Everybody thinks my camp is a cult. My parents. My friends. Rumor has it that we’re even on a government watch cult list. During my first week of my first year, I wasn’t the only one who was convinced that she was going to be sacrificed in some mystical ritual.
Camp Rising Sun is really an international leadership camp in Rhinebeck. There is an all-boys’ camp called Red Hook and an all-girls’ camp called Clinton. Each has about sixty campers from all over the world. Most of the campers only go to camp for one year, but seven at each camp are “second years.” Second years, as I like to describe them, are kind of like a cross between big sisters and Bodhisattvas. They go to camp for one summer, thus achieving camp nirvana, and then they are selected to return for a second summer and assist first-year campers in achieving camp nirvana themselves. In other words, we teach camp values to the first years by example, help them adjust to camp life, and offer them support.
So, in the summer of 2011 I was a second year at CRS. I have to say, I didn’t think I was up to the task. I didn’t think I was secure or emotionally stable enough to take care of fifty-three other girls. I could barely even take care of myself. It would also be my first time spending more than a week away from my twin sister, and I had no idea who I would be without her. While I was sleeping in tents, plunging toilets that other people had clogged and getting sprayed with toilet water, and working in the trails until all my clothes were ripped and muddy, my sister would spend a month in Paris and then visit Krakow, Budapest, London and Stockholm. Ever since we were very little, our parents had promised us that, the summer we turned sixteen, we could go to Paris together – just the two of us – and spend the summer there. In a family of Francophiles, nothing could be worth giving that up. And yet, I had backed out to go and be a second year. I didn’t even know why I wanted to. During my first year, I had never really been able to decide how I felt about CRS. Most CRS alumni talk about how camp was the best time of their lives and how it changed them forever and how they made the best friends in the world. On the bathroom wall, someone had written, “Camp is a fairy-tale.” But for me, it wasn’t a fairy-tale. Maybe something was wrong with me, but my experience was far from perfect. Some days I had loved it, some days I’d felt like I should never have come. Had I left my mark on CRS? Had CRS left its mark on me? What was CRS, really? I had always had this secret fear that I had been a failed camper, and none of the other first years seemed to feel that way. So why was I going back to this place when I didn’t even know what I would get out of it?
It’s a decision I’ll never regret. The thing about being a second year is that you really do have an impact on these girls. The way a little sister is deeply affected by the actions of her older sister in a visceral, subconscious way, these girls took my words and actions to heart in a way that no one ever had before. They shared their stories with me and invited me into their worlds, their pains, their stories. I felt responsible for them, and I took so much pleasure in watching them change over the summer. I encountered a new kind of sisterhood – I guess you could say that I had irrevocably become an integral part of the CRS cult.
For instance, I remember this one time when the counselor in my tent had her night off, so, in the case of a catastrophe, I was in charge for the night. I was telling one of the girls in my tent, Noah from the Netherlands, about my parents and how embarrassing they were. “What are your parents like?” I asked. It was still early in the season and I would say anything to start conversations with shy campers like her.
Silence. Then: “Actually, I live in a foster home.”
Out came her entire story. About how her abusive mother had left her family when she was ten. And how, after her mother left, her father had transformed from his usual smart, sweet self into a hard, bitter man. How she and her sister hid from him one night at the house of a family friend, and how he came storming through the streets to find them, and how, when her father tried to hit her sister, Noah stepped in front of her and took the blow herself. And about how a social worker found a foster family for them and all the kids at school gave them strange looks. And then, how, tomorrow, her little sister would be testifying in court against her father, while Noah was at camp in America.
The next night, when I walked into the tent, Noah was doing jumping jacks and muttering about how fat she was. I knew something was wrong because Noah was not fat. She was gorgeous like a 1920s movie star. And she never exercised before bed. I knew that the court case had happened that day, but I was afraid to say anything. And then Noah said, completely out of nowhere, “I just want it all to stop.”
“Noah, was everything okay with your sister and the court?”
“Yes. They let me talk to her on the phone in the main office. Everything was fine. It’s me. I’m the problem.”
She wanted to give up. She wanted to stop living. And all I could do was get out of my sleeping bag and come sit with her on the tent floor in the dark. I don’t even know what I said. I just remember sitting next to her and letting her cry.
And in that moment I was a part of Noah’s life. I had gotten a glimpse of her world. She had chosen to trust me. At the end of the summer, Noah gave me her Birkenstocks. I hadn’t asked for them. Just like that, without asking for anything in return. It was sisterhood.
These were the moments when I felt like I was truly a part of CRS and CRS was a part of me. The time when Celia from Spain said, “May, I have something to give you.” She then took off her necklace – which I’d never seen her take off before – and tied it around my neck. “A lot of people think it’s a cross, but it doesn’t have to be,” she said. “It’s just a Catholic symbol for good people.” I don’t know whether she meant being a good person or surrounding oneself with good people. It didn’t matter. Even though I’m Jewish, and I know that people judge me for wearing a “cross”, I haven’t taken the necklace off since. The magic of CRS was watching Noa from Israel and Tala from Palestine dance together across the dining hall, laughing together, sometime in the fifth week, and remembering how they didn’t speak to each other the first week. It was sneaking into the walk-in freezer with the other second years and eating ice cream out of the carton in the dark. (“Won’t we get in trouble for this?” I remember asking. “No,” whispered Na’ama from Israel, “we’re second years. L’chaim.”) It was my tent mate Zoe from New Jersey calling me Mayberry (no one ever gives me cool nicknames) as I helped her dye her hair purple. It was Zoe, an aspiring brain surgeon who kept a huge diagram of the human brain on top of my suitcase at all times, crying in my arms when she got a call from home telling her that her mother was about to have a dangerous brain surgery.
