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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Snail trails

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Photo courtesy of Anna Chandler. Gracias companera!

 

Just over a year ago, I wrote a post honouring Domingo.

He was a man I met in 2009 in a pueblo called El Ganso on the Camino Frances.

You may recall his story from Sinning Across Spain, but if not, please click here and have a read.

It’s one of my favourite camino memories, and it still fills me with happiness whenever I recall the time I spent with him at the end of a long and dusty plod. I have longed to go back and see him ever since.

For the last month or so, I’ve been getting updates from a smiling pilgrim called Anna Chandler as she made her way along the trail on the Frances. She’d read Sinning Across Spain and contacted me via Facebook just before she left. I wished her well, and asked her to have a vino tinto for me. She did – and also updated me on blisters and pilgrim numbers. I asked her to have a sol y sombra. I think she did, then she updated me on her progress as she edged toward the meseta. I asked her to look up Domingo for me when she reached El Ganso, out there on the plains.

She did. Sadly, she didn’t find him.

But she did find his sister.

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Anna Chandler with Domingo’s sister. Gratitude to you, Anna, for this gift.

This is what Anna reported via the wonders of Facebook…

“She was thrilled to hear her brother was in a book and is going to pass on your regards to him by phone. If my understanding was correct, either him or his wife had eaten too many sweets, got fat and needed a leg operation. One son or daughter lives in America and Domingo and wife were recuperating in Madrid before heading to the US for a wedding.”

I can’t tell you what it meant to me to know that Domingo was alive, even if he isn’t altogether well. To hear that he is able to go and see his son, when he had told me of that young man back in 2009 – well, it seemed like a miracle.

We live on opposite sides of the globe, and are separated by culture, language and time. We only met for an hour or so. Yet our encounter continues to live in me and to light my days. Domingo came to represent a particular kind of kindness, and his generosity called up something of the best in me. He invited me to attend to him and his life. To really and truly pay attention. He did it by offering me his story.

In the last month, as Anna has been walking and updating me, I’ve travelled across Australia. I’ve talked about Domingo in Geraldton in Western Australia, in Melbourne in Victoria, and in Thirroul in NSW. His story always touches people – perhaps because we all yearn to connect deeply, even if only for an hour or so. Perhaps it resonates because we are so busy and move so fast, even though we know that slowing down is something we should be doing. Somehow…we can’t.

Domingo was a guru for me, and I thank the stars of the Milky Way that he is still on the planet, and that I can continue to remember and honour him by repeating his story. Our stories are sacred, I believe. In the end, they may be all we have. I marvel constantly that I am taken out onto the road by virtue of a book about walking a road. A story leads me out to tell more stories, after having borrowed stories to fill the book. It’s a cycle that keeps on expanding. It’s a cycle that expands me. It’s a trail that always leads me deeper into myself.

The other guru given to me on the camino was the snail. They continue to find me, to remind me. Slow down. Keep your antenna up. Move with care and attention. Just this week in Sydney, I was reminded again!

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Wherever you are walking, let it be at snail’s pace for some of the day.

And may you hear every story that is offered to you along your trail.

Gracias, Anna, for giving me another chapter in Domingo’s story.                                        And congratulations on walking your camino with such joy and optimism.

Hace tres años…

IMG_2993Three years ago I was in Córdoba.

Rather like this morning in Melbourne, I woke to rain, but back then, I dressed in a rush and stepped out across cobbles made slippery by fallen orange blossom, to attend a service at the Mezquita.

If you’ve read the book, you know the rest of the story of that day…the marvel of poetry floating overhead, wonder at the city’s history of inter-faith tolerance, sorrow at the way it ended, hunger for the faith of the Spanish ancianos, gratitude for the sunshine that arrived to release the scent of neroli, pleasure at sweet treats in an Arabic tea shop…

And the breakdown suffered by my theologian.

“I am so afraid,” he said more than once.

Some readers tell me they found him difficult company, and were glad when we parted. I’m sorry for that. I suppose they’re experiencing him through my eyes, feeling my wish for solitude and freedom from his sadness. His breaking.

