Book Review: Rule of the Bone by Russell Banks

Rule of the Bone by Russel Banks Image from Amazon

Chappie failed in school in Au Sable NY and journeyed to Plattsburg to become a mall rat. He had lived with his ineffectual mom and alcoholic, sexually abusive stepfather. His biological father split when he was 5. Chappie starts down the twisty trail of drugs and larceny and general low-level crime; hangs with a biker gang; meets a child pornographer and his victim Rose along the way. He gets a tattoo (see the bookcover) and becomes Bone. When he meets a wise Rastafarian in the US as a migrant worker, I-Man takes Bone with him to Jamaica. Although drugs are still a dominant theme, Bones meets his father (too coincidentally), has some vivid trips with the Rastas where he begins to grasp racial appropriation and starts to have some solid insights of his own. Who is to say if it’s literary fiction–but 5 points for an engrossing read written with integrity and authenticity, hard to put down.




Where I Write

Finally I learned to carry a notebook and a writing implement with me always, so I could write anywhere, anytime: in the woods underneath a deer stand; at the seed store; accidentally locked in a stall in a New Zealand loo; at my job, between patients or sitting on the stone steps of the only part of the building complex that hasn’t been modernized. Trains, planes, automobiles. At odd hours, at my old oaken desk in the study. Also, on the deck, tucked among tree tops with with steep hillsides of grand forest.  Here is one piece that I wrote there:

A Good Morning

Sometimes just something to write on
and an implement to write with

fountain pen
pot of tea
rose petal cup
stack of books at my elbow
thin volumes of poetry
magical realism
measured rhythm
book of translations
planetary alignment
Tarot cards
good back support
better lighting
a magnifying glass for the fine print
bottle of ink
my well of experience
reflective surface
book of runes

and still other times

A Saturday Blessing from WholeHeart

Every morning, the call I rise to is one of “fierce love” –  to stand and act with rigor and conviction for the world we envision – one of respect, love and honor for all beings. It is with this fierceness that I welcome you to this month’s newsletter.

May you stand on earth, with roots and wings, and firmly voice what you know matters in your heart.

Sometimes, this is exactly what you need in your in-box.

Holly Wilkinson, Executive Director
WholeHeart: Living on the Learning Edge


Going to Seed

“. . .but let the wings take root and the roots fly.” Juan Ramon Jimenez

Summers, I deadhead madly, staving off going to seed.
As if that were the enemy, to be avoided at all cost.
Autumns, I crouch, a paragon of patience,
gathering tiny seeds that store magic,
guarding secrets of their species.
Despite dry and dying,
stately, ornate seed pods mature with singular beauty,
protecting their bundled contents from the elements
until snow blankets the road
and carries them forward, farther.
Howling winds carry milkweed’s silky wings,
blowing them through deep hollows to bloom on different hills.
Jewelweed daughters shimmer and explode,
propelling themselves far from the mother plant,
demanding more room to grow.
Burdock seed sons, impetuous,
latch on to shaggy, unkempt coats,
lumbering toward next year.
Planted firm and sturdy, my own years accumulate
softening seed casings of resistance.
Control, worry, sorry.
I kneel in the familiar gardener’s pose.
I bow my head to seed.

Collective Blessings to the Ancestors


You loved ones in quiet graveyards of centuries and before,
on twisty back roads nearly disappeared from today,
where deer gather at dusk and ghosty white flowers climb with mysterious vines.
You loved ones in graves still fresh,
where the good scent of rich dirt mingles with funeral flowers.
The salty scent of slow tears
trace the lines of loss in your mourners’ faces.

You loved ones, your powdered bones lying lost and quiet, somewhere
for centuries. Grave dust, star dust.
You loved ones with your ashes settled into rough urns of stone,
resting on mantles, or lost in forgotten cupboards of no consequence.

You loved ones: listen.
Your remains gave the spark of you back to the universe.
But the glow of you still glimmers.
At last your daughters are seeking you.
We can almost feel where you are.

Contemplating tattered prayer flags whipped by the north wind,
pondering the dance of trees in the storms,
breathing deep the moss on dark forest floors.
We carry each of your stories yet still know so few.

The language of the dead is difficult for the living.
Loved ones, we pledge this to you: we are learning.

