My Traveling Companion—Across Time and Space

My first two books take place in Greenwich Village, the third is in New Orleans. The characters are different, the time periods change, but there is one constant: My companion in all the books is my real friend, a Priestess of the Yoruba Tradition—YeYe Luisah Teish.

Luisah and I are from different spiritual traditions. It goes without saying that I don’t follow the Abrahamic religions—Teish follows her tradition and teaches me about a spirituality I can embrace. (Yoruba has gods and goddesses each serve people in different areas of life. They must be treated with respect.)

In The Road Not Taken, Yeye isn’t cast as the main character’s spirit guide—but she appears to my main character and tells of the Yoruba activists in Nigeria who risked their lives to save the kidnapped girls of the Chiboc school. It was a powerful tribute to not taking brutality lying down that Deborah, my protagonist, needed to hear to do what she was called to do.

My second book, tentatively titled 44 Horatio Street, is about a house my family lived in and then rented out in Greenwich Village. Among the tenants were Mikhail Baryshnikov, and the Beats including their coordinator, Lucien Carr, who murdered his lover and got off with a “Gay Panic” conviction. Also in the house was William Burroughs, who, too, had murdered and gotten away with it. YeYe, in this book, works to keep the protagonist safe.

And now, I’m embarking on my third novel—The 15 Maries—and writing Yeye again, this time as my Mambo (rabbi, mentor, guide). This book takes place in 1850’s New Orleans, and present-day Los Angeles, and features the Voodoo Queen and abolitionist Marie LaVeaux. Luisah was recently named the new Marie LaVeaux by the City of New Orleans—so I think you see where this is going.

Luisah is a powerful friend and an astounding woman. The truth is, off the page, she is also a guiding companion—someone who offers me new and powerful perspectives as I chart my own course through this life. She shows up in my books because across time and space, I know that what we all need is a companion like that to guide our travels—spiritual, physical, or otherwise.

PS: Tag the first person you’d invite along on an epic adventure in the comments on THIS Instagram post and you BOTH can win a copy of my novel #TheRoadNotTaken—and a much-needed escape from gestures all this. (Make sure you’re following me, too!)

When Was the Last Time You Checked Your Breasts?

I wrote a play, club termina, about women who had died of breast cancer passing through a nightclub in the clouds. Each woman performed an act, a song, monologue, skit, before she was free to become—What? A new person, I guess. 

Today is the end of National Women’s Health Week—observed every year, apparently, for a week after Mother’s Day, to encourage women to take care of themselves with the same enthusiasm with which they show up for others.

COVID hasn’t helped matters: Nobody wants to go to the doctor’s office. This year, I had to bribe myself to go for my mammogram—even though I know how critical it can be.

I got breast cancer at 38. I am lucky I can write this. I was young for the diagnosis, which was confounding to my doctors, and terrifying to me. I had several friends also in their thirties diagnosed. I am the only survivor. 

Lumpectomy, radiation, and a new form of chemotherapy. I did all of the treatments and at the end of six months of chemo, the protocol I had done was FDA approved as a CURE for early Breast Cancer.

But for two years I looked behind my couch for death, who I was afraid might be hiding there.

I found out I had cancer because when I went to my doctor and told him my family history, we agreed that I would come in quarterly for screenings. I was paying for health insurance, and I used it. That’s why I’m alive.

One day my doctor said, “go down the hall to the breast surgeon.” The surgeon did a needle biopsy. I got the results and hell was mine for the taking.

I keep thinking this week about the fact that many health guidelines suggest women get their first mammogram at 50. Fifty! I would have been dead for 10 years.

Preventive care is only good care if we’re empowered to access it early.

Please don’t wait until you’re 50 to get a test. Get yourself checked, or try palpating your own breasts—you use your fingers in a circular motion to feel for uninvited guests in your breasts by lifting one arm overhead, then switch arms and do the other side.

And let’s keep fighting, too, for more equitable and comprehensive care for all of us.

I (Still) Believe That We Will Win

photo via Will O’Neill, Creative Commons

My reaction to the First Draft of the SCOTUS Fatwa against Roe v Wade was fear. We in the movement for women’s rights, LGBTQ+ rights, POC rights, animal rights, have known eventually Roe would be on the chopping block. The brutality of their position, that a woman in danger of dying if she gives birth still cannot end her pregnancy is beyond the Witch Burnings in Salem and throughout the Spanish Inquisition.

