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?

A Poem to Say Good-bye (written for Uncle Harvey)

IMG_1772With Me
By Melina Selverston

Every time I hug my children
So they know they are loved
You are with me
Because you gave me hugs

Every time I relieve stress with humor
So we can laugh instead of fight
You are with me
Because you laughed with me


Every time I smile with my partner
Instead of letting anger take us away
You are with me
Because you always smiled

Every time I give someone a dollar
So they can be less afraid
You are with me
Because you gave me a dollar

Every time I touch someone’s back
So they know they are not alone
You are with me
Because you touched my back

Every time I hold my head up high
And value myself
You are with me
Because you valued me

Every time I stretch my fingers out to embrace life
Every time I dance, every time I sing
You are with me
Because you danced with me

The Chance to Feel Needed

judith faceSlept too late.  Rushed to get everyone ready for school after a busy weekend. Managed not to yell at anyone. Dropped kids at school on time, yay! Pulled up to parking spot in front of yoga class. Dug through purse to find phone to check emails. 50 text messages?  49 from the son and one from the daughter?

Panicked.  Said good-bye to yoga.

There was no reason to panic. Lucian simply forgot to have me sign the permission slip for his field trip that day. He sent 50 text messages because he is under the impression that I am more likely to see them if there are more. Or that text messages somehow get louder with each repetition, or by WRITING IN ALL CAPS, or adding a row of exclamation marks!!!!!!!!!

Clio forgot her homework and asked me to bring it because her teacher could not accept it late.

Of course I was annoyed. I do not care to spend my morning driving around the city.  My kids are in middle school and rarely need me during the day. I am accustomed to my independence. After all, that is what school is for! To give me time to go to yoga! Still, I just took care of it, because I could. When I was working in an office I would not have been able to do anything to help them.

And then a surprising thing happened. I walked into Lucian’s classroom and he looked at me with such adoration and gratitude that my heart melted. “Thank you, you are the best mommy ever!”  I was stunned.  He still needs me. I can still help him.

Then I walked into Clio’s drama class with her homework and as I handed it to her the whole class said: “Awwwwww!” Apparently they all thought I was the best mommy in the world, too.

Sometimes I need an opportunity like this to be reminded how important it is to stop and help someone.  How important it is to feel needed.

In my manuscript, Judith is motivated to protect her town, partly because she feels her life has no meaning since she is a childless widow.  She longs to be needed, to be helpful, as we all do in some way. It is the same need that inspires heroism.  And it inspires that early morning drive across town to assist our children.

And, because life can be like that, I made it back in time for my yoga class.


Back to School with Abbey Lincoln

AbbyI am feeling weepy today, even as I write this. It is, after all, the first day of the school year.

The kids were so excited this morning, laughing easily, making their lunches. The sixth grade boy announced he would start wearing jeans instead of sweat pants to school. The eighth grade girl laid her clothes out the previous night – a first for her. She even called it an outfit. They wondered about spending the day with new teachers, new friends.  I wondered right along with them.

I have been consciously trying to slow down since I left my office job in December. This choice is part of the tremendous gift of becoming a full-time writer. In fact, we just returned from our first ever two-week family vacation, during which we all broke our iPhone addictions and spent time with bears, whales and bald eagles instead.

In past years I experienced a tremendous relief this time of year, dropping the kids off at their great little school, rushing to work, confident they were having productive days that I was no longer responsible for filling.

Not this year.

Today I feel more like I am giving them away. Others – their teachers, their friends – will have the pleasure of their magic all day. I am throwing them out into the world.  It brings to mind the powerful song ‘Throw it Away’ by one of my favorite vocalists, Abbey Lincoln.  Ms. Lincoln plummets to the truest expression of feelings with her voice. She always helps me find my own hard to reach emotions. On this back-to-school morning she sings directly to me: 

And keep your hand wide open
Let the sun shine through
‘Cause you can never lose a thing
If it belongs to you.

So, with this reminder from Abbey, on this first day of school, my hands are open wide.






Forward on Climate

This weekend my ten-year-old son broke my heart. We took the kids to an art party to make banners for the national Forward on Climate rally next week that my husband is organizing. We gathered in a downtown union hall and spread out the paints. Lucian and I talked about what he wanted to say on his poster.

He said, “How about Think of Your Children.”

I said, “That is an excellent slogan.” We had been discussing what a slogan is. “And what sort of image would you like on the poster to illustrate it?”climate  I imagined melting ice caps, baby polar bears.

He said, “A kid choking to death.”

I said, “Wow, that is a powerful image.”

He said, “With a red circle with a line through it.”

So we made beautiful posters and I thought about the world my son is growing up in. A world of toxic carbon emissions, super storms, tidal waves, drought, and yes, melting ice caps. It seems like yesterday I was upset about the problems I was inheriting. Now he is inheriting ours. And he is not kept awake by fear of nuclear war like I was, but of a world so polluted he could choke to death.

Will our children have to fear the very environment that has nurtured humanity through millions of years of evolution? I always believed the earth so resilient that even if we stupid two-legged beasts blow ourselves to oblivion in a nuclear war she would recover. Humans would be, as a Navajo elder once told me, another layer of color in the Grand Canyon.

I was wrong. Unless we stop climate change now she will not recover.

It can be hard to leave our comfortable place to fight for change. In my historical novel, the widow Judith is content in her quiet prayer hut. Even when her citadel is under siege she wants to remain there. But she can’t help thinking about babies. I won’t affront you with the brutal details of how babies were dispatched. But the thought motivated Judith to get dressed and get out the door. And she saved her village.

