December Notes–New Year Intentions

by Jeff Oaks

It’s been quite a while since my last post. December is a terrible month for me. I lose myself in all kinds of work–wrapping up classes, grading final folders, end-of-the-year meetings about scheduling and assessment and budgets, writing the next term’s syllabi. I think of this blog as something I do with my spare time, but this month I haven’t seemed to have all that much to spare. Lest anyone think that university work is somehow full of vacation time, let me assure you it’s not. Unless, maybe, you’re one of those teachers who always teaches the same five books and reads from the same set of notes. One of the problems (which I guess we’re supposed to call “challenges” now) of teaching creative writing is that the field is constantly growing and changing, so I feel like I have to keep teaching new books, which keeps me in turn always reading, not always for pleasure.

I’m also in the midst of a set of projects I’m trying to juggle. One, a book of poems called Walking the Black Dog in the Middle of the Night, is mostly finished I think. It’s a book about the last couple of years of my mother’s cancer diagnosis. I loved writing the poems because they gave me some small sense of being able to do something, to make something out of the anxiety and grief of her ordeal. With it mostly behind me, I’m hoping to work on a group of essays that should form a small book of autobiographical prose. I like books of prose that are around 150 pages, which means that about two thirds of it is done and has been published. It is in part elegiac (for my parents and one dog) and in part celebratory (for the ordinary elements that make life worth living after such death). I’ve charted out an order I’d like it to take, a shape I’d like the essays to form. Now I have to write the last third, which will include a long piece about my mother (which I’ve drafted but still feels (will it ever not feel so?) not right) and an essay I’d like to write about living alone with a dog. I’ll admit, since both of those essays involve the deaths of people and pets I’ve loved deeply, that I’ve been putting them off. I was hoping, I think, they’d insist a bit more on being written. Maybe they’re waiting for me to knock on their doors? Maybe they are both things I need to write in spring?

Along the way, I’ve been writing poems, every day some months. Lefthandedly. At 4 or 5 am in the morning. Recently a couple of poems made me think there’s something new bubbling up which I’ve been calling North. It’s a winter book, but not in the sense of the end of the world. I think it’s in fact about finding places to begin, maybe things that seem magnetic in the absence of my lost polarized parents. What survives and how? So I’m hoping to be able to keep quietly working on poems toward that. Maybe translating some Anglo-Saxon poems to learn a new sound. I don’t think of writing so much as projects in some academic way but as a way to keep myself thinking and feeling and seeing. Since I’m not bound by reputation or the tenure-track, I can follow my own interests.

Next year I’ll turn fifty. That is weird to me. I’ve got a house, a dog, friends, a good job, a retirement account, and thanks to my mother, a small nest egg/hedge against ruin. After decades of looking over my shoulder for catastrophe, something in me has begun to settle. Maybe I have a voice I can trust a little bit. Maybe this is my life. Now, what to say? What still needs to be done?

The other thing about December in Pittsburgh is that the temperature changes in unexpected ways. Yesterday it was in the sixties and today will be in the twenties. My sinuses shut down in response to this kind of change, and unless I catch them very early, I end up with a cold. I’ve got one now. The pressure in my head made my teeth ache this morning. It’s hard to write in that condition, unless I write about it, which can only sustain so much attention before it sounds ridiculous. I’m actually looking forward to the freeze again tonight, if only so I’ll have hard ground underfoot.