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Filtering by Tag: Joanna Campbell

Making a Harp - Part 2

Joanna Campbell

"Creative Commons 10th Birthday Celebration San Francisco" by tvol is licensed under CC BY 2.0 Read Part 1

I’ve learned not to expect Dennis, my harp maker, to have the same needs and desires as I have. I often invite Dennis to walk with me on the beach. The answer is usually, “Sure, at some point.” We don’t need to have the same tranquil, renewing, or magical moments. I’m not twenty-one. I’m forty.

As I write in the back bedroom, Dennis wanders in with a cup of coffee. “I thought you might like this,” he says as he hands me the cup. “Oh, I forgot to tell you,” he continues, “I found a bunch of shells.” I assume he means he opened a drawer somewhere in the condo and found shells. “I walked to the end of the key early this morning, and I picked these up along the way.” Suddenly, I have no interest in writing. In our five years of marriage, I’ve never known my husband to walk on the beach by himself. My invitations to walk together usually mean tearing him away from a book or a project or cooking. “Come see what I found,” he says.

He lifts up a large and intact cockle from a pile of smaller shells. “I need to wash my vest because I filled my pockets until they bulged.” Dennis shows me ponderous arcs, oysters, scallops, and clams. There are dozens of cross barred venuses. I wonder if this is the same face he made on Christmas mornings when he was a kid.

“I had an idea that I could shave down the broken ones and use them as inlay on the harp.”

“Really?  You can do that,” I ask.

“Sure. I’ve got all the right tools.”

“What about these?” I show him the jingle shells I’ve been collecting. They are paper thin and iridescent.

“Oh wow,” he says, “These are beautiful  Let’s find more of those.”

My earlier agitation at sawdust and noise feels puny. My pettiness is a freakish chin hair that keeps coming back no matter how often I pluck it. I give up on writing at the beach. Instead, I walk the surf and collect shells for my husband. They will make us so much better

Making a Harp - Part 1

Joanna Campbell

extension-996004_1920On the second day of our impromptu beach vacation, Dennis decides to buy an electric planer at a local hardware store. “The oak panels need to be thinner, so they will resonate more once the harp is complete.”

“Uh, what,” I ask. “I thought that was the reason for sanding the pieces before we left.”

“Yes, but thinner wood will make the sound so much better.”  

A parade of images flashes through my mind. Sawdust filling every crack and crevice of the beach condo. Neighbors beating down our door because sawdust has drifted to their condo. Various kinds of bodily harm due to malfunctioning equipment.

I love my husband. We have been married for five years. He is building me a harp because I once played years ago, and it delights him to make things with his hands. As he builds, as the tools and sharp objects pile up, my nerves feel frayed. I have trouble with disorder. My own chaos is fine, but pairing it with my husband’s is an uncomfortable challenge. The older I get, the more I see my own hypocrisy, but this awareness doesn’t prevent it from sprouting like a rogue chin hair.

I sit on the couch and write but mostly stare out the window to the ocean. Dennis is on the balcony operating a planer that sounds like the world’s loudest dentist drill. I try not to watch. Focus on your writing. He pauses and pokes his head in, his curly hair coated in fine dust. “Too loud,” he asks softly, and then,“It won’t take very long.” Instead of saying, Yes, it’s too loud, and this feels crazy, I say, “No problem.” This is what you say when your spouse is building you a harp.

My parents have been married for over forty years, an impressive feat given they were both previously married. They taught me much. I seemed to have missed the lesson about how your spouse’s delight can also drive you mad at times. Not only is it pure joy for Dennis to work on the harp, it is an offering in celebration of my talents. No one told me something so gracious could make me irritable and petty. Our premarital counselor, Stephen, never mentioned this possibility. Stephen was on point when he ended our final session with, “One of you will need to decide who is in charge of opening the mail.” At the time, I thought he was making a joke. At the time, I didn’t realize the full consequences of marrying someone with virtually the same personality preferences.  

This means many things. It means we are drawn to spontaneity and living in the moment. Once, while driving from Arkansas to Washington, we ran out of gas two days in a row. We were caught up in telling stories, and the needle slid past my notice. The inconvenience turned into an adventure, and we loved it. It also means we are reluctant to open the mail, and I usually reward myself with a good cry after tending to home finance. Our similar personalities mean we both love creativity, and we often make messes in the process. Sometimes our creativity coexists peacefully as we write or read. Sometimes Dennis’s creativity is loud when mine is quiet.

I wake in the morning to find Dennis organizing his tools between the dining room and the balcony. “Where will you work this morning,” I ask. “I’d like to write.”

“I feel like I’m running you off,” he says.

“No, just tell me where you’re going to work, so I know where I can write.”

