by Jeff Oaks
I joke with people that I call February Suicide Month. It is the cruelest month, if you’re in Pittsburgh. This February has been the worst I remember in a long time. Unremittingly cold. Icy. You trudge into and through it. You wrap yourself up in a million layers. You have to do enormous amounts of laundry therefore. You have to shovel and, worse, scrape to go anywhere. If you teach, you also have to watch the bright faces of your students grow dull. They live in places with even less insulation or dependable heating than you do. They have fewer clothes to layer themselves. They have to wait for busses which are packed and full of other stressed people complaining or growing dull with anger. I found myself cursing The Cold as if it were, like God, a tangible, affect-able thing.
I don’t want to write a goddamned thing. I want to stay in bed and read what others have written, preferably fantasy, preferably magical, preferably long. I want to, like the characters in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, walk into a mirror and travel somewhere else. I think at this point, if the White Witch drove up in her sleigh, I would get in just to have something to do. Or maybe I’m already living in her castle where one never gets warm or comfortable.
One of the pleasures, on the other hand, of being this cranky is that it might free me to say certain things. I remember a long time ago reading Thomas Moore’s Care of the Soul, which suggested that depression offered one many opportunities–including the ability to grasp certain truths that otherwise can’t be glimpsed. (He wasn’t talking about deep clinical depression but the kind of normal depression one sinks into occasionally and sometimes finds it hard to escape simply by “being positive” or “smiling more” or “praying”.) It corresponds to a meditation class I sat in on in Burma in which the teacher encouraged us to move our awareness into those parts of our bodies that were beginning to strain or feel sore or become restless. I remember getting up from that hour of sitting feeling much, much better than before I sat down.
The truth then might be that is I like being cranky sometimes. I spend a lot of my time being nice to people, which usually I don’t mind but sometimes is a strain. I both fear and love the icy ferocities February stokes. I fear for those close to me who might get caught in any blast. I don’t want to lose my reputation for being a nice guy. But I also love the feeling of ruthlessness, a word I heard Sharon Olds talk about as an essential part of any writer’s psyche. It doesn’t mean being mean to others, but being tough on yourself, being able to “murder your darlings” in order to arrive at something better than darling, maybe something daring.
I feel like the caged panther in Rilke’s famous poem:
His vision, from the constantly passing bars,
has grown so weary that it cannot hold
anything else. It seems to him there are
a thousand bars; and behind the bars, no world.
As he paces in cramped circles, over and over,
the movement of his powerful soft strides
is like a ritual dance around a center
in which a mighty will stands paralyzed.
Only at times, the curtain of the pupils
lifts, quietly–. An image enters in,
rushes down through the tensed, arrested muscles,
plunges into the heart and is gone.
If this is you too, here’s your writing assignment: Imagine unlocking the cage. What are the bars wearying your vision? Write them down. Or: it might be a good time to begin those revisions you’ve been putting off.