Defenseless?

Image titled I want my mommy by anyjazz65

Image titled “I want my mommy” by anyjazz65

My wife Carol has an amazing affinity for animals of all kinds.  Our house is a virtual Noah’s ark of pets, including dogs, cats, birds, fish, and other assorted, furry varmints.  Each pet enjoys Carol’s special blend of care and attention.  She has a natural ability to communicate with animals in a way that leaves me awestruck.

For example, earlier this week, my son Derek and I were in the basement with the windows open when we heard a commotion in the backyard.

“What’s that noise?” Derek asked me.

“I don’t know.  It sounds like a bird fight,” I replied, vaguely aware of Carol rushing out the back screen door as I spoke.

Five minutes later, Carol called to us, “Don’t let any of the cats out.  I just caught Choco about to attack a baby bird that fell out of its nest!”

Sure enough, when I went out back, there was a baby robin clutching a branch in our little Japanese maple tree.  The loud noises earlier had been the baby’s frantic mother calling for help, and Carol had answered.  Over the course of that evening, we watched her cautiously feed her baby, and tracked his progress out of the tree and onto the top of our privacy fence.

“He’ll be fine as long as the cats and dogs don’t get him,” Carol advised me.  “Be careful when you let the dogs out in the morning.”

The next morning, I followed her instructions to the letter, and even searched our yard for our little visitor, finding no sign of him.  Carol had errands to run in town, and I headed for the computer.  But within half an hour, I heard those same, frantic bird calls from the previous day in the backyard.  Vowing not to make the same mistake twice, I hurried out into the backyard.

I circled our fence twice, finding nothing.  I was just about to give up the search when I discovered our cat with the baby robin on our back deck.  He had dragged the baby to our back door and was preparing for the kill.  The baby looked up at me and opened its beak in a silent call for help.  Tiny clumps of feathers scattered about him on the floor boards testified to the terror he had suffered in the past five minutes.

I quickly tossed the cat in the house, then turned back to tend to the wounded bird.  My first thought was to move him back to the relative safety of the fence again, but as I started to reach down to pick him up, a quieter voice that sounded a lot like Carol’s spoke in my mind: If you touch him, his mother will stop taking care of him.

I knew that voice was right.  So, reluctantly, I went back in the house.

He looked so defenseless sitting there by himself, but each time we went out to check on him, we would find his mother hard at work bringing him food to eat.  It wasn’t long before he was moving around the deck thanks to her efforts.  We helped her by letting our dogs out the basement door and blocking the stairs to the deck to protect the baby.

Slowly it dawned on me that baby robin wasn’t defenseless at all.  His Defender had a plan for him all along, and we were all playing our parts in it.

Late that afternoon, Carol called to me, “I haven’t seen the momma bird lately.  Do you see the baby anywhere?”  A thorough search of the back yard confirmed he had gained enough strength to leave.

Good luck to you, little guy.  May all the others you encounter along your path heed the Voice that brings healing and peace to this world.

Stories From Unemployment – 4

Graduation Cake Guy image by CarbonNYC.  Click image to see his entire photostream.

"Graduation Cake Guy" image by CarbonNYC. Click image to see his entire photostream.

Earlier this week, I heard a news report stating the last time the national unemployment rate was this bad was back in the early 1980’s.  I graduated from college in 1983, at the height of the Reagan recession.  I had no interest in pursuing a graduate degree, and there were very few recruiters who visited our campus that year.  Consequently, I found myself at the end of my senior year saying goodbye to my friends and heading back to my parent’s home with no job prospects and no idea what to do next.

My time back home only lasted about a week before my mother was counseling me, “Douglas, I love you, but there’s nothing here for you anymore.  You need to go back to Alfred.  Get an apartment.  Get a part-time job.  Take some art course if you’d like, but keep in contact with your profession there.”

And that’s just what I did.

The Fifth Year of College

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately about that extra year I spent at Alfred University.  I supported myself working at the sub shop, selling some short-run custom pottery pieces, and working as a lab assistant.  I even did some substitute teaching in my old high school during the Christmas break – the horror.

When I graduated from high school, I had a dual college prep / art major.  I decided to pursue a degree in engineering for the financial security that career offered.  You can always be a full-time engineer and a part-time artist, I figured, but it doesn’t work so well the other way around. The price of that promised security was four solid years of math, science, and technical course work that left me feeling empty in spite of my academic success.

