Everything I Know About Being a Girl, I Learned at Summer Camp

With a majority of 53.85%, tonight’s post is going to be all about my experiences at summer camp.

I have a tendency to make naive assumptions, and when something doesn’t fit into my existing understanding of the world, I change it so that it does. And if something doesn’t fall into one of my categories of interest, it usually just falls by the wayside. This is why I know the top songs used to torture people and don’t understand a lot of slang. Thankfully, I’ve been growing out of these habits as I get older.

So when I went to off to summer camp, I lived very firmly in my own world. I wore black velour stretchy bell bottoms constantly and could often be caught in black leather loafers and soccer shorts. I worshipped Harry Potter and only used the internet to check my email and look at Mugglenet. I’m sure I was aware on some level that not everyone lived in as innocent a world as mine, but it certainly did not show.

The camp I was going to was all about female empowerment, the Montessori method, and being green. There was a working farm and large garden, days where we didn’t use any fossil fuel, and everything was incredibly rustic. The cabins didn’t have electricity or screens in the windows, and they weren’t weatherproofed. We had to walk to separate buildings to go to the bathroom, and the showers were lukewarm at best. On paper, it seemed wonderful–I could spend all of my time reading on tree stumps and weaving rugs.

And in the way that things go, camp turned out very differently than expected. Sure, it was wonderful in many ways–I loved writing postcards home, going for nine-mile hikes up mountains, and the evening activities–but I was not expecting the other girls.

The view from my cabin

My cabin.

My first year bunk. I slept on the bottom. And yes, I did bring a dictionary and seven books with me.

It quickly became evident just how different I was. Despite the fact that none of us actually needed to, I was the only one who did not wear a bra. And for this I was mocked mercilessly. When one girl asked me where she could plug in her hair straightener, I gave her a blank look and asked her what a hair straightener was before trying to kindly inform her that no, we weren’t allowed to have any access to electrical outlets in the few buildings that had wiring. The next few weeks continued in this fashion.

Apparently, despite the fact that all the women in shaving cream and razor ads all looked like they were in their twenties, twelve-year-old girls were also expected to shave their legs and it was ridiculously easy to cut yourself while doing it.

That first year was a crash course in both what society wanted girls to be and how to live independently. Putting on sunblock without being asked and making sure I showed up to swim lessons on time was easy, learning how to put on eyeliner was not. I was also expected to go to dances and socials and would get in trouble when I walked back to the cabin to finish a book on the history of France’s castles.

I learned that I dressed “all wrong,” and that “one chip leads to two chips and two chips leads to the whole bag, which will make you fat, Ella.” I got dragged along while they flirted with boys and persuaded to go skinny dipping in the pond at night and streak across the archery field after dark. (All three were done with minimal enthusiasm, and in the case of skinny dipping and streaking, involved the wearing of clothing.) It was terrifying and not at all enjoyable. The giggling didn’t interest me, and so I spent as much time as I could with my friend from home or two girls who liked reading as much as I did.

But the moment I got home, I expressed a desire for “cooler” clothes. My mom bought me designer jeans, and I wore those stupid tee shirts with Snoopy on them that all the other girls wore. Without an older sister or a mom who cared about anything remotely girly, I was adrift. All I knew was that I dressed, acted, and looked all wrong. So I resolved to change.

Me at twelve:

Me at thirteen:

Of course, I still looked awkward, but what thirteen-year-old doesn’t? And weirdly, I couldn’t bring myself to dislike the girls who had mocked me at camp the previous summer. There was definitely enjoyment to be had from actually caring about clothing and your appearance. Eighteen-year-old me can certainly testify to that statement. I love clothing. It’s like wearing art. You get to make a statement and convey an image just through what you have on, and don’t even get me started on how much I love a good coat (I have over five and the collection keeps threatening to grow even bigger.).

So when I returned the next summer, it was with a great deal more confidence. The girls who loved books were still there, and I ended up bonding with the “girliest” girl. I learned how to French braid hair, how to properly pluck my eyebrows, and how to put makeup on other people. And weirdly, I managed to feel like I wasn’t betraying myself or turning into the anti-intellectual, petty girls I hated. I got to be Hermione Granger on Harry Potter Day when the final Harry Potter book came out and still paint my toenails bright red.

I had fun at the dances, but when I had enough of sugar-coated pop and milling about with other equally awkward adolescents, I walked off to find a book. I poured over a copy of Vogue that someone snuck into the cabin, but abandoned the conversation about boyfriends.

