Archive for July, 2011

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.

Starving artists

Sometimes life feels so step step step and rich with plans and goals and paths toward those goals.

Sometimes it’s a tumble-bumble swirl and I stumble along awash in feelings and hardly able to think.  Hardly knowing what to think.

In short, it’s a mess.

That…umm…might just be how I feel right now.  But I often say to my writing students that where life is chaos; fiction is pattern.  As we make art, we make a kind of sense.

At the very least, we give voice to the pain and dismay.

 Ever since I wrote Only a Pigeon with my brother, I’ve taken pictures of pigeons that pop into my travels, and when I was part of the Vermont College MFA residency last week, I found this pigeon appealing.  A pigeon in the mist.

Sometimes we stumble along like a pigeon in the mist.

Vermont College is where writers get to come together and take writing seriously for 10 days every winter and every summer.  The dorm where I sleep (right beyond that pigeon) sure was hot this summer.  This morning, on my way home, I landed in Detroit on the hottest day in Detroit recorded history and, by the time I ran across the airport and back to make my plane, I was drippy with sweat.  Once again, VCMFA residency lived up to my nickname, Boot Camp for Writers.  But when the bagpipes start wailing and the graduating class walks in, Boot Camp feels precious and sweet.

Where else do most of get to be so silly?

And so serious?

Where else do we get to sit and listen while other people pay intent attention to every word we’ve written and the effect it creates?

Who else will pull us and push us and nudge us and bump us out of our usual ways of seeing things?

Who will show us new ways to create the effects we want to create?

The graduating class this summer named themselves after a lecture that reminded us our words have to staple the reader to the page; if not, it’s all too easy for the reader to put our story down, go make a cheese sandwich, and never come back.

Being an artist in this world doesn’t make a lot of sense.  Artists fail constantly.  When bears go over the mountain, the only thing they see is the other side of the mountain, but artists see another mountain…a bigger mountain.  Artists starve.

Stumbling and bumbling along in the mist, trying to find the way, it’s good to be with bat poets, cheese sandwiches, and dancing stars.

The cunning worlds rippling out

What’s in a move, anyway?

One of my author friends, who is sorting her office, points out that after the obvious things are put here and there, what’s left could be called The Dregs.

If there was an obvious place for the dregs…for this doo-dad or that file or the piece of paper over there…the doo-dad or file or piece of paper would already be IN that place.  I have certain little piles on my desk that I shuffle through, from time to time, and then get up and walk away from, smiling vaguely, because I can’t figure out any categories that would help me do anything different.

But moving?

Moving forces a person to deal with The Dregs–unless a person wants to give in to throwing unsorted things into a box and hoping the box will fall off the truck on the way to Oregon.

 One problem is that as I sort and toss and move things from here to there, my feelings keep getting in the way.  Feelings get jangled when people decide to move–because feelings attach themselves to places.

When we first moved to Lawrence, I stood downtown and watched a bike race with my granddaughter and her Hilltop friend.  How is it even possible that my granddaughter is now reading Lanie and other chapter books…and that she doesn’t even live in Lawrence anymore?  This week, I washed the place where she took a marker and wrote her name on the back seat of the car, so proud of those fat, bold letters she could now shape, and I mourned something that once made me irritated.

I’m lucky that my son is a photojournalist and takes lovely pictures that give me glimpses into that little family and their lives.  I’m lucky that words connect all of us, still, even though we don’t live in the same town anymore.

I didn’t actually know my own grandmas very well and had only letters to connect me to them.  When I was growing up in Ethiopia, I watched my mom write letters–and sometimes I added my own letters–but I don’t remember that I even tried to imagine the grandmas reading them.  It wasn’t until I was all grown up with my own family that I learned how much my grandma Kurtz loved to play basketball.  Or what a tough, sad childhood my mom’s mom had, growing up in a foster home, never adopted.

I never knew how much one grandma laughed when she told a story and the other grandma dreamed of writing something that someone else would read.

This week, I’ve left the sorting and packing and thoughts of moving for the writing residency at Vermont College MFA in children’s and YA literature.

Boot Camp for Writers.

It doesn’t make any sense to leave our comfortable homes and sleep in non-air-conditioned dorms and eat cafeteria food.

