We’re coming up on the midway point of camp. This is a post by NBTSC founder and executive director, Grace Llewellyn.
I’ve been waiting 20 years to write this post. It may run long. Maybe get a cup of tea and a pillow and move to the comfy chair.
I wake in the 7:30s. My blankets are delicious. Not ready for the frigid air outside my cocoon, I stay put. I’m still glowing from the sweet hugs during bonding night. This amps up the fact that I’m already seriously missing my little boy: for the first time since we became family in 2010, I’m at camp without Yared. Today I can afford to feel the full extent of my missing – and it is huge – because day after tomorrow I’ll be sitting on a plane pointed toward Oregon. Yared is staying with close and trusted friends while I get to enjoy this not-quite-working visit to NBTSC. I lay in bed a while longer, my mind still back at home but now wandering to the fantasy of all the things I might fasten to my brick chimney or the concrete wall in my garden. Trellises? Planters? Paintings? Mirrors? Thanks to knowledge I acquired yesterday, I know that I can, miraculously, attach all these things with my own hands, a hammer, a box of cut nails, and some 2x4s.
Eventually the lure of breakfast, hot tea, and hot shower outweighs the gravitational pull of warm bed, so up I get.
Brushing my teeth I encounter Christian, who is wearing a quintessentially Christian outfit – a strikingly dorky sweatshirt proclaiming in pastel lettering that “friends are never far away,” while a patch on his shorts shares that “prisons are for burning.” Christian is an advisor and project leader here, and in his other life he tours with his band, The Hotelier. This week he is contemplating how to best respond to the disturbing fact that Martin Shkreli, who funds the band’s record label, has suddenly (according to the BBC) become perhaps the “most hated man in America,” after drastically hiking the price of a drug needed by many AIDS patients.
At breakfast I savor my pancakes and homemade applesauce in the company of Wyatt, Max, Matt, and Abby. We chat about the musical Grease, about moving out of one’s parents’ home to begin making a clear transition toward adulthood, and about the applesauce. After breakfast I make a point of clipping my toenails and swallowing my supplements. It’s usually hard for me to remember to integrate simple self-care actions into my camp days, but it makes a huge and positive difference. If it’s hard for me, twenty years in, I know it has to be challenging for a lot of campers too. I briefly contemplate the possibility of offering a “how to take care of yourself during camp” workshop. This reminds me that I often consider offering a “how to stay warm at night in Vermont” workshop. (I take a probably-obnoxious amount of pride in the fact that due to the wearing of warm hats and warm pajamas, the careful choosing of sleeping bags, and the religious nightly filling of hot water bottles, I have never slept cold here, despite those few mornings when ice lightly crusted my sleeping bag.) Maybe 2016 will be the year for both of these workshops. Actually, maybe I’ll just combine them into one workshop.
We all gather in the dining hall for Morning Community Meeting. It’s parent open house day and three parents have made the trek. We welcome them; under Brenna’s guidance we sing a lovely song I don’t think we’ve ever sung before, “Let Union Be In All Our Hearts” (we’re a musical bunch this session and someone is singing in a resonant, deep bass); we hear about the day’s planned events; we play a noisy charade-ish game spearheaded by Evan and Christian; and then we adjourn – those who want to fortify themselves with more Vitamin T sticking around for the “hug number,” which today is 7.5. (Evan called me up to divine the number, so I picked Yared’s age.) Some huggers can actually be heard counting while they shuffle through the designated corner of the expansive room; as for me, I just exchange hugs until I feel done.
In the ten minutes between Community Meeting and Advisee Group time, Zella and I snag the chance for her to show me the photos on her phone – her parents and her little brother, road trips with her mom, the puppet theater she performs with, her friends. When I have the chance to hear stories or see pictures from campers lives-back-home I sometimes get a funny feeling, as if my mind is simultaneously expanding and also nestling down into a kind of grounded, comfortable, more oriented and ordinary perspective. I do love these little windows I get now and then into campers’ everyday lives.
