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.

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.

Look a Little Closer

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SONY DSCSONY DSCOn the twisting backroads to the YMCA camp I worked at for 19 years there was a flower farm–a single-wide home on a large lot with an enormous flower garden to the side–at the edge of the garden there was a worn, wood park bench with an old coffee can sitting on it.  Around the can was a handmade wrapped sign “Flowers 10c”  and a pair of garden shears balanced on the lid.

It was the honor system.  I especially liked that.

In the summer on our time off, the staff would often swing by, dig into our pockets for extra cash and bring back armfuls of flowers–dahlias mostly–their mix of color and shade in a blossom that looked like the fireworks we watch off the dock at 4th of July.  The flowers were never for us.  They were for some unsuspecting friend or friends back at camp.  We would bring them into the dining hall and place them in a plastic bucket we’d borrowed from the kitchen.

We bought dahlias because their personalities were big and their message was bold, just like we were.

Lessons from a Camp Counselor

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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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Yes, I quoted Oprah. So sue me. A tree lover’s guide to cancer and the woods.

What I know for sure regarding grief and nature.

Yes, I did it. I quoted Oprah. I’m not proud of it but the line came to me and I’m going to own it.

This weekend I was reminded of a few things I know for sure.   I escaped this weekend. Broke the chains of laundry. Tore off the shackles of dishes and vacuuming. Late on Friday night—in a moment of spontaneous decision-making—I hopped online, booked a hotel room and packed a bag. Then, like a kid who’s just gotten away with something, I smiled, crawled into bed and set my alarm to make an early ferry.

I had to.

Maybe it was the residue of the previous weekend.   I’d spent the evening with a 25-year old friend who is knee-deep in the trenches of pancreatic cancer. Not good.

Not just not good. Bad.

I am so tired of cancer. I am tired of its systematic and relentless pursuit of people I love. I resent the way it takes who it wants regardless of circumstance, character or age. So you can appreciate why I didn’t give a damn about my dishes or the fact that there are three Amazon Prime boxes sitting in my living room with their contents strewn about. All of this warranted ACTION on my part.

Get the hell out of town. Run for the woods. Head to the Hoh Rain Forest.

It needed to be a little inconvenient. The ferry ride, the 3+ hour drive. You see, the inconvenience underlined the significance of leaving. I needed to be away, tucked beneath Sitka Spruce and Douglas Firs well over 200 feet. Moss blankets everything from boulders to every inch of branches that reach out like fuzzy fingers. I needed the serenade of the Hoh River, its conversation, a loud party full of light chitchat. I longed for the solitude of a trail where I go at my pace and stop when I want to take pictures (even if I already stopped a minute ago.) I want the freedom to jump when thunder booms above me and to leave my hood down when the downpour comes. I want to take the untouched side trail—the soggy ferns soaking my shorts as my thighs pushed them back with each step—up to the waterfall to get a better photo and to stand there and close my eyes.

Normally, whenever I return to the trailhead, to the comfort of my car and whatever snacks I’ve left behind, there is a sense of pride. An I did it. This time I felt that, but it was different. Something about the forest opens me.

I text a video of the waterfall to my 25 year old friend.

Me: I sent you a waterfall. Early birthday present.

My friend: Thank you!!!!!!!

Me: I mentally took you on the hike. I hope you aren’t sore.

My friend: It was like I was physically there!! My legs are killing me! How many miles was that again?

Me: Just shy of 6. I have to tell you, you weren’t very helpful when we found ourselves on the trail with a big elk about 30 ft. ahead and another one about 30 ft. behind (with their family peering in from the bushes.) Otherwise, you were a trooper.

My friend: Oh my gosh!!! I bet I was useless. “Oh look, large and dangerous mammals. LET’S PLAY WITH THEM!!!”

Me: I thought when I had to tell you to stop trying to pet them was the real low point.

My friend: That was the low point. Even their antlers are furry!

Somewhere during the texting conversation the tears started. Tears of loss, of pent up energy, of fatigue. These were tears of relief. Relief that we could still play. Relief that we could pretend we had hiked and faced down some elk together. Tears that sometimes the best way to connect is to talk about what you wish you did rather than what you have to do.

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What is summer to you?

photo (10) water sunset self-portrait sunset boatSummer has a way of sliding over me like my favorite t-shirt. It takes a little while for me to settle into my summer stride.  Maybe you relate. You know, first I have to fight off the nagging feeling that I should use my vacation to be productive, that I should EARN my vacation by a lot of work.  But then I went camping recently (and totally lacking anything productive) and suddenly it felt real.  There was a precise moment (sitting in the camp chair, feet on the picnic bench, joking about our state park neighbors) when I actually said, “This feels like summer.”

I have a long and meaningful relationship with this season.  I went to camp as a kid and then worked at a camp for 19 years.  I GET summer.  It is a magical time for me. Summer isn’t about weather for me. It is about 5 simple things.  What about you?

1) Being outside.  Getting my nature on.  Wandering into the woods or out on a dock and enjoying not being surrounded by people.  Having the view–the extraordinary view–be enough.  Be MORE than enough.

2) Relaxing.  Not I’ve got 15 minutes to sit down relaxing. I’m talking FORGETTING YOU HAVE A JOB relaxing.  This is the moment where your biggest decision is Should I make more tea or finish off the Doritos first?  It isn’t necessarily laziness–though Lord knows that’s an art form–it is about enjoying the pace of right now.  Nowhere to be.

