I grew up in Papua, Indonesia, which is not to say I spent my whole childhood there like some of my friends. I was a late arriver — perhaps foreshadowing my lifelong relationship with timing — at age 12 in the coastal town of Sentani where I went to boarding school for the first time.
Sentani is the place I learned to run barefoot on gravel and spin in hot monsoon rains and slip notes under the the adjoining door to my friend, Liz, during enforced “nap” time. We wrote whole book series plots via underdoor note, nearly all of them starring boy/girl twins stowing away on British ships during the height of the British Empire.
Sentani is the place I learned to drink hot Tang and to strategically use too much Ovaltine for hot cocoa so there was a delightful sludge left at the bottom of my mug, and it’s where I learned to twirl spaghetti with a fork perched on a spoon, because our dorm parents were Italian, and they had Standards for Culinary Behavior, even at the edge of the jungle.
And Sentani is the place I first felt at home somewhere other than where my parents were. Like I might be able to be a full part of my peers rather than always circling the perimeter looking for an opening. Like I might be my own whole person — capable and confident — even apart from my family.
No; even though I didn’t spend my entire childhood in Papua, that’s the place I grew up. The place that sticks in my brain. The place that embedded itself in my heart. I think because, in Papua, I experienced life and death and pain and freedom and love and loss in a way my previous, Southern Californian, suburban life couldn’t deliver with its safety nets and grocery stores and peers who cared about what brands of jeans one wore in the 3rd grade. Life was muddier in Sentani than Simi Valley. Messier. More magical for me. More devastating. More real. Maybe it was the age I was at the time. I’m sure that’s part of it. But I’m equally sure that’s not all of it. There’s something about living on the precipice of the jungle that drives home how wild this place we call Earth really is.
Sentani is the place I discovered God doesn’t always grant magical wishes for someone you love to live.
And Sentani is the first place I received a note from a boy that said, “I like you. Do you like me? Check yes, no, or maybe.” I still have it in a box somewhere; I never replied because I was positive I was being mocked. Now, it makes me smile — both that I’ve kept that piece of carefully folded paper for 34 years, and the tender memories of trying to learn my way through social mazes more intricate and intimate than I’d previously known.
I’ve been sitting in the sun all afternoon at a picnic table with a scarred wood surface, and I’ve been thinking about home in all its iterations while the wind billows and blows. There’s a Mary Poppins wind today. The kind that won’t be tamed, like the air needs to remind us every now and then that it’s here and powerful. A force to be reckoned with, instead of one to be taken for granted.
I’ve been thinking about home; the home where I grew up and the one I created for my own kids. I’ve been thinking about the childhood I gave my oldest two — now launched, each in their own way, to adulthood — and the fact that I can’t give them another. I’ve been thinking about the three I have still under my roof —one 17 and two who are 12 — and what will shape them in the years to come. What stories they’ll remember. Which friends. What sweet sludge at the bottoms of their cups. Which skills and loves and losses.
Which is all I came to say, really. That home is on my heart.
P.S. Part of the reason Sentani is on my mind this week is because it’s under water. Like Nebraska. Like Mozambique. The devastation is staggering. And heartbreaking. And will never make it broadly into the international new cycle.
My childhood friend, Kim, is on the ground there now, helping provide shelter and food and respite in the midst of the storm.
P.P.S. The other reason Sentani and Papua are on my mind this week is because my friend, Malcolm, just lost his dad, John Wilson, and was reminiscing about his childhood home, as well. I’m reminded that, despite the losses precious humans are experiencing in Papua right now, there are helpers, too. Always helpers. Like Kim. Like Malcolm’s dad. And like our friend, David Marfleet. Who are heroes. Here’s some of what Malcolm has been sharing, just in case you, like me, need to be reminded on occasion of the awesome power of love made real.
“In the late 1980’s there was a massive earthquake that primarily affected the Soba valley of what was at that time known as Irian Jaya (now Papua), Indonesia. In the following days my dad and Dave Marfleet flew countless missions to rescue numerous stranded villagers. Many of them had horrific injuries and some of the rescues were incredibly dangerous with rocks falling and subsequent earthquakes making their every move precarious. Many years later I was talking to my dad about those days, and he broke down as he described how physically and emotionally exhausting it was. He said the stress of some of the rescues, the tragedy they saw, and going non-stop for days on end shattered him. (He did all of this w a broken rib, caused when he fell from the helicopter and hit his ribs on the step).”
Malcom’s brother wrote: “August 1, 1989, 9am. Will never forget it. Malcolm and our friends and I were among those who nearly didn’t live to tell the tale. After the rescue phase, in the relief flying, I flew as a kind of crewman…Dad nearly died in one of those rescue attempts (the one where the blue Hughes is touching its skids). A truck sized boulder and mudslide nearly took him out.“
David Marfleet wrote back: “During the first day we had decided our priority had to be to find the injured so we ignore the many dead bodies lying in mud. Then ‘something’ prompted us to go back and have a look at three ‘bodies’ we had spotted earlier. Your dad yelled ‘One of them has just moved!’ I had to hover with a skid on a boulder, blades only inches from the mountainside, rocks still coming down everywhere from after shocks, and John Wilson had to climb out on the down slope side, a drop of about 2m, to reach the victims. I never did work out how he got them all back in the cab then climb back up himself! He also managed to take this picture of the moment.”
Malcolm’s own story that day is, in itself, incredible:
And, finally, this, from David Marfleet: “[After we] completed the rescue of all the injured, there was still many weeks of work to keep the survivors on the mountains fed. There were many outbreaks of dysentery etc in the temporary camps set up at Oakbisik and elsewhere. It was probably the most demanding flying I had ever done outside of combat operations. … When Mary and I went back in 2014, this lady, Diana, ran up to me and said she was just 7 years old when the earthquake struck. Her home was up on Sebu ridge and was swept away in a mud slide. She lost both her parents. As she lay in the mud she watched me flying round the valley for several hours and she kept praying I would find her. Eventually I spotted her and lifted her to safety. It was a very emotional reunion for me. Not often that [Mission Aviation Fellowship] pilots get to see the end result of their hard work. This made it all worth while.’”
P.P.P.S. If you’d like to donate to Sentani flooding relief efforts, Malcolm recommends Papua Partners.
P.P.P.P.S. I’d love to hear about your home, too. Not necessarily about where you lived. But about what you lived and where you first discovered community. Because home matters. And helpers and heroes are everywhere.