“Più che sufficiente”

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…Speaking of the old Italianos…herein lies their secret. “Più che sufficiente – in English, It’s More than Enough”  Bene, Bene!!!

When i was little, i knew my father as “the taxman!” With all of the terrible things everyone said about the Taxman, including the Beatles and even the priests in church (about Matthew), i did not understand why Dad was so popular, so loved? One of the things i learned with the passing of time, especially when it came time to pay my own, was that Harold Robinson was the expert at saving people money, and so from February to April he was out helping friends and making new ones. And much of it was on a barter system, like the dentist taking care of eight kids’ teeth for free. Men would come to fix things around the house, and all kinds of food would come in, like perfetto sauces for my dad’s beloved spaghetti.

The thing is, we would often tag along with the taxman. People would shower us with their finest cakes and cookies and hot chocolate on those cold winter evenings, while dad was in the other room doing his deed.

My favorite such trip, however, came many years later, when i was visiting home as a newly ordained priest. My dad asked me to tag along with him, but this time he had other intentions. It was an old, old Italian fellow, who still spoke Italian and who would go nuts to have his house blessed while his taxes were being done. (Dad knew i spoke enough Italian.) And so my dad went off to the man’s office, while he and i toured every room with my holy water. In half-Italian/half-English he told me his whole story from the minute his boat arrived. He had built the whole house, a masterpiece. But it was the basement! The basement held the treasure. That is where he made his wine.

After i blessed the whole sacred spot, and bottle after bottle, he took me to the kitchen and sat me down at the table he had made, on the chair he had made. He opened a bottle of vino he had made and reached into the oven for a freshly baked (by him) pane (bread). He took my hand for a long time and ran it back and forth over the table. Such tears of pride were in his eyes, as he thanked me and my father for all that we had done. But most importantly, MOST IMPORTANTLY, he wanted me to know that this table and this wine and this loaf of bread were “più che sufficiente,” he said it so many times. These simple things were what it’s all about; they were “more than enough” for him.

What an absolute treasure, a “pearl of great price” i found that day in that humble sanctuary!! When a man is so content with so little, there is no “Dark Side” that could ever rob his peace of mind. And that encounter was far more holy and life-influencing than just about anything i ever experienced in church.

(Not to mention the extra bottles and extra loaves he gave me to bring home to the friars!)

JERRY

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While creating the 1980 film classic, “The Elephant Man,” director David Lynch and his writers used some magical poetic license to add a scene which, to me, is the very soul of the story. A haunted Dr. Freddy Treves, played so perfectly by Sir Anthony Hopkins, had saved John Merrick (his name was actually Joseph) from his beastly caged life and gave him the dignity he deserved more than most. But Dr. Treves can’t sleep. He is pestered by the question that Everyman faces: “Why did I do it?” For John’s sake or my fame?  “Am I a good man? Or am I a bad man?”

We know that each and every one of us is a combination of the two, and the WAR at the ROOT of the “Star Wars” is this clash within. Gandhi used to say, “The only real battles to be fought are those on the battlefield of each man’s own heart. I haven’t fared so well on mine, and I suppose that is why I have so much patience with others.”

In my New Mission of 2016 to present some of the REAL “Jedi” that i have come to know in life, like my “Hunna Bunna Jan Ortquist,” my thoughts turn today to Jerry. Yes, Jerry Cervone, the Auto Body guy in the back of Main Street on dumpy little Commerce Street.

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Yes, even if he loves to hug my wife! That’s Okay! They go way way back, these two. They trained together, not in any art of jedi fighting; rather, they were both trained in the old Italian neighborhood of our city in the Art of Being “Just Good Guys!” What, in the end, is more important than that??!! And there aren’t many, that i know of anyway, with a bigger heart than ole dirty gruff Jerry.

Hey, why should i wait for his body to be lying all clean and fancy in a suit at some funeral home? That’s not Jerry, unless somebody sticks a big cigar in his kisser!!! A thousand people will be walking around saying the same thing, “What a GOOD GUY!!!” Always ready to help them in any way! God only knows – and they – how many times he did a job for rice n beans, or stuffed shells, or nothin. He was never IN IT for wealth!

