The leather gloves were rough and cracked from overuse. But by the second day, after hours of bending and turning with our hands, they became more pliable. We each had our favorite pair.
There were ten of us. We had all come from different places–from Nashville to Amsterdam–and descended on this Tuscan vineyard a few days apart. But right now, we overlapped and shared in the daily ritual of getting ready to cut weeds from hundreds of rows of vines.
I found myself here after two years of living in New York. Up until this point, I had been working as a social media manager, a job I took immediately after college. I felt proud and grateful to be employed and surrounded by brilliant people. I shared a Brooklyn apartment with two longtime friends. It was the post-college life I had always dreamed of—until it wasn’t.
The apartment started to feel too small, the subway grew too loud, the job too much. From childhood, I had set a path for myself: get good grades, become the newspaper editor, attend a top university. Suddenly, dropped into a phase of life with no rulebook, I didn’t know which way was up. Every small decision became monumental: what to make for dinner, what to watch…
I needed a change, but didn’t know where to begin. Down a late-night Internet rabbit hole, I discovered World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, a network of host farms that take in volunteers for short periods of time. I had a friend who had done it in Italy, and, to my own surprise, that was enough.
I traded work flats for hiking boots and packed up my share of the apartment. My friends, impressed by the impulsiveness but amused by the cliche, gave me a parting gift of DVDs: Under the Tuscan Sun, Eat Pray Love, and Wild. I rolled my eyes, hiding the fact that I had just bought the same boots as Reese Witherspoon’s character.
Castello di Potentino, a castle dating back to the 11th century, sits low on Mount Amiata in southern Tuscany. The nearest village is the Etruscan-era Seggiano and the closest train station is over an hour away.
The volunteers shared a humble apartment off the main castle, but the views were no less spectacular. Our days began early, around 6:30 a.m. One of us would make moka pots of coffee for the group. Another would fry some eggs to put on toast. The next four hours were spent in the fields, picking and pruning. I had envisioned filling my days stomping on grapes, but my imagination was off by six months. So, weeding it would be.
An hour before each meal, we would head to the kitchen and help the chef prep: a mint and zucchini pasta, eggplant lasagna. She would improvise, given whatever the local grocer brought that day. Some of us chopped and others set the table while music filled the room.
We’d sleep in different configurations, as volunteers came and went. It felt like one big slumber party every night. We’d convene in one room after dinner and play games and talk. The next morning, we would wake up and do it all again.
In the simplicity and repetition, I found peace and clarity.
As it turns out, becoming oneself is a bit like making wine. You have no choice but to let the vines breathe and grow at their own pace. Tend to them, but give them room to move—up toward the sun and out toward neighboring vines. Soon enough, the grapes ripen, making themselves known to you.
One day, towards the end of my stay at Potentino, I was in the cathedral, showing a new WWOOFer around. It was one of the few places on the grounds with decent WiFi access. I checked my phone and found an email I never expected, least of all here. It was from the graduate studies admissions office at Oxford University. I had applied months ago and forced myself to forget it.
“Please accept our warm congratulations on your achievement. We very much look forward to being able to welcome you to Oxford in due course.”
The fuzzy edges of my future came into clear view: graduate school.
I had to jump into the unknown, and trust that I’d be okay, even if I didn’t quite know what it would look like.
For two weeks, I walked around with a layer of dirt under my nails and unforgiving tan lines from hours in the summer sun. Somehow, it all felt cleansing. Getting dressed became easy. (It was really a matter of choosing what had just been laundered.) Everything I ate felt nourishing.
I felt cleared of career expectations and pressures to date and bad online shopping habits. Cleansed of anyone’s idea of me but my own.
Ready to begin anew.