Out of the Mouths of Babes

Janet Reich Elsbach

Wait for It
or, My Way (and getting out of it)

Let’s say I am packing a suitcase. Something I really want to take with me will not fit in the bag. What can I do? I can leave it out. I can take something else out, to make room for this item. I can re-pack, carefully, and see if more room is created if the other items are coaxed into less space than I thought they needed. I’ll need to consider if this item is delicate, and unsuited to sardine-like conditions, and if it will be so adversely affected that in the end it won’t be worth the space it demands and taking it will turn out to be worse than leaving it behind. Is the bag sturdy? Or will tight packing cause strain to the seams, fraying of the straps, the hinges to become unhinged? Do I need this item with me on this trip, after all? Have I agreed to carry a lot of things for others, which take up any extra room I thought I had to spare? Is knowing that I have this thing enough, for now? If so, I could leave it here, just for now, and come back for it. Will it wait?

But maybe I am a waiter, not a traveler. Maybe I live to serve. Maybe I am carrying so many things for others and to others that I cannot even scratch what itches on myself. Plates are stacked in both hands, up my arms. I am dropping shit every time I move and still you ask me to clear table 7 and tell me my orders are up, food is cooling, people are hungry. What do you want me to do, carry it ON MY HEAD? I can’t carry any more than this. Ican’tcarryanymore. I. CAN’T. CARRY. ANY. MORE.

Perhaps I am really not either of these things, not the thoughtful packer or the frazzled server. These are just metaphors, maybe. It could be that I am a parent. It could be that having one child made me so, caused that incredible, momentous, staggering transformation, and now I have three, so I am three times as parental as that, even. If–and it is painful to write this; in my chest real pain is felt–if I had to walk away, or was taken away from this house, and these children, I would still be a parent. Even if my days were suddenly emptied of all the occupations of parenthood, nothing would alter the fact that I am one.

Being a writer, or maybe any kind of artist, is not so fixed. I stopped writing years ago, and it seemed pretty clear that stoppage meant I couldn’t say I was a writer anymore. I have spent the majority of the last 16 years not doing any one thing more than I do the work of parenting, not doing anything that fits neatly in the space marked “occupation” on my landing card, if I were ever to go anywhere that required me to fill one out. I was a creative person, with creative pursuits. Because I don’t pursue them, am I not a creative person any longer?

I kind of think maybe that I am, still, a creative person. I sort of think possibly that I am not a frustrated one, whose former productive creative outlets have been jammed by children and partner. I might suggest that I bring creative energy to Halloween costumes and lunch and birthday presents and third-grade social-problem trouble-shooting because that energy did not leave my system when I chose–CHOSE–to stay home. “Choice,” at least as it refers to fertility, is a very political word now. In the instances where I chose life, freely, electively, purposefully, I don’t think I can blame the resulting children for taking up my time.

Which is not to say that I haven’t. At least, on occasion, I’ve bristled at the narrow channel of minutes for uninterrupted thought in my day. “Please stop talking,” I said more often than I wish I had, to my little boy in the car, “because mama needs to think a minute.” Think just to the end of the idea, and fasten its string to her wrist in the hope it may not float away, or snag on something that will deflate it. I don’t get to mouth off about all this because I have done a splendid job, in my opinion, of managing my creative impulses in the context of family life. I have done a messy job of it: my house is a wreck, or if it is cleanish, the laundry is backed up, or if that is folded, dinner is late, or it is oatmeal, or we are out–again–of milk or flour or olive oil. I have stayed up until two a.m. trying to assemble or draft or glue something together because daylight hours were occupied and overwhelmed, and I have worked on the computer when my children were home even though I swear, each time, that I will not do that anymore. But these were choices. Lucky enough to have the option, I chose a path through full-time family life, so what I encountered there can’t really be labeled an obstacle on some other path–if I wanted to go that other route, the only thing stopping me was me.

Thank goodness I do not feel in my heart of hearts that I am a prima ballerina or an Olympic gymnast or destined for the WNBA. Then I think I would have to concede that my moment has passed. But if I could go back, I would spend less time, not more, on my Career or wondering where it went. I would spend more time breathing into my children’s days and teaching them how to be tidy and cook for themselves, and less time demonstrating how a person with unexplored urges flies and lurches around. I’m not a frazzled waiter unless I make myself one, and if I can make myself into anything I like (as long a leotard is not involved), why choose that? My friend’s mother became a doctor in her forties, for pete’s sake.

In one of the writing workshops I took in college, I sat next to a woman whose husband was a visiting professor. She listened with great interest to all of our stories–absolutely and literally sophomoric, each and every one of them–and when it came time to read hers, showed us all what happens to your writing when you have lived a bit. Waiting for time to put my thoughts on paper was eased tremendously by having met her when I was 19. Harriet Doerr, whose Consider This, Señora is one long, delicious drink, started writing when she was in her sixties, and I have a signed copy of this novel, which we received as a wedding gift, to remind me that the fullness of time brings many things around to us, many opportunities to channel that essence of your self into something it is suited for. We do have to reach for them, of course. Meanwhile, my arms are full, which makes them (I hope) stronger for the reaching.

Janet Reich Elsbach
I am mother to three fine children. My chief interests in life include, but are not limited to: what we will have for dinner tonight; what we will have for dinner tomorrow; whether my children are rested, fed, encouraged and aware; getting out of the grocery store with as much dignity and as little plastic packaging material as possible; assessing the real chances that we the people will come to our senses in time to save the bees, the oceans and the last vestiges of true democracy; and the very powerful and inspiring ways all of these things connect. With my husband, the artist Bart Elsbach, I am managed by a small sheep farm, and I write about all of this when I can stay awake long enough to string four coherent words together. What I am trying to say can be found at
A Raisin and A Porpoise and Bean Yarn.

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