Archive for November, 2012

The Power of One Writer

This is my first blog post in the new home for Write at Your Own Risk, and as I type this, I have a feeling it might show up under my WordPress blog instead.  So it’s an experiment that might go nowhere at all…like so many of my pages in so many of my drafts.

Sometimes when I do author visits, I show a picture of pot making.  I ask kids how they think a potter starts out.  They usually tell me earnestly that a potter must start out by making A Plan.  I earnestly want A Plan whenever I start something new, too.  Plans should work!  Why don’t they?  (And maybe they sometimes do.)

I wonder if it has something to do with the same thing that happens when I move.  Every time I’ve moved (and I’ve lived in seven different places in five states in my adult life…

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Moving

This is my first blog post in the new home for Write at Your Own Risk, and as I type this, I have a feeling it might show up under my WordPress blog instead.  So it’s an experiment that might go nowhere at all…like so many of my pages in so many of my drafts.

Sometimes when I do author visits, I show a picture of pot making.  I ask kids how they think a potter starts out.  They usually tell me earnestly that a potter must start out by making A Plan.  I earnestly want A Plan whenever I start something new, too.  Plans should work!  Why don’t they?  (And maybe they sometimes do.)

I wonder if it has something to do with the same thing that happens when I move.  Every time I’ve moved (and I’ve lived in seven different places in five states in my adult life so far), it takes me about a year before my cells settle into the new spot.  Until then, no matter how I try to force the situation, I feel uneasy and strange and not-at-home.   

An editor talked about an author who sent her drafts of stories and each one was clearer…the way a photograph (in the old days of printing) might gradually be developed with more and more detail. 

Maybe some stories–like some places–simply have to be lived into.  Backed into.  Coaxed out one fuzzy image after another until it runs clear.

Old and new

This summer, I loved my time at the Culture and Heritage camp organized by Abshiiro Kids and other volunteers near DC–and it gave me one of my favorite fall stories.  I was walking with Noh and his class–the rabbits–to the classroom where I was going to tell stories and talk about growing up in Ethiopia.  I looked down and said to Noh, “I’m a very tall rabbit.”

The little girl next to him looked up and said, “You’re a very OLD rabbit.”

Many times this fall, I’ve felt like Old Rabbit.  But, hey, old rabbits are tough rabbits.  My mom told me today she’s not elderly…so I am most definitely not elderly even if I am old rabbit.

Old memories are great memories.

Last week, I did author visits in schools in Grand Forks, ND.  Just before the flood wiped out several schools–including Lincoln School, where my children were elementary students–an artist painted murals with kids.  The mural from Lincoln School was recreated in Phoenix School, where I spoke last week.

Hey!

I’d forgotten that Lincoln School painted me into their mural reading my first major book, published while my kids were students there.

Sweet memory.

Old friends are great friends.

Mary Casanova and Yvette LaPierre and I met at the children’s literature conference at UND.  Once Yvette rode with me and two of my kids to a writer conference in Minneapolis and vowed never to have kids.

But here she was at the Ethiopia Reads event with her daughter.  The only writing she’s been doing is her PhD thesis.  Mary and I were both at the event talking about our American Girl books, though.  Mary wrote the stories to go with McKenna, doll of the year 2012.

The U.S. part of Ethiopia Reads was sparked in Grand Forks.  One of the middle schools where I spoke has raised over $18,000 over the years to share books and reading with kids in Ethiopia.

And the spark sparks on.

Old connections are precious connections.

So are new ones.

My last speaking of the year will be in Seattle, one of Ethiopia Reads’s newest events but one with a lot of oomph.

An Ethiopian Seattle artist has put a lot of time and care into Open Hearts Big Dreams 2012.  People from all over the world have donated things for the auction and dinner.

Old efforts and new efforts ripple together, creating a river that changes the world.

NYC and the swirling world going round

This is the way the world bounces.

Sometimes

In the good old days when schools and libraries bought many children’s books, editors used to pop on over to Book Expo (where bookstore people saw new books) and to the annual conventions of the International Reading Association and the American Library Association.  Most of the big NY publishers and a host of smaller publishers and other book people exhibit their new books for the thousands of bookstore folks and teachers and librarians who attend those conferences–and authors sign books–and it was a good place for authors to look their editors and agents in the eyes.  I did it often.

Last Vermont College MFA residency, I was the moderator of a panel of editors, and it reminded me that it had been a while since I’d had a chance to talk with any of the editors of any of my books.  Since my most recent novels were the Lanie books for American Girl, a publisher based in Madison, Wisconsin, I was feeling a hole in the middle of my artistic life.  This fall, when a reasonable ticket for NYC crossed my desk (so to speak) I decided it was time for some in-person conversations.  I also had Ethiopia Reads (www.ethiopiareads.org) supporters I wanted to have coffee with and talk and dream with.

As things turned out, last week had to be the worst time possible to go to NYC.

Hurricane Sandy.  Voting lines.  Snow from a Nor’easter that tantrumed through the city for a day, bringing snow.

But, well, I already had the ticket.  I left falling fall in Portland and headed east.

I’d been planning to stay in my agent’s guest room in Brooklyn, but he had flood refugees staying there, so I stayed with my writer and actor friend, Tigist Selam, in her new Harlem apartment…so new that books were piled on the floor and she didn’t yet have chairs.

