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.

08 Peter and Wendy - F D Bedford - 1911

In Balance With This Life (Some thoughts about Mary Oliver)

I once saw a hawk standing imperiously in the middle of the sidewalk, eating a mouse. The mouse was still alive, tucked under one claw, its skull pierced and bleeding, the bird dipping in for more and more. With each dip, the mouse’s body shuddered and bucked. Its small mouth gaped, then closed, then gaped again. I could hear its wheeze.

It was alive.

Or, perhaps it was not alive, and it was simply the remaining pulses of a defunct electrical system. A last-ditch short after the power’s been cut.

The hawk took another mouthful. The mouse shuddered. I stood on the sidewalk holding my daughter’s hand – she was five, then, and we were on our way to the bus that would haul her to Kindergarten and haul her home again. She narrowed her eyes at the hawk – it was a beautiful thing. Brown and red and shining. It focused its bright, yellow eye on her with an expression that said, indisputably, Find your own dang mouse, Bub.

“When something eats something that is alive,” Ella said, “do they eat alive? Can you eat alive?

“I’m not sure I understand,” I said.

“Can you eat dead?

“Most of what we eat is dead,” I said. I tried to pull her along toward the bus stop. I didn’t hear the far-off jangle of the wheels, so we had a bit of time. Also, to be frank, the way she stared was starting to creep me out. “I suppose,” I said, “when we eat things from the garden, they stay alive for a while. The cells still respirate. They still make sugar. They still divide. The lettuce we pick is dying, but when we eat it, it’s still alive.”

“That mouse is dying,” she said.

“I think it’s dead.”

The hawk, as though listening, turned its eye to the mouse. It hadn’t gutted the poor thing yet, and suddenly seemed in no mood to do so. It shook its head, adjusted its shining wings and flapped suddenly, gracelessly away. The mouse remained on the ground. It was quite dead. We walked toward the bus stop. I could hear the far-off diesel engine. It was coming.

“When we breathe in,” Ella said, “we’re alive. When we breathe out, we’re dead. Our hearts are alive, but our skin is dead. Our hair is dead too.”

“The dirt,” I said, “Is made of dead plants and dead bugs and dead animals too. But the dirt is alive. It’s filled with billions and billions of tiny organisms that make the food for the plants to grow. The dead cells on your skin protect the living cells underneath. Those dead cells are your protectors.”

“That’s gross,” she said.

“I know,” I said. “Sometimes, there’s really no difference between alive and dead. They’re just two different sections of the same long road.”

She gave me a sidelong, skeptical glance. “You never make any sense,” she said.

We stood at the bus stop. She crouched down and hugged her knees. “If part of me is already dead, does that mean that I’m in heaven right now. Is being in heaven the same as being with my mom?”

“I have no idea,” I said. “But if I had to decide what heaven was like, I’d make it right this second. Right now on this corner. This moment with you.”

“You’re weird,” she said. “But I love you anyway.”

“I love me anyway too,” I said. “Also, I love you. Very, very much.”

The bus arrived. She had been, for the six weeks prior to that day, WAY TOO OLD to give me a kiss goodbye. But she turned and kissed me anyway. Briefly, and without ceremony. Then she slid inside the yawning bus. It shuddered, burped, and took her away.

I have found myself thinking of this story because of Mary Oliver.

I’m sure all of you have read Mary Oliver and have, as I have, significant moments in your lives in which her poems have played a major role. I know for me, there were some dark times in college, and later under the weight of post-partum weariness, and even later during the most terrifying depression of my life in 2008, in which Oliver’s poetry was a warm, earthy, living hand, curled tightly into my own, and leading through the rough terrain. And all the while saying, “Look, the grasshoppers!” And “Look, the early blossoms like crisp sheets drying on the line.” And “Look, the geese! The geese!”

Almost thirteen years ago, I got married to the most wonderful person in the world, but we got married under a cloud: my sister had been in the hospital for a month, and had returned a mere shadow of herself. My father had suffered a major stroke. My father’s two best friends had nearly lost their lives to sudden, and random illnesses. The wedding itself was a hastily done affair, planned because of an unplanned pregnancy, and put on hold when the pregnancy almost ended in a rush of blood and sorrow – not once but six different times. It’s a miracle that Ella survived. A true and real miracle.

And so it was in that cloudy place that, during the ceremony, my beloved Sister In Law stood and read “The Wild Geese”, by Mary Oliver.

Wild Geese
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
~Mary Oliver~

It’s a funny thing about poetry. We do not expect it to change us. We do not expect it to be alive. And yet there it is, again and again, a thing both alive and dead. The dead protecting life; life giving life to death; a single moment of beauty announcing our place in the family of things.

I just learned today that Mary Oliver is seriously ill. Some of her friends have launched a tribute blog, in which people can submit and post moments in their lives in which Oliver’s poetry has touched them, changed them, made them whole again. I encourage you to read these, and submit your own. I encourage you to buy another book of her poetry. I encourage you to live the life that her poems tell us we can live: utterly gorgeous, utterly precious, utterly wild.


I’m Not Gonna Be Your FRIEND Anymore.

This morning, the little redhaired boy who rides in our car every morning showed up at my house early. Or I was running late. In any case, I was madly trying to shove some peanut butter sandwiches into the lunch bags, and find Leo’s shoes, and sign Cordelia’s agenda, and locate some non-slush-soaked mittens, and feed the dog (who always responds to any increase of activity in the room by launching into a jag of panicked, high-pitched barking. Really really loud. Yanno. To be helpful) and turn out the lights, and oh! god! the laundry! and then out the door.

