Meaning, Emotion and Beauty

It’s been a long standing practice here at Rockbrook to ask parents for feedback after their daughters attend a session of camp. It helps us understand what went well, areas where we can improve, and aspects of camp they particularly appreciate and value. We’ve learned a lot over the years and made improvements based on this feedback.

Camp dancers

A recent parent comment caught my eye because it was a little unusual. One mother said she believes Rockbrook’s size, it’s intimate feeling, was important to her child’s success at camp. When this mom was “camp shopping,” she explained she wanted the best small girls’ camp, a camp where her daughter would feel cared for, not just be taken care of “like by a babysitter.”  It’s true we have intentionally kept Rockbrook the same size for years, even when we could be adding cabins and accepting more girls. We know there is something special about joining a small community like this where you know most of the people you see, and have regular opportunities to deepen your relationships with them.  Too small would limit what we do and who we can meet, but too big would be worse, likewise limiting the quality of our relationships and reducing camp to mere supervision and entertainment (again like what a babysitter provides).

This mom put her finger on one of the things we value most at Rockbrook— getting to know each other and caring for everyone through kindness and generosity. She attributed it to our size, and while that’s important, we also strive to hire and train our staff accordingly, and to set that overall tone throughout each session of camp. Like an essential current flowing through the camp community, the deep relationships, the quality of the friendships, we have with everyone makes camp life meaningful, emotional, and beautiful. We’re so pleased it’s a powerful component of every Rockbrook experience.

Print Making kids

This afternoon, a van of girls had the chance to visit the working studio of Ann Dergara for a print making workshop. Ann is a professional sculptor, painter and print maker who lives here in Brevard, and today she was teaching the girls about “monoprints.” Using a clean plate of plexiglass, she demonstrated how to apply different layers of colorful ink, add subtle textures and then imprint the design to a sheet of paper using a large rolling press. After the demonstration, the girls eagerly jumped into making their own monoprint.  Since only one print can be made from each inked plate, the results are unique pieces of art. When each piece emerged from the press, the girls clapped and cheered to see their work come alive. We saw proud artists today!

Here’s one last thing I’d like to share. It’s a large poster of paper we saved from one of our weekly staff meetings. Ordinarily held on Sunday evenings, these meetings gather all the cabin counselors for discussions of how things are going, further training, and an opportunity to enjoy time together. You can see (click the image for a larger version), this sheet asked the counselors why they love their campers. Here are some of the responses:

Counselors Love Campers
  • They are silly, enthusiastic and super sweet.
  • They LOVE camp.
  • They’re nice to each other.
  • They are inclusive.
  • They have such amazing passion and inspire me everyday.
  • They are confident.
  • They are always looking out for each other.
  • They get along so well and are the coolest gals around.
  • They are learning.
  • They are so funny, kind, and thankful.
  • They make me laugh.
  • They are proactive sorting out their interpersonal problems.
  • They challenge me and help me grow.
  • They aren’t afraid to be goofy.

It’s so great hearing how much the counselors admire their campers, how the girls here give the staff’s experience more meaning, emotion and beauty. It’s amazing how proud the counselors are of the campers, how impressed they are by them, and how thankful they are to be their friends at camp. For the staff too, one of the richest rewards of camp is the quality of the relationships formed here.  So clear and so cool!

beautiful camp girl wearing Rockbrook bucket hat

As Though All the World Saw Us

Speaking on Integrity

On Sunday, the Juniors put on a beautiful Chapel for all of camp, on the theme “Integrity.” Though I shouldn’t have been, based on the campers that I have the pleasure of getting to know each summer, I was surprised by how firm a grasp many of these girls had on a concept that can best be described as, “You know it when you see it.”

Oftentimes, in thinking of integrity and in striving for it, I find myself mired in complexity. Integrity, after all, is composed of a hundred different qualities that are, in themselves often difficult to achieve. Honesty, industriousness, moral fortitude, and trustworthiness are all components—but which are the most important, and which can I fail to achieve from time to time without losing my integrity?

