Summer Camp at 50 or How I Learned to Stop Thinking and Smell the Manure

I’ve never been to summer camp. Always wanted to. In my 14 year-old fantasies, it was a place you sat on a dock at dusk with the best friend you wish you had at home, telling her your deepest and darkest until a sporty, pony-tailed counselor dragged you kicking and screaming back to your bunk. I was Kristy McNichol in all her feathered hair and cut off jean shorts perfection. My best friend a street-wise cross between Blair from “The Facts of Life” and Molly Ringwald.

I’m 50 now and couldn’t squeeze an arm through either leg of Kristy’s jean shorts, but I got a taste of camp last weekend. It was all I’d hoped, albeit without Matt Dillon eyeing my curves from across the lake.

I sent myself to writing camp in the woods of Montana. A retreat actually. Twelve women sat in a circle for three days, warmed by a crackling fire, hot tea, and animal-free food creations that would melt the souls of even the most die-hard bacon lover.

Guided by our leader, writer Laura Munson, we wrote with abandon. Laura gave us “prompts” – a few words to include in what we were writing and ten minutes during which time our pens must move. Mine sailed across the lines, releasing what’s been bottled up for years with ease and joy. I felt freer than I have since I was 12 years old, flying through the air on a neighbor’s zip line.

Twelve is when you birth your inner critic, I learned. That may explain why I’ve always felt 12 – prepubescent pimples erupting within while struggling to maintain the unblemished veneer of normality without.

Don’t think. Trust what’s in there to come out. Let it bypass the “scared, little girl with a megaphone,” as Laura described our head noise. If your intuition, your trust lives, so do you. If the scared little girl triumphs, you’re just one of our many walking wounded.

Writing’s been the one thing I’ve wanted to do since I was 5. Lying on our living room’s blue shag carpeting making up stories to go with the comics I could not read while my sister grew more and more engrossed with Hagar the Horrible, Peanuts, the Lockhorns, and eventually just tuned me out.

I’ve written on and off through the years but never with complete commitment. So, at this point, my scared little girl has morphed into a 300 pound weightlifter with one monstrous megaphone.

“Get out of your own way.” I’ve heard that before. I’ve done Landmark for crissakes. But it wasn’t until I consciously felt my soul running roughshod over my mind did I get the power and freedom in those words.

Way back in third grade, as a new kid, I started editing my speech so no one would notice my healthy vocab and innate weirdness. Unfortunately, what I though was a kind gesture that would make me more likeable was the beginning of a self-esteem sucking journey of dumbing down who I was. By not honoring my true gifts, I’d passed the megaphone over to a little girl hell bent on pleasing others with little thought for her own well-being.

My version of summer camp also offered something called ‘equine assisted learning.’ As someone who’s one horse riding experience years ago resulted in an unplanned jaunt through the Mexican countryside, I viewed horses as stupid, large and strong. “They sense fear,” I learned while sliding off my horse into the pool of jello that had been my legs.

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With a now entrenched, sweat-inducing fear of anything horse-y, I had to go.

We didn’t ride them so much as “be” with them. I entered a large field with my camp friend, Melisa (more Tatum O’Neal than Molly R.) where 30 horses milled about. Sections of the field were cordoned off with loosely strung electric wire. My mind flew to visions of my Mexican horse noshing on long, yellow grass, the feeling of my legs clutching his torso, while my mind begged him to get it together and join the others. As we walked into the field, the horses approached, and I felt all the unknown insecurity of speed dating. Would any of them pick me over the much younger and prettier Melisa?

Breathe. Don’t touch the live wires. I didn’t want to let down Bobbi, the independent, salt-of-the-earth ranch owner, or seem weak to her. Two majestic horses noticed me but didn’t stay. And so it went.

Then I saw Star, a gray, slope-backed pony ridden by Bobbi’s 27 year-old daughter, Cedar. Cedar has Down’s Syndrome like two of my aunts, so I knew Star would be gentle and sweet. He was a soft furry bundle of warmth wrapped in an all-encompassing horse hug. I stroked the sweet spot down his shoulders while Bobbie talked about all the times Cedar painted and dressed him.

