Tuesday, November 16, 2010


I do have a few scars, actually. You can't lead my kind of life for long without getting marked by the experience... No, wait, that's a lie. It's what I want you to believe, the mold I press myself into by any means necessary. It's remarkable how one moment, one look into a stranger's eyes, can turn all the lies I tell myself on their head, and confront me with the simple cold truth. The truth is I carry a few scratches, the marks of a couple stupid moments, and one or two well-anesthetized operations. These are not the necessary price of living in India or Africa, they are the price of displacement, the feeling that I must somehow prove I'm someone I'm not. Each of these breaks in my skin started with great expectations, the hope for some permanent mark of suffering and endurance in an otherwise comfortable and soft existence. At some point every man (meaning every man in my culture and my generation, at least) finds himself playing "scar wars," topping each other with stories of passage through pain and blood, proudly proven by the scars stamped onto flesh like footsteps through wet concrete. It's embarrassing to bring only stories without scars, like passage through snow; no less real but fleeting, unquantifiable, impossible to be sure it ever really happened.

Western society has achieved something that no species or other group of people has ever achieved, a result of effort greater than any ever expended. Not the construction of the Great Wall or the Pyramids, the conquest of lost civilizations, nor any religious fervor to transform humanity, none have been as single-minded, exhaustive, and successful as the western world's resolve to be comfortable. Have we so quickly become ashamed of ourselves that we must prove we still feel pain, or is life so empty without hardship that we take such pride in every sign that our blood was spilt? I don't know, but I know this need digs deep into me. Somehow I feel a lack of pain and hardship to be a lack of masculinity, and an absence of scars stands as a negation of the challenging life I try to live, a betrayal of my claims of adventure and difficulty. What would she say about that, the woman sitting across from me on this ancient dusty bus?

The scars I do have are mostly from India, living in a village and collecting firewood from a thorny forest daily. There was no escape from scratches, even cuts, but my body heals quickly and well, as it’s intended to do. I knew none of these would leave the faintest mark, leaving me with no silent proof of what a difficult experience I was surviving. Months later I remember telling a friend “Yes, you see my arms? Here, and here? Most of my scars are from India.” And that was all I needed to prove I’d done something real and brave. I didn’t explain that the children I was living with carried wounds that would reveal mine to be what they are, scratches. I didn’t point out that after two months I was free to leave that perilously thorny environment and head to the beach, which I did. And I certainly didn’t say that I was “scared by the experience” only because I’d meticulously picked away at the scabs of every scratch and scrape for weeks, with the sole purpose of making sure that my body would prove I live the kind of life I claim to live. That’s not an easy thing to confess, by the way. But I’m trying hard to not protect myself behind my usual mask of honesty. Truthfully, this behavior is insane, and shameful in a much more real way than the shame that provoked it... and yet I don’t expect to be committed to an asylum for these confessions. It’s not enough of a deviation from our culture, and I believe there are more than a few people reading this who can understand and even relate to this behavior, this insanity. Why?

Why was this never a question I asked myself until today, stuffed into a stifling rattling African bus across from a middle-aged village woman? She’s Maasai, as evidenced by the stretched holes in her earlobes that would easily accommodate my big toe... should there ever be a need for such unlikely acrobatics. Her head is shaven beyond the mere suggestion that hair every existed there, and small bits of metal hang from her ears, nose, and neck. She is wrapped up in the bright and multi-colored fabrics that somehow defy the African dust, and left bare against these happy colors are her thick, dark arms. My God, her arms.

As hollow as my experience may be, I do know something about scars, or at least what it takes to create one. The ones I'd reopened again and again, trying so hard to turn them into something impressive, had still eventually faded to almost nothing, and now it needs a certain light to even know they're there. So when I saw her arms, more covered than not with dark, deep, eternal marks, I could at least begin to read the story there. Burns, long thick ones from boiling water, and small sharp ones from brushing against red-hot pots, were scattered thickly from shoulder to fingertips. Dark shadows of holes from pointed sticks in the night, short marks from the edge of knives or razors - is that a jagged saw cut across her hand? - and a half-circle left by angry teeth - could it be human? - draw the eyes from one dim window of tragedy to the next. A fine network of straight angles across her left shoulder might mean broken window glass or jagged metal scraps, and a mesh of lines covering her right arm like a sleeve speaks of hurried passage through thorns or a daily journey pressed close to barbed-wire fences. Over every new inch I could almost feel the pain, see the blood, smell the melting flesh, and hear the cries of shock, fear, agony, and despair. And I was filled with a shame so intense I wanted to cover myself and hide.

