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.


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.


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.”



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.

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.

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.

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.

It’s Time to Stop and Pet the Rats; Lessons from my First Staycation

Being on vacation while others around you are not can be like being the only sober person in a crowd of raging drunks. As my mangled fingernails and surrounding cuticles can attest, I’m no Zen goddess. But spending a week at home with my family sans work allowed me to observe people’s behavior like a scientist looking at a tank of rats hopped up caffeine. Not being in ‘work’ mode and taking care of our neighbor’s pool and garden put me clearly on the other side of the tank – if only for a week.

I’m no psychiatrist or motivational speaker (although I’ve been to and seen both), but at 48 years old, I feel like I’m finally starting to understand how much people crave love. And after my work-free week at home, I can clearly see how our inability or unwillingness to look inward makes us repel that which we want to attract.

Here are a few observations to illustrate what I’m talking about. Sitting on the couch with my mother-in-law yesterday, I attempt small talk, asking about some relatives of hers. She no longer visits these relatives because: 1 – the husband told his wife (her cousin) to “get her butt off the couch” and 2 – he’d spent much of their last visit doing carpentry work and not in the living room with them. The man is an engineer from England who does not speak French, so may not have felt overly wanted in the French-only conversation about relatives in Haiti he’d never met. And from what I recall he’s funny and active, hence the ‘butt off the couch’ remark that my mother-in-law found offensive enough to end the relationship.

My next foray into conversation brings us to another dead end. She said she no longer takes classes at the senior center because “everyone there knows I have good things” and her umbrella, not the $5 kind sold at subway stops I’m guessing, was stolen during her last visit.

My small talk reserves depleted, she asks me how my parents are doing and as I reply, she begins speaking to her daughter – in French.

Lesson #1: Don’t be afraid to look inward to discover your own relationship repellant. 

The day before, I removed a small, fluffy, grey bird floating face down in the neighbor’s pool just before a friend was due over. Not exactly at home in the wild, I wasn’t sure how safe it was to swim. I gave my friend the option to cancel. She came but kept her energy focused on the location of the swim flipper I’d used to remove the bird, commanding her husband to keep her kids away from anywhere the flipper had once been. She planned on “disinfecting” her kids with an anti-bacterial solution as soon as they got home.

When I told her how good she looked after a recent surgery, she told me to please shut up and not comment on her looks.

Lesson #2: We create our own bubble of woe. Stress begets more stress.

One of my best friends was recently sitting a row or two behind a woman who received a phone call while in the ‘quiet car’ of a New Jersey Transit train commuting home from Manhattan. The woman answered her phone, became quickly upset and started to speak loudly. Others in the train began to softly chant “Quiet car. Quiet car.” Their volume rose as the woman kept talking. My friend was close enough to overhear that the woman’s son had been admitted to the hospital with a severe allergic reaction. When the woman got off the phone, she unraveled, dropping several F-bombs on the militant “Quiet Car” chorus. My friend said the other riders didn’t care about her situation, just that she was disturbing the sanctity of the Quiet Car.

Lesson #3: Don’t get so caught up in the rat race that you forget to stop and pet your fellow rats.

I am a master complainer – too much work, too little money, too much stress, not enough time to write, spend time with my kids, do what I really love. I complain, I blame, and I wallow. Most of the blame falls squarely on my husband’s ample shoulders. If he made more money, my small business wouldn’t be so crucial, I’d be less stressed and have more time to write and be more ‘myself.’

Lesson #4: Flagrant BS and keeps me stuck in that place I don’t want to be. I’ve built my own walls, brick by brick, from decades of negative thinking and raging self-doubt.

We all want love more than anything in the world, but when we spew animosity rooted in our own lack of self-love, no one will come close. 

We really don’t matter, and I mean that in the most freeing way possible.

We will die. Those we loved will come to our funeral. They will reminisce, possibly cry, and then as someone far wiser than I once said, head over to Denny’s for a Grand Slam breakfast. The world won’t stop when we die. Why do we act like it will when we’re alive? Please, stop. Pet your fellow rats. Our fur’s worn in the same spots as yours.