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TWE Top 10: Angela Grover Blackwell Talks with Bill Moyers on Economic and Social Equity

Angela Grover Blackwell in conversation with Bill Moyers for Top 10; Via Anita Jones at PeachSeedMonkey

Angela Glover Blackwell Talks With Bill Moyers on Economic and Social Equity–Anita Jones–PeachSeedMonkey–5/6/12

Jane Fonda Shares Her Gospel in “Prime Time”

Jane Fonda at Book Passage

By Anita Jones/September 1, 2011

This lil’ light of mine, I’m gon’ let it shine….everywhere I go…let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.”

Jane Fonda shoots from the hip. Granted—the hip has been replaced, but that only serves to make it stronger, wiser, more resilient, like Jane. She has taken the tragedies and triumphs of her 73.5 years on the planet and distilled them into a message so powerful, so pristine, so present that as you listen you can’t help but get it, regardless of your personal profile.

Jane Fonda Book Prime TimeI recently attended a lovely Literary Breakfast in August at the Corte Madera Book Passage where Jane talked about her new book, Prime Time: Love Health, Sex, Fitness, Friendship, Spirit—Making the Most of All of Your Life. As soon as she entered the room of 130 seated at tables, her energy spread; she claimed the space with her smile and unmistakable voice.

Right now I’m ankle deep in American civil rights research for my novel-in-progress and the great songs of the era play incessantly in my head, which explains why—enroute to the bookstore that morning —the song, This Little Light of Mine played in my head. Once she got into her talk, I saw an immediate connection. Jane at the podium felt like church. She had some serious personal gospel to share, and she lit up the room.

In her introduction, Elaine Petrocelli, the President of Book Passage, set the tone with a mix of thoughtfulness and humor, allowing Jane to segue into one of her favorite chapters from the new book: The Lowdown on Getting It Up in the Third Act.

ACT III is Jane’s name for the phase of life that begins at age sixty.

She wrote the book after noticing that in her sixties she felt better than ever and wanted to know if this was unique. She was intensely curious about aging, the brain, body, wisdom, spirit—all the things we need to do to “ascend the staircase” of aging versus descending into “decrepitude.”

She said people are surprised to learn that Jane, the “college-dropout-movie-actor”, is a born student who loves to learn and share what she finds important. She spent four years researching and distilled knowledge from all sorts of experts into her essential ingredients for aging successfully.

Jane Fonda exercise DVDHer life so far has gifted her with the light of wisdom; this sounds trite, but it’s true. Jane Fonda is a wise woman, a totally hip elder for the new millennia. More importantly, Jane is down with that. As I looked at her svelte, fit body at the podium, I thought if we could all look this good at her age, we, too, could go more gently into that next phase.

I admit to being pleasantly surprised to find that for Jane at this juncture it is about so much more than how she looks. “It’s about functionality,” she said, “being able to be independent, to get up and down from chairs, in and out of cars.”

The oldest set of us baby boomers is ten years younger than Jane, but like her, we cut our teeth on the activism of the 1960s and 70s, and barely escaped the AIDS sexual revolution of 1980s. If you’re wondering what the “Third Act” can look like, then you have only to look at 2011 Jane Fonda for an iconic model.

She is forthright, unabashedly not perfect, but striving to be whole.

A natural storyteller, not to mention Oscar- and Emmy-winning actor, Jane wastes no time and no words, and her comic timing is spot on. We laughed with her as she glanced at coffee cake crumbs on her plate right after talking about the necessity of “eating meaningful calories.

Jane has survived much, including the suicide of her bi-polar mother when she was twelve and never being thin or beautiful enough in the eyes of her father, Henry Fonda. She spoke of both these life-shaping events from her deeply personal point-of-view of forgiveness, a pinnacle she was able to attain after doing the hard work of a life review—researching oneself.


She said we must ask tough questions like “Who were/are your parents as people? How did/do they show up for their children …? How did their parents show up? These answers shape us when we are very young.”

This is a cautionary tale for our adolescents everywhere (especially girls) who may be going through what Jane went through—guilt, broken trust, and hatred of body leading to eating disorders. She has learned to not let these things define her, anymore than she is defined by her replaced hip or knee or the fact that she is a septuagenarian.

“You need to find out how come your parents treated you that way…” Jane

“I grew up thinking if I was not perfect I wouldn’t be loved….leads to a lot of problems…it gets worse when a girl becomes an adolescent and it stays throughout life…You need to find out how come your parents treated you that way…Unpacking the past allows us to see that it had nothing to do with us,” she said.

Of all the things she shared that morning, I was moved most by two stories. The first is about using a life review or meditation/prayer to change the norm from negative to positive. This allows us to “forgive….come to a new understanding and begin to view more positively, and with an open heart, the people and realities of our past.”

