Taken in the Chihuly Gardens; Seattle, Washington, July 2018
Did you go to camp as a kid? I did: Camp Pettijohn Springs just over the Texas-Oklahoma border. I started going when I was about twelve years old and went every summer until I was eighteen. It was both a broad, flat red-dirt plain and hilly, tree-covered wood. The girls got the cabins in the shady trees, the boys got the cabins on the sun-baked expanse.
The pool was at the bottom of a hill, and its deep end was full of algae and weeds, so that when I jumped off the diving board, I would curl my legs up under me, lest my toes brush those creepy leaves.
The mess hall was a favorite place. Here is where Bible Bees happened in my younger days, meals were wolfed down, and talent shows were put on.
We had an annual talent show act performed by our youth minister, a stand-up routine in which he acted like a silly little boy with a sideways baseball cap and puffed-out cheeks, then two of the senior boys set up that daffy thing you’ve probably seen where one guy has his hands behind his back and the other one does the actions- including the eating of whipped cream and squirting of ketchup and such. We laughed like maniacs every single year. All the singers, including me, would perform Contemporary Christian numbers, and I think I remember someone playing the spoons. Right outside the mess hall was a propane tank emblazoned with the word “Danger.” We sat on it like it was a horse, lots of harmless flirting happened around the Danger.
The traditional Sunday night arrival supper was baloney sandwiches, but for the rest of the week, food was pretty good. KP duty meant your cabin stayed after meals to wipe down tables and mop up cement floors. At meal times, you were not permitted to put your elbows on the table, if you did and were caught, a song might ring out:
“Get your elbows off the table, David H!
Get your elbows off the table, David H!
We have seen it once or twice and it isn’t very nice,
Get your elbows off the table, David H!”
It was always followed with another song, “Round the Mess Hall You Must Go,” which finished with a stipulation. You might have to run around the mess hall skipping backwards, perhaps hopping like a bunny or singing loudly. If you were lucky in love, you’d be assigned the direction “holding hands,” and the whole Mess Hall population would wait with bated breath to see who you picked to hold hands with.
I saw my first tarantulas and centipedes at Camp Pettijohn. I was so traumatized by the centipede that I could barely sleep for fear that one would crawl, with its hundred nasty little legs, into my sleeping bag.
There was a small metal building that served as our canteen, and twice daily we queued up to get sodas and snacks with our canteen punch cards. My favorite was peach Jolly Rancher sticks dipped in a Sprite, the candy would give just a hint of peachy goodness to the Sprite. When we were teens, boys and girls might use their canteen cards to buy their crushes treats.
The only air conditioned building on the whole site was the chapel, which was a sweet little brick building overlooking a drop-off covered with trees. The windows at the front of the little chapel gave us a glorious view of Oklahoma sunsets over dense green leaves. If memory serves, it was carpeted with some sort of green turf. There were gorgeous devotionals in that chapel, and mid-day Bible studies in shady cabin breezeways.
I always came back from camp with an awesome tan, a suitcase full of dirty clothes smudged with sweat and red dirt, and a list of new pen pals. I slept for about eighteen hours, then got up to head to Sunday morning church, full of light and joy.
As a youth minister’s wife, I spent several years in my 30s attending a different camp, this one in Texas Hill Country along the Medina River; while it shared some traditions and characteristics with the Camp Pettijohn of my youth, it had its own beauty and rituals. Here I was cabin counselor and lifeguard, trying to love on girls while calming my own introverted spirit. A cabin of thirty noisy sixteen-year-olds can be a lot to take in! I loved Bandina for the years I got to attend: its traditional camper vs. counselor softball game, its rope swing, its large, shady gazebo. The food, cooked lovingly by a team of folks from the various churches, was fantastic- way better than the food at Camp Pettijohn (sorry, Pettijohn peeps). Evening worship and talent were in a sweet little outdoor amphitheater, and hymns were accompanied by the sound of hundreds of feet shuffling the gravel that lined the aisles. Late night devotionals happened on the rocky riverside. During the dark hours while campers were sleeping, deer always came out to find snacks and crumbs left on the wide open field around which all the cabins were encircled. My favorite times were the singing sessions in the screened-in dining hall, when 500 people sang songs both silly and holy with every bit of their bodies and souls. The very best memories, though, are spending time there with my own kids. When my youngest wanted to be baptized in the river, I drove to be there and walked into that river with my baby girl and her big brother, who baptized her.
It made me sad when the folks who ran the camp told me I couldn’t come any more because I had switched to a different flavor of church. That sort of closed mindedness, that denies people whose walks might be a little off the approved path, can make it hard for folks to stick with church. At least, it did for me.
