Church Camp – a love letter

My first church camp was Camp Ghormley*, up on White Pass in Washington State. I went in maybe 1986 with my church youth group. I was young – Thane’s age perhaps. I remember loving the songs around the campfire, the way the bark on the pine trees fit like a puzzle, the deliciousness of a 5c green apple Jolly Rancher, and that our youth director (in one week) fell off the zip line and hit his head (blood everywhere) and slid down the railing of a cabin in tight shorts (extensive and embarrassing splinter removal). His name was Clayton, he had a Texan accent and a funny tick of jerking his head to his shoulder. We tried really hard to keep him out of trouble, but it took more than the combined powers of our Church youth group to work miracles like that.

There are no photos of me at Ghormley. Cameras were expensive. I certainly wouldn’t have given one to a kid to take to camp. So all I have are vague memories and well-memorized camp songs.

In fourth grade, we moved from the town with the big Presbyterian Church (it was PCUSA at the time) and to a town where on some Sundays the folks on the “Great War” honor roll were more plentiful than the folks worshiping in the pews. There wasn’t a youth group (there were four of us though!) but there was still Presbytery church camp. After a break of a year or two, I went to Buck Creek (now defunct, I’m afraid) where I went backpacking for the first time in my life. Even though we got rained out and were poorly kitted, I was totally and completely hooked on backpacking. We slept under the stars, back at the field at Buck Creek, and the Perseids were in full blossom across the sky and I could not shut my eyes. From then on, I took every possible opportunity to do backpacking camp. I loved the backpacking. I loved nature. I loved the songs, and the sense of worship. It’s still one of the most holy things for me.

So when Grey was like in 1st grade I started looking up the Presbyterian Camps in the area. Our church had a relationship with Camp Wilmot, so it was a short search. The very first summer he was old enough, he was signed up. But as I followed circuitous GPS directions into the “parking lot” (eg field area) I was struck by serious doubts. He was so little. He was so clearly uncertain, and nervous. And so was I, I realized. I knew *no one* at this camp. No kids. No grownups. Nothing. I was going to leave my beloved first-born child in the wilderness in the hands of strangers.

First year dropoff

I drove away anyway.

Around Thursday I got a letter. It was short – two sentences. They were both dedicated to how amazing Anthony’s BBQ chicken was.

When I picked him up he was tired, happy to see me, and ready to come back again the next year.

He wore that shirt all week – it was in every picture

The next year, he talked no fewer than four of his friends into coming to camp with him. (I think he’ll do very well in sales, if he chooses, as a career.) Where he’d been alone and afraid the first year, he was in excellent company and confident the second. And he remembered his favorite “camp shirt” as well.

The “latrines” photo has become a favorite of the parents. We threaten to hold their candy money hostage if they don’t cooperate.

Last year he was ready to do both sessions. He’d originally claimed that he didn’t need to be picked up, but called on Thursday asking for a day at home. They don’t go to bed until like 10 pm there and they’re up at 7, which is a short sleep ration for a kid his age. Also, I think he missed the cats.

I’m not sure where Matthew is in this one

This year is going to be the epicalest yet. Today I drove a packed car up to New Hampshire with a wild game of poker in the backseat (Grey: “I packed poker chips!”) and a friend in the front seat. This year he’s going to do a full two weeks. On the second week, his brother will head to camp for HIS first ever sleepaway camp (and Adam and I will be childless! Craziness!) And he and his Camp Wilmot compatriots have been talking about the awesomeness of the camp all year. This year, a total of ELEVEN kids from our town will make the trek up to White’s Pond to experience Anthony’s BBQ chicken.

There are so many incredible and wonderful things summer camp does. It gives us all practice in living without each other. The role of a parent is to raise a child who doesn’t need us. Camp is an excellent experiment in structured self-reliance. No one made Grey change his shirt, but he came home happy and healthy. He packs his own bag. He knows things that we do not know. I think it’s a grievous thing to send a person to independence for the very first time when they are an adult, and there is no safety net. Summer camp is how you practice for college. It’s also a place for children to have deep meaningful thoughts, and begin to stretch the muscles of what *they* believe and what *they* think and what’s important to *them*. Some of my greatest moments of faith happened at summer camp. I can only pray that my sons find the experience meaningful and moving too.

It also plays an important role for we parents. I am more than halfway through the raising of Grey. Thane is only a few years behind him. Who are Adam and I, when we are not coparents? What interests do we share? What bonds have we strengthened? In the week our children are learning to kayak and kyrie, we can also remember the love we have for each other.

It’s hard to walk away from your kid, like I did that first year. It’s hard when your kid walks away from you and doesn’t look back. But it’s good and right that they practice doing just that.

