Found

I walked for hours, days, during this trip, dragging behind me a photographer who was captivated by the countless details and layered textures of the city. Well did I understand his desire to stop, to stay and see.

I was on a mission, though, and there was no time to lose.

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Getting anywhere in Venice goes about like this:

Right – left – right – right – left. Over a bridge – left. Bridge – bridge – right – left – right – five bridges – left. Be sure to roll all the  “r”s when you read that.

After hours of it, the photographer panted out… “You go so fast, and I’m sure that this time we’re getting lost. It all looks the same. Are you sure we’re not lost?”

Of course I wasn’t lost. Because Venice leads me.

When I begin to feel that maybe I could be lost this time – that maybe I’m disoriented – Venice shows me the way; reminding me of a restaurant I once ate at with a friend, recalling the iron railing of a particular bridge, conjuring the face of a familiar shopkeeper in a window, who still recognises me after a long absence.

I don’t need to remember the watery city, the mesmerising lagoon. She remembers me.

Life is not much different, actually.

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Venezia

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I stepped off the boat in Venice and marvelled at the empty streets. It’s January and there are few tourists to speak of. I waited, scanning the skinny streets in all directions.

It has been a long year since I’ve been, and I’ve missed it. Especially when the cold scratch of stone against heel can be heard echoing upward for a lack of life, or sign of it.

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Hair bright as the sun emerged suddenly as my friend ran toward me. It felt good to see him again, his Parisian moustache twirled under horn-rimmed glasses.

Come stai?

Bien, et toi?

Si si, everything’s great now that you’re here.

And so begins the delicious melting of culture, language and art. An intensity you know is so hot it will burn you if you’re not careful, but will warm you like nothing else if you let it. So mysterious. Like Venice. So beguiling.

Let it begin.

Drink or Die: reflections on how to carpe diem

At 3:30 today I poured myself a glass of Lillet rouge. It was too early for happy hour, and unusual for me to open the door of the fridge and poor a sweet, alcoholic drink in the middle of the day. But that’s what I did. It’s 4:30 now, and my glass is still half full, which makes me feel like somewhat less of a lush.

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Your glass is half full?, you say. Yes, it’s half full.

I’ve gotten to this point where nothing feels right. Problems at work. An imploding profession. A salary that tanked over the past two years. I’ve enough reasons to complain today.

But my glass is half full. And I’m leaving it that way just to make a point.

I’m not so sure it’s working, though. After all, if I drink, more can be given. But if I leave it there as some kind of rotting reminder of past bounty, how can it ever be refilled with new, chillier things? Maybe I’m digging my own grave with all this negativism.

I just took a sip.

The spider carcass that I squished behind a book yesterday still sits on the window sill behind my half-full glass, a leggy reminder of my inner turmoil. Here it goes. Drink or be the spider carcass.

This is where it starts.

Where grasses bend and glow

I’m wrapping up a destination article today on Tuscany as sleet falls outside my window, icing the wood planks of a deck I like to roast my body on in the summer. The thing about writing is the delicious ability to be somewhere you’re not at any time of the day. Like the Etruscan coast.

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Some people go there to taste the wines of Chiantishire; others to golf or enjoy world class spa treatments before sitting down to some of the world’s healthiest and most tantalising cuisines. My mother would go for the boutiques. But I cast my mind back to a certain drive through winding roads to the sounds of Rinaldo Alessandrini’s ‘Trent’anni a Roma’ recording; to a red sunset over golden fields and a tiny car lost in a seemingly abandoned hamlet. I lean back in my chair by the fire as I write and recall the taste of gnocchi di zucca as we sat, still in our salty bathing suits under soft summer clothing, alone in the upstairs restaurant room of that hillside town, our appetites as healthy as our browned skin. Our smiles a mirror of those bare swims in clear waters after a long bike ride.

There is the taste of Peroni. The recollection of frescos unshielded on chapel walls. The glow of bending grasses. Soft fingers and even softer sounds of words rushing like a luscious river. Che bella l’Italia.

The worlds inside me are as vivid as the one outside my window; I have only to close my eyes and step into them. The door clicks now as I close it behind me.

And now…

A French journalist I know wrote an article yesterday that basically brushed aside the millions of comments written over the past week about the Paris murders and claimed that really only one thing had to be said: his comment. His insight. It gave me pause. Actually, the entire frenzy has given me pause.

