Saturday, June 27, 2015

Bits and pieces

I'm a mermaid! There, I've said it. Whew! What a relief to come out of the closet at last.

I just wrote a piece for the Remnant all about it, and someone did the photo for that.



"I feel like I'm in science class but I'm getting dumber!"


Watch Fringe.


Since not having internet at home, I find I'm actually starting to revert to reading books and writing things in a notebook with a pen!


Nature notes:

Fireflies! In the garden every evening. They started a few days ago.

There actually seem to be two kinds. There's the actual fireflies that fly around and flash white, and there's a terrestrial kind, (I've just looked it up, it's Lampris noctiluca) that glows steady and yellow and that looks a bit like a dragonfly larva, with a long segmented abdomen and a few claw-like legs near the head-end. But there's lots of them every night, especially when it's warm, which it is today.

Many of the streets in Norcia, including mine, are lined with Tilia oliveri trees, called "Chinese white lime" which are in full bloom right now and are making the whole town smell like heaven. I keep my studio window open while I'm working and the scent of flowers wafts in on the warm breeze.

The bees love them too, and the other day while the kitties and I were making the long walk up the hill to see Dr. B (just a check-up) I sat on a handy bench under one of them to take a breather, and the air was alive with buzzing.

There's lots of nature in the house too. I've let the harvestmen set up shop in the corners of the ceilings in the hopes that they might deal with the flies which are generated with grim abundance by the cow farm across the way. Their webs just get bigger and bigger, and I see with interest that they develop into a big dome shape, with the harvestman sitting inside. They're also very tidy about their housekeeping. There's never a body hanging about, but a little pile of mostly fruit flies develops on the floor underneath.


The elderflower champagne was a huge success. I've opened the smaller bottle and it was lovely, sparkly and light, and scented with the flowers. I've got seven bottles left. Next up, mead!


I remember when I was younger being concerned that the adults of my time, the "boomers," were going to make really awful old folks. When I was a child, the Little Old Ladies were of that generation born before WWI, and, no kidding, many of them still wore white gloves and flowered hats. My grandmother's generation (b. 1903) were still raised and trained to be civilized people.

But they're all gone now and the creatures of the "me generation" have indeed turned out horrible. I was reminded of this the other day when I saw an old woman wearing jeans and a tight t-shirt emblazoned with a rainbow and the slogan, "Love with pride."


Friday, June 26, 2015

First painting

Look what happens when I don't renew my home internet connection

I'm having to teach myself how to use water colour medium. Guache and acrylics, how they go together, and how they don't. I picked a pretty difficult subject, but I figure do the hardest thing first and learn the fastest.

Next one will be less messy.

And yes, that's Winnie, looking down from cat-heaven.


Thursday, June 18, 2015

New Kittens!

A friend of mine in town posted some pics on FB of his nine kittens, and I cracked. "I'll take two females, please." I figured two of them could keep each other company. After a wait of a few weeks for them to be old enough, Emanuele calls me and says, "Come pick them up, we're in the shop." But he's a smart wiley Italian. I got down there and he holds up a box of irresistible cuties and says, "You said three, right?" Sigh... Yeah, I guess I said three.

They seem to be settling in well. To get the used to their new environment, I'm keeping them in one room for a bit, the little spare room I've kitted out as a painting and drawing studio. For the first day, they found a corner and huddled there looking at me very suspiciously whenever I came in and mewing rather pathetically, obviously wondering where their mum was.

Their hidey-corner is just the space between my old wheelchair and the wall that I made into a little cave by making a fourth wall with the big spare bag of kitty litter. I laid down a sheet of that really big bubble wrap to make it soft and put a big towel on top. I introduced them to Winnie's big airline-friendly cat carrier that has a blanket folded up inside and they've discovered the smaller, soft, padded cat carrier which they seem to like to use as a playhouse.

At first they obviously saw me as a giant enemy, with the biggest one adorably and valiantly hissing at me when I came near. They're so tiny I can pick all three up in one hand, but she obviously felt equal to the task of slaying me.

I let them alone for the most part so they could feel free to explore, then I came in for an hour at a time and just sat on the floor and watched them. After a while they seemed to figure that I was at least not going to eat them, and that I was bringing them food, and they discovered that I make a highly satisfactory jungle-gym. They have slowly started to relax and are, as I type, busily alternating between chasing each other around the room and attacking my feet. A few times, I've petted them and been rewarded with that outboard motor kitten purr.

I'd forgotten how funny and distracting a clutch of kittens could be. We're off to visit our friend Dr. B this afternoon. One of them seems to have a deformed paw and another has a mild case of kitty conjunctivitis (not uncommon) that I've been treating with a chamomile infusion. Other than that, they're rambunctiously healthy little furry blobs.

