Jeff Oaks

The Writing Life, Writing Prompts, Essays on the Ordinary

Tag: essay

Mulligans: notes on forgiving men

Mulligan n. surname, from Gaelic Maolagan, Old Irish Maelecan, a double diminutive of mael “bald,” hence “the little bald (or shaven) one,” probably often a reference to a monk or disciple.

As “stew made with whatever’s available,” 1904, hobo slang, probably from a proper name.

The golf sense of “extra stroke after a poor shot” (1949) is sometimes said to be from the name of a Canadian golfer in the 1920s whose friends gave him an extra shot in gratitude for driving them over rough roads to their weekly foursome at St. Lambert Country Club near Montreal.

(Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper)

Actually, the extra shot wasn’t given in gratitude so much as just given according to this story, after Mr. Mulligan gives himself a do-over and expects the other men to just shut up about it.

*

Men, I knew early, expect to be forgiven for just about everything. They don’t always need to be thanked, but they do need to be forgiven always and immediately. They make mistakes constantly because they are human, I learned, and so they’re just like you and I, but unlike you and I they pay for everything by working hard and exhausting themselves to keep food on your plate and comic books in your hands. If they lose their tempers now and then, they should be forgiven as soon as they’re done yelling. Hugged if possible. Praised for their sacrifices and their tireless work keeping it all together, for having given up on their own dreams to sail around the world or backpack through Europe or have a quiet horse farm just outside of town. It seemed to help if you finally admitted that you in fact were at fault to have even mentioned what they’d done wrong and so upset them. Men were incredibly fragile that way, I understood, and couldn’t take much emotional pressure. Even if it seemed like the truth. Sometimes their hands were shaky after the long drive home from work; sometimes they were irritable after a long day, an awful month, a disappointing year. A disappointing dinner could be the last straw. Or a request to do something at home too. Or wrong tone of voice. Men worked hard for all of us, I was taught, and we should curb ourselves in order to show our appreciation of their efforts. They were trying, for God’s sake, to keep everybody happy, I remember, and that should matter, that should count. Jesus Christ, all they wanted was to come home and relax and not be nagged about things, I heard. Couldn’t we just shut up sometimes? It’s just a mistake. Fuck.

Here’s an example of a recent mulligan.

Men made mistakes, I knew. But they were owed too some consideration. Come on. My own father embezzled money from his business, even after he sold it finally to a bigger company and stayed on as manager. My mother, who did the accounts for years, made it plain to anyone at the home office who could read exactly what my father was doing. No one said a thing, she told me. No one even cared, she said, which is about when she decided she’d had enough of a Mulligan world. He’d lost thousands and thousands on off-track betting. He’d had affairs, she believed. They fought loudly and it could get violent, physical. I learned early to walk downstairs and yell at them to stop when my father mentioned the gun in the closet. Then as he wept in abject self-pity, begging me to tell him that I loved him, I would do that. I would perform the son’s sacred right to give his father a mulligan. Let’s try that again. I put on the face of infinite patience for a long time. Then one day I realized I could do that at the same time I could wish him dead. I often see the same look on politicians’ children’s faces.

Questions for the men’s club:

How many mulligans do you give until you tell your golfing partner it’s not a game anymore? How many mulligans until it stops being a joke? How many mulligans per round until there is nothing finally to say at the club later? And the relationship becomes, like the soup of the same name, something made of scraps and whatever’s left? At what point do you stop calling?

Conversely, how many mulligans until Mulliganism becomes a way of life, a way around potential pain or embarrassment or, as in the case of a wealthy father, the disaster of dis-inheritance? Maybe, if my father had made more money, we might have Mulliganed him a lot more, stuck it out, stayed true to an investment portfolio which he represented. How many relationships are made of just such long-term strategies, treating the cruel father, the racist grandfather, the violent son as bumblers who need a second-chance? That seems the more pervasive American strategy to me. Growing up, I would say there wasn’t a single adult male in my small-town that I trusted not to lose his temper. Many of them were good men, I knew. But that was also a world without psychology really. Social work meant bringing a cake over to a neighbor if they’d had a tragedy and saying absolutely nothing about a sudden black eye. My mother once tried a therapist who actually told her to go back and try again, so she gave up on that route. There was no other way for people like us to get through life, I saw very quickly, than starting over again and again, hoping this time would be different, an endless Groundhog Day of Mulligans.

