Finding the Extra in the Ordinary

Growing up I was always scared. Didn’t really know why. I just was. Maybe it was the white kid-black neighborhood story. Maybe it was the traumatic stories my family had shared with me growing up. Or maybe I was just a wimp. 

In a large tree on the property I grew up in, my father built a three-story tree house. Not sure whether the house helped cultivate my imagination or whether my imagination simply used it as fuel. Either way, the tree house made it easy for me to stay tucked away in our property and rarely venture out into the neighborhood. Basically, at a young age I feared traveling. 

Considering the amount of countries I’ve traveled to by my current age I find that beginning strangely… 


Now that I have returned to my old neighborhood to live and am free from the fear of traveling I have found countless wonders and beauty painted across historic East Oak Lane. From charming houses to striking back streets, there is no end to the extraordinary. 

I believe this is the case with ALL places. If we step outside our fear and really look at the world around us, wherever that may be, than we will be able to find the extra in the ordinary. 

Won’t you join me? 


Want to make an impact? Live faithfully. 

The small children cheered when they saw him. Some pulled at his clothes, some simply hugged whatever body part they could grasp. It was a remarkable contrast. Here stood a middle-aged plump white man from the United Kingdom surrounded by a horde of small dark-skinned Ugandan boys and girls. Despite their differences, the villagers welcomed Roy as if he was family. He had been there many times before, so in some respects, he was like family. 

Roy had a regular job as an engineer. He spent most of his time managing his fellow engineers and trying to hit deadlines. But twice a year he left that behind and visited a small village in Uganda to help with whatever was needed. Some times it was to simply bring coveted resources like food and shoes. Other times it was to help build a house or water irrigation facilities. He did whatever was asked of him each time he returned. He still traveled to other places with his wife and child but he always saved time for his Ugandan family. 

I have a similar experience each year, however, the contrasts are more understated. I don’t travel to Uganda. And many of the children I encounter have closer backgrounds to that of my own. But the story is based on the same reason… to serve. 

In upstate Pennsylvania, miles from the New York border, sits a vast stretch of land where magic happens. It’s a summer camp called Camp Iroquoina. I take a trip there every year. It is traveling at its finest. Now, some would not see summer camp as traveling. And most would definitely not put a trip to Uganda and a trip to Hallstead, PA in the same category. But why not? Before we pass judgment, let’s think about our thoughts on travel and impact. 

In the world of traveling, especially when it comes to blogs and social media, we tend to give more legitimacy to the crazier people and the wilder landscapes. It’s understandable – we crave to see what we haven’t before. The places and people are new and exciting. 

“What kind of animal is that!!!!?”

“Wow! Is that guy really wearing that!?”

“Wouldn’t it be great to go there?”

These are the sights and experiences that drive our enthusiasm. The “Wow-factor”. It captivates us. And there isn’t anything wrong with wanting to be enthralled. To be completely overwhelmed with new things. It is fascinating and exciting and travel pushes us in extraordinary ways. But then we come home and continue with our lives. Many of the things we saw will continue on in our lives but only through our memories. We enjoyed the time traveled and it has made an impact on us, but we have not necessarily made an impact on the places weve traveled TO. 

In the world of education, kids love memorable moments. When a baseball player or famous author comes to your school and gives some inspiring speech it’s a very inspiring moment. But in terms of its impact, it pales in comparison to the person who interacts with the children every day. It is the regular day-to-day encounters that truly shapes hearts and minds. Thus the example of my yearly trip to Camp Iroquoina. 

Every year I go to camp and see God use me in amazing ways. Through collegial bonds and bonds with campers I see the lasting impact of consistency. Like Roy in Uganda, every time I return to those sacred grounds in upstate PA, it is a joyous and exciting reunion. It is beyond moving to see how just being consistent, and living faithfully can have the greatest impact on others’ lives. 

It was that thought of consistency that someone once told me when I was a camper at Camp Iroquoina. At the time, I was discouraged and downtrodden. The world around me seemed dark and doubtful. But a counselor told me something that gave me hope. 

“Never underestimate the power of living faithfully.” 

