Posts Tagged ‘sleepaway camp’

The summer of 2004 I was on a sabbatical from my work. That summer I wrote every day. I also created with three fellow writers a workshop-style group. At the beginning of each week, we emailed to one another new sections from our manuscripts. At the end of the week, we met in person to give feedback on the work each writer had sent. It was a good group. We laid ground rules about what was and wasn’t allowed during critique. All the writers were strong, and we all made good headway on our projects. I managed to complete two short stories that summer.

One of the writers in the group was a young woman named Amanda. She must have been about 22 or 23, only a year out of college. She was an assistant at an elementary school and had the summer off, so in addition to our writing workshop, Amanda and I also met weekly to do writing practice. We often did long sessions; sometimes we’d do two one-hour practices back to back. She wrote fast and pressed down so hard with her pen that she often had to shake out her hand.

Amanda’s parents were only about five years older than me, and I think Amanda saw me as a sort of mother figure. She moved to Albuquerque for the job, and I could tell by how much she talked about her parents that she was terribly homesick. Her writing was brilliant. It was fresh and alive. She often wrote in the voice of a young girl, but the things she wrote about were mature. Loneliness. Being lost. Loving the wrong person.

It was Amanda who one day threw out the topic “sleepaway camp.” “What is ‘sleepaway camp’,” I asked. She explained: a summer camp where you go overnight for a week or so with other kids. I agreed to write on the topic but only for ten minutes. I didn’t think it would hold my interest for any longer than that.

I remembered that particular practice when I did a post on my daughters’ recent return from summer camp. I found it in one of my old notebooks and decided to reproduce it here. What struck me was this: I started that practice with no memory of ever having gone to a camp. Yet, by the end of the practice, it came back — I had once attended a Girl Scout camp. It had been lost, temporarily buried underneath a bunch of other stuff. Once I started to unpack the other stuff, the memory came into view.

Amanda moved away at the end of that summer. I called the school where she worked but they didn’t have a forwarding address. My emails to her bounced. I’ve thought of her often. I figure some day she’ll turn up again, probably on the spine of a best-selling work of fiction. I didn’t know her for very long, but she gave me the gift of discovering that my memories will return if I keep doing writing practice. 

PRACTICE: Sleepaway Camp

I never went to sleepaway camp when I was a kid. One time, in fifth grade, my mom put me to bed at 7 pm, washed and dried like a poodle, so my dad could wake me up at 4 am and get me to the Alvarado Elementary parking lot by 5 am. We were heading in buses to Carlsbad Caverns.

We wore jackets because it was still cool in the mornings, even though it was almost summer break. Steve McIlheney’s family owned McIlheney’s Dairy, so they supplied the milk, whole and unpasturized. It tasted thick and raw to me, like eggs were mixed in. I didn’t touch mine.

I don’t know if sleepaway camp existed when I was young or if my family was just an anomaly, one of those sleepaway-camp-unaware types of family. I think both. I think some kids went away to camp, but I would wager most of those places were big and not cozy, with chores like shoveling and digging posts. I imagine the rooms to be dirty with rat droppings under the old bunks, which had army mattresses and thick blankets that smelled like dust. I imagine the only kids who were shipped off to these sleepaway camps were on LSD by the age of 12 or sleeping with their mom’s boyfriends.

But I also would wager that there were nice sleepaway camps, camps with tennis courts and horseback riding and swimming in heated pools, camps for kids whose parents thought about such things as developing independence and having their kids have a richer experience than, say, sitting in front of the TV all day and watching Hogan’s Heroes and Star Trek and Gilligan’s Island and eating entire bags of potato chips, the Safeway brand kind.

And suddenly it dawns on me that I was scared on that bus, driving five hours, three in darkness, my stomach empty but for a too-sweet donut. Coconut, burnt coconut, the kind my mom bought when she bought donuts. And how I would have preferred white powdered sugar or chocolate dipped, but how they gave us burnt coconut instead, plus the milk, and how I wanted to sit up near the front of the bus behind the driver, near the teachers but how they only let the feeble kids sit up there, the ones prone to carsickness and how I sat in the back instead.

And now, a distant memory, Girl Scout camp, my God, I did do sleepover camp, I just forgot.

-Ten-minute practice from August 2004

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Small hand, charcoal sketch by Em, August 2007This year at my daughters’ summer camp, the art instructor used sketchbooks. She said sketching was in keeping with the theme for the camp, Look To This Day. I think what she meant was that sketching was quick. You capture what’s in front of you — a hand, a tree, maybe a thing floating in your imagination. You don’t labor over anything or tighten it up. Just sketch, then move on.

These are some of the images from Em’s sketchbook. Em is eight. The first time we took her to camp, last year, she was the youngest kid there. Usually they don’t let kids attend camp unless they’re eight or over, but Em got to go at age seven since her older sister was also attending. Em loved it. She didn’t get sad or need to call home. Not that I thought she would. One thing I know about this youngest daughter of mine: she’s easy-going and independent.

Eye to eye, charcoal drawing by Em, August 2007This past Sunday Em and I flipped through her notebook to pick out sketches to post on red Ravine. She stopped at one done in colored pens. “This is my favorite,” she said. “It’s my teacher’s favorite, too.” 

She told me the art instructor liked it so much that she made a photocopy to take home with her. Em’s whole face was smiling when she said it. Em has big teeth and a big mouth; her smile really does stretch from ear to ear. “Is it a dog,” I asked her. “Hmm,” she said. Apparently she hadn’t given it much thought until that moment. “It’s maybe a dog,” she finally said.

Maybe a dog. I like that. And I love the art instructor for making a fuss over Em’s art. We get our cues early on whether we are good or not. 

                     Maybe A Dog, sketch with colored pens by Em, August 2007
                     Maybe A Dog, all sketches © 2007 by Em. All rights reserved.

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My girls came back today after a week at sleepaway camp in the mountains. The camp is run by an exuberant camp director whose father was a camp director and whose cousins and friends help put on the week’s activities. The counselors are young, hip (some have goatees, others wear pink hair and striped leggings for pants), and wise beyond their years. The instructors teach African dance, world beat drumming, a form of martial arts I’ve never heard of done with sticks, a writing method called Wild Words, sketchbook art, yoga, and “medicine trail” hikes to learn about the healing powers of plants.

This is Dee’s third year attending, Em’s second. After spending an afternoon watching my girls and their camp-mates read their own poetry and play “Here Comes the Sun” on guitar, after hearing the rhythm of their drumming and seeing their dances and yoga poses, I am once again blown away by what an inspirational experience this camp is. Every child there, it seemed, was glowing.

This is so unlike my own childhood camp experience. The one and only sleepaway camp I attended was a Girl Scout-sponsored event in the mountains. I went with my best friend, Lori. Being that her sister Nita was a camp counselor, we felt heady, like we had an “in” with the staff. My main creative memory was of Nita teaching us the words and dance moves to a ditty called “Chiquita Banana.” It went:

I’m a Chi-quita ba-na-na and I’m here to say
ba-na-nas are grown in a special way.
Ba-na-nas are grown in the south e-qua-tor
so don’t put them in your, umph, umph (here you thrust your pelvis)

My most vivid other memory is of the camp head, a woman with set-and-dry hair who dressed in an adult version of the Girl Scout green jumper, admonishing me and Lori for cutting up during mess hall duties. She told us we were not welcome at camp again, nor for that matter to Girl Scouts, period. (We might have done a bit more than slop around food; I think we got caught smoking cigarettes with Lori’s sister, although I’m a bit fuzzy on that part.)

How things have changed! The camp director today explained that the theme for Dee and Em’s camp this summer was “Look to this day.” He said the phrase came from an old Sufi poem. The spirit of the poem, he said, had been woven into each facet of camp teachings. Tonight I looked it up so I might better understand what he meant. I found this version on oldpoetry.com:

Look to this day
For it is life, the very life of life.
In its brief course
Lie all the verities and realities of your existence.
The bliss of growth,
The glory of action,
The splendour of achievement
Are but experiences of time.

For yesterday is but a dream
And tomorrow is only a vision;
And today well-lived, makes
Yesterday a dream of happiness
And every tomorrow a vision of hope.
Look well therefore to this day;
Such is the salutation to the ever-new dawn!

I asked Dee and Em if there was anything from camp they would like to post on red Ravine. Dee picked out something she wrote in Wild Words. Both also wanted to share a couple pieces of art, which I’ll do this week under separate posts. For now I’ll sign off with Dee’s poem:  

by Dee

Look to this day
Live in this moment
Now is all yours to own
Then is but a memory
When is still to come
Control what you have now
Now is all that matters
Look to this day

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