Tag Archives: story

Living Around the Bones

I first began thinking about bones 25 years ago when I was given a copy of Clarissa PInkola Estes’s book, Women Who Run With the Wolves. She writes about discovering stories of bone people in the Southwest. Bone people are old ones who collect bones in a desert between the worlds and bring dead animals and humans back to life.

Reanimation is a common creative and spiritual theme. Bones are like seeds; they are the remnants of life, and thus the base material from which to build new life. Bones are the simple starting point, the hidden scaffold and the substance that survives.

Several times in my life I’ve found myself walking in a trackless emotional desert, alone, lost, frightened and injured. Old stories tell us during these times we must seek and gather our discarded, stolen and lost bones in order to call ourselves home.

Bones can be hard to see under layers of clothing, flesh, distraction and scar tissue. Perhaps that’s why it was the desert dwellers who kept bone people stories alive. The desert is clean and uncluttered, and the vast sky and sweep of land hold space for stillness and inward journeying.

Bone collecting is like treasure hunting. The first time I went bone collecting, I traveled backwards and excavated memories of my child self. I compared those memories to my adult life and began to sift for my bones, those indestructible pieces of self that have always been present, come what may, and sustained and shaped me from the beginning.

I discovered I’d thrown a lot of bones away over the years. Some I rejected because I judged them as ugly or misshapen. I refused to claim them. Others I grieved to discard, but I believed they were useless, unworthy and/or unlovable, so I dropped them and walked on without marking the spot where they lay.

The desert between the worlds has become a home to me now. The sands know the scent of the naked sole of my foot and the soaring vultures recognize my figure as I wander below them, insignificant as an ant.

The sands know the scent of the naked sole of my foot …

I’ve crawled and searched, remembered and listened for my whispered name when my missing bones feel me draw near. Some are broken and stained, incomplete fragments that no longer tell their entire story about me, but I’ve learned patience and persistence, and I save every shard and splinter. I’ve traveled miles in the desert to reclaim all those bones, groping my way through old memories, feelings and bits of conversation, sifting my bones from the garbage dump of words that did not belong to me, expectations, rules, beliefs and storm debris from storms that were never mine in the first place.

Over and over, I’ve felt that I’ve come to the end of everything, only to find a whole new horizon just a few steps away, at the top of a hill I didn’t know I was climbing. Each time that happens, I pause and inventory my bones. Bone collection has become an external practice as well as an internal one. I’m less and less interested in obscuring the essentials in my life with distraction, objects and complications.

This summer I have a new dimension of perception in discerning the bones of each day, each week and each season, in addition to my own. Living simply as we do, having time to stretch out mentally, spiritually and creatively, I’m experiencing for the first time the joy of casting myself into a day with no list, no agenda, no expectations and lively curiosity.

This is, for me, a summer of wood. We’re clearing a knoll of land in order to build a cabin, thinning a grove of spindly alders and cutting an occasional small tree that has rooted in the field which is our building site. As each tree falls, I haul it into the wall of forest surrounding the clearing. In the sunny field, the growth is waist-high, and as I drag trees through it, the sweet scent of milkweed mingles with the smell of fresh-cut wood. Wild cucumber catches at my feet, which are hidden by the thick growth, and I fall, and fall again, getting up hastily because, although my clothing is doused in bug repellent, rolling on the ground is a foolish exposure to ticks, not to mention the rampant poison ivy that grows everywhere.

In Maine in the summer, this kind of work is done in light-colored pants and long sleeves to protect from black flies, mosquitoes, poison ivy, nettles and the inevitable ticks. Five minutes of exertion leaves me sweating heavily under the necessary layer of clothing, breathless in the heavy, humid air.

Stepping from the field into the forest, the air cools and I’m shaded from the sun. Here, the undergrowth diminishes and mainly consists of huge ferns, but I still slip and fall, as the forest floor is littered with rotting tree debris and liberally scattered with moss-covered boulders and stones. I drag the cut trees in under the canopy so they can gradually rot and feed their living brethren and the rest of the forest system.

In the driveway, we are processing enormous piles of tree debris from trimming two live trees and from a fallen maple. The maples we trimmed provide us with welcome shade as we work. I fork wheelbarrow load after wheelbarrow load of twigs, small branches and dead leaves off the driveway and tip them over a steep hill out of sight below the house. My partner works with a chainsaw, and its snarl, along with the smell of cut wood, becomes one of this summer’s bones.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

A generous neighbor loaned us his splitter, and once the maple (rock maple, which dulls chainsaws at an alarming rate) is cut into wood stove lengths, we heave the rounds onto the purring splitter, and the smell of the gas engine and sound of the relentless maul cleaving the wood becomes another of summer’s bones.

