Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Goblin Market

I've been re-reading Ursula K. LeGuin's magnificent Earthsea trilogy, and I am remembering why these early, "classic" works of high fantasy had such a hold on my mind when I was young. 

And it's made me realise something. I've finally figured out what the problem with the internet is.  

The internet is a strange and dangerous place, the most ephemeral, almost fey and imaginary land, as devious and perilous – and as enticing – as any old Celtic underworld full of changelings, baffling oracles, capricious gods and deceitful fairies. For us mortals, it is a realm of wonders and secret knowledge but hemmed about with dangers, of false turns and dead ends and shifting pathways, illusions and misdirections. And it is populated with a race of tricksters who might tell you the simple truth to a plain question, but at any moment and for reasons unknowable, might also lead the unwary traveler into a trap, a spiral of deception and disinformation.

And don’t forget that the place itself, its very nature, is inhuman and a danger, quite apart from what dwells there. Innocent people have become ensnared in it, forgetting family and work and the smell of the fresh air and the feel of the sun, and finally forgetting even themselves, in its delightful glamours. Its twists and turns, with its little sparks of light, lead us further and further down its branching, twisting passages, until we have forgotten why we entered, and lost track of the movement of time.

Who has gone into it and not betimes waked, as if from a strange trance, in which the very room we sat in has faded into distant shadows, to find in what seemed like only moments that hours have passed and the daylight gone.

But the same impulse drives us to return to it as pushed the old heroes to climb down into those cold stone passages, not seeking treasure, but knowledge and wisdom. Somewhere, we feel, in that vast labyrinth is the thing we are looking for, that we may have looked for all our lives. And we can become enchanted by it, returning to it helplessly again and again, forsaking everything merely human and natural, obsessed with finding that one thing, certain we will recognise it even if we don’t know what it is.

And it is true, there is treasure in it, but it is often disguised as a plain old bit of stone on the floor, something we would pass without a glance in our rush to grasp some pretty, glittering thing.

The old and the wise and the simple, the shepherds and woodsmen and goose-wives, those whose lives are already complete and rooted in reality, with good, hard work to do and children to raise, who sleep sound from sunset to dawn, know enough to stay away from it, to ignore its shimmering enticements. But the young and dissatisfied, the city-dwellers who have lived all their lives hemmed about by pretty distractions, who don’t know the real or recognise a fairy glamour, are drawn to it like magpies to bottle tops.

And like those old Celtic myths of an undying land full of heroes and fey wise-women, the internet lasts forever. It is in one sense the most deceitful and changeable place, but at the same time also as immutable as diamond. Whatever is placed there for safekeeping is there forever.

But it is possible, with the right understanding, to go into it and come out again with something useful, though perhaps not easily and not often. I’ve never known anyone with a stern enough will to use it without any ill effects – and it seems particularly to drain and weaken the faculties of the will. It affects also the person’s ability to trust his own knowledge, however sure it was at the start. He will go in thinking clearly and knowing how to tell truth from falsehood, but the longer he is there the more its charms work upon his trust in himself. The more he will think he has been deceived in the past, and all his knowledge is vain. This is the first part of the enchantment.

An intelligent man attends to his work and his family and his life, and he deals with the enchanted lands as he would with any other mortal peril; only if he must. But if he must, there are certain wards and rhymes and charms to bring with him, certain disciplines of the mind he must know to be safe. He must know the rules; never to eat or drink anything, never to join in the dances. He must train his mind and will as he would his arms and back for work. And above all, he must know who he is and remember why he came there. There will be times when he must will his eyes not to see the fairy enticements, and restrain his hearing to reject the snippets of songs and bells and flutes that would lure him off his path. He must train his mind as he would a hunting dog not to run off chasing sounds and lights.

As we know from all those old tales, it is a rare man who can do these things. Most of the time the stories are tragedies in which simple men are caught and lost, never to come out in the lifetimes of his family, remembered sadly as just another fool snared by the enchanted and deceptive fairy snares. Perhaps he would emerge again a hundred years later, forgotten by everyone, a stranger in his own home.

With clasping arms and cautioning lips, 
With tingling cheeks and finger tips. 
“Lie close,” Laura said, 
Pricking up her golden head: 
“We must not look at goblin men, 
We must not buy their fruits: 
Who knows upon what soil they fed 
Their hungry thirsty roots?” 
“Come buy,” call the goblins 
Hobbling down the glen. 

