The Currency of Grace

MA mealtime

In the unMonastery some subjects, though not technically taboo, remain unSpoken.  Were we to speak frankly about how much we appreciate each others efforts, it might open the Pandora’s box of something unImaginable.  Perhaps we fear that we might suffer from unBearable glee…

Instead unMoaners sublimate.  Our most significant strategy is the heaping upon one another of generous portions of incredibly sumptuous foods.  Twice a day seemingly haphazard pairings of the house’s inhabitants conspire to inspire.  Turning the glories garnered from local markets into our agency of appreciation and bombarding one another with the best we have on offer, we can get carried away.

Sometimes it goes wrong.  Bland pasta tastes like bland pasta — the lack of love resounds around the unMon eating hall.  Harmony does not reign.

Contemplation is a mixed blessing — thinking over certain phenomena gives inescapable conclusions.  Sumptuousness in its absence can expand beyond the merely insipid — it easily becomes an affront to virtue.  Incompetence or an injudicious spice quota reflects not a bad day in the kitchen but disdain for the collective.  To serve a flat sauce or even an over-ornate show-off of a salad is to kick the captive audience where it hurts.  Vows have been broken for less…

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The Extraordinary Case of the unMonastery 1.0

MA Monacelle meeting

The unMonastery Prototipo Matera saw its existence thanks to an almost unique moment. A group of citizens in the ancient but largely ignored administrative centre of the Basilicata region chose to systematically redefine themselves around questions of culture and inherent content. Generating the momentum, and providing the leverage to perform such a self cross-examination was the audacious act of nominating themselves as the Italian representative as a Capital of European Culture for 2019.

At issue was not their virtue nor essential Italianess, ( the selection of country was already fixed.) The question was the city’s merit in a country replete with bona fide major candidates. Relief and belief were both enormous when among circa 22 other hot-spots of Italian cultural superlatives, the local committee’s proposal made the short list of six cities. Well into their commitment to the unMonastery experiment, justice was seen to be done: we made it so far. Still, up against heavyweights such as Siena, Cagliari and Lecce, many in Matera felt the city a mouse masquerading as a magnificent Creature indeed.

Listening in the background to the soul-searching that accompanied a city with a self-image as peripheral and irrelevant was uniquely rewarding. Comparisons must be fatuous, but pockets of Latin American states renegotiating centuries of gross injustice, who have recently reformed themselves via social turmoil, will offer similar fertile soil. However, it is more likely that these societies have such straight forward demands of life and death infrastructure issues that these allow less time for more existential dilemmas such as: Who are we?

Matera, although long suffering on a scale of progressive national neglect, has retained secure supply lines to the rich food production of the region and is buoyed by a not yet suffocating parallel tourist economy. In addition they have one more enormous advantage: they legitimately possess a claim to being a deep cultural European resource. Some sources have it as the city with the clearest links to a Neolithic past. Others assert the claim of the world’s third oldest city with signs of urban inhabitance 10,000 years ago. In the rhetoric of the candidacy committee; we’ve been here for 8000 years , we want to remain here for 8000 more. Their virtue is a resilience that gets its strength from their very marginality…

Even the most self-declared neutral social anthropologists operate as cultural imperialists; to pronounce something as observation worthy is to intrude upon it. To rush to conclusion is offensive; the preferred tactic is to seep oneself in the social intercourse over time and to gently reflect upon ones own perceptions. 

To monitor the outer form of culture without having linguistic access to its content is not to wallow in ones exclusion, but to visit a therapeutic health bath that includes us in the core inner life of humanity. To spend time in surrounded by a richness of after-a-while familiar faces all involved in seeking purchase to negotiate their place in their future is an inspiration. Even with little direct access to the debate, witnessing the forces of renewal and resistance: the passion is readily absorbable.

For an outsider the pain wasn’t immediately tactile. The fault-lines in the city are not minor. The fertile earth of a conceptual crisis may not be everyone’s cup of tea. Questions of belonging and authentic voice quickly become as familiar as they are fascinating. For a people balanced upon centuries of frustration and repressed rebellion as waves of conquest are illogically enforced, helplessness can easily become a predigested reality. Chronic negativity is only a superficial symptom – it purports to be realism even if it may often be indicative of inherited defeat.

For those of us ensconced in castles of noble concern, besieged by seemingly militant waves of indifference, to probe and provoke the citizenry by offering the luxury of wishing out loud in orderly concentric circles, is to invite rebellion. To carry on is a sign of bravery.

In the vibrant climate a periphery of such a broad social project, the unMonastery perceives itself as essential. Not in the sense of that the MA2019 process cannot do without us, but we see in our experimental prototype an alchemic distillation that hopefully one day very soon shall surrender the secret essence of all human endeavors.