Which is where at least 40% of Americans are with this president and the Republicans in Congress, without anything else to do but keep saying let’s give him yet another chance. Maybe this time he won’t cheat on us. Maybe this time he won’t lie to our faces.

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Fake/Fuck: some notes on intensity (Nancy/Heidi)

I keep correcting student sentences that use “so” when they really “very” or “extremely,” as in My relationship with my mother is so complicated. It’s a habit I’ve noticed they fall into without thinking, which means they’ve probably grown up with it. Does “very” mean anything to them anymore, or is the monosyllabic so just faster than the disyllabic very or the trisyllabic extremely? It’s a marker, I know, of a certain kind of intensity. Maybe the long o sound, which can be elongated when said out loud in ways that the long and short e sounds in very and extremely can’t be—my love life is soooooooo complicated—makes it feel more expressive, more intense.

I have been known to say Fuck as I’m in-class talking to students as a way to emphasize a point. It usually shocks them into laughter which can shift the deadly atmosphere a long class can take on. But you can only do that trick so many times in a term before they see that it’s a fake intensifier and that I am potentially just another adult trying to seem cool. Another fake fuck.

At the moment, I’m not sure what is fake or what is real. Politicians certainly can’t be trusted to tell us anything about anything; their inability to answer a question is now a given. People’s frustration with that is I think at least one of the reasons why the current president got voted in. He seemed the only person who defied the ordinary ways of doing things. He name-called, he heckled, he out-and-out lied and boasted and said things that many of us trained not to lie or hurt other people’s feelings would never say. It seemed refreshing, I imagine, to many, many people who, like me, flip the channel when yet another politician avoids a pointed interview question. America was tired of Teflon non-entities.

Many many Americans seemed to prefer someone who at least said something, even if it’s ridiculous or stupid or racist or homophobic or sexist. Because it seems real to have opinions, and if anyone has had a difficult father or family, it’s real to hear someone say he hates whole groups of people, to be categorically misinformed, to make broad sweeping statements. Maybe now that we’ve had a taste of this President, the country might vote for people who speak in measured tones again. I do think that Hillary Clinton’s tone, which was always measured and careful, was heard as too academic and evasive, as if she was one of those teachers most people remember from middle school who already knew the answer to the questions she’d ask. You had to read her mind, which seemed inscrutable. She never had what Obama or Bill Clinton had as a speaker: another register, the ability to project herself as one of the people. She didn’t act like she wasn’t smart, which is a sin in many, many places in America. The 30-40% of Americans who will always vote for an idiot who confirms their own prejudices/beliefs aside, that inability to shift may have cost her the election, as it cost Dukakis, Gore, and Kerry before her, all people who wouldn’t say the word Fuck to save their lives, although they must have thought it many, many times after the election. I hope none of them thought, Well, that soooooo discouraging.

I say Fuck daily these days. I wake up thinking What the Fuck is that asshole doing now? What is that smug Fuck McConnell or that smiling Fake Fuck Ryan going to fuck up next? I rage listening to NPR interviews racist fucks like they have anything to say. I conversely cheer when someone like Jake Tapper tells the always smiling Nazi Stephen Miller that he’s wasting Tapper’s and the audience’s time. I go into work and try my best to impersonate a functioning adult. Once in a while, though, I feel the need to remind students I’m not dead or a pre-programmed hologram. I care about the state of the world and our ability to create beauty out of pain, a deep and powerful ability human beings have always done, under terrible conditions. I want them to know I have hope and anger, and that these are things they can have too. At home, exhausted by my performances, I hang out with my dog who can’t fuck or fake much of anything.

