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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24 thoughts on “Mourning walks

  1. You will get there Ailsa, know I have trod the steps before.and succeeded. We never ever forget our dear departed ones but the grief does subside and our lovely memories remain.” Bon Camino” Margaret.

  2. Cheryl Strayed talks of four years seven months and three days to reach the place called the bridge of the gods. As I watched that scene roll by in Wild I realised its fours and seven months since Mick broke his neck. I have walked I have survived the wild and conquered fear but I cant shake off sadness. In fact I have learnt so much about fear and my strength but its simple I miss what we had because it was good. Its a hard thing to do, accept my grief. I want it to end. I want it to be swallowed up by my gratefulness and spat out as joy. Strangely I have learnt its not one of the other I can be sad and have joy all at once. You are a brave courageous woman who inspires so many people. Sad is normal, lost is normal, all of it normal and expected, just no-one really told us this is how it would because everyone hides their grief. The accepting is such a brave thing to do, accept that it hurts, yes so brave so kind.Thanks again for not hiding it helps us all feel normal and more than anything its kind of a lovely sharing of it all. Leunig says a thing about it that helps me
    When the heart
    Is cut or cracked or broken
    Do not clutch it
    Let the wound lie open

    Let the wind
    From the good old sea blow in
    To bathe the wound with salt
    And let it sting.

    Let a stray dog lick it
    Let a bird lean in the hole and sing
    A simple song like a tiny bell
    And let it ring.

    From The Prayer Tree
    by Michael Leunig

    • Thank you Mary, for the reminder of a favourite poem by a favourite poet, and the love that it brings. I adore those words, and the little dawning that usually accompanies them. Thank you.
      I hope your road gets easier and your burden lighter with every breath. Your courage and generosity inspires me. Love, Ailsa xxx

  3. I have just read a reflection written by my favourite Franciscan, Richard Rohr and I pass it to you dear Ailsa.
    …only after emerging from the belly of the whale did Jonah know what God was doing, and how God does it and how right God is- it is when you endure the journey, the darkness and have been spat out onto the shore you understand transformation. A prayer for you:
    God of surprising journeys, help me to live my life forward, trusting that you are steering the ship. Help me understand my life backward by seeing and forgiving.
    much love & many hugs,
    Trish

    • Wow. I love that image of being spat out onto the shore, Trish. I await it. I can feel that something is shifting, but how do we ever know how we have changed? I think that the idea of that sudden blurt is lovely – like a birth, isn’t it?
      And thank you for the prayer. Beautiful.
      You are kind. xxxx

  4. Ailsa, I just finished reading you’re book. And was told that you’re partner passed away – unexpectedly. It broke my heart. Then I experienced such a sadness. Perhaps I was still feeling very much connected to you after reading your book. So much of that book was a love story really. To be able to take such a journey, make intimate connections – without compromising what you felt for each other – said so much about your relationship. So open. So loving.

    I am very sorry for your loss…
    Dina
    xxx

    • Dear Dina,
      Thanks so much for your very kind words. Yes, there was something about Peter’s ability to let me go – he always did – that made coming home the respite that it always was. I don’t know that it was always easy for him to do it, but he never ever made me feel anything other than free. I did my best to give him the same grace – we had many times apart from each other, but always he was “home base” as he called himself.
      He was a good good man. I was lucky. many don’t get such kindness or freedom.
      Thank you for taking the time to remember him.
      Love and gratitude to you.
      Ailsa x