“Oh,” cried Lizzie, “Laura, Laura, 
You should not peep at goblin men.” 
Lizzie cover’d up her eyes, 
Cover’d close lest they should look; 
Laura rear’d her glossy head, 
And whisper’d like the restless brook: 
“Look, Lizzie, look, Lizzie, 
Down the glen tramp little men. 
One hauls a basket, 
One bears a plate, 
One lugs a golden dish 
Of many pounds weight. 
How fair the vine must grow 
Whose grapes are so luscious; 
How warm the wind must blow 
Through those fruit bushes.” 
“No,” said Lizzie, “No, no, no; 
Their offers should not charm us, 
Their evil gifts would harm us.” 


Friday, February 10, 2017

Who shakes the earth out of its place; and its pillars tremble…

Today is the Feast of Santa Scolastica, hermitess and patron of Benedictine nuns, the saint under whose protection I place myself and my future life in Norcia.

Scolastica, rimasta unica erede del ragguardevole patrimonio della famiglia, rifiutando ogni attaccamento ai beni terreni, chiese al padre di potersi dedicare alla vita religiosa entrando in un monastero vicino a Norcia. 

Scolastica remained the sole heir of the remarkable heritage of the family, by rejecting all attachment to worldly goods, her father asked her to devote herself to religious life entering a monastery near Norcia.


He is wise in heart, and mighty in strength.
Who has hardened himself against him and succeeded?

He who removes mountains, and they know it not
when he overturns them in his anger;

Who shakes the earth out of its place;
and its pillars tremble…

Job 9


How strange the paths of our lives seem. From time to time we stop and look back and think, “Who would have thought things would have turned out like this? How could anyone have guessed I’d be here?” And yet, here I am, preparing to return to a half-ruined town and to try to recalibrate my life along new lines. Or maybe we could say, very, very old lines.

If you are over 50, you might have experienced this feeling of remoteness from your past. It seems as though we look back and down on a long road, as though we have spent many days climbing a mountain trail. And in some places the trail turns and you can sit down on a stone or a bit of grass and see the way you’ve come, with the place you started perhaps just visible, far off in the misty distance. Then you see this other person, a little dark figure toiling uncertainly up the long way and you can pity that person because you know what lies ahead. But it’s just a phantom, a distant memory.

Converts will recognise this strange feeling of detachment from our past. And the moreso if we are converts not only from secularist modernism to a serious-minded Catholicism, which is rare and alienating enough, but to the far less likely “second conversion” to a realm even further in and higher up, to Traditional Catholicism.

Many who read him wonder how C.S. Lewis could have been so insightful, to so accurately identify human failings. But he answered the question himself, saying that he was a Christian "not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else". In reality, to be a Traditional Catholic is to live every moment of every day in an entirely different country, a dazzlingly illuminated parallel world of meaning, of rationality and coherence that seems to exist slightly out of phase with the rest of the world and from which we watch the world moving farther away every day.

So we have become interior expatriates. And the longer we stay in this realm, the more distant and vague and shadowy the World Outside becomes; the less it has to do with us, the less we can even understand the old language, the old ways of our previous lives. We can remember them, but they are no longer ours.

We converts, we newcomers, stop now and then and wonder how we came into this brilliantly lit place whose walls are clear as windows, pouring light onto the shadowy World Outside. I know people who have lived their whole lives in that bright house and have never known the vast and terrifying gloom outside. But their native language is the one we have had to adopt. This is the value of converts to the Kingdom, since we can remember how we used to think and see and feel. We can, if we try, even still understand and speak the old Black Tongue, and know it when we hear it.

I am often asked, “How did you know so quickly that Bergoglio was going to be such a disaster?” I try not to say the first thought that comes to mind: “How is it that you didn’t?” The moment he walked out onto the loggia, he was sending the signals, his dress, his gestures, his words all speaking the language he intended us to understand; it was as though he was looking straight at us. Those first hours and days he was all but shouting his blasphemous intentions. I have not yet met a Traditionalist Catholic who did not understand him almost immediately. By its light we see everything else.

How did I get here? There is one constant impulse I’ve felt throughout life that I don’t know the origin of, this drive to know what’s really true. The need to know the truth has been a lash prompting this long chase half way around the world. Searching for the One True Thing has been Ariadne’s thread, unwound behind every step through the strange labyrinth of this life. But however strange it seems, here I am and I've had my answers and know what to do.

And now I’m going back to Norcia, but not immediately and not all at once. There are some things to be done first, and some precautions and preparations it would just be sensible to make. As strange as it may sound, and ongoing quakes notwithstanding, I’m going to go out on a thin limb and say that I think I’m being “called” to go back and that whatever is going to happen next is going to happen there.

