Archive for July, 2010

Ethiopia adoption, books, and the path to wholeness

For years, I’ve gotten emails from parents of adopted Ethiopian kids thanking me for my books that show beautiful Ethiopia and asking if I’ve considered writing a book for the thousands of children who were born in Ethiopia, adopted into families in America.

In my return emails, I say thank you thank you.  Those families (and their school and community libraries) are buying the copies of my Ethiopia-connected books that are keeping them in print.  I recommend Over Land and Sea by Steve Layne.  I talk about the state of publishing.  I encourage people to find the many ways we all have these days to write our stories and hold them out to readers…ways that usually have nothing to do with expensive paper and ink and binding.

I (gulp) bring up expensive paper and ink and binding because it’s hard to find a large enough market–enough buyers–to balance the expenses for telling many of the world’s stories in picture books and novels.  When I was speaking in international schools this spring, I heard over and over that American kids going to school in other countries don’t very often get to see their lives reflected in books.  “Hey,” I said.  “Tell me about it.”  In fact, when I was just such a kid (I’m the one holding the BOOK in the off-to-school black and white picture), I don’t remember seeing my life in a book even once.  That’s why I was pretty tickled with being able to send Lanie’s best friend off to have an adventure in Indonesia saving orangutans.

I’m also tickled to hold a brand new picture book in my hands today.  Nobody knows better than I do what a hard and brave accomplishment it is to create this kind of book.  Hats off to my talented fellow Vermont MFA faculty member, Sharon Darrow (grandparent of an adopted Ethiopian boy), for her brilliant editing…and to the great author and illustrator and the brave publisher, Amharic Kids (

Author Melissa Fay Greene writes in the introduction, “Love and family are enough to help a child thrive in almost every way but this one: the human need to feel part of a deeply rooted, vibrant, and growing family tree….The message we relay to the children who are ours by adoption needs to be: You came from somewhere.  You came from good people.  You came from this spot on the globe.”

Whew.  Yes.  Nothing makes me happier than seeing the teachers and parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins who are using their powerful dollars to buy books– especially books where the children of Ethiopia can see their faces and lives in those pages.  As Melissa Fay Greene says, knowing where we come from and who we are is the path to wholeness.  (Trouble available at


My cheatin’ heart

In theory, I’m all for the joys of staying in the moment.  Tuning myself to the sensory details of right-now.  Remembering to breeeeathe.

In practice, I’m often pretty lousy at it.

When I got to Ethiopia, I was sucked right in.  Smells always do that.  Bere bere spice–red pepper and black pepper, allspice and fenugreek, cardamom and cloves and cumin, garlic and ginger, all smashed together–soaks into clothes and curtains and everything else.   The coffee ceremony is designed to slow us down and make us pay attention to smell and taste.  Incense.  Some green herb on the coals.  After the beans are roasted, people lean toward the pan and use cupped hands to brush the aromatic smoke toward their noses. 

But while I was full to bursting with Ethiopia, my poor bifurcated brain would keep sliding back to Kansas and Pittsburgh and Portland and Birmingham and Albuquerque…and all the other places of my sweeties.  (I love Grandfather’s Journey with its glimpse into a man who was ultimately homesick no matter where he was.)  It also kept sliding toward my heavy suitcases (full of books for a library), which (I was pretty sure) were in Cairo and not Ethiopia.  My luggage, which didn’t catch up with me until the last day, sucked out a lot of attention and staying-in-the-moment energy.

By the time I left Ethiopia, flew back to Kansas for one day and then landed in Vermont for the MFA residency, it was hard for my bifurcated brain…my cheatin’ heart…not to keep drifting back to the 17 teachers who were continuing the Ethiopia adventure without me.  Where were they now?  How were they doing?  Who was studying?  Who was falling off a mule?

Being a writer is another way to be split in two…or three or four or five.  Other artists use clay and wood and paint and chemicals and other stuff to make people feel and think.  Writers turn things they see and smell and taste and hear and touch–things they experience, things they remember–into words and sentences and paragraphs.  Those words, when we’re lucky, bring forth feelings in someone else.