3) Camping.  Now I know this might be sketchy territory for some folks, but hear me out.  Camping (or hiking even) gets you out of your space.  Gets you out of your home.  Gets you out of your parking spot.  It makes you small in the world.  Bye bye TV.  Hello, JUST SIT THERE.  Watch the way the fire licks the sides of the log you just turned over.  Stare up and actually notice that there are stars in the sky.  Stare long enough that you can’t count them.  Sip a cup of tea, tilt back in the chair and balance a book on your knee.  A BOOK.  Remember those? Heaven.

4) Laughter, preferably about something ridiculous and unimportant.  My friend and I, while polishing off cheese quesadillas, killed a good 1/2 hour discussing whether we could buy green vests and pretend to be the volunteer campground hosts.  We talked about what our duties would be and how we would hide the evidence if the real hosts came around in their golf carts.

5)  Being with kindred spirits.  My favorite people on the planet are kindred spirits.  They know me, they get me, they have no desire to change me, they banter, you get the idea.  True summer to me is saying to them,”I want to spend time with you” and their response is “Me too.”

What about you?  What makes your summer magical?

Open Your Soul and See What Happens

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When I suggested our college-age YMCA cabin group do the activity “I’m from a place” I knew I was suggesting they open their souls to each other and trust that the group would support them.  That was how “I’m from a place” worked.  In this activity, the group stands up and spreads around the room—our room being about 15×15—and the group is quiet.  Then one person steps to the side and says, “I’m from a place….” And fills in the rest of the sentence for them.  It doesn’t have to be detailed, it can even be general, but it should be personal.

Things like…

I’m from a place where my parents don’t understand what is important to me.

Or

I’m from a place where I’m not sure where to go with my life right now.

Or

I’m from a place where it is hard to tell who my real friends are. 

Or

I’m from a place where I feel loved and supported most of the time.

Since these are college-age participants, their comments often are about finding their place in the world, what kind of decisions to make etc.  And, when someone in the group steps to the side and says their statement, then everyone who identifies or connects with that statement comes to stand near them and put their hand on their shoulder (or on the shoulder of someone who already has their hand on that person.)  Then, once everyone who has moved is done and there is a few moments of support, the next person steps to the side and says their “I’m from a place…”

This goes on for maybe 30 minutes with a group of 12.  Usually everyone goes about 2, maybe 3 times.  It is quiet.  It is thoughtful.  It is supportive.  It is intense.

And the feeling in the room as people quietly say something that is true for them, is powerful.

As the facilitator of the activity, I usually go first.  It sets the tone and gives them an idea of how it works.  It also gives the permission so to speak, to go to the place where they share the thing they struggle to say.  I don’t do this with all groups.  Not all groups get to the place where this activity is the right choice for them.  This is also one of those activities where I ask the group if they are interested in doing an something that really puts it out there. I tell them, “This is a beautiful activity and it is powerful, but if you aren’t in the mood and want to keep it light, are feeling distracted etc., it is totally cool to do something different.”

This particular group was on board.

So we started.  Simple.  Deep.  Honest.  Even when their I come from… was vague, it always hinted enough that individuals could interpret it as they wished.

Such as, “I come from a place where I’m really struggling right now.”

We don’t know why or how that person is struggling.  We don’t know if we are struggling in the same way.  But the reality is that it doesn’t matter.  If you are struggling and I am struggling, then we come from the same place.

We got the activity started and before you know it people gathered around, hands on shoulders, a hand or two on backs and other people standing nearby.  In a few moments, the whole group was connected.  Silent, but connected.

After a few moments—which we called “Giving the sharing its time” someone new stepped away.  And on it went from there.

My anxiety climbed after about 10 minutes when I thought about sharing my “I come from…” with the group.  I wanted to be able to say how what had made this last year so painful—so heartbreaking—but couldn’t find the words.  Everything seemed inadequate, or too specific.  I wanted to speak a truth for me—one that captured the profound loss without saying the details.

Also, as the leader of the group, I didn’t want it to be about me too much. I could be a part of the group to a certain extent, but not so much that the spotlight stayed on me.  The only people who had a sense of what my last year had been like were my co-leader and one of the participants who I had know for 4 years.  As I scrolled through possible phrases, they all seemed to miss what I was trying to say.

I come from a place of deep hurt.

I come from a place where this last year I feel like I no longer remember who I am.

I come from a place of deep, deep anger at the events that have happened.

None of them worked.

When I finally knew what to say I almost panicked at the thought of speaking such pain aloud.  To say this in a group of strangers would be one thing, but 2 of the people (my co-leader and “R”—the participant) would know what I meant.

I stood to the side and said, “I come from a place where I have lost one of the most important things in my life this year.”

Gradually, one by one, they came over to me.  The comforting pressure and warmth of hands rested on my shoulders.  Gathering friends—strangers only 2 days ago—moved beside me and behind me.  Then R walked in front of me and faced me.  She went against the norm of the activity, stood a foot away from me—closer than you stand if you are going to have a conversation, more like a hug—and she looked up at me until she had my eyes.   Reaching out, she took both of my hands—another unchartered territory in the activity—and she held both my hands.

She knew what I was referring to when I said I had lost significant things and people.  She knew exactly.  Standing behind me, or next to someone else was not enough.  R knew the pain I was referring to.  She had seen it play out.  Even though she was 16 years younger than I was (a 19 to my 35,) she stood with me in that moment.  I was unaware of the others once she did that.

Rarely have I felt so exposed, so vulnerable and so supported at the same time.

She didn’t say anything.  She just smiled at me and squeezed my hands.

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