My English professor this semester offered us a prompt on our first day of class: "What I did on my summer vacation…" He wanted us to focus on a precise moment and see where it went from there. This is what came of it:
I found myself, one sunny day this past July, preparing to flip the kayak I was sitting in. This exercise, fondly known as a “wet exit” in the camp community I’ve been a part of for eight summers, is one that I had been dreading for weeks. I’ve always had an odd, irrational fear of deep water for the unknown creatures it threatens to hold. Hence, while the waters of the Pacific Northwest, where this summer camp is situated, are far too cold for any semi-scary creature aside from the occasional porpoise or orca whale, I was terrified. I had to hide any hint of fear, however, as a group of nervous fourteen-year-old girls was waiting to follow my lead.
Summer camp has been the only constant place in my life since I was twelve years old. Then, the prospect of sleeping in a tipi for four weeks was new, daunting, and exciting, and each day was an opportunity to push myself out of my somewhat princess-y comfort zone. Freedom from all technology – even simple electricity, for the most part – and a lack of warm water, both in the ocean and in the fire-heated showers, were things I was completely unaccustomed to. Surrounded by my almost ever-smiling counselors and loving peers, however, I accepted these new challenges with only the occasional squeal of complaint and made myself at home among the bright stars and madrona trees that John’s Island, Washington has to offer.
Suddenly, having somehow grown eight years older, I realized that I had become the ever-smiling counselor in the situation. Sitting in that kayak this summer, I faced something perhaps even scarier than the prospect of finding myself in the cold ocean: the presence of my own ghost out on the water next to me. As I watched my group of campers nervously awaiting their turns to flip their boats, I not only imagined, but saw and felt in a startlingly visceral way, my own first experience doing just that, in those very same kayaks, when I was fourteen.
It is truly eerie, though in a pleasantly nostalgic way, to revisit, over the years, a space that doesn’t change. Camp Nor’wester is a place that I have come back to every summer since I was twelve. While I have grown, and indeed changed, in that time, it has stayed exactly the same. The trees, both live and fallen, are precisely where they were when I first arrived on that island the summer after the sixth grade. The grass, which yellows and dies slowly as the summer progresses, looks, feels, and smells exactly the same. The ocean sounds the same. The songs we sing after every meal fill the lodge where we eat in the same, joyful manner, though they’ve lost, in their repetition, some of their magic. For this reason, I see ghosts of myself everywhere.
I see myself, as a twelve-year-old, lying in the warm grass next to my friends as we tickle each other to tears before walking up to lunch. I see my thirteen-year-old homesick self crying on the back porch of the dining hall in my favorite counselor’s arms. I see myself sneaking around with my friends in the dark, playing only the most innocent versions of Truth-or-Dare. I see myself through the window of the kitchen, where my first summer working I washed dishes for hours every day and made some of the best friends I’ll ever have. I see myself on the beach at night, falling in love for the first time and not thinking about consequences. Walking alone down the paths we used to take, I see a ghost that was happier than I can dare to hope to be again. I am mad at her naïveté. I am jealous of her joy. I watch her get heartbroken as the summer rolls on.
What both terrifies and delights me is that these past versions of myself feel so far away. Each summer, I arrive with the baggage that life has handed me since I last left the island; occasionally, more baggage waits for me there. The ghosts I see are reminders of my growth, and they hold in them the hopeful knowledge that human beings truly do change, sometimes for the better. Because of them, I’ve had the opportunity for a rare kind of self-reflection.
I faked my way through courageously flipping my kayak and ungracefully getting back into it. I kept a smile on my face almost the entire time, and proclaimed that I was having fun, as I’m sure my own counselor had done years ago. My campers, for the most part, had an easy time with the exercise, and we all laughed at ourselves afterwards for thinking it was anything to be worried about. I know that, someday, one or two of them will find themselves in my position, looking back to that day and feeling the time that has passed. They may stop and think about how much in their lives, and in themselves, has changed. My hope is that, despite the change, they can still recognize their carefree, joyous, fourteen-year-old selves through the complicating fog that life inevitably brings.