I DIDN’T MUCH like sleep-away camp, where I acquired a dopey new nickname and faked a broken finger to get out of horseback riding. The food was so unappealing that I lost 14 pounds in a month, surviving on Sugar Babies from the canteen. There were plenty of humiliations for an 11-year-old girl: the time I got a piece of meadow grass stuck in my ear; the endless lakeside drilling in surface dives; choosing the uncool type of name tag (stitched on, not ironed on — or was it the other way around?) The uniforms. I served my four weeks and never looked back.
But, oh, wouldn’t I love a month at Gardner Lake Camp right about now? To live with a bunch of friends in a cabin with no electricity, and therefore no e-mail, to have my meals cooked for me and the dishes washed, to discover a new skill (sailing) or passion (ecology, or, as we called back then, “Nature”). To harmonize on rounds of “Dona Nobis Pacem” or “Michael Row the Boat Ashore” and not get all squeamish about the Biblical content? To be granted hours of free time to while away writing postcards, playing Spit, or building little stick houses in the woods, their roofs constructed of pine needles, with elaborate pebble paths to the front door? Bliss.
The truth is, we adults need summer camp far more than the kiddos. Our summer vacations have become truncated by anxieties on both ends: the frantic push to clear the desk before Friday, the rising dread of re-entry. A typical week off leaves about 45 minutes on Wednesday for true relaxation. We worry that our presence will be required at work — or that it will not. We suffer dopamine withdrawal without our smartphones pinging.
For too many of us, the drive for self-improvement never takes a break. Vacations must have a higher purpose and a to-do list: learning a language; tennis or yoga; mastering the digital camera; helping the indigenous peoples of Pago Pago. We need to re-learn the secret lessons of summer camp: how to be idle, to let our churning minds settle and just see what comes up.
It’s not like there are no rules, of course. But campers learn that there are reasons for regulation: safety, or fairness, or order. You have to stop splashing and count off during buddy check. You have to be quiet at lights out so everyone can get to sleep. When no one can go swimming until all the bunks are made up and the cabins are clean, even the most indolent preteen will chip in — no free riders allowed. You learn how a society works.
You learn how to live in harmony with nature. There’s no escaping to the mall on muggy, buggy evenings, no way to avoid the blistering heat, or garter snakes, or the eerie call of coyotes in the night. The sudden thunderstorm may cancel the canoe trip, but what a cozy consolation to gather under the dripping eaves while the counselor tells stories! Maybe he’ll even share a sip from his exotic thermos of coffee.
You learn to get along with, or at least tolerate, people you’d never choose as friends, bonding through shared disdain of bug juice or mutual love of pick-up sticks. You learn that you can have a good time even if you don’t get what you wanted, or expected.
These days camps have become over-specialized resume-builders: soccer academy, space exploration, video game design, “cheerleading arts.” Even my own idyll on Gardner Lake in Connecticut has been reinvented as a basketball camp. And of course, not many of us will get the chance to unplug from our lives for a 30-day stretch.
So why not turn the neighborhood, or classroom, or workplace into summer camp? Learn to play well with others. Seek out unlikely companions at lunch or for a new project. Try a new task. Tell stories. Remember that we are all in this together. It could be character-building and boost production. And no one will make you do a surface dive.
Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.