In the storm

Photo credit: Wayne Lynch
Photo credit: Wayne Lynch

Fourteen years ago I was on a canoe trip in the Canadian backcountry with my grandmother, my parents, my husband, and our infant son.

*Note: This is not as weird as it seems. My grandmother was Ontario’s first licensed female canoe guide. My father practically grew up in a canoe, and so did I. All of us trekking out into the wilderness is just what we do.

Anyway…

We’d set up camp and pitched a tarp when a huge storm rolled in. I put our son in his bright yellow rain suit onesie (yes, they make these), and the rest of us pulled on our rain gear. As the storm intensified, we gathered under the tarp. The campsite began to flood and we huddled together with my son in the middle of our circle. Rain sluiced down our backs and puddled around the high patch of ground we were gathered upon.

My grandmother joked about us being like a herd of musk ox, who gather their young into the middle of the herd for protection, and indeed we were just like musk ox weathering a storm or the threat of predators.

This is us now. In the storm. The biggest, worst storm I have seen in my years on this planet. I won’t lie—I’m scared. I have never felt this vulnerable or this disappointed in humanity. My belief that most people are fundamentally good is shaken, deeply. But I keep thinking about that storm and about my herd.

Moving forward, we must be musk ox—big, powerful, badass, and working in unison. We must gather together with the most vulnerable in the center. Our future is the young people of today—the queer kids, the Jewish kids, the kids of color, the kids new to this country, the girls who don’t want to be groped, the boys who want to be kind. We have to keep them safe and also teach them how to deal with this kind of fundamental threat to our humanity.

So shake the snow off your shoulders, people, and circle up.

 

 

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George Fletcher: The People’s Champion

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George Fletcher — Art by Wendy Myers
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George Fletcher on Long Tom

Hold onto your hats, cowgirls and cowboys! The exciting story of saddle bronc rider, George Fletcher, is out today! I am so happy to introduce OREGON READS ALOUD, a beautiful anthology of 25 stories by Oregon authors and illustrated by Oregon artists. I love this book and I love SMART: Start Making a Reader Today and I love horses and I love George Fletcher! It’s a win all the way around. Grab a copy and snuggle up on the couch with your favorite little person for OREGON READS ALOUD!

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On Yom Kippur, let us not despair

The Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur concluded at sunset yesterday. It’s the most serious, the most intense, and the most challenging of the Jewish holidays. The services are long and the liturgy is one that is often hard to fit inside the norms of modernity. We are asked to meditate on the possibility of death, on sin, and on all the ways we have failed to live up to our ideals.

Like I said, a tough holiday.

This year during the Kol Nidre service two lines stood out to me. No, more than that, they grabbed me by the shoulders and shook me hard.

When the wrongs and injustices of others wound us, may our hearts not despair of human good. May no trial, however severe, embitter our souls and destroy our trust.

Let us not despair of human good.
Of human good.
Human good.

My son at his bar mitzvah
My son at his bar mitzvah

As I thought about these lines, I noticed my son, sitting close and wearing his late grandfather’s tallit (a prayer shawl). Now my father-in-law was an opinionated, curmudgeonly pain-in-the-ass. (I’m sure I won’t get any disagreements from those who knew him!) I am pretty sure he didn’t share my views on plenty of social issues. But I am also sure of this–he was a good man. Not a perfect man. Certainly not a champion of social justice. But a good man to his friends and family. A man who would go down fighting for those close to him.

I’m also pretty sure he would have been a Trump supporter.

I can tell you’re starting to protest. Wait a second, Amber. If he was a Trump supporter, how can you say he was a good man. Bear with me here.

My father-in-law was a defender of many American values–country, military, family, community–what he lacked was not a good heart but a widened circle of empathy. Let me explain. Each of us has our own specific set of circumstances. It’s easy to empathize with those exactly like us, same religion, same upbringing, same gender, same sexuality, redheads, whatever. Most of us expand the boundaries to include others, more like us than not, but still different. How many of us can claim a truly encompassing embrace that takes in even those we can barely comprehend? Not many, I expect.