Fuck, I hope the voters who hold the shifting middle ground have had it up to their soon-to-be-uninsured necks with the Fake Fucks the Republicans have become. I hope there are enough people who will fucking show up to vote, despite whatever fears they have, however inconvenient it might be that day. I hope the Democrats will learn to avoid a language that keeps saying things are “soooo complicated,” which makes them seem spiritless and uninterested in the details of human experience, fake. I want my students not to have to face so many fake and fucked up people in their futures; they are so many of them filled with despair and dread.

Again, Beginning

Where to begin: first memory or present moment? Autobiography is a trickier thing than many believe. It’s not a straight line or royal road to enlightenment. When did your life begin? Is it what you remember or what you desire or where you came from or what you saw one day in 1985, in a bus station in Binghamton, NY? Where did you start?

I think back to Thich Nhat Hahn’s piece, Interbeing, in Peace Is Every Step:

“If you are a poet, you will see clearly that there is a cloud floating in this sheet of paper.” (See the longer version here.) Without the cloud, he reminds, there is no rain; without rain there are no trees. Without sunlight no trees. Without the logger. Without the logger’s mother. And so on into infinities. Nothing is without its contribution. “As thin as this sheet of paper is, it contains everything in the universe in it.”

The work of origin is tricky, in other words. Whose contribution do you want to trace? Which came first, we ask, the chicken or the egg? Does it matter if both are grade A? (Here’s the chart to determine the grade. In it, I finally found the difference between squab and pigeon was immaturity and tenderness in one and maturity and toughness in the other.)

We use the letter A to start off the alphabet. Why? There are theories but no one seems to know. The letter A started life, as many of us did, upside-down from how we know it now, as a picture: the head of an ox or cow. Maybe since cattle indicated wealth, were such an important source of labor, food, and material, it felt right to let it lead the system of representing and accounting that writing arose out of.

Other theories suggest the first alphabet was the skeletal remains of a long poem that once existed. All we have left is an acrostic structure which poets keep trying to reconstruct or rewrite. And it might of course be simply a random collection. We’ll never be sure, which is probably why we devised a song to remember it, to cement in place its (dis)order.

This is not my first alphabetic assay. I go back to the structure because I never end up with the same words. Writing ABCDEF down the page still gives me a little first grade thrill, of having arrived at the door of mystery. Now comes the work of finding a way to open things up, to see the clouds and the trees in this sheet of paper.

This time I actively solicited words from my Facebook friends, and I thank them for giving me a set of strange and challenging prompts. My goal is to explore a word a day for the month, looking for a way into it or into myself maybe. What’s the difference? The aim’s to be surprised.

The Televisions 

In my locker room there’s now a mounted television, and it’s always on. Sports, of course, as if all men… Where there had been just peace some mornings before the day began with its various responsibilities. As if the silence of the old room were a 20th century oppression, filled with the sounds of zipping and unbuttoning. Now that the evidence against us is clear and everywhere. Haven’t we made war in every instance of war? Haven’t we silenced the women who wanted to speak? Aren’t we keeping cruelty in power? And the children who had other ideas than ours—? There used to be comfortable silences: in the bathroom with the paper, in the shower with a song, out for a walk with dog. Now, even when I’m filling up the car at the gas station, there’s a television in the center of the pump that turns on automatically in case the sound of my consciousness as I step out of my black vehicle whispers something about the plastic-coated ocean, the radioactive fish, the whales dying in waves. Black men killed and no one found to blame. The television in the phone. The television in the watch. The tiny televisions within the television! Those young men who cannot sit still without a monster truck shaking the air around them to pieces. Whom can they hear saying no, or help? After all they’d been promised by their fathers who came home after a long day for the television, the sound turned up full to drown out everything that might have required more. Televisions on every floor. Televisions in every room. Televisions growing thinner and thinner. Better stereo. Better definition. As the nation fattens on dull self-affirmations.  Always on in case a self grows wild in a crack of silence and speaks out of turn, a blossom of hope, a lull in want, a welling of what? Patience for the world of need, of love? A drinking in of have? 

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. 

