Broken Shells In Paradise

Heather J. Kirk
 

© Copyright 2004 by Heather J. Kirk
 

As visitors, we often see the superficial beauty of a place and forget (or are sheltered purposely from) the tragedy
that's touches the lives of individuals everywhere.  When vacation and this reality intermix, the traveller can choose
to ignore or immerse.  At times it is no longer a choice.

We returned from an exhausting day of sunning and snorkeling, and one of my friends remarked, "Another day in paradise". The next morning silent tears for this island paradise woke me. I cried the island’s loving but desperate people. I saw their future in my own city - addiction, stealing, gangs, indiscriminate killing. I found myself, at the very beginning.

Theft abounds on this island. My friend had something stolen from her car, so she began to lock it. The contents again disappeared, now with a smashed window. The repair cost her more than the stolen goods and took several weeks. She doesn't lock the doors anymore.

Another woman spent thousands of dollars on devices to keep thieves out, but they return every time she leaves. Her particular bandits take pots, pans, and dishes.. People usually steal TVs and radios because they sell easily, and bring more money for drugs. These thieves seemed "innocent", stealing only for needs of everyday living, to cook their food and eat their meals with some dignity.

People on the island tell of a man who borrowed money on a regular basis. But the sweat of his labor and weary generosity of others couldn’t feed his hungry family. Suddenly, he became rich. Filthy rich. “Drug money”, everyone claims. The locals talk about drug money a lot, the dilemma heavy on their hearts and bellies. At this point, the argument for morality is a tough sell. Drug runners feed and shelter their families, and their homes boast of electricity and plumbing. Those higher up shower money on friends, neighbors, and sometimes the whole community. Drug money buys and builds hotels and new businesses, providing desperately needed jobs. It builds new schools and even new churches, and brings electricity and phone lines to areas that never dreamed of such luxuries.

I heard "the story" and I cried for the second time that day. I felt like a prophetess whose words failed to find breath, for I could not stop the momentum of choices made. The bitter message of this prophetess held no promise of forgiveness. "And it shall come to pass, that every soul which will not hear that prophet, shall be destroyed from among the people." (Acts 3:23) In this case God would not destroy them, but themselves.

As we drove along the beach-side road, I noticed a huge pile of color...glorious color in no certain shape or pattern...like a bunch of little clowns, or ragdolls in patchwork clothing piled one on top of another. I stopped the car and breathe in this thing of brightness and joy that had caught my eye, and stepped into a cemetery. Scattered over the top of the two freshest graves draped at least one hundred wreathes. Up close, the bright colors turned to plastic petaled flowers of red, yellow, pink and blue, slightly faded from the sun and salt water, but still beautiful, now hauntingly so. My curiosity and excitement changed into painful evidence of the coming war. These were the first two casualties. That's "the story" I heard, the one that tore at my heart, and started this feeling of desperation.

One of the bigger dealers had been cheating on deals. His supplier sent a message, punctuated with the torture, the burning, and finally the killing his father-in-law and youngest nephew. "Cheating will not be tolerated." I wish I could put a fairy tale ending on this story and say that the man who lost two members of his family got out of the business right away, learning that instead of finding an easy way of providing for his family he discovered a way of slowly killing them off. Instead he continued to build a new home, a huge and beautiful home. But, if bars and metal screens on the windows, and locks and alarms on the doors, could not keep people from stealing a few pots and pans, then a mansion and fancy clothes, will not keep the scourge of drugs from stealing the lives of those family members that remained, some through addiction and others through violence.

I couldn't stop thinking about the sweet child who’d been killed, and for whom so many people had brought flowers. As many as the wreathes piled up, tumbling over, blowing in the wind - that many lives and more would be lost innocently, over the next few years. I knew it, but I could not stop it. I tried desperately to be a good tourist, to be naive and unknowing, to relax and to forget the pressures and burdens of life and just enjoy. That's why I came to this island getaway.

I took 4½ years to get my Master's of Social Work, attending classes, studying, completing two internships and working a variety of jobs, generally wearing myself out. I spent the last few month of school in intense preparation for my oral comprehensive exam. I took the test on a Thursday afternoon, went shopping for a bathing suit that night, worked all day Friday, and took a midnight plane. By the time I arrived I’d been awake for more than 30 hours. Usually I did several things at once, like driving my car while filling out deposit slips and eating dinner out of a fast food bag. Now I could rest.