The brave initiative takers behind both the Materan candidacy and its favorite sub-project The unMonastery may be foolhardy; it shall be a deep tragedy if either of us find no one to carry our banner…

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Deconstructing the Bruna — Ritual Police Brutality

MA Bruna Donna x 2all photos: Andrea Semplici 2013

Everyone comes out into the streets for mysterious reasons.  They are to partake in an immersion in their masses.  Boil it down to basics : they just might witness something.  The program has been clear for over 600 years.
I missed the early morning shepherds running their flocks through the streets, but at the stroke of sometime shortly after 1230, we gather for the emergence of the local incarnation of the blesséd Madonna from a church that isn’t actually 600 years old.  The horse braying under the generale and the trills of a gentile marching band in overture modus will have been recirculated through many a generation, but otherwise this is that which we do…

MA Bruna - anticipation

It was the city’s Big Day, the feast of Maria della Bruna, a most marvelous occasion of conflicting explanations.   I only know what I saw:

People converge upon a church to see if there is anything to see.  Not surprisingly there is.  After the parade of flowery cavalieri  – horsemen and horsegirls decked out to the frilliest, several pudgy men of the ceremonial committee with four horse drawn wagons arrive to collect yet other notables.  It did not seem to occur to anyone in my party that also the ceremony in the innards of the church was somehow intrinsic to the experience; on this day we were more than content perched on a strategic balcony that had served several families through several centuries. 

Applause; out into the sunlight comes a beaming face under a purple bonnet clutching a life-size rendition of an infant.  The pudgy men have had their ranks swollen by among others my friend the mayor.  Surrounded by only somewhat less pudgy men in the flowing robes of the clergy, they carry a most beautiful woman swaying above their shoulders.  The band waits behind her designated wagon, the one with the satin and the flowers.  Red hat carrying her baby gets his own wagon.  Off they go.  Two ex-colony nuns had wandered by at some point.

MA Bruna emergesThe men were holding a party for a most alluring plaster woman.  What were we on about?

MA Buna - Committee on Steps

In the evening it became richer.  The shepherding away of the maiden in question was temporary, she’d be back in the fold by the evening, reunited with her youngster.

According to not necessarily informed sources, Matera is the only Italian city whose patron saint is a matron saint.  Indeed a creature to be honored, applause greets the very mention of her name as her effigy is paraded upon the historical route of her minor miracle.  However, it is not quite as visceral and as heartfelt as is the glee by which the cognisenti eye the fault-lines and the prize pieces of paper maché figures and architectural detail that comprise this year’s rendition of her designer carro chariot.  Employed solely for the return trip, this isn’t the carriages of this morning; rather it is multi-tiered ship that holds her figure high and depicts guiding lights and current themes of the Roman Catholic pantheon.  Her wheels shall steal the show.

MA Bruna prowMA Bruna - raptureWith much stopping and starting along the parade, the crowd are suitably primed when Maria perched atop her carro finally appear on the fringe of the piazza.  Music cues are coordinated.  Eight trumpeters sound the fanfare from Aida which peaks appropriately just before the belovéd virgin glides effortlessly into the epicentre of our civic space to stop under a floating panoply of peacock feather patterned lights.  Especially constructed four days before the event, at this late hour their illumination transforms the city’s always enticing central public square into pure raw beauty. The sound system breaks into Ave Maria.  It is as contagious as it is primitive. 

MA Bruna Panoply

There is a marked contrast of male domination of parade committee and the clergy (the female presence among the officialdom largely limited to a pair of red cross workers) and the object of our admiration.  It appears the boys are about to make good.  We are here to celebrate a magnificent creature.  However, some time in ancient history, things had gotten out of hand…

Ritual Police Brutality 
Soon the story will diverge.   The action swoops by the Cathedral.   After depositing the sacred memory of this glorious virgin, now reunited with her infant in a gesture that must bring solace to single mothers everywhere, there is a decided game shift.  The skittish nature of the noble, politically correct but sadly chronically unemployed horses, requires that the forty or so glorious knights in their tin plate chain mail breast plates and ditto helmets must muster off: spears, flags and all.  Having thus removed a significant percentage of potentially deadly weaponry, the ritual goes hard core.

MA Bruna caveleri retires
Up to date as only design conscious southern Italy can manage, the developments are now televised on three screens including one on the main piazza above the historic cisterns that remind one that this may be the oldest city in Europe.   We thus witness the retreat of the cavalry twice; once on screen and then moments later al fresco as they trot through the hordes back along the residual pathway of their first appearance.  At the last moment four less quirky, blinkered mules have been ushered into place at the head of the chariot.  Their driver strapped in, the carro performs the mandatory three ritual circles in yet another crowded piazza, before aligning itself with the canyon to come.  The evening’s raison d’être involves running the gauntlet between those ravenous for loot.  A body guard of blue helmeted police squads and the loyal followers of the local football team are tasked with getting the precious wagon past 120 meters prime retail outlets (fenced in for the occasion) and out before the awaiting masses on the piazza beneath the delicate dome of micro lights. 

