Signs and Portents

White Lake State Park has history, for my family. This is the 11th year in a row we have visited the loon-infested, bucolic waters of this glacier-dug lake in the shadow of Mt. Chocorua. But we’re hardly the only ones who have history with it. When I post pictures on Facebook, old timers from Stoneham comment how they’ve been going there for decades, and how it was their haunting ground when their kids were young too.

My sons’ favorite poetry book is a local publication called “A Boy’s First Diary“. The author grew up on this street. He talks about dancing with the former owner of our house. Names the wall I’m looking at right now (Dike’s Wall). Talks about sledding down our street. And to my great surprise, included a picture of himself holding a trout and labeled “White Lake State Park”.

But my favorite White Lake history is the living history. Especially on the 4th of July weekend, the old-timers come out. They have ample setups and big families and decorative bunting for their sites. And they have name tags. Sometimes they’re carved in wood. Sometimes they’re painted on cast iron skillets. Sometimes they’re burned into boards. One or two of my favorites are incredibly specific, saying things like “The Campbells: Camping at White Lake since 1972”. I’ve even seen “anniversary” versions hanging from trees, site markers and RV sides, commemorating the 30th year of camping right there.

And of course, I coveted one. I want a sign to hang out on the site marker that declares “I’m so into this, I have a sign made to show you how into it I am”. I may have mentioned this to my husband once or twice. Casually, you know. But even so, when he started getting excited about his secret a few weeks ago, I couldn’t guess what it might be, other than that he was showing it to practically everyone BUT me. Still, he carefully checked my arrival time on Thursday to make sure I’d be here and ready at 6:30 when the delivery driver of my surprise would show up.

Right on time, a man arrived holding an absolutely gorgeous carving of our family crest, done in mahogany and sealed in a marine grade sealant, designed to mark our campground. Adam had googled to find someone who could create such custom work, and it turned out his very first hit was a guy with a CNC machine who lives maybe a mile away. Sign Me Up turned this sign around in 2 weeks (and for a crazy reasonable rate!) – just in time for his daughter’s graduation. And it’s really, really lovely.

I might have taken the sign for a photo shoot
You have to admit it’s rather photogenic

This whole weekend of camping was a delight. The weather was gorgeous. The company excellent. The children well behaved (and read actual real books!!!) My only complaint is that the time I had there was far too short. I have so much more nothing to do.

But as we hung the sign on W6 (one of the best sites in all of White Lake, if you ask me), I was happy for my place in history, and this marker of tradition.


I’ve had SO MUCH FUN with the family crest designed for us by Fealty Designs. We had a stained glass window designed for our home. (It likely originally had one, but the original one probably burned in a major fire 50 years ago. Putting in such a meaningful replacement felt amazing.) If someone has a crest (and the original design files which Julie will provide you), suddenly so many creative things are possible. My favorite part is, much to my surprise, these custom creations (which also support these passionate artisans) are often WAY more affordable than I might have guessed.

With the wedding season coming up – if you’re wondering what to get that couple that already has all the things they need (and especially if you ever have to buy other presents for them in the future) – let me strongly recommend a family crest!

Sign and window

Wilmot Work Weekend

In a historically rainy and cold spring, we’ve had a few glorious days break through. This Saturday was one of them. I’d been hoping for good weather for the work weekend, and it came as requested.

We weren’t quite sure ahead of time what tasks we’d need to do. Every one of us has a tool kit of our own – we bought them for the boys last Christmas, and Thane’s been ardent about filling his out. So the back of the car was filled with tools and overnight bags. Adam and Thane ended up in one of the 60 year old cabins replacing floor boards. I helped sweep and mop the dining hall, and then got the enviable task of washing every single dish in the entire camp while the folks around me deep cleaned the kitchen and washed the windows.

