Joy, twice


I’m reminded of C.S. Lewis’ book Surprised by Joy and the double-entendre of its title, touching on the “stab of … an inconsolable longing” for the distinctness of what matters and the joy of connection that is the signpost to abundant life. That’s the kind of joy two different people, on two different occasions, have observed in me recently, even before I could have named it. Felt it? Yes. But the naming of it struck me with the third joy: a new connection with people who form a part of my everyday life. And they now “see” me more profoundly, I dare to imagine.

So—three joys.

My daughter was witness to the first joy, arisen from memories ignited by a place, and she seemed to see it as a revelation, an opening into the experiences of my life that have coalesced into who I am, at core. My husband witnessed the second, surprised by it in the same way and clearly as happy for me as my daughter was.

Camp Riva-Lake

Happy Hiker

In Sewanee, Tennessee, for a weekend together, my daughter Andrea and I decided to drive “down the mountain” to spend an afternoon exploring the small town of Winchester, where we’d both spent time during our respective childhoods. We found the town square radically changed in character since we’d last seen it, ten or so years ago. The Elk River had been dammed for the creation of Tims Ford Lake and a new State Park offering fishing, boating, and camping. The Oldham movie theater remains, where, as campers at nearby Camp Riva-Lake, we’d both experienced (35 years apart) the exciting event of being bussed into town to view a Disney movie and eat popcorn. Now the square has replaced the block-long location of Hammers, a popular piled-on-tables discount store, with attractive little gift shops for lake-loving tourists and summer people; a cookware shop; a snappy bar; cozy restaurants; at least one law office and perhaps a hairdresser’s. We nosed around the shops, but what was pulling me the whole time was not the town, but what still lies outside the town: that camp for girls, a magical place. Now it rests in a cove in Tim’s Ford Lake, also a replacement. In its early days, before the Tim’s Ford Dam consumed it, the camp sat on a bluff above the Elk River. (The camp hasn’t moved; the lake filled to halfway up the bluff.) The girls who never saw the river love the lake. I prefer (with that stab of longing for the thing lost) the dark green river with the swift current that tested the strength of swimmers and the skill of canoers.

We drove out to the camp, memory leading us. Since it was only late May, we expected to have it all to ourselves, and we worried only a little about trespassing. However, we saw a bit of activity near the old stables. (Just the sight of the stables, painted the white and green it had always been, elicited an “Ah….” of nostalgia from us both.) A man was getting into a white pick-up truck, and we wondered if we’d be allowed to stay, to walk around and poke our heads into the empty cabins. I pulled the car onto a grassy place next to the tennis courts. I waved and hailed the man towards us, and his smile as he approached dissolved all worries about our welcome. Andrea stayed in the car while I jumped out to tell the man who we were and why we were there. Fifteen minutes later, he and I were still talking through the window of his truck. Wayne. I remembered him!

His father had been the maintenance man during the years I spent at the camp and had brought his young son, Wayne, with him most days. While there, he “helped” his father, fetching tools and such. He watched us warily at first, but soon we were pushing him in the swing, jumping on the trampoline with him, tossing tennis balls. When his father retired, the adult Wayne took up the torch—and the love—of taking care of the camp. His fond memories of shared acquaintances and events matched mine. We laughed with the joy of recognition, compared notes on the Directors of the camp, a felicitous combination of practical, strict, and delightful women. We recalled the pranks, the songs, the hikes, and the spirit that made a place in his heart, both boy and man enjoying from his position and I, in mine, lucky to be the sharer of the fruits of his presence. We spoke philosophically of those women who had created our summers. Those who dreamed up the notion of rustic camps like this one had in mind self-reliance, healthy activity, sports for grace and a competitive spirit, and, oh yes, toughness. Their vision led us, within the rhythms of a daily structure, to value kindness, to become responsible to a community, to set goals for achievement, and as a result, to a path to self-worth. Such is the gift of comradeship – singing, playing, testing ourselves within the safe circle of summer camp, sometimes including in our games a small boy named Wayne.

My daughter remarked that I had exuded a joy she’d never seen quite like that in me. Wayne had a contagious love still activated in his relationship to the place. What a sweet connection that short conversation was, some magic of the mountain dust beneath my feet, the old stables as backdrop, the preparations being made for this coming summer’s camp, mattresses curled on bunks. Sixty girls and young women will spread their own spirits into that place between now and August. There will be a watermelon fight on the fourth of July. 

Some will hold it in the private cave of their memories as a great, lasting source of joy. 

A week later I connected with a friend I hadn’t heard from in seventeen years. 5000 miles separate us. He doesn’t have a computer. At last, I appealed to his son, Giuliano, whose email address I had jotted down in an old address book and found at last. I was able to seemy friend and talk with him—I in my living room, he in Sardegna. His name is Beppe. Our languages and emotions melded as we spoke of our families and the large events of our lives. This crusty old man, when young, had been a frequent visitor at our student house in Bergamo. He had followed, for a while, the vicissitudes of our lives after my children and I returned to the U.S. In those days we wrote letters. When my grandson was fifteen, Beppe and his wife, Rosanna, had hosted us in Piombino for two days, including an instructive tour of his vineyard and a meal of wild boar in Bolgheri. He explained the history and science of every locale. He and Rosanna had traveled across Italy from Piombino to Narni years later to meet me and my son and daughter in a small town in Umbria called Narni. And then, years passed without any contact at all, each of us consumed, I guess, with family and work and change and loss. What pleasure I experienced! To find Beppe alive and well, still his vibrant self, although sadness has struck his life. 

