hand, said, “Sue, you must watch when my baby comes out.” A simple mandate, and so I watched the everyday miracle of birth.
Two days later I carried baby Irene to a waiting buggy, a tiny six-pound Amish doll, dressed in a black bonnet, long brown dress, royal blue blouse, and an apron just like the one her beaming mother wore.
Wilma was the first of nine women to give birth that week.
“I brought you good luck!” I announced. “We broke the all-time record. Five babies born in one day.” Hearing myself say “we” felt good. It meant that all extra hands pitched in — a team effort. The older girls washed extra sheets and towels, and all of us kept our fingers crossed that the day would be sunny. Without electric dryers, the laundry storage room looked like a moonscape, white sheets hanging from every line.
The younger girls carried the newborns back and forth from their bassinets to their mothers and brought trays of food — the same healthy food we ate, with extra touches of honey and wheat germ.
Family life, daily life, continued as usual. The children played in the living room, right next door to the two rooms set aside for birthing.
The longer I stayed, the more I appreciated Becky. No matter what was going on around her, she moved through it quiet and unflustered. Although she was only forty, she was seen as the wise woman by many women in the community.
With all her responsibilities, she always found time to sit for half an hour to sew a pair of blue jeans or to help Edna with her quilting, using these moments for meditation, a time to be quiet and replenish herself.
In one of those rare moments when she wasn’t doing something, I asked Becky how she got to be a midwife. “I started out as a teacher — that’s what a lot of Amish women do before they get married. Once a woman marries, she’s supposed to settle down, take care of her husband, and start having babies. But I found that taking care of the house and Benjamin wasn’t enough.
“I dreamed of becoming a doctor, but I knew that was impossible. I knew I couldn’t do both, be a doctor and remain Amish, and I wanted to remain Amish.” One day reading the Budget, she saw an article about an Amish woman in Iowa who had a birthing house. It seemed an answer to her prayers.
She asked Ephraim if she could study with the woman. “I’m lucky I married a man who is so understanding and didn’t feel threatened by my wanting to do more than is usual.” Sarah agreed, “Most Amish men are not like Ephraim. Becky is lucky.”
She went to Iowa for training, then asked a local doctor to supervise her. After four years, he said she was ready to do it on her own. That was twelve years ago. Four years ago, she started training Sarah to work with her. “It makes it a lot nicer for me with Sarah here to help.”
Sarah and I walked home, recounting the day’s events. “When I was twenty-five, I decided to switch my apron,” Sarah said suddenly.
“What are you talking about?”
Without wanting to admit it to myself, I had hoped that if I could learn the secret of the Amish life of “no frills,” it would help me make great art. But their secret is that there aren’t any secrets. They know there is nothing “out there,” just the “timeless present.”
“Married women wear black aprons, and unmarried women wear white ones,” she began.
“Didn’t you have to ask permission?”
“No, I thought about it for a long time, and when I knew I wasn’t going to get married, I thought about it some more. Then one Sunday, I woke up and decided to put on a black apron, and not a white one. When I got to church, I moved my seat from the section where the young, unmarried women sit to the section where married women sit.”
I felt the enormity of Sarah’s decision.
My dear and deeply religious friend Sarah was committed to the Amish way, but her strong-willed, fiercely independent nature prevented her from getting married. She had struggled to find a way to live with both parts of her nature, and this was her solution.
How lucky she was to have a ritual, a ceremony that punctuated this rite of passage. Did any of my single women friends who chose to remain single have any rituals to mark such a momentous decision?
For so long I needed to see the Amish with romantic eyes. But they aren’t perfect. Their rate of mental illness and suicide is as high as ours. I saw Sarah working hard to purify her thoughts and temper her fiery nature. She tried to follow Jesus’ teaching, “Be ye therefore perfect as I am perfect,” and also be humble, setting up an impossible pressure to be both.
I wondered if Sarah or Becky had room for a private life or a fantasy life. Every neighbor knew from the sound of a hoofbeat who was going where. Was everything known? What happens to the individual who has a poetic nature and resists being molded?
But Sarah and Becky weren’t old-fashioned. They were two strong, dynamic women who had found ways to fulfill atypical roles for women within a supposedly restrictive system and yet still remain rooted to their home.
They lived with a short cord and lived fully, while I had a long cord and was always tripping over it.
