Audiobooks are a feast for my ears

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Written by Vanessa Santilli-Raimondo for The Catholic Register on September 24, 2018

I officially jumped on the audiobook bandwagon about a year ago. 

I tried reading e-books, with no success. The digital pages always felt cold and uninviting, lacking the sensory experience that comes from the feel of holding a traditional book in your hands.

But I’ve had a much different experience with audiobooks. Quite an opposite one, in fact. Audiobooks are a total feast for the senses as an engaging narrator — sometimes a well-known actor — brings stories to life through the performance of different voices, dramatic pauses and the like.

My first audiobook was A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, read by popular British narrator David Timson, a seasoned narrator who has made 1,000-plus broadcasts for BBC Radio Drama. 

I dove into this new literary format on the subway in an effort to make my commute more enjoyable. It worked, and I now let narration carry me home. 

I’m not alone. Audiobooks are having a moment. According to a study by BookNet Canada on the state of digital publishing, 61 per cent of Canadian publishers now produce digital audiobooks, up from 37 per cent in 2016. It’s not surprising. They’re a convenient way to fit books into a busy lifestyle — especially for this bibliophile. From topics such as spirituality and sports to health and fiction, there’s something for everyone. 

For those so inclined, they can even listen to the Bible as an audiobook, as well as a wide range of audiobooks from Catholic writers such as G.K. Chesterton and Henri Nouwen.

Reflecting on the increasing popularity of audiobooks brings to mind the words of famous Catholic media theorist and public intellectual Marshall McLuhan, who coined the phrase “the medium is the message.”

In McLuhan’s Understanding Media, published in 1964, he explained: “The medium is the message. This is merely to say that the personal and social consequences of any medium … result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology.”

So, how does the shift to an audio medium impact our lives? Audiobooks allow us to maintain a reading hobby at times when reading a traditional book would be difficult to manoeuvre. For example, on a crowded subway train where there is standing room only, or while exercising, or doing chores around the house.

My go-to app for audiobooks is Libby, by Overdrive, a service created by libraries. By downloading a free app, your library card becomes your ticket to access thousands of audiobooks, e-books and magazines that are literally at your fingertips.

Interestingly enough, humans may be genetically hardwired to listen as opposed to read. Oral storytelling was well established long before the marvel of written words. According to neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran, as quoted in a piece in The New Yorker: “Language comprehension and production evolved in connection with hearing probably 150,000 years ago and to some extent is ‘hardwired’; whereas writing is 5,000 to 7,000 years old…. So it’s possible listening to speech is more spontaneously comprehensible and linked to emotional brain centres — hence more evocative and natural.”

We’re living through a moment in time in which too many of us spend endless hours consuming snippets of information on social media — fragmented and not necessarily composed by credible sources. Our moments “in between” are swallowed up by a seemingly endless cycle of scrolling through a barrage of viewpoints without disclaimers, context or, in most cases, substance. It’s to our detriment, as countless studies suggest that this information overload is slowly eroding our attention spans.

The consumption of any and all forms of books — whether they be print or digital — is much needed. But audiobooks have a certain charm about them. Being read to evokes warm feelings of childhood when story time was a listening time. Audio books are another way to remind us of the power of storytelling, and why we fell in love with books in the first place.

They remind us, too, of the importance of finding time to sit down and savour that irreplaceable feeling of enjoying a good book — in whatever form it comes.

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Food and family creates a perfect recipe

Written by Vanessa Santilli-Raimondo for The Catholic Register on August 13, 2018

Pesto tastes like summertime to me.

A special recipe for this delicious basil-based, garlic-infused sauce has been honed over
the years by my maternal grandmother, my nonna. Around this time of year, when her garden is in bloom and her basil plants are booming, she whips together her signature mouth-watering pesto as part of an annual quest to stock her freezer for the winter months.

In my experience, food and family go hand-in-hand, and the preparation of that food is a very intentional act of love. Catholic theologian Henri Nouwen once wrote: “When we invite friends for a meal, we do much more than offer them food for their bodies. We offer friendship, fellowship, good conversation, intimacy and closeness…. We offer our guests not only our food and drink, but ourselves. A spiritual bond grows, and we become food and drink for one another.”

