For 3 summers after high school graduation, I lived at a small camp in the state forest. It was an amazing experience. Each week we'd get new volunteer counselors, new campers and chaperones, but the five or six of us there for the summer left only on the weekends. It was my first taste of freedom, of being on my own, of making decisions I felt were mine. There were expectations, rules, tasks we needed to accomplish to make things run but we weren't micro-managed. It was liberating, the trust we were given.
I wasn't good at getting close to people. I had acquaintances in high school, groups of friends I hung out with, and some I let further into my life than others. When I look back, though, it's like I was searching for something I didn't know how to offer. I was friendly, extroverted but I did not trust easily or quickly. I didn't trust myself. I was emotionally skittish, wary. I stayed that way for a long time, without fully realizing it. But sometimes you meet someone and you just can't help yourself. The secrets pour out and not in a confessional type way, but more in a way where you stop wearing whatever mask you usually show to others. The pretenses are gone, and you are just whatever is at the core of you. Sometimes it's because the other person sees through it; sometimes it's because you feel so instantly in tune with someone you never put the mask on in the first place. The first time this happened to me, I was working at summer camp. Maybe there was something about the brevity of our time together that sped up the usual making friends experience. Maybe it was just a connection, two people saying to one another "I see you." Maybe it was the shared darkness we felt, the tragedies we were in the midst of, a pull toward understanding one another. Whatever it was, it took me by surprise, then. I found myself breaking open slightly, and though throughout college I would shut myself off again, knowing it was possible to be open-hearted made a difference to me. And still does.
There are times you cross paths with people, in airports, in hotel bars, at conferences, in a store and you are changed from that interaction. A chance encounter can alter your entire perspective, can make you feel things you long since buried. Maxine was that for me; N was that for me, and there have been so many others to whom I never get the chance to say, "thank you for seeing me, for being kind, for being open."
The past few years I have made a concerted effort to be more open, open to experiences, more generous with my time, give more of myself away, to try not to wall myself off. Though my defense mechanism of hiding away is still present, it's weaker than it used to be and I try not to rely on it so heavily. A friend once told me that I have an ability to make others feel close to me by choosing to reveal certain details, the kind that seem to matter to others (though maybe less to me) while concealing those that would make me truly vulnerable. My granny called it the curse of the storyteller. Today, I actively resist that impulse to give away pieces while concealing others, like an illusionist's misdirection. I have no trouble with sharing stories from my past; I've learned that I'm an expressive person. I wear my heart on my sleeve, and then some. I used to feel strangled by silence, as if something about me would eke out if I stopped talking, something I didn't want anyone to see, something like sadness or tenderness, something like vulnerability. I fought for so long to present some version of myself that others wanted. I pushed down the darkness, the trauma, the violence. I pretended it didn't matter, even as it was controlling and wrecking me. But that first summer, sitting on the lake dock, toes dipping into the water, Alabama sun beating down on my back, I began to be a little more like myself. I stopped, at least momentarily, trying to control reactions to me, to my stories. I accepted friendship, other storytellers; I found a secret-keeper.
I try to live without many regrets and I try to be honest about the kind of reckless asshole I've been as well as the frightened girl, and the one with fight, with muchness. Like ink on skin, those are pieces of me that I should honor rather than reject. This is a lesson I'm continuing to learn.
As my summer begins to draw to a close, I feel like I did at the end of summer camp. Because I moved a lot as kid, I was never really homesick. I spent summers with my grandmothers, on vacations with my friends and their families, and with my own family. I never stayed in one place too long, a wandering nomad in search of adventure, and later, redemption. I was used to starting over. However, when I had to leave camp at the end of the summer, after all that time I'd spent with those people, I was heartbroken, especially the year that was my last. Time in that forest, challenged me, changed me, rescued me. I am so grateful to have shared those experiences, to have been in that place at that time, with those amazing individuals and friends.
I recently met (in person) and got remarkably close to many people over the course of a week hanging out, playing board games, watching fireworks, having conversations. I've struggled to describe how deeply affected I've been by that time, what the gathering of people I occasionally play online games with meant to me. Those outside of it, don't really understand, in the same way others never understood the pull of that Alabama forest each year. Each summer I grew up a little more. As I drove toward the small camp, I could feel myself relax in ways that I never did on campus or with my friends. That space was my sanctuary, the people, my confidantes. I was a girl there that I could not be anywhere else, instantly at ease, less guarded or on alert.
It was that way at our gathering. I mourn that we have to return to our daily stresses and headaches, the responsibilities, the struggles. And I hope the closeness I feel, the connections I made won't fade as quickly as summer friendships have a tendency to do. It's been some time since I felt so strongly about people I've only just met. My granny called such people soul friends, and even if time moves on and the connections waver, I'm still better for having made them.