Feral Children

A typical scene on my block.

A typical scene on my block.

The other day, I had my writing group over for dinner so they could eviscerate discuss my new book The Boy Who Loved Birds, which I am still considering erasing forever. It was one of those perfect evenings in Minnesota – pleasantly warm with a gentle breeze, all blossom and fragrance and birdsong and green, green, green, green. My back yard bumps right out onto park land, so from the table on the patio, you look out onto a green slope and a green field and a tangle of woods and a swollen creek with a charming footbridge arching prettily over the water. If you look up idyllic in the dictionary, I’m pretty sure it says Kelly Barnhill’s goddamned patio.

Anyway, somewhere between the tortellini and the wine and the orange popsicles, a scene unfolded before us – familiar enough to me, but my comrades were stunned by it. A troop of shirtless boys – a couple with hand-torn strips of cloth tied around their heads in makeshift headbands – came tramping down the hill, passing by the yard and heading over to the fallen down willow tree by the water’s edge. The boys in my neighborhood call it “The Fort” or “The Village”. The girls call it “The Fairy Tree”. Obviously, the girls have the correct name, but we try not to make the boys feel bad about it.

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Two of the littler girls trailed behind. To the untrained eye, it looked like they were tagging along. For those of us in the know, it is clear that they are there to a.) be in charge and b.) collect evidence for future tattling, blackmailing or politicking. They stopped on the hill to roll down it – boys and girls together. When they got to the bottom, they stood as if this was the most normal way possible to travel downhill, and proceeded to march across the field.

“Hey kids!” I called out to them.

“Hey Kelly,” the kids called back. Or some of them did anyway. My son ignored me entirely. They tramped by and disappeared into the green.

My writing group turned to me.

“You live in a damn Norman Rockwell painting,” they said.

“Is it like this all the time?” they wondered.

And the thing is? On my block, yes. It is like this all the time. Kids wander this way and that – from back yard to tangled wood to alley to bridge to riverbank to field to garage to basement to somebody’s kitchen to back yard and back to the field. They travel on bikes, on scooters, on roller blades, on skateboards and on foot. When the field floods they bring out paddle boards or kayaks. Sometimes they try to wrestle giant carp swimming in the shallow waters covering the grass. From time to time, parents will text or call with the whereabouts of this child or that child. If I am looking for my son, for example, I’ll check with the parents across the street, and if they don’t know, I’ll ask the parents next door to them, and if they don’t know I’ll check with the family down the block, and if they don’t know, I rely on the fact that I can call out really really loud (it’s one of the perks of being a former singer – I project) and eventually my son hears me and comes home.

The kids here. They run wild. It is good that they run wild.

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“Do you want to just tell your kids that they’re not allowed to grow up to be messed up? Do you tell them look at what we have provided for you! It’s perfect!”

Unfortunately, even the most idyllic childhood doesn’t rescue us from having our own dark nights of the soul. Pain – physical, emotional, spiritual – is inevitable. We were born broken. We will die broken. We will be broken along the way. However, I like to think that this little kid paradise tucked into Minneapolis will give them something special as they muddle their way through the perils of childhoods into the skins of the men and women that they will become. I hope that the wild children that they are right now remains an essential part of who they will be. I hope that, even when they are old, that their souls are still muddy, grubby, grass-stained, sweaty, hard-muscled, bright-eyed, and still utterly, utterly wild.

One of the benefits of the feral childhood – because, let’s be clear. That’s what they have. Sure they brush their teeth when they are told and do their homework on command and clean their rooms when under duress and come in for dinner after only the seventh or eighth warning, but they are far from domesticated – is that they have this opportunity to claim the world that they inhabit. This is a powerful thing for a child – something unavailable to them when they’re at school or baseball practice or church or grandma’s house. When they roll down the hill and tramp across the field, there is no rule that they do not negotiate and agree on among themselves. There are no clocks or watches. There are no gold stars or percent marks or work books. Heck, there aren’t even shirts half the time.

In the green world, there is only now.

In the green world, there is only us.

Here are my hands, the children say. They belong to me.

Here is the grass, their voices shout. It belongs to me as well.

Here is this stick. It was made for my hands. Here are my arms. And my muscles. They were made to wave this stick around. There is no truth but motion. There is no rule but play. There is no reality outside of myself and this stick and this mud and this tree and this water and this green. This is the only world that matters. 

Here is this field they say. It belongs to us. Here is the creek. It also belongs to us. And so does the sky and everything under it. How good – how very good it is to be THIS boy. And THIS girl. This very one. 

There is no greater thing on earth than a child in motion.  Bless you, my children. Bless all of you. May you own the world forever.

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A quick update on my 1,000-year-old…. actually 1,001-year old dog.

The internet is a funny place. I wrote this piece about my ancient, beloved, sometimes foul-tempered, and often stinky, but always utterly herself, cattle-dog-mix – gosh, almost a year ago – and suddenly it has gotten approximately one skillion views over the last two days. Randomly. And people are commenting like mad and sending me beautiful, passionate, and soulful emails, telling me the story of their own beloved pets – those still hanging on, and those tenderly carried into their next grand adventure in that dog park in the sky.

And people are asking: how is Harper? Is she still alive?

And it’s a good question. On my block there are a lot of kids and a LOT of dogs. And this year, two very beloved animals left us, and we are all incredibly sad about it. (One of them, Gebo, just passed a couple weeks ago. My little son is heartbroken. Here is his tender tribute. Be careful clicking. You will smile through your flowing tears.)

As for Harper – she’s great! At the very youngest, she is 18 now, but she is likely over 20. That is friggin’ old. But she is tough. And she’s hanging on. Still kicking, still stinking up the place. Still barking her head off at doggie passers-by (my sweet Alpha female, though enfeebled, is still a dang Alpha – and she makes sure the world knows it). She is slowing down, for sure. She snuggles up at my feet while I write. She still gives the stink-eye to the gaggles of boys who tear up and down our stairs and pretend to be slain by lasers and fart on purpose and for no reason. (She is not alone in her stinky-eye, I have to admit.) And while she can’t go as far as she used to, she still enjoys a hike in the forest, and still enjoys her yard, and still eats her food (and the occasional peanut butter sandwich crust, should the Universe provide) and still seems perfectly happy to be here.

There is a truism among parents that one of the benefits of pet-ownership is that it helps to teach kids about death. I think this is true, but it is not the most important lesson that our dogs (and other furry family members) teach us. They teach us about compassion, too. They teach us to be patient. They teach us that life isn’t just short, it’s also fragile. They teach us that it’s important to be a noticer. To put into words what we see in others. Leo is incredibly aware of Harper’s good days and bad days. Sometimes Harper moves more slowly than others. Sometimes she shakes. Sometimes she is in pain. On those days, Leo slows his feet. He asks me when the last time she had her pain meds. He sits down on the floor and rests his arm on her back. Sometimes, he reads her a story.

Having an aging animal teaches us to hang on to each day.

Having an aging animal teaches us to find moments of grace in very small things.

Having an aging animal teaches us to take our responsibility as pet owners incredibly seriously. They look at us, these animals. They see us to our centers. They demand that we do the same.

Look at me, Harper’s eyes say. I’m counting on you.

I know, honey, my eyes say back. I’m here. I’ll be here with every wobbly step. I’ll be here with every good day and bad. I’ll be here with every rattly breath and every contented sigh. I’ll be here when you’re sick. I’ll be here when you’re well. And I’ll be here at the very end.

I promise.

When kids love pets, they learn how to promise. They learn how to care. They learn how to notice. They learn how to empathize. They learn how to nurture. They learn how to tend. They learn how to love. They learn how to say good-bye. These are good things to learn.

Haper is still alive. For now. As we all are. We will hang on to each day until we can’t. It is a blessed thing, really. And I am grateful.

Thank you to everyone who wrote in and told me your stories. I really appreciate them. I honor them. Thank you for sharing your great love with me. Honestly, it means the world.

Much love,

KB

PSA: Do not hire these children. At least not as party-planners.