The time has come. The basic necessities are there: supermarket, bank, pharmacy, hardware store etc are all running out of portables. The weather has eased off a bit and it’s not so cold and the early signs of spring will show in the next few weeks. But it’s still no time of year to be sleeping outdoors in Umbria. And the monks have warned me that the earthquakes haven’t stopped; they feel every one of the shakes.

"Yes we’re feeling all of them. You could keep your apartment down there for another few weeks so when you come back here you could set up a tent outside when its less cold to sleep in to be safe? Many people still aren’t sleeping in their houses even if agibile, for the same reason."

The house has stood up well so far, almost miraculously, but it is impossible to know how many more large shakes it will withstand. So, I've decided to buy a little wooden “casetta,” essentially a garden shed to put in the car port, since a tent isn’t going to do. The one I found is 550 Euros, including delivery, comes flat-packed like Ikea stuff, and can be put together with hand tools.

I’ll run my extra-long cable to it from the house for an electric heater and a light, put in the air mattress and sleeping bag and wait it out the same way my neighbours have.

The quakes won’t last forever, but before they stop we don’t know what will come. There are still hundreds of small tremors per day, and a couple of weeks ago we had another “swarm,” a series of bigger shakes followed by a few days of constant smaller aftershocks. The geologists say there is no reason to think there will not be more severe quakes coming before it’s over.

Despite this, since I’ve been down here in the swampy lowlands, I’ve given it a lot of thought but keep coming back to the same thing: where else can I go? What else is there to do?

It seems a strange choice because in its current state, the Norcia we knew is gone and will not come back for a long time. There is little in the human sense to recommend it. It is certainly possible to live there, but the charming tourist town with its medieval streets and sausage shops is closed, “red-zoned,” occupied only by busy emergency construction workers, piles of rubble, scaffolding and cranes. Its picturesque medieval walls are partly collapsed, its people living in trailers, portables, campers and inflatable tensile structures in the never-picturesque “zona industriale” down the valley.

Norcia’s churches are all – every one – reduced to heaps of rocks, and Mass is offered daily by the monks in a tiny portable up on the hill. The nuns have fled their monasteries and our monks have moved up into a fenced-off solitude on the mountainside. There are no more Psalms chanted to the glory of God in the home town of St. Benedict and the church down the road that stood where his sister Scolastica once lived her early monastic life, 1600 years ago, is ruined.

The little tourist town that was so attractive to the pleasure-seeking Roman tourists is shut now, but I lived there long enough to have found something else. Yesterday I was talking to a friend about it, saying that I was having difficulty giving a logical, rational reason to go back. He said, “Well, it’s home.” And it is.

The day we left Norcia – four adults and a huge box of cats jammed into a tiny car – with no luggage and no plan except to get somewhere else, reminded me of the night I left my parents’ home, in 1981 at the age of fifteen. Not since then had the immediate future been so completely unknown. I had no plan at all then and no idea what was coming – nearly forty years of wandering. But like that other time, it wasn’t aimless. There was never a moment when I didn’t know I was looking for something.

I’ve had a lot of conversations with vocation directors and novice mistresses since then and in every one I was told the same thing: “When you find the right place, you will know.” Frankly, this sounded like drivel. It sounded like “feelings.” And I never felt it. I lost count of all the monasteries I visited where I didn’t feel it. There was always that nagging urge to keep going, keep looking. It went on so long that I came to assume I was either emotionally deficient and couldn’t feel it, or that it was nonsense.

But the evening I first came to Norcia, even before I’d met the monks, I finally felt it. My friend and I had come there in late February and we got off the bus in the dark, not really knowing where we were. We muddled our way to the Basilica and caught the monks’ shop just before Br. Ignatius closed up. He gave us the key to our lodgings and we went to find something to eat before Compline.

But the five minute walk, through the Porta Ascolana and up the back way to St. Benedict’s piazza, was enough. This was it. I finally felt it deep in my guts, though I had no words for it except: This is it. I couldn’t explain it, but I knew, I recognised the thing I had been looking for and there wasn’t a moment’s hesitation. During that visit, my friend and I went to a realtor’s office and started enquiring about rents. (And a little bird whispered to me to get a house well outside the walls.)

It wasn’t all perfect, and the War of the World was present there very obviously. Especially in the summer. Before the quakes it seemed as though there were two towns, competing for the same space. In summer, Norcia’s identity as an ancient and holy place was submerged under its modern disguise as a tourist mecca – the standard Italian programme of turning one’s town into a loud, tawdry theme park of itself to rake in a season’s worth of cash.

