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Story Saved Me. Is Saving Me.

Once upon a time….

Those words perk up our ears like no others can.

Once upon a time….

We are wired for story. It’s in our DNA, it’s in our blood.
We need story because it’s how we learn about the world.

This one time, in Forest Falls, when I was about 8 years old, I tried to pop a wheelie off a 4 foot ledge. Did you know you can’t do that without a ramp? I started at the top of the hill, got going as fast as I could, and wheeee! over the edge…. But not like my beloved Evel Knievel. I went over that ledge without my bike. My front tire dropped down right at the ledge, and up and over those handlebars I flew. Landed right on my chest. Went back for the bike that betrayed me and wheeeeezed as I pushed it back up the hill home.
Do not ride your bike over ledges. Evel Knievel’s job requires a RAMP, ok.

I tell you my story, and you learn from it. Don’t ride bikes off ledges.

We need story because it’s how we learn how alike we are.

This one time, my mother took me and my brother to the Santa Ana aqueducts to shoot the rapids. We free-floated easily through the tunnel in the mountain. OUr voices echoed off the walls, and then there was this short space right after we emerged from the mountain where Ted could pull us up out of the water. I remember my mother telling me urgently that I had to pay close attention and grab his hand fast. My big, strong stepbrother pulled us out of the water just before it roared down the drain.

I tell you my story, and you learn 1) my mother was a little nuts, and 2) maybe you can relate to the crazy. Maybe all families have some crazy in them. I’m often astonished by the things I did in my childhood. And survived.

We need story because it’s how we learn to hope that the world might be bigger and better than what we know in our present situation. I’m on the edge of an abyss because my son is missing, and writing The Adventures of Oliver Cotton Midgefield and Fidget Copperbum is keeping me sane. I lose myself in the story, and yet I’m finding myself, too. Stacy Bodus, saved by the Brownies of Fort Covington.

I think books saved my life when I was a kid. Nancy Drew taught me that it was possible to have a father who treated you like a daughter rather than a wife. She also taught me that girls were smart, and resourceful, and could get themselves out of any sticky situation if they used their wits and relied on their trusted friends. It was she who taught me that I could survive anything AND land on my feet, wiser and stronger.

The Cat and Mrs. Cary taught me that people need love and kindness, no matter their age.
The Man Without a Face taught me that affection from a father figure can be honest and pure.
The Five Little Peppers taught me that family meant something, somewhere, in a world different from mine.
• A Harlequin romance with a homeless heroine taught me that I mustn’t ever assume anything about people on the streets.

I learned many lessons from books that I couldn’t have learned in my childhood home, and it’s because of this that I believe it’s imperative that we make books available to the children in our communities. I myself was blessed to have a mother who loved to read. Not all children learn that reading is important, and our communities are poorer for it.

Lisa Cron, in Wired for Story, states, “Recent breakthroughs in neuroscience reveal that our brain is hardwired to respond to story; the pleasure we derive from a story well told is nature’s way of seducing us into paying attention to it. In other words, we’re wired to turn to story to teach us the way of the world…. A good story makes us willing pupils, primed to absorb the myriad lessons each story imparts. We think in story, which allows us to envision the future. The brain uses stories to simulate how we might navigate difficult situations in the future.”

When we give away books, we are giving impoverished children tools to become more than what they see around them. And not just children, but adults as well, whether they’re reading those stories to their children or they’re reading the adult books we give away.

We may not see the impact of the books we give away, but every book matters. I would love to see Little Libraries® all over our region. I’d love to see ASES programs at our elementary schools with enough books to meet the needs of their students.
Even if each Kiwanis club built one or two Little Libraries, it would have a positive impact on the community. The Early Risers club in El Centro has given away more than 4,000 books since the 2015 Children’s Fair. If you need books, Early Risers can help, and I will personally help you with other logistical stuff, as well.

People are usually concerned that the supply of books will run dry. I’ve been giving books away since 2004–about 10,000 books so far–and I have never run out. Never. I think generosity begets generosity begets plenty.
Never let anyone tell you that kids hate reading or that they don’t want books. I’ve been doing this book thing for 12 years, and kids are the most avid consumers.

