Not only do you get to do these in your jammies, it’s really fun when you get a great host. Here’s a great first interview of my MARCHING TO ZION radio tour! Steve Bowers was a dream host. listen here
During the last six months I’ve been telling anyone who asks “What are you working on?” that my new novel has a concept and blah-blah-blah, women alone, about the diverse ways single women coped without a man in their lives during different decades of the 20th century. (Believe it or not, young ‘uns, women alone used to have an exceptionally hard time of it.) Then I’d say blah, blah, blah how I’ll use characters from my first two novels, characters readers seemed to love, who “go offstage” during the time of their lives they’re on their own. I’ll answer the question of how Aurora Mae managed between her abduction and her reappearance at Ghost Tree Plantation and how Katherine Marie and her kids managed with her husband locked up in federal prison all those years. I’d unify these characters both thematically and plotwise, to give a panoramic view of the coping mechanisms of single Southern women, black, white, Jewish, throughout the 20th century. Not only that, no matter where I started in the century, I’d finish it all up with Bill Clinton at the end of his second term pardoning Mombasa to reunite Katherine Marie with the love of her life and all the readers who fell in love with Mombasa could at last be happy.
Boy. Was that a great idea or what?
It was. Just the promising I’d do it that was wrong. I’m at the midpoint of No. 3 in my Southern Jewish series right now. I’ve only gone from 1917 to 1925ish in the action, but I’d thought of clever ways I could jump ahead and tie all the generations of sisters together and was about to try using them until. Until.
I had a dream.
I know I’ve blogged before about the Unconscious Critic. But this dream embodied his granddaddy – the Unconscious Creator. See, I had this dream that I wasn’t feeling well and went to the hospital. The ER doctor told me I was having a baby. Imagine the shock at my age. Ok, I went home and lived my life until one day, I happened to notice a neighbor lady at her window nursing a baby and I thought: Oh, yes! I’m supposed to have one of those. I wonder where it went?
My husband then called the hospital and was told the baby was there, we’d just forgotten to pick it up. So we go over and bring the little package home and it turns out to be a sweet girl baby about as big as my thumb. I realize this tiny thing can’t possibly nurse at my breast without drowning and send my husband out to get me some formula and such at the drug store. Meanwhile, the baby keeps falling out of my hands, sliding down the bed sheets to the floor, detaching her tiny, bloodless limbs along the way. When I catch her and bring her back up, she’s intact again just small. Until the last time.
The last time the tiny girl baby fell from the bed and slid down the covant, I picked her up and lo and behold, she’d morphed into a robust, affectionate, black and white puppy I could barely contain with two hands. The puppy hopped all over the bed, licked my face all over, too, as bursting he was with delirious, happy energy, unrestrained, pure of spirit.
When I woke up, I thought: Ok, that was all about the novel. It’s changed along the way and I need to abandon the original concept, high and mighty as it might have been. Maybe high concepts always bear puny offspring, I dunno. It’s a theory worth thinking about sometime. For now, all that’s certain is I’ve got a hearty, flesh and blood critter on my hands, scampering about the page, pissing all over my old plan but along the way creating a vigorous one of his own.
Which means I must apologize to all of you who were looking for something more familiar next time around and whose expectations I’ve raised. Sorry! I can promise you’ll still get more Aurora Mae and Horace; at least they’ve come out to play already. And there’s some expansion of minor folk from the other novels whose names you’ve probably already forgotten. There’s new people, too, wonderful characters who’ve won my heart and mind in a way I’m hoping is wildly contagious.
In the end, I guess you can fairly call me a liar, a cheat, a seducer full of false promises. Guilty, I say, guilty. But if I’ve learned anything at all from the Unconscious Creator, it’s to follow its lead.
So I will. I know I won’t be sorry. I’m thinkin’ you won’t be either.
