10: Find Your People

There’s a three year-old at my summer camp whose favorite color is black. Faith is tiny, and fair-skinned, and looks to be the type who insists on wearing a pink, sparkly tutu, every time she leaves the house. The first time I ask her about it, I barely pause to hear the response. I assume it’s “glitter,” because the girls that look like her are saying that, every time.

It’s 2003 and I just finished my first year of college. I’m the second-oldest person on staff, but it’s the first job I’ve had where someone’s mom doesn’t hand me a wad of cash when I’m done with it. Some days, when my insecurity is talking, I wonder if I still don’t have a career at thirty because I got such a late start at nineteen.

Determined to fly under the “first-job” radar, I’m doing my best to fake ease and maturity, especially when other people are watching. Pretty quickly it’s clear that no one is paying attention. The other kids grew up here and have been working together for multiple, consecutive summers. Four weeks have passed and I’m still struggling to shake the outsider persona. Anything even slightly left or right of “center of attention” is far outside my comfort zone and I’m desperate to sneak into the cool group.

This week, I’m assigned a thirteen year-old junior counselor to “help” me out with my kids. So far my relationship to the junior counselors feels like babysitting a gawky, needy adolescent while chasing and entertaining 10 three year olds, all by myself.

I have no hope for this one. He’s short and keeps his curly dark hair poking out under a dirty, navy blue baseball cap. He wears tall, white, socks and long, black shorts and I decide, right away, he’s one of those dark, brooding, angsty boys who listens to punk rock and loves the color black. I already can’t relate to him, and it’s clear he’s out place at a children’s summer camp.

“It’s going to be a long week.”

By Tuesday, I’ve gleefully determined he’s the least annoying and most competent of the junior counselors. I still hope we don’t end up alone in conversation together because I don’t know anything about angry music or what it feels like to be tortured and deep.  Also, I don’t trust what I might say about his pre-pubescent mustache, if we end up face to face.

I step right into the fire of my anxiety when I see him standing alone at the craft table, twenty minutes after our campers were sent to lunch. I approach him with caution, and remind myself to stay focused on his eyeballs to avoid landing my gaze on his upper lip.

I see him carefully pasting grey and black strips of paper on a sturdy, homemade hat. He is intent on creating smooth creases and straight lines. Our craft that day was “Cat in the Hat” Hats, an unthinkably ambitious project for kids who can barely remember their own names.

Peter is finishing the last of our hats for Faith. He tells me, matter-of-factly, “I figured she’d only wear it like this.”

My heart melts and I vow never to judge another person again. I barely keep my promise through the end of the day, but Peter is embedded in my heart, forever.

In the next three days, we laugh and joke and mess with our kids, like we’ve been best friends for three lifetimes. I discover that Peter is smart and hilarious and weirder than anyone I’d ever met who wasn’t related to me. I’ve suddenly lost interest in breaking through the inner circle because I’m preoccupied with spending more time with my new friend.

Peter has a summer birthday and turns fourteen. He’s talking to me about starting high school and I remind him I’m already in college. We talk about school and romance and other kids at the summer camp. We share stories about our parents and siblings, and once in a while, I listen as he educates me about all the music he’s “into” right now.

Peter is my first friend that doesn’t look or act like the rest of them. He’s not the right age or the right image and it’s clear we’ll never go to a concert together. But for seven more summers, we are what we’ve always been to each other.

In 2004, my real-life best friend comes to work with us and is immediately sad and jealous. She’s been my partner in crime since we were thirteen and she’s not settling for someone else interfering. She throws three fits per week until, eventually, she senses the specialness of our bond and surrenders to unexpected truth of it.

In 2005, I decide I’m too old to sing songs and play tag for eight weeks and accept a serious, world-saving internship for the summer. Two and a half weeks later I’m on the bumper boats at Scandia Family Fun Center, taunting Peter about his loss in miniature golf.

The next morning I call my supervisor to tell her I’m moving home for “personal reasons.”

Peter graduated from high school and went away to college and things never changed between us. He was still my soulmate and my best friend and the boundary of age and experience continued to not matter to either of us. He grew up and confessed how awesome it was to have the attention of a nineteen year old woman when he was barely a high school freshman. I felt humiliated and naive as I admitted it was something I never considered.

