Mother Knows Best

Nanci Olesen, 'Mombo,' and the parental underbelly

Last spring,The Mommy-Track Mysteries author Ayelet Waldman sat on the Fitzgerald Theater stage at one of Garrison Keillor's "Literary Friendships" talks. Her husband, novelist Michael Chabon, was at her side as she talked about her battle with mother/writer depression. When it came time for questions from the audience, I asked her if she felt any kinship with Anne Sexton or Sylvia Plath, and if she ever feared the same fate.

"I do, but the one difference between them and me is that they didn't have psychopharmacology," she said, matter-of-factly. Which is one way of saying that we all get by how we get by, and the way Nanci Olesen does it is to create a community around Mombo, which started as a radio show 15 years ago and now continues as a CD series, website, and a podcast produced in the host's south Minneapolis kitchen. There's also a weekly Mombo e-mail, in which Olesen writes about parenthood and life in general with openness and none of the chipper frivolity that often characterizes the parental-lit racket:

"There's something a bit unsettling in the late afternoon these days, especially on rainy days. It gets dark quickly. I find myself gnawing at the window, even as I pull the shades and try to say cheerful things about getting ready for supper. It happens every year, this closing in. I should think of it as snuggling in, maybe that would help.

"My kids seem unfazed. They don't have midlife 'issues' crowding around them. They have some homework, a flute or clarinet or electric guitar to practice, and a few chores. Then they want to talk and snuggle in. Is this the year that I take my cue from them? Is this the year that I don't brood over the upcoming holiday season but just relax into it and set my expectations low?"

"I feel like I keep doing the same show over and over," says the 45-year-old Olesen, sitting in the cozy art- and toy-strewn living room of the home she shares with her three kids and husband, Theatre de la Jeune Lune's Steve Epp. "Or, I feel like I have the same thing to say: 'Try to pay attention, and to be present to what's happening. To admit you might not understand [parenting], and to admit that it's got so many levels to it.'"

Olesen graduated in 1981 from Gustavus Adolphus College with a degree in theater and wilderness studies. She signed on with the Royal Lichtenstein Quarter Ring Sidewalk Circus, which led to stints as an actor, musician, and director with In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theater, Illusion Theatre, Jeune Lune, Actors Theater of St. Paul, and Quicksilver Stage. All the while, she took catering and waitressing jobs to make ends meet--she still waitresses a couple of shifts a week at Lucia's--and took up drawing.

She has been the "narrator on stilts" of Heart of the Beast's May Day Ceremony in Powderhorn Park since 1983, and she's currently rehearsing La Befana, which opens later this month at HOTB. Be that as it may, things are drastically different from when she was a key player in Minneapolis's expanding indie-theater scene of the '80s.

Olesen and Epp's son Henry was born in 1990, around the same time she began hosting the KFAI show Artifacts and interning for Minnesota Public Radio's Take Out with Beth Friend. Suddenly, her newfound passion for radio dovetailed with the new weirdness of parenting.

"I started to care less and less about the theater scene and the arts scene, and I was starting to care more about other women I knew--and men--who were turning into parents and trying to sift through what their priorities were," she says. "I thought it would be easier to be a parent than it is. I thought it would be like any other freelance project, and it wasn't."

So she combined her two budding interests and created Mombo, a mix of essays, interviews, music, and general commentary on motherhood. While at KFAI, the show was syndicated by the Pacifica network, and Olesen went on to do specials for Public Radio International. Out of a desire to bring it to a bigger audience and to try to get paid, she stopped doing the show on KFAI in 1998. In its current incarnation, Mombo is a CD and website (www.mombo.org) and, Olesen admits, at something of a crossroads. She doesn't get paid much for her efforts, and her Lucia's tips aren't floating the multiple production expenses she alone absorbs. And, perhaps most importantly, she'd rather spend time writing or raking than marketing herself or gunning for Oprah.

"We've done all these different proposals to all these different places, and we've gotten some astounding replies," she says. "People say, 'Parenting is not a topic we're interested in.' Or, 'We don't do kids.' And you kind of go, 'Well, what about the people who are raising the kids, who are driving in their cars who might want to hear something besides the latest news about McDonald's or Northwest Airlines--and not in a cute way, like, 'Have you figured out how to help your baby sleep through the night?' More like, 'What's the underbelly of this? What's really going on?'"

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