We need more work like Joan Bodger's A Crack in the Teacup: The Life of an Old Woman Steeped in Stories. There is a need in society, especially among women, for more role models of powerful, female old age, instead of the Hollywood-type avoidance of older women, or worse, its flights from reality into surgical versions of maturity. Joan Bodger's autobiography traces the evolution of a wise woman. The subtitle lists the areas in which her strengths lie: in her full comprehension of age, femaleness, and story telling.
Like a mythical sword, her maturity is the result of tempering by fire¨more precisely, suffering and tragedy. The last half of her life, and of her book, is the more interesting, for it is her response to suffering that empowers her.
Bodger's childhood, youth and early adult life are, frankly, not very interesting to read about. She had a middle-class upbringing with well-meaning parents who struggled to make a good living. The fact that her father had a responsible position in the U.S. navy meant that Joan learned about ships, which becomes significant later. But reading the first part of the book amounts to receiving too much information about ordinary lives.
Even the section about Joan's duty during World War II is not exciting, despite the fact that she worked in the code room at the Pentagon and by accident almost prevented the Yalta Conference from occurring. After the war, she got married, moved into a former army camp in New York State called Shanks Village, had some miscarriages, and became bored by domesticity. All of these memories are superficially touched on, without passion, making for less-than-compelling reading.
It is when she begins a weekly story hour for the village children that the book becomes vivid, as if her own real life began at this point. Bodger does not simply read from picture books. In describing her storytelling technique, Bodger reaches into her childhood knowledge of ships:
I learn stores visually (not everyone does). I see the story scene by scene, frame by frame, cinematically. I see more than I tell, forever aware of each story's Plimsoll mark, its load line. I jettison surplus adjectives and adverbs, sacrifice character dimension (a folk tale is not a novel), yet include such ballast and precious cargo as to make the voyage worthwhile for me and my investors (my listeners).
Bodger comes to cherish the power in storytelling, the godlike "making something out of almost-nothing." Early on, she instinctively senses that this power is particularly feminine. "ÓSpinning, weaving, pattern-making, storytelling, making babies, creating, are all somehow connected. What is the double helix but a sort of spindle, wound with DNA?"
She moves beyond her own community to offer stories in a poor Negro (it is 1963, and Šblack' has not yet become beautiful) neighbourhood of Nyack. Bodger parks herself outside on the steps of a church, scatters picture books and Tootsie Rolls around her, and lures children near. When she asks what story they want to hear first, she is dismayed when they shout for "Little Black Sambo." This book has been banned for 25 years as being racist, but Bodger nervously tells it in order to please her young audience.
"Be aware that, in the early 1960s, few Negroes appeared in movies and television, none were to be seen in advertisements and commercials; they were rarely photographed for newspaper articles." Her awareness of racial issues is growing.
After months of offering a regular storytelling hour, she is invited to become the director of the Nyack nursery school. She finds it difficult teaching the Negro children the basic lessons of the names of colours and shapes. Bodger asks for advice from a female Negro psychiatrist, who insists that Bodger must discuss race with the children.
One day, when a boy reading a picture book identifies a dark shape as being like his mother, Bodger agrees, acknowledging that Jamie himself, his mother, and the child in the story, are all black. And that is the word she uses.
Jamie turned to me. It was as though I had stripped off a stocking mask from his face. He wore an expression I had never seen before. Relief! Joy! Then and there I realized that all this time he must have thought that I was too blind or stupid to see that he was black. One day I might open my eyes and see his blackness¨and then I wouldn't love him any more. But now I had seen him and called him by his rightful name¨and I obviously still loved him.
After this development, Bodger begins mentioning blackness at each story time, confirming the children's self identity.
The most amazing outcome of all this was that, within a week, the childrenÓsuddenly began to name the colours, and, soon afterwards, squares and circles and trianglesÓOnly when they could own their blackness without fear, could they allow themselves to see the rest of the world.
Storytime becomes an effective element at a therapeutic nursery school that Bodger creates and directs at a Catholic orphanage for mostly Puerto Rican children. Incapable of paying attention to a story at first, the kids become wild. Bodger decides to fight for story time, threatening to hit anyone who tries to disrupt it.
I know the arguments against physical punishment. But there are worse things that can happen¨never learning to listen; never learning to make images in the mind, or being touched by the magic and beauty of literature; never absorbing a sense of form. Never becoming not-bored.