The healthy wood parts smoothly, revealing ivory, cream, and pinkish-red grain. The diseased wood breaks open, showing honeycombed defects, or crumbling, blackened rot that smells, oddly, like vomit. Heavy, thick bark peels from the wood like scabs as we work. Here in the driveway, I risk working in shorts with bare arms, but the wood is heavy and unwieldy and my legs and arms are bruised and scratched. The way I hold the rake invariably rubs a blister on my left thumb. We sweat through our clothes and I have to keep wiping my forehead and upper lip with my bare forearm and gloved wrist. Hard wood is heavy, especially when still wet, and the inside of my wrist is bruised from supporting two or three pieces as I carry firewood to the wheelbarrow, into the barn or into the cellar for stacking.

Some of this wood has been piled in the driveway for a year. As we work, we uncover an insultingly large woodchuck hole. We find a red salamander, about two inches long. My partner rescues a grass snake from a brush pile and relocates it away from the pitchfork tines. We accidentally lift away a shrew’s roof, and my partner catches the grey velvet covered creature in his gloved hand and releases it over the hill in a safe place. We brush away crickets, earwigs and worms. We split one huge round and little red ants swarm over it, hysterically collecting a broad swathe of exposed white eggs. My gloves are covered with them, and the ones who run fast crawl onto my arms and bite before I can brush them off. We set those pieces of wood aside before splitting them further to give the ants a chance to find a new nursery.

We have birdfeeders along the driveway, and the birds are the backbone of the summer days, stretching from dawn to dusk. As soon as we take a break from work, the woodpeckers gleefully swoop in for uncovered insect tidbits, and the nuthatches scurry up and down the trunks of the standing trees with their fluffy, uncoordinated offspring. The finches and sparrows return to the seed feeders from their observation posts high in the surrounding canopy.

Our resident chipmunk is so curious he can’t stay away, but as we disassemble all his best hidey holes he scolds endlessly, like a shrill and irritated metronome, glaring from under the hostas or the gap in the porch floor.

Nesting Phoebe
birdsandbloomsblog.com

Strangely, the shy phoebes like best to nest in the barn, in spite of my partner frequently playing music and our wood stacking and other noisy activities. They arrow in and out of several broken windows when the barn is shut, but on days when we’re working, they use the same door we do. Because of them, the cool barn is a haven of shade and free of flies and mosquitoes. We know where the nest is, but we’re careful to ignore it and whichever motionless parent is sitting on the eggs when we happen to be present. Even the nestlings are still and silent as stone when we enter. The phoebes are currently raising their second brood, and their first set of offspring darts all over the place, hunting insects and filling the days with their distinctive cry, which gives them their name.

The bones of summer in this place mingle with my own bones. We are a bruise, a scratch, a sticky film on the skin, a sly mosquito bite. We are birds strung on the lace of trees; the private life of snake, shrew, salamander and woodchuck; the determined persistence of insects. We are tree and water and moss-covered stone. We are the smell of rotten wood, of sweat, of blossom. We are the breeze in the tree, the sound of the phoebe questing for insects, the tapping woodpecker, the hunting hawk’s cry as it circles, and the clamor of the tools we use to work on our land.

The days saunter through the season, leading me forward by the hand, and I follow, stopping every now and then to collect and record the ravishing experience we call life in words, and each word is a miniscule bone, too, each page a scatter of tiny bony seeds that wait for warmth and light, water and the soil of life and death in order to take root, grow, blossom, fruit and die, again … and again … and again.

All content on this site ©2017
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted

 

Once Upon A Time…

Stories.  How many stories can you tell about your life?

I think story has always been deeply embedded in the human experience.  Every piece of art tells a story.  We read, watch television, go to movies, listen to the news, fall in love with music.  Stories, all.

Stories teach, entertain, connect, inspire and guide us.

Stories are prisons and torture chambers.  They brainwash and manipulate.  They can be powerfully limiting.

The paradox of story lies in the power we give it.

Think about a story from your own life.  Something painful.  Likely it’s a story you’ve told yourself many times.  It’s important.  It’s part of who you are and how you understand yourself.  It’s a place from which you look at the world.  It’s absolutely True.  You know.  You were there.  It was such a crippling experience you can’t ever, ever forget.

Stories can’t happen in a void, so there’s an event of some kind, an action, a word, a relationship, other characters in your story.

Let’s say your story is about four people who spend an hour together on a walk.  In that hour everybody sees, smells and hears, thinks and feels many things.  There’s conversation.  After that walk, and maybe for years afterward, each of those four people can tell a story about that day, that walk, that experience.  Every one of those stories is partly true.  Every one of those stories is inadequate and incomplete.  The truest story is the one all four people tell together.  If one person’s story is refused, denied, disbelieved or lost, all four people have lost something important out of that hour of their lives.  They’ve lost an opportunity for understanding, for compassion, for connection and for becoming just a little bit bigger.

The thing about story is that we create it.  Something happens.  We have an experience.  We have feelings, like mad, glad, sad or scared.  We have thoughts about our feelings.  We make up a story.  We tell it to ourselves over and over again as we try to make sense of our experience, or recover from some hurt.  We believe our story to the point that we refuse to consider changing it.  We behave as if our story is True.

