I stood for a full twenty minutes in a Nicaraguan cemetery under mi sombrilla and alongside my friend, Xiomara. She was trying to describe the meaning of the word huesos. Of course she knew the exact translation in English. In the interest of my language learning though, we had agreed to use only Spanish on our afternoon explorations around the mountain town of Matagalpa. Xiomara tried synonyms like esqueleto and marco del cuerpo and related words like piel, vasos and médula. She gestured and pointed to various parts of our bodies.
Under a clear celestial blue sky we stood, surrounded by long white boxes and grave markers. Colorful plastic flowers and banners decorated the landscape. We’d made our way up a hill and found ourselves before a sturdy white shed. I understood Xiomara to say that the building was full of dry huesos. But I was confused. Since this was quite a different way to dispose of human remains than in my culture, it took me a long time to connect that huesos were….bones….and this particular casita was full of them.
When I finally understood the meaning I exclaimed, “Bones!” Joyfully, we grabbed each other and danced among the dead.
The next day my host family invited me to a small Evangelical church for mass. They knew I taught preschoolers so rather than subject me to the long adult service, they positioned me in class with the pastor’s son where he guided the youngest children. When he asked me to lead a game, I almost squealed with delight. Déjà vu! In that very moment, I remembered learning “Dog, dog, where’s your bone?” while in Sunday School 50 years ago. I could now translate this question and teach the little ones on the dirt floor in front of me, “Perro, perro, donde está tu hueso?” Don’t ask me how this related to the learning objectives for the day…perhaps about being joyful or the lost being found?
Bones, the solid frames we all share.
“Dem Bones,” the camp song my sisters and I led in a sing-along to end my father’s memorial service and transition to the reception.
Bones, the chips that can sometimes be identifiable in ashes after cremation. The same particles my priest Nancee warned me about when we prepared to take ashes home to Virginia. Apparently they scare some people.
Recently my study group at the cathedral read Ezekiel’s story about a valley full of dry bones. God tells Ezekiel to preach to the bones. When the breath comes into them, they rattle and gain sinew and skin. Then they stand on their feet again. They live. In the wake of this powerful prophecy, all of my stories about huesos and bones came tumbling back.
Because this is my experience with bones.
For a long time the best description of intercessory prayer I could muster was a paraphrase from Madeleine L’Engle. She said, “Every fond thought is a prayer.” This made sense to me.
Recently though these fond thoughts have become the bones. The more details I know about a situation – what a person needs, how he or she hurts…take for instance when my daughter called to say her dear surrogate grandmother had died…or when my friend emailed to say that while his kid had survived major surgery, she now suffered “world-class constipation”…or when yet another friend relayed that her son had caught her husband in a lie that exposed his long-time affair and could end their marriage – Yes, the more details I know the more flesh these prayer bones have and the more often the fond thoughts come.
For me this is when the dry bones breathe and live. They stand on their own feet. Spirit is in them and they are placed upright on the earth as well as in the rich soil of my heart. I can hold them there and help assuage the suffering. When I hear my daughter’s tears or recognize the specific bodily discomfort or know the names of the children who will flail and sob as their parents’ marriage crumbles, then I can put flesh on dem huesos and weep too. The valley doesn’t seem so desolate anymore, nor as lonely. Instead even in pain and loss, life and breath and spirit wait. The bones will first rattle and then live, even sing and dance again.
It seems incredulous really that something so very basic as bones – huesos – especially dry dead ones could be stacked in a hut on the side of a hill in Matagalpa and could be the centerpiece of a children’s game stored in my memory for half a century. They also can live as breath courses through them again and can represent prayer in all its fullness and hope. In this way, they become metaphors. I recognize myself as poet, feebly describing the delicate difference between life and death again – basically and finally not very distant from each other at all.