Fun fact: I turn forty on Saturday. I am ridiculously excited about it.

Really, it’s kind of silly for me to be excited at all, given that I’ve been telling people that I’m forty for the last eight years. I figured, at thirty-two, with three kids and a dog and a minivan and a house and a community garden plot, that it didn’t matter what age I told people I was. They’d hear forty no matter what I said. So I thought I’d just beat them to the punch. So one would think, given that situation, that my upcoming foray into forty would seem somewhat anticlimactic. But one would think wrong.

I am crazy-thrilled to be forty. I want to give forty a big, wet kiss. I want to take it places and buy it pretty baubles and romance its panties off. I want to take forty home and introduce her to Mother. I want to eat forty chocolates and drink forty sips of wine and run forty miles and catch forty winks and dream forty dreams.

And yet, I’ve made no plans. Because I stink at making plans. So I put it to my kids. This was our conversation:

ME: So. It’s my birthday on Saturday.

THE KIDS: It is? But we’re not ready!

ME: There’s nothing to be ready about. We’re just going to hang out.

CORDELIA: Mom. What do you want for your birthday? And don’t say socks.

ME: Socks.

CORDELIA: MOM!

(All I ever want is socks. Wool stripey socks. And I never get them.)

ME: But we should do something fun. What should we do?

LEO: I know! Skyzone!

(Do you guys know Skyzone? It’s a huge concrete bunker filled with trampolines, and Leo wants to live there. Here’s a picture:

ME: We are not going to Skyzone.

LEO: Is that because you hate fun?

ELLA: We have to do something that mom likes to do.

CORDELIA: What does mom like to do?

LEO: Grocery shop?

CORDELIA: LET’S GO GROCERY SHOPPING!

ME: We are not going grocery shopping.

ELLA: Are you going to make us clean?

CORDELIA: I hate cleaning.

ELLA: It’s decided. No cleaning on birthdays.

LEO: Mom. I got it. The water park. It’s perfect.

ME: Nah.

LEO: WHY NOT?

ME: Too much man-sweat and back-tats.

LEO: I don’t even know what that means. You’re not making sense.

ELLA: You guys are terrible at this game.

CORDELIA: WE CAN GO TO THE CRAFT STORE AND YOU CAN BUY US THINGS!

LEO: That’s not as fun as a trampoline.

ELLA: Everything is more fun than a trampoline.

CORDELIA: Let’s go to the Mall of America! And shop!

LEO AND ELLA: MOM HATES THE MALL OF AMERICA AND SHOPPING.

ELLA: And probably America. Mom is a communist.

ME: I prefer “pinko”.

LEO: Mom. Just tell us.

And so I considered.

ME: I know. Let’s go to the book store. And then the sock store. How’s that?

My children shook their heads slowly, long-suffering expressions marring their beautiful faces.

ELLA: Oh, mom.

CORDELIA: Poor, poor mom.

LEO: You really stink at having a birthday.

But they are wrong. I am rocking this thing already.

More proof that babies are brought by the stork.

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In a lot of ways, I’m grateful that my kids are nothing like me. I’m the most disorganized person in the world. Messy. Distractible. I can’t draw. I can’t keep cupboards organized. I lose socks. I can’t balance checkbooks. Forms confuse me. I sometimes lose steam on projects due to crushingly low self-esteem. I didn’t do that great in school and I royally sucked at standardized tests. The things I could do well in childhood (and if we’re being honest, adulthood too) fit on an index card: tell stories, talk about stories, sing songs and make people feel wonderful about themselves. That’s pretty much it.

My kids, though. They are not like me at all. They are focused. Intense. Wicked smart. And crazily organized. So where does that come from? How does a So Not Type-A She’s Practically Type-Z And If There Was A Past-Type-Z She’d Be That mom give rise to three very Type-A kids. Even Leo – my sweet Leo! – if viewed through the lens of third-grade-boydom is pretty dang Type-A. He keeps his drawings organized and his magic cards organized and his Scouts stuff organized, and he does his homework the SECOND he gets home so he can check it off on his checklist. He’s even starting to organize his legos. (Good luck, kid.)

But of the three, it’s my middle child who is not just Type-A. She’s Type-A+. We went to her parent teacher conference the other day, and got to hear her teacher gushing about how organized she is, what a leader she is, how she comes up with creative ways to make even dry subject matter come alive. How she organizes other students into schemes to enrich the class – skits, songs, interpretive dance, all with an eye to making learning interesting and collaborative and fun.

“Yep,” I said. “Of my three kids, she’s the one who was born to run things.”

“My guess is that she’ll be my boss someday,” her teacher said. “Or maybe she already is.”

At home, she writes up schedules for the family. She makes goal statements. She starts making homemade Christmas presents in July. She is eleven for god’s sake, and she’s already written out the christmas cookie baking schedule.

We are going out East this year for Thanksgiving – something that we usually don’t do, but it was the only time to get Ted’s side of the family all together. And because it’s not the usual time that we travel, it kind of snuck up on me this year. I was eating dinner with the kids, and my oldest remarked that she has a two-day week next week.

“What?” I said. “Why?”

“Thanksgiving, mom,” my oldest said.

“Are you sure it’s November?” I said. I had honestly forgotten. All three rolled their eyes.

Mom,” they sighed.

“Huh,” I said. “Well. I suppose you guys should pack this weekend. Then you won’t have to do it after school when you’re crazed.”

“You should pack too, Mom,” said my middle child.

“I totally will,” I assured her. But I won’t. I am physically unable to pack before T-minus-five-minutes. I make sure everyone else is packed, and I check their bags to do a socks-and-underwear-count and that there are enough sweaters. For myself, I shove stuff in a bag and hope for the best.

“Well,” my middle said. “I’m already packed.”

“Really?” I said. “We don’t leave for a week.”

“I’ve been packed for a while.”

“How long?”

“Two weeks.”

Two weeks?”

“Maybe three.” She blushed. “I like to make sure the things I want are clean. And maybe I’ll forget what I like to have when it’s almost time to go. I also packed my activity bag. They’re under my bed. I made a list for you, Mom.”

What kind of crazy person packs in advance? My own little crazies, that’s who. They did not get this tendency from me, and they certainly didn’t get it from their dad. They arrived – a crystalline distillation of their Utter Selves, hard, bright, whole, and completely separate from me. And I love this about them, even as it makes my heart break to pieces. They are growing. Even as we sit at that table, they are light and cloud and wind. Energy. Change. Potentialities. They are growing wings. And they will fly away.

(this thing that I have. this life. it will pass away. indeed, it is passing already. and oh, my heart, and oh, my heart, my heart, my heart.)

“You think I’m weird, don’t you,” she accused.

“No, darling. You’re the most normal thing in my life. I’m the weird one. Good thing I have you.”

(What will I do without you? whispers my heart.

I have no idea, I whisper back.)

A friendly note to the gentleman who nearly killed me today. (Caution: Contains swearing.)

Dear Sir,

I can only assume that the text message that you were avidly sending was far more important than safely transporting yourself from point A to point B. (Where were you coming from, and where were you going? Home to work, and back again? Are there people that will miss you in either place? Are there people who would reject you if you had, as you nearly did, become a murderer?)

I am the woman in the red minivan – the Very Nice Mom – that you nearly murdered today. There were four kids in the car as well – Nice Children, all.

Look. You can’t pretend that you weren’t texting. You were. I know you were. I can see it a mile off. I can see the telltale swerve, the lack of spacial awareness, the sudden loss of speed control. I can tell by the ghastly pallor thrown upon your face by the tiny but powerful screen’s ghoulish glow. And really, that’s a blessing. Because I was ready for you.

Had I not been – had I not been prepared to employ my well-trained Jedi Mom Car Tricks (there are special schools. every mom in a minivan is well versed in how to turn their cars into physics-defying, futuristic bits of magic. But perhaps you knew this. Perhaps this is why you didn’t care to be safe.) – you surely would have slammed your sedan into the side of my car, sending me off the bridge. It nearly happened. Here is who you might have killed.