Huge stack of dishes
A partial view of my demense

I spent about 5 hours on the task. First you had to get the dishes out and wash down the cupboard. Then you would stack two minute loads. While prior loads were drying, you’d put away the dryest, oldest rack. I also scoured the dish pit. In this process, I developed very strong feelings and opinions about the dishes. If you want to know, they sum to:

1) No one needs that many saucers. In fact, your average Christian summer camp needs 0 saucers.
2) It was a fascinating collection of coffee mugs. There were two large collections of two mugs from companies – one celebrating a 50th anniversary, and the other with the name in a boring pattern. The rest were “island of misfit” mugs. I carefully rearranged them to put my favorites towards the front and hide the boring (and/or Christmas) mugs in the back.
3) I wish I’d been outside

Three people standing on the WIlmot field in bright sunlight
Growing up fast! (Grey & two of the directors)

I think it was great for the kids to participate in this work. It’s easy as a child not to realize how hard people work to make your life possible. A day of scrubbing the camp to prepare helps open your eyes to the quiet service that makes so much possible.

I also enjoy on these trips the opportunity to talk with the Wilmot directors and staff. It’s astonishing what this camp is doing. They are adding programming every year (this year a fourth week of adventure camp which will be going up to an island in Maine!). They are adding campers every year two. Almost 50% of the kids who will be eating off those clean dishes get financial support from the camp to be there. The camp is incredibly thrifty and resourceful to make so much possible on such a tight budget. I’m always amazed, too, at how much positive impact they make in the life of my kids. Every time my sons go there, they come back more resourceful, kinder, more ethical people. That’s a great prize.

If you are also impressed by what I’m describing, they will use your donations incredibly wisely. You can donate here. If you prefer to imagine exactly what they’ll do, they have a fun Amazon wishlist (select shipping to Robin when checking out).

Five more weeks until the first campers arrive!

Boy reading on a pew
Taking a break from hard labors

Camp Wilmot 5k

Running is not the optimal form of exercise for me. My left knee with its largely excised menisci probably shouldn’t have to endure the pounding of my not-inconsiderable frame. Running isn’t really optimal for weight loss. I should have a more varied workout regime to be fitter and healthier.

But about three years ago I figured out that this was a classic case of “the perfect is the enemy of the good” and laced up some shoes and went for a jog. I haven’t really stopped since, although I also haven’t improved. I’m slow – my “record times” are like 10:30/mile and my longest run is just over 4 miles. Still, I’m out there once or twice a week!

So when I heard that Camp Wilmot, scene of my children’s happiest memories and moral development, was doing a fundraising 5k to raise scholarship funds to be able to welcome more kids, I was mightily tempted. But then I looked at the date. September 22nd. On September 23rd, it will somehow be 40 years since my mother did all the hard work of introducing me into the world. My 40th birthday. The big Four Oh. And my husband had put a block on my calendar for the weekend, so it was right out. Couldn’t be done. Even though there was going to be a campfire and ceilidh and overnight and breakfast in the morning. In possible the most beautiful New England fall week of the year. Not possible.

Then the begging started. PLEEEEEEZE MOM! LET US GO BACK TO CAMP WILMOT.

So I asked my husband *exactly* when I needed to be back in Stoneham and the answer was: as soon as you’ve finished running the 5K. SCORE!!!! We’re headed to Wilmot, boys!

I don’t want for many things in this world (although any implication that I’ve bought every single one of the shiny iridescent school supplies I’ve encountered this year is true). But I really really DO want more children to have opportunities like Camp Wilmot. I have first hand experience seeing that it changes the life of the children who attend it. My kids come back thoughtful, kinder, centered, with a sense of belong and purpose. I know other kids hang on to it as a loving lifeline in a hard world. And I know that for a lot of kids, scholarships are the only way that lifeline is available.

So, if you are feeling like you are desperate to give me a gift for my 40th (or just interested in making a difference in kids’ lives), please consider a contribution in any size to Camp Wilmot. And if you’re starting to think that a sleepover, cookout, ceilidh & brisk autumn run or walk sound pretty tempting, it’s certainly not too late to sign up!