It was reassuring to find my place in the definition of femininity. As much as the first year of camp often terrorized me, it pushed me out of my naive self-created shelter and into the world of societal expectations. I would not be able to forever escape the pressure, and while I was learning to cope with it, I was surrounded by adults who were encouraging me to try new things and be independent. I created my own balance and limits. I’m ultimately glad I went to summer camp and learned all of this.

Now, I say yes to the expectation to look fashionable, as long as you don’t expect me to wear anything provocative, cake on makeup, or look glamorous anytime before nine in the morning. And I say no to ever dumbing myself down or changing my behavior to get someone to like me.

I’m keeping the two polls about my content open for exactly another week and am going to continue doing a requested post every week. The third and last poll has my suggested topics, but you can always leave another request in the comments.

And as always, you can also find me on tumblr at http://emleng93.tumblr.com/, if, you know, you’re into that kind of thing.

Bright Skies and Salt-Scented Air

Let’s hope this gets my mind off of all of these sorrowful goodbyes, If being at the beach doesn’t work, I can always lock myself in my room and watch Frost/Nixon and Miracle over and over and over again.

Ella’s Fabulous Triumph

Today, I celebrate a great achievement. I went into the city to the art mueseum that had this summer’s most popular fashion exhibit and didn’t even feel the beginnings of a freak out.

We were jammed in the exhibit, shoulder to shoulder, and some morbidly obese man kept ramming his wheelchair into my legs in an attempt to push through the crowd, pushing me into whoever was next to me, and I didn’t even bat an eye. I just shifted my weight so that every time his foot rest hit my boot, I didn’t budge and politely told him that he was hurting me.

I ate an entire lunch without any prompting, and I rode in several glass elevators and walked down a bunch of escalators and stairs. I even didn’t feel a tinge of anxiety when a cab driver tried to pull away from the curb with my younger cousin halfway out of the car and me standing on the sidewalk.

And I also did this all on an hour and a half of sleep.

I’m a bit delirious right now, but I’m proud, really, really proud.

Fling Open the Windows

Many years ago, when I was just a baby, this is what the view from our beach house looked like:

The porch has changed a lot since then. The old chairs and sofa got replaced with newer, fancy ones, white carpet was put down, all of the beach chairs and toys went into the basement, and the whole porch was insulated and re-paneled with beautiful maple. And while those changes are all very nice, I don’t totally love the Porch 2.0. You see, we had to install new windows with the double panes to keep the outside air out and the inside air in. But these windows just slide back and forth. They can’t be thrown open with gusto, and they don’t make you feel like you could fly out of the window, all the way down to the sea, and truly become part of the salty air and feather-light sand.

My favorite Psalm is Psalm 139. It reads,

“If I take the wings of the morning/and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,/Even there your hand will lead me/and your right hand hold me fast.”

So when I am at the beach, I want to become that part of the Psalm. And mostly, I do. I feel it when I stand at the top of the landing at seven o’clock in the morning after returning from a run or walk and the fog is just begining to rise. I feel it when I’ve finally worked up the courage to dive into the gentle surf. I even feel it when I’m in the kitchen, sitting on the floor with my back up against the refrigerator, drinking juice and letting the condensation from the freezer drip down onto my hair. But looking out of the porch window isn’t what it could be. You aren’t thrust into the joy and that Psalm. You’re just you on a porch, admiring a pretty picture.

It’s rather silly, feeling this way. I’m nostalgic from something that changed when I was eleven. But windows are important. They let you see what you are so nearly a part of, beckoning with promises of joy, if you would only stray a little farther, out the door and into the world.

I like windows that cry out, as Whitman does when he write this in Song of Myself:

Unscrew the locks from the doors!
Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!

But the new windows don’t have that passion. They slide with duty and purpose, never with jubilation. Opening them requires forethought, not reckless abandon. They don’t scream euphoria, and they never will.

I want the old windows back.

Dumb Ideas: Part One

Today, I discovered a picture from the time I made a dress out of three trash bags. I was thirteen, and it was not a good look.

The bizarre and ugly fringe bottom was cut so that I would be able to walk.

The plastic didn’t allow my skin to breathe, so as it grew hotter, I became sweatier, and the plastic stuck to every inch of my body. To top it all off, that evening I discovered that it was impossible to take off by pulling it over my head or trying to rip the plastic. I ended up standing on my trunk in the middle of the cabin while my counselor carefully cut me out of it. Needless to say, I was equal parts mortified and scared that the scissors would cut me.

