When you ask “How was camp this year?” my mind freezes.
Time, revolving infinite, shudders, grinds to a halt as I close my eyes
and try to drag an adequate reply from the well of memory.
How to explain it, those five short days of summer, eternity on the first day
and just a blink and a breath ago by the end of the week.
The unspeakable tension that comes with being a volunteer cabin leader for the first time, crossing the threshold of a tiny cabin
where the air is thick with history,
electric with potential.
This week is ours, the kids say; it shines from their eyes, unquenched by chill mornings,
blazing afternoon sun and weary nights.
The tiny chapel, hallowed by the years, generations of campers in the presence of God, restores our peace. This place is a hallmark of the camp; it unites us all, makes us its own. The cacophony of the outside world fades to a discordant memory.
When we leave the chapel, we see the camp
with new eyes. Shielded
by stately oaks and rolling hills,
we sense that for a while, it is safe to forget our facades and our darkness
because we’re guarded by the hands of the Most High.
Remember the night spent by the poolside? The sound of gravel crunching under flip-flops,
piercing shrieks and shouts as kids appear from all directions and swarm
haphazardly into the pool lit by stars above and bright lights all around.
Glittering drops of water fly upward as I join the other teenagers on a wide wood bench,
its grain worn smooth by generations of campers,
and the noise recedes into the background
as we talk about school and life and everything terrible and everything wonderful,
and it’s a golden chlorine-scented moment
with my oldest friends
and my newest ones.
The next morning I search the crowd of chaotic individuals and weary leaders
till I see my friends and smile; that night is our bond and a knowledge we alone hold.
No words we summon could quite explain it
so it remains unspoken, but not forgotten.
Not in my mind, at least.
These kids in my cabin are so diminutive and yet so incredibly loud
and I realize it’s not a bad way to be.
Their generation is growing up on a battlefield where they need every voice,
and when they look up to me I pray that I can inspire them
to fight well, live well
because they certainly inspire me.
I can still hear them pounding across the old bridge to join the four-square line
at the sport court. My mind’s eye moves over
images of kids with hands raised to catch a basketball, hands raised in worship.
Voices lift in unison to praise the One
who brought us all here, and it’s a powerful moment,
but it can’t compare to the hush at the flagpole in the morning,
broken only by the creaks as the flag is raised
and our voices lift together again in pledge and prayer.
I pity anyone who hasn’t experienced that kind of power.
For the kids, it’s probably sensory overload
but even with responsibilities it’s an escape for me.
The little revelations define it, like realizing that one of them could have been me
six or seven years ago,
that this camp isn’t just service hours on a resume,
and the hope that I could impact a life, all punctuated by
a hasty sip of my friend’s energy drink,
the way the kids yell my name so I’ll join them,
the moths fluttering near the chapel lights,
the laughter that doesn’t stop till we’re breathless
and the icy explosive taste of my last piece of wintergreen gum.
I hold my breath and dash across the old bridge, my Chuck Taylors pounding
over the metal grating as loudly as any of the kids. The woods are dark at night
and my friends wait for me by the chapel.
And with a start I realize I haven’t answered your question
though all these reflections have been compressed into a second or two.
You weren’t there; how can I explain the bonds you forge when you’re short on sleep
and running on caffeine and excitement alone?
I can’t explain the memories of that summer week,
how they still whisper in my mind
at least once a day
and the prayers that I breathe for those wild free-spirited kids.
It’s a source of joy and hope still, not to mention
the proverbial spring in my step.
No, I don’t think I could capture the feelings if I tried to tell you face-to-face.
However, I could tell you in a poem.