It’s been over a decade since I met Peter, and three years since I left Camp Have a lot of Fun. In the time between, there have been other, unconventional friendships. Most of them were born out of the unique and beautiful family at summer camp, but some of them blossomed organically at the yoga studio or the high school where I used to work.

My friendship with Peter opened me to the possibility that “my people” could be something other than who they’d always been. It taught me that the people we belong to, and belong with, are out there for us to find and connect to. Our job is to seek them. Our “tribe”, our “community”, “our people”, are the ones who were always meant for us.  The ones with whom we never had to fake it. The people who see us, and get us, and accept us as we are, no matter what. The people we spark with, and the ones who make us feel safe. The people we show our weirdest and deepest and ugliest to, right away.

I cherish the thirteen year-old boy who loved me unconditionally, because I’ve been able to spot the ones who were capable of it, ever since.

Turn Around

That summer, Michael Phelps swam for nine gold medals. We watched every race, screaming our heads off, in Amy’s living room.

“We” are me, my best friend Amy, two of our summer camp counselors, and one under-achieving junior counselor who is the only person ever to crack into the Camp Have-a-lot-of-Fun inner-circle without being an extraordinary stand out of skill and motivation at work.

We spend our days chasing tiny kids around the world’s best summer camp. At night we turn “Footloose” on high volume and dance like we’re Kevin Bacon, alone in an abandoned warehouse, in 1984.

In between, we drive around Sacramento blasting this cover of Total Eclipse of the Heart. It’s the theme song of the summer: passionate, epic, completely ridiculous. We sing with the windows down, even when it’s one hundred degrees outside. We play air drums and pound on the dashboard. When the chorus comes up, we close our eyes, tilt our heads back and belt it out like it’s the last time we’ll ever sing it.

We are an unlikely group of inseparable friends. We range in age from 14 to 25. Out in public, we look like a throw-back family singing group or mixed bag of step siblings with varying degrees of babysitting responsibility.

We make each other laugh and hold each other up. We throw a slumber party, almost every night.

Some nights we are just the three of us. Me, Amy, and Jaimie. Jaimie is fifteen. Amy and I have been best friends since junior high school and are notoriously incapable of sharing our relationship with anyone else. We are college graduates moving towards demanding, professional careers. Jaimie is barely a junior in high school. Amy and I are agonizing over “who are we?” and “what is the purpose of this?” Jaimie wonders who she’ll have algebra with and if that boy she likes will text her back.

We are drawn together by a sisterhood that transcends time and age. By issues with our dads and striving for perfection. By being “good girls” and independent women. By discovering how those two identities intersect. By our love for puffy paint and elaborate costumes. By working with kids and our awesomeness at camp counseling.

By the type of strong friendship that’s rooted in unconditional love.

When the summer of 2009 begins, our family is reunited. Amy and I make space in our lives, and the backseat of our cars, for when Jaimie finishes her high school finals and we pick up where we left off. We all look forward to late night talks sharing a single, king size bed. To chocolate milkshakes at Jack in the Box after nighttime events. To feeling complete, again.

Two weeks later I’m in the most challenging conversation of my professional life. Amy and I are seated next to each other in the almost empty conference room at Mission North Park. We’re face-to-face with the first Camp Have a Lot of Fun employee we’ve ever had to fire.

I speak first because Amy cries just thinking about it. We all know what’s about to take place, but even up to the moment it happens, we hope, somehow, it won’t.

When Jaimie leaves, Amy and I burst into tears. We hug each other and take deep, cleansing breaths. The pain is raw and sharp. My face is hot and my shoulders are heavy. The tightness in my stomach becomes sharp and stinging, right around my heart.

There were so many ways, and reasons, to feel sad.

Amy and I had two more magical summers at camp. More special kids, of all ages, became forever a part of our beautiful, growing family. There were other theme songs and new dance-moves. There were sleepovers, and milkshakes, and puffy-painted clothes.

But we never replaced what we lost, with Jaimie.

We watched Jaimie walk across the stage at her high school graduation, but didn’t participate in her celebration. Each year we brought together every generation of camp counselors for Thanksgiving, but could never convince Jaimie to come. Our friendship became a distant memory and she became someone we followed on social media, a girl we used to know in real life.

This summer, we recruited the best of the best of our alumni camp counselors to compete with the current staff at Camp Have a lot of Fun. The brainstorming stages generated so much excitement we got overly ambitious with the invitations. We immediately dismissed the idea that Jaimie would participate, but couldn’t resist the urge to include her.

