First, some background:
Once upon a time, in the woods of Western Pennsylvania and Eastern North Carolina, I worked as a camp counselor at two Lutheran summer camps. These four summers were the hardest and most magical times I have known. I remember laughing until I cried during the nightly skits, and I remember crying until I fell asleep when it was week 4 (out of 9) and I just wanted to go home.
It was camp. It was life to the full, and then fuller.
Every week had a routine, a rhythm of ice-breakers and opening worship and the first night (with accompanying tears from the camper who would also cry when it was time to go home at the end of the week). There was activity time, creek-walking and canoeing, ropes course and the zip-line. And then, as the week began to spill toward its inevitable end, we counselors began to prepare for our most sacred task of the week. Affirmations.
Affirmations took place during the final worship service. During an extended time of quiet singing, each counselor would take each camper, one by one, to a spot on the dirt floor of our outdoor chapel. There each counselor would begin, “Here are some incredible things I noticed about you this week…”, “You are so good at…”, “I really appreciated this about you…” We were only supposed to talk for about 3 minutes, but mostly it went longer. It was an inspired time, quite literally, and while I hope that our campers were changed in receiving the affirmations, I know that the counselors were changed by giving them.
The change began sometime on Wednesday when we realized that affirmations were coming. Suddenly, it wasn’t enough to see one kid as ‘trouble’ or another as ‘a leader’, a time was coming (and coming soon) when we needed to say more. We dug for adjectives and examples, we watched them interact with one another, we looked for signs of wisdom, compassion or creativity. We prayed and watched, prayed and watched, because the time was coming when we had to speak. Sometimes we were so exhausted that it all just seemed annoying, one more thing to do, and what-in-the-world-am-I-going-to-say-about-her; but we also knew it was a holy task.
And if there was any doubt, the actual giving of affirmations put that to rest. It was a weekly miracle. Sure, we stumbled, and there were seeming ‘duds’ now and then (darnit, I should have watched that kid more closely), but words would also come rushing, kids’ faces would light up, and oh so often, the one who drove you crazy all week would leave you in tears.
Its been twenty years, and I still remember.
Now. Back to life, back to re-a-li-ty:
I originally planned to finish and publish this post on Valentine’s Day. My take-away was simple: a challenge to watch our loved ones closely, and then the discipline to tell them beautiful and true things about themselves. Affirmation, in real life. Ready, set, go.
But then one child got an ear infection– a bad ear infection that eventually burst her eardrum. On the same day that the car tire burst. A week after the rotor and brake pads had to be replaced. At the same time that the ice on the back porch roof started melting into the kitchen. Just a few days before I got strep throat… really really bad strep throat, like screaming every single time you swallow strep throat. And it was all a prelude for the four-day school break followed by yet another snow cancellation.
Heart-warming, thoughtful affirmations for all my loved ones? How about I hold back a tirade when you spill your milk for the third time today? How about I don’t throw my checkbook at the mechanic just to see his reaction? Happy Valentine’s Day everyone.
Here’s the reality friends: February is hard. This whole being-a-grown-up-thing can be brutal. And I refuse to give you one more thing to do. Instead, I want you to sit down with me for a moment on this patch of warm earth. Can you hear the crickets and the guitars? Good. Now let me tell you something:
You are doing a great job. Really. You, the exhausted one. You do so much in one day, so many small, mundane acts of love, you don’t even realize the self-sacrifice that it part of your regular routine. You fall down and keep trying. You make mistakes and apologize. Your love runs deep, and that’s part of what makes all of this so hard, because you actually long to do right by the people you love. And you’ve come so far already. It hasn’t been easy. Today won’t be easy. But you’re doing it, friend. You’re doing it.
You are amazing. Even in February. And if you can be like this at the end of a long winter, well… just wait until spring.