Anticipation

“If our lives are dominated by a search for happiness, then perhaps few activities reveal as much about the dynamics of this quest–in all its ardor and paradoxes–than our travels.they express, however inarticulately, an understanding of what life might be about, outside the constraints of work and of the struggle for survival. Yet rarely are they considered to present philosophical problems–that is, issues requiring thought beyond the practical. We are inundated with advice on where to travel to, but we hear little of why and how we should go, even though the art of travel seems naturally to sustain a number of questions neither so simple nor so trivial, and whose study might in modest ways contribute to an understanding of what the Greek philosophers beautifully termed eudaimonia, or ‘human flourishing’.”

Alain de Botton, The Art of Travel, page 9, “On Anticipation”

I leave for Scotland in less than a week. Everything is more or less prepared except packing. I picked up my pounds at the bank today; I deposited some money in my husband’s account for emergencies. I’ll sit down at my office computer and rearrange the last few readings, most of which I’ve turned into pdf’s the students can read online or print for their own personal use. I have four weeks to suggest the range and depth and complexity of contemporary writing so the students will have some interesting and exciting choices to make when they sit down to write about their own experiences as travelers.

I’m pitching them the idea that travelers are different from tourists, in the sense that travelers want to be, even hope to be, changed by their travels, which involve wandering, being invisible, learning to listen. Tourists pay to have an experience made for them, whereas travelers invent their own itineraries, their own meaningful engagements, their own articulations. Of course because we are connected to a large, historic city, there will be plenty of tours. How do we take what we’re told in our tours out into the street? How might we link information about Edinburgh, about Scottish history, with what we’ll see on the streets, read in the newspapers, laughed about in cafes? And how do we fit into it? Where are we confused, at a distance? How can we bridge distances? Where must we acknowledge we’re lost?

The first assignments are going to be about practicing the arts of description and self-reflection. The first class I’m going to ask the students to talk about what they know about Scotland, what they expect, have heard, what is the Scotland they’re bringing into Scotland. For myself, there’s the complicated mix of Sean Connery (whose James Bond movies were a major contributor to how I imagined the wider world when I was a child); those troubling, Catholic, French-aligned Scots who gave the English kings and queens (the English side the only history I was taught) so much trouble; and Trainspotting’s crazy young drug addicts. Will I be looking out for signs of those things? Under the surface, I’m thinking there’s the Loch Ness Monster, the poems of Edwin Muir, and my disinterest in both golf and whiskey, largely because I was so afraid of men I grew up with. All of which is to say, I suppose, that it’s a paradoxical place–where dinosaurs might still be seen, wild men wear kilts, where sleek modernity and more primitive worlds of volcanic upheaval coexist, cohabitate, argue.

I’m reminded here of Basho’s famous haiku, translated here by Robert Hass:

Even in Kyoto—
hearing the cuckoo’s cry—
I long for Kyoto.

Any place is haunted by the expectations the traveler brings to it, which can be triggered by small things, a bird. Sometimes, as de Botton writes in “On Anticipation”, those expectations are so intense that we might well not even be able to engage with the real place when we land there. Our first work will be to see that.

A reblog from last year–AWP advice for first timers

I’ve been seeing all sorts of reference to the Associated Writing Programs (AWP) conference on Facebook, and I decided to go back and look at the advice I gave last year. Most of it still seems solid to me. So I’m reblogging it, with a minimum of editing.


AWP: some advice

1. Get in and get settled. Breathe. Then register. 

2. The Bookfair is the greatest thing: a beehive of ambitious work, humane undertakings, and stern and open faces. It is the central engine. 

3. The panels? Meh. So many of them have been merely self-promotional or stunningly bland. A simple key is this: if the central question of the panel can be answered by yes or no, that’s going to be a boring panel. You know the answers going in. 

4. Interesting panels are almost universally the ones you decide not to go to. Your friends will be the source of the information in that case, fragmented from the original, but also thrilling with your friend’s new enthusiasm. 

5. Try to have at least five friends you can talk to once a day. They should want to attend different panels from you. Don’t discard your interests to go with them. Remember: your job is also to feed them your enthusiasm. 

6. The first hour of the Bookfair is ecstasy, the second hour torture. The initial excitement at seeing all the opportunities can suddenly tip toward being overwhelmed by and deeply depressed by those same opportunities, especially if your work isn’t regularly being published yet. 

