Dust everywhere. Incessant mosquitos that attack any exposed stretch of flesh, with a bloodthirsty affection for the neck and ankles. The dark night is chillingly cold, except near the warmly leaping flames where it’s suddenly and uncomfortably too hot. The bathroom is many, many, many miles away, on the other side of terrain treacherously strewn with gigantic tree roots and fallen logs hiding in plain dark sight. Easier, safer to hold it in.
(Actually, the bathroom is less than 200 meters from the campfire and there is only one potentially, not-really-dangerous exposed tree root. But everything is amplified in the dark).
Tall, tall pine and redwood trees stretch their lean, leafy necks right up to the moon. The inky black sky and its twinkly blanket of stars keep everything hushed. Whispered. Even the guitar’s lazy strums and the low, rumbly voices talking about everything and nothing float quietly in the night. Sometimes splashes of laughter musically disturb the drifting melodies, and tumble gently into the crackling orange fire.
The mystery of sleep-away camp: where you feel so uncomfortable, and so exquisitely happy all at once. Where the icy wind stretches its long skinny fingers into your sleeping bag, but you curl yourself up even tighter and those fingers tip-toe away, stealth like a ninja. An owl hoots in the trees above, the frogs are loud and the crickets are louder, and the last thing you see before you fall soundly asleep is the bright full moon peering down at you through its frondy redwood veil.
Camp is a magical place. It’s dirty and rustic and very, very dark at night. Hot and buggy during the day, everything is a bit (or a lot) of a schlep, and no matter how prepared you are, you’re never prepared enough. You smell vilely and chemically like insect repellant, sunscreen and sweat, always thirsty or hungry or both. Your neck itches and your eyes stream and no matter how dirty you think you are, you are definitely going to get even dirtier.
That’s right… magical.
Because somehow all the dirt, and mosquito bites, and attacking allergies that make you sneeze 700 times in a row are left in the doorless cabin as the bell sounds for breakfast: cheesy eggs, English muffins and raisin bran with organic milk. None of those taste half as delicious at home. The fear of heights is checked on the ground as you’re hoisted to the very top of the world (or at least to the top of the gigantic pine trees), and that paralyzing panic leaves your gut with the butterflies as you release the clip and swing like a monkey through the trees, whooping and shrieking with pure, exhilarated glee.
There’s candle-making and Herbal 911. Brew potions for lip balm and lotion, learn beekeeping and blacksmithing and how to create fire. Maybe you zip-line at 90 feet or 80 feet or not at all, throw knives, train to be a ninja, tie-dye, yoga, read in a hammock, do nothing… or play Ga-ga.
Ga-ga was invented in Israel and is similar to dodgeball. But somehow less malicious. And less ridiculous. Played in an octagonal pit, It combines dodging, striking, running and jumping and the object is to hit the other players with a ball below the knee while avoiding being hit. (Did I say less ridiculous? Maybe not). The most inclusive, non-discriminatory, contained game I’ve ever seen – also one of the most exciting.
It epitomizes the magic of camp.
It’s every rule you learned as a child come to real life: no cheating, no hurt feelings, no injuries. Nobody left out. No arguments. Girls. Boys. Grown-ups. Kids. Ages 5-55. Counselors and campers. That Ga-ga pit is rarely empty. And everybody is smiling.
And while these are certainly the types of interactions we strive for on the playground, in the workplace, at home, in life, this is not what makes Ga-ga and Camp so magical for me.
What’s magical is the feeling of “together” – we are here together, in it together, dirty together, creating, freezing, eating, singing, itching, playing, swinging, being together. And not only are we together, but also I “got” you and I know you got me.
The Ga-ga pit was the nucleus of the family camp this past weekend. There must’ve been 40 players – mostly kids – in it at any given time. They cheered each other on. Encouraged. Looked out for the littles, and taught the older ones the rules. They were both fair and competitive, and not one player felt neglected, sidelined, less good than another.
I swung from trees, dyed T-shirts, baked bread outside and almost shaved the skin off my fingers striking a fire with steel and flint. I did something new with each one of my kids (except ninja training – really, no interest) and watched a lot of Ga-ga. The mosquitos gnawed at my neck, my throat was always dry and my hands were constantly stained with tie-dye and very, very grimy. In between games I arched my whole back in a half-moon to catch a glimpse of the very tallest tree scraping the bluest sky.