Though not well known outside Italy, it was a major destination for Romans escaping the heat of the City in the summer holiday; the town took pains to entertain them with the kind of racket and blare that Romans seem to like, with loud concerts day and night in the Piazza.

Summer in Norcia was rather a trial and the only time its real identity peeked out was in the quiet of six in the morning, time for Laudes, when the only sounds were the bells, the Chant and the high-pitched cries of swifts wheeling overhead. I think I was not the only one to breathe a sigh of relief when the nights shortened and the September rain started and sent packing back to Rome the whole noisy, ugly, yammering horde.

The quakes have put a stop to that rivalry, at least for a while. It is not Norcia they destroyed. I believe the town will still be a place to go, but not for the reasons the well-heeled Romans came. For the time being, that Norcia is gone. But this leaves room for us to build the other Norcia. The people who come now won’t be there seeking pleasure, five star restaurants and entertainment but something more Real. Something you can’t pay for. Something perhaps that they will have to help build themselves.

When I was trying to decide in November where to go or what to do next, I received many invitations, the most tempting of which was from a group of traditional nuns in Germany. They offered a place in their guesthouse for me and the kitties, as long as we needed it. But it didn’t feel right. I had a chat about it with Fr. Spiritual Director, and he said no, come back. Come home as soon as possible. There are things to do there and perhaps a role to fulfil, a “niche” as he said.

And there are things to do. There needs to be a place for women to go, a real place of spiritual retreat and not merely lodgings to stay in, and I’ve been asked to start thinking about that. An annual theological conference there is going ahead, I’m told, even if they have to sleep in tents (in July). I have had conversations with my artist friend who agrees we should start organising painting and art history courses. There’s a lot of work to be done.

This is the spiritual and cultural warfare that is needed even more now that the crisis in the Church has reached its current dog-whistle pitch. The confusion and darkness in the World Outside has reached a point where no one is sure how to proceed. Father agreed that the time of activism is closing, and this is a time for the supernatural response.



There are still some practical, logistical difficulties I could use some help with.

First, I could use some help buying the casetta, the shed to sleep in. And for March, I will have to pay rent on two places. It’s annoying but unavoidable; since the house in Norcia was listed as agibile, the rent has to be paid, starting February 15th, but at the moment I still can’t live in it. So it was a choice of paying up or moving out. But because I wasn’t expecting to be going back so soon, I’m still contracted on the flat in S. Marinella until the end of March.

Donation button is at the top of the page, and I would be very grateful for any assistance. And I want you to know that I remember your intentions in the Holy Rosary and at Mass.

Second is something rather different and more difficult and long-term: I could really use some actual physical, bodily help. That is, a person. At least for a while.

I’ve decided to start canvassing the Traditional Catholic world to find a… well, a “spiritual roommate,” let’s call it for now. I know there are many out there who have told me how much they would like to visit Norcia, but of course the quakes have meant we had to put plans like that aside. But when they are finished – and they will eventually – I could really use both some help and some company.

First, the spiritual life – that is, the day-to-day routine of the Divine Office (just three times a day, not eight) is a lot easier to do on the buddy system.

But to be honest, I’m just plain starting to feel my age. I’ll be 51 in March, and the long-term after effects of chemo and cancer surgery have begun to catch up to me. It’s getting more difficult to do alone all these fun, rustico, outdoor things like chopping wood and turning over the veg bed and building bean trellises. I have ambitions to get a place with a larger property and keep bees and chickens and maybe a goat or two. Maybe even a donkey. But I have to admit, it would be difficult to do alone.

As life stabilizes in Norcia, and things settle into a routine, the time will come to start a kickstarter or other crowdfunding campaign to buy a piece of property, something well outside town in the countryside, close enough to the monks’ land to participate daily in their Offices and Mass. This, we hope, can be made into a place for prayer and contemplation, for solitude but also community for women, for those who want to visit, but also for those who might want to stay a while.

Of course, who would dream in such a time of founding a religious community? It would be madness, no? So obviously no one would dream of suggesting such a thing. But no bishop, no pope, no authority in the world can stop someone from praying together with one's roommates. And even praying quite a lot, in an orderly, "regular" way... Right? Certainly Santa Scolastica, having been born at the end of the Old Empire that was about to collapse, would not have thought that was what she was doing. She merely lived with a group of ladies of like mind, and prayed.