I still miss Winnie, my alter-ego, ferociously and thus far, the kitties are still just kitties and we're just getting to know each other. But it is nice to have someone to look after again.

Pics to come.


Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Higher up and farther in

Hey all, my innernet allotment is just about spent for the month. Can't re-charge until the 25th so I'll be mainly off until July or so.

I woke up this morning at five thirty, and knew that the time for fooling around is up. I've been given a sort of reprieve, from cancer, from the consequences of my sins etc. and I have been instructed that I am not to waste it.

Sang Laudes this morning and toddled off to Mass. I had a sort of a ... thing ... this morning at Mass. First time I've been to a weekday Mass in ages. I just can't keep kidding myself that wasting time on the net is anything other than a vice, plainly put. I'll pop in now and then, but things are mainly slowing down for the time being.

I leave you with this: a psalm that seems to encapsulate a whole programme of life

How amiable are thy tabernacles, O Lord of hosts!
My soul longeth, yea, even fainteth for the courts of the Lord: my heart and my flesh crieth out for the living God.
Yea, the sparrow hath found an house, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, even thine altars, O Lord of hosts, my King, and my God.
Blessed are they that dwell in thy house: they will be still praising thee. Selah.
Blessed is the man whose strength is in thee; in whose heart are the ways of them.
Who passing through the valley of Baca make it a well; the rain also filleth the pools.
They go from strength to strength, every one of them in Zion appeareth before God.
O Lord God of hosts, hear my prayer: give ear, O God of Jacob. Selah.
Behold, O God our shield, and look upon the face of thine anointed.
For a day in thy courts is better than a thousand. I had rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God, than to dwell in the tents of wickedness.
For the Lord God is a sun and shield: the Lord will give grace and glory: no good thing will he withhold from them that walk uprightly.
O Lord of hosts, blessed is the man that trusteth in thee.

In other words, you can't get to Aslan's Country by staying on this side of the door.


Saturday, June 13, 2015


Star Wars.

Fuel crisis.

Fleetwood Mac.

I was eleven when this album came out. I still remember every single word of the lyrics.


Things to do in Rome

...when it's too hot to be outside...

Highlights of my little visit last weekend: Corpus Christi procession, or as the call it in Italy, Corpus Domini...

I helped with the flowers a bit. Then I got bored and wandered off.

(O'sP prize to anyone who spots me in the pics.)


Friday, June 12, 2015

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Home is best...

...especially when you live here.

(Note to self: when waking from a week in Rome-Horrible-Rome and discovering that the decompression process has generated a blazing anxiety attack, do not start the day by guzzling down an entire pot of espresso. Oh, I'm just full of helpful tips today!)

All the nice shop people and local regulars were happy to see me. Several asked where I had been, and gravely sympathised when I told them.

Updates, updates:

As soon as I got home last night, I became enveloped by vague but overpowering anxieties. Then, as I was making the tea and went to gaze out the kitchen window for solace at my beautiful garden of wildflowers, I yelped in shock and horror to discover that someone had come and destroyed it utterly. I was white with rage and spent half the night unable to sleep, and the other dreaming about the end of the world. Woke with the anxiety attack already well under way. If someone can just come over to your house and ruin your garden like that, it's hard to feel very safe.

The "gardener," whose sole skill seems to be the operation of an industrial gas-powered weed-whacker, has mowed down to the bare soil every single living thing in sight, reducing to nearly a moonscape what had been a veritable paradise of wildflowers and green and verdant loveliness. I went down the hill to pay the rent, and had a word with the landlord and have been assured that from now on at least my own section of the garden will be left alone.

I was advised that the constant mowing is in an effort to discourage vipers, which I can understand. But when I replied that at least snakes kept the population of rodents down, I got a very odd look. (Italians are not very friendly towards snakes.)

I managed to explain in my still-halting Italian that "weeds" are in fact beautiful and valuable wildflowers, including orchids, and that on the 30 degree slope that takes up most of my garden they prevent soil erosion, retain moisture in the soil and fix nitrogen, allowing what little soil there is to remain fertile. I said that from now on I am going to be growing aromatics and ground cover plants on the slope in an effort to encourage soil and moisture retention, and that further mowing will ruin all my efforts. I think I was understood, for the most part.


Good news is that the upstairs flat, from which the Gashlycumb Noisies have at last removed their horrible selves, is to be let to a fellow-anglo from Scotland whom I know slightly, and who is well-known for being quite a civilised grown-up. So that's taken care of. This means that the menacingly young-looking people, and their two small stompy children, who were looking at it yesterday will not be coming, which is a source of great relief.

The only thing left is to figure out how my lovely Rome friends could work here, and then we could all live happily ever after.


