The Camp Counselor
by Jenna Forrest (from when she was eleven years old)
“In the In-Between” (from her book Help Is On Its Way)
Mr. Blue stops the family Honda right in the middle of an old wooden bridge that extends over a wide, shallow body of water.
“No one’s around for miles,” he says, “let’s all get out of the car for a second to look over the railing.”
I stretch my stiff eleven year old body out from the cramped back seat and limp on my tingly legs over to the side of the bridge. If I pretend the water isn’t moving, it creates an illusion that I’m flying over the water, making me a good kind of dizzy.
I like being here in the in-between – bridged between two divisions of land, between the river’s upstream and its downstream, and between yesterday and tomorrow. I imagine that the water coming toward me is the future and the water flowing away from me is the past, washing the years away, far away, and I’m glad to see them go.
This stretch of summer is nonstop hot and heavy. Its steamy temperatures would make a tangle out of most anybody’s thoughts, but to Amy’s parents the roasting weather inspires a cool stroke of genius. They planned ahead of time to pick me up extra early so we’d have a few hours to spend swimming at the public lake near the camp.
And so with floats in tow, we motor into the lake parking lot, kicking up a row of dust that clusters into one long brown puff. The dust just hangs there above the parked cars, threatening to sprinkle miniscule specs of sand all over the lake visitors’ heads. But the lake vacationers don’t seem to mind what’s looming above them in the least.
Peeling my legs off the sticky car seat is guaranteed to leave a big red oval welt on the back of each of my thighs, but that doesn’t bother me as much as the hair at the nape of my neck being stringy and wet.
If I had a small wish right now, I’d be one of those kids who have fancy hair accessories that clip, band or otherwise cinch long hair up and back to sufficiently cool off the collar.
Of course if I had anything bigger than a small wish, I wouldn’t waste it on hair implements. I’d use it to do something really good for all the people of the world and of course for the animals, too.
The dusty breeze kicks up, lifting my hair and rolling through my clothes, puffing my sleeves and shorts cuffs away from my body like I’m inside a temporary hot air balloon. My clothes soften and land back in place when the breeze passes, leaving me with a cooler, yet uncomfortable damp feeling, especially in my crotch area.
With a click, the jaws of the Honda’s hatchback yawn open, revealing a pile of sun warmed lawn chairs, blankets and swimming gear. Determined to be the one to carry the picnic basket, I skirt around to the back seat to fetch it out first.
The basket, still cool from sitting in the shady spot under the inner tube, is heavy with fruit, sandwiches, carrot sticks, cookies and juice. The forty pounds of food make me lean too far sideways, so I carry the basket against my right leg to usher the weight forward with all the grace I can muster.
“Ya got that?” Mr. Blue asks it in a nice way, but I still feel defensive. I feel the need to prove that I’m stronger than I look.
“Sure, and I can take more, too.” I say. And I mean it. I can.
“Looks like we’ve got it all now. You’ve got the heaviest thing we have,” he says.
Satisfied that I made my point, I stride ahead of the Blues with pride, just like the stars in the movies do, carrying a giant picnic basket full of food – only slightly limping like a crutched beast, and lacking the glittery sunglasses and the chic beach towel that celebrities wear around their necks.
Thank goodness there’s actual sand on this beach because I don’t know what else would keep the Doritos bags, cigarette butts and plastic straws from blowing into the water. The beach blanket Amy’s parents brought for us to sit on is enormous. It’s a soft fuzzy purple spread that when laid out, intensifies the tan color of the shore. I run my bare feet back and forth over my end of the velvety blanket, delighting in the rare sensory pleasure. Sheer barefoot bliss.
I bet the people around me think I’m a real part of this family, an actual family, with a Mom and a Dad and a sister who go together on trips to have picnics in our bathing suits.
Tons of kids are playing shoulder deep, just short of the bobbing fluorescent orange buoys that block off access to the deepest parts of the lake. The kids can’t see it, but from the angle where I sit, I can make out a definite layer of crust floating on the water’s surface. It’s a very thin layer but crust is crust, so I decide right away that I won’t be swimming today. I’ll just stay on my towel, no matter how hot it gets.
Mr. and Mrs. Blue are a very relaxed couple, but at the same time, they don’t waste time dilly-dallying when it’s time to eat a meal. We’re only on the beach for two minutes when Amy’s Mom starts unpacking our picnic.
I wonder if this is how they describe heaven in the Bible, people parked on beach towels, eating delicious food, looking out towards the line in the distance where blue sky and blue water touch together.
