The Body and My Body


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.

shrine postcard

This is a postcard featuring the Cathedral Shrine of the Transfiguration, the open-air cathedral at Shrine Mont built of local stone, where our nightly worship was held.

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 dramatizing the Body Passage, beginning with one person, then each of them 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 motion the uniqueness and vital importance of each person. Then, as a whole, they show how the Body is affected positively (with delighted, exaggerated, happy sighs) and negatively (with flinching, moaning, and recoiling) by something that affects any part of it.

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. Over the course of the session, the work the camp is charged to do is to become more like the Body of Christ – 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.

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.

stringsenmasse

My best friend Karen wearing the strings our last year of camp. Still one of my favorite photos I’ve ever taken.

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 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.

strings

Well-loved body strings.

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. 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.

body plaque

A plaque of the Body Passage made with the bottom of a soda flat, sticks, body string cord, and a postcard of the Shrine.

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 you 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.

northmountain

St. G’s is on the far side of that second big ridge. The civilization you can see beyond it is Shrine Mont. “Why would anyone want to spend time in such a hideous place?” I hear you asking.

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 continue to work to make the rest of the world more like camp, putting into practice its sneakily-inculcated ideas about 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. Camp was the easy setting of that; 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.


______________________________________________________________
I couldn’t begin to fit in everything wonderful about St. G’s and Shrine Mont in 2500 words; check out their posts about the shouting prayerthe dancethe peacefeeling check. and another former St.G’s camper’s take.

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15 Responses to The Body and My Body

  1. Tanya Marlow says:

    Oh girl – the way you write…
    You just had me in tears, homesick for something I don’t even know how to put in words. Homesick for heaven, maybe.

    I also did find myself yelling at the screen, ‘yes! I’m sure there would have been a great church that Jocelyn would have felt at home in’ – sometimes church can feel more home than any other place in the world, and sometimes it can just feel painfully lonely.

    You made me reeeeeeeeally wanna go on that camp.

    I had a youth group like that – with the full hugs, and worship times, and friendship bracelets (which were very in at the time) made for pretty much everyone. They were a bit more chilled out on the boy-girl relationships, though. It made for a few awkward Sundays when a couple split up, but generally people still stayed together as a loving big family, even when couples were coupling and decoupling. (One of the couples actually stayed the course – started dating at 16, got married when they were c 23, having had a looong courtship.)

    It is amazing – true Christian community, when you find it – it is like nothing else. I honestly believe this. I can’t think of any other community where you experience that kind of kinship. Even groups of counsellors (ie counsellors who counsel people, rather than run camps…), and we’re about as touchy-feely-sharey as you can get.

    I’m part of a church, (in fact my husband is the vicar!), and I know I am so loved by them, and that they are ‘family’ – but even so, it’s not quite the same without the bracelets and the hugs.

    Anyway. Thank you for this. Reading your writing is just sheer pleasure, as always. This one felt particularly special – I could see so much of your heart in it.

    • Jocelyn says:

      Tanya, I hoped you would weigh in on this!

      Yes, I wish I could send you there! You’d undoubtedly love it. Shrine Mont also has a family camp adults can attend, but it doesn’t have all the St. G’s trappings. I’m glad to hear you’ve had some experiences that have come close. I really think those sorts of encounters go a long way toward mental health maintenance.

      I think if I had to join a congregation at this point, it would probably be Ethical Culture or the UUs. But I guess the point I’ve come to in all the wrestling with this I’ve been doing for the past 20+ years is that putting into practice the things I learned at St. G’s doesn’t require me to have faith.

  2. Emily says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this. I’d known St. George’s is very meaningful to you, but hadn’t understood why or to what depth.

    • Jocelyn says:

      You’re welcome, Emily. It’s one of those things I’ve been meaning to write an explanation of for years, because I have so many friends who *didn’t* go there and don’t know the extent of my leaning on it, but just hadn’t found the right entree. Independence Day this year proved to be it. Writing this prompted an avalanche of memories – less of the philosophy of the place and more of the everyday experience of it. I’m not sure where those will go yet, if anywhere.

