Archive for September, 2012

The power of floating around

What happens when we become unmoored?

The image–I think–is instantly uncomfortable.  Floaty.  At sea.  Everything slipping past.

Often, though, when we become unmoored we open our eyes and hearts in new ways, which always happens to me on author visits to places where I’ve never been.

I was thinking about this in Switzerland as I watched the ship approach that would take us away from the castle we’d just wandered about in.  At first, I kept looking at that Swiss flag with all its powerful resonance with the Red Cross.  (The two flags are the same–with flipped colors–because it was a young Swiss man, looking out on a terrible battlefield scene in Italy with 40,000 men wounded and dying who “organized local people to bind the soldiers’ wounds and to feed and comfort them” and returned home to work with four other Geneva men on the dream of an organization to care for the vulnerable and suffering.)  But because the ship we climbed on sails around Lake Geneva, it also has the French flag as well as the Swiss flag flapping.

As we sat on the deck and watched the houses and grand hotels float into view and out again, I thought about Switzerland, this gorgeous place that so many people desired.  So many wanted to claim as theirs.  I felt surrounded by the chill of the stone walls where we’d just spent the last few hours–all the people who died for the power of saying, “This spot on this lake in the middle of these mountains and forests is MINE.”

At the highest place in the castle, looking down on tiny people walking below, I imagined what it was to be a soldier listening to the sounds of fighting in the lower rooms, waiting for death eight stories up.  I heard a voice: “Oh the prayers that were said then.  You can hear them whispering from the stones still.”

We die and kill–and send others to die and kill–for the deep satisfaction and power of saying, “This is my spot of land.  Mine.  I belong here and you don’t.”

I was in Switzerland to talk to children whose families have often deliberately messed with that intense sense of mooring.  The young travelers of the world always touch a deep spot in me.  When I say, “My parents decided to move to Ethiopia when I was too young to have an opinion–did any of your parents make a choice to move to another continent when you were too young to have an opinion?” the hands go up.  And I feel oh yes, we know each other.  I love talking to those unmoored children about how stories rooted me, how words eventually gave me the power to talk about being me in a wide world.

During this week’s author visits, I had great conversations about gardens–theirs and mine.  I told them that when I was creating Lanie’s world, I was using my memories of my father’s gardens in Ethiopia.  As I wrote the Lanie books, living in Kansas, I didn’t have a garden–but that now, having moved back to Portland, I’m feeling the thrilldom of the way we moor ourselves in the ground.  After the days of school speaking, back at the gorgeous house where I stayed, I took pictures of the wine grapes growing on terraces where families have, for centuries, made their living through THOSE plants on THAT soil and meditated on rootedness.

As the airplane settled out of the sky toward Portland yesterday, I thought about mooring again.  Something odd and deep calls out to me to be in the place where I was a baby, where someone thought my toes were miraculous, where I was welcomed onto this earth.

Though I’ve spent most of my life not living in this city of my birth, I could suddenly feel how deep the sense of mooring goes.

Many of us spend a lifetime homesick and displaced.  Many of us cling to and craft the stories of what it’s like to come home.  And every once in a while we do come home.


School…not necessarily what you think

Ethiopia Reads ( is a new oganization.

Same name.

Some of the same people.

But a whole lot of new conversations and new people on the team and a whole lot of new programs because Ethiopia Reads programming and the Tesfa Foundation ( programming are going to be integrated from now on.

Now we’re looking for the words that connect reading…

and art…

and building new schools…

and the importance of kindergarten.  The words to explain quickly what we’re all about.

So many organizations pick one thing to do–and in some ways that’s good.  But in a place that needs effective systems and infrastructure, as Ethiopia does, we risk making no real impact if we specialize too much.

After all, we’re providing sparks of learning for kids who (mostly) are growing up without books but also without puzzles, without print, without playgrounds, without the chance to hold a pencil or paintbrush…but whose minds are lively and eager, who have determination and grit, who crave a safe place to play and learn and touch and think.

As school starts up and I start doing my first author visits and talking about my love of books, I’m thinking again about what makes school more than preparing people to take their place in the assembly line.

What makes synapses leap and hearts flutter and human beings dream?

What is it school can do to completely change the path of a person’s life, as it did for my mom?

I caught this episode of This American Life last weekend and listened to fascinating stuff about a new book.

The New York Times review starts this way:

Most readers of The New York Times probably subscribe to what Paul Tough calls “the cognitive hypothesis”: the belief “that success today depends primarily on cognitive skills — the kind of intelligence that gets measured on I.Q. tests, including the abilities to recognize letters and words, to calculate, to detect patterns — and that the best way to develop these skills is to practice them as much as possible, beginning as early as possible.” In his new book, “How Children Succeed,” Tough sets out to replace this assumption with what might be called the character hypothesis: the notion that noncognitive skills, like persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit and self-confidence, are more crucial than sheer brainpower to achieving success.

A bunch of things have come together in both places where I use my educator brain–Vermont College MFA and Ethiopia–right now to make it possible to create some models of school that inspires deep reading and writing…and curiosity and resourcefulness and smart thinking and problem-solving.




Artists and writers and readers and philosophers all putting their piece into the mix.

