Cats, Camp and Mustard

Abigail Carlin, Columnist

Over the summer, I spent 10 weeks living at a fine arts camp in the middle of the National Forest. My home was a creaky, non-air-conditioned cabin, which I shared with 11 other girls.

It was hot, it was smelly and my days were filled with that special brand of pubescent drama.

I had the time of my life, and perhaps more importantly, I met some of the most interesting people that have ever walked this earth (probably).

Being a fine arts camp, it attracted many musical prodigies. Some kids had been playing the piano or the violin since they were 20 months old, but others came to camp to try something new.

In recent years, this camp has become a safe haven for kids from many walks of life. Granted, most of them are Christian, middle class kids from the suburbs of Chicago or Detroit, but others came all the way from California, Florida and even Europe.

During my time as a counselor and creative writing teacher, I had kids who identified themselves as nonbinary, I had a few self-proclaimed witches and I had a few run-ins with camper who identified as a cat.

This cat, who will remain nameless, is one of the reasons I wrote this column.

My own biases against this cat are my own. She would run off the paths into poison-ivy territory and hiss at me when I politely asked her to stop.

She would also hiss at me when I would catch her trying to bring boys into the woods, but regardless, I admired her spirit.

This cat, whoever she was and wherever she came from, had spunk and an energy I could only wish to replicate. Whether the cat thing is a permanent fixture in her life or a phase (no judgment), in this moment, she is living her best life.

The second individual was an actual camper of mine. For just under two weeks, I lived with her, did her laundry, ate all my meals with her and watched in silent horror as she consumed her favorite condiment of all time: mustard.

This girl loved mustard. Even as early as the first night of camp, on chicken nuggets and macaroni and cheese night, she stole approximately 15 packets of mustard right in front of my face.

Thinking this was just a typical “first-night away from home mini-rebellion,” I made a joke about how barbeque sauce better highlights the smoky nature of chicken. It was then that it all became clear; she looked at me dead in the eyes and said,

“Mustard is my coffee.”

To put it in accurate, more colloquial terms, I was shook. Mustard? Coffee? She must have sensed my confusion because she smiled and clarified,

Mustard makes me happy and gives me energy, just like coffee probably does for you. It tastes good and is low in calories, and look, it’s free.”

She was right. Mustard is free, and to her, it tastes good. Mustard was a readily available resource and she took full advantage of her position as a camper in a dining hall. We discussed how it is unfair to others to take all the mustard, and she understood, so she would take maybe 4 to 5 a meal and keep the extras with her at all times. When she was stressed out, she ate a packet of mustard. When she was sleepy in her rehearsals, she snuck a mustard packet at break time.

And you know what? All the power to her.

In our adolescence and early adulthood, we try so hard to balance individuality, professionalism and marketability.

On this campus, we do our best to marry our passions to some profession that will provide for us.

We all used to be scraped-knee, knotty hair, dirt-covered kids but somewhere along the line we traded sneakers for dress shoes and grew up.

Adulthood is scary and lonely at times, but I will be forever thankful for my 10 weeks in the bubble that was camp. I remembered what it was like to be a kid and not care what others thought. In that bubble, I found that kid I used to be, and that realization was kind of bittersweet, kind of like mustard.


Abigail Carlin is a junior English major. She can be reached at 581-2812 or [email protected].