Each day of our morning workshop at the writer’s conference, our instructor (the fabulous Abigail Thomas) gives us an assignment. Yesterday, she read a poem by Brigit Pegeen Kelly that began with the line “It was not a scorpion I asked for, I asked for a fish.” Our follow-up assignment was to write something with this line for our title: “It was not a ______ I asked for. I asked for a _______.”
I fully intended to write something worthy of the task—to compose a little gem as lyrical as the original poem. But my life is not conducive to poetry. It lends itself more to prose. Silly prose at that. Oh well. They always say you have to write about what you know. Here's what I know.
It was not a swim in pool of sludge I asked for. I asked for a bath.
by Julie Q.
It is 9 pm and after a busy afternoon and evening, I finally have a few free moments to spare for writing. I pop open my laptop on the kitchen table. Gabie and Nora are a few feet away, across the hall in the bathtub. They splash and giggle. I think deep writerly thoughts and wait for inspiration to strike. It strikes with a vengeance.
A cry comes from the bathroom. Two cries. I’m in there in a split second but it takes a moment for my brain to process the scene. The bathwater is filled with floating chunks of shredded cardboard. No, it is not cardboard. “Aaaah!” Gabie wails, “Nora pooped in the tub!” Nora is equally indignant. “Poo Tub” she cries, accusingly, as if the stuff has appeared out of nowhere.
I don’t have a clue where to start. I assume I should rescue the children first. But where do I put them while I decontaminate the tub so I can load them back in it to clean them off? What tools am I going to need? I suspect my box of baby wipes—the Swiss Army knife of the American housewife—just isn’t going to cut it this time. How is it possible that a 2-year old child could even produce so much waste at once? I have been a mother for more than a decade. Over the years I have cleaned up all manner of children’s bodily fluids from every surface imaginable including my own clothing and hair. When I recently read an author’s blurb bragging that she had used more than 27 different terms for vomit in her parenting book, I found myself nodding in total understanding. But we may have reached a new low in grossness.
Just so you know, I would never make it a point to use 27 different terms for vomit in my writing. I don’t even want to write about vomit. Or toilet training. Or disasters of the pee and poo variety. I am not Erma Bombeck. I am not a 9-year old boy who thinks every sentence is better if it somehow incorporates the word “underwear.” I’m not even the type of writer who considers the use of 27 different terms for vomit praiseworthy. It’s just a frank reality that a large part of parenthood involves dealing with bodily fluids. I once calculated it at about 80%. (Of course, this was the year my oldest son had acquired the world’s most sensitive gag reflex and rarely made it through a day without incident, so the statistic may be skewed.) This is not something I knew about motherhood before I began. I did not ask to become an expert on the containment and removal of urine, vomit, diarrhea, blood, and tears. Childhood is a wet, sticky, oozy place.
One winter while I was in graduate school in Pennsylvania, we took a trip to New York to visit the Museum of Modern Art. We spent hours in the museum, but I can only specifically recall seeing two works. I remember standing in front of Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night. And I remember walking past—in a baffled state—a row of large metallic jugs presumably filled with liquids and labeled pus, vomit, saliva, urine, semen, blood, etc. I was a student of the arts. I had been exposed to post-modern absurdities before, but even I was mystified.
The fact that I remember this work 15 year later instead of the dozens of other masterpieces I saw that day speaks for itself. This artist (Kiki Smith) was a genius. Her ideas are transcendent and universal, not to mention memorable. It doesn’t even matter that her work expressed entirely different ideas to her than it did to me. She was likely inspired by the AIDS crisis. I find myself thinking of these jugs from a different perspective, the perspective of a woman who has learned intimately how vital and natural and common these fluids are. I have gained a whole new appreciation for why the medieval philosophers believed that we are kept in balance only by the ebb and flow of bodily humours. I have carried children in amniotic fluid. I have produced milk from my own breasts to feed them. I have tended to their wounds—their pus and blood. And yes I have cleaned up their wastes. And then I have bathed them and rinsed them clean and toweled them dry and held them against my beating heart.