The Details

by Jeff Oaks

Before I go to Scotland to teach this June, there are a thousand, or what feel like a thousand, details waking me up, despite the power of the new bed to keep me asleep. I don’t honestly know how writers with families and pets and citizen-duties manage to get on planes all the time. I suppose many of them have partners, wives, husbands, agents, and secretaries running interference. Or they make a lot more money than I do, which allows them to not worry about every little thing. Going away is a delight, please don’t get me wrong, and I am really excited by the prospect of a whole month in Edinburgh teaching writing, but it is a lot of planning as well. It’s amazing how full my head is with voices. Since M will be home, one of them assures me, the details about the house are taken care of. But since he’ll be working and going to summer classes, another voice whispers, he won’t have time to take care of Andy really. Which is why, says the first, we’ve figured out who will take care of the dog and for how long. Naturally, says another voice, this one nearly secretarial with adverbial phrases, all this requires he gets his annual physical a bit early. Then, of course, the car needs to be inspected. (When I come back, says another long-term planning voice, we’re going to have to get the furnace and water heater replaced, but don’t worry about that now.)

Another part of me (the teacher-performer) is already worried about the details of the classroom I’ll teach in, because it’s of course the little things that will matter in a classroom: Am I using a board and chalk (my favorite), or a white board and markers (I’ll deal with it, but those markers dry out and die quickly), or a smart-board or some kind that I’ll need some practice time with)? Is it a room with movable chairs, fixed desks, windows? Is it air-conditioned? (Will I sweat (because that means one kind of shirt over another kind)?). I know that there’s a 20 minute walk from where I’ll be living to the classroom, which is actually great. (I’m not at all worried about the place where I’m living, by the way, because I know I can adjust myself to anything, I being only a kind of glue that holds all the other voices together.)

The thing is, nothing bad will happen. There is a great, speechless part of me who knows this. And as soon as I write that, I hear a nervous assistant in me correct: “Nothing bad will probably happen.” Grrr, says the impatient dog in me. I usually blame the fracturing of my self on having had parents raised during the Great Depression, who on both sides survived it successfully but carried with them a fear that apocalyptic collapse was always imminent; for them, always being on guard was a necessary feature of life. I still expect every year to be fired from my job, a job I’m pretty good at and which I get plenty of praise for doing. And yet still, some part of me expects the next class I teach to be the one where I forget what to do, forget how to speak, forget how to be calm when students ask the questions they must, how to handle a complicated answer.

When you’re at a red light and full of anxiety for it to turn, writes Thich Nhat Hahn, what if you thought of that light as an opportunity to catch your breath? To be in the here and the now. Even to enjoy a moment of peace instead of panic. I know if I simply breathe and remind myself that I’ve taught and/or been an administrator for the last 28 years, have won teaching awards, mentored several young teachers, that everything will move out of that paralytic fear, which is really what it is: a fear of paralysis.

As I reread all this, all that anxiety seems ridiculous. Written down, I can see what’s a real problem and what isn’t. I take a breath and make a phone call and now have an appointment to have the car inspected. I know that the people who are going to take care of Andy love him almost as much as I do and will not let him come to harm. I will call the vet today and get an appointment for Andy’s shots and tests. In fact, I’m going to dare myself to do it now. Excuse me…

And now that’s done. See, I say to myself/myselves, that was easy. Of course one of them snarls, Why didn’t I do that last week? (Sigh. Self-laceration is just as happy beating you up for things you haven’t yet done as it is for the things you could’ve done in the past.)

So now what, I ask my skin, my nerves, the electrical storms in my gut and brain. Money’s moved over into M and my joint account so he can deal with any expenses that come up while I’m gone. He’s smart and can handle any difficulty, so it’s not him. I can leave him some blank checks for emergencies. Or my credit card information. What else is there to be afraid of?

Well, anxiety says, you haven’t received the travel confirmation you sent an email about this morning. What if you’re not really booked on the flight you’re supposed to be on? A crowd behind him cheers him on, What if? What if?

Sigh. I know that if worst comes to worst, I could walk out of my house with my wallet, my passport, and maybe two phones, I could make it all work. I have that much amazing privilege, that much credit, enough money in the bank, that much memory and ingenuity in my head. I could go into a bookstore in Edinburgh and find enough work in a couple of books to run a month of classes; there’s more than enough great work on the internet, which Edinburgh is connected to. I know that also to be true.

So, again, where’s the panic? Where’s the danger? I’ve slipped into a terrible habit of comfort, I think. I’ve been able to set up for myself a very stable life, with a house, a husband, a good dog, great friends, a terrific job. Have I convinced myself that if I left my comfortable life, it would all unravel in a second? No, I say to that nervous self, that’s just a fear you have. Let’s just sit here and breathe a minute. Let’s remember what it feels like to take off in an airplane again. The energy and lift of adventure.