“I felt a pang — a strange and inexplicable pang that I had never felt before. It was homesickness.”
When I was nine, I went away for the first time to overnight camp. It may or may not have been my first time sleeping in a place other than my own bed, but I can’t recall.
What I do remember is lying awake that first night and crying inside my sleeping bag — muffling myself so the other 9-year-old boys in the surrounding bunks didn’t hear me. No sense mixing shame with the fear I was already feeling.
Why had my parents taken me to this place and dropped me off for a whole week? What wrong could I have done that deserved this kind of cruel and unusual punishment?
In that moment, the week ahead seemed daunting. Six more days and nights of this banishment looked like an impossible task to overcome. But I had no choice. So I crawled out of bed when Reveille screamed at me in the morning and made my way to the cafeteria for breakfast.
After following the masses through the food and drink lines, nodding yes to anything that looked vaguely familiar, I plopped down at the first available seat and promptly buried my head in my tray. Maybe nobody would seem me if I hunched over enough.
But that didn’t work.
After a few minutes of burning a hole through the bottom of my cereal bowl, I felt a finger tap on my shoulder. “We’re over here, Joe.” I looked up to see my camp counselor pointing toward a table of boys from my cabin, just a few feet away from the table of girls I’d been unknowingly dining with for breakfast.
After relocating from one table of strangers to another, I quietly finished my soggy flakes.
. . .
Such were my nightly and morning rhythms that week.
But slowly the days improved. I shot my first bow and arrow. I paddled my first canoe. Made my first knickknack in the craft shop — and discovered what the word “knickknack” meant. I tasted my first bite of independence.
And I started to wonder: who needed parents when you’re nine anyways? I was learning to survive off the land now. I was becoming William Tell, Daniel Boone, Meriwether Lewis, and William Clark in my 4’6″ frame. And I could surely survive on my own now.
Except I didn’t want to . . . not just yet.
The minute my parents arrived on Friday afternoon, I abandoned all my newfound frontier and artisan skills and ran to them. I left behind the sadness, anger, and bitterness I’d felt that week and hugged them without hesitation — embracing the idea that they hadn’t left me. They hadn’t forgotten me after all. They loved me still.
And, as it turned out, the feeling was mutual.
. . .
Reflecting back on that experience nearly four decades later, I’ve been surprised at how much I’ve felt like that 9-year-old in the upper bunk these last couple of years.
This sense of unsettledness. Of being alone and unknown by a group of people who all seem to know the rules and the routines and all seem to have a friend — or a tribe of them — to help navigate the unexpected moments of life.
This feeling that family and friends are far, far away, and that I’ve been forgotten in their busyness. This belief that I don’t yet have the skills to survive in this landscape. The things I once knew do not apply here. The gifts, skills, and crafts I brought with me no longer create things that appeal to those around me.
But, unlike that boy on that first night of camp, I now know that I’m not alone.
I know that feelings of homesickness run through us all, and at times we all feel like that kid at the wrong table in the cafeteria. So it’s okay to push pause on the posturing and pretending that we’re fine as is. And it’s ok to be honest about our feelings of alienation, angst, and abandonment.
Because then, we can begin to lift our heads and see the others around us — who are also just trying to find a friend at the breakfast table.
What engaging, hopeful, honesty. It resonates. No matter what age. Thanks, Joe.