Jeff Oaks

The Writing Life, Writing Prompts, Essays on the Ordinary

The House Next Door: a diary 

1/ March 13

Is today the day? The “developer” of the lot next door has parked two backhoes in it. They sit like two scorpions, bucket arms curled up, near the back of the lot, and the no parking signs are up along our half of the already crowded street. Nobody is going to get to park comfortably for a while, and it will be even worse on weekends.

Breathe, I say to my chest and mind. It will be all right eventually. Breathe in anxiety and breathe out peace. If anything happens, I can sue. Although the house is old, the basement is old, and I am afraid, no other equally old house or equally frightened neighbor has fallen apart because of the new construction in one of the empty lots. Some nice houses have been built, and some horrors, it’s true, but about taste, there’s not a whole lot to do. The plans make this one coming seem decent. 

Breathe, I have to keep saying, as if I am my own respirator. I notice tightness of muscles everywhere. It can be hard to tell it from excitement sometimes but this own has much powerlessness in it. I will have to accept most of what comes the way I’ve had to accept changes already: the loss of the pear tree and the spruce that grew in that lot and sheltered birds. I will be penned in on one side now as I never have been. The noise will be obnoxious for at least a year. 

I write to ameliorate my fear of change, which I have never loved. Even though I have lived through enormous changes which have been wonderful I still fear it. Does anyone love the threshold over which one has to pass if one is to act, to speak? Why is it that there is always an apocalypse at the ready in my mind and not the peaceable kingdom? This is test says the spiritual pilgrim I’ve installed in my head. (This is “only” a test, says the internal joker-voice, echoing the old tv “emergency broadcast system” we used to hear periodically.) 

There was also supposed to be a snowstorm today, that same voice reminds. What fell so far? I look out onto our little street. Nothing.
2/ March 14

Shall I mention the cool precision of the man who runs the backhoe when I come home for lunch, the way he guides the bucket expertly in the alleyway between the two houses behind ours? He’s digging out a new waterline, I think. And despite the apparent clunkiness of the backhoe, he’s maneuvering it with such delicacy it surprises me. I think of metal and mechanical things as unsubtle tools of men, but as I watch quietly from the car before getting out with the dog and my bags, I can see the care the man inside the machine is exercising. The neck of the backhoe extends slowly and carefully between the houses where he has to dig like the neck of a goose nibbling grass. 

What I expect, as I said, as I have to remind myself day after day, is always the worst of humans. I expect men who work with their hands or in some physical way to be rough, uncaring, nonverbal, insensitive to the emotional lives of others. Yesterday when I left the house with the dog, the contractors were just getting out of their oversized white truck. The guy from the passenger side was exactly what I expected: large and scowling. He looked at us without a word, though I smiled. When we walked around the front of the truck to get to my car, we encountered the driver of the truck, who was exactly the opposite. He said Good Morning loudly, and I smiled and said it back. I said I wasn’t sure anything was happening today because we’d expected snow and he laughed and said Yeah, we were surprised too. We both laughed. I got the dog inside the car and turned to the driver to ask about the work going on, so I had, I told him, some sense of what to expect. He told me in a voice that was neither irritated by having been asked or nervous about where I might be going with my question. He seemed genuinely human.

The result? I wasn’t panicked the whole day about what was going on. 

Which is not to say that later in the day when I came home and saw one of the men running the backhoe so expertly, I felt happy to lose the lot to these strangers who didn’t know our little cluster of folks or feel the need to care about our emotional lives. But I did think: I can survive this.

That the dog wasn’t nervous about the sound of the work next door helped too. Maybe it wouldn’t be as bad as I’d feared. 

Then my house shuddered.
3/ March 16

But nothing happened. Nothing that I could see anyway. I looked out the front door and though the backhoe was close to the house, there was nothing I could see wrong or dented or marked. 

It does occur to me that since the house is attached to the earth around it, I might be misjudging the sound of the house being hit and the sound of the earth around us moving. One I can sue over. The other I’m not so sure about.