I tried to play and rest, but I couldn't stop thinking about the island's future, or that oral comprehensive test. I’d written a Prevention Program for my community. The 40 page document held all the answers to preventing things such as school dropout, juvenile delinquency, gang involvement, alcoholism, and of course, drug abuse. I had it all figured out. Not to say it was easy, but I was sure the money, the time, and the right staff could make it work. It could change lives, and create opportunity for a community overlooked and disadvantaged for decades, an inner-cities enclave where drugs and gangs had already taken more lives than the entire population of this island.

 There I was, vacationing on a tiny, incredibly gorgeous Caribbean island, seeing not the beauty, but the pain that was to come. I wanted desperately to stop it, believed that I of all people, should know how to stop it. Finally, I began to doubt the ability of a program that had consumed my life for four years to stop anything. My program didn't fit in the middle of the ocean, and I was no longer sure it fit in the middle of a big discriminating and oppressive city either.

I wanted a drink.

 HHow fitting that in the face of this frustration, hopelessness, and helplessness I would think of using a drug to cope. Could I blame those who lived here, dealing with these feelings everyday, for looking to drugs as a way out. Instead of seeking out the nearest liquor store, I headed for the beach and began looking for shells. I wanted some of those perfect shiny pink shells, sterile and whole, that you find in the typical tourist trap. That way, when people asked me about my vacation I could lie through a smile and show them a pretty shell and say, "It was great", hiding the truth I’d found.

I couldn't find any shells like that. There were hundreds of cracked and faded shells, with chips and holes and missing parts, after being beaten roughly against the shore of this northern-most tip of the island. I walked for almost a mile searching for perfection, picking up only a few, and quickly throwing them back down once they revealed their flaws. In irony, the only way to obtain those perfect shells came through death - deep diving for them while they still housed life, tearing the animals from their homes, and bringing the shell to shore to sell or ship to the States.

 I came to a sharp turn in the shore line, forced by a large deposit of sharp and porous rock. Though an obvious place to turn back, especially given my bare feet, something urged me on - perhaps the thought of obtaining that one shell no one else had found, unwilling to venture beyond the turn. I stepped slowly as I watched my every footstep to avoid getting cut. When I finally looked up, I found myself at the edge of another seaside graveyard. The sight and smell of thousands of conch shells in various stages of brokenness and decay made me sick. Why, when I so desperately needed hope, had I been irresistibly drawn to a place of ugliness and death? I continued to stare, and slowly came to realize that this was not the senseless death of the other grave site, but one that represented life. These shells would never decorate a wealthy visitors’ home, but the animals they once housed fed many people. Those who threw so many empty shells onto the shore of this hidden cove had not given in to the lure of the drug trade. They spent long days in the harsh sun and salty ocean, diving for lobster and sponges and conch to make a living, the way their people had done for centuries.

Suddenly, I wanted all the broken tattered shells I’d thrown back into the ocean to be battered once again against the shore. Those perfect shells in stores couldn't possibly represent the mental struggle I’d been through. I wanted shells of creatures that lived, aged, struggled, and finally died, their homes finding their way to the shore naturally and painfully, yet proudly, with chips and cracks to prove it.

I stopped looking for perfection, and began looking for individuality and uniqueness. Suddenly my hands filled with beauty, so many some slipped through my fingers. I laughed at my good fortune, truly finding what no one else found. As I contemplated showing my findings to my friends, I momentarily saw these shells through my old eyes - as a worn and tattered bunch - and almost cast them back to sea. But they had taught me much, and I couldn’t let them go.

 Later, as I washed them and set them out to dry, they became a collage of many colors and shapes, not unlike the many wreathes, faded and torn, piled on graves, making a strange beauty out of life's struggle and pain. I realized I didn't have to have the perfect answer to the drug problem, and help and change wouldn't come in a pretty store bought package. Hope would come between individuals who are willing to see each other as they are, battered and needy and tired, but beautiful in spite of it, and maybe even because of it. One by one, lives will change and hope uncovered, and slowly the people will gather, clinging to each other in a mass of beautiful shapes and colors, still beaten by the wind and sea, yet beautiful all the same.

 I still see a painful road ahead for this island community, and I know that I will have little chance to ease their pain, but the desperation is gone. I must go home to those in my own neighborhood, not to give them the magic cure, but to join in and become a part of those unique individuals who will build a small collage of hope. We will touch lives, maybe save a few, and begin to gather flowers and shells that will stand as a memorial to life, instead of death.

 "Again I say unto you, that if two of you shall agree on earth as touching anything that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in the midst of them."  (Matthew 18:19-20)
 



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