Pitching Tents

Our campsite sat alone at the edge of a winding array of freshly groomed and perfectly square parcels of temporary residences. Slowly, we pitched our tent, what would become our shelter for the weekend, vulnerable and thin. Carefully choosing a corner of our site that had just enough tree cover and just enough space to hold the rectangular base of our tent, we brought the tent to three dimensions.

This trip, poised perfectly at the cusp of summer and fall, was a reaching, a narrowing of my purpose to provide my children and myself with what I believe we need in this world: nature, the rhythm of a day lived wholly outside, living by the sunrise and the sunset, simple, quiet togetherness. A longtime camper, our recent lives have included no weekend excursions. It simply wasn’t something that we found worked as a whole family, but recently, I’ve longed for the simplicity of the mountains, the way the crisp morning air provides a stark contrast to the day’s waiting warmth and humidity, the pungent campfire smoke, and the ambling way the hours drift by.

Just as my meager and out of practice fire began to finally form in the ring, a summer thunderstorm rolled across the tops of the trees and rain began to fall, slowly at first and with just enough time before the skies completely opened to dash on the rain fly and find solace in the tent. The rain pelted on the tent in a disparate but comforting rhythm, the delicate rivulets decorated the outside walls haphazardly in a veiny and translucent roadmap. Our new tent was being water tested within an hour of its debut, and we laughed at the impeccable timing of a surprise storm when the weather had shown no chance of rain.

Like the tent, I was also being tested within an hour of our arrival. This camping trip was the beginning of a different story I’m choosing to tell myself. Different than what I believed was capable of doing on my own. Different from the story I had been telling myself for years. A story that has had a rigid perimeter and a stringent middle. A story that says the idyllic, the ideal, the normal is the only definition of success and happiness.

It’s so easy to get absorbed in the caricatures of life we see every day, so easy to become enamored with the vision of a curated life, an exacting script to follow, a carefully plotted beginning, middle, and end. What I’m beginning to learn, what I’ve been learning over and over, is that there is no such script, no such predetermined plot line for a perfect life. Our decisions, our actions, and our desires form the plot line as we go, and it becomes perfect in its own design. It leads us to where we are meant to be.

And so I found myself alone with my children in a tent, during a thunderstorm in the mountains, making shadow puppets on the tent’s walls, laughing about the gibberish the lines of rain created, telling scary stories. I felt myself relax into this space just a little, the rain slowly peeling away the murky layers I’ve carried in a futile attempt to control and create a life that fit my exacting mold.

The storm finally waned but the rain drops deposited on the trees’ leaves relentlessly pelted the tent’s roof throughout the night, and it left me feeling raw and vulnerable, cracked open and exposed. My nerves were already on edge from venturing into this space on my own, and in the thick darkness I could hear Gage stir, sniffle, and then turn with a garbled release of sleepy words. In turn my emotions ran rampant and fluctuated between courageous and terrified. We knew no one else in the campground, my cell phone defiantly displayed No Service, there was word that a bear had been nosing around campsites at night in search of food, and within an hour of our arrival my story of how our weekend would go had been changed, wetted, and shifted.

Suddenly I had an intense and almost uncontrollable urge to go home, to frantically disassemble the drenched tent, pack my sleepy children into the car, and crash through the closed park gate, leaving the rain and the bear behind. I questioned my purpose in bringing us here, alone, without another adult to lean on for support. The sense of being utterly alone and unmoored in the world for that moment was inescapable and oppressive. I wondered: was I really interested in bringing us closer to nature and an easier way of living, if just for a few days, or was I trying to prove something?

Without the mind-numbing escape of social media or games on my phone, I found that my only way through this rainy, restless night was to breathe through the panic and to hold my fear gently. The soaked leaves finally dried, and we emerged from our soggy cocoon to face a new day, the fears of the night before fell away as we set to the morning duties of drying off chairs, making coffee, setting up the stove and making breakfast. The frantic questioning of the night before was silenced, quieted in the way that mountain mornings can hush most stress, and I trusted that we were here, in this magical place, amidst strangers and maybe a roaming bear, for exactly the reason we needed to be.

There was nothing left to prove because in the uncomplicated morning air, it was clear that this exodus from our normal lives was simply about us being together in this space that felt magical. It was about creating the plot line for our lives, in all of its messiness and unexpected turns and soggy tents. Rather than living in a desperate attempt to prove myself and create and curate my identity and our lives to others, what was brought into sharp focus was a need to simply be, to exist together in this splendid slice of time, a halcyon way to close the summer out, unfettered and free.