The Ways of the Snail

IMG_5165Anyone who has read a few entries here would know I’m besotted by snails – or at least with what they’ve come to mean to me. As I wrote toward the end of Sinning Across Spain – I believe snails are gurus.

Lately they seem to have been all around, and I’m pretty certain they’re calling me to slow down; or is it to tuck myself inside and withdraw from the world for a while?
Maybe both.

Regardless, I wanted to share with you two of their recent incarnations…

 

When I was walking in the Basque country in France this April, following the GR65 trail from north to south, I came across a detour. It was called the Chemin de L’Escargot, and there were lots of brightly-coloured images of a grinning snail posted on trees and fence-posts, trying to tempt pilgrims off the main path.

Just look at that photo up there. How could I possibly have resisted her invitation?

I veered onto a snaily side-road, and was lead by the cheery mollusc up and down and around some of the loveliest, springiest vistas of the entire journey.

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The detour was completely unpeopled, so I got to soak up big doses of quiet, reflective emptiness along the snail trail.

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This was my first walk as a widow.

I’m not sure what that really means – the word sometimes fits, and at other times I reject it completely. I’m skeptical of most labels, and even “pilgrim” doesn’t describe all of me, much as I like to think of myself as a walker and seeker. But there were times during this widow walk when I couldn’t shake that label of loss, and on the day of the snail diversion, I was feeling particularly dark. On that empty path, I was grateful to be able to shout or wail or weep, without fear of being seen, or without giving concern to those who love me.

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The snail road, in all its beauty and slowness, gave me permission to do a bit of releasing. A good deal of it, actually, along those exquisite, overlooked byways. Pilgrimage, and in particular the journey I wrote about in Sinning, has taught me that mostly, “stuff” is better out than in. I’m not great at release, but solo walking sometimes allows it. For me, anyway. The snail’s chemin, slow, solitary and steady under generous skies, showed me that I could walk myself back into myself – changed, but not diminished. Whole…

Then, at road’s end, in a tiny village called Uhart-Mixe, I was rewarded with a welcoming Gite all to myself, a storybook spire directly across the main square, sun on golden stones, and scrumptious bread and goat cheese to fortify the feet. Ahhhh…..

Guiding snail and pilgrim snail – both very chipper!

Later, washed and laundered, I wandering to the village graveyard, where I was struck by the intensity of the mourners’ plaques commemorating family connections to the countryside I’d walked through. The memorials were so bound to place. I couldn’t help but feel, in that slow corner of the world, the centuries-deep affinity of those who had died to their bountiful land.

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Maybe it was the late summer afternoon silence and the early arrival of the moon, or the church bell sounding, or the whiff of honeysuckle, but I found myself teary again, this time in gratitude for all who have gone before, and for all that we carry in our snail-packs…

 

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I slept deep and long that night.

Back home in Australia, I went to an exhibition of photographs by Caroline Baum. She is mostly known as a writer, book reviewer, journalist and interviewer. But she is also a photographer and designer, and is obsessed with the sea-snails that make their home on rocks along the coast just south of Sydney. She photographs their trails, and has come to know them intimately. A small divergence might be due to the mating dance of a couple. The different colours underneath relate to mineral content and ocean movements and oh so much more…

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To hear her talk of her snails is to hear the same kind of intimate connection to place that I felt in that Basque village. Caro’s tiny, watery snails sketch our vast continent into the sand on their rocky home. They make songlines that look like paintings made by Aboriginal artists. And Caroline has captured these snail visions at their most poetic and evocative.

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My photos of the works can’t possibly do them justice, but hopefully you will get a sense of their wonder. Standing in front of Caroline’s works, I was struck again by the importance of the snail’s teachings. Humility. Small gentle movements. Mapping by the tiniest of increments, yet always inching  forward. Intent on a singular path. Slow…slow and even and calm…

That is what I see anyway. It might all be my projection. Being a snail might be torrid and anxious and fraught! But for now, the lessons I take from these small creatures are profound. I’m better for them, I think…I hope…

Finally, that’s all we can ask, I guess. To get better…inch by inch….

Hello world!

IMG_3610I’m an April Fool in a rush.

Deep breath in. Exhale. Start again….