My colleague is generally an open man given to tolerance and dialogue, and his unusually vainglorious approach startled me.

I live very near the French border and am familiar with French mentality. They are, unlike most of the world, truly given to the vignette style and unabashedly earthy. Long have they embraced their culture, and long should they. Freedom has been their mantra for generations, even if at times they fail to see how others view what they accept as normal – as do most cultures. As does my own. As do I.

The week following the Paris murders began with a global uprising in the defence of freedom of speech. All the world stood up and took part; it was moving, powerful, and crucial for the impending debates. I have stood alongside them, in defence of the profession but also in defence of the right to free thinking, to free convening. But as the wave recedes and critical reaction swells, censor has begun to rear its ugly head. Just yesterday a man responded to a short piece I wrote, telling anyone who questions the vignette culture to fuck off. He told me to use my brain to think. My response was that Charly Hebdo would have welcomed my reaction for the simple reason that I had one. Charlie Hebdo – if this is what it’s really about – would have told me I was thinking just by critiquing them. Freedom of speech is a two way street. If nothing else, Charlie encouraged that.

After 9-11, the world did much the same thing. We joined hands against terrorism and set our sights on an even freer civilisation. An attack on the free world, the tower murders shook the very foundations of liberty. The aftershocks of sympathy and solidarity were overwhelming, but what happened in the wake of 9-11 has long sent shivers up my spine. There were years when speaking even the slightest critique of the US government was not only frowned upon, it was risky. For unexplainable reasons people were tagged terrorists, and freedom of speech was being choked and suffocated. The effects of that linger still in the unconstitutional liberties taken by the government under the Homeland Security Act.

In an interview with the Dutch newspaper Volkskrant on January 10, Charlie Hebdo cartoonist William Luz said that that “people are asking us to carry a symbolic weight on our shoulders that doesn’t exist in our vignettes, and which is too much for us to bear. I’m one of the people that has a hard time with that. The world sees us as human rights advocates. Freedom of speech was not murdered, people were! Just people, making drawings in their little corner of the world.”

Luz also said, bringing focus back to the reality of who Charlie Hebdo really is, that “we vomit on all these people who are suddenly our friends. We have a lot of new friends, such as the Pope, Queen Elizabeth or Poutine. It’s ridiculous.” His words came as a relief in this tense frenzy; the snap of a strained rubber band.

Contrary to what my French colleague wrote yesterday, I think it is important that we let the debates begin. We need to hear from all sides of this issue if we truly want to foster freedom of expression, of speech, and of thought. THAT is free speech.  It is important not to lose sight of the fact that the freedom in question is the freedom to not be killed in cold blood. Setting up a false ideal will only disappoint us in the end because it is based on a non-truth: that Charlie Hebdo is an heroic publication that defends freedom of speech. There is no question that Charlie Hebdo is a free-speech publication. But defenders of that liberty they hardly are. There is no honour in, and certainly no use for, exaggeration, no matter how well meant.

I support Charlie Hebdo’s right to expression. I support, more importantly, Charlie Hebdo’s right to assemble safely in their offices. We must focus.

Mourning

There is a fine line I think every kind of journalist walks on a daily basis. It is a constant questioning of whether what you’re writing is true and worth saying, but also whether it offends or caters. Political journalists stand at the eye of what can easily become a disorienting storm, but all conscientious writers deal with the same questions on some level every time they pick up a pen.

For my part, I mourn for the profession as a whole this week, even if I could never get behind CharlieHebdo’s methods and vulgarity. I mourn the human right to be able to gather safely in your own offices; the right to call ideologies into question; to challenge authority and social stigma.

At the same time, I believe that words have the power to unite people and dispel hate; that integrity is stronger than ridicule; that kindness could change the world, if we’d let it. Which we never will. I recall what vignettes did to the Jews prior to WWII and how they propelled the anti-Semitic movement along to horrific ends. There are vignettes, and there are vignettes. Which are slander and which are freedom of speech? No writer will ever be free of those underlying moral considerations, as is no human being who truly does seek justice and equality. I mourn the weight of that question today, because the Paris murders have made it heavier than it has been in a long while.

