Losing Safe Spaces

The new pines were bright green and taller than me now. My memory displaced them, calling forth freshly cut stumps and a short horizon line. As I sat down in the gravel, the crunching disrupted the rustling of the grass and wildflowers in the breeze.

I’ve lost my place here.

My first summer here, the clear cut was my place. Not all the way to the end, where you can find empty shot gun shells and the occasional can from target practice. Not past the pile of rocks marking the trail to Hidden Falls, which was cleared years after. This place is near the entrance, shortly after you enter the unrelenting sunlight beyond the cover of the evergreens. The main road is rocky, and soon to the left there is a short path leading to nothing in particular. That crux is my place.

There are many places beloved by summer staff, and the clear cut is one of them. I wonder who else has shared my place. If my heart had a map on it, a good portion of it would be within these two hundred acres. From age nine through twenty-one, my home was here. I took it as my place, my home, but it was never mine to take. It was a gift freely given.

I started 4th grade reading my children’s NIV fervently because I had just gotten back from the best week of my life at camp. I made it all the way to Leviticus, where my excitable nine-year-old heart became extremely bored with rules and moved on to the New Testament looking for something more exciting (full confession, I never did make it all the way through Leviticus until I was nineteen). Nonetheless, I returned every summer. It was my favorite week of the year, and always my happiest. It was my safe place where I felt loved and whole.

When you’re that young, you don’t question why some things are so good. They are good and that’s that. When you get older, you realize some things are so good because everything else is so bad. Camp was not my favorite week of the year simply because there was a lake, I made new friends, and the skits were funny. Camp was my favorite because it was my refuge.

I sat in Dad’s recliner, tying up my Converse. The Jeep was loaded with everything I needed and then some, barely held down by the hardtop.

“It’s too bad you’re going to be gone all summer,” he said. I didn’t look up.

“I was hoping we’d actually get to spend some time together.”

“Yep.” My shoes were tied, and I needed to leave.

“Are you going to come home on weekends?”

“Maybe.”

I was still so deeply angry. I hated him. I don’t remember saying goodbye, or even arriving at the top of the mountain. What I remember is how good it felt leaving the driveway.

That summer was everything. I experienced God more powerfully than I ever had before while singing in the dish room, plunging toilets, and painting everything an awful dark green color. I discovered the freedom of being loved for who you are and found a family in the arms of strangers. God met me where I was and I dedicated my life to Him, which surprised me because I thought I already had. I had a lot to learn.

And I sat here with my lead counselor, staring at stumps and rock piles, as she began tearing down every wall I had ever built to protect myself. I almost cried during that conversation, and I might have had I not been so shocked I was tearing up. I never cried, and when I did, it was alone. For my own safety.

I came back the following summer with unreasonably high expectations. It was awful.

The emotional turmoil of being a seventeen-year-old with a lifetime’s worth of pent-up aggression did some damage. I struggled so much that every Wednesday morning at 5:30 AM, I met with one of my best guy friends and he listened as I cried and said I’d rather be home than here right now. Praise the Lord our lead counselors never realized we were meeting and put a stop to it. He and I didn’t even realize it looked bad until talking about it years later.

They did question the late nights I spent stargazing on the fishing dock with another certain boy, however. I was told I needed to have a “determine the relationship” conversation, known as the “DTR”.

He was reeling in his line when I walked up and didn’t turn towards me.

“Hey.”

“Oh, hey.” He recast his line into the lake.

“So we should like… talk.”

“About…?”

“Like… what exactly are we?”

He reeled in, slightly panicked and wide eyed. “Oh, we’re married.”

I used to bust up laughing thinking of that moment and his instant response when he panicked. Also when he tried to ask me out but ended up asking, “Do cats have knees?!” We were together for three and a half years and ended up getting pretty serious about that marriage thing. I still think of him when I see the Big Dipper.

He went back the next summer, and I went on mission to Guatemala and visited when I could. Having just graduated and watching nearly all my closest friends return to the mountain, I was devastated. After the fifth night in a row of me calling my boyfriend crying, it took him telling me that he wouldn’t be able to invest in his team or minister to his campers if I kept calling for me to turn my woes elsewhere.

I ended up playing World of Warcraft for a solid 30 days straight. It was a dark season, mostly of me in bed, on my laptop, surrounded by Oreos. My transition into adulthood was a touch rocky.

The following winter, God put it on my heart that I was going back to camp. I was confused, because I had prayed over each team and nothing felt right. Then I heard they were trialing a new team, the Weekend And Various Events, or WAVE Team. Through a series of spiritual flashing lights and signs, I applied and was accepted. It was a challenging but good summer, and towards the end I felt pulled to a team I had never been interested in– the Program Team.

