Jeff Oaks

The Writing Life, Writing Prompts, Essays on the Ordinary

Month: June, 2015

Pitt In Edinburgh: a dictionary 

It’s finally raining in Edinburgh. We were warned it might be constantly raining or misty or precipitating in some way, but we’ve had wonderful weather, somewhere between 50 to 75 most days. Some days have been glorious sunny and bright, some have been more overcast, but this is really the first day of the kind of rain I was expecting. It’s almost a relief. We’ve also had two full days off from our schedule of museums, buildings, and trips. 

The students’ entries at the class blog have been building up, creating, I hope, a sense of how this trip is making them think differently, reconsider their expectations and stereotypes of The Scots, and challenge themselves to be braver. If you’re interested, click on Pitt In Edinburgh and you can read what they’ve been doing for the last few months.  This week and weekend, they’ll be writing and publishing an Edinburgh Dictionary–short pieces that revolve around an encounter that starts with a particular letter. 


Writing Prompt


It’s been a long week. Here are some of the highlights:

Trips to the National Museum of Scotland, to the Museum of Edinburgh, a climb up Arthur’s Seat and a visit to Holyrood Palace. We’ve learned to hop busses, developed a set of landmarks, grown more comfortable in the city. It does take time to make mistakes, try new things, not take one’s self so seriously. I’m finding myself chatting with one of the cashiers at the university cafeteria now. She’s a generous woman, quick to laugh, to put a stranger at ease. 

We’ve had so much to do beside teaching that I’ve let the blog go for a bit. I’ve been learning to use Notability for making comments, working with students on their pieces for our blog at After teaching, after the visits to museums and hikes around town, I’ve gone home exhausted. Sometimes after dinner, I have enough strength or willpower to make comments on student work. 

This weekend, we spent in Skye, at a beautiful hostel where we were the sole inhabitants. We saw some castles on Friday on our way to the hostel, toured the island of Skye, with its fairy pools and fairy glens and a variety of sights, most of which we couldn’t see because of clouds. This morning we went out with a fisherman for scallops, tasting fresh ones from the loch, then ones sautéed in garlic and olive oil. Then we headed to Loch Ness for a boat ride on that monstrously dark body of water, then a quick trip to Culloden and the Clava Cairns to appease some of the kids who are addicted to the show Outlander and hoped to touch a standing stone on the Summer Solstice and disappear into the past. Almost every place we’ve gone has had an entrance to the fairy world somewhere nearby. The students and we professors have all looked longingly into the cracks in stones, listened hard for the sound of fairy musics. 

I write this one road home, tired and happy and full of admiration for Scotland, largely because of our guide Nory, who has been driving us around and telling us wonderful stories about Scotland’s history. Cuihlain and (Ska ha? ) , the Old Man of Storr, billy McKrinnon(?), and the whole saga of the Scots from Robert da Bruce to Culloden. He tells the stories with passion and humor, and it’s been really lovely to be a listener. I’d like to really read the Celtic myths, which I haven’t really read since I was a child. Ossian, Seamus McCrae, fairies, kelpies, and the underground kingdoms. I’d forgotten the richness of the stories, how they knit the place together. In the end, although we’ve done some wonderful things, it’s been the stories that have been the country we traveled through. 

Everyone’s ready to get back to their comforts in Edinburgh, but we’ve also been changed by the stories and the histories, the ruins, the beautiful lochs, fishermen, musicians, shaggy cows, sunstars, fairy streams and black lakes. Each monster makes us more interesting. What mountains and forests will we carry back to our comfortable beds, our familiar haunts? Every education requires some space to dream in. We want to dream now. 

