Archive for May, 2012

Celebrating my outside genes

I write a lot about planting reading seeds.  These kids go to school in one of the first schools where Ethiopia Reads got to plant a library–and I had the pleasure of reading a note from a visiting professor who led a training that the librarian and one teacher from the school attended.  “The children read aloud poetry and literature in Amharic as well as English to show us their ability,” she wrote. “They did a great job and a sense of pride was evident in their faces!”

I’ve gotten to watch what happens when you put books on shelves in a room where kids never had a chance to hold and read books before.  Guess what?

No matter how easy the seeds are to plant, sometimes reading takes cultivation.

Imagine the place where you learned to love books.  Even if the rooms were beautiful, how much great stuff would happen if teachers didn’t get support and encouragement, strategies and skills?

In our first Ethiopia Reads library, the staff registered 40,000 visits from kids in the first year.  Seeds–easy to plant.  Now I know more about the work needed to grow deep roots for book love–and sometimes that work has choked out other old loves, including gardening.

As I wrote the Lanie stories, piling words into sentences into paragraphs, I had lots of garden memories to help with the details about seeds and cultivation, rows and dirt and worms.  I grew up digging in dirt.  My kids grew up with gardens–the gardens we planted…the gardens their grandparents planted.  (Leonard’s mom brought flowers from her garden when we visited the ancestral Kansas graveyard on Memorial Day.)

My kids grew up with special outside places, just as I did.

As I wrote the Lanie books what I didn’t have was a garden.

Somehow other things had choked out the time.

But then I moved to Portland, to a house where a renter had planted herbs in the front yard, to a place where sisters and a brother cheerfully handed over plants–tomatoes and lettuce and rhubarb and thyme and something that creeps and spreads.

How could I resist my roots?

Last summer, I enjoyed the volunteer sunflowers and planted a few things with hope in my heart.  In the fall, I started traveling and sort of forgot about things.  But in Portland, even forgotten things often grow.

This year, I’m definitely hooked.

My daughter held the place for me, celebrating the sweetness of gardening, celebrating a childhood that included not only trees but The Secret Garden and who DOESN’T want to plant things after you read that book?

Can you read her blog post and resist heading out to your local farmers’ market for some berries?

She worked for Americorps in an urban gardening program.  She valiantly planted a garden in her back yard even when the animals made off with most of the goodies. 


This year, I’m there, too!  Anyone need some oregano?

I have three different kinds for you to choose from.

So…definitely…share the story love.  Fling those seeds far and wide.

But take it from Lanie and me…every once in a while, resist the inside genes. Take a break, put down the book, shut off the move, and go outside. Plants, like books, are lovely things to pass along.

Powerful Pinky Touches

Hands across continents.  This spring, middle school students in Grand Forks, ND fanned out into their community for a work day to raise money for a library that will be planted by Ethiopia Reads ( in the Somali region of Ethiopia.

A former Ethiopian national football player–now working on his PhD at AAMU–visited the school when he was back in Ethiopia earlier this year.  He reported that the school has 1973 female students and 28 female teachers: “very unusual for Somalis to have this many female students and teachers.”  He added that most of the students travel from 5 to 10 kilometers to get to school.  “There is a library building that does not have anything in it with a hope of being furnished one day.”

Kids and little dogs in Grand Forks are making sure that day will come in 2012.

When I was inventing a character for American Girl in 2009, I researched a lot of projects where kids are doing citizen science.  Lanie discovers that the littlest efforts can make a difference–the plants we choose to plant, the ladybug spots we count, protecting a caterpillar climbing on milkweed.

What about words and pictures?

Kids in a school in Boston where I did an author visit this spring made books and sent them to Ethiopia with Liz McGovern from Mudula Water (  She delivered them to the Ethiopia Reads/Tesfa Foundation mercato school along with supplies for kids to make their own books.

It’s a powerful thing, getting to tell our stories.

Kids in Ethiopia are in school in increasing numbers.  There’s wide open opportunity for team work pinky touches in those schools.

This fall, some schools are going to do it through Bring a Book,  Buy a Book days to raise money to get books to kids in Ethiopia.

And then there’s the impact teachers can make by sharing skills and ideas.  This month, my brother from Portland, a teacher from the UK, and two educators from Kansas are in Ethiopia doing that kind of pinky touch.

The PhD student who visited Somali wrote, “I had a great time staying in that area talking and walking with those individuals and learning from them as I observed what is going on in and out of the school environment.”

Walking and talking are powerful.

Sharing and listening are powerful.

Up with students and teachers, readers and writers, doing their everyday powerful work across this world.

“Everybody can be great…because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”
― Martin Luther King Jr.

Not there yet

Parts of my recent ship trip brought back snippets of memories–probably not even from that first trip when I was two and our family moved to Ethiopia for the first time, probably from the ship that floated us back across the Atlantic when I was seven and coming to visit America for the first time.

I remember that Mom and Dad had talked up ice cream cones to the point that we were beside ourselves with excitement when ICE CREAM CONES appeared on the ship’s menu.  Alas for us, what appeared at our plates was a scoop of ice cream with a wafer stuck into it.

I remember a theater where we got to watch cartoons.

I’m pretty sure that the ship is also the place where I got my hair cut.  Since I was the one of the four girls in the Kurtz family who squirmed and complained every time I had to get my hair put into a pony tail, I obviously wore my parents down until they decided to just chop that hair off.  (Here I am once we reached the U.S. visiting a family who had a boy about my age.)