I’m writing this as a call to action:
1. I need help building Little Libraries®. Just the physical practical aspect.
2. And I need help finding places we can put them in Calexico, Westmorland, Seeley, Holville, Calipatria, and Brawley.
If you can help us with this, please contact me at sbodus @ yahoo.com (no spaces)

Edited: November 23rd, 2016

A Gracious Plenty, by Sheri Reynolds –book review

Finch Nobles, who as a child was badly burned in a kitchen accident–“widowed by her own skin” (13)–has elected a living death rather than face the rejection of others. She has lived with death all her life, after all–her father was caretaker for the town cemetery–and when he died, she took over.  She lives alone in a house on the grounds, isolated from most human contact. She has no friends except for the Dead, who come to the cemetery “heavy” with secrets. They control the weather and the seasons, “coaxing the natural world along” (34).

When Finch is forced to spend more time than usual among the townsfolk, she gradually comes to understand that she is like them. Each of them has his or her own struggles or pain, but not the obvious scars.  Finch’s awakening to this truth is slow but inevitable when she gets to know the cemetery’s newest resident, Lucy Armour, who had been the town’s reigning beauty queen before she committed suicide.  Indeed, this is the only way Finch can learn that she’s no different from anyone else, for the Dead are the only ones she will listen to, and it’s their stories of secret pain that open her eyes.

As Finch and the surrounding Dead “lighten,” Finch loses the ability to communicate with them because she no longer needs them.  She emerges from her own crypt and joins the living, where she lives with clarity, instead of the haziness she inhabited that permitted her communication with the Dead. A Gracious Plenty illustrates that, despite our outward appearances, we are all the same in our pain, in our avoidance of that pain, and in our need to be loved and accepted.

Finch is crabby and prickly because she is conscious of the ugliness of her scars. She has endured stares and taunts all her life, so she opts to reside in the in-between place where the Dead go immediately after they die.  The result is that Finch is half-dead herself, numb to life. She would be stuck here, except she’s made friends with Lucy Armour, the town’s beauty queen who ran away and got involved in drugs and prostitution, and changed her name to Lucy “Armageddon” to become more authentic. It’s this name change that captures Finch’s interest, and subsequently her discovery of Lucy’s self-inflicted cuts.

Finch states, “I liked the part of her…that changed her name and sliced her beautiful body so it would be more than just beautiful. What binds us is the scars. Mine from burns, hers from a knife, and both of us numbed by it” (22).  They have both run from life, and they’re both heavy with pain.  Lucy’s suicide is still a secret–her mother, Lois,  refuses to acknowledge it–so Lucy enlists the aid of Finch in forcing Lois into admitting the Lucy committed suicide.

Finch’s acceptance of the task is an act of love that results in self-evolution: through confronting Lois with the truth, Finch sees where she has been blind to reality.  M. Scott Peck writes, “…the act of loving is an act of self-evolution even when the purpose of the act is someone else’s growth” (Road Less Traveled 82). Finch does this act of love even though she longs to be with the Dead completely so her meanness will be carried away on the wind.

When William Blott, the town drunk, joins the Dead at the cemetery, the Mediator (a guide who teaches the Dead how to “lighten,”) tells Blott, “If you want to know real enlightenment, you’ve got to lose the weight…. We’re talking about burdens and secrets…. In this place you’ve moved beyond experience. now it’s your stories that keep you down” (Reynolds 34). Blott is much like Leonard, the town sheriff, who is a blot on his father’s good name and has stifled his pain with food, where Blott retreated into alcoholism and transvestism.

Blott’s penchant for dressing up in women’s clothing proves to be handy in the cemetery because he is able to quiet baby Marcus, who’s been wailing for a dozen years, by “nursing” him with false “ninnies.” For the first time, Marcus is comforted, nurtured as he should have been by the mother who smothered him in his sleep. When Blott’s secret life is revealed after his death, local youths spray-paint his headstone with defamatory words, and Blott is devastated to discover that he was not genuinely loved and respected.