Identities: an alphabet

There’s an animal one I can’t quite shake and frankly love to feel steal over me sometimes when I’m out walking in the woods, bent over a stream turning over shale for salamanders. There’s still a boy identity who hates to be interrupted from his silences, who likes candy, who may kill me.  I want to say there’s a dog-self, although that would be taking on only the characteristics I like (greater awareness for example) without taking on the burden of the ones I don’t (less life) or can’t imagine, something Jamelle Bouie, in a Slate piece on the recent controversy surrounding Rachel Dolezal, points out and which has now gotten me thinking.  Sometimes an electrical self wakes me up in the middle of the night to look at the moon.  I often think I am female culturally, or do I only lean toward what seems stereotypically female–listening, waiting, being invisible until needed; I trust women so much more than men, having been raised by and saved by women primarily.  In terms of gender-identity, I have never had a strong biological or psychological urge to inhabit another gender than male, so I seem squarely cismale, a word autocorrect wanted to make “dismal”. H is for Hawk is a recent bestseller in which a woman projects onto a bird many things her own self seems unable to maneuver otherwise. What part of the self is hard-wired, is impossible to hide or hood? The homosexual in me knew itself early, I would say.  I, I, I, the mind goes on thinking, as if the self were a vertical stick instead of a dammed stream. A number of people in my neighborhood call me by my dog’s name, and often I feel surprised that my name is legally Jeffrey, but there I am, it is. I have killed innumerable ants, wasps, spiders, centipedes, slugs and some part of myself was glad for it. There is a self who–how can I say this?–enjoys lying. Sometimes I feel the urge to say, “Once, a man did a terrible thing to me.” Or to whisper, “I am not who you think I am.” That self gets so tired of people interrupting or not paying attention; it is hard to nothing to speak of, to be a lacuna. At the same time there’s a firmly middle class self that reminds me of that dream of a safe and liberating retirement everyone around me growing up imagined as the greatest good. Is there a night-self, out of which the vampire is the introvert’s form and the werewolf is the extrovert’s? What about the self who climbed trees because my last name suggests we might have come out of them once?  There’s the poetic self (And is that the same as an identity?) who pesters and delights me with jokes, whispers, incantations for turning one thing into another. I think of most of my selves as queer at the core, even if I don’t dance quite as freely in public anymore. My racial identity is Caucasian, and so hard to hold and see, it being more often called White and hard to tell from the rational, the normal, the insufferably right. Do I have a spiritual self anymore? Not a religious one for sure. I prefer the Buddhist and Taoist and not the rule-bound desert apocalyptics. I prefer Alice Walker’s version of church in The Color Purple, as a place where everyone brings their God, not where reports to one who is Only. There’s a teacherly self who brings home the bacon, who has paid for the car, a house, impossibly it sometimes seems out of a mixture of listening and talking to strangers about words. Some days I forget myself in him. Who am I. Who do the students imagine I am? I mostly love my (is it even my?) unconscious self that often leaves me presents in journals, in scraps of paper I find days later, in dreams where men who are shadows, shadowy, dark, often appear. Of my violences, I must admit there have been some, a self who has surprised and ashamed me at least five times, rising as suddenly through some depth as a shark to attack. I fear him. My writerly self is more professional, a careerist bastard sometimes who mopes about rejections and can’t wait to publish acceptances, who fumes and envies, throws money away on contests whose winners he hates, who is waiting for all the work to pay off with what? What will be enough? Once on a bus in England, eighteen, surrounded by brown faces in that country where I had not expected to be different, I was choked with fear; I had to get off immediately, walking the rest of the way to my destination. What else but a half-conscious xenophobic self?  There’s a self who just yawned at that, bored and ready to sneak away, unable to stay awake when threatened or cornered. There is also that self I call Zero, who is always awake, who keeps one eye always on the nothing to come, who keeps count, who throws dice, calculates odds, whose breathing I hear even at parties, like the filming of ice. 


“…the most interesting travel has nothing to do with cruise lines and restaurants. It involves entry into worlds other than your own. You don’t have to go very far to do that,” says Adam Hochschild in his essay “Travel Writing.”

