Maintenance: some notes

by Jeff Oaks

So, I’ve locked myself out of the house. Luckily I now have this person called a husband to call, who has a set of keys to the house and who will come home at five from work. Also lucky, I didn’t forget my wallet, so I could walk over to a coffeehouse nearby to wait out the time. Why not write a new blog post? I’ve been meaning to write something anyway but just never seemed to find the time to sit down. It’s been a busy fall.

At the moment, the new responsibilities I’ve taken this term as Acting Director have swallowed up the kind of free and open time I’m used to having. At first, being a Director seemed easy, almost a joke. I normally teach three classes a term, but as Director I teach only one. ONLY ONE! I thought. What will I do with all the free time? For most of September, in fact, there was little to do but attend a few meetings, speak authoritatively in a few public spaces.

Then the requests began to rise–for letters of recommendation, for teaching observation letters from colleagues, for meetings to talk about curriculum issues, about class proposals, about recruitment efforts, about preparing for a visit by the new Chancellor. Then there’s the scheduling and scheduling and scheduling one needs to do, of the tenure stream faculty, the nontenured stream faculty, the graduate students, each group with particular needs, rules, deadlines, expectations, traditions. It has helped enormously to have been trained as a poet; scheduling feels much like putting a sestina together. But at this point, it feels like I’m trying to write at least ten sestinas simultaneously.

So, I’m thinking today about the work of maintenance. A large part of the Director’s job is to keep the many threads of a program moving along, which means of course knowing about the many threads, which is itself exhausting in a large program like ours, which has undergraduate activities, graduate activities, committee activities, and faculty who are working on a wide variety of projects. You have to learn to trust and delegate, encourage some people to take risks, encourage others to restrain themselves, help yet others to articulate things they’d like to pursue. It’s a lot of listening to others’ ideas, hopes and fears. When I go home at night, I have to sit a while and let the voices of other people stop swirling around in my head. Video games have been surprisingly useful.

At first it didn’t seem too much to take home, but lately I’ve noticed how much of my own life has been put aside. I haven’t been to the gym for about two months. I need to take the car for an oil change. My hair’s gotten long. The house has become cluttered again. The laundry remains in the laundry bag, unfolded, picked through every morning instead of actually put away.

Of course, that might just be how the middle of the term always is, and I’m just not remembering it. The middle of the term is usually when it feels like everything is falling apart, when I begin to suspect that I haven’t taught anybody anything. Maybe it’s easier to blame this new responsibility I have for this feeling that my feet aren’t exactly touching the ground anymore. I don’t know. New things always suck up a lot of energy, I suppose, because we don’t know if we’ll succeed or what success even looks like. Maybe what would be helpful to do instead of feel anxious would be to think about what would count as success? What’s been accomplished so far? What needs to happen still?

I am glad to say that the prose book I’ve been working on is coming together. I am managing to give it time and space, which means revising these days rather than writing anything new. What helps is to work early in the morning on writing, give up the afternoon to teaching and administrative work, and then give the evening to the dog, the husband, and if there’s energy left, the house which is needing some repair work done.

This is, I need to remind myself, a full life. This is also, I should add, my first time having so much work entrusted to me.

I type that and wait for some feeling of happiness to flutter up, the dull ache in my back from typing this on a low coffee table ease up a little. Nope. I’m still tired. I do manage to sit up a little straighter so my vertebrae don’t have to hold up everything.

And when all else fails and I lock myself out of my own house, I can call my husband who will show up, tired from waiting on other people too, and unlock the front door, where the dog who has been expecting me back after all this time away, will begin whining with a mix of relief and happiness. I am not alone or responsible for everything, they remind me.

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