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Beating Scissors Tnto Ploughshares

By: Linda Handiak, Montreal, Canada
Travel and Transitions travel story contest participant

I couldn't blink the speck away, though I tried desperately.  Three days later a frowning ophthalmologist warned me that an anomaly of the cornea might eventually erase my vision.  The success rate for surgery was not impressive.

Suddenly, the tiny speck blotted out my entire horizon.  Where would I work?  How could I travel?  At twenty-six I hadn't seen enough of the world to fill one photo album.  A timer had been set and everything I'd hoped to see and do took on a new urgency.

I siphoned whatever savings I had into a long cherished dream of visiting France.  The French enjoyed a reputation for savoring every drop of life's pleasures.  Maybe I would learn to live in the moment.

I wasn't interested, however, in being a tourist.  My budget and my state of mind wouldn't allow it. Tourists are detached, homeless, flies-on-the-wall.  I would have enough occasion to retreat into detached privacy if my vision failed.  Right now, I longed for the reassuring embrace of community life and for the distraction of work.

WWOOF, an organization that places volunteers on organic farms, would allow me to get inside the shuttered cottages I had admired in travel brochures.  My first apprenticeship would be in the ancient region of the Dordogne.  In this land where early man carved a home from stone, I waged a private battle.

There's something therapeutic about ripping weeds from the earth.  I felt purged by each tug.  Physical pain detracts from psychic pain, and I reveled in stooping until I was stiff and spent. I enjoyed sound, dreamless sleep.

Brush clearing was even more satisfying.   I had to grapple with wiry arms that sometimes scratched back. Ivy was particularly aggressive.  I have seen it consume an abandoned cottage, splintering its walls and foundation the way a python devours an alligator. It burrowed so deep in the ground that I crashed onto my back, gardening shears pointing skywards, as I tried to deracinate the monster. I couldn't help wondering what made this unappealing pest so determined to survive.

My world was soon reduced to a green battlefield. I became so obsessed with staying too busy to think that I had almost forgotten I was in France.  I arrived at my next WWOOF in Provence ready for combat duty, but my new hosts had other priorities.

Emily and John were artists and philosophers who had abandoned fast-paced London for a three-hundred-year-old stone cottage in France.  For them, contemplation and appreciation of my new situation was as important as the work I could offer.  They walked me through their shaggy garden, naming all the plants with the wonder and attention that Adam and Eve might have felt as they chose names for the livings things in Eden.  The brazen French marigolds attracted helpful insects, while the slender, elegant chives prevented black spot on the roses and provided shade for the cucumbers. The individual elements worked together to create a harmonious tapestry.

Unfortunately, a scorching heat wave blanketed the entire country shortly after my arrival, and our corner of paradise was in danger of shriveling up. Water was seen for the miraculous life-giving force it really is.  Not a drop was taken for granted.

We took buckets into the shower so that we could collect the run-off and feed it to the garden.  We used plant-based soaps so that water left over from doing dishes could be used on the vegetables.  Instead of randomly spraying the plot, we watered each plant individually.  Instead of giving free reign to frustration, I had to slow down and work with patience and care.  We observed the neighbors' brittle stalks and stems with concern, but our garden rewarded us as it exhaled a fragrant sigh of relief.

The garden was at its best mornings and evenings.  I loved the wet kiss of dew on my ankles and the rustling sounds that hinted at furry visitors watching me with interest.  Evenings were capped off with supper under the apricot trees.  The garden would be bathed in a pink light reminiscent of the local rosé wine we sipped. 

My hosts had made a ritual of the after-dinner walk and invited me along.  I declined the first few time. Quite simply, I was afraid.  They lived on a terraced hill accessed by a winding path.  There were no street lights or lamp posts nearby, and my night vision was unreliable.  Every time they sauntered away arm in arm and disappeared into the darkness, my chest tightened.

After about a week, I felt it was rude to keep refusing John and Emily.  Yet I was ashamed to explain my fear of being smothered by darkness, of being isolated and separated from them. They trusted the night and wouldn't understand such foolishness, so I decided to take the plunge.

I stood clutching the fence post, lingering in the little pool of light created by the porch lamp.  I put one foot out the way children test unknown waters.  It disappeared. Soon all of me would be submerged. Holding my breath, I took a few hesitant steps behind Emily and John.

The adjustment came gradually, the way a body adjusts to water temperature. The fields were teeming with life, the song of crickets, the scurrying of mice and moles. Why did I equate darkness with emptiness?  The night was textured with sounds that seemed sharper without the distraction of accompanying images. Emily and John eventually called out to me to make sure I was still upright.  The neighbors' sheep responded, their soft questioning tones uniting us in a chorus of awe and Communion.  The night didn't erase beauty but redefined it.

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