The back bedroom with a closed door and shuttered window turns out to be the best place to write. I’m not tempted to stare out the window to the waves crashing. I will not become an expert in sea gulls. Dennis lends me his high tech headphones to cover my ears entirely, and I begin typing.

Read Part 2


Joanna Campbell

sand-177406_1280 It’s hard writing about the salty Gulf Coast without the taste of fried biscuits in Mendenhall, Mississippi, or the hypnotic curves of rice paddies in southeast Arkansas, the lonely cotton gins and weathered Baptist churches that survive calamitous storms year after year. Before we can throw our bodies into the roiling sea, there’s a rite of passage we must traverse. It takes nine-and-a-half hours to drive from Little Rock to Orange Beach. Nine-and-a-half hours of poverty and the whims of commodity crop economics. It used to be cotton and rice. Now it’s GMO corn and soy. “You can’t even eat that corn,” my mom would say. A black cloud of starlings shoots past us. “I know, it all goes to the cows outside Denver,” I would reply. Dollar General replaced the mom-and-pop small town shops, and now even those soul-starved places are empty, only to be filled by storefront churches promising salvation by the highway. One sign reads Just Church. Fast food wrappers skitter along asphalt and half-smashed snakes. Upturned armadillos try to hold up the sky with their stubby legs. Meanwhile, kudzu swallows up longleaf pines and the lives that depend on them, and the forest turns into a tomb, encased by this foreign, medicinal vine only Agent Orange could knock out. The roadside greenbelt looks more like a freak show displaying storybook monsters frozen in time – their movements, their joys, their battles all swallowed up by this relentless vine. I don’t care how medicinal it is and what the rumors are for curing cancer. That vine is killing the forests.

We drive and drive through one small southern hamlet after another. We look for the places where the good bathrooms are. Lake Providence. Hattiesburg. We pass the HoJo where my parents stayed on their way to New Orleans for their honeymoon. I casually mention that I’ve never tried boiled peanuts. My husband shakes his head and exclaims, “You’ve never     tried   boiled    peanuts!” We stop at the first roadside sign—just a piece of cardboard and the words, Boiled Peanuts, written in black marker. A round man in overalls scoops them out of a steaming metal barrel next to his pickup truck. I hold the heavy brown paper bag between my legs and feel the warmth radiate through my thighs. The slippery peanuts taste like what they actually are, legumes, and this feels right. I can’t finish the whole bag. I can’t write about the ocean without covering the ground leading there. Those peanuts and disenfranchised farming dreams. We cross five hundred hardscrabble miles for the promise of beach paradise at the end of the road. Yes, there is beach litter – cigarette butts, Styrofoam scraps, tampon applicators, and the odd flipper. Tar balls have decreased since the 2010 oil spill. Pelicans, osprey, and gulls act like nothing happened. Some say not to eat the oysters and shrimp, but I can’t resist the flavors holding my childhood together. I walk to the water and dive into a small wave. A school of fish shoots past me, and I know my ashes will be scattered here someday. I know I will return and become part of a swirling gyre of manmade debris and God’s holy mysteries, and that will be fine.



Joanna Campbell


I turn forty in a few weeks, and I want to find the blocks I played with in kindergarten.

Instead, I am trying to figure out practical solutions for replacing a claw foot tub with a walk-in shower.


My childhood blocks were simple squares and rectangles, painted every hue in the color wheel. I loved the feel of them in my hands, between my fingers. Unvarnished. No protective gloss. I remember learning the word, periwinkle, for my favorite block. I loved the feel of the word in my mouth.


I was snorkeling in the Swan River when I felt that same joy again. It was October in western Montana. My hands and face were numb from the frigid water, but coming face to face with a cutthroat trout in a deep inky pool under a full moon overwhelmed those discomforts. I learned that fish are less fearful at night and even allow a flashlight pointed at them. For two months, my classroom was outdoors, and my teachers were a mix of people and the land. I remember nearly everything from those two months studying ecology and community forestry.


I am angry about the gap between kindergarten and college. I am angry about the leaky bathtub. My husband doesn’t have this struggle. His mind lights up with seemingly random bits of creativity, just as a kindergartner discovers new galaxies in a pile of blocks. I don’t think his education was very different from mine. And yet, he is fearless about exploring his imagination.

“I could build it myself,” he says. I internally calculate the probability of completing a DIY bathroom within a week, a month, half a year. “Uh huh,” I say.

“You know what,” he exclaims. He’s excited and looks right at me. “I could lay paving stones on the floor!”


“Yeah, that’d look really nice, and we would just treat it once a year.”

Instead of trying to be a kindred spirit and channel my inner kindergartner, I think, but what if one of us dies?  I’d completely forget about that stone, and I’d be left widowed with a cracked floor. Or, even if we live long and healthy lives together, neither of us want to expend the energy trying to remember to care for the stone.


