Happy Campers

We are back from another week in the sand and dirt and woods of west Michigan. Our ankles are covered in mosquito bites, our shoulders are slightly pink still from too much sun, and we are, for a brief time, sated with s’mores and hobo pies.
And our tanks are full again– we’ve spent a week in worship and study and play with our extended church family so we are, again, buoyed and hopeful.
It was a very good week. We’ve always camped in the same area– within two tents of Tent 13.5 — and this year we packed up and moved East across the camp to the mid 30s. Our new spot was near good friends and we reveled in late night card games, chats around the communal fire, and big “family dinners” that everyone contributed to. Our rhythms changed with the new location– the family dinners were slower, more boisterous. We were not labored with tending to just our own needs– fire, food, shelter– and so had more time to just Be.
It is good to head into this new school year with the confidence of who we are and to whom we belong– Jack needed that but so did we. It’s the best thing about family camp– all the generations tumbling upon each other so that there are always extra hands to hold the little people and extra advice for those in the pre-teen trenches. And so much love. Love for even the middle-agers who are tired and worn down from work and routine.
There is balm in the sunsets. There is rest in pulling our chairs out into the shadow waters and letting Lake Michigan lap over us while we read and talk and soak up the sun. There is joy in the singing at Firebowl. Convivial warmth in the shared meals and trivia games and walks along the trails. There are old friends and new friends and reconnections.
And there is dirt, and grime, and uncleaned bathrooms, mice in the walk-in coolers, chipmunks in the tents, and worn out children in need of a nap. There is patience required in the long walk to the ice-cooler or the wiping down of sandy tables and the shaking out of sleeping bags.
What a gift it all is.
If you aren’t a camper it’s horrifying– the filth and the faint whiff of mildew in a platform tent that is an open invitation to the little wood creatures and Daddy Long Legs. If you are an extreme introvert it’s a nightmare of having to talk to people everywhere– the classes and showers and beach…
But if you ARE a camper– all that lovely green around you is a wonderful thing. To hear birds and the skittering of tiny, furried feet is music. To be surrounded by people who reflect back 1 John 4:7-8 in their laughter and kindness and offers to toast a marshmallow for you… And what a pure and holy thing it is to be out of cell phone range– to see that “No Service” pop up on your iPhone and know that you are not for this world. Ah– that is a sacred offering in itself.

We store it up as best we can– we pack it up as surely as we pack up the tarps and bungee cords and camp dishes. Throughout the long year ahead we’ll find remnants, even in this thicker place, — a piece of a song or the whiff of wood smoke. And those remnants will stir the memory of who we are, what we are called to be, and how much we are loved.

Or at least that’s the hope.

631,138,519 seconds. (But who’s counting?)

Today marks 20 years of missing Dad. I have great faith in believing that there isn’t need to keep my Dad updated on all that’s happened since. On most days it’s because I believe that he knows. On other days because it couldn’t matter.

How could I possibly update him now?

This is what 20 years looks like:

My nieces turning from red-shoed little toddlers to lovely, graceful women. Pre-school, grade school, middle school, high school, and college. Dozens and dozens of dance recitals and school programs. Baptisms. Bicycle riding and first boyfriends.  Disney trips. Exchanges with little French girls and weeks spent with French families. Plays. Football games. Accolades. College visits. Open houses. Graduation ceremonies. Maddie’s wedding. Jack. Eric. Deaths. Marriages. Divorces. Travel.

These things I do know: There are at least 2000 movies that I would have seen with him. He’d have watched Parenthood for Craig T. Nelson alone. My youth group would love him. Our email would be clogged with forwarded bits of humor. Jack would have regular cheeseburger nights.

Today isn’t any different from yesterday or tomorrow in missing Dad in the ordinary, day-to-day part of living. It’s just the number that makes me take stock. On most days the grief and the loss is dull and manageable. Other days it is acute and demanding. Today it was assuaged in spending the morning with a pot of sausage gravy and my beautiful nieces, their men, my sister, Momma, and Eric (who hates sausage gravy but loves us). Jack’s half day of school was punctuated with an earlier than usual walk to Wendy’s and an afternoon of Wii and cupcakes. Robby took us to church where we rearranged the furniture in the chapel for a lovely, quiet tenebrae service. We ended the night with hibachi Japanese, cupcake deliveries, and lighting a candle at the cemetery.

This has been a horrid week with too much loss. And, for a lot of reasons, a week of dread. Tomorrow we breathe again. And eat cupcakes.

Shaloming Jason Part II

The Big Chill is one of the tightest scripts ever produced. Seriously. Tell me the line that doesn’t build the character or story. If you haven’t seen it* (and I question why we are friends if you haven’t) here’s the gist: a group of old friends reunite at a funeral and spend a weekend reminiscing and remembering who they once were and really are.

I won’t compare this weekend of Jason’s funeral to The Big Chill— none of us asked for impregnation, pot, or had to deal with Meg Tilly (at least on this weekend). Unlike Alex, Jason’s death wasn’t self-inflicted. And our gathering took place not in a sprawling farmhouse but mostly in the only room with a couch (Phillips is important. He gets a couch at check-in.) at a Holiday Inn Express…

But there was a moment of remembering Jason that made me think of a scene in the movie. And, like Glenn Close, I didn’t want to sound “gross” but wanted to make sure they all knew how much I loved them. And how weird it was to love them now without Jason in the room, too.


From the folio of the camp composite photo our junior year. I have no idea what the Marcia joke was but the sentiment hasn’t changed a bit.

And we collectively agreed (like the characters in Kasdan’s script) that Jason could be a real ass sometimes. Which is good– because while it could be easy to deify him and polish up his attributes we can’t help but remember that sometimes he could be an arrogant jerk.

I made the trip to Missouri with my oldest friend, Melle, and Elinor– who I met at the same time I did Jason. We struggled with the guilt of how excited we were to see old friends again in the balance of our grief and shock that Jason wouldn’t be among them. All weekend I expected to see him– it felt as though he was just tied up and would suddenly pop into the room and join us– relieved to be with us finally. Like you do when there’s a big event that keeps you from seeing the people that came to be with you. It was a strong sense that I couldn’t shake every time a few of us were together. I figured it would pop! and apparate at some point– but it didn’t and hasn’t.

And I don’t think it will.

The only explanation I can give is that he will always seem just out of the room when a few of us are gathered. There’s too much love bound up for it to cease to exist. You’ll either get that (and I can probably find you in one of my camp composite photos) or you won’t. If you don’t I can’t really translate it.

And maybe you think you understand– maybe you think that it’s like your high school reunion or something else that it’s really not at all like… But what this was what meeting the core of yourself was again– love reflected and refracted in a group of people that– even with some 10 or 20 year absences– could still say, “I love you” and truly mean it. The kind of “the greatest of these is love” kind of love.

You can script those kind of relationships– and we grew up watching them– but you don’t usually have them.

And while those of us there from camp cried and mourned both Jason and those absent– we laughed far more. We shared stories about then and now– the round of parenting fails was unbelievably funny. (If you’re Smith’s kid reading this someday– know that we find your “potion bottles” particularly hilarious.) We were uncomfortable in new clothes that we won’t wear again or missing accessories (like poor Matt’s cufflinks). We marveled at our jobs and successes. And we were grateful to be married to the kind of people that said, “Go.” There were shared meals and desserts. Elinor’s bag of photos and our old letters. Jason’s familiar “J” as a signature. Promises that we will be more intentional and that we will stay in touch because we are the keepers of this weirdly encompassing legacy.

Today the loss really hit me.

Missing all of them– and Jason– because it felt so much like he was with us while we were together and today feels so alone while we are not. I had no focus. No patience. No tolerance. I wept at my computer and wept in the car. I volunteered to wash the paint trays at Jack’s German Club Easter egg painting so that I could get away from having to make the small talk required with his classmates.

I can feel the layers thickening me up despite the steady ding! of texts coming in from the rest of this weekend’s contingent agreeing that today is harder than we’d anticipated.

We will get a second wind. And a third. We’ll retreat for a while to our families and real life then dig deep for Jason– in charity bike rides and a camp memorial project that is already in gestation. I’ve warned his youngest daughter that I’m not going anywhere– that I want to see how his best story turns out. (So far she hasn’t blocked me from her fb feed. She might give me a shot.)

And Jason will continue to do what he has always done best– gather us up and make us want to be singularly and collectively better.


*Elinor, FYI…your copy of The Big Chill is due to be delivered tomorrow.


Man, oh man. Missing Jason today.


I feel so lucky today. I got to see some dear, old friends– friends that knew me long ago and loved me then fiercely enough that I still feel it these many years later.

We all met at camp– in the woods of Lake Louise United Methodist Camp. Jason, Elinor, and I were all in the same grade so we spent all four years together there. (Jason’s older sister, Jennifer, was impossibly perfect. In our Sophomore eyes Elinor and I longed to be her. She was, and is, gifted with this amazing voice. I still wish I were cool enough to hang out with her more often.) Those four weeks– just four weeks? had maybe as many hours spent in together in other gatherings. It was harder in the 1980s than it is today to keep in touch. We lived 30 miles apart and so, particularly in the first two…

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Shaloming Jason.

Today is the first day of the rest of our lives… without Jason.

I don’t know what it was like in Missouri– but here it couldn’t have been scripted better… howling, raging winds with rain that slashed at the window of my office. Hail even. Winds that rattled the glass. And then a sudden bright blue sky with thick, fluffy pure-white clouds. Sunbeams.

I don’t remember meeting Jason. I know it was at Lake Louise United Methodist Camp. I know the month and the year– but I don’t remember not knowing him there. Jason’s gift was in knowing you — the real you– not the bullshit, high school facaded you– but the real you– instantly. That in itself was remarkable– but it was what he did with that knowledge that made it extraordinary. He held you to that true you– and expected that you would then reach the potential you were capable of.

I’ve spent the last 30 years living in the shadow of those expectations– and running to spiritually, rationally, and sarcastically catch up.

There was a tradition, in our years at Lake Louise, at the end of each camp week. The entire camp– kids and counselors– would form a long, thin loop that snaked out along the prayer trail near the big chapel.  You’d face the person opposite you in the loop, hold their hands, look into their eyes, and sing a simple song.

Shalom, my friend, shalom, my friend, shalom, shalom.

God’s peace be with you ’til we meet again, shalom, shalom.

It was the goodbye at the end of the week. It was a brilliant practice–It kept the goodbyes moving.(If we’d been left to our own devices I’m pretty sure that we would STILL be standing there, today, saying the goodbyes of one of those weeks.) You saw every single other person at camp– so no one was left out– the shy kid was given the same treatment as the popular kids. Jason was a popular kid. But the kind of popular kid that made the shy kids feel on equal footing. I stood next to him one year in the long loop of Shaloms– and I remember him kidding me the whole way through because I was sobbing by the second Shalom. And there was a lot of shaloms yet to go.

The Shalom goodbye was important. If you’ve been to camp full of hormonal, emotional teenagers you can picture the teary farewells at the end of a week. Now add in that Lake Louise, for most of us, is still one of the very thinnest places we know. Where the space between us and the presence of God is a hair width. At the end of a Lake Louise week we were at our most vulnerable– and our most safest. We’d torn down our usual walls and edifices and facades that marked our daily survival– and uncovered and exposed our truest selves. The Shalom circle wasn’t just about saying goodbye to our friends– but goodbye to that thinnest, safest place– and knowing that within hours we would start acquiring the necessary layers to survive in a thicker, unkinder world.

Even if my last Jason moment had been in a Shalom circle nearly 30 years ago– that would have carried across the decades to feeling the loss of him now. But it wasn’t. Our little knot of friends somehow managed– in an era before facebook and texting– to stubbornly stay together. In the early years it was on the land line phones in our parents’ kitchens– curling the long cords while talking in short bursts after 10:30 when the rates were cheap. The phone calls were short because there was a group to organize and, in the days before conference calling and group texting, it was an orchestration in itself to get the news out to the dozen or so of us of which church to meet at on Sunday– or Litchfield basketball game– or a pool party– so we could all be together

Later, of course–technology made it easier to coordinate and find each other. Years had slipped by before I saw Jason at his mother’s funeral. But there wasn’t any distance. We were all older. With different trappings. New families. And if we’d been distracted by those things it might have been awkward to have met again with so many years in between– but we recognized not the facades but the true selves.

Jason’s cancer (appropriately complicated and high-maintenanced) gave us the excuse to dream about a trip together– all of us with our spouses and children– to go back to Lake Louise. I’m chagrinned that we never made the trip– but oh! the planning of it was marvelous. After a while it was enough to just get some of us in the same room and for an hour or two to remember who we really are.

I grieve for Jason’s family– his impossibly poised sister, Jennifer, and her husband, Dave. His wife, Trish, and his daughters, Mandy and Alex. His Dad. But it’s Alex I keep thinking about. Because Alex is about the age I was when I first knew Jason. I hope that she meets some extraordinary, marvelous, brilliant boy that she will know her whole life long. Who, like her Dad, will have a completely inappropriate sense of humor that makes his genius a lot easier to swallow (Oh, what Jason would do with that line!).

Jason’s sense of self was sure enough to make the rest of us easier in our own skins. Arguing with him about prayers and miracles and God is one of my favorite phone calls ever– walking in circles around my office area while we kept up a lively debate. Reading one of his books in prepublication will always be one of the most privileged things I’ve ever done. Any spiritual growth I’ve shown in the last 30 years is partially on him. That I work with the youth in our church is partially his fault, too.

Today is just the first day of the rest of our lives without Jason. I don’t know how to do this yet. It’s inconvenient that one of the few people that could show us how to do this is the one that has left us to do it without him. (He’d be all over that I said “do it.”)

Shalom, dearest boy. Shalom. God’s peace be with you ’til we meet again.


Making friends

Jack has good friends. His two newest came into our lives this year when he met them at middle school. Our town has 6 elementary public schools that feed into the one middle school and, eventually, the one high school. Sixth grade, in our town, is largely learning to navigate not only a much larger school building (Jack regularly logs 11,000 steps in a day) but a much larger school population. Suddenly he and the 45 or so other kids he’s grown up with since kindergarten were scattered into a pool of hundreds of other sixth graders (factor in the 7th and 8th grades and the numbers really increase).

He found his new pals in his honors classes– though it wasn’t an immediate friendship. “We kind of hated each other at first” he told me today– and I do have vague memories of him rolling his eyes in the first days mentioning one of them. By week three or four the three of them were fast friends.

Today marked another little milestone– the day that they started joking around with me at the Wendy’s table we shared after school.

Mothers of sons get an entirely different kind of running commentary than mothers of girls. (I know this. I have two nieces.) Boy mothers get a lot of discussion involving farts. (A word that I hate– but one that at least is universally recognized for what it is.) They talk about their own. Each others. And legendary classroom legends. (They are positive that the story about Ms. D is true– that she “gave a kid an In School Detention because he farted.”)

They tease each other– and today, me. We talked about books we’ve read and books we are planning to read. Foods we like. (Poor friend W is Catholic and longingly looked at the chicken nuggets and burgers that Jack and friend Z were enjoying. “It’s lent. I’m Catholic. I can’t eat meat today.” He seemed pleased that I told him how awesome that is– that he takes his faith seriously.)

They are smart boys. They talk glowingly of their english teacher and how they love her class.

They’re polite. I love that. I love that they are respectful and think about what they say or do.

They’re kind. Jack ripped the outer layer of his athletic pants today– so from the knee down on one leg it was the mesh layer underneath. I brought him pants to change into. And joked, “Hey– I haven’t had to bring you pants since kindergarten when you would have an accident.” And then I realized that his buddies were there– “Oh. I’m a bad mom, aren’t I? I shouldn’t have said that.” Friend W said, “It’s okay, Mrs. Reynolds– I think I wet my pants just about every day in kindergarten.”

When we got in the car after waving goodbye to the buddies– I turned to Jack before I started the car. “Jack– I’m really impressed with your friends. They’re nice boys. But I’m especially impressed with their characters– and yours. It shows good character to surround yourself with good people.”

“Thanks, Mom.”

Two deaths

An old childhood friend of ours– mostly Robby’s– has died. A boy that had played a bit part in Robby’s middle school years. We haven’t seen him in quite a few years– but the loss was fresh and raw in Robby’s voice when he called to tell me. There won’t be an opportunity now for his old buddies to meet up and exchange shared adventure tales over a beer. We don’t know much about his life now– his wife or kids. We only knew the tall, lanky kid with the goofy grin.

An email from our church announced the second death– a sweet elderly man who, until very recently, had been one of our part-time custodians. I’ve missed him at the door when I’ve arrived for an evening meeting. His decline has been a series of set-backs and mishaps. His wife is loved and she’ll be surrounded by friends and the church family.

They will be, I’m sure, very different funerals. One will be shot through with raw grief and the unsettling realization that none of us are sure of the next hour or day. The other will be a celebration, I’m sure, of a life well-lived and a man well-loved.



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