MA Bruna Police + Boys

Sizing up their immediate future, a calculation is communicated between the phalanx of defenders of the faith and the man at the reins.  The wagon train and its foot soldiers take the plunge.  Charging gladiators wield the whips that earlier seemed a useful precaution to protect the crowd from the symptoms of rusty horsemanship, but that now seek other flesh.  They would progress but a few meters before the next security hazard raises its presence and clogs the canyon.  The waiting marauders are forced backward to whence they came and towards where the impatient masses now watch in simulcast from six cameras.  There are to be several attempts before the inevitable last charge into the human stream of negotiated no-man’s land collides with attendant rebellion.

MA Bruna Faccia a Faccia

Before our eager eyes, one of the city’s resident bastards breaks through the security cordon and surprises himself by scampering to the top of the wagon.  In a moment that will he will retell for the rest of his life, he scatters elements of the most fragile decor into the surge below.  The injustice is palpable: 45 meters before the chariot and its much sought after plunder become sanctified fair game, the forces of chaos triumph.   However, an understandable civic outrage is not the response of the blood thirsty among us.

MA Bruna vulturesThe defenses compromised, the camera zooms in on the gun-jumpers eager to embrace a prized piece.  As the Christs, doves, and cherubim clenched in the fists of the greedy are broadcast to all, one would anticipate this disgusting lack of fair play would provoke instant disapproval.  Not so; in an orgy of reverse schadenfreude the crowd erupt in a surprising roar for the home team.  A cloud of testosterone fired by the scent of the prey expresses great vicarious glee at the successful pillage.

MA Bruna teamwork
Honour among thieves
Once the prize possessions of angels or mock doric columns have been torn off and claimed, the rules of the game allow recapture within a certain circumference.  Organised into gangs that hone in on the primo treasures and then pass them down to eager accomplices, the loot is quickly divvied up and carted off.  Not everyone gets the biggest piece of a wedding cake.  The telly zooms in on the late comers descending upon the chariot remnants as a lowly staircase gets eviscerated by the hungry.  In an unconscious touch of fairness, a treasured headless apostle floats by along the intended route as the victorious parade fresh relics across the piazza for our admiration.

MA Bruna blurrr

Brother Andrea who’s magnificent photos may accompany this article became collateral damage.  His first FaceBook chat from his hospital bed came from a man more in ecstasy than pain: 

My Bruna was so wonderful and ‘near’. Five costal bones broken and camera broken. Very near to the chariot. I’m in the hospital. Don’t worry, I was where I wanted to be….yes Bruna is wonderful…

MA Bruna blurrr2It is hard not to read the manifestations of this tradition but as a glorification of bullying that has the church performing backwards somersaults to justify.  The explanations get rapidly very hazy indeed.  The mock rebellion where a half-criminal caste is allowed to exercise a tendency to vandalism that rivals the Vandals, and that leaves those charged with the defense of fair play bathed in their own indignation, doesn’t immediately seem to promote social cohesion.

Much as the chariot itself, the supporting elements of its legend are crying out to be taken to pieces.  It may even be the case that, horror of horrors, this reenactment of ancient history doesn’t accommodate the story it purports to ritualise.  Repelling plundering hordes by acting as plundering hordes is an intricate scenario.  Not only are the heros the bad guys, but the high point in the pageant comes much too early in the narrative and the day.

MA Bruna welcoming committeeThe complex psychic make-up of the locals that feed this reenactment with centuries of identity crisis refute this story being mere myth.  Something did indeed happen sometime. However, the proffered alignment of the irate citizenry rising up against the plundering invaders making off with the jewel encrusted icon that had of late been generously demonstrating her healing powers, holds at most mere kernels of believability. 

Three paper thin stories are meant to support the tale:
The archbishop of Matera in the 1340’s was not an insignificant soul  - his next appointment would be as Pope Urban the Somethingth.  Popes of his day were not elected on piety alone; typically he’d had administrated significant expansion of ecclesiastic splendor.  A fetching brunette receiving visitations within a donkey ride of his palazzo could be just the trick to rally the faithful round the necessary levies for his next construction project. 

