Death Be Not Proud, though Some Have Called Thee, for I Haven’t Yet

A decade ago, I opened up Long Day’s Journey into Night, but I never got past the introduction. There, I read of Eugene O’Neill’s youth, of his sailing the world and battling tuberculosis.

This summed up everything that was wrong with me.

I had never sailed the world, and I had never, ever, gotten tuberculosis. How could I ever accomplish anything meaningful in my life without these essential experiences.

I was plagued by my shortcomings.

Time passed.

I threw out my TV, gave away my furniture, and loaded my books to move to Brooklyn. Lived life and whatnot. And from time to time, asked myself what my greatest fear was. Time and again, it was stagnation. The day finally came when I realized my greatest fear was also my reality. I was stagnating.

I threw away everything. Joined Peace Corps.

It’s a long road, Peace Corps, and includes many medical exams. Including one for tuberculosis.

I was told if had a raised red bump on my arm in three days, I should call the doctor immediately. Three days later, I call. “By raised red bump, you don’t mean if the entire area is red and raised, do you?”

They call me in. Do other tests. And tell me I’ve been exposed to TB.

“Do I die now?” I ask. (I’m a pleasure to the profession.)

She explains that it’s not TB itself that I have, but latent TB. Which means that my antibodies have contained it, but basically if my immune system takes a severe tumble (like if I were to contract AIDS), then TB will rise to catch me. It’ll be TB I die from, not AIDS. I listen to all this.

“So I’m carrying my death inside me.”

The nurse isn’t sure how to answer.

“But I could die of other things first.”

She looks at me.

You can imagine.

I was thrilled. Euphoric. Devastated. Elated.

I had a work event to attend that night, and as I walked there, I snuck through every closed door in every historical building that appealed, coz what could they do? Kill me? Ha! My little killer was inside me already!

I arrived at the party, flush with life, giddy, free.

Someone who hadn’t seen me in forever asked me what was new.

“Nothing new, really,” I answered, “but I am dying!”

How I do selfies.

The Scribbler

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Strangers on a Train

I took the subway from Brooklyn to Manhattan. The train was crowded. A woman in the seat facing me was weeping. I turned off my music.

She was in her 50s. On either side of her were two young women. She was telling them about her boyfriend whose funeral she’d just left. How they’d been everything to each other their whole lives. Now she was going alone to their home. They were both artists and would work with their desks facing each other, and now his was empty. Oh, in the daytime maybe she could distract herself with work, but what would she do at night? She couldn’t bear the night. All she could think about was that he wasn’t there and never would be again.

They touched her hand and listened. They told her stories about their own bereavements. And beside them, other women like me wept silent tears and watched.

No, it’s not a heartless city.

Not an absolutely heartless city.

Avebury rose

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In Which I Do Not Reference Death, Not Even Once. Maybe Once.

Until now I have written like fire. Fire burns itself down. Fire fights. How do you keep a heart open while fighting? My heart needs to be open for this script.

I’m entering a water period.

This struggle is worth it. And if it’s worth it–I must be loyal. Loyal to the end. Loyalty isn’t fighting. Loyalty is giving. Giving because one loves.

Writing is giving.

Naturally, if calm fails, I will fall back on frenzy. One must always have a back-up plan.

See the swan. See the water. Imagine Icarus below. No tale is complete without the dead.

See the swan. See the water. Imagine Icarus below. No tale is complete without the dead.

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What the Russian Invasion Taught Me

In August 2008, the Russians invaded Georgia. This was not expected.

I was there at the time. When the first explosions hit, my friend J texted from the US.

“I think there’s a war going on.”

“No, no. It’s just a border skirmish.”

I insisted that she continue making vacation plans to visit me. Then Russia raised its voice. Turned out, it actually was war. That’s what war sounds like when it starts. Sometimes.

“Don’t worry,” I texted J, “the Russians are invading.”

Huddled with other volunteers, I watched newscasters report, without a trace of irony, “The Russians are coming! The Russians are coming!”

We made our way across the border to Armenia. There, the winter olympics dominated the news. Never mind the war next door.

