Experiments at Witchlets, Vermont, and Loreley Camps
by George Franklin
Note – this essay was written in late 2007, prior to the first Teen Earth Magic retreat. It was based on experiences teaching young people at Witchlets, Free Activist, and Loreley camps. The section on Vermont camp was written in 2008.
I stand on the edge of the four-foot porch with my back to the group of teenagers. My heels are at their eye level. They are arrayed in two lines behind me, arms outstretched to form a web six feet long. Exactly my height.
Whose idea was this? Oh, yeah – mine. I had this idea that our teens’ path at Loreley Witchcamp might form tighter bonds if we did some trust exercises.
Of course, the Reclaiming teacher (Riyana) who taught me this “trust fall” emphasized that if I asked the teens to do the exercise, they’d expect the same of me.
So here I am, trusting a bunch of teenagers to catch me. We’re talking about ten young folks age 10-15, none of them taller than my shoulders, backed up by two adult teachers.
I steady myself and glance back. Petra, my co-teacher, recites the final instructions for forming the web. I can feel the teens’ energy brace behind me.
Summoning a breath from above and below, I recite my mantra, which I honed earlier in the Spring when I accompanied some kids to Great America amusement park (a daredevil I am not): “Where there’s fear there’s power.”
“Ready when you are,” speaks Petra. I suck in one more breath, remembering to keep my body stiff. Then I drop backward.
The fall begins in slow motion, gaining momentum as I plunge toward the earth. Suddenly, in a whoosh of air, I tumble into the web of teens. Their line wavers and dips, then holds. With a shout of joy I come to rest, cradled in twenty arms.
Months later, it is one of my favorite memories from Loreley Witchcamp – being held by the teens in our youth path – and feeling how our path was held by the larger circles of Loreley Camp and all of Reclaiming.
Teaching Magic to Teens?
Teaching magic to teenagers? I didn’t think that would be my vocation at age 53. But teaching teens’ paths and workshops has been my richest experience in Reclaiming in recent years. It is amazing to see the young people of Reclaiming, who have been raised with such awareness and openness, growing in their ability to know, love, and trust one another.
For me, this work is very part-time. I’m not a parent or real-world teacher. I’ve co-taught teens’ path at Witchlets (CA) for five years, Loreley camp (Northern Europe) for two, Vermont in 2008, plus Pixie Path at Free Activist Camp one Summer. Before that – 30 years ago – I worked in a Presbyterian youth camp for several summers. And I cut my teeth at Boy Scout camps in my own teens.
This is my goal – that teens come to a spiritual retreat, go through personal changes they never dreamed of – and want to come back. I figure if we can pull off this feat, the rest will follow in due course.
What does it mean to teach magic to teens? Well, to date, none of our students has successfully levitated anyone, no lightning-fires have been lit via magic wands, and no additional appendages have been grown due to curses or spells, as far as I know.
When working with teens, I’d consider “magic” a synonym for self-awareness and empowerment. The skills we teach help young folks to be more grounded and authentic in their daily lives, and to be more open and trusting with one another.
What sorts of skills? Not everything works. Grounding seems like a useful talent, but I haven’t had much luck teaching it to young folks. Experienced adults can do a five-minute grounding (I admit, I lose focus after that…). But few teens make it to the 60-second point without looking bored and agitated – not exactly the mindset we’re trying to foster. (I’m open to suggestions on this.)
Similarly, circle-casting and invoking elements and deity – the core of my daily practice – seem like formalities to most of the teens, who may learn the correct motions and correspondences, but seem mostly uninspired by these practices.
My experience is, teens are drawn to “flashier” magic – tarot, labyrinths, cauldrons. They seem fascinated by physical workings rather than interior processes such as grounding or invoking. Rather than fight against this tendency, I’ve looked for ways to work with it.
Tarot – When I teach tarot, I use it as a mirror for self-reflection. My approach is intuitive, encouraging teens to look at the cards and develop their own stories and meanings (Waite-Smith and Inner Child are good for this). For young folks who are just starting to ask question like “Who am I?” and “What is my life about?”, tarot is a tangible, visual tool for thinking about these issues. As much as anything, it slows us down for a moment so we have space to reflect.
