Take Me Back to the Hills of Camp Toccoa

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I have hiked the Appalachian Trail in three states.

I have gone tubing down the James River in Virginia.

I have body surfed in the Atlantic Ocean.

I have explored and hiked trails in Arizona, marveling at the art left in the rocks by those who lived there before my time.

I have climbed a mountain and gazed down at the city of Kyoto, Japan.

I have gone 4-wheeling in the Pyrenees of northern Spain and southern France.

I have climbed Stone Mountain more times than I can remember.

I have sat on a rock overlooking the Shenandoah Valley and watched a hawk soar through the blue autumn sky.

All of these things, and many more, I have done in the 69 years of my life. I have experienced a lifetime of extraordinary days.

But none of these adventures hold a candle to the ones I had every summer growing up, and spending weeks on end at Camp Toccoa in the North Georgia mountains.

From the age of 8 until my 16th summer, the end of school in June meant that summer camp was near. My days were spent in anticipation of going to camp, riding the train from Atlanta to Toccoa, and then spending anywhere from 2 weeks to 6 weeks (depending on my ability to beg my parents to let me stay, and their ability to pay for it) at Camp Toccoa.

I was a very shy little girl – an introvert before I knew the word or what it means – and never was quite comfortable anywhere except in my cabin at camp with 7 other girls. I always felt overwhelmed in a school classroom filled with kids, on the playground at recess, waiting to be picked for a team, and even in Sunday School, where I was never sure where I was supposed to be or what I was supposed to believe. In my everyday life I was somewhat of a chameleon – I could adapt to my surroundings and my environment, but I was never comfortable or at ease. I never felt like I was part of any school group I attempted to join – I was always on the fringes, or so it seemed to me. I was happiest when I was outdoors swinging on a rope swing, lying in the grass gazing at the clouds drifting across the blue sky, or walking on the beach or along a path, either by myself or with a trusted friend.

But I loved Camp Toccoa. And I loved being a Camp Fire Girl. Camp was a place where I felt like I belonged, and being a part of the group that was Camp Fire gave me a safe place to be me and to explore the depths of my imagination and my soul. The counselors and leaders were my mentors, and I looked to them as the role models for my emerging self. Camp was the place where I knew where I was, where I was supposed to be, and who I was supposed to be with. The pressure was off, and I was free to be myself.

This past weekend, the memories flooded back as I attended Camp Toccoa’s 90th anniversary alumni reunion. The camp has changed quite a bit since I was a camper in the 1950s and 1960s, but even with the changes and the growth, there are some things that never change. I slept in the cabin I spent four weeks in when I was 9 years old. I found my signature – along with the silly little writings of a 12-year-old – written in pencil in the rafters of another cabin. I found quartz crystals where I had searched for them as a teenager. I climbed a huge rock ledge to a lookout point where I had spent sleep-out nights as a girl pondering the universe and gazing out at the valley below. I hiked trails that were familiar to me, and a few that I had never been on before, discovering that Camp Toccoa always has something new to offer me.

Seeing old friends and familiar faces was a treat for this introvert, giving me the courage to step out and engage with new friends. Still, at age 69, it can be a challenge! I was a sponge, absorbing everything, every word, every face, every story.

I sat in a rocking chair on the lodge porch, my mind flooded with memories long buried, now bubbling to the surface. I observed the happy reunions as former campers and counselors arrived, recognizing familiar faces, and greeting each other with hugs and lots of love. I watched the night campfire crackle and pop, while children eagerly fed it wood and anticipated making s’mores. I listened to stories of summer camp, and contributed a few of my own as the bonds of Camp Fire intertwined around us all, pulling us all together as a universal family.

I was at camp, my safe place. I was home.

 

 

 

“Beneath the pine trees, I hear the night breeze. It seems to whisper of Camp Toccoa…..Take me back to the hills of Camp Toccoa.”

 

 

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I Told Myself….

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I am watching my sales report on createspace.com, the platform I use for publishing my books. I told myself I wasn’t going to do this.

I also told myself that if only one person reads my new book, “Sunshine Leads the Way,” and is touched by something in it, I would be satisfied. This has happened. I have received a wonderful review by a reader. I am happy.

