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.