I’ve begun looking over the walls on that side for new cracks. I put my palms on the big wall going upstairs the way I’d put my hand on the flank of a big horse: to steady myself against its presence. 
At the same time, of course, the nation is actually shuddering. The Republican congress, with the new Narcissist-in-Chief is at work rearranging the American government, are today about to strip away the Arts, defund scientific research, and aid to the poor here and abroad. 

Breathe, I say to my chest and mind. Breathe in anxiety and breathe out peace. If anything happens, I can sue. Although the house is old, the basement is old, and I am afraid, no other equally old house or equally frightened neighbor has fallen apart because of the new construction in one of the empty lots.

I say it again and again to my apocalyptic mind, and the nation is not likely to completely collapse either. I honestly don’t know what will happen, though, to the nation I hoped would be better than this by now. Some days I do feel as if a house has fallen on me.  I have never won an NEA fellowship, but many of the literary journals I’ve published in seem to depend on that body for funding in large and small ways. Not that the Republicans care or think about the literary infrastructure. They can’t even seem to think about public infrastructure. Their transparency, their utter devotion to their corporate sponsors is abundantly apparent. They don’t care if the government falls; they have accounts elsewhere, expect windfalls from lobbying jobs. They will never be touched by hardship or emotional crisis. 

They have replaced the weather in their inhumanity. I’m insured against the house falling over or a hurricane.


That March

There is always more and it is exhausting. There is always more and it is the American Dream. Remember when the old fascists tried to beat their enemies by strangling their access to resources? Letting them freeze to death in garrets and prisons? Well, that is still going to go on, don’t worry, but for many, many of us won’t even notice our incarcerations. In our in-house arrests, we fatten ourselves up, indulge in every comfort we can afford, until we simply fall asleep early every night, bloated with whole wheat pasta and cheese and a good, cheap wine or an artisanal cider or beer bought right at the grocery store. We have explanations, of course. Everything is spiked with self-care: binge-watching tv shows about serial killers who want to do good, children who uncover secret powers in themselves but who only really want to eat waffles with someone who loves them, small people who manage by luck and timing to accrue vast amounts of wealth and power. Meanwhile, around us, over us, beyond us, Hollywood and the political parties are remaking King Kong again, not because they care about the world of giant gorillas, but because they are addicted to the human deep-dream of controlling everything, even the impossible, every hairy, bellowing, enemy-smashing drop of the id that can be found. Simplifying everything into the big and violent. Until everything is an invasion story. Smaller screens feed us stories of heroes who, although denied normality in one way–by being blind, black, a woman–also cannot be killed, who survive by listening well, by being bulletproof, by being surprisingly strong or by having bodies made of quicksilver and lightning, by being constantly conscious of threat. At the level of books, there are too many voices; at the level of video games, at the level of movies, at the level of blogs and news sites and musicians and points of view. Until there is no direction of quiet, of stillness, which itself has been made into death, into collaboration. We are stuffed with choices, our consciousnesses loud with digestion and excretion, with the efforts to keep up, with the fear of missing out. We go to bed early in pain, out of breath, in relief. We wake early in the morning to journal out/about our anxieties and intentions because otherwise there’s no time, between lying comatose or frozen over with panic on the couch or at the desk, at lunch listening to our friends and lovers detail the torments of their equally overstuffed days. Soon enough, I’ll do something. Until maybe at the barber’s shop, because the funny but visibly tired barber takes a little extra bit of time massaging your sudsy head in the sink as she stares out the window, her strong fingers breaking up the tensed muscles around your swollen brain, you feel actual pleasure suddenly, so acutely you might suddenly weep for the kindness of it if it were kindness. And you desperately want more of even that.

Notes from the Wreck

It doesn’t matter that you didn’t do it yesterday. It doesn’t matter that you didn’t do it the day before that. It doesn’t matter if you don’t feel like it now. Or that you’re only doing it now because you feel guilty. It doesn’t matter that your room is too dirty, that the laundry isn’t done or folded or the car needs to be washed. It doesn’t matter that the Golden Girls are on. It doesn’t matter if it’s loud or too quiet. Take twenty minutes and try to write a sentence each minute. It doesn’t matter if they’re true or ugly.