Last night I read this article, which looks like a silly clickbait piece (you should read it), but is saying something very important about why people have flocked to Trump. It dissects the urban/rural divide in a way that opened my eyes to the perspective of people very different from me. Here I sit, a member of what the article calls the liberal elite. How easy for me to judge. For me to call them racists because they are not heeding the clarion call of Black Lives Matter (which is really, really important in this widening circle of national empathy) is in itself a failure of empathy.

For us to put this country back together after this election cycle (When the wrongs and injustices of others wound us…), we must continue the fight for social justice and we must also widen the circle of empathy to disenfranchised white people living in struggling communities outside of the urban/liberal bubble.

But I digress into political solutions…

This year on Yom Kippur, I meditated on empathy. My mission as a writer, a parent, and a human being to expand the circle of empathy, wider and wider at every turning. And this is why I am proud every time I see my son in my father-in-law’s tallit.

This is why I will not despair of human good.

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I am weary of conflict

img_5348I’ll be honest. I’m having a tough time.

For a while I was just burned out. Writing four books in less than eighteen months will do that to a writer. But now it’s been almost three months since I turned in the last project. I’ve been on two canoe trips and spent lots of time in my happy place. I’ve rehabbed my knee and gone back to doing aerial silks. I’ve been trail running with the dog. And I’ve been trying to map out my next project.

It’s not working. The words aren’t cooperating.

Quite a few years back, when my daughter was little, she came home from an obviously awesome lesson about story structure declaring, “I hate stories that don’t have trouble!” It’s Writer 101 material, of course. Good narratives need conflict—they start conflicted and get worse and then even worse. Trouble is key.

And trouble is also my stumbling block. I am so very weary of conflict. My social media universe is nothing but trouble. My morning OPB shows. The newspaper. Every conversation. Everywhere I turn. Trouble. Sometimes it seems like the world is going down in flames. Or maybe just American democracy and civility and the safety of children and respect for other members of humanity.

As I scribble ideas in my journal, I can think of lots of snippets and images — a fish floating through a girl’s room, Miyazaki-style; a road made of solar panels; a boy farming carbon in some future world; a cross-country romp. Yet when I try to shape them into a narrative, I run into the trouble problem.

I want male characters who ask for consent and diverse characters who are not oppressed and female characters who aren’t demeaned. I don’t want them to have to fight for their lives or save the world or make heart-rending choices or defy authority. I don’t want to write villains or a world in ruins or a broken family or abuse. I just want everyone to be calm and happy and swaying in place with their hands entwined.

I am overwhelmed with heartache and trouble. The words aren’t cooperating. Everyday I try to acknowledge the suffering, to speak against it, and to amplify the voices that the world needs to hear, and then I try to turn away from horror and circle back toward a place where I can create. I try to return to joy.

But it’s not working. That’s the truth—at least it’s my truth right now. The words are not cooperating.

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A must read book: PIT BULL by Bronwen Dickey

bronwendickeyI just read an amazing book by Bronwen Dickey called PIT BULL: THE BATTLE OVER AN AMERICAN ICON. It is a deeply-researched and deft description of the way fear, racism, classicism and the denial of data have lead to discrimination against pit bulls and their owners.

Before reading it, I would have looked askance at any dog that resembled a pit bull. After reading, I have a completely different perspective. I learned so much from this book, including the basic impossibility of looking at a mixed-breed dog and making solid inferences about its breed stock, the breed-specific laws that hurt primarily poor people and people of color, and the massive myth-making around these dogs. 

As I read, I was struck by how the historical and social narrative that Dickey details mirrors similar false narratives like the demonization of Hillary Clinton and the refusal to analyze these narratives with actual data and statistics.

The story of the pit bull is inextricably tied to the story of race in America and thus it is an important social justice story as well. In fact as Dickey concludes: “What pit bulls have taught us is that justice for animals cannot happen at the expense of social justice for humans. The divide between the two that has existed for almost two centuries needs to be bridged. If we fail to do that, the cycle is destined to repeat itself with another type of dog and another group of people.”

