Sunday, April 28, 2013

Hi, yeah... oops ... sorry

I guess it's been a while since I've been around here. You might have noticed a couple of posts down there's a thing about my art classes starting again, and, thanks to the generosity of you all, I'm suddenly exceedingly busy.

It's been an exciting couple of weeks and quite a sudden change from my next-to-comatose winter. I've been leaping out of bed at 6:45 every morning six days a week to get the 8 am train that gets into the City at nine. This gives me a nice hour of quiet morning time to myself before class starts at ten. I've been taking the bike into town with me and having a blast getting my metabolism up. I've written before about how walking around Rome is like playing that old classic 80s video game, Asteroids. Well, crank it up a few notches by doing it on your bike, and it can be ... rather stimulating. Gets the early morning blood pumping.

I've also found a nice little out of the way church, tiny by Rome standards but with all the Baroque frescoes and gilded curlicues you could want, that has Adoration every week day morning, so that's a nice little refuge. Then it's off to the farmer's market for a basket of fresh strawberries and a tea.

After that, it's class for three hours until one, one-thirty on Saturdays, then I go rushing off somewhere with internet access to work. Tuesdays and Wednesdays have been extra exciting because of the Figure class in the evenings, from five to eight, then more work after that.

Between the conclave and the Vatican's stem cell conference, as well as some looming legislative developments in Ireland and Britain, things have been a little nutty with work too. Nights have often been late, and mornings always early, and the time I have left is usually spent face down in the pillows. There has been little time for throwing stuff up onto the blog. So, anyone who only follows me here, and not on Facebook, sorry I've been kind of absent.

I've been pushing my limits a bit, and in a way it feels wonderful, like getting a stretch after a long time sitting down - which come to think of it is more or less exactly what it is. Leaving the house every day, getting some exercise in, seeing people, interacting with the world...

It was two years on March 9th, Ash Wednesday 2011, that I was diagnosed - a day I'm probably never going to forget. I started chemo in June, and had The Surgery the following January. I'm amazed that it's been two years, honestly, because it all seems still quite present. A lot of things have changed, and some old things that I'd long forgotten about or pushed to the back of my mind have come back. It's been a hell of a long Lent.

Anyway, last year when Andrea came back from Australia and classes started in early April, I dove straight in, and added Pilates classes, in an effort to force myself to come back to life as quickly as possible. I did it for a month or so then fell flat on my face. Only two months after the surgery, I wasn't ready. I spent a goodly portion of the winter trying to get the energy back to move and think and function, or even to want to, but I guess it took art classes to get me moving again. Funny what motivates.

Thinking about vocation again, and what it really means. I've been reading this very interesting book, Fire Within, by Thomas Dubay, about mystical prayer according to the teachings of St. Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, and it is bringing back many Thoughts about the nature and purpose of our existence, why we do and don't do the things we do and don't do. I suppose I'll have to share a bit at some point. But not now.

There's a kind of depression, I think, that comes with the absence of the spiritual life. I think it happens when you have lived a strong spiritual life in the past and do so no longer. Maybe its the thing the Scholastics call Acedia. I think I was suffering from Acedia over the winter. Maybe from living alone. Maybe from thinking too much about all that happened in the last few years. Maybe as a symptom of what I do for a living, the kinds of things I have to look at every day. I had a conversation with a colleague who said a few days after we came back from our Christmas break, "It's only been three days and I'm already sick of reading about the perverts." Human evil is a hard thing to look at all the time.

That, and I hate the short days. When it's dark by five, who wants to do anything?

There's a kind of torpor that can come over one, almost a paralysis, and even without strong feelings of sadness or bouts of crying it's, apparently, also classed as depression. Sometimes, especially when you're on your own, existence itself can seem overwhelming.

Unlike Modernia, we know that a human being is a unified whole, that the mind and emotions cannot be separate from the physical being and the spiritual reality that makes up a person. We moderns have a habit of trying to separate these things out. When we get depressed, we go to a headshrinker who looks only at the one thing, your thoughts and feelings - and inevitably prescribes a drug to deal with the symptoms. This habit we have of treating the different aspects of ourselves as separate and distinct comes from the 18th century's obsession with categorizing everything and with the materialists' desire to swat away anything that it can't classify in a Linnean system. And Rene Descartes' awful idea of the mind-body split. If it can't be understood easily, its characteristics can't be fitted into a taxonomic key, it doesn't exist. Or at least, it doesn't matter very much.

