Staying Awake

by Jeff Oaks

It’s been the kind of day already in which I’ve had to look down twice to make sure I was wearing pants. Or at least shorts. Anything but the sweat-shorts I sleep in.

It’s the second week of classes, and because I front-load my classes with readings and lectures (so we can spend the rest of the term concentrating on writing), I’m a little more anxious to keep things organized. But then the dog got weirdly sick over the weekend, progressing to a stressful day on Monday, Labor Day, when the vet wasn’t open. I had to watch him carefully Monday night–waking up and walking every few hours–so he didn’t have any accidents inside. We showed up on Tuesday morning at the vet’s to make sure he was not going to die (and nope, he’s fine, just an eating misadventure probably), but that took us two and a half hours to get through, so I had to call the office and cancel my classes for the day.

And suddenly everything felt off track, as if I were rounding a cliff side corner on two wheels.

But of course the car didn’t flip or burst into flames or dive head first down a chasm. The students for one thing are amazingly resilient. Although there was a miscommunication between me and the office and the required class cancellation sign might have gotten posted in a place where some students missed it, the students weren’t at all upset. A couple simply got confused and wandered upstairs to find out what happened.

Meanwhile of course Syria. And Fukushima. And the Russian government empowering its own version of nationalist brownshirts to assault and kill gays, the record profits of corporations at a time when worker wages are losing ground. And then my furnace is clearly losing strength and needs to be replaced. And I need to get manuscripts out. And I need to write something new. Hunger strikes. Protests against. Walks for. Greater needs than mine here. Real catastrophe there.

Last night, after my long day, I wanted to go home and collapse. The dog was at Camp Bow Wow overnight, so I could sleep without interruption. And yet, I woke up after only an hour of sleep. And I was up, completely awake. Except that I couldn’t imagine what to do with being awake. I tried to read a Mahmoud Darwish book I’ve been meaning to start. I read the preface. I might as well been reading a strip of sandpaper: I couldn’t engage. I watched something on Netflix; I couldn’t tell you now what it was. I went downstairs to watch TV. Again, I couldn’t tell you what was on. I was the undead.

On one hand, this is probably normal transitioning stuff. The summer with its enormous permissions is gone. My body needs to adjust to the new constraints of time and responsibility. This kind of thing happens every term. I’ve even stopped taking vacations of less than three weeks because it takes at least a week for my body to stop responding to its schedules and relax. (So it ends up I only take a vacation every five years or so when I have enough money to go on vacation for that long.)

But I also think there’s something in the culture that’s ready to blow. Part of last night’s sleeplessness–maybe a better word would be “forced waking”–felt so much like the midnights in which my father would come home drunk, and I’d get up and sit in the dark at the top of the front stairs and wait for the inevitable battle that would start between him and my mother. I felt it was my duty to intervene. Because it was, after awhile. They never stopped on their own. I have deep resentment around that–that they couldn’t stop themselves. That they wouldn’t. Didn’t. Not even just to spare me from having to come down and yell, Stop It! I shouldn’t have had to do it at all.

I feel that way about most governments these days. Things feel ungoverned. Nothing is getting done. The needs of the people are ignored while political parties or sects or lobbying groups go on playing petty political brinksmanship.

In such a situation, I do what I think a number of people do: I create a very heavily governed self. I burrow down. I shrink the things I’m responsible for and to to a bare minimum. I don’t go out unless there’s a compelling reason. I stay home and pet the dog until the war is over. I hope the side that most thinks and feels like I do wins. I try to give where a real emergency appears. I click on petitions that reach into the millions but which are dead on arrival, the real decisions made long before the formal announcements. I don’t go to big protests because the simple shouted slogans of demands seem as lifeless as the conditions they’re in protest against. Of course there should be justice, I end up thinking. Of course there should be fairer wages, especially in light of huge corporate profits. Of course tyrants should step down, stop killing, and so on.

I know the answers to this sadness: do what you can. Give where you can. Love, volunteer, donate, listen, write, and so on the best you can. Help the fantastic students I get to teach to become more conscious of their choices, abilities, strengths. Listen to the occasional lost or confused friend or stranger at the office or the coffeehouse. If those at the top of the food chain have grown so isolated, work from the bottom up.

Last night the answers weren’t enough. There was literally nothing to do but stay awake. And in the morning try to write about it.

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