Jeff Oaks

The Writing Life, Writing Prompts, Essays on the Ordinary

Month: February, 2015

Reading in February

It’s been an awful, irritating month. Which is to say I have not held up well against the rigors of the bitter, bitter cold come down from Canada this month. Yesterday, I cancelled both my classes because I was so behind in my grading; I didn’t of course say that in my emails to the students. I said that it was too cold outside for me to ask them to come to class. There were wind chills here of negative ten degrees. The cold therefore was true but wasn’t the real wasp banging at the window of my consciousness. It was a terror that I would never get ahead of the work, that I was trapped in it, buried in an avalanche of work I myself had asked them to produce, work which seemed to be dull, trivial, light. This is writing, I wanted to scream in all caps on many of their prose poems. Where is the poetry??? Where are your souls, your curiosity, your bravery, your fears, your loves, your minds???

Instead, I cancelled classes. One student wrote to say she wished her other students were as considerate about the weather.

It hasn’t helped that I feel, have felt very distant from my own sources of bravery, curiosity, and depth. I haven’t been able to even open a book of poetry for the last few months. Everything I read seems pushy, desperate for attention. I’m not sure that that’s even the right adjective. There seemed to be a lot of good but not quite exciting work being published, a lot of work that seems earnest but also feels almost brutally careerist. Does that make sense? I’m sure I’m projecting all sorts of unresolved anxieties onto other people’s work. But there it is. Even some work that seems playful has a sense of a kind of brutal careerism about it. Do all these poems we’re writing really need to be written? Or are we stuck now in a culture of always having to be “on”, always writing something, always working on projects? I worry that I’m giving too many assignments and prompts these days and not waiting enough in silence for silence to speak. Am I making myself and my students afraid of silence, discomfort, boredom?

My source of word-solace these frigid days has been the English writer Ronald Blythe, whose book Word from Wormingford: A Parish Year I originally thought I might want to use in my Writer’s Journal class. It’s a book of brief essays about his life in a rural English village. The essays are, as you might imagine, full of small moments, lovingly described eccentrics, and the life of a calm and gentle lay clergyman. Because it seems so removed from me, although very close to an ideal self I somewhere still dream of, it has been an escape from the rankled administratively nervous self I live in at the moment. His deliberately clear sentences have been slowly calming my thinking. His references to the poets he loves–John Clare, George Herbert, Thomas Traherne–and his devotion to a life of reading generally have been comforting my nerves.

This morning I read his book Under a Broad Sky, another collection of his essays, and I felt something like the old Spring of myself rise up again. In one essay, which revolves around Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy, Blythe suggests that “If we are at all downcast, it is because we have ceased to love melancholy. There are those who drug themselves so that they can live on a high, and there are those who re-read wondrous books such as The Anatomy of Melancholy so that they can live on a low. Live richly, that is.” After criticizing some members of his own Anglican Church for not living up to the challenges of their calling, some of which might be uncomfortable and even hard, he writes

“Melancholic owls call all night across the river. Lying in bed at six in the morning, I listen to their cries. As did the early wakers in this same room, when Robert Burton was adding to his enchanting compendium. There is hard-to-reach dust on the beam above my head, and a trapped hornet beats against the window. I let it out into the owl universe.”

And there it is, the owl universe. Something in my consciousness settles strangely. Something I didn’t even know I had in me has been said.

Work, Of Course.

Everything is work, of course. It’s February and there are deadlines everywhere. Deadlines of deep personal embarrassment. Where people will stare if I don’t comment intelligently. I have files to read. I have to have opinions to form. I have to have suggestions to make. Otherwise, it looks like I’m not a real colleague. Or worse, not a real academic, someone who doesn’t really belong. It doesn’t help that I’m the only one without a PhD in the groups I’m in.

Most of the reason I’m doing it is simply political frankly. I don’t really care at a deep level. No one’s life is on the line with any of these decisions I need to make. The work is mostly an attempt to curry favor in order to get a better raise next year or to pay off an old debt in some way. Or to avoid a worse duty somewhere else.

I grumble and grunt. In general I never say no to jobs, but I finally said no to a request from some students who asked me to come and talk about “social consciousness” in a TEDX like forum they’ve created. One of the students is a current student of mine I like very much. I laughed nevertheless when I read they wanted me to talk about “social consciousness”. Me, who can’t apparently tell the difference between consciousness and social consciousness, and who absolutely abhors anything set up like a TED talk, with its slippery mix of Ronco sales pitch, Benny Hinn faith healing performance, and Oxford debate back-patting. What if, I wanted to write back to them, I just came over and talked about some poems I love? No technology, no entertainment, no design, just conversation.

But then I thought, it’s February. Outside my husband and the dog, I don’t feel I’m in love with anything this month. I’m on such a low flame. My old lifeboat, poetry, lately seems to be about anything but honesty. I can’t read much beyond a page of prose, maybe three pages if it’s good prose. If I don’t move much, some part of myself reasons, I won’t break the very delicate membrane that’s barely keeping me together. Just keep to the schedules you’ve made, that voice says, and everything will be fine.

As it probably will be. It helps to be fifty and have sailed these unsettled waters before. The work will get done. The meetings will be endured and put behind me. In a month, I’ll say to myself, What was I complaining about?

I think it’s Thomas Moore who says in the Care of the Soul that, instead of feeling bad about our inability to be “positive”, we might think of times like this as a visit from the god Saturn, and that we might think about the gift that this time brings: you’re able to see and feel many things without the usual distractions you might otherwise rely on. You might just consider that you need a change of some kind. You might stop making excuses or saying yes to everything because you’re afraid not to. Maybe it’s a time to throw things out. Maybe it’s fine to do the minimum required, to see what’s vital and nurturing and what’s merely official, what doesn’t require you to give your whole self over?

Yesterday, which was a glorious day of thaw, there was one bird singing. I didn’t look up to see where or what kind. I let that one small song stand for Spring. I let it hold up the world.

Noah Stetzer

noah.stetzer@gmail.com

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