So. I was nearly killed this afternoon. And how was your day?

This last week, I’ve been inundated with omens of death: a crow with a duck in its mouth; a hawk feasting on the brains of a rabbit; baby bullheads snacking on tadpoles; and etc. And while I thought it was odd, and while I assumed it all pertained to my book, it didn’t occur to me that these images of death might be a premonition of my own.

Today, when I was running around Lake Nokomis, I waited at the red light where the trail crosses Cedar Avenue and heads to the lagoon. The light turned green. I trotted into the intersection. Across the street, a car started frantically honking. I looked, couldn’t see what he was honking at, so I turned the other way.

A car.

An SUV.

A red one.

With a driver on a cell phone.

Barreling down the road right towards me.

She had no intention of stopping at the red light. Indeed, it didn’t even cross her mind. I jumped backward (I might have yelped. Heck, I very nearly wet myself). The car flew by, missing me by inches. She hurled into the intersection, mercifully didn’t hit any cars, turned left, and continued on her merry way. The intersection erupted in a chorus of angry honks, but it didn’t matter. She was gone.

Perhaps I need to pay greater attention to death omens when the universe offers them up. Particularly death omens while running. In any case, aside from an unfortunate lapse in ladylike behavior, during which time I yelled no fewer than 182 obscenities within the space of thirty seconds – which might be a record – I have emerged, and remain, unscathed.

Which brings me to my previous question:

And how was your day?

Dreams, Signs, Wonders (Is there a difference between novel writing and clinical insanity? Probably not.)

There’s a magic thing that happens when a book takes over your life. There is….an unpinning from the world. A sense of nonbeing – or, perhaps multi-being. 

When I start a book, it feels like play. I doodle pictures of my characters, I draw maps, I try to channel their voices in journals and logs and the endless possibilities resultant from potential choices spread in every direction – like bright, hot threads stretching from my fingers to the sky.

Later, however, those possibilities begin to dwindle.

Later, the possible choices begin to thin, clear and fall away, leaving precious few paths left for our characters to take. Sometimes, our characters are left with only one path – and it is a devastating, brutal thing to do to one’s creation.

When this happens – when I am immersed in a world of my own invention, when my heart breaks again and again every time I return to the page – I experience a sense of dual existence.

I am here and not here.

I am there and not there.

I am in between.

Four days ago, I wrote a scene in which a character wakes up and sees a large crow sitting on his window sill. The boy sat up, regarded the crow, who regarded him, one shiny black eye narrowed on the boy’s heart. Later that day, when I was out for a run, I saw a large crow flying low to the ground – missing my head by inches – with a still-kicking baby duck in its beak.

I know that crow, I thought. I know that duck. 

I ran home and sank into the book.

Yesterday, I was running in Nine Mile Creek park in Bloomington – a long windy trail in a wooded ravine tracking alongside the rushing water. It was a perfect day – not too hot, the rush towards green in the plantlife, the insistence of birds. Suddenly, I stopped in my tracks.

The wolf, I thought. The black wolf.

black Wolf 44

And there it was. The black wolf from my book. And it was huge. Broad shouldered and ropy muscled and heavy jawed. I couldn’t move. In my head, I recited these words:

That night, I was troubled by strange dreams. I dreamed that I rode on the back of a large black wolf through a darkened wood. I hung on tightly to his course and greasy fur my nose crinkling at the rank, gamy tang to his smell, though strangely comforted by it at the same time. Above us, a red, glowing bird soared just over the tops of the trees, its mouth wide open to the sky, its song ringing against the world. What’s more, the song itself made the forest blossom – flowers opened and fruited, moss grew thick and bright around the trunks of the trees. 

“Why are we running?” I asked the wolf.

“I dare not stop, Child, not even for the moment, or the wild dogs will rip you to shreds.”

And before I could ask anything more, I heard the unmistakable bay and snarl of a pack of dogs getting closer and closer. Also unmistakable: We were slowing down.

I had just been revising that chapter not two hours earlier. Was I in the book? Was I here? Were the lines between here and there permanently blurred.  I closed my eyes. I smelled the wolf and felt the wolf and felt its breath upon my skin.

