Category Archives: Navel Gazing

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?

A #Readdukah Realization

I was planning on posting a Jewish book a day for all of Chanukkah as part of the #Readdukah celebration of Jewish themed books. You may have noticed that I flamed out after six. Mostly that was because days seven and eight fell on the weekend and I was busy having fun with my family, but also I realized that I have not read nearly enough Jewish children’s books!

So in lieu of days seven and eight, I’m adding an addendum to a New Year’s Resolution (look at how prompt I am with that!). My plan in the next year is to focus on reading books by and about marginalized voices. In addition to my list of books by authors of color, I plan to add more Jewish authors and also Muslim authors.

I firmly believe that books can bring us together across vast differences, and our world needs this more than ever right now. Let me leave you with a quote that I have returned to again and again for solace and encouragement. (I wish I knew who wrote it, but it has been attributed to multiple sources.)

I love these words because they remind me that our task really is a simple one:

Make gentle.

Find compassion.

Screen Shot 2015-12-14 at 8.22.38 PM


A poem by Warsan Shire: What They Did Yesterday Afternoon

what they did yesterday afternoon

by warsan shire

grief-reactionthey set my aunts house on fire
i cried the way women on tv do
folding at the middle
like a five pound note.
i called the boy who use to love me
tried to ‘okay’ my voice
i said hello
he said warsan, what’s wrong, what’s happened?

i’ve been praying,
and these are what my prayers look like;
dear god
i come from two countries
one is thirsty
the other is on fire
both need water.

later that night
i held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole world
and whispered
where does it hurt?

it answered


(More from warshan shire in the New Yorker and on her blog.)

On love, loss, and the power of story

Version 2Last night I watched The Theory of Everything, and it left me with the same heavy, rich, complicated sadness that I felt upon finishing The Game of Love and Death by Martha Brockenbrough a few weeks ago. There is so much in both stories that is courageous and uplifting, beautiful and inspiring.

So why am I filled with canyon-deep heartbreak?

The truth is…

… I want love to win.

I want to believe that love is enough.

I want love to conquer pain and trump loss and endure beyond death.

But the Man in Black is whispering in my ear, “Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.”

My lens is loss. I know that. The death of my daughter will always be lodged in the center of my heart, proof that death wins. The pain of it doesn’t obscure my love for her, but it does reveal love’s shortcomings.

Like Jane and Stephen, we can love each other and still be unable to withstand the way we wear each other down. Like Flora and Henry, we can love each other and know that our love brings trouble into our lives. Like me, we can love each other and still not win against death.

And yet I am still the fool that says love is worth it. Again and again I go back to this quote I saw on my godmother’s refrigerator years ago. I wish I knew who wrote it.

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.

Most often I return to these words because I need the reminder of self-compassion, but when the pain of loss rises, I need to remember that the ancient tale is to love, to strive, and yes, to lose the ones we love.

Foolish? Yes.

But it is the only story around…

… and I believe in the power of the story.

Ready to burst

Sculpture by David Kracov in honor of Rabbi Rossi Raichik, who saved over 2,500 children from the effects of the Chernobyl disaster
Sculpture by David Kracov in honor of Rabbi Rossi Raichik, who saved over 2,500 children from the effects of the Chernobyl disaster

Burst, rupture, explode, surge, gush, hurtle, plunge… A day in my life brought to you by the thesaurus. Everything is full to bursting. In some ways, that’s exhilarating. In others, challenging.

The good rush—

I am drafting a new novel, and it is pouring out of me, surging through the cracks, waking me up at night. It is a blazing, fragmentary, kaleidoscopic whirlwind of a book that is driving me into new territory.

The lightened future—

We are going to move, to pack the wagon, to reverse the trail, to embrace something new.

The coming breach—

I am decluttering. My house is an overstuffed suitcase about to face TSA. I want to purge and winnow. I want the fleet-of-foot lightness of canoe trips and the gallivanting international travel of my twenties. I want to discard before we rupture.

The full heart—

This silly puppy sleeping upside down at my feet. My daughter’s head nestled on my chest. Her whispered I love yous. My son charging toward high school, ready to take on the world. This spouse of mine who shares the load and washes dishes and makes me laugh.

And you, friends. Definitely you.

This is bursting at its best.

The Cure for Modern Life

2013-07-14 18.39.53

I lie at the end of our swimming dock, face down. My forehead and nose and thighs and shoulders press against the rough boards.

The silvered wood has seen winter and summer, summer and winter. I have scrubbed it on hands and knees and let it dry and brushed on Thompson’s water seal. Then droplets of water bead upon it like tiny jewels, holding a spark of the sun.

Through the cracks in the boards I see the glint and swish of shadowed water. Tiny waves lap against the rocks piled in the crib, which supports the dock. On my back is sun, tussling with the breeze, as one tries to warm my bare skin and the other raises goose bumps along it.

A dock spider nearly the size of my hand, gray-furred like a mouse with so many more legs, guards a marble-sized, silken ball of eggs. Out on the water, the pair of loons that nests, year after year, on the island in the portage bay sails past, cooing the way they do. Those small sounds of love.

This is my place. This is where I go when I need to remember the important things.

In TRUE NORTH, Elliott Merrick writes:

It is the land, the long white lakes, the forests and mountains and rivers, the space and the northern lights and the cold and beauty.  Nothing within the scope of our comprehension is as worth knowing as the heart of that.  Even if there were no reason, no benefit, even if it were not an antidote for every poison that complex living distills, even if it were not strengthening and sparkling, this would still be so.

His North is blanketed in snow and ice. Mine is held in the arms of summer. But the answer is still true–the cure is in the wilderness.


Learning my lesson–again

3d-spiralI had this series of parenting books when my kids were little: Your One Year Old, Your Two Year Old, etc. The most useful part of them was a spiral diagram somewhat like this.

The idea was that every six months or so a young child goes through a major developmental leap, which throws all systems into chaos and turns your offspring into a possessed devil child for six months. Then things sort out and you get six months of easy-breezy rock-star-mom until the next twist of the developmental knob.

I found this diagram incredibly reassuring. Hard times pass. Good times will come. And as we cycle through all this learning and growing, we are moving upward on the spiral to greater understanding, greater patience, greater impulse control, etc. Reassuring, too because the diagram denies that we learn something once and nail it into existence of,r ever and ever. The diagram declares that we must learn and relearn our lessons, over and over, each time with greater depth and skill.

So… the end of last year and the beginning of this have been challenging. I took some heavy blows, both personal and professional. I mentioned this in my last post and it doesn’t bear belaboring. After the things (yes, I am being purposefully vague) happened, I found myself second-guessing the choices I was making in both my writing (actually words on the page choices) and the choices I was making in some interpersonal interactions.

What I want to share is this: I had to learn my lesson again. I had to keep moving up the spiral. And what was my lesson, you ask? My lesson is this:

I must trust the authority of my own vision as a writer, as a parent, and as a human. I’m not a child, who does something and then straightaway looks to Mom or Dad for approval. I’m an adult walking through this world making choices based on my values and that is authority enough.