Shut Up and Be Grateful

Lessons Learned at Camp Grounded (Tech-Free Summer Camp for Adults)

Camp Grounded, Marble Falls, Texas, October 12, 2015. Photo credit: Daniel Johnston (Troubador)/Camp Grounded

Last weekend, I was camp counselor for the 8th time at Camp Grounded, a summer camp for adults in Marble Falls, deep in the heart of Texas, where we don’t use digital technology, we tell time in inches instead of minutes, we don’t talk about age, we don’t talk about work, we don’t use drugs or booze, and we call people by camp nicknames instead of their real names.

As someone who spends way too much of my life staring at a screen, the experience was profound, and I learned a lot more from watching 130 adults with names like Mr. Love Buxx, Sunbeam, Bricky St. James, E. Nuff, Tex, Foxy, Butterfly, Sticks, In Process, Pork Belly, Hubba Hubba, Stan, Furless, Cuz, and Lucky Pi, become their best selves, than I could have ever learned from checking my Facebook feed 45 times a day. So, instead of reading the 456,249th article comparing Bernie and Hillary, wanting to puke at the 8,786,453rd mention of Donald Trump saying something ignorant, watching 6 cat videos, and being late to like the totally adorable first pics of my friends’ new babies on Facebook (oddly enough, the babies didn’t seem to mind — we cool — I’m still getting invited to the bris), I got to be a counselor for 18 grown men in Fox Village.

Here are a few life lessons learned at my 8th Camp Grounded.

You are enough.

All our lives, we are taught by society that we need to change. That we need to get better grades, that we need to get into a better school, that we need to make more money, that we need to be more successful, that we need to buy more shit. The truth is people don’t need to change as much as they need to be validated for who they really are. Camp Grounded’s director Fidget Wigglesworth often says, “you are exactly where you need to be.” You are also exactly who you should be. In my Fox Village closing circle, each of us took turns acknowledging each other, despite our flaws, despite our challenges, despite our imperfections. One by one, the rest of the group addressed someone and said, “Pork Belly: You Are Enough,” “Blue Bear: You Are Enough,” “Smiley: You Are Enough.” If you want to support your friends or your partner, instead of sending them a self-help book, or telling them to change their life, simply say, “Hey brother: You Are Enough.” It goes a long way.

Fuck should.

At the talent show, my dear friend and head counselor Honey Bear performed an original poem about how he was finally breaking through all the shoulds in his life and trying to focus on his truth. This is something we can all strive for. Shoulds are everywhere. “We should stay in this job, we should do what’s easy, we should make more money, we should get married tomorrow even we don’t want to, we should do what our friends are doing, we should plan more for the future.” Fuck should. I want to spend my days surrounded by people going after THEIR DREAMS, not someone else’s should.

We need more spaces free of W-talk (even and especially if your W is your passion).

At camp, we don’t talk about work. So, when you meet Moonlight, he doesn’t say “I work at ****,” or “I’m unemployed,” or “I’ve been featured in Fast Company,” he simply says, “Yo, I’m Moonlight, I like to sing, want to sing a song with me?” These days, our whole lives — online and offline — are spent networking. We need more spaces where people can define themselves by what’s truly inside them — not just their personal brand or what’s listed on their LinkedIn profile. One of my campers told me that the most challenging part of camp wasn’t being off his phone for four days — it was not talking about work for four days. This is because his work is his passion and he loves talking about his work — he does it all day every day.

Avoiding W-talk gave him the space to redefine his identity and talk about other things (desires, fears, personal challenges). It allowed him to go deeper into his heart and his head. W-talk is great, but we do enough networking. I love my work, but I am not my Twitter feed. I need time where I can show up raw and real. For me, this meant breaking down into tears, processing my life, realizing I have so much work to do with how I love and how I communicate, and discovering what my heart is truly looking for. There is a time and place for W-talk (conferences, the office, Facebook, etc.) and there is a time and a place for HEART TALK. Frankly, I get enough W-talk from 30 minutes at a happy hour, to last a whole fucking year. Give me HEART TALK.

