Archive for August, 2011

Shaking and smooshing and clinging to stories

I know I’ve said it before but I simply have to say it again…I’m astonished and oh so pleased that my parents were willing to let go of their moorings, shake their foundations, and head to Ethiopia with three toddlers.  Okay.  My older sister would have been insulted to be called a toddler at five-years-old.



My mom had three babies in Ethiopia…and our family traveled, amoeba-like, in sometimes-jerky-sometimes-fluid motions, around Ethiopia and to the US and back until I was in my mid-twenties.

  Those years left me with a big dislike of being a tourist and following a guide around listening to a schpiel.  They left me with a big like of slurping up the air and food in interesting places, watching people laugh and talk and shop and read and tell stories in those new (to me) places.

So last week, I was pleased to interrupt the domestic business of settling into a new home and flit off to visit Amy Butler Greenfield and her husband in Oxford.

They met when they were both students there.  I met them while they were temporarily living in Boston.  A chance Facebook conversation led to an impulsive decision that this was the right thing to do with five of my days in August 2011.

The timing wouldn’t have suited everyone.  Then again, not everyone got zipped off to Ethiopia to live as a two-year-old.

One of the things I like doing when I’m in another place is talking with fellow readers there.  In the UK in August 2011, not only did I get to have fascinating conversations with Amy about writing and research, I got to have face-to-face conversations with Dana Roskey, founder of the Tesfa foundation.  Here are some of the graduates of an early childhood education program Tesfa initiated in Addis Ababa–and Tesfa also works with teenage runners and has started building schools in areas that don’t have one.  (

In my ten years of volunteering for Ethiopia Reads, I’ve gotten to see that there are hundreds of small grassroots NGOs spreading ideas and dreams and new skills for deep-root change to various communities in Ethiopia.  What’s missing?  Collaboration.  So it’s been thrilldom to be able to collaborate with Tesfa this year.  Dana and the Ethiopian staff have put hundreds and hundreds of hours, with great generosity and passion, into Ethiopia Reads projects, including a visit to this library planted by a Denver donor and supported by fundraising efforts of 4th grade girls in Ellis School in Pittsburgh.

With everything there is to do and all the new opportunities for libraries, literacy projects, early childhood education in Ethiopia, there’s never enough time for uninterrupted conversation about smart strategy and choices.

Enter Oxford.

Tesfa has a UK board.  Dana happens to be connecting with friends and supporters in the UK right now.



Two days of long, intense talks about what can be done to support young readers in Ethiopia AND a chance to see what Oxford students can do with some English biscuits and a statue.

 Could anything be better than talking about books–about the ideas and images that nestle and rustle in the pages of books–than in Oxford?

Hogwarts is partly rooted in Oxford, after all…

…and every day, the bus trundled us past the Eagle and Child pub, where Tolkein and C.S. Lewis and the other Inklings stewed their stories…

…and I’d like to think that some of the magic of the place will now always sprinkle around Ethiopia Reads and all the volunteers doing what they can to share their love of reading with kids in Ethiopia.

On the second day, we traveled to Bath by train.  In the US, trains make stops at various spots.  In England, they call at various spots.  One reason travel shakes our foundations is that even little changes in language, though fun, can also be disconcerting and confusing.

Bath is another place of stories.

Angels climb Jacob’s Ladder on the face of Bath Abbey, marking Bishop Oliver King’s dream that the church should be restored.  I wonder if they’re the same angels that are said to have helped carve the huge stone churches of Lalibela in Ethiopia?

As Dana and I walked along the streets of Bath, talking about Ethiopia Reads, we passed a reminder of one of Bath’s most famous story-makers.

Jane Austen set two of her six published novels in this city, where she lived from 1801-1806.

Think the city isn’t proud?

Think again.

The places we settle seep into our bones and into our stories.

The characters writers invent and describe move through worlds that–in one of the pleasures of reading–can come to feel as close, as vivid, as intense for readers as for the people who live there.

Thus reading, as wise people have noted, can offer both roots and windows.  Books can help us look more carefully at the worlds right around and inside us.

Books can help us imagine ourselves into the skin of another human being, sometimes someone not even slightly like us, and can toss us into the soup of the wide world.  I wish all of us many mirrors, many windows, whether life is sending us mooring or shaking our foundations and sweeping us away.


Ethiopia travels and the tearing the cocoon

Four years ago, my brother and I took a group of teachers to Ethiopia.  We told everyone it was an experiment–an experiment in good listening.  An experiment in teacher-to-teacher sharing.

One of the teachers, Alicia, turned out to be not only a terrific trainer but an incredible fundraiser–and her community in upstate NY really got behind her, too.  She raised money for sets of books we could leave behind in each of the libraries our training had touched.