My family life went on as usual, each of us going off in separate directions. I had good friends in Berkeley: an early-morning ritual, walking with a friend, started each day, and I could pick up the phone and have a cappuccino with someone or invite someone for dinner, but afterward my friends and I would retreat to our separate lives. I longed for a group whose members needed and made demands on each other. But my friends and I had been taught to value independence, not to impose on each other. If we needed our house painted, we hired a painter; if we needed a cup of sugar, we drove to the market.
Deeper bonds meant creating obligations.
I had picked a practical people who valued 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 got frantic, I felt particularly awful. “Rushing for what?” I stopped and asked. It took time for the “chatter” to quiet down — and in the silence of “not doing,” I began to know what I felt.
My lists were still full, often bursting with possibilities, but I could see what was filling up my life with busyness and what was important — even if I didn’t always act on that information.
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 with 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 — prescribed, 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.
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 the day was damp. 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 circumstances of that family; or being five foot ten, with brown hair, a thin frame, a hearty constitution, and 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 one part of me over another, I rediscovered myself.
“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.
Taking care of my home was no longer a chore. Like a Zen monk, raking the white pebbles at the temple, I spent seven minutes each morning sweeping the black floor. A meditation.
A friend was horrified. “What are you becoming? An ordinary housewife?”
Could I explain it to her?
I had always devalued Hestia, the peaceful goddess of the hearth. I thought poor, dull Hestia, the ugly duckling goddess, was stuck by the hearth, while my favorites, Athena and Artemis, were out there in the world, slaying dragons.
But when I learned that the Latin word for hearth is focus, something clicked.
Sweeping the floor or doing the dishes was the outer form, the thing to which I attached myself in order to learn. What I had been looking for was the calm and focus I felt when I was with the Amish doing the dishes. It was a state of mind I was after.
No wonder that “way of being” was elusive and fluttery, so hard to grab hold of. My addiction to activity had diverted me from looking inside, fearing the emptiness I would find. Yet, beneath all the frenzy was the very thing, that inner calm I was seeking.
The Amish have found an answer to the question, “How can I live a good life?” They model another way to be. Their view of the world is different from mine, so they’ve reached different conclusions about how to live. Their conclusions are not the way, but one way — a way that works for them. Their life is a celebration of the ordinary.
The Amish taught me something about the human costs when old values are cast aside, sacrificed for “success.” Now I am ready to ask: “Am I a successful human being, not only a success?”
My task is to simplify and then go deeper, making a commitment to what remains. That’s what I’ve been after. To care for and polish what remains till it glows and comes alive from loving care.
Without wanting to admit it to myself, I had hoped that if I could learn the secret of the Amish life of “no frills,” it would help me make great art. But their secret is that there aren’t any secrets. They know there is nothing “out there,” just the “timeless present.” Through them I am learning not to rush through life in order to get the goodies. Their way of life delivers the goods, and that is quite different.
How they live reflects what they believe. Their life is their art.
I can’t be Amish, and I don’t want to be Amish, but I had a chance to observe a way of life that nurtures contentment.
The Amish love the sunshine and shadow quilt pattern. It shows two sides — the dark and light, spirit and form — and the challenge of bringing the two into a larger unity. It’s not a choice between extremes: conformity or freedom, discipline or imagination, acceptance or doubt, humility or a raging ego. It’s a balancing act that includes opposites.
It’s time to celebrate the life I do have; to make peace with the paradox, to find a balance in some larger sense so that my life can feel whole.
The hardest times have been when it looks as if nothing is happening, or, worse, when it looks as if something is definitely wrong in my life. “It’s not working,” I say to myself. Then I remember the scrap pile filled with odd pieces of material of those early quilters. Nothing was wasted. Out came those glorious quilts. I have to keep reminding myself that nothing I am doing is wasted time. I may not understand or like what is happening, but I can begin to appreciate that the impasse is another marker on the way.
It took me a very long time to discover that I didn’t need reasons for doing what I did. I don’t have to explain, or convince, or come up with answers for what happened. I went on this journey because I had to. Learning to follow your heart is reason enough.
To follow “a path that has heart,” to take it wherever it leads, is not an Amish value, but it is a way I’ve come to value. I set out on an unfamiliar path toward an unknown conclusion. Although I didn’t know it at the time, I was hoping for answers, but I kept finding my way back to the question: what really matters?