A Pair of Useless Wings

This angel is not happy about her wings either.

Last night, I dreamed I grew a pair of wings with iridescent, shining feathers. They did not fly – or not that I could ever figure out. I couldn’t control them at all. They would shudder and flap one moment, and hang limp the next. They knocked against the walls, hit the ceiling, reduced a set table into a spangled mess on the ground with a casual flick. They didn’t fit under my clothes, so I had to attack my shirts with scissors and rip out sweaters with my fingers. They sometimes dragged on the ground.

And they hurt. Horribly. The skin around where the wings had erupted was red and raw and oozing. I left circles of blood and pus on the sheets.

And the worst part – the very worst – was the incessant compliments. It was all people could talk about. Oh look! they cried. Those wings! Look how they shine! Look at the colors! How lucky you are. How proud of them you must be.

My wings collected dog hair like you wouldn’t believe. They broke glasses and knocked books off the shelf. They sometimes smacked my kids on the back of the head. They made it difficult to drive, and sometimes tripped little old ladies as they hobbled down the street. They molted. They shed dander. They were a mess.

And it was funny, because my whole childhood, I imagined myself with wings. I imagined myself to, when confronted by a bully, or by stress, or by a simple social interchange that made me feel uncomfortable (there were, alas, a lot of those in my wobbly youth), I could simply shoot suddenly skyward, and leave the earth behind. I could become invisible. I could become air and wind and cloud – nowhere and everywhere at once.

Instead, I got a pair of oozing, dusty, malcontented wings. I was more weighted than before. And I was more fully present, too.

For those of us who write for children, this disconnect between what the child wants and what the adult understands is a sticky thing, and sometimes tough to parse out. When we sit down to write a book for kids, we must do some serious communication with our selves as kids, and I don’t know about the rest of the children’s authors out there, but my childhood self? She was a moron. For real. When I think about the things that she wanted, I end up with silly things, or painful things, or things I cannot use. A pair of useless wings, for example. Or hypothermia from my new-found ability to breathe underwater. Or a fist-fight with a bear that I accidentally insulted with my new gift of animal-talk.

What we want is not what we need. What we want reveals much of who we are, and where we hurt, while what we need reveals much of the external pressures of our physical environment. My needs were largely met as a child, but I wanted escape. Hence, wings.

What did you want as a child? What did you need? And were there any moments during your transition from childhood to adulthood in which you realized that what you wanted were about as useful as the ability to swear in Bear? Or a pair of painful, spastic and unflyable wings?

If so, I, for one, would love to hear about it.

How I Gave My Mother an Ulcer (And Why I’m Only Partially Sorry)

So, the other day, I got in trouble. With my mother. Honestly, if I wasn’t at the ripe old age of thirty-seven I think she might have grounded me.

You see, I wrote this post here, posted it, and then – as I typically do – forgot all about it.

Later that day, the phone rang. It was mom.

“Well,” she said, “I’ve been on the verge of throwing up all day,” she said.

“Really?” I said.

“And I’ve been studiously avoiding commenting on your blog.”

She only rarely comments on my blog, and I still really had no idea what she was talking about.

“If I,” she said, “could reach through the computer screen and snatch you off that precipice and drag you to safety, I would do that.”

“Oh,” I said, the light slowly dawning (I think I’ve mentioned before here that I’m really not all that bright). “You’re talking about the bridge incident. I never told you about that?”



Mom: (in a whispery hiss of a voice) “No. No you never did.”

Which, in retrospect, was a smart choice.

Here’s the thing: Youth is dangerous. Teen youth. Kid youth. Young adult youth. Youth in general. It’s crazy and confusing and utterly wild. It is wildness defined. And it’s amazing we come out alive. We certainly don’t emerge without scars – both visible and invisible.

Someone remarked not too long ago at the sheer number of scars that I have on my legs. And I do. And I don’t cover them up. There’s the marks from the sharp rocks in a fast river when a canoe flipped and the scars from surgeries and the scars from the hot metal of motorcycles and the scars from the teeth of a dog and the scar from road burn and the scars from where I had gravel imbedded in my skin. My scars are magnificent.

I smiled.

“My legs tell stories,” I said. And they do.

