Do Something Extraordinary...
DO SOMETHING EXTRAORDINARY…
“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”
It is becoming more and more apparent to me that time is not on my side...not like it was just a few years ago. And so getting all twelve blogs for this year written, as well as finishing the several books I have in various stages of completion...getting them edited, proofed and submitted to my publishing company, is of paramount importance to me.
It is my primary and most important personal goal
I’d not gotten more than a few paragraphs into this month’s blog however, when I realized the subject of the particular story that I was writing was beginning to feel much too “preachy” for me.
“You’re at it again!” I admonished myself. “Lighten up! You are lecturing when you need to be entertaining and enlightening.”
I was experiencing an odd mix of desperation and loneliness. So, I closed my laptop just after sunset and stared out through the window of my writing room...out into the bleak winter skies of Montecalvo at dusk.
It was the following morning that I decided to return to my writing and read it again...to see if there was something (anything) that I could expound upon or simplify to make it better. But after reading it a third time, I realized just how obnoxiously pompous I sounded...
I mean really...who am I to be telling anyone else what to do?
I am having a hard enough time holding my own world together in these days.
And so, I started over. What I eventually ended up with is the version you are reading now.
In my defense however, in my first attempt I was simply trying to share a part of my life view...one of the parts that worked for me in the past. But I quickly realized that right now, life is not working for me. Life is escaping me so much quicker than I’d planned...
So, I made a resolution to abstain from preaching. Instead, I just want to get back to the way things were with all of you...when we just talked with one another. I wanted to end by doing something extraordinarily ordinary...
OK! So, let’s talk
I have two warm, comforting (and somewhat lengthy) stories to tell you about two experiences that Diana, Meg & I had over the Christmas holidays a few years back...in the days before the pandemic came along and interrupted our lives. I think (and hope) you’ll enjoy them.
On the morning of this one particular Christmas Eve, I’d built a warming fire in the fireplace and the three of us sat down and watched Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life with Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed. By the three of us, I mean Diana, me and our ever-present companion Meg. The movie was showing on Netflix which is one of Meg’s favorite channels to watch!
In the days before Christmas that year, Diana and I had been talking about how our lives might have turned out had we not met or had certain people in them...
to teach us
to guide us
to direct us
to love us
“For me,” Diana said, “it was definitely my zia Giordana. If ever there was a hero (or heroine I should say) in my life, it was my aunt Giordana. We shared an exceptionally close relationship. She was like a mother to me...my second mother. I love my mother a great deal...don’t get me wrong. But Giordana...she was the biggest, most powerful and loving influence in my life.”
I can attest to this. To be honest, most of what Diana knows about life and business and being a woman, well...
she learned from her!
Sadly, I never got the chance to meet Giordana, which is indeed my loss. She passed quite a few years before I came to Italy. But Diana and I make it a point to visit her grave at the cimitero in San Lazzaro regularly. She rests there now with Diana’s father. I never miss a chance to thank that incredible woman and that marvelous man for helping make the incredible and marvelous woman with whom I have fallen so crazy in love.
As for me...and as Oedipal as this may sound, my heroine was my mother. She was an exceptionally wise, exceptionally tolerant and exceptionally intuitive woman. It seemed she had an unlimited supply of time and patience when it came to teaching me the lessons of life.
I look back now and realize that she no doubt had premonitions or perhaps indications that hers would be a relatively short life. She died in November of 1976 at the age of 52. And as I always say...
“without a cavity in her mouth or a gray hair in her head!”
My mother seemed intent to pack the most teaching, the most mentoring and the most guidance into the few years she had with me that she could. Starting from a very young age her favorite admonition to me was...
Pay ‘tention Jimmy!
She was not talking about paying attention her...heeding or obeying her, though it was well understood I should and must and that my life would be much, much easier if I did! But what she really meant was for me to pay attention to the world around me...down to the smallest of details. The ones that most people missed. And so, I did my best!
For a young boy it was an overwhelming obligation and an exhausting task. As an adult it had become a fully ingrained (and rather onerous) habit.
It was years after she died that I realized her stories were piled up inside of me...in endless stacks. Her everyday life had gone on...in a repeating loop without a break. Her everyday words, which I didn't think too deeply about at the time and more often than not dismissed as trivial, awaken in my heart from time to time and wash over me like warm and gentle waves.
And in the years since her passing I’ve come to realize what an incredible gift she bestowed on me. Most everything I know about life and love and being a good person, well...
I learned it from her!
Diana’s and my conversation eventually came around to the Jimmy Stewart movie I wanted her to watch. It was made way back in 1946...and one that I’d seen many times as a boy. But this was the first time for Diana.
