- Kaleb A. Brown
Laughing Alone at NELP
Updated: Mar 5, 2022
Hello and welcome back to the Brown Variety Hour! Today, we have an example of an immersion memoir on our hands. In immersion memoir, the writer uses a task or journey in order to analyze an aspect of their life in hopes to make an observation about society or life as a whole. In this instance, I look through my journals to try and parse through my complicated, lingering feelings about camp. This is a fitting piece to post right after graduation, because some of my thoughts about camp also reflect my thoughts about my college experience as a whole. In a way, it can be read as a sequel or expansion of “My College Seasons,” fleshing out the end of “Summer” where I briefly touch on my time at camp.
Laughing Alone at NELP
The last day of camp was so picturesque that you’d swear I made it up. It’s June,17, 2019 at a campground in Acadia, Maine, which is near Bar Harbor (I remember this because the British-accent bug that bit some of my fellow campers rendered it as “Bah Ahbah”). It’s morning and golden rays of sun stream from the baby blue sky through the dew-damp birches, oaks, and maples. Our fleet of white University of Michigan vans is on standby on the tarmac. The campers have been tasked with taking their personal items out of the semi and finagling them back into the vans that they started this forty-five day journey in.
The campers make their way to the table where they’re to turn in their journals, receive the technology that they’ve been stripped of, then say goodbye to the staff. Many a tear is shed and many a hug is shared as the campers give gratitude to those who helped guide them through such an amazing journey, one that they’ve realized they’ll never experience again. This is when the soundtrack kicks in. It isn’t swelling, for that would make it hokey and insincere (this isn’t a Hallmark movie, after all); it’s subdued. It’s probably a stripped-down rendition of “Chickadee Lullaby,” a song composed by campers Stephanie and Alex.
All the main characters cry. In the notes, the director has told them all to do their best to convey the feeling of “you want to hold on to this magical realm as long you can before you’re ripped from it and tossed into the cold, doldrum of normal life” and they play their parts miraculously. They do because, like I said, I’m not making this up.
Slightly out of frame was me, an extra. Believe you me, I wanted to cry. I wanted to feel something, I wanted to not feel like the odd-man-out that I had for the past month-and-a-half. But the tears wouldn’t spill. Everyone wanted to linger, while I wanted to high-tail it out of there.
I turned in my journal and collected my phone. A few other campers lamented getting their phones back. With disgust, many stated that the now-foreign objects felt weird in their hands. Several vowed to ditch their smartphones and get flip phones. I kept my mouth shut.
Soon, me and my van group were on the road. True, being away from it for the better part of two months, I could see my iPhone X for the gargantuan, Silicon Valley-designed beast that it was. Still, there was something comforting about seeing that white Apple pop up once more. I had no qualms about jumping onto my phone again; I didn’t seem to inherit the same “Woodsy Fetishization” that my peers did. It seemed like they dreaded the prospect of getting in touch with the rest of the world again. Meanwhile, once I got my phone back, there were only two things keeping me from communicating immediately: my phone’s need of charge and my need for a witty re-introduction to my friends.
On our personal chat server, at 11:19 AM from the roads of New England, I typed what was my first text message in over a month:
“@everyone hey, uh
Call me a thoracic vertebrae because I’m BACK, BITCHES”
And I was indeed back, though in a much more mundane manner than my text implied. I had returned from University of Michigan’s New England Literature Program. Me and forty (really thirty-nine, as one quit after two days, but who’s counting?) other campers or “NELPers” had gone full Walden for the better part of two months, but I was the same Kaleb Andreall Brown as the one that left Ann Arbor. I didn’t go through some nature-induced metamorphosis. I didn’t emerge from the woods hand-in-hand with a bunch of people I suspected would be my friends for the rest of my life. While I did get to see magnificent summit views, the memories of them are hard to separate my feelings of stress over assignments.
