Teen Week

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September 5, 2007

Anarchists abhor the initiation of force to achieve social goals. Much is said against it and rightfully so. Railing against tyranny is surely easy to do. As government grows ever larger and more intrusive, the supply of fuel for that fire is unlimited. However, little is said in regards to what does work in problem solving for groups of people working together voluntarily.

There is no absolute framework, but there are hallmarks. Maturity is certainly a prerequisite for success and the reason why you won't find, say, any Michael Moores or other radical left-winger at a gathering of free souls. Freedom is a dirty word for them. They like 'equality' better and imply that violence can achieve social goals if we all pretend that government is not based on the initiation of force and doesn't kill people every day. They think if we could only elect Santa Claus (or Mrs. Claus,) then tyranny could become beautiful, bountiful and peaceful as long as someone else does all the work. Maturity insists we accept reality and do the work ourselves.

Open-mindedness, integrity and goodwill towards one's fellows would also go a long way in the success of any free endeavor. This explains why neo-conservatives talk about freedom, buy tickets for the dance, but never actually show up at the door. They think it's a good idea to tell others what to do with their own bodies and which god is the right one, all the while other mothers' sons die on their altar of war, their own secret sins remain hidden and riches are plucked from the working man in the process.

I was recently invited to spend nine days as a co-facilitator at a spiritual retreat for teenagers in northern Michigan . The point of the retreat was not to see if we could function without problems. The point was to complete some work projects in a relatively free environment and learn to address problems in responsible, functional ways without adults imposing solutions. Hopefully this would allow young people to take working skills back out into the wider world with them when the week was over.

I expected eight or ten young people. Thirty exceptional teens showed up. The cost for lodging and food was minimal in exchange for part-time work projects to be completed on the ranch. What follows is an account of my perception of the proceedings.

The event was held on a privately owned property of 800 pristine acres of mostly wild land, which purportedly contains no poison ivy, but plenty of company. Besides human participants, I met a mature elk couple, two young white-tailed deer, some wild turkeys, one lonely blue heron, a young otter couple apparently just starting out, one small water snake and a number of field mice. There were innumerable, invisible birds, which sang to us almost constantly, broken only by an intermittent chorus sung by the rustling leaves of the bass trees. They were careful never to interrupt one another. It was definitely a conspiracy!

There are basic rules about the use of this private property. They allow no alcohol, tobacco, recreational drugs or weapons. Meals were completely home-cooked, vegetarian meals with fresh produce grown naturally on the property. There is a separate kitchen for use by guests who wish to prepare their own food if they prefer. The ranch's source for electricity is a dam on the Pigeon River .

We started out each day with a check-in circle in the center dome where we assigned ourselves to work projects. Each morning we went around stating our names and how we were feeling. It was also an opportunity to bring up any problems to the group or to change your name for the week if you wished. We had a Mr. Halloween, a Shenobi, a Mr. Fox, a Glow Bear, Gandalf, Blueberry, Gladycce, Clyde Crashcup, Gua Feng and a Grady Tate, whom I could not resist calling 'tater.'

For expedient's sake, somehow the young people became known collectively as 'plums.' This left nothing for the adults except, you guessed it, 'prunes.' I strongly objected to this, as it was not the cruise I had signed up for! (Besides, I still have some juice left in me.) In the circle I changed my name to 'Mother,' as in 'I am a spark of the Divine Mother of the Cosmos.' Each time someone called me by my new name, it was a reminder to respond in love. Otherwise, I might forget and I wouldn't want to do that. I asked the other facilitators to thereafter refer to us as 'Mother and the Prunes.'

One 'prune' resembled a young Charleton Heston, and so changed his name. He was a senior member of the community, but each morning he would introduce himself as 'Hi, I'm Charleton and I'm Not In Charge.' He meant it. Later, while doing some technical research for this column, I was surprised to see that he is a master yoga teacher and the official director for the Teen Week program. Way to take responsibility without exercising power, Charleton!

I came to greatly admire Charleton's quiet, yet intentional lack of desire for power. I was also very relieved to find that I was not the only person there with the opportunity to seize some power but the will not to. He said he'd been acting as a barricade against well-meaning adults tempted to run things for the children at the ranch for years. If we would be free, we must be completely responsible without the initiation of force against another, and when we are completely responsible, then we are free.

There was plenty of communication between the prunes and the plums. A constant dialogue is the only way I could see for it to work. Prunes questioned actions and situations, or problems would anonymously find their way into the 'treasure box' to be addressed by the plums. It was strictly up them to find the answers that worked for them within the parameters set down by the directors of the property managers. There was no 'mind control' like you find in public schools or the double standards that permeate bureaucracy. They did ring a dinner bell at mealtimes, but it was a welcome rather than mandatory sound.