I made it through my college years by taking every art option I could.  I even discovered a model design and mold making elective that could be counted for either art or engineering credit.  Wally Higgins, the instructor of that industrial pottery arts course, didn’t fit comfortably into either school.  His class was considered too rigid by the artists, too low-tech by the engineers.  I was drawn to him as a kindred spirit.  I even took my senior thesis under him.

When I returned for my fifth year, Wally accepted me as a lab assistant, and helped me get into a number of upper level art courses most engineering students couldn’t access.  I took advanced drawing, neon, sculpture, and glass courses.  Here at last was my opportunity to unleash my creativity.  I should have been in heaven.

Instead, I was miserable.  I judged myself a failure.  All my college friends were either working or enrolled in graduate school.  Why didn’t I work harder to find a job?  Why didn’t I apply for grad school? I allowed myself no satisfaction in my art work.  I’m an engineer, I thought.  I don’t belong in these classes.

The only accomplishments I valued were the dozens of job applications I generated over the long winter months.  But even that work was frustrating: I rarely received acknowledgement the letters had been received.  It was seven months before I got my first job interview.

The tide finally broke my way in May of 1984.  I landed two job offers, and left with great relief for my first job choice in Syracuse, happy to have the long year at Alfred finally behind me.

It took several years before I realized just how badly I had missed the opportunities of that fifth year.  I was supporting myself and doing exactly what I wanted to be doing, but my self-judgements turned a potential heaven into a hell.  No one considered me a failure but me, still that was all it took.  I cut myself off from the support and friendship that was mine for the asking.

I looked past all I had, and focused on what I felt I lacked.  I reaped the bitter harvest that I sowed.

All This Has Happened Before…

And now, twenty-five years later, I’ve been tempted to fall back into the same trap again.

I learned Friday from the hiring manager for the job I wrote about in the last post that his company just went through a down-sizing earlier that week.  They’re filling that position with an internal candidate from another division to avoid one more lay-off.

He was very kind to call me, and I felt well-treated through the whole experience, but as the weekend dragged on the stormy weather outside mirrored my internal frame of mind.  Now what do I do? I brooded.  There are other applications out, but no real prospects on the horizon.

Thankfully, the quote in my planner Monday morning helped me start to turn my thinking around:

I have learned to live each day as it comes, and not to borrow trouble by dreading tomorrow.  It is dark menace of the future that makes cowards of us. — Dorothy Dix

When I stopped and took stock of all we have, instead of what I lack, I couldn’t help but feel deep gratitude, and peace, and hope.

I enjoy the support of my family and we’ve grown closer over the past month than ever before.  We’re making ends meet financially with the full family’s cooperation and a little assistance from the government.  This experience has also helped me to see how many good friends I have, far more than I would have guessed before the lay-off.

For the first time since I took that first job in Syracuse, the possibilities for my career are wide open.  I limited myself during that fifth year at Alfred by thinking of myself as an unemployed engineer.  In fact, I further limited myself by thinking of that time as my fifth year of college instead of as the first year in my career.

And the world I experienced mirrored the internal thoughts I held closest to my heart.

So, some changes are in order.  This will be the last post titled “Stories From Unemployment.”  I’m excited for what the future holds, and unwilling to carry the “unemployed” label anymore.  Any suggestions you have for new titles for this series would be appreciated, but please don’t suggest the dreaded “seeking opportunities elsewhere.”

Where will my career go – writing, consulting, free lancing, teaching, full-time employment, or some blend of each?  I don’t honestly know at this point.  I’m on a journey of discovery. But I’ll find the answer with the help of my friends and our extended network.  These relationships will show me the way.  They’re the most important asset I have on this journey.

Ultimately, our relationships are all we truly have, or need.

Lost In The Woods

Image of Sandy by E. Mugglin

Image of Sandy by E. Mugglin

It was Easter Sunday, 2005, and I was excited about going to church.  This was going to be my first Easter church service since reclaiming my faith.  I had been raised a Christian, but had stopped practicing my faith just as soon as I went off to college.  I lived for many years thinking that I was smarter than all those “religious” people.  But during the previous year, I had finally awakened to my deep need for faith.  I looked forward to that Easter church service as my personal homecoming.

I was happily anticipating that service as I went about my morning chores.  Unfortunately, my daydreaming caused me to lose my focus when I let the dogs outside to do their business, and I forgot to clip our dog Sandy on her chain. 