But one of the things I think I've learned in All That, is that the Catholics have been right all along (surprise!) and that we are indeed, unified whole beings. That a person can't be physically healthy, at least not for long, without being morally healthy. And this doesn't mean just avoiding sin. It means doing things with yourself that are oriented towards fulfilling your (teleological) ends. Mental health is a material concern, but it is closely entwined with spiritual health.

I think I'm starting to get beyond the health-related and personal shocks of the last few years, but these have led me more deeply into the bigger issues that have remained unresolved. It's impossible to hide from life, even if you can spend months at a time trying. And the things I want to know, the thing I've been looking for in my meandering and apparently aimless life, still want finding.

At the moment, I'm trying to find them by looking in a different way. But the obsession that drove me to come nearly 9000 km away from where I started is reclaiming my attention.

It ain't over yet.


Friday, April 19, 2013

Habuimus Papam

April 19th, 2005.

This Sunday at Mass, I involuntarily prayed "for Benedict, our pope and Francis, our bishop". I swear I didn't do it on purpose.


Thursday, April 18, 2013

Stay alive until you die, don't die until you're dead

Memento mori...

Some time ago, in a blog post, I asked the question, what do you want to be caught doing when you die? Of course, having dealt with the C-word in the last couple of years, the question has become one of immediate interest and I've thought a lot about the question of time, and how we are obliged to make the best possible use of this finite resource.

The other day, it popped in there again when I was reading the blurb of a biography of a well known Australian artist. It said that she had been painting right up to the day before she died, in preparation for another exhibition.

One of the things I'm grateful for is being granted the tremendous gift of Good Work. I understand that the Buddhists say that a huge part of the question of how we are supposed to live and order our lives has to do with Right Work, and I think this is spot on. Many, many years ago, I knew that whatever work I was going to undertake, it had better be worth spending a third or so of my life on. Aside from sleeping, the eight-to-ten hours a day most people spend at work is the largest chunk of time we have in our lives. I simply could not bear the thought of just doing some job for that percentage of my allotment of time.

But now I'm wondering again about the right use of time, and the question of Good Work, and, assuming that cancer doesn't return or some other accident doesn't happen, I'm thinking hard about how I want to spend the second half of my life. And the story of the woman who died painting has stuck in my mind.

What do you want to be doing on the last day of your life? What do you want to be caught doing by death?


Funny: what does The World think is "good work?" When you put the search term "good work" into Google, the very first thing you get is a website from Canada called "Good Work Canada" telling you how to get jobs in the Environmentalist industry.


Sunday, April 14, 2013

What Rome is for

Busy weekend. Friday was the Big Day at the Vatican's stem cell research conference, and there is still a lot of work to do about it. It's always fun and exciting to go to these things, and really reminds me of why I'm here. You get to meet incredibly interesting people, have conversations you never imagined you would find yourself having. In this case it was me asking questions about the moral implications of nuclear transfer cloning and induced pluripotent stem cells with the Nobel Prize winning scientist who helped to pioneer the procedures.

Of course, this is not to say, for a second, that I endorse this kind of research, but the opportunity to talk directly with some of the people doing the work was for me extremely exciting, professionally. To observe at first hand what kind of people these are, what kind of arguments they make and what sort of justifications they have to answer the moral objections was fascinating. I was impresssed with how willing they were to talk, and how plain-spoken they were about their ideas.

Most of the time, when we're writing on this stuff, we are stuck conjecturing and guessing about how they think and what they want to accomplish. For the first time since I started this work more than ten years ago, I had a chance to ask the leaders in the field my difficult questions, and it was hugely enlightening.

So, that was cool.

Then, on Saturday, it was FIRST DAY OF CLASSES!! Yaaaay! Bozetti class first, which is mostly about learning to mix colours and match what you see on the model to teach you how to move on to portrait work. It's incredibly difficult, but I'm starting to push through the difficulties and get the general gist. Tomorrow morning I'm starting another cast drawing class. (And thank you again to all the kind people who donated funds to make it possible. What would I do without my readers, I just don't know.)

