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Make This History: “Do You Have Children?”

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Happy Women’s History Month.

Let me start by saying I’m extremely irritable right now, having just lost a dear friend to COVID a few days ago. I’m edging into the angry part of the grief cycle, which I know will come and go for a time. Meanwhile, people in Idaho are staging photo ops of their children burning life-saving masks. Innocent people are dying and others are acting like drunken teenagers careening down the road of life threatening all the rest of us. So there’s stuff to be truly angry about. But that’s not what I’m writing about.

I wouldn’t say I’m angry about today’s topic, just irritated. In recent days, I’ve had the opportunity to be in the (virtual) presence of a lot of lovely people I don’t know, praying and grieving and helping the family. As irrelevant as it seems to me in those situations, that perennial question still popped up: “Do you have children?”

As always, there was the awkward silence. Then I answered lightly, “No, I’m fancy free.” But then I added, “Why do you ask?” All of a sudden, the awkwardness was on her instead of me. “Oh, I don’t know,” she said, “I just thought . . ., “ and trailed off. 

No, you did not think. That’s my point: please think before you ask a stranger that question. Some would say it’s not your business, but I won’t, because that sounds mean, and I know the question is not meant to hurt and is probably just your way of trying to connect, to make conversation, to know me. 

But you don’t know me, you don’t know my journey, you don’t know that I haven’t lost a child, that I didn’t try for decades to have a child, that I did not endure repeated miscarriages, that I did not pine my whole life for a husband who never came along. 

None of those things are true for me, blessedly. Your question is just a pinprick. But I know women in each of those categories and your mindless question is like a knife in the heart for many of them. Surely, you also know people for whom one or more of those things are true. So — please stop. If a woman has kids. you’re going to hear about them soon enough if she wants to talk about them. 

I’m not trying to be mean. Really. (If you want to see my mean face, start telling me why you choose not to wear a mask.) It’s just a matter of thinking about what you say. Nearly half of all women of childbearing age do not have children. In women beyond childbearing years like me, 1 in 7 don’t have kids. There are all different reasons for this, but none of them count as “small talk.” 

I Don’t Know What Happens When People Die

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My dear friend Bill stands at the threshold between this life and whatever lies beyond this life. A victim of COVID, his lungs are battered and his strength is all but gone. I am holding out for a miracle, because they do happen and my God, Bill deserves one. He is like a brother to me, and if you know my journey with my brother, you know I do not use those words lightly. 

I stand behind Bill, peeking over his shoulder at what’s beyond. I don’t know, though I had some profound insights in 2008 when I peeked over my mother’s shoulder at the Beyond. 

I was trying to explain all this to my cat Alice this morning, and I think I clarified it for her. 

“We never know for sure, Alice,” I said. “But I’m pretty sure I know for sure that later on, we will know for sure.” Alice seemed content with that.

Can’t Seem to Grasp It as Hard as I Try

Here’s the thing, though. I’m trying to grasp this with my mind, but this is not a mind thing. Oh, we don’t like to hear that, we like to believe that our noggins and our beloved “logic” rule supreme. But the greatest mysteries are in the realm of spirit, of energy, of heart. So, too, is the greatest meaning.

I suspect that our logic and critical thinking skills aren’t of much value in the by & by, but I truly hope that God humors us and allows our minds to grasp the big stuff, the real stuff, the whys, the WTFs, and how all the pieces fit together — to see the good that God doggedly brings forth in the midst of tragedy. 

If we are inclined towards gratitude, we can often see God’s good right now, right here in this life. Right alongside the grief and rage and despair of Bill’s situation is the overwhelming power of love and selflessness I am seeing in our community. I can’t describe it to you, I have never experienced or even heard of such an outpouring. It is the fruit of the loving lives that Bill and his wife Shobha have lived so far. It is what Jesus called the “Kingdom of God.” A glimpse of the Beyond.

Don’t Let the Uncertainty Turn You Around

When I was in my twenties, I was obsessed with singer-songwriter Jackson Browne. I spent many nights under the headphones with him, and many afternoons and evenings at his live shows. There was one song I always told my boyfriend I wanted played at my funeral, but in later years my spiritual understandings evolved and I found the song too existential for my taste.

But these days, the song is in my head again, day and night, and I sing it to Alice as I dance with her around the living room in our cloud of uncertainty: 

For a Dancer

Keep a fire burning in your eye

Pay attention to the open sky

You never know what will be coming down

I don’t remember losing track of you

You were always dancing in and out of view

I must have thought you’d always be around

Always keeping things real by playing the clown

Now you’re nowhere to be found//

I don’t know what happens when people die

I can’t seem to grasp it as hard as I try

It’s like a song I can hear playing right in my ear

That I can’t sing

I can’t help listening//

And I can’t help feeling stupid standing ’round

Crying as they ease you down

‘Cause I know that you’d rather we were dancing

Dancing our sorrow away

Right on dancing

No matter what fate chooses to play

(There’s nothing you can do about it anyway)//

Just do the steps that you’ve been shown

By everyone you’ve ever known

Until the dance becomes your very own

No matter how close to yours

Another’s steps have grown

In the end, there is one dance you’ll do alone//

Keep a fire for the human race

Let your prayers go drifting into space

You never know what will be coming down

Perhaps a better world is drawing near

Just as easily, it could all disappear

Along with whatever meaning you might have found

Don’t let the uncertainty turn you around

(The world keeps turning around and around)

Go on and make a joyful sound//

Into a dancer you have grown

From a seed somebody else has thrown

Go on ahead and throw some seeds of your own

And somewhere between the time you arrive and the time you go

May lie a reason you were alive, but you’ll never know

{Jackson Browne, For a Dancer, 1974}

Praying for a Miracle

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