Jeff Oaks

The Writing Life, Writing Prompts, Essays on the Ordinary

Month: June, 2013

A Schedule vs. A Life

So this is the ideal schedule I tried to come up with this summer:

Write sentences 5–7am

Dog 7–9am

Pitt Work 10–12. Work on Topics class proposal/syllabi

Poetry Mss 1–3 Read mine and others

House 3–5 declutter and dust/ vacuum and laundry

Dog 5–7

Dinner/TV/Reading 7–9

I wrote it a couple of days ago, and already I’m off course. I love schedules. Making them makes me feel as if I’m in control. But of course day to day I’m not very much in control at all. My house is currently a wreck, caught in a clash between my current household and the influx of things from my mother’s house. I hadn’t realized how fragile my arrangement of things was until I had to accommodate a new trunk, a half dozen pictures, and a lot of bedding, towels, and kitchenware.

What happened of course is that this clash, this disruption, this mess, freed me up to get rid of some things that I hadn’t been using for years. It made visible some things that I’d stuffed into corners, into closets, spread over on dressers like a kind of literary mold. I have a parade of boxes and appliances and useless things in my hallway, waiting to be thrown out, recycled, and or given away. So there are some things being kept but rearranged, some new things trying to find space, and some old things on their way out. Taking these things elsewhere is a priority today.

I’m waiting for a construction/re-use place to come and haul out a couple of big pieces. Once they’re gone, I’ve said, the decluttering can really begin. Yesterday’s work was to get certain piles of books onto already existing shelves.

In terms of writing: I did manage to write a new paragraph for an essay I’m working on, which is the least I let myself do every morning. It wasn’t particularly satisfying, but satisfaction isn’t the daily goal. Because we had a couple big thunderstorms blow through last night, waking me up periodically and because I’m fighting what seems to be a stye in my right eye, itching as it does, sleep wasn’t satisfying either. After a series of cranky naps then, I ended up waking late (around 8:30), taking the dog for a quick trip down to the river walk, and not getting to the cafe until about ten. Which just happened to be the time when today’s Supreme Court striking down DOMA was announced. I’ve spent most of the last two hours happily and excitingly responding to friends’ reactions on Facebook. There were, as well, a few professional emails that needed a response immediately, so I wrote those emails as well.

Lesson: You can’t trust history not to burst your schedule. You can’t schedule history. You have to be able to leave the schedule sometimes. You have a life that’s more important than a schedule.

And yet…

I have a couple of professional responsibilities that are pegged to the end of the month, that HAVE to done by July 1st, and I need some way to keep my attention on them this week. It’s sadly easy for me to “forget things” until the last moment. And I feel the pressure to get the current craziness of my house under control as soon as possible. And I want to get rid of this itchy stye. Dog first, pressing professional responsibilities next, then household and body. After those, creative responsibilities and long term responsibilities.

Thankfully, because Assaracus, a journal I admire immensely, just accepted a dozen poems, I don’t feel a huge urge to get work out. I’m still glowing with happiness. My poet-self doesn’t feel like it needs much propping up. That can wait until July now.

Suddenly, I can’t tell who I’m talking to in this post.

Dear Reader, I hope this isn’t too boring. This is what I used to write in my journal, and it used to help me to figure things out, help me not feel so entangled in the multiple responsibilities that I’ve woven into my adult life. I’m still trying to figure out what goes into the blog and what doesn’t. Where is the line between the interesting intimate and the unnecessarily infinitesimal? I’m sure it’s not a clear line; sometimes I find myself interested in writer’s journals or letters for the silly shit they had to juggle while they wrote. There are days a perfect, beautiful Rilke poem is not the food I need, and finding out that details of a writer’s messy family life is exactly what I need.

Have I figured anything out in all of this? Well, this kind of writing does a couple of things. It reminds me that I have done both creative (even if it’s only the minimum today) and professional (even if it got mixed up with social interactions on Facebook) work. It keeps me from driving home and throwing myself down on the couch and eating a bag of Doritos. From feeling like a failure, in other words.

I look at the schedule. It gives me something to talk to, to have a dialogue with, I suppose. Neither of us is perfect. We each have to give in occasionally. Tomorrow we try again. Today, just try to something from each part of my life.


A Gesture

I was waking up yesterday morning and reached for the dog as I usually do. His back was to me as it usually is. Usually he just lifts his head, looks over his shoulder to see if I’m actually getting up or just up, that condition which can take up to an hour before it turns into getting up. But yesterday morning when I touched his back, he arched his whole body backward, so that it slowly pushed, from the butt all the way up to his head against the corresponding parts of me. Then, when the back of his head was near mine, he turned so he could see me, pushed his snout just a little further, and when I moved my nose closer to his, gave mine a quick lick. I laughed. His tail thumped against my leg.

The devil might be in the details, but so are there angels in some sentences.