A storm is building because Blott and Lucy are enraged by the living world’s refusal to accept their truths, and they summon up a powerful storm of rage and pain, called up to “wipe out a bad memory” (153).  The storm is a catharsis that leaves the air sweet and clear because directly before and during the storm, truths are fully revealed.  Lucy’s mother finally faces that her daughter committed suicide; the chief church lady, Reba, accepts that Blott was worthwhile; Marcus’ mother admits she smothered him; the sheriff stands up to his father; and Finch finally releases her grudges against the townspeople.  Each character understands that “the idea of the person and the heart of the person–those are wholly different landscapes” (133).

Each person had her own story, but until it was told, understanding between people remained elusive.  In the words of Collective Soul: “The walls came up as the thoughts went down to the hush of disparity. I’m sure we know the problem lies with some insecurities. We’ll never see eye-to-eye as long as our tongues are tied…. In a moment, it could happen–we could wake up…. In a moment we could change” (*”In a Moment“).

We are all the same. We want to belong; we fear rejection; we have secret pain. Reynolds deftly illustrates that sameness–and the disparity–in humanity, and points to the universal need for compassion.

As some **unknown wise soul said, “Be kind, for everyone is fighting a hard battle.”

 

 

*From their album, Hints, Allegations, and Things Left Unsaid

**Various sources are credited with this quote. No one knows who said it first.

 

 

Edited: August 22nd, 2013

Wrestling with the story

For the past few years I’ve struggled with what I –and others–have perceived to be a gaping hole in my memoir.  Today I realized that the gaping hole is actually the end of that part of my story; I think I need to focus on excavating what I already have and delete what comes after.

I have wanted to fill the hole with my years as a mom, since I learned to understand my mother as I learned to understand myself.

But I have resisted this, and now I get why:  those years are not about Mama and me. They are part of another story.

Such a freeing revelation.

I realized this as I was reading Emma BrockesShe Left me the Gun at 2am this morning.  She writes,

It is a virtue, we are told, to face things, although given the chance I would go for denial every time–if denying a thing meant not knowing it. But the choice, it turns out, is not between knowing a thing and not knowing it, but between knowing and half-knowing it, which is no choice at all.  (I don’t know the page number, only that it is location 99 on my Kindle.)

I half-knew my mother was dying, but it felt like not knowing because every time I re-read a letter from her, I re-discovered that she had cancer.  I, too, choose denial.

So as I’m reading Brockes’ story, I’m inserting myself into the text and peripherally excavating and then I read this:

If the landscape that eventually emerged can be visualized as the bleakest thing I know–a British beach in winter–she stood around me like a windbreak so that all I saw was colors. A therapist once described my mother’s background…as the elephant in the room….” (location 122/Kindle)

Did Mama windbreak for me?  I see that I have been resting in that choiceless place of half-knowing.

Resting. Resisting.

Because I’m afraid of what I’ll find in the excavation. Not about Mama, but about me.

I relate to both the author and her mother–I see myself in both roles because my childhood experience is similar to her mother’s.
So I am excavating my own childhood, too, and evaluating my role as mother, since I severed ties in an attempt to protect my children from the poison of my past.

 

About the book:

Buy it.
My favorite thing right now, a third through, is the way Brockes keeps the reader at her side on the journey. I have an idea of what she will discover about her mother, but I am hoping for more details (which, by the way, reminds me that memoir IS story, and suspense is delightful).  The story–and the way she tells it–will make you reflect on your own relationship with your mother, which to me is the mark of a terrific storyteller.

 

 

 

 

 

Edited: July 14th, 2013

Why I give books away

People are always nonplussed when I share my passion for giving away books. I always have a box of books at the ready, and I have a bookshelf in the waiting room of my office that I keep fully stocked. The best way I can explain it is by sharing part of what I told my 2008 graduating class:

“My son was in juvenile hall, and I wanted to give him a copy of Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, which is Frankl’s memoir of how he endured life in a concentration camp during the Holocaust. But when I asked the officers at the front desk if I could give it to him, they said no. I was shocked and baffled. It’s a very small paperback book. Did they think he’d make a shank out of it? Seemed the worst he could do is make spit wads.

“No,” they told me. “All the kids would fight over it and the book would be destroyed.”

