Finding Your People

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As a self-professed Camp Geek, I’ve grown to embrace my title. There were years in my 20’s where I would try to explain the Wonder of Camp People to non-camp folk. But it is hard to explain what it is like to feel so connected to someone that you can meet them on a Friday and leave on Monday with a sneaking suspicion that you just met your best friend. In fact, I’m aware that even writing that sounds crazy, but there it is, so what can you do? It is daunting to explain what it is like to push yourself out of your comfort zone and share your fears and struggles with total strangers. You’d be surprised that it is almost easier with strangers than when your friends are in the group.

Like I said, I’ve tried to explain it to people, but I’ve mostly given up.

I turned 43 yesterday. The 40’s have been weird for me. I think that’s primarily because I got sick when I was 36 so the latter half of my 30’s was spent seeing doctors, taking drugs, gaining weight from those drugs and carting around an oxygen tank. My friends were hiking, dating and most definitely NOT going to the doctors enough to know their dogs’ names.   Now I’m in the 40’s and sans oxygen tank, way less doctor drama and I feel like I fell asleep for a few years and suddenly now I’m 43.

This afternoon I read Pamela Druckerman’s article in the New York Times What You Learn in Your 40’s (link below.) The line that resonated with me was, “By your 40s, you don’t want to be with the cool people; you want to be with your people.”

I think I might have to worship at the alter of Ms. Druckerman for a moment. You see, Friday I had 3 friends over—three Camp People—to be specific. They came over for about 20 hours. We are Camp People after all, there needed to be sleeping bags. And after the pleasantries of “How was your day?” and “How’s work?” we shifted gears and got down to business. We’d planned a number of activities, fun, sharing and deep to be Camp People together.

Just as a joke and for the sake of tradition we started with a name game.

Me: Ok, we all know them, who has a name game? (keep in mind, we all know each other’s names)

K: I’ve got one. Ok…we’re all on a ship together. My name is K and I’m going to bring a……

It went on from there. I lit up a little. Where else could I say, “Who has a name game?” and have the group effortlessly flow into the activity?

We shared the last photo we’d taken on our phones and the story behind it. We shared the song on our phone we are currently most obsessed with. We shared the photo we are currently obsessed with. We were easing into this—light and breezy—every good cabin session needs to start like this. Low risk.

We went on from there, answering questions, laughing and accumulating inside jokes on the carpet and couch. Just like camp, suddenly the phrase Schmidt Fingers made us all giggle like kids and sent K into a mock-band intro, “Let’s give it up for Schmidt Fingers!” Or when asked why farts smell (it was one of the questions in the box) somehow the phrase Poop Toxins—also an excellent name for a band—came into the conversation and we referenced it repeatedly.

And in the accumulated stories and sharings, there was the activity of sharing a memory, not as the way it occurred but as how you WISH it happened. Memories were shared but tweaked. Other memories of things that never happened were shared as if they had happened. The energy of the room shifted into serious and quiet.

It was an excellent way to start a birthday weekend.

And when I think of these people, ages 24, 32. 39 and 43. I think of how we are a varied group of women. Various levels of education, varying life experience, various families etc. We are still Camp People. It is our common language.

Druckerman is right. “By your 40s, you don’t want to be with the cool people; you want to be with your people.”

Here’s to finding your people.

Link to Druckerman’s article

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/01/opinion/sunday/what-you-learn-in-your-40s.html?WT.mc_id=2015-Q1-KWP-AUD_DEV-0101-0331&WT.mc_ev=click&bicmp=AD&bicmlukp=WT.mc_id&bicmst=1420088400&bicmet=1451624400&ad-keywords=AUDDEVMAR&kwp_0=10646

Confessions from a Camp Counselor

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I have a confession. I am a memory hoarder. I collect meaningful experiences, stacking them in corners, hiding in special wooden boxes, folding them in books and framing them. It is the thankless job of the sentimental. It is the savoring of the moment.

I blame 19 years of camp for making me this way. You can’t write “warm fuzzies”—epic kind notes delivered to your friends at mealtimes—for that many years without attaching some meaning to them. They were sometimes funny, sometimes colorful but mostly spontaneous outbursts of affection and caring.

“I think you’re wonderful! I’m so glad we’re friends!”

Warm fuzzies are like helium balloons. From the outside they are small, silly looking bits of nothing important, but when they’re filled inside, they elevate. I remember an early warm fuzzy, when I was starting as a counselor, that I got from my camper Erin. She was 14 and had opened up to me about her detachment from her dad. Inside the carefully folded 8 ½ by 11 lined notebook paper she wrote,

“You are one of the top best things that has ever happened to me.”

