Saturday, June 6, 2009

Sometimes on the Journey

Sometimes there are days when everything seems to go right. Sometimes it seems that there are days where nothing goes as you planned it. Some days there are just days when they are in the middle of the ying and yang of life and you wished you had stayed in bed.

The other day was one of "those days."

The Internet was down and the phones were not working in the office and I had a ton of "important" activities I needed to get completed for work but since we rely so much on technology I was lost. The decision was then easy to take some time for some personal business (please don't tell my boss.) It wasn't until I was done with the day that I realized that this potential day from hell was transformed into a series of graces.

Now you know how when you have an older tired car you can dred the experience of bringing the car in for motor vehicle inspection. The "failed" sticker can easily be translated into a proclamation of "many dollars for serious or annoying repairs need to be spent here.". Unexpectedly my twelve year old Volvo passed a motor vehicle inspection (Please do not contact the DMV!) But concerning another car related situation, right after the successful inspection I ventured to an automotive repair store ready to go to war. A couple of months ago this shop replaced a bent rim and wheel on my car and recently the local Volvo dealer realized the wheel this auto shop had me purchase was the wrong size. I was ready to "lawyer up", as my friend Anthony says, and punish this auto-repair shop if I didn't get immediate satisfaction. To my ultimate surprise the store manager was a complete gentleman as he asked to see my receipts and credited my credit card with no questions asked!!

The surprises would continue. Did you ever have one of those delightful surprises that somehow come out the blue from nowhere? I get email messages and phone calls from old long lost friends periodically and though delightful these reconnections are almost expected. I think these reconnections are just checking in to see if I am still alive. But as I came home from my automobile adventures I found an Internet message from an old friend and associate. (Yes, the Internet was now up and running, another surprise!) I had tried to reach out to this man a year or so ago and when he didn't return my emails I thought the worse. I guess I am guilty also of checking in to see if my old friends are still roaming around. When this particular associate and I were working together this man came down with Lou Gehrig's Disease (ALS.) So it was truly an unexpected connection when a surrogate of this associate reached out to me on my friend's behalf. I was/am delighted, humbled and grateful that this "companion" reached out to reconnect with me.

Suddenly my trials of the day seemed so inconsequential. These issues never were really significant but I had found cause to develop stress over failed technology, auto inspections and inadequate sales and service. Also, the small victories in each of these situations seemed to diminish in their importance. I am grateful for the small blessings but they were almost meaningless compared to the reaching out of a long lost friend who has suffered so much.” Relationships are what really matters,” I thought.

I don't think this friend knows that our experience together years ago became a subject of one of the chapters in a book I have written. His intelligence, service, compassion and persistence have inspired me always.


The Long and Winding Road

“Many times I’ve been alone
And many times I’ve cried,
Anyway you’ll never know
The many ways I’ve tried.”

Long and Winding Road, Lennon and McCartney

“Great fidelity to the holy will of God in the little things of every day is what Thomas a Kemps called the Royal Road of the Holy Cross”
Father Hugh Thwarts SJ

In the movie “Romancing the Stone” Kathleen Turner’s character takes a bus along a serpentine mountainous path called a road through the mountains of Colombia. On film it looked quite ominous in real life the road is dramatic as it is spectacular! Well I wasn’t in Colombia but my client Jackson took two associates, Pat and Jim, and myself along a similar type drive up through the mountains outside of Caracas. Pat thought it was cute that every once in a while we would see a tiny doghouse size structure adorned with flowers. Venezuela is known for its abundance of stray dogs and she thought the locals had constructed shelters in the mountains for the animals. Jackson laughed and advised that these structures were memorials for individuals who have died in accidents along this snake hilled roadway going straight up and swerving right and left going down the mountain. Our hearts in our throats we traveled 60km from Caracas through the Macaroon National Park to a small mountain village founded by German immigrants in 1843. It is a transplanted Bavarian village in a valley in the Andes.

