Break out the taboo cards

When I first signed up for Mountain T.O.P. Adults In Ministry (AIM) in 1993, it was because I thought it would be fun teaching creative writing to teenagers as part of the “Summer Plus” program. I had no teaching experience; my only experience was as a writer.

I didn’t actually get to teach the class that first year, but I’ve taught it many times since. Some have been more successful than others. Creative writing is the type of workshop where the teens have to want to be there. If they don’t – maybe they got their first choice of workshop in the morning but were arbitrarily assigned to creative writing in the afternoon – it seems an awful lot like school. I try hard not to make it seem like school, but I don’t have all of the tools in my toolkit that a professional educator would have.

Anyway, the past couple of years, for reasons I won’t go into, I haven’t been able to make plans in advance to go to AIM. In both 2013 and 2014, I got the chance to go at the last minute – which was great, but what it meant was that the lineup of Summer Plus workshops was already in place and they didn’t need to add another one. So I participated in Summer Plus solely as an assistant in someone else’s workshops. Last year, for example, I helped out in a cooking workshop taught by Jean Nulle and in a photography workshop taught by Bobby and Robert Matthews. That was fun – I enjoy helping in a workshop, especially in crafty sorts of workshops where it works out for the helpers to jump in and do the project alongside the teens.

But I still missed teaching my own workshop. And so, this year, when I was able to get my AIM application in well in advance, I looked forward to creative writing. I waited patiently to hear something. In the past, some of the preliminary arrangements for Summer Plus would sometimes be made by the year-round staff, and so you’d get a call a month or two before camp confirming what you wanted to teach and so on. But now, all of that is handled by the summer staff – who’ve only been on duty a few weeks and who’ve been busy this past week running the first AIM event of the summer. So I’ve been on pins and needles waiting to hear from somebody and confirm that I would, in fact, be teaching creative writing.

I got my courtesy call today, and everything is “go” for me to teach creative writing. I will only have one session (which is my preference, although I’d have done two sessions if they’d needed me to). The other half of the day I will be helping out with someone else’s workshop.

I generally start out by having the students (along with any helpers) pair up and interview each other and write a simple paragraph which they can use to introduce each other to the group. Then we talk about the importance of good description. At this point, I generally break out the party game “Taboo.” In this game, a player must describe a word or concept to his or her teammates – but can’t use the five most-obvious clues, which are taboo. For example, you might have to describe “Superman” without using “hero,” “Clark Kent,” “Lois Lane,” “fly” or “Krypton.” A member of the opposing team stands over your shoulder with a buzzer, ready to penalize you if you say one of the “taboo” words. There’s an egg timer, and you try to get your team to guess as many cards as possible before time runs out and the other team takes a turn.

We use the game to make a point about colorful description, but it’s also just fun to play. Later in the week, I’ll use it at the end of the session if we have time to kill or the natives are getting restless.

I’m on my second Taboo game, and I really need a new one – the buzzer is made of parts from the first game and the second game put together, and some of the cards have out-of-date cultural references that I suspect have been changed in the latest edition.

How far we go with storytelling depends on who’s in the class and what level they’re at. Some years, we’ve worked on a short and simple group story, short enough to be read aloud during our presentation for parents and family members at the end of the week.

One year, Diana Simmons Woodlock, the daughter of Mountain T.O.P. executive director Ed Simmons, was my helper in the class – a bit intimidating, since Diana really is a teacher. She told me at the end of the week that she’d been skeptical about the group story idea but was amazed at how far we’d gotten with it. That made me feel good.

I talk to the teens about the importance of journaling – as always with Summer Plus, we’ll have teens from a variety of home situations, good and bad, and some of them would no doubt benefit from an outlet. (One year, a girl actually told me that her counselor had encouraged her to journal.) I give them blank journals at the end of the week as a gift. Most of the journals I have were donated to me some years back, but in 2013 or 2014 – during a brief window when I thought I might still be teaching the class – I realized that most of the remaining journals were very girly in appearance. As it happens, most of my students over the years have been girls, but there have been boys, too, and so I rushed out that year and bought two or three gender-neutral looking journals just to be on the safe side.

I can’t wait to see how things go this year.

Tabula rasa

Normally when I go to Summer Plus, I teach creative writing during one of the two workshop sessions and then assist some other workshop leader in the other one.

