finding voice and silence at arete

by Anna Stonehocker, AP'17

Relearning ‘how to talk’ was an important part of my experience at Arete. I remember well the first night we gathered together to begin the long process of self-governance. We had been introduced to the few parameters we would work within: the structure of the three pillars, the prohibition of alcohol and drugs, a limited budget, and isolation. Up to us was everything else, from the organization of our labor and allocation of our budget, to the definition of an isolation policy and our expectations of one another. Underneath these practicalities was the less tangible reality we would create. How would it be to live together?

We sat, 18 of us, around a rough circle in Elizabeth Hall, faced with a sense of responsibility and uncertainty. Where to start?

First silence. Then many voices. I think some of us felt that we should have something to say if we were to consider ourselves constructive members of the group. Others settled into a posture of thoughtful listening or distanced observation.

Very early on we recognized that, before we could do anything, we needed to know how to speak to one another when making decisions. Do we need ground rules? A facilitator? Hand signals?

The conversation about conversation was taken up from different angles and eventually formalized in a list of points. We established a system of sorts, which would be revisited and re-conceived as we went on, much more of a project than product. Having talked about talking, we talked about decisions, and came to the resolve of using consensus.

By the end of the summer we realized how much more was necessary than establishing a list of speaking rules. This work was messier, more personal, unpredictable, and pervasive. It affected us not only in self-governance, but in our daily life. In labour, the classroom, or the beds of our bunks, the work of forging a common language involved understanding that others’ ways of expressing themselves had value.

Whether it was a difference of culture or personality, there seemed to be a divide between those who savoured the idea of a “silent breakfast” and those who loved to fill the air with laughter and conversation. Some who didn’t quite know how to start the conversation and others who needed to fill the pauses. There was a time when some of us brought up a concern for the social dynamic in the group, feeling that those who were louder took up too much space, crowding out the quieter voices of the cohort.

Initially, I found myself on the side of critiquing louder voices. But I began to realize it wasn’t so simple. It wasn’t the loud vs. the quiet; it was all the experiences, habits, and personalities which lead each person to talk the way they did. Being loud didn’t always mean being confident, nor did quietness indicate that someone was being pushed aside. The only way forward was not to shut some people up, but to learn better how to get on the same wavelength. I remember a quieter member of the group insightfully saying in a meeting, “we need to meet in the middle”: she would make an effort to speak out a little more in turn for receiving some space to do so.

While strengthening our communication as a cohort, this process brought me to reencounter talking in my own life. I developed a new ease with silence. Sometimes I was content to let others carry the conversation, either because I didn’t have something to add, or I sincerely trusted them to bring us to good conclusions. This practice of listening helped me discern when something really needed to be said.

While withholding created more space in conversation, I also began to see cases where speaking out was necessary. We had noticed at times a dynamic in the group of avoiding conflict, and I saw how equally limiting it was to always hold back. This is a skill I have yet to learn artfully in my everyday life, but thinking back to the environment of Arete helps me see the kindness that direct honesty can stem from. Whether it was calling out someone about missing a labor shift, or expressing when we felt uncomfortable in the classroom, these conversations often lead to growth and more genuine relationships.

Sometimes meetings would run us headfirst into conflict, whether we articulated ourselves on rational or emotional grounds. Many of us experienced instances where we bit our tongues and others when we said more than we should.

But had you stepped in from nowhere to one of our final meetings, you would be hard-pressed to say how long we’d known one another, how much practice we’d had operating a project together. Often I could understand before someone had finished speaking what they were trying to say. I could feel immediately what would cause frustration and what would ease it. There was an intricate invisible network of understanding that helped us gauge where to push a point and where to hold back, where to insist and where to meet in the middle. We certainly did not learn how to create consensus everywhere, or make all conversations smooth. But we learned how to better understand one another.

Anna Stonehocker is from Edmonton, Alberta, and was part of the 2017 Blue Ridge cohort. She just finished her second year at Sciences Po in a dual degree with University of British Columbia, studying geography and philosophy.

building community in celo

by Annie Livingston, AP'16

I filled a lot of notebooks at Arete. In flipping through a red composition book, I am struck by what was on my mind. I’m sure it all seemed unremarkable at the time– the word “OKRA” is written out in all capital letters, there’s a scribbled sketch of Michela, our teachers’ child. Most of it is fairly nonsensical, but there are a few crystallized truths. I wrote in early August of 2016 that “I spent this summer learning the earth, getting my hands dirty and letting the grime live under my fingernails. I spent this summer harvesting emotions, germinating seeds. Planting. Rooting. Pulling up weeds.” Aside from the tactless rhyme that permeates my inner monologue, this feels like an almost accurate depiction of what Arete was for me, albeit, a little clouded by the romanticism of time and memory and journal entries.

I was in Celo again this past summer. Not at Arete, but at camp. I got to hang out all day with seven to ten year olds and teach them about kale and tomato plants. The only required reading was camper applications, featuring misspelled words and the perfect penmanship of enthusiastic, young hands. I still had a slew of wolf spiders for bunkmates; I just slept in a canvas tent instead of a three-walled shelter. I didn’t have kitchen duty except for on camp outs, where s’mores became the most valuable commodity. I learned that the power of song was the only way to establish any sort of control over thirty-some children. It was hard in a different way than Arete.

