“Common Mouse” illustration by J. W. Audubon. Public Domain.
Amazement: From maze Old English. Overwhelm, confound with sudden surprise or wonder. Stunned, dazed, bewildered. Stupefied, irrational, foolish. Wonderful. Astonished. Overwhelming wonder.
A while ago my life contained enough difficulties to give me serious pause and feel weighed down. I was struggling and found that each day was too clumsy and large to carry. In an almost unconscious rebellion against this state of mind, I decided to start each day by telling myself, “Something amazing will happen today.” The remarkable thing about this artificial and ridiculous bit of homework was that it sort of worked. Something amazing did happen each day. My life wasn’t transformed, and I still had to solve and come to terms with my circumstances. But my little practice helped. I didn’t make the astonishing things happened because they were always going to happen. Amazing things occur all the time all around us. It was the act of noticing that was my part of the equation. My small declaration prepared me to observe and accept. I had to open in order to be more open.
Now when I use the word amazing, I don’t mean miraculous angels sing, or the IRS returns all the taxes I have paid. The universe offers better subtly, sophistication and wit. Wondrous, bewildering, stunning things present themselves constantly. Our reception is key. Sunsets happen frequently, in fact, every single day. Some are spectacular and some are like silk. They’re both incredible.
I began to make a list. One for every day. This list includes a woman walking with a bundle of hay on her back on a sidewalk in Amherst; a cat flicking its tail and then landing it lightly on the nose of another cat; a sign that reads Free at Last Bail Bonds; a child singing “My Girl” in the next aisle of the supermarket; a tiny, jewel green frog showing up every night for a week; a gallon of pale yellow paint, a man fixing my glasses no charge, a pair of Jane Austen socks arriving in the mail.
But life continues, the pandemic arrived and some days even when I try, nothing presents itself. And the mice have found a way in. I’m working on plugging the holes, but in the meantime, I have an active catch and release program. Today was the eleventh mouse who needed to be taken for a ride. I didn’t want to do this chore today. It’s an added problem to solve among so many: a desk piled high and worries multiplying. Finding the right spot is not easy. What do mice dream of? Fields near water, three miles from my house, perhaps a ramshackle building? Here I was caring for another creature with more than a bit of martyrdom and annoyance in my heart. I had forgotten my self-administered advice as an antidote to despair that “something extraordinary is going to happen today.”
I freed the mouse on a side road next to a field. When I straightened up and looked around, I noticed a dirt road leading down a hill. At home there was an instruction manual to write, a set of stairs to paint, bookkeeping to reconcile, emails to answer, a novel with characters left mid scene. But the road had just the right curve. I began to walk. Up and over the crest of the hill I found myself in a wide mowed field with soft blue sky overhead. Farther down the hill wooden beehives were stacked and secured for winter. The road ended and fed onto a dirt path. I kept going past farm equipment and through a line of trees to the edge of a small river. The path took me along the bank, past huge trees, brambles, native bittersweet, and milkweed. I followed up and around into a sandy expanse of golden timothy grass, the tiny, dried blossoms catching light like fireflies. And on I went into more trees along the river until I stopped short. The river widened, picked up speed, surging over fallen trees to make eddies and small waterfalls. Ice rimed some of the un-submerged branches and the winter sun glowed up from the depths in its own reflection, framed by the bare trunks of saplings. I was entirely alone with the rhythm and music of the river, its birds and the slight scuttling of winter leaves. I was given back to myself. My better self. If not for the mouse, I never would have walked up and over the hill.
All of this is to say that writing is like this. Following what comes next, trusting the idea of not knowing what might happen, welcoming the unexpected, the strange, the curious, the detailed. Robert Frost said, “No tears for the writer, no tears for the reader. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” We all want to feel something when we read, be taken to the unexpected and be surprised at a new way of seeing.
So, here’s to the eleventh mouse! And here’s to you! May you find your own wonder and peace; and continue to follow the rise and curves of your writing path with curiosity and the willingness to be astonished.
Maureen Buchanan Jones is a poet, novelist, and writing teacher. The author of the novel Maud & Addie (2021) and the poetry collection Blessed Are the Menial Chores (2012), she is the training program director of Amherst Writers & Artists, in Amherst, MA. You can read more about her work, and her workshops held around the country, here.
This essay first appeared in Maureen Buchanan Jones’s newsletter on December 28, 2021.