If asked to guess what holiday is hardest for me, I don’t think Independence Day would top most people’s lists – but it is.
Maybe when I say that, though, it comes into focus – really, you couldn’t design a holiday with traditions that are worse for people with ME/CFS.
- Light, sound, and motion sensitivities: bang.
- All that grill and firework smoke: terrible.
- Drinking booze in the sun: out on both counts.
But while that’s all true, that’s really not the center of it.
The first part of it is the way it’s commemorated – it’s less a strictly family holiday and more of a community one. Instead of gathering in one’s ancestral home, as for Thanksgiving or Christmas, there are neighborhood potlucks and watching fireworks with dozens to thousands of your closest friends. And all of that is a problem.
While you can scale down Thanksgiving or Christmas, it’s much harder to bring home the pleasant surprises of a big potluck picnic or of ogling a grand patriotic display for just two people. And because it’s of more patriotic and of generally less personal and familial consequence than Thanksgiving or Christmas, the celebration tends to be more catch as catch can – the parade of children on decorated bikes is observed, flexibly, with whoever shows up to the party. Because of that, people don’t tend to reach out to those who don’t participate in their round of revelry. If you weren’t able to show up to drink vodka out of a watermelon, it’s generally assumed you were drinking vodka out of another watermelon somewhere else.
There are no Independence Day cards, is what I’m saying.
But even that is not the full extent of the motivation for my personal patriotic pity party.
For six summers, I went to the world’s best summer camp. I know everyone who went to summer camp and does not think their camp was the worst thinks it was the best, but I’m pretty sure I’m objectively right about this. My camp is so beloved that it was widely understood that instead of being homesick at camp, we were campsick at home. My camp, in all honesty, is right behind my family in terms of shaping my thinking and life choices. My camp, if I’ve done any good in the world, should get a lot of the credit.
St. George’s Camp is nestled into a ridge near the Shenandoah Valley. It’s one of the camps held at Shrine Mont, a retreat center of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia, but it’s a whole lot less Jesus Camp and a whole lot more Hippie Christianity in the Woods.
St. George’s is based on what we call “The Body Passage” from I Corinthians 12. (Here’s the passage, which is important to the rest of this entry.)
The first afternoon of a St. G’s session, the camp meets for a singalong. During this gathering, two major things happen. First, you get a demonstration of how to hug properly. This is not a Puritanical “leave room for the Holy Spirit” side hug – this is full-contact hugging, no A-frame hugs allowed, and there is the dispensing of very scientific information about how human beings need at least twenty hugs a day for good health. You can accomplish that before breakfast at St. G’s, but nobody stops there.
The second part of this gathering is the counselors illustrating how each member of the camp is part of the Body of Christ. They go on to dramatize the Body Passage by creating a human machine, beginning with one person, then each of the counselors attaching themselves to one or more people already in the mechanism they’re creating with motion, gradually joining into an animated, busy whole that illustrates the Body of Christ working together as a harmonious sort of Rube Goldbergian machine, and demonstrating with their connection to each other the uniqueness and vital importance of each person. Then they show how the Body, as a whole, is affected by anything that happens to one member: to something good, the machine reacts with relaxing postures and delighted, exaggerated, happy sighs, and to something bad, it reacts with flinching, moaning, and recoiling.
The camp is then charged with becoming more like the Body of Christ over the course of the session – to be more welcoming, inclusive, loving, gentle, kind, generous, thoughtful, helpful, and supportive than where it started, and to recognize one’s own and others’ gifts of the Spirit.
As a reminder of the lesson, your cabin counselor – an inevitably rock-star-cool college student – ties onto your wrist a “body string.” From all appearances, this is a length of anonymous nylon cord, but because of the atmosphere of camp, it becomes approximately a magical talisman, representing the expectations, happiness, wonder, togetherness, joy, nurturing, and adventure of the place.
So you and all of the counselors have these cords on your wrists, and those expectations that I mentioned are in front of you.
This sounds hopelessly utopian and hippy-dippy, I know, and here I’m telling you it’s being asked of children starting at age eight, and worse than that – teenagers. Surely kids that young don’t get this, right? They do. Surely teenagers in all their moody, cliquish, angsty glory are going to reject this outright or pay lip service to it? Simply? No. The culture of St. George’s is to ask for the wholehearted, idealistic best of you, and it’s almost impossible not to be carried along by the buoyant, sincere spirit of the place. [If you want to see one example of its ecstatic, unconventional spirit, here’s the beloved Shouting Prayer.]
If there comes a point in the session where the staff feels the camp has made significant progress toward becoming more like the Body of Christ, that’s recognized at announcements time and is a hugely anticipated and joyfully celebrated event. After the announcement, the body strings are taken from everyone’s wrists and tied into one long chain, with the ends open, to represent that all are welcome into the Body. The chain is coiled into a chunky necklace, and over the next few days each member of the camp wears the strings en masse.
On the last day of camp, during the final worship service, the disassembled necklace is once again passed to the counselors, and each camper again has a string tied around the wrist. This time, it serves as a reminder to carry the spirit of camp out into the world.
The camp doesn’t make it to the necklace stage every time. The year I was 14, there was a problem with kids coupling up in boy/girl pairs – being, in camp lingo, what’s called “exclusive” – and that is very anti-Body. It wasn’t most of the camp, but it was enough to keep the strings from being tied, and when we didn’t make it, we knew we’d let both the staff and ourselves down badly. Most of us had two summers left at that point, and made sure we tied the strings both times, having given ourselves a terrible example.
I wore my strings year-round for many years, not only as a witness and a reminder to take camp out into the world, but as tangible personal reassurance. To feel them on my wrist, to tighten the knots, to neaten them against each other was to remind myself of my value, and that there was a place of refuge in the world where I knew I was totally accepted and absolutely belonged.