Minutes after Amy presses the send button in Sacramento, I get a call on my cell phone in Tahoe.

“Jaimie is in.”

I’m wandering frantically around the Southshore Raley’s looking for a private place to yell through the phone. Amy and I spend 15 to 20 minutes exchanging expressions of disbelief, intermittently interrupted by declarations of triumph, and excitement, and happiness, and relief.

We meet Jaimie in person, for the first time, outside of the conference room where we all thought it ended forever, four years before. We hug, cautiously, still wondering if the romance of this reunion is real.

The next five weeks are filled with friendship flashbacks, and fast-forwarding through updates from four, transformative years of our lives. Jaimie is twenty-one now and lives on her own. She bought a car and pays her bills. She’s survived more personal tragedy than she can share with us in a single sitting. She is a confident, strong woman, changed by the passage of time and the demands of maturity and life lessons. She has the same light, and humor, and spirit. And connection to us.

Over plates of Nachos at Dos Coyotes, we finally cry the tears, we’ve all been holding back.

We cry because we haven’t been there for Jaimie when she’s struggled so much. We cry for the time we’ve lost and the memories we could have made together. We cry for judgements, and mistakes and assumptions. We cry with gratitude for the chance to be together again. For the sisterhood that shaped us all, that’s survived so much. The love that lives on, that endures, that remains unconditional, no matter what.

When my phone makes the text message noise, I look down and see the names of my two best friends, side by side. I feel complete joy, all over my body. I think about the rarity of the miracle that brought us back together, the gift of forgiveness and the healing power of love. I reflect on the many stories in my life that ended differently than this one.

The ones where I lost track of someone I love and wondered how their life turned out. The times when my ego overshadowed my compassion, or completely got in the way. The relationships where I’ve refused to forgive, or let go, or move on. The places where I store resentment and anger. The hesitation to make amends and the refusal to take responsibility. An uneasiness in squaring up to the uncomfortable, when it’s so much easier to run away.

Back in 2009 we were all a part of it coming undone. We were all wrong, and all right, and all responsible. We were all hurt, and sad and angry.

And in 2013, none of it mattered.

All that mattered was our second chance: To hug and cry and sing out loud. To talk about boys, and our careers and drink chocolate milkshakes. To do all the things we’d always done, and all the things we thought we’d never do again.

Gratitude: The Buddha

One of my favorite people on the planet is a high school senior named Mitchell Rosenberg. Mitchell first broke my heart wide open as a ten year old junior leader at my summer camp. When he was 15, I nicknamed him The Buddha. I have no explanation for how a Sacramento-raised Jewish teenager becomes enlightened, but he is.

Today, over lunch and a discussion of his college application essay, Mitchell reminded me why he is one of my most important teachers.

He is inexplicably humble, generous, loving and compassionate. He sees only the good in everyone. He has the wisdom and insight of someone 60 years older than him, and the wide open heart of someone 15 years younger.

Just being around him makes me better. More humble, more generous, more loving and compassionate. Words can’t describe his aura. It’s a feeling thing.

He is remarkable. And I feel grateful.

Grateful to know him, to learn from him, and to live in a world he is constantly making better.

Corporations

My friend Parker and I are the same age. We graduated the same year from high school. And college. We are both UCLA J.D.s, Class of 2012.

Sometimes when I hang out with him I feel like I’m 8 years old. Like my mom is paying him 15 dollars an hour to make sure I don’t electrocute myself in the microwave before she gets home from work.

Parker owns property and a BMW. One of his favorite pastimes is “watching his net-worth increase” on mint.com.

My net worth is the sum total of my measly student checking account and the retail value of the 2012 Ford Focus my dad bought me.

Today, reclined on wicker chaise lounges on the rooftop patio of my apartment building, Parker taught me about Corporations.

There’s that feeling again, “I wonder what time my mom gets home?”

Cresting towards thirty, with a professional degree, I’m having my first encounter with the basic, grown-up fundamentals of how the world works. “Man. My twenties have sure been a waste of an upper-middle class upbringing and an elite college education.”

Later, slightly sun-burnt and significantly dejected, I sank into the worn-out corner of my big, red couch. I mentally added the Ikea list price to my personal net-worth and settled in for an indulgent session of self-shaming and personal regret.

In periods of peak self-doubt and anxiety about the future, I cringe at the thought of how I spent my twenties.

