I'm at Camas, a Scottish youth camp, only a scone’s throw from the chilly Atlantic Ocean. Gotten quite intimate with my new pals – swirling sand that blinds me, ubiquitous grit that clings to my boots, horrific wind that flattens my hair and exposes all five of my cowlicks, mendacious nettles that needle me constantly.
So far, I’ve schlepped around the kitchen and polytunnel for two weeks pounding dough for bread and hosing plants. I came here to reset my life. Beset by divorce, financial problems, daughter difficulties, a close friend's and my brother's unexpected deaths, I've been hobbling on the raggedy edge of the road over brambles, rocks, and potholes for a long time. I need to recollect myself, and I hope Scotland will be my catch basin, or at least the catalyst for a new beginning.
But I didn't consider the cold Atlantic Ocean a few feet away, and the gusts, torrential rain, and an elusive sun. I didn't think about cultural differences, or language snafus, or age being a problem. The oldest volunteer, the only American, and the least physically fit, I’m like an old junker rusting in the ratty weeds next to a car lot full of shiny new models. Not only that, I’m piercingly chilled from loneliness. But despite all that, I vow to grow and to learn while I am in here. Somehow.
It is now early June. Our first group of lads for the season trudge into camp through a drenching downpour, baptized by this typical Scottish howdy. They are seven boys ranging from middle to high school, along with five teachers, all from a Christian boarding school. Poor lads. They look quite pathetic, like kittens tossed in a creek to drown. I had no idea that I would be seeing fellow Tennesseans this summer, so I am delighted to see them. I must admit, though, they do not seem as excited to see me. Probably it's their wet socks.
Standing in a reception line, we volunteers and staff cheerily greet them as they squelch wearily past us toward the dorms. Almost 4,000 miles from home they made their way, via planes, trains, buses, ferries, and goatcarts to get to our humble Camas. Their goal: a full week of enjoying unvarnished nature with unwashed bodies in the Isles of Argyll.
But wait. A bleep on my female radar. One of the men in the crew is quite attractive: gray curly hair, twinkly blue eyes, and a slender build. He is not wearing a wedding ring. Too bad my hair looks like I brushed it with a forked twig, thanks to the salt wind racing at 30 knots over our humble little enclave.
A teeth-chattering gloom penetrates camp the next morning. What a sad June. Then, miraculously, the sun comes out. The temperature inches up to 60 degrees. I'm elated! Sofia, our Swedish volunteer – blonde, statuesque, strong as Highland cattle, with a face that even the angels envy – and I have the day off. She says I can overnight with her in the Camas hut on the Isle of Iona, a few miles away.
We ride with the group over to Fionnphort and take the ferry over to the Holy Isle in the afternoon. After dinner at the Macleod Centre, Sofia and I attend service in the dark Benedictine Abbey. My handsome Tennessean, who the others call the Rev, seeks me out and sits beside me on the pew. He brims with a Southern charm as warm and smooth as Tennessee whiskey, admires my new Celtic ring as he takes my hand in his. His attentions wash over me like a sun shower.
After the service, Sofia and I wander over to the ceilidh dance, as do the Tennesseans. Then headache music begins – erratic, frenzied, loud – cranked out by a demonic fiddler and a possessed guitarist. The Rev and I try our luck, but we are trampled, elbowed, bypassed, and shoved to the outskirts of the dance circle.
Thank goodness, some merciful person finally switches off the lights in the ceilidh hall, and we leave. In the fading light, the Rev follows Sofia and me. We drift past the ruined Augustinian nunnery, tiny pink flowers spilling over the granite rubble, past the gentle hill to the few twinkling lights of the wee village and towards the Camas hut.
He suggests that he and I sit in the grass somewhere and talk: a questionable invitation even for someone as naïve as I can be. I gently try begging off the Southern woman way, “But the ground is soaked, and we have nothing to sit on.” Truth is I want to trust him, but I don’t. “We can sit on our jackets,” he offers.
Surprisingly, his words seem to galvanize the quiet, sweet Sofia. Promptly, she slaps on an old Scandinavian antidote for brassy men, probably handed down from a gnarled Viking grandmother. Without hesitation, she takes me firmly by the arm and insists, “Uh, no, Susan and I need to get to the hut. Work tomorrow.” The Rev tells us goodnight, and she and I move towards the safety of the sand-encrusted beach hut. I am grateful, relieved, and a little disappointed that my 20-year-old chaperone intervened.
