Monday, July 22, 2019

By night on my bed I sought him whom my soul loveth

Who was Mary Magdalene?





"Woman, why weepest thou?"


From the 4th Lesson of the 2nd Nocturn of Matins:

Mary of Bethany, sister to Lazarus, is identified, according to a common tradition, with Mary Magdalene and the unnamed woman called in the Gospel, "the Sinner". But inasmuch as neither Mary of Bethany nor the Sinner is therein styled Magdalene, most Greek Fathers distinguish these as three woman, or at least two; whereas St. Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine, Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas leave the question undecided. St. Gregory the Great, however, taught that the Sinner was by name Mary and by title Magdalene, and that she was sister to Martha and Lazarus of Bethany; and his teaching came to be widely followed in theWest. Thus in the East Mary Magdalene is by some commemorated on July 22nd as the Myrrh-Bearer, and the chief saint of the Resurrection, whereas according to the other tradition, she is not only accorded this honour, but in addition venerated, with St. Peter, as a great Penitent, who being forgiven much, came thereby to love much; and is otherwise known as Mary of Bethany, to whom Our Lord said that she had chosen that good part, which same would not be taken away from her, either in time or eternity.


Friday, June 28, 2019

Italian air conditioning

20 inch thick stone walls, a big floor fan and shutters = coolth.

So, the temps have finally become seasonal here, which is to say that  this week we've gone abruptly from the more or less reasonable 31-35 range, to shoot up to the late 30s early 40s. Now, Italians don't believe in air conditioning. They think, probably rightly, that AC makes you sickly, weak, enervated and dependent on artificial things that just divorce you from reality. At first it's pretty purgatorial if you're from a temperate climate like England or Western Canada. I spent a little time as a child in Manchester, UK, but mostly grew up in Victoria, British Columbia, on Vancouver Island, a place that is famous for possibly having the best climate for human beings on planet earth. It pretty much never goes above 28 degrees in summer and rarely snows in winter. It doesn't really have humidity or mosquitoes either.

So, when I left to go live on the Mainland (people from The Island divide the world into two places, The Island and the Mainland, the latter defined as anywhere that isn't The Island) I was shocked to discover that you could live in a place where it got to be 34, 36 or even 40 degrees in summer and not simply explode or drop dead in the street. I did my five year stint (obligatory for Canadians) in Toronto - which still has the worst weather I've ever lived in and four years in Halifax NS, where I experienced the hottest day of my life (until the Great Drought Italian Summer of 2017, which I'll get to) at 42 degrees. That was where I learned to take a plastic water bottle or two, fill with water and freeze. Then when you go to bed, you take the block of ice, wrap it in a tea towel and put it between the sheets. It acts like the opposite of a hot water bottle, cooling the air under the sheets by several degrees.

But I've been in Italy nearly eleven years now, and I've found that no matter how old or stodgy you are, you do slowly adapt. This summer I have been out in the garden, digging and puttering around until noon in 33 degrees and thought, "Huh... I wonder when it's going to get hot..."

Where I'm from, if the house is too warm, you open a window. This would be a bad plan here.

Instead, you start to do things Italianly. You buy electric fans of course, but you also learn the heat management strategies that have served this country and other Mediterranean places for millennia. First, your house is made of stone that's 20 inches thick and the roof is terracotta tiles. So the heat of the day won't be getting through. You also have double glazed windows, but more than that, you have shutters. And you learn which direction your various windows face and you use your windows and shutters in sequence depending on where the sun is.

And most important, you adjust your life schedule. You don't sleep late; that's disastrous. You get up at six or earlier. The first thing I do every morning is go onto the terrace and put up my sunshade umbrella to cover the front door in shade. This immediately cools the air that comes into the kitchen. All the windows are open from bed time the night before until about ten am, when the air outside starts to warm up. The houses are all designed so that the air flows smoothly from one room to the next when the windows are opened. This means your house is lovely and cool most of the night. Even in the hottest weather, I'm still using covers on the bed to keep the late night, early morning chill off. Though the fan runs 24 hrs a day now, and helps with the airflow.

The kitchen, front door and terrace face due east, so the morning sun pours into the kitchen. About ten or eleven am I shut the east and south facing windows and shutters. This means the air inside stays cool as the sun swings around to the south west side of the house. The bedroom and workroom face west/south, so about three pm, I close the shutters on that side. This also means the house is darker, but it's a nice, intimate cave-like darkness that's very restful. And the ferocious Italian sun lights the rooms sufficiently anyway, even with the shutters closed.

