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Living like Nobody's Watching
The fire crackled and popped emitting a glow of flaming oranges and sharp reds into the dark night. Heat crept up my arms and surrounded me in soothing warmth. The fire was enclosed by a large circle – a chain of eighty bodies linked at the hands. My feet were planted firmly in the soft earth, and my hands held the hands of two other campers. Smooth white candles were passed around, and the chain of hands was momentarily broken as each person reached for a candle.
“Welcome to Spirit Fire and Closing Chapel.” The camp director’s voice penetrated the silence and filled the vast field with its deep resonating sound. “We’ve spent an incredible three weeks together – growing, laughing, collaborating. It’s now time to give back to the Spirit Fire what you’ve learned in these past three weeks, what you have to offer.” He paused and let the silence soak in. The fire snapped and crickets hummed in the distance. He walked slowly to the center of the circle and lit his candle in the fire. All eyes followed him as he made his way back to his spot in the chain. “I return to the Spirit Fire,” he spoke into the darkness, “the spirit of learning to fall.” He touched the wick of his candle to the candle of the camper on his left. The glow lit up the camper’s face as she brought the flame in front of her. “I return to the Spirit Fire the spirit of self acceptance.”
The flame of the Spirit Fire was passed around from candle to candle, person to person. The number of lit candles grew as we continued to pass the flame and give a part of ourselves back to the Spirit Fire.
“I return to the Spirit Fire the spirit of friendship.”
“I return to the Spirit Fire the spirit of laughing as much as you breathe.”
“I return to the Spirit Fire the spirit of letting go.”
The flame travelled around the circle and moved closer and closer to me. I wished it would slow down. What could I possibly say that would sum up all I had learned about myself and all the incredible relationships I had formed in the past three weeks?
I remembered back to Angel Wash Chapel, which had taken place during the first week of camp. Two lines of people snaked through the chapel, leaving a clear pathway between the lines. Each camper and staff member took a turn walking down the middle of the two lines. The people making up the two rows each whispered what they appreciated about the person walking down the middle into his or her ear. I grew nervous as my turn to walk between the lines approached. I had only discovered the camp by coincidence; maybe I wasn’t meant to be part of this unbelievable experience. What if no one had anything to say to me? When I reached the front of the line, I turned around to face the two rows of people staring back at me. I felt hands touch my shoulders, and a voice whispered in my ear, “Close your eyes.” Close my eyes? How was I supposed to walk through this curvy line if my eyes were closed? “Just trust,” the voice said as if reading my thoughts. I began to walk and felt hands reach out to guide me through the chapel.
“You are beautiful,” whispered an anonymous voice.
“You are one of the realest people I have ever met. Talking to you always makes me view the world in a different way.”
“When I hear you sing I feel inspired.” Warm hands brushed my shoulders, steering me in the right direction. Voice after voice whispered in my ear, and I felt revitalized by the time I reached the end of the line.
“Open your eyes,” the last voice said quietly. My eyes fluttered open, and I turned around to take my place in one of the lines and wait to tell each and every person just how wonderful I thought they were.
“I return to the Spirit Fire the spirit of self discovery.” A soft breeze caressed my face as the next candle was lit. Fewer candles remained without light, and the circle of flames stretched closer to the place where I stood.
I remembered back to Coffee Haüs where campers and staff could sign up to sing, recite poetry, dance, or just be silly in front of camp. “Do you want to sing a duet with me?” my friend Alex had asked a few days earlier. No, I did not want to expose my voice to the entire camp, thank you very much. But he was persuasive. “If you ever want to conquer your fear of performing, where is a better place to do it than Rowe? No one will judge you here, and you’ll feel amazing afterwards. C’mon!”
We chose an Antje Duvekot song about overcoming your fears and stepping outside of your comfort zone. On the night of Coffee Haüs, my stomach cramped up, and my palms began to sweat. Campers stretched throughout the rec hall lounging on pillows and couches that had been dragged in. The atmosphere felt so relaxed, and I wished my insides would follow the trend.
I watched the first performer ascend the steps of the stage thankful that I was not the one to start the evening’s show. She pressed the play button on the CD player in the corner, and soft flowing music permeated the rec hall. She lifted up her arms as though letting the music fill her and guide her body. Her movements were fluid and graceful, as if she were part of the sound created by the violins and cellos. She landed in an elegant split as the audience reveled in the last chord. Applause echoed throughout the room as the performer bowed shyly and made her way back into the audience.
