Broken Shells in all their Goodness, or the Adventure of the Mystery Black-Orange Pottery Pieces

On the southwestern tip of Shelter Island, there’s a hidden public beach called Shell Beach. I say it’s hidden because you could easily drive right by the unmarked turn-off for it in a residential area and never know it was there. But the beach itself is nearly a mile-long peninsula just barely wide enough for a one-lane, gravel road. And all along the beach are thousands upon thousands of shells. On one side of the beach, in fact, the shells have beat up against the bulkhead and are about a foot thick. The tide has just kind of dumped them there in a treasure trove of conch shells, clams, and cockles, among others.

I went there this afternoon with our summer staffers Charlotte and Wendy and Wendy’s kids Jamin and Cora, and we just kind of walked around in awe at the beauty of this little, underpopulated hidden beach. While Wendy and Cora swam, Jamin and I – decked out in shoes and socks and not remotely prepared to get wet – went digging through the thousands of shells instead.

“What about this one, this one’s cool?” Jamin would hand me one of the jingle shells and point out something about it he liked. I kept tossing the shells about with my feet, occasionally picking one up, inspecting it, and determining whether or not it was good enough for keepsake. There’d be one that was oh, so close to being perfect were it not for the chip on the side. And I wondered out loud, when there’s so many thousands to choose from, what the rubric was for deciding a shell was worth picking up and calling it yours. Did it have to be exotic and different or weird? Or just colorful enough? Or shinier than the others? Jamin couldn’t decide, but it seemed like his rubric was a lot different than mine. He’d pick up fully-broken shells, funky shells, rocks, whatever and acknowledge how wonderful it was. I was pickier. Too picky.

I found a rare conch shell that could easily still function as a home – not a single crack, not a single hole in the shell at all. “Oh yeah,” I told Jamin, “This one’s perfect.” But Jamin wasn’t all that impressed. “No, it’s not perfect, ’cause there’s not a conch living in it,” he laughed.

Shell BeachAt one point, we started finding bits and pieces of what looked to be black pottery with orange paint on it. It was curious enough that we started to collect a little of it, only to discover that the more we looked around, the more there seemed to be. Ten, twenty, a hundred yards, there was more and more of the broken black pottery with faded orange paint. It became easier to spot as if our eyes had grown accustomed to look for it and nothing else. Jamin and Cora began to collect mounds of it, and we placed it in a pile and discussed what it could be. On a few pieces were the letters, “CH,” or a registered symbol. It took me back to my time in Israel digging through Iron age pottery and wondering whether the piece I was holding was Egyptian or Phoenician. There was a mystery at hand, and we were determined to solve it. As Jamin and I walked looking for more pieces with writing on them, I started thinking through it: it was too much and too spread out to be only from one jar or bottle. It felt ceramic, maybe hardened rubber and broke fairly easily under stress. The “CH” probably spelled “Champion,” and the orange paint and word itself seemed to indicate some kind of sport-related equipment. I told Jamin I thought it was skeet and explained, the best I could, what skeet is. By the time we met back up with Wendy, she’d been thinking the exact same thing.

Searching a beach through a treasure trove of shells and skeet, and I can’t help but shake this notion that we find what we’re looking for – what we were probably looking for before we even stumbled upon the treasure. Earlier this week, I read an article on CNN about how UFO experts have grabbed hold of some of the pictures taken by the Mars’ rovers and claimed they see alien life encased in the rocks. Others have come to call what they saw “pareidolia,” the trick the human mind plays in that we often see something that isn’t really there because our mind wants to bring recognizable shapes together to create meaning from them. It’s the very same thing with seeing Jesus in a piece of toast. And it felt similar somehow digging through shells, seeing in the shells the worst and best of ourselves:

There was brokenness within me built into my drive to find the perfect piece. There was happy, childlike love in Jamin’s discovery that the broken pieces were still whole and wonderful in his eyes. There was such absolute grace in Jamin’s admonishment that what I saw as the “perfect” piece lacked perfection because it was merely an empty house and no longer a real home. There was the mystery of the broken pottery and our very real desire to know the stories that brought the brokenness to this beach – determination in solving a puzzle that would somehow bring us comfort. All summer long, what I’ve seen in myself, in others too, are these very things. We want so badly to find the perfect pieces when there just are none. We could choose to pick up the broken ones and see them as just as beautiful, if not more so, than the ones that just haven’t been around long enough to break, but too often, we end up blaming the whole treasure trove for not having enough of what we’re looking for rather than asking why we’re searching how we’re searching. And I think that’s so very important – to recognize that our perception is our reality and may very well need to be questioned, even if it’s questioned by a seven year-old. That our frustrations, our struggles, our puzzles before us so often have so little to do with what’s right in front of us and so much to do with the baggage we’ve stored up and carried to this very moment where we find ourselves frustrated, struggling, or puzzled in the first place. At any rate, I’m not sure I’ll ever pick up a shell again the same way without seeing how beautiful it really is, but I will be going back to Shell Beach.

Making the Best Choice, a closer look at international adoptions

CNN has been publishing several stories about adoption lately. The most recent is an interesting piece on South Korean adoptions highlighting where several adoption agencies have lied about the identities and ages of birth parents to make a child seem more appealing to foreigners wishing to adopt. There is such a stigma in South Korean culture around unwed mothers that far too many adoptions contain false information from birth parents trying to hide the origins of their children. So, naturally, Korean activists are now coming forward to try to invoke change. One in particular, an adoptee named Jane Trenka, is fighting to end South Korean international adoptions altogether as a means to curve the stigma around unwed mothers. To quote from the article,

“The best option is always for a child to be parented by his or her birth parent,” she said. “Then domestic adoption, and only then intercountry adoption.”

That makes slight sense if you’re coming at this issue solely from the perspective of the birth parent and what that parent may feel is ideal. But what if you approach this issue from the perspective of the adoptee?

The best option is not necessarily always for a child to be parented by his or her birth parents. Such a notion is heavily dictated by our ongoing obsession with genetics and blood-relation. The best option for a child to be parented is that a child is parented by someone who will love and nurture that child. That should always be the trump card. If a biological parent is incapable of making those provisions for the child, then they are not the best choice for the child, plain and simple. And sometimes, that’s obvious even before the child is conceived. The notion that blood-relation is the ideal creates a second-class citizenship around adoptees and implies that what they got was somehow “second best.” Or third, Trenka would argue, if the adoption was international. I would ask why domestic adoption trumps international adoption. I suspect Trenka would feel that children should remain in families of the same race, and that notion is just bigoted. We as a society must shed the idea that kinship is only built on blood. Kinship is a social construct. Parenting language has to be earned. It is not given by God. It is not guaranteed by blood.

There are, I’m sure, many issues that need to be tackled surrounding international adoptions, as there are any adoptions. Some of these activists are probably making really positive headway on those issues. After all, the stigma surrounding unwed mothers, has to be dealt with not only in South Korea but everywhere. And yet, no adoption agency or government should ever work under the assumption that the “best option” is for a child to be with his or her birth parents. The starting question should always be, “Who is most capable of loving and nurturing this child?” So, while a birth mother may be the first person to ask that question, that alone won’t make her the ideal parent. And mothers who put their children up for adoption often do so because they understand how they might answer that question and understand up front that they are not the “best choice.”

How the Gay Marriage Debate Reveals Negative Attitudes toward the Adopted

There’s an article on the front page of CNN today, an opinion piece, that defends traditional marriage.  Because it would violate the First Amendment’s establishment clause to do so, the argument – like the one that will be heard before the Supreme Court soon – is void of any religious language.  Even if conservative Christianity is the elephant in the room, lawyers will dress the elephant up in legal language to make their case, pretending as though their argument is, in fact, not based on their Biblical hermeneutic.  So, how exactly do you dress that elephant up?

In the CNN article, the thesis is two-pronged.  First, the authors claim that marriage is more than simply an emotional bond.  To them, marriage exists for the explicit purpose of forming a family, of biological procreation.  Second, the authors offer a weak slippery slope argument: if we allow gay marriage, we have to also allow group partnerships or “polyamorous” marriage, as well.  Since the history of the Supreme Court is keen on throwing out slippery slope arguments as a “parade of imaginary horribles” (unless you’re Justice Scalia), I’m more interested here in the first part of the authors’ thesis – that marriage exists for the purpose of creating and trumpeting biological kinship.