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There were 29 more horses and a wide open field yet to explore, so encouraged by Bobbie, I walked on.

She said horses put their muzzle where they feel you need their energy the most. So far, they’d been nosing around my waist. Muffin top intervention?  Bobbie asked me to look up. I was surrounded by six geldings. One kept pushing his muzzle into my stomach.

“How much do people push your boundaries?”

“All the time.”

She told me to gently nudge the horse with the back of my hand.

“Go ahead. He won’t take it personally.”

I did. He moved his face away but stayed put. They all did. At the time I thought they were showing me that I belonged – a rare feeling for me. But now, I realize it goes deeper. By surrounding me, they were telling me “We’re taking care of you. You’re safe here.”

And my stomach? That’s where we smash it all down like an emotional trash compactor. Decades of bottled up desires, words unsaid left to rot. I now hear what my horse friends were saying: “be like us, live here, now, trust yourself, and most important of all – drop that megaphone, girl.”

 

 

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Purification on the High Seas; Discovering the Power of Focus from a Whale Watch Gone Bad

I’ve never been much of a meditator. Thoughts flash too fast and furious on a wide range of equally irrelevant subjects. My nails are worn to nubs from picking and biting. But, at age 51, I’ve finally experienced the power and beauty of lack of thought.

Just as I’ve always admired the yoga practitioner and serial meditator, I’ve fantasized about the peace that lies in the calm of the open sea. With dreams of spouting whales and jumping dolphins, I shepherd our family of four to our first whale watch.

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What I thought I’d see.

Twenty minutes after ‘take off’ and I’m bent over a silver toilet in what must be the cleanest ship’s bathroom ever. If any of the marine biology students guiding our vessel ever decide to start a cleaning service, I’m in.

Provided just enough room to wedge my doubled-over self between the outer rim of the toilet bowl and door, I brace myself for the impending swells and gastrointestinal upset against my own personal lifesaver – the sink. I’m over-the-moon grateful for its lack of errant, stranger hair and rock-solid sturdiness when all around me bobs and weaves. I feel a connection far beyond what’s normal for porcelain.

The phrase “getting your sea legs” comes to mind and provides some relief. I repeat it over and over. Its future tense implies that use of my legs is just a matter of time. It gives me hope that I will leave this room walking upright and not carried out on a stretcher.

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Not me.

When my husband knocks on the door, I can barely speak, but I need to know I’m the only sick one. Knowing that, I’m free to focus on the sweat that pours from me like a water tap at full blast and expelling anything remaining in my belly. Despite the microwaved White Castle burgers my sons ate as we left the dock, I’m the only one taking up permanent residence in a bathroom. Judging from the fortunate lack of sandaled feet visible on the other side of the door, I may be all alone in my love of the sink and scorn for the sea.

Given the knowledge that I’m blissfully alone, I’m free to focus on my current state and all it entails. With everything inside coming out and the ability to stand seeming increasingly like a pipe dream, it’s impossible to think of anything other than where I am at this very second. My mind is a slave to my body.

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The churning sea.

After an hour and a half in my own personal purification chamber and missing every whale and dolphin sighting blared with joyful exuberance from the ship’s PA, I stand with my legs of clay, hugging the sides of the ship in search of the first familiar face. I still can’t force words from my mouth, but I fall on the ship’s stern next to my ten year old son, who looks like he’s seen a ghost. Oh wait, it’s me.

I manspead my legs like a frat boy on the subway. No guilt or worry about social propriety. It feels freeing and glorious.

My husband rubs my back. With each movement, the soaked t-shirt and jogging bra move as one, the straps getting caught up with the shirt and vice versa. But with zero thoughts clunking around my brain aside from surviving this journey, I can fully appreciate the affection. Despite lingering flop sweat and Pippi Longstocking on acid hair, I’m being caressed. To me, that’s the best of what meditation brings someone – clearing away the debris to see what’s been there all along.