Where I come from, people graduate college and immediately pursue the most lucrative career they can think of. The smartest and most distinguished become doctors. The best looking women and former fraternity presidents go into finance.  Everyone else spends a year or so bewildered by the work force, panics, and starts studying for the LSAT.

After college, I ran a summer camp with my best friend.

For five years.

In the midst of several public education jobs and learning to be a yoga teacher, I applied to law school.

I spent three years dreaming about how to run a summer camp with my best friend.

And a J.D.

I didn’t care to learn about shareholding or preferred stock.

Today felt like I was paying the emotional… and financial… price.

I got out my computer to write about my should-haves and wish-I’ds. I had just snuggled back into the pity spot when the phone rang.

It was my best friend.

“Maybe she’s calling with an update on that summer camp I’ve been dreaming about.”

In 20 minutes, 5 years of memories washed over me.

My 120 pound body squished in the center of a teary-eyed group hug.

Weeping over a note from a teenager telling me I’d “changed their life.”

Laughing so hard, for so long, I worried I might die because I couldn’t catch my breath.

Beaming with the joy and pride of an eager parent at countless high school graduations.

Watching gawky middle-schoolers become confident college kids, and later, my intimate adult friends.

Sharing in personal growth, moments of greatness and experiencing the rare sensation when everyone, and every thing, around me is shining.

Being Immersed in energy and intimacy of a group of people, the uniqueness of which, makes it indescribable.

Feeling the fullest, most unconditional, most powerful expressions of love.

A year from now, I’ll likely be unemployed. I’ll be a year closer to retirement but not a dollar closer to my first, real purchase of stock. Property and BMWs will be things “I’m saving for my forties.”

Maybe I’ll be having my third mid-life crisis. Maybe I’ll be sitting on my couch wondering, what might have been.

Maybe I’ll sit in gratitude for the unforgettable moments that have shaped my twenties.

Gratitude for each and every member of my summer camp family. The unforgettable, loves of my life.  Each of whom taught me how important it is to: be myself, love myself and keep growing.

Shareholder or not.

The End of Days

My best friend wrapped his lanky, pre-pubescent arms around my waist and kissed my forehead. He wiped my sweat-drenched bangs from my face and said, “I love you.” I looked up at him, probably 11 inches, smiled and buried my nose in his chest. I cried a little and he squeezed me tighter. He smelled like dirty boy and old high school gym. I could have bathed in those smells forever.

It was the final moments of my sixth grade graduation party. It was the first time I resisted the end of something. It might have been the first time, for me, something ended. It is my first memory of losing something and refusing to let it go.

I cried for the first three weeks of that summer after sixth grade. Even the thought of a new school, new teachers, new friends, new schedule was devastating. I knew the real thing would be torture.

That 12 year old girl who was paralyzed by change lives deep inside of me. She occupies that space of comfort where I feel safety, security, predictability. She thrives on the flow of my routines. She likes to dwell way down in the depths of the: relationships, communities, experiences, organizations that I’m a part of. That place where it feels like nothing else could ever be as good as this.

Today, I face a new end in my life. Law school classes are over. I will likely never be a student again. And as the Facebook statuses go up, and celebrations into the works, I keep returning to an uncomfortable vacancy inside of me: I feel nothing.

As I dig deeper, I realize I’ve spent the last three years resisting the end of my non-law school life. I’ve spent three years refusing to let go of the comfort of my career working with kids. I’ve clung to it so hard I’ve almost completely missed the experience, the reality, of the last three years. I’ve been so afraid of the new(and unfamiliar) opportunities, challenges and expectations of being a lawyer I’ve refused to become one.

About a month before the end of law school I made a commitment to try it out. Be a lawyer. Take depositions. Write briefs. Wear a suit. Along with the terrible angst and anxiety that’s accompanied this commitment, is the inner knowing that to honor it, I have to accept the end of my former life.

I cried this morning thinking about it. I watched the News Story from the last day I spent at my summer camp. For the first time, I observed it as a part of my past. My neck tightened. My stomach clenched. My eyes welled up as sank into the sensation of finality. The sensation I’ve been avoiding.

I know: life is constantly changing; nothing is permanent; everything is shaped by sad ends, and beautiful beginnings with all sorts of enriching, scary, challenging, validating moments in between. But the resistance I feel is real. The fear. The uncertainty. The discomfort. The looking back and wondering, will it ever be as good as that, again?