The best part of camp was always the friends. In both of these camps, you spent quality time with kids and adults from other churches, other towns, other states. You made real friends. I still have a handful that I am in touch with. Back in the 80s, you had to write real, honest, paper letters; and we did. Now, kids get to follow each other on Instagram- so cool! Camp creates connection. We all need it.
I have been asking people to share old camp stories, and have gotten some great responses:
“A raccoon ate my toothpaste.”
“Finding out I was very naturally good at archery, when I was struggling and behind on every other activity out there. It was nice to find my ‘thing.'”
“Breakfast in bed for having the cleanest cabin.”
“Pranks, kitchen raids, spying on others, building campfires – I worked camp staff for years. We had the most fun when getting in trouble was a possibility.”
“Hiking up Hermits Peak and holding hands with a guy by the time I got to the top.”
There have been a few stories that are sad: abandonment worry, being shunned, getting hurt. I guess every good thing has some dark stuff, too.
My life now is defined by a mission to recognize magic in an ordinary life, and to share it; and I believe that for many of us, summer camp was, and is, magical. Whether church affiliated or not, camp gets us into nature. We swim and hike and tell tales under the stars. We sing- have you ever heard of a camp without songs? Whether it’s “Big Booty,” “On Top of Old Smoky,” or “El-Shaddai,” music is pure enchantment. We use our hands to make cool crafts. Best of all, camp creates friendship, and love between people is about the best magic there is.
What’s your camp story?
Right now, it seems like a constant stream of photos of little ones standing in chain link enclosures, sleeping on cement floors, or crying as they are pulled from their parents.
Social media and the news are, rightly, responding to the crisis with unrelenting coverage. I don’t remember this sort of head-on, non-stop coverage of a subject since the days of 9/11.
Over and over, I see memes:
Care for homeless veterans, not immigrants.
Care for American children, not foreign ones.
We can do both. I have said it over and over in Facebook conversations: we are wealthy enough to do both. We have the resources to take care of immigrants, to let them in, to help them transition. They are coming from hellish circumstances that we white American folks have never, ever had to encounter. Ever.
Many policy pundits say it is American policies in Central and South America that have created the very hellish circumstances from which desperate families now flee. We need to own that. We need to fix it. If our policy is to send them home, we are sending them back to the burning building that we helped torch.
We have enough. We have enough. I say it again and again: we have enough.
When you have enough, you share. You don’t hoard.
My life’s purpose has become to foster joy, to recognize how magical life is, to help others see and feel their own magic, and so I keep trying to walk in light. But this situation just hurts. Putting on a happy face feels disingenuous.
I have always had a mother’s heart. It’s the very core of me- this need to mother and love. I cannot watch these families be separated, I cannot hear the frightened wails of these children, and turn away. I will not harden my heart. And I will not stay quiet just so people feel comfortable. Rise up.
These are the two organizations that I have donated to:
“Travel light, live light, spread the light, be the light.”- Yogi Bhajan, photo by Kim Bryant, Fairy Middlin’.
Texas has beautiful lakes, and Lake Brownwood in central Texas was where I spent countless hours, swimming like a tadpole. I swam a lot in pools, too. I remember swimming in the pool in the apartment complex where we lived when I was eight and my dad taught me how to blow out under water and how to dive off the edge of the pool; when we moved to Grand Prairie, the heavily chlorinated community pools were regular destinations. My mom signed me up for summer swim lessons at Cottonwood Park, and this, along with sports practices and games, were the only things she could be reliably depended on to take me to as her depression and addiction worsened.
The head swim teacher was named Miss June, and she was magnificent! She was tall and athletic, loud and bossy, with spiky strawberry blonde hair and a slightly crooked front tooth; she ruled the pool with an iron fist, a shrill whistle, and a sharp eye. Forty years later I can hear her voice as clearly as my own: ordering flutter kicks, holding up tummies so our backs stayed straight, and teaching us how to cup our hands to get good water resistance. Over the course of several summers I moved from beginner swimmer up through the ranks to advanced, swimming 60 to 75 laps a session under her watchful eye. She taught me the jackknife dive, and she tried, summer after summer, to get me to dive headfirst off the high diving board. I would walk right to the edge of the board, toes gripping the end, breathe deeply and visualize a smooth easy fall… but I could never do it. I could never take that plunge. Fear was too much, like I said, I have ever been cautious. She wanted me to swim on a team or certify to be a lifeguard, but I didn’t quite have the resources to make that happen. Later, when I was thirty-one and offered the chance to certify as a river front life guard for the church camp my husband worked, I jumped at the chance. I got into the pool with all the teenagers and swam the laps, drug the weights off the floor of the deep end, and earned a bright red swimsuit and my very own whistle. That was a dream come true, and every time I grabbed my float and climbed the ladder to the lifeguard stand, I swelled my chest just a little and sent a thank you to Miss June.