Where possible, we approached individuals directly with what one of us considered a problem. Otherwise, we addressed concerns with the fellow prunes for their take on it and to see if someone else was better equipped to handle them. Problems were discussed and sometimes turned over to the teen council, who in turn addressed the group. I don't attach to outcomes, so when my concerns were not concerns of the others, I felt no residue and could happily go on with my work. If ego or bureaucracy had been allowed to initiate force, it would have created division, counter force and resistance and love and bliss would have gone out the window. What would be the point?

At first the idea of a 'teen council' raised my ire. It had been elected at the end of the previous year's teen week, so it was a machine already in place upon my arrival. There is so much potential for abusing power and influence and acting high and mighty. However, I detected little tyranny and, dear reader, you know I have a very sensitive tyranny detector. I was pleased to see that in practice the teen council actually did serve as a voice and a problem solving mechanism rather than a force most of the time.

Charleton's son 'Shenobi' was a older member of the 'plums' and teen council. By the end of the week, I informed Charleton that I believed his son could have changed his name to 'Frodo Baggins.' He can be trusted with the one ring of power because he doesn't want it. It's not that he recoils from responsibility, it's that Shenobi is humble and loving and clearly desires no power over another. Charleton was delighted that someone had recognized this quality in his son. He says power is fool's gold.

I went further though, and explained that I was convinced that Shenobi could only be so trusted because he saw his father model such behavior. I like to say that children don't listen to what you say nearly as well as they listen to what you do.

Since even the names of power tools are a foreign language to me, I wound up on a crew assigned to paint new directional signs on the property. I accepted the position of point man for the job with the stipulation that even though the signs had to meet certain requirements, I wanted it known that I did not believe in torture, especially not for young people. As the painters had talent and experience with signs from the previous year and clearly no need or desire of my help, I mostly found other ways to contribute, such as kitchen prep or laundry until something more substantial presented itself.

For instance, by mid-week, I was told that a young fellow, Cal, had 'used up all his get out of jail free cards.' I felt a connection with him and volunteered to have a talk. I asked him for some help and we walked off into the woods. I was armed with neither the nature of his transgressions nor a clue as to what I was going to say to him. The only thing I did know was that a heartfelt connection was the important thing.

Cal seemed to want to be there but was somehow not a part of the group. I simply opened my heart to him about my own personal problems that were, at that moment, weighing heavily upon my own heart. He responded in a loving, compassionate way. Our connection was made.

I also told him that sometimes I feel as though I don't 'fit in,' but that I know everyone feels that way sometimes. Usually we're not aware of other people feeling this way because no one goes around saying 'I feel like I don't fit in.' But a thought like that is egoic thinking and the ego always creates separation. The heart knows the oneness of all. If we go around comparing our insides to other's outsides, we will always come up short.

My sharing with Cal was an invitation to open heartedness, which is the only way. His heart did open immediately when he recognized my pain and vulnerability. I don't think it would have mattered what I said to him, only that whatever it was, was said with integrity and honesty. The next time the group met, there was an anonymous note written in the 'treasure box' that said, 'Mother is a deep thinker and easy to talk to.'

There was another, unsigned note in the same hand that read, 'won't someone please give me a hug?' There was a collective sigh of disappointment because the group had no way of knowing who had written it. Eventually Cal raised his hand and admitted that he had. The circle stood immediately as one, and as if being tightened by the lasso of a skillful cowpoke, closed around Cal until he was gleaming. I couldn't get more than one hand to rest upon his head because of the press of bodies. Cal 's heart had shifted to 'open.'

Cal had no trouble offering hugs to others after that. (I was the recipient of many of them.) It was beautiful to witness healing through the power of love. In fact, I've never seen such a large group of young people express so much brotherly love. The ranch is a psychologically safe environment and there were many sensitive souls. I felt at home among them.

(Warning - I'm about to brag about my kid!) My daughter, Sis, participated in the retreat. At 14, she was one of the youngest participants, yet she was given phenomenally high compliments regarding her work ethic and level of maturity. The reason I offered was this: while this level of freedom is new for some of the participants, Sis is already completely free as far as I am concerned. She has no need to waste energy resisting controls or force from me, which allows her to live quite consciously aware, to question herself and what it is she wishes to accomplish.