We’ve reached Peak Instagram and it’s time to move on.

Camp Grounded is a “Digital Detox,” which means we lock up everyone’s phones, watches, iPads, and MacBooks. This allows campers to redefine what it means to be present and actually experience an event. Normally, when you go to a brunch, a dinner, a music festival, a wedding, a sporting event, a party, etc., you are in “half-experience mode.” This means that half of you is enjoying the event, and half of you is scanning the room for a dope pic to post on Instagram. At a place like Camp, where so many amazing things are happening all at once, even if you had 130 iPhones, you couldn’t capture the moment (and maybe that’s the point). Camp employs a professional staff photographer, which means two things: 1) magical moments from camp are captured and 2) the participants don’t have to capture the moments for themselves; they can actually be present. Can you imagine a concert if no one besides the press photographer was taking photos? Can you imagine a vacation if no one besides a fly on the wall was taking photos?

I think we’ve reached Peak Instagram and it’s time to move on to Peak Experience. In other words, we’ve already seen enough cool shit. Enough yummy brunches, enough cute puppies, enough adorable babies, enough beach landscapes, enough hipster dinner table settings, enough VIP parties, enough music festivals, enough dope sunsets. I’m not gonna front; I post just as much of these pics as anyone, but I no longer have a desire to see cool shit, and have even less of a desire to document myself seeing cool shit, or see other people doing cool shit. Instead, I want to EXPERIENCE COOL SHIT, I want to EXPERIENCE ALL THE THINGS. I want to be around people that change my life. I want to sing and dance and and stretch and love and listen and look within and watch and write and scream and cry and be free. I want the Earth beneath my feet to move. I want Peak Conversation, Peak Touch, Peak Introspection, Peak Listening, Peak Understanding, Peak Adventure, Peak Discovery, Peak Breath, Peak Love, Peak Creativity, Peak Inner-Power, Peak Experience. I want the things that can’t be shared.

Fuck your inner-critic.

I have the wonderful opportunity to teach the creative writing playshop at camp. I have no qualifications to teach creative writing at camp, other than that I enjoy writing and spend a lot of time doing it. I simply show up and hold space for people to write without self-doubt or judgement. The inner-critic dominates our lives. It says, “you can’t write a book, you’re not an author.” “You can’t paint a painting, you’re not a painter.” “You can’t start a business, you didn’t go to business school.” Blah. Blah. Blah. If I listened to that bullshit, you wouldn’t be reading this post, I would have never written a book, and I would have never become a summer camp counselor for adults because my boys Fidget and Mobius would have probably never created one. Camp is about courage, taking risks, putting yourself out there and simply being. When I see someone bang away on a typewriter for the first time in years, words flowing as if they’ve been on paper forever, it inspires me. When I see a camper named Butterfly write a piece during our playshop, and then perform it in front of 130 people at the talent show, it inspires me. Writing is the simple yet revolutionary act of saying fuck you to your inner-critic (over, and over, and over, again).

Being weird is being awesome.

My favorite thing about Camp Grounded (and why I’ve gone back eight times) is because it is a community that supports people to be who they really are, even if that means doing what society might deem “crazy” or “weird” or “different.” Camp is about challenging expectations and social norms. At camp, anyone can paint their face (or their nails) if they want to. At camp, anyone can sing if they want to. At camp, anyone can dress up like a mermaid (or merman) if they want to. At camp, anyone can cut off their hair if they want to. At camp, 130 of us sing “Don’t Stop Believin’” using only one word (“Meow”). At camp, we reclaim weird. It’s not wrong to be weird, it’s fucking awesome. We need more spaces where people have permission to be themselves. When everyone is weird, everyone is imperfect, which is to say everyone is exactly how they are supposed to be.

Platonic touch matters.

