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.

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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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.

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?