Today is the 50th anniversary of the publication of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.
In the 1980s, Judy Blume’s popular middle-grade and young adult novels were as ubiquitous as our Bonnie Bell lip smacker lip gloss collections. The books were always checked out at both the school and public library and took up a whole table at our annual school book fair. This alarmed some of the parents and educators who thought Blume’s topics might be too risky.
Our school librarian had a special meeting with parents to address the Judy Blume problem. The librarian’s biggest issue was the adult themes in some of Blume’s books. She said the fad was too big to stop. Instead, she recommended parents read the same books their children read to have meaningful discussions afterward.
But she unwisely added the following advice: “Under no circumstance should your junior high student read Forever.”
Of course, the moment we found out Forever was off-limits, someone got a copy and we passed it around. A book banned by the librarian had to be a worthwhile read. My parents had no idea I was reading this book! For those who don’t know, Forever is about a high school senior, Katherine, who has a boyfriend, and they have sex.
As a classic seventh grade late bloomer, my favorite books included Noel Streatfeild’s Shoes books, which were almost all about orphaned British children discovering their inner talents at cool stage schools in London. These books had nothing to do with teen hormones and everything to do with discovering your talents and finding a happily ever after on the stage. I read these over and over and daydreamed about a future in a very dated view of the London stage world.
Forever was more than a tad beyond my experience. Still, the book impacted me profoundly. I remember the librarian preferred classical children’s literature, the kind that instilled some sort of moral lesson in our impressionable minds. I’m guessing she thought we’d read Forever, identify with Katherine, and have sex before we ready. First of all, I doubt any middle-schooler looked at me as a potential romantic partner. And, I was the same. How could a shy girl who read obsessively, wrote plays, and built a dollhouse of all things be ready for sex?
I remember the story left me heartbroken. I learned about the intensity of first love and the crippling pain of breaking up. After reading Forever, I thought I wasn’t ready to deal with the intensity of a romantic relationship. It could wait a long, long time, and I would just go back to my theater daydreams. In other words, the book had the opposite impact that the grownups feared. Forever taught me that sex is a messy, complicated, and potentially emotionally painful experience I wasn’t ready to experience.
I wasn’t done with Judy Blume. Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret, intrigued me, and I didn’t have to read in secret. My mom followed the librarian’s advice and read the book too.
One of the plot points in the book is that the main character, Margaret wonders when she’ll go through puberty and get her first period. As a result, my mom and I ended up having a very awkward conversation about periods and puberty.
I honestly didn’t care about that stuff and was a little confused about why Margaret cared. I knew some girls who had their periods, and from what I heard, they were painful and annoying. And, sure enough, a few years later, when I finally went through puberty myself, I found that menstruation was indeed painful and annoying.
What interested me more about the book was Margaret’s relationship with God. In the story, she has a Jewish father and a Christian mother. They’re non-practicing, but she’s curious about religion and what decisions she should make in her own life. For a class project, she attends different worship services and wonders where she belongs. I grew up in a Catholic family. Though we went to public school, every week my brothers and I went to Sunday School and church. I was baptized, participated in confession, and Communion.
In the seventh grade, I was taking additional classes for my confirmation. Up until this point, I had done all of my church requirements without resistance, but this was different. My messy emotions kept getting in the way. I felt separated from my faith. For one thing, the underlying sexism didn’t impress me, but it was more than that. The church we attended was a friendly place, but I didn’t fit in. I felt like an imposter, but I couldn’t articulate my feelings. After all, I was expected to go to church. To her credit, the nun teaching the confirmation class explained confirmation was our decision, not our parents, and we shouldn’t take it lightly. I realized if I went through with confirmation I wouldn’t be honest with myself and everyone around me.
At the end of Are You There God? . . . , Margaret doesn’t reach any conclusions about religion, though she feels that she shouldn’t have to choose. I had a religion and didn’t know what I wanted exactly, but I did know that being confirmed in the Catholic Church was the wrong thing for me to do.
Margaret gave me courage. I spoke up.
I told my parents. Lots of yelling ensued, but I stood my ground. My older brother had been confirmed, and I was expected to follow his footsteps. My mom was the first to accept it was my decision, and my dad eventually came around.
I stopped going to church, was never confirmed, and never regretted that decision.
Looking back, it’s kind of funny the grownups thought Judy Blume’s books were going to corrupt us. Forever taught me that sex had emotional consequences, and Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret, taught me that there are no easy answers when it comes to finding a spiritual path. These two books, in particular, reaffirmed my views on the world and my place in the chaotic world of adolescence.
Years later, I was at a writers’ conference in Los Angeles. Judy Blume was one of the keynote speakers. As I navigated my way out of the crowded auditorium, I saw Judy standing by the door surrounded by a group of admirers. She looked directly at me and smiled. I smiled back.
I was afraid to go up and say hello. I thought I might burst out crying or something totally embarrassing. Also, I didn’t need to say anything. Judy already got it. She understood, and she understood all those years ago when I first read her books.
This is the time of year I love most (even if my allergies disagree).
The birdsong and frog song, the succession of blooming plants, the longer days, and the shifts between sunshine and rain.
I’m finishing up a project that I’ll be sad to leave. I love the characters, the setting, the story. I’m sure I’ll be doing future revisions and edits, shifting and changing, but for now, I’m going to move onto the next big thing.
These moments of shifting can feel good. “Hey, I finished a book!”
Yet, I can also feel unsure.
The possibility awaits: wonderful and scary; exciting and daunting; a dash forward and a long pause. All those contrasts hit me, freeze me.
I’m back to the act of creating again. The pen to the notebook–
As someone who tends to fear little things, I’ve learned to
redirect my thoughts when they go from the standard concern to an irrational
spiral toward an epic catastrophe. My sons call me Worst Case Scenario Mom when
I go too far, yet I slay many of my childhood fears with my redirection
One fear from my childhood became a real event this past November.