While advisee groups meet I stretch in the slanty fall sunshine and then chat with Evan. I am having an extraordinary time this session, and for that I largely have my dear friend Evan to thank. For the first time ever; the first time in 20 years, I am present for a session of camp without any responsibility for directing. For the past 5 years or so, when Evan and I are both present (which is usually) we normally share this role as co-directors. But this time he’s on his own, and I marvel at all he brings to the task: a confident yet vulnerable and friendly way of addressing the crowd; an unhesitating and courageous commitment to engaging all the little bumps and misunderstandings that must be engaged; making time to connect personally with individual campers and staff; and still the hilarious, wise, witty, humble, and sincere Evan-essence that makes him such a delight as a friend. And maybe because I’m taking notes for this blog post, I pause for another moment to consider some of the ways I’ve watched Evan evolve over the decades – from an enthusiastic, kind, popular, self-effacing, and boyishly charming camper back in 1998 to the respected leader of today.
After advisee groups are done, it’s project time. There was a moment last summer where it looked like I might not be attending this session at all, and the thought of missing Ethan’s project on Fastening Things Together caused blackness in my soul. Like many people in the Vermont wing of the NBTSC community, I hang on Ethan’s every word. After (and also before, I am pretty sure) rising out of college after one semester at Swarthmore, Ethan went on to do all kinds of independent scholarly and not-so-scholarly work. (See http://zemita.net/ and you’ll get a taste of what I mean, but he’s best in person, due to his wicked spontaneous barely-audible humor and teddy bearish – he says“scruffy” – cuddly demeanor and an expansive generosity that is second nature and seems not to comprise much of Ethan’s own idea of who he is.) Last night in staff meeting Ethan entertained us with a NED talk ~ an off-the-cuff 2500 year overview of the history of the study of happiness. (When we have extra time in our daily staff meetings, we sometimes get to hear NED talks – 10-minute presentations on anything the presenter is passionate about.) (Yes, we shamelessly borrowed: “Not Back to School Camp, Education, and Design.”) Ethan can be counted on to offer an interesting response to almost everything that comes up in conversation. For instance, the other day a few of us were talking about long distance running and I brought up the Tarahumara people of Mexico, about whom I know basically nothing except for the rumor that they run long distances all the time. Ethan had (of course) been recently talking with some Tarahumara elders and so, therefore, had clarifying details to share. (Ethan’s wife Susannah McCandless is a geographer who organizes an annual global biocultural diversity conference, and Ethan usually joins Susannah for the conference itself. If I remember correctly, this helps explain this particular Tarahumara connection. For whatever reason, Ethan usually seems to have a connection to – and typically also a historical overview of – whatever material is at hand.)
So anyway, it’s Day 2 of projects. Projects feature in some of our longer NBTSC sessions – they are multi-day workshops that allow us to dive much more deeply into a subject or a creative endeavor than is possible in a single one-hour workshop. In Vermont we spend 6 hours in our projects, spread in 2-hour chunks over three days. In addition to Ethan’s project, Sophie is offering percussive dance, Autumn has “poetry out loud,” Christian has “apocalyptic architecture,” and Brenna has a self-portrait project. Today the 15 or so of us who have opted for “fastening” settle into the shade under two maple trees which have grown together (micro-mechanically bonded, Ethan explains). We listen to Ethan wax poetic about the history of glues (he passes around a 200,000 year old homoerectus scraping stone – with notches where a handle was likely glued on with some kind of resin – which he has acquired from a retiring paleontologist he of course happens to be acquainted with). We use quikrete to mortar together rocks. We install a rivet to a shirtsleeve. We watch Ethan sweat a copper pipe with a propane torch and a coil of solder. All this time, our soundtrack is the rhythmic stomping and clapping of Sophie’s project just up the hill behind us in the dance barn.
