The two things that everyone wants to hear:
You are safe.
I see you.
It comes up in the context of children, in an article on The Huffington Post by Judith Acosta about verbal healing, but it’s what we all want, even when we have grown beyond those fragile, trusting years, even after we have been disappointed in friends, rejected in love, worn out by work, surprised and confused. It is why we marry, why we create community and organize religion. Why we buy things we think we will possess forever; why we think we can own anything.
And it is why, I suspect, we believe the fear-mongers when they say: “You are just like us” (I see you); “Trust us to keep the bad/different guys away from you” (You are safe).
My most vivid memories of my mother, even now that I am one, are of her assuring me that whatever the latest dishonorable, stupid thing I did was, it would pass. I would not have to carry it forever. Stealing candy from a store when I was in grade school. I remember the panic, the sinking in my stomach that I could never make this right, that I could never be worthy of my parents’ love.
You are safe, she said. I see you.
And though that was close to forty years ago, I can still feel that gift she gave me. I can still feel her climbing into my bed to hold me and wipe my mistakes and inadequacies away. To thank her, I often try to give that same sense of safety and being seen to everyone I meet, even if just in a smile. Thank you, Mom.
Can you still feel your mother?
This is the first summer that my boys are going to camp.
It’s a New York thing, and I am not originally a New Yorker. Where I grew up, summer was about hanging around, making yourself useful and finding a way to entertain yourself with a paper cup and a stick. But in Brooklyn, early teenagers attend camp. Soccer camp, tech camp, baseball, math, music camp: each one offers a focused specialty, a set of skills that will give your child an edge in the competition to come. I confess that, when camp finally seemed inevitable, I, too, was eying the summer as an opportunity to introduce my younger son to a new and notable talent – digital storytelling? film? – that he might become passionate about just in time for seventh grade, when every New York child must find some way to stand out from the tens of thousands of other smart, wonderful kids who are applying to the same high schools.
Instead, my sons are attending an all-purpose “summer experience” day camp in Brooklyn, where my fourteen year old is a Counselor in Training. Which means, far from distinguishing himself as a prodigy, the bulk of his days are spent taking care of seven year olds.
“It’s awesome,” he says.
Why? I ask him. Why on earth? What person, especially a teenage boy, would look forward to spending his free time with a large group of little kids?
It just is, he says. It’s fun. They have a lot of energy. They like to hang on him, and pull on his arms, and cling to his legs so he can’t go anywhere without them.
The CITs, as they are called, do get time to play dodge ball and other games (my son tells me proudly that his group won yesterday) and they also have time off – during Arts and Crafts and Swim for example – when they can go to their own counselors and do something supervised for a half hour or so. Their counselors, I am told, are also awesome. But my son usually chooses to hang out with the kids.
There is a boy who can’t swim because of an ear infection so he and my son shoot hoops and hit baseballs. A young man who is taller than his mother and a kid half his size: “You’d never believe it, Mom. He can hit the ball up to the ceiling. He’s amazing!” Or he hangs out in art class to see what they are drawing. “That’s great. That’s a beautiful picture,” he says mimicking himself as he wanders among them.
This is his choice. This is not Facebook, or texting, or any of the things he usually likes to do. He tells me, as if it just occurred to him, that he hasn’t logged onto Facebook in the past three days.
Who knew that my son would find his best summer experience, not in soccer or tech, but in caretaking? In New York City, we are conditioned to focus on self-improvement, every child for himself, with self being the center. We are transient, high-tech; we are busy. By the time school and guitar lessons and homework are done every evening, there is not a lot of time for service, or for taking care of others, or for anything except going to sleep.
But this summer, in this camp, my son is practicing love. We didn’t plan it that way, but I am so grateful. He is finding new priorities. He is celebrating others. And he is enjoying every minute of what he discovers.
And it is awesome.