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

My cheatin’ heart

In theory, I’m all for the joys of staying in the moment.  Tuning myself to the sensory details of right-now.  Remembering to breeeeathe.

In practice, I’m often pretty lousy at it.

When I got to Ethiopia, I was sucked right in.  Smells always do that.  Bere bere spice–red pepper and black pepper, allspice and fenugreek, cardamom and cloves and cumin, garlic and ginger, all smashed together–soaks into clothes and curtains and everything else.   The coffee ceremony is designed to slow us down and make us pay attention to smell and taste.  Incense.  Some green herb on the coals.  After the beans are roasted, people lean toward the pan and use cupped hands to brush the aromatic smoke toward their noses. 

But while I was full to bursting with Ethiopia, my poor bifurcated brain would keep sliding back to Kansas and Pittsburgh and Portland and Birmingham and Albuquerque…and all the other places of my sweeties.  (I love Grandfather’s Journey with its glimpse into a man who was ultimately homesick no matter where he was.)  It also kept sliding toward my heavy suitcases (full of books for a library), which (I was pretty sure) were in Cairo and not Ethiopia.  My luggage, which didn’t catch up with me until the last day, sucked out a lot of attention and staying-in-the-moment energy.

By the time I left Ethiopia, flew back to Kansas for one day and then landed in Vermont for the MFA residency, it was hard for my bifurcated brain…my cheatin’ heart…not to keep drifting back to the 17 teachers who were continuing the Ethiopia adventure without me.  Where were they now?  How were they doing?  Who was studying?  Who was falling off a mule?

Being a writer is another way to be split in two…or three or four or five.  Other artists use clay and wood and paint and chemicals and other stuff to make people feel and think.  Writers turn things they see and smell and taste and hear and touch–things they experience, things they remember–into words and sentences and paragraphs.  Those words, when we’re lucky, bring forth feelings in someone else.

Weird.  Magical.  A way to be present.  A way to be many places, many people, all at the same time. 

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