I’ve spent way too much time already this summer worrying about how my teenage kids are feeling (mentally and physically) and simultaneously trying to figure out plans to keep them busy in light of their sleepaway summer camps being canceled. It should have been my son’s eighth summer and my daughter’s sixth one away at their beloved New England camps — their most favorite places in the world, but a global pandemic had other plans for them.
When my kids got the news that camp was not happening because of the Corona virus, my first instinct was to drill into their heads the perspective I believe they should have in the midst of everything else going on in the world. I talked to them at length about this historic moment in global health, the long overdue efforts to create meaningful change to combat racism, and a divisive political landscape the likes of which I could have never imagined when I was a teenager.
“Camp not happening should be the worst thing that ever happens to you,” I repeated too many times to count and followed up with, “Do you know how lucky you are?”
“We know,” they said, nodding in unison.
I then pivoted to finding ways to keep them busy this summer — so busy that they wouldn’t think about what they were missing by not being in their homes away from home. I researched online courses and volunteer work. I urged them to look for summer jobs – outdoor babysitting, ice cream scooping and the like. I figured that if their days and nights were filled with activity, then they would forget about camp.
And then over a lively and lengthy discussion last week during our Nth (I’ve lost count!) family dinner, I realized that I had been taking the wrong approach this whole time. As my kids recounted memorable camp stories, adventures and unbeknownst to them lessons learned from camp summers past, I began to understand that no matter where they may be, camp will always be with them, even (and perhaps most especially) in times when they need it most. Camp is not something to be forgotten, to erase with the business of new activities. I, of all people, should have known this.
I have not been at my summer camp in Maine as a camper in over 30 years, and yet somehow camp seems to be with me. I have channeled that feeling of pure simple camp joy — of walking arm and arm with my camp best friends up the giant hill, past the flagpole on the way to the main lodge with my wet from the lake hair pulled back in a braid, the fresh Maine air in my face and the bright summer sun on my back. I’ve done this way too many times to count in my real adult grownup life when I am dealing with real adult grownup problems.
When the airplane turbulence is too much for my liking, I close my eyes and sing a camp song to myself, sometimes two or three and I feel calmer. The patches of rough air pass. I feel better.
My late mother, also a former devoted happy camper, kept camp with her when she needed it more than she ever imagined she would. One early morning nearly 20 years ago, when I was visiting her in the hospital right before she had experimental medication injected into her liver with the goal of fighting off growing cancer cells insider her, I asked her how she got through these treatments, which happened on a monthly basis over the course of several years. She told me she sang a camp song to herself. It passed the time, and it brought her right back to camp more than a generation ago. I understood that.
Just about 35 summers ago, as my camp friends and I packed up our sleeping bags and tents from a campground in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, one of our counselors told us to sweep the campground looking for any trash in the area.
“You should always leave any place you visit, in better shape than when you first found it,” she said then to the gaggle 20 some 11-year-old girls. I have never forgotten those words. I think of them often whenever I leave a place. I believe that camp counselor — that day — taught me what it was to be an environmentalist, before I even knew that was a thing.
Camp was where I learned to appreciate the beauty in the outdoors and in nature. That feeling is still with me today — when I take my walks outside nearly every day, when I garden in my front yard and when I stop to admire a sunset or the sound of a bird humming in my backyard. That is camp. That is with me, always.
I pride myself on not being a competitive person. I think that’s why I excel at activities like yoga, taking long untimed walks and knitting, but put me on some kind of team or in a group dynamic and my camp color war, let’s do this for the gray team, spirit comes right back to me. This sense of doing my best for the good of the group, was something I figured out at camp. It’s something I carry with me, whether I am working with other authors in a group panel, when I am working together with a team of volunteers or when I am just trying to get members of my family to do their best. This doing your best for the sake of the team, for others, for the greater good, is so much a part of what so many of us are in fact doing now by staying at home, wearing masks and social distancing to help slow the spread of the Corona virus. I even told my kids that the other day in reiterating why we are doing what we are doing now.
“It’s like doing your part in your particular race for the entire blue team at camp.” I think they got that.
As I watch them ease into their new routines of a summer without camp, I see that the spirit of camp and the lessons they learned at camp are still with them. I see that in their resilience, their adaptability and their actions towards others.
“Camp is with you, wherever you are. It always will be,” I tell them. And I am pretty sure they get that too.