Today, the second set of local Nursini parents asked me if I would be interested in teaching their child English. The first has a son who is fifteen and is failing English in school and also wants to learn to draw. Today's is six and just starting school in September and can already read and write in Italian. In addition, my own Italian teacher has asked me if I would be willing to trade lessons for lessons.

I begin to see a potential happy future fulfilling my lifelong dream of becoming a character in a Barbara Pym novel, cycling to Evensong every day, (though the 4 am start-time for Matins is a bit much) wearing tweed skirts and twin-sets and teaching the local children how to make a proper cup of tea.

Thank you, Grandpa, for teaching me to be a grammar-nazi! I knew it would come in handy some day.


While in Rome, I blew all this month's extra dough on art supplies. I am risking really grinding the finances down to the bone this month because I'm quite excited about the picture idea. The rent is paid and the bills can wait until I receive payment for a few articles I've produced recently, so all the expenses are covered (barely). And I've got loads of cheap protein and green veg in the fridge and freezer, so though things will be frugal and non-extravagant, there won't be any actual difficulties.

Thank God, again, I live here where it is lovely and cool and airy and green and beautiful, where my entertainment is all wholesome, holy and free, and the rent is cheap so I can afford to take this big risky shift in direction. I really do have great hopes for this painting idea and am moving forward.

I visited the artist supply shop in Rome and came away with some solid advice as well as sufficient art materials to get started. I got very lucky indeed and found two large and good quality books of medieval art, including one that is entirely about manuscript illumination and painting from the 4th to the 16th centuries. I'm all set to go.

As we go along, I look forward very much to outfitting the third bedroom, which is quite small and would be uncomfortable even as a guest room, as a studio. I am a great believer in not rushing. One acquires the pieces of furniture for one's home as one does one's friends; slowly and with careful attention to suitability.

But in the end, I'd be happy if it looked quite a lot like this:
Lovely, isn't it? It's "The Studio" by the 19th century water colour master Carl Larsson.


Note to the kind people who like to send me things:

I do love receiving these nice little presents of books from Amazon, and of course appreciate them the more since there is no English language book shop in Norcia. However, if I might add, it would be helpful if I got a bit of warning. One never knows what sort of thing might turn up in the post, and it is sometimes a bit alarming to get a note from the Post Office that a mysterious package has arrived with anonymous contents from persons unknown and parts foreign and far away.

You get my gist here... anthrax ripple, live tarantulas and whatnot... one's imagination can run along to some odd places in our uncertain times. So, send me an email letting me know what to expect. Thanks.


How to tell if you're an evil dictator bent on world domination: a helpful guide

If you find yourself one day contemplating the question of whether God has given you the power to make absolutely perfect decisions every single time, there are a few logical possibilities to consider:

- you are a saint -
This can be fact-checked by examining your actions and decisions to date. For example, have you had anyone murdered recently through appallingly gruesome means, like, for example, poisoning them with uranium? Have you amassed a personal fortune while your people struggle to meet daily necessities?

Have you instructed your minions to engage in a massive international media/trolling campaign to whitewash your political decisions and generate support among Western conservatives?

Perhaps most importantly, have you prosecuted an unjust war of aggression into someone else's country, killing thousands and allowing the use of torture, extrajudicial executions, illegal arrests and showtrials?

Are you, in short, a vicious, murderous and mendacious dictator bent on unbalancing the global political situation in order to fulfill your bizarre cult of self-aggrandizement?

- you are a malignant narcissist -
This can be fact-checked by asking all of the same questions.

(Be honest).


Monday, June 08, 2015


Well, I made three things from the big bag of elderflowers I collected and at least one of them has already been a smash success.

I put up ten litres of wine and three L of liqueur. The fastest thing was the cordial, however, which is intended to be simply a sweet infusion. I tried it today and it is fantastic.

I combined the grated rind of a lemon, a leaf of sage, a handful of rose petals and a pile of elderflowers with water, sugar, honey and citric acid (preservative). You bring the water, lemon and sugar to almost a boil and let it dissolve and cool a bit.

While it's cooling, cut as much of the stems off the flower sprigs as you can. The stems and leaves of elder are toxic. Not enough to really harm you, but not good for you either. The flowers by themselves are fine. Just remove as much of the stems as you can.

Then add all the flora and stir gently. Pour the whole thing into a big glass hinge-lid jar and seal. Leave it to sit for two days to infuse. Then strain through cheesecloth and bottle. I used plastic 1/2 L water bottles. The amount came to about 3L and you can freeze whatever you're not going to use right away. If you're going to freeze it, make sure the bottles are plastic, not glass, and that you leave at least two fingers-width at the top of the bottle to allow the water to expand.