May school everywhere be the place–in 2012-2013–where we think and feel and laugh and explore and shine.  Where we say, “I am significant.”

Ben Franklin, Ben Frankllin

John Fuller writes that between running a print shop, making up the US postal system and America’s first lending library, and seed-planting for the revolution, Ben Franklin “also found time to draw up a vast collection of new devices.”  And he never patented any of them.  “Pretty good for a bored-looking guy on the $100 bill.”

The words lending library caught my eye, there.

When I was reading Managing Transitions on the airplane, flying to Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri (specializing in the M places this time around), I was captured–as I wrote in my last blog–by the fact that if you want to make a change effectively, you need a vivid mental picture of what the new thing will look like.

(I wonder what picture of a lending library guided Ben Franklin.  From having helped plant 60 libraries for children in Ethiopia–few of which are lending libraries–I’m impressed at the multitude of tiny things that have to work for books to find their right places on the shelves and in the hands of the readers who will slurp up the stories and ideas inside.)

On my first time through the book, I was caught by the PICTURE idea.  Once I got to my first and second M states and started working with the other teammates engaged by the dream of Ethiopia Reads ( I had to go back to re-read

“Some people really respond to the picture.  Once they get it in their heads, they find a way to reach the destination that has captured their imagination.  Many executives and planners fall into this group, and because they don’t feel as much of a personal need for a plan that spells out the details of the route from here to there, they underestimate how much others need a plan.”



At Vermont College MFA, we argue a lot about the usefulness of outlines in the process of creating a novel.  Too tight an outline and your characters become your pawns, leaping from block to block because you need them to do this, go there, feel such-and-such in order to serve your outline.  They don’t feel fleshy and REAL and compelling…because their motivations aren’t organic.  They are being driven by a plot engine.

No road map at all?  You might get something delightfully organic…and big fat messy.

You might feel so scared as you work that your voice gets drowned out and smothered by Fearnando.

Fearnando is what my author friends and I named the big ol’ fears everyone has to fight off when they are doing something new and big and scary.  One of my VCMFA students created this button that I have by my desk.

Back, back Fernando.

Ol’ Ben seems to have been someone who could dream the dream AND plan the plan.  Amazing.

Vision pulls me forward, whether inventing a book or Ethiopia Reads.   But no one ever finished a novel or grew a nonprofit into something that will last without being patient





The pain and glory of change

As I travel to Minneapolis for an Ethiopia Reads ( board retreat, I’m getting my bearings by–what else?–reading a book.  My very smart baby sister recommended it because it helped her in her work at Reed College.  Managing Transition: Making the Most of Change by William Bridges is written just for times like these in the life of organizations.

Started out bravely dreaming a dream and launching a venture?

It might be anything.

A garden.

A fig tree.

A book.

A nonprofit organization to bring books to Ethiopian kids.

The dreamers imagine and plan and jot things down and poke around the edges trying to figure out what we’re doing.  The as we launch, we blast through a draft or start selling something or open the doors of a book center.  The people doing things at this stage have to be good at improvising and making up STUFF according to the vision of where they’re trying to end up.

I think with Ethiopia Reads we’re at the Getting Organized stage of learning to do things in standardized ways, moving beyond the “natural energy” of the founders and getting to “a more predictable set of activities by a growing number of people.”

Maybe we can’t get predictable.

So many new things have to get solved every day–and we’re still inventing and assessing and asking questions and trying solutions. It’s fun to see new things like these teachers taking qualifying exams in a school that wasn’t even built when the school year began in 2011.  But every step involves new problems.

Every step involves change.  And change, says William Bridges, means a time of transition.

Endings–and grief is a hard train to ride, weird and wild.

A neutral zone, where we muddle and sort and stay entrepreneurial, celebrating opportunities, being willing to take risks.  “How can we come out of this waiting time better than we were before the transition started?”  That’s the kind of question to ask.  And…”what would I like to try that I’ve never experimented with before?”

Stuck on something like, say, a novel revision?

Find 10 or 20 new answers–the crazier the better, says this author.

Restrain the impulse to push prematurely for certainty and closure.

Finally…a new beginning.

“Like any organic process,” the author writes, “beginings cannot be made to happen by a word or act.  They happen when the timing of the transition process allows them to happen, just as flowers and fruit appear on a schedule that is natural and not subject to anyone’s will.”

How to move your own resisting brain or a group of people into a new beginning?

Make sure the problem is vivid.  If you believe your novel is working, it’s going to be hard to convince yourself to try new solutions.

If you think the organization is trotting along just fine as it is, you are not going to want to go through the grieving of endings and the uncertainty of the neutral time.

Clarify purpose.

For a novel this can be “effect wanted.”

For an organization, the purpose should come from its “will, abilities, resources, and character.”

Create a picture.

Realize that some people grab a new vision instantly.  Others shuffle.  Don’t be overwhelming with a picture that’s intimidating, not exciting.  Know that a compelling picture is all about the right details.

When Julie said, “I want to be sure there’s a school in the area where my children were born,” I don’t know whether she envisioned this blue-green building rising amidst the crops.

It makes a powerful picture for the next steps, though.

What a dream…kids learning about their own power–through ideas, through books, through art, through experimenting with taking the old beauty and turning it into new dreams.