Book Camp 2020, Day 6

Some camps must adhere strictly to schedules. Not Book Camp.

Some camps force you to bottle in all the outside emotions and top it off with all the new camp emotions, tightening the lid day by day. Not Book Camp.

Some camps take themselves too seriously, making everything competition or goal-oriented. Not Book Camp.

At Book Camp, you can pour all your outside emotions on the floor. You can throw your new emotions in the air. And you can trust the people with you will help you sort through it, if that’s what you want, or let them lie, if that’s what you need.

Then comes the morning that codependency must be addressed head-on. I explained it this way: Empathy is seeing another person and their feelings and aiming your Self in their direction, while codependency is seeing another person having emotions and aiming your Self at picking up those emotions. With codependency, you end up carrying a bunch of feelings that aren’t even yours. With empathy, you contain your Self and focus on the Other.

We’ve had a lot of emotion laid down in the last six days. And most of it has been picked up by others. As you might imagine, that makes for a toxic mixture of human angst (this is not unique to teenagers).

This morning, we spent about three hours in the fort together, breaking it down, throwing the emotions down, and leaving them in a pile on the floor. It was a deeply uncomfortable experience. What kept them in the fort? Well, either they see me as that big of an authority figure, or they found some small value in the exercise.

Grievances were aired. Knots were unraveled. Conflict abated.

And we got to the bottom of the problem. Well, several bottoms.

1. Coronavirus.

That’s the real bottom line right now. Kids already feel like they have little control over their lives. But now? They cannot decide when or how to see friends, how to spend the summer, whether to go to school in a month, whether to wear a face covering some places, whether to go to church, whether to have weekends with loved ones, or who makes all the decisions. That’s on top of having no say over who the leaders are, what the leaders decide, how the decisions are made, or when the decisions are made. The kids feel powerless. Voiceless. Isolated. Uncertain. Scared.

Sounds about right to me.

2. Book Camp is different this year.

They went on to explicate the ways in which Book Camp is different and that some differences are good, while others are less than good.

I agree. We are all much more straightforward this year. We are willing to be vocal about conflict. We are willing to stand up for our own perspectives. We are willing to say what’s working and what isn’t. That difference is trust. You cannot do those things with people you do not trust.

But when you trust and when you are more authentic and when you open yourself up in a compact two-week all-in setting, well, feelings will be had.

3. —Wait for it—

Now we’ve come to it. The real and present stressor of the day. The thing no one really wants to bring up but everyone feels. The singular thing that can change the course of the whole conversation.

The Group Write.

All else was angsty and tense. But the Group Write? Ooo-wee. Did we hit a nerve, central to the group, running like lightning.

And I told them, “This is fantastic! You’re right on time!”

And they looked at me with horror in their faces and said, “So you want us to fight?!”

No. Of course not. But I knew they would. I didn’t want it, but I laid the foundation for it. This story of theirs—it is better with ideas from them all. It is stronger with writing from them all. It is more of everything good when they’re together.

You don’t get that for free.

It takes working through the conflicts and disagreements. Cheeze Ball said, “Once when the story was changed I thought I might die. I actually thought, I’m going to die if it’s not fixed.” I said, “Did you die?” She answered, “No.”

When we are passionate, we can feel like things must be one particular way or we might die. Parents may think if their child misses an academic milestone or accomplishment or ceremony they might die. But they don’t. Employers may think if they allow teleworking during a pandemic they might die. But they didn’t. And a group of five kids telling a story may think they might die if the story isn’t told to their own specifications. But they won’t.

Is this the sort of lesson we’d have at Book Camp in a “normal” year? I don’t think so. Certainly not overtly. The pandemic changes the equation. We must learn to coexist with a small set of people with little change for a long while. We must learn to deal with conflict authentically with those people. We must learn that doing old things in new ways will not kill us.

It’s magical thinking to imagine that the pandemic will simply *poof* disappear one day. It’s magical thinking to imagine we can live intra-pandemic as we did pre-pandemic. I’m a fan of magical thinking and imagination. In fiction. But this is real life.

What does any of that have to do with five kids doing a Group Write at a Book Camp in Oklahoma?

They feel all that pressure. And they control none of the outcomes.