When I opened my eyes, the wolf was gone, and in its place was a dog – a labrador. Black. Its head tilted and its grin spread in that classic labrador smile. I took a step backwards and it bounded into the woods. It was then that I realized that I was holding my breath.

But I thought to the book – when Nika first encounters the wolf, and I thought about my body when I thought I saw the thing I did not see. I remembered the instant prick of sweat, the musk of fear, the breathing quickening, shallowing, until it ceases entirely. I thought about the sudden lightness of my body – that I was fully prepared to sprint the three miles back to my car, and that I would likely run without tiring, without pain, without hesitation. I thought about the terrible calm, the utter assurance that I could outrun this creature or fight it to the death if I had to, regardless of whether such things were true.

I thought about the physicality of fear. And then I re-wrote the scene.

The threads from my life weave into my book; the threads from my book weave into my life. Perhaps this is the nature of my work, perhaps I must simply accept that I live in a reality that bends, buckles and flows. Where the imagined and the real are inextricably linked – two different sections of the same, long road.


Everything I know about the work and joy of marriage I learned from my gay married friends.

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Well, maybe not everything. But a lot, anyway.

For those of you who may be reading this from far-away places – particularly those of you who may have the good fortune to live in states and countries who acknowledge and support and love all couples, regardless of their various genders, let me get you up to speed. In my beloved state of Minnesota, the Legislature decided to offer up an amendment to the Constitution banning gay marriage.

Never mind that gay marriage is already illegal here.

Never mind that 53% of the state is opposed to the ban.

Never mind that most of the authors and sponsors of this legislation are divorced. (Defending the sanctity of marriage, MY EYE!)

Never mind that gay people are a part of the fabric of our culture – they own businesses and work in every sector of our economy and send their kids to school and show up at park board potlucks and church picnics and pay their taxes and fix up their houses and go for long walks at sunset and do every single thing that heterosexual married people do.

Never mind all of that. The Legislature decided to send a State-sponsored “You Stink” letter to the gay community – a “Get Off My Lawn” letter and a “Stay Out Of My Sandbox” letter and a “You Are Not As Awesome As Me SO THERE” letter. And for the next eighteen (I think? I’m not really one for counting) months, my poor state is going to be awash with misinformation, with hateful rhetoric, with outright lies, and with ad after ad after ad.

Why?

Simple answer: Money.

The National Organization for Marriage held a rally last July at the state Capitol against same-sex marriage.

Photo courtesy of Fibonacci BlueThe National Organization for Marriage held a rally last July at the state Capitol against same-sex marriage.

Because in the end, it doesn’t matter what the polls say, and it certainly doesn’t matter what the majority of the population thinks about a certain issue. It’s about who has enough money to control the message enough to make sure that their voters show up at the voting booths, and that the opposition does not. Democracy, in this day and age, has nothing to do with the will of the people and everything to do with who shows up.

Our voters, or their voters? I guess we’ll find out in 2012.

Which is why, on the evening of that fateful vote to put this ugly amendment on the ballot, Republican strategist after strategist said the same thing: “If this was a secret vote, it wouldn’t pass.” In other words, legislators weren’t voting with their hearts or their souls or their minds; they were voting with their re-election budgets. And that is a shameful thing.

Minnesota will flow with money. And it will be dirty money. God help us.

So, over the next few months, I’ll be fundraising and going to demonstrations, and my kids will be waving hand made signs, and we’ll probably go out doorknocking as a family, but in the meantime, I wanted to talk a little bit about marriage, and why it matters, and how my observations of my gay-married friends has deepened and strengthened my own marriage, and how grateful I am.

Here’s the thing: marriage is hard. It’s work. I’ve said it for years: getting married is one of the single bravest things a human being can do. Hell, it’s hard enough for us to live with ourselves, much less trying to live with another person. Now we all know the benefits and satisfaction of hard labor and a job well done; we all know what it’s like to look at the dirt under our fingernails and the grime on our knees and feel the ache of overworked muscles and know in our hearts that it’s bringing us one step closer gorgeous harvests come autumn. So is it true with a marriage: the work is good.  We also know that marriage, if it is done right, is predicated on the guarantee of tragedy. We will spend our entire lives knowing our spouses, and loving our spouses more than we love the breath in our lungs or the food on our lips or the sun on our skin. And then, one day, one of us will have to live without our partner – our best friend and dearest treasure. Love requires tragedy. There’s really no getting around that one – unless both partners die in a fiery wreck, which just sounds terribly unpleasant, so let’s remove that as a possibility.