White stuccoed red shale chalets coat the mountainside. The founders called it Colonia Tovar. I must admit that traveling to South America was anxiety provoking enough. Going to unknown village miles from “civilization”, up and down unknown roads to an unknown added to the anxiety and prayers.

Traveling has really been a mixed blessing. I have admitted that earning the frequent flyer miles influenced my time for reflection. Actually my reading, writing and prayer time on airplanes probably had their roots in my anxiety and guilt.
For the most part I really didn’t enjoy the prospect of flying and then there was the fact that I usually didn’t know much about where I was headed or about the people I was to meet on the other end of my journey. What a great metaphor for life isn’t it? Often I really had no idea of where I was going and I was literally running on faith and hope! God knows I can fill volumes about the adventures, places and faces…and maybe I will someday. One of my last trips to Caracas it was about ten days after 9-11. It was the first flight from Newark to Caracas after a hole was left in our hearts and the skyline. Only a dozen or so passengers boarded including a couple of very lonely fear filled mideastern looking travelers who feigned sleep for the duration of the flight. I am not sure if I wrote or prayed the complete flight but I am sure that whatever I did it was intense and focused. The anxiety was not mitigated much when I was greeted at the airport by young packing bodyguard who led me to my full armored SUV. “I have faith, Father, it is trust I lack.” One tradition that was born out of my fears was to visit a church or chapel at every city I would visit. Another was to visit a baseball stadium in each of these cities. Though intended I never did see a ball game in Caracas. I had heard in the movie “Bull Durham” that there are 108 beads in a Rosary and there are 108 stitches in a baseball. I would carry beads and it I didn’t have them handy I would use a baseball or vice versa.

After arriving in Colonia Tovar my group began exploring the quaint pubs and gift shops. Jeem and I lost sight of the others . I had just met and hired Jeem .Pat had recommended him to help with this project, as he was bi-lingual, educated in Spain and successfully managed an American enterprise in Mexico. For some unknown reason we discovered simpatico immediately during our first telephone encounter. He was not convenient to visit as he was in Chicago and I lived in New Jersey. Besides being familiar with the petroleum and convenience store industry in Latin America he was an avid baseball and soccer fanatic. Besides he had a brother in seminary. “So far so good”, I thought. Jeem and I found our way to the local church on the town square when we lost our party in the germanesque village in the Venezuelan mountains. Without hesitation we entered knelt down and prayed together. We were not aware of each other’s beliefs of views on spirituality and God. As we discovered that as we traversed the through the mountains and wandered about the winding lanes of Colonia Tovar we were discovering our own mutual winding pilgrimage to spiritual maturity. During the off hours Jeem, Pat and would have spontaneous explorations about our faith journeys and prayer. If we had taped these exchanges one would think in listening to the tapes that we were missionaries on some struggling crusade. I was reminded constantly of the passage “where there are two or more in my name there I am.” Who would’ve imagined that we three disparate pilgrims would eventually become companions in the mountains of Venezuela? At night I fantasized that Ignatius had commanded us to go forth to spread the word. I have no doubt that God was with us in us every moment in our business encounters in Caracas and the outlands. We wanted so much to find a way to continue to work together beyond this project. God was laughing again as God heard our plans. We were, we are true companions.

The client, Jackson, had requested that my firm help pull together a “country market entry plan” as they tried to develop a brand marketing strategy for Latin America. Jeem was instrumental at helping me craft the plan but there came a point where we needed assistance on the financial banking side. There are so many economic and banking implications when attempting to establish a commercial enterprise that crosses so many national borders. Jeem and Pat would continue to be involved with general business and organizational issues in developing this plan. But, I turned to Herb’s former partner, Les, who since our consulting days together had developed a substantial track record in the banking industry. Though quite bright and an impressive strategic thinker even Les was stumped with some of the minutiae and detail of international banking commerce regulations and processes. Les turned to a former employee of his. His name is Rob and he was a subject matter expert on international financial banking and accounting regulations and operating guidelines. I had met Rob a year earlier when we worked together on another project.