While my ‘meditative’ experience is not something I’m eager to repeat, it showed me with complete certainty that sometimes you have to throw it all up to see what you have.

A photo by Jeremy Bishop. unsplash.com/photos/omDNGQ8E9rg
Peace.

Bye, Bye 36B

“Raaaaab. Was it the 34A or AA that was too big?,” my mom yells from across the small, dimly lit family-owned department store whose bras were a rite of passage for local junior high girls. Bra shopping at 12 is cringe-inducing enough, but when the store owners’ son is a boy you know, it’s excruciating. And there, as if on cue – Todd Yaserian, walking toward me, straight from the free-standing racks of off-brand plaid Toughskins. From the way he lowered his head and smiled slightly, I knew I wasn’t the first girl whose red face he’d seen pop out from behind these heavy, brown curtains. Even though I was fairly confident sweet Todd would never reveal my cup details, it’s a moment of deep, pre-adolescent embarrassment I’ll never forget. I wanted to become a puddle on that cold linoleum spot, leaving nothing behind but my white maidenform AA’s.

 

Thirty six years later, and I’ve still never been fitted properly for a bra. With my 30th high school reunion in a few days and two hours of alone time before the next kid pick up, I tentatively step into a local bra store. With its rows upon rows of designer bras, panties spanning the gamut from high-waisted to something called Commando, and flowered bikinis that look like works of art, I’d unwittingly entered underwear nirvana.

 

With no previous experience, I’m dizzied by possibility. A woman behind the cash register talks easily, laughing with a customer seated a few feet away. I assume the customer is a regular and came in knowing not only her size but had a favorite make and model.  I begin flipping through the racks, attempting to appear as though I have a plan. But I’ve only got two hours, and mindless perusal is getting me nowhere fast.

 

“I’m not sure what I’m doing,” I blurt to the first unoccupied sales woman.

 

“No problem. We’ll get you fitted.” Yes, a plan in place.

 

My saleswoman, Esther, spends over an hour with me, giving me her undivided attention. We explore underwire versus no underwire, padded versus hello nipples, and sizes ranging from 34DD to 36FF. As someone who thought of herself as roughly a 36B, this sizing comes as a shock. Then my counsel advises against my running favorite – a lacey black underwire.

 

“You see that, that’s double boob.” Esther’s more experienced colleague Sydney points toward my left arm pit, to flesh that’d been pushed beyond the outer limits of the 34FF. I’m beginning to feel like a patient being observed by medical students.

 

When I make my final selection known to Esther, she calls for immediate backup. Still wearing the pretty black underwire, Sydney asks me to shake my boobs back and forth while leaning over. I give it my best shot, but there’s a reason I’ve never danced that way. I’m lacking whatever fluidity is required to shimmy. The two women watch intently, keeping their laughter to a respectful minimum as I jerk to and fro. Everything stays put. A meeting of the minds regarding the severity of my double boob affliction results in a reserved thumbs up from Sydney.

 

There are still more underwear firsts I’d want to achieve. Spanx? But do I have to try them on? A resounding “Yes” from my counsel.  My shoulders fall to my knees. I want a pair, particularly with the reunion so close, but do I have what it takes for another hour of shimmying, squeezing and staring? Plus, I’m growing tired of looking at my no-pack abs glorified in fluorescent lighting – a stark, visual reminder that my pre-dawn exercise regimen has gotten me no closer to wearing one of those beautiful, lilac print bikinis.

 

I soldier on, limiting myself to three different styles – unitard with legs, unitard without legs, and briefs. Getting them on and off requires slightly less balance than imagined, and I manage to remain upright while stretching leg number two through its illusive hole. After putting the unitard on backward, we agree the brief is best.

 

I leave the store boobs and head held high. I’d gotten exactly what I wanted and had never treated myself to. I go home to practice my shimmy for my next underwear first – a black lace nightgown.

