Archive for December, 2011


“And…” (people keep asking me)

“What was Seattle like??”

Adjectives fail me.

First of all, the dinner was sold out, which so rarely happens in my world.  Ellenore, the organizer, had set a goal of 100, but 170 people bought tickets.  Bidding on auction items was brisk and cheerful.  The room was full of dancing and poetry and Ethiopians and Americans who care about reading and art and kids and, well, about Ellenore and her family.

People give to people.

One of the zingy things about being a volunteer for Ethiopia Reads has been meeting fellow volunteers.

In Ethiopia, I notice that people still seem to be on a default setting that one’s life will get better if a patron comes along to bestow good things.  After all, Ethiopia had a society for centuries much like the medieval societies we study in school…and I’ll bet the serfs in Europe never sat around the fire chatting about how they could pool their money and ideas and skills to make things better.

We talk about America being the land where the individual can succeed.  In some ways, as many emigrant families will tell you, it still is that way (for a lot of individuals)–because some of the systems that squash people around the world are a little less entrenched, here, than they are in a place like, say, Ethiopia.

Most of us in America don’t live in villages, for example, where our families have lived for so many generations that the patterns and antagonisms and frustrations are entrenched and seem hard to ever overcome or change.  Class and ethnic tensions certainly are real in America, but we still have more wiggle room than in a lot of places around the world.

It’s true that a lot of individuals in places like Ethiopia are longing to come to America even now when things are relatively tough here.

People everywhere are pretty determined to make their children’s lives better.

But that story about America as the place where individuals pull themselves up by their bootstraps?  My research for Bicycle Madness, featuring the real-life reformer Frances Willard (who learned to ride a bike in her fifties with her skirts down to her ankles to show what women could do), convinced me that America is the place where a lot of people really GOT IT that ordinary human beings can put their resources together to make things better.

The power of ordinary people working together.

Frances Willard and the other reformers in the late 1800s were determined to make America live up to its rhetoric.  Children were working in factories.  (Their little fingers were helpful for many of the machines.)  Women had no way to support themselves and their families if men let them down (taking themselves and their wages off to the saloon, for instance).  Frances Willard and other writers and speakers and photographers worked together to spread the stories and images of suffering, struggling people–and they brought change.

Ordinary people holding hands can bring change.

That’s what Seattle was about.

The event was held in the Norwest African American museum–a place that fit it delightfully well.

Ellenore and her team of volunteers had gathered lots of cool stuff for the auction.  People donated those things.  People bought those things…and other people just raised the paddle to make donations.  (Ethiopia Reads board member Frew Tibebu won the stay in the apartment in Paris and I can’t wait to hear what the trip is like for his family.)

The totals aren’t in, yet, but I know the event met and exceeded Ellenore’s goal of $25,000 to bring reading to the mercato school and community around it.

Reading is one of the ways to share the power tools of the world.

When Stephanie, who just did her own fundraiser for art in the school, visited Ethiopia this month, the kids used themselves as the canvas for one project.  My brother and I, in our brief talk at the event, paired some of Stephanie’s photos with the words of a teacher who traveled with my brother last summer.

The mercato school captured our hearts.

Each little face drawing your eyes.

Look at me.

See me.

Saying, “I am significant.”

What makes someone like Ellenore brave enough to believe she can make up a fundraiser auction?

What makes her determined enough to give up most of her own pre-Christmas preparation time to put in the time to something like this event?

What made artist Yadesa Bojia contribute his hours and two paintings to spread joy in the mercato neighborhood where he grew up?

What makes all the volunteers of this world believe that they should give up the time they could be spending with their families and businesses and hobbies and instead believe they can help spread clean water and food and health care and education in places where those are precious and rare?

It’s baffling.

And powerful.

And sweet.


Some mornings are like this.

I want a good night’s sleep before a big Seattle event that is bringing together children’s book authors (and their books), adoption parents and Ethiopian-Americans to create a literacy project in a school sandwiched between an intensely busy market and warehouse district and a desperately poor residential area of Addis Ababa.  Dana Roskey writes, “Thousands live in a shanty-town of tiny houses made of sheets of corrugated iron, sharing unsanitary community toilets. Most of our families live on less than $20/month, supported by fathers doing day labors, or by single mothers who bake bread or do laundry for a living. Some families are homeless. Some parents and a few of the children have AIDS. Most of the children are malnourished when they arrive.”

