There is a slightly evil thing that happens when you start writing. You love reading other people’s writing. You want to be generous in your judgment because you know how maddening the craft can be. But inevitably you find yourself evaluating the work both as a reader and a writer. In some cases, this can ruin the pure appreciation of the work.
When I found Ruth Ozeki’s novels, however, I was delighted to enjoy the inverse of this situation. I loved her books as a reader and, as a writer and teacher of mindfulness, I felt nothing short of awe. Ruth Ozeki is a Zen teacher, author and filmmaker from California. Her novels tell tales of tragedy engendered by modern life and the unexpected beauty and hope that can be found therein. The key, as Ozeki shows us, is that we have to look closely and lovingly in the places we’d rather ignore.
That’s exactly what Ozeki’s novels do. She covers the isolation and alienation of contemporary life, including our throwaway and commercialist culture that leads to massive garbage patches in our oceans and hoarding in our homes. Her novels explore inhumanity in our meat industry, media outlets, modern workplaces, and even among well-intentioned educators, social workers, and medical and mental health professionals.
In doing so, Ozeki doesn’t teach the concept of what suffering means. She helps us feel it. Through her characters, we experience how suffering takes root, how we get embroiled in it, and how we overlook the habits that perpetuate suffering for ourselves and others. As any Zen teacher would, of course, she also shows us that there is a way out of this trap if we are willing to open up our eyes and see it.
For example, while reading Ozeki’s latest award-winning novel, The Book of Form and Emptiness I wanted to walk into the book and save the wayward Annabelle who couldn’t cope with all that life had sent her. She would frustrate and dismay me in one chapter with her refusal to face life and be the parent her son needed. Then in the next, she’d be positively brilliant in advocating for herself and her son and show that she didn’t need saving, but simple social support.
In our lives and in the world, we often look for the simple and quick answers and so the big, nasty problems may feel too overwhelming to address. One wouldn’t think that novels, a form of entertainment, could tackle the big problems of the world and still be enjoyable. Ozeki’s novels show that this assumption is wrong.
If you want to learn about mindfulness in a totally new way or you just want some novels that are as wonderfully strange as real life, check out Ruth Ozeki’s work, including:
My Year of Meats; and
The Book of Form and Emptiness.
These books may force you to look at the parts of life you’d rather ignore, but they will help you find beauty, joy, and hope that you’d never expect.
Want to learn more about mindfulness and compassion? Check out my new book, How to Be a Badass Lawyer, which is available now.
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