Sandy is the escape artist in our family.  She’s a  sweet dog, but she was neglected and allowed to run wild as a puppy.  By the time we took her into our family, she couldn’t be trusted to be outside unless she was on a chain.  A couple of times a year, she’d manage to slip her collar, break her chain, or bolt out the door on us, and then she’d be gone.  She’d get muddy running in the woods, chase after cars on our street, and generally be a nuisance to our neighbor and friends.  Many hours, or even days, later she would return home, dirty, smelly, and completely worn out from her antics.

I realized my error seconds too late.  I rushed out the basement door just in time to catch a glimpse of her orange tail slipping under our fence.  I threw on some  shoes and gave chase.  It was my fault she had gotten loose; I knew I needed to get her back before I could do anything else, even go to church.

After a fairly lengthy chase through our development, setting-off fit of barking by every neighborhood dog in the process, Sandy headed up the hill and into the woods.  By now, I was bound and determined to catch her, so I followed her through the underbrush and into the forest.  At first, my persistence surprised her and I closed within yards of catching her.  But just as I dared to think I might actually succeed, pushing for all I was worth, she seemed to shift into a higher gear and accelerated away from me.  Within a minute, she was completely lost from sight.

I stumbled to a halt, panting for breath and holding a stitch in my side.  We were now deep in the woods, more than a mile from our home.  “Does Sandy even know where we are?” I worried.  “Would she be able to find her way home?”  I desperately tried to follow her by sound, listening for her crashing passage through the forest’s undergrowth, but eventually I lost contact with her completely.  Defeated, I turned to walk home, fearful that I may have caused our dog to be permanently lost.

But within a couple of minutes, I heard some crashing noises off to my left and caught a glimpse of Sandy’s orange-gold coat moving through the trees.  She was thirty yards away and moving in a parallel path to mine.  I sprang forward again with renewed energy, but the going was slower moving uphill, and I lost her again within two minutes’ time.

Again I turned to walk home.  Again Sandy reappeared and ran off when I gave chase.  As I lost sight of her for the third time, I came to a complete halt, bent forward, hands clutching my knees as I panted for breath.  Just as my heart was returning to a reasonable rate, that silly dog came crashing back out of the brush in the direction she had just disappeared.  She stopped twenty-five yards ahead of me, head up, eyes bright, tongue and tail wagging, staring expectantly at me.

Finally it dawned on me: Sandy was lost and didn’t know her way home, but she was more than happy to let me chase her through the woods.  She didn’t know where she was going, but it didn’t matter as long as I was following.

“Forget it dog,” I said, “I’m not chasing you anymore.”

I knew if I walked home, she’d simply follow me and resume her car chasing antics once she was on familiar turf.  So I opted instead to walk to a nearby meadow clearing on the opposite side of the woods, with Sandy tailing behind.  I found an old stump along the fence row and sat down.  Sandy circled me in the tall grass, never coming closer than ten yards, but never losing sight of me either.  There we sat, waiting each other out.

By now, it was too late to go to church.  I had missed yet another Easter service.  We stayed in the meadow like that for quite some time.  Despite my disappointment at missing church, it was quiet and peaceful in that field.  Eventually, I closed my eyes and began to pray.  After a while, my words ran out, and I meditated in silence.

“You treat Me the same way that Sandy is treating you.”

The words were simple and clear in my head, but they weren’t from me.  The Voice that spoke them sounded like mine, but it spoke with an authority and wisdom that I don’t possess.  It was a simple statement of Truth, made without anger or condemnation, a loving insight for my benefit.

And I saw clearly how I had been chasing down rabbit trails all my life.  I was trying to overcome the shame and guilt I felt by being faster and smarter than everyone else.  As a younger man, I had chased down every bluff and dead-end that I crossed.  Now that I had found my faith, I was trying to earn God’s grace through my own efforts, trying to anticipate and lead Him.  It was suddenly clear that all my efforts had been no more effective than Sandy’s were this morning.  I was just as lost as she was.

For the first time, I understood that I could never earn God’s grace and love; my debt was too great.  But I also clearly saw that wasn’t what God wanted from me.  His greatest desire was and is for me to simply accept the grace and love that He freely offers.  He waits patiently for me to stop my circling, draw close to Him, and be still.  Then He can lead where we’re meant to go.

