“It is difficult to find words strong enough for the sensation which came over me; Milton’s “enormous bliss” of Eden comes somewhere near to it. It was a sensation, of course, of desire; but desire for what? Not certainly for a biscuit tin filled with moss, nor even for my own past. And before I knew what I desired, the desire itself was gone, the whole glimpse withdrawn, the world turned commonplace again, or only stirred by a longing for the longing that had just ceased. It had taken only a moment of time; and in a certain sense everything else that had ever happened to me was insignificant in comparison.” C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy
One morning I awoke to the sweat of a New York summer and the next, to the moist breath of the South American coast, thick and rich – a morning breath I can handle – it spoke Spanish. I took a staggered breath and opened my eyes to greet a green wool blanket bunched around my face and covering two thirds of my body. No sooner had I stretched my legs westward than they recoiled in response to the Peruvian winter air. Elbows bending — as they tend to do — the back of my limp hands moved to rest on the sockets of my eyes. I rolled over to my back and stared at the ceiling. My mind sped along with thoughts of music deep, warm and familiar, of coffee that I needed in my system, of how long it was going to take me to pack my things, and words that needed to be put on paper for the week of classes, of worry about my Spanish skills. My eyes shot open and I got that sinking feeling. I’m not prepared.
And in that instant, I wasn’t, at least not in the ways that I really needed to be. My months of planning now seemed like a complete waste. As I stepped out of bed that morning, I walked out of the expectations that I had held and so carefully crafted for that week, and set my heart about an eagerness to circle around a chapel filled with Peruvian kids trading tools and create something out of nothing. My new plan.
I would spend the following six days alongside my friends with la Sagrada Familia as we taught six art workshops in a shantytown just outside of Lima, Peru. The people that made this place, lovingly referred to as The Community, surprised me. Their Joy surprised me. The perpetual forward motion of this family unit, 800 strong, was paralleled only by the way they consumed the process of play and life with such a fierce energy and voracity. In my daily dance class, we warmed up, learned ballet technique, created our own movement vocabulary, learned about composition, and had dance parties set to everything from The Beatles to Cumbia to Sigur Ros. To my astonishment and delight, the boys ate up every plié and tendu, including Saul, my Michael Jackson- loving, break- dancing, sly- grinning tornado. As the days went by, and the nerves left my body, I let go of the unrealistic and self-involved idea that what I was bringing to them had to be perfect, and these eager faces before me clenched with the reality: we have to perform.
I could see it coming. It started in their bellies, worked its way into their hands and feet, and finally made its way to their eyes. “We are scared,” they said. “We can’t do it,” they pleaded. “We all get scared,” I said. “We are all going to do it,” I assured them.
On Friday afternoon, four hundred kids streamed into the chapel hall for the ending ceremony, and with every recognition of a friend, a house mate, a teacher, the excitement grew and so did the noise. My never-before-performed friends grew quiet, but the time had come. “Ninety percent of the work has been done,” I said. “The hard part is over,” I encouraged. “This is the best part – the sweetest time – you get to share.” And to my surprise, their stricken face turned as they took each other by the hand and ran, not walked, but ran to their spots and we all took our beginning positions. As we lay down on the floor and waited for the first beat of Michael Jackson’s Pretty Young Thing to hit, I turned my head and glanced at my new friend Saul. He was already looking at me smiling this fearless grin and at that moment, the moment before the music began to play, when we were all lying there on the ground of this Peruvian chapel filled to the brim with people, waiting in anticipation to break the stillness and the silence, I wasn’t thinking about plans. I wasn’t thinking about things to do or words I wanted to write down. I was looking at this young and fearless boy knowing that he was going to tackle with great voracity and courage a fear that was shared by many – that all twenty two of my comrades were about to share their joy. In that moment, I took a staggered breath, closed my eyes for a moment to hold in the tears that were clamoring towards the surface and as the music began, we all stretched our legs westward. The world would turn common place again when the music faded away but what would be left was a remembering, a recognition of a place inside we all know we have. What was left to my students was a conquered fear, a pride in their creation, an excitement about sharing their work.
The moment that Lewis described with such startling and grandeous accuracy was longer than a clip; it was a reel, a reel of whose sequel I dream. The dream is that as we as a community continue to invest our love, skill, time, hands, eyes, and lives with these children, that they continue to have their moments of “enormous bliss.” My heart is that these moments would lead them to find their love– whether it is art, industry, education, family, or the people of the world– and live in their hope. A hope that will grow in spaces made by biscuit tins filled with moss, and will live in their minds and hearts with the resources to make its way to their hands.
That they would continue not only to discover, but share their joy.