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We come here to find…

I’ve ordered a caffe latte and a glass of the house red here at Caffe Piansa, since it’s 3:40pm and there’s not nearly enough caffeine in my system. The waiter tells me that Italians don’t like the taste of milk with their wine, so I order sparkling water as well, to clear my palate.

They are having fun with me the Anglaise, and I with them.


Piansa is a four-umbrella street cafe just outside the Vecchio palace, an iconic old 13th century fortified house in old Florence. A successful banker, Cosimo I bought the Palazzo, doubled, then tripled its size to contain his family and ambitions when it became apparent that the old Palazzo Medici could not possibly expand to match either.

Palazzo Vecchio, towering above the streets of  Firenze and fortified against enemy attack. Symbolically and physically more appropriate to the expanding Medici self-image.


…and far far above the people.

view from the almost-top of the tower, the stairs to which are lined with prison cells of various sizes – from 4’x4′ with no window to 10’x12′ with a heavily grilled view of the city

It’s a long walk up to the top, where there’s a sizeable guardhouse (now office).


I wonder how often the Medici made the climb. Perhaps they did so to check in on the political prisoners they kept in the cells that line the stairs – some like broom closets with a hole in the floor (for relieving oneself), others large enough to pace three strides from wall to wall, with one barred window.


I’ve just walked three kilometres through the exhibits and the rooms in the Palazzo, up and down the tower, and learned some of the story of how Cosimo I built and decorated his empire. It was his house, but also where Lorenzo the Magnificent, Cosimo II, Pope Leo X (there were four Medici popes, Clement VII, Leo XI and Pius IV) lived while in Florence, along with their wives, children, artists, philosophers, and priors.

The Hall of 500

When the Medici became royal, they built and moved again, across the Ponte Vecchio to Palazzo Pitti.

Palazzo Pitti

Around every corner in Vecchio I find reference to Cosimo I, Leonardo the Magnificent, the Four Medici popes, the generations of royal marriages and appointments that spawned and nurtured the Italian renaissance.





There is a contemporary installation in the Duke of Tuscany’s (smaller) audience room that identifies the Medici insistence upon perpetual expansion in consumption, wealth and power.

The artists argue that it is this worldview of (but not limited to) the Medici in renaissance Italy that has led us to our current era of economic and climate crisis. They have installed life rafts and preservers in the middle of the room, attached by zip cords to a figure who could not possibly pull anyone to safety – a headless mannequin, dressed in high fashion.

The lions here at street level look sad, tired of holding up the Vecchio palace, tired of their captivity. They stare down at the floor, resigned and angry. Makes me wonder who the artist was that made them.

What am I struck by, in Firenze? The abundance of astonishingly fine craft in painting, in marble sculpture, in architecture, furniture, inlay, but also philosophy, scientific inquiry (Galileo), fiction (Dante, the first in vernacular Italian, not latin).

An empowerment of the arts which continue to empower Firenze.

Tourism is THE industry, here. 4-600 years after Cosimo I, we come from near and far to worship the art, the architecture, the engineering, the telescopes, the navigational technology. Or at least I do, and others who crowd the Palazzi, The Uffizi, Galileo Museum and the streets of old Florence.

Perhaps different minds worship the unchecked ambition that Medici embodied, as our highest achievement, and never mind the art. I wonder.


Of course there is a dark dark side to it all, historically. God still reigned supreme over knowledge and discovery; no matter how they admired the old gods and the sculptures that glorified them, or Galileo’s insights into the way we see the world, Medici money was irreversibly tied to the Vatican. But these are not the stories told now, centuries later.


What do I want to say, in this place? That there’s not enough music to fill these big beautiful buildings, these narrow streets. That we in this square are all strange, and tired and curious, awkward and wondering what to do.


What will the people around me remember of Florence? Will it be only what they tell in stories to one another, and will that change too over time, only to be corrected and re-triggered by the photographs they took in the remembered moment? I wonder if what is not re-told or photographed is destined to be forgotten.

I think so. Possibly this is why I write, and how I write. Pockets and glimpses of story are interesting to me, here in this little street corner cafe. Some people are aware of being watched, self conscious since I have a laptop and I’m actively using it, others stressed and oblivious.

The waiters joke that I am writing a book. I say yes, a small one. They laugh and say, “Si – piccolo!”  They come to stand beside me for a moment, never too long, but companionably. The restaurant ‘front man’ knows I am like him, watching and witnessing.


I don’t like being a tourist. But I am one, willy-nilly, eavesdropping without remorse in six languages (American, British, Canadian, Spanish, Italian, … asian).


My friend the waiter has put on a sweater against the new chill; we can all feel the rain coming.  I finish up my tiramisu & espresso, plan to race the oncoming storm toward the Vecchio bridge, and beyond.


Ahhh, but no – here it comes, hard and fast, dribbling over the edges of the cafe umbrellas and into campari, wine and cafe latte. We laugh and pull our tables closer together.

