Yesterday, I was feeling the nudge to be creative, and since it has been a couple of weeks without photographs, I grabbed my camera and set up an impromptu photo shoot. With the bright sunlight filtering in through the blinds, the classroom globe was begging to be a model, each country highlighted in its own color.
In the editing process afterward, I was struck by some complex emotions. Looking at the countries represented, being able to turn the globe and see them all in a moment or two, to see how connected each one is, where they are located in relation to their nearest neighbor, and how the continents do, indeed, look like puzzle pieces ripped apart and scattered by a cosmic hand – all that stirred something deep inside.
I’ve been reading about the fated Donner party. This is not the first book I’ve read about it, and lest you think I have some morbid fascination with their group or with cannibalism in general, let me say that I am drawn to understand why. Why did their series of unfortunate events occur in the order they did? Why did they not wait until next spring? Why not camp below the snowline on the eastern slopes and wait out the winter? Why did they have to heed the erroneous advice of Hastings? Why couldn’t they have stayed on the tried and true trail, instead of jumping at a short cut? Is it only in hindsight that everything bad that could have happened, did? That everything that could have gone wrong, went?
And overreaching all of that, I guess I want to understand how they felt, what they thought, how they coped, what they did, or did not do, to prepare. Maybe I want reassurance that such a thing would never happen to me; and God forbid, if it did, I would somehow have better answers, come up with a happier ending, due to foresight and research.
Because at the core of this fascination, I feel strongly that we are very much alike. Donner and Company may have lived 150 years ago, in a different era, without modern conveniences and transportation, with alternative social pressures and guidelines, but people are still people. I can’t help but relate, by trying to put myself in their shoes. What would I have done? How would I have handled those decisions that had to be made? Which of the characters would I have been most like? Would I be the one who stepped up to make strong leadership calls, even when they were difficult? Or would I have been the one to fall by the wayside, weeping and defeated, long before the rest? Would I have stayed in the camp, left to feed the young and the weak and dole out the meager rations while watching my children starve to death; or would I have set out on snowshoes to seek a rescue, without clear knowledge of where I was going, how far I would have to travel, and what I would find between here and there?
Another experience that ties in with those global feelings is one I had this morning online. I had the privilege of viewing a series of photographs, taken by a Russian mother. She has an incredible grasp of the magic of light and setting and composition. Her pictures were like reading a fairy tale, from the large dog to the cute ducklings to her child’s toes hanging off the edge of the pier over the misty, frozen lake.
And I thought, how similar we are. There in Russia, a mother has young children. She lives in nature, noticing the beauty around her, desiring to capture the memories of her kids in pixels, and seeing the extraordinary in the everyday. She most likely fears for her children, desires the best in life for them, wonders how she can provide it, and questions whether or not she’s even a good mother, doing a good job. Just like me. And also just like me, she has hopes and dreams and struggles and triumphs.
Location may provide differences in convenience, economy, affluence, and social impact, but no matter where we are in this world, we are still people.
In one of my pictures of the globe, Kazakhstan, Afghanistan, and several other “Stans” are in focus. Immediately, much like anyone living the early 21st century in American, my mind went to 9/11 and the resulting wars, to our soldiers, to bin Laden, to political intrigue and deception. A logical jump from there would be to associate everyone in that region of the world as “them.” As in, “the enemy.” Nothing but negative associations and connotations come from looking at that portion of the globe. I think of burka wearing women; chauvinistic, religious men; and dust. I think of every documentary I’ve read or watched about our troops and how they are inserted into these regions, for better or for worse. I think about how ill-prepared we are to understand the cultural parameters those people live within, and how long-standing their disputes are.
Then I click on over to another photograph, this one capturing Africa. This photo conjures images of rivers, safaris, rhinos, and lions. And diamonds, as in slavery and Blood Diamond. (After watching that movie, I’ll never see or think of Africa again without my mind making that connection.) I think of dark-skinned natives and Land Rovers and diseases like malaria and HIV. Mogadishu and the genocide that happened there, as well as the travesty of lives lost in the insertion of our men on the ground in an ill- prepared move as tragic as that of the Donner party. The beauty of the waterfalls and the Sahara sand dunes. Ancient Egyptian history, the pyramids, and the fact that this is the country to which Jesus’ parents fled to escape an infanticidal ruler in their own country. Beauty. Mystery. The Dark Continent.