I had to process. Fear serves no purpose, and I knew in my gut, the American people would see this and the GOP lizards would finally be on a train to the Reptile House where I hope they will enjoy life.

I stopped shaking with rage, I spoke to friends, to my cats who seemed unimpressed with the document on so many grounds it cheered me up. 

Then my memory kicked in. 

I worked with the Feminist Majority (FM) writing documentaries on the threat to Roe, violence against abortion providers, and other issues of reproductive justice. When I worked on these, I had a group of women around me who strengthened my resolve and held my beliefs close to their hearts. I miss them in moments like this, especially. But what I learned doing this work, and what I witnessed by showing up in movement spaces, reminds me we are not powerless, and we will win—or can, when we come together. 

One of our documentaries showed Candidate Ronald Reagan in front of evangelicals called Focus on the Family. The GOP knew Reagan wouldn’t be elected POTUS without an influx of new voters—they turned to the growing Evangelical movement. Reagan spoke to the massive audience with a bud in his ear: James Dobson fed Reagan lines in a marriage proposal to the extreme right wing. “You all know that I cannot ask for your endorsement of me, but I assure you I endorse all of you!” Thunderous applause greeted this marriage of GOP and Evangelicals. 

Focus on the Family, Operation Rescue, and the Christian Coalition coagulated into a powerful force for repression against women. But we were powerful too. It felt so fine in our office where peels of laughter rang often. Until Reagan won. We stopped laughing and continued to fight. The founders of the FM went and bought rights to the Morning After pill, RU486 and made it available in the US.

On another cool LA morning, colleagues from The FM formed a team to stop the anti-life pests from blocking clinics. They were cagey about which clinic they would attack. We were cagier: With one woman on a walkie talkie communicating with two others in the field, we got to the clinics first! The antis didn’t bully even one woman from getting in. The sweetness of sisterhood was profound. This action was later made into the FACE Act. The Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act. It helped women get through the crowds of people who insult Jesus Christ by calling themselves Christians.

Some memories, of course, are less sweet. Some harden my resolve. The Evangelical haters resorted to bombing clinics, then shooting abortion doctors. “Killing in the name of Life”, a doc about this violence, will make your blood boil at as men in priest’s collars talk about shedding “rivers of blood” to stop abortion.

But what I’ve learned by now is that together, we find ways forward. Even in the face of forces hellbent on taking us back.

Don’t give up hope. We’re in this together. We are the majority. And we will win.

This is a Post About Cats

Much like the great Neil Gaiman, I have a thing for cats. And that has become a big part of my writing: In my first book The Road Not Taken, I wrote in a pair of cats—a bodega cat and another who escapes the zoo—who are in love and live together with my protagonist. In my next, the not-yet-released 44 Horatio Street, I featured a bookstore cat who is snobby about the books people buy. And finally, in the new book I’m working on—currently on chapter three!—I already threw in a black kitten as a character.

I don’t see this as one of my acts of protest. Yet, during April, I’ve been thinking about those furry acts of fiction—because during this, Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Month, and today, on National Adopt a Shelter Pet Day, giving a voice to animals who struggle alongside us to find shelter and friendships seems meaningful.

Those characters are derived, too, from my real-life companions. I don’t put down people who buy pets in stores, but I will say: 4,000 cats and kittens are done away with every day. I am happy to save whoever I can. As a kid, I even tried to share a bowl of milk with a young tabby. (It wasn’t my last time.) And though I rarely get to a shelter somebody always shows me a kitten and magically, it ends up in our house.

Willyrubin was from the alley behind Bootleg Theatre. Miles was put in my hand by a woman who said she was going to the bathroom at the vet’s as I bought cat food, but she never came back for the guy the size of a cotton ball, so I took him home where Miles grew to be 30 lbs and got offers from the NFL. Binkie came from a rescue foster home; Sante D’or, or Sal Parmesan, from a shelter.

There is no excuse for animal abuse. End of discussion. New research, and old souls, show that animals have feelings.

