In Praise of the Activist, the Protester and the Provocateur.

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This is my kid’s school, and somewhere, sitting in the hallways, is my daughter, in her own awakening to her particular place and power and impact in the context of a larger, broken and hurting world. I remember the first time I felt moved to take political action. I remember that burning need – that not only can we change the world, but we must do so this minute. I remember how much I loved this green and blue and spinning Earth, and all its people in it. I remember feeling that I was not only riding the arc of history but actually participating in pushing that justice forward.

I remember that feeling.

I know these kids are feeling that too. I pray that it lasts in them. I pray that it never ceases.

Blessings on all of you, my darlings. My beautiful South High compatriots. I cherish your activism and your hope and your giant, beating hearts. Keep up the good work.

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Sometimes, only poetry can tell us how we feel.

Last weekend, an African-American child in Cleveland was shot by police because he had a toy gun.

Today, a grand jury in Missouri denied justice to the family of Michael Brown.

The stain of racism does not wash away. It reasserts itself on the fabric of our society again, and again, and again.

I have no words to tell you how I feel about this. I only have my frustration and my rage and my longing and my tears and my broken heart. This is not the world I want for my kids. Or my kids’ friends. Or my neighbors. Or your kids. We all deserve to be honored and protected and respected and free. The child in Cleveland did not deserve to die. Neither did the teenager in Ferguson. No one does.

 

I am so tired of waiting,

Aren’t you,

For the world to become good

And beautiful and kind?

-Langston Hughes

 

The Sock Crisis

There was a time, in the Land of Barnhill, when socks flowed in abundance. They heaped and flowered and multiplied. They scattered across the wide family room floor like so much snow. We were buried in socks, awash in socks. Our cup of socks raneth over.

This sounds like an exaggeration, I know, but I swear it’s the truth. And what I am about to present, dear readers, is a cautionary tale.

The Barnhills, despite their sockish abundance – or perhaps because of it – were not satisfied.

“What care I,” they said sniffily, “for ten socks, or one hundred socks, or one thousand times one thousand socks. If they are not matched, I have nothing.”

They were not satisfied to wear mismatched socks to school or to meetings or to soccer games. They turned their noses at the wooly warmth in clashing colors offering itself each day to warm their shivering toes.

“If you want matching socks,” their mother told them, “go dig through the stupid sock pile and find them yourself.” Their mother did not, despite reports to the contrary, mutter, “Mister and Miss Complainypants,” but she certainly thought it.

And so the Barnhill children would howl with rage and agony and woe. And then they would stomp down the stairs and find the overflowing sock basket in the basement family room and dig and dig and dig until a match was found. And the socks were happy to oblige.

This went on for several months. And the sock basket grew. It grew, and it grew, and it grew. It went from mound to hillock to bluff to mountain. It had geological features – faults and fissures and outcroppings – that were studied by scientists from around the world. It was featured in documentaries, and folk songs, and fine art. It developed its own weather system. REI rolled out an entire line special shoes designed specifically for the sock mountain’s unique terrain. Brusque European men with mukluks and rucksacks, flanked by packs of well-paid Sherpas, arrived by the dozens to journey into our basement and make the death-defying climb of the storied Mount Sock, conquering it like young bull on its first night in the herd, and leaving a mess in their wake.

And honestly? It was annoying.

“That’s it,” the mother said.

And she poured herself a glass of wine and set up a marathon viewing of “Brooklyn 99”, and set up sacks for each member of the family, and, like the Miller’s Daughter spinning straw into gold (or, I guess, paying Rumpelstiltskin for spinning her straw into gold) quietly prayed for strength in the face of a most insurmountable task.

And she folded into the long night, and well into the morning. And the sock mountain remained, and still she folded. The sun climbed high in the sky and sank into the evening, and still she folded. Days turned into weeks turned into months turned into a year. Finally, after a year and a day, the last sock was folded, and she placed heaping sacks of folded socks on each bed of her beloved family.

“Here,” she said. “Folded socks. Matching socks. Coordinating colors for your sensitive arches and your tough heels. Darned toe beds to keep each adorable little piggie nice and warm. Each loop of yarn is proof of my love to you.”

