Lessons from a Camp Counselor

Lake Crescent

Do you need a life boost?  Want to giggle more?  Want to catch yourself smiling?  Below is a list of my top 10 lessons on how to be happier from a seasoned camp counselor.  

Why should you listen to a camp counselor?  Because if you have ever been to camp or around camp people you would know that we are another breed.  Everything we do is heightened.  Bigger laughs.  Longer hugs.  Deeper tears.  Monumentally silly.

Camp people won’t bullshit you.  Camp is a short time in the summer.  We work on a deadline.  None of this Take As Many Years As You Need nonsense.  Honey, when we  go to camp, we go big.  It is why, after a summer of intense experiences, we are often tongue-tied when people ask us how it was.

“How was my life changing time???” We think.

“Um…amazing” is usually all we can come up with.  There are rarely adequate words.

So whether you miss your camp days or are new to this and just want to find out what the fuss is about….this is my gift to you.

10.  Pay attention.

The other day I was driving to the ferry after hiking in the rainforest.  I stopped in Port Gamble (a quaint, if not a bit too Stepford for my tastes, town) to stop at this general store I like.  Instead, there was a thriving public garden with many Dahlias throughout it.  I got out my camera (see the photos) and my macro lens and went at it.  Never even went in the store.

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9.  Be silly. 

At camp we have a Prop Shed.  This is the shed back behind the stage at campfire.  It is filled with the most outstanding combinations of old dresses, funny hats, orange life vests, and oversized men’s blazers.  There is a dark green terry cloth bathrobe.  There is a football helmet.  I’m just getting started.  We argue over who gets to get the most outrageous outfit.  The goofier the better.

One of the dangers of becoming an adult is you forget this side of yourself.  You forget that pink feather boas (yes, I have one) can be fun.  You forget that sometimes wearing goggles and a Marilyn Monroe wig with swim flippers on your feet is the best way to not take yourself seriously.

8.  Sing.  Camp folk excel at this.  We know songs with great titles like  Albert the Camel. We Come From the Mountains and Chicken.  We know actions to songs, when to sway and when to clap.  We know that there are sometimes dirty versions of clean songs.  We embrace it all.  If you are not a camp person you may think all we do is sing Kumbaya.

We do sing it, but we also know the hand motions and all the verses.  BOOM.

7.  If you see something amazing in someone, say it.   Before your Grown-Up Self gets all I don’t do that  on me, hear me out.  People NEED this.  People don’t see the good in themselves nearly as easily as they see the bad.  They need you to point it out.  They may not be ready to believe you, but you should still say it.  You planted the seed.  And then maybe one day they start to think, “Maybe so-and-so is right….”

6.  Be ready for Burrito Night.  The dining hall kitchen has a schedule.  Burrito night is going to happen every Tuesday.   You’re sick of them.  It is fine.  Life goes on.  Be glad you have something to eat.  But stay away from the cheese.  Camp cheese gives you gas.

5.  Ask questions. Get tremendously curious about other people’s lives.  You will be surprised what people will tell you when you ask.  Here are some good starters.

Tell me your life story.

What do you do for fun?

What’s something you wouldn’t normally tell me?

If you were a medication, what would your side effects be?

HINT:  You will need to really listen for these to work.  They will lead to other questions.

4.  Show up.

When people are going through the darkness, show up.  Say, “I’m not going anywhere.” Then mean it.  If they want to talk, show them you can handle it (you can handle it by the way.)

3.  Stop wasting time acting like you think you’re supposed to act and just ACT LIKE YOURSELF.  If your next thought is, But I don’t know who that is...get busy figuring that out.

2.  Geek out about something.  Be shameless about it.  Think of those people who are obsessed with Star Trek.  The general public mocks them.  I admire them.  Be into what you’re into.  If something rev’s your engine, who cares what anyone thinks.  Fear usually sits in the space between “normal” and where you are terrified to go for it and just shamelessly be obsessed with something.

Geek out suggestions- TV shows, the history of basket weaving, Val Kilmer movies, the scientific names of plants, kitchen gadgets and my personal favorite…Broadway musicals.

1.  Love more generously.  Let the people you love know it.  This is too important a matter to leave it to chance, to hope that they will pick up on it.  Be generous with this. I have had camp friends run toward me as we bashed together in a great big hug followed by a sincere, “Love you.”  It is the greatest thing to hear and I am grateful they were courageous enough to say it.

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Is That a Bear on the Trail? Today’s Life Lesson…

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Facing a black bear in the middle of the forest never plays out like you think it will.  It is a lot like life that way.  I mean you can prepare and plan and make lists but the reality is it rarely ever happens the way you planned. 

We were stomping along the trail, the familiar rhythm that develops when you’ve been hiking for almost 4 hours and you’re almost back to the car.  It’s when your legs are on auto-pilot, when you have to pee but you’re going to hold it because you’re almost to the privy at the trailhead.  This is the part of the hike when you start to allow your brain to wander to what you really want to eat right now.

