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Week 2: The Danger of Unasked Questions

Question mark made of puzzle pieces

Photo by Horia Varlan on Flickr

Walking home in the darkening slush of a winter afternoon, from the house of my Neighbor – a Total Stranger earlier that morning – I thought about all the questions I could have asked – and didn’t.

After 6 years of silently, facelessly, living two houses over, I had taken that first breathless step across her door – but did not find it in me to cross the cordial, awkward distance formed between us by her kitchen table.

Why didn’t I ask her about her favorite books when she shared her love of reading? I thought. I had allowed myself to be silenced, I realized, by the heavy sense of politeness and un-clarity between us. I had forgotten that the point of my Quest was not the sharing of gifts (in this case, a blank journal representing my love of writing), or the taming of my inner terror, but the search for the divine sparks among those with whom I share my world.

And then, feeling my throat fill with sadness, I was carried back to another slushy winter, the last one I spent with my grandmother Ester (known to all as Babe).

It was 1993, not long since the Soviet collapse, and I was visiting my grandparents in Latvia after more than 10 yrs of separation by the iron curtain.

Grandma Babe, her bones too wracked by osteoporosis to move beyond her bed, and her face puffed with Prednisone, entertained me with stories about my colorful Latvian cousins, whispery renditions of half-forgotten childhood songs, and reactions to my tales of “life in America” (toilet paper in public stalls! 5 kinds of apple in every corner grocery! 60 hr work weeks?).

A part of me, watching the bubbly cadence of our conversations, always meant to veer the topic to deeper waters, to ask her about the past.

  • Tell me more about your “musical” brothers and sisters. Were they kind of like the Von Trapp family?
  • What were you doing in the Bolshevik underground as a teenage girl?
  • How did your love for grandpa survive the Gulag labor camp when you were sent away as newlyweds?
  • Is it true that before you gave birth to mom, you lost a baby boy to a drunk Siberian midwife with dirty hands?
  • What was it like to return home after Stalin’s death – to find your whole family had been killed by the Nazis?
  • How is it that your former 5th grade students, grown men and women, still visit you so many years later?

Yet, somehow, in those quiet evenings in the Riga flat, I never made room for the vital questions, the ones that now seem to matter most.

The danger of Unasked Questions, I thought, is that time is not an ever-winding ribbon, spooling out into the distance for us to retrace its path whenever we make up our minds.

The danger of Unasked Questions is that sometimes Now is the chance we are given.

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Talking To Strangers by Elaine Shpungin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.


About Elaine Shpungin

Elaine Shpungin, Ph.D. is the founder of Conflict 180: an indivualized approach to whole school turn-around. Her writing has appeared in academic articles,, Tikkun Magazine, and edited books on pop culture themes (e.g., The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, House M.D.). Her weekly Restorative Tips newsletter has more than 700 subscribers and can be found at

2 responses »

  1. My grandfather came to the US from Lithuanian in 1911 at the age of 14 under mysterious circumstances, accompanied only by an uncle who was not named. He never shared anything about his family/origins with his children due to the shame of being and eastern european immigrant at the turn of the century and wanting to assimilate. He died of tuberculosis when my father was 12. The wake of unanswered questions he left behind continues to gnaw at me, especially when i see my children growing and wonder what of him/his family is in them.

    Thankfully, though, part of the hole in my own identity was healed during my pregnancy with my son, Ian, when I visited Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania after the fall of the Soviet Union in January 1996. The purpose of the trip was to share what was happening in the world of psychiatric treatment in the US at the time with various hospitals and universities in the Baltics.

    Our train trip through Lithuanian brought a feeling of strangely deep familiarity–cross country skiers moving quickly through birch forests, a landscape similar to my home in Michigan. When we arrived in Vilnius i experienced for the first time in my life a sense of being surrounded by people who looked like they could be family to me. From police on the street to the elderly woman who earned a few coins sweeping snow off the sidewalk, I found myself seeking and finding a closer connection to my origins…a sense of kinship and cultural/genetic similarity i had been missing. Even as I write this it makes little rational sense, but i found a feeling of completeness…of questions answered…even without exchange of words. I still find it mystifying to this day.

    • Thank you for sharing this. I enjoyed the camaraderie in what you wrote – and when I read the last part “… i found a feeling of completeness… of questions answered… even without the exchange of words” – I felt myself taking a long, deep breath. I felt the relief and completeness you described.

      with gratitude,


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