And the words, like helium, began their lifting. I was never the same.

In the theater, they talk about being bitten by the acting bug.   Camp has our version of that. It is an addiction to the real, unbridled embracing of your authentic self and a desire to see each other’s “real” selves. It is wanting to illuminate their greatness so they see it. All I wanted to do was to influence people like that for as long as humanly possible.

Some days I’m just not as cool as I would like to be…a patient’s guide.

I’ve been poked, prodded, xrayed, cat scanned, operated on, radiated, examined and infused. I am guinea pig. I am a patient.

Once a month I spend a couple hours sitting in a foam green reclining chair having an immunosuppressant shot through my veins. The nurses find a vein, we both hope for a one-poke success rate and we get to the business of giving me a—wait for it—$14,000 medication in a small baggy the size of a sandwich Ziploc.   Like having a Hyundai for your veins. It chills me a little so I take advantage of the warm blankets they have, open some carefully chosen snacks and entertain myself for the next 2 hours.

Sometime a close friend comes. A small, selective group of individuals have been allowed to observe this, to be welcomed into that part of my life. I like it when they come.   I like pulling back the curtain on that part of my life. It is the part they have only heard me reference in conversation. I like when they hear one of the nurses walk by and yell, “Hey Hot Pants!” to me.

Today I was solo. Solitude in the hospital is often interrupted by bells in the hallways, nurses conversations at the stations outside my room door and the alarm bells that go off on the IV machine’s mechanics. That’ll give you a jolt. When people say, “I’m so sorry you have to do that.” I point out that I get to sit quietly in a chair for 2 hours and pretty much not move.

Forced Be Still time.

And then there are days like today.

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to have someone ram a bar of soap under the surface of your forearm? Ever wondered what it would feel like to notice that your wrist was suddenly aching more than the typical irritation of where the IV goes in? I know.

I pulled the gauze and tape back, trying to get the tug and pull on my skin to ease, hoping that would help the ache. When I pulled it back, there sat a lump on my forearm, right near my wrist. It was the size of a bar of soap. My eyes bugged and seen it been there me quickly turned to freaked out me.

I grabbed the button to call the nurses and pressed, hearing the beep start outside my door. 2 nurses came in and saw the enormous lump on my arm. They seemed unfazed by it, calling it an infiltration and explaining that the medication apparently had escaped my veins and was now making the lump in my arm. Did they not see the grotesque bulge? Would it have killed them to summon some horror or gasp at the weirdness? Something? Something to act like it was a little bit worthy of a small freak out?

Next time I’m going to heed the self-help books and ask for what I need. It will sound something like this, “Nurse…I need you to say, ‘Holy crap, that’s a biggie. No wonder you panicked and knocked the empty Coke can off the chair’s tray. Let’s just put some heat on that and give it some time to go down.’”

Either that or they could have opened with, “That is an alien baby inside there so we’re going to need you to put this heat on it to make the birth easier.”

I should have known better

I should have known better. I saw “Breast Cancer” on the caller I.D. when I picked up my landline—the line only my parents and telemarketers use. I pushed talk. I should have known better. We beat ourselves up for should have known better.

A pause before the caller picked up—a surefire sign of a telemarketer—“You are a tough lady to reach!” My eyebrows knit together, do I know her? She is perky.

“I’m calling for the Breast Cancer something something.”  I think of Debby. “We provide services for women who are dealing with breast cancer.”  I think of Cheri. “Can I put a postcard in the mail and see if you can donate a little something to help us out?” She sounds too damn perky to be calling me about cancer.

“You can put it in the mail and I’ll look at it and see what extra I have after my other donations.” I answer, terse. I’m suspect that she’s some random charity. I’m not sure if I have donated to them before. I think of Meagan. I think of Hannah and how my latest cancer donation body part is pancreatic.

“Aren’t you an angel!” She cheers, sweetness dripping from her lips, through the landline and all over my sudden and involuntary mourning. I can’t even stop to tell her to take me off her list. I can’t stop to tell her just send the damn thing. I can’t stop to tell her to tone done the syrup. I pull the phone away from my ear and click END.

I’m swamped with guilt. She was just doing her job. I have tears in my eyes.   I want to apologize without having to talk to her. I want to say, “It’s not that I don’t want to give you money. My friends just keep dying.”

