Archive for September, 2010

Thrills of travel to Ethiopia, Abu Dhabi, our back yards

I come from a family of travelers. 

Oh, they didn’t start out that way.  My dad, who grew up a skinny boy picking vegetables on the neighbors’ farms, thought he might live in eastern Oregon his whole life and never see the capital city of Oregon.

But World War II took the five Kurtz boys out of Oregon, and my dad was the one in the family who came home from war wondering what he could do with his life that would make a difference out in the wide world.

My mom–until she met my dad at Monmouth College–had traveled only between small Iowa towns, as her dad tried desperately to find work.  Her new sweetie took her traveling…on the back of a motorcycle to visit his family out in Oregon.  Later, when I was two years old, he got the idea that they belonged in Ethiopia, helping with the new effort to build schools and hospitals after the war.

When I look at pictures like this, I’m amazed that my mom and dad thought they could pack up three little kids (that’s me on the right) and move to Ethiopia.  But they did.  And they planted traveling in my blood.  “What were we like on that trip to Ethiopia?” I asked my mom.   She said that we were “troopers”–and added, “you had to be.”

The thing about traveling is that it has such power to open our eyes and open our hearts.  We meet people just like us…and people who are fascinatingly different.  It’s great for our writing–because we get startled and gripped by things when we see them for the first time.  When I met my granddaughter in Ethiopia, several years ago, I knew she’d be a traveler, too, and I hoped for all those strengths in her life.

In Lanie, I created the girl I never was…the girl who feels stuck in her own back yard, looking with longing at Aunt Hannah’s camper and thinking with longing about her friend Dakota off having orangutan adventures.

Speaking of Lanie, the monarch butterflies are traveling, too, on their annual migration to Mexico.  They graced us and entertained us and thrilled us for another season.  May we always pay them back in the ways we can:

At a recent writing workshop, one of the young writers hearing my story of becoming an author said, “Oh!  I know where you got the name Dakota.”  She was right.  My children were like Lanie, growing up in Grand Forks, North Dakota, never traveling outside the U.S. even though they heard story after story of my chidhood.  I’m proud that they’ve chosen to travel.  I’m proud of their courage and fortitude…

…because the truth is that even though traveling opens us up and gives us adventures and dreams and curiosities and understandings we rarely get any other way, that newness comes at a cost.  It’s like living through a flood.  We rarely welcome the sweeping away of the old life to make room for the new.  We feel dizzy and disoriented and uncomfortable and sad and frustrated and scared through many of the adventures most of the time.

I was reminded of HOW hard it all can be as we said goodbye to my nephew and his wife in Portland, recently.  They packed up their comfy teacher lives in Bend, Oregon, and headed out to teach in an international school in Abu Dhabi.  It took a lot of courage.  Most of us have very few pictures in our heads about places like Abu Dhabi…I was embarrasingly surprised about what I found when I did author visits to schools in the Persian Gulf, myself…and was delighted by those camels in the middle of the road.



But…then?  Wow. 

The world is a cool and thrilling place after all.


What good people do

They create schools and teach in  schools–schools in the middle of cities and in villages and under trees…schools that nurture imagination and creativity and thinking…schools that care for and about people’s minds and bodies and spirits…schools that are places of reading and thinking and beauty.

They also GO to school and take it seriously and ask questions and read and dream and think about the world and everything in it.  They treasure their libraries and share books.

They take in abandoned kitties crouching under the porch and put up with their yowling, prowling ways, even when that means getting up in the middle of the night or early in the morning.  They love their cats even when those cats don’t guard their backyard gardens against the groundhogs that munch the vegetables. 

They volunteer their time to make sure that people in hospitals have what they need…whether that something is medicine or a good way to say good-bye or a quiet place to hold a teeny baby that has a better chance of survival if it can be held in a place that’s a quiet, lulling pod and not a bright, bustling, big room. 

They understand that even a kid can do something important in this world–maybe raise some money for that hospital, for example.  Maybe write an essay that inspires someone else.  Maybe visit other kids who don’t have the chance to be in their own homes right now because they’re too sick.

They make sure weary travelers and guests they’ve invited to their city have a welcome waiting in the hotel room.  They know and love local food and save historic gardens and savor their memories of running barefoot through the mud.

They make art and save old buildings and help people laugh.

They never lose a sense of playfulness.  They plant things in their gardens that are good for butterflies and are excited when it’s a good summer for all fluttering things.

They read.

They write.