One day i told Jerry that i was writing a book and wanted to do a chapter on him. “On ME?” he laughed his head off, “Why me? I’m nothin special!” Wrestling through layers of humility, i finally got him to admit, “OK, I’m a helper. I like to help people. If you gotta write something, just say that.” The simple message of Mother Teresa was that “What matters is not that we do great things but small things with great love.” i had the honor of meeting her, that tiny and TRUE YODA, and she spoke of “the good heart” – which in the end is everything.

Look at perhaps the most beloved story of the Greatest Storyteller, Jesus, his “Good Samaritan,” not at all concerned with who the other guy is, his background, his creed, his color. He is just a member of the wider family, a fellow man, and he needs me to be good to him, to do the right by him, that’s all. Some day i will need someone to be good to me. It’s how this whole “Force” thing works, our need to stay ahead of those two elements inside of us, to keep the BAD, i.e. indifference, selfishness, focus on profit and accumulation of things, etc.etc. in check. The Pope who was known belovedly by the whole world as “the Good Pope,” John XXIII, kept a journal. He called it “Journal of My Soul,” and any reader of that diary will find as its key that he made a habit of asking a hundred, maybe a thousand, times a day, “Why did I do that? Why did I say that? What are my heart’s intentions?” AM I A GOOD MAN? OR AM I A BAD MAN?

So, that’s it, Jerry. i’m not gonna wait. One of my dearest friends in life, Betty Malone, used to say “Give people flowers before they die!” (i’ll probably beat you to the box anyway!) Now, i know that you’d prefer a box of cigars or a big salami sandwich. But, on behalf of all of those people whose lives you have touched, we LOVE YOU, Jerry! We are so grateful and proud to know you.YOU ARE TRULY ONE OF THE GREATS, and your greatness is your GOODNESS.

HUNNA BUNNA OF THE WORLD

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Started the New Year right on a trip with my kids to our local IMAX for the latest helping of Star Wars. IMAX is one of our holiday treats to ourselves, and this year’s was SUPER Spectacular!! It always takes me days to “come down from a Star Wars High!” But what always helps me to “get back to reality” is the recognition that as great as those stories are, as marvelous as those motion-pictured battles of Good versus Evil, and as darling as is the newest “Rey,” the young woman who looks to become perhaps the greatest warrior of them all, THE ONE THING WHICH IS EVEN BETTER IS TO FIND A REAL “REY.” Reading a book or watching a film, as exciting as either may be, CANNOT COMPARE to finding “a True Jedi.”

AND SO,  i present to you, ladies and gentlemen, my real, live Ray of Light and “HUNNA BUNNA” of the WORLD – JANET ORTQUIST!!!

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In the city where i live, God planted two natural Wonders, Jan Ortquist and her classic Copper Beech, who preceded Jan by half a century. Of course, in my lifetime i have encountered many a wise and genuine “Jedi,” but few so grand as this lady, who has perfected the Art of Living. i have come to know her only recently, as i am sometimes given the great privilege of “caring for” her, a sufferer of Alzheimer’s (although at the end of every visit i walk away laughing over “Who Cared for Whom?!”) So well does she make anyone in her presence feel as if he or she is a natural wonder loved and cared for, as if you were the only other person on Janet’s Planet.

What better model can i present for this New Year of Peace than Mrs. Ortquist!?! All of these stories, whether in books or movies, keep us spellbound (and pouring out trillions of bucks), as we are all so vividly aware of what great evil remains in our world – it NEVER goes away, but we also want and need to know that there are those among us who have the know-how and the courage to keep fighting it. And YES! Jan is one of the Real REYS, one who needs no mighty saber of Light to fight. Rather, SHE IS THE SABER, and hers is the simple Power of Love, with just a smile or a touch, a kind word or a song, or one of those Ultimate Hugs, to do her daily battle against the Dark. She will SLAY you with her declaration that you are her “HUNNA BUNNA!”