7. Your hotel room is sacred. Retreat there as often as you need. Use the tv. Look out its windows for a bigger view. 

8. Go to readings as needed. Too many and the function of them disappears and they become mere obligation, the death of all love. 

9. Give yourself a budget. Stay close to it. Pack in such a way you’d have to really want a book to buy it. Be willing to throw away your clothes for a good book. 

10. You will never know the whole of literature, but it’s good to have a few places (presses, literary journals, and writers) you can use as check points. Ask those people who they’re reading or for any new discoveries. You can start conversations that way, if you’re stuck. 

11. Walk outside a few times a day. Breathe real air and see the sun or hear the rain. Break the seal that can develop around any convention. 

12. For me, breakfasts have so far been the best times to talk to friends. Everyone is a little more vulnerable and open. Not everyone else is up for breakfast, so it’s a good test of real friendship. Plus, it’s the most important meal of the day. I prefer hotel breakfasts where it’s all-you-can-eat. 

13. Dinners are so largely ceremonial and often crashed by others and expensive that I’m rethinking dinners, even though I like them. Have one dinner in your hotel room maybe. 

14. Are the caucuses doing any good? Is AWP changing itself at all? A number of writers with disabilities who’ve been asking for changes in accessibility make me think it’s not listening to them. Should caucuses be given a certain amount of choice in the decisions where AWP is held and some number of panels that might reflect specific interests? 

15. AWP is not for everybody. What is? You need however to go to a couple of them before you condemn it altogether. The more I’ve gone, the better it’s gotten. There have been bad ones and very good ones. 

16. Be kind to yourself. It’s hard to be without a book to your name. It’s hard to feel left out of conversations by people who look at your name and move on. It has nothing to do with your worth. They have their own issues. Make yourself talk or thank at least one person a day who makes the life of your imagination a more interesting place. They often have no idea that people are benefitting from their hard work. 

17. Grade your papers before or after AWP. Write poems during readings. Find a coffeehouse In the host city and just write for two hours. 

18. Watch how the famous writers behave. You might learn something. 

19. Don’t assume someone doesn’t have some influence just because you might not have read work by them. Don’t assume people with clear influence have to be coddled. Don’t assume editors will remember you; remind them with as much courtesy as you can. 

20. If you’re only listening to people with the intent to get published, you’re not listening. Be ready, however, to say yes if an opportunity suddenly appears. 

21. Hydrate. You’d be surprised at the effect quiet dehydration will do to your mood. Drink water more than anything else.

Baby Steps

One of my friends used this phrase “taking baby steps” to talk about how she needed to walk last week, as the great icesheets on our sidewalks and streets were melting, becoming a little more dangerous in fact, even while the rest of the world seemed to be lightening up on its demands. It’s important at moments of change to take it slow, even though your heart might be leaping around wanting you to dance.  Popular culture tells us this all the time, doesn’t it? Think of all those horror movies in which the brave heroine has killed the slasher, killer, alien predator, enemy, and just at the moment when she seems to have beaten It, It rises up suddenly for one last slash, throttle, bite, or explosion. It’s a cliche at this point in film. Still, it’s easy to forget that lesson in real life.  Because, well, it’s us.

I’m also thinking about those little steps because a Facebook friend who recently graduated with his MFA asked a good question the other day: How does anyone move past the “if I write anything, it will inevitably suck” phase?

The answer from a number of friends was simple: you don’t.  You accept it and move on. Eventually it won’t suck. But you might have to write a lot of crap first.

It’s hard to take little steps. As someone who just joined a gym again and has begun working out again, learning to not eat everything I want, move my body again, I’m having to remember this.

For me, most of the work I have to do is simply getting past the threshold of not doing anything. If I can begin to do something, I know I’ll want to keep doing things. Sometimes it helps to start at the most boring but necessary point, I’ve found, which is why I often write out bills or check my bank balance, often writing out a budget for myself for the month, before I begin to write. Anything I write after that is going to be better than that dull accounting. Sometimes it helps to change the status on my Facebook page. Sometimes it helps to read the news. Or to read a writer I despise aesthetically or personally. Whatever it takes to get a mutter started, something in me to growl or wag its tail. I’ve done it for long enough that I now trust that something will happen once I begin. Usually there’s a metaphor that appears suddenly and almost joyously. And when it appears I follow its hints forward.