This is it folks. The way I see it, President Obama issued us a challenge.  In his inauguration speech he said, “We will respond to the threat of climate change.” We do not have the money that oil companies have to lobby for their interests, but we have so many people who care. Congress is not going to end oil subsidies until we drown out the sound of money with a million people chanting. The President needs the fuel of our collective anger, our collective hope.

On our way home from the painting party I overheard Lucian say to his sister, “At first I didn’t really want to help Daddy save the world, but it was actually fun.”

So on February 17 come on out to the Forward on Climate rally. It is time to save the world. And it will be actually fun.

One Way or Another

My tween daughter is supposed to be doing her homework. I am sharing the couch with her during a check-in call with my writing group. After the call she says, “Was that the one who has bad luck? Like her car breaks down all the time?”

“She does have some bad luck,” I say. “But she is also busy.  She is an attorney for wards of the state and sometimes she has to help them instead of write.  Like she might have to get them out of jail.”

“How old are they?”

“Your age. Young. Teenagers.”

“So it isn’t really jail, it is more like special schools, right? And they are good schools.”

“I guess they can be good if they are able to provide some support and get kids off the street.”

“And they have good art classes.”

“I don’t know about art. They are underfunded schools and they have to prioritize job training.”

“Mom, they have to give art classes. Because, say a kid was so mad they wanted to kill someone. They need to have an art class so they can express that anger in a painting. Then they don’t have to hurt anyone.”

“You’re right. They should definitely have an art class.”

“Mom, are you crying?”

“Yes. Because you are so smart.”

My daughter looks at me like I am the cutest little kitten she has ever seen. Then she spreads her arms wide.  “Well, look who I got it from…Dad!” We collapse into laughter.

It is the next morning and Blondie is playing on the radio as we drive to school. One way or another, I’m gonna get you, I’m gonna getcha getcha getcha getcha.”

“Mom, that is creepy, she sounds like a stalker.”

“I know, isn’t it awesome?”

“No! Um, Mom, since when is it awesome to be a stalker?”  Silence as I pretend to concentrate on my left turn onto Castro Street. Everything I say can influence her when she is actually listening like this.

“Hey,” I finally respond. “She is expressing her feelings through her art so she doesn’t have to hurt anyone.”

One Way or Another



Empowering Children After a Tragedy

I know a number of teachers who were overcome with anxiety for their students on their way to school Monday. They inspired me to dedicate this week’s blog post to the teachers. The heroic women who saved the lives of so many children at  Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, the including the ones who lost their lives. They break my heart and fill me with hope.1626 Valentin de Boulogne (1541-1632) Judith

As do the courageous and loving teachers who are now holding conversations in their classrooms: conversations about the unimaginable. There was plenty of parent debate over the weekend about whether to tell kids, how to tell them, who should tell them. Kids are going to hear about Sandy Hook on the schoolyard, and it is important that they have the opportunity for discussion with adults. Our teachers are brilliant and I am thrilled they will help my children understand that they are cared for and safe at school, and when age appropriate, help teach something about the complexities of this tragedy. But I also realize that is a challenge for the teachers, and I thank them.

At my house we decided to discuss the tragedy with our children right away. My daughter is 12 and my son is 10. I always answer their questions truthfully and seek to empower them with knowledge. I wanted to explain the unexplainable, answer their questions, acknowledge their fears, and promise their safety.  Above all I wanted them to know I trust them to handle the information, to feel deeply, to be thoughtful. And they were.

Late that night, I had a moment of doubt about my decision when my son appeared trembling at our bedroom door.  He crawled in bed to cuddle and calm down (which never happens anymore).  Finally, he shared that an explosion outside woke him up. He thought was gunfire.  Oh I held him so hard. My husband and I had heard the boom, agreed it was a firecracker and promptly forgotten about it.  Now we explained the noise to my son, talked about how brave he was to come all the way to our room, even though he was scared, and told him our door is always open.  Reassured, my big boy insisted on walking back to his room by himself where he slept well as usual.  Our calm was enough for him to feel safe.

For me it was satisfying to discuss the tragedy with my children. We often discuss difficult topics from homelessness to war. I believe it helps them appreciate the beauty of life and their privileges and the reasons why it is important to be kind. I believe I am helping them be fully present in their world and to develop into healthy citizens. But I appreciate that my ‘empowering’ approach is not right for every child, and certainly must be carefully considered before, and if, engaging little ones.

Not everyone agrees with me. There are proponents of sheltering kids, like this one: How Not To Talk To Children About the Sandy Hook Shooting. But for the most part, experts share similar advice when it comes to talking to children about tragedies. Here’s five things.

  1. Explain how safe schools are, and that the killer was sick, and he is no longer out there.  (For many kids, that will be the end of the conversation.)
  2. Listen.  This is the hardest part. Don’t lecture. Say as little as possible, answer their questions, let them grieve.
  3. Limit screen coverage of the tragedy, because these images are proven to cause the most anxiety. For everyone, and in this I’m talking about you the parent or role model as well.
  4. Remind them not to talk about it on the schoolyard, especially when there are little ones present.
  5. Empower them. Explain that you and other adults are doing what you can for gun control, for improving mental health care, for helping boys with their difficult transition to manhood. And then help your kids to do something.  Sign a petition, write a letter to the President, or organize a letter writing campaign at school.  My ten-year old’s class wrote condolence letters to the families.

If you do decide to discuss the tragedy with your children, I believe the most important step is empowering them to take action. We all feel better when we act.  We heal the world when we act. That is what Judith would do.

Did you talk to your children about the tragedy? Did you take action?