I didn’t know why at the time but the words gave me peace. It showed me a slice of life that God holds for us which does not depend on our works, or ambitions, or even our travels. It was a calm, confident, yet powerful idea. Live a consistent and faithful life, and thro that it, you will make an impact on the people of this world. 

Those Ugandan children did not run to Roy because he was famous or because he threw out gold coins to the villagers. They ran to him because he was faithful to them. He showed up time and time again to meet their needs. Where is it that you can live more faithfully? I would encourage you to re-examine the things you thought made the biggest impact and ask yourself where you can be more faithful. Because when you are full of faith, you are full of life… no matter where you are in the world. 

A Whisper Called Home

“You will have 5 sons! 5 SONS!!! Hee hee hee”, shouted the elderly Emirati man. My wife calls him Baba. She wasn’t pregnant yet but he was so adamant, in a cute way, that we encouraged his predictions. It helped that Baba had far more wrinkles than teeth. It also endeared him to us the way he walked quickly but intentionally despite that fact that he had lost a foot. He was like an aged Arab pirate. 

Baba had grown up in a time before the United Arab Emirates were the Emirates. He was a pre-Emirati. As a Bedouin boy, he developed in a time when people lived in thickly weaved tents and worked primarily after the sun went down. They traveled continuously, basing their moves strategically on water and other coveted resources. Baba had seen life. A difficult, calloused, sun scorched life that many can’t even imagine. And now, Baba stood in one of the newest hospitals in the world, with stunning architecture and glass walls 6-stories high, enjoying the cool refrigerated air whistling through the halls of Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi. 

The home he once knew is now gone. The closest he may come to experiencing that life is when there is a cultural festival and the government breaks out their Emirati package of activities and props. Falcons, henna, cane and hair dancing, basket weaving, pearl diving, and many other Emirati customs are paraded around in remembrance of their past life, their past home. But that home is gone. They do not live in tents any longer, they live in the new world. Their homes are now apartments on the 30th floor of state-of-the-art high rises. Or they live in mansions. Walled-off compounds with 10, 15, or 20 rooms, all tiled with marble or ornate cedar. Generously cooled at all times of the year. How odd it must be to know you can never return to the home where you grew up. To the life where you were raised. 

Interesting enough, I met many expats while traveling abroad who live a similar story, except there’s is one of choice. I met one family who have been abroad for over ten years. When they first moved abroad they took regular trips home to see family and friends. But with each passing year they had fewer and fewer family and friends to go home to. Before long, they had little reason to return home at all… so they didn’t. When others traveled home for the holidays, this family went to Disneyland Tokyo, or Paris, or Shanghai (FYI – there are Disneylands EVERYWHERE). 

When I asked the family whether or not they had a “home” somewhere, they replied very honestly. 


Some of the reasons for this disconnect from the world they had once lived is because people live their lives despite whether you are there or not. The constant traveler is a novel thing. Much like an old traveling salesman, they swing into town on a whirlwind of excitement, sporting stories, gifts, and wares from around the world. They captivate with their tales of indigenous people’s from far corners of the globe. They impress with their seemingly endless knowledge of foreign cultures and world politics.  But then they leave, and life continues as it did before. 

When I first left Philadelphia and began the adventure of Abu Dhabi and beyond, it was a marvel. It was captivating and impressive and stretched me in so many ways. It was as Gandalf had said to told Frodo in the Lord of the Rings. 

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

The travelers life is an adventurous one, yes, but all too often it lacks a certain something. After a while, if you are listening to the pinings of your soul, you might begin to hear the mighty whisper of constancy. Despite the tremendous allure of a life lived on the long and winding path, with nothing but a backpack and a walking stick, there is a greater call to make an impact in a place you call home. 

This week, my wife and I made that choice and signed the dotted line. We bought a house. While I may still be the Freckled Traveler, I am most certainly not a Freckled wanderer. My roots have been dug and my home – of stone, and wood, and earth – has now been cemented alongside my resolve. I always knew that, like Baba, my Bedouin days of wandering from one source to another would pass, and a new generation would emerge. Like Abu Dhabi, the old Bedouin ways of my life are far gone, only to be referenced through picture and embellished story. Bittersweet as that may be, the new life that grows from the roots of my new home, I know, will bring far greater joy than the past sights of the passing horizon. 