MA Bruna lords finery

To underline the benevolence of the current regime, it could be helpful to vilify them that went before – a triumph for the virtuous could be just the thing.  Enter the Saracens.  Hardly an empty threat, this variant of invading hordes from Carthage certainly had previous; they had long held sway of the historical Greek Island of Sicily.   However, if it depicts a barbarian invasion, the forces destroying the wagon seem to identify with the Barbarians and force the holy church to bless their essentially heretical behavior.   Even before the decent of the jolly modern day Milani and Romans, the confusing tide of civilisation had delivered the local lands unto Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthage, the Lombardy Goths and the Norman mercenaries in hire of the Spaniards.  Something nasty must certainly have set its spore during the transitions.

It is easy to see that the wagon is heading the wrong way.  Given that some dramaturgic tweaking may have be desirable to avoid that the lady herself not harbour in the centre of the fray, it is understandable to place her safely back on her pedestal before the free-for-all ensues.  Some have the pageant’s ritual of revenge as a brutal exercise of mandatory renewal and reincarnation.   At the same time laying to ruins the Maria’s precious carro is hardly unbridled homage.  Feeble legends have been composed featuring the city’s favorite villain, the vile Count Tramonte, who so taxed the patience of the citizenry that on the 28th of December 1514, he was removed from office with a dagger.

With one foot in theatre history other scenarios present themselves:  playing the bad guy is infinitely more fun, more plausible is that a modest enactment somewhere became the revenge of the bit players  – a ritual conflict that turned sour when the rabble insisted on winning.   This interpretation is reinforced when more pastoral sources depict the ambush as nothing more severe than a plunder of the summer flowers that once decked Our Lady’s modest sedan chair.

MA Bruna figgers
Modern technology does have its blessings.  Within minutes the local television coverage offered up instant replay of the initial assault and the dramatic toppling of the cupola.  Details that inferior camera angles, or the sheer speed of the dismemberment, left blurry are subject to zooms and freeze frame.  As the burro-driver gropes for the reins to bail out from any further advance, the defenders of the faith turn upon the first of the perpetrators who breached the defensive ring as the surge collapsed.  Brandishing whips made of an entwined, stretched and then dried ox penises, the primordial exchange of a good thrashing for a good story provides mutual vindication to all.

The subtext is blatant:  Materani do social upheaval.  Historians may find it unsubstantiated but local legend has them believe theirs was the first Italian rebellion against fascist troops in 1943.  There is also considerable pride attached to the rebellion against the afore mentioned vile tax-collector in 1514 and to the bloody local manifestation of the forced unification of Italy in 1861.  That all these three events no doubt provoked harsh reprisals with the apparent blessing of the church is barely mentioned.  That a successful raid in the face of sanctified violence ends in victory for the victims may reflect the deep story of Maria della Bruna.  As such it provides both social therapy and valuable mutual training in something or another.  Would it be blasphemy to seek a little clarity? 

MA Bruna Babes

Clearly it is not beyond the powers of the imagination to apply conjecture as to how and why the evolution of a popular ritual has responded to evolving needs.  The next step is however deeply problematic.  Dare we tamper with the future?   The wagon itself only partially constructed for greater things. On the surface it is to serve two functions: it parades the untouchable splendor of the virtuous local lass and provides competing families of cartapasta artists a showcase to display their skills.  That it is destined to be torn asunder and thereby shall end its days as souvenir sized chunks to be carted off to be given pride of place in shop windows and living rooms throughout the city is not convincingly reflected in the design.   Could elements at the core of the ritual be adjusted?

Tweaking the expressions of the collective consciousness is at best invasive.  Social anthropology shall observe, not fiddle with the DNA of cultural reproduction.  Designing tradition may be the world of the unMonastery or the Institute for Non-toxic Propaganda but it invites confrontation…  As with the work of Jungian Sandplay Therapy, to maneuver what is essentially the stuff of dreams before the glaring light of conscious choice is to take responsibility for shaping one’s history.

MA Bruna menfolk

However, it is not beyond the possible that even the deeply conservative elements immersed in the memories of an entire community can be persuaded to bend before converging forces.  For this year’s parade the number of horses was reportedly shaved from a glorious 100 to a more modest 60.  If this was a health and safety issue promoted by the street sweepers union or by the emergency department at the local hospital could be a subject of research.  Perhaps the dreaded animal rights activists had voiced disapproval.  In either case 40 equestrian couples had been put out to pasture or sent to the meat market.  Whether this reflected a sudden drop in the prestige of maintaining the gear, or whether it reflected a schism and bad blood in the organising committee is not the subject of this inquiry.  Since the equipage were not yet embroidered with the logos of culturally savvy multinational corporations; the tradition will no doubt survive.

MA Bruna Police wallThe composition of the protective phalanx has similarly been adjusted in recent years as foreign mercenaries hired in from the national police force lacked an understanding of the cultural nuance of give and take (read: last year – the year of Andrea’s photos – had 100 cases referred to the emergency department), the task of policing was then transferred to local forces.  Report has it that this provoked a comic sight as the local officers suffered a neurological conflict of interest – serving and protecting the honour of the chariot while their every manly fibre twitched at the prospect of plunder.

