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It's So Nice to Be Here With People I Like
What my camp self has taught me about creative community
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Emma Van Deventer and I should never have become friends, and that’s why I believe she’s one of my soulmates.
I met my dear friend when I was twelve years old. We had nearly nothing in common. I was the youngest of four kids; she had two younger brothers. She grew up in a mid-sized city; my hometown was tiny. I loved playing sports; she loved music and dancing and theater. She was the coolest person I had ever met; I felt like my life was embarrassingly mainstream.
And yet, our friendship has endured for more than a decade. Emma has seen me as nearly every iteration of myself—the bratty teenager who found it impossible to think before she spoke, the college student dabbling in alcohol for the first time, the young adult who sort of feels like she has her shit together for the first time. She’s loved me wholly and selflessly the entire time.
Emma and I spent the last week, nearly fourteen years after we first connected, at the place that forged our friendship: Camp Hertko Hollow.
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I’ve written an exceptional amount of work about Camp Hertko Hollow over the years. It’s the setting I traverse the easiest, the characters whose being feels the truest, the experience I understand the deepest. I’ve talked about diabetes, the experience of growing up with a chronic illness, the comfort of witnessing others bear the same burden as you.
But the experience of camp I’ve always worried I haven’t adequately conveyed is the purest spirit of sincere friendship, separate from our illness, that fuses individuals together on a cellular level, that throws caution into the river and embraces difference in all of its beautiful glory, that allows two young girls like Emma and myself to build a fortress of love and grace that will last long into adulthood.
Honoring What We’ve Built
Each camp session culminates in a Friday night program called Honor Point. This ceremony dates back to the very beginning of the Des Moines Y-Camp, which hosts Camp Hertko Hollow. Campers come together to sing songs, reflect on how they’ve grown over the week, and say goodbye. It’s an incredible, emotional affair.
Y-Camp Director Alex Kretzinger speaks during this event every year, a moment of parting wisdom for the youth going back out into the world.
This year, he spoke of the dichotomy of the “camp self” and the “home self” that so many campers experience. The camp self is the kind self—the self that includes everyone, that sits next to every cabinmate in the dining hall, that encourages the shy camper to break out of their box. The camp self is the friend we all wanted as a child.
But this dichotomy is a trick of the mind, Alex argued.
“I get so frustrated when I hear people talk about this,” he exclaimed with more irritation than I’ve ever heard from him in the years I’ve known him. “Because what they don’t understand is that your camp self and your home self are the same person. You can still be this kind, happy person that you are at camp when you get home.”
Once you drive down into the valley and arrive at Y-Camp, you’re stripped of any pretension that you might carry with you at home. There is no drive to be “the best” at anything, no forces asking you to push to become more than exactly what you are. Camp asks you to show up for yourself and one another, to enjoy the beauty around you, to look at life through a lens of love, and to enjoy the simple pleasure of just being.
It is the greatest joy of my life that I was able to meet Emma in this space, where nothing mattered other than sharing joy and seeing the essence of one another. We fell into friendship in the purest of ways, without judgement or ego or motive. It’s carried us for fourteen years, and I suspect it will carry us for many more.
Building Stronger Community
I bring this to the Midwest Creative Community because I want to challenge you to bring your “camp self” back to your “home self.”
Let go of your ego. Try something new. Lead with kindness. Search for the good your neighbor has to offer. Bring light to every situation. Find fun wherever you can. Hold up what is good and pay no mind to what is not.
Our creative community thrives when we love one another. Our art is stronger, bolder, smarter, more impassioned. Our art reaches wider audiences, changes more minds, builds stronger homes. When our art is expressing the dark side of our experience, the feelings nobody wants to confront, the anger and the wrong, we still must see each other with love and kindness if we want our art to be the change we wish had come sooner.
I closed my eyes this past week as Alex played guitar and sang, something he’s been doing at camp for more than ten years, since I was one of those young campers trying to find her way. I swayed with my cabin and felt myself truly hear one of my favorite camp songs for the first time.
It’s so nice to be here with people I like.
It’s so nice to hear them all say,
That it’s so nice to be here with people I like
and with them to share a new day
It’s a new day we’re living in
filled with bounty and praise.
The cold and the darkness is driven away,
while morning light blesses our days.
The people I like are the people I find
who live with a smile of care.
Their looks and their lives are different
than mine but together this new day we share.
Time spent apart seems to fade away.
Smiling faces warm us inside.
We can talk without saying a word.
Our love is deep it does not die.
Live with a smile of care. Find those people you like, and be. Our community depends on it.
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