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Would You Mind…?

August 19, 2017

The Yosemite Valley is wild and strong. Towering granite peaks dwarf human arrogance even as they stretch our souls beyond bounds. In their presence, I felt small, but still…my spirit soared.

Three-thousand-foot rock walls block more than cell signals; they enclosed us safely in space away from the outside world for just a weekend. I recharged while all my devices lost power. I hiked. Glimpsed beauty words cannot describe. Cooled my body in waterfall mist. My camera captured breathtaking scenes:  two-dimensional disappointments whose only value lies in allowing me back inside those moments for a fleeting instant.

And everywhere I went, I was in community. A national park is full of worshippers. In the valley of the shadow of these mountains forged by time, you feel the grace and power of the same God–no matter how we might define “religion” in our daily lives.

The last time I came here, I was younger. The world was younger. Technology…was younger. I remember carrying a camera case, cushioning a state-of-the-art Canon Sureshot. Point and click. Automatic focus. Develop the perfect pictures later. I could even delete by flipping through digital images in the postage stamp screen. I could erase any scene I didn’t want. It was miraculous then. We could capture everything in such clarity but select only the best to keep.

What I couldn’t do with that old camera fifteen years ago was take my picture. A “selfie” wasn’t part of our vernacular; self-recording our own moments hadn’t entered our culture. We had not begun the Age of Obsession with Ourselves, spinning our lives, marketing our brand, becoming our very own paparazzi. If I wanted to save a memory with my own face in it, I asked for help from fellow travelers. “Excuse me…would you mind taking a picture of our family?” And I would hand over my expensive cherished camera to a total stranger and trust that he or she would help record this moment, would get “the Christmas card shot” that would help us tell our story to our friends. “Excuse me? Do you mind? Can you help?” I don’t remember anyone ever declining. They always said yes. They may not have spoken my language, but who cares? Help is its own dialect. They may have felt burdened by the request. If so, they did not say. I regret now that I did not fully appreciate that small act of civility then as I do today. We used to take it for granted. Some did not even engage in the obligatory “swap of services” by letting us take a photo in return. Simply, they always helped us capture this memory we wanted when we asked with a shy smile before continuing on their way. I needed them to be part of our narrative; without them, I would not have these memories. We could not do it alone back then. We had to cover each other.

The pictures were often terrible. Not many strangers ever mastered the twelve-inch differential in my husband’s height and mine…nor were they very mindful of the fact that Joe’s best smile is not the one he poses with. Most were not attuned to the subtle ways of counting to three but snapping on two or four while we were all a little more relaxed and real. Some got the family at the expense of the background or the background at the expense of a head or half a person. Kristin always grimaced when she saw their view of her. That’s ok. This collection of pictures that aren’t beautiful is actually a reminder today of all the ways in which people help each other when they don’t have to. It’s a collaboration among strangers that I find strangely beautiful all for itself.

In Yosemite, I stood on a wooden bridge over the Merced River, watching Vernal Falls come crashing down, spotting fleeting rainbows in the spray exploding like fireworks over the rocks. I didn’t snap a selfie. I saw a smiling couple taking pictures of each other posing at the bridge railing (the falls too tall and too close to make the aspect ratio of any selfie capture the moment well), and I asked them, “Would you like me to get one of you guys together?” They paused, caught off-guard by this charming, old-fashioned request. Then they smiled and said that would be great. And handed me their $900 iPhone. I sized the shot to get it right, to get them right. (We don’t even have to ask how to use the camera today; we all speak Smartphone.) I got three terrific Christmas card-worthy photos of those two. I swear they will love them. They continued on their way without even checking my work. No do-overs. No retouching. Just faith. A part of me finds it odd that I noticed this small gesture of trust.

I hiked twelve miles up the falls and back around that day through the mountains to my starting point at the dusty trailhead on the road to the campground. Along the way I was never alone. Dozens of strangers accompanied me. And in our mutual awe of the valley around us, we were a congregation on this Sunday morning. A diverse and unconnected body drinking in the view. Communion.

At the top of the waterfall, a viewing platform just big enough for a few people hangs out over the edge right where the roaring stream bends to drop on rocks hundreds of feet below. You cannot possibly take a selfie and do justice to the view. You’ll miss so much if you try to do it by yourself. Focused only on your own face, you will completely lose the context of where you are. You must count on others standing back twenty feet to snap the shot that shows that you are here. And so we did. We joined an improvised photo brigade and each took turns posing while someone else held our digital lifeline and snapped the picture of us smiling bravely into the sun with miles of wilderness at our backs. Then we’d move to the snapping space, recover our phone from someone, and become the photographer for someone else. Symbiotic,  collaborative, poetic justice. That evening, back at the campground, my husband and daughter would share with me their moment of hanging out over the edge of the world on Half Dome, preserved for me and them by total strangers–a picture they could not have captured themselves to bring me so I would share their joy in the summit I could not make myself. My heart still fills with gratitude to the nameless, faceless hiker who caught that memory for me to have with them.

Later, back at home in my life, I muse on the fact that while I was encased in this throwback human moment, my countrymen and women debated the politics of hate speech on the unending news cycles that fill our days and our devices. For a weekend, in the cathedral of rock walls that blocked these signals, we did not have to know that so many of us despise one another. I was able to wrap myself in ignorance and bask in the purest light, bathe aching feet in glacial waters beside a roaring stream that hid all other sounds. Relax to the soothing white noise of earth speaking. I drank the water I carried and talked to people I will never see again. And we captured memories for one another…we strangers.

I know my musings here are naive. Ensconced in this skin I did not choose but was merely born in, I can only plead guilty to being innocent of what it feels like to be hated or hunted for being myself here in “the home of the free.” I cannot change this. Still, I wish naively with all my heart and with no appropriately sobering real experience to make me cynical, that we could block most of the signals the world is sending and just be decent strangers willing to help one another on the journey, feeling gratitude for the creation around us. I wish that we could trust each other with things of value and do one another simple kindnesses without question. I wish that we could see the context beyond our self-images and our own narratives and let other people into our stories. The people I shared the journey with last weekend traveled far to stand together in awe of something bigger than ourselves. And when they handed me back my camera, they gave me back their generous view of me to keep and this small spark of hope. And I am grateful.


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  1. Judith Miller permalink

    Oh my goodness this is beautiful..,beautiful words leaving beautiful thoughts, Jenny! I am in awe!!!!

  2. Cindy Argentine permalink

    Beautiful, Jenny! The sentiment, the reflection, and the photos. Our scripture this morning at church was Philippians 4:8–“…whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is admirable…think about such things.” Thank you for doing that and then sharing those thoughts with us.

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