My husband, just like my daughter, was thrilled with the joy he could hear through our conversation as I showed Beppe my geraniums on the patio and he showed me his face and spoke his language. My husband didn’t understand a word of the Italian we spoke, but he heard in me just what that opportunity to speak it carried: pure and unmistakable joy. It was the way you spoke the language, he said, that announced your utter happiness. I know it was a longing for a time and a self that stands outside of where I am now, layered over who I have come to be. My husband saw it all, heard it all. Understood what mattered.

The past, I see, can add not only understanding and a bit of self-indulgence, but it can also bring new energy to the present, where we reside, with people we want to know our hearts. That’s the third joy.

April 3, 2021

Easter Saturday
Out of Bed, a Resurrection

When I rise from morning sheets fluffed 
like poppy fields around my drowsy mind
it’s a mystery, this sudden rowing back from Styx,
that is, how death dispenses life like that. 

What impulse sends the signal to my feet, 
to find myself fully risen, a bit vertiginous, 
spiraling into day? A practice run, this sleep, 
these voyages to the deep and back. 

And so I grow accustomed to the dark,
and this flickering of my day and night. 
Even the jonquils soldiering in the yard 
lift their heads to sunlight 
after a night of unexpected, 
always expected, snow.

I woke up to the beginnings of this thought, and shaped it a bit into this poem. Happy Easter to all!


From time to time I will be moving from up-front and present posts to entries from past years that speak to a day, a time, a story to explore, the bones of a poem. Sharing these publicly lets me see them differently, explore the times, places, and people that populate my world, see what’s changed, what’s still or always true. I hope you’ll join a conversation now and then. gh

For example:


November 13, 2020 (Oh, my…pre-Covid)

What is at hand? This day. Just this day. This one thing. I sat at my desk, intending to work with words, to write something fine, to make or to edit, and could not. I read the last of the wonderful collection of short stories by Caitlin Hamilton Summie (To Lay to Rest Our Ghosts), followed her gentle weaving of “the story and the other story,” as Tony Earley once described the structure in a workshop. I wept within at the human array of emotions she displayed so truthfully and respectfully, honoring her characters in their angers, confusions, uncertainties, and too-certainties, self-righteousness, guilt. And I napped. I woke after only minutes, as I do, and rose to make tea and attend to some chores while it steeped. Carly fussed to go out; surely not a walk, as we took her for a long one this morning, all necessities accomplished. Yes, however, she required a walk, and as we trotted around the block in the golden mid-afternoon, I thought, “This is right; this is the place to be today. This is what feeds today, heals now; sorts the cross-tangled desires and goals and expectations I’ve been bringing onto the battlefield of my days.

Now I’m sitting on my patio. It’s feeding time for the birds, and they are making test flights to ascertain my trustworthiness. I raise my head. They skitter off the feeder, off the fence, and light in the hemlock and the holly tree, bright berries surely an attraction, too. Carolina wren. Nuthatch. Cardinal. House finch. This is where to be, watching this other life in its many-layered, orchestrated movements. The wood stack stares at me, awaiting its turn of the season, its own transformation, its next mission, just like me. Hosta and creeping Jenny sag with the weight of change, slip, slowing, into earth; the ornamental grasses wave their plumes—perhaps they’ll travel on in another week. This has been a long, warm fall, wet enough for them to flourish and now, to go gracefully. I trust the herbs to keep with me through winter: rosemary, thyme, sage, parsley, lavender—and trust the others to return, come April.

Bless, I whisper, through our collective, shared, conversant heart, those people who grow ill with virus in the interim winter, and those who grieve their losses.

I’m making a catalogue of birds, their colors and stripes and their chirps and songs. I have known them all at times, known them well, when I hiked in their own territories and when I had feeders at a different kitchen window, over the sink, and I named them as they appeared. I’m reminding myself and will pull a chair to the patio door this winter, with a fire in the fireplace to my right, a shelf of books on the table to my left, and take note of the visitors to the one feeder. They seem to love the cover we’ve given them under the holly and the hemlock; yesterday I think I made them nervous. They poked and flitted away, as if on a dare, not lingering to feed. The kitchen window is at a right angle from my sink in this house, but I think I’ll try a shepherd’s crook there if I can fit it in among the machines that warm and cool and the one that measures our water usage. I miss the cardinal appealing to me, wet and disarrayed on snowy days, at my window. We humans crave these connections—to find them, we must look up, look out, even down—but not at our own shoes. There’s so much more to see. Mr. towhee in his tuxedo ruffles the dry fallen leaves. The junco will join him with the first snow.

