Sometimes, a book saves us.

We had a rough day in Barnhill-Land yesterday. My son – good-natured, enthusiastic, vigorously naughty, and incredibly creative – pulled out all the stops in the carpool. He and the neighborhood miscreants (all wonderful, beloved boys; all prone to lapses in judgement; we grow, we stumble, we fall, we grow some more), in the back seat of the minivan, started in on a whirlpool of naughty talk.  It was like they were all competing for the Jerk-of-the-Year award – and it’s only January. Bad words. Inappropriate jokes. Bathroom talk. Penis jokes. Pretending to flip off the driver (my neighbor; 250-pound ex-farmer; bad move, boys). And then actually flipping him off.

And it descended.

And they got mean.

And they got nasty.

At one point my neighbor turned the car around and started back for home. At the possibility of facing their mothers and generally being ratted out, they changed their tune instantly.

The thing is, I remember this from childhood. Bad energy. Bad air. And how it felt bad too, and kind of sick, and yet, upsettingly, vaguely exciting as well. Like violence on television – you don’t really like it, but you watch it again and again. And it grosses you out, but you can’t look away. And I remember how it fed on itself. And how, once it started, it couldn’t stop. The fights with siblings. The way my classmates and I would raise our hackles and turn on Substitute Teachers (the kid who could make a Sub cry was always held in high regard). Neighborhood squabbles. Playground nastiness. Mean girl stuff. Group divisions, carefully laying down who was in and who was out. I remember feeling the air change – how it would get heavy and thick, like the sky was pressing down – and either being the target of the nastiness, or standing by and saying nothing, too fearful to step up.

I know that sometimes kids will be aware of themselves behaving badly, but once it starts, they feel powerless to stop it.

They aren’t powerless, of course. They have all the power in the world. They just need to be taught. And that’s our job.

There was, yesterday, a flurry of emails between the parents. Yesterday afternoon, it was my turn to drive. I re-arranged the seating order, I got all the kids buckled, and then I pulled the car over. And rained fire.

“The adults who love you,” I told them, “are able to see your Best Selves. When you show your Worst Selves, it hurts us very much. Jeff loves you, and each of you hurt him today – either by your words, or by not standing up to your friends and telling them to knock it off. It hurt me, and it hurt the rest of the adults too. And it hurt you too. And you know it. Each of you was hurting this morning.”

When we got home, I had Leo own up to what he had done, and I had him write a letter of apology to our neighbor and deliver it in person. He didn’t want to do it. We talked about manning up.

Once we got to the other side of that, we talked about consequences. I’m a big believer in having kids take responsibility for their own behavior – and part of that is taking an active role in their consequences. Leo’s consequences are much harsher than I would have levied. But they are authentic to him. And they matter to him. And, what’s more, he knows what he did wrong, he doesn’t want to do it again, and he wanted to make amends.

By suppertime, we were emotionally exhausted, and spent.

“What if I stay bad?”  Leo asked.

“You won’t darling. You will make choices. Some will be good and some will be mistakes. You’ll do your best to fix your mistakes. You’ll try to heal the things you break. Just like everyone else.”

“But what if I break?”

“Then you will fix you. Just like everyone. Everyone you see is broken. Everyone you know has mended cracks and parts that will never work right again. It doesn’t stop us from learning and loving. We mend, we heal, and we love the broken places. I have lots of broken places. But I still have a responsibility to work and love and build. And so do you.”

He was, last night, a shadow of himself. He was crumpled paper and shattered glass. The reality of being such a jerk to a person he loves and respects had devastated him. I hugged him, and he started to cry.

So I built a fire in the fireplace. I canceled my plans for the evening. I sent him upstairs to brush his teeth and told him to bring Treasure Island back down to me. We sat, he and I, under his Batman blanket next to the fire, stories of misplaced loyalties and loudmouthed squires and bloodthirsty pirates and the creaking hull of the Hispaniola spinning around us. And Jim, the cabin boy – brave, trusting, fatherless, full of big plans and adventuring. And John, the cook – broken, beaten, scheming, and yet, in the end, redeemable, and capable of that One Good Thing.