This, logically, should be it. Guy didn’t like camp, big whoop, right? Except, life is seldom that simple. There are certainly parts I liked about it, but I’m not sure I liked enough of it, I’m not sure I got what I “should have” out of the experience. And while NELP is in the past, I think about it in the present. I think about it when I see the rustling of branches in the wind at night. I think about it as my time as an undergraduate comes to a close, wondering if, like NELP, I somehow did it wrong, wondering if I squandered a time that some say is supposed to be the most fun of my life. I hope that in reading the journals I had to keep as part of NELP, I can understand what went “wrong,” why I didn’t “get” NELP.
There’s a rustic, aged quality to my quartet of journals(if they were pristine, I’m sure actual rustic aesthetic aficionados would gag at the posh moleskine). I can imagine them in a dusty attic for my kids to unearth. After deciphering their Old Man’s chickenscratch, they’d have the Holy Grail of his writing (in quantity, not quality). The NELP journal is the heart of the program — everything from academic notes, to creative expression, to just plain ol’ diary entries can be found within. If you wrote it at NELP, chances are you wrote it in your journal.
While I wrote pretty much everything I felt in my journals, I don’t think I ever made my expectations for NELP plain in the journals themselves.
When I first heard about NELP via its website during my freshman year, the only thing I thought was that it would be cool to climb mountains. And it was! Mission accomplished! But if that was my only expectation, I wouldn’t be writing this. With that, Your Honor, let me state that I did not commit my crime of bloated expectations alone. Like any good crime, I had accomplices. One of them was a 2017 blogpost I found by a woman named “Sara,” reminiscing on her experience at NELP. Among other things, she talks about her gratitude “for the 39 other students and 15 staff who challenged little 19-year-old sara to grow the fuck up.” I found this appealing. I felt like I was essentially the same person who entered college, who was in turn the same person who entered high school. Nothing about me felt particularly different and I couldn’t help but want what Sara had. Who doesn’t want to grow? I was also drawn to the prospect of finding a new community. I hadn’t made many friends at university, the only friend group I belonged to was still my friends from high school. With this, I had two primary goals: go through some self-awakening and become friends with cool people. How hard could it be?
The first writing in my NELP journal isn’t actually from my time in Kabeyun, it was from the NELP director, Aric’s house, in Ann Arbor. By this time, we had introduced ourselves via the longest email chain I have ever been part of, but this was the first time we had seen each other in person. The ordeal was an odd mix of adult and childlike. Upstairs, we mingled; complete with me talking to Austin, pretending I knew a single thing about beatnik poetry. Downstairs, we all sat on the carpet of Aric’s finished basement, occasionally popping up to get snacks; it could have been a second-grade birthday party. I won’t lie and say there isn’t a sense of connection being crammed inside a basement with a bunch of other people. It’s the primal sense of just being near one another: here we were scrunched together in some dude’s place. I still knew next to nothing about most of these people, and as far as I knew, we could still be the best of friends. That said, I should have seen the writing on the wall: my takeaway wasn’t so much the people I met, but the words that I read.
One of our first assignments had been to find a poem from Aric’s sprawling book collection and share it. Back then, as well as today, I cannot tell you what the title of the book is, but I found a collection of aphorisms. I wrote down thirteen of them, one of which being “Even at the movies, we laugh together, we weep alone.”
Weeks later, if I had to candidly describe my experience at NELP, I’d probably use this quote.
On NELP Forty-Five Week 1 Day 1 (that’s May 4th for all you lovely people who use the Gregorian Calendar), the University of Michigan vans trickled into the camp where forty students would study New England literature - Camp Kabeyun in New Hampshire. While Acadia still makes off with the Most Beautiful Place award, it has stiff competition from Kabeyun. For the first few days, there’s a feeling of sensory overload. The entire camp sits on the shores of Lake Winnipesaukee. Many NELPers have either canoed (or is it kayaked?) on the lake or skinny dipped, with only the darkness as their bathing suit. As the name suggests, the dining hall is where NELPers gather to eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The dining hall is also where letters are sent and received and where the instruments are kept. Owing to its size and lighting, the dining hall is the general hangout spot in camp. Other notable areas include a darkroom, the various cabins, an art room, the infirmary and the “smoker’s circle” which was the gathering place for the largest number of smokers in America this side of the nineties.
