It could be said — and probably has often been said — that I am a slow learner. It took me almost 40 years to even get an inkling of meaning and purpose in my life. It’s not that I was wandering around aimlessly for four decades. I was set on my career path and achieving business goals, but I always felt slightly lost when it came to my personal life.
It was around the time my first child was born that I started putting things together and prioritizing life in a healthy manner. There was nothing revolutionary or groundbreaking, no Paul-on-the-road-to-Damascus moment. It was nothing more than the simple realization of what truly matters in life. I have my daughter to thank for that. Her arrival opened a new chapter on the long road to enlightenment, a path in which I still have a very long way to go.
Soon after her birth, I began to look at life differently, and I began to prioritize facets of my life in a healthier manner. That precious newborn shed light on things that truly matter. I sat down one day and consolidated those things into something I call the “Five Fs.”
All our restaurants live by one simple statement of purpose: “We exist to SUPPORT our team, DELIGHT our guests, and SERVE our community.”
Clear, concise, and a model on which we can base every decision and action, every day. I never thought of it this way until this moment, but I guess the Five Fs have been my personal purpose statement for the last quarter century.
The Five Fs are — as most effective statements of purpose — brief and to the point. They are, in order: Faith, Family, Friends, Food, and Fun.
When I prioritize those things, in that order, life goes well. Granted, I don’t walk around in a self-actualized state of Zen on most days, if ever. But I am getting better at ordering and prioritizing, and I can unequivocally state that whenever I have put those things first in my life, happiness lives around the corner, 100% of the time.
This week has been a solid reminder and verification that the Five Fs bring joy into my life. I was originally scheduled to host four Italy tours this fall — Sicily for eight days and three Tuscany groups for seven days each. The wife of a cousin from the Washington, D.C., area called last year and asked, “If we can put together a group of your cousins, their extended family, and a few of our friends, would you add another week to your schedule.”
I didn’t hesitate.
My cousins and their friends and family arrived last week. I was already five weeks into a very heavy work schedule over here, but their arrival gave me instant energy and renewed enthusiasm. The four primary cousins here are the grandchildren of my grandmother’s brother. We are second cousins. We have grown up knowing each other, and respecting each other but mostly from afar over six-plus decades. I have always loved and admired them and have cherished the brief visits we have had over the years, but we have never had a meaningful time together.
That changed this week.
This entire group has been a pleasure and joy to host. Typically, it takes a few days for one of my tour groups to meld. This group — many having known each other their entire lives — were plugged in from the first minute of the first drive to our first lunch.
I have often stated that friendships made in childhood have a deeper connection than most made later in life. Those childhood friends can be out of our lives for decades, but when reconnect, that bond is rekindled immediately. The same goes for family, especially enthusiastic cousins. Willie Morris called it, “A common mutuality.” Kids who share childhood experiences have that common mutuality. Cousins who share beloved grandparents who were siblings have it in spades.
I can remember my “D.C. cousins” visiting Hattiesburg and staying at my grandmother’s house. As kids, we caught bees in empty mayonnaise jars around her giant azaleas. My grandmother was an excellent cook and always put out large spreads. When her brother and his children and grandchildren were visiting, she ramped up the meals tenfold. Most of my fondest childhood memories come from that dining room.
When I was visiting family in the D.C. area, they were always loving, kind, and welcoming. Nothing has changed.
There are a couple of cousins that I have just met on this trip. Ten minutes into the first lunch on the first day, I had already spent more time with them than ever. By the end of the second day, I had spent more time with the other cousins I have known since childhood. What a gift.
The inner cynic in me would chastise myself for not trying to spend more time — sooner — despite the distance and life’s daily scheduling complications. But the pragmatist in me is grateful for these current days together and looks forward to many more years well spent together.
I have been having a blast.
It hit me yesterday that the primary reason that this week has been so stellar is that all the Five Fs — faith, family, friends, food, and fun — have been present. There’s family all around. My family, their extended family, their relatives by marriage, and we have all connected as if we’ve lived next door to each other for years.
There are friends at every turn. At my count, I am blood-related to five of the 24 in this group. A couple are widows of blood relatives, some are cousins by marriage on the other side, but the rest are friends of cousins. Now we’re all friends.
Food? Absolutely. We’ve been eating where the locals eat and what the locals eat all week. We’re checking all the culinary boxes and covering all the dining bases at every meal.
Here’s the thing about fun that I wish I would have known in much of my misspent youth. When three or more of the Fs are in place, the fun just happens, good times are made, and the fondest memories are created.
But what of faith? It’s the first and foremost F.
A couple of mornings ago I took the group on a leisurely stroll through the Tuscan countryside. It gave us a chance to experience this beautiful landscape in person and not through the window of a moving vehicle. We finished at a picnic breakfast on the grounds of a small historic chapel on a breezy, cedar-lined hilltop. I was standing outside of the Chapel of St. Michael speaking to an archeologist who looks after the property when I heard singing coming from inside. It was beautiful. I abruptly excused myself from the conversation and walked in to see what was happening.
A couple of my cousins, and several of their friends, had formed a semi-circle in the chapel and were singing the Doxology. The acoustics in that small chapel rival any monastery I have visited. Their voices were resonating throughout the small, rounded space and out into the church grounds. It was mesmerizing.
I knew the song well and have sung it in church all my life. I probably knew the words to that short hymn of praise before any popular song from my youth. I stood and listened to them finish singing. It was a poignant moment in which I wished I would have been a part. I hesitated, but asked, “Can y’all do that again and let me join in?”
This time it was the cousins who didn’t hesitate. “Of course,” they said. I joined in, and in that moment all the Five Fs were present — faith, family, friends, food, and fun. It was an experience I will never forget from a week I will always remember.
“Praise God from whom all blessings flow;
Praise Him, all creatures here below;
Praise Him above ye heavenly host;
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
- 2 cups of zucchini, cut into 2″ batons
- 1 cup of white vinegar
- 1/2 cup of water
- 2 tb of sugar
- 1 tb of Kosher salt
- 1/2 tsp of crushed red pepper
- 1 fresh garlic clove, thinly sliced
Pack the zucchini batons tightly into a sterilized one-pint, wide-mouth glass jar (To sterilize, cover the jar and lid in water in a pot and boil for five minutes).
In a small pot, combine the remaining ingredients and bring to a boil. Immediately pour over the jar full of zucchini, leaving about 1/2 an inch from the lip. Make sure you stir right before pouring so the crushed red pepper and garlic get into the jar. Discard any excess liquid.
While still hot, tighten the lid and let cool completely at room temperature. Once cooled, refrigerate.
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