Music, Starlight and Bug Bites: Living the Dream at Camp

The cabin was cocooned in darkness, save for the wan daybreak light that found its way between the cotton curtains. I lay still and listened to the sighs, coughs, and peaceful exhaling of sixteen adolescent girls and a much older (or so it seemed to me) counselor. There were other creatures rustling around in the night, beyond the sturdy cabin door. I longed to see them. Maybe it was a sleek fox or a fat, confident racoon. It was possible there was a bear trundling through the pines to the lake or a rabbit burowing deeper. Earlier in the day I’d spotted a shy skunk sniffing the winsome summer breeze. I’d been very still, noting it luxuriant fur, its darting eyes and tiny paws. Happily, it had vanished without leaving me a calling card.

The girl in the bunk beside me stretched in her sleep, then all was silent excepting a mosquito or two that had refused to turn in for the night. I swatted, this time successfully. A light wind slipped through a screened window and swept across my face. It carried its own perfume, cool and redolent of all things wild and wonderful. Sleep overcame the night for another hour.

Before long, morning was punctured by the voices of my cabin mates. There was the promise of sunshine and blue sky. After eggs and toast at the Mess Hall, I lugged my cello to the small fieldstone building in a cluster of pines and birches. It had two, four-paned windows that opened from side hinges, and was big enough for perhaps two people, a music stand and instruments. I positioned myself in the chair, cello held steady between my knees, then tightened the rosined horse hair on the bow. Tuned the strings. Placed the foldable metal music stand just so, the concerto opened and ready. Leaned into it, its glowing wood against my already-damp shirt: hands, fingers, play. Sing for me.

If I wanted to keep first chair in the youth orchestra I would have to work much harder. Gazing out the window at sunlight rich as honey, I attacked a rigorous passage. I played by heart and the multitudinous notes beckoned and taunted me. A large black beetle opened its wings, flew and landed by my foot. Bees buzzed. I closed my eyes. My calloused (but sometimes still tender) fingertips slid along the strings. My cello unleashed the sounds I sweated over, coaxed. This time, at least.

And so it went. The day filled up with orchestra rehearsal, then modern dance class at the large stone dance building where dozens of windows opened to the lake below. Later, a quick lunch, and then to a creative writing class held by a stoney beach. What did we really see, our pencils poised above notebooks? Our eyes observed white sails of a Sunfish, green canoes and rowboats sturdy and slow. There were old docks and kids splashing each other during free time, which awaited me after this class. I took it all in, and what I saw was a small heaven on earth: all the arts unfolding, nature sharing its secrets, everyone creating to their hearts’ content.

I was at Interlochen’s National Music Camp again, 1964.

Evening was mysterious and comforting at once. There were several performances to choose from if we weren’t playing, ourselves. This included plays , musicals or operettas and dance concerts, most offered on open air stages. Leaning back on a green bench, I would scan the sky for Orion or Cassiopeia, the Big and Little Dipper. Venus, ever imperious, danced in place. The lush swells and complicated puzzles of music came and went, the old masters’ works awakened once more in the hands and voices of children and young adults. Mosquitoes circled and buzzed, attacked and moved on. The slap-slapping of lake water was the welcoming sound of something like home. My friends and I whispered among ourselves about the campfire later, the potential for clandestine meetings with boys.

It could seem a hard place to be, Interlochen. It meant tough discipline and long hours of study and practice, sweaty days and nights without much privacy or many physical comforts. There was no other music but the music we made, no television to while away the time. But it was here that I found the privledge of time and many means to fan my passion to create. It was here that I got to step a bit away from family roles and school year pressures or worries. Here I could attend to what I truly loved.

Besides the arts, I had acres of land filled with lakes, rocks and fascinating insects to study; throngs of lovely trees that had lived longer than I ever would. An encounter with leeches that left me aghast and smarter. Firelight and starlight that held tentaive overtures of romance. A green-blue lake with a murky bottom that offered unbridled play. And right beside me, were youth from all around the world who cared about the same things. I was part of something very good, something much bigger than each of us alone.

All this comes to me after reading an article recently that summer camps in the U.S are still going strong. The magazine was glossy and the camps likely formidably expensive. Still, it heartened me. There are camps for children of nearly any means and ways to get money to attend. They are sought after for many reasons, and the diverse skills gained and friendships made endure and bring back the kids and, later their kids. But they clearly come back for the fun of it. There is being away from parents, getting introduced to the real outdoors, finding something new and surprising in the course of a day, and sinking into a gentle sleep at the end of day. There is learning a lesson or two, such as discovering that what may seem too challenging–from backwoods tenting to learning a sonata, from hitting a target with a swift arrow to executing a pas de deux–can be well met and enjoyed.

