Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Seeing the world through Fridge-colored glasses

Unless you are a member of an elite group of amazing people, I don't expect you to understand this post's title. Luckily, I explain! Just over one year ago, I participated in an outdoor adventure camp for young adult cancer survivors. First Descents offers cancer fighters and survivors between the ages of 18-40(ish) the opportunity to spend a week kayaking or climbing in any number of different locations in the western states. So in 2009, I opted to go climbing in Jackson, Wyoming, where I was promptly (and questionably...) nicknamed the Fridge. I am a Chicago Bears fan, after all.

My experiences that first week climbing in the Grand Tetons altered my entire perception of myself as a cancer survivor. I met a group of people whose love and support and unconditional acceptance were unlike any type of friendship I had ever experienced. The connections were immediate and lasting. What is it about having had cancer that we were all able to identify with each other, regardless of our general interests? Perhaps we were all searching for a camaraderie that had been lost with the onset of our illnesses. Whether we accepted it or not, cancer took a part of our lives: it took my college years. It took someone else's senior year of high school. It denied yet another woman of her ability to bear children. We lost our identities, and those are difficult ephemera to quickly redefine. So, Jackson introduced to me the idea that we truly are all in this together. That first camp allowed me to step back and allow another person to be there for me, to pick me up when I was feeling the post-cancer blues. Much more powerful than any pill and more effective than any workout, I was blessed with a beautiful, new family.

My winter brought with it a bit of an emotional backslide, but luckily, I was signed up for another FD camp, this one in Moab, Utah at the end of April. Once again, I laid my heart bare to a group of relative strangers, and once again, I was buoyed by their support and love. Not to mention one woman's insistence that every time I look in a mirror, I wink at myself. Self-confidence: a notoriously elusive force in my life. And yet, somehow, perhaps when I was free-rappelling from a 100-foot sandstone arch, I thought, "All of these people can't be that mistaken. Maybe I can do this whole 'life' thing..."

Flash-forward through an oppressive Chicago summer to this past Friday and me getting a little emotional during the final descent into Midway airport on an uneventful flight from Denver after an exhausting and amazing week as staff photographer for an FD climbing camp in Estes Park, Colorado. After I put my personal photographs from Utah online, someone in the First Descents office thought it would be a swell idea to ask me if I would like to attend one of the camps as the official photographer. Well, for me, a no-brainer, although nerve-wracking.

Last week I had yet another amazing experience with FD, but this time, it was for a different reason. While I still have a few of my own cancer-demons lurking, this week was an opportunity for me to give back a small bit to the organization that has already done so much for my personal healing. It was amazing to be able to observe and try to capture each camper's experience on the rocks. The entire time, my goal was to help each person have as amazing a week as I have had at the previous camps. I desperately wanted to shoot fantastic photographs that they would be so happy and proud to have as reminders of their amazing week climbing in Colorado.

This time around, I was present to help facilitate the "FD experience," and I honestly could not have felt more honored. It is one thing to stare down your fears and face your perceived limitations while hanging from a skinny rope, feeling around for a foothold that extends more than two inches from the rock face... It is a different experience altogether to be able to witness the transformations of 13 individuals and the growth of the group as a whole. To witness friendships being made, to truly see the unconditional support I had previously felt. To watch a camper's face as she placed her implicit trust in the person belaying her and stood up on a toehold that by all accounts should not stick... As a photographer, I could not take enough photographs. Someone staring at a rock or laughing at a joke or releasing everything while standing on the literal top of a mountain, 13,000 feet above sea level.

Like I said, I only hope I was able to adequately capture the struggles and emotions and love of the week. (that whole self-confidence thing creeping in...) I really did not want to leave Colorado this time. But I have to thank First Descents with everything that I have for helping me grow and figure out who I am post-cancer. And I am so grateful they asked me to attend camp as the photographer. I hope I did the week justice in my photos, and I cannot wait to see what the next year will bring. So much awesome, and hopefully a lot more rock climbing! Peace.