Labyrinths – Labyrinths have provided the basis for more complex workings. Teens walk partway into the labyrinth, where they are met with a challenge which they must exit and undertake. On returning, they circle further into the labyrinth and receive another challenge, until after several challenges they reach the center. We have built entire path-days around this sort of structure.
Fire – As a rule of thumb in teens’ path: when in doubt, burn something. We build a fire for half or more of our path-days. Write down personal blocks and burn them to release the block. Write down a pledge and burn it to raise energy. Place a stick in the fire to signify a commitment. And it’s hard to go wrong with a flaming cauldron.
Animal allies – Building on the teachings of Michael Harner, we have done “animal ally” work at both camps. I see animal allies as a stepping stone toward working with deities as allies. When one of the teens told me her favorite deity is Bast, an Egyptian Goddess often portrayed as a cat, I could see the possible links.
Trust games – Group-building games and trust exercises have been very successful. As ways to include play, physical contact, movement, and laughter, they form an important part of each day’s flow. And cumulatively these exercises have helped build group cohesion.
Ecology and nature awareness – This is great material for teens, and we incorporate it into our paths, particularly in connection with the elements. But it’s not my forte, so I will leave it to others to discuss what has worked or not with young folks.
Autonomous Teens’ Space
How integrated are the teens in camp, and especially in the rituals – the core of the magic for many adults? This has been an ongoing discussion at camps I’ve been part of.
My sense is, teens largely want and need separate space at Witchcamp and at other Reclaiming events. This was certainly true for me as a young person, active in a Congregationalist (liberal protestant) church. Our “Youth Room,” which we painted and decorated ourselves, was off limits to adults other than our young-adult advisors. While we were not allowed to hang out there during church services (so that I and other teens got bored to death by “church” and drifted away), it was still our retreat space during coffee hour, Sunday evening activities, etc.
As I will recount below, a separate teens’ space at Witchlets developed because the teens were skipping the all-camp rituals and campfire, anyway. It’s not as if the teens were taking part and we somehow whisked them away.
At Loreley camp, the teens have an option to leave evening rituals after the invocations and go to their own campfire. Most do, and some nights, it’s a mass exodus at that point. One adult called it “peer pressure,” but that misses what’s happening. It isn’t “pressure” – it’s a desire on the teens’ part to be with each other in a space that feels like their own. If we want teens at Witchcamps and other activities, I think we have to provide this sort of “autonomous space” option.
Does this mean giving up adult/teen activities? I don’t think so. When we find the right event, integration happens naturally. At last Spring’s Faerie Ball in Berkeley, we set up a teens’ chill space (which the young folks had requested) – but during most of the evening, the teens were on the dance floor, mixing with the adults (it didn’t hurt to have a youth DJ for part of the evening).
From some parents and organizers, I hear a desire to have the teens more integrated into rituals and the wider workings of camp. I’d encourage interested adults to organize workshops and other activities and invite teens to participate. Experiment and see what will work with specific groups of young folks. But my experience suggests that most Reclaiming rituals don’t speak to most young people after about age 10. And that’s not going to change by tinkering with a few parts of the ritual. (Note – at Vermont 2008, some teens took more consistent part in night rituals, including the healing ritual. It still seemed important that teens had the option of coming and going from the rituals, and a “teen space” in the treehouse outside the dining hall.)
If I wanted a typical fifteen-year-old to take enthusiastic part in a Reclaiming ritual, I would plan it for about eight years from now, when they’re 23. Young adults are excited by what we do in ritual. Teens, by and large, are not. My feeling is, we can go with this flow and develop autonomous teen activities, or we can fight it and drive teens away, the same as my old protestant church was so successful at doing.
Witchlets in the Woods (California)
Although Witchlets sounds like a kids’ camp, we have had a large and vibrant teens’ path for the past five years.
Teens Path at Witchlets grew out of a perceived need – in the first couple of years of camp (2001-02), the workshop-offerings attracted mainly younger kids. The dozen or so teens didn’t take much part. So for 2003, organizers invited Jonathan, Seed and me to create a morning path for ages 10-up.
Our first year was spotty. Trying to cater to a wide range of ages, interests, and attention spans, we at least succeeded in holding the group together for the three days of path. But I wouldn’t say that lives were changed.
