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Michiana Chronicles writers bring portraits of our life and times to the 88.1 WVPE airwaves every Friday at 7:45 am during Morning Edition and over the noon hour at 12:30 pm during Here and Now. Michiana Chronicles was first broadcast in October 2001. Contact the writers through their individual e-mails and thanks for listening!

Michiana Chronicles: Missing Margaret

April's copy of "Are You There God? It's Me Margaret" by Judy Blume
April Lidinsky
April's copy of "Are You There God? It's Me Margaret" by Judy Blume

As a pre-teen in the 1970s, I was quite aware that the world was a messy mix of bad and good. I witnessed the long and unhappy line of cars at gas stations during shortages. I worked hard to make sense of Watergate in the issues of Newsweek on our coffee table, and absorbed my parents’ worry about the recession. But for many girls, the Seventies were also a remarkably sunny time – an age of optimism, really! It seems impossible, now, but we were girls who knew every word of the empowering album, Free to Be You and Me. We reenacted feminist television plots from Wonder Woman and the Bionic Woman, read empowering novels like Island of the Blue Dolphins, and were the beneficiaries of Title IX. My Colorado Congressional representative was the young and dynamic Patricia Schroeder, and it was exciting to know that the Equal Rights Amendment was so close to passing that surely we’d be celebrating soon … right?

And in the midst of all of this, author Judy Blume crafted chapter books for young readers that made us feel seen and valued for the weird, funny, and complicated people we were. I reread until I’d practically memorized my older sister’s dollar-fifty Dell Yearling paperback of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. That novel captured with excruciating clarity the pre-teen years of finding footholds in our own integrity – those years of sometimes screwing up so royally it seemed our friends or our parents would be mad at us forever. A few weeks ago, I reread the book hungrily, satisfied, again, by the kindred spirit I found in Margaret, and also the worlds it opened to me — a suburban Colorado kid — to the urban cultures of New York City.

Like so many women my age, I watched the trailer for the film adaptation of Are You There God? with trepidation, worried the filmmakers might mishandle a story so many of us cherish. But, for me, the film was a joyful reunion. I caught it as a matinee on Mother’s Day, in a theater near Lincoln Center in New York City, just blocks from where the novel opens, as Margaret prepares to leave her beloved city neighborhood for the unknowns of New Jersey. While there were many likely mother-daughter pairs in that full theater, the audience was marvelously diverse, proving that Margaret’s story, though small in scale, still has universal appeal. That urbane audience erupted in applause as the closing credits rolled to George Harrison’s “What is Life.” Walking the busy city blocks back up the city’s West Side to our daughter’s apartment, I fought nostalgic tears — missing my mother, gone over a year now, and feeling protective of our first grandchild, who was days away from being born on the other side of Central Park. The story makes clear how much we have lost, in many ways, when it comes to honoring the deep and wise perspectives of children, and their desire to understand the world.

The film’s optimism — the same sunniness I remember from the 1970s — is so different from the resignation I often hear from college students in my classrooms. Health education — to the extent it exists — is so much worse than what I received in my working class public school. How can it be that in 2023, college students tell me they thought they had cancer when they first started menstruating, or were so ashamed of their adolescent bodies that they hid evidence of their changes from family members? I’m heartbroken to hear young women’s defeated perspective on the side-effects from birth control, or of scrambling to get IUDs, despite the pain of the devices’ insertion, because they are terrified of unintended pregnancies in this era of health care restrictions. Women’s bodies seem to be full of dread, unknown disasters and mystery — a new and unwelcome dark ages that is so NOT what Margaret and her empowered friends — and my friends and I — imagined for our future.

In the closing chapter of Are You There God?, Margaret observes that her “mind knows” she’s growing up, even if that evolution is not evident to others. And she has “plenty to say.” Remember that feeling? I sure do. Judy Blume’s lesson for us, I’d say, is that divine intervention isn’t necessary. What Margaret needs — and what young people need more than ever as they seek empowerment and safety in their bodies — is for grown ups to respond to them with information and action worthy of their youthful integrity. Are you there? Please listen.

April Lidinsky is a writer, activist, mother, foodie, black-belt, organic gardener, and optimist. She is a Professor of Women's and Gender Studies at IU South Bend and is a reproductive justice advocate.