Today I fly to Rome. It’s the fourth anniversary of the publication of Sinning Across Spain. It’s six years since I last arrived in that city, about to begin the sin-walk. And, amazingly, it’s a year since I inspected the apartment that became my new home – my place of refuge and safety. Clearly, I’m a natural-born fool.

But to the journey.IMG_3630
I wanted you to know, because I’m going to be walking. Only about 300 kilometres, but the challenge for this camino is to walk slowly, like the snail. I have set a strict limit of 25 kilometres per day, which will be exceeded only once, when I cross the Pyrenees toward the end of the walk. I will stride out with my poles and pack for part of the day, and then I will be a flaneur in a village for the rest.

I will take time. I will sit.

I will listen.

I’m going to be on the southern section of the GR65, or the Le Puy chemin, and will end at Pamplona. My pack is once again ready. My last pair of Merrell Sirens are itching to walk, and my heart is beating a little faster. It has been a topsy-turvy month or two, but when my doctor said to me that what was wrong was anxiety and that maybe I needed to go and do something brave again, I knew he was right, though he was joking. It’s time…

So off I go. Out to greet the northern spring with its bluster and blossom, and its tricky little surprises and its gentle embraces. I had taken a French course at the start of the year to refresh my grey cells, so I’m not too rusty. Mind you, I’ve also been learning to swim and taking some dance classes, and if those skills are anything like my French, I might be having some very mangled conversations. But I’m getting there. This morning I did 50 strokes of freestyle without stopping…IMG_3674

 

I’m getting there.

The other big news to share is that my next book, which I’ve co-written with Tony Doherty, a Catholic priest and natural pilgrim, has been picked up by Allen and Unwin and will be guided into the world by Jane Palfreyman. It will be out next year. I couldn’t be more thrilled and grateful. It has been greeted with such generosity and affection. Only a year ago, I thought it was dead and that I wouldn’t write again. Such is the power of anxiety and the dark days…

But today is light.

There is more news to share too. More GOOD news. I’m so grateful when the news is happy.

On my return, in mid-May, I’m hosting four conversations at the upcoming Sydney Writers Festival, with seven extraordinary writers. If you want to know more, go to their website and scroll to my name and you can see details. Go to the website anyway, because there are astounding riches for readers. The reason I mention it here, aside from my excitement, is to tell you that one of those sessions is with a remarkable man called Jean-Christophe Rufin. He is a co-founder of Medicines Sans Frontieres and a distinguished writer – one of the youngest members of the Académie Française, when he was admitted. And the book he is bringing to the festival is a tale about walking the camino to Santiago! It has been a best-seller in France, so we will be taking that, and his whole life, for a walk in our one hour conversation.

So there is much to be grateful for and much to ponder as I set off to walk. It’s a golden morning here and I’ve just walked out to my lighthouse to farewell it. I hope it will stand tall in my absence, and I hope it will light my way home…

Because I am home. I know that because there is a tug when I think of leaving. That has to be good doesn’t it? A little separation anxiety?

Walk strong. May your autumn days be mellow and fruitful…

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Lessons from the lighthouse

IMG_1538.JPGIt’s exactly a year since I drove into Sydney, my black hatchback crammed with hastily-packed belongings.

I’d left Melbourne in a rush, grief propelling me up the highway on a quest to make a life where I could choose the memories I played on my internal screen, while seeing new vistas.

Well, that was the plan! Memories, of course, will have their own way…

 

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It was a year of hopes dashed and dreams fulfilled. A year of struggle and of miracles. A year of tears, fears and ultimately, cheers.

My focus for the past twelve months was simple.

Find a home.

Find a home.

Find a home.

 

And I did!

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With a lot of help from an unlikely angel in the form of a Sydney real estate agent, I came to rest in the lee of a lighthouse. Nicholas Charles said to me, the first time I met him, “I will find you a home.” I smiled, thinking it was empty rhetoric; the talk of a salesman. But he did. He listened to my incoherent mutterings, heard what mattered, and tolerated my mood swings and heartbreaks. He consoled me and urged me on as we traipsed all over the city, never charging a cent for his time or expertise, and eventually he led me to a new nest, within easy walk of the barber-pole lighthouse on the tip of South Head.