Week 1 latrine photo
We decided to take our OWN latrine photo
Goodbye, boys. God bless.

If you’d like to follow along with all the info we get on camp, you can follow “Camp Wilmot’s Facebook page. If you’re suddenly dying to send your kid, you can still register for week 2. And if you happen to have a truck that will pass registration and which you don’t want anymore, that’s a tough capital purchase for a scrappy summer camp. They’d be incredibly grateful for the donation!

* If I’d known about this at the time, my campfire ghost stories would’ve been epic! “But upon his sudden death in 1948 (he was stricken fatally ill at the camp as he was preparing to begin a week of camp for children) members of the church moved to have the camp named after him.”

Oh brother, where art thou?

Yesterday, after a few farewell bike laps around White Lake State Park, we crawled into the car and across the mighty Kankamangus (for the second day in a row). The fragrance of lots and lots of soap wafted up from the back seat from a soon-to-be-fourth-grader (can that really be true?) who was disappointed that we would not be at Camp Wilmot at the earliest possible hour for dropping off. He demonstrated considerable maturity by not whining – too much – about that.

We pulled up, and I waited for the faintest hint of uncertainty or doubt to creep in. Gone! For a week! From MEEEEEE!!!!

Here’s what he looked like when that time came last year:

Profoundly uncertain

This year, though, he was a pro. A returning camper. One in the know, as it were. He was excited about the BBQ chicken, the staying up late, the polar bear dances and did I mention the BBQ chicken? He bounded out of the car as soon as I put it in park and disappeared. Not only was he back on familiar turf, but he had the additional advantage of having no fewer than FOUR of his friends from school there to join him.

No uncertainty here! (Doesn't it look like Thane is big enough to go too? He's not.)
No uncertainty here! (Doesn’t it look like Thane is big enough to go too? He’s not.)

To my great consternation I dropped him off wearing the same t-shirt he wore EVERY DAY last year. I admit to great curiosity about whether he’ll change it at all this year.

Grey handily passed his deep end test, and practically pushed us out of the grounds. “BYE MOM!” No hugs – the guys are watching. He vibrated with enjoyment and independence. We headed back to camp ground one fewer than our accustomed four.

Thane is handling only childhood with aplomb, so far. We watched the Women’s World Cup awesomeness at a local establishment, and he watched the whole thing high up on a stool with us. (Which – aside – that was SO MUCH FUN!)

You can see pictures of our camping adventures here!

Grey Turns Nine

Grey has 7 teeth (seven!) and is doing very well eating solids. His parents are perhaps doing less well in figuring out what solids are kid-friendly, nutritious and easy to make. Grey can now hold his own sippy cup to drink water.

Grey at nine
Grey at nine

Wait, what’s that you say? My son is not nine months old, but nine years?! Impossible! Irrational! Unbelievable! Why, nine years old is practically a grownup! A real person! I was in Mr. White’s class when I was nine, learning about the Civil War and charting weather patterns based on newspapers. My son can’t be nine, can he?

He can be, and he is.

Writing about Grey has gotten harder. He dislikes it when I’ve posted some cute picture or story on Facebook, and he hears about it Sunday from the wonderful, caring grownups there. He’s asked – fairly – that I get his permission before I post stories or pictures about him. The editing makes perfect sense from his point of view, but I miss getting to tell you everything. He’ll read, and approve, this story before I publish it. (This is my excuse for why it’s late.) Only he and I know which lines got crossed out. He would like me to tell you, though, that he’s got his oft-neglected blog Wacky Wonder Comics.

My son and me

The most notable difference about Grey is his steadiness. He will always be a person who feels life deeply, with meteoric highs and abysmal lows. First grade, in particular, roiled for us, with far too much time spent in subterranean unhappiness. But second grade, with a beloved teacher, went much better. This summer was profoundly marked by his adventures in Camp Wilmot. He came back a bit more centered, confident, quieter and capable. Since then, there have been small but profound changes. For example, he now does his chores quickly and without delay or whining right when he gets home. He seems to rebound faster from disappointments. He is trying harder – he has picked himself up from the dirt of the soccer field and taken off running. I didn’t see that from him even this spring. His grit is catching up to his smarts.

Grey’s self-portrait (on iPad)

Grey only wanted one thing for his birthday: a Chromebook. He, like his parents, loves video games. Although we have taught him how to live in a world without screens, there’s no denying that given his druthers he be online and connected. His homework has gotten more serious about online work lately, with some great math, typing and science programs. So… for his birthday he got a Chromebook. I loaded the bookmarks with the best of the internet. I set him up with a Khan Academy account. I put algebra games into his app store.

