Tuesday, April 04, 2017

Taking the adventure

The new garden; gardener of all I survey...

Well, that's it. The next phase is beginning. The house in Norcia is empty, and all my belongings are (mostly) jammed into one room in the new place in Perugia, so that's that done.

Spent the weekend lifting and toting. The biggest we could get was a 9-passenger domestic, and not the cube van we really needed, so it took us longer than we had anticipated. All together, it was three days and four trips back and forth

Job done. Katia, Emanuele, me, Christine and Christopher on Saturday.

... and four friends helping...

It wasn't the worst move I've ever done. I'll never forget the time I rented a house in New Westminster with two friends and we had to bring stuff to one location from four different parts of Vancouver. It took nine people, four trucks and three days. I remember sitting on the living room floor at the end of that, with four sofas piled up like a fortress around us, eating McFries and wondering when the nomad lifestyle would end. That was 22 years ago. When I turned thirty a couple of years later, I sat down and worked out how many times I'd moved. 40. I'd moved 40 times by the time I was thirty. Sometimes across town. Sometimes across the water to the Mainland and back to the Island and back to the Mainland again. Sometimes across the country. A couple times across the Atlantic. After that it slowed down. And I stopped counting, because that can really mess with your head.

My section of the garden directly in front of the shed. After that the fields of the farm and the hills beyond. Perugia is behind. There are three apartments in this complex, and it seems I'm not the only gardening enthusiast. The shed has a good sturdy work  bench with an old fashioned vice, and lots of room to work.
Anyway, here we are, done. I can't actually live in the place until after Easter, though, because they're rebuilding the bathroom and refurbishing the kitchen, so the kitties and I are staying in Santa Marinella until the middle of April. Then we rent (or maybe borrow) another car, and drive me and the kitties, a couple of suitcases and a houseplant or two up for good.

The survivors. Last year's pansies, snap dragons and day lillies. Also one rose and the sage.
But though it was not really my choice to leave Norcia in October, it has become, through an act of Providence, my choice to remain away for now. The grace of God is a funny thing sometimes. I had known for some time before the quakes that I needed to do some things, and to do other things differently. I had been trying to work out whether I could commute to Perugia (there's a daily early morning bus from Norcia even now) to enrol in the Italian language course there at the Università per Stranieri. It's an hour by bus, so in theory it would have been no worse than some of the city commutes in Vancouver and Toronto.

I also sort of knew the monks weren't going to stay down in their monastery inside the walls forever. They had that country property up the hill and I knew their goal was to move into it at some point. Rebuild the church and the old monastery. At which time they would more or less disappear from the integrated daily life of the town. I was thinking a lot about what that would mean for me.

The house I was renting in Norcia wasn't ideal either, lovely as it was. The garden was tiny once you took away all the vertical part you can't grow anything on, and being on the foot of the mountain the soil even on the little postage stamp of flat was pretty much non-existent. Stick a spade in it and you hit rock no more than a few inches down. Nearly everything I grew had to be in pots.

The position of the house was also not very good, since it faced directly back towards the town. Romans love noise, and in the summer Norcia turned into a kind of three month-long discoteque with the position of the house making it sound like the disco was happening in my living room. Every night until one or two am... "Whump-whump-whump-WHUMPWHUMPWHUMP-whump!!" interspersed with someone bellowing and screaming into a mircophone - and every night louder and louder. I slept in the living room with all the windows and shutters closed, a fan blasting on its highest setting next to my ear to drown it out, and industry-standard wax ear plugs in my ears. If someone had warned me about the noise in the summers, I certainly would never have taken that place. But of course, I guess that problem has been resolved now, at least for a few years.

So, I knew that things had to change. Of course, I was dragging my heels... as you do... but it had to change. Of course, God knows us pretty well, and knows I'm not very good at making decisions, good or bad. I really do have to be herded where I'm supposed to go. But it's nice to have a sign.

