Happy Earth Day

Ethiopia+78Earth Day seems like a good time to start my new blog thread…going from being a somewhat restless traveler to putting down roots. Literally.

It all goes back to Maji, Ethiopia.Ethiopia+77Since there was no winter in Maji, my sisters and I spent huge chunks of every day outside, exploring. This is an old picture that’s marked “4000 foot sheer drop off.” That was Maji. Breath-taking and stomach-dropping.

Ethiopia+76My sisters and I would tag along after our dad as he went to to one waterfall to check on the ram he had installed to pump water up to our house–it seemed to inevitably get clogged with leaves–or to another waterfall to check on the mill he had installed to grind grain for the community. We made up a game of Water Babies (which I wove into my novel Jakarta Missing) with the curled fern tips we’d collect on the way down and send swirling down the river on leaf or wood boats.

Ethiopia+82Except on days when fog rolled up the valley, this was the view from the back yard. We made up complicated stories using flowers and frogs and ant lions and lizards…all right there for the touching.

02420And we loved Dad’s garden. I’m reading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver, and this made me laugh…and nod. “Underneath our stylish clothing it seems we are still animals, retaining some vestigial desire to sniff around the water hole and the food supply.”

Somehow in years living in the U.S., where the world around me often felt unfamiliar and distant, a lot of those outside genes had gone dormant. But when I moved to Portland, they bubbled forth.IMG_0196This spring, I’ve been digging a rain garden.

I’m going to write for a while about discovering a back yard. And yes, my writing is intertwined. Both Lanie and Anna have been along for the ride.


Other people, Barbara Kingsolver says, “fast or walk long pilgrimages to honor the spirit of what they believe makes our world whole and lovely. If we gardeners can, in the same spirit, put our heels to the shovel, kneel before a trench holding tender roots…who’s to make the call between ridiculous ad reverent?”




The threads of longing and art

My first blog tour is over!


Last answers (for now) about Anna Was Here.

injeraMost people wanted to know how moving was part of my own childhood–easy peasy answer there. This picture must have been taken not long after we arrived in Ethiopia when I was two (I’m the one on the right). My mom and dad were in language school, and we were living in Addis Ababa.

arialThe next move was to Maji–when I was four. “Did you even have electricity?” someone asked me last week.

No. Not at first. Eventually my dad read a book and figured out how to use the power of the waterfall in the right of this picture to put in a mill to grind grain for the community and then, at night, to give us some hours of electricity.


down on both sidesBut as I wrote in several interviews, also scary. This is the spot I talked about in the last interview–the place where the road dropped away on both sides and made my stomach swoop every time.

hike out of MajiI love my childhood in Ethiopia. It sure left me with a lot of questions, though…

IMG_0559Some of those questions were about girls who didn’t have access to school.

img152Other questions were about where I belonged. I knew I was a visitor to Ethiopia. Our travels to the US never convinced me that this was home, though.

And thus…art.

Aklilu 3Whether an Ethiopian artist, Aklilu, seeing and showing his world, or me writing Anna Was Here, we unspool our memories our impressions our visions and questions and weave them into something different. The thread is what we feel and what we wonder and what we know.

Daring Greatly at least every once in a while

Like at least half of everybody I know, I’e been reading Daring Greatly and liking Brene Brown’s disarming way of admitting that she might have studied shame and vulnerability for years, but that didn’t mean she wanted to BE vulnerable.  “I did believe,” she writes, “that I could opt out of feeling vulnerable.

Anna+was+HereAnna would certainly agree.

“Slowly,” Brown also writes, “I learned that this shield was too heavy to lug around, and that the only thing it really did was keep me from knowing myself and letting myself be known.”

Anna (again) would certainly agree.

Writers, I think, have to do vulnerability.

If we don’t allow ourselves to feel our feelings (including humiliation and fear and shame), we don’t allow our characters to feel them either.

