Every once in a while a word flies into my head, fluttering in desperate circles like a moth against a lighted pane. Most recently it was dudas — Spanish for doubts. I was hauling branches at the time. My husband had decided to trim the lowest branches on the maples that ring our “back yard” to let in some light. There are many maples. There were many, many branches. Over and over again I grasped three or four limbs and dragged them from the tennis court past the house across the road to the burn pile. The abundant leaves rasped against the drying mud. At first I fancied myself a peacock trailing fifteen feet of emerald glory, but after many trips it became nothing more than drudgery. Sweat salted my lips. I resented the dull exhausting task, piled as it was on top of all the others that have been ticked off the list since we got here. Dudas flew into my mind.
It is easy to construct an admirable self-image within the bubble of day-to-day existence. In a carefully regulated environment of one’s own choosing, being strong or beautiful or competent or smart is a habit of circumstance. Displacement throws all those carefully established tropes in disarray. I pride myself on being strong and competent, characteristics I claim to have inherited from some remarkable pioneer women. My surety crumbles here. It takes so much effort to open, clean, and maintain the property; before it is ready I usually find myself overwhelmed and in tears. It’s not the individual tasks so much as the endlessness of them. Chore after chore is added to list of work needing to be done. My enthusiasm wanes with each. My husband soldiers on, promising that tomorrow we’ll go to the lake, or for a bike ride, or play tennis. We just need to get a few things done. I am daunted by his drive. More accurately, I am shaken from my sense of self by my own reluctance. My weakness. A few hours of physical labor and all I want to do is sit down and read. A week and I become unbearably grumpy. The shiny links to my ancestors tarnish with shame.
This upsets me. Perhaps it shouldn’t. I don’t often get challenged at home, especially not with big, ongoing projects. I’ve made sure of that. I’ll help on a workday at the maternal family cabin, or volunteer for an afternoon at a school-related function. Events are bite-sized and perfectly manageable. I have created a cocoon and happily snuggle in to it. When there is physical labor to be done, my husband usually brings his work crew over and they take care of it in a bustle of manly energy. Here, he is occupied with work only he can do, and the children and I are expected to fill in the gaps to the best of our abilities. Honestly, nothing he asks is truly beyond me; if I refused a job he would reassure me and, if I still felt uncomfortable, he wouldn’t push. His confidence in my abilities is higher than my own. The dudas are mine.
A friend once asked why, if it is so difficult, do I keep coming back. My immediate answers focused on family time and the guests I adore and, mostly, because it means so much to my spouse. There’s more to it, though. Traveling is as much about self-discovery as it is about seeing new sights. Last Christmas our family went to Italy for three weeks. It was a grand adventure for us all, but wasn’t a huge challenge for me. I’ve traveled extensively, and Europe has all the amenities a middle-class American could want or need. I picked up enough Italian to get by (with the gracious assistance of locals, of course). The food was deliciously familiar, as were the museums and transportation systems.
In the weeks before we left both my children fretted about how long the flights were, and not being able to communicate, and staying in hotels, and what they would eat, and would pickpockets leave us destitute on the side of a Roman boulevard. By the end of our journey, however, they were easily navigating the metro, and choosing which sites we’d visit, and chatting in broken Italian with service personnel. They had discovered that capacity in themselves, and carry in their hearts the knowledge that they are capable of traveling abroad. I am sure that confidence will serve them well
I come here because I do want to see my East Coast friends, and because it does make my husband happy, and because our time here binds our family more tightly. I also come here because it challenges me tremendously to step outside my little world. I fail, and I cry, and I am weaker than I like. But we eventually cross everything off the list, and I can look through our photos at the end of the summer and say “I helped with that.” And whatever doubts may spring up, I learn again exactly what I can do. And sometimes, it’s more than I ever imagined.