Jeff Oaks

The Writing Life, Writing Prompts, Essays on the Ordinary

Month: January, 2015

The Silence After Christmas

I’ve noticed recently that many of my friends are losing their nouns. I thought it was only me. Our sentences get just so far and then collapse, or perhaps I mean lapse, into a misty silence, where a simple word used to stand.

Hold on, I need to close the…..

I’m so tired I can’t even read this …..

Where’s the dog’s …..

Hand me the ……

The only word available is “thing”, but no one one wants to use it for fear of sounding stupid or, worse, on the road to dementia. We’re exhausted. Losses of daylight. An excess of what anthropologists call kin work. The uncertainty of bank balances. A culture so suffused with political maneuvering that it all becomes unreliable. We’re all becoming sharks, unable to slow down, afraid of stalling. I’m too tired, I say, the exhaustion of the city-state on perpetual high alert. The language we’ve spent our lives learning, absorbing, deploying, dancing with, begins to flicker with doubt. There’s a moment when my friends and I stand there, waiting for the sentence to finish. When the word doesn’t appear, we throw up our hands and say Whatever.

My writing, my inner life, feels like it wants to stay in bed, sleep and dream. It’s tired of being so professional. It wants to grow hairy again, clawed maybe, hoarse. It needs to sleep with roots, in wells, listening to the dead, for volcanoes.

One bit of wisdom came to me from a friend who confessed recently that, in order to sleep, she and her girlfriend have begun coloring pictures from children’s coloring books about an hour before going to bed. It reminds me of Lynda Barry’s advice in her books to doodle as a way to relax the mind. Steady, simple action. The quiet burn of crayon wax on paper. The assurance of lines. January might be a month in which we need to return to simplicities again.

I’m glad to have been asked to talk about some of my essential books for his blog The Poet’s Grin. I’ve been thinking about my essential books, writers, art, music, food this month. It feels like a good time to do things like this. What if I just read one book this month, I think?

Two years ago, when my mother’s health was failing, I began writing a series of short prose pieces here in the blog in an effort to get in touch with some of the necessary elements in my life, in the spirit of Neruda’s great Elemental Odes. I needed to know what would sustain me in the absence of a mother. Most of the entries turned out to be nouns. Maybe this year I’ll try to think about necessary verbs.


Sentences 2

“When I leaned over the bed to wipe up the vomit, she put the end of the cane on my head and began rubbing my hair. She was smiling a crazy smile, her tongue hanging from her mouth like an animal’s. The gesture struck me as something an ape might do if you were sitting across from it trying to make it play nicely with blocks, a helpless molestation, a reaching out from behind the bars of a cage.”

Meghan Daum, from Matricide, in The Unspeakable

I couldn’t just write down one of those sentences for today. The first one sets up the facts of the situation–she’s caring for her mother who is unable to move now, who has soiled herself, and who must be cared for in a very intimate way. We expect, from our years of reading illness narratives, that the mother will do something dramatic, confess to something, reveal some truth, declare love maybe, and that that moment will ameliorate if not illuminate the sick of the scene. Instead, we get the cane placed on the caregiver’s head (instead of the hand), and then the rubbing of that cane. It’s a funny and anxious moment. Will the wooden cane strike suddenly? We don’t know, and the next sentence doesn’t relieve the problem but intensifies it by moving to the mother’s smile–which is crazy and then like an animal’s. The cane might indeed strike, with all the crazy strength of an animal.

And Daum is indeed struck, by metaphor, a deepening of the metaphor the second sentence started: it was something an ape might do, and then follows the dread pronoun it, which transforms the suffering mother into a something infantile that needs to be taught how to play nicely, like a child. Then comes the phrase that really struck me as a reader, a helpless molestation, a term which, because I realized I didn’t think could exist anymore, what with all the stories of sexual molestations in the news. The mother is unsexed, rendered helpless. The sentence could have ended there, but that would have put a lot of pressure on that complication word, molestation. Instead, Daum goes back to the animal metaphor with a zoo metaphor–the mother as an animal, as a child, as a trapped and helpless creature at the mercy of others. (I wonder how many younger readers might not recognize the zoo as a place of cages, as most of us over 40 undoubtedly will?)

What started as weird and funny and slightly dangerous ends in both empathy and sadness.

Sentences in the New Year: some practice reading

When kindness to the old is condescending, it is aware of itself as benignity while it exerts its power.
–Donald Hall, from “Out the Window” in Essays After Eighty

One of the practices I want to encourage this year is a practice I used to have of writing out lines or sentences from books I was reading. So as a simple beginning to the year and to encourage myself to read more thoughtfully than I did last year, I thought I’d spend the month of January writing out sentences I liked from the work of other writers. Maybe I’ll comment on the sentences or lines. Maybe I’ll just let them stand.

I picked up Donald Hall’s book yesterday. I’ve always loved Hall’s prose, the plain, solid force of his sentences. And I’ve always had a deep interest in people writing about illness, aging, and the process of dying, times when an individual’s interior spaces are often flooded with questions.

What struck me in this sentence is how it describes a kind of power we see in so many places–the infernal benignity of certain religious folks toward gay and lesbian people; the voice of certain Patrolmen’s Benevolent Union toward the questions being raised by people of color in their precincts; the smiling marketing teams listening to faculty at a recent “environmental scan” I participated in. Each group comes to the microphone with a rehearsed answer. Each group listens in a show of politeness, in an effort to reach out, to be open, but it’s not a dialogue that happens; its a debate they’ve already decided they’re the winners of.

I love the word benignity in this sentence too. It implies the very opposite of its literal meaning in this case, its Latinity conveying the clinical, inhuman element in the kindness, the teeth behind the smile.

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