By Mike Mitchell
On my way to the basement to do some laundry, I noticed a package on my porch. It was in the usual spot where I ask delivery people to put things if there's no answer to the doorbell. Strange, though. I wasn't expecting anything; everything I'd ordered recently had been delivered.
When I came back upstairs I picked it up. It was for me, not my tenants, and it was from Hong Kong. There was no return address and the customs declaration on the side simply read "camera part." Very strange.
I took it upstairs and opened it and said to myself, wow, I used to have one of those:
So I'm thinking, what in the world is going on here?
I lifted it out of the box to examine it but immediately my attention went to what was underneath it:
A folded piece of paper. I could see writing through the back side. A letter. I unfolded it and began to read:
(Please click to see larger)
As I started to read it my heart began quaking! By the time I was three quarters down the page I was bawling, wailing, sobbing, even laughing. My feelings were heartshots ricocheting off inner walls, ricocheting off each other, ricocheting off the very boundaries of my own little world. The metaphysical whiplash lasted for days.
I’ve never been to China. I’ve never done pictures of the President and his family. But the shows referred to were "Other Lights" at the Corcoran Gallery in 1977 and the paintings were at the David Adamson Gallery in 1997, 20 years apart! From a Chinese friend of a friend, I've learned that the name Woo Lai Wah is definitely a woman’s name and definitely the way it would be spelled in Hong Kong as opposed to mainland China. I have not been able to locate her so far.
The actual "photo thing" is what's called a bulk film loader. When I was one of four high school photographers at least two of us used them. In the darkroom, you'd put a hundred feet of 35mm film into it, slip the leading edge through a felt-lined slit and then screw down the red top. You could then turn on the lights. Then you’d open a little compartment on the side and tape the leading edge to a spool that went into an empty 35mm cassette like the ones Kodak still sells in yellow boxes. Then you'd close the compartment and crank the film into the cassette. The benefit was that it was so much cheaper, a big benefit when we were high school photographers 45 years ago!
I started to recall those days and I vaguely remembered that we each put our names on them with one of those Dymo labelers where you’d turn a dial to an individual letter, squeeze the handles and the letter would be punched into a strip of tape. Could it BE? I picked up the loader and turned it on its side:
Then I remembered! I had three of these, one for each type of film we used, Tri-X, Plus-X and Panatomic-X. Thus the "Mr. Mitchell Tri-X." This was unquestionably mine! And the crank was even still with it, rolled up in the bubble wrap beside it. But how did it get half way around the world?
As one of my photographer friends, Brett Littlehales, pointed out later, it was even amazing that the tape had lasted for 45 years. He also observed in a typically exuberant way, "the chances of this happening are…are…like winning the lottery…no!…no!…more like winning the cosmic lottery!"
And if there was a "prize" in this lottery, it was not so much the object itself, but the letter and the awesome mysteries of unfathomable spiritual connections, and the very gesture itself from this dear, dear person and the timing! It’s impossible to communicate how much I really needed what has been given to me by this delightful miracle. My closest friends have helped a great deal to uncover the deepest gifts in it. Blessings that are all quite personal but suffice it to say that this whole sequence of events, that is still reverberating through my life, has been a kind of crucible in which something very deep in my own heart is being refined, reconstituted, even healed. Something that is essential to "making things worthy of many peoples."
Featured Comment by Craig Norris: "One of the continuing great pleasures I've had in my many years of working and living in Asia, is the simple beauty of a heartfelt communication that reaches its target.
"Recognising that there is a language barrier to overcome, people of different cultures (like me and the many Asian people with whom I cross paths) make a greater effort to be clear in the message sent, and more careful in the listening. I've got the mental picture of Ms. Woo's sons, daughters, nephews and nieces all contributing to the translation of her humble yet heartwarming thoughts into English.
"Woo Lai Wah's message penetrates in a powerful way because of its unquestionable goodness, pure purpose and simple unadulterated directness. Thanks for sharing it.
"By the way, in the second last paragraph, there's a term 'Gwuy lo'...in 'my family who have gone to classes to learn to say Gwuy lo things for your happiness.' 'Gwuy lo' is the colloquial Cantonese term for white foreigners. Literally translated, it means 'white devil'—not an undeserved term for the white man, if you read about the Opium Wars of the 1800s."
Featured Comment by Rodger Kingston: "The only response I can think of that is worthy of this story is silent reflection on the goodness that resides in people, if only it were allowed to express itself, and how I might strive toward such a state of grace in my own life."