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Chapter 057 Camp as a metaphor for life

The changing seasons have often been used as a metaphor for the stages of life – spring for birth; summer for the prime of life; fall for growing old; and winter for death.

For me, camp takes that metaphor a step further. Viewing the change of seasons from the perspective of camp, from late spring, through summer, to late fall as I have the past two years, has given me an even deeper feeling for those stages of life and my own mortality.

***

Spring is fresh, new, wet, muddy, and windy with the smell of the lake, recently released from winter’s icy grip, permeating everything. The upper stories of the woods explode with brilliant verdant leaves. Plants burst into life, and the forest floor becomes covered with a profusion of wild flowers that create a riotous carpet of color. The view across the lake changes quickly from white to brown to green, and its effect on the human psyche is overwhelming. The lake is so deep blue, it’s almost unbearable. The promise of rebirth has been fulfilled – again, and the future possibilities seem unlimited.

***

Summer at camp is a time to really live life fully. The weather ranges from hot, humid and hazy to brilliantly clear and warm to cool, wet and stormy.

From our vantage point on the eastern shore, we’d sit on the porch and watch the weather approach. Summer storms pockmarked the lake with rain, getting closer and closer, before they violently pelted camp with wind and a ferocious downpour. Sometimes on hot humid nights, we’d hear it – the sound of distant thunder growing louder. We’d assemble on the porch, and watch the light show, and then the cooling cloudburst – heavenly relief. On other nights, with no rain in the offing, when the heat and humidity were so oppressive that sleep was impossible, the camp inhabitants began to stir, and soon all were skinny dipping. Our bodies seemed to actually sizzle as they entered the water. After several minutes in the lake, our core temperatures dropped, then back to bed we went with no more trouble sleeping. How alive and in the moment all of these things made us feel.

During the clear warm days we were next to, on, in, or under the lake, physically alive and active, enjoying our seemingly immortal bodies and the wonder of being such an integral part of our surroundings.

The cool rainy days were perfect for reading, sitting by the fire, playing board games, or interacting with friends and family members – still just being in the moment.

***

One late fall day, just before closing camp for the season, Dad was sitting on the porch with Matt. There was no wind, and the sun was close to setting, even though it was barely four o’clock. “Listen to how quiet it is,” Matt said. My dad reflected briefly and then replied, “The lake’s getting ready to go to sleep for the winter.” “Wow,” responded Matt, the city kid from Chicago, in a hushed tone, “I never thought about it like that.” Certainly being covered by a one to three-foot thick sheet of ice that itself is covered by several more feet of snow is a form of sleep, or more properly hibernation – no waves, no sound – locked in a frigid, icy prison for four months.

Well, now I can feel it too. It’s not just that it’s quiet because the summer people and boats are almost all gone. The days shorten as the earth moves inexorably towards its rendezvous with the winter solstice. The trees blaze with color, then mutate to less riotous yellows and browns and then drop their no longer needed photosynthetic-enabling appendages to the forest floor, to nourish new life in the spring, leaving half the woods bare – a dying for the leaves, and a long sleep for the trees. As the temperature drops, the air gets denser, and sounds actually take on a different timbre.

During the sunny, calm, short, late fall days, with the temperature hovering just above freezing in the last hour before sunset, the sun reflects off the still liquid lake warming me and turning the lake into a mirror that produces a second sky. It’s as magnificently beautiful and fleeting as life itself. It feels so much like a transition to an ending that the question that’s never far from my thoughts is, “Will I be here to see the rebirth next spring?”

To say fall and the onset of winter are a metaphor for aging and dying is clear, but to view it alone from lakeside, it becomes viscerally clear. Between the trees flaming with color and then becoming bare, the lake actually changing state from liquid to solid, and the ground turning from lush green to barren brown to white, it’s really hard not to become keenly aware of the relentless grinding movement toward the end of one’s own life.

***

And then… it’s spring again, or at least it always has been. But I know a spring will come that I won’t be here to see and I’ll join my family of ghosts who haunt camp – giving it a connected past, comfort for the present, and continuity for the future.

In a place that’s seen so much change while remaining relatively unchanged itself, I became acutely mindful of how fast life goes, and how suddenly and unexpectedly it can end. The fact that camp gave me this greater sense of my own mortality is only part of the story. The other really important piece is it made me want to live every day to the fullest and enjoy every breeze, raindrop, snowflake, sunset, sunbeam, animal, plant, tree, and rock, and every stormy, cuddle-up-inside-with-a-book-by-the-fire day, and especially every day with my family and friends.

Seeing our children at camp each year of their young lives and watching them grow and experience the same awesomely special camp learnings, routines, and magic that I did until they fell hopelessly in love with camp to the point that it became part of their DNA also, to be passed on to their children and their children’s children – that’s my personal version of immortality.

Carpe diem, Gentle Reader – live each day like it’s your last, because one day it will be. Follow your passions, be gentle with yourself and those you love, and enjoy the journey.

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