So we hang on to each day because we know it is limited. And we make mistakes and we sometimes argue and we are sometimes blind, but in the end, we know that despite the work, what we have is precious.

Marriage is precious.

And it is because of that preciousness, and because of that temporal nature that we look to the married people around us as role models and as touchstones and as guides. The marriages of my friends and neighbors and parents and relatives and friends of relatives and everyone else in my broad and diverse community are all part of my marriage. I watch, I listen, I learn and I keep building towards the future. That’s how it works.

Gay marriage would not, and does not, hurt my marriage. Now, if any of my friends ever got divorced, it would – I know for sure – hurt my husband and I. Indeed, it already has. Divorce hurts marriages, not gay people saying “I do”. Gay marriage would not change how I think about marriage nor would it change how I teach my children about the importance of fidelity and honor and love. It wouldn’t change how I teach my children about the sacredness of sex. Indeed, if the state recognized gay marriage, it would provide me with an extra teaching tool – that it doesn’t matter if you’re gay or straight, because marriage matters and monogamy matters and you still have to do right by your partner. (I’m pretty conservative when it comes to that, actually.)

Gay marriage may actually strengthen marriage in this state. I believe that gay marriage as it stands now, despite it’s underground status, has already strengthened my marriage. Indeed, my gay married friends have – quite unintentionally – given me lesson after beautiful lesson on the building of a mutual life outside of the the assistance and blessing of the government. This is what they’ve taught me so far:

1. I learned that it’s not enough to rely upon the language of relationship to define a relationship. What does wife mean? Or husband? By removing the terms of the relationship, I was allowed to strip pretense away and observe the thing as it is: Something fragile, hungry and alive; something separate from me, separate from Ted; a life force with a path of its own, and it is my job – and his job – to protect it, love it, and follow it.

2. The celebration, the wedding, the community honor of a relationship that existed before the day of the ceremony and would exist after – well, it matters. Just like punctuation matters and pausing while speaking matters. Sometimes we need to take a breath, process what came before and prepare ourselves for what is next.

3. Divorce sucks. Doesn’t matter if your gay or straight, it hurts just the same – not only the couple in question, but the community surrounding the couple. Divorce hurts every marriage it touches. I’m not saying it should be outlawed or anything (I’m a SUPERPROGRESSIVE BLEEDING HEART LIBERAL, after all) but I do think we all need to acknowledge it. Divorce really really really sucks. So do broken hearts and broken homes and broken futures. And it makes me cry just thinking about it.

4. Don’t rely on the government to tell you what you already know. Whether you are gay or straight, it isn’t the piece of paper that makes you married. We marry in our hearts and in our minds and in our bodies. The piece of paper just makes it less of a hassle. And speaking of hassles:

5. Plan for everything. Two of my very good friends, who had a beautiful – though not government recognized – wedding, and raised two beautiful sons together, knew that they couldn’t take a single day for granted. The world is complicated and unpredictable, they told me, and life as we know it could be irreparably altered in a moment. But, because the state does not recognize their union, they had to bring their own recognition with them wherever they went: written power of attorney; adoption records; living wills; notorized documents stating that, in the event that one should be incapacitated, the other – and not their families – would have all rights and responsibilities of a spouse. Now, we all know that these documents are not always honored. But they did their best. They planned. They hoped for a better tomorrow.

6. Love the community you’re in; build the community you want. My friends know all about the pain of having one’s family or neighborhood or place of employment or church deny the tranformative power of their love for one another. They love their communities anyway. They volunteer and work for justice and teach classes and vote and give to charity. They also are very good at building new communities that are predicated on acceptance and tolerance and care.

Every marriage is a gift – to the couple, to their community, to the whole world. Every marriage requires bravery, tenacity, tolerance, insight and love. Every marriage deserves recognition and support, because the work is difficult and the benefits are tremendous.

Thank you, my married friends, both gay and straight. Thank you for your support and your instruction and your guidance in my own marriage. May your love thrive, expand and multiply. May it bless your lives, bless your city, bless your state and bless the world.