The closest I’ve come to finding my childhood blocks is a set of pastels. I once placed each powdery stick on the exposed roots of a foxglove flower in my front yard. The pastels cascaded into the soil, and my heart skipped a beat. I played in the dirt and photographed the marriage created between earth and an art supply. It was thrilling.


I later learned that the founder of my college field semester wanted to teach students what they had forgotten from kindergarten. How to listen. How to share. And, she knew that outdoor, experiential education encouraged joy and creativity.


My kindergarten was a metaphorical sandbox where innovation sprouted. I have three memories that still glow as if they happened yesterday:

  1. Crying until I stuck my lip out on the first day.
  2. Frequent visits to the time-out spot.
  3. Playing with the most amazing set of blocks.

I will turn forty soon. As the day approaches, I see certain facts with alarming clarity.

  1. The older I get, the more aware I am of my mistakes, ignorance, and ego.
  2. My mind is packed full of lessons and self-help ballyhoo*.
  3. I continue to circle back to lessons I thought I already mastered.
  4. I’m more honest about expressing myself, even when it’s scary or embarrassing.
  5. I want more joy and play in my life.

These blocks have power over me. I don’t want a fancy car for my birthday or a new wardrobe. I want to play. I want to play with my kindergarten blocks.

It makes sense to remember the kindergarten penalties from an evolutionary survival perspective. Don’t bust open packets of mayonnaise with your heel, or you’ll get in trouble.

Perhaps I cried on the first day because I had spent most days with my nanny, who resembled the young woman on a package of Sun-Maid raisins. My nanny had a closet full of art supplies and an aquarium full of tetra fish. Gold flecks sprinkled her popcorn ceiling, and her house smelled like fabric softener. I did not want to leave that bit of heaven for a strange place full of strangers.

My childhood blocks are a keystone species** of my formal education. They embody hopeful words like curiosity, possibility, and resiliency. These words have become a vulnerable species as I’ve grown older. I want to step forward with more intention toward wonder. 


The more fearless my husband is with his imagination, the more rational I am in response, the more practical. That’s not a good idea, I will say. I can’t help but wonder, though, what am I missing out on by avoiding mistakes?  

The closer I am to forty, the more delusional my desire becomes to avoid messing up. As if getting older means I may now live perfectly. The only perfection I’ve ever experienced is a manicure.

Maybe I need to lighten up on this constant reflection about what I’ve learned in the past forty years. I’ve made many painful and beautiful messes.

Still, I want to return to the kindergarten neurons in my brain, to the grassy habitat uncluttered by fear and cache seeds for unanticipated possibilities. I want to play and enter my forties with wide, open zeal.

Yesterday, my husband and I went to an art supply store just for fun. He bought indigo ink for his fountain pen. I couldn’t find the blocks from my childhood, but I brought home a set of colored pencils. I spent the evening coloring in my journal while we watched a prime time television drama.

“Let’s try the paving stones,” I say.

“It’ll be fun,” he says. “Let’s see what happens.”  


* What a wonderful word, ballyho. 

**Keystone species are plants and animals identified as essential to the survival of other plants and animals. Healthy habitat for a bird called Clark’s nutcracker, for example, is tied to the health of whitebark pines, which also affect the health of squirrel, trout, and bear populations.


Joanna Campbell

Dennis and Mike My brother-in-law died on Thanksgiving. His death took him away from a suffering that began, in truth, the day his wife died suddenly nine years ago. His wife’s death did not mark a tragic beginning. It was a bookend holding up decades pressed against the day his father drowned trying to save his life in the Spring River.

The news about Mike stunned me for a moment, and then I breathed a little easier. Mike was free. The cancer didn’t get him. That was our biggest fear. Pneumonia eased him into a greater life unburdened by softball-sized tumors and excruciating pain. If vices exist in heaven, he can now drink without becoming an alcoholic. He can smoke without getting cancer. He is made whole. This is what I am to believe as a Christian. That’s good news in my tradition.

Here’s the problem. Now that he’s been relieved of his pain and angst, I’d like him returned back to us, whole and renewed. He’s been dead for over a week. That’s plenty of time to rest. In my book, he’s had a decent break from this messed up world and his broken body.

I never knew Mike before his wife died. I’m told he was a pillar of his community. I don’t need him to be a pillar. I wouldn’t mind if he returned in a cloud of cigarette smoke. I just want to see him restored, free of pain long buried in a riverbed. I need his stories, his expressions, his laughter, and music. I need him to be a brother to my husband and a father to my niece and an uncle to my husband’s children.

When my husband was fighting for his own life in a Seattle hospital a few years ago, I talked Mike out of driving 2,200 miles to break his brother out of ICU. I don’t doubt Mike’s conviction that his little brother was better off in his hands. Now my husband and I are released from our worries. We will no longer wonder about Mike’s mental and physical health. This trade-off feels like a bum deal.

The shape of my husband’s family is made by the endings of family members gone too soon.

I’ve known about death in the pot since I was little. My parents never shielded it from me. Mike’s death is different. It’s uncomfortably fresh. I feel such relief that he is no longer afflicted that I forget he’s dead. And then I remember. And it’s stunning.

A sharp December wind strikes my face as I walk to church on this second Sunday in Advent. I am supposed to be preparing, literally and spiritually. I put my Advent wreath out a week late, and the center candle is missing. I can’t find it anywhere. I should be writing about snow globes and, instead, all I can think of is this ridiculous arrangement I’m forced to consent to. Mike is dead and will not return.

Each year, I celebrate the birth of Jesus without fail. I try, with little success, to block the holiday ads and treacle songs. I try to focus on the raw story of Mary and Joseph and a messy birth in a barn. I imagine what it must have been like to be part of such wonder. It’s hard for me to focus on newborn Jesus right now. I light two candles of my incomplete wreath. At least it has some greenery, I think. I feel selfish. I’m more focused on Mike and his body and spirit made whole so far from our reach.

I know this is magical thinking, wanting Mike to come back as if he’s been away at a cosmic rehab center. But it’s Advent. This is the time of waiting for the unexpected, the miraculous. I am trying my best to prepare, but I can’t even find the dang center candle on Logic dictates Mike is not returning. This means we will never go fishing on his beloved St. Francis River, nor will he and my husband drink a tallboy in a backwater bar.

Maybe I don’t want what I’ve been taught, at least not right now. He is in a better place. True. That doesn’t change the gaping hole left in our family. It doesn’t alter the fact that my husband lost his only sibling. I don’t want tidy expressions of grief. They are too much like the holiday ads. I need the freedom to be messy in our tangled loss. I’ve got no choice but to wait in the muck and long for impossible things until the longing becomes part of an unforeseeable making. I need permission to want Mike back. He was my husband’s brother.

I find a broken white taper at the bottom of a moving box. It’ll do.


Joanna Campbell

My great great grandmother's cemetery in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  

My grandmother was crazy. I stand at her grave in Virginia and know this is true. She was also achingly beautiful. I have seen old photographs from her youth. She is buried next to her parents who loved my mother unconditionally.

My grandmother's grave is near another relative who may also have been crazy. Both women were institutionalized. Both lived during a time when treatment for mental illness bordered torture—or simply was torture—and was certainly a life sentence for disgrace.

My grandmother’s grandmother died of tuberculosis when she was 29. I visited her grave too. My parents and I found her tombstone in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Her name was Elizabeth Whaley, and she lived in the woods near the West Prong of the Little Pigeon River in Tennessee.

We did not intend for our eastern road trip to become an ancestry hunt. One discovery led to another and fed our hunger to piece stories together. My mother found a description online for how to locate her great grandmother’s grave in the national park. She took my father’s arm and used her cane to move rocks from the path. We walked the half-mile, following the edge of a mountain stream lined in yews and rosebay rhododendrons. We found the family cemetery on a rise in the land. A canopy of gold and green leaves shaded the burial ground. We found dozens more relatives. The weathered tombstones still bore the Whaley name. I had no idea this cemetery existed. I had no idea there were so many strong mountain people in my family.

I remember my mother saying a few years ago that she had family who were real country.

“What do you mean,” I asked.

“They spent a lot time on their porch,” she said.


I have known for decades about the mental illness in my family. In truth, though, it was my grandmother and another distant relative, Lucy. That is all. The rest of the women share a remarkable trait. They may have been stubborn or fiercely independent, creative or stern or effortlessly generous, but they all seemed fortified by an unshakable strength. This should be the observation I cling to. Yet, I’ve often focused on the two women afflicted by mental illness and how my grandmother’s mental illness led her far away from strength. She was abusive, manipulative, and unpredictable.

A fear has chased me for years. I have worried I may be like my grandmother.

When I told my cousin, Kelly, about my fear, she set her iced tea on the table and pointed her chin down so I could see her eyes over her sunglasses. “You’re kidding, right?”  Her disbelief forced me to also laugh at the unlikely prospect, but I still feel this pesky fear. Swirling in my blood is the potential for downward spiral. Even if this were the case, though—even if I did manifest mental illness—we live in a time of improved access to good health care. The stigma is changing. I know these things. What I do not understand is this irrational fear.

My mother brought a Hillary Clinton campaign sign on our road trip. We posed for photographs next to the sign on our way through the Mississippi River delta to the Smokies, into the Appalachians, down into the Piedmont and finally to the Virginia tidewater where my mother learned how to survive her own mother. We talked about the lack of strong female leadership in our culture. “The main problem I see,” she said, “is that women don’t have accessible role models of female leaders who use their feminine energy to lead instead of trying to act and dress like men.”

She’s right. She’s absolutely right, I think to myself.

My mother grew up at the confluence of the Mataponi and Pamunkey rivers. She lived on a peninsula and could walk from her house to the water’s edge. Sometimes she found fragments of peace pipes exposed by lapping waves. Her grandparents farmed across the Mataponi, and she would walk the land with her grandfather on Sundays.

While crossing the bridge toward the farm, I asked, “Did you ever swim across the river to your grandparent’s house?”

“No,” she said in a wistful tone.

While driving across North Carolina, I learned about my mother’s first job after she graduated from medical school. She worked for the state health department. “I rode around in a mobile clinic, kind of like an RV, and administered IUDs and handed out birth control pills and gave women pelvic exams in small towns near Memphis.”   

“Really,” I asked.

“Yep. I called it my sex-mobile. The driver was Roman Catholic, but she never said a word because she needed the job.”

I wish there was a photograph of my mother and her sex-mobile.

I took photographs of my mother standing next to her great grandmother’s grave in the national park. Elizabeth Whaley’s son was five years old when she died. He would live in the Tennessee wildness until the U.S. government forced the Whaleys out in the 1930s. He would marry Annie, and they would have a daughter, Florence, who would be my grandmother one day. My mother and I share the same name. It formed by combining my mother’s grandparent’s names together: Joe and Annie became Joanna. My mother’s relatives would worry for her safety as a child. My mother does not know that I know this.

At my grandmother’s cemetery, I found Lucy’s name nearby. Her tombstone was practically hidden by a bush and covered in leaves. I snapped branches and used a twig to dig dirt out of Lucy’s name. I do not know if Lucy was actually crazy or if she was sent away to an asylum for other reasons. Perhaps she showed signs for strong feminine energy, and her family did not know what to do with her. Maybe she really was ill.

I sit here on my porch in the Arkansas Ozarks. It has been a week since we returned from our eastern road trip. Oak leaves drop at my feet. There are hundreds of lifeless leaves covering the ground. I am only beginning to learn the stories in the land. The leaves remind me of the smallness of my worry. My fear is not remarkable. It is a shape amongst hundreds of shapes. What is remarkable is my mother emerging from her childhood, scraped and wounded, full of resilience.

At my grandmother’s cemetery, I take a photograph of my mother standing next to her grandparent’s grave. She sets her cane aside and leans against the stone. The look on her face is of vulnerability, gratitude, and unshakable strength. I want what she has.

Ordinary Round Moments

Joanna Campbell


  • I cheated again at Centering Prayer.
  • Instead of repeating one sacred word, I contemplated the weight of my prayer beads.  Or rather, their lightness, how they rest in my palm like a cloud.
  • Each wooden bead is a container for hundreds of prayers.  The cumbersome words are an unfinished painting.

  • There is an eye on each bead.
  • Really, these are knots.  They are the connective tissue from when the wood was part of a tiny branch—the place where the branch met the body of the tree.
  • I roll the beads between thumb and forefinger.  Often, there are no words—only the hope I am pushing toward something.
  • I try to ease into uncertainty.
  • There is a squirrel storing acorns inside our house.
  • My brother-in-law has Stage 4 cancer.
  • A woman will likely be executed tonight in Georgia.  Not even the Pope could sway the clemency board.
  • Seeing Jesus in the eyes of everyone we pass is an act of resurrection. Rarely do I practice this kind of medicine.
  • Buried beneath my anxiety is a young woman, deeply shaken by the sudden deaths of friends.
  • At a recent ordination, love rolled inside the sanctuary like a pinball. Give your clever talents over I heard in a hymn. They spilled out as tears.
  • I could not hide my face.
  • I want to be like the woman who sings at the oddest times.
  • Today, my loved ones are alive.
  • I need things to push against in order to give shape to a day.
  • The catch phrase, life is short, catches me in all the wrong ways.
  • Dang it.
  • I may already be living my dream.
  • I listen to a favorite song and hear familiar words for the first time, words like cool water, elegant and true. I make them my own, and they move between the beads.
  • Roll and push and touch our perfect bodies with your mind.  Touch our perfect bodies with your mind. Hear this broken meditation and touch our perfect bodies with your mind.


Joanna Campbell

Woods If I can see a tree outside my bedroom window, blood flow to my brain will be different than if I was looking at a view without vegetation. Right now, I have a rectangular perspective of deciduous trees and evergreens making their home next to sidewalks and steep neighborhood staircases. The Italian restaurant across the street is shaded by bare-branched trees adorned in twinkle lights. I have lived in Seattle, Washington, for four years, the most urban place I have ever called home. Wildness and development exist as two tangled lovers, bound by each other’s bodies. I came from Arkansas, and there was a forest in my backyard. I went to the woods as often as I could.

