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Serendipity visits all of our lives at some point. You begin by going left, take a sudden right and find yourself someplace unexpected. Sure, some people know almost from the cradle the path that they will take, they map it out in childhood and then follow it through to the grave. Most of us, however, are a little softer in the life plan department. You think: This is the thing I will do, then encounter something unexpected and find yourself in a new place altogether.
Serendipity has played a large part in Sue Bender's life. Or perhaps to put a finer point on it, Bender has honed the ability to rush up to serendipity, kiss it full on the lips and whisper, "Where are you taking me now?"
The unexpected encounter that ultimately led to the writing of her first book, Plain and Simple, is an unbeatable example. Some time after having encountered an Amish quilt, a voice told her to go and live with the Amish. She was then in her late 40s, and "was not a New Age Californian who had quilts talking to her." And yet, she followed her inner voice until it spoke again and told her that "There are no more questions you have to ask. There are answers that are inside you and now it's time to tell the story."
Bender was not at that time, a writer. In fact, she's dyslexic. And she struggled for a time with how she'd follow this latest piece of inner advice.
Finally, she "started writing and had little pieces of paper and I threw them in a room upstairs that had wall-to-wall carpeting and no furniture and I would go up there with these ratty scraps of paper and I'd say: Sue, you are having a mid-life nervous breakdown. But I continued writing the remembrances. Then after about two years I realized that those were my patches and that I was making a quilt."
The "quilt" was, Plain and Simple, her first book. Five years in the writing and, when it was published, it captured the heart and imagination of hundreds of thousands of readers, something she explains by saying that "people can feel my earnest seeker's struggle and how I set out on a journey of spirit."
Bender's most recent book, Stretching Lessons is the final piece of the "Plain and Simple" trilogy. Stretching Lessons is, by her own account, Bender's most personal book to date. It deals with learning to trust our own spirit voices, even if the message they send is sometimes confusing.
In person, Bender's voice and message reach out as clearly as they do in print. As we speak, she meanders gently and with little prompting, but what emerges is a sense of both the author and the message she wants to convey. Though she has frequently been called the "Grandma Moses of the simplicity movement" it's not a descriptive label for this woman. Bender is vital, curious and questing with an energy and -- yes -- spirit that belie her 68 years.
Sue Bender lives in Berkeley, California with Richard, her husband of 44 years. Bender is also a ceramic artist and an internationally known lecturer.
Linda Richards: Stretching Lessons is doing very well. I think.
Sue Bender: Yes. And, you know, I have a very big publisher: HarperCollins. But I believe in not the bean counter's number -- though of course that's one reality -- but I always believe in spirit seedlings. Like you might tell a friend or someone will hear me talk tonight and then they'll buy it for their daughter after they read it, or for their mother: that's how my books happen. And I'm very grateful, because I think I've done a lot of struggling and it's wonderful if something I've learned can be of use to somebody else. You know, at first I really questioned [why] there's such an outreach because I've never tried to write a how-to book to say: This is how you do it. But I think people can feel my earnest seeker's struggle and how I set out on a journey of spirit.
You said you're not trying to write a how-to book. What are you trying to do?
Well, I never planned to write a book, ever, ever, ever. The first one, 20 years ago, I looked at an old Amish quilt. I didn't even know it was Amish. And at the time I didn't know that my soul was starving; that an inner voice was trying to make sense of my life. All I knew was that the quilt reached out and grabbed at my heart and said: Pay attention. I'm 68 now and I was not a New Age Californian who had quilts talking to her. [Laughs] And I began to pay attention. A few years later this voice deep inside me said: Go and live with the Amish. And so I announced to my husband -- I've been married 44 years -- that a voice told me to go and live with the Amish.
I was a person who had grown up valuing being special and I fell in love with a people who value being ordinary. And I think that theme goes through all three stories; I don't even see them as books. [After living with the Amish] that voice kicked in and said: There are no more questions you have to ask. There are answers that are inside you and now it's time to tell the story. So I started scribbling. I'm dyslexic and I'd never taken any notes. I was never planning... this was just a heart something that I had to do. And I started writing and had little pieces of paper and I threw them in a room upstairs that had wall-to-wall carpeting and no furniture and I would go up there with these ratty scraps of paper and I'd say: Sue, you are having a mid-life nervous breakdown. But I continued writing the remembrances.
