Staff Pick: 'Finding Beauty in a Broken World'

Perhaps it’s common to find uncanny resemblance to your life in the writing of another, but it feels like a singularly unique and precious gift every time I open a book written by Terry Tempest Williams. Environmentalist, spiritualist, writer, and—I would say—prophet, Williams in her writing touches on timeless human struggles in such intimate fashion that it always seems particular to my life. Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place, her memoir about watching her mother’s cancer and the flooding of a wildlife refuge at the Great Salt Lake, and Leap, a book-length meditation on the Hieronymus Bosch painting The Garden of Earthly Delights, each inspired in me reflections on family and the landscapes that sustain me. But for the events of this year, nothing feels more prescient than her 2008 memoir, Finding Beauty in a Broken World.

The book is divided loosely into three parts, beginning in Ravenna, Italy, a town famous for its Byzantine mosaics in the Basilica of San Vitale. Williams goes there to learn about the ancient art, and mosaic becomes a guiding image for the entire book. “The play of light,” writes Williams, quoting her teacher, “is the first and last rule of mosaic.” Williams continues the metaphor: “a mosaic is a conversation between what is broken.” In the second section of the book, she writes of the Utah prairie dog, a species now teetering on the brink of extinction. She sees in prairie dogs the formation of a mosaic, referring to their status as a keystone species, or a species that sustains the welfare of an entire ecosystem. Her words say it better than any ecology textbook: “destroy them, and you destroy a varied world.” Finally, Williams writes from Rwanda, where she hopes to “find out…how a people who carry the history of genocide in their hearts not only begin to heal but to move forward in the name of forgiveness and acceptance.” There, she befriends survivors and constructs a mosaic memorial with Chinese artist Lily Yeh.

Fittingly enough, a piece of Williams’s world entered mine here in New York. On a trip to the Neue Galerie’s exhibit, Klimt and the Women of Vienna’s Golden Age, I turned around to find a 1951 reproduction of one of the mosaics from the Basilica of San Vitale. Klimt, too, was inspired by those walls. The fragments of light in the mosaic made me think of Williams’s memories of prairie dogs: “I will forever see those prairie dogs, thousands of them, standing on their haunches, backlit by a setting sun on the plains of southeastern Colorado, looking like a gathering of monks with their hands pressed together in prayer to a god unknown to us.”

I have not yet finished this book, having chosen to consume it slowly in five-page increments over the past few months. Perhaps this is partly due to my workload as a graduate student, but I wonder if the piece itself demands a slow and meditative approach. Each section is another shard of glass. The shards have provided light in the divisions of the election, in the ever-worsening news about the fate of the planet’s creatures and coastlines, and, most hauntingly, in footage of the families trapped in Aleppo’s violence and rubble.

The narrative in the piece itself is fragmented like this strange world. But the fragments are shimmering pieces of a reconstructed whole that insist on recognition of the beauty of the planet. And if we only think like Williams, the play of light may just become the first and last rule of our lives. 

Rebecca Collins is an editorial intern at Commonweal.

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