Archive for the ‘Jayhawks’ Category

Goodbye Hello

In a great green room there was a telephone…

Goodbye, room.

It’s a good thing that teenagers are mostly obnoxious because putting up with obnoxious stuff day after day lessens the grief and pain when they move out.

It’s a good thing Kansas flung 100 degree + weather at us this week…and that packing up the dregs takes soo much time ane energy and attention.  At the moment, anyway, I’m glad the moving out weekend has arrived and we can be done with all the work of the past few months and on to the work of moving and settling into Portland, Oregon.

Goodbye drippy hot days.

We once moved into a house in Grand Forks, ND in January, harsh winter, and had to have the doors open all day as the movers hauled furniture and boxes from the truck into the house.  Soon ice might as well have been hanging from the lamps, even though we had the heater running full blast.

This weekend, the team moving boxes out of our house had both doors open in Kansas July, and the heat steamed up mirrors and my glasses, even though we had the air conditioning on.

Goodbye boxes.







I hope I won’t hate myself when I open you–and say, “Why did I drag that along from my old life?”

Moving is a time to remember who you are and what you’ve left behind and what is important to hoist on your shoulders to the new life.

Goodbye Farmer’s Market and gardens that I immersed myself in while I was writing the Lanie books.  Part of any published book becomes the past, for me.  Part of it carries right along.  A book is always new to the person picking it up for the first time and reading it.

Goodbye neighbors and community here.

Everyone who was part of the moving was prompt and efficient and friendly and, well, nice.  These pods were dropped into our driveway, loaded with our things, picked up again, and put onto a truck.  Smooth as butter.

Goodbye town life.  I haven’t lived in a big city (okay, I know some people think of Portland as a small city, but they haven’t lived in Grand Forks) since I was in my twenties.

As we packed, we stumbled onto pieces of ourselves we’d left behind.   We deliberately lost this pacifier, once upon a time, because the little girl who loved it so fiercely and determinedly that she named it Mine was not about to give it up.  Ever.

At seventeen, I deliberately left Ethiopia a year earlier than I had to because I was ready to have new adventures and learn how to become an American.  Once here I lived in Monmouth, Chicago, and Carbondale (Illinois), Trinidad (Colorado), Grand Forks (North Dakota), Hesston and Lawrence (Kansas).  I didn’t want to try to talk about Ethiopia where people didn’t understand or care.  It wasn’t until I was in my thirties that I realized one always pays a price for chopping off bits of one’s past.

Like the 6000 saplings that were woven into this piece that graces a corner of the KU campus–The Bedazzler–I’ve tried, for years, to weave Ethiopia back into my life.

I’m still trying to explore everything it gave me.

Trying to give back.

Trying to think well about what kept me strong at all the turning points and what I might be able to share with kids in Ethiopia and the U.S. that will keep them strong in the turning points of their lives…

…which leads, of course, to books and stories.

Goodbye nobody.

I’m glad for all the people and ideas and dreams and hard work that will follow me right down the path.

The training wheels of goodbye

I don’t remember the first big goodbye of my life.

This is what my dad looked like when he decided it was important for the five of us–my mom and dad, my older sister and baby sister and me–to move to Ethiopia and help with the rebuilding effort after World War II.   Maybe it was disconcerting and traumatic for me, at two-years-old, to leave Oregon.  Maybe I thought it was all a grand aventure (except for the shots).  I do know that airports still make my heart go pitter-pat.

I also know that life from then on turned into a series of goodbyes.

Five years after we landed in Addis Ababa, we packed our suitcases and plopped down in Boise, Idaho, for a year.  My dad took my little sister Cathy with him as he did his practice flights to get a license so he could fly a small plane.  Once he had it?  Back to Ethiopia for another five years.

When I was nine years old, I learned big, hard things about goodbye.

It was time for me to leave misty, mountainous Maji and go to boarding school in Addis Ababa.   Those tangled feelings of excitement and sadness sank in the morning I left my weepy parents and bounced down the mountain with my older sister.  Sometimes, over the years, they almost sank me.

I lived at home again when I was in eighth grade in Pasadena and then for two years when I was in high school.  That’s when my parents moved to Addis Ababa, and I spent two years re-learning family ways.  Then I left Ethiopia, my parents, and my younger siblings and tried to learn how to become an American.

Tangled feelings of excitement and sorrow.


 This weekend, we had a yard sale so we could trim down the number of things we have to lug with us to Oregon, the state that will become my home for the first time since I was two.  The yard sale had its thrills.

1)  Everything that someone carried away was one less thing we had to deal with in another way.

2)  There’s something satisfying about knowing someone else wants (or needs) something you once wanted (or needed).

I wish I could say goodbye has gotten easier with practice, but it’s just as hard as ever.

This morning, I walked up the hill to the university campus and slurped up the sights, some of the places that have become my favorites over the past four years.

Whimsical Jayhawks.

Solemn Jayhawks.

Feelings flying and flipping all over the place.  Tangles of excitement and mourning.

