Sleeping In Snowbanks

by Jeff Oaks

Snow has been falling all day today, a slight confectionary kind of snow that looks like it couldn’t amount to anything but has become inches already. I’ve come to the coffeehouse to escape the cabin fever that was beginning to burn in me. For the past couple of weeks either I’ve been sick or the dog’s been sick or we’ve had arctic cold the likes of which even the dog who likes snow and winter generally will only go so far out into it. Once number 1 and 2 are accomplished, number 3 is to get the hell back to the car as fast as possible.

Fortunately, the house has survived the terrible effects of the ultra-cold air. Friends have reported frozen pipes, cracked windows, electrical outages, furnaces collapsing finally from trying to keep their houses warm. We’re all feeling anxious about the shelter we ordinarily don’t have to worry about. All I’ve wanted to do is sleep, which is my general initial defense against anxiety. I’m one of those people who would fall asleep in the jaws of the lion. If I just sleep through this, it will be better soon…

But weeks of that kind of activity begins to re-tune my body to just stay asleep, to do as little as possible. Because I wrote a lot last year, I told myself that I’d take January off, using it to assemble and organize what’s already been written. I said I’d try to rewrite a couple of longer poems I need to concentrate on. I’ve done a little bit of it, but no where near enough. When I sit down in front of the folder that has the poems I need to work on, poems with helpful notes by friends of mine, notes that should make the whole process fairly easy, all I want to do is put my head down and surrender.

This is where the intention group I’m in helps tremendously. I know I have to see them tomorrow and report in, and that’s at least one of the reasons why I’m writing this post. Without them I wouldn’t have even opened up the computer. I need to go to the gym or, as I claimed I was going to do weeks ago, buy or go pick up an elliptical that I can have at home. I know that doing 30 minutes on an elliptical will make me feel better, will change the chemical balances in me toward optimism. But getting over the first threshold, committing myself to the first gesture, is so hard sometimes.

Which is why I love lists. They help articulate the actual work I need to do, help me organize them by priority, which might be deadline or might be need. My mother always told me to do the worst thing first, but in fact I’m doing the easiest thing first in this case: writing this post. Now that I’ve written my first hundred, I can write 500 words of prose pretty easily. And it’s a blog, the threshold of excellence is low enough that I don’t fear the work. Sometimes that’s the only way I can begin to clean the house when it feels cluttered, disorganized, dirty. I can, I say to myself, at least resolve those books on the dining room table. Soon, I’m filing or throwing out the scattered mail I put down and simply never picked up. Then I realize that the dining room table could use a dusting and I bring out the dusting micro-cloths I bought last month or the lemony Pledge wipes. As long as I’m doing the table, I might as well do the bookshelves, the coffee tables, the hallway table, the tv. Pretty soon the vacuum comes out. Pretty soon I’m folding laundry or cleaning the stove or washing the doggy blankets from the couch. The house begins to feel like a home again. I always wonder at the end of it why I thought it would take all day. It takes about two hours tops.

Just like writing, or composing at least. I start out with an easy gesture: talking about the snow that’s falling. I only have to describe, narrate, relate. Pretty soon that begins to link to other things, building a story, a set of questions, a rhythm or current that moves me along. By the end of an hour, I can say to myself that I did this at least, the blog post I told my intention group I’d write.

The rest I promised to do–write at least 10 pages toward an essay I’m working on about the year I turned 27, which was a pivotal year for me–I might not get done. I’m looking back at my journals from that year and have been frankly stunned by how crazy a year it was. It was the first year out of grad school. My first real relationship broke up, my first chapbook was published, I won my first grant, I was teaching in at least five different places to make money, I had to move, I experienced a crippling psychosomatic condition. I slept around a lot, breaking hearts and having mine broken. I read a lot of mystics. I complained a lot and anguished endlessly over what I wanted and whether I would make something of myself, be someone. The trick for this essay is, I think, waiting for that first gesture to occur to me, the sentence that might provide a kind of ladder down into the water, to use a metaphor from Adrienne Rich’s Diving into the Wreck. The trick is knowing that there’s something down there to explore. She doesn’t say how she decided to anchor where she did. That’s the first gesture I’d think, finding “the book of myths”. There had to be some sort of map that suggested where a wreck might be. Maybe it all starts merely with the feeling that

we are the half-destroyed instruments
that once held to a course
the water-eaten log
the fouled compass

Which is a bit how I feel inside these last days of January and how I feel for almost all of February: water-eaten, fouled. How not to let oneself drown? Find what will float until you can stop panicking. Even a small thing can work.