I confirmed with J that now was not a good time to vacation in Georgia.

It’s funny how our times shape our lives. After September 11, I had an epiphany that woke me from sleep. It was about death. From that day on, I felt in my bones the precious, fleeting nature of life, a feeling that has never left me.

But even so, I made plans. Plans! …They assume a future.

My Georgian host family found my plans hilarious. Earlier, when I told them that J was coming in a month for a visit, they laughed. “How do you know?” they’d ask. “Because we planned it.” More laughter.

During the invasion, I called my host family. The first thing they said was, “Do you still think life happens according to plan?”

What a lesson.

Today, I can’t say “see you tomorrow!” as I used to. I can’t assume it at all. I can’t assume any tomorrow at all. The only moment is the one we’re in.

Yes, others find me odd that way. But as a result, I’m a lot calmer about dashed plans in general. And a lot more passionately in love with the moment.

When I write, I write against time leaning dangerously against me. I write against death’s hand pressing me. Aware of how precious the instant is, it’s not death which dominates each one, but life.

Imagine we could see time as we do space. What would it look like?

Little ozymandiuses, that’s what we are. Time our sculptor.

We have only the briefest moment to love, to give, to create, to laugh… and even to die.

Carpe diem.

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The Teacup Has Spoken

So I had a genius idea the other night.

I took a pink piece of paper, tore it into six even pieces, and wrote the numbers 1 through 6 on them. I folded each piece up, and put them into a very lovely Turkish teacup. I decided that the next morning, and every morning, I’d go to the teacup and pick one. And whatever number it was, would be the number of miles I’d walk that day.

Genius.

And so I find myself today having picked 6. Six miles is, like, two hours.

I have given a teacup control over my time. I am no stranger to the rabbit hole.

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Me and Prometheus

I was either upset about something, or elated. I can’t remember which. But the key thing is that I had dug out two bottles of wine to share with the other guests at the hostel.

And so it was, as the night wore on, I heard tell that Georgia’s Mount Kazbegi was the legendary mountain where Prometheus had been chained for all eternity, cursed to have eagles eat his liver for the crime of having brought fire to humanity.

Well.  Nothing says exciting quite like a mountain where a god is chained for all eternity.

V, a fellow Peace Corps volunteer, was headed there in the morning, and planned to spend the night in the mountains. Everyone thought he was crazy. I thought it was genius. And so I set off with him.

It started well enough, if by well enough you mean that it was arduous, strenuous, and steep. Yes. If that’s what you mean, it started very well indeed.

At the time I was running two miles a day, and was at my peak fitness (that time has passed, alas), but the mountain was tearing my breath away.

Also, there was no path.

I repeat: no path.

V would just randomly climb up and disappear for half a century, and I would at every turn ask myself “where would V go?”–and choose the most difficult route. Each time, I’d be right–he’d pop his head up from somewhere on high, and say: “Think of Amiran!” and disappear again.

Now’s the time to mention that the Georgian name for Prometheus is Amiran. Which is only the single most exquisite male name ON EARTH. As you doubtless agree.

So I’m climbing and climbing and climbing, and seriously considering throwing out absolutely everything from my backpack. As all I have is a sleeping bag, a loaf of bread, nuts, bananas, water and a bottle of Bailey’s Irish Cream, this isn’t an option.

Don’t act like you’d throw out the Irish cream. Heathen.

Finally, finally, after all oxygen has left my system, I pull myself to the top of the mountain. I don’t even have the energy to turn around to look at the church planted on it. I gaze into the cavern of the universe from which we’ve climbed. Gulp oxygen.

I hear V move away. I flop to the ground.

“Ruth!” he cries, “Think of Amiran!”

“Fuck Amiran,” I say. “Let him go to hell, him and his liver.”

“But his children!”

Are his children part of the equation? V’s already climbing on. I want to know if there’s kids in the story. A half-told story is a desperate thing for a woman to be left with on a mountaintop, her guide walking away.

And there’s still that god chained to the mountain. I roll over, smell sweet earth, drink water, and get up.

Turns out that V is not in the mood to go to the church perched atop this mountain–which is the only reason sane humans climb here–and he disappears like Icarus into the clouds.

