The Health of the Idea Fountain

An Emotional Report – The unMonastery 23 days

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe unMonastery Prototype Matera started with at least one tremendous advantage. The initial crew of unMonasterians that slid through the recruitment process and landed pounding at the gates, were a super selection of adult human beings.  With small variations in individual strong points, we proved willing and able to exhibit understanding and patience in the face of several frustrating factors.  Not only was not every last detail in place for the theoretical Feb.1st moving-in-day, but several key systems exhibited signs of cantankerousness within days of the upstart.  Faced with this quirky beginning, our crowd showed themselves to be generous, creative and not the least, flexible.  Our working principle was soon articulated as ‘We Trust in the Process’.

It was no doubt preordained that as an unmonastic order ‘unaided by precedence’ we would be fated to compose tradition as it became necessary.  However, to serenely surrender to the prototype variant of our Vow of Poverty has prompted some heroic effort.  In his characteristically flowery opening speech at the inaugural press conference, our belovéd committee chairperson Paolo Verri seemingly waxed on a bit about giving us life-stimulating ‘difficulties’.  Some of us may have hoped that these collective difficulties had been a little less thorough, but it is through living the ‘interesting times’ of our first days that we as novices have built the foundation of our unSister/unBrotherhood.

The inevitable structural disappointments may have been tailor-made for fertilising our prototype.  They have demanded that we begin at a conceptual zero; abandoning our dreams to build upon reality as it has presented itself.  This embracing of on-the-ground real world is a central key to good project design.  It requires a willingness to leave behind the rhetoric of the project proposal and build one’s work in situ  — one human contact at a time.

To help stir up a ground-swell of enthusiasm just prior to the March 2013 Meet the Community gathering at the Mediateca to chart out the main concerns of local citizens that might be appropriate for the unMonastery to address, I stepped forward for an online interview with Carlo who posed a typically gracious and diplomatic Matera-style question.   Accounting for several generations of translation and the vagaries of my memory it popped out something like: “How should the Materiani prepare for your arrival?”  — I tried to summons my line as a realist.  I requested that above all that they try not to be perfect.  We were coming to make mistakes and to learn from them.  It would suffice that they were customary fallible human beings much like those whom we find in our home countries.  As I recall, I even suggested that those among them with bureaucratic tendencies be allowed to exercise them…

Our unVow of Poverty has several unavoidable structural components.  The absence of personal space has shown that different people have different levels of adaptability.  Sleep deprivation has long factored in the mandatory ecstasy of monks and nuns.  Rising for ‘early morning’ prayers was a way to put the adaptive skills of both novice and initiate to trial.  The Saga of the Snorers is worth an illuminated manuscript by itself.  The total effect of the dormitory experience designed to resurrect fallen urbanites and to rewire any residue of a decadent lifestyle — seemed to work; although it has been noted that some centuries of similar experiments led the Benedictines to adopt the more satisfactory recipe of each monk to his individual cell.

It seems that within the initial constellation of unMonasterians a collective sleeping arrangement successfully established itself in the Western sleeping hall. However, the rest of the anticipated floor plan has yet to be realised.  Not accustomed to fungal incursions, we have been left to mediating upon the expanding splotches of off-colour wall growth as if they were a fearful Shroud of Turin.  It has been implied that this is a harmless blessing of the Sassi, but that no information on either the high-tech (silica gel) or low-tech (vinegar) solutions employed by our neighbours was included in our guidebook has awoken creeping concern – when our core exercise of ‘Listening to the Stones’ becomes breathing in the lichen, the not yet acclimatised Northern Europeans may ask can this be healthy to share ones life with such mould?  Currently only one of our kind dares brave this environment, although perhaps this is a self-imposed penance spurred by serious snoring infractions…

The Year of Flexibility
Although the premise of the unMonastery has long been based upon a three-year cycle, the clever ploy of a 4-month condensed prototype has brought a valued extra pressure. As was always the case in the generic three-year unMonastery model, the ‘in-house’ activity would constitute a large proportion of our Landing Year.  The 4-month compacted version of the Matera Prototype has always invited to the inevitable frustration of compromise.  Our perhaps protracted initial adaptive phase may appear from the outside as excessively introverted, but is in fact an essential gestation period during which we explore fault lines and distill leadership.

Have we ridden dangerously into the forest of burnout? Yes, indeed.  It remains to be seen if we have the balancing skills to negotiate ourselves beyond the feeling that we are stuck in the establishment phase.  However there are strong indicator that this should be possible.

The Daily Liturgy
UnMonasterian Cristiano Siri has contributed greatly to our mental well being by providing a solid fundament with several small daily ritual elements culled from his work with The Art of Hosting. These provide a secure window of opportunity to allow everyone a chance to personally get up-to-date with how the process may be wearing upon them.  Each morning, after both our morning practice sessions on the terrace overlooking the best view in the city and after our cross-cultural breakfast, we religiously meet in a circle of at least two orbits.  The second orbit is the predicable planning circle of what each person is currently engaged with and their plans and commitments for the coming day.  The first circle is more subjective: How are we feeling?  People may be hopeful and energetic, or sleepy and discouraged; there is room for us all.  A version of this question is repeated just before bedtime.

