Nine things I am thankful for

Gratitude #1. There is a little boy (Leo? My son? I may have mentioned him here before…) who, upon seeing that his parents are sleeping late, says, “YESYESYESYESYES!” Then, after rubbing his hands together, takes two quick steps, then a flying leap, then landing between my husband and I with a soft thud. He squirms under the covers and buries himself between this parent and that parent, feeling for that moment as though he was the luckiest boy that had ever lived, and that ever would live. “There is nothing better,” he says as he links his arms with my arms, his legs with his Dad’s legs, “than snuggling. Nothing in the world.”

Gratitude #2. There are two bags of arugula in my refrigerator and a large, bright squash, and I intend to use them for a dish both savory and sweet, a dish both roasted and fresh, both caramel and herbaceous. A dish that begins with hello and ends with goodbye. And it shall be a triumph.

Gratitude #3. One of the perks of Catholicism is that we are gifted with very large families. I can hardly go around a corner without running into a second cousin or fourth aunt or that kid who dated my cousin or whatever. We are so large now that we can’t have Thanksgiving meals all together – we don’t fit – but I’m meeting a bunch of my cousins and second cousins (and aunts and uncles and great aunts and great uncles) for a hike.

Gratitude #4. I am grateful for the warm day. And the low sun. And the muted shades of brown and green rimming the pale blue sky.

Gratitude #5. The weirdest thing I’m grateful for is the fact that my husband and I had a fight last night. And it was a doozy. There is something cathartic about hashing it out over an issue that builds and builds. In fact, it’s not the fight that is hard or the fight that hurts. It’s before. The hurt had been building for days. Sometimes I feel that we put on extra skins to keep ourselves from facing issues that might be difficult or unpleasant. We put on these skins to buffer our points of tenderness, to hide our vulnerability. But they don’t last. They become hard and inflexible, scaly and brittle. And so we put on skin after skin after skin until we are thick, lumpy, ugly things. We are the color of old sawdust and beef jerky and rancid socks. When we finally break, when we finally hash it out, we peel back our layers. One, then two, then three or four at a time. We slice, peel, pull and kick. We are like snakes wriggling free again and again, until, by the end, we are supple and soft and vulnerable as babies.We are new. Last night I had a fight with my husband. And now we are new. And I am grateful for it.

Gratitude #6. My oldest daughter. She is hard, and brilliant, and shining. She is the jewel in the fallow field, the treasure that saves the dying farm. That child is so ruddy smart that I’m astonished that she sprang, twelve years ago, from the dark depths of my body. How does she come from me? It makes no sense. If it weren’t for the fact that she looks exactly like me, I wouldn’t be surprised if, one day, her real parents showed up from Fairyland or the Alien Mothership or Harvard or whatever and said, “Yeah. Sorry about that.”

Gratitude #7. My middle child. She is kindness personified. There is no soul more gentle, more patient, or more singular. She requires little, gives much. She is good at math, good at drawing, good in general, and I am wild for her. She also has me wrapped securely around her finger, so despite her singularity, despite her self-assuredness, (or perhaps because of it) I am absolutely unable to say no to this child. I can’t even bring her shopping anymore, because of my inability to deny her things. She is persuasive. She is the worst kind of bossy, because she convinces you that it was your idea in the first place. Which means that she will make an excellent politician someday. Or Queen of Everything.

Gratitude #8. Milk and eggs. I have this recurring nightmare – maybe two or three times a month – in which the children come bounding into my room, shaking me out of sleep, and saying, “Oh, mom! Can you believe it’s Christmas already?” And I’m all WHAT? It’s Christmas? I haven’t bought presents! We don’t have a tree! I haven’t bought milk! We’re out of eggs! And I panic and wake up in tears. And the thing is – it’s the milk and eggs that scares me the most. If I have milk and eggs in the fridge, I can make pretty much anything. I can make the morning special. I can give the kids something to remember forever. Milk and eggs. Okay fine – and sugar and flour. I’d need those too. Milk and eggs and sugar and flour is all I need for…..right. And butter. Milk and eggs and – did I mention marmalade? Okay, this is all I’ll need: Milk and eggs and butter and flour and sugar and marmalade. And tea. With milk.

I think I just gave myself a new anxiety dream. Goddamnit.

Gratitude #9. Pie. Nine kinds of pie. If I were Harold on his picnic with his nine kinds of pie, I don’t even know what pies I would draw. But I am grateful that I live in a world so plentiful with pie that nine kinds of pie (all my favorite!) is a possibility. Indeed, my mouth waters just thinking about it. When I was growing up, we learned a lot of prayers in Religion class at Catholic School. A prayer for orphans. A prayer for forgiveness. A prayer for peace in the world. Litanies upon litanies of saints. But never a prayer for pie.

I think I will compose a prayer for pie. I think I will tattoo it on my heart. I think I will sing it in the secret depths of my soul forever and ever and ever.

But really, I am grateful for this work, and for the people who labor in the same fields that I do – hot, bright, brilliant writers all – who work every day to make the world new again. And I am grateful for you, oh Internets, that great, wide, shining ocean, in which I throw my little messages in bottles – my heart in colored glass – again and again and again. To remind myself that I exist. That the work matters. That we are all alive.

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How James Thurber Killed My Soul (and made it new again)

There are books that are – by their very natures – interruptions.

Sometimes, we read a book that is so goddamn good, that it stops us in our tracks, destroys the things we thought were true – about our work, about our reading, about books in general and about the world. Often, this is a good thing. As I’ve written about on this blog before, I had a bookus interruptus moment nine years ago when, while nursing my second child, I read Last Report of Miracles at Little No Horse, by Louise Erdrich. Then I read it again. Then I read it yet again, feeling the words of the novel write themselves on my bones. Then, for the first time in – hell, I don’t know. A lot of years. I started writing again.

And now, I’ve read a book that has made me stop. Maybe forever.

This time, James Thuber – oh, James! What have you done to me? – – reached from the grave and put The Thirteen Clocks into my hands. I think he did it on purpose. I think he wanted to bring me down a notch or two.

Check this out:

“The task is hard,” said Zorn, “and can’t be done.”

“I can do a score of things that can’t be done,” the Golux said. “I can find the thing I cannot see and see the thing I cannot find. The first is time, the second is the spot before my eyes. I can feel a thing I cannot touch and touch a thing I cannot feel. The first is sad and sorry, the second is your heart. What would you do without me? Say ‘nothing’.”

“Nothing,” said the Prince.”

“Good. Then you’re helpless and I’ll help you.”

This book is a marvel. The prose is spare and voluptuous at the same time. It is sure-footed and quick-witted and full of tricks. There are old ladies who weep jewels and jewels that become tears. There is a man who murdered time and a man whose secret name begins with X and a man who makes things up and a girl with warm, warm hands. And kings with feet in traps. And indescribable hats. And a spy you cannot see (and therefore cannot trust). It is a delicious language treat – a delight for the ear and tongue and eye. It does not hesitate. It does not falter. It snatches your heart right out of your body and runs away with it. And you chase it. You chase it as you expire. You chase it as your breath fails you. You chase it saying, “Oh! It is beautiful!” And “Oh! It is wise!” and “Oh! That I should live this day to hear this story, and that I may live another day to hear it again.”

And so I may stop writing forever.

Oh, James! Why do you play with my soul in this way!

If you want to ruin your life the way this book has ruined mine, feel free to watch this little video. It’s Neal Gaiman reading the opening passages. Just, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

 

The 13 Clocks from Juan Delcan on Vimeo.

OCCUPY CHRISTMAS TREE

In one of my many forays into the great sucking Time Sink that is these here Internets, I found a link to a Christmas tree made entirely from recycled materials. And it was a beautiful thing.

The subject of Christmas trees is a bit of a sore one in Barnhill-Land. Firstly, there is the question of when to put the thing up (I say ten days before Christmas; he says the day after Thanksgiving); secondly, there is the question of short needles vs. long needles (obviously short needles are superior); thirdly there is the question of the unnaturally full tree vs. the Charlie Brown tree (did you not SEE that show? Does your heart not MELT at the site of a spindly little tree with an awkward star?).

But the main argument is this: Alive? Or Not-Alive?

Holidays are a time in which the Nostalgia regions of our brains swell to the size of cantaloupes and we all become infantilized and illogical and grasping. We become set in our ways. We are uncompromiseable. I grew up with the smell of freshly cut spruce in the house at Christmastime. I remember the sharp smell of sap as my father sliced circle after circle off the base of the trunk, trying to get the thing to fit under the ceiling. I remember the clean smell of snow still clinging to the needles, the very real possibility of critters lurking in the branches, and the float of sawdust in the air.

Smell, after all, triggers nostalgia, and I want my damn nostalgia goddamnit.

Ted, on the other hand, in his infuriating reasonableness, offers numbers and statistics and facts. He talks about “dead trees” and “environmental impacts” and “carbon footprints” and “landfills” and other things that may or may not be nonsense.

He claims to have no nostalgia. And yet. He speaks so prettily about the yearly Christmas-tree-put-together that happened every year after Thanksgiving. No nostalgia, my eye!

