on wild creeks and flying monkeys

As a child I was given freedom to dream, create, and play by myself. Whether the space was granted because my parents understood the importance of unstructured outdoor play or just needed me to occupy myself, I appreciated it. Come to that, I’m sure it was a conscious decision on their part. Both of my parents were allowed to explore without hindrance or restriction as kids, so they must have wanted the same for me.

One of my dad’s best memories of childhood is riding his bike to school in the first grade, even crossing a busy four-way intersection on the journey. Go back another generation and the independence extends even further. My grandmother recalls building a hut with her siblings in a vacant lot across the street from her house in Miami; her parents let her spend the night in it (!!) without a care of scorpions or fire ants, not to mention the strangers who might have lurked about.

A post-mudpie ride around the Houson 'hood on my Dukes of Hazzard big wheel
A post-mudpie ride around the Houston ‘hood on my Dukes of Hazzard big wheel

Writing about that rusty trampoline got me thinking about my own other childhood exploits and adventures. One place I recall with fondness is a playground that was located near my dad’s old house in Marietta, Georgia. For the most part, it wasn’t the playground itself that captured my attention. Sure, there was a little merry-go-round, but we tended to use it for our own unstructured game of “flying monkeys,” which involved us seeing who could jump the farthest off it while it spun.

How to play FLYING MONKEYS:

1. Squat in the middle of a 1980s-era merry-go-round about the size of one of those Jazzercise trampolines.

2. Have your partners turn the merry-go-round as fast as they can.

3. When they yell “GO!,” you, the squatter, will attempt to stand. Fight the centripetal force pulling you back down to the center.

4. As you reach the edge, centrifugal force will step in and hurl you haphazardly off.

5. Dodge the metal animals that were meant to be sat upon and jump off the edge as far as you can go.

If I’ve described it well, it sounds as impossible as it was. Most times we would either fall right away or attempt to jump and end up splayed off it half way and need the spinners to perform an emergency stop. Regardless of the outcome, our end result would be to collapse in a heap of giggles.

After flying monkeys, we’d turn our attention to the surrounding wild. Unfortunately, the woods had been taken over by an impenetrable maze of kudzu vines and poison ivy right up to the edge where the mower clipped them. Somehow the creek had been spared that sad fate, so we’d march happily down to the water, where our real adventures began.

Sometimes we’d take the clay from the shore and make shapes. Eventually our works of art would harden into replicas of sandy red pea gravel at best or dried-up dog turds at worst. But at the time, we felt we were sculpting something good. We’d jump from bank to bank and wade in the cool, calf-deep water. When we tired of failing to catch water spiders, we would wander through the culvert to the shady unknown on the other side.

The excitement and trepidation of stepping foot into the slimy tube is one I will not soon forget. I would relive it all—the fear, the peer pressure, the anticipation, and the exhilaration—in a heartbeat. I remember how much colder it felt to go from the blazing Georgia sun into the depths of the dank, goose-pimply tunnel. My toes hugged the metal rungs as I tiptoed through; it seemed like forever until we would come out on the other side. I am certain we reverse-jockeyed for position on who would have to go first.

Once through the culvert, we fed off the energy of having survived the gauntlet by exploring the stream further. I have no memory of what lied beyond the culvert; the thrill of adventure was the only reward I required. Looking back, I can’t remember my dad ever checking up on us. I am particularly impressed with, and grateful for, his ability to let us go off on our own. I guess he figured we couldn’t get into that much trouble in our own neighborhood. It wasn’t like we were setting off on a 5-mile walk into the woods or anything, but it felt dangerous enough to me as a 10-year-old.

Dad and I exploring the Texas shore
Dad and I exploring the Texas shore

I hope I can manage to raise free-range kids, giving them the same space and trust I was afforded. In that vein, this summer I returned to my childhood summer camp–for the second year running–for my kids to attend and for me to be a counselor again. In the eight years between my stints as camp counselor, the mood has shifted ever so slightly toward helicoptering, even at camp. Kids are expected to report their exact location during any period of time labeled “free,” thus removing the sense of freedom from the equation.

I don’t blame camp administration for this change; they’re good friends and the same folks I’ve known for 15 years or more. I expect they must have endured plenty of parent complaints to have made the shift, since there weren’t any accidents that I’m aware of. Parents today simply expect they can keep tabs on their children 24/7, even while the kids are at camp. I understand the occasional need for an orthodontist appointment or an early trip to the beach, but why not schedule an extra thirty-minute window while the camp gathers your kid? Do you really want them to KNOW where the kids are at all times?

I myself love the idea of the kids being “lost” down in a mud pit or wandering a creek somewhere. Therefore, as a counselor I engaged in boundary-testing where I could this summer. Even though it took asking three people permission, gathering a cell phone and wilderness emergency bag, and making a list of who was going, I did end up taking a group of kids into the wild unknown for a creek adventure. After all, to the kids it’s just as wild as when I was taken on such excursions 20+ years ago. Maybe what they don’t know can’t burden them. And I’m happy to report that 30 years after I first stepped foot on camp property, kids are still singing about eating great green gobs of greasy grimy gopher guts and coming up with new verses about the fate of poor Tom the Toad. After all, what happens at camp stays at camp.

Willeo Explorers, 2014
Willeo Creek Explorers, 2014

spiffy & queen bee rule the world: on cousins

Cousins! I'm the one on the far right (underneath a cousin)
Cousins! I’m the one on the far right (underneath a cousin)

I’ve been trying to gain a deeper understanding of why cousins have been such an important part of my life, and I think I’ve come up with a possible answer. Kids are always trying to form stronger bonds with each other as friends, cutting into their palms to be “blood brothers.” With cousins, you are handed a peer with real blood ties. Regardless of how often you see each other, an immediate deeper bond is formed on that information alone. A barrier wall is torn down and boundaries of familiarity are crossed that haven’t been crossed before. Cousins provide us an opportunity to test the limits.