At one point Sis was helping care for some younger children who live on the ranch. As evening approached, bringing with it mosquitoes and cool temperatures, one child was given an order to change into long pants. She balked. Sis quietly explained to the child that it was going to get cold on their walk and she didn't want the child to suffer from itchy mosquito bites to her legs. The child changed her clothing immediately. Sis understands the value of treating children like the intelligent beings that they are, no matter how time consuming it may be.

Another thing that stuck in my craw was when voting for the next year's council was to take place. One council member deemed voting mandatory for plums. In the circle I asked what the penalty was for not voting. 'Whipping with a noodles,' was her joking reply. I don't know if this was her edict or a consensus. If voting is anonymous, how will they know who gets the noodle? It was a rhetorical question designed to create dissonance in the mind of the decider. I do love to make trouble in the minds of others in regards to the use of force. Not every plum voted. It's good for them to see that force doesn't work in an innocuous environment. It would be useless for me to insist on anyone else's awakening to the truth ' an initiation of force itself.

Someone had nominated Sis for next year's teen council. She was flattered. Even though she intends to participate in the retreat next year, the only prerequisite, she declined the nomination. Her conscience would not allow her to participate in it. It's not that she felt it was wrong, so much as she finds politics itself repugnant. I asked her to define what she meant by politics: 'It's power over others and I'm not interested in it.'

I do not blame other parents for trying to use some level of force to guide their children. They were clearly forced and don't know any other way. They are afraid. People love their children and want them to be happy. Most can't resist using force in hopes of accomplishing their desire and can't stop until they see, too late, that initiating force does not accomplish it, but something else altogether.

How sad that some children are only truly free for one week a year. On the other hand, it's far more than most children get in their first 18 years of life. I have stated many times that initiating force serves only to create counter force, trapping the young person in the squirrel cage of Dr. Doolittle's 'push-me, pull-you,' getting them nowhere. Children begin life in bliss, but when parents initiate force with attachment to their egoic mind's outcome, usually starting around the age of potty training, happiness evaporates and suffering and resistance begin.

Recently Sis wanted to have a physical exam by a medical professional. I made the appointment and took her. After deflecting the physician's insistence upon (useless but damaging) vaccinations, I was advised to stop Sis from drinking unsweetened fruit juice because it can cause weight gain. I couldn't stop myself from declaring the idea ridiculous. Sis is a beautifully healthy young woman, an athlete who eats very little junk food. Attempting to control her intake of fruit juice, one of the few sweets she enjoys, would put us on the warpath. Why not just put her in prison? Then when she gets out she'll have to go overboard with everything imaginable that is truly destructive to a human being. What a screwed up, control freak society it is in which we live. I hope you're not putting the health of your child in the hands of such professionals.

I try not to blame people for not 'getting it.' When you're raised this way yourself, and everyone around you exists in a prison inside their minds, it seems normal. However, the ranch is a place of spiritual growth. It is generally accepted that we all have learning to do and we are all somewhere in that process.

The community is based on the teachings of Paramahansa Yogananda's 'The Self Realization Fellowship.' In other words, we are all in the process of realizing who we really are: boundless, limitless beings of love. They honor saints and sages of all religions. Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Christians, Jews and even atheists like me are completely welcome and not treated as unenlightened, as far as I could tell. I never sensed it. Responsible, free people are too busy with their own concerns to waste time and energy on blame and judgment, or even to concern themselves with other people's actions unless they want help or are infringing on someone else or are in need of love.

I have no argument with religion per se, so long as it is one of the heart used to advance the spiritual progress of the devotee. It is too often used as an instrument of division and control, at the very least, and torture and murder at most. Without vigilance and intention, the potential of religion for pretense, grandstanding and tyranny rivals that of political power. When you consider the hundreds of millions of people who have died from the violence of religion and politics, guns are actually safe because they are a line of defense against such tyranny. So long as government has them, we are going to need them.

On a number of occasions I heard one of the parents who was also facilitating make crazy talk about the evils of government. I asked him if he was a weird anarchist or something. He said that he was. I shook his hand and told him I was too, and gave him the 90-watt smile. Another parent found out about my proclivities and asked me if being an anarchist meant that I wanted to kill someone. Dear reader, you can guess my response. 'No, government kills people. As an anarchist, I simply do not believe in the initiation of force to achieve social goals.' (What do I look like - Ted Kaczynski?) The mainstream media has certainly done its job deceiving people about the meaning of anarchy.

There was one young person at the retreat who, it seemed to me, did not wish to be there. They are always easy to spot, aren't they? The teen was grumpy and uncooperative in the Circle, often late, absent or slacking. I also belatedly received a report of this person's cruelty to younger or the somehow perceived 'weaker' members of the group.

