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Today I will go pick up my daughter from her first-ever week at overnight summer camp. I feel eager and expectant. I can’t wait to see her and hear all about her experiences.
I am a true fan of summer camp, and it isn’t just because I learned to like oatmeal there, or how to paddle a canoe properly. It also isn’t because camp is the placed where I got saved, at least not in the most Christian-ese sense of the word. Camp did save me, though, and it may be why I love it most.
When I was in high school, after a recent family move from Florida to New York, my mother suggested that I think about volunteering at camp that summer as a counselor-in-training. Maybe it would help me get my bearings. It was a wise word, and one of the first best decisions in my life.
After that sophomore year in high school, I left home for camp. I spent four weeks at camp that summer and I did learn to really enjoy oatmeal. Even if it got gloppy, served in mass quantity, and even if it was my personal responsibility to scrub the gargantuan oatmeal pot after breakfast, there was just something about the buttery, brown sugar and raisin toppings, with a slosh of milk oatmeal that tasted so good around the chilly, mountain-air breakfast table. We would lean-in to each other for warmth, and the quiet murmurs in the dining hall would rise to a din as our bellies filled. I learned to enjoy oatmeal, but I liked it so very much because we started the day there together, so companionably, over the steaming bowls.
I also did learn how to properly paddle and steer a canoe that summer. In fact, I did a large amount of canoeing that year, and not just for my own pleasure or pride. I often found myself up to my neck in lifejackets and wildly screaming, gesticulating children while I canoed. (Notice I did not describe them as properly paddling the canoe.) True, it was one of the more stressful aspects of my work at camp, teaching the campers to behave well in a canoe, and paddle, but I sure got a lot of kids going in the right direction that summer.
Some of the hardest things I have ever learned, or subsequently taught others to do, I learned and demonstrated at camp. Camp is certainly the place where I have learned to operate the widest range of different and/or unusual vehicles. I could be wrong about this, but I think camp is also the place where I have met the widest range of different and/or unusual people, and I say that with the grandest affection. Camp is a place where I have done some of the most dirty, menial tasks of my life. And, camp is a place where I have been most tired, and most sore; most scared, and gratefully, most comforted.
At different camps throughout my years, I have experienced life’s best offerings.
Camp is a creative place. I remember making sand candles, and “warm fuzzies,” a.k.a. yarn pom-poms, and popsicle stick boxes covered with shells. I still have a glass bottle covered in modge podge, and an array of colorful lanyards— or what we called, “Boondoggle.” One year on arts-n-crafts staff, I burned out a handful of blenders making homemade paper and learned how to mix cement in a wheel barrow for stepping stones. Speaking of stones, I scoured the nearby riverbeds looking for the best stones to be painted, and still have my own perfect bunny to show for it.
Camp is beach parties, mud soccer, gigantic slip-and-slides, Capture the Flag, and plenty of other crazy, all-camp, made-up games after dinner. And, oh, it is singing. We sang silly songs after meals and on the tubing bus. We sang worship songs in the chapel, and around the fire, and, if you’re me, all day long on the paths, and on the water, and while I scrubbed the oatmeal pot. In singing the songs, I was shaping and bolstering myself and my faith. I was giving voice to belief. The songs were an offering to God, and to those around me, though probably only sometimes gratefully received by those around me.
Camp is nature. Days started lakeside, with the mist still rising. We lived in the woods, among the trees, and the critters, and the creatures. Now that I think about it, days actually started with the birds; in the huddled warmth of our sleeping bags, the birds were the loudest choir that any child had ever heard. The days smelled like pine and lake water. The nights smelled of campfires. My heart was made full by dependable, glorious sunsets, and on one remarkable, magical night, a moonset that ended impossibly with a shooting star.
Camp is safe. One of the very first things that I learned as a heartsick, homesick (for Florida,) lonely high school student was that I was OK. In short order, I learned that I was welcome, OK, and with utmost relief and gratitude, I learned that I was loved. It had been a rough move, emotionally, and I hadn’t felt OK, at ease in my own skin, for so long. Then I went to camp and my feelings of displacement and oddness fell away. I know I am not the only person with this experience.
One of the ways that camp saved me, and saves so many, is by immersing campers in the unconditional and frankly, unfathomable, love of God, demonstrated richly and repeatedly through the people of camp. I have hoped and prayed that my daughter and her fellow campers have fallen into that love this week.
My heart already held Jesus by the time I got to camp in high school, but my heart was healed by camp that year and every time I ever showed up at camp again. It was healed and held together by the various adhesives of the arts and crafts offerings, the mud and the sand between my toes, and the oatmeal stuck to my ribs. I was soothed by the rhythms of hard, hard work and the nighttime sleep after those long, long days. The vividness of nature, up close, was a balm like none other. Camp made me breathe better; I was at ease and fully alive.
In high school, I left home for camp only to feel surprisingly more at home than I had felt in a very long time. After that particular summer, I have always called camp home; one of the best of many homes I know. I know my daughter went away from home this week, but I pray it felt like a new kind of meaningful place in her life, maybe even a place that felt like home.
Very evocative piece. Took me back to a good place. Thank you.
My wife and I didn’t attend summer camp, but all three of our children did–at a wonderful Christian camp (Brookwoods/Deer Run) in New Hampshire–starting in the early ’00s. We’ve been going back ever since; I help with the pastoral staff, and my wife is now the year-round development director. Thank you for this outstanding essay, that captures what camp is all about so beautifully!
I understand what you wrote. My time at camp was my greatest yearly experience as a kid. Memories of camp, and looking forward to the next year of camp, always got me through hard times. Camp as a kid was a great experience.