God has not finished telling us what His plans are for Norcia or for the Church or for the dark and sad World Outside; things have not settled down. But there are plans afoot. It’s time to get back to them, somewhat chastened though we might be. I can’t help but feel that these disasters in Norcia and in Rome are a kind of recalibration. A chance for God to turn things in a completely new direction, both for me and for the town. And maybe for others.


And thank you, especially to those who have stayed steadfast internet friends all this time.


Sunday, February 05, 2017

Money talks

This, by the way, is the guy who has offered to pay for the rebuilding of the Basilica of San Benedetto in Norcia: Brunello Cucinelli.

Cucinelli had bowled into Rome that morning from Umbria, a mountainous region north of the capital, where he lives in a hilltop village called Solomeo. Solomeo is not far from Perugia, and dates to the twelfth century. Its population in the last census was four hundred and thirty-six. Over the past thirty years, as his company has grown from a one-man operation to a business employing five hundred people, with an annual turnover of more than two hundred million dollars, Cucinelli has been renovating the village. He has enacted a peculiar fantasy of beneficent feudalism, with himself as the enlightened overlord, and the residents, many of them his employees, as the appreciative underlings. A castle with walls of honey-colored stone, several feet thick, has been converted into a factory; its chambers hum with the sound of knitting machines, its basement rumbles with ceaseless laundering. A Renaissance villa close by has been turned into a dining hall for employees; with a vaulted ceiling and views of the hills, it is often mistaken by tourists for an attractive restaurant. Cucinelli contributed to the restoration of the village’s Church of St. Bartholomew, which was founded in the late twelfth century and rebuilt in the seventeenth. He has repaved streets, restored squares, and built a woodland park. In addition, he has constructed a two-hundred-and-forty-seat theatre, crafted in the architectural vernacular of the sixteenth century. It has a pseudo-classical portico whose large Latin inscription, “B. CVCINELLI CVRAVIT A DOMINI MMVIII,” recalls the fa├žade of the Pantheon, in Rome.

I'm rather in favour of enlightened feudalism.

I was horrified to read a story in an Umbrian newspaper that the local bishop - who shall remain nameless but whom I've long since nicknamed Bishop Skinny McFancypants - who is well known for his great love of his local tanning salon - suggested that in order to make the "new basilica" into a "global tourist attraction" it should be rebuilt as a synthesis of "modern and ancient" styles.

I was briefly in despair until I remembered the fact that Mr. Cucinelli had already called dibs on the Basilica and was close friends with the monks.

This is the Chiesa di San Bartolomeo in Mr. Cucinelli's village of Solomeo, just outside Perugia, which he paid to restore.

I would call this acceptable


Sunday, January 29, 2017

Heading home

And each town looks the same to me, the movies and the factories
And every stranger's face I see reminds me that I long to be,
Homeward bound...

I got a call from my realtor in Norcia saying that the city engineers have cleared my house as safe for occupation. Or at least, the middle floor flat is, which is the one I live in. I think the upstairs flat will have to be repaired. In any case, I’m going back to Norcia on or around February 15th. I’ve been in Germany, flat and cat sitting for a friend for a week but will be back to Italy tomorrow by train. After that, I think we are going to try to rent a car or a small SUV to get me, the little bits of stuff we brought down and the kitties back home as soon as possible. (More.)

Keep praying though, that the quakes stop, or at least that the house doesn't fall on us.

But the supermarkets are open again and they've started opening the centro. The time has come.


Friday, December 30, 2016

Trades and the Real

The next young "conservative" Catholic man, say 19-25, who does not intend to become a priest, who tells me he's going to study philosophy and theology is going to get punched. "Oh yes, I intend to get married and have lots of kids too!" Whack!

My parents were engineers. When I was 13, my mother met and married a guy who had spent most of his life on ships, first in the North Sea fishing fleet, then in the Merchant Marine, and then in the Canadian Coast Guard. He'd been kicked out of school at 16 for punching a teacher (who sounded like he deserved it) and his father decided it was time for him to start in the world of working men. He turned out to be quite brilliant at maths (mostly self-taught), and through many years of directed self-learning and going on short courses, became qualified as a marine diesel engineer, 1st class, spending the most fruitful part of his adulthood overseeing the operation of arctic-going ships. He was known by his peers and superiors in the Coast Guard as one of the best engineers the fleet had ever had.

He was thirty-five when he met my mother, and fell madly in love with her. She had struggled to get her feet in the world, having gone to teachers' college and worked in elementary schools for a while, then gone on to do a double major science degree - mathematics and marine biology with minor competences in Japanese language - but still struggled to get motivated to find a real niche in the working world. She met her second husband (annulled from my father) and with his encouragement, ended up going to the Coast Guard college in Sydney, Nova Scotia to be the first woman ever to do their engineering programme.