Bodger's solution is to have a literal fight for the story, by letting the kids vent their restless energy on her, pushing and pummeling while she pushes back, permitting honest expressions of feeling, and preparing their minds for new ideas and images.
With a wealth of knowledge of folk tales, fairy tales and stories, Bodger draws on myth for meaning when her own life becomes challenging. As the mother of a boy and girl, her life is postcard-perfect until 1963, when her seven-year-old daughter Lucy suffers a brain tumour and dies. Stories fill Lucy's last months, including a tale of a princess who drowns in a millstream. In this story, a harper makes a harp out of the princess's breastbone and hair, forming a singing bone, a motif common to several folk tales. A line from a poem by W. H. Auden runs through Bodger's mind, later the source of the title for this book: "And the crack in the teacup opens."
Bodger's son Ian survives into adulthood, but barely. A difficult student, he uses drugs, shows signs of schizophrenia, then drops out of school and finally society, remaining lost for years until he reappears, homeless, having repeatedly sold his blood to feed his habit. Bodger has a story for this as well: a Brothers Grimm tale about an old soldier who bargains with the devil to wear a smelly bearskin for seven years without washing or cleaning himself.
Nor is there refuge for Bodger in her husband. John suffers from mental illness and is in and out of hospitals, becoming a burden while their children suffer. Her second husband, Alan, is wonderful, but dies too soon of cancer.
Whenever life's tragedies force her in a new direction, she sees her future as story: "There exists a genre of fairy tale in which the hero or heroine must go through a door, or run through a forest, or face a dragon, or jump down a hole, not knowing the outcome." Such heroism leads to wisdom.
Bodger also has wisdom to share about the female¨no, human¨body. During a retreat at Esalen, California, she is expected to share hot tubs in the nude.
Ówe rarely see each other as a seamless piece of work. I was struck by the beauty of ordinary people. No one¨naked¨is unbeautiful! For once I ceased to loathe myself. The miracle did not last for long; the insight was barely more than a flash, but I had glimpsed (I had felt) how it would be to inhabit my body in a new way.
Before she marries Alan, she sneaks into a corner of their bedroom to struggle into her bra. When Alan wakes and asks why she's getting dress with her back to him, she whispers that it's because she's fat.
"Stop whispering," said Alan. "Listen to me. I am your lover. I have come all the way from Toronto to see you. Turn around. Don't you understand? I love every fold and crease of you!"
Bodger is unafraid to tell the truth, even when it is utterly personal and deeply intimate. She reveals an unusual occurrence during the birth of Lucy.
Along with the pain, I was experiencing the greatest orgasm ever to roll over me, through me, from the roots of my hair to the tips of my toenailsÓMy yells of pain were punctuated by cries of sexual ecstasy.
Her point in sharing this is to promote natural childbirth. She later learns from her doctor that while some tribal women claim to experience birth orgasm, it's virtually unheard-of among western women, most of whom deliver babies under anesthesia. Surely this feminine knowledge is worth learning, and no one is better to teach it than an older woman.
Bodger is just as unflinching in showing sexual loneliness. While travelling alone in Jordan at age 63, she visits an ancient temple, finds a cool place to rest, and feels sexual desire. She begins to masturbate ("So long, so long, it had been so long! The climax was slow in coming, tantalizingly out of reach.") but is interrupted by three children and their goats. Soon after they disappear, two sailors discover Bodger, and one exposes himself, saying, "You will like. Very nice. Come back and look. Very big to see." But Bodger has turned around and returned to safety. She had earlier been told by an Englishwoman living in Jordan, that she could expect this sort of behaviour. "The more desperate, the less choosy. The common assumption is that someone your age would not come to Jordan except to shop for a young lover."
In this autobiography, Bodger teaches us that women age, their bodies change, they are powerful, and that life's good and bad experiences can lead to wisdom. Like a teabag in the teacup that is life, Bodger has chosen to steep herself in stories. "I am beginning to understand how my life infuses and informs the stories I tell, and how, as my experience deepens, my life becomes more mythical."
Her last words in this book are part of one of her poems, which summarizes the mythic main threads of her life:
I sing the song that sings in singing bones,
and everything is
Gloria Hildebrandt reviews and writes stories at Orchard House near Georgetown, Ont.