The same can be said of cooking for family, whether on a regular, day-to-day basis, or for special occasions. From a young age, I have fond memories of summer days assisting my nonna in the family kitchen as she canned peaches and made tomato sauce, which we’d enjoy throughout the year. So having grown basil this summer in a modest herb garden on the balcony of my new apartment, I visited my nonna to learn her secret to making pesto from fresh ingredients. 

The recipe she uses was passed onto her years ago by “some of the girls at the club,” nonna told me, referring to a social club in Toronto she still frequents. The club was started by immigrants from Italy’s northeastern province of Friuli, which borders Austria, Slovenia and the Adriatic Sea, the area where nonna was born. When she made the trans-Atlantic voyage to Canada in the 1950s, she brought with her a joy of cooking and an appreciation for home-grown food that hasn’t diminished, even as she approaches her 89th birthday this September.

In the kitchen, she takes her time and doesn’t rush, giving the recipe her full attention. She measures every ingredient carefully. To her, this care is no different than the care and precision of a sculptor in creating a work of art.

When it’s time to add my freshly picked basil to the other ingredients, she tells me to fill the food processor (“Inpinisila,” she instructs, in her native dialect). Then we share a hearty laugh when she tells me to remove the garlic’s “heart” — her at my look of bewilderment and me at what seems an incredibly odd request. Apparently, the “heart” is the small piece in the middle of a clove (sometimes light green in colour, depending on the freshness of the garlic) that is revealed when garlic is sliced in half lengthwise. By sliding the heart out along a little groove, the garlic becomes easier to digest, nonna says.

She tells me that a former co-worker introduced her to pesto when she first arrived in Canada. The co-worker hailed from the Italian region of Liguria, where pesto as we know it today was born in the mid-1800s. She assumed my nonna was familiar with pesto but, funny enough, my nonna had never tried pesto even though it was invented a mere 400 kilometres away from where she was born and raised. 

I’m not at liberty to share her particular recipe as I’ve been sworn to secrecy. But the original Italian recipe is so imitated that the Chamber of Commerce of Genoa has published the “official recipe.” It comprises seven ingredients: Ligurian basil leaves, cloves of garlic, extra virgin olive oil, parmesan cheese, pecorino sardo cheese (made from sheep’s milk), coarse salt and pine nuts.

As for the pine nuts, nonna specifies, they must be bought from Bulk Barn, as that’s been her go-to store over the years. The pine tree that towers about 10 feet above her house is full of them, too, she admits — but those are for the birds. 

When the blend was ready, we removed the lid — and the payoff was instant. A fragrant aroma filled the kitchen. After scooping the pesto into a jar, nonna grabbed a piece of bread and handed it to me. She added a drop of extra-virgin olive oil to the remnants in the food processor and we hungrily scooped it up, enjoying the fruits of our labour.

This shared experience is like a bridge to connect the gap of the “old world” of my nonna and the world she shares with me. Recipes like these are the culinary roots of our family heritage — and bring to life the sounds and smells of home.

At the core of Tolkien is a dedication to faith

Written by Vanessa Santilli-Raimondo for The Catholic Register on June 14, 2018

It’s big news for fans of J.R.R. Tolkien that Amazon has made a billion-dollar commitment to bring to television a five-season series based on the epic Lord of the Rings fantasy saga.

While the characters and storylines remain secret — except for rumours that a main character in this prequel will be a young Aragorn (one of the heroes in the Lord of the Rings) — we do know that the content will be drawn from the six “Appendices” that appeared at the end of the last book in the Catholic writer’s trilogy. The Appendices, comprised of material Tolkien chose to leave out of the main narrative, add details about the early lives of the characters and the history and culture of the fictional land of Middle-earth, a fantastical world of hobbits, elves, dwarves and even talking tree-like characters called ents. These early years will form the plot of the series.

Tolkien, who became a Catholic at age eight after his mother joined the faith, tackled the timeless battle of good vs. evil in all his writings. Guided by his faith, he skillfully weaved Catholic symbolism throughout his work.