In addition, I told myself I wasn’t going to get greedy, and that I don’t expect my little book to become a best-seller. This is still true, but as people read my book and share their satisfaction and enjoyment from it, I mentally pose the question, “Why not?” Then I pull myself back down to earth and remind myself the reason I write and publish. It isn’t for the money (although it would be nice to have a supplemental income to help me with my living expenses!), but for the joy of writing and for the hope that by sharing my life experiences, I may help someone else with theirs. By sharing my extraordinary days, I might light the way for someone else to take notice of theirs.

Collecting days is something I’ve done all my life, and I want to make this activity one that might catch on with people everywhere. We so often go through the daily routine of living that we miss the wonder and adventure that the most ordinary of days can bring. I try my best each day to find something worth remembering, worth researching, worth photographing, worth writing about. Yesterday, it was seeing a fairy ring of mushrooms in a neighbor’s yard and finding out what a hashtag is all about. One day last week, it was an unusual cloud formation drifting across the sky. Friday, it was a baby goat bouncing on and off of me in delight – a baby goat, who before that day, had been skittish and afraid of me. On Saturday, it was sitting in my living room with four fantastic young women surrounding me, enjoying an afternoon of friendship and love together. I have claimed these strong and unique women as “my girls”, and we were celebrating a job change and new beginning for one of them.

It isn’t so much about writing in a journal or carrying my camera or phone around with me all the time. It is all about being observant, grateful, curious, and loving. It is also about holding each day in my heart, caressing the present moment with a prayer of thanksgiving, and understanding that with each minute that passes a memory is born.

I invite my readers and followers to order a copy of my book and read it. If you like it, a nice review on amazon.com would be appreciated. But more than anything, my desire is that by reading it, your life may be changed, just a bit, and that you may realize that you, too, are a collector of days.

https://www.amazon.com/Sunshine-Leads-Way-other-stories/dp/154468438X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1498570616&sr=1-1&keywords=sunshine+leads+the+way

 

Help Me Make It Through the Night

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The telephone awakened me from a sound sleep. My bedside clock showed that it was a few minutes past 1:00am. Caller ID on my phone informed me that the caller was my friend, Bill. What could he want to talk about at this hour of the night. We had talked earlier in the evening for almost an hour.

Bill apologized for waking me up. The sound of his voice told me that something was wrong. I couldn’t get him to share with me what was on his mind, or why he called me at this ungodly hour, even though I asked him more than once what was the matter. Rather than quiz him further or demand an explanation, which it was obvious I wasn’t going to get, I simply asked him, “Is there anything I can do to help?”

“Talk to me, “ he replied. “Please help me make it through the night.”

Only a couple of days earlier we had been talking on the phone about our favorite song writers, and Kris Kristofferson came up in the conversation, where we had agreed that we both liked his music, and this song in particular.

“Talk to me,” he repeated.

“Would you like for me to tell you a story?” I asked.

“Yes, please.”

Drawing from my writing and my collection of days, I began telling him about a game my sister and I played as children, Runaway Orphans. Since Bill and I both grew up in the same town, he was familiar with the places my sister and I visited when we played this special game. I embellished the story and added drama to it in an attempt to entertain Bill with its telling and perhaps help him get whatever was troubling him off of his mind.

When I finished, he said to me, “Tell me another one.”

I then went into the story about the day I ran away from home when I was five years old.

“Another one?”

I dug deeper into my childhood, recalling our family tradition of making homemade peach ice cream on the Fourth of July every year and about my job of sitting on top of the churn while Daddy turned the crank. From there, I went into the story about my special brother, Johnny, and a story about my daddy’s pocket watch. As I finished this story, I realized I had been talking for well over two hours, and that it was very quiet on the other end of the line.

“Are you still there? Are you feeling any better now?” I asked.

Bill’s voice, barely above a whisper, answered, “Yes, I think I am.”

“Do you want me to tell you any more stories?”

“No, I think I’ll be ok now. Thank you.” And he hung up, leaving me wondering what had just happened. It was now 4:30am.