Desktop Stories

As I was writing a speech for a Model Congress trip I’m going on at the end of the month, I kept thinking about my computer background. Here’s what it looks like:

It’s a beautiful picture from a trip to France. Everything is picturesque, and the water is turquoise. By all appearances, it seems like the perfect place to go swimming.

It’s actually Omaha Beach. The Omaha Beach. The Omaha Beach of World War Two’s D-Day fame. I took this picture in the Normandy American Cemetery while the wind whipped my hair about and the sun made the top of head unbearably hot.

There were white crosses that went on forever like this.

After some wandering down paths and tripping over a step, I noticed that there were some people carrying beach chairs. I edged closer to listen to hear what language they were speaking. American English. People rarely come to cemeteries with beach chairs, so I started to follow them. In a non creepy way. A let’s just pretend there is something really interesting right behind them that I must go examine sort of way.

They stopped to confer at the top of a path that led down the bluff. Could you really go down onto the beach? I started follow the path. After winding around some trees, I saw this.

People playing on Omaha Beach. The Omaha Beach. The place where thousands of men died, rushing out of boats to take the Germans by storm. It was just a holiday place to them. I could still see the blood in the water and the bodies slumped over motionless. I stood at the end of the path, wiping my eyes with the back of my hand, thinking about all of the sacrifices made in that war and how it would feel if I had been born many decades earlier and had lost cousins or brothers on this very beach.

And as I stared out at the people and the water, I was struck by the fact that a situation can be two separate things at once. People must have vacationed here before the war and they do now. The beach was both a place for quietly remembering the dead and for laughing and swimming. I may have been sobbing at the thought of all the dead men, shot down on the land that I was standing on, but I was also giddy with excitement as I explored my favorite war. It was all rolled together into one and felt funny and strange inside of me. So I remained rooted to the spot until time ran out, and I had to turn away and amble back up the hill. The same hill that men had fought to climb so many years ago.

In other news, I wrote the speech without crying and only minor rolling on the bed.

Euphoria on an Island

I thought that instead of writing about medication for the umpteenth time, I’d tell a story.

Instead of going to Junior Prom last year, I went to Audrey’s summer house. That trip was the best two days of 2010.

I begged my parents for weeks to let me go. I had only just gotten back to school, but I was stable and done with my outpatient program. Everyday was sunny, and I loved being surrounded by classmates again. It all seemed too perfect to be real.

After a half day at school (which actually I didn’t attend due to a doctor’s appointment), we were off.  We had to ride on two trains and take a ferry to get there, and the farther I got from home, the more excited and happier I got. The whole way there I imagined exactly what it would be like, adjusting my mental image as we got closer and closer. On the ferry ride, our hair flew all over the place, and I tried to reassure myself that the ferry wouldn’t sink or flip over.

Once were on the island, we walked to Audrey’s house. I could feel little grains of sand under my feet, making scratching noises against the concrete path.  The houses were raised a few feet off the ground and were low structures made out of wood. Finally, we rounded a corner and walked down a small street that ended at the beach.

Audrey’s house was lovely. The kitchen, dining room, and living room all ran into each other and felt both spacious and cozy at the same time. After setting down our bags and changing, we immediately headed down to the beach. I slapped myself in the face when no one was looking to verify that this was all really happening. I felt happy the way that I do when I’m hypomanic, but this time I was entirely in control.

Audrey wore my shorts that say “COCKS” that were purchased at University of South Carolina, home of the Fighting Gamecocks. I find them amusing, especially when I combine them with tee shirts from church. On the beach, I watched Cecelia and Audrey dash in and out of the waves while Alexandra and Grace ran around on shore. I took pictures and laughed.

Sometimes, there would be a huge wave that would wash all the way up and stop a few yards away from my towels. I watched the pieces of foam it left behind. It felt springy underfoot.

Grace and I drew huge patterns in the sand.

We went back to the house once everyone was worn out and hungry, and Cecelia and I cooked dinner. Sitting around a table on her back deck, I thought to myself, all those months out of school and the week in the hospital were worth it if it means that I am going to have more and more days like this.

We walked all the way back to the landing where the ferry had docked and watched the sunset. I held my glass bottle of Ginger Ale and let my feet dangle over the side. We played on a playground, and I thought about how ironic it is that I hate heights, but I love swing sets. I watched Cecelia clown around, and then we headed back. I tried walking toe, heel, toe, heel.

Back at the house, we did the dishes, eight hands scrubbing, rinsing, drying, and putting away. Water spilled down our fronts. In the living room, we curled up on the couch, watched episodes of The Office, and ate ice cream. I didn’t look at the nutrition facts.