As a side note, this book came onto my radar screen because the author was targeted with death threats and hate mail upon its publication. She required security at her book events. Who were these people? They were anti-pit bull activists NOT the so-called “thugs” who own pit bulls. After reading Dickey’s book, it is hard not to see racism at the core of the hatred leveled at these dogs.

If you want to support organizations that are doing excellent work helping both dogs AND their owners, check out Pets for Life and the Coalition to Unchain Dogs.

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I’m a curious bird

I haven’t been blogging much lately because of the double whammy of deadlines and burnout, but I did a recent interview with Ruth Tenzer Feldman, the author of an amazing trio of books that link near past and ancient past Jewish history through time travel and feminism. You definitely want to read Blue Thread, The 9th Day, and the forthcoming Seven Stitches! Anyway, here’s the interview we did (which originally appeared here). It was lots of fun! Thanks, Ruth!

So, Amber, with all you’ve done, what has brought you to writing?

I am pretty sure that Mo Willams based one of the characters in The Pigeon Finds a Hot Dog on me:

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I write because I am curious about so many things. I want to know about Ama divers and Antarctica and the history of women explorers and Nordic biathlon and dog genetics and how toilets are made. I love documentaries and memoirs because they plumb people’s obsessions. The writing life gives me an excellent excuse to learn and experience all the things I’m interested in.

I write for teens because I like them better than adults (present company excepted). Young adults are on the cusp of the world. So many possibilities are on the horizon. It’s an exciting time in life when you get to figure out what you stand for and carve your own path. The problem with many adults (again present company excepted) is that they get entrenched in ways of thinking and being and living. I love the brilliant energy young adults bring to the world.

Do you have a favorite piece of your writing?

If so, what is it and why? There is a scene in The Way Back from Broken (the beginning of chapter 33) that is really important to me. It began as a picture book manuscript in the very early days of my writing adventure. I took it to a manuscript critique at a writing conference. The literary agent who read it told me (to my face) that the world doesn’t need another ugly duckling story and that I wasn’t a very good writer anyway and that it would be best if I quit immediately.

I probably wasn’t a very good writer back then but I ached to write about how we can live with our own brokenness. It was a story that I needed to tell whether the world needed it or not. And that’s the thing about writing… it is an audacious act that proclaims: My story matters. I matter. My voice will not be silenced.

Every time I read that section of the book, I want to simultaneously offer a rude hand gesture to that agent and a fist bump to my own pugnacious self.

If you could change one aspect of the publishing business, what would it be and why?

So many things… First… Oh, wait… What did you say? I only get to change one thing? Well… shoot (actually I’m saying a bad word here)… Here’s the deal: Writing a book is hard. Selling books is even harder.

Thousands and thousands of books are published each year. Some are amazing. Some are boring. Some are downright terrible. Helping your book—your blood, sweat, and tears on the page—swim to the surface and into the hands of the right reader often feels like an impossible task. I wish that it were easier to sell books. I wish less of the publicity work fell on my shoulders. I wish that good books always sold well and that writers could create without the looming threat of unpaid bills.

Word-of-mouth (direct or via reviews on Facebook, Amazon and Goodreads) is still the primary driver of book sales. If you know and love a writer, the most helpful thing you can do is share your appreciation for their work with your friends and family. Plus, it’s cool to talk about books with interesting people. Books are awesome!

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A poem and places for white people to start fighting racism

People take part in a rally on April 29, 2015 at Union Square in New York, held in solidarity with demonstrators in Baltimore, Maryland demanding justice for an African-American man who died of severe spinal injuries sustained in police custody. AFP PHOTO/Eduardo Munoz Alvarez (Photo credit should read EDUARDO MUNOZ ALVAREZ/AFP/Getty Images)
AFP PHOTO/Eduardo Munoz Alvarez
I’m a writer. I take my pain and shape it into words. So today, in the face of more violence against people of color in this country, I wrote a poem.
Racism is not a black problem. It is a white problem. It is imperative that white people educate themselves about racism, listen and validate the voices of people of color, and that we take an active role in staunching the wounds and lifting the yoke.
After the poem you will find links to start doing the hard work of healing the wounds of this country. Join hands. Put your shoulder into it. We can help write a different future.