A more obviously recent adjustment was the addition of 3 public screens that enable many more citizens to viscerally witness the core of the event.  These will already be considered an immutable feature of the 625 year old ritual.  The prospect of the crowd that crowds the piazza retreating to the comfort of their living rooms seems unlikely as long as the 2nd of July falls in the summer season.

MA Bruna looters

Ritual Tweaks
While isolated detail dictated by a tradition in imperceptible transition can easily point one in a false direction, being parachuted in to witness ones first iteration of the Bruna without the encumbrance of processions past allows the luxury of unobstructed perspective.  Explanations as to why people feel duty bound to indulge in an act of patriotic vandalism can be many. Though it may be a simple act of acute iconoclasm, it is very tempting to speculate which of the diverse social imperatives will in the future enforce their influence upon this theoretically unrockable ceremony.  And while humility is not the natural realm of a speculative inquiry such as this one, to publicly challenge the best available local minds to determine which forces should be encouraged to consciously shape this major defining ritual of regional identity beckons as a tempting human imperative.  

As we walk by after the smoke has cleared, the vultures still pick at the less appetising bones and sinew of the chariot carcass…

MA - Bruna aftermathThe Institute for Non-toxic Propaganda, division Matera sits with 10 alternative scenarios clutched to its chest…


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The unDo

It is an elemental truth in community service that to do anything at all is to risk censure. Everything one launches promotes a reaction; filling empty space implies that the space shouldn’t have been empty in the first place. To do is a critique of passivity. To unilaterally break the negotiated stalemate between hope and possibility in the face of the valid lessons of surrender, apathy, fatalism and stagnation that so easily adhere to a society, is often read as an insult to someone somewhere.

The unMonastery functions as an injection of enthusiasm. We may or may not be naive, but we routinely assume a classic naive posture: we are here to give. If we are alert, we may recognise that we have little we can effectively give. The classic progression as formulated by René Dumal states “Recognising we have little we desire to give of ourselves, in desiring to give of ourselves we may realise that we are nothing. Finding that we are nothing we desire to become, in desiring to become, we begin to live.” But the modern doer is not trained to begin at the beginning. Postulating that we arrive empty handed may amount to yet another insult. It is no wonder that humility is an illusive virtue.

The solution to this conundrum is to avoid first generation doing; ones presence is best applied as a response to the established…

An articulated dent…

The mountain is massive, our efforts would always remain puny. Persistence, endurance, applied tunnel vision are often considered vital virtues should we ‘accomplish’ anything at all. However it is legitimate to question the very concept of accomplishment. To leave clear directions for the pursuit of as yet unaccomplished accomplishments is often a much better strategy. Efforts that are anchored locally are worth more than anything that can be applied by the nomadic unMonasterians. No matter how visionary our initiatives – it is through the resonance and reverberation in our collaborators that we can measure our impact. Stepping aside at the right moment can be more valuable than stubbornly insisting upon shaping a grand finale.

Backlash of middle class imperialism, presumption of our infinite value with such an entire foreign concept of Mapping the Commons that it defied translation. It was only with the name change that clarified the essence of our visit. Strangers would spend a day in a marginalised corner of the city to share and absorb. Our ‘day’ could be either a surprise or utterly normal. Fortunately the PR bit lagged behind, we could promise the moon. To extract the keys for one weeks work, took two weeks work.

Forcing a satisfactory conclusion seldom gives a satisfactory conclusion. It would require considerable grace.

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No Complaining Policy

The recollection is faulty.  Having gone to the extreme of invoking a No Complaining Policy, it seems logical that even in those most playful early days the unMonasterians deemed it a necessary reaction to a creeping toxic atmosphere.  Was it an admonition to embrace stoicism, or self-censorship to quell one or another of the assembly from polluting the fun?

Our greatest impatience we reserved for our ‘parents’ – our sponsoring bodies here on earth whose efforts through the months hadn’t quite got us the roof over our heads that ‘everybody else had’.  When the invoice showed up that showed that the mattresses upon which we were to lay our weary heads likely came late because they weren’t ordered until the day before our scheduled arrival, we may have been a tad ungrateful.  National stereotypes were no doubt muttered.  Arms were reported waved.

In the face of unilateral paternalism, we temper tantrumed.  When the kids wouldn’t tidy up for guests, or if we asked too many pointed questions, we were sent to our rooms and ignored.  When these rooms proved mouldy and unheated, we hammered on the wall in a cloud of name calling.   Refusing to eat our dinner, not getting out of bed and inappropriate language were all indulged in.