Getting ready for goodbye.

For its own shining sake



When my American Girl editor and I started talking about Lanie and who she was, we set a goal that this character would show girls that we all can make a difference around the world AND in our own back yards.  With all the author speaking I’ve been doing, added to my volunteer work for Ethiopia Reads, I don’t actually spend too much time in MY own back yard.  But this weekend, it’s all Lawrence, KS all the time. 

 On Saturday, I sign, starting at 10:30, at a Lanie event at the Jayhawk store, as I last wrote on my blog.  On Sunday, families can 1) hear (and see) the story of how and why I created Lanie, 2) hear how they can love the earth from Kansas back yards, and 3) make a difference in Ethiopia. 

 It’s not every day we can save a library.  This weekend, I know we can save this one…and plant more.

Maybe you’re nowhere near my back yard.  That’s the joy of connections on the Internet.  But if you happen to be close, come see me!


First Presbyterian Church,2415 Clinton Parkway, Lawrence

(785) 843-4171 or

Sunday, November 14, 2010, 4:00-6:00 p.m.



The year of Lanie is drawing to a close, but her story has been one little starfish tossed into an enormous sea.  How do we forget that stories, fragile wisps in a big world’s winds, have such power?

This young reader can’t check out the book he was reading, so he’s copying the story onto a piece of paper so that he can read it over again at home.

I’m thinking of this library this morning and mulling a Lance Armstrong quote as I head off to bedazzle second graders: “Believe in belief for its own shining sake.”


Jayhawk signing rah rah rah

Jane Kurtz-American Girl Event-8.5×11- FA10[1]


*Book signing

*Special activities

…says the flyer from the KU Bookstore about a Lanie event I was asked to do on Saturday.

10:30 a.m. – 12 p.m.

Jayhawk Ink

Kansas Union

Level two

Saturday, Nov. 13




My grand kids liked to sing a Jayhawk song from the time they were two years old–and it was fun taking them to women’s basketball games at KU.  More related to Lanie, though, Chip Taylor from Monarch Watch is a Jayhawk and that’s the main reason this feels extra fitting…extra fun.  He’s one of my heroes.

Hope Jayhawks don’t eat monarch butterflies.

Hope Monarch Watch gets stronger and stronger every year.

Hope the winged airplane flies me safely from Oklahoma home to Kansas without a glitch.

Are you Ethiopian or American?

Every time I spend a few days at home in Lawrence, I miss Jonathan and Hiwot and Ellemae and Noh.  Last month, I got to see them (and Lanie) in their new home.  It was sweet to roast marshmallows on the deck and watch Ellemae and a friend build a house for butterflies on the bush where butterflies hover–and watch Noh valiantly run so Ellemae could get to kindergarten on time.

They’ve gotten a lot from the move.  A house where they can have space for their creative games vs. a cramped apartment in married student housing.  A job for Jonathan (and in photojournalism, yet).  YAY.  A NEW Ethiopia adoption community we got to meet at a picnic in one of the parks.  Better winter weather, I think.  But with every move comes loss and confusion–like the question over which football team…when all we really know about is the Jayhawks!

It made me think about those strange, awkward occasional years when we would leave Ethiopia and visit in the U.S.  I was seven when my dad sat us down and explained that we’d be going “home” for the year.  For my mom and dad, it was home: returning to their families and the sounds and smells of America, and the sweet taste of a Brown Cow, which Dad rhapsodized about.  We, their kids, felt more sense of home around real brown cows.  When an elevator operator in NYC asked the four of us girls where we were from, we had to whisper together about what we should say.  Finally, one of us said, “We’re from America.”

But it didn’t feel like we were from America.

And kids in America didn’t know how to ask us about Ethiopia, so those two homes had a chasm between them that I often dangled in–uncomfortably–and never managed to build any bridge across until I started to find ways to write about Ethiopia.

Characters in kids’ books are always endlessly trying to get home.  Maybe that’s why I love those books.  Maybe that’s why I love the monarch butterflies and their heroic 3000-mile journey.  I was always trying to find the right updraft as I fluttered along.  Always trying to figure out what to say when kids asked, “Are you Ethiopian or American?” and I didn’t think I was probably really either one.

Last week, I was back in North Dakota, where my kids went to school, where I once wrote a book about a community cleaning up after flood–how the machines had names like Cat and Deere.  I’ve been in Kansas for eight years, now, but North Dakota still feels awfully much like home.  It’s also where people first started raising money for Ethiopia Reads, writing by-laws, dreaming about sharing books with kids in Ethiopia.  No wonder a big chunk of my heart is there.

Today, I leave for Portland, where I was born and where my brain cells first took in information about what the world was like–a world of rain, a world of berries, a world of two sisters, a world of stories told and read.  This summer, I plan to move there and cozy up to some of those sisters (and my mom and brother).  For me, it will be one more time of losing home.  Gaining home.

