Building the village, from the inside out

I came home three nights ago exhausted after a week of community and hard work at the Ontario Art of Mentoring. The next day, I wrote many notes of gratitude and love, and lay around on my couch dozing and dreaming and finding some space to rest after a week of little sleep. Yesterday, I had a mini reunion with some of the people I spent all of last week with (because we just can’t get enough!) and canned peach salsa in my kitchen all afternoon. 

What happened last week? After two years of being a participant at AOM, this year I spent the week volunteering in a kitchen with two chefs and half a dozen other volunteers feeding between 150 and 200 people three meals a day, snacks, sometimes packed food for overnights, and various other special requests. Around us were groups of adults, children, elders, parents/grandparents with babies and toddlers, all connecting to the land and to each other. Teens immersed in a separate nature experience out on the land all week. A “village hearth” of elders; people working on traditional skills; people offering spaces to rest and heal, have a massage, and stay grounded. Community meals, heart-opening singing, powerful group processes, talking circles, people feeling a space of safety in which they could open up.

One evening I sat resting on the steps of the main building we were in and looked out at tents where families were staying, a central fire with groups singing around it, people chopping wood for the fire, others hoisting up posts for a tepee, others cleaning up after dinner, children playing a hilarious game of racing down a hill in a wagon, babies being passed around,  people sitting and lying on the ground in deep conversation. A panorama of the village in action.

Today I picked up a magazine, and in a critical article about something else entirely found a line which I’ll paraphrase as “Those who romanticize village life have never lived in a village.” This made me pause. It’s easy to scoff, to take things apart; harder to create something that transforms people’s lives. Years ago, in university, I learned many tools of deconstruction and no tools for building. Critical analysis in a vacuum with no way to get out. Years later, transformative life experiences and transformative educational experiences helped me make some big shifts in myself. Today, I focus on looking for best practices. Right now, when I see tools for building, I grab them. The more tools for change I already hold, the more I can see all around me.

This is all to say that the village I experienced was not a product, it was a process. It wasn’t static. It was fluid, dynamic, and ever-evolving. It was a regenerative, continual feedback loop. It wasn’t a romantic vision of the past; it was real and in the moment. It was full of mud and mosquitoes and challenges and discomfort and room to grow.

And so here are some of the things – by no means a definitive list – that I am grateful for from my experience last week:

  • Starting with some total honesty… I’m grateful for the process of working through my initial ambivalence about being asked to be in such an intense service role. This experience reminded me that most of my favourite jobs from the time I was a teen had some service/hospitality component to them. It’s something I’m good it. It made me really chew over why I devalue that, why our culture devalues it. Pushing through my resistance and throwing myself into the role was really good for me. It made me think about what it takes to make everyone feel welcome and cared for in any context.  It made me tremendously grateful to all of the people around me who do that so beautifully. It made me think about what I can actually offer to people. 
  • Grateful that every participant at some point had a turn helping in the kitchen: serving, washing hundreds of dishes, mopping floors. This made me think once again about the ways work is segregated in our culture, in so many cultures. And what it tells me about someone who can move gracefully from large group facilitation to large-scale dishwashing all in one evening. Or someone who can throw themselves with purpose into whatever job needs to be done.
  • Having said that, grateful also for the ongoing recognition that every job and action and gesture and effort needs to be appreciated and thanked. Over and over and over again. As a wise friend affirmed yesterday, after I had sent a note that I wasn’t sure would get a response, “you do it because it’s the right thing to do.”
  • Grateful for the dance of working collaboratively with a committed group of people: the graceful verbal and non-verbal communication needed to smoothly plan, cook and serve meals for such a big group, and to know what needs to be done and when. Grateful for the presence, competence, warmth and playfulness of the kitchen team.
  • Grateful for the actual dancing and singing that went on all day in the kitchen. Wow, music and dance. That’s what we need to make every experience transformative. That’s what I need to get me out of my head and fully into my body. Grateful for the musicians who came in to serenade us a few times; and for the amazingly talented musicians on our team who sometimes stopped chopping and played a guitar or mandolin. And for the people on our team who turned everything into a song. The best parties always end up in the kitchen!
  • Grateful for good practices and how they transform any working culture. Daily gratitudes at the start of each day; good feedback and communication protocols established from the start; good modelling by leaders of getting things done effectively while always maintaining respect and warmth; a culture of hospitality and accommodation. 
  • Grateful for the intuitive and flexible schedule we kept, with breaks each day to swim in the expanse of Georgian Bay or in the winding, silty river surrounded by cattails and tall pines. Or to lie down in the relaxation tent for a massage or chat. Or to lie among the pines until the red squirrel scolded me away. 
  • Grateful for the openness and vulnerability I saw all around me. People taking risks in performing, risks in facing physical discomfort, risks in relating to each other. 
  • Grateful for glowing smiles, long hugs, deep conversations.
  • Grateful for being part of a powerful ceremony of staff stepping into their roles on the first day, using the 8 shields model that underpins the AOM process. Feeling the power of ritual and ceremony to help each of us channel what we want in our lives, to tune into energies that are all around us or inside us waiting to get out. Feeling my understanding deepening of what it means to step in and out of a role. Not performance, but channeling something that is already there in the collective unconscious or deep in my core. Something that will look different with each person who steps into it.
  • Grateful for children running around freely among groups of adults, muddy and happy. And for many arms to hold all of the babies being passed around.
  • Grateful for the words of the teens returning from a week-long nature immersion. Each teen spoke so simply and powerfully, and I wondered why I, in my late thirties, feel like I’m just now learning the same lessons they are already working through. Gratitude mixed with grief at not having had such an experience in my own teens. Feeling how gratitude and grief are all part of the same picture.
  • Grateful to witness a process through which a friend unexpectedly recalling earlier trauma was held and supported by a group of elders in the village, able to move her healing forward, and reintegrate when she was ready. 
  • Grateful to leave my tent every morning and not return until late in the evening. Grateful to walk comfortably through the dark woods each night, in a way that still astonishes me after being so scared of the dark as a child and teen. Grateful to return to find my tent cozy and dry after a day of heavy rain. Grateful how sleeping in a tent for a week really makes me appreciate the concept of shelter and how little I really need.
  • Grateful at the end on the second day, when heavy rain had kept the whole group inside for dinner, everyone needed so much attention, and our nerves were all a little frayed, for the realization that it was not time to reflect on my experiences yet. It was time to ride out the wave, get some sleep, stay in the moment, and do the work that needed to be done.
  • Grateful, after that same heavy rain, for the huge full rainbow spanning the sky.
  • Grateful for the insight, in a brief moment of envy at someone else’s skills and talents, that I am only ever going to be myself, with all my own particular gifts and flaws. And so I had better stop wasting time on envy and do the work of being myself with as much presence, intention and grace as I can muster in each moment.
  • Grateful for people who speak their truth in the face of discomfort; who hold others to agreements and question injustices. People who question processes with love, in the goal of improvement. People who keep trying, always.
  • Grateful to openly share words of love and appreciation with people around me and to accept those of others. Reflecting on how often we don’t speak our hearts for fear of how our words will be received. Grateful for people who can accept words of appreciation gracefully, fully honouring the spirit behind them. 
  • Grateful to return home and feel ripples of my experience moving into those around me. Grateful for my bed and my home. Most grateful to my husband who listens patiently to my stories, asks the good questions, makes sure our children are well cared for while I’m away, and anchors me always.
  • Grateful to the vision of regenerative culture and the work of so many who created this experience for me and others. Grateful for people who don’t get stuck in cynicism and despair, but keep doing the work that needs to be done to heal individuals, communities, and cultures.
  • Grateful for all of the possibilities the future holds.
  • Grateful to feel my tribe and extended family ever-growing.


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