On Sunday afternoon, when I return from my visit up north, I will head straight to the corner of the garage where we store the camping supplies: tent, hammock, sleeping bag, chair, and plastic bins with camp stove, fuel, coffee press, cutting board, cutlery, paper towels, lighters, lanterns, flashlights, batteries, fire starter, camp knife, dish pan, Dr. Bronner’s soap, and a first aid kit. (This is not a complete list, but you get the idea…). It always amazes me how much stuff I need to go into the wild, “roughing it” for a few days.
On Sunday afternoon, I will examine the contents of the tubs, make a list of what I need to restock, and load them up in the back of the car.
And on Monday, we will leave for Maine.
The camping stuff won’t get used right away- we have a visit planned with family along the way, and a few days on our favorite Monhegan Island, the “thinnest place” I know. (Here’s a good blog if you’re not sure about “thin places” -https://www.patheos.com/blogs/markdroberts/series/thin-places/. )
And then, after all of that (which alone, would constitute a near-perfect way to spend one’s vacation)… on our 35thwedding anniversary, actually, I will go camping. Alone.
I tried this solo adventure for the first time last year as I was staring down my impending 60thbirthday. I wanted an adventure by which to mark the beginning of my seventh decade, and some time for reflection and retreat. It was great. On the first day, I made camp, went to the beach, took a long hike, and when it got dark I sat near a crackling fire toasting the quintessential marshmallow to a perfect golden brown. I climbed into my tent with my headlamp, book, and a wee dram, and finally relaxed back, to gaze though the mesh roof of my tent at the stars, brilliant and shining in the inky Maine sky.
Now, lest you think that I’m too much of an adventurer, please know that I did this in the company of many others, on a small island that hosts a family campground. No, I wasn’t in the deep woods all by myself, prey to bears and wolves and stray menacing people. I was in a campground where I could hear the distant sound of kids chasing each other, and someone on a guitar, and the laughter of adults at a card game around their picnic table. I could also hear the crashing of waves on the beach, an owl sentry in the tall pine, and that creaking noise that trees make when the wind causes them to join branches, in woodland harmony.
It wasn’t a remote wilderness adventure that I craved (and I don’t think that my family would have condoned that, anyway)… it wasn’t “aloneness” that I yearned for (I am, by nature, an extrovert and my preferred way to spend free time is with family and friends)… it was, I think, a need to assert my independence.
Independence is a leit-motif of my life. I know that I’ve written about it in these pages before. I am the daughter of a mother who, in her mid-thirties was suddenly widowed with three young children. Independence (and survival) was my mother’s unchosen theme and, in the way that generational succession works, it has become mine.
My mother was not alone forever. Some years later, she fell in love again and married a fine man who adopted her three children and, along with his five children,( and, later on, one of their own) we made a family.
But in the intervening years between husbands, my mother “pulled up her socks” (one of her favorite sayings) and moved us from New York to Connecticut. She got a job teaching at a private Episcopal school, and managed to get food on the table and sneakers on our feet, back in the days when single parenting was not common, and mothers working full time out of the house was not a usual thing. My grandmother moved in with us, and took us to Brownies and Cub Scouts and play dates, and cooked dinner and ironed our clothes. My mother’s independence was not chosen, but delivered, in the form of my father’s sudden and fatal heart attack. Her coping with its aftermath was not in complete wilderness (the community of a bucolic Episcopal boarding school and a loving grandmother is pretty sweet), but it was a test of her fortitude.
My camping trip in a week’s time will not plunge me into the wilderness, nor will it be a great test of my fortitude (unless I run out of coffee) but it will allow me to stretch my “independence muscle” which I seem to have acquired from my mother. She would never have camped- sleeping on the ground was not her thing- but she would understand my need to be on my own, for a few days. She did not choose her independence. Nor have I, really- it’s been bequeathed to me- and I am grateful to live it out, for a few days, close to the earth and sea.
Years ago, at a cocktail party in Scotland, I met a self-important Canon of the Church from the U.S. who was making his way to the Outer Hebrides for a retreat. The bishop of Aberdeen and the Orkneys was kind enough to have us to his house one evening in a gesture of hospitality to fellow Anglican clergy. I asked the U.S. Canon why he chose the Outer Hebrides as the place for his retreat. Looking over his horn-rimmed glasses, he paused, and then drawled, “Because I value the sea and sky.” Ugh.
Hey. I love the ocean. I love the wet, closeness of the forest at night. I love moss, and soft dirt, and the smell of sweet pine. I love pinching tiny bulbs of seaweed and hearing them squeak. I love warm tidal pools, hermit crabs, and starfish. I like shaking out my towel into the wind, and getting caught in the smoke of the campfire, and eating oatmeal in the hush of a cold tent as the sun comes up, through the trees. Yes, I guess that I, too, “value the sea and sky.”
I hope that in these summer months you get to do whatever it is that, deep in your bones, God is calling you to do. For me, it is spending a few days alone, camping.
What is it that makes you complete?
(written on the eve of my mother’s 94thbirthday, now in her 8thyear of living in the eternal and loving arms of God.)