Posts Tagged ‘Harold Kurtz’

Following the Big Duck

My dad did not love school.

Harold on Adrian farm

He did not love reading (or at least not until my mom had hold of him for many years :>)  He had a curious mind, though, and a way of grabbing hold of baffling ideas and wrestling them through and then turning his conclusions into stories.  Growing up in a homesteading family that burned sagebrush to keep warm and lived in an house dug into the ground, he was schooled to find practical solutions to overwhelming problems, and he believed solutions could be found, step step step.  Sometimes he found those solutions outdoors.  Sometimes in books.

1 dad as young thing

So I grew up watching him learn to inoculate mules against sleeping sickness.  To hold down a grass roof that seemed determined to blow away in a gale and sail down the valley.  To harness waterfall power for a mill that would grind flour for Maji and also bring running water to our house.  To fly a plane.


It wasn’t easy when the Big Duck had something on his mind to be a little duckling paddling along behind, trying to keep up, not sure he even remembered I was there.   But from as far back as I can remember, he was always up to something interesting and engaging, always full of life.




When he came back to Portland, he turned his back yard into a place of berries and fruit trees and compost and habitat long before those things had caught on as good ideas.  I think of him almost every time I have my fingers in the dirt.  I think of him as I find my own path as a grandparent.


David 1

Jonathan 2

But he didn’t always have time or attention for us.  His mind was on the big world a lot of the time–and during those years he lived in Portland, he still traveled (a LOT) and asked questions and told stories all over that big world.

reindeer woman

Missing you today, Dad, and thinking about those big old footsteps walking on ahead while I ran to keep up…and mulling all the things that ripple on.  Family connections.  Ethiopia connections.  Stories.

1 Jon with Noh


Inku and beach 017





Creating beauty in the bare spots of life

I feel all Little House in the Big Woods-ish as I dig up the ugly area right off the street in front of my house and replace the spotty grass with steppables.


Such delicate leaves and interesting shapes.  A blogger called one of the plants I bought an “iddy biddy ferny thingie,” which gives you the idea of the kinds of things that have made my heart go pittery pattery this spring.

I first got interested in what I could grow in my new space when the Friends of Trees folks hung a flyer on my door not long after I moved in.  The tree they planted pretty much looked like a stick at that point, with instructions about how to take care of it.

Since it was late summer in Portland when we moved, we inherited plants that were already blooming in the front yard, including giant sunflowers and dried-up sticks of Greek oregano.

Magically, this spring, the stick trees leafed out, the Greek oregano (that had looked so shriveled and ugly the year before) turned into a luscious bush, and the seeds that the sunflowers had flung into the ground popped up as baby sunflowers.  I started simply by spreading the seedlings out a bit so they could have some room to grow and not be all smooshed together.  By now, though, they need even MORE room.  I’ve transplanted some of them into other parts of the yard that I thought I’d be ignoring for several years.

Have I mentioned that I’m in love with the way plants in Portland come CHARGING back in the spring?  I’m planting mostly things that spread and will cover the ground with beauty without being babied or coaxed along to do so.  Now I can’t wait for them to spread.

When I was working on the Lanie books, the concept of local plants supporting local insects supporting local birds got planted in my brain.  So the first plant I bought this spring was a local stonecrop.

Recently, I got another local plant called kinnikinnick.

Who could resist that name?

How about firewitch?

Candy tuft?


White Star Creeper?

Charmed velvet?

Delicious names.  It’s enough to make a body want to put a garden in my next book, too.

I’ve also been learning about the plants (some of them in my own little space) that are grabby and rude and shouldn’t be encouraged.

When my dad introduced me to the joys of dirt in his huge vegetable garden in Ethiopia, I had no idea that I would someday think of him every time I turn over the dirt, every time I tuck a plant into a spot, every time I  find a rock that looks like a potato and love its oval, smooth shape.  (I also remember how he would dig up a potato and take out his knife and carve out a piece for us right there…can still bring back the taste of dirt and raw potato in the sun.)

Rooted where we find ourselves.  Looking around for how to create new beauty and new life there.  Grateful that we can make a difference in our own back yards and around the world.

The torment of step step step

Do you have a project that baffles or befuddles you?  Something that no matter how hard you lean on it, you can’t get it to budge?   A door that refuses to open?

My writing is often that way.

Right in the middle of a novel, I think about that delicious other novel I’ve always wanted to write.  Or I sit and stare at a paper or screen and decide I’ll never have a clever, wondrous idea again.  Sometimes I envy my Vermont College students their deadlines and feedback.

