It was the summer before 8th grade when I met my first love. Off I went to Christian summer camp for a week. I'd gone every year with some friend or other since I was in second grade. As overt and social as I am now, I wasn't then. And I had a secret: I wrote songs. Much like journaling or writing emo poetry, I poured my heart into songwriting and never told a living soul. Where other kids would come home from school and watch TV or play video games, I'd sit at the piano writing music and recording it on cassettes.
In the awkwardness of 13, I met The Boy at a picnic on Thursday night. He wandered over to our table in the awkwardness of 14 and said, "Excuse me, do you have any condoms? I MEAN CONDIMENTS!!" My friends and I howled with laughter and The Boy ran off, red faced, to find ketchup for his burger from somewhere else. I thought he was a doofus.
But that night was the camp talent show. He stood alone on the stage in front of several hundred of us and belted out "Grandma's Feather Bed" a la John Denver, and was completely unashamed of his voice. And he was good. I remember being confused. As was the way, the camp closed the evening by singing together on the hill by the campfire. The girls from my tent were seated near the boys from his tent. The Boy really did have a beautiful voice. How could he be so completely awkward yet so uninhibited? I thought he was a dork. But I was listening.
And then it was time for lights out. A quick social grapevine passed through the two tent groups that we would all sneak out that night after the counselors fell asleep. It sounded like fun, and I was game.
Sure enough, I was one of the girls still awake when the time came. My friends and I met up with ...boys. I hadn't really thought this out. It occured to me that I was cold. I stood there shaking in the dark and probably muttered something like "Brrrr." Lo and behold, The Boy, the uninhibited awkward boy, broke into a huge smile. He boldly proclaimed "I'll keep you warm!" and threw his arm around my shoulders. Man, was I cold, so off we went, with his arm around me, to roam around the camp unsupervised. We ended up sitting alone together on the hill by the campfire pit under the trees and stars while he held me. We talked all night long about music and interests and future plans and opportunity --all interspersed with him singing.
The night looked like this and sounded like cicadas, and I'll never forget it.
[To this day, whenever I hear either choral version of "Sure on This Shining Night" by Barber or Lauridsen, I think of this first night with The Boy. This night was magic.]
Sure on this shining night Of star made shadows round, Kindness must watch for me This side the ground. The late year lies down the north. All is healed, all is health. High summer holds the earth. Hearts all whole. Sure on this shining night I weep for wonder wand'ring far alone Of shadows on the stars.
-by James Agee, 1934
He was the first person to whom I ever confessed that I wrote music. It was the single most personal thing about myself that I was aware of.
It was so cold. We had no skills. There was no kissing-- he had bad breath and I was scared and unprepared. But, I knew he Wanted to kiss me --the ugly duckling who was never as pretty or as confident or as popular as her friends-- and this was a big, big deal to be Wanted.
We watched the sunrise then regretfully snuck back to our tents.
I wish I could say that the next day I was cool and happy and triumphant, but I was wholly unprepared for handling this depth of intimacy and was officially scared to death. I rebuffed him for the remainder of the week, except while singing around the campfire at the close of the evening-- I ended up without a songbook. He came over to stand next to me, not even 20 feet from where we had been So Close, and shared his. When it was time to go home, The Boy sadly gave me his address so I could write to him. We said goodbye, never to see each other again. I was relieved-- one less scary thing to face.
I wrote to him.
And he wrote back. And I wrote to him. A lot. We sent cassette tapes back and forth of talking, singing, and piano. I still have the friendship necklace he knotted for me. I still have the letters and tapes. I made him a tape of my original songs. He loved it, and took it upon himself to get me some professional feedback-- namely, I should get out of the key of C major. [sound advice, btw] Letters were full of song lyrics and details of days and histories and family, including the current divorcing of his parents --one of whom was a minister. We developed a bona fide friendship over the year. We discovered that we would again be going to camp on the same week the following year, the summer before 9th grade.
I was 14. Any trace of The Boy as a dingus with bad breath was gone. We were inseparable. We held hands when we walked around. And music-- always singing and music. So much music. And at some point as he was singing next to me, I realized he was singing to me. About me. And that I was in love with him and we were in love with each other. There was still no kissing.
On Thursday night of this particular week, I had a second experience shaking in the dark. This time, on the top bunk in my tent, as I invited the Divine into my life. It was a defining moment of faith differentiating itself from religion and tradition. I was never under any burden of expectation; this was my decision. What clarified it for me was that I could see God's face when I loved The Boy and when I shared myself and with others in music. I could See It.
Looking back now from age 41, the Love was fully whole and the Faith was but a first step. When I left camp, The Boy stayed on-- but he got in trouble. He was kicked out of camp, never to return as a camper again.
A few weeks after I came home, my family moved across the country. Within a week after moving, I had a third experience shaking in the dark. While listening to live music, it dawned on me that I would devote my life to being a professional musician, not a pilot as I had planned. [Oh the irony here-- the only two professions I ever wanted to be were my father's, then my mother's hobbies.] On the way home that night, I asked my parents to stop at KFC where I picked up an entry form for the BMI songwriting competition for the first of 2 times. I ended up receiving an honorable mention at 14 for a song called "The Ferris Wheel" recorded on a $20 Walmart cassette recorder.
Shortly after I started high school in the new state, I met my first finger-pointing Christians. I had never heard before that my loved ones were going to hell, so I wrote a letter to my pastor back home and asked "Is this what Christians believe? Because if so, I'm out." I waited for his response which would determine whether I was going to continue with my faith or pitch it. I still have that letter too, tucked into my Bible.
Many more letters, now officially love letters, and many more tapes with The Boy. We added long distance phone calls to our repertoire. We were facing dark things together. At some point that year, I identified some serious long-term abuse I had endured at the hands of a family friend. And at some point that year, The Boy was institutionalized after attempting suicide.
My parents allowed me to fly back to camp the next summer for a 2 week stint. It was the summer before 10th grade, I was 15. Camp allowed The Boy to visit me for a day on the weekend. He showed up with a guitar that he had been learning to play. We were mostly left to ourselves. I played piano and sang him the new songs I had written. I cried about how scared I was that the next call I was going to get would be from his father telling me that he was dead. I begged him to never, ever do it again.
When he took out his guitar and played for me, he was nervous. Finally I recognized myself! The personal nature of my musical voice was now his nervousness about having a more full relationship with me. We had come full circle. And leaning over his guitar, I was the one to kiss him.
So. They were all there. Who was it? Was my first love this troubled, musical boy? Was it music itself? Was it God?
For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face.
Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.
So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three;
but the greatest of these is love.
-I Corinthians 13: 12-13
We wrote and called for years. Given the 2000+ miles between us, we never asked each other to be exclusive. We dated others, but always held a candle for each other until spouses eventually came along. The Boy and his father came to visit us once for several days, and one time he and a buddy showed up at our house when they ditched their senior trip. The Boy ended up marrying very young, had a child, joined the military, and got stationed overseas. He and his young family visited me once in college, then he visited me alone shortly thereafter when he and his wife split up. By then, I was with my to-be first husband. Young love was innocent, but neither of us got to *be* innocents.
But always... talking and music. So much music.