I knew when I signed up for Mountain T.O.P. Adults In Ministry at such a late date that the roster of workshops might already be set in stone. I put on my application that I could teach “creative writing, or as needed.”

Well, I got my touch-base call from the AIM staff this morning, and while they offered to let me teach creative writing if I really wanted to to they sort of gave the impression that things were OK as they were, and that was fine with me. So I’ll be doing Summer Plus, but I won’t be leading a workshop myself, only assisting in other people’s workshops for both the morning and afternoon sessions. (This is what I do when I go to Kaleidoscope instead of Summer Plus – I assist rather than lead.) I don’t know what sessions I’ll be helping with, and the last few years the assignment of helpers has been more of an informal process, worked out during our planning sessions on Sunday night of camp week rather than in advance.

At the end of creative writing, I usually give the teens a blank journal. I’ve had a huge stash of journals, many of which were donated to me for this purpose by a friend a number of years back. I still had more than enough for one or two workshops, but almost all of the ones that remained had a cover design which my students would consider feminine.

I tend to have more girls than boys in the workshop, but even so I needed to be prepared. It’s worth noting that I often let the teens pick out a journal themselves, and many of the girls in the past have preferred a plain blue journal bound like a hardback book over that supposedly girly-looking model, which was spiral-bound. That’s one reason I had so many of the spiral-bound notebooks left.

I was at Walmart the other day and ended up buying three blank journals in more gender-neutral designs. It turns out I jumped the gun by doing that, since I won’t be teaching the workshop, but I’ll just save them for another year. (I may use one of them myself on the Sierra Leone trip.) At least it will be easier to pack, since I won’t have to bring my big box of workshop stuff.

There will be about 25 adults in camp — 9 or 10 in Summer Plus and the rest in Major Home Repair. The full-time staff stops updating the “who’s coming to camp” lists on the web site once training and camp season start — they’ve got a heck of a lot of other things to do that take precedence — and there were only about 15 people listed on the web site the last time that page was updated. Jan Schilling tells me that “Smitty” Smith is one of the additions, and I’m curious to know who else might be coming.

Helen Vickers tells me on FB that her husband Rick McNeely, a former Mountain T.O.P. full-time staffer who played the key role in creating Kaleidoscope, will be at Cumberland Pines next week as well — not in AIM but as an adult driver in the Youth Summer Missions (YSM) camp that will be taking place at the same time. The staff is usually pretty good about keeping YSM and AIM from crossing paths, but hopefully I’ll get the chance to see and speak to Rick at some point.

I still remember one year when Mountain T.O.P. used to have an annual fund-raising golf tournament and I was a board member. They had one of those contests where, if you hit a hole in one on a designated hole, you win a car. The insurance company which made such contests possible required that there be two witnesses at the designated hole, not players, who could attest to a hole in one should it take place. Rick and I wound up with that job somehow — we sat at the second hole and watched every single tee shot so that we could witness any holes in one. (Sadly, it didn’t happen.)

Mister Snowman

When I spoke to my father earlier today, he was in a break from the long task of taking down Christmas decorations. I, living by myself in a slovenly apartment with few house guests, didn’t have to work quite as hard. I had a three-foot-tall fiber optic tree which I unplugged a little while ago and took back into the storage room. It took me all of 30 seconds.

I had one other piece of holiday décor, which I didn’t have to unplug because it never really got plugged in. It was a jar, painted as a snowman, that I made last summer while assisting Jean Nulle in her arts and crafts workshop at Summer Plus. (Jean gave her helpers the chance to make the same crafts the teens were making, which is always fun.) It had a very short power cord, and there was simply no good place for me to plug it up. But as I was unplugging the tree, I decided to plug the snowman into the extension cord I’d been using for the tree and leave it up, at least for a little while, as a wintertime decoration.


Yes, I painted this myself. It’s a mason jar. It’s hard to see the texture in this photo – it was hard to get a good photo of it with my smartphone – but it has a frost-like appearance created by blotting the white paint on with the end of the brush. (A spray-on varnish had been applied first, as a primer, to help the paint adhere to the glass.) Then, the face was painted on top of the white paint. A short string of Christmas lights provides the interior light, and the felt hat, with ribbon trim, hides the cord, which dangles from the back like a ponytail.