In the evenings that year, we again saw the familiar dynamic – adults and younger kids gathered around the night campfire for singalongs, story-telling, and general campfire camaraderie. Meanwhile, the teens were seldom to be seen, preferring to hang out in their cliques of two or three.
We were wondering what we might do to bring the teens together, when they did our job for us. We heard a rumor that on the final night of camp, some of them were going off into the woods to experiment with “fireballs.” Seeing as how this was California in the peak dry season, it didn’t seem like a great idea. But we hated to squelch it.
Our solution was to ask if a couple of the teen-teachers could come along. Co-teacher Jonathan knew what fireballs were – a butane-lighter trick – and we wound up hiking into the woods with the entire teen group to find a safe spot to play with Bic lighters and aerosol spray-cans.
A good time was had by all, and thus was born the teens’ night campfire. The following year, we proposed to organizers that the teens have a separate evening fire at a smaller fire circle about fifty yards through the woods from the main lodge and campfire. Since the teens weren’t taking part in the main evening fire anyway, we got the go-ahead.
To make a long story short – the evening fire became the center of the teens’ experience. As a place that all teens could gather, it meant no one was left out. Teachers were present, but didn’t guide the activities most evenings. The bonding and group spirit that developed at the night fire carried over and made our morning path more cohesive. It’s my sense that this separate teens’ space played a vital role in the teens’ feeling that Witchlets is “their” camp.
In a separate essay I discuss the importance of bringing in young-adult teachers to work with teens, so I won’t go into that aspect here. Email me if you want to see that essay.
After five years, the Witchlets teens have bonded strongly, yet the group remains porous enough that each year new campers are welcomed into the circle (in 2007, we had 17 teens, most of whom had attended before). Our magical work has grown from barely introducing the elements to doing deep trances and oracle work. One year, the teens did a Tarot Salon where they offered readings to adults at camp.
The Witchlets teens are spread over Northern California, and it takes parental driving to bring folks together. When I see these teens at events like Spiral Dance and the Faerie Ball, I know they have made a real effort to attend, and I am struck by the emotional charge at these mini-reunions.
The past few years, a mid-year teens’ class has been offered – Elements one year, and Labyrinths and tarot in others. One of our goals is to get a variety of Bay Area teachers involved in offering classes for teens.
Witchlets has grown from a family retreat to become a cornerstone of the Northern California Reclaiming community. The teen presence at the Faerie Ball this Spring showed the sort of multi-generational community the Bay Area has become, largely thanks to Witchlets. (Note – Witchlets organizers, who rotate each year, are compiling a handbook for organizing a Reclaiming Family Camp. Drop me a line if you are interested in more info.)
I co-taught Youth Path with Hannah at Vermont Camp in 2008. This path, for ages 10-16, was in its third year (Charles and Alphonsus had taught in previous years). Vermont Camp is all-ages, and also offered a pixie path for younger kids.
Our 2008 Youth path was similar in content to those described above. We added an overnight camping expedition, which taught me that I need to learn more campfire games. And we worked with a myth – Ariadne and Theseus – through the entire week.
Vermont teens were more involved in all-camp rituals than at other camps I’ve seen. We offered a separate campfire, as at Loreley and Witchlets, but it was only sporadically attended. I think this is partly a matter of personalities, and could be different in other years. But I’d say as of 2008, Vermont ritual-organizers had learned how to work with all ages in ways I hadn’t seen at other camps.
The Vermont teens tended to clump together at rituals (I have also noticed this at Bay Area rituals such as the Spiral Dance). I think this is related to the “autonomous space” issue above, and we might look at how to expect and work with this dynamic at rituals involving youth (working in small groups come to mind).
At Vermont, this clumping had the occasional drawback that when an adult decided to play “Puck” at a ritual, they found a convenient audience for their antics. Nothing like starting a game of “Sausage” during a trance to spice up a ritualƒ
Before camp started, organizers told me that the Youth Path was originally (and with much strife) consensed as a three-year experiment, and that 2008 was the “year of decision.”
Naturally, I had an interest in having things go smoothly, and through the week I clashed with a couple of adults whom I felt were tempting some of the teens to cut up during rituals. Having young folks laughing during a trance didn’t seem like the best tactic for keeping the camp all-ages.