Les, Jeem, Pat and I with a few people from my home staff would work closely Rob. Over time we sensed a change in him. He told me of how his TMJ was acting up and affecting his speech. We assumed that the tension in his jaw was the reason that he had a difficult time articulating what he was attempting to say. He was becoming more difficult to understand each time we would get together. It became more difficult to include him in our weekly conference calls as he vocalization was deteriorating rapidly. Though the ability to communicate effectively was being impacted his ability to think and contribute to our project was not diminished. Rob was used to trials, as he was a competing cyclist. He used to share with us how he trained for miles daily in preparation for the big race he was for which he was training. Pat, Jeem and myself would quietly pray privately for Rob. He had a disarming sense of humor and he was always a delight to be around. He never complained about his condition. Lincoln, one of my staff members, found a way for Rob to communicate with us using technology. Though appreciative of Linc’s efforts Rob wasn’t an early adopter of this technology. Maybe he was self-conscious about his ailment. Rob’s involvement was finally relegated to emailing, instant messaging and typing draft documents. He almost could not speak and he felt embarrassed and wasn’t sure but he started to wear him down and he would feel quite physically fatigued.

Rob’s required involvement in our project gradually came to a close. He never complained about his change in circumstances and remained hope filled that he would improve. I am embarrassed to say that even as of this day at writing this I am not sure if Rob is a prayer filled or faith filled man. I had reached out on several occasions from a spiritual or prayerful perspective to him. He was gracious in his reception for my prayers but never went any further with an indication of his having faith or not. A mutual friend then shared with me that Rob did not have TMJ or a severe case of Fibromyalgia as we all speculated. He was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease. It is a progressive and usually fatal disorder that attacks the nerves and muscles called amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Coincidentally this disease was part of the muscular dystrophy that I had become involved with from a fund raising perspective. I wanted all our efforts, money and prayers from this involvement with MDA to some how magically be channeled to healing Rob.

Rob became an adjunct companion of sorts. We were all moved deeply with Rob’s ability to maintain his dignity throughout his severe personal, physical, and emotional and his probable spiritual trials. No words of complaint. As a matter of fact he was always uplifting. His work and diligence was unsurpassed for any healthy individual. I am embarrassed to recall what I paid him for his contribution to the project. If we were to inspect the quality of his work one would never know that his body was fading away. I don’t know many who could deliver the dedication and perfection under normal conditions. After his responsibility in the project ended he continued to correspond with me about the project, business and life in general but he never let on about his declining condition. His journey on that long winding road had taken a turn that would be faith testing to most of us. He became one I would name on my daily prayer list. Again, was this a coincidental encounter? Is Rob another one of those spirits who’s job it is to bless pilgrims on the journey?

As I reflected on Rob and blessing the Gospel reading for today, The Sermon on The Mount, continues to burn deeper into my inner being:

Matthew 5, 1-12
“… Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account...”

As companion Rob taught me much and obviously blessed me as I worked with him on this part of the journey together. He was blessed with his gifts and in his suffering. He was blessed in his service with grace. I would like to say that Rob and I have stayed close over the years after the project. We haven’t communicated much at all. Yet, he is one of many who have written something new in the ashes along the “Royal Road” of my journey.

copyright -2008 - JFSobecki


A little poem from David Whyte on journeys.

The Journey

Above the mountains
the geese turn into
the light again

Painting their
black silhouettes
on an open sky.

Sometimes everything
has to be
inscribed across
the heavens

so you can find
the one line
already written
inside you.

Sometimes it takes
a great sky
to find that

small, bright
and indescribable
wedge of freedom
in your own heart.

Sometimes with
the bones of the black
sticks left when the fire
has gone out

someone has written
something new
in the ashes of your life.

You are not leaving
you are arriving.

~ David Whyte ~

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