But, really, I think that’s one of the things that draws writers who write young adult novels and middle grade novels and early adult novels to do what they do. We remember the dynamism of youth. The bad choices. The mistakes. The headiness. The passion. The despair. When we are young we are juiced-up, enraptured with the world and with one another and act as though everything is possible, because it is.

And we are stupid.

Astonishingly stupid.

Which is how I ended up on that sultry, humid night with a group of friends (two of the boys I had kissed earlier that week), with wine and cigarettes and wild abandon. We were in love with our bodies, in love with the air, in love with each other and in love with the inky water slithering below us.

And so we jumped.

And there was only speed and stars and wind and night and voices and the splash below so sudden, it took a while to remember how to breathe.

But we did breathe.

And we did live.

And we almost died laughing.

It is the task of the young to make the adults in our lives worry. And this never goes away, even after we domesticate, grow roots, and raise the people who will one day give us heart attacks. I have no doubt that as I have sown, so shall I reap. And holy hell, do I ever have some reaping in store for me, I’ll tell you what. And I’m bracing for the stomach acid that will no doubt flow once my children are old enough to make the impulsive, heady, joyful and astonishingly stupid choices of their own.

Mom. I’m really sorry. (Mostly.)

And you deserve to say “I told you so.” At least four hundred times.

To illustrate my theory on Youth, let me point you to the speech on the roof made by the inimitable Nathan from one of my most favoritest Brit television shows, “Misfits”. Enjoy!

Farewell, Kindergarten!

Today is Leo’s last day in Kindergarten.

Just looking at that sentence makes me fall into grief.

Yesterday, in celebration for their hard work as Kindergarteners, the parents were invited for a Recitation and Ice Cream Social. Now, at Leo’s school, the concept of a recitation is nothing new. It’s part of their School of Oratory curriculum, and they learn how to speak in front of a group, how to communicate effectively, how to make eye-contact and etc. But this was the first time they spoke in front of parents, so it was a big deal.

What’s more: they were reciting poems that they themselves had written. As part of their unit on insects, each kid learned everything they could about a bug, and wrote a poem about their bug. Leo chose spiders. “Why spiders,” I asked. “Because spiders are awesome,” he said.

To get ready to write his poem, he wanted to look at every youtube video ever made that had a spider in it. Like this one:

“I like to know how they move,” he said. “Also how gross they are.”

I arrived a little early with my assigned contribution (caramel syrup; on sale), and was greeted with the requisite Kindergarteney hugs (Look! It’s Leo’s mom! I love Leo’s mom!). I always get hugs from Leo’s class. This is partially because they think I’m funny, but it’s mostly because they love Leo. Because he is funny.

There was a little podium in the front of the room, set up on a small wooden dais. One by one, the Kindergarteners walked up, took the podium, recited their poems, and bowed.

Then, it was Leo’s turn. Leo the class clown. Leo the constant performer. Leo who was sent to the principal’s office during his first week as a Kindergartener. That Leo. He stood up, took the stage, paused to gaze at the audience and made a silly face. The other Kindergarteners thought it was hilarious. He took the podium and cleared his throat.

The Awesomest Spider
By Leo Barnhill

The Spider will leap to its prey
it will quietly creep.
The Spider is big.
The Spider dances a jig.

The Kindergarteners erupted with cheers. It was, as far as they were concerned, the best poem that had ever been written, or would ever be written. Leo bowed, then raised his hands in a two-fisted Victory sign. The crowd went wild.

And then, as his piece de resistance, he lifted his shirt, exposed his bare belly and chest, and rolled his stomach muscles like a belly dancer.

He was escorted out of the room.

Later that day, as he played at the playground and I sat on the bench, decompressing (did I wish for a gin and tonic? Or two? Why yes, ladies and gentlemen. Yes I did.), fifteen different Kindergarteners came up to me and gave me a hug.

“Thank you for putting Leo in my class,” one kid said.

“Leo is my favorite friend,” another kid said.

And last, the kid who gave me no less than four hugs that afternoon, motioned for me to lean down so she could tell me a secret. “Leo,” she whispered, “is my hero.”

“Mine too,” I whispered back, as my son, oblivious to our conversation, scooped up handful after handful of playground woodchips, and shoved them in his pants.