We Come Back Changed

Camp Wilmot was awesome for the kids. I picked them up too early on Saturday morning, and got great big hugs. They missed me (after two and three weeks, one would hope so), but they loved where they were and who they were there with. As we headed towards home, Grey said he didn’t know what he wanted more: to stay or to return home. Alas for him, there was no choice. It was time to go home.

Our communication with our kids while they were gone was… sparse. We got one dictated email and two letters. The letters arrived on the same day and spoke to the inability to find stamps. (Headdesk) Thane’s were loving, but low on news not related to the inability to find his stamps. Grey’s said he missed us, gave us a laundry list of stuff he wanted, and then told us he was experimenting with vegetarianism during camp. Given that the camp chef (Anthony) has a version of BBQ chicken that causes both children to wax rhapsodic, this seemed like a short-lived but great idea in the first week of camp. But when I picked him up at the end of week 3, he very politely and cooperatively let me know that he’d like to continue eating vegetarian (pescatarian, actually).

He said it was pretty easy, at camp. There was always a vegetarian option, and he ate that one. He said that sometimes he didn’t like it very well but he ate it anyway because he was hungry and it was food. That amazing concept is one greatly needed in our world!

Adam made bacon today, and Grey didn’t eat any. This is serious.

I’m fully supportive. At a few months shy of 13, this is a great age to experiment with different way of being. It’s an excellent time to explore intersections of identity, sacrifice, values & choices. I’ve let him know that he’s not allowed to become a pastatarian (a version of vegetarianism I saw often in college where the vegetarian in question ate few vegetables and many carbs). But he’s been eating salads lately. When you cut out one whole food group, you need to be open minded towards the others. I’d love for him to discover the many great foods available in our modern world which do not hinge upon meat. This is an experiment for all of us – no shame if he lets it run it’s course or decides it’s not the right road or the forever road for him.

That’s the most of the visible of the changes, but there are others as well. Both kids seem more thoughtful about what matters, and careful with the thoughts and feelings of others. They’ve slowed down, detoxed from screens, gotten great base tans and made new friends. They’ve exercised their moral muscles. They are changed, grown, matured. They are a step closer to being the people they will become, and I’m really impressed and pleased with who they are. And even though the house stayed really clean while they were gone, I’m glad to have them back.

Now that Grey’s on this health food kick, he’s gotten serious in the kitchen too. He and a friend fantasized about this cake for days, and then they got together and made it happen. This is a quad layer cake with vanilla frosting AND icing. It’s got crushed pop-tarts and chocolate bars. But it has strawberries, which makes it healthy, right? Right? And heck – it’s vegetarian.

Diabetes on a plate

A lethal serving is about 1/2 in wide slice…

The chefs

Bumpy roads and traditions

Here are the infallible Flynn Family Camping Traditions:

1) Stop on the way up at the Toys’r’Us (sadly likely last time) & Starbucks in Portsmouth
2) Late lunch at Miss Wakefield. One time, we forgot Grey’s old Kindle there on Labor Day weekend. They had it waiting for us Memorial Day Weekend the next year.
3) Camping at either White Lake, Covered Bridge or Waterville Valley campgrounds
4) Soccer at Almost There tavern. 100% of the time, Gerd will be there. If it’s slow, he’ll do magic tricks.
5) Dinner at Hart’s Turkey Farm. Order the poutine. Poutine is always a great choice.

Many great traditions include moose

This long weekend contained all of those ingredients. It was Waterville Valley, this time. In a rare moment of discretion and wisdom, I checked Google Maps to get a route from Miss Wakefield’s to Waterville Valley. Sure, it’s tempting to run the Kancamagus just for fun, but it’s also nice to get to your campsite before dark. Google directed me on a route I hadn’t taken before, likely some rural way cutting up Rt 25 (home to one of the scariest drives I’ve ever done in dense fog) up through byways to 49. Easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy.

