Last week I got to go to summer camp.
Instead of learning how to roast the perfect marshmallow or short-sheet my bunkmates' beds, I attended The Aspen Seminar
on leadership, values, and the good society in Queenstown, Maryland. For five days I sat in a windowless room with über-smart participants and moderators, spraining my brain, trying to make sense of Aristotle, Confucius, Locke, and Darwin to name a few. Not exactly beach reading.
The Aspen Seminar is an Aspen Institute program whose motto is "Great Minds Don't Think Alike...But They Do Think Better Together!" We're going to think together? I wondered during the first session when I listened to talented orators debate the tenets of our assigned texts.
The group consisted of a diverse mix of professionals, each with a set of identifiers that inform the daily conversations we share with members of our respective communities. I'm a mom, fiction writer, teacher, and Jew. Sometimes I struggled to find common ground with my bunkmates during passionate discussions about economic equality, the innate goodness of the individual, or how we define justice. I discovered quickly that if I didn't listen articulately to the people around the table, I'd lose the current of the conversation. So I listened. And I learned.
A part of me is still sitting at that table, less the really tasty hard candies and silver pitchers of ice water, trying to turn my world right-side up. It's not working. I suppose Plato would say that I've been dragged out of my cave, and I suspect that my eyes will continue to adjust to the sunlight for a long while.
What I do know at this moment is that walls break down when people leave their psychic and physical shtetls to come together to unpack Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter from Birmingham City Jail"
or don homemade togas and silly wigs to perform Antigone.
When checking my e-mail one evening before dinner, I discovered that a white supremacist had shot a Holocaust Museum guard. I shared the news with the first person who walked by, an African-American participant, the kind of person who can cut to the heart of a dense reading with a few well-chosen words. The look in his eyes conveyed his knowledge that this brand of hate cuts right down to the bone, bypassing sinew and skin, regardless of the color.
Later that night, we did what you do at summer camp at the end of a long day. We sang songs. As luck would have it, the group was blessed with a talented educator/musician who sang the sweetest version of Leonard Cohen's "Suzanne" I've ever heard. When he led the group in Don McLean's "American Pie," some of us knew the words, and more didn't, and unlike my summer camp farewell ritual, we didn't sing "Leaving on a Jet Plane" on our last night. We did hug and promise to plan a reunion where we will have to reference a new song, one that we've written ourselves.