And the family was happy. For a little while. But lo and behold, the folded socks, once so numerous that the drawers groaned each time they tried to close them, began to dwindle. The drawers began to echo with empty spaces. And slowly but surely, the socks began to disappear. One after another after another, until they vanished altogether.

The children searched over hill and vale. They looked under beds and in the covers. They looked behind toilets and inside grates. They even looked in the refrigerator. But it was no use. There was not a sock – matched or single – to be seen.

Because these were no ordinary socks. These were magic socks. And the magic well from which all socks did flow was irreparably blocked. And there would be no mountain and no bluff and no hillock and no mound. Indeed, even the stinky socks left by the bed would disappear by morning.

“Where are the socks,” wailed the children.

“I have no idea,” the mother said. “I just did all the laundry. AND I JUST FOLDED LIKE NINE MILLION SOCKS FOR YOU.”

It didn’t matter.  The masses of socks were gone forever.

And yea, did the children weep and wail and gnash their teeth.

And, if you listen very carefully, you can hear their toes shivering.

In which I am a mama bear. With claws. And teeth.

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I have been on the phone quite a bit so far today. I intend to be on the phone quite a bit for the near future. I’ve connected to the principal, the school office, the crime specialist at the police department, the Climate Coordinator for the school district and someone from building security.

I still don’t have good answers.

Last Monday, November 17, there was an incident at South High School – my daughter’s school, my alma mater, the school that educated my siblings and my cousins and my second-cousins and the children of my cousins and second cousins. I have had a family member attending South High every single year since I graduated in 1992. My bonds with that school are deep, and they are meaningful to me. Still, I am not happy with what happened. I am not happy with the school’s behavior in the moments following the incident in question. And I am SUPER NOT HAPPY about the vague and detail-less communication between the parents and the school in the ensuing days.

This is what I know:

1. On Friday there was an incident in which a girl was beaten up.

2. On Monday, there was a retaliation, and a large fight occurred on school property, just as school was being let out.

3. A Code Red was issued, meaning that kids who were still in the building (in after school activities) were told to lock the doors, turn off the lights and huddle in the corner in the dark. The kids who had already left the building, who saw the large fight and were scared, ran back to the building, and were not permitted to come back inside. My daughter’s good friend was one of them. She was screaming and crying and pounding on the door. And the school did nothing. She was not allowed inside.

That image? Of a kid outside shouting please. It guts me.

And if it weren’t for the fact that it was Monday when my daughter was at Math Team (my darling little mathlete!) she would have been out there too. Banging on the doors. Begging to be let in. This girl – Ella’s friend? She is the sweetest girl in the world – her family came here from Somalia to seek safety and opportunity. She deserves to be safe. Every student at South deserves to be safe.

Now, times being what they are, we are awash in “information” but it is difficult to find out what is actually true. Ella’s friend reports hearing gun shots – lots of kids do – but the police do not have that information and neither does the school. So I have to assume that in the heat of the moment, frightened children hear all kinds of frightening things, and fear the worst. But that speaks to a larger concern: where the hell were the grownups? My daughter showed me some of the videos that had been posted on kids’ pages on Facebook, and all I can see is a lot of chaos and confusion. And frightened children.

I understand the need to keep the building safe. I do. I understand that school officials do not want violence to come inside the school walls. But the kids on the grounds deserve to be safe as well. They were just about to walk home. They are good kids who work hard at their studies and who have bright futures, and they should expect to be safe coming and going. The school has a responsibility – given that it is district policy to hand them bus passes instead of transporting them by school bus – to ensure that each child is safe between school and home.

When we have policies that lead us to lock our doors, lock kids out, and simply say, “Sorry, kid. No grownup will help you. Good luck not getting hurt.” we need to take a good, hard look at what we’re doing, and what the results of these policies actually are. Because this situation? Well, it sucks. And we can do so much better.