Nature is unscripted. There are no directors, writers, artists, activists, scientists, or programmers predetermining my experience. No one is cuing or staging events. I get to be surprised on nature’s terms, and with thousands of variables at play, the possibilities are limitless. In Seattle, this means a sea gull suddenly appears. Occasionally, a bald eagle will soar. I wonder about the village life of microorganisms dwelling in the rosemary bush that Chef Paul uses for his pasta dishes.

On clear days, I can see beyond the Italian restaurant and the undulating Seattle neighborhoods, all the way to Puget Sound and the Olympic mountains. Though I have never penetrated the heart of its wildness, glimpsing the glacial-capped mountains from my home perch offers its own kind of exhilaration. I know there are six species of shrews and four species of bats. There are flying squirrels, marmots, and Pacific jumping mice. Wolves and black bears, elk and porcupines and cougars are living somewhere in the folds of the land I see from my living room window. River otters share territory with both the spotted and the striped skunk. And those are just a handful of the mammals. Amphibians, reptiles, invertebrates, birds, and marine animals breathe the same air. There are six kinds of salamanders, four kinds of frogs, one toad, and one newt, the rough-skinned variety.

Yes, humans are part of nature. And, humans are influencing nature in terrifying ways. And yes, there are no longer any places on the planet untouched by anthropomorphic choices. We’ve altered the chemistry of the atmosphere after all. But still, I know that walking through my childhood forest is vastly different from using a painting or sketching app on an electronically-intelligent, handheld device. The toolbox on the iPad was decided for the “user” by someone else. The forest’s toolbox is up to your own imagination. You may decide the forest is a place for solitude, reflection, adventure, or escape. It may be a place to play, learn, draw, plant, crawl, climb, cry, laugh, or pretend. There is medicine. There is food. There is sanctuary. There are tools and potential tools. There is paint and clay. There are nuts and crystals and vines. There are bones and long branches dotted in lichen hamlets. All in the forest. All free.

The forest is not framed as a box. It did not arrive in a box. Imperfect spirals and curves and edges separate one thing from another. Nature lives and breathes. Smartphones are not vital organs. Swamps are the lungs of the Earth.

Though it’s possible to reduce ecological processes to precise scientific explanations, nature is miraculous just as human life is miraculous. It is no wonder I secretly hope trees may speak a human language. Or maybe the trees strain for us to hear them. The skin of the Earth and all the wild things thriving from its body are the souls keeping us alive, holding us, sheltering our sanity, giving us hope and inspiration to be more than users. We are creators. We are imagineers in ways most opposite to Disney’s brand of employment.

And here I am, writing this missive on my MacBook Air, created by a wildly imaginative person who loved art and calligraphy and beauty. I am listening to music on iTunes. It is an instrumental piece titled Become Ocean. I gaze at trees and buildings framed by 90-degree angles. The music calms and transports me away from the gray dark winter of Seattle. Given these ironies, I still know with all that I am that walking through the woods gives my heart delight unlike any cyber-styled comfort. No, delight is not a correct description. The euphoria of breathing without worry for what may happen, knowing something exquisite could transpire at any moment and a shimmering wave of endorphins will sparkle through the body—that’s the feeling. That’s the surprise I long for amidst the predetermined criteria of computer-generated beauty. Give me a fungus-infested tree over a perfect sequence of Fibonacci numbers, which produce the ideal pixelated tree. I want the freedom to not understand everything. My body needs mystery and mistakes.

Digging in the Dirt

Joanna Campbell


There is a stranger in usa naked, needy, hungry portion of ourselves, a lost brother or sister of our own soulto be reclaimed by being accepted consciously and allowed expression in life. John A. Sanford, The Kingdom Within

A man I know was murdered on Sunday. I didn’t know him well, but our paths crossed, and our circle of friends overlapped. His circle was wide and encompassing. TC Edwards was passionate about music, rock n’ roll to be exact. He was African-American. I loved the contrast of his long dreadlocks with his passion for heavy metal. But then, TC was a person of contrasts. He was on the autism spectrum, which close friends noted was mild. It is not clear if his autism or his sweet, gentle heart made him vulnerable to bullying. It is not clear yet if the man in his neighborhood who burglarized TC’s home and assaulted TC is the same person who shot him in the back of the head. Here is what I do know. The person who shot TC hid from his own inner darkness, and the hungry, ailing stranger within him got sicker and sicker until the shooter thought homicide would kill the now-monstrous part of himself.

I don’t pretend to have answers or sophisticated arguments about our epidemic of violence. TC’s murder was cruel. The childhood violence that was possibly inflicted on the shooter is cruel. The violence he continued to inflict on himself is tragic. He is part of the walking dead. He left hundreds reeling with grief.

