When I was eight years old I spent four weeks at a summer camp for girls in West Virginia. My mother grew up in this camp, and I imagine she hoped I would grow to love it as she did. Nestled in a corner of the Shenandoah valley, surrounded by mountains, the camp provided wide-ranging activities. Best of all, it had horses, and we rode several times a week. Four weeks, however, was a very long time for a little girl's first adventure away from home. Every day I received a warm, newsy letter from mom or dad, and every day I wrote the same thing... "I miss you. I am homesick. I want to come home." This was followed by a list of all of the activities and adventures that had taken place in the last day or two. Looking back on this time it is clear that I was generally recognized by camp staff as the most homesick camper that season. Special attention was given to me in many ways, such as being chosen to be the Indian princess for one of the camp tribes.
When the last day of camp and my parents arrived, I ran and threw myself at my mother in relief. There were a number of Parent's Day activities to be endured. After a humiliating showing in the horse show (I was given Haymaker, and he made some hay) I insisted that we leave right now. And we did. I still remember sitting in the back seat of the car wheeling out of the camp. On some level that experience had been a trial and a burden to me and I was relieved to be headed for home and safety.
That said, it may be a surprise to learn that I spent the next twenty summers at camp. Closer to home initially, for shorter periods of time. As I got older I was a counselor-in-training, then a counselor, then a camp director. And as I got older I longed for camp as I had once longed for home. Longed for the outdoor living, the meaningful relationships, and the freedom to be a different "me" at camp. It has been many years now since I have been at camp, but every spring I start thinking about heading off on another adventure, and camp songs haunt me throughout the summer.
Today, at 62, I again hear myself repeating the same refrain: "I want to go home. I want to go home." In this voice I recognize the longing for relief, comfort and safety. A longing for something beyond my daily life. A spiritual yearning for those still and exultant magical moments that I most often experience in the out-of-doors. This longing often takes me out of the present moment. I don't want to be here, I want to be there. And yet, as I finally came to recognize camp as home, it seems as if the little girl longing for home might have been at home all along. Perhaps our fears and insecurities, our uncertainties and worries, drop a veil in front of our eyes and keep us from seeing that we are always home, always held in a loving heart.
Leaving camp early that day more than fifty years ago meant that I missed the final council fire. Seasoned campers cherish the memories of the ceremony that brings closure to the camp experience. It is one of the few places where the ritual of saying goodbye, of remembering and honoring our time together, is enacted. Next year I will be returning to my mother's and my camp to attend the closing council fire and finally complete the summer of my eighth year. I am going home.
This blog post was picked up by the American Camp Association for their "Parent's Place" blog dated November 18, 2013.