5.08.2012

Camp Widow: First East Coast Event. A review.

This was the first time we held Camp Widow on the East Coast. It can be hard to explain what we do there, and the words "bonding" and "learning," while true and important, just seem so pale. To give you some idea of the impact of bonding and learning in real life, it might help if I tell you the most common phrases in the event reviews tend to be "life saving," "totally amazing," and "thank you." Or I could give you the numbers:
  • Five: Camp Widow West this August will be our fifth event in 4 years.
  • One hundred and nine: Camp Widow East was experienced by 109 widowed people, ages 23 to 82. Their losses were very recent (just a few months) ranging to 20 years ago. 
  • Forty: This year Campers will choose two full days of programs from more than 40 presenters. These include experiential classes (yoga), creative ones (blog slam, writing intensive), and learning opportunities (childhood grief, dating, spirituality). Camp Widow programming evolves every year.
  • Half: More than half of Camp attendees are also members of Widowed Village, Soaring Spirits' online community, which I founded. They entered the weekend with a few familiar faces already, and able to continue to share after the weekend ended.
  • Fifteen: For those who enter "fresh," knowing no one, we now have two orientation events in the first few hours of Camp and our kickoff cocktail party included a fun "15 seconds" icebreaker event. (Not the "fun" kind you do at professional retreats... one that is actually fun). 
Me at the WidowedVillage.org booth

And what do you do at Camp? What does it look like? Maybe some pictures will help fill it out.


Camp Widow Snapshot: Here's me at the Widowed Village booth, with visual influences ranging from Lucy from the Peanuts comic strip and a bedspread hand-embroidered on the steppes of Uzbekistan.

We gave away chocolate and wi-fi (most of the time) and free bookmarks. (The kind you stick in books.) (Paper books.) 

A lot of what Camp looks like is like any event at a hotel, except: that a lot of people are crying, especially in front of their Tribute Tiles. Unlike events in the real world, no one is avoiding the people who are crying.

Some people are listening very intently... others are silent. Some stand around in groups. They laugh or hug... No one looks weird at the people who are laughing. Some sit down exhausted on a chair and check their phones.

There's room for anything, including skipping out for a walk on the beach or some time alone. But that is hard when everyone has something to share and the surprises of commonality are everywhere.

In the workshops (huge array, did I mention?) some cry, others laugh. Some people raise their hands and share. Others listen intently. This is a different environment. Since we've all had the air sucked out of us at some point in the not-too-distant past, since many of us have forgotten how to walk at least once, we're forgiven if we're wobbly or if we've forgotten how to breathe, again, for a moment.

It's not completely touchy-feely (and not at all earthy-crunchy) but the environment IS a new one and we are all getting used to it.

Photo by @Connie_UW
Camp Widow Snapshot: I stuck these red signs up in the bathrooms. They're derived from an Internet meme but I thought real life needed them.

And the ritual... our letters to the sea. There's a whole separate post on that.

The best thing as always about Camp Widow is the people and the amazing connections... and somehow (through an incredible amount of work by a small team of volunteers, one staff member, normal good-hotel procedures and a bit, I'm sure, of magic) the time and place becomes a home for everything that one could need.

Camp Widow Snapshot: I met someone special (a met a lot of special people). But I really like my new friend Betty, widowed a while back, who came to Camp Widow with her daughter, also widowed. All weekend Betty said "I'm just here to support her" and pointed to the smiling lady next to her... who rolled her eyes gently ... but every time I looked, Betty seemed to be having her own conversations and making her own friends. The very last event at Camp is the Sunday morning breakfast and Betty, after scouring the very well appointed buffets, asked me quietly, "Do you think I could get a cup of hot chocolate?" We called aside a gentleman in Marriott uniform and he assured us of course, he could.