One notable Catholic parallel — and a character I hope to see in the upcoming series — is Lady Galadriel, who has a very Marian feel about her. Sometimes referred to as Lady of Light and often described as being bathed in light, she is a source of guidance and maternal comfort and is considered the “greatest of the elven women.” It is Galadriel who provides the hobbits with the gift of lembas bread, a life-giving food that sustains Frodo and Sam on the path to Mordor in the Lord of the Rings tales. Symbolic of the Eucharist, it keeps them physically full and, one could argue, spiritually full as it fuels their hope and inner strength.

I’m looking forward to seeing this type of symbolism come to life on the small screen. It would be a disservice to Tolkien if this were not the case. These Catholic connections are fundamental elements of Tolkien and the characters he created, so to exclude this element in the upcoming series would be to undermine the very essence of Tolkien’s tales.

The faith references throughout Lord of the Rings were absolutely intentional. In a letter to Jesuit priest Fr. Robert Murray, Tolkien wrote: ‘’The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision. That is why I have not put in, or have cut out practically all references to anything like ‘religion,’ to cults or practices, in the imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and symbolism.”

Tolkien has always resonated with me. He writes on universal themes of hope, friendship and love, all the while creating an unparalleled world of fantasy, chock full of new languages and mystical races and creatures. That is why stories published in the 1950s remain relevant today.

His tales act like a timeless moral guide. We’re introduced to characters who face one peril after another and, in the end, choose to do what is right, rather than what is easy. We see this when Aragorn meets his future wife Arwen. He no doubt wants to stay with her. But, given his important obligations as the next king, he places the well-being of Middle-earth first. “He went out into the wild. For nearly 30 years, he laboured in the cause against Sauron,” a Satan-like character who is the epitome of evil.

The producers at Amazon have a wonderful opportunity to create meaningful television by going to the heart of Tolkien’s works. We’ll have to wait and see how it all comes together, but one thing is certain: If done right this series can ensure that a new generation will be introduced to the wonder and parable-like quality of Tolkien’s tales.

But just as art can be interpreted in many ways, bringing literature to film is a subjective undertaking. So there is no way of telling how Tolkien’s work will be presented to a television audience. There is already skepticism. John Rhys-Davies, who played Gimli the dwarf in the movie trilogy, called the venture a “disgrace” and suggested “poor Tolkien must be spinning in his grave” over a project motivated by an obvious lust for money. Amazon is slated to begin production over the next two years.

Meantime, I’ll eagerly await the release of the next wave of Tolkien’s timeless tales of Middle-earth — and I’ll be on the lookout for the thread of faith that is sewn like a strong seam into the fabric of Tolkien’s storylines and characters.

Plastic pollution a sign of failing stewardship

Written by Vanessa Santilli-Raimondo for The Catholic Register on May 17, 2018

When I was 10 years old, I’d spend hours creating posters that screamed out in bold letters: “Save the Whales!”

Chock full of whale drawings and facts about whales being at risk due to the actions of humans, I’d hang the posters at my local park with the hope that the community would, somehow, heed my Crayola-infused call to action. But my message was usually short-lived as, inevitably, after each session of postering every hydro pole in sight, rain would follow and wash away my whale-saving pleas. But the rain never dampened my enthusiasm for environmental activism.

Saving the whales was a hot topic during the 1990s, after the International Whaling Commission imposed a commercial whaling moratorium in the mid-’80s. But although whales were big news for a while, the concern was eventually overtaken by other issues. Fast-forward to 2018 when the devastating effects of plastic pollution on the health of the oceans and marine creatures has become one of the most pressing environmental issues of our time. Whales are back in the news.

We live in a throwaway culture of convenience, where using plastic is embedded in our everyday life — from plastic bags and takeout containers to water and pop bottles. But this convenience has come with a cost. National Geographic reported that eight million tons of plastic is dumped in the ocean annually, with 5.2 trillion pieces of plastic currently polluting the seas. This entirely man-made issue has underlined how humanity has failed in its responsibility to be a good steward of the Earth.

I recently watched the popular BBC documentary series Blue Planet II, which chronicles the state of the oceans. It was devastating to see a baby albatross that had choked to death by ingesting a plastic toothpick and a pilot whale carrying around her dead newborn, who may have died from drinking the mother whale’s contaminated milk. Without drastic change, reports indicate there will be more plastic than fish in the sea by 2050.

