18 January 2011 Podere Conti, Pontremoli, Italy
At nearly thirteen, the topic of kibbutz life was a beacon in an otherwise dreadful two-days-per-week at Hebrew school. By twenty-three I was smitten with multicultural lures, moving to London in the throes of love with an Italian. At 38, I married a lovely man from the Near East, and at 41 I find myself peacefully integrating into life at an Agriturismo abroad. Today was exceptional, though, for it was the very day I jumped in with both feet.
As luck would have it, there is much woodwork to be done here, and I found myself face-to-face with a horizontal plank board wall, armed with a powerful sander for a fist. It was the knottiest of pine with the roughest of saw rips on the wall’s surface, little sap pockets oozing from the grain. But the little German sander was a powerhouse and I smoothed the wall to a reasonable texture in about an hour and a half’s time, and stood back to admire my work. Then came a little bit of a Karate Kid trip when turned to find buckets of paint and water, brushes, and a damp slather test at the far end of the wall. But when I looked more closely at the gorgeous utensils, I was brought back to today, my schooling for a degree in service.
I am here at Podere Conti to study cooperative life, and to baptize myself in a three-month immersion into selflessness and gratification on the farm. To be honest, every moment I am challenged to raise myself up from the treads of self-serving mantras, the ones that cause laziness, lackluster, and basic inertia. Why is it so difficult to chase off having an agenda and replace it with “what if…?” How long will it take for me to trust that I am plugged into an invisible tube that is dispensing me the precise dosage of what I need in each moment? I see it after it passes, but always with the (thankfully) shrinking fear that the next amazing one may never come. It is merely habit. And that is what really brings me here. Immersion into a completely different mentality, the longing for what makes a traveler not a tourist, and what makes doing for the collective a measure of personal success.
I am enamored of Maria, the beautiful Polish woman with strong working hands and who sings the day through. She cooks for the restaurant, runs the laundry and hangs it to dry in the breeze, paints, hauls,irons, cleans, loves the children and gives. Yesterday she sat us down to outline which colors we should wear for the days of the week, to balance various aspects of our lives. When she arrived this morning head-to-toe in red (including pigtails with red ties and a red patchwork waistcoat over a red sweater) I was ashamed to have left my color-coding inspiration in yesterday’s mail pile. I stood there in my navy sawdust-encrusted Polartec suit and shook my head at the red flash passing, an image I could barely make out through the dust on my glasses. “Diverti?” She asked. (“Are you having fun?”) I continued painting until Luca came to get me for a delicious lunch of bresaola and caprese with a lovely rose wine, and when I returned to my wall, Maria was on the ladder diverte with the paintbrush and giant bucket, humming. We had a good laugh when I told her she had stolen my lavoro, and we made a deal that she will correct my Italian and I will help her with understanding the complicated spelling of English. She was content to finish my painting, so I was off to help Nico and my very culture-shocked dachshund get acquainted with the use of a tennis ball. The sun was low by then, and I walked through the stone arch to the back garden, admiring the deep contrast between the stones and the blue sky. There in the garden was a workhorse of a folding clothes dryer, my darks waving in the breeze with the family’s. Thanking Maria for the laundry was pointless, for she merely laughed and me and waved her hand, with the Italian phrase for “it’s nothing.”
I want doing for others to be “nothing.” I yearn to live free from agenda, to completely let go and be present without worrying about what it might lead to. Three months of cooperative work will be life altering, the sort that opens understanding of lives, lands, and cultures. For not everyone is on this Earth seeking. Some have already everything they need. And some of us are caught on the bridge between having everything we need, and actually knowing it in every moment.