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I Went To Camp For The First Time This Summer At 40. Here's What I Learned

The author and her husband at the weekly campfire. (Courtesy Kendra Stanton Lee)
The author and her husband at the weekly campfire. (Courtesy Kendra Stanton Lee)

This past July, my husband John and I went to summer camp. We were 40 and 42. Imagine the quintessential New England haven: massive pine trees, rustic cabins, abundant mosquitoes and campfire pits. Then imagine two middle-aged people packing duffle bags full of mosquito repellant and moisture-wicking clothes.

John, a psychotherapist, had accepted a job as a wellness counselor for the camp. He would be the counselor-in-residence to help staff and campers process the big feelings that would inevitably emerge after more than a year of pandemic life.

My job at the camp was to be more amorphous. I would only be staying for three weeks. (Our youngest child would also be attending the camp. Our oldest would be attending a different camp). I was free to try activities and help where I saw fit. But I was not required, nor was I contracted, to work the rock climbing wall or supervise open swim.

What does the brochure for the “40-Year-Old Summer Camp Virgin” promise? I imagine there would be pictures of a woman wearing a skirted bathing suit, Ray-Bans and a thick layer of sunscreen. She’d be wearing a life vest, poised and raring to hop on an inner tube. There’d be another photo inside of her getting dragged across a crystal clear lake by a sporty college sophomore, everyone laughing their heads off.

I had run away to summer camp, but I was still stuck with my same anxious, workaholic self.

The reality of the 40-Year-old Summer Camp Virgin was quite a bit different. I struggled to find my way amid non-stop activity. I was not used to eating three meals a day with strangers. I had gone from a fairly hermetic life of quarantine to a fully engaged social life with 150 new people. My 11-year-old son, one of two people I knew at camp, preferred not to acknowledge me. The heat and mosquitoes were unrelenting; at night, I would lie awake scratching and sweating. I was also saddled with our anxious rescue dog who feared all strangers. My own anxiety followed me to camp, and appeared to be cresting higher each day.

I had foolishly hoped I’d be a different person at camp, instantly transformed into Pro-Camper Kendra. That old adage, “No matter where you go, there you are,” rang true for me. I had run away to summer camp, but I was still stuck with my same anxious, workaholic self.

Camp had never fit into the calculus of my life. The years when I could have attended camp were mostly spent overachieving. In junior high, I was busy babysitting all of the children in northeastern Ohio. In high school, I was a multiple-job-working, GPA obsessing, extracurricular-collecting stress case. By the time I got to college, spending a summer as a camp counselor seemed an idyll I couldn’t afford. I had internships to secure, and money to make to afford the professional internship attire. Who had time for campfires and sing-a-longs when you could be learning how to build a Microsoft Access database in an air-conditioned cubicle?

The author and her dog, Schuyler, at summer camp. (Courtesy Kendra Stanton Lee)
The author and her dog, Schuyler, at summer camp. (Courtesy Kendra Stanton Lee)

I had created little room in my life for genuine play. I had many friends, but I was also a true introvert and needed considerable time to recuperate after socializing. During  the first week of camp, I mostly walked my anxious dog around the little villages of cabins, got lost and missed my air-conditioned house. My anxiety mounted. I felt paralyzed by living in a place where I felt so useless and irrelevant.

As I discussed my anxiety with John, he encouraged me to try one new thing each day. Camp is what you make of it, he said, and I realized he was giving me the same advice he was probably dispensing to 8-year-olds away from home for the first time. But he wasn't wrong.

I joined campfires, open swims and helped organize the camp lost-and-found. In the afternoons, I watched a baby whose mother was a camp administrator. With each day that I plugged in more, I felt more comfortable. Although my son still wished I would disappear, my confidence as a camper swelled.

Camp didn’t beg me to be a different person, it just asked me to try to get out of my own way. Camp invited me to play, to cast aside the hopes of a shiny gold star.

One of the counselors I met introduced me to a concept called "Challenge by Choice" (CBC). He explained many summer camps structure their activities around CBC, which was coined by outdoor educator Karl Rohnke in the mid-1980s, as a means of inviting, rather than coercing, participants into physical challenges. The key to CBC is choosing to try, though. Not choosing not to.

Camp invited me to play, to cast aside the hopes of a shiny gold star.

By the third week of camp, I was eager to choose to depart. I longed for the creature comforts of home. Remembering the importance of CBC, though, I dug my heels in. When asked if I wanted to go tubing on the waterfront, I said yes. John and I hopped on the tube of death and the 19-year-old boat driver wearing aviator sunglasses whipped us over waves and tossed us into the depths of the camp lake.

As I swam back to shore, I noticed my arms hurt from holding on to the inner tube so tightly. I had skin abrasions along my wrist from where the handles had scraped my skin. They were physical reminders of the vice grip I often have over what I can control, souvenirs from a summer that taught me about the unexpected joy of letting go.

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Kendra Stanton Lee Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Kendra Stanton Lee is an instructor of humanities at Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology.

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