“It’s about an angel who comes to earth to show George Bailey, an exceptionally compassionate but frustrated businessman, what life would be like for so many people had he not existed,” I explained.
When it was over, we both took away from the movie something that we already knew...
a life without kindness and empathy in it is not a very fulfilling life at all
Needless to say, Diana loved the movie. We vowed to watch it again when it came around the next year.
For the next several days the strangest and most fascinating things began to happen. It was as if the lesson we’d re-learned from the movie decided to continue by showing themselves to us...perhaps to really drive the point home.
Bologna is an incredibly historic city...and oh so beautiful, especially around Christmas time. On the day after Christmas that year, we decided to go into the city center.
Here in Italy, it is the 26th of December that the Feast of Santo Stefano is celebrated. I will spare you the longer story about Santo Stefano, or Saint Stephen (in English), but suffice it to say he was an early follower of Christ who came to prominence after Jesus was crucified.
Santo Stefano is associated with charity, empathy and compassion...traits for which he himself was tortured and murdered. It was through his martyrdom that we know of him. Italians (and Catholics the world over) are called to follow in his charitable footsteps and perform acts of kindness and empathy for those less fortunate.
As we walked from Piazza Maggiore, down one of the narrow streets of the Quadrilatero deeper into Bologna, we saw a crowd of people (a very orderly crowd I should note) gathered outside one of the old shops...
“That is the old bookstore,” Diana said. “I hope nothing is wrong!”
We were both instantly intrigued and decided to go see what was going on.
There was at least a hundred and fifty people gathered outside the small bookshop and what they were doing was absolutely fascinating. Here is the first of the two stories I wanted to tell you today...
Libreria Nanni is officially known as the most famous as well as the oldest bookstore in Bologna. But I am not here to tell you about that shop, as beautiful as it is. My story evolves from another bookstore...one that has been in business for nearly a century and has supplied books and texts to the poor and underprivileged people throughout Bologna as well as to students going to the University. All at little or no cost.
Their simple mission was to educate and enlighten the poor with books
The ownership of Libreria del Felsina had been handed down through the Naldi family from great grandfather to grandfather, from grandfather to son, from son to grandson...for five generations.
The toll that Word War II took on Bologna also took its toll on the bookshop. In order to keep the doors open, Tullio Bonasera had to sell the shop in which the bookstore was located. Although the family did not own the shop itself, they enjoyed the agreement the original family had struck with the landlord right after the end of the war...to pay a very low rent as long as the shop continued to serve the needs of Bologna’s poorest and neediest...an amount which, incredibly, had not been raised in all those years.
But the landlord died, and his family sold the building, out of necessity. The new owner felt no obligation to the bookseller to honor the previous owner’s promises. This new owner had the fullest intention to get a return on his investment as quickly as possible, and so, he raised the rent. He raised it to an unaffordable level. And in so doing, he strategically forced the bookstore, its owner and its impoverished clientele to relocate, which was his plan all along.
Fortunately, there was another shop just five doors down the street and it was empty. The bookstore owner spoke with the shop’s owner who was delighted at the prospect of renting it out. The two were eating dinner together at a local trattoria just off Strada Maggiore one evening, and over their meal the bookshop owner was able to secure the new location for an acceptable and affordable rent...nowhere near what he had been paying, but nonetheless, it meant the doors of the bookshop would not have to close forever.
But now came the difficult part...
How was he going to be able to move the thousands and thousands of old books and volumes from the old shop to the new? There simply was no way he could afford to pay a moving company to come in, pack everything up and move his overflowing inventory.
Nor could he depend on his employees. They were all old and retired. Out of the goodness of their hearts and an obligation to continue the bookshop’s good will, they had been volunteering their time for free. The bookseller feared the days of Libreria del Felsina were coming to an end...
Such an undertaking as to move an entire bookstore was beyond his capabilities
There’s a lot to be said for the power of books and the miracle of reading, not least of which is how well they can inspire common, ordinary people to do uncommon, extraordinary things. This group of one hundred and fifty people that we saw gathered outside the bookstore was made up of those common people. Most were underprivileged or homeless...people who had, in one way or another, benefitted from the bookshop owner’s kindness, charity, compassion and empathy over the years.
They’d come to pay him back by doing something extraordinary
They gathered together to form a human chain. One by one. Two by two. Three by three. Even four by four at a time or more, they moved the books by hand from the old shop to the new.
Fortunately, there was a reporter from a local newspaper who had gotten word about what was going on and he came into the city center to get the story. He interviewed the shop owner who was nearly speechless as he watched these wonderful people give something back...
