Category Archives: Antics

On Ghost Ships and Loss


When I was pregnant with my first daughter, I saw, as if prescient, the life we would share—a voyage laid out upon a map of the future, our ship heading out to sea. And then there was death, and our ship rode the waves half in and half out of life. She could not remain with me nor I with her no matter how desperately I wished it.

Our vessels diverged, hers ephemeral and moon-pearled, upon waters I could not travel. She bore away the life I believed we were meant to share. My own craft, war-beaten and barely seaworthy, foundered.

As I limped sail-tattered and broken-masted on a course set by winds that refused to listen, I watched the ghost ship that carried my daughter. Across the swells, I saw her grow into a plump-limbed toddler, her auburn curls twisting in the sea wind. A lithe girl, easy with laughter.

And when she was no longer visible in the distance, I watched the ship as long as I could in the broad expanse of longitude and latitude.

I can no longer see the ghost ship.

I did not follow its course.

I can not imagine her fourteen-years-old.

I could not live that voyage.

— For Esther

With thanks to Cheryl Strayed and Tomas Tranströmer for writing about ghost ships and grief.

On Homeward Mornings

I wake to NPR on the radio. The world is in my ear, and my house bustles with all the usual things—kids and Minecraft, soccer practice, laundry. I scramble to complete enough work so I can walk away. I mainline coffee in this last minute hurricane of preparations to leave.

The chickens are fed. The cars are tucked into the garage. The automatic timer on the garden sprinkler is set. The auto-responder on my email says my family is going off-the-grid for three weeks. We are leaving the schedules and online calendars that rule our every waking moment, saying so long to the social media which reports our daily dramas, unplugging all those irresistible electronic devices.


I am going home.

It will take all day.

By plane then car then boat, we are pointed like a compass needle to a singular place.

At the far end of long, sprawling lake in Algonquin Park, its bays spreadeagled to the west and east, is a tiny piece of perfect built by my grandmother in the 1930s. The main cabin has a wood stove, a few propane lights, a propane oven and fridge. A hand pump brings water into the kitchen from the lake. Our drinking water comes from a spring on a nearby shore. There are two small sleeping bunkies and two outhouses.


DSC02014I wake to an expanding blue. Balsam tree tops sweep across this newborn sky, tickling dawn as the sun springs over the end of the lake. Through the open windows over my bed, the maples stretch and sway. Small things—deer mice, red squirrels, toads—rustle in the crispy layer of last year’s leaves.

We heard wolves in the dark of the morning. First the pups yipping all at once. I can tell instantly they are in the beaver meadow behind the cabin. An adult on a distant hill howls to the pups. I imagine she is saying I’m coming home soon. 

DSC01820My daughter has already squirmed from under her pile of down quilts and Hudson bay blankets in the bed beside mine. She will be with my mother in the main cabin, drinking cocoa. Leaving my husband and son sleeping, I slip out of my own warm cocoon into chilly clothes, and I follow her, ready to wrap my hands around a seventy-year-old enamel mug of hot coffee.


IMG_1195I wake to a scattered patter of droplets on the roof of the tent. The boughs above are shaking off last night’s rain. Beside me in a silky hiss of nylon, my husband rolls over in his sleeping bag. Out on the lake a loon wails at the morning and the warbling call of another in flight responds from over the treetops.

We have followed in my grandmother’s footsteps once again. For much of her youth, the cabin she built was a staging ground for her canoe guiding business, a place to store canoes and paddles, cook pots and canvas Duluth packs over the winter. Each summer she packed her canoes, picked up her clients from the train station, and led them into the Canadian bush. Like her we have left the cabin and entered the wild backcountry where all we need to do is paddle the lakes and carry our loads and wait for the world to unfold before us.

IMG_1193Doing my best tent contortions, I dress, slipping on three-day socks and push my feet into night cold boots. Unzipping the door I stretch into the day. This morning and every morning on our nine-day canoe trip, I am the first one to emerge. My children still sleep in the tent beside mine. I hear the low murmur of voices from my parents’ tent. They will wait for me to light the fire and put water on for coffee before they emerge.