True Country: A different Virginia story. 

“Here’s what you gotta do. Turn on the shower as hot as possible. Stick your head under there and all that stuff will come right out. I’ve done it.” 
It was a gross image. Stuff coming right out. 

I didn’t know what “stuff” but I’m pretty sure I didn’t want to see “it” coming out. Especially since I was currently having breakfast. I wasn’t a part of this conversation, I was simply sitting at a table near by,but it was still gross. 

The woman who was speaking was a waitress at the Waffle House in Norfolk, Virginia. She was talking to an elderly gentlemen who evidently had some “stuff” that was causing discomfort. He sat there across the counter from the woman listening intently and openly. She leaned over the counter toward him with a genuine desire to help. It was touching. Here in this small diner in eastern Virginia two people were having a simple conversation. What probably wasn’t on their mind was their skin color. 

The waitress was white. The elderly gentleman was black. In that moment, however, they were just two people engaged in a calm conversation about solving a problem. 

Most of us know about the racial tensions going on in parts of our country, especially Virginia. But knowing there’s tension does nothing to solve it. Pointing out how we are different does not ease that tension. Vilifying one another only widens the divide. There are many of those who wish to use a knife to heal wounds initially inflicted by the knife. Wouldn’t we rather  heal with what is truly needed? Time and stitches. 

We all have “stuff” in our heads and hearts that makes us uncomfortable. Right now in the U.S., the discomfort palpable. It is driving many people to takes steps in anger and vitriol. We think that our anger will help us find peace. We think it will help drain the stuff. But it won’t. A hot shower probably won’t fix it either. Honestly, I don’t know what would fix it. Other than the saving grace and power of Christ I can’t see what would ease the deep and painful hurts that so many of my brothers and sisters have felt and experienced. 

What I do know is that if we want to make progress towards healing, we must be willing to sit across a counter from those who are different than us and talk about the “stuff”… gross or not. 

The Quiet Nicaraguan and La Lengua of Joy

La Rocha is a quiet man. Not quiet in how he held his tongue, rather quiet in his demeanor. How someone can speak openly and yet still carry such a reserved way baffles me. His words are quick and to the point, always thoughtful and insightful but rarely playful. That is until, he begins to speak in Spanish. Then his words are anything but reserved. 

The second he breaks in to Spanish, his visage transforms from quiet listener to mischievous and abundantly playful. His jokes are quick witted and numerous. It’s as if he was just waiting to strike. Like a verbal Spanish cobra. Except instead of venom, he infects with laughter. 

It’s delightful. 

And it’s all in Spanish. 

Lucky for me I know Spanish or I may have missed this complete change in personality. 

La Rocha is from Central America. Nicaragua to be exact. He is short. Central American kind of short. His underwhelming physical stature might be the reason why his demeanor seems so gentle and understated. I’ve seen small people with big personalities before. And I’ve seen big people with small personalities. What’s most surprising about La Rocha is that it shouldn’t surprise me at all. It shouldn’t surprise me that his most dynamic traits manifest themselves in his native tongue. We all do this. 

I’ve taught tons of students and met many adults who have showed similar traits. They are reserved at first, almost timid, but get them in their “zone” and it’s a new day. This was how it was for La Rocha. 

But why should I care about “zones”?

We are surrounded by people everyday. Many of them we know pretty well. But do we? We might know one side of them but do we know them in theirzone“? This isn’t the superficial rant about not judging a book by its cover. I think it’s an ok analogy but books are much simpler than people. People are complex. And complex systems perform uniquely in certain situations. 

We all have environments in which we are comfortable. What makes us really comfortable is when we can speak our native tongue. For some that might be another language altogether. Spanish. French. Philadelphian – it’s a language, trust me. 

For others their zone might be with a certain group of people – friends, family, teammates. Then there are those whose zone is in a certain place. This might be their home or even a bar or restaurant where “everyone knows their name”. 

If we want to understand others we can ask some questions and have some conversations and that’s all well and good. But if we want to make an impact on others and really see people at their truest then it  is important to find out and meet them in their zone. That is when authentic relationships are forged. And while we’re at it we might even find our own zone along the way. 

