The pandemic has shaken us to our core. Staying indoors with our personal bubble of loved ones and being forced to distill our lives down to the basics of food, shelter, health, and well-being has made us face what is not working and realize what matters most.
Modern life comes with many blessings, from airline travel to universal health care, social security, and endless connectivity. With its many conveniences, it also brings false beliefs: we can achieve anything all by ourselves, or worse, our individual efforts make no impact. These misconceptions have allowed us to avoid a deeper understanding of the role we are to play. We were all running to someplace yet “too busy” to know where or why.
Now we have to shelter in place and spend our days in a repetitive daily routine with the same group. This was how many of us grew up only a generation or so ago, and it was an ideal way to learn more about ourselves, each other, and our purpose.
It is how I grew up. As a child, I lived in Fonteromano, just outside of Foggia, Italy, on a little piece of land, a small farm situated among four or five other houses. As we lived off what we could grow, we accepted that there was no future there. All members of the family were focused on just staying warm and having something to eat. I didn’t play childhood games, but for us, it was heaven. We didn’t miss what we didn’t have as we didn’t know what there was to miss. The love of our siblings, parents, and grandparents was everything.
Our lives were dictated by nature; she was in control. The time of day and the time of year told us what needed to be done in the fields or with the animals. We simply tried to learn more about nature and her patterns by paying attention to the world around us.
In the summers especially, when I was about six or seven years old, my grandmother, Nonna Maria, would wake me at 2 or 3 each morning. Our area was quite hot in the summer. As we raised a few hogs, which did not manage heat well, we had to take them out to the fields to eat early before the heat of the sun came. Then we had to return them to the stalls so they wouldn’t escape and seek relief in the muddy puddles. I dreaded waking up and would roll over and beg Nonna to let me stay in bed. I had only been asleep for four or five hours, as we had rounded the animals up into the stalls hours before. “Nonna, sul na’to poco. Nonna, just a little bit longer,” I moaned as I rolled over. Nonna gently nudged me to get up. Some mornings, I was so desperate to stay in bed I would plead, “I’ll give you my 500 lire if someone goes in my place!” This precious amount was worth about 50 cents. She gave it to me to use only for emergencies, and I kept it in a special place: the bottom of my shoe.
Nonna ignored my pleas and coaxed me up. As she helped me put on my shirt, she would repeat a phrase she said often: “Chi prima non pensa dopo sospira. If we don’t think before we act, you have to live with the outcome. If we take out the animals today and they eat a little more, they will grow a little bigger. Then there will be something for us to barter to buy something we need.” Even as a child, she instilled in me that I had a part to contribute to the family. Even if it was far less than the adults’ contribution, it was just as important and impactful.
As I grew older, Nonna taught me more, and my responsibilities grew. Even in our poverty, the goal was not to be rich in wealth but to achieve our personal best, winning within the rule of life and contributing to the betterment of all.
Working and living so close inevitably revealed more about each other: our character, faults, emotions, and passions. Sometimes those passions boiled over and needed to be expressed. They could come out as messy, confused thoughts, but expressing them let us release the tension and reach an understanding of ourselves and each other. It helped us mature, to change and allow our minds to be trained to be stronger and creatively problem solve to see beyond our needs and expand our sensitivity to others. It’s like nature: nothing is still, but all is constantly in motion.
One of my last memories of Nonna Maria was her teasing me about those early mornings together: “Pasquali, ti ricord quando tu…? Pasqualino, do you remember when you…?” she smiled. I treasure those thoughts. I look forward to being with my grandchildren in person more often to create similar memories. Despite these times, la vita è bella. To be given the opportunity to live life fully is truly beautiful, and I hope we never forget how precious this is.