Limited Superpowers

Halloween evening, we follow fantastic little figures through the neighborhood: a knight, Link, Princess Leia and Grogu (better known, to the chagrin of Star Wars purists, as “Baby Yoda”). As the last color fades from the still-brilliant foliage, the last light sinking low behind the ridge to our west, the foursome zigzags down the block, trailed by six parents and a young adult. We watch, mostly from the sidewalk, as they assess each house, learning the rules as they go.

  • Houses with lights or decorations are a safe bet.
  • Dark houses not as much.
  • Knock, but then wait for someone to open the door.
  • Barging in on strangers is still not cool, even on Halloween.
  • “Trick or treat” will suffice as a request—no please needed on this bizarre night—but a “thank you” it still pretty much expected.
  • Stay together; don’t run ahead alone, don’t leave the four-year-old behind, and make sure to remember that Link is carrying both a sword and a shield, and adjust the pace accordingly.

It’s a funny crew, composed of children and parents who don’t necessarily know one another well, and yet share one critical commonality: we all live within about a three-block radius of one another. I’d met one of the mothers last year when our kids were in the same Kindergarten class, which they no longer are, and then got to know her better when we spent the first days of the school year donning red and marching with our school’s striking teachers on the picket line. Late last week, she texted a few neighbors and wondered if our kids would want to trick-or-treat with her son. My oldest daughter eagerly approved, and thus a first-grade Halloween squad was born.

This same daughter and I have been playing a game for a few months called Limited Superpowers. Like her mother, she sometimes has trouble falling to sleep at night, her little brain darting from past to future to fantasy with impressive agility. One night, we were talking about superpowers, wondering which we’d choose if we could. I was complaining that many superpowers were too strong. Superman, for instance, can basically do anything, his only weakness a substance that doesn’t exist on earth. Where’s the story if you can literally reverse time? Come on.

No, unlimited power doesn’t make for a very interesting tale. The limits create the structure, the meat, the conflict, the humor. What if superheroes had cool powers, but with some kind of caveat? Our first limited superpower was this:

  • “You can be invisible whenever you want, but you can’t move when you’re invisible.”

Not our best one, by far, but not bad for a first attempt. Eventually, we fall into a rhythm. My daughter would start the superpower with something normal and aspirational:

“You can…. fly!” she’d declare in the darkness of her top bunk.

But,” I’d counter, the rimshot to her setup, “You can only fly five feet off the ground.” She’d giggle to herself, then much later fall asleep imagining the possibilities of this hovering superhero, gliding over puddles and lakes, but under stoplights and power lines.

  • You can make the best food in the world, but all of it is blue.
  • You can read people’s minds, but they know that you’re doing it.
  • You can teleport, but only once a week.

It’s silly and fun, and maybe a tiny concession to the English teacher still sitting at her desk in a back corner of my brain, this little lesson in conflict and plot for my six-year-old.

I’m not a person who generally struggles to see or appreciate my own superpowers, but goodness if I’m not wrestling with their limits these days. Sometime this fall, between the strike that began our school year and the various viruses that have punctuated it every week or two since, I sort of lost the plot on limits and their creative potential, seeing each not as a useful parameter, but a big kibosh out to mess up our fun. You’ll be excellent at creating routine and structure and predictability for yourself and your family, but your kids will spend the first two months of school sick almost all the time. You’ll be a decent teacher, in a society that makes teaching a near impossible vocation for a mother of young children. You’ll have a brain full of words and stories to tell, but little time or space to express them. Are these the same kind of limits, I wondered, as the ones that we laugh over at bedtime? Can they help me tell a story too?

I’m not the sort of person who has an “ideal Halloween” in my head, the way I might for other holidays. Growing up in rural Washington State, with a childhood that started out way more conservative than it ended up, I really didn’t observe Halloween at all until middle school. By then, costumes were whatever we had on hand, so that I was a bride one year, a Dickensian caroler another (I really was the coolest tenth grader, folks), and finished off the childhood Halloweens by attending a Young Life party dressed as Emma, the protagonist of Jane Austen’s eponymous novel. So Halloween hasn’t ever been at the top of my family tradition to-do list.

Rather, Halloween has been one of the places in which I’ve best embraced the limits of circumstance, time or practicality. I know how to sew quite well, but I have no time, so we’ve bought more costumes than I probably imagined would be the case. There are truly endless ways to acquire candy on Halloween, neighborhoods that go out of their way to be destination trick-or-treating spots, but all of them require driving in the car, an added layer of complication on an already complicated evening. Trick-or-treating is for walking, for the delight of seeing the same sidewalks, streets and houses that children know by daylight in the alien landscape of night. It’s a local night for us, hemmed in by the feet of a four- and six-year-old.

Towards the end of our three block venture with our little characters, my youngest needed a bathroom. I toyed with taking her all the way back to our house, a several-block hustle that would have had the advantage of me not having to ask anyone for help. I could be a superhero, unlimited. Instead, I asked for help, appealing to the acquaintance who’d arranged this group and lived around the corner.

“Can we go use your bathroom?” I asked her.

“Of course!” she replied, adding that her teenaged son would be there, handing out candy, but that I could probably explain the situation to him. Which I did a few minutes later, presenting a fidgeting Baby Yoda and asking to use his restroom.

Five minutes later, we rejoined the group, having missed only a house or two in our much-shorter bathroom break. We parted ways soon afterward, and ended the night knocking on the door of our nearest and favorite neighbors, who greeted the girls with smiles and licorice. It wasn’t groundbreaking, this Halloween. But it was pretty delightful, a fun evening with people I barely knew, but no know a little bit better. It was, in the end, a victory for limits—geographic, in this case—in a season when limits needed a win. A local Halloween, merry with new community, following the footsteps of little feet through their little worlds, guided by saying yes, reaching out, and asking for help when we need it. I may not be as in love with real limits as the ones I create for our falling-asleep superheroes, but for a moment I remembered, as we giggled over the kids squealing at the skeleton candy bowl, why I created this game in the first place. The best stories—and apparently the best Halloweens—start with a limit.

May I learn to see the stories hiding behind my own.


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