For most of my childhood, I was the youngest of three girls. We were all very different. My oldest sister was an artist. She spent most of her time in her own room, her sanctuary, creating visual magic. And it was magic. She could turn three dimensions into two with the skill and finesse of what we all acknowledged was genius. My other sister was a literature aficionado. Stories were all that mattered – reading them, telling them, writing them. She was very good at all those. And she was popular – gregarious and funny, she attracted people. I was quiet and did well in science and math. My two sisters had curly hair. Mine was straight, really straight. I was taller and skinnier, but inexplicably, I had a pot belly. My physique was like that of a young aspen with a burl. Despite our differences, we three sisters did share some things – we were all athletes and we were all Girl Scouts.
My mother was responsible for our athleticism and our being Girl Scouts. She taught us all to play tennis, hoping for a champ. I was the least likely candidate for that, rather Scouts was my thing. My mother was the troop leader for each of my older sisters’ troops at one point or another, but I joined a troop led by a mother of a girl in my grade at my school, though I didn’t know her that well. Apart from scout meetings, I never spent any time with her or with any of the others in the troop. I never felt at home with this group of girls, and the leader didn’t particularly care for me. My attitude probably had something to do with that. I was an introvert, and I could be stubborn. I felt alienated most of the time, especially among these girls who didn’t live in my immediate neighborhood and who all seemed to me to be sissies. I preferred doing what boys did. Still, I stayed in scouts for the cookies and summer camp.
I loved selling cookies, probably because I was good at it. I started selling cookies even before I was a scout. My oldest sister was too busy drawing or just didn’t want to sell cookies, so I sold them for her when I was barely six and not even an official scout yet. How does it happen that an introvert becomes a cookie sales star, even at such a young age? I’m not sure I can tell you. But I think it had something to do with the competition. I was super competitive. In first grade when there were stars on a chart at school for the number of books each student read, I had the most stars. I wanted to win so badly that I would stoop to reading short, stupid books just to get the stars. If I could go back and do it again, I hope that I would be a little more focused on the substance rather than the winning. But you have to wonder what the teacher was thinking setting up a contest like this, a contest in which some students had such an edge. Most of the students didn’t care about the stars, didn’t participate. So the contest ended up being between three girls – all brainy, all competitive and all sissies, except for me.
The other day, I heard Lance Armstrong say that if he had to go back and do it again, he would still take the drugs because that’s the way the bicycle racing worked then – it just leveled the playing field for him, or so he claimed. I found this answer pathetically disappointing. I wouldn’t want to still be thinking like Lance Armstrong or the way I did in first grade. But maybe the same grim reality prevailed in the classroom and drove me to cut corners, even though the deck was stacked in my favor already. My birthday was in October making me as much as 10 months older than some of my classmates. Even with this advantage, I still wanted the playing field tilted just a little more in my favor, and I did that by reading “books” that didn’t take much time. Looking back it seems pathetic. Perhaps if I were honest I would admit that if I had to go back, I would again read short books for stars. But now I hope that at least I would see that there was more to it than simply winning, that this behavior was less than desirable. Anyway, competition also drove me to sell a lot of cookies. At first it was just the competition, but then the Scouts started giving camper stamps – awards to offset the cost of summer camp – for selling cookies. This was an even bigger incentive.
The first year I went to camp my oldest sister was a CIT – counselor in training. I remember that she was there, but we didn’t interact much. My other sister wasn’t there. She had come home early from camp the year before, just too homesick to stick out the two weeks. I have to admit that I was homesick too, at first. But after I overcame being homesick, camp was my refuge.
The trip to and from camp was terrifying, but it didn’t stop me from going. The narrow, dirt road, cut into a steep hillside, had a series of switchbacks so sharp that the bus had to do three-point turns to get around the corners. And there were only a few places where two vehicles could pass. If you weren’t in one of those places when another vehicle appeared, someone had to back up or down the hill. My scariest memory is looking out the window of the bus as we backed down to make way for an oncoming car. I saw nothing below, not even a sliver of road. Years later I was still dreaming about that ride, being on that bus on the edge of nothing.
Somehow the bus made it to camp every year. We were probably never in any real danger, despite my fears. But the name, as grand as it was, Camp Cloud Rim, helps you understand how a child could feel as though her bus was teetering on the edge of the world. Still it was the right name for a camp so high up in the pristine, alpine wild that it was among the clouds. The smell of pines was raw and sweet. The cold, clear, blue lake sparkled with sun dimples and wind ripples. The wild flowers blanketing the meadows startling the order of the city out of the girl. Even the dirt was sacred – on my face, in my toes, everywhere. The food wasn’t very good. And the counselors made everyone taste a bit of everything, even spinach. But being at Cloud Rim, especially on the lake, singing around a campfire, and living in a tent would have been my choice of a permanent lifestyle, at least until the snow came.
We all spent a lot of time on the lake. So near the end of the second week, during a carnival, there were boat races. The competition theme reigned here too, even amidst the serene beauty. It was the early ‘60s, and there were no ribbons for participation. You either won or you didn’t. I was ready for the races. Again, I had an advantage, at least at rowing. I had done a lot of it in the prior two weeks. Most of the girls hadn’t because they preferred canoeing. Because I always wanted to do what others didn’t, I rowed. Being an introvert and not knowing any of the other girls in my unit when I arrived at camp also helped me make the decision to choose solo rowing, rather than pair up in a canoe. I think I was the only girl who had come to camp alone – without a tent mate from my troop, so rowing alone worked. Being a competitive swimmer also gave me an edge. I had been doing laps all summer, building up my arm muscles in a way other girls were not. I did well in the row boat races, almost beating my counselor.
But what’s left from my days at camp? Why did I love to be there, hate to leave? Maybe it was because there was no one there I really knew, and no one who expected much from me. I lived in my own world at camp, a world of row boats and campfires, dark skies littered with countless pinpoints of brilliance that sometimes shot through the canopy, a world where the many-colored wild flowers bloomed in disarray, rather than straight rows, in wild meadows below startlingly jagged peaks. I lived almost among the clouds and saw the magic of the universe. Camp built my community. Maybe it seems an odd community, not one dominated by campers. Rather, it was community built by the awe of the natural world, with me being only a very, very small part of the miracle. I fit, unnoticed, and at one with, rather than competing with, my community. I couldn’t. It was a respite for an awkward girl, who always felt different, and loved feeling lost among the wonders of nature.