“But the real voice, that of the spirit, is saying to us: Be quiet, listen, feel. Be kind. Accept differences, even those of Divine belief, for there is no ‘truth’ in these things, only lessons. Learn from the differences. Feed your neighbour. Take your anger out on an untilled field. Liberally apply compassion, especially to yourself, for if we’re not compassionate about our own foibles and screw-ups, then we can’t authentically be compassionate toward others. We’re all in the same foundering boat. It’s our scars that unite us.” –Bruce Cockburn’s autobiography, Rumours Of Glory

In my small town, you get used to seeing some people often. The checker at the only grocery store within 10 miles is one example. She is in her early twenties, strong, quick in movement, and vivacious. She looks you in the eye, but only long enough to make the transaction, then she concludes it with a courteous “Thank you!”

Seeing her always reminds me to think about scars, physical ones and emotional ones, as she has a scar running the length of her face from above her forehead, down the bridge of her nose, across one cheek, then down to her jawline, just inches back from her chin. And it’s wide. It says “I AM A SCAR. I COVER WHERE THIS POOR GIRL ONCE WAS CUT OPEN AND HURT. SHE CRIED AND BLED. THEN I SLOWLY FORMED. I NOW COVER WHAT ONCE WAS EXPOSED. At least that is what my own mother’s heart hears that scar say to me whenever I see her.

I’ve never asked her about it. Years in the college classroom have taught me to see past the physical student to the person within—such that I sometimes miss the all-important external clues to one person’s journey. I really should pay closer attention. But I’m always occupied thinking about the less physical realities we all share. And anyway, we’re taught it’s impolite to mention people’s scars, unless they do so first.

Greeting me in the checkout line one day, which is gloriously short in a small town grocery store, she said, “Hi,” then quickly pulled my groceries over the reader and dropped them into my bags. While I fiddled with the credit card machine, I noted her looking over at the man in line directly behind me. I had noticed him wandering toward the frozen food case while I was shopping. I’d guess he was in his early 30s and was buying ice cream. He moved in a tenuous way that said, “I’m not from here.”

Being a resort town, we get used to outside visitors, and they often do stick out. But we love it. It keeps things fresh. And we get to show them how friendly and helpful the rural west really is.  We have to see ourselves as a community. With the wildfires and floods, on top of our somewhat isolated location in the heart of Washington State, we often have to rely on each other for help and support. And we are often called upon to assist others.

Waiting for my next electronic prompt as I paid my bill, the checker said with a smile: “Where’d you get yours?” This was addressed to the guy. He smiled and answered kindly, “A skiing accident about ten years ago. You?” Only then did I see his own scar, that started at his ear and crossed the bridge of his nose, ending just above his lip. “I fell out of my car seat when I was 2,” she quickly said. They kept smiling at each other, comfortably, and as I left, I heard them speaking like old friends. I had witnessed a moment of immediate, honest friendship between these two strangers.

These two and their scars taught me something I needed to learn: the metaphor of the scar is so simple, as it suggests a permanent marker, a wound that is now healed but ever-present. But now I saw it differently. They were bonded by their scars. They saw each other’s scar and simply called it out. And the very act of doing so created a momentary, yet palpable, bond between them. It was as if a lasso had materialized over their heads and captured them simultaneously in its circle.

Singers by Everett DuPen, 1943

If only we could see that all of us carry with us a place that was sliced open by a jagged door latch or a broken ski pole or a shiny scalpel or desolate poverty or a dangerous parent or a lost pregnancy or an attacker. Loss and grief are natural elements in our human lives.

If only we could reach across the void that separates us from each other and say, “Hi! Where’d you get yours? Oh, I see. Mine, yeah. Well, paper or plastic?”

Life leaves marks on all of us. Our scars are a part of us. And these facts should serve to open us up to each other, especially to those we love. What if, like this momentary couple, we accepted our own and others’ scars as facts? What if we asked and answered a simple question: “How? When? Where?”

These two regular people seemed to me like the most godly of humans that day. From them I learned an important lesson: We are bound together by our human scars.