Friday, April 27, 2018

Wonko the Sane is taking a few days off from the asylum

“It seemed to me,' said Wonko the Sane, 'that any civilization that had so far lost its head as to need to include a set of detailed instructions for use in a package of toothpicks, was no longer a civilization in which I could live and stay sane.”
― Douglas Adams, So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish

I'm offline at home or a few days. I have limited monthly internet. I can use it up fast by binge-watching Netflix shows, but it means when it's done I have to wait 'til the ricarica date to get more. It's a good system, actually. Like a failsafe. Use it too much and it forces you to take a break. I'll be coming in once a day or so to check messages at the wifi cafe in the village, to see how the horror show is going, but the innernet's off at home, and thank God.

After even a short time away the difference is striking. Sticking your head into the internet all the time is like - as Kathy Shaidle memorably put it - shaking up a bag of feral cats then sticking your head in to see how they're doing. Already I can feel my brain defaulting to its original settings. I read three chapters yesterday of a book - an actual book! - by Christopher Dawson I've been meaning to get into for years.

Last week I had one of those days when you just want to run away from the innernet screaming. I had an encounter on Twitter with a woman who I'm sure thought of herself as a good and devout Catholic – clearly superior to me! – who thought it was just wonderful that Pope Francis had told a young boy that he, the pope, was “certain” the boy’s deceased atheist father was in heaven. I was scolded because I insisted that a child, like all human beings, has a right to the truth, and that only the Real counts. The pope had deprived this child of an opportunity to do the good and holy work of praying for the repose of his father's soul.

The woman, a total stranger, objected to my objections by telling me what a wicked, unfeeling, “rigid” person I was, addicted to doctrine... yadda yadda... Didn’t I know this was “just a child!?” and that one has to be “compassionate” to children… even to the point of telling them comforting falsehoods.

Truth, you see, doesn’t matter when there are feelings to be considered. And anyway, “Quid est veritas?”

For the record, here's what you say to a grieving relative of a deceased atheist:

"The first thing to remember is that God is love and His mercy is available to everyone in life, and He will seek any sign of a response from a person, up until the very last moment. These things are mysterious and we cannot make any kind of judgement on the discourse between the individual human soul and God. We have no power to determine in this life what happens in such cases. We know, because Jesus told us, that even if things are impossible for us, they are not impossible for Him. But we also know that He likes to work through human beings, so it is very important for you to pray every day for the repose of your father's soul. Even after his death this is important and useful, because
 God is the master of time and space and your prayers for your father are never going to be ineffective or 'wasted,' so you must pray for him and trust in the mercy and love of God, which is greater than any sin. And also remember that when you are in heaven, absolutely everything you need for your perfect happiness will be there; nothing will be missing."


After that we all got to spend a weekend watching as a young father in Liverpool, desperate to save the life of his two year old son, was overruled by a court and a hospital who want the child to die. And of course, again we were bombarded with commentators on TwittFace telling us what wicked, wicked, unfeeling, uncaring, religious extremists we are for opposing the hospital’s deeply compassionate and caring orders to see this child off to the next life, against the wishes of his parents.

The week before that – that is, a prehistoric time now lost in the murky depths of the internet-past – I vaguely recall being frightened that the US decision to bomb Syria was going to trigger World War III…

After staying up til two am on Monday night, following Alfie Evans’ extubation, witnessing his steadfast refusal to die, I finally went to bed and spent the night thrashing around revisiting my old Cold War nightmares about nuclear attacks.

So the reader will perhaps not be surprised to hear that yesterday, when the device that feeds the magical internet juice into my computer told me I was all out for the month, I was hardly weeping into my tea. A blessed and glowing vision came to me of a few days off, maybe me taking some walks, or me reading my long-neglected books, me finally planting out squash seedlings, perhaps me biking into the village to go check messages once a day with the café wifi...

And the sense of interior quiet – that comes when one ceases clicking back and forth between Facebook and Twitter, having pointless arguments, restively searching back and forth for The Answer – has reasserted itself and I am again left wondering, “What was all that about, anyway?”

Have you ever come away from a loud party or concert? The frenetic evening, the superficial conversations, and the immense, stupefying levels of noise leaving you a bit dazed, maybe a little sick? Then that feeling that silence is like a physical thing, pressing on your ears, making them ring?