Behaving like naughty children, we became treated as naughty children.   In a fit of adolescent hubris we declared independence, and psychically moved beyond the range of parental influence at first opportunity.  When it proved the case that we sorely missed human contact, we felt heartlessly deserted by our mothers.  A case may be made that some of us perhaps exhibited an unVersion of attention deficit disorder…

houseThe Sign of the Sign
When one doesn’t understand oneself, it is easy to feel misunderstood.  One little eureka moment of internal revelation can cause considerable international mayhem.

We were battling with our key existential questions: what were the unMonasterians, who was the unMonastery?  Finally willing to throw open our gates to the multitudes, we were still fumbling to explain ourselves in two languages… On the morning of the big day, there came a pounding at our collective door – “The good workers had arrived to put up our signs.  Where did we want them?”

The problem was that none of us had ordered any signs.  Without any of our endless rounds of indecisive discussion, something had happened; we were to be immutably corporate-branded out of the blue.  Without asking, someone somewhere had made the bold assumption that: we were who we said we were where we said we were.  Our magnificent palace of a house was to be boldly labelled “unMonastery” with the leaf-green logo that we had happily been using for the last 11 months.   Semi-understandably, we the unGrateful, were having none of it…

Such paternalistic behaviour was an affront to adolescents deep in their first major identity crisis.  Of course we weren’t a vague generic product of the unMonastery Industry; we were our own blossoming creature of great beauty.  At that stage in our internal deliberations our image among our peers meant everything.  Our intentions were crystal clear – at least to us: while the ‘unMonastery’ of our parental lineage remained an utopian ideal, we wrestled with a firmer reality.  We were the genuine article; in our heart of hearts we had indeed progressed a step further along our pathway, we were the unMonastery Prototipo Matera.  Let that be a sign to everyone…

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unPacking the un

The Book of Greater and Lesser Failures – IV

The absence of anything gives little food for Archeologists.  As Ola threw together the logo and flashed it up on his laptop, Ben wrote out UNMONASTERY in upper case.  It was respectfully suggested that UN was already an established brand name, we ought to go more quietly.  Since that moment the unMo prefix has preceded us.  We are in equal parts haunted and liberated by what we aren’t…

The power of the unMonastery has always been its explosive associative matrix.  As soon as its flag had been unFurled at Living on the Edge (LOTE#1), Strasbourg, the core idea has attracted visionary extensions.  That we would be ‘a monastery’ without being a ‘monastery’ was immediately compelling; the very words ignited the imagination.   But, while the purity and purposefulness of an unMonkish lifestyle was a key to something, — what would we jettison from the monastic tradition?

At LOTE#2 we collectively devised the first snippets of The Lore of the unMonastery.  Old faces and meteoric appearances hacked our history in true Edgeryders’ fashion.  The global precedents of monasticism became merged into a collective document created on a battery of laptops.   We fantasied a life within walls dedicated to work and service that would give body to the lofty ideas that the ER gatherings inevitably spouted.  As we worked readily transferable concepts and hierarchies clustered around our increasingly impressive conceptual edifice.  We flirted with the attractive disciplines of poverty and penance, of the ardure of matins and vespers.  The unMonastery was to be our unPrecedented experimental workshop for building the real stuff.

With time there were further conversations.  Words such as unSanctified and unConventional filled the unAtmosphere.  What we meant by all this remained for the future to determine, but a deeper question went unAnswered:  If we are not-pious, not-self-sacrificing, non-believers, how can we work very real miracles?

Inevitably we brought difficulties upon ourselves.  In the run-up to the unMo launch, the Edgeryder community performed a tactical maneuver presumably designed to spur local impetus and descended upon our future site in Matera for our third international gathering (LOTE#3) .  The orthodox cringed: “What will become of our Cult of Firsts if the unAnointed hordes get there before us?”  Nevertheless, to thoroughly challenge fate, we suggested a gathering for the second day of LOTE that sought to illuminate our future history…

Mining the unMonastery Metaphor
From the moment of the first public voicing of the unWord at the LOTE#1 gathering, exploring the imagery of the unMonastery has been a source of joy and inspiration.  What started as perhaps a rather flimsy premise has been consistently strengthened by the power lying latent in the history of monastic practice.
At LOTE*#2  (*Living on the Edge gathering in Brussels, November 2012)  a sub-group spent three days hacking “The Lore of the unMo”.  Extracting direction from our collective associative matrix, we shuffled together a collective document that generated much seductive mirth.  Much later, a brief conference call comment from Bembo sent Alberto off on a pivotal exploration into the credo of the Benedictines.   
To continue this valuable work of metaphor mining at LOTE#3, we chose to step into the future.   In a tactical attempt to lift our visions beyond the next mealtime, we went all historical. Under the banner of something appropriately enigmatic, three groups formed to look back upon the various époques that have so influenced our unMovement the last 200 years…
  • one group examined the unMo Age of Expansion and the influence of the Matera School with an emphasis upon the first hundred years.
  • group two examined the Times of the Great Schism and the unMo Wars through the fitful fifty years of unPleasantness.
  •  a third group sought to pinpoint where and how some 200 years ago the foundation of the unMo idea formed a Watershed moment in the history of interhuman/interspecies cooperation. 
The debate was as usual vigorous;   ( the text for group three is in unMonastery 1.0)

