Winging away

I have been obsessed with owls of late. First I was asked to write a piece for a new online magazine called The Barn Owl Journal that has come out of Melbourne’s Twilight School. I found myself trawling books and the internet, looking at owls and considering the mythology around them. Eventually I wrote a piece that was inspired by a heartbreaking image of an owl in captivity, hunkered into a corner of a plywood box.

Then, out walking one day in Sydney, I chanced on a young owl and one of its parents, being harassed by mynahs. I wanted to intervene. To stop the war. But clearly the parent owl was forbidding enough to stop the irritants from coming too close. The baby simply sat on its branch, blinking and gazing down at me with those curios O O eyes.

Back in Melbourne, a miracle occurred one day while I was walking the Elwood canal. A group of people were standing in silence, looking up at what seemed to be an ordinary tree branch. Closer inspection revealed a tawny frogmouth on a nest. IMG_4659Brilliant camouflage, but somehow she had been spotted. Or he. Apparently they co-parent, taking turns on the nest or to find food.

But I digress.

Over time, I watched as that bulge under the wing revealed itself to be two little owl chicks. I began to walk morning and evening. I didn’t take my other paths. My camino was always to the owls. I observed the comings and goings, and struck up conversations with other walkers who had come to feel the owl family was theirs.

The babies seemed to develop personalities – one was cheeky and the other reclusive.

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More and more of us were drawn to them. I would walk faster to get to them, stand for longer underneath them, and drag my heels walking away. We talked excitedly of the changes, we people of the owl. We swapped anecdotes. Felt ourselves to be their guardians.

One day I saw one of the chicks stretch a wing, and my heart thudded. It was long and strong. It stretched wide. I hadn’t realised that the babies were preparing to fly the nest. To me they were family now. Permanents. In spite of the parent owls regarding us with their detached wisdom, I had somehow reached the conclusion that the chicks were ours. Mine.

The adult owls knew better.

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I contacted my sister to come and photograph them. I brought friends to pay homage. I told myself they would not be there forever. I visited more frequently and saw that the chicks had left the nest and were now sitting on another branch, their personalities still the same, but their bodies grown. I was proud of them. Unreasonably excited at their achievements…IMG_4750

Then one Sunday morning, I came running down the path, and they were gone. All four of them, the parents too. Gone. I stood under the branch, looking up, thinking of those people who say they can feel a missing limb after it has been taken. Eventually I walked on. Then I turned and came back, as though I might have snuck up on them unawares. I played that game for several days, visiting at odd times and doubling back.

But they never returned.

Humans did. Sometimes I would come upon a group of other owl-fans, standing below the branch looking up to where they had been, eyes wide and mouths open. All silent. It was like coming to a holy site. We were making a pilgrimage of a kind. The tree – that branch – is now the place where the owls came. It is sacred for some of us. It will always be so. They blessed us by nesting there, and then the parent owls did what all great parents do for their offspring – they gave them wings and taught them to fly.

As I prepare to let go of another year, I hope I can do it with the same grace and beauty of the owls. I hope I can remember to fly above my own petty disappointments or insecurities and soar on the updrafts of gratitude and discovery. I have had a year full of wonders and of kindness. I have been given nests by friends and strangers, so that I could do my work on the next book. I have been asked to share my Sinning Across Spain stories with attentive and welcoming hearts. I have learned and learned. The book has been reprinted, and it is still being given from one hand to another. This is another set of miracles for me.

So, at Christmas, I wish you wings, and a safe nest in which to shelter with those you love. I wish you places of sanctuary and sacredness, wherever you find them. I wish you peace and plenty. And I wish you moments of wonder, where you stand, eyes wide and mouth open, touched by the miraculous possibilities of this astonishing planet.

Thank you. As always. For opening my heart and mind and spirit.

In 2014, I am hoping to complete my next book. I have been given some more “nests”. I start with time in residence at Bundanon, the amazing gift made by Arthur Boyd for the creation of new work. Then I go as writer in residence to another place gifted by an artist – the Katherine Susannah Prichard Centre in Perth. I will be giving talks and workshops while there, so will put up news here and on Facebook as they are settled. Also, Radio National are rebroadcasting the Sinning Across Spain episode of Poetica on January 11th, and on January 12th, they will play the episode of Spirit of Things in which I am in conversation with Tony Doherty.

