I take part in a weekly writing group. We gather in one another’s living rooms, someone offers prompts, and we write. At the end of the writing period, we read our fresh, new words aloud. One week, the prompt was to pick words out of a bowl and then write a piece that used those words. My words were canoe, heel, and bowl. A challenge—and as always I was intrigued by what emerged.
After the group, I took the raw writing and polished it up slightly—and here it is.
When I was 11, I spent a month at Camp Pokagon for Girls in northern Indiana. We rode horses, paddled canoes, swam, shot arrows at targets, hiked, went on snipe hunts, sang, short-sheeted the counselors’ beds, and all in all had a grand time (although I never did come to terms with the horses).
Before we were sent off in the canoes, we had to learn how to recover from a spill. What glee, what joy, standing on the canoe and rocking, rocking, rocking until it tipped over and we fell, yelling into the lake, to sputter and snort as we surfaced then grabbed onto the side, clambered into the waterlogged canoe, and bailed until we could paddle to shore.
I haven’t been in a canoe in years. The last time was in Maine when a friend and I rented a canoe to explore the salt marshes near Scarborough. But if I close my eyes I can feel the water moving against the shell as I step in placing feet just so, find the balance point, sit back on my heels, pick up the paddle, then stroke and pull, stroke and pull. I hear the ripples as water moves against hull, feel the coolness as my hand dips into the water.
The things that drop away. The things we let go.
I used to shape clay into bowls, cups, plates, and vases. I’d throw the hunks of clay on the wheel, center them, open them, draw up the walls, shape and smooth, cut them off, dry and glaze and fire. I’d hold the finished product in my hands, feel the heft, the smoothness, the gloss of glaze. I still use those bowls and cups and plates but I haven’t made new ones in years.
The things I’ve let go. Singing in a group, dancing with women friends, swimming across a pond with long sure strokes.
I recently watched a TED talk about joy. The speaker, Ingrid Fetell Lee, defined joy as a strong positive feeling that makes us want to laugh and jump up and down—I think of my 11-year-old self laughing and squealing at the plunge off the canoe into the cold lake or my middle-aged self swimming across that pond under a cloudless sky.
I could find another group to harmonize with, gather my friends and turn up the volume, tug on the swim suit and edge into the pond, sink my fingers into clay. Letting go isn’t the same as losing.
These days I dance in my kitchen, sing in the car, walk next to woodland streams and ponds where I pause frequently to listen and watch. I experience joy as a quiet burst of pleasure, an aha, an exhalation. A glimpse of a flower, a trickle of peach juice that I lick off my fingers, friends laughing around the dinner table, the cat’s soft fur, the hum of crickets on an August night.