Anyway, I may have found the thing that satisfies us both.

This morning, while wasting time (again) on the stupid internets (again) I found this:

Pretty, yes? It’s also a swing!

It was designed by architect/designer/artist, Kyle Martin, and is made from recycled plywood, PET strapping, bolts and lights. You can look at it, sit in it, stack presents inside it, and, granted, if it was in my house, my son would have found some way to destroy it in all of nine minutes, I still love the idea of it. And so did the kids:

“Look at this!” I said to them, and they gathered around the laptop. (Because that’s what we do in this modern era. The way that our ancestors gathered around fires or smoking meat or wise ancient family members or bibles or whatever. We gather around oddly-glowing laptops that are probably giving us cancer. And that’s progress.)

Leo was rapt. “Let’s make that today,” he said.

“So,” DeeDee said. “You can put your presents in there, but before christmas you can keep whatever you want in there. Like dolls.”

“Or swords,” Leo said.

“Or blankets and pillows and books,” DeeDee said.

“Or swords,” Leo said. “And guns.”

“And snacks,” DeeDee insisted.

“Yeah,” Leo concurred, “snacks are good. So are swords.”

DeeDee cradled her forehead in her fingertips.

“How is it made?” Leo wanted to know. I showed him the diagrams and I explained what the materials were. He wrinkled his brow and listened.

“But if we do it,” he said slowly. “We can make it however we want.”

“We’ll add cushions,” DeeDee said.

“And a trap door,” Leo said, folding his hands together and bringing his knuckles to his lips. He smiled.

“Why would you need to have a trap door?” I asked. This was getting good.

“To trap Santa,” he said, as if was obvious.

“Why would you want to trap Santa?” DeeDee asked, but then the realization of it started to spread across her face as well. “I see,” she said. “Well….” DeeDee, of course is my planner. “We’ll need to make extra cookies.”

“Boxes and boxes,” Leo agreed.

“And we’ll need a few bags of sugar.” She shook her head. “No. More than a few. The whole basement.”

“Why will we need sugar?” I asked.

“For the reindeer,” she explained. “They can’t fly without Santa, so they’ll be stuck here.”

“On the roof!” Leo yelled.

“But,” I pressed. “If they’re on the roof, and if they can’t fly without Santa, and if Santa is stuck inside the Christmas tree, then how will we feed the reindeer? We can’t get the sugar on the roof.”

There was a long silence. Leo scratched his head.

“I KNOW!” He shouted. “A crane. Quick mom! Find out how much it costs to buy a crane.”

I googled it.

“But if the reindeer are living in the yard – once we get them down with the crane,” Deedee said reasonably, “they’re going to make a lot of poop.”

“Is reindeer poop sparkly?” Leo asked.

“No poop is sparkly,” DeeDee said scathingly.

“Well,” I said. “This is entirely y’all’s idea. If you want to trap Santa, then you have to accept the responsibility of the consequences. The reindeer will look to you to take care of them, and you’re obligated to do so.”

“We can’t just give them sugar?” Leo asked.

“No.”

He looked at the photograph of the recycled Christmas tree, an expression of longing and loss on his little face.

“Well,” he said. “I guess it would be greedy. To steal Santa.” He sighed. “Can we get our Christmas tree? Today, I mean?”

And so it begins.

I wish all of my stories were like this:

Seriously, you guys, I love this so hard.

I like the idea that stories are love letters, though not always the kind that we expect. There are stories like this one – a letter of love from one person to another person, and it is lovely. But there are also stories that are love letters to the books we loved or love letters to the people we used to be or love letters to the world. Some stories are love letters that the writer constructs, and other are built entirely by the reader. I think that all of my stories are love letters to the lonely child I used to be. Except the ones that I write for my children. Or the ones that I write to my husband. Or the ones I write to the world (or every world).

Perhaps it is all these things at once.

In any case, I love the simplicity of the drawings here. There is an immediacy to the storytelling and an urgency to the tenderness that I find terribly appealing.

Narrative is an amazing thing. We think of storytelling as a linguistic art, bound by word and syntax and the cadence of sound, but that’s not true. Story – as a structure, as an art form, as an organism, as a thing that feeds and grows and multiplies and thrives – is wholly separate from language. Language is the medium that we often use to get at the heart of the story, but it’s a blunt tool most of the time. Language winds around the story, it catches it like butterfly nets or fish hooks or cages, but language is not the story. The story is the story.

I was having a conversation with some other writers recently on Twitter about outlining. I am not an outliner – and when I have made some attempts at outlining, I ended up killing the book that I wanted to write.

(there are dead novels in my desk drawers. They are mummified corpses. They are partially created frankensteins, that will never draw breath.)