Here is what the article says:

All human beings are equal in dignity and should be equal before the law.  But equality only forbids arbitrary distinctions. And there is nothing arbitrary about maximizing the chances that children will know the love of their biological parents in a committed and exclusive bond.  A strong marriage culture serves children, families and society by encouraging the ideal of giving kids both a mom and a dad.

So, the authors believe that a biological relationship with both parents takes precedence over all other forms of kinship.  Such a relationship is, as they say, ideal.

Stepping aside from the issue of gay marriage for a moment, I wanted to approach this argument in terms of adoption, instead.  And not necessarily gay adoption.  Because an argument that favors blood relation so strongly will also negatively impact straight, single parents wishing to adopt.  An argument with such a strong biological import perpetuates a second-class citizenship of adoptees and adoptive parents.   Such an argument says to the world: unless you were raised in the nuclear family with both biological parents present, you were at a disadvantage.  That creates a dangerous stigma around this group of people.  Such an argument assumes that there are not also disadvantages to the so-called nuclear family, as if the nuclear family is less-likely to contain an abusive or “absent” parent.  Or as if the nuclear family will guarantee that both parents will love and nurture their children, while other family’s cannot do so as well.

As I see it, the biggest flaw with these kinds of argument is this: they believe the parent-child biological bond is stronger and more meaningful than the parent-child adoptive bond.  This misunderstands adoption entirely.

There are many forms of adoption.  There are open and closed adoptions.  There are adoptions from birth and adoptions from foster care.  Youth are often adopted in their childhood or teens.  There are bi-racial adoptions and gay adoptions.  There have even been adults adopted.

Adoption is, to say the least, a complex form of creating kinship.  But the complexity of a relationship doesn’t make the relationship less meaningful or less loving.  If anything, the fact that parents wishing to adopt must endure stringent and careful background checks, financial hold-ups, and a lengthy bureaucratic process (a process biological parents unfortunately skip), their commitment to passing the endurance test on becoming a parent can often be indicative of the kind of parents they will be.

So, there are many different forms of adoption, and if someone wants to adopt, it isn’t easy.  Only those who are truly committed to it can pull it off.  My focus here is only on adoptions from birth, because it would be too lofty a task to tackle all the different kinds of adoption in a short blog post, so I admit I’m limiting myself for the sake of convenience.

When you adopt a child from birth, they are not someone else’s kid you’re raising.  That’s a common misconception that needs correcting.  Through adoption, a child legally joins your family.  She legally takes your name.  In nearly every case, her legal, former identity ceases to be.  She becomes your child, not your child and someone else’s, too.  Even in open adoptions, where children may encounter their biological parents and perhaps form a kind of parent-child bond with that person, their parents – legally – are the folks who adopted them and took on the task of raising, feeding, and nurturing them as part of that legal agreement.  True, in an open adoption, biological parents may play a role in care-taking, and no doubt, there is the potential for that bond to be “special” and important, but that person has given up their rights to be the legal parent.  And when they gave up those rights, they essentially said, “I’m giving up the role of mother [or father] and letting someone else take on that responsibility and build that bond with this child.”  Thus, to praise a blood relationship as more special or more important is fundamentally flawed.   There are many types of special relationships formed in raising children, and in every childhood, there are always multiple opportunities for both males and females to be positive (or negative) role models for children.  A child of a single parent or with two parents of the same sex is not going to be sheltered from influences of the opposite sex.  It’s as if the proponents of traditional childbearing believe that lesbian women will hide their children away anytime a man comes around.  What’s more likely is that adoptive parents, lesbian women included, understand that raising children takes a community.  There will always be role models in schools and in after-school programs.  There will always be opportunities to create the kinds of bonds crucial to nurturing children.  Why hold kinship hostage to only a select few?

I think on this issue, there’s actually a deeper question at hand here.  When there are buzz words floating around this conversation, like “special bond” or “special relationship,” it’s almost as if those in favor of blood relationship over adoption seem to think that there is some magical connection within our genetic code.  Those who have studied genetics and decoded our DNA, to my knowledge, have yet to tell us about any specific genes that are responsible for creating a bond based solely on blood kinship.

