Taylor: Things you never knew you knew

Learning through osmosis is explored in Jim Taylor’s latest column

Harvest times tend to come along all at once. I went out last week to offer volunteer services to my vegetable garden, and realized that the peas, raspberries, onions and potatoes all needed attention at the same time.

I know how to pick and shell peas. I know how to pick raspberries. But I realized I didn’t have a clue about the right time to pull onions or dig potatoes.

So I called a friend. Who is, fortunately, kind enough not to laugh at my ignorance.

“You need to bend the tops of the onions over,” she said.

The tops of my onions had fallen over already, on their own.

“Then you can pull them,” she said. “But they’ll need to be dried.”

More questions. More advice.

Before this year, I didn’t have to phone friends about these simple details. I simply asked Joan. She always knew. Not something she learned by studying textbooks. Nor something she learned in class. And not some formula she could punch up on a calculator or find on a diagram.

I’m sure she never knew how she knew about onions. Or roses. Or coffee. She just knew.

Dictionaries and encyclopedias define “osmosis” as the ability of one kind of fluid to pass through some kind of filter into another fluid.

I think of osmosis as the process of learning, without ever knowing that you’re learning. It just filters into your consciousness.

Maybe your mother said, “See, the tops have fallen over.” Or, about potatoes, “Just dig with your fingers, and feel how big the potatoes have grown.” Or, “Don’t mix silverware with stainless steel in the dishwasher.”

Whatever it was, the message got planted in your consciousness forever.

It ain’t book-learnin’ that makes you smart. It’s what you absorbed by osmosis – knowledge, ideas, attitudes that passed imperceptibly through the filter between you and someone else.

Some of those things are good (at least, in my values). Things like kindness, hospitality, tolerance and sensitivity. Nobody can tell you how to put yourself into someone else’s life situation, to understand what it feels like for that man to be lonely, for that woman to suffer constant pain, for that child to fear abuse.

You learn those lessons by watching how someone else responds.

Mothers, particularly. Mothers aren’t always right. But even when they’re wrong, in general, they interact do what they do with love. That in itself is worth learning. I thought I had a close relationship with my son until, as we scattered his ashes, Joan’s words reminded me that she had known him nine months longer.

The Bible calls it “hesed,” loosely translated as “womb love.”

Of course, you can also learn bad things by osmosis. Prejudice against other races, nationalities, and sexes. Contempt for the less fortunate. Selfishness. Narrow religion.

Perhaps no one actually intended to pass on those attitudes. But they did. And their ways of thinking became your ways of thinking.

Nowadays, you can Google what to do with onions and potatoes. Wikipedia will tell you more than you ever wanted to know about racism or intolerance. But neither of them will change your attitudes and perceptions.

Those, you have to absorb by osmosis.

Jim Taylor lives in Lake Country: rewrite@shaw.ca

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