Life is moving along at the usual clip, we're living comfortably in our daily routines, cocooned by structure and need, and then: shake up. Something happens. Something small, like a low-magnitude earthquake that barely shifts the floor beneath your feet, subtle but odd enough to be noticed: a friend's odd attitude, problems with a car or an appliance, a forced route change on your way to work, a fender-bender. Or, something big happens--an illness, news of a divorce, a job loss, a spiritual epiphany--and this time the quaking lasts for minutes, knocks pictures off the walls and shatters dishes, cracks the street, warps foundations, the reverberations felt and suffered for miles. This is the inevitability of being human: at some point, we'll all get a shake up.
There are reasons for this, not the least of which my brain is your basic constant whirlwind, like many writers', I'd guess. It's turbulent, messy, able-to-leap-to-anxiety-ridden-empathy-with-a-single-bound, and at times borderline unstable. The word maelstrom gets overused, but that's what my mind is (and my husband can attest to this). The word is from the early Dutch, its roots are Scandinavian, and since these folks gave us berserk and the Vikings, I think they know a bit about insanity.
Here's the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary definition:
1. A great whirlpool, orig. one in the Artic Ocean off the west coast of Norway, formerly supposed to suck in and destroy all vessels within a long radius.
2. A state of turbulence or confusion.
I've convinced that, over the years, I've kept my wild mind in check with reading and writing--solitary, focused acts that so engage me that the outside world melts away, and I'm just left with the page. And so routine and tradition can be comforting to me, instead of dulling. This always surprises me about myself.
What I'm trying to figure out is how, in the midst of a shake-up--whether it's the possibility of a move, my daughter suddenly deciding she won't nap on a day I desperately need it, or a critic hating my writing--I can calm the maelstrom of my mind, yoke that erratic, fearful energy and make it work for me. The last thing I want to happen is for my inspiration (and sanity) to be destroyed like the monster Charybdis in the Greek myth, who sucked in ships off the coast of Sicily. This is a possibility. My ship could be easily sucked.
So far, I've only found two answers:
1.) Be in the woods and alone (okay, so I'm not really alone because I'm always with my dog, Scout, but still). Whether it's twenty minutes or an hour and twenty minutes, being in the woods--anywhere outside and natural, really--soothes my mania. Tames the mercurial beast that lurks deep within my DNA. When it's just me, Scout, the trees, the creek, the thin winter light on the birches, the mud, my heart is free. I can't explain it. Call it time with God, sacred silence, whatever you want--it's a gift.
2.) Wake up early. This one's a toughie for me, because my husband likes to stay up late, and at times I get sucked into (see, the maelstrom again) staying up late with him. Also: there's always the chance that my morning footsteps on our old hardwood floors--and Scout waking and stretching when she sees me, her toenails clicking on the floor, and the creaky, clanky process of starting the coffee maker--will wake my toddler, early, and if it does, well, then... there's just no point. But, when I do set that alarm an hour earlier, when the house and the world are still completely dark and there is something akin to silence in my world, there's a magic there. A dawning.
Speaking of which, that's another word rooted in the Scandinavian:
1. The beginning of daylight; daybreak, dawn; the east.
2. The first gleam, the appearance, the beginning (of something).
So morning is always, for me, a beginning, especially when it comes to my storytelling process. Anything can happen. "Dawn," the Oxford English Dictionary again tells us, means "of the morning, the day, etc: begin to grow light."
I recently read Death Comes to Pemberley, by P.D. James, and afterwards stayed up late to rewatch the Joe Wright (director)/Deborah Moggach (screenwriter) film version of Pride and Prejudice. The Keira Knightley one. (Which I think is a fabulous interpretation of the Austen, by the way.) One of the most gorgeous scenes in the film--and there are several--is of Elizabeth taking a dawn walk, like she always does when she needs to think, and, pausing in the between-light, she sees Darcy walking toward her, his coat tails billowing and his stride long and sure through the English heath. It's utterly romantic. And it's absolutely the beginning of something--something wonderful and promising and unknown. Something, to be sure, Austen fans have dreamt on over the almost 200 years since she wrote the novel.
I'm convinced: Mornings are magical. Beginnings are good, even when they shake us up a bit. There is, inevitably, a morning after a quake. Daybreak promises nothing but whatever we make of it, however we choose to respond to the actions of the day before--nothing but a beginning.
Which is quite alot.