1. A Very Nice Mom. She bakes cookies and cooks excellent soup and welcomes strangers into her home and makes them feel welcome. She tells jokes and writes books and loves her neighbors and is loved in return.

2. Four Very Nice Kids. These kids, of course, both outnumber and outweigh the Very Nice Mom. They are precious – both to me, and to the world. And they should be precious to you. These kids are the ones who may restart your stopped heart on the operating table someday. Or invent the drug that restores your granddaughter’s sight. Or write the book that makes you believe in God again. Or marry your nephew. Or spoon soup into your withered lips during your last, waning days of life. But you don’t care about that. Your text, apparently, was far more important.

Look. I get it that you’re afraid – afraid of loneliness, afraid of inadequacy, afraid of irrelevancy. I understand your fears. There should be another fear at play though. Fear of assholery. Because make no mistake: you are a fucking asshole. I do hope that’s clear.

You went careening from one side of the freeway to the other as you went flying out of the cloverleaf entrance. You did not look. You did not care. You nearly killed us, but I was faster, smarter, and more nimble. Yay, me. What you did, sir, can only be classified as a dick move. And I hate you for it.

Look, you are not alone. There are other assholes. Hell, I counted eight on my drive home. But make no mistake. IF YOU TEXT AND DRIVE YOU ARE A FUCKING ASSHOLE. And if you harm another person while texting and driving, you are a fucking asshole forever. And I fear this is in the cards for you, sir. I mean, Dick.

Fuck you.

Love,

Kelly

And then they fly away.

This morning, we got up at four in the morning, ate, made tea, and hauled suitcases out to the car. I wrapped my arms around my thirteen-almost-fourteen-year-old girl-child and pressed my cheek to her ear. I curled my fingers around the globe of her skull. I smelled her hair and held her ponytail in my fist.

“Mom,” she said. “You’re crying again.”

“No I’m not,” I said, scooping a bucketload of tears from the hollows under my eyes.

My husband and I couldn’t both go to see her off because of the rules governing unaccompanied minors on airplanes (you can take your kid to the gate, but you must do it alone, and you must watch the child of your body go careening into the sky alone, and you must walk the lonely corridors of the airport alone. This is your fate.) so my husband went instead of me. I said goodbye in the kitchen.

She is scared. She is excited. She is both.

I am sending my firstborn infant into an airplane. And she will go off to camp for three weeks – three weeks! – with a bunch of other smarty-pantses at the Center for Talented Youth at Johns Hopkins University and she will learn Cryptography. And she will probably get recruited by the CIA or some other spy organization that I have never heard of and I will never see her again. And she will sleep in dorms and eat in the cafeteria and talk to boys whose mothers I do not know.

And my heart is broken in pieces.

I prefer my children to stay on the ground.

I also prefer that they stay in their rooms and never grow up.

Both of these things are an impossibility.

Every day she becomes the woman that she will be, and every day she becomes more and more herself, and every day she leaves me behind. This is the way of things. Our children do not belong to us. They belong to themselves. And they belong to the world.

I just hope the world is grateful. Because, damn. That girl rules.

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(And oh! I miss my girl.)

On Vanishing, Precious Things.

Lake Nokomis Beach, remaining its awesome self.

I had the best day today. I am sick with grief. Both are true.

It is Friday. I am covered in sand. And I am sunburnt. The sand will flow away down the drain and the sunburn will fade and fade. I am trying to hang onto something. This day. This afternoon. This sunlight and sand. Children in the water. The smell of sunblock. The screech of their voices. The shimmer of skin. Their hard-muscled bodies launching into the sky.

And I am getting ahead of myself.

My daughters left just before lunch to do a bible study with their grandpa (it is one of his great joys at this stage of his life: those two beautiful girls; the mysteries of the Universe bound in text and paper; the certainty of limitless love) and my son and I were left to our own devices. We had already had breakfast, made banana bread, explored the storm damage along the swollen creek and looked for frogs.

“I’m bored,” Leo said the second the girls left.

“Let’s walk to the beach,” I said.

He looked at the sky. It was still gray and damp with a little bit of post-storm chill lingering in the air. “Really?” he said. Then he shrugged, slid into his swimtrunks and we walked to the lake.

(I am trying to cling to something precious. I cannot hold on. It vanishes the moment my fingers clasp around it. I am grasping at smoke; I am trying to snag starlight with a string.)

We were the only ones there, save for three lifeguards who lounged on the grass reading novels. One sighed as we arrived, hoisted himself off his blanket and summited the guard chair. The sky was gray. The lake was gray. A mama duck shepherded her bright-tufted babies through a red-buoy obstacle course. Leo eased himself into the waves.

“It’s cold,” he complained.

“Come in if you’re cold,” I said.

“No. I like it.”

The water at his knees. His trunks. His belly button. The water lapping his shoulders, then his neck, and then he was swimming, every once in a while shooting me a gleam of teeth over the wave.

“Do you see me mom? Do you see me?” A spurt of water. A joyous splash.

Of course I see you. You’re the only kid here.

We planned to stay for an hour at most. But the sun came out and the day grew steamy. And then kids from the neighborhood showed up. Kids that I have known since they kicked in their watery worlds within their mothers expanding middles. Kids who I love as much as my own. And their mothers, who I also love.

An hour became two.

Then three.

Then three and a half.

The children covered themselves in mucky sand. They wrestled in the mud and grass. They washed themselves new and clean in the water. They swam out to the diving dock and plunged into the deep again and again. They were bright birds, slippery fish, creatures made of fire and water and star. They were magic things.

Do you see me?

Of course I see you. You have swallowed the Universe. My eyes are your eyes and my skin is your skin and my heart is your heart. It will be so until you go into the wild world and leave me behind.

(I am grasping at vanishing things. Each moment is like a bead of water on sun-soaked skin, each ghosted remains scattering like dusty pebbles on a dry, dry river bed.)

I smiled and waved and swallowed a sob.

On the walk home, he took one step for every two of mine. He was barefoot, shirtless, holding his towel to his shoulders like a cape.

He asked about different kinds of rocks. He wanted to know the difference between a paleontologist and an archaeologist (he wants to be both when he grows up). He told me the story about a flying dog who fights crime and who shows up in his dreams most nights. He wondered about june bugs. He wanted to know if he could go to college with his two best friends. He wondered if it was possible to hold your breath for a year.

We scanned the sidewalk for lost pennies and priceless artifacts. We estimated the weight of dinosaur bones. I rested my palm on his thistledown head. He let me keep it there. He smelled of sun and algae and sunblock and boy.

“Did you have a good day, buddy?” I asked.

“I had the best day.”

“The very best?”

“Of course. I always have the very best day. Don’t you?”

I wound my hand in his hand and held on tight.

“I do believe I do, buddy,” I said.

And I swallowed a sob.

If those boys would stand still for five minutes, they’d write a damn good novel.

Leo and his friends are careening up and down the stairs, a cloud of knees and elbows and supposedly-brushed teeth and glinting blonde hair. They are making engine sounds and laser sounds and sounds of exploding nebulae (which, being a big dork, I did have to explain to them do not make a sound in the vacuum of space, and they looked at me with blank eyes and continued with the swan-songs of doomed stars) and six-shooters and race cars and TNT disasters in abandoned silver mines.

They run down, and someone yells, “I’m Pete Petowski and the world will be mine in forty seven seconds MINE I TELL YOU!”

They run up and yell, “BEWARE THE POWER OF MR. JIBBLYKINS!”

And, “I do so have cyborg eyes.”

And, “I’d rather go the the dentist than kiss a girl.”

They run down and someone asks, “If you kill a zombie and then infect it with a new zombie virus is it a half-zombie or a double-zombie?”

And, “Can zombies be pirates? Can they go in space?”

They run up and yell, “I ALREADY GOT YOU WITH MY LASERS. YOU ARE SO OUT!”

Only to be returned with, “Well, I used my laser-blockers. So.”

And as the game continues, I catch little bits as they float down the stairs.