(There were and are lots of women in the CCG but most of them train for navigation or other deck jobs. Engineering is extremely maths-heavy, and has a good deal less prestige than the tidy, dress-uniform-wearing deck careers. Engineers on Coast Guard ships come home from their three month stints smelling strongly of diesel fuel and machine oil.)

One of the ships my mother worked on, the Eastern Arctic icebreaker, the Louis St. Laurent.
Of course, being my mother, she graduated with high academic honours and started her work in the service with high expectations all round. She worked on a variety of vessels from Eastern Arctic ice breakers to West Coast ready-runners doing search and rescue off the coast of Vancouver Island. Later she worked in the Ottawa offices of Vessel Technical using her expertise to do cost estimates for vessel refits, and being responsible for the expenditure and tracking of millions in public funds. (When an ice breaker is damaged by hitting a hidden iceberg, the costs can easily run in the multiples of 7 digits.)

When I went to university, in my early 20s, I really had no idea at all what I wanted or ought to do with myself, and the costs were already becoming insane (this was about 1987). My mother finished her degree in 1975 and the whole thing, books included, had cost her $3000.00. By the next generation in the same university, I was looking at 25,000 - 30,000 per year for tuition. The warnings were already being seen in the media of students graduating with student loan debts that they would never - given their degree paths - be able to discharge. This was also the time of the so called "slacker generation" - that we later called Generation X - a demographic cohort who, having been raised by feel-good hippie hedonists, had no idea at all what they wanted out of life, or that anything they could bring themselves to dare to want could possibly be achievable.

In fact, it was worse than this. Our parents' generation had demolished the rules and standards and expectations of an entire civilization, leaving us "free" to do little more than drift aimlessly through life. They had succeeded in indoctrinating us into the New Paradigm in which none of the old expectations could be counted on, a nihilistic worldview in which nothing was really valuable or important. We had been raised every day of our lives through the late 60s and 70s to believe that nuclear war was inevitable, that we had no future that was not going to be full of pain and loss, that nothing was worth doing and the best we could hope for was a life of blessed distraction (which the internet was shortly to come along to helpfully provide.) Quite a lot of people my age went to university because it was just the expected thing to do. No one really had any notion at all of how to achieve anything in life, still less to pursue a career (which was mostly denigrated as the pursuit of "greed-is-good" capitalism). At the time it felt like failure but now seems just sensible that I dropped out. I still believe that the best educational money I ever spent was 80 bucks at the Y for a typing course.

But there were a lot of sensible things left at work from my mother's upbringing. Having been raised in post-War England where poverty and deprivation were universal and normal, she had instilled in me a deep fear of debt. (Thanks, Mum!) She was the one who taught me my two basic rules of getting on in life: only spend money you actually have; secure your home first - without a reliable roof over your head, nothing else can be achieved. I suppose in a sense, this was the foundation of my conservative nature.

But she also taught me the importance of knowing how to do things. How to make things, and mend things and make do with the things you had. The consumerist mentality - that was entirely a product of post-War North American boom economy, was something that simply did not enter our lives. I remember the conversation I had once with a co-worker when he said he wanted to go to a big sale at an electronics shop, to buy a new stereo. I said, "Oh, I thought you said you already had one. Is it broken?" He said, "No, but it's outdated." I said, "Well, does it work?" I told him he was mad, and he thought I was weird. This was when I realized that I lived in a significantly different world from most people.

I've always admired people who know how to make things, fix things, build things. I had a friend who was in a robotics engineering programme in university whose hobby for about three years was completely rebuilding a car. His ability to work through partial differential equasions was as nothing, I thought, to the fact of this car he drove that he built himself.

I know people now who have simply staggering student loan debt, and who know that they will never, ever be free of it as long as our civilization continues. Personally, if it were me, this would be a pretty good reason to hope for the coming of the Asteroid. I can't think of any more horrible situation to live in day to day.

Currently, I have very little money, but absolutely no debt. I've never had a credit card, my brief flirtation with student loans 30 years ago is a long-forgotten bad dream. I don't own much in the world - no car or house - but I'm free in a way that I think most people rarely experience. And lately, I'm learning that even the few little practical skills I have, mostly domestic, are so rare as to make me something of a curiosity. I am the person my friends turn to when they want to know how to cook something, grow something or sew something. I know people who don't know how to light a fire in a grate or make a pot of soup.

