Our Kind Presence
I am ten years old. It is a blissful summer day at my Girl Scout camp, the holding environment that probably saved my life from childhood through young adulthood. We are on a “cookout”, the first of my young life. We hiked into unexplored woods, ending at a beautiful campsite. The plan was to cook hotdogs on sticks over a campfire. So many iterations of process, so many sacred steps:
Oh, first the gathering of wood. Then the building of the fire, what magic! The selecting of the perfect “green” twig upon which to skewer one’s hotdog. The hotdogs falling into the ashes, the deliciousness of eating them, ash and all. The little cove of trees surrounding the ringed-in-stone fireplace.
Each element is so rich and alive in my memory, as if it was yesterday. (It was not.) And then, Miss Uns, our head counselor, emerges in my heart. Such strength and bravery to my young eyes, such proven kindness emanates from her. She gathers us around, after our meal, as we prepare to leave the site. Standing in the middle of our circle of ragtag ten year olds, her blond twenty-year old self a beacon of living leadership, she says these words which I have not, in fifty-seven years since, been able to forget:
“Remember, ladies, leave the campsite better than you found it.”
Leave the campsite better than you found it!
I am captivated by this invitation, although I have no real understanding of what that might look like. Miss Uns was not specific, so, afraid to ask for details, I tidy up some rocks, brush away some leaves, and smooth the dirt with my sneaker. Fully engaged in the inquiry of making “it” better, I have no real idea of how to do it. Nor am I terribly clear about what the “it” is, that we are making better.
I’ve been trying to figure it out both aspects of this question, ever since. How might I be of benefit?
Earlier in my life, being of benefit, making the campsite better, entailed much doing, much busyness, so much willful activity. Joining the Peace Corps, teaching in an inner city school, living in an ashram, I tried hard. With endless effort, I struggled to manifest my commitment to help others. However, in this, my sixth decade, my practice has had to change—I’m tired, I’m older, and the time is now to find a more skillful strategy.
I’ve been practicing being that tidier campsite, rather than doing something to create it. I’ve been practicing bringing to any situation connection and depth, silence and neutrality. In the supermarket check-out line, in traffic, in everybody’s favorite place of spiritual opportunity, Home Depot, can I relax and breathe? Can I connect and watch? Can I engage others in positivity? Can I lighten the load of the moment, so often a tense one, with connectivity, perhaps even with humor? This is the face of my practice today.
The Buddhists encourage us to be of benefit. The yogis teach us karma yoga, the yoga of selflessness. Twelve Step program is grounded in service to others. Judaism is rooted in tikkum olam, mending the tear in the world. And the blessed Girl Scouts say, “Leave the campsite better than you found it.”
The world needs our kind presence. For today, just for today: what might this practice look like in your life? How might you bring yourself to one moment, just one moment, to lighten, to deepen, to connect—to be present? How can you live your contribution to the people and the things around you? Please, as always, I love hearing your responses.