They tell me about their brothers and sisters and cousins coming from Ethiopia and let me know they want to know more.  They understand that how we spend our time matters and that we all can make a difference.

Thank you, Pittsburgh.  Thank you, Louisville.  Next stop…Birmingham.

Birds Ethiopian and American, big and small, bizarre and common as salt

In Pittsburgh, my family and I took ourselves over to the National Aviary in the park near my daughter’s apartment.  You didn’t know America had a national aviary?  Well, it does.  And it has eagles and parrots and birds I never knew were in this world.

I’ve written before about how I didn’t have my eyes and heart opened to birds until Jim McCoy took me to Mount Auburn Cemetery and showed me how to use a pair of binoculars–until he talked about his Life List and wrote me emails about bird sounds…the Gray Catbird, with its mewing call; the Whippoorwill–alas, uncommon to stumble across in the Massachusetts suburbs; the Carolina Wren, which (he agreed) does sound quite a bit like “tea-kettle, tea-kettle, tea-kettle.”  Last weekend, as I watched the little birds in the aviary, I thought about what I learned (things Lanie learns in her stories) about how to identify something that sometimes only gives you a tiny clue: a call or a brief glimpse.  (Luckily, in the aviary, the patient birds offer robust glimpses and whoosh so close you feel their wing-wind.)

My aviary visit drove something else home.  I stood for a long time, watching these flamingoes and remembered I actually did give my heart to birds in Ethiopia.  Camping by a Rift Valley Lake, when I was a girl, I saw thousands of flamingoes rising into a huge pink cloud in the sky…something that stayed with me until I used it as the core scene for my book, Faraway Home.  Desta, in that story, thinks of the United States as home.  Her father is missing his home in Ethiopia–and now planning to go back to visit his mother.  Can he help her to see what he saw and hear what he heard in beautiful Ethiopia?

Indeed he can.  Walking home barefoot, feeling the warm earth under her feet, she sees (in her mind) a cloud of flamingoes wrinkling the pale cloth of the evening sky. 

Those flamingoes leave her ready to open up a little bit to that faraway home.

I remembered that Ethiopia has such dramatic birds.

So I did pay attention to birds.  I only didn’t tend to pay much attention to American birds because I hadn’t grown up around them and didn’t know enough about them to be fascinated.

I also wrote about a common bird–common as salt–that lives in Ethiopia…and almost every place else that I’ve visited.  In the national aviary, I was bedazzled by a bird whose picture you can see below.  After admiring it for a while–and trying to capture it in a picture–I wandered over to the identification area.  Huh!  It’s actually a kind of pigeon.  I don’t think I get to add these species to my Life List, but take it from me: if you’re in Pittsburgh, go see some birds!

Life is chaos; fiction isn’t

I’ve been known to say to writing students in the Vermont College MFA program, Life is chaos; fiction isn’t.  Fiction is pattern and plan.  The pattern can’t be an obvious, clunky one, but stories live and breathe by cause-and-effect, action-and-reaction, repeating elements that echo and resonate deep in our minds and hearts.

But is life chaos?

Sometimes the patterns and loops and repeating elements are fascinating, aren’t they?  Sometimes they are unbelievable.  Sometimes somewhat eerie.

Over Labor Day weekend this year, I visited my daughter who is in a masters-probably-soon-to-be-PhD-program in Pittsburgh (which is where I spotted the lovely brick wall above).  By pure chance–as far as either of us knows–my daughter and her husband live in an apartment mere blocks from where my mom and dad lived as a young married couple.  Every day, my daughter and I wandered around her neighborhood and walked by the hospital where my older sister was born (right) and by the houses my mom and dad either lived in or saw on their every-day walks.

My dad was the fourth boy born into a family that scratched its existence out of the sagebrush hills of eastern Oregon.  He was, he said, the only one of the boys who refused to give up…who could stay by his mom’s side on the day, each year, when they had to kill, pluck, and can chickens dawn to dusk.  He was probably the one destined to take over the farm.  But he came back from World War II changed.  What he saw out in the world eventually led him to Ethiopia, part of an effort to bring schools and medicine to a country that had been devastated by the Italian occupation during the war.  One of the first steps was a Presbyterian seminary in Pittsburgh.  My daughter and I got hooked on trying to pin down exactly where the two Presbyterian seminaries were on the north side in those days (one of our educated guesses shown here).

How strange to look at bricks and spires and windows and even trees my parents looked at before I was born.  How curious to wonder at the interests and dreams and settings and traits that show up generation after generation.  What is it with synchronicity, that odd way certain events pop up together in ways unlikely to happen by chance?