I try to sleep on a lumpy double bed, under questionably clean sheets amid an aroma of mildew. As I toss and turn, I crush, like a giddy teenager, on the attractive teacher, with his silver hair and shining blue eyes. He’s well-educated from elite schools in the South, likes gardening and traveling, writing and painting. I want to believe that the man is single, divorced or widowed. Such potential.
The next morning, the Rev and I and the others hike the boggy track back to camp past grazing sheep, and over a partial wooden walkway, then moorland, and finally rocks. Silver hair glistens in the sun, eyes glitter like blue ice. Hard to enjoy his company, though. My pesky imp, Killjoy, incessantly whispers in my ear, “Careful! Something’s not right!”
Everyone else now disappears into the distance as we lag behind talking. He subtly touches me on the shoulders or puts his arm around my waist as we go along. Still can’t enjoy the experience for the white noise of Killjoy growing louder and louder. I war with the imp, “Surely not a minister! If he is married, he wouldn’t cheat, especially in front of his colleagues and the boys!”
We reach one of the sheep gates, moorland with white cottony plants stretching on both sides of us now. He unlatches it and stares into my eyes, his own seductive ones like the sights of a rifle. Blushing, I drop my eyes, and keep walking. What, he wants a quickie on the muddy path?
A hush lies over camp the next morning. A pale mint light from the hills, dark green with bracken, filters through the kitchen windows. No one stirs but me and Gertrude, the sheep matriarch, chomping sparse grass near the kitchen, hoping for a tossed scone. Breakfast detail. I sloppily pour milk into my pre-measured dry ingredients for scones. With a spoon the size of a boat paddle, I begin stirring the mixture. The heavy wooden door creaks open and I hear, “Susan, are you here?” Ole’ Blue Eyes has risen early to help me stir up the sawdust scones and boil the clumpy porridge.
"I know you hate cooking, so what can I do to help?" he asks, looking especially handsome in his navy sweater.
"Well, the porridge needs constant surveillance,” I reply. “Add water when it starts thickening up like a chunk of cement."
I plop the dough out onto the table, bench flour blowing up into my face. "Mercy!" I say.
"Watch out," the Rev laughs, and briefly hugs me. He stirs the pot of porridge, and I start sculpting the scones. "Tell me about your childhood," he says.
"When I was little, I had a big mimosa tree that I liked to climb. I could climb higher and faster than any of my male cousins. What about you?"
"I was born into your typical Gothic Southern family," he answers.
As we talk, he becomes increasingly touchy-feely, sidling up next to me at the sink and stove, momentarily placing his hand on my arm or briefly hugging me. I light the commercial gas oven and the blue flame hisses up like dragon's breath. I jump. The Rev's baby blues widen and flash with amusement and surprise. And me? Spinning like a yo-yo, up one second with blushing pleasure, down the next with trembling anxiety. But freakishly alive.
Later that day, Helen, our purple-haired gardener, and I decide to create a labyrinth. We head down to the beach and gather large clumps of dried burnt orange and russet seaweed to mark the wind's four directions. Then we slowly follow the sandy path and pause to meditate at its center, a tiny pile of seaweed and shells, before walking slowly back to the beginning.
The rowdiness and noise of teen boys fills the dining room the next day over Sofia’s lunch of carrot, leek, and potato soup. The lads joke and laugh, the teachers say how much they enjoyed the Pilgrim’s Walk on Iona. I look up from my bowl, and there it is again. Another one of this man’s steady, hunting looks. I rise swiftly from my bench and escape to my dorm room, feeling too much like I am on the menu.
Alone, I lie on my bed and wonder what in the world is wrong with the Rev. Has he lost his mind? He is a minister, after all. Doesn't he care what kind of impression he makes? Doesn't he care about being a good role model to the young men he teaches? I know I care about what the others think of me. Dignity may be a drab color, but it goes well with pearls at a certain age.
Oh, sure, the idea of crazy sex has a certain forbidden allure to it, but I simply do not see how any coupling could go on at Camas or Iona. People would know before one could pull his knickers up. Or down. Plus, I have learned a few things in life. Romantic fantasy is an intoxicant, full-bodied, claret-red, with a honey-wine taste. And bad ideas come camouflaged in the most sparkling raiment. Both fade quickly. Besides, aren’t we a little old for Splendor in the Grass?