November 22, 2020—Sunday, a bit of grousing?

I did not go to church today. I’m averaging every two or three weeks. It’s comfortable to stay home in the quiet, in old clothes, taking it easy. So, I ask myself: What am I leaving if I leave my rituals? What am I gaining? The Covid effect gives rise to questions about what is worth giving ourselves to: our hours, our efforts, our precious lives. Religion holds a place, historically, and often for me, as a prime ritual-bearer, but other occupations and duties order my daily living, as well. They make the invisible visible and therefore real to me. Rituals keep me present and attentive on my journey, with a continual probing and developing and practice at accessing my best self as I stumble along. They lead me to my quiet self, the self to whom I am responsible, and the self I believe my particular pursuits require. But what about the accustomed rituals of community? Church. Marriage. Family. Friends. The question of rituals is two-edged. I see that there are personal rituals on an inward path –walking, reading, writing, sitting–and outward rituals, which support home life, friendship, the back-and forth toss of ideas, and people in need, as well as myself in need. These inner and outer practices can overlap, but I get stuck in either-or.

Saying no to community for the sake of the personal is to isolate, to be both self-serving and alone: what is lost is that mutuality of support. Yet, to say yes to the practices of community can limit the practice of personal pursuits that fire the imagination and might produce a word or image that will support, readjust, maybe save, something important on the other side of the silence that formed that word, that image, that story. What is gained by leaving the musts and oughts of the establishment is the possibility of just that. Presence for the thrill of an unexpected electric spark.

A solution? Balance. Courage. Say yes to this, no to that. Save one day for community, one day for friends and service to others. That leaves five days to wander alone in the thickets of my work, in the joy of discovering new ways of looking at the world before my eyes.  Up to now I’ve saved mornings for inner life, afternoons for outer life, but haven’t always respected this schedule. Something often “comes up.” Discipline is essential; and isn’t discipline a synonym for ritual? A thing done in the order and way prescribed and established? In the silent, ordinary moments of the rituals of living (showering, grooming the dog, pulling weeds) come the most enticing ideas. And it’s up to me to be present.

I may be adjusting and re-defining my rituals, for I see that they are not meant to be obligations, but without them, at home or abroad, I am no one I recognize.

Still April 3rd, 2021–A Hike

A hike with my daughter Andrea at Warner Parks’ Burch Reserve took us three miles to the top of the ridge and woods lying between Highway 100 and Highway 70 and thereby led us to the top of our spirits and sealed us into the newness of this season. The early wildflower spring beauty carpets the sides of the trail, may apples’ shiny leaves are newborn, tiny trillium are beginning their growth, and even the spider wort is showing its distinctive design. Redbuds dot the woods with bright wine-pink, and dogwood is unfolding her wounded blossoms.

First, I’d like to express my appreciation to the Warners and all the donors and all the workers who gave our city this wonderful place to enjoy; who understand the gifts of nature for body, spirit, and mind. It is an enormous gift, as are the parks their family donated many, many decades ago. Thank you, all of you!

Second, hurray for coming mole-like out the tunnel of the pandemic into the light of cheer, cautious confidence, and exertion in the company (generously spaced) of others, all seeking beauty and exercise and perhaps some solitude among the trees and by the ponds. The wild turkeys greeted us. A pileated called with its raucous laugh. Here at my desk, I feel I’m on top of the world!

Richland Creek

March 31, 2021

The child in the forest
Does not know the man he already is
And beats the trees with his sticks and his heart
And maybe sets himself with them
And the seeds in hIs hair

Today I’m thinking about the childhood experiences that accumulated to make me who I am today. Those triumphs and humiliations, those adventures, and silences, the books that kept me company, those friends and siblings and parents and teachers: they intertwine with the DNA or the chance attributes of a human and how one feels about oneself.

I had a short foray into dancing, but when schedules conflicted with Girl Scouts I chose the latter. I had pretty dresses and went to teas (a fifties kind of socializing), but action was, and still is, my thing. I’ve said good-bye to climbing trees, but only recently; I choose walking over sitting, the woods over cafés (although I love cafés!), gardening over knitting. The best indoor thing for straightening out a poem or a plot is organizing closets; sitting in a chair with my eyes closed, as advised by writer Robert Olen, makes me a lazy thinker. (But I see his point, and respect it.)

I attribute my values largely to the camp in the Tennessee mountains I attended for nine summers: For two months each year, I lived close to earth, water, critters, trees, and other campers. I learned to learn by listening and watching, and I learned to teach, and I learned independence. I had the freedom to be mischievous and daring; the obligation to be kind and to follow rules; the silence and the creative time to make art and to write; and activities to build strength, skill, and community. I learned my limits, too, socially and physically, coming to recognize that I could be awkwardly naive and irritatingly opinionated and that while I was quite good at archery and canoeing, I would never be more than mediocre at tennis. Most of all, I found my core-deep calm and perhaps the voice of my soul in forests. Hiking on rugged paths, sitting on a large rock in the middle of a stream, sleeping under the stars–these placed the seeds in my hair. I’ve been planting them ever since.