We read and read until he fell asleep on my shoulder, his little arms wrapped around my waist. My broken, brilliant, beautiful boy.

We are all mended cracks and creaky gears. We are broken smiles, broken hearts, broken minds and broken lives. We are hack-jobs and cast-offs and wobbly legs and gouged surfaces. We are soft edges, scuffed corners, ungleaming and unvarnished, but pleasant to hold and comforting to touch.

And we are lovely, and loving, and loved.

 

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In which I discover that my job has Downsides.

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Extreme caveat: If you are a writer and happen to have a kid or two running around the house, you may want to skip this post. Hell, I lived through it and I kinda want to skip this post.

My son’s second grade teacher returned to work after her maternity leave last week. I’m thrilled about it – which is not to say that I didn’t like the substitute. I did. But oh! I really like this teacher. My daughter had her as well in second grade, and I think she is rainbows and poppy fields and fairy wings. She leaves a trail of glitter wherever she goes. She is wonderful.

So, to welcome her back, I stuck a little care package in Leo’s backpack (a nice pen, yummy candies, note cards, etc.) and stuck in a copy of Iron Hearted Violet to add to her class library for good measure. I figured most of the kids in the class are too young for it, but she has a couple of students who are tearing their way through the Harry Potter books who would be ready for Violet. Plus, she already had Mostly True Story of Jack in her classroom library, so might as well have the two, right? I put both things into the backpack, but one came back again. Leo gave her the care package, but not the book.

So I asked him about it.

“I’m not going to give it to her,” he said. He didn’t look at my face. He shoved his hands into his pocket and looked at the ground.

“Okay,” I said. “You don’t have to. But I’m curious. Why not?”

He started walking in a circle. My daughters who were both reading their books on the couch looked up. Tight mouths. A grimace hiding in the crinkles around their eyes.

“I don’t want her to know my mom is a writer,” he said. The girls sighed as one. I looked back at them, and they instantly buried their faces back in their books. I turned back to Leo.

“Why?” I said.

“Because, ” he said. He still didn’t want to look at me.

“Do you know that she already knows I’m a writer. She has all of my nonfiction books too. And Jack. Why does it matter if she has Violet?”

“Well,” Leo said. “Maybe she forgot. She probably forgot. So I’m not gonna tell her again.”

I looked back at the girls. They held their books rigid, without turning the pages. “Girls,” I said. They did not respond. I pressed on. “Does it bother you when people know what I do for a living?”

The skin on Ella’s forehead wobbled and bunched, her lips crinkling up into a tight rosebud in the center of her face. “Ummm….” she began.

“It’s not that….” DeeDee said.

“I mean….” Ella faltered.

I raised my eyebrows. “It really bothers you that much?”

DeeDee nodded.

“Not regular people,” Ella clarified. “Regular people know what you do and it’s no problem because we can ignore them. And we do. But teachers?”

DeeDee gave a great, guttural sigh and slumped into the couch.

“Teachers think it’s extra cool. And they want to talk about it. And use their overly-excited teacher voices and get all breathy and stuff and they say things like ‘Oh your mother is a writer and oh that must be so wonderful for you and oh excuse me while I raise my expectations for you forever.”

“They think things about us,” DeeDee said. “Wrong things.

“It’s annoying,” Leo said.

“It’s awful,” Ella said.

“It’s the worst,” concluded DeeDee.

“And they don’t know what it’s like,” Ella said. “They only see the book when it’s done, and they think, oh cool a book! And it’s true. The book is cool. But they don’t know the other parts that go with it. The moping and the whining and the long nights.”

“And crying,” DeeDee added. “Sometimes there’s crying.”

“And the You Being Gone.

“We hate it when you’re gone,” Leo said.

“And the clicking computer late at night and it wakes me up because I know you’re up,” DeeDee said.

