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Call and Response

by Ken Sanes

The first time it happened I was fifteen
and it was at a summer camp in the mountains.
Lounging around in my upper bunk,
in a cabin surrounded by forest,
I heard a powerful chorus of voices
singing a well known hymn. The sound
was coming from where I was supposed to be:
the outdoor chapel across the lake.
Almost the entire camp was there,
singing in unison, filling the crisp night air
with a depth and resonance
I had never heard before.
As I walked outside and listened to the song,
under a sky full of constellations,
the voices rose from the chapel
over the forest and the dark surface of the lake.
Then the voices divided in two
as each side responded to the other.
Halfway through, I was in a state of awe,
amazed that there was something so compelling
that could convey so much beauty in the world.

Before the experience that night,
my life at camp revolved around
lifeís lesser pleasures.
There were the daily canoe races
and food fights in the boyís cafeteria,
with spoons for catapults, battles
under the tables, and declarations of war.
After lunch, I worked with clay
and enjoyed a brief moment of fame
when my baked rendering
of a plate of macaroni and cheese
was a camp sensation.
There was also the dark side of camp life:
the forced marches into the mountains
when we had to sleep outside
with the trees and wild animals.
But my reaction to the chorus of voices
was something different from all that.
It was an experience in which I was
composed and self-contained.
And, afterward, there were other moments
when I was exhilarated by the sight
of the mountains fading into the distance,
and when I forgot myself, gliding in a canoe
at sunset, seeing the clouds below me
on the still, reflective surface of the lake.

Unfortunately, that was also the summer
when I explored the campís outer reaches
and followed a sound to a clearing,
only to discover two dozen dogs and cats
trapped in individual metal cages.
The cages were in rows, one on top
of another, exposed to the wind and rain,
with upturned bowls and decaying food
scattered in the dirt on all four sides.
When I approached the animals,
it produced such a clamor of yelps and cries
that I was certain an adult would show up
and demand to know why I was there.
As it turned out, my fear was misplaced;
the animals were fed and barely kept clean
but, otherwise, left to sit in their cages.
Contemplating this mountain of suffering,
I felt compelled to come to the rescue.
But the camp management explained
that this was the way things were done.
This is the world, a counselor told me
as he walked me back to my cabin
and tried to talk me out of my rage.

Later that day, my anger hadnít subsided
and I decided to take my revenge.
It was a dark and cold afternoon,
and the animals would soon be caught
in a driving rain. So, as I thought about it,
I returned to their cages
and pulled open the metal doors
while cats and dogs came bursting out
amid a din of barks and plaintive meows.
Then, as the thunder and lightening
seemed to answer their cries,
I led them to the center of camp
where their noses took the lead
and, all at once, they rushed
into the cafeteria, jumping on tables,
attacking the macaroni and cheese
that was piled on platters, as diners erupted
in the ultimate food fight with man and beast.
It was a satisfying moment --
but only in my imagination. In reality,
all I did was lie around my bunk
while the rain beat down
and think about what I should have done,
since I was pretty much a captive there myself.
After that, it seemed like there was a shadow
over the remaining days of the summer.
Even the water seemed to have
a duller, more lifeless quality than before.

Looking back now, after all these years,
I can say there have been difficulties in life
I would not have predicted.
There are even times
when I feel like Iím breaking
in what has turned out to be a broken world.
But I still have moments
when I am filled with an inexplicable happiness
and when beauty reaches in and grabs my soul.
At times like these, I realize something essential,
which is that an experience is like a living thing:
it is unique and irreplaceable
and has a personality and a life of its own.

Unfortunately, this kind of receptiveness
doesn't get the attention it deserves
in a world full of cruelty
and exploitation, in which life is in a cage.
Thatís why I wanted you to know
what it was like listening to that song,
and how it rose over the lake, and was clear
and resonant, in a world that is so often wrong. 

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