Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Zen of Camp

In a nod to our good friend, Marla Coleman and her blog Campfire Stories for Parents, I thought I would feature one of my favorite children’s books, Zen Shorts, by Jon Muth. It often takes zen-like patience and wisdom to work with children in the camp environment, and this collection of stories provides three key nuggets of life wisdom which can be applied to almost any situation working with kids OR adults. The quotes interspersed with the commentary are from Sanborn campers.

Our narrator in Zen Shorts is Stillwater (a giant panda), who first tells a tale of a robber attempting to steal from his rather material-poor uncle. The uncle (a polar bear, of course) startles the robber when he offers up the clothes on his back—the robber takes the clothing and runs. Moments later, while looking up at a beautiful full moon, the uncle laments, “All I had to give him was my robe…I wish I could have given him this beautiful moon.”

The beauty of a camp experience is that kids actually DO get the moon…and the stars…and the trees…and an understanding, appreciation and wonder for the natural world. At camp, and in the outdoors, our days and actions are “stripped” to the necessary and the functional. There is not a great deal of material excess or concern, so campers and staff alike find it easier to begin to look outward: to connect with the natural world and with each other.

“There is something about Sanborn and the mountains that is unattainable anywhere else on earth. The greatness of the landscape humbles you and makes you grateful for life at the same time.”

Similarly, in the second tale, we learn of a farmer who seems to have both a great deal of both bad and good luck. His horses run off (bad), and eventually they return and bring back some wild horses (good luck); his son tries to ride one of the wild horses and breaks his leg (bad luck), and then the army recruiters arrive to enlist young men to fight in a war, but they see the son’s broken leg and pass him by (good luck). In each instance, a bevy of well meaning neighbors stop by to offer their sympathy (“Such bad luck!”) or celebration (“Such good luck!”) to the farmer who always replies, “Maybe.”

During the summer, it appears easy to see something like a missed summit or a conflict in the living community or getting lost on a hike as a failure—or just bad luck. In actuality, the missed summit builds anticipation, desire and strength for the next climb; the conflict allows us to look at our communication and group living skills; and being lost teaches us how to deal with adversity, anxiety, and a lack of control. The opportunity to work in environments so rich with diverse growth opportunities isn’t rare—it is just a matter of perspective. Unlike some potentially less forgiving environments, at camp when we think we have “the answer” there is both the vision and the challenge of “…maybe.”

“The mountains are a place where you can forget about the congestion and commotion of city life and focus on what life really has to offer.”

My favorite story is the last. Two monks are passing through a flooded town when they see a rather cross-looking woman who is waiting for her attendants to carry her across the water-filled street. The older monk quickly picks her up, carries her across, and sets her down—only to have her shove him away without a bit of thanks. The younger monk stews over this woman’s rude behavior for the rest of the afternoon and then finally berates the older monk for even picking her up because she was obviously such a terrible person…a statement to which the older monk replies, “I set that woman down hours ago, why are you still carrying her?”

So who are WE carrying today and why? A month may seem like a long time, but for our campers it passes like a heartbeat—and, no wonder, this place and the people here create their own energy and life rhythm. There isn’t time or space for holding on to slights or hurt feelings or drama—there IS time and space to work through those challenges in a healthy way and move on. Our campers and staff who understand that letting go of whatever hinders them (negative perceptions of themselves or others, bad choices in the past, family issues, etc.) are able to grow limitlessly during their time at camp.

“I am coming back to camp because I have more and better friends here than any other place on earth; each summer is an adventure, and each summer I push myself farther.”


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