Together these two ritual daily meetings provide an agent for keeping each other visible.  The inevitable psychic strain of so radically altering one’s life patterns and subjecting oneself to a collective rhythm and reasoning requires compassion and listening.

A second factor in our newly acquired poverty involved abandoning all our wordly possessions.  For many of us this has included our greatest treasure – our ability to communicate.  Embracing ‘virulent linguistic helplessness’ has been an additional challenge for the far afield.  Not all of the unMonks have previously digested the experience of second language acquisition in their adult condition.  Facing the surrender of a hard fought for functional lingua franca only to begin again at the primitive phrase book phase can also easily provoke an allergic reaction.  An additional cost of this chronic infantile condition was too much reliance on bilingual local speakers as functional interface.  This inevitably stretched this resource too finely.

Conventional and unconventional attempts to speed the acquisition of Italian have been integrated into our daily liturgy, but again we are squeezed by the condensed time factor.  It is bad pedagogy to jump into premature language use before one is acquainted with the basics.  In the three year model : year two and then year three would involve considerably more cross-fertilisation.  The frustration level is currently being addressed to the degree that individuals have the imaginative resources, but it is only time that will relieve the more acute symptoms.

It is written somewhere in the Lore of the unMonastery that the Kitchen shall be the Queen of the House This was most clearly voiced in preparatory discussions between Rita Pacheo and Antonio Elettrico.  In the face of subjectively perceived poverty, solace would inevitably be sought in the creative act of creating and sharing meals.  The sensuous quality of fresh local produce has brought us great satisfaction.  For one habitually living further up the food chain, and therefore being routinely fed by agro-bizniz, it has been a liberation to share my greens with an occasional snail.  That some of the late winter local vegetables don’t immediately awaken the warmth of familiarity, can also challenge the taste buds and digestive juices; sometimes our cooking committees can be accused of substituting quantity for quality.  However, early on in the group process we elected to outlaw the natural human psychic ventilation system of the complaint [ Note: the above statements are pure fact; the author is not indulging in hidden complaining.]

At the same time, others of our crew have been subject to the most cruel ‘Tyranny of the Oppressed Minority’; accepting imposed levels of vegetarianism that go unnoticed by the adherents, but that push the digestive tracts of others into virulent rebellion.  Surrounded by old-fashioned shops offering short-journeyed meat, and magnificent fish counters laden with enticing often unknown species, this deprivation easily amounts to culinary torture.

The delicate balance of the Healing power of Mealtimes is dependent upon several factors.  We feel that we have secured a satisfactory source of quality raw materials.  We  have a healthy competition to create works of art in a room that was long unheated, and upon an uncooperative brand-new obsolete technology of the first generation of induction stove.  That we are still under equipped with basic tools like soup spoons and chopping knives that chop and that would make life a touch more civilised, should soon be rectified.  What is harder to see the solution for, is the projected life of the kitchen as a functioning unit for more than two cooks and more than ten eaters.  The need to model this our primary source of harmony upon large scale cooperative kitchen operations was spoken about on the ER platform prior to the LOTE and, as the meeting that commissioned this emotional health report clearly indicated, it remains the one place of recurrent frustration — the unMonastarians are willing to use their outreach project budgets to rectify matters, but feel that hidden criteria for what is an acceptable solution that pit beauty against functionality are being employed.  That this has dragged out into our second month of residency and until our second wave of unMonasterians has cost us much valuable time and psychic resources.

On another level the ceremonial surrender of all our worldly goods for the greater enrichment of the unMo has not yet occurred.  Many Materan bistros accept our credit cards without question, some of us can still inadvertently employ the possessive pronoun ‘mine’ about the laptops that accompanied us into the house.  Perhaps we have been too generous to one another (and ourselves) by restricting the material push into our discomfort zone?  While contemplating that a harsher climate might induce greater degrees of ecstasy and revelation, we should confess that in the service of our perpetual prototype we tend to keep our ears tuned to what the inner community can safely tolerate.  At our harshest we have debated restricting our connectivity – but the organic enforced periods of internet shut-down have already proven so traumatic that the resident unMonasterians practically resorted to non-stop analog discussion with one another.  Internally we refer to this our time surviving an enforced Vow of Internet Silence as the five days of ‘sucomunicatto’ = excommunication.

One valuable tool developed by the early unMonks has been the dramatic use of inflated language.  We often employ unNormal degrees of politeness and concern. When one of our number was inadvertently forced into exile for a period of days, the welcoming committee who welcomed him back into the fold at the bus station was quickly dubbed the “rescue mission”.

Are we reduced to psychic wrecks a mere three weeks after our first nights in our traditional home?  Signs of strain are apparent, renewal is still possible.  The characteristic unMo stress response has been to work harder: “Il nostro duro lavoro sará tanto leggendario quanto i nostri baccanali.”  With the pivotal resource of the Queen of the House hopefully soon in place, we exhibit all signs of acclimatising with considerable success until at least the next wave of initiates makes their appearance…


About bembodavies

Theatre worker who long ago abandoned theatres, I remain adept at fabricating projects out of thin air. All proposals welcome.
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