Awakin Youth Retreat: Reflections!

Posted by Anne Veh on Jun 17, 2013
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We arrive at Casa de Paz at 8am to set up for our first Awakin Youth Retreat. The neighborhood is still and quiet, the birds are chirping and a young neighbor, Maria introduces us to her baby chickens and turkeys in their front yard. We unpack the car, feeling a lot of excitement for the day.


Sam is walking down the street and greets us with his amazing smile and hugs for me, Emily and Jamie. Together, we walk to Casa de Paz, where Audrey and Bela are quietly creating the ambiance for the day. Colorful handmade flower pins (our name tags) are ready, and Sam and Celine (age 7) create a mandala of flower petals at the entrance, setting the intention for beauty to unfold in every moment. Many of the youth are already present, and gather together on the sofa, getting to know each other before we sit in silence. Bobby and James introduce themselves and share that they are both members of a meditation club they helped found at their High School. I am amazed. They continue, “We meditate for a half hour during our lunch break, everyday.”


I am truly touched by the warmth and ease of how we all find our place. As 9:30am approaches, Sam and I greet our new friends with a hug and a smile and pin on their flower name tags. Pancho and Audrey are already sitting, holding space and silently welcoming all of us. A young family arrives, Lily and Alex and their young boys Anson (age 7) and Adrian (age 9). Lily had just learned of ServiceSpace the previous week and she wanted to introduce her family to what she felt was a very special community. I wondered how the boys would respond to a half hour meditation. We offer the family options if it seems too long. The boys were sweet and curious and marched right up the stairs to the meditation room. Sam and I join everyone closer to 10:00am. Even though I join the meditation close to the end, I am awed by the peacefulness I feel.

At 10am, Celine (age 7, and a neighbor of Casa de Paz) rings the singing bell and we all open our eyes and greet each other in smiles. Audrey and I welcome everyone and share our gratitude for the opportunity to gather and practice generosity together. Sam shares the story of Casa de Paz and Canticle Farm, a beautiful experiment of living in service through nonviolence and generosity.

As Joanna Macy writes:
A beautiful development in my life this last year has been my deepening relationship with Canticle Farm, an urban community located in the Fruitvale district of East Oakland. Currently comprised of 9 residents living in 5 houses on one contiguous body of land, Canticle Farm's residents are committed to integral nonviolence, spiritual disciplines, service in their neighborhood and beyond, and experimenting with gift economy.

We begin the morning with Emily and Carli (age 15 and 14, both girls have participated in our Generosity and Service workshops in our local High Schools) sharing a reading by Rachel Remen, Helping, Fixing, and Serving. Their gesture to spontaneously share the reading touched many of us. Neil, one of our ServiceSpace interns, opens the circle of sharing with a personal story. Just last week, he and a friend bought a box of Krispie Kreme donuts in honor of National Donut Day. On their path they meet a nun, and offer her a donut. She politely declines and is touched by their generosity and engages them in a beautiful conversation. As each person shares a reflection, we all benefit and learn from each other’s sharing, opening to how we “see” the world and reflecting on the choices we make.


Mia continues with a powerful story of trusting her instinct, and in that familiar split second, she chooses to ask an elderly gentleman (appearing bewildered and confused) if she can help him cross the street. When she asks him whether he knows where he is, he answers, “I know here I need to go. To a pharmacy.” With no pharmacies in close proximity, and learning that he has already walked an incredible distance, she offers him a ride and he gratefully accepts. The subtleties of helping versus serving cause us all to go deeper inside, and for me, I received the gift of a deeper awareness. Questions arise. Who benefits more? The one who serves or receives? When do we get caught in our own ego and find ourselves helping? What does it mean to serve selflessly? Can we receive love as easily as we give?

My attention shifts to the children in the room: Anson, Adrian, Maia, Celine (all under 9 years of age) and all attentive and patiently listening. Jamie (age 15) reflects on her experience of traveling to France to stay with a French family for six months and not knowing a word of French. She shares how much she needs to rely on non-verbal communication. When she steps off the plane, she is greeted by her French mother, with a big, warm smile. That was all she needed to feel safe. The simplicity of a smile can be the most powerful form of love.

After we complete the circle of sharing, Afreen and Raj, vibrant and gifted teachers of youth, engage us in an icebreaker activity of movement and fun! We all rise, and Afreen and Raj explain the game. One person will make up a movement/dance/wiggle and their neighbor must mimic it as closely as possible. Then, it’s the neighbor’s chance and it moves from one person to the next until the circle is complete. We all erupt in laughs and smiles, as each person gets crazier and more inspired!


