by Deb Walsh
Last week I went back to camp. I hadn’t been to camp since I was 14, when my beloved summer ritual was a retreat to the Silver Lake Conference Center in Sharon, CT. Silver Lake was a place where I felt unlimited and expansive and hopeful and free. Weeks filled with contemplative walks down wooded trails to the lake. Soul-stirring conversation circles on the scratchy rolling lawn. Talks that opened with the nature of our own unique spirituality and ended up with group hugs and backrubs. It was a magical place nestled in the woods by the water. In retrospect, I see how that place nurtured my very young and true spirit: wild and free. Seeking. Philosophical.
I didn’t know how much I needed this 2017 camp reboot until I pulled off the main road at the sign reading “Mt. Hope Farm” and to my surprise, my eyes welled up. A signal I was onto something good - and important. Driving into the quiet to reflect on the big questions in the company of strangers. I exhaled and leaned into curiosity.
My friend Lois and her colleagues Daniel and Gillian had masterminded Courage Camp, though they hardly knew each other and had never done anything together. But, being the rebels and change makers that they are, and after seeing the breathtaking beauty of Mt . Hope Farm, they knew it had to happen. “We all deeply believe in possibilities and know that the human spirit needs nourishing and replenishment to take the next steps and the step after that,” said Lois. “And we knew it had to center on courage because all meaningful change takes courage. “
Sixteen of us had taken up their invitation to courage - gathering in a circle of lawn chairs under the summer skies of Bristol, RI. The Mt. Hope Bridge looked on from the western edge of our camp. Spangles danced on the bay. A hawk circled. Leaves rustled. And our stories began.
We opened with stories that defined courage for us. How we had risen to challenges. There were stories of leaving – home, people, countries, family, identity. Of longing – for joy, for truth, for connection, and healing. Of truth – of finding our voice when we thought we had none. Of breaking the rules and writing our own. We shared how these challenges became the catalysts for personal change and had often unexpectedly given our lives meaning.
I was in a circle of every day heroes - strangers we knew only by first name choosing to bravely show up and share the most vulnerable and intimate stories:
- Bravely confronting one’s hero
- Leaving when my parents said I wouldn’t amount to much.
- Deciding to break all the rules
- Grieving at the loss of a beloved one, then learning to dance
- Losing your voice
- Turning abuse into a lifeline for others
- Being the rock when everybody else ran tail.
Camp had barely begun and courage was already revealing itself.
Courage, I thought, is how we want to make a difference, to be heard, to follow the calls of passion. It is how we yearn to be understood. To be applauded for standing up for who we are and who we think we want to be. To dance, to write, to walk into the unknown. It is the courage of showing up with brave intention. Intention to change, to choose, and to listen to our hearts – then bravely decide to set sail in that direction.
In my work at X Factory, and throughout my life of telling stories, I know that it is often in the company of strangers that we find our own voice. We hear someone’s story and clarify our own. Witnessing someone’s courage in telling their story, we find courage to tell our own. Collectively we find strength. We connect with something greater than ourselves. And we become greater individual versions of who we are.
Courage Camp was an invitation and a sacred space to practice self compassion:
- Finding the courage to rewrite a disempowering script.
- Choosing to release hurt and offer forgiveness.
- Deciding to experience the exhilaration of travel into the unknown.
- Being brave enough to ask for a cheering section when our role has always been to support others.
Between stories, we were invited to walk around camp and find our own places to reflect, nap, sketch, or write in silence. To unplug and reconnect. Honor our need for simply being. To trust that our truths would reveal themselves. Facing inward, we bravely asked to hear our own answers:
- What do we really want?
- What needs to grow?
- How can I dance more? Live more? Write more? Love more?
- What needs letting go?
- What are the masks we wear?
- What is the intersection of our roles and our identity?
- What are our unique strengths, and how can they be used to heal and expand ourselves and the world?
- Where can we step beyond the limits of our current selves and expand our own sense of unlimited potential?
- How can I turn pain into healing?
- What do I want to create?
- How can I commit fully to my A Game?
We spoke of finding our True North – our “yes” - our quest. And I was reminded of the Native American Medicine Wheel and the teachings of the Four Directions: East, South, West, and North; and of the three “unseen directions” – Above, Below, and Within.
Each of these seven directions represents a sacred path along our spiritual journey and personal development, writes Jamie Sams in one of her many wonderful books, “Dancing The Dream: The Seven Sacred Paths of Human Transformation."
Here, at Courage Camp, we were witnessing just such transformations:
- In the East, we encounter the first stirrings of the spirit
- In the South, the healing of relationships;
- In the West, we work to build self-esteem;
- In the North, we learn wisdom and the opening of the heart;
- Above represents the world of spirit;
- Below, the earth;
- Within, full awareness of the present moment.
Stories poured into our circle - creating an astonishing container of wisdom. Shared discoveries of strength, beauty, truth, resilience, joy, change, creativity, and grace.
As my new camp friend Simona so beautifully wrote: If you think you are courageous:
- You acknowledge your vulnerability, and are willing to share it with people you've just met.
- You accept your limitations, and practice to overcome them every day.
- You feel raw pain and you choose not to ignore it. Instead, you put it all in one sentence and set it free with your tears.
- You affirm you don't love yourself, but make small steps in becoming friends.
- You admit you're still trying to find your way, and that is OK.
When the last words were spoken and camp officially ended, it was “a wrap,” but no one moved from the set. A few more minutes of this unbroken magic before we hugged goodbye and headed back up that winding road out of the woods and towards home. Notes of appreciation in hand - written by 15 strangers I now call friends. Meaningfully changed for the better. Hearts full. On fire. Inspired by each other and fueled by courage.
To all who produced and joined this magical gathering, I send back love, friendship, and gratitude. We are never on this journey alone, and having discovered you all as my new and courageous companions fills me with joy. I can't wait to hear how far you've flown when we meet again next year.