The weekend getaway was a surprise Christmas present from my husband.
Throughout our 18-year relationship, my husband has excelled at surprises. While we were dating, he orchestrated a “traveling surprise birthday party” for me: As we walked through lower Manhattan, we kept “accidentally” bumping into friends who joined us for dinner, coffee, cake. It was only when everyone converged at a late-night bowling alley that I realized the staggering amount of coordination my husband-to-be had put into the evening, which was anything but accidental.
Our engagement was a similarly impressive covert operation. No picking out the wedding ring together for us: Instead, my husband (then boyfriend) capitalized on my cluelessness to lure me to a Connecticut jewelry store, where my ring finger was measured on behalf of his cousin in California, who apparently had to have a ring from this particular boutique. On the evening of our engagement, the friends with whom we were supposed to have dinner cancelled at the last minute due to “illness,” so we ended up having a romantic dinner alone before strolling around New York City to view the Christmas decorations. It was only when my husband dropped to one knee under the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree and held out a (perfectly sized) ring, that I had any idea of what was happening.
I like surprises, which has served me well in this relationship.
So, it was both a surprise and not really a surprise when my husband handed me a stapled pile of printed pages on Christmas morning. As I read through them, I learned that my husband had arranged for my parents to watch our four daughters during a weekend in early February so the two of us could head to Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom for two days of cross-country skiing. The pages featured photos of the charming “tiny house” where we’d stay for two nights: a house tucked away in the woods with a sleeping loft, a cozy wood stove, and – as the final page revealed – “without electricity or running water.”
That’s right: My romantic getaway, my restful weekend without children, was going to feature a tiny house with no electricity or plumbing. In the Northeast Kingdom. In February.
What a surprise!
My daughters were aghast. They had questions about the shower (apparently there was something rigged up), the toilet (composting), and how we’d drink or brush our teeth (we’d lug our own water up to the cabin for the weekend.) One daughter (who understands me well) was especially concerned about our access to coffee: “You mean Mommy’s going to have to go for two days without coffee?!?”
The first weekend of February arrived, with evening temperatures forecast in the single digits. My husband, ever the planner, packed three enormous jugs of water, a bag full of food, a bag full of candles and battery-powered lights…and a bag full of alcohol.
Because the directions to our tiny house were a little…vague, I’d suggested that we try to arrive while it was still light. But one thing led to another – we left Middlebury later than planned, we spent a couple of wonderful hours skiing at the Morse Farm Ski Touring Center in Montpelier, we stopped for coffee (my last?) on the way – so that by the time we were approaching the cabin, it was pitch black outside.
Here were our directions: “Turn right at the Kwik Stop Gas Station and Deli. Set your odometer for 2.8 miles. At 2.8 miles, you’ll see an old, abandoned hunting cabin on the left. Park on the road in front of the cabin. Between the cabin and the guardrail is a trail that leads over a footbridge and continues about a minute back into the woods to the cabin.”
These directions did not account for 18 inches of fresh snow on the ground.
After about 10 minutes of floundering around in snow up to our knees, using our headlamps to search desperately for any sign of a trail or a footbridge over the stream, we located the path. True to the directions, the path led back into the woods for about a minute – all uphill, and so steep at one point that a rope was tied to a tree to enable us to pull ourselves up the grade.
Now that we’d found the trail, we could start hauling our water, food, lamps, and alcohol uphill to the cabin!
It took roughly two hours to regain feeling in my toes. But when I stopped to catch my breath and look around (in the dim candlelight) I saw that the cabin was tiny and charming. My husband had started a fire in the woodstove and was busy preparing dinner on the little propane range.
In the end, it was a wonderful weekend. We enjoyed some fantastic cross-country skiing, which is much easier without four young children in tow. We read and talked by the woodstove. We survived the composting toilet, and opted to skip showering for two days (the “rigged up” system involved boiling water, pouring it into an insulated cooler, and hanging the cooler from a hook over a metal tub.) I even managed to get my daily coffee.
This is Valentine’s Day, on the heels of my surprise weekend away, I am thinking about love.
Back when I was dating my husband and he was surprising me with birthday parties and diamond rings, I listened to love songs. These songs expressed everything I associated with love: the longing, the quickened pulse, the desperate “I can’t live without you” emotions.
A few years ago, I realized that I don’t listen to traditional love songs anymore. I can’t: They no longer speak to me, and the emotions they express are so distant from how I’ve come to understand love so as to seem almost like a mockery.
I think this is because most love songs are inherently selfish: They’re about how someone else makesyou feel good, or bad, or heartbroken.
In the middle(ish) of my life, and nearly two decades into a marriage with four children, I have learned that love has almost nothing to do with feeling. Love is waking up each morning and making the coffee. It’s waking up in the night to hold the throw-up bucket. It’s biting your tongue and listening. It’s setting your table for more. It’s opening your door. It’s showing up for the game or the show. It’s not unfriending or unfollowing because of differences in opinion. It’s spending a weekend in a tiny cabin without electricity or plumbing. And it’s waking up the next morning to make the coffee and do it all over again.
Love is about remaining open to experiences that will push us to our limits and take us to places we wouldn’t go if it were up to us. And love is realizing that we will likely emerge on the other side of these experiences changed for the better, precisely because love takes us away from how we feel.
What a surprise!
Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit manager. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, four daughters, and one anxiety-prone labradoodle. In her "free time," she writes for her blog, The Pickle Patch.