I didn’t frequent the various areas of NELP, however. Here was a place of seemingly limitless possibilities, a place where you could find yourself trying new things, but I quickly shuffled to a drab song and dance that wasn’t too different from a normal semester at Ann Arbor. You’d think that without phones or computers, I’d finish my work much sooner than I normally would. You, however, would be incorrect. NELP kept me on the very tip of my toes thanks to its gargantuan reading load. Since NELP staff — including my journal group leaders — would check our journals at the end, I felt the need to make my notes extensive. Ergo, I spent most of my time at the NELP library.
Normally this wouldn’t be so bad. After all, if you’ve been paying attention, you’d know that, if nothing else, NELP is beautiful. The wooden cabin library is no exception. Where there isn’t rug, the floorboards talk to you with squeaks each step. Shelves of books lined the walls: from Millay’s poetry collection, to Murakami’s 1Q84, to Melville’s Moby Dick (which some campers inexplicably became obsessed with). There were various dictionaries for when the transcendentalists decided they’d impress you with their antiquated multisyllabic diction, though, ever prepared, I had brought my own Merriam-Webster from home. There were soft couches to sink into whilst lounging, sturdy chairs to prop you up whilst reading, and rocking chairs that you rocked in because why wouldn’t you? The lamps lit the place in a warm, orange glow. Like everywhere else at NELP that’s not your bed, it’s frigid, but that’s where the cast iron wood stove came in. It probably didn’t help that much but you bet your ass that you’d do everything in your power to start a fire or find someone who could. It was the perfect place to be productive by your lonesome, but being by your lonesome becomes lonely when you add people.
“...I am alone, with nary a companion but the lights that I flicked on one by one - every single bulb. I feel empty because just past the window of inky blackness — in the darkness I can hear their laughs. My ears won’t stop pricking from their pianos, banjoes, and violins. And sitting here, I know there’s just something wrong with me. They’re burdened with the same task, yet they have skills that I can only dream of. They can partake in jovial festivities and complete their assignments...”
One of my earliest entries makes it clear why I still want to give the layout designer of NELP a piece of my mind: the library is right across from the dining hall. You know, the dining hall, only the liveliest place at camp at any given moment? I’m sure I wouldn’t have felt that bad about spending most of my time doing work if I wasn’t constantly reminded of how much of a blast it seemed like everyone else was having. One of the clearest feelings I can attribute to NELP is feeling isolated because it seemed like my nose was always flicking between a reading and my journal while others were living it up in the dining hall. I can’t recall ever having played a board game, I was never part of the communal bread baking experience, and I never participated in any jam sessions. The things I did do with others don’t seem as good as the things I didn’t end up doing. Attached to this entry, Rachael, one of my journal group leaders, offered that others simply weren’t reading as closely as I was. Sure, I’ll give her that. Big whoop, I get to preserve my GPA while others get to have fun.
That was one of my first entries. The feeling persisted throughout my time at NELP. In an entry during the final week of NELP, I moodily write “I sat in the Beehive as my fellow NELPers took a dip in the water and stood in front of a blazing bonfire [...] I’ll just have to accept that I do my work slowly; that I’ll never be as good as anyone else; that I won’t get to do the things I want since I’ll always put my grade first; that no matter how seemingly similar my experience, I’ll always be on my own little island; that I haven’t made the friendships that everyone else has [made]; that I’ll just have to accept invisibility.”
And that’s how I largely felt: invisible; part of a crowd but not seen by other members of said crowd. To me, I felt like I was separate from the experience everyone else was having, and thus I didn’t feel that I was part of the community I imagined being part of when I left for NELP. Whether or not that was reality, it certainly felt that way to me, and thus it was my reality. It remains my reality. In our NELP 2019 group chat, Olivia recently talked about encountering a previous NELPer on Facebook and the two having a friendly chat. Olivia told us that “other NELPers are out there,” which doesn’t feel reassuring to me because I barely feel like a NELPer in the first place. If they ask me how it went, what am I supposed to say? “It went great, I loved every moment” or, if I’m feeling particularly daring, “it was fine?” Maybe I could revel in the awkwardness and say it “wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.”
