Ghosts I Have Known

When I was in seventh grade, I graduated to having my own room. This was a big deal. I was the oldest of five kids in a house in which we often had friends from the neighborhood tearing through the halls, or cousins visiting, or even strangers wandering in because….well why the hell not, right? Privacy was a foreign concept. It simply didn’t exist.

So when my parents finished a couple rooms in the basement so my sister and I could have rooms of our own, I felt like I was in one of those families on t.v. – when a young lady could shout at her parents and slam the door in disgust. If I slammed my door of my room upstairs, it would still contain about six or seven eight-year-olds emptying the contents of my underwear drawer, which really kinda defeated the purpose.

So I moved downstairs.

Into the basement.

With the ghosts.

Actually, that last part isn’t true. There was only one ghost. A tiny old lady that I started to call Bertha. Though before I called her Bertha, I called her nothing. I called her fear. But fear has no name, and I had no language in which to speak it. I could only live with it.

In retrospect, my sightings of Bertha ended shortly after my parents had to remove the ancient octopus furnace on the other side of the plywood wall – a beast that moaned and sang every time it kicked into action, and that was, most likely, kicking out small amounts of carbon monoxide. Which would explain the visions.

Still. Bertha.

She wore a nubbly wool skirt that stopped demurely under her knees and a matching jacket and sensible shoes. She had thick stockings, blue gloves and a smart hat that framed her face.

And she was old. Impossibly old. Still she sat at the end of my bed night after night, her hands folded on her knees, her ankles crossed discretely, and a look of anticipation on her face. She watched me. All the time. She watched me when I crawled under the covers. She watched me while I went to the closet. She watched me when I got up to turn on another light. I slept with the lights on for three years. And for three years, Bertha watched.

And after a while, I came to anticipate her. Sometimes she would remove her gloves – tugging at one finger at a time – and lay them next to her as she sat on the bed. Her fingers were as gnarled as trees. Sometimes she would remove her hat, revealing her flour-white hair, braided tightly and wound like a snake around her small skull.

And after a while, I began to appreciate her.

And after a while, I began to love her.

Then the furnace died.

Then it was replaced.

And then Bertha went away. And my heart broke.

I didn’t see another ghost for a long time after that. The next time was well after high school and college when I lived in a rental house in Portland Oregon with my boyfriend and two other housemates. The house next door was owned by a guy who was a packrat – like the pathalogic kind. Every window was crammed with junk. The yard was an overgrown jungle of sapling trees and tangled shrubs. The mail man didn’t even venture up the narrow path that served as a walkway, so I assumed that no one lived there.

Then I saw a lady at the window. She was young – maybe twenty – in a floral dress. A different dress every day. I saw her every evening for two weeks, though never for very long. I just saw her standing by the back window, her hand on the glass and staring out. It was always dinner time, so I would notice her right when I started cooking, and notice that she was gone when it was time to put dinner on the table. I assumed she must be a relative. Maybe someone was finally getting the house back in order.

Then the ambulance came.

The house was so jammed with junk that they couldn’t make it through front door, and they certainly couldn’t get a stretcher to where the guy was. So they cut a hole through the wall.

The next day, a woman – about forty years old – was hauling junk out of the house. I introduced myself and asked how the guy was. She said it was a close call, but that he would be fine, and what a blessing it was that they had reconnected because she and her father had been estranged for many years.

“He had no one,” the lady said. “No one visited him.”

“Well, it seems like I saw someone in the window for the last few days. A young woman. One of your sisters, maybe?”

“I’m an only child,” the lady said, confused. “There’s no one else. And certainly no one has visited. They couldn’t. You can’t even get inside.”

“Well,” I said. “I saw someone. In the house. In the window of the back bedroom.”

She stared at me like I was crazy. “There’s no way that can be right,” she said. “The back bedroom is packed solid. Floor to ceiling. Not even a rat could get inside.”

She then went on to say that the only reason why she came by at all, and why she called the paramedics, was the fact that she had a strange message on her phone. “She left no name, no phone number, no contact information. Nothing. She just said, ‘He’ll die if you don’t see him. He’s dying right now.’ Thing is, that voice? It was my mother’s voice. It was exactly her voice. And she’s been dead since the Reagan administration.”

She showed me a picture of her parents on their wedding day.

Her mother wore a floral dress.

Years after that, we bought a HUD house in Minneapolis. It was in miserable shape – awful, chemical smells in the basement, nicotine stains on the walls and the windows, a kitchen giving way to rot, waterstains on the hardwood floors. I thought we were crazy for buying it, but my husband had a vision.

And he did a beautiful job. The basement became a comfortable family room with a fireplace, and the kitchen had hickory cabinets and reclaimed bowling alley lanes as countertops, and reclaimed wood replaced the stained sections on the floors and saturated paints covered the yellowed walls, and it was beautiful.

Also: haunted.

There was a young man in a plaid shirt that sometimes appeared in the corner of my eye. Only in the basement. He had dark brown hair and ripped jeans and a permanent scowl.

And he was sad.

Heartbreakingly sad.

When we first started removing the horrors in the basement, there was one place in the wall board where a section had caved in. It looked as though there had been a fight at one point and one person had shoved another person into the wall, leaving the imprint of their body – a cracked, broken sketch in a poisoned wall. I would touch the cracks and shiver. And the figure at the corner of my eye would flicker, hover, and vanish, leaving only an ache of sadness behind.

I thought that once we made the space beautiful, once we had cleared away the debris of the past, that maybe the ghost would go with it, but no such luck. He remained. And his sadness infected me like a virus.

Finally, I couldn’t stand it anymore.

“YOU,” I said, when the image returned. It gave a sullen flicker, but it didn’t go away. “You’re bringing us down, man. You’re acting as if you’ve been trapped here, like we’re keeping you here. But we’re not. The house has moved on. The people who lived here moved on. And you gotta move on too. There are better places than this basement. And this basement is going to be a better place without your sadness stinking it up. Go. Go on and be happy. Right now.”

And I never saw him again.

And I missed him.

And I wondered who was hanging on to his memory, who was lingering in the echo of his sadness, who substituted sadness for longing, and longing for love. And I wondered if that person forgave that boy. Or if the boy forgave that person. In any case, I have no doubt that the image I saw was real. Certainly, I never saw it again after I told it to take a hike. But now, after all this time, I wonder what ghosts I hang on to. I wonder who I have kept tethered to this plane of existence when they had every right to go on. And I wonder if they’re pissed.

There is, I am convinced, a veil. We cross the veil and we do not return. But on this side, both living and dead are charged to wander. Both living and dead bear the weight of memory and the burden of heartbreak and the pain of love. But the dead are supposed to move on. And when they don’t, it’s because the living cannot let go. Because we are frightened and lonely. Because we irrationally fear death. Because we suck on stories like junkies. Because we are bastards. And the dead deserve better.

And perhaps that is why these celebrations of the dead pervade cultures and countries and tribes. Perhaps this is our chance to celebrate the dead, to cast their memories before burning candles and melting sugar and dry leaves and scatter them to the wind, setting them free.

Free the dead. Perhaps that shall be my Halloween slogan. Perhaps it should be yours.

Okay, fine, another recipe

I’m not really a post-recipes-on-the-blog sort of person. This is not to cast aspersions on those who do – and indeed, I enjoy a recipe-posting blog just as much as the next girl. In fact, if I’m hunched over my computer, late on a deadline, too stressed to get up and make myself a sandwich, sometimes reading the oft-heavily-photographed displays of somebody else’s culinary endeavors can be…..voyeuristically satisfying. Sorta like food porn. Sometimes I can do that instead of the actual sandwich.

(Who am I kidding? I will always opt for the sandwich. Always.)

So I posted a recipe a while back, and I felt that I was done. Finito. I did it once and I don’t ever need to do it again. (I suspect many a meth-head said similar words once upon a time.) This is not a recipe blog.

However, when the lovely Stephanie Pellegrin put out an impassioned plea on Twitter for a squash casserole recipe, I leaped into action. Unfortunately, not only do I not post recipes, I don’t really use them either. I’m a shoot-from-the-hip type. Even if I have a recipe, I typically go off-trail, so to speak. I’m a culinary bushwacker.

So I had to do some deep thinking in order to recreate how I make this dish. This is as close as I can get it.

Now, I don’t have any experience cooking casseroles. Growing up in Minnesota, I have had too many casseroles foisted upon my person in the potlucks of my youth. They appear in my fiction only – typically in some sort of sinister situation. They do not emerge from my kitchen and they certainly have no place on my table.

This is not a casserole.

It is, however, a rather satisfying use of a good butternut squash. It can be eaten warm, right from the oven, or room temperature, spooned on some chewy sour dough bread, or cold, tossed with some greens. You can serve it along side scrambled eggs, toss it on noodles or shovel it straight into your mouth while standing in the glow of the refrigerator at one a.m. because you were feeling peckish. It refrigerates nicely, and is FANTASTIC a day or two later.

This is what you’ll need:

1 good sized butternut squash, peeled, seeded and diced.
1/4 cup olive oil.
1/4 cup good maple syrup
a small bunch of fresh sage leaves, bruised and minced (DO NOT USE DRY AS IT WILL TASTE TERRIBLE. if you don’t have fresh, skip the sage)
One purple onion, sliced thin
One goodly amount of fresh arugula or other dark green (like two or three good-sized handfuls)
One can Cannelli beans (you could use navy beans I suppose, but they won’t be as good. Cannelli have that nice meaty texture and feel better in the mouth. Some other options would be butter beans or fava beans – but I haven’t tried either, so I can’t endorse them)
Lots of salt and pepper
1/2 lemon
a handful of toasted cashews, optional.

This is what you’ll do:
Toss the butternut squash in the maple syrup, oil, sage and salt and pepper until evenly coated. Turn it out into one or two baking pans – you want it in a single layer – and bake at 400 degrees for 40 minutes. The squash should turn fragrant and gooey and browned. If you like a richer caramel, then at the end of the 40 minutes, turn on the broiler for thirty seconds to get that rich color. BUT IF YOU DO THIS WATCH IT LIKE A FREAKING HAWK.

While the squash is cooking, put your onions in a dry saute pan on very low heat. Cover and cook for ten minutes, stirring and shaking occasionally. After ten minutes, increase the heat to medium and add two tablespoons of olive oil (you could add another teaspoon of maple syrup too, just to be fancy). Cook on medium heat for another five minutes. Add your greens and allow to wilt. Once the greens are ONLY BARELY WILTED, add your beans and salt and pepper.

Take your squash out of the oven, toss with the onions and beans and greens and squeeze the half lemon over the whole thing. Sprinkle with the cashews if you’re using them, or with another scant handful of raw greens and serve.

Now you can manipulate this recipe any way you want – add a chopped red bell pepper to the squash for some added color. Parsley or Thai basil might also be nice additions. Or whatever. You’ll probably come up with something way better than this. But I like this dish quite a bit, and I’d probably eat it every day were it not for the fact that my stinkin’ husband is some sort of insane squash hater. My kids, on the other hand LOVE this dish, and often demand several helpings.

More proof that our kids are ALWAYS better versions of ourselves.

Moses….no, Pharaoh. No, wait. Moses.

I have a secret confession:

I love driving carpool.

This is a strange thing for me to admit, because I actually hate driving. Like a lot. I find it uncomfortable and stressful and a huge waste of time. Also, my car smells like cheese.

But I love the carpool because the kids forget that I’m there half the time and I get to listen in to their ridiculous conversations. Like this:

Kid 1: Your bathroom has a bad word in it.

Kid 2: No it doesn’t. What word?

Kid 1: Hot.

Kid 2: That’s not a bad word.

Kid 1: It is when it’s the love kind of hot.

Kid 2: It’s not the love kind of hot. It’s the water kind of hot.

Kid 1: That’s just what your parents told you so you wouldn’t freak out.

Kid 2: MOM!

I didn’t answer. I was too busy laughing hysterically.

This morning, we were driving a little boy who lives up the street. I love this kid. He has flaming red hair and delicate features and a somber, quiet, deliberate way of speaking. He gentles my car in the morning. This morning, he was trying to teach my son a blessing that he had learned in his Hebrew classes at the JCC after school.

Leo, unfortunately, was a poor Hebrew student.

We were driving along, and while passing through the Highland business district in Saint Paul, I saw a car nearly crush a mother and her daughter as they crossed the road.

“JESUS MOTHER CHRIST!” I yelled, and then rolled down the window to yell some more. (I did not, I’d like to point out, use profanity. Though I surely would have done if the kids were not in the car.)

The little redhaired boy was fascinated.

“Kelly,” he said. “Are you Jewish?”

“No, darling, I’m not. Why do you ask?”

“My mom says Jewish people get to say ‘Jesus’ when they’re mad. She says it’s a perk.”

“Well,” I said. “Sometimes people see it as more of a guideline than a rule. And sometimes lots of rules go out the window when you see a car trying to kill a lady and her kid.”

The redhaired boy thought about this and nodded.

Leo was interested in the JCC and Cordelia was talking about her project on President Lincoln and American slavery.

The redhaired boy perked up.

“We learned about slavery too,” he said.

“Really?” I said. “What did you learn?”

“Well, it’s an evil story,” he said taking evident delight. “Because the people had to carry REALLY HEAVY ROCKS on their backs up the sides of these humungous rock piles FOR NO REASON, and then Moses, when he got mad, would whip them just because.”