Now we have a story that imprisons us.  The story has all our power.  We hurt people, break relationships and viciously defend our story.  We will kill people, including ourselves, to maintain our story.  Not only that, others must accept our story in its entirety.  They must never question it, add to it or take away from it.  Our story becomes us.  A threat to our story becomes a threat to our life.

We’ve made something up, chosen to believe in it and now it rules us.

A lot of people talk about truth and lies as though one is black and one is white.  As a story teller, a writer and a human being, I question that.  What is truth, really?  If I was walking with you on that day and I saw a beautiful grass snake and you saw a dangerous serpent, which one of us is lying?  What is the truth?  I was charmed, you were horrified.  So, I must be a sensitive scientist type with big glasses and a mouthful of Latin.  And you’re a beautiful, sexy woman with big boobs and brown eyes who needs to be taken care of in the terrifying outdoors.

There.  That’s my story.  I’m sticking to it.  Don’t you dare try to give me a different version.

See what I mean?

Isn’t the truth that two people saw a snake and had two different experiences and sets of feelings around it?  Don’t we all have histories, fears, beliefs, prejudices, expectations and filters through which we experience life?  Are yours right and mine wrong?  Are mine right and yours wrong?

Can’t we allow room for everyone to experience what they experience?

Some people lie, deliberately and with intent.  We all know people like that.  We learn quickly not to trust them.

Some people distort.  They’re caught up in their story about themselves, about the world, about others.  They’ve been deeply damaged and wounded, or they struggle with addiction, or they have health problems, or they take medication, or they struggle with mental illness.  Am I prepared to call them liars?

No.  But I recognize the danger of some of their stories.

Does investment in a distorted story mean the storyteller is not a valuable person worthy of love and compassion?  I hope not.  I’ve my own set of distorted stories.  I think we all have.

Other, very dangerous people deliberately manipulate with story.  They invalidate yours in favor of theirs.  They tell you you’re wrong, you didn’t understand, you’re too sensitive, you’re too dramatic, you’re too crazy; you’re unfair, mean, disloyal, bad, a liar.  They tell you your story didn’t happen, that they didn’t hit you, even though there’s blood in your mouth.

So what do we do about story—ours and everyone else’s?

Maybe the most important thing is to be aware that much of what’s happening in our head is a story.  It might be partly true.  It might not be.  It’s certainly part of something larger than our point of view.  Our feelings are ours and we need to honor them, but our thoughts about our feelings can become a real problem.

We could ask others about their stories.  We could be open, curious, nonjudgmental, compassionate, respectful and prepared to be enriched by someone’s perceptions and experiences.  We could, in short, build healthy connection.

If we’re holding tight to a story that hurts us, angers us, or is otherwise destructive, we could go to other characters in the story, tell them how we feel and ask for help understanding the situation.

We can build trust and respect with ourselves.  We can claim the power and dignity to form our own opinions about others, based on our own observations and experience, and decide when to build connection and when to limit it.  We can refrain from repeating destructive stories to or about others.  We can take responsibility for our own rigidity and blind spots; our intolerance, injustice and poor communication skills, and own that we might make mistakes in judgement.

We can be wary and watchful of people who impose their stories on us.  Some people use story like a hammer and chisel, relentlessly splitting connection and relationship.  In the end they hurt themselves the most, but many a relationship has been lost because of this kind of behavior.

We can pay attention to red flags such as feeling confused, feeling torn, feeling overwhelmed, feeling exhausted by drama, and feeling dragged down or being asked to keep destructive secrets.  Healthy people in our lives who truly love us will never try to split us from others or force us to make a “them or me” choice.  Healthy people do not share destructive personal stories about others publicly, nor do they tolerate or enable this kind of behavior.  Healthy people communicate honestly, directly and clearly and recognize the ineffectiveness of black and white thinking.

In the end, our only power lies within the circumference of our own lives.  If we want others to give us a chance to speak when someone tells a distorted story about us, we must do the same for them.  If we want to be heard, understood and treated with respect and compassion, we must extend those to others.  If we’re hurt and angry, we must find appropriate and effective ways to talk about that, either with a professional or with others in our story.  We can’t control what others say and believe about us.  We can only live the most authentic lives possible and hope that our actions and words speak for themselves.  We can be responsible for our own stories.

For more on the power of story, here’s another blog you might be interested in.  Same subject, different writer.  Look for the blog titled ‘Who Are You?’ http://carmineleo.com/blog/

Also, here’s a link to a remarkable teacher who asks, “Who are you without your story?”  I highly recommend her.  http://thework.com/en

Do your stories about yourself limit you?  Do your stories about others limit them?  Can you consider another version of one of your stories?  What needs to happen for you to revise one destructive story you’ve created?

All content on this site ©2016
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted