Thursday, February 24, 2011

Clearwater... part 1

I've just realized that the majority of notes I have involve camp. This note, from Cate*, was written to me from Clearwater Presbyterian camp in northern Minnesota, about 2 hours from Minneapolis. Our church held retreats there, and the greater Minnesotan Presbytery holds a summer camp there annually, which Cate attended every year until she started to go to Workcamp. I have a HUGE amount of "care cards" from when I used to do Workcamps also, but that's another story.

Cate and I were very good friends from 1998 - 2000ish... We were still friends after that, but not very close, and understandably so. She's one year younger than me, and was definitely the lighter half of our duo; 1998 was the year I started to get really depressed, which freaked me out to no end. I had a very hard time expressing it, and unfortunately, when it did come out, Cate, and her boyfriend/my good friend Tom*, took the brunt of it. For two years. I'm pretty sure I just completely burnt her out, which I'm very sorry for now; it was a lot to try and deal with. Reading through all these notes gives me a picture of myself then that is very often funny, but just as often, or more often, really sad.

Cate touches on an anecdote from the first time I went to Clearwater. Our youth group had done a retreat earlier in the year, in the fall. Since I was brand-new to the church, and it was the first time I'd ever gone on a retreat of any kind, I didn't know what to expect - but I definitely did not expect to be taken on a sort of "living history" scavenger hunt which involved running up to a door like Martin Luther and nailing the "95 theses" to a door. The rest of the time was spent singing, eating, and running around the woods that surrounded a calm, clear lake.

One night during the retreat, my nervousness about being new - new to the group, new to organized religion where people held hands and sang (I didn't know any of the songs!) - resulted in my telling a ridiculous story, which is what still happens today when I get nervous and have too many glasses of wine. We'd gathered around a fire pit, and I started telling the story of a novella I'd written between 1996 and 1998. I'd sent it to be judged for a children's writing contest earlier that summer, and when I'd returned from Costa Rica I'd found out I'd won first place, which was pretty exciting for me.

The story was about a girl named Lindsey, 11, who was the second-youngest in her affluent family, and felt she was quite out of place - her older siblings were all brilliant and successful (one was a law student, the other very popular) and her younger sister, Jan, was beautiful and the apple of her parents' eyes. She decided, in a jealous haze, that she'd push Jan off a bridge and into the river near their house, jump in after her, and save her, becoming the hero of the family.

She pushes, she jumps in after - but the current is too strong and Jan drowns. Quickly getting rescued herself by passerby, she lies and says Jan slipped and she jumped in after, and she's so sorry she couldn't save her, blah blah blah. The family and majority of the people in the ensuing hoopla believe her, except for one police detective, who is suspicious of Lindsey's account of the events (I do not explain why he's suspicious, but I was 13). Lindsey starts acting weird, not sleeping or eating, and eventually her older brother Peter gets a confession out of her. The entire family is disgusted and shuns her - she's sent to a sort of school for emotionally disturbed youth, and the rest of the story is a series of letters from her to her brother Peter, discussing her life, life at home, and the results of one distressing trip back home to see her family. The letters end when her school writes a letter expressing sympathy for her suicide.

When I finished telling the story, there were tears in nearly everyone's eyes. The girls immediately expressed that it was the saddest story they'd ever heard, and oh my goodness how awful for that family, and where did you see this, did your mom know them - and it dawns on Cate and I that they missed the fact that it was fiction.

If this happened now, I'd put my hands up to stop them and calmly explain that no, they'd misunderstood, I'm so sorry - it's a work of fiction. That's all.

But 14-year-old me and 13-year-old Cate burst into a fit of giggles, nearly falling off the logs we were perched on. I was gasping for breath and trying to control myself as the girls who had been incredibly sad minutes ago now thought we were heartless for laughing at such a sad story and cruel for laughing at them for being sad about it. I did eventually manage to explain it was fiction, but I doubt I apologized, and by then the damage was done. Cate remained my only church-friend for a while.

* Names changed to protect people.

Do you have notes you want to talk about? Comment below!