In the final camp feedback circle, the agenda set aside a good bit of time for discussion around youth participation in future Vermont camps. While I knew most people were supportive, I went to the meeting feeling apprehensive.
My worries were unfounded. Several teens spoke strongly about their experiences at camp. Numerous adults spoke in support. And the deal was clinched when an older camper spoke in a choked voice about how much richer his experience had been on account of the youth.
If there was any real concern at the feedback meeting, it was that objections and reservations had no place. The sentiment in favor of keeping the camp all-ages was so strong that to voice a concern would have been difficult.
Loreley Witchcamp (Northern Europe)
Loreley Witchcamp, in Northern Europe, began as an adults-only camp. Heading into its third year (2006), organizers decided to try adding a teens’ path, for kids 10 and up. I came over to help teach at the 2006 and 2007 camps, along with two Loreley organizers, Petra and Anje.
To a small camp with about 30 adult campers, we’ve added 10-12 teens. Unlike Witchlets, the young people were not the focus of the camp, but simply a sub-group of the larger circle.
The beauty and magic that youth adds to the camp is undeniable. As I’ve seen at Witchlets and Free Activist Camp, the sheer presence of young people at a camp adds an “historical” dimension — our future is literally underfoot.
Having teens (or younger) at Witchcamps has raised issues of how much and when teens would participate in various activities. For instance, teens under 16 have their own morning path, and their own affinity group (support group). There have been concerns about youth presence at rituals dealing with “adult” material such as abuse, death, or sex.
But concerns also come from the teens themselves. The first year, we talked with teens about taking part in the evening rituals, but it was clear that given the option, most would prefer going to their own campfire once the invocations were over. In other words, they mostly opted out of the “core working” of the rituals. As with Witchlets, the evening fire became an important venue for group bonding.
We have tried a couple of all-camp rituals where we asked the teens to take full part. These have been shorter, and involved things like small groups (the teens formed their own group) or “roving meditations” that let folks move around at will for most of the working. These rituals had some success in engaging teens in the ritual workings, and they have taught us some lessons for future years.
The lack of interest in rituals doesn’t show an indifference to magic. The teens’ morning path has been very magically focused. Several participants had strong magical backgrounds, so we weren’t starting from scratch. Also, Loreley is a full-week camp, and I have been amazed at how much deeper we are able to go with five days of path (versus three at Witchlets). As discussed above, tarot, labyrinths, and animal allies have been successful ways of engaging the Loreley teens.
Language has presented a special problem. Loreley camp is conducted in English, but not all of the teens are fluent, meaning that we have to express everything in 3 or even 4 languages. This has made discussions, check-ins, and other full-group sharing practices nearly impossible. A particular challenge is to come up with games and exercises that do not depend on language skills. We have found silent trust-exercises powerful with this group.
Loreley teens’ path is a work in progress. We had five returning teens in 2007, plus five new ones. If most of those folks return in 2008, the path will be able to build on the past two years and take some new steps.
Still, considering that including teens was an “experiment” in 2006, the teens’ path has taken solid root. It’s impossible to imagine Loreley Witchcamp without the young folks.
What’s next? More of the same, if I’m lucky.
Here in California, local/regional workshops are possible, thanks to the support of parents and allies. For other places, Witchcamp may be the one opportunity each year to gather – a challenge will be how to support teens in pursuing solitary or small-group magic in between camps.
To anyone with ideas for teaching magic to teens, I’d say start talking to the teens and parents. I’ve been amazed how responsive young folks are when they realize that we really want to share magic with them. Our paths at Witchlets and Loreley evolved by a few people taking a leap and announcing plans. May it happen elsewhere!
Drop me a line if you have feedback or want to share experiences and thoughts from other camps, classes, “pagan home-schooling,” etc. It would also be great to hear from some of the teens who have participated in these paths.
Thanks for inspiration and support to my co-teachers and planners over the years – Petra, Anje, Barbara, Seed, Lyra, Riyana, Jonathan, April, Rebecca, Ewa, Yoeke, Jan, Copper, Ross, Lucy, Allison, Joanna, Hannah, Paul Eaves.
And special thanks to anyone who actually read this far!
Reclaiming Youth Camps