Lessons From the Woods

For the past nine years, I’ve spent one week in July out in the woods of Windsor, New York attending a music camp that has surely shaped my life for the better. I spent eight of those weeks as a camper, and I had the privilege of being a staff member this past summer.

Camp is one of my favorite places. Nestled deep in the woods of Upstate New York, it offers a kind of peaceful solitude seldom found in today’s busy world. The central lake—whose calm waters are backdropped by tall green trees—is tranquil. Rustic log cabins dot the banks surrounding the lake, giving the place an air of old-school authenticity. I remember those cabins well. We slept in bunk beds, whose old mattresses were markedly more uncomfortable than our beds back at home. The wooden walls were filled with signatures of campers past. The air overpoweringly smelled of nature, and the whole setup was a constant reminder of the simplicity of camp living, if not of the simpler things in life itself.

We did have some modern luxuries in the midst of all this, however. Founders Lodge is the central dining hall that sits right up the hill from the shore of the lake. Although it’s new, it is built in a similar style as the rest of the buildings on the grounds. The hall is beautiful—exposed golden oak beams hold up the towering ceiling in the main room. A host of amenities are present, including a full industrial kitchen, a stage for performances, and apartments for the camp directors (I was always jealous they got those spacious living areas for the whole week). During music camp, the building is a gathering place for meals and rehearsal space for the camp’s musical ensembles.

But aside from the physical place itself, the best thing about camp is the people. I reluctantly first attended during the summer of 2003, right after I had finished sixth grade. At the time, I was a relatively shy child who’d not spent more than a weekend away from my parents. The thought of going someplace new, surrounded by strangers for a whole week, terrified my adolescent self. I’d practically begged my parents not to make me go, because I didn’t know how I’d survive without them.

But these fears were soon dispelled when I began to exit my proverbial shell and get to know the people around me. I opened up and got to know my counselors and cabin mates. We shared stories, told jokes, and made wonderful music together. It was a life-changing experience, and my parents hardly recognized the outgoing, more independent child they brought home with them. By the end of that first camp, they had to force me to leave.

Over those summers, I’ve grown close with people I’ll cherish for the rest of my life. Campers were separated by their year in school, and our class grew particularly close. Year after year, we’d laugh together, play games together, hike and swim together, and spend most of our free time in each other’s company. The experiences we shared laughing and crying through those summers have made these friends more like siblings. In fact, one girl in our group—Catherine—and I became so close we dated briefly during our freshman year of college. This collective circle of friends also bonded with two of our counselors during the summer after senior year. Their loving kindness was marked by kind words and a willingness to be there for us on a more personal level (after the loss of a former camper to suicide, they began the tradition of giving out their phone numbers and the assurance they’d always be there to pick up the phone). Sarah and Michael’s words and deeds gave them a permanent special place in my life—I strive to live up to their example and be as genuinely good as them.

Music camp has many traditions, and among the most important is the talent show, which takes place on Wednesday night of camp week. While all of the acts showcase incredible talents (this is a camp of music nerds we’re talking about), the most memorable part of the evening happens at the very end. After the senior campers perform their chosen routine—ours was singing Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water”—they sit in a line at the front of the stage before the entire camp. The director, Matt, then speaks to them briefly about this tradition (which has gone on for as long as anyone can remember), but they need no explanation, for they already know what’s coming. Soon after, the calming, melodious sound of a twelve-string guitar sets a bittersweet tone that often moves people to tears.

In 2010, the time came for our circle of friends to be sung to. We, like so many campers before us, knew exactly what was to come. Matt had given his usual introduction, and the song began. The notes echoed from those giant wooden rafters in Founders Lodge and reverberated until finally meeting my ear, only to enter my mind and move me to the very core. Us seniors huddled closer, joining hands and swaying to the music. We knew this marked the beginning of the end of our time there as campers. Tears welled up in our eyes, each rolling down our cheeks and falling to wet our shirts. Those tears contained the many memories of summers past—they mourned the end of a chapter that had provided so much friendship and meaning to our lives. That warm summer night in the woods—when it was my turn to be sung to—will stay forever suspended in my memory.

The song he sings is truly one of the greatest I have ever heard. It’s called “Everything Possible” by songwriter Fred Small. The melody is wonderful; the lyrics are moving. It’s a song about how to live your life and leave your mark on the world, even after you’re gone. It’s a song of self-acceptance, love, and encouragement to live your life the way you wish. But of all the lines in that song, there’s one that has stuck with me the most: And the only measure of your words and your deeds will be the love you leave behind when you’re done. Although I’ve heard it for many years, the power of this text resonates with me to this very day. Think about the gravity of that statement. No matter what you accomplish in life, you’ll be remembered for the love you leave behind. It’s both troubling and inspiring—on one hand, it downplays the value of many societal structures that are highly valued, such as education and careers. But on the other hand, it provides refreshing simplicity in a world burdened by complexity.

Every day, I try to live life by the message encapsulated in the single line of text from that song I first heard nine long years ago. After my life is over, I want people to remember me for the love that I leave behind. I don’t want to be remembered for my attendance at Syracuse, my time in marching band, or my legal career—in the grand picture of life, those things become less and less important as the years pass. No, I want people to look back on my life with fondness and remember me as a kind, compassionate, friendly, and loving person. If the whole world were to live with this goal in mind, wouldn’t it be a much better place? I don’t mean to diminish the value of a good education or a successful career, but as I survey the world, it appears too much value has been placed on these institutions. Humanity would benefit if—even for a moment—the simpler aspects of life were more appreciated. Those weeks in the rugged, rustic setting of camp taught me to take time to value those littler, simpler things in life.

Great American thinker Henry David Thoreau spent two years living in the woods, and wrote of his experiences in Walden. He immersed himself in a simpler life, and from these writings comes one of my favorite quotations:

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

I, too, have gone to the woods, and I have learned what it has to teach. And because of those summer weeks spent with friends by the lake and amongst the trees, when I come to die, I’ll be able to say that I have lived—lived well and left a legacy to be proud of. What will you say when it’s your turn?

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