He figured out where to find the best online games, changed the background, and commented on a G+ picture I posted.

The boy and his gear

For the first time, today, he and I had an email exchange that I had not had to choreograph. The internet has been a wonderful thing for me, but I still have trepidation on seeing his first steps onto the road of the larger digital world, where the best and the worst of humanity and human history lurk mere clicks away from each other.

Grey is growing in every way. He’s watching M*A*S*H with me at night. He’s arguing that he’s too big for his booster seat. He’s three inches away from being right, at four and a half feet. He has a sense of style and a clothing preference. When he draws comics, he includes guidelines so the boxes are square. He loves cats, my chili and comic books. When he and his friends play Minecraft together, every other word is “Dude”. He asked me the other day if he’d always be my baby. I told him that no doubt, he’d always be my baby. But with the quickly passing years, he is also now my boy, quickly growing to be my young man. I love him, and I’m proud of him.

Grey and his two best friends at his birthday celebration at the Lego Discovery Center, with their Minecraft Lego statues. (Two great tastes…)

Kindly disregard this letter

It was almost a month ago that I made the journey north to New Hampshire to pick up my son from Camp Wilmot. I had to get up crazy early in the morning for a Saturday, like 7 am, but I was so eager to see my son again – to hear how it had gone – that I was markedly less grumpy than you would expect. (I am _not_ a morning person.)

Grey and one of his bunkmates
Grey and one of his bunkmates

I arrived at the camp just a bit early – just like I had been to drop him off. Sure sign of a noobie parent a little anxious about her first-born, I think. Grey was just headed up the hill as I pulled in and I got the biggest, completest, least “hey-that’s-not-cool-my-friends-are-watching” hug ever. I breathed in deeply as I held him tight, and felt that all was well. (Happily this might be less dangerous than you think as daily trips to the lake nicely negated the complete neglect evidenced by the optimistic soap I’d put in his dopp kit.) He introduced me to some friends, and I gathered his belongings and watched the “Purple cabin” clean up the firepit before we all settled into the cafeteria for the closing ceremonies.

They started with a flash from the past. The campers and counselors did “Energizers” familiar to prior generations of Christian campers. I was amazed that “Star Trekkin'” – not an obviously Presbyterian tune – was as popular 25 years later and 3000 miles away as it was in the Presbytery of Olympia in my youth. The spirit moves in truly mysterious ways. I watched Grey, my eyes hungry for him. (Constantinope and Star Trekkin here ) He was in the penultimate row, hidden behind the much taller, more confident kids in front of him. I’m used to Grey being the biggest one – the oldest in our group of friends, the tallest in any portrait. On this day, he was the baby, unsure, learning, in the back. He was circled gently by a loving ring of twice-his-height counselors and I could tell by how they all moved together that these young men had helped Grey through what I know was a challenging week for him. I watched my son slightly out of synch and a step behind the others (an unusual spot for him) and wondered what he’d say to me when we got in the car and he was ready to talk.

There was some song singing (unfamiliar to me – I stopped listening to Christian Pop with Amy Grant) and then they launched in on a photomontage of the week. A number of the kids had opted for photography lessons, and to the accompaniment of more Christian pop I didn’t recognize. I was terribly grateful for this chance (never offered to my parents) to see his week through the eyes of his fellow campers. (Best of all, the CD of the pics was for sale. WIN!) Grey didn’t show up until about 20 in, and in the early pictures he looked shy. But as the pictures went on, he started to show up more – in the funny outfits, kayaking, hiking (an area where he apparently distinguished himself).

He fell, exhausted, into the car after all the goodbyes had been said. He had seemed very reserved, but passionately wanted a t-shirt, and the pictures. His counselors told me he’d been great.

“So what do you think?” I asked, heart in my throat.

“I can’t wait to go back next year! Man, I’m soooooo tired!”

It was exactly what I hoped to hear.

Here are some of the fast facts I’ve been able to wrest out of him:

  • They stayed up until past ten every night. The night they stayed up to see the stars, it was 11.
  • Archery was his favorite part.
  • He’s totally going back next year.
  • The food was the best, especially the BBQ chicken the first night
  • They had a wacky clothes day. He crazily wore his SOCKS on his HANDS.
  • We did this one hilarious skit …. and then we said, “oh no, a horsefly!” and pretended to panic. It was soooo funny!
  • Also, horseflies are a near-mortal peril
  • He wasn’t a fan of the Scottish country dancing. “It was ok I guess”. I was jealous.
  • The worship didn’t seem to make a big impression on him, but he liked some of the music. I have NO IDEA what songs/artists they were listening to, so I haven’t been able to spring it on him. Anyone know what was likely?

