Jeff Oaks

The Writing Life, Writing Prompts, Essays on the Ordinary

Month: May, 2016

Begin Again (again)

It’s the End of May again. Here comes summer. Time to get serious about a project, I tell myself. Then I feel paralyzed with choices, none of which I feel completely, overwhelmingly drawn to. They will all require me to get to work: 

Revise that semi-finalist in manuscript of poems. Something is off in it, clearly. And clearly enough is good in it that I don’t want to screw it up. 

Pull together that second manuscript of poems that begins with my mother’s death and ends on my marriage. There are enough poems, but that’s about it at the moment.

Craft that craft essay for the conference where I’m teaching: Chatham’s Summer Community of Writers. 

Write some notes to the twenty contestants for a student contest I’m judging.

Try to find an alternative structure for the creative nonfiction manuscript, one essay of which will have to come out now. 

Try not to think about the young adult/fantasy that’s been tugging at my pinky for a decade. Try not to think about that one page of prose I think establishes a voice I might be interested in enough to write a short novel. 

Write up syllabi for my three classes in the fall. I want to re-think two of the classes;  I haven’t taught the third one in a while, so why not re-think that too? 

There are always too many things to do, aren’t they, once you accept being an adult? 


It helps me a bit to write down the due dates. The revision of the manuscript has a close submission deadline.  The craft talk has a deadline a little later.  But the comments for the students shouldn’t take long, so if need one source of tension off my plate immediately, I could do that too. 
And so it goes, a constant juggling of dates, urges, guilts, tensions, all slowly pushing this multitudinous me forward. 

I haven’t even gotten to things like the replacing the furnace (done!), getting the car inspected (I suspect some belt needs to be replaced), giving the husband and dog their due, loving time, and making sure the various administrative things I’m paid to oversee get done. 

I have said nothing about reading other people, have I? I have Rebecca Solnit, John Berger, Barbara Hurd, Brian Blachfield, and Jeffrey Jerome Cohen on my bedstand.  I’ve been dipping in and out. I did finally finish Ronald Blythe’s River Diary and John Lewis-Stempel’s lovely Meadowland, both books I bought last year.


I should also say that it helped me to go back to my old, black and white composition book/notebook. To just write down things, sideways, in the margins, out of order at first, out of sight to anyone but me.  It helped to think without the slightest chance I’d make a mistake and publish that hodge-podgey thinking, that confusion of responsibilities. 

It should say it helped that a young woman came in and sat at the large table I was at in the cafe, pulled out her own notebook, and began to write in it, not horizontally as is usual, but vertically, so all her sentences were parallel to the spine of the notebook. It was such a clear approach to the problem of the beginning–write strangely, absurdly, against what’s expected–that it gave me some heart. Do what you need to do to get yourself moving again. Who knows whether what she wrote was good or interesting or publishable? Once the hand starts moving, the mind with all its hierarchies of anxieties stops repeating its self-and-other lacerating mind-chatter. Or the body stops listening to the mind’s nervous chatter. And in the quiet that begins to follow, the mind more often than not finds itself starting to hum along. 


On Emery Boards


What are emery boards made of? That red that filed things smooth. Grinding compound. The Red Dust from Shuon Optical, in Geneva, New York, where my grandfather grinded lenses during the Depression.

My mother remembered the dust on him when he came home. The red dust in small creases. The red dust he wielded against the metals of the age, even the torpedoes he was sent to Chicago to perfect, to make frictionless, to run true through the waters of World War Two. Back home, the women waited for the war to be over.

His workshop had one unadorned light bulb whose string you pulled. The million little drawers, each full of one thing. A library of metals, of parts. Spools of wire. A wall of tools, all outlined in white. He’d watched the world fall apart several times. He knew it was the little men who rebuilt it, house by house.

Her father was a quiet man with a wicked sense of humor he hid behind a mustache, a pipe, the paper. He had an enormous patience, a quiet that was part of my fear of him. I do remember how smooth his hands were.

“Crushed or naturally eroded emery (known as black sand) is used as an abrasive, as a traction enhancer in asphalt and tarmac mixtures, or used in mechanical engineering as emery cloth. ”

“The Greek island of Naxos used to be the main source of this industrially important rock type. It has been mined on the eastern side of Naxos for well over two thousand years, at least until recent times.”

“One legend has it that in the Heroic Age before the Trojan War, Theseus abandoned the princess Ariadne of Crete on this island after she helped him kill the Minotaur and escape from the Labyrinth. Dionysus who was the protector of the island, met Ariadne and fell in love with her. But eventually Ariadne, unable to bear her separation from Theseus, either killed herself (according to the Athenians), or ascended to heaven (as the older versions had it).”

Is this the way the Greek gods entered our lives all those years? Through the emery from Naxos? The woman filing their nails in the corners of the rooms, knitting the dust into mittens, socks, hats, waiting for men to return home, to follow through on their promises, to surprise them?

“Although the modern nail file has only appeared at the end of the 19th century, evidence of nail file-like tools exist even further back in history. Marie Antoinette was known for her obsession of the ‘lime à ongles’, which was a nail file-like tool made of the pumice stone. Seeing her perfectly shaped nails, it instantly became the latest female trend in the French Court of Versailles. In the 1830’s a foot doctor named Sitts created an “orange stick” which women used to file down their nails. Before this invention, women had to resort to using different acids, various metals and scissors to remove excess nail and shape them correctly.”

Whenever she waited, my mother, like her mother, filed her nails, which were thick and long. If she waited too long, she sharpened herself. She was a knife if she thought she’d been betrayed. There was a period of decency and once beyond its threshold, she simply packed up and left without a word. Without paying in restaurants. Without a word sometimes. Indignant. Burning. Never to return.

The slight buzz of the board on her nails meant she was nearly done waiting. There was always something more to be done, somewhere where her mind was already moving. My father had been a sad disappointment to her. Not enough grit. How many times had she saved him? She smoked alone, waiting for rescue a long time.

She never forgave her father for dying, I think now. She talked so much about him at the end of her life. Who knows if it was a hallucination or a god, the train she imagined the week she died? She was tired by then of waiting around.


Quoted material from Wikipedia)


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