Yes, they are teenagers; and yes, they sometimes make horrible choices; and yes, sometimes they get involved in groups and behavior patterns that lead them into some scary places; and yes, they are big and zit-faced and sometimes stinky; and yes, sometimes they have big humungous feelings that they cannot control – confusion and hurt and defiance and longing and bravado and need, and rage, rage, rage; and yes, sometimes they can frighten us – even big strong adults like ourselves. But the fact remains that they are children. Children. And we have duty to protect them. Every last of us. Because we are grownups.

And mama bears.

[ETA: Let me be clear on one thing. I love South High. I do. I love everything about it. I love its teachers. I love its diverse and complicated student body. I love the dedicated folks walking the halls every day to keep those kids safe. I love Ray Aponte – the new, big-hearted principal who has been spending the last few months sitting down with the kids and talking to them and caring about them and treating each one of them as a wondrous and precious human being. I love it that, right now, they have the kids arranged in Peace Circles trying to break down the racial and cultural divisions that often foment this kind of anger and bad behavior. And I love how quickly the grownups at South have been to answer my questions and talk to me. I do love that. And I believe them when they tell me that a.) there were no weapons, and b.) there were grownups present trying to break up the action – though not enough to make the panicked kids banging on the door to feel any safer. What I learned is that this practice of locking the school up and locking some kids out is considered a Best Practice – and is used in districts around the country. I learned that the building safety staff hates this practice but they don’t know what else to do. This means that this is likely the standard operating procedure in YOUR home district as well. I am not okay with this practice, and I hope that you are not either. I truly believe that we can do better. I truly believe there must be a better solution. And I intend to find one.]

In Praise of Quietness.

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(Everything on xkcd.com is brilliant and correct, but this one might be the most brilliant. And the most correct.)

Like many of my friends of the writerly persuasion, I have a love/hate relationship with social media. I love how it connects me with larger conversations. I love making friends with people across the nation and around the world. I love that in these spaces, Story and Word are a kind of currency – we trade; we share; we gather; we fill our coffers and our storage rooms, we are stuffed to the rafters with Stories and Notions and Ideas. We marvel at one another’s lexicographic invention and acrobatic turns of phrase. Social media has enlarged my world, deepened my connections, lit fires to my passions and informed my moral compass. It is through social media that I have not only been able to contextualize the issues of the world around me, but I have been able to empathize as well with the very human stories that both hold up and are crushed under these massive, cumbersome, and very necessary movements of intellectual, political and social change.

However.

I hate social media too. Not all the time. But sometimes? I hate it. Social media, by its very nature, is a disruptive tool. Each voice disrupts the voice that precedes it. Each idea disrupts the ideas that came before. It is fast; it is distracting; it is enraging; it often ruins my day. It has a tendency – for me, anyway – to enlarge my own sense of importance and power. This is problematic. I would feel the need to retweet a thing about Feguson, for example, or the astonishing misogyny of men’s rights movement, or a call to action regarding the appalling conditions of the refugees in the countries bordering Syria, or the wrenching letter written by the parents who lost all three of their children on MH17. I do this because I feel I must do something. Because the way in which we engage in social media sets our brain up for panic-mode. Quick! our brains shout. Respond! Take a stand! Protect! Retreat! Attack! Do something right now! Now, this can be used as an incredible tool for good. We’ve all seen how social media – twitter, especially – can be used as an incredible grassroots organizing tool. By allowing voices to collect, connect and amplify, it shines a thousand small light on particular issues – be they police brutality or systemic (and blind) racism in publishing or stuffy grownups saying silly things about children’s publishing. The voices on these subjects, swelling into a chorus, do an amazing job making the case for things that must be changed – but more importantly, that can be changed. And that’s a powerful thing to be a part of. But it disrupts, as well. It disrupts my work. And my work is important, too.

I have two jobs: I am a stay-at-home parent, and I write stories. Both of those jobs require a level of sustained focus that is incompatible with full-time engagement in the wider world. Both of these jobs require an open heart. Both of these jobs require arms and eyes and a ready smile. Both of these jobs require the full muscle of my empathy, intuition, apprehension, planning, tenderness and love.

Which is why I have shut down the social media accounts. (Except this blog, of course. The blog is different. It is slow. I like slow.)

