In Which Voldemort Gets the Cheese Touch.

This is the expression on my face most days. Especially the eyes.

I think I’ve mentioned on this blog the fact that I, most days, haul a carpool to school filled with delightful elementary school boys. I use the word “delightful” here in its broadest sense, in order to include yelling, cat-calling, fake-swearing, bodily eruptions, poop jokes, gun jokes, penis jokes, fart jokes, farting penis jokes, something about boobies and light-saber-sound-effects. To rescue my thin grip on sanity, I decided a while ago to forgo any crunchy-mama prohibitions I may have had ever in my life regarding screen time and throw a movie into the ole minivan VCR.

(It is, I do believe, a certifiable miracle that the thing still works, as both minivan and VCR are about ten years old. And that thing gets hammered – hot in the summer, absolute zero in the winter, sticky drinks, stray kicks, and, once, projectile vomit. The thing keeps ticking. If it is a miracle, does that qualify my minivan for sainthood? If so, someone should alert the Vatican.)

Anyway, the kids watch movies on their way to school in ten minute increments, and I listen to said movies as I drive. E.T, Apollo 13, Star Wars, Newsies, Cats and Dogs, Galaxy Quest, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, The Dark Crystal, George of the Jungle, and basically whatever else I’m able to pick up at Savers for a quarter. I have become a connosieur of kid-movie sound construction and voice inflection. E.T., for example, is a thing of beauty – communicating more through silence than most films can do in hours of scene-building. The Phantom Menace, on the other hand, while bad to watch, is torture to listen to, and whoever is responsible should be in prison.

Today, they watched Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, or the end of it, anyway. They tumbled out of the car last Friday just as Professor Quirrell was about to remove the turban from his head. They climbed back into the car today shouting turn it on turn it on, despite the fact that they have all read the book and watched the movie approximately nine million times. They were beside themselves with anticipation. I pushed play, rolled into the road, and headed toward school. Here is a transcription of the conversation that ensued in the back seat.

“Shhhh!”

You shhh!”

“We’re missing it.”

You’re missing it.”

“Cheese touch.”

“Wait. What movie is this again?”

“Harry looks like he has to fart.”

“HE DOES NOT.”

“Cheese touch.”

“You’re squishing me.”

“You’re squishing me.”

“Cheese touch.”

“Why do you keep saying that?”

“Look.”

At that very moment, Voldemort, stuck on the back of the doomed professor’s head, instructs Quirrell to take the Sorcerer’s stone from Harry. But when he touches Harry, his hand burns up, thus showing that Voldmort cannot be touched by the boy wizard.

“Harry Potter has the cheese touch.”

The boys nearly peed themselves laughing.

“Now Voldemort has the cheese touch. Lookit him! Cheese toucher.”

“DON’T TOUCH VOLDEMORT HE TOUCHED THE CHEESE.”

“Voldemort smells like a fart. Like cheesy farts.”

“Cheese farts are not as bad as sausage farts. Sausage farts are THE WORST.”

“I’m kinda hungry.”

“Don’t let Voldemort get the Sausager’s Stone.”

“It’s the Sorcerer’s Stone.”

“No. It’s the Sausager’s Stone. IT HAS THE POWER TO TURN MERE METAL INTO SAUSAGE.”

“Quit saying stuff like that. I have to pee.”

“Harry Pee-ter and the Sausager’s Stone.”

“I MEAN IT.”

“If it could make me defeat Voldemort I would totally touch the cheese.”

“You already touched the cheese.”

“I AM VOLDMORT. I AM THE CHEESE. AND THE TOUCH. I AM THE CHEESE TOUCH.”

By the time we reached school, I was weak with laughing. And hunger too, as I had forgotten to have breakfast before I left in the morning. When I got back to the house, I went straight to the fridge to grab something quick before getting to work. A nice, square slice of cheese.

Cheese touch.

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Why I Love Fourth Graders: A List.

Author’s note: I think more children would love school if they were allowed to be barefoot.

Today I visited the fourth graders of Highland Park Elementary School in Saint Paul. I was feeling crummy beforehand – sniffles, headache, tummy-yuck, etc. – and was probably not in the best headspace to perform at optimum awesomeness. That didn’t matter. The fourth graders had Awesome to spare. They had Awesome pouring out of their eyes, ears, mouths and noses. They left little trails of Awesome on the ground like awesome slugs. They emitted little pollen particles of Awesome like awesome daisies. They rang like bells and surged like oceans and glittered like stars. I think I have mentioned here before on my blog how very very very much love I have in my heart for fourth graders. And while I always know that, intrinsically within myself, it is still completely surprising to me whenever I step into a fourth grade classroom. All the love I thought I had for fourth graders, the moment they congregate in their desks, is amplified ONE SKILLION FOLD.

