Kesem Farewell Speech

Delivered at Kesem Senior Luncheon, 2014

Oh Hey Camp Kesem! I’m Heather, or “Autumn,” and I have been the director for Camp Kesem at Stanford for the last four years. That means that I get to work on Camp Kesem year-round with a group of the most amazing students I’ve ever known, and it means I get to watch Camp Kesem change and grow over time. It also means that at senior luncheon, I get to take a few moments to thank the seniors and co-terms who are part of our Kesem family.

This is my fourth senior luncheon speech, and this time, unlike previous years, I am joining you in saying goodbye to Camp Kesem. I went back and read my previous speeches, which were filled with positive and hopefully inspiring advice to graduating seniors and co-terms. As with most advice, I found it far easier to share with others than to heed myself. Bring Kesem with you, I told them. You are the reason this community is so special. Kesem is what it is, for campers, counselors, and parents, because of what YOU bring to it. You can create caring communities wherever you go because you know what it means to be part of something like Kesem. The world needs more people like you and more communities like this one – more openness, more generosity, more compassion.

While I still believe this to be good advice, I also want to acknowledge that what we have at Kesem is special. As I’ve tried to imagine bringing Kesem into the rest of my life, I’ve realized that deep down, I know there really is no place like Kesem. We all understand that Kesem is so much more than a week long summer camp. It’s the way a camper smiles when he sees a group of his counselors who showed up to cheer him on at his middle school musical. It’s when a camper’s face lights up when she sees 15 of us at her dad’s funeral. It’s the comforting comment one parent offers to another who tells his story at New Family Orientation, while his son is outside playing his first round of Gaga. It’s the silence that falls on the room after the common ground activity at counselor training, when we understand for the first time just how much we share. The magic of Kesem is the community, and this community is a blessing to those it serves, but also for those who participate in building it.  As much as I’d like to think we can bring that community out into the rest of the world, there’s also magic in knowing that it exists in sacred space, and that nothing else can replace it.

So with this in mind, I turn to one more lesson I’ve learned from Kesem and our campers, perhaps the most important lesson of all – that letting go, like holding on, can be an act of love. Letting go does not mean forgetting. It means that our hearts surge with gratitude in moments of grief because we are so lucky, so deeply fortunate to have been part of this community. Four years ago, I chose Autumn as my camp name because change and transition are challenging for many of us, myself included. The trees are going through an immense change in the autumn season and they respond to this change with beauty – with vibrant oranges and deep reds and golden yellows. It’s a reminder that change can be a beautiful thing, and that at some point, we all must let go of our branches and catch the next gust of wind.

Seniors and co-terms, I’m so grateful that you’ve been on this journey with me, and I’m so excited for our last week of camp together. Thank you for holding on and letting go with me. I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Edited to add/explain: I have been promoted within Hillel at Stanford. I will be supervising and supporting the new Camp Kesem director, who has been involved in Kesem for three years and is perfect for the job. I will stay involved in Kesem as a member of the advisory committee and I will provide support in any way that I can while empowering the new camp director, who deserves to have the amazing experience that I had. I will miss my direct and daily involvement with Kesem with all of my heart but I know that wonderful things are ahead and that I can support Kesem in other ways by supporting the new camp director. 

Bearing the Weight of my History

This is an “oldie-but-goodie.” I wrote this in fall 2005. I have performed it on stage and on live radio and I find that its message keeps coming back to me because I work with young women and I am always considering the way we talk about our bodies. Enjoy!

My body looks like Russia. It is immense. It spans a hearty portion of the Eastern Hemisphere. There is very little room for neighboring start-up republics on its borders, and when I was younger, I feared I was doomed to live like a frozen wasteland forever. Everything about me kept getting bigger. In fourth grade, my breasts resembled onion domes. By sixth grade, they were the size of St. Petersburg. These days, I think my breasts may be out to take over the world. You could hide nuclear missiles in there! I don’t recommend it though. You may not be able to find them again.

