Wednesday Wish (169); Ask the Big Questions
Updated: Nov 23, 2021
Our house sat like a bump on a log. Except it was a square bump perched on stilts in a grassy field in the middle of the rainforest, the only logs vertical and mostly covered with vines. Life was like that in Papua New Guinea—a bunch of contradictions but with enough similarities to trick me into thinking I knew what I was doing, or where I was headed, or even what I was feeling. I was a newly married young idealist and this was exactly where I wanted to be.
Challenging myself to actually try to make the world a better place.
Out of my comfort zone.
In a world very different than the one I was raised in.
Years before we got there, the Australians had set up posts at various sites in the ‘last frontier’, their mission being to organize and perhaps even guide the various tribal groups toward some sort of nationally cohesive strategy. Modernization, maybe? Mitigating what they thought of as tribal unruliness and warfare? All we were told as US Peace Corps Volunteers was that PNG had declared its sovereignty and the Australians had gone home. We were to live in one of their abandoned houses. On stilts. In the middle of the Southern Highlands. An area still thought of as untouched, unknown, and generally unexplored.
Some days there was enough diesel to run the generator for the few houses in our little town of Komo. That meant we had lights at night and the tank on our roof would be filled up so water could run from our faucets. Most days, however, we used candles and pumped our water into the tank manually.
Eight hundred push-pulls on the baton-like stick. That’s what it took to fill up our tank, to have one shower or a few dish-washings, enough to not worry about push-pulling again for a few days, anyway. Until one day, when Bob was out with some locals teaching them to play basketball and dying of thirst. Even though we were in the mountains, we were still about 4 degrees from the equator, and it got hot during the day. Very hot. Especially on a hard, clay-packed basketball court working up a sweat. When the locals dipped their heads under the faucet of an old, abandoned water tank left behind by an Australian government official, Bob, idealistic plus-teenager that he was, didn’t hesitate. He joined in, gulping with his usual 6’4” parched ferocity.
The wooden handle was like a speedometer wand, mounted close to eye-level, on one of the stilts that held up our house. Before that day, I had only done about 300 push-pulls before my stick arms gave out and my burly husband’s beast arms took over. I had no preparation for what lie ahead. But like any devoted wife, whatever made my husband feel better, I would do.
As his temperature climbed, my arms burned.
As his stomach hurled, my back throbbed.
As his body curled into the fetal position, my arms raced to pump as many times as I could.
Back and forth, back and forth, hundreds upon hundreds of times to keep the water running on him, to lower his temperature, to give him some relief from the horrid experience he was having. Sometimes I’d take breaks and run up the stairs to check on him. Was he any better? Had his temperature dropped? Was there anything else I could do? Our medical kit had a few things I thought to give him, but nothing seemed to help as much as the water on his back. So I’d race back down to the pump to get my arms back in their groove again. Hundreds upon hundreds of times, pumping that thing to kingdom come.
I thought I was being a good wife.
I thought I was giving him some much-needed relief, maybe even saving his life.
I thought I knew what I was doing, where I was headed, even what I was feeling.
But I barely knew the half of it. This was the Highlands of Papua New Guinea after all, the land of the unexpected.
Standing there pumping away, my mind wandered. My body faltered. And my spirit…well, let’s just say it ventured into new realms.
It started with how the hell did I get into this mess and how can I work through this pain, and soon moved into bigger questions, wider ideas, deeper concepts. . .
Why do we have pain? Do we choose it more often than not?
What doesn’t matter?
And why don’t we ask these questions until we’re forced to?
Why don’t we wake up sooner?
There've been more smiles here in the jungle than anywhere I've lived before. What are we missing?
What am I missing?
Why didn’t I ask bigger questions like these before?
How can I carve out time to keep digging to depths like these?
If our modern life doesn’t encourage it, how can I create a life that does?
I was a Peace Corps Volunteer pushing a baton back and forth in the middle of the rainforest so my husband would feel better. I wasn’t digging wells or bandaging gushing wounds. I wasn’t reversing poverty or teaching children how to read. I wasn’t searching for Birds of Paradise or learning how to forage in some of the most untouched rainforest in the world.
But I was growing myself. I was learning what it meant to be connected to my deeper self. I was listening, listening in ways I never had before. Being alone with my thoughts, struggling to overcome fear, and a pain brought about by someone else but continued by my own choice, I had inadvertently found a new space within myself.
Struggle began to transform into beauty.
Pain into gift.
The land of the unexpected had given me a treasure.
A gift I would continue to unwrap for the rest of my life.
Bob survived that day and vowed to never drink from unknown water sources again. My arms obviously survived, too. My vow, however, was to never ignore the silent urgings of my spirit again. I’d take more time to unearth my feelings, to mine for the silent thoughts that didn’t always feel safe emerging, and I would always do my best to ask myself the hard questions before they were forced upon me, questions that sat like bumps on a log silently waiting to be seen. Funny though, almost 30 years later, they look a lot more like lush leaves on a jungle vine continually aching to be seen with wide-eyed wonder, revered for their inherent beauty . . . silent, but ever so rich with unfailing treasure.