Marcella took the stage at the community open mic event, and shared with the peppered few in attendance, a poem she had composed, on her father’s death. She had nursed him towards this point for months, and her poem wove a conversation of questions. While her father’s words were a taut warp of bitter resentment, her responses were threads of presence that helped her stand vigil. The questions ranged in scale, from existential to mundane, with no need for transitions. As her father came to the brink of death, asking why it was him who had to die, her single response came, still in the form of a question. Why not? The simplicity of her words, delivered with love and loss, resounded with the understanding that her father’s time of questioning was drawing to a close. Held within the marriage of finality and possibility there is a crystallization of the paradox of life: to have it, we must also die.
As I sat in the folding chair listening, I hadn’t yet begun “to show,” but I did know by then that I was not the sole occupant of my body. It is confounding, growing a human. You can understand the science of it as much as you like, but regardless of your intellectual or spiritual orientations, it is mind bending actually being pregnant. Where the boundaries of your “self” ends and another begins goes through a process of disconnection and reorientation. It is itself an end, a kind of death, that is simultaneously infused with the animation of new life. At an early part of this discordant process, I listened to Marcella. As I did, I began to hear between her questions and mine, a harmony. I wondered: Was this constant flow of questions, big and small, a landscape of our mental life?
Weeks passed, and as I began to be visibly pregnant, strangers began to develop a new relationship with my body. The center of focus for others became my belly, toward which people would address me with smiles, advice, or even outstretched arms seeking to touch. Rather than being offended by a sense of intrusion, I was intoxicated by this desire from others to connect. I was living between London and New York at the time, and in both of these cities, there are social standards that allow you to maintain anonymity even if you’re nose to nose on a rush hour public transport. But my body, and the potential within, bore a power that overruled these standards. But what was this potential? Was it actually in me? Or was it in the minds and the imaginations of others? Didn’t that mean that the emotion they projected on to me was really within each of them? The ability of others to project wonder, hope and potential on my expanding body became intertwined with my curiosity about Marcella’s poem. And my contemplation evolved again: If it’s easy for people to project hope and possibility onto their imagination of a future human, are they aware that they, too, contain this potential in equal measure?
The questions grew, and fed by time, they had a shape that asked to be born. As I went through my day, I began a practice in which I would stop people, usually strangers, sometimes friends, and tell them about Marcella’s poem. Then I would ask them if they would share with me what the big or little questions were present in their own lives recently. Each encounter was different of course, but mostly what happened next is that the other person and I would have a 20 minute conversation, during which I would listen and learn from them. I would take notes in a notebook, replying and responding with what I was hearing. Through this dialogue, they would distill their questions, that they felt reflected them. Then, I asked them to write their question on my belly. I gave them an eyeliner pen and offered my belly as their canvas–a shared space on which their thoughts might dwell, for a while. They would write their question and then we would look for another person in the area who would take a photo of my belly with their question written on it and both of our hands on my belly.
Over the course of three months, until two days before I gave birth, I kept up this practice. I met people in bathrooms, at coffee shops, bus stops, in the doctor’s office and in classrooms. The encounters we shared were jewels of profundity, diamond studded sidewalks. The responses ranged from immediate questions about what time to have the next cup of coffee or how deep to plant a set of tulip bulbs, to questions about social issues such as gender identity or consumerism. Also frequent were questions about death and family relationships.
The other part of this story of course is my son Arlo, now 8, who was growing as this process took place. His emergent presence affected how others related to me, altered cultural norms and offered a platform for connection to take place. I sometimes refer to the surface of my belly as his first roof. It’s compelling to reflect on whether or in what way might this in utero experience have impacted him. He is certainly a curious person, imaginative, talkative and an utter empath.
As I sit with him and do homework, only to go off on tangents of wonderfilled questions that often devolve into mutual marvellings at the concept of infinity and zero, I am reminded of and returned to this project. And now, with this show, we are sharing it with you. On this page you have a selection of the 90 questions from the minds of strangers that dwelt, for a time, on my belly. We hope that these offer you a chance to reflect on the wonder and possibility of you.
Rachel and Arlo