Posts Tagged ‘outside’

Where did you go to school in Ethiopia?

A new school year.


When I was five and six, we lived in Maji.  One of the big things Presbyterians were doing in that part of Ethiopia was running a clinic (with a nurse and someone whose title was “dresser”) and running a school.  We had church in this school building on Sundays, and I can still remember the feeling of the mud and straw scratching my legs as I sat trying to figure out the sermon (in Amharic) while I drew pictures.

Now I wish Mom and Dad had sent us to that school, which would have given me a strong foundation in Amharic.

Instead, Mom homeschooled us.  The family story goes that when my older sister started her lessons, Mom asked if I wanted to start school, too.  “Do I have to?” I asked.

“Only if you want to.”

That was not what I wanted to hear.  I wanted to be a REAL student.  “No, Mom,” I said.  “Say I have to.”

After all, I was the one when we got to Maji (and I looked like this) who said (when asked why we were outside late), “Oh, we were just lifting our eyes unto the hills.”

I loved the sounds of words.  I loved realizing that black marks on a white page made the sounds of words in my mind…made them thump in my blood.

Being homeschooled left lots of time to explore the big, gorgeous, fascinating outside world where I grew up.  My sisters and I made up inventive games and stories that we acted out for days running on days.  We used the animals, vegetables and minerals of the outside world as the props in our stories.  Frogs.  Lizards.  Flowers.  Mud.  When I met with the American Girl team to talk about the Doll of the Year, I showed them my childhood pictures and said I wanted Lanie to be an outside girl.

At fourth grade, I went off to boarding school in Addis Ababa and learned the wrench of homesickness but also learned what it was to have a library.  After school, we ran to the dining room for our snacks–looking at this picture makes me remember the salty crunch of cheese bread/biscuit sticks–and then to the dorm to toss our school things on our bunks and run outside.  More long afternoons spent outside…in the (off-limits) rock quarry or pretending I was a horse, galloping through the grass.  In school, during the mornings and early afternoons, I read.  I read and read.

 My dad loved the outdoors.  When I was working on Lanie’s stories, I was so grateful for everything he brought into our lives with the camping trips and long hikes and daily explorations around Maji.  My mom was the reader and the writer.  When she was a little girl, her mom found her crying.  Mom managed to sniffle out the sad truth that she had just realized someday she’d be too old to go to school any more.

Everyone should be lucky enough to learn to read from someone who loves to read.  Everyone should have a teacher who loves being in school.

My mom grew up in a poor and struggling family.  I have no doubt school was a haven.  It was also a place where she got a vision of a new life for herself.

There’s something about school…if it’s a place of reading and thinking and curiosity and dreaming and opening up new thoughts and new worlds.

Yay teachers.

Yay reading.

Yay school.


Wind shivers

On that complicated and scary ride from the savannah up into the mountains, there was one spot that was scarier than scary, and I can still remember the nightmare I had about it when I was about nine years old.  What should be scary about a road, you ask?  Well, the Jeep broke down regularly, which made for heart-rocking drama as we stood by to see if this time would be the time Daddy wouldn’t be able to get it going again.  My dad regularly hurried out to rescue stranded travelers.  No one was around to hurry out and rescue us if this was the time.

But the scary, scary, scary place was called nifas bir.  Gate of the wind.  My sisters and I called it Down on Both Sides.  (Yes, another spot on the road was Up on Both Sides.)  If you were to tumble off the road at that spot–as my dad did in my nightmare–nothing would stop the fall.  You’d just drop thousands of feet to the valley below.  My dad liked to tell the story of the time he came around the bend and saw a leopard sunning itself on the rock.  That story added the last bit of shiveryness to nifas bir.


You don’t think wind is scary?

I’ve lived in more than one state in the Midwest where the sky turns weirdly green and the siren rises weirdly up up up and you trot yourself down to the basement to sit until the warning is done.  Wind can whirl and lift and smash.  But my nervous feelings about wind go all the way back to the time the wind was whistling in Maji and I was watching my dad up on the roof of the house in this picture, trying to keep chunks of the grass from blowing off.  In my mind I saw, over and over, the wind lifting the tarp and my dad up, up and sailing him into the valley below.

