Recently I heard an interview with the herbalist Cascade Anderson Geller. She shared a story about a teacher and healer she met in the remote Choco region of Northern Ecuador, where she went to learn about the local plants and healing methods.
Geller had been suffering from carpal tunnel syndrome and had consulted scads of doctors and bodywork practitioners in the United States. She didn’t tell the healer about the carpal tunnel, but he immediately went to work on her wrists. The next morning, she woke without the nagging tingling and pain she’d been coping with for months.
Later the healer saw her consulting a book about the plants in the region and approached her. He sniffed the book and ran his hands over it, then asked if he could borrow it.
When he returned it, he said, “You know, you can’t really learn anything about the plants except from the plants themselves.”
He asked her what the book was made of. She told him, and he explained that the reason the book must help her was because it was made from trees, and the trees were speaking to her.
“It was profound,” Geller says. “But of course, I still like books, because that’s what I was trained with. Whatever we were trained with as a child, that’s what we relate to and what we go back to. … With our training in academics, it’s a stretch to trust any other source.”
Geller’s experience reminds me of my journey through pregnancy and birth several years ago.
I grew up in a house filled with books. I always loved school, and books were a huge part of my childhood and my life. My love of words and research have served me well in many areas. They helped me excel in college. They’ve helped me get jobs. They help me write for publication and understand many things about the world and about people. No one can deny that words have power and that books can change us, heal us, teach us.
But several years ago, like Geller, I realized that books also have limits. I was nearing the end of my pregnancy, and like so many expectant mothers, I’d read towers of books and endless magazine articles and websites about pregnancy and birth – about what to expect during labor, about how to handle contractions, about breathing and positions and the various “methods” of coping.
I felt like I was lost in a wilderness of techniques – Bradley, Birthing From Within, Hypnobabies, with their various colloquialisms filling my mind. Which one would help me tackle this Herculean thing I had to do sooner and sooner with each passing minute?
With just weeks left in my pregnancy, I had an epiphany. I didn’t need to cram for birth like I was taking the LSAT. I didn’t need to manage it like I was putting on a benefit concert. I just needed to show up and experience this thing, whatever it was going to be – the pain, the emotions, the exhaustion, the joy. I just had to live it.
It was such an incredible relief.
I would tell you more about the actual birth, but I don’t remember it well. I do know that the experience changed me more profoundly than any book I’ve ever read. And afterward came a truly Herculean task that would make all my preparation for birth seem absurd and hilarious – parenting. Just weeks after my son was born, as I paced the halls with him, I knew that birth would be the easiest part of our journey together.
Who would I turn to for advice? Dr. Spock? Dr. Sears? Penelope Leach? The Baby Whisperer? The Smartest Baby on the Block? How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk? Love and Logic? I read them all, and many more.
Then my son turned one, his personality started to emerge, and the parenting books began gathering dust. I’m sure it helped me in some way to read them, especially the ones that emphasize kindness, listening, compassion, warmth, and connection. Those are good reminders for all walks of life.
But parenting books can also get in the way. Recently I was talking to a writer friend and mentioned a how-to-write-fiction-book that I love, and he replied, “I can’t read any more how-to books. They just make me a worse writer, because I stop listening to myself.” I think the same can be true of parenting books.
I used to run into another mom at the park occasionally. She had a new baby and a five-year-old, and she was training to become a parenting educator. She loved to talk about parenting books. Her favorite was How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk. She had charts in her bedroom, with scripts to help her remember what to say when dealing with behavior problems. If her five-year-old was acting out at the breakfast table, she would excuse herself for a moment to consult the dialogues.
She is a smart person and a loving and patient mother. But I noticed something strange about her interactions with her kids. They were stilted, scripted, and unreal. She wasn’t being herself.
That’s when I decided that being ourselves with our kids is the most important thing we can do, more important than handling every behavior issue perfectly, more important than having a baby who sleeps all night or a toddler who eats vegetables.
As my son grows older, I’m learning to trust things that you can’t learn in books, namely my instincts and my relationship with him. I try to let them guide me in knowing what to do when he’s tired, stressed out, sad, or angry. I don’t always do the right thing. I’m not always patient; I’m not always kind; and I’m not always fair. Neither is my son. So I’ve also come to trust in the amazing power of the apology.
Mostly I trust that just as it was when I was growing up, family life will be messy. It won’t fit into scripts or how-tos. Books will never capture its insanity, or its joy.Family life is messy. Books will never capture its insanity or joy. It must be lived.Click To Tweet
If you liked this post, you may enjoy:
- Learning to Enjoy the Journey
- Finding Wildness
- Learning to Listen
- Thinking Inside the Box
- A Wabi Sabi Life
- Want Peas With That?
What do you think? Are there things we have to learn outside the lines?