But for now, gratitude again. Peace to you and yours. Deep peace.

May you fly high and safe in the coming year. Spread your wings and lift off….

Blues…

Abrolhos Island Blues

Abrolhos Island Blues

I’m mad for blue.

It might be my favourite colour.

When I was first shown the cover of “Sinning Across Spain”, the ratio of village to sky was different to the final version. My only request, because I thought the design completely beautiful, was for more sky and less village. That was partly because the experience of walking had been much more about sky and solitude than village and community, but it was also my delight in that intense turquoise, chosen by the brilliant designer.

Blues…

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Smoky Katoomba blues

There are so many of them in life’s Derwent pencil box, and all sing to me of horizons and skies, distance and possibility. Of opening, adventure, salt spray and infinity.

Why, then, do we say that we “have the blues” when we are sad or wan?  Why not the purples, which seem to me to be much more fraught? Or perhaps the browns, which are murkier to my eye, and more like the way I feel when I can’t see woods for trees.

My online dictionary suggests that the first to use the word “blue” to mean “sad” was Chaucer, back in 1385.  I wonder why he didn’t choose to say he had the “greys” – the colour I associate with those lowering English skies.

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Serene Elwood Blues

And why do people sing the “blues”? The great B.B. King says the blues are an expression of anger against shame and humiliation, but to my mind, that sounds more like the “reds”. The “vermilions” even!

I’ve had a dose of “the blues” lately. Nothing big. Certainly nothing that compares to the stories I was honouring and hearing as I walked 27 kilometres across seven bridges and through miles of national park in Sydney’s Seven Bridges Walk. It was a fundraiser for the Cancer Council, and I’ve rarely been more conscious of how fortunate I am to be walking and laughing with friends.

The Cancer Council employs a bright yellow daffodil on their logo – surely the colour of optimism and hope. Walkers who were supporting research for breast cancer wore pink – for some, the colour of birth and renewal and hope. I wore white  – possibility, clarity, purity, perhaps. My intentions were pure; I was walking for the possibility of a brighter future; and I was holding clear memories of people who had lost lives to cancer.

But, blue. Why blue?

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Sky Sky Sky Blues

You know, I don’t feel I’ve had the blues. I think I’ve had the beiges, actually. A kind of grubby blah colour. Nothing to write home about, and brought on only by focusing on the minutiae of my own fears and inadequacies. I think maybe I need to go out and get me some periwinkle blue sea. Or some cornflower blue sky. Some perspective! After all, there is so much to celebrate…

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Delighted blues! Grateful blues? The book has just had another reprint, for which SO many thanks to all who have recommended it and supported it – and its author. Thank you so much. xx

May you have all of the blues all day long: the best and brightest of blues, the shimmering shiny blues; the deep naviest of blues; the crisp new blues; and the soft soft babiest of blues. Have them all – and throw off any greasy old greys!

And a postscript…If you feel like celebrating, raising a glass, kicking back and hearing some stories and poems, I’m going to be presenting a scaled down version of my Sinning Monologue at Travellers Bookstore in Melbourne on November 21st. I’d so love it if you came along. Claire is a great hostess and I promise to deliver with every bit of me! There will be French vins and fromages, and Spanish vinos and jamons – and hopefully lots of travel stories shared! Details for this – and several other events – are over on the Events and Media page. So hope to see you before the year closes.

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Where stories take me…

I read this little piece on ABC radio’s Australia All Over recently. Jen Dawson contacted me via Twitter and asked if she could access it. I can’t get a copy of me reading it, but here it is Jen, in written form. Thanks for listening. Hope you enjoy it. A story about stories…

IMG_2758Once upon a time, I walked across Spain – 1300 kilometres from Granada to a place called Finisterre. Land’s End.

I carried hurts and disappointments that had been given to me by others. They called them their sins. So did I, back then. But really, they were stories. And those stories became my story.

