Self-loathing and heavy juxtaposition carry the reader eerily through Lauren Slater’s “Tripp Lake,” an essay that calls upon noticeably lengthy sentences and jarring vocabulary to illustrate childhood growing pains. Slater’s frequent centerpiece—her mother, a “severe and brittle woman”—behaves somewhat as an antagonist in the summer camp story (p. 90). It is the author’s relationship with her mother that adds meaning to an otherwise unparticular, albeit anxiety-riddled camp experience. In addition to her maternal relationship, there are at least two other main themes to which Slater refers throughout the essay: mental health and human nature. Skillful formatting and word choice allow the reader to vividly revisit these cornerstones of Slater’s youth.
If I were to write about discovering my anxiety as a child, my sentences would likely mirror Slater’s in this essay. We are thrown abruptly into her anxious childhood experience in the first paragraph: “The camp was called Tripp Lake and it was for girls, or so my parents said, who were especially competitive, girls like me, not yet pubescent, packed with all the power of a life that had yet to really unfold, that brought with it the hard parts, the shames, the sadnesses, none of that yet.” (p. 90). Consider the girth of that sentence. It seems Slater purposefully combines what might otherwise be two or more sentences in order to convey the jittery outbursts of anxiety. She is, in effect, lending us her frame of reference and setting the mood for the piece. Another excerpt embodies this long-sentence structure used to elicit feelings of anxiety: “I thought, I am thinking about my breathing, and if I think too hard about my breathing, which you’re not supposed to think about, I will concentrate on it right away, and I swallowed hard, and then I became aware of all the minute mechanisms that comprise a swallow, and so I felt I couldn’t swallow anymore.” (p. 91). Here again the sentence is wealthy, the author undoubtedly materializing anxiety’s reductio ad absurdum.
Slater designates substantial space to the topics of human competition and inner guilt. She connects these two by way of her mother: Young Slater, who feels as though she is competing with her mother for contentment, is plagued with guilt throughout the essay. Calibrating the competitiveness in camp activities, Slater writes: “You cannot really play lacrosse or soccer unless you are playing against someone, and this againstness requires that you see yourself as separate, with all that that implies.” (p. 91). She then considers the different nature of horseback riding, remarking: “Riding is not about separation. It is not about dominance. The only person you might hurt is you. You are, at long last, without guilt.” She continues, stating that riding is “about relationship and balance, and as [her trainer] taught me how to do these things—walk, trot, canter—a sort of peace settled in me, a working through my mother and me, a way of excelling at no one’s cost.” (p. 95). At no one’s cost. Clearly, the essayist is haunted by the jealousy she perceives her mother to have of her. She makes clear her childhood belief that her own happiness works inversely to her mother’s.
Toward the end of the essay, the reader may notice a sudden, almost unnatural shift in tenses. Slater highlights the wisdom of her horseback trainer, Kim, and the effects her wisdom have had in adulthood. First, she quotes Kim who compares her to a girl who “spent her whole life going from hospital to hospital because she loved being sick.” In the next line, Slater pays homage to Kim’s words, stating, “I have thought of her words often—a premonition, an augury, a warning, a simply perception.” (p. 97). Yet again, just below that, she continues with the memory of horseback riding at Tripp Lake, as if the memory itself had been told uninterrupted, as if to tell the reader to adhere to Kim’s warning. Pay attention, she implicitly urges.
Slater, Lauren. “Tripp Lake.” The Best American Essays. Ed. Robert Atwan. 7th ed. Boston: Wadsworth, 2014. 89-98. Print.