“We each get sixteen superpowers. I call having the power to beat every superpower. Which one do you want?”

“Which would be better: an outerspace circus in space, or an underwater circus with squids and octupuses and sharks?” “Or both?” “You’re right. Both.”

“Oooo! Zombie fingers!”

“Okay, fine. We all speak fluent Wolf.”

“Toe jam is just the nice way of saying toe poop. No one likes to believe that their toes can poop, but they do all the time.

“They sent an army of miniature cyborgs hiding in cereal boxes. The attack will happen at breakfast!”

“I don’t need any weapons. My fingernails were implanted with lasers when I was a baby. That’s what everyone does on my planet.”

“No matter what, I have a second brain.”

“You’re right. Your farts really are grosser than mine.”

“Baby dinosaur? Well, of course.”

“Donuts ARE TOO dinner food.”

“It doesn’t matter if we guard our ice castle with polar bear armies or not. NO ONE CARES IF WE TAKE OVER THE ARCTIC CIRCLE.”

“We have to stop Dr. Nimblenuts and his atomic EXPLODING ANTS!”

“You’re right. A penguin army would be awesome.”

“Is there such thing as chocolate salsa?”

“Let’s say we were separated from our families and raised on a remote island by ninja spiders.”

“My boots have levitation upgrades, but they’re on the fritz. That’s why this leg can’t come off the ceiling.”

“You can too build a space ship from bottle caps. My dad told me.”

“Fine. I’m King. You’re President and you’re Supreme Ruler. And I’m also the Pope.”

“It is not a dumb game at all, Ella. We’re whales. Flying whales. In space. What’s dumb about that?”

“Well, on this planet people’s butts are on their heads.” “Actually, our planet is the only one where people’s butts are, you know. Where butts go.”

“It would totally be good if everything was flavored like raspberries. Raspberry cereal. Raspberry milk. Raspberry bacon. Raspberry pizza. Raspberries. They’re delicious!”

 

I’m sitting here, trying to finish my Sasquatch story. Instead I’ve been listening to these kids for the last hour. It’s more entertaining than the teevee.

What’s distracting you from your writing today?

 

Because I need to smile today. And so do you.

There are two things in this that make me ridiculously happy: Gilbert & Sullivan and the Muppets. Specifically, Sam the Eagle.

I cried when I dropped my kids off today (see yesterday’s post), and maybe you did too. But I will be smiling when they come home from school. Thank you, Jim Henson. Thank you Mr. Gilbert and Mr. Sullivan. I shall ignore your famous feud for the moment, and simply focus on this little song, with its brokenhearted and lovelorn and poetic and possibly-suicidal birds, that I sang to my children when they were babies, and that they now blame for their collectively odd sense of humor.

There now. Are you smiling? I am too. And I love you.

“No one is afraid of me at all,” she said. And she grinned a wicked grin.

ImageYou are not afraid of me, are you?

Perhaps you should be. After all, I killed a man yesterday. Granted, he was imaginary, but I showed motive, opportunity and intent, so perhaps I should be in prison.

Particularly since it was not my first offense. 

So far this year, I have – willingly and without remorse – killed seven people. Recently, when assembling my short fiction and laying out the spine of a possible collection, I took stock of the crimes that I have committed since first writing fiction on a professional level. In my short fiction, there are twenty-two murders, one suicide, countless maimings, one self-inflicted limb loss, and a death by burning. (Side note – never smoke cigarettes while sitting on a pile of dead, dry leaves. Trust me. It does not end well.)

And, of course, this doesn’t count the victims of war in my high fantasy stories. My god. People are dropping like flies.

Now, granted, it could have been a lot worse. One of the early draft of one story had an entire universe of people being snuffed out without a trace. That, apparently, was too scary for middle grade, (who knew?) so I changed it. 

The thing is, in real life, I don’t typically strike people as a particularly dangerous person. I am a thirty-eight year old mother of three. I drive a minivan. I volunteer at school. I bake pie and garden and chat with neighbors. I appear sinister or dangerous or threatening to exactly no one.

Once, last year, I was running along Nine Mile Creek in Bloomington. If you’ve never gone running there, I highly recommend it – soft trails along a rushing creek cut in a deep, steep ravine, full of trees and vines and flowers. There is no road noise, no houses in sight, very few people. You run in a river of green. Anyway, last year, I was running along that path, all alone. I was two miles in, and I hadn’t seen a soul the whole time. It was around eleven a.m. on a Wednesday. The bedroom community surrounding the park had all packed up and gone to work. No one was in the park.

Except me.

And some man.

I slowed down. He was about a quarter mile in front of me, travelling in the opposite direction. He looked like he was in his late forties, caucasian, scruffy beard, vest and shirt sleeves ripped off. I could see, even from that distance that he was strong. I looked at him, he looked at me, and neither of us altered our direction.

And I thought should I be frightened? I wasn’t, but I wondered if I should be. I was alone. And attacks happen. 

And I thought, if something happened to me down here, would anyone hear me call for help? Absolutely not. That much I knew for sure.

And I thought, does he think of me as a threat. Is he frightened of me? Again, absolutely not. Though, he should have been. I know how to kill a man with a set of keys. I know how to use someone else’s momentum to throw them to the ground and then step on their neck. I know a lot of things. I’ve been in three fist fights in my life, and broke two noses (neither of them my own) in the process. I would likely be able to defend myself if need be. Plus, I was faster and stronger. And I have a wicked left hook.

And I though, how strange that, because of my gender and my age, because of my Anglo features and my crows feet and my wedding ring, no one sees me as a threat.

Now, of course, the encounter in the park occurred without incident. We passed, I said hello, he nodded, and that was that. He was nothing to be frightened of. Neither, apparently, was I.

But you know, I wish I was. Sometimes, I wish I was frightening. Sometimes I wish I was dangerous. Sometimes I wish I was sinister or ominous or wicked or menacing. I am not. I am the open-armed mama folding laundry and cooking soup. No one is afraid of me at all. 

Real people aren’t, anyway. Characters, on the other hand, are friggin’ terrified.

And really, in my real life, I like being a cookie-baking matron with a swarm of kids in the back yard and a gentle lilt in the voice. I like being the neighbor with the cocoa on the stove and the wine in the pantry and the nine million sleds or bikes or scooters in the garage. I like drawing pictures with kids. I really do. But I also like the idea that I could be dangerous- that I could be a threat, but that I choose not to.

Because the line between good and evil is perilously thin.

And I want to keep the world on its toes.

Today. In the car.

The kids were all buckled in when I ran out to the car, tea sloshing everywhere, shoes only half on. I sat down in the midst of an argument that went something like this.

Cordelia: Mom.

Me: (searching for keys) What?

Cordelia: Tell Leo what boogers are made of.

Leo: Candy.

Me: Not candy.

The Little Redhaired Boy: See?

Leo: Rats.

Me: Boogers are made of dried up snot, skin cells, dust, pollen, street dirt, in your case: dog hair, and lots and lots of germs.

Leo: Well, that’s not so bad.

Cordelia: Mom!

Me: What?

Cordelia: Tell him that you can’t eat boogers.

Me: Oh. For sure, Leo. You can’t eat boogers.

The Little Redhaired Boy: SEE, LEO?

Leo: But boogers are so good! And sometimes I get hungry.

The Little Redhaired Boy: If you get hungry, then you can eat bugs. Lots of people all over the world eat bugs all the time. 

Leo: Really?

The Little Rehaired Boy: Yes. So next time you get really hungry, just find a spider. Then eat it.

Cordelia: Or a worm.

Leo: Can I eat grasshoppers?

Me: Sure, but you should first ask its permission. Grasshoppers are terribly fastidious and won’t be eaten by just anybody. They will want to know whether you have brushed your teeth lately, and will likely inquire as to the state of your nails. They will want to know if your room is clean and if your toes are free of jam and if you have recently washed the dishes.

The Little Redhaired Boy: My room is clean. I can totally eat a grasshopper.

Leo: I’m fastidious.

