(or This One Time, At Summer Camp…)
Twice a week, just after lunch, you can usually find me downstairs in the fitness center where I work, suiting up for yoga class. We are very lucky that we have two wonderful yoga teachers, exceptional in their own right and not just by traveling corporate yoga teacher standards. We have not had nearly such good luck with the substitutes, though. There was the one who didn’t know the class was only 45 minutes, and had to bring everything to an abrupt end when the angry meditators assembled outside the door, impatiently waiting to be let into the room. There was the one who simply ended the class without shavasana. For those of you who are not yogis, this is practically sacrilege. Many of us spend 40 (or more) minutes in practice twisting our bodies into strange poses and awkward forms just to get to those blissful 5 minutes of corpse pose that is promised at the end. There was the one who was so overly obsessed with proper form I have sworn to turn around leave the class if she ever subs again, such was my irritation level at the end of the last class she taught.
And then there was the one who brought along a playlist unlike any other I have ever encountered in a yoga class. It was bold and loud and so completely out of sync with what I need to practice yoga. And then, about halfway through the class, a familiar tune rose up:
Another day has gone
I’m still all alone
How could this be
You’re not here with me
You never said goodbye
Someone tell me why
Did you have to go
And leave my world so cold
I found myself simultaneously holding back laughter and tears, and I was immediately transported to August 1998. That was the summer after I graduated from college, and I was back at summer camp once again. I had missed the two summers before having consigned myself to internships that would look good on my resume. But I was back now, in charge of a group of twenty 16- and 17-year olds. The 16-year olds had been my charges before, when they were delightful 12- and then horrid 13-year olds. The 17-year olds included my youngest sister and her cohort of friends.
It is camp tradition that this oldest group of girls serenades each cabin at bedtime on the first Sunday of camp. So we did our traditional serenading and when we returned to our cabin, the girls were hyper. I don’t know if they had overdosed on candy or soda or something else (all of which were not allowed in the cabins so as not to attract mice, which in turn attract snakes; my rule was always that they could have the contraband until we spotted the first mouse, which usually was in close proximity to my bed).
And so in this state of hyperactivity, my campers decided to go cow tipping. Now I knew from my own experience as a camper that no actual cows would be tipped, and that this adventure had more to do with the anticipation of the activity: of getting dressed in proper cow tipping attire, of roaming the fields at night, of adrenaline from the darkness. I figured they would end up just jumping on hay bales.
I let them go and I turned in for the night (my mother would later chastise me for this decision). But I had a full day of work at the sailing dock ahead of me, where I would say “turn your tiller towards your sail – no, your other sail” no fewer than 100 times.
So it was a complete shock a few days later, when our Unit Leader found me by the dock just before lunch. She sat down on a bench next to me, and whispered in my ear “what do you know about your girls running naked at the Mennonite church on Sunday night?”
“My girls?,” I exclaimed in confusion. “My girls wouldn’t do that,” I declared with conviction.
What I was really thinking was this: my unit would never do such a thing. Nevermind the rule-breaking involved, it would require far too much effort and energy – and by the time we were 17, we were seen as “lazy.” I’m not sure that we were really lazy, just cognizant that our days of summer camp were waning, and that all we really wanted to do was spend the remaining time with each other. So we ditched our classes, content that we had mastered the fundamentals of canoeing and archery and the like, and spent our days hanging out. This so perturbed the head of the swimming staff (who is still head of swimming all these years later) that she refused to award anyone in our unit the coveted Big Fish at the end of that summer. It’s okay though, we picked up a Best Actress Oscar a few years later, so I think we came out ahead in the end. Take that Big Fish!!
To understand why we never would have undertaken such an adventure, you have to understand just what was required to pull this stunt off. First you had to get up the Big Hill. It’s at least a mile, maybe longer, all uphill (we don’t call it the Big Hill for nothing). Then you have to walk down a dirt road to the front gate and scale the gate, which would be locked at this time of night. Then you have another quarter mile walk down to the church, where you then have to strip down, run around, get redressed and retrace your steps all the way back to camp. It’s probably a 3 mile round trip. Exhausting.
