Jane Hamilton had no intention of growing, changing, making new friends, or—at 50—going on any more voyages of self-discovery. That was before she and the rest of her rusty quintet took themselves off to a magical, mouse-ridden summer music camp.
In recognition of our approaching 50th birthdays, four college friends and I, all living far away from each other, tossed around several ideas about how best to celebrate the strange accomplishment of having become so old. A spa with a sweat lodge, the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, a crash course in skydiving?
"Why not chamber music camp in New Hampshire?" the violinist in our crowd suggested.
Some of us were dubious. Four out of five of us, musically speaking (cello, violin, string bass, recorder, and piano), are dabblers or bumblers or now-and-againers. In the decades since college we've played through our little repertoire every so often strictly for our own pleasure. If years pass between our private concerts the pieces always sound reassuringly the same: the same errors, the same dips where the instrument isn't in tune, the same omission of a difficult run. And yet, somehow or other the violinist was able to talk us into applying to the camp, which has the ambitiously warmhearted mission of bringing people of all ages and nations and skill levels to make joyful noise.
In January of 2007, with July serenely far off, we sent in our applications and our sketchy tapes. A few weeks later we each received enthusiastic letters of acceptance. For some reason, the idea of five 50-year-old rusty dabblers was an excitement to the administration. We couldn't help thinking that they were desperate to fill session three, or the drear winter had gotten to them, or they didn't often get applications from people who weren't also wanting scholarships. We had our initial panic in March, when an e-mail came, sternly instructing us to learn our parts for the Telemann overture that had been assigned to our group. We dutifully ordered the music and tried—we did try—to practice. By the time we were slowly driving up the gravel hill to the camp for ten days of chamber music incarceration, all of us were unsure of the wisdom of the plan. Libby, the bass player, said, "Remind me why we didn't go to a spa?"
We carried our duffels down to our cabin in the woods, which had the unmistakable bitter smell of mouse urine and the more concrete evidence of black sprinkles on the floor. The old pine floors were crudely planed and splintered, the windows, most of which did not open, were smudged, and there was a careless patchwork of drywall. There were the essential five narrow beds, five hooks, five shelves. We noted the great distance between our cabin and the one bathroom. Still, the beautiful meadow and woods, the mountain views, and the dark gray cedar barns did jibe with our sense of what real camp should be, a rustic place of both industry and tranquillity.
We marched down the hill to put our toiletries in our designated swollen wooden cubbies in the damp bathroom. The long, low room was already saturated with the colliding sweetness of various hair products and the ordinary thick odors of communal living. No one said, but I'm sure we were all feeling far too old for this experience. We were taken to the rehearsal barn and shown where to put our instruments and our music. Camp lore has it that in the 1880s the camp had been a sheep farm, and without too much strain I could imagine myself as one among the gang of Hampshires or Dorsets, waiting for my grain, adding my baaing to the chorus, and presumably safely grazing.
After our things were situated in the rehearsal barn, we needed, already, to escape back to the cabin. On our way we walked through the concert barn, where a tall, boyish young man was playing a Handel sonata for violin that had been transcribed for the string bass. It looked as if his instrument had been stitched into his side, as if a large, ungainly, deep-throated girl had attached herself to him, and what else could he do but make her speak tenderly? The notes of the accompanying harpsichord glittered along with the dust motes in the dim post-and-beam space that had one floor-to-ceiling panel of windows. In the distance the Green Mountains were a soft blue in the sunny haze. Jennifer, the cellist, said breathlessly, "I could go home happy right now."
Good idea, I thought—we could all go home happy at this moment! I had come to camp to be a good sport, but I did not really want to be there, I did not want to brush my teeth in the dirty sink in the steamy bathroom, did not want to sleep on the plastic-coated mattress, and I didn't much want to play the bombastic, silly Telemann overture.