A Silence

I’m in a bind here: I want to write about something and yet I know if I do, there may be trouble. I know something about someone that could hurt someone else. Possibly hurt that person quite badly. I don’t believe it’s life-threatening or illegal, so I don’t feel the pressure to reveal them for legal reasons, but my sense of ethical behavior is buzzing, mad as a wasp at a window. It is something that I think is a kind of ethical crime, one which I was the victim of years ago. Because I can’t tell anyone, I’m taking it to the page, or the screen in this case. Simply put, someone confirmed something I thought was true about someone who is a mutual friend of ours. But it’s clear that the source of the information is not going to call out our mutual friend on his activity; indeed the source is helping to cover up said activity, even encouraging it. Now, it’s possible that the source is lying, since the source is a known exaggerator at best and a inventor of self-aggrandizing tales at worst. And was drunk at the time and trying to get me to sleep with him/her at the time. What do I do here? I’m also of course not without motive here, since it will give me an occasion to punish at least the source for past cruelties inflicted upon me.

I’m keeping my silence as of right now. I don’t think I honestly have a requirement to save the “someone else” who could be hurt by this information. Divulging the information would right now only help me to rectify an old wounding, which would be pleasurable in the short run, but complicated in the long run, since I would run into all the characters eventually in this small city.

It’s this kind of thing that makes me never want to date again, frankly. People betray each other with such abandon, with such little regard. After one experience of it myself, I fear getting involved with it again. Friends often ask me if I’m seeing anyone, and when I say I’m not, they assume that I want to or that I’m just burning to get involved. It does remind me a bit of people’s expectations of grief I wrote about in April. In the seven years since my last relationship, I have lived quite happily with a dog as my companion. My work has flourished. Aside from my work as a teacher, my time is essentially my own. I sometimes joke that I don’t need to apply to a writer’s colony because I live in one. I’m also, however, insulated against a number of things that might keep me from becoming too self-satisfied, too sure of things. I’m not ruling out the possibility of a real relationship someday, but right now, having seen how people damage each other, pretend with each other, allow themselves to be fooled, I’m glad to have only myself to blame if something goes wrong.

And of course, this isn’t about you. I hope that goes without saying. If you’re nervous that it is, here’s the first assignment I give almost every class I teach nowadays:

“I’d like you to write a three page description of a moment in which you were silent or silenced, to describe it at some length, and, if you’d like to, to speculate about what things led up to it or allowed to happen. This does not have to be a violent silencing, remember, although it could be; there are also silencings from awe, from exhaustion, from happiness, from ignorance. Feel free to explore whichever one of those interests you. 3 pages minimum.”

A Mood

Today I’m in the grip of one of those “moods” I don’t really know what to do with. It probably has something to do with the fact that I have a number of meetings today, meetings that are necessary but will likely not give me much pleasure. Then I have to put together a proposal for a class we should have had on the books a long time ago, but we’ve for some reason never had; again, it’s necessary work and will help a friend of mine teach a class that’s cross listed between Writing and Studio Arts, a thing I hope we’ll do more of. I’ve gotten fairly good at writing these proposals, but it doesn’t give me a whole lot of joy. Then there’s meetings about how to improve this in the program and how to schedule that for the program. I’ve been meeting lately with grad students about teaching, recent graduates about job hunting, and friends about our middle-age anxieties. Each person is lovely and nervous, and I think we all need to be helping each other to not feel so isolated. Mostly, they just want someone to talk to about their options. Then there’s my house, which I’m pulling apart, finding places to integrate my mother’s things as I unpack them, cleaning out spaces I haven’t touched for a while (and wow was there some impressive dust in some places!), thinking about the next spate of house repairs that needs to happen, making lists of insurances to look into, retirement assets to reconsider, a will to draw up, and a couple trips to plan for.

It’s all adult stuff, none of it individually awful, but it suddenly feels like I opened a closet door instead of the front door, and decades of stuff has buried me in an avalanche. I feel frozen, waiting to hear which direction is up so I can dig myself out. Or looking around to see where the most significant knot is in my Gordian responsibilities.

And then there’s the news that just seems to pile up horrible things. The Patriot Act, it turns out, has worked more or less like they said it would, and only now is the Many feeling like it’s too much. Corporations are exerting control over the government so that seeds and water and the air are becoming owned things, rather than the commonwealth of all. Unions and teachers and the poor somehow have ended up as the bad guys in the economy instead of the obscene profiteering corporations whose profits go through the roof, made on selling weapons, made from poisoning the water and air, made from stealing human beings’ labor and lives and genetic codes. I hear on the radio today a politician saying how much we need to invest in businesses, who are doing well, and nothing about investing in schools, which are failing badly, and I want to drive over a cliff in frustration. What kind of people want to give the well-off more money and needy nothing?

And what am I doing myself, since I’m now an investor in the stock market, and I find myself completely unsure of where to put any of my money? Aren’t I part of the problem? And shouldn’t I be examining my own compassion’s footprint? At what point, while I sign petitions and share on Facebook, should I DO something?

