This time of year, I often remember the summers I spent on Cape Cod, at sleepaway camp. I was an anxious kid in many ways, quiet and introverted. My self-confidence was unformed, my shame immense. I never loved sleepovers, unless they were at my house, so the thought of going to sleepaway camp for eight weeks was literally nauseating to me. I was 13 years old and I desperately didn’t want to go. My little sister, on the other hand, was raring to go.
The Amtrak left from Stamford, CT, and I know of at least one snapshot of me that my parents took where I am looking back, my face defining the term “separation anxiety,” while my peers were chatty and excited. We disembarked in Providence, RI where we moved onto buses to take us the rest of the way. The school bus prompted en masse singing, as they often do, while I continued to cower in my seat. Oh, but when we came upon the Bourne Bridge, a burst of excitement erupted. This meant we were getting closer…passing over the threshold of the Cape Cod Canal, entering a different world for me, my own Hogwarts, in a way. I was petrified. As we wound our way up the tentacle of land known by the locals as “The Cape,” I was sure I would soon be in hell. Sleeping in a cabin with a bunch of other girls I didn’t know was totally frightening to me. I was used to hiding, and I wouldn’t be able to there. They all rang out in more excitement as we pulled into the long driveway, past the farm stand by the road, the main house, and the corral up the hill. A group of small, shingled cabins with were set on the edge of wooded landscape. I had arrived. Little did I know that my life would be forever changed, that summer of 1979.
I had the top bunk, and when I arrived most of my things, shipped ahead in a trunk, had been put away for me on bare bones wooden shelves. The cabin had electricity and plumbing, but showers were down the hill. I met my bunkmates, with shy formality, and reluctantly became acquainted with the landscape and daily activities. Those first few weeks were rough. I wrote letters home begging my parents to come pick me up. I felt awkward and lonely.
Every morning, we awoke to the sound of a bell ringing. We would get dressed really fast and trudge down to the animal yard. Nothing like the smell of barnyard critters in the morning to get ya going! Campers were assigned a different animal to care for each week. There were goats, rabbits, hens, geese, and horses. We had to clean their pens, feed them, milk the goats, and collect the eggs. Then we could have breakfast.
Each camper had a schedule of activities for the week. My parents had never encouraged me to participate in any competitive activities, so I only participated in ones I was forced to do in gym class, which were totally humiliating. I assumed camp activities would offer the same brand of humiliation for me. Archery, riflery, horseback riding, and tennis were all new to me. Every day, we went down to the waterfront as well. A path in the woods, spongy and knotted—I can still smell it, all pine needles and damp earth—lead us down to Crystal Lake where we perfected our Red Cross Life Saving swimming maneuvers, and learned to sail, row, and canoe. The lake was cold, but beautiful, and we went in it, and on it, rain or shine…unless of course there was lightning.
Those first couple of weeks, my saving grace was arts and crafts. At least there, I felt comfortable and competent. Days were packed with activities, and we would move from one to the other by the sound of the bell. Before dinner, it was back to the animal yard, to tuck our four-legged and feathery friends in for the night.
The evening meal began with a song of thanks, announcements that included how many eggs and quarts of goat’s milk were collected that day, and how each cabin did in inspection. At night, after the frenzy of face cleaning, Noxzema and Seabreeze lingering menthol in the air, one of my bunkmates would read us all to sleep…unless we erupted into a fit of laughter, but that just made sleep extra sweet…. It was all so different from anything I was used to, growing up with a life of suburban luxuries like air conditioning and daily showers. And it was so different from anything that was expected of me as well.
If you read Pamela Paul’s article “Not a Happy Camper” in The New York Times in June 2014, you might sense that I’m starting to turn in a different direction from her story. Ms. Paul had a series of unfortunate experiences at camp. When I read her article, I felt truly sorry for her. I guess I realized that her experience could have been mine.
But you see, it wasn’t. Something magical (again, Hogwarts, but from an existential-humanistic perspective) happened that summer. I was good at archery and canoeing. I got back on Rusty the horse, even after he threw me, and I learned how to trot and canter. I cleaned up animal crap and our cabin toilet. I loved arts and crafts, but I also loved going to the beach and the smell of Coppertone. I sang camp songs over and over again and performed skits by the campfire. I came to adore communal living with girls that I grew to love. I found community. I was immersed in love and encouragement, and found a sense of self that I had never experienced before. I believe I found awe that summer. It was a wonderful sense of things being fresh and bright; an aliveness I had never known.
Kirk Schneider defines awe beautifully: Awe is our fundamental relationship to mystery, and mystery is the essence of being. Although awe has been defined in myriad ways throughout history, I have understood it as our humility and wonder—or sense of adventure—toward living (Schneider, 2004, 2009; Schneider, 2013, p. 107). I felt awe in my world as well as in myself.
I had come to camp with a sense of groundlessness, even at my young age. I didn’t know to define it that way, of course, but I see now that’s what it was, and the anxiety I carried with me, including the awkwardness and self-loathing, was part of that groundlessness. The paradox was that I thought being at home kept me safe and secure, and that was far from true. I suppose I could have allowed my anxiety to take over that summer and not have had the same experience. Instead, with the help of others, I was able to lean into my anxiety and find a different kind of freedom.
Camp gave me purpose by helping me to define myself in a different and more accurate light. It gave me meaning by bestowing me with community and lifelong friendships.
August arrived, and you can imagine that, by then, my letters home had changed. The tears that I shed on my journey to camp were unmatched by the tears I shed when we got back on those buses to head south. Now the anxiety was more about how my life would be without camp, entering back into the normalized chaos of my family of origin.
When my sister and I returned, we got the news that my father would be moving out and that my parents would be getting divorced. Enter a new brand of anxiety. At this time, however, I had a foundation. It was still young and fragile in many ways but hopeful and full of promise. I was changed forever.
If I just could go back in time and hear our camp director ask that most important question before supper, “How many eggs tonight?” I would answer, boldly and with conviction, “More than you can imagine.”
Schneider, K. (2013). The polarized mind. Colorado Springs, CO: University Professors Press.
— Sibel Golden