I have said many times that I wish I could send the entire world to St. George’s, if it could be made culturally appropriate. Perhaps naïvely, I think the world would be a much better place if we all had regular reassurance that we belong to each other and are accepted just as we are.
The last summer I was a camper, there was a discussion session titled “Is There Life After St. G’s?” The title was hyperbolic, but that we were about to be cast out of this deeply treasured idyll was enormously emotional – there were floods of tears at every turn. I look back at the years immediately after St. George’s in my life, and I see how I tried to fill the void it left in my sense of belonging. Every group I joined, I hoped would turn out to be as loving and supportive as camp had been, and despite wonderful friends and the many hugs I was known for dispensing, unsurprisingly, without the culture, I didn’t find a replacement. When I couldn’t replace it in groups, I see how I attempted to do the same with individuals, and that failed for a long time too.
I hoped to come back as a counselor, an aspiration staff had encouraged me in. In preparing to write this entry, I pulled out my “stroke sheets” and camp newspapers. Stroke sheets are compiled within your cabin – you get together one evening, and each person receives a piece of paper with her name at the top. The sheets are passed around the circle, and each of your cabinmates writes about your talents and good qualities. The camp newspaper serves a similar function outside your cabin – you can pass it to anyone you’d like to have put down what they admire about you. My last year’s newspaper is signed by a bunch of staff, and almost to a one, they make reference to me coming back to be a counselor.
With that in mind, during high school I helped my dad teach Sunday School, volunteered during VBS, learned to play guitar, and took a summer job at a children’s theatre. But my home congregation was so completely unlike camp – it felt a lot more focused on the don’ts than the dos of Christianity – and was on the opposite side of things that I eventually realized I just didn’t believe were wrong. I stewed increasingly angrily through sermons, and around the end of high school, counted myself as having lost my faith. I applied to be a counselor once, the year I graduated high school, but didn’t get called for an interview, and with that, I sadly set the idea of counseling aside.
Looking back, it’s easy for me to see that I might have been able to find another church or denomination where I wouldn’t have felt as if I were butting my head up against the entire doctrine, but at the time, camp and my very conservative Episcopal church were the extent of my experience with Christianity. Camp was only twelve days out of the year, and after I turned sixteen, no more. I decided, with immense regret, that as wonderful an experience as it had been, I had to leave it behind. But in retrospect, I think my loss of faith might not have been the stumbling block to counseling that I thought it would be.
That “in retrospect” is largely colored by my experience on facebook. When I got well enough to be on it again in 2009, I started linking up with former camp friends and counselors. About 10% of my facebook friends are from camp, and I’ve found over time that the great majority of them seem to be more similar than different than me politically, and now that the conservative wing of the Diocese of Virginia has left to go join the Anglicans, the church is more so too.
Facebook also clued me in to the Bishop’s Jubilee, which is held at Shrine Mont every Independence Day, and functions as an impromptu camp reunion. Because I disconnected from camp and church in the 90s, I didn’t even know this was happening until I saw photos in 2009 – at which point I was bedridden.
Every Independence Day since then, I get a flood of photos of former campmates and counselors in my feed, and every year I think to myself that maybe next year I’ll be able to go to the mountain. And every year my body stops me from going to link up with other people with the same experience of The Body.
It’s hard to let go of a place that made me feel the way that St. G’s did, and despite calling myself an agnostic for a very long time, I haven’t done a terribly good job. In the living room is a framed USGS quadrangle map that includes the camp. In my dayroom I have the plaque of the Body Passage above, made at camp with local materials by a beloved counselor as a Christmas gift (we celebrate Christmas during the session, not usually with gifts, but with service). In the hallway between the dayroom and my bedroom, where I see it every morning and every evening, there’s a huge enlargement of a photo my dad took of me at the top of North Mountain, looking down on the valley.
This photo is especially bittersweet. This is the mountain we climbed each year as part of our Easter celebration during camp, and most years during the reunion weekend, some alumni peel off in a small group and hike it. Though it’s a haul if you’re as unathletic as I was as growing up, it makes an excellent object lesson for Easter, complete with a small cave at the halfway point that is always rejoicingly discovered to be empty. I would end up in the back of the hike, with the counselors doing sweep. That was mostly lack of fitness, but getting to bullshit with them and grab wild blueberries from the trailside bushes was a pleasant side effect.
The second half of the North Mountain hike is a lot of picking your way up rocks, but right near the summit, the path suddenly levels out and sweeps you into a lovely mossy glade, bracketed on one side by an imposing rock outcrop that provides the view above. It’s the top of a mountain straight from Central Casting. In 1990, my cabin counselor, Kat, had us make North Mountain our overnight camping trip. She woke us the next morning before dawn and we sat on the rock, watching the sun coming up and birds climbing on the thermals, one of my most indelible camp memories. I wanted to marry Chimp up here, but practical considerations prevented it. He has orders to scatter my ashes there. I’m entirely certain that’s the next time I’ll get there.
It’s not great fun to have Independence Day be the day I cry about not being on the mountain. I know, rationally, that I’ll probably never get to the reunion, but the next year-ing, in addition to emotionally crushing me on an annual basis, gives me something to look forward to – so I keep it around. I know that the real treatment for campsickness, this being Life After St. George’s, is to work to make the rest of the world more like camp, putting into practice its sneakily-inculcated ideas about love, acceptance, service, social justice, activism, and the value of diversity. I fail at it all the time, but I forgive myself and keep trying when I can. We talked about it on the mountain: Camp is the easy setting; the rest of the world is hard.
And I think all of us who went there probably have moments of wanting to go back to the easy version for a little while.