I’m grateful I was there to be with him that day in Córdoba. For all that it was hard, and I was not having the solitary camino of my dreams, what passed between us was honourable. Decent. He broke. I bore witness – and gave some small comfort. It was an exchange that cost us both, but also enlarged us, I hope.

IMG_3012It’s not always easy or pleasant to bear witness to the fullness of another person. It’s also hard to allow someone else to see the fullness of ourselves. The “Facebook selfie”, selected to give just the right airbrushed impression, has become ubiquitous, and we are in danger of becoming less and less able to sit in the discomfort of another’s full humanity – their contradictions, errors, ugliness and frailty. Also, and this may be more of a “sin” than we care to acknowledge, we become less and less able to reveal our own frailties and ugliness.

Or is that a confession?

I should know by now to be wary of speaking for “we” and “us”. Generalisations and sweeping claims are dangerous, and all I know is the compass of my own limited experience. Lately I feel that diminishing. Fear and doubt sidle up to me more often than I’d like. There are days when I can’t listen with care or patience as I did in Cordoba. There are days when I am not true to myself – to the person I was in Cordoba, for all her shortcomings. And there are days when I will only serve up the tidy, edited version of myself. For all of that, I’m sorry.

I suppose that does make this is a confession, then.

And I will try to do better.

Funnily enough, I’d intended to write of “good news”today, because there’s plenty of it.

IMG_3043“Sinning Across Spain” has just come out in a beautiful scaled-down B version that sits in the hand perfectly. It was released on April Fool’s Day, exactly one year after the original publication date. I think of that fool’s day as my day, so the serendipity pleases me.

And there is more to celebrate! I’m going to be at the Sydney Writers Festival on May 23rd, in conversation with the luminous Caroline Baum, and the remarkable Cheryl Strayed, who wrote “Wild”. Details are on the Festival website.

My intention when I sat down was to write about those two pieces of news, but somehow it didn’t seem right to pump out “publicity” here. I strive for something real in my community of subscribers and commenters, and feel I owe something to this village – fidelidad. As I learned with my amigo, it is in fidelity to self and others that we expand.

So on this rainy Melbourne day, let me confess that I’m not always walking with a sure step just now, and writing eludes me at times, but I’m doing my best and trying to live up to the faith that people have in me. That faith spurs me on, and lets me believe that the sun will reappear, and with it, perhaps even the scent of neroli.

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A very belated heads-up, if you didn’t see it on Facebook…

Here is an article I wrote recently, turning some of these feelings into something like sense – for me anyway. Hope it resonates: The Gift of Sadness

Neroli…

Some say it was the name of an Italian princess, but for me it’s spring in Andalucía.

Neroli is the essential oil distilled from the flowers of Seville oranges, and it was the scent of Granada, Córdoba, Mérida, and most of the pueblos between them when I walked the Camino Mozárabe. The streets and squares of my stops were lined with citrus trees in blossom. The air smelled fresh and pure, tangy, a little sharp, and full of the promise of summer.

Like a princess, perhaps?

Probably not like a pilgrim!

This morning I stepped out the back door and stopped in my tracks. I was in Spain. Late afternoon. Road’s end. Treading on cobbles strewn with white petals, inhaling the name of a princess.

Spain? How?

The lemon tree is in flower! It’s not quite neroli, but it’s close.

But then, Melbourne isn’t quite Granada…or Córdoba…

It’s late spring here at the bottom of the world, but if I close my eyes, that scent and its associated memories can almost make my toes throb as though I’ve walked 30kms. Almost!

My memory of those days is becoming like mobile phone photos.

Hazy and soft focus.

Selective.

I’m glad I had a journal and my sister’s camera with me when I walked. Now, when I look back, those photos and scrawls balance my tendency to romanticise. They are there to remind me of the hard yards, the bigger pictures and the non-pastel days; the harsh light and the cold winds; the fear of failure; the sombra that is the contrast to all my remembered sol.

