Natural Scarification

Here it is, the day after my birthday. As always, I feel a little let down by it, as is always the case. They do not merit the anticipation they sew in the weeks and days leading up to them. They approach with the promise of blaring trumpets and exciting celebrations. But they arrive with whispers and they depart with whimpers. Non-events, they are, billed as earth-shaking experiences. But we treat them as if they were measures of progress, cast in silver and set in stone. Birthdays measure progress as precisely as clouds measure the light in the sky.

I have long said birthdays constitute artificial mileposts based on a misunderstanding of time and distance. We do not know how long we have been aware of our own individuality. From the start, our consciousness assumed we were appendages attached to our mothers—or that our mothers were appendages attached to us. We can only guess how far we have come and how far we have yet to go in our journey. Because we cannot recall the starting point and cannot fathom where it might end. Yet we stumble and bumble our ways through the unknown, always pretending we follow a road map of our own making.

Birthdays measure time with smoke and distance with mirrors.

I like a quotation about aging, attributed to Frances McDormand:

My position has always been that the way people age and the signs that we show of aging is nature’s way of tattooing. It’s natural scarification, and the life you lead gives you the symbols and the emblems of your life, the road map you followed.

~ Frances McDormand ~

Of course the road map rarely is one of our own making. It is one beset with dead end trails and stretches of long, lonely highways that turn out to be culs-de-sac hidden by billboards. But birthdays do give us some record of where we’ve been or how we got where we are. I like the idea of natural scarification, in the form aging has taken on one’s mind and body, being equivalent to tattoos. But, God, those tattoos can be indescribably, excruciatingly painful. Sometimes, I think death would be preferable to the perpetual pain of the tattoo needle.


I am inherently lonely. Lonely in a way impossible to shake, no matter who I am with nor what I am doing. The older I get—birthdays notwithstanding—the lonelier I get, as if I am moving further and further away from something central to who I am. No one can cure this loneliness I feel; it is a more a part of me than I am a part of myself. There was a time when I thought I had escaped loneliness, but I was wrong. It was just a temporary misinterpretation of who I was at the time; I thought I was part of a larger whole, rather than simply a disconnected fragment.

These thoughts come to me late at night, hours after I have gone to bed and to sleep. Last night, I awoke four hours after going to bed quite early. In the wee hours, my loneliness stared at me in the mirror, through bleary eyes. It was as if I could see it, physically, as it mocked me for being unable to understand why it follows me wherever I go. Odd, the sense that my loneliness might be a physical being, an entity apart from me yet very much a part of me. It is difficult to put into words how these thoughts come to me. They are not incoherent musings of a man half-asleep. Rather, they are crisp, clear expressions of reality; understanding that comes in the form of intense intellectual self-examination.

Perhaps the loneliness arises from my inability to share these intense experiences with anyone. Oh, there have been times—two or three times—when I was able to share. In those moments I felt the loneliness subside. But those rare moments are long gone. Now, my attempts to share my experiences are limited to sharing them with myself by way of writing about them; it is never sufficient, never adequate in that I cannot capture the intensity of the experience in words. Words tend to be laden with emotion, whereas these experiences might seem emotion-laden, but they are not. Instead, they lack emotion entirely; they are made entirely of factual observation.


It’s time for the day-after to begin in earnest. I’ve been up for a couple of hours; I wish I’d been up for a couple more. I sometimes need more solitary time than I give myself. I give that time to myself in the early morning hours. Getting up earlier is the way to do that. But even going to bed early doesn’t always allow me all the early morning awake time I need. I have to figure that out.

Onward to face the day-after-birthday sunlight.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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