I wake to the grey-orange haze of the pre-dawn city in the distance. The crickets who buzzed and hummed me to sleep have finished with their amorous singing for the night. The only sounds are the steady breath of my sleeping husband and the click-click-click of the ceiling fan. I have to remind myself where I am, a world away from lake steam rising golden in a new-risen sun.

I pad to the bathroom careful not to wake my family. I don’t bother with lights. I’m used to waking in the dim light of early morning, and my fingers have nearly forgotten switches. The flush toilet and rush of warm tap water startle me. Wrapped in my robe, I stare at the coffee maker, trying to remember where the water goes, how to grind the beans. Tentatively I hit the switch, and instantly the shiny machine begins to gurgle, enveloping me in the smell of morning.

There is laundry which smells of wood smoke and mosquito repellent, and mail to be sorted and email-facebook-twitter ready to pounce.

But not yet.

IMG_1254There are words, swirling through me like this oh-so-strong-the-way-I-like-it coffee. They have been carried from lake to lake on portages lined with ferns and false Solomon’s seal and wild raspberries. They have slid through clear, deep water on the maple blade of my paddle.  They rise intent and exuberant like a wolf call, like my children from sleep, like a homeward-headed airplane.

Like my keening heart which always tends toward its very best place.


Me and Lou Reed, or Why Punk is My Soundtrack

My father-in-law, kicking ass and taking names
My father-in-law, kicking ass and taking names

This morning my running partner was Lou Reed. He captured just the right mix of rage and awe to describe the fucked-up, amazing, cruel, gorgeous state of being that is my life today.

This world it breaks my heart. We are birthed. We love. We are left behind. We die.  All while Facebook screws with us and kids get kidnapped because they’re Jewish or Palestinian and the Antarctic ice sheet is going and the Supreme Court has shoved its man-fingers up my crotch.

And cancer.

Fuck. It makes me swear blue and cry red. Leave my people alone, I want to yell.

I may be a forty-three-year-old white lady loading kids in Subaru wagon, but as I grieve the death of my father-in-law and the pain of my husband, punk is the only soundtrack I want.

Send me your best tracks, people. Consider it a condolence offering.

Amber Week

Amber during AMBER WEEK
Amber during AMBER WEEK

After spending a scary and intense four days in the hospital with my son (emergency appendectomy), and following a week of deeply emotional book stuff (which I blogged about here), and in anticipation of summer vacation during which both my personal and work time are severely curtailed, I declared last week to be AMBER WEEK.

What, you ask, does Amber Week mean?

It means that each day I asked myself, “What do I want to do?”

The sad truth is that often for busy people, especially busy moms, we so rarely ask this question that when it is posed, coming up with an answer can be downright flummoxing. I always have a to-do list a mile long, and my kids always have needs. Why bother with the question when what I want is often the bottom of the pile priority-wise?

During Amber Week, I kept asking the question. Sometimes finding an answer came easy. Yes, I want to go to yoga with Liz! Yes, I want to go for a run in the forest! Yes, I want to have someone else clean my house for a change! Yes, I want to take a nap!

Sometimes the answer was harder to find. Would it feel better to go for a run or pull weeds in the garden? Do I want to knock off the things that have been on my list for four months or go pick strawberries? It was interesting to prioritize with my own satisfaction in mind rather than a deadline or pleasing someone else or dousing the fire burning most furiously.

Often–to my great satisfaction–I found that I wanted to work, which right now means editing essays for THE V-WORD.  How lucky is that? My work as a writer is what I want to do most of the time.

It got me thinking about the lesson of Amber Week.

There are always going to be to-do lists, deadlines, and needs to meet. Can I reframe those things in the light of my satisfaction?