They are wondrous, these children. Completely wondrous.

To give you a sense of why I love these kids so much, and why they delight me so, and why they – more than any other age group – propel me again and again to the page, I composed this list.

WHY I LOVE FOURTH GRADERS. By Kelly Barnhill

1. Because they ask me if I’ve ever met L. Frank Baum. It doesn’t even occur to them that he has been dead for a long, long time. For them, writers are as alive as their books. And books never die.

2. Because they assume that I’m best friends with J. K. Rowling.

3. Because they want to tell me, RIGHT NOW, that this sweatshirt is new.

4. Because they see me in the hall and say I KNOW YOU, YOU’RE THE WRITER. And they are shiny and happy and proud. They have this funny quality of being both star-struck and familiar. They are reading your book. They are astonished you are real. You are both an object in a museum AND a beloved teddy-bear, clutched under the covers every night. At the same time. They have no problem with that incongruity. For them, the world is an incongruous place.

5. Because they are on the fence as to whether magic exists. Could go either way. They are open to wonder.

6. Because the sit with their hand outstretched to the heavens, bouncing and wiggling and saying “Oh, oh, oh!” and can do so for an entire class period if need be. And when you call on them, they say, “Okay. I have thirty-two questions.”

7. Because they crowd together on their carpet square, jostling for spots near some grownup that they have never met, a close-knit, multi-colored, multi-ethnic, multi-lingual mob, all unified by one story, read to them by a beloved teacher.

8. Because they want to know where stories come from.

9. Because they believe that stories come from somewhere – a sea of stories somewhere on this green and blue earth, where writers go with their boats and their tackle and their nets. Where we cast and gather and pull and haul. Where we heap stories into our carts and wheel them into the marketplace to be shared for all.

Stories are slippery fish.

10. Because they want my autograph on a random scrap of paper that they will lose within the hour, but that doesn’t matter. It was the asking that mattered. And me bending over, pencil to paper, letting them know that, in this moment, they matter to me.

11. Because they want to matter.

12. Because, deep inside, they are both infant and adult. They want to be cuddled and adored. They want to save the world. They want to be shielded. They want to understand. They want to be connected. They want to be alone. They want to be heroes. They want to be saved. They want all these things at once.

13. Because they love stories. And so do I.

If you haven’t watched Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s talk on feminism, you should watch it now.

Seriously. I love this woman. I love her books, I love her articles, I love her presence in the world. I want her to narrate my brain. I love her clarity, her analysis, her compassion, her fire, her precision, her poise. If you have thirty minutes, give this a listen. I did so yesterday, while doing Very Womanly Tasks, like cleaning my oven and making soup and running after children and folding laundry. You know what makes folding laundry WAY more interesting? Listening to TED talks. On feminism, for example.

Specifically, as a mother of both girls and a boy, and a loving grown-up in relationship with lots and lots of boys, I particularly resonated with this: “Gender as it exists today is a grave injustice….I would like today to ask that we begin to dream about and plan for a different world, a fairer world. A world of happier men and happier women who are truer to themselves. And this is how to start: we must raise our daughters differently. We must also raise our sons differently. We do a great disservice to boys in how we raise them. We stifle the humanity of boys. We define masculinity in a very narrow way – masculinity becomes this hard, small cage, and we put boys inside that cage. We teach boys to be afraid of fear, weakness and vulnerability.  We teach boys to mask themselves. . . We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller.”

Seriously, it’s great. And worth the time out of your day.

It is still very cold in Minnesota, and I had the kids home for two days after the Governor closed down the schools due to extreme windchills. We are stir crazy. Cabin feverish. If you are living in a warm place, please tell me a warm story so that my bones may thaw and my eyeballs may un-crystallize and my soul may creep out of the freezer and bloom again.

Can gnomes steal a person’s handwriting? I think maybe they can.

02-Favoite Gnome

So, I’m cleaning my office (I know, right? Shocking), and I come across a notecard with the beginning of a story. One that I have no recollection whatsoever of actually writing. Like, at all. It’s my handwriting, for sure. My handwriting, by the way, is terrible. It’s beyond terrible. It looks like it is the ripped from the final gasp of last Will and Testament of a dying raven, written in its last minutes, in dust and tears and its own red blood. I’m stunned that anyone can read it. Hell, I’m stunned that I can read it.

Wait. What was I saying? Oh, right. The story.

There’s not much to it, just the beginning of a story that I can’t remember writing at all. I can’t even remember coming up with the idea. When did I do this? And why is it on a giant note card? Where was I when I wrote it? A bus? A coffeeshop? The dentist’s office? On hold with the health insurance company? No idea.

