Sometimes now, at night, in the moments when I realize I’m grinding my teeth together, stress translating itself into a mouthguard the dentist insisted on at my last visit, the lyrics to a song that I sang at camp decades ago come to mind:
So give me the light of the campfire, warm and bright; give me some friends to sing with, I’ll be here all night…
I was a counselor then, not a camper; 23, not 13. I was an adult, but that song made me feel young and safe. It was as though I was a child again, a child who was given warmth, who was given that bright light, without ever having to ask for it.
It was my first summer at the camp, the first of two. None of us guessed that it was the penultimate season, that in just over a year, one of the owners would pass away and the camp would cease to exist. It felt like a world that would exist forever, because in my young mind, it always had. I imagined it waiting for us to return, again and again, as soon as the days started stretching into their longest form.
We’d sing that song at the end of the night, after we’d had dinner, after we’d played a camp-wide game together, after the counselors in charge that evening would tell everyone a story. We sat in a large circle on the lawn together, and the other counselors sat with their cabin groups; their job those evenings was to settle in, become part of the landscape. Very few children needed anything at that point. The counselors in charge would dismiss cabin groups one by one, touching shoulders gently in an instruction to rise and walk silently away.
Along with two other women about my age, I was in charge of the 13-year-old girls, who lived in one of the newest cabins, a large rectangle of a building divided into two sleeping areas, both furnished with bunks. There was a generous deck and nearby open-air showers that I loved using; sometimes I’d give myself the gift of a late-night rinse so that I could look beyond the rising steam of the water to find the stars overhead.
I was 23 and everything was new, everything was possible. The world was unfolding before me, asking me to take it in its hands and make it my own.
I lived in a simple tent next to the cabin. There was a mattress inside of it with a sheet on it, one of those thin, plastic mattresses that sighs when you move. I laid my new green sleeping bag on top of it and slept there, snug as I had ever been. I’d bought the sleeping bag in anticipation of the summer, but also with an eye towards a future that had me under the stars again and again; I imagined camping and a heartiness I did not yet possess and was not sure I ever would claim.
I kept my backpack in the tent, and I laid out my few belongings in neat little stacks. I never wore my shoes inside. This small spot on earth was only mine, even if it was only for a couple of months, even if really, anyone could have walked in at any time. They didn’t; it was unlocked, and trust ran deep. I had every expectation that everything in my tent would be as I’d left it at any time I returned to it, and that was true every time I walked in. It was my first taste of a space wholly my own, and I adored it, wanted endlessly more of it.
Sometimes, walking around, I found myself truly alone, moving through camp without a single camper, counselor, or staff member present. I could hear the river, as I could hear it late at night and early in the morning when everyone was quiet. The world was outlined by impossibly tall trees, pennyroyal and poison oak nestled down below them. There was an honesty in the dirt that I didn’t anticipate would become one of my favorite smells, wrapping me up in its entirety.
I was full. For the briefest time, I felt such contentment: this was the only place I wanted to be. It was, in some ways, my first taste of life without restlessness, and I would come to understand that I would seek that, again and again. I’d sing the tune about a campfire in the back of my mind as I walked, and occasionally, throughout all the days and years that have passed since then, I still do. It – so much – has never left me. Thank goodness for that; I am lucky, to have the memories of a campfire ever shining, to have a song of joy forever nearby.