Mario points to my arm and then flexes his bicep.
Dear Lord, I think. Help me.
I’m not really talking to God. Just sending thoughts in his general direction and pulling Philippians 4 out of context again because if I ever needed a Samson moment of physical strength, it was now—as I was attempting to lift a crate of gravel above my head.
If Mario knew that, to me, the crate felt like it weighed the same as an adult elephant and that my partner and our spotter were doing the majority of the heavy-lifting, then maybe he wouldn’t be slang-signing to me about my strength.
It’s not that where I am feels wrong—it doesn’t—but as I empty the crate and start to shovel more gravel in, I have one of those existential moments where I find myself wondering: Why am I here?
Most of the time, life doesn’t make sense. Geographically, I can point my location out on a map, but life? My footprints are either everywhere or nowhere. I have no idea what I’m doing or where I’m going, and I’d like nothing more than a purpose: one, clear highway with one, clear destination.
And yet, somehow, in a seemingly-directionless path in life, there I am: in the mountains of Jamaica with thirty-nine other people from my hometown building, of all things, a road.
We arrive in Montego Bay late on Saturday morning, wade through customs, and then wait in the heat and humidity to load our suitcases and travel-logged bodies onto buses. As we drive past resorts and tourist stands and Burger Kings where you can order anything on the menu as long as it’s not beef, the highway becomes a narrow side road, and we see what travel brochures don’t show you: the Jamaican landscape littered with one-room houses and cinderblock skeletons waiting for muscle and skin. Unlike Michigan, the road we travel winds up mountains; very much like Michigan, the road bumps and jostles our bus.
At 2,000 feet above sea level, we pull through the gates of the Jamaica Deaf Village, and our bus follows the paved road up a hill. Just past the swing set, right by a pile of gravel, the road ends and tires tread on red dirt and yellowing grass. On Monday morning, we’ll be out there again—this time on foot with shovels in our gloved hands and without any prior experience mixing concrete.
In Jamaica, Mario and his co-workers teach us how to build a road: one bucket of water at a time, one shovelful of gravel at a time, one 94-pound bag of concrete at a time, one tip of the wheelbarrow at a time.
When we complain of the heat and body aches later that week, our host gently reminds us that Mario and his co-workers mix and pour concrete every day. They’ve been working on this road for years.
We talk so often about life as a journey that I can’t help but think that highways are the American dream. We all have different landmarks along the way, but the concept is the same: we drive for thousands of miles in one direction, and we get pulled over for going too slow.
When I graduated from college and couldn’t find a job, let alone voice what I wanted to do with my life, someone told me that God is not an American. It seems like common sense, but it somehow becomes a difficult truth for me to accept when my worldly hopes and expectations are disappointed.
And so I have to wonder if life is less about walking a road and more about building one. I wonder if it matters less how far we’ve been and how much we’ve seen, and what matters more are the conversations we’ve had between sips of water along the curb, the sore muscles from carrying another’s load, the act of learning how best to help so others don’t have to build a road alone.
And it’s hard work. And it’s heavy. And it’s dusty. And it’s slow.
But we’re all dust too, and a hunded years seems like enough: a good, long time to live.
Cassie Westrate (’14) graduated with a double major in writing and international development studies. She currently lives in West Michigan, where she works as a writer, hangs out with her pet bird, and fights crime by night. Just kidding about the crime.