I want to be asleep right now.

Instead, there’s just enough nervousness around all the details of the event that my brain is chugging away at 4 in the morning.

As I stared into the darkness, I thought about this photo and that mother.


When I was a young mother, I worried.  Sure, we had the time and money to take our kids camping–and my memories of what that did for them and for us are a big part of why I gave my Lanie character such a longing to go camping.

But I remember one camping trip where my husband found some berries he was sure would be fine to eat–and I carefully didn’t eat any in case I had to end up driving everyone out of the wilderness to a hospital to save their lives from the poison berries.

(They were fine.  I missed out on some great berries.)

I loved camping when I was a kid.

In Ethiopia, we camped by waterfalls and lakes where flamingoes filled up the sky and by a lazy brown river where my dad swam around a bend and came face-to-face (as he always told the story) with a water buffalo.

I worried every time he told that story.

Sometimes I show this picture of my niece and her son on a Kurtz family camping trip and say, “It was more fun to be the kid camping than to be the mom camping.”

Part of that lack of fun was how much work it is to prepare and how much work it is to take care of kids far from home and how much work it is to clean up everything after you’re done.  My dad invented some pretty good systems for all of that (partly so he could coax my mom to go camping).

She was the one in our family, as Lanie would say, with the inside genes.

But it’s not just the work.  When we camped in Ethiopia, my mom would gasp when we got too close to the edge of a cliff, and we would laugh and tell her she was being silly.

As soon as I had kids, I knew that stomach-swooping sensation that comes from watching someone you love standing close to the edge of, oh, say the Grand Canyon.

And here in the U.S. we usually have railings around places like that where families gather to see the beauties of the earth.

What is it like to be a mom in a place where really it’s impossible to protect your daughter from danger?

Dana writes that what the staff of the mercato school is proudest of “is simply that the children have a safe place to be. When most of these children start their first school year, they are stunted, glum, and lethargic. After a few months, they are smiling and playing, and they have recovered some body weight.”

Thanks to some vibrant volunteers, the kids also have art in their lives.  One wrote this week about doing art with kids who were working with color paint for the very first time.  Another group of kids experimented with using themselves as the canvas.  Stephanie writes that art has the power to change lives and spread smiles.

Now that the Tesfa Foundation ( and Ethiopia Reads ( are collaborating, those kids will also feel the power of reading and writing and stories of hope and determination.  The world is full of true and invented stories of hope and determination.  They can make us strong.

That’s what the Seattle event is all about.  Making books and reading and writing stories possible for a worried mother’s daughter.

Now I have grandkids to worry about.

Who decided children should be so teeny and helpless when they come into this world?  How can we even stand all the dangers they might face?

All I can cling to is the words of this season…that the light comes into the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it.

Amazing goodness and strength bubble everywhere, too, right along with worry and pain.

Seattle will be the latest proof of that.

The tough ones that can’t be kept down

Before my little brother was born, we were a family of girls who made up and acted out stories for days at a time.  When we traveled by ship and airplane back to the United States from Ethiopia for the first time, we spent a year in Boise, Idaho.  Caroline was beautiful and good.  Joy was beautiful and cute.  Cathy was the baby of the family.  I’m the second oldest–front–and, as my older sister pointed out when she saw this picture, I’m leaning on her.  I wanted to be her.  I didn’t think there was anything very special about me.  But that year my teacher wrote, “We have enjoyed Jane’s poems.  They are exceptionally good for her age.  Perhaps it is one of her talents.”

Now the four of us are all grandmas!

That year, I had my first connections and clashes (that I can remember) with my strong Grandma Kurtz.

She had to be tough to get through her life.  I ran into that toughness when I took my seven-year-old self out with my grandpa and a couple of cousins and one cousin loaned me her socks so I could wade with her brother in some kind of muck.  Grandma found out and was cross and made me wash the socks.  That side of my family farmed in Idaho and Eastern Oregon–here I am with my cousins on the farm when I visited the United States again five years later.  (I’m on the swing.)  It was a rollicking, fun place to visit.  I remember chasing rabbits in the sagebrush and wading in the irrigation ditches.  But my grandma remembered a time when snow blew into the house and her children ran downstairs shivering to the sagebrush fire.