I learned at the end of February that I was not going to be able to move back, so spent all of March charging around all over Umbria looking for the next step. It finally came down to Perugia, and I went up to sign the lease documents and hand over some cash. The plans had all been set, all the details of buses and transport to make the commute to the college, the locations of supermarkets, the church in the centro for the Sunday Mass, signing up for the local Trad Mass weekly lectures, making contacts... all the preliminary work... I came back to S. Marinella and had an email waiting from Fr. Prior who had promised to keep his ears open for a place in Norcia. There was an "agibile" flat available inside the walls, 3 beds, for 500/month. The news was two days after I'd signed on the new place.

If it had come only two days before, everything would have been different. But the decision was made, and the course plotted and laid in. In all this time, and through all these thousands of miles, I suppose I've finally learned how to read the signs. Nervous as I might be about leaving Norcia and striking out somewhere new, it seemed only a confirmation that I was on the right track. My lease is for a year. In that time I think we've learned that nearly anything can happen.

And now that I've had a few days to recover, it's made me realise something else. When I was a Dumb Young Person, I think my main goals in life mostly revolved around finding a good place to hide. A traumatic upbringing had taught me that the world was mostly just a place of danger, mainly to be avoided as much as possible. But the mindset that always looks for safety more or less makes it impossible to accomplish anything positive. This attitude towards the world was the common one among my peers when I was young. We were a traumatised generation, we all grew up expecting the Bomb to annihilate us and everything we loved. We tended to retreat into nihilism, or at least existential despair, and refused to make plans or harbour hopes for the future. The entrepreneurial mind that looks on the world as a place of opportunity, a place to do things, was unknown to us.

But a conversation I had with Fr. Prior some time ago revealed the limitations of my thinking. In all this time I had been seeking self-preservation and motivated by fears. In trying to find a safe place in the world - 40 moves in the first 30 years - I had been stuck in survival mode all this time. And here in front of me was a group of men who had taken exactly the same situation - a world that was bent on destroying itself - and instead of seeking shelter had dedicated themselves to building something lasting and Real. The goal was not only to provide themselves with a place of safety, but to start building something for the future for everyone else. Benedictine life is a funny thing; it was never intended originally as a civilisational rescue operation, but in times of great crises the formula has served not only to preserve but to build up while everything else was falling down. Starting a monastery (the community was founded in 2000) in that particular place, and in times such as these was a deliberate sign.

We live in profoundly uncertain times, and nearly everyone is focusing on survival. Maybe it has to do with Generation X's systemic, innate uncertainty. We were the generation that our Boomer parents loved to terrorize. They dismantled an entire civilisation, like demolishing a house we were still trying to live in, and it left us with the core belief that we were all doomed. Even if our societies didn't collapse from social unrest, we would be incinerated by nuclear war before we were thirty. If we survived, we would "envy the dead" as we stumbled around blind and dying in a radioactive wasteland. This was the future our hippie parents taught us to expect. None of us made any plans, few of us got married and had children. We are the generation that has no belief at all in the future and very little trust in the present.

And now we're in our 40s and 50s, and more or less in charge of the world. Is it possible that this is where the western world's sudden malaise of anxiety has come from? Perhaps. I know that all my life I've had to fight the urge to retreat into the safety of despair. But a Christian has no business indulging in despair.

I have resisted talking about the earthquakes in St. Benedict's home town as some kind of metaphor. There are real people - people I know - whose lives have been flattened by the quakes, and they deserve better than to be turned into a rhetorical gaming chip. But if you think about it for a moment, it does seem like a mad thing, to think about building in a time when all around you is crashing down. And of course, those monks were doing exactly that 17 years ago when they first arrived. The quakes - coming at the same moment as the worsening crisis in the Church and the world - have simply made the reality that much more obvious, and made the task that much more clear.

Whatever the World is doing, we are called to the same thing as believers; we are called to build up the Kingdom. Now, while all the world is either willingly participating in this civilizational self-destruction, or trying to find a place to hide, we are being given quite a different sort of task, wherever we are.

On my own two feet, and by my own choice.

When I got, essentially, an offer of a place to continue hiding it just became clear that the time had come to do the next thing. To go voluntarily and so take the next adventure that's sent.