And then, after a long time, I looked into her face. You expect scars like these to go deep, and I mean deeper than flesh. You expect to see a haunted shadow of recognition that pain will come again, or a bright purity of acceptance. You expect to see an impact; how could trauma such as this not shape one's whole understanding of life? But somehow, inexplicably, it wasn't there. Except for her neck and shoulders, I could find nothing that connected this woman's face to her arms. Her face was smooth, unwrinkled and unblemished, without the spark of a smile or the cringe of concern. I could not see any clear sign of the shy timidity common in Japan or the smiling confidence of Americans, not the blank emptiness in Indian stares nor the eager cheerfulness of many Africans. There was no clear sign of wisdom or stupidity, no clue whether she is haunted or cheerful, an expression not engaged with the world around her but not particularly disinterested either. She was just, simply, human. Just living her life, same as me, lives absolutely, completely, unfathomably different.

I cannot imagine what those scars, real scars, would do to me. Should I ever survive such experiences I know I'd loose all desire to display them or speak about them. It would change me, that kind of life, that kind of pain on a regular inescapable basis. For her, they mean nothing, not good or bad, not significant or remarkable or shameful, it’s just life, her life, her real life.

I do have a few scars, actually. My scars are in my mind, the result of conflict between pride and guilt, confusion and certainty, the conflict of a culture that values everything and nothing, that demands self-construction and despises it, that despises self-destruction and glorifies it. I find myself crying out desperately "Look at me, I am real!" And I try to prove it with yet another construction. Her scars are on her body, the result of living real life in the real world, no more no less. Looking at her scars - looking at her life - I don't envy her, not at all. And truthfully, seemingly, hopefully, she doesn't envy me.

“Make no mistake, my friend, we are all scared and scarred. The only difference between us is what we choose to do with it.”


  1. will comment at length later

  2. best yet

  3. Introspective and brave in ways not often found in literature, particularly in what some might deem "travel literature." In fact, this is indeed travel literature. This is travel literature in its purest form, in the form that it should take. Hearing about marble, gilt, and gastronomic adventures is wonderful, but those things are not what travel is about. The humanity you highlight here is what travel is all about.

    Well done, Caleb.

    -Jared (as in EF, walk around late at night pondering existence with you Jared)

  4. very thoughtful and interesting. I don't think that you should be ashamed. Most people would show the scars and be proud of it. What is important is that you realize things. And you do try to cope with your pride, selfishness, and the tendences look better or brave. In fact, you are brave. You are brave to confess it. You are brave to admit and try to do something about it.
    Actually, I do envy you. You've been exposed to so many life situations which made you realize your patterns of behaviour. They helped you to get to know yourself. You know what you've done wrong and you know what you've done right. And if you don't know that, you soon will realize.
    I know this might sound as a cliché but it is real. At least in my life it is. So let God be with you to be honest with yourself and to heal the scars which ARE real and not visible.
    You know this article made me think. And I thank you for that.

  5. A warm thank you to all! It means a lot.
    Jared (and seriously man, do you think I know anyone else who would put "marble, gilt, and gastronomic" in one sentence except Mr. Walk-Around-Talking-About-Fins-In-Trees Jared? ;-) you're awesome, and you've put your finger on the gripe with travel lit I've been trying to articulate for years. Yes, it's not about the surface circumstances, it's about the human revelations! You've given me my focus, exactly how I desire to be different in my writing. Thank you.
    Jahu, your words touch me and encourage me, thank you for looking so deeply into this! But don't envy me, you've got all the time and opportunities in front of you! When you're almost 30 and feel you haven't had enough adventures, THEN you can envy me. ;-) The world is there, I've never done anything but go.
    Thank you all again! I'm continually blessed by how lucky I am in my friends!!

  6. I totally agree with Jared. This is the kind of stuff travel lit should be about. Fascinating and thought provoking. You very vividly described the African woman in the bus- great descriptions to give a good visual picure.
    I think it's interesting that a scar on a man is viewed this way but a scar on a woman is to be pitied. Thanks for being honest Caleb about your scars. I remember when you showed them to me and I was "impressed". Strange, isn't it?
    Keep it up Caleb. You'll have a book in no time!

  7. This comment has been removed by the author.

  8. Ah, the gender angle! I didn't even think of that, but it's absolutely true! Will the ironies never cease?! It IS strange, and amazing to me I never questioned this, even when somehow knew I was behaving totally illogically. Of course, in India a lot of things were flying over my head, like a never-ending swarm of locust! I'm sorry I lied, wordlessly as it might have been, to you and all others. Seeing how thoughtless and easy it was, all I can say is that it will probably happen again, and that I'll never stop trying to catch it.

  9. Caleb, this post deeply touched me. Thank you so much for sharing.