Archive for the ‘Portland’ Category

Travels and the writing life

When I talk to young writers and when I have conversations with MFA students in the Vermont College of Fine Arts program, I like to imagine I can take a bit of the mystery out of words like “inspiration” and “imagination” by pointing to ways that details and scenes in my books have grown out of observation.

An Icelandic proverb says, “Keen is the eye of the visitor.” Isn’t that one reason travel writing is so vivid and compelling?

When everything is off-balance, our senses go on high alert. When we can’t understand the language, we start relying on other ways of taking in information. I learned these things growing up in Ethiopia.

GermanWuha

I experienced the Icelandic truth all over again recently traveling in Guatemala and doing an author visit in Russia.

tuk tuk

Embarrassing as it is to admit, Guatemala was only part of a blur of Central American countries until we visited Brian and Sandi, Presbyterian social workers living there and working on issues of women’s human rights to things like safety and education and jobs.

girl with her basket

I listened. I learned. I saw connections to my books…

boy with pigeons

Boy with pigeons in the park

The biggest thrilldom in Russia was getting two days of talking to readers and writers there–Russian, American, Canadian, Australian, Jamacian, Czech…so many word people from all over the world. So much to soak up. So much to share.

 

library

And oh the stories! Who knows how these images and feelings will seep into my writing.

dragons

?????????????

The joys and agonies of bookmaking

Early in 2016, my sister Caroline Kurtz and I took a group of artists to Maji, Ethiopia, the place where she and I spent long, magical days making up and acting out stories–and where I learned to read.

artist car

When we returned to Addis Ababa, we tried our hand at a bookmaking workshop–the first time I truly faced the challenges of actually creating books rather than being the person who writes the words.

lysee-student-with-art-worknahom-art-day-3

Luckily for me, one of the artists from the trip–Troy Zaushny–took the individual pictures children had created after listening to Yacob and Nahosenay read the stories aloud and used digital design to create a digital version of a first book.

turtle-cover

My dream was to have playful, appealing, colorful, culturally appropriate and easy-to-read books in local languages. Back in Portland, Caroline and I found ready volunteers to help with writing and illustration…we had to hunt much harder and follow many dead-end paths with translation and design. In the end, under the guidance of East Side Printing here in Portland, we did a lot of the layout ourselves, discovering why book publishers have to hire people to handle design, fonts, copy editing, etc. What an education!

But a year later, WEEMA, an NGO that works in the rural area of Kembata-Tembaro where they have built a public library and started some kindergartens, got a donation for 600 books. Caroline will also carry some books for an Ethiopia Reads school in Oromia when she travels to Ethiopia next month. What an accomplishment of volunteers using their talents to share book love!

 

Can’t wait to start on the next ten!

 

In this watermelon, the seeds stuck together

Inku and beach 007I don’t know why that title popped into my head, but I was thinking about my siblings. Some people don’t choose to hang out with their siblings now that everyone is all grown up. It stands to reason. Why not spend time with people who like to do what you like to do? But my siblings and I oddly all like reading and writing and music and processing our feeeeelings…and laughing…and plants.

Inku and beach 016My sister Cathy and I went on a yard tour last week–we saw Portland yards that are at least a “gold” in the Backyard Certification program, including one where a woman had turned her backyard into a little woodsy glen where she sometimes sleeps and eats and soon plans to take showers. While we were chatting, I discovered that Cathy loves to turn her compost. Huh. I love to turn MY compost. Go figure!

Inku and beach 019Jan got me started on sweet potato vines.  When we all went to a plant store last year, she pointed out two things that turned out to be BIG favorites of mine, one with its association to Ethiopia and the other an ornamental oregano. Cathy and Jan and I are all experimenting with sedums and vines and things with small, interesting leaves–and trees. Chris, though, knows more about trees than we do.

Inku and beach 034Caroline knows about trees, too, because of her little farm near Salem. They got a grant to plant something like 500 trees. She’s the one who gave me the Douglas Spirea and vine maples and red current and elderberry and other understory trees after the Backyard Certification volunteer said I needed that layer in my yard to provide habitat for birds.

These pictures were all taken when we gathered at the beach one weekend to interview Mom and Dad about memories of Ethiopia. Joy wasn’t there. She’s the only sibling who doesn’t live in Portland–but I like talking about yards and plants with her, too.