While we were there, we spent time reading books with the Ethiopian educators, writing books together, laughing, asking questions, and thinking about how to bring new literacy habits to the new libraries that were being planted in schools in a country where few students have had any access at all to books.

We learned about the struggles of teachers in Ethiopia.  Library managers told us of policies that sometimes work against kids even holding the books–if a book disappears, for instance, the cost is often taken out of the already meager salary of the person in charge.

No wonder the adults in these new libraries sometimes seem like book policemen.

The most exciting thing was seeing that educators in Ethiopia are eager to learn new skills and approaches, eager to try new possibilities, eager to hear about the successes and failures and challenges of teachers in other parts of the world.

The second most exciting thing was watching American and European teachers, who had raised their own travel money and living expenses to take a chance on an experiment  fall in love with Ethiopia.  After our hard work, we traveled and slurped up the beauties of the land and people outside Addis Ababa.

Most times and places, it’s easier to fly across the rugged mountains of Ethiopia.  But those who are willing to climb into buses get to see gorgeous and vivid and unusual and funny things on the ground.

Since that first time, I’ve been part of putting together two more groups of teachers.  Each time, I wonder if our luck will run out.  Will we find educators willing to give their time and raise their money?  Will the trip work even as it wrenches?

So far, the luck holds.

 We’ve found generous, curious, interested people who want to explore and share–and who don’t need travel to be easy.

It’s rarely easy traveling in Ethiopia.  It’s rarely easy opening eyes and hearts to people who do things very differently from the way we’re used to seeing and having things done.Just like this move to Portland, each of those trips shows me how hard it is for humans to let go of their moorings and jump out of the boat and give up their rhythms and routines.

Even people who think they are brave and flexible travelers aren’t that way all the time.

This year, I was part of the planning for the summer’s group that went…but not part of the group–because of our move to Portland.  I sure loved reading the stories and seeing the pictures.

Oh the tenderness

and sorrow

and tugging

and splitting of hearts and old cocoons that come as we stumble into new worlds.

May brave writers ever gather in Vermont  for the MFA residencies and brave teachers travel to Ethiopia and people leave behind homes and old ways of doing things to learn new tricks.


Stuff in Ethiopia, stuff in Portland

There’s nothing like a trip to Ethiopia to remind a body that happiness does not lie in the amount of stuff a person owns.

Many households in Ethiopia can fit inside one small room of middle class American houses.  How is it that people still laugh and dance and tell stories and hug their families and welcome guests and share what food they have that day?  In fact…hmmm…people in Ethiopia seem to do that much better than most of us in America.

We know with our rational minds that stuff doesn’t make us happy and doesn’t make us good at slurping up the deep joys available all around us.  Ah.  But rational minds get trumped by lizard brain all the time.  There’s nothing like a move to make you think about all your stuff.

 The podly containers trundled up to our new house, holding our books, our papers, our photographs, and the small amount of furniture we chose to move.  A few muscled relatives arrived to wrestle things inside.  Now the big work begins, figuring out how to create a place for everything and put everything in its place.

I’ve never been good at a place for everything and everything in its place.

I am good at appreciating quirky things.  We visited the Community Warehouse, which provides furniture for refugee families setting up households in a new country and for low income families struggling with finding enough pennies to furnish a house or apartment.  When people donate quirky things, the Community Warehouse sells them to buy more, well, normal things.

Functional things.

These chairs aren’t all that normal, but they delighted us–and they fit so nicely with the giraffe that I carried from Ethiopia as a 17-year-old, probably my oldest surviving possession.  We also got a dresser and small chest at the Community Warehouse.

I’m deeply grateful for people who decide to share what they can’t use anymore.

This orange cat was the only thing I fell in love with at a community fair in Kenya when I was speaking at an international teachers’ conference there.


It suddenly fits beautifully with the new orange chairs.


We need to think about what kinds of blinds or curtains will grace the windows of our new little house.  One of my sisters pointed out that, what with the orange chairs and gold color of paint that we chose for the walls, the color in the windows should probably be…ummm….muted.  Egg-shell, anyone?

I have a bowl from another trip to Kenya that is a lovely egg-shell color with black geckos painted onto it.  It looks great held up against the gold walls.  I wonder if I can find a gecko design for curtains or blinds.

  Old things in a new house make it start to slowly feel like home.  Another sister gave me this penguin when I still lived in ND, and it has delighted family members over the years.  The big pot was made by an artist in Trinidad, Colorado, when my kids were little, and we’ve managed not to break it.  The wooden stools are from Ethiopia, as is the rug in the background.

