Stories are worth a thousand photos

China. It’s pretty far away – 6,926 miles, give or take a few, and about 12 hours ahead. By car, Google says, it’s 10,600 miles, but I’m pretty sure I’d like to know the specific roads between this continent and that one before I take off.

About a week ago my friend Susan left for a 10-day immersion into the Chinese culture, tagging along with her sister, Dr. Suzie Smith of North Carolina’s Presbyterian College, and a bunch of her sister’s college students. It’s a great opportunity and, in truth, I can admit a wee bit of jealousy.

I have to admit it’s also been a little weird. Even in our fast-paced, high-tech, instantanous world, it still boggles the mind that we can communicate over that kind of distance as if it were just a few city blocks. Except, of course, that it’s 8:30 p.m. Wednesday for me and 8:30  a.m. Thursday for her.

Wrap your mind around that for a moment – let me paint a visual picture. Here I am, relaxing on the deck in the fading rays of the evening sun, reading a book and enjoying the passage of two deer, numerous birds, a big ol’ groundhog, and, yes, a skunk. Suddenly my phone beeps and yanks me unceremoniously from my reverie. It’s an incoming text from Susan with a picture of the morning sun painting shadows across the Great Wall of China as it meanders along the hillsides.

You have to admit that’s just weird. The setting sun is over here. I can see it, right there in the sky. I actually turn around to look at it. Yet here comes this photo Susan just snapped halfway around the world, showing at that same moment the sun rising over the wall. We’re looking at the same sun, in the same sky, at the same time, nearly 7,000 miles apart and on two different days.

When I stop to wrap my mind around it, it’s certainly comprehensible but it’s a bit like trying to imagine infinity – a task that threatens to overload the brain with the enormity of it all. Sure, I know it’s because we live on a moderately round, rather than flat, earth, plus there’s a little thing about those time zone issues, but it’s still pretty weird to come face-to-face with the experience. It’s the closest thing to what I can imagine it’s like standing in alternate universes simultaneously, unless you’re at the Four Corners area where you can plant yourself in Arizona, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico without moving a muscle. My sister says it’s no big deal, really, just a square spot. Me? I’ve never been there. I think it could be cool.

These are mysterious wonders that bear some thought.

Our world has gotten so small. In the split second it takes to send a text message, we can connect with someone halfway around the world. Fascinating. Wonderful. A tad unnerving. And while I embrace it and love the innovations and progress, there’s a twinge of something like angst. I worry this smallness erodes the exotic wonder of far-flung places.

Remember when your aunt and uncle took some terrific trip to some far-off place? Once they returned and processed the slides from their camera, you were subjected to a blow-by-blow account of that trip, complete with Kodachrome slides projected on the wall or a screen. Or it could be that it was your parents who orchestrated the travelogue (and it quite possibly included embarrassing video).

Maybe I was a weird kid, but the pictures flashing before me served mainly to illuminate the stories my relatives told. That, oh, THAT is what I found riveting. That is what captured my imagination, what allowed me to dream about traveling, about people unlike me, about possibilities and what ifs and what could be’s. That is what fueled my curiosity.

Now, the world seems so much smaller. And I wonder if, as the world shrinks, we lose some of the wonderment of hearing stories told by friends and relatives that captivate and spur the imagination, sparking an initiative to go discover for ourselves, to confirm that the pictures in our heads and the photos on the wall correspond, actually, with reality. Those stories bring the exotic alive for those of us who must, for that moment at least, sit on our decks in the fading sunlight and imagine.

A picture is worth a thousand words, or so the photographic industry would have us believe. Likely stemming from the advertising trade magazine Printers’ Ink back in the 1920s, this now familiar adage seems to tell us that photos and pictures convey superior meaning and stories and messages. While there’s truth there, I’ve learned that there’s nothing quite like a well-told story, laced with humor and infused with personality, to jump start the imagination. And there, my friends, lies the treasure.

In October, I’ll travel again to Jonesborough, the oldest town in Tennessee, for the annual National Storytelling Festival. There, I’ll listen to masterful tellers who paint the most marvelous pictures with their words, their voices, their inflections, their actions. I’ll laugh, and I’ll cry. I’ll nod in recognition of deeply held truths and half-spun tall tales. I may even jump with fear at a ghostly story, then laugh at myself afterward. With that weekend fix, my world will feel a little larger again, some of the mystery will return, and the imagination will willingly work overtime.

I can hardly wait. Until then, I’ll make Susan tell the stories she’s brought back from China, with and without photos. I’ll listen and craft the visuals in my imagination, and experience it myself. Photos are wonderful, even shared in an instant from 7,000 miles away. But stories? Those are priceless.

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