Monday, November 17, 2008


Just one year ago, Ned and his wife were our guests in Athens for a conference. With their excellent command of the Albanian language (Shqip) and their training, expertise and wisdom in interpersonal relationships, they spoke to our Albanian friends about how to build healthy, productive and sustainable family relationships. During the weekend that they were with us, the Athens Marathon was happening. In fact, they were almost late to an assignment because the Marathon-related traffic put a “kink” in their cross-town travel plans!

It was during that weekend, however, that Ned, a former high school and university cross-country runner, decided to enter his first marathon. Returning home to Albania, he determined to begin the rigorous training, so that his forty-something body could be ready to compete in this year’s Athens Marathon. After all, what better way to enter the atmosphere of marathon running than to participate in the one located on the site that duplicates that first one, beginning in Marathonas, Greece and concluding in the ancient Olympic Stadium in Athens!

Those of us who know and love Tirana, Albania, will recognize that this congested, Balkan city is not the most conducive to training for a marathon. Circular racing tracks are, as yet, unheard of; even runners trails are unknown; paving on so many of the streets varies from crumbling to non-existent; potholes have been known to swallow automobiles and the lucrative business of stealing manhole covers is so routine (The authorities pay the thieves for the covers, so that they can go out and steal the same potholes again and redeem them again!) that pedestrians routinely step into the open spaces, often bringing serious bodily injury to the most cautious and careful walker.

With its constant rain and very cold weather in the winter months, Tirana can be a challenge to any kind of outdoor activity, much less the demanding and sweaty routine that is essential to marathon training. Nevertheless, Ned began to train in January, recalling his younger days. For months, he trained alone. Only in the last month of preparation did he link-up with some others who were also in training!

Although he and his wife maintain a busy schedule of humanitarian work, and they give both quality and quantity time to their young children and to their interpersonal relationships, Ned stayed with the rigorous regimen of preparation through many months. Last weekend, he came to our house a couple of days ahead of the famous race. It was our privilege to host him and to be present at the finish line when Ned crossed over, just over three hours since beginning the race.

Methinks a parable is to be found here. How impressive it is to see someone take on a personal challenge and to remain true to the essential and demanding disciplines required to achieve worthy goals! How much personal growth and character development awaits those who are willing, both to “dream the dream” and, also, to “pay the dues”! How needed, in this day of easy ease and abundant, fertile and enabled “couch potatoes,” is the model of restraint, self-denial and perseverance so humbly displayed by our friend, Ned!

On the other hand, what a privilege for us to be in a position to host this demonstration of resolve and determination! I want my house and my heart always to be accommodating to those who are willing to remain true to lofty goals. In the very best tradition of Albanian hospitality, I want to be willing to be a host to those persons who come across my path who can see beyond the immediate pleasures and can envision greater potentials within themselves and in the world at large. Athlete or athletic supporter, I want to give shelter to those who can demonstrate excellence and emulate insistence.

Who knows, in my own way, I might even become willing to run my own marathon!

Wednesday, October 1, 2008


The chill of a wet, late August evening in Suffolk County, in the east of England did not deter us from a refreshing, all-out enjoyment of our brief holiday away from Greece. In fact, we rather welcomed the stark contrast from the steamy temperatures and chokingly dusty, dry conditions of Athens in August. We actually quite enjoyed putting on coats and even dodging the unremitting drizzle.

We had arrived in the old cathedral town late in the afternoon. After securing comfortable lodgings in an ancient coach stop, we stowed our gear and went quickly to the high street, in search of English adventure. Starved of properly “high church” worship and meditation, we knew that we wanted to go to the cathedral for Evensong. But, there was still time for exploring, so we set out on a relaxing stroll in the old cathedral grounds.

As only the British can decorate lawns, stone walls and ancient ruins, we ambled leisurely, yet still in the rain, through-out the grounds, breathing deeply to inhale the sense of majesty, symmetry, grace and history that abides. Honking horns on crowded streets, underground subways chocked full of frustrated urban captives, and loaded email inboxes screaming with messages from insistent colleagues marked “urgent” and “respond immediately” – all of that faded away, washed out by raindrops and the sweet, wet scent of roses.

In the midst of this antiquity, we came upon a small touch of more recent vintage. Facing a miniature golf putting course, in the shadow of the mighty cathedral edifice, we found a park bench of contemporary origin. Seeking rest for our soles and wanting to cherish the reverie of our souls, we sat down, pulling our rain gear close around us. After a brief respite, it was time to move on, toward glorious choral sounds of the early evening worship, now pouring forth from the majestic old sanctuary.

Almost as if by accident, but, I posit, by some sort of mysterious intervention, I turned to look behind myself as I rose from the bench. There, near the end of the bench, on a small plaque, I found these words: “Roger William Hobbs (8/15/46 – 3/16/06) He was not afraid of dying, he just wasn’t finished with living.”

I sat back down and called my partner to wait awhile. Surely, the cathedral music would wait for a few, delicious, additional moments, in honor of the late Roger William Hobbs. Who was he? What was his abbreviated life like? Why, in this ancient place, was this tribute resting place left in his honor? Of course, I know not.