Love,

Kelly

http://www.yoga.com/filestorage/CMS/heart.jpg

On Entropy, Accretion and Exploding Novels

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There was a time in my life when I was a lot tougher than I am now. And though I was strong enough to break a man’s nose (and did once, but that is another story) that time in my life was marked – no, defined – by terrible, terrible fear.

When I was a teenager and early adult, I never feared death – which can partly explain the ridiculous risks that I took with my personal safety and well-being (walking alone through sketchy neighborhoods late at night, fist-fights, jumping off bridges for fun, dating boys who liked punching things, and etc.). I didn’t fear death at all. Now, I will heartily admit that I was (and I really and truly admit this) a certifiable idiot, which accounts for at least some of my…..misguided behavior. I was an athlete and very fast and very strong, and I somehow equated that with invincibility, with deathlessness, with indomitability.I was intoxicated with my body’s ability to preserve itself.

It wasn’t death that I was afraid of. It was decay. It was entropy. That my strength would ebb, diminish and fail. That my skin would stretch and fold and hang, that my eyes would dim and my ears would clog and my brain would muffle and cloud and fade. But mostly, I was terrified that, one day, after I had coughed and shuddered and stopped breathing forever, that every cell in my body would disassemble, disassociate, dissolve.

It was, at the time, a terrifying thought.

It wasn’t death that scared me. I knew that everything that breathed would stop, and that alive and dead were just two different sections of that same long road. I was pretty sure there was a heaven, and I was mostly sure that God had enough of a sense of humor to let me in. No, it was the corruption of the body that gave me the creeps. And kept me up at night. And haunted my dreams again and again and again.

http://blog.cleveland.com/pdextra/2007/08/large_zombie2.jpg

For a long time – for much of my twenties and into my thirties – this notion of entropy of dissolution – defined much of my understanding of the world. Entropy increases, I told myself. That is the nature of living: We form; we complicate; we undo; we fade; we blow away. We don’t just fall apart; we become food.

And I accepted it, and was okay with it, because it is true. Mostly.

Last year, I participated in a yearly workshop called Launch Pad, a program funded by NASA and the National Science Foundation. I wrote about the experience here. Now, after listening to lectures for eight hours a day and looking through telescopes at night and reading textbooks until the wee hours before finally falling asleep in a desk chair, waking with a crick in your neck, and heading out to do it all again – for an entire week….. well, it leaves an indelible mark on a person, I’ll tell you what. I felt the metaphors upon which my understanding of the world was organized start to shift, wobble and reform.

We are all made of stardust, our professors told us. Every atom in your body, every atom that surrounds you was once part of a star. That star exploded into dust. That dust became a new star, a new system, and everything began again. Indeed, our universe, being about 13.7 billion years old, went through some pretty dynamic changes along the way before morphing into the images that we’ve all seen and loved from Hubble and other beloved telescopes.

http://www.mhs-science.org.uk/images/Horse%27s%20Head%20Nebula%20Hubble.jpg

The first stars that formed in that primordial soup of dark matter (about 100 million years or so after the Big Bang) and glowing plasma were hot and bright and brief. Live fast, die young, indeed. They exploded, sent their matter across the universe, and their atoms bound to other atoms, and more, and more until they accreted into stars. And then those stars exploded and the process started again.

The point is that the atoms that made me were not just in one stars, but more likely they were from many. And from everywhere.

I tried to explain that to my son. He thought about it for a while, and said, “You mean when Buzz Lightyear said, ‘To Infinity And Beyond’, he was talking about me?”

“Yes,” I said. Leo was thrilled.

And while the central bulge of our galaxy was formed while the universe was still very young, our own star is under five billion years old. How many other stars were born, lived and died before our own emerged?

Billions.

And billions.

A star explodes and becomes dust. Another star explodes and the shock wave incites the dust to become stars. Such is the nature of things.

And I bring this up because I’m working on a book.

A book that I destroyed.

A book that I exploded.

A book that became dust, ash and wind. That became plasma and fire and energy. That was given over to the universe as an offering. A book that fell apart, bloated, liquified, decayed, jellied and became food. A book that I left for dead.