Freedom of speech

Last month I wrote an article about new technology that’s making a big splash in the international press these days. It was an opinion piece, and though heavily verified and water-tight, I remember worrying the night before it went to print over whether I had made the right choice gently criticising a certain brand.

My colleagues laughed, saying I was making a big deal out of nothing, and that my mention could actually end up bringing them visibility. It was an honest critique, and a necessary one, but I’ve felt strange having it out there since I know the CEO personally. When the staff at CharlieHebdo was murdered in Paris this week, all that came into focus in a very different way.  Like the curve of astigmatism, my perspective was instantly skewed.

CharlieHebdo promulgates a style I could hardly get behind. Vulgar and offensive, they criticise organisations, politics, beliefs of every nature mercilessly, and without exception. But satire by definition is thought-provoking (provoking being the key word) and their blows are as effective as they are equitable. Other than having my feelings hurt on occasion, I find no fault in their ways. They are a mouthpiece, they are the checks and balances of a democracy, they are human beings.

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And words do not equal bullets, even if their impact is often much more powerful. Then I remembered my article, my tiny critique that suddenly seemed just a comment of truth. And why should we not speak truth?

I felt ashamed for having been so fearful of it. Their methods are not my own, but their deaths have provoked thought in me. I dare say they would draw a terrible, vulgar picture of me to prove my point, were they here in my office now. Bless them.

Vive la liberté.

Just an egg

Funny how the world can come full stop.

Last night before bed I had a message from a colleague saying the Smithsonian may be interested in publishing a book I’m working on. I was sitting in the living room by the fire in my plaid pyjama pants when the message came in. The Smithsonian? Are they serious? I sat very still lest any movement disturb the good tidings. Such a dream.

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Just before bed, I sent a message off to the woman who understands me best. She has a nearly identical personality, only she’s 30 years older. 30 years wiser and softer. I had to tell her, for she’s the one who’s been cheering me on since that first day I messaged her two years ago from Venice: ‘I’m afraid. Scared senseless.’ She had messaged back words that not only gave me courage, they challenged the way I approached life.

You MUST re-route your thinking about yourself…it will never help you and may, indeed make others uncomfortable unless you hide it…people will feel like they need to take care of you if it shows…sooooo DON’T think that [you are stupid and dumb]..say STOP in your head when it comes up…I know what I am talking about because I did not think I was as good as other people for my whole young life and I made bad decisions about life, etc., because I did not think I was worthy. It took years for me to rethink myself and realize that I was just as good as anyone else. My choices now are based on equality…mine and other peoples…I really hope you can get there for real…inside your own head.

There was no pity, but the love, understanding, and challenge to change the way I see myself were tangible tools that I was able to pick up and use. Now, two years later, I am reaping the benefits of self empowerment.

This morning she emailed me back:

Yay for Smithsonian. Brava! I can’t read the message because I’m very ill in the hospital, but I love you, dear.

I lie in my bed and sobbed. Suddenly all the lights had gone out. Who cares about a published book with a prestigious institution when one of the most loving forces in your life is lying in a hospital bed half a planet away, and you didn’t know it? I sobbed because of how little I suddenly cared about the book. Because of how frivolous it seemed. Because of how much I love her.

She will not read this post. But if she did, she would tell me:

Brava for loving people more than accomplishments. But my dear, please keep flying! All the world is yours. Fly like a bird and write your book! I’m here watching, clapping for as long as I can.

She always said, “After all, I am just an egg.” If you know what she means by that, I hope you will share your thoughts.

Prayers for my angel.

Singular January

When I came back from Naples and Rome mid-December, I found myself swept into a three week holiday spin of making beauty and coziness for the family. I don’t regret the time I invest in thoughtfulness. Work really is a parallel universe and every year convinces me more of how important it is to know when to close my office door, and keep it closed. The holidays are one of those times.

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The stark bareness of January is another matter.

I spent two days gutting my office and throwing out anything I don’t need, wrapping up loose ends, and setting a trajectory for 2015. So here I am at my nearly clean desk, staring out the window at a thick white frost covering the hedge, happy that the clutter of Christmas decorations (and last year’s professional defeats and victories) are boxed and filed for good. Like the bare white frost on the hedge is my mind approaching this new year. I don’t make resolutions, I purge. Rather than add, I subtract. Like so many other burdens I could just let go.

January is quite the time for it.

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