It’s not just the oceans and the creatures within them that we’re harming. Plastic pollution is bad for human health. When fish eat plastic, the contaminants move through the food chain — and into our bodies. Aside from food, the oceans also provide a wide variety of other benefits: they produce more than half of the world’s oxygen, they regulate our climate through the transport of heat from the equator to the poles and they provide us with ingredients used in some medicines.

At the consumer level, we have a moral responsibility as people of faith to change our habits in order to minimize plastic use. Personally, I’m making an effort to be aware of my use of single-use plastics by carrying a re-useable water bottle — working to eliminate the need for plastic water bottles completely. That’s just a start. As a society we need to rethink our use of convenience items like plastic straws and takeout containers.

At the government level, there’s even more that needs to be done. In Canada, it’s disturbing that less than 11 per cent of plastics are recycled. The system needs a major overhaul.

It’s been reported that the federal government plans to use its G7 presidency to further the fight against plastic pollution at the upcoming June meeting in Quebec by putting forward proposals for a “zero-plastics-waste charter.” This is a step in the right direction. But I’m a bit of a skeptic, given that the Liberal government gave a $35-million grant to a chemical company that makes plastic resins the day before the G7 announcement.

Apathy and convenience have led to us to this particular moment in time — and only the recognition of the world as a gift to be protected can alter the path we’re on. As Pope Francis wrote in Laudato Si’: “Since the world has been given to us, we can no longer view reality in a purely utilitarian way, in which efficiency and productivity are entirely geared to our individual benefit. Intergenerational solidarity is not optional, but rather a basic question of justice, since the world we have received also belongs to those who will follow us.”

I no longer use pencil crayons to draw save-the-whale posters, but environmental stewardship remains dear to my heart. I haven’t lost my school-girl certainty that people need to be made aware of the damage we’ve inflicted on the natural world. And I believe more strongly than ever that together we have to do something about it — before it’s too late.

My piano keeps my life in tune

Written by Vanessa Santilli-Raimondo for The Catholic Register on April 12, 2018

There is a special type of panic that is reserved for watching your piano being maneuvered up three flights of stairs.

Moments after holding the door to let three piano-toting movers into our apartment building, my piano, upright at a 45-degree angle, began a 40-stair ascent. As the movers rounded the first bend in the staircase, the silence was broken by shrill commands as they expertly moved my hefty antique upright to its new home.

Moving into a unit on the third floor of a building with no elevator meant finding piano movers who could safely deliver one of my most precious possessions — a gift from my parents on my 12th birthday. In the weeks after settling into the apartment, as I furnished my new digs, I never felt quite settled without my piano.

I can thank a decade’s worth of piano lessons, a Saturday morning staple throughout my childhood, for that feeling of familiarity. I only ended the lessons when I entered university and no longer had the time for daily practice.

From a young age, playing the piano showed me the beauty of self-expression. An ability to create sounds that can capture the full gamut of emotions in the human experience is a gift, one that I enjoyed most when shared with others.

I’d play for family, for friends and even for my Siberian Husky, who’d cozy up next to me whenever I was banging out a tune.

Springtime as a piano student usually meant a series of competitions, most often solo but sometimes as part of a duet. I was a student of the Suzuki method of piano playing, a teaching style based on the premise that, in the same way children learn language, they can learn to play a musical instrument through listening, imitation and repetition. I felt most at ease playing a song once the piece was memorized.

Strange as it may sound, the night before a competition I would usually turn off all the lights, sit down at the piano and play in the dark to make sure I was really feeling the music.

Recently, feeling nostalgic during a practice session, I busted out some of the songbooks that I used years ago in competitions. Flipping through the pages, I got to thinking: Is the piano on the decline?

Enthusiasm for the piano seems to have waned in the era of the video game. But the instrument is still being sold in relatively large numbers, said Jamie Musselwhite of Paul Hahn & Co., a piano business established in Toronto more than 100 years ago. “Globally, the piano market is expanding. Every year, more are being built to service this growing market.” Domestically, however, fewer pianos are being made.