Bill never told me why he needed me that night. The next evening when we talked, I commented, “Well, we made it through the night last night, didn’t we?”

“Yes, “ he said. “And it was no small feat. I’ll forever be grateful to you for staying on the phone with me all night long.”

I never learned what was troubling Bill that night. Over the course of our three-year friendship, I discovered that he had his own demons he was battling, and little by little, one by one, he shared a few of them with me. He also recalled tidbits of his history and life as a journalist – he truly had the gift of the story teller, and could have me laughing uncontrollably or sympathizing with tears running down my face as he’d relate a tale from his past.

Bill also encouraged me as a writer. He never completely understood my style of writing – I am not a journalist or reporter, but a weaver of tales and a painter using words instead of paint of my memories and adventures through life. He would sometimes tell me that I needed to step away and be more objective in my writing, that I put too much of myself into it. I’d politely disagree with him, and he’d keep on complimenting me on my writing, even though I didn’t take this piece of advice. He said on many occasions that I was a better writer than he was. That wasn’t true. He was a gifted writer, a diligent researcher, and an extraordinary communicator through the written word. I could never do what he did.

One thing that Bill told me often was that he didn’t believe he would live to be an old man. He once said that he didn’t think he would live to see 70. And he was right. I guess he somehow knew his limits and sensed his life span. When a classmate of ours died recently, he told me he thought he might be next. I wish he had been wrong.

Bill was my friend. My heart is aching as I write tonight. I’ll miss hearing his voice, listening to him telling me about his latest writing assignment, and being the recipient of his praise and admiration of me and my writing.

I wish I could have had the chance to say goodbye.

“I don’t care what’s right or wrong,

I don’t try to understand.

Let the devil take tomorrow.

Lord, tonight I need a friend.

Yesterday is dead and gone, and tomorrow’s out of sight.

And it’s sad to be alone.

Help me make it through the night.”

“Help Me Make It Through the Night” by Kris Kristofferson

Goodbye 2016. Hello New Year.

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The New Year has a way of haunting me as January 1 draws nearer. I know it’s just another day, but for me it’s a time of looking back, taking stock of where I am right now, and gazing ahead for perhaps a glimpse of what is in store for me in the coming year.

The past few nights I have been awakened by dreams reminding me of my past and filling me with a mixture of regrets, feelings of accomplishments, and memories of pure joy, deep sadness, and even loss – all jumbled together in a sleep-depriving slide show of my history. As I contemplated all that is part of who I am, I reached out to God in gratitude for delivering me from evil, for walking beside me during trying times, for teaching me about what real love is all about, and for giving me my life.

And now, today, on New Year’s Eve, I turn the final page of 2016, the pages filled to overflowing with my words, thoughts, prayers, and wishes. I close the book, but I don’t seal it. I can always return to this year in my memories, and be reminded of this great and wonderful gift called life and of the year of 2016. A new book awaits me, its pages blank and ready to receive whatever each day decides to grant me.

Last year I wrote a list of things to NOT DO in the New Year. I didn’t accomplish my goals entirely, but I can report proudly that I have not put on a sports bra backwards in 2016. (See my blog from last year to read my list: https://jennielousdays.wordpress.com/2016/02/01/my-to-dont-do-list/ ). But I also have to admit that I fell off the chocolate wagon over the Christmas holidays, and I enjoyed far too much candy and cookies. The New Year is a good time to re-group, get back into good habits, and take a bold step forward.

2016 is waving goodbye as she approaches the door into years past. She is taking with her tender memories of dear friends I have had to say farewell to this year, of great personal accomplishments that at times seemed daunting and unattainable, of prayers for healing and those answered prayers, of fears over the fate of our nation during the most disturbing political race I’ve ever experienced, and a plethora of moments and days that brought tears to my eyes merely from the pure joy of being alive and acknowledging my small place in this remarkable universe.

As she moves closer to that door, 2016 pauses to glance back at me and with thumbs up and a broad smile, she wishes me Godspeed into 2017.

I pull out my book with blank pages, and I am ready to write!

Reunion!!

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I did it. I almost backed out, but I didn’t. I went to my 50-year high school reunion last night. Thanks to a wonderful posse of long-time friends, I fought back my childish insecurities, sending them packing to the far corners of my brain, and I went.