The city.  So different from the city where I live now.  I thought I’d see Red Cross workers and the National Guard everywhere, as with the Grand Forks flood clean-up.  But Harlem escaped Sandy’s wrath and I arrived there in the evening, so I had no sense of devastation except in the conversations…stories of people without heat, camped determindly and somewhat grimly in apartments and battered houses.

The evening of Election Day 2012, Tigist and I ate in an Ethiopian restaurant with a young Ethiopian American who arrived in New Jersey as a three-year-old and now volunteers for Ethiopia Reads.  After that, we found a coffee shop down the street–one that had a television–and watched states turn blue and red and listened to the conversations rising and falling all around.

It was a sweet experience…thinking and talking about what makes communities strong and how people can be part of that.  Or not.

The next day, though, some of the people I wanted to see were still without power or had no access to trains and I sat in Tigist’s apartment and mostly worked on my Vermont College packets and read a “powerful, honest, ruefully funny memoir” (so says the New York Times Book Review.)

It wasn’t until Thursday, the day I was scheduled to fly home, that I got to see some of the other people I’d hoped to see.  Tigist helped me navigate the puddled city and then put me on the A subway and told me to listen to announcements.

“Excuse me, please,” a young man announced first.  “I’m sorry to interrupt your ride”–and he proceeded to try to sell us goodies, proceeds to go to philanthropic efforts.  Next was a young woman walking through with a baby and a cardboard sign…and then a Vietnam vet who protested to all of us that New York state has provisions for women and children but not for people like him…and he could really use our help.

Frankly, it reminded me of being in Ethiopia, of the heartbreaking stories everywhere, of all the muddled feelings if your own heart and life are relatively intact.

The promised announcement came.  If we were going to JFK, due to the devastation of the storm and Rockaway, we were to take the train to the last stop, walk to the front of the train, and take the Q-10 bus.  Only I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to walk to the front of the train NOW or after I got off.  My seatmate helped me figure it out (with a little amusement) and wished me luck on my trip.

The Q-10 bus was crammed.  The young woman sitting next to me–with her boyfriend hanging on and swaying over us and asking questions about JFK–was missing her home in California and envious that I was heading to the West Coast.  The old man next to her, with his walker in his lap, discovered that he’d gotten on the wrong bus and was going to have to walk through snow with his walker.  On the train, I didn’t know what to do.  This time, I did.  I leaned over the young woman and asked if he would accept a little money for a taxi.  He would.  We creaky people have to stick together.

The bus stopped.  A bunch of us stood up.  The bus lurched forward and I would have flipped except for the California girl who caught me–she got her muscles swimming, she told me with pride.   They were going to JFK to meet a friend.  No gas for their car, so they’d spent all afternoon on the bus.  The trees around their house fell away and not ON, she said.  They’d be fine.

Across the aisle, a woman from somewhere in Africa with a baby on her back–an oxygen tube in its nose–fretted about catching her plane on time.

As we climbed off at JFK, a young Pakistani employee who’d been on the bus showed all of us where to walk, which elevator to get on, how to get to our terminals.

When the flood hit Grand Forks, ND, we lost one terrific neighborhood.

But we also saw community that springs up around shared disaster, the community that can form anywhere, any time, among the most unlikely of traveling companions.

I came home to messages from Stephanie about the Ethiopia Reads event she and her Grand Rapids, MI team worked so hard on this week to bring art and books to kids in Ethiopia, a place where she goes every year.  We form community everywhere and anywhere with those who share our world and our dreams.

Sometimes, when we’re lucky, that’s the way the world bounces.

When disaster knocks

Alas.

Suffering…who needs it?

No thank you.

But no matter how many times we decline the invitation, most of us discover the knocking never stops.  And often the guest barges right in and stays.

I can’t look at any of the pictures of Hurricane Sandy without remembering that day when we were finally, FINALLY let back into our Grand Forks neighborhood and eased the door of the house open.

And here’s the hardest thing.

For a while, a certain “I can do this” carries you along.  Neighbors may knit hands and lives together for a while.  It’s interesting to me that I’m smiling in this clean-up picture.

Just couldn’t help myself?

Was actually happy to finally be back in the house and start the clean-up?

It was impossible to step into a room and NOT try to flip a light on.  When we got cold, it was impossible to keep ourselves from thinking that we could have a hot cup of tea or turn on a hot shower.

Confusion.  Bewilderment.  Vertigo.  But a certain jolt of determination keeps a lot of people moving forward and overcoming problems.

Push

Push.

Push.

In those first days after the flood, with my thoughts and feelings swirling, sometimes all I wanted to do was pull off the yellow gloves and jot down words and phrases to capture the experience.  Sometimes I thought of the books I’d read and how I’d practiced the sensations of being in an extreme situation as I imagined myself into the brain and skin of a fictional character.

One of the main things I learned?

We Americans don’t get much practice–outside the pages of books–in suffering.  A lot of solutions come amazingly quickly.  When we have to endure, we quickly start looking for someone to blame.

I hear that bewilderment and pain in the voices of people whose lives and things were swirled and dumped this week.

I remember.

And I wish I could whisper a tiny, “Hang on.  Your guest will leave you changed.  But the misery won’t have its claws in you forever.”

One of the uses of suffering is that it often leaves us more compassionate.  More humble.

More determined to hang on to the joy where and when it bubbles in.

More aware of any small and precious chance to make a difference in our brief time on this earth.