I’ve gone pretty far, though. I’m at present sitting in a Costa Coffee off Princes Street waiting for Waterstones to open so I can look at who’s who among the Scottish writers. Or maybe I mean, I can get a sense of what’s up with them. I’ve got a few writers to look for already–Kathleen Jaime whose essays I want more of, James Robertson’s book 365, which is a collection of short stories he wrote, one a day for a year, that mix myths, tales, history, and the present (or so I’ve been told), and a book I’ve forgotten the name of but have been seeing all over town lately–its cover has a woman and a bear afloat in a round boat. 

I’m drinking a chai latte, which I accepted although I’d ordered a caffe latte. My voice is still thin here, small, nervous, afraid of mistakes. I’m grateful to get the chai, since I like it just as well. Outside, it may or may not rain. Big gray Scottish clouds have been curdled the horizon that yesterday was pure blue. The threat of rain makes me want to stay in and sleep, but I did that a bit yesterday to burn out the last vestiges of jet lag and the work of the first week of classes and hikes through the city. There are things to see.

I am glad to say I now have one circle of Edinburgh geography in my head. If I leave the apartment and turn left and keep walking a bit, I run into the main shopping district, Princes Street, and if I turn right after the Walter Scott Memorial, I can be in Old Town and the Royal Mile (which our great guide for The Book Lover’s Tour, Allan Foster, referred to as the Tartan Ghetto), and which if I turn here or there leads me to a number of useful stores and cafes, and off of which there’s a right turn that takes me to the University of Edinburgh grounds with its bookstores and green spaces. Another turn takes me almost directly back to the apartment. As if I’ve made a journey around the world. Really, it’s a circle of comforts. 

Part of the work I’m trying to get students to do is to push out from what’s comfortable to write about and think about. This past week, we’ve worked on the uses of description, making self-inventories, and practicing associative thinking. They’ve all been writing both consciously and unconsciously about places where a thing or place opens up a world of possibilities. No doubt this is due to all the fantasies they’ve read or seen–Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, The Lion, Witch, and Wardrobe, Outlanders, Highlander, James Bond–which haunt this city. Some of them have been surprised at the things that have appeared as they wrote.

I don’t believe in the idea that art must always shock or disturb. There are arts that return us to ourselves in ways not necessarily conservative or nostalgic. There are arts that can re sharpen us when we’ve grown dull from a lack of challenge. The shock might be how far away we’ve grown from our original goals, I suppose. Not all art needs to outrage or court controversy to be powerful. One student wrote about a fern growing, as many plants do here, in a crack in a concrete wall. He leaned into that small plant’s struggle to survive and smelled an enormous forest. 

On Being Foreign


I could have taken the familiar path, but this morning, taking Sven Birkerts’ lead in his book of personal essays about walking, The Other Walk, I turned left instead of right. I had an interest in finding the path down to the canal where I’d seen a canal boat cruising on our first day here. It was also, I said to myself as if I needed any further justification, a quicker way for me to get to the dorms where our students were staying. It was filled with moored canal boats, each painted in bright colors, with mysterious names. I wonder if I may have lived on one in of my other lives I may have lived on one I have such an attraction. A couple were out sitting, drinking coffee, on the deck of their canal when I walked by; I wanted to stop and ask them questions but chickened out. The day was blue above us, the water soothing, and I didn’t want to interrupt their peace. I imagine they must have to fend off jealous land lubbers’ questions all the time.


I was joking in class that suddenly yesterday, while I was walking around, I was seized by a confusion: where do my hands go when I walk here? It didn’t feel right in my pockets or did it feel natural to just let them swing free as I walked. I started looking around to see what men in this culture do. I also realized that at home, I never do this, never look at where the hands go. It’s these kinds of shocks that we can make use of as starting points for inquiry, I told the students. I read them Cynthia Ozick’s “The Shock of Teapots”. We talked about light, doorknobs, coins, and many other things. 