I once overheard Sebastion say “I didn’t come to NELP to care about my grades.” In my journal, I passive-aggressively responded in my journal that “it must be nice to be him.” You might assume I’m perfectionist, but I’m something far worse: neurotic. Hindsight is 2020, and I walked away with As in all three credit classes at NELP, but at the time I feared I was teetering over the edge of failure, and no amount of Rachael stating that I could afford to take less extensive notes could assuage me. So I was furiously studious, to the detriment of my sociability. While I never articulated it explicitly, I told myself, much like I did at Ann Arbor, that if I got good grades then, I’d land a good job, be successful, then be happier later. The problem with that, however, is that future happiness wasn’t a given. It felt like NELP was a miniature model of my college experience at large; socially squandering what many tote to be the time of your life just to eke out academic success.
In the margins of an unmarked entry, I wrote “‘You always look like you’re slightly lost.’ ~Amber, June 3rd, 2019.” While I’d lean into this observation at the time (I signed her birthday card “Guy Who Always Looks Slightly Lost), it was mostly as a front to hide how much it hurt. At the end of the day, I did feel like I was slightly lost: knowing where I was, but questioning why I was there. Despite my best efforts, I still found myself without a community. This feeling wouldn’t prove endemic to NELP. I’ve joined a hodgepodge of clubs during my time at college and yet I haven’t really felt like a community member for any of them. I always hear how some person met their best friend or significant other at X club and they’ve known each other for Y years, but I haven’t felt that and it’s always been frustrating, like I’m missing something. I always feel that I’m on the very edge of a group's circle; just there enough to be technically a part of it, but not there enough to be remembered when I’m absent.
Which isn’t to say I’m not part of any circles; letter-writing is proof of that. Writing and receiving letters were proof that I had genuine connections and that I wasn't alone, but those who wrote to me were my friend I met online, my friends I met in highschool, and my family: all less glamorous than making friends at a stupendous summer camp during university. There were certainly people I talked to regularly at camp, but there was always the fear that we wouldn’t stay connected after NELP. My fear has largely come true. I only regularly talk to three people I attended NELP with, one of which I hardly spoke to during camp. And who’s to say any of them will still talk to me this time next year?
From reading my journal, I can definitely state that part of me not enjoying camp all that much was due to not feeling I had a community, which was due to me spending most of my time doing work. I decided to dig a bit deeper. Why was this such a death knell? What else caused me to not have as good of a time as I wanted?
If I wanted the easy way out, I could lie to myself and write off my frustration as my fellow NELPers ignoring and/or hating me as they lived it up. This interpretation would be simple enough to prove by reflecting on my trip to Concord. The day started off innocuous enough as we made our way to Concord by driving ourselves there via van. We were given a schedule and told to stick to it. Naturally, we didn’t. We left Concord an hour later than we were supposed to because my group members wanted to visit Sleepy Hollow Cemetery and Walden Pond (even in death, Thoreau makes my life miserable). I went along with them, not really wanting to get into an argument, all the while my anxiety ratcheted to a fever pitch, worrying that we (but more importantly, I) would get in trouble. They hatched a plot to say they “got lost” which I found ridiculous (I was made to eat my words when later, it turned out some groups did get lost for an hour). In an entry titled Stressed Out, I write “they said it would be irresponsible to say we left an hour late. You want to know what’s really irresponsible? Not owning up to your goddamn fuck-ups because you’re a child in an adult’s body.” Later in the entry, I write, “I’m glad they had fun. Wait. No. I’m not. Fuck them. I hate them,” which was enough to draw the attention of Kale, who had apparently been reading over my shoulder in the car. She told me that “I shouldn’t write things like that.” From this, I could call it a day and say my frustrations were due to clashing with other campers.
