“Bless this house, for we are all together. Bless us all, we may not meet again.”
If you and I are friends, there is no reason for you to read this column. Actually, if you’ve only met me in passing, you can move on, too. Basically, if you’ve ever spent more than five minutes with me you have heard more about the topic of this column than you had ever cared to hear, and I don’t want to put you through more than you can handle. That’s right folks, this column is all about the thing I never shut up about: camp.
For those of you who may be confused, I spent 10 summers at Camp Wise, a Jewish overnight camp in Chardon, Ohio. Yes, that’s 10 summers, or half the summers of my life spent at what can fairly be described as a cult, inspiring a level of rabid fanaticism about camp that can only be understood by those who were right there with me.
Camp isn’t for everyone, but if it is for you, it is the most wonderful experience of your life. Camp is singing and dancing for no reason and dressing in dumb costumes for the day just because you can. It’s making up interpretive dances to Disney songs, writing and performing recurring skits about deadly beans, and waking your friends up at midnight to force feed them Animal Crackers and dress them in adult diapers (an actual thing I did at camp, the context is unimportant).
I am a worrier by nature. I stress about school, life and relationships. I hate being with loud groups in public and I always follow the rules. But at camp, rules just aren’t the same as they are everywhere else. The weight on my shoulders, where all of those slightly neurotic concerns normally live, is lifted. Each summer since I was seven years old I was liberated from my self-imposed restraints, and I was a better version of myself on camp grounds than I could be anywhere else. I could be silly and adventurous and find the fun in every situation. It was just a month of my year, but every summer the campers, staff and place came together like a transient piece of theatre. One moment it was there, beautiful and outsized and poignant, and then it was gone, avoiding capture until the next summer solstice.
I always felt a sense of mourning when I had to leave camp and return to the real world, because I had to say goodbye to this person I loved being. I began this column with a lyric from the very last song we sing on the last night of camp. We gather in a circle with our cabin, looking at the faces of those we have come to love, and sing about how we may never see one another again. I would tear up in the dark, thinking of leaving and being so far away from my friends and, especially, my better self.
In this semester’s column, I am looking back to revisit the different people I have been throughout my life. I am separated from them by swaths of time, making them feel like historical figures. They are unreachable and unrecoverable, but there is a great deal to be learned from them. However, the person I am at camp is not frozen in time, 10 years back. She exists just three hours from here. She has a geographical home, not a chronological one, and for that reason it has been all the more difficult to say goodbye to her as I choose to spend my summers elsewhere. With every internship or study abroad application, I feel as though I am cutting ties with the best version of myself.
I do get glimpses of her, though, in my everyday life. She appears when I’m at a party and not having fun, and then “Everytime We Touch” comes on, and I break into the floor-shaking crazy person dancing who is perfectly normal during Saturday dance parties at camp. She appears when a joke is so funny I forget how loud my laugh is, or when a friend is upset and instinct pulls me into energetic camp counselor mode to cheer them up, or when a little enthusiasm sneaks into the library and breaks up a boring night of studying.
The pang of grief I felt each year singing “Bless This House” on the last night of camp was always mitigated by the thought of coming back the next summer and picking up right where I left off, reclaiming my silly, carefree other self; now, though, I don’t know if I will ever go back. For 10 summers I unwittingly sang along to Joni Mitchell’s “The Circle Game,” a camp favorite, at song sessions, and I so wish I had heeded her advice, “We’re captive on the carousel of time … take your time. It won’t be long now until you drag your feet to slow the circles down.”
Life moves on, despite our best efforts to delay it. I find myself asking how I can justify leaving behind this version of myself I love so much. I realized the answer to that question was divulged to me each year in that midnight cabin circle, tucked away in the lyrics of that melancholy tune: “Think of all the happiness we’ve found here, take it home and share it with a friend.”
We all have best versions of ourselves, though they may at times feel elusive or distant. But as long as I capture the happiness and freedom I found at camp, storing it carefully for safekeeping, I will always be capable of being my best self. When I smile wide and forget about the rules for a moment or two, I will know that my camp self is stepping out. So, unfortunately for my friends, I won’t stop talking about camp anytime soon, even as I spend more and more time away from Chardon, Ohio. In fact, there’s someone really wonderful I met there, and I’d like to introduce you.
Kendall Hecker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.