Posts Tagged ‘Portland’

Back to School in Ethiopia and always

threegirls021Not long after we got to Ethiopia, my big sister got to go to kindergarten.  Her teacher was so fond of her, she even gave her a lovely, big doll. I was probably mildly jealous of my sister’s having such a doll, but I was REALLY jealous that she got to go to school and I didn’t. (I’m the one holding forth in the red pjs.)

Like a lot of Ethiopian kids I’ve met in the last decade, I could see perfectly well that theEBCEF025chance to sit and read books and learn was something special…and not something everybody got to do.

I wanted desperately to be in school.

determinationOnce we moved to Maji in the southwest corner of Ethiopia, my mom started to homeschool my older sister. We sisters always had great projects going on. (In this picture I’m the determined-looking one on the left.) My mom says that I would ask, “Do I have to go to school?” Since I was only four, she would say, “Only if you want to.” I’d say, “No! Mom! Say I HAVE to go to school.”

I wanted to be legit.

Right outside the fence was a school where I saw kids as old as 15-16-17 getting to to to school for the first time. Very few of them were girls.majischoolMy sisters and I would climb the cedar trees around our house and pretend they were stores. We had elaborate games around pretending that we were shopping or going to real school.

coregoneThis is the year my older sister did go off. To Real School. Boarding school in Addis Ababa. Now I was the oldest kid at home. EAL288

The next August or September, my parents put my older sister and me in a Jeep and off we went down the mountain to get on the Ethiopian Airlines airplane that would take us both to Addis Ababa. Everybody cried. I instantly learned about being homesick. But I also knew that for the first time I’d have classmates. A library. Homework.

Real school.

1 airplane748I’ll never forget standing under the shade of the airplane wing on the hot savanna waiting for the agents to finish their paperwork so we could take off. I’ll never forget the feelings of being off to school.

???????????????????????????????Now I teach writing in an MFA program. VCFA is as real as it gets (although it’s a low-residency program, so I guess it’s somewhat like the schools of my early childhood.) I’ve never stopped being a student, too. Right now, I’m a humble learner about native plants in my backyard and about crafting fiction and nonfiction at my writing desk…so glad for a world that lets me stretch my mind and never stop being curious.




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–“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

–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.



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 ( 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.


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.

Plant a radish get a radish

How lucky and lovely to visit a daughter who is getting a PhD in 18th century literature and bakes lovey blueberry pies and kale and avacado quiches and other things AND blogs about pies and rolls and grad school and words.

How lovely to laugh over lousy Scrabble draws and to be beaten almost every time and not mind a twig because it reminds one of how lucky it is to have a smart and wordy daughter.

Sometimes life hands us a q with no u and no memory of the words that can be made without a u.

Sometimes life hands us an x and a triple word spot to play it.

How lovely to see one’s daughter’s ginormous back deck and the racoon that lives under it when it comes out to have a staring match with the cat and then saunter off.

The cat did not appear to feel fierce about letting its territory be walked upon or even completely romped and stomped by raccoon visitors.  Cat visitors were another story.  But it was summer time in Indiana, so my daughter watched her cat and another lay on the deck growling at each other, apparently too hot and hairyto get up and move a muscle of defense.

How lucky to have a daughter who creates a deck garden using aluminum cans.

How lucky to return home to cool weather and the scent of rain and damp earth in the garden.  The tree that was a stick



its leaves and waves them like a wild hairdo against the sky.

In droughtly summer, we’ll have to offer it 10-15 gallons of water a week to drink.

But not now.

Now it’s a bold and enthusiastic pioneer to the Oregon territories and this new neighborhood that will someday love its shady self.

The sunflowers begin to grow crowns, shyly trying them on and getting ready to prance out in public all yellow and gold-headed.

The stonecrop may welcome drought but right now it also revels in the rain.


The garden also has reds.



Colors of foilage I don’t ever remember seeing in Ethiopia but that pop up everywhere in Portland.

The garden has thyme.

Everyone knows what time does, but I spot no flying thyme in nurseries as I read plant labels.  Creeping thyme, though?


Thyme creeps. 

Thyme fills the hanging basket with wooliness and spills over the sides and crawls up the garden wall and sends wily tendrils forward into the dirt.

Oregano behaves outrageously.

I find it everywhere it doesn’t belong and sometimes, worn down by its stubborn assumptions, I sigh and let it stay.

Last summer, I planted herbs and have been eatng basil and parsley and slightly soapy cilantro.  The edibles add up.



Berries blue and black.

Tomatoes green and black and pink.

What a wealth will grace our bowls someday when more rain has come and more sun and more lucky, lucky time has crept down the path dragging life behind it.

So children and books and gardens grow.

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.


ImageBig Ma Nature turns off the faucet fast around here!

Last week, some of the Vermont College MFA faculty had a writing retreat at Canon Beach, and it rained on us almost every day–I got soaked twice.

Today, I’m watering my new garden, fussing over those poor tender greenlings looking limp and helpless in the sun.  I’m trying to figure out what kind of laurel that is in our yard and whether I can use the leaves for mulch and hold the moisture into the soil.  I’m worring over a slug I scooped up with laurel maybe-mulch.  I got it out of there, but does it have cousins left behind?

Life swerves.  Hang on for the wild ride!