Jane Fonda in Variations

Jane starred in "33 Variations" in New York and Los Angeles

If we sustain this positive attitude we can actually create new neural pathways in the brain. For women, Jane said, “You become different. You become the girl you were before you entered puberty.”

She was clearly moved—and we were all with her—as she paraphrased T. S. Elliot: “You circle back to where you started and know the place for the first time. You become the person you were always intended to be, and there’s a lot of forgiveness along the way.”

She spoke of rehearsing her death in my other favorite story in Prime Time. At the breakfast, she compared it to the birth of her two daughters. The first time she winged it, and “it was very difficult.”

The second time, when she was married to Tom Hayden and they went to a birth educator, she saw that “knowledge is power. Knowing what to expect made it possible to not become a victim of the pain but ride on top of it.”

The death scene she imagines has her in bed surrounded by loved ones. They are holding her hand, and she is vibrant enough to interact with the love in the room. Now, she said she must live her life in a way that will get her there.

Jane and Elaine Petrocelli at Book Passsage

Jane and Elaine Petrocelli at Book Passsage

Breakfast with Jane was fun and enlightening, a cross between a literary event, a spiritual retreat, and (as Elaine said) a wedding reception. Jane left us with an apropos quote from Picasso ~ “It takes a long time to become young.”

She is where one would hope an elder would be at this point—well rehearsed. Fit and able to ride out the inconveniences of aging, she seems happier than ever in this Third Act.

She’s not afraid of the hard work still left to do. With all the lines and delivery down, her prior performances have prepared her for this glorious time in the light.

Let it shine , Jane…let it shine!


Jane recommended that we all show Gloria Steinem’s documentary to our girls: Gloria: In Her Own Words

Two of her great causes:

Jane Fonda Center for Adolescent Reproductive Health (Emory University)

Georgia Campaign for Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention

About the author:

Anita Jones is a writer, visual artist and oral tradition storyteller. Her novel-in-progress, Peach Seed Monkey, was a novella semi-finalist in the William Faulkner-William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition. She’s the Executive Director of the Gaines-Jones Education Foundation, a family foundation she co-founded with her husband, Robert Roehrick. They live in northern California with their daughter. You can contact Anita at peachseedmonkey@gmail.com.

Photos of Jane Fonda at Book Passage by Anita Jones

Janny Scott Writes The Untold Story Of Barack Obama’s Mother

Janny Scott

Photo of Janny Scott by Nina Subin

By Anita Jones

Two Singular Women

During a pivotal time in history, when the world was focused on the son, Barack Obama, a photograph diverted journalist Janny Scott’s attention to the mother, Stanley Ann Dunham. I had done a fair amount of delving into tidbits of Ann’s life, enough to know that she was clearly a phenomenal woman.

I was also interested to know more about the woman who chose to write about her. Recently at the Ferry Plaza Book Passage in San Francisco, Janny granted me a fifteen-minute interview before talking about her new book, A Singular Woman, The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mother.

Janny Scott's book on Barack Obama's mother, "A Singular Woman"When we shook hands I immediately sensed, through her warm, bespectacled smile, that Janny Scott meets no strangers, as we say in southwest Georgia.

I got the feeling that this, coupled with her organized, focused professionalism, served her well in the two and a half years she spent researching the book.

That effort included retracing Ann’s steps and interviewing nearly two hundred people who in some way touched her life, including colleagues, friends, professors, relatives, the President and his sister Maya Soetoro-Ng about whom I’ve written here before.

The book is well worth the read. Through it, Janny gives us a much-needed wider perception of the mother of America’s 44th president, a woman who was exemplary in her unconditional love for her son and her absolute belief in his gifts.

“…she shaped him to a degree he seems increasingly to acknowledge.”

She makes it clear in the prologue that A Singular Woman is not a book about President Obama, but “it is a book about his mother. But she shaped him to a degree he seems increasingly to acknowledge”.

When Janny went to the Oval Office and interviewed Persident Obama in July 2010, thirty minutes was simply not enough time, but she made the best of it.

Stanley Ann Dunham from Janny Scott book

Janny writes that he saw his mother as a strong, persistent, resilient woman who was disorganized and uninterested in the conventional homemaker role, and often needed her parents to “smooth over some of her choices.” He does not, however, hold those choices against her.

She instilled in him “a sense that the greatest thing you can do in the world is to help somebody else…”

He said many of his life choices were inspired by her example. She instilled in him “a sense that the greatest thing you can do in the world is to help somebody else…So I have no doubt that a lot of my career choices are rooted in her and what she thought was important.”