I’m working on a new book right now. First draft. It is the first time that I fully intend to send a draft to an editor, still warm from the touch of my hands – unfiltered, unrefined, un-erased. Raw materials. I’m still not sure how I feel about it, but I’m doing it anyway. And, as a way of making sure it gets done on time, I have turned the world off, and tuned out. And you know what? It’s been wonderful. Wonderful. The weights of worry typically hanging around my shoulders have been lifted. My day is simpler, ordered, quiet, monastic – tend the children; write the book; make tea; write the book some more; tend the children again. I am a monk, removed for now from the world, and letting the great world spin.

I have to say: I recommend it.

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[ETA: Once I published this, I realized that I wrote another blog post with this exact same title a year and a half ago. For the same reason. One of the things about keeping a blog is that one is forced to realize that the things we struggle with and decide about are the same things, every dang time. I had a friend in high school who was a consistent journaller – pages and pages every day. And she’d go back and read her journals, as a way of keeping herself grounded and engaged and true. And she said to me something that has stayed with me all these years: “One thing that keeping a journal has taught me is that life is nothing but a series of ‘Huh?’ and ‘Duh!”. We have periods when we’re totally clueless and confused and periods when we’re completely annoyed at how simple and pathetic it all was, and annoyed at ourselves for not figuring it out sooner.” True words, dear KrisAnne. And still true.]

In Which Winter Arrives

I woke up last night after a series of strange dreams – one in which my family and I moved into an abandoned library, and discovered that the resident ghosts stole pages from the ancient books and made paper bodies for them to inhabit – paper fingers, paper bellies, paper eyes – and became increasingly emboldened by our presence. I woke in a panic when a couple of paper teenagers jumpstarted my car and convinced my daughters to join them in joyriding and general carousing (my last thought before wrenching myself awake was not, “Oh my god my daughters have been abducted by ghosts” nor was it “Oh my god my car has been stolen again,” – no.  My final thought was, “Those blasted teenagers are going to peer-pressure my girls into drinking alcohol. And stuff!” Which, of course, gives me some insight  into my Map of Fears – the center of which is my fear of peer pressure. I blame a childhood watching After School Specials. And possibly also peer pressure.

Anyway, I lay in bed for a long time staring at the brown, pre-snow sky, and listening to the wind howl and howl and howl. I couldn’t see the line of clouds bringing the snow – my windows face East and not West – but I could feel them all the same. The weight of snow curling at the edge of the sky, tensing its muscles, preparing to spring.

When I woke the world was white. And it will be white for a while. My kids were over the moon.

“Is this just fake snow?” my twelve-year-old demanded.

“What is fake snow?”

“You know. Snow that makes promises and then lies and turns into rain and then everything is sad and terrible.”

“Ah,” I said. “No, this is the real thing. It will snow, then it will stop, and then it will snow a lot, and then the temperatures will plummet. The low on Thursday is five degrees, I think.”

“THIS IS THE BEST NEWS EVER,” my child said, jumping up and down.

I sighed and looked outside. The snow wasn’t deep, but the bottom layer was wet. Best to shovel in stages, getting the bottom layer up now, and then shoveling again later.

“Okay,” I said. “Who wants to help shovel?”

“OH ME PLEASE I WANT TO SHOVEL PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE!!!!!” said my son.

This, of course is a delicate affair. So, like any good parent, I channeled my inner Tom Sawyer. “Welllll,” I said after a long hesitation. “I suppose you can help . . . . .but-”

I let that hang there for a moment.

“ANYTHING MOM!” My son already had his snowpants on.

“Brush your teeth, pack your backpack, AND make your bed.”

He was off in a flash.

This past autumn in Minnesota has been astonishingly beautiful – long, lingering, and warm. It was russet and amber and mauve and taupe and blue and gold, gold, gold, gold. We haven’t had an autumn like that in ages. Ages. And we deserved it, you know? After last winter. After the flooding in the summer. We deserved good apples and crisp leaves and bare skin in October. But one of the problems with the beautiful autumn is that it makes us anxious about the coming winter. It hovers at the edges of our imaginations like a specter.