Weird.  Magical.  A way to be present.  A way to be many places, many people, all at the same time. 

courage for the journey

You know how you felt at the end of summer camp?  YAY.  I’m going home.  WAAAHHHH.  I’m going home.

Yesterday, I was packing by 7:00 a.m.  At 8:40, I was trotting this path to shiny, elegant College Hall at Vermont College–for the very last workshop of the summer 2010 MFA residency.  For the next two hours and 15 minutes, I was with a small group of smart, passionate writers all wrestling with questions: what does it take to create a work of fiction that staples readers to their chairs and won’t let them wander off to make a cheese sandwich?  Then–boom-de-boom–back to Noble Hall to listen to a fascinating lecture on “For Esme with Love and Squalor”…more packing…lunch…taxi to Burlington…fly to JFK…fly through thunderstorms to Kansas City…drive home.  Can we all say “Welter Of Emotions“??? 

Every class chooses its own name.  This semester’s Thunder Badgers were one of the biggest graduating groups, so the schedule was more relentless than usual.  But wow.  They delivered lecture after lecture, reading after reading that had me stapled to my seat.

Now we scatter…fiercely trying to hang onto the artistic life of a writer in the midst of hundreds of reasons why we can’t.   Or shouldn’t.

When I was creating Lanie’s stories, I eventually decided she needed an aunt.  Someone who would introduce her to birding and muck around in the back yard garden with her.  (Notice Lanie’s great new boots and binoculars–against a backdrop of an amazing gift one of my Vermont students gave me to celebrate our tough-but-wondrous-journey-of-a-semester together.) 

Yes, sometimes we need exasperating, exhilarating other people around us.  It’s pretty easy to figure out where the aunt idea swam up from.  In Ethiopia, I grew up far from my blood aunts and uncles, but we called all our parents’ colleagues “aunt” and “uncle”–a pond of affection around me as I navigated a tumultous and confusing childhood.  My big family…my husband’s big family…made that pond for my kids.  Now my daughter is doing it for her niece and nephew.

In the solitary and often-disturbing writing life, I’m grateful for the playful, intense, story-loving community that gives courage for the journey.

Ethiopian mud and picking one thing

When I headed for Ethiopia at the end of June, my grandkids headed for their new life in Alabama, saying goodbye to Lawrence, Tree Frog and Prairie Dog classmates, the cat from upstairs…Waaah.  I told them I’d be seeing their other grandma and grandpa–and I did (along with their great-grandma).

It’s mud season in Ethiopia right now.  We deal with extra days in a year’s calendar by tossing a 31st day into most of our months.  In the Ethiopian calendar, those days are gathered up into a 13th month; thus: 13 Months of Sunshine.  When I was a child, people joked that some of that sunshine came in liquid form.

One day, I walked around the guest house and just watched the rain as it slam-crashed down onto the muddy street outside, onto the tin roofs, onto the trees and walls.  Such a clatter.  The puddle at the end of our street got larger and larger until it seemed the cars would drive into it and disappear. 

The fact that KLM lost my luggage for the entire time I was in Ethiopia didn’t help.  I had mud splatters up and down my pant legs.  Some of the teachers who were part of the Fulbright Hayes group came equipped, though.  And Habtu told us that the roads to the north, where the group was about to travel, had greatly improved since the last time–when it seemed our bus would never make it past one big wet spot in the middle of the road.

I can’t wait to hear how the roads really were.  I can’t wait to hear who the intrepid travelers turned out to be.  Everyone sounds brave and eager and flexible on an application form.  Drop a group of teachers into Ethiopia, and you find out who really is.

What I do know is that everyone will come back changed.  It’s impossible to meet the kids of Ethiopia–to listen to the educators who talk about tests that fix a child’s path forever–about classrooms with no English words in them (when children will be taking those high stakes tests in English)–and not wonder: Is there something I can do?