It was the night when I walked into my tent – on the counselor’s night off, of course – to find all three of my girls in one tiny bed. When Daniela from Peru got kicked out of the bed, she announced, “Okay girls. I am going to do my Sexy Dance for you.” When she finally got into her own bed, she asked me to keep her company, so I moved into her bed. This proved problematic when Zoe and Sophie from Santa Fe asked me to tell them a story about hot shirtless guys and Daniela was trying to sleep. “MAAAAAY,” she kept on yelling in her broken English. “SHADDUP. I am going to kill you, May! Is not a yoke!” Of course, she meant to say “joke.”
After two minutes of silence: “MAY.”
“Is a yoke!” We were all laughing so hard that the girls in the neighboring tent had to yell to us to shut up. And even then we didn’t stop.
But this summer was so much more than just making amazing friends. Everyone makes great friends and does crazy things at summer camp. With CRS, there is something different. CRS just gets into your bloodstream and flows through you like nothing else in the world. Sometimes I would be walking from my tent to the main building, or along the lake, or past the shed, and think, I love CRS. Even now, every single day, there is this constant stream of names and faces and songs and images and stories running through my head.
In the bathroom stalls, campers write messages to future generations of campers saying anything from “This was my favorite toilet!” to “Eat chocolate icing with sprinkles on top every Saturday night” to inspirational quotes and advice for adjusting to camp life. Reading the bathroom walls – and even reading what I had written as a first year – felt a lot like looking at old family photographs. CRS is my heritage as much as my Jewish or Egyptian backgrounds are. At camp, everything from the benches we sit on to the assembly bell we stand at six times a day was made by past generations of campers. For example, as a first year, I helped to build a bridge across a stream, giving campers access to a fifth of our land which no camper had ever seen before. Everything we have at camp was made for us by others. We built things that we were never able to use but that future campers would be able to enjoy. And CRS is free because each camper receives a $10,000 scholarship made possible by alumni donations. Some alumnus believed so much in me that he or she paid for me to go to camp. Camp Rising Sun alumni gave us so much in the way parents will give selflessly to their children simply because they are their own children. I cannot think of a greater act of love than giving Camp Rising Sun to someone else. These people don’t even know us – they just love us unconditionally because we share CRS with them.
One of the most cult-like things we do at camp is called Council. Every Saturday night, a second year leads the entire camp community into the depths of the forest trails – all of which were created and maintained by campers – to a roaring campfire. Everyone sits around the campfire and listens as counselors and second years give their Council speeches. A Council speech shares the wisdom of one’s heart with the community. They usually involve personal stories, sometimes that the speaker has never told anyone before. It’s a big deal at CRS. Everyone does creepy Navajo chants in front of this huge, edgy fire. The second years get the privilege of chanting, “Earth my body, water my blood, air my breath and fire my spirit” over and over again as the first years watch in horror. But, once you get past its eerie resemblance to a sacrificial rite, Council is cathartic.
My Council speech was really important to me. I had been chosen by “the Council gods” to speak at the last Council of the summer (which I think bears some significance). I had been waiting so long to tell my story, to share the wisdom of my heart. And, of course, on the night of the last Council, there was a thunderstorm. It would be impossible to have Council outside. Instead, it would take place in the gym. I was devastated. I had dreamed so many times of walking around the Council fire, feeling its heat, what the soil would feel like beneath my feet, how the crickets would sound, how the night air would taste. In the end, though, it was better than I ever could have imagined. The gym was beautifully adorned with candles. The best part about it, though, was the way people reacted to my Council speech. At the end of each Council, we sing “Lean on Me”, a song that now makes me cry whenever I listen to it. After the song ended, people kept on telling me how my speech affected them, offering words of encouragement, or simply hugging me silently. It was one of those rare moments when you just feel a huge tidal wave of love and support washing over you. I truly had sixty somebodies to lean on.
At the end of the summer, every camper gets to do a vigil – a night where you stay up all night, alone in the woods at one of the various vigil sites throughout the trails, and write a letter to your future self by the light of a fire that you build yourself. For a city girl like me, there could be nothing scarier, especially since, my first year, I was attacked by a skunk during my vigil. This year, though, I had the vigil site of my dreams – Gabriel. Gabriel was by far the most beautiful of all the vigil sites. I can’t even explain why, but it was a magical place. Our camp director had created the vigil site when she was a camper in 1997, and had done her own vigil there. I’d had to battle it out with the other girls to get Gabriel. Gabriel was isolated – while the other girls could smell and see each other’s fires, I was all but alone.
During your first year vigil, you write a letter that you’ll receive on your twenty-first birthday. Your second year, you choose the age at which you’ll get your vigil letter. I chose to receive my letter at age 38. Old but not that old. The night of my vigil felt like a release of fear. I had started out the night terrified of everything about it, and, thirty-two matches, twelve pages and seven hours later, I was a part of everything I had been afraid of. The next morning, I would be a different person. If I could live in peace with the fear that vigil gave me, I could live in peace with any fear. As is painted onto the dining hall wall, “The only thing to fear is fear itself.” And I was not afraid. I am not afraid.
My fire and I had developed this mutual and visceral understanding of each other in the way that two beings that need each other to survive can just communicate. At around five in the morning, still wide awake, I lay down my letter, lay down on my back, and watched the last remains of the stars fade into daylight. The first strains of birdsong were ringing in my ears, and, although I might have imagined this, it seemed as if a choir of cornets was playing in the distance. I had become one with Gabriel, with CRS, with all of time and space and humanity. I had achieved nirvana. I was without fear. “Earth my body, water my blood, air my breath and fire my spirit….”
Age 16, Grade 11
Hunter College High School