It's the day before summer camp begins and I have suddenly realized that I have figured out the true meaning of life. I wasn't actually working on the project, truth be told. But somehow the exhausting effort of gathering and labelling the tangle of equipment that litters my living room floor has given me insights I would never have summoned otherwise.
It's a colourful scene, if intimidating. Yellow life jackets mingle with orange tubes of sunscreen and green cans of bug spray. Puffy sleeping bags (one red, one blue) mix in with a snuggle toy, a yo-yo and a deck of cards. There are books, water bottles, safety whistles and a large scramble of T-shirts, swimsuits and beach towels that are, according to my 11-year-old daughter, babyish. Last year's paddles are present and accounted for but they're too short now, and my son has found his father's old rain jacket, which is way too big for a 12-year-old but he is taking it anyway.
There was a list at one point and naturally it has been lost in the excitement and confusion of packing. I'm convinced we've forgotten something important and I'm thinking it's time for a large gin and tonic.
Everywhere I look I see the confusing signs of the old mingled with the new, items that are too big brightly co-existing with those that are too small. In a few hours we will stuff it all into hockey bags and try to get some sleep.
My children will no doubt be dreaming of canoe trips, campfires and singsongs. They'll be looking forward to endless tetherball competitions and the joyful release of swimming in a lake. They'll drift off to sleep in a cool northern cabin then awaken the next morning to do it all again.
I can't wait.
Much as I feel privileged to be the sole parent of two amazing and wonderful children, I find myself crawling to their annual two-week trip to summer camp with little more than a flimsy grip on my positive attitude. I'm getting used to the load of responsibility I inherited upon the death of my husband three years ago, but I still need a break every now and then.
Like other parents in my situation, my days are more about crisis management than calm proficiency. Aside from homework, meals and garbage, I earn the income, pay the bills, weed the garden and make sure we don't run out of important staples like dill pickles and raspberry jam. I set the rules, adjudicate disputes and mete out justice as required. I even walk the dog I insisted we get after my children gave up asking for one.
In fact, I think I need my children's summer camp even more than they do.
While they are tramping through the bush swatting mosquitoes and learning how to use a compass, I will be working away at my desk completing every single thing on my daily task list. Then I'll go out into my garden and hum quietly to myself. No one will complain about the working or the humming.
While my kids are learning key skills such as the J-stroke and how to climb back into an upset canoe, I will be off on a long bike ride on paths I haven't yet explored. While they are eating burned marshmallows and singing camp songs, I will curl up in front of a movie that will be much too serious, dramatic or romantic for children. I will eat cheese and crackers for dinner, or maybe ice cream and dark chocolate, and I will end my summer camp holiday feeling refreshed, recharged and resilient.
I will be desperate to see my kids again.
My children, meanwhile, will probably be ready to come home too. They will have been running, playing, socializing and learning for two solid weeks without computer games or iPod downloads. They will have forgotten all about the tired mother who wants to know if they've done their laundry, and they will have replaced her with the cheerful mother who loves to tease.
When they get off that bus after two weeks in the sun, they will be tanned and glowing, scratched and grubby, and full of stories they just can't wait to tell me. I will hang on every word.
When September arrives, far too quickly, I will pack them off to school with honest regret.
But I'll have the elusive meaning of life to steady me this year. Because what I learned from that unruly pile of camp supplies on the living room floor is that life centres almost entirely on balance. Jumbled in with the new, the oversized and the cautionary are the old, the way-too-small and the frivolous. Exhaustion pairs with rejuvenation, playing with learning, society with isolation. As a parent I think I had forgotten the fact that life balances out eventually, with our help or without.
Hectic as my life is most of the time now, I realize there will come a day –probably not long from now – when I will miss the chaos of raising children, the crisis of losing lists. And there is balance in that, too. But for now, we will pack everything neatly into those two waiting hockey bags and enjoy our last busy evening together before we head off onto the detour from our daily life that summer camp offers.
Some time before my children tuck into bed, I will slip outside and sit on my front porch to gather my resources for that excited trip tomorrow to the camp bus stop. I will sip my gin and think about what I'm going to do on my summer holiday. And I will feel grateful for chaos and the order it invites.
Susan Crossman lives in Oakville, Ont.