By the way, one of the ornaments on my tree was also a Summer Plus souvenir – a little unglazed ceramic snowman which each participant painted.

Slides from my summer vacation

It used to be a standing joke in situation comedies that people who have been on vacation loved showing their slides, and that said slide shows were intolerable for those subjected to them. But I’m going to put this slideshow out there anyway.

A day or two after I returned from my Mountain T.O.P. Adults In Ministry week, I posted my own video of the event. But the ministry has now posted the official camp slide show of that camp week to YouTube. The slide show, an AIM tradition, is shown on Friday night of a camp week.

This differs from my video in that it shows everything that was going on. My video only shows things for which I was present and had my phone handy. In this slide show, you’ll see all of the various Summer Plus workshops (enrichment workshops, organized by the adult volunteers, for teens from Grundy County), as well as both of the home repair sites at which we had volunteers working. You also get a lot of camp life, including various worship services and our Wednesday night cookout. At 2:51, you see me leading my creative writing workshop (although it’s a candid, un-posed shot, and I’m looking away from the camera). I’m also in numerous other photos.

The slide show used to be purely a staff responsibility, back when it was done with actual slides in a carousel.  Nowadays, they get many of the photos by asking campers who are willing to share their digital photos. They seemed to have more than the normal quota of out-of-focus shots this time, and for that I apologize. But there’s plenty to see that’s in focus.

I hope you enjoy this. If you’d like information about being a part of an AIM weekend this fall, or a week-long AIM event next summer, contact me or go to the Mountain T.O.P. web site.

The blind leading the unwilling

Part of a series of posts about Mountain T.O.P.’s Adults In Ministry program. For links to previous installments, see the bottom of this one.

In the spring of 1993, I was an unofficial member of the Singles Council of the Tennessee Conference of the United Methdodist Church, working on a newsletter which was published at that time.

We had a meeting at Brentwood United Methodist Church, and there to speak to us were George Bass and Gail Drake (now Gail Castle). George was the founder and executive director of Mountain T.O.P., and Gail was director of adult ministries. At the time, Mountain T.O.P. was trying to promote one week of the Adults In Ministry program as “singles week,” an idea that was later scrapped. In any case, they wanted our help in letting our constituents know about the AIM program. I had little if any idea what Mountain T.O.P. was all about; my only connection to it was Mary Jane Tucker,  whom I knew through the conference singles retreats who served on the Mountain T.O.P. board at the time.

At the time, AIM weeks offered only Major Home Repair or Summer Plus. Kaleidoscope wouldn’t be offered until a couple of years later, and the Quest program didn’t start until recently. As Gail described the Summer Plus program – enrichment workshops for teens from mountain communities – she listed some possible workshop topics. One of them was “creative writing.”

I had no experience teaching or working with teenagers, but I am a writer, and I started thinking that it might be fun to teach creative writing. And I thought that Mountain T.O.P. might offer the same kind of Christian community that I had come to enjoy at the time through the conference singles retreats. So I signed up for the third AIM week of the summer, in early August.

At the time, Mountain T.O.P. had a much larger geographic footprint by renting various camp facilities across the Cumberland Plateau, from Jamestown in the north to Jasper in the south. My first AIM event was at Camp Overton, in the little town of Campaign, Tenn., between McMinnville and Sparta and close to Rock Island State Park.

It turned out to be a quite atypical AIM week, for reasons I’ll get into, and yet it was quite sufficient to get me completely hooked on the Mountain T.O.P. program.

Continue reading

I’d love to live on a Mountain T.O.P.

I have been thinking a lot about Mountain T.O.P. in the past few days. I laid awake in bed last night thinking about it.

I’m not sure why.

I e-mailed the chair of my church’s outreach committee earlier today to tell her that I want to get serious about taking a group from First UMC to a Mountain T.O.P. Adults In Ministry (AIM) week next summer. I’ve been back from AIM less than a month, and I’m already looking forward to next summer.

