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

The weird ways of grief

I didn’t expect to grieve when I left Kansas.  Kansas was fine.  I like Kansas.  We moved there to live close to Leonard’s parents at the end of their lives–and then we moved to Lawrence to add some hands into the pot for Jonathan and Hiwot while they were juggling classes at KU with the leapings and cavortings of two preschoolers.  I knew from the beginning Kansas would be a place to alight for a while, then fly on.  But big chunks of my emotions and memories got hooked while I was there, including happy and sad grandbaby days.

I was born in Portland, Oregon, but my parents left there when I was only two years old and moved to Ethiopia.  (I’m the charmer on my dad’s lap in the picture.)  Now my mom is back in Portland–along with four of my siblings and their families–and I’ll be living here for the first time since I was in diapers. When I drove out to Portland to look things over this week, I never expected to feel so melancholy driving across Kansas, looking out at the fields, thinking about last week’s trip to say goodbye to Dian Curtis Regan, author buddy.  Of course I’ll see her at writing retreats in Boston area.  But I’ll miss seeing her in Wichita.

I’m not quite sure why in this picture Dian is pretending to strangle Clare, her good writing buddy, but we had such a great time talking about writing, friendship, and what it was like to get The Call.  Right now, Dian and Clare are heading to ALA in New Orleans for one of the most zingy experiences a children’s book author could ever have–to celebrate Clare’s Newbery medal for Moon Over Manifest.  It’s a rare, rare thing indeed for a first novel to win such a career-changing award.  I think it has only happened once before since the award was established.  So wow!  Wondrous celebration time for all Kansans but especially Clare and Dian.

How is it that celebration and grief get woven together so tightly sometimes?  How can grief jar me in such surprising ways?

I didn’t expect to creep up toward western Idaho, cross the border into eastern Oregon and feel such a whomp of memory and sadness about losing my dad, who grew up in those sagebrush hills.  When we arrived there for our first family visit, five years after leaving for Ethiopia, my dad’s swimming hole was where we huddled and asked, “Are there crocodiles?”  He saw for the first time the chasm he had dug between his childhood and ours.

 I would have said I had no deep connection with that spot of geography.  Seeing the signs, the names of places that shaped my grandparents and my dad, my cells responded.

Stories are the way we connect the dots, as one of the books I read on the trip points out.  Stories of eastern Oregon and my dad’s childhood tangle together with my few visits there and make those towns more than names on a sign.

We make our choices.

We shape our lives.

We choose to believe (or not) that our actions on this earth can be significant and meaningful.

We show our children by our actions the things we truly care about and want them to care about, too.

The webs spin and on we go.

Grief and adventure are part of it all.

 One of my ancestors–Hezekiah–arrived in that part of Idaho-Oregon and came upon a group thrashing grain or something by the river.  Sure they could use another pair of hands.  “What’s your name?” someone asked.

Hezekiah didn’t hesitate.

“Billy,” he said.

So we re-invent ourselves as we move.  Thanks, Grandma Kurtz, for always being open to learning, to re-invention, to a hearty laugh at the stories of life.



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