Young Italian tourists run yelling through the downpour, I order another cafe latte and hope an umbrella guy comes by…


Yes! Here he is, and for 5 euro I have the means to venture out again, backwards into history.


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Portraits 2: broken hearted?

Time teaches that there’s more to this story we’re in now than ‘broken heart’.

So many other hearts are broken, badly and beyond repair, in this world, across religion, family, geography, faith and belief, music and art, that there’s no room now for any one person’s ache and wrong. We are in an ocean of ache, still buoyant on the impossibly, miraculously resilient raft of human love and ridiculousness.


I write here to fully claim my personal online voice that emerged almost a decade ago to release the pressure from the daily relational muzzle I’d learned to wear. To accept full responsibility for the effects of the choices I made in response or reaction to events, traumas and pressures in my life. All of what I’ve written has affected people in ways I cannot know – I hope positively, but I cannot know.

I was harnessed by both the impossibly restrictive muzzle, and the resulting survival-need to release internal pressure, from age zero. Thankfully I was given art, not guns, as tools.

Oh, Christchurch New Zealand. Oh world.


This is the blog and the time that requires me to be wide open, fully responsible for my choices and the effect they have had on the people I have held close in my life, as well as the people I affect without even knowing. My choice, my works, my notes and paint – all of it.

I’m no victim.

In the final estimation, I believe those affected by gun violence aren’t, either. Nor do I believe that the shooters can claim immunity from inflicting pain, because they themselves are in pain. I, too, choose to make change with the tools I have learned to use, learned from pain, and thankfully, also love. So, I am also a perpetrator, since I choose action.

We are both victim and perpetrator, all of us. We all inflict pain and damage; we also heal. We all have the capacity to choose something larger, something generous, something warm and impossibly, miraculously resilient.

It’s NOT a cliche, it’s conscious action:  soft, gentle, firm, tender, shaking, shuddering love. You choose to risk your heart, and you DO this.


Difficult things matter. They are never, ever easy, but they matter.

Please – we need to learn how to go where it’s not comfortable to see ourselves reflected, to handle this drowning extremist wo/man in their panic, all of us – well before they open fire. They are us. We are we.


I don’t know what to do, here in the second day of my apartment with next to no furniture, with too much work to do in too short a time, my heart all in yearning for peace, for integrity and connection and miractulous human impossibility.

I’m sorry, human and non-human world, that we can be so harmful to one another. Please, please. Let’s find another way to be here together.




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Portraits 1: Hubbard Squash

It’s been a long transition, seems like, from Artist-in-Residence to Resident, at The Cotton Factory, and as of this week, in Hamilton.

In fact it hasn’t been long, considering the details sorted and schedules set, leases signed and accounts set up. Futons purchased and assembled, movers booked, packing strategies set in motion…


Two weeks. I’ll admit the first eleven+ days have been dented fairly seriously by some intense emotional rites-of-passage. I felt strapped in, then jettisoned, like a hubbard squash at Kemble’s Punkin’ Chuckin festival, off the safe warm planet I know and sailing through the air into deeply unfamiliar territory…

It takes me until mid flight to realize that I am NOT a hubbard squash. That I can control how and where I land.  A good time and place to reunite with your objective self, is mid-flight.


Mid-flight’s an excellent place to realize that others have gone this way before, and landed well. I’m glad some wrote their stories, glad some were to hand.

A good time, as it turns out, to pull an all-nighter, as the newly arrived guest-house neighbours fight at top-voice and Melbourne Nat from downstairs texts at 3am: I don’t know what to do! It feels like it could turn violent… Nat and I both wide awake, both triggered, trying to read.


Still time, the next night, to toss and turn on the red studio futon (away from the fighting) while the traumas and the memories dance their processing dance around the birth of nine new paintings and a brand new Fairy Tale.

As Marina Warner writes in Once Upon A Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale (2014),

Even a writer as dreamy (and privileged) as the German Romanic Novalis defined the form as a way of thinking up a way out: “A true fairytale must also be a prophetic account of things — an ideal account — an absolutely necessary account. A true writer of fairy tales sees into the future.’


After some ridiculous walking in circles, some determined but fog-shrouded reading and drawing, a 6km walk, some Netflix, more drawing, I finally find a full night’s sleep at the guest house. At 5am I wake, blinking and grateful beyond words to feel articulate again.

Somewhere in mid-flight, in my non-panicked heart-brain, the new fairy tale is formed and performed – with frogs –  to friends, family and the Wilfrid Laurier MACM panel.

Feels like prophecy, to me. Also feels like I need to write a hubbard squash into the story now.

I really do hope you’ll come, and be part of it.

April 30 and May 2 @ The Cotton Factory. May 4 or 5 in Owen Sound:  Portraits, and a Fairy Tale. With frogs.