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About Sue Bender: Plain and Simple and Everyday Sacred

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The first thing you feel around best-selling author Sue Bender is the same thing you notice about her Berkeley Hills mansion: the spaciousness. In her presence, in her home, there is room to grow.

It is the theme of her trilogy of books, from the highly acclaimed Plain and Simple and Everyday Sacred (which combined have sold almost 450,000 copies), to her recent release, Stretching Lessons: The Daring That Starts From Within (HarperSanFrancisco, April 2001). The thread that resonates throughout these highly personal works is how we sell ourselves short without realizing it; and how, with practice, we can learn to remove these self-imposed limits and live full, rich lives.

Allowing our spirits to challenge us to become our biggest, most original selves is a practice that bears greatest fruit with age. Now 67, Bender is more vibrant and involved with life than ever. Lanky and gracious, with fierce eyes and calm demeanor, she is pursuing a quest that began more than twenty years ago to find fulfillment first in community, and now with one's relationship to body and self. Stretching Lessons is a metaphor based on her efforts to stretch her physical body and deal with injuries; it is a first-person journey developed through conversations and observations. Through exposing her vulnerable underbelly, Bender reminds us of our humanity and our connectedness; we can all relate to her insights and be enriched by them.

In this book, "stretching" becomes a look at the unconscious, often insidious way we prevent ourselves from living larger lives, from self-judging to fears of not fitting in. The inspiration for the book came from the words of a little boy in reply to a remark about how big he was getting, "Oh, I'm bigger than that," he said. When Bender heard the story, the boy's words went straight to her heart and infused her search with new meaning.

Bender avows she is a master struggler; she works hard and with great effort. What she searches for, and what will appeal to readers, is how to balance this earnest desire to become a better person in the world with an inner yearning to let go and find peace within.

It starts, she says, with trust that 'spirit work is messy." It continues by trusting what we know - that something will be called forth when we are present with ourselves.

The quest that Bender describes is this: "How do we put our spirit into form? How do we give of ourselves to allow and open, to be present and to hear the soft whispers from within?" This is the call at midlife, she suggests: to risk what has gone before so that we may honor the heart's desire by pursuing it mindfully. This is also the "daring" from the title, to learn what limits we have agreed to, and to challenge them in order to grow our gifts and give them to the world.

Bender was schooled as a therapist, yet there is much gentle, often humorous analyzing of her feelings and state of being. Her insights are never dogmatic, however; they are presented, as if in a bowl, for the reader to consider. In fact, the bowl is the signature piece of Bender's life: In the past 20 years she has become an avid and rather successful potter. Her works are never "perfect" or centered; rather, her mostly off-shape bowls and cups in a black-and-white check motif suggest that beauty lies in the process itself. They reveal that our ideas of perfection and control are part of what limit full self-expression. All forms contain spirit and need not be fancy or ostentatious to have full value.

Bender's art - she draws now as well, a recent discovery -- also implies that it takes dedicated practice to bring our gifts forward. It especially takes a revolution of both heart and mind to move past comfortable patterns of thinking and believing. To be willing to change, to be willing to have a new life, may be the spirit's most daring challenge.

One of these fixed beliefs is that aging is a time of decline and powerlessness. In a society where the medical model dictates that we cannot be good enough, strong enough, or healthy enough without a pill or a cure, Bender's message is particularly appealing. For quite a while she suffered from a hip injury that resulted in a limp. All she wanted was to get rid of her disability and not feel like a burden.

Yet, with determination to change her typical reactions to stress, Bender decided to "take pride in my limp; I became a limping warrior. I discovered I can be both vulnerable and safe in the body. I suspended wanting to get rid of it, and just decided to be with it." Softening into her pain, willing to pause and listen to her body, she has greatly healed.

"The body has a different rhythm," Bender realizes, imparting a major theme to Stretching Lessons. "When you honor the body, when you ask others for help, there is a power in this vulnerability because it is simply what is. If you accept it, it is a powerful teacher and healer."

Bender suggests that midlife and beyond is prime time to develop a program "to be all that we can be, to not become smaller with age. We can grow new habits at any age. We can develop new channels, new resources. We don't have to live in only one groove. That is what makes you old."

Not accepting yourself, not stretching beyond how you see yourself, is also what makes a person old. "Some people are never going to see us," she says. "That doesn't mean we're not there. Seeing yourself is what matters. The risk of changing is to make life easier. We have to give up our addictions to the old groove and learn new things."

These lessons are what she calls "spirit seedlings," the promise of stretching to be as big as we truly are. In tiny increments we move forward into larger life. "As we allow possibilities, as we move more easily with life, we take more care of ourselves," Bender says. "This is the risk: to be able to give to ourselves as a spiritual practice. If we are open to the unexpected, we find spirit in everything. So do what you do with care, and stay present. That's what makes life rich. Then we have the space to become who we are. Then we can grow into ourselves.

"We all share the same quest - to be our best selves - and make a difference to others."


Beth Witrogen Mcleod

Beth Witrogen McLeod is an author, journalist, speaker and consultant on caregiving, end-of-life issues and renewal at midlife, especially for women. She is a double Pulitzer Prize nominee, and has won many national and regional awards for her work. She has written for Good Housekeeping, SELF, Family Circle, and The Wall Street Journal, among others. Her latest book is Caregiving: The Spiritual Journey of Love, Loss, and Renewal www.Witrogen.Com

Her expertise grew out of personal experience caring for her parents who were simultaneously terminally ill 1,200 miles away. With a father dying of a rare form of cancer and a mother with Lou Gehrig's disease and dementia, McLeod learned firsthand about the traumas and blessings of this mid-life rite of passage. She turned her experiences into a passion for public service, first writing and producing an award-winning newspaper series, "The Caregivers," for The San Francisco Examiner in 1995. It was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. She developed a weekly column for The Examiner that often appeared on the New York Times Syndicate Web site. Honors for the series included National Hospice Organization, Pew Charitable Trusts, American Legion Auxiliary, Society of Professional Journalists, and many regional and local social service organizations.

.More About Beth - http://www.care-givers.com/pages/experts/aboutbeth.html

Web Site: http://www.witrogen.com

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