“I get quite emotional thinking about these amazing people who have come out to support the bookstore,” he told the reporter. “My father would have loved to have seen this. On his deathbed, I promised him I would continue our family’s legacy. And what more perfect day to receive such a wonderful gift than today...on the Feast of Santo Stefano.”
And there is more to this wonderful story. It seems that one of the people in line helping move the books could qualify as an Italian version of a Secret Santa...
Inside hundreds of the books being handled that day, this anonymous benefactor placed a small envelope with a note and a twenty-euro bill between two pages. The note read...
“If you are finding this envelope today, please know that God’s love is shining on you. Enjoy what this small gift might provide or pass it along to someone in need.”
I don’t know about you, but this story of what those incredible people did that day blew me away!
On the day after New Year’s that year, Diana showed me the article in the newspaper. It was accompanied by a photograph of the human chain of volunteers.
“There’s another article in the paper that caught my eye today too,” she said. “Can I read it to you.”
I was making coffee for the two of us. We would have a few tarallini with our coffee...
“Of course,” I answered. “I love when you read to me!”
And so, we sat down with our caffè and cookies and she opened the paper to the page with the story. She began to read the second story I want to tell you today...
“On a small backstreet, in a busy part of Bologna, there is a small restaurant,” the story began. “An osteria to be more precise. Behind the kitchen there are dumpsters where the kitchen workers throw the scraps of the meals and leftover food at the end of the night. With the onset of winter weather, the homeless of Bologna are faced with even more difficulties in surviving.”
This story is about the owner of that small restaurant. His name is Tiberio Ponti and one evening he noticed a young man and woman, along with their small son, hiding just down the alley, out of sight. Unbeknownst to Tiberio, they were waiting for the kitchen staff to dump the food into the dumpster. When they noticed him noticing them, they quickly disappeared down the alleyway and around the corner.
He noticed them again the next night...and the night after that. It made him curious...
“What in the world are they doing out there?” he thought to himself. So the next night, he too hid and watched for them...just out of sight.
When the restaurant closed and the lights in the kitchen went out, while the young woman stayed with the child, the young man sneaked to the dumpsters and went through the scraps of food and leftovers, looking for anything he could feed his family.
As Tiberio watched, his eyes filled with tears. His heart broke. So much so that the next night, he felt compelled to do something...something extraordinary.
He put together a tray of food and covered it in plastic wrap. He placed it on top of the dumpster, inside a cardboard box. On the tray, he’d prepared a wonderful meal for the three of them, along with a bag of fresh biscotti for the little boy.
There was a note that went along with it all...
“You are human beings,” the note read. “And you are worthy of so much more than having to find a meal in a dumpster. It pains my heart to think of my good fortune when I see your poverty and need. Please, in the coming days, come into the restaurant when we are open. Sit at a table and get warm. I will feed you. You will be my honored guests. There will be no charge.”
When the family appeared in the alleyway later that night, the young man again left his family behind in the shadows and went to that dumpster. Moments later, tray in hand, he hurried back to them. All three of them dropped to their knees to pray before they took a single bite...to thank God for the selfless, compassionate man who saw the need to do something extraordinary.
The night the small family decided to take the owner up on his kind offer, a reporter for a local newspaper, Il Resto del Carlino, just happened to also be in the osteria having dinner. After seeing what was taking place at a table close by, she asked her server what was going on...
“Get out your pen and notepad,” the server said. “You are going to want to write about this.”
The server then told the reporter the whole story. While Diana and I drank our strong coffee and ate our tarallini in our own warm, safe kitchen, she read the wonderful story to me. We sat in the quiet of the room afterwards, each lost in our own thoughts.
Today, unexpected acts of kindness like the one Diana and I witnessed on Festa di Santo Stefano and like the one we read about in the newspaper are not as rare as we are led to believe. In fact, they happen every day in the most unexpected places to the most deserving people.
The problem is, so very rarely do they make the news or the headlines
But these stories of people being selfless, compassionate, charitable and empathetic are a timeless reminder that offering a helping hand to a stranger in trouble, or simply doing something nice for the sake of doing something nice, should be the norm rather than the exception.
No matter what our station in life may be today, all of us at one time or another, have been in a position where we were in need of someone’s help...someone to give us a hand up. Thank God there are people out there who still do this.
Opening our hearts and selves to those less fortunate is one of the most heartwarming and fulfilling things we can or will ever do. How fortunate we will be if we find ourselves being that one person who does something extraordinary...that one person who extends that one hand to even one other human being.
A life dedicated to helping others is a life to which we should aspire!