If you have room in your life for a pet, you will be the beneficiary of a kind of love that is irreplaceable. That’s why the cats become characters… because no human could offer the unique perspective and affection that they can. And if you have to give away a pet, make sure you are giving it to a No Kill Shelter!

Happy Earth Day!

It’s Earth Day today, but every day is a good one to think about how we can save our planet. Here are five small ways we can all help…

  1. Never throw away water. If you or your pets need fresh water, use the water in the glass or bowl and water your plants with it.
  2. Hold on that flush. “Poo do, pee don’t” is a pretty self-explanatory rhyme, right? If you have pets who drink out of the toilet, keep the lid down. But you know that! Hopefully.
  3. Take re-usable bags to shop so you avoid plastic or paper bags. Use bags that aren’t re-usable for garbage can liners.
  4. Clean up after your dog. (This one is personal.)
  5. Grow things. Plants of any kind add beauty, you can learn to grow medicinal or edibles, like herbs, and you can get closer to nature. 

If you’d like to do a little more, consider supporting Biodiversity for a Livable Climate, The BOA Foundation, and Yorenkata Sorentsi.

And don’t forget to pet a cat or a dog every day! It’ll cheer you up.

On Surviving—and Speaking Out

Sexual assault isn’t fun to experience—or write about. But April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and it’s long past time for people around the world to pay attention.

I spent 15 years doing documentaries for the Feminist Majority on some dark stuff—including domestic violence, campus sexual assault, rape kits by the thousands going untested…

After working on the injustices of sexual assault—screaming about the pitiful 13 percent conviction rate for perpetrators, watching colleges deny the problem as fraternity boys ran around campus yelling “No means Yes. Yes, means Anal”—I realized, for the first time, that I had been date-raped in my teens. Nothing violent, just too much booze, and a guy I really liked who wanted full-on sex when I wanted to smooch. He won.

In my book, The Road Not Taken, my protagonist faces sexual assault, but she is victorious over her rage: she finds a way to use the anger to make her stronger. I didn’t want to write a Victim. I also didn’t want to use rape as a trope, or use it flippantly to create conflict. But I wanted to show the resiliency that is required for women to claim their lives. Her attackers want to intimidate and stop her on her journey to change—our attackers want to intimidate and stop us—but she refuses to give misogyny that kind of power.

Sexual assault has always been used in war—and now it is again in Ukraine—as a special way to humiliate your enemy before killing them. In places like Congo, it’s used as a punishment and so-called “corrective” method for LGBTQ+ women. And it’s still happening, in every community in the US, at epidemic rates.

We’re surviving. But so is patriarchy. That’s why I think those of us who know the violence it sews too well need to keep talking—and writing—about it.

Three Verses for National Poetry Month

April brings a lot of beauty. This month rings in celebrations and commemorations of jazz, kindness to animals—and poetry. To mark the month, I wanted to share some of my favorite verses.

See what you think. Then send me your favorites, too. Please!

“To those born later,” Bertolt Brecht

Hatred, even of meanness,
Contorts the features.
Anger, even against injustice
Makes the voice hoarse. Oh, we
Who wanted to prepare the ground for friendliness

Could not ourselves be friendly. 

But you, when the time comes at last and man is a helper to man
Think of us with forbearance. 

Click here to read more. (And try replacing ‘man’ with ‘woman’ in that last verse.)

“‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers – (314),” Emily Dickinson

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –

Click here to read more.

“Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front,” Wendell Berry

When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.

Click here to read more.

My Mother’s Story

The woman in the photo is my mother—a small woman with a huge brain, tremendous courage, and a slight deficit with the Maternal Instinct demanded of her in the mid-20th Century.

She was the daughter of Ukrainian parents who fled pogroms where Cossacks played a nice game of “throw the Jewish baby in the air and catch it on your spear.” I am in awe of the work the Ukrainians have done to diminish their anti-Semitism and elect Zelenskyy, himself a grandchild of Hitler fleeing Jews.

In her thirties she needed to go back to the dirt scrabble town of her Ukrainian ancestors, 30 miles outside of what was then Kiev. She flew to Moscow and boarded a train for Kiev on the eve of WWII. 

