What I Didn't Learn in Camp


May 12, 1991|By DIANE WINSTON

CAMBRIDGE — Cambridge.--My father's favorite memories always seemed to involve Camp Mooween. Even now, decades after Mooween's demise, he meets regularly with other campers to mull over Mooween lore.

The ties which bind these men transcend the songs they invariably sing or the tales they repeatedly tell. Beyond the ritual is an experience: These boys became men at Mooween. They learned a way of being in the world which embraced integrity, responsibility and community. The values which took them from boyhood to manhood were instilled during campfires at Council Rock and nurtured in endurance tests on Red Cedar Lake.

The values struck deep. When my father wanted to punish, motivate or praise me, he drew on Mooween.

I thought about Mooween recently as I walked down Francis Avenue toward Harvard Divinity School. It was a colder day than it should have been, and I chided myself for forgetting that the only thing which separates winter from spring here is the coeds' decision to don tee shirts. Far removed from the inner warmth of college days, I pulled my jacket tighter and told myself I would have slowed down if a chill hadn't been hugging my bones.

I doubt it.

I hate slowing down during an epiphany. There's a brute in me which battles insight or nostalgia. So at that moment -- torn between cold and illumination -- I pressed ahead. Still, in the flicker of the instant, I understood something about Mooween and me.

I didn't go to Mooween. It was defunct when my parents packed me up. I hated the camp they sent me to. During my fourth summer, I tried to commit suicide, swallowing six aspirin and crawling under the bunk. When I wasn't overtly calling attention to my plight, I distinguished myself in other ways. While other campers played tennis or softball, I wrote poetry and read 18th century French novels.

The following summer I gained some cachet when I let slip I'd been felt up under my shirt. But the popularity that gained me was not what I wanted.

Those were my camp days.

There was nothing either in my grade school or high school which claimed my allegiance or fanned my imagination. By the time I went to college I was a good little nihilist. I hated institutions, I mocked loyalty and I sneered at anything smacking of "higher" values.

When I finished college, I could only envision what I didn't want to do. I didn't want to go to law school. I didn't want to go to journalism school. And I didn't want to enter a Ph.D. program in literature.

What I did decide to do seemed gloriously ill-prepared to set me on any career path. It was a choice which several advisers questioned, but which my parents -- knowing me well -- never criticized.

I went to divinity school.

Going to Harvard Divinity School was not all that strange. There were several other Jews in my entering class and many women. The school offered a good academic way station for doctoral hopefuls and an Ivy League jackpot for the few lucky ones accepted from the masters program into the Ph.D. track.

Since I chose the school for its eccentricity factor, I didn't know what to expect. My first recollection is being stampeded by well-meaning classmates asking me what it was like to be a "Person of the Book." I soon discovered, the Harvard imprimatur notwithstanding, many students thought Jewish history ended with the birth of Jesus.

What this ignorance showed me -- and what I subsequently explored in classes and discussions -- was the vitality of my own identity. I learned what it meant to be a Jew in a Christian world, a heterosexual among lesbians, a believer in a pluralistic worship community.

The next step, after exploring my identity, was to decide what I wanted to do with my life. Unlike many of my classmates, I didn't see myself in a service-oriented profession. Selflessness was not my strong suit. I preferred confronting to nurturing, creating to facilitating.

I found direction in the slow process of coming to believe individuals can make a difference. Until then, I thought society was too complex and out-of-control to bother with. Since I felt that nothing I did would make a difference, I didn't see anything worth doing.

At divinity school, we read biography as theology. In other words, we explored how an individual's spiritual commitment can take on heroic proportions in ordinary life. The people whom we deem modern-day saints -- Dorothy Day, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King Jr. -- were really no different than you or me. They just crawled a little farther out on a limb.

Even as I learned to believe that each person can make a difference, I also came to understand the importance of community. My first community was a group of students on the academic, rather than ministerial, track. But when I looked around the room, I felt lost.

No one was like me.

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