I weed my garden not because weeding is so fun but because I want to have yummy vegetables. I drive my kids to soccer four days a week not because I like driving so much but because I want to see the joy on their faces as they bound off the pitch at the end of practice. I want to work on my books not because writing is easy but because the process exhilarates me.

It might not work for everything. (Hard to imagine a way cleaning up kid puke, for example, is satisfying other than that it is gone.) But the lesson of Amber Week is to focus on what feeds my body, my heart, and my spirit. If the task or commitment isn’t fun or doesn’t serve some larger purpose that matters to me, then it has no place in AMBER WEEK.

Or AMBER LIFE, for that matter.



Speaking Up


Voice is connection.
Voice is speaking our own truth.
Voice is the driver of our narratives.

silenced terror large

After being raped, Maya Angelou didn’t speak for years. In an interview with Terry Gross, she told how she found her voice so she could love poetry.

The #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign blew up the internet because stories are the most profound way for us to connect across differences. We need to hear the voices of those who experience life outside of our own private bubbles.

My son overheard a friend making a comment, presumably in jest, about killing himself. He could have brushed off the throwaway comment, but instead he came to his parents. And we went to the boy’s parents. And the boy is still mad.

The recent attack in California and its anti-woman underpinnings have prompted many women to speak out about the sexism they face every day.


The imperative is to find it and use it.
Use it big and use it small.
Never go mute.

I wish…

Yesterday, a writer friend and I were leaving a restaurant and our very young male server said, “Thanks, Girls.”

We paused at the door, looking at each other. “Did he just call us girls?”

We laughed and walked out. The easy thing. But I wish I’d turned around and gently, very gently, reminded him about respect. It would have been a small thing. A small response for a small ignorance.

But I would have used my voice.
And he might have faced the world differently from then on.




WeNeedDiverseBooks.001Today is the start of a three-day  social media campaign to highlight the need for diversity in books for kids and teens.

All the details are right here. Post your own picture or reshare mine. Let’s plaster the internet with a call to action.

Thanks to the Diversity in YA bloggers Cindy Pon and Malinda Lo as well as Oregon author Chelsea Pitcher for us fired up.

Books should be windows into lives different from our own and also mirrors where we find ourselves reflected.



What motivates you? Reward or Threat?

There were many things that spoke to me in the book Quiet by Susan Cain.  One of them was the dichotomy between introverts, who are often motivated by threat, and extroverts more motivated by rewards.  She discussed this concept in terms of evolutionarily stable strategies, a theoretical framework in which multiple behavioral strategies can exist in a population of animals as long as each strategy is the best strategy for different situations at different times.

Cain asks if extroversion seems so great, why wouldn’t natural selection have made us all extroverts?

Her hypothesis is that extroverts, who tend to go after big payoffs (maybe a juicy mammoth), tend to have success except when they don’t bother noticing that saber-tooth cat over the rise.  The strength of introverts is that they take the time to assess threats and make careful decisions.  If the introvert in the hunting party holds everyone back from attacking dinner, nobody becomes dinner.

Reward or threat?  What’s your primary motivation?  Going all out or playing it safe?  That doesn’t mean introverts don’t take risks, but they will be likely to think through their moves carefully.

Why am I babbling about this?  Well, I think that this framework explains my response to recent conversation with my agent.  A phenomenon that Laini Taylor has called mistrusting the yes.  Anyway, my agent and I were discussing the novel I’ve just finished which she is taking out on submission.  My lovely agent has high hopes for the book, and she said some very nice things about my writing.

So when we got off the phone, why did that blushy-glowy feeling trickle out through the bottoms of my feet so quickly?

We get a lot of rejection in this business.  Writers have to inure themselves to it.  Like Laini, many of us come to doubt that yes is ever coming, and when it does, we wave our fingers dismissively at it.

Like many writers, I’m a classic introvert—threat motivated.  As soon as I got off the phone with my agent, I started looking for predators.  I reminded myself that it would take a long time for editors to respond to our submission and many of them will say no.  I sent the book off into the world—because I’m not afraid of risk—but I also got real about possible outcomes.

