Monday, January 31, 2011


Janice’s grandfather, Grover Cleveland Riley, was known affectionately in the family as Papa. When I came into the family, Papa was in his eighties and had already survived two World Wars, the Depression, continuing tough times on his farm in Mississippi and the turbulence of the sixties civil rights struggles; in addition, he had outlasted two wives. He was, at the time, “breaking-in” (his words) yet a third wife. Somewhere in storage we still have (I hope) super 8 motion picture images of the aged but strong Papa, walking barefoot behind a mule, plowing his field in the cold of winter!

A few years after I married Janice, Papa’s once robust health began to fail. I remember one time, in the last hospital confinement before his death in the early ‘70’s, when my father was visiting with Papa in his room. Back when hospitals limited the number and times of visitors for patients, long days alone in his room were only occasionally broken by visits from family members and new friends, such as my father. On that day, my father would later recount to us that Papa looked directly at him and said: “Newell, there’s lots of wasted space in this room!” With much time to himself, the bed-ridden Papa must have been staring for hours from his bed, up into the ceiling and walls of his hospital room. With that limitation of the social world that often characterizes the elderly and, most especially, those confined to a hospital room, Papa sought to make conversation out of the imminent realities of his current situation.

Although Papa has been gone from us for many years now, so much of his life remains. Janice remembers how he always had orange slices candy for her; we recall the warmth (if not, oppressive heat) of those small heaters that burned in winter in the bedroom of his small, un-insulated, frame house. When Papa wanted to tell me that an idea or a project was not worth his while, he would say, “Son, there just ain’t no percentage in it!” To this day, when I tell Janice that I do not choose to become involved in a particular undertaking, I’ll borrow this well chosen syntax from Papa. Among our top remembrances of Papa, however, is, ironically, always his notice that “There’s lots of wasted space in this room.”

I suppose it is natural that, when one’s life begins to slow down and when one is faced with the reality that his days are numbered, one begins to reflect on inefficiency and waste. I take Papa’s statement to my father as reflecting on more than simply the construction design parameters of a hospital room from years ago. In a much larger sense, Papa was evidencing what I and others feel who have lived a few years and who, daily now, must acknowledge the reality that this life of ours is precious and fleeting.

With the perspective of some years, we are discovering that some projects must be abandoned because “there just ain’t no percentage” in them. And, with the benefit of maturity and a more keen concern for overall efficiency, we bemoan the sad reality of life’s abundant waste.

Oh God, show us how to so invest ourselves and our lives in such a careful manner that there can be an expectation of profound percentage of return and help us to join You in ridding this inefficient old world of its many costly and hurtful wastes!

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Thirty-nine Tumbling Tangerines!

Like every other Athenian, I go to the grocery stores often. Not every day, but close to it. The smaller size of our kitchen and, for many folks, the diminutive size of refrigerators in these parts makes essential a regular return to the grocer. Recently, I was returning from such an errand, loaded down with my permanent, ecologically-conscious grocery bag and also carrying several of the earth-polluting, small plastic bags. On my back and over my shoulder, I carried a web-sack of tangerines.

Those semi-tart and sometimes sweet, but not-so-juicy tangerines with their built-in easy-open outer skin and convenient servable pieces (We had something similar in Mississippi where I grew up; we called them satsumas!) serve as great in-between-meal snacks and make me believe I am eating something healthy for a change. On this particularly cold winter day, I was hobbling along on the sidewalk at the top of one of the hills in the business section near our place.

I could see her ahead, sitting on the sidewalk, holding her baby. This Roma (Gypsy) mother of no more than sixteen years routinely sits on her behind on the cold pavement, with legs folded in front of her, one forearm cradling a nearly newborn and the other arm extended, her cupped hand begging for Euro coins. This is her family’s preferred space to beg. I suppose it’s a good location, what with the generous population of middle-class Greeks who walk by each day and the higher-than-average percentage of retired folks who live in the neighborhood.

I was prepared to focus on keeping my precarious, nearly seventy-year-old balance, to shift the weight of my many packages and to resist eye-contact as I walked by, towering over her from my six-foot position of “superiority.” I always struggle with the tension between helping to feed a hungry baby and not wanting to co-depend and enable a subtle system that perpetuates both poverty and the over-population that aids and abets it. Like most “sophisticated” people on the street, I have perfected the skill of largely ignoring the woman-child and her baby and just walking on by.