I trudge like a beast to Bethlehem. Have I mentioned there was no path? It was madness. MADNESS. But I climb on.

Every twenty minutes or so, we’d meet up again. As I staggered up another bend, I’d be treated to the sight of him laid out on a rock, smoking.

It was insane. It was the netherworld. It was like a really sick Virgil.

Onwards and upwards.

At one point, I climbed over a river of rocks. Each rock wobbled, and spoke of death.

Halfway across, I heard something in the air and listened.

It was the sound of my own voice, over and over, murmuring something someone had said to me years before in a Bed, Bath & Beyond. I’d been comparing toilet paper dispensers when this man had staggered out from the towels and curtains and said, apropos of nothing, “Trust your judgment, not your fear.”

I used this wisdom like a rope to the other side, and stepped with it from death to death.

On the other side, we agreed to make camp. This comprised of the following activities:

1) Flopping to the ground.
2) …

Yeah, we hadn’t brought a tent. It was July 4th, and freezing.

Our camp site was strange. Tiny chipmunk-type creatures disappeared into the rocks as we approached. V asked me, “Have you seen Galaxy Quest?” I was thinking of the exact same scene. Where these really cute creatures turn out to be starving carnivores.

Well, I got in my sleeping bag and fell into the deepest sleep. Forget meditation, forget the stars, forget the solitude and peace of nature.

I get a jab in my side. I open fuzzy eyes and emerge from the top of my sleeping bag. The night sky was Van Gogh’s wildest fantasy. If he fantasized about being frozen to death.

“It’s beautiful,” V said.

“If you wake me up again I’ll kill you.”

In the morning, V asked if I’d nuzzled him during the night. I looked at him, and we both looked into the rocks which hid the strange creatures. We ate nuts and the last bananas, we drank water, and then climbed.

Let’s just put it this way. I almost died at least twice that day. I’m not exaggerating.

Once was up a sheer rock face. What I was thinking, I cannot explain. I guess I didn’t realize how sheer it was until I had the idiotic notion of taking a rest on a ledge. My butt on it, my legs dangling down, I saw death and death saw me, and I almost went blind.

I seriously considered calling a helicopter, but I knew I couldn’t reach for a ladder even if Georgia had search and rescue teams. So instead I breathed. From above, I hear V’s cheery voice.

“You good?”

I check the primordial scream in my throat. “Oh, yeah!”

“It’s even ground up here.”

Liar. But it was less uneven in that no 90% angles were involved. I lay on that ground in an open love affair with 30% angles. I could have eaten that ground, I loved it so much. Oh, HEAVENLY ground. I love the ground. Sweet ground.

Makes one very grateful we go back to it when we die.

Anyway, at this point it was hard to hide my shuddering, but V thought it was cold. V is insane. I drank water, shook, and took in the climbing heights beyond. The real Kazbegi.

“Amiran,” said V.

And he got up for the rest of the walk. The plan was to get as far as we could while still having time to make our descent by evening. But as I walked–the ground now level, but swathed with ice–a certainty gripped me that if I took one step more, I would die.

I stopped. I literally just stopped walking.

V turned around, confused.

We agreed I’d wait for him at our camp by the strange creatures. I didn’t think he’d be gone that long, so I waited on the mountaintop instead and froze. I took a photo of myself with Mount Kazbegi behind me.

But the real reason I waited up there was I was too afraid to try to get down. That photo I took of me and the mountain? I was so scared, the camera was on zoom, and I never did think to adjust it. The only photo of me up there–is the closest close up ever taken of my face ever. You wouldn’t know I was on a mountain at all. And ain’t no hint of Amiran in it.

Finally I realized I needed protection from the elements.

I couldn’t go down the way I’d come up. The second option was to try climb down an avalanche of rocks. The third was to slide down ice, and crash and splatter against rocks on the bottom. The fourth was to find out what was across the rocks and ice.

I tried the fourth, only to fall on the ice and slide.

They don’t call me Genius Ruth for nothing. They don’t call me Genius Ruth at all.

