Notes on Camp

Nov 16, 2023 by Amber McClain Shaw, in Blog Posts


Notes on Camp

A series of notes on and after Life is A Verb Camp, 2023.


1. Stand by me

Camp was a reminder of how joy and grief stand close together, touching shoulders.

Poets Katie Farris and Ilya Kaminsky illustrated this profoundly in their performances at Camp, and in their interactions with each other that were so tender they moved me to tears. Ross Gay talked about the word “delight” meaning both pleasure and the absence of light, and the question, “How can you write about flowers in a time like this?”

I wondered, how can I be at Camp, set on fire creatively, while also experiencing so much grief? I don’t know, it happened and it was amazing. And I wasn’t alone, I know most of my fellow campers were also in this space.

I came to camp wanting to focus on the word connection. My first day at camp involved weaving and writing prompts and I wove, in and out, thinking. I wanted to make new connections. I am carrying grief about a critically-ill friend and the kidney that I donated which failed. I am also grieving another friendship that ended without closure. This sadness has created a giant hole. I am trying to be more intentional about how this hole gets filled back up, and clearly, I was in the right place to think and talk about that. I know because I’ve been in the wrong place, and made some stupid-ass mistakes. So I’m a little protective about filling that hole.

2. muse/Muse

I call my creative force/spirit/energy my muse. She shows up whenever she wants, on her own wacky schedule. She will stay for a few days and then leave for weeks, or even months.

My muse has rarely been as active and powerful as she has been following Camp. She wakes me up in the middle of the night and demands that I make notes. I fish out the ideas from my sleepy brain with a net and write them down. Sometimes they make sense in the morning, sometimes not. I am generating ideas and inspiration at a rate I’ve rarely known. I am trying to protect this flow of energy, wanting to keep it around as long as I can. I am afraid to change anything, even the kind of coffee I’ve been drinking, in fear of chasing her away. Because my muse definitely cares about coffee.

This is a welcome change from the periods of time when she has been away for a while. That’s when I try to entice her back with long walks outside, candles, reading, waving the large crystal by my desk, and talking to strangers.

I’m not really all that woo-woo. Sure, I do yoga on the beach and I happen to know that I have a green aura. But I also have an education and a logical mind that protects me from veering into trying to capture negative ions through my feet or believing that sound waves can massage my internal organs.


When Muse, an actual human named Muse, came up to me at the end of Camp, and asked, “Will you come back to Camp?” all my nerve endings snapped to attention. When Muse asks a question, the answer is important.

My muse was screaming “YES, SAY YES.” I said, to Muse, “I want to come back.” Muse nodded. No, that was not quite right. I said, “I need to come back.” Muse smiled in that radiant way. Both Muse and muse knew that was the right answer. 

3. Delivery

When I left Camp, My friend Colleen dropped me off at the Asheville airport. I wasn’t getting on an airplane yet though. I decided that a buffer day in Asheville sounded fun, and it was the same price to stay in town for the night and fly home on Monday, as it was to hurry back to the west coast on a Sunday afternoon. 
The Uber
to downtown 
had a license plate that ended with 37
a common grey Camry on the outside 
but inside,
custom red leather seats 
like riding in a womb. 
Had them done special, the driver told me. 

The driver takes his elderly mother 
to eat at Kanuga 
on Mother’s Day
because the food is so good, 
and also, he says, he is having a mental breakdown.

And yet, he knew
to deliver me 
to my Asheville hotel, 
and not to Sam’s Club, 
which was the address I unknowingly requested.

4. Spirit animals

Little dogs in crinoline dresses, with teeny cowboy hats that slip off the tops of their heads when they snarl and bare their teeth, so pissed off at being dressed like square dancers. Their humans, dressed in hats and cow print shirts, sit at the outdoor bar along the bustling sloped street. Margarita (or was it Salt?) stands up and shakes, trying her best to dislodge her costume as I approach.  Martini (or was it Olive?) escapes her owner’s lap, dragging her little leash to bark at a passing dog. The other dogs watch her nervously, unsure how a regular naked dog will react to a dog in a dress.

I met two friendly little dogs in the elevator. Some miniature imperial somethings, the star-struck hotel manager told me in a stage whisper as they led their owner across the lobby. They are Instagram-famous! What, you got to pet them?

Queenie, the regal black and white Great Dane, was terrified of the hotel doors, her long tail tucked firmly beneath her. It’s difficult to force a Great Dane to do something she does not want to do. There was cajoling, a little pleading, and an attempt to partially lift her, by Owner No 1. The treats came out, which she smelled and rejected. She was not going near those doors, she would rather get on the lobby couch and cower. Her size and power were no match for her anxiety. Owner No 2 finally intervened, looked sternly at Queenie and commanded her to follow, which she did, with Owner No 1 following.

