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The air is warm but not humid; a slight breeze comes in just often enough to make the heat bearable. The sun set a few hours ago, sometime between when we were playing on the Jungle Gym and standing in line for the hayride. Two bonfires are set up, around which multiple families have gathered with their paper plates of hot dogs and marshmallows and long, thin twigs. Children learn the art of roasting a perfect marshmallow–gooey and warm without being blackened by patient adults who delight in this experience as much as the children do. For once, our bare feet match the majority of those around us: most have long since abandoned their shoes in lieu of feeling the damp, dew moistened grass beneath their toes. Children scamper everywhere—in one corner, they are bouncing from one inflatable fun zone to the next, while in another, they are mastering the art of hula hooping with multiple hoops. The Beech Boys and Taylor Swift blare from loud speakers… Kids create new dance moves to the tunes. A handful of stars dot the night’s sky while a crescent moon and games of flashlight tag illuminate the festivities. Newfound friends laugh, develop secret plans and exchange phone numbers for after the morrow. Nearly three dozen tents have been pitched along the perimeter of the field–200 have registered for tonight’s campout. Fireflies sparkle and attempting to discover their exact location so as to catch them brings forth peels of laughter, from children and adults alike. Beneath all the fun, though, is the sound of relief… Of gratitude for having frozen a few hours of time, conviction that the memories of tonight, of time spent away from the computers, away from the table of bills, away from the phones, is worth it. Unheard by human ears, everyone hears and rejoices in the joy.. Children run from one tent to the next, and venture further away from parents than usual, assured by the silent symphony of peace that all is well. Adults relax, find excuses to say yes instead of no, offer to help one another pitch tents or watch a stranger’s child while the adult finishes setting up camp.

Hours later, my four young campers were asleep, cradled side by side with blankets and friendship. I, however, lay restless. I moved to sit outside our tent, stared up at the stars, thought again about how life is a balance: if we don’t take time to be serious, we end up living unstable and insecure lives; if we don’t take time to play, we risk failing to see why life is a beautiful thing. We have a lot of fun. We go places a lot. We laugh a lo. We play a lot. It’s been a top priority in my life to make certain my children know that I have time for them, and that I love them. But we don’t just laugh. Earlier in the day, my oldest daughter and I talked about how sometimes dreams are scary–she worried about sleeping near a bonfire and needed reassurance that the fires would be extinguished long before anyone laid down. My youngest is a “cuddle monster”–sometimes she needs to curl up and cuddle more than she needs to laugh. Fun balanced by tenderness and seriousness. I thought about all that. I made a wish on a star. In fact, I sang “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” even though all the children were asleep. I looked at the tents spread out around me and wondered about the lives of the people within them… What made them spend $30 pp on a camp out at the zoo? What brought about a whispered need for relaxation, for time spent playing cornhole and tag?

Still restless, I stretched and walked around the field. Our tent never left my vision, of course, it was after one in the morning. But I wanted to capture all images of the night, I felt a strong need to remember it, and to catalogue and index every word from the preceding, perfect day. Eventually, I made my way back to the tent. I crawled inside, slid between the sleeping bag and closed my eyes… Only to have them pop back open.

Insomnia… My constant companion… But rather than reaching for my iPad or phone, I laid perfectly still. That’s when I heard it. First, it was a long train. Once the train’s whistle stopped, the expected song of crickets piped in. Still, I laid perfectly still. Soon, a new scent seemed to fill my nostrils — this one of ground and summer. I waited. A moment longer, and there it was: the unmistakable cawing of some animal. I’m still not certain which animal it was—we weren’t far from the monkeys, maybe it was them. We weren’t far from the aviary—but it didn’t sound like a bird either. The elephants and giraffes were too far away, and go inside at night anyways. Maybe it was a wild animal, not one of the exhibits… An owl perhaps. I don’t know which animal it was but, when I heard it, joy filled my heart. Alert, I perked my ears up and listened attentively. I was trying to hear the sound of whatever animal it had been again but, instead, I heard the train whistle again, then the crickets… Then the rustling of grass as some other night owl walked around the field… And then there it was again—the animal noises. I smiled, relaxed, became alert again. Again, I heard other sounds, sounds of nature–wind, grass, crickets–mixed with sounds of man–a train, feet, what sounded like a tractor’s engine. Finally, the strange animal noise. Briefly, I thought about how, when it’s done right, man and nature can complement one another… It doesn’t have to be a competition between progress and simplicity. Sometimes the two can work together–the animals we were sleeping near are part of a zoo, but the crickets were not. The grass was not. The train was made by man but so predictable it was that soon its whistle became part of the night’s soundscape. I was struck by nature’s harmony that was underscored by the threads of peace and timelessness by which the day had been woven together.

Music has always done this to me. Seeped into my soul and created beauty even when reality was very challenging. Out of all the dozens of schools my sister and I attended, we only rode the bus once or twice. I remember those rides, though… Feeling alienated by groups of kids who seemed to have always known each other, I always sat in the first seat, leaned my face against the window pane and whispered Tanya Tucker tunes under my breath until we got home. Yes, I –was– different. After dressing every morning, I added required coats of shame, ugliness and “weirdness” to my skin. The extra weight made it hard for me to breathe, or move. Even if I wasn’t actually doing so, I usually felt like crying.

Except when writing or music pierced my armor of self-loathing. The comforts of writing shaped my life and dominated my dreams but music… Music was a luxury, music was a gift. I could not create music, so instead I was left to just enjoy it. I remember my mother’s love for the group Alabama—I grew up singing “Mountain Music” and “Song of the South.” When Achy Breaky Heart was released, we joined the craze and sang it as we walked to the grocery store. Tanya Tucker spoke to me… Her songs were stories, her voice wiser than her years, her rebellious behavior tempered by fierce devotion to family. If a song came on the radio whose lyrics I knew… I’d sing along and it did not matter who I was with. It made me feel carefree, it effortlessly submerged my heart in three minutes of fun or, with songs like, “How Can I Help You Say Goodbye” provided the words I needed to break the dam of tears. I’d sing, allowing myself the freedom to pretend to be a part of the story, to be the singer performing… To be lyrical and graceful, rhythmic and melodic… Beautiful. Music made me feel beautiful, soulful and accepted. Music took the stress away, even if only for three minutes at a time.

As I clutched a pillow to me and laid in the sleeping bag, listening to the nighttime sounds at the zoo, I remembered that sometimes the greatest song is that which plays when we’re quiet. Music exists in everyday—I don’t have to have a familiar beat. God has provided the melodies: rushing waterfalls, whispering wind, crickets and locusts, rustling grass. And at six in the morning, after those sounds lulled me to sleep, I woke to a different, natural melody: a family of birds chirping. I heard them because I was quiet. I heard them because I allowed myself to hear them. I heard them because I took the time to listen and to remember that, like all music, nature has a soothing, healing and welcoming rhythm. My heart was happy for it and I promised myself that no matter how lonely or stressful the return to normal life may be… I would take time to turn all the noise off and listen to the music.

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