Even now, almost three years later, I continue to gain insight and growth from the lesson I learned in the woods with Sandy that Easter morning.  On numerous occasions, as I’ve prayed, journaled, or simply gone about my daily business, I’ve seen a flash of Sandy and me in the woods.  I take it as a short-hand message from the Holy Spirit: be careful, you’re trying to lead the way again.

More recently, when I was considering reading a book that caught my interest, I prayed for guidance before launching into it.  When I accepted the answer, “No,” and set the book aside, I was treated to a vision of Sandy  sitting quietly by my side under the spreading branches of the trees in our forest.

I share this story not because I feel it makes me special, but because I believe each of us has similar sorts of stories to share, times when we’ve experienced the Spirit in a powerful and personal way.  Spiritual disciplines, such as reading scripture, praying, journaling, etc. are important to practice on a regular basis to put us in a position to experience God’s Spirit in our lives.  However, it’s those individual experiences of God where He does his greatest work in our lives.  He is a personal Creator, He knows our individual needs, and He has a unique plan intimately tailored for each of His sons and daughters.

This is a topic not regularly discussed in polite religious circles, let alone the “real world.”  How about you?  Do you have a story of a close encounter of the spiritual kind that you can share?  What happened, and how has it changed your life since it happened?  I’ve a feeling we’ll be surprised just how many stories there are out there.

Friends

Image by KM Cheng, Hong Kong

Image by KM Cheng, Hong Kong

It’s Friday morning here in China and we’re nearly half-way through our trip already.  It’s true what Gretchen Rubin noted in her one minute movie, “The days are long, but the years are short.”

Yesterday we visited a long-time supplier (at least for China) in their new factory in Jiangmen.  My friend KM works for this company.  He was one of the first people I met on my first trip to China, and we’ve grown close over the course of the past few years.

KM and his family live in Hong Kong, but he spends much of each work week at his company’s pottery factories in southern China.  KM is fluent in Cantonese and Mandarin Chinese as well as English, and he has a wonderful talent for photography.  Many of the pictures I use to highlight these posts have come from KM’s Picasa account.

When I was travelling more frequently to China, I could always rely on KM.  We spent countless hours together, working at the factories as well as travelling between sites and, of course, eating (most Chinese companies insist on taking you out to a fancy lunch and dinner when you’re visiting them, but that’s another post).

Image by KM Cheng, Hong Kong

Image by KM Cheng, Hong Kong

Over the span of my visits, KM and I grew to respect each other, and out of that respect our friendship grew.  We found many similarities despite our different cultures.  We share many of the same struggles in our work and our home lives.  We both enjoy travelling and hiking.  We’ve even worked for the same company at different times in the past.

On one of my early trips to China, I got very sick with bronchitis and couldn’t continue on my agenda.  KM rearranged my airline reservation and helped to get me to Hong Kong and safely home.  On my last visit, he arranged a hike for us in the mountains of Hong Kong; it was blistering hot and the trail was steep and difficult, but the view was amazing and I loved every minute of it.

We’ve kept in touch over the past year and a half via e-mail, but written words can only communicate so much.  A lot has changed in the past 18 months, and I was really looking forward to catching up with KM yesterday.  Unfortunately, while we were physically together for much of the day, the schedule of the visit and the number of people involved in our meetings prevented us from having anything but superficial conversations.

KM self-portrait

KM self-portrait

I went to sleep last night disappointed with myself for not making more of an effort to connect with my friend.  I was still reflecting on that disappointment at breakfast this morning as David, my friend and coworker who’s visiting China for the first time, was telling me about his experience at the Chinese foot massage.

“Those girls were chatting up a storm all evening, talking about the same things that the girls back home do.  Then the one that was doing my feet said something to me without gesturing or inflection, and I did what she wanted.  Our translator was surprised and asked if I understood what she said, and I told him that after so many years of being married, you just know what a woman’s thinking.”

And then he said, “People really are the same, no matter where you go.”

I’m frequently asked back home if I like to travel to China, and my answer is a guarded “yes”.  There are many pros and cons to a business trip like this, but the final deciding factor, the icing on the cake, is the friends I’ve made here. 

