About ten years ago, shortly after I graduated from college and moved to the Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago, I signed up for a gym membership at a discount gym in the corner of the shopping mall by the Red Line Howard stop. If you have ever lived in Chicago, you know what that particular location means for the safety and quality of the gym and the neighborhood’s general mileu. I canceled my membership after just a couple of months, but not before I had one of those woo-woo personal experiences for which critical thinking and analysis don’t quite account.
From ancient philosphers to modern-day atheists, spiritual, heavenly, or otherwordly experiences can be incredibly profound and difficult to explain in a rational way. They often come unprompted and can be so powerful that they permanently change our perceptions of ourselves and the world around us, even though trying to describe them to others is often like trying to describe a dream. They often don’t really make sense (God talking through a burning bush?), and the act of describing such an experience often makes the memory of the thing itself slip away, yet the feelings or perceptions they inspire linger in sometimes life-changing ways.
Most skeptics of God, paranormal activity, aliens, etc. rarely, if ever, have these experiences, while people who do believe in them tend to have them all the time. For example, I had a good friend who, in what I thought was a pretty clear-cut instance of ongoing sleep paralysis, went through a long period during which she genuinely believed she was communicating with ghosts who were stuck and trying to pass over to the other side. In the meantime, I was reading Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris and couldn’t even pretend to pray without feeling foolish.
But one day, I was sitting cross-legged on a yoga mat in the aforementioned cheap gym, holding a foot in each hand. It was at the beginning of the yoga class, so my body wasn’t pumped full of endorphins and I hadn’t been meditating prior to the sensation. I was in a good place in my life, but not dating anyone and had no desire to have children in the near future. I wasn’t nannying or working with kids at all. But as I looked down at my feet, I suddenly had the most peculiar sense that, from across all the corners of the world, little particles of substance that would eventually become my daughter were, at that moment, actively and intentionally gathering together. This sensation was so strong that it overwhelmed me. It was so very clear and certain, like she was slowly but surely coming towards me and that in some way, I already knew her.
I couldn’t do much with the experience except feel it as it came and went. I was aware of how silly it might sound to describe it and I didn’t tell anyone about it for years, but I never forgot it and I never could quite shake the feeling of its literal truth, even though I simultaneously knew that couldn’t be possible.
Fast forward 10 years later, and I’m pregnant with twins. Before we found out they were both boys, people would often ask me if I had a “mother’s intuiton” about their genders. I would always say the same thing – that I wasn’t the kind of person who had any intuition beyond knowing it was a 50/50 chance for each. That was true one the intellectual level, but on a deeper, more lizard-brained level, I turned back on the moment in the yoga class and felt that, if not this pregnancy, then at some point there would be a pregnancy that would yield a tiny girlchild. When we found out they were both boys, I was surprised by how surprised and disappointed I was. The disappointment only lasted for an afternoon, but I guess I hadn’t realized how much I had counted on one of them being a girl without even knowing that’s what I was doing.
Considering my familial track record, I can’t help but be a little skeptical that there’s a girl waiting in the wings. I, my mother, and my grandmother are the only women in families full of men that keep getting bigger – I’ve got seven brothers, mom has four, grandma has one. The majority of the little kids I nannied were boys and now I’ve got two of my own incoming. While Udi and I definitely won’t have 10 kids just to keep the pattern going, the soundtrack of my life is splashing pee and fart jokes. I’m okay with that. I know and understand boys and men, and the idea of having a girl, dealing with her teenage years, and the fear of repeating relationship patterns I inherited from my mom quite frankly scare the poop out of me. But when these twins turn 18 or so and I can finally do something besides keep them alive 24/7, we’ll try to add a third, and if it’s a boy then I’m stuck trying to figure out whether to make sense of the moment in yoga class or let it go altogether.
It’s easy to hear other people’s odd religious or mystical experiences and dismiss them as obviously not true or even laugh at them, and on the whole I think it it’s a good idea to try to find rational explanations for everything. But I also think it’s totally legitimate to have an unprompted experience that feels spiritual and use it to gain a greater understanding of a particular situation or life in general. The hard part, for me anyway, is when these feelings come up against hard reality and there isn’t much we can mine in terms of greater meaning.
I don’t know. I can’t explain everything about what it means to be a human. Maybe my friend really did help ghosts pass over into the great beyond. Maybe the Muslim who killed the 16 year old Jewish boy with his bomb in Jerusalem last week really will get 72 virgins. Maybe the little sunlight particles that will eventually be chloroformed into the grass that the will be eaten by a cow that will later become the burger that will be eaten by me while I’m pregnant with a baby girl are currently working their way up inexorably towards the surface of the sun. But maybe not.