I have an almost magical belief in books. I expect to find guidance for whatever question or problem I’m wrestling with just by picking up the right book. And why not? I know I’m not the first person to go through whatever it is that’s tripping me up at any given time.
While I don’t expect the author to bestow The Final Answer, I do expect some light to fall on my question. I put the question out there, and I swear the right book falls into my hands.
It’s happened many times. I’ll share two examples.
When I started teaching storytelling workshops, I had some pretty set ideas as to what storytelling was about, how a story should be framed, and ways to effectively deliver it. While I was having success with a lot of my students, I was failing others. I wasn’t freeing the inner voice every one of them had, if I could just find the key to help them let go of fear.
Then I stumbled across a copy of Brenda Ueland’s book, If You Want to Write: A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit. She published it back in 1938. It’s still in print, which tells you I’m not the only one to find treasure in it. In the very first chapter, she writes, “Everybody is talented, original, and has something important to say.”
I found gems all the way through the book and shared them with every class afterward (and still do, with every group I speak to about writing or storytelling to this day). When I came across this sentence, I knew she’d given me the key I was looking for: “Feel as you do when you are telling children a great, big lie and making it up as you go along—pulling their legs with a whopper.”
I shared that with my students. They “got” it. I loosened up. So did they. Fun, fearlessness, outrageousness. That’s what Brenda Ueland gave to my teaching and what I tried to pass on to my students.
Ueland freed me from a lot of rules I had for myself and storytelling. She gave me a beacon I still hold out to light my way: trust my own creativity, and have fun.
Years later I was facing the prospect of surgery I’d been avoiding as long as I could. A hysterectomy is never fun, and I’d researched every possible alternative. When I finally agreed to it, I had to deal with the old stuff that bubbled up. Stuff around all the years of infertility testing and a marriage that didn’t survive the strain.
I was trying to prepare myself emotionally for the surgery when I came across a book on a sales table outside a bookstore. I was a long way from home and with a few hours of leisure. The title on the book’s spine caught my attention: Close To The Bone: Life-Threatening Illness and the Search for Meaning. The subtitle of Jean Shinoda Bolen’s book made me think it would be useful for a hospice workshop I had been asked to teach.
I bought the book and soon realized it was going to shed some light on the journey of a friend who was suffering from multiple chemical sensitivity injuries, dying a slow death brought on by her body’s reaction to chemicals in the environment.
When I came to the chapter called “Rituals: Enacting Myth”, I felt as if I’d just been handed a gift. In it she describes a friend’s surgical journey and the role Boden played as she accompanied her. As soon as I finished the chapter, I wrote a letter to my surgeon. I told her of the myth of Inanna, when the Sumerian goddess descends into the underworld. There she is stripped of everything that gives her meaning and identity. She is hung on a meat hook. But Innana survives and emerges from the underworld in her full power.
I saw in the hysterectomy a painful stripping away that was far beyond the physical loss of female organs. So I asked the surgeon to enlist everyone in the operating room in my journey, to request them to pause for just a moment to focus on the healing knife and my physical and spiritual healing.
She honoured my wishes, and the experience became life affirming. I was held by compassion and by healing hands, both in the operating room and as I emerged from the fog of anesthesia. Physically and emotionally I recovered quickly.
Two questions, two books, two beacons to guide me forward. How extraordinary it is, the ordinary act of picking up a book and finding in it just the right words, at the moment we need them.