(pause)

(pause)

Leo: What does fastidious mean?

Cordelia: It means “not Leo”.

Me: You should be careful of grasshoppers, though. While they are reputed to be delicious, they are also terribly clever. A grasshopper might convince you to build it a new house, or give it the PIN to your bank account, or buy it a rocket ship.

Leo: Grasshoppers like pins?

The Little Redhaired Boy: They use them as swords.

Leo: ON GUARD!

My Apparent Hyperbole Addiction

My twelve year old child has had just about enough.

Given that we had about, oh, I don’t know, an inch of snow today, and given that it engendered at TOTAL SNOW APOCALYPSE (cars spinning out in the road, smashed-in fenders and bumpers and front-ends, not to mention the scores of people who were scared to go out because, thanks to the mild winter, Minnesotans have, en masse, simply forgotten how to cope with a couple snow flakes), I figured I should shovel the walk. Because I didn’t want anyone alerting the authorities. And because I didn’t want anyone to break their leg on my front walk. Because we’ve forgotten how to maneuver in sub-freezing weather.

Anyway.

I asked my child to help me.

“My back’s been hurting,” I said. “And you need to get some fresh air.”

I had already started. There wasn’t a lot to do. She wrinkled her nose. “Can’t we wait for Leo? He loves shoveling. Plus he’s free.”

“You,” I pointed out, “are similarly free.”

“Hmph,” she said. And she started looking for her gloves. Slowly.

By the time she came out, I was nearly finished. To her credit, she shoveled, she really did. Approximately four shovelfuls. And then we were done.

“That was hard,” she said.

“Thank you,” I said. “That was a big help. Even if you could only do four shovels, every little bit helps, and I appreciate it.”

Mom,” she said. “I did more than four.”

“You’re right,” I said. “Five. Those five really helped.”

Mom,” she said. “That’s not very nice.”

“You’re right, honey. And I do appreciate it. I did notice, however, that it took a suspiciously long time to find your gloves. One might think that you were dragging your feet.” She squeaked something incoherent. “I mean, I don’t think that. But one might. If one was inclined to think such things.”

Mom!”

“Like a conspiracy theorist, for example. Or a libertarian.”

“Mom,” she said, “I have had it up to here with your hyperbole addiction.”

“My what?” I said, yanking off my boots and putting them in the bin.

“Hyperbole hyperbole all day long. You can’t say anything else. It’s the only language you know.”

“Now that’s not true,” I said. “I also speak Spanish. And Klingon.”

(that last bit isn’t true at all. But it is true that my husband’s best man did our wedding toast in Klingon. Or maybe it was Vulcan. I can never remember.)

MOM!” she roared. “YOU’RE CHANGING THE SUBJECT AGAIN.”

“I have never changed the subject a single time in my entire life,” I said. “I’m like the Trans Siberian Railway – only one track.”

What?”

“The Trans Siberian Railway. I think we should go. As a family. Wouldn’t it be fun?”

She squished up her face. “Raising you is a lot of work,” she said.

“I don’t doubt it,” I said fervently. “Now will you please clean your room? I’m pretty sure I saw some Hittite artifacts under a pile of your old underwear.”

Mom,” she said, her voice a low hiss, “if you speak in hyperbole one more time to me, my face will catch on fire and my brain will turn into a supernova and the world will end in a flash of fire and energy and it will be all your fault.”

She stomped upstairs.

“Have fun excavating civilizations!” I called after her.

“AAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!”

********

(Author’s note: some of this story might have been exaggerated. Mea culpa.)

Wherein I Utterly Fail As A Parent

If I was a teacher grading my parental performance, I would have to give myself an F.

No….an F-.

If I was the principal of parent school I would expel me.

I keep on running the events of yesterday through my head and shuddering. It was, by every reckoning, a spectacular failure.

Here’s the thing: I knew, as the mother of daughters, that the specter of body image issues and low self and imagined ugliness would one day show its ugly face in my family. And I thought I was ready. I thought I was armed. This was a battle I had fought in my youth in the rocky and precarious territory of my own crooked heart, so I felt ready to  fight for my children. I was Joan of freaking Arc and I was preparing for war. 

Armor: Check

Shield: Check

Sword: Check

Righteous rage: Check

Religiously ecstatic devotion to my cause: Check

Possibly futile war that I have absolutely no hope of winning and that will probably destroy me if I try: Check and check.

Here is what I know:

We live in a culture that teaches girls to hate their bodies.

We live in a culture that tells girls that only their body matters – not their thoughts, not their talents, not their kindness and their care, not their grace or their poise or their generosity, not their hard work, not the amazing things that they can do. We live in a culture that teaches girls that, if they are not skinny, none of those things matter.

We live in a culture that makes healthy-weighted girls think that they are not good enough.

And what kills me – what really really makes my blood boil and my skin bubble and my hair catch on fire - is the fact that the magazines these kids see and the websites they look like don’t even bother photoshopping their anorexic models anymore – they’re using digital models with real-girl (though photoshopped) faces. It’s digital mannequins and it’s harming my child. And I hate it. I am made of hate. I am built of swords and rifles and tanks and laserbeam eyes. I am a one-woman army. SO LOOK OUT.

So I sat down with her, after she had said a couple things at dinner that troubled me.

And I was already upset (what do you mean you feel bad about the ridiculously healthy dinner that I just made for you?) (what do you mean you think you’re too fat?) (you are so beautiful I can hardly see straight) (I love you I love you I love you I love you Iloveyouiloveyouiloveyouiloveyou). My head was a whirlwind of words. My heart was racing.

“Honey,” I said. I took her hands in mine. And oh! Those hands! Those beautiful hands! And oh! That beautiful child!

And I said some stuff that I really don’t remember, and probably didn’t matter much. Something about healthy weights and how our bodies are our interface with the world, and that we experience all pleasure, all joy, all love, all adventure through and with our bodies and that any second we spend feeling bad about our bodies is a total and complete waste of a second – and one that we will never get back. I told her that we only ever get one body – only one. And it is a gift. I told her that I love her. That she is beautiful. That her body is healthy and lovely and strong. But that her beauty is only a small part of who she is – that the really amazing stuff had absolutely no bearing on what she looks like – that her talents in art and mathematics and music and writing and basketball, as well as her innate curiosity and deep thinking, made her a gift to the world. And that the world was lucky.

And then. Then.

Oh you guys.

I cringe at the thought of it.

Then, after all that blather, I said this: “Here’s the thing, honey, nobody gets to tell you that you aren’t good enough, and nobody gets to tell you that your body is nothing short of perfect, and nobody gets to tell you that you aren’t beautiful and astonishing and a miracle on this earth, and if anybody ever tells you anything different then I will punch that person in the face.”

Ella stared at me.

I sat there for a moment in a sort of stunned silence.

Ohgodohgodohgodohgod!

Did I just say that?

Oh my god I did. I DID! Bloody hell.

Ella swallowed. “Um, mom?”

“Yes,” I said, feeling my sense of flamey, knife-wielding rage vanish like the dew of a summer morning. I tried to adopt what I felt might be interpreted as a breezy tone.

“Don’t you think that’s a little extreme?”

“No,” I said. I was, though calm now, unwilling to backtrack. I mean, I said it, right? I couldn’t unsay it. “I really feel that. And I would. I would punch that person in the face.”

She gave me a skeptical look. “Have ever actually punched a person in the face.”

I sighed. I have a policy of not lying to my children (except in the case of the tooth fairy, santa clause and the easter bunny. Those aren’t lies per se, but rather are ritualistic and long term storytelling. They are pageantry.) so I had to come clean. “Yes,” I said.

“IN THE FACE?”

“Yes.”

“In a fist fight?”

“Yes.”

“Has daddy ever been in a fist fight?”

“I have been in exactly two more fist fights than your father has.”

“How many times?”

“Two. But that was a long time ago.

“How long?”

“Way before you were born. In college. I was….hot tempered back then. And I didn’t always make the best choices. And I wasn’t as smart as you.”