Hymn of Gratitude to a Season

I chose autumn to be born, to move from realms in spiral galaxies that swirled with uncertain and joyful dust,  from starry excitement and pulsing night skies, toward a time created from my mother’s dreaming of my heavenly, absent father.

In a night-time sleeping bag on remote national forest land, there is little distinction between the deeply wooded landscape and the vast open, indigo sky. My eyes ached with the cadence of autumn. I chose my sun sign October time to conceive my son, who carries his bruising bravely. Once, while he played near a gnarled old maple, a brilliant monarch rested on his smiling, open face. Such a hopeful face. So, was he special, to be touched thusly? Or was the monarch injured? Special, injured, intact, broken—what are any of us, then? Who interprets those signs? Who made those words?

When September brought lengthening days, my daughter was born. She perched on bed edges, bouncing to her own musical laughter from beginnings in a distant border town, where campfires and communes held her snug and safe, then she leapt into fabricated city-scapes, where lights shined bright on false freedoms. She ricocheted back to a blue-collar holding cell, and are we all prisoners, then, inside lives that we construct and inside walls that we put up then decorate prettily, to cover some inner chaos?

My own persistent feelings wash up again and again on the edges of these pages.

This is what I know of the difference between wise waiting and dangerous inertia: absolutely nothing.

On stalks supporting dark, drooping heads of the Russian sunflowers after first frost, a busy, up-and-down chipmunk reminds me:  Sun sign in Scorpio, a gift.  It enables me to live into the mystery of things, releasing the need to own answers.

A Poem Inspired by Beltane


In scattered huts and houses on the hillside
yellow lights appear in dark windows
like bonfires.

Every morning this fire festival
built from yesterday’s brushwood
fueled by good work and breakfast
and the blaze of sun
as the new day surfaces.

Whether we’ve spent the night on our knees
or at the crossroads,
whether we receive first light with celebration
or with dread,
whether we’ve drifted in dreams born by rose petals
or in nightmares.
Dawn calls to each of us, alike.

What path will you walk today?
How will you worship
in this age of dreams and visions?
Will you whisper, or call out
to all that is holy?

I will kneel in the soft dirt,
murmuring spells to the seeds.

Happy Valentine’s Day

The next time I’m asked what’s so great about aging, I hope I can remember this. It is excerpted from David Whyte’s Living Together.

“ . . .we hunger for maturity, see it not as stasis

but a form of love. We want the stillness and confidence

of age, the space between self and all the objects of the world

honoured and defined, the possibility that everything

left alone can ripen of its own accord . . .”


Outlaws and Insights: On Reflective Nursing Practice

The faces of illness and death can make us small. As nurses, we become large again at the intersection with others as they experience their own watershed moments. The simple mechanics of doing our jobs allow us to look through windows that open, wide and brief, into others’ lives, providing us great insight into our own. I learn much about interiority in this way.

My own seasonings as a nurse and as a person are inseparable. A defining point occurred in a dilapidated New England farmhouse with a screen door that flapped in the wind. Inside, torn floral linoleum covered a crooked floor. Greasy dishes were piled in a rust-stained sink. The house smelled of chain-saw oil and stale urine. An antique hospital bed, crank missing, was in the center of the room. Clint was young, only forty years old. He existed under the radar of authority. To live outside the law, his wife informed me while I did his Hospice intake interview, required that one must be honest. This family considered themselves outlaws; this family was unflinchingly honest.

Three months later, I pronounced his death. Friends and neighbors gathered in the dooryard, keeping a crude but comforting vigil. It was one part festival, one part wake, and one part street theatre. Singular customs like these distinguished every landmark in the lives of this unconventional, eccentric community.

Clint’s three weary brothers were at his bedside before he died. These were big, tough men, not afraid of much,  yet morose with this dying happening so close to them. They strode through life, hard-drinking, hard-living desperados. Now they stood before death. Quiet. Stunned.

Their armor had failed.


But these men knew survival. The success, or failure, of hunting season determined the difference between a fat year for the family and a lean one. They told stories of the long, cramped surveillance from narrow deer stands in the numbing November cold. They could follow a buck’s trail in the woods for miles. They interpreted scrapes and smells. Their heavy bodies were graceful, feet planted carefully to avoid the snap of a twig. They predicted an animal’s behavior and its route. They tracked trails of blood, patches of hair caught on woody shrubs, and hoof prints on damp brown leaves.  The brothers waited for good shots:  a clean kill demonstrated mastery of the craft and respect for the animal, avoiding a slow and painful death. They knew all this deeply. Close to the bone. They read signs and followed inner guidance.