 

Random bra and life facts learned:

1)      Moving up from a size 34 to a 38 does not mean that your breasts have gotten bigger, it means you have grown wider.

2)      The existence of double boob, the Commando thong, and bra gap.

3)      Self-consciousness in group dressing rooms diminishes drastically with age

4)      Half-naked shimmying in front of strangers can fun – with the right strangers.

5)      Bye, bye 36B.

 

 

 

 

 

“Like me. Like me. Find your backbone or lose yourself”

Robin Hoffman 70's with glasses 2 (2)Sitting in my friend Megan’s wood-paneled den watching “General Hospital” with my 12 year old pals in the late 70’s, a spontaneous poll broke out. Via anonymous crumpled pieces of notebook paper, Pam was voted the prettiest, Patty the funniest, Kate the best athlete, Stacey the smartest, Megan the toughest, Tina the best hair, and I won “the nicest.”

It felt like a slap across my tin-filled mouth. That was the exact opposite of how and who I wanted to be. I felt weak, invisible, too nice to matter. The jig was up. Others knew my secret – I was a pleaser, not a fighter.

I wanted Megan’s votes – the ability not to feel and notice everything so intensely, not to care what other people thought about every minutia of you, to accept without hesitation when another girl “called you out” for an after-school fight on the hill. That was freedom, and as alien to me as Tina’s soft blonde, perfectly feathered hair.

Around that time I remember my mom saying that I treated my friends better than my family. Immediately, I knew it was true. My family was stuck with me, warts and all, or so I thought back then.

I wish I could say that with those early realizations came change, but that’d be a big, fat one. Fast forward 36 years from middle school to last night. My husband said he feels like he and our kids get the scraps of what’s left over after I’ve given the best of myself to clients, co-workers, friends and strangers. Being thoughtful and kind takes energy, and my tank of nice is typically spent by the end of the day.

Case in point – yesterday I picked up my seven-year-old at a friend’s house across town at 5pm when I knew my husband needed to get him somewhere by 6. I’d agreed to the date and time last week when I knew the timing would be tight. In my effort to please my son’s friend’s mom and my son, I’d set up an arrangement that’d add more stress to our family’s already rushed evening time.

When I arrived to retrieve my son promptly at 5pm, he was in the midst of a critical part of his starburst Rainbow Loom bracelet and in no rush to leave. His friend’s mom was warm and fun. She popped open a bottle of red wine, and guess what? I had a glass. I never fully enjoyed the wine because I knew that my husband would be incredibly ticked off when my son and I arrived home late and unfed. Yet I drank, and he loomed.

What’s at the core of this strong compulsion to be liked? If I truly knew, I’d vow to care less.

This morning, I read a news report about 12 year-old Rebecca Sedwick who threw herself off a tower at a concrete plant in Lakeland, Florida last month after months of extreme cyber bullying. Her mother homeschooled Rebecca rather than send her to school alongside her 12- and 14-year old tormentors, but still allowed her to use her cell phone. “I just didn’t want to have her not like me….,” her mom said.

And that’s likely how the 12-year old bully felt about the older girl leading the charge against Rebecca. So strong was her need to be liked by this 14-year-old alpha dog that she beat up her former best friend simply because this broken but ultra-tough girl told her to.

Adolescence and its seeming unending cycle of pain makes things appear more vividly in my mind. I think back to that time and know that if we’d had cell phones and social media instead of Pac Man and General Hospital, there would have been bullies and the bullied. And it would have been brutal.

I would have been bullied.

But I have the luxury of guessing, which is something today’s eager-to-fit-in pre-teens don’t. If someone with power in their social circle posts something mean about them, they feel as though their world is crashing in. And others can be compelled to go against their nature and hurt former friends or do nothing rather than risk being cast out of what seems like the most important group that will ever be.

Are we so earth shatteringly afraid of others’ judgment and looking at the dark places within that we neglect ourselves and those that care about us?

That desire to fit in may begin in adolescence and continue on for decades, but we can chose to end it whenever we want. I’m starting now.