Even better than the pool at Cottonwood Park was the lake. I have a very favorite place in the world: my grandparents’ lake house in Brownwood, Texas, a cedar shake cabin surrounded by live oaks and marked by a mailbox set in an antique milk can. My love affair with this place began when I visited it for the first time as an awkward twelve year-old, lost in the morass of junior high hell, wearing a polyester red gym suit and having my bra strap popped by idiot boys. Mornings began on the porch swing, my grandmother June drinking coffee while I had orange juice. She loved to watch for birds. My brothers and I caught tiny frogs and kept them in plastic margarine bowls provided by my grandmother and we spent the afternoons taking running leaps off the top of the boat dock. One time, my brother Lance grabbed my hand for a pellmell vault into the brown water, and my foot caught on a nail. The nail embedded itself in the fleshy ball of my foot and I just sort of rooted myself to the spot. Lance kept pulling me, exhorting me not to be a chicken, until he realized my silent misery. Seeing my wound, he helped me to the house for first aid and loved on me the rest of the day. He had a sweet heart. There were three life jackets for all the cousins to share: blue, red, and yellow. Big to small, we all graduated through the color-coded sizes until we were grown. I slept on bunk beds covered by quilts that my ancestors had stitched.
As I matured, I began to see the paneled walls, blue kitchen cabinets, colored striped carpets and brightly hued quilts and displays of art glass as the very safest and most love filled place on earth. After my grandmother died of breast cancer in 1982, this cabin became the living embodiment of her compassion and joy, and of the love she and my grandfather shared. My grandparents spent the first months of their marriage living in a tent near the dam on Lake Brownwood while my Pop recuperated from TB. That lake was a place of love and romance for them. To honor that, I wanted to get married there, but the logistics of planning a wedding somewhere far away from where I was in school were so daunting, I changed my mind. I have always regretted that. I believe now that we must acknowledge and pursue the deepest desires of our hearts, no matter how seemingly impossible.
I took my kids there every summer. We have many, many pictures of them jumping on the trampoline or riding the inner tubes, wearing the very same red, yellow, or blue life jackets that I, their uncles, and their second cousins had worn. Their childhoods can be traced at the lake, like growth marks on a doorway. We had Hilary’s seventh and Travis Austin’s third birthdays there, and Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrations that revolved not around the water, but around the card table. Lake Brownwood is where I spent time with my dear cousins, aunts, and uncles.
I dream of the house often. Always surrounded by water, sometimes Pop is there, sometimes my aunts and uncles, sometimes my cousins. The new owners have replaced the old dock and blue kitchen cabinets, much to my dismay, but the spirit of my grandparents lives on.
Today, my home is filled with little lake touches. My grandmother’s glass collection is on a shelf in my kitchen, the quilt that was on my grandparents’ bed hangs on a rod in my living room, and I painted my kitchen cabinets blue. I keep geraniums because my Pop did, though to my chagrin I can’t seem to get house plants to flourish like Grandma did.
I never stopped loving water.
As a forty-eight year-old lady, I got to own my first swimming pool. We built a tiny little pool, the smallest a contractor would do, with a spa in the corner, a sun shelf, a turquoise painted wooden deck, and enough room for me to do water aerobics or just float in a chair that had a cup holder for wine.
I loved to go out in the back yard at night, strip to nothing, and float on a pool noodle under the moonlight. I could spend hours floating. When it was too cold to swim, I would relieve work stress just by sitting near the water and letting its drift and shimmer soothe my spirit.
I don’t have that house or pool now, but I am counting pennies to get one at our new house. I still crave water. My spirit needs it.
If I could be the architect of my perfect Afterlife, it would be a slate blue boat dock with a swing and an eight-foot roof from which I can take endless joyful flights into the refreshing water.
This selection is an excerpt from Dandelion Wishes: The Magic of a Quiet Spirit in a Noisy World, a work hopefully coming soon!
For Mother’s Day, my daughters took me to a Korean spa. This was a wholly new experience for me- I was excited about soaking in pools of warm water and sitting in steam with my two girls. Then I learned something: you have to be naked. Fully unclothed. As a jaybird. Buck. Naked.
I did not handle this well. I had brought my swimsuit- but I was not allowed to wear it. I put on the short green cotton robe that was provided in my locker and just quivered.
I was raised to be modest, and since I was naturally shy, it went hand-in-hand. I am not sure I ever saw my mom naked, maybe once or twice. By accident. I never saw grandmothers in dishabille, even once my grandparents moved to live at a lake, my Grandma June did not wear a swimsuit.