The cynic in me might think that it’s escapism; I’m frustrated with my current situation, facing some challenges, and waiting patiently to hear about an opportunity for me to improve things. The cynic in me might think that I’m just trying to escape from everyday life by thinking back to an environment where I’m happy, well-socialized, relaxed, with relatively little to worry about. I get neck rubs and affirmations from people who love me. I get to play UNO and tie-dye T-shirts. The cynic in me might accuse myself of not being interested in ministry so much as in self-esteem.

This was the second of two weeks I attended this summer, in late June lapping over into the first couple days of July.


There may be some extent to which that cynical interpretation is true. But I don’t think it’s all that is going on. I really think this idea of putting together a team for next summer is something serious, something I’m being called to do.

Mountain T.O.P. does have AIM weekends in the fall, and I might end up going to one of those. I enjoy them, and they’re a great opportunity to catch up with some of my Mountain T.O.P. friends. But they’re home repair-only; I don’t get to do Kaleidoscope or Summer Plus, the two programs I enjoy so much during the summer AIM weeks. And the community that forms during a long weekend isn’t quite the same as the one that forms during a week-long summer AIM event. I’m looking forward to going back and doing next June what I did this June.

Does that mean I’m not going on a foreign trip next year either? I don’t know yet. I don’t even know what LEAMIS’s schedule is going to be yet, or Mountain T.O.P.’s for that matter, and if I end up making a career change I don’t know what my own vacation situation will be. I don’t think I’m done with foreign mission trips, by any stretch of the imagination. But right now, Mountain T.O.P. is stuck in my imagination.

More about the week

In my last post, I kind of glossed over the camp week itself, especially for those of you who can’t watch the video for one reason or another. It was a tremendous week.

At Summer Plus, I taught Creative Writing in the afternoons. You never know, with a workshop like creative writing, whether you’re going to get students who are interested, or students who got their first choice of workshop in the morning and who got stuck in creative writing because they were assigned to it. This week, I had the former – and I also had two helpful and enthusiastic assistants, one of whom (Diana Woodlock, daughter of Mountain T.O.P. executive director Ed Simmons) is a teacher and coach. We basically ended up with only three students – fewer than originally planned – but that allowed us to have a ratio of one adult to one child.

Family members were sort of a running theme to the week. Several long-time AIM participants brought family members for the first time. Gwynda (Eversole) Patterson brought her husband Greg, Doug  Warner brought his wife Peggy, Robert Matthews brought his son Bobby. I think Diana’s husband Barry was also a first-time participant, although I might be wrong about that one.

In the morning, I found myself assisting in Jan Lloyd-Gohl’s newspaper workshop. Seriously. Jan had the idea of a workshop that would produce a camp newspaper. I grumbled playfully about not being able to get away from the newspaper business, even on vacation, but in truth it was fun helping out. The kids really got into it, interviewing workshop leaders, fellow campers and friends of Mountain T.O.P. One boy drew cartoons. We solicited questions from all of the Summer Plus campers for a “Dear Abby”-style advice column, and the questions were farmed out to various adults to answer. (All of the answers were published under the pseudonym “Aunt Blabby.”)

Several of the kids touched me particularly. One of our creative writing kids was a sweet young girl who has already, at her young age, had to be treated twice for cancer.

One of our Kaleidoscope kids, to whom I’d given one of my spare Reed Bradford crosses, was right on the borderline age between Kaleidoscope and Summer Plus, and got to return for Summer Plus, and so I was delighted to see her again.

After our afternoon workshop each day, we would break the teens into small groups and lead them in a little discussion about our theme word of the day, a character trait like “courage” or “patience.” On the first day, I was reading the prepared questions which had been given us by the staff, and one precocious young woman asked me if I was a therapist. I finally had to show her my business card to prove I was a newspaper reporter, and she playfully referred to me as her therapist for the rest of the week. On a more serious note, she revealed a day or two later that her father was recovering from a stroke, and I told her I’d pray for him.

Do you remember how I fell, badly scraping my knee and elbow, on the first day of Kaleidoscope? Well, on Thursday of Summer Plus, we were playing tag and … I fell, tearing off the small scab that remained on my knee and adding some new scratches.

I got to play several fun games this week. I’d been jonesing for UNO during the Kaleidoscope week but forgot to bring my deck. I brought it this time. I also got to play “Apples To Apples,” about which my co-worker Mary Reeves is always gushing. I loved it too. I may have to buy it some time. And we played “Fact or Crap” one night, which was a real hoot as well.