Image by KM Cheng, Hong Kong

Image by KM Cheng, Hong Kong

Everywhere I turn, I find good people here.  Hard-working people, fun-loving people.  They have the same hopes and dreams and worries that we all do.  Yes, there are a few bad people over here who have put melamine in the milk or lead in the toy paint, but then again there are a few bad people back home who made predatory loans that have caused some major economic troubles.

People really are the same, no matter where you go.

And I’m grateful that KM understands, as I do, that our friendship will continue.

The Rainbow Shield

Image by E. Mugglin

Image by E. Mugglin

It was August of 2006 and we were flying over Illinois in a brand new Boeing 777.  I was in a window seat with a view of the port engine that was mounted under the plane’s wing.  It was overcast below us, the cloud tops forming a smooth, white carpet as far as the eye could see.  The bright blue sky above our plane was streaked with wispy mare’s tail clouds.

The jet engine was massive.  If I could have stood on my toes inside the opening of that engine, I wouldn’t have been able to stretch up and touch its top.  It had been painted in a shiny, reflective metal finish.  I could hear the whine of its turbines and the roar of the air passing over the plane’s skin outside, but the only visible evidence that the engines were working was the slow, steady movement of the clouds sliding below us.

As I idly watched those clouds passing by, my eye was drawn back to the jet engine, and I realized with a start that I could see the reflection of our plane in its shiny surface.  The dark blue of the fuselage was there, as were all of the soft square window openings.  Moving my head slightly back towards my seat, I could see the nose of the plane.  Leaning forward, I could see the plane’s tail.  I could even see the reflection of the clouds passing below.

I was watching our plane fly.

I don’t know how long I played with that reflection, enjoying the out-of-body feeling of watching myself from a distance.  It was fun pretending that I was able to fly alongside the plane, just beyond its wing tip, watching it sail through the clear, cold air.

Then my eye saw something new: the shadow of our plane was visible on the clouds passing below us.  The cloud tops were so smooth, that our shadow barely rippled as it sped across their surface.

How fast we were moving!  Our shadow raced across the cloud tops.  Once again, I heard the roar of the passing air and I felt the vibrations from my seat, clear evidence that our plane was moving very fast.  I knew this as fact in the same way that I know the earth spins on its axis every 24 hours, but seeing evidence of that speed up close for the first time gave me a thrill.

Without moving an inch, I could shift my perspective from sitting comfortably in my seat to flying along side our plane to watching our progress over the clouds below simply by changing my focus.  I was in three places at the same time.

Then I saw something truly spectacular: we passed beneath some wispy clouds and a rainbow appeared, forming a perfect halo that surrounded our plane’s shadow.

It was like our plane flew in a protective bubble of rainbow light.  I could almost feel that light holding us up, like we were cupped in God’s own loving hands.  I felt safe, protected, and completely at peace.

The joy of that moment was too much for me to keep to myself.  I showed the man sitting next to me our rainbow shield below.  “Oh, that rainbow’s caused by the polarizing effect of the plastic in the windows,” he said.

Same planet, different worlds, I thought to myself.

Albert Einstein once observed, “There are only two ways to live your life.  One is as though nothing is a miracle.  The other is as though everything is a miracle.”

It’s really as simple as that, we all have the power to choose.

But while the choice itself may be simple, making that choice is anything but easy.  Choosing changes everything.  It affects you and the way you view the world.  Consequently, it changes the world.

Harder still, choosing isn’t a one-time-only question or even a weekly planning question; it’s a continuous process.  Moment by moment, day by day we all make our choices, and the universe obligingly reflects back what we expect to see.  Many people don’t even realize they’re making a choice.

What about you?  How do you see life?  Are you looking for miracles in your life?  If you’ve read this far, it’s a pretty good bet that you are.  Please share your stories of life’s miracles in the comments below.

A Zen Moment In The Men’s Room

Image by KM Cheng

Life has many lessons to teach me, and lately I’ve been finding that school is always in session, often in unlikely places.  For example, I recently travelled to a supplier’s factory to review a production run of parts they were making for our company.  Prior to heading into the factory, our hosts asked if I’d care to use the restroom, and I agreed.

All of the equipment in this restroom was automated.  The lights switched on as I entered the room, and all of the toilets and urinals were outfitted to flush automatically.  There were three sinks with sensors to turn the water on and off – I had to move to the second sink when the first wouldn’t cooperate with me.  As I rinsed the soap off my hands, I glanced to the wall to see what was next.

It was just as I’d feared: an automatic paper towel dispenser.

