"It's as if a great bird lives inside the stone of our days and since no sculptor can free it, it has to wait for the elements to wear us down, till it is free to fly." Mark Nepo

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Nature Makes Stairs

Camp was everything I feared.

The first night we stood in pouring rain as two cabin groups brought down a flag so wet it looked like it was weeping. The next morning that same wet flag was raised while we stood in a semi-circle, eyes puffy with not-enough-sleep, voices singing America froggy in the saturated cold air. Puddles the size of small ponds were scattered throughout camp, so it was impossible to walk anywhere without stepping in one. It rained every day. The cold was a constant presence, burrowing through our layers into our bones.

Monday breakfast, the first of our official camp meals, consisted of pancakes and peaches in heavy syrup. Every meal but one was brown, full of starch, low on protein: bread, pasta, potatoes. Lettuce was served once. Vegetables were canned: beans, mixed, carrots. Fresh fruit was served three times, but in limited quantities.

The women's cabin was overcrowded this year. All nice people, but all on different sleep schedules and with different ideas about how to spend the cabin time. Half thought it was a slumber party. Half just wanted to go to sleep. Several snored loudly enough that sleep became impossible for those who didn't snore.

Camp was everything I feared, and the gifts I anticipated were everywhere.

My class did the big waterfall hike on the first morning. It's a highlight of camp every year, an almost four mile round trip of steep climbing on narrow root-heaved trails. As we set out, the rain eased a bit. The hike was vigorous enough that no one noticed the cold. The kids were chattering happily ahead of and behind me, occasionally shouting out discovered wonders: neon orange mushrooms, conks, nurse logs, deer trails. One boy challenged me to a duel with the sword ferns. At a particularly steep place in the trail, a girl in the back said, "Nature makes stairs." Roots were shoring up the trail so that there were indeed natural stairs for us to climb.

For the rest of the week, stairs appeared through the mud and downpours and fatigue.

The rest of the waterfall hike was amazing. The sun came out several times, and the heavy rain held off until we were down. The waterfall itself was a torrential wonder, so heavy I couldn't see the kids standing on the trail behind it. No one whined. No one got hurt. And for the first time ever on this hike, I felt no pain and was able to enjoy every step.

The kids were all we could have hoped for kids to be. They learned and had fun and were in awe of the beauty surrounding them. They hugged and smiled and asked countless questions, their curiosity deep and wonderful. They sang and laughed and declared the food the best they'd ever eaten.

This year for the first time teachers were with their own classes the whole time, which meant we had to teach every field study. We received the lessons the week before camp, and most of us had specialized in one or two of the eight in the previous years. The result of that were free-form lessons in which I was decidedly not the expert, in which the kids and counselors often provided answers to questions, in which we all learned together, in which many questions went unanswered.

There were many times when stairs appeared for me as personal gifts.

A volunteer, the oldest person there, a former teacher, at the end of our astronomy lesson which was way more question than answer, saying to everyone what an incredible teacher I am and how lucky the kids are to have me. It's such a rare gift, to be told how you're seen by someone who knows how hard this job is.

The day of our fire lesson, which I didn't have to teach (thank goodness, or we'd still be staring at wet wood), sitting around a crackling blaze, my kids sitting quietly with their counselors, the volunteer showing the steps to building a fire, I watched ravens fall silently into the trees around us like bits of perfect emptiness in the shining green air. I saw them study us and decide we had nothing they wanted and slip away into the afternoon leaving behind shadows of themselves that only I could see.

On the morning of our final hike, we were on a creek bank looking for rocks. The creek roared past us in flood, more river than anything, but receded enough that the kids were having great success finding the perfect rocks to take home. I had just looked up to tell the kids to gather gear and head back when I noticed movement directly overhead. Flying upstream, no more than twenty feet from us, was a Bald Eagle, who turned and looked directly at me just before she disappeared out of sight in that magical way of eagles.

