The Dangerous Gift
What got my attention wasn’t the writing, though it does connect us. I wasn’t drawn in by the poetry or the Judaism or any of the other traits I share with this woman. No, what caught my eye was the measles. Grace Aguilar: British/Jewish novelist, poet extraordinaire, religious writer, social historian, and liturgist; and I wanted to write about her because of the measles. This is why:
There are many writers I look up to, great men and women who have paved the way for literary revolutions and who have written books that inspire me and that have changed my life. But Grace Aguilar had the measles when she was seventeen, and she stayed inside and wrote, which to me represents the essence of resilience and power.
My own health problems are numerous and confusing. In my sixteen years I’ve failed to pinpoint what exactly I’m allergic to, even though I suffer terrible cold-like symptoms on the regular. Basically, I’m sick all the time, plagued by regular illness and the fatigue and frustration that goes along with it. The great Ms. Aguilar is one in the storied tradition of ailed children writing stories, from A.A. Milne to Bram Stoker to Robert Louis Stevenson. Feverish and under the covers our minds spin into stories and poems and ideas. Some, like Aguilar, turn to religion and find comfort in tradition. Some, like Stoker, break the mold and grow dark and angst-y. I’m somewhere between the two.
I have always felt Jewish, and I have always felt like a writer. These identities must coexist in me, as they did in Aguilar. She wrote romances rooted within the timeline of Jewish history, melding genres and building something new out of her passions. Her intense and ironic poem, “A Vision of Jerusalem, While Listening to a Beautiful Organ One of the Gentile Shrines,” helped inspire a poem of mine called, “Genesis,” with its interesting combination of language that sounds ancient, and phrases that feel more experimental. This is the kind of art that I strive to create in my poetry, a way to bridge the gap between history and modernity, a weaving of styles and language. And aside from poetry, I have my long-running novel project, a book that I have written and rewritten and rewritten, which is a futuristic retelling of the five books of Moses. That is a project that I think Aguilar would truly enjoy. Still, whenever I read her work, and I often do when digging around for ideas, I come back to this idea that we are more than Jewish writers, we are Jewish women writers. And we are more than Jewish women writers, we are Jewish women writers who got sick all the time.
I’m not often so ill that I can’t go to temple, and despite some sneezing, I usually make it to school. It was I who once wrote, “being sick is an annoying but useful gift, because it lets me stay home and think up stories.” And it was Grace Aguilar who said that “poetry is a dangerous gift, my child.” Poetry is a corrupting force, but the kind of danger that breeds beauty. I see myself in Aguilar’s experience. We are the sickly child who loves the larger world, the little Jewish girl who watches the snow from the window. We are part of the legacy of Jewish women writers, from domestic dramas to historical romance and all the way to dystopian science fiction. What caught my eye was the measles, because I know what illness does to and for the creative mind, and I know the cost and the wonder of a very dangerous gift.
Aguilar’s strength and perseverance make her short life one of beautiful boldness and deliberate language. Her religion informed her spiritual connections and inspired her to educate vast numbers of students about Judaism. It is so easy to become discouraged by illness, so easy to want to hide and sleep and give up. Sometimes, that is all you can do. But on other days, even when it seems impossible, Aguilar reminds us that we can stand up and knock whatever physical challenges we face out of the way and enjoy pursuits of creativity and spirituality. Separated by sea and centuries, Grace Aguilar and I are connected by the power of Jewish tradition, the transformative marvel of poetry, and by the annoying ailment that is the sniffles.
This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.
How to cite this page
Kelly, Rachel Tess. "The Dangerous Gift." 23 December 2016. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on October 1, 2023) <https://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/dangerous-gift>.