Living with your head in the internet is like attending a very loud, overcrowded party where hardly anyone knows anyone else but we’re all on a first name basis, and at which about half the people present are in a shrieking rage, shouting insults, curses and obscenities at the other half, while a loudspeaker booms advertising jingles into the room that is lined from floor to ceiling with television screens playing a bizarre combination of cat videos, Fox News, pornography and Marvel superhero movie clips.

In a corner of one small room at this nightmarish party, a small clutch of traditional Catholics is desperately trying to ignore the horrific cacophany long enough to explain to anyone who will listen what the Social Reign of Christ is, mainly by standing on chairs and shouting as loudly as they can over the deafening noise.

In this room a group of conservative Catholics are sitting shoulder-to-shoulder in a tightly closed circle around a video screen showing Raymond Arroyo interviewing a never-ending parade of American conservatives shaking their heads in solemn, perplexed bewilderment at the latest papal outrages. Quite a few of them are weeping. Occasionally a conservative in a clerical collar turns away from the screen long enough to tell the Trads to shut up.

Suddenly being tossed out of the party, the door slammed behind you, you sit for a moment, a little dazed, on the damp lawn, and you realise that this is suddenly... abruptly... quiet. It is night, and there is a bird singing for all it’s worth in the trees. You can see the stars and you can just make out the shape of a bat flittering back and forth in the moonlight. You take a deep breath and realise there is the scent of flowers in the cool spring night air.

You suddenly remember that there was a time when it was normal to see this every day, to have quiet alone-time in the evenings after work when you didn’t need to be connected to the internet-party until bed time; you could just be by yourself and that was fine. You recall suddenly that you once went out to places outside the house and met with real-life friends and had conversations using your voice, instead of your fingers on a keyboard.

The internet is not mere distraction. It is racket. It is noise. It is a gigantic room full of... yes literally... billions of people, total strangers all shouting personal insults at each other. It’s the introvert’s worst nightmare. I can’t help but think of Screwtape’s description of Hell as “the kingdom of noise” in which silence is never heard. And I'm also reminded of a strange warning I read once by an exorcist who was asking questions of the demon as part of the procedure; it responded, “You idiot! There are no relationships in hell…” Is the internet actually, literally, hellish?

I keep wondering what the internet is doing to us. We hear that it is truncating our mental focal length, making us mentally myopic, even people who were adults – bookish adults – before it came to rule our lives. But what else is it doing? What is it doing to our ability to perceive reality, to tell the difference between the internet world and the real world?

And why is it so difficult to shut it off? To turn off your phone, to pull away from the screen and look around the room, at real life. Why are we so addicted to it? Because I think that’s the only word. The people who study these things have told us that we get a little zing of dopamine when someone “likes” a post or comments, and that this is the same mechanism of physical addictions to drugs. How did we get so terrified of silence and our own company, or the company of our families, that we must stick our heads in this thing every day? Are we lonely in the presence of others? Does it give us a sense of being connected that we can’t get from real life?

Or is it that it creates a safe distance from others that makes us prefer it to our realtime relationships? And we do seem to prefer it to everything else; to our hobbies, books, gardens, homework, spouses, friends, even careers… Do the real things we do seem less real when we don’t “share” them on Facebook?

Do we ever get the feeling that maybe we’re becoming the Borg, connected in a giant virtual hive-mind, but one that allows us at the same time to maintain a minimum safe distance, so we don’t really have to connect, really? Does the thought of being cut off from the Collective bring us running back? Even when it shows us horrors that give us nightmares?

Anyway... I've been informed by the internet that it doesn't want to come over to my house to hang out for a while. I didn't inquire further. We'll see what happens. But it's a funny thing I've noticed, that my productivity as a writer - and for everything else - goes up considerably when it's off...


Monday, April 23, 2018

The Hermit Problem

All hermits tend to experience this; as soon as people hear about a hermit, they want to come and see him and ask what it's like.


Saturday, April 21, 2018

You don't have to live like they tell you: dare to be "poor" on purpose

I'm thinking of building something like this out of scrap lumber and string. The garden doesn't have a lot of shade, and I can't afford a commercial pergola (though I did see a pretty nice one in Ikea last time we were there.)

