Twelve years after diagnosis, five years after the transplant: I've quit my profession, magazine editing, and become a writer. The illness has made physical adventures harder. "Fine," I have decided. "Then I'll have adventures of the mind—and, perhaps, some impact on the world." When I was told I was going to die, I was shredded to realize I hadn't made any real difference. The life of a writer was uncertain, but as a writer, it seemed, I might leave a mark.

Out of the blue one day a newspaper assignment came through, to go to India and interview the Dalai Lama's doctor. Just for two weeks, but I was terrified to travel there alone, terrified of all the ghastly bad ends that awaited me in the unknown.

So what? "Just try it. Stay right here, in this day." After all, I only had to book the ticket, not meet 14 terrible fates.

And so I took the trip. And when I returned I took a Hindi lesson, for fun, to preserve the memory. Each class forced me into a concentration that shifted between frustration and wonder. Sentences produced vertigo. Verbs came at the end. "I this shop from some fruit buy want" could retain its meaning—"I want to buy some fruit from this shop"—only if I didn't look down. I'd hold my breath and push off, like skiing.

Then a friend suggested I spend a year in India learning Hindi. "Just try it." And so I moved to the desert state of Rajasthan, to an old women's-quarters of a noble family's haveli, an ancient, sloping home. Murals of tiger hunts ran the length of the walls. In the thin lane below, magnificent temples tucked between shops, I'd pass two tired-looking old men in a storefront, bent over the silver anklets they sold. Down the street, a cheerful boy polished bracelets in a vat of milky water. When I'd stop to watch, his father, his fingers mehndi'ed red, would advise aritha, an Indian fruit, for my hair. He brought out three small, wrinkled orbs and told me to boil them in water. "For soft and silky," he said in Hindi.

Now, when fear threatens to shut me down...


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