My lack of insight into the particulars of his personal life cannot deter me from catching a glimpse and learning a lesson from this British stranger. I made an instant decision to take back to Athens the spirit of living which apparently characterized the report of the death of this noble soul. Although not yet staring death in the face, as least as far as I know, I want to die like that, not being finished with living.

If there is something sad about some of the aging friends whom I have known in my sixty plus years of wear and tear, it is that they have lost or lessened their enthusiasm for life. Some have mislaid the gusto by way of the painful intrusion of chronic and incurable diseases. But others, of-times far less ill of body, have somehow, somewhere made a fateful, if subconscious, decision to give up on life. They seem ready to hang it up, no longer willing to live fully, as if aging, by definition, disqualifies one from zest.

I remember my granddaddy. William Emmitt Newell was a barely-educated, rural farmer who scratched out an almost handsome living on a few acres of turnips, tomatoes and corn, raised a family of 10 children (one of whom was my father, his namesake) and lived an honorable life from the late nineteenth century through to the mid-twentieth century in eastern Mississippi.

On the Saturday night before his sudden death, this otherwise strong seventy-something year-old gentleman, went to sleep early, as was his custom. In the dark hours of the early morning, he awoke, convinced that it was time to go to church. Stirring his sleeping partner, my Granny, he said, “Is it time to go to church?” “No, Daddy!" she said, "Go back to sleep.” And he did, never to awake again this side of eternity.

Whenever that bell tolls for me, I want to go gladly, having learned the lessons from Roger William Hobbs of Bury St. Edmunds, England and William Emmitt Newell of Marion, Mississippi. What a great gift, indeed, to be fortunate to die before being finished with our living, accompanied by a solid anticipation of praising the timeless, eternal God.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Ceiling Fixers

Our recent holiday in England was a refreshing change from the Greek and Mediterranean culture within which we normally live. We had considered going to a Greek island, but decided in the end that we needed a break from all things Hellenic. Not only did I enjoy being in a place where English is the first language, where cucumbers are not served with every meal and where “full English breakfast” is redundant, I was especially taken by the English-language newspapers which litter the London underground. Published daily and without direct cost, the papers are always on the seat next to one when traveling from one tube-stop to the next. Although in my adopted home-town of Athens, Greece, I get lots of English-language news via the Internet, it was great to indulge the inky feel of newsprint in my hands again.

We were somewhere on the Piccadilly Line, early one morning, en-route to a day of tourism and shopping. As the clogged underground railcar churned away through the dark holes of its route, I was reading the want-ads in one of the papers. I could dignify this exercise and report to you that I was doing research on economic conditions in Great Britain, but the truth is, I was bored; I had read everything else in the paper, including the society pages’ unending reports of Peaches Geldoff’s recent, perhaps impulsive, marriage to a new friend in the United States.

I found one classified ad particularly interesting. It was an advert for “ceiling fixers.” I can only assume that these are “drywall” people who “tape and float” sheetrock or its equivalent and who repair damaged ceilings in home make-overs. At any rate, there is apparently a great need for these people at the moment in the greater London area.

Ah, there seems always a pressing need for people who can powerfully fabricate ceilings and thus, limit the potential of other human beings! We have heard about the glass ceiling, but we also know that there are many other kinds of ceilings forced on the human spirit. Intended by God to soar, sinister and self-serving social forces often restrict the upward flight of humanity and hold its feet too close to the ground. The stale air and vested interests of “normalcy,” the suffocating vacuum of repressive authority and the damning downward force of unquestioned allegiance to tradition can easily suck the air from aspiration. Lacking the enervating and enlarging, heaven-bound wind currents and natural updrafts so readily available in the upper stratosphere, so many so easily have their dreams extinguished by socially imposed “ceilings.”

I am certain that I want to spend my life helping others to break through restrictive "ceilings," rather than repairing them and keeping people "down!"

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Involuntary & Intravenous

My recent 5-day hospitalization for a serious and potentially aggressive bacterial infection (I’m fine now, thanks, very much!) was much more than a mere assault on my audacious and assumed sense of invulnerability. The whole thing was a powerfully loaded learning experience, despite my patented resistance to reading life’s sign-posts. While I have only begun to “mine” the depths of this incident and will likely have more to say on this later, here is at least one category of my initial reflections.

The first framework for interpreting this rude educational experience came to me in an uncertain and discomforting moment, when, with eyes tightly shut and arms close to my side, my body was being backed into one of those ginormous machines which takes electronic pictures of your brain. My tiny head now surrounded by a metal and plastic apparatus about the size and shape of a large tractor tire, I began to detect the buzzing, whirring and churning of a busy electric motor. Accompanying this was what seemed the slight sloshing of water and the occasional ping reminiscent of the radar sounds from an old submarine movie.

