Church Camp Misadventures and How I Met My Soul Mate: A Real Love Story

“I used to think I was the strangest person in the world but then I thought there are so many people in the world, there must be someone just like me who feels bizarre and flawed in the same ways that I do. I would imagine her, and imagine that she must be thinking of me too. Well, I hope that if you are out there and you read this and you know that, yes, it’s true I’m here, and I’m just as strange as you.”

 —Frida Kahlo

There she is between two arcade games and I don't know why, but whatever.
Here she is, between two arcade games and I don’t know why, but whatever.

One time, at church camp, Lauren Leman happened and it was one of the best things that
ever happened.

We were both fourteen and I remember she walked into the cabin wearing a Saosin T-shirt (this strange, self-described string bean of a girl who wore a lot of tube socks and always had bee strings). We both remember it distinctly: She took one look at me and my Exploited T-shirt, said, “I like you,” and the rest was history. We were weaving boondoggles and hair-spraying spiders dead together for the next week, and beyond—to the infinity that is our friendship!!!

I’m so lame.

But it’s just true: When you find a forever-person like that, you just know. And suddenly the world makes a little more sense, and being around this person, or simply knowing that this person is walking around somewhere, existing, makes you a little more okay with your own existence; makes you feel a little less alone, and a little more like you than you were before, if you know what I mean—or even if you don’t, Lauren does. And that’s the whole point.

☁︎

This past summer, the last time I saw Lauren, she told me that when she explained to her roommate about how we met at church camp, he responded with, “Church camp? Oh man, that’s for life.” And from the way she described it, it was like he was saying we’d survived Ebola together or something. Like: Church camp? That [bond’s] for life. And either way, hyperbole or not, he’s kind of right: Raging Hormones + Jesus = Friendz4Eva.

It all makes sense now.

Lauren and I have shared cabins with psychos who got their periods and then shot tampons from their bunks like rockets until the camp director was summoned to explain why this was inappropriate behavior. “You’re making the other girls uncomfortable,” she explained. Never mind the paralyzing fear for our immortal souls being programed into our systems every night! FLYING TAMPONS ARE DISCONCERTING!

No one else can say they’ve experienced that with me!

Nobody else can say they experienced, by my side, the trauma that is church camp and that bond’s FOR LIFE!

You see, you just never realize how weird and potentially problematic some childhood experiences are until you’re an adult. But now Lauren and I see church camp for what it was: A vicious cycle of recreational activities followed by the reminder that we’re all going to die someday. WHO WILL SAVE YOUR SOUL?!

Lauren looking all composed and cool and me just looking really sweaty and stressed, the usual. (2008)
Lauren looking all composed and cool and me just looking really sweaty and stressed, typical. (2008)

I remember Lauren and I would sign the 10 commandments and sing: NUMBER TWO’S THE IDOL RULE THOSE GRAVEN IMAGES…AREN’T RIGHT, *waves forefingers back and forth in a ‘no no’ pattern* as we looked at each other, confused. Like: Why do we choose to come here every year? Do you believe this? I don’t think I believe this. Can we go rock climbing now and have an existential crisis because we don’t believe anything anyone is telling us, later?

No two girls were more unfit for church camp, and still, we chose to go every year until we were like, way too old to be subjecting ourselves to that kind of mental torture.

Our very last summer, we were sixteen, and as fully developed women it was our Christian duty to be modest. We had to wear tank tops over our bikinis to ensure that our male peers wouldn’t be overcome with lust. Now, can I just note that our male peers had the maturity and intellect of Patrick Star on a good day? If I recall correctly, one particularly pudgy boy referred to himself as “MacDaddy”. Like, these guys were all asexual freaks who ate worms and had hairless armpits. They didn’t know what lust was, or that girls were even around.

I know this because Lauren, myself, and all the other girls, tried our damnedest to remind the boys that we existed. (Male-Attention-Seeking-Exercises often involved shoving boys into the lake, tipping their canoes, tipping our own canoes, doing intricate backflips off swing sets, stealing baseball caps, putting our arms and legs inside our sweat shirts and waddling around like humanoid chickens, screaming, etc.) However, the boys remained indifferent, and from what Lauren and I observed, the other girls were unshakably unaware of the boys’ unshakable indifference—this general disconnect is the source of all female conflict within church camp culture.

Seriously.

One time a screaming altercation took place between our cabin mates because Sarah-Christian-Singer/Song-Writer held hands with Cute-Butted-Sean who Nascar-Loving-Tiffany cried over (daily) while listening to “Seven Things” by Miley Cyrus on Lauren’s stolen ipod. The fight eventually escalated from verbal to physical, I think somebody hit somebody with a broom. Then one of our counselors came in, broke up the fight, reared her ugly head at Sarah-Christian-Singer/Song-Writer and said, “You know what you did!” The nasty temptress! Everybody started crying. And all the while, Lauren and I were sitting in her bunk, tears of laugher streaming down our faces from the sheer thought of Sarah holding hands with Cute-Butted-Sean who, even then, probably stared dumbly at the sky, totally unaware of the social disrupt about to ensue on account of his touch.

