August 1, 2021
THE AWAKENING MIND: I woke up this morning with the same feelings I went to sleep with still nagging me. I open the glass doors to the long balcony that fronts this house. I throw open the shutters. The shock of the landscape’s beauty surges through me. It never fails to do so. But, I return to my writing place with the nag still niggling.
It’s this: I worry that my native pessimism does not go down well with many who, generous with their time, come by to offer their attention to my screes. I get it.
But, fuck it. I’m going to put this down anyway, even if I would rather please than displease.
For many years now — YEARS! — on a basis we know to be collective, but that we feel as individuals, we have been inundated with gloomy, doom-laden visions of the future. It taints the enjoyment of life; it even hurts, all the moreso because despite our sometimes lazy, sometimes militant efforts to shut-out the negativity, we can’t.
The root of our malaise, I think, is our individual powerlessness in the face of global forces like a pandemic or climate change. All the “little” things we do individually, for our sake and the sake of our children and grandchildren, are not diminishing the perils humanity now faces.
Only our governments can do the things that must be done to put things right. We have no choice but to act collectively and it is only through those who hold the levers of real, massive power that meaningful, hard-driving, goal-oriented, sustained action can be set in motion.
Carping and complaining about government is based on the pretense that we are victims of it, instead of and accepting the fact we have the governments we deserve.
If we want to deserve better (and more, and faster), then we have to find ways and means to put the majority view in the face of our governors. Insist. Hold them to account. Never let them off the hook.
The majority view must be expressed so strongly and so insistently that minority views — especially those sincerely, but stupidly held — will not be allowed to frustrate the processes and policies that must be implemented. Implemented now. War footing.
But — and here’s the rub, eh? — we have also to let our politicians know we — individually and collectively — are ready to suffer and endure the inconveniences that true remedial action will produce. That’s the cost of serious action on these fronts.
Last thing: it’s the “ways and means” part of collective action that is critical to change, and so, if you have potent ideas that can turn individual powerlessness into collective power — have at it.
August 4, 2021
OLD HABITS: It did not occur to us that we would not work when we came here. Once the decision was made to leave Canada and settle in Umbria, the to-do and want-to-do lists started writing themselves.
I am sitting on our balcony on a still night looking down the slope to the house we will live in once it’s fixed up. It’s been empty for thirteen of its 52 years. So, not an ancient house, but a modern one if you think of modern as an epoch, not the here and now.
Earlier today, I went off to a DIY shop and bought a pruning tool with a large, sharp blade in its jaws and a pruning saw both of which which I promptly put to use by butchering a fig bush that took root in a pile of concrete block and cement rubble by the tin shed back of the house. The rubble can now be sweated out of what the previous owner probably thought was its final resting place.
There is a lot more cutting and thinning to do on all sides of the property. The iron gate down by the road needs to be taken off its rusted hinges and put in a scrap yard, and the rutted track that serves as a driveway needs a bed of gravel. The flagstone patio wants a pressure wash, and the clematis by the front steps requires barbering.
I know just the guy to do it all, too. Me.
Looking across the valley just after dusk, I can see just by looking at the farms and houses spread in every direction that the place is full of doers. Has been for 3000 years or more. It is a gorgeous mosaic made by a million hands over generations ad infinitum. I will do but a small bit.
Not too many of my neighbours, once the chores are done, are wondering when they will find time to sit down and finish the damn play they started a few months ago, or how to wrangle a few ideas that come to mind in the middle of the night into a novel. But, I am one of them. I came here to work and so I must.
MY REVIEW OF LORENZO’S VEST: My friend, Graham Hofmann, wrote a good book. Here’s the review I posted in Amazon and Goodreads:
“A man travels to Italy. Finds the small city of Gubbio in the Region of Umbria. Falls in love with it. Finds a village nearby called Colpalombo and buys a house. Not a lot of thought given to that fateful decision, just a throw of a dart he might have chucked at pub dartboard in his native Leeds in the UK.
Graham Hofmann was still a working stiff in those days, a few years from retirement. But, he’s committed to his project so over the first few years he steals a week here and there, sometimes a month or more to fly in and get things done. The house is a very naughty fixer-upper.
Hofmann comes whenever he can, whatever the season. He builds a life in Colpalombo, with the help of Aldo and Benedetta, their daughter Paola, the very elderly Gina his nearest neighbour, Lorenzo, of course, owner of the vest, and a host of others. He’s also got a devil-neighbour, a man not inappropriately called Benito, Trier of Patience.
When Hofmann’s not fixing a shutter, or painting the place, or scything the tall grass on his dubious lawn, or doing the hundred other quotidian chores that a man who’s bought a broke-down place is required to do, he’s out and about. Close to his house, he walks a lot, runs, bikes, and, able-bodied man that he is, he treks the Appenine mountains that sit at center stage in the gorgeous theatre that is Umbria. They sprawl and rise not many miles from the small balcony upon which he broods, happy-seeming, but in contemplation of important things. There, alone, he’ll sip a beer and pass the hours, listening to the sounds of the sometimes raucous, sometimes silent village, while falling, through the course of his writing, into an increasingly grateful meditation on life and all its wonders.
