..Miriam Nelson-Gillett..

First Knowing

I was a Girl Scout from the ages of 8 through about 11, for two main reasons. The first was the chocolate mint cookies. The other was Girl Scout camp. The camp was in the Catskills on a swampy piece of land where tents that slept 5 girls each were pitched on wooden platforms, grouped by ages, each group with a latrine down the road.

When it rained at night everyone was woken up to help roll down the tent flaps. I slept like a rock and usually could not be awakened, which did not make me the most popular girl in camp, but after days of hiking and lots of sweet "bug juice," peanut butter sandwiches and care packages, it was just impossible to wake up, even if it thundered. I could vaguely sense someone leaning over me, rolling down the mildewed canvass flaps, and barely hearing the deafening rain become just a little less deafening. In the morning I'd remark, "Oh, did it rain last night?" and be met with deadpan looks from my sleepy tent mates who wished they could have slept as soundly instead of getting up in the cold, blustery, midnight summer storm.

It was on that first camping trip with the Girl Scouts that I felt my mind open, my heart open, simply and quietly. The lake was amazingly still and clear and beautiful that night and I could see reflected lights from other campgrounds. I felt myself almost merging with the lake, profoundly connected to the trees surrounding me and the ground my sleeping bag lay upon.

Here and there I could almost make out voices across the lake, sweet and indistinct. I felt related to them, too, enjoying the perfect night as though we were all camping together. I was surprised, I remember, by the sensation. I wasn't a very connected kid. The rest of the school year I struggled to be part of the crowd, to know what to say, what to wear -- and I never quite got it right. But in Girl Scout camp, I fit right in. You didn't have to have the right outfit just be able to keep up on a hike. The woods and streams accepted me just fine. The mosquitoes even more so. My sugar-loving flesh was irresistible to them.

This wasn't the summer it rained every day as we tough girls sat around in our tents playing cards, rolling our own cigarettes from leaves and practicing cursing.
"Got any threes?"
We rolled on the floor laughing, comparing who said it most convincingly. The mosquitoes were relentless. I circled every bite in pen, out of boredom. You can call it obsessive-compulsive if you want to, but I was merely bored to tears. Lacking any other mental stimulation, it was peculiarly satisfying to get to 600 bites with arms, legs, neck and stomach all told. And yes, I was the kind of girl that enjoyed it even more when I came home at the end of the summer covered in red dots and blue circles and my mother gasped as though I'd been captured by a Zulu tribe and released after God knows what kind of torture.

That's not the summer I'm referring to. The one I mean was the year before, when the weather was glorious and we took overnight hikes, even carrying canoes. I think that was called "portage," which made it sound like a skill and therefore something you could earn a badge for. That was a magical summer. It was hot and sticky and after hiking we'd collapse on a large rock together and drink pink punch and eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches that were all pressed together. The counselors told ghost stories about Cropsy, the insane asylum escapee, and we all shrieked at the predictable moments. I learned to tell these stories myself if no counselor was around. It's easy if you want to learn: A child-murdering lunatic escapes from the insane asylum and is never found, although little corpses still turn up from time to time right...on...this...very...spot!! Aaaagghhhh!!!! Embellish however you want. The more details the better.

But I was talking about finding inner peace for the first time, while camping by a lake in the Catskills when I was 10 years old. And I haven't said -- although I've been thinking about it -- all the things I've done since to reconnect with that expansive moment of truth. I knew it was my essence even then. It still feels like a miracle every single time I feel it.

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