When I was about six years old, Ethiopian girls stopped coming to play because they were working in their homes–not going to school, not playing with the ferenji kids.Ethiopia+82Is it because of our odd remote upbringing that we got so stuck together and continue to like so many of the same things? I don’t know…but I do feel lucky.

Life imitates art imitates life

cover286When I started writing about Lanie’s garden, I admit that I was mostly working from memory–drawing on the details of my Dad’s garden in Ethiopia when I was a kid but even more from my various vegetable gardens that I plotted and planted and harvested and played around in after I had kids. In fact, I was helping rototill a garden plot the day my son David was born.

A few years later, David later grew an enormous pumpkin in North Dakota, which I was crazy enough to chop up for dinners. This is why I’m leery of vegetable gardens now. davidpumpkin015

 

Bekpumpkin016I thought growing things should be USED and not WASTED.  When the kids carved pumpkins, I was crazy enough to roast the seeds for us to eat, too.

I was raised to be practical. I was raised with a certain reverence for food and what it means to humans especially when they don’t have enough. I was also raised to be conscientious about choices and how we can make a difference even with little actions.

So I didn’t grow flowers. I barely NOTICED flowers.

flower2My mom was fond of her flowers in Ethiopia. We kids shamelessly grabbed any part of them we needed for our games–and they sometimes got stuck in our hands for photos–but they were just, um, frivolous. Decorative. Not. That. Important.

Let’s just say I was a little short-sighted. Lanie changed all that.

IMG_6915When I did my research for my little outside girl who realizes the power of her own backyard, I came to understand the intricate dance of life in a way I never had before.  Nothing is unimportant.

IMG_0362In fact…guess what? Planting a flower can be part of our little actions that can save the world.

I know this now as I listen to my heart going pitter pat as I watch bees and bumblebees in and out of the flowers in my garden. Here’s a smidge of this month’s news about bees:

“The mysterious vanishing of honeybees from hives can be directly linked to insectcide use, according to new research from Harvard University. The scientists showed that exposure to two neonicotinoids, the world’s most widely used class of insecticide, lead to half the colonies studied dying, while none of the untreated colonies saw their bees disappear.”

Check out birds. Check out butterflies. We humans are hard on the creatures who share space with us.

But turns out we can create little oases in our back yards. Birds and butterflies and bees need us to care. .Caroline farm (5)

 

???????????????????????????????And we need our backyards, too. At least I do. I feel centered and calm and present to every moment when I’m out in mine. I love it that I created Lanie based on kids–myself, my own kids, kids I met in my travels that year–and now I’ve become Lanie, crazy about backyard habitat, in love with my rain gardens and my native plants (like this blue-eyed grass) and all the flowers and interesting leaves and stems and seeds.

???????????????????????????????Art imitates life imitates art.

Higgeldy-piggeldy wanderings through spring

In Animal, Vegetable, Miracle Barbara Kingsolver writes that on Mother’s Day, in keeping with local tradition, they took a tomato plant to a neighbor. “Carrying the leggy, green-smelling plant, our family walked down the gravel driveway to her house at the bottom of our hollow. ‘Oh, well, goodness,’ she said, taking the plant from us and admiring it. ‘Well look at that.'”

In her region, she explains, you never say thank you for a plant. “If you do say it, they vow, the plant will wither up straightaway and die. They have lots of stories to back this up. They do not wish to discuss whether plants have ears, or what. Just don’t.”

DSC03182Lucky me…when I moved into this house, I was also the recipient of plant gifts–including tomatoes. Imagine my surprise when black globes began to appear on one plant. Since I didn’t yet know the language of heirloom varieties, I thought they were diseased.

???????????????????????????????Other gifts were left over from earlier plantings by the one renter who loved growing things. Huge sunflowers. Oregano–several varieties.  Alyssum, with its snowy sweet-smelling drifts of flowers.

Hops came over the fence from the neighbor’s house. “Hey!” I said to my husband. “We could make beer.”

Anna+was+HereThe farm community where my husband grew up is at the heart of Anna’s new Kansas home. He said, “Sure. All we have to do is grow something like barley.”

Oh.

I didn’t realize you needed grain to make beer.

Kingsolver talks about how her husband grew an urban garden during graduate school and befriended some boys who would run through the alley. One time Steven pulled up a carrot and asked his astonished audience if they could think of another food that might be a root vegetable.

“Spaghetti?” one of them guessed.

