I first read Jeanne DuPrau’s memoir The Earth House more than twenty years ago, shortly after it was published, and found it astonishing. The tale begins, as the excerpt suggests, with a vague disquiet. Jeanne and her partner Sylvia learn to meditate from a teacher called The Guide. Then life overtakes them and they try to use those insights to cope. By the end I was both devastated and uplifted. I still feel that way.
The words rolled lyrically off my lips. Each sentence had a rhythm, a cadence.
Soon after, my friend Bill, who had HIV/AIDS, began to decline. I thought reading The Earth House might help him. The problem was, he was going blind and could no longer read. So I hooked up a microphone to my cassette deck—this was way before MP3s and iPods—and began to record the first few chapters.
I knew the book was beautifully written, but I hadn’t realized how musical it was. The words rolled lyrically off my lips. Each sentence had a rhythm, a cadence. Even though I was reading the beginning of the story, where nothing bad happens, I had to stop several times to dry my eyes, marveling at the music of the prose and anticipating what was to come.
I delivered the cassette to Bill’s partner with the wish that he continue the readings after the cassette ran out.
A couple of months later, I visited Bill for the last time. He was drawn and emaciated in the way of AIDS patients at that time, before effective treatments were developed. He could neither see nor speak. The Earth House sat on a table. Bill’s friends had continued the readings, his partner told me, but they had not yet completed it.
Bill died two days later. At his memorial service in Golden Gate Park, I told this story and read from The Earth House. I ended, through tears, with this passage about “the path that leads to the extinction of suffering”:
No one who has ever tried it says this path is easy. It’s only preferable to the alternative, which leads down into fear and endless desperate scrambling and the death of the spirit. Nothing guarantees that if I accept my pain I will be a happy person. This path is not concerned with happiness, in the ordinary sense of the word, but with a higher kind of joy, what Buddhists call a “joyful participation in the sorrows of the world.” I have seen people who I suspect have come to feel this—Sylvia, at the end of her life, was one. In them the thick wall of the ego has worn papery thin, and they become luminous as lanterns.
I don’t know whether The Earth House was a comfort to Bill. But Jeannie’s luminous prose was a comfort to me and to dozens of others who mourned his loss that day.
John Unger Zussman is a creative and corporate storyteller and a co-founder of Retrospect.