Bones tell the tales.  Human beings are the original cave art. Within us are crucial, crude petroglyphs, integral to knowing who we are---not just as a species, but as the soul proprietors of the individual skins we're in.
 
Every now and then we get opportunities to strike a match and peer inside.  
 
Not all that long ago, I was laying beside a pool beneath a suffocating Charleston morning sun.  My ipod was set on "shuffle".  Music, ever deft with a pick axe, began digging up the dirt around me. Careful to uncover, but not actually disturb my artifacts, it led me through the catacombs of my life. The deeper the songs scratched through my skin to get at my bones, the louder the bones called out to be found.
 
When I leave this body, I’ll travel light. After all, my history is not contained in my spirit, it’s contained in my bones. Argue that if you want to, but you won’t change my ism. I believe that my spirit doesn't absorb my life’s experiences; it reflects them. When my spirit evacuates this body, it won't take the life I lived away. That "life" , the animation of my experiences, my day to day act(s) of being will be dutifully encapsulated in bone. For good. The only thing that adheres to the spirit of What Was (and accompanies its vapor out of here) will be the energy; the propellant. The human spirit is a magnificent, mysterious, boneless wonder that neither you nor I will figure out while we‘re still in these skins. But, ah, these bones, they blaze a trail. Bones say: I lived here. I loved here. I laughed here. I cried here. I won and lost here. And I never (ever) completely left here.
 
On that blistering Sunday morning, the music surprised me by unearthing two seemingly unconnected bones, lying close together … proof that at some point along the way, they connect.
 
Songs that had always had very specific memories associated with them, were offering me entirely different (and seemingly random) associations. All of a sudden, there I was with memories of moments between two bones I’d never consciously connected before: The listening bone was connected to the comfort bone.
 
When I worked at the Asheville Regional Airport, a very countrified older man used to come in periodically. He always wore overalls with a little lunch on them…and always made a point of letting me know that he was inquiring about flight arrival times for the sake of "the boy” that accompanied him.  The "boy" was every bit of 30 years old.  I don't think the man in the overalls was the "boy's" father, but rather the boy's caregiver/babysitter.  As though I could forget between visits & need reminding, he did always remind me that the boy was "artistic".  I knew that what he meant to say was autistic.
 
Flight arrival times determined baggage arrival times.  That's what he was really after.  He always re-reminded me that the boy “enjoyed“ watching the baggage carousel go round and round. Admittedly, every time the man brought his charge to the airport, I found mySelf watching them. Asheville‘s airport is very small, and, at that time, had only one baggage carousel. The old man would take a seat at baggage claims and let the autistic guy stand there, facing the carousel, cocooned in private anticipation. When the flight finally arrived, an alarm would sound, signifying that baggage was incoming . This cued the autistic man, which, in turn, appeared to cue a certain physical discomfort within him. I knew he wanted to be there. I'd heard him beg the old man, adamantly voicing his desire to watch the bags go around.  But, curiously, when the carousel would begin churning out baggage, he would immediately turn his back on the scene, repetitively cup his hands over his ears, and close his eyes until the conveyer stopped. It never looked like he was enjoying it.   He seemed upheaved and frenetic, standing in a sea of people, yet more alone than even I could imagine.  
 
It was a choice.
 
In time, I began to understand that listening to baggage go round and round brought this man comfort. Talk about a metaphor. Turn your back and cover your ears….after you get exactly what you asked for. Haven’t we all done that when it came time to claim our baggage? Maybe the old man was right. Maybe the boy was artistic. The picture he painted for me was absolutely a masterpiece.
 
When the next song came on my Ipod, I left the artistic boy behind, thinking that bone had no connection to Columbia, South Carolina, Spring 2004. I had been asked to create & display a very specific series of artwork . So, there I stood…behind one of my display tables…a fly on the wall, listening to the passers-by make commentary about my work.
 
The artwork was created for The South Carolina Victims Assistance Network conference. This event gathered together victims/survivors of violent crime, families of victims who were killed in violent crimes, various elements of law enforcement, lawyers, therapists etc. No stranger to violent crime, I was honored to create the series.
 
On the last day of the conference, a young pregnant woman lingered around a particular piece of my work that had to do with the disparity between innocence and bullets. I’d seen her eyeing it, rubbing her hands over it several times throughout the conference. She never spoke to me about it and I wondered (each time she had walked away) what her “story” was…and what it was about that particular piece that called to her. Obviously, the piece spoke to her in a pitch only she could hear. 
 
At the very end of the conference, she returned to purchase the piece. When she paid for it, all she said was “This (piece) is my story”. She paid and left. I packed up…and made my way back to Asheville. 
 
I’d heard histories of crimes from all of the other people who bought my artwork that week and from some who didn‘t buy but had the need to talk about how the art spoke to or for them---but nothing from that young woman. Then, one night, a few weeks later, I was lying in bed when the phone rang. It was her. She said she “needed” to tell me her story, and would I mind listening?
 
It was a humbling experience. She talked about having been in a “bad” relationship with a violent man. She had finally found the courage to kick the guy out of the house…but one night, as she and her young child lay huddled/cuddled together in bed , shots were fired at them through the bedroom window. Her ex had decided she and the child should die. Miraculously, with a bullet lodged in the bed comforter, she and the child survived.   The man went to prison, she remarried and was pregnant. All’s well that ends well. Fabulous. Now, here’s where I uncovered the two bones lying side by side:
 
She told me that after the shooting, & for a very long time, “every time I put the bed comforter in the dryer, I could hear the bullet go round and round and round.”
 
Holyshit. My first thought was, “Why would you keep a comforter that had a bullet from this horrible crime imbedded in it? Why would you want to lay under that, why would you want to feel it against your skin, with nothing but a thin layer of matter separating you from the memories of that traumatic experience? And then I realized that the miracle was imbedded in the metaphor: It was her comforter.  For all intents and purposes, she was standing at the Asheville airport, with her back to the baggage carousel, listening to that which she could not bear to see.
 
 I thought about how something as soft and yielding as a blanket can give security, and even stop a bullet. That's not something you let go of right away.  That's something you live with.  That's something you hear go round and round and round in your head.  That's something you memorialize, one way or another.
 
She told me that she eventually did let go of that comforter. She‘d found comfort instead…in my art. It told her story, "but in a beautiful way".  She was able to display her bones in such a way that reminded her that she had not just survived, but moved on. Her history was not in the soft marrow of that blanket but in the preservation of  her innocence in stone. 
 
How very humanlike it is that once injured, we find comfort in hearing our baggage go round and round and round. A suitcase on a carousel. A bullet in Maytag. A song on replay. At least, for a while. 

The comfort bone's connected to the listening bone, the listening bone's connected to the seeing bone, the seeing bone's connected to the being bone, the being bone's connected to the...


Melissa Nelson, Asheville NC June 23,2012