But I wonder – I really wonder – if a pictoral outline would be a more effective tool. One of the lovely things about that flip book is that the story felt unbound. It unfolded in my head; it wrote itself in my heart. Perhaps I need to try my hand at unbound outlining.

If anything else, I think I would enjoy it very much.

Eleven Things for Eleven-Eleven-Eleven

1.  My desk faces a window that looks out onto the back yard and the park and the creek and the path along the creek that follows the water as it leads to the waterfall and then the river and then the ocean and then the sky (in truth, the path does not lead that far, but in my mind it does. In my mind there is a pathway that leads from my body along the grass and up the myriad trails sliced by the rain. In my mind, I follow a road made of rain, cutting my feet on water). But I digress. There are eleven trees framed in the square of glass of my window (my window is made from the liquid left over from the white glow of burning sand. My window flows like water. When I was little, the sand burned and the blue water licked my feet and cooled them down. Burning sand and cold water was the language of summer. Later, when I was older, I burned my hand on boiling water and cooled the burn on the frosty glass of an uninsulated window. When we grow, the world contradicts itself – that which is wondrous becomes more wondrous, and that which is strange becomes more strange, but we lose the words to call it so. This is the language of adulthood, and it is a dull thing.) Ten of the eleven trees have lost their leaves. Their branches hold the sky. But one stubbornly hangs on, and it is gold, gold, gold, its colors brazen against the blue.

2. There was only one last piece of pumpkin bread, and I fell into grief. I set it on an orange, plastic plate – the kind that we bought from Ikea when the kids were small because they would not break, but the kids refused to eat on them, and instead used them as frisbees (and terrible frisbees they were. The oblong shape made for a haphazard wobble. They could not be aimed, flung, chucked or caught. The could only make a chaotic splash of color against the world, before smacking against the ceiling or wall or floor.) There were eleven walnuts in the slice. I counted them over and over. The meat of the nut slices cleanly – a smooth, slick face, a fleshy give against the teeth. I ate it slowly, crumb by nut by crumb. And this is how it is: the work of our hands, though it is dead, keeps us alive. We feed upon the dead to slow our decay, and in this way we are one with the world.

3. My son and daughter are out of school and are banned from the computer and banned from the television, and banned from all media, and are banned from my room while I work (on a computer, for the media, because incongruity is the soul of family life). I can hear them in the other room, along with the sound of bells. There are no bells in my house, and yet my house rings and rings and rings.

4. There is a document open in my computer -the copy edits of a novel that will inch its way towards the world on legs that I did not fashion and eyes that I did not form. Writers will say that they do not play god, but we lie. We play god all the time. We create worlds and people and plot arcs. It’s just that we really suck at it – or we don’t realize that the worlds we create will swiftly leave the realm of our control. That our worlds have free will – a will that is almost instantly subverted by readers and publishers and critics and e-readers. My child’s e-reader has converted my story into a series of ones and zeros. This is a language I do not speak – a world I did not create – and yet somehow my characters live in it. I cannot help them there. I cannot assist them. I created them, but they have strayed beyond my reach. I wonder if this is how god feels about us.

5. During the fall and winter, I make soup almost every day – sweet potato soup and tortellini soup and fifteen bean soup and lentil soup and white bean soup and beer cheese soup and tomato soup and mushroom soup. I have never, ever used a recipe. This is why I cannot go back to graduate school – and really is the reason why I left teaching way back when. I suck at following the rules.

6.  I also suck at numbers. I have no idea what my cell phone number is and it took me three years to learn my home phone number. However, I learned my husband’s cell number instantly. He didn’t even have to tell me twice. Maybe this is what it’s always like for married people – they are tattooed on our skin, tattooed in our eyes, tattooed in the muscle fibers of my heart. His name is etched on my bones.

7. When I was eleven, I went to camp and rode a horse named Champion. He was an asshole of a horse – rude, arrogant, and pompous. I was terrified of him. He bit my shoulder, leaving a bruise, and bucked me off onto the ground, leaving more bruises. My counselor asked me what I was doing to make him so angry. I said, “being alive.” They switched me to an ancient horse named Horace. He had no teeth.

8. I own eleven pairs of wool socks, though only three are currently without holes. I keep the pairs of socks with holes because I am a nostalgic person. I hang onto the memory of warm toes, the whisper of wool against the cold, wood floor. I hang onto them because I think that one day I will learn how to darn socks. This is a fantasy. I only ever received one D in my entire academic career. It was in Home Economics. My teacher wrote this about my locker caddy that I had sewn as my end-of-the-year project: “This locker caddy has no straight lines and no right angles. The hanger does not fit at the top. The pockets have holes. This would neither hang straight nor flat. It would not fit in a locker. It would not hold a comb or a brush or a scissors or a packet of pens. The mirror is not affixed straight. It does nothing that a locker caddy is supposed to do. But I love the color, and the butterfly applique was a nice touch. D-”

9. Last week I consumed eleven pieces of halloween candy in a single day – though not all at once. I am not proud of this. Please don’t tell my children.