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Cancer, some trees and a musical

“Into the Woods you have to grope, but that’s the way you learn to cope. Into the Woods to find there’s hope of getting through the journey.” –Stephen Sondheim ​Hiking alone is both comforting and terrifying.

Like any REI lovin’, fleece wearin’, t-shirt sweat wickin’ gearhead I am drawn to the romance the woods promises. The promise of escape and the promise of solitude hang like mossy streamers from the Big Leaf Maples of the Hoh Rainforest. I have faith that when I drive deep within the Olympic National Park to its lush and dense natural cathedral, I will be healed. Sounds like a tall order for a bunch of trees, I know. ​Heal me Woods. Also, please don’t let me get eaten by a bear. ​It’s not as if I am a hiking neophyte. For years I led backpack and canoe trips with teenagers for a week at a time into the Lake Ozette area of the Olympic National Park. Today I have my Gore-Tex jacket, my first-aid kit and my single blade Spyderco knife. I even brought a canister of Counter-Assault Bear Spray in its black nylon holster buried in my backpack. I am aware that hiding it behind a zipper and beneath Cliff Bars and a fleece hat makes it useless should a bear actually appear. ​I’ve also packed the unresolved mourning of the grief-stricken.

Only a week ago I had plans to see an old YMCA teen of mine—she’s now 26—for dinner. Normally I would be excited to see her. Instead, I was jumpy and tongue-tied, fumbling for words and questions to talk with her. Her physical transformation last week since spring—when chemo stole her hair—was shocking. Six months later, gaunt and quiet with dark circles under her eyes, she sat next to me in the backseat of Alex’s 15-year-old silver Nissan Stanza, struggling to generate enough energy to answer questions but falling silent after responding. ​

The Hannah I knew was missing. The Hannah I knew wore leopard print and threw masquerade-themed birthday parties. The Hannah I knew was a giggler, someone who wasn’t above bursting into laughter at a thought that crossed her mind. The Hannah I knew is a hugger. This Hannah leaned over to hug me in the car. I was relieved because she looked so uncomfortable and fragile I wasn’t sure if it was ok to hug her. She had been replaced by someone who seemed distant, but wasn’t. She’s dying. Pancreatic Cancer. ​

Sadness takes up more space in a daypack than you might think. Unlike snacks, it can’t be trimmed back or left behind in the car for when the hike is over. Instead—like drinking water at 2.25 lbs. per liter—heartache makes its presence felt along each mile and each foot of elevation change. There were pockets of regret—did I do enough? Say enough? Be present enough?—they weighed down the pack as I hiked. This was followed by Is that the last time I’ll see Hannah? Should I go try to go to Tacoma one more time? Despite my earnest questions, the Sitka Spruce mostly just listened.

​It was appropriate that it was raining. It would be difficult to settle into this mood with blue skies. Damp and heavy orange and brown leaves tiled the forest floor. Until now I’d only visited in the summer with The Masses, their white leather tennis shoes straight off the tour bus looking for the .8 mile Hall of Mosses Trail. Today I’ve only seen the truly committed—hikers decked out in rain gear—no matter what Mother Nature sends.

Veering off the main Hoh River Trail, I walk to the edge of the river, the bank four feet up and a wide flat Hoh before me. The Hoh’s color is a foggy blue-grey. This happens when the Blue Glacier on Mount Olympus grinds rocks into glacial flour. Beneath the surface hide chinook and coho salmon and coastal cutthroat trout. Cement colored smooth rocks varying in size from ping-pong balls to lumpy gym bags pave the shoreline. The Hoh is a blue-collar river if you ask me. It’s not there to look pretty—although it is—it is there to get the job done.Hands dirty after a hard day’s work kind of river. A river that is not afraid of any baggage I haul to its cloudy edges.

​I am here to talk to Hannah. I am here to have the conversation we could not have. ​Cancer’s a sneaky little bastard. The odds of a sick person being able, willing and ready to talk about the inevitable at the same moment the loved one is able, willing and ready are slim. This is amplified when the sick person is in her 20’s. No one wants anything to do with the inevitable. They run screaming in the opposite direction of the inevitable. There are no sweeping statements of Well she’s lived a good life. It is too soon for that. ​

So into the woods I go. My shorts damp from where the endless ferns have soaked my thighs as I make my way along the trail. Trailing my fingers behind me, they trip along the edges of the fern’s fingers and I hold them briefly. My old camp counselor Cheri taught me this—hand-holding ferns—when I was 19. Cheri used to say, “Hold this, it will keep you company till we get back.” We would look up above to the protective canopy of Doug firs and western hemlock late at night, the stars framed by the olive border. Cheri died of breast cancer. Holding the hand of a fern brings her back a little.