I approached the subject of choice of participation. Charleton assured me that the grumpy teen was there of their own volition, but my senses told me otherwise. I guess the teen could have 'chosen' it as preferable to the other choices available at the time, but I don't think the retreat as 'default' works well. (Perhaps he is grumpy wherever he goes, in which case the question 'why?' presents itself.) I don't think it's fair for 'grumpy' to be allowed to dump his grump upon others, and I'll be addressing it further in the future.

I would like to see a mechanism in place for the other teens to address the problem amongst themselves when it arises, but maybe they didn't consider it a problem. (Had the problem been terribly overt, I'm sure it would have been addressed.) Also, there are only so many hours in a day, and there was an agreement to accomplish some work projects on the ranch. The larger the group, the more time and manpower had to be spent preparing and cleaning up meals, participating in meetings, discussing problems and solving them. There were a lot of fun activities as well: soccer, swimming, drum circles, a labyrinth, glass bead making, music at a local coffeehouse, a sweat lodge and dozens of spontaneous games. Teen week was like the old days when I was kid and there were always other kids around with whom to create our own fun. In short, we ran out of time.

The teen council is useful in that they work all year long to prepare for the next upcoming retreat. I am thinking of suggesting that teen council be voluntary service rather than a popularity contest. I think it could work. It's too time-consuming for anyone to bother with if they are not serious about the success of the group.

Anyone is free to leave the group at anytime, although it seemed to me that all (with the exception of 'Grumpy') would prefer to work out difficulties for the sake of mutual accomplishments and satisfaction. For instance, if there had been a strong voice refusing to vote, I'm sure the requirement would have been dropped rather than having someone leave the group. That would have been a job for me had I been a plum required to vote.

I worked out some private deals at the ranch - the kind that work best. Besides our work projects, Sis took my turns cleaning up after meals, as I found the job terribly unpleasant. She liked the camaraderie in the kitchen and in exchange, I did her laundry. Our agreement was not 'sanctioned' but worked for us, so I figured it was nobody's business.

Teen Week tie-dyed t-shirts were available for $3, and I was informed that not everyone could afford them. In metro Detroit a latte is $4, so I found this surprising and sad. I created 'Mother's Unofficial T-Shirt Scholarship Program.' This year I gave them away to anyone who could not pay. Next year I'll swap them for kitchen duty to anyone who'd rather work than pay for a t-shirt. There were no textbooks, monitors, evaluation, artificial punishment or reward system, but all of us were all learning all the time, including me. When one is truly alive within one's self, no external reward is necessary to accomplish things, unlike the artificial world of government schools with grades, detention and suspension.

I would have liked the opportunity to spend more time discussing and questioning the functioning of the group and peaceful techniques for problem resolution rather than the accomplishment of the work projects. There simply was not enough time in such a large group to address everything. Dropping the use of force completely would be a vital lesson for the group, and I'll keep beating that drum with the other facilitators in anticipation of next year's meeting.

What do I know? I'm just a nonconformist prune. I do know that no plums were harmed in the completion of my crew's project, and we had a lot of fun. The young people were trustworthy, and trust is something very lacking in our culture. We must never forget that if a young person does not have your trust, they have nothing else to lose. If you expect something bad from them, they won't disappoint you. Government schools expect the worst, and they get it.

Only a couple of centuries ago, a 16-year-old man would get himself a woman, blaze a trail, build a shelter with logs hewn from the earth, take his gun and kill something for dinner. Young men are still hardwired for this. Today they are housed like cattle and moved through a school system designed for conformity. (Back home police watch young people like hawks. (I can't tell you how many times my teenage son has been stopped for merely walking down a street.) Schools offer sports programs, but can anything organized and supervised by government begin to address the needs of good and appropriate raw power trapped within a young man's body and soul? I'd have to answer 'no,' and I am merely a female observer. If they don't keep up their grades in school (proving their conformity). they are not allowed to participate in sports. Like everything about government schools, besides being inadequate, this is backward, wrong and sick.

School shootings should surprise no one. If we keep treating children like prisoners, we can expect more of the same. The solution to mankind's problems is not ever to be found in bureaucracy, the very definition of coercion. It can only arise spontaneously from an idea born of a free, open mind and brought to fruition through voluntary, responsible individuals who are wise enough to realize the power that they possess, but refuse to initiate it against another. It has always been so.

*Special thanks to Bryan S. for the photos.

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Retta Fontana's picture
Columns on STR: 53

Retta Fontana is an atheist, anarchist, baker, potter and parenting teacher.  Children are her favorite people.