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Monday, May 21, 2012

Reflections on Life and Death while riding the ‘eL’ during the NATO Summit

     Against the wishes of my daughters, I was in the subway tunnel at Lake Street in Chicago waiting for the Red Line to take me north to work. A young woman entered and sat on a bench about 10 feet from me. There were already two men sitting there and she took the remaining seat between them. From her hands you could tell that she was dark-skinned (as were the men seated on the bench). She, however, was nearly fully veiled. She wasn’t wearing a complete burqa, but her head was completely covered except for her eyes, by two pieces of cloth. I think it’s called a niqab. She was dressed in a very baggy, long skirt, a baggy shirt and a baggy denim jacket. She carried three shoulder bags with her. She took a book out of one of the bags and started to read.
As the men noticed her, they each got up from the bench, moved away from her and stood. One looked at back at her and moved to a different area on the platform, presumably so he wouldn’t have to ride in the same car.
     Once we entered the train, people were watching her; glancing at her furtively and then looking around at others as if to say, “Do you see what’s over here? Should we be worried?” People entering the car at various stops would see her and move to the end of the car furthest from her. She exited the car at Truman City College. Just a student.
     Now I’ve got to say that I’ve been riding the subway/’eL’ system in Chicago for almost seven years now and I’ve never seen anything like this before. Therefore, my assumption is that it’s because of the NATO summit that people were so jittery about this girl. (Which is itself interesting because the people who seem to be protesting and getting accused of illegal activities are unveiled white men, but I digress.)
     Then I got to thinking that every day we go through life not thinking about it, but living with the reality that any moment could be our last. I suppose it is remotely possible that this young woman could have been a suicide bomber and, waiting for the proper moment, exploded herself and everyone in the ‘eL’ car with her. We hear stories like this from countries far away through an untrustworthy media; girls who blow themselves up for a cause. Because of this, the mere presence of this school girl made people think about bombings. About disaster. About death.
     What I seem to be finding with my ongoing death study is that people generally don’t talk about death (or think about it very much) until they have to. Until they or someone close to them is facing it.  And it’s no wonder; I mean it’s not a very pleasant topic in our culture– too many unknowns. And too much fear – of pain, of declining faculties, of eventual annihilation of the self. It’s pretty heavy. Some scholars claim that the topic of death is taboo in American culture. I wouldn’t go that far. I just think that people don’t like to talk about things that are unpleasant and sometimes upsetting.
     I would like to see, though, what a society would look like if people thought about it more. If they regularly pondered that any moment could result in their death. Not that they should go around being anxious about every choice and activity, but that maybe with considering their death, they would consider what impressions they may leave – or not leave on the places and people that they encounter on any given day.
     I like to think it would have positive affect. Maybe then people would not treat a girl like this with such contempt.

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