“But, you’d get in a fist fight for me? That’s what you’re saying?”

“Oh, honey,” I said. I didn’t cry. I honestly didn’t. But I wanted to. “In a nanosecond.”

“But what if…..”

“What?”

“Nothing.”

“What is it?”

“Um, can we have this conversation later?”

Of course we could. And we will. We’ll have conversations after conversations. I gave her a kiss and told her I loved her and she started getting ready for bed.

But here’s the thing:

I know what she was going to say.

What if the person making me feel bad is me?

And it’s a good question. And a fair one. But in light of the nonsense that I had just spouted, it puts us in a bit of a conundrum. Because I told my child that I would punch the person who made her feel bad. In the face. And that person, right now, presumably, is her. Which means  that I have just threatened to punch my own child in the face.

In the face.

Oh for god’s sake.

I’m the fucking mother of the year, goddamnit. Oh, god, you guys. I’m cringing at the thought of it.

In the meantime, I’m bracing myself for more of this nonsense. And I know it’s coming. I wasted my entire adolescence and much of my young adulthood despising my body. This body! This is the body that carries me across this green earth. It digs in gardens and treks through forests and dances when it feels like it. It produced three beautiful children and it loves my husband and it is imperfect and awkward and mine. And I love it. And it wasn’t until I loved my body that I could start to love my life.

So I pray for my daughters now. And I pray for strength. Because, I’ll tell you what: This fight is gonna be hard, it’s gonna be brutal, and it’s gonna suck. And I know that anything I do will be futile and wasted.

My only hope is this: If my daughters see me fighting for them, maybe – just maybe – they’ll learn to fight for themselves.

 

The sky poured in my head and the world rang blue

“I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.”  Hamlet

The world I see is not the world I know.

The world I see is dead. It ceased from the moment it shed its light like a snake shedding its skin, sending image after irrelevant image towards my eyes. The moment we see a thing, the thing in the state in which we saw it does not exist. It has changed. We are time travelers, looking ever backward. This is the limitation of seeing.

The world I know is a living place. It exists both before and after I perceive it. There are no befores and afters in Time. Time simply is. Any linearity is simply a construct.

For example:

Two of my children are home today. I haven’t seen them for most of the morning, but my living room is so messy that they may be within the reach of my arms and I would not know it. Anyone could be here right now – small animals, extra children, exiled world leaders. This is how we build kingdoms of limitless space: we allow the debris from the excesses of the world to spill around us, to loop around our feet again and again. We allow the universe to dimple and gather and fold. My messy house is not a result of my laziness: I am expanding space.

Yesterday, on my run, I slipped on a patch of ice, and flew. Time, of course is relative. Under the tyranny of a stopwatch, the time from step to wobble to launch to landing was, doubtless, less than a second. But really – really - it was longer than that. Time bent, looped and lengthened. Time ceased. There was only the sky. There was only the air. There was only a woman in flight.

My dog is alive, though part of her is dead. She has a benign tumor above her leg, the size of a large orange. It doesn’t hurt her, doesn’t slow her down, but it is dead at the center. It is a zombie tumor. The vet says, at her age, surgery would open up more problems than it will cause. The dead tissue has been, we believe, walled off inside of the tumor, and will likely not be the cause of her expiration. Indeed, at the ripe old age of almost-seventeen, she could be killed by any number of things. And so, she carries on her body, a talisman of death. It wobbles and quivers with each step. It draws the eye. It grins through her fur. “I am coming,” Death says. “I am coming. Indeed, I am already here.”

Yesterday, for my birthday, we put up the tree. My house smells of sap and snow and wood. We pressed the lights deep into the branches and they shine like stars. My daughter made an angel for the top. She curled a brightly printed paper into a cone for the dress, and carefully attached a serene, hand-drawn face with yellow braids.

“That angel looks like you,” I said.

“Of course it does,” she said.

“But she has no wings,” I said.

“Her wings are invisible,” she said. “Everyone’s wings are invisible. They are secret and no one knows they have them. Everyone is sad because they don’t know how to use their wings.”

“Do I have wings?” I asked.

“Of course,” she said. “But you use yours all the time.”

“What are they made of?” I asked. “Skin? Hair? Feathers?”

“No,” she said. “You’d be able to see them if they were. Your wings are made of sky. Everyone’s wings are made of sky.” She looked at me as if I was the silliest person she’d ever met. “It’s obvious, really.”

LEO’S MOM!

Yesterday, I had to take The Boy ™ to the eye doctor to check on some tracking issues that were making reading a struggle. The good news is that he doesn’t need glasses nor does he need any kind of therapy. The bad news is that the reason why he gets so physically exhausted when he reads is that his whole body is working to keep his eyes in alignment.

“Since he’s able to keep his eyes pointing parallel on his own,” the doctor said, “then he is doing exactly what he needs to be doing to train his muscles. Give him lots of praise when he reads, make sure he knows that he’s tired because his body has to work extra hard, but with daily practice he’ll get stronger and stronger, and opt for bigger type and books with pictures for now, and don’t be in such a hurry to put the kid in chapter books. Let him be a kid. With kids books.”

Then he paused and thought about that for a moment.

“Have you noticed,” he continued, “that there are some AMAZING children’s books out lately?”

Why yes, I said, a faint smile on my mouth. I may have noticed a thing or two about it. And I may know a few of the folks making those amazing stories, but that’s another post.

Anyway, Leo, after a long day of eye tests and exercises, performed admirably and with distinction. I was honestly bracing myself all day for the moment that he crawled into the duct work, or reduced a hundred-grand-pricetag bit of equipment to smithereens. Or called the therapist lady a poop-head. Or whatever. But no. He was a perfect gentleman – conversational, gentle, serious, with a couple well-placed jokes that were actually funny. It was as though someone took my child and replaced him with somebody else’s perfect child.

Anyway, we headed back to school in the middle of the day. I parked the car, took his hand and walked across the parking lot. A classroom window pushed open and a kid’s head popped out.

“LEO’S MOM!” the kid yelled.

“Yes?” I called back.

“ARE YOU BRINGING LEO BACK TO SCHOOL?”

I looked down at Leo, who shrugged back at me. “Well,” I called back. “That’s what it looks like.”

I could hear a teacher’s voice in the background saying step away from that window at once young man. But the kid persisted.

“LEO’S MOM LEO’S MOM! WHERE DID YOU TAKE HIM?”

And before I could say to the doctor the kid yells “LEO’S MOM ARE YOU GOING TO VISIT OUR CLASS.” And then two hands grabbed the kid’s shoulders and pulled him out of sight.

We went into the building and a group of first graders were walking down the stairs.

“LEO’S MOM!”

“HI LEO’S MOM!”

“LEO’S MOM, DID YOU SEE MY SHOES?”

“LEO’S MOM I HAD A CUPCAKE! LAST WEEK!”

I smiled at them and continued to the office. There was a kid sitting on a chair with a huge bandage on his knee.

“LEO’S MOM, I SKINNED MY KNEE.”

Another kid was leaving with her mom.

“LEO’S MOM NEXT WEEK IS MY BIRTHDAY.”

I signed Leo in and walked down the hall to his class. I saw a kid with a bathroom pass – one of my first graders on my Lego League team.

“HI LEGO LADY!” The kid said, running over and giving me a hug. “I MEAN LEO’S MOM!”

And a realized a few things.

1. My son has made me famous.

2. My son, being the loudest human in the world, has trained the kids in his school to be just as loud as he is.

3. The rest of the school, assuming that I must be quite deaf at this point, feel the need to shout at me to make sure I can hear them.

4. Because my son is fun, they assume that I am fun as well.

This last one, alas, is a fallacy. Just ask my kids. I am not fun at all. I am the enemy of fun. This was told to me last night – at bedtime – with great enthusiasm, with gusto and relish. “Mom,” my kids informed me. “You are the fun-killer.”

Still, to these kids at school, I bear the fun of my son on my forehead like a seal. I am the Fun-Bringer. I am LEO’S MOM.