Every one of my published picture books and novels carries an invisible trail of despair, dead ends, and almost-gave-up spots.

My volunteer life with Ethiopia Reads is that way, too.

I saw kids in Maji coming to school when I was four years old and desperately wanted to go to school, too.  Some of the students who walked into that building every morning were actually young men, not kids, but they weren’t about to let go of their chance at an education.

Well, many years later, it’s still tough to get good education to every kid in Ethiopia.

When I look at this school picture with my dad and one of his brothers, I remember that it wasn’t easy to get education to their farm community in eastern Oregon in the days when they were kids, either.

Some things take a long, stubborn, determined effort.

Then there’s my Portland garden.

Every morning, I can’t wait to go outside and see what the Oregon rains have wrought.  Nothing seems stalled out or in a hopeless mood.

All the plants are chug chugging along, including the weeds.  We have so much oregano (three different kinds) that we could open a massive pizza place and still never be able to use it all.

I’m trying to remember that it’s okay to not use all my herbs.  They still make a nice-smelling bug-free contribution to a garden.

These days, I’m particularly in love with thyme.  Time doesn’t creep, but thyme does.

When we went to the farmers’ market last Sunday, I bought a plant–creeping thyme–and liked it so much after I got it in the ground that I went back and bought two more plants.  This early in the season, not a lot of produce was available in the farmers’ maket…we bought beets and chard, though, and admired the balloon animals and bread and sheep cheeses.

I was wishing for some zucchini or a home grown tomato or two.  Then my big sister delivered tomato plants.  And flowers.  And more herbs.  With something new arriving every day, you’d think I would never have the garden equivalent of writers’ block or mission burn-out.

But I noticed something this week.  I’ve bought a lot of creeping plants that will spread…sometimes spread fast…and I noticed that I was impatiently checking back every few hours to see what was happening.

Apparently, I want everything to grow faster than it actually does.

In my heart, I know much that matters comes slowly.  We put our whole self in.  We try to look away and hum as if we’re not impatient at all.  We dig in for the long haul and step step step.

Tangled emotions, ancient cities, new dreams

“Do you like it better in Ethiopia or America”

Again…at an author visit in Boston last weekend…the question.

I had talked about how I left the U.S. so young I had no memories of that country, how I’d reconnected briefly with Adrian, Oregon and my father’s home the year I was seven.  About how awkward it felt, coming to the U.S. every five years for a brief visit.  About how my writing finally gave me a way to talk about Ethiopia.

But what about the teenaged self that visited my grandparents’ farm and played on the swing with cousins and wanted to hang around with them?  What about now…that I’ve lived in the U.S. for most of my adult life?

Sometimes a book gives us words to wrap around complicated emotions.  For me, I explained to the student who asked, it’s Grandfather’s Journey, a picture book that won the Caldecott Medal in 1994.

“The funny thing is, the moment I am in one country, I am homesick for the other.”   Such a lyrical book.  Such a gift for naming the ways of the wandering heart.

I didn’t know until I looked at his official biography that Allen Say lives where I live.  I did know he was born in Yokohama, Japan. “He dreamed of becoming a cartoonist from the age of six,” says, the bio, “and, at age twelve, apprenticed himself to his favorite cartoonist, Noro Shinpei.”

Sometimes passions hook onto us when we’re six.  Or twelve.  Sometimes not until we’re much older.  At the Ethiopia Reads ( events in Boston, it was thrilldom to meet grown-ups who are exploring art or fundraising or entrepreneurial ideas for the first time.  A lot of people visit Ethiopia and get impassioned, as I do, about the possibility of a worldwide community that can form around reading and writing and dreaming and connections.  (This Boston group was helping raise money so the young women who work for Ethiopia Reads can have a vehicle to drive around to offer support and books to the new libraries.)

This Saturday in Portland, my bro and I will do a presentation at Make a Difference Day, an idea that grew out of a book group that read Half the Sky and wanted to do something to reach out to women and girls.

It’s no accident that Lanie, the character I created for American Girl, discovers she can make a difference in her backyard or around the world.   On Saturday, people will come to hear about writing a book–about gardens–about the animals in our back yards…and about libraries.

If we’re lucky, this girl in school in Harar, Ethiopia will have books to read because of those who come to Make a Difference day and the other volunteers who’ve supported that project.