On the map of my body, stretch marks climb over my hips like rivers trying to reach both the Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans. The space between my legs, though not as barren as I feared it would be, seems to get lost between the snow-crested mountains of my thighs.

I inherited this Russian body from my foremothers. They handed it down with their recipes for matzo-ball soup and knish. I can still see my weight-conscious family members frowning around the table, examining my expanding waistline as they examined their own, while my great-grandmother, who sat on the other side of the table, encouraged me to take another helping. What, you should want to deny your heritage? This recipe was my grandmother’s! Eat! Enjoy! We are a zaftig (full-figured) people, that’s how we survived hard winters in Russia, and now, ha! We use food as a way to survive everything! We kvetch (complain) about how big we are, and then we eat more because we’re upset. Nu (so), it’s in our blood. What can we do about it but thank God that we have hearty appetites and big hearts to match.

I tried to listen to my great-grandmother’s words, but it’s awkward to be the largest country. I don’t mean to take up most of the space in Europe, but at least I’m nice about it. I only occupy the spaces no one else wants, the cold, lonely places where the nights are white and the darkness envelops the day. I’m clumsy about government too. My immensity gets in the way, and I seem to trip over everything.

You’d think I would do something about this. I’ve tried. I stopped eating for awhile, in hopes that I could slim down to the size of Italy, or maybe even Chile. It worked at first, but my heritage stuck out in strange places. My waist and hips lost their gargantuan dimensions, and my face took on that sexy angular look, complete with the hollow eyes and sunken cheeks that many people associate with third-world starvation. My breasts, however, never shrank down to normal size. Russia evacuated most of my body and the entire population took refuge in my chest. They threatened to secede and become countries of their own.

Eventually, I grew tired of trying to be the size of Switzerland. I could squeeze into smaller spaces, and at last I was pleased with the country staring back at me in the mirror. But the truth is, I never really fit into that shrunken frame. I was sick all the time, dizzy from my efforts to battle off sinister invaders like bread, cheese, potatoes, and even carrots, those dangerously carb-laden vegetables. I’d wanted to train for a marathon, but my body couldn’t seem to handle it. When I started to pass out after running too many miles without enough fuel, I decided that I couldn’t avoid my Russian heritage any longer.

I gently allowed my body the time it needed to grow again. At first, it was kind of fun – I enjoyed all the food I’d denied myself for so long, though I consumed a hearty serving of Jewish guilt with every bite. But after awhile, as my body regained its Russian proportions, I began to wish that there was anything I could do to abandon my genes – or squeeze into smaller ones.

My great-grandmother’s age finally crept up on her in the fall of my freshman year of college. She died at the age of 98, and I wrote poetry for her all morning, this woman who represented my past. She was one of my few family members who could tell me about Russia as she remembered it – a legacy far bigger than my body snuggled between the bodies of my foremothers and the daughters of our future.

These days, I still kvetch about my size. Having a Russian body means that shopping is devastating, my breasts hurt when the car goes over speed bumps, and every time I eat, I know that I’m feeding the Russian peasants who live in my thighs. Some days, I still look in the mirror and bemoan my figure, even though it is part of my past.

But other days, when I look at the curves of my breasts and hips, I can hear my ancestors laugh with full-figured good nature as they sit together over elaborate meals, passing the kugel and the stories across the table. This is where we enjoy old recipes cooked up and often exaggerated for flavor, this is where my own experiences collide with my history, and this is where my future will be –   served up with a sizeable portion of memories, and shared with my zaftig, loving, Russian family.

How I Learned to Stop Kvetching and Embrace Mindfulness

I have a thing about the word “mindfulness.” Maybe it’s just my Santa Cruz background, but whenever anyone says “mindfulness,” I picture those way-far-out-there types who have no grip on reality because they’re too busy being “present” to consider their actions in relation to the past and the future. No judgment or anything – it’s just not me. I also associate mindfulness with meditation. Meditation is definitely not me. I don’t like being still. I don’t like slowing down. I don’t like focusing on my breath when I’m trying to solve a problem. I like to just solve the problem and get on with it already. Who has time for anything else? When I want to see change that I cannot enact, changing my thought patterns almost always works best for me. It feels more active, more proactive, and more productive than mindfulness teachings, which encourage people to “just sit with the feeling” instead of arguing or rationalizing yourself out of negative thinking.


