You Have Been Here Before

A few years ago I was in the kitchen of my bungalow in Dobbs Ferry, New York when my El Salvadoran housekeeper, let’s call her Alma, came downstairs holding a necklace I brought home from Nicaragua. It was a carved tagua nut, painted with a little black and red flag and the tiny letters FSLN that stand for Sandinista National Liberation Front.

Until then, Alma hadn’t realized I was a Sandalista, the friendly term for the foreign volunteers that supported the Nicaragua revolution in the 1980’s. Alma found me and described saying goodbye to her brother when he left home to join the ‘muchachos’ fighting to overthrow the dictator. He never came home.

“He was a martyr,” she said, “but for what?” Within minutes we were sitting on the kitchen floor bawling in each other’s arms. We both had lost loved ones in the Central American wars of the 1980’s. Both of us both of us lived in quaint, safe small town American and tried to keep those memories at bay. But that deep connection we felt, the flood of emotions got me thinking that someday I would need to go back to Nicaragua.

Living in Nicaragua chLI-AIC-femmefatale-004banged me, and set me on my life journey. I was a young college student. It was deep, challenging, beautiful. The Nicaraguan people gave everything—their homes, their families, their lives—to overthrow the dictator and build a more just society. Afterwards I wrapped a protective box around that time of my life. I rarely visit it, because to do so leaves me in a weeping puddle of mess.

In 2015 I will turn 50 – it has been thirty years! And now it is time to return. I find Nicaragua very difficult to write about. I feel naïve or sophomoric, yet nearly all my idealism and all my cynicism stems from my time in Nicaragua. Those people and that time taught me to fight for a better future, for something bigger than myself, for an ideal.

My next novel is going to be about Nicaragua. About a woman going back the tiny country that changed her life, finding a lost love in a scarred world. There will be mystery, adventure, and the struggling bond between a teenaged girl and her mother.

It’s terrifying to think about sharing these stories. Part of me says no, don’t go there, it will tear your heart open. But then I think, what would Judith do? Go there! That experience is as much a part of me as my family, as real to me as the ocean I grew up with.

This morning my yoga teacher said, “You have been here before, but it is different this time.” She was only talking about my cobra pose, but her words spoke to me about this journey. I am counting on you, my dear friends and readers, for encouragement! The Central American wars continue to impact us politically, socially, and emotionally. I’m ready to talk about it!

Slut-Shaming Judith

D.W. Griffith “What happened in the room?” That was my big first question when I started writing Judith and Holofernes. Judith is a widow, she is sexually experienced, and she has spent three days getting close to this man, building his trust, flaming his desire. And he is a formidable man, powerful and intelligent, leader of the Syrian King’s largest army.

Does she find him attractive? Do they have sex? Does it matter?

These questions inspired me to sit down and write. It was years until I stood up again for a fresh look. I had sent the manuscript to an interested literary agent and she suggested that I ‘embrace the eroticism’ inherent to the story. I was shocked. Of course it was erotic! Except that when I looked at the pages, it was not there. The agent was right. I was not only protecting my character, I realized then that I was slut-shaming her.

I did not want anyone to call Judith a slut – or in the case of a biblical legend – a harlot. Truth is, I spent too much of my own life trying to prove I was smart so no one would call me a slut. I guess I tried to do the same for Judith. She is really intelligent and calculating. I wanted her to be notable not just for seducing the general, but for fooling him that she had important information – forget about the sex, mostly she outsmarted him.

When I was a college student I went to Nicaragua during the revolutionary period. I went to study social change, but in reality, I also studied how to have love affairs with revolutionaries. Sex and politics go together in delicious and scandalous ways. I embraced it then. So why was I intent on keeping all of Judith’s clothes on?

There is certain hesitancy in literary circles to write sex scenes. Also, it can be difficult to be original and sincere with family members reading over your shoulder. I asked friends to suggest their favorite erotic scenes from books. I read a few beautiful crafted literary love scenes. One of my favorites was The Dog Stars by Peter Heller, which has some breathtaking moments. I am a little ashamed by how much I enjoyed Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. I was just looking for some good examples to learn from, but that book was an unexpected pleasure.

I noted that, whatever the story, sex is an important driver of tension. Who wants the curtains to go down on the good part? So I went back to my manuscript and allowed the reader to see Judith take her clothes off. And guess what? She is still smart, heroic and awesome. She is also a sexual being, like me, like you, and like most of us.