It doesn’t matter if you think it will be great. It doesn’t matter if the pen is right or you only have a napkin. It doesn’t matter at all, if the choice is between writing something or writing nothing, if you even understand it. It doesn’t matter if you get all the way through it. It doesn’t matter if no one else understands it. Or will like it. Write as many sentences as you can using a word that appeared in a dream, in the morning newsfeed, out of the president’s mouth. It doesn’t matter that you think you’re a wreck. Write a wreck.

Write, if you want, the worst thing first. Don’t put it off; rush into the fear. Write out what it tells you with utter seriousness. It doesn’t matter what it brings up. It doesn’t matter if you feel better or worse. It doesn’t matter if the wreck begins suddenly to float or drift, if suddenly out of it flash a gam, a herd, a frenzy, a school, or a shiver of sharks. It doesn’t matter which of those words is scientifically correct. It doesn’t matter if there’s a body in there or a book of myths or even a treasure that you could really use to give yourself and all the people you love a new start. It doesn’t matter that you’ve been breathing water in those last sentences. 

You can tell yourself anything you want to if you write it down. Twenty minutes and try not to look away from the page, holding onto the last sentence if you want to, or dramatically breaking with it if it’s become meaningless now. Somewhere oranges are growing toward your kisses. It doesn’t matter if your heart has been broken by this or that, if you’ve not had the courage yet to stand up to one of the bullies your world has in it. Or if you disappointed a friend who expected more from you. Or if you feel completely overwhelmed by the number of directions you could do something. It doesn’t matter if you’re already on the couch and even the couch is borrowed. 

Waking Up with your hands on the wheel and the car moving…

How to knock yourself out of autopilot? 
Usually the world does that with illness or accident or death or a surprise whose magnitude is such that nothing after it stops vibrating for decades. The event that scared my grandparents was the Great Depression. They worked hard to secure their lives against its eventual return. But they were both already awakened by difficult childhoods, lost protections early on. My more-protected parents had World War 2, the Korean and Vietnam Wars, and the Cold War hovering over them. My father never, I think, quite recovered from the freedoms he found overseas, in 50s England, as an air traffic controller. The world he had to return to didn’t have enough external discipline in it. My mother told me she never got over seeing, as a teenager, the first images of the liberated concentration camps, and after that the Civil Rights and Women’s Movements which she vocally supported despite the laughter of most of her own family. She never, after the late sixties, fit comfortably into her white or middle-class or wife and mother identities. The AIDS crisis changed my and most of the gay men I knew’s consciousness, even if it took time for many men to change their behavior. 

For some of us it was 9/11’s bombing and destruction of the World Trade Center, which displayed Fundamentalist Islamic terrorism. (How blind many still are to Fundamentalist Christian terrorists and their much longer reign of destruction, because it fits into what most of us know about America–that it’s filled with dangerous white straight men–because those guys, that destruction, are “normal”.) Suddenly poets I knew wanted to figure out how to write politically. None of my students, who were too young to really remember 9/11, seem to have noticed the Afghanistan and Iraq wars; at least they don’t report those as important when we talk about historical events that woke them up. Instead, they more often talk about Barack Obama’s election, which might be the first time we all learned that Aeschylus’ famous quotation–“Wisdom comes alone through suffering”–isn’t always right. There are some surprises that don’t perhaps require death and pain and destruction. Still, they were awakened in recent years by the incredible number of public shootings of black men and women at the hands of police officers who were then not held accountable. They are all now awake because of Donald Trump’s election to the Presidency. We are, many of us, unable to move in a way that seems to matter.

Is there a kind of consciousness that is disabling? Some of my friends rose immediately to confront the dangers. Some of them have been able to write in the immediate aftermath of such shock, but I’ve been feeling unable to make anything but a few sarcastic poems on Facebook. Maybe I’ve lost faith in words’ ability to bring about change. 

So I’m hoping to dig into that feeling of despair over the next few weeks, hoping to examine it and how it might be recovered from. 

