When my daughter Amy suggested a “socialist summer camp” in the White Mountains of New Hampshire for our getaway together, my heart began to race. Would they pontificate around the campfire? Would they be advocating world revolution over the Mac ‘n Cheese? For those of you who have read my novel about college-aged American and French protesters in 1968, you know that Janet McGill of Beverly Hills calls herself a socialist because she “believes in fairness.” But I am not Janet McGill, if anyone should ask you. And as an adult with a keen sense of history, I have written that despite a nonviolent philosophy, Janet’s group found themselves involved in actions which, frankly, frighten me.
So I went to the camp website, where the first thing I saw was their slogan, “Where social justice meets nature.” Founded in 1941 as a non-profit organization, the World Fellowship Center (WFC) is a “camp and conference center with a social conscience.” They are dedicated to all the things I do adhere to: social justice, peace and the environment.
So what was it like? Like nothing I’ve ever experienced! Families have been coming there since their grandparents’ generation. Mostly east coast “lefties” – who now call themselves “progressives.”
Here is dinnertime at the WFC, beginning with the view out the large, screened windows. The summer sun flits in and out of storm clouds that have moved in over the large, scraggly lawn. Green Adirondick chairs and 1950s metal lawn chairs are turned this way and that under a red fir tree nearly 100 feet tall.
Inside it looks like any other camp dining hall, but here, both the range of ages and table topics are unique.
A young African American poet tries to convince her 1-year-old to take a bite of the thick butternut squash soup, laced with crème fraiche and crisped sage leaves plucked from the camp garden. Two school-aged children have already finished theirs and ask one of the teenaged staff bustling around the room for a refill. Adults of all ages talk issues and families more than politics, taking their time with their meal. Those who have not been here before try to get to know their tablemates.
That last would be me. We sat often with another mother-daughter twosome, the mother a public health librarian and the daughter a junior in high school. The family had been coming to the camp since 1961!
When I try to sort out the scene, my week breaks down into Conversations, Arts and Issues programs/presentations (these two dovetailed nicely), and Nature.
Conversations with the Peace Action retreat folks were both idealistic and strategic. One brave woman not much younger than I am has traveled to Honduras with Witness for Peace, meeting with indigenous peoples who have been forced from ancestral lands by corrupt government officials on the take from corporate loggers.
On hikes and at meals, I spoke with many who are frustrated by the gentrification all up and down the urban east coast, where tech communities are forcing out the middle class and engendering homelessness (sound familiar, San Francisco?). My hiking companions were organized and trying to help on several levels. Other memorable talks were about how a garden failed because of severe climate change. About how the camp has swung toward the role of creative expression and the arts in promoting progressive viewpoints. And of course, the getting-to-know-you conversations about work, kids and grandkids, and – always extremely brief – this week’s rolling political disasters.
The Arts during my week began with an exquisite and emotional program of live contemporary dance, poetry, and music video. This was not in any way amateurish. These professionals teach and perform with their passions in mind. In this case, subjects like mind-body connection, Syrian refugee crisis, and freedom. Maya Angelou’s “We Are All Birds” was read, set to original music, and danced by Kate Griffler, the weeks’ dance counselor. Kate began by crouching and moving intensely while perched atop a high stool. I am so sorry that I did not bring my camera!
My favorite was “Pregnant with Coltrane” written and performed by the young mother I met at dinner, Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie (we called her “ee-kari”). Re-imagining Coltrane’s pregnant mother, fearful and dismayed by the world into which her child would be born, considers destroying him. But the child himself, eager to experience the joy of life, and ultimately, like his mother, to create, wills himself into existence. And then there was Coltrane…right? I bought one of Ekere’s two published books, and everything she writes is just as dazzling, just as heartfelt.
It was also “ukulele” week, and besides programs to learn the instrument (Amy is now a fan), there were two others to describe the history of the instrument and to relate how important music has been in the education of young progressives. I also learned about the “Commie Camps” of the 1930s through the McCarthy era, and how children from those camps eventually detached themselves from Communism and became the active progressives of today. On two days, Amy and I worked on the screened porch that wrapped around the main lodge, making “collaged boxes” (i.e. cutting magazine photos to paste and seal onto cigar boxes…) and listening to the ukulele group strumming and singing Dylan, Seeger and many other favorites from the 1960s.
The property has a pond which is really a good-sized lake. So we hiked the one-half mile trail over there a couple of times, and Amy did the triathlon of hike/swim/kayak. They also had rowboats and canoes, and she offered to take me out, but I preferred to sit on one of the comfortable benches onshore and just revel in the scenery.
Besides Edie, the arts “counselor,” the camp had a high school science teacher who led biking and hiking trips every day.
We hiked local trails to Sabbaday Falls to see the basalt-in-granite formations, to Rocky Gorge and pond, and to the Bolles Reserve. We learned what an esker was—and climbed it. Along the way, we picked from the abundant blueberries in a vast meadow, where on the return hike, we were drenched by a cloudburst.
Amy is a political organizer and promoter of progressive issues in the greater New York area, with a particular focus on climate change. Amy and I took the time for long talks, easily the most meaningful part of the trip. I learned much more about her life and enjoyed “qvelling” because she’s a good person, living off the straight and secure path all we suburban moms and dads envision for our children, but clearly making genuine contributions to our world, and enjoying her life along the way.
I come from a long line—on both sides—of capitalists. They felt that America could do no wrong, and the Commies were trying to turn our country into Russia. They believed in civil rights, gun control, science, and “choice.” But they were old-style Republicans. They hated taxes and unions and the Reds. Women’s rights, were not included in civil rights. And there was no LGBT. I grew up with a set of political categories that I have to struggle to remember, because today they are completely transformed.
The central take-away from the WFC camp is to put my late 1960s definition of “radical” and “left wing” into historical perspective. To hear stories of one whose father fought with the Communists in the 1937 Spanish Civil War; of the camp director who was jailed at 70 years old because he wouldn’t give Senator McCarthy complete lists of the men, women and children who had ever been WFC campers; of the dangers of civil rights efforts in the 1940s and 1950s, way before MLK became a household word.
On the hopeful side, I met people involved in a range of organizations who work on behalf of children, disadvantaged groups, refugees, our climate and our planet, prison populations, homeless families, and on and on. I don’t lionize old-style Communists, nor do I admire the big-talking “liberals” that I considered to be the adults on the right side of history when I was in college and in the 1970s. But the WFC crowd did not and do not just talk, they act. In daily, individual and group micro- and macro-actions, within the framework of our nation, they are trying to change things to match their vision of the true democracy we were meant to be.