[All pics, H/T Christine Broesamle]


Wednesday, March 15, 2017


Well, that's settled. 

I've been charging around, all over Umbria for three weeks - Norcia, Narni, Terni, Citta di Castello - and it's finally come down to Perugia, and a small place in the country. It's not fancy. It's not posh or suburban. But it will do. 

I left Citta di Castello in a funk on Tuesday morning. It was hopeless. The logistical problems of having three cats, a house full of furniture - but no kitchen - and needing a place that was both close enough to the centro storico that I could go to Mass, but also needing a place with a garden and away from traffic - was impossible. There's a lot to tell about Citta di Castello, and I'm going to be writing about it elsewhere soon. Suffice to say here that it didn't work out, and is in reality quite a depressing place. I was glad to leave, in fact. 

I took the little local two-car diesel train down to Perugia and just wung it. Deciding to start from the middle of the bullseye, I got a hotel room (off-season prices quite good) in the middle of the centro storico at the very tippy-top of the "scala mobile" - the escalators that take you up from the train station at Porta Sant'Anna to the medieval town on the flat top of the mountain. It was cold. And windy. 

The hotel wifi found me all the realtors in town, and I made appointments. Came back to S. Marinella on Wednesday afternoon, fed the kitties and slept. Rested all day Thursday, and then charged back up to Perugia for my appointment on Friday. 

The hunt was strange, and it wasn't until a last-minute change of plans that it seemed to go from hopeless to solved in the space of ten minutes. 

The appointment on Friday sounded promising. I saw one place that was very nice and posh and modern, with a fireplace, four bedrooms (and two identical full baths next to each other, which seemed like a shameful waste of space) and a teeny garden, a beautiful view just outside the city on a bus route. It seemed pretty good, but it didn't "feel" quite right. The bedrooms were all extremely small and the price was a bit high for Perugia. I put it in the "I'll keep thinking about it" file. 

It turned out, however, that that was the last thing they had for me. There was another very beautiful and quite affordable "casa independente" in the country, but it needed transport, since there was no bus.

Anyway, by this time it was nearly bus time and I was getting painfully tired. I wandered back to the train station and found out there was about a 45 minute wait for the next bus. Remembering that I'd seen another agency on the strip not far away, I decided to go there and make my needs known, in stead of just sitting waiting. It turns out that this other place was populated with just the right sort of Italian lady - the mothery kind who can't resist a stray cat - and one of them spoke good English.

I explained the whole sob story and they said that a possible solution could be to take something for a shorter term near Perugia. This would at least buy some more time, allow me to be closer to P so I could be there to look for something more permanent, and would give the kitties somewhere to run about. They called the lady in Deruta (frazione of Torgiano, which is a frazione of P) and she agreed. They said to come back the next morning at 10:30.

So instead of going back to S. Mar, I took a room in the same hotel, and stayed. I thought it was quite a good suggestion, since I was starting to really feel the pinch of not having time to do this. I had told Lina I would be out of here by the end of March, but it wasn't looking good, even in Perugia - which is supposed to be the best rental market in the country.

So, I stayed, and was quite hopeful and cheerful. I went back the next morning, and instead of going straight to Deruta, the guy offered to show me a place in the country that was on a bus route. So we went waaaay out into the farm-y district, and close to a small village was this nice couple with a big farm house, down on the flat between Perugia and Torgione. They had set up a suite in the house for the mother-in-law, who I suppose has died.

It wasn't fancy or posh and suburban like my house in Norcia, and has only a wood burning stove in the kitchen, not much of a "salone" (lounge) but two very large bedrooms, and very bright. It's very much a country farm house mother-in-law suite built in the 70s. They're putting in a new stove and redoing the bathroom - even tearing out the old pipes - so that is going to take a little longer. They said I could take it by April 15.

