Down to the bone

creative nonfiction, essay, existentialism, Uncategorized, wellbeing

After raising 5 kids and packing them off to college, my cousin Karen cut her hair, threw a few things in a backpack and trekked around Europe for a while on her own. I was floored. No make-up? No blow dryer? That someone could travel so light came darn close to impressing me more than the bravery required to travel the world solo. I, for one, have never traveled light in any sense of the word (though I long to in every sense).

Oddly, this memory of my cousin’s down-to-the-bone trek is what came to mind when a co-worker told me the other day how unsettled she’s been feeling now that COVID has settled into our lives like a chronic condition. While it seemed pretty clear in the first few months that this was going to be our spring of rising to the occasion, now that the season has changed yet COVID just carries on, she was beginning to feel unlike herself, almost dislocated. How do you do summer in a pandemic? Summer is when you get out and go places, when you see the world.

Summer is here and we are done with rising to the occasion. We are now tigers pacing a cage: we know what’s out there and we can see out but we can’t get out. We want to get our jaws on something so bad it’s making them ache. With trips to Disney getting cancelled and retirement visions of traveling the world (or just visiting grandchildren) getting revised, caged animal syndrome is getting the better of us. With nowhere else to go, what are you supposed to do with yourself?

It was this sense of dislocation I think that reminded me of how light my cousin traveled. There is something so down-to-the-bone about just a person, a journey and a backpack, which is kind of what traveling through a pandemic is like, only in the opposite direction. While my cousin’s travels were outward, so many things have fallen away during this lockdown we’ve been left with almost nowhere to go but inward. But it’s disorienting not to have our usual, external landmarks to locate ourselves. It makes me curious about the internal ones we may discover down in there so close to the bone and what those landmarks might look like. Being a literal one, now I’m getting distracting visions of internal organs — take a left at the kidney and you’ll find a cozy little spot to stop for coffee — when where I was really going with this is possibly getting a clearer picture of who we really are. A “there I am” sort of thing. A “just me in here looking out through these eyeballs.”

It’s funny; in some ways, making that solo trip inside is probably scarier than trekking solo across Europe. But with nothing on our backs but the essentials, maybe discovering how to be at home with ourselves is what we will come to find.

I’d love to know what you encounter in there.


Full disclosure on  Karen’s real trip to Europe
So….it turns out not a great deal of my memory about Karen’s travel is, in fact, factual. While my memory is true for me and therefore truth to how it shaped this column as I wrote it, what is actually true about Karen’s trip to Europe is something else again.

In fact she did cut her hair, did travel to Europe, and did have a backpack with her. However, her travel was specific to Austria, it lasted for a total of 2 weeks, she traveled in the company of her husband, Bill, and they did so on the occasion of her retirement.

karen and bill

As for how this got so scrambled in my mind, Karen wonders Since her sons, Peter and Matthew, did backpack extensively around Europe when in college, Karen wonders if I might have consolidated bits and pieces of her family history given that her sons, Peter and Matthew, did backpack extensively around Europe when in college, and she did once cut her hair before traveling abroad to make things easier and she has also traveled with a backpack. I very well may have. Who knows.

But what I know for sure is that the mind is a very unreliable historian and given to confabulating, filling in all the pieces necessary to achieve a story consistent with our own ideas or needs. Bottom line, what really captured my imagination about the traveling Karen was how she cut her hair so she could travel light. This detail spoke to me in such romantic ways it would appear I pretty much made up everything else to fit the story in my head.

5 thoughts on “Down to the bone”

    • Thanks, Kristin! I always thought of myself as too unimaginative to write fiction but maybe that’s been what I’ve been doing all along!!!!


  1. An argument I make all the time. memoirs need not be true, just true to you. I’ve been stressed about the pandemic since January and obsession with it’s march across the world has stolen too much of my time. But suddenly, it’s impacting me in a whole new way. I’ve finally realized that the US not only has no plan to deal with it, but we’re not even planning to make a plan. We’re still arguing about mask wearing is an infringement on personal liberties. We are unbelievably screwed and that realization is gobbling up even more of my time.

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  2. I like your take on memoir truth telling. I think memoirs are so complicated to navigate but ultimately it is about telling the truth of your experience. As for the pandemic….”not even planning to make a plan.” That is about the most accurate depiction of the current situation we’re in expressed in 6, maybe 7 words (I know you’re a number guy) that I have encountered. It’s shocking. We do seem screwed. It’s hard to turn that realization off. Turning off in general is so hard. Well, turning off via skillful ways, anyway.

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