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November 2, 2013

Long-time readers of Birth of a Novel may remember that this blog started out charting the journey of five women writers as we worked our way from vague idea to finished novel. In the process, we became friends and will always remain so. However, the blog itself has changed over time as all living entities must. The biggest change was the loss of four of the original five posters.  Happily, Marielena Zuniga, Sharen Ford, Gretchen Haertsch and Joan Barth are still writing, but their lives and their careers have steered them toward different paths. I treasure their friendships and miss their contributions to the blog, but I haven’t been left alone. I firmly believe that birthing a novel is best done with the help of other writers. With that in mind, I’ve gone forward with Birth of a Novel  by inviting other writers whom I admire to share their experiences and insights and mixing them in with my own thoughts. I think the mix has been a good one and am proud of the diversity of views represented here.  I feel a special pride in this post because it was written by one of BOAN’s original members, Marielena.  It was first published in “Times They Were A-Changing: Women Remember the 60s and 70s”


By Marielena ZunigaMarielena 1960s

The black-and-white photo of the young woman sits on my desk. I want to weep for her. I want to love her. I want to tell her it will be all right, although she doesn’t know it yet.

She is 19, stands in a park somewhere on a summer’s day, wearing a Mary Quant mini-dress, bangs that meet her Twiggy-mascared lashes, hair hanging like a dark veil around her shoulders. She has a shy smile on her pale lip-sticked mouth and an eager invitation to life in her eyes. She wears an expression only youth can pull off, one of innocence and fearlessness.

She stands in her opaque-laced stockings and Mary-Jane shoes in the midst of change, straddling two generations – her mother’s and her own. She doesn’t know what’s ahead and if she did, she would run. She would flee to England in the hopes of meeting her beloved Paul McCartney or fly to Haight-Ashbury to wear flowers in her hair.

No, she has no idea of what’s to come, poor child – the struggles in the workplace for equality, the broken hearts, the loneliness, the searching for identity as a woman who was raised with the conventional principles of the 1950s and found herself thrust into a world tilting headlong into the drugs, sex and rock-and-roll of the 1960s. So I cry for her and the woman she is, and I love her for the woman she doesn’t know yet that she will become.

She begins, as most of her generation, by bucking the norm. She doesn’t want to be a wife, tied to a husband and children in a cookie-cutter house in the suburbs. So, she doesn’t marry, doesn’t follow the traditional path of her mother. Later, she will look at her choice from “both sides now,” as Joni Mitchell sang, and learn that “something’s lost, but something’s gained in living every day.”

Instead, she works at a 9 to 5 job. She wants to write and so that’s what she does, for a large daily newspaper. The Women’s News Department is stuck in the corner of the newsroom, where she and three other women write about weddings and engagements. She wants to write about how women are changing the world and her first article tells the story of a woman trekking from coast to coast, alone, protesting the Vietnam War.

No matter. The managing editor makes a point of telling the women that they do not write as well as the male reporters. That they never will. Each day, on page six, the newspaper prints a photo of a woman in a bikini or other scant clothing. When the Women’s News editor protests to the managing editor, he brushes her aside. These photos sells newspapers, he barks. Chauvinist pig, she whispers back at her desk.

The young woman is listening. And learning. She is green in this newspaper business and in these changing times she watches the world in news pass across her desk. Nixon resigns, followed by Agnew. The Vietnam War rages on with men of her age slaughtered. Four dead in Ohio.

Women are demanding rights. Burning bras. Others are speaking of the Age of Aquarius, of spiritual enlightenment, of meditation. The Beatles travel to India with their guru. She feels as if she is in one of their songs, watching the world through kaleidoscope eyes.

Sitting in the newsroom, daily deadlines pressing, she flashes back to the Fab Four. She adores them and in her teenaged years, sees them four times in concert — twice in Philadelphia and twice in New York City. At 14, she boards the train in Trenton for Shea Stadium, the car pressed with screaming, pubescent girls. They are alive with a passion that only youth can flaunt, fraught with an excitement akin to orgasm.

She and friends devise schemes to meet the Beatles. That never happens. But one of her hair-brained ideas a la Lucy Ricardo lands her in a hotel lobby at 5 o’clock in the morning getting the autographs of Herman’s Hermits and The Who. She shakes her head, remembering.

An editor screams for copy. She begins typing on her IBM Selectric typewriter. Where did that time go, so quickly, she asks?

This is what she doesn’t know yet. That it goes quickly. That what seems forever in youth becomes quickened, and even more so in later years, like evening light slipping through your fingers. I want to weep for all the lessons she will have to learn, for all the tears she will shed as she goes about “finding herself.”

What she finds isn’t always pretty. She has self-doubts. A man she loves introduces her to the songs of Judy Collins, of wildflowers and “Michael from Mountains” and she wants to hide behind his smile. But he leaves her for someone else. She is still too young to know the meaning of love, so in hindsight, she is grateful.

But her heart is broken – and tender. She feels the injustice of the times, of discrimination, of rights denied minorities, of wars that never should be, of women who want their voices heard. She yearns to make a difference. She tries to catch the wind.

One day, she surprises the newsroom and says she is leaving. Another newspaper? they ask. After all, many of her colleagues have gone on to bigger city newspapers. Better paying jobs. No. She is going to southern Georgia. To work with the poor. As part of a mission program. They don’t understand. They look at her like she’s gone daft. Maybe she has. But she knows her life is not here, not in this newsroom.