As I so often realize in my job, even the most daunting and complicated of topics can be made simple by the solid logic of a child. Integrity, as was expressed many times throughout Chapel, is achieved when you “do the right thing, even when no one is watching.”

Singing for the Camp
Pondering...

One after another, campers explained that this is the standard that they set for themselves: not only to do the right thing, but also to do it for the right reasons. To clean up the dinner table for the cabin-mate who forgot, and keep it to themselves. To pick up the trash strewn around the over-full trashcan in the empty lodge. To take just one muffin during muffin break, even though the Hi Ups’ backs are turned and they could easily take two. To do all of this without asking for praise or recognition—to do it only because it is the right thing to do.

The Juniors were also quick to acknowledge that it is impossible to live up to these standards at all times. A significant part of integrity, to them, is falling short of these goals and owning up to it afterwards. The example that stuck with me was a camper who took a nice pen from the lost and found at school, then returned it a day later. Nobody would have known that the pen had been taken or who took it, but still she returned it so that it might still have the chance of being reclaimed by its owner.

I like to think that camp is the perfect environment in which to develop integrity. This kind of close community living helps campers to feel accountable to their peers and to the camp as a whole—they learn quickly that if they are not behaving well, then their actions will have repercussions that affect many others. Likewise, good deeds tend to be recognized and appreciated more often here than in the real world. Even if campers are not behaving well specifically for attention, that attention still might find them, and teach them one of the many rewards of integrity.

Speaking on Integrity 2

Sarah pointed out at the very end of chapel that, built into the routine of camp, is a daily reminder of all that having integrity entails. Every night before bed, campers of all ages recite the Rockbrook Prayer. Conceived ninety-four years ago as a Christian prayer, and changed in later years to reflect the disparate religious beliefs of our many campers, the prayer is essentially a challenge to every camper to be a better person tomorrow than she was today. In it is outlined the behaviors and qualities that give a person integrity, even though it doesn’t say so outright. Countless alumnae have told us that this prayer has stayed with them throughout their lives, and that various lines will come floating up out of their memories in moments when they need reminding of the sorts of women that Rockbrook has helped them to become.

Guiding Principles

Camp badminton game

One of the questions we ask parents in our post-camp survey is to identify the most important factor that led them to choose Rockbrook as their daughter’s camp. There are more than 28 residential summer camps in this area of North Carolina each with different strengths, program opportunities, and traditions. With all these options, it’s interesting to learn what parents see as distinctive about Rockbrook, and to think about why that distinction matters.

The last few years of results show a trend. The top reason people have selected Rockbrook, according to the survey, is that they received a trusted recommendation about the quality of the camp; a friend or family member loved Rockbrook and highly recommended it. That’s good to know that we have “happy campers” heading home after camp, and that their parents find Rockbrook remarkable enough to tell others about it (though I’ve also heard parents say they wish they could keep RBC a secret!), but that’s somewhat predictable. It’s easy to imagine that parents would select a camp after receiving a “word of mouth” endorsement that reflects the camp’s positive reputation.

The next reason is more surprising. Parents said they selected Rockbrook because they valued the camp philosophy, much more, in fact, than the camp’s program opportunities. So parents aren’t choosing Rockbrook only because we offer amazing outdoor adventure trips, excellent horseback riding instruction, or an array of really cool craft activities (though we clearly do). They aren’t drawn, at least most importantly, to Rockbrook’s vintage camp setting with its log cabins, stone lodges, dense forests with rock outcroppings and waterfalls (though the natural beauty of RBC is very special). It’s not the staff members, the food, or even the directors that make Rockbrook their choice. Overall, it has less to do with the “amenities” of camp than you might expect.

