“There are places I’ll remember all my life”
The Beatles “In My Life” from Rubber Soul
by Sharon Humphries-Brooks
First, the women. Ah, the company of women, especially women who have survived hardships, and are willing, in some way, to share themselves. Not only do I continually find that we have much in common by the fact of having lived through chronic illnesses, or the illnesses and losses of loved ones, I am convinced that we also share great pleasure in experiencing our diversity, whether the faces are new, or already familiar to us. We may most of us live in NY State now, but we are all of varying ages, ethnicities and experiences. We may each have our own struggles, but everyone is willing to provide both space and caring. (I continue to be grateful for the model, inspired by work of Fran Yardley, CHC co-founder and staff member. It is a model of genuine listening, sharing if desired, and taking turns. Fran moves me in other ways, too, including her various talents and humility.) From musicians to the visual artists, it quickly becomes clear, there, that no one is excluded. And, it was, and is, a fun, a place where friendships can be forged!
I have what is called para-neoplastic syndrome. This happens very rarely to people who have gynecological cancers. I contracted it when some of the antibodies attacked my cerebellum, instead of the breast cancer they were intended to fight. The chances of that happening are about the same as the chances for winning the NY State lottery. Lucky me.
Before the disease hit, I was a backpacker, a cross-country skier, a dancer, and a martial artist. I was a performer, a seminarian, a storeller, and a teacher. I taught writing at the college and public school levels, and received numerous grants to teach others how to use their inherited past in order to recreate the present and a possible future. I was an active person, an all-around outdoorswoman. For 30 years I kept a journal, a repository for my feelings and thoughts and a way for me to work things out. (A woman once said, in realizing that she’d been playing the same instrument for 30 years, “You’d think I’d be better at it!”) I even had excellent handwriting, and favorite pens. I sang both professionally and for fun. But with the development of PNS, I had to learn how to walk, talk, write and sing, all over again.
When I first experienced symptoms, I was about to embark on a whole new way of life. My daughter was leaving the country to go to college, my husband’s career was flourishing, my career was skyrocketing. I was completely unprepared for how extreme a change life would demand of me.
So the Creative Healing Connections arts and healing retreats at Great Camp Sagamore have been incredibly important to me in this new chapter of my life. I am most thankful that there are places like the retreats at Sagamore, although I was a bit apprehensive at first. I was leaving the security and habits of my home. I was about to go to this place that I had never been to before, and to meet a group of strangers. It was with great joy that I found a home-away-from-home.
“There’s no place like home,” Dorothy says in The Wizard of Oz. Well this retreat is as much like a home as you can get, and still be away. I found encouragement and acceptance, such intellectual-physical-artistic-spiritual-personal stimulation, that I kept going back there. Again and again. (It did help that one of my caregivers, Gail Coons, and I have both received scholarships. She is a survivor of cancer, too. My husband and daughter gave me their full support, too.)
The retreats I’ve participated in at Sagamore have been a substantial treat, a treat that I have been fortunate enough to give to myself numerous times. From when I first went there until now, these retreats have been a gift. They have been a healing in body and soul.
It always begins for me with the journey to the site itself. I find that to merely travel down that long, not-too winding road is calming to the system. The quietness and simple beauty of nature are precious. I think that the natural world can reveal to us how much a part of nature we really are, that we are different but not separate, that we are connected. A person can find that experience in itself to be healing. Talk about a gift!
And then, there are the women, including the staff, the classes that are offered and the lifestyle that is provided at the camp, to name a few of the other things that I’ve found to be most healing. I love that we were offered a variety of opportunities, while also given other possible uses of our time, without anyone in any way indicating that some choices are better, more helpful than others. Oh, I’ve also opted out of workshops, but I was not made to feel guilty at all for sitting by the lake and reading, or for merely looking up to gaze at the loons or at the colors of the autumn leaves. Why, there have even been times when I’ve even returned to my cabin to sleep!
I’ve taken numerous workshops, including the breathing emphasized in yoga, have done dream work and the use of story. The time has been most utilitarian and therapeutic. I treasure seeing the clear enactment of how us human beings often learn and remember best by sharing our struggles with others, by listening to others’ struggles, and by being taught by kind, enabling people. I love learning and practicing the use of something that we all do everyday: breathing. The Arts and Healing retreat has contributed significantly to my belief that one of the ways that we create community is by experiencing our processes mutually.
As for lifestyle at Camp, comfort and needs have always been well provided for or, if necessary, searched out and found, whether the weather is hot or cold. (At times, I have needed an extra pillow or fan, or something to lean on.) We can also learn a lot about each other and about ourselves by having roommates, even when we find habits, like snoring or desiring too much heat, to be annoying. In most instances, compromises can be made! There have been folks who have even played croquet in the rain!
The food has been especially good and as plentiful as desired. Communal dining simply adds to the feeling of belonging and allows for the chance of meeting a variety of folks, even those unconnected to the Arts and Healing group. (Some women from the Women in the Woods group have come up to me to say hello and to talk). There’s plenty of space for all comers, a big cheerful fireplace, and a great view.
There have been times when I have found learning to be almost casual. The most delicate of issues can be raised, if the other person agrees to talk about the subject. (Always, always, though, an individual can feel free to say no.) I am the only person in a wheelchair, so far, but I’ve never been told, “That’s just not possible.” If I think I can do something, the opportunity is there. I’ve even gone canoeing, though I DO admit that I’m a strong, fit woman, willing but not stupid, and I have had lots of help in getting in! Not to mention the fact that one of staff members is a strong and skillful canoeist.
All in all, my experience there has been extremely helpful and energizing. I feel so welcome and comfortable that I keep taking greater and greater emotional risks. I hope to go back again. And in the near future.
Wherever You Are, There You Are — The title of one of John Cabot-Zinn’s recent books.