What happened between Judith and the general in that room? You will soon find out!

Judith of Bethulia is a Badass


Giorgio Vasari (1554)

Giorgio Vasari (1554)

I took my 14-year-old daughter to see the film Divergent. After, pumped with the adrenaline of a good action film, she said. “Triss is such a badass!” And I knew that she meant, ‘I want to be just like her.”

That moment was ten times more exciting than any in the movie. My daughter’s goal is to be a badass. How cool is that? Not to be a movie star, a side-kick, or a bride. To be a “bad ass.” Divergent was not her favorite book. She preferred the Hunger Games. The girls in her class argue about who gets to play Katniss Evergreen. What a bounty, to have such heroines to choose from!

I reflected on my teen years and the few female characters I had to inspire me. Slim pickings. Nancy Drew? She was smart, but she was not a badass. I always liked Pippi Longstocking she was tough, but she was made out to be kooky. You wanted to know her, but you did not want to be her. A Wrinkle in Time—Meg—she was a brave one. And, well, that is pretty much it. It didn’t bother me at the time. Maybe I didn’t know enough to be bothered. So I simply identified with the boy hero.

I asked my daughter what a badass is. She said: “They are people who can protect themselves and other people. They are strong on their own—they can take care of themselves. They are cool, not tying to conform. They are themselves and they are proud of it.”

Times have changed for the better when this is the aspiration of a 14-year-old girl!

I am proud to say—with no spoiler alert required—that Judith of Bethulia meets the definition. It takes my young widow awhile to get there. After all, the stakes for nonconformity in a biblical town are higher than my daughter can even imagine. But Judith gets there. Judith of Bethulia is a badass.

How about you? Which characters inspired you before there was a Young Adult genre to celebrate glorious brave girls?

The Origins of Mother’s Day. And Mothers Day.

anna-jarvisLove is an action word.

I don’t remember much about Mother’s Day from my childhood. Probably because it falls the same weekend as my birthday. But we certainly celebrated it. My mother always says that love is an action word.  Her own mother did not raise her. Although she knew her parents, Mom was raised by her grandparents. I still feel that sense of abandonment at the core of her being, a hurt that never leaves. She taught us not to just talk about love, but to show it. We didn’t buy gifts, we made them. I don’t know about you, but I am torn by the desire to thank my mother and my disgust at the commercialization of the holiday. I was excited to learn that the women who established the holiday had the same reaction.

“Arise, then, women of this day!”

The holiday was originally conceived by leaders of the middle class women’s movement in 1870 as Mothers Day for Peace. It was dedicated to mass mobilizations and demonstrations of women’s unique role in creating a civilized society against the violent influences of male politicians. Note there is no comma, because the movement was recognizing motherhood as a political force. It is always inspiring to read the call to action by Julia Ward Howe, a powerful writer and leader in the call for a Mothers Day of Peace.

The founder was furious!

The ‘other’ founder of Mother’s Day was Anna Jarvis, who did not have children herself, but wanted a day to honor the pure love of motherhood. She added the comma because she saw it as an intimate family celebration. Following her own mother’s footsteps, Jarvis successfully lobbied government until President Wilson declared the holiday in 1914. Within a few years Jarvis was so distraught at how people were profiting from the holiday she spent the rest of her life – and finances – protesting the abuse. She was arrested for disturbing the peace. She died destitute and disappointed, and like many outspoken middle class women, in an institution. It is a fascinating story of fighting corporate political influence, in this case the commercial flower industry.

Lucky us.

We are so lucky to live in a time where motherhood is not the only valued identity for women. There are so many choices available. Some choose to be mothers, many choose not to, or that is just not where our path takes us. But the choices are not always available, a fact painfully highlighted for some on this complicated holiday.

Judith, the main character in my novel, lives in a time and place where motherhood was considered the only fulfilling role. A large part of her journey is discovering that she has a different path and convincing her community that she can be happy and successful – and valuable despite her lack of children.

So I say, happy Mothers Day of Peace, and thank you to our mothers for helping us find success and happiness however we choose!

Miriam’s Cup

Miriam by Feuerbach

Miriam by Feuerbach

“Women are saving the world at every turn!” my younger brother Aaron said during our Passover dinner last week.

My father laughed out loud. “This is the Melina version of the story.”