Waking Up

I lie on the couch. I have been lying on the couch since 5:30 when I woke, when I awakened. I came downstairs to write something for today, to fulfill a promise I made myself (and others). I slid down next to the dog and picked up the iPad and opened up Facebook first, to see what was happening in the world. 

Then it was 7:20. I felt I’d woke up a second time, still lying on the couch, without a single word written of my own. I’d read a short article about Rebecca Solnit. I’d looked at some beautiful images a man I don’t know personally posted on Facebook. I’d looked at some photos of a Scottish castle I hope to visit this summer. 

The number of hours I’ve been in fugue states lately, with virtually no memory of what I’ve done in those hours, has begun to frighten me in much the same way that I was frightened when I was sixteen or seventeen and realized that much of the adult life around me was spent there. My parents lived there often. My neighbors seemed to only live there they were so dull. Lives and pairs of them going through the motions, cycling through pre-set obligations–cleaning the house, going to work, buying groceries on Thursdays, visiting parents on Sundays, mowing lawns on Saturdays. 

Everyone on autopilot, although I didn’t know that term then. I wanted something else: memory, spontaneity, excitement, a feeling of aliveness.

Children were the only disrupters in that town, the only agents of change, and they were both adored and punished for their disruptions to the daily grind of responsibilities. They were the sudden flashes of color in an otherwise beige system. If, that is, they weren’t beaten down early by parents who found cycles more comforting than the occasional chaos children represented. 

The closest adults got to being like children was when they got really drunk.

It is now 7:35 and I have at least written these words. In fifteen minutes, I have at least written these words as a way to remind myself of myself while I begin to be aware of the responsibilities of the day–the last student conferences I need to get ready for, the administrative loose ends I need to tie up at the office, to pick up the dog from camp later, meet my friend Geeta for coffee and our weekly writer’s check-in. 

How much time will be spent in autopilot mode? How much of my time will I spend being aware of the possibilities for change, excitement? Will I act today in those moments, and bring about something new? At least writing these words has been something, a waking up within a waking up. It is 7:45. I get up from the couch and send this out. 

Four Mugs


One mug is my everyday working mug. It’s large, wide, and very round, the kind of vessel one might drink almost anything out of. It’s perfectly white, as plain and practical a drinking utensil as I could buy that day, long ago, when I was visiting the village of Hampstead Heath after touring Keats’ house. I was fired up to re-commit to my writing, moved as much by the fact that England had made Keats’ house into a museum as by his small handwriting, his Shakespeare, his death mask. And I was moved by the enormously old plum tree which he would’ve known, now grown so old it had to be supported by wooden planks to keep from falling over. I was in my thirties, and I had finally found a way to make a life for myself and could get serious about my writing. To honor that feeling, I went into the local hardware shop and bought this mug and a tablespoon. They were cheap. The ground of everything good is simple: get to work, it says. Nothing more fancy than that.


The second mug is more beautiful and more expensive. It’s heavy stoneware and made by hand by the wife of a poet I am Facebook friends with. One day he posted a picture of his wife’s work, and I ordered a mug immediately. I’ve since become one of her regular customers, buying mugs and bowls as gifts for friends and acquaintances. She mixes her own glazes and the results are startling greens and golds and blues that other people usually say something about. I have learned over the years that I need a flash of color some mornings, a little weight with my tea, an extra layer of consciousness maybe. Some mornings I need to believe there’s something startling in me, something that might surprise everybody else, that life isn’t only work, that I can afford occasionally to buy myself nice things, to support other artists, to show off. This mug has been especially nice to bring to those inevitable meetings where everyone else arrives late and with disposable cups. It reminds me that my real self is something other than responding to complaints. 


The lime-green mug I took from my mother’s kitchen after she died. It was the mug I drank from whenever I came to visit. We’d sit down at her small kitchen table each morning, after she’d set out the cat’s breakfast. At some moment the three of us would just sleepily stare out the glass door that led to the back balcony of the condo complex where she lived. Sometimes a squirrel would run by and the cat would chatter with excitement. We’d all light up. She and her cat lived there with the disciplined pride of an queen in exile and her last loyal servant. Everything in that one bedroom space was either useful or thrown away. All her paintings were of flowers, animals, or open windows, things see liked looking at or through. At that small table, we laughed and argued and over the years surprised each other. The green mug was the first and last thing I’d drink out of each visit. Mug in hand, I learned how to ask her the right kind of questions that lead to the stories about her childhood, stories I listened to then and thought I’d never forget. I use that mug when I need to ask better questions of my life, when I want to remember how to listen.