In my hotel room, echos of camp. The hexagon bathroom tiles of the Giant’s Causeway, the body lotion made of Ross Gay's figs from the corner of 9th and Christian, the wooden hearts in my suitcase that said, “Change. Heal. Badass!”

Some things, not like camp, are also welcome; two-ply toilet paper, high-thread-count sheets, and a hair dryer.

I see an art museum across the street. I go. My cell phone buzzes in my pocket. A call that cannot wait, that I know is coming. I sit on a bench, gazing at a painting of a polar bear with a gunshot wound, as my best friend struggles with a raspy thin breathy voice to tell me how sad she is to be in the dungeon of the hospital, because her kidney, that used to be mine, isn’t working. I sit on the hard bench, surrounded by art, tears streaming down my face. Thankfully, other art lovers give me space. I sent her a picture of the bear, her spirit animal. Later I sent her another picture of a bear in a window front.

She answers, “You didn’t think I’d let you travel without protection, did you?”

5. About drinking

I woke up in my Asheville hotel room and was surprised to discover that Matt was in my bed. Under the covers.

I had somehow slept with Matt’s card. His review card, with a QR code. He had given it to me last night so I could write him a review of his service in the hotel restaurant. Tall, bearded Matt, thin and earnest, hair held back and gathered at the nape of his neck, with just two tables in the mostly empty dining room. 

Matt, who forgot my cocktail order twice and then delivered it in a strange way, holding it as far away from himself as possible, like it was going to burn him. Like he was deeply uncomfortable bringing me a drink.

Someone at his other table asked him what brought him to Asheville, and he answered, “Recovery.” He waited a beat and then having nothing else to add, walked back toward the kitchen.

Matt, who moved from Denver, with its 150 breweries, to Asheville, a city with one of the highest ratios of breweries per capita in the entire US.

Matt, with a job as a server in a restaurant known for its craft cocktails and extensive wine and beer offerings.

Matt, who is probably not in the most ideal location or line of work, gave me, a stranger, the power to write something that may affect his future.

I couldn’t figure out if praising him or getting him fired was the kindest thing to do. I just did not have enough information. I wrestled with it but in the end, decided that he didn’t need my opinion on how he was doing his job, he’s going to figure that out on his own.

6. Camp math

x=y, or a metaphor is a lie
Dunbar’s rule: 150
101, the number of my room and also
the highway I drive, at home.
hex code #FFA500
28, the number of photos I took of fall leaves

7. On coming home

My husband
and my dog
who barely tolerate each other
together at the office for days
    one spreadsheeting
    while the other is curled up under the desk,
pull up at Door 4
the place we meet, the door with no sign between 3 and 5
the Mystery Spot of arrivals
greetings cut short by the sharp whistle
inserting us back into the bloodstream of cars

Clean sheets on a freshly made bed,
    you must be tired
a comfortable quiet 
    it’s been cold without you, I had to turn on the heat

A week later:
I signed up for camp again
    you need to be with your people

8. On rejection (all kinds)

Today I feel gutted, 
on the floor of my office
the dog comes over hesitantly to smell my breath
or check on my breathing
before curling up at my feet,
to wait

All I can do is a load of laundry
it doesn’t require much effort
and the sound of being washed clean
is comforting

I think I will lie here, 
for just a little while, with the empty space,
adjusting to the new normal,
the laundry is done
and the dog noses me

9. Because I love a nerdy challenge

Is Camp actually campy?

Campy as defined by Susan Sontag in her 1964 Notes on Camp?

After reading the Notes, I’ve decided that most definitely, Camp is campy. Patti’s orange overalls and meat shirt are campy. The mix of people who attend camp is campy, the mix of the serious and the frivolous is campy. Cranky Patti is very campy. A group of priests in residence at the same lodge is high camp. Perhaps the epitome of campy is the whole sensibility of the talent show. The talent show, where the person sitting next to me asked, "Are we supposed to be high?"

There is much to delve into in Susan’s Notes. For now, I give you note #56 to ponder:
“Camp taste is a kind of love, love for human nature. It relishes, rather than judges, the little triumphs and awkward intensities of ‘character’ . . . . Camp taste identifies with what it is enjoying. People who share this sensibility are not laughing at the thing they label as ‘a camp’, they’re enjoying it. Camp is a tender feeling.”

Yes, that's the feeling.