The Things We Carry

We sat in a circle.  Two men in broken chairs, two girls in the grass.  The older man – the one pushing seventy – the one sitting on the rainbow chair that gaped in the middle – had a story to tell, and he had called us – Clarence, Kristina, and I, over to hear it.  I crouched, balanced above the grass in a way that I had seen my father do many times before, and thought about how the need to share stories was popping back up into my life once again.

His name was Ben.  Like many men of his age, his youth had found him in the jungles of Vietnam.  The experience had left a heavy weight on his shoulders.  A weight that he carried for years, through marriage and family and shame and sickness.  He carried that weight into his sixties.  And then he found Christ in a friend by his bedside; in a church in Tennessee.

And that’s how he ended up here – sitting in a broken chair in the grass outside Martha’s trailer.  Earlier that day he had helped to put in laminate flooring.  He and his fellow church members carried furniture and old carpet, Advantech and tubs of floor leveler.  They made bathroom repairs, replaced broken windows, and laid down a new floor.  Martha nearly cried when she saw it.

Earlier in the week, they tore down a deck and some old rails.  They carried crow bars and bits of old wood, spud bars and post-hole diggers.  They dug holes and carried posts to set upright inside.  They pieced together a deck with wood and nails and sweat and well-aimed jokes.  The dogs sat and thumped their tails on the wood while Martha looked on, her baby grandson on her knee.

They all carried a lot this week, this visiting church group from Tennessee.  But as I sat there in the grass, listening to Ben’s story and watching the bright yellow butterflies gather around the creek bed in the sunlight, I couldn’t help but think about the other things we all carried.

Strangers in a strange land killed with the pull of a trigger – your trigger.  A daughter with a drug addiction who can’t be helped.  An abusive father who left scars that will probably never heal.  A bad decision, that, like most bad decisions, had its consequences.  Weighty things that furrow brows and bow shoulders.

And I couldn’t help but think about the things that I’ve been carrying.  The fact is, I’m still carrying the weight of last year.  And as much as I try to shake those feelings of failure, of being a disappointment, of inferiority and inadequacy, of crippling self-doubt…I have yet to succeed.  As much as I’d love to unstrap that backpack and let it fall to the ground – as much as I know I need to – I find…

I don’t know how.

But I like to think that, like Ben, I will find it in quiet places like this.  Places where sunlight and camaraderie and the smell of new wood make loads easy to carry.  Places where Christ stirs hearts and broken pieces are picked up and mended.  Places where you realize that God would be happy to take your burdens – if only you would be willing to give them to Him.

Note:  My title, and hence, my theme, was inspired by the book The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, a collection of short stories about the Vietnam War.  


A Life Worth Living

It was a night for stars.  Blinking, colorful, artificial ones and purposeful, steady, God-gifted ones.

We found ourselves at the baseball game, but skipped out early to go to the Light up the Sky for Jesus fireworks show (or, as we jestingly called it “the fir-works show” because of their misspelled advertisement).  As we slid through town and wound around a road clouded by trees in the rapidly failing light, we were sure that we were going to miss the fireworks.

But as the trees thinned and the energy park came into view, we were greeted by lines of parked cars.  The show had not yet begun.  We were just in time.  We parked the van and hopped out, planting our feet in the grass.  As the sparks – white, blue, red, and green lit up the night sky, we cracked jokes and Nick (excuse me, “Pablo” (gotta stay true to the camp names here)) turned himself into a wizard, waving his hands to bring forth the fireworks more quickly.  Our laughter rang through the ever growing darkness as “Proud to be an American” played on repeat over the loudspeakers and some kid spun his car around in the grass next to us.

As the sparks faded and were replaced with the glow of red taillights, we made our way back to camp, where we climbed into canoes and paddled in the lake beneath the stars.  The Big Dipper hung over our heads and our fellow boaters were silhouettes against the backdrop of the yard lights on the other side of the lake.  One boat spun in circles.  Another’s occupants yelled out in creepy voices to their fellow boaters.  And yet another sang some gospel tunes.  “I’ll Fly Away” mixed with war whoops mixed with laughter.

This past week at camp was teen boys week.  It had been a good, but tough week.

The good was found in that hike up Treeline where the boys loved every minute of it and were disappointed when we were taking the short cut.  In the “Richard Simmons Workout Video” workshop where two boys rocked out to Richard Simmons on Broadway, having a ton of fun and not giving a darn what anyone else might think about it.  In the boys who really, really, really, wanted to collect as many beads as possible (beads are given to the campers to mark their various accomplishments this year).  In the talent show where the boys wrote and performed their own songs and skits, played the guitar like nobody’s business, and showed off their art work.