DSC02354Well, I wasn’t quite that bad. But never having grown plants in the damp Northwest, I had quite a learning curve from those first days including how to identify powdery mildew on my squash plants and what Neem oil is.

A friend in Ethiopia said, “Visitors come from the U.S. and ask me, ‘what’s the name of that plant? What’s that bird we’re hearing?’ but I grew up in the city. I say ‘Grass’ and ‘bird.'”

???????????????????????????????I learned to try hard to identify plants, though, after having the misfortune of nurturing a few invasive botanical bullies. Luckily, this one–gift from another sister–has brought nothing but beauty to my collection.

I’m so thankful for my sisters and other friends who shared and shared their plants and knowledge with me. As Kingsolver says about how her garden grew, my yard, too, has grown “higgledy-piggledy, florescent, and spontaneous, like friendship itself.”???????????????????????????????

 

 

 

 

Starting as a clueless mess

The beginning of my rootedness wasn’t pretty.

old family (2)I lived in Portland, Oregon until I was two years old (look at the daffodils behind us) with a good and beautiful princess of an older sister and (eventually) a younger sister. But after my parents moved us to Ethiopia, I never lived in Portland again…until a couple of years ago.

1 blackberry massWe moved into a house that had been a rental most of its recent life, and the back yard was a mass of weeds including this blackberry thicket. 1 blackberryI loved trotting out to pick fresh blackberries.  I didn’t yet know–in the words of Oregon.gov–“Armenian blackberry is the most widespread and economically disruptive of all the noxious weeds in western Oregon.”

spidermenI’d had a vegetable garden before. When my kids were little, I wanted to share with them the things that had brought me joy as a kid–including my dad’s love of storytelling and tagging along with my dad to the garden in Ethiopia where he rhapsodized about the taste of dirt on a raw potato. Writing Lanie for American Girl, though, had gotten me interested for the first time in how plants could make a difference in your own back yard. I wanted to plant native plants. And I wanted to experiment–not do research and make meticulous plans. Performance anxiety, don’t you know?

1 bare spotThe back yard had those blackberries, ivy on the fence, a big bare spot, and several stumps. So I mostly started in the front–with some herbs and a few things my big sister (see beautiful princess above) shared with me.

Here’s how much I was starting at the total bottom:

–I didn’t know to watch my yard for sun and shade and not plant sun-loving plants in shade or vice versa.

–I lovingly spread wood sorrel because I thought it was charming–not knowing it spreads both underground and through pods that build up pressure and then burst, sending the seed flying several feet (and spreading the wood sorrel everywhere).

(Read more from original site: Yellow Wood Sorrel (Oxalis Stricta), Lawn Weed Identification & Control http://www.better-lawn-care.com/wood-sorrel.html#ixzz30hL5U8zV)

–I was ignorant about and therefore tolerant of a few other yard thugs, too.

–I thought Portland was rainy year-round.

–I didn’t know there were water loving herbs and dry-loving herbs, and it wasn’t smart to plant them in the same small spot.

–I couldn’t recognize what was coming up in my yard the first spring including…grass.

–I BOUGHT MINT and planted it.  Yikes!

Barbara Kingsolver writes in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, “Many bright people are really in the dark about vegetable life”–and tells of a friend who asked what she meant when she said, “The potatoes are up.” When Kingsolver explained, her friend said, “Wow. I ever knew a potato had a plant part.” When I was working on Anna Was Here, I knew many of its readers would never have set foot on a farm.

Anna+was+HereKingsolver says, “Now it’s fair to say, the majority of us don’t want to be farmers, see farmers, pay farmers, or hear their complaints. Except as straw-chewing figures in children’s books, we don’t quite believe in them anymore.”

I knew about potatoes because of my dad’s vegetable garden when I was growing up in Ethiopia.

But I was still starting from scratch with anything but vegetables–and the beginning wasn’t pretty.

 

 

Happy Earth Day

Ethiopia+78Earth Day seems like a good time to start my new blog thread…going from being a somewhat restless traveler to putting down roots. Literally.

It all goes back to Maji, Ethiopia.Ethiopia+77Since there was no winter in Maji, my sisters and I spent huge chunks of every day outside, exploring. This is an old picture that’s marked “4000 foot sheer drop off.” That was Maji. Breath-taking and stomach-dropping.

