Archive for October, 2010

What we give up for the hot cocoa and the ease

Growing up in Ethiopia as an outside girl gave me the most fascinating things to look at and wonder about and worry about.

A lot of life in Ethiopia gets lived outside.  People do drive around in cars and buses, of course, but an awful lot of them spend more time traveling in ways that make the sights and sounds and smells of the earth more vivid and real than when I travel around the United States.  Convenience and comfort don’t always = good writing details and they don’t always = a sensation of being present to life, either.

In Ethiopia, a traveler meets so many other interesting people on the path.  Every time we went outside of the city and stopped, the kids gathered.  Even a spot that seemed silent and private only seconds before, could fill up with children seriously fast. 

Sometimes when I’m walking in the United States, I see utterly nobody the whole time, and I wonder where everybody is.

They might be inside, where it’s cozy.  Lots of great things happen inside…writing retreats with wonderful friends and tea parties with grandchildren and reading and conversations.  Lovely things await those of us with inside genes!

After all, the outside world can be drippy and chily and steamy and all around uncomfortable.

Still, when I get outside, I’m always glad that my dad’s outside genes got into me enough that I walk almost every day. 

All the fuzz and mist and sparkle and brown bark and soft leaves of Portland, this month, made my heart glad even when my feet were wet.

Ah, the mystery…

the spooky glory…

the whispery-ness of that fall day.

  This weekend, I was on the other side of the continent, sharing stories with the brave writers who are part of my annual retreat.  Look what I would have missed if I hadn’t walked.

Lanie (the doll) won’t be around next fall.  Lanie the book character will, though.  She will be my ambassador to say, “Get out there!  Open your eyes.”

Put on your boots.

Get out your binoculars.

Slow down enough to notice what’s right in front of your nose and eyes.

And don’t forget to listen to the thoughts and feelings and stories that are bubbling up inside of you.

It’s all right there for the taking.


We hoist ourselves up with a rope of words

Reading splits opens the world and lets the light peek through.  But how, exactly, does it work its magic?

Every fall for a whole week, I surround myself with some of my best writer buddies and sink into a sea of words.  Yesterday, we were discussing something a masterful wordscraftsman once said–about how the spine tingles when we encounter a powerful phrase or sentence…about how we hoist ourselves up by the power of those words.   Tingle.  Hoist.  Words that make us feel things.

This year, I’ve talked to a lot of girls about observation journals–like the one Lanie keeps.  I’ve listened to them talk about what they see in their yards and on the way to school.  They’ve listened to me talk about where my ideas come from and how it’s somewhat less mysterious than we sometimes think.  Still, something is mysterious.  How do black marks on a page (or screen) make feelings rise in our throats until we can hardly bear it?

Sometimes we’re haunted by feelings we can’t shake no matter how hard we put our will to the task.  This dog traveled with my brother when my family left Ethiopia in the 1970s.  Somewhere in Minnesota, Baron disappeared.  It doesn’t surprise me that my brother’s first novel for young readers, The Pup Who Cried Wolf, sees the world through the eyes of a dog–a dog who loves car travels, among other things.  Our memories and observations–the things we care about–the things that haunt us…those are things that make us brave and determined enough to face down the resistance that comes when any writer sits with a blank screen or page (or, sometimes worse, one with the wrong words already on it, blocking the way). 

When we aren’t quite brave enough, not quite determined enough, sitting silently in a luminous room with other brave writers can help.  Amazing books have been born and shaped in this circle.

We learn so much from each other.  Toni Buzzeo, who used to be a school librarian, was the one who yesterday told me about this book, which I can’t wait to share with the board members of Ethiopia Reads when they gather in Denver to figure out goals and dreams for 2011.  That’s the next traveling I’ll do after I get home from this retreat.  How fitting that I sit here not only step-stepping my way through the books I want to write, but talking and thinking about the ways we share the books we love.

Last night, we talked about books that had stuck with us since childhood.  The Secret Garden.  Caddie Woodlawn.  Julie of the Wolves.  A Little Princess.  Millions of Cats.  Through books, we imagined ourselves into the skin of other characters.  We saw the world.  We felt deep feelings and found words to wrap around them.  Our lives would have been so much poorer without books.  No wonder children all around the world are drawn to shaping words, even if it’s with a stick scraping in the dirt under a tree, and reading them whenever and wherever they can manage to find a way.

Some things just can’t be shared, country to country.  Language gets in the way and so do emotions and expectations and just how hard it is to lift something up and carry it from one place to another. 

But, amazingly, a lot of things CAN be shared.  Books right this minute are being carried from the United States to Ethiopia–and in 2011, that will happen again and again.


Weaving a ribbon of words in Kansas, ND and Ethiopia

Tonight I’m getting ready for my annual writing retreat and thinking about how the ribbon twists and weaves and goes round and round.  I had the thrilldom of reading these words from LeAnn Clark (the Kansas teacher on the left in this picture) to the North Dakota family that gave the money to plant these books in an Ethiopian school:  “The man in pictures is  Ato Berhane Beyene,the librarian at the
library. He taught at Enat (I think that means “mother”) Ethiopia School for 22 years before an Ethiopia Reads library was planted there 3 years ago. He was very proud of his school which is a public. school for grades 4-9. (There is a sister school for grades 1-3 nearby.) There are around 500 students. He is an absolute delight…full of energy and
very animated.

He whizzed around the library holding 2 rather grimy, plastic, water bottles, with pinwheels made from paper from a
student notebook attached to the caps, to demonstrate how he taught the
power of air. You couldn’t wipe a smile from his face as he spoke about the
students’ love for the library. “The students would spend 2-3 hours in the library if it was allowed,” he said.

Whew.  Kansas.  North Dakota.  Ethiopia.  Certain spots on the map feel so far from other spots, don’t they?  But the family that decided to donate the money to plant that library in a school in Ethiopia wanted to honor their North Dakota reading mom.  And I got to visit a great ND school a few weeks ago to say thank you because they raised $1800 to get books to kids in Ethiopia.  In fact, the students voted to skip the books THEY usually get during ND Reading Month because they wanted students in Ethiopia to have books to read.

In North Dakota, I also got to talk to writers at the children’s literature conference at UND and do a presentation about Lanie to classes and moms and grandmas and girls who told me about their gardens and butterflies and bugs.  “Write about what you know about and care about,” I said over and over.  And so the ribbon twists and the words string out in a long, long path from writer to reader, from one reader to another, across generations, across continents.

Written about what you know about and care about, recently?  Visited your library?  Kissed a book?  Started a ribbon on its wandering path?

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.