Over the past decade God has allowed me to travel the world – from Europe and Africa to Asia and the Middle East. I am extremely grateful. Having seen countless wonders, now that I’m home in Philadelphia, one thing stands true. 

None of those places mean anything, 

They were beautiful and stunning and sublime but they in the end the are here then they are not. As the writer in Ecclesiastes would say, they are a “chasing after the wind”. Pursuing such wonders will bring no lasting joy. 

What does bring joy? People. 

It is the relationships we form with people along the way that have had and will have the most eternal significance. 

The Freckled Traveler Returns… Just in Time

“Let me tell you something you already know. The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It’s a very mean and nasty place and I don’t care how tough you are it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life.”

What if the quote ended there?

What if Rocky Balboa had walked away after stating just how difficult life can be? 

It would be soooooo depressing. 

If that was all life was than it WOULD be depressing. But that’s only half of reality. There’s another side.

In creating this world God allows it to be difficult. He allows it to be hard. A lot of the times we are the ones making it hard but it remains hard nonetheless. Life is tough. We know this. 

Moving home has been tough. Joyous but tough. Politically, socially, mentally, physically. It’s tough on all sides. We were thrust back into the complicated mix of so many issues and conflicts – familial, local, national. Living abroad allows you to insulate yourself in a way. You can pick and choose your difficulties like you would the platters at an Abu Dhabi Friday brunch.  But when you get home you find that the problems don’t avoid you. They punch you right in the face. And they do it again and again and again. Soon enough you begin to wonder the same thing that many people ask you when you moved home, “Why did you come back?!!!?”

And the next question that arises in your mind is usually, “Do I really want to deal with all of this? Shouldn’t I just go back to where it was easy?” 

But that doesn’t solve anything. 

Avoiding the issues also stops us from realizing the other half of God’s reality…

That there is hope. 

Much like Rocky’s words, life starts with truth but finishes with hope if you have enough faith and perseverance. That faith is a choice. And life is all about choices. I chose to move back to Philadelphia. Back to the USA. We moved back to be near family, yes, but that’s not all. 

We moved back because when we turn on the news or listen to the struggles our friends, family, and neighbors face, we want to fight. We want to step into the ring and go to battle. We have faith that our perseverance and our struggle is not in vain. 

Living abroad, when someone asked me where I’m from, I would proudly say Philly. The city of cheesesteaks and Rocky. A city of fighters. A city full of people who take Rocky’s words to heart. Because in the end…

“It ain’t about how hard ya hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done!”

Walking in the Great John McShain’s Footsteps, As Far as the Eye Can See

The moment was surreal. 

The bells from St. Mary’s Cathedral rang out over Killarney National Park. Up ahead a woman walked her small dog. A family of four cycled down the path. A couple stood to the side studying the park map, planning their course of action. The flowers in the gardens to the right swayed gently in the midday breeze. Far off to the left, the gold and hunter fields let out onto the deep shimmering waters of Kenmare lake. Just beyond the lake climbed the forests hugging Shehy mountains. 

It was an exquisite moment. Every bit of it made possible because of my great uncle John McShain. 

Ever since I can remember I have heard tales of my famous great uncle John McShain. How he was the son of an Irish immigrant who had come from next to nothing. How he continued his father’s business and had become the “Man Who Built Washington”. How he had been a man of generosity in wealth, faith, and spirit. How he had used his wisdom, wits, and work ethic to take care of his family, his church, and his community. And how he had bought a sprawling estate in Ireland where he spent the waning hours of his life. But all of the tales I had heard were just stories. That was until I stepped through the “Golden Gates of Killarney” on Wednesday morning, June 28th, 2017. 

Harry O’Donoghue met my wife, child, and I at the front door of Killarney House. The house was right in the middle of Killarney city, situated in Kerry County, Ireland. Harry was the butler, groundskeeper, house manager – basically, he was anything the house needed him to be. He had served at Killarney House all his life, just as his father and grandfather had before him. He was a tall man but never overbearing He was slightly hunched over from decades of faithful work. He had an easy smile and a confidence about him. A confidence that can only come from seeing the ebb and flow of life at a manor such as this. He showed a fondness for the McShains. 