“And the muttering. And the emails. And the emails with muttering. And don’t even get me started on Twitter,” Ella said.

“I hate Twitter,” Leo said.

“And then we have to like the book. And, like, what if we don’t?” DeeDee said.

“You don’t have to like it, sweetheart,” I said. “That has never been a rule. You don’t even have to read it.”

“And we’re proud of you,” Ella continued, “but most people just think that writers just print a book out of their computers and viola. But we know all the other stuff that goes with it. And it is not all good stuff.”

I must have looked rather aghast, because the kids all looked at one another and started to backtrack.

“But we really love you, mom,” Ella assured me, and hugged me. And the other children hugged me too. They kissed my hands and nuzzled my face and told me I was a Good Mom, Mostly – which is all I’ve ever aspired to be. Every day, I try to maximize the Mostly.

And then I made soup. And tried to quell the Dark Thoughts in my soul.

And here’s the thing. This job is hard. It’s hard on us, and it’s hard on the people who love us. We love the characters in our stories; we worry about them, fuss over them and mourn them when they die. We fashion a world for them to live in, and we labor and sweat to heave huge elements together, to slide whole continents into place and hang the stars in their firmaments and conjure storms and mountains and wide oceans and the vastness of space; we build families and dynasties and nations; lust, joy, betrayal, consequences, and mad, mad, true love. We invent histories and intimacies and broken hearts. We walk on the backs of teeming schools of fish and allow ourselves to be devoured by wolves and consult oracles and, when we are stuck, we offer our dinner to a beggar and hope for the best.

And then – then! We are buffeted by things we cannot control – reviews, marketing campaigns, sales executives and librarians. We experience failure. We experience defeat. We are elated, then crushed; we sink and then we soar – sometimes in a single afternoon. And we don’t get to experience the one thing that drives us to the page every day. We do not get to witness the child that pulls our book off the shelf. We do not get to see the world that we hinted at uncurling from their brain. We do not get to bear witness to the imagination of the reader at work. Our book is our proxy. And we pray that it is enough.

My job is hard on my kids. It is hard on my husband. It is hard. It is not the only job in the world for which this is true. Lots of us have hard jobs – and we do them with real commitment and love. We do them because we are called, or we believe in the work, or because of necessity. For whatever the reason, we balance the needs of our family and the needs of our work, and it is not always perfect. We do our best, and we do a mostly good job.

Later that night, I laid down with Leo and asked him if he wanted another chapter of Watership Down.

“Not tonight, mom,” he said. “I want one of your stories. And mine. The kind of story that we tell together.”

“Okay,” I said. “What’s in this story?”

“A boy, and a mom, and a monster that lives in a swamp,” he said.

“Does the monster quote poetry?” I asked.

“All monsters quote poetry,” Leo said. “Ask anyone you like.”

And so we began.

A Mighty Fortress Is My Butt….

This morning Leo decided to sing some songs.

Cordelia was not amused.

“Jingle butts, jingle butts,” he sang as I handed him his hot cider. “Snow got on….my butt!”

“MOM!” Cordelia said. “Make him stop singing.”

I hadn’t had any caffeine at that point, and was only vaguely aware that I even had children. I struggled to find a gap in the press of clouds.

“Cordelia,” I said. “Your brother is just singing Christmas songs. Lighten up.” She stomped away. “Leo, I said, resting my forehead on my fingertips and waiting for the kettle to boil. “We’re having Silent Breakfast today. The quietest kid wins a million dollars.”

Leo, knowing full well that I am, was, and always will be, full of shit, began to sing. (though, bless him, quietly. In his sweetest voice.) “Silent farts. Holy farts.”

“MOM!” Cordelia said.

“Leo,” I said. “There’s no such thing as holy farts.”

“Anyone who’s holy farts holy farts,” Leo said in an infuriating holier-than-thou voice. “That’s what holy means.”

“Well, I’ve had enough of it,” I said. “Move on.”