But what of the fact that Brown says,  “Joy comes to us in moments–ordinary moments. We risk missing out on joy when we get too busy chasing down the extraordinary“?

To be an artist is to be extraordinary.

So how do we both reach for that life and still not miss out on joy?

This is one hole I see myself and my fellow writers falling into:  “When we turn every opportunity to feel joy into a test drive for despair, we actually diminish our resilience.”

The failure is almost constant.  It’s hard, under that pressure, to allow yourself to lean into joy.

How is that these words–Don’t squander joy–can sound so simple and be so hard to do?

Yes, Anna.  I have to laugh that you and Brene Brown are exploring what it means to practice Gratitude Attitude. Not in that way that circumvents actual feelings, though.

IMG_0193What I’m seeing again this spring is something I learned (or re-learned) from Lanie: the way I’m drawn into the moment when I get my fingers in the dirt. The shy and tender spring flowers that went away completely after I planted them last year are poking out. Being an outside girl still does it for me.

IMG_0196So during this time of Portland rain, I’m teaching myself about rain gardens.

flower1The things that made me feel centered and alive as a kid in Ethiopia still make me feel that way.



Dirt and plants.

Making a difference in our back yards and around the world, one story, one kid at a time.

Afar 5




DCIM100MEDIATeacher strike averted. So, so glad that people like my bro–who takes time to sing with his third graders and fills their brains with good books AND has built a donkey for an Ethiopia Reads Bring a Book Buy a Book project is on the job and not on the picket line.

One thing that kills me is that in my lifetime as a teacher, I saw a lot of schools go from places where kids sat frozen in desks doing worksheets to places where kids had classroom libraries and wrote books and did lots of hands-on projects to places where kids are sitting frozen in desks doing worksheets.

DCIM100MEDIAWorksheets and tests are the way we gather data.  But our utter faith in gathering data is getting in the way of good instruction.  Up with making donkeys and learning about kids who love books and school a half a world away!

100_0213The Ethiopia Reads horse powered literacy project reaches kids too remote (so far) to have access to school. Sometimes as many as two hundred kids gather to listen and learn.

I’m thinking about reading and writing and learning because, this has been a week where I put on my own teacher hat and respond to what my Vermont College of the Fine Arts MFA students are sending in their packets. It always fascinates me to think about how people learn to write dazzling fiction. How did I learn? What helped along the way? Some people would say it can’t be taught. I know from my own experience that certain skills and approaches and useful ways of thinking about the words on the page CAN be taught.DSC04782

I’m re-reading Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain by Maryanne Wolf–seen here at her desk. I got to talk with her briefly in her office at Tufts about a project she’s been doing in Ethiopia that’s pretty fascinating.


What are we all capable of learning and doing?

As a teacher said to me last year, schools have gotten pretty good at gathering data but we gather far more than we have time (or sometimes expertise) to analyze well and use to draw useful conclusions. In the meantime, it seems we forget the basics of what we already know–that young kids like to do what the beloved adults in their lives like to do; thus, there is power in modeling a passion for reading and writing.  That people will do the hard work of reading when they are gripped by a story or an idea, and we need librarians and teachers who know and love books and know and love students and can match the two up. That humans are innately curious and nimble-minded and will often grab the slightest thread in their eagerness to learn and grow.  Read the article and see what I mean!

ChrislibOf course, it won’t surprise you that I think books and learning WITH a great teacher is even better.


Teacher strikes

1 teachersEmotions are sizzling in Portland as the public school teachers–including my brother and sister-in-law–go on strike next week. Eeek.

Overpaid whiners? People actually write that? In public? These days? Eeeek.