To keep Leo and the redhaired boy occupied, I said to them, “Whatever you boys do, DO NOT sit on that couch and plot out your plans for world domination.”

“What are you talking about?” the boys asked.

“World domination. Don’t do it. For reals.”

“What’s world domination?” the redhaired boy asked.

“It’s when you take over the world. Like Dr. Horrible.”

At which point Leo launched into a pitch perfect rendition of “My Freeze Ray” from Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, which is his favorite song ever.

And so the plotting began, and they were content until we got into the car.

But then the boys had a conversation in the back seat that made me cold. Leo, after experiencing a Dr. Horrible-inspired reprieve from an astonishingly cranky morning, had sunk back into the depths of his crankiness and didn’t feel like talking. The little redhaired boy (god bless that child forever) did his best to draw Leo out.

“Leo, why won’t you talk to me?” the redhaired boy said.

“I don’t want to go to school,” Leo said.

“But we’re not at school. We’re in the car.”

“Nobody’s my friend anymore at school,” Leo said.

“But I’m your friend,” the redhaired boy said.

“Yeah,” Leo said. “But,” and then he named a bunch of kids who I don’t even think he’s all that close with, “all said they wouldn’t be my friend anymore FOR NO REASON. And I was so sad yesterday, and then I got home and I wasn’t sad anymore. And now I’m going back to school and I’m sad again, so can everyone JUST STOP TALKING.” And he hunched up his shoulders so that his coat swallowed his head like a turtle shell.

“That wasn’t very nice, was it,” I said.

“No,” the little redhaired boy said. “It wasn’t.” He turned to Leo. “Leo, you are my only friend who hasn’t told me that you didn’t want to be my friend anymore.”

I stopped the car and turned around.

Really?” I said. “The only one?”

“Well,” the redhaired boy said. “I think so. I think three friends have said that. Or maybe it was more than three. Or maybe it was less than three. But it was definitely all of them.”

I love this kid.

Leo poked his head out of his jacket. “My friend said that last year. And he never turned into my friend again. Not ever.”

“It’s a mean thing to say, isn’t it?” I said. “SUPER MEAN.”

The boys nodded.

“I hate super mean stuff,” the redhaired boy said.

“Doctor Horrible would never be super mean,” Leo assured us. Only to Captain Hammer. Because Captain Hammer’s a -“

“DON’T SAY IT.”

I sighed.

“Look boys,” I said. “I think sometimes kids say mean stuff like that just because they’re in a cranky mood and they aren’t thinking about other people. When people are cranky, they’re usually just thinking about themselves. And sometimes kids say it because they feel bad inside, and they think that if they make someone else feel bad, it will make them feel better about themselves. And sometimes, kids are mean just because they like it. I don’t understand it, I don’t know why anyone would be mean for fun, but I know it’s true. There are people like that. But you two aren’t like that, and neither am I. And that’s a pretty good thing.”

The redhaired boy turned to Leo. “Leo,” he said, “I will never tell you I don’t want to be your friend. Never.”

“Me neither,” Leo said. And then they hugged and I swear to god I had projectile tears, and then Leo was all “I GET TO GET OUT FIRST!”

“NO I DO!” the redhaired boy hollered.

And then they wrestled eachother for a minute before tumbling out of the open door. They picked themselves up, I kissed each of them on the tops of their heads, and they traipsed into school.

But it got me thinking.

About politics.

For those of you who are blissfully unaware of the nasty little hotbed of dysfunction that is the Minnesota Statehouse, well, I envy you. The last year and a half has been a frickin’ nightmare. It’s like Asshole Performance Art. It’s as though each one of those jokers has been vying to win Jerk of the Year, and they ALL WON. From last year’s GOP refusal to do a single thing about the lousy budget deficit until they had sent no less than nine abortion-related (and non-budget-fixing) bills to the governor’s desk that they knew he’d veto, to the insufferable sanctimoniousness of a bunch of known adulterers whining about  defending marriage by writing bigotry into the Constitution instead of fixing their own damn families.

I could go on.

But yesterday, it was like we were all trapped in a scene from “Mean Girls”. This scene to be exact:

Yesterday, the Senate Republicans rejected a perfectly good public servant, Ellen Anderson, FOR NO REASON. They could not point to a single decision that she’s made since becoming the Chair of the Public Utilities Commission. They coud not point to a single item of public policy. They could not point to a single item in her agenda, nor in any of the decisions that she’s authored. Not one.

Instead, Julie Rosen (the good Senator from Fairmount, and a nasty piece of work if there ever was one) pulled something akin to calling your former BFF a bitch on Facebook. She said Anderson “demonized traditional energy sources”, yet could not point to this supposed demonization in her work as Chair.

Essentially, the GOP told Anderson that they weren’t gonna be her friend anymore.

They did it for no real reason. Certainly not for anything that she had done in her job.

They did it to make themselves feel better.

And, in the case of Rosen, she did it because she liked it.

I’m so embarrassed for my State right now, but I’m happy for my governor’s response, and I’m even happier about the response from those two little boys in the car today.

Because it is mean to say that you’re not gonna be someone’s friend anymore.

And it is mean to do it for no reason.

And it is better to decide to be kind, and to decide to be honorable and to decide to be good and decent and stalwart and brave. I know two little boys who have made that decision today. I hope the little children in the Legislature decide the same.

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.