Sometimes, my godbrother and I would talk about places we wanted to go: Have you heard of this ecological wonder in Brazil? Who wouldn’t want to go to Paris during the summertime?
I was a kid who liked globes and atlases, travel shows, and my world-themed shower curtain — and dreams of destinations with him. But my godbrother, Joel Cornell, held them as more than dreams: Globetrotting was a mission. Qatar, India, Turkey … then he’d be off, always coming home with the desire to travel more.
It’s been almost two years since Joel died suddenly in his sleep, when we were both 28, just before he was supposed to finish his master’s program. (Temple awarded him his degree posthumously.) I don’t think I’ll ever stop checking his Facebook page, swiping through his photos, trying to feel closer to him in his absence. Each time that I do that, I am reminded of the places he’d traveled.
At work, the National Geographics were just sitting there. The reference shelves at the Inquirer and Daily News had to be cleared out for construction, and so a pile of dumped books and magazines from the last 40 years covered the tables in the newsroom cafe.
Perhaps they were ripe for a vision board?
If you haven’t already heard about these collages that help people visualize personal goals, they’re everywhere. Self-help communities recommend vision boarding. Even vision-board parties, for motivational group collaging sessions, have become a thing.
Sarah Kolker, an artist and arts educator who often leads vision board workshops, has witnessed participants cry and have breakthroughs when vision boarding. For people who might be ruminating but struggling with concepts or facts, vision boards can make things more tangible, she said.
“All of the [process] gives you agency — you’re taking the time to be with each of those words, each of those pictures,” she said. “If you have things that are hard to process in the mind alone, giving you the whole picture allows it to be integrated into action.”
Part of me wants to “manifest” like the wellness experts say I can. Another part thinks it’s mumbo jumbo. The winning part of my heart wants to be like Joel.
So, I turned to National Geographic: After colleagues picked over the stacks, there were 107 from the ’80s to the aughts available for my project.
Going through that many travel magazines can inevitably make you realize that there is no way to see every beautiful spot on the planet in a way that my old shower curtain never did. And just like John Edwin Mason discovered this year after he was asked to evaluate the racial undertones of National Geographics archives, I noticed that the photographs people of color, and even working-class whites, seemed exploitative and exotifying. So, I found myself favoring vistas over people, and I siphoned down options with sticky notes.
There were still a number of places on my bucket list that I couldn’t find — like the Lençóis Maranhenses in Brazil, which I discovered through a telenovela. Or South Africa, a country that nearly convinced a friend to move there. Or Mendoza, Argentina, where I’m hoping to go wine tasting with two dear friends this summer. Or Chefchaouen, Morocco, where two backpackers who I once met agreed was one of the most incredible places they’d ever seen.
I don’t know how my pocketbook is going to let me go everywhere I want to visit, let alone all the places that Joel told me about. But the goals are there, intermingling with memories of him.
When he died, I needed to get away. My grandmother found us cheap flights to Chicago. It wasn’t Madagascar, where he served in Peace Corps, or Belgium, where he studied abroad. But I was on a plane all the same.
I laughed and cut it up with old college friends. I stared at skyscrapers for no other reason than having the time to look. I ordered a burger that was maybe 10 inches tall. Chicago had a way of making me feel larger than myself. Still, the grief went with me everywhere.
On my desk now, I keep a picture of Joel, in Thailand, looking out over the face of the water. I still feel surges of confusion, disbelief and despair at his loss, but I also feel joy, laughter — and gratitude. I had 28 years with him. Often, I imagine him still traveling, so the picture of him, looking forward, brings a little comfort.
In the end, my vision board had the coral of Papua New Guinea and the iciness of northeastern China — but I don’t think it revealed any sense of indomitable will. As I cut the pages and arranged the locations, it was more like playing around with fantasies, then binding them with Elmer’s glue. But, I did feel more hopeful. Because for Joel, a picture and clear intentions would be enough.