(so there)

In which I post a recipe

It happens a lot that I will, on the fly, look through the piles of vegetables that I have pulled – in great armloads – from my garden and heaped onto my table and try and try to figure out what the hell I’m going to cook for dinner. Fortunately, I have kids who are adventurous eaters. Because I swear to god, otherwise they would surely starve.

As a vegetarian, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how the flavors of the plant world come together, how they compliment one another. One of the wonders of cooking is that we really do take a narrative approach to the pleasures of eating – we think about dynamic starts, of foreshadow. We play with conflicting tastes, allowing that conflict to linger and build, playing each against each, until in an acquiescence and a surrender, the flavors meld and marry and we swallow.

*fans face*

Anyway, because we don’t eat meat, then vegetables really are the main story around here. So color matters and texture matters. The complexities of the bitter greens. The comforts of root vegetables. The slick of oil. The bright sweetness honey and the life-giving nature of bread. And so I’ll pull something together on the fly – I made a spaghetti sauce the other day of ribbon-cut kale sauteed in olive oil and lemon zest and garlic, tossed with cannelli beans cheese and scattered with chopped herbs (and it was gorgeous) – and then I’ll totally brag about it on Twitter.

Because that is my favorite thing about Twitter. Totally bragging about what I’m eating so that people will come over and visit me. I’m not shy and I have no shame. So sue me.

But the thing is, I’m not really a recipe person. I’m bad at following directions, so I don’t use them, and I have a hard time remembering what I’ve done, so I don’t remember them. Each meal is an organic experience. Each meal responds to the moment in which it is conceived, and the moment that it is brought to fruition.

However.

Yesterday I totally bragged about the fact that I had harvested a bunch of Swiss Chard leaves and stuffed them with quinoa and mushrooms and walnuts and lemon juice, and people said WILL YOU POST THE GODDAMN RECIPE ALREADY? So here it is. As best as I can remember it. And my kids dug it and ate it all up. So I win.

KELLY BARNHILL’S SWISS CHARD ROLLS

8 0z mushrooms, sliced
1/2 large red onion, chopped fine
2 cloves garlic, minced
lemon zest, minced
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 can drained garbanzo beans, mashed
Juice of one lemon
1/2 cup walnuts chopped fine
14 medium sized swiss chard leaves, bottoms trimmed
1/3 cup dry quinoa
1 cup water

Mash the garbanzo beans and the juice of half a lemon in a bowl. Set aside.

Heat a deep sautee pan and add onions and cook dry for 90 seconds. Reduce heat and add olive oil. Cover and allow to cook for another five minutes. Uncover and add garlic, lemon zest and mushrooms. Cook until mushrooms are wilted and fragrant. Add the chopped walnuts and cook for another two minutes.

Transfer vegetables to the bowl with the garbanzo beans and lemon.

Put the sautee pan back on the flame and add the quinoa and the water, stir a couple times to allow the flavors to combine. Once the quinoa boils, cover it tightly and reduce heat. Cook until the water has been absorbed, adding more if needed.

Turn off heat.

Add the vegetable and garbanzo mixture with the quinoa. mix together and add a ton of salt and pepper until it tastes right. Allow to sit for fifteen minutes.

Set up your workspace with a clean towel, and a frying pan pre-oiled with a tablespoon or two of olive oil.

Put swiss chard leaves into a bowl and cover with hot water. Once they are soft enough to handle, take out a leaf and lay it on the towel. Spoon the quinoa veg mixture into the leaf and roll it up, tucking in the ends as you do so. Lay it in the frying pan and repeat. As you lay your rolls in the frying pan, make sure that they fit together tightly and that you are alternating the direction of your rolls. This is important for getting them *out* of the pan.

Once your rolls are made, add water to your frying pan- enough so that the bottom half of your rolls are submerged in water. Sprinkle salt and the juice from the other half a lemon over the whole thing. Put it on the stove at medium-low heat, cover, and cook until the liquid is absorbed.

Now, if you’re WAY MORE TALENTED than me, you’ll be able to flip this out onto a plate. I’ve seen it done with other roll-type recipes. I did not have the balls to do this, so I just transfered them with a spatula on everybody’s plate. The kids snarfed them and so did I.

I don’t have pictures of course, because we ate it all. But I assure you it was delicious.

And now that I’ve shared, does anyone have a recipe story to share with me? A triumph? A failure? C’mon! I know you got ‘em!

My kid is made of rubber. Or titanium. Or self-healing plastics.

Tonight, as the sun set and the light waned and the sky leaked orange and gold all over the lake and the whole world shone, Leo and I walked back from his Tae Kwan Do class. Or I walked. Leo rode his scooter. It was a beautiful evening – warm and breezy and lousy with birds. Dry leave skittered across the park as the shadows deepened and darkness spread around us. Leo zoomed ahead, a brilliant flash of white in his uniform, his brand-new orange belt (and oh! he is so proud!) glowing in the growing dim.

“Be careful,” I called.

“I’m always careful,” he called back through the swirl of leaves.

That was a lie, of course.

And we talked about the gathering birds, and their plans for migration and southern skies. And we talked about other animals that migrate – whales specifically.

“I would like my best friend to be a whale,” Leo said.

I told him that sounded like a fine idea.

“I would like my best friend to be a whale AND I would like to be able to speak Whale.”

I told him that it probably wouldn’t be too hard to learn how to speak Whale, provided he studied very hard and practiced every day.

“I would like my best friend to be a whale AND I would like to be able to speak Whale AND I would like my whale best friend to be able to fly.”

“A flying whale?” I said.

“Yes,” he said. “A flying whale IN SPACE.”

“A flying whale in space?”

“Yes. That I can talk to.”

“That’s a tall order,” I said.

He shrugged. “When things are hard, you just have to work harder,” he said. Then he whizzed away, his uniform glowing in the dark.

And I thought about this. There is a purity – a marvelous purity -in the association of action and consequence that little kids possess. For them, cause and effect are simple, straightforward and unambiguous. I do a thing, and it bears a result; end of story. When I do a good thing, the result is good. When I do a bad thing the result is bad. When I work very hard at something, the result is something very cool that not many people achieve.

Like a flying whale best friend in space, for example.

And I’d like to tell him the world works that way. I wanted him to live in that kind of a world. Hell, I wanted to live in that kind of a world. I wanted to tell him that if he worked very hard he really will have a flying whale best friend in space. I WANT that to be true.

“Be careful,” I called as he hit the turn and flew down the hill, the autumn-bright trees crowding their limbs together, making it hard to see. “Be careful, honey!”

Because he thinks that careful people can’t get hurt. Because he believes in the power of his own body.

And I didn’t see him fall right away. It happened fast, and it was dark. I called out. I reminded him that there are bumps and ridges in the path. I told him that the world was dark and the road was dark and that things will trip us up that we will never see and that even careful people get hurt sometimes.

He didn’t listen.

And he fell.

A flash of white against the dark torsos of the slim trees.

A glowing riot of arms and legs, pinwheeling against the sky.

And the boy flew, feet over kettle, over his scooter and onto the ground.

And oh! My baby!

And oh! Your arms!

And oh! Your legs!

And oh! Your neck!

And oh! my baby, my baby, my baby!

He made no sound.

“LEO!” I shouted. And ran over the dry, dry leaves.

Leo leaped to his feet. He looked at me. His crooked teeth flashed in the dark – a disembodied grin.

“That….was…..SO AWESOME!”

He picked up his scooter and ran back up the hill. “I’m TOTALLY doing that again!”

Evening in BarnhillLand

So here’s the thing: I’ve got a really weird job.

Not that I’m complaining, mind you. I’ve had lots of jobs in my life (lots and lots and lots of them), and I discovered along the way that I’m, well, ill-suited for……pretty much everything. And I’m not whining and I’m not being annoyingly or fishingly self-deprecating. These are just the facts.

