Before the Before

My mom works at an elementary school.  Five days per week she beholds the innocence of children – their laughs, their curiosities, and their bewilderment of new objects and experiences.Mom recently told me about a child who needed to call home.  When he entered the office and mom handed him the handset tethered to that coil cord, he looked at it with confusion.  “What is this? How does it work?” This kid had never seen the standard office landline.“What?!” I exclaimed in surprise.  “How could he not know how to use it?! You hold it to your ear and press buttons!”  But I suppose if a child has only been exposed to the screen of a smart phone, anything else looks foreign.  My exasperated annoyance over this kid’s ignorance was cut short, as my mom reminisced on my childhood during a particular occasion at my grandparents’ home.  As the story goes, I had a similar reaction at my first rotary phone encounter.  I didn’t understand why the “buttons” didn’t “press.”Well, then.  Who am I to judge?

Eventually, my education taught me about Alexander Graham Bell and the history of the telecommunications industry.  But until that point, I had unfamiliarity comparable to this child.

Before_the_Before_Aborigine These stories reminded me of a piece of aboriginal culture I learned about during the Flames of the Forest Cultural Dining Experience (you can read more about that awesomeness here).  He was from the Kuku Yalangi tribe and he talked about a concept that wasn’t “new” but isn’t ingrained in my day-to-day thought process: Before the before.

He explained the importance that the culture places on understanding the things that came before what came before… that is, the origin or the beginning.  And no, I’m not talking the whole creationism vs. evolution debate, but rather understanding the legends, stories, history, timeline and most importantly, the NATURE and EARTH  behind existence.  But beyond learning about it, they learn to practice it.  It would be like my mom’s little student not only knowing about handset and rotary phones, but knowing how to use them and create them and every other facet about them as well.

Food doesn’t just appear on a plate.  Or in a grocery store.  It comes from the earth.  And this tribe teaches and trains their children how to hunt, fish, gather and garden from nothing.  They learn how to create the tools to provide food.  They learn how nature communicates and responds to the seasons and the elements. They are a part of the rainforest in which they live. They get it on a deeper, more visceral level.

It’s a thoughtful existence. The past is honored and protected and shared. The Kuku Yalangi tribe comprehend and respect the things that came before.  If I were to do that with my life, my head would spin. I’m thinking about the Kleenex I just blew my nose in (cute).  I start thinking about the branding of facial tissues and the different varieties they come in (cold care? With moisture? With softness of sandpaper? In a blue box? Polka dotted?).  I wonder about how a snot rag became so marketable.  I think about the process and materials needed to make a tissue and the people who work (kleenex connoisseurs?) to make it happen. I’m grateful for the lack of cloth hankies. I always toss away my used Kleenex without thought – I’ve never considered the “before the before” of a facial tissue.

Try this – for one hour today, think about the “before the before” of everything you touch – from the lunch you eat to your means of transportation to the pen with which you write.  A fun exercise to make your brain twirl, right? Feeling more curious now?

It makes me appreciate the interconnectivity of humanity and places.  It makes me ponder the past and all the components that led to all things right now.  It makes me consider progress, as my “now” will be the future’s “before.” The idea of before the before isn’t ground shaking, but it may shake up the way you think about things – big and small. Its a cultural lesson from the Kuku Yalangi that I’m bringing home from Queensland, Australia.  Travel is nice to “oooh” and “awhh” at scenery.  Travel is nice to learn new things.  But travel is best when it moves – when it shifts our perspectives and reminds us to think a little harder.

Did you have a travel experience that made you shift your thinking to a deeper level? I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

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