They knew that in his own way Clint had lived and died well.


The brothers left, after Clint’s heart stopped, charging the women with the care of the body. A feeling of tribe is associated with doing this work with others, at home.  The air in a room changes when death arrives. A hush is discernible. When death is institutionalized, there is usually a lack, a void.  Respecting the stillness, we women worked quietly together.

Into this pause, this threshold place, sudden gun shots exploded just outside the screen door. I jerked around and saw the three brothers in braced postures, the butts of their rifles gripped hard against their shoulders. Calloused hands, steady, prepared to shoot again. They aimed over the impenetrable far woods, and for a second then a third time the deafening shots pierced the stillness. They slowly lowered their guns. Quiet conversation resumed. The other women and I turned back to our work.

This ragged 3-volley salute from hunting rifles was a raw and eloquent prayer of grief and honoring, a spontaneous eulogy born of one family’s particular way of being in the world. Rich meaning and tradition are elements of every culture.


Nursing often requires doing constant impossibles. Contemplative nursing practice exists as  the underpinning to all dimensions of all care that we provide, wherever we provide it. Reflection and compassionate service hold the potential for us to change lives and to be changed ourselves. Pilgrims, all of us. Together in this land of living and of the dead.

Redemption Poem

This piece spins off from a Ben Huberman Daily Prompt post of January 17. Thank you, Ben! The first part of the question he poses is “. . .when was the last time you wrote something substantive—a letter, a story, a journal entry, etc.—by hand?” This post tells the story of my most memorable writing by hand.

The dark of the moon makes the call more believable, a storm cloud moving slow and inevitable across familiar terrain that suddenly shifts. Jolts.

“Come home. Your grandmother is in the hospital. Heart attack.”

It isn’t really my home anymore and hasn’t been my home for decades, but this time I don’t feel compelled to point it out.

The drive is too long. Vermont roads that usually give comfort or pleasure now simply twist and annoy. The entire State of New York is in the way. Despite the beauty of the Delaware Water Gap, Pennsylvania goes on forever. On one trip to Ohio, my mother was at the other end, dead. Now my grandmother is gravely ill, perhaps dying. My elders are conceding their ground. Not ready, I protest to the empty passenger seat. I am not ready.

Grandma raised me while my mother worked to support us. “Divorced” was a pejorative in Ohio in the 1950s.

Grandma taught me that you had to be good in order to be loved.

Grandma was a perfectionist.

And Grandma fed me nourishing home-made food, breads and soups and pies. She kept me warm under hand-stitched quilts and hand-made feather-beds. She taught me the value of a dollar and the worth of a bird in the hand, a place for everything and everything in its place. On rocky ledges above Ohio strip pits, Grandma taught me how to hear the floating, haunting voices of the fish. Beneath the grape arbor, she introduced me to life’s incongruencies. I was Annie Oakley and she shelled peas.

When I left home, Grandma wept inconsolably.

When I moved into a commune, she wouldn’t answer my letters.

When I was arrested for political activism, she helped post my bail then took me home and placed me under her own scary version of house arrest.

When I veered off toward addiction, she shamelessly went through my bureau drawers, my backpacks, my closet. She pushed up my long-sleeves-in-the-summer, searching, scrutinizing the soft skin of my forearms for track marks.

When I had my first child, she came to New Hampshire and cleaned my house.

When I had my second child, she came to Vermont and alphabetized my spice rack.

When I left my husband, she snarled at me in alarm and disgust: “You’ll never have a pot to piss in.”

She ironed wrinkles out of $20 bills and sent me one every birthday, every Christmas. She sent the same amount from 1968 until 2004, never thinking to take inflation or food stamps into account. Never forgetting to send the card.

When my kids did poorly in school, she worried endlessly, then sat back against the worn afghan on the back of her couch, folded her arms, tightened her mouth, and conferred the blame entirely on me.

When I came out as a lesbian, she stopped speaking to me entirely and for a very long time.

When I visited her with my partner and my mandolin, she was puzzled: which one of us did the cooking?