This method means the house is warm, but not hot (about 10-15 degrees cooler than outside) and dark between 3:30 and about 7:30. This, typically is Italian/Mediterranean nap time - Siesta in Spain, and "riposo" in Italy (pronounced to sound like "repose-oh"). Given that you've been up since five and in the garden all morning in the warm sun, or busy with work or whatever you do, you're pretty tired by four pm, and the interior conditions of your home are very restful, so napping just makes sense.

This timetable heat-management strategy is why Italians eat dinner so late and everything closes in the afternoons. No Italian restaurant will serve you dinner until 7:30 at the earliest and lunch is never served after three pm. In most Italian towns and villages, you go home for lunch and take a rest after, and go back to work about 4 pm, until eight or so. So normal is this that there are usually bylaws restricting noise in the afternoons, though sometimes not at night - you sleep in the afternoons, so you're usually up late with the fam at night. This is why Italian shop hours are so odd to us Anglos. You don't shop in the afternoons. You're supposed to be at home resting.

The only trouble I have with this system is that my shutters are made of metal - aluminum, I think. This means that when the sun has been on them for a few hours, as it is now, they are like barbeque grills. And even though they keep the light out, they just heat up the room as if you've turned on the oven and left the door open. The glass of the windows can get quite hot. So when the temps get up to the mid 30s or higher, I take clothes pegs or metal clips and attach blankets and quilts to the insides of the shutters, essentially insulating the space between the shutter and the window.

In the Horrible Summer of 2017, even this was insufficient. We shot up to 35 half way through May, and the temps crept up to the mid-40s - without a single drop of rain - until the end of September. (It was a year of disasters. The previous October, the worst earthquake in 300 years knocked down the town I had been living in. The following winter - when people in Norcia were living in tents - was the coldest and snowiest in 70s years. Then the next summer devastated Italian agriculture. My landlady said the ladies in the village thought it was all a sign from God of His displeasure with the modern world.) That summer the nights never cooled lower than 25 degrees, so the house just got hotter and hotter. I was keeping six plastic water bottles in the freezer, and sitting at my desk with my feet in a bucket of water with the ice blocks in. I was packing everything I could find into the space between the shutters and the windows. Sofa cushions, floor rugs, blankets, quilts... I felt like I was fighting to keep zombies out.

At least it was something to offer up for my manifold sins and wickednesses.

We anglosassone of the 1st world assume that we are entitled to have the world - even the natural world - conform to our demands. If it's above 72 degrees we consider ourselves very hard-done-by and devote all our resources, including considerable quantities of cash, to damn well make it 72 degrees AT ALL TIMES! At least indoors.

One of the nice things about living in the 2nd World is that you learn you can adapt. It's rather relaxing to not be in such a panic to have your own way all the time.


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Tuesday, June 25, 2019

The pursuit of holiness; how to train your brain



What is procrastination anyway? Most of us assume it's a moral failing. This is probably a bit true, but it's certainly mixed with a bunch of other psychological brain-trickery.

As a good friend recently reminded me, a big theme of my writing over the years is that "your brain is not your friend." In simplest terms, we have habits of thought - often deeply engrained - that do not correspond to reality. This messes us up.

There's a whole huge deal of stuff that psychologists are just now starting to get hold of - the ideas behind Cognitive/Behavioural Therapy (it's been a long day trudging around in the blistering summer heat, so I won't go into it right now - Google it) and all of it corresponds beautifully with Thomist thinking on how the path to holiness is through the subordination of the passions to the intellect and will - the right ordering of the human faculties.

In other words, procrastination, fear, anxiety, depression - all of these are mental habits that involve us indulging in things that are not in keeping with reality. Procrastination especially is a way of avoiding reality. The method of overcoming it is to exercise the will to choose The Real over Fantasy - defined as adherence to a personal preference in conflict with observable reality. This is the way to overcoming poor self-discipline (endemic in our culture), procrastination, fear, anxiety and depression - but much more crucially of rooting out our habitual sins and faults. The saints and theologians all talk about the methodology of sanctification, the "purgative way," and this, in essence, is it.

This is the work of the interior life that has to be done before we can start advancing in holiness. This is what the whole thing is about, getting yourself under control.

Monday, June 17, 2019

Catch of the day

It's the time of year when we pretty much get a lizard a day.