  5. Just this month remembering a mate who passed away suddenly in alcohol rehab. hospital – not yet 40 – just two years ago. Exchanges with his parents and with his wife/widow – their son my god-son (one of). An old friend from the first days of my teaching recently tracked my wife and I down – we we spent nearly two hours the other night catching up – a kind of ups and downs re-telling – the ups her own cheery self, the downs – the tragic death of a mountain-climbing son on Mt Arapiles – only 34, a dozen years ago – the deaths of her parents – of her sons’ father (we were all mates together) and sicknesses – terminal – striking other members of the family… Had we had children she asked – my turn to relate our own downs on that score – though she understood even before I said it that our nieces/nephews, god-children – and former students all – to a certain extent – filled that breach. Your “Mourning Walks” allows for our own reflection whilst remembering you are in your trough – of sorts. I went on a “morning walk” this morning – the Fernleigh Track – from Belmont to Adamstown – meeting up with a friend met first in Madrid in 1977 and her partner with whom I taught in Cabramatta – AMES Centre – in 1980. We’ve seen each other briefly over the years at gatherings – but not to listen deeply to each other’s stories. They are heading to Japan en route to Europe/the UK shortly – wanted to pick my brains. I referred at one stage to walking the 88-temples pilgrimage route – we spoke of el Camino, too. I was thinking: Aah! Ailsa..! I attended the funeral of one of the most significant of my many significant students early last month in Wagga Wagga. It was a huge funeral spilling out of historic St Johns Anglican. There was a moment when the microphone was opened to those who might wish to say a few words beyond the powerful eulogy delivered by his second son singer-songwriter Brendon BONEY. Three men addressed us in quick succession – then I stood and was halfway to the front when the Vicar asked everyone to bow their heads in prayer. Somehow he had not seen me. I proceeded to the microphone – and aware that sometimes one prayer can lead directly to another as soon as he pronounced the word:”Amen” my voice leapt into action: Is it okay if I say a few words now? And was able to proceed, of course – at which point a woman in the far corner of the church fainted. Exclamation marks all round. Basically what I wanted to say in farewell to my student – and to all his family and friends gathered there – was that it was essentially his presence in my class in Inverell in 1975 that decided my social justice pædagogical pathway! We read and reflected on Alan PATON’s Cry, the Beloved Country; Harper LEE’s To Kill a Mockingbird; and Wole SOYINKA’s poem: “Telephone Conversation” (Nigerian Wole SOYINKA was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986.) This morning I read a SMH obituary on Prof David COHEN (1930-2015) noted educator – from Victoria – many years in NSW at Macquarie U. – in his later years back to Victoria – in 1970 he helped set up the independent K-6 school “Currumbena” – visited by me and my fellow radical TDP Dip.Ed program students! There are connections for us all in all our moments of living – I take something of that with me in terms of people – you, too – though your way seems so beautifully interwoven by the natural word (your photos). This morning, despite the heavy rain in the early part of my Fernleigh Track walk – I listened to the crystal clear piping of bell-birds in two places – and the lashing of the whip-birds at another. Then out of the dark cloud heavy first half of the Track at the climb over Whitebridge into brilliant sunshine and blue skies and down into Adamstown. That’s the way of it isn’t – rain/tears – a hard slog up out of the slough of despair – into the brightness of a new day – and with the breeze at one’s back and a gentle slope downwards – an easy part of the path of life!

  6. Fernleigh and Adamstown…I shall seek these places on a map and picture you. The bell-birds call, connecting us across miles and across time, Jim.
    Thank you for another of your heartfelt responses, ranging, as they always do, across such intriguing connections and landscapes and people. What a tapestry you weave.
    May there be few tears and much easy walking Jim.
    Thank you. You always bring such gifts.

  7. dear Ailsa
    Does it help you to know how much you inspire others?
    To know how touched we are by your honesty and grace?
    And of course your beautiful words and photo snippets.

    Stay as you are, lovely lady. Mourn and grieve and rage and find joy and be gentle on yourself.
    And keep writing your thoughts.
    And I hope – take solace from those who value you, us, who only know you through your writing.
    Bev

    • Dear Bev,
      Huge gratitude to you. I have felt so very nervous about writing. Uncertain whether I could do it, and whether I had anything to say that was not self-pitying or completely self-absorbed. I want people to be able to take something from my words, wherever they are in their life, but this road has felt so completely singular at times.
      So your comment is a real gift. A kindness. Reassurance that the shared experience trumps withholding.
      Thank you. There is so much solace in this odd digital “village” we make together.
      Ailsa xxxx

  8. I second everything Bev has said. I am another who knows you and values you through your writing. It is such a tough road you are travelling at the moment and although we must all travel such a road alone, I hope you are able to find some solace in the fact that so many people hold you dear. On another note I am most impressed by the fact that you are learning to swim. Such courage! I also had a rural childhood, and swimming and pools were not a part of it. Maybe your example will help me overcome my fears. You are in my thoughts.

    • Dear Fayth,
      Do it! My little yellow kick board is already a good friend, and although I suspect it will take me weeks and months to call myself a swimmer – even a pretty hopeless one – there is something so exciting about the possibility that I will be able to lap that pool, and swim out beyond the deep…
      That deep was always scary, even though I love the water and the waves and the salt so very very much. Soon I will be launching out, bobbing my head under…I hope. I hope…
      Thank you for your beautiful kind words about my writing. They mean so very much. I have felt like I have nothing to offer at times in these last months, and so to know that my words were caught by people who “got” them – it makes me feel a little bit useful. And that is the best thing of all.
      Thank you xxxx

  9. Hi Ailsa,

    Over and over your words echo in my mind…keep writing…keep writing…still, you inspire me even though you are not with me.
    Keep swimming…keep swimming…you will be buoyant…you will float…you will swim. I know this, because you are you, and you will.