They feel the pressure of writing this story. And they do not fully control the outcomes.

And they are frustrated. And that’s okay. As long as it leads to growth. Which, arguably, it is.

As we sat in the fort counseling through the frustration, the conflict turned to harmony as the five began to spill forth ideas that built quickly onto one another. In this, this Group Write, they each have more power than they realized. Their power is only brightened by sharing it with the others. Because that is how the thing will get done. Together is how they will get to “The End.”

I canceled today’s assignments. Figgy said, “But then we will miss the important stuff we will need!” I encouraged him to do the assignments on his own if he wanted. Twiz was unappreciative, as he had already begun. Cheese Ball, Cheeze Ball, and Wasabi clapped.

We ate cantaloupe with cottage cheese for lunch before heading outside for a water war. I washed the dog and slipped inside for a shower. They came in soaked in water, sun, and fun. They showered and put on pajamas and we’ve lazed about the remainder of the day.

We have firm intentions of screaming into the Icelandic wilderness. Hopefully it won’t have any untoward ecological effects. Hopefully it will empty us of some measure of angst in the age of coronavirus.

Tonight we’re finally having shepherd’s pie, bubbling in the oven with potatoes crisping on top. Tonight we’re finally having our game night. Tonight, perhaps, our minds are emptier, in a good way, than they’ve been in a while. Tonight we are all possibility.

If the Bells Tolled

In medieval times, the death knell was born. It was a tolling of bells at the time someone died for the purpose of chasing away evil spirits. Over the years, the practice continued as a town notice. Traditionally, the bell would toll six times if a woman died or nine times if a man died, followed by the number of years since birth.

Imagine for a moment the cacophony if we announced death this way in modern times. Much more during pandemic.

I think John Donne may have had it right. You can read his full sermon here, but I’ll extract bits.

Yes, I said sermon. I think Mr. Donne never dreamed his words would be hacked up and forced to exist as a poem.

He wrote Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, meditation XVII, in 1624 when afflicted with spotted fever. The sermon is entitled, “Now this bell tolling softly for another, says to me, thou must die.”

The sermon begins:

“Perchance he for whom the bell tolls may be so ill that he knows not it tolls for him. And perchance I may think myself so much better than I am, as that they who are about me, and see my state, may have caused it to toll for me, and I know not that.”

Mr. Donne writes of catholicism and protestantism in England at a time of unrest. He writes of the biblical principle of the interconnectedness of humankind. That we are all one body, as it were. He writes while terribly ill. He writes these familiar words for which few remember the man:

“No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away be the sea, Europe is the less…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

Imagine if every person took the view that every death diminished themselves. How much would change? How easily could we make available access to care? How readily could we employ palliative care? How freeing would it be to wear a mask, if wearing one prevented even a single diminishing death?

What would you do if you were, as Mr. Donne wrote, involved with mankind? What would I?

Since Covid-19 began, three members of my extended family have died. One from Covid-19. One from old age. One from aggressive cancer. I have attended no funerals and visited no homes.

I come from a funeral people. My grandmother took me to funerals for community people I didn’t even know. It was a matter of honoring the dead and comforting the living. There were potluck meals, cakes and pies delivered to houses, and visitation at the local funeral home. All the more within our sprawling family. And then my father became a funeral director when I was a teen.

I am, you might say, acquainted with death.

And while the death knell was not a part of my growing up, it feels a part of my growing older.

My uncle died yesterday. The bells ought to have tolled. As I’ve arranged these sentences, someone’s someone died. The bells ought to have tolled. My ears itch for the tolling, the recognition, the brutally inconvenient truth of loss.

516,000

That’s the number of Covid-19 related deaths to date. It’s a number that does not account for the aged, those afflicted with any other malady, preventable incidents, or malicious acts.

And the bells don’t toll.

The cash registers ring. The politicians scream. The thermometer sounds its all-clear.

But maybe if we heard the bells, even one ring for each life lost, it would change our behaviors and attitudes. Maybe if the bells made it impossible to ignore the death so many have endured and others still freshly grieve, maybe we would shore up our continent, our main. Maybe bells would remind us that we are involved with mankind.

And maybe no one would ask for whom the bells toll, because we’d feel a bit of ourselves slip away as the bells spoke to us.