But then that would be ignoring what I immediately followed the sentence with, a sentence I’m sure she ignored: “I hate myself.” With this, my desire for change is revealed as not being quite as flippant as I depicted it as. It’s possible I just didn’t like NELP and didn’t find a community because I didn’t like myself. I’ve never been a fan of the idea that “no one will ever love you if you don’t love yourself,” but in the interest of leaving no stone unturned, it’s worth considering.
Self-reflection was an aspect of NELP built into the beginning. The first poem we memorized was Robert Frost’s lovely “Into My Own,” which ends with the couplet, “They would not find me changed from him they knew— | Only more sure of all I thought was true.” At first, I assumed this would be a positive interpretation to staying the same come the end of NELP; if I didn’t have a fruitful journey of self-discovery, I’d have a fruitful journey of self-affirmation. The thing about self-affirmation is that it’s pretty unpleasant when you’re confirming that you hate yourself.
In an early entry, I chronicle overhearing JoJo talk about Dragon Ball Z. I went to join the conversation, then, like a dork, I eventually began listing off facts about the show. JoJo complimented me, saying I was like an “encyclopedia,” but in my entry, I state that the complement made me feel glum. The information felt useless and only highlighted the fact that a lot of the things that interested me were worthless at NELP. Rachael stated that it seemed like other people were interested in games, anime, and movies. I still felt out of my depth in a way that others didn’t seem to be. At NELP, it felt like we were stripped to our components and it’s possible I shirked from my metaphorical naked body much like I do with my physical one. I felt like I couldn’t offer the community anything worthwhile for my presence: the only instrument I could play was an ocarina, which some consider a “toy,” I wasn’t particularly funny, I didn’t have fun stories to tell, I didn’t really care that much about Thoreau, and so on and so forth. I was just a nerd who couldn’t even interact with people because I was too busy working.
My feelings towards myself at camp were telling in the language I used. Finishing an assignment late into the night wasn’t me being meticulous, it was me being a “loser.” Me not partaking in festivities wasn’t other NELPers being “different” from me, it was them being “better” than me. And it’s not like NELP brought out some deep-seated feelings I never knew had: I can feel like a minnow pitted against megalodons while in any given pond. Being a part of the Video Game Music Club? I don’t have much musical expertise, so I’m just a waste of space there. My writing club? I don’t have the publication cred nor work ethic of other members, so my feelings of competitiveness and jealousy are stoked for what should be a low-stakes, chill club.
My embarrassment of my place at NELP extends to my journals themselves. In her blog post, Sara writes that she’s grateful for having “two fat journals full of literary reflections, self journeys, and meandering musings that will live on forever to remind me of the amazingness of [her] time at nelp.” I don’t regard my journals as joyously, in fact I can’t stand most of what I’ve written. Sometimes I find it too self-pitying. Other times, I find it creepy, such as when I write about NELP having many attractive women (I immediately apologized for writing it; Rachael noted that it was a normal feeling, but I still guilty she had to read it) or when I wrote a poem about my crush (while writing about how pathetic it was that a nineteen year old had a “crush”). Other times, I just find the writing so shoddy that I want to gag. The only time I can look at my writing fondly is when I’ve cloaked my voice with the shade of fiction.
Finishing my journals, however, I’m struck by a surprise. I don’t end talking about not feeling a part of the community. I don’t end talking about how much I dislike myself. I find that, against all odds, I end on a high note.
At the end of my final journal, at the campsite we stayed in at Acadia, I wrote a wistful poem about NELP. I had forgotten that I had written it and it was odd seeing such a tender goodbye. If that wasn’t enough, I have an entry thanking each and every one of the other NELPers and staff by name. I do remember this entry. For a brief moment I found myself overcome with sentimentality. At first, I wondered if, in the end, if I ended up being bitten by the NELP bug, after all. At the end, could I call myself part of the community? Or was it all performative, did I write these because I thought I was supposed to write them? Judging by my lack of tears the next day, it would be simple to say it’s the latter, but I do think I was bitten by a NELP bug, just one of a different strain from the others.
If I wasn’t, I wouldn’t have written a poem about how much I loved the piece of Sugarman’s whoopie cake that I tried, finishing it with “I have been made a fiend! A wretched, wretched being all for want of cake!”