John Sanford writes that unless we are willing to face the naked, needy, and hungry stranger within us, what Sanford calls our unconscious, it will turn even darker and eat us alive. If we can invite the stranger in, “we bring Christ into our lives. Christ himself is in the lost part of our souls.”

For my friends who may not believe in a Christian god or are not inclined toward a faith tradition, may I suggest substituting the words, Love or Hope or Gratitude, for the word, Christ.

In the muck of our fears and pain and revenge fantasies is the chance to find something new. The muck is the place of dirt, scraps, feces, and bones. In other words, compost. The stranger within each of us begs for creative renewal. It wants to be something beautiful.

How to Swim Naked

Joanna Campbell

17 stepping in Life can survive in the constant shadow of illness, and even rise to moments of rampant joy, but the shadow remains, and one has to make space for it.” —Diane Ackerman from One Hundred Names for Love

You pull back the curtains shielding you from the ocean view. Rub your eyes. Step back from the window frame. Your body tells your head it is time to visit the water. The child in you remembers this need. You take a walk with your husband to the beach. The sun dips beneath the lagoon. Your husband brings his portable speaker and iPod tucked in one of his vest pockets, the kind of vest that makes him look like an explorer. He plays Yo-Yo Ma Bach sonatas. You wander toward the middle of the beach where there are piles of seashells. You search for the shells that catch your eye. Your husband is drawn to the broken pieces. “It wouldn’t be hard to turn this into a blade,” he says as a curious child. You look for moon shells, even the shattered ones, and you look for tiny shells that are complete except for a hole you can slip thin cord through and make a tiny shell garland. You watch watermelon clouds streak over the lagoon, radiating behind three towering condos. Still beautiful, you think. You turn to your husband and tell him you’re tempted to skinny dip. He wanders toward the surf and stares at the waves. You turn your gaze to the piles of seaweed and shells mixed with a plastic bottle cap and cigarette butts. You soon realize that staring hard at the litter will not make it disappear. You look up in time to see your husband—running—into the water—stark naked—a smile filling his entire face—giddy. You rush toward his crumpled clothes and get stuck on a knot in the leg of your pants. You do not want to miss this moment. You have never been naked in the ocean with your husband. Never. You work the knot as fast as you can. Strip down. Run to the water and into the rolling waves. “Woooo! This is cold,” your husband shouts. You both laugh and shriek and smile and hold each other. The water holds you, and something…leaves your body. In a split second, three worries accidentally slip into the Gulf Stream. The needling fear a cough may be symptomatic of something worse, a splinter in the toe will become infected, a spider bite will make your husbands beautiful body go septic. The water makes you forget these ghosts for the time being. It’s only a few minutes, and your husband is ready to get out. First, a kiss, you say. You kiss a slippery salty kiss. Your husband walks tall out of the water. You remain and dive into the waves. Feel the shore on your legs, bottom, and back—places normally covered in elastic and polyamide. You love this feeling. You walk out of the water and say a silent thank you for the laughter and dripping. You dress in what is only necessary. Yo-Yo Ma still plays his cello.

You and your husband walk side-by-side, in the gathering darkness, back to the condo. You bob up and down on the white sand. Your bra pokes out of your pocket. Your husband is in his boxers and carries his shorts folded over one arm. He looks good in the straw hat he purchased at the Orange Beach hardware store. You pass the parking attendant who is giving a tour to visitors. “Good evening,” she smiles. “Good evening,” your husband returns. You enter the elevator with your husband, two buoys riding up, hungry for gumbo and music and dance. The light from your kitchen can be seen from the jetty a half-mile away where the beach and the water and the sky are now one inky color. The neighbors must surely wonder about the distant Cajun melodies and the smell of roux drifting down condo corridors. Tonight, the two of you will sleep inside a star.

Getting It Wrong

Joanna Campbell

clouds and power linesI. The first time I tried Centering Prayer, I did it wrong. The teacher warned us we might hear outside sounds — buses, car horns, construction — and to keep an open heart because life is never quiet in the way we desire. She rang the meditation bell, and I closed my eyes. Within minutes, I heard dishes clanking from the nearby kitchen. I knew it was the white-haired church volunteer. She was preparing our noontime snack. I imagined baby Jesus in the kitchen with her. She gave him a bath in the stainless steel sink. She dried him with white cotton tea towels. She anointed him with olive oil. He got a little older. She opened jars of herbs for him to smell. Each time a plate smacked the table, Jesus giggled. They took water glasses off the shelf and set up an artist corner. Jesus dipped brushes in the glasses and made little paintings. When I opened my eyes, it was time for our snack. I saw the church volunteer in her apron, speckled with water, and I was overcome with gratitude.