It was so amazing that I used the rest of the leftover elderflowers today to set up another batch. This time I did 8L of water, with 250g of honey (no sugar) three large sage leaves, a big handful of rose petals and half an apple grated in. Brought the water, lemon, sage and apple just barely up to a boil. The elderflowers, after spending two days in the fridge, were still very fragrant, but they also had let go of the stems pretty well, so I was able to eliminate the stems altogether just by gently coaxing the flowers off with my fingers. It took about an hour to de-stem the flowers and in the end I think I had about five cups of flowers.

Seriously, it's absolutely gorgeous. Delicate floral flavour with a hint of lemon. I've been mixing it with sparkling mineral water.

The Elderflower champagne just sat in the bucket smiling up at me, entirely innocent of any sign of fermentation. After two days, I decided to force the issue, and stirred in about 20g of brewer's yeast. Then I left it to spend a long weekend in Rome. I hope I don't come home to a disaster. But it was certainly starting to sizzle a bit by Friday morning.


Reading like a monk

I'm in Horrible Old Rome for a few days running errands and getting a few big city things done. It's horrible. 30+ degrees all weekend (and of course, for the rest of the summer) and the centro is filled with filthy, skanky, party-animal tourists..."I have a right to listen to my music..." ugh...

And I just checked weather in Norcia and it's a lovely 24, with exciting and cooling thundershowers on the way. Sigh... Home again on Wednesday...

Anyway, at least we're off to the seaside for a day, which, for various reasons, I was unable to accomplish last month. And it is always nice to visit the gang.

Meanwhile, I'm finding that the City Desert blog is becoming my daily transport into the better world of monastic thought.

"Reading like Monks"

While scholastic “lectio” (reading) was typically oriented towards “quaestio” (inquiry) and “disputatio” (discussion), or knowledge and science, monastic reading aspired to “meditation” and “oratio” (prayer), or wisdom and appreciation. The relation of the monastic reader to the text was not detached and analytic, but close and rather physical, even muscular. It is often described with the word rumination: “It meant assimilating the content of a text by means of kind of mastication which releases its full flavour”.

In pulling back from news reporting, I'm finding I have to completely reorient the way my brain works. I've become so used to a reductionist way of reading, and even thinking... scanning for the basic facts for reporting purposes, digging under these facts to find other facts. All for the purpose of translating it into journalese, quick declarative sentences that convey these facts with no more depth than a dictionary entry. With my brain having spent 15 years of reading and thinking like a reporter it is going to be difficult to retrain it to go back to the old way of reading.

I remember it. I remember reading books to let whatever it said, whether it was information or a novel or poetry, catch my imagination, and allow me to be absorbed into the thoughts of the writer and in a sense mentally exit this world. To forget I was sitting reading, and to float into another person's thoughts.

More from a (rather overly optimistic) scholarly essay on the history of reading:

A striking example is the antagonism between the scholastic way of read- ing and monastic reading in the Late Middle Ages. Scholars and students in the scholastic universities that were developing the Late Middle Ages – from the beginning of the second millennium onwards – typically read compilations, i.e., collections of text snippets from the church fathers, Aristotle and other authoritative authors. Reading whole texts from beginning to end was rare in the scholarly world. There was no need for a love of reading; the important thing was to analyse the text and use it for critical discussions. (Hamesse 1999)

But the love of reading existed elsewhere, in the monasteries. Monks, often hermits, were engrossed in the reading of the Bible, the writings of the church fathers, and other spiritual books. They chewed, swallowed, digested, and recited the texts. They had an emotional relationship with the texts, and they had a love of reading.

Jacqueline Hamesse says, “In the Age of Scholasticism, the acquisition of knowledge became more important than the spiritual dimension of reading.” (Hamesse 1999, 118). One could rephrase this as follows: The strictly utilitarian aspect of reading was preferred to more adventurous reading styles. If one only reads to find exactly what one is seeking, there is no need for a love of reading. In fact, the goal of rational reading is to read as little as possible. Once you have found what you’re looking for, you can stop reading.

"In this case, reading is a function of information retrieval. The important thing is what we do with the acquired information in discussions and social media."

It is precisely this utilitarian, information-retrieval, kind of reading (and subsequent writing) that I think is harming us right now, restricting our ability to understand deeply what we do read, and discouraging further efforts to delve deeply into the written word.


Thursday, June 04, 2015


A while ago, a friend of mine asked me "how far you can go" with pencil drawing. I am still more or less afraid of paint, and I've almost always preferred the pencil drawings of the contemporary realist artists I like. Drawing is indeed an art form all by itself, and is not limited to producing preliminary drawings for paintings.

Of course, sticking with drawing because of giving in to my fear of paint is no good, but it's also OK to like drawing for its own sake.

And as for "how far you can go"...

One of the prize winners from Artists' Daily "Shades of Gray" drawing contest.