Not so many years before, I had dragged my daughter to a wilderness camp in Vermont. She clung to me weeping as I'd tried to say goodbye, and although we later heard from her counselors and knew that all was well, she herself did not send us a single sentence for the month. When it was over, on the way home in the car, across Vermont, New York, Pennsylvania, all the long way across Ohio and Indiana, through the congestion of Gary and Chicago, and finally into Wisconsin, she alternately sobbed and feverishly wrote to her new friends. I couldn't help remembering that feeling I'd had as a girl, the sense that you have left your very heart behind as your parents drive you inexorably toward your bleak town, back to your old gray life. There, it turns out, your family and your friends don't see the person you've become, the person you were meant to be all along, the you who emerged and was acknowledged and treasured at Camp X. What you have left of Camp X, besides the secret knowledge of your best self, is your worn list of addresses, the photographs, the water from the lake in a jar, the sand in an envelope, a few leaves from the tree, songs that matter to you past speech that you will sing to yourself for solace, and private jokes that are the funniest things that have ever been uttered, which no one at home can understand even if they would consider listening to the whole setup. Love, nothing short of love more real than you've ever known, has been seared into your being, and no one can tell this about you at home, and no one cares.
I not only doubted that such a transformation would occur at camp to my nicely fixed 50-year-old self, I fervently hoped nothing of the sort would, not even in the far more mild, somewhat benign form that is appropriate to my age and station. At any level, how tedious that would be, how exhausting, how dull, and, also, how predictable. All I really wanted to do was lie in bed and read, and chamber music camp and the potential attachments were just more interruptions in a lifetime of interruptions.
There were a couple of problems at the start besides the fact that few of the campers seemed interesting, and everyone I didn't already know seemed annoying—just as, no doubt, we seemed to them. On the first morning, right after breakfast, I had to sweep the breezeway and collect trash from the rehearsal barn. There is naturally no camp without announcements after mealtimes, and community-building activities, and jobs. Twenty hours into it the law of camp was clear: The night was for teenagers, the morning for the aged. A few high schoolers sat slumped in their chairs at 9 A.M. while I fluttered around them tidying. I'd paid fifteen hundred dollars to come to a place that was just like home.
After jobs we five dabblers met our coach, an elegant 29-year-old violist from Amsterdam. We played the opening of our Telemann for him. He looked stunned. And then he put his chin down and laughed softly into his chest. We are strong and impervious so of course this did not affect us, not at all. We could see the bubble over his handsome head: "Oh my God." We could see him mustering his reserves, trying to remember the creed of the camp, that he was supposed to be positive and nurturing. Some of us have serious intonation problems, some of us cannot count, some of us are afflicted by nerves when we play for anyone other than ourselves, some of us suffer from all of those troubles, but it must be said that none of us lacked courage during the first session.
That night, in the dark, dark cabin with the thick spattering of stars in the heavens through the windows, and the blanket of quiet all around us, a mouse ran across Leslie's face. She screamed and leaped from the wafer that was her mattress. I suppose if we'd been able to look down upon such a scene from a great height we right away would have found it funny that a small, soft, white-bellied creature with dewy and soulful eyes who was scampering like the wind with claws had struck horror and revulsion in those who have great intelligence and massive body weight, relatively speaking. We were repulsed down to our marrow. We did not want to try to go back to sleep—how could we sleep? Leslie, who, after the scream, was of remarkably good cheer, said that it had actually been an extraordinary experience, but she did think, in spite of the thrill, that she'd go up to the barn to read for a while. (While she was sitting in the rehearsal room, another mouse ran over her foot.) At any rate, we did then try to find the situation comic rather than fearsome and gross in the extreme as we lay awake waiting for it and its siblings to return. The next day I went to the hardware store and got the sonar devices that plug in to the wall, two of them, even though one will do for a medium-size room, and also I purchased four traps, which we set out with the relish of explorers in the territories. We began to look forward to checking the lines to see what had come in.
In those first days I had little interest in slogging through the preliminaries of friendship, I suppose because I know enough people at this stage and have more than enough e-mail correspondents, and because, as I said, I wanted most of all to be reading a novel. But I began to feel, in spite of myself, a general, vague affection for the group. It was very nice to bathe while the Brahms Serenade from upstairs in the concert barn steamed with the water through the showerhead, and one afternoon when a group of teenagers was playing the Ravel String Quartet, rain began to fall, a soft sheet down the long windows, which seemed to seal us into the gorgeousness of the moment. There was nothing better than drinking a cup of tea on the porch in the morning while inside the barn the A, taken up by the violin, and passed to the other strings and the woodwinds, gathered force, the note swelling out into the open air and down the hillside. I did love the fact that all of us, the witty, the shy, the old, the supertalented, the plodders, were held under the same spell.