A nebula is the dusty, gassy, dissolved remains of an exploded star. It is also the dynamic womb for a forming star. It is both. I like things that can be both. There are entire universes in both.

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/7/72/Omega_Nebula.jpg/250px-Omega_Nebula.jpg

The thing is, as far as my process goes, this is nothing new. I start books in a flurry of heat and light. They are all I can think about. They are all I can do. And then they collapse. And I need to learn to accept the collapsing. I need to learn that entropy is part of my creative process. Hell, my book that’s coming out this summer, The Mostly True Story of Jack, ground to a halt no less than twenty times while I was writing it. My book that’s appearing next year – Iron Hearted Violet –  had to sit and wait for an entire year before I could finish it.

I start books; I create universes; I foment stars, and then I blow them up and leave huge clouds of dust behind.

Last year, I’ve been suffering from an increase of entropy.

Or, it isn’t so much that I have experienced the entropy, but the book did. I shouldn’t be surprised, not really. This is how I make books. I wrote The Firebirds of Lake Erie last year. Wrote the end. Hated the end. Erased the end.

Then I erased the last third.

Then I erased the last half.

Then I left it for dead.

Recently, I felt a shockwave. A jolt. The energetic pulse of an exploding supernova, half a universe away, and it knocked me out of bed and onto my knees. The book was in pieces. It was subatomic. But the tiny bits were starting to coalesce. They were starting to stick. And I think I know what to do now. The thing that was dust is becoming book. And it was good.

This makes me happy, because the other book I started last fall – Witless Ned and the Speaking Stones - suffered a similar implosion in February. So now I just have to trust that the undulating cloud of dusty novel bits will one day shudder, tremble and live. And the best thing I can do for poor Ned is to leave him be.

Change exists. Matter recombines. The Universe reinvents itself again and again and again. There is no death. There is no destruction.  There is only formation and history and newness and memory and structure and pattern and arc.  And, deep in our souls, is the unshakable knowledge every atom within us gleams with the memory of stars.

http://www.universetoday.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/02/sirius-580x550.jpg

*******

I told my son that all the matter in his body was formed when the universe was formed, and that his atoms are as old as the Big Bang. He thought about that for a while.

“You mean that I’m the same age as you?” he asked.

“Yup,” I said. “In a matter of speaking.”

“Well,” he said, “next time you do something naughty, I’m totally going to send you to your room.”

And GOD gaveth her a SON to teacheth her HUMILITY

In honor of the recent anniversary of the King James Bible, I’ve been thinking a lot about admonishments – from clergy, from doctors, from teachers, from little old neighbor ladies, from televangelists, from uptight uncles, and from moms. This mom, specifically.

Because holy hell, do I ever admonish.

Just to illustrate this point, here is a list of the admonishments from today given by me (THE MOTHER) to Leo (THE SON).

1. Do NOT punch your sister in the face.

2. Do NOT punch your sister in the butt.

3. Do NOT punch your dog in the butt.

4. Do NOT rip the picture out of that book.

5. I do not care if it would look good on your wall.

6. Do NOT bury my cell phone in the garden.

7. Tell me where my cell phone is THIS MINUTE.

8. No, you may NOT play video games.

9. No, not even if you give me a hundred bucks.

10. No, I will NOT give you a hundred bucks.

11. Do NOT dump that can of paint on the floor.

12. No I will NOT help you look up instructions on how to build a bomb.

13. No you may NOT feed the toothpaste to the dog.

14. Tell me where your dog is THIS MINUTE.

15. No you may NOT stick that screwdriver into that outlet.

16. Do NOT turn on that stove. I MEAN IT!

And so forth.

And that was just today. And he was at school for six hours of today.

I remember once having a discussion in a Theology class about biblical God-as-Father metaphors as opposed to God-as-Mother. Mothers, the thinking goes, nurture. Fathers oversee. Mothers forgive; fathers admonish.

But that’s not been my experience. I admonish. I admonish a lot. I think admonishment is a form of nurturing. We admonish when we need to stop danger, foolishness or downright stupidity right in its tracks. We admonish when we need to give our children a vigorous and no-nonsense view into the consequences of the very, very poor choice they are about to make.

