The Book of Qualities

By J. Ruth Gendler

Detail, "Listening for the New Music" by J. Ruth Gendler Monotype 2018

Courtesy loves conversation and all kinds of musical instruments—old, rare, and new.  He knows who wants a simple thank you note and who wants a more elaborate expression of gratitude. He still likes to address envelopes. He writes condolence notes by hand.

Grieving our war-torn, speed-mad world Courtesy is often melancholy. Still, he takes great delight in the simple rituals of daily life. He loves making both coffee and tea, small talk, and teaching stories. He hears the longings underneath the local weather report and casual exchanges of gossip and complaint.

Courtesy hosts dinner parties that include people from every part of his life. He doesn’t quite recognize what a gift he has for bringing together people who would rarely meet and often disagree. After the guests leave, Courtesy stays up late reading history and translating ancient poetry. His friendships cross many borders. In the candlelight, it is as if the poets are in the room with him and he is going to introduce these visitors to his guests next time they gather. More than anyone I know Courtesy listens tenderly to the sounds and souls of people across the street and across the centuries. 

"I See Joy in the Distance" by J. Ruth Gendler Monotype 2019

Curiosity studies how ideas flow into the mainstream, slowly and suddenly, how old ideas become new again. He is alert to the differences between how we imagine the future and how it unfolds. He has presented workshops in many languages, and always leaves the participants with unexpected invitations for further inquiry. When I returned to his village after many years away in the working world, Curiosity asked me to update the old map to the Town of Qualities and the surrounding fields. 


It’s an open secret that Curiosity inspires others to work hard but also to meander and wonder. Often when I revisit the trails we have hiked, I discover that he has scattered questions and directions tucked into roots and under rocks. 


I felt unprepared when Curiosity invited me to teach with him. I found it is way more lively than presenting on my own. Curiosity enjoys most of his students but he is especially fond of the  youngest and the oldest—perhaps because they both like to take naps. One of his long time students told me that “Curiosity taught the kitten to walk, the river to run, the flowers to bloom.”


Curiosity loves to go to sleep and loves to wake up. It wasn’t always this way. As a kid, he had no use for bedtimes. Once he recognized the variety and mystery of dreams, sleep became another adventure and source of research.


Silence_The Light
"Silence, the Light" by J. Ruth Gendler Painting 2019

Hope is Curiosity’s sister.  She collects recipes and dreams. Very little frightens Hope but many things make her sad. She often works at night because it is quiet. When Hope hears your dreams (when you report your dreams to Hope)  it is as if she enters the dream with you. Do you know what I am talking about? Her ability to work behind the scenes (inside the scene) is legendary. Hope moves gracefully into the possible without losing track of the real— (That’s how you can tell True Hope from her shadowy ex-friend False Hope). When Hope wanders into your dream, you, too, wonder what is possible. 

Sometimes it looks like Hope is trying to do too much at once; she has learned it’s helpful to keep several notebooks nearby and faithfully record the progress of her projects. She once left a small notebook in my studio apron pocket, and I was surprised how meticulous and beautiful each page was. She is very good at keeping track of what she has accomplished as well as what remains to be done. And, unlike so many of us, Hope doesn’t expect to finish everything she starts.  


Three Qualities-1 copy
"Three Qualities," by J. Ruth Gendler, Monotype 2019

Enthusiasm is better at starting things than finishing them, and often more skillful at helping others than herself.  These tendencies have come to her attention as she works on her latest project. You see, Enthusiasm is writing a book about love. She doesn’t consider the subject cliched or overdone.  Yes, she is aware; she just doesn’t care how many other people have written songs or poems or stories and how skeptics are sure that everything possible has been said on the subject. Enthusiasm trusts she has her own way of seeing things and saying things.

One issue is the interviews are so interesting that Enthusiasm never wants to finish the book.  Also, Enthusiasm has trouble sitting still and writing in her attic study with the windows on three sides. And she can’t get any work done when she takes her laptop or notebook to the cafe to write because so many people want her to cheer them on and up.