“They were a good family. Took care of the house. Took care of the church. Nice people.” 

Valerie O’Sullivan, an energetic photographer from the local newspaper Killarney Today, showed up and offered a few more details of John McShain and the house. 

This July will be the grand opening of the house to the public. Last August they had opened the grounds and gardens, to the locals’ delight. Killarney House, known by many as the “Golden Gates”, had been a mystery to many for well over three centuries. 

The Earl of Kenmare had originally owned the estate which spanned over 8000 acres of southwest Kerry. The myth then grew to epic proportions when Queen Victoria visited the house in the late 19th century. But by the time John McShain, my great uncle, purchased the estate in the late 1950s, the house was in deep disrepair. The original estate, pictured below, had burned down leaving only the smaller, but still impressive, manor stables. 

John and his wife Mary set about renovating the house and the gardens, bringing beauty and vigor once more to the luscious grounds. Eventually, John and his wife bequeathed much of the land to the state to be joined with the nearby Muckross estate. They sold some of the land, but the majority of it, nearly 8500 acres, they gave free of charge for the public’s enjoyment. They only asked to stay on in their later years. John passed away in 1989. After Mary died in 1998, their daughter Sister Pauline McShain – our Aunt “Polly” – then gave the remaining house and gardens to the Irish government to make available to the public.  

Nearly a decade and a half after that act of generosity, on July 3rd, the Killarney House itself will finally join the gardens in welcoming every Kerry man, woman, and traveler that wishes to see the Killarney’s most coveted grounds. 

It was these thoughts that filled my mind as I walked through the house. Thanks to the likes of Harry O’Donoghue and Pat Dawson, the overseer of the whole project, the house was shaping up nicely. They had done a spectacular job in restoring and refurbishing many of the original furniture and decor which brought the house to such high esteem. Crystal chandeliers. Decadent curtains. Chests, dressers, and drawing tables of the finest wood. The dining room table could host 14 people. 

We walked through the car tunnel where Harry laughed. He shared how people used to know the McShains were coming out because they would hear the gates opening. This was a big deal because the family car was a Rolls Royce. This was at a time in Ireland when cars themselves were scarce. One of the locals, John Kearney, told us of how he used to have fun dreaming and planning of how they would steal the Rolls Royce and go for a joy ride. 

We finished our tour of the house and walked out to the gardens in the rear of the house. I looked out over the acres of green, and the lakes further down, the mountains careening off into the distance. I asked Harry, “How much of this was ours?”

“As far as the eye can see”, he replied. 


I couldn’t comprehend it. I could comprehend ANY of it. 


“As far as the eye can see”

All of this had been ours. And now it wasn’t. I wasn’t bitter. On the contrary, I was filled with great joy. 

I looked at the families walking down the paths, and the couples taking photos by th flower beds, and the old man sitting quietly on the park bench, and I thought – McShains made this possible. 

It inspired me. 

It inspires me now. It drives me to create, to build, to care for and love my fellow man. To leave something behind for others’ enjoyment. 

John McShain was a brilliant man who continued the works of his father and left an even greater legacy. He became one of the richest men in the U.S. and Ireland. But through it all he maintained his humility and his regard for others. Even more, through all of his success he never forgot God, the one who made it all possible. He maintained his faith until the end. 

St Mary’s Cathedral- where John and Mary spent many a Sunday

John McShain built a legacy, one that I hope to continue. That is why I think Pat Dawson’s words perfectly summed up my experience walking in John McShains footsteps. 

“Ireland has put a lot of work into  your great Uncle’s house, rest assured, the McShain’s legacy will go on forever. ”

Correct you are Pat. The legacy goes on, in Ireland and in the United States, in name and in deed, because of John’s work and the generations of McShains to come. 

Photo courtesy of Valerie O’Sullivan, Killarney Today

Thank you to Harry O’Donoghue and Pat Dawson for their diligent work on the Killarney House and Gardens. Thank you to Valerie O’Sullivan for cataloging the restoration process. Thank you to Aunt Pauline McShain for such a model of courage and wisdom in our family. And thank you to John and Mary McShain for creating a legacy of diligence, success, and faith for our family to continue.