I’m overly chatty, I can’t type for crap, I’m disorganized, I’m surly with folks in authority, I’ve got poor attention to detail when working on other people’s projects, I bristle at wasted time, I fall asleep in meetings and I am not a team player. I’ve been fired from eight different waitressing jobs for consistently writing down orders – not what people wanted, but what I thought they should have. And once for spilling a $300 bottle of wine down my shirt. I nearly came to blows once with a district official over a reading curriculum that I absolutely refused to use in my classroom. (Because it sucked). (She told me that I’d be lucky if a single child passed their state reading test. I told her I didn’t care because the tests in Minnesota at the time were the laughingstock of the nation – which was true.) (79% of my kids passed – one of the highest stats in the district. So I told her to suck it.)

Anyway. I work very hard when I’m on my own. In the world – in the real world – I’m sorta….vague. My husband says this is adorable. I think he’s being nice.

So I have this job instead. This writing job. This live-in-a-world-of-my-own-making job. And….well it’s weird, isn’t it? It’s a weird job.

But another weird part of my job is porous division between the imagined and the real. Particularly since my real life is written in the language of hyperbole, and synched to the rhythm of hyperbole and painted with hyperbole’s brush. Every day I must comfort a daughter whose life, apparently, is over, and another daughter whose leg is falling off and must stop a son who has decided to destroy a house (that part wasn’t hyperbole at all, though. That bit was real). Also, the little boys who daily invade my house, are constantly threatening to explode.

In any case, it’s an odd bit of vertigo that happens, when my head is still in the story, still sitting on the shoulders of runty, foul-mouthed gods who are – as we speak – creating universes, and smelling the sulfury breath of easily annoyed dragons who have no hearts in their bodies, or looking up the gory details of shoulder wounds or armpit wounds, or inventing the masonic structure of an ancient castle – then figuring out how to destroy it…..and then – THEN – be interrupted by my panicked children because the toilet, apparently is overflowing. Or the bank’s on the phone, and they’re pissed. Or I’ve forgotten to meet a friend for lunch. Or the email that I thought I sent I only sent in my mind. Or whatever.

In any case, I’m terribly grateful to my children for keeping me in this world. I don’t know what I’ll do when they grow and move out. Maybe I’ll have to hire kids to hang around the house and distract me from my work. Or maybe I’ll fade into the pages of a story and you’ll never see me again.

Right now, with my head in VIOLET, that feels like a possibility.

In fact, all day, I felt partially-faded. Like Frodo when he had the ring on too long. I was translucent-faced, cellophane-bodied, eyes made of smoke. And I would have continued like that – a half-existence, a half-life – had it not been for Leo.

I was hunched at my computer, rewriting a scene for about the nine-thousandth time, when Leo tapped on my shoulder with two fingers.

(and really hard, I might add. I think I have a bruise.)

“Mom,” he said. “Mom, Mom, Mom, Mom, MOM!”

“What!” I yelled. Honestly, I only heard the last MOM. “Why are you yelling?”

“Mom,” he said. He was red faced, red lipped, eyes bright as full moons. “GUESS WHAT?”

“What?” said. Thinking: This better be good.

“What happens, when every person on earth burps AND coughs AND sneezes AND farts….. AT THE SAME TIME?”

I pulled my hands from the keys, cracking the knuckles. I brought my fingertips to my brow and pressed at the headache that I’m sure was there all day, but I was only just noticing (does this happen to you too? Do you feel separated from your body when you spend all day at a story? Or not even all day, but three or four hours? Sometimes I forget that I have a body at all.) Leo waited. He bounced on his toes. He was thrilled.

“I don’t know, honey.” (I secretly did.) “But I would love it,” (a sigh, a long, slow, long-suffering sigh) “if you would tell me what happens – what really happens – when all the people on earth burp, cough, sneeze, and fart at the same time.”

Leo smiled with all his teeth. “THE WORLD EXPLODES!” he said, jumping up and down.

“Well,” I said. “Let’s hope that never happens. Next time you need to fart, be sure to tell us, so that we don’t accidentally do it at the same time, okay.”

And then we went outside to go spider hunting. Because I had been outside of this world for long enough. And it felt good to be running around the back yard – my real yard of my real life – with my son for a little bit.

The story will just have to wait its turn.

You see? This is why we can’t have nice things.

http://kellybarnhill.files.wordpress.com/2011/09/squirreltinpeanutbutter_kal78.jpg?w=300

My son, home from school and starving, went into the kitchen to get himself a snack. He opened the cupboards, pulled out our gigantic container of peanut butter (I buy it by the barrel), grabbed a bowl and sat down at the table. He started unscrewing the lid.

“Young man,” I said. Leo stopped, unaware that he was being watched. “Just what do you think you’re doing?”

Leo pulled the lid off the peanut butter and laid it on the table. He leaned over the open top and breathed in the scent of it. He smiled. “I love peanut butter.”

“And?”

“I wanted a snack.”

“I see peanut butter and I see a bowl,” I said. “Aren’t you missing something?”

Leo stared at me.

I stared back.

WHAT?” he said, exasperated.

“This is not how we eat peanut butter,” I said primly.

“FINE,” he said, stomping over to the silverware drawer. “I’ll use a stupid spoon.

“Well-” I began.

“Crazy moms and their crazy spoons,” Leo muttered.

“Actually, I meant-” I said.

“When EVERYBODY knows that peanut butter tastes better with fingers.”

Then he shoved a heaping tablespoon – actually, it was so heaping that it was closer to a third of a cup – of peanut butter into his mouth and rolled his eyes at me.

“THERE,” he garbled. “HAPPY NOW?”

Back to Normal

The children are back in school. My hands are raised to the heavens. My mouth sings hymns of praise. I have cleared away the debris on my desk (there was beach sand on my desk. And a flip flop. And nine snail shells. And a note from my daughter demanding her own room) and I have gotten back to work.

There was a time, when my kids were small, that my only time to write fiction was between the hours of four and six in the morning. This is a scenario that I cannot recommend. During those years, I would haul my shaking carcass out of bed, stumble to the stove and light it. Sometimes I would forget to put on the kettle, and would, instead stand in the darkened kitchen, staring at the cold blue of the hot flame. Once I burned my hand. Another time I singed my bathrobe. Honestly, I’m astonished that I didn’t – not once – burn down the house.

Or maybe I did. In a different universe. I’ve been obsessing with universes lately.

In any case, I would stumble, tea in hand, sloshing it all over my damn self, and lean into my desk chair and start to write. I wrote a grown-up novel that collapsed under its own weight (I had actually started that one in college), and a young adult novel that was so dark and so upsetting and so violent that no one in their right mind will ever want to read it (all copies – I’m pretty sure – have been destroyed) and a mystery novel that wasn’t horrible, but still wasn’t particularly publishable.

It was an important time for me, but it wasn’t a time of producing good work. Just work.

But then – oh! then! – my kids went to school. No more collapsing at keyboards! No more zombified visage! No more potential disasters with fire! Instead I was rested, rejuvenated and organized. I planned out my writing day the night before, and worked in time to read. I had time, each day, to plunk words on the page, and the words – while not good, per se – weren’t terrible. I had graduated from Sucky to Mediocre. I was on fire!

But here’s the thing about the school year – it’s only nine months. Like a pregnancy. And like a pregnancy, it ends with interrupted schedules and lack of sleep and crying fits (mine, mostly) and bouts of vomiting and sticky surfaces and howls of rage. (Also mine). It is almost impossible for me to work during the summer.

Now sometimes, one has to. Deadlines, after all, exist, and boy did I have one. I needed to get the new version of Iron Hearted Violet to my beloved editrix, and I fear that I tried her patience, alas. My time was interrupted, and the work was slow, and the deadline began to creep, and bend, and topple forward. If I lived in NYC, I think she might have strangled me.

Right now, I miss my kids – I really do. The school day is long, and I’m lonely without them, but I need the time away from them in order to make fiction. Right now, my house is quiet. Right now, my heart is quiet. And right now, my new book is taking shape – even as I write this post, even now – under my hands. It presses on my skin. It whispers in my ear. And now, with the kids blissfully at school, it’s quiet enough for me to hear it at last.