Feeling refreshed and rejuvenated, we all descend into the garden for lunch. In the sun dappled garden, we are greeted with a delicious vegetarian lunch, lovingly prepared and served by Afreen and Vinya, with many more helping hands, Bela, Bhoutik, Sam, Varsha among others. There are plenty of beautiful places to sit, and we all relish in the company of new friends.

Mira and I find a bench and quickly fall into a conversation about dance. I was intrigued by Mira’s love of traditional and folk Indian dance. She also LOVES Indian weddings. She regaled me with stories about the rituals and traditions, of which there were many new to me. She is an amazing storyteller and she also ignited an inner dream within me to dance. As I look around, I feel the playful and relaxed energy. Time seems to have slowed down, and I am grateful to be in the moment.


After lunch, Audrey and Pancho invite us to meet in front of Casa de Paz for a mindfulness activity. We gather in a circle, our feet meeting our neighbors in one human mandala. Feeling gratitude for all the day has gifted us: smiles, sunshine, friendship, stories, and a nourishing meal, we follow Pancho for a silent walk through the gardens of Canticle Farm. With each mindful step, we are greeted with bumblebees, hummingbirds, blooming flowers and ripening veggies, and the shade of an old fig tree. We pass through the chicken coop to the newest addition of Canticle Farm, a home in the midst of restoration. As we enter the lower floor, an amazing contraption meets our eyes, a steel drum powered by an old bicycle. Could this be their washing machine! In silence, Pancho lifts Adrian, Anson and then Celine onto the bicycle. As they pedal, the drum spins! WOW! It’s hard to keep our vow of silence amidst such fun!

It’s now close to 2pm, and we head into a newly renovated space for the afternoon portion of our day. Audrey welcomes and introduces us to the afternoon activities, starting with the Generosity Experiments. She lovingly introduces each activity and asks us to select the activity that most inspires us and to gather into one of the three groups:

Miles of Smiles/Free Hugs: Spreading smiles and love on street corners and throughout the neighborhood


Kindness Canvassers: Tagging strangers and neighbors with flowers and homemade gifts (origami, cards with inspiring quotes, “love notes”, and bouquets of flowers)


Inner-to-Outer Sanitation: Sweeping and cleaning the streets


We find each other, laughing and excited to put kindness into action. I gravitate to the Miles of Smiles team. My daughter Emily joins me, and Carli, Mira, Bela, Celine, Mama Nidia and Pancho too! Carli picks up her favorite sign, “65 Smiles Per Hour Minimum,” Celine holds up “Ambrazos Gratis,” and Pancho selects “ BEE KIND with a buzzing happy bee.” Bela, Mira and I find our favorites and as a team, we enter 36th Avenue joyfully!


Heading down to Foothill Boulevard, we wave to bewildered cars who slow down for us. We run to them with smiles, hugging them through their car windows and showering them with love. Pancho sees a neighbor on his porch, and tells us a sad story, that his son has recently been taken to prison. We climb his stairs and Pancho explains in Spanish something like, “We are here to gift you “Free Hugs!" We love you and we are sorry to hear about your son.”

He cracks a smile, as we line up to hug him.

On Foothill Boulevard, we meet all kinds of people from all different races and cultures. Each one, a little shy at first, then opens up and thanks us! From honks, smiles and waves from passing cars, to beautiful intimate interactions with neighbors and families, we are in our hearts and just getting started. On our way back, we stop by a local restaurant, and through the small window, we pass our arms through to shake their hands and extend our love. The owner, a kind woman preparing drinks, offers all of us freshly made mango drinks. We are all taken off guard! We thank her profusely for her kindness while she passes us delicious drinks.


Bela is on fire, she shares, “I was hesitant at first, and wanted to join this team as it is difficult for me to extend myself. WOW, I am having SO MUCH FUN! Let’s find more people!”

At 2:30pm we head back to meet the other teams. No one wants to stop; it’s infectious! Bela yells, “One more car!”

We all run to the car, and hug a man and his wife and children. He is shaking his head and smiling, “I will NEVER forget this day, NEVER!”

