Question 1: What Inspired My Year of Questions?

As the mother of a six-year-old boy, my days, more often than not, begin with questions. Our son has a habit of bounding into our bed around six each morning and awakening us with something like this: “Who would win in a fight–Batman or the Incredible Hulk? Which is beautifuler–a sunset or a rainbow?”

Many of his questions begin with why: “Why haven’t scientists figured out how to turn sand into time? Why do kids sometimes act like your friend and sometimes growl at you? Why do I go to school to learn, because teachers are grown-ups, and the grown-ups already forgot what they knew when they were little?”

And then there are the ifs, which are often posed as a test of my love: “If you had to choose between the whole world getting eaten up in a black hole or me being dead, which would you choose?”

At six, my son already knows how to ask the important questions. For him, every day brings new questions–not rhetorical questions, not polite questions, but questions to which he is truly seeking the answer. Every few months, he stands up against the frame of his bedroom door to be measured. And every few months, the pen mark etched into the white paint serves as evidence of his growth. Month by month, my son gets a little bit taller. He knows a few more sight words, counts a little bit higher, makes a few more friends. To be a child is to be in a constant state of growth.

Not long ago, I turned forty. It has recently occurred to me that it has been a long time since I felt that I was growing. The physical growth, of course, stopped decades ago. I was 5’2″ at the age of 14, and today, I’m still 5’2″. Both of my sisters–one older, one younger–are taller than I am, and, rightly or wrongly, I suspect my shorter stature may have something to do with an equestrian accident that broke my hips and pelvis at the formative age of 12. I spent some time recovering in bed, my left leg strung up in traction in order to properly rearrange my hip, a condition which may have played a part in my becoming a writer. I’ve met quite a few writers who can trace their earliest inklings of their future calling back to sickly days confined to bed, thinking, reading, and scribbling.

It was a delicious time, those weeks spent at my own leisure, with books spread out around me. To this day, few things bring me such exquisite pleasure as a period of hours in which I am free to read and think. The fact that those hours are increasingly difficult to come by only makes them more coveted, more precious. All the books I’ve been meaning to read, all the questions I’ve been meaning to ponder…

Case in point: for years, I’ve been meaning to read up on Buddhism. About a decade ago, I did read the Herman Hesse novel Siddhartha, but I didn’t get much farther than that. While I’ve long found the Dalai Lama to be an intriguing figure, I realized a few weeks ago that I had somehow never read anything that he had written. I decided it was time. A few days later, early on a Monday morning, I had managed to make coffee, pour a cup, settle in on the couch, and read the foreword to The Path to Tranquility, when I heard my son’s footsteps in the hallway. He came into the room, all sleepy-eyed and sweet, and asked the same question he asks every single Monday morning, without fail: “How many days until Saturday?” A very practical question, and one which, I agree, bears repeating.

He climbed into my lap, and I set the book aside, but not before reading a few sentences of the entry for January 1: “I love smiles. That is a fact. How to develop smiles?”

How to develop smiles? There is a great power in questions. Upon posing this question to oneself, the next step would be to thoughtfully consider the answer. And from there to put the answer into practice, and by so doing to create happiness in the lives of others. A deeply satisfying and meaningful result of asking oneself a simple question.

This blog begins on the day that America declares that we will pursue military action in Libya. Our military action in Libya begins a week after the massive earthquake and tsunami that wiped out much of Japan. As nuclear experts attempt to solve the problem of the devastated nuclear power plant at Fukushima, and as workers engage in what may very well be a suicide mission in order to bring the plant under control, and as West Coast pharmacies have sold out of potassium iodide, and as water and spinach in Japan is simmering with radiation, another war begins. The Allies aren’t all in alliance on this one. Russia and China are unhappy, Kadafi is defiant, America is between a rock and a hard place, and the gray clouds continue to spew over Fukushima. My son asks, “Did the kids all get away from the big wave?” There are no easy answers, and no easy solutions, and many of us feel helpless in the face of overwhelming world events. It seems like a good time to start asking questions.

One of my favorite lines in literature comes from Walker Percy’s 1963 novel The Moviegoer: “To become aware of the possibility of a search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair.” This line stayed with me all through the writing of  The Year of Fog, which happened to be the novel that transformed writing from my passion to my occupation. At some point our bodies stop growing; this is inevitable. But at some point, for many of us, involved as we are in the cycle of parenting, marriage, career, finances, and the daily details of living, we may inadvertently stop growing intellectually and spiritually as well.

A search by its very nature inspires growth. What is a search if not a series of questions, one building upon the next?

So, in the spirit of not acting my age–in the spirit of acting, indeed, like my six-year-old son–I have decided, beginning now, to start asking questions. As of today, I am embarking on a search. I will tell you straight out of the gate that I have no idea what I’m searching for. While I haven’t quite pinned down the purpose of the search, I have decided upon a method: a question a week, every week, for a year. Because I believe that the best discoveries often happen in unexpected places, I’m placing no limitations on the kinds of questions I ask. They will run the gamut from personal to political, scientific to metaphysical, spiritual to secular. I will share my questions and answers here, and my sincere hope is that my questions will inspire you to ask, and answer, your own. The comments section is always open. Let the year of asking questions begin.

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4 Responses to Question 1: What Inspired My Year of Questions?

  1. Michelle, I’m excited to read where this year of questioning carries you (and really, readers as well). That Walker Percy line is beautiful. I bought a used copy at a library book sale a few weeks ago. I’m tempted to dive in tonight.

    • Michelle says:

      Hi Carla. Thanks so much for your comment. And you should definitely dive into The Moviegoer! My friend Wade Williams gave the book to me 15 years ago in grad school, and the book has been with me ever since. I reread it every couple of years.

  2. ken y says:

    what a wonderful thing to blog about! Some say that children make the best scientists, because of the pure, simple but direct nature of their questions. I think we should all follow their example!

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