Lizards are a specialty of my little silky black and white ninja, Bertie. But lately it's been a favourite of Pippin. I kicked him outside this morning because he was doing his usual trick of finishing his own breakfast and then shoving Henry aside to steal his. All their little lives I've had to feed Henry separately. He's so good natured he just lets himself get bullied out of his meals. Pippy's a real lovey-dove, and just the sweetest little guy, but he's an incorrigible scamp too.



I can't resist picking them up and taking a close look. In life these guys are lighting fast, and it's difficult to get a close look at their markings.


The daily lizard. It should be the name of a punk newspaper.

The terrace in June.


Snap dragons finally getting close to finished. They never died back this "winter" and were already starting to flower in February.


Still some pansies holding up.




Sweet peas finally starting to blossom. The dill are all volunteers from last year's stray seeds.




First passion flower.


If you keep them in a shady place they will flower almost to July.

Four years ago yesterday I got a call from my friend Emanuele to come down to the shop to pick them up.


A friend had come to Norcia to visit, but had picked a day when the monastery guesthouse was all full up, so Br. Ignatius called me to ask if he could camp in my living room. He had to put up with this all night.


I took this one just about a week after they arrived. I kept them in the study for a few days to let them get used to me. Bertie was the first one to claim me as his own.


Bertie and Pippin helping in the garden in Norcia.


Bertie's favourite perch in the evenings. He likes to keep an eye on things.



Henry napping yesterday afternoon.



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Saturday, June 08, 2019

Egg white and cauliflower pancakes



Finally figured out what to do with the egg whites left over after making egg tempera medium.

Take:

whites of two eggs
2 cups finely grated raw cauliflower
salt n pepper
handful of almond flour, coconut flour or other keto/low carb friendly flour of your choice
oil for cooking (I've just bought a hella-spensive jar of coconut oil... not sure about it yet)

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Whip egg whites to stiff peak and fold in the "dry" ingredients. Season. Heat up the oil in a pan to just under smoking-hot. Spoon the mixture into the nice silicone crumpet rings someone sent you in the post but you can't use anymore because you're not eating carbly anymore. Fry over a low heat. Remove the rings and gently flip. Toast a bit on the other side.

Top them with sliced avocado, soft goat or sheep milk ricotta, load some sauteed mushrooms on top.

Eat.

The pancakes come out sort of cakey, not at all cauliflowery. They'd be fine for a sweet thing too, with a little low-carbly-approved sweetener (stevia... barf...) or stewed fruit, or tahini or something nice like that.



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Sunday, May 26, 2019

A hearty Sunday lunch


I'd be inclined to marinade the pigeon breasts in the port and herbs overnight. And I'm afraid with that many whole cloves the pie is going to taste of cloves and nothing else - which is a pity considering how expensive those truffles must have been. I would have ground the cloves very fine, mixed them with the other spices and used only two or three at most for the whole mix.


Boiled crust, also called hot water crust or standing crust, is a lost art, but SO easy you won't even believe. It's very forgiving with none of that annoying fussing over not allowing the gluten to develop, making sure everything's ice cold, etc. that can intimidate beginner pie-makers.






My own little efforts, some years ago; piggy pies for an Epiphany dinner party in Santa Marinella. Unfortunately, the juice boiled out of the steam holes and discoloured the top of the pie, rather spoiling the effect, but it was pretty good for a first effort. Make sure the crust on the sides is as thin as you can make it. This is quite a heavy pie crust, and a little goes a long way.


This, of course, is also how you make a classic Melton Mowbray pie, which is served cold at lunch with some nice hot English mustard. You bake it, then pour the gelatine and stock mix into the holes and refrigerate until the gelatine sets. If you can find small spring-form cake tins these really help with forming the crust into the traditional shape. Line the tin with some baking paper, so even if the stock boils out a bit, it won't stick to the tin. Spring form baking pans come in every size and are one of the most useful multi-purpose things you can have in the kitchen.


Raised pies are something that need to be revived. It's an entirely different sort of pie crust than we're used to, being designed to be waterproof. In fact, boiled pie crust was intended to form a seal that helped to preserve the meat inside and they were often kept for a long time in a cool place like a root cellar or dairy. In the old days, one didn't eat the crust (unless one were poor) but treated it the way we do the wrapper on a hamburger.