Anyway, here it is, transcribed, for your reading pleasure. Don’t know if I’ll ever do something with it, but it’s always a possibility.

Arthur stood on the chest of the now-cold body of the giant and pulled his father’s sword from the monster’s heart.

“One down,” he thought. “Nine to go.”

“Is it dead?” a voice came from a small pile of stones nearby.

“It is,” Arthur said, wiping the green blood of the giant off the gleam of his sword. “No thanks to you.” He checked the bright edges for nicks before returning it to the safety of its sheath.

“Are you sure?”

“That it’s dead, or that you didn’t help?” His shoulder ached, the wound on his left hip oozed and legs were giving out. He needed a doctor. And a bed. And a year of sleep.

“Killing giants wasn’t in our agreement,” the pile of stones said. “I was very clear what I wanted you to do. Don’t expect a bonus payment. In fact, maybe we should put this down as a deduction for pain and suffering.”

The pile was silent for a minute. “My pain and suffering,” it added, just to be clear.

Arthur rolled his eyes. He slid carefully down the curve of the giant’s ribcage and landed squarely on his feet, wincing as he did so. The pile of stones shivered and shuddered and quaked. It clattered to one side and then the other, assembling and disassembling, reorganizing itself over and over until a boy about Arthur’s age climbed out of its center, patting the dust and dirt and debris out of his smart tweed suit and beating his cap clean.

The stones were gone. There was only the boy.

“I hate transforming,” the smart-dressed boy said. “So dusty.”

Maybe I wrote this while camping. Or after a long day of cleaning my dusty, dusty house. Or maybe I didn’t write it at all, and my office is infested with story-writing, pen-stealing, idea-surfing gnomes. Maybe the gnomes have been creeping in the walls, burrowing in the ceiling and harvesting our dreams. Maybe gnomes eat stories. Which, honestly, would make sense, now that I think about it.

Has this ever happened to any of you people? Have you ever found work that you must have done but you have no memory of ever writing it? Maybe this does happen to everyone.

Or maybe I’m just nuts.

On resolutions, intentions, and the lack thereof.

new-yr

I don’t like New Year’s resolutions. Actually, that’s not entirely true. I recently don’t like New Year’s resolutions. This is partially due to the fact that I typically don’t actually keep resolutions, which in turn is due to the fact that my resolutions are often wildly optimistic. (I have not, for example, won a Nobel Prize, nor have I summited any mountains, nor have I learned any new instruments, nor have I become Suddenly Good at Math.)

I prefer the term intentions. Resolutions are grim, static, imposing. They are good at guilt trips. They glower. They wag fingers. They reek of disappointments. Intentions, however, are different. They are the whisper in the ear, the nudge at the side. Intentions are rooted in a place of kindness. They are forgiving. They are prayerful.

Making a list of intentions for the coming year requires a person to reflect on the year prior – what worked, what didn’t. What fed the soul. What depleted the heart. With these intentions, I would like to find ways to offer myself to the world. To make the people around me happy. To make strangers happy. To make me happy too. But to really get at what I intend for the year to come, it’s important to also identify what I do not intend to do. My Non-Intentions. For example:

  • I do not intend to run a marathon. Yes, I just turned forty, and yes, it does seem like it’s the sort of thing that people do when they reach a milestone birthday, in a “Hey, look at me, I am still young and strong and can OUTRUN DEATH if I feel like it” sort of way. Here’s the thing: I’m a runner. I love running. I do my best writing while I’m running. I like running around lakes and along rivers and down wooded trails and endlessly on lonely, prairie roads that connect my feet to the edge of the sky. But a marathon? Nawp. I don’t even like to drive twenty-six miles. An eight mile run does me just fine.
  • I do not intend to keep my house perfectly clean at all times. There was a time, a few years ago, when we had a bit more extra cash sitting around to allow me to have a little help with the housework. That time, alas, has passed, and our spare pennies are going to boring things like college savings accounts and orthodontics. I put a lot of pressure on myself to keep the house dust-free and dog-hair-free and clutter-free. I do not intend to do so this year. We will not live in squalor – I couldn’t abide it if we did – but I do not intend to give myself guilt trips about it. So there.
  • I do not intend to abide by strict word counts. There have been times when I have done this. Two thousand words a day or four thousand words a day or ten thousand words a day, or you are a TERRIBLE PERSON. This is crazy-making. And not helpful, because as one who is a serial/obsessive eraser, it meant that I was killing myself just to go backward. I write two thousand words, I erase another two and a half thousand. I write four thousand words, I erase five. I have been known to erase sixty thousand words in one sitting. And yes, there is a rip-the-bandaid-off-in-one-go sort of feeling to it, I can’t recommend it as a long-term strategy. This year, I have felt like I was turning my wheels. And I’m ready for a new strategy.
  • I do not intend to finish every book I start. This is a big one. Maybe it’s the teacher-pleaser that never really left my psyche, and maybe it’s the Puritans whose ghosts walk the varied byways of this country and remind us that if it’s unpleasant IT MUST BE GOOD FOR US, or maybe it’s the fact that, as a writer myself, I know how very hard it is to haul a book from idea to word to page to publication. Still. I find that by forcing myself to slog through books I hate in a Sir-Edmund-Hillary-BECAUSE-IT’S-THERE mentality, it damages my relationship with reading and my relationship with books. From now on, Books? I give you a hundred pages. And then I walk.

