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

The eerie beauty of connection and pies

Yesterday, we drove over the bleak midwinter (okay, mid-fall) prairies to the Kansas farm where my husband, Leonard Goering, spent his childhood.  (He resists saying he “grew up” there, commenting that he didn’t grow up until he went off to Northwestern University in Chicago.)  The day made me think about some eerily beautiful and strange connections of my life.

Families.  They represent all the tangle and joy and complication of staying connected.  When I met Leonard’s sister Charlene, her children were about the age that her grandchildren are now.  The house where we had Thanksgiving dinner yesterday wasn’t even built–but this house sits on a corner of the farm where Leonard once helped his dad in the wheat fields and where the family once raised (and ate) turkeys, a moment of laughter at Thanksgiving time.

After Thanksgiving dinner, we watched Charlene’s grandkids coax two kitties out from their hiding places, using a ribbon and bell.  I remembered when my daughter fell in love with a puppy and sat with her cousin in that living room, begging to take it home.  “The cat would be pretty mad,” we told her. 

Leonard’s siblings talked about growing up on that farm and finding kittens in the barn–how Leonard’s father never thought cats belonged in the house, but they would sneak the kittens in for a few hours whenever they could.

I thought about our cat.  We adopted it as an abandoned kitten when we lived in Trinidad, Colorado.  It moved with us to Grand Forks, ND, where it ended up as part of my book, River Friendly River Wild.  It moved down the great plains to balmy Kansas when we left North Dakota to be close to Leonard’s parents in their last years.

My daughter loved that cat.  By the time we moved to Kansas, she was in college and when the cat died, she wasn’t at home–but it gave me a little jolt of comfort to tell her we had been able to bury her cat on the farm where her dad…okay…didn’t grow up but once dug for kittens in the hay of the barn.  Some people have lives where these circles within circles happen all the time.  For someone like me who grew up in Ethiopia and took a long, long time to put down any roots in the United States, these connections feel eerie and beautiful and strange.

Once upon a time, when my daughter and our cat were young, I taught English in Trinidad, Colorado, and dreamed of writing books.  Sometimes it made me feel guilty that I longed to do something artistic.  I had grown up in a family that tried to change the world, not a family of artists.  The art teacher at the school told me, “We have to do what God has given us a heart to do.”

My heart kept telling me to write.  When we moved to cold North Dakota, my homesick heart told me to write about Ethiopia, land of my childhood.  (I never knew, then, that my heart would later tell me to see what I could do to get books to children in the land where I was a child.)

But back to Colorado.  Back to the days before I even thought of writing about my childhood…when I was jotting the journals that turned into my very first picture book.

In those days, I was reading picture books to my children–and giving them picture books for every birthday and every Christmas.  Each week, we’d go to the Carnegie library in downtown Trinidad and check out armloads of books to carry home for joy and inspiration.

My very first published picture book grew out of an encounter between my oldest son and our next door neighbor when we lived in Trinidad, Colorado in the shadow of Fisher’s Peak.  Last week, the art teacher from my time in Trinidad read a comment I made about my newest book character, Lanie, and her discovery that she can be a hero to the monarch butterflies in her Boston back yard. 

He wrote: “About butterflies: I once climbed Fishers Peak to discover the entire top of the mesa covered with Monarchs, migrating to Mexico. It was magical.  I’ve since learned a little about these amazing creatures. Did you know that the normal life-span is 2-4 weeks (as a butterfly) but when it’s time to migrate they live for 4-5 months in order to travel all of those thousands of miles?”

I looked up at Fishers Peak every day when I was writing my first drafts of children’s book.  Thirty books later, I close my eyes and think of that peak covered with monarchs and about connection, one of the themes of the Lanie books. A butterfly flaps its wings in Bejing, we now say, and sets off a tornado in Texas or a heat wave in NYC or loosens the rains in Ethiopia.

So we trust.  We hold hands around the table and say thanks.  We bend and scoop a starfish from the sand.  We read a story to a child.  We aren’t sure what will happen next, but we think it will be good. 

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