On one of our Pittsburgh days, by pure chance…and an enticing coupon my daughter happened to save…we decided to visit the Frick house and art gallery.  It wasn’t until we were wandering around Henry Clay Frick’s upstairs bedroom that I realized, oh, this was the guy I put (very briefly) into my book Bicycle Madness to show what was happening with labor unions at the time at the turn of the century when Frances Willard decided she had to learn to ride a bicycle.

I love it when fictional characters and settings poke their heads around the corners of my world.  Lanie’s stories echoed day after day in Pittsburgh.  This summer, my daughter supervised teenagers in an urban gardening program, and her neighborhood is full of urban gardens (although her own back yard vegetables got munched up by the resident groundhog…all except the green peppers and basil which, apparently, do not tickle a groundhog’s palate).  I saw Lanie on every street and at the farmers’ market in the park.

As for the Lanie’s birds…well…don’t even get me started on the birds that were part of my Labor Day weekend Pittsburgh experience.  Those revelations have to wait until I have time for another post.  Right now, it’s time for me to think about my own slowly-finding-its-pattern fiction.  May story settings pop up for you, too, and take root and tickle the imagination so vividly that daydreams and the physical world will tangle together in ever-new, ever-old fascinating ways.  

Monarch danger, monarch love

I’ve mentioned my big AH-HAH as I was doing research for the Lanie books and stopped to chat with a gardner near Mount Auburn cemetery, where Jim McCoy was taking me to see favorite Boston birding spots.  Native flowers feed native insects feed native birds.  AH-HAH.  My follow-up reading and thinking led me smack into monarch butterflies.  AH-HAH!  Right in my own back yard I found Monarch Watch at University of Kansas, dedicated to preserving a world that has monarchs in it.  Above (right) you can see a picture of Chip Taylor with a pile of monarchs that were tagged as part of the research process.  You can read more about him here (Monarch Watch is honoring him this month).

So Monarch Watch is in my back yard.  So are monarchs.  Last week, I was admiring my neighbor’s flowers and….eeeee…got to watch some of them dancing around the garden (pictures right and below).  I also heard from a Kansas City reader who wanted to report on Lanie’s story making a difference with kids.  She wrote this: “In the spring, the doll club started some milkweed plants and many of us bought those and planted them in our yards in hope of helping out the monarchs. We’ve had caterpillars all summer on the milkweeds Iplanted. I had a three that looked to be in the 5th instar, so I took those into my daughter’s 4th grade classroom on Monday. Sure enough, after pigging out for a day or two, they began hanging in J’s and now they have three glorious chrysalis in their room!”

She said she learned first-hand about aphids, as she had to power wash her milkweed plants and move a few ladybugs from around the babies.  Pictures here:

Later she added this:  “An update on the monarchs, we had three emerge, the first on Wed morning, then one that afternoon and when I went into the classroom on Thursday morning, the last one was almost ready. Despite ominous rain clouds, we planned for a release at afternoon recess. The rain stopped just a few minutes before recess, thankfully, and the third butterfly was nice and dry, ready for release, too.

There is a small garden tucked where our school (celebrating 100 years of education this year!) building grew at one point and the back door. It has building on three sides, parking lot on the front, so a bit protected. Off we carried the young wingers to this garden. At first the butterflies were shy, and so were the kids, so I lured one onto my finger. Once the kids saw that, there were fingers everywhere trying to coax the critters out. Off they went, circling the area a bit. One settled on a rose for a tasty first meal.”

At the picture link, she says, “Ironically, the girl holding the butterfly box is named Lanie, I didn’t plan that. I don’t have a Lanie doll; if I did we would have involved her in the release. I bet I’ll be getting one with the new store so close! They were certainly beautiful and the kids seemed amazed at their transformation. At home, one the caterpillars that was in a J formed his chrysalis while my family watched.  Amazing!”

Michele said I could share her story with you.  She also mentioned some great resources if you’re in the Kansas City area.  Anita GormanDiscovery Center has Monarch Mania on Sept 18,

She recommended a link from the MO Department of Conservation: “these clips show the migration in Mexico.  (There are other clips of songbird migration, which would also fit Lanie.)”

This one is from Powell Gardens Butterfly Festival:

It’s pretty thrilldom to think about all those girls who went to Lanie events at the American Girl stores and bookstores and maybe got excited about some of the most heroic insects around.  Share those stories!