Once, on my first sleepover with a friend, my third-grade self started getting dressed by putting my shoes and socks on with my nightgown. My little friend was puzzled, “Why are you getting dressed like that?” “This is how I always do it,” I replied. The truth was that as she started getting dressed, I was too embarrassed to do the same, so I started with the safest thing: shoes and socks. Of course, once it was time to take off my full length flannel nightgown and put on pants, I had to take off my shoes anyway.
Cover ups were worn to and from the pool, and when I was in drill team we were required to wear cover ups to and from rehearsals. We did not leave a dance rehearsal in our leotards and tights- we covered up.
Shorts were not allowed at school. They were not allowed at church camp- we sweltered in jeans in 100+ degree heat. When I went to college at a conservative Evangelical school in 1985, the same policy held: no shorts except in the gymnasium (no co-ed pe classes), intramural fields, or in the non-public areas of the dorms.
This was the norm in the 1980’s- especially in Dallas, Texas, where the Bible Belt influence is tenacious.
And to be completely honest- I dig a little modesty. I might be a mite old-fashioned, but I feel a jolt when confronted with booty shorts and crop tops. I don’t think I am judging the ladies who dress that way, but I feel uncomfortable, nonetheless. I once saw a really great political cartoon, in which the dichotomy of modesty and freedom in Muslim and Western culture is obvious:
I might fall closer to the figurative hijab or burqa, personally, and the cartoon above really brought it home to me. It’s about perspective, really.
But shame? That’s a whole different ball game.
Confronted with so much female nudity in the Los Angeles Korean spa- a clean, well-lit, secure environment- I could barely lift my eyes, which at moments filled with frustrated tears. I glanced surreptitiously- there were women both fatter and thinner than me, older and younger, darker and lighter, shorter and taller. There were abundant cellulite, lithe limbs, bellies stretched from childbirth, taut tummies, surgical scars, small breasts, large breasts, and in-between breasts. My body would have just blended in. No one would have given me a second glance, yet I just perched on the edge of the hot tub, feet sitting down in the hot bubbling water, robe wrapped tightly and clutched fiercely to make sure it didn’t gap. After a few scorching minutes in the steam room, I curled up on a sleep mat and let the heated floor send me into a sweet snoozy cat nap.
My daughters suffered no such self-shame, by the way.
I have given so much thought to the shame thing- where does it come from? It’s cultural, of course. Ad campaigns, tv shows, blah-blah-blah, on and on. But even more insidious is the way it creeps into the real conversations of the real people who impact our lives.
Like that drill team director who instructed us to cover up as we went to and from the gym or practice field and who also required regular weigh-ins at which all the officers were allowed to sit and comment on our weights as we stepped off the scales.
Once, without realizing I could hear her, a grandmother looked at my photo and commented to my father that I had gained weight. At fifteen, I had been so proud of that photo shoot and had felt very pretty. Until.
On another occasion, while hugging another grandmother tight, she disparaged her own body, saying there was too much too hug, how could my arms reach? I told her I loved her just as she was. Her reply? “Your grandfather would love me more if I could lose some weight.” I was thirteen…
and I believed her because that very grandfather would look out the window at their lake cabin and mercilessly critique the neighbor who, in her 50’s and then 60’s, liked to do yard work in her two piece swimsuit. Her body was fair game, both for its size (which was quite healthy) and its age.
Don’t mistake me- I loved (and still do) all of these grandparents. But somewhere along the way, their comments mixed with church and media messages to create a powerful and addictive cocktail of body and age shame in me.
As the mother of two girls, I tried to be very careful of what I said to them about their own bodies- I wanted them to feel comfortable in their own skins, and for the most part, they do. They didn’t have any problem stripping down to hop in the pools. But what I didn’t realize was that what I said about my own body was affecting them, too. That they were watching. They were listening. They were copying.
When I was visiting in LA just a couple of weeks ago, and I started the litany of body criticism, my older daughter looked at me with exasperation and said, “Mom, please don’t ruin this week with that. Please don’t go there. Please.” It stopped me dead in my tracks- I don’t just hurt myself when I clothe myself in shame. I hurt my girls, who have learned to love themselves, and who love me just like I am. It’s the craziest thing- they admire me. They respect me. And their adult selves have very little tolerance for my self-shame.
I guess body shame and body ownership are two sides of the same coin. I feel empowered when I am a little more modest. Some women are empowered by the burqa. Others are empowered by bikinis. We accept shame when we listen to the voices of the world, and when we let those voices supplant our own.
So, in my own voice, I spent time in my morning gratitude practice saying thank you to and for my body. Part by part: legs, knees, lungs, heart, eyes, mouth, womb, hands, belly…I acknowledged what my body does for me. With me. Sometimes in spite of me.
And just maybe, next time I will get in the naked pool. Maybe.