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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Saying HI!

 

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Blimey! It’s 2015 and I’ve clearly not been plugged in. Oops.

But here I am, trying to remedy that, though I’m not sure how I will go with being nice. Certainly I am saying Hi. “Hi”, and also thank you for patience and forbearance.

2015.

For this pilgrim, it began with movement. Planes and cars and trucks. Not very much walking, sadly – but that will change. The minute I have sent this note into the ether, I will head out into the afternoon to let my legs lead me. For now, though, the fingers are the only moving part. They must try to capture my wishes for you….

May you have days and days of benign uneventfulness under wide blue skies, broken only by delicious AHA! moments of realising that peace, in self and place, is the greatest gift.

A village full of healthy laughing friends and family to applaud you through your days, sharing the ups and buoying you in the downs.

Licorice allsorts. Plenty.

Possibilities swirling, all of them expansive.

A shady spot under a spreading tree. An umbrella when it pours. Or not, if you like to be drenched.

A mind and heart that say YES to all the right questions, and can say a loud NO when necessary.

The freedom to continue to breathe and walk and speak and live without fear, and the courage to keep on doing those things when fear intrudes. As it does. As it will. As it must, I suppose. That too is life. But I wish you oceans of courage and freedom, that you may wake each day and give thanks.

Gratitude.

I give it to you and I wish it for you.

And love. With every step, every meeting, every parting and every keeping.

Most of all, I hope you can have what I am claiming for myself. While in Ubud recently, I wished a boy “happy new year”. He smiled back at me and said “And you – you have more happy.”

It’s my only resolution.

Have more happy.

2015.

May it be a bright bright bright new year, full to the brim with more happy.

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And a postscript…

I have been remiss. Forgot to let you know about a couple of things during my unplugged days, but there is a show called The Truth About Us on the Foxtel Bio Channel. One episode was a great celebration of my friendship with the beautiful friend Kat Stewart – a remarkable human being for whom I have so much respect and