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CrossFit, Greece, Heroes

Only Death is Certain

(This is not a grim post — at least, that is not my intent. .My intent is, as ever, to encourage everyone to find reasons for joy and laughter each and every day.)

“The idea is to die young as late as possible.” –Ashley Montagu

Who wants to live forever? How depressing would that be? All your friends, family, and lovers will die around you, the world will keep spinning and changing and there you will be, stale, and alone, a remnant of the past. Death, now, death is certain. The ONLY certainty in this adventure we call life. I’m not a pessimist, really I’m not, I’m just way too practical. I can predict your future: I predict that one day you will die. Eventually, our days come to an end.

Death is constant. Death is solid. Death is inescapable. It brings cause for others to come together to celebrate a life and to mourn a loss. Too bad we can’t stick around after our own deaths, because sometimes that is when you’re truly recognized — Van Gogh’s paintings finally sold, U.S. Presidents’ faces can decorate U.S. currency, you may become hailed as divine (Jesus, Herakles, Roman Emperors…). Even CrossFit (yeahhh I went there) names their “hero” workouts after soldiers who died in battle. Key word: “died.” In ancient Greece, one could not be revered as a hero until after his death, and cult rites typically took place at his tomb (there was also ancestor worship, but that is slightly different, though it also took place at the grave site). W. H. Auden said “No hero is immortal ’til he dies,” and the poet was not wrong.

Tombs, gravestones, mausoleums, burial mounds… reverence for the dead has been around maybe since time immortal. Okay, *slight* exaggeration, but think about the oldest type of grave marker you know. What comes to mind first? Pyramids of Egypt? Bronze Age beehive tombs from Mycenae? Rock-cut tombs from Lycia (Turkey)? Your great-great-grandmother’s gravestone in Maine that you visited when your were 5? Why do we take such care of our dead? They’re not around to see whether or not we remember them or pay or respects (or maybe they are, actually… an afterlife is definitely one of those things that falls into the “uncertain” category). And yet, for thousands of years humans of all cultures have paid homage to their dead. Why?

Last week I visited the First Cemetery of Athens. It takes up a vast portion of land and is filled with grave markers ranging from an elaborate temple-like structure (Schliemann’s tomb, for example) to a simple marble cross (mostly in the Protestant section).

First Cemetery of Athens: Schleimann's tomb on the left

First Cemetery of Athens: Protestant crosses

First Cemetery of Athens: modern elaborate tombs

Some markers are incredibly ornate, some more distinct and modern, and many are influenced by the markers from the much older neighboring cemeter in the Kerameikos neighborhood: the cemetery of Archaic and Classical Athens. This week I visited that great site, which is typically devoid of tourists any time of the year. However, it does not lack for turtles. Nor does it lack for a sense of awe and reverence. For example, the “Street of the Tombs” outside the city walls of ancient Athens — only a small section is preserved, and adorning the top of the walls only a couple tomb-markers are displayed.

Kerameikos: Street of Tombs

But you have to imagine… the Sacred Way, another street that runs from the city walls of Athens 20km to Eleusis, it was once framed by those elaborate tombstones, either of the grand Archaic type or the more simple stele from the Classical period.

Kerameikos: Archaic tomb

One making that 20km trek from Athens to Eleusis would be surrounded by constant reminders of their own mortality. Just imagine it.

Mortality.

That’s right. We. Are. Mortal. Death comes for us all, we just don’t know when. I’ve known men to die in their young 20s and others who lived past 100. Neither had any way of knowing that would happen. We have no say in that, we DO have control over our waking lives. I, for one, choose to live it trying to laugh every day. “The idea is to live young as late as possible”, right?  This doesn’t mean “die young”, no, it means, live well. Live like a kid. Kids are awesome. Kids know how to have fun. Next time you walk by a playground, I challenge you to stop and take a look at those young faces. Some will be full of tears from a fall off the monkey bars. Some will be filled with big eyes wide with fear trying to find the courage to go down the highest slide. Most, though, will be filled with smiles and accompanied by giddy laughter and carefree bliss. No matter their economic or family background, children can lose themselves in the wonderful world of the playground. The jungle gym. The big sand pit filled with amazing structures. Games. Friends. New experiences. Fun. It means an opportunity to try something daring, like jumping off the swings when they’re at the highest point. That kid may break her wrist doing so, but hey… wrists heal, whereas moments are fleeting and opportunities often only come once. Take advantage — you only regret what you did NOT do. Ah, the wisdom/brilliance of the innocent youth. Running, skipping, giggling, crying, sniffling, screaming, playing, totally without worry.

Why should that end on a playground of our youth? It doesn’t have to.

She's as young as her grand-daughter right here

Be daring!

I’m not saying go out to an actual playground and pretend you’re 7 years old again (though some friends and I did just that on a nice Spring day and it was a super good time, hence the human pyramid of accomplishment above. We weren’t the only ones mingling with the kids! See Grandma Rad above swinging herself round and round on the jungle gym.) Go out there, try something new, be active, make new friends, be bold, take a chance, and above all else: laugh. Find whatever it is that makes you smile inside-out, whether that’s cooking, dancing, writing, riding a motorcycle, or just sitting around a table with your nearest and dearest. It’s never too late to discover new joys in life.

Example: my grandmother is a mere nonagenarian. She has bad arthritis in her knees and often walks with a cane. She’s stopped driving (sold her car, even!) and gave up eating meat (except fish). Recently, she tried out this athletic program at her local JCC called “Silver Sneakers” (this is a woman who was never very “athletic”, though back in the day she was a trophy-winning bowler…). She’s one of the oldest in her class, and, it turns out, one of the best. She absolutely loves it and goes three times a week. This is a woman who sometimes couldn’t complete her daily mile-long walk because of pain or nausea. Now she’s found her new playground with kids her own age. She’s making friends, getting active, getting stronger, and feeling younger for it. I say: “You go, girl.” That woman just may actually live forever…

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About Elizabeth

PhD student in Classical Art & Archaeology at UVA with a focus on Greek heroes and iconography (yet forever awed by Roman 2nd and 4th style painting). Salsa and Argentine tango dancer extraordinaire. Weightlifter and Crossfitter the world over.

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