Yet I don’t think this makes me a negative stick-in-the-mud.  Instead, my introversion makes me resilient.  A single no won’t shut me down as a writer.  Not even ten nos will.

I’ll keep writing.

The challenge for me—the real risk-taking—is learning how to savor the yeses when they come.

In a heartbeat

I asked a question: will you write for my book?

I got an answer: in a heartbeat.

I burst into tears.

Let me tell you, this book—The V-Word— has me by the heart and throat.  It is being born into a world where girls are bombarded by sex at every turn and yet no one is really bothering to ask them what they want or how they want to feel.  We’re all sexual beings.  Exactly how looks and feels different for each of us, but we all have to find our own way to be with our sexuality.  The subject is vital, and the book feels important and scary at the same time.  It matters, and I want to do it justice.

To do it right, means that I find women to contribute essays that are honest and frank and real.  I spend hours crafting emails that I hope convey the importance of the book, the vision I have for it, and why I think each person I contact is exactly the right person for the book.  It is harder than writing a novel.  I pour so much of myself into each one.  I was embrace what Amanda Palmer calls the art of asking—the way we make ourselves vulnerable, which opens a path for us to  connect on a deeper level.

And it is hard.

So when a writer, whom I admire for the way she lays everything bare, the way she refuses to allow dishonesty in her writing, responded: in a heartbeat.

I burst into tears.

The art of asking.

The gift of responding.

The power of stories.

I am grateful.

When to say YES and when to say NO

I’m a little over-extended.

My normal duties are already intense: writing books, supporting local creatives, taking care of my family, driving the kids to soccer, volunteering at school, and helping with Hebrew homework.

Yet in the past few months I’ve said “yes” to things that added to that load.  I agreed to spear-head the creation of a class project for our school auction, which led to many late nights and much worry about whether it would turn out right.  I agreed to co-host the 90-Second Newbery Film Festival tomorrow, which involves a comedy skit and song (way way way out of my comfort zone).  I agreed to co-write and act, along with my kids, in a Purim play for our synagogue, which added writing sessions and rehearsals to evenings already jammed with soccer practices.

Do I regret it?  NO.  I chose to do these things because I wanted to do them.  I thought they were important and fun.  I want to support my kids’ school.  I want to spread the love for marvelous middle grade books any way possible (even if it means singing).  I want my kids to feel like they are part of a vibrant Jewish community above and beyond going to services.


Of course, there’s a but.  As these commitments wind down (Purim is on March 15th), I recognize that I’ll need to say NO for awhile.  I’ll need more downtime.  I’ll need to protect the space I need to write, to connect with my friends, and to take care of myself (sleeping, running, yoga, rock climbing).

I’ll also need to step-back and reassess my recurring commitments.  Have I struck the right balance between my writing, my volunteer work and my family?  Am I working on projects that further my professional goals?  Am I spending time with people who support me?  Are there ways that I can open up more space for the things that are most important to me?

I strive to put my time and energy into things that make me who I want to be.  The key to when to say YES and when to say NO is about knowing what I value not what others expect.

“We are our choices.”

Writerly dreams

This business is very weird.

I’ve been writing hard for years, dreaming up projects, deciding how to frame them, finding the right words.  I’ve struggled to find the right agent (not just AN agent but the exact-right-perfect-for-me-one).  I’ve considered dropping out more than once.  There were times when it seemed like nothing would ever sell.

And then…

… all the atoms in the universe line up.

A few weeks ago, I announced the sale of my upcoming anthology THE V-WORD, and last week Publisher’s Marketplace had this:


Amber Keyser’s SNEAKER CENTURY, an illustrated social history of the ubiquitous shoe, to Domenica Di Piazza at Twenty-First Century Books, for publication in Spring 2015, by Fiona Kenshole at Transatlantic Literary Agency (World).

I think I just might be floating a few inches off the ground, or maybe it’s my sneakers!


I’m just like Paula Abdul back in the day.