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This image was commissioned for an article I wrote about Nick Charles for Slow Living magazine. Thanks to editor Tim for sending it to me.

I thank him every time I walk out there, and I walk out there almost daily. It is a pilgrimage. A camino, if you want. It is my own Finisterre – land’s end – with a sheltered harbour village on one side and the wild ocean on the other.

And I love it…

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Now for a confession…

I am an Instagram addict.

It is the one social media thingy of which I was an early uptaker. I love it for community and beauty, and for peeks into the lives of others. Mostly, I love it because it taught me new ways of seeing, and when I first spied the red and white lighthouse, I decided I would photograph it every time I visited, as a way of teaching myself that it is possible to look at anything – a lighthouse, a person, a problem, a grief – in myriad ways, and yet always to see it anew.

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My lighthouse has taught me much. I look at it from above and below, from left and right, from up close and personal and from the other side of the harbour, in all weathers and at all times of day.

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I try to do the same with myself. I’ve come to think of those who guide me through rough patches as my lighthouses. I have many. I have learned to look for the ray of light when the going gets tough. I’ve taught my mind and my heart to understand, in a visceral way, that things are in a constant state of change, even as there are constants that can be relied upon to remain the same.

IMG_0911.JPGSuch are the tensions a lighthouse embodies.

It stands sentinel while all around it swirls – yet it also changes, depending on the conditions.

Some days it is cherry red and gold. Some days crimson and harsh white. Some days it is cold and lonely. Some days it is proud; some days humble.

But it is there.

It is always there.

 

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I am grateful for the lessons of the lighthouse. In my way, I’ve been a sailor being guided through rocks, and it has brought me home.

Many times.

It did that for me from the moment I first saw it, and it does it every time I visit.

 

It always shows me another side – invites me to see things in a different light.

IMG_2813This year, as I approach my birthday and consider the things I would like to create or invite into the coming year, my focus is on calm. It’s a humbler goal than finding a home, and yet I suspect it may be harder won. It is not my natural state! Regardless, I feel pretty sure my lighthouse will continue to teach me.

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My sister Amanda took this pic of me and my lighthouse – both a bit scarred!

 

In my birthday wishes for the year ahead, I send light to you, and a hope for smooth sailing. May you never feel you are becalmed or stuck, but may you know deep internal calm. And may you have a lighthouse…many lighthouses…to bring you home.

 

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Thanks to my sister Alanna for making this image – beyond my skills!

An offering. A gift.

I had thought I’d write a blog post for Christmas, but then was given the opportunity to pen a festive reflection for the Australian newspaper, so for now, all I’m going to do is direct you, via a simple click on this blue link, to that piece.

I hope some part of it resonates with you.

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I will be back here with fresh words before year’s end, but for now, Merry Christmas.

May it bring peace.

Peace and more peace…

A postcard…

Greetings from Bundanon!

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When last I was here, at the height of summer 2014, the days were scorching. Now they are mild and the fields are Irish green.

Life is different in so many ways now – but one constant is my gratitude to Arthur Boyd and his family for the gift of this haven. There are four visual artists in nearby studios, and a musician up the hill. I think we’ve spoken for a total of fifteen minutes in the ten days I’ve been here. The deep silence works its magic and it has been a chance for me to stop and catch breath. I have gone to ground and applied myself, barely putting my head up for air.

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And I have been able to work… 

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Relief floods in…

This little missive is really just a quick hello from me and the wombats, as well as a heads-up to let you know that I was on Radio National’s Blueprint for Living, speaking to Sian Prior, author of the exquisite memoir Shy. We talked about my new home – pics and details in the next post if you keep scrolling down – in the Spirit of Place segment.

You can hear the podcast by clicking on that blue word that says “podcast”!

Wish you were here!

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Walking home…again…

 

I am in a new place….
IMG_1970It’s a place of exposed cliffs and sheltered bays; of screeching cockatoos and comedian kookaburras; of purple sunsets and moonrises over shimmering ocean; of shy honeyeaters and wheeling lorikeets.

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There are two lighthouses in my new neighbourhood.

There is a General Store where they know everybody’s name.

There are views to infinity and covered lanes, drooping with vines.