Whose bright idea was it to install motion detectors under paper towel dispensers?  I was perfectly happy pulling the towels out by hand or even pumping a little lever to dispense the towels.  When it comes to getting my hands dry, I’m batting a thousand using standard paper towel dispensers, but their automatic cousins have thwarted me completely.  What purpose does this automation serve?

With a rising sense of foreboding, I held my dripping hands under the open maw of that accursed machine.

Nothing.

I waved my hands side to side.  Still nothing.  I raised them higher and waved again, harder this time, but to no avail.  A full roll of paper towels was visible through the smokey-clear plastic cover, but I could find no combination of hand position and movements that could coax even a sliver from that machine. 

“They install these things to frustrate you to the point you give up and don’t actually use any paper,” I muttered as I hurried out the door with wet hands, feeling rushed and slightly embarrassed for having been so long. 

As it turned out, the factory visit went very well that day.  The production run exceeded everyone’s expectations and we were able to wrap up our business ahead of schedule.  I decided to make one final stop in the restroom before leaving for the return trip home.

I recall feeling happy and relieved that the trip had gone so well.  There had been a lot of pressure from my company to make this trip successful.  As I was pleasantly reflecting on how the good news would be received back at the home office, I casually reached for a paper towel.

The dispenser whirred into life. 

The noise of the dispenser instantly drew my attention back to the moment.  I stared in surprise as a fresh paper towel rolled out of the dispenser.  Actually, I was shocked to the point that my jaw dropped.  Yes, I know how silly that sounds, but it’s true.  Up until that point, I had given up hope of ever getting a paper towel dispenser to operate automatically for me.

I had to try it again.  Could I get the dispenser to work a second time?  I focused on my hand, trying to recall how I had moved it before, and passed it under the dispenser in one slow, fluid motion.  The dispenser obligingly spit out another paper towel.

Yes! 

I danced like a prize fighter, my fists pumping over my head in victory.  It really is the small things in life that get me juiced up…

I had been moving my hands too fast.  The motion detector hadn’t seen my too-rapid waving, just as I can’t see the beating wings of a hummingbird.  When I slowed down and moved with purpose, then I experienced success.

You could also argue that my relaxed and confident attitude was a factor in successfully attaining what I desired, but we’ll save that thought for another post. 

Where else in my life am I not succeeding because I’m in too much of a rush, focused on what’s coming next, not truly present?  How have my important relationships suffered because I was in a hurry?  How many mistakes have I made in haste? 

And so it was that the restroom taught me its lesson: we live in a world that pushes us to do more each day.  We work harder, faster, striving to be more efficient.  We take pride in our ability to multitask.  We admire people who are over-scheduled.

But there is a simple question that we frequently forget to ask in our haste: am I being effective?

Life showed me that I need to slow down a little and focus on one task at a time.  What’s life trying to tell you?

We’re Going Home

It was late May, 1982 and I was sitting on a wooden bench at a roadside bus stop in a small Italian town.  In my mind, the Beatles’ song “Two Of Us” was playing on repeat loop as I silently watched the traffic lurch and weave, honk and gesture in that aggressive way Italian drivers have perfected.

I was twenty-one at the time and halfway through my seven-month study abroad trip.  This was my third journey into Italy.  My travel partner this time was John Edmund, a fellow exchange student from Alfred University and the valedictorian of our class.  John and I “knew” each other in a small college kind of way, but we weren’t particularly close.

Let’s Visit Uncle Joe

It was John’s fault that we were sitting there waiting for a bus.  John and I had been sharing a room in the international student dormitory for the past month.  As our mid-term holiday approached, John surprised me by asking if I’d travel with him to Italy. 

I remember agreeing with some reluctance.  I had a poor opinion of Italy; I felt it was dirty and coarse.  I preferred the clean and punctual northern-European countries.  Still, I had no better plans for the holiday, and I knew the loneliness of travelling alone.

We had travelled first to Florence, then to Rome, and it had been a good trip so far.  The art, the architecture, the history – I was seeing a better side of Italy.  Even the bustle of the city streets and the volitile way the Italians acted seemed less threatening to me.  I had to admit, it had been a good trip, right up until that morning when John said, “Let’s go visit my great-uncle Joseph.”