II. The second time I tried Centering Prayer, I did it wrong. My husband downloaded the app on my smartphone, so that I could practice anytime, anywhere. I clicked the icon, and the bell rang. I kept my eyes closed for twenty minutes and repeated the word, create, until I saw hundreds of things creating. Petals unfurling, flowers blooming, children emerging from the womb, trees rising skyward, fingers on piano keys, enemies embracing, wounded creatures standing for the first time with their scars. No, no, no, someone said. You are supposed to pick one sacred word, a holy word, and just focus on that.

Oh, I said, No one ever gave me instructions. Is there a list somewhere of sacred words? Besides, it was all so beautiful.

III. The third time I tried Centering Prayer, I did it wrong. By then, I was too captivated by images and words that dance to discipline myself into picking a solitary sacred word. Maybe one day I will have this ability. For now, I am smitten by getting it wrong. Too enamored of surprise. A noisy tableware devotee. Oh, the danger of young love!

Lost in Translation

Joanna Campbell

17 Holy Spirit Ring 2 All my fine things are starting to unravel, and I know why. It’s the Holy Spirit.   Or rather, it’s the vintage Guatemalan Espirito Santo ring I bought in Santa Fe. There’s a dove perched on the silver band, and its beak, wings, and tail deftly pull at my seams.

  • My purple lacey bra.
  • My favorite powder blue washcloth from Anthropologie, the one I found on sale.
  • The lining of my red silk robe. (Okay, actually it’s polyester, but still, it shimmers and feels like cool water.)
  • The pocket of my pinstriped “boyfriend” jeans.

I didn’t know the spiritual significance of the ring. I asked the shopkeeper for the ring’s story. The words, Espirito Santo, sounded vaguely familiar, a distant echo of something I knew I’d heard before. Yes, I took Spanish in high school and college, and yes, sometimes things will stare me in the face for hours, days, weeks, and years before I wake up to the plain-as-day meaning. Internet research led to a cornucopia of images – stained glass windows of doves, paintings of doves, sculptures of doves – often linked to the words, Veni Sancte Spiritus, which is what we chant during the Gospel procession on Sunday mornings. (I took Latin the one year I attended an all-girls Catholic high school. Whether it was the itchy uniforms or my own rebellious nature, I think I will ever only know how to conjugate the word for farmer: agricola, agricolae, agricolarum, agricolis, agricolas, agrilcolis. The daily Hail Mary never stuck.) Still, this more recent invitation slipped past. Once a week, I’ve been chanting at the top of my lungs for the Holy Spirit to come into my life, and I had no idea. Now I have a little bird on my finger, plain as day.

Also, I am a cradle-born Episcopalian, yet I somehow forgot that doves are a symbol for the Holy Spirit. It comes upon people in Hebrew scripture. It dwells within those who put their faith in Christ in the New Testament. Personally, I like the stories about the Holy Spirit and fire. Maybe they appeal to my forestry background. I like these stories from a safe distance where I can appreciate the theoretical wonderfulness of God arriving as a fire, perhaps a slow, controlled burn allowing for regeneration. Certain pinecones require fire to open and seed. The best morel mushrooms are found in burned areas. I’ve never lost a home to wildfire. I’ve never witnessed my world reduced to ash and rubble, so perhaps my perspective is a bit romanticized.

Here is what I know. My ring looks beautiful and perfect on my right middle finger, and it is messing with my Feng Shui and fashion sense. My fine things now have dangling, off-kilter strands. And, I can’t take the ring off. I don’t know why exactly, but I’ll take these loose threads over not wearing the ring. Perhaps this is the beginning of the Great Unravel. I remember learning once that the Navajo people often intentionally create a mistake in a weaving. Nothing is perfect, and the mistake, known as a spirit line, allows just enough room for the spirit to move through. I like that.

My fine things are fleeting. Even this ring will someday slip free.

I want more. I want more than correct translation. I want more than the sudden realization that these things do not matter in the grand scheme, though it’s not likely I will ever stop seeking beautiful objects.

Perhaps it’s possible we are enveloped by the Holy Spirit without ever realizing it. Perhaps it sneaks in when we are least aware. Are there Bible stories about this happening without some declaration like, “Hello, this is the Holy Spirit here, and I am entering you” or “I am going to descend upon you in waves of tranquility” or “I’m gonna wipe this forest out”?

Sometimes, I need a mundane reminder for the ridiculously abundant gifts of being alive, for the freedom to be a child of God and to stumble with an open-heart in all my daft and clueless ways.   Perhaps I am even more foolish when I say: the ring can have all the threads it wants, but this is my incomprehensible desire.   Hope is an elixir in the not knowing. There is a slight fearless daring to move forward. Each day, I hope to be born again and again and again.