After years of musical inactivity, I recently dived back into playing. My piano is the same as ever, but I was surprised to learn that you can now simply use Google to find an electronic metronome over the Internet in order to keep time while playing. But that discovery was far less unsettling than learning of the most recent piano-related innovation — the electronic, self-playing piano.

An article last month in the newspaper USA Today highlighted the popularity of a Steinway piano called the Spirio, which actually plays itself. Purchasers of this piano — which start at around $125,000 — get an iPad that comes with a mobile app loaded with about 1,700 songs. You just pick a song, sit back and watch the keyboard come to life as it plays the selection perfectly.

That’s something my younger self would have given anything for in order to get through those Saturday morning piano lessons I hadn’t always practised for. But my older self hardly sees this as progress.

As advancements go, I suppose this is novel, but launching a pre-programmed piano into a song will never beat the incredible feeling of mastering — and getting lost in — a piece of music. The piano is a work of art which has inspired the likes of Mozart and Beethoven to create music that has touched souls for generations. No matter what reinventions are dreamt up, there’s just no replacing the original.

As the movers wheeled my piano safely into my new apartment, I breathed a deep sigh of relief. I watched them reassemble some delicate parts that had been removed to protect them during the move. Then they reattached the lid that covers the keys. It was comforting to see my precious instrument whole again.

And comforting, too, to know that as I put down new roots I could bring some old ones with me.

Healthy eating is a taste of the good life

Turmeric's main ingredient is curcumin. It has powerful anti-inflammatory effects and is a very strong antioxidant.

Turmeric’s main ingredient is curcumin. It has powerful anti-inflammatory effects and is a very strong antioxidant.

Written by Vanessa Santilli for The Catholic Register on March 17

I don’t mean to be a downer, but an unhealthy diet is the leading risk factor for chronic diseases in Canada. This has been the case for the past two decades, according to research cited in the medical journal Canadian Family Physician, the official publication of the College of Family Physicians of Canada.
Like it or not, what we choose to put into our bodies on a daily basis has a direct impact on the quality of life we’ll enjoy down the road. That is to say, it turns out your mom wasn’t just trying to hassle you when she insisted you finish eating your spinach before you left the dinner table.

The five Canadian doctors who wrote the article assert that “there is little doubt that the most prevalent chronic health conditions today (cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, mental illness and respiratory disease) are largely the products of interactions among a small set of well-established modifiable risk factors” — one of which is diet. (Other factors include exercise, tobacco use and alcohol consumption.)

Having decided to take a more proactive approach to my health for these very reasons, I’ve drastically changed my diet over the past couple of months — striving to choose foods that offer optimal nutrition whenever possible.

Given that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, as St. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians, shifting our mindset to view the foods we eat as being meant to nourish us and fuel our health is good for body, mind and soul. Why? Because healthy foods provide us with the gift of well-being over the long-term — including increased energy and mood, which no doubt can affect the spiritual life — while processed foods laced with sugar and salt only give us satisfaction in the moment.

For me, it’s been an adjustment. I love to eat.  Growing up in an Italian household, feasting on pasta, red meats and white bread was simply the norm. Of course, there were vegetables, too, but they were sides that required you to only takes a few bites. Stopping regular habits like prosciutto for lunch is hard. I mean, prosciutto is delicious and salted in just the right way. (Of course, the Mediterranean diet offers a whole range of health benefits, so long as you enjoy the carb-heavy options sparingly.)

Instead, I’ve now discovered pastas made from healthier ingredients such as spelt, chickpeas and red lentils. I’ve swapped Iced Capps for polyphenol-rich green tea, juice oranges at home rather than buying the store-bought drink and have taken to seasoning vegetable-heavy stirfrys with a spice called turmeric, whose active ingredient is curcumin, a substance with powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties (and it’s an ingredient I had never even heard of before a few short months ago.)

Hard as change may be, the good news is that we do have the power to alter our habits. After all, in this case, it can be as easy, or as hard, as a trip to the grocery store.

On a recent shopping excursion to pick up brown rice flour — instead of the usual white flour for baking — I was faced with a wall of 20 different types of flour at a local grocery store. “I’ve never seen this many different types of flour in my life,” I remarked to a women scanning the copious selection beside me. “It’s overwhelming, isn’t it?” she responded.

