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

Thrills of travel to Ethiopia, Abu Dhabi, our back yards

I come from a family of travelers. 

Oh, they didn’t start out that way.  My dad, who grew up a skinny boy picking vegetables on the neighbors’ farms, thought he might live in eastern Oregon his whole life and never see the capital city of Oregon.

But World War II took the five Kurtz boys out of Oregon, and my dad was the one in the family who came home from war wondering what he could do with his life that would make a difference out in the wide world.

My mom–until she met my dad at Monmouth College–had traveled only between small Iowa towns, as her dad tried desperately to find work.  Her new sweetie took her traveling…on the back of a motorcycle to visit his family out in Oregon.  Later, when I was two years old, he got the idea that they belonged in Ethiopia, helping with the new effort to build schools and hospitals after the war.

When I look at pictures like this, I’m amazed that my mom and dad thought they could pack up three little kids (that’s me on the right) and move to Ethiopia.  But they did.  And they planted traveling in my blood.  “What were we like on that trip to Ethiopia?” I asked my mom.   She said that we were “troopers”–and added, “you had to be.”

The thing about traveling is that it has such power to open our eyes and open our hearts.  We meet people just like us…and people who are fascinatingly different.  It’s great for our writing–because we get startled and gripped by things when we see them for the first time.  When I met my granddaughter in Ethiopia, several years ago, I knew she’d be a traveler, too, and I hoped for all those strengths in her life.

In Lanie, I created the girl I never was…the girl who feels stuck in her own back yard, looking with longing at Aunt Hannah’s camper and thinking with longing about her friend Dakota off having orangutan adventures.

Speaking of Lanie, the monarch butterflies are traveling, too, on their annual migration to Mexico.  They graced us and entertained us and thrilled us for another season.  May we always pay them back in the ways we can:

At a recent writing workshop, one of the young writers hearing my story of becoming an author said, “Oh!  I know where you got the name Dakota.”  She was right.  My children were like Lanie, growing up in Grand Forks, North Dakota, never traveling outside the U.S. even though they heard story after story of my chidhood.  I’m proud that they’ve chosen to travel.  I’m proud of their courage and fortitude…

…because the truth is that even though traveling opens us up and gives us adventures and dreams and curiosities and understandings we rarely get any other way, that newness comes at a cost.  It’s like living through a flood.  We rarely welcome the sweeping away of the old life to make room for the new.  We feel dizzy and disoriented and uncomfortable and sad and frustrated and scared through many of the adventures most of the time.

I was reminded of HOW hard it all can be as we said goodbye to my nephew and his wife in Portland, recently.  They packed up their comfy teacher lives in Bend, Oregon, and headed out to teach in an international school in Abu Dhabi.  It took a lot of courage.  Most of us have very few pictures in our heads about places like Abu Dhabi…I was embarrasingly surprised about what I found when I did author visits to schools in the Persian Gulf, myself…and was delighted by those camels in the middle of the road.



But…then?  Wow. 

The world is a cool and thrilling place after all.

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