There were other music and church camps, as well as a great day camp in my hometown that I looked forward to each summer in my elementary school years. But the  Interlochen experience informed my whole life. It so imbued me with wonder, resilience and a desire to reach high no matter what I choose to do, that I have talked about it for over forty years. I am finally completing a novel that shares an essence of those times. Not surprisingly for me, it is partly about the healing that is sparked by the potent combination of nature and human creativity.

Tonight, I can easily recall those signature strains from Howard Hanson’s Symphony No. 2, Op. 30 “Romantic” that we all played–the last concert of camp. The resonant strings,  lithe harp, those glorious french horns. Anyone who has heard it as a camper knows what I mean. It still stirs me, and cheers me onward.

Send your child to a great camp this year. It will be a dreamy summer of a lifetime.

Recreating the World a Little at a Time

The room was densely packed with audience members who rustled in their seats, scanned the stage and entrances in anticipation, studied their programs. They chattered with one another and waved at people leaning shoulder-to-shoulder against the walls.

A major event was about to commence: Grandparents and Other Special Guests Day. I, a grandmother to two of the children in this day of performances, was there, right next to other family members. I had been looking forward to watching Avery and Asher share the creative endeavors their classes had worked on.

But I wasn’t ready for what ensued at their arts focus elementary school. My expectations  for the program were moderate; I was primarily there, after all, to see my grandchildren. But it was far from being a brief recital of ho-hum numbers or a jumble of slapdash acts. The children and teachers had carefully prepared an array of fascinating pieces. Each showcased a group of exuberant kids from kindergarten through fifth grade.

There were yoga positions posed to a captivating spoken poem(kindergarteners performing; grandson Asher included). Large portraits of family members were drawn by some students during the show and later exhibited on stage. Music from the 1960s was the background for second and third graders as they hula-hooped, “watusied, twisted, and monkeyed” their way across the stage–all in sync with the catchy beats. Boys and girls of all sizes and shapes designed complicated sculptural forms in response to electronic world beat music. Tumblers and jugglers entertained with their skills. Little children shape-shifted into spiders, iguanas and mosquities. And there was choral music shared, including my nine year old granddaughter’s chorus. It ended with an old bluesy piece that was refreshed by youthful twists. Avery’s face reflected the pleasure of submerging herself in song.

And in truth, the plain, large room pulsed with joy. We all clapped and tapped our feet along with those kids. Those kids got standing ovations. No one politely listened and then sneaked away when their family member was done performing.  Like them, I was rooting for every hard-working student who took a chance, explored inventive uses of space, form, sound and time, and who then found satisfaction and happiness. They discovered freedom sprang from imagination, especially with diligent practice. They had, in a word, fun.

We were reminded that children, when allowed the chance, are fearless creators. Their innate gift for invention breaks loose as though waiting for just such an opportunity. And they become themselves more fully. They search for new horizons. They soon discover that success can be as simple as finding and holding a note, letting a line zigzag its way across paper, or allowing their bodies to morph into something new and fine.

When the final act left the stage, the adults were reluctant to leave. Being a grandparent felt fully like the privledge it is. People chatted and milled about; then we followed our students to their classrooms to enjoy more of what they had to share. I studied the program and learned that this marvelous school had a Run for the Arts to obtain more monetary support, was selling T-shirts and sweatshirts to raise money, and also took donations. I bought two of the T-shirts for my grandchildren and will write a check soon. No child should be without the opportunity to experience the arts.

Many years ago, at Eastlawn Elementary in my hometown, I enjoyed an educational experience now nearly unheard of. I enjoyed the arts as freely as I enjoyed the gym,  school library, playground, and classroom with its more conventional studies. There were plays, dances, concerts to perform in. There were stories and poems to write and read aloud. I waited each day for a fine or performing arts class.

One year I decided to be a firebird for a school performance. My mother and I designed and sewed my costume, a divine outfit of orange and crimson chiffon. I waited stage right as the opening bars of Igor Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite” swept across the stage and over the audience. My heartbeat was taking the lead and my stomach was quivering jelly. But I stepped out and whirled across the stage on cue. I was lifted up by that music, the flaming skirt floating, then whipping around me. My feet made their own way and my arms rose up to the sky beyond. I forgot I was just a nine year old girl. In an instant, I was a rare and vibrant bird, and the music electrified. I danced as though it was the only thing I knew or needed to know. Transformation occurred without my even knowing how it happened. I was a bird, mysterious and earthbound, seeking flight. The spotlight followed me as I chased the notes acround the stage. The music called to me and I answered. It was as though I had crossed into a new country and and I followed my body across the border, to the finish of the journey. Sweat rolled down my back and a smile broke over my face as applause erupted. My cloth feathers stuck to my legs but I felt I could have flown right out of the building. And in the audience below was my mother and other family members, neighbors and friends. 

I felt right with the world, and happy. The doors of the universe slid open a bit. There was a bit of heaven right on earth and its name was clearly Art, although to me (as to the children today), it was just having a wonderful, magical time.

                                                         Love to Asher and Avery