And at midnight, I turned 17. Sadie called to wish me a happy birthday, and I unwrapped a beautiful white tank top from Audrey. It was perfect and wonderful and lovely. Later, when I was lying in bed, I couldn’t sleep for about an hour; I was too happy to relax.

The next morning, we packed up, I made lunch for the road, and we took the ferry and two trains home. Cecelia and Audrey went to my house to get ready to leave for my beach house that evening. But that Memorial Day weekend story is something separate and special and a tale for another day.

When things get difficult, I have to remember these moments of euphoria. I need to cling onto them tightly, hold them close, and drape them around me. I must remember how I felt in this picture.


With my dress billowing out behind me, I ran, full of hope, happiness, and optimism. For that day and a half, nothing was wrong with the world.

The Field Day Planning Committee

When I was a sophomore and in a department called Global Action, one other person and I planned Field Day in its entirety for our politics and government small learning community. It wasn’t the most fun of processes, we kept running up against road-blocks–the administration didn’t want to let us use the field; the gym couldn’t find the rope for tug-of-war; the sacks we were going to use went missing; etc–and after all of our hard work, the event was rained out. It wasn’t pouring rain, just a light drizzle and the promise of a little bit more on the way. But rain is rain is rain, and wet turf does not a good surface for running make. We performed the department cheers in the little auditorium and there was a ridiculous dance-off. Everyone was disappointed, and I was more than a little upset.

Last year, things were a bit different. I turned all of my papers from the previous year over to my old department and let them take the reigns. All I did was show up and compete with the rest of the Executive and Judicial Branch. And it was a lot of fun not having to worry about the execution of the event. I passed out from my neurocardiogenic syncope, freaked out all the teachers, and then went to go play soccer in the blazing hot sun for about two hours. Unfortunately, the day was executed by one person again. Lola put loads of hours in, planning for the thing, and when the day came, she did almost all of the setting up and all of the cleaning up by herself.

But this year is going to be different. All of the departments are planning Field Day by electing to people to a committee. You’ll never guess who the representatives are from the Executive and Judicial Branch. That’s right, Lola, who is now in Executive, and I. We volunteered ourselves for the role because we knew that a) we have the experience needed and b) we weren’t entirely sure that the others could pull it off. It’s not that we don’t have faith in the community, we just don’t have faith in 18 kids’ ability to stop arguing and get work done. Plus, we’re masochistic idiots who actually really enjoy the event.

When I walked into the meeting today, I looked around at the people gathered there and though, You know, I think that this could actually work. And then, we tried to start. There was the typical arguing, too much talking over one another, everybody desperate for their oh-so-important point to be heard. But Lola stepped up to the white-board and started writing last year’s itinerary. When she was done and I was nearly done copying down what she had written, so we’d have notes, she turned around and said, “Let’s go through this event by event and make a list of new ideas.” And you know what? We were able to do exactly that. Group yoga was ruled out, because the school wouldn’t allow it for “insurance reasons,” but back-to-back races were in.

It really did work. People were interested, engaged, and really did seem up for the amount of work that the event would require. Even the sophomores who had never attended a Field Day before were shouting out ideas and calmly debating the legitimacy of and improvements to the old ones. One of the other girls volunteered to type up my notes, so that we could distribute copies to all the departments on Monday, and when we were done, Lola came over to breathe a sigh of relief and comment that she didn’t think that things would go as well as they did.

Guess what. I’m actually really excited about all of this, because I just know that everything will turn out really well if the good Lord’s willing, and the creek don’t rise.

(Note: This statement might be subject to change as we get closer to late May.)

God, I Love Shutters

Today was one of my lie-in-bed-and-try-to-calm-down days. Aren’t days like this the bomb diggity? (That phrase is totally underrated.)

So after I had had my lovely morning cry, I started going through old pictures in my iPhoto. Besides discovering a bunch of pictures that I took of myself back in 2006 (oh God) when Macs first started having built-in web-cams, I found all of my pictures from the summer I spent in France when I was fourteen.

I went with a program to Angers to study French at a university and live with a host family that had eight kids. It was a wonderful experience, but it wasn’t my memories of Versailles or Saint Malo that kept replaying in my mind, instead it was my walk to the university and how gorgeous it was.

The front steps of the house:

The house:

The lamppost on the corner (Yes, I did try to re-enact Singing in the Rain here, and yes, people thought I was crazy):

God, I love shutters:

A Catholic Church:

A sign for the University:

University, itself: