Habit

by Jeff Oaks

I sit, at the end of one of the longest month of the year, at my favorite coffeehouse. It’s the end of the month and so I’ve already made out the mortgage, water, and two credit card bills. The peel-and-stick postage stamps are of American songbirds. I’m plugged into my iPhone so I can listen to the Pretenders radio station that my Pandora app arranges for me.
I’ve already eaten a toasted bagel and bussed the plate it came on, wiped the table clear of crumbs. I’ve read about the incredible savagery being inflicted on Gazan civilians, and despaired for a humanity that seems unable to restrain itself in any way, and which seems helpless and in the grips of extremists, even and now especially small armed groups of them.

I do this almost every day, some semblance of this anyway: Walk the dog, take him to camp, come to the coffeehouse for two or three hours, go to the gym afterward, then into the office for a couple more, then pick up and walk the dog again, eat dinner, watch tv and talk about the day with Michael. I’m soothed by the routine of it. The confines of time and space together form a kind of pressure that relaxes my otherwise anxious mind enough that it can stop scanning the area for potential enemies and look over the interesting information–images, snippets of conversation, and the like. Usually I start with something simple, describing a thing I saw yesterday or this morning, or a news story or a dream image, or rehearsing a conversation I need to have with someone or had yesterday or need to have with myself about the course of my life. There’s always something there. If nothing else, I take William Stafford’s great prescription for overcoming Writer’s block and “lower my standards.” I describe another customer in the coffeehouse or what’s going on on the street beyond the big glass windows, or my hands.

My habit is to write from what I know and then to see where that takes me. I know I’m getting somewhere when metaphors begin to appear in my thinking. “The metaphors are a sign that the water is deep enough to carry your boat out to sea,” I said yesterday to my friend Elizabeth yesterday when she asked for advice about overcoming writer’s block. Metaphors break up (break through) my thinking, shattering it in new ways, casting it off into new directions. When I get to the metaphorical part of my thinking, it’s like (spoiler: more metaphors here) I’ve entered an airport, a train terminal, a place where my mind can try out new thoughts, make new connections, see in a new way. Feeling that sense of possibility open up around me is the best part of writing I think. Publishing, if it happens, is great but ultimately not the big thing I was sure it would be when I was a kid. I’m still the kid who prefers to pray alone in the woods and not to preach in public. Writing and reading are deeply private acts to me, although I am getting more comfortable publicizing work when it appears.

Tomorrow my habit shifts a bit. I’m writing a postcard poem a day to a total stranger. About ten lines every morning. Then I’ll walk the dog and so on like normal. I’ll also be writing a new personal essay I’ve been putting off. For that, I need a little more privacy than blogging allows. I’m going back to the sketch-book of my journal, whose function I’m finally understanding is very different than a blog space. The first part of that essay, by the way, I published here as Transitions. It will be the last section of a book-length manuscript I hope to have done next year. This morning I thought how happy I was to be done with this month’s blog-a-day regime. It has been fun but it was also becoming a bit of a chore. Thank you to everyone who suggested a word to write about. I’m sorry I didn’t get to them all. Maybe some of you might pick up the unused words and run with them yourselves.

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