I’m in conversation with Monsignor Tony Doherty next week – do read his guest post here if you haven’t already,  and check the Events and Media tab above if you’d like to come. My prep for that event has made me reflect on my amigo, and our time walking together. Always, when people enquire after him, what they want to know about is my wrestle with desire. Rarely am I asked about the secret he carried, and the pain it gave him. Rarely does anyone want to discuss the shame that he felt, for himself and his brother. That may be politeness and good manners, but I wonder sometimes if it is more about a collective unwillingness to dwell in those places because we feel helpless. I certainly did, in the face of his story. Nonetheless, while I know that conversations about suicide and abuse are difficult, I do believe they are vital for understanding, and hopefully, for change.

So I’m glad that Tony’s dialogue with me comes now, in spring, when thoughts turn to horse racing and pretty hats; to lazy afternoons and cricket whites; to roses and wisteria. I want to remind myself to check the shadows sometimes, when all this sunshine can dazzle and distract me. I feel safe to do that in Tony’s company, because his generosity, humour and compassion make it possible to walk into any shadow and know that there will be a yellow arrow waiting when we walk out the other side – which we surely will, with him guiding!

It was lovely to surrender to that moment of citrus recall this morning. Seductive, enticing, sensual – and completely sin-free. But I owe it to my amigo, and to all of those who carry loads that cost them dear, to remember that the camino was not always painless – and that it would be foolish to expect that of any road.

A bush camino in springtime...

A postscript…

I’ve just been told that bookings are now full for the event with Tony. Sorry if you missed out. If you were really really keen to come, I’m told that you can call the number on the booking form and explain that you are a subscriber here and they may put you on a waiting list – but for now, registrations have closed.

And while I’m talking about subscribers, a hearty thankyou for the valuable feedback after the previous post. All of it has been noted, and I’m feeling less like a serial stalker, and more like a contributor to a village conversation. I’m very grateful.

 

El Ganso

Exactly three years ago, I was in El Ganso, just past Léon on the Camino Francés.

If I close my eyes, I can still smell cut grass on the warm evening air, and the sprig of lavender on my pillow as I drifted into sleep in a mercifully snore-free albergue. I can hear the dog’s bark ringing across the field below the town, reminding me that some creatures were working while I rested.

Most of all, I remember the contentment and internal quiet I felt in that town at the end of a tough and sometimes confusing day.

 

If you’ve read Sinning Across Spain, you may recall the story of Domingo, the old gentleman, or gentle old man, I met there. With all my heart, I hope he is still alive and well, and that he and his town have not been too much troubled by the economic crisis. I hope one day that I might return to thank him for the gifts he gave me.

The following passage from the book, and these photos, are to honour him and El Ganso. I hope that you, my village, will forgive me for posting something you may have read. But as Arthur Miller wrote – “Attention must be paid.”

And gratitude must be given.

Gracias, Domingo. Gracias, mi compañero.

Gracias…

At the end of a long hot day’s walking, I’d arrived in El Ganso, a pueblo my guidebook called “hauntingly crumbling”. It was dozing, and yes, perhaps a touch melancholy, with its Cowboy Bar at the entrance decorated in saddles and cowskins.

El Ganso means “wild goose”. I didn’t chase any.

I wandered out of the albergue as the sun flirted with the horizon. A lone dog barked and a bird fluttered among the beams of an abandoned adobe building behind me. To my left was the handful of houses that made up the town. To my right was the road out. Opposite was a narrow dirt lane between two tumbledown buildings, and walking towards me up that lane was a man with broad, open features. His eyes were surrounded by deep lines. He leaned on a walking stick and waved with his free hand.

Buenas tardes, peregrina,” he called, his face creasing into a grin. That smile was my introduction to Domingo. We stood in the main street, talking about the weather, how far I’d walked, and where I was from.

Australia got a good response.

He held out his free arm and suggested a little walk–un camino pequeno.

We set off at Domingo pace, stopping to sniff the wind, to look and listen.