When we left the next week, she hugged us both good-bye, then called me back to her door and hissed into my ear, “You’re out of my will. Drive careful.”

She looked at my lifestyle, over and over, but she could hardly see me. She couldn’t sort me out. “How did you get so twisted?” she often asked. It was a question that nagged at her so much that she puzzled over it every time we saw each other. I found the question devastating, and for me the visit often ended in tears, my adult self wilted, my still-child’s heart broken. Twisted. Not a very kind word.

I met my son at the airport, and together we went to the hospital.

She was sitting in a blue recliner, newly transferred from the ICU, watching a game show. I sat on her neat hospital bed, wrinkling the bedspread. But her eyes sparked with utter love. “You look beautiful,” she said. “You look like your mother.”

She looked at my son, awkward, frightened, stoned. “You look so handsome, sweetie. You be a good boy for your mother.”

We stayed with her for an hour, and absolutely no unkind words were spoken, no recriminations made. She pulled out flannel memories from a softened heart and handed them to us with shaky, generous hands.

We promised to come back after dinner to watch Wheel of Fortune with her.

“Pat Sayjak!” she exclaimed. “I love that little Pollack!”  I had to roll my eyes, but she laughed and said how delighted she was to see us, and now she was ready to go home. Of course, she didn’t mean her apartment in elderly housing.

We were eating something fried, standard fare at my aunt’s, when the phone rang, shrill, into the neat suburban house. It was decorated by what wasn’t there anymore. My mother, my uncle, my grandfather. Young cousins, all grown up and gone.

We drove back to the hospital. Grandma was panting, in congestive heart failure. The nurse was putting in a foley catheter. I held her gently by her shoulders, put my face close, looked in her faded blue eyes. Said, “I love you, Grandma.”  She smiled. It was the sweetest smile. She spoke some garbled words. Her eyes closed.

My cousin and I sat vigil with her. Sometime after midnight, I saw her hover above her body, in the rocking chair from my little-girl years. It’s in my bedroom, still. She was half seated, half rising, trying to decide whether to stay or to go.

She died at 4AM.

I went alone to the crematorium the next day. My cousins found the idea peculiar but generally in keeping with what they had come to expect from me. What else was there for me to do but to go on listening to my truth? What else was there to do but to listen with my heart?

I dressed warmly and brought my journal. I sat in a private room in a faded floral easy chair that I dragged across the room so I could be close to her body. It was on a gurney. She still wore the same hospital johnnie that she died in. I could tell from the tiny Betadine stain on the front of it. Her eyes and her lips were shut tight. For a long time I stared at the tiny line of epoxy glue that sealed her mouth.

I sang her favorite hymns, without flinching. I sang songs by the Sons of the Pioneers, Tennessee Ernie Ford, 50s tunes from my childhood. I sang Sinatra, Perry Como. Tony Bennett. Then I sang Robert Hunter’s lyrics to Brokedown Palace:

“Goin’ home, goin’ home / by the waterside I will rest my bones / Listen to the river sing sweet songs / to rock my soul.”

I talked with her body for a while. Mostly I cried. It felt good to be there.

When I stood up to kiss her goodbye, some inner choreography changed. Instead of pressing my lips against her cold forehead, I purposefully placed my journal over her silent heart. Then, holding my own body at such a peculiar angle that, afterward, my back had a crick in it for weeks, I wrote. I filled page after page in my journal, which was supported by the hard surface of the shell of my grandmother’s life.

That day, my own epic redemption poem was born. It sang, it wailed, it witnessed. And it transformed.

The cover of the journal was black.  The figure of a woman, dancing, was etched on it in gold. The binding was big, fat, and spiral so the pages stayed open beautifully. I wrote with a fountain pen, given to me by a dear friend to honor a special occasion.  But to this day I haven’t found it necessary to open that journal ever again, nor to read any of the writing. It has been enough to realize, after all those decades of feeling not enough, not seen nor understood, that my Grandma loved me the very best way that she could, and she loved me so much that she waited while I drove a thousand miles so I could be there when she died.

“What the hell does someone DO that long at the crematorium, Pat?”  My cousins were waiting for me at my aunt’s house. Dinner was ready. I was late, and they were hungry.

I smiled and reached for the deep fried zucchini.