All those disaster movies about the various kinds of apocalypses have one thing in common: the great majority of modern, urban-dwelling people are going to do very badly when the cocoon-like supports of Modernia are taken away. In any situation that requires any sort of fortitude or practical knowledge for survival, most of us are going to be toast.

I have had a running argument with my friend Steve Skojec about the value of university. I keep posting articles about how university is mostly a scam and a snare for the lazy and unimaginative young to trap them into lifelong debt and detachment from reality. Of course, Steve is a guy who got a degree in communications and just about lives online and has admitted that he just doesn't have most of the practical skills we used to take for granted. I also "live in my head" a good deal and I write for a living, but I did do two trades courses, one in joinery (making things out of wood) and another in cheffing. And I hung around my engineer parents a good deal and learned things from them. We lived in the arctic where The Real is rather more in-your-face than it tends to be in an urban setting. When my motorcycle didn't work, my mother refused to pay to get it fixed. Instead, she lent me her tool box, handed me the owner's manual and told me to figure it out myself. It took me a couple of days, but I did it (had to take apart the carburetor and replace the float valve). I figured (and this was her reasoning too) that if I could follow a recipe in a cookbook, I could probably work this out too.

I think our friend Mike Rowe in the video above is right. I think some people really ought not to be encouraged to "follow their dreams" but to have dreams that are realistically achievable. I once had a class of young catechism students, and I asked them to give me a show of hands of who was planning to go to university. The kids, all about 14 years old, all stuck up their hands except one. I asked them, "Now, who has some serious interest in one particular subject they want to go to university to study, like biology or math or history?" No hands. Then I looked at the kid who hadn't put up his hand and asked him what he was going to do. He said he was going to apprentice with his dad as a plumber. He said he'd seen his father do useful skilled work and be his own boss, running a business that made a good living and supporting his whole family. He said that he could expect a starting salary of about $40,000 a year and would be his own man, without debt.


It's not so much that a person who has gone through university is necessarily going to be useless in the real world. It's not even that a tradesman will necessarily be more independent. It's that the culture does not value the independent mindset. We don't even bother to get things repaired by other people any more. Now we have chained ourselves to the consumer machine to the point where if something stops working we throw it out and buy a new one. We're slaves, and humans aren't meant to be slaves.


Thursday, December 08, 2016

Bad news and good news

I got an email from my realtor in Norcia who says my house has been declared "inagibile" by the civil engineers. There's structural damage that wasn't immediately evident when I was running about throwing the kitties in their carry-box.

This means it's going to be a lot longer to go home than I had first anticipated. The good news is that the municipality has suspended all taxes and utilities and is footing the bill for rents and compensation for people stuck without a home. I only rent, but it means I won't have to keep the rent up for the time I'm away (if I got the Italian right.) I have to go and fill out a form.

The realtor could have sent me the form by email, but we're going up tomorrow in a rented car anyway, so it'll be easier to do it in person, and then we can get additional information. I can go into the house no problem, but can't live in it. He says it will be fixed "before a year" but of course, there's no way to know exactly. So, new plans must be made.

(Something that's pretty awesome about Italy is the relationship you have with your realtor. The guy who finds your home - whether rented or bought - becomes like your manager for all matters pertaining to your domestic life after that. He helps you hook up to utilities, finds you the guy who sells firewood, gets you the right forms and things from the government and walks you through all bureaucracy (often just does it for you) and becomes your trouble-shooter for every conceivable thing, from noisy neighbours to permits.

He's also the guy who knows everyone in town, so if you need a plumber or vet or doctor or bike repair he'll be the guy to talk to. And in a situation like this, having an advocate who is a native speaker and knows all the ropes and all the local officials is indispensable. This is the way things are done in Italy; no one is a lone wolf. It's ALL about the community. Sandro and Luca Amici, father and son team, have been great from the first day, and I'd recommend them to anyone who wants a place in Norcia or the vicinity. They kept working and helping people sort things out, even after they were themselves living in tents in their front garden after the August quakes.)

At least this news and info clears up ambiguities. I was all muddled not knowing what I could expect or what was happening withe house, so not really knowing exactly what plans to make. I rented a nice little holiday flat for cheap (off season) in Santa Marinella, the town on the coast north of Rome where I lived for several years before moving up to Norcia. But it's not possible for it to be a long-term thing. Good for a few months, but not for six months or a year. So will have to start making some serious plans.