    Love and hugs,
    Renee x

    • Dear Renee,
      How lovely to hear from you. ANd to get such a strong message for my swimming! Of course now I will never be able to stop – you have hoist me on my own petard!
      I so hope everyone is writing up a storm at the KSP centre and that you are all surviving the heat of summer. Amazing that I was there, in that little writing cottage, about this time last year. Can’t fathom it.
      My gratitude and love to you for stopping by, and for such encouragement. xxxxx

  10. Dear Ailsa,

    Thank you for sharing… You have been so incredibly kind to me in the past and this post, your words, mean the world to me as I too am laden with grief. I have been on this path for three months now and I do appreciate when people say it gets easier, however for me, it just seems to be getting harder. At the beginning I thought, ‘just get through Christmas,’ but now what?? The thought of spending the next week, month, years, without Paul is unbearable. And so I walk. I take one day at a time, and I walk. In spite of the mainly horrible Scottish weather (horizontal rain and fierce winds – it is winter!) I give thanks for being able to walk amongst our beautiful nature and feel Paul close beside me. He was also a good man and I am very lucky to have been loved so deeply. But every day hurts, so much.
    I wish you well Ailsa and hope you keep writing, I needed to read your words this morning as I’m sure many others did too.
    Love Suzanne xxx

    • My dear Suzanne,
      Three months? I think the last time you commented here, Paul was coming home form the hospital and it was to be about a week. Oh my dear, I’m so sorry. I still think of your shiny eyes in the workshop that day, so nervous to be taking some time for you. Now it is all time for you, but so hard. So hard.
      I can’t really remember three months. I only know it was hard. Horrible. Black. Dark.
      I can tell you, light does get in. It is still hard. There are dark days. But I promise you, it does change. And of course, your road will be different. But it does begin to shift.
      People told me that and I hated it. Did that mean it meant I hadn’t loved? But no…it is the only doctor that will really help us. Doctor Time.
      You are in Scotland, you write? I hope you are surrounded by love. By people to wrap you up and make you feel safe.
      Thank you for stopping by. I send you strength and courage and so much love. Walk strong, but gently. Take time. Be kind. Be kind. To you. xxxxx

  11. Thanks you for having the courage to express your feelings in public.I applaud your concept of mourning walks. I arrived back in Australia today after a month away on my own and realize now that I have been on a mourning walk of a different kind to yours. No one has died but I have spent a lot of time thinking about my life and in doing so letting go of my dreams. As a woman in my 60’s I have to accept the need to slow down both physically and thought wise. Over that past 2 days i have fallen down twice just through rushing and not being in the present.
    Such a shock but a realization of ageing and mourning for not just current sadness but my youthful ability. My sin of pride and not being able to ask for help.

    • awne, to be mourning the loss of dreams. Of course new ones must come to replace them – I don’t believe we can stop ourselves dreaming. I hope not. But nonetheless, to surrender and let go of dreams is so so hard.
      And to fall….
      I have fallen quite a few times and it is always terrifying and humiliating and humbling and downright painful. I so hope you are mending and that you have landed back in Oz, and that some brighter paths are opening.
      Snail along. Slow is its own reward.
      Thank you for your tender, raw words. For confessing… xxxx

  12. Dear Ailsa,

    I am yet again remiss and remote in joining your beautiful litany of writers and writing. Your words and thoughts are searing and can feel your heavy, abject sadness keenly. I have been distracted by a year of making a livelihood of a different kind and now I’m back in your orbit, feel like it has been so venal and shallow. You have such a gift for cutting through to what is real and true – and no doubt because life’s realities have been so wounding for you. I get your speed and pride lament. I, too, am impatient and don’t do snail well. But when I’m charging too fast, life trips me up, pushes me down and when I am down there on my knees, get some of my best insights. So I see it as a price for revelation. Much love and wishes for a brighter, lighter path for you. You face the hard days so bravely, strongly and sweetly. Bless you for your example and teaching. You are a precious gift to us all who read you. Strangely, I was brought back to your writing by an email that sat in my “other” mailbox on facebook from a distant relative who saw my comments on WA and my great uncle Sir James Connolly and wanted to connect and tell me a story about Sir James’ cousin, his grandfather. You are a worldwide, wonderful web, indeed.

  13. Dear Julie,
    Thanks for your kind words and your empathy. I can’t believe that your world has ever been venal or shallow. Necessity dictates to us sometimes, but we don’t lose sight of who we are, and my experience of you has always been of a person with infinite soul.
    And I LOVE the connector story. We never know, do we? We never know.
    Love to you. And gratitude. A x

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