The conductor gave her dire warnings: She wouldn’t survive this trip and should go home. I can’t repeat in polite company what she told the conductor. She got off the train at Kiev, got on a horse-drawn carriage and rode to Starov-Constantinov, where her ancestors came from.

Alone after the cart pulled away, she was run at by a very old woman yelling, “You’re Sima’s daughter.” How the hell did this old woman know that? Because she was a Shabbas Goy, the women who nursed Jewish babies on the Sabbath. She had nursed my grandmother, recognizing my mother from that long ago time.

My mother came home safe.

The war started, and the Nazis destroyed her village. 

And decades later, I still remember the story — and the strength it takes to survive history.

Finally, a Feminist Beat Story

Photo by Gloria Graham via Wikimedia Commons

Diane di Prima was among the famous Beat poets—but somehow, being the only woman, didn’t become famous until about a month ago.

No need to ask why you’ve never heard of her. Ever read the Beats?

I have—since the Beats feature in my autobiographical novel, 44 Horatio Street, soon to be published. Lucien Carr and his crusty cohorts lived in my family’s little brownstone in Greenwich Village; for this book, I investigated. And I found a lot of sexism, tied up with homophobia.

Carr killed a man at Colombia and got off with “gay panic.” Not a typo, sorry. He got out of prison after 18 months. I guess he was too panicked for prison.

William Burroughs, whose books help me to lose weight, killed his wife, Joan Vollmer in a game of William Tell. No apple, just a glass of whiskey he told her to put on her head so they could play. Then he shot her head off.

And then there is di Prima—a feminist long overdue for the recognition she is receiving as of late. Here’s a snippet of her CV. (More here.)

She wrote over 40 books. She founded or co-founded the Poets Press, the New York Poets Theatre, Eidolon Editions, the Poets Institute, the San Francisco Institute of Magical and Healing Arts. She was Poet Laureate of San Francisco. She won the National Poetry Association’s Lifetime Service Award.

And, Spoiler Alert: She didn’t kill anybody.

Is that why we don’t know more about her? Or could it be Ol’ Mister Misogyny? Even among the very wild and “revolutionary” Beats, it was rife.

That question is too complex to answer here. But this Women’s History Month, among my offerings of art and writing we should have seen sooner, I leave you with this.

“A lack of faith is simply a lack of courage
one who says “I wish I could believe that” means simply that he
a coward, is pleased
to be spectator, on this scene where there are no spectators
where all hands not actually working are working against
as they lie idle, folded in lap, or holding up newspapers
full of lies, or wrapped around steering wheel, on one more
pleasure trip”

— REVOLUTIONARY LETTER #23, by Diane di Prima

Beyond The Second Sex

photo via Wikimedia Commons

“There is a good principle that created order, light and man and a bad principle that created chaos, darkness and woman.” — Pythagoras

Simone de Beauvoir is recognized mostly for The Second Sex, the 1949 book credited with giving birth (oops) to the Second Wave of Feminism. I don’t mean to diminish its importance—Second Sex is filled with historical data on how women have been kept subservient to men for so long, and is way beyond my scholarly limits—but I do take issue with the fact that it’s all we seem to know de Beauvoir for.

Because when I think of Simone de Beauvoir, I think of her novels—some of the best ever.

The Mandarins, All Men are Mortal, and de Beauvoir’s other novels enter new territory: She writes women who aren’t beleaguered or heroic, just human, and whose character flaws are what makes them equal to men. From her insanely egotistical actress in All Men Are Mortal, tothe mother who hates her son for being shallow and materialistic, de Beauvoir’s novels unapologetically assume that every person is responsible for their behavior. 

She Came to Stay is semi-autobiographical about a time when de Beauvoir and her lover, Jean Paul Sartre, invited a young, provincial girl into their love affair. Not a fan of lifetime monogamy, she goes so far in this book that she almost falls off the rails. This gives us an insight into her own faults… and makes her even more fascinating. 

This Women’s History Month, skip the theory—we already know it’s unequal out there—and look through de Beauvoir’s fiction instead. You’ll see how the Second Wave of Feminism got so “bitchy” that we demanded equality.

And it’ll be one of the best reads of your life.