Archive for December, 2010

Comfort and joy

Travel at Christmas is woven into my bones.  When I was five and six, my mom homeschooled me (and my siblings) in Maji, the remote southwest area where I spent a magical, outside childhood.  But when I was 9, my older sister and I got trundled down to the savannah and put on an EAL flight for Addis Ababa and boarding school.  After that, Christmas meant traveling home to Maji.  Once I had my own kids (two of them = Rebekah with the bow and Jonathan giggling in the background), we drove across the bleak midwinter plains to Leonard’s Kansas family.

We’ve had some Christmases where our kids drove across the bleak midwinter plains to US.  This year broke the pattern.  My daughter and her husband headed south from Pittsburgh.  Leonard and I drove south from Kansas. 

Birmingham, Alabama where Jonathan and Hiwot and Ellemae and Noh now live = family hugs for Christmas.

Someone once said that writers say what everyone else is only thinking.  The holidays are a ripe and ready time for cheery doings and cheery talk that only makes you miserable when you’re not feeling cheery.  Families are ripe places for lousy, hard feelings, too.  So families at the holidays?


Sometimes all is not calm.

All is hardly bright.

When I got to Maji from boarding school, it always seemed impossible that I’d get into one fight with my beloved parents and siblings. 


It can be good to leave the holidays behind and go back to the good old comfort of not being squished together with our families.  But I grew up in Ethiopia where people are considerably more squished together.  Every time I visit Ethiopia, now, I see how much tenderness and connection we also lose in the United States these days, paying for it with those plenty-of-space coupons.

A few years ago, when Jonathan and Hiwot spent their first Christmas in America, Hiwot and Ellemae and I traveled to Portland to introduce the new Ethiopia part of our family to my parents and siblings (and their kids).  In many ways, it was a mess.  But even if we have to put our fancy stuff over our everyday selves and the combination is awkward and not all that beautiful, I find deep comfort and joy being with family.

One of the first things Ellemae and Noh did when I got to the house was to ask me to read a book.  I love that.  Stories are a way we give voice to all the awkwardness and pain and fear and sadness…and still (especially with children’s books) end up with hope.

Milk and cookies anyone?

The melancholy comings and goings and what we leave behind

Last December, I flew to Portland to say a final goodbye to my dad.  In some ways, he left our lives so suddenly.  One day, he was jogging in the park across from the house, planting potatoes and tending his strawberries and kiwis, experimenting with cooking, considering global challenges.  The next day, his car coasted into a tree…which led to the discovery of the tumor nestled in his brain.  “Say goodbye,” the surgeon who did the biopsy advised.  “Just in case.”  I cried in a Newark, NJ airport lounge as I talked to him on the phone and did my best to tell him how much his stories and dreams had shaped my life.  But it wasn’t goodbye, then.  Last December, as I stood with my siblings and niece at his bed in the living room, it was.

Going back exactly a year later led bubbled up a lot of feelings.  Feelings of goodbye.  As I walked through the Portland airport into the Portland rain, I wondered what it will be like to move to Portland next summer–to live there for the first time since I was two.  I’ve been a Midwesterner since I left Ethiopia for college in Illinois.  What will it be like to be on a coast instead?

My family was a goodbye family.  My parents left for Ethiopia, saying goodbye to their parents in Oregon and Iowa, knowing they wouldn’t talk to them again–except through letters–for five years.  My grandparents knew by the time they saw us again, I would be in elementary school.  The baby my mom was pregnant with would be ready for kindergarten.  That’s what people thought they knew.

Instead, the baby who was born in Ethiopia didn’t live to see his first birthday.  My dad talked to the end of his life about what it was like to sit, stunned, in the Addis Ababa living room that filled up with Ethiopian neighbors who sat with my parents, silently, knowing that sometimes grief overwhelms words, knowing that just being with someone who is in sorrow is sometimes the only comfort a human can give.

I came home from Portland to sort papers.  Today, I sat and re-read an article I’d read as I was thinking about the Lanie stories.  “Wildebeest, in their famous migration across the Serengeti,” the author writes, “learn by following their mothers–or aunts if crocodiles get Mom.  But the golden horde [of monarchs] moving south through North America each fall is a throng of leaderless orphans.”

Somehow, a butterfly that dries her brand new wings in the hot Winnipeg sun has to “find her way back to the same grove in Mexico that sheltered her great-grandmother.”  It’s a mystery scientists at Monarch Watch and other projects are trying to understand.

Today it seems so obvious I was gripped by that mystery.  I’m fascinated by all of us who circle and dance the dance of trying to find home.  I ended my day at the newest American Girl store in Kansas City.  They’ve loved Lanie’s stories, they told me, and they’ll be sad to see Lanie go.

When I left the store, the geese were filling the sky with their melancholy traveling sounds.  On we go, I thought, with our comings and goings, so full of goodbyes, trying to leave something precious and hopeful behind wherever we can.

