Thursday, August 30, 2012

Quotations and graves

"Nothing in life is to be feared. It is to be understood."  ~Marie Curie

Famous quotations are postcards from someone else's trip. They can adorn margins, shelves and tack boards, or they can inspire a person to investigate the true location herself.

Yesterday I laid my hands in various postures on a glass square under an x-ray machine, first my right, then my left. I turned and angled them, splayed fingers like a sun as directed, under a long red light-line shining down from the machine as a guide for straightness. I imagined my basal thumb joints under skin and flesh. Are they worn carbuncle stones that glow red like the light striping my arm? After each placement, three for each hand, the technician and student hid behind a wall to protect themselves from the radiation.

When I was done I left the lab, noticing the Radiology sign over the door, and I remembered a visit to Marie Curie’s burial crypt in the Panthéon in Paris. She is one of only two women among the notables of France to be entombed in the Panthéon, for accomplishing, among many things, the discovery of radium and the use of radiology in medicine. So many graves and monuments of the famous to visit and contemplate what they conquered or were conquered by, including Les Invalides, where Napoleon lies buried inside his seven Matryoshka caskets, as if he still had enemies to be fortressed against beyond death.

I don’t want to only be a tourist of someone else’s life (and death). I want to understand the country of myself. I don’t want to wish I were there. I want to wish to be here. What are the frontiers in this body, this heart, this mind that mark my journey? 

The doctor called and told me I have osteoarthritis. Now that I understand the source of the pain, I can explore how to overcome it.


  1. This is so rich, Ruth, beginning with that wonderful quotation from Madam Curie and culminating with a bold declaration that you "don't want to only be a tourist in someone else's life." I would emphasize "bold" here, because it takes both courage and commitment to live and explore our individual lives, not the lives that were draped around us a children, not the lives that others expect, not the lives of others who we might justifiably admire. As for the osteoarthritis in your hands, I have developed the same condition in recent years, but I try to focus upon the parts of me that have improved with time. As Leonard Cohen would say, "ring the bells that still can ring."

    1. George, with a pleasureful gasp I read your comment, "not the lives that were draped around us as children." This is so beautifully true. It is not only someone else's life, but someone else's imagined life for me that I do not want. I'm sorry to hear that you, too, have Old Arthur (I feel it's important that you be exposed to these British terms for things before you leave next week; I did not know this cute reference for arthritis before Dominic used it.) I admire your active life more than ever now, especially the way you use those walking sticks.

  2. I'm so sorry for your pain - and hopeful that they'll be able to provide ways to ease that pain. I had hip resurfacing done for my arthritic hip last year & it was amazing - but I imagine those kinds of options aren't available for hands.

    1. Dana, thank you so much. I have not visited the orthopedist yet, and so I am still hopeful that anti-inflammatories will do the trick. I remember your surgery, and I'm grateful for your relief. We are truly fortunate to live in this day when palliative care is emphasized.

  3. So miserable about your arthritis. I do sympathize. Maybe one of the perils of still being here --but a wretched one.
    At the beginning of the post I was wondering why you were x-raying your hands --thought you shouldn't be --like in those foot X-ray boxes for children's shoes in the 50's that suddenly vanished!
    I'm sort of ambivalent about quotes -fee they are much overused in place of people actually thinking for themselves.

    1. Elizabeth, thank you for your sympathy. I hope you are pain-free. As for radiation, let's hope that minimal exposure will cause no harm.

  4. "Old Arthur" - bad news to get. As you imply, one has to be positive - I hope your explorations go well.

    I've not been post-reading for a few days so I'm going around catching up. I thought your blessing was wonderful!

    1. Hi, Dominic. I had never heard arthritis called Old Arthur before your comment, and now I feel some relief. Thank you for your wishes. I am hopeful, since there are good remedies out there. Thanks also for your comment about the blessing. The whole wedding event was blissful, and I loved taking part in the ceremony. Thanks for reading.

  5. Not many people would wander from painful hands on the X-ray table to Paris to reflections on self discovery and acceptance:). You make it a thought provoking journey.
    Good luck with discovering what works for your hands...I live comfortably with daily naproxen but I know a lot of people can't take it.

    Love George's Cohen quote:)

    1. GailO, well you know me by now and how easily I veer off on a path. :) Thank you for your wishes for a remedy. I'm so glad you live comfortably with naproxen. I have much to learn about all this, and no doubt my friends with the same condition will be a source of help and support.

  6. You are so right.

    First you must know.

  7. I think we're on a similar journey just now: understanding the country of self, exploring the personal frontiers that mark our journey. I appreciate the thoughtfulness you bring to it and your sharing with us. There are some interesting alternative approaches to pain relief these days. With your attitude of openness you'll find what works for you.

    1. Mary, I really love sharing this life with you. Knowing you are there, so consciously welcoming your life, is a great boon to my spirits. And thanks for your vote of confidence that I will find the right treatment. I think I will too.

