Once upon a time, I was a camp counselor.
I laid the foundation of my career and life throughout my summers at that camp, under a canopy of ash, maple and buckeye. In kayaks and canoes. Through creek walks and fire building. Most of the counselors had grown up at that camp. Their bones were hand carved out of local sandstone. My roommate (dear friend) had grown there too and encouraged me to join them.
As it is with all of these little bits, I could spend the rest of my life rattling on about this. There are real writers who wake up every morning, put on the gloves and lasso down the good ones for us. I recall and relate, like a taxidermist. I'll skip to the end for now.
Our last summer there felt as if it had gained weight from training to close. Many of us were at the end of our counselorships. We had graduated college. We were moving. We were getting jobs. Families. Marriages. Pet ownership. We knew it was goodbye.
At the end of each week we'd send the kids off with a ceremonial camp fire. We'd chant a song in a low key as we climbed the hillside towards the fire ring. Once settled in by rank and file, we'd stare at one another across a gargantuan fire and reflect upon our week.
Flames dancing, moon glowing, children laughing.
We had decided as counselors that we'd all leave something important behind in that last fire of the year. There it would burn to ash and enter the earth. I decided on a CD.
Throughout that year in college I was mostly listening to John Coltrane's quartet with Elvin, McCoy and Jimmy. It got to the point where I could hear Coltrane in grocery store commotion or oncoming traffic. "THOSE SQUEAKY BREAKS ARE THE SAME PITCH THAT MCCOY STARTS HIS SOLO TO VILLA ON!" Cues iPod. Nobody cares.
I loved them all but MY album was Live at Birdland. It's not the kind of album you just throw on for little tea parties. It requires a towel, a firm chair and a supportive pair of shoes. It flosses your ribs with your spine, like a plumber maneuvering a toilet snake. Elvin Jones sounds like an aggravated bull moose. McCoy Tyner sounds like a kangaroo in a room packed with Steinways. Jimmy Garrison seems to be playing a semi truck or a musk oxen, or both. It's a hurricane of perfection. By the end of 'Afro Blue' you'll be hiding under the couch. I guarantee it. WHAT?!
It's through listening to Coltrane's cadenza at the end of 'I Want to Talk About You' that you realize you've found something worth hanging onto forever and ever (amen). He's everywhere all at once, and we're the guests of honor. You can't leave a listen to this album with casual indifference. It's time to live deep because John Coltrane says so with every single note.
So I tossed it in the flames. I stood over the fire and watched it fade. The plastic melted into toxic goo. I vowed to take this absence seriously. I also vowed to never throw plastic into fire again.
At the very end of last month I finally picked up another copy of Live At Birdland. It's a rush to experience such a meaningful album so many years later, with differences galore (same hair cut). Tonight I'm thinking of all of those years at that beloved camp. Where were you seven years ago? What about those times helped nurture you into who you are now? How many haircuts have you had since? I've had 14.