In Georgia, she finds purpose and meaning. She works in the African-American community at a day care center and also for the weekly newspaper in a small Southern town. She finds that prejudice still exists, but when given a choice, people will love instead of hate, that sometimes a listening heart is needed. But that action is also needed at grass roots level and that people need and want education, employment, a future – and hope. She sees that change happens slowly, although in youth, she wants it to happen like the crack of thunder and a cleansing storm.

Now, she looks at another photo that sits on her desk. Her hair is graying, although she still colors it and vows that soon she will stop that 2009Aug 006nonsense. She carries extra pounds and her eyes reflect a sadness that is earned only through life. She goes on to write for many publications and organizations, especially about women’s issues, wins many writing awards, and in this way, she finds, as psychologist Carol Gilligan has written, “a different voice.” Her own voice.

In a passing conversation a friend calls her a pioneer for other women. She blushes. She hadn’t considered the idea. Hadn’t even thought of herself in this way. But again, this had been part of her growing up before the 1960s, in that other world that told women and girls: Be polite. Be good. Don’t speak up. Don’t claim your power.

But now she realizes, that in some miniscule way she has been a trailblazer, a part of a swell of women in the 1960s and 1970s who were saying to other women: Listen. You have options. You can do things your mother never did. Your choices will have consequences – but you do have them. Make the most of them. For yourselves and for the world.

She knows she lived through pivotal times. She is thankful. She feels as if she and many other women planted seeds during those decades – seeds that are now bearing rich fruit. She begs the world to not let that fruit decay on fallow ground. There is still much work to be done.

And they, women of the 1960s and 1970s, have the experience and tools to continue tilling that ground until they unearth the promised land of equality, the promised land of a world where no one goes hungry and the rights of all humans are respected. But they can only do it with the help of all their sisters, young and old, and yes, with men who are willing to take their hands and lead gently with their hearts.

In some ways, she wants to be that young woman again, filled with energy and innocence. In many ways, she doesn’t. She knows life can be hard. She knows that many times hope can abandon her in a second and leave her breathless. But she also knows now how strong she is, and that her strength comes from decades of good and poor choices, of disappointments and fleeting dreams, of joys that sparkled like stars and her deep spiritual convictions in a power greater than herself and the belief that in the end we all are, as Anne Frank said, basically good.

She looks at both photos now and takes a deep breath. Yes, she weeps for the young woman, and all that is ahead of her, but she smiles at and loves the woman who has survived. It has indeed been all right. And in that difficult journey she has learned to embrace herself with reverence, and even though she still has her bad days she has learned to turn with the seasons and understands that “there is a time to every purpose under heaven.” She knows, as Joni sang, “there’ll be new dreams, maybe better dreams and plenty, before the last revolving year is through.”

She has found her voice. And herself. And most of all, she has learned to love herself. Finally. Yes, she has.

Marielena, you have indeed found your voice and I am grateful to you for sharing it with us. Thank you.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. Sharen Ford permalink*
    November 2, 2013 3:03 PM

    Dear Sandy and Marielena, what an inspiration you both are! Sandy, you have continued to grow the Birth of a Novel blog into such a valuable resource for other writers. And Marielena, this piece is so poignant and powerful. Thank you both for reminding me how meaningful it is to be a writer.

  2. Mary Moore permalink
    November 3, 2013 12:35 PM

    Marielena, what a great essay! That young woman (now older and wiser) has done marvelous things in the time since the 60s—some recognized, others less noticed but equally valuable. The article makes me proud to be your friend, and it also brings to mind the similar experiences of so many of my women friends from the 60s.

    Sandy, the blog is wonderful—a constant source of inspiration. Thank you for keeping it alive.

    • November 3, 2013 4:23 PM

      Thanks, Mary. Glad you approve. Speaking of inspiration, you were one of the first to make me think I could actually do this writing thing. I’ll never forget our original group.

  3. November 4, 2013 12:41 PM

    Deare Sandy, Sharen and Mary, Thanks so much for your kind and lovely comments. I felt very honored to be among 48 women whose essays were chosen to appear in this women’s anthology, “The Times They Were A-Changing: Women Remember the ’60s and ’70s.” (She Writes Press, The editors asked for women’s unique voices and personal experiences during that time and I was happy to share my own, as a swell of women stepping forward into their own voices. My hope is that my essay inspires women to continue moving forward in their lives. As to inspiration, I thank each of you for continuing to inspire me, as the amazing women and writers you are. I feel very blessed. Thanks again, Sandy, for re-printing this essay.

  4. November 5, 2013 3:56 PM

    Marielena, I’m awe-struck after having read your essay. You have indeed found your voice, and a very powerful voice at that. I grew up in the 60s, too, and I can relate to so many of your sentiments, especially as a fellow writer.

    Sandy, thanks for providing the platform for this post and the many others you’ve help make happen. I admire your consistency and stick-to-it-ness. .

  5. November 5, 2013 5:44 PM

    I love that woman.

  6. November 5, 2013 5:51 PM

    Sydell, I left a reply/response to your very kind comments and not sure why it’s not here (so if you see a response twice, my apologies). I did want to thank you so much, and as a writer, I find it especially meaningful when a reader resonates to something I’ve written. Thank you again! And yes, a BIG thank you to Sandy for this platform. And Sheila. Wow. You just made my day. Maybe my year!

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