I've been thinking about how to put it together, and thought the second bedroom would make a nicer living room/workroom than the tidgy little salone space, and then realized that the tidgy little narrow space - that has a big Umbrian double window at the end - sure looked a lot like an oratorio to me. Take out the fridge, the ugly little dining table and big hideous faux-wood china cabinet, and it's a perfect little home-chapel space. A lick of paint and some chapel-y decor, and bob's-yer-uncle.

Most of the socialising in country places goes on not in a formal sitting room but in the kitchen anyway. 

There is a ginormous terrace off the kitchen door, and that leads to an even more ginormous garden, which is all mine to play with.

Perugia has an abundance of second-hand shops, including two of my favourite shops: MercatinoUsato - which is like Italy's version of Value Village - so whatever is needed can certainly be had there. And they said I could have it on a year-to-year lease. I told them I wanted to return to Norcia,  but thought it would be quite a long time. And one never knows what's going to happen next.

I went away and thought about it for a couple of days, and the idea has really grown on me. I got a friend who's good at this stuff to go looking for transit and other services in the area and there's a daily train from San Martino in Campo, about a 15 minute walk from the house. (short bike ride). Perugia has a weekly Mass and a good Traddie community. I've visited the Universita of Stranieri and can sign up for their monthly course which is quite cheap at 400 E. 

Perugia seems like a big city on paper, with a population of 160,000+, but the city is actually really compact because it's on that mountain with nowhere to expand to. So that number includes all the frazione (villages and small towns within the municipality) which are really quite nice little independent medieval villages out in the country. 

The house is a bit isolated, basically in the fields between San Martino in Campo and San Martino in Colle. But it will be quiet and peaceful and safe, and the kitties will LOVe it.

The main thing, though, was how much I liked the couple. Somehow it was just one of those rare times when you hit it off with someone - especially Annamaria - and are instant friends. We talked about the house, then where I was from and what I did, and then earthquakes, and then gardening and cooking... (Thank God I bought a smartphone with an auto-voice translator!)

A huge part of the problem with finding a place has been the complicated logistics. I have cats and am not really a city person anymore, so I needed place in the country but close enough to town to do things, shopping and Mass-going and whatnot. This would be perfectly doable, and even cheap and accommodating, if I had transport. The problem I had, however, is that the transit service is good to the towns, but limited to weekdays, and dries up almost completely in the countryside. 

In the case of this house the nearest bus route only runs once a day! Fortunately, it's close enough to a village that has regular service that I can bike to it. But it was very discouraging. Every time I saw a nice looking place I would be told, "Oh sorry, no bus service." 

So, I've decided to make a big change. When I get there, I'm going to sign up at the Autoscuola to get the bottom-rung motorcycle license - the one the kids get - to drive a motorino up to 50cc. It's called an AM license, and if you are an adult you don't even need to take an exam. You just have to show that you've received the requisite number of hours of instruction, a short course. It's cheap at about 150 E and I found while I was out there hunting that I was having very little problem understanding what was being said to me. It's amazing how you magically discover you know more of the language than you thought when you are forced to use it. 

Anyway, the AM license is good for 50cc motorini, the Ape ("ah-pay," those little three-wheeled farm truck thingies) and even a smartcar. I've looked around the internet and of course there are bazillions of 50cc motorini for sale second hand, very cheap.

This would at least make it possible to buzz back and forth from the house to the train/bus station at San Giovanni in Ponte or even all the way up to the Porta Sant'Anna where the scala mobile takes you up to the centro. I have a friend who drove an 50cc motorino all the way from Paris to Florence, right over the Alps, so I think it will make a daily run up to the centro. I had one years and years ago, and it was great fun, and very cheap to run. The internet tells me the annual insurance is about 20 E. 

And once I've got one, it will open up a whole world of possible home solutions that were previously impossible. It's not glamorous, but it will work. I'm really annoyed at having missed that gorgeous house in the country. It was 150 m-sq, four bedrooms, huge country garden, all wood floors and big windows, camino in the kitchen, and 520 a month. A motorino would have made it possible to at least get to the nearest bus stop or mini-train station. But without transport of any sort, it would be impossible. 

So, that's where we are, and that's the plan.

I've just had an email back from the realtor who has said I can come up to sign contracts on Saturday. 