We wrote lists our first class. I started with Kimiko Hahn’s piece “Firsts in No Particular Order,” and made our own lists of first times, which could be anything: first words, first disillusionments, and even first sexual experiences and how Hahn implies rather than bares everything. Only the word “rug burn” gives it away. Something about finesse, the way a word or face or flash of lightning can deepen everything you thought you knew.


The young man who took my order at Starbucks, where I sit now, is outside waiting off the tables, which are black and already growing hot in the sunlight. He sprays them and then wipes quickly. Immediately, steam rises off of them. No one else notices it, but I do. Would I have noticed such a thing at home? Would I have stared at it until it disappeared, been so surprised at first and, then, more deeply, fascinated? 

Edinburgh: eating and exhausted

1. I have now tried haggis, black sausage, and crannachan. 

2. Of course I was so exhausted that I forgot to bring my camera, so there are no photos. You’ll have to take my word for it.

3. The feared haggis came to me as deep fried, with a honey and chili sauce, and it was good. Now, I can drop another fear. 

4. We ate at the Royal MacGregor in Old Town, which is the oldest part of the city, cobbled streets, bagpipes, cashmere and tartan stores everywhere.

5. The black sausage came with the pork and it was good, too, darkly rich with the taste of liver maybe. 

6. Both haggis and the sausage are the result of grinding lesser loved meats with grains like oatmeal and spices. It was crumbly, I’d say, rather than muscly, not for me a dish on its own but it added an interesting layer of texture to the pork.

7. I was so tired I forgot my camera. Around me, the students were taking pictures they were posting to their friends. The whole dinner was a present our guides Rebecca and Rachel, who moved our time-stunned bodies and minds through the first difficult day.

8. To say I felt like ground meat mixed with oatmeal would not be a lie. 

9. How many days had I been awake, I kept wondering? I’d woke up on one continent at eight am, gotten on an airplane at 5 pm, watched two movies in the cramped dark of a United Airlines cabin–Jupiter Ascending and Guardians of the Galaxy–, eaten dinner ther, fallen asleep maybe for an hour until one of my fellow passengers opened up his window shade in what should have been my deep night. Huge sunlight surged into the space. My brain twitched back on and has stayed on for good until about 9:30 tonight, when I slept. Two hours later I woke up, read the Internet, and decided I’d better write about the day or days I’ve traveled through. 

10. Tomorrow we begin teaching. I was luckily awake enough to snap two photos of the view out the windows of our classroom at Edinburgh Napier University. 


11. The landscape around us is beautiful. The city is old, stone, and green. The streets wind like intestines. I want less to teach than to set the students loose and tell them to come back with stories, images, mysteries, words we can write about. My class’s project is going to be to start an Edinburgh Dictionary of sorts.
12. The weather was blustery but warm, the sunshine steady and strong. We walked and walked from the really beautiful student housing to the classrooms, to the apartment where Mark and I unpacked at last. My feet hurt. I stunk with the nervous and excited perspiration of how many days of travel?

13. Just before dinner tonight, I ran into a Superdrug drugstore for razors and deodorant and toothpaste and completely forgot to buy shampoo. I half expected to speak another language for all the miles I travelled, but no, the cashier was perfectly understandable. She took the money I gave her. She gave me change back, which I threw into my pocket to look at later like mysterious stones plucked out of a stream. 

14. I forgot to mention the crannachan, which was dessert. Raspberries, whipped cream, oatmeal, honey, whisky, what’s not to like? I needed up eating two because one of the students was as excited by it as I was and gave me his. Here’s a recipe: crannachan. This time I didn’t get the Sticky Toffee Pudding, but next time I definitely will.

15. Tomorrow I intend to take more photos. It’s just that I hardly know what to look at next. I’m still trying to remember to look right for traffic. 

