Monday, February 25, 2013

Speaking Up

  The overwhelmingly brisk scent of pine trees fumigated my lungs, bringing with them the smell of memory. Every summer before this had been the same as the last, weeks and months of battling my looming boredom. Friends back home scoffed and reminded me frequently that summers were meant to be enjoyed and to bask in the sunlight. Living so close to the Great Salt Lake dampened my spirits; every breath brought with it swarms of disgusting mosquitoes.
     Clenching my teeth for hours on end to avoid inhaling all the bugs wasn’t exactly my idea of fun, so summers typically meant a lax schedule of wasted time. Every morning, like every summer, was just the same as the last. My alarm clock went off at precisely six a.m. each day, where I would jump out of bed groggily, change into my swimsuit, grab an arsenal of pool equipment, and ride along the scantily inhabited streets of my hometown to swim team practice. It was like the world was bound and determined to stop my ability to speak. When my mouth wasn’t cinched shut to avoid eating insects, my breath struggled for gasps in between evenly spaced front strokes. Mom and Dad worked full time, so my brother and I held the reigns completely when it came to how we chose to spend our time. Mitch was constantly absorbed by the shallow lure of blasting vicious aliens on our colorful TV screen; so frequently, that I could’ve sworn that the creatures would somehow take their pending vengeance on him. Summers seemed a long and quiet ordeal and so devouring books by the shelf full became my sedentary solace. The library was full of witty, independent, and adventurous companions that kept me company.
     Stories enthralled me, the brave characters knew who they were and always knew what to say. As a fourteen year old girl, I yearned to be like them. To let words sprout from me the same way they seemed to in my mind. Like every typical storybook protagonist, I seemed to know who I was inside, confident, opinionated, and strong-willed.  Yet, a sense of stifling shyness coupled with my generally peaceful conduct kept my mouth shut no matter how many thoughts raged inside of me. Thoughts could be dangerous when spoken, like fire silently threatening to run wild. Wasn’t controlling words the key to dousing the passionate flames of encompassing thoughts? Besides, people only care about your opinion if it’s the same as their own.
      The drive to Lake Lyman seemed to stretch on forever.
“Are you girls ready to have a good time?” the bubbly camp leader chatted casually as us teenage girls looked lazily out over the endlessly flat expanse of Wyoming highway. Were we truly prepared to be miles away from even a shred of civilization? Were we really ready to sleep in dust-filled spider-infested cabins? Were we honestly enthusiastic for no electronics or showers? The car exploded into voices, shrilly sarcastic laughs, and pained groans.  My eyes widened in surprise at the string of complaints emanating from my neighbors and friends. I remembered girls’ camp last year, the exciting crackle of fire as we listened to vivid ghost stories as they came to light despite darkness of the surrounding woods, the wafting smell of melting chocolate oozing between crispy marshmallows, and the freezing blast of water as I’d boldly jumped into the leech-filled lake, fully dressed. My daring dip hadn’t been for attention, it was simply meant to encourage the other girls not to be so afraid of accidentally falling in. Why would I waste words on petty promises and simpering soothes? Despite all the summer reading, I failed to believe that words could be stronger than actions.
     Slightly perturbed by the various complaints I sighed to myself.  An urge to disagree flared inside my thoughts, but a wave of conscientiousness rolled in unexpectedly.  When had disagreeing gotten me anywhere?
     After passing through thickening rows of pine trees and bumpy dirt roads littered with fragmented rocks, Lake Lyman loomed before us. A gentle breeze swirled across the lake, creating rippling waves with soft white peaks. Looking across the lake, I could see a large wooden lodge peaking through the tree tops. If I hadn’t known it was there, it might have blended in naturally with its surroundings. Vibrant wildflowers seemed to soar to the heavens, glistening with colors as bright as the clear sky above. I hastily hopped out of the car, anxious for a breath of fresh air and freedom from the cramped car. Sound permeated the forest, birds of every kind called to each other from the treetops, and the quiet lapping of water against rocks tickled my ears. I was awed to silence at the beauty around me as I trailed my friends to our assigned cabin.
     Shortly after unpacking our sleeping bags, we headed to opening flag ceremony to properly begin our week of camping. Benches scattered the hillside, forming a half sphere around the stage made from wooden planks. Seemingly out of place, microphones jutted out in preparation for the camp leaders’ upcoming pep talks. Hundreds of women emerged from the forest and sat around me on the benches, their smiles shone as brightly as the spiritual mottos they wore across their clothes. Various ball-caps from the audience below created a sea of color. A murmur went through the crowd as a woman bounced confidently onto the stage. Sister Cook stood, microphone in hand, and beamingly scanned our faces.
“Welcome to another year of girls’ camp!” she exclaimed, the radiance of her deep voice boomed. Some of the younger girls whooped in anticipation, while I and the other older fourteen year olds smiled knowingly.
“We have so many exciting events planned for you all now that we’re settled into our cabins. As a reminder, we will pass out schedules to each of you. Please be where you’re supposed to be when you’re supposed to be there, and most importantly, have fun and be safe!” As if on cue, I clapped in unison with my fellow campers to show support.
“Now to get started off properly, let’s begin by standing together as our youth leaders raise the flag of the United States of America.”
     I stood up quickly to reverently remove my hat. The flag represented freedom, God, hope, sacrifice, and most importantly the example my father, a soldier, had set for me. Attention was automatic; respect for the relic seemed innate as I stoically observed with silence the careful handling of the weathered flag. Suddenly, I was pulled out of my soundless reverie. The high pitched voice of a young girl whispered almost indecipherably above me.
“Should I take my hat off?” she casually asked the adult next to her. Inwardly I laughed at the younger girl, self-assured that she would learn as I had that removing her headwear was a sign of respect.
“No, women don’t have to take their hats off for the flag.” She chortled.
     More than ever I wanted to speak out, my mind exploded into a million different thoughts at once. Heat rose to my face, rapidly threatening to throw off my calm composure.
“Think of all the sacrifices women have made to be able to have a voice in our country, to vote and progress! Think of all the women who have never and will never have your same opportunities. Was that all in vain? The flag’s red stripes represent the blood of our guardians, the lives of my father’s friends who fell under fire; did they just die for men alone? We should be proud to be women; we should be proud of our flag." My hands wobbled indignantly, but my mouth never betrayed my turmoil. Words were at the tip of my tongue, so close, so ready to defend the importance of women to America’s history and future. Downcast, I bit my lip; such a fiery outburst would only create a scene, destroying the meaning of the flag ceremony even further. There were so many feelings I wanted to convey to change that little girl’s impressionable mind. Yet somehow, a final wave of silent conformity flooded bitterly into my mouth instead; I stood in silence as the flag rose up.