(Listen, Lord, if You wanted me to move to Perugia, You could have just said so. Like, in a dream or something. You didn't have to knock down a whole town... Just for next time, eh?)


Saturday, March 04, 2017



Narni is a total bust. The town is totally everything you might think it ought to be. It's beautiful and friendly and wonderful. But its also full up.

The nice realtor lady called every real estate office between here and Foligno and no one had a damn thing. This is the most thickly populated area of Umbria - the flat lands between Terni and Perugia - and there are 3000 + Nursini running about looking for places to go. I think I have to get out of the quake zone.

I am therefore making a lateral move. I've decided it's time to finally make my pilgrimage to Citta di Castello to visit Bl. Margaret of Castello.

I've just booked a place to stay in Citta di Castello, the very out-of-the-way town in northern Umbria, where I will go today.

This is where the Poor Clares of the Immaculate maintain their siege with FrancisChurch, and have a Mass every day.

Why Citta di Castello?

It's rather off the beaten path in the mountains in the northern end of Umbria, and therefore mostly known only to Italians as a holiday place. Kind of like Norcia.

It's ancient and beautiful and surrounded by medieval stone walls in the Appenines. Kind of like Norcia.

The rents are ridiculously low... kind of like Norcia.

You have to take a train to Arrezzo, and you have to time it precisely so you don't miss the one bus a day that goes up there... kind of like Norcia.

And it's got a monastery of religious there who have the traditional Mass and Divine Office every day... kind of like Norcia.

It also happens to be the place where Blessed Margaret of Castello lived, was raised to heights of wonderworking glory in her short lifetime, and where she remains incorrupt. When I was confirmed, I dedicated the conversion of my family to her because she was abandoned by her family. I took her name when I was confirmed at 36, and when I had cancer I promised I would come to visit her if I survived. It's time to go fulfil the promise.

If I don't find a place, at least I will have visited the town I've been meaning to go to since 2001.


Friday, March 03, 2017

Melting the polar caps

(I'm afraid I couldn't possibly be a real nun. I like rocking out to Pearl Jam WAY too much. But don't worry. I know I'm a podgy middle-aged cat lady, so I don't do it in front of anyone...)

Writing from the train on the way to Narni this morning. I've got a booking in a nice B&B and an appointment with some realtors there. And yes, I'm definitely going to be checking every wardrobe I find. If you never hear from me again, y'all will know what happened.

I can't tell you how much I appreciate the assurances of prayers and ... ahem... "accompaniment" I've received. There is a Facebook group of ladies who are offering me "spiritual bouquets". Seriously! I just got a note on the other blog to say that an entire convent of Carmelites somewhere in the American mid-west, is praying for me to find a suitable home. One in which I can resume being a slacker, half-assed hermit and where, much more importantly, the kitties can run around outside and get back to having fun. I've got about 50 pots of herbs and bulbs and things sitting in the garden in Norcia that need tending.

When I was fifteen I left my family in the dark of a winter morning. We lived in the (lower) Canadian arctic, and it was about - 50 degrees C that morning, and there was an ice fog. It was so cold the snow didn't crunch under my feet, it squeaked. I walked with my backpack of clothes, tooth brush and birth certificate for ID, through a cold that no parka could keep out, to the bus station and got on the early bus to Edmonton, the nearest city. I was 1200 miles away before anyone in my family noticed I was gone. I didn't hear from them until I got a phone call a year or so later to tell me that my belongings had been thrown away.

I've felt completely alone ever since. You get used to it, and by the time 35 years have passed, you take it for granted and mostly sort of forget about it. The Faith has helped, but you have to learn a lot of mental discipline - that old Thomistic thing of subordinating the passions to the intellect and will. But that's pretty damn exhausting, frankly. One can't really just grit one's teeth and white-knuckle it through life. Not forever, anyway.

It's taken a long time, but I think the ice that has covered my soul for all these years is finally receding. A good deal of the work was done during cancer; I was never alone for a moment.