Admonishments are nurturing on steroids. They are the things we yell, wail, yodel and screech to keep our children from hurling themselves over the goddamn cliff.

Is this an argument then, for the adoption of the God-as-Mother metaphor as opposed to God-as-Father? If three-quarters of the bible is a list of don’t’s, can’t’s, don’t-even-think-about-it’s, and OH-FOR-THE-LOVE-OF-PETE-WHAT-DID-YOU-JUST-DO, then I am well on my way to godishness. Because, in the end, as much as we’d all prefer the whole big, fluffy, amorphous marshmallow in the sky, the fact is that much of the world’s population is built like Leo, and actually needs an admonishment or two along the way. So maybe we all need to channel our inner nosy-neighbors, our inner strict teachers, and our inner royally pissed off mothers and start admonishing the hell out of anyone and everyone who needs it.

I think we all need to start admonishing. Today. Tomorrow. Every day.

For example:

1. No you may NOT publish racist pseudo-science studies. (That means YOU, Psychology Today!)

2. No you may NOT negate the fourth amendment. (Supreme Court, I’m giving you the stink-eye)

3. No you may NOT write bigotry into our state’s constitution. (That’s right, Minnesota. You’re on my list.)

You know? I actually feel better. Admonishing is great! Who would you people like to admonish?

First Lines

Just a quick post today, as I hurry out the door to conduct my very last story-writing workshop at Chanhassen Elementary. But I wanted to share with you just a tiny bit of what these kids are doing.

I like to start my residencies with a workshop on First Lines. I do this for a number of reasons – firstly, because it’s a very non-threatening place to start for the possibly-reluctant writer. (“Hey!” I tell them. “We’re not writing full stories yet. Just a sentence. The first sentence of a story that you would like to read someday.” See how tricky I am? And see how I educate these children in the fine art of Self-Delusion, so necessary for a life built on fictions and lies.) Secondly, because it is the first line that sparks our love in stories. It is the first line that draws us in. It’s the first line that knocks us out of balance and forces us forward in our search for equilibrium.

The first line matters.

So I put the kids to work. And holy heck, do they ever produce. And they produce material that is so much richer so much more authentic than any worksheet or teaching aid that I could produce. This, of course, allows me to be lazy, which I appreciate.

Here are some of their first lines:

-It was never my intention to rule the world. I didn’t even want to rule my own town. But now I’m stuck with it.

- It is coming. Fast and faster than I could run.

-When I woke up, I was in jail.

- Nobody knows that I’m an alien.

- My mother is a dancer. My father is a dance. I have been dancing since before I was born.

- Do you know what an ordinary Saturday is like? Well lucky for you, because I don’t.

- He heard the hunters getting closer. He checked his watch. “Perfect timing,” he said.

- In the darkness, the white willows shone like ghosts and the moon shone like a shield.

YOU GUYS. These kids are amazing, and I will miss them.

In Which Kelly Barnhill Reveals Herself (yet again) To Be A Total Moron

It’s a well-known fact that I am not, nor have I ever been, the sharpest knife in the drawer, nor the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree nor the quickest cart in the Home Depot Parking Lot Shopping Cart Derby. And et cetera. Indeed, I am so many sandwiches short of a picnic, you may as well call me a snack.

Case in point:

This morning, after a hot, unsettled night, it was cool, fresh and lovely. But the third floor of my house is still ragingly hot, so I, being a Dedicated Housewife, planning ahead for my Day of Cleaning, thought it would be a Good Idea to open all the windows upstairs (which had been closed during the night because of the rain) so as to cool the area down to make cleaning it feel less like the imposed punishment/drudgery of some circle of hell, and more like a musical sequence from a 1950’s domestic comedy. Like Donna Reed, for example. Or Father Knows Best.

The trouble is, our two northern-facing windows – and the most important for catching a cross-breeze and cooling the room – were locked, and they’re positioned above the stairs, and they have locks that are easily accessible by my ludicrously tall husband (who was sleeping soundly) and not accessible by me. The lady with the cleaning products. And the frilly apron and the house dress and the pink polkadotted cleaning gloves.

(That last sentence may be a lie.)