You all remember him? Janus, the god with two faces. The ancient Romans believed he balanced the provident and the dire, controlled doorways and gates, the places of transit from here to there. He’s been on my mind tonight as I’m thinking of my ancient parents, newly resident in a nursing home masquerading as a rehab facility. Don’t get me wrong. It’s a beautiful facility. If I had to be in such a venue – and please, may it never happen – I couldn’t wish for a nicer one. It’s clean. It’s bright. It doesn’t smell. Everybody’s got private rooms. The staff is caring and seems genuinely fond of my folks. But for all the niceties provided which means someone is really, really trying to do all the right, the humane things, it’s still – let’s face it – a nursing home. In our society, that makes it The Last Stop. And you can flip all you want on that dime. Doesn’t change a thing. Pretty, bright, clean, sweet of scent, kind, private, yet still The End.
How do you deal with that? If there’s a handle to grasp, it’s damn slippery. Mommy and Daddy are about to be gone. Probably fairly close together in time. In the case of my parents, they’ve lived a very long time. They’re in their nineties and only recently found time catching up to them and knocking them on the head. Up to just about yesterday, they were on their own, living in the home I grew up in. Everyone knew it couldn’t last forever, but still, but still.
Frank and Freda are together. That’s very important to both them and their seven children. They spend an hour or so a day sitting wheelchair to wheelchair in the day room. They hold hands. They kiss. They vow their love to each other. “I love you,” she says. “I love you back. More than you’ll ever know,” he says before breaking into a few bars of “Don’t Blame Me”. Everyone who witnesses them smiles and feels a warmth blossom inside. Then his head falls on his chest and he’s drooling again. And she looks like she needs to flee.
So, if Janus is the god of endings and beginnings, of the past and the future, and if ever his essence walked the earth, it’s there, in the nursing home. He most certainly represents the model commanding these two who love each other so much they cannot be separate and live. Because Daddy doesn’t know quite where he is; he’s just pleased that she’s there too. Sometimes, he seems to know the world he’s in is bad, very bad, and that it’s a world she cannot inhabit with him but for moments of the day. Whereas, she knows exactly where she is but can’t join him in his world because that would mean she’s there, too, on the brink, in the demented land of The End and she’s not ready, not quite yet.
Janus haunts their children, too. There we are, happy they are alive yet wishing their suffering was over. We rush to their sides but are relieved when we can go home. I’m one of the long-distance children. After spending a week with them at the rehab facility/nursing home, I took my leave. I told my mother: “I’m so sad to leave you.” She replied: “You’ll get over it.” The next day, my brother said to my father: “Mary and Stephen are back in South Carolina now.” And my demented daddy replied: “I’ll bet they’re glad, too.”
What can I say to that? Yes, I’m glad I’m home. Who likes to live in a hotel for a week unless it’s in Tuscany or on a Kenyan wildlife preserve? But I’ve a sadness in me that won’t go away. But who knows. Janus willing, I’ll get over it.
This year I took my debut novel, Home in the Morning, on tour, thanks to the Jewish Book Network. It’s been fabulous to meet readers and discuss the book’s themes and the history behind its genesis. Morning is about the Southern Jewish experience with a focus on the Civil Rights Era and the arc of its development follows the transition from the Old South to the New. When I present it, I talk about the differences in the Southern and Northern Jewish experience, and the perilous impact Northern Jews traveling South as activists in that time had on the lives of indigenous Jews. I particularly like seeing how northerners and southerners have a different reaction to the book. I find Southerners laugh at my anecdotes of Southern life, whereas Yankees look quite stern and thoughtful about them. Southern Jews frequently come up to me afterwards and tell me how I got the tensions and fears of the era just right, while Yankees are still trying to absorb the fact that not all Southerners were or are redneck race baiters. I blame Hollywood for that.
But one comment continues to shock me, and I’ve had it all over the country. At many Q&As, someone will ask me if the White Citizen’s Council, the white collar enforcer arm of Southern segreationists, truly existed, or if I made it up.
It floors me that intelligent, highly educated people have such a gap in their general knowledge, particularly since so little time has passed, really, since the Civil Rights Era. I wonder: Has Black History Month become lessons in Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King with little context? Since much of my speaking focus is the role of Jews in the Civil Rights Movement, this is both disheartening and shocking.
