They say ‘a picture is worth a thousand words,’ so I’ve decided to challenge a few of my friends to see if they can paint the reader a picture in just one thousand words. The subject of this picture? A single word. An emotionally charged word full of subjectivity, giving plenty of scope for my guests to get their creative writing on. After all, isn’t that our job as writers? To pull the audience into a scene, and connect to them emotionally, to let them share in the beauty of our world?
Today’s guest is the wonderfully talented Jamie Killen, creator of audio drama podcast ‘Spines’, and brand new drama ‘Mirrors’, which releases tomorrow (September 12th). Jamie is also an author of speculative fiction. Her latest, ‘The Wandering Land’, is a beautifully told tale of five peoples adventure in a mysterious place of magic, and is currently a free read on Kindle Unlimited.
The word I have chosen for today is…
the state of being calm, peaceful, and untroubled.
“an oasis of serenity amidst the bustling city”
Serenity: you sit next to a bubbling stream, breathing in the clean smells of nature. Your thoughts are quiet and still, your worries far away. You stop worrying about the future, and you stop agonizing about the past. You close your eyes and feel the sun on your face, and for that one moment you are at peace.
Then you open your eyes, and you meet the gaze of the creature stalking you through the shadows, and that serenity is gone.
There’s a reason the oasis is the primary metaphor for serenity. What’s so special about an oasis? It’s just a pond and some palm trees, after all. There are more beautiful places than that all over the world.
No, it’s not what’s in the oasis itself. It’s what’s around the oasis that makes it special. Surrounded by parched, deadly desert, a lake and a few scrubby trees become the promised land. Serenity is special because it is surrounded by danger and trauma. And, just as you must leave the oasis and continue on your journey across the desert, you cannot remain in a state of serenity for long.
An oasis of unlimited size isn’t an oasis anymore. It’s a swamp.
Serenity’s beauty lies in its brevity. No one can live in a permanent state of serenity. Some might try, or claim to have achieved something like a state of perfect contentment. But to be truly serene, one must be free of fear and rage and worry. To be truly serene, one must be ill-equipped to survive for very long.
The serene person walking along a desert trail does not fear snakes, and so does not watch for them.
The serene person watching evil play out on the streets feels no rage, and so takes no action until the secret police show up at their door.
The serene person raising children does not worry about their future, and so does nothing to protect it.
Anger and terror keep us alive. Serenity doesn’t.
Serenity is temporary because it has to be, because a person cannot indefinitely exist unmoored from their past and future, from the dangers and love and everything else intruding on us.
This is what I think of when I think of serenity in my own life: It’s evening, and I’m standing in a quiet spot near the Thames. I’m listening to a street musician singing a Nina Simone song. It’s calm and beautiful and for the duration of that song I let myself be serene.
Why can’t I be like this forever?
Because the past and the future and the fucked-up present won’t allow it. For a brief moment I can feel serene, but that moment is bracketed by a past in which the city I stand on is soaked with blood and bombed from above. It’s made possible by the music of Nina Simone, a woman who fought to survive in Jim Crow America. I don’t know it yet, but this moment is already hurtling toward a darkness that will come years into my future, when my country begins its descent into authoritarian madness.
It’s not all the larger forces, either. I make a conscious decision to let the serenity shrivel and die, because once this song is over I have to walk back to my hotel by myself, and a woman walking alone at night does not have the luxury of serenity. Serenity is incompatible with the need to watch the shadows for men who hate women.
This isn’t to say that serenity is without merit. Serenity is an emotional vacation. It’s the mind unplugging. Serenity is the mind in a moment of stillness, when we are so accustomed to the mind in constant motion. A short period of serenity allows for reflection. It calms and consoles.
And when that anger and sadness and fear return, they are more focused. They are no longer a directionless hum. They have a purpose and a target. They are oriented around tasks to complete, problems that must be solved. Serenity has cleansed the palate, and you can move forward with clarity.
But still we seek the serenity. We meditate, a little longer each time. We take vacations. We seek to prolong the periods in which we can honestly describe ourselves as serene. Sometimes it can last for a while, but at some point, inevitably, you must leave the oasis.
But wait, you say, what about the serenity of Gandhi and Buddhist monks or Malala Yousafzai? Or our serene great leaders in fiction, Dumbledore and Yoda and Aslan? They seem so content, so tranquil. Haven’t they achieved a state of serenity?
No. They’re calm. They’re focused. They have purpose. That’s not serenity. That’s just managing the terror, not leaving it behind. They see the creatures in the dark. They see the blood and chaos. They know what’s out there.
Serenity can never last. It shouldn’t last. Serenity is special precisely because it is rare, and because it should be rare. Deep down, as much as we all long for serenity, as much as we cling to it when it comes, we all know this. A short period of serenity is beautiful. Indefinite serenity is an opium den. Permanent serenity is the grave.
Serenity is an island paradise surrounded by shark-infested waters.
Serenity is a cozy cottage with a wolf breathing against the door.
Serenity is an oasis in the midst of salt flats and blinding heat.
Serenity can never be more than this: a breath, a moment, a blink. The briefest respite from the things chasing you through the dark.
So take those moments. Take the flashes of serenity that you are lucky enough to receive. Sit by the stream, and close your eyes, and feel the sun on your face, and bask in your little moment of serenity. Get lost in that song for the four or five minutes that it lasts.
Then stand up, and face the shadows, and let the serenity slip away. The monsters are coming.
Don’t forget, Mirrors launches episode one tomorrow! You can check out the trailer now, or go and listen to all three seasons of the amazing Spines right now.
Don’t forget, most of Jamie’s work is offered to everyone for free, so please be sure to swing by her Patreon page and offer up a little support.
Check out the next post in this series, ‘In A Word… War’ by Paul Sating, is a wonderfully moving poem.