Ethiopia+76My sisters and I would tag along after our dad as he went to to one waterfall to check on the ram he had installed to pump water up to our house–it seemed to inevitably get clogged with leaves–or to another waterfall to check on the mill he had installed to grind grain for the community. We made up a game of Water Babies (which I wove into my novel Jakarta Missing) with the curled fern tips we’d collect on the way down and send swirling down the river on leaf or wood boats.

Ethiopia+82Except on days when fog rolled up the valley, this was the view from the back yard. We made up complicated stories using flowers and frogs and ant lions and lizards…all right there for the touching.

02420And we loved Dad’s garden. I’m reading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver, and this made me laugh…and nod. “Underneath our stylish clothing it seems we are still animals, retaining some vestigial desire to sniff around the water hole and the food supply.”

Somehow in years living in the U.S., where the world around me often felt unfamiliar and distant, a lot of those outside genes had gone dormant. But when I moved to Portland, they bubbled forth.IMG_0196This spring, I’ve been digging a rain garden.

I’m going to write for a while about discovering a back yard. And yes, my writing is intertwined. Both Lanie and Anna have been along for the ride.

Anna+was+Herecover286

Other people, Barbara Kingsolver says, “fast or walk long pilgrimages to honor the spirit of what they believe makes our world whole and lovely. If we gardeners can, in the same spirit, put our heels to the shovel, kneel before a trench holding tender roots…who’s to make the call between ridiculous ad reverent?”

 

 

 

Daring Greatly at least every once in a while

Like at least half of everybody I know, I’e been reading Daring Greatly and liking Brene Brown’s disarming way of admitting that she might have studied shame and vulnerability for years, but that didn’t mean she wanted to BE vulnerable.  “I did believe,” she writes, “that I could opt out of feeling vulnerable.

Anna+was+HereAnna would certainly agree.

“Slowly,” Brown also writes, “I learned that this shield was too heavy to lug around, and that the only thing it really did was keep me from knowing myself and letting myself be known.”

Anna (again) would certainly agree.

Writers, I think, have to do vulnerability.

If we don’t allow ourselves to feel our feelings (including humiliation and fear and shame), we don’t allow our characters to feel them either.

But what of the fact that Brown says,  “Joy comes to us in moments–ordinary moments. We risk missing out on joy when we get too busy chasing down the extraordinary“?

To be an artist is to be extraordinary.

So how do we both reach for that life and still not miss out on joy?

This is one hole I see myself and my fellow writers falling into:  “When we turn every opportunity to feel joy into a test drive for despair, we actually diminish our resilience.”

The failure is almost constant.  It’s hard, under that pressure, to allow yourself to lean into joy.

How is that these words–Don’t squander joy–can sound so simple and be so hard to do?

Yes, Anna.  I have to laugh that you and Brene Brown are exploring what it means to practice Gratitude Attitude. Not in that way that circumvents actual feelings, though.

IMG_0193What I’m seeing again this spring is something I learned (or re-learned) from Lanie: the way I’m drawn into the moment when I get my fingers in the dirt. The shy and tender spring flowers that went away completely after I planted them last year are poking out. Being an outside girl still does it for me.

IMG_0196So during this time of Portland rain, I’m teaching myself about rain gardens.

flower1The things that made me feel centered and alive as a kid in Ethiopia still make me feel that way.

Stories.

Family.

Dirt and plants.

Making a difference in our back yards and around the world, one story, one kid at a time.

Afar 5

 

 

Teacher strikes

1 teachersEmotions are sizzling in Portland as the public school teachers–including my brother and sister-in-law–go on strike next week. Eeek.

Overpaid whiners? People actually write that? In public? These days? Eeeek.

I’ve worked with so many amazing educators–classroom teachers and librarians–in the past 10 years.  And of course I am a teacher. I’m on the faculty of Vermont College of Fine Arts in the MFA program. cookingI started my adult life as a teacher of writing in an alternative school–here are some of my students cooking up something to write about. And what I know is that teaching is hard. Exhilarating. But hard.

mishmash 009So much of what people think they know about teaching and learning comes from their own days as a student or from what seems as if it would make sense. Learning to read, for instance, seems to be a matter of associating sounds with letters…and for many (most?) people it does start that way. But everyone who has watched a person start to read knows that something mysterious happens, too. Skillful readers look at black marks on a white page and somehow absorb a lot of information in a flash–including context clues having to do with pictures and the other words in the sentence–that allows them to recognize words and also infer what’s beyond the words.