    Since he came home, Camp Wilmot has been sprinkled sparingly in his conversation. A note about what Ethan said once. This hilARIOUS skit they did. How much he liked the food. How he can totally stay up later than this. I asked him, tonight, what I should tell you about Camp Wilmot.

    “Tell them” he said “That Camp Wilmot is a great place to go if you want to make friends. If you need some time alone, they give it to you. If you need some help, they’re there. If you want fun, there’s tons of fun. Tell them they will like Camp Wilmot!”

    Consider yourself told.

    Grey handles a kayak
    Grey handles a kayak
    Grey on ropes
    Grey on ropes
    Scottish dancing - that's what you get for being Presbyterian my son!
    Scottish dancing – that’s what you get for being Presbyterian my son!
    How goofy can you get? (The glasses came home safely)
    How goofy can you get? (The glasses came home safely)
    Bunkmates with dirty faces
    Bunkmates with dirty faces
    Crazy clothes
    Crazy clothes
    A happy camper
    A happy camper

    PS – I notice he’s wearing the same shirt in all these pictures. In at least one of the pictures, he’s wearing a different shirt. What I don’t know for a fact doesn’t hurt me, right? Maybe these pictures were all on the same day, right? Right?

  • You got to come down from the mountaintop

    My church is in the process of preparing to partner with a new minister, after our Reverand of 34 years retired this spring. I was asked if I’d be willing to do a service this summer as we get ready to call an interim minister, and of course I said yes. The following are my notes for the sermon. The actual delivery varied slightly.

    Summerland

    Last week I picked up my son Grey from a week at Camp Wilmot, a Presbyterian run summer camp in the wilds of New Hampshire. Burlington Presbyterian has a long history at Camp Wilmot, but it’s been many years since we’ve sent a contingent. How many of you here have been to Camp Wilmot? How many here have heard of it? It was a great experience for Grey, and I’m hopeful next year the BPC contingent will be even bigger?

    We got the packing list for the week at camp a few weeks before the first day. It started with a copy of the Bible and ended with bug spray and sunscreen. Reading it over, it was pretty much identical to the packing lists I’d had for summer camp in my day! As we were getting Grey ready to go, we called my brother and sister, my mom and dad, to talk about our experiences at Christian summer camps. All this summer camp talk got me reminiscing about some of my favorite experiences.

    When I was teenager, the Presbytery of Olympia had two summer camps to choose from. There was Sound View, on the scenic shores of the Puget Sound, and there was Buck Creek nestled up against Mt. Rainier National Park. My sister went sailing and cycling at Sound View, but my heart was given to Buck Creek. One of the most exciting camp offerings was a backpacking camp. I went four years in a row.

    The second year may have been the best. We hiked the East Side of the Wonderland Trail surrounding Mt. Rainier. I remember climbing the high paths to Summerland, on the sunrise side of one of the world’s iconically beautiful mountains. Summerland is an alpine meadow, full of lupine, columbine, heather and buzzing bees. The winds that blow there come directly off the glaciers a few hundred feet distance and down to the desert country that grows the apples and cherries we all love. We campers were jubilant in our conquest of the mountain. We prayed together, read the scripture together, sang by the laboriously brought guitar, and saw more stars in that perfect night than I’d ever known had existed. My heart was unbearably full of the glory of God. In that beautiful place, and beautiful time, I could feel the Holy Spirit as a joy. I almost cried at the thought of ever coming down – and it wasn’t because the climb can be tough on the knees.

    I remember asking one of the counselors why it had to be this way. Why was it so hard, and so rare, to feel the joy of the spirit? Why did we have to go back down to the “real world”? Why couldn’t we just stay here?

    That wise counselor brought me back to the story of the Transfiguration, which is as follows:


    Matthew 17:1-13

    Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” And the disciples asked him, “Why, then, do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?” He replied, “Elijah is indeed coming and will restore all things; but I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but they did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of Man is about to suffer at their hands.” Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them about John the Baptist.

    Jesus didn’t have summer camp, but as he went through Israel he climbed his own high mountain – distant and remote. As I imagine this story, it was also beautiful. In that high and lovely place, he also experienced God’s touch in a remarkable way. Moses and Elijah! There, and talking with Jesus! The voice of God speaking praise of Jesus’ work! And Peter had the exact same thought I’d had – this is awesome. Why can’t we just stay here and keep doing this.

    But Jesus did not stay on that holy mountain. Instead, he went down to Jerusalem and started the hardest work of his ministry – being obedient to God even to a painful, criminal’s mocking and execution. He had his mountaintop moment, and then he came back to earth to do the things that need doing.

