Philosophers in Flip Flops
by Christine Adams Beckett
Camps Newfound and Owatonna in Harrison, Maine look like any typical lakeside getaway for children, on the surface: brown clapboard cabins, some with large stone chimneys, welcoming porches and hanging baskets of geraniums, overlook the gentle shores of Long Lake. The Lake itself is like an invitation, urging campers to swim via their sloping sandy beaches and long docks that finger their way towards buoyed, designated swimming areas. The more stately dining hall presented parents, collecting their children on the last day, the obligatory and expected craft table piled high with lanyards, yarn bowls, tiny vases made from lemon juice bottles and homemade jewelry. The interior was decorated with long panoramic black and white group photos dating back decades, old-fashioned waterskis and canoe paddles. Honor plaques recognizing “Campability” designation awards line the interior of the knotty pine roof with their white painted names and dates of recognition. The whispering pines peeked green through the windows, reminding visitors that Camps Newfound and Owatonna are enveloped by the State of Maine’s unspoiled natural beauty.
The Camp is exclusive, however, and not in the way you’d expect a Maine summer camp to be. The patrons were not children of wealthy Wall Street bankers aching for some time in the country, but children that are students of Christian Science and attend Sunday School in the Mother Church in Boston or in one of her branches. My children have this distinction thanks to my husband, my better spiritual half and the party responsible for my family’s metaphysical education. My spiritual awareness is much less formal, my biblical knowledge sadly lacking beyond literary allusion, but with an appreciation that is deep and sincere. My children seem to have an understanding that is easier to come by, thanks to their fresh outlooks and unpolluted perspectives on the world and their spiritually educated father. It is simple endeavor for them to see the world’s inherent Goodness and endless possibilities.
Goodness is a stranger to no camper at Newfound. Hope is apparent in each shining, freckled, sun-tanned face. Asked to contemplate a metaphysical theme for the summer, which this year was “Obedience to Truth gives man power and strength” ( from Mary Baker Eddy’s Science and Health with a Key to the Scriptures), the children seemed empowered. There was an air of peace and security, regardless of the fact that the bucolic playground was filled with children of all ages.
We parents were treated to a water ski show upon arrival on the final Saturday of the first session of camp, and their strength manifested in their watery physical world: by doing backflips off aquaplaning pyramids of kids, jumping wakes on slalom skis, or weaving a braid of tow ropes being dragged by a runabout with a 75 horsepower engine. There were more modest manifestations, in 9 year-olds canoeing and kayaking with ease, swimming the backstroke with grace, swinging into the water from a knotted rope. Represented were all the activities you’d expect, of course, from a summer camp on the shore of a deep Maine lake.
So from a technical spiritual outsider, this mom was a bit surprised by the daily morning prayer meeting that still went on as scheduled, despite the invading parents, an activity you wouldn’t necessarily expect from another lakeside camp. Directed by two teen Counselors in Training, the lesson was death (or lack thereof). The clear message: Goodness that is brought to the physical world by loving individuals cannot die. Punctuated by signing a hymn, sung to the tune of Ludwig Van Beethoven’s 9th Symphony and entitled, appropriately, JOY, those same shining strong faces enthusiastically sang:
In Thy house securely dwelling,
Where Thy children live to bless,
Seeing only Thy creation,
We can share Thy happiness,
Share Thy Joy and spend it freely.
Loyal hearts can feel no fear;
We Thy children know Thee, Father,
Love and Life forever near.
–Elizabeth C. Adams
After morning prayer, attendees were invited to speak their thoughts if the spirit moved them, much like a Quaker meeting of Friends. After minutes of quiet contemplation, a man, presumably a parent with the tell-tale salt and pepper hair and knowledgeable crows feet clad in a sensible golf shirt and less sensible flip flops, rose and said in a clear strong voice, that time is nothing at all, just as is death, and that we were sitting in the presence of deep love, in what admittedly is a physically beautiful setting, making us witnesses to Eternity. Another attractive woman in a sundress and flip flops remarked that she thought the water that surrounded us was a fitting symbol of purity, and each drop offered the potential to reflect, much like the loving souls of each child that reflected God’s love on the beach on that day. A young woman, presumably an employee of the camp in her Owatonna shirt and expected flip flops, thanked parents for sharing the grace of each child with her. Children rose and re-read the biblical passages that reminded them that their dear friends who only physically accompanied them for the weeks of summer followed them throughout the year, offering them strength long after their faces have disappeared into their day-to-day lives.
I was grateful my daughter had spent three weeks in such a supportive environment in which to cultivate her own power and strength. I was thankful to have witnessed the wisdom and strength of these very able children, regardless of my doubting dedication to some aspects of the physical world. I admired the individuals who rose in strength and lived their lives dedicated to these very real notions of God. But just a smidge of me felt left a tad out of the loop, not envious exactly, but in awe of these faithful individuals who exist in the physical world steeped in the comfort of a metaphysical understanding.
Later that day, I treated my daughter to an afternoon in near-by Portland Maine; we lunched at a charming diner hosted by practical-minded, plain speaking proprietors with thick Down East accents. We treated ourselves to a Gorgeous Gelato on Fore Street. We took in a children’s production of The Boxcar Children at the Children’s Museum and Theatre of Maine. A cast of earnest pre teens took on the plot of one of our favorite books, a condensed version of four siblings losing their beloved parents and fleeing to live together in an abandoned box car the woods rather than separately in foster care. Each child had a special gift, Henry was the work horse and breadwinner, Jessie was the practical organizer, Violet the creative chef and Benny the tinkering engineer who made a wagon from cast off refuse found in a junk heap.
The thematic elements of the show, very ably performed by a group of young New Englanders with familiar, wide, freckled faces and no nonsense airs, held a purpose to illustrate a point to our children, a theory similar to that of Bruno Bettleheim’s “Uses of Enchantment”. Considering the mind set of the day, the message for my daughter and me had to do with the nothingness of death and the strength and power that exists in us all, regardless of age. The children are fine — thrive even — in the absence of their parents. Their perceived genetic traits of significance, their talents, are in fact likely transcendent of a higher power. They struggle but find joy in their autonomy.
A teenaged ukulele player gave a gentle strum of music to accompany the production, and a Greek chorus singing depression era tunes subtly narrated the themes. The most poignant was the finale, It’s Only A Paper Moon, which holds a key to spiritual perspective for one individual with centuries of New England roots resting in her blue-blooded, practical veins and who would never have dreamed of publicly remarking that love is eternal during an Episcopal service of her youth.
Well, it’s only a paper moon
Sailing over a cardboard Sea
But it wouldn’t be make believe
If you believed in me
–EY Harburg and Billy Rose
The future is bright, as witnessed in the freckled faces of those young New England Players and in the spiritually in touch, cosmopolitan contingent that spent the last three weeks on Long Lake. I had to wear sunglasses to hide my normally stoic eyes from the beauty of it all. No mind: they went stupendously with my own pair of plastic flip flops. My leaps of faith will be done gingerly in those rubber thongs, however, as my more practical side still sees some paper and muslin on the fringes of the moon and trees. The children gratefully reveal the Reality for me, and are impressively fearless of tripping in their sandals.