Painting Camp Girl with paint
Weaving camp girls with loom
Ceramics Camp girl with clay

Instead, according to our survey, parents appreciate the ideals and values that guide the Rockbrook community. The “Spirit of Rockbrook” and how it affects their girls is important to them. It can be difficult to describe this philosophy— I’ve tried many times writing this blog —but the feeling of camp, Rockbrook’s culture that emphasizes kindness and generosity, mutual respect, and inclusion, is what makes this place stand out. Here too, I’m glad that our parents seem to be making this subtle distinction. They seem to understand how our camp philosophy matters when comes to insuring that Rockbrook girls gain many of the benefits of a summer camp experience. To their credit, many of our parents appreciate all the excellent outward features of Rockbrook, but value even further many of the principles guiding it along the way. Thank you parents!

Clint Roberts NC musician

Tonight we enjoyed an outdoor concert by Clint Roberts, a local singer, songwriter and musician. Clint writes and plays Americana music both as a solo act and with his band, The Foxfire. Recently, he released an EP entitled “Where the Heart is.” Starting at dinner time and playing into the “Twilight” period, Clint entertained the whole camp with his original compositions as well as several covers of songs by Lyle Lovett, Ryan Adams, and the Tallest Man on Earth. With Clint playing, the girls enjoyed a picnic of grilled hamburgers, potato chips, lemonade and watermelon with key lime pie for dessert. Sitting in their crazy creek chairs while they ate and listened, the girls had a great time chatting quietly, working on friendship bracelets, or just lounging with their friends in the evening shade. The whole event was delightfully relaxing… a memorable, special event together at camp.

Happy Teen Camp Girls

This is Me

Pair of Camp kids
Camp Counselor Camper Girl
Canoe Trip Kid

Last week I wrote about how the many examples of “imperfection” and “incompleteness” around us at camp— in the environment, in our abilities, and even in our personality and appearance —can be understood as beautiful. I suggested that the Rockbrook camp culture, as it celebrates our differences and eccentricities, parallels in some ways the Wabi-sabi aesthetic. Camp is a place that loves our quirks. It’s a safe place for being “who we really are,” a special place where everyone can proudly say “This is me!” and feel they belong, are supported and loved.

We understand this and work hard to make Rockbrook that kind of haven. Instead of suggesting all of us should fake it to align with some “perfection” of personality or appearance, camp is a community built upon authenticity— real selves having real relationships in the real world. Here at Rockbrook, we know the value of honest communication, spirited cooperation, sincere generosity, mutual respect and care. As I’ve mentioned before, these values make this an extraordinarily friendly place where relationships are knitted tighter than what’s ordinarily possible. I believe this is what makes camp so much more than just “fun.” It’s what makes camp meaningful, and ultimately transformative for the girls here.

Put differently, Rockbrook is a place where we all can feel comfortable being vulnerable. The camp community, as it both celebrates and supports our individualities, inspires the courage we might need to open up and expose who we really are. Life at camp isn’t so scary, but instead feels joyful and liberating.

All of this brings to mind Brené Brown’s book Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead (2012), and its argument for cultivating a habit of vulnerability. The book observes that most people spend too much time “armoring” themselves against social criticism (and its associated feelings of shame) and as a result tend to be isolated from the people and deep experiences around them. Brown argues also that learning to accept our vulnerability can enhance our relationships with others, inspire us to be more creative, and make our everyday work more enjoyable. Retaining a spirit of vulnerability (which is different than weakness, by the way) is a powerful means of personal growth.

Sound familiar? We know camp is “a place for girls to grow,” as we’ve often claimed, and now we have Brown’s research and writing to explain how it works. It’s particularly interesting how she argues that vulnerability is “absolutely essential,” and that “we can’t know love and belonging and creativity and joy” without it. If so, and if Rockbrook is a safe place for young people to feel comfortable with their imperfection and incompleteness, to be proud of their true selves (… “This is me!” …), to be vulnerable, then camp life provides a great benefit far beyond the activities and special events recorded in the photo gallery each night. It may just be the perfect place to learn not only about your authentic self, but to explore what it means to live a “Wholehearted life” rich with true connections.

If you’d like to learn more about Brené Brown and her research, you can watch her TED talk. So far it’s been watched more than 45 million times!

Camp Group of Girls

Beauty at Camp

Camp Wabi Sabi

This is the time of year when we often have families visiting Rockbrook for a tour of camp. Being in the area for a vacation or because they are (smartly) planning ahead for their daughter’s camp experience, many of these families have heard of Rockbrook from a friend or almuna of the camp, or have simply noticed in their research that Rockbrook is one of the leading camps in the southeast. Lately, many of these families touring the camp have made a similar observation; they were struck by how “beautiful” Rockbrook is. It’s true that we have great old trees, grassy hills and fields, a dining hall, activity areas, and sleeping cabins— all things that other camps have as well, but as one Dad put it, “This place is different.” Rockbrook has a unique aesthetic that makes it unusually beautiful. The place itself has a special feeling that doesn’t take long to appreciate, striking enough even during a short tour.

There is a traditional Japanese sense of beauty called “Wabi-sabi” that I think can help explain this feeling about Rockbrook. Essentially Wabi-sabi is a concept that finds beauty in imperfection and incompleteness. Wikipedia puts it like this, “Characteristics of the wabi-sabi aesthetic include asymmetry, asperity (roughness or irregularity), simplicity, economy, austerity, modesty, intimacy and appreciation of the ingenuous integrity of natural objects and processes.”

Summer Camp Lodge
Camp Lodge Yoga Girl

There is a beauty, in other words, in all these qualities, especially as they are found in the natural world. Rockbrook, for more than 90 years now, has aimed to preserve the organic character of the camp, being careful not to polish or pave every surface, or straighten every path. In fact, just the opposite is true. We’ve allowed the forest to grow up around us, pruning it as gently as possible. We’ve preserved the rustic, old-fashioned character of our buildings, for example the 19th-century log cabins, Curosty and Goodwill. Even when we build something new, or renovate an existing cabin, we’re careful, when we can, to use rough cut lumber (often harvested from trees here on the property), stone we find here at camp, and native plants to fill out our flower beds. We love the rough boulders jutting from the ground and the crooked branches all around us. The imperfections of these natural materials, these “perfect imperfections” (as the popular John Legend song goes!), add to the beauty of camp. Simply being imperfections makes them part of what’s completely unique, and beautiful, about Rockbrook.

Tie Dye Craft Camp Girl
Camp kid shooting archery

More importantly than our camp facilities, the Wabi-sabi aesthetic goes further and frames the Rockbrook culture too. For example, like the asymmetry of every stone here, we celebrate the “imperfection and incompleteness” in how we perform in the arts and sports activities. There might be a twist in our friendship bracelet, or a bulge in our pottery mug, or splotch in our tie dye t-shirt, but we know that, more than “OK,” these qualities are what make our creations uniquely cool and beautiful. We might climb the Alpine Tower blindfolded (and slowly!), or shoot all our arrows too high, but we are still improving our skills, learning more and having fun nonetheless. When, as it is at Rockbrook, the fun of an activity is simply doing it (with our friends, naturally) rather than insuring the end result is “perfect” or the “best,” when the leap is more important than the landing, then the Wabi-sabi aesthetic is at work.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, as we celebrate the Wabi-sabi of our natural environment and how we spend our day in camp, we likewise cherish the unique qualities, the “imperfections” and “incompleteness” of personality and appearance in the people around us. In those differences, in those ways that we are “weird,” as Grace put it, each of us enriches our community with our eccentric beauty. That quirky sense of fashion, that bold singing voice, or that quiet fascination with bugs— all cool. At Rockbrook, we learn that, in so many ways, who we really are isn’t ever really perfect, but it’s that very fact that makes us each a beautiful person.

We could try to iron out all these imperfections around us (in the world, in what we do, and in who we are), paint over the elements of Wabi-sabi at camp, but think of what would remain… something pretty plain, pale and predictable. No, camp should be a place to explore the irregular edges of nature, our incomplete knowledge and skills, and who we are as individuals. If the goal of camp is to grow, it simply should be such a place. And when it is, that’s beautiful.

Wabi Sabi Camper Climbers

Packed With Emotion

Camp Uniform Kids Smiling

The day after the banquet turns everyone’s attention to end-of-session events and practicalities because today was our last full day together. We found ourselves fighting the forces of camp entropy (the inevitable scattering of things that go along with kids playing) by sorting through piles of lost and found items, collecting what we could identify and packing it all into trunks, suitcases and duffel bags. We also celebrated all the great horseback riding accomplishments this session by holding a “barn party” were girls could ride their favorite horses, watch a few riding demonstrations, and decorate Cool Beans (a white Welsh pony everyone loves) with colorful finger paint. Late in the afternoon, we all enjoyed a performance of Willy Wonka, our musical this session. Using simple scenery and homemade costumes, the girls presented a fantastic show. It was at times funny, heart warming, and delightful, even as the performers seemed so relaxed and happy to be on stage. Almost equally, our dinner was a work of art with Roasted Turkey, Mashed new potatoes, stuffing, asparagus, cranberry sauce and homemade caramel brownies for dessert… A Thanksgiving dinner in June to mark our camp session.

The most significant mark, certainly the one most packed with emotion, is the closing campfire we held tonight, our “Spirit Fire.” Sessions have closed at Rockbrook every year since its founding in 1921 with a special campfire focused on the experiences we shared together at camp, the solid relationships likewise uniting us, and the fundamental values and principles that have sustained the spirit of Rockbrook for these generations. The Spirit Fire program includes traditional songs interspersed with short speeches presented by new and returning campers and counselors representing each age group. Here is an example given by Caitlyn tonight:

“This was my first year at camp. Here at Rockbrook my days were filled with laughter, smiles and really great hugs. Being away from my mom and dad and brother for three weeks was hard, but here at camp I have a new family of sisters. We’re all family here and it’s a good thing too because we need it. I’ve made a lot of friends and learned a lot about friendship. Here at camp, there’s this vibe that you get from everyone that’s so outgoing and loving. And it feels really great. Everyone here really made my summer so wonderful. Camp was an amazing experience. I’m gonna miss everyone so so much, and I’m gonna remember all of our fun times. I love you guys.”

For most of us, the Spirit Fire evokes these same feelings. Surrounded by friends, stars poking through a canopy of oak leaves high above, the quiet rush of the nearby waterfall into the lake, it feels really good to be here. A twinge of sadness colors the evening now and then when we recall that camp is ending, but that too arises from the meaningful connections Rockbrook has built for us. As we light our individual Spirit Fire candles, stand shoulder-to shoulder around the lake singing softly, the bright reflections of candlelight add even more shine to our faces. It shows everyday, but tonight we felt it even more strongly— We love this place. We love camp.

Campers with lit candles around lake

A Haven for Friendship

Camp friends hugging

One of deepest and longest lasting rewards of a residential camp experience, particularly true here at Rockbrook, is the quality of the friendships formed between the girls. Camp friends are special for some reason, closer and more satisfying than the people you know at home or at school. Why that’s the case is interesting.

Rockbrook is a “haven for close friendships” partly because it is a community built foremost upon warmth and caring for everyone. Camp is a place were every girl here belongs, and is fully included, respected and valued. From the directors and staff members on down, we begin with compassion and generosity, with spirited communication and cooperation, and end up with genuine encouragement. This is powerful stuff when you experience it everyday from everyone around you. It becomes a positive force that encourages the girls, indeed the counselors too, to move past what they believe others (parents and peers, for example) want them to be, and to explore their true personality, spirit and character, their “authentic selves.” This is a welcome feeling of freedom, but it’s also the secret to making really deep friendships. Camp has the power to dissolve that common artificiality driving so many “real world” interactions, and thereby also to fuel the genuine connections that bind true friends. Camp proves how posing is the enemy of friendship.

Combined with the shared experience of camp— the activities, meals and free time together —and the “boy-distraction-free” environment we enjoy, Rockbrook empowers girls to make friends by having the confidence to be themselves.

Camp girls geocaching

This morning our friend Matt Christian arrived to offer the campers an introduction to “geocaching.” Geocaching is essentially a “real-world treasure hunt” where players use GPS devices to find hidden “caches,” often waterproof boxes containing notepads to sign when found, and other surprising knickknacks. Matt carefully positioned several caches around camp for the girls, and after teaming up into groups of 2 or 3, and learning to use the GPS units, they explored the camp property looking for their “treasures.” Some were easy to spot, being out in the open, but others were truly camouflaged. Geocaching is a worldwide phenomenon, and can be something fun to do even at home. Here’s the official Web site to learn more.

Tonight we held a camp tradition that seems to always send a shudder of excitement through the dining hall when it’s announced. The deafening roar proved it today at lunch when the girls learned we would be dancing with the boys of Camp Carolina tonight. Fire up the showers, bust out the clean shirt, find your hairbrush (or in one case I noticed… your hair curlers), and for some, devise your best silly costume… dance night can take some preparation! We held 2 simultaneous dances, one here at Rockbrook for the youngest girls, and the other at Carolina for the Seniors and Hi-Ups. This made the number of children manageable at both camps, and allowed for more age-appropriate dances and music. The younger campers had a great time dancing together and with their counselors, mostly oblivious to the boys, while the older girls jumped around, laughing, singing (and sweating) to the beat. Tonight was also fun to see several brothers and sisters finding each other and being happy to reunite after being away at different camps. The whole evening was sweet and lighthearted with your girls being polite and gracious in every way.

Camp girls at dance party
Brother Sister Pair at Camp Dance

Lastly, I wanted to pass along news that Rockbrook is being briefly recognized in the current summer issue of Preservation: The Magazine of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The article mentions our 19th-century log cabins, “Goodwill” and “Curosty,” as examples of well-preserved summer camp architecture still in use today.

How to Raise a Humane Child

Our friend Tom Rosenberg at Blue Star Camps recently turned us on to Zoe Weil, the author of several books on “Humane Education” and the president of the Institute for Humane Education. He quite rightly claimed that the experience of camp is a powerful and effective way to bolster this kind of education for children. But what makes education “humane?”

Camp Counselor teaches children to be human

Looking at the Institute’s Web site, you find “Humane Education” instills:

the desire and capacity to live with compassion, integrity, and wisdom, but also provides the knowledge and tools to put our values into action in meaningful, far-reaching ways.

Humane education aims to inspire children to be curious, creative and thoughtful in their approach to the world, and thereby fosters a kind of warmth and sensitivity whereby they can be better problem solvers, help others, and lead more meaningful lives. The Institute has developed a body of lesson plans, books, videos and articles to help educators incorporate these goals and principles.

Much of this revolves around the notion of community and that’s why camp is so well suited to encourage humane education. Coming to Rockbrook means joining a close-knit community where campers and counselors alike agree to cooperate and respect each other. We live together in cabins, share chores, resolve disagreements, and experience firsthand the importance of honest communication. It’s the power of community that heightens our awareness and inspires humane values while at camp.

Most children experience far too little humane education and as a result fail to respond to many of the issues and challenges of our day. Camp can be one way to help raise a humane child. It can be a real lesson in community, in compassion, and in respect. We already knew camp was a special experience; now we know another reason why.

Zoe Weil doesn’t mention camp, but you can get a great sense of what she’s doing from this TED talk.