The Bone Woman & the Private Act of Beginning

  Forest floor, where mysteries live. From a visit to the redwoods a few years ago. 

Forest floor, where mysteries live. From a visit to the redwoods a few years ago. 

Yesterday was a new moon, and so I am thinking about beginnings, but I'm especially thinking about the conditions for beginning. The space around the beginnings. 

Beginnings might be the most private part of the creative life. Like the new moon, we work in quiet. No one knows what is happening in that blank space. We as the creative folks don't even know yet, really. So much is hidden in the deep breaths before the art or writing starts to hold a shape. 

That means beginnings are borderless and unterritoried. There is nothing to claim here. No firm spot to stand and announce an arrival. I’ve been finding that talking with others about the early beginnings of a project (as in, "Here's what I'm thinking...") sometimes has a way of crushing its energy... sometimes the emerging creative work can only hold its own weight and a door just wide enough to let me in.

I'm thinking now of the myth of the bone woman, who gathers the bones and sings them back together. Sings the skin back onto them, to make them whole, but also to make them new again.

Until today, for some reason, I hadn’t thought about how private her work is, or how the journey of the bones exists so much within her own space. She goes out into the wilderness alone. She is not searching for something perfect or whole. She’s only looking for a nub of bone. Maybe a knee cap. Something that might hinge together the rest of the parts. I imagine that it's these small parts that thrill her the most. A femur may be spectacular in scale... but a tooth is almost singular in its magic and in the joy of recovering something so small and essential. 

Anyone watching her in the wilderness, gathering bones, might think she is crazy as she feels the ground. And if she listened to anyone else as she did this work, if she worried about what they thought of her hands running over the earth, she might pause too long. She might lose the careful touch at the ends of her fingers. She might forget how to search.

So it matters that this is a private ritual. Private except for the conversation she has with the earth, I suppose. And maybe the earth is the only true kindred spirit to beginnings. The only one who really understands this impossible process of things being formed from almost nothing, from raw material.

It’s interesting that as the journey of the bones expands, the ritual around them seems to shrink. It focuses and draws close. The woman does not assemble the bones in the open air. She collects them out in the wilderness—but she brings them back. To her small home. To her cave. Under darkening light.

There’s something beautiful and important in that choice. It’s a protective act. Like she is saying, “I have gathered you, sifted you from dirt. But I won’t ask you to stay out in the open with all your edges exposed. I will carry you to the inside. I’ve made a space for you.”

We all long for safe spaces to find our shape… the bone woman isn’t the bone woman just because she finds the bones. She’s the bone woman because she knows how to hold that space. She recognizes exposure, and she is tender toward it.

And then, and only when she is deep into this work, she begins to sing.

How beautiful that it's only when all the parts are exposed that the song comes. And how important it feels that even with the parts now assembled, the ritual is still private. The hiddenness of the whole journey seems to keep mounting. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. It’s not just a quirk of “how she works” or “who she is” as the bone women. I feel insistence in her choices, as if she is quietly showing us: This is why any of this works at all. This is the recipe.

When she sings over the bones, it’s not a performance. It’s the first song for these bones. I always imagine that she sings into them, with them. As they take on flesh, as they come into shape, she responds. Her song shifts with them. There is only the practice as it unfolds, in the moment. The ritual is one of letting the raw parts themselves lead the way.

It's tempting to look to the bone woman herself for the wisdom in this story—and she does have wisdom—but I wonder if all along, she has been calling on us to see the wisdom in the parts. And to recognize the generosity of the earth, as it keeps our bones for us and waits for us to come and find them. (It makes me want to return to so many myths and notice what the earth is keeping or where the earth speaks between the lines...)

It is not the bone woman who will make us whole again. And it's not just our bones being gathered that will unlock the whole. It's also the protection we draw around ourselves to do the work at all. The bone woman is there to show us how the search looks. But maybe more important is how she shows us what it means to hold the private, protective space around our raw and unshaped creative work. I do not hear her saying, Come here, perform the bones this way, and get whole. At least in this moment today, I hear something more like, Go and search your ground. Go and gather. But remember where the singing happens. Don't underestimate the power of your cave. 

Resources
Women Who Run with the Wolves, by Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés
A short version of the story on The Art of Enchantment

26 degrees and sunny, a bright beginning in the wake of the new moon
Snow catching light and throwing rainbows off my the prism in my writing nest