And not just you humans, but “all creatures of her God and King!” One day we were taking a walk, and as we crossed quite a wide road, she suddenly called all traffic to a halt, as she noticed a tiny worm who was trying to make his way across. “Oh, My Darlin’, let me help you. We would not want anything to happen to you, hunna bunna” she declared (just the very scenario which i once read about in an early biography of St. Francis of Assisi.) In this sad world of misunderstandings and angry conflicts we will never stop needing such a new Francis, the REAL YODAs, who hold the key to Peace on Earth.

{Love all of God’s creation, the whole and every grain of sand of it. Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light. Love the animals, love the plants, love everything. If you love everything, you will perceive the divine mystery in things. Once you perceive it, you will begin to comprehend it better every day. And you will come at last to love the whole world with an all-embracing love. – Dostoyevsky}

Once the wife (the “better half”) of the Pastor of the Reformed Church in town, her door and her hearth were always open to anyone and everyone. Take a stroll with her down Main Street, and you will be pleasantly stopped over and over and over again – though she does not remember any of them – by countless souls who WILL NEVER FORGET her CARE for them, as if they were the only persons on earth. Her “FORCE,” call it GRACE, emanates from within her giant Heart, like the heart of her Copper Beech with its long and mighty limbs.

Talk about “the Evil One,” just look at how she handles the Monster, Alzheimer’s Disease. It is as if she tamed him, she made “the Beast” her partner. Why, it compliments her like the lovely pearls around her lovely neck! They go together like old pals. Those of us who have come to know the “Troll” so intimately know that Alzheimer’s actually has a kind of “good side” or “light side,” especially for anyone who is able to put all other agendas aside and simply to “GO WITH THE PRESENT.” Today in the Christian churches of the world we are celebrating the Memory of the Three Kings or Three Wisemen. It is known as “Little Christmas” to all of those on earth who leave December 25th to Truly Celebrate Jesus, as it is, after all, HIS Birthday, and then today is the day for presents. What a day to speak of Jan Ortquist, who is the very essence of the wisdom that “the Best Present is to Be Present,” then you will be the Present in the Present, for the Present is all that we have, really. This is what Jan is to me and it is what i learn to be to her and to others. AND THE ONE WHO ALWAYS WINS FROM IT IS THE ONE who can be present. The present, the GIFT, is always yours for the taking.

i have another friend with Alzheimer’s, whose name is Joe. One day at his home he was trying to say something to me about “those goose things.” As he has a pond near his house, i thought he was complaining about all of their droppings. But that wasn’t it! We did not figure it out…until hours later, while driving in the car. And suddenly a song came on, which Joe has always loved so much, the BeeGees’ classic, “Too Much Heaven.” Joe got so excited that all over his arms and legs were GOOSE-BUMPS!!! He shouted out, “That’s it! Look at them. That’s what I was talking about! What are they?” he wanted to know, though in his mid-60’s. Tears came to my eyes, as i said to him, “Joe, it means that YOU KNOW HEAVEN! Heaven is here with us RIGHT HERE, RIGHT NOW!” But as the song cries, “Nobody gets too much heaven no more,” because i guess they just don’t know how to be PRESENT. So worried about so many things, even while so much Heaven awaits us. Today is also known as the Epiphany, which means that “God makes Himself KNOWN!” To all the Hunna Bunnas of the World…

Thank You, Jan and Joe! Show us the way today….through your gentle, grateful Rays…

i FOUND LIFE’S TREASURE UNDER A SLOP SINK

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In the late 1960’s i left home for a high school seminary in New Jersey. Though just kids, our schedule was like that of well-seasoned monks, lights out very early, as we rose before the sun for prayer. i was quite the compliant boy.