After about two years I realized that those were my patches and that I was making a quilt. See, I'm an artist in ceramic. I make handmade, very simple, crooked black and white ceramics. But I was making a quilt. And at the end of Plain and Simple it was: what had I learned from [the Amish] to take back to my everyday life? So the first one started like that. It took me five years of hell. I'm the most unnatural writer. I write with dots and dashes... it's just torture. So then I said I'd never, ever, ever write again, thank God I survived this obsessive love affair.
Then a little while later the words: "everyday sacred" came, and I knew it would be the title of my second book. And I say: How dare I write a book with the word "sacred" in it because I was no expert. But somehow it's really learning to trust the voice that doesn't make sense but makes a lot of sense when you look back. But I still didn't write. So for one year, I knew it would be the title and I never wrote a word. And then the image of a Zen monk's begging bowl came. And I would put my hands like that [she makes her hands echo the shape of the bowl in front of her] and I knew I had another image, like the quilt. I had the bowl. And my task was going to be to look at my everyday life to see with fresh eyes what I had taken for granted. So it was like first going to a foreign land, looking at my own life in the distance to see what matters: what really matters.
So then, what was the question again, that you asked me?
You said you weren't trying to write how-to books and I asked what you were trying to do.
I don't think I'm trying. It takes me five years to write a book and this one [Stretching Lessons] is much fatter than the other two. It takes me five years to get it so lean and spare and [the publisher] says: Oh, our sales reps and everything want this and so on. But if it took me a thousand years, I wouldn't do anything. Then I had these two conversations that gave me goose bumps and I was especially touched by Pamela, who said: I'm not an artist. I have no talent. I thought, how could I translate that message to tell people that they can be bigger than that? To not sell themselves short. I think I have a big antenna. I didn't know that I sold myself short at the time.
The other two [books] were clearly what my soul was hungering [for]. I think they're about what our spirit hungers for, the obstacles that get put in our way. So each one was a different angle of that. I think that's why I wrote it: to see if I could figure out how to get that message heard. I think selling ourselves short is a terrible thing. And when I had the goose bumps, it was such a direct experience, it was faster than my thinking mind. It zaps through all the chatter and I saw that each of us has a gift: each of us has something to give and that it's really important to value that gift, whatever it is. I think that was my charge, in a way. And then the little boy saying: I'm bigger than that. Those are the bookends.
It sounds like a calling, Sue. What gave you this gift? Where did it come from?
Well, maybe I get desperate enough. [Laughs] I don't know. This time I wasn't feeling desperate, but I was so touched by that and though I am an expert at struggle, I think I also at the same time have a strong instinct for what teaches us and I have a good antenna when somebody is selling themselves short: it's something I can hear in social conversations, when people are half joking, you know? So it took me a while in the writing of this to realize how I also made myself smaller.
Have you done a lot of spiritual teaching and so on?
No. I think I am an earnest seeker. And I think I really do have a good instinct for people. I do believe you can learn from everybody and everything. In Everyday Sacred I learned from a young Chicano man who makes my cappuccino and puts a smiling face in the foam. So that was an example of everyday sacred: it was small, but to be greeted by a different smiling face, I realized, was a sacred ritual. So I don't have any credentials, or any academic or religious [training]. I learn through bits and pieces and patching together, so I'm never saying to somebody: Do it this way. I'm just showing them what I do and I think now -- because I've done it for a long time -- that I must make safe enough space for people -- all kinds of people -- to then do their own [work]. I don't think I'm interested in having them read about my adventures about living with the Amish. I mean, I'm not against that. But, [they should] feel safe to do their own [explorations].
I understand that Stretching Lessons is the third in a trilogy.
Yes. Doesn't that sound pompous? I'm at the end, I feel like I'm going to walk off into the sunset or drop dead the minute I finish this tour, just because it's the last of the Plain and Simple trilogy.
How did the concept of a trilogy come about?
