Category Archives: Navel Gazing

Making Space for Real Connections

As many of you know, the last year has been a challenge for me. I’ve been driven (kicking and screaming) into activism. This intense immersion in news and politics is new for me. New and overwhelming. As a writer my most important skill is empathy, but as a newbie activist, my empathy can be crippling.

Several of you have reached out to ask if I’m okay.
Yes and no.
I’m not deeply depressed, but I am deeply wounded by this broken world.

The hardest days are the ones when I feel powerless against my congressman, against corporate money in politics, against the racist history of America, against violence of all kinds, and against the men calling the shots at the highest levels of government—men who don’t care at all about me or mine.

This powerless has bled into my writing life. There are days when I question everything I’m doing. I ask myself hard questions: Does this book matter? Do I have anything relevant to say? How can I spend my days creating worlds when the real world is burning around us?

I have struggled more than ever with my relationship to social media. There are huge benefits online. Thanks to Twitter I can listen to activists around the world. I can learn from people of color. I can broaden my experience of the world far beyond my small, predominantly white, rural town. I don’t want to disengage from that learning, but there are also some huge downsides. I am often inundated by heartbreak and suffering and cruelty to such an extent that I begin to believe our American culture is damaged beyond repair.

At those moments, I would be wise to close Facebook and to shut down Twitter.
And yet…
I don’t.
Why is that?

Not because of masochism, I assure you. It’s because of hope. It is because you are out there. You and good people like you. I keep scrolling because I am hoping to see you—a bright pinprick of light in a dark tide. I keep looking for the connections we make, the lifelines that keep us above the water, the way we reach out our hands to one another.

So this is the purpose of my missives from here on out—connection.
I want to entwine our fingers.
I want to reach together to the brightness.
I want to work and learn and listen and stretch.

And I want to carve out a space for human connection that is outside of the social media networks, which increasingly control our lives. So I will write you letters and hold this  space, outside of the flood of bad news and calls to action, where we can talk if you want to. Maybe you could tell me how social media is impacting your life for good or ill these days.

I’ll leave you with another thought from Cedric Wright (1889-195). He was a violinist and wilderness photographer dedicated the preservation of the High Sierra. He mentored Ansel Adams, if that tells you anything. He was also a poet.

Our lives like dreams endure
and reach out over the universe.
Nothing real is to itself alone.
There are side streams to rivers; there are overtones to thought.
Great love reaches out
and is involved in the world’s purposes.

– Cedric Wright

 

 

When You Don’t Win

(Photo by Laura Stanfill)
At the Oregon Book Award

I have attended the Oregon Book Awards for years. I love being in the Gerding Theater when it’s packed with other people who love stories and who understand what it takes to create a life of words.

I was thrilled when THE WAY BACK FROM BROKEN was selected as a finalist for the young adult literature award. And of course, as the awards ceremony approached, I thought about winning. I wanted to stand on the stage and be acknowledged as a valued member of the Oregon writing community. I wanted to get a little more love for a book that hasn’t sold as well as I had hoped. And most of all I wanted to share it with the family and friends that have been in the trenches with me.

When the awards ceremony finally rolled around, I was nervous. I picked my outfit careful. I invited my people, who came in a rowdy, optimistic crowd. I wrote a  speech. My anxiety was subtle but present. I wanted the book to be recognized, and I feared that if it weren’t then I might somehow think less of my own work.

As it turned out, I did not win.

Was I disappointed? Yes. Not a lot, but a little. It never feels good to be passed over. It always hurts a little to have your work judged and found wanting. So yeah, I felt a little bad, and I worried about letting down my family and friends who came to the awards ceremony ready to cheer for me.

But the next day, I visited a class at one of Portland’s alternative high schools. The students had just finished a unit based on THE WAY BACK FROM BROKEN. We had a really good conversation about the book. These teens, whose lives are anything but easy, connected to Rakmen and his story. They got what I was trying to do.  And this ultimately is what really matters to me—that a reader who needs a story like this finds it.

I didn’t win, but losing didn’t make me feel any different about my book. I wrote the book I need to write and I put it out into the world. That feels like an accomplishment. So in honor of that, I’m going to share with you the speech I wrote but did not get to give on the stage at the Gerding. I mean every word of it.

I wrote a book about the saddest, hardest thing that ever happened to me—the death of my daughter, Esther Rose. It took 10 years to be ready to write it. It took me another five to actually write it. 

That I’m standing here, that I survived much less that I wrote a book is a testament to those who held space for my grief as well as my writing: my husband, my parents, my other children, my writing group, my closest friends, my agent. Most of them are here tonight.

I don’t believe that everything happens for a reason, but I do believe it was my moral responsibility to make meaning out of tragedy. THE WAY BACK FROM BROKEN contains everything I know about grief and loss and the healing power of wilderness. 

It turned out that the writing of this book was my own way back from broken. And that’s a good thing. I’m proud of the book, but it exists because my daughter died. And the complex, sweet pain of that is staggering. 