The summer of 2015, I led the Program Team. It ripped me apart, and every time something hit me, I got back up. There were times I shouldn’t have. There were times I should have asked for help or sought support. Back then I didn’t know how. That summer brought back suicide ideation into my life full-force, and I was unprepared. It would be three years before I didn’t think about it almost on the daily. So much happened that drastically changed me, and that summer was the point I can tie most things back to. Even right now, the details of what can happen in a 12-week span seem overwhelming.

“Did you hear someone from The Shift died?” My boyfriend asked casually.

“That’s awful. I haven’t gone to church there in years, so I don’t know a lot of people anymore. Did you hear their name?”

He looked at his notebook, distracted. “Holly something…”

My heart skipped a beat.

I had just seen Holly at a bridal shower a couple of weeks beforehand. Her last memory of me was me trying to embarrass the bride by gifting her lingerie and penis-shaped macaroni and cheese. I remember her being one of the only people to seek me out while I was at The Shift, and I needed a very patient and empathetic person. We never became super close, but I never was able to tell her how much I appreciated her unconditional love. I’ll have to wait a little longer than I planned.

After camp finally ended, I came home to a new apartment to await the school year. Being so mentally drained from camp, I didn’t leave the new apartment for two weeks. Sometimes I would catch myself sitting on the couch in silence, staring off into nothing, my mind a complete blank. I couldn’t process.

I came back the following summer, but I hadn’t recovered. I found myself dreading going back, terrified of what would happen while I was there. My refuge had become a place of pain and suffering, but I loved it still. It was home.

Although I still have radio PTSD and never want to carry one on me again, 2016 was healing and therapeutic. I stuck around for an extra six weeks to work around camp in the off-season, and it was the healthiest six weeks I’ve had for as long as I can remember. My after-summer crew will always have a special place in my heart.

With college graduation around the corner for me, I knew 2016 would be my last summer. I began to set roots in my city; I adopted a senior dog, got a part-time job, and jumped straight into graduate school. But when the Camp Director approached me about coming back, I discovered a hidden hope I didn’t think still existed. I was ready to modify my entire life to feel at home. Lining up everything that might stand in the way, I figured out all the logistics. Leave of absence from work for the summer. No summer courses in school. Getting my position titled and developed in a way that would benefit my resume. Making sure I would get paid enough to cover my rent. I said yes to the offer.

Then I was told they were unsure about hiring me. He told me they would let me know by the end of the month. And when the end of the month came around, they told me “no”.

Deciding for yourself that a place is no longer yours and having someone tell you a place is no longer yours are entirely different things.

Prior to this, I had three safe spaces in my life. Camp, my grandpa’s house, and the Pacific Ocean.

Last month, my grandpa’s house was sold, likely to be demolished. The house he built in 1950 for his family with the big front window and golden curtains. The house that had the ugly floral couch I slept on, and the giant tree that I planted fake flowers under. I said goodbye to grandpa in that living room.

I’ve lost my place there, too.

After these last few years, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t worried that someone would somehow take the Pacific away from me.

Thing is, if they did, I know I’d be okay.

Being forced out of my safe places has made me vulnerable, which I’m terrible at. It has forced me to expose the raw parts of me, the ones that I’m not quite ready to let people see because I think they aren’t good enough yet. I’ve had to reconcile that my life isn’t and never has been tied to a place because each experience and place that has held my heart was a gift for a season. God took a mountain outside of my mom’s hometown and wrapped it in evergreens and handed it to me saying, “This is for you.” When my heart was in the clear cut and He was trying to give me something else, I wasn’t listening.

My grandpa was rocking in his recliner when he told me he was ready to die. I was shocked that he said the words I had been thinking to myself at the time. Hearing those words from one of my most cherished people and to know how he was suffering was too much for me then. The next time I came to the house, years later, I had to help grandpa find his teeth. For a long time, just the thought of driving to the house made me shake. It was by the grace of God I got to spend some time with him while he was still up and about and redeem that place before it was gone.

I don’t think I’ll ever stop mourning, and honestly, I don’t think we’re always meant to “move on”. I’m blessed to have a sister that remembers my Grandpa well and celebrates his legacy with me, and to have dear friends on staff at camp that welcome me into their homes to visit. The people that have made safe places for me are a gift as well, and I know I will not have them forever.

Be blessed in this season, friends. It’s all temporary, and meaningless in comparison to what we’re looking towards. Be brave, and when you can’t be, trust your friends to pull you out of hiding. What’s safe may not always be safe. So break down, lose your mind, mourn, whatever you need to do. Not all danger is life-threatening. When you feel God at your elbow, and you’re afraid of the unknown, lean into His character. He is our only constant refuge, and anything resembling similarity is a reflection of its Creator.

Don’t take the reflection over the real thing. Don’t hold so tightly He can’t put anything new in your heart and hands. You never know what new place or people He might be offering.

Keep going, and maybe someday we’ll sit in the clear cut together.

K.G.

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