Annamaria's been bugging me to buy the place. I always say the same thing, "Non c'e soldi." She always says, "Ma puoi ottenere finanziamenti." Then I say something lame like, "Non sono pronto per comprare una casa." And "Ho bisogno di un'altra stanza per gli ospiti." Then we start talking about the garden. I think she's trying to wear me down.

I moved in here a year and three days ago. The garden has grown into a huge deal. The more I do, the more raised beds, trellises, Hugelkultur berms and paths I build, the more ideas grow. And of course, I've known from the start that this is not something one can pack up and move. Last September when Anna rototilled the Big Dry Patch, I knew immediately that to really bring it back to life would be the project of at least a few years. It's progressed faster than I expected, but so have my plans and hopes for it. Ultimately, it's become a work of art, like a very, very slow painting, as well as an opportunity to learn more than I ever have before about gardening: the needs of various species of plants and soil management, and especially about my own abilities and limitations. The garden is a kind of living laboratory for me, and many of the experiments I've started there won't produce verifiable results for at least a few years.

I know the world tells you to live in a particular way, especially the world I left behind - that urban, car-oriented, stuff-oriented scrabble we have started thinking of as "normal life". A life in which the goal is all, and the process is to be shortened as much as possible. And the goal is just a thing. And then the next thing. And the thing after that, with no end in sight of the things we get because someone has told us we're supposed to have them. And the only way to live in that world is to shut your mind off, to build a huge interior wall between yourself and your awful surroundings. I lived in cities for 40 of my 52 years. It's going to be a while before I get that wall dismantled. (But the bricks are going to make great garden beds.)

For me, I think the garden is like a metaphor for an entirely different way of looking at life. It's not goal oriented. There's never going to be a day when I say, "Well, that's that done. Now I can go do something else." Anna's family has lived in this bit of Umbria for more than a century. On All Souls last year I went to the San Martino cemetery to pray for the dead, and I found her family's site. The dates and names went back to the 1860s. On my walks around the area I've run into her cousins who always stop and say hello. The property includes a bunch of farm land, and it's all worked by members of her family, various cousins. Her daughter is leasing a chunk of it for an orto. So I really do feel very much included by her generosity. None of her grown-up kids want to have it and they all seem happy enough for me to stay. I've never detected any of that kind of family jealousy.

Whether I would be able to manage the money to buy it, and whether it is the thing for the long term is another question. I've got a three-year lease, so we'll probably be thinking and talking about it until then at least. But for the moment, I'm getting it into my head that there is another way of thinking about life.

Anna and her family work the land here. Most of them also have day jobs elsewhere, but the land is the base, the foundation. She comes every day, winter and summer, to look after things. Nothing she does is hurried, everything is in its proper time in the annual cycle. She never worries when something happens. Last year I was disappointed when the little cherry tree on my patch died of black fly infestation. Her bigger tree got it too, but she just calmly cut the dead bits off, and now she's bought another tree and planted it. For the little one I sawed off the dead branches and kept the trunk as a trellis for sweet peas. That's how it goes. Life isn't goal-oriented, but process oriented. It's not aimed at a particular material outcome. You don't try to get some particular thing out of it, you just live it.

In fact, it's the whole rhythm of life in Italy that you see in the food. You can't buy broccoli in the summer or strawberries in January. Those things don't grow at those times, and if they were in the shops no one would buy them. Why would you want to eat broccoli in July anyway?

This way of living is one that humans have done for 10,000 years or so. And before that we had a vastly deeper well of time in which we simply took what came around. Who knows how long. Maybe 100,000 years. Compared to all that, the "normal" life of urban Vancouver or Toronto or London is something we've been doing for an eye-blink, and we're rapidly learning that it's horrible. It's destructive beyond description. The diseases of Modernia - our stress and obesity related illnesses, our depression and anxiety, our sitting-down malaise - are absolutely new. Our bodies can't adapt to this, which is saying something considering we are the world's champion adapters.

I suppose if I'd wanted to have a lot of money, I probably could have figured it out. A lot of the things I've wanted to know how to do I've figured out from book in the library. But what I saw was that you had to pay for your money and house and car with everything that was worth having in life. To pursue those things you had to say goodbye forever to all the things I already loved.

I think I was 22 when I figured out that the modern world didn't have anything I wanted. I spent a long time being very confused about life. And for a long time, seeing only this narrow range of possibilities, I felt trapped by it, as though I were already living in one of those dark dystopian sci fi worlds. But in the midst of that misery one thing I was completely sure about was that I didn't want that. The only thing I wanted then was to escape that.