******

On a trip to visit family in Florida when I was about six years old, two of my male cousins and I ran around the outside of my great aunt’s house over and over again. She finally stopped us to ask what game we were playing, no doubt because we aggravated them by weaving in and out of the adults as we passed by. My cousin John, three years older than me, stopped and smiled at her and said just as sweet as pie, “We’re just playing tag.”

We were in fact not playing tag. The actual game may have been called something like “Chase Justine.” I didn’t stick around long enough to find out what was going to happen next when they finally caught up with me. I will always remember the feeling I had that day that the adults actually had no idea what we were up to and didn’t really seem to care. We were on our own, for better or worse.

The boys and I around the time of "Chase Justine." Wait, was I bigger than them?
The boys and I around the time of “Chase Justine.” …Wait, was I bigger than them?

My cousins helped me get into just enough trouble as a kid to feel like I didn’t need to push the boundaries more than I did. Whether it was shooting each other with Roman candles or BB guns, we had plenty of “near misses.” I still have a scar on my finger from when I took a steak knife to a Styrofoam cup while trying to make telephones with my cousin. Once again, I don’t remember the adults being more than slightly annoyed at us; they just bandaged the wound and went back to their conversation. Meanwhile, we went back to playing our intense games. As we grew, those games became full of grand schemes, one-upmanship, petty fights, and double dog dares.

 ******

I once heard adolescents compared to a flock of geese, and I love that analogy. Teenagers are a flock of awkward birds, forming groups and then disbanding again to crash-land with a buddy or two. Or as Jenny, the Bloggess, said of feminists, perhaps teenagers are more like bees, i.e. “they are adorable and fuzzy but people run away from them because they don’t understand that they just want to make things good.” And sometimes they sting you, which is really, really annoying.

When I was fourteen years old—in the summer of 1994—I became the principal hotshot of a gang comprised of my cousins. Our family gathers every summer at a reunion at Vogel State Park in the Blue Ridge Mountains of north Georgia. I became co-chief of the gang with my cousin Clay; Clay and I took over due to a vehicular right of passage. Our cousin John, much the same as others who’d ruled before him, turned 16 and got a car. Suddenly, my cousins and I were lucky if we even saw him, let alone rely on him to dictate our operations. And so, the hive passed to us.

When it occurred to me at age fourteen that Clay and I had become leaders, I gave everyone around me ridiculous nicknames and insisted they answer only to these new monikers, “Freckles,” “Monkey,” and so on.  In what could only be called a bid for status as sole Queen Bee, I even attempted to give Clay a nickname, “Spiffy,” which he promptly refused to adopt. The two of us held court with our trail of cousins behind us. We would hold impromptu arm wrestling matches or races across logs to see who was faster, stronger, or more agile.

Up to this point in my life, I had never been the leader of anything. But I knew instinctively that I needed to think of something that would keep their attention, should it start to wane. Thus, I determined what our next presidential act would be: obtain a token of worship.

I had seen the prize I desired early one day. My uncles lugged a huge cooler out onto the back porch of one of our rented cabins to prepare for a mid-afternoon party. It contained within it no less then eight varieties of beer in no less than 50 cans, and I knew they wouldn’t miss a few. I also knew the cans could squeeze easily between the porch railings and be slipped down to a co-conspirator waiting below. So, that’s just what we did. My memory is that we only took two beers. I have no idea what all the ages were of the cousins who accompanied us on our victory lap around the lake to consume the beer, but I’d like to tell you they were at least of the youngest European drinking age. In any case, a few sips of beer couldn’t hurt them, or so I told myself, and it solidified our place as pack leaders.

 ******

This year marks the seventh summer I’ve brought my own children to Vogel State Park to mingle with our cousins. I am finally able to see the adult’s side of the equation, which is that a week of family reunion constitutes one of the few times I’m able to ignore my children completely for several hours in a row. There is such beauty in this gathering of cousins, young and old, not the least of which is because we are learning from the mothers who came before us. I can count currently four generations of my family present around me at our reunion, and the elders pass down what they know to us so we don’t need to rediscover it on our own.

Witnessing my children’s raucous liberation from rules while experiencing my own liberation—from stress, worry, and guilt—is total parental bliss.  It is a time when I get to be not mother, not wife, but just be myself. I revel in letting loose of my obligations and taking on some risk and adventure. While I know the general vicinity of my kids, I’m certainly not checking up minute-by-minute. I just hope enough adults are wandering about to give the kids the vague impression they are being watched. And they are being watched—mostly. In fact, we often watch each other’s children, as the lines between mothers blur into one amalgam mom. I’ll invite a young cousin to stay in our cabin for a sleepover with my girls, and I’ll braid her hair and teach her to play cards and cover her in sunscreen and bug spray. And when she somehow still manages to burn in the early morning playground sun, her mother and I will share but a brief shrug of apology before moving back into the herd of collective mothering.

There is a moment when we all tire of being together and caring for the group. We even have a name for such a feeling; to wit, when you are ready to go home, you’re “Vogeled out.” But the feeling doesn’t last for long. Decompress for a few hours with a glass of wine and a moment of silence, and you’re already game again to download the photos, share the best stories, and begin making plans for the next summer.

AshleyShonter1998
Two cousins celebrating a cousin’s wedding in the late ’90’s
AshleyShonter2014
Same girls 15+ years later, with babes in tow!