Every so often I come across a writer who rocks my world so profoundly I want to share him/her with everyone I meet. So, if you’ve met me in the past few weeks, you’ve probably been told to read Connie Willis.
Add J. Ruth Gendler to that list of must reads, especially if you’re a writer/artist/person engaged in creative activities. I started with Changing Light: The Eternal Cycle of Night and Day. It’s a collection of stories, poems, and artwork engaging the times of change during the day, those times when people used to stop and pray because, without clocks, it was obvious that something eternal and mysterious was happening in the natural world. Twilight. Night. Dawn. Day. Sunset. This book completely changed how I think about transition points in my day, waking up, beginning my work, my son’s arrival home and the change in energy that accompanies him, meals, bedtime (both my son’s and mine). It’s really awesome, includes lots of Rumi (lovelovelove Rumi) and other gorgeous poetry that if nothing else, will bring you out of your daily life and into connection with the world.
I didn’t think Gendler could have done any better. Then I read The Book of Qualities. The Qualities are things like Beauty, Truth, Criticism, Shock, Resignation, Joy. If you’ve ever been in a writing seminar where you’ve been told to write about something in a completely new way and you think you’ve done a decent job, consider how Gendler describes the quality of Suffering:
“Suffering teaches philosophy on a part-time basis. She likes the icy days in February when she can stay home from school, make thick soups, and catch up on her reading. With her white skin and dark hair she even looks like winter. She has a slender face and dramatic cheekbones.
Suffering’s reputation troubles her. Certain people adore her and talk about her as if knowing her gives them a special status. Other people despise her; when they see her in the supermarket, they look the other way. Even though Suffering is considered a formidable instructor, she is actually quite compassionate. She feels lonely around students who dislike her. It is even more painful to be around those who idealize her. She is proud only because she recognizes the value of her lessons.” (pg 31)
Um. Wow. Okay, so I’m done for the day. My brain just went “pop!” and hear that rumble, that barely noticeable sound of the earth’s crust shifting? My world…rocked. In two short paragraphs she’s dropped words like “formidable” and “dramatic” while talking about “thick soups” and “supermarket”. She grounded Suffering in the everyday, the mundane while revealing the timelessness of the experience. I got the sense that my brain was richoceting around in my head, trying to keep up with image after image that rang true. Because haven’t we all looked away in the face of obvious suffering? And, maybe less frequently but no less true, haven’t we all recognized the value of suffering after the fact? It’s brilliant, and there are about 50 more Qualities.
I’m in love with this book. I don’t often feel like I need several copies of a book, just in case I can’t ever get one again. You know. Because that might happen. But I want to order four or five more copies, hoard them and yet give them away to people I know might also feel just a bit shattered by them.
And now, I have to write.