  8. as you wrote of visiting the other tombs, ruth, i was so relieved to read this, "I don’t want to only be a tourist of someone else’s life (and death)." and how well phrased this is! how perfect.)) and how impossible, too, to be central and living life while understanding it in the moment and in retrospect, and yet the yearning for understanding is our own mini-engine propelling us forward on our journey! time never lets us catch up with ourselves, nor does history. i am reading a wonderful and evocative poetry book right now, outside history by eavan boland. her voice speaks as your voice speaks.

    pain is a frightful thing. i have (sometimes) debilitating back pain and it gets worse year to year. compounding this is (and i laugh) a moderate state of self imposed poverty which does not allow for me to seek out medical attention. (i've exhausted all the mediocre free care i can possibly clamor for.) although i have already been nearly 20 years into this pain, i realize more and more profoundly how intrinsic it is to me being me. people ask me then, why walk, why run? and i wonder, if not, then what - a safer and more bland prolonged and mediocre existence? i walk, i run - hard, and i feel the pain very hard too. one day i will die. sooner then i think, i think. (ha! this makes me laugh too))) and if not die first, then the pain will become too much to endure. this is a possibility. it's not easy. it simply is the way. i think of those who endure much worse then i do.

    much love to you and perhaps you will have better luck at recovery)) i hope so.))


    1. My friend. As long as there are new days and possibilities, I will find hope. I have never read Eavan Boland, and so I did so just now: "And Soul" about her mother's death, and water. And water collects in my eyes, like Rumi's shells. To discover poetry again, and want it, is joy. Thank you.

      I am truly sad to hear about your back pain, and suffered for so long. And yet I feel admiration grow, for a person I already admire more than is possible to express. That you run, that you celebrate your body. I am like a child in this pain, and weak and pathetic. I miss the pleasures of body. To hear you, George and others face it stalwartly gives me both inspiration and disappointment in myself. I feel drained early in the day, incapable of pushing through it when I get home from work. But knowing you do helps me want to. Yes it's true, others endure much worse. One of my fine memories from childhood in church (there are few) was of a woman whose back was curled with degenerative disease, and she bent from the hip, unable to stand straight. She gave her testimony, and she began, "Let me tell you about the grace of God . . . " Such things stay in the human heart, strengthening it like strong healthy bones. You are one such thing for me too.

    2. ruth, i feel ashamed. after i wrote of my pain i felt ashamed. even that. only that. and this strangely makes me happy. there was a time when i let pain dictate my life and cause me to be selfish, ask of others to do for me. i do not want to go back to that time. even speaking of it makes me feel dirty. but all pain is different. i know nothing of yours.

      when i was a teenager there was a man in town, perhaps 85 pounds soaking wet, frail, red haired and determined. he could have stayed home. perhaps if he could have found the money he'd have taken cabs. but instead, daily he would be out on the sidewalks moving like stop animation to complete his errands. i don't know what he was afflicted with but it was obvious that is was excruciating and yet he chose to live. i look to him. over the years his body degenerated more, until he used a walker and took hours moving down a single street. and then he was gone. i look to him.

      love to you. we are not made in painless bodies. we are made to decide what to do with this pain, i think, all of the different kinds of pain, literal and metaphorical. this is our life. i look to you))))

      (you are very kind and magnanimous with me))


    3. erin, you are beautiful even in shame, though I would wish it away. I felt happy and satisfied with our conversation here (still do), with the truth of it. Perhaps it is harder to be the one praised, and this I understand. But there is no diminishment in it, I think. And there is no diminishment in confessing pain. There is certainly no comparison meant, from you, or from me. I think our pages must confess these realities as much as any other reality, and no apologies. This is what it means to be a washed stone, I think. And white space. xoxo

    4. (isn't it difficult to not aplogize for being, in some way?

      last night in bed reading:

      Our Daily Bread

      Breakfast is drunk down … Damp earth
      of the cemetery gives off the fragrance of the precious blood.
      City of winter … the mordant crusade
      of a cart that seems to pull behind it
      an emotion of fasting that cannot get free!
      1 wish I could beat on all the doors,
      and ask for somebody; and then
      look at the poor, and, while they wept softly,
      give bits of fresh bread to them.
      And plunder the rich of their vineyards
      with those two blessed hands
      which blasted the nails with one blow of light,
      and flew away from the Cross!
      Eyelash of morning, you cannot lift yourselves!
      Give us our daily bread,
      Lord … !
      Every bone in me belongs to others;
      and maybe I robbed them.
      I came to take something for myself that maybe
      was meant for some other man;
      and I start thinking that, if I had not been born,
      another poor man could have drunk this coffee.
      I feel like a dirty thief … Where will I end?
      And in this frigid hour, when the earth
      has the odor of human dust and is so sad,
      I wish I could beat on all the doors
      and beg pardon from someone,
      and make bits of fresh bread for him
      here, in the oven of my heart … !

      by Cesar Vallejo
      Translated by James Wright

      love and learning

    5. I have no words in response to this poem (of such skill, such insight, such humility, such love). And so, without language, I slide it into the oven of my heart in hopes that it will become a loaf to give someone. Thank you. xoxo

