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Archive for the ‘Benchmarks: A Single Mother’s Illustrated Journal’ Category


Here’s an excerpt from
Benchmarks: A Single Mother’s Illustrated Journal.

Happy Solstice!

I wrote this piece a number of years ago, when my dad was dying. It was an odd sort of comfort back then, but comfort, nonetheless. I find myself taking comfort in it again this year, when so many of us again stand surrounded by death…and life. Happy Solstice!

We stand, my son Patrick and I, on a knoll high above the Columbia River. The bluffs roll golden above us to the hard blue sky. Below us lies the river, ruffled blue by a baking wind. This is a respite, a hiatus in a day-long car trip to my parents’ house. I wonder if my father will be able to eat the corn chowder I have packed frozen in the ice chest in the trunk. I wonder if he’ll be able to walk. I wonder if he’ll be able to sit up. I wonder if he’ll still be alive. He is dying with the year, fading as the trees fade from their July green to their late August grays and tans.

Facing his death is  in some ways easier than facing his life, a fact that shames and saddens me, but it is true, nonetheless. I do what I can, which is not much. I drive the eight hours from my home in Medford to my parents’ home in Pendleton. I make corn chowder, one of the few things my father can still eat with some pleasure. I clean the house. I talk to my mother. I help my father to the bathroom. I try not to wince when he touches me. I hug him back instead. And at night I lie in my childhood bed in that painful house and I read into the early morning hours because even though I’m a grown woman with a child of my own I’m still afraid to turn off the light.

We have turned off the freeway, crossed the Columbia on the delicate, spindly bridge that spans the river at Biggs, and followed the winding road up the hill, turned right, then turned right again onto a small side road, and then turned right one more time onto gravel. Few people come here, and those few were usually brought by someone else in the beginning. I was brought here myself years ago, and now I am bringing my son, although to be honest the trip is more for me than for him.

It never changes here. Grass ripples tawny and amber around the massive stone circle. It looks like savanna grass, the kind from which lions might spring. But this is Washington, and there are no lions here. There will be no heart-stopping roar, no tawny mane, no gaping, powerful jaws, no sabre-tipped massive paws. There will be no drama, no last-minute rescues, no animal savagery. Which is not to say that death does not live here. We stand above rimrocks rising like ziggurats from the river to the sky. A miss-step, a stumble, could send us plunging into the abyss. Diamondback rattlesnakes love these places. They take refuge from the sun’s heat in the myriad tiny caves and grottoes, slithering out in late afternoon and evening to hunt and sun themselves in these very grasslands. And then there are the standing stones, silent sentinels to the memory of local boys for whom death came far away, not on a sun-baked grassy hilltop, but in a muddy trench, a heaving ocean, a roaring sky. These stones and row upon row of white crosses in red-splashed fields are all that mark their lives these days. They died young. I doubt many left wives or children.

I look around me and feel the emptiness of the place, and think that death can come in many ways, most of them small, quiet, and mundane. I think of my father, lying in a hospital bed in the living room, waiting for death to claim him, and suddenly the grassy mountaintop with its savanna grass and rattlesnakes seems like a pure, clean, and safe place. I look down at my son standing beside me, tanned knees bare below his shorts, feet shod in sturdy leather boots, honey-gold curls tossing in the wind. I wonder what he’s thinking. Surely he’s not standing here thinking of death, as I am. Patrick tucks a hot, sweaty, slightly sticky hand into mine and we scuff wordlessly through the waving grass to the center of the place.

There are others here. A middle-aged couple in golf shirts and white shorts moves quietly from stone to stone, reading the names on the brass plaques. A man poses his wife and three children beneath one of the massive, empty stone doorways—“Smile nice, kids…not like that, smile nice,” he commands. “There, that’s better…just one more for Grandma…” His children bare their teeth as he snaps and snaps. A lean couple in skin-tight rivet-studded bellbottoms and slinky black shirts stands entangled, hands shoved deep into each others’ back pockets, heads slanted, mouths devouring each other, at the edge of the drop-off to the river below. I see a flash of tongue before I avert my eyes. “Look, Patrick…see the stones?” I say, hoping he didn’t see the tongues, too.

We wander from stone to stone, reading names unknown to us, as dead now as the boys who bore them. None of us here today are old enough to have known these men, to feel their loss as anything but a vague regret. These men are as lost—and as unknown—as the builders of the original stone circle an ocean and an age away.

