In an inconspicuous corner of Malaprop’s Bookshop in Asheville, North Carolina, two dimly-lit, bottom shelves were filled with the enigma of books individually wrapped in thick brown paper bag paper. Each containing a menagerie of bold handwritten words like “tender, vital, ethereal, suspenseful, clever”… Taped to the side of that bookshelf, a printed sign that read:
“We love you. We want you to ride off into the sunset with the book of your dreams. But we also want you to enjoy the pleasant surprises of life. We’ve picked out some books we love and have given you a few words to capture a little of their essence. No. We can’t tell you more. If you’re brave and true, step forward. Pick one that calls to you. Embrace the sweaty-palm anticipation of the unknown. – Malaprop’s Bookstore, Asheville, North Carolina”
I loved the idea of taking a chance on an enigma of a book, brown-paper-wrapped in the mystery of bold handwritten words — the only clues hinting at the world found within its pages. Without the knowledge of what’s inside, there were no guarantees. There was the risk of disappointment — just like the risk of committing to a blind date or committing to travel with a complete stranger. Counterbalancing the seesaw, there’d be the opportunity to be pleasantly surprised. To be blissfully grateful for the fact that if it weren’t for this exercise in daring and adventure, I could have missed a sublime moment or a lifetime of bliss.
Could I get past the idea of not judging the book by its cover once I unveiled it? Could I get myself to give it the chance to get past the introduction? Or could I learn to love it even though it does not fit my personal preferences?
This time, I couldn’t rely on the technology that I’d come to count on nowadays. Technology now provides us with the ease and certainty of exactly finding what we’re looking for from the convenience of our screens. For a brief moment, I felt myself needing, wanting to recur to that place of comfort, to browse for the description, the ratings, the reviews before I ever decide to commit. Just like a crutch, my fingers instantly programmed to search for the certainty of not being let down.
In this tiny little section of the bookstore, there were others like me clustered together, making conversation, going through the motions of choosing that one blind date with someone’s story to tell. A mishmash of feelings surrounded me from exhilaration to angst, sense of adventure and daring, to doubt. The words on the wrapper called out to me louder than anything I could be feeling “tender, stunning, suspenseful, structurally daring, rich in detail and soul, intimate.” At that moment, the desire for certainty was overpowered by an even stronger desire for awe and surprise.
I carried the book with me and made the purchase. Tearing the brown paper wrap made me feel like a child opening her Christmas present. I hadn’t felt like that in a long time. As I unveiled the cover, the book I now held my hands was “All The Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr. Its title sent chills through my spine. Yet as I opened the pages and began to read, the bold words became truths as I read. I devoured and savored this beautiful piece of a book the universe had placed before me. Right then and there I discovered something new, something that I would want more of as time threaded along…
Books. There are as many books as there are humans in our world. Each book and each human holds a story to tell, a lesson to learn, an experience to share, a life to change.
When our children arrive into our lives, they are like the books found on the bookshelves at Malaprops. I believe they come into our lives with their encrypted stories, their unique essence. We all do. The difference is, there are no clues as to what’s to be found within that little life that’s just beginning. As parents, we do not get to choose who we get to bring into our lives. Our children choose us. There are no bolded words, no reviews, no return policy — not a sliver of certainty. Some of us are given the parenting experience very close to what we may have imagined. Your child is born. She learns to walk, communicate, makes friends, she goes to school. She learns to read and write, makes more friends, gets good grades, graduates, goes to college, and has a successful life by all our cultural standards.
Some of us are humored with the parenting experience that chatters anything we may have thought about having children. The image in our minds does not come anywhere close to our reality. We confront a roller coaster of emotions. A reality that makes us cry and worry, worry some more, laugh, rejoice and worry again. At some point, we may have wondered there must have been some mistake. In the middle of a desperate cry and laughter, we may have asked: “Why me?” But we know, had we the choice, we would choose them all over again. When children come into our lives, there are no malapropisms*. Even in the most difficult of circumstances, our children come into our lives to challenge our ideas, our personal programming — our lives. They. Change. Us.
Unlike the commitment with a book, we cannot set them aside on our night table, never to be opened again. We are called to take a very active part on this journey we’ve been specifically chosen to partake. It is our choice whether to participate fully with open hearts. Letting ourselves be, more than the teacher, a student.
*Wikipedia’s definition of a malapropism is “the use of an incorrect word in place of a word with a similar sound, resulting in a nonsensical, often humorous utterance.”