Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Life is about...Emerging a Happy Camper

The call came in around 6:15 last night, a tired voice on the other end of the phone whispered “We’re back, can you please come pick me up?”

I was excited to have my girl home. I arrived to the school within a few short minutes and was greeted by a group of weary and trudging teens who, without exception, were zapped. The hands unloading the travel van of expedition gear were not moving quite as quickly and enthusiastically as the ones which had loaded it 3 days earlier at the crack of dawn. There were still smiles on some faces though; mostly the grown-up faces, the teachers and the chaperones who survived two separate 3 day expeditions to Algonquin Park and about 60 teenage charges. Thought bubbles floating above their heads I imagined said things like ‘beer’, ‘shower’, and ‘investigate permanent contraceptive options’.

A parent of teenagers understands one cardinal rule: Stay in the car. I decided however that this was the one exception to the rule, today Kate would be happy to see me sooner than later. Physically and emotional exhausted kids love their moms even in a sea of peers, parental rule #2 Seize your opportunity!  So I got out of the car and waited on the edge of the crowd.

I recognized many of the kids and welcomed them home—“Did you have fun?”  Every single one answered “Yah, it was great!” followed up with glazed over exhausted smiles. Then Kate came into view, bag in hand and moving just enough to propel her body forward.

I asked the same question—“Did you have fun?” half expecting the same “Yah, it was great!” answer and half expecting the “No, it was stupid.” answer I got.  (for the record everything is stupid right now, has been for about 3 weeks – I can’t wait until stupid is over)

Parental guideline #3 encourages parents to shut up when ‘stupid’ things happen and let the details emerge in their own time. I smiled (mostly quietly) and loaded bags into the car. All the while wondering how every kid I asked had fun except mine; was I the Debbie-Downer’s mom?

The details did, as I expected, begin to emerge. There was bad weather – rain, thunderstorms and strong winds. The bug populous outranked human representation 3 zillion to one and was impervious to every cocktail of repellents. There was drama of the Boyfriend/girlfriend variety among some of the campers. Kate was up the entire last night of their voyage nursing/comforting her tent-mate who was upchucking from dusk till dawn (without even a good ‘tied-one-on’ story to minimize the trial of this circumstance-it was the flu).There is little wonder she was cranky, exhausted and starving. Did you know that the diet of wilderness camping, to accommodate canoe loads and ease of portaging, consists primarily of dried fruit, nuts and seeds? Coincidently these are also the top three items a person with braces cannot eat with any success. Apparently wilderness campers do not get braces or people with braces do not wilderness camp for fear of starvation.

As I listened to her adventure unfold over the next several hours the ‘It was great’ bits began emerging, much to my relief. I was sad to think that all of Kate’s preparation, excitement and anticipation for the trip had been a waste; to hear that it wasn’t all bad warmed my heart. It warmed my heart a little too that her initial response to my “Did you have fun?” question was so honest and forthright. By all accounts her trip was miserable. No less miserable than it had been for the girl who said “Yah, it was great” but was actually throwing up for 90% of the excursion. No less miserable than it was for the girl who said “Yah, it was great.” but spent the days preoccupied in a lovers quarrel. No less miserable for that girl’s boyfriend either I would guess.  By Kate’s account those campers were miserable from start to finish and I felt bad for them that they felt compelled to disguise their discontent with a less than honest reply.

It’s funny that we do this; say what we think people want to hear rather than say how we actually feel even when there is no danger of hurting the question asker’s feelings. I wonder if it makes us feel better or worse about our experience. According to my recent read The Antidote –by Oliver Burkeman, our ability to honestly confront our less than ideal outcomes and failures actually helps improve our appreciation of them. I think this could very likely be accurate. As Kate relived all the ‘stupid-ness’ of her adventure it seemed to become less stupid and more adventure.

When my kids go away on one of these types of adventures I always wonder what their/our lesson will be. This has been a great one—it would have been so easy for Kate’s experience to remain a bad memory. There is a sticking point between acknowledging the misery and moving past it to identify the good bits. You can see people get trapped every day in this pit, clinging to miserable events and memories. It seems so much easier to recount our despair or pretend it doesn’t exist with a “Yah, it was great.” than to work our way through it to a place where our adventure can be appreciated from both ends of the spectrum, as a complete experience where the bad illuminates the good more intensely. I am very proud of Kate for completing the process—for learning something more important than how to make a fire in a thunderstorm, for learning how to make a memory if not great at least salvageable.

We’ll see what Ethan’s lesson is for us when he returns from his camping expedition on Friday night….I can hardly wait! 

Camp On!