Our Tiny World

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I do not recall precisely why I was in Washington D.C. this particular time, but I know that I was not there working for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, which was the thing that took me there most often until I stopped working for them a few years back. I know that I was not there doing museum work because when I worked for the Holocaust Museum they always put me up in DuPont Circle, but this time I was staying in Crystal City. I had booked the Renaissance on Hotels.com for $70/night, which is so cheap that I still remember the price all these years later. I remember that it was summer and that it was hot — it is always hot, and humid, in DC in the summer. Aside from these details, I remember only one other thing.

The elevator door opened and I stepped inside, going down to the lobby to depart for, well, for whatever I was in DC for that time, a conference of some sort most likely, and suddenly I heard an emphatic “Mark? Mark is that you?” I looked around the small vertical-traveling box until I found her, Nikki. I was astonished to see her. I had met Nikki working in Rwanda years earlier. I was staying at the New Life Guest House on the recommendation of my friend Carl, and Nikki had also been staying there along with several other missionaries. Nikki and I had taken to one another, not in a romantic way, but intellectually, and we would sometimes talk about Rwanda, literature, education, that sort of thing at night out on the patio. I wasn’t in the country long on that trip, but we had kept in touch for a while afterward. Then, all of a sudden, there she was, in an elevator on the other side of the world. We hugged, caught up for five minutes in the hotel lobby, and then departed for our separate destinations. How miraculous, I thought then, to run into someone so long after and so far away.  I’m sad to say that I haven’t seen or spoken to her since.

~*~

Carl, the friend I mentioned above, was the lone American to stay in Rwanda in 1994 after the genocide erupted. Carl is a gracious, kind, intelligent man, soft-spoken yet undeniably powerful; he saved hundreds of people during the genocide by working with others to ensure they had food and water at the Gisimba Orphanage, and he often speaks to my students. Frequently, Carl will say to them “Genocide comes from the kind of thinking that says ‘my world would be better without you in it,'” a statement that we might later deconstruct.  It isn’t my world, is it? And the world I live in is actually made better by the presence of those unlike me — those are the people I learn the most from. My world? This is the world, the only one, and if you’re reading this, I’m so glad we get to share it with each other.

~*~

Yad Vashem is Israel’s Holocaust museum. When I was a fellow of the Imperial War Museum, they flew me and my fellow fellows, most of them English, a few Dutch, a Hungarian, and me, the token American, over to Israel to study there. We spent a few weeks in the country, and I loved every second of it, from the startlingly silent shut-downs on Shabbat to floating on the Dead Sea, which has ten times the salt of the oceans, to the time spent learning more and more and ever more about the Holocaust at Yad Vashem.

It was there one day, taking a little break outside with a cup of tea and enjoying the sunlight, that it happened again. “Mark?” This time, it was Wojtek. Wojtek is a friend of mine from Chicago; we had met several years prior when I was with a delegation from the USHMM in Poland, and he had served as our translator. The trip was a program funded by the Polish government called “Getting Closer” and it was run by Ewa Bobinska of the CODN, an acronym of Polish words that no matter how hard I try I cannot seem to commit to memory.

Here we were, years later, and running into one another in a country far from home. Not only was Wojtek there, again serving as the Polish-English translator (he’s very good), but so was Ewa. We stood around talking for a while, catching up, and then of course we had to go back to our work. I have seen Wojtek one time since then; he met my students and I for breakfast in Skokie one time when we were there visiting the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center.

~*~

I think that it might have been after that second occurrence that it began to don on me just how small the global community really is. I have people whom I genuinely consider friends living all over the world, and from time to time I even get to see them in person. A few years ago, I did some research in Bosnia, then flew to the UK (via Istanbul because the flight was cheap — if you don’t have a good map of that area of the world in your head, look at one and laugh at my foolishness — my frugality cost me ten hours of my life!) to help my friend Nic put on a conference at her amazing school. Nic and her partner, Ian, are two people whose friendship I deeply value from my time living in England as a Fulbright scholar, and I reconnect with them as often as I possibly can. It had been nearly five years since we had seen one another, and yet the conversations were gloriously natural and seamless, and I was reminded of just how lucky I am to know them.  I applied for another grant to do research on Albert Goerring in the Czech Republic this summer that I would then have taken to the UK, but was denied. I’ll try again next year, and hopefully get to see Nic and Ian and some others again very soon.

~*~

Matt was a student teacher at Lincoln Southwest where I was teaching many years ago, and he and I immediately took to one another. Young, rugged, with what I thought was excellent hair and a roguish smile, he was an intellectually-minded man who reminded me a bit of Thoreau, a bit of a young Hemingway. We played basketball together sometimes. Upon graduation, Matt took a job teaching in a remote part of Alaska.

Rob and I were introduced through our work at the USHMM, where both of us were employed. Extremely intelligent with a tendency toward candor and a wealth of life experiences, I rarely missed an opportunity to spend time with him. Most recently, we roomed together while co-presenting at a conference in Boston a few years back. Since then, Rob has moved to a remote area of Alaska to teach. I’ll bet you see where this is going.