In any case, healthy eating leaves lots of room for creativity — and a wide array of new flavours and new learnings. For example, kombucha, a fermented, somewhat sweetened tea, is not the same thing as kombu, an edible form of kelp often used to enhance the nutritional composition of broth.

I’ve learned that this lifestyle change does require an investment of time, slightly more money and dedication. Based on my experience, here are some ways to make healthy eating a little easier:

• Write out a grocery list based on particular meals you want to cook so that you don’t succumb to your every whim while shopping.

• Commit to being at peace with not eating meat every single day; opt for leaner meats.

• When snacking, consider goodies with nutritional value, not just reduced salt or sugar.

All in all, moderation is key. Food is a huge blessing and is meant to be enjoyed, so there’s nothing wrong with indulging once in a while. As long as we’re not metaphorically slaughtering the fatted calf on a continual basis, this investment in health is sure to pay dividends.

Silence is indeed golden

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Written by Vanessa Santilli-Raimondo for The Catholic Register

In today’s world, people are mostly foreign to stillness.

Being continually busy is the norm, and finding time to do absolutely nothing but sit back, relax and be still is a novel concept. But hard as it may be to find time for stillness, it’s a practice that can be used to increase our focus and direction — and to build a deeper connection with God in our lives.

Travel writer Pico Iyer is an expert on staying busy and being still.

“Not many years ago, it was access to information and movement that seemed our greatest luxury,” reflected Iyer in his book, The Art of Stillness. “Nowadays, it’s often freedom from information, the chance to sit still, that feels like the ultimate prize.”

Iyer would know — he’s made a life of travelling the world. It was through his habit of movement that he found himself a visitor at a Benedictine monastery in California, where he first engaged in the pursuit of stillness. He’s since visited more than 80 times and has found a silence that has enriched his life.  

Society’s collective need for downtime has surfaced through a travel trend called “silence tourism.” According to an article published last summer in Condé Naste Traveler, “being quiet is the newest adventure trend” as people flock to vacation destinations that promise a digital detox from the demands of a 24/7 culture. 

There’s science behind the claim that silence — a key to stillness — is beneficial to health. In 2011, a World Health Organization report called noise pollution the “modern plague.” The report found overwhelming evidence that exposure to environmental noise has adverse effects on the health of the population.

In the Catholic tradition, the benefits of silence are not new. Silent retreats are one means widely available for people to take time to be still, unwind and re-orient their life’s direction. Another tool that can bring an encounter with the art of stillness is Christian meditation, often described as a “prayer of the heart.”

Aside from the myriad spiritual benefits, the Canadian Christian Meditation Community’s website lists a wide array of associated health benefits, including: improved attention, lower blood pressure, a boosted immune system, reduced anxiety and depression and improvement in coping strategies and emotional processing.

To meditate, sit upright and breathe calmly. Then, close your eyes and in your mind and heart repeat the Aramaic word “Maranatha.” It’s an ancient Christian prayer word that means, “Come, Lord Jesus.” While you do this, pay particular attention to your breathing and listen to the sound of the mantra (to be recited as four syllables).

“Let go of all thoughts (even good thoughts), images and other words,” wrote Fr. John Main, an Oblate who played a major role in the rediscovery of this prayer tradition once practised by early Christian monks. “Don’t fight your distractions: let them go by saying your mantra faithfully, gently and attentively and returning to it as soon as you realize you have stopped saying it or when your attention wanders.”

It may sound easy — after all, you are kicking back and relaxing — but in practice it’s not that straightforward. Even after multiple attempts, I still found it difficult. It feels counterintuitive to sit still in silence and let your thoughts pass by. But keeping up the practice has led me to moments of much-needed tranquility. 

Christian meditation is essentially the discipline of finding time and training yourself to be still, which, in turn, helps focus your thoughts on God — even if it’s just for a few minutes a day. Cutting through the external noise is the first step, but there is also internal noise and distractions that can be just as loud. 

Praying the rosary is another tried and true method for becoming still and connecting with God. Praying the rosary in the silence of your home is one option, or you might try putting your rosary in your pocket and taking it on a walk with you, swapping your headphones for the decades of the rosary.