I’ve worked with so many amazing educators–classroom teachers and librarians–in the past 10 years.  And of course I am a teacher. I’m on the faculty of Vermont College of Fine Arts in the MFA program. cookingI started my adult life as a teacher of writing in an alternative school–here are some of my students cooking up something to write about. And what I know is that teaching is hard. Exhilarating. But hard.

mishmash 009So much of what people think they know about teaching and learning comes from their own days as a student or from what seems as if it would make sense. Learning to read, for instance, seems to be a matter of associating sounds with letters…and for many (most?) people it does start that way. But everyone who has watched a person start to read knows that something mysterious happens, too. Skillful readers look at black marks on a white page and somehow absorb a lot of information in a flash–including context clues having to do with pictures and the other words in the sentence–that allows them to recognize words and also infer what’s beyond the words.

Brain research shows that information that comes associated with emotion tends to stick.  Stories, anyone?kids with netelas

And yet a lot of educational policy is constructed as if teaching and learning were simple. As if it didn’t take innovative, thoughtful, patient, hopeful people with lots and lots of different skills and the willingness to try and adjust and re-try and be kind in the process.

Chris readingMy brother and I have taught together, done author visits together, taken teacher groups to Ethiopia to share skills and ideas with educators there. I trust him to make learning interesting and fun.  I know him to be someone who never stops thinking about how to be a better writer, a better reader, and a better teacher.

KSGreat educators–like this Kansas librarian who has helped with Ethiopia Reads and with the research for Anna Was Here–know books and know kids and know how to connect them. They know what’s working and what isn’t in schools. Are we listening?

As an Oregon parent wrote in her blog, it’s great to have lots of ideas about how to make things better for kids in school everywhere. “However, no matter how we envision public education in this country, one thing seems obvious to me: teachers are the heart of our system. If you’ve gone through school—any school—you know this is true: for a student, a good teacher can make any school situation bearable, and a bad teacher can mar the best of institutions. You can have all the ‘extras’ you want: money for athletics, art programs, and gyms, and even a healthy budget (what’s that?), but if you don’t have well-qualified, talented, inspired, and happy teachers, you have nothing.” http://amywhitley.wordpress.com/2014/02/14/medford-oregon-teacher-strike/

Parents, teachers, grandparents unite! If we don’t have good teachers who are given reasonable resources and who are given room to do what they know how to do well, we don’t have anything!


What good does an author visit do?

snowWow!  We’ve had more snow in Portland than (I think I heard correctly on the news last night) we’ve had in 21 years.  My sister Cathy came over and we tromped through it together.  Just like old times!  (She’s the one sitting in front of the snowman and I’m behind it–in the year we lived in Boise, Idaho and not Ethiopia.)

IMG_0151I’ve been fretting about the native plants in my yard.  If Portland doesn’t get this kind of weather…and now it does…what happens to plants that are adapted to a usual Oregon climate and temperatures?  OTOH it’s been a dry year.  Adding the moisture to the ground has to be good for the birds and bees and butterflies and plants.  Right?  This is the spot where the bulbs I planted last fall were starting to send their green growth charging up through the soil…and I can’t wait to see what those shoots look like when the snow melts.

Last night, I caught the tail end of an Olympic interview where someone said that she’d traveled so relentlessly for so many years that now she’s obsessive about nesting.  Maybe that’s the deal with my yard, too.  Not since I was a kid in Ethiopia have I felt so intensely connected to the…um…soil.

Hosanna skyTomorrow, though, if the ice doesn’t block me, I’ll be traveling again.  I’m going to Memphis for three days of author visits and talking about Ethiopia Reads (www.ethiopiareads.org) to several groups of teachers.  This is what Ethiopia looks like in January and February–through the eyes of artist Stephanie Schlatter who was just there.  It’s where we all should long to be as the ice trickles down!

blizzardsI used to do author visits almost every week.  It seemed as if every school in the United States wanted to have an author come to talk about books, about where to gather ideas and details, about the writing process.  I remember a high school teacher who said to me, “Around here we’d never hire someone to teach basketball who had never played basketball, but we have people teaching writing who don’t spend much of their free time writing.”  And it’s true that while I can’t explain exactly how the blizzards I lived through in ND one snow-filled year became my picture book River Friendly River Wild, I can use it to show a lot about how a writers’ mind goes searching here and there for vivid details and the right words to evoke an experience.  I can model what it’s like to be passionate about reading and writing.