I sit in the present. To make a list is not to change anything more than trying to establish a place in the world to move, to clear out some room. It eases the mood a little, if nothing else. Even the small things I can move every day will help, I hope. My aesthetic is not revolutionary or avant-garde, but vegetal. Push a white root tip out in several directions. See where a crack develops. Root for the sun and air. That it’s there somewhere. Breathe until the feeling of being buried brings the need to break open. Sharpen your tools. Get ready to lift what stuff you’re handed.

49 Sentences About My 49th Birthday

1. It’s hard to celebrate a birthday for an age you don’t think you are.

2. I bought myself a box of chocolates and ate it all last night while rereading the middle part of The Hobbit.

3. Today it is raining in such a way that it’s hard to believe that it’s my birthday.

4. Yesterday, while turning left at a busy intersection, I almost hit a man I didn’t see until I was literally almost on him.

5. I think there was a complicated blindspot involving my left hand windshield and my new glasses.

6. I got to renew my driver’s license today, and I promised myself that part of my penance for yesterday would be to accept whatever photo the license person took.

7. I always use my birthday as a moment to evaluate where I am and what I have.

8. I always feel at some point during the day envious of other people who are better published or better positioned or better employed or better looking.

9. By the end, I’m always satisfied that I haven’t in fact wasted my life.

10. I try to make writing the biggest part of the day on my birthday.

11. I have two huge bags of folded laundry at home that need to be put away.

12. This is the first birthday that my mother can’t call me or send me a card.

13. I’m the kind of person who, knowing that 50 is coming up next year, will start thinking of myself as 50 this year just to get the weirdness of it out of the way early.

14. In preparation for the renewal of my license, I got my hair cut short and finally got new glasses.

15. It’s weird to think, now that I’ve mentioned it, that my mother is gone, and that she’s taken the body that made me, that birthed me, that read and fed me, away.

16. Major Tom to Ground Control anybody?

17. The coffeehouse is extremely busy today because of the drizzly rain that makes it impossible to feel comfortable in or out of it.

18. Jesus, why did I think 49 sentences out to be written just because it’s my 49th birthday?

19. I often jump into things before I think them out completely.

20. I also have to renew my passport this year, especially if I want to go somewhere special for my 50th birthday.

21. My brother just called me, but because I had my phone on vibrate and in my coat pocket, I didn’t hear it in time to answer.

22. I actually am made happy by the birthday greetings I receive on Facebook.

23. Thank you whoever you are.

24. At 49, I still don’t always remember when to use who and when to use whom, when to use lie, when lay.

25. I am currently writing an essay on the subject of, some might say the theme of, mistakes.

26. I am after all a 49 year old mistake.

27. I was conceived on September 9, 1963, which was my parents’ 13th anniversary.

28. They both admit they were drunk, and I believe they were both glad I came along.

29. My mother told me she thought she still had more love to give, but that was after she’d decided not to abort the pregnancy.

30. I felt a certain amount of guilt growing up, because I knew that she stayed with my father because she wanted me to have a father.

31. I want to clean the house today because that helps to alleviate a certain level of anxiety I feel rising.

32. What in fact would really change my life, I always ask myself on my birthday.

33. Yesterday, if I had hit that man, my life would have completely changed.

34. I practiced apologies for the next few hours, expected the police to call me, considered turning myself in in case it was reported.

35. When I looked in the rear view window, the man was already crossing the other street, not staring at me, not waving a fist at my recklessness, not even looking back at me.

36. I couldn’t have stopped to apologize without really tying up the awful traffic even more, or so I said to myself.

37. Nobody got hurt, my mother would have said, let it go.

38. All day long I drove around very carefully, letting other drivers in, not blocking intersections or driveways, stopping for yellow lights.

39. There were a few people who were clearly not happy that I was slowing them down.

40. I have boxes of my mother’s things that still need to be put away.

41. One at a time, she would have said, even though she herself would have put everything away at once, broken down the boxes, and cleaned the house afterward.

42. At the very least, I should put the folded clean clothes into the proper drawers.

43. Tonight I will bag up the bags of garbage out in the alley and leave them on the curb for the garbage men in the morning, so that tomorrow I will feel lighter, less anxious.

44. I don’t forgive my own mistakes very well, except in writing, when I invent strange forms in order to facilitate the creation of them.

45. I believe in the left hand turn as a concept, but when I’m in traffic I often curse the person trying to make one against heavy traffic.

46. I have a theory that life is like traffic more than anything else, with lucky lanes and abrupt stops and gos and limited control.

47. I’ve paid off my car because my mother died this year and left me enough money, for which I’m both sad and grateful.

48. I was born on a Saturday, which according to some book I read as a child, meant that I was immune to vampires, although I don’t remember why that should be so.

49. I have always been bad at making conclusions because there’s no accounting for everything that’s happened.

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