My First Love
Today, I am feeling homesick for the summer of my first love.
I have been thinking about how we find home in different places and in different times in our lives. Certain moments, a few minutes or words or months or years, sneak in to leave impressions and shape our realities. They are our touchstones, and they have the power to make us feel happy, sad, angry, sick, or a vague nostalgic mixture of all of these things when they happen to ripple across our minds.
Every time I am asked to go to a “happy place” in a meditation, I find myself sitting in the dusty, dry grass in front of the Lodge at my old summer camp. The Lodge is a great log cabin of a structure, with the front side wide open to the elements, just a row of large beams that still look like the trees they were carved from. An enormous fallen tree, enormous roots and all, sits in front of the Lodge, a favorite of tree-climbers. A large bell suspended from a wooden structure stands in front of that, the only signal to the entire camp to wake up, come to the table, or gather if there is a fire. And in front of that lies an expanse of dusty, dry grass that leads out to the Puget Sound, where on lucky occasions pods of orca whales poke their fins out of the cold water. Each summer for eight years, I went to this place, the most beautiful island on earth, where the Lodge always stood as the one solid and permanent structure, and I laid in that grass with a group of friends who knew me as my rawest self, and I laughed with them.
We sang folk songs after every meal and had a square dance every week and learned to love music by the Avett Brothers and Bob Dylan and talking about our feelings and playing strange games of truth or dare. From the ages of 12 to 20 (by which time I was a counselor), I spent at least a month of every summer exploring camp’s wild little island in the San Juans, sleeping in a tipi and stripping away everything that made me “me” in my real-world life. I wore unstylish old clothes I could get dirty and wet in, I abandoned my cell phone and my makeup routine, I slept in a sleeping bag, and I spent time feeling into the nature around me, journaling and reading and gazing at the ocean instead of watching TV. I let myself do what humans have done forever, belonging to the trees and the earth rather than seeing them as “other,” and I melted into a bigger reality than the one I was used to.
Camp was magic. Camp was mystery. Camp was home. Camp was where you got to arrive, open your trunk, get used to cold showers, recalibrate with the earth’s natural rhythms, touch base with your essence, and realize that the “real world” was something you never wanted to get back to. But you had to go back, every August, and you readjusted scary fast, picking up the cell phone and the makeup and the stories, not sure after a few months if you even really wanted to go back to camp (but – thank god - your parents signed you up anyway).
My second of three summers working at camp, I met a cute boy who had also grown up in the summers on this miniature island in the middle of the ocean. I remember the first time I saw him, sitting two spots to my right at a late-night campfire on camp’s south-facing beach. He was exactly my type (which at the time I hadn’t yet discovered), a little lost and brooding and down on the world and the point of it all. Something in our interaction that night signaled to me that I had caught his attention, and as a shy introvert I wasn’t used to feeling like the center of attention or at all comfortable with being observed. I was used to making eye-contact with boys I thought were cute and looking away quickly, never speaking to them again. But this time my silence had captured some curiosity in him, and it got to be magical instead of debilitating. I got to be mysterious. The real truth (which again I’m not sure I knew at the time) is that I don’t have much to hide, and usually the tortured souls, the ones I love and who find me intriguing at first, only stick around long enough to figure that out.
Loving someone for the first time is a strange and vague process. You don’t really know what you’re getting yourself into, so there’s no gauge for caution or self-protection. It wasn’t my intention, consciously, to get into something that I couldn’t crawl my way out of, though I think I’d watched enough romantic comedies that a subconscious pathway in my brain had been carved out to transport me there. And it was fun, playing into the romance of moonlight and beaches we could have to ourselves, and feeling that someone, for the first time, was deeply interested and invested in what I had to say. He created a beautiful space for my thoughts and my stories, and I loved feeling seen.
There is a feeling of fate that people often associate with their first love (I haven’t done research on this, it just seems to be a common thread for a good number of people I’ve talked to about this). And I don’t know if that’s biological or cultural, if it’s just the movies that lead us to this fun misunderstanding or if our bodies, in their primal essence, still want to settle in with the first person who comes along. I came out of that summer brutally dumped, and very sad, with an altered sense of what life must be about if it wasn’t about spending my life with a person I felt unchangeably, infinitely connected to. I spent years trying to wrap my head around it, actually, only to realize that the one certainty of life is that people come and go.
This first is one my mind is still trained to go back to, on that special island that has never felt the way it did before I met the first person to hold that magical space for me. It was like having someone hold a beautiful blank canvas that I was allowed to paint myself on, in any way I wanted to and with strokes that felt whole and good and expansive and hopeful for all that life would bring. And so I’m not sure it was ever really about the person holding the canvas, except that he knew how to hold it up, that perfect image of me, in a way I haven’t experienced since. And I think – I hope - I held one up for him as well, allowing him to paint the best version of himself, the one with the beautiful soul and the perfect face and all of the pretending, the version he would later toss aside because pretending was easier, in the world.
My gratitude for the space of camp and the broken love that manifested for me there is one of my deepest, because it showed me my most divine self. It showed me the truest and unbreakable part of me, the one I painted, who is always in me and ready to show herself when she feels safe enough. The work in this life, I think, is to create that safe space for divinity and truth. To hold that space for ourselves so that no one else has to. And to allow love to be present in everything that comes through the door.