There are Port Jackson figs and bad banksia men. There are frangipanis, though the trees are little more than bare stumps just now. But the flowers will come.

I know all this because I am tramping for miles and miles, trying to walk myself into “local” status. It will take a lifetime, of course. Maybe two. I don’t kid myself about that. But let’s face it, it’s the journey, not the destination, and because I don’t presume to know how much time I will have, I am exploring as far and wide and deep as I can, as fast as I can, leaving nothing for some mythical “later”.

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Sailboats make bold in the harbour, but alone on the open sea they are tiny handkerchiefs fluttering in wilful breezes. Ferries pootle about and tugs scurry to work. Busy busy busy. Liners glide and the navy frigates take no prisoners.

There was a shipwreck here. I stroke the enormous metal links of an anchor chain as gulls wheel overhead, crying the same desolate sound they must have made when the boat went down.

The clouds here are brushstrokes made by some wildly confident artist who dips her brush into a multicoloured pot and with one sweep leaves us gasping…

 

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The sun rises behind two sandstone steeples. Both are made gold in an instant. Their bells don’t peal – that would be too presumptuous. They ding and dong like twins with different pitches, humble village workday calls that take me back to other walks where equally intimate bells called across fields to me as I hiked.

These are welcoming bells, greeting me just as my neighbours did. They came from downstairs on the day my boxes were delivered, and helped me unpack. We were a team in an instant. The bloke from upstairs knocked one Sunday night with fresh fish fillets, caught that day. He and his bonny wife have a little boy who is getting teeth. I will miss that gummy smile on the stairs when the molars have all pushed through. I hope to be here to see him start to read or to wobble down the hill on training wheels.

Other neighbours tell me they are “here” if I need them.

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I am here too.

I want to be here for a long time.

There are enough trails and mysteries to keep me twisting and turning on myself, getting lost and found, picking up shells and watching sea-snails leave rust-coloured trails, wondering and wandering, for many long days –  should I be lucky enough to have them.

That miracle.

To have days. Days and days of health and light.

To live and breathe and walk…

IMG_1890I walk the clifftops, watching for whales.

And yes, I really do see them.

They’ve been heading north, though I am told that now others are coming south.

Do they greet each other?

Do they swap stories of their watery ways, calling to each other in recognition, as we walkers do on our separate but joined trails.

“Morning! Lovely day!”

It’s always a lovely day…

IMG_1772I’m stepping into these days and these ways, finding my rhythm and my pace, learning the stories underneath my feet and inscribing my own tentative etchings over them. I make my way home, muscles warmed and cheeks red, telling myself to remember.

Remember this day.

This air. This bird call. This sun on my cheek and this glint on the water.

Remember this possibility.

I am walking into a new life. I stumble. I lose my way.

But I’m walking. One step, then the next. I’m walking myself home again…

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A PS – There was an article of mine about this magnificent part of the world in the Sydney Morning Herald on September 19th. Just click here to read. I’m pretty passionate about the subject, as you can tell!

And here’s another from October 14th – a different take on the same issue… www.smh.com.au/comment/dont-turn-south-head-into-a-wedding-production-line-20151007-gk3oxr.html

For some moving pictures, here is a video (with some bolshie locals!) about the issues…

On a different subject…The Accidental Atheist is 30 minutes of searching radio as Gary Bryson, a lifetime atheist, asks whether he has “missed out” on something. One of the people he asked was me! Our conversation took place out on South Head at the entrance to Sydney Harbour – a place of deep meaning for me. You can podcast it by clicking here – https://radio.abc.net.au/programitem/peo9QyyE2Q?play=true

If you are in Australia, grab the spring issue of SLOW LIVING magazine from your newsagent. It’s a beautiful mag, and I have an article in it that celebrates a personal “lighthouse” person – one who got me through some rough water! You can’t get their articles online, but if you are considering subscribing, I can recommend it. Info here… http://www.slowmagazine.com.au/current-issue

Mourning walks

We who claim walking as our salvation do so for myriad reasons, many mysterious even to ourselves. We plod across sand, mud or the dreaded asphalt, carrying water, the ubiquitous dried fruit, and a sleeping bag or tent if we’re fortunate enough to be setting out for a “proper” walk. I’ve shouldered packs as light as air and as heavy as twenty kilograms. I’ve even transported sins. Currently, though, I am laden with grief, and I often find myself in the valley of its shadow.