I can’t help but wonder at this point, why is it so important that a family be connected by blood?  And if it is so crucial – to trumpet a slippery slope argument for fun – why are these individuals not also pushing for marriages of incest?  If you let the logic run its course, there are plenty of royal families throughout history who did believe blood lines were important enough to continue marrying within the family.  Is this not that same logic prevailing on a smaller scale?

Genetics should not be the ruling factors in raising children.  Perhaps, we need to ask, instead, what makes a bond “special.”  After all, if we’re going to argue that it’s DNA, we need to be prepared to show which genes are responsible for this magic kinship.

I suspect that what makes a bond “special” is loving-kindness.  It’s patience.  It’s commitment to responsibility.  It’s mutual: if you want someone to love you, love them back.  Creating meaningful bonds like those found in familial kinship is near impossible to legislate.  How do you legislate whether or not someone is patient in their relationships?  How do you legislate whether or not someone is committed to love?  Sure, you can maximize the likelihood that a set of parents may be good parents, and that’s really what adoption aims to do in some ways, but you don’t do that with sweeping generalizations about certain groups of people, like gays or lesbians.  Such a notion is just bigoted.  Especially when studies have shown that gays and lesbians very often make good parents.

And that’s really what it boils down to for me.  There are some awful parents out there.  Some are biological parents.  Some are adoptive parents.  There are kids who have both a mother and a father and one or both are terrible.  There are single parents who are terrible single parents.  As more gays and lesbians are able to adopt, there will probably be some terrible gay and lesbian parents out there too.  But blood relation, or lack thereof, cannot be a predictor of someone’s ability to parent well.

Or, to sum that all up nicely, you might can legislate whether or not someone is a mother, but no law can make someone a Mom.  And neither can blood.

Since this debate really is so steeped in religion, whether the conservative right will veil that from the Courtroom or not, and since this debate seems to focus so heavily around kinship and what makes someone kin, it seems best to end with what Jesus had to say about blood relationships:

Now Jesus’ mother and brothers came to see him, but they were not able to get near him because of the crowd.  Someone told him, ‘Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to see you.’  He replied, ‘My mother and brothers are those who hear God’s word and put it into practice’ (Lk. 8:19-21, NIV).

It seems that even Jesus, himself an adoptee, didn’t believe that meaningful familial relationships were born solely in blood.  So, why should we?

A Full Picture, or the time a Moroccan tried to bomb the U.S. Capitol but was in no way representative of Morocco

One of the major goals of the Peace Corps, if not also one of the sole reasons for its existence, is simply to educate folks back home about the countries we live and work in during our two-year tenure.  If I had ended up in Peace Corps Eastern Caribbean like I was supposed to, I can’t imagine how I would’ve managed to connect that to something that deeply mattered to me: “Surf was great today and got an awesome tan; sleeping in hammock now.”   I mean, I ‘d have to have a Peace Corps Twitter or something, because I just wouldn’t need a blog.  Actually, that’s not true one bit.  I’m sure I’d find a way to brood on the Eastern Caribbean the same way I do on life here in Morocco.

Yet, somehow, getting the message of my experience back home would be an entirely different animal.  Since when did you meet anyone who was bigoted toward St. Kitts?  Or, on the flip side, when was the last time someone from the Caribbean tried to bomb the U.S. Capitol?   When I opened up the CNN page and saw that a Moroccan was arrested for plotting a dirty bomb attack on America, my heart sank.  Just another story in the continuing narrative that says that Arabs hate the West, a narrative that seems to often imply that the West should somehow return that hate and deal with it in no other way.  To read that the person in question, specifically, was a Moroccan was just all the more troubling to me.

Over Christmas, I went to visit Greta Frensley’s 7th grade Geography classes to talk about my experience in Morocco.  On Valentine’s Day, over eighteen letters showed up in the mail from her students thanking me and telling me how wonderful Morocco sounded.  One girl wrote, “Some day when I am a famous singer I will visit Morocco.”   Another student wrote, “I was so excited I told my grandparents Salaamu Alaykum and Wa-alaykum salaam.  My sister looked at me aquiredly like Im crazy or something.  My grandpa got interested in the words I told him.”  You read something like that, and there’s just no better confirmation that I’m getting a positive message home.  I mean, there were kids going home and speaking Arabic to their parents, and they were excited about that!  That’s a big step forward for me, and it’s by far the most important work I can do.

