Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Bones in a Bag: the Reduction of the Human Soul

Photo Credit: by T.Voekler Wikimedia Commons

On my kitchen counter: a half-gallon of vanilla soy milk, two cookbooks, an empty cup for coffee, a naked paper towel tube, and rodent bones in a bag.

I pour myself the cup of coffee, pick up the tube and, looking through it like a telescope, wonder about voles. An interesting fate, that—to have ended up inside an owl pellet carefully wrapped inside tin foil, crowded together with the skeletal remains of other voles. Then to be slipped into a plastic sleeve and stapled together with a minute magnifying glass and plastic forceps, sold as a hands-on element in a literature unit on Poppy, a book which has no voles.

Much later, after waiting all winter in a drawer, to be found, in pieces. "Oh, yes! Here is a complete skull!" Vertebrae choked with digested grey fur laid out like beads in a row, alongside slender ribs like tiny Cs which opened their jaws too wide. A jawbone complete with yellowed teeth, hipbones like odd spatulas. "Look, honey! It's a vole!"

This vole is old now. Its great-great-great-great grandchildren have probably already been raised and have bred and are now, as we speak, being consumed by hungry owls. The vole is archaic. Alive, he'd be a relic, a Civil War re-enactor in the streets of the lively now. He could tell us tales of the ways voles used to live—the simple, idyllic days of vole-ish harmony that went before. Instead, though, he's been scraped off my counter and placed carefully into a sandwich bag.

I am forced to wonder: what would I be, once reduced to my components, laid bare and labeled according to a chart? This metatarsal laughed uproariously at The Big Lebowski, no matter how many times it saw the movie—it just laughed and laughed aloud? The third vertebrae up loved lilacs. The lower mandible made Christmas cookies with its children every year. This rib cage, intact, provided the nurturance that raised three sons with all its heart.

It seems ridiculous, to be so reduced. And yet we do reduce each other. Right down to the bones.

I had, this week, a most unsatisfying set of conversations with some of the staff of my son's school. It has been difficult to put my finger on what was so insidiously soul-sucking about these exchanges, why they felt like entering a strange land in search of allies and leaving instead at war. Looking at this bag of bones, I know.

In the reflected words of the school counselor, I felt myself made small as the spit-up vole—felt my heart picked up and examined, laid down and labeled; one word applied, unsaid but loudly shouted, for all the fierce love for my child, my desperate desire to see the world do right by him:


And so the label will be stuck. Ranks closed, rude politenesses were offered, the smug certainty of barely-restrained scorn was held in check until the counselor could get off the phone and tell a colleague what a pain in the ass this woman was.

I am sorry that it went that way instead of how I hoped. I look in this bag. Bones, devoid of flesh and meaning. Devoid of motherhood or fatherhood, absent context—swallowed and spit up. I do not know this counselor, whether she is a mother, whether she ever lost a child. I do not know the mistakes she thinks she made or the wars she is fighting to preserve the children placed under her charge. She is nothing to me but the woman who is treating me like a problem while I am trying to help my child.

Perhaps I will write her a thank you note. Or, perhaps, I will just remember that I know less of her than nothing—her name and her title, as meaningless, after all, as old bones in a bag.


  1. How do you do that? How do you take 2 such seemingly innocuous and vastly different things and tie them together in such a way? You make me sit back in wonder at your words, and the wondrous way your mind works. It is a beautiful and incredible gift you have.

    1. :) The answer to how I "do that" will make me sound crazy. (Probably because I am.) It is very much like looking at Rorschach inkblots. I spend a lot of time in stillness when I write. It is, I suppose, my mediation practice. So, I start with whatever catches my fancy—anything that seems like it might form into a sentence that I'd like to write. Then, I let it lead me to the message of my heart, sentence by sentence. I have absolutely no idea where I'm going at any time. I spend a lot of time staring blankly at the screen, waiting patiently for truth to speak. Then I type it down, click publish and feed the kids. Thanks very much for your kind words. They made me swell a bit with pride.

  2. If the counselors can't relate to you or even try to, maybe you should ask them to read this blog. If they have any humanity at all, maybe they would get a little insight.
    Re owl pellets - a great metaphor for life's meaningful transitoriness. The owl is eternally nourished, and the ancient voles never really die, either.

    1. You know, I think we're at that point were anything I say, even this, would just be more fuel on the fire. But stepping back helps ME. And I am reminded, once more that, although I will have many partners, friends and allies, I am the only mother these boys have and no one has to know the truth of my heart but me.

      You're right. There's something rather charismatic about owl pellets. In terms of offal, they're really the top of the heap in my book.

  3. I am in awe of the magic you work with words. A heart and head capable of such magic is a fierce ally to have and your sons are blessed to have you, regardless of who else is on their side.

    1. I'm always so thrilled to see your comments pop up in clusters like crocuses in the snow! :) Unexpected and full of color. I only wish I was organized enough to get around to responding them all!


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Faith in Ambiguity by Tara Adams is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License