So today I’m sitting in Portland, Oregon, looking out at the gray sky, but I’m remembering Harar…

A mysterious, ancient city I visited when I was about 12.  A chance now, many years later, to help its children someday tell its stories.

Homesick everywhere I go.

But finding a home, over and over, in books and words and stories and the joy of sharing the sights and sounds and smells and tastes and textures of my life.

Bring on the camel teeth

I spent a whole bunch of hours on airplanes yesterday…seven of them from Abu Dhabi to Paris…ten from Paris to Salt Lake City…about two from Salt Lake City to Portland.

Lesson learned:  If the Air France agent in Abu Dhabi asks, “Would you like to sit in the front row of the economy section?” ask, “Have you ever sat there?”

See, every morning at around 5:30, the call to prayer came wafting from this loud speaker into the bedroom where I was sleeping.  Luckily, the voice was a melodious one.  Unluckily, I’m a light sleeper.  And some mornings I needed to get up that early for my author visits anyway.  Also, jet lag is real.  So I boarded the plane sleep deprived.  And I slept.  When I woke up, though, I still had about four hours to go, cramped and crunched and tired and mentally snarling at Air France for creating such a snug spot and cramming me into it.

When I was a child coming home from Ethiopia, airplanes had tiny bottles of lotion and perfume in the restrooms.  I interviewed my mom for my book Jane Kurtz and You–a book about how my real stories have gotten woven into my fiction–and she told me about filling out a questionnaire at the conclusion of that first Europe-Ethiopia flight.  The airlines wanted her opinion because they wanted to get more families with young children traveling.

“What did you say?” I asked her.

She wrote a comment that they needed to provide a bigger size of diaper.

Wow.  Imagine an airlines providing diapers.

On that trip, we spent some time in Egypt before heading to Ethiopia, and my dad rode a camel.  I thought of him as I rode my first camel in Abu Dhabi at a heritage village.

I was a little nervous about getting up on that camel, but the old friend I was with has survived stomach cancer and she said surviving cancer showed her there’s no other time to live your life.  Live it.  Right now.

Camels make crabby, loud sounds–rather like the sounds I wanted to make from that seat in the Air France airplane.  They have scraggly ferocious-looking teeth (at least this camel did) that appear to be willing and ready to take a BITE out of something.

Again, I felt this way for about four hours and it’s a good thing no one from Air France was really in sight.

The camels in the advertisements in Abu Dhabi all look a great deal sweeter and more cuddly or at least majestic, I must say.  I guess if you want to sell something, you make sure you have a really photogenic camel to do it with.

All the ways to advertise are fascinating to me on these international trips.  I especially like looking at billboards, which have flavorful bits of culture on them.   In Abu Dhabi, I kept wanting to get a better photo of the massive billboards about Our Father. When I visited Heritage Village, I realized he was the person credited with changing Abu Dhabi from a camel-and-goat-stew society into the modern, gleaming place it is today.

The immigration agent in Salt Lake City (a good place to go through immigration, by the way, because it’s a small and efficient airport), asked if it was hard to get a visa for United Arab Emirates.  Actually, Abu Dhabi had–hands down–the easiest airport arrival of anyplace I’ve been, including Salt Lake City.

(By the way, though the French may not want to talk to you at their airport, they at least have now sensibly installed a machine to read your boarding card and tell you where your next gate is.  This is a Good Thing.)

They want visitors in Abu Dhabi.  They have a gorgeous mosque where you are welcome to look around (and you can borrow a black abaya and listen to a young man with braces earnestly explain about Islam) and you do not feel for a moment uncomfortable or shut out.

If anything, my only complaint is that every city is starting to take on some of the look of every other city.

But not quite.

The power of surprise

Eight years ago, I did an author visit at the American Community School of Abu Dhabi…and I just spent five days back in the same school.  I started with two assemblies to introduce students to why and how I write books–showing that many of my books draw power from the small moments of my own childhood (the students at ACS are doing a lot of writing about their own small moments), showing how the hard work of writing is rooted in the passion of reading, showing the joy of getting to see reading ripple to kids in Ethiopia through my volunteer work with Ethiopia Reads.  Asking, “How do you make a difference?”

Over the next four days, I went into almost every classroom in the elementary school and talked about the power of details.  If they are the life blood of good writing, as John Gardner said, where do we find them?  “Does anyone remember the assembly and something about Lanie that came from my own childhood?” I asked.  Almost everyone remembered that I spent lots of my childhood outside, that my dad had a garden in Ethiopia, that my mom was the one with the “inside genes.”

