The Power of One Writer
Back Yards, Ethiopia and Children's Books

Before and after the sorrow

In March 1997, the fax machine in my office space would start making its whirring noises in the middle of the night almost every night…a super librarian doing her super job of planning an author visit with me to ICS and two other of the international schools in Addis Ababa.  It was going to be my first time back to Ethiopia in 20 years…and I would lie in bed and listen to the fax almost sick with joy and wonderment. 

Before I packed my suitcases, I was careful to take the photos that were in our bedroom and put them onto a high shelf.  After all, the bedroom and my oldest son’s bedroom and our office space were in the lower level of our house–and record snow had fallen in Grand Forks that year.  Trucks rumbled by, filled with snow from city parking lots, bound for some secret destination.  “Might as well dump it into our basements,” was the joke going around.  “It’ll end up there anyway.”

Ha ha ha.

When I got back, the river was rising, barreling from the south, and people in our neighborhood were taking turns to walk on the dikes and look for cracks.  We lived in a neighborhood that sloped right down to the Red River, but our house was on high ground.  “If the river gets us,” my husband said, “it’ll get everybody.”


The snow did end up in our basements and lower levels all over the city and–for many of my neighbors–even up to their rooftops.  If the flood had hit before I had returned from Ethiopia, many of the pictures on this blog would be gone.  This picture records some of my precious papers drying on the lawn after clean-up.  But that’s getting ahead of the story. 

Most of us have ways of measuring life in Before and After.  One of mine is what happened when the Red River flooded in 1997 and spread out over the entire city of Grand Forks.  In March 1997, we were still in Before.  “Did you lose much in the flood?” people asked me for years.  What I lost in the flood, as I managed to say in River Friendly River Wild, was one terrific neighborhood.  What I lost is hard to measure in STUFF, but I still carry the sorrow of it.

Today I’m working on the pictures to share at the Kerlan Award celebration in Minneapolis on April 2 at the Elmer L. Andersen Library.  I’m thinking of the way the Twin Cities communities stretched out their hands to us after the flood.  I’m hoping people will be there if their Minnesota record snowfall this year makes their rivers wild.  What I know for sure is that we will all continue to tell the stories of Before and After, stories that can stretch our hearts a few sizes bigger for the sorrows that are here in our world and surely to come.

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