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?”


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.

Feral Children

A typical scene on my block.

A typical scene on my block.

The other day, I had my writing group over for dinner so they could eviscerate discuss my new book The Boy Who Loved Birds, which I am still considering erasing forever. It was one of those perfect evenings in Minnesota – pleasantly warm with a gentle breeze, all blossom and fragrance and birdsong and green, green, green, green. My back yard bumps right out onto park land, so from the table on the patio, you look out onto a green slope and a green field and a tangle of woods and a swollen creek with a charming footbridge arching prettily over the water. If you look up idyllic in the dictionary, I’m pretty sure it says Kelly Barnhill’s goddamned patio.

Anyway, somewhere between the tortellini and the wine and the orange popsicles, a scene unfolded before us – familiar enough to me, but my comrades were stunned by it. A troop of shirtless boys – a couple with hand-torn strips of cloth tied around their heads in makeshift headbands – came tramping down the hill, passing by the yard and heading over to the fallen down willow tree by the water’s edge. The boys in my neighborhood call it “The Fort” or “The Village”. The girls call it “The Fairy Tree”. Obviously, the girls have the correct name, but we try not to make the boys feel bad about it.


Two of the littler girls trailed behind. To the untrained eye, it looked like they were tagging along. For those of us in the know, it is clear that they are there to a.) be in charge and b.) collect evidence for future tattling, blackmailing or politicking. They stopped on the hill to roll down it – boys and girls together. When they got to the bottom, they stood as if this was the most normal way possible to travel downhill, and proceeded to march across the field.

“Hey kids!” I called out to them.

“Hey Kelly,” the kids called back. Or some of them did anyway. My son ignored me entirely. They tramped by and disappeared into the green.

My writing group turned to me.

“You live in a damn Norman Rockwell painting,” they said.

“Is it like this all the time?” they wondered.

And the thing is? On my block, yes. It is like this all the time. Kids wander this way and that – from back yard to tangled wood to alley to bridge to riverbank to field to garage to basement to somebody’s kitchen to back yard and back to the field. They travel on bikes, on scooters, on roller blades, on skateboards and on foot. When the field floods they bring out paddle boards or kayaks. Sometimes they try to wrestle giant carp swimming in the shallow waters covering the grass. From time to time, parents will text or call with the whereabouts of this child or that child. If I am looking for my son, for example, I’ll check with the parents across the street, and if they don’t know, I’ll ask the parents next door to them, and if they don’t know I’ll check with the family down the block, and if they don’t know, I rely on the fact that I can call out really really loud (it’s one of the perks of being a former singer – I project) and eventually my son hears me and comes home.

The kids here. They run wild. It is good that they run wild.


“Do you want to just tell your kids that they’re not allowed to grow up to be messed up? Do you tell them look at what we have provided for you! It’s perfect!”

Unfortunately, even the most idyllic childhood doesn’t rescue us from having our own dark nights of the soul. Pain – physical, emotional, spiritual – is inevitable. We were born broken. We will die broken. We will be broken along the way. However, I like to think that this little kid paradise tucked into Minneapolis will give them something special as they muddle their way through the perils of childhoods into the skins of the men and women that they will become. I hope that the wild children that they are right now remains an essential part of who they will be. I hope that, even when they are old, that their souls are still muddy, grubby, grass-stained, sweaty, hard-muscled, bright-eyed, and still utterly, utterly wild.

One of the benefits of the feral childhood – because, let’s be clear. That’s what they have. Sure they brush their teeth when they are told and do their homework on command and clean their rooms when under duress and come in for dinner after only the seventh or eighth warning, but they are far from domesticated – is that they have this opportunity to claim the world that they inhabit. This is a powerful thing for a child – something unavailable to them when they’re at school or baseball practice or church or grandma’s house. When they roll down the hill and tramp across the field, there is no rule that they do not negotiate and agree on among themselves. There are no clocks or watches. There are no gold stars or percent marks or work books. Heck, there aren’t even shirts half the time.

In the green world, there is only now.

In the green world, there is only us.

Here are my hands, the children say. They belong to me.

Here is the grass, their voices shout. It belongs to me as well.

Here is this stick. It was made for my hands. Here are my arms. And my muscles. They were made to wave this stick around. There is no truth but motion. There is no rule but play. There is no reality outside of myself and this stick and this mud and this tree and this water and this green. This is the only world that matters. 

Here is this field they say. It belongs to us. Here is the creek. It also belongs to us. And so does the sky and everything under it. How good – how very good it is to be THIS boy. And THIS girl. This very one. 

