The Grateful Deed Simple Abundance Is All Around Us, Says Washington Writer Sarah Ban Beathniach. Her Best-selling 'Simple Abundance' Centainly Is.

April 07, 1997|By LAURA LIPPMAN | LAURA LIPPMAN,SUN STAFF

It began with a list.

In 1991, Sarah Ban Breathnach sat at her dining room table in Takoma Park, determined to write down 100 things for which she could feel grateful. No. 1 was easy enough -- health. Hit on the head by a ceiling tile that fell from the roof of a fast-food restaurant, she had finally recovered and reclaimed her life as a wife, mother and successful writer. In fact, she had been pushing herself even harder since the accident, determined to make up for the two years she had lost, years in which she had to learn how to read and listen to music all over again.

As her list grew, it became more difficult to find items to enumerate. Daughter Katie, of course, and her husband, Edward Sharp. But what next? She sat there, sipping tea until she had reached her goal of 100. It took six hours.

Because she made that list, another list looms large today in the life of Sarah Ban Breathnach (pronounced Bon Brannock). It's the New York Times best-seller list, where the book that grew from that initial inventory of her blessings, "Simple Abundance" (Warner Books, $18.95), has ruled for 52 consecutive weeks. A collection of 366 daily "meditations," it counsels women -- "I didn't know how men think," she explains -- to find a state of grace through a state of gratitude.

"I wanted to write something authentic," Breathnach says now, and "Simple Abundance" is cast as a search for one's "authentic self." Six years later, more than 1.5 million readers -- including the most important reader of all, Oprah Winfrey -- have started the same search and begun their own gratitude journals. Sometimes it seems as if the only people not feeling grateful these days are those 30 publishers who turned Breathnach's proposal down.

"All you have is all you need," Breathnach promises. A questionable idea when applied, for example, to a woman who goes to bed hungry, or lacks funds to clothe her children. But for those who have $19 to spend on a book, it has proven to be a seductively, well, simple idea.

Yet "Simple Abundance" is not part of the so-called new simplicity movement. It's not about paring your life down to the essentials, but appreciating what's there. Breathnach also believes in the importance of indulgences, from home-made fudge to a new lipstick.

Not so simple now

"It's really about the joy of moderation," she says, adding that she dislikes seeing books or products compare themselves to "Simple Abundance." However, when she was starting out, her book was pitched as a combination of M. Scott Peck's "The Road Less Traveled," one of the most successful self-help books of all time, and Anne Morrow Lindbergh's "Gift from the Sea."

Given the magnitude of her success, Breathnach's life is not particularly simple these days, although it is awash in abundance. (That's her joke; Ban Breathnach, 49, has also worked as a journalist, and could probably write a pretty nifty profile of herself.) Her solitary, spiritual search has led her not only to the six principles of "Simple Abundance" -- gratitude, simplicity, order, harmony, beauty, joy -- but to a life of contracts, projects and assistants. She needs two to handle the mail alone.

"Simple Abundance" is now a corporation, a registered trademark and a nonprofit foundation, all headquartered in a light-filled townhouse in suburban Washington. Sparsely furnished but freshly painted, it has the six principles stenciled on the wall of the white-and-black kitchen, while the motto on the mantel reads: Embrace Life.

"I'm putting stuff in very slowly, because that's one of the principles of 'Simple Abundance,' " she says, in between poses for Washingtonian magazine, another media outlet dropping in for the book's first-year anniversary. "If you don't love it, live without it. I love this place because it's so unassuming from the street, so full of surprises inside. I love this light, this room, this tree."

The tree outside her window, a weeping cherry in full blossom, is magnificent. But grumpy cynics might be tempted to observe that it's easy to recognize the temporal glories of a single cherry tree when the millions are rolling in.

Breathnach -- and those who know her -- insist that her material success is secondary. "I'm not going to kid you, money gives you more freedom," she says. "What good is getting a check for a million dollars if the only people you can celebrate with are your agent and your accountant?"

She wrote her book because she kept hearing women, herself included, define their lives by what was missing. "I am so tired of hearing about lack," she complained to her agent, Chris Tomasino.

Evolution

Tomasino believed in her, in part because she could see that Breathnach was changing as she wrote.

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