This told me the obvious, that there was poverty in juvenile hall. But there was something bigger here, a mindset of not having enough. So I thought, “All right, then. I’ll just bring books for everyone.”

I brought in boxes of books every week, and two things happened:
1) the officers contacted me to see if I could find a specific book for one of the kids, and 2) they asked if they (the officers) could have some, too.
The hunger wasn’t merely among the inmates but among the officers, too.

“Yes,” I said. “There’s enough for you, too.”

I wonder if a kid’s life could be changed simply by having access to an abundance of books. Simply by reading just one book that shows a life different from the one he knows. Who knows what one book can do? I think having access to books can have a huge impact on the choices a person makes.

I gave away more than 2000 books all over Imperial Valley that summer; the bulk of them went to juvenile hall and the navy base, and there were so many that I didn’t take the time to document them all on the Bookcrossing site. I decided that it didn’t matter, since the point wasn’t to track the books but to get them into the hands of people.

I’ll never know what impact any of this had. It doesn’t matter.
The books are out there.

Edited: December 24th, 2011

Joe Gould’s Secret–book review

While a casual reading of Mitchell’s Joe Gould’s Secret might persuade the reader that the secret was that Gould never actually wrote his epic history of conversations he overheard, I think Mitchell tells us straight away what his secret was in the first few pages of his book.  Joe Gould tells Mitchell, “There is nothing accidental about me” (5).  This neatly captures his secret:  even when he was suffering from his choices, dressing “under a red exit light” (9), not writing that history,  he was where he wanted to be, not surrounded by a “shirt-sleeved multitude” (13).

Mitchell initially describes Gould as “an ancient, enigmatic, spectral figure, a banished man” (53),  but he gives him flesh and spirit a few pages later, with an interesting effect:

“…his face was alert and on guard and yet so tired and so detached and so remotely reflective that it was almost impassive. Looking straight at me, he looked straight through me.  I have seen the same deceptively blank expression on the faces of old freaks sitting on platforms in freak shows and on the faces of old apes in zoos on Sunday afternoons (57).

It’s as though Mitchell is fiercely warning the reader that Joe Gould is not a sideshow.  I was intrigued by this—not that Mitchell was showing his compassion but that he warned people as surely as if he’d told us to back the hell off.  The mechanics?  I don’t know what to call it, but I know I want to write like that.   In another passage, Mitchell writes, “…or I would see him sitting among the young mothers and the old alcoholics in the sooty, pigeon, crumb-besprinkled, newspaper-bestrewn, privet-choked, coffin-shaped little park at Sheridan Square” (53).  Besides being a delightfully visual sentence, this paints a vivid picture of the author himself, I think.  I catch an underlying impatient despairing anger in the way he rattles off how dreadful the park is—then he tops it off with “coffin-shaped,” as though its inhabitants were already dead.  (Much later, Mrs. Sarah Ostrowsky Berman refers to “the city’s living dead” (158).)

One thing in particular captivated me in this book:  the similarity between the author and his subject.   I probably wouldn’t have noticed it except for one small statement of Gould’s:  “I was under-sized; I was a runt, a shrimp, a peanut, a half-pint, a tadpole” (62).  What struck me was that it sounded like something Mitchell would write.  Indeed, he rattles off descriptions in exactly the same manner throughout the book.   For example, in addition to the previously cited passages, he describes a barroom:  “…it was long and narrow and murky, a blind tunnel of a place, a burrow, a bat’s cave, a bear’s den” (97); in describing magazines Gould brought out:   “They were dog-eared and grease-spotted and coffee-stained” (76).   I considered the possibility that all the dialogue was simply Mitchell’s style, but he took notes, and, I believe, recorded some conversations.  Journalistic integrity dictates that he transcribe exactly what Gould said.

So I wonder:  Did Mitchell see himself in Joe Gould?  Gould’s fascination with every day conversations certainly mirrors Mitchell’s job as a journalist, but I think another statement of Gould’s captures the meat of it:  Referring to his monstrously long history, he says, “Everything else I’ve ever done may disappear, but I’ll still be immortal” (77).  I think, at the heart of every writer, is the desire to have one’s words live beyond one’s life.  I wonder if Joe Gould’s secret was Mitchell’s as well.

