If you know me at all, if you’ve known me for five minutes or more, you know how I feel about camp. I never shut up about it, nor am I fazed in the least when my friends roll their eyes at me and say something like “oh, are you talking about camp again?” Yes, I’m talking about camp again –because it’s my place, where I feel like my purest and best self, where I go expecting and wanting a certain experience, rarely get it, and still leave feeling like I got exactly what I came for.
Where I am right now — at Squam Lake Art Camp celebrating 20 years of friendship with my Mary– is very different from the camp where I spent 11 of my childhood summers. For one thing, we’re in New Hampshire, not Minnesota. You don’t think there’s a difference? There’s a difference. New England camps have a totally different focus and philosophy…I picture Walt Whitman nature walks and crafts centered around the reproductive cycle of some local butterfly.
When I think of a camp in New England, there are groups of peppy, earnest, intellectual girls in camp uniforms with the logo embroidered tastefully on the breast pocket (it’s in Latin). They sing songs, toast marshmallows, paddle canoes, and play cricket with neither failure nor emotional excess as an option. I have never been to a New England camp before, but I just know I’m right, based on movies I’ve seen and a few people I met when Mary lived in Boston.
New England camps have a totally different focus and philosophy…I picture Walt Whitman nature walks and crafts centered around the reproductive cycle of some local butterfly.
Camp in Minnesota is a little messy –it’s all pajama bottoms and sand candles. There’s sailing, horses, tennis and all of that, but it’s a context, it’s not the point. The point is always deep connections –with the place, with the other girls, and with yourself. You arrive with your duffel bags –or, if you’re from the South, your decoupaged, monogrammed trunk– full of clothes and gear and the first thing you do is hurl yourself at your friends like a mental patient. You make a scene, you laugh, you help each other up, and you start singing songs and talking over each other and telling secrets you would never in a million years tell anyone at home. It’s all very vulnerable and embarrassing, and it’s why I went back so many times.
This week the two kinds of camps are converging. We are physically at the camp in New England, where the walk to the dining hall requires rock-climbing certification and advanced orienteering skills. My flashlight is practically worthless, the darkness at night is so impenetrable I bet the little campers years ago had to curl up beneath a mushroom if they didn’t make it back to their cabins before dark. There is a dock next to every other cabin –I’m guessing pre-breakfast swims, to invigorate body and mind (however you say that in Latin)– were encouraged, if not required.
And we’re here with all women. There are a few men, who have been duped or coerced by their wives into coming to this, but they’re pretty shell-shocked and/or angry and neither speak nor make eye contact, so I’m not really including their energy in the general vibe. I can feel the girly, oh-I-LOVE-your-hat/dress/boots/handmade waterglass cozy kind of atmosphere and I can see who considers themselves the art camp power elites (you know and I know there’s no such thing, but we’ll keep that to ourselves…it seems so important to them).
I’m blown away by wisdom, beauty, perception, brilliance. I love when that happens because it means those qualities are everywhere; I just have to notice them.
There are women who are getting left out, which is sad but might help them shift their approach, and there are women who are chilly or just out-and-out mean girls. Mostly, though, it feels like my camp, where you smile and hug each other at breakfast, wait for each other to go to activities, and share your stuff when someone forgot hers or didn’t pack it at all. You can cry whenever you want because it feels good and girls usually know that and let you. And you can share whatever you want –what you say, what you make, who you are.
The best part for me, though, is that though I know I’m completely right about what New England summer camps are like, I’ve been wrong at least a dozen times about other women I’ve met here –I’ve sold several short in my initial assessments/judgments. I’ll think I have the measure of them because they said this one thing or did that other thing and then they open up about their paintings and the stories behind them and I’m blown away by wisdom, beauty, perception, brilliance. I love when that happens because it means those qualities are everywhere; I just have to notice them.
Of course the stone-faced Galleria goddesses and crabby Byerly’s patrons at home don’t generally make a habit of sharing their art with me, so it’s a little bit harder to access their wisdom, beauty, perception, and brilliance, but maybe I should pay closer attention to how they wear belts (I never get that right) or choose produce (SO tired of anemic cantaloupes). Who knows what they know?
So yes, I’m going to keep talking about camp and going back whenever and however I can as long as it has something to teach or remind me. This time it’s reminding me I’m an artist and telling me to go ahead and call myself one. It’s reminding me I know less than I think I do about the people around me and more than I think I do about art of all kinds. It’s reminding me that camp is still my place, which means now this camp is my place, too. Which means I’m going to have to pick up Latin. And a better flashlight.