July, 23 2017

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A summer of self-discovery

Siera Levenson doesn't even try to explain what she did on her summer vacation. "I say it's a spiritual wilderness retreat," says the 18-year-old from San Anselmo.

Andrew Greenberg is equally reticent. The Terra Linda High senior gave up trying to describe his desert sojourn. "I thought I could explain it to everyone and they would understand me," he says.

It was no ordinary summer vacation.

Levenson, Greenberg and Alex Tureck, another 17-year-old from Terra Linda, ventured into the desert near Mono Lake for a guided "rite of passage." Marin-based Wilderness Reflections took the trio and a handful of equally inquisitive youth on a nine-day journey into the self that included two nights fasting alone in the wilderness.

They'd never done anything so hard.

Or so fulfilling.

Organizers and leaders in the rites of passage movement make any manner of claims about the need and the effects of reaching out to young people with ancient rituals and wilderness-based trials. The New Age sheen can be hard to look past.

Levenson, Greenberg and Tureck had no problem seeing through the hype.

They were looking at themselves.

All three came back from the trip brimming with self-discovery and what they felt were profound insights. None of them really knew what he or she was looking for. All of them liked what they found.

Tureck explains the choice of walking into the desert with the Wilderness Reflections guides as "me wanting to find out more about myself." It's not an oft-repeated sentiment in TEEN circles. "Nothing I've run across in high SCHOOL offered you anything like that," Greenberg says.

In the desert, a facade of self built on ADOLESCENT anxiety was torn away. They talked about fears, feelings.

And then they spent two nights with those fears, those feelings. With nothing more than water, a tarp and a sleeping bag, each TEEN spent the time alone.

It was a test, a trial.

"You really understand what hunger is," Greenberg says. "Being alone was really hard for me," Levenson recalls.

Tureck calls it "a really intense experience." "It's something you're keeping for your whole life," he says.

And then they came back.

Greenberg describes a kind of "culture shock." He returned to a Marin high SCHOOL where consumerism is everything. Where the right clothes, the right haircut and a high score in a video game is a state of status. "You get stuck in that," he says.

Passing through the re-entry and re-compression. Levenson found it easier to see through the superficiality. "You just step back and sort of sigh," she says.

Tureck came back with a new appreciation of the "masks' people wear. In the suburbs, superficiality is a survival tactic. "People can't let their inner selves out," he says. "You shouldn't have to be like that. It's all so fake."

But they couldn't stay in the desert forever. They didn't want to. The idea of rites of passage was to go into the desert, to go into the self and re-emerge as a different person, a wiser person, a person ready for another stage of life.

Levenson, Tureck and Greenberg say they found that.

Levenson found "more of a confirmation of who I was" and says she is '"ready for a new stage of life." Tureck says he can look back and know his depth. The nagging challenges of modern life look smaller when he thinks of being alone in the desert, in the dark, without food. "Thinking back to that, I know I'll be fine," he says. "It HELPs you get through."

Greenberg discovered himself. "I saw a whole different side of me," he says.

They came back feeling a change, a confidence. And they came back as missionaries for the rites of passage movement. They praise. They preach.

Everybody doesn't have to do what they did. But more people should, many say.

If the kids she grew up with had ventured out with Wilderness Reflections, Levenson imagines a high SCHOOL experience with "less judgments, less materialism and criticism and worrying about image."

If it was part of growing up, like it is in other cultures,

"The whole dynamic of our society would be different," Greenberg says.

A rites of passage ritual more meaningful than a driver's license or getting drunk on graduation night would be a fundamental change, Tureck says. "If I could truly show myself to everybody in my SCHOOL and be confident, it would be a very different experience."

But he's not sure how to explain it to anybody who hasn't been there. A RITE OF PASSAGE is a very personal thing.

It was no ordinary summer vacation.

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