June 28, 2008

Amazing Grace: Day Two

Day One

Dawn was loud with the calls of birds. I rose before everyone else and walked out into the meadow to the edge of the sagebrush. The slight movement in the Timothy grass belied the stillness of the air. In spite of the boisterous cries of joyful birds, the huge landscape felt silent. What was missing? The sounds of men: machinery, metal on metal, voices, and yes, even music. Silence is part of the music here.

The camp from the edge of the meadow

Morning shadow

For this moment in the expanse, golden in the morning sun, I could put away the world back home and just be. Alone in the desert air, I did not have to shut out the world. I became a part of the whole. It was peace made physical.

An hour later, the rest of the parents were up eating their oatmeal, cooked with water heated in “billy cans” in the fire. (We could mix in cinnamon, brown sugar, and raisins as desired.) We knew the kids were coming, but we didn’t know when. The instructors were keeping contact with walkie-talkies, and they told us the children were delayed. To give us something to do, we started on a walk across the large meadow.

We were investigating the remains of an old campsite a quarter mile away when the word came that the kids were here. We emerged from the trees and shrubs and began the long walk back to the camp. We could see the SUV pull up when we were about halfway there. Bodies poured from the car, walking through the site. Which one was Ben? They were all about the same size, disguised in identical clothing and hooded sweatshirts.

I sped up my walk, tromping through the grass rather than stepping over it. Is that Ben? No. Not that one either. Is it…? Yes! I dropped my water bottle to the ground and speedwalked the remaining distance. Ben was smiling at me, bright teeth in a dusty face.

I grabbed my son in my arms and started to cry. “I missed you so much. I missed you so much.” Truth be told, I had missed him for many months before he left for camp. But he was returning my hug and shyly smiling. My boy was back.

Abe was close on my heels and grabbed Ben with a sob. They both took a deep breath and smiled at each other. There were similar reunions over the grounds of the campsite, greetings from loud laughter to silent hugs.

The instructors were quick to step in and fill the awkward moments by telling the students to get their gear to the parents’ tents. Ben immediately took his pack and began to set up a shelter with his tarp.

In the four weeks that he had been at camp, Ben had grown in strength, skills, and maturity. We saw the first evidence in that shelter he was erecting. It was taut and impervious to the strong desert winds. As he showed us what he was doing, we helped him find large rocks with which to anchor his cords. The tarp had no grommets, so he had to make a pouch on each corner and peak and fill it with whatever he could find locally. He used dried cow poop. This stuff was everywhere, and apparently it came in quite handy for a number of things.


Breaking off a chunk of a cowpie, Ben stuffed it into the pouch he’d made on the corner of the tarp. He wrapped the cord tightly around the ball it made and stretched the cord to loop around a very heavy rock. (The rock had to be heavy enough to counter the wind. I’m guessing they were 40 to 50 pounds each.)

An instructor told us later that Ben would be sleeping in the tent with us, so he took it down. No complaining, just assent. This was another sign of change.

The instructors herded us back together and we all hiked about a half mile to base camp, where we participated in exercises that tested our group dynamics. Our group of eight was shown a 4x8 deck that was balanced off-center on a log fulcrum. Our assignment: with everyone standing on the deck, make it balance parallel to the ground for fifteen seconds.

Being a goal-oriented person, my mind was instantly at work. “Okay, everyone, we need two rows of four people lined up immediately above the log.”

The instructor had other ideas. “And Birdie, you can’t talk.”

My mouth opened, but in a brief moment of excellent self-restraint, I closed it again. An attorney/dad chimed in with his idea as others began climbing on the deck. After he spoke for about thirty seconds, he was told he couldn’t talk. Ohhh. Each leader who stepped in with instructions was eventually silenced, leaving those who normally were followers to instruct everyone on what to do. Eventually, we met our goal under the leadership of the quietest ones.

In the ropes exercise, we had to get everyone through a web of ropes; but each of us had to use a different opening, without touching any rope. There were some rules, of course. One person had to go through without touching the ground. A couple of others had specific restrictions. “And Birdie, you will be blindfolded.” Okay. I’m noticing a trend here. Since I couldn’t see, I couldn’t offer advice. I patiently awaited instructions, and we succeeded beautifully.

Learning moments like this happened the entire time we were there. I am a teacher by training and trade, but I cannot approach the intuitive timing these instructors had for finding the “teachable moment.” And they never told you what you were to gain from their instructions; they let you discover it on your own. Brilliant execution of well-designed purpose. No wonder Ben was doing so well.

After a lunch of peanut butter on pita with (a minimum of four and a maximum of seven) dried apricots, we hiked back to have private family conversations with our field therapists. This was where we saw the greatest evidence of change in Ben: what we had seen in his carriage and expression became real in the words he spoke. Ben dominated the conversation, constantly employing metaphors to explain his new ways of thinking and behaving. It became clear then that the boy we had hoped to see would remain in the past; Ben was becoming a man.

In the afternoon, Ben used his poncho to create a shade shelter for us in front of our tent. It took him less than ten minutes to erect a cool spot of relief from our tent, which was an excellent slow-cooker by afternoon.


An instructor approached Ben to ask him to make a fire, his first. They needed to smoke out some bees which had literally just moved into a tree by the firepit. Ben had sparked a couple of embers in practice, using his handmade fire kit of a drill bow (curved stick with cord), a spindle (small stick with crudely carved points), and two blocks of wood for holding down the spindle and creating an ember.

Igniting the tinder

Ben set to work by the firepit. In less than fifteen minutes he had “busted a coal” with his kit, ignited some grassy tinder by blowing gently on the ember, and set it in kindling in the pit. A few logs, and a fire was burning nicely. It was late in the afternoon, so Ben’s fire was used to cook dinner later. And the bees stayed away.


Our Truth Circle that evening was all about family: “What does family mean to you?” The answers that came from parents and students were profound and moving. Each of us said something different and yet we were all saying the same thing: families of origin and families of choice—we all have both—are where we belong.

Hundreds of buds on this wild rose bush

Next: Day Three


bigislandjeepguy said...

all i could do when reading this was smile and say, "cool".

big alohas to you, as always!

Anonymous said...

I am so glad that this is turning into a positive experience for your family! I wish you continued happiness.

Birdie said...

Me Online: Your comment and my reply are on the post below!

Greg said...

Birdie, I teared up a little when you said Ben smiled at you. The rest of the experience sounds just amazing...the setting, the learning, seeing the changes in Ben.

I'm so happy for you for this experience, and again, I thank you for sharing it! Have a great time at graduation!

somewhere joe said...

Sounds like a great experience, especially for Ben, and a Godsend.

I like how the program, the instructors, turn things inside out and foster innovative ways of looking at things. Approaches less traveled, mentorship, trust.

And the experience exposes Ben to a new kind of community that is neither bullying nor enabling. One that is supportive and goal oriented. I hope he can find a continuance of that in the weeks and years to come.

David said...

My heart is bursting.

Bill said...

This is the second time this morning that my eyes got blurry with tears.
It first happened this morning when a man in his seventies shared his story at a meeting. He was able to move forward with his recovery only after he recognized and resolved the resentments he held toward his parents since the 1950's. My point in mentioning this is that these issues do not go away; they fester for a lifetime if not addressed.
I am so glad Ben (and your family) is doing this important work now.
God bless you all!