{ Saturday, December 14, 2002 }

I Have The Best Friends Ever.

I love that my friends totally take my side against whatever it is I'm upset with. My cat uses someone else's pillow as a litterbox? Yeah they're totally willing to dig for the version that makes it not fair for anyone to be mad at me, until I say it's okay that she might be mad. And actually.... she isn't mad. She totally understands that locking the cat in the back of the house was an accident and it's okay. Because I have the best friends ever.

A lot of my friends were made in the slightly adverse working climate of camp. I'm not saying that I didn't love working there. I did. But it was draining. There's one summer where I remember daytime as being like a long hangover. Okay, there are at least three (of the six when I worked there) that all my memories of daytime feel like a hangover.

We worked when we were sick. Ever been on your period and tending to twelve children in 110* heat? It leads to vomitting and fainting. Happened to me at least twice a summer.

Ever present twelve children with fish sticks for lunch? You're going to have to make a lot of peanut butter and jelly sandwhiches. I used to only eat while literally running through a packed, steaming hot dining hall, chugging glasses of water when I'd make it back to the table with more pb&j. That leads to vomitting. There was an entire summer when I know at least three of us never managed to keep one lousy meal down.

(The nurse presented us with tums and a reaction like obviously the fact that three or four of us came in together like "We're horribly ill and cannot keep food down" was a plea to get to hang out in the infirmiry together. When really all we wanted was something to eat while sitting down and not yelling "Two glasses of water before you get juice! Did you eat something green today?")

Having twelve children in your care means not showering. It means somedays you don't get to brush your teeth. It means not sleeping well at night when you have to walk to the bathroom three times and comfort a crying homesick child in the middle of the night without waking up the eleven other kids you're in charge of lest they start crying too. And getting up at seven thirty in the morning and getting the hair brushed and getting them dressed in "covered shoes and no nylon shorts. We're going to the ropes course. No, honey, that's nylon. Hold on, let me finish her hair and I'll be over there and we'll find you some shorts."

We never got to eat and I don't think I ever got to sleep all the way through the night. We had to run around all day long and if you weren't eighteen you couldn't even leave the property during the hour and a half you got off everyday. Which meant that if you saw a child, you were instantly losing your off time.

And then there were the rules. A staff of teenagers and two pages of single spaced, paragraph form rules. Curfews, smoking rules, off-time rules, and rules for everything else.

So, we bonded together. We all knew what a shitty day was. We all knew what "There's no vegetarian food in that kitchen and I have eaten peanut butter and jelly sandwhiches for three meals a day while running food to and from my kids for three weeks straight and all I want to do in this world is to sit down to a meal where there's an entree without meat and eat seated in silence and then sleep for four solid hours. Did you know that I discovered yesterday that there's no food that ranch dressing will not improve? No, look, you don't dip. You pour it on there like ketchup and spread it. Then you can eat and run and your food will have a *taste*. Yes it does all taste the same, but it has a flavor." felt like. Maybe you weren't a vegetarian.

Okay, but you were a smoker and you wanted to just be able to go have a cigarette but even though someone else from your cabin was with the kids, and they said it was okay, you weren't allowed to and on your last offtime you didn't get to because you were stuck with two kids in the nurse.

Or maybe you ate meat and didn't smoke. You wanted to be able to write a letter to your friend after midnight, and it wasn't like the kids weren't still awake and wouldn't start crying the second you blew your candle out, but lights out for counselors came at midnight and so you had to blow the candle out and then you spent two hours when you could have been working on that letter calmly and peacefully waiting for the kids to just fall asleep (which you knew would've only taken another thirty minutes and then everyone be asleep) comforting an fresh outbreak of homesickness until the kids dropped off from exhaustion.

And so we knew what it was to hate the whole world because you felt like you weren't a human being anymore. Sometimes there were just two of you living with the twelve kids. Sometimes there were three or four. A lifeguard, a ropes staff, an activity counselor and a senior counselor. If you didn't have to stay with your kids all day you had to go and be a "working mom". It was no less exhausting.

And if we didn't affirm each other and we didn't take each other's sides, no one would have. So, we did. When I was in charge of the unit, I would get everyone together once a week and start airing our ids. I would write down everyone's complaints. Make them valid. We took turns and everyone got to complain until they were done. Everyone got a turn at having fifteen other people pay attention to what was wrong with them.

Then we would affirm each other. "You did a great job with that homesick kid. I'm so bad with the homesick ones." or "You really do keep that zip line safe." or "You're so cute! You just always have a smile and a hug when I need one!" or "You have the coolest CD collection ever and I love walking by your cabin because suddenly, my life has a soundtrack" or "You've really kept your shit together this week and I sat with your kids at dinner this week and you're not kidding, they are monsters. I'd kill myself by now.". We'd sit in our circle and everyone would get the chance to say nice things to everyone else until we were all finished and glowing with love.

My camp friends are great. They jump up to say "Hey! I hope you feel better! And that is shitty [even if it isn't really, and I'm just over reacting and being mellowdramatic] and I totally understand where you're coming from and I love you and I think you're wonderful and you're feelings are never wrong."

And after the bitch session and the affirmations, we'd do something fun together. We'd cook and eat a meal around the campfire while the kids slept peacefully (and we'd take turns sitting with them and making sure it stayed that way and no one wandered up to find out that we were getting a meal that they weren't getting) or play a couple games of human knot or ten finger sin and giggle and share and bond or even just lay around and read trashy True Confessions magazines out loud and giggle over "he was a good provider. We had cattle and land" and spend the next two weeks telling each other that "Someday you'll meet a nice boy with cattle *and land.* And they'll be no Saturday Night Sex Club to ruin it for you."

We were all stressed out all the time. Overworked, undernourished, underpaid, underappreciated, not rested, and challenged with the task of making a week magical for the kids. We all had problems and we all were stressed and that could have lead to petty disagreements and invalidating each other "Sure, some kid pulled down her pants and peed on her cabin floor last night. Look, last night my kids and I slept on the front porch because I managed to convince them there were less bugs out there. I had to sleep on my porch to make them stop crying.", but instead we bonded together and everyone gave the little bit they had left to eachother and we managed to make those little bits count until we were all healed enough to keep going.

And I get that it wasn't really stressful. I mean, the biggest concern on any given day was getting a snack list filled out or finding the time to actually talk to the children so you wouldn't get in the "is that a camper or a person?" mindset or walking with twelve kids in the creek and having to try to answer all their questions about crawldads.

We knew we were living in a special bubble of youth in a magic place and it was a charmed life, and we all loved Camp and our kids and mostly everything about the place. But we also knew that we were in charge of the magic for our kids and each other. That amazing spark of positive energy from rolling down the hill with a handful of little girls after dinner or listening to ninety-six kids scream singing "River of Life" and doing the silly motions was our responsibility. It was our job to "be someone's hero" and "make something magical happen". "A good camp counselor can make watching the grass grow fun."

My camp friends and I share a special bond. They've seen me at my most frazzled when seriously my top priority in life was just getting the chance to sit down when I ate (something with no ranch dressing and no peanut butter please!). They know how the slightest bit of bad temper can fester and flare if it isn't taken care of. And they always jump to the occasion.

My friends from other sources other than camp are just as great, but yesterday I really appreciated the outpouring of old-school camp support for my shitty day, and it got me thinking about how great my camp friends are even a couple years after the last time I worked there. They still want to give and help and tell me they love me and I'm okay even though I'm having a crummy day.

posted by mary ann 12:23 PM