Thursday, November 26, 2009

Outer Strength, Inner Brokenness

The village had two wells, one for each half. The one closest to us was dug by a group of well-meaning Peace Corps years ago, a four-foot diameter concrete shaft penetrating into the island's coral core. The remains of a sad windmill stood beside it, its dilapidated arms hanging down in defeat, pointing in despair at the rusted water pump. The villagers used long poles with little buckets attached to the ends to access the water now. It was an art to carefully lower the bucket so that it filled with water (which was about 1 foot deep on average), but didn't stir up the silty bottom of the well, thus polluting the entire water source.

I had a morbid fear of the well. The villagers treated it with respect, never going too close to the edge. They scolded me when I looked too long into its depths. I think that a spirit lived down there, although they never told me its name. It seemed that wells all over the islands were homes for benevolent water spirits.

The water was brackish, too salty to drink but good to wash ourselves and clothes in. My mom paid me three dollars a bucket to haul water from the well to our house - good money. I had a thriving business with my family, charging them for buckets of fresh water when they needed 'showers'.

Once a 10 gallon bucket was filled with water, I would have a friend help hoist it onto my shoulder. I would then totter my way through the houses. If you have never tried it, it is difficult to carry an open bucket of water on your shoulder or head. Disregarding the weight, you have to walk very smoothly. The more you wobble around, the more the water begins to slosh, and very quickly it will throw you off balance. My pride made me endure intense amounts of physical suffering, with my neck aching from the weight of the bucket pressing against it, my arms trembling from holding it up, my legs quivering with the effort to keep the rhythm of my walk. I endured all this, so that the village kids would see me as strong, and one of them.

A year ago, I sat in the chiropractor's office and watched as he studied an x-ray of my back. "Were you a gymnast, as a kid?" he asked me.
"No," I said.
"You have arthritis in your lower back. I never see it in people this young, except for people who worked on farms as children, or who played intense sports such as gymnastics."
"Would carrying buckets of water on my shoulders for seven years count?" I asked.

I've picked up a lot of hidden aches in my efforts to 'appear strong' to those around me, or to be accepted. Every time we would move from the island to the US, or back again, I would suddenly find myself dropped into a community where everyone had been tootling along in their lives, and expected me to pick right back up again, wherever the CD skipped to. I didn't have time to go through an adjustment period. The islanders didn't understand me missing things like shopping malls, church picnics, and Thanksgiving. American kids didn't 'get' my longing for the simpler life and small, tight-knit village community.

So, I compartmentalized my island and American selves. Each part of me lay there, dormant and aching for recognition, with the effect that wherever I was, no place was completely home. I developed arthritis of the heart, a constant, festering aching that effected my ability (or willingness) to let anyone too close. I became very strong on the outside, good at 'faking the funk' no matter what situation I found myself in.

In high school, it became worse. I left the Solomons for good and returned to the US, with a heart full of mourning for people and places I loved and would never see again. It was like the whole village died in one fell swoop. I dusted off my American self and, with the help of Old Navy and the Clinique counter, assimilated into high school. I found myself being angry at the kids around me, angry at how easy it was for them to belong, to fit in, to 'get' the jokes. I was angry at how simple their lives were, how narrow their world view was, how close-minded their conversations. Most of all, though, I was angry that they weren't my island family.

I eventually made some friends; mostly people who helped keep our relationship on a safe, surface level. And a few, precious, true friends who were just as different on the inside as I was - you know who you are.

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