We never would have contemplated such a feat, nor would we have dared go beyond the boundary of the Big Hill. Campers had free reign of most of camp (“expectation without regimentation”), but everyone knew that you do not go beyond the top of the hill.
So that’s how that summer began. When my best friend arrived to be my co-counselor for the second month, she assessed the state of the cabin and suggested we try to tidy up while the campers were away for the weekend. When I didn’t express any interest, she responded in exasperation “what’s wrong with you? You don’t even want to clean!”
And it’s true. I didn’t want to clean. Or at least not clean up after this ungrateful crew.
I see now that I was in a weird place that summer, precariously suspended between childhood and adulthood. The world lay before me but I didn’t want to leave my youth behind. This summer at camp was a futile attempt to avoid the inevitable.
The weeks went by and we got to our final campout of the summer. We had the good fortune to be invited to the “Mountain Home” of one of the campers (the house was built and is co-owned by a very large extended family, so much so that each family unit gets one week in the house, as assigned by a lottery). This was no ordinary campout. Usually we slept in sleeping bags and cooked over an open fire. Instead, this was a trip to one of the coolest houses I’ve ever stayed in. There was a draw bridge and secret passages and triple-decker bunk beds and a multi-story fireman’s’ pole and a crow’s nest and the most amazing porches with hammocks and rocking chairs and views of the woods. We had a group of at least 25 and, with 4 floors of rooms, everyone had their own bed. I even had my own room – and bathroom, which after 9 weeks of a lumpy cot and an outhouse was beyond luxurious (I don’t want you to get the wrong idea, despite hosting future award-winning actresses and campers with big family homes, camp was very simple and rustic).
I remember exploring the house and the outdoors, and sitting on the porch, teaching a few of my campers the finer points of playing Hearts and Spades, knowledge I knew would serve them well once they too headed off to college.
But what I remember most of that trip was the jukebox. At some point the music drew me out of my room, and as I looked down from the second floor to the Great Room below, there were all my campers, belting it out to “You are Not Alone.” This was not a random choice of song; it was chosen as our church theme for the summer and we had been singing an acoustic-guitar version with somewhat modified (sanitized?) lyrics for weeks. Camp was not a church camp by any means, but we did pause on Sundays to pay homage to the “God of mighty hills, great God of the sky and seas.” But there was something about that time, that place, that song, those girls. And in that moment, all of my angst from the summer and my fear of the future melted away.
My campers are all grown now, many with kids of their own, some who are already camp age themselves. Much has changed since that summer, twenty years ago, but that song takes me back in an instant:
That you are not alone
For I am here with you
Though you’re far away
I am here to stay
You are not alone
I am here with you
Though we’re far apart
You’re always in my heart
You are not alone
~ Michael Jackson, “You Are Not Alone”
I’ve been thinking more about those lyrics in the past few weeks, and how they speak to the inevitable shifts in our lives, the losses and the gains.
Another favorite camp-ism is this:
You never leave a place you love,
You take a part of it with you
Leaving a part of you behind.
The same could be true of people and of experiences and of life in general. It all becomes a part of us, for better or worse. And while there are often things we would like to forget, to leave behind, it’s not possible. The bad comes with the good, and vice versa. We absorb it all, take it in, transforming and changing all along the way.
As a mother, I’ve had to watch parts of me – my heart, my soul, my very genetic makeup – live outside of my physical body. My boys are of me, yet they are very much their own people too. Other times I’ve given parts of me away, perhaps foolishly and naively, and later wished I could have them back. But I realize that I am not merely just me. I carry parts of you, you carry parts of me. And in that sense, we are never alone, not even in our most lonely and heartbroken states.
In the midst of that downward dog with the music blaring, I held all of those girls with me, and the highs and lows of that summer, and the promises and disappointments of the future, and all that has unfolded since, alone, together.