Lots to be done.  One of the young Ethiopian teachers told us, “Only pick one thing and do it.”


What’s the fun of being a children’s book author if you can’t be silly?

Ever since my first faculty residency, I wait for what silliness the different classes at the Vermont College MFA in children’s and YA literature will unleash upon this portrait every semester.  (That first time, he was Pippi Longstocking, and it was blazingly clear to me he’d always longed to embrace his inner Pippi.)

Today–the start of my fifth residency–we were anything but silly, though.  We sat in a faculty meeting and discussed evaluating student semesters.  Brilliant writers walk here.  Graduates and faculty have books on the NYTimes bestseller lists and have won Newbery and Printz honors and the SCBWI Golden Kite award.  (Long ago, I longed to enroll in an MFA program.  Teaching here is like getting a shot at that dream…and I always learn amazing things about the craft of fiction.)

But weak writers walk here, too.  Relatively weak, anyway.  And sometimes people even wash up.  The piece we argued long and hard about is what’s so hard to measure: passion.  Every time I’m in Ethiopia, I see that bone-deep passion for soccer.  (This time, I REALLY saw it because I flew KLM, and fans of the Oranje are crazy about the possibility of their first World Cup title.)  And I see the power of wanting to do something over and over and over.

Talent?  I don’t know.  I’ve seen talented writers who will never publish a word.

Good characters are characters that go after what they want with huge determination.  Lanie can hardly stand to live if she can’t be outside.  Just like our characters, the writers who want something so very much are the ones I tend to put my money on.

When I embraced my dream of writing children’s books, I thought about how long I’d invest if I were going to become a doctor or lawyer.  Would I give any less respect to books?  I decided I’d give myself ten years of hard work before I gave up.  And it did take almost ten years to get my first book published with a NY publisher.  But, as someone wisely said, those ten years would have gone by anyway…and to live the life of an artist…a writer…is everything to me.

From Boston to Ethiopia in a single bound

After that great trip to connect with my college roomie + Lanie readers in Boston, I checked in three arm-stretchingly heavy suitcases (full of books for Ethiopian kids) and flew down to JFK airport and off to Amsterdam and then Addis Ababa.  Any opportunity to travel back to Ethiopia is total thrilldom.  Alas, it also means my body has to survive being shuffled through all kinds of time zones–asked to sleep when all its cells are shouting, “It’s daytime!” and to stay awake when every single bingle cell is longing for sleep.

I stepped into the Addis Ababa airport and was smacked with smells: red, peppery smells.  A touch of tangy eucalyptus mixed in.  Cement, maybe?  (Construction is booming.)  Car exhaust?  Dirt flung into the air by the raindrops of rainy season? It smelled like home.

Though I cleared passport control quickly, I stood for a long time watching bags on a conveyor belt, thinking about the Amharic words for finished? and gone, increasingly sure that MY bags had headed for Cairo, my original connection city, not Amsterdam.  (Indeed, my luggage didn’t arrive until July 5, which made me think we all probably lug far, far more clothes than we actually need.)  The day those books arrived, I was the one delighted person in the piled-up luggage section of the airport, glad I’d studied the Amharic phrase that essentially means, I’m one happy happy clam.

For a week, I got to hang out with my brother and 16 other funny, smart, interesting educators.  We got to connect with Ethiopian educators, artists, shopkeepers, relatives, van drivers, guest house staff and friends.  They’re still there.  I was driven back to the airport by a man who grew up in Addis Ababa in the same years I did, and we talked about all the things we miss in the new huge city: trees, little meadows, streets never clogged with traffic jams, Fiat taxis that took you anywhere for 25 Ethiopian cents (12 cents US). 

It’s all gone, he said.

Except for the memories, I said.

As I pack for the Vermont College MFA program in children’s and young adult literture, I’m thinking again about something I learned during the Red River flood of 1997: some memories are tangled in places.   When we lose those smells, those sounds, those people, we lose so much.