Monday, December 12, 2011

The Great Wall of China

We are in Mutianyu and we are climbing above the treetops. I see the curving stones in the distance and Simon, our guide, tells us we will soon arrive at the Great Wall of China.

Being here in China makes me feel like a flake, blowing against history, small and fragile, yet lucky enough to be aware of the journey. The part of the wall we are visiting was built in the 3rd Century B.C., for the purpose of fortification. Thousands died in the process and their stories form a part of the wall; the tears of their children and parents cradled by the dome of heaven above.

We get to the wall and some of our group immediately takes the athletic route, bounding over the stones to a place where a slide will allow them to soar down the side of the mountain.

Mary from Delaware and Debbie from New York and I decide to take it slower. We take our time climbing up through an area that leads to a small turret and enclosure. We pose for pictures and voice our amazement about being here. A few clusters of teachers are also near and doing a similarly slow and meditative exploration. We feel the heat on our shoulders and marvel at the Chinese women who are teetering on heels while carrying fancy silk parasols.

The sky is almost crystal clear with a few puffs of clouds and you can see in every direction for miles. The sun is hot and our digital picture captures the intense light that bleaches my skin.

I’m not in the kind of shape I wish I were. I’d like to be scooting over these walls like some of my more fit colleagues, but since this thing goes for 3,000 miles, I will only get to examine a piece of it no matter how much I take on. I’m happy to have Mary and Debbie’s good company and humor and that of the other roving bands of educators who run their fingertips along these stones.

It’s one thing to read about this and yet another to touch it.

The wall winds through the countryside, cutting a path through the trees, dividing identical land on one side and another.

Makes me think about borders and how much effort we put into them. This is “you” and that is “me.” You are “my people” on this side and those people on the other side are not.

Imagine spending so much time, energy and lives to create a division!

We protect what is “ours” when we divide something that we imagine will be violated by some kind of “otherness” that we don’t want.

We want “us” and not “them.”

What’s funny in history is that those we consider family and those we do not consider family varies by the chances and fortunes of history, the political decisions, the greed or generosity of leaders and the power of natural disasters or bounty.

Do you speak my language?
Does your face look like mine?
Would I marry your son?

Walls. Here stands a great one that makes me think about the power and majesty of human enterprise, the futility of dreams that live in silos and our need to figure out ways to leap across colossal barriers.

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