In any case, I, being an industrious lady, being a liberated woman, being a woman of strength and cunning who does not need – nay, who does not want – to wake up her husband simply to use him for his impressive height, and who can open that window all by her own damn self got a chair. And positioned it on the triangular landing. And stepped right up.

Did you notice the phrase triangular landing? Hmm. That’s funny. Neither did I.

I fell.

No, toppled.

No, avalanched. I avalanched down the stairs.

My stairway wall now has a hole in it. I managed to hit the corner of the chair and the post and the railing on the way down. And now I have a colossal bruise on my bum.

“Wow,” my darling husband said as he examined my injury. “It’s exactly in the shape of Winston Churchill.”

“It is?” I asked, straining my neck to get a better look at my injured arse. I couldn’t see it.

“Almost exactly,” he said, and showed me the picture he snapped with his cellphone. And you know what? It really did look like Winston Churchill.

I asked him to erase the bum photograph.

He said he’d think about it.

(I may have made up that part too.)

The Perils of Photography (or, My Life-Long Obsession With Oscar Wilde)

My whole life, I’ve wanted to be this guy:

http://www.wilsonsalmanac.com/images2/wilde_recline_sm.jpg

Oscar Wilde. Man of wit, elegance and grace. His stories were delicate, lovely and brutal. He managed to be both honest and coy at the same time and managed a frankness in literary subterfuge that I have always admired and will never, ever master. Indeed, I’ll never come close. He was lovely to behold, lovely on the page; his words could insinuate themselves into underclothes, convince buttons and laces to spontaneously undo, unravel a “yes” with the flick of an eye.

What I’m saying is that dude got around, and got some. And bully for him.

And he’s my total hero.

Which may sound weird, given that I’m a happily married (and matronly) wife and mama of three. Why is it that I am so utterly, utterly delighted by Oscar Wilde? Honestly, I have no idea, but I’ve been in love with him since I was eleven years old – when I first read “The Fisherman and His Soul”, and I’ve never looked back.

I love him for his cunning duality, his dark humor, his moral ambivalence. I love him for his loneliness, for his joyful and unabashed love of his own body and its appetites, for his hunger for true love, even as it eluded him. Even as it betrayed him. Also, to be perfectly frank, I love him for his fashion sense.

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Indeed, if I were to name my two fashion heroes in life, it would be Oscar Wilde and Catherine the Great. Because if I could pull off these outfits (which, by the way, I can’t. As I mentioned: matronly; mama-ish) I totally would.

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Oh Oscar! That wrap! That saucy mug! That hat pulled rakishly to one side! That is the face of a young man who honestly wants nothing more than to make love to the entire world, and I for one thinks that he should go right on ahead. But first, he must sit at my table so that I may feed him as he tells me stories.

And the only reason why I bring up my dear, dear Oscar at all is because the good folks at Little, Brown were pestering me last week for a photograph. Something authory and not-horrible, which was problematic, because I have an issue with taking not-horrible photographs. Or, in other words, I tend to be so terribly un-photogenic that cameras, when they are in my vicinity, have been known to spontaneously combust and sometimes explode.

I will never be Oscar Wilde! I will never be dashing or debonair or devastatingly clever. Oh Oscar! A lifetime of loving you and yet you give me nothing! It’s enough to make a lady want to despair.

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Still, a photograph was owed, so I endeavored to do my best. I had already made it clear that I did not want any images of me to appear on my book at all. Indeed, as a reader, I always find it jarring to see a snapshot of the author who wrote the book on the book. Do I need to know what the carpenter looked like who made my diningroom table? Or the craftsman who built my piano? Or the architect who designed my house?

(Actually, scratch that one. The guy who designed my house also lives in my house. He eats the food that I cook and wears the clothes that I wash and sleeps in the bed where I sleep and I love him very much.)

Anyway, the point is that I had a very bad attitude about any publicity photograph involving yours truly. I didn’t see the point, I was sure that the results would be horrifying, and for god’s sake it would just be further proof that I was not, nor would I ever be, as awesome as Oscar Wilde, and it was as though the universe was just rubbing it in.

Fortunately for me, I have nice friends.  Bruce Silcox, photographer, and all-around Nice Person, was kind enough to snap some photos for me. I’ve known Bruce for years – our daughters have been friends since Kindergarten – and he managed to quell any camera-exploding mojo that I had radiating from my skin. And he took a few good pictures.

