When it comes down to it, stories start with someone leaving town or arriving.
This one starts with the latter.
Hundreds of students and chaperones from Illinois, Tennessee and North Carolina drove through the record breaking heat last weekend on highways where views of the next car in the caravan were obscured by dust. Orange plastic cones and road barrels were dangerously tossed across their paths by wind that was also en route to Takoma Park.
Seven of the Mission Serve volunteers and their two chaperones are at my house this week. By day they labor non stop to mend fences, clean gutters, remove a tree felled by the storm as well as paint trim and railings. By night they stay in a dormitory in Olney with no power and line up for more than an hour for the cold-water-only showers.
They are so busy they don’t have time to see the unique sites our small city has to offer much less taste its scrumptious food so I purchased some always delectable chocolate and almond croissants from Capital City Cheesecake and picked up a copy of the Takoma Voice to introduce them to what they were missing.
I placed the pastries on a plate along and set them on the a table on the back porch along with copies of the Voice and some iced tea.
Pausing to leaf through the edition, I found an article by Ed Levy entitled "How Much Stuff is Enough?" His thoughts on 21st Century Living included a memory of having seen a “photo book of people from across the world with all their possessions spread around them.” I knew the book immediately. The cover came rushing toward me from my memory.
I rushed upstairs for my copy to include it in the back porch “still life.” I had a story to share, to connect it all, to bring it alive. When some of the students paused from their work, I told them.
From 1990-1992 my travel related business was severely hit by the ripple effects of the first Gulf War. We had to downsize drastically and move our office. One night one of my clients, Peter Menzel, a National Geographic photographer at the time, arrived just off the airplane from a trip to Japan to deliver his passport so that we could secure the necessary visas for his next trip. It was late December 1992.
Though exhausted and tired from jet lag he was excited to share with me something new. He pulled several 8x10 black and white photos from his backpack along with some contact sheets. He placed them on my desk in an arced array.
They were photos of the Ukita family who lived in Tokyo. They were the first family he had convinced to empty their home of all their belongings for a photoshoot.
The possessions were illuminated by floodlights at night. The family sat on a carpet on the sidewalk among them, almost camouflaged, before them a low table, eating their dinner. The parents and a 6 year old daughter were looking toward the camera. The 9 year old daughter looked at the lit TV behind them. Twenty eight pairs of sandals, waterproof boots and shoes lined up along the curb. Six women’s dresses and three men’s suits hung from a clothes rack.
Their story was told in part by three bookcases, family photos, a dog house, a papier mache animal for a school project, a piano, swimming trophies, three bicycles and one pair of crutches.
When Peter sent me a copy of the finished book, I was struck by the bright cover horizontally split in two with a photo of an American family of four, The Skeens in Pearland, TX, on top. Lit in front of their home was their furniture, and like the Ukita’s, a family dog, and a piano.
Their story was told in part by more electronics not visible -- 3 radios, 3 stereos, 5 telephones, 2 televisions, 1 VCR, 1 computer, 3 vehicles (truck, car dune buggy) and their most precious possession a family Bible open to a painting of Jesus illuminated by rays of light. Peter entitled the chapter Moral Dilemma.
The other cover photo was of the Namgay family in Bhutan, a country to which I still dream to travel, the Land of the Thunder Dragon. An extended family of 14 stood in front of the small home. No washer/dryer nor refrigerator but a basket for winnowing grain, a clay pot for water, a pig, a butter churn and some wood being hewn with an adz into a yoke for bulls. The utilitarian objects in their home were almost equaled in number by the ceremonial ones: a silver water pitcher for use in purification rituals, clarinets, a table used by visiting religious persons, a statue of Buddha and metal bowls for offerings.
Theirs was a story told in part by their most prized possessions: A Buddhist book of teachings by the parents, school books by the son, and a jumprope by a daughter.
In retrospect I knew that when Peter showed me his first photos, I was looking at the black and white sonogram of his new baby, a book that has changed the perspective of many people worldwide so that even now, almost 20 years after its publication, one only has to mention the cover and we remember.
I am proud to say that our company donated its services to Material World’s photographers and secured their travel documents and in so doing contributed to this masterpiece in a small way.
I was proud to be able to share the story with the volunteers who are donating their time this week and in so doing take care of to my prized possessions, my children’s artwork, so they remain in a home well cared for.
This week particularly, thanks to the arrival of Mission Serve volunteers, and Peter’s arrival in so many homes worldwide years ago, I feel a small part of the global family portrait, met people from far away places I never would have met otherwise, and expanded my understanding. I've traveled without leaving home.