My son and I pulled on our boots and arranged our hats and gloves just so and went out into the snow, our feet crisping into the crust of white. Our shovels slicing dark, wet patches of concrete into the fluff of crystal.

I forgot how quiet snow is. How it softens the edges of the world. How it tames the things that jangle and screech and keen. Cars slide by in a mostly silent swoosh and swish before fishtailing prettily away. The branches are laden and glittering, their ends bending toward the ground. My son shoveled the main walkway and I shoveled the drive way. He reached down, gathered up glovefuls of snow, packed them into balls and launched them in clean, quiet arcs, landing with a muffled thud right behind me, or in front of me, or beside me. Missing on purpose.

“Oh, mom,” laughed each time. “I was this close.”

He thought he was the cleverest boy.

He was the cleverest boy.

My daughters were inside, turning up Christmas music (they do this to annoy me) so loud I could hear it through the walls and the windows. They waited for me to notice. I looked at them through the windows, and watched them laugh and spin around and around and around.

It is winter. And the world is dreaming. And it is beautiful. I don’t know why I was so worried.

How books infect our brains – possibly forever

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As many of you already know, I am a coach with First LEGO League – where I feebly attempt to assist my little charges in the building and programming of a robot – built from LEGO blocks – and the successful completion of various missions. It’s a cool program -interactive, innovative, creative, and collaborative. The kids learn how to design, engineer, program and work as a team. I am not a very good coach, alas, in that I suck at both building and programming – like, I can’t do them at all – but I’m pretty good at getting my team to work together and help one another, and they have been taking care of the other part on their own. Go team.

As part of this program, the kids have to do a project in which they have to identify a need in the world, and come up with a solution to fill that need. They research, design and create a presentation. But before they present, they have to share their ideas with others. And that can be tricky for a bunch of elementary schoolers.

So I was trying to help them.

“Let’s just brainstorm some ideas,” I said, holding the dry-erase marker for the white board. “What are some ways that we can share our ideas with other people?”

Now let me back up: these kids? They all go to a Classical Education charter school. They all excel in their rigorous curriculum, speak Latin, stand up when called on, and pat their heads when they know something instead of blurting out. They wear uniforms and can name at least six Byzantine emperors and can tell you the long-term effects from the Mongol invasion on European culture. They are adorable, adorable nerds. And they read. All the time. When they asked me who I voted for and I looked at them, all seriousness, and said, “Lord Voldemort,” they nearly peed themselves laughing.

“YOU DID NOT,” they wheezed. Then they paused. Looked at me seriously. “Wait. Did you?”

These are bookwormy kids. They eat books for breakfast.

So, I’m talking to these kids.

“How can we share our ideas? Your ideas are GOOD. You can bring those ideas to other people and talk about them. But how will you do it?”

One kid raised her hand. “Well?” she said. “We could? You know? Build a website? And put it on the Web?”

“Good idea,” I said. “But what’s the problem with the web? How many websites are there?”

“Bijillions,” one boy said.

“That sounds about right,” I said. “So how are you going to get your particular information to the particular people who might benefit from it? Or who might give you more ideas?”

A boy raised his hand, “We could make a committee!”

Another girl raised her hand. “My mom likes Tumblr. We could put it on Tumblr.”

And another girl: “We could present it to our families and get ideas and then present to other people’s families.”

And then a boy started jumping up and down. His hand was outstretched so high it nearly pierced the ceiling.

“Oh!” He gasped, bouncing up and down in his seat. “Oh!”

So I called on him. He stood up.

“I got it,” he said. “We make a brochure. And then we strap it to one million owls and send them out around the nation!”

He beamed.

“I see,” I said.

“It’ll be perfect.”

“Owl post. That’s your solution?”

“Well,” he said. “You want your idea to be memorable. And how much more memorable can you get than you’re biggest dream finally coming true.”

And the thing is? He’s right. I have dreams about messages coming via Owl Post. I dream it all the time. And so do these kids. And I’m guessing, so do you. Thanks, Ms. Rowling. You are in our brains forever. My guess is, that was her aim all along.