Mrs. Blue, looking neither tired nor annoyed with me, gently places a strange looking sandwich in my hands with serious intention, saying directly in my eyes, “I hope you like egg salad sandwiches, Jenna. There’s plenty of other food to go around too so eat up.” I have no idea what egg salad is, but when I taste it, it’s so good I call it my new favorite food.
Amy makes me laugh all the way through lunch by commenting on everybody who walks by. “Look at that girl, she’s a stick bug in a bikini!” she says about the dark, lanky girl on the towel down by the water. That strikes me as so funny, I clench my lips together and try not to spit out my food. I forgot what it was like to laugh so hard since summer started and I stopped seeing Amy in school every day.
My smile is caked with egg salad, grape skins, carrot chunks and potato chip starch, but who worries about how their teeth look when they’re doubled over in fits of giggles? I could never get embarrassed around Amy, anyway, because she would never look down on me.
“Oh my gosh that was so funny” I say, but it sounds more like “Uhmmmmosh rotwmmfmmy” seeing as how I still have so much un-swallowed food in my mouth. I gulp down the rest of my chewed food and gasp in some air to take my comedic turn next, knowing full well what gets Amy going hysterical.
“Look,” I say when a large round woman in a white bathing suit walks by our towel, “there’s the biggest whitest pearl I’ve ever seen outside an oyster.” Buckling and falling on her side with the silent air laughs, Amy is down for the count. With Amy, it’s easy to be funny. She laughs at everything. And of course the best thing about being with someone who laughs is that when you’re always joking, you temporarily forget that there’s any reason in the universe why you’d ever want to cry.
The road to church camp is lined with dark green trees and a thick mulch of ground cover. The place gently leans on my senses and washes away any leftover clogs that might still be blocking the road to my heart. This is the escape from my life that I needed.
There’s a row of light yellow shirted male and female camp counselors waiting outside the main cabin to greet us. They look so friendly. I make myself noticed by smiling at them from inside my back seat window, hoping there isn’t any egg salad in my teeth.
I expect the camp counselors to greet us with “Praise Jesus!” like my Grandma says, but they just say “hello” and “welcome.” One of the female staff persons introduces herself as Cinda Sue. She has a southern accent and a deep tan. She takes our suitcases and talks nonstop about how much fun we are going to have. I like hearing her talk. I also like that she’s carrying our bags so we can just relax as we walk up the woodsy pine straw pathway to the girls’ bunkhouse.
The bunkhouse is long and narrow. Natural wood floors span its length. The timber walls are lined with rows of neatly made single beds that appear more and more scattered and haphazard as an assortment of young ladies unpack. Amy and I each pick a bed and start unloading our bags, chatting to the girls around us, all of us swatting at invisible mosquitoes two seconds too late, trying to scratch away the tingly burning sensation to no avail. Half the legs in this cabin are already covered with the most colossal red bumps I’ve ever seen.
Mr. and Mrs. Blue, fully bug sprayed and satisfied that we’re comfortable getting settled in, leave us in the dust, to our own devices. Walking amid the drone of flies and the nip of the mosquitoes, Amy and I get a good look at the lay of the land, seizing the invigorating punch of the fresh country air, anticipating the companionship of the seventeen Christian counselors.
One hundred campers are now walking in informal lines, arriving at the fire pit from all directions to attend the first scheduled event – the “Icebreaker Bonfire.” The fire pit is set up like an ancient amphitheater, rows of lengthy log benches forming a perfect circle around one great blaze.
There is something about a raging fire that has a way of landing you in a mystical mindset. I feel like I’m deep in the tropics of South America, gathering with some primitive tribe. One hundred mysterious looking faces glow with red fire, waiting for the proceedings to begin.
The bonfire circle ceremony is meant to break the ice, so the counselors lead us to form a line that will enable us to shake hands and say, “peace be with you” to each and every camper. I’d normally be petrified of this exercise because of all the close contact and shaking hands, so I try my best to imagine that they’re tribesmen from a lost ancient world. When the counselor Cinda Sue comes around to tell me peace be with you, she looks right in my eyes and instantly pulls me out of the circle.
“Honey, why are you holdin’ your breath?”
I didn’t know I was.
She takes my hand and holds it tight, leading me to sit with her on a log far enough from the fire that we are hidden in darkness.
“Is it okay if we talk a minute?” she says. “It’s just you and me here. You don’t have to say a word unless you want to and nothing you say will be repeated, ever, unless you say it’s ok.” She clamps her right hand onto my right shoulder, pulling me in tight to her.