But this sort of thing helps too. More than y'all might ever know until the day when all things will be revealed and there will be no more secrets.


Monday, February 27, 2017

Electricity: that's when all the trouble started...

You don't have to live like they tell you.

What's going to happen if you break all the rules and want something the world tells you is dumb or not worth having?

"But people will think I'm weird."

Honey, too late.


Friday, February 24, 2017

Warm welcome in chilly Cascia

Overnight in Cascia in a freezing cold but otherwise perfectly adequate little pilgrim's hotel (Blankets... lots and lots of blankets...). Took a good long walk around yesterday afternoon and saw nearly all of it in two hours.

Met the nice elderly nun at the Agostiniane, who spends her time manning the parlor, chatting with pilgrims and tourists and making everyone feel welcome. Her hands never stopped while she crocheted the hats and scarves and baby-booties and every other thing you can think of to crochet that were piled up all over the nuns' gift shop. The work of many years. (She knew I was a straniera right away, of course, but seemed to think I was secretly Polish and kept trying to give me Polish language holy cards of St. Rita. I think I convinced her in the end, and I got a handful of the cards with the St. Rita intercession prayer in English to hand around to friends when I get home. (That is, "home," to Sta. Marinella.)

I got into a conversation with Giovanni, the nice chap who owns the hotel and who has to live there now since his house was damaged in the October quake. (His alone on his whole street... worse luck!) And he understood completely about looking for a house in Umbria. "The sea is nice for a holiday," he said, "but Umbria's the place you want to live." Without my having asked, when I went for my walk he had been busy talking to his friends in town, asking around if anyone had a flat or a house they wanted to rent out. One of these friends was the guy who owns the pizza shop downstairs from the hotel, and when I went down in the morning for a slice of "rossa," he became animated over how nice Cascia is.

This morning, Giovanni walked me over to the bar - his bar, you understand... the one next door is for other people... bought me a cafe doppio and introduced me to Mario the bar owner...

This is how Italy is. Giovanni assured me that there were no "agenzia immobiliare" in Cascia. "That's not how we do things in Cascia. Norcia, yes, but here no. we have a different mind here." It's just as well, since I do have a very good realtor who came to see me in Norcia and said he'd be working on getting a house "for you and the kitties to be safe..."

But Giovanni dove right in. I'm a straniera, but also a fellow "terremotata."

So, now I'm back at the bar, (the right bar,) having a tea and a packet of crisps, watching the news and waiting for the bus down to Spoleto, so I can get the train to take me out of the Peaceable Kingdom of the Valnerina, and back to that other place, that other Italy. But I know Umbria is waiting for me to come home.

O powerful Santa Rita,
You are called the Saint of the Impossible.
In this time of need
I come to you with confidence.
You know my trials,
for you, yourself were many times burdened in this life.

Come to my help,
pray with me,
intercede on my behalf before the Father.
I know that God has a most generous heart
and that he is a most loving Father.
Join your prayers to mine
and obtain for the the grace I desire *of a home in the Valnerina*

I promise to use this favour, when granted,
to better my life,
to proclaim God's mercy,
and to make you widely known and loved.

I ask this through Christ our Lord.


(I've just realized I have not posted the update. The house is not "agibile". My flat is fine, and so is the one downstairs, but the third floor (second in Italy) is badly damaged. I think the chimney needs repair too, since it smoked very badly when I was there in December. This means that it is not possible to live in the house. Further, the commune is not issuing repair permits until the quakes stop, and when this will be is anyone's guess. I was there two nights and felt a total of about ten, mostly small, one big. It means that the house is not going to be repaired in the immediate future. For this reason, my realtor has said he will start to work on finding me another house in the area. Cascia, Roccoporena, Monteleone... quite a few of the little towns of the Valnerina are not so badly hit, so there are possibilities still and there is quite a lively little bus service that trundles all over from town to town - mostly for older people to go to the shops in Cascia and for school children.