Disaster: of course

Andy, my great, smart, handsome Labrador Retriever mix, has developed a strange lump/bump. I found it yesterday and have been panicking ever since, sometimes in my normal frozen kind of way, sometimes in an anger-weepy kind of mode. Several times this morning I found myself completely stopped, staring at nothing, lost in imagined horror and sadness. Tomorrow I leave for Scotland for six weeks, and although I was looking forward to that, now I’m going to be worrying about my big-hearted goofball’s health. If something happens, it will be in other people’s hands–my husband, the camp where he’ll be boarding, our friends, the vet. Even though I know they all live and adore him, would never let anything happen to him, the fact that I can’t call the shots is unravelling me. 

We went to the vet’s yesterday, where it was checked out. It didn’t seem to be a simple fat cyst, which labradors get all the time. Something felt odd to the vet tech, so we waited for the vet to have a clear moment. She thinks it’s probably nothing, but just in case, drew some fluid, made some slides, and sent them off to be read. It might be something, she admitted, although I don’t think so. I’m just waiting now, writing while I wait, using sentences as a way of distracting my perpetually apocalyptic mind from going there, into the cancer-euthanasia rooms where we all end up suffering. Personally, it seems like a reaction to a spider bite or something, because it rose so quickly and such an unlikely place. We couldn’t find any bite marks or punctures when they shaved the area, but the woman who has known Andy the longest at his daycare says she’s seen some odd cases of reactions. She wants me not to worry. I wish I could avoid it.

I think all the time of disaster. I spend so much of my time in dystopic futures that it’s ridiculous really. Thankfully, mindfulness practice can short-circuit my spending too much time there. Take a breath, the training goes. Where are you? It asks. Be here and not elsewhere. Keep breathing. Deepen the next one. Write down the fears if that will help, so they can be elsewhere than in your body, so if you need them, you can be sure to find them. Let them be there until then. Count out ten long breaths. 

I have such a tangled relationship to disaster. On one hand, being able to imagine the worst has been a great asset to me as a teacher, administrator, sometimes personally. Imagining the worst gets me to work when I don’t want to or don’t feel like it, for instance. But at some point, imagining the worst can quietly or suddenly change from imagining to predicting, to presuming the worst, and that’s where so much trouble happens for me. Part of the usefulness of learning to breathe, to return my mind to where I am, the here and now, is that I can pull my imagination back a bit. I’m presuming without any evidence, I can say to myself. You’re already picturing your good dog as dead before you know whether he’s got a cyst, an allergy, or something more troublesome. Even if it is something bad, plenty of dogs have survived bad things. 

It’s a way of getting your mind back, with all its creative resources, all its alternative narratives, its fullness in other words. 

I’m always thinking about is how the imagination gets compressed, constrained, narrowed by the world. In the most recent instance, some of my neighbors started asking questions about a proposed big apartment complex going up near us. It had some blatantly ridiculous features to it, we thought, some real lacunae in its projections: it imagined a high number of “units” but then apparently didn’t think there was any need for an equal number of parking places, which means more cars in our already tight streets; it didn’t imagine how all the new sewage or traffic would impact the nearby neighbors’ lives or the structures already in place; it didn’t imagine how it might disrupt even “just” at an architectural level, the light and sound of other people’s lives. Many of us think we should get a say in those things, but of course other people thought that was inane. A few people kept saying, “well, it’s better than what we have now, which is a huge abandoned factory and a large abandoned field”. 

It’s that lack of imagination that felt so maddening and sad to me, as if those people didn’t or couldn’t summon up the alternatives to either saying yes or no. It always frankly seems sad to me that people can’t see that that abandoned field is anything but an emptiness, which is always in the capitalist imagination a problem to be filled in and built upon as soon as possible. There are few enough places where the green world exists in our neighborhood, and I always hoped to see a park there. In the meantime, it’s full of birds and wild flowers, cats and other animals as well. My imagination gets far more energized by watching the life of weeds and insects and wild birds than by yet another set of boxed humans, even as I imagine what will likely happen is that I’ll make friends with some of those apartment dwellers.  The city of course is only imagining more taxes, as have most of the neighborhood groups who imagine more members. Both seem to be supporting the new “development”. Neither imagines very well that they both will have demands made of them by those groups which may change them in radical ways. 