The group of Great Schism never submitted its literature.  They did however send a few representatives to the unMo…

Deprivation and the Deprived  –  The Tyranny of the unRuly

Seasons and waves are a function of time.  Arriving at the unMo in times of plenty it is perhaps impossible to intuit times of sparsity.  The healthy pantry of March doesn’t reflect the empty cupboards of February.  What was once a miracle, can easily be taken for granted.  Similarly, it may be difficult for survivors of the cold water days to believe that the self-evident is not self-evident.

Contrary to popular myth, the unMonastery does not operate by way of rules.  In our time we have enacted but one rule:  No Complaining.  Try as we might everyone has found the capacity to break this rule repeatedly.  At all other conjunctures we have compelling aesthetics: such is the way of the unMonasterian. 

UnMoaners are inevitably pleasant souls.  Our first resident rebel snuck in unannounced through the back door unJuried by anything than camaraderie.  Knowing he couldn’t abide the disciplines, our first pilgrim from the sub-sect of the schism seemingly set their not-unconscious sights at being a self-declared ‘heretic’ — intent on breaking all available rules.  Problems occurred in that orthodox unMonasteries have no rules.  What we do have is observances and practices: esthetic boundaries that are to be respected even as they be inevitably stretched.   Food was a holy sacrament, other people’s sleep was similarly sacrosanct.

Barely rockable pillars of unMo behavior include classics such as “Share and share alike”, and while occasional transgressions could be and were treated with understanding, repeated transgressions require some other sort of reaction.  Traditionally novices or initiates would have paid dear to be taken into consideration for monastic life.  The act of depositing all their worldly possessions at the entrance gate was unRefundable; to be found habitually unSuitable could leave one quite literally without a suit.  Fear of non-conformability was a useful mechanism for internalising the endless layers of collective life.

Inevitably the sun would shine; unMonastic life offers the novice realms of service through which to align their vision, but the push to form break-away reform movements that so marked the development of divergent monastic orders is dependent upon a stable and established orthodoxy from which to redefine ones divergence.  In the early stumbling days of Mining the Metaphor the endless questioning of barely established practice was merely unRuly.

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It is Written…

Progettini II

Community development projects cannot thrive in a sterile environment.  They have to be sown, to germinate and to take root before they can grow.  The juried project proposal system that sifts the pure genius from the less pure genius does just that; the proposed projects are descriptions of the applicant’s imagination.  Suddenly surrounded by reality, that same imagination should be encouraged to evolve something radically different.

It is written somewhere in the unMo literature that projects are to be shattered upon arrival.  It is written somewhere in the literature that itinerant unMonasterians are to create their existence human contact by human contact.   Parachuting in with our pre-formed beliefs leaves us with a mentality of adjusting the terrain to fit the map.
Healthier for all concerned is to perform an illuminating arrival ceremony of burning ones preconceptions and application text.  If, at some point in the future, the charred remnants may be dredged forth from one’s memory, they are thereby all the more valuable.  However, it is equally legitimate to build a completely other project.  — It is carved somewhere on the unMo walls that we should “Listen always to what is emerging”. 


Massive projects can get heavy.  Delivering deliverables can evoke tunnel vision.  The stubborn spectre of perfectionism can rear its head; projects artificially supported by conceptual scaffolding can get all bad mannered and unruly in the face of reality.
To counteract this the preferred project management device is the articulation of sub-objectives with which to illuminate the day to day occurrences which nourish the project environment.   In the unMo, part of this articulation is instinctive; however our grand mission can get easily obscured by pressing immediate concerns. So while the way of the world encourages independence, performance and cleverness, we unMonasterians risk a quick extinction unless we employ human skills that foster camaraderie, generosity, and deep inter-reliance.  Taking the time to articulate the need to cultivate these inner workings that support all our efforts is a vital step.  Our greater PROJECTS are to be constructed of progettini.

I Progettini are the connective tissue of life in the project world: they are the conscious choices that align our availability and project our willingness to listen.