When I was in Lynn Emanuel’s workshop in graduate school, she used to have us write toward the thing we didn’t like. To write a “Bad Poem” about it even. To write as many bad poems as we needed. Dull lists of our angers and frustrations. It usually had a salutary effect. Who or what is the adversary? Exhaustion? Fear? Ignorance? Discomfort? Laziness? Grief? Anger? A Fear of Being Awful or Trivial or Disenchanted or Mary Oliver or John Ashbery or Doctor Seuss?  Write each fear its own ode, maybe a line a day for a month, for a year.

Of course, how do I turn that assignment on myself in order to workout, or to help my friend who is afraid of falling on ice? To walk deliberately slow maybe, as opposed to trying to be brave and trying to walk normally? To work out deliberately slowly maybe–five minutes on the lowest setting of the treadmill maybe? So far, I’ve been going easy on the ellipticals at the beginning and finding that my body begins to want to go longer.  This morning I started with a song on my iPhone that is the song my husband and I chose for our marriage song, Peter Gabriel’s The Book of Love. “The Book of Love is long and boring,” it begins…and then turns “but…” and the song begins to summon something out of me that still surprises me sometimes: hope, energy, love.

What if you made a ritual to write only three sentences every morning? Maybe only enough for a postcard. The sentences could be about the cat or the birds outside the window or that irritating guy at the cafe. Or to write only a list of twenty words that rhyme, or had the short a sound inside them, or wrote one word for each of the letters of the alphabet? What are 26 things that make your life worth living, make it joyful, make it your life? That might be more than enough for a day.

Maintenance: some notes

So, I’ve locked myself out of the house. Luckily I now have this person called a husband to call, who has a set of keys to the house and who will come home at five from work. Also lucky, I didn’t forget my wallet, so I could walk over to a coffeehouse nearby to wait out the time. Why not write a new blog post? I’ve been meaning to write something anyway but just never seemed to find the time to sit down. It’s been a busy fall.

At the moment, the new responsibilities I’ve taken this term as Acting Director have swallowed up the kind of free and open time I’m used to having. At first, being a Director seemed easy, almost a joke. I normally teach three classes a term, but as Director I teach only one. ONLY ONE! I thought. What will I do with all the free time? For most of September, in fact, there was little to do but attend a few meetings, speak authoritatively in a few public spaces.

Then the requests began to rise–for letters of recommendation, for teaching observation letters from colleagues, for meetings to talk about curriculum issues, about class proposals, about recruitment efforts, about preparing for a visit by the new Chancellor. Then there’s the scheduling and scheduling and scheduling one needs to do, of the tenure stream faculty, the nontenured stream faculty, the graduate students, each group with particular needs, rules, deadlines, expectations, traditions. It has helped enormously to have been trained as a poet; scheduling feels much like putting a sestina together. But at this point, it feels like I’m trying to write at least ten sestinas simultaneously.

So, I’m thinking today about the work of maintenance. A large part of the Director’s job is to keep the many threads of a program moving along, which means of course knowing about the many threads, which is itself exhausting in a large program like ours, which has undergraduate activities, graduate activities, committee activities, and faculty who are working on a wide variety of projects. You have to learn to trust and delegate, encourage some people to take risks, encourage others to restrain themselves, help yet others to articulate things they’d like to pursue. It’s a lot of listening to others’ ideas, hopes and fears. When I go home at night, I have to sit a while and let the voices of other people stop swirling around in my head. Video games have been surprisingly useful.

At first it didn’t seem too much to take home, but lately I’ve noticed how much of my own life has been put aside. I haven’t been to the gym for about two months. I need to take the car for an oil change. My hair’s gotten long. The house has become cluttered again. The laundry remains in the laundry bag, unfolded, picked through every morning instead of actually put away.