Even before I gave myself up to camp, there were plenty of scenes, several a day in fact, that seemed well worth the price of admission. We were growing fond of our valiant coach, and in our small rehearsal room—Betsy on the harpsichord, Jennifer on the cello, Leslie, violin tucked under her chin looking worried, Libby on the bass trying to keep us in time and in tune, and I, toodling on the recorder—we now and again managed to transcend our limitations and actually come together to make music, what felt like the real sublime thing. The night the faculty gave a concert, we sat up in the balcony of the barn looking down on the Bruckner String Quintet that went on for 45 riveting minutes. We were close enough to read their impossible sheet music on the stands and see the smallest flickering smiles between them, signs of private jokes, or assurances, or maybe gratitude. The second violist was wearing green flip-flops with daisies, and before an entrance she'd quick wrap her foot around the leg of her chair, her red toenails flashing. The music and the friendship between them seemed a kind of improbable physics, a profound and effortless labor.
As a girl I had been prone to rapture, but I am no longer in thrall to it as I once was. I don't remember when that part of me that responds intensely began to retreat, but I can feel how much it isn't there anymore. It seems wrong to call this middle-aged absence, this flatness, serenity, but perhaps that's what it is. The faculty concert wasn't an ecstatic event for me, but it was nonetheless a great privilege to be so close to the miracle of the music as it was being made. It's possible that without the high pitch of rapture an experience itself is more pure, that without so much rattling emotion there is room for clarity. In any case, we 50s, as they called us at camp, are well past the ambition of youth, and also past the point of having a future of failure. In the usual inevitable ways, we've already failed—failed ourselves, our spouses, our children—and we know we only have more failure to look forward to. Failure, c'est nous. And so, in that dusty room with the passionate, difficult Bruckner, we, without ambition and with so much already done, were free in a way a 20-year-old could not imagine.
By the fifth day I was no longer anxiously trying to find time to read my book. The people, as is their irritating habit, were proving, damn them, to be fascinating and irresistible. There was the cellist camper from New York, who'd spent her girlhood in her bedroom playing along with a recording of Dvořák's Piano Quintet in A Major and was finally, at age 40, playing the piece with live musicians, this after surviving two complicated back surgeries and not practicing for years. The dazzling 18-year-old Israeli pianist had learned to speak English by listening to rap music and thus was someone you would not want your children to encounter. His playing was fierce and mature. The twin girls with Pre-Raphaelite hair were equally charming and brilliant, and while they played tangos one night after dinner with day lilies tucked behind their ears, one on the violin, the other on the piano, a bat swooped back and forth above them. A 16-year-old violinist from Brooklyn was alternating, in her spare time, between Catch-22 and the then just-released last Harry Potter book. The Navy captain and doctor who works for the FDA and is an expert in infectious diseases, and who practices his clarinet every day for two to four hours before work, who at first seemed standoffish (or was that us?) turned out to be warm and engaging and, incidentally, a terrific musician. The Irish girls, the couple from Turkey, the three from Cyprus, the three from Burma, the shy high school senior from Fort Wayne, all of them wormed their way into our affections.
The final concert, the big performance all of our practice was leading to, was a butchery and a preview of hell. The error I made in the first measure was so critical we had to stop the piece and begin again, and the second time I did not get it right either. I could not catch my breath, I had too much air, I could not stop trembling, my fingers were wet, I hit my recorder on the stand while it was in my mouth and hurt my tooth, and my face was aboil. And yet, when we took our bows the whole place went crazy, everyone cheering wildly, clapping and stomping their feet. What a fantastic camp! What a bunch of glorious if maybe deranged enthusiasts! Afterward one of the coaches said, "Your performance had everything in it—and I mean everything." A camper said, "You played really a lot of notes!" We retired to a cabin the size of my kitchen table where 25 people crowded in and around the bed to drink. Soon I had forgotten my disgrace. Later we joined the teenagers, who didn't seem to mind, and danced in the barn long after every last mouse was caught.
I didn't cry or sniffle leaving camp even though I loved the place and enjoyed the characters and revered the principles of the institution. At my half-century mark my love for the people was far more general than my former girlish passion for each of her fellow campers. At chamber music camp I loved the spectacular array of the personalities, the whole bizarre and astonishing fact of the human spectrum. I loved all the musicians for their love of chamber music, and I loved best being able to leave them and go home. At 50 it's a solace to know that you have been in the path of rapture, and that it will be there, that great pool of beauty, whether or not you're there to feel it.
Printed from Oprah.com on Wednesday, March 12, 2014
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