But last March, I learned that my ankle pain isn’t going to go away without another surgery. There’s no rationalizing. There’s no arguing away the the negativity. I am going to be in pain daily. Whenever I try to “look on the bright side,” it feels forced and fake, like I’m trying to pretend it doesn’t hurt, or trying to pretend that I’m ok with all of the continuing limitations on my life-with-one-foot. I felt panicked, frustrated, and furiously angry when I found out about my failed surgery. Then I felt desperate and lost and alone. Then I felt like I needed to talk with someone, anyone, who has been through this before. I felt like the real me, who loves to dance and run and chase kids at camp, is trapped in this cage of a skeleton and I can’t get out.

I put out a call for help on Facebook. If there’s anything I’ve learned from living with this injury, it’s that it’s totally ok to ask for exactly what you need, because otherwise, people don’t know how to help you. I asked if anyone with chronic pain experience had time to talk through this with me, and I was flooded with responses. One of the first things I noticed in my conversations with all of these people is that they all mentioned something called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. I blew it off the first two times I heard about it because it has the “M” word in it, and I know these MBSR classes are really expensive. But after I heard about it from five different people, all of whom suffer from severe chronic pain, I figured there had to be something to it besides fuzzy meditation stuff.

I had counselor training coming up that weekend, and I didn’t have time to do any further exploration of the “m” word beforehand. I’d been pretty nervous about training because I always want to help. I want to support my coordinators in every way possible, no matter what that means for my foot and my pain levels. I’ve always tried to fight the pain and do everything I normally would, and in the past, this hasn’t worked too well. But it’s hard to fight my natural instincts, and I thought I might be in for a tough weekend, arguing with myself, pushing through pain, and trying desperately to pretend it’s all ok.

In the end, training went beautifully, for the counselors and for me. In reflecting back on why it went so much better than I expected, it all came down to acceptance. By acceptance, I mean acknowledging the pain and just being “ok” with it. Instead of trying to fight it or getting angry about it or having any kind of negative response to it (followed by an attempt to correct any negative response to it) I just accepted it. Yes, I’m in pain. And that’s ok. I can’t help with meal clean-up if I want to go up the hill later. I’d rather go up the hill to participate in the next activity. And that’s ok too. I’m allowed to be in pain. There was nothing I could do about it, so I might as well accept it, right?

It turns out that this is actually a version of mindfulness. Accepting the feeling, giving it space, and then moving on, rather than shoving it back down, or forcing yourself to move on before you’re ready to do that. The result was that I was able to move on far more quickly once I acknowledged the pain to myself.  Saying “It really hurts right now. I think I’ll sit down” instead of “Ok, it hurts, but that’s not going to stop me. I can power through it! Now move it!” actually meant that I could get up again sooner.

Then I got to thinking…what if we applied this to depression? So many times, people end up feeling worse when they try to talk themselves into a better mindset. We associate “making space for the feelings” with “wallowing.” It’s not the same thing. Acknowledging is different. It means saying “I’m sad. And I don’t like being sad, but I just am. That’s ok,” instead of saying “What’s wrong with you? Get off your butt! Do something about it!” Sometimes, there just isn’t anything you can do but find a level of acceptance, acknowledge the storm, and let it pass.

It feels so counterintuitive to me. I want so badly to be in control. I don’t want to wait for the storm to pass. I want to swim through it, I want to throw the raindrops back into the clouds they came from and show that storm what I’ve got. Mindfulness feels, to me, like rising above the storm instead. “Oh look, it’s raining. Things are going to be wet for little while.”

Next thing you know I’ll be one of those people who refers to meditation as a “practice.” Actually, if I ever do that, feel free to just slap me. But seriously…there’s no stopping the rain, no matter how hard you fight. That’s what chronic pain is like. All we can do is reflect and respond, and, as I’ve learned, accept.