A dear grandmother figure who passed away this year once told me, “People are most themselves in nature.”

Maybe that’s why I’ve always felt there’s something so special about gathering together around a bonfire. During my college days, fall nights were often spent at a friend’s farmhouse gazing up at the stars through the clear mountain air. Now for the past several years, even after I moved out of my parents’ home, we host our own bonfires in their backyard for my group of friends. I think what’s truly resonated with each person who has come over the years has been that sense of invitation and acceptance. To create an environment where that can happen means the world to me. It’s what makes my soul feel content — when I get to see others feeling most themselves.

We’re quite a diverse combination of folks — engineers, designers, former military, current Army civilians, internationals, travelers, dancers, adoptees, parents, married and dating couples, singles, and the list goes on. One by one we walk down the path that opens up into the bonfire circle that my dad created and into the circle of friends where we know we are accepted and loved.

Some nights, I haven’t even known all the people around the fire. Other nights, it feels as if we’ve all known each other forever. For some, the thought of having umpteen people over and making sure everyone is fed and comfortable might sound overwhelming, but for me, there’s something more important than making sure everything is just so and makes me realize there’s no need to stress over this gathering. As I jokingly remind my mom, “The only place in the house that needs to be clean is the bathroom since nobody will be hanging out inside!” It’s really all about blessing others and letting them know that they are valued. When the hotdogs have been roasted to varying degrees of blackened crispness, the chili has nearly vanished, and when we’ve made all the sugary sweet, sticky s’mores we can take, comfort settles in, and we get to know more of one another’s stories.

As we sit around on blankets we’ve dragged out or tree stumps we’ve overturned, the fire blazes steadily, burning old branches and garden clippings. And just as steadily, we become more ourselves. We laugh with one another and poke fun; we ask “what if” questions without the fear of judgment. We talk about our jobs and how to do more with our lives. We learn more about each other as we discover how we see things differently and seek to understand other perspectives. With the tiki torches standing guard under the fading sky, we find safety in the comfort of this place and in the comfort of friendship.

A few more hours and the fire has burned down to only a few flickering wisps as the group itself dwindles, and only a handful remain. The stars grow in number overhead as our eyes adjust to the darkness — and the conversation keeps flowing. As evening fades to morning, no one wants to be the first to start dousing the last lingering glow of the flames. Because no one wants to break that ever-comforting feel of belonging, of being bound together in the fulfillment of that yearning at the core of who we were created to be, people of community.