Two Performing Poodles:  Next and the Kids
They’ve dragged me out of my cave again:  the unMo headliner bit in the TED-style aren’t-we-wonderful live broadcast “Next” thing needed a finale; then the following day at 11:00 some youngsters were dropping by unAnnounced …

MAnextThe first one was easy — my chore to provide the closing number for the team asked to explain themselves in under a minute.  It could be a distinct advantage that one of us was trained in how to flip a standardised comment to gain an introductory half-laugh, and to milk a bilingual pause for all that it is worth.  That he willingly wore a silly hat and was wary enough of his sight lines to take the brave step forward even if it left him standing somewhat ridiculously astride the designated colourful cubes of two co-workers, didn’t hurt either.  Everybody had something to say, I was briefest and last.  Helpful pens had whittled down my tourist Italiano to a rather succinct message:  

Io sono la vocé narrante della casa e il guardiano del libro dell’ Errori. UnMonastery è non solo ‘politically correct’ ma anche ‘poetically correct’.
Noi inventariamo la nuove tradizione ogni gjorno.   L’inspirazione è contagiosa.
Il nostro Libro dell’Errori serve contro future idioze.
 L’inspirazione è sempre contagiosa.

That the moderate jubilation that followed was less for my cutting-edge poetry and more for my mangled Italiano will go uncommented upon.  At my frequency – a gig is a gig.

The other task wracked more nerves.  Poised to exit the premises the next morning on a promising developmental mission, I was blocked by an impending reality:  ‘an unSpecified number of children were on their way to the gates of the unMonastery to do an unSpecified thing.’  No one seemed to know whose brilliant idea this was.  The common opinion was that the house would indeed survive without me, but frankly no one seemed to be bustling with whatever it is that one bustles with upon such occasions.  Resigned to my fate, I sat back down.  The breakfast discussion rolled further, laundry was laundered, as the clock passed the estimated time of arrival nothing notable occurred.

Suddenly the air was full of kid-stuff.  Adults exercising their hushing, young voices giving them reason to do so…

The Laundry Project had turned up a forgotten treasure in the bottom of my cupboard —  Brussels: three Edgeryder gatherings ago, in the early morning of the unMonastery Dream, we had had been blessed with a budget for catering.  As I recall the meals were neither fragrant nor filling.  What they did provide was an unusual amount of quality designer rubbish.  I’d pocketed a few sets of the wooden cutlery, but taken particular umbrage at the exquisite sticks used to skewer our panini.  With a head full of freshly mined Lore of the unMonastery, they spoke to the shaman in me.  I gathered 40 or so skewers into a plastic bag and carted them home for future reference…

Over a year later, as the unMo neared becoming a reality, my economic situation encouraged me to rent out my flat.  Cleaning up for my tenant, I came across a vaguely familiar bag and quickly moved it into my heap of Matera bound gear.  Recycling the shadowy spirit of dreamtime past into fodder for the urgent unearthing of palatable truths is a time-honoured dramaturgical strategy: the sticks would prove good for something; A melts into B.

I ran out to meet the arriving school class: (decidedly more than imagined, inevitably accompanied by their own camera team, and at that most delightful age of 7 or so.)
Let the games begin: I’d be clutching at whatever was at hand.  In this case it was my precious Belgian skewers:  I thought they could provide a forest of pins; each with its mock black olive at convenient maximum manipulation length, they could invade a garden or provide involuntary acupuncture treatment for any number of public monuments; they had sword-fight potential.  
In the event, everyone was more that pleased to try proposal number three: take them home and stick them in your grandmother’s favorite cushion…

Time had been won; we had established a relationship – the primary obligations of the photo op were more than met.  Strangely enough the Progettinisto in me couldn’t let the opportunity slip by.  Given that our one of deepest goals is to foster feelings of ownership for unMonastery Matera among the local populous, embedding a herd of already bubbling young local citizens with an acute desire to return for more was the only justifiable move.

The crowd expanded to absorb the physical feedback potential (aka play) of the terrace that soars over the valley.  Using the classic maneuver of recruiting one young volunteer under 25 kg to be unmercifully lifted into the air by her ears — I convincingly gathered them once again into an eager clump.


Alternatives reduced to one — I took the easy road off the cliff face by starting an improvised Morning Practice session:  Everyone see if they can locate their legs. 
Once found: rhythmic thigh slaps.  This established: foot pounding with appropriate integrated grunts.  Now thoroughly grounded in their skeletal mountain: a big round transcendent stretch of the upper extremities with a resounding whoop.

While the high concentration of attendant adults breathed a collective sigh of relief that I hadn’t damaged any delicate souls, the kids wanted more…  Still not breaching decorum, I pulled out an available finger.  Soon everyone had found one too.  A small amount of translation and everyone understood that this was a vermicelli – a small worm.  These sang, wiggled and talked with their neighbours; when another one appeared they tended towards curiosity, argument and then wrestling.

With all the blessings of The Gods of Theatre the satisfying grande finale presented itself.  Session complete, another Progettino was suitable for framing.


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