I grew up in a magnificent world that was not





cozy.  Even when I was sitting by the snapping wood fire in the house, I might be listening to the faint roaring outside, wondering if it was Daddy coming back in the Jeep or just the wind rocking the branches in the cedar trees.

On our trip west last week, I saw wind farms in every state.  Living in North Dakota, I often listened to wind that seemed to start in Texas and rustle, howling, all the way up the Great Plains with nothing to stop it.  Now that powerful wind is caught in the blades like this and somehow turned into megawatts of electricity.





And life all fragile in the middle of it all.

The trip is the story

My grandma’s grandma was a little girl when her family set out on the Oregon Trail in a covered wagon.  Like a lot of people, I’ve long been fascinated by my ancestors’ experiences, and when I wrote I’m Sorry, Almira Ann, I wove in a true story from that trip.

Seems when the wagons creaked to a stop one noon, my grandma’s mom began to make bread for the family, but the dough was sticking to her wedding ring, so she took off the ring and slipped it onto the branch of a bush.  Many hours later–as the wagon wheels jolted over the rough earth–she looked down at her hand and realized her ring was still on that branch.

Ever since I first heard the story, I’ve been able to hear the wind rustling through the grasses and see that ring glinting in the middle of the yellow-green prairie.

Last week, as I drove from Kansas to Oregon, I thought (especially when the trip grew tedious) of what it must have been like to get up day after day, for months, and inch across that ground.  For a while, pioneers had the Platte River by their side, just as I did.  “Too thick to drink, too thin to plow,” they decided.  This year, Nebraska is eyeing with alarm that wide, flat river (and the Missouri River, from where it flows).

The trip west in those days had to be timed carefully.  Leave too early and you might not be able to find enough grass for your animals.  Leave too late?  Watch out for the snow.  The trip was pretty much organized around water.  All across Wyoming last week, we drove for hours through places where rivers run, where the travelers saw and still see the mountains, so tantalyzing, in the distance.

Sometimes the mountains look close.  Almost there.  And you drive and drive and drive but they get no closer.

And then one gets to the dry stretches.  Parts of Utah and Wyoming look like a giant, at some point, played with muddy sand, letting it dribble and drip.  Those were the thirsty, dusty days for pioneers.   Oxen and mules, people and puppies limped on, longing–no doubt–for the days when the wagons were lumping along beside the Platte River.

Growing up in Ethiopia, I saw what it’s like to be in a community that doesn’t have access to easy water.  We turn the tap in our modern American houses and out it spills.  Only every once in a while, we pause to remember the burst of joy that cool, fresh water brings into our lives.

Eastern Oregon, where my family stopped their Oregon Trail journey, is a place short on water.  The farm where my father grew up wouldn’t have existed except for the Owahee dam, and it can be a dry, harsh place.  My dad remembered the year when his family planned to have a sagebrush Christmas tree–except that a teacher offered to sell him the school Christmas tree for ten cents, which he proudly carried home.

In the rare times when we left Ethiopia and spent time in eastern Oregon, one of my strongest memories is of wading in the cool of the irrigation ditches.  I heard the whispered stories of the cousin who drowned in one of those ditches.

Water, wind, earth and fire.

Life all fragile and sometimes lost in the middle of it all.

When Mount Hood finally looms ahead, it looks close.  Surely the trip is almost over now.  But the road flows on and on and on.  So hard to remember that each step, step, step IS the story.  So hard not to blur out the trip and long only for The End.

Thinkers and artists against all odds

South Central Kansas, land of wind sweeping over wheat fields, land of home baked bierrocks, land of generosity, was my husband’s earliest landscape.  His mother told me that when she had her babies, she couldn’t bear to listen to the radio and all the grim news of war.  She made rolls with surprising hollow middles (a marshmallow, don’t you know?) and pickles and mint tea.  When I broke one of her favorite pitchers, she said something gentle about the way of all flesh.

