When Michelle Goldblum was asked to create a summer camp for grown-ups, it forced her to confront age-old feelings of sadness and un-belonging. But it was also the catalyst for the next stage in her personal growth. Images: Karolina Daria Flora
As an adult, I’ve always looked back on my summers spent at camp as some of the best times of my life. And when I met Ali, having found each other in the wellness world (I own a branding and marketing agency for thought leaders in this field and she’s a body confidence coach), and we realized we were both Camp Towanda kids, every time we got together it was like we were back, cheering on the way to the soccer field. The energy of those times lived on in our relationship, which was always very childlike and fun, and like nothing I’ve experienced with anybody else.
As it turns out, our camp director follows both of us on Facebook, and in October last year, he reached out to us to ask; “would you like to bring a mind, body, spirit retreat to Camp Towanda?” Of course, as soon as Ali and I got together, it was obvious that our soul mission (maybe it was even the reason we met?) was to accept, and in doing so bring back what we both remembered as “The Magic of Camp.”
But when we went back to Towanda, which is located in Wayne County, PA, for our first site visit, walking around the familiar grounds, the memories that now began flooding back for me were far from happy. How could it be? Instead of joy, I was overwhelmed with a long-forgotten sensation of feeling completely isolated, and I realized how alone I actually felt at camp as a kid and how I so longed to be accepted.
I remembered having to find things to do during free time, when everyone huddled together in their packs. I remembered going from group to group, trying to find where I belonged, with an intense feeling that something must be wrong with me. I felt a familiar sensation in my neck, my chest and my gut, the same overwhelming feeling of sadness I realized I experienced back then.
I even had a flashback to the camp counsellor giving me a bookmark, which said something like; “it’s not how many friends you have but the quality of friendship that’s important.” At the time, I was so offended. But she’d obviously seen the pain my ten-year-old self had thought I was hiding so well.
Camp is supposed to be where you learn how to have relationships. It’s where people get their first boyfriends, and have their first kisses. Going back to Towanda, I realized how much of that I missed out on. Was it because I was fat? As a child, I realized I felt like; “I am different because I’m bigger. That’s why I’m not going out on the raid, that is why I’m not part of the crew.”
Or maybe it was because didn’t have the Kate Spade bag that all the other girls had. But even when I got the bag and all the other “stuff” I thought I needed to fit in, I still experienced the same feelings of separateness. My way of coping? By my last year at Towanda, aged 15, I was Camper Captain. On the outside, I knew everyone, and everyone knew me. But inside, there was this feeling of; “oh wow – I slipped under the radar there.” And guess what? It turns out Ali, a couple of years younger than me, was experiencing the same thing.
This was all new to me. I was shocked that my memory could play such tricks on me, casting my experience of camp in such a rose-tinted glow. And it’s only more recently I’ve been able to join the dots – how hiding the feelings of inadequacy that camp instilled in me became part of my adult identity, manifesting in an eating disorder I kept secret for years, an addiction to Adderall when I found myself working in big pharma post-college, and a co-dependent relationship that left me needy, isolated and without too much of a social life.
The best part though, is that this realization has also been a catalyst and a turning point in the next stage in my personal growth.
Asking around, it seemed like Ali and I weren’t lone “camp loners,” either. People would tell us; “I had a horrible experience at camp, I never want to go back.” They shared painful memories of sitting alone at the dining hall and not being included in activities, and it was based on this feedback that we began to come up with the concept for Soul Camp.
Sitting in our dorm during that first site visit, we shared exactly what was going on for each other. That night we decided that our souls had signed an agreement, and that it was our job to process and heal all the pent up feelings that were rushing to the surface so that we’d be equipped to hold the space for other people to return to camp and confront their hurtful, shameful, hidden memories as well.
We set about putting together a roster of more than 30 of the most incredible speakers and healers from our pioneering wellness world – people like Nisha Moodley, Terri Cole, Meggan Watterson, Ed Harrold, Ashley Turner – to join us on our journey.
And I feel like we’ve created the ultimate alternative camp for all the people who felt weird, or different, and like they didn’t belong. And maybe that’s everybody, on some level. From the bonfire and “fear burning” ritual on the opening night, to yoga by the beautiful lake, empowering intenSati classes with one of my personal teachers, Patricia Moreno, and incredible, nourishing food prepared with love, we’ve designed Soul Camp to create new memories. Joyful memories. Memories of meeting like-minded, welcoming friends; of exploring new activities and learning new techniques; of coming together, connecting inward, and feeling a-part-of.
Of course it’s also fine to just find your spot at the waterfront and write in your journal all weekend, but the most important piece for me is that we’ll all be there together. Reliving our childhood experience, but in a way that feels completely supportive and safe. You feel “different”? So do I. And guess what – that makes us all the same.
Now that I remember camp properly, I know there were some beautiful moments too. I had one counsellor, Mindy Karp, who is my friend to this day, and when we were nine or 10 she’d put us to bed playing Joni Mitchell and leading us in a deep relaxation meditation. Not that we understood it as that then, she’d just tell us; “feel your toes, now relax your toes…” She was the inspiration for our own “bunk leaders,” who we’ve equipped with tools to facilitate community, openness and togetherness in each bunk. And thank God for people like her.
Soul Camp at Camp Towanda takes place September 4-7. For details of the full line-up and to purchase tickets visit Soulcamp2014.com. PLUS enter the code “NUMI” at checkout for a $100 discount!