I love that camp is a place where people can touch each other (with consent) without it being sexual. All of us need to be touched, massaged, hugged, embraced, and loved. Just because you have a lover, doesn’t mean you don’t need a hug or a cuddle every now and then. Many of the men in my village expressed how great it was to cuddle with women at camp and not feel the desire they usually feel when they are around women to try and get laid as quickly as possible. Don’t get me wrong, sex is awesome when two people want to have sex with each other, but there is something brutal about a world where touching someone on the neck equates to two people (or one person) feeling pressure to immediately take off their pants. When we touch each other as friends, it can very powerful, it allows us to be more vulnerable and open in all our relationships; with ourselves, our friends, and our lovers.

We need more safe spaces for men to be sensitive, vulnerable, and honest with their emotions.

My favorite thing about being a counselor at Camp Grounded is that I get to hold space for 18 men to be real with each other. This means being open with our intentions, our fears, our flaws, and the changes the want to make in our lives. It means being open and honest. It’s hard for anyone to be open and honest, but it’s especially hard for men to be open and honest. We have been taught from a young age, whether by our fathers or movies or TV and the media, to be strong, confident, and fearless. What happens when you don’t feel strong, confident, or fearless? What happens when you need to tell someone something that you can’t even tell your partner or your parents or your best friends? Many men lack emotional vulnerability and while I don’t have science to prove it, I’m pretty sure repressing these emotions is what leads many men to drugs, alcohol, sexual frustration, violence against women, violence against themselves and each other, and other struggles. As one of my campers put it, “Back home, when we’re going through something, we just get fucked up with our friends.” I do that too when something’s not working — we all do that — we drink, we get high, we try to escape.

Not at camp. At camp, we establish circles of support and trust, where people can show up real and raw. Where a gay man can feel comfortable around straight men for the first time in his life. Where a straight man can feel comfortable around gay men for the first time in his life. Where men can show up more sensitive, compassionate, confident, and supportive, around the women in their lives. Where men can laugh and cry and be honest and process their shit; whether a recent divorce, a difficult relationship, a confidence challenge, or uncertainty about how they’re showing up in life. Where men can feel ALL THE THINGS (the uncertain, the brand new, the impossible), not just what’s easy or comfortable.

Shut up and be grateful.

The most important lesson I learned at camp came in my most trying moment. I was limping around because my foot had been stepped on during a human whirpool made by 50 adults swimming around and around in a circle at a pool party led by Lunch Con Queso, who was wearing leopard-skin tights, and Ladybug, who was dressed as a merman (note to self: if you’re gonna get injured, make sure you go out doing something ridiculous). I was tired. I was thirsty. It was about 90 degrees and the sun was making me exhausted. I couldn’t walk because my foot was in so much pain. So I limped over to the tea yurt and sat down in the gospel choir playshop to ice my foot.

Camp Grounded’s gospel choir leader (and musical maestro) Prospex taught us a song he wrote that morning in the shower. The lyrics were quite simple: SHUT UP AND BE GRATEFUL. “The Shmu’ze alarm woke you up too early this morning?” SHUT UP AND BE GRATEFUL! You’re not feeling well? SHUT UP AND BE GRATEFUL! You’re gonna have to stay off your feet for a few weeks? SHUT UP AND BE GRATEFUL! It’s hot out. SHUT UP AND BE GRATEFUL! You can’t sing as well as others in the group? SHUT UP AND BE GRATEFUL! You’ve got some issues going on in your life? (Me too.) SHUT UP AND BE GRATEFUL! Life is hard. SHUT UP AND BE GRATEFUL!!!


To learn more about Camp Grounded and get tickets for next summer (real quick!), check out campgrounded.org. Thanks to my fellow Fox Villager, Ceremonial Jaguar (aka @joveth) for inspiring me to write this post — check out his powerful Medium post about camp.

Smiley Poswolsky is the author of The Quarter-Life Breakthrough, a guide for millennials to find meaningful work. His follow-up book will be published by Tarcher Perigee/Penguin Random House in 2016. Follow @whatsupsmiley and get free quarter-life resources at smileyposwolsky.com.