The River of Light
I try to approach each new book I read with a clear, open mind. I don’t want any preconceived notions to cloud my reading experience. I do not read any published reviews of the book before writing my own, and this helps me stay focused on my own interpretation of the work. On weekend mornings, I’m frequently seen running around the house with my hands over my ears, rushing to the radio to turn off NPR before a book I’m reading is about to be reviewed. Usually, this “hear no evil” approach gives me a fresh take on the memoir, and I’m able to focus entirely on my own opinion of the story. But this week, I learned that there’s a fine line between turning a blind eye to reviews, and reading a book with blinders on. For some books, prior research of the author and her body of work is imperative—otherwise, I’ll find myself lost in the woods.
Such is the case with Patricia Harman’s memoir, Arms Wide Open: A Midwife’s Journey. Harman’s writing style is enchanting, and I fell in love with her narration instantly. When the book begins, Harman is a seventies-era, nature-loving hippie who lives with her young son on a commune in West Virginia with no plumbing or electricity. And although it was her dream to live off the land, she feels unsatisfied. She longs for something to give her life meaning, and finds solace in teaching child-birthing classes to her friends and fellow commune dwellers. Ah-ha, I thought. Now she’ll decide to become a midwife. I assumed this would be the story of a woman who became a midwife—hence the subtitle, “a midwife’s journey.” I read about Harman’s feeling of dissatisfaction at the commune, tales of assisting the deliveries of her friends’ and neighbors’ children, and her decision to go to school to become a nurse-midwife. But I was never given the satisfaction of seeing Harman actually succeed as a working midwife. Instead, Arms Wide Open stops short, and then leaps ahead in time nearly forty years, to 2008.
In 2008, Harman is now a successful nurse-midwife, who lives with her husband Tom in a gated community in West Virginia. They own and operate a private practice, specializing in women with pelvic pain. Harman no longer delivers babies, but she’s constantly stopped by women at the grocery store who introduce her to the now teenaged children that Harman helped bring into the world. “I don’t remember,” she says. “There have been thousands of births.” And although I’d love to be a part of Harman’s midwife experience, I didn’t get to read about it. I don’t have a clear idea of how the free-spirited young hippie in the forest turned into the successful nurse-midwife in the gated community. Why have we sped forty years into the future when the past seemed so interesting?
This is what you get for approaching a book with blinders on. After doing a little bit of research, I discovered that there is a reason for the big, black hole in Arms Wide Open. In 2009, Harman released her first memoir, The Blue Cotton Gown: A Midwife’s Memoir, and it already covered all of this information. Arms Wide Open begins as a prequel to Harman’s earlier debut. Then, the second half of the book continues where The Blue Cotton Gown left off. As a first-time reader of Harman’s cheerful, lilting prose, I couldn’t help but feel left out. I wanted the whole story; the midwife’s journey I signed up for. And although I enjoyed the lush descriptions of wildlife, both in Harman’s wooded commune and in the trails around her gated community, the book felt incomplete with such a gaping time lapse in the middle. For readers who have picked up Arms Wide Open to learn about being a midwife, be forewarned: Harman covered it in her last book, and she doesn’t rehash it in this one.
Although the timeline threw me for a loop, Arms Wide Open is full of birthing stories, most of which took place before Harman became a licensed nurse-midwife. In the seventies, she acted as an assistant to her friends’ disorganized and sometimes frightening home births. In one scene that feels wildly visual and cinematic, Harman rushes to the house of her friend Jody, who is in labor, thinking she is going to assist the birth, not to deliver the baby herself. But Jody has had no prenatal care and refuses to go to the hospital. Although she is not yet a midwife, Harman gives Jody an examination and makes the executive decision to bring her to the hospital, whether Jody likes it or not. In the seventies, hospital deliveries are akin to “a medieval torture scene” and the father cannot be present in the delivery room. “She will be splayed out, flat on her back, on a delivery table in a sterile operating room, her legs up in stirrups, her arms and hands tied down, surrounded by strangers,” writes Harman. But although taking Jody to the hospital goes against Harman’s instincts, the author knows it is best for the safety of the child.
The core of Arms Wide Open lies not in the delivery room—it’s deep in the middle of the woods. Even after she’s given up her hippie lifestyle for a successful private practice, Harman’s deep connection to the world around her remains, and it is touching and beautiful. The author finds solace and power in the trees, the grass, and the water, and she uses it as a compass to direct her life. In moments when she’s feeling fearful about her problems, wild bears seem to materialize out of thin air, reminding her to stop running and address them. During turbulent moments with her husband, or when rumors spread that her private practice is an easy place to get narcotic drugs, Harman draws energy from the earth, allowing her surroundings to keep her strong and grounded. “The feeling of the earth under me is always healing,” she writes. “The day I went into labor with [my son], I lay on the grass with Tom, just like this and the earth gave me peace that day, too.”
Had I initially known that Arms Wide Open was more about Harman’s connection with nature than midwifery, I wonder if it would have changed my reading experience. Maybe I’d have stopped analyzing the structure of the chapters and focused instead on the book’s greater message—Harman makes her home in the trees, the clouds, the grass, and the water. This way, even when she strays away from the path, she always knows she will find herself again. “When your eyes are just above the water, the reflection of the moon leads right to you, a river of light . . ..” Harman writes. “. . . This is our church.” If the book had been subtitled Arms Wide Open: A River of Light instead of Arms Wide Open: A Midwife’s Journey, maybe I wouldn’t have been so hung up on the linear path of Harman’s career. I wouldn’t have been impatient for her to hurry up and be a midwife, already, because after all, isn’t that what the book is about? Instead, I could have paused to revel in the serene, wooded landscapes, and enjoy Arms Wide Open for the book it is—instead of the book I hoped it would be.
Lindsay Champion's writing has been featured in Time Out New York, The New York Press, McSweeney's, Fray Quarterly (available now at Barnes & Noble), Common Ties, SMITH Magazine, and in It All Changed in an Instant: More Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous & Obscure, published by Harper Perennial. Lindsay is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists and has written hundreds of articles for numerous Internet publications, including Travels.com, Livestrong.com and Trails.com. She received her BFA from NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, where she studied writing. After living in New York City for six years, Lindsay has relocated to Los Angeles for some reason. She lives in Studio City, California, with an albino goldfish named Betty White. New York Words is Lindsay’s web site. Contact Lindsay.