It doesn’t make any sense for a group of introverted people to fling themselves into a swirling mass that talks about setting and characters and plots and other agonies over breakfast and lunch and dinner and in workshops and through lectures.

It doesn’t make any sense for people to take huge chunks of their lives and devote all their mind’s energy for something as frustrating and difficult as the art of writing a novel.

Or a picture book.

Or even a blog, for that matter.

Author Laura Salas writes, “There are children’s writers who make a living solely off their book sales. I think there are 4. Which leaves the other 9,996 scrambling to put together an income off this crazy, wonderful, unreliable world of children’s publishing.

OK, maybe there are more than 4. But most children’s writers I know who actually make a living  off of writing do it by cobbling together an income from many different sources.”

Money, safe to say, is not the reason we do it.

Why do we choose to love something so tough, so frustrating, so demanding as art?  I really have no idea.

I do know that John Donne wrote that “a sentence is little world, cunningly made.”

Somehow, when I was young, I came to love books ferociously.  And when my children were young, I found my way to a library all full of those cunning little worlds.  As I read the books out loud, I wanted, more than anything, to make such a world.

Somehow for all the agony I get no greater pleasure than doing this work…and watching the worlds ripple out everywhere.

Ethiopia: the good life

We humans seem to like and need hooks to hang our brains on.  Since moving to Kansas nine years ago, I’ve found out what people in other states think about Kansas, for instance, and it mostly has to do with The Wizard of Oz although a surprising number of people comment on Kansas as being such a cold state.  I tell those people I moved down the Great Plains from North Dakota to balmy Kansas.  The year we lived in a FEMA trailer in Grand Forks, ND, a layer of frost built up so thick it was hard to get the door to stay closed.  I remember house windows almost covered with frost feathers, only a small hole in the middle left open.

I’ve generally liked living in states where other people think they wouldn’t want to live.  How will it be to live in Oregon aka the We-Love-Dreamers state?

I talked to a flat-lander recently who tried it and said, “I never got used to the mountains and trees crowding in on me.”

What will it be like to live mere blocks away from my mom and four of my siblings and their children and grandchildren and dogs?

I haven’t lived so close to so many of them since I left Ethiopia for Monmouth College when I was seventeen years old, and it’s a startling thought.  Lovely.  But startling.

When we drove into Wyoming, I glanced at the sign by the side of the highway.  A cowboy flashed by and the words, Forever West.  Exactly what I would have thought.

 Nebraska surprised and interested me, though.

The good life.

At first, the good life appeared to be one with a whole lot of solitude.  An ocean of grass and some of those interesting lumps I commented on seeing in other states.  The occasional windmill.  Fitting for the Home of Arbor Day, I eventually saw a whole lot of trees, and trees are always good.

What is the good life?

As humans, we can’t seem to help but equate it with comfort and ease, which almost always leads us to equate it with lots and lots of money.  No matter how much evidence we see that lots and lots of money doesn’t lead to lots and lots of happiness, we can’t help ourselves.  Someone wisely pointed out that what we crave when we think we’re craving money might often be interesting sensations, interesting experiences.  So travelers to Ethiopia comment on the heartbreaking poverty–but also on the amazing sensations.  The immense beauty of land and animals and people.  The food.  The bubbling joy and determination of survival.

It was always a painful thing of my childhood to visit the United States and find the image of Ethiopia so fixed.





Like many an Ethiopian-American today, I bristled at having to explain the land of my childhood.  Eventually, I didn’t want to try.  But my feelings of being a child in Ethiopia weave through everything I write, including the story of an American Girl, Lanie, longing to be outside.

Even today, I struggle when a young reader at an author visit asks, “What was it like growing up in Ethiopia?”

I want to say, “Read my books.”

Often their faces are open and curious, and I want to try.   I love having my pictures to show during my presentations. But it’s still hard to find the words.

My voice comes through my writing.

The complex, gorgeous, magical, heart-breaking world of Ethiopia has never been easy to explain.  Maybe I could just adopt Nebraska’s slogan.  Ethiopia: the good life.  In spite of the pain, in some ways it would be the truth.

What I know is that almost everyone who visits Ethiopia has an experience that jars and complicates their images forever.

Many of them come back as mute as I felt when I was a child, struggling to find the words for their experiences.

Many, many of them fall in love.