Obama and momJanny writes about the many over-simplified versions of Ann Dunham that reduce her to the corn-fed white woman from Kansas, the antithesis of the black father from Kenya.

She points out that in her son’s book, Dreams of My Father, “she is the shy, small-town girl who falls head over heels for the brilliant, charismatic African who steals the show…the naive idealist, the innocent abroad”.

And by frenzied tabloid and internet accounts, Janny writes, “she is the atheist, the Marxist, the flower child, the mother who ‘abandoned’ her son or duped the state of Hawaii into issuing a birth certificate for her Kenyan-born baby, on the off chance that he might want to be president someday”.

Whether they mean to or not, Janny writes that these labels obscure “an extraordinary story—of a girl with a boy’s name who grew up in the years before the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the Vietnam war and the Pill; who married an African at a time when nearly two dozen states still had laws against interracial marriage.”

At twenty-four, she moved to Jakarta, Indonesia with her young son toward the end of extreme anti-communist violence there. Maya was born three years later. She adored both her children and believed her son had the potential to be great. He jokingly said she raised him to be a combination of Albert Einstein, Mahatma Gandhi, and Harry Belafonte. Then she died at fifty-two, never knowing who or what her Barry would become.

Stanley Ann Dunham from Janny ScottI wanted to know first-hand what the process of writing the book was like for Janny, about the spark that ignited this journey for her, knowing her role in creating this printed legacy of Ann Dunham, someone who came into astonishing notoriety after her death.

Janny said, “I was not terribly self-conscious about this process, not thinking this woman needs her reputation salvaged. This is an amazing story and had the added advantage that it reflects in some way or another—I’m not saying exactly how because people will interpret that differently—on a person who is now at the center of our political and national life.”

She said—first and foremost—that she was guided by what she always relies on as a journalist: a sense that this was a story of interest to her that she thought would interest others. And she pursued it. It is the persistence and determination of her pursuit that we have to thank for this phenomenal work.

She added that it’s not possible to undertake a project like this—with the parent of a sitting president —and not know “there’s a lot riding on how you characterize that person, and that he attracts so much controversy anyway, and she therefore does also, that everything will be construed and reconstrued and misconstrued.”

Janny was extremely conscious of getting everything as accurate as possible…

As a result, Janny was extremely conscious of getting everything as accurate as possible, getting a “calm balance in the way I presented things”. This is where skilled organization entered in, designing an effective way of working. More on that later.

Obama and Mother 1987

In 2008 when Illinois Senator Barack Obama ran for president, Janny was writing biographical pieces on him for the New York Times. One of the people she interviewed sent her the photograph that sparked the journey, and told Janny that if she ever wanted to write about Ann, they knew a lot more about her than they did about the Senator.

“I was fascinated by the juxtaposition of the two of them.”

In the 1987 photo (above), four friends join 23-year-old Barack and his mother, who was 45 at the time, on a rooftop in Manhattan. Janny said, “I was fascinated by the juxtaposition of the two of them.” To quote from the first paragraph of the book: “That first glimpse was surprising—the stout, pale-skinned woman in sturdy sandals…He had the studied casualness of a catalog model, in khakis, at home in the viewfinder.”

Obama and Mother from Janny Book

At Punahou School Commencement, 1979

Janny realized that she had never thought about the mother of Barack Obama and didn’t know anything about her, and so she wrote a piece about Ann for the Times which ran in March 2008.

As it turns out, many people were genuinely interested in Ann Dunham’s courageously unconventional life so ultimately the piece got a huge amount of attention, and because of that she was offered the chance to write the book.

When I asked her how she managed her research material and keeping track of things since accuracy was so important, Janny said, “process and organization is a very interesting part of this craft and not enough people talk about it.”

As you can imagine she amassed volumes of material. This is her first book so she had not done research on this scale before.

Janny Scott at Book Passage

Janny at Book Passage

Halfway through the process a friend tried to show her how to use the computer to organize things, but this did not work for Janny. She opted for the low-tech system of file folders. Each folder held all the sources for one chapter.

She felt the chronological structure suited the telling of Ann’s life well, and the choice to end the book with President Obama came organically since her thirty-minute interview with him happened towards the end of the journey.

At the end of her talk at Book Passage the first woman to raise her hand in the audience thanked Janny for writing the book and told her what a wonderful job she did. I echo that sentiment. And Janny, with regards to singular women ~ it takes one to know one.

Photos are from the Friends and Family of Stanley Ann Dunham unless otherwise credited.