Just another flick of the the finger, and the globe spins on over to Japan. Here I think of intelligence and sleek, simplistic beauty. I think of Wolverine on his latest adventure, visiting Japan to tell an old friend good-bye. World War II and the devastation of fire bombing, ultimately culminating in the dropping of the atom bombs. Cherry blossoms. Mount Fujiyama. Fukushima and radiation.
Then a slip past North and South America. Familiarity. Just as in all the other continents and countries, this one has beauty and hostility. Pain and joy. Families, kids, retirees, corporations, and homeless. We have the Rockies and the swamps in Florida, the open plains we call the “Breadbasket of America” and the Mayo Clinic where leading medical and technological advances help heal and ease the passage from our scariest moments of life-threatening illness back to health. We have Detroit and automobiles; Chicago and gun-control; Los Angeles and movie stars; Washington, D.C., and corruption. Patriots, politics, and sports. All shades of skin color and religions, dozens of languages represented, as well as multicultural centers in every major city across the U.S.
South America has Brazil and coffee and the Andes. Drug cartels. Jungles. Catholicism. It is the preferred destination for many cruise lines and honeymooners, with places like Costa Rica, Machu Picchu, and Chile. Once again, great beauty and danger, side by side.
So back to those feelings stirred up by this photo session; they’re hard to pin down and capture in a word or two. I guess I would describe the emotion as feeling connected. Having common interests and passions and aspirations for our futures. No matter where you go on this glorious planet, people are still people. We all bleed, we all dream, and we all desire a better future for our children. Each one of us loves someone, feels stirrings of eternity or purpose, seeks to understand why we are here and what contributions we have to offer, and it makes no difference on which lines of latitude and longitude you take your poll.
The languages vary. The topography and natural resources vary. The skin colors and physical features vary. The political and cultural views will not always line up. There will always be tensions and pressures between certain groups and countries. But there are a few things we all have in common. And some days, I wish we could major in those commonalities, focus on them instead of on the differences. I wish we could all seek to walk in someone else’s shoes and ask ourselves the hard questions about what would I do and how would act if we were able to superimpose ourselves into another culture, another race or religion, or even another gender. How would it impact our world universally if every single individual stopped seeing the difference and started seeing the similarities? If we all spun our globes in the morning and chose a random place and spent two minutes meditating on how my life would feel if I woke up there instead of where I did?
Stories like that of the Donner party and photographs like those from the Russian mother serve to remind us all that no matter what era we were born into, no matter the location on the planet, and no matter the overarching feeling – whether it be tragedy or magic – we are all human.
It leaves me with a longing to see more of this wonderful world. To get outside my familiar comforts and usual routine and meet someone new. Someone who can’t speak my language, but who most likely, feels my feelings and thinks my thoughts. I want to sit down with a woman from one of the “Stans” and ask how life looks from behind that burka; have coffee with a farmer in Brazil and learn what goes into making that cup of goodness that I depend on every morning; walk through the streets of Hiroshima with an aging Japanese woman and hear the story of where she was on the morning of August 6, 1945; get an Israeli’s thoughts on all these foreigners who stream into Jerusalem to walk where Jesus walked; and tiptoe through the quiet majesty of the Taiga Forest in Russia, maybe dropping in to meet that mother whose photographs helped launch me down this trail of thoughts.
In so many ways, I question the benefits of global connectedness, especially since in all our leaps and bounds of technology we have somehow lost the human connection. While I thank God and Google for the ability to enjoy those photos from half way around the world, and smile blissfully as I inhale the scent of imported coffee while Skyping with a friend in Switzerland, I never want to lose sight of the individuals that live inside the boundaries of each country on each multi-colored continent on my globe. And just like in the photos I took, I would love to see some of those lines blur out of focus, allowing the true “color” of the country to shine through in its people, its history, and our shared experience of being humans, created all in the image of God.