Archive for April, 2012

Facing down terror

Writing a book starts with a totally empty page.  Or screen.


I didn’t find it so when I was starting out.  I always felt charged up and confident and bubbling with ideas and words and details.  (John Gardner said details are the life blood of fiction.)

Now I guess I understand how long the journey is really going to be before I have, oh, 200 pages all full of clever ideas and just-right words and surprising, vivid details that all fit together in an unpredictable yet satisfying pattern.

I also understand what a team effort a book is…with editors needing to step up when it’s their turn and strong ambassadors (parents, booksellers, librarians, teachers) taking their turn when it’s time to put a book into the hands of young readers.

Readers, as I told the kids yesterday, are on the team, too.

Nobody reading?

No fun to write.


My volunteer life is equally terrifying at times.  We dream a project…hey, let’s BUILD a library as a team with a young Ethiopian man who has been trying to make a library a reality for his community since he was the first youngster to go off to college.

Hey, let’s develop a health curriculum that can tackle the most common diseases in a community…and share it in the library.

Hey!  Let’s craft great professional development to make sure the smart thinking behind good literacy gets really and truly shared in that library and every other place we can.

The power of any project is in PEOPLE.


Hey…let’s…um…raise some money.

Oops.  Bring on the terror.

I would be lying down with a cold cloth right about now except–astonishingly–a team does seem to emerge in the most surprising ways.  Today, for example, I’m going to meet a young Iowa famly that adopted two kids from Ethiopia.  When they ended up with some unexpected money, they decided to invest it in a school for the area where their kids were born.

Who could make up something like that?

And they were inspired by Julie, who wanted to build a school for the area where HER kids were born.  I talked to her when that idea was like the first blank page of a novel…a dream.

Which writer was it who said I dream an eagle and give birth to a hummingbird?

Such a long way between the dream and the thing itself.

Probably most people wouldn’t have given Julie great odds.

She didn’t have a pile of money to start her off and she didn’t have years of experience with fundraising and she didn’t have powerful backers (except in the way friendship can be powerful).

She didn’t know Oprah.

(I can’t tell you how many people–over my years of volunteering with Ethiopia Reads have asked if we’ve gotten in touch with Oprah.)

The land the community was willing to donate for a school was terrifyingly like that blank page.

But a writer sits down.

Picks up a pen or puts fingers on the keyboard.

Ekes out some words.

Crosses things out.



Oonches out a bit more.

A dreaner…a fundraiser…does something of the same thing, coaxing out ideas and leads and hope hope hoping a few people are out there who will say, “What can I do?”

Julie’s school gradually began to get a shape.

The dream got less hazy.  More real.

This is the room that will become a library and will soon be full of the rustle of book pages.  I love the way the people standing there can see for miles and miles.

Someone said books give us mirrors to look into ourselves and windows to look out at the world.

Kids in this room will have mirrors and windows.  They will have all the things books give us including curiosity and empathy and skills and complicated thoughts.

This week, the finished building got painted a sea-foam green.

This month, these kids will have a school that is right in their back yard and not miles away.

Today, other families pick up the baton and face their own blank pages and dream their own dreams.

I’m scared…I sure am.

But I’m also amazed.

Go team!



Finding peace in the middle of fizzledom

Life fizzles.

Life drizzles.

Life drips.

Just like in my book Rain Romp.

And let’s face it–sometimes when it rains we cannot go out and stomp in the puddles and get our grouchy feelings out.

I’m just home from a speaking trip that honored the 25th year of the Lion and Lamb center at Bluffton University in Ohio, a center that uses children’s literature and art and music and other zingy things to spread the word that we can make peace and have peace even in the middle of fizzledom…which is particularly poignant and relevant given that a flood wiped out the beautiful Lion and Lamb space where I should have been meeting with kids to talk about my books.

Since, of course, I’ve written about surviving flood, seeing the flooded-out rooms made me wince…I looked at the ugly floors, at the beautiful peace symbols and statues all crunched together waiting for their new space, and felt a big OUCH.

But I also felt weirdly uplifted at the reminder…inner peace in the middle of pain.

I needed this message from the universe right about now.  While my sweetie traveling companion and I were in China, he had a health emergency that ended him in the People’s Number One Hospital of…well…it wasn’t totally clear how to end that title, but he ended up in a Chinese government hospital for observation for three days.

It wasn’t quite like an Ethiopian government hospital, but I learned many interesting things about the insides of a Chinese hospital, or at least THIS Chinese hospital.

Here, a nurse is changing the outside part of the blanket that covered the bed.

He got good care and inexpensive care…but there were some pretty startling details.

No food service.

Yes smoking.

Clothes drying on the balcony.

Cat scan stored under the mattress.

An interesting mix of patients in the room.

The hospital had figured out how to have basic communication with people who don’t speak Chinese–using pictures.  The kind elementary librarian from one of the schools where I spoke also scrambled around to find folks who could stay during the day and translate.

At one point, I was told that the last step before dismissal was an MRI and it might take several days to get that.  Angel, our translator for the day, tried to argue the case that my sweetie should get all of his tests–x-ray, MRI, and so on–done at once.  She told me they said no.

But when we ended up at the testing building, it turned out he did get the crucial MRI after all.  I asked Angel what happened, and she said we could thank the woman in blue who pushed him over.  I asked more about her life–what education do those hospital workers have?

Angel said a recruiting company goes to the poor rural areas and finds workers and offers them a job in the city and several weeks of training.  Lucky me the day this woman decided to say yes.  She probably sends her salary–and maybe her kids–back home, Angel told me.  She’s near the bottom of the hospital hierarchy.  But she had the right touch.

My China speaking turned into WAY more adventure than I usually have when I visit international schools (always adventures already), and a lot of it was hard, hard, hard.

But gifts poked up everywhere, too.

And people were there to hold my hand.

On the gray, grouchy days, may we all have such tender care.

May the angels show up to translate and put a cool hand on a hot brow.

When we’re sitting slumped in our chairs, numb and sad, may we see the lion, at least on some days, lie down with the lamb.