It’s odd to think of a time when airplanes didn’t make that trip across the Atlantic–regular jet service apparently didn’t start until the late 1950s.  The part of the trip between Europe and Ethiopia, though, was always one we did by air, stopping in Athens or Rome, pausing next in Egypt, where my dad–of course–climbed onto a camel or sometimes sitting in hot Sudan while the plane refueled.

This spring while we were waiting to board one of our flights, a man rushed up–and asked a fellow traveler what was happening.  “Pre-boarding,” the man answered.

The two of them surveyed the preboarding line and the first man pointed to a dad with a stroller.  “Been there,” he said.  He waved toward a wheelchair–“Not there yet.”

My dad flew and flew his whole life, including piloting a small plane for years of his work in Ethiopia.  Air travel, for all its pain, tends to make my heart go pittery pattery.  I can’t help myself.

After the ship rocked us to Europe, it wasn’t easy to find a reasonable ticket for a one way flight from Europe back to Portland.  So here’s how we got home.

First, a taxi zipped us to one of the Barcelona train stations where we sat in the lobby and watched a gaggle of high school students clearly getting ready to go off on some exciting trip.  “It has to be Paris,” I said–and I was right.  They and we got on the train, where we settled into our little compartment, handed over our ticket and passports, and climbed into narrow bunks.  I will happily anytime drift off to sleep on a rocking train (much more rocking than the ship) headed to Paris and wake to a breakfast of omelette and croissant and coffee that one eats looking out at boxy cottages and fields of yellow.  Saffron?  Flax?

Train stations are fascinating places.  When this train reached Paris, the next step was a wait in a chilly taxi line until a driver finally scooped our bags into the bag with an energetic, “Voila!”  That taxi whisked us down the streets of Paris–some flowering trees, a faded rosebush, a sprinkling of red poppies by an underpass–to strange Terminal One at Charles DeGaulle airport and deserted Iceland Air counters.

We waited.

And waited.

Once we had our boarding passes, we walked through strange tubes and sidewalks that not only moved but rose and plunged like some kind of carnival ride.  We took off from Paris and landed in a lumpy land of no trees, a land that celebrates and wonders of a cow’s mouth and everything green.  May I recommend Iceland?  A little surreal.  A little where-am-I?  But fitting for the where-am-I way a long day of travel makes you feel, anyway, and the price was right (even if we did have to buy our meal).

Been a toddler in arms traveling, traveling.  Some day I might roll down the corridor of an airport by wheelchair, but I’m not there yet.

Still having adventures.

May your adventures rock you as my April rocked me…from New Orleans to Portugal to Barcelona to Paris to Iceland to Seattle and back home.

The hard and fancy bits of vacation

I have only a handful of memories from my first ocean journey across the Atlantic as our family headed to live in Ethiopia.

My dad took us up on the deck one night and showed us the moon on the water.  “Close your eyes,” he said.  “Make this into a picture that you will always carry with you in your mind.”  (Years later he said the same thing when we saw the moon on the Acropolis, so apparently the moon brought out his poetic nature.)

At journey’s end, as we straggled off the ship in England, an observer called cheerfully up to my big sister, “Cheer up, Nora–it can’t be that bad.”

This journey, too, was an often strange one.  We climbed into a hot tub on the deck that rolled and swooshed and slapped us around the head and made me giggle because it was the opposite of the experience we want when we climb into hot tubs.  I got sick on my vacation and spent hours of it in our tiny room.  And there were days of gray sky and slashing sea, a horizon rising and falling in the big window where we ate dinners.

Often, for me, being still was hard.

Doing nothing was hard.

Some people love these things.  Not me.

But then we stopped for a day in a place of whale watching and churches, cows and shark steaks (“yes, we have shark steaks here”).

We climbed into a carriage and let ourselves be whirled along white and black stone sidewalks to the clopping of hooves and I remembered how it is to be in a place where everything is new and wondrous.

(It helped that I was reading a collection of observations by women travellers, thinking–as I so often do–about how traveling makes everything sharp.  “They [Masai warriors] came along, the one in front of the other, naked, tall and narrow, their weapons glinting; dark like peat on the yellow grey sand.  At the feet of each of them lay and marched a small pool of shadow; these were, besides our own, the only shadows in the country as far as the eye reached.”  Isak Dinesen)

And then we reached Barcelona, city where old Roman walls are woven into a world alongside art by Gaudi and Dali and Picasso and Miro alongside tromping tourists and local people who turn themselves into statues or play music or create weird montages by the side of the path.

I don’t particularly like rushing from one museum to the next or standing in line to enter a cathedral.  I do like wandering…looking.  Every day I had gelato until I found my favorite, a chocolate with hazelnut silky treat.

One morning, we walked through narrow alleys in a place of sunbursts and eggy domes.  Under stone unicorns, a young woman sat utterly and eerily still, face deliberately frozen.  A white bird flapped up up between the walls while a street musician played Handel’s water music and I felt all my senses bristle.

So alive.

In the end, in spite of everything, I was filled up.  So here’s to vacation.  Here’s to Barcelona where a little bald gnome man walks like a gargoyle in the square, where youmg men sail on a sea of stone, steering their wheels with their hips, hands in the pockets.  Here’s to the girl marking something with a lime green ribbon, measuring twice, cutting once.  Here’s to bizarre dreams and camels that tremble along on spindly legs and a place where only the seagull doesn’t have a hat for tips, though it adds enchanting elegance to the scene.




We must go down to the sea again

Work for yourself?  Give yourself many vacation days?

I don’t.

I love my volunteer work for Ethiopia Reads ( and my writing and speaking…and with both time and money in a Big Squeeze, vacations get squeezed out.  But we made ourselves grab a few weeks in April to float across the Atlantic–a trip I first took when I was two years old.