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.