It was an interesting thing. Even though it seems so pompous, when I began daydreaming I thought about it and I really saw how... you know, in one of these press releases, I saw how I was the "Grandma Moses of the simplicity movement." I'm not telling people to sell their houses or whatever. I'm a very complex person who is just trying to get clear about my priorities and I'm learning with each [book] that less is more. That I was drowning in choices in the first one. How the Amish had made one small big choice and live everything from that and I had always thought that the American dream was the more choices you have the better. I was drowning in those choices and it's different to make a choice than having a lot of choices.
In Everyday Sacred I was on this little radio program. [The host] said it was a feminist program. And she asked me some question and I said: You know, I've always hated labels. You know, when you go to a dinner party and someone says: And what do you do? I felt I'd be judged by what I came up with. And now I have these fancy labels and still I have that same visceral reaction. In Plain and Simple I said: I who valued being special fell in love with people who value being ordinary. When Plain and Simple got on the New York Times bestseller list, it seemed [like]: How could a quiet book get out there? With no TV, no Internet, no anything. And I was just glowing and I went to my little local vegetable store and I bumped into a friend and I tell her this amazing news and she didn't even stop to smile. She said: What number are you? So I realized in that moment that I live in a killer world where nothing one does is ever enough. It doesn't matter where we are.
It's been a big lesson. I have a lot of form in my life. I'm married for 44 years. I live in a nice Spanish house that has all my ceramics and the Amish squares I used to make and everything. The cover [of Stretching Lessons] is a ceramic hand I made. And I have three books. That's a lot of form. And I think I use form to learn about spirit. I know it's hard to talk about but I think spirit is as real as this table [she knocks on the surface between us]. So when I have conversations with the bean counters and say: You have to trust the spirits. And they look at me stunned. But my process has a different rhythm.
And you've sold enough books that they have to listen anyway.
Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Well, it has been a stretching lesson. What's so sweet is that I love this book. I said that out loud at one of the book stores, and I was shocked to hear myself say it but I think it's my most personal [book]. It's so gentle to learn those kinds of things. I was brought up to work hard all the time, to struggle to make things happen. I cared about the spirit things, but I always had the theory: no pain, no gain. And the last line in Plain and Simple was: Miracles come after a lot of hard work. And I love that line. It was the only line that came through me. But now I see that's still an old embedded habit. [There was the] sweetness of Nancy saying, when I took that stretch class when my body was sore from being dyslexic and putting it on the computer, she said: Don't practice struggle, practice enjoying. It was so revolutionary and sweet. Another teacher said: The slower the motion the bigger the change. And learning to pause.
There's a nice story in [Stretching Lessons] called "Excedrin." Where I sometimes used to get headaches -- I still get a headache once in a while -- and I would do what the TV commercial said: I'd take two Excedrin and get under the covers for half an hour and stop and lie there very still. And I always gave Excedrin the credit. It never dawned on me that stopping had made the difference. So I'm learning these things. And I was so hungry for all of that, that I'm so grateful to feel that I can learn about spirit from my body -- I was always disconnected from my body. I'd leave these classes and my shoulders are always up here, I think. Working hard. And at the end of a class, my shoulders would come down and the chatter in my head would quiet and my heart would open up a bit. I feel very grateful.
Is it a bit about working with nature and not against it?
Right. And then I learned -- and here I was this expert on struggle -- but I began to learn that you can grow new habits. That I didn't have to struggle to get rid of my struggle. I think the way I've always worked is really exhausting. I don't think it has to do with my age that I'm exhausted, it's just that it began to dawn on me that there could be another way. So I don't have to get rid of the struggle, but I can start to learn new habits -- new little rules -- and to pay attention to the tiny, tiny changes. Not just the big [ones]. And to appreciate, when you have a few minutes of ease or to allow your shoulders to duck down. Or to have a little more trust: building the trust muscles. It makes a difference. And to appreciate those little ones until they get stronger so you have more options. Not just the old embedded ones. So it's always very modest and doable.
Tell me about the trust muscle.
