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There’s something about Sunday night
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Saturday, June 09, 2007


I listened to This American Life today; it was a rerun from 1998 about camp stories. It reminded me so much about my own camp experiences, and my heart ached a little at missing it so much. Things ended really badly for me--no perfect final summer to round out my memories--so for the longest time, I pushed thoughts to the back of my mind and when I thought about it at all, it was while sleeping, in nightmares.

But the truth is, mostly camp was a little crystalline bubble of perfection, an escape from the normal angst of teenage years, a wooded oasis of peace for six summers. I'd give anything to be able to return in some capacity. Like maybe there's a summer camp out there in the wilds of Wisconsin or Michigan who needs a social worker on staff?

I felt like I was a completely different person there. Still me, I suppose, but electrified. (The things I would do to make a kid laugh . . .) Maybe I remembered being a camper--of course I did--and as a counselor I wanted to make sure the kids took away wonderful memories like I had.

Two things stick out in my mind as important and special. The second year I counseled, during a junior high week, we had Invitational during vespers. The invitational was the one night during the week where we took communion and invited everyone in camp to accept Jesus into their heart. For campers who had been coming back summer after summer, this was a meaningful tradition, and the cabin chosen lead vespers tried its hardest to make the service a tearjerker. The counselors stayed behind to talk to any kid who needed it. Technically, this was for discussing spiritual issues, but inevitably kids who had gone through rough patches, like losing a friend or having parents get divorced, would stay to cry on someone's shoulder. I don't remember what happened at the service, or after, I just remember going back to the cabin and putting the girls to bed and laying down myself. A few minutes after I turned out the lights, one of my girls got me, and said another camper was crying. I crawled up to the girl's top bunk, and said, "sweetie, what's wrong?"

I wasn't the type who called people "sweetie" or "honey," but the girl was crying so hard that it slipped out of my mouth before I knew what I was saying.

"Sweetie, what's wrong?" and I gathered her in my arms.

She said, with difficulty through her sobs, that she didn't know whether or not she had Jesus in her heart. How do you know if you do?

That was a conundrum for me as well. I was supposed to be some sort of spiritual advisor for these girls, yet I wasn't even sure how I felt about things myself. At that very moment, I didn't know if I had Jesus in my heart. Was he supposed to wave and say hi once he got there or what? And since he hadn't, did that mean he hadn't shown up? I was only 18 or 19, fairly new to Christianity myself, and not 100% sold on it. Honestly, I think I was a camp counselor more for the kids and less because I was an avid Christian.

But you don't say that to an 11-year-old kid in spiritual crisis. You don't admit that you have no answers when she's sobbing and looking to you to ease her pain somehow.

So I asked her things about her belief, and I talked about how you never know anything for sure--you just have to believe. And believing makes things real. She stopped crying, and thanked me, and we both went back to sleep.

I don't know why this ranks up at the top of my experiences, but it seems so special to me.

The second thing happened my final year of counseling, for the most part, a pretty miserable time because of my co-counselors, not because of the kids. Senior high week towards the end, we had a closing ceremony for the graduating seniors--yet another opportunity to wring the most possible tears out of an evening. This particular class was special to me. They had been freshman when I was a senior, so I had been both camper with and counselor to them. After the ceremony, one boy said he had something important to talk to me about, and could we go for a walk. We ended up sitting by the lake under the stars. I was slightly nervous, because I knew I had to be careful about anything with the slightest hint of inappropriateness, and a counselor and camper of opposite sexes off somewhere alone could fall into that category. But he and I had been friends since we'd met, at a youth rally four years before.

He talked about meeting me then. As a senior, Kurt Cobain and grunge had finally hit Marion, and I embraced the combat boots, flannel shirts, and what Hannah called my "elephant" pants. I ran around the youth rally, according to him, this really cool person, unlike any Christian he had ever met. Like him, he thought, and he decided he maybe could find a place for himself in religion. (It didn't hurt that he was a hot little skater punk. I have a weak spot for them.) He said he considered me his spiritual mentor. I didn't know how to respond, how to let him know that no one had ever said anything more wonderful or meaningful to me in my life. How to thank him in a way that conveyed how honored I was. I don't remember what I said.

