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.

The Words We Say

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Words are my scrapbook.  I collect them.  Not the big and fancy ones–although at times they enhance my writing–but the ones that connect to my memory.  In the way that the smell of Purell–real Purell, green specifically–transports me back to the hospital, or the way the song “Two of Us Riding Nowhere” from the I am Sam soundtrack puts me in my red 2-door (2 cars ago) and back on the road to Maple Valley, words are my best memory.  They are the closest thing to traveling back in time and reliving moments.  

I remember words people say. 

I write them down. 

I save them like pressed flowers written on journals. 

Another friend–Debby–as she was in the last months of her life and we were talking on the phone (me-frantically writing down everything she was saying) would say–during awkward pauses when I’d stop mid-conversation, “You’re writing this down, huh?”

She knew I was saving the words.  She graciously allowed for pauses.  

Sometimes I retrieve words.  Usually these are in moments of needed comfort when everyday strategies fail me.  These are the kinds of moments when reliving the event, the conversation, the memory is imperative.  When nothing else seems to do the job. Moments of I want to remember. 

I want to remember how the generosity of words fills my soul. Kind, generous and compassionate words are a balm for rough days.  They are a light and firework for great days.  But more than that, the generosity of words from people that I know is something I savor and tuck away like precious bits of comfort that remind me who I am and who I am to others

Tonight I went word hunting.  Scouring my phone, racking my brain, “Where did I put those words?” I am looking for my friend’s words.  I know they are in my writing notebooks, tucked in the back so I didn’t confuse them with my writing-writing.  They are written quick and tight.  I just wanted to get them down, to make them permanent and to keep up with the conversation.  They are also in my phone and I search for the words–notes I’ve saved from conversations–hoping that they will be sufficient to sustain me. 

Here are some of them….gathered memories.

* I teased her that her cancer–Signet Cell Ring–sounded like something Voldemort would put a Horcrux in.

*We joked that “Friendship bracelets are nice, but friendship diamonds are WAY better.”

*When I shared my Girl Scout Cookies with her–in an act of clear self-sacrifice–and said, “Bet you love me now, huh?” 

and she said, “Yeah.  But I loved you already.”

*When she shared with me that she was cancer free–however brief that was–and added, “Thank you for talking and listening when I needed it.”

Words are the script to some of my very best days.  They remind me of some of the people I miss most.  This friend in particular.  I miss her already.  Being present with another is the essence of compassion, the foundation of these words.  

It is a reminder to me to be more generous with my own words, to see words as service and to see the withholding of warm and compassionate words as a lost opportunity for connection.

“Compassion doesn’t always call for grand or heroic efforts.  It asks you to find in your heart the simple but profound willingness to be present, with a commitment to end sorrow and contribute to the well-being and ease of all beings.  A word of kindness, a loving touch, a patient presence, a willingness to step beyond your fears and reactions are all gestures of compassion that can transform a moment of fear or pain.”

-Christina Feldman Compassion:  Listening to the Cries of the World