    This story has stayed with over the ensuing decades for three reasons.

    Now that I’m on the teaching end of the equation, I’m astonished and impressed by Keith’s command of the Bible. He had such a perfect scripture to answer my question in a profound and meaningful way. Clearly it was memorable, for me to be talking about the impact of that lesson 20 years later. It is a reminder to all of us that continuing to study and learn God’s word might mean that we have that word ready to go when our children ask us a hard question.

    The second is that we are needed in this prosaic, dirty, sometimes unlovely and difficult world because we have work to do here. Jesus healed, taught, prophesied and sacrificed himself. We are also called to God’s work in the thick air of the cities. As Amy Grant sang in the playlist of my youth, “But you got to come down from the mountaintop to the people in the valley below, or they’ll never know that they can go to the mountain of the Lord.”

    The third part, the one I hold on to most tightly, is that you also have to go up to the mountaintop in the first place. Jesus took time for work, but he also took time to rest and to be available to listen to God’s word. I yearn for summer camp, and wish I could go back and reclaim some of those mountaintop moments. I think it is hard for us, as grown people with responsibilities and expectations, to put ourselves somewhere quiet and beautiful to think and pray and listen to God’s call. I find it very difficult. And I find it very hard to carry the passion of the Holy Spirit with me without those moments. Our church does try to find ways to encourage it – we’ve done retreats, and our services sometimes create mountaintop moments. We should all work to create those moments – both for ourselves and for those around us.

    As for me? I’m hoping that next week I’ll be on those same trails on Mt. Rainier, in the sunset-shadow of mighty Tahoma where I once felt the Holy Spirit move. And I hope I find a way to open my heart to feel it again.

    Letter from Camp Wilmot

    Grey's letter
    Grey’s letter

    YAYAYAYAY!!! The mail came today with news from camp. I’ll confess to being delightfully stunned that Grey actually used any part of the stationery set he demanded as part of his camping kit. Not pictured is the front of the envelope, where in addition to the addresses, Grey included a note that “I went kayaking by myself” as well as a well-executed picture of him swimming.

    I have wondered 60 times a day how he’s doing. I still don’t have the full story, but I’ll take an update from Monday that includes BBQ chicken, nice counselors and a solo kayak trip! GO GREY!

    I pick him up tomorrow morning and I CANNOT WAIT for, as Paul Harvey says, “the rest of the story”.

    Beyond the rain-drenched streets

    It’s pouring out right now, which is kind of soothing actually. I get the feeling that we will have a cool rainy summer to follow our cold, snowy winter. But while I’m watching the rain, I am thinking about my little boy in a cabin and really, really hoping that he’s either getting better weather, or enjoying his stormy weather with some new BFFs.

    The guy I’m missing

    I’ve sent Grey away before. Camp Gramp started when he was like 2 years old. I’ve cheerfully bundled him off with my parents and only had light levels of “aw, I miss my boys”. He’s been at daycare since he was 8 weeks old. I’m a pro at parting, solid in the assurance that I’ll see him soon and he’ll have had a great time. So I didn’t anticipate much problem with this whole Summer Camp plan. I’d send him. He’d have a great time and learn a lot and make friends and grow up in new and amazing ways. I’d spend extra time with Thane – the younger, quieter child.

    But man, I’m suffering. We’ve had no news since Sunday – which is good. No news means no problems that the counselors haven’t been able to help him with. They had cell phones, those wonderful teenage boys, and Grey knows my number. I have enough confidence in his – ahem – effective communication of his desires to believe he could’ve talked one of them into calling me if he really wanted to. So signs point to a great outcome. He’s fine. He’s happy. He’s awesome.

    But I don’t KNOW! Before it’s always been someone I know that I left him with, and that he knew. So often I’ve sent them together. I didn’t realize I counted on the fact they had each other. My mom always sends Camp Gramp updates, and we call when we can. Just those 30 seconds of “Hi mom. I’m doing great… (then trailing off as some new fun thing totally distracts him)” put my mind at ease far more than I realized until I didn’t have them. I’m almost happy that the pickup time is at oh-dark-thirty on Saturday, so I don’t have to wait so long to see him.

    I’ve been consoling myself by *thoroughly* cleaning his room in his absence. (With his permission.) I think I could entirely recreate his IKEA bunk bed using nothing but Lego bricks. The older the kid, the smaller the toys, the harder to clean. But it’s nice to come home to a clean house, even if you’re an 8 year old. I suspect it serves to make me even snifflier though.

    So to console me – tell me about your first time at summer camp!