After a recitation of poetry and a choreographed dance, the announcer resumed his stance on the top step of the stage. “Okay, Biza and Alex, you’re up!” he called. My stomach lurched at the sound of my name. I slowly stood up, and Alex held my hand as we walked onto stage. I stared out at the crowd in front of me; every face was marked with a supportive smile. Alex’s fingers moved across the fret board of his guitar as he played the first chord. “You’re on the high wire, and I’m climbing out, and I feel the danger,” we began singing in harmony. I waited for the panic to take over, for my legs to start shaking and my voice to begin cracking. But the panic never came. I let myself become a part of the music, of the community, of Rowe. “They’ll be no safety net when I fall right out of the sky. There will be no ambulance waiting, and I have no wings to fly,” we finished as camp erupted into applause. I could barely suppress the grin that was spreading across my face. I had just performed in front of people, and I was still standing and breathing. Alex and I walked off stage into a mass of hugs and compliments.
“I return to the Spirit Fire the spirit of hope.” Another candle was lit. I sunk my toes into the soft dirt and squeezed the hands of the campers on either side of me. The circle of flames was only a few feet away now.
I remembered back to nude activity, which had taken place during the last week of camp. My friends had been talking about it for days. “It’s amazing. You have to come,” my cabin mate Cate told me. But being body conscious was not something I could overcome as I had my fear of performing. In my seventeen years of life, I had never felt at ease exposing my body. “At least come with us to the swimming hole,” Cate coaxed. “If you’re not comfortable, you can stay inside the sauna. No one will be able to see you there.”
I was reminded of Alex’s words: “If you want to conquer a fear, where is a better place to do it than Rowe?” Rowe wasn’t like the real world. Judgment didn’t exist here, and differences were embraced.
“I’ll go,” I told Cate, “but I’m not promising I will leave the sauna.”
“Fine,” she giggled. “But you will.”
The following day, fifteen of us piled into Big Blue – the camp van. We travelled down deserted roads singing as loudly as possible, the boys’ deep bass voices cracking as they attempted to hit the shrill out-of-tune notes sung by the girls. Every time I thought about being completely naked in front of fourteen other people, I reached for Cate’s hand and squeezed it until her knuckles ached and she begged me to stop. I tried to comfort myself by remembering that I loved every single person in the van and that none of them were going to judge me. Off-key singing filled my ears and I let myself become immersed in their voices before I added mine to the mix.
We pulled onto a winding dirt driveway surrounded by thick green trees, and everyone cheered enthusiastically. Screams of “I’m so excited!” and “This is amazing!” filled the van as people topped over each other in a race to be the first outside. The group walked through a clearing, most of us holding hands with at least one other person. A crystal clear pool of water emerged on the other side of the clearing. It was encompassed by tall rocks and dozens of trees. A small wooden sauna stood to the side of the swimming hole, and there was a hint of the scent of burning wood in the air.
People began slowly peeling their clothing off and allowing the sun to warm their bodies. A few people hesitated, but more and more bare skin began appearing around me, and I knew I had to make a decision fast. I could retreat to the sauna or the van. Or I could step completely outside of my comfort zone and shed all my fears along with my clothing.
I began undressing, tentatively at first, but then I caught a glimpse of Cate’s encouraging smile and peeled off everything without stopping to think. Fourteen bodies surrounded me, and each person wore a euphoric smile. People raised their arms and spun around letting the cool air and the acceptance wash over their bodies. Someone began to chant our cabin’s mantra: “Every person here is beautiful and wonderful.” We all joined in, and soon the small clearing was filled with confident voices all merged into one. I looked around and appreciated the unique beauty of every single person present. I felt completely liberated. Two friends reached for my hands, and together we dashed towards the clear water. Our toes dangled off the edge of the nearest cliff as we prepared to jump. Every person here is beautiful and wonderful, I thought as we threw ourselves off the cliff and soared through the air.
“I return to the spirit fire the spirit of learning to trust,” a voice to the right of me said. I touched the wick of my candle to that of the previous speaker’s. The small flame flickered as I brought the candle back to its place in front of me. I looked around, and every face was turned toward me. Scattered flames lit up the circle of the people I had come to think of as family, as a part of me, as the essence of Rowe.
“I return to the spirit fire the spirit of living like nobody’s watching,” I said and passed on the flame.