Along that road, I met Spaniards who told me of pain and of gain. Some told jokes – which are stories with a twist. Some told shaggy-dog tales, designed to keep me guessing. They succeeded. I guessed and guessed for six weeks, out on the Spanish soil.

When I came home I tried to write a play, but the stories decided they wanted to be a book. Sure enough, they had their way. And now that book, called Sinning Across Spain, has its way, taking me down new roads to hear more stories.

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At a festival called Big Sky in Geraldton, on the edge of the Indian Ocean, a man called Gavin tracked me down to tell me that he used to play with my mother when she was a child. He gave me new stories of her.

It was the nineteenth anniversary of her death and he returned her to me with interest.

 

ImageAs a  young actress, I was in a play about DH Lawrence. Thirroul, where he lived for a time, seemed like the most exotic place on the planet to me, living on the west coast of the continent. Decades later, I spoke about my book at the Thirroul library, only a fortnight ago. Stories brought me full circle. They’d transported me.

703884_437981306268635_630632006_oJust lately, I’ve been writing in Sydney, where I’ve been given a home by an actress called Amanda Muggleton. She’s on the road across Australia, touring a play called The Book Club. It’s about how stories can infect you, take you over, make you laugh and weep and make love. And then laugh again. A lot. Her stories on the road are making my new stories possible.

A fortnight ago, in Spain, an Australian woman named Anna walked into a town called El Ganso. She was looking for a very old man called Domingo. Years back, when I was walking that same road, Domingo took me for a tour of his tiny town – an hour – no, more – of intricate details. Losses, loves, chooks and roses. I wrote his story in my book. Anna read it, and in El Ganso she asked for Domingo. He wasn’t there but his sister was. Domingo had gone to Madrid to see his son, she said. He didn’t return often because he was not well, but he was alive. His sister said how happy he would be to be in a book. To have his story told….

On King Island, at the other end of the world, I met a woman in her 80’s. She was wise and funny and seemed to know every story ever told. When I asked her if she liked Melbourne, she said she had never been. She wanted to see Hobart first. She had never left the island, but she’d had books for company all her life. Stories. She was generous with them, too. She gave me tale after tale, laugh after laugh. A tear or two, too.

Stories.

They feed us if we stay at home, and they guide us if we go away. They are our lifeblood and our navigation systems. They are our homing instincts and our lights in the dark. They warm the nights and pass the days. They take us out of ourselves.

They are songlines and dreamings, bush tucker and essential oils. They are our best bits and our secrets. They are our stories, and they keep on telling us. Over and over and over. We might have full stops, but stories go on…

To Land’s End and back.

All over Australia.

Yesterday, today and tomorrow.

Never never.

Always and all ways…

We are our stories, and we will keep on being told…

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I’m thinking of everyone in NSW, and particularly the Blue Mountains, where I was writing last week. Hoping that the rain from the south travels to you and that peace is restored.

Stories that move…

This is a higgledy-piggledy thought trail.  A bit like one of those roads that twist and turn and loop back and cross over and duck beneath. You get there eventually but you have to trust that the trail is not tricking you.

IMG_3846Firstly, I’m on the road again. Well, more accurately, I’m in the air. I’m off to WA for the Big Sky Festival in Geraldton. This is tremendously exciting. It’s a combined homecoming and discovery. I’ve not been there for decades, and my last trip was on tour as a beginning actress. Geraldton was occasionally a stopping point on the way north to the Gascoyne when we were driving home after a visit to Perth, so I have sketchy memories of it, but I have none of my other destination – the Abrolhos Islands.

Yes, a few lucky writers are being taken over to the Abrolhos, to stay the night. It’s a sanctuary and a wild place. I looked at the expected temperatures, and the maximums and minimums are the same! There are seals and turtles and birds and…wildness. It’s a great privilege to overnight there. Usually only the fishermen who work there are allowed to stay, and under strict supervision. I can’t believe my luck.

IMG_1262Meanwhile, from out on the roads in Spain I am getting missives from pilgrims. September 2009 was when I walked the Camino Frances, my first camino, and so I feel very sentimental about those who are currently making their way. Protective. And a bit envious, if I’m truthful.

Only a bit.

Buen camino one and all, and may the road continue to rise. Gracias for the letters and posts and pictures. I’m coming back.

Yes I am.

And in other news, I’ve decided that I am going to do the Seven Bridges Walk in Sydney on October 27th to raise some money for Cancer research. Next weekend will be the 19th anniversary of my beautiful Mum’s death, and as I approach the age she was when she died, I feel even more keenly how much was taken from her. And from others I’ve lost. I’m also walking in gratitude for those I love who have recovered, and for my own strong legs and heart.

IMG_3993People have given me so much since I put the word out that I was doing the walk. Many of the gifts have been stories. Stories of loss. Stories of hope. Stories of transcendence and grief and euphoria.

I have been moved by accounts of gifted doctors and children’s recoveries, courage and fear and perseverance. We humans, at our best, are truly wonders. We can envision a better future, and that is remarkable.

One such person is Emily Simpson, who was the first to give to my fundraising campaign. Emily is a remarkable woman who has singlehandedly driven a quest to create a permanent labyrinth walk in Centennial Park in Sydney. She is a mighty spirit. Not content with donating to Seven Bridges fund, she also sent me a poem, knowing how much I love a verse hit. And so I share it with you here.

For all of us, on our various roads, heading toward our personal Santiago…

Santiago

The road seen, then not seen, the hillside
hiding then revealing the way you should take,
the road dropping away from you as if leaving you
to walk on thin air, then catching you, holding you up,
when you thought you would fall – and the way forward
always in the end, the way that you came, the way
that you followed, that carried you into your future,
that brought you to this place, no matter that
it sometimes had to take your promise from you,
no matter that it always had to break your heart
along the way: the sense of having walked
from far inside yourself out into the revelation,
to have risked yourself for something that seemed
to stand both inside you and far beyond you…

Excerpt from “Santiago”
From Pilgrim: Poems by David Whyte ©2012 David Whyte

 

Wherever your road is leading you today, may you enjoy the twists and turns, and duck your head when necessary, but remember to look up and make the occasional wish too, won’t you?

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And here is some housekeeping info…

The Events and Media pages are up to date. Click above in the menu bar for info.

I’ll update movements – with Abrolhos pics! – on Facebook.

If you’d like to know more about the Seven Bridges walk, just click here. You might like to put on your boots and join us!

 

Walking home

IMG_3632The other day I was on the mobile, talking to a friend, when she asked me what I was doing. Perhaps the heavy breathing made her curious!

“Walking home,” I answered.

I kept striding along the bayside trail and talking to my friend, both activities at a pretty hectic pace, but one part of me had stopped, rolling those two words over and over in my mind.

Walking home.

Walking home.

I’m always walking home, I realised. It’s what I do every time I set out for a stroll, a wander, a saunter or a pilgrimage. It’s what I do when I walk out the front door or into the wind; away from someone I love or toward a challenge; and even when I sit here at the desk, tapping at these keys, I am walking my self home. I’m not sure where that home is, but it’s located somewhere within, I think. It’s the part of me that is still and quiet; the part that grins like a loon when I’m loping along an open road; the part that remembers the rhythm of camino days; the part that knows I need nothing other than air to be happy. To be whole.

When I can locate it, it feels like what they call grace. But it eludes me too often.

I was not walking home when I sat on the phone for an hour yesterday, reporting a faulty telephone line. The call centre staff were doing their best, so why couldn’t I keep my breathing even and my tone calm? I’m not walking home when I wake at 2am panicking about failure or the uncertainty of the future. Of course the future is uncertain. I know there are no guarantees, even for those who have contracts and salaries. Why should that wake me in the night?

At those times, I forget that I am walking home; that every heartbeat, every in-breath and every out-breath is a reminder that if I choose to be, I am getting closer.

PB083824I must choose.

I can’t always expect to know I’m on the path, as I do when I walk out on welcoming, shaded roads.

I must actively choose to see every step as a step toward home. I must hold the memory of that in every cell, and trust that I am getting there. That we are all getting there.

Home.

Home safe.

Home free.

That’s something to write home about, isn’t it?

Coming home. Going home.

“Walking home,” I said, when she asked what I was doing. Even if I never make it, the journey will be beauty-filled if I can only keep that simple mantra close.

Walk home. Walk home. With every breath, may you walk yourself closer to home.

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A floral clock

IMG_3854Sometimes I feel I’m living a version of Groundhog Day.

I can predict, almost to the moment, when the first jonquils will peep through in the front garden.

It can make me feel a bit anxious, wondering if I’ve lived too long in the same place, or I’m becoming entrenched. I worry I’m in danger of letting my thinking get stale or my behaviours set.

But then I let myself drift back through time, to other occasions when those intensely perfumed white blooms have caught my attention: coming home from the camino, reminding me there was beauty to be had in my own patch; after the death of a friend, shaking me into seeing new life; late at night as guests walked out into cold night air, the fragrance linked to laughter and shared stories.

IMG_3736Wattle takes me to childhood. There were different strains of it, of course, in Western Australia, but that spicy honey scent and the certainty that sunshine, exactly that wattle-colour, will track me down, makes me feel six again. Sticking a sprig of wattle in a bottle brings instant optimism to my desktop. Brushing pollen tips as I step out onAustralian trails has always lifted me. They say there’s at least one species of wattle in bloom somewhere all year. How comforting that is. Spring all year.

IMG_3779I inhaled my first whiff of jasmine for this season in Sydney a week ago, and time-travelled to 1994 when my mum was dying. Jasmine, with its promise of warm spring nights, is associated with her death for me. But there is beauty and happiness in that, too. With the passing of time, I recall her smiles and embrace, so jasmine is now a reminder to live large. To suck in the moments. To inhale bigger breaths of scented air and optimism. Jasmine is a call to expand.

 

IMG_0437Roses are fat, lush memory-vessels.

Opening nights and well-wishes.

Swooning in June.

Birthdays and farewells.

Buckets of them. Bud vases.

Trysts and mists of time.

Pink roses are also my mother – her instruction to remember her whenever I see one trailing against a stone wall.

 

IMG_3498Love like a red red rose…

But oh, surely also an apricot wonder and a yellow sunburst and a Mr Lincoln with a scent to stop anyone’s tracks.

Even mine.

IMG_2299Surely those roses do  make the heart skip.

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And sunflowers…flowers of the camino. Nothing brings back Spain like them. Nothing makes my toes itch so. Nothing makes my lips twitch into a smile like a sun sun sunflower. The roads lined with them, my memories dotted with them. Sun fun sunflowers, you have mapped my happy heart.

And the daffodil! How could I forget that easy-grow blessing that can be had for a gold coin. Generosity on a purse-string. What more?

Yes, I know already what comes next in my city wanderings…honeysuckle and tulips and cherry blossom peeping over fences and scenting back lanes. Does knowing of their arrival make me love them less? Will I greet them without joy, simply because they can be predicted? Or will I thank them for mapping my days and marking my ways?

I walk along and through and inside and outside of time and space and the floral clock of my years, and staleness is a choice, and patterns are for making as much as breaking…and flowers are a gift I must never fail to meet with love.

So have a bunch. From me.

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A couple of postscripts…

There is a new article I wrote over at Eureka Street. Here is a link.

Also, I’ve updated the Events and Media page. A few talky things and some travel.

Bloom!

Generosity = love

Last Saturday, I posted this photo on my Facebook page…

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Underneath it I wrote –

Down a deep tunnel, working away. But here’s some Saturday love in lieu of news. X

I’m not much chop on social media. I’ve let go of my claim to being the “world’s most connected Luddite”, but I’m still not across it all as I’d like to be, and I’d been absent from my Facebook village for quite a time. Working, working. Writing and immersing. Wrangling – confidently on some days and blindly on others. Normal.

Anyway, I wanted to wave hello to my village of support, so a little love was despatched into the Facebook ether, and I went about my day.

Some time later I got a message to say there was a comment waiting for me. It was from a writer colleague called Jesse Blackadder. She left these words –

In lieu of news can I report that my partner Andi just finished Sinning Across Spain this morning – adored it, and cried at the end xx

When I saw them, I lifted – and not just for the words about my book, although they meant a great deal, particularly as they came from a writer I admire. What struck me even more than Jesse’s kindness in leaving the message was the history I have with her. It’s a history of generosity.

We “met” in the lead-up to last year’s Byron Bay Festival, when Jesse was doing some social media work and writing for them. She was always available and encouraging to me as I began my journey into the world of Festivals and writing appearances. By the time the Festival came around, I had that weird sense, via online connection, that I knew her.

In the throng of the opening party, Jesse made a point of seeking me out to say hello. In person she was smiling and curious, attentive and funny. I watched her later, spinning around the dance floor with Andi, and thought what a vibrant spirit she had. That feeling only grew as I followed her adventures on Facebook and via email in the following months. Jesse has been all over – from Antarctica to NYC, and several places in between. She was writing, researching and getting awarded. In Paris she bought an excellent coat!

When I went to the Perth Writers Festival at the beginning of this year, I was chuffed to learn Jesse would be there. Unreasonably happy, really, given that we don’t actually know each other. But then, what is knowing? We are both engaged in the precarious and occasionally disheartening business of wrestling with words – and we both feel incredibly grateful for the privilege of doing it. That is certainly a point of connection. But we’ve not spent great chunks of time, or had lengthy correspondence.

Anyway, there she was in a mini-bus in Perth, greeting me with her sunny smile, asking after all my news, and wishing me well. When I mentioned my nerves at performing the Sinning monologue in a theatre where I had acted almost thirty years earlier, she said “Oh, I’ll come along and watch you.”

She was in the middle of a hectic programme of events of her own, but she was as good as her word, and sat in the centre of the auditorium beaming at me all the way through. I could feel her willing me on and wishing me well.

In May, I was at the Sydney Writers Festival, and was a bit off-colour health-wise. In the foyer of the hotel, all the writers and publishers and agents were mingling – waving to one another, buying drinks, shouting jokes. Normally such a scene would have been enticing, at the very least as an exercise in learning who is who. That afternoon it looked a bit daunting. Then, over at the bar, I saw Jesse. We waved. I wandered over to say hello. She asked after me, told me she was off to New York for an awards ceremony and enquired about how my next book was progressing. Little things. But as always, I felt that Jesse’s welcome and interest were genuine. She is completely present in conversation, and has that particular gift of being able to make people feel they are the only one in the room.

We wished each other well and went about our days, but again, she had left me feeling better for that chance meeting.

Generosity is many things. Often it’s made into something rather grand – bequests and donations, pledges and promises. Those things are vital, but fiscal generosity is only one aspect. In some ways, generosity of spirit is harder. It can cost more than signing a cheque. It requires more intimate things of us. Personal debits on the ledger…

Time. Stopping and giving of oneself when the clock is ticking or the day getting away, or there is someone more “interesting” over the shoulder.

Seeing. Paying attention instead of cash. Observing, not just noticing. Looking for signs that another person is vulnerable or uncertain.

Extending. Going out of the way to be present, whether the other person can yield up a reward to us or not.

Generosity is the welcome to the stranger out on the road. I’ve known that. But it’s also profound in moments that are easily overlooked – the ordinary ones that occur in workplaces, in families, among friends and colleagues, at parties, on minibuses and in bars. There are strangers to welcome there too.

Jesse has been like sunshine for me on all those occasions, and I’m pretty sure that she might not have had any idea of it, or of what her smiling welcome has meant. She simply acted out of generosity. When I looked up the derivation of that word, it told me it came from Middle English and suggests “nobility of birth”. I reckon that sums it up. Jesse has nobility. She might be amused or appalled at that word, but she does. I’ve experienced it first hand, and am profoundly grateful.

So this is a kind of love letter to Jesse. And a thank you note. And a song of praise. She reminds me to pay closer attention (not a bad thing for a writer), to take a breath, to listen intently, and to stay present with whoever appears. To extend myself. To take one more step along the road with those I meet, even when I think we are done.

Amor is Spanish for love.

Gracias is Spanish for thanks.

I send both to Jesse.

If you’d like to know more about Jesse and her wonderful books, duck over and spend some time at www.jesseblackadder.com. Think of it as meeting a new chum.

Byron sunshine = Jesse's welcome

Byron sunshine = Jesse’s welcome

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