I also played “Taboo” with the creative writing kids, partly as a way of teaching them about finding new ways to describe things.

I enjoyed tie-dyeing so much during the Kaleidoscope week that I made sure to participate this week. This time, I made another shirt for myself and I also made several to give as gifts.

As I posted to Facebook, I had the same room and the same roommate this week as I’d had during Kaleidoscope – “Smitty” Smith from Smyrna. I didn’t even realize Smitty was coming back for the second week. (He always does home repair.) Smitty and I were the only repeat AIM campers, although Doug Warner had a similar schedule; he was an adult camper in our Youth Summer Ministry at the same time Smitty and I were doing our first AIM week, and then he returned to do AIM with us this week.

Fantastic week, strange ending

I’m going to vent a little bit. This may be a bit more tediously personal than normal. I won’t be offended if you skip it (or if you watch the video without reading the blog post).

It has been the case repeatedly over the years that I will be at a summer AIM event, feeling the best and most relaxed I feel all year, and all of a sudden I’ll experience negative emotions for no reason, a stupid reason, or something that’s obviously not the real reason.

I have never been able to explain this completely. Part of it may be that I feel safer and more relaxed at an AIM camp than I do anywhere else, and stuff bubbles to the surface. I just don’t know.

I had a minor such moment during my Kaleidoscope week, at the end of the day when I felt kind of like a fifth wheel in the Kaleidoscope program. But I had a major one this week – on Friday night, of all times, after what had been otherwise a fantastic week – a successful creative writing workshop, a fun camp experience, and what have you.

My video of the week

At our Friday evening worship, Betsy Galbraith, this year’s AIM director, had a tremendous message challenging us to take the qualities of service and evangelism we’d displayed during the week back with us “to the valley below,” as the Mountain T.O.P. song phrases it. It was a fine message, and I sat there agreeing with it.

And yet, as the worship ended, and Betsy challenged us to seek out someone in the community who’d brought light to our experience over the course of the week, I suddenly felt … depressed. I wanted to be alone. I suddenly didn’t feel like I was capable of taking my Mountain T.O.P. experience to the valley below – exactly the opposite. I’m great at being Mister Christian Community when Christian community is laid out for me on brightly-colored copy paper schedules and when I’m surrounded by well-wishers. In the outside world? Not so much. Many of my problems with finances, weight, career, and socialization have been caused by and/or contributed to my self-centeredness. I sit here in my little cocoon, typing on the keyboard, with the TV cranked up loud enough to drown out my thoughts.

I suddenly felt a sense of guilt – and, in a sort of vicious cycle, that guilt drove me further into myself. I didn’t seek anyone out. One person hugged me (as much as she could, since I remained seated) and then I bolted from the AIM pavilion into the darkness. I eventually found myself sitting alone in the dark on the Friends cabin porch, crying for no reason but my own stupid self pity. Eventually, I went to bed – and even then, instead of using the door that leads from the porch into the lobby, where my friends were happily reminiscing about the week, I snuck around to a side entrance where I wouldn’t be noticed.

To make matters worse, some allergies (I think) which had bothered me a little on Wednesday night and Thursday hit full-force on Friday, and my throat was scratchy and my eyes were burning.

When I woke up Saturday morning, I was still in the feedback loop, still in a foul mood. We’d been asked to load up our cars prior to breakfast, and when I got mine loaded at 6:15 a.m. I got into it, put the keys into the ignition, and drove out of camp. I made it all the way to Altamont, several miles away, before thinking better of it and turning around. Once I was in company again, at breakfast, morning devotion, evaluations and our cleaning of camp, I was a little less moody, but still somewhat subdued – and, after closing circle, I slipped quickly away rather than make the rounds of hugging people goodbye.

At sharing Friday night, maybe an hour before my breakdown, I told the assembled crowd how delighted I was at having rediscovered the summer AIM experience, and how it had been a bright spot in what’s been a difficult and depressing 12 months. I still think so – and maybe that was what I was really emotional about. Maybe I just didn’t want to return home to the career I hate, the resources I’ve squandered, the drab little cocoon I’ve fashioned for myself.

I need a radical change, and I’ve known it for some time. I just don’t know exactly what it is or how to accomplish it.