After one of these experiences, I was alone for a time after my talk while people cleaned up the room, picking up drink glasses and coffee cups, putting away chairs. One of the people cleaning up was a middle aged African American woman from the South – she was old enough to probably have preferred the term “black”. She and I got to chatting. She asked me how the presentation went. I told her very well but that I’d been astounded one of the women had asked me if the White Citizens Council truly existed. She picked right up on that. She said: Oh, I know, I know. I have to remind my own people – because of all the hatred that’s been sown – that if it wasn’t for the Jews, we would not be free today.
Because of all the hatred that’s been sown.
Now, I know the African American community and the Jewish community are not as close as they used to be in the ’60s, when the majority of white civil rights workers were Jews. In fact, I’m sorry to say that some of the worst anti-semites in the United States today are African American. A lot of hatred has indeed been sown by wildly influential people like Louis Farrakan and I confess, some of my own misguided people, too. But to hear it spoken of this way, in this context, disturbed me. Both my novels feature loving relationships between African American and Jewish characters at different times during the 20th century. These relationships are textured by the challenges of history. I’m rethinking that texture now after hearing because of all the hatred that’s been sown, which has disturbed me enough that my novel-in-progress will tell a different tale than the one I first envisioned.
When I left that night, I asked the organizers of the event to give one of their copies of my book to that African American woman. I think she’d like it, I told them. They said: Why of course, of course!
I hope they followed up. And even more, I hope she reads.
This piece originally appeared on the Open Road Media blog on May 25, 2012, during Jewish American Heritage Month.
I read an article recently in the NY Post about the revolutionary idea that Fifty Shades of Grey might be ready for primetime, at least according to Lifetime boss Nancy Dubuc.
From the April 16th article: “I watched the firestorm, the domino effect of the very first woman in my circle to admit having read ‘Fifty Shades of Grey,’ ” Dubuc says. “And it took about 6.3 seconds for the other 50 women (in the room) to admit that they had read it, too. You are just waiting for that first person or that first show or that first moment. We are in a cultural moment,” she tells The Post. “Literally and figuratively, women are coming out of the closet about how they feel and asking tough questions. . .”
What on earth are you talking about, woman? ‘Have you read Fifty Shades of Grey?’ is a tough question? Ok, I can’t say I read it. I did buy it to see what the hype was about. I thumbed through it, but even if I could get beyond the gee whiz aspect of its tone, it seemed way too tame for all its controversy, in fact I thought it excruciatingly boring. Call me jaded if you like, but in my day women cut their sexually liberated teeth on The Story of O (ok, that sounds pretty bad, didn’t mean to get all vagina denta on you), handing it off to each other as if it were Gone With The Wind. We read deSade’s Justine during the collegiate years. Somewhere someone probably read it in class. Fifty Shades of Grey wouldn’t have made it on our radar.
And reading was the tip of that iceberg. As far as sexual politics go, we were devoted to revolutionary acts. A lot of them were not very good ideas, but we’d all just come out of the pre Summer of Love years when “Don’t get a girl pregnant, it’ll ruin your life” echoed through every young man’s brain so that any of them who wanted a life (all of ‘em) kept condoms in their wallets ‘just in case’. After a while, most of those wallets wore the telltale indentation of a condom ring because they never got used. If they ever did, they’d probably turn to dust before they got out of the foil. Not because these boys wanted to ruin their lives but because young women had their own brain echo: “Who’s going to buy the cow if you give away the milk for free” so they just never got the chance. You see, all the young men then thought they could have a life and wanted one very badly while all of young women really, really wanted to be a bought cow.
Then came the Haight and the Beatles and the drugs and the rock n’ roll. For better or worse, everything changed. Every last one of us had times we surely ain’t gonna talk about to the grandkids, and I’m only telling tales now because I’d really like to know: how’d Pandora get all that stuff back in the box?
My husband tells me I talk in my sleep. I never have recollection of these events, so we’ll have to take his word for it. Sometimes my utterances make no sense. There was the time, for example, that I woke him up, pushing into his ribs with two fingers, saying: Don’t forget the football platter! when I abhor football. Another time I got very angry with him because he wouldn’t get the dog some water. You bastard! I said. The dog needs water!