There was no self-governance, but there were counselor meeting, where difficult situations with various campers were discussed over a copious amount of brownies. The sugar was supposed to make the meetings a little sweeter. I’d be lying if I pretended it didn’t remind me of those late nights deliberating over the technology policy or other Arete discussions, the way we’d gather in Elizabeth or Hopkins, occasionally spilling out to the kitchen to make tea or grab a spoonful of peanut butter. At Arete I loved this shared intellectual labor. The ability to make something out of our words and ideas. And it felt like this at camp too. Like we were building a new community with every session, asking a group of kids to come together as a makeshift family even when many of us counselors had just met. There is a very human magic to this. I would call it an act of faith on behalf of the Camp Celo directors, much in the same way that hours are spent pouring over applications for Arete, even though in the end, the vast majority of application readers and deliberators will not be present to see what happens. We’re just trusting that they can do it, and do it well.

At camp, my favorite time of the day was garden chore. Every morning, after breakfast was finished, anywhere from two to seven campers would join me in the rows of napa cabbage and pattypan summer squash. Sometimes we’d collect the orange and black squash beetles in little cups of water, before feeding them to the chickens. Sometimes we’d harvest full heads of broccoli and bring them to the walk-in refrigerator, where I insisted on singing camp classics like “Bile em Cabbage Down,” at the top of our lungs. This too was a time of collective creation, and the broccoli would often end up on those same campers plates just a few hours later. It was amazing to feel this connected.

I think back to the first day I got to camp, before the kids had arrived, before many of the counselors had gotten there. Even though I was so close to a place I felt I knew, even though I could see AMS over the hedge, and even though Moonshadow didn’t recognize the difference between one garden and another. But it was still scary. Intimidating to seed spring mix after months of sitting in libraries and coffee shops, writing essays, doing a different kind of “dirty work.” A past summer’s garden counselor, showed me around, reminding me how to do simple things, like prune tomato plants. I remember being scared to sever a single tomato limb. But camp and all of its green things pulled me in quick. And before I knew it, we were harvesting that same spring mix that I had helped to seed weeks earlier; by the end of the summer, the tomatoes that had seemed so small were bursting.

At Arete I spent a lot of time thinking about the individual’s role in the community. About how to meet my own needs while helping fulfill the needs of others. There were moments when I felt I’d succeeded, and times when it felt like harvesting from a communal row in the garden. At camp, I didn’t have as much time to “think” about it; I just had to do it. There were a few times I felt truly successful in this. Like the wheat harvest, when all the campers came together to dance on top of the wheat with freshly washed feet. Like that same day’s noontime meal, when bread was served.

Annie Livingston attended the Blue Ridge Session in 2016. She is thrilled to be graduating from Grand Valley State in Grand Rapids, Michigan with degrees in Writing and English Literature.

tools for living

by Paige Parsons AP'17

On my first day of labor at Arete, I was assigned to muck the barn where the calf, Kiwi, lives along with a winter’s worth of cow waste. It seemed straightforward, to shovel it up into wheelbarrows and cart it off to the compost bins with a few of my cohort members. I’d never had to dig anything with much muscle before, but by the end of the shift I thought we’d gotten into a strenuous rhythm. We felt good about what we had accomplished as we put away our shovels and went in for lunch.

The next day, we took to the task again, this time with bodies sore from yesterday’s work. The crews had shuffled a bit, and someone who hadn’t been mucking the day before pointed out how I was using my back instead of my legs to apply force to the shovel. Beyond that, she started using a hoe to break up the muck, making the shoveling process unbelievably more efficient. By the end of the day, we had mucked more than triple what we’d done the day before. As I stared at the full compost pile, I felt a little foolish, my ego beaten down by the fact that I’d strained by body in vain.

Throughout the summer, there were many tools I had the privilege of trying, failing, and learning to work with: hammers, the electric circle saw, axes, the sterilizer for cleaning dishes in the kitchen, a consensus decision-making model, my own voice in the classroom. As time went on, I became better at wielding each tool. I listened to others who knew more, or knew differently.

In the classroom, as we pulled apart the existentialist philosophy of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, we explored the use of tools as essential to the definition of the human. When philosophical discussion felt lofty or abstract, we pulled it back into our own lives, trying to square the academic with the personal, the self-governance meeting with the broader political climate we existed within. Texts became tools, not objects for disengaged analysis. The application was not just in the theoretical future beyond our educations, but in the small-scale decisions of everyday life in living and working together. Our minds pushed at the edges of each other’s as we did this. Classroom discussions lead us to surprising new places we couldn’t have reached alone.

Looking back at Arete from the vantage point of my senior year in college, I see the 8 weeks I spent there as a concentrated capsule of living well. As I write my senior thesis, I often feel isolated in the work, selfish in the pursuit of academic recognition. I think back to Arete as an antidote to this individualized learning process, and having it in the back of my mind reminds me that intellectual work always happens in community with others. On bad days, I reach into an envelope of hand-written notes from my cohort-mates, grounding myself in their words. I fold the paper back up, take a deep breath, and continue on aided with the assuredness I felt there. It is important, when I reflect on what I learned at Arete, to recount the tangible things— wood-chopping, cooking with industrial-kitchen standards for a large group, working with livestock, the sharpening of my academic thinking. The breadth of muscles you work at Arete is one of the things that makes it so special: you’re not just a mind, but a whole embodied person, you’re sometimes the one harvesting produce and at other times preparing it for the table. But the overwhelming thing I see as the greatest tool I took with me is the mode and depth of engagement with others. That aspect of Arete has provided a model for interdependence that I continue to reach for in my life.

Paige Parsons attended the Blue Ridge Session in 2017. She is a senior at Brown University studying anthropology and English literature. She is originally from Mission Viejo, California.