“Who?” I asked, my mind still struggling to shake off the last cobwebs of sleep.  Uncle Joe was John’s grandfather’s brother.  He lived in a town not far away from where we were staying in Rome.  John had met Uncle Joe once back when John was a young boy. 

I asked some further questions, alarm rising in the pit of my stomach, and John replied: no, he hadn’t kept contact with Uncle Joe after that visit; no, Uncle Joe didn’t know that John was currently in Europe; yes, he was sure that Uncle Joe would remember him and would love to have us visit.

This did not sound like a good idea to me.  Being self-sufficient and shy to a fault, I was sure that John’s distant relatives would want very little to do with him, and nothing to do with me.  I tried to explain my concerns to John, but my words just weren’t getting through.  The idea of visiting his ancestral home had taken hold on him.  There was no stopping him from going to visit his great-uncle, and I couldn’t keep myself from going along too, as if sucked along in his wake.

Homecoming

We had to take a local train to a small town to catch a bus to his Uncle’s even smaller town.  By the time John led me to the bus stop, I had resigned myself to a painful death by embarrassment.  No doubt I’d burst into flames under the withering stares of a group of Italian strangers as they guarded their home from the unwelcome American stranger.  The final straw came when John read the posted bus schedule and commented that there was only one bus to his Uncle’s village scheduled for that day.

“My mind screamed, “You’ve got no way back to Rome tonight!  Leave!  Now!  Before it’s too late.”

John sat down on the bench to wait for the bus.  Then a strange thing happened: my butt sat down next to John.

This surprised me so much that my thoughts were stunned into silence.  For half a minute, maybe more, all was still in my mind.  Then quietly, that Beatles’ song rose out of my memory, its words half remembered, its melody soothing and calming me.

…Two of us sunday driving/ not arriving/ on our way back home.

We’re on our way home.

We’re on our way home.

We’re going home.

 That song played like a theme song for me as we waited on the bench for the bus.  It played as we rode that bus, watching all the other passengers exit until only the two of us and the driver remained.  The bus climbed up steep mountain roads, weaving between pastures and fields as we drove far out into the countryside.  Finally, our bus turned off the country road and onto a lane made of ancient stone pavers, turning a corner and coming to a stop in a small town plaza circled by a dozen stone houses.

John was out the bus door as soon as it openned.  I made my way off the bus at a more reasonable pace.  By the time I stepped down from the bus, John was already surrounded by two dozen people.  Half the town had turned out to gawk at the strangers from the bus. 

John was valiantly wading through the crowd pointing at a piece of paper he was holding with his great uncle’s name written on it and asking, “Do you know my Uncle Joe?”  No one in the crowd spoke English, not that it mattered that much.  It was all but impossible to hear anybody speaking over the noise and bluster of the gathering crowd.  We were apparently the most excitement that these villagers had seen in a long time.  More doors were opening, more people were joining the fray.

Then, just when all looked lost, a young man not much older than us was hustled into the center of the crowd where we stood.  The crowd grew quieter as he explained that he was attending the university and was studying English.  Then he listened as John explained why we were there. 

It took a couple of tries, he wasn’t used to John’s American accent, but eventually the man’s eyes grew wide, and he turned and spoke to the crowd in Italian.  They roared and cheered.  He turned back to us and explained that yes, Uncle Joe lived in their village.  John was also related to the English speaking man and a good portion of the crowd there in the plaza.

Uncle Joe was the Postmaster.  He was hurried out to the plaza and he greeted both John and I as long-lost family.  It was immediately decided that they would shut down the post office and the town one store early, and prepare a feast for us.  The women in the crowd bustled off to their homes to prepare the meal.  Meanwhile, some of the men and a number of curious boys gave us a grand tour of the town, which dated back to early Roman times.

Soon it was time to eat, and we sat crowded around a long table with at least twenty of John’s relatives.  We had a tasty, traditional Italian meal: pasta as the first course, meat for the second, and wine through out.  What a happy gathering!  We bonded quickly with our new-found family.  By the end of the meal, we were laughing at each others’ jokes, correctly interpreting them through hand gestures and inflection before John’s cousin could interpret.

That visit meant more to me than I could express at the time.  John’s family welcomed a stranger into their home and adopted him as a son.  Years later, their open acceptance stands out clearest of all of my travelling memories.  I couldn’t repay their gift to me, I couldn’t even properly thank them, but I’ll always remember them.  And perhaps it’s not too late to work at taking after my adopted side of the family.