10. When I was a park ranger, my husband and I staffed a station at Marmot Lake, which was thirty miles into the back country. I brought eleven books with me to keep me in words for the summer. Unfortunately, the first one was TOMMYKNOCKERS by Stephen King, which scared me so thoroughly, that I was put off books for a long time – as even a casual glance would send me into a fit of shivers. I did end up reading my copy of Borges’s Ficciones, and my copy of Moby Dick. The rest of the books I left in the ranger’s cache, for the next park employee who needed something to read. I did not, however, leave Tommyknockers. That I brought home and recycled.

11. I have eleven notebooks in my desk with the outlines and synopses and character descriptions and drawings and place descriptions and histories and bank notes and shopping lists and music lists and possible futures and every other tiny bit of background and complications and information for eleven different novels. I have not written these novels. I don’t know if I ever will.

On Loss.

Our family lost a beloved member this week – Ted’s only cousin’s husband. He was in his early forties, a stay-at-home dad, and a caregiver to his grandma-in-law. He was funny, interesting, a great storyteller, into all the wonderful geeky stuff that I’m into (he was, for example, the only person in the family with whom I often had serious discussions about Buffy and Firefly); he was wildly in love with his kids and his wife, a dedicated family man, fun at parties…. and then, in a flash, he was gone.

And we miss him.

And so I’ve had several discussions with the kids about death and dying, about what happens to us when we die, and about the fragility and preciousness of the fact of our breathing and the fact of our living. Particularly Leo, who was most fond of our cousin’s jokes, who felt the strongest connection to him, and therefore most keenly feels his loss.

Each moment is a miracle, I told them. Though I didn’t entirely believe it.

Death is a part of life; life is precious because it is brief. Again, my words felt hollow and without meaning. I hoped the kids didn’t notice.

Last night, I woke up at about midnight to find Leo standing next to my bed. He had his hand resting on my forehead.

“What are you doing up?” I asked.

“You put on the flower blanket,” Leo said, ignoring the question. “It’s beautiful.”

“I’m glad you like it,” I said. “What are you doing up?”

“I was just checking on you,” he said.

I told him I was fine, and I kissed him, gave him a glass of water and tucked him into bed.

At two a.m., he was back, his hand on my forehead.

“Hey,” I said sleepily.

“I’m just checking on you,” he said again.

“Well, I’m fine,” I said. “But I’m a bit sleepy.” And I walked him back to his bed and tucked him in.

Then at four thirty, I was suddenly pummeled by a riot of arms and legs, as Leo scrambled over my body and wedged himself between his dad and I. “I though you might be lonely,” he said.

“How can I ever be lonely with such a nice family,” I yawned as I carried him back to bed.

Then, this morning, after breakfast, he went outside and gathered leaves. Red leaves, brown leaves. Leaves the color of mustard, and the color of gold, and the color of roses. He put them in the sink, pushed in the plug and turned on the tap.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“They lost their water,” Leo said. “So I’m putting their water back in and then they’ll be green again.”

“Honey, that’s not how it works,” I said, turning off the faucet. “They will never be green. We’ll rake them into the garden beds, and they will become less leaf-like and more dirt-like. Then they will become food for the flowers and the hostas and the vegetables. But they won’t be leaves again. In the spring, the trees will turn gold, then pale green, then the buds will burst open, and the world will be filled with leaves. Leaves as far as you can see. And everything will be green.”

“So,” he said, thinking. “The leaves become flowers?”

“Sort of. Everything is recycled. Everything becomes everything.”

“So.” He paused for several breaths. “Is Kurby a flower? Or is he everything?”

I picked him up. “Baby,” I said. “Every atom in your body was once in a star. Did you know that? And that star formed, and burned, and exploded into dust, and that dust spun, and collected and congealed into planets and our sun and your body and every blessed thing on this whole beautiful earth. When we die, our atoms become flowers and dirt and leaves and wind and worms and bunny rabbits and fire and stars. And we become memory and thought and song and stories and spirit and Word and children of God. I don’t know where we go, honey. But I’ll know it when I see it.”

“Will I know it?” Leo said. He wound his arms around my neck and hung on tight.

“Yes, darling,” I said. “I do believe you will.”