I was not raised Quaker. It was my children’s spiritual education through Baltimore Yearly Meeting’s summer camping programs that has, by default, been mine. It began somewhat belatedly one steamy July afternoon as I was walking Camp Shiloh’s sun-dappled driveway—maybe seven or eight years after my children had started in the program. A space opened up inside me and all at once I got it. I understood why this was where my daughter, calling transatlantic in a thin determined voice, had begged to come home to, the summer when her life felt fragile and her heart at risk—the same sacred space my young sons had made the marker for their year, measured in increments "since camp" and "until it comes around again."
As I strolled Camp Shiloh’s grounds that sultry summer afternoon, I understood the seminal role it had played in my daughter’s development. Always brave and gifted, she had taken those qualities to camp and turned them inside out. In the competitive world we live in she was always bound to succeed, but here she learned to expand, to give herself over to the redoubled synergy of life that this fearful world of ours diminishes. (Hold whatever you’ve got close to your chest and guard it for all you’re worth.) In Shiloh my daughter lived large, climbed mountains, camped in the wild, fell in and out of the sweetest of first loves, and then mothered campers of her own, creating for them the beautiful, challenging, and life-affirming experiences that others had dreamed up for her.
I also saw the clichés (made clichés by their reiteration in so many a glossy brochure)—child-centered; eco-friendly; experiential learning; a loving, inclusive environment that honors and respects the unique gifts of every child—peeling right off the page to live and breathe around me as freely as the trees that offered respite from that fierce Virginia sun.
The week of my epiphany was the first time I had ever cooked at camp, ever taken up the offer to defray my children’s fees through service. It was a box on the application form I had simply never checked. Why? Because I had always been intimidated by "women who cook," especially in and for large quantities. But 24 hours into my cooking stint, I let that one go as unnecessary baggage: I discovered instead the joy of cooking good food for and with good people, the camaraderie too of splendid parents and other sterling folk, plus one delightful 19-year-old who hadn’t time in her busy summer schedule to commit to being a counselor, but just couldn’t let the whole Shiloh thing go. She and I ended up one early morning cooking bran muffins for a hundred and singing as many show tunes as our sleepy brains could muster, a capella and at the top of our lungs.
By the end of that week I realized cooking in quantity was no more formidable a task than reading the recipe and trusting to its inherent wisdom. Even heavy kitchen equipment was not without its modicum of internal logic. And there was always the good sense of my compadres to turn to, even in the midst of a heated discussion on the pros and cons of public education, or some other cogent dilemma in our and our children’s lives. Work was never so satisfying nor so simple.
During that week (and subsequent cooking sabbaticals from life in the wild and crazy fast lane) I watched Shiloh become the same touchstone for my boys as it had been for my daughter. On the cusp of their inchoate manhoods, camp offered a counter to the parodies of masculinity our media-driven society offers. Here men are not violent but strong, not hypersexual but sensual, not tight but tender-hearted. My 14-year-old graduated last year, hard-muscled after canoeing for hours at a stretch and hiking a hundred miles, and tougher still for enduring the assaults of one mean and angry bee. Yet at his candlelight ceremony where he bade farewell to the young men and women who had mentored him through these most precious of years, his adolescent countenance melted into the androgynous angelic calm that has always been his. And the tears fell freely. Whose I do not know; I was not there to see them. I kept my distance, but I knew they surely had.
I have also observed my habitual parental hypervigilance softening during those weeks, enabling me to more fully take in the lives of others. This was in large part a credit to the heroic efforts of the counselors who take on those children as if they were their own. We cooks were privileged to see this firsthand, to find them crashed out on the sofas of the rest house on their off days, brainstorming trips and activities for their campers in their lean-to of an office—generally working themselves into a frenzy of creativity, devotion, and infectious joy. I observed too the chubby boy who arrived feeling so obviously tense and out of place, gradually relaxing into himself until one night he donned a sarong and beads and, while others drummed and sang, he danced his heart out onto his sleeves, spinning and shimmying and commanding the floor.
I observed my son’s friend waxing from a "hard-ass wannabe" back into the giggling oh-so-grounded soul he has always been at his core. I saw young people acquire the heft of maturity and older ones shrug it off; I saw teenage girls leave their makeup behind in the washroom and trust to the beauty they felt inside. And I saw the juggernaut of adolescent energy meet the silence of the forest—and waddya know the two can and do mesh, however skeptical and fearful we jaded adults insist on remaining. In the name of parental responsibility and oversight we have ceased to trust our children, and, in some ways, life itself.
Some 15 years ago when I dropped my ten-year-old daughter off at camp for the very first time, I was beside myself. "What a dive," I thought. "Where are the state of the art facilities, the archery range, the swimming pool? There’s nothing here." Now I am so profoundly grateful for that nothing, for out of it everything has grown.
I grew up in the belly of a city, surrounded by red brick buildings and block parties, parades and protests, race riots and pirate radios, cheese pupusas and street poetry. All these flavors definitely widened my experience, opened my mind to difference, yet also created a protective cocoon around my soul that was only truly awakened when I went to the mountains and began to inhabit Quakerism.