There is no greater thing on earth than a child in motion.  Bless you, my children. Bless all of you. May you own the world forever.

08 Peter and Wendy - F D Bedford - 1911

I am large, I contain multitudes.

My daughter, at 2:45 today will become Walt Whitman. She has the hat. She has the rakish stance. She’s got the magnetic stare. Indeed, she’s had them all her whole life. I think, in the end, I can blame myself – I was reading “Leaves of Grass” obsessively when I was pregnant with her. Over and over again I laid down on the grass. Over and over I was the grass. And now she is Walt Whitman. So it goes.

In any case, at 2:45, she and the rest of her fourth grade class will don their outfits and become the Famous Americans that they have spent the last month researching, and explain to the hordes of adoring parents that will be crowding into the room why their person was famous and important, and it will be ridiculously cute. Also, there will be cookies.

This morning, as we were getting ready for school and Cordelia was going over her note cards one last time, she decided to quiz her brother. This is a time-honored tradition of big sisters (I confess to doing it myself, way back when) of quizzing their younger siblings on topics that they know absolutely nothing about so that they can feel deeply informed and awesome. Here’s how the conversation went:

CORDELIA: Leo. Quick. Who was Walt Whitman?

LEO: Ummmm. A garbage man.


LEO: A farmer.


LEO: A teacher.

CORDELIA: No. Well, yes. But only for a little while. And he hated teaching.

(That was true. Points to Cordelia. This is what he said about his time living in Long Island teaching school: “Never before have I entertained so low an idea of the beauty and perfection of man’s nature, never have I seen humanity in so degraded a shape, as here. Ignorance, vulgarity, rudeness, conceit, and dulness are the reigning gods of this deuced sink of despair.” Ouch. Even I didn’t have such rough talk for the profession that kicked my butt, long ago. Though, in retrospect, I think I may have used the “sink of despair” line once or twice.)

CORDELIA: (after some consideration) Well, he had lots of jobs. But what job made him famous? Like for forever. What did he do?

LEO: He was a baker.


LEO: Building canoes?


LEO: Sewing?

CORDELIA: NO! He was a poet.

LEO: What’s a poet?

ME: A poet is someone who writes poems for their job. Just like a novelist is someone who writes novels for their job.

LEO: Is a bookie someone who writes books for their jobs?

ME: No, that’s something else.

LEO: (thinking) Walt Whitman writes poems?

ME: Well, he did. He’s dead now.


CORDELIA: You don’t know that guy. None of us do. Because he’s dead.

LEO: No. I know his poem.

CORDELIA: No you don’t.

LEO: Yes I do. O Captain, my Captain.

ME: (jaw drop)

LEO: (thinking) O Captain, my Captain our fearful trip is done! And….(eyes rolling to the ceiling) then something about bells.

CORDELIA: Nice work Leo. I see you’ve been paying attention.

LEO: I know all about poems. I am a poemer.

The “B” word.

Earlier today, my ridiculously lovely nine year old child came home in tears. She had, because she thought she was old enough, attempted to walk the dog by herself. Not very far, mind you, or for very long. The child is shaped like a slight bunch of reeds, loosely braided and bound with thin ribbons. She is as substantial as smoke.

I should have known it would not end well.

She came home crying. Leo, her brother, was aghast.

“It wasn’t Harper’s fault,” she said stoutly, unhooking her dog’s leash and kissing her on the head.

“What happened,” I asked.

She sniffed. “Harper tried to chase a squirrel. Then she pulled me into the bike path and this teenager had to swerve and then…” Her little eyes welled with tears. “He called me a B-word.” 

Leo was horrified. He balled his fists, getting ready for a fight. But with each moment that passed, he had questions. And his questions grew until they wrote themselves onto his face.

“What’s a B-word?” he asked.

“Don’t worry about it, honey,” I said. “Sometimes people make mistakes when they feel scared.”

“But what is it? Does B stand for something?”

Cordelia drew herself up. “The B-word is a word that is impolite to say. So we just say the B-word so we don’t have to say it.”

Leo nodded. “Okay,” he said. “But what is it?” He thought for a moment. “Is it baloney?”

“No,” Cordelia said.

“Is it bogus?”






“Your brother’s just curious,” I said, trying really really really hard not to laugh. “He just doesn’t know.”

“Did he call you a baby?”

“NO!” And she stomped away.

Leo looked at me. “Is the letter B a mean letter?”

“No,” I said, “but maybe you should think of some nice words that start with B and use them around her sister. Maybe you should just say a bunch of nice things today.”

Later on, I found a little index card that he had put on his sister’s pillow so she would find it.

“BEEOOTIFOL,” it said.