No more than twenty feet from her, my web-bag broke, spilling thirty-nine tangerines on the sidewalk! Wish you could have seen those tennis ball-sized, rolling, orange, fruit balls as they spread out on the sidewalk and commenced, PacMan style, to chase each other down the incline! Everybody took notice! My fellow pedestrians just stepped aside, allowing the rolling fruit to gain momentum, rapidly descending the hill.

For the first time ever, I saw the face of the little begging mother on the street. Normally, she keeps her head and eyes down; only occasionally does she look up into the glazed-over eyes of the people passing by, pleading both with her words and with her face. But, with thirty-nine cascading citrus balls rapidly rolling her way, in terror, she looked up.

And, then, she did the expected thing. With her free hand and her legs, she began to corral those run-away satsumas and draw them into her skirt and other unmentionable portions of her body, now mostly spread flat on the ground. With dexterity and rapidity, she rescued every one of them, allowing none to get through her hastily-arranged fruit-dike.

Well – then and there, I decided that I was making a “generous” donation of fruit to her hungry family!

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Armless Jesus!

I have no idea why he has no arms and hands. Most likely, his normal body was compromised before it could be formed in utero because, years ago, his mother was given thalidomide early in her pregnancy. Sold in a number of countries from 1957 until 1961, the drug was withdrawn from the market after being found to cause horrendous birth defects. He is probably one of thousands who today are living evidence of an almost forgotten medical tragedy in modern times.
I came across him on a leafy, downtown, pedestrian walkway in my town of Athens, Greece. With a plastic cup held firmly in his mouth, shaking his head up and down, he was begging for money from passersby. His toothy grin beamed above the lip of the cup as the lady in front of me deftly dropped-in a couple of Euro coins. Still shocked by what I saw, I determined to put some money in his cup when I returned from delivering the papers to my lawyer’s office. To my disappointment however, five minutes later, when I stepped back onto the pedestrian walkway, he was nowhere to be found.
Walking back to the trolley stop, I couldn’t shake the image of that tall man with no arms, bouncing his head up and down, hoping for coins to drop in a cup tightly clamped between his teeth. Even as I boarded the trolley and stood next to another man with arms, hands and a guitar, singing beautiful Greek love songs and also asking for donations, I couldn’t erase the picture of the armless man. In the swift, kaleidoscopic collision of many mental eruptions, lubricated by a generous dose of survivor’s guilt, I simultaneously wondered how he emptied the coins from the cup, how he got the cup in his mouth in the first place, what he did with the coins, why such things are allowed to happen to human beings and why you and I are so blessed to have the use of both arms and hands?
Almost immediately, as the trolley moved slowly through the mid-day gridlock, I recalled that well-worn Christian prose by Annie Johnston Flynt that affirms the essential truth that “Christ has no hands but our hands to do his work today.” St. Teresa of Avila, speaking to us rather than for us, earlier made the same point when she stated that “Christ has no body now on earth but yours, No hands but yours, No feet but yours.” While I believe that these sentiments are profoundly correct – that you and I are the means by which the work of Christ is continued in our world – the armless man on the street reminded me that the first half of Annie and Teresa’s statements remains also sadly true. In our world today, Christ (sometimes) has no hands or arms at all!
It was Jesus himself who, in his classic parable of the sheep and goats, told us that “whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.” (Matthew 25:45) You may recall that he said this in response to those who were confused and defensive in responsive to Jesus’ critique of those who saw him hungry, thirsty, estranged, unclothed, sick or in prison and failed to respond. “When did we see you in this shape and did not help you?” (my summary of Matthew 25:44), they genuinely asked. Jesus’ reply indicates that, in some mysterious way, he is so intimately identified with hurting humanity that he is somehow present whenever anyone suffers.
If I take Jesus’ words seriously, then, on the street in Athens, Greece, I actually saw living, cup-bouncing, coin-clanking, teeth-jarring, head-bobbing proof that “Christ has no (arms and) hands!” Now, what am I to do with that?