Vivid and interesting details come from memories.

River Friendly River Wild gives me the best ways to show how I use what’s happening around me, too, as I’m gathering details that end up in my books.

Not everyone has been through a natural disaster.

Everyone has had times in life when everything feels intensely real and immediate, when every sight and sound and taste and smell and texture feels charged with emotion.  Some people have the gift of paying attention to the treasure of ordinary moments, too.  Of letting the quiet bits speak.  Of savoring the taste of a spoonful of oatmeal as if it were completely new.

For the rest of us, traveling–the thing that makes almost everything new–awakens the senses in ways that our daily lives can’t.  The students I spoke to last week are world travelers, so they understood when I talked about the surprises around every corner of a new place.

Travel often uncovers the unexpected detail that delights because it surprises.  I shared my favorite pictures of my surprises.  I said, “When you’re stuck in what you’re writing, get up and walk around.”  Touch.  Taste.  Smell.  Hear.  See.  Gather.

As you gather, I said, wrap words around what you’re experiencing.  Don’t forget the power of verbs…of the just right noun or unusual adjective.

Vivid and interesting details come from observation.

Schools are busy places these days.  Sometimes I get the feeling there’s no time for surprise and no time for the teachable moment.  (Pay no attention to that author; we’re busy with our reading unit.)  We seem endlessly fascinated with the new techniques and approaches and curriculum units that are going to make students oh so much smarter and well-rounded and equipped for life.   We share the vocabulary of books and writing and reading without giving learning communities the time it takes to experiment and practice and dabble and dream.  We miss the material that is right in front of our noses.

International schools aren’t immune to the pressures, the “must cover x amount of material” as if learning were a predictable matter of input and measurable result.  Still, they often get lots of things right.  They are places of reading and books.  They are amazing margin-oases where the children of the world gather and sit together and read and think and write and rub elbows with their teachers and sometimes with authors and other innovators.

They are incubators for what is to be.  Powerful people…those children of the world.

Small consolations

Back home from Christmas wanderings, I just listened to a song that was shared this year by an author friend whose heart is deeply sweet and whose words are silky and rhythmic on the tongue:  As I listened, what I thought about…again…was losing the Christmas box in the flood of 1997.  When we threw away the soggy ornaments we’d collected during those years our kids were little–when we threw away the things they’d made in school…the handprints, the rock-and-roll angel–I lost a chunk of Christmas tree love.  Now it’s all just memory.

Today is Ethiopian Christmas.  More memory.

In Ethiopia, my dad would head out in mid-December to survey the cedar trees that stood in a circle in the compound where our family, a nurse, and a teacher lived, the only English-speakers of my world.  He’d find a branch and saw it off.  That was the Christmas tree.  My sisters and I helped Mom put on the same glass ornaments, one or two crinkling on the concrete floor into a pile of glass splinters.  We’d use the same silvery icicles each year.  They got shorter and more crumped each year.  Dad would put a mirror in the middle of the table and pile cotton around it and bend pipe cleaners to create skaters.

Skaters weren’t part of our world.  They were from his childhood…the frozen rivers and ponds of eastern Oregon where he and his brothers would slip and slide and warm up by the flaming barrels.

My sisters and I read about ice and snow.

It made us scoop up handfuls of dried grass that the school boys left lying when they took the small scythes to the long grasses in the compound.   We polished slabs of cardboard with that grass.  When the slabs were shiny, we took more grass and created paths down the hillside.  We spent hours zipping down the paths.

Was this what it was like to ride a sled down the snow hills like in the books?

One of my sisters ended up settling in Minnesota.  My dad loved to visit during winter time and help her kids create snow paths down the hill.  In those years in Maji, though, snow was only a dream, only something to read about, only something that seemed magical and amazing and always far, far away.

The year I was seven and we spent one year in Boise, Idaho, I got to experience snow.  Somehow it wasn’t like the snow of my dreams, the snow of the books.

Snow came to stand for not fitting in, the awkwardness of life in the United States when we visited.

I was thinking about all of this in a book discussion group this morning, talking about the luminous book Cutting for Stone. 

“We come unbidden into this life,” Abraham Verghese writes, “and if we are lucky we find a purpose beyond starvation, misery, and early death which, lest we forget, is the common lot.”

There is purpose to awkwardness.

There is purpose to isolation and feeling out of place and ill at ease.



there is the dream of a different way.

Sometimes there are words and songs and speeches and the other small consolations.  May we all find the small consolations…and the dreams.