What happened is I got extremely lucky, and managed to grab a rock before I fell. I climbed back up. I reconsidered my options, now helpfully pared down to just three. I call them: Death One, Death Two, and Death Three.

Or, Plan What the Fuck. This genius idea occurred to me after I almost flew over the edge on ice and saved myself clutching to a rock.

I decided to sit on the ice, and “climb” down on my ass, clutching onto the rocks the whole way down. To use gravity for the descent, and the rocks to slow it. Which would have been wise if it weren’t for two factors:

1. The grain of the ice propelled everything toward the center, where nothing could slow the descent into blood-splattered rocks.
2. There was a crevasse between the rocks and the ice. An abyss. You fall in, it’s over. Even if you survive the fall, no-one will ever, ever, ever find your body alive or dead. The planet will swallow you.

But those were the only points against it.

Anyway, by the time I realized all this, it was too late. Time disappeared. I was flying down the ice, playing gravity against itself, hurtling so as not to crack into the abyss. And then it was done.

I had survived. I scrambled off the ice, over the rocks. Onto ground. Sweet, sweet ground.

I couldn’t believe I was alive.

I found our bags. My pants were completely soaked from the ice. I tore them off and climbed into my backpack and hopped onto a rock. I opened the Bailey’s Irish Cream. I drank it. I think the whole bottle. I lay down. I fell asleep. (Yes, I’m calling it that.)

When I woke up, fuzzy-eyed, a man was looking at me. I scowled at him and went back to sleep.

When I woke up again, he was halfway up the mountain.

I saw V descending, and remembered I didn’t have pants on. I ran to my jeans, which I’d laid out on another rock, hoping they’d dry. (They did.) Clambered into them.

V gets to the campsite.

“Were you just naked?” he asks.

“Now, how likely is that?” I answer.

So I never did see Prometheus, nor get the chance to unshackle him and incur the wrath of Zeus. But although I did not battle with the gods… I did enjoy the struggle.

When I was done with it. Rattling back to the capital in a minibus, a hot meal in my belly.

Mount Kazbegi and the church a seen from the village below

Mount Kazbegi and the church as seen from the village below

A priest with Mount Kazbegi behind him

A priest with Mount Kazbegi behind him (view from the church, on another trip up, after the war–and yeah, it’s worth the visit. I’d end up there three times.)

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Lower down, it was verdant and beautiful

Then it got rocky, with patches of ice.

Death be not proud, though some have called thee mighty and brave, for thou art not so ~ John Donne

 

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When you study eight languages, what do you learn? You learn how to study a language at all.

The first thing is grammar. Understanding what rules govern meaning. Meaning is all about relationships. Put the same words in a different order, or twist their endings, and you change meaning–or create garble. The same ingredients, different impacts.

Therefore observe. Scrutinize. Plumb with questions. And crucially: explore.

Never speak another person’s words. Speak only your own. Butcher your sentences rather than ace those of others. Drive into the words and gather your own scrapes.

When finally you’re able to communicate, you will be speaking the language as yourself, not fearful of the types of things you want to say.

The second thing is music. Each language has its own melody. Each languages bears its own silences. If you listen, you will hear.

This goes beyond the sense and into the under-sense. Words carry histories, have varied weight and magnetism. Each language asks different questions inside its words. And each bears its own cadences. Speak the correct cadence, and you can flub a word or two.

And above all, never fear making a fool of yourself. Failure is part of the process. Super duper doozies are part of the process. You will create monsters. Dance with them. To learn a language, one must desire to communicate, to meet others’ souls, more than one wants to preserve one’s ego. Much is learned on the backs of mistakes.

Press your hand to your cave wall. Burn your soul into it. Speak your own words with all the sounds of the world. Filter the world through the prism of you. Your love, your pain, your longing. Your relationship to the world.

And it occurs to me now, that art is language too, and can be learned the same way. Observing. Questioning. Feeling. Experimenting. Speaking our own hearts.

We are languages too.

We are leaves falling, leaves crushed.

Fall in Central Park. (Not a command, a description of the season and the place.)

Fall in Central Park. (Not a command, but a description of the season and the place.)

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