Betty (r) and her daughter.
She shared why: When her husband died, it was a terrible car accident, and she was badly hurt as well. He did not make it, but she did. In her bed in that same hospital she was looking at a long recovery herself, and was in and out of consciousness. One morning the staff said she woke up hysterical, screaming, "Take it away! Get it out of here," over and over. They thought it was just hallucinations, but when they moved the coffee out of the room, she calmed down. And eventually she regained most of her health and came home, and years later, joined me at this breakfast buffet.

"You see, my husband used to bring me my coffee every morning. And I would make him up a cup of tea, just the way he liked it [I wish I could convey the proud ring in her voice as she told me this]. That was what did every day for all those years. And I knew the smell even when I was unconscious... I hated that the smell was here without him. To this day I cannot stand the smell of coffee, so I have hot chocolate every morning instead."

Her chocolate arrived and we smiled together at her "after" life and a simple need, satisfied. Her daughter shares with me via blog all the time... Betty and I had a few minutes standing at a buffet.

I think there must always be some kind of "hookup" at Camp.... any time you get a lot of big hearts together, a few will spark. But don't get excited (or worried)... there is no "pickup" energy in this space, only whatever is evoked by smiles, tears, and adding real bodies to connections made online. People are friends, and if they take it to another level... that's something that can happen. 

This year at Camp there was an extraordinary and special moment where a Camper offered a large financial gift if people matched it... and though no one expected this request, people (a lot of them) stepped in and fulfilled the grant by Sunday morning. I believe this type of sharing counts as "work" because it truly helps make the next event happen. For a small non-profit, on a weekend with such intense logistical and human demands, this generosity is tremendous. To have the enthusiasm come from within the community was perfect and validating, I think, for everyone who put their time into planning and creating the weekend. 

Silly me w/ Michele Neff Hernandez & KIM CATTRALL!
Camp Widow Snapshot: Of course -- in addition to the noble goals of being a place to learn to move forward in life and connect with others who've "been there" or are still right exactly wherever you are -- Camp Widow is also the world's largest widow party. At the end of the day, staff, volunteers, and helpers of all sorts shake off their high heels, enjoy a nightcap, and perhaps spend a little time taunting civilians in the hotel bar. See me (center) with red wine on my head.

About taunting: This year, SSLF board member Barbara Frova successfully masqueraded as Kim Cattrall to the coterie of a very young, very drunk wedding party. (It was one fellow's idea and she just played along). She didn't even mention, I don't think any of us did, that we were all widowed. We were all "mazel tov" after our drenching on the beach and far less confrontational, though equally playful, as the famous incident at a CW West afterparty (2010) when Andrea Renee wrote "GET LIFE INSURANCE" on an acquaintance's hat. Every year is wild in its own way. 

No snapshot can capture the experience of being together, of being understood... of having tears be not the sign of weakness, but of love and healing... of sharing our loves ones with one new friend. Nothing can capture the feeling of wet sand between our toes in our Saturday night ritual.

During the weekend, many of us may be stunned to receive a "thank you" from a new friend. We who feel we have done nothing but take, are thanked! What is up? This is a place where sharing is big, where if you give, you are enlarged and made stronger. At the end of the weekend, we realize that we each helped CREATE this new place, that we added to its different air and we walked in its strange gravity. We all helped AS we were helped.

We often say, "we laughed, we cried," but at Camp Widow it's bigger: we breathed, we wobbled, and while we're not exactly one uniform family (like any community, we are very diverse and our disagreements are full of heart), we are not alone. We take some of this home with us, like our love, and this connectedness (I hope!) stays with us and becomes a part of us.

Which is why we call Camp Widow a "self care" item. It's a boost toward the hard work of building a new life. Don't we all deserve that? 

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I serve on the board of Soaring Spirits Loss Foundation, the host of Camp Widow and Widowed Village. I receive no compensation for my service. You can read the rest of my disclosure statement here.  

1 comment:

AnneMarie said...

Supa,
I cannot add another word to your amazingly accurate, poignant post about unforgettable Camp Widow East, except FANTABULOUS!!
THANK YOU FOR BEING YOU!!
To Love, Light and Hope,
Anne Marie

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