I’m standing on a stretch of grass outside the camp’s dining hall during the weekly Wednesday evening cookout. My watermelon-stained hands struggle to free a wipe from its package. My oldest nags at my feet for a third cookie. And dammit, where is my middle son? Just then, my stroller tips over. You help me pick it up, saddled as I am with my 30-pound baby on my hip, my sticky hands…I feel guilty and needy. But “we’re in this together,” you say as you do. And you’re right…you’re right.
I had arrived at camp not two days earlier. People were bringing my children food, helping me assemble my pack ‘n play. I take your daughter’s hand and lead her to the bathroom; you watch my baby while I chase after the big boys…
Here we are, raising our children side by side. Creating for them what will always feel like home.
This is the village it takes.
By day, I work in the front office. By night, I huddle in our cold bunk with my three young sons, covering them with sleeping bags and kissing their dusty foreheads. I steal some brief time by myself with a book before my eyelids grow heavy.
Not one to like being alone, this fits. I’m comforted knowing others live out their days beyond mine, that my three boys are all snug in a single, small, sweet room, that the guards are by the gates, standing watch over us all….
It’s hard, yes.
Adversity builds character; hardship breeds connection.
I know those bags under your eyes mean your baby was woken by the fireworks late last night. I know; I heard them too. I know how hard it is to keep your children quiet for the hours each morning while the rest of camp still sleeps. To navigate a narrow stall shower when, until now, your kids only knew baths. To eat family-style in a massive, bustling dining hall, your children threatening to escape between each bite. To corral your toddlers during camp-wide performances while you attempt to catch a glimpse. To referee spats between your kids and others—over the right to the lone basketball left on the upper courts or the singularly special rock among the thousands passed on the way to dinner. To carry your tired toddler up the hill despite exhaustion so deep, your bones ache. To parent publicly, without our spouses, without a safety net. To be “on” every minute.
I know how it feels to have a meltdown over pancake breakfast at the day that lies ahead. To mask the signs of weariness with a smile when you’d rather wear your heart on your sleeve. I know it’s hard to let people in, to feel like a burden.
I know the hardships of being here, yes. But I know the joys too. Oh, I know them well.
I know the depth of the relationships formed while wrestling a stroller along dirt paths. We climb the hill from the lake to the dining hall on Friday night, curving along girls’ campus, wondering why. Realizing it’s the sweet mixture of nostalgia and a deep appreciation for the now of this place, and these people, that’s at our backs, pushing us forward. This alone is enough.
We all have different lives we lead back home, in the “real world.” One hour ahead and a million miles away. Our waiter? He’s finishing law school in Mexico. The nature guy? A high school chemistry teacher. But here? Here, we all come together to do this. To make this place work. We each play our little part. For a time, this is all there is.
Instead of believing the world should bend and bow to accommodate your needs, camp comes to teach that you are merely, wonderfully a small, but integral part of something far greater. You plug in to a schedule, a structure, a community that does not revolve around you. You give up much, but gain more in return. You’re better for it.
Together, we watch our children grow more confident, independent, adaptable with each passing day. They befriend people of all ages. They navigate the winding paths and the constant coexistence with increasing ease. They come home seeming older, longer somehow.
So we stay. We press on. Because creature comforts don’t hold a candle to true connection.
And then, at summer’s end, we return, re-enter. Adjusting our eyes to the peculiar landscape of the outside world. All looks different somehow, askew. But we are what’s most changed.
We came from a world undivided, without houses or private yards separating families…where our children floated freely among us, cared for communally. Now we trade our gritty dirt roads for smooth ones and realize sometimes, often, the meaningless ease of a paved life is unfulfilling. Where people angrily gesture over nonsense from the muted protection of their SUVs instead of extending gestures of kindness to the neighbor walking the path beside them.
* * *
We just moved to a new town. The boys start new schools next week. I’m starting over. I forgot how hard that can be. To show up to a school function and not know a soul. To walk up to an ongoing conversation, interrupt, introduce. To assume these other women want to know me, that I have something to offer. I’ve never been good at that. For all my extrovert tendencies, I still struggle with beginnings.
I write these words from a quiet house on a rare night alone. The silence is deafening. I miss the chaos, the din of our everyday. I didn’t think I would. My bare feet plod along the carpeted hallways; I saunter into empty rooms and finger the smooth, undented pillows. I lie on my oldest boy’s bed and tap absently at my phone. I close my eyes and summon the clamor and clatter of the camp cafeteria, teeming with children. The ice cream truck’s jingle sings playfully in the distance during one of its last summer rounds, but there’s no one to greet it. I realize I don’t quite recognize myself anymore without my children near, without the noisy soundtrack of our overflowing lives.
Because (and here’s the dirty little secret, what makes me, me) I am happier with my hands full. Surrounded. Overstimulated. And although these writing days have drawn me in more than ever before, I still very much need and want to be with people, even many of them, and all at once.
So I stand…surrounded by heaps of laundry, preparing to wash away the last specks of camp dirt from our days, missing my village. From the laundry room, I can see through the screen door out to the backyard and beyond to the fence of neighbors we don’t yet know. But I’m comforted, hopeful. Because I’ve had it once, that village.
I know what can be.
This is the second in a series of posts about my time working at my alma mater overnight camp with my three young sons for five weeks this summer.