Such is the power of story, and I am so grateful to share it with each of you.

Repeating the Ancient Tale

On Saturday, my sweet daughter will be called to the Torah as a bat mitzvah. She will lead our community in ancient prayers and chant ancient words, and more importantly she will find her own meaning in them.

As Jews, our task is to wrestle with narrative–to preserve history, to reinterpret the past, and to write new stories that will carry us into the future. It’s a tradition that resonates with me as a writer and as a person who has seen again and again the power of stories to change lives.

Also on Saturday, in a beautiful intersection of occurrences, my next novel, POINTE, CLAW, enters the world. Somehow it seems fitting that this book, which wrestles with the challenges girls and women face in our culture, is born alongside my daughter’s passage into adulthood in the Jewish community. It’s a fierce story and she is a fierce girl.

I hope you’ll understand that I’ll be focusing on my daughter this weekend. Book celebrations will follow later in the week. I’ll be posting a series of answers to questions posed by early readers of POINTE, CLAW–some serious, some goofy, some revelatory–also I’ll be sharing a mind-blowing review by a teen reader. Lots of book events to come in Los Angeles area, the Bay Area, Portland, and Seattle. Details here.

To close, I want to leave you with one of my favorite poems. (I honestly don’t know the author. It’s been attributed to multiple people.) I’ve shared it before. These are words I return to again and again. I offer them in love.

We are simply asked
to make gentle our bruised world
to be compassionate of all,
including oneself,
then in the time left over
to repeat the ancient tale
and go the way of God’s foolish ones.

This weekend we repeat the ancient tale and go forth to make gentle this bruised world. Join us.

 

Fierce Girl, Margaret Atwood, and Me

I love Fierce Girl.

As soon as I saw her, hands on hips, and her chin jutting out toward that bull, I loved her. Yes, I know she is white girl and that’s not intersectional enough for me. Yes, I know she was put there by Big Money and that means they have their own corporate interests at the center.

I love her anyway.

And yes, I know she is called Fearless Girl but I am renaming her.  I am never going to tell my daughter that she should fear less. I am going to tell her to be fierce. I am going to tell myself to be fierce.

These days I often feel small and fragile and powerless, almost like a little girl. Who wouldn’t? We are facing a cabal of rich, powerful, racist, sexist white men, who have their fingers in every pot and their hands grasping at every pussy. They plan to make us sick and poor and weak so they can take everything for themselves.

But Fierce Girl puts her hands on her hips. Fierce Girl juts out her chin. Fierce Girl has no more fucks to give.

When I saw this photo of a white guy in a suit pretending to rape Fierce Girl, I went rage-y.  The woman who took the picture nailed it when she wrote: “Douchebags like this are why we need feminism.”

This week I’ve been working on a series of blog posts for the #SJYALit project (Social Justice YA Literature) at Teen Librarian Tool box. In April, authors Elana K. Arnold, Mindy McGinnis, Isabel Quintero, and  I will be featured in a series about feminism.  I’ve been thinking a lot about why and how I wrote POINTE, CLAW, and why I think it is the book I needed to release at exactly this time in history.

Way before I started writing POINTE, CLAW, I was jotting down nuggets that might find their way into its pages. Things like: men staring at young ballet dancers, vaginal plastic surgery, men’s responses to menstruation, girls kissing each other, friendships that turn into more than friendship, removing dry tampons,  men following girls into the lingerie department, the ways that women can help or hurt each other, the ways in which fathers avoid daughters… The douchebag pretend to rape Fierce girl would have gone on my list.

In a recent article about the upsurge in interest in her 1985 book THE HANDMAID’S TALE, Margaret Atwood discusses a question that she is often asked about the book: Is it a “feminist” novel?

Here’s her answer:

If you mean an ideological tract in which all women are angels and/or so victimized they are incapable of moral choice, no. If you mean a novel in which women are human beings — with all the variety of character and behavior that implies — and are also interesting and important, and what happens to them is crucial to the theme, structure and plot of the book, then yes. In that sense, many books are “feminist.” Why interesting and important? Because women are interesting and important in real life. They are not an afterthought of nature, they are not secondary players in human destiny, and every society has always known that. 

I keep thinking about that first line. Ideological tract. Angels. Victimized to the point of no moral choice. It’s a little weird. Why would I assume that “feminist novel” means any of those things?

Any kind of ideological tract would be a shitty novel from a craft perspective. A novel that presents all women as perfect is, in fact, a reflection of a sexist system that either demonizes women or puts them on a pedestal. A novel with such an oppressive system against women that they can do nothing turns women into mere plot points.

Instead, Atwood goes on to say that novels should present women as human beings. Let that sink in. Sounds a lot like Hillary Clinton saying that women’s rights are human rights. Atwood takes the next step to say that any book which depicts fully-fleshed, complicated, complex female characters with agency could be considered feminist. She goes on to imply (though I wish she had stated it explicitly) that the other necessity of a feminist novel is to explore how these characters push against a system designed for the benefit of men.

