One of my favorite ‘peulat sababas’ (Jewish educational programming) involved a piece of scrap paper and a tiny airtight bottle. It was the summer of 2012, and I headed up the Judaics team along with Jeremy Szczepanski. We knew we wanted to create a lesson on ‘lashon hara’ (derogatory speech), but we wanted to find a fresh approach, which emphasized the power of language in shaping our lives. So with a little help from the internet, we had an overnight delivery of tiny bottles and a collection of three amazing stories about one of the most romantic ways of sending a message out into the world. We began with a discussion on ‘lashon hara’ and moved into creating thoughtful, caring and positive messages, to serve as random acts of kindness and counter some of the negativity that exists in our world. We then marched as a group down to the Deschutes river, where I read these three true stories, and the kids set their messages afloat down the river, to the sound, and perhaps eventually to the ocean beyond.
Harold Hacket has an unusual hobby. He calls it “the world’s oldest social networking”, but we know it better as—message in a bottle. Harold has thrown 4,800 bottles into the Atlantic Ocean, each containing his address for people to reply to his messages. In 13 years he has received over 3,000 responses from places as far as Africa, Russia, Holland, England, Florida, Norway and The Bahamas.
You never know how far your message will travel.
In 1999 Steve Gowan found a bottle while fishing off the coast of England. Inside the bottle was a message written 85 years earlier by a soldier named Thomas Hughes. The message was written to Thomas’ wife and brand new baby daughter. It was a sweet and simple message about how much he missed his wife and couldn’t wait to get to know his baby girl when he returned home from war. Thomas then wrote “to whoever finds this letter, please forward it along to my loving wife”, and included her address. He then dropped it off the side of the ship that was taking him away to fight in France in WW1. Two days later Thomas was killed in battle. His wife never got to see him again and his daughter would grow up never getting to meet, hug or have a single conversation with him. That is, until a man from England showed up on her doorstep, after tracking her down in Aukland New Zealand, 85 years after her father had floated a message out to sea. He handed her a bottle, inside of which was the first message that she ever received from her father. After reading the letter she said her life felt a little more complete and she could tell that her father was a very caring man.
You never know how much your words, or which ones, can affect another person.
In June of 2001, a 10-year old girl in England named Laura Buxton released a red balloon into the air over her house. On one side of the balloon she had written “please return to Laura Buxton,” and on the other side her home address. A few weeks later a man, 140 miles away in the South of England, found the balloon stuck in the hedge that separated his farm from the next-door neighbors. He noticed the name on the balloon, Laura Buxton, and immediately took it next door where a ten year old girl named Laura Buxton lived. When they saw that the address was from another town, they weren’t sure what to think. Was this a prank, or some sort of amazing coincidence? They decided to investigate and contacted the other Laura Buxton, and arranged for the two girls to meet. Now here is where the story gets really weird. On the day of their meeting, the two girls wore the same outfit – a pink sweater and jeans. The girls were the same height, which was unusual because they were both tall for their age. They both had the same hair color and wore it in the same style. They both had three-year old black Labrador Retrievers at home, as well as grey pet rabbits. They even both brought guinea pigs with them, which were the same color and had the same orange markings on their backs. It was almost as though these two Laura Buxtons were the same person. But of course they weren’t the same person, just remarkably similar and brought together by an incredibly improbable chance encounter that makes it hard to believe that it was all simply coincidence. As a result of Laura’s message she met a girl whom she had so much in common with, and they are still friends today.
As we get ready to throw our bottles into the river in front of us, which starts in the glaciers of the Olympic mountains, and flows through our camp and eventually ends in the Pacific ocean, remember that our words will travel farther than you can ever imagine, they can change people’s lives for better or worse, and they can remind us that life is filled with beauty, friendship, mystery and love. So take a moment to say a prayer for your message and think about where it might travel and who it might reach.
*That last story came from WNYC’s Radiolab, episode ‘Stochasticity’. And just to clarify, none of our messages included a return address in them. Also, as I am looking this over for typos and such, I decided to actually follow the Deschutes river on Google Maps and I’m disappointed to find that it ends at the Capitol Lake Dam, in Olympia. But perhaps some of the bottles slip through the dam as lake water is released into the sound. Otherwise, hopefully there are a lot of happy Olympians who received nice messages.