Notes from the End of the World

The speeding train that is my Movember blog continues. I don’t really know where it’s going, but I’m happy you’re along for the ride.

I recently read an article on how my home state of Wyoming has one of the highest suicide rates in the country. It was such a powerful article because it was so true. Even though Wyoming has so few people, you’d be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t know of a friend or relative who has committed suicide. The same is true for my second “home” of Russia.

Growing up in Wyoming could be very beautiful, but it could also be very isolating. When I was a kid I’d always walk in the pasture behind my house. If you walked to the right spots you could look out and see nothing but prairie with a smattering of houses. I never remember seeing any people on my walks; I was truly alone. In many ways it was liberating. On days when it was really cold and the wind was blowing, I’d go back to that pasture and pretend that I was Han Solo looking for Luke Skywalker on the ice world of Hoth. (I was always on foot because my tauntaun never made it past the first marker). I didn’t have to worry what anyone thought of me, or that maybe that it was a little weird that even into high school I used to read and reread Star Wars books.

There were other days when the world around me wasn’t like a blank canvas, but a gigantic straight jacket. For every day that I couldn’t wait to get back to that pasture, there were so many others when it seemed like the end of the Earth. It was easy to despair. Life in Wyoming seemed so straightforward and simple. Everyone had a place, except me. I’ve come to realize that there is just a part of me that doesn’t want an easy life. I have no idea why, but I just have to complicate everything. I tried to be happy with what was around me, but I never could. I always was dreaming of a world I’d never seen. It takes a special person to live in Wyoming. I still love it so much, but as I got older I had to admit that I just wasn’t that type of person. But when it’s all you know, it’s scary to think that maybe you don’t belong. It’s also frightening to think that you have to start over. I was lucky. Even though I’ve never asked them, I’m pretty sure that my parents knew I wanted to go somewhere else. And they always supported me, even when I told them I wanted to go to Russia.

I always get asked why I chose Russian history and to be honest I don’t really have a good answer. A part of it was reading Dostoyevsky and feeling like he was writing just for me. Another part of it was that I felt some sort of kinship with Russians. Maybe it was being from a place that nobody knew anything about, or that feeling that you’ll always be misunderstood. Regardless, I told myself that I was going to St. Petersburg no matter what.

In some weird ways, I felt at home in St. Petersburg. Everywhere I went seemed to be alive. This was the canal that Dostoyevsky used to walk along; this was where Lenin spoke; this was where I lived. There was also a dark side to Peter than I became enamored with: there was Maxim, a.k.a. “Mad Max,” the gangster (his words) who bought me a beer because he wanted to know what Don Corleone was saying in English and not Russian. There was Evgenii, the former KGB man (again, his words) who told me what it was like to live during the Cold War. And there was Valerii, the unapologetic, Adidas track suit-wearing Communist who loved to talk about how Russia had lost her way.

Russia could be isolating too. When it’s dark and cold, you can almost feel your strength leaving you with every step. Everything becomes harder: that short trip to the store seems to take forever. A trip across the city to see friends doesn’t seem worth the effort anymore. There are also things in Russia that just defy all belief, even for Russians. That’s where the Russian sense of humor comes from. As one of my Russian friends said, “Life isn’t supposed to make sense. You just do the best you can and try to laugh at how absurd it all is along the way.”

For many Russians, it’s hard to follow my friend’s advice. Especially in rural Russia, there are not a lot of opportunities at all. When I was on a bus to Novgorod, I talked to an old man going back to his village. “There are no people your age,” he said. “And I don’t blame them for going. What’s there for them anyway? The world I knew is gone; that’s ok though, I’m old. My time’s almost over. But I’m afraid the young people don’t even know what their world is anymore.” It’s strange to think now, but that man’s statement sums up the way almost everyone with a mental illness can feel. When you don’t feel like you’re a part of the world around you, what do you have left?

Thanks for reading along. I’d write more, but I’m neglecting a legal writing memo about common law marriage under Colorado law. Stay tuned for more.

I want now to tell you, gentlemen, whether you care to hear it or not, why I could not even become an insect. I tell you solemnly, that I have many times tried to become an insect. But I was not equal even to that. I swear, gentlemen, that to be too conscious is an illness–a real thorough-going illness. For man’s everyday needs, it would have been quite enough to have the ordinary human consciousness, that is, half or a quarter of the amount which falls to the lot of a cultivated man of our unhappy nineteenth century, especially one who has the fatal ill-luck to inhabit Petersburg, the most theoretical and intentional town on the whole terrestrial globe.

Feodor Dostoyevsky

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