Edited: December 20th, 2009

PCC’s First Contest « Pop Culture Curmudgeon

From Pop Culture Curmudgeon’s blog

You’ll be able to win a copy of Moira Rogers’ book Cry Sanctuary, the first in the Red Rock Pass series. The next installment is coming out on June 9, so this is a great chance to get into a new paranormal romance series.

Moira Rogers describes the Red Rock Pass series as “a dark world where wizards and werewolves fight for supremacy and only a few of the alphas in the United States hold true to the traditions of protecting their packs.” Read more about it here, then make sure you come back Friday to enter the contest.

The contest will run from 12:01 am Friday May 22 through 6:00 pm Sunday May 24 (all times Pacific). The winner will be announced here Monday. The prize will be one ebook, available in multiple formats. The prize is non-transferable and may not be substituted.

Edited: May 19th, 2009

Down On All Fours: Jane’s Guide to Living (Review of Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing, by Melissa Banks)

Melissa Banks’s book, The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing, is just another chick-lit book, although its message is more subtle than others of its ilk. Jane, the main character, does not fret about having an inadequate love-life; nevertheless, she reveals angst throughout the stories almost in sotto voce through her actions and certain comments. Presupposing that an independent woman is someone who is strong and self-confident, is intent on following her own goals, and is not determined or controlled by others, a reader would be justified in expecting Jane to be at least one of those things. However, Jane is strong only in the sense that she’s a survivor: She’s survived a number of hapless love affairs; she’s survived working with a virago; and she’s survived the death of her father. Although the men in Jane’s life are prominently featured in the book, and a cursory reading seems to reveal their impact on her life, it is Jane’s high-school gym teacher, arguably a woman, who shapes Jane’s philosophy, not just in love, but in life: “Get down on all fours and eat grass.”

 

While Jane doesn’t castigate herself for her singleness, her role in the stories is that of a woman looking for love, so obviously she’s discontent with her status of being without a partner. Her first love relationship is with a man named Jamie, whose sonorous voice stops her when she raises a reasonable objection to vacationing with his ex-girlfriend and her husband. Jane is down on all fours throughout the tale, first because she agrees to go, then again when she panders to his defensiveness about his friends: “I realize that all I mean is that they seem posed, but I continue, [with banal descriptions of the surroundings], anything to keep from sounding as though I’m criticizing his friends.” She kowtows when Jamie asks her how she likes Bella: “A voice tells me to say, Great, and I obey.” When Jane tours the island with Bella’s husband, Yves, because Bella is out cavorting with Jamie, Yves takes her to a duty-free shop and sprays samples of perfume on her arms and “gives the verdict…before [she sniffs].” The reader never learns if she even likes the perfume. Jane does not confront Jamie about his decision to desert her that morning. She asks him where he’d gone, but doesn’t pursue the matter, going down on all fours and taking the casual dismissal as though it was something she must accept. Jane eventually breaks up with Jamie, but only because she’s found another man.

 

Jane’s “down-on-all-fours” philosophy continues in her ill-fated relationship with Archie Knox, a man who is more than twice her age. Although Jane’s aunt gives an oblique warning about Archie the evening Jane meets him by saying that Archie would have brought the woman he was with over to meet them if she’d been “Somebody,” Jane is intrigued by him. Another warning comes from Archie himself, when they meet several years later at a party. “Somebody has to take care of you,” he says, and gives another one later in the evening over supper with Jane. “He told me my aunt was the most beautiful woman alive, even at eighty. He touched my chin, and moved my head from side to side, studying my profiles. He smiled and said, “No resemblance at all.””

Jane, down on all fours, has nothing to say to that.