  3. This is lovely. I was a counselor at St. George’s from 1973-1979, was a lawyer for 20 years and now have “come back home”. I’m a priest and I get to go to Shrine Mont a lot. We didn’t have the strings, but we certainly had the theology of the body, as explained over and again to us by Churchill, the chaplain and creator of the shouting prayer.

    Thank you for writing this.

  4. We’re all looking for somewhere to belong, aren’t we? 🙂

  5. I can imagine what it took for you to write this post. What an experience for you in your teens and also what a loss! I think the longing for this kind of community is in everyone. We may not couch it in terms of faith or Christianity, but we can all call it unconditional love. I, too, once had a community similar to this. It was a school, and I joined the community because I was a teacher who wanted to teach in a humane school centered around valuing each person and their unique gifts to the world. The parents of the children in the school had to be involved in order for the child to attend. Despite growing up in church and having a loving minister/father, I had not experienced a Christian community of love before.

    Communities evolve as well as the people in them, and I had to leave the community when I became ill. I have visited many churches since then, but they don’t seem to be going the direction I’m moving. Individual people? Yes. I’ve found them here and there, and your posting of this helps me know you are one of those people as well. I don’t have the energy to start such a community of faith and purpose, and I have been angry that I haven’t been able to find one. So I simply concentrate on being that loving person when I can and when I am with people who may be responsive to my efforts to be such. I really believe that is all God wants from us–to be such a person in whatever circumstances we are. When I cannot be such a person, I aim to be as accepting of myself as I believe God accepts me. When I cannot even be accepting, I have learned simply to rest in what I “faith” the love of God is.

    Not only have I my own experiences of separation through illness and disillusionment, I have been through it again with my daughter who is still trying to find a life she can enjoy despite her illness. I also tended my father through 8 years of the limits of his aging and dementia. As a minister and teacher for more than 60 years, he had so many people who loved him. But when he could no longer go out among them, he was so alone. Even those who visited did not know how to relate to him. When he had to leave my home and go to a nursing home, we talked about what we believed. “If that’s where you’ll have to live, then God must have a purpose for you there.” He said, “I don’t know what that would be.” I said, “I know you can smile, laugh, hug, be kind, and pray for people. And if any community needs that kind of person, it’s a nursing home.” He said that wasn’t much; it was only being a human. I believe that is what being a Christian is. I have many examples of his impacting residents and staff just from being himself–even in a dementia state. But he had developed his character long before dementia diminished his abilities, and I saw God use Daddy’s character to love others. I also know my daughter does not need to DO anything to be a loved child of God, because even I, with my faults, see her value no matter how limited she is.

    Yes, I miss the community that nurtures and makes it easier for me to be all that you described in your camp experiences. It took effort and energy to express yourself in this post; perhaps it was hard for you. But I want you to know that your expression has been so meaningful to me, mainly because it makes me feel less alone in my experience. I think of the story of Elijah (1 Kings 19) when he was hiding in a cave, depressed because he thought he was the only one left in Israel who worshiped God. And God told him exactly what to do, saying that He had 7000 followers in Israel that had never betrayed God. We don’t see the whole picture. But I think there are many thousands of people just like us, looking for that community of nurture and not finding it.

    I appreciate so much your sharing who you are, where you are.

  6. Carola says:

    I was struck by “…putting into practice its sneakily-inculcated ideas about service, social justice, activism, and the value of diversity,” as for me, your blog exemplifies service. Despite being surrounded by a loving family and supportive friends, I find being ill with CFS so isolating. Through reading your posts I feel less alone and feel I can share the deep feelings of loss you have expressed so eloquently. At the same time, your writing is inspiring and uplifting – it nourishes me. Thank you.

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  8. Yocheved says:

    I don’t know if you’re still reading this, but I’ve been thinking about you a lot lately, and you’re in my prayers. I miss your posts. {{{ hugs }}}

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