Last week, within a matter of moments from one another, two messages arrived in my Facebook messenger. Rob and Matt shared a classroom all last year, and last week in conversation realized that they both knew me. Despite so much previous evidence in my life that the world is in fact tiny and that we are all in many ways connected, I was gobsmacked all the same.

~*~

The decision to get back on Facebook wasn’t an easy one, and as many of you have pointed out, I chose one heck of a time to do it. When I made my exit from that platform something like eight years ago, I was tired of the negativity and that loss of time that comes with incessantly monitoring notifications. In deleting my account, however, I lost all of my original travel writing, in particular the nightly journals from my first trip to Rwanda back in 2008 and, more importantly, I also lost about five thousand contacts.

I believe that this was my single greatest motivation for returning to Facebook. I found myself texting former students and former players during the riots in Omaha, asking if they were alright.  During the fourth quarter of the school year, when we were all in quarantine and school buildings were not open, I emailed my students everyday to check in, offer encouragement, and keep the line of communication open. Now that they have graduated, I don’t send so many emails, but I’ve been able to connect with many former students on Facebook. That, and connecting with classmates from high school as well as friends from my hometown of Valentine and other people I had lost along the way, has brought a lot of joy into my life.

I remain a politically-minded person and have even been accused of being an activist, but what I want from Facebook is to further shrink my world, to grow closer to people I’m not currently close to, to open lines of communication and, if I may be so bold, to spread a little positivity. I don’t think I realized it back when I had Facebook so long ago, but it turns out if people are rude to you, you don’t actually have to engage with them. And they hate that, which makes it even more fun.  Facebook makes my world smaller and brings people I love into my life. For now at least, the pros outweigh the cons.

~*~

This past week, Sonja and I have really enjoyed the wines of the Corley Family from Napa. Founded fifty years ago in 1970, Monticello Vineyards is one of those small, family-owned operations that Sonja and I are passionate about. They are agriculturalists, rather than vanity producers, and just good salt-of-the-earth sort of folk who make truly exceptional wines.  Jay Corley, the Patriarch, deserves some credit for being a visionary, as he planted his first vineyards in 1970, six years before the Judgement of Paris made the Napa Valley the most famous wine region in the United States if not the world. Sonja and I absolutely love their wines, and paired their State Lane Vineyard with our steaks last night.

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But Monticello Vineyards and Corley Family wines are special to me for reasons other than simply being exceptional. I was introduced to them through my friend Dennis. Dennis and I sat on a committee together for several years, meeting almost weekly, and while I believe that our political views are quite different, never in all that time have we said an uncivil thing to one another. Never. Instead, we find the things we have in common and talk about those.

Monticello is also important to me for the memories it holds. A few summers ago I studied World Religions and was introduced to the Religious Literacy Project at Harvard Divinity School. I made some good friends there, and on our anniversary a year ago Kloude and Andre met us in Napa for a day of wine tasting. One of our earliest stops was Monticello, where I fell in love with their older vintages and brut sparkling, among other things. I never cease to marvel at how wine brings people together.

~*~

The world that once seemed so vast to me, growing up in the spacious Sandhills of Nebraska, now in fact feels quite tiny.  But the most important thing to realize about this tiny world, I think, is not that it is tiny, but instead that we all must share it, and not in some sort of begrudging coexistence either — we get to share it. We have the opportunity to be around so many amazing, beautiful, strong people from so many different backgrounds and walks of life. It really is a gift.

Elie Wiesel once said, in a public lecture at the 92 Street Y in New York which my students and I were attending, that “Tolerance is condescending. Who am I to tolerate your views? I should respect your views.” Then after a brief moment he added “Who knows? They may be better than my own!” This incredible bit of wisdom has never left me, and for that and so many other things I am grateful to the man.

For too long, people have merely tolerated one another. When I think about that word, and that concept, I realize quickly that what I tolerate are the things that I wish to eliminate from my life but can’t. Mosquitoes come to mind — I usually won’t let them prevent me from sitting on the porch or going fishing, and I know they will be there. But I go out of my way to deter them from interacting with me, and when the opportunity arises to kill one I take it. For too long, we’ve regarded the low bar of tolerance as some sort of ideal. The bar must be raised, and I would posit respect as a good place to go first, though once we’ve managed to clear that, then of course I feel that love is the ideal we all should pursue.

I love you, and I’m so pleased to share this world with you,

Mark

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2 responses to “Our Tiny World

  1. You’ve led a very interesting life and offer some excellent insights, especially those dealing with tolerance. I totally agree that tolerance can be condescending and more respect is needed especially now when it is so easy to destroy a person’s life merely by the use of a word, or by writing on social media.I am a lot older than you, I’m sure. Respect is something you gave your elders, your teachers, friends and family. It had to be given without question. Now though it seems that respect has to be earned, and sadly, it can’t be if we disagree. Unfortunately, one of the parties has to be am “idiot” or something. Sad state of affairs we have there, but I, personally believe it is not unconquerable.

    Like

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