All the efforts in Norcia right now are focused on getting the little "case degli legni" built and prepared for all the people whose houses are completely collapsed or so damaged they're not safe to go into. Whole sections of town outside the walls have been bulldozed and flattened to make room, and the little pre-fab houses are going up. All of Norcia looks like a giant construction site. Some of the little houses are completed and are already occupied. I saw housewives hanging laundry outside and signs of kids toys and life generally carrying on, which was very heartening to see.

The little houses are only being made available to people whose houses are permanently damaged or destroyed. In some cases the firemen have been helping people get their things out of their houses, packing boxes of china and carrying out sofas and other things because they can't let people in even to rescue their belongings. I think it is going to be several months before it is possible even to begin repairing houses that can be repaired. Many, many houses are so badly damaged - in some cases with parts of roofs and whole walls collapsed - that the remains will have to be bulldozed.

From a distance, Norcia looks damaged but mostly still there. In reality and for purposes of living daily life, there is very little left. And with 3000 people wanting to come home and 70% of the housing stock damaged renting in Norcia is currently impossible.)

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

I'm here, and ... it's awful...

I got off the bus yesterday in the brilliant sunshine, and a feeling of gloom and hopelessness settled over me like a dark fog. Fr. Benedict said in an interview recently that people have been very depressed, and I can understand now why.

The town looks like one gigantic construction zone, with piles of masonry everywhere, scaffolding, cranes and people in hard hats and steel-toed boots... in which the world's biggest circus has come to camp for the winter. Norcia has become a strangely silent and depressing place. The centro is open, (and the blessed pizza place is running.. thanks be to God!). A few shops, a couple of restaurants are running, but at night it's a ghost town, with most of the piazza blocked off and full of carefully preserved, numbered and labelled masonry from the basilica laid out, piles of rubble and equipment taking up the rest.

I was awake half the night, my mind racing around and around over the same territory. There are at least 3000 displaced people in Norcia, nearly all of whom want to come back, and 70% of the residential structures badly damaged, "inagibile," or outright collapsed. Many, many people with a good deal more 'natural right' to be here than I can't come home.

I just kept going over the options over and over and over - maybe a year in Perugia to study Italian; maybe a stint in Narni where there are at least affordable rents and a Mass to go to (albeit, SSPX); maybe Spoleto and take the bus up on Sundays to Norcia to come to the little Mass in the container here at the monastery... Really, anything... ANYthing but summer in Lazio - that miserable swamp of sweaty tourists, heat, humidity and mosquitoes...

All night, round and round and round... all interspersed with unpleasant dreams [again... sigh] of being trapped in a collapsing building carrying a huge box of cats. Aaaaand about six times this lovely state of mind interrupted with earthquakes... just in case I forgot what this was all about.
I'm sitting now in the hall of the agritourismo - one of only two places left able to receive guests - listening to Blue Oyster Cult and having my coffee, and nearly despairing. Thank God for coffee... thank God for kindly Umbrian ladies with beautiful, sturdily reconstructed country houses...

It seems impossibly selfish of me to even imagine I could be the one Special Person who could find a house or flat to rent, while so many people are still sleeping in campers and trailers and anything else they can find. Or living in hotels unable to return. Really, what am I thinking?

But then the roundabout starts from the beginning again: where else is there to go? What else is there to do? For good or ill, no matter what, this seems to be my place, and I've spent my whole life looking for it. I found it and now it's been taken away.

It reminds me with rather grim humour of a conversation I had with Fr. Cassian once after Mass on the Basilica steps: "Everything is so perfect, the only thing I'm worried about now is that some catastrophe will take it all away. A piano will fall out of an airplane onto my head..."

Who knew? Apparently me.

I'm really not very good at making decisions. I have usually done things by the Sherlock Holmes method of figuring out all the things that are impossible, and doing whatever is left. But this is a puzzle, a conundrum that is nearly stumping me.

Everybody so inclined, I could use some help. This puzzle is more than I can figure out. I need some kind of miracle, a sign or at least a clear path. I'm praying to St. Philip Neri - who has never let me down before, and to Sts. Scolastica & Benedict, St. Anthony to "find" a solution, St. Joseph who knows all about how important home is.

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.