And then, surprise, a book pops into view. It’s not a fast-wrought thing, but one written over a longish period of time. Some of it reflective notes on what comes to all his senses. Some of it reportage. Some of it essays. Some of it travel writing, but good travel writing.
In Lorenzo’s Vest we come to know his village, the people who live in it, the nearby city of Gubbio and all its amazements, and the many places that he explores on his and our behalf. We come to know Umbria, really, not nearly as deeply as the author, but deeply. There is also a good deal about Italy, the Italy that hides behind and beneath all the tourist bumph. Yes, there is the fabulous beauty that is bragged about by the country’s marketing folk, but a beauty with warts and age lines, and a slightly sagging soul, sometimes ebullient, sometimes grumpy and disconsolate. A reality not a dream.
Lorenzo’s Vest is not the book of a professional writer. I will tell you that. An editor would have advised some chopping and a slight re-org of some of the text. A book publisher would have advised a larger font, even if doing so would have thickened the thing. But that’s the end of my bitch. These small things aside, Hoffman’s got a lively style that is punctuated with wit and humour, a lot of it self-deprecating. Whenever I picked it up to read, I got drawn in immediately.
What he’s done, sitting at a table I assume, in the old house he made his own, is to have turned-out a major work on a place he seems to have stumbled into. He’s flummoxed me because I myself, having just arrived to live here with my wife, intended to write about my experiences in Umbria, but I keep wondering what I could add? There’s a fullness to Hofmann’s take on the multifaceted landscape of Umbria, its people, and its cities, towns and villages, so, my scribblings would not add much really.
I say “seems to have stumbled into”, because, big surprise to me, in the last chapter or so, he finally reveals that his coming here was not quite the random thing he at first makes it out to have been. Stumbling maybe, but pushed by a deep hurt, not carelessness.
What we get, in the end is not just an extraordinary revelation of a place, but of a man. Over time, he learns enough Italian to more than get by, but he also learns the language of the heart. He opened up Umbria for us. But Umbria opened Hoffman – cracked him open I would say. Made him better.”
August 6, 2021
THE DISCONNECT: Early morning, up on this Italian hill we get enough signal that we can use our cell phones as a WiFi hotspot. As the day wakes up, the signal drops. So, in the early dawn hours, we read our emails, maybe log-in to our bank accounts to see how poor we are becoming.
While Joan does what Joan does, I “do” FB. That means scrolling through my feed, checking out what you guys are up to and making the odd comment. Time permitting, I might post something myself.
No TV here. No Netflix. We don’t even have a radio, although we could get one and tune in, I suppose.
My wife and I are adapting to the quiet; the lack of buzz. We entertain ourselves, mostly be reading books and doing chores around our temporary apartment or the house purchased but soon to be renovated. We’re closer as a result — a result of fewer distractions — although I would have said before we found ourselves here that because we always have been close that would have been an impossibility.
Last night, long before dawn, with a free-floating mind skittering from one thing to another, eyes closed even in the dark, night and day are not as distinguishable as they once were, inducing a feeling of moving through time and space like the fabled loon, no matter the hour of the day.
In flight at times, but at times descending to dark water where body and mind bob in the dapple and chop of the surface. At other moments, moved by whatever forces work in an old man’s mind, I dive, go deep. There in the murk is where one goes to feed one’s spiritual hunger and to resolve the perplexities, conundrums and conflicts of our time, both personal and collective.
The hands of the clock that used to hang on our kitchen wall in Vancouver divided the sunlit moments from the moonlit ones. Out of bed, up with the blinds, turn on cable news, make the coffee.
A few hours later, with everything done that needed to be done, other rituals. Dinner done, the dishes washed, we’d perch on our couch and stream a movie. Hold hands maybe, but not talk to one another. No interruptus.
But, in this disconnected world, in the desultory drift we now live in, absent the manifold irritations of the ordinary grind we were living before we arrived here, we find ourselves without the incessant noise we allowed to crowd our earlier lives, and in the quiet, a magical blur becomes the new normal.
Einstein said, in his old days, it seemed the edges of his mind and body were merging with mortality. He was only 76 when he died, and he said that some years before. It was not a premonitory statement. He knew something.
I’m pretty certain that when Einstein’s younger brain sparked with its fantastic insights, he had already penetrated the starlit cosmos, also loon-like, already in the blur, already merged, already able to see from every direction at once. His mathematics led him to conclude what another genius calculated earlier: we are the stuff that stars are made of, and therefore immortal in our present moment.
Some of us learn it later life. Some, of course, never do.
ABSENT THE MOVIE HOUSE: Turns out that if you don’t have a movie house in town, live theatre plays an important role in a community. That’s the way it is in the Italian commune in which I now live. It has a small theatrical playhouse, but it also has other venues where productions are mounted, one of them a medieval fortification called the Rocca Flea (pronounced “flay-a”). All well attended, by the way.
