Three weeks seems like a lifetime ago.
Three weeks ago, my family and I were exploring a typical market place in the city of Cusco, Peru. Sitting at 11,000 feet above sea level, high in the Andes Mountains, it was a place like none I had experienced before. The market was bursting with color, sounds and odors that seemed simultaneously foreign and comforting. Each section of the market held a specialty of the area. Aisles filled with meats, cheeses, eggs, vegetables and fruits from the surrounding farmlands. Whole rows devoted to single items such as potatoes and corn. Countless varieties, colors and sizes all grown and consumed by the native Quechua speaking people of the mountains.
Eleven tourists from Southern California, as one would expect, did not blend in to these surroundings. Most of our family members with blond hair and blue eyes stood head and shoulders above the native shoppers, with the exception of one. After the initial assault on my senses and after peeling my camera from my face, I began to focus on the people. I turned to my oldest son Ethan, who at 5’10” now towers over me, and declared “these are my people.”
My five foot tall stocky frame combined with my dark brown hair and olive complexion made me question the genetic similarities between North and South American native groups. Ethan mirrored my observations, “wow, Mom you look like a native here” and jokingly added that I was even taller than some of the men. I might have been able to blend in with the people of this city physically, but culturally we were worlds apart.
Physical likeness and biological connections can bring a sense of comfort and belonging. We can relate and gain identification through “Our People”. My family, my parents, my brother, my children we all share common genes, and we can identify characteristics that are similar among family members. There is an ease and freedom in knowing that you fit in. Even though the Peruvian marketplace was culturally foreign, being able to see physical similarities between myself and the native people made me feel less of a stranger and gave me a point of connection.
The beautiful part of traveling and experiencing different cultures is that the world that seems so huge, scary and strange, gets a little smaller, more tangible, and less foreign the more we explore, learn and appreciate.
It is easy to make a connection with people who share similar physical characteristics and declare them as “My People”. However, sometimes “My People” emerge when I least expect them and in very different packages. A few days after leaving Cusco, we boarded a ship with forty strangers in Ecuador exploring the wonders of the Galapagos Islands. We had met a family of four from Philadelphia that would be joining us for the Galapagos leg of our trip. The husband and wife were both medical doctors working in the biotech and pharmaceutical industries, and they had two sons, one a junior in high school and the other a freshman in college. They were a lovely family, but I had not even entertained the idea that we would have much in common besides being Americans.
As we experience life, we become more attuned to other people’s stories that are similar to our own. We may not share the same genes or physical attributes, but a shared story or similar experience can leave a silent identification mark. Like a smoke signal or a flare flying over head outing us even when we try our best to blend in and hide among the “normal”. Have you noticed that when you experience something profound in your life, others with the same or similar circumstances tend to surface? I don’t believe this is a coincidence. Perhaps we are just more aware, or maybe there is a divine hand in providing these intersections.
I have become more aware of this intersection of people in my life. Perhaps it is in the way they phrase something, their demeanor or even the omission of certain details that can signal to me that I have something in common with another person. Making a shared story connection brings a similar sort of relief, comfort and sense of belonging as physical similarities can. However, finding another person who can understand you and relate to you on a deeper, under the surface, beyond appearances level is even more profound and meaningful. It can be a safety net or a life boat when you least expect it but most need it.
I was outed by one of “My People” that first day aboard the ship in the Galapagos, thousands of miles from home. I was not outed by a family member but by a perceived stranger, who spotted me and knew me. She got in my face, I mean uncomfortably close for a stranger,and looked me straight in the eyes.
“I know you.”
“I see you.”
“You are not alone.”
These were the unspoken words her eyes and body language conveyed.
Traveling with children is challenging. Add a child with special needs, who has impulse control issues and no social filter, and travel can be down right exhausting. However, the benefits form travel for him and my other two children far outweigh any negativity. Sometimes I just have to put my shield down and lower the walls that I have erected to protect and control situations knowing that my innately curious child will ask a million questions, probably make an inappropriate comment or two, talk too loud, run, jump, snap, whistle, and sing when he is not supposed to. By the end of the trip, this child will know the ins and outs of everything and everyone. People who were once strangers will be calling him by name. Yet, I catch myself praying that we could just blend in, lay low, and not be seen as anything other than “normal”.
“It is OK,” were the words this stranger spoke to me as we were putting on our life jackets to board the tender that would take us to shore for our first island hike. “He is fine.” Her oldest son had special needs, and he was also with them on the trip. She knew the worry, the exhaustion and the sense of loss. Her son had just finished his first semester of college. They never would have guessed that this would have been a possibility for his future. He lived in a residential home with other students with special needs near the campus, and with a scaffolding of support he was able to attend classes and live semi-independently. Even though her son was several years older, this stranger’s words brought comfort in her shared understanding, peace in knowing that I was not alone, and hope for my son’s future.
I encourage you all to slow down and look for “Your People” this year, or become more aware when someone identifies your invisible flares and smoke signals as being one of “Their People.” Your people may be disguised as a native Quechua speaking Peruvian or the lead physician of a large pharmaceutical company. The world gets a little smaller each time we can include someone into our “My People” circle. God places others in our lives for a reason.
“For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you— that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine.” Romans 1:11-12
Maybe the purpose of these intersections is to bring compassion, comfort, and connection to one another. Maybe we are given people in our lives to bring hope, support and understanding at a time we need it most. Maybe it is to bring more peace and less judgement into the world. Perhaps it is through others that God can speak to us and say:
“I know you.”
“I see you.”
“You are not alone.”