 During the pandemic, Enthusiasm’s usual motivations are not working. For years she managed to meet her deadlines by knowing what she was doing mattered to others. She thrives on the feedback of an immediate audience. Enthusiasm has helped others so much, maybe it’s our time to help her. 

Whenever I see Enthusiasm, I encourage her to stay in the chair and keep marching through the paragraphs. Now more than ever, I am eager to read what Enthusiasm will tell us. And yet, maybe it’s not important that she finish the book. Who needs a whole book?  When you are with Enthusiasm, you know what she knows. Listen to her heart’s desires. Listen to your heart’s dreams. Start your big impossible project. Don’t worry about how it will work out or how long it will take. Trust the allies you haven’t met yet.  And have some fun.


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"Remembering" by J. Ruth Gendler Monotype 2019

Resilience makes meaning the way your mother taught you to make soup, working with what ingredients she has at hand. Resilience is generous with the spices, cooks with love, and knows the power of bones. She savors a good broth, appreciating the time it takes for ingredients to simmer and blend. 

Years ago when Resilience was most discouraged  with her work and her studies, she broke all her familiar routines and embarked  on an open-ended adventure, staying with friends and cooking for strangers. Without realizing what was happening she collected a beautiful basket of recipes, seeds and old songs. By the time Resilience was ready to come home, she had learned to embrace the idioms of loss without getting lost.

When Resilience returned to our village, she looked to find a cafe that served some of her favorite meals. She put on her apron and started a pop-up that scrambled our provincial  sense of what to eat when. Breakfast soups in the winter and summer pancakes for dinner. Before long she had opened her restaurant.

There is room for both Beauty and Grief at the big round table. Your mother’s soup is hard to keep in stock.

How I Work with Qualities

When I was a little girl, I made up a story about the store where they sell Qualities. More like a trading post or library than a department store or supermarket, we could go to the store where they sell Qualities to sample them. As a teenager, I made notes about the factory where they manufacture facts and the image warehouse where they store belief systems.

Drawing on my experience as an artist and journalist, I committed myself more seriously to writing Qualities, I began to consider the limits of emotional language. Too often, we assume we know the dimensions of an emotional quality and whether it is good or bad without taking the time to see where the quality can take us and what it can teach us.


"Holy Friends" by J. Ruth Gendler, Monotype 2018

During the process of writing The Book of Qualities (Turquoise Mountain Press 1984,  Harper Collins, 1988) I felt like an explorer trying to penetrate the layers and stereotypes to experience the Qualities more directly. I began turning my skills of investigation and observation inward, focusing on the colors and textures of the emotional landscape.

The Qualities seem to exist in a community of their own, apart from us, and yet they are a very familiar part of our everyday world. 

I imagine that the Qualities live together in a town near the mountains.  Courage lives on the same block as Fear. Faith and Doubt are in the same apartment building; Despair hangs out in the basement. I choose not to emphasize the Town of Qualities so much, because that implies that the Qualities are separate from us, when, in fact, they are both in and around us. 

Reading the Qualities aloud brings them to life; the Qualities change subtly as listeners respond with their own moods and needs.

The Qualities continue to open doors for me and the descriptions above have come from recent meditations.

I continue to work with them, and above are my latest discoveries in art and story.  I am interested in the difference between similar Qualities such as Joy and Ecstasy, Delight and Pleasure and the relationships between seeming opposites like Certainty and Confusion, Beauty and Ugliness. What happens when Courage and Simplicity work on a project together, when Pleasure and Sufficiency take a walk? 

Somewhere around January 1st,  I choose a Quality for the year.  Then I pick one randomly from a bowl,  meditating on the one I chose and the one that has chosen me.  

Artist J. Ruth Gendler is the author of the bestselling The Book of Qualities, the award-winning Notes on the Need for Beauty, and the anthology,  Changing Light.  

The Book of Qualities has been translated into several languages, used in classrooms to teach personification and values, adapted for theater and dance, and quoted widely in sermons and speeches. Gendler’s art work, including paintings, drawings, and monotypes, has been exhibited nationally and featured on the covers of several books published in the United States and Asia. 

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