Digging the bones: A gentle reminder to go out and feel things

May 4, 2021, 9:14 p.m.

Last summer, while visiting Greece, where my mother lives and I grew up, I dug up this monk’s 500-year-old grave. I’d gone to stay at Mount Athos, this peninsula of holy land with stone monasteries, olive groves, vineyards and no electricity, where women haven’t set foot since the fourth century for fear of them outshining the Virgin Mary. I hoped for some cosmic revelations from a wizened hermit or sagacious pilgrim, but after the first day of standing in line to kiss icons next to sweaty, unwashed men and getting answers like “because it felt right” when I asked the monks why they had joined, I got bored.

I asked if I could work, and the head deacon sent me to what they called the “Koimitiria” –– Sleeping Area, where I found a guy in camo pants and a long-sleeve gray shirt digging into this wet dirt. “I’ll shovel,” he said, “you wheelbarrow,” and I said ok. After a few full barrels, I asked him what we were doing. He said the rain had uncovered some graves that they hadn’t known about, so they had to put the bones into shrines to rest. 

First, we pulled out the rocks. Big, flat ones that could have come from a castle wall. Under them was a packed dirt rectangle, woven with hairy pink roots and an arch of teeth poking up from one end. “This is all man is,” the guy said. “That’s why you have to care for your soul.” He dug with a small trowel, pulling dirt out from under where the feet should be, pausing to pick out the little toe bones. “You’re here for a reason too,” he said. “You may not know it yet, but something brought you here.”

I asked him what brought him there. He said he was still an initiate, and he said he was trying to “escape his demons.” He said he’d wanted desperately to get married and when he realized that he was only doing it to hide from something, or to cover up something, he had to make a change, so he came in. And I might be imagining this, but something about the way he smiled or the way he asked if I “had a girl… or something” suggested he was gay. 

We kept digging. I found the calcaneus, the heel bone, but had forgotten the Greek word for it, so I said, “The place where Achilles was vulnerable,” and he laughed. “All man is,” he said again, and again with the pelvic bones. They all had this glassy brown hue. Brother, I wanted to tell him, there are places you can go. There are places where you can be free, where no one will tell you you’re a sinner for whom or how you love or how you identify. Or if they do, we’ve collectively agreed that those people are the sick ones.

But I didn’t. I wondered what would be a better gift: to “free” him of his concept of sin, or to leave him believing that his path was the right one. Maybe there was no right one. I kept digging, hoping that some clarity would come to me, but it didn’t, and soon we had two buckets full of glassy brown bones. I’d expected more solemnity, but the four-hour endeavor felt a little like deboning a turkey carcass with my uncle some Christmases before. 

I thought of this monk last week after dinner with some pod-mates. One of them, a fellow veteran, had asked during dinner if she could bring over a friend, a guy friend, and we all went “Oooooh,” like we were in eight grade, and she’d blushed and said “No, no, no, it’s not like that,” and told us that she had a boyfriend. But after the dinner, she stood at my door kind of shifty-footed and said, “You know why she didn’t come over? The friend?” I said no and dug into a tub of ice cream because I’d forgotten all about him. “Because he wanted to talk in private,” she said. “Because he has something important to tell me.” She paused and then asked, “Am I about to be rebounded with?”

I don’t know what I said then. Something milquetoast. And she said she was confident in her defenses and her maturity and she knows better than to cross that boundary between friendship and lust and so on. But something in her eyes and her posture showed fear. And it was only after she left, after I’d pushed the table against the wall and stacked the pizza boxes by the recycling bin and was making faces at myself while brushing my teeth that I realized what I should have said.

“God I hope so,” I should have told her. I hope you get rebounded on. I hope you trip and fall so madly in love that we have to scrape your pieces back together like those goopy crumbs you find under your stove coils. 

Because here’s the thing, I should have told her. We’re all going to die. You’re going to die and I’m going to die and so will everyone we know and love. And sometime long after that, our sun will burst and swallow our little blue rock, and everything human we ever knew will be long forgotten, or its digital memory will be carried away on solar sailboats in the quantum brains of our robot descendants. But right now, we’re alive. Through pandemics, murder hornets, racial awakenings and forest fire smoke that literally blocked out the sun. What are we saving ourselves for?

You only get so many chances to feel things, I should have told her, and they will never be enough. Never enough trembling fingers hovering over the “Send” arrow. Never enough sitting in the bleachers in the rain with a head on your shoulder and floodlights on the rugby field and the sound of cleats in the slick mud. Never enough flowers picked, never enough slow dances, never enough cursing yourself for not saying what you wanted to say, or standing under a blood-pink morning sky, asking someone to love you when you know they can’t.

So please, I should have told her, go out and feel things. Because one day there will be nothing left of you to guard or regret. Not even glassy brown bones.

Nestor was born in Bangladesh, raised in Greece, and served 10 years in the U.S. Navy. He studied math as an undergraduate, and now studies applied mathematics and oceans as a master's student at Stanford.

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