The Bonesetter

Like most healing, this can be messy

I’m writing this from a house with no heat. 

My child and I live in an old, rattling house, two stories high with front and back porches: a former coal miner’s residence built about 1925. I rent, and this week the furnace broke down. Repair people are coming. In the meantime, it’s December. The first hard frost. It gets down to the 20s most nights. It’s 51 degrees in the house.

We could go to a hotel on my own dime, or drive to family. But for now, my child and I are bedding down. We have sleeping bags and space heaters, sheepskins and wool socks. It’s different but not that much removed from what I am used to: my bedroom is one of two rooms in the old house that never had any heat to begin with. 

I am used to making the unworkable work. As many people will tell you, that’s part of being a single parent, being poor, or living in a remote place. All three, I stuff the holes in the wood floor with steel wool. I fix lamps with paper clips. This past October was the first year I didn’t make my child’s Halloween costume from scratch. One year I used our colander for his proton pack.

“You make everything look so nice, on almost no money,” someone said to me once, and that compliment meant a lot, meant I had really been seen, through the patina of my effort.  

You get used to fixing things, though—and soon, are fixing what really can’t be fixed, not by an individual. I should be able to find full-time work. Everyone should receive a living wage. It really should be easier to get to an airport, and have safe, plowed roads. But because these things aren’t in place, you careen down a potholed path, slick with ice. I have trouble driving newer cars with pedals that respond, with brakes that don’t resist—I drive too fast, brake too hard. You get habituated to what is difficult, unused to anything but struggle, indoctrinated into believing you don’t deserve more.

This is one of the conditions of womanhood. 

I didn’t break any bones until I was married. Then I shattered, in quick succession: my wrist, my toe, my other toe, my foot. 

That last broken bone came at a time when my marriage was breaking too. Coming home from teaching a class—running because my husband at the time was watching the baby, and I knew he would want to get back to his work—I tripped up the porch steps to my house. Something broke in me. I heard it. 

A man who liked to gossip later told me people in town said about me then: “Her husband left her AND she broke her foot.”

But fixing the unfixable only works for so long. When the sole of my sneaker begins to come loose, I hot glue it. Then, when that doesn’t last, I rip that part of the sole off. It seems to be fine. I can make it last a few more months. Every time a hole appears in the thigh of my jeans, I think this can’t be happening. My car is almost twenty years-old. My couch has a decade on it, and was bought at the Kroger Marketplace—a grocery store—near the frozen food section. It was on sale.

As children, especially girl children, we’re taught to compromise, to sacrifice, to deal with the untenable, to be quiet about it. Even to like it. It’s not only men that put us into virgin and whore: our parents do too. As adults, this can mean staying in or being stuck with toxic jobs, unhealthy friendships, abusive marriages.

It’s hard to ask for or even envision more or other.

I don’t mind making do with less. As long as my car runs, I will run it into the ground, and the “child-stained couch” —as my significant other and I affectionately call it—is still comfortable, if ugly. The trick is to know what can’t be fixed, what shouldn’t be, and what you shouldn’t have to stretch or make do with or ignore any longer.

For other pain, there’s the bonesetter. 

Poultice of Comfrey (The Bonesetter)

The herb comfrey is said to aid in the healing of sprains and fractures, speeding up the process—so much so, that another name for comfrey is the boneknitter. I’ve also heard it called the bonesetter. 

When I broke my foot, I was spending a lot of time on a farm in southeastern Ohio, and folks out there first made this for me. There are different ways to make and apply a poultice, but the basic idea is this: a paste applied to your injury. 

Take a few handfuls of dried comfrey, which you should be able to get at a natural food store, and mix with just enough water to make a paste (it feels like crumbly, flowery clay). Spread the paste over the area that needs help, then wrap the area in a towel, gauze, or even plastic wrap. Alternatively, you can also pack the poultice in a dish towel—twist the ends of the cloth to keep the paste in there—and wrap that cloth around your injury.

This poultice can also be made with fresh comfrey, if you have it, and you might not even need to add water, as the fresh leaves will get juicy when you chop them up a little. I tended to apply the poultice 2 times a day for about 40-50 minutes each time.

Warning: like most healing, this can be messy, but I do believe it helped.