Burger…  Pizza….

Your trail mix and granola bar suddenly seem like the boring date you’ve put up with, but certainly don’t want to spend any more time with.

So yesterday, while hiking with K and her dog—only 10 minutes from ending a gorgeous hike in the Olympic National Forest—I glanced uphill in the forest about 50 feet away and thought I saw something…a black blob behind a tree.

I know, you want it to be more glamorous than that.  You want to me regale you with something Hollywood, but it wasn’t like that.

Then I thought I saw the blob move.

“K…stop walking.” I said in the same tone I might say, “K…I like your car.”

She didn’t stop.

“K…stop walking.”  I immediately said again.  This time, my tone was more I mean it.

“Stop.”  She did.  And I pointed out Bear.

She came over next to me, put her hand on my shoulder and said, “We need to look BIG.”  Yes, big is scary.  Let’s look big.

Then I’m almost positive K stood next to me, BUT a little behind me.  As if to say to Bear, “We’re both here, but if you have to chose, take her first.”

“What do we do?” she asked.

Being the experienced backpack trip leader I was suddenly the bear guru.

“We need to make noise to make him go away, let him know we are here.”

Then K started singing “Jingle Bells” at the top of her lungs.

That got his attention.   He looked at us.

I yelled out at him. “Go away bear!  Get out of here.  Move along!  Nothing to see here.”  Stuff like that.

He didn’t move much.

K switched it up in her No No Bear Medley to “Oh Susanna!  Oh don’t you cry for me!”

I whacked my trekking poles together to make more noise and waved them in the air to make us seem big.  Big, with long pokey weapons.

This would have been a great place for a cartoon thinking bubble to appear over Bear’s head.  I would have paid to find out what he thought right then..or if he enjoyed it when K changed to “Oh my darlin’, Oh my darlin’, Oh my darlin’ Clementine!”

He stood still, looking down at us for a minute—time moves slowly in these situations—and eventually moved a little up the hill and stopped.

“What should we do?” K asked before starting her next song.

“Let’s keep going since we know where he is and we can keep making noise.”  I said.

So we got out of there.  Mountain bikers who showed up about 5 minutes after us at the car said the bear had come back down to the trail…probably only minutes after we were gone.

Here is what I learned when faced with a bear.  This is by no means meant to be an authoritative guide.  Just one dufus hiker to another.  Hopefully the lesson will apply to your life as well.

  1. Pay attention to the little stuff.  Not all big furry problems announce themselves at the beginning.  Notice the dark blobs in the woods.
  2. Stop.  Don’t keep barreling down the trail when something is wrong, that can make it worse.
  3. Panic…later.   Right now, face it.  You’ll have plenty of time later to talk about all the ways it could have gone wrong.
  4. Stick together.  Lordy it sound cheesy but seriously, I hiked that trail ALONE last week.  Stand over here and let’s look big together.
  5. There’s no shame in hiding behind a friend.  Sometimes you’ll be the hider and sometimes you’ll be the hidee.  I mean why have friends if your only thought is, “Go deal with it on your own.”  Come stand by me.  Let’s see what happens.
  6. Wave your poles.  Use what you have.  Don’t worry about looking stupid.  If all else fails, you entertained the hell out of a bear.  That’s something to be proud of.
  7. Sing.  K has quite a vast repertoire of songs in her head.  I’m pretty sure she never imagined those songs would be the ones to come to mind.  I’m also sure that at some time in the future I might start humming them around her just to give her a hard time.
  8. When it is time, move on…even if it scares you.

You are braver than you think.

Boils, Blood and Baffled…and we’re just getting started.

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“Well let’s see what’s going on” the doctor says.  She is older than I am, likely in her 50’s and warm.  The fluorescent lights brighten the windowless room.

My dad is quiet in the chair to the side while I sit on the exam table, my legs dangling beneath me like a kid on the bars at school.  In a t-shirt and sweats, I look like I’m hanging out.  I look like I’m fine.  I wonder if the doctor thinks, “She’s 36, why is her dad here?”

“Well…” I hesitate.  Then I scoot back so my legs are straight in front of me and I carefully pull both of the pant legs of my thick cotton sweats up to my knees.

“Oh my.”  She says. I’m not sure if this is what doctors are supposed to say, but I appreciate her honesty.  I am glad she doesn’t hide her shock like other doctors might.  Her oh my validates what’s happening.  It gives me a little doctor street cred.

It acknowledges I am not imagining how hideous this is.

From the knees down, my legs have 20 boils all over them.  Each one to two inches in diameter and easily ½ an inch off of the skin.  They are full, deep red and raw from the blood beneath the surface and they hurt like hell.

When I start to cry around her later from the cumulative stress of the past 7 days of this, she comes over to my side and hugs me.