Archive for March, 2012

China world


Okay, before I went there, it’s not like I knew most of these things I’m going to blog about.

I was in southern China, close to Hong Kong (which was the airport of entry)–we then took a ferry to the mainland–and that’s really far away from the Great Wall or from Bejing Olympics and other things many of us might think about when we think about China.  The first schools were in a blossoming area of China where workers are moving and land is being reclaimed from the sea and turned into…Sea World.  Slogan: the world I want.

If the adversiting images are to be believed, the world I want is a world of 1940s America.

I think this is the 1940s.


Our hotel was right off the Sea World courtyard where we could get a cup of Starbucks coffee or pop into MacDonalds if we turned out to miss that kind of food with the kind of wild desperation that can overcome a world traveler at any given moment.  (And we did go to Starbucks.  We were trying to find a wireless connection.)

Once when I was coming back to the hotel, I saw a man leading some enormous stuffed animals on wheels.  Later that evening, as we ate, I saw families riding the animals.

We saw lots and lots and lots of construction because new buildings are going up every day.

We also saw (as I saw every place else I went in China) people living in apartments–giant boxes of people all stacked on top of each other.  Lots and lots and lots of people.  That’s China.


Tangled emotions, ancient cities, new dreams

“Do you like it better in Ethiopia or America”

Again…at an author visit in Boston last weekend…the question.

I had talked about how I left the U.S. so young I had no memories of that country, how I’d reconnected briefly with Adrian, Oregon and my father’s home the year I was seven.  About how awkward it felt, coming to the U.S. every five years for a brief visit.  About how my writing finally gave me a way to talk about Ethiopia.

But what about the teenaged self that visited my grandparents’ farm and played on the swing with cousins and wanted to hang around with them?  What about now…that I’ve lived in the U.S. for most of my adult life?

Sometimes a book gives us words to wrap around complicated emotions.  For me, I explained to the student who asked, it’s Grandfather’s Journey, a picture book that won the Caldecott Medal in 1994.

“The funny thing is, the moment I am in one country, I am homesick for the other.”   Such a lyrical book.  Such a gift for naming the ways of the wandering heart.

I didn’t know until I looked at his official biography that Allen Say lives where I live.  I did know he was born in Yokohama, Japan. “He dreamed of becoming a cartoonist from the age of six,” says, the bio, “and, at age twelve, apprenticed himself to his favorite cartoonist, Noro Shinpei.”

Sometimes passions hook onto us when we’re six.  Or twelve.  Sometimes not until we’re much older.  At the Ethiopia Reads ( events in Boston, it was thrilldom to meet grown-ups who are exploring art or fundraising or entrepreneurial ideas for the first time.  A lot of people visit Ethiopia and get impassioned, as I do, about the possibility of a worldwide community that can form around reading and writing and dreaming and connections.  (This Boston group was helping raise money so the young women who work for Ethiopia Reads can have a vehicle to drive around to offer support and books to the new libraries.)

This Saturday in Portland, my bro and I will do a presentation at Make a Difference Day, an idea that grew out of a book group that read Half the Sky and wanted to do something to reach out to women and girls.

It’s no accident that Lanie, the character I created for American Girl, discovers she can make a difference in her backyard or around the world.   On Saturday, people will come to hear about writing a book–about gardens–about the animals in our back yards…and about libraries.

If we’re lucky, this girl in school in Harar, Ethiopia will have books to read because of those who come to Make a Difference day and the other volunteers who’ve supported that project.

So today I’m sitting in Portland, Oregon, looking out at the gray sky, but I’m remembering Harar…

A mysterious, ancient city I visited when I was about 12.  A chance now, many years later, to help its children someday tell its stories.

Homesick everywhere I go.

But finding a home, over and over, in books and words and stories and the joy of sharing the sights and sounds and smells and tastes and textures of my life.

Oh the places you’ll go

Pawing through a suitcase…curling cramped in an airplane seat…feeling stark pop-eye awake in the middle of the night…feeling draggy deadish in the middle of the day…making a living through traveling and speaking has its agonizing side.  Once I had just returned from Ethiopia and was sitting with my three-year-old granddaughter on the couch while her parents ran out to do a quick errand, and she wanted a piece of mango.  I couldn’t even dream of getting up and walking over to the sink and doing something as complicated as peeling skin off that complicated fruit, so I told her, “The mango isn’t open.”

The next morning, she woke up, leaned over the side of her bed and earnestly said, “Grandma, the mango isn’t OPEN.”

I was pretty impressed with myself for impressing her even in my groggy jet-lagged state.

But as I’ve written before in this blog, travel has its delights…jolting us awake and alert, carving us open to the world around and the world within, making life feel anything but ordinary.

In Abu Dhabi, we took a tour of a sumptuous palace where dignitaries hold their meetings and people can sink into luxury.  (There’s a vending machine that dispenses gold.)  One of the other people on the tour was from Kuwait, and she loved having the tour guide take pictures of her at every stop.  I liked taking pictures of the picture-taking.  Words…images…somehow help our jumbled, jangled cells make sense of all the new stuff.

I’ve had the chance to do presentations about my books or about Ethiopia Reads in some pretty cool spaces, too.

One was a planatarium, under the dome of the sky.

This weekend, a volunteer organized an Ethiopia Reads event at the Birmingham zoo.  During my author visits in Birmingham this week, I heard about the man who had turned the zoo around–turns out he spent time in Rwanda with Dian Fossey and her gorilla work, and he’s bringing Africa to Birmingham.

I loved the animal show.  I loved seeing my grandkids helping hold the Burmese python.

(We heard there’s such horror of snakes in this area that if one of the local news organizations prints or runs an image of one of the zoo snakes, subscriptions fall off by the hundreds.)

I shared the story of Lanie, my little science lover of a character who longs to do something exciting for animals–the kinds of things Dian Fossey has spent a lifetime doing–and discovers she can make a difference with birds and monarch caterpillars.  My daughter-in-law jumped in and handled the book sales.  My grandkids helped with the orangutan experience.