For every wound there is a scar, and every scar tells a story. A story that says, “I survived. —Fr. Craig Scott
I acquired another bodily scar this past week. Although it was only a minor brush with the metal door frame, it tore skin from my arm and bled profusely—an unfortunate side effect from medications I take for my heart condition. It’s still healing, but I complained more about having another scar on my arm than the pain and discomfort it caused. It will fade in time, but that is little comfort to me at the moment. But I have complained many times before about the scars my body has accumulated over the years: some from surgeries, others from a rough and tumble rural childhood, and several from everyday minor mishaps. Yet, like them or not, each scar holds a memory and often, a larger story associated with it, not unlike the one in a poem by author Michael Ondaatje. It begins:
A girl whom I’ve not spoken to
or shared coffee with for several years
writes of an old scar
On her wrist it sleeps, smooth and white,
the size of a leech.
I gave it to her
brandishing a new Italian penknife. Look, I said turning,
and blood spat onto her shirt...
My hand moves reflexively to the scar behind my hairline as I write this sentence. The scar is decades old, but still visible if I pull my hair back from my face. Narrow and pale, it runs from one ear over the top of my head down to the other. It’s a scar that carries the story of a childhood bicycle accident, severe concussion, recovery, and later, complications that nearly resulted in death in my early teens. It is also he evidence of a gifted neurosurgeon’s work and of my survival.
Whether hidden or visible, our scars tell stories of our lives. Near my right ankle, another scar, pale now, calls up the memory of the cold, sharp edge of a metal tent stake slicing into my leg. I was in my teens, chasing my younger brother across a Northern California campground. He had snatched my diary from my tent and was making a fast getaway across the campsite. There are others scars too: a half moon on my left calf, the result of a dare to a cousin, warning me his bicycle had no brakes. I didn’t believe him. Others were acquired in adulthood: one on my left breast, left by a surgeon’s knife, another marking the incision above my heart where my defibrillator was inserted, and still others, but ones invisible to the eye: the residue of love, loss and betrayal, emotional wounds acquired in living.
We remember the time around scars,
they freeze irrelevant emotions
and divide us from present friends I remember this girl’s face,
the widening rise of surprise.
And would she
moving with lover or husband
conceal or flaunt it,
or keep it at her wrist
a mysterious watch.
And this scar I then remember
is a medallion of no emotion…
(“The Time Around Scars,” by Michael Ondaatje, in: The Cinnamon Peeler, 1997)
“The lessons of life,” author Wallace Stegner wrote, “amount not to wisdom, but to scar tissue and callus.” Our scars, the scar tissue we accumulate, tell the stories of living, of events that changed us: life-saving surgery, the traces of shrapnel marring a face, disfigurement from accidents, broken hearts, and unexpected tragedies. They are the evidence of living, of lessons painfully learned, the stories we remember and some we may try to forget.
My mother parts her hair
and leans over
so I can touch the scar.
“No, she says, you don’t remember,”
and goes back to making the bed,
snapping a sheet
as folds of lightning spark…
The ambulance came right away,
my mother says, pulling the corners tight.
“There was no other woman…”
(“Scar,” by Wendy Mnookin, in The Cortland Review, 2001)
In a July 21st, 2009 New York Times column, Dana Jennings, editor and prostate cancer survivor, reflected on his scars and what they represented to him.
Our scars tell stories. Sometimes they’re stark tales of life-threatening catastrophes, but more often they’re just footnotes to the ordinary but bloody detours that befall us on the roadways of life…my scars remind me of the startling journeys that my body has taken — often enough to the hospital or the emergency room…
But for all the potential tales of woe that they suggest, scars are also signposts of optimism. If your body is game enough to knit itself back together after a hard physical lesson, to make scar tissue, that means you’re still alive, means you’re on the path toward healing.
Scars, perhaps, were the primal tattoos, marks of distinction that showed you had been tried and had survived the test… in this vain culture our vanity sometimes needs to be punctured and deflated — and that’s not such a bad thing. To paraphrase Ecclesiastes, better to be a scarred and living dog than to be a dead lion.
Winged Victory, a pictorial essay celebrating women survivors of breast cancer by photographer Al Myers, featured women half-clothed, breast scars visible. However, Myers portrayed them as more than survivors. They were all victors, scarred, yes, but beautiful. In the book’s foreword, Stanford psychiatrist Dr. David Spiegel wrote, “…they present their bodies and themselves with humor, sadness, vulnerability, honesty. They challenge us to look beyond what is missing, beneath the scar.” (Winged Victory: Altered Images: Transcending Breast Cancer, 2009)
“To look beyond …beneath the scar.” Jennings’ also expressed similar sentiments: It’s not that I’m proud of my scars — they are what they are, born of accident and necessity — but I’m not embarrassed by them either. More than anything, I relish the stories they tell. Then again, I’ve always believed in the power of stories, and I certainly believe in the power of scars.
As much as I’ve sometimes bemoaned the accumulation of some of my scars, I admit I too share Jennings’ views. Scars are testaments to living, to all that life may throw at us. They are our medals, of a sort: evidence of our ability to heal and survive.
By William Stafford
They tell how it was, and how time
came along, and how it happened
again and again. They tell
the slant life takes when it turns
and slashes your face as a friend.
Any wound is real. In church
a woman lets the sun find
her cheek, and we see the lesson:
there are years in that book; there are sorrows
a choir can’t reach when they sing.
Rows of children life their faces of promise,
places where scars will be.
(In: Americans’ Favorite Poems, M. Dietz & R. Pinsky, Eds.,1999)
Our scars: evidence of life and survival. What stories are hidden in yours?
Using the prompt, “Every scar tells a story,” Consider the scars you’ve acquired over time, whether visible or hidden, physical or emotional. What memories are triggered by your scars? Choose one and tell the story beneath the scar.