By Jen Jackson Quintano
Once upon a time, in a seemingly far off land, I was a writer. I woke every morning, grabbed my jar of peanut butter and mug of tea, opened my laptop and the words flowed forth. Some of it was for assignments, some for pitches, blogs and anthologies, and some for the fun of it. I even wrote a book once — going on a book tour and everything. One night, the line for autographed copies snaked out the bookstore door and onto the street. It was thrilling. I was, in short, The Shit. Or, so I believed.
Then life happened. We moved 1,000 miles north, our business grew and so did our family. Suddenly, instead of being the voice of my desert home, I was way the heck up Rapid Lightning Road, changing diapers in the afternoon dim of our cabin and trying to learn QuickBooks during half-hour nap breaks. These days, I find myself packing school lunches and managing employees and getting home bone weary from full days disposing of trees. My laptop gathers dust. My words rust. The day does not start with peanut butter and prose but with a small person bounding onto the bed with a belly to fill. Don’t get me wrong: It ain’t all bad. Not even halfway so. But it also isn’t the writerly life I once pursued.
Today, I don’t create so much as maintain. I am a mechanic in service to the machine that is the Family Industrial Complex. My husband is in the same boat; he was once an art major. We now embrace the equation that Journalist + Artist = Manual Labor Forever. Amen. Or, maybe it’s more accurate to say I mostly embrace the equation. There are definitely days during which I mourn the passing of my previously inspired life.
Then I remember the benefits of having transformed into a Responsible Adult:
We no longer live in a camper trailer.
We no longer have dance parties to the food stamp hotline hold music.
We now bring more substantive fare to potlucks than chips and salsa.
Our daughter is clothed and fed and does not have to share anything with the dog (food, bed or otherwise)… unless she chooses to.
We have finally earned the esteem of our families and no longer cause the kind of worry that compels them to slip supermarket gift cards into our wallets unbidden.
These are all good things. I am grateful for the abundance our business has generated. Yet, I also wonder what is lost when one gives up on her muse. I wonder if it is always necessary to sacrifice creativity on the altar of security. I wonder if a well-adjusted child only arises from material wealth. I wonder, sometimes, what our life would look like today with a practicing journalist, an engaged artist and a little girl. Would the incessant hustle leave us even more weary and dissatisfied? Would the constant fear of financially failing impinge upon the joy of staying true to our inventive impulses?
I guess I am trying to generate a cost-benefit analysis of sacrifice (Responsible Adult that I am, everything now comes down to balance sheets). Unfortunately, that is an impossible task since much of what is being measured is intangible and unknowable.
Would my daughter respect me more as a fully realized, true-to-myself artist? Or will she be more grateful that I gave up childish things so that she might have an unfettered childhood? Will my future self be happier that I generated some small retirement savings (and arthritis), or would she be happier surrounded by the myriad manifestations of her beautiful mind?
If one has a talent, is she beholden to use it? Or is it acceptable to cast it aside in favor of IRA contributions and college savings plans?
One idea that both terrifies and delights me is that my body will not hold up doing this kind of work forever. I am already feeling the effects of disassembling trees by hand. There will come a day when the Lumberjill can lumber no more. Will we have made enough money by then to step away from the business? Will my muse still be waiting for me? Will my hands be too arthritic to peck at the keys? Will this transition feel like loss or a welcome reprieve?
Perhaps that’s the way of it, to find one’s passion and purpose early so there is a place to return to when the chicks have fledged and the day is turning to dusk. Perhaps creativity is there to sustain us — mentally, emotionally, spiritually — when productivity no longer can.
Until then, I soldier onward to the wordless whine of two-stroke engines and the rumble of diesel machines. In that space, I witness, I wonder, I mature, so that maybe, when the day for words comes, I will have something more important to say.
Jen Jackson Quintano writes and runs an arborist business with her husband in Sandpoint. Find their website at sandcreektreeservice.com. See more of Quintano’s writing at jenjacksonquintano.com.
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