Like all grand adventures, this one left us changed. On Friday morning—yes we had regular school on Friday—when I let my kids into the room, they were singing camp songs. United as a group singing happily as they went about the morning routine. The hugs I got were a little tighter, the laughter we shared was a little lighter, our conversations enriched by the unspoken bonds forged on the mountain in the rain.

Camp was everything I feared, the challenges as difficult and uncomfortable as I knew they'd be. The only real surprise was in the abundance and quality of the gifts. Nature makes stairs—always. We just have to be willing to allow our feet to find them, our hearts to accept the grace of gifts not sought but so much richer than anything we could ask for ourselves.
The size of a backpack, this is the rock the kids found for me. We did not bring it home. :-)


BLissed-Out Grandma said...

I love, love, love this. It's okay not to have all the answers, it's okay to venture out into the cold rain, and Nature Makes Stairs. Of course your abundance of warmth and wisdom helped provide the most important stairs. Hope you're getting lots of rest now!

Barb said...

Deb, I was captivated by your soggy camp experience. This is what the kids will remember even when they're grown - a place of natural wonder and a gifted teacher who taught and learned along with them. The BIG heart says it all.

Sandi said...

Oh Deb, I was smiling big, laughing and crying a bit as I read this. As usual, you write so that I am literally right beside you, watching and listening as you so eloquently tell the story of what will surely become known as the famous Outrageous Outdoor School 2013!

I especially loved this phrase, "And for the first time ever on this hike, I felt no pain and was able to enjoy every step." as I am well aware of how long you have been making these hikes, in excruciating pain. Hurray and Hallelujah for replacement parts and modern medicine!

What a gift to have your class to yourself! You made me wishing for Outdoor School, and those hazy, crazy times again.

I love you so much, and can't wait to see you in a couple weeks!!

lily cedar said...

Sounds hard and wonderful, like so many things in life.

Linda Myers said...

Lovely. Nature makes stairs, indeed.

DJan said...

Such a beautiful tale, Deb. I am so glad you had this experience, and I am also so happy that I will be with you in a few short weeks to talk and share. That rock is very special! :-)

Retired English Teacher said...

I just got chills. I let out a sigh that came from deep in my soul. As I read your post, taking it all in, I glanced up briefly at the heart rock you gave me last year at Vashon and wondered if you would find a heart rock while the kids searched for rocks. Surely, she will, I thought. Then, I scrolled down. I saw the picture of the heart rock and got tears in my eyes. There is always a heart whenever Deb is involved in anything, I thought to myself.

You are all heart. You have the heart of the teacher. You are amazing. I am blessed by knowing you.

I wondered about your hip, and was grateful to know you had no pain. I was surprised to read the kids thought those meals that sound horrid to us were perfect. What a soggy memory you made. What lessons you brought back. Nature makes stairs indeed.

kario said...

I love this so much.
I love you and your courage and your openness to the beauty around you.
I am covered in goosebumps with a lump in my throat. You are a wonder.

Mark Lyons said...

They picked the perfect rock...for the perfect teacher! I loved the story and your ability to see the gifts where many would only see the storm.

I Love you


Mark Lyons said...

What a perfect gift...for the perfect teacher for your students. I'm so happy that you can see the gifts where so many would only see the storm.

I love you


Teresa Coltrin said...

This is one of my favorite posts. I love the first line. Then you help me see the challenges of camp. THEN 'I hear' everything you feared helped YOU see some of the beauty in life. From there came the blessings.

Love this.

Anonymous said...

It truly sounds a fantastic weekend Deb and you describe it so powerfully yet gently. Alongside your own words and observations "Nature makes stairs" lies perfectly. What a gem that child has left us with. I shall remember it for a long time.

Pam said...

These are such great memories to keep Deb. I am so pleased you are no longer in pain when hiking - it must have made such a huge difference. The big heart is lovely.

Dee said...

Dear Deb, a lovely posting filled as always with your awareness of the fragility of being human as well as the deep gratitude that seeps into our souls and spirits before the wonder of innocence. Peace.

Heidrun Khokhar, KleinsteMotte said...

The rain blessed you in so many ways !