The fourth mug is the same model as the lime-green one, but because it’s white, it seems older. It’s the mug my mother drank coffee or tea out of every morning. She stored it and green mug on the shelf above the smaller cups she kept for company, so that the white mug and the green mug kept each other company all those years, a married pair. When I use this last mug, listen, things are bad. There may have been tears, as she said the night she called me with her Stage 4 diagnosis. I took it too when I was wrapping things up to take. In its white plainness, because I only turn to it at moments of crisis, it seems made out of her bones, even though we burned those to grit and scattered them into the Atlantic. While I drink the black tea we both prefer out of it, I summon her spirit. Take it one step at a time, she says. Do the hardest thing first, she says. Nothing’s worth having to lie about it, she says as she will always say in my head. I remember her tears when she told me about seeing as a girl the first pictures of Auschwitz. I remember her adult energy standing up for Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X at our otherwise Republican family dinners. She was tough; she refused to lie. If I’m drinking out of her cup, I’m gathering up that strength, finding fire. Something’s going to change. If you’re visiting, you might take down the green mug and wait. There might be hot tears. Remember: you’ve made it this far. 

For the Bowling Green Dead

 This morning I had a fresh massacre
with my coffee. Tomorrow I will have 

another, possibly warm, with butter. 
Nobody notices or cares what I eat

because after all I am white and a man
who’s quiet and never complains about

what’s right or wrong. Never stand out,

I was taught, always say yes to a massacre

and a coffee, dress like a normal person,
be useful to others, don’t irritate

anyone else by thinking too much. Try,
if you can, to massacre quietly and with

a minimum of fuss. In this way
I am privileged to disappear with the dignity

befitting my position, to leave only a memory,
a man who was easy to miss, who merely happened 

to love his mornings of coffee and massacres

in the very seat you might be sitting in now. 

Resolutions: 2016

How to resolve this past year? It has become a bitter, too-large pill stuck in the throats of many many people.  There was the Trump upset, in which all the power of government has fallen into the hands of Republicans. There was the Brexit upset. There was the standoff between the Water Protectors and the Pipeline corporations with their rented “security” and police forces from all over the Midwest. There was the continuing deaths of black men by policemen. Power everywhere grew very touchy about any call to examine itself, its actions, the facts. It quickly felt victimized. Any call to self-examination became an existential threat. The television news media continued its new job to make us feel good, to help us understand events by simplifying them. Most of them are mere corporate pawns anyway. 

There were the many, many deaths of important role models and personalities–Bowie, Prince, Cohen, John Glenn, Muhammad Ali, to name just a few. Touchstones, they were called. Out of their lives and bodies they made art, broke barriers and changed the world. They did things beyond the possible. They appeared among the stars. They sang out of darkness, with difficulty sometimes, to the difficult, against the difficult. Some had long lives of fame and glory. Some had shorter ones. They bore the limelight for better or worse, and gave us all something to see or hear and talk about. Sometimes they kept us going in difficult times.  
So there’s grief at those changes, those losses. And lots of fear and uncertainty about the direction of world and national politics. I feel personally as if I’ve been standing in a line of mourners for the entire year, unable to sit down or laugh without wincing. The Obama years have made standing up for things like art and social justice and environmental protection easier; there was always, at least, the president to veto ridiculous ideas, which seemed to be all the Republican parts of Congress had. They weren’t even pretending anymore that those ideas were about cutting the budget.

I still can’t believe that when Mitch McConell said the Republicans in the Senate would shun President Obama’s moderate choice to replace Scalia for the Supreme Court, the American People did not all travel to D.C. in protest. But we didn’t. We let gerrymandering happen in a number of Republican states. We stood there in shock, emailed our petitions, and lost an election.