Also, because the lease will be suspended, and because the house isn't so damaged that my things are exposed, I can just leave all my furniture and things and come home to them when it's all taken care of. I can also make visits and even probably stay over night now and then when necessary. So, for the moment, though the kitties and I aren't really settled anywhere we're not homeless and at least I don't have to lug my furniture and 40 boxes of books into storage. And I won't lose the house.

But I'm finding that after the initial shock, I'm actually feeling more relieved than I expected. This means I am finally able to get out of the uncertainty zone and start making concrete and realistic plans for the longer term, which is a huge relief in itself.

At least I can hold my head up in Norcia. I was feeling pretty badly for all my friends whose homes are either destroyed or inagibile and who have been shipped off to live in hotels and resorts on the coast and Lake Trasimeno, or who have gone to camp with parents and friends. I had been thinking that I could just saunter back to my house whenever I wanted, and it was all up to me. Now we're really all in the same boat, all together. Now I'm a real terremotata, and I feel less bad about having left. I'm part of the Norcia Disaspora now, and feel all the more solidarity with my fellows.

We're going up tomorrow with a load of plug-in heaters I bought for donating to the people stuck in tents and little portable houses. Going to stop by the supermarket on the way and get some groceries as well to give to the volunteer distribution centre. I'll fill in the forms, and we'll take a drive around and see if we can find my friends whom I've been a bit worried about. Some of the older people are still there and I want to know they're OK. I'll take the camera up and dig my voice recorder out of the house and do some interviews and see if I can write it up so the world can also get a better idea of what things are really like up there.

And I'll be able to pack up the house and get it ready. The studio will come back down with me, since I think this should be taken as an opportunity to get painting. All the books should go in boxes and I've got a bunch of bubble -wrap for the pictures. The spare bedroom is more or less a storage room, so we'll just shove everything in there. Pack up Great Grandma's china, the glass wear and breakable bits and pieces, all in boxes and in the little room. At least this way when the workmen have to come and fix things, this stuff won't be in their way.

After that, I'll just pack up all the clothes and coats and boots and art supplies and things, do whatever I can to winterize the garden, and come back down.

Then what?

I've got a few ideas, but nothing confirmed.

More later.



Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Before the quake - Norcia the blessed

I've been meaning to post some pics of Norcia, the garden and our hike up Monte Patino just before the quakes.

Pumpkin ("zucca") flower and friend, in the garden.
I am particularly proud of my squash. I germinated six plants from seeds I saved from a bit of squash I bought at the market.

Mullein and morning glories
Variety of common verbascum. Not Verbascum thapsus, but similar and you can still make a good bronchial remedy out of the flowers and leaves.

Most of the garden is nearly vertical, so wildflowers are the way.
Vertical gardening with kitty.

White scabious and wild garlic, blossoming all over the vertical part of the garden in late summer.

The wildflowers go in a cycle, and one of the great joys is watching it run through its annual pattern.

With the wild garlic, you can just pull up the bulbs, but they're tiny and have only a few cloves. Pick the globe-shaped flowers instead when they are still a nice dark purple. Tie them up in bunches and dry them, then when you want a nice sweet and subtle garlicky flavour, pick off only a few of the florets at a time.

Wild morning glories on the upper slope.
They don't like the really hot weather, so die off in late August, but come back again with the rain a few weeks later.

Masses of these beauties all summer.

A welcome visitor on the broccoli.

I watched as he caught a hoverfly. Like lighting!

About a week or ten days before the August pre-quake, I took a hike with two friends up Monte Patino, that's the peak that overlooks Norcia with the cross on top. We started at six am. No fun hiking in the afternoon in August! Even this high in the mountains it gets REAlly hot!

Piano Santa Scolastica at dawn.

Little town in the cool morning.

The Cross above all.

I can see my house!

Not as close as it looks.

Alpine beechwood 

A wild variety of digitalis, foxglove. Pretty, but don't eat it!
These wild pinks can be found at the highest elevations. They are humble little fellows and can be hard to spot, but the fragrance is heavenly!

A nice place for a rest. Half way.

A ways to go yet.
Last stretch. Can you spot the sheep fountain? Good for humans too.

Good morning little town!


Look who's talking!

The way back down. 

Little town, we miss you so!

Santa Maria Addolorata, the Oratory Church of St. Philip Neri, the day before it fell to rubble.

October 29th, taking the cross down from the roof after the Wednesday pre-quake. 
Savino and Elisabetta, my friends, after the August quake closed their bakery.

Just before the quake that brought it all down.

Last day.

Consulting. The next day it fell. 


Rose window.

Tympanum and saints.

The novusordo tent from the diocese. Cheery, eh?