Miss Muskie and her crew of campers, circa 1980
I have never been able to encapsulate the intense feelings that accompany an experience of living for an extended period of time amongst a group of people who are all around the same age. However, when I meet up with someone who has had such an opportunity, there is almost an unspoken smile, a nod and a faraway glimmer in their eyes. They know. They know.
For 12 summers during my youth, I spent time immersed in a community that offered this expansive emotional ride. At age 9, I attended Camp Kawabi for the first time as a camper and fell in love with the place and its energy. It began as a two week stint, but morphed into one month at age 12, and then the whole summer when I transitioned onto staff when I was 15, continuing until it was time to say goodbye the very last time the summer I turned 21.
Even though its been more than 25 years since then and many of the events, activities, connections, the late night antics, days off, canoe trips, chapels, campfires, hot summer sunny days and rainy day hikes have blended together, there are moments which are still so crystal clear. They allow me to revisit a time when I learned how intense a keenly felt sense of belonging can alter how you look at the world and what is really important in life. Friendship, love, acceptance, trust in others, trust in myself, respect and appreciation for differences, mentoring, supporting one another, helping others .......... all continue to feed my sense of who I am, what I believe in and who I strive to be with confidence. Most predominantly ensconced however are the feelings which I treasure... ALL of them.
These are the same emotions and values which we learn from our families as well, but when a person has the chance to step out beyond their own nest into a group and experience the unbelievable joys and sorrows of belonging? It takes you to a place one can only share with a kindred spirit who has experienced it as well. Believe me, I've tried to explain this but I've never managed to get it right.
These thoughts have re-emerged of late as I've done my best to help my children make sense of it. In the past 5 months, they have experienced this amazing intensity; last summer for my daughter when she signed on as a Counsellor in Training at Camp Glenburn and more recently for my son, who just returned from a month in Costa Rica with an organization called CISV (Children's International Summer Villages.) Both of them have ventured off our front lawn to live amongst a group of peers, led by trusting people. They have learned many new skills which will come in handy as they grow into adults. The values we have done our best to pass on to them have been reinforced fully by their experience. And, they have made longlasting heart connection friendships with others who draw upon the same feelings and the same values. Independently, they both found themselves immersed in a sense of belonging so wondrous that it left them reeling.
Martha and her Glenburn kindreds, smiles from the inside out
Not wanting the moments to end, they returned home overwrought with the sorrow of saying goodbye to the friends who are like family and goodbye to life altering happenings. Many stories. Many questions and new ideas. Big tears. Big pain. Big transitions back to the ordinary reality of a home routine and the reconnection to family and friends they had left behind. To say this adjustment is difficult is an understatement. To say these life lessons are important is also an understatement. Why? Because so many internal shifts happen during these opportunities and they happen within a relatively short time frame. It takes a while to adjust, to refocus, to recognize the personal impact. It's all positive in the long run, but in the short run, the initial feeling of pulling away from a group your whole spirit was blended into is akin to losing a piece of yourself. I wish everyone could have a chance to go through this ride.
For some mysterious reason, I spent their first days home with them alone. With my daughter, I was the lucky one to pick her up at camp on the last day. If you've never seen a group of teenage camp counsellors on the morning after the campers have left at the end of the summer, you'd never believe it. Not only do they look like a train wreck because they haven't really slept much all summer because they've worked their butts off running "the show" caring for the "ankle-biters" and stringing the late nights "hanging out" with their buddies, they have just pulled one last all-nighter as a way to stretch their final moments together. Believe me, it's brutal! I've been the sleep deprived counsellor with a mitt full of snotty kleenexes and a heart that feels like its been ripped out. It is the emptiest bone weary feeling. Now, I can say I was the Momma loading the van of half packed bits of summer memories, luring the sobbing daughter to the front seat and then listening through my own tears to the stories and pouring emotions while trying to keep the van on the winding road home.
My heart broke for her......... the magically lovely summer moments of bonding with kindred spirits was over. It has changed her in ways she still isn't fully aware of. It stretched her, comforted her, AND discomforted her. That's what important learning does. It offered her a really good taste of independence, of learning how to make decisions, to weigh options, to be herself and to know the unbridled trust you can feel when sharing your deepest secrets with someone who not only "gets you" but accepts you unconditionally. Those gifts of friendship will forever be quilted to her soul. I know, because mine still are. And you know what? I still miss my camp days..... all these years later. It was that meaningful. The lessons linger........... The lessons guide me daily.
We talked and talked, just the two of us for a whole day.......... I left her alone when she needed to sift through her memories and I tried to be there for her when she wanted to share a story. I promised she could have all of her camp friends visit whenever it could be arranged, though I knew it wouldn't be the same. My empathy was boundless and I knew her transition was going to be a rough ride. Her friends whom she had left behind at the beginning of the summer couldn't understand her disinterest in coming back to "planet earth...." It took time........ and a bunch of mini reunions throughout the fall to help her find her footing again while she readjusted to the changes inside herself and to have those leadership value lessons reinforced more fully.
Max in Costa Rica with his arm around his new buddy.....could the smile be any bigger?
My son who is younger than I was to have gone through such an amazing experience......... he's only 12......... also crash landed. He returned home at the end of January. His reaction was even more intense because the people he grew close to live in other countries around the world.......... Finland, Sweden, Brazil, England, Costa Rica, Thailand, Guatemala.... this put a whole new spin on it.
Despite the language differences, and the adjustment to being so darn far away from home, he gathered a whole heart and head full of awareness that he will forever be changed. Even though the geographical distances are huge and that reality is what hits him the hardest, he is tied to a group of kindreds who also absorbed the same huge lessons ..... global peace, equality, leadership, advocacy, problem solving and many many more. He has joined a group of multi-cultural kids who have become enlightened while they became friends for life.
On the day I spent home with my son before he returned to school, we shared tears and talked. It was probably the most important relationship building day for the two of us. I shared stories with him that I hadn't before. He shared stories with me that perhaps he wouldn't have if he thought I wouldn't understand. Like I did with his sister, I expressed to him how privileged he is to have had the opportunity to feel life as deeply as he has......... AND to know that the friendships he made will always remain with him along with his own learning. I pointed out that he now has his own group of kindreds he will forever be attached to and that because of his opportunities, he has a responsibility to continue to expand his awareness of the plight of others. He gets it. At age 12, he knows that joy is eternally tied with sorrow.......... and all the feelings in between.
It has been intense, but it has all be very very good. Tonight, I say a prayer of thanks for my own experiences at camp because once again........ they helped me understand what my children were feeling and guide them through big maze of milestones they are coping with in their young lives. In turn, they have helped me re-evaluate those lessons I gathered up, as well as gave me another glimpse at how important those friendships have been all these years.
Max learning a few new dance moves at a War Child fundraiser on Saturday evening.