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Peace, Love, Happiness, Whatever

I apologize for the long lapse between posts - I've been going to a lot of doctor appointments for myself and my cat, who is trying really hard to die on me as far as his blood work is concerned, but seems mostly like his happy-go-lucky-please-let-me-outside-now self, so I'm hoping the blood workup is a dirty lie and he turns out triumphant. Maybe he was bit by a radioactive spider or something and will become a SUPERCAT.

This note is from a girl named Chelsea, who was a friend from the second session of a summer day camp between 6th & 7th grade to the end of the summer between 6th & 7th grade. It wasn’t more than six weeks, but I’m pretty sure she thought we’d be friends forever. It was the kind of friendship that starts when one of you (me) says something awkward and nerdy while you’re tie-dying t-shirts or writing poems about nature and 99% of the class thinks you’re “weird” (to be called weird when you’re 12 might as well be the kiss of death, but as I’d been ‘weird’ forever, I was used to it, and used to saying things aloud anyway) but one other girl in the class – one, if you’re lucky! – thinks you’re her kindred spirit immediately and to demonstrate overwhelming relief that there is one other person in the room that could “get” her, she shares her coveted Gardetto’s at lunch, which totally suckered me in. I mean, come on. Mini breadsticks, rye crackers AND pretzels? Sign me up!

This is the only note I have from her, which makes me think that I either a) really did not get the note she asks about or b) I DID get the note but threw it away in an effort to destroy evidence that I got the letter and didn’t write back, as I’m sure it also commanded “AND WRITE BACK”… I’m sure I would’ve put the note on my bulletin board and would have seen it staring at me, making me feel guiltier and guiltier every day I didn’t WRITE BACK, but feeling really contrary about it, because I don’t like it when anyone tells me what to do, and Chelsea didn’t scare me in the least.

B sounds more like me.

Anyway, unlike Chelsea, I was probably looking forward to school, because my summers were difficult. School meant socializing with friends and being busy with lots of after-school activities like girl scouts and chess club and dance and theater; the summer meant endless amounts of chores when I wasn’t at day camp (There was no rhyme or reason to themes of these camps, either. I don’t know who picked what, but I’ve been to French camp, writing camp, math camp, swimming camp… you name it, I was signed up for it). But day camp is just that – a day, or more likely, half-a-day – which meant hours upon hours of precious daylight to clean the bathroom, dust every surface in the house, clean my room, clean my room again because it wasn’t good enough the first time, wash dishes, pull weeds, mow the lawn… I digress. I’m just saying, my idea of summer wasn’t romantic visions of lounging around in the sun for three months, playing with my friends and hanging out at the ‘ol swimmin’ hole, eating ice cream… none of those idyllic things. I just imagined a long line of brooms coming at me menacingly, like in Fantasia.

Chelsea was the first person to write a postscript to me like that – the symbols and the words “Peace Love Happiness Friendship Harmony”. I’m glad she spelled them out (I now realize that was the custom, but then I felt relief) because I would have otherwise thought it was some really cool code she’d come up with that I had to figure out. I would have probably torn the letter apart, looking for clues to the symbols, trying to rise to the challenge, because I always rise to challenges; and honestly, that could have easily been a decisive end to our friendship because how uncool is it to have a dorky, intense response (imagine I wrote a banal, casual letter but with a PS written in the secret code I think she’s written but that she doesn’t understand) to something that everybody knows is just a simple “cool” thing to write at the end of a letter?

Surviving middle school is about keeping up with what everybody else knows - or at least that’s what I tried to do, and generally failed. It felt like I was always trying to keep up with the biological phenomena that is schooling fish; they turn and move with a particular groupthink that directs their movements and allows the majority of them to survive, but if you don't join up you don't know what music to listen to or what TV to watch or what shoes to wear.

