Clean the Bones

Care work as reverence.

Hello, wonderful witches!

As you may have seen on social, my new book, “Historic Chicago Bakeries,” has finally published. And let me tell you, it is doing fabulously. It’s currently topping three different Amazon charts as the #1 bestselling new book. I am thrilled and shocked and mind-boggled and then thrilled again! Publishing a book is such a wild ride, and even though it’s not my first, I still get deliriously excited about it. Witches, I hope you love what you do just as much as I love what I do—and if you don’t, I’m sending all the positive energy I can muster your way.

Speaking of, I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned in this newsletter that I am a spellcaster-for-hire. If you have some spellwork you need or want done, feel free to contact me (just reply to this email) and we’ll figure it out!

For today’s article, we’re discussing bones.

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Clean the Bones: Care Work as Reverence

By Gabrielle Basha

Between the offerings of local honey and dried rosemary on my kitchen altar sits a jar of little white bones. They’re the remains of a duck I roasted last fall, which we enjoyed for a week in at least three different forms until only the skeleton was left. I rarely roast a whole bird, and this was the first duck I’d ever made; it felt impossible to throw away the structures that once held a living thing upright, each tiny piece a vital part of the puzzle.

The carcass, spent from its final work creating broth, had no meals left to give. I put it in a colander and turned on the water, rinsing it gently. I was tired. I still had to clean the kitchen, and it was getting late. Still, I leaned my forearms on the edge of the sink and gave my back a break, stretching a bit and letting the slow stream of warm water run over my hands as I gently teased the bones free.

Recently my personal craft has centered around the idea of rematriation. I’ve sunk into research around my mother’s side of the family and our roots in Hungary, but also the greater concept of the archetypal ancestral Mother. Bones and stones had long been my physical connection to this work, but it wasn’t until conversations with a wise witch last summer that I connected them to a larger spiritual theme: Devotion, gratitude, and love through attention, maintenance, and care.

As a Montessori educator, I’ve spent much of my professional life thinking about the work of care. With apologies to our Catholic namesake (and a nod to Catholicism’s history with paganism), I’ve always thought Montessori and witchcraft had more than a little in common: Like setting an altar, a Montessorian prepares an environment for the children. We act as guides through the materials, supporting children to direct their own learning. Materials are beautiful, created with the utmost attention and with a specific intention, whether it’s learning to tie a bow or count to one hundred. Once the classroom is prepared, the guide gives a brief lesson, then observes. Children’s tasks are called their “work,” and they’re able to work uninterrupted on one material for as long as they’d like.

I didn’t have a plan when I decided to clean the duck bones. I wasn’t going to use them for anything, or put them anywhere in particular. I decided to clean them because it felt like the respectful thing to do, like ceremonially washing a body before burial—a blessing for a blessing. These slow moments of reverie and reverence have been some of the most rewarding surprises of my time in the kitchen. I might feel it when I’m making a big meal for friends or a little something for myself, thoroughly rinsing the grit from leeks or chopping a carrot so slowly that former kitchen colleagues would have confiscated my knife.

The respect inherent in using a thing to its full capacity, its full worth, is something we internalized early. Our ancestors used every part of an animal whether out of respect, necessity, or both. But it isn’t just worth that’s extended when we care or repair: It’s the work that allows us a chance to experience deep focus, the elusive rejuvenative state where you’re so locked into your work, you barely notice the time pass. Many of the old housekeeping tasks (have you ever darned a sock?) are repetitive, and as such can be meditative or even trancelike. Like spellcasting, they take your full attention, focus, and practice. The push for sustainability in recent years has renewed enthusiasm for learning to repair, rather than replace, objects showing wear, and in rediscovering the old ways of repairing things, we’re also experiencing the value of deep engagement in a single task for a long period of time. 

Care can’t be just a commodity: The bone ceremony is messy and takes time. Cleaning this full duck skeleton, making sure every piece of cartilage and flesh was removed and a single, tiny bone wasn’t accidentally thrown away, took ages—and was the first period of intense focus and deep, uninterrupted work I’ve experienced in months. I thought about the duck’s life on the farm from which we bought it. I thought about the dinner we had the first night, full roast duck with perfectly crispy skin. I thought about the eggs and potatoes we fried in the duck fat for breakfast, the stew for the following day made with the rich broth. I touched every single angle of every single perfect little bone and, to be totally honest, I was utterly besotted. The symmetry of each vertebra, the infinite brilliance of nature’s engineering, just about took my breath away. 

I texted a picture of a floral little vertebra to my sister, who was staying with our parents at the time. She agreed, it was beautiful—and texted back a photo of the shelf in our mom’s kitchen which holds a ginger jar, a pomegranate, and several wishbones. “We know where we get our decorating habits, anyway,” she wrote. I asked her why mom kept them.

“She says she doesn’t know. Grandma always kept them so she does, too.”

I thought about my mom carefully cleaning off those wishbones, drying them, and placing them on the shelf. I thought about the packages we got as kids from her mother, from Florida, filled with citrus fruit, comics cut from the newspaper, and wishbones she had cleaned and dried, gently wrapped, and mailed to us.

I thought about the seeds of spellcraft that are present in kitchens everywhere, and the way time, energy, and attention transfigures a bone into a physical representation of love, and I set aside some duck bones to send back home.

Gabrielle Basha is an educator, artist, writer, and hermit living in Massachusetts with her husband and their very small dog. In addition to working with children in and out of the Montessori classroom, Basha is Communications Coordinator for the Joseph Campbell Foundation and co-founder of the children’s book review website Cosmic Bookshelf. You can find her kitchen magic and moon-in-Cancer melodrama on Instagram at and on Twitter @gab_basha.

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