There are many ways to achieve stillness but they all require much self-control. But it’s definitely a worthy pursuit as a means to counter the distractions and overstimulation that is part of daily living.

“God hidden within me,” wrote the late, great theologian Thomas Merton. “I find Him by hiding in the silence in which He is concealed.”

My 2018 includes less time with my phone

Woman texting on her phone and using social media.
Written by Vanessa Santilli-Raimondo for The Catholic Register on January 20, 2018 

Spending more time with family, making forgiveness a habit and being less judgmental could help you make good on one of the most popular 2018 New Year’s resolutions.

According to U.S.-based pollster Marist, “being a better person” was rated a top lifestyle change our American neighbours hope to make over the coming year. Among the many ways we can improve our behaviour — in order to be become a better citizen of the world while also showing some self-care — is to develop a healthier relationship with social media and, by extension, our distraction-inducing smartphones. Without a doubt, getting a handle on our collective addiction to social media will help on the journey to being the best versions of ourselves.At its best, social media helps us connect with our community, stay informed of current events, advance professional interests and affect change. For example, we’ve recently seen social media serving as a platform for social good through the ongoing #MeToo campaign. It has empowered victims of sexual harassment and violence to share their stories and hold predators to account.

But at its worst, social media can be a battleground for cyber-bullying, a constant distraction that can harm family life and work habits, a platform to encourage narcissism (the chronic selfie poser) and, in some cases, even cause depression and anxiety.

We can pretend that a compulsion to check our phones constantly is normal — but it’s not. According to recent research, Americans check their phones for updates every 12 minutes. That’s 80 times per day for someone who sleeps eight hours. I suspect I’m like many Canadians who match that statistic, reaching for my phone unconsciously throughout the day, every day.

This is no coincidence. Social media was created to be addictive. Former Facebook president Sean Parker admitted as much in an interview last November.

“The thought process that went into building these applications … was all about: How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?” he said. “And that means that we need to sort of give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while, because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post.

“It’s a social validation feedback loop. It’s exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.”

He also added: “God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.”

So how do we reap the benefits of social media and the convenience of smartphones without compromising our well-being and relationships? According to Yvan Mathieu, Dean of the Faculty of Theology at Saint Paul University in Ottawa, to better navigate the interwebs we need to apply principles of Christian life and keep in mind the first and second commandments — love of God and love of neighbour.

“Let’s consider this threefold question,” he advises. “In one given day, how many hours do I dedicate to social media, how many hours do I dedicate to prayer and how many hours do I dedicate to my family and friends? There has to be some kind of balance between those three aspects of one’s life.”

While it’s valid to argue that social media lets us connect with family and friends who live far away, we need to be honest with ourselves and understand how this means of communication, instead of helping us get closer to loved ones, often makes us feel isolated, he adds.

As we work towards striking a proper balance in our social media usage, we should also let how we use social media be guided by the words of St. Paul in his letter to the Ephesians. “Let no evil come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.”

As we establish our priorities in the new year, we should make sure social media takes a back seat. I know I will. And if I fail, I can always turn off my wi-fi.

To Rome, With Love

Rome

Written by Vanessa Santilli-Raimondo for CPA Magazine on December 1, 2017

Rome, the capital city of Italy, is a hub of history, culture and business. The fourth-most-populous city in the European Union, it boasts 2.87 million inhabitants, with its greater metropolitan area home to upward of 4.3 million.

The Eternal City’s economy is diverse, with thriving technology, communications, commerce and service sectors, including tourism. Most of Rome’s employers are part of the service sector. One of the biggest employers is the government, as many of its agencies and ministries are located in the city.

Tourism, however, is the leading industry in the city’s economy, attracting millions of visitors annually. As well, Rome is a popular site for conferences and trade fairs; with venues capable of accommodating 40,000 visitors, it boasts the largest site of such events in Europe.

This year, the Italian economy will grow by 1.4% — its strongest performance in a decade. Rome’s importance is further underscored by the fact that, in 2015, its labour productivity was 20% higher than in the rest of the country.

BUSINESS ETIQUETTE

The following etiquette points have been taken from the Government of Canada website for the Canadian Trade Commissioner Service.