“I’m here for you,” she says, squeezing my left hand as tight as she can without it hurting.
She’s here for me. It’s that tiny indisputable piece of encouragement I’d been hoping to hear from an adult all my life. I gulp and cough, gulp and cough in the rhythm of a chugging railroad engine, trying to hold the tears in so I can let some words make their way out, but there are only gasps, and breaths, and hiccups and finally free flowing tears.
I bury my face in my hands, and stay folded down in a rhythmic mix of sniffling and whimpering. I bet she thinks I’m just crying about the icebreaker. She probably doesn’t realize she’s broken the ice on something bigger.
As good as it feels to be seen, however, it also scares me. Because I thought I was doing a good job of acting like I was ok. If Cinda Sue, a perfect stranger, can see I’m not ok, then who else can?
There‘s an escalating amount of panic trembling inside me now. I feel like a teapot brewing on a hot burner, still quiet, but ready for release under pressure. I’m afraid of my feelings exploding into an embarrassing bawl, a wail, a sob, a shudder. But I’m also afraid of what will happen to me if I keep holding it all in.
“I want to tell you a story,” Cinda Sue says, as if assuring me that I need only listen.
“One day when I was about your age, the neighbor kids came hustling to my porch, banging on our aluminum screen door, sending my mother in a tizzy and my own cat bolting to the far side of the house. They were yellin’, ‘Cinda Sue, come quick! There’s a cat caught in a trap!’
“You see, I had an easy way with animals in the outdoors. But the thing is it was something I didn’t share with anyone else. I thought nobody ever saw that part of me. But here I was being asked to rescue an animal whose life was on the line. I was so flattered that these kids read me right that I followed after the kids, forgetting to put on my shoes.
“I remember them yelling, ‘Hurry up, Cinda Sue!’ I was worried about the cat enough to tramp hard over the brambles that jabbed into my heels along the way.
“When we got to this cat, I just about cried. He had this long face. His ears were set back flat like somebody had starched and ironed them. His body was all lean and hunkered down. He was pushing all the weight of his tiger-striped body way down on his haunches, as far away from the trap as he could get.
“And then I saw his poor darlin’ arm, reaching way out from that big ol’ mass of fur that could hardly be mistaken for a cat if it weren’t for his growlin’ and hissin.’ And no wonder he was so mad, his front left paw was nearly split in half by that steel trap.
“So this cat’s howling with his eyes stretched wide open. His pupils were just giant, dilated, as they say. There was part of a leaf stuck fast to his eyeball like a contact lens. It was just the most pitiful sight.”
“The poor thing! He must’ve been so scared,” I said, already forgetting that she’d pulled me aside to talk about me.
“I know,” said Cinda Sue. “And it gets worse. All the kids were standing way too close to the cat, watching him jerk around, suggesting ideas – just talking way too loud. I cut through the bunch of them in my bare feet and told them to step back and be quiet. I inched in there as close as I could get to that moaning mound of a cat. And let me tell you, I was scared as a falling pine cone.
“He clawed me right on the toes, but not before I got a good look at how the trap’s metal teeth had snapped tight into his paw, making his claws stick out. It was the most awful mess of bloody fur and broken bones I ever saw.
“Jenna, these kids came to me because they believed I could help. But I had no idea how to save this cat. I couldn’t open the trap. And he was howlin’ and jumpin’, kicking up leaves and dirt, digging into the ground deeper. He kept yanking his trapped paw hard, drawing the chain tighter and tighter.”
“So what did you do?” I asked Cinda Sue, hopefully.
“The only thing I could think of. He’d pulled the chain so tight, I had to give him some leverage. I unhooked the chain from the tree but I didn’t hold it tight enough. The cat gave a tug in this knee jerk spurt that made me lose my grip. He took off through the woods faster than I’d ever seen an animal run. He ran and ran through the woods with that steel trap on his paw and a long chain trailing behind him. I felt awful. There were so many things I wished I had done differently. And I’d like to hope that the cat was found by somebody who could help him, but I’ll never know.”
“You didn’t find him?” I asked, deflated.
“No, I tried to run after him, we all did, but he was gone like a flash of lighting. None of us ever saw him again. If I had the chance to do it over, I would have called someone who was experienced to help, I would’ve made all the other kids go away, and I would’ve taken the time to put my shoes on.
“I’m not telling you all this to upset you, Jenna. It’s just to show you that sometimes things happen in life, horrible things that we’re not prepared for. And because those things hurt our hearts, we want so badly to fix them. But we can’t always make everything better.”