Patrick and I finish the circle of stones and wander out into the grass, seeking the heel stone, touching the tall obelisk to the east, then ambling back to the altar stone at the center. He is silent and still sleepy. I keep an eye peeled for snakes while I try to explain a mystery that has puzzled archeologists and historians for centuries. The afternoon ages. The circle slowly empties until at last our car sits solitary in the dusty parking lot, and we stand alone by the massive stone altar in the center of the circle.

I lift Patrick to sit on its flat top, then lean beside him. A cooling wind cuts the baking heat the stones reflect. A hawk screams high overhead. Patrick drapes an arm around my shoulders and we gaze around at the massive worked stones, the dark brass plaques bearing the names of men as surely dead as my father will soon be, the waving grass, the heel stone, the river far below, and the blue, blue bowl of sky overhead. I realize that in my years away—in the flight from the pain of my childhood—I have missed this clean, open space where my soul can stretch. I have remembered the pain, the blows, the shame, the browns, the grays, the dust, the wind, the heat, but I have forgotten the campfires orange against black fir forests and diamond-studded night skies, toasted marshmallows and frogs going courting at sunset, the ice cream sandwiches on hot afternoons, and how it feels to stand on a high bluff with nothing between the golden grass and blue sky but myself and the wind blowing through me.

I stand anchored by the little arm around my neck, and lift my head and pull the day into my lungs, and a part of me that has been bound lifts its head. I tighten my arm around my son and tell him about Stonehenge far away, about how the stones mark time, how the sun rises around the circle as the year turns, about how each midwinter day, as the sun rose above the special stone, the people rejoiced not because spring had arrived, but because they knew it was coming. Through the remainder of the winter, through blizzards, ice storms, endless gray days, starvation, disease, and death, they clung to the circle’s message. Spring is on its way. Life will triumph. The cold, bleak days will end. Stonehenge was more than a calendar. It was hope, set in stone.

I fall silent. Patrick sags against me. I look around me and see the stones with their brazen reminders of death standing tall and silent against the tawny hills and the blue sky, and I realize that as surely as the stones with their brass plaques surround me today, death surrounds me—but I am not confined by it as long as I can see the world beyond the stones—the tawny grass, the blue sky, and the sun. The circle goes round. Summer, autumn, winter, spring. Better times are coming. I think of my father looking out over the hills and valleys, dying on a hilltop far away, and I know that I have not reached midwinter yet. It will be worse before it gets better. But it will get better. I may never know what the standing stones said to their creators, but I know what they have said to me today—and I am grateful to the depths of my soul for their voices. The hawk screams again, and together Patrick and I watch it soar high above the stones, over the rimrocks, beyond the river, and into the blue beyond.

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Class of 2015 photo in front of school

Today my son graduates high school at two in the afternoon. It’s the culmination of a week of pretty much non-stop activity–parties, baccalaureate, pictures, marching practice, scholarship award night, tuba practice (he’s playing part of his state solo in the graduation ceremony), his own personal graduation party, the arrival of friends and family, and far too little sleep. In a larger sense, though, this is the culmination of a chapter in our life that started in September, 2002, on the day that I dropped him off for Kindergarten, and then went home and wept because my child was growing up.

A lot has happened since then. The tuba. Allergies. Mold. Moves. Love. Loss. Books, art, music.  Most of all, friends have happened. They happened a lot this week. Megan, Marty, Morris, Dakota, Donnie, Mike, Leatrice, Adam, Jakob, Zack, Colin, Whitney, Olivia, my sisters Sandy and Shirley (because one of the things the years have taught me is that sisters can be friends, too). My mom.

We’re ready for graduation. We’re ready because we worked hard for it, and because we had friends who helped. And because they helped (and because my sister Sandy just emailed me her pictures from the party) I had a minute to see something I otherwise would have missed.

I looked at the pictures. I saw the faces I’ve seen in my living room and my yard, and in some cases my classrooms for the past nine years. And what struck me was what survivors our children are. In all the romanticizing of the teenage years and prom and homecoming and graduation (and in the case of our town, the Noize Parade) and football and soccer and baseball it’s easy to lose sight of how very, very hard it is to turn from a child to an adult. Our children have done it–and mostly they’ve managed to hold onto the best parts of themselves–the parts we saw in the baby hugs, the kisses good night, the wonder of Christmas, the first trips to the zoo, the stories at night, the ball games in the yard, the conversations on the porch while the stars came out, and the conversations in the car–the hard ones, where we could talk about the things that we needed to without having to look at each other. Cars are good places for that. They force us to listen, rather than look, or run away when we don’t like what we’re hearing.

