The Beautiful Surprises

by Jeff Oaks

It’s a beautiful day, the kind of day we survived all winter for: warm sunlight, gentle breezes, birds chirping out the new territories, cars recreating the regular sound of the ocean as they pass by the cafe window. We’re all still grateful for days like this. Andy, my good dog, is stretched out at my feet, eyes closed. I close my own eyes periodically, tip my head back, and imagine the sunlight filling me up like a vase or pitcher. I don’t have to teach from now until the end of August. I don’t really have write anything at all if I don’t want to. I could just sit around and be quiet. The only thing I have to do today really is to buy some flowers for the pots around my house.

I’m writing essays this summer, one about my mother and one about two summers ago when I was just finding out about now that my former good dog, Bailey, was sick and eventually had to be put to sleep. Of that second essay part of me is interested in how I did it, considering how intensely awful it was to live through that time. Of my mother essay, I’m not sure at all what I’m after. I just know that there is an ocean of things to begin the after-life dialogue with.

I was thinking about that state of mind–writing in the face of not knowing what you’re going to end up with–the other day when I went to visit the group of undergraduates who went on the annual retreat our campus literary journal organizes. They’d asked me and my colleague Ellen Smith to come out on Saturday afternoon and lead them in a couple of writing exercises.

We arrived at their cabin at Seven Springs at noon and found thirteen students still a little groggy from staying up all night talking about writing and the future. We entered their circle of rumpled couch and utilitarian chairs and sat down on the floor in front of the tv, which was off. They were glad to see us. Most of them were barefoot. Ellen asked them first to make a list of words they hated. She read a poem by Alex Lemon that celebrated word-coining, the deep pleasures of words; then she gave an example of a word from her own life that she hated. She talked about why. After that, she asked them to write a poem in which they recovered or rehabilitated that word somehow. Or to invent a word that the world needed but didn’t have yet.

For myself, because I felt like I was in charge of providing a prose exercise, I brought in Chekhov’s “Gooseberries,” read parts (like that fabulous moment when Chekhov suggests there be a someone with a small hammer at he door of every rich man, to constantly remind the rich man what his comfort is built on), and I asked the young writers to

“Make a list of things you’re waiting for, cages you’re hoping will open, permissions you’re waiting to be given. Write a piece addressing somehow whatever it is you’re waiting to happen or leave you alone (to Money? To Security? To Stability? To Love? to Fear? To Unhappiness? To Debt? To a Parent? To God? To Permission itself?) before you will truly be able to say something or
do something you’ve always wanted to do.”

You never know what you’re going to get in a good exercise. We got some fantastic things, things that surprised us all. The future is in the hands of some fantastic young people, I thought. Even if they themselves didn’t know how they were going to bring it about. Even if they didn’t exactly know who they were going to be yet.