Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Depends On How You Look At It...

Many years ago I was walking along a Red Sea beach with a good friend, scanning the sand for interesting and beautiful finds. I spent much of my childhood on the beaches of Delaware and Long Island, so I was only half-committed to the process, at best. My friend, on the other hand, spent her first 23 years in Missouri and Illinois. The beach, shells, and sea glass were all still new to her.
That particular day we were the only humans on a three mile stretch of beach known to the locals as Ra’s Kathib. We called it “The Spit” because it was a long spit of sand angling out into the Red Sea from just north of Hodeidah, in what was then North Yemen. The fact that we were the only ones on the beach may have had something to do with the air temperature of 115 degrees and the relative humidity of well over 80%. Anyone with any sense at all was parked in a shady spot, directly under a ceiling fan.
We were near the end of our two-year stint as teachers of English at the National Institute of Public Administration. Don’t let the name fool you; NIPA-Hodeidah was a slightly ramshackle school that offered Accounting, Small Business Management, and English classes to anyone capable of paying the $40.00 registration fee. As a result of the less-than-demanding admissions criteria, my friend and I lucked into one of the most open and diverse groupings of people in all of Yemen.
There were ten year-old boys, seventeen year-old daughters of Hodeidah’s upper crust, forty year-old cab drivers, and thirty-five year-old housewives. These people would never have met, let alone acknowledged each other’s existence in their real lives in Yemen’s gender- and income-segregated streets. They would not have been allowed. But there in my classroom they were free to converse.
Of course, most of their conversations came straight out of Longman’s Beginner English Workbook, (Level One), and contained the phrase “Excuse me, do you know the way to Camden Market?” But at least they could say something to each other.
Anyway, on this particular day I am remembering, my friend and I were stopped dead in our tracks by the most incredibly luminescent blue shell either of us had ever seen. It was spectacular. We both saw it in the same moment and we both froze. My friend bent down to snag the treasure before I could and then she promptly dropped it to the sand as quickly as she had snatched it up. As she dropped it, she let out a disgusted “Unnnhhh.”
Thinking she had gone crazy, I immediately reached out to grab the shell. If my friend didn’t want the treasure, that was her problem. As soon as I lifted it I could tell something was wrong. It didn’t feel right—it was far too light and too slick to be a shell. One look up close and I could see that it wasn’t a shell at all. It was a shell-shaped piece of plastic. I reacted just as my friend had—I opened my hand and let it fall right there where I stood.
Now here it is twenty years later and I find myself thinking of that moment on the beach quite often. It taught me something that I have had cause to learn over and over since. What it taught me is the importance of perspective. That concave clam-shell-shaped piece of plastic didn’t change one whit during our entire “interaction.” It was just itself the whole time. And yet, in a span of thirty seconds it went from being incredibly beautiful to both of us, to being beautiful to one and repulsive to the other, and then finally it ended up as an ugly piece of litter to both of us. All without any change in its actual state of being.

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