Nowadays, young people from both urban and rural backgrounds are immersed in a barrage of images and stimulants, stunting our own creative growth. As the Internet connects us to Tokyo in an instant from our own mobile phones, one might argue we are advancing, our world pushing through cyber horizons. Yet this excess of information can also bloat our minds, to the extent that we no longer have time to react and reflect upon what we are taking in. Unlike my grandmother, who still talks back to the television, we are easily stunned into being passive consumers. Like plants doused in fertilizer, we may be growing taller and brighter, yet our soil is being stripped of its nutrients, our own ability to sprout. Thus it is crucial for young people to escape to the mountains and breathe in the fresh air, and roll around in some smelly compost.
Starting when I was ten years old I packed my bags every summer, filled with costumes and creek shoes, funny hats and sleeping mats, and hit the road to the Shenandoah Valley for Shiloh Quaker Camp. On the journey there was always that thrilling moment where the road curves and the blue ridges suddenly stretch into the skyline. And after a year of focusing on homework deadlines, screens, and magazines, my eyes finally widened their gaze and relaxed into the whole picture. Crossing the bridge into the campgrounds and winding up the gravel path always felt like a homecoming, transplanted from urban potholes and computer networks, back into the rich, moist soil of Virginia. Like the kudzu vines that climb and twirl and transform into dream catchers and head wreaths, you can watch us grow.
In this magical space filled with wild cherry trees, mountain streams, and rocky gorges, young people peel off all those social pressures to conform. We introduce ourselves with cartwheels and perform work crew skits shaking up laughing fits as we transform the mundane washing of dishes into musical escapades. We reclaim our right to play, a word no longer reserved for five-year-olds, as mealtimes unfold into cook parades, treasure hunts for bay leaves, and chocolate pudding kissed onto our cheeks. Yet these rights are always balanced with responsibilities to the community, as we lick our plates clean singing our waste into tasty treats for our compost heap.
Our information-laden minds are finally screwed back onto our bodies as we climb mountains, making rhymes, taking our time to see the world beneath our feet, sucking on sassafras while touching long blades of grass, throwing off our packs at the summit and prancing as if we were on the moon. Young people need room to explore and create and take risks and be ridiculous—where canoeing expands into pirate adventures, and hiking hitches up into fancy dress celebrations. At camp, we can take these risks because we know we are safe, nurtured by nature’s cycles and by a community where we know we always have a place.
The wild rumpus of our adventures is balanced with the silent reflection of meetings. Gathered in a circle, sun dappled on our cheeks and bugs crawling over our feet, wise words are sojourned, recounting stories from the trail and the river, from that place inside we normally guard with clenched teeth. But without walls and judging calls the words stream into the universe, trees slipping them round their necks like lockets as we listen and place them safely into our pockets.
The Earth’s cycles of thunderstorms on tarp roofs, a drought making us collect buckets from the creek. The end of something was never the end; transitions were celebrated. Kudzu became wreaths round our heads, marking our graduation, our growth. At 15, moving on to Teen Adventure, where for three weeks we were on the trail, like snails we carried all that we needed on our backs: three shirts, two shorts, a fleece, and a stack of delicious iodized water. After ten days traipsing up and down Appalachia’s spine we climbed up to the highest point of Virginia, enshrouded in clouds; we ploughed trails for the national park; and we played tag to spark our shivering circulation. Although we were soaked, spooning mouthfuls of peanut butter and shots of salad dressing, our spirits kept warm, and in the morning the sun broke through. For an hour we sat still and marveled at the gold-dusted hills, speckled with wild horses and purple heather. Our bellies filled with that balmy feeling of being part of something much bigger. Sitting on that rock face I realized that as I had stripped to a simplicity of being in the world, where I was no longer defined by my possessions but recognized by my interactions, I also gained the capacity to see a wider vision—a deeper beauty born out of the relationships between. I gained the ability to lead within a community of leaders and listen to the whispers and the scratchy voices of ancestors in the trees. Life lessons I absorbed and then poured back into the campground as I became a counselor, and shared the keys, and giggled into the night, singing songs, passing on stories.
I didn’t know what a Quaker was until I came to camp and lived it.
Quakerism cannot be explained, abstracted, as it is rather a verb—a way of being and engaging with the world. Amidst the onslaught of school pressures, images of waif models and Iraqi massacres, it’s easy for young spiritual tentacles to wrap themselves up inside. At camp we are replanted into an environment where our roots can unfold, and branches grow and dance circles with the wind. With this firm grounding, our tentacles are set free to explore. No longer bored, trapped in a car, enraptured by movie stars, we are impelled to make relationships with the environment and with each other. At camp I made lifelong friendships, discovered first loves, and gave long hugs to everyone, to my counselors and then to my campers. As the August cicadas began to lose their voices, I’d leave with that tight feeling in my throat, but I always felt comforted that no matter how far I drifted away, my orbit through the world would bring me back to the center, and the adventure would begin again.