Encountering My Self at The Wall
It was Thursday morning, the fourth work day. Everyone was assembled in the dining room enjoying what was starting to become a monotonous breakfast buffet of soft-scrambled and hard-boiled eggs. This was Victor’s day to give the morning benediction before we loaded ourselves onto the bus that took us to the build site. Victor’s words were crafted from insights he had experienced over the previous days while contributing his labor to the construction of The Wall. He’d artfully titled his observations something like “Thoughts at the Wall”.
I can’t remember every point he made that morning, and I imagine I’m not alone in my wish to now have a recording of exactly what he did say. I do remember this – in his closing remarks Victor invited each of us to be open to what we might encounter at The Wall.
Afterward, I caught up to Victor as everyone walked to the bus. I had a few brief minutes to compliment him and mention an epiphany I’d had at The Wall only the day before, but we were quickly surrounded by the good-natured chatter and banter of everyone else once we climbed inside and sat down. I had appreciated his words, but his experience was vastly different from my own. I was lost in my thoughts by the time we arrived at the build site.
Like a mendicant but with a desire to repay the privilege of her trip, I appreciated the manual aspects of the tasks I was given that helped me relax my mind. I was grateful for work that enabled me to prove I could still move my body and use the muscles in my neck and shoulder without severe pain. Being part of a group eased the sense of aloneness that so often accompanies grief, and especially when the loss has been your last surviving parent.
Although I was quiet in comparison, I welcomed the community of sounds that emanated from various places in and around the house where my teammates performed their work. Two sounds were always the most prominent. Ken’s laugh – it seemed to make everything twice as funny because its’ pitch was
so at odds with his tall, muscular stature. The other was the churn and clank of the cement mixer – it provided such a constant hum of white noise that its’ alternating times of silence and mixing were often what signaled me to the beginning and ending of our breaks.
In addition to the regularity of those two sounds, during my days working in the attic I could usually catch the strains of music wafting up from below. I noted how the tone of everyone’s voices carried a good natured quality that would have fooled anyone passing by of the fact that we were relative strangers to each other. Only occasionally was the pleasantness of this homespun symphony interrupted by admonishments from our Bulgarian site manager, Assya. In fairness, her tone probably seemed more severe than it actually was because of how her accent syncopated the instructions she was forced to deliver to us in English.
On the afternoon of the third day, I took my place at The Wall. Surrendering myself to chance, I allowed the music to guide the pace of my hand and arm in their repetitive motions of moving the sanding bricks across the concrete’s surface. I heard with only a passing interest the conversations around me. Otherwise, I was wholly absorbed in my task at The Wall.
If I hadn’t been so quiet I might have missed what happened next. What is mine to do? Was my being here and doing this particular task really the most purposeful, life changing action I could take on behalf of another?
The answer followed swiftly on the heels of the question with such an acute prick of clarity that in the context of where I stood, my first emotion was pure dejection. I knew unequivocally that the act of building a house was not my answer to “What is mine to do?”. Even though I didn’t speak it aloud, I immediately wished I could take back the thought. Everyone around me appeared completely confident about what we were doing and accomplishing on this trip. So much so that anyone might have thought we held the golden keys to the City of Greatest Impact.
I did a gut check – I wasn’t resentful of the work I’d been assigned to do. On the contrary, each day felt like a vacation to me. Probably because it was so removed from the recent stress of my life.
“What is mine to do?” I was so sad and unforgiving of myself at this point in the trip. “What”, I wondered, “is wrong with me?” Given all the generosity making my participation possible, who could I possibly talk to? No one here would ever understand. If anything, I would only end up feeling even more on the fringe of things.
I’d forgotten a truth Gregg Levoy writes about in his book Callings, “Calls emerge as readily from the ground as from the sky, as much from the exhortations of the common life as from our spiritual ideals.”
This concludes part 3 of a 5-part series of On Bulgaria: Life Beyond the Wall. Read what happens next in part 4: Discovering My Life Beyond the Wall.