​Before turning back, I cross a worn and mossy bridge with a steady stream beneath it and turn left up the hillside. I can see the woven threads of the waterfall in the distance. Bushwacking my way through the overgrown path and stepping over fallen branches, I cinch my backpack straps down tighter. As the waterfall comes closer, it is now too noisy for my thoughts. Soon I climb over rocks on the edge of the now rushing stream and have to balance on a slippery log that threatens to disappear beneath my boots. A hop and a step to the side, I wobble and reach for a nearby branch and catch it in time to regain my balance. I am on the other side and the waterfall is directly in front of me, stretching 25 feet up with spray and mist beneath it. I close my eyes.

​Kuhhhssssshhhhhhhhhhhh. The sound is constant. ​“Thank you.” I whisper. ​

Why We Write it Down…stories we forget

Last night, I needed to find some photos of a dear friend.  It was the kind of urgency that comes with the dying, the definitive timeline, and has no wiggle room.  If only I could find the photos, maybe there would be one I had forgotten about, one that would make me say out loud in the quiet of my home, “Oh my gosh, I forgot about that one…”  That photo would carry a balm, a sense of You are losing that person, but not really, because you still have this..  

Would there be any pictures of us?  You know the ones.  Those photos where you can tell how well the friends connect from their comfort in the frame.  You can see the ease, the banter, the unapologetic mutual adoration, and silliness.

Pulling the cardboard box off the steel shelving in my guest room closet, I bent the folding flaps in my hurry to get to the albums.  Grabbing inside I tugged at the first of 3 small albums and opened it flat on my lap.  After only a couple of pages, there they were, pictures from conference.  One in particular had Dear Friend with a grin–not unusual–standing outside with my friend Nicole.

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Then I remembered what I didn’t know I had forgotten.

Nicole and I had been in charge of a cabin of seniors in high school.  DF was 18 and was in the cabin (DF is now an adult by the way) and Nicole and I had discovered–as you do at camp–that we connected.  We told the girls we were going for a quick walk while they finished getting ready for bed.  Our group was mellow and they’d likely chat a little and go to sleep.

We wandered the camp and even up to the edge of camp property–talking constantly–and eventually came back….MUCH later than planned.  I imagine we were easily an hour later than we’d planned.  Shameful, I know.  They were fine, by the way.

As we walked up the wooden steps of the cabin we noticed a piece of paper attached to the door.  Our names were on it.  It said, WHERE have you BEEN?  We have been worried SICK.  You said you would be gone for a little bit and it has been over an HOUR.  Sincerely, your CABIN.  

It is possible they grounded us.

We burst out laughing.   I couldn’t have felt more busted than if I had broken curfew as a teenager with my own parents.  We quietly opened the door, unsure of who was still awake.  One foot in the cabin and Dear Friend’s voice nailed us.  “Well look who decided to come back!”   She was clearly enjoying this, this role-reversal.  A teenage fantasy to put the adult in their life on the other end of a reprimand.  Except Dear Friend was trying very hard to keep a straight face.

The photo had brought it all back.  I’d forgotten this.  I thought it had been about the pictures, but the pictures were what brought back the story.  A story that now feels as needed as the photos of my Dear Friend.

And when I wonder if this text will be the last one she sends me, when impending and current sadness hides around the corner, I think I’ll say those same words in my mind and reprimand her.  “Where have you been?  I have been worried sick.”  I will flip it right back at her.

She’ll get it.

Linger a little longer

Linger

“Mmhmm I want to linger.
Mmhmm a little longer.
Mmhmm a little longer here with you.
Mmhmm and as the years go by, mmhmm I’ll think of you and sigh.
Mmhmm this is goodnight and not goodbye.”

Camp songs have a way of seeping into your skin like expensive hand cream, soaking your skin and helping you to realize that you are long overdue for that kind of nourishment. How we miss these things sometimes…

Linger” is like that for me. Sure there are funnier songs, goofier cheers, handmotions (don’t forget the handmotions, they often bring the whole song together) but Linger…like Wicked, Harry Potter, The Prince of Tides movie and good conversation tends to speak to my soul at the cellular level.

It is a song of appreciation.
A song of longing (in the sense of This is Not Enough time)
A song of presence. You were here with me and you will continue to be with me regardless of where we are.

That’s good time spent. The time spent sighing as I think back to warmth, openness and hilarity. I want those moments to linger too.