THIS IS WHAT I KNOW ABOUT WOUNDS

I am gut-punched, hollowed out.
I am grief-broken and angry.
I could list the dead for hours: Sandy Hook, Orlando, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Dallas—
There is ample pain to share.
Daughter, mother, wife, friend. I am these things.
And I have had my heart ripped from my chest by loss.
I know wounds.

This is what I know about wounds: they do not go away.
I will always be the mother of a dead child.
I share this with:
Sandy Hook
Orlando
Philando Castile
Alton Sterling
Dallas
We know wounds.

The wound of America is domination
gaping, bloody, seeping
It doesn’t go away.
We don’t get over it.
We built a country out of human flesh.
That is a fact.
And now—

A wound does not heal when it is
ignored: you’re okay
demeaned: it’s not that bad
prayed over: this is part of the plan
unshared: not my problem
A wound untended goes into sepsis

and the system—that body with the beating heart—fails.

So hear me:
I see the bodies.
I see the guns.
I see our flesh-country seething, suffering, dying—
And also trying to live.

This wound:
It is not okay.
It is worse than you imagine.
No good God planned this.
It is my problem.

It is my problem.
It is my wound.
Our wound.

This is what I know about wounds: they do not go away.
But they can be carried.
If we
see
listen
struggle
claim
If we do these things—
the living flesh can bear the scar.

Here is the homework:
Advice for White Folks in the Wake of the Police Murder of a Black Person
Explaining White Privilege to a Broke White Person
30+ Resources to Help White Americans Learn About Race and Racism
Six ways white people can help end the War on Black People
It’s My Job to Raise Children Who Are Not Only Not Racist But Actively Anti-Racist
Black Lives Matter – A Reading List
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A love song to Orbiting Jupiter by Gary Schmidt

OrbitingJupiterOh, this book, this beautiful, heart-breaking book… There is so much I want to tell you about ORBITING JUPITER by Gary Schmidt, but the most important thing is that you must read it.

Gary Schmidt is one of my favorite authors because he understands young people so deeply. The thing I appreciate most about ORBITING JUPITER  is that Gary Schmidt honors the love between young people. It is so easy for adults to disregard a teen who says they have fallen in love. Oh, you don’t understand what that really means. You’re not old enough to know. As if, something about being young means that emotions don’t affect you the same way. I call bullshit on that. How can we as parents expect to have real and honest conversations with our children if we devalue their feelings? Gary Schmidt takes young people seriously and writes about them with such respect and empathy.

Another thing about this book: it was a reading experience like I used to have. I fell into this world, his characters are real to me, and all I wanted was for them to be okay.

One of the sad side effects of my life as a writer is that I no longer enjoy reading the way I used to. Most of the time, as I read, my mind whirs along analyzing what works and what doesn’t work about a book. If I read a hyped book and I don’t like it, I’m really mad. It is a rare book that can absorb me to such a degree that I am reading only to know what happens, only to live in the world of the book a little bit longer.

So this book… so much love.
Go read it!

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“I never would have turned away”

DSC02664Yesterday I began a high school visit by saying “I wrote THE WAY BACK FROM BROKEN about the hardest, saddest thing that ever happened to me–the death of my daughter.”

After my talk, one student asked me about the insensitive things people say in the book. “Are they real or did you make them up?”

I told him about being at work after she died and how people would see me coming down the hall and turn around so they wouldn’t have to talk to me.

“That’s how terrifying I was,” I told him. “That’s how scary grief is.”

Afterwards, a young man came up to me and said, “I want to give you hug. If I had been in that hall, I never would have turned away.”

And he gave me a hug and I hugged him back and I managed not to cry. The kindness–such kindness–what grace.

And to those of you who didn’t turn away (you know who you are), I am so grateful to you. You saved my life.

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