LEAF Renewed By Bruce Mulkey

When my family packed up and headed to the LEAF Retreat that took place on the weekend of May 13-16, we weren’t sure what to expect. My wife Shonnie and I had been taking part in Lake Eden Arts Festivals since 1998, typically leading trail runs and hikes as our contribution to the joyful biannual affairs. And our daughter Gracelyn joined the fun shortly after her birth in 2010. But given the pandemic, political divisiveness, and racial injustice in our nation, would LEAF maintain its openhearted, laidback, multicultural, and welcoming vibe? In light of the new CDC guidelines, would we continue to mask up and keep our social distance from one another? Would we set up our campsites in a way that connected us or isolated us from other campers? Would we be willing to connect with folks outside our pod?

On visiting the LEAF website, I was reminded of the organization’s history and purpose: Since its establishment in 1995, LEAF Festival has always been more than a weekend escape; LEAF has been a conduit for change and a pathway forward to a more inclusive and just society. For the last 2.5 decades, lovers of music and arts have gathered at Lake Eden for a weekend of self-discovery, multicultural immersion, and deep connection. Friendships have formed, romance has blossomed, and children have grown up before our eyes. Performers and aspiring artists, both locally and from around the world, have stepped onto the stage and shared their craft with us. Healers have imparted their wisdom of yoga, meditation, and tai chi, among others—helping to rejuvenate our bodies and enliven our spirits.

Some LEAF weekends have had their own unique vibe. I distinctly recall the October 2001 LEAF that took place just weeks after 9/11. There were the usual events—the music, the dancing, the drum circle, the healing workshops, the poetry slam, and more. But there was an overall subdued energy, and Shonnie and I spent most of our free time talking quietly at our campsite, just the two of us.

However, this LEAF Retreat—smaller and more intimate—had the feeling of a coming out party. There was a definite sense of renewal, of beginning again. For many of us being at LEAF was a wonderful opportunity to ease into the “new normal,” especially those of us who haven’t ventured out much during the pandemic. After the CDC lifted the mask mandate for those who are fully vaccinated, most in attendance made the choice to go maskless while outdoors, typically disregarding social distancing, and sometimes even making occasional physical contact with folks. Admittedly, I was a bit reticent to join in at first. But after I relaxed into the scene, I found myself connecting with folks in a way I hadn’t in more than a year, engaging in deep conversations with strangers, shaking hands with new acquaintances, even sharing a few hugs with longtime friends.

I was curious to learn how the LEAF Retreat was for some folks I’d crossed paths with during the weekend, and a few of them share their thoughts below.

My LEAF experience was absolutely filled with a spirit of renewal. I enjoyed beautiful conversations, watched children run wild and free, and heard laughter all around me echoing in the mountains. It felt so strange to unmask yet it felt perfectly normal at the same time. Over the past year I have learned that I need to carve out time to myself as we enter back into “normal life.” I never did that before. I learned that we have a lot of work to do to heal our country. I learned that I have to continue doing my part to make the world a kinder, gentler place, and that I want to let go of the people in my life who don’t value me and who don’t value others. I want to keep joy and grace and create more of it for myself and for others. My intention is to create a new reality that matches more authentically with who I am. LEAF inspired and continues to inspire me to do so. ~Melissa McKinney, The One Voice Project

LEAF retreat was a wonderful easing back into the “new normal” as I got to camp with a group of ladies I hadn’t seen (some) for much of COVID. Most of us were vaccinated, and that felt just fine. It was great to be outside, enjoy music, camp, and spend longer periods of time catching up with people. The cultural, heartfelt connections were wonderful to rekindle. It was awesome! ~Ona Armstrong, Founder, Firefly Valley Arts and Wellness and frequent LEAF performer

The festival was a fortunate way to emerge from a year or more of isolation; the feeling of gratitude was strong, and the people were gentle and trustworthy. I cried for real several times.  I had missed feeling kindness from and toward strangers, missed so many silly conversations, missed smiles and kids running around. But mainly I think I missed the love. The ethereal invisible energy force of love. . . .

It’s been a hard year for everyone, and we were often reminded of that, reminded that it may be now time to heal. We were reminded that we have been through this together and that the separation we have felt, the anxiety and fear we have felt, the loss of trust and the anger, they are all shared. AND they are all going to go away as we use our skills to unclog our love pipes and get the love flowing again. Thank goodness! ~David Nachlas

This past year has been a very condensed form of life. Without all of the busy schedules and time commitments, we were able to just pause and just BE. I learned that I can always make time to follow the kids’ lead (my students and my own children) for an impromptu roll down a hill. I was reminded that it takes very little to make me and the ones I love happy. I remembered that the people that are most important to me are all that matters. I was reminded that the way I teach and learn with kids is through hands-on learning. Due to the “great pause”, I want to let go of getting pulled into the distractions in the form of stress to allow for the space to practice remembering the paramount pieces in life.

LEAF was the first real opportunity to feel the coming out the other side of the pandemic. This space filled with connection was the first chance to put “what you wish to keep, and what you wish to let go of” into practice. In being most present, every LEAF magical moment was felt on a deeper level. ~Jean Kelly, 4th grade teacher, Evergreen Community Charter School

It was really good to be back at LEAF—it’s such a magical place. Personally, I enjoyed the smaller crowd—nothing felt unsafe or awkward—and I was more comfortable allowing our kiddo more freedom to roam. It was easier to find and meet up with friends, yet I did miss interactions with “strangers” that seem to happen when there are more people to randomly bump into. I’d love to see the smaller LEAF retreat remain and have the larger festival too so that we can experience the best of both. ~Shonnie Lavender, parent coach and grad student

It was an extraordinary feeling to be at LEAF, and it was deeply nourishing. So good to share some music and sunshine and company. I think it’s hopeful to have these emerging possibilities for being with others safely, and sharing music, and hugs, and this sense of community we need so desperately to heal ourselves and the world around us. LEAF has always meant that. At the same time, it felt a bit strange to be around other people again, and I think it’s wise to be gentle with ourselves and each other as we find our way forward. That said, one of the defining qualities of human beings is our remarkable capacity for resilience and adaptation. We will find our way forward together, and it’s exciting to see that part of the story finally begin. ~David LaMotte, peace activist, singer-songwriter, and longtime LEAF performer

Mayani is a Maasai boy from longido Arusha. He went to boarding school at 6 years old and lost his Maasai language and tradition. Since joining the LEAF program, he has learned to sing Maasai songs, practiced the ‘jump’ tradition and wear Maasai shukas (traditional clothing). Mayani is extremely happy and is currently teaching other youth the culture.