Loving The Bones

If your people are originally from the northern hemisphere, then this is an important time for you. Across the north, as the earth is moving from hot to cold, festivals, ceremonies and teachings exist that celebrate light's relationship to darkness, that celebrate the line between life and death, that honor the harvest time before the freezing or death time. This is, like all time, a sacred time.

Across my family lines, we alternately know this time, really this particular day, November 2, as All Saint's Day, a Catholic recreation of the older rituals.  Some of those earlier rituals still linger. My family lines have celebrated il Giorno dei Morti*, the Day of the Dead, a celebration that still exists in Italy although it is slowly disappearing under the US mass marketing of Halloween.  We have celebrated Winternacht, one of the three great blessings in the Norse year, the time of honoring the dead, similar to Samhain. We also know this time as the time between the Freezing Moon and the Little Spirit Moon, the Ojibwe calendar that knows this as a time of living close to the spirits, a healing time. And so many other festivals and traditions whose names we don't remember. I did not grow up with any of these but I am learning to claim them now.

All of these lines and traditions know about the power of bones. And oh how I love bones! Sacred bones, glorious bones. There is a big difference between living bones and the dead bones that we usually get to see and hold. Living bone is this glorious mix of fluid and hardness, something that holds its shape but also can flow. Bone is flexible, it contracts in response to pressure and then it expands when that pressure leaves. Bones are where we keep the stardust, those extraterrestrial parts of ourselves, magnesium, calcium, cystalline structures that emerged within the intense heat and pressure of a star and which, eventually, move through space to fall like rain on the planets, on us. That stardust is part of the material that creates many parts of our bodies but especially our bones. We build ourselves up out of the materials of the lands where we live: the food we eat, the water we drink, the bits and pieces of organic and inorganic matter that find their way into us because we breathe, we touch things, we are alive.

Oh magnificent bones. When we die, most of our flesh turns back into earth, mixing in with all other organic matter as soil. Our bodies are - mostly - no longer recognizable.  This is true whether we burn, are lifted high on bowers for the sun, rain and birds to feast upon, or whether we are placed under the ground so that the microbes of the soil can take us apart. All that remains recognizable are our bones. Over time, even when the shape of the bones disappear, still the magnesium and calcium, the zinc and chromium and so many other minerals remain. They are constant, both within our bones and when we have passed, as part of the earth, of the bodies of other living beings that emerge again, one generation after the next.

Many of our traditions show reverence for the bones of those we have loved. Many traditions wash the bones, bring the bones out when it is time to speak with the ancestors, redden the bones, make rattles and horns from the bones, love them, know them, listen to the bones for divination, set the bones down at table for meals with us, bring the bones and make sure they travel from old homes to new.

While I write this, I am baking bone cookies with a Sicilian friend. We are making four different kinds and will give some away as gifts and will put some on our altars and will enjoy the rest, letting the crunchy sweetness melt on our tongues. All of the cookies are made to be hard, crunchy, not cookie-like but bone-like until we eat them and they change. One recipe surprised us because after baking, the cookie separated, the inner softness pushing through a hard white crispy shell, like marrow pushing through the hard body.

The bones are the infrastructure of the body. They developed to support the fluid-filled bag that is the rest of us. With the bones, we can move. The bones help us push off against gravity. They are the constant around which our fluid body organizes itself. On this day I think of our ancestors as the same kind of infrastructure, the constant thread that comes forward from a dizzying number of generations. Knowing them, staying in relationship to them, we can move. Without them, we flop around in our present time, tilting back and forth in response to earthquakes and other external movement, but not carrying our own guide rope back to gravity.

This image is from the catacombs underneath Naples, Italy, about sixty miles from the villages where my father's maternal line lived for generations upon generations.

* Hey all you Italians and Sicilians, just because our people also celebrated remembering the dead at this time of year and called it Day of the Dead (in Italian and Sicilian) does not give us license to then celebrate Dia de los Muertos. They are not the same honoring. They have different indigenous traditions embedded in both and different histories of colonization on top of each. And since, if your people like mine came to the US and then traded language history and culture for whiteness, this adds another layer of "don't do it!" It is vital that raised white folks reclaim culture and tradition outside of whiteness. It is also vital that while this happens, white folks are working fierce and fast to end white supremacy - in your bodies as well as within systems and cultures. Tread carefully and with deep passion and conviction.

Susan Raffo