One day, before the world shut down, I was in a pilates/yoga fusion class with the instructor who I call Gwyneth because the resemblance is uncanny. The class was never large which is fun because you get to sort of get to know the other four people there on a more individual, personal level. And by "get to know" I guess I mean, feel like friends who don't really talk, in a club of self-betterment and shared struggle when she would make us do hard things. I really liked this instructor, even with her music which would cycle through so many artists I do not love, like John Mayer and James Taylor. I turned it into a mindfulness experiment, where if I could find my "piloga" / "yogates" (sounds like a super chill Greek philosopher) zen whilst listening to music that makes my soul recoil, then I was a master, indeed. She was friendly and chill, thankfully not over-exuberant in her instruction. She would challenge herself along with the rest of us and on some days be like, "nope, that's not happening." Very "down to mat," if you will. (get it)
On this particular day, it was just she and I before class started. Over the weeks, we would have brief snippets of conversation before other people showed up so we would gather bits of info about each other which could have been beginnings of a friendship taking shape if Covid hadn't cancelled everything. She knew I had one kid. I knew she had four, one she home-schooled. I had actually brought Julian a couple times-- once to exercise and another to just be there while I did, and he sat in the back with a book. She wistfully marveled at his ability to do that and, as always, I was appreciative I have a reader.
She then asked me a question, kind of out of nowhere. It was an important question, one I've never been asked, before then or since. It was a casual question, maybe one she didn't even really have much interest in, like she was just making conversation with mild curiosity. But it was meaningful to me.
"Is it hard having one kid?"
How do you handle questions that land in your lap like a cement brick in an offhand, super casual way in the midst of making chit chat before a yogates class starts? Like, oh yeah I have this cement brick but it's not like really anything. I can downplay this cement brick. I'll just pretend it's a yoga block? For two seconds, I considered my words and said something like, "yes, it is. For me, anyway." And in the unusual space given to me, I gave some reasons. She said she always thought it would be hard, and that when she had her second child she remembers feelings of, "oh, this is so much easier!" And just as we stood on the edge of a place I've always wanted to go with another but always found myself alone, someone walked in and the class began. And then it closed, for good.
I've often found myself thinking about people who dare to ask the questions. Questions that may be Questions--capital Q-- to someone else. Questions that someone might avoid, thinking it too personal. Is it even ever too personal? Don't we get to decide what to respond to or how we respond? She probably had no idea what it meant to me, perhaps a little curious about my anomalous situation. But I reserve a little corner of my heart for her and people like her, and I have made a vow to be that person too, to be interested, to be bold, to not be one to shy away from asking the questions.
Last summer Sean and I attended a dinner in a garden at the home of friends, one of whom is a chef. They would put on these elaborate, multi-course popup dinners. "Speakeasy dinner club" they called it. And we ate and sat with strangers and talked about all kinds of things. There was a couple there this night. We learned he was a photographer and they had six children together and they shared stories and tales. Eventually she asked me if I had kids, or how many I had, and I said, "just the one" (classic). And she stopped me and said, pointedly, "No. Not just the one." And I said, pointedly, "but it is just the one. Here, anyway." And recognizing the space created by her compassionate response, I shared some feelings and experiences in that magical kind of way you can do with intentional strangers and fellow dinner guests, where everyone is up for conversation in a way that cuts through pretense and that initial awkwardness. We all want the same thing. Food and meaningful conversation. We're all up for talking to new people who we may or may not see again. You can relax in a weird way, and you say things it might take days and multiple interactions, with other people. But I was touched by her willingness to go there with me, to say the thing.
I then shared the story of my pilates instructor who was the one to give me a feeling of validation I tell myself I don't need, as I continue to live here, in many ways, like a stranger in a strange land. I said to them, "I felt such a feeling of gratitude for her, I wanted to write her a poem or something." Amused, the photographer said, "I love that that's how you would thank a person or pay tribute--by writing them a poem." We laughed and I said I could think of nothing more personal.
And I think back to my college days when, after feeling exhausted or frustrated or bored by an exam, I might dedicate a portion of it to my feelings, in poetry form. As if to say, make this experience count, Jen. Make it mean something. Make it matter! Because the tests themselves never did. (Ever) So I'd write something in the margins-- for me, for the reader, for the air I breathed, for anyone at all. "Ode to the Testing Center" was one such poem, and upon grading, my teacher had written on my test that he'd enjoyed it and asked for my permission to share it with the class, and I remember feeling like this was better than any "A" I could get (incidentally, I do not remember what grade I got. On that or any other test).
And then, as they always do, my thoughts take me to Julian. And to times he comes home and says to me,
"I wrote a poem today. Of course, it was when we were supposed to be doing math. That's when the poems come."
And my heart bursts into an anthemic herald of our bizarre twinship, and then right out of me to envelope this boy who's always been enough, and never "just" anything. And I keep a little refrain, a tribute, a quiet dedication to those who say the thing, an Ode to Those Who Ask the Questions.
I love this, and I love hearing that asking hard questions isn't always offensive.
I'm naturally nosy (or maybe I should say I'm interested in people? that sounds much nicer!) so I always want to know stuff like this, but I've read enough Miss Manners (honestly, I love her!) to have trained myself that it's rude to ask prying questions that are none of my business but I'm just asking because I want to know.
I'm so glad these people weren't offensive and that you were able to have some honest conversations. True human connections are so beautiful.
And I love this idea of the dinner parties your friend threw. I need to find cool people like that. Or try to become one myself, I suppose...
I honestly think if you’re genuinely curious and maybe if you have some kind of relationship and didn’t just meet for the first time, it’s ok to ask questions. Even if you did just meet, I don’t know. The assumptions and the not asking are what can be harmful but again, we can choose how we want to answer, yes? Maybe I’m just one who doesn’t mind but that’s unusual. 🤷🏻♀️
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