I had a wonderful time. It was amazing.

It was a 50- year reunion for most, but for me it was 52 years, since I moved away from my hometown the summer before my junior year. And one of the best serendipities of the event was the representation from my elementary school. There was a bunch of us there who grew up and went through the grades together. It was more than wonderful seeing these kids again.

While some faces seemed to be ageless, I had to do a little bit of searching on others to discover the teenager that I remembered. But they were there, just beneath the surface, and once conversations began, they emerged in smiles and were easily recognizable. It was a night of remembrance, celebration, and yes, even healing of old wounds.

There were several discoveries. Among them was the realization that I still have no sense of rhythm and am a terrible dancer. But nobody seemed to care, and I was whirled around the dance floor a few times by a boy who grew up around the corner from my childhood home. Another good friend and I did our best to catch up on a half century, and finally concluded that there is much more to talk about, with a promise that we will keep in touch and find out more areas where our lives strike similar chords. Hugs were plentiful all night long, as I ran into people from my past, and as others searched me out.

I think we were the best looking group of grownups (I refuse to use the term “senior citizens”) I’ve ever seen in one place – the most interesting, fun-loving, and friendliest. Although I was hesitant about going, and even somewhat nervous upon my arrival at the registration table, it all evaporated with the first, and then the second, and followed by a quick third hug from old friends. And one old wound in particular found its healing touch in the form of a smile, a hug, and a warm greeting from one I was especially apprehensive, yet eager, to see again. From that moment on, all was well with me, a load was lifted, and I was able to fully enjoy the evening.

50 years – for some who didn’t make it this far with us – they were honored in a special display of remembrance. It was tough walking over to that board and looking at the photos of those who have passed on. How I would love to see them, to remember special times with them, and to embrace them one more time. It’s all a part of reunion, but not the part that we like or enjoy. They were truly missed last night.

And so, today, I return to my home, my life, and my adult world. I feel different this morning. Tears well up in my eyes without my bidding, my heart is full to overflowing, and I am very, very grateful.

I want to thank my wonderful friends who encouraged me to attend, who stood by me and had my back, and who love me for the sometimes insecure, introverted adolescent who at times sneaks back into my life. You’re the best!!

Reunions such as this one remind us that history, and having a history, is a very good thing!

Summertime – Reunion Time

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Summer is here, when the world seems to take a deep breath and search out a nice shade tree. Many of us are getting ready to travel on much-needed and anticipated vacations. Along with vacation time come reunions – family reunions, class reunions, church homecomings, and other gatherings where people get together to fill up on love, memories, good times and bad, and to simply remind ourselves that we are not alone.

I am preparing for a high school reunion later this month. It’s the big one – how is it possible that 1966 was 50 years ago? I have mixed feelings about going. Part of me wants to see the friends I grew up with, while another part of me is hiding in the shadows, feeling very awkward and shy. I become 15 years old all over again! What am I going to wear? What will people think when they see me? What will I think when I see them? What are we going to talk about? Will anybody want to talk to me?

Crazy? Right!

The funny thing about this reunion is that I didn’t graduate from high school with these people. My family moved the summer before my junior year, and I left the familiarity of my small town, familiar streets, and friendly faces to be thrust into a place I didn’t know, and with classmates who didn’t seem to be interested in getting to know me outside of the classroom. I made a few friends at my new school, but I never felt included in the life of the school or community. I was an outsider, a newcomer, the “new girl.” I missed out on all of the activities of the place I knew and loved so well, so I can’t share in the stories of school dances, having a steady boyfriend or going out on dates, cheering at football and basketball games with my “pack”, girls’ slumber parties, senior trips, or all the other things my girlfriends did once drivers’ licenses were in hand.

I left before I had a chance to find a niche for myself in my hometown high school, and entered a new school where there didn’t seem to be a place for me. I know my memories are distorted, now 50 years later, but the insecurities I felt as an adolescent are doing their best to claw their way to the surface. And they are doing a pretty good job at it! It’s not easy being 68 years old, and having all of these teen-age insecurities give me a nervous tummy all over again.