“But you can’t just leave things,” I say, drawing out the word leave to point out that it’s the worst thing in the world to do.
“That explains why you were holding your breath,” she says, slapping her knees, thinking she’s gotten a grasp on what makes me tick. And she’s right. She has.
“Jenna, what do you do when you’ve tried to make things all better and it’s not working?”
“I keep trying,” I say, proudly.
“But what do you do when you get tired of trying?” She asks compassionately, deliberately.
“I keep trying anyway,” I say, putting my hands over my eyes to hold in the tears. She knows.
There’s something about hearing things out loud that make them so much more real.
“That’s a whole lot of burden for one little girl to carry,” Cinda Sue says clutching my shoulder gently with thoughtful understanding.
I jerk from her touch involuntarily, startled by the compassion, the sympathy, the freedom from guilt for not being able to make my life better. I start to cry hard into my palms, spilling a waterfall of emotion down onto the ground’s mushrooms and leaf litter, stones and sticks. The familiar smell of my skin and the warmth radiating from my palms help me think through my tears.
“I like that you’re crying with me. Nobody should make a practice of feeling their feelings all alone. It can get too scary for one person.”
“How did you know?”
“-that you carry the world on your shoulders? You’re not the only one who can pick up on people’s feelings,” she says, stroking the hair out of my eyes with her free hand.
“Jenna, keen awareness is a great gift. You can use it for good things. When you can sense what others are feeling, you instinctively know what they need. You have a extraordinary ability to calm and comfort them just by being understanding and warm, like a blanket.”
“Yeah, but that’s where I get stuck. I don’t feel very warm.”
“Maybe that means you need a blanket,” she says, a slight bit worried. “Let me be clear about something. I’m going to need you to look me in the eyes when I tell you this because I need you to really hear me when I say it.
“Jenna, people like you and me can get pulled into other peoples problems faster than a snake swimming in a river. That’s why you and I have to be vigilant. You know what I mean by that? It means it doesn’t matter what anybody says or does, wants or needs. Before you can help anyone else, you have to first become a master at taking care of yourself.”
“How do I do that?” I say, eager to finally be getting my wish for instructions on life. “I’ll do anything. Just tell me what to do.”
“First and foremost, you have to do some clean up work.” Cinda Sue picks up a stick and draws a tall line in the dirt. I can barely see it in the muted glow of the fire pit. “You need some solid ground to build on. It’s going to sound funny, but this is the very most important step. You can’t skip it.”
“What is it?” I ask impatiently.
“You’re going to have to let your heart break, Jenna. You’ll have to let out all the feelings you’ve ever held inside spill right out in the open. It’s called being honest about who you are and what you feel. The only thing wrong with having feelings is trying to pretend you don’t have them.”
“Now make sure you feel your feelings with someone who will keep you safe and comforted. If you don’t know anyone who could do that, you might write your feelings down on paper, or let your tears spill in the outdoors. But it’s very important that you are not doing this without some kind of support. You absolutely need to tell someone what you’re doing. Just make sure it’s someone safe – who you know you can trust, like a teacher who’s nice or a friend’s parent.”
“I don’t know anyone I would feel like telling. Except one person at my new church. And you.” I say, doubtfully.
“See? There’s two more people than you knew before, right?” She laughs. She has a pretty laugh. I think I know what she means. She’s looking at it like today is a new day and I can make tomorrow into anything I want.
The morning sky spreads a cool layer of dew over the warming camp countryside. Amy and I walk with the other campers along a wide woody forest pathway toward a place called Eagle Outdoor Amphitheater. Hundreds of butterflies color the road before us, their fragile wings flapping like clicks of light in the filtered sunshine.
I feel lighter than the wind today, like there are real wings on my back. Because now I know what it’s like to wake up and know the life I deserve is right out in front of me, in plain sight. I’m inclined to believe that maybe that bridge we crossed on the way here did have water that carried away my past.
After all, I did finally get my wish for instructions on life, and also for the kind of people the world needs – the kind of people who do great things, big things with their hearts, for the world.
Things are turning around.
I spend the drive home thinking about how I’m more prepared for my life back in Riverston. Could living my life really become something effortless, something to even look forward to?
A rumble shakes me from my thoughts. My mosquito bites pulse and burn. I scratch them hard for that fantastic moment of itch soothing bliss. We’re crossing that bridge again.
This time I only get a quick look out the car window over the expanse of water that’s rushing under us. I feel a current of love inside me. I can see Cinda Sue, the other camp counselors and the other campers still clearly in my mind, reminding me to keep moving ahead. There are good things to come.
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