My spiritual life before A.R.E. Camp can best be described as disjointed and ungrounded. I had yet to find my spiritual home. This feeling of disconnection filtered into the rest of my life as the emotions and ideas swelling up within me had no outlet and left me feeling isolated from my peers. This situation changed when my mother found a flier for Camp and decided I should go, despite her lack of knowledge or experience with A.R.E. or the Camp itself. Though my trip across the state to my first summer at Camp in 1989 was filled with anxiety, my desire for a new experience left me curious and excited. I vividly remember the beauty of the mountains along the way and the anticipation building as we drove down the bumpy dirt road. When we arrived, all who greeted me did so without pretense or awkward pleasantries, with warm smiles and plentiful hugs—both invigorating and radically different from this 10-year-old boy’s experiences.
I immediately noticed the difference in my interactions with the other campers. While talking with classmates at school, I would feel judged and misunderstood. At Camp, the acceptance manifested in every conversation. The staff all communicated through their words and actions their genuine interest in getting to know me and all the other campers. One counselor in particular would spend hours in free time with me, just talking about life, my history and emotions in a way that allowed me to let go and feel deep comfort. She truly showed her remarkable sensitivity to the turmoil she saw beneath my surface.
This feeling of inclusion radiated out into community activities as well. My first experience with meditation and healing prayer opened up an ability to listen to my inner voice, and be able to feel like I was a vehicle for something greater than myself. Camp also had the remarkable ability to push campers’ comfort zones. Hiking to the top of White Rock, we felt a sense of accomplishment, pushing past feelings of being conquered to reach feelings of joy. I began to understand that the rules in regular life did not apply at Camp, but that this experience might give me the voice and confidence to bring a part of that environment back home with me.
As hard as it was to leave, every time I returned, I felt like I had never left. Camp travels with you wherever you go—it is as much a state of mind or state of being as a physical space and, in that way, parallels how many religious individuals describe the physical space of a church.
As I grew older and eventually stopped attending Camp, this mental connection became even more crucial and only intensified when I met Ann at age 16. Ann had attended a Quaker camp in Maryland for several years—a camp that held a similar place in her heart. This shared experience fueled my growing desire to share my sacred space with her. That summer, we somehow convinced our parents to let us take a trip across the state in my very old car. We overcame breakdowns along the side of the road and managed to putter into the Camp valley. She was struck by the similarities between our two camps and it also meant so much to her to see this place that was so important to me—it helped her understand me at a new level. We later joked that this truly was a trip that was meant to be because when I pulled into my driveway after dropping Ann off, my car died once and for all.
As we grew older and began talking about marriage and what we wanted our ceremony to represent about us, it was obvious to both of us that there was only one place to get married. The wedding weekend, held in early September 2000, was a magical event. What struck me most in the coming together of my relationship with Ann, my history at Camp, and this present moment was my father’s message during the ceremony. He said that he felt that by being at Camp, he finally understood who I was in a way he never had been able to.
As the Camp’s 50th Anniversary party came along in August of 2010, we finally had an opportunity to bring our children, then two and five, to Camp, just three weeks before our 10th anniversary. We were overcome with emotion as we entered the meditation grove and showed our children the exact spot where we were married. Thinking of them as part of the next generation of A.R.E. campers filled both of us with incredible joy and means more to me than words can say.
Daniel Duncan lives in Baltimore with his wife Ann, son Noah (6), and daughter Kay (3). He attended A.R.E. Camp 1989-94, and aside from duties as an at-home dad, enjoys working in real estate and construction.
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