The possibility of destruction always loomed over us as we lived in the fire-prone landscape at the base of the Santa Monica Mountains. For forty-six years we rode out the dangers of droughts, dry chaparral, acres of flames, and near misses. This luck literally went up in smoke the afternoon of November 9, 2018, when the Woolsey Fire raged through Malibu, CA.
I was in the sixth grade
during the 1978 Agoura-Malibu firestorm when dry brush and the Santa Ana winds
fueled the flames from Agoura to the Pacific Ocean. As the smoke massed over
the mountains, we packed our cars and drove down to Zuma Beach to wait out the
destruction. Huddled with fellow evacuees, including horses and other livestock
from the ranches and farms that dotted the hillsides, we watched and
I wandered on the beach
with my dog as the flames rolled down the mountains sending showers of sparks
down the bluffs across Pacific Coast Highway.
“Please, God, Please!” a woman prayed aloud as the fire swirled around her house in full view of the beach.
All at once, the house
burst into flames from within. The windows exploded, and the fire suffocated
the building and the woman’s prayer. Some people comforted her, and I moved on
down the beach feeling as raw and vulnerable as the landscape around me.
Late that night as we
drove back up into our neighborhood in Malibu Park, past the smoldering remains
of familiar houses, we held our breath as we turned onto our
street. By sheer luck, the flames had left a swath of land untouched
that left most of our street, including our house, intact.
Three years later, we
woke up on an early December morning with smoke already inside our house. The
field behind our backyard was in flames. The Santa Ana winds had knocked a
powerline down and sparked a small fire that burnt at least one house before it
raced down the hill to our street. The firefighters, my family, and neighbors,
were able to contain it before it spread and destroyed anything else.
For decades after our
near misses, our house stayed out of the path of the major fires in Malibu, but
we still worried. My parents took emergency preparedness courses. They cleared
the brush around their home. They cut down trees. They made evacuation lists.
The fire never came.
I eventually left Malibu for Washington state. Even here, with our abundant rainfall, I think of the “what if” options if a brush fire ignited. These dense forests can certainly burn. The past two summers we had many days when our skies filled with smoke from fires in British Columbia and Washington. I’ve considered what would happen if a fire started near my house—the different trajectories, the escape routes, and the outcomes.
On the morning of Nov.
9, 2018, a quick scan of the news prompted a pang of worry. A fire in Southern
California had jumped the 101 Freeway. Once a fire jumps the 101, the fire will
likely burn to the coast. This is Southern California fire logic. I read Malibu
was under mandatory evacuation.
I called my parents.
They were packing and had a plan. Of course, they had a plan.
Every break I had from
work that day, I scanned social media, clicked on news links, and texted my
brothers. My parents were out of cell range, but they had been seen by a family
friend. They were on Zuma Beach.
During my lunch, I watched live news footage. A helicopter flew over the fire, but I couldn’t tell where it was exactly. I studied the vertiginous sweep of canyons and red-tiled roofs, flames, and smoke. For a second, the screen flashed an overlay of street names, and it hit me. This is our neighborhood. For just a moment, I saw our street and the blobs of house-sized fires hazed in smoke. The camera peeled away to survey another burning neighborhood.
Malibu Park is a mix of
old timers, like my parents, in their ranch houses and the fancier types, with
astonishing Mediterranean-inspired estates. Celebrities and rumored
international royal family members live in square footage enough to get lost
in. Mixed up is everything else imaginable—converted garages, sleek
steel and glass rectangles, and even an ornate replica Victorian. Dog trainers
live next door to physicians, plumbers, retired rock stars, teachers, and real
My parents’ house was
classic, a house with an iconic and timeless feel—the original midcentury pink
bathtub, the double-sided brick fireplace that showcased the kitchen and living
room, and the quilted design my mom made tacked carefully to the living room
ceiling, between wooden rafters, to hide the popcorn texture above.
It was a laidback house
with comfy seating, heaps of books, and a big table in the kitchen where we
feasted on excellent meals. Out front, on the brick porch, we had a weathered
rocker for sea gazing. Some things were not perfect, like my old bedroom which
still had the ugly black and hot pink stripes I made on the closet door (it was
the 80s after all).
On that November afternoon, after the fire had made its way to the coast, my dad walked up from Zuma Beach treading carefully, hyper-aware of the dangers of hotspots and fallen power lines. He couldn’t go all the way to the property, but he went far enough to see what remained. Only the fireplace stood on what had once been our homesite.
Later, I found out my
parents had first settled in the parking lot for Malibu Park High School where
they could keep an eye on their street. But as the fire came down the
mountains, they told me the flames funneled into whirls and made deep
undulating sounds like massive gears on some horrible machine. They feared for
their lives and fled to the beach.
Hearing the news of the
growing numbers of fatalities in the recent California fires, my heart breaks.
I am grateful that my parents and others are alive. This is what’s most
important. Yet, there’s no denying a profound sense of loss. My greatest fear
about my family home has always been that one day it would burn down. Now it
This was the home my
brothers and I returned to often and brought our own children to share in the
experience. It was my escape when the dark winters of Orcas Island got me down.
It was our home—the one we moved into in 1972–not perfect but one we accepted
and loved, with all the idiosyncrasies, like a member of the family.
My parents plan to
rebuild. After the rubble is removed and a new home is constructed, there
will be new charms and comforts. After all, the essentials stay the same. The
vibrant pink and orange glow of the winter sunsets will still happen. The
hummingbirds will return to fight over the bottlebrush flowers. At night, we’ll
hear the waves as they break and roll down Zuma Beach. It will be home.
Despite everything, a
new home will rise from the ashes.