The kettle boiled. A miracle! I poured the water over my tea bag and set the timer.

The timer in my head rattled against my skull. Which would come first, I wondered? Tea? Or an exploding brain.

“A MIGHTY FO-ORTRESS I-IS MY BUTT,” Leo bellowed. “MY BUTT IS SU-PER A-A-AWE-SOME.”

Cordelia erupted in a sound that was curiously similar to the sound that cartoon characters made when their faces turned red and their ears erupted with steam. In fact, I can’t say for sure where the sound came from. It might have actually been from her ears. Indeed, it might have been steam.

“MOM,” she said. “Punish him. Please.”

“I’m not punishing anybody,” I said. I poured the whole milk into the tea. Tea! I am saved!

Leo,” I said. “One more song and you’re sleeping in the garage tonight. And I’m giving all your toys to the neighbors.”

He didn’t hear the second part.

“Wait, really?” he said.

“Yes,” I said. “Really.”

“And you’re not going to change your mind.”

“Not at all.” I said. Should I have been curious about his sudden enthusiasm? Yes, ladies and gentlemen. Yes I should have.

“YESYESYESYESYESYESYES!” Leo shouted, jumping out of his chair and punching his fists in and out.

“What?” I said.

“I GET TO SLEEP IN THE GARAGE?? AWESOME!!!!!!”

“But–”

“THIS IS THE BEST DAY OF MY LIFE!”

And he ran upstairs to pack a backpack and find his sleeping bag. Cordelia watched him run up the stairs.

“Oh sure,” she said. “Just reward him, mom! FINE!”

“But-” I said.

And she stomped up to her room and slammed the door. I could hear her rustling around. I assume she too was packing a bag. I decided not to notice.

And it was quiet. And the tea eased its way inside of my skull, disabling the dynamite lodged in my frontal lobes. I pressed my fingers against the curve of warm ceramic.

Apparently, my children will sleep in the garage tonight. I hope Child Protective Services doesn’t mind. It was, after all, their idea. Well, really it was my idea, but I am, as I mentioned before, full of shit. I wasn’t gonna make him. But now he says it’s the best day of his life. So I’m stuck.

With these thoughts I drank my tea. I let it slip its way down my throat, into the solar plexus, into the heart, like a prayer.

“A mighty fortress is my butt,” I sang quietly to myself. “My butt is super awesome.”

And you know what? I really meant it.

Secret Doors

Our dear friends, John and Mike, purchased a large, rambling house right by Lake of the Isles recently, with the intention of renovating it into what is guaranteed to be an astonishing piece of beauty. Now John is my husband’s business partner at the architectural design firm Design 45, so I had been seeing the plans to this project for a while as my husband worked on them. But I only went into the house recently.

After exploring its many back staircases and hidden rooms, we went to the basement and found the thing that is currently haunting the stories that my children whisper to one another at night.

A secret door.

A long-since boarded up secret door at the very back wall of the basement. An inch-thick rectangle of plywood has been bolted across it and covered in thick coats of gray paint again and again.

“What is this?” I asked.

“We don’t know,” John said.

“A door.” Mike said. “Or at least it was. The children of the previous owner said that it used to be connected to a tunnel that went under the road and ended in the park.”

I stared at them.

“You’re kidding, right?”

“It’s not true,” John said.

“They said it was true,” Mike said. “I don’t know if it was so that they could access the park without having to go in the road or if it was a 1920’s speakeasy thing or what, but they were pretty sure there used to be a tunnel there.”

I was astonished. “Well, can we open it right now?” I asked.

At this point, my children were nearly hopping out of their skin. Secretdoorsecretdoorsecretdoor etched in their wilding faces. (Is wilding a word? If not, I think we should all declare it so. Wilding is giving me an inordinate amount of pleasure right now.) Their hands shook; their eyes shone; they jumped and jumped and jumped.

“There might be treasure in there!”

“Or zombies!”