A standing pie is a great way to use up leftover turkey or chicken or any cooked or roasted meat. They're especially nice with sliced apple or carrots, caramelised onion or some other lightly flavoured, sweetish vegetable. (Pass on the brussel's sprouts though, or any brassicas).




Saturday, May 25, 2019

Garden in May




Expecting great things from my passion flower vine this year. Grown from a seed in Norcia, and one of the few things we managed to rescue in the last escape, it took a while to get going again.


We've had a very strange spring. Dry, cold and incredibly windy in February, that dried out all the soil, then the howling wind continued all through March while the weather became like June. Then the temps dropped in April and we got the rain we were supposed to have in Feb and March. Through April and May it's been raining pretty steadily, interspersed with a few warm days. The result is that not a great deal of the work I'd planned ended up being possible to do.


But the poppies seem to love it. And in fact, everything is looking amazing. This was actually over a week ago, and it's even more lush now, with absolute masses of poppies, and the calendula growing enormous.



Last year I saw that we had very little elder in the area, almost none compared to the small forests of elder we had in Norcia. But then I found out that you can make a fine Robinia flower liqueur that is almost as nice as elder liqueur. So here it is. You just pick a big basket full of the flower heads, strip off the florets and put them in the jar (no washing!) with a layer of sugar over each layer of florets. It "cooks down" in a few hours so they're all in the same jar now. After two or three days, pour in 1.5 L of vodka, seal the lid and let it steep for four months.


I managed to catch the Robinia at its peak. Cascades of flowers and the scent on the air, blowing in through the bedroom window every morning, rain or shine.



Silene vulgaris, "Bladder campion" is one of my favourite wildflowers and I'm so glad it has decided to take up residence on the terrace. The mass of green in the back is the morning glories that are just poised to start leaping up for the sun.


Still having a frustrating time with the nasturtiums. Normally as easy to grow as beans, the ones I've had just refuse to sprout. Even after a good long soak only a few have come up. They flower well, though, so I think I'll get a few more packets and see if it was just getting a bad batch.



How to propagate basil. You know those basil plants you get in the supermarket? You can make them turn into dozens of plants.


Choose the biggest ones with the longest stems, and cut them so there's plenty of stem, stick them in a glass of water and wait. Toss the ones that don't produce roots and then plant them out when they get to about this stage.



Heavy on the strawbs this year.




You can also do basil from seed, of course, but it takes a very long time. I soaked these basil seeds and a great many more sprouted than did last year when I just sowed them straight into a pot on the terrace. To the right are beetroot seedlings, starting late, I hope the coolish weather lasts long enough.



First year's seed experiments still going strong.


Basil, cosmos, hollyhocks and my two beleaguered wisteria - first the snails ate them, then the cutfly ravaged their new leaves, then Pippin decided the seed tray they were in would make a good litter box. Not sure they'll make it. (Cats!)



In the big pots are a combination of self-seeded dill and in the middle, little clusters of sweet peas that are only now really getting going after our weird, cold spring.

At some point I'm going to have to break down and at least buy one of those portable mini-greenhouse things, the kind that's basically just a shelf on wheels with a clear plastic cover. Part of the battle has been the danger of late frost all through April, and the forever-to-be-cursed snails. I have no idea how they get up onto the terrace, but I've been having a snail-pogrom every week. I've had to resort to taking all the seed pots indoors every night, and putting them all back out every morning. A bit tedious.


Today's desk flowers: calendula and love-in-a-mist (Nigella sativa) with a little sprig of thyme.

Been a busy few weeks. Much to write about, but must concentrate on some writing-for-pay... back later.



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Monday, May 13, 2019

Exhausting


How the internet makes me feel.



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Sunday, May 12, 2019

Hail Mary, full of grace

Our Lady and the Blessed and most holy Trinity,


A talk by a good old friend of mine, Fr. Eduardo Garcia of the Chicago archdiocese, one of my favourite people.



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Tuesday, May 07, 2019

The book that started it all

Everyone has a book that started some kind of lifelong interest. This is the one that really got me gardening: "Betty Crocker's Kitchen Gardens" by Mary Mason Campbell and with illustrations by Tasha Tudor.

I had forgotten where the mental image of exactly these illustrations came from until I was looking at a Tasha Tudor page a while back and it hit me like a weird ghostly echo of a thunderclap out of the past.









It's funny how an image can stay in your mind for a lifetime, and how much it can go to forming your inner mental world. I must have only been a child when I first found the book in the library. It seemed almost magical to me, and in some way I don't quite understand it still does.