Is it possible, I wondered even before I arrived here, that a small tribe of Canadian actors might make there way here, say in the summer of 2022, to gather with their Italian counterparts for the sake of making some new work?
Well, yes, it is a possibility.
Now, of course, in addition to bringing their estimable theatrical skills, those bearing the Canadian flag must also bring an appetite for good food and good wine, of which there is plenty in the vicinity. If our players have other, er, appetites, they may be brought as well, but whether they will be as well-satisfied as those of a gustatory nature, will be left to chance.
Let us say, 10 days. Hard work on the part of all, up to and including the day the play that emerges from our organized chaos is put on the boards.
I doubt whether I can get the locals to pay air fare, but they may provide lodgings and a feast or two.
Actors, does that appeal to any of you? Hope so.
August 10, 2021
HEAT : A lemon coloured sun sits above the hills across the valley, will soon slip behind them. In the garden, sitting under a pergola dripping with newly purpled grapes, I tap this note.
Clinton Heylin’s most recent book, The Double Life of Bob Dylan, is on my mind. Has been since I turned the first page. Has been because his bio of the great man-boy inevitably forces those of a certain age, those who were paying attention in the 60s, who themselves were jumping off fracturing foundations of the old, post war order, to revisit them.
Dylan’s music was written into the soundtrack of those times. His public personae cast a merlinesque spell, both frightening and challenging, on those just then shedding the uncomfortable skin of adolescence and teenhood
I am not sure what kind of man Dylan has become in the time after the almost fatal motorcycle accident he endured in 1966. He may be the apotheosis of manhood. But, in the days Heylin writes about, Dylan was a right bastard and a frequent fool of the highest order, so self-centered he often fell into the pool where Narcissis drowned in his own image.
But then, there is the music, and the genius in which his talent nested and thrived and still does. You would be hard pressed to find anyone who is not willing to forgive him and others of similar ilk, all their trespasses. I know I do.
Why then are we so reluctant to not forgive lesser mortals for their sins? Two reasons I think.
First, because we ourselves are so self-centered we identify personally with genius. Those with even a little self-esteem have our own undiscovered, unheralded, secret genius do we not? We would astonish the world, if only…. if only circumstances and other personal limitations had not prevented our public flowering.
We wish to be forgiven too, even if only by ourselves, for all the trouble and grief we have caused, so in accepting the flaws of flawed geniuses, Dylan being an exemplar, we give ourselves permission to accept our own flaws, and the bad behaviour that emanates from them.
Second, we do not forgive the non-geniuses precisely because we are lesser mortals. By self-definition.
August 13, 2021
NO PARADISE ON EARTH: A storybook land spreads out in all directions beneath our window. It will be very hot today, but now, a cool breeze flows up the hill upon which we are perched and flows in through the open windows. We’ll go for a walk in a few minutes, before the sun rises over the hill behind this house and continues the baking it has subjected us to these last three weeks.
But, news penetrates the beauty and we can’t turn our backs to it. Elsewhere there is trouble aplenty. Haitians suffered a mighty blow this morning. An earthquake rattled the place and hundreds are dead. Wild fires in Greece, in Siberia, in the so-called moderate zones of North America. And, of course, the Taliban are moving into the vacuum created by departing Americans, Canadians and the remnant forces of other NATO countries.
Many who were horrified that western forces led by the US went into Afghanistan after 9/11 are now horrified they are leaving. The Taliban are wreaking a murderous revenge on those who supported the heathens, and have already begun to impose an oppressive regime on the country, a regime that allows men to put their boots down on women’s necks.
Keeping American and other western forces in Afghanistan cannot save Afghanis from themselves. Afghani’s could have used the last 20 odd years as an opportunity to build a society based on western values and created the means to protect it. They didn’t.
As horrible as it may be to watch people — especially women — slip back into medieval subjugation — how can the West pretend the force of its ideas, even backed-up by the most potent military power on earth, can make a human paradise in that desert?
I wrote this stuff awhile ago in a play I wrote about men. There is something about us, too many of us, that we can’t deny.
‘Heil you murdering men leading your holier-than-thou, blonder-than-thou armies. Heil you shock-and-awers. Heil you builders of walls and droppers of bombs; you revengers against the collateral crowds.
‘Heil you droning cowards with your fingers on the trigger and your dicks rammed up the world’s ass, the song of Olaf unheard in the cummings and goings, the killings and maimings, the rape and rapine.
“Heil to all of you who defend stone-dead ideas from your high-walled battlements.
“Remember this you men of war: comes a day when the machinery of better ideas will break through and put you to the sword. And remember this: the subjugation of women, or of anyone, is ordained only by gods made in the image of man, and is indefensible. ”
Let us hope that the idea of male-female equality will eventually break through even in the benighted place that Afghanistan is. In the meantime, even we atheists should pray for those who will suffer until they do.
Scribbles from Italy is a series of articles from Vian Andrews in which he reflects on his experiences of life in his new home in the Umbrian countryside.
You can find the full list of posted chapters here.