Discovering the World
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
TS Elliot, Little Gidding, 1942
Forgetting is remembering and remembering is forgetting. It’s that time of year when everything reminds me of what the summer meant to me as an 11-year-old girl. Summer camp. I seem to have forgotten or never fully acknowledged how it changed my perspective of things.
I liked to be outdoors and wanted to be in the mountains, which I thought would be so much more interesting to me than the beach where we had a house. The mountains were mysterious with the trees, birds, bobcats and rocky outcroppings and when you got to the top, the stars so close.
For some of my friends and relatives, the very thought of camping in the mountains made them break out into a rash. “Why go camping when you have everything here?” they’d say. “The beach, good food, family and friends, drive-in movies, parties.”
How could I explain to them that those were not my idea of interesting things to do. The beach was boring and I’d already eaten all that food and been to all those parties. I’d catch the movies later. So I begged and pleaded with my parents to let me go to that outdoor wilderness camp where my older brothers had gone and learned to use knives and paddle canoes and put up a campsite and cook food over a fire.
Since I never let up, my parents finally conceded, wondering probably what had gotten into me. But for me the idea of going away to that camp was nirvana. And sometimes we don’t completely comprehend why we are attracted to the people and places we end up being with.
The train from New York City up to Vermont took forever but it was like a dream for me, stretching the boundaries of what I knew with what I barely perceived but wanted so: my own space, my own friends, my own interests. There were lots of kids traveling with me from the city and suburbs and others from Boston and Philadelphia and points in between. So what if I didn’t really even know anyone or what my interests were yet, and who cared if the food was terrible and the bunks uncomfortable, the idea was to get away from the familiar, to try something new.
Upon arriving it took me about one day to realize that, amid this adventure, something else completely unanticipated was also going on. I vaguely remembered my brother telling me about meditation circles and peace talks and inspirational words about the natural world, because the camps were run by Quakers. This meant very little to me because I didn’t know anyone like that in suburbia, and I had never practiced meditation.
After breakfast every day we would have a meditation circle. It wasn’t like Sunday school. No one was reading from the Bible or teaching us about scripture. We were free to just be quiet and take in everything around us. And then if we got inspired we were encouraged to say something. About beauty and love and how the pine needles glistened in the rain.
It took me a while to catch on. I was used to sitting quietly but that was usually when someone else, not myself or the world around me, was speaking or lecturing. At first, I would focus on watching the grass, the trees, and my friends and fellow campers, eager for these sessions of forced nothingness to be over. But over time I got the gist of it. It wasn’t a time-out, it was a time-in. Thinking, observing, perceiving, not judging, learning to listen to the earth and feeling its poetry and the large rhythms that were taking place around us. And that daily practice would push us to ask why this was so and who created it. The philosophy as I later comprehended was about becoming connected to one another and being at one with nature and with God.
I was fortunate to be able to go to that camp for four summers, each one better than the last. But of course, I didn’t get to stay at camp forever. Life takes over. But I remember the gift I received: learning to sit quietly in meditation in the morning. A practice that is sometimes more intense and sometimes more humdrum. But then I remember sitting in a circle at the side of that lake or stream or on top of the mountain, as the sun comes out from behind a cloud and the birch leaves shiver in the warm summer breeze and life, love, and spirit dance around and within me.