1. Close encounters. Italians feel comfortable standing closer together than the normal North American distance of two feet. Don’t back away.

2. Avoid controversial topics. Subjects to steer clear of include religion, politics and the Second World War.

As well, keep in mind that it can be considered insulting to ask someone you have just met at a social gathering about his or her profession.

3. Be aware of the Company’s internal structure. Corporations in Italy often have a horizontal chain of authority. Italians call it a cordata (a team of mountain climbers on the same rope). To facilitate business, one should have a reliable contact who has full knowledge of the company’s inner workings.

4. Take your time. Negotiating is often lengthy. A sense of urgency can weaken your bargaining position.

5. Business entertaining. Italian hospitality often means dining in a restaurant. No matter how you feel, refusing an invitation will offend.

6. Look the part. In the business world, good clothes are a badge of success. Women dress with quiet, expensive elegance while men stick to suits and ties.

FACTS FOR INVESTORS

1. On global data organization Numbeo’s cost of living index, Rome ranked 147th out of 511 cities surveyed.

2. Amazon is currently investing heavily in Italy — with a 60,000-sq.-m. “fulfillment centre” underway near Rome, forecasted to create 1,200 permanent jobs within several years.

TRAVEL TIPS

1. Know the lingo. Those at larger companies speak English, while local businesspeople and wholesalers will often need an interpreter.

2. City tax. All hotels in Italy now charge a city tax, which varies. The fee is added to your total and it ranges from three euros per night per person for one- or two-star hotels to seven euros per night for five-star establishments.

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Food for thought before tossing that old banana

Our weekly household waste is often filled with foods that still edible. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Love Food Hate Waste)

Our weekly household waste is often filled with foods that still edible. In Canada, 40 per cent of the food we produce nationally ends up in the garbage. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Love Food Hate Waste)

Written by Vanessa Santilli-Raimondo for The Catholic Register 

It is shocking to learn that $31 billion worth of food is wasted in Canada every year. Looked at another way, what Canadians throw away is enough to feed one quarter of the world’s 800,000 hungry people, according to the United Nations.

We are a wasteful nation. About 40 per cent of food produced nationally is thrown into the garbage, according to the Toronto Food Policy Council. Half of this waste is due to shortsighted habits of consumers.

For instance, the baby spinach packaged in the too-big container I didn’t get around to finishing, or the bananas that became slightly too ripe for my liking. That may not sound like much, but a little bit wasted every day adds up to a lot of waste over the weeks and months.

How much waste? Canadian households waste, on average, $28 worth of food each week. That’s almost $1,500 per household, almost enough to feed eight starving people for an entire year, the U.N. tells us.

Pope Francis has said that “throwing away food is like stealing from the table of the poor and hungry.” He makes a sobering point as, locally, food bank usage is on the rise, helping more than 850,000 Canadians every month, according to a study from Food Banks Canada.

While food waste happens all along the food supply chain (from suppliers to retailers to consumers), it’s important to be conscious of the waste that each of us is personally responsible for — and to work to reduce it. As Laudato Si’ reminds us, we are called to be stewards of the Earth, not reckless consumers.

Changing old habits doesn’t have to be difficult. In my personal quest to become less wasteful, I’ve come across several helpful tips, such as this one from the website of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops: “The next time you make a recipe that can be easily frozen, make a double batch and donate one to your local soup kitchen.”

This tip can be modified easily to help reduce food waste whenever it looks as if you’re going to have groceries that won’t get used up. If you have too much food, make plans to share it with those less fortunate. Locally, the Good Shepherd Ministries runs a “Provide-a-Meal” program in which volunteers commit to donating one casserole per month. Over the course of the year, that adds up to more than 100,000 main course servings.

Or if you have food that’s nearing the end of its shelf life, use your imagination and find other ways to use it. For example, leftover bread can be turned into breadcrumbs; overly ripe bananas can be baked into banana bread or chopped into a smoothie; lemons that are starting to shrivel can become a homemade salad dressing, roasted with a meat dish or juiced into lemonade. Get creative and keep yourself interested in foods that, although no longer at peak freshness, are still quite edible. Continue reading