What Not Reading a Great Book Taught Me About Giving and Receiving

I don’t have enough fingers to mark the number of times folks have told me to read Braiding Sweetgrass. The recommendations always sounded similar. It’s about indigenous wisdom and scientific knowledge and plants, they’d tell me. That sounded like a compelling premise to me, but also risked being a dry one. I was in graduate school when the book came out in 2013, and I wasn’t looking for any more textbooks. Still, I’d notice it in bookstores. From time to time, I’d even feel the gentle flex of its many pages in my hands, allow my thumb to cleave the book in two, and start reading. It didn’t take a full page before my eyes would glaze. It seemed to be overrated. After all, I shrugged, not every book is for every person.

Still, the recommendations kept coming, and, after a time, my toes weren’t even enough to count them. I decided to try the audiobook. Listening is my favorite way to ingesting nonfiction, so it seemed like a reasonable thing to try. So I googled to it and pressed play on the audio sample and busied myself with resetting the house for the day, prepared to be carried away by something that warranted the years of enthusiasm I had heard.

If my ears could have glazed over, they would have. While Robin Wall Kimmerer waxed poetic about wild strawberries, I wandered into the kitchen to scrounge for dark chocolate and thumbed around for a podcast.

And then it happened that I was in a bookstore. It was a small one, with exposed brick and big windows. The year was 2019, and I had just taken a writing class nearby and was feeling particularly open to inspiration from the universe. There it was again, Braiding Sweetgrass. It was propped upright with a note peaking out. “Staff recommendation!” It proclaimed. “One of the best books I have ever read. You must read it.” Well. I didn’t have any spare fingers or toes, but I did have a spare Audible credit and a need to get my mind off of some things. I thanked the bookstore for this final nudge by purchasing a different book, downloaded the complete audio book, and braced myself.

This time, no part of me glazed over. Instead, I felt rapt as I listened to the rhythm of Kimmerer’s voice and words. It was as if I had melted into the mind of someone wiser than me, but someone I could become someday, if I kept at it.

Braiding Sweetgrass is about plants. And scientific knowledge. And indigenous wisdom. That’s all the truth. But it’s also about life. About being a mother. About being humble. About being curious. About being, I suppose, plain and simple. And, it turns out, this is not a dry subject matter at all.

At a different time, I would have been mad at myself for delaying reading something so wonderful. I would have felt foolish for not being quicker to heed the many, many recommendations that came my way. I would have felt embarrassed that it took running out of phalanges for me to finally get through the darn thing. But that’s not how I feel now.

Now I just notice how gifts given need to be received or they are not gifts at all. Both giving and receiving require a whole heart. If I had forced myself to read the book at any other time, it would have felt like a chore. An obligation.

It reminds me of a line from Braiding Sweetgrass, “The most important thing each of us can know is our unique gift and how to use it in the world.” And another line, this one from Aafke Elisabeth Komter in a book called Psychology of Gratitude, “A gift that cannot ‘move’ loses its gift properties.”

It took all those years for me to be ready to receive this book, rather than for it to be something that just happened to me. It seems to me that Kimmerer’s intention in publishing Braiding Sweetgrass was to give a gift. And now, finally, I am ready to receive it.

The most important thing each of us can know is our unique gift and how to use it in the world

This essay also appeared on Medium

Published by Emily P.G. Erickson

Emily P.G. Erickson is a freelance writer specializing in mental health and parenting. She has written for popular digital publications, including Everyday Health, Health, The New York Times, Parents, Romper, Verywell Mind, WIRED, and more. Emily is a professional member of the National Association of Science Writers (NASW), the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA), and the Association of Health Care Journalists (AHCJ). Previously, Emily researched PTSD for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and earned a master's in psychology. You can find the latest from Emily at www.emilypgerickson.com.

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