“Or all the spiders ON EARTH!”

“Or zombies!”

“Or suitcases full of money.”

“Or zombies!”

“Or another world.”

“Or zombies!”

“Or magic tools.”

“Or ghosts AND vampires AND an anaconda AND zombies!” Leo was beside himself at that point. “Also, the Kraken!”

“We’re not going to open it,” Mike said.

The heads of my children collectively (and metaphorically) exploded. “WHY NOT?” they exclaimed.

Mike shrugged. “Everyone deserves a secret or two. Even a house.”

And I suppose that’s true. If they had opened the door right there and then, we would not have three weeks worth of Secret Door stories wafting through their play and their art and their dreams. We wouldn’t have the nightly requests by my son for yet another installment of “Leo Barnhill And The Mysterious Door,” of which there have been thirteen so far.

And it makes me think about my writing work as well. I don’t like reading books that open every door, that explain every little thing. I like it when the author consciously obscures the truth, when they force me to simply guess at what lies beyond the locked door. Sometimes, it’s enough to know the door exists, and what is beyond it is for me, the reader, to endlessly wonder and wonder and wonder.

In general, I hold Wonder in high regard.

There is a door – a secret door – in the basement at my friends’ house. I wonder what’s inside?

Now, as I wade through the revisions for my next book, Iron Hearted Violet, I am deliberately leaving some doors closed, some questions unanswered, some trails un-trod. Because I need to leave some space for my reader to wander. I want my readers to linger in this world I built, and to explore regions that I haven’t even thought to visit. I want my readers to wonder about the doors that I did not open, and for my story to engender new stories. And I like that idea very much.

Very much indeed.

Infinity Bottles of Beer on the Wall

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My son, at six fifteen this morning, started signing a song:

“INFINITY BOTTLES OF BEER ON THE WALL, INFINITY BOTTLES OF BEER. IF ONE OF THOSE BOTTLES SHOULD HAPPEN TO FALL INFINITY BOTTLES OF BEER ON THE WALL.”

Which, actually, I thought was rather impressive. Here he is, a young lad of six, who understands the mind-blowing nature of the infinite. If I hold nine marbles in my hand and someone takes one away from me, I no longer have nine marbles. Leo gets this. He has sisters. And they are constantly taking his stuff – which can be described in the equation below:

(my stuff) -1 = (less stuff that is now mine)

or

(my stuff) -x = tantrum, where x=anything greater than one

This is all common knowledge.

So for Leo, at six, to come to grips with the concept that the infinite is infinite, where 1+infinity= infinity and infinity-1=infinity – – I can honestly say that it took me well into my high school years to truly grasp that.

(Okay, fine, that was a total lie. I still haven’t grasped it.)

Anyway, there was Leo, in his room, ten minutes later IF ONE OF THOSE BOTTLES SHOULD HAPPEN TO FALL.

And then, later, at six forty-five: INFINITY BOTTLES OF BEER ON THE WALL.

And at six fifty-two. YOU TAKE A MILLION DOWN AND PASS THEM AROUND, INFINITY BOTTLES OF BEER ON THE WALL.

And so forth.

Finally, at seven oh two, I’d had it. “LEO!” I roared. “You need to think of a new song.” He was already dressed for school, and was looking particularly angelic in his pile of legos as he gazed back up at me.

“You don’t like my song?” he said.

“No,” I said. “I really really don’t. I didn’t like it at six fifteen, and I didn’t like it a six thirty, and I don’t like it now. If you really need to sing, please think of something else.”

“Okay,” he said.

I nodded and sighed, spinning on my heel and going back into the hallway to my room. And somewhere between the moment when I found my pants (which were bizarrely shoved under the bed) and before I found my favorite tee-shirt, Leo was belting out a whole new song.

“INFINITY BOTTLES OF REEDS GINGER BREW ON THE WALL, INFINITY BOTTLES OF REEDS GINGER BREWWWWWWW.”

Stupid infinity.

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