I spent all day last Thursday with tears in the corners of my eyes and a lump in my throat. I drove 125 miles on back roads, spent five hours in one spot, wore a shirt I hadn't worn in at least 15 years for half an hour, then turned around and drove back the way I came. The lump and the tears stayed with me on dark roads. I smiled and laughed through them. I drank water to make them go away but my lump and watery eyes did not leave me.
Here's why I cried: I was visiting my old summer camp, Camp Merrowvista. Run by the American Youth Foundation, Camp Merrowvista offers programs that encourage participants to "aspire nobly, adventure daringly, and serve humbly." There are very few mirrors. "Transportation is a bike, a sneaker, canoe, or a hiking boot."
When I was 16, I biked 1200 miles in Nova Scotia over three weeks with 16 of my Merrowvista peers and three leaders. We took all of our gear with us, ate only with a cup and spoon, and bought food at rural stores along the way. Every day was the day I thought would be my last with the group. Every morning and afternoon I road my bike up hills that I did not think I could climb. My friends and leaders encouraged me on, and I did the same for them (when I could). And everyday the group succeeded, individually and as a whole. We took half hour shifts the night before we returned to write in a group journal by candlelight. Most of us wrote about similar themes: We could not believe what we had done together. We were proud. We were strong. And we were really going to miss each other.
To commemorate the trip, each of us received a rugby shirt. It was this shirt I put on last week. Wearing it served a double purpose, I hid a new rugby shirt under it for a few minutes before presenting it to a young woman who just finished her trip to Nova Scotia.
As I wore my rugby shirt, I focused on two faces in the crowd--my twin nieces. Fresh from their own three week introduction to the camp, they lit up when they saw my faded dark green shirt with the navy and yellow stripes. For the first time, they knew what it meant--and they wanted one, too. They are two years away from their Nova Scotia trip. "Aunt Chandlee, we love this place, we made friends and learned just how much we are capable of. It was the hardest thing we've ever done. It was physically hard. It was mentally hard. And yet we loved it..." And then, "Can we borrow your shirt?"
Suddenly the girls who had laughed just days prior at my watery eyes and altered voice, alternated between putting their faces in their hands and burying their heads on the shoulders of others who had been strangers less than three weeks before. Their faces were wet, their green eyes bloodshot. It was time to say goodbye--for now. Their leaders sent them off with a song, Every Long Journey.
Every long journey is made in small steps,
Is made of courage, the feeling you get
When you know it's been waiting, been waiting for you.
The journey's the only thing you want to do
And we cannot know what you go through
Or see through your eyes,
But we will surround you with pride undisguised,
In any direction, whatever you view,
You're taking our love there with you.
How nice is that?
It's been over 20 years since I was a camper, but the life lessons I learned in Nova Scotia and on trails and rivers in New Hampshire still resonate more for me than almost anything I've ever done. I still hear the "You can do it," voices of my bunkmates and my leaders. I hear it occasionally when I take a flight into LaGuardia late and night and wonder if I'm up for schlepping my luggage five blocks. When I tackled writing my first e-book over a holiday weekend. When Lehman Brothers fell just two months after I started working for myself full-time in Manhattan. When I went to camp, I heard the voice from others--as I struggled to carry a canoe over my head, went 150 yards up a steep hill in first gear, scrambled over rocks or hoisted food into trees to hide it from bears. Now I hear the "I know I can" from myself.
I'm convinced that the ability to hear the "I can do it voice" is a gift that camp gave me. And which I think it has given my nieces, too.
While I typically write about careers, this is a piece is about gratitude. Gratitude for friends, mentors, and the people that have challenged me to believe in myself. (Naturally, there has also been a squadron of others outside my camp experience who have helped me keep up the momentum--and who continue to do so.)
The question I ask now is "How can you possibly repay an organization that created an experience and left you with so much?" Beyond opening my wallet and offering my time, the only way I see ahead is to pay it forward in other ways. And that, is perhaps, what drives me to blog, to teach, to share and to work in the career management industry.
That's the story of how I learned to believe in myself and "choked up" at the same time. Now that my eyes are finally dry and the lump is gone, what's yours?