 

Throughout the relationship, Jane accepts Archie’s assessment of her, telling the reader outright that “he was always right.”  When he’s impotent and implies that it’s her fault, she doesn’t call him on it, only pretends to be consoled. She characterizes their relationship as “[m]ore like Mr. Wilson and Dennis the Menace.”   When Archie subtly denigrates her to Sophie, her best friend, she doesn’t call him on it. After Archie talks about her like “some made up character  to his associates at a publication party, and then later corrects her grammar because, he says, “I’m helping you to be better,” Jane goes down on all fours and moves in with him. She submits to his uncaring, thoughtless treatment when she’s grieving over her aunt’s death: “The night I found out she died, Archie and I lay on the sofa for a long time. He combed my hair with his fingers. When he got to a knot, he’d give it a little yank.”    She doesn’t pull away from him. After the funeral, Jane overhears Archie talking on the phone in an intimate tone. He tells her brightly that his ex-wife can’t wait to meet her, and reveals, placatingly, that he told his ex-wife of his plans to marry Jane. Jane takes issue with Archie’s tone of voice, and Archie responds with an accusation about Jane’s final night with Jamie. Jane neither denies it nor tells him to mind his own business; neither does she remind him of all the times he’s regaled her with tales of his sex life before her. She just stands there, and the next day she finds that he’s lapsed into drinking. It’s never said aloud, nor referred to by Jane, but the implication is that it’s Jane’s fault. By not addressing this issue, Melissa Banks is allowing the implication and underlining Jane’s “down-on-all-fours” philosophy, even though Jane leaves Archie because of it.

 

Back in New York, Jane is down on all fours in her relationship with her new boss, Mimi. She accepts Mimi’s reduction of her duties from associate editor to “an assistant she’d decided to bring up.”   She submits to being treated like a doll: Mimi “brought in lipsticks she no longer wore, silk scarves she thought I’d like.”  When Mimi keeps explaining “some basic aspect of publishing to [Jane],” Jane stifles an authentic “I know” because she doesn’t want to appear unwilling to learn. When Jane finally has had enough of Mimi’s belittlement, at the same time she stands up for herself she reveals that, like Mimi, she had needed to be told who she was. Thus, even though Jane tried to be assertive, she was still “down on all fours.”

 

When Jane discovers her father has leukemia, she crawls back to Archie again and submits to the same disparaging treatment he handed out previously. It’s during this time that she leaves her job and her father dies, and the familiarity of her relationship seems to make it easier for her to grow some wings. She continues to be on all fours with Archie, but seems to recognize that she had been seeking the kind of love she had from her father and ends the relationship. She does this still on her knees, though. When they’re discussing why she was leaving, she reveals that she can’t do anything till he does it first: “I shook my head, and he stood up, so I could.”

 

In the final chapter, although Jane meets Mr. Right and manages to snare him, she shows that she believes her failed relationships are her fault, that she hasn’t found herself, and that she still needs to be told who she is. “Tell me I haven’t wrecked every relationship I’ve been in,” she laments to Sophie. She elicits the help of two women by way of their book, How to Meet and Marry Mr. Right, half-wishing she’d picked up an Edith Wharton book instead, even though she disdains them and has found their cheerleader-y types unhelpful in the past; she thinks these two must have some knowledge she lacks. She says, “Half of me has to make fun of the book.”   And she turns to these bimbos for advice? A clear-headed, critical-thinking woman would not consider taking the advice of someone she finds remotely contemptible, yet here’s Jane, down on all fours again. After using the techniques they prescribe, which causes Mr. Right to walk away, Jane discards the silly prescription and follows his advice to be herself. In some respects, Robert is a mirror: they like the same things and she finds she doesn’t have to explain certain things to him because he understands intuitively, which reveals the adolescent belief that finishing one another’s sentences and reading each others’ minds means true love has been found. While this may be comforting to her, it’s also narcissistic, and is perhaps her way of finding herself—in another person. She has neglected the necessary introspection and has actually gone against her father’s advice and has taken the easy way out by joining with a guy who mirrors herself. Ironically, if Jane had bought an Edith Wharton book instead of the dating guide she chose, perhaps she would have recognized the prison she was in and would have begun an inward journey that would have made her a truly independent woman.

 

This book plays on the fears and insecurities of modern women and wraps it in a pseudo-feminist novel.  We’re not pretty enough, or good enough, or smart enough unless a man tells us we are.  But if we “get on all fours and eat grass,” we’ll find ourselves in a man, too.

Edited: December 15th, 2008

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