We have no dog.
There might seem to be a theme emerging here. Usually, when I talk in my sleep, I’m agitated. I think that’s because my husband stays up a lot later than I do and something he’s done in his wakeful state has disturbed me in my sleeping one. There’re two things you never want to interrupt me at: sleeping and eating. Never.
But after last night, I think there’s something else going on. My husband was lying next to me working on his NYTimes crossword puzzle while I lightly snored, night music he calls it, and he made a little of his own, humming Peter, Paul and Mary’s old standard, Gone The Rainbow. You know, Shule, shule, shule-a-roo, Shule-a-rak-shak, shule-a-ba-ba-coo. When I saw my Sally Babby Beal, come bibble in the boo shy Lorey. He must have bothered deep REM sleep for me to be as angry as I was. Apparently, I blurted out: Quit singing that damn nursery rhyme crap!
At least that’s what he tells me. I have no memory of the event. Now, when I was a young woman, Peter, Paul, and Mary were heroes. They were iconic rebels to all white middle class high school students. I think Mary was the reason I first wore my hair long and straight with bangs and took up dressing in black turtlenecks and slacks, even in summer. I loved them. I also haven’t thought about them in forty years.
But as my husband sang Gone the Rainbow to me the next morning and told me of my outburst, I thought: Geez, that really is a load of damn nursery rhyme crap. How could I have ever liked it? At least Puff the Magic Dragon had a marijuana message behind it. So I took to Google to read the lyrics entire and realized old PP&M were singing a Gaelic war protest song, or really, given the nature of the Gaels, just a sad song about war that had been transformed for American youth into a war protest song. Only, out of the mouths of PP&M, it sounds exactly like a load of damn nursery rhyme crap.
I wondered why I didn’t notice that in the old days back at Archbishop Williams High School. I had pretty good taste otherwise in those days. But it took The Unconscious Critic to make me aware of how I really felt on this one. All day long, I’ve been thinking of the white songsters who made fortunes bleeding the soul out of good music back in the day. I’m pretty sure the Unconscious Critic didn’t or doesn’t like them either. What a useful creature that girl is! Now, if only I could figure out how to make her operate when I’m awake.
In the last two years, I’ve had two novels published. I’d written six already that failed to see the light of day, but that’s for another day. Sound like a success story? Sure. But it’s all been One Big Learning Experience for me and a humbling one, too. It’s aggravating to a woman of a certain age when by all that’s holy she should be the one doing the teaching not the learning. I’m in my sixties. I’ve had time to get a little wisdom. Why I can spin off the top of my head dozens of useful things I know.
I know how to lie to my mother without feeling guilty. (It takes practice.) I know how to live abroad. I know the best place to hide contraband. (Not that I’ve had any since ‘85.) I know Tarot and I Ching and I’m a wizard at dream interpretation. I know men. Them critters I know inside and out. Over the years, I spent a lot of time laboring in that particular field. Most of what I learned about men was by trial and error. The errors were mostly painful but the trials were kind of fun. Take my word for it. I’ll give you evidence on that one a bit later, when I figure you can be trusted. Here’s a hint: they want pretty much what we want. What’d Zorba say about women? “Give ‘em a box of chocolates and they’ll give you everything they’ve got.” Men aren’t that different.
I know quieter stuff, too. I know how long to let bread rest in a cold oven. I know the smell of beet pulp when it starts to ferment. I know that most people let go of their baby’s hand way too early when they happen to be crossing a city street. I know how to console a grieving friend. I know how to laugh at misadventure. I know what to do with money.
So for better or worse, this is the place I’ll come and dispense that portion of wisdom surviving for 60 odd years on planet earth affords whether anyone like the results or not. You know what they say today in the colleges and forums: truth is relative. There is no objective reality. Ha! Then you all are going to be stuck with mine. Wiser minds than mine have told me I’m going to have to start giving some secrets away. Ok, then, dear reader, stay tuned. I’ll give you some hot insights. I may not be starting with men, but be cool. I’ll get there.