I have no doubt that POINTE, CLAW is a feminist novel. The vast majority of the characters, both animal and human, are female. They are mothers and daughters and wives. They are dancers and strippers and home-based business owners and doctors and teachers and students. They are angry and content and complicit and miserable. My goal was to show all the different ways girls and women get boxed in by the expectations of a patriarchal society that has very narrow ideas about what defines a woman.

It’s a rage-y book. It’s a Fierce Girl book. I’d like to take a copy and bludgeon the Douchebag with it. Because I have no more fucks to give.

 

A New World View

I remember with great clarity the moment when I really “got” evolution. Before that I could have given you a vague explanation for evolution, but that was book learning. The moment I’m talking about was a revelation, an awakening, an eye-opening realization: THIS IS HOW THE WORLD WORKS! Suddenly I grasped that given a few fundamental principles, the inevitable conclusion was that the diversity of life on this planet is explained by descent with modification. It was a fireworks moment.

I’ve just had another one, and this time I have the Cheeto President to thank for it.

I believed/assumed that our democratic system of government was unassailable. Some people chose to get involved and run for office or work for campaigns, while others, like me, voted and donated money. Sometimes my candidates won. Sometimes they lost. Sometimes I liked policy changes. Sometimes I didn’t. Ho-hum. Politics as usual.

What I did not know until now is that democracy, even one as lauded as ours, is constantly in flux. It must constantly be defended lest it fall away from the delicate balance of powers that defines it. Like a house by the sea, we must reinforce the foundation and re-shingle the roof. Voting is no longer enough. Speaking out and insisting that each branch of government does its job without overreaching its bounds is an absolute necessity.

The democratic experiment that is America is on the knife-edge of an autocracy. Without us, the people, raising our voices and our fists, it will crumble. We must write a new narrative.

And you know what? I am made for that. I am Jew. I know history. That means I recognize the beginnings of fascism. It also means that means I know how to wrestle with the story we are telling ourselves. I know that we must constantly re-interpret and re-vision the story that we are living. I am a writer. I am made for telling the story that I want to fight into existence.

Join me.

Download and read the INDIVISIBLE GUIDE. Find a local activist group. Make your voice heard.

We must rise.

An unstoppable, rising tide…

This awesome art is by Calef Brown at http://www.calefbooks.com
This awesome art is by Calef Brown at http://www.calefbooks.com

The poet, David Whyte wrote: Gratitude is not a passive response to something we have been given, gratitude arises from paying attention, from being awake in the presence of everything that lives within and without us.

I am paying attention—

To the singularly self-absorbed, little man who has revealed the bigoted underbelly of this country.

To the acts of hate and intolerance that have galvanized so many.

To the 64.6 million people, the majority, who voted for the progressive agenda of Hillary Clinton.

To the 3.8 million people sharing their stories in Pantsuit Nation.

To each of you who has written about transcending the hurdles of your past, about finding your voice, about standing up for yourself, about standing up for others, about building your true family, and about living an authentic life.

I am paying attention—

On one side, I see a thin-skinned man surrounded by hoodlums and supported by a mere 31.2% of registered voters, who willfully abandoned both critical-thinking and compassion.

On the other, I see survivors. I have read your stories. I have heard your voices. I know your strength. You are survivors of abuse, assault, and oppression, of illness, loss, and trauma. You have endured a thousand other indignities large and small, and still you shine.

You are light and fire and strength.

I am paying attention, and I am grateful. More than that, I am hopeful. I know that might be hard to believe, but it’s true. Dick and Jeanne Roy of the Northwest Earth Institute define hope this way: Hope is our highest vision of the possible.

YOU are my highest vision of the possible—an unstoppable, rising tide of humans united to take care of each other and the planet.

As for tantrum-throwing toddler man and his cronies who are determined to take it all for themselves, they have already lost. They don’t know it yet, and you might not be quite ready to believe me, but that’s okay.

The momentum in this country is toward a browner, queerer, greener, gentler, smarter future. We, the survivors, the highest vision of the possible, are using the power of the stories we share to take control of the narrative. We are the future.

*Feel free to copy and paste in order to share this post on your own feeds.
© Amber J. Keyser

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.

 

 

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.

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.

What World Do You Want?

When a young black woman is pushed, insulted and harassed at a Trump rally—
When armed men destroy Paiute sacred lands—
When a man tells a woman that she has to carry a child of rape—
When there are so many mass shootings that I can’t remember the details—

When anger is everywhere I look—

I get angry too.

I don’t want a world of racism and institutionalized privilege, violence and hate, ignorance and distrust.

But you know what?

I don’t want to be full of such anger either.

Screen Shot 2016-03-02 at 7.32.11 AMToday I offer you my hope for the world instead of my rage, and I challenge you to turn darkness into light. The world we will get is the one we can imagine, the one we can build with our hearts and our hands.

Share this hope. Or better yet, share your own.

What world do you want?