  9. Ah. There is some relief in knowing, isn't there? Now your pain (how I wish you did not have pain) is a stone that can be washed, not a shadow. I know you will find a method of treatment/therapy that will help you; I hope that whatever it is will do so quickly.
    How like you to meditate on Madame Curie during an X-ray, and then to wander to Napoleon's multiple sarcophagi (who knew?)...yes, to be present in our own "country", to know it complete. You will find, I think that your frontiers are boundless.
    "I don't want to be a tourist in someone else's life (or death)." That belongs on a t-shirt ;-) (JOKE)

    note to erin: Eavan Boland is one of my absolute favorites. So happy you are reading her!

    Hugs to you, Ruth. Thank you for sharing what you see on your journey.

    1. Thanks so much, my friend. Yes there is great relief in knowing. How good that you see what I felt in this write, that knowing and understanding is to be washed. I am just at the start of this pain-journey, and I am sure I'll find relief in remedies I can live with. I am almost glad for this because of the discovery through this post of Eavan Boland. I think you must have mentioned her to me previously when I was listing Irish poets and didn't know any women. But I did not pursue her then. I will now, for her poem "And Soul" read this morning has sparked something. xoxo

    2. Just read "And Soul"--so beautiful. I believe i see where it led you, and am glad, so glad. I also like "On this Earth" from the same collection, and the whole of The Lost Land and "The Famine Road" (it's in a different place) and and and...
      Oh, Ruth, if Eavan Boland has brought poetry back to you, then I rejoice in her even more!

      And I wish peace for your hands that they may give you your joys without suffering.

  10. ruth, i am terribly sorry to hear of your pain, and i wish the best for you, in treatment, in management, in knowledge. i hesitate to speak further -- pain is so absolutely personal that any suggestion that i could understand what you are undergoing feels like arrogance. pain contracts the world to one body and isolates the sufferer within its bounds, and it is a constant effort to transcend (if "transcend" is even the right word) ... i witness the daily pain of one whom i love, and really there is nothing i can do but swallow a mouthful of useless comfort and lower my eyes, wondering on the conditions of existence ...

    can i offer a poem by robinson jeffers? it is not a very comforting poem, but there is truth in it, i think --

    Birth Dues

    Joy is a trick in the air; pleasure is merely contemptible, the dangled
    Carrot the ass follows to market or precipice;
    But limitary pain -- the rock under the tower and the hewn coping
    That takes thunder at the head of the turret-
    Terrible and real. Therefore a mindless dervish carving himself
    With knives will seem to have conquered the world.

    The world's God is treacherous and full of unreason; a torturer, but also
    The only foundation and the only fountain.
    Who fights him eats his own flesh and perishes of hunger; who hides in the grave
    To escape him is dead; who enters the Indian
    Recession to escape him is dead; who falls in love with the God is washed clean
    Of death desired and of death dreaded.

    He has joy, but Joy is a trick in the air; and pleasure, but pleasure is contemptible;
    And peace; and is based on solider than pain.
    He has broken boundaries a little and that will estrange him; he is monstrous, but not
    To the measure of the God.... But I having told
    However I suppose that few in the world have energy to hear effectively --
    Have paid my birth-dues; am quits with the people.


    1. James, thank you. Thank you.

      Yes, it is true, I feel you are right in all that you said. And yet such close loving attention, the kind that wants to understand, even if it can't know from the inside out, accomplishes much in the heart of one with pain. At least that is how this individual feels.

      I've read the Jeffers poem several times now. It is tremendous. Yes, it is heartbreaking, and true I think. In spite of the fact that I don't want this God, I feel that I must learn something about grace from this God, through suffering. You hear about it through the lives of others your whole life. But when you arrive at the pain, and the learning has yet to come, there is only humility and wonder.

      I so appreciate your warm encouragement, and this poem (which also woos me back to poems).

  11. I can see that your obviously painful fingers are not a hinder for your continued excellent writing ability! Now, that you have learnt and understood in time, I trust that you will be well helped!

    1. Peter, thank you very much, for your kind words, and for your blessing. I will see an orthopedist in October, and I'm sure there will be something to help.

  12. Truly inhabiting...understanding..appreciating and accepting our bodies - is a practice all unto its own. Sorry to hear about the osteoarthritis....:-(

    1. Thank you, Marcie. I remember when once a doctor told me: Isolate the pain. Such a thought had never occurred to me. I think of that now after what you said, that we must understand | appreciate | accept our bodies, because we must isolate each feeling in order to know it.

  13. I have tears in my eyes, Ruth, because #1, I didn't yet know, and #2, I wish it weren't so. My arthritis is in my left knee, with which I have learned to live. I can't imagine it in my hands! When we Skype again, please tell me more. I see it is in October when you'll see the orthopedist. I have always said not knowing what causes pain is worse than knowing the diagnosis, no matter how hard/bad!


All responses are welcome.