If I wasn’t, I wouldn’t fondly remember going to Contradances. The sound of fiddles and claps filled the air as I made my way across the dance floor with two left feet. Where I’d normally be embarrassed to dance with a stranger, I was delighted to share the moment with someone new each time.
If I wasn’t, I wouldn’t have been so enthralled by the journey up and down New Hampshire’s Mount Washington. I can’t describe the lighting on the descent as anything other than sepia-toned. It filled me with feelings of anemoia. I want to go back, under the same lighting, just so I could play a Gameboy Advance there and complete the feeling. At the summit’s visitor center, I wrote “I’m glad that I climbed here. I’m glad that I made it to a piece of heaven. I’m not ashamed that I took an easier route — I wanted to make sure I saw it. Some say this, this building, this cafeteria, this shop, takes away from the experience. Well, maybe I’m just whelmed easily. Maybe I don’t have a burning hatred for consumerism. Maybe I like processed food a bit too much. And that’s okay. [...] I love it up here.”
If I wasn’t, I wouldn’t have recalled being at Concord near the Robbins house when Alex helped me roll up my sleeves in a way that went with my shorts. It struck me as oddly tender and a lowkey example of friendship that oddly stays with me. In tenderness, it was similar to when I stayed up late in the library. I wanted to finish taking notes but I kept dozing off. If Amber hadn’t cared enough to put her foot down and told me to go back to the cabin, I probably would have been there all night.
If I wasn’t. I wouldn’t fondly remember my van group to and from Michigan. I remember how we combatted the monotony of the road that plagues all long-distance car rides. For one, we inexplicably grew attached to a pair of identical black cars that shared the road with us for a long stretch of time: we dubbed them “The Boys.” I remember us seeing a license plate with the letters LHFD and deciding it stood for “Long Hard Flaccid Dick.” We decided, on a whim, that instead of heading to the Super 8 in Upstate New York, we’d visit Niagara Falls. On our way back from camp, we listened to two songs from the Tango in the Night CD Joe bought and the album would go on to be one of my favorites.
But memories are something you can’t control. I know NELP means something to me because of the tangible mementos of the time I spent there. I spent time in the NELP darkroom painstakingly developing the black-and-white photo I had taken of all us. In front of Concord’s Robbins House. the NELP Class of 2019 stares at me whenever I’m at my desk. There I am to the left, between Div and Mike. If that wasn’t enough, every time I turn my phone around, I’m greeted by Amber’s beautiful illustration of the Acadia Lighthouse at dusk. Below the light’s beam, waves crash against the rocks where I finished reading The County of Pointed Firs.
But I know that my NELP is different from others’ NELPs. The rest of my van group members remarked how underwhelming Niagara turned out, but I still remember it as beautiful and I have the pictures to prove it. To Joe, I bet Tango in the Night is just another album. I’m not sure if Alex remembers or cares that he showed me how to roll up my sleeves. In general, other NELPers seemed to love being at camp. They were glad to return to their home away from home. Meanwhile, most of my good memories of NELP come from mountaintops and the camp itself was a return to the work that I dreaded. We went to the same program, but we had different experiences, and my frustration may have come from the simple fact that I was looking for a “NELP Experience” that didn’t and will never exist.
Most NELPers have an affinity for Thoreau. I, for one, find him to be a pompous ass. My transcendentalists of choice are Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Early on during NELP, I read a quote of Emerson’s that stuck with me. In “Experience,” Emerson writes “Two human beings are like globes, which can touch only in a point, and, whilst they remain in contact, all other points of each of the spheres are inert....” I took a sad comfort in it, taking it to mean even with similarities, no two people were alike and could see the world exactly as the other saw it. And that goes for NELP, too. No matter how hard I search for it, no matter how much I look in my journals and consult with others, I’ll never be able to figure out how I “should” have done NELP because there’s no way I should have done it except the way I did, since I did it.
In that case, the earlier aphorism must have gotten it wrong. Emerson and my own experience tell me that, at the end of the day, we don’t just weep alone. We probably laugh alone, too.