American kids Ethiopian kids part II

More power to American kids Ethiopian kids and all the rest of us

No matter how many amazing things I had seen in Ethiopia– castles rising through the mist and mountains, flamingoes flapping in a pink cloud over a Rift Valley lake–when I visited the U.S., I couldn’t talk about it.  When I arrvied as an eighth grader, my fellow classmates in Pasadena asked, “Did you see Tarzan?”  I learned that if I wanted to try to fit in, I should not mention Ethiopia.

As many years as I’ve lived in America, I haven’t forgotten those awkward, outsider feelings.  It still amazes me to be part of events like the one at the arboretum last weekend.  Kids came for the cookies and the nature journals and to get their Lanie books signed and hear about how I wrote the Lanie stories.  But they also laughed at my jokes and ooh-ed and aah-ed at my pictures of Ethiopia and told me they were glad they could help get books to kids in Ethiopia.

Just as amazing was the Wichita school speaking on Monday and Tuesday.  These days, I don’t know how any teachers and libraries have energy for anything extra.  How do they not only care intensely about their own students, but also about reading around the world?  I visited three schools that really care.

All three schools are gathering gently used books to give to LeAnn, so she can sort and pack and add them to the pallets that will be sailing to Ethiopia sometime right after the first of the year.  Some energetic and creative fourth graders had done a fundraiser to pay for getting the books on their way, too.  The director promised they’d give us a check at the end of my talk.  I dared hope for maybe a hundred dollars.


Try $730.00.

Those are SOME fourth graders!

That money is going to do wondrous good in Ethiopia where dollars go so far.  This year, for example, we’re adopting a Love a Library program for the libraries we’ve already planted, and it’s only going to cost $500 to fill shelves with local language books (the ones that inevitably are tattered from so much reading). 

But what makes me excited more than anything is knowing how powerful the kids feel who do make a difference.  Sometimes they’ve never had the chance to give.  Giving has a kind of zing that we sometimes seem to think only comes with getting.

The author of Three Cups of Tea talks about watching kids scratch letters in the dirt and thinking that if they were so hungry to learn, someone had better figure out a way to get them a school.  It was a school in the United States that jumped in. 

Kids know that other kids should have books.

Our humble best

Christmas?  What’s Christmas?

Don’t get me wrong.  My local NPR station floats the most gorgeous Christmas music into my living room–songs that all the juice hasn’t been wrung out of by playing them over and over.  Pinpoints of white light that poke out of the dark as we drive over the Kansas prairies make me feel brave and hopeful.  And grandkids…well, this picture speaks for itself.  (And I get to see them Christmas Eve this year.)

But every student and teacher knows that the holiday season is also End-of-Semester season.  The Vermont College MFA program where I teach is no exception.  That means I’m reading my students’ last packets, mulling and tweaking evaluations, and preparing for the January VCMFA residency.  Residency = talking about fiction, reading fiction, thinking about fiction, discussing each other’s fiction, lecturing about fiction, experimenting with making our new fiction insights seep from our brain cells into our fingers.  Ah, residency…aka Fiction Boot Camp.  A chunk of my pre-Christmas brain is already in Vermont.

A chunk is also in the middle of Kansas.  I just spent several days back in Hesston, staying at the house of my good friend LeAnn Clark.  This is LeAnn’s stove.  She has not been baking Christmas cookies.  She’s been creating display boards for Ethiopia Reads and putting together gift baskets (which filled up her dining room table) for the Ethiopia Reads fundraiser she planned and pulled off with a bang this week.

‘Tis the season for last tax deductions.

‘Tis the season where many Americans commit to sending a little hope and love and good cheer zinging out around the world.

So it’s also the season when most nonprofit organizations find out whether or not they are going to survive the coming year.

Ethiopia Reads is so lucky.  Moms and daughters (and aunts and grandmas and great-aunts and, yes, dads) poured into the Dyck Arboretum, where I used to walk and where I gathered much Lanie inspiration, to make bracelets and create nature journals and decorate oak leaf cookies and stamp cards.  They bought books and donated for a chance to win a Lanie doll and listened to me talk about writing the Lanie stories–all in order to raise money to get books to kids in Ethiopia.

Successes like this one (and the three school and two bookstore events that LeAnn also planned) don’t happen without the hard, kind, slogging efforts of people who create the chocolate fountains and lay out the napkins and make the paper for the nature journals and print the flyers and write the articles for the local newspapers and lug the boxes.

 They don’t happen unless someone vaccuums the floor.

And that fits the Christmas story.

All around the world, including in Ethiopia, people have long believed the only way good things will come into their lives is through the generosity of kings and rich merchants and other powerful people.  Projects like Ethiopia Reads are a triumph of often humble volunteer efforts and small chunks of money, put together to create something amazing.

The triumphant moments in the Lanie stories come from the same thing.  Stopping.  Bending down.  Noticing a bug or a plant or a butterfly or a bird or some dirt.  Knowing we are all part of a glorious and fragile web of life.

The Kansas prairies at this time of year are not at their luscious best.  They remind me a little of my own writing life right now, in fact.  But words, like winter plants, creep and whisper and dig deep.

At the end of the day, we count the pennies.  We nod with satisfaction.  We haul tired bones off to bed.  We know we did our humble part.