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.
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.
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.