I look at those pictures, and for every person there I see a challenge met, a win, a loss, a change. And so for The Boy, and for his friends, and for his classmates I had the privilege of knowing in my classrooms, let me just say, “I’m immensely proud of all of you. And while you may not know it, I love you all. You’re good people. You’ve enriched my life, and brought out the best in me.” You’ve let me feed you. You’ve listened to my stories. Sometimes you’ve told me yours.  You’ve sat in our living room, and sometimes slept on the floor. Thank you for that. Thank you for sharing your lives with us.

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Dear Son,

It’s Father’s Day. I’ve never really known what to do about that. It was just the two of us until we got the House Leroy, then it was just the three of us, and he was very clear that you had a dad–however far away he might live–that I was the Parent of Record, and that he was, well, our House Leroy.

The last time we talked about Father’s Day you said thoughtfully that, while your father didn’t really feel like a dad, you hoped that the two of you could be friends. “You’ve really been both my mom and my dad,” you said. And then you insisted that we go to Dairy Queen, where you went inside and explained that to the server, and wangled me a free Father’s Day ice cream cone. I wanted to cry, but I didn’t. I said “thank you,” and gave you a hug, and tried not to think about all the things a dad might have taught you that I hadn’t.

But that wasn’t true. You had Leroy, who showed  you how to do home repairs, and sat and joked with you, and drove me to all your out-of-town games, meets, concerts, and solo festivals, and bragged to all the neighbors that he wished he’d had a son like you. You have your football, wrestling, and weight-training coaches, men who have taught you about sportsmanship, and about what it’s like to be a man among men and boys. You have Uncle Tommy, who by living his life honestly as a “little person” in a “big world”  teaches you every day what it’s like to be a man in the face of enormous challenges. You’ve had a number of teachers who have seen things to admire and foster in you–and have done both things. And this year, your dad has started helping with some of your musical expenses.

None of those men are–or were–your “fathers” in the traditional sense. None of them were married to your mother (though the House Leroy came closest). None of them left our house to go to work every day, and came home every night and threw a football around the yard with you, fought with you about your hair, and taught you how to drive. Those things matter, but we’ve filled those needs if we decided we needed them filled. Having Leroy live with us taught you that it’s possible for men, women, and children to not only live in peace, but to actively enjoy each others’ company. I work every day. We don’t fight about your hair because, hey, it’s on your head, and it’s clean and you’re not running into “Stop” signs.

So why is it that I feel that there’s still something missing for you? Why is it that when your friends’ dads and grandfathers spend time with you I see a side of you that I don’t see otherwise? Why is it that I look in your eyes I sometimes wonder if you understand that you’re growing into a wonderful man, as well as a wonderful human being? I wish I could say that to you in words you could hear. I’ve tried. And I’ve done a pretty good job.

You know how to mow the lawn. You are a whiz at math, writing, literature, music–just about anything you set your mind to. You’re kind–I love watching you with my friends’ children and grandchildren. You’re respectful, even though you have a mind of your own. When we fight, we fight to find a solution, not to hurt each other. You know how to be part of a family. In a household as small as ours everyone plays an important role. And you play yours well. You’re amazing. I wish I could say that it was my doing, but you’ve always been that way. True, I’ve tried not to screw you up too badly, but you are who you are because that’s who you’ve always been. I just wish I was sure you understood what an incredible person–what an incredible man–you are. Do you? Do you really?

When you were little you worried that  some flaw in you had driven your dad away. “Maybe if I was lean..” you’d say. “Maybe if I liked football more…” “Maybe if my eyes were blue…” I don’t think that my explanation that people are who they are, and that if your dad’s love depended on those things the lack was his, not yours, soaked in. Maybe because secretly I was asking myself the same sorts of questions. Maybe if I were thin…maybe if I were blonde…maybe if I earned more money…maybe if I were better at sex…Maybe if I weren’t so smart…Maybe if I weren’t an artist…Maybe if I were funnier…maybe…maybe…maybe…

Maybe the truth was that some people just aren’t meant to be together not because they can’t be, but because relationships are hard, and they only work if at some point both parties see something irreplaceable in each other. I was with your dad because I wanted to be part of a family, I wanted to be loved and to love, he was funny, and it was better than being alone. He was with me because, hey, money and free sex. The things that made me unique weren’t things that he valued. And so we were better apart. All that happened before you ever came into the picture. The flaws were ours, not yours. He went on and found someone he loves, and who loved him. We went on and found Leroy. We found teachers. We found coaches. We found friends. Each of those good and caring men has helped you find something amazing in yourself. I hope you see those things for the gifts they are. I hope you realize that in our efforts to replace the gap not having a dad left in your life have in some ways challenged you to become more than you would perhaps have been otherwise. I don’t know. Woulda shoulda coulda.

