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To fetch a pail of water

To fetch a pail of water

Here’s a puzzle: When I lived in a village, Zambia, I got my water from a stream that lay 350 yards down a gentle slope from my hut. 

Every day, I would make at least one trip down to the stream – two trips or maybe three on laundry days – and hike back up to my hut with a dripping 10-liter bucket in each hand. That would be my water for drinking, washing, bathing and brushing my teeth. It sounds like a chore, and I suppose it was, but it was also a pleasure, a pleasurable chore.

And therein lies the puzzle. At home, if I need a drink of water, or I need to wash my face or brush my teeth, I turn on a tap. If I need to bathe, I hop in the shower. Convenient? Sure. A pleasure? Hardly. I do these things with barely a thought – in fact, I often do them while thinking of something else entirely. I think the answer to this puzzle lies in mindful living.

If it takes hardly a thought to turn on a tap, it takes considerable thought to decide it’s time to get some water, to fetch the buckets and to step off down the path. And one does not mindlessly tote 40 pounds of water 350 yards uphill, or anyway, I never did.

So, where was the pleasure in that? It was simply in being aware – aware of the weather as I set out, aware of new green grass at the start of the rainy season or grass grown over my head a few months later, aware of a cluster of brilliantly colored grasshoppers clinging like a jeweled brooch to a leaf beside the path. There was pleasure in standing in the cool-running stream on a hot sunny day as I filled my buckets, and pleasure in talking and joking with neighbors – women and small kids mostly – there to fetch water themselves or to rinse cassava or wash pots and pans. There was even pleasure in the return trip, the exertion of it, and the stop for a breather in the shade of the big tree halfway up the hill. And there was certainly pleasure in unburdening myself of two full buckets back at the hut and knowing I was set for another day. Needless to say, I would have been robbed of all of those pleasures had my hut been equipped with running water.

Not that every manifestation of mindful living in Zambia involved physical exertion. I spent more than a few hours just sitting on my porch, observing the comings and goings of my neighbors and the endlessly inventive play of the children. “Watching the village channel,” we Volunteers called it. I could sit in the shade of the thatch and take it all in with nary a thought – no need to judge or to analyze, no desire to chronicle what I was seeing – and the afternoon would flow past and around me like the water in the stream just down the hill.

I don’t mean to paint too rosy a picture. Life in the village was not without its challenges (and life here in America is, of course, not without its charms). But that’s a story in itself, a story for another time. My point here is that mindful living, being something that I have striven after for years, came effortlessly in the village. With no timepieces and no tight schedules, the world slowed in its turning. The ceaseless chatter of the mind … ceased. Mindfulness was part and parcel of the village experience, and it turned what might have been onerous daily tasks into pleasurable routines.