Reclaiming the Belly Laugh

Camp Mattole, Mattole California


I am enjoying a week of creative fun with 13 other people at a weather-beaten Presbyterian campground on the Mattole River on the Lost Coast.  The forest is beautiful and the weather has been glorious since Tuesday.  Almost everyone here is a teacher, except me.  Most of them have been gathering for years (some as many as 15) and yet they accept me and include me in their future plans.  It has been a wonderful experience of community, creativity and an orgy of words:  spoken word, written word, and readin’ words.

I came at Harriet’s invitation.  We have gone on adventures together since 1968.  First, mostly in our imaginations and now as adults we walk the river, learn to play Kubb, and share books.  Harriet has graciously read my entire novel and provided feedback.  And we have laughed together a lot this week.

As a group we were challenged by Dan the Poetry Man to answer the question “What do you reclaim?” And my answer is: the belly laugh. 

It started with Aline attempting to read us Billy Collins’ poem Forgetfulness.  She began to laugh and couldn’t read any further.  Michael picked up the book and continued and by the end Aline was choking for breath and the rest of us were laughing so hard we were crying.  You may not have as strong a reaction, but I dare you to read it aloud:

Forgetfulness by Billy Collins

The name of the author is the first to go

Followed obediently by the title, the plot,

The heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel

Which suddenly becomes one you have never read, never even heard of,


As if, one by one, the memories you use to harbor

Decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain

To a little fishing village where there are no phones


Long ago you kissed the names of the nine Muses good bye

And watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,

And even now as you memorize the order of the planets,


Something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,

The address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay


Whatever it is you are struggling to remember

It is not poised on the tip of your tongue,

Not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.


It has floated away down a dark mythological river

Whose name begins with an L as far you recall,

Well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those

Who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.


No wonder you rise in the middle of the night

To look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war

No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted

Out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.


Then we learned to play Kubb, an ancient Viking game involving a king, line men, field men and batons played in a large rectangular court on the lawn.  To me this is such a Humboldt County kind of game.  Like Quiddler.  Something about the remoteness of the place, and the internet, allows people to create new fads and crazes that the rest of California has yet to embrace.  Maybe it is the simple creative joy that the people I know in Humboldt County (all friends of Harriet’s and mostly teachers) are still cultivating in their lives.  At any rate, Kubb is an absolute hoot to play.  It allows enough strategy to make it engaging and everyone can easily develop enough skill to occasionally knock a man down.  You actually play better if you drink another beer.  It does usually culminate though in laughing so hard you double over and a plethora of new inside jokes appreciated throughout the evening by Kubbists.  Last night it inspired HaiKubb (5/7/5 poetry about Kubb). 

And if our sides were not sore already they were made so when we played Dictionary.  After some mild squabbling about versions of rules and whether embellishment was allowed, we started to play.  The point is to first find a word in the dictionary that no one knows (not easy in this group), then to invite everyone to submit a definition that might win votes from the group.  The facilitator writes the real definition from the dictionary and slips it into the mix. We sort of kept score but really we were too busy laughing.  It was wonderfully cathartic and probably aerobic. 

I had some trepidation about a week with strangers at a camp with an unknown level of rusticity.  This has been fantastic.  Not coincidentally because the cabins are warm, the showers are hot and the food is wonderful.  The food is delicious with intention as several of the regulars coordinate the dinner menus.  We all pitch in with prep and clean up with the aid of a sign-up sheet. 

 The challenge will be maintaining my momentum that I have built up with my fiction writing.  And finding a way to incorporate the best of Mattole in my “regular” life:  time in nature, physical exercise, writing time, play time, reading time, conversation.  Here I can make all happen in one day. 

Today is Friday and tomorrow we have to clean up and head home.  Maybe in Sacramento I can get it all in over the course a week.