There’s a saying that the people who best know what childhood should be are those who never had one. I suspect that not having a “real dad”–even though you’ve had a lot of good and kind men in your life–has taught you what a dad should be. You will have fortunate children. Happy Father’s Day, son. I love you.

Mom.

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It’s hard to know quite what to do with a headline like that. I wrote it, and realized it evoked images of Judgment Day, and in my case, the sorts of images that make me jump up and bump the AC setting down by about ten degrees. I thought of changing the title, but really, what else could I call this post? Past Lives, Reviewed is exactly what I’m going to be talking about. Yes, gentle readers, the little collection of short stories that grew out of my foray into past-life regression, the little collection that somehow leapfrogged my more ambitious memoir about being a single mother that has been trapped in the doldrums of Final Revisions for, lo, these many months … where was I?

Oh, yes. Past Lives: A Journey has been on Amazon for a few months now. There’s been absolutely no fanfare. I approved the final proof. It hit Amazon. I’m still waiting for the Kindle edition to get finished. That little book has just been sitting there quietly, waiting for me to get off my sit-upon and actually do some marketing, or at the very least a signing. Imagine my delight to discover that, in spite of my sloth, Past Lives has gotten its first review, and a very nice one it is, by one of my favorite writers, Marian Allen. You can learn more about her here. And you should. Go. But finish reading this first.

I mean, this is a woman who is entitled to an opinion. Here’s what she said:

To be fair, I think I would have given this five stars if the author hadn’t been so honest.

This book is a series of stories written in response to past-life regression exercises. As a matter of full disclosure, I hereby state that, although I bought the book, I did so because I had read a couple of the stories on Bodie’s blog, and knew they were beautiful.

Heartbreaking to joyful, it’s cleansing and healing to follow this writer’s journey through these vicarious (or allegorical?) explorations of experiences of one person’s oppression by another.

The experience and the catharsis are valid for persons of either gender, although the stories of “the woman in the red dress” speak most clearly to female readers.

Highly recommended. Oh–the problem with the honesty? I wanted more stories. I didn’t CARE if this was all there actually were in the set, I wasn’t ready for them to be over! Again: Highly recommended.

Thank you, Marian. Thank you ever so much.

Now, about the “more stories” thing. You’ll be pleased to know, Marian, that Benchmarks: A Single Mother’s Illustrated Journal should have cleared the last of the editing shoals and be ready to set sail by around the end of this week. It should be on Amazon by the end of next week. One of the reasons this book is taking so long is because I’ve made the decision to produce it in several ways in order to appeal to a broader audience. The illustrated version is the Cadillac of the series. It’s 8.5 x 8.5 inches, full color, and it includes numerous paintings done by yours truly. It’s truly lovely, but all that lovely carries with it a price. And in times like these I understand that it’s a price some might find prohibitive. So I’m also producing the book as a small, trade paperback, suitable for tucking into a purse, briefcase, or diaper bag—think of it as the Hyundai version. It doesn’t have all the lovely paintings, the rich color, and the abundant size, but it’s priced within just about anyone’s budget. And, since I’m finding that e-books are playing an increasingly significant role in my sales, I’m also going to be producing Benchmarks on Kindle, as well as in a color, graphic e-book format, if all goes well. These will be the razor skateboards of the group, so to speak.

But that’s not all. I’m also developing a line of related products through CafePress. The idea is to provide a number of sales alternatives designed to appeal to a broad range of readers. I can do this, of course, because I do my own design and because I make use of the online tools available. You should try it; it takes time, but very little money.

And since we’re being honest here, I should probably say that I had tucked a few more stories into Past Lives, but ultimately decided to remove them to preserve the integrity of the collection. Removed they may have been, but those stories have been neither discarded nor forgotten. I’m beginning work on a less exclusive collection of stories even now, one that I think will include “The Girl Who Could Fly,” and “The Fattest Woman in the World,” The story that provided the germ that is even now growing into my first Young Adult novel, The Flying Walinskis. When they’ll see the light of day I couldn’t possibly guess, since one of the things publishing has taught me is that everything takes longer than you expect, but it’ll happen. It’ll happen … it’ll happen … Stay tuned.

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