Thank you, DASAC (full name: Deerfield Academy Summer Arts Camp).
I have lots of thoughts about summer camp, and about summer camps I hold dear (some other time, almost undoubtedly before summer’s out, I’ll write some of those thoughts down). Last night was the each-session-anticipated and worked-for “Festival,” at DASAC, though. Upon walking across the perfect, green lawn toward the potluck/art showing/performance that constitutes this culmination of the three-week experience that 100 11-16 year-old campers (plus 20 hip, creative counselors) attend, it’s as if one is entering a halcyon space dedicated to adolescence at its apex.
Here’s the scene: along with campers’ families, many campers’ friends—most of them campers in the summer’s other session (consider the camp 100 kids times two; there are two sessions and campers can only do one, chosen by lottery), or from another year—come to “Festival.” The bucolic Deerfield Academy campus (if you’ve never been there, think, New England college campus of the very wealthy variety, as in gorgeous and stately and exquisitely maintained in the lush valley that is Deerfield) buzzes with little groups of teens (and some tweens, looking just a bit lost in comparison) chatting and laughing (a few texting).
Most of the kids seem incredibly relaxed and at home, having spent long days both in “focus groups” (it’s those groups whose work is shown—visual or performance arts, often working across disciplines to create the pieces—on this “Festival” evening) and by taking other electives (block classes in DASAC-speak). The arts they explore include painting, printmaking, drawing, ceramics, video, theater, music, dance, woodworking, photography, outdoor education and creative writing.
Having been given full license to, well, to be creative amongst so many other kids doing the same (with a decided focus upon not being competitive), the campers tend to radiate a sense of confidence and belonging that often borders on giddy. Seeing so many smiling teens (if you know adolescents well, then you know those two words, “smiling” and “teen” don’t always go together quite so PB&J-ish), is pretty sweet. The word, buzz, really does apply; there’s so much very positive energy it practically vibrates. As a parent to a young teen, I found myself thinking—the same was true last summer—he set himself in a place that would resonate for a long time. Very likely, not to overstate, eventually he’ll name this experience as one that actually set his life course in some significant way (this resonates: my FAIR spot was Farm and Wilderness’ Tamarack Farm camp in Plymouth Vermont).
Indeed, during his three DASAC weeks, Ezekiel pretty much remains giddy (or becomes sullen or throws the occasional tantrum, because, I don’t know, I guess because he’s almost fourteen). He’s a happy camper: he’s got ideas popping and in-jokes keep him chuckling and he’s generally in very high spirits. By summer number two, certain camp traditions—the hike morning, Funky Day—are familiar (camps’ life blood is, in some way, tradition, and the expectation is that newer kids will grab hold of that moving train and hop on; it’s so very simple—and fun) and comfortably anticipated and busily prepared for (had I been more with it, I’d have gotten a photograph of him as every Alice in Wonderland character on Funky Day, with his homemade Queen of Hearts T-shirt and a skirt for Alice and soft rabbit in hand). Although his closest friends—in daily life—all ended up in the other session, that mattered not at all; he becomes so absorbed in what he’s doing—photography! Writing! Creating an installation—connections with people, peers and counselors, appear to be pretty seamless. The reason I think this camp is one of those experiences that can change or alter or at least confirm one’s life path has everything to do with the nurturance of creative exploration and of simply being oneself, a powerful combination. What a gift to be encouraged to express yourself, especially in an environment where this isn’t a lonely or solitary endeavor, but a shared one, a community that is about self-expression and collaborative creation. Something not yet articulated—a hope that creativity allows all of this—is suddenly articulated, and that’s a hugely powerful experience (thank you, DASAC!).
Ezekiel’s focus group created an installation project in the black box theater space. The nearly empty space—save for some risers—was transformed into a maze, and clues toward solving a mystery were hidden throughout. The mystery—ship, diamonds, pirates, the plague, compasses going bust, and food going bad—was, for this harried mother of a toddler and six year-old she wanted to keep reasonable track of in a semi-dark, convoluted area, insoluble. However, a mystery was revealed to me last night while navigating the incredible maze/installation. With dim lighting that made everything seem a bit hazy, with painted fish hanging and odd shipwrecks of outdated electronics and other random items spilling out of painted treasure chests, and dead ends and painted handprints and footprints along the floor leading us both the right and wrong ways, I had a personal eureka moment: this installation was a perfect metaphor for parenting an adolescent (at least, this first one). Because, suddenly, there’s Ezekiel with his voice dropping and his limbs doing some gangling and his moods riding a rollercoaster—and the whole how-to-care-for-him endeavor is brand-new again (with eerily familiar shades of déjà vu: he’s overtired? Hungry? Cranky? Feed and sleep the toddler; feed and sleep the adolescent. Ah…). Although he’s the one embarking upon this incredible transition—from childhood into maturity—as his parent, I am a voyager, too (if as chaperone rather than young explorer).
I listened to the excited giggles of teens around me. I could remember all that eagerness, of the what-comes-next and what-is-now varieties. No question that adolescence is an altered universe, one that’s somewhat dark and hazy and strewn with artifacts, which have significance that’s seemingly incomprehensible to others—although each one’s clearly meaningful to the adolescent—and it’s kind of got its own language and aesthetic and makes its own sense. The idea of mystery works here. The word, threshold, also seems particularly apt. It’s fitting both because so much is just ahead and because sometimes, the actual entryway is elusive. It’s such a palpable sensation to be in the thick of those hormones and questions and certainty and laughter and freedom and… all of it. I found myself in the strange place of remembering that I was once in that place and also aware that I belong to the adult tribe now. Plenty is immediate and sweet and bittersweet and vivid. It’s different plenty now, though.
So between the toddler and the six year-old and the ‘tween friends of my 11 year-old and my friends, I waded through the dimness feeling this funny tug of here and now and now and then. I remembered how all the way through high school, I would stop on my way to my father’s house at the school playground nearby and swing on the swings. I felt suspended between childhood—which in some way I was sad to shed and in other ways exceedingly grateful to leave like a dried skin in my wake—and adulthood, which was, at that point, a vast unknown. I remembered the feeling, although I felt something different last night; I felt squarely where I was, yet clear that my child’s universe so altered did tilt mine, too. I was grateful for the disequilibrium and the odd way it brought clarity. I was also grateful for how parenting so often tilts my universe like this, how it allows me entry into all kinds of frays. Including the fact that parenting lets me visit these great worlds, like the DASAC community. Remy, age six, already envisions himself there one day… before he grows up to be a part-time artist and part-time filmmaker, that is. Mostly, this message repeats itself: the journey and the process, really and truly are what counts. There is not one clear destination, nor one mystery to unravel. We cannot learn that all at once; we have to revisit that truth again and again, from different angles, in different lights, and even in different orbits.