Moral of the story: No one is more devoid of passion than a teenage boy at church camp. Why anyone believed this breed of boy would be driven mad with desire at the sight of a teenage girl in a bikini, Lauren and I will never know. But whatever, we followed the stupid rule and covered our bikinis with the smallest tank tops we could find. Until, one day, merely following the rule just wasn’t enough…

Our time at the waterfront had been cut short due to an impromptu tornado drill. Therefore, when Lauren and I entered the designated safety zone—the rec. room—we were wearing nothing but our tank tops and bikini bottoms. We didn’t think anything of this. We had no choice! And while we were playing foosball, innocently, one crotchety counselor weaseled her way on over with God’s intent at heart.

Lauren's doodle of our butts handing out together. (2008)
Lauren’s doodle of our butts hanging out together. (2008)

“Can you put a towel around your waists or something,” she scoffed, “Your BUTTS are hanging out.”

I remember us looking at her like: Wooooooooow. Way to drain all the fun out of this foosball game and pump some shame in its place, Miss Counselor Who Is Probably Only Two Years Older Than Us. (Literally, she was only two years older than us.)

We complied, but not quietly. Grabbing the only towel we had, we wrapped ourselves up from neck to ankle, and huddled in a corner as we complained loudly, “We’re covering our BUTTS so the BOYS don’t get any IDEAS since THEIR ideas are apparently MORE IMPORTANT than ours.”

It was obnoxiously, and inadvertently, our very first feminist protest.

But on a more serious note, our friendship is and always will always be just like that, like we both occupy the same corner, combating the same obstacles, the same pressures…I mean, every girl wants to know that there’s someone waiting in her corner. And for me, it’s Lauren. It was decided the moment we crossed paths wearing those angsty T-shirts at church camp…

Church camp. That’s for life.

Nobody else shared bunks with me and felt the same exact adolescent fear of hell as I did. Nobody else in the world could provide the profound comfort that Lauren did when we were both fourteen—morbid, confused, religious, frightened—and she said: “It doesn’t matter if there’s a hell, at least we’ll always have each other.”

Anyone else would’ve shamed this religious anxiety as weird, juvenile; incomprehensible due to its irrationality…or, on the flipside, they would’ve just suggested prayer and repentance; “Ask Jesus into your heart [for the thousandth time],”—but not Lauren.

That was a huge sigh of relief.

It’s a huge sigh of relief when you realize you’re not alone in what feels like your own personal fucked up experience. When you find someone who can provide that level of understanding because they’ve lived what you’re feeling too. This is the forever part of Lauren and mine’s friendship—the way we perceive the world; the way we judge it and feel through it is fundamentally the same.

☁︎

Lauren's letter to me (2007)
Lauren’s letter (2007)

I found a letter from Lauren written in the back of one of my old journals, and in it she said: “I love how you don’t care about freaking anything, you always think for yourself.” And I like that I have that—I like having so many of her letters and doodles from when we were teenagers because it reminds me that she was the first person who ever believed in me without question. She took one look at me and said, “I like you,” and nobody else mattered after that, because Lauren doesn’t lie. She’s honest; she’s the most sincere person I have ever met. And I love her endlessly for that because, most of the time, I feel like I’m navigating a very, very, insincere world.

Actually, I know I am.

I think we’re living in one of the most insincere times in history; a time when most people are only ready to take things at face value and will easily zone out and check their phones the moment the conversation goes too deep; a time when people prefer to save face over saying exactly what they mean, or what they want, or think, or believe; a time when comfort is prioritized over necessary change and growth, even at the expense of other people’s very real, very ignored, experiences…

I love Lauren because she’s always changing for the better despite having to navigate this very confusing, very insincere, world. And even though we live on opposite ends of the country, and all the times we have spent together have been limited, I think we’ve grown up together in spirit; we understand each other and know each other better than anyone else. So I can say with confidence that I admire her for remaining a good-humored, sincere person, because people haven’t always been as kind to her as they should’ve been.

I know she’s had friends who couldn’t be her friends anymore because they admitted, more or less, that they couldn’t control their envy around her. And that’s a sucky, lonely, feeling. It sucks when you love a person and they basically tell you: I think you’re an amazing person and I can’t be your friend for this exact reason. It’s the suckiest, loneliest, feeling, because the only way you can fix this problem is to somehow, make yourself be less, and how do you do that when all you’re being is yourself?

In a world so unaccustomed to sincerity, being yourself is often seen as a threat; some alarm for suspicion. Especially when who are is joyful, kind, creative, talented, intelligent, and beautiful—everything that Lauren is. And I’ve seen it happen, people often become suspicious around her. They think she has some ulterior motive, or some tragic flaw, and I think it’s because they just can’t handle that so many good things naturally happened in one person. She can’t be compartmentalized; she’s the real deal. Spend some time with her and your head will explode at how crazy it is that this person exists. She really is that beautiful inside and out. I love her, I love her so much.

And I’ll never forget it, when we were fifteen years old, and sitting on the dock at her lake house, she said, “I think it’s best to judge people by their hearts and not their actions,” and then she said, “I think our souls match.”

And I remember it making me feel less alone, and less weird, and less confined to this stupid life, and this stupid world, and I just hope that every girl has a friend who makes her feel like that.

lb doodle2
Lauren’s doodle of our inside jokes (2007)
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