The Little Things

by Jeff Oaks

This morning I meant to write a piece about structure. I had some good ideas, I thought, and I was excited. It’s been a long couple of weeks, the weeks in February being especially long in Pittsburgh where the weather goes gray and swampy and cold just at the moment when all the energy I had for the Spring Term, saved up over the winter break, is exhausted.

I’m doing some extra work this term and it is turning out to be almost enough weight to tip over my whole apparently precariously balanced life. And I think that was one of the threads I wanted to knit with in today’s blog: how carefully I’ve structured my life. It’s becoming clear to me that I have to change that structure now. The house has grown hirsute with dog hair. There’s an enormous pile of laundry to do which I’m resisting. There’s an equally large load of laundry waiting to be folded and put into the respective drawers. I have to wash the bed covers, the couch covers, the dog blankets in the car.

I finally loaded the dishwasher last night after a week of playing a version of Jenga with bowls, plates, and pans. Now, I wonder how long it will take me to empty it.

I still need to go to the supermarket and buy the months groceries. Last night, I went to Wendy’s instead of dealing with the whole issue of what to cook.

Part of all this is because I didn’t get one group of papers done this past weekend. I should be doing them today, here at the cafe, but I’m resisting that. My unconscious is having a temper tantrum, I think. The part of me that wants to be left alone to finish the work, that wants the world to stop while I catch up, that is kicking and biting and screaming for attention is getting louder and more frightened. I want my structure back.

And then when I sat down to write something about structure, I clicked on my wordpress bookmark and got my own blog, but without the dashboard I need to add a post. For the life of me I could not remember how to log in suddenly. I sat and stared at my own last entry. I clicked on all my pages, hoping that one of them would open up the dashboard feature. Finally I googled “How to login to WordPress,” got a link, clicked on that, got teleported to a forum space where I was asked for my username and password, could not remember suddenly which ones of the ten or so possible usernames and passwords I might have used, tried a few, was denied over and over, went back to my home email to look at old wordpress emails hoping for a clue to the right name and word, found none, grew angrier and angrier, finally did something, clicked somewhere I don’t even remember now, and up came the screen with my username/email already filled in, my password already there in dots, clicked and was brought to the screen where I could, at last, write today’s post.

The blank page appeared. My mind, however, stayed blank. I couldn’t remember anything about what I’d been so keen to write on this morning. Then the word Structure appeared in my head. I had wanted to write about structure. But now, my brain awash in the chemicals for anger, frustration, irritation, grief, fear, and maybe even the beginning of rage at being denied entrance to my own blog, I had lost everything I had thought was so important.

One of my mother’s old jokes when she forgot something she was going to say, was to say, “Well, it must have been a lie.” It couldn’t have been very important if it wasn’t able to stick around.

Structure? I look around my table for a clue about what was so important to me. There are two bills–one to the electric company, one to my cellphone company–ready to go out. Was structure going to be about the economic structure of my life? I do want to write about that–be brave enough to reveal my actual finances–but I don’t think that was it. Was it about the essay I wrote a few years ago, an essay whose paragraphs are made up of the 125 arrangements of the five basic sentence structures: fragment, simple, compound, complex, compound-complex? That essay just found a home suddenly. I was afraid it was too structured (it had been politely declined from three editors I was sure would like it); then about two hours after I sent it out on a whim to a journal that was reading and was interested in longer than normal pieces, the editor wrote me back with such enthusiasm for it that I actually teared up. She took it the next day. And that gave me the strength to think about the next essay, which I’d long planned to write, and which would use the exact reverse structure of the first one.

Art is, with violence and sex, one of the things you can do with what you can’t keep inside any longer: that’s the sentence that came out of me this morning, stepping out of the shower. I wanted to write that down somewhere to think about. But that doesn’t sound exactly right now. Art is a made thing. Violence is a reaction. Sex might be somewhere in behind, or a bit of both. I don’t know. That sentence seemed like something when all I had was my memory and a towel. Sentences often come to me in the shower. It’s a kind of structureless place, blank white walls everywhere, warm rain on my skin, the smell of apple pectin rising up from my shampoo. There’s nothing to write with. Which frees up something in me to just play or try out theories, as in World War 2 was waged because Hitler was a failed painter, that the recently released paintings of George Bush Jr. suggests another would-be artist whose work wasn’t enough, who required not just one but two wars to fulfill his “vision”. Hitler the landscape artist who turned everything into ruins, ghettos, prisons. Bush who sent men to kill and die in the deserts of the Middle East, who keeps painting himself in the shower, in the bathtub, in hot water over and over again.

Writing is the thing I do when my life feels too close, too clogged, too crabbed. It’s something I can do even when I can’t put away my clothes or sweep the floor or vacuum or dust or go to the supermarket. It’s a place where I can drain off excess emotional or psychic or physical energy. When I was a kid reading about witchcraft, looking for a way to change my life, I remember there was a spell or ritual for creating a second self, a part of yourself at any rate, that you could send out into the world to work change, a spirit-form, a phantom, a doppleganger. When I heard my first poet, I felt a real shiver of excitement. That there was a way of making a life out of creating yourself, out of recreating your memories, turning them into, if not exactly solid golems, but into spirit-selves made of sound, small bits of description, song, spell, argument. You could send it out into other people’s lives if you were very skilled. You could hide yourself in it for a while until you figured out how to live again.