Brain research shows that information that comes associated with emotion tends to stick.  Stories, anyone?kids with netelas

And yet a lot of educational policy is constructed as if teaching and learning were simple. As if it didn’t take innovative, thoughtful, patient, hopeful people with lots and lots of different skills and the willingness to try and adjust and re-try and be kind in the process.

Chris readingMy brother and I have taught together, done author visits together, taken teacher groups to Ethiopia to share skills and ideas with educators there. I trust him to make learning interesting and fun.  I know him to be someone who never stops thinking about how to be a better writer, a better reader, and a better teacher.

KSGreat educators–like this Kansas librarian who has helped with Ethiopia Reads and with the research for Anna Was Here–know books and know kids and know how to connect them. They know what’s working and what isn’t in schools. Are we listening?

As an Oregon parent wrote in her blog, it’s great to have lots of ideas about how to make things better for kids in school everywhere. “However, no matter how we envision public education in this country, one thing seems obvious to me: teachers are the heart of our system. If you’ve gone through school—any school—you know this is true: for a student, a good teacher can make any school situation bearable, and a bad teacher can mar the best of institutions. You can have all the ‘extras’ you want: money for athletics, art programs, and gyms, and even a healthy budget (what’s that?), but if you don’t have well-qualified, talented, inspired, and happy teachers, you have nothing.” http://amywhitley.wordpress.com/2014/02/14/medford-oregon-teacher-strike/

Parents, teachers, grandparents unite! If we don’t have good teachers who are given reasonable resources and who are given room to do what they know how to do well, we don’t have anything!

Elise

What good does an author visit do?

snowWow!  We’ve had more snow in Portland than (I think I heard correctly on the news last night) we’ve had in 21 years.  My sister Cathy came over and we tromped through it together.  Just like old times!  (She’s the one sitting in front of the snowman and I’m behind it–in the year we lived in Boise, Idaho and not Ethiopia.)

IMG_0151I’ve been fretting about the native plants in my yard.  If Portland doesn’t get this kind of weather…and now it does…what happens to plants that are adapted to a usual Oregon climate and temperatures?  OTOH it’s been a dry year.  Adding the moisture to the ground has to be good for the birds and bees and butterflies and plants.  Right?  This is the spot where the bulbs I planted last fall were starting to send their green growth charging up through the soil…and I can’t wait to see what those shoots look like when the snow melts.

Last night, I caught the tail end of an Olympic interview where someone said that she’d traveled so relentlessly for so many years that now she’s obsessive about nesting.  Maybe that’s the deal with my yard, too.  Not since I was a kid in Ethiopia have I felt so intensely connected to the…um…soil.

Hosanna skyTomorrow, though, if the ice doesn’t block me, I’ll be traveling again.  I’m going to Memphis for three days of author visits and talking about Ethiopia Reads (www.ethiopiareads.org) to several groups of teachers.  This is what Ethiopia looks like in January and February–through the eyes of artist Stephanie Schlatter who was just there.  It’s where we all should long to be as the ice trickles down!

blizzardsI used to do author visits almost every week.  It seemed as if every school in the United States wanted to have an author come to talk about books, about where to gather ideas and details, about the writing process.  I remember a high school teacher who said to me, “Around here we’d never hire someone to teach basketball who had never played basketball, but we have people teaching writing who don’t spend much of their free time writing.”  And it’s true that while I can’t explain exactly how the blizzards I lived through in ND one snow-filled year became my picture book River Friendly River Wild, I can use it to show a lot about how a writers’ mind goes searching here and there for vivid details and the right words to evoke an experience.  I can model what it’s like to be passionate about reading and writing.

These days, schools often think themselves too busy or too broke to have an author come.  Too busy to show young readers and writers what’s the same and what’s different about the way they approach writing from the way a devoted and fanatically interested writer approaches writing.  Too busy to have kids fall in love.Kansas 001I dream of a day when politicians listen to teachers about the things that make a young brain spark…about how complicated teaching and learning really are.  I dream of a day when more young readers and writers get to see their teachers and principals awed and thrilled by having an author in the school.  The pendulum has to swing again sometime.  Doesn’t it?

In the meantime, I’ll savor this opportunity to talk about Anna Was Here and Ethiopia and reading and writing and to meet the kids who care so passionately about books.

Feverbird