I'm not the person I was back then. But I suppose I don't have access to the same environment, and the world seems like a harder place now--no place for the same blissful summers where you're closed off from the real world, existing in a special dream place like camp.

The first summer counseling, I felt alive and hypersensitive every single moment, drinking in the experience. I made friendships with my co-counselors that I thought would be rock solid for the rest of our lives, but the intensity that camp fosters rarely translates successfully to the mundane world. I thought I'd fallen in love, too, and remember like it was yesterday a walk we took, on the way to the chapel, revealing our feelings and the tragedy that we could not be together (for myriad reasons).

Oh, everything was so dramatic and important back then. (Maybe it came from being 18, too.)

My last summer counseling was night and day different than the first. I felt I was on one side of a canyon, my co-workers on the other, and I couldn't figure out how to build a bridge across to them. It didn't seem like they were trying to connect with me, either. I felt so isolated, and threw myself into the work, ignoring the importance of connecting with them. The tone was different, too. I always looked forward to immersing myself in a deeply spiritual summer and making new friendships, but suddenly the space was no longer safe. I was no model Christian during my college years, but the woods were sacred to me. The other counselors were profane, disrespectful, pretty much assholes, really.

The hardest week was senior high. I was 20, so not much older than some of them, but a few of the counselors were where I was two years previous--just a summer out of their own camping experience, and good friends with some of the very people they'd have to take charge of. S, the boys' counselor I shared a cabin and responsibilities with, he was my age, with a year or two of counseling experience, thus theoretically more capable than some of the younger counselors. Yet he was one of the worst. It was more important to him to be liked, and he took inappropriateness to an extreme.

In the middle of the week, he supervised the kids who wanted to drag their mattresses out to the communal porch to sleep. I stayed in my bunk on the girls' side with a few of the campers who didn't want to brave the mosquitos. The porch crowd didn't get much sleep, and I didn't close my eyes all night. I don't know what reality S was experiencing that made him think that sex, sexist, and race jokes were somehow appropriate in that setting, but nonetheless, that's what he was telling. Then he started talking shit about the other counselors. I could hear everything clearly through my open window in the quiet woods that night, and I felt like I was being kicked in the stomach over and over and over. Today, though, I don't remember if he said anything bad about me. Everything about the night was so horrible, him talking cruelly about me would not have made things noticeably worse. I don't know if it was an idea that has only come to me over the years, or if I thought it but couldn't execute it: I should have gotten up, gone out to the porch, and asked S if we could take a walk. The kids, of course, would have known as soon as we were out of earshot, that he would be in deep trouble--or so he would have told them later. I was so meek and passive that I probably couldn't have said how I really felt. Or maybe I would have just started crying.

I am slightly proud to believe if this happened today, I have grown enough that I would have addressed it. Back in 1995, though, I stayed in my bunk, crying and praying all night.

And then I think of the "Footsteps" poem, and I felt God with me that night, but what I would have given not to be there, listening to hatefulness where there should have been love.

I wanted to leave the next day. I was leaving early anyway, to study in Ireland, skipping the last week of the summer. I only had a week left before then, and I didn't think I could make it after that night. The only person I felt close to was the camp director, and she asked me not to go.

So I stayed, and got through the end of senior high week, and the next week. I don't know how, or what happened. That night was burned so deeply on my consciousness that, more than ten years later, it's really the only thing I remember from that hellish summer.

I relived it in dreams for years after. My photos are stuffed far out of sight; last time I checked, it even hurt to look at them. My whole love affair with camp was obscured by that last summer. It seemed so unfair that I couldn't even locate my good memories of it; my sleep self only recalled the bad.

But ten years have passed. I'm a different person now, which is good. Maybe someday, back in Kansas, visiting for the summer, I could go back and make peace with the woods again.

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Blogger Lesley said...

It seems as though it was easier to have those intense kind of experiences when we were younger and actually had the time for such experiences. I was just thinking the other day about how busy my summers were when I was in school -- camp, church stuff, theatre, job -- and yet, there was also tons of time to close myself off from the world, as you say.

I remember sort of wishing that I could get a glimpse of the people you and LeAnn were when you went to camp. It sounded so fun!

2:40 PM  

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