And then, it came to me! The sloshing sound did it! I was instantly transported across time, all the way back to my early childhood. Lying prone and at risk, in this perhaps “Freudian” moment, I was, once again in my parents’ humble rental house. The sounds dredged up on the screen of my mind a grainy image of a tiny infant, sprawled in a crib; in the background, his mother’s yoeman wringer washing machine was rotating dirty clothes in a small tub of clean soap and progressively dirty water.

Returning to my hospital room, with lots of time to reflect, I noted many parallels between an adult hospital stay and the typical experience of being an infant. Babies and hospital patients share the reality that:

· an inordinate amount of time is expended waiting and looking at the ceiling!
· one’s schedule revolves around a preoccupation with sleeping, eating and attending to basic bodily functions!
· there is an enforced priority on taking medicine!
· most of the time, you look up and out at others, while others look down on you!
· you often spill things on yourself and usually learn quickly to accept the mild inconveniences of sharing the bed with crumbs or various, minute remnants from previous meals!
· you are wheeled everywhere you go in an uncomfortable, rolling conveyance constructed of cold metal sides and flexible, plastic webbing!
· a small room is, of necessity, perceived as the center of the universe, with little awareness of reality beyond what can be immediately seen!
· clues, suggesting life beyond the immediate setting, can occasionally be derived from the ominous sound of footsteps in a corridor!
· the world and access to it are controlled by well-meaning care-givers!
· these generous others express enormous compassion, usually in a slightly patronizing way!
· at first these faceless “invaders” seem sinister, but they soon become friends!
· although at the mercy of others initially, after a while, they learn how to make wants/needs known to those in control!
· schedules and routines, determined largely by others, can be upset by “accidents” or “emergencies,” over which one has, if not power, at least some measure of responsibility!
· the timing, quantity and selection of food intake is divined by others, guided ostensibly by health concerns, but always because they “know better!”
· the world can be frightening and confusing and almost totally dependent on the “supreme” knowledge of other, more experienced, “big people!”
· it is quite nice to have someone to prepare, serve and deliver meals, as well as to make the bed and “tuck one in” at night!
· anonymous others often talk about you, usually outside your hearing!
· the difficult act of putting on new clothes, even though minimalist or lacking in fashion or flair, usually makes things better, notwithstanding the inconvenience!
· other “actors” in life’s drama usually have more elaborate and colorful “costumes!”
· a bath, clean towels and bed-sheets can change your entire outlook on life!
· usually, you are blessedly ignorant of and, at best, largely unconcerned about the actual costs of the care provided!
· slightly nervous, but polite persons from another world often come and look at you, say pleasant things to you and say even more pleasant things about you!
· some visitors from this other world excel in their visitations; others do not!

Well, here’s the last word – for now. Both babies and patients, in the most optimistic of scenarios and the most normal of instances, make progress, grow, get better and move on to new challenges; and, thanks be to God, so have I!

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Pigeon-Talk (a Parable)

The common street pigeon in Athens waddled across the pavement, his calloused little bird feet immune to the boiling August temperature, near to melting the asphalt. With a characteristic, calibrated turn of the head, he seemed to be taking notice of the exotic birds in the cages of the nearby street vendor.

On my way to pay a parking fine, I was in need of some comic relief, so I paused to observe this serendipitous avian interaction. Backing away, so as to provide both an unencumbered view and an unobtrusive presence, I rested my weary bones on an old rectangular piece of pipe, intended to prevent automobiles from driving on city sidewalks. I caught my balance, leaned back against the city market light pole and watched a pricy, foreign-export bird in a cage commune with an ordinary, nasty peristeri (Greek word for pigeon) on the street – the kind that my prejudice insists we have far too many of.

Although my linguistic fluency is improving, thanks to language studies in both Albanian (Shqip) and (contemporary) Greek, I really have no competence in bird-speak. But my imagination translated the dialogue between these two feathered creatures.

The cocky, bright colored cockatoo seemed to be speaking down to the pigeon. From his cooler, lofty perch in the swinging cage, this articulate and pompous prima ballerina of the feathered classes seemed to be saying: “Oh, you poor, sad creature! Destined by fate and genetics to tread the filthy streets, scavenging on a scatological diet and savaging to survive, it’s just too bad that you could not be like me. I was born to privilege, destined by DNA to be among the higher of the bird species. People treat me like royalty; they bring me food each day; they talk sweetly to me; they clean my cage and ensure that I have fresh water. And all I have to do is sit here on my perch and occasionally peck at the little bell. It takes so little to make some people happy!”

The pigeon fluffed up his filthy feathers, leaned back on those well-worn street feet, cocked his tiny head, and said: “Yes, my dear fine-feathered friend, you do seem to have some advantages that I do not have. When I am tired of the street life, sometimes I long for your life of leisure and security.”

Now lifting his massive wings and catching the hot, steamy updraft rising from the city street, as his aerodynamic body began to rise swiftly, the pauper pigeon seemed to say in retort. “But, I am free! And freedom, my fellow bird friend, is far better than pedigree or luxury!”

I'm working with Albanian immigrants in Athens and praying that, despite their limited opportunities, they will know the truth, which sets one free!