After, I went to lunch in the Ghetto with an old friend from Toronto and we had a little stroll from the nice Jewish restaurant where we had tacchino in marsala and mushrooms, down to the Theatre of Marcellus and the Porticus Octaviae, then back to the sacristy of the parish where I had my first lesson in reading Gregorian notation.

A friend of mine gave me a copy of the new Baronius Press edition of the Little Office of the BVM, the one with the music in the back that, if you know how, allows you to sing the office as it was intended. I have had a bit of experience singing the little squares in choir with various nuns I've visited, and in parish choirs, so following isn't difficult, but actually doing it by myself is just outside my range of skills. So my friend, who is sacristan at Smma. Trinita, sat down with me for about an hour and we worked out the tones and I went home happily singing a new Gregorian hymn.

Sunday was high Mass, (that through some miracle started on time!) and lunch with a selection of the gang.

The weather was perfect. April is Rome's best month, when the weather is warm, but the breeze is cool, and the evenings are mild and fragrant with wisteria. In a couple of weeks, the temperature will start to become oppressive, and I'll start thinking of ways to escape, but for now, it's like a dream. A nice dream.

I feel like I've suddenly come back to life after months of hibernation.


Thursday, April 11, 2013

Missed the starting gun...

I first heard this album when my Uncle Robert bought it and he used to babysit me now and then when Mum was working. (Yes, I was surrounded by bad influences. But he also introduced me to Rose's Lime Cordial and cantaloupe, so...)

But it wasn't until now, in my late forties, that I understood what the lyrics mean...

You are young and life is long and there is time to kill today.
And then one day you find ten years have got behind you.
No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun.

Except that it's not ten years that have suddenly fallen behind me, it's about 25.


Doing it wrong

Have you ever thought of running away and pretending to be someone else? Ever get the feeling that you'd rather not be you any more, that things just really aren't working out very well as you, and that if you just went somewhere else, changed your name and lived another life, things might go better?

Ever wanted to be one of those people you hear about on TV who just walk away one day from their lives, get on a bus or a train and get off at some random spot and tell the world they're someone no one has ever heard of? The TV FBI (I don't know what the real FBI says about it) says that people "disappear" all the time. You hear it in murder mystery shows: "He might have just not wanted to be a stockbroker any more. Thousands of people just walk away from their lives every year, it doesn't mean they've been killed..."

Ever have the feeling that you've pretty much been doing everything wrong, or never really knew what to do or how to live all this time, and just want to go back to the point where it all went wiggy and fix it?

A long time ago, a smart friend of mine gave a piece of advice to another friend of mine who was having a difficult time adjusting to existence. He said, "If you hate your life, don't kill yourself; kill your life."

She took the advice, sold all her stuff, and got a job as a cook on a marine biology/cartography research ship in South America. She later married the captain and has spent the rest of her time since then ferrying marine biologists back and forth from Chile to the Galapagos Islands.

I've heard Dubrovnik is fantastic in the spring.


If it ain't broke...

Here's something I don't really get about countries and states, (and for these purposes the EU counts as both): that bankruptcy doesn't mean for these metaphorical agglomerations what it means for the rest of us. When we say a state or a government has gone bankrupt, like California did a few years ago, life for it just seems to carry on as always. When a government goes bankrupt, they don't have to auction off the office furniture and the Houses of Parliament. They don't have to move out and hold their parliamentary sessions in a coffee shop or park. They don't get a lien on their houses or have to take their kids out of school and send them to live with Aunt Maisie.

In about 1860 or so, one of my ancestors (grandma was unclear whether it was her grandfather or her great grandfather) was a small child, one of a bunch of siblings, when his father abruptly went broke from bad investments (something about a coal miner's strike). Alternate arrangements were found for most of the kids, except for this ancestor of mine, who was sent to the children's poor house. A kind of protestant labour camp for children.

The whole thing sounded like a Dickens novel, but the reason those books were so popular was that this was the sort of thing that actually happened in those days. According to my venerable relative, my ancestor resolved his dislike of the situation by sitting down on the floor, refusing to move, and screaming at the top of his lungs. This being Dickens and not Auschwitz, the child was not gassed, but sent back to the family who had attempted to get rid of him, with the information that his sort was not wanted in the work house.