However, there is one thing about this upcoming reunion that I am looking forward to immensely. A small group of girls from my elementary school are getting together the day before the reunion for lunch. It is with these girls that I have my fondest memories – walking to school and back and forth from our houses together, playing on the school playground, being in the same Camp Fire Girls group, going to each others’ birthday parties, moving up together in the grades at Winnona Park Grammar School, and sleeping over at each others’ houses. These are the memories I treasure, and I can’t wait to see these childhood friends.

And so reunion time approaches, and I am mentally gearing myself up for it. Writing helps. It clears my mind and sets everything out on the table for me to look at, examine, and realize that it’s really not all that scary. No monsters are lurking in the shadows to grab me. I won’t be alone, and there will be plenty of love and memories to share and to pass around.

And what I need to concentrate on most is that it isn’t about what happened to a shy little girl 50-some-odd years ago, but what matters is who I am today.

Reunion time – it’s a good thing.

And I’m not 15 years old!

Round, Round, Get Around, I Get Around

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On a sunny Saturday afternoon in the summer of 1964, my dad told me he wanted me to go with him to run an errand. There was something secretive about his request along with a sly smile on his face, making me stop whatever it was that I was doing, slip on a pair of shoes, and head out the back door behind him. No questions asked.

He wouldn’t tell me where we were going. “You’ll see,” is all he would say. But with Decatur being a small town, it wasn’t but a few minutes before we were pulling up into a parking place at Callaway Oldsmobile on Ponce de Leon Avenue in downtown Decatur. Before we got out of the car, he told me that he wanted me to help him pick out a new car. We were moving to Safety Harbor, Florida, later that summer, Mama didn’t know how to drive, and Daddy would be working in Georgia for a few months after we moved, closing the Georgia operations of the Tampa-based construction company where he worked. He wanted me to have a reliable car, so that I could drive Mama wherever she needed to go, since he wouldn’t be there with us. He told me he wanted to buy a car that I would like.

There were several cars to choose from on the lot. But one in particular caught my eye and beckoned me to her. I wasn’t sure if Daddy would go for it. She was a baby blue Olds Cutlass two-door coupe with blue interior, and bucket seats. She was beautiful. He let me test drive her, along with another Cutlass that was dark green with white interior and bench seats – not nearly as sporty as the blue one. She was the car I would have dreamed about if I had known getting a car like this was even a remote possibility for me!

Daddy asked me if I was sure that was the car I liked the best, and I assured him that it was. He and I followed the salesman into the showroom, and sat on one side of a large desk while the salesman sat on the other side, jotting down numbers with a pencil on a sheet of lined paper, while punching numbers on an adding machine. He and Daddy discussed all of the features on the car as he added up all of the numbers. When he was done, he handed Daddy the paper. The total came up to $3,500. I was shocked, and knew that it most certainly would be a deal-breaker. Daddy surely wouldn’t pay that much for a car for me! But he did, after whittling the price down to $3,000, and two days later I was proudly driving my baby blue Cutlass home.

Another two days, and I was driving her, with my friend, Susan, in the front seat beside me, to go swimming at the local pool. All the windows were rolled down, the sun was shining, and the Beach Boys were singing over the radio speakers at full volume, “Round, Round, Get Around, I Get Around”. I was sixteen years old, and I was in heaven.

Last week I bought a new car. It wasn’t a Cutlass, but a Chevrolet Cruze.They don’t make Oldsmobiles anymore.  It wasn’t baby blue, it wasn’t a two-door coupe, and it cost a wee bit more than $3,000. And I wasn’t sixteen years old. But I was as excited about buying this car as I had been so many years ago when I went with my daddy to buy my first car. It smelled wonderful – that new car smell hasn’t changed in all these years. Some things don’t change.

But other things have changed. This car is so much smarter than my Cutlass was. Everything on it is computerized, electronic, smart, safer, and it even knows my music preference.

Driving home from the dealership, I set the satellite radio statio to “60s on 6” to listen to some good old rock and roll. And what song began to play? The Beach Boys. “Round, Round, Get Around, I Get Around.”

Once again, I was in heaven.