I paused.

“You mean Pharaoh?”

“Right,” he said. “Pharaoh.”

“Oh, I know this story!” Leo yelled. “It has a pillar of fire!”

“There’s no pillar of fire, Leo,” the redhaired boy said. “Oh, wait. Yes there was. But it was later.”

“The pillar of fire is the best part,” Leo said.

“No, the best part is when Pharaoh sent plagues to Egypt. Like frogs. FROGS!”

“You mean Moses?”

“Right. Moses. And frogs. And then Harriet Tubman-”

“THAT’S THE WRONG STORY!” Cordelia yelled. She’s bossy about details. She’s a detail boss. “That was America, not Egypt!”

“Well,” the redhaired boy said thoughtfully, “slavery is bad no matter where it is. Even Antarctica.”

“That’s totally true,” I said.

“And then Moses….no, I mean Pharaoh. Actually, no, it was Moses. Wait…..which one got all his hair cut off?”

Bible literacy, ladies and gentlemen! There’s something for everyone!

Twin Cities Book Festival!

It’s today! All day long!

Check it out:

I’ll be teaching a workshop for younger children at 10 called “Who’s That Knocking At My Door?” – which is all about developing characters, and another one for older kids at 4 called “Low-Impact Storytelling”. I’m also doing a reading at 2:30.

Which means I’ll be there ALL DAY. So come and find me. I’ll be wandering around, likely spending too much money and wondering who will sneak out and have lunch with me. I’ll be the lady with the stripy socks. And the tall black boots.

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)

Things coming, things doing, and things done.

So, I have a confession to make: I have a ridiculously humungous amount of fun doing bookish events. Maybe I would feel differently if I wrote for grownups and was therefore speaking in front of audiences comprised largely of grownups. Cuz, yanno. Grownups are stodgy and a bit of a snore.

Now, I don’t want to offend any grownups reading this blog, and I really want you to know that individually I think you’re marvelous and I love you all very much. But. Let’s be serious. Kids are more fun.

I hope I haven’t hurt your feelings.

(Kids, if you’re reading this, please remember that grownups – while insufferably tiresome when collected in groups – are a sensitive, fragile lot, and you should always try to boost up their self-esteem. For example: You can tell them that they just said something smart. Or that they look terribly attractive in that sweater.)

Is there anything more awesome, I wonder, than sitting around with a bunch of kids and talking about stories? Honestly, I don’t think there is.

So, I’ve been doing some more bookish-type events lately, and I’m going to be doing some more.

For example, back in September, I was reading at Wild Rumpus Books, surrounded not only by a bunch of kids, but animals too! 

Kids!

Animals!

It was magnificent!

And then, just last Saturday I was at Red Balloon Bookshop. And there was cake. CAKE!

One of the perks of being trained as a teacher is that I’m pretty good at getting the kids to think of – and then actually ask- questions after my brief reading.

And their questions are always really interesting and esoteric and random and wonderful. Such as, “Thank you for reading but what are those books about?” And, “But why did you stop there? What happens next?” And, “But seriously, did you write all the words in this book all by yourself?”

That last one was asked with some incredulity.

By my own nephew, by the way. (Honestly! The respect I get around here!) (Et tu, Charlie?)

Anyway, I feel exquisitely energized by these last two readings, and I’m looking forward to the next appearances. For those of you who are interested I’ll be at the Twin Cities Book Festival this Saturday for a reading, signing and teaching two writing mini-workshops for children. Later, I’ll be at the AASL conference in Saint Paul at the end of the month, signing books. Then, on November 13, I’ll be doing a reading with Minnesota writer, extraordinaire, Anne Ursu, at the Second Story Reading Series at the Loft. And then, on December 3, I’ll be speaking at Nokomis Library, doing a reading and author chat with their youth book group, and I’m ridiculously excited about all of it.

If you’re around, come by! Say hello! Throw tomatoes! Or flower petals! Or autumn leaves! Make fun! Tell jokes! Stick around for coffee! Or whatever.

In any case, I’ll be there. Having the time of my life.

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!

Today’s Poem: “Evening, By The Lake”

Evening, By The Lake

The sky poured down
onto the water,
colors spilling
from shore to shore –
red
gold
midnight blue
the glinting of stars
the drape of clouds –
rippled by waves
and the night-cooled wind.

A thousand birds
floated on the sky
wings tucked tight
heads nestled
in feathery pockets
dreaming dreams of migration
and summer
of a world made of water
and cloud
and glinting star
and endless sky.

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.