At first the route was captivating and charming in that old New England way with stately old houses, scenic fallen stone walls, beautiful vistas and ancient orchards. Then it started getting really rustic. Then it stopped being paved. At one point, bouncing along a rutted dirt road which had been one lane for at least the last two miles, tires tipping over the top of a hill whose other side I could not see, I began laughing hysterically with joy. THIS WAS A REAL ROAD (and it wasn’t my fault we were on it). I have gone years and years without getting to drive a real road in a completely inappropriate vehicle! I skirted massive holes, went over granite boulders, edged along with bare inches between my wheel and a dropoff and generally had a blast. There was that one minor issue, when whining in the back seat about hitting their heads on the top of the car made me slow down a bit and then I didn’t have enough momentum to make it up the hill. For a while, I didn’t quite have leverage to make it back down, either. Eventually I got myself straightened out. Of course, that’s when we saw the first other vehicle in half an hour. It was too narrow for him to pass me, and I needed a moment to figure out how I could move my vehicle aside before making another attempt at the hill – gazing at the ruts my previous attempt had made.

This would be more accurate if it read “Abandon hope all ye who enter here without four wheel drive. I’m pretty sure it hasn’t been much changed since 1801.”

I pulled out my finest “Mountain Mom”. “Sorry, I’ll move aside. I need to plan my attack for the hill better. Google Maps didn’t mention this.” The gentleman in his ginormous 4×4 pickup turned white, “What, you’re on The Sandwich Notch Road by surprise! (He shuddered.) You don’t have four wheel drive, only all wheel drive?” We discussed routes for a moment in a swirling vortex of mosquitos. We agreed that my best bet was to take the outside corner. He said he’d drive it for me (“I drive this road all the time”) but… “I wouldn’t want to be responsible for damaging your vehicle.” I pulled my car, laden with bicycles, tents, NERF guns and terrified children out of the way. I didn’t mention that I don’t have all wheel drive either – I only have front wheel drive. Crappy front wheel drive. He passed me. My chicken family told me they’d meet me when I got to the top. I pulled back, gunned it, and made it to the top no problem. Eventually they walked back up to me.

Adam says I’m not allowed to ever drive that road again, unless I have a four wheel drive. Meanie! We totally didn’t die. Man was that fun.

It ended up raining less than expected this weekend, which is not to say it didn’t rain. It just didn’t rain *much*. Adam got to do a lot of rope and tarp-tying, which surprisingly makes him very happy. The boys went swimming in the river. Grey and I did some geocaching. We played a Cthulu game. There was laser tag and Nerf gun wars. The campfire was going pretty much non-stop.

We had four tarps up

Our middle night in, with freshening winds rising up the valley along the Mad River, Adam and I were just getting ready for bed when we heard this iconic creaking, breaking and crashing sounds. Very clearly a tree had just fallen, very nearby. We listened for screaming – none. We went to where we heard it and were assured everyone was fine. One person said, “It wasn’t as bad as it sounded.” When I went back in the light of day, I had to beg to differ. I didn’t take pictures of their camp site, but this was only a few feet from tents, tarps and cars where a whole family was staying.

The trunk had bifurcated and each part had fallen to the sides – twice as potentially deadly!
Easily fatal – times two

This was especially alarming to me since there was an already splintered pine tree very nearly overhanging our tent. This widowmaker was very stably caught in the Y of a very lithe and healthy looking birch tree – I couldn’t see how it could come free. But it creaked alarmingly in the winds. I would claim I couldn’t sleep soundly with it up there, but that would be an out and out lie. I think I might have been the most comfortable I’ve ever been in my life lying on that air mattress on Sunday morning.

Helpful ladder replacement

The boys were remarkably helpful this time. I kept having flashbacks to camping when they were like 18 months old and 4 and I had conniptions every single night trying to get them to sleep. But now they could start fires, they did the chores we asked (from carrying firewood to water to fetching – anything!) They were cheerful and helpful and kind and… they went to bed when they decided they were tired. It was amazing. I never dreamed this day would really come, but it did. All those years of effort have really paid off! Now to get them to like hiking…

Hiking to find a geocache

My heart is filled with longing

A month ago, I wrote that winter had lasted forever. There have been several forevers in the interim, and still there are shoulder-high snowbanks, and just today flakes flew across the street in front of us, like a veil of winter. You can’t walk along the sidewalks. You can’t really go hiking. The world seems to close in on itself. I’m sick of every single room in my house. (Which – hey! April 3 is THE DATE for demo to begin on the attic project! We have a backup plan of if the snow is still so heavy we can’t park on the street.)