He gave me the grand tour of El Ganso, where he had spent his entire life. We saw the houses of his brothers and sisters; a big two-storey house–not so nice as the low ones; the vacant land, just waiting for a nice lady from Australia to buy it and build a new home; the abandoned houses, falling into disrepair and back into the ground; the edible rose hips; and the scratching chooks with their scrawny chicks.

Stories everywhere. The house where he was born. The families who went away. The home that waits for his son. The flowers he planted for his sister. The figs, so good, so good…

Then he took me to his house and ushered me inside. He showed me his kitchen, and the kettle his wife favoured, their bedroom and bathroom, both modern and cool; the guest room–for next visit? Then his shed, with its tools and folding garden furniture. His backyard, where he picked for me white roses tinged with softest pink, and two perfect pears. He had sons in Seattle and Madrid, he told me. They made a lot of money but they didn’t come home much.

The whole tour took maybe an hour. Details, affection, the wonder of his almost-abandoned town…

Te gusta mi pueblo?” You like my town?

I did. I still do.

As the sun set, he walked me back along the empty main street to the albergue, where he left me with a stiff bow and a sweep of his free arm, saying, “Ésta es mi pueblo.

This is my town.

I watched him walk away, the scent of pears and roses wafting in the warm air as the church steeple turned orange. All around his retreating figure, the stones of the houses glowed. His home was radiant, radiating. I saw how full it was of loves and losses, and how much richer I was for him having stepped into my life to tell me of them.

I took my fruits and flowers to adorn my table at the Cowboy Bar. Cowboys were a disappearing breed, and I wondered about the future of those pueblos. Would they survive the rush of the young to the cities and beyond?

Friends, amigos, compañeros…

“Oh, no. We’re just friends…”

I overheard that while standing in a queue this week, and it struck me as odd. We’ve come to accept that “just friends” means “not romantically linked”, but when I reflected on the words, I felt a bit sad.

JUST friends?

I think friendship is the sustaining force in any relationship, romantic or otherwise, and to be called “friend” is praise of the highest order.

As someone who is lucky to have many remarkable, conscious, supportive relationships, I could never put a qualifier like “just” before the word “friend”. My friends – and they include family – are precious beyond words. And I have never been more grateful for them than in recent times.

 

Democracy in the street

Compañero

Like amigo, it can mean “friend”, but for me compañero has many resonances. Separating it into its component parts, we get “one with whom you break bread”, so there is a faintly religious overtone when I hear it – loaves and fishes, brotherhood of man.

I associate it with my camino compañero, who first taught it to me, and whose life is defined by serving others, by sitting in the poorest of places, breaking bread and listening.

These days, I think of our word “comrade” when I hear “compañero“. In particular, I remember the young indignados – those who were calling for change back when I was in Spain, long before the Occupy movement had begun. They were peaceful, courteous and respectful, but they were warning of problems ahead, and of the loss of possibility and hope, months before politicians were prepared to confront the issues head-on.

In Santiago, I marvelled as they graffitied a slogan on a bank. They didn’t paint onto the walls, but rather, they attached large sheets of paper on which they had written their protests, not wanting to damage the building.

I think of them often, wondering about their future, and how precarious it must feel now.

Companions. Comrades.

I hope they have friendship to sustain them.

 

Words on a wall

This was written in El Raval, in Barcelona. It’s a translation from Brecht.

WAYS TO KILL
There are many ways to kill
They can stick a knife in your guts
Take away your bread
Not cure your illness
Put you into bad living conditions
Torture you to death through work
Take you to war etc.
Only a few of these things are forbidden in our city

I don’t know who wrote it, but they missed out a line: Empujarte al suicidio…

Drive you to suicide…

I hear such sadness from Spain just now – friends, pilgrims, newspaper reports, television. I hear it from Greece and Ireland too.

I also hear resilience and courage. Stoicism and humour.

I hope they are able to take some strength from friendship, camaraderie and family. I hope that they will continue to have bread to break. I hope that we who currently have much will be able to remember our luck, and help where we can.

I hope that I can be more than JUST a friend…

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Gracias, amigos.