She liked to be outside on the farm when she was a girl, but when she was a mother, she usually cleaned up the things from breakfast and sat right down to plan lunch.

I spent a week in her part of America, introducing Ethiopia Reads to many teachers and students, and to the nature lovers who came to Dillons Nature Center on Saturday for a Lanie, Make A Difference event.

Some mothers are superb organizers and put together events with ice cream floats and talks and volunteers and nature journals and silent auctions so that they can ship big ol’ containers full of books to kids in Ethiopia.

Oh–and some mothers sort and pack and dust and hoist those books, too.  Pretty tough stuff.

Some mothers sit and sit until their demanding babies are born and then carry worms and bugs to a nest with barely a pause–and carry sacs of baby bird waste to stick them on branches far away from their babies’ home.

Some bounce their babies in a pouch…but not with seatbelts on.

Some make book connections and help kids to make them, too.  I’m glad my mom was one of those and set everything in motion that ended up meaning so much to me in my life.  I’m so glad she took time to sit, every week, and read to us and also to write letters that floated from Ethiopia to the U.S. to her mother and my dad’s mom and dad.

 All kinds of mother, chubby and thin, whether they’re covered with feathers or skin, do their best to hold and hug to keep their young ones safe and snug.

I loved getting these pictures this week about a boy who knows my book so well that he can say every page.  Wahoo for mothers who are artists and readers and thinkers against all odds and model such behavior for their progeny.

Ethiopia Indonesia world and word travelers

I love international schools!  They are such places to explore…


friends from all continents


the power of words.

Often the classes are small.  Always, the classes are full of kids who were born in lots of different places, all bringing their knowledge and ideas and traditions and family connections and passions into one little space.

I tell kids that I went traveling from the United States to Ethiopia when I was only two years old.  I ask how many of them changed continents when they were too young to remember; half or more raise their hands.  We talk about the new things we found on new continents.  We talk about those feelings…what we’ve loved about traveling and what we find confusing.  I tell them that my writing gave me a way to talk about my home in Ethiopia that I never had until I started publishing books…and that maybe their writing will give them that kind of power.

Here in Indonesia, the students and teachers and I have found lots of things in common.

Rainy season in Ethiopia…

and rain whooshing down in Jakarta.  Here’s the view as I looked out the window of the hotel after I got back from the school one afternoon.


Feelings of picking up and letting go of the things you know.  Feelings of finding new things to hang onto, sometimes by one’s fingernails.

The library at JIS-PIE has the hands-down most gorgeous view (out its window) of any school I’ve been in.  Thinking about the snow I left behind in Kansas, I felt full of thrilldom every time I walked into the library.

The other JIS campus has an enormous tree right in the middle of the courtyard.  I sat on a bench during my break and filled myself up with the sight of it.

But I even loved the insides of the rooms because that’s where the kids and teachers and librarians were.  I did meet some passionate kids during these two weeks.  One boy told me that his ancestors on one side were in Kenya for 563 years and the other side of his family comes from the Netherlands and he’s lived in both of those places and also in Spain and South Africa.  World travelers, unite–and tell your tales.

The loops of Ethiopia and family loop on and on

Twenty-some years ago, I spent New Year’s Eve in a hospital room in Trinidad, Colorado, having a baby.  Every other person who came through the labor room (and there were plenty, as I remember) suggested I wait and have the first new year’s baby.  The others said I should have the baby now and get a tax deduction.  (My husband is fond of pointing out that even though our son was born that Dec. 31, we didn’t earn enough that year to make the tax deduction useful.  But we did ensure great New Year’s Eve celebrations ever after.)

He was our kid who met life head on–the one who broke his arm trying to follow his older brother in leaping off a table, who needed stitches from a rake, from falling into a window well, from barb wire.  When he decided to volunteer in one of the Ethiopia Reads libraries in Ethiopia, we knew it would be an adventure.

It was.

In many, many ways.

Jonathan learned Amharic and went exploring, including climbing high in the Ethiopian mountains.  He discovered he wanted to tell stories through photographs.

He also got married, started a B&B, and had a daughter.