I’m not Oscar Wilde, and I never will be. I am neither dashing nor quick-witted nor devastatingly handsome. I do not write with his sly grace, nor his looming heatbreak. I do not have the power to make men weep for me like he could. Still, my lifelong obsession with Oscar Wilde has built me into the writer I am today. He was my first love, my first writer-crush, and I will always appreciate him for it.

I will never photograph as well as he could on an off-day. Still I like these pictures a lot. So I feel a strange kinship with my hero right now, and I have a hankering to say something devastatingly witty to someone who richly deserves it. Perhaps I need to be invited to more dinner parties. Or, even better, perhaps I should start crashing dinner parties.

Yes. I think I would like that very much.

Why I love teaching

I can barely hold my fingers steady over the keyboard at present, and will be soon, and gratefully, folding my tired little carcass into my covers and sleeping for something in the order of one thousand years, but I wanted to take minute to write about how very, very, very much I love teaching.

And, of course, I’ve written before about my secret joy in corrupting the youth of America,  as well as the benefits in having a legion of minions in the quest for my ultimate goal of one day ruling the world, but I’ve never written before about the world’s best kept secrets of our culture’s most over-worked, under-valued and precious profession.

Actually, you should come a little closer, so I can whisper it to you.

No, closer.

You ready? Here’s the secret:

Teaching is a pleasure.

“WHAT?” you say. “But what about standardized tests? What about behavior problems? What about paperwork? What about nasty politicians who demonize you and claim that your meager salaries are the cause of our economic meltdowns and lousy job markets?” [Author's note:They didn't.]

And yes, that’s all true. Teaching is a difficult and wrenching job, unnecessarily burdened by pointless forms and interminable meetings and the by-products of a society that has effectively ignored and punished its poor.

But still.

Those children!

Those beautiful, grubby, snarky, graphite-smudged, over-sugared, silly, curious, responsive, smart, creative, lovely, lovely children. After only one hour in their classroom, they were already ready with damp hugs and furtive whispers of, “you’re coming back tomorrow, right?

Yes, my darlings, I’m coming back tomorrow, I assured them. And they grinned their gappy grins.

The reasons why I am no longer a full-time classroom teacher – well, they are many. The crummy job security for one. The hours for another. And my career at present allows me to balance my passions as a writer with the needs of my children, and I appreciate that very much. But in any case, I do love the way my life is currently, that I have this opportunity to, every once in a while, access my teacher self. To remind myself of the indescribable joy that I had while managing a classroom.

Teaching requires patience, kindness, an iron will, and  skin thicker than a rhinoceros’. It requires a willingness to endure logic-less exchanges with one’s superiors, to make books and resources and supplies appear out of thin air like magic, and to leap tall buildings in a single bound (well, I can’t do that, but I’ve seen it happen, and I’ve seen the teachers who do it every day – despite what Certain Documentarians have to say about it).  It requires you to bear the pain that some of your students must bear every day – to witness it, feel it, and fight like hell to make it better. It requires one to accept foot aches, back aches, ulcers, kidney infections, gray hair, and wrinkles the size of canyons between the brows and around the mouth. It requires late nights, early mornings, hollowed out zombie eyes.

But in return – moments of grace, moments of clarity, moments of joy and love, love and love again. In teaching, we love the whole child – the child they are, the child they were,  and the adult they will become. We get to see the future in this job, and that ain’t nuthin’.

Teaching is an act of love, and we’d all do well to remember that. And I’m glad that, in my sporadic return to the classroom world, I get a chance to remember it, and re-remember it. Because it makes me appreciate all the more the men and women who have dedicated their lives to teaching my children. And your children. And my neighbors’ children and the children who may one day read my books, and the children who will one day drive my busses and fix my plumbing and heal my illnesses and run my country and lovingly bury me when I’m dead and gone. Each one of those kids had legions of teachers who guided them, worried about them and loved them.

So I feel pretty lucky. And happy. Despite the fact that right now, I’m so tired I feel as though I’ve been sapped utterly – I am dry leaf, dry grass, a papery husk in an insistent wind –  it’s been a pretty good day. And I’m looking forward to tomorrow.

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