But, in the Spring of 1970 a Harvard Classics professor, who had stolen St. Valentine’s Day with a love story to leave you faint, put me under a spell and lured me into disobedience. As i was returning to the Prep from a vacation, passing through Port Authority Bus Terminal in NYC, copies of his book were jumping off the racks, and i couldn’t resist. That night, back at the dormitory, i waited for the order-to-sleep, and when the last bulb was out, i snuck off through the bathroom to a tiny closet on the other side, where we kept the mops. i took a seat on the floor under the slop sink and spent the night with Erich Segal, whose “Love Story” changed my life forever. i often say that my life really started there.

It soon became my unholy habit, and that unlikely hole  became my cloister within the cloister, much like San Francesco’s tiny cave atop Assisi’s mountain. He called it his “Carceri,” his prison where he locked himself up til he learned how to see the world in a new way. i escaped to my cell – with a blanket sometimes for a bit more comfort – and book after book after book, in search of Life’s Real Treasure. Oh, sometimes i just had fun, and often thought maybe fun, maybe laughter, IS the treasure, as i did all in my power not to wake up “the brothers” even through two walls with wild laughter, as i nighted with J.D.Salinger in the raw “Rye”or Ken Kesey in his Cuckoo’s Nest. i fell madly in love with Harper Lee and her Scout and Jim and Atticus, and i sailed the seas with Hemingway. O what adventures!

Though completely cramped in that space, i never traveled so far as i did there. Though my legs could literally move not an inch, it was there that i went on awesome jaunts with Wordsworth and Coleridge through the beautiful Lake District of northwestern England, meeting all of their great little common friends along the way. Willie made me see just what wonders lie in the dusty, dirty, ordinary people. But, that was nothing! Heck, i covered the whole of Middle Earth with Bilbo Baggins…and did it again with Mr. Frodo! Back closer to home i wandered from the Maine Woods to Cape Cod and back home to Walden with David Henry (or as his fans would call him, Henry David Thoreau.) For me – under the slop sink – these men and women, both real and imagined, were more than heroes; they became like my brothers and my sisters. As St. Francis would say, “If I so love him who is my brother in the flesh, how much more ought I to love and cherish those who are my family in the Spirit?!” And this was my Spirit World, a quite unlikely place in a janitor’s closet.

Charles Dickens became my closest confidant, but i also began THERE in my “cell” to get serious in my study of the Saints and in my reading, or should i say EATING of the Bible and of all of the great spiritual writers. So very much thanks to Erich Segal. He loved and passed on his love of the Classics, and to me every poet, every novelist, every observer of life was a Classic, though perhaps none quite like this funny little Frenchman. 10885112_757923130955652_3195772150826660075_n

One of the wisest men i ever encountered was Antoine de St.Exupery, most famous for his tiny book of wisdom well-learned on a journey through the universe by “The Little Prince.” i read it over and over in my sloppy den. But, so did i  STUDY Antoine’s lesser work, “Wind, Sand and Stars.” And to this day i haven’t found words that sum it all up better than his. i often say that his are the words, the only ones, that i want written on my gravestone. TRUE STORY: Antoine was a mail pilot and flew into North Africa, and after crashing and being lost in the Sahara Desert day after day right up to the point of death, he opened up his very last piece of nourishment, an orange. And just before he ate it, knowing that it might be his last meal, he stared down in ecstasy, the bright golden ball cupped in his trembling hands, and said, “MEN DO NOT KNOW WHAT AN ORANGE IS.”

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i remember my daughter having to read certain books for English lit and to come up with the GIST. i’d say, “What’s the gist, Molly, what’s the gist??” To which she’d say, “Dad, you’re crazy!” BUT i THINK THIS LITTLE MAN WITH THE SILLY FACE CAME UP WITH GIST OF GISTS, the very, very HEART of the MATTER. Imagine if we all lived with such appreciation for every WONDER, with endless GRATITUDE. Why, one orange or grape or smile or kiss could be enough to make one’s day or month or year!

Just now my wife and Molly and i ushered in a New Year. We did it with Anderson Cooper and his Crazy Kathy. But nothing compares to when the Ball drops and Louie sings ANEW, “What a Wonderful World,” – if only i have eyes to see…

Happy New Year, Everyone, One of New Vision, New Purpose, New Peace…and a thankful heart at every step.