Of course, that might just be how the middle of the term always is, and I’m just not remembering it. The middle of the term is usually when it feels like everything is falling apart, when I begin to suspect that I haven’t taught anybody anything. Maybe it’s easier to blame this new responsibility I have for this feeling that my feet aren’t exactly touching the ground anymore. I don’t know. New things always suck up a lot of energy, I suppose, because we don’t know if we’ll succeed or what success even looks like. Maybe what would be helpful to do instead of feel anxious would be to think about what would count as success? What’s been accomplished so far? What needs to happen still?

I am glad to say that the prose book I’ve been working on is coming together. I am managing to give it time and space, which means revising these days rather than writing anything new. What helps is to work early in the morning on writing, give up the afternoon to teaching and administrative work, and then give the evening to the dog, the husband, and if there’s energy left, the house which is needing some repair work done.

This is, I need to remind myself, a full life. This is also, I should add, my first time having so much work entrusted to me.

I type that and wait for some feeling of happiness to flutter up, the dull ache in my back from typing this on a low coffee table ease up a little. Nope. I’m still tired. I do manage to sit up a little straighter so my vertebrae don’t have to hold up everything.

And when all else fails and I lock myself out of my own house, I can call my husband who will show up, tired from waiting on other people too, and unlock the front door, where the dog who has been expecting me back after all this time away, will begin whining with a mix of relief and happiness. I am not alone or responsible for everything, they remind me.

Marriage

So I got married last Friday, October 10.  We had a simple ceremony at a local district magistrate who is an old friend, and then a group of friends and family later that evening at our house. I say simple, but we had a handful of family from both sides present to snap pictures and beam good energy at us as we both struggled not to cry during the recitation of the vows. Several friends thought we’d write our own vows, because, well, I was a writer, and so of course…But I shook my head and said that the traditional ones were going to be enough. I in fact didn’t want to be too individual at that moment. I wanted to be like most other Americans who take the traditional route. For richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do we part. I wanted my marriage to be a moment to feel a part of the larger life of humanity; I wanted to say the words that most people say. And it was enough to bring tears to my eyes.

And now I wear the ring. Everybody at the dog park today asked me if I felt different. And I do and I don’t. What I do have for sure is an understanding about marriage that I didn’t have before I met my husband, Michael. What I found in him was someone with whom I could be really stripped down vulnerable. I don’t think I ever felt that before. It might be that I’ve finally gotten to a point in my life where I could be vulnerable, and there was Michael at the right moment with his warmth and kindness and handsome-ness. I don’t know though. It doesn’t seem to help to figure out the reasons why we work.  It seemed to happen quickly.  We both feel lucky. It feels right.

Geese fly over us, toward the river a few blocks away.  We’re two days past the wedding. The house has been returned, more or less, to normal.  I had to clear the back patio for the party, a thing I’d been putting off for years, and now we’re sitting out here with Andy and the two pumpkins I carved. He’s reading and I’m writing this. Andy lounges on an old blanket underneath the patio table.  He’s adjusted pretty well to the new arrangement, although he still howls at Michael when he comes in late from work.  But right now, on this patio which I’d been neglecting for a while now, we’re suddenly a family.

So I begin again, a new experiment in living. Today we walked over to the local breakfast diner, then to the new card store where we bought enough envelopes for thank you cards, then to the new movie theater to find out how much tickets are. What do married people do? Have adventures together. Have fun. Have hope for the future, which in my more skeptical years sounded like a terrible cliche.

Some things haven’t really changed; Michael has been effectively living with me for months now.  We’ve been sharing bathrooms, kitchens, tv remotes, laundry, soap, and razors. We go grocery shopping together.

I feel like I’ve now officially bought a ticket to a long trip. As has he, of course. We’re promising each other we’re not going to bail on the other, that we trust each other to companion us, to be our plus ones. To become fixed points around which we can begin to plan things. I am here for you.

A huge flock of geese flies over. We both look up.  Fall is coming. The trees are turning red and orange. There’s a kind of loneliness in it, a kind of inward turning that we both love.

First he has to get back to school. I have to finish my book of prose. This summer we’re taking our honeymoon to Scotland.

Noah Stetzer

noah.stetzer@gmail.com

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