I’ve been on this path for nine months now – a period of time that usually implies birth. I keep thinking: Shouldn’t I have produced something by now? Made myself over? Haven’t I learned anything? At the many daily crossroads, the way should be obvious, shouldn’t it? But it isn’t.

Mostly I feel I am going nowhere. And quite fast.

IMG_0653On good days I remind myself that after 1300 kilometres under my sin-load, I did make it to Finisterre. I made it to world’s end, to a place where I was free of pain – of my own, and of others. I did it by trudging through flood, snow and searing heat, and never questioning the task. I did it by staying the course when I didn’t want to. I did it by accepting the help of strangers, many of whom became friends. I did it by seeing beauty. Over and over, the beauty of the natural world saved me when my heart or my heels hurt.

The caminos I’ve walked, not just in Spain but back here in Australia, taught me the road can break you. It will. It does. Those long trails insisted that everything has a cost. Even life. Even love. But when I kept walking, in that blind-faith action of one-foot-then-the-other, I came through. To somewhere.

And I was remade.

I’m not sure I would have come through this last nine months without my experiences of walking, or the gifts it has given me: resilience; tenacity; an eye for overlooked beauty; a hunger for connection to the natural world; a village of friends who can do hard yards with me; and the lessons of the snail…

Slow. Slow.

This road I’m walking now is long and flinty. Uneven. Lonely, too. But there are glimmers in the dust, and moments of radiance, too. Look left, look right, look down, look up. They are there for the finding.

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On my mourning walks, continuance doesn’t always feel possible, but when the sun shouts to me, or the rain pelts on me, then life races in my veins, and I stride out, relieved that the world is as I knew it.

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On less flamboyant sky-days, when the world offers mostly grey, I must use my own resources to push forward. Those are days for smaller blooms, shy offerings. I have to work for beauty. But it’s there.

 

 

That’s when I can see that if I do two things, I might get through. Just two little things…

Stay with slow and ask for help.

The same two things. The same two things. I come back and back to them.

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I have never been such a snail before.

My belongings are reduced to what fits in my car, and I frequently pull my head into my shell and retreat from the world, but still I find it difficult not to want to race through days.

 

That won’t help. I must stay present to details, like the droplets of dew on blades of morning grass – maybe then I will see them for diamonds.

IMG_0285I’ve never before needed so much help, either. Yet even after carrying pride for 1300 kilometres and getting masterclasses about acceptance from Spaniards and Italians and Peruvian/Americans and so many others, still I get tangled by those three simple words “Help me. Please.”

So. I’ve confessed!

Now you know my sins. Haste and pride. Hasty pride. Prideful haste. Ergh.

Recently I decided that since my emotional “muscles” are being made over, I should perhaps do the same with my physical ones, so I’m learning to swim. I know, I know. How can I have come this far and never had had a lesson? It’s unAustralian!

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Well I grew up in desert country and on farms, with no pools nearby, and by the time I was in the big smoke of Perth, everyone else could swim, so I just did athletics! But I’ve always wanted to learn the strokes so I could manage more than my ungainly dog-paddling breaststroke.

Swimming is hard. One half-lap of the pool exhausts me. My muscles scream. My chest hurts. And worst of all – I can’t do it without intense focus on kicking/breathing/engaging core muscles/tilting/etc/ad nauseum. I’m not good at this! I don’t know how to do it! It isn’t easy for me! I fail! I am upended! I have to ask for HELP!

Grrrrr…..

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My swimming teacher says I have endurance, and it will return in the water. Eventually. But first I must learn to do things differently and to trust that I won’t go under. I must be a beginner. I must give up and do what the water requires of me. I must know that it will take time, and I must practice. I must not expect too much of myself. I must pay attention only to the action that is required, and I must slow.

Grrrrr…

I sink regularly, but I want very much to float, or at least to be buoyant, so I will keep on.

Being a beginner is hard. Always. Asking for help is hard, and so is being a snail. But I’m trying to take the lessons of the water into my days. I am trying to swim through my mourning walks, and sometimes, on better days, I can see some diamonds in the grass.

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