The tough was found in the attitudes, the talks about families and drugs and jail and bullies.  In a car driving out of camp carrying away a camper before the end of the week was out.  A car that had to go, but that we wished could have stayed.

This week I had to explain to a 15-year-old boy who has had way more than his fair share of hard knocks why he is important and why life is worth living.

And as I rowed in that canoe with the stars shining above me and the laughter in my ears, I knew that moments like these were part of the answer to his question.

It is the laughter, the beauty in the night sky, the love of a group of people who agree to work from 8 in the morning until midnight all summer for free.

It is the green pastures dotted with cattle, the smell of wood smoke, the taste of chocolate, a white house on a hill and all the people inside it.

It is a smile and a “Thanks, Elizabeth.  I feel a lot better now.”

These are the things that make life worth living.

And I found them in a boat at a summer camp, stars blinking high above me, memories echoing in my mind.

Hopefully every single young man who came to camp this week found them, too.  Because they’re always there.  You just have to keep your eyes open and your heart ready.

Camp AJ 2015 teen boys week

The Story Tellers

He stood there with his feet in the dead leaves and the mossy green undergrowth, a board etched with the words “Liz’s Landing” hanging quietly above his head.  Mousy-haired and boney as only an 11-year-old can be, he stood before an audience of his fellow campers and prepared to tell a story.  It was a Native American tale taught to him by his Grandfather – a story about how the deer got his antlers.

As I stood there and listened to him proudly share his story and fumble over Cherokee names, I couldn’t help but think about how wonderfully he fit into the world that is camp.

At Camp AJ, we are story tellers.

We tell bedtime stories.  Just the week before, I had told my own Native American tale to a room full of girls longing for a story to settle the mind for sleep.  As I spun my tale during early duty (putting the kids to bed – a duty that I usually dread – but on this night, enjoyed), I wove in and out of rows of bunk beds full of girls with heads on pillows and propped on chins.

We tell stories around campfires.  Scary tales to accompany s’mores that three girls eagerly recap for me the next day as we twist and swing on chains and rubber, our feet grazing the mulch.  There are stories about Hobo Stu, the hobo named Stuart who originated the famous hobo stew that we eat over a campfire every year.  There are stories about Victor the Cougar, a character created by an imaginative young man in the Middles one year.  A character who has not only a story, but also a song.

We tell stories about camp legends.  There are origin stories about how Camp Andrew Jackson came to be and got its name.  There are stories about Big Mama, the really big turtle who lives under the dock in the lake.  She is seldom seen, but often talked about.

Yes.  Stories are important at Camp AJ, and in more ways than one.

I was reading a story myself on my break one day – a YA novel pilfered from the bookshelf in the Older’s dorm – when I came across this:

“For hours we went on like that, pouring out the words, and at one point I wondered how much these strangers cared about what we were saying, or if they cared at all, and why we felt such an urgent need to tell them our story, and why they told us theirs.”

– From The Wanderer by Sharon Creech

And I had to stop and read it over again.  Because it had a wonderful ring of truth to it.  And was so applicable to camp.

Because at camp, we don’t just tell stories; we also listen to stories.  Because, for some reason, we humans do need other people to know our story.  And not just know our story – but genuinely care about our story.  And some of the kids who come to camp don’t have that on a regular basis.

At camp, everyone’s story is important and can have a happy ending.  It doesn’t matter if your parents are drug addicts or if you’re barely scraping by in all your classes at school or if you have no friends or if you’re in your fourth foster home.  At camp, one of our greatest tasks is to let kids know that their stories are important and they have the power to steer them in the right direction, whether they feel that way or not.

Stories are funny things.  We like for them to have a good plot, a captivating setting, worthwhile characters, and an interesting conflict.  And strangely enough, we humans are most moved by stories of conflict.  It is those stories, the stories where people go through a terrible storm or are afflicted with a life-changing disease or suffer heartbreaking loss, that capture us and teach us the most.

A lot of the kids who come to camp have far too much conflict in their stories already.  There is nothing more that we long for than to take away some of that conflict and repair some of that brokenness.  But we know that, most of the time, that isn’t in our power.

There is beauty that can be pulled out of brokenness.  But it is terribly, painfully hard.  It’s the kind of beauty, that, if given the choice, you’d maybe rather not have, but that, once you do have it, you are grateful for.  Here at camp, we can’t wipe out the brokenness.  But we can show kids a glimpse of the love that can help to heal it and the beauty that can be pulled out of it.

Here at Camp AJ, we like to tell stories.  But, more importantly, we like to listen to the kids’ stories.

Because we know how important they are.

And how beautiful they could become.

Camp AJ 2015 campfire