Dreamsicle Summer

Do you think Joy had more fun at summer camp than these two children?
Do you think Joy had more fun at summer camp than these two children? // Creative Commons

The summer after I turned 20, I spent every day in mud-caked Ked sneakers, the same pair of blue jeans, and T-shirts stained brown and pink by darkroom chemicals and juice of an unidentifiable flavor. This was how I welcomed my first few months of adulthood: in a dense patch of pines in the North Country, where I worked as a photography instructor at an all-boys’ summer camp.

By midsummer, when the tops of my feet had browned to the color of plums and the mosquito bites on my legs had faded from red sores to blackberry bruises, the days had fallen into a glorious rhythm. On afternoons too sultry for anyone to move, a group of us would sit for hours on a screened porch, the floor fan rustling the pages of the novels open before us. We drifted on the lake in kayaks watching for the first stars to appear, while a trumpet song in the distance signaled bedtime for campers. At meals in the rec hall we played games with the boys and put away plates of tater tots filmy with grease. We sat on red plastic chairs at the Dairy Queen eating Hawaiian Blizzards and Dilly Bars. We watched the locals and chatted of nothing.

The hours I wasn’t outdoors I passed inside the cool recesses of the camp darkroom. I had started out the summer wanting to encourage the boys to make photographs that contained some element of tension or conflict, rather than of merely pretty things. But I soon found myself genuinely praising their photographs of the same potted plants and waterfalls, or proudly gazing at the same dirt paths and sunsets. Our darkroom sessions often devolved into spontaneous dance parties (there were always the same five pop songs on the local radio station), and my intentions were quickly forgotten.

Endless numbered days: the only way to describe it. True, there was fear, and doubt, and conflict of all sizes. But as a whole the pulse of the summer was slow and uniform and sweet.

The cadence drew to a close, and now we’re back at school. In a way, it’s a relief to return to student groups that debate semantics, to poetry classes where we’d spend half an hour identifying the conflicting forces within a single stanza. It feels familiar to return to a world that, each minute, slams you with the notion that ideas are powerful and complex and have stakes worthy of our measured examination.  So often we’re taught to pinpoint the drama and conflict in what we see, read and do. I, too, had hoped that by the time I returned as an upperclassman, I would’ve developed this sense of understanding.

There’s this “mature adult” image of myself I’ve been fleshing out in my mind since I was nine years old, and I kept refining this image up until the end of my sophomore year of college. I would wistfully borrow attributes I admired from the intriguing upperclassmen I noticed in classrooms and libraries—added to my future adult image a pair of quizzical and discerning eyes, a confident and authoritative voice unafraid to argue. This woman reflected all the good things that I thought would come of experience, of knowledge, and of time.

But perhaps, this time around, my senses have dulled from too many lazy evenings spent reading out on the fishing dock. Or maybe, somewhere in the process of learning Four Square and attempting to master Magic the Gathering, a bit of the ease of childhood rubbed off me. It’s possible that when the heat lifts from New Haven and my memory of the pines begins to dim, the urgency that I used to feel will be restored—the urgency to ask too much of myself. I’d grown up believing that, for everything valuable and worth having, we had to struggle. I had learned so much in the past two years of school that I came to believe that this was the only kind of life worth living. I felt good, and noble, for deciding to never settle for stasis. My life this summer, then, was easy to swallow but difficult to digest.

The darkroom has been locked up for the winter, but I imagine I won’t be there next summer. The semester has just begun but already I’m beginning to hear that ever-growing voice telling me to see new frontiers and face new hardships. By next summer, the months that just passed may remain as only a strange utopia. I’m lucky, though. On the walls of my room this year are new additions: a collage of black and white photographic prints, of the most beautiful sunsets I’ve ever seen.

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