Some photos, a few faces, are still etched in my mind. After 30-plus years for some, I’d like to say they are there “forever”, permanently burned on the pixilated screen of my memory. But I know better now.
In some darkened file folder, I still have the photos of my first and only visit to India in 1984, where we had an audience with Mother Teresa, and of my first-of-many trips to Ethiopia, in 1986, shortly after the devastating drought and famine there wiped out an estimated one-million souls. As I flip through those photos now, I am ashamed at how little I remember about the vast majority… the names, the stories, why I chose to keep a certain memorable photo with an “unforgettable” story behind it that I can no longer remember.
I’ve damaged some of those photos by writing on the backs of them—names, stories, details—and others by adhering stickers with similar information. But those notes help me remember and honor the experience.
Last evening, my neighbor Brad told me that his father had served as a paratrooper in World War II. As half Native American, bearing a Germanic name, he came under plenty of abuse. Since his father’s death, Brad now possesses quite a unique collection of war memorabilia: the lapel pins, cuff buttons, or coins his father removed from each person that he or a soldier in his unit had killed during the war.
His father’s comrades-in-arms would get very angry, afraid that he might get into harms’ way simply in order to “collect a souvenir.” But for Brad’s father, that wasn’t the driving purpose at all. How could he explain? His Native American heritage compelled him to always carry with him a memento of each life. He felt responsible to keep something of that person “alive” as a way to honor the sacredness of each unique human being, wartime enemies included.
What a beautiful extension of the spirit we ought to carry when we encounter other cultures. I usually travel for my work, so it’s true that I need to be able to faithfully share those experiences with others afterwards. But another large part of my motivation has to do with stewardship—that same responsibility Brad’s father felt, to treasure those people and encounters that God puts in my path.
My methods have changed considerably–from illegible journal entries hand-scribbled onto a notepad, to blazing thumbs speeding across my smartphone keypad, edited on the plane home. Someday soon this method too will be arcane. I’ve gone from having a few precious rolls of film to unlimited photos on a memory card… far more than I could ever remember the stories behind. Culling and curating those few best photos for others to see and absorb is sadly becoming a lost art.
Sometimes, I’m tempted to forget that photos are stories, too. Exceptional photos need no words to have their affect, but you can be sure those are the rare exceptions. And in the quest for the perfect picture worth those thousand words we can easily lose any personal connection with the human dialog and connections happening right in front of us.
I suppose I learned to be a chronicler from my father. When I was five-years-old and our family of 6 was crammed into a two-bedroom cracker-box house, my dad frustrated my mother by purchasing a console reel-to-reel tape recorder. This clumsy device, with its giant spools of fragile exposed magnetic tape which were regularly getting mis-spooled, broken or eaten by the machine, became a nearly-buried treasure in the attic.
Back then for a few years, my dad would gather us around the recorder on some cold, dark North Dakota winter’s night to interview me and my three younger brothers. When we quickly ran out of anything to talk about, he’d start singing a song or would ask us to sing one. Then afterwards he would rewind the tape and we would “listen to how it sounds” and laugh at hearing our own voices. Tape was expensive, and often he would record over parts of past recordings with new material, losing the old forever and leaving mostly snippets for posterity.
My young father was only 25 years old then, but amazingly prescient: he died as a young man of 40 years in his sleep, from an undetected brain aneurysm. For the four decades since then, those few recordings have been some of my clearest and dearest glimpses into my dad. He was funny, he was an organizer, and he was a closet crooner in the Frank Sinatra era. We all learned to sing the old songs thanks to my dad, and my brothers and I still sing a few of them when we get together.
Last year, my wife Janet gave me one of the most meaningful gifts I’ve ever received, albeit with considerable effort on my part. Janet’s amazing gift was the chance to record something “with” my deceased father, using one of those old reel-to-reel fragments, now digitized. I was able to compose three harmony parts around the largest fragment, thanks to what I’ve been learning about Barbershop harmony, to create an a Capella ‘quartet’—with a bonus. On the new recording, there are five voices: I’m singing three parts as a 60-year-old, while harmonizing behind my 26-year-old father and my 6-year-old self.
What an honor! For a couple of months, I’d focused all my attention on how to approach the project and do it justice, working on it in my spare time, mostly late at night. So it wasn’t until I was on my way to make the recording that the incredible holiness of the experience washed over me.
Had my dad not captured those memories in the first place, as they were happening, none of it would have been possible. He had the foresight to see the preciousness of the memories we were making back then, and to capture them as best he could. Fifty-five years later, his chronicling provided me the chance to relive some of those experiences and to receive one of the greatest gifts I’ll ever get. And now my children and grandchildren, my siblings and my dad’s siblings, all have both the old and new recordings. I believe that I was able to honor my father’s memory in his way… and that it will help mark my own life.
When people in disparate cultures give us the gift of their time, attention and interactions, we owe them something back. Our experiences are not intended for voluntourismor prophylactic voyeurism. They are not for our entertainment or for the “Temp” file on our brain’s hard-drive. They are for our transformation.
Can we believe that? …that God and the universe want to tell us something, that our experiences are not accidental? Rather, they are gifts to be received, treasured, remembered and contemplated.
For me, honoring and stewarding those gifts is what note-taking and journaling, chronicling and recording are all about. I’m so grateful to my dad for modeling that commitment. And, much as Brad’s father willingly made great efforts to honor the sacredness of each life, we all have the opportunity to honor the sacredness of each encounter and person along our own journey.