Sort of.

A few years ago Eddie and I began hosting our own progressive feminist version of the Passover Seder. Aaron never had the experience of Passover with our Gramma Sarah. She died before he was born.  He didn’t know how different our family Seder is. But apparently Dad had noticed.

For too long history was written and edited by men. Women are increasingly empowered to tell our stories, along with other marginalized voices. For me, the Passover ritual was enhanced in the nineties when feminist Jewish communities added Miriam’s cup to the Seder table. Miriam was the sister of Moses. She protected him when their mother defied Pharaoh’s edict that all Jewish boys be killed and set him floating in a reed basket in the Nile, where he was found by the royal family and adopted by the Pharaoh. In appreciation, the story goes, God blessed Miriam with a well that followed her people through the desert as they wandered for forty years. At Passover Seders around the world last week people honored Miriam with a goblet of water. More importantly Miriam’s cup provides the opportunity to discuss the women in all of our stories, opening up again the important Passover lesson that freedom is the greatest expression of dignity and we are working towards liberation for all. It is a passionate, powerful hope.

We live in the Castro neighborhood of San Francisco (fondly referred to as the gayborhood). As we sat down to our Seder this year we heard helicopters flying overhead. They were photographing the demonstrations marking the beginning of the Supreme Court arguments on gay marriage.

This led to discussions about freedom and dignity that reminded us that, although Jews have enjoyed unprecedented freedom in America, we are not all free to live, or even love, as we choose.

We decided to host our own Seder because we were tired of being tortured by the old Maxwell House version, the one that President Obama used in the White House.

The Maxwell House Haggadah is a fascinating story. In 1932 a rabbi declared that coffee comes from a berry, not a bean, making it kosher for Passover. Beans are not eaten during Passover because they could contain bugs. Maxwell House grabbed the opportunity to give away free Haggadahs with each can of coffee. This turned out to be one of the greatest advertising schemes of the century. To this day Maxwell House is the preferred coffee for Jewish Americans.

Just has Miriam’s cup has helped to engender Passover, the story of Judith and Holofernes provides an opportunity to celebrate women during Hanukkah. I hope my book will help contribute to that expression.

What do Suffrage and Gun Control Have in Common?

judith and eldersMy daughter is working on a history project about women’s suffrage and I find much to reflect upon in terms of political strategies used in the gun control debate today.

The gun control debate is raging, as dead bodies pile up, and many of us can’t help but wonder, why is this even a debate? The debate though, is more about messaging than fact, more about getting elected, than doing what is right. The NRA has ensured that the debate is about the right to bear arms instead of how to limit access to dangerous weapons.

Women achieved full voting rights  in 1920 with the 19th amendment. This followed decades of organizing, lobbying, protests, civil disobedience, and profound cultural shifts led by women and men of diverse backgrounds. When the amendment finally passed, it was a function of political expediency more than a function of enlightened politicians doing the right thing. The women’s vote became necessary.

One of the main arguments against women’s suffrage that you find in the history books is that women would support the prohibition of alcohol. Alcohol use was widely considered to be destroying families and businesses and politics at the time. Women organizing for prohibition in response to the crisis received a political education that empowered them to demand more–the right to vote.

It is important to consider the impact of political messaging here. I do not believe male politicians were against suffrage because of prohibition. They could always get a drink. That is just the public argument, so it is history. Politicians couldn’t well campaign with ‘Hey, the girls are going make me vote for peace instead of supporting my war profiteering! And who is going to do the dishes?’ So they frightened voters with a simpler message: ‘Hey–they are going to take your booze away.’

Does that sound familiar? “Hey–they are going to take your guns away!” The NRA does not represent the position of most Americans but it maintains a level of fear in its propaganda that prevents reasonable discussion. Do most Americans really believe that anyone should have easy access to automatic weapons? Nope. And does the majority of gun control advocates insist that no one be allowed to hunt? Huh uh.

In my book, Judith and Holofernes, Judith has to convince the town elders that she is capable of taking action against the invading army (pictured). They throw every dogma they have at her and call her a harlot. But she convinces them that she holds their only hope. They agree to allow her to carry out her plan because it is politically expedient.

Women finally won suffrage when their votes became important for winning re-election. The women’s movement won. So watch out NRA, because we are going to make gun control a requirement to get reelected. And, like Judith, we are going to win.