About the author:

Anita Jones is a writer, visual artist and oral tradition storyteller. Her novel-in-progress, Peach Seed Monkey, was a novella semi-finalist in the William Faulkner-William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition. She’s the Executive Director of the Gaines-Jones Education Foundation, a family foundation she co-founded with her husband, Robert Roehrick. They live in northern California with their daughter. You can contact Anita at peachseedmonkey@gmail.com.

President Obama’s Sister Maya Soetoro-Ng Writes Children’s Book

Maya Soetoro Ng

UPDATE 1/5/15: President Obama’s Vacation: Day 15–Visit to see Maya Soetoro-Ng

Maya’s Radio Podcast: 8/20/11

UPDATE 9/5/12:  Maya Soetoro-Ng Previews Half-Brother President Barack Obama’s DNC Address

By Anita Jones/April 26, 2011

One cool new evening Suhaila asked her mama,

“What was Grandma Annie like?”

“She was like the Moon,” her mother replied.

Maya Soetoro-Ng read these first lines from her new children’s book, Ladder to the Moon, her deep, melodious voice surrounding us as we finished our lunch at Book Passage in Corte Madera, California last week. This was one of the final stops in the west coast leg of Maya’s book tour. I had the honor of sitting at the table with Maya and YuYi Morales, the book’s illustrator.

Maya took the podium, gave a very brief preamble and professed to always feeling “like a tall woman in a short woman’s body”. Without missing a beat she then launched into a seamless mixture of reading and storytelling. I relaxed with my coffee and macaroon, knowing we were in good hands.

As she spoke Maya flipped thorough the book showing YuYi’s illustrations. Author and illustrator shared the podium and had met for the first time only an hour before. Each spoke about being deeply connected from the start through this story they both felt compelled to tell; YuYi through her beguiling acrylic paintings sparked by Maya’s ethereal, lyrical words.

Maya’s oldest daughter, Suhaila, six years old, is the namesake of the book’s heroine. Her questions about Maya’s mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, were the inspiration for the book. Ann was 52 when she passed away a decade before Suhaila’s birth.

In this magical tale Suhaila’s Grandma Annie descends a golden ladder outside her bedroom window and leads her up to the moon on an adventure of healing, helping and growth.

Maya, Mom, and Barack

Stanley Ann Dunham and her children

Stanley Ann Dunham earned a PhD in anthropology from the University of Hawaii. In 2009 Duke University Press published her dissertation posthumously under the title, Surviving Against the Odds: Village Industry in Indonesia. Maya told of a photo—included in this book—taken in Indonesia showing Ann dressed in batik, sitting before a basket of chicks, with a duckling in her hands.

This photo bespeaks Suhaila’s profound connection to Ann, apparent in their shared love of critters, large and small, “Suhaila is the resident activist in our building, protecting slugs, beetles and worms with a tremendous reserve of affection inherited from my mom.” Maya admitted to her need to draw the line at the idea of relocating cockroaches.

The book also reflects Maya’s own life journey, which began in her birthplace, Jakarta, Indonesia, where she and her older brother, President Barack Obama, spent a large part of their very multicultural childhood.

After mentioning at the table that we homeschooled our daughter, I learned that Ann also homeschooled Maya, instilling in her a fierce love of learning and to value the best of the past.

Maya and Obama

Maya and Obama

“The script is not narrowed when we know where we came from”, Maya said. “If we are not content with the roots we are handed, then we can write our own stories.”

Ladder to the Moon artfully enfolds many complex themes ~ the interconnectedness of us all, healing from loss, and the pragmatic value of building bridges. These also radiate through Maya’s work as an educator. With a PhD in international comparative education, she has taught middle school, high school and at the University level for many years.

Maya and illustrator YuYi Morales

Maya and YuYi Morales, the book’s illustrator

She shows students the value of mediating between perspectives, urging them “to remember the collisions, shifting borders and layered perspectives that have contributed to who you are. It is important to refrain from applying rigid ‘you-are this-so-you-must-be-that’ labels to people.”

By way of this magnificent gift to her children Maya links a world of readers and listeners to the teachings of Stanley Ann Dunham’s unwavering spirit, captured beautifully in this line at the end of Ladder to the Moon:

“She sat for a quiet half moment, feeling proud for having helped others learn to move forward and upward and around.”

Maya wonders what lessons her daughters might have learned from their grandmother if they could have met her. Indeed, Ladder to the Moon is a beautiful answer to that question.


About the author:

Anita Jones is a writer, visual artist and oral tradition storyteller. Her novel-in-progress, Peach Seed Monkey, was a novella semi-finalist in the William Faulkner-William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition. She’s the Executive Director of the Gaines-Jones Education Foundation, a family foundation she co-founded with her husband, Robert Roehrick. They live in northern California with their daughter. You can contact Anita at peachseedmonkey@gmail.com.