The last two weeks or so, my brain has started playing some tricks on me. As I walk through my day to day, my mind will flash a quick scene in front of me. There’s that stretch of Hwy 16 in New Hampshire near Ossippee where a lazy river runs under a steel bridge with an expansiveness of space and time my busy life can barely imagine. The beeches, with their course green and gold leaves, in the campgrounds of White Lake and Covered Bridge, flicker in a remembered sunlight. The vast fields of milkweed, in the shadow of Mt. Whittier. The loon on the lake. The mists settling across marshes at sunset near Tamworth on 25. The crackle of the fire, springing sparks up to a warm night sky.

The Loons

These visions come unbidden. Some of these things I can’t even believe I remember. Many of the scenes that show up are ones from the road – and I’m almost always going about 55 through those zones, after 3 hours of driving. How can my memory so perfectly lay out not just the field, but the shape of the milkweed across it. The shadows on the east side of Whittier. The music on the radio. The warmth of the air. I do not think I could have voluntarily pulled that image – that memory – from my mind. But without summoning it, there it is.

I think I find these even more precious when I discovered they are not universal. I know and love some folks with aphantasia. Not everyone can close their eyes and be back in a moment they loved, or see from afar the fields and forests where their heart lives.

I wonder what my subconscious is telling me? It feels like a hopeful message. “Wait”, it seems to say, “This too will pass. It will not be winter forever. There is such a thing as summer, and you will know it again.” In these moments, my heart is filled with longing for what I saw – but also for hope. I will see it again. Soon. This summer. In two months, I’ll be wending my way up Hwy 16, past the lazy river and milkweed fields once more. Be patient.

There is another gift in this. It is remarkable to discover what treasures your mind has stored up for you, all unknown to you. I did not stare hard at those moments, willing them to remain in my memory forever. They just passed past my eyes and stuck there, like gold in the bottom of a pan. How many beautiful moments lurk behind my eyes, waiting until I need comfort or consolation to appear? When my eyes darken with age and my limbs will no longer take me to the woods, will these all be waiting for me? A treasure trove of beauty I didn’t even know I was remembering?

I hope so. And I look forward, with joy, to adding to that trove again this summer.

Beeches in the setting sun

Church Camp – a love letter

My first church camp was Camp Ghormley*, up on White Pass in Washington State. I went in maybe 1986 with my church youth group. I was young – Thane’s age perhaps. I remember loving the songs around the campfire, the way the bark on the pine trees fit like a puzzle, the deliciousness of a 5c green apple Jolly Rancher, and that our youth director (in one week) fell off the zip line and hit his head (blood everywhere) and slid down the railing of a cabin in tight shorts (extensive and embarrassing splinter removal). His name was Clayton, he had a Texan accent and a funny tick of jerking his head to his shoulder. We tried really hard to keep him out of trouble, but it took more than the combined powers of our Church youth group to work miracles like that.

There are no photos of me at Ghormley. Cameras were expensive. I certainly wouldn’t have given one to a kid to take to camp. So all I have are vague memories and well-memorized camp songs.

In fourth grade, we moved from the town with the big Presbyterian Church (it was PCUSA at the time) and to a town where on some Sundays the folks on the “Great War” honor roll were more plentiful than the folks worshiping in the pews. There wasn’t a youth group (there were four of us though!) but there was still Presbytery church camp. After a break of a year or two, I went to Buck Creek (now defunct, I’m afraid) where I went backpacking for the first time in my life. Even though we got rained out and were poorly kitted, I was totally and completely hooked on backpacking. We slept under the stars, back at the field at Buck Creek, and the Perseids were in full blossom across the sky and I could not shut my eyes. From then on, I took every possible opportunity to do backpacking camp. I loved the backpacking. I loved nature. I loved the songs, and the sense of worship. It’s still one of the most holy things for me.

