I’ve been quiet over here for a few months. And it’s not that I haven’t been writing at all, it’s just that I haven’t been sure of what to say. Sometimes, you’re so tired from climbing to the top of the mountain to proclaim something that you don’t have the breath to get it out and you need a moment to recover.
My grandfather died. I lost my job. I moved into a new house. I got a little lost.
To make things a little crazier, I travelled for six weeks.
St. Andrews, Scotland.
Lost Valley Ranch, Colorado.
The last one was a dream. I had wanted to go to Camp Well from the moment I heard about it from my dear friend Jenn but I determined that it just wasn’t happening. Too much was in the air and I wasn’t sure when I’d land. And I didn’t think I had a place to land.
I travel a lot and I photograph women’s events a lot and while it’s one of the highlights of my young life, it can also get a little lonely. To stand so close to something and not be part of it is a tricky balance. It’s not that I could never join in, it’s just that I’m there to work. So when I got the call that Jenn and her co-founder Kelly wanted me to come shoot Camp Well, I knew that it was an amazing opportunity so I had to say yes, but my expectations were business as usual.
I once believed a lie that if you’re working somewhere, you don’t participate. This isn’t for you. Keep your head down. Don’t tell your story. Call it humility. Call it servanthood.
That was until I crossed the cattle guard into Lost Valley Ranch.
The first night, we had a meal and we could sit just about anywhere, so I did at the corner table. I made conversation with a woman who had just recently returned from living overseas and another who has a dream to write a cookbook. We ate and I got up every few minutes to capture a few photos or a few seconds of film. As the meal ended and we started to head toward the hayride (because of course a hayride is taking us back to the ranch) I stood there, hands frozen, capturing images.
That night, the speakers talked about lies and the truth and things like how we all have assignments from God–things like caring for our neighbors or our children or our friends. Things like how we have wounds and how Jesus heals us. Things like how we all have a story to tell and a place at the table.
I sat in the wings, half listening, editing photos of dinner.
The second night, we gathered in the barn. Because it’s a ranch and of course we did. The temperature had dropped into the 20’s and we were bundled. My hands were still frozen, but I’d gotten used to it and women passed me by saying things like, “Don’t forget to grab some food!” and “Get in line; this looks amazing.”
I smiled and said, “I will; don’t worry!” but in my head I knew that I wasn’t there to eat–I was there to work. To capture what was a life-changing week for these women. I was there to document what they couldn’t. I snapped away and finally as the line at the buffet vanished someone called out, “Melissa, you’re over by us!”
I stopped, half in shock. There must be an empty place-setting or someone finished and left. Surely, there isn’t a place designated for the photographer. That’s not how this works. We get the leftovers or a quick bite on a bench nearby.
As I approached the end of the table, I looked down and saw that there was a table setting with my name written across a little scrap of paper. Part of me came undone. I hid it with humor.
“Oh, I guess I have a place at the table–and that’s what we’re all about!” I joked. I still wouldn’t let myself sit down for several minutes. Finally, I grabbed a bite to eat and sat down sheepishly, talking freely with these incredible dreamers and do-ers, secretly feeling like I shouldn’t be there.
These women were game-changers. They were driven and established and I was so eager to cheer them on in their endeavors, but had no idea that I was carrying a weight of isolation from the last months of heartache and uncertainty. After the session that night, I sat and talked to a woman who had sort of been there in all of these moments of faith and fear and she said to me, “You use humor to mask pain, don’t you?”
I thought back to the moment the night before when I saw my name on the table. I knew that I was trapped and all I could get out was a, “sometimes.”
This is the thing about being lonely: you stop advocating for yourself. You start to believe that it’s okay for you to be alone. And you can be thisclose to people who are connecting with each other and not let yourself be known. You can be thisclose to people being set free and find yourself in tremendous bondage.
When we went inside for the evening session, my name was on the table again. What even. It was an envelope we weren’t allowed to read. I never even took my seat out of wanting to “get the job done” but after the session, as we dismissed for the night, I picked mine up quickly and went back to my cabin.
I was stunned to find that it wasn’t a general card of well-wishing, but rather was a letter from a close friend that the staff had tracked down weeks prior. It was a note of encouragement with a list of everything she was cheering for in my life. For my friendships and my writing and my work. I felt myself on the edge of being loved and it was tender and dear and I went back to my cabin and lit a fire in the fireplace and wrote down honest words and suddenly, a weight shifted.
Something in me felt seen. Even now, when I close my eyes, I can see the images of my name across a scrap of paper, on an envelope, on a tile and a card. This seemingly simple practice of inviting me–the photographer–to the table was starting to sink in.
The final night, I felt shaky. I felt like eye contact would mean tears and I wasn’t entirely sure why. I listened to more stories of courage and bravery and what it meant to surround yourself with a team of dream-defenders. I thought of my own dreams and wondered who would defend them. And like an answer straight out of the sky, Jenn and one of the “camp counselors” Tova stood up for a quick announcement. I grabbed my camera, ever-ready for a moment.
“We want to take a moment and honor someone who isn’t always seen. They don’t always get noticed.”
I stood there, camera in hand, waiting for them to honor the Ranch staff. And then, in what felt like slow motion that even now brings tears to my eyes, Jenn threw out her hands in my direction. The women of Camp Well started to clap and I sank down into my chair, taking off my glasses. Jenn took my camera. A dam broke and I covered my face as I started to weep. I wept for every moment in the past year that I felt lost. For every instance of being not enough. For every ache of being not included.
I’ve been trying to put my finger on what makes people like Jenn and Kelly so special. I think it’s because they founded Camp Well to bring every woman to the table. To connect us to a bigger network of women who are just as scared and isolated and uncertain as the next gal. To bring every last one of us to the foot of the cross. This wasn’t a cheerleading camp to pump ourselves up, but a place to re-focus our eyes to see the work of God in one another.
As the final morning came, I found myself a little (read: a lot) lighter. Not because I finally got some credit or managed to have my whole life fulfilled by applause (because that’s never going to last forever, y’all.) Rather, I knew deep down that I had moved from the outskirts to participation in a profound way simply because I was seen.
A woman who had only known me a few days grabbed me by the shoulders, looked into my eyes and said, “Melissa, I will show up for you every time.”
Suddenly, what these women were carrying, I was carrying. When they succeed at their dreams, we all succeed. When they need encouragement, we all get to cheer. When I’m falling apart, they show up.
In short, I had a seat at the table and it made all the difference.
No one was every fully satisfied by standing in the wings and watching everyone else get free. May we have eyes to see, arms to welcome and an extra place setting for those who are easily missed. For He has set a banquet table for every last one of us because that’s who He is and it’s what He desires for us to do.
What kindness. Thanks be to God.