Our friendship failed because I didn’t, in the end, write back, and we never made arrangements to visit one another. At least, I don’t remember writing back – and it’s possible she ended up moving away, or I lost her address – but mostly I think I didn’t care. Chelsea had been a good comrade at day camp, but she wasn't in my immediate frame of reference and that made it hard for me to keep up my end. Plus I'm sure this letter would have been followed by other boring letters and eventually I would have run out of things to say. While I definitely had appreciated her appreciation for my weirdness, Chelsea wasn't that weird; I felt a little betrayed that she wasn't really a kindred spirit - she knew things like "Peace Love Happiness Friendship Harmony". She could swim with the school a little more easily.

PS - Don't you think it's weird "Friendship" is a star? Discuss!

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

I know you have been violent to others. Like me.

I know this note reads like the stream-of-consciousness of a crazy person, but it is a direct response to a conversation Chris and I had in Mr. Heinecke's 8th grade English class. I can't fully explain the possum or kangaroo references, but I was probably thinking of ways to use up my excess energy - due to the serious caffeine addiction I had.

Mr. Heinecke rarely called me by my first or last name. He usually called on me by saying "Yes Ma'am," because I was a snobby know-it-all. When he assigned writing a response to the movie "Black Sheep" I refused, citing the film "immature" and "stupid" and while the rest of the class was excited to spend the day watching the movie, I actually moved my desk into the hall and worked on my essay alone. I'd decided to write on the BBC version of Daphne du Maurier's "Rebecca" which I'd taped off of PBS; I was also quite fond of the thesaurus:

"Mrs. Danvers was insanely rancorous with Mrs. De Winter. She was upset that Mrs. De Winter had moved into Manderly, the manor where the story primarily took place and thought that she did not know how a household should be run. She was also irate that Mrs. De Winter was slowly taking over Rebecca's spot in the household. She was enraged and resentful of the fact that Mr. De Winter had married very soon after Rebecca's death, and was embittered that the new Mrs. De Winter was so young and did not come from a wealthy family. Mrs. Danvers was acrimonious and resentful of Mrs. De Winter."

I don't know how many more ways a 13-year-old girl can come up with to say "angry" but it's likely I knew them all; I was pretty angry back then. I was transitioning to new friends after a weird year in a new school district, not sleeping much (see caffeine addiction mentioned above), my sister (who I was apparently mean to - sorry about that) was also just moving into her teenage years, and though I didn't know it at the time, my mom was starting to get really sick.

I also had a lot of insecurity about how smart I was. The "West" that Chris asks about beating was the rival junior high in our school district, which seemed to always edge us out in Knowledge Masters, a competition like Quiz Bowl. West had a system that involved tryouts and alternates for their team, like football, and designated "captains" for every subject. Our school's team was hand-picked by the directors of our gifted program, who had already expressed their ambiguity about my participation. I desperately wanted to be on the team, but when the list of names was posted, mine wasn't there.

I was eventually asked to join the team a few weeks later when another member had too many extra-curricular activities and resigned. He suggested me as a replacement, and when friends of mine on the team got behind the idea, the directors did too - but I never forgot I was second (or third or fourth) choice. I was on the junior high team for two years and the high school team for one before I was asked to co-captain the high school team my junior and senior years, and I have never felt the need to rub something in someones face as badly as I did that day. It took every ounce of maturity I had to not run across the football field, get a visitor's badge, burst into the gifted offices and announce loudly, that I, the fourth-choice girl, was going to captain a team, so they could SUCK IT.

Of course, being on a team and being a captain are really different, which took a while to learn. Since my junior high didn't have "captains", just the directors of the program, and was more of a hodge-podge, I think I can understand why I wasn't the first choice to be on the team. Maybe. Let's just say I'll never forgive them (I'm not perfect!), but can understand.

When building a KM team, it's very important to get the right balance - some energetic kids, some calm kids, kids who are strong in different areas. I knew I was very strong in literature and logical reasoning, but was also a bit of a mess. I'm sure the violence Chris refers to in his letter was, on one hand, the fact that I'd hit him in the arm a lot when he annoyed me, but on the other hand my general state: Caffeine-induced mania, lack of sleep, a good amount of anger and snobbishness - not exactly the description of a good team player, no matter how smart you are.