But none of this sort of thing happens to governments that take other people's money, waste it all, then declare they can't pay the bills. I'm not sure why this is.

But I think we can be sure that when the EU "goes bankrupt," neither Barroso nor Herman Van Rumpypumpy will lose their jobs, let alone their houses. Their kids won't be sent to a Protestant labour camp. They won't have to auction the EU parliament building (who would buy the hideous thing, anyway?) and I think we can be sure that they won't stop doing any of the stuff (telling other countries what to do) they like to do.

So what does it mean, in reality, when a state, or a superstate, goes broke?

Here's a cool Peter Gabriel song to listen to while you're thinking about it.



I would like to announce a universal prohibition. No one is allowed any more, anywhere, ever, to use the expression, "I know it in my heart."

You don't know anything with your heart, either in the literal, medical sense or the metaphorical, poetic sense. You know things with your brain. Your heart, in the physical sense, is for pumping blood, and nothing else. In the metaphorical, poetic sense, it is for feeling and possibly intution (whatever that is).

Knowing is a head-thing. You use your brain, your observations, intellect and reason, to know things.

Knowing something "in your heart" is a symptom of our girlified, idiot-culture that can't tell the difference between feelings and reality, wants and needs, facts and wishes.



Stop the clock

I've decided I don't like time, the way it keeps going and going, dragging you along when you're mostly not ready and don't want to go anywhere or do anything or have anything happen.

I wish there were some way of making it stop.



The problem with the environmental movement is the politics, not the facts. I don't claim to know definitively about 'global warming' or whatever we're calling it this week, whether it's caused by our industries or whether it is just part of the very long natural cycle of climate change, a colossal oscillation of cool and warm periods that has been happening for eons. I don't know if we are really going to run out of oil in the next few years or if we've got reserves in the world that will last for a few more hundred years.

The facts cover such a vast scale that it is almost impossible to make definitive answers.

But I have lived in cities most of my life, Victoria, Vancouver, Halifax and Toronto and I know we're doing it wrong. We live in a way that makes us sick, that fails to give us the food and exercise and environment we need to flourish and be happy and holy. We are enslaved and sickened by our conveniences and comforts and we are obsessed with meaningless pursuits and distractions.

We've ensmallened ourselves, shrunk ourselves down to creatures with lives so small they fit on a ten by fifteen inch screen. We've become so afraid of the least discomfort that we've stopped living.

Or maybe that's just me.


Monday, April 08, 2013

Orange Soup

A long time ago, I invented something I called Orange Soup, and it was a pretty big hit with friends. It had all orange food I could think of: sweet potatoes, carrots, red lentils and the grated rind and juice of one orange. Plus curry powder. It was hot and good for you and everyone loved it.

Unfortunately, I can't remember how to make it and I never wrote it down.

But tonight, I tried a simplified version that turned out pretty well: Cream of Carrot and Orange soup.


an onion, chopped
two cloves of garlic, minced
about five or six small to medium carrots
a few sticks of celery
an ounce of butter

tablespoon or so of chestnut flour

2 cups chicken stock
half an orange
tablespoon of curry powder
250 ml heavy cream

Saute all the veg in a heavy bottomed pot in the butter until the onions are soft. Turn the heat down. Sprinkle the chestnut flour (sweet and very flavourful, but probably expensive outside Italy, you can substitute wheat flour... if you don't care about your health) over the veg, mixing it all around until the flour has absorbed all the remaining butter.

Pour in the chicken stock, adding curry powder to taste (I get mine at the Bangladeshi's at the big Esquiline Market near Termini train station, but it's pretty hot stuff, so careful,) the juice of the 1/2 orange, and allow to simmer until the carrots are soft. (An easy method of juicing an orange is to use the round end of a wooden spoon. Don't buy one of those stupid juicer things. They're a waste because they never get all the juice and you end up throwing away most of the pulp.) If you want a more orangey tasting soup, grate in a little of the rind while the veg is sauteing.

When the carrots are very soft, pour about half into a blender and add half the cream. Blend on high for a minute or so. Pour it back into the pot and bring up to heat.

Eat with a little apple and ricotta salad.


Thursday, April 04, 2013

Ooo! I know her!

This is my art teacher. Andrea Smith, certainly one of the most awesome people I've ever known.