I felt like the guy in 1984 or Brazil. Every one of those dystopian movies is about our own civilisation, and how it feels to live in it.

Every one of them is about some individual realising it's a horror and trying to figure a way out of it.

Office Space is about a guy who escapes his dystopia by learning not to want what it offers.

American Psycho is about what happens to a human being when it accomplishes the work of interiorising the modern urban dystopia. Don't be Christian Slater.

It is the unconscious assumption that we have to want what they tell us to want that keeps us trapped. Break out of that assumption, learn to want something else, something obtainable and inherently good, and you're free. When I hear about Japanese high school students jumping off buildings because they fail the university entrance exams, I always think, "Why not just want something else?"

I still struggle very much with my own brain. A lifetime of assumptions that life is awful and good things don't happen don't get broken over night, or even in a whole decade. I'm coming up on ten years in Italy. There's still a ton of things I haven't done (improved my Italian from "barely functional" to "conversational" high on that list). And with every item on my list of "Gee, I ought to do that" or "I'd really like to try that..." I still hear the chorus in my brain starting up, "Oh, you can't do that. You don't know how to do that sort of thing. You wouldn't be any good at that. You don't have any money. That wouldn't work. You've never done anything like that before... And anyway, people don't do that..." All followed with the worst of all, the sign nailed above the entrance to the nihilistic despair rabbit hole: "What's the point anyway?"

But with every new thing I do - starting, I suppose, with moving to and living in a weird foreign country that until I got here I strongly suspected was mythical - I chip away at the mental edifice of "You can't do that." I can now confidently say, "Well, I did all this other stuff, and that worked out pretty good."

I was raised in a kind of mental dystopia. The post-Christian culture - the post-traditional culture - is one of despair and hopelessness. I suspect that a lot of people live in it. I think that's why so many people can't accept Christ. The Good News is too good to be true. Good things don't happen, and things that good are just literally unimaginable.

Our mental maps for life start in Brazil's dystopia and move on to the post-apocalyptic wasteland of The Road. If you were raised in this, it's going to be the work of a lifetime to pull your mind out of it. I'd just like to let everyone know that it is actually possible to completely change your inner world.


Sunday, April 15, 2018

Keanu says, "Yes, do that."

I've always been a big Keanu fan. I liked him in Bill and Ted, (though I didn't really like the movies much). I liked Speed a LOT and Point Break has become a classic action cop movie. But I liked him as a person too. He seems... humble. Kind of down to earth. The stories of him giving away his salary to the technical workers on the sets of his movies are pretty impressive. He seems like a decent guy.(Hard to tell with Hollywood types, I know...but on just a gut-level...) Now he's started a company that makes custom motorcycles, which seems like a manly thing to do.

So, I'm willing to listen when, to the question, "Should I work on transitioning from writing to full time painting?" he says, "Yes, you really like painting."

A while back I emailed Daniel Mitsui, whose work I've been following for years. He's a man after my own heart, who loves sacred art, medieval manuscripts and botanical/biological art. His style is completely different from mine (and his "brand" is instantly recognisable and is appearing in more and more places around the innerwebz.) I asked him, "Is it possible to make a living doing this sort of "popularised" sacred art, full time?"

His quick answer was, "Yes, definitely."

His long answer, if you're interested in the details of how one does this, can be found on his website, here, here and here. But the gist was that it is certainly possible, mainly because of the nature of the kind of work we do (well, that he does and I aspire to do.)

The first step, of course, is to do the work.

I have a commission that I haven't even really started yet, a St. Anne and the Virgin. I'd like to do a test to see if I can complete an entire tile-painting in one week. That would make the price range sensible in terms of the ratio of hours put in to money earned, keeping the work affordable to the target market and at the same time make it worth doing in terms of time spent.

I've got a few models from the High Gothic I've picked out for the project. I've got the tile selected and prepped. But haven't started the work.

Why is painting so much more intimidating than writing? It's not like I don't know at least the basic techniques. I haven't really thought about it deeply, but there is an odd fear of making art. Someone wrote a helpful book about it. I'm glad at least to know I'm not the only one who experiences this.

Anyway, as with everything else that you think you ought to do but are scared to try, the only way to get past it is to actually do it. So, I'm going to try the 1-week experiment this week.