With the Trump administration, we got a cabinet of million-and billionaires who all seem to want to subvert or convert their respective departments away from protecting people and toward relieving corporations of responsibility. 

Marches are planned. Protests are being mounted. Donations have been flowing to those institutions whose work is with groups likely to be vulnerable now–women’s reproductive rights, LGBTQ rights, immigrants’ rights, protectors of water and air and common lands. There are signs of resistance everywhere, and every sign that no one in power needs to listen to that resistance. 

The imagination is of course made up of crisis and drama and conflict. Many would like it to be made up of love, peace and joy, wth no rupturing of the status quo, of the way it used to be. Many would like it to disappear altogether, that its absence–its chatter of possibilities and revisions, its perverse reversals of roles, its negative capabilities–would be a relief. A world of black and whites promises to make acting simpler–you just say no, you just do it, you make America Great again. You only need to have one book around and someone else to interpret for you.

The imagination wants more books, more art, more music. It can get caught up in the imagining of nightmarish scenarios, which bring with them a spike in flight or fight chemicals our bodies can get addicted to. But to work in opposite ways–to introduce calm and withdraw ourselves from the future, to return to the present breath, the present half-cup of tea sitting on the table here in the cafe–feels like a form of collaboration with the enemy. How many people, finding themselves suddenly citizens in a frightening country, thought to themselves: if only I slow down and rationally wait for things to cool down, things will grow bearable again? We don’t know. 

We don’t know so much. My personal hope is that certain senators who are Republican will resist the temper tantrums of the new president. My deep hope is that the president and the senate and the house will engage in such in-fighting that they’ll forget or be unable to hurt the most vulnerable citizens. So many of the worst characteristics of the Republican Party are now on view–Ryan’s uber-passionate no-nothings; McConnell’s boring agents of no-change; and Trump’s Robber-Baron Bacchae ready to behead anyone who interrupts their frenzies. It seems impossible to me they won’t come to blows quickly. (This is, I see now, the default hope of a child who grew up with battling parents.)

It would be good for me to actually read The Bacchae before I write things like that, for instance. Discovering that Euripides’ version of The Bacchae is a political play is exciting to me. I hope to find or be reunited with a whole new set of poems and plays and art in the new year, work that helps me to see how the current-fractured consciousness I’m lugging around might be made productive. Maybe it will be a year for theater. 

Getting Used to Hearing Sound: an Exercise

One of the immense benefits of being a teacher is that I’m constantly making exercises to engage young people’s imaginations. Sometimes the goal of an exercise is the focus the senses, sometimes it’s to challenge the perception, sometimes it’s to distract their anxious minds long enough that the unconscious can speak suddenly.

Sometimes, when I’m looking at an old syllabus, I find these and think–“I need to do this.” My throat is thick with anxiety and fear, right now. Every day I wake up thinking–What can I say that will make a difference? Power isn’t interested in truth, so what’s an artist to do?

So, this is the kind of exercise I developed a few years ago because I realized students couldn’t hear sound effects in poems except rhyme. I wanted to give them a way into listening to and making subtler sounds as well.

Sound Exercise

Part 1)

Write five 10 syllable lines for each of these five long vowel sounds:

ay, ee, i, oh, oo

Write five 10 syllable lines for each of these five short vowel sounds:

ah, eh, ih, on, uh

There should be at least three instances of each particular vowel sound per line.
Avoid direct rhyming.

So, for a line of “ay”, you might have this:

The pain of hating is halfway to ache.

For “eh”:

The wet bed stands silent, a memory.

The lines don’t have to make sense exactly, but it’s not a bad thing if they do.

Part 2)
When you’re done with the fifty “sound” lines, take some of the lines and use them to write a poem in which one of the vowel sounds plays a noticeable role.

Begin (Root Song)

The dirt is good enough     a kiss       a hair

of earth, flecked with minerals        whose thoughts bite

with what’s almost light         hissing where each

chemical edge unlocks another door to

the long stairways to the dead          where you’ve had

your ear pressed so long waiting for a word

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