THE JOY OF
NE solution to life seems to be the acquiring of more and more money. I have found, instead, that it is wisdom to make the Vow of Poverty and to learn to live on less money. That this is best for one's physical health, for one's mental poise, for one's spiritual well-being.
For years I was the Professor, publishing more and more, with the highest student evaluations, and bringing in thousands of dollars to my university, chasing the electric rabbit, and perishing nevertheless, with my salary unjustly blocked, my blood pressure dangerously high. I then renounced everything, professorship, house, car, family, to enter my convent. But my Anglican Bishops, living in palaces, with chauffeurs, driven by their quest for money, after I had been a Sister for four years, changed its Trust to themselves, instead of for Sisters, and sent us penniless away.
I next fled to Italy with just my books, a book-binding press, the computer, and the project of editing Julian of Norwich's Showing of Love , and lived for four years without heat on foot in the mountains above Florence, walking an hour each day to Mass. My Diocesan Bishop, from coveting our money, had not Professed me. One day, in my initial despair, on August 15, I entered a country church, made my Vows just to God, and the joy returned of the Vocation. I then became Catholic.
Four years later, the Swiss found me, because I had published with Penguin an edition of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh and Other Poems , and they offered me the English Cemetery in Florence, a seven-room house, and a whole Florentine piazzale, filled with sculpture and the tombs of the illustrious dead. I was looking for a space for my books to become again an ecumenical, international library. But no Bishop was interested. So now a Catholic Hermit takes umbrage with the Protestant Swiss. Like Julian of Norwich , I live in a graveyard.
Finally, I procured a bicycle.
Florence is ideal for bicycles, with special paths for them into the centre of the city, from which cars are banned, in the attempt to preserve their treasures of art. It is Leonardo da Vinci's city and he invented the bicycle. It is also a small city. One can just walk fairly easily from one end of it to the other and back again in an hour. But on a bicycle this only takes minutes. It used to take me an hour in the mountains each day to walk to Mass. Now I can be at the Santissima Annunziata each morning from Piazzale Donatello in less than seven minutes. More time for writing. One meets the most interesting people on bicycles on Florence, elegant elderly ladies, nuns, businessmen, workmen. There is the choice between the motorized noisy powerful dangerous kind, or ours, silent, safe, swooping and soaring. The other pollutes. Ours does not. The other consumes. Ours does not.
Shopping. One has a basket in front, a rack at the back, two handlebars and one's own shoulder on which to place bags with groceries. If it rains I choose to go on foot with an umbrella, not balancing my bicycle well with one hand. One cycles precariously already as a nun with a veil and a skirt often in need of straightening! If my bicycle has a flat I walk it to repairs. For the smallness of Florence makes all things possible, even being on foot a few days of the year. Very rarely I hire a taxi, for instance taking a computer for repair.
I looked at my cheque book yesterday marvelling at how few cheques I have written in the last three years in it. None have been needed for gasoline consumption, car payments, car insurance payments, drivers' license, car license, car repairs. Nor have any been needed for house payments, house insurance, property taxes, electricity, gas, water, repairs. All I have to pay is for food, the cloth from which I make my own clothes, and the telephone. My computer is my greatest expense. But without it I could not write and publish books or communicate globally with so many people. Were I running a car with all the stress that brings of traffic and parking I would have to sacrifice the computer. The computer is of far more utility and worth.
The bicycle and the computer make possible the writing of many books, the sharing of wisdom. Ivan Illich has described how a bicycle travels more efficiently than can a train, a bus, a car. The English Patient ends with its other protagonist becoming a doctor in Pakistan on a bicycle. If we think 'bicycles', instead of cars, making our cities neighbourhoods for living, working, shopping, peace can come, and the future be safe. The petroleum and atomic economy is a recipe for disaster, polluting our globe, destroying the future, the present, the past.
My pension is less than $10,000 a year. But with it I can run a library, the 'Biblioteca e Bottega Fioretta Mazzei ', and help fund international congresses on the City and the Book in Florence , inviting leading scholars to share their research with each other, and then publish their Proceedings . I joke that the congresses are put together by a nun on a bicycle. I also show - and live - with the Bottega, how we can be producers rather than consumers, repairing and binding books, framing our paintings and prints, building our bookshelves, marbling our paper, typesetting our books, making our clothes. Even making cradles. Running a car would cancel out all of this.
But this changing has to
begin with ourselves, with our realizing that we don't need
more money, more power, more consumerism, instead that less is
best. The wealth of some spells the poverty of others. The
wealth of the First World is the Third World's impoverishing.
We need, within the First World, to live the Third. To live
the Vow of Poverty. To live simplicity. What better way to do
so than with a bicycle!
I had no sooner uploaded this essay, than I walked out into Florence with a friend who then had no bicycle. And together we laughed as we found the Comune, the municipal government of Florence, was celebrating 'Florence and the Bicycle', with children on bicycles, fathers with babies on bicycles, old people on bicycles, young people on bicycles. And all kinds of bicycles, mostly old beat up ones, only a few new shiny ones, bicycles with character, it simply didn't matter, just as long as it was a bicycle. All soaring past us, even the little babies engulfed in the T-Shirts proclaiming Florence and its Bicycles. Convinced by this, next I found myself teaching her how to cycle. Now she is more courageous than I. And we need to do this. Florence is nestled beneath a ring of hills and mountains in a river valley and the air pollutes very easily with inversion. In my cemetery the students come and clean the sculpted marble tombs and weep when within days they see the stains of pollution from traffic fumes back again.
If you are visiting Florence I recommend your buying a bicycle. If you are visiting for a short while there are bicycles for free on a daily basis at the SITA bus station by the Santa Maria Novella train station. If you want to rent one there is Florence by Bike in via San Zenobi, 91 rosso -120/122 rosso (Italians have two sequences to their street numbers, black for residences, red for businesses), five minutes walk from the Santa Maria Novella train station. Recommended would be their 'City Bike', single speed, ladies' bicycle, for 2,50 an hour up to 48,75 euro for five days. There is also the English company started by my friend, called 'I Bike Italy' which arranges everything, lodging, cycles, groups.
Make sure your
grandchildren know how to ride bicycles, how to swim, how to
sew, how to carpenter. They can teach you how to compute.
Teaching them your skills is far more valuable than giving
them clothes or furniture or money.
Link: http://www.rubarbike.org/ on fixing up rusted bikes from Katrina in New Orleans
See also Family and Convent Albums:
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Blessed Olive Branch, Kenyan olive-
wood bowl, William Morris Print