Even though I must have been very young, I knew when I saw it that this is what I wanted my life to look like. This was the world I wanted to live in. And what an indescribably strange feeling it is to hold it in my hand again and see these pictures and remember how important it was to me so long ago.

Anyway, I mentioned it all to a friend, how strange it was to have these exact images come back to me, and to find them on the internet, like seeing a ghost, and he bought the book for me for my birthday. It arrived in the post today.

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First nice sunny day in a few days of rain and wind and chilly temps. Down to 4 C last night. I usually stick my nose out the door before going to bed to see what's happening, and if the kitties want to come in, and I could see my breath on the air. Extremely odd for May in Umbria, and especially after such a strangely warm March. It's as if March and May have changed places.

So much to do at this time of year...



Anna keeps telling me that the field poppies are just weeds, but I love them. I went out last year while they were just getting started and collected a bunch to transplant. Of course, they self-seed, and now they're all over. If you give them decent soil and enough sun they are really magnificent garden plants, though the flowers don't tolerate cutting. They just fall apart before you can even get them into a glass. But they're so beautiful. I love having masses of them all over.




There's actually a big block of tufa in there that he's sitting on. It's for standing on when you need to weed the bed.

The Big Round Bed is divided into three sections with these blocks. But it all turns into a big mass. Right now I'm sinking old bathroom tiles (beautiful blue... would have been awful in the bathroom, but they're nice in the garden) to create a bit of a barrier for the lemon balm in hope it doesn't just drown everything else... or get into a big fight with the white campion.

The Big Round Bed is mostly herbs, with three kinds of thyme, lemon balm, a pot of mint, big patch of sage, calendula (wild and cultivated), some kind of wild oregano that I found in the hills and brought down from Norcia, lavender, borage, garlic, and chamomile interspersed with flowering hellebore, daffodils, gladiolus, day lilies, thrift, dianthus. And now cosmos, which I seeded last year and didn't do anything and that have now come up all over, and is just about to start. I had forgotten I even put them there and thought they were stray carrots when they started. I'm hoping to see the blue corn flowers later too and the nigella sativa that I seeded last year but only got a few of.

Gardening is one of those things you either have to resign yourself to being disorganised about, or go completely OCD and make a list. I've never in my life made a list of things to do in the garden, but the other option means things are a bit disorganised and random. Today I was going to just fill the beet bed. I have a zillion beet seeds sprouting and I desperately need to finish their bed that I started a month ago. So I revved Gertie up and loaded up the buckets and spade and whatnot, and headed out. But we got to the end of the lane to turn around, and I thought, Oh, I need to cut some more canes for the pergola, because the grape vine is already starting to go nuts... So I stopped and got out and started cutting the canes... An hour and 40 canes later...

Now too tired to dig out the soil, so I just did four buckets worth and then went and sat down in the shade, all pooped out and read the Desert Fathers. Then was all... Oh, got to go put some straw under the strawberries... so you go over to the orchard to collect up some of the dried cut grass, and on your way you see the little bag of onion sets, the leftovers from the big onion bed you were going to put around about sort of randomly, just for fun, so you grab a stick to dig some holes and...

But at least nearly all the couch grass in Annamaria's iris bed is gone. For now, anyway. That was nearly two hours. I started it because I was too tired to lift another bucket of dirt.

Anyway, by the end of the day, the beet bed is still not filled. I did get nine buckets in the bed, but need at least that again. And every day the beet sprouts get bigger and more insistent about being planted out.

It all needs doing big and little, and battling the couch grass made me feel like I was fighting Morgoth. Found out why Annamaria's calla lillies aren't blooming. Damn couch grass has drilled into the rhizomes and used them as fuel... bastards. I dug up a bunch of dead and rotting calla rhizomes with very healthy couch grass seedlings growing up through them. I really went after them. Pulled up a bunch of the terrace tiles. Dug way down...Pull! Pull!!! PUUULLLLL!!!!

And then I made a fire and burned them... ha ha HAH! Take that, you jerks!



It's funny how it's so hard to stop, and then even when you're tired and grubby you find you don't want to go in. I remembered there was still a bunch of year-old firewood in the shed and thought, why not. A nice fire in the evening and a little sit-down with my magic book with the bats flickering around, at least until the light goes and the Night Bell rings at Sant'Andrea.

With the bucket of couch grass runners next to my chair. Grab a few now and then...toss em on the fire.



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