I have another home.  Later this month, I’ll be in the Boston area, where Lanie’s home is.  Every year, I get together with writer friends and we write and read and talk and dream together for a week.  The writing community–no matter where I find them–from Vermont to international schools to the Boston retreat–gives me a sense of belonging that I don’t find anywhere else. 

While I was in Alabama, I got to see the sweetest sight: my granddaughter sounding out words in a book.  Whew!  Words gave me something strong to hang onto when I was dangling over the chasm feeling empty and sad.

Just like me, she’ll always be split between Ethiopia and America.  I hope words and sentences and stories will be the rope when she needs to hang on.

A Lanie moment of astonishing surprise

After my summer travels, the see-saw has tipped, once again, and I’m back to remembering what Lanie discovers: the joys of one’s own back yard.  A Lanie friend sent me this picture of her back yard and wrote,  “We have alot of milkweed. I got my first milkweed plant in butterfly camp, when
I was five! Now its a forest!(not in the pic.) Did you know that a bluejays can
stuff a small peanuts in their throats and still hold one in their beaks!!!”  (I asked her to send me a picture of the milkweed forest.)

I have loved, loved, loved hearing about back yards and bugs and butterflies and gardens ever since Lanie’s stories came out.  Now that I’m back home for a few weeks, I’ve also loved walking (almost every day) up the hill to the KU campus, which is more-or-less in my back yard.  Kansas is having a sizzling summer.  But Kansas is not one bit drab.  It’s astonishing and full of beauty.

So many things I don’t know and I think about as I walk.  The pale rock of so many of the campus buildings…for example…is it the chalk rock of the Jayhawk chant?  In the evening or morning light, it’s luminous.  Buttery colored flowers and red ones and baby pink ones gleam right up next to these rocks and against the dark grass and trees.  They make me feel as if I’ve just had a drink of something clear and bubbly.

Back home, Milo guards the front porch–and the porch animals use Lanie’s new binoculars to watch the birds bopping on the lawn.  Ever since I learned about birds for Lanie’s stories, I watch those birds, too.  I might not have seen a blue jay with peanuts in its throat and its beak, but the birds are always doing something new.

In Maji, when I was growing up, the cats were wilder than Milo is.  They were workers.  Rodent hunters.  My sisters and I made up plans for catching them and other animals–saving our naptime candy for a month one time because I had read a story and was pretty sure I knew how we could use the candy to trap a monkey.  The animals we saw, in the mountains and on the savannah, were often nothing like the animals in the stories I was reading.  Those story animals seemed utterly real, though.

So this picture (below) shows my very cool and exciting sighting of yesterday’s warm walk in the gloaming.  (I was reminded of that great word gloaming when I read The Night Fairy recently.)  I got to see an animal I had read about in stories since I was a girl and had never seen before–nor did I ever dream I’d see it in the middle of the KU campus.

What astonishing surprises do you see when you get out into your back yard and fields and blocks wherever you are?

Loss…is it why we write?

I learned a lot, growing up in Ethiopia, about how loss punctures the heart.  I don’t remember leaving Portland, Oregon, where I was born, but it was my first massive goodbye.  My baby brother (who was born on my three-year-old birthday not long after my family arrived) died in Ethiopia when he was only a few months old.   When I was nine, I sewed name tags onto my clothes, and my older sister and I  said goodbye to Mom and Dad and three siblings, bumped down the Maji road, and got on a plane for boarding school in Addis Ababa.

I’m the one holding Chris’s hands, here…the last year I was to live at home until I was in 8th grade and a visitor for a year to Pasadena.I’m a big softie about saying goodbye to this day…which I’m thinking about now that my talented second son just accepted a photojournalism job offer with an Alabama newspaper.  Of course I’m thrilled.  I admit with the journalism field not being exactly robust these days, I wasn’t sure he’d graduate into any job.  As a recent headline says: Good luck 2010 grads; you’ll need it.  But we moved to Lawrence–Go, Jayhawks–to help Jonathan and Hiwot with their (then) one child while they were in school full-time, and it’ll be hard to say goodbye.

A couple of years ago, Jonathan’s picture was on the cover of Sports Illustrated–in the corner, snapping a shot–when the Jayhawks won the national basketball title.  This week, it looked as if the Big 12 basketball league was also going to fall apart.  Another loss.  Oddly hard to take on top of everything else.  (I was taught to sing a Jayhawk song by my preschooler grandchildren.  How will they feel about Alabama bulldogs and whatnot?)  But apparently that one is not quite so certain, at least according to today’s Oregonian headline: Score so far: Big 12 now 10, Pac-11. 

I’m thinking today about how loss probably drives me toward my writing.  Life is about loss, it seems, and yearning–and so is fiction.  Thus, when flood took the neighborhood where my children had spent most of their elementary school years, I was compelled to write.  I first fiercely re-connected with Ethiopia through my writing, where my memories could finally take root.  Each of my books probably has loss woven through it somehow.

I’d gladly do without more loss.  But I don’t seem to have the option to check that box, so I’ll try to consider the gifts, at least in my better hours.


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