We can’t really tackle the living room space yet.  The study with its desks and computers has to come first.  But I like seeing those things tucked in a corner.

Then there are new thrills.  We have a blackberry thicket in our back yard, and it’s thrilldom to go outside in the dewy morning to pick a few blackberries for my cereal.  This morning, a raccoon sauntered around the blackberry bushes, too.

Even when I was writing Lanie’s stories about the thrilldom of gardening, I’ve felt too busy with my writing, teaching, and volunteering for Ethiopia Reads to plant and tend gardens in my past few places.

Oregon, though, has such a lovely growing season.

Tempting.  But even if I don’t get the herbs and vegetables planted, I will have blackberries–and a few tomato plants in pots that my brother and his wife are giving us as a housewarming gift.

I’ll also have a free-not-tended-by-me reminder of Kansas.

 A sunflower is growing in the front yard!

Yesterday, a dad with his two kids adopted from Ethiopia came over for a copy of my book Trouble to give to a five-year-old girl who arrives in Portland from Ethiopia this week.  They brought sunflowers, too.  So as we slowly get Internet hooked up (yesterday) and haunt craigslist and second-hand furniture stores, we can remember our friends and family in the place we just left.

Chaos can be a good thing.

Turning one’s life upsidedown forces a body to slow down…sit at the open window and stare out at the blackberries…think about how the most precious stuff of life–water, food, books–gets delivered right to our American sinks and stores and libraries.

A moment for gratitude.

A reminder of the joy that comes not only with acquiring but when we share what we love and what we’re ready to give away.

Driving stories from Ethiopia to Portland

Kids in American schools make surprised noises to hear that the enormous continent of Africa even has cities.  They gasp to see photos like this one I took last time I was in Nairobi, Kenya.

When I was a teenager, Addis Ababa was a fun city to get around.  Change was in the air–I was waiting for a movie to begin and people began to boo when the American flag unfurled on the screen–but the city wasn’t the bustling, huge place it is today.  A taxi ride cost 25 cents and the snorting red buses were 15 cents.  It was easy to get to the pizza place (wood oven, delicious Italian recipes), the bowling alley, the Chinese restaurant, the Omar Kyam restaurant, the markato, and any other place between my house and where I went to school with an assortment of kids who called all kinds of places home: America, Ethiopia, Indonesia, various African countries, Holland, and more.

Since I had grown up in rural Ethiopia in a place of no paved roads and no stores, this new world was pretty thrilling.   But there was no possibility that I would drive in Addis Ababa.  Around Maji, I only ever saw three vehicles…navigated by my dad and the local governor and the local police.  Addis Ababa had plenty of vehicles, including the small bus we rode in across town to school every weekday, the little blue Fiat taxis and lumbering buses that I used whenever I wasn’t riding my bike or walking.


Every five years, we flew to America.


Road trip!

After my dad finished his business in New York City, it was time to set out for Iowa, where my mom’s mom and sister lived and then onward to Oregon where my dad’s family was.  Once again, of course, we kids didn’t drive.  I didn’t even get a driver’s license until I was in my twenties and had lived without one in places little and big…Monmouth, Illinois; Washington DC; Pittsburgh; and Chicago.


Bring on the latest road trip.

Last week’s move began on the prairies, where cows could sometimes be spotted out in the open but more often were huddled under the occasional tree and even billboards for a wee bit of shade.

After all, temperatures of over a hundred degrees make humans drippy and tired and probably don’t feel great if you have fur all over your body, either.

This time we went a little bit south of the route we took on our last drive out to Oregon.

Goodbye to the sunflower state.

Hello to Colorful Colorado, where we had to find an oil cap to replace the one that the people who serviced the car in Lawrence forgot to put back on when they were done.

That little jaunt added a few extra hours.

The car was stuffed to the gills.

So was our little trailer that trundled along behind.

This time, we managed to make it through most of wide Wyoming without having to drive through pounding rain, although the wind was fierce for one of the days.

Some states sure take forever to get across.

But the long and winding road has its treasures all the way through Wymong and Utah, and NPR reception hardly ever fails, even through stretches where a traveler doesn’t see any buildings or people or even cows.

That makes for varied music and interesting conversation and analysis across the miles.

Our furniture and books were meanwhile making their way in their pods on a truck.

We stopped in places where covered wagons also stopped.  It’s always amazing to think of what that journey must have been like….months and months instead of days on the road, watching mountains that lifted out of the plains but never seemed to get any closer.  No wonder some people, including my ancestors, stopped right at the Idaho-Oregon line rather than continuing all the way to Portland.

But we kept going.

Now, for the first time, I have to learn to drive in a city.