And then something like this happens.  Something that questions the validity of everything I had to say.  How many parents will take note of that or will ask their kid in Greta’s class, “Morocco?!  Wasn’t that the country you were saying you thought was great at the beginning of January?”  Some of us work really hard to deliver a positive and honest message about our experience.  I hate, I really hate, to think that message could be tainted by what a handful of bad apples can manage to accomplish thanks to outlandish media coverage or even simply to the human mind’s inability to process that “Moroccan” doesn’t equate with Morocco.   [I think it’s telling, by the way, that this man had been in America for twelve years, and I can’t help but wonder whether what “radicalized” him was his time in Morocco or if it was his time in America?  I wonder how he was treated Stateside?   On some level, it doesn’t matter, because no matter how harshly he may have been treated, these kinds of actions aren’t justified.  And yet, we can’t just assume this is as simple as someone hating America for no reason at all.  We can’t assume in a “war” where hate spawns hate, America is somehow spotless and perfect.  We’re not responsible for changing them.  We’re responsible for changing us.  And that’s exactly where we’ve gotten this whole “war on terrorism” so mixed up.]

Today, I bought coffee for my friend  Youssef.  He’s been begging me for months to come out to his town of Belsfrat, about thirty minutes north of me, and I just haven’t yet had the time to go visit him.  But he’s been a good friend.  We chatted for awhile about religion and politics, and at one point even talked about the importance of respecting and loving one another despite our differences.  He was even telling me about a friend of his who is pursuing a Masters degree in interfaith dialogue between Islam, Christianity, and Judaism here in Morocco.  To go from a conversation like that, filled with kindheartedness and honesty, to reading a story that will likely only breed hate is a good way to sum up every blog I’ve ever written praising Islam or the Arab world and also why I find it so incredibly important to make sure that people are getting the full picture.

Because CNN is not going to tell you about me and Youssef chatting as friends over coffee.  CNN won’t tell you about my landlord insisting that I have soup with him every time I see him.  CNN has no interest in stories of love or hospitality from a country where those things are abundant.  That’s my job.  And I’m here to tell you, CNN isn’t giving you the full picture.  And Moroccans do not hate America.  Or as I said on Facebook, “this ‘Moroccan’ man in absolutely no way reflects the views of Morocco toward America.  Yes, there are tensions; yes, it stems from the ongoing, unfortunate saga where hate just butts up against more hate, but the Moroccan people I’ve met are, in general, kind-hearted, loving people far more hospitable than most of the Tennesseans I know.   There are ‘bad apples’ in every culture, so please, God, let’s not let this continue to feed the narrative of hate between our two cultures.”

Morocco in the News

First things first, CNN is, as part of the 50th Anniversary of Peace Corps, running a short video of a volunteer living south of me here in Morocco about his efforts at organizing a youth baseball team.  Can there be anything more American?  Watching the video with music in the background makes what we’re doing here seem really awesome and epic.  I had a few moments where I was like, “Oh yeah, that’s what we do.  I do stuff like this.”  But the video made it seem almost foreign to me.  Check it out here.

New York Times is running an article about a Jewish-Muslim Dialogue conference that’s taking place in Ifrane with a focus on holocaust remembrance.  I think this is kind of a big deal, and I’m not sure what other Arab nation is in a place where these kinds of discussions can happen openly or positively.  With the United Nations currently debating the creation of a Palestinian State, it’s encouraging to read about Morocco as a nation of tolerance and openness willing to engage in the kinds of conversations that move relationships between the three great faiths forward.

Finally, though one would think protesting here has died down a lot, it’s not over until it’s over.  I recently had a conversation with a friend about how things have kind of simmered down a bit but it’s all just in waiting for the elections, to see if the King is serious about reform or if the Constitutional changes really do take place.  This article on Al-Arabiya shows that as recently as this past Sunday, protests were still happening and were still huge.

That’s about all for now.  You’ll notice there are new pics on Flickr from Fes (and a blog coming soon about that trip).  The next three weeks are pretty packed for me with work in site, a regional meeting to Fes, and finally, a vacation to Portugal that’s been a long time coming.  Keep an eye peeled for serious changes to the Official Wish List, too.