So. Those are my non-intentions. Here, instead, are my Intentions for this year.

  • I intend to rethink my relationship with social media. I’ve done this before, of course. And it was useful. Social media is, unfortunately, a necessary utility for writers. I say “unfortunately” not because there is anything inherently wrong with it. There isn’t. And, in fact, I take a great deal of pleasure from my deeply felt interactions with people online. I love the conversations, I love the connections, I love the humor, I love the abundance of knowledge and learning, I love the cocktail-hour feel to it. I love it a lot. And there is an incredible amount of joy in the crafting of a well-turned sentence, or a bi-tonal tweet, or a Facebook update that hits those notes of humor and rage, for example, or pathos and silliness, or analysis and rumination. But that’s just the problem. Because writers need to be doing all those things in the quiet of their desks, separate from the world, and utterly alone. Which, of course, is lonely. So it makes sense that writers would, perhaps, be more prone to addictive and obsessive behaviors online. Because it makes us feel wonderful. And the manuscript that we labor over in secret can never give us the kind of instant feedback and thumbs-up validation that we get from a tweet that gets re-tweeted a hundred times in a day. It’s like the Meth version of writing – awesome for a while, but it can up-end one’s life. I spend far too much time on social media, and it eats away at my writing time. So I’m going on a two month break, and will likely keep doing so. I want to experience the fullness of the conversation without the conversation driving the rest of my work. Family comes first, work comes second, and the conversation needs to be way down on the list. It’s just the way it is. So, I closed down my Facebook account, and blocked Twitter from my computer. I’ll still tweet occasionally, but only from my phone, or the automatic posts that WordPress makes every time I post something. In any case, it can no longer interfere with the tools of my trade, as it were. Because I need those tools.
  • Short Fiction. I made a resolution last year to write one short story per month. This, alas, was wildly optimistic. I only wrote three. Four if you count the unpublishable novella, now standing at 30k. Uff. What was I thinking? Still, short fiction feels really good, and it allows me to explore territory that I likely won’t explore in my longer-form fiction. It is a much darker place. Edgier. With sharp teeth. I enjoy the work, and would like to plan for a reasonable increase in volume. So. Five. I intend to write five short stories this year. We’ll see if I can do it.
  • I intend to stop erasing this year. I had a bit of a Coming-To-Jesus moment this year, when I realized that I erased more words than I had in any form in my manuscripts. Like, by many, many, many times. I write; I erase; I re-write; I re-erase; over and over and over. And it’s not useful. And it’s indicative of something else, too – a fear of finishing, a lack of honor in my work, a gap in kindness toward myself. So, step one. No more erasing. If I don’t like something, I make a new document. This is the new rule.
  • I intend to do yoga every day, even if it’s only ten minutes. This has been awesome so far, actually. Because it really has only been ten minutes every day, and even that has huge benefits for me. I have a tendency to live within the confines of my brain (I know I’m not alone in this) and it’s not always the best place for me to be. Not only that, it is not an honest way of assessing how we typically live, you know? Our bodies are the interface through which we experience everything that is wonderful about being alive. One of the things I love about yoga is its insistence that mindfulness is not just the brain. Our skin is mindful. Our spine is mindful. Our intestines and lungs and shoulders and ankles and toes are mindful too. When I can fill my entire body with good, pleasurable feelings, when I can quiet my mind and slow my heart, when I can turn my focus away from the whirling dervish of my brain and focus instead on the flow of air in and out and in and out, it makes my work on the page far more fluid and easy and real. It’s remarkable, actually.
  • I intend to cuddle my kids and my husband and my dog every single day and tell them how much I love them. Actually, I already do this. Every single day. But it is nice to say it out loud. And write it on my blog for posterity.
An important question.

This is a typical moment in BarnhillLand. But with kids instead of cats.

How about you? What are your intentions? And what are your hopes for 2014?