I think I'm learning a lot about trust. There's a sweet story in here that I love to remember and it's a small example of trust. I knew a woman in my neighborhood and our children played together. And we would just talk superficially out on the street. We knew each other about four years and we were standing outside and she mentioned something and then I mentioned that I'd gone to Harvard and she said: Really! Why didn't you tell me? I didn't know you were intelligent! And then I thought: Some people will never recognize us. That doesn't mean we're not there. But that's a subtle kind of trust.
You know, I never thought I was a writer and I didn't plan to write the first book. I spent 17 years never thinking I wasn't a writer. Then I was at an artist's colony for a month which was so wonderful. And there were eight other participants and we each had to give an evening talk about our process. I was working on Stretching Lessons. At the last second I decided not to talk in the room that we'd meet in. I said: Come into my room. I showed them what my room looked like. There were thousands of pieces of paper on the floor: no space. Half of the bed had been filled with these little scraps of handwritten ratty nonsensical phrases and a lot of them had been put on 8x10" paper with removable tape, one after another. Thousands. So I never write a sentence. And I play with these pieces of paper. I do it at coffee houses: I fill up the whole table and I have scissors and removable tape so I have more choice and as I was describing that it made me feel good to show somebody what it is, not just say it, because I don't think people believe me when I just say it.
I always thought that what I did wasn't writing. It was something else. And I knew that writers write in many ways. Clearly. I'm not naive. But I thought mine did not fit into [anything]. It was so labor intensive and you get a sentence or paragraph and then redoing and redoing until it got as clean and as spare as it could be. Then the next morning I went to my computer -- took some of the scraps that I'd made and put them in and I realized that I was a writer. What I saw was that I didn't trust my own way. I was still caught in my limited pictures. My smaller than pictures of how a writer writes. And I wasn't saying that this was a good way to write or a bad way to write but that it was my way. That was the trust. And then I told people to look at their own lives. Be it how they make a soup or care about something but it doesn't have to fit the mold.
I was at my coffee house one day and a woman came over to me and she said: I've been watching you play with your papers. I think you really enjoy yourself and you're figuring out what's important. And then she said: I think you should write a book. I was so touched and I took her hand and I said: Thank you, that's what I'm doing. I'm writing a book.
What did you study at Harvard?
Education and history. I used to teach high school. And when I was 40 I went back to Berkeley for a degree in psychiatric social work, so I was a therapist for a while.
So you do have credentials.
Yes, but I can't stand to send out a pompous press kit with all these different things and that's not who I am. I cringe when they pull out this old thing. First of all, I'm a former therapist. I'm not a therapist anymore. I make very simple, handmade, crooked ceramics, black and white. So I'm always having to live with the paradox.
What brought you to ceramics?
I was pregnant and I was teaching high school so I had three months and I took a ceramics class and I loved it. It's so the opposite of writing. Writing is still quite hard. There was also the image of: It's not pots we're forming, it's ourselves.
When I think about the things I care about, one of the things I've learned is that spirit work is messy.
Messy. My missionary part of it is that I want the people who read [Stretching Lessons] and hear me to say how important it is to leave room for the unexpected. Be open for surprises. They're all about what our spirit hungers for and the obstacles which are put in our way. What we need may come in a form we're not expecting and if we have a tighter and narrower box of what our mate should look like or what vocation they should have or what kind of school or how our kids should turn out: it can apply to anything. What we need may be right in front of us and we won't be able to see it. So I think that's a big message that I care about. And to really trust that voice that doesn't seem to make sense. That life brings us signals all the time.
I do believe that there's a spirit in each one of us that whispers to be heard.
How do we access it?
Sometimes in the past I got so busy and so overwhelmed and wouldn't stop when I was exhausted that I would finally collapse. That was a very punitive way of letting something come through me. But sometimes when I have little conversations with spirit, it'll say: Sue, you're so busy! There's no place for me to come through you. It's learning [about] the pause and stopping [for] the silence. For me it's a willingness to risk moving slower. A willingness to stop. Those are hard things to learn. So I think sometimes in the silence we begin to know what we feel. | July 2001
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine. Her fourth novel, Death was the Other Woman, will be published early in 2008 by St. Martin's Minotaur.