Disaster is of course what each group imagines will happen if the other’s demands win out, sadly. This same either/or thinking plays out in the media, in national and international politics. Any criticism becomes a complete denial of the police or Israel or marriage or whatever. Any slight becomes an outrage designed to silence any questioning. We steel ourselves against what comes to feel like an inevitable explosion of outrage if we want to ask a question or if we want to reframe an argument. We either stop engaging altogether or become more and more like steel until we become, if we’re not careful, the robots or zombies we love to watch destroy the world.

Imagine if we catch ourselves mindlessly staring, if we drop all that armor, take deep breaths. Come back to the here and the now, the evidence. Not everything has to be imagined as ruined.

Maybe it’s just a spider bite. Wait for the call. 

Books: Some Confessions

I am a slow reader. I’m also an impatient one. I will buy a book based on a table of contents and then never read it. The Table of Contents was all I wanted. It was all I needed, a list of titles to steal, a list of words to use, a set of plot points.

I collect and assemble books the way that reliquarist finds and enshrines pieces of the true cross, shrouds of saints, knucklebones of prophets, teeth of bodhisattvas. Less, in other words, for whether they are authentic or not. More to keep myself from feeling too comfortable. Through the bones to hear the god’s whisper.

In fact, I hate to read sometimes. Sometimes for years, it feels as if reading is the mental equivalent of eating my vegetables. I do it out of necessity, to keep my job, to keep my friends.

Most of the time, I can’t abide fiction as Fiction, as a made up story, as an entertainment. I read to learn things first, to disappear second, to appreciate artistry third. To congratulate someone for merely writing something down does not appear on the map. Most of the time I can’t abide poetry as Poetry.

When I say I’m an impatient reader, what I mean to say is I think I might at any moment die. I’d prefer not to be irritated by a complex family tree or a torturous plot while I’m gasping for my last breath.

To really read one great book a year is enough. It took me two years to recover from Anna Karenina. I don’t enter into those relationships lightly.

I don’t need an axe to break up the frozen sea within me. I need a ship, a submarine, a whale’s belly, a magic shell to take me from shore to shore. Or, in the case of poetry, a spell to walk on water, to swim at great speeds, to change weight for wings.

Books: a Challenge

Books summer 15

What else to do in the summer but read, remember that? We were so bored we read. We read until we were caught up and couldn’t help but want to ride again the mysterious rollercoasters inside letters, typing, paper.

So my version of Oliver de la Paz’s Summer Reading Challenge is inflected by the upcoming Scotland trip.

1. Leslie Jameson’s The Empathy Exams

2. How the Scots Invented the Modern World by Arthur Herman

3. Edgelands by by Michael Symmons Roberts and Paul Farley

4. The Other Walk by Sven Birkerts

5. Sightlines by Kathleen Jaime

6. The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson

7. Satin Island by Tom McCarthy

8. The Beauty by Jane Hirschfield

9. Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane

10. The Pen and the Bell by Brenda Miller and Holly Hughes

11. The New Testament by Jericho Brown

12. King Me by Roger Reeves

13. No One’s Rose by Paul Celan translated by David Young

14. On Immunity by Eula Biss

15. (not pictured) The Glory Gets by Honoree Jeffers

I’m taking the Birkerts, Herman, Jaime, McCarthy, and Macfarlane with me to Scotland. Most of the poetry I’ll keep for July. Biss, Jameson, and Nelson for August. Or at least that’s the plan. Because I have no idea what I’ll find in Edinburgh, with its beautiful bookstores.

Here’s my friend Liz Ahl’s List and friend Ron Mohring’s List, if you want some more ideas for reading.

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