Once inside, the energy is palpable! Everyone is filled with joy and reflecting in small groups. Snacks are passed, and we fall into silence. John remarks about how cleaning the streets reminded him of his days driving a garbage truck in Oakland, Neil picked up a brand new discarded book, and B2 describes:

We also came across a book called, Love is the New Currency, which you can now find on the open source bookshelf at Casa de Paz. Ironic, since we were trying to cultivate love. :-D Small reminders are everywhere if one's eyes are open to the experience. :-D

Bhoutik’s typical exuberant personality turns more serious, and he calmly shares how powerful it was to serve in a solitary activity of cleaning the streets. Sam, John and Michael agree. Finding cigarette butts everywhere, B2 reflects on the choices we all make when it comes to our health.

As the circle of sharing continues, Adrian and Anson are quietly making intricate origami dragons and pinwheels. Emily and Carli share how much they love showering strangers with smiles and hugs, and commit to organizing random acts of kindness for their last week of school, when everyone is stressed out from final exams. They decide to decorate post-it notes with positive messages and quotes and stick them on all the lockers (for 1,100 students!).
I learn about how Nidia and Jamie thoughtfully tied gifts with curled ribbon on each flower, and Michael and Bobby’s doorstep tagging adventures. Michael confesses, “I was hoping no one was at home, because I am really shy. And then, I wished they were at home.”

Anson and Adrian’s origami, flowers, and gifts were found on car windshields, mailboxes and doorways. One Kindness Canvasser shared, “I also found it really special to share the neighborhood tagging experiments with the other group members, and I am excited to try it in my own neighborhood.”

Our next activity is to return to the neighborhood to water the fruit trees planted down the street in front of a large apartment complex. Once a patch of dry weeds, this street orchard is thriving.

In gratitude for hosting our youth retreat, we gift Canticle Farm two avocado trees. John Malloy, a wise elder and a Native American honors us with a sacred tree blessing. We gather in a circle and John instructs us to send prayers to the tree, as it stands now and in the future, as it will feed many people in its lifetime. He then asks us to hold up our arms and plant our feet in Mother Earth. We are all trees, with our feet as roots into Mother Earth and our arms, branches to the Heavens.


“All of life can be learned by watching a tree grow,” he says. “That’s how the Aikido masters learn. They watch a tree grow. That’s it.”

With shovels and rakes, we all participate in readying the land. Compost and rich soil are mixed into the hole; Sam lowers the tree and everyone helps by watering it well. It is a special celebration.

We then head back for our closing reflection and meditation. As we sit together, we are all struck by the closeness that has developed between us over the day.

Bobby shares, “We came this morning as strangers, and now we leave as friends.”

We all agree.

Alex is grateful to see his children respond to the love felt there, and to watch them grow gently in a space of kindness. Anson concludes, “I thought today was going to be boring, and it was really fun.” :)

We trust the ripples of this day will unfold organically.

Just a few days later, Emily, Jamie and Carli did manage to tag every locker on their last day of school! They awoke at 5:30am and arrived at school by 6:30am and covered four buildings and 1,100 lockers! The only person who saw them was Mr. Andres, their social studies teacher who was the original teacher who envisioned our first “Generosity and Service” workshop at Tam High! At the end of the day, he approached Emily and Carli and told them how awesome they were, “I loved what you did today!”

There are so many stories to share and I trust they will find their way into the ServiceSpace feed … :)


More photos in our Youth Retreat Album  

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Comments (6)

  • Vinya Sankaran Vasu wrote ...

    Anne, so beautifully written. Sending you so much love and gratitude for sharing your love and inspiring many of us :)

  • Yoo-Mi Lee wrote ...

    Lovely description, Anne - thank you so much for allowing all of us to relive the day and feel the infectious love that is still emanating from that day!

  • Trishna Shah wrote ...

    Thanks for sharing your day with so much colour and detail Anne for those of us who couldn't be there in person, what a beautiful unfolding, so many inspiring ripples set into motion! We're just about to hold our first one-day retreat for grownups in a few weeks time in London, and my heart is already jumping ahead to the possibility of the next one being an intergenerational retreat! :)

  • Sheetal Sanghvi wrote ...

    Wow.. Thanks for sharing your adventures of this magical day.. In gratitude

  • Afreen Malim wrote ...

    How sweet to hear how the rest of the day unfolded and see the beautiful pics :-) Let's do it again!!

  • Michaele Premet-Rosen wrote ...

    Just came upon this today :))) so filled me with JOY to read about that "day of magic" beautifully shared by you Anne...felt like I was there with all of you. Totally full of wonderful ❤️