Grandma Kurtz lived to be 99 years old and still in her own house.  My dad grew up in a family of five boys and one girl, and that one girl was right across the yard to help her mom.  Here is grandma with one of her sisters.  When my older sister gave me this photo, she commented that she hoped we would someday be sisters sticking together to the end just like grandma and her sister.

So far, my sisters–my brother–and I are sticking together.  We all like gardens and writing and reading and singing together around a guitar or a piano.

We like orange spirals, the rolls Grandma used to make.

What kinds of things ripple through your family?

Stories and songs and laughter and toughness ripple through mine.  At Thanksgiving this year, we sat around talking about how many teachers we have in the family, too.  We like school.

My grandma had a chance to go to college at the College of Idaho, where she played basketball and studied.  She was a curious, determined person who was always interested in learning more about all kinds of things.  My dad struggled with school.  But he still thought it was important.  He still loved stories–and he was smart enough to marry my mom, a great reader, who turned him into a reader, too.

My mom grew up in a much tougher, sadder family than the one my dad grew up in.  Like the family I gave Lanie, the newest character I created, she was born with inside genes, and she loved books and words and ideas.  Her reading gave her great hopefulness and gave her a certain toughness that helped her survive and thrive.

I never knew either of my grandmas well.  After all, we grew up in Ethiopia far away from them.  And my grandkids might end up growing up in Ethiopia far away from me, too.

That’s the dream.

No matter what happens, I hope they have a life full of family connections.  It’s precious to me that they got a chance to meet my dad before he died.  It’s precious that they feel loved by their aunts and uncles and cousins.

It’s precious to me that they have families across two continents.

My granddaughter in this picture (with her other grandma) has a legacy of tough determination running through both sides of her family.

What will she carry forward?

I’m not sure, but I love her fierce little eyes.

I also love, love, love it that I’ve had a chance to share some of my favorite stories with her and her little brother.  I love having kids–and now grandkids–who feel connected to some of the same sweet folks I feel connected to including Wilbur and Winn Dixie and Junie B. Jones and Judy Moody and Pippi and Peter Rabbit and Despereaux, the tough ones that won’t be kept down no matter what.

Facing down fear

When I’m riding in a car around Addis Ababa, the system can feel so…random.  I’m always pretty glad that I don’t have to drive myself.

Roads are full of people.

And animals.

And distractions of all sorts.

In North Dakota–rural state that it is–my kids had the opportunity to be fully licensed drivers at 14.  I, having spent my teenaged years in Ethiopia, didn’t get a license until I was 24 or 25.

I mention this as a tiny bit of excuse for why my heart went thumpity-thump this morning when I had to drive into downtown Portland.  And park.  And figure how to feed the meter beast.

The world is full of big terrifying things–but plenty of small things can get you, too.

When I was seven and lived for a year in Boise, Idaho, my dad, who had flown in the Air Force during World War II, got his pilot’s license for a small plane.  My little sister Cathy used to go with him as he put in his flight hours.  (She now works for the FAA.)

He always seemed invincible, whether roaring a Jeep up the side of the mountain to get to Maji or, later, flying in, landing in airstrips where I had the sensation of dropping right out of the sky onto a thin band of land carved out from the thick brush.

But he wasn’t.

And we all aren’t.

That plane crashed on an airstrip in Mekelle, Ethiopia and never took to the skies again, although those of us in it…gradually…did.

We’re fragile specks on the face of this earth.  In order to keep on living full and curious and sumptuous lives, we have to block out what we know about that.  I was tempted to take the bus this morning–which would have been fine except I knew in my deep heart I would only be doing it because I was afraid to drive.

I live in an interesting neighborhood where a few businesses are being started up several blocks away.  I like the sensation of people carving out those spaces, taking that kind of risk, providing a chance for some people to pay their bills and other people to gather and talk and see their neighbors out and about.

Story provides a kind of neighborhood, too.  When I read a magical kind of book like the one my author friend Toni created out of the lighthouse world of coastal Maine I feel as if I’ve been lifted right into that lighthouse, that family, that Christmas.

Family.  Community.  Friendship.  Story. Not exactly enough to keep the terror at bay.

The threads are thin and feel as if they could easily snap.

But they are what we have–and today they feel precious.