Some years ago when the summer got rough in Ethiopia, Hiwot and Jonathan and their daughter moved to Kansas so they could finish college.  I surely am proud that right after he graduated this summer, he was offered a job as a photojournalist–at a time when all the old ways of getting stories into the world seem to be falling apart and many of us are struggling with how to put an income together in the new world.

If income is hard, though, the other rewards are mighty.

I glommed onto my dream of writing books for children when my kids were little and I was reading books to them and watching the world unfold for them in new and fascinating ways.  I wrote my Ethiopia books partly as a way to open the world of my childhood to my own children.  Now it feels sweet–and even slightly woo-woo–to watch my Ethiopian-American grandchildren reading those Ethiopia books…

…and discovering the outside world I wanted for my newest character, Lanie–the world my parents gave me in Ethiopia.

What an adventure my mom and dad put in motion that December they decided to take a day of Christmas break (when they were in college) and get married.   I wonder what loops the next year will bring.

Our humble best

Christmas?  What’s Christmas?

Don’t get me wrong.  My local NPR station floats the most gorgeous Christmas music into my living room–songs that all the juice hasn’t been wrung out of by playing them over and over.  Pinpoints of white light that poke out of the dark as we drive over the Kansas prairies make me feel brave and hopeful.  And grandkids…well, this picture speaks for itself.  (And I get to see them Christmas Eve this year.)

But every student and teacher knows that the holiday season is also End-of-Semester season.  The Vermont College MFA program where I teach is no exception.  That means I’m reading my students’ last packets, mulling and tweaking evaluations, and preparing for the January VCMFA residency.  Residency = talking about fiction, reading fiction, thinking about fiction, discussing each other’s fiction, lecturing about fiction, experimenting with making our new fiction insights seep from our brain cells into our fingers.  Ah, residency…aka Fiction Boot Camp.  A chunk of my pre-Christmas brain is already in Vermont.

A chunk is also in the middle of Kansas.  I just spent several days back in Hesston, staying at the house of my good friend LeAnn Clark.  This is LeAnn’s stove.  She has not been baking Christmas cookies.  She’s been creating display boards for Ethiopia Reads and putting together gift baskets (which filled up her dining room table) for the Ethiopia Reads fundraiser she planned and pulled off with a bang this week.

‘Tis the season for last tax deductions.

‘Tis the season where many Americans commit to sending a little hope and love and good cheer zinging out around the world.

So it’s also the season when most nonprofit organizations find out whether or not they are going to survive the coming year.

Ethiopia Reads is so lucky.  Moms and daughters (and aunts and grandmas and great-aunts and, yes, dads) poured into the Dyck Arboretum, where I used to walk and where I gathered much Lanie inspiration, to make bracelets and create nature journals and decorate oak leaf cookies and stamp cards.  They bought books and donated for a chance to win a Lanie doll and listened to me talk about writing the Lanie stories–all in order to raise money to get books to kids in Ethiopia.

Successes like this one (and the three school and two bookstore events that LeAnn also planned) don’t happen without the hard, kind, slogging efforts of people who create the chocolate fountains and lay out the napkins and make the paper for the nature journals and print the flyers and write the articles for the local newspapers and lug the boxes.

 They don’t happen unless someone vaccuums the floor.

And that fits the Christmas story.

All around the world, including in Ethiopia, people have long believed the only way good things will come into their lives is through the generosity of kings and rich merchants and other powerful people.  Projects like Ethiopia Reads are a triumph of often humble volunteer efforts and small chunks of money, put together to create something amazing.

The triumphant moments in the Lanie stories come from the same thing.  Stopping.  Bending down.  Noticing a bug or a plant or a butterfly or a bird or some dirt.  Knowing we are all part of a glorious and fragile web of life.

The Kansas prairies at this time of year are not at their luscious best.  They remind me a little of my own writing life right now, in fact.  But words, like winter plants, creep and whisper and dig deep.

At the end of the day, we count the pennies.  We nod with satisfaction.  We haul tired bones off to bed.  We know we did our humble part.