Troubled and confused, I slip off in the afternoon and escape to the labyrinth. As I follow the course of yellowed kelp, I meditate about this man. I like him, want to get to know him better, keep in touch with him after Camas. But can I trust him? Or could I be misreading his attentions? Perhaps, I have misread him. Maybe he isn’t a wolf in minister’s clothing. Maybe he is just being friendly. One seeks shelter from a storm in the shadow of wishful thinking.
After the labyrinth, I hurry back up the beach, past the kayak huts, and around Gertrude and her baby to the kitchen to start dinner. One of my favorite lads is already mixing up a salad for me using red and green leaf lettuce from the garden. I start chopping up onions and potatoes to saute. Then I ask Jonathan casually, “Hey, have all the men in camp been your teachers?” He says, “Oh, no. None of them.” And then, as an afterthought, “I have had the Rev’s wife, though.”
The labyrinth's message – delivered like a whack on the head with a two-by-four. My heart sinks to the tile floor to join the potato parings and onion peels.
Thursday arrives. Since yesterday, I’ve attended to my daily chores, smiling when I didn't feel like it, nursing my hurt in the sanctity of the polytunnel among the lettuce and tomato plants. I have not made eye contact with the Rev. He ignores me also. Being of two minds, I miss his attention and am relieved not to have it, the malady and the cure all rolled up in the darkness and light of one another.
Tonight is the Tennesseans’ last evening here. The sad little coos of the mourning doves fill the air as approaching gray-green shadows tiptoe in. We attend evening reflection in the Chapel of Nets, sit in a ring on old tangled aqua fishing nets, left over from the days when Camas was a salmon camp. The last rays of the late twilight stream white through the big windows from the great dark sea and from the pink granite mountains onto the refinished wooden floor. After the group's prayer and thank yous to us, the Rev comes over and sits beside me for a while. He asks, “How are you doing? We have had a good visit. Ready to stay the rest of the summer?” I answer “fine” and “great” and “yes.”
Then it is Friday, and the Rev and I, the Camas crew, and the Tennesseans follow the spongy track for the last time to the road. We form a circle for a closing ceremony. Each of us wraps a length of red yarn tightly around our wrists and then tosses a skein across the circle to someone else. When we are linked with the red “web,” our pink-cheeked camp coordinator snips off the threads. We tie the ends around our wrists, making bracelets to symbolize our lasting connection to each other. I sadly hug the gray wolf goodbye.
For a few weeks, I miss the Tennesseans, for I have grown fond of several of the lads. Their sweetness, acceptance, humor, and Southern ways soothed my homesickness and bobbed-wire nerves. And I brood over the Rev. Knowing who and what he is doesn’t stop me from half-hoping he might make a clean break with his wife, come back to Camas, and sweep me off my Wellingtons.
Then one night, brushing my teeth while trying to circumnavigate paint brushes soaking in an old paint can in the loo sink, the truth seems to float to the surface of the luminescent water. I see Reality, squarely, exactly like it is – the Rev's title, his position, his looks, his humor, his intelligence, my vulnerability to his flattery and my loneliness and isolation. Killjoy, my imp, was right.
Ah, well, I reflect. I deserve better. As in the labyrinth, I need to get back to my own center, tap into my own potential instead of hoping it will manifest in a man. I look down at the red yarn still circling my wrist from the closing ceremony and ceremoniously toss it in the trash. That night, I dream a new dream, a new vision of freedom. I dream I am running alone through a grassy sun-lit Ionic meadow. A man takes up the run with me. I turn a corner and leave him behind. I continue sprinting in the sunlight for the sheer joy of it. I wake up still buoyant and tingly with exhilaration.
It wasn’t a special occasion. Or maybe it was, because anytime we are together it’s special: an investment in our relationship, our therapist says. My carnivorous husband had made dinner reservations for a fancy vegetarian restaurant because he knows it’s one of my favorites. I was ready to cancel our plans, though, because it was a long drive. A big effort for a meal. And I was tired. It had been a long day of cleaning the gutters, sweeping leaves, and vacuuming followed by a hike. We could save money and stay in and drink Taylor Fladgate and play Settlers of Catan. But he convinced me we should go.
So I got dressed up. Or did I? I had leggings on. The kind normally paired...