So when Grey was like in 1st grade I started looking up the Presbyterian Camps in the area. Our church had a relationship with Camp Wilmot, so it was a short search. The very first summer he was old enough, he was signed up. But as I followed circuitous GPS directions into the “parking lot” (eg field area) I was struck by serious doubts. He was so little. He was so clearly uncertain, and nervous. And so was I, I realized. I knew *no one* at this camp. No kids. No grownups. Nothing. I was going to leave my beloved first-born child in the wilderness in the hands of strangers.

First year dropoff

I drove away anyway.

Around Thursday I got a letter. It was short – two sentences. They were both dedicated to how amazing Anthony’s BBQ chicken was.

When I picked him up he was tired, happy to see me, and ready to come back again the next year.

He wore that shirt all week – it was in every picture

The next year, he talked no fewer than four of his friends into coming to camp with him. (I think he’ll do very well in sales, if he chooses, as a career.) Where he’d been alone and afraid the first year, he was in excellent company and confident the second. And he remembered his favorite “camp shirt” as well.

The “latrines” photo has become a favorite of the parents. We threaten to hold their candy money hostage if they don’t cooperate.

Last year he was ready to do both sessions. He’d originally claimed that he didn’t need to be picked up, but called on Thursday asking for a day at home. They don’t go to bed until like 10 pm there and they’re up at 7, which is a short sleep ration for a kid his age. Also, I think he missed the cats.

I’m not sure where Matthew is in this one

This year is going to be the epicalest yet. Today I drove a packed car up to New Hampshire with a wild game of poker in the backseat (Grey: “I packed poker chips!”) and a friend in the front seat. This year he’s going to do a full two weeks. On the second week, his brother will head to camp for HIS first ever sleepaway camp (and Adam and I will be childless! Craziness!) And he and his Camp Wilmot compatriots have been talking about the awesomeness of the camp all year. This year, a total of ELEVEN kids from our town will make the trek up to White’s Pond to experience Anthony’s BBQ chicken.

There are so many incredible and wonderful things summer camp does. It gives us all practice in living without each other. The role of a parent is to raise a child who doesn’t need us. Camp is an excellent experiment in structured self-reliance. No one made Grey change his shirt, but he came home happy and healthy. He packs his own bag. He knows things that we do not know. I think it’s a grievous thing to send a person to independence for the very first time when they are an adult, and there is no safety net. Summer camp is how you practice for college. It’s also a place for children to have deep meaningful thoughts, and begin to stretch the muscles of what *they* believe and what *they* think and what’s important to *them*. Some of my greatest moments of faith happened at summer camp. I can only pray that my sons find the experience meaningful and moving too.

It also plays an important role for we parents. I am more than halfway through the raising of Grey. Thane is only a few years behind him. Who are Adam and I, when we are not coparents? What interests do we share? What bonds have we strengthened? In the week our children are learning to kayak and kyrie, we can also remember the love we have for each other.

It’s hard to walk away from your kid, like I did that first year. It’s hard when your kid walks away from you and doesn’t look back. But it’s good and right that they practice doing just that.

Week 1 latrine photo
We decided to take our OWN latrine photo
Goodbye, boys. God bless.

If you’d like to follow along with all the info we get on camp, you can follow “Camp Wilmot’s Facebook page. If you’re suddenly dying to send your kid, you can still register for week 2. And if you happen to have a truck that will pass registration and which you don’t want anymore, that’s a tough capital purchase for a scrappy summer camp. They’d be incredibly grateful for the donation!

* If I’d known about this at the time, my campfire ghost stories would’ve been epic! “But upon his sudden death in 1948 (he was stricken fatally ill at the camp as he was preparing to begin a week of camp for children) members of the church moved to have the camp named after him.”