Next I get a rare treat – lunch with my dear friend Tilke. I now realize that I have used the term “dear friend” twice – regarding Evan and regarding Tilke – and maybe it reads as disingenuous, a cliche. But I mean it, and in fact I also consider Ethan my dear friend, and so are others here. This gathering of dear friends who work and deepen with me, year after year, on NBTSC staff – along with the opportunity to gradually befriend newer staffers, as well as campers – is one of the two or three best things for me about NBTSC. As for Tilke ~ we rarely have time to connect at camp and in fact, we are both so busy that although we have lived in pretty much the same town for the last 12 years, we don’t see nearly enough of each other, ever. So this is moment is a treasure. We talk about our summers, gender, camp, our creative lives, our families, and by the time we are finished I am nourished in my body and my heart. At the last minute I remember to pull a clove of garlic out of my bag, peel it, and fold it into a bite of rice. Whole garlic cloves are another of my little staying-healthy-at-camp tricks. I may stink, but it’s not often that I succumb to a cold or worse.
Next, Siesta: that moment in the day where we vigilantly guard the schedule from distractions (even meditation or yoga workshops), and guard the cabin areas from noise, so that naps and other forms of restoration can be enacted without FOMO. I often nap, but equally high on my Siesta list is Organizing My Stuff. I dump my tote bag out on my bed, take my time sorting out the pile, and happily restock the bag with a more usefully curated assortment of writing instruments, lip balm, instant coffee packets, tissues, and such. On the way back to the farmhouse I run into Evan again. He has spent his siesta in a not-so-siesta-like manner, meeting with the Creation Circle regarding the event they’re dreaming up for tonight. Creation Circle is open to all campers in their third-or-more year, and they do most of their planning prior to camp. Upon listening to Evan recap the meeting, I have another moment of feeling amazed by my freedom – almost delirious, in fact. Typically I feel maxed in at least three ways at camp – 1) I am usually either directing or co-directing with Evan; 2) I’ve usually been working until the 11th hour to get ready for staff orientation and prepare a gazillion documents for staff binders and the various events listed out on the schedule, and 3) I’m usually trying (not all that well) to balance being Yared’s mama with my camp work. At this session, none of these things are true, and the opportunity to simply be present and participate and connect with campers and staff is downright intoxicating. My love for camp is more than renewed, and that’s a good thing, because after 20 years I’m ripe for either burning out or celebrating. That said… I’ve been away from Yared for a week now and I’m missing him in a visceral way. The way I deal with that is to look around, imagining things through the eyes I imagine he’ll see through as a teenager. Before I became a mom, my best (though often unconscious) frame of reference for “is camp good, and how can we make it better?” was my own youth – would NBTSC have been a place that would have served and inspired and supported and mentored and connected and catalyzed me? In 2010, my bar popped way higher when I suddenly started asking, “Is this a place I’ll want Yared to be when he’s a teenager?” Now when I work through the “off season,” i.e. October-July, planning the next season of NBTSC, I filter everything through that question.
After Siesta there’s a workshop slot. I make the difficult choice to forsake all others and choose Elijah’s “WTF is Capitalism and What Are People Saying About It?” workshop, which he has agreed to host down on the dock so that Sophie, who is taking her turn today as the staff swimming supervisor (along with our lifeguard, George) can hear what he has to say. Elijah, our Dish Queen, just graduated from Antioch College with a degree in political economy and he holds forth fascinatingly about capitalism, communism, and such – while campers and staff listen, ask questions, make comments, splash about in the bracing autumnal waters of Woodward reservoir… and while Sophie also scrapes a sheep pelt she’s tanning.
After the workshop hour has passed I entertain the idea of walking back up to the farmhouse for speed dating – it’s always a ton of fun, an opportunity to have dozens of high energy one-minute conversations prompted by questions like “if you had a super-power what would it be and why?” (In this morning’s Community Meeting, Matt helpfully clarified, “It’s not really dating, although romance is not prohibited.”) But I don’t leave and walk up the hill, because this moment here is just too perfect. The workshop is officially over but there is still a small pod of people relaxedly discussing communitarianism, Cuba, Scandinavia, how change happens…. while the late afternoon sun bounces off the water and Sophie continues to scrape, brushing musty, musky smelling bits of dry skin and fluff up into the light. At the start of every session of NBTSC, we warn campers that there will be times when it is hard – really hard – to decide which thing to go to and which thing(s) to let go of. It’s a life lesson, we say. Life is a smorgasbord, way too many opportunities to ever do everything we want to, and camp is a microcosm of that. A constant examining and reexamining of priorities.
Eventually I do gather my things and depart, but on my way up the hill I run into McKinley, who says she’s been looking for me and hopes we might talk. McKinley is Culminating this year – that means she’s been around for at least four years, at least two of those in Creation Circle, and this is her last year, and she’s opting into the series of rituals we make available to campers who choose to Culminate. I’m happy for the chance to connect with McKinley and as I tell her, it’s been inspiring to witness her shift from the young (and delightful) girl she was when she joined us in 2012 to the articulate, self-aware, calm-yet-willing-to-be-ridiculously-silly young woman she is now. We sit on the farmhouse porch steps and talk about both of our camp histories and about her plans for the coming year, and then we part company and I pop inside to enjoy the hubbub of the last few speed dating questions.
In the little bubble of time between the end of speed dating and the start of dinner, one of those unpredictable, unplannable moments we’ve actually written into the camp mission statement* arises. A dozen or so folks who happen to be wearing zip-up hoodies have zipped themselves into a circle, and while blues music plays and nearby a few people dance in the conventional 2-person partner formation, this circle (which I happily zip myself into) starts improvising a “poly” blues dance. It’s hilarious and sweet and it’s over as soon as the dinner bell rings.
* “….. and where adventure, mystery, music, wild spontaneous fun, and magic prevail.”
Staff meets every evening during dinner, so over our scrumpchy tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches we discuss what needs discussing. Then Evan takes it a notch deeper, asking each of us to consider what we perceive as our growing edges in our roles here. When the meeting ends I feel closer to everyone – humbled and lifted up, as I so often am, by the copious display of vulnerability here. Staff, campers… so many people in this community are so gorgeously, courageously willing to look honestly within and to speak honestly without.
At evening Community Meeting, in addition to the essential business, Elijah and Thomas bounce up to the front and announce a new competition. Anyone and everyone who wishes is invited to declare themselves a god – preferably of something – and to see how many followers they can enlist. The rules, which are intricate, are explained, and the back wall is designated as a repository for the various lists that will be needed. Shortly after the meeting ends I am accosted by a “god of gods,” another “god of gods” who claims that the first was an imposter, a “god of luscious hair,” and a “god of toilet paper.” I listen to their pitches and remember an era of camp – early 2000s I think – when some Oregon sessions were … while not exactly dominated… well, strongly influenced by a bold camper named Bitty and her religion called “Bittyism.” For now I decide to shop around. I promise the gods I’ll consider my options and pledge my allegiance later.
And now this long post arrives at an almost-sudden halt. Tonight, it has been said by some persons in the Outside World, the World Will End (an asteroid or something I think?). And there’s a lunar eclipse and a blood red moon. The Creation Circle has planned an evening at the campfire, with some preliminary fun involving “hype and seek.” It all sounds beautiful and profound and cozy, and I try to talk myself into staying up. But for me, day is done. Due to a painful frozen shoulder, I rarely sleep well, and right now I’m exhausted. I fill my hot water snuggling bottle and my cold water drinking bottle, and hike up the hill to my cabin, perchance to experience the end of it all all by myself.
And so a camper – Kiera – kindly picks up where I leave off, reporting the day’s more communal close:
“The created-by-creation-circle bonfire night was magical; so many campers shared their songs and poems. The lunar eclipse created a really special energy that I have never experienced before. After a couple hours we closed the event with an ohm, and afterwards many of us were able to look at the moon through a telescope. The special energy lingered and we all sat in the field and admired the stars.”
(and finally, random pictures from the day, not taken by me.)