These days, schools often think themselves too busy or too broke to have an author come.  Too busy to show young readers and writers what’s the same and what’s different about the way they approach writing from the way a devoted and fanatically interested writer approaches writing.  Too busy to have kids fall in love.Kansas 001I dream of a day when politicians listen to teachers about the things that make a young brain spark…about how complicated teaching and learning really are.  I dream of a day when more young readers and writers get to see their teachers and principals awed and thrilled by having an author in the school.  The pendulum has to swing again sometime.  Doesn’t it?

In the meantime, I’ll savor this opportunity to talk about Anna Was Here and Ethiopia and reading and writing and to meet the kids who care so passionately about books.


Crowdfunding, teamwork and beating the blues

As 2013 draws to an end, I’ve had the crowdfunding blues a bit.

I’ve joined the crowdfunding team in the past year or so, but only as a contributor.  Here and there, I’ve pitched a few pennies toward projects launched by friends of mine.  Mostly I do philanthropy the old-fashioned way.  I write checks.  I buy copies of my books and donate them or give them away.

2013-12-14 18.05.19


Mostly, I tell stories.  Sometimes those stories inspire other people to give their money to help spread reading in Ethiopia.  So what possessed me to try raising money through crowdfunding?


Mostly, I encourage people to put their money toward administration and staff–the things I support with my own money–because, as friends and I agree, it’s the UNFUN money to raise and administration, when it’s good, makes everything shine.

2013-12-14 18.05.43


Volunteers can’t be volunteers without someone to guide and coordinate them.

But late in 2013 I lost my heart to a project.  School Power through Painting Joy.

1 Stephanie


Part of the pittery pattery of my heart for this project is that pity makes me squirmy.  I’ve seen it do screwy things with families and communities even when intentions are good.  And as an Ethiopian friend said this fall, when she hears a lot of people talk about projects in Ethiopia, she starts feeling smaller and smaller and smaller.  But collaboration?  Sharing what we love across boundaries.   That makes us all bigger.

Stephanie is joyful and she shares joy where she goes.  Even though she says she hates fundraising, she’s good at it because people tend to follow the energy.  I want her on our team always.

1 first year focus on reading at the merkato kindergarten


I love the way Stephanie returns from Ethiopia with stories and pictures that help us all see the impact of our hard work.  I want her telling the stories of southern Ethiopia and the Ethiopia Reads schools and libraries there.  Her team this time has three other artists, one American and two Ethiopian who will build on ancient beauty and traditions to talk about what’s strong in southern Ethiopia including Kololo School.

I am significantart project


The project also has my heart because I grew up in southwest Ethiopia.  Young men worked in our house to earn money for school supplies because they were getting a shot at school for the first time.  They were like big brothers–even to teasing us and threatening to cut off our ears if we misbehaved.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI’ve known some of those guys all my life.

Now I see girls in Kololo School who are 15 years old sitting with the little kids.

15 year old getting to go to schoolKololo classAs one of the teachers at Kololo School says, in this rural area 12-year-old girls are  forced into marriage.  But when a woman is educated, all of her children are, too.

kids around Ethiopia (6)


I’ve discovered crowdfunding isn’t as easy as it might look.  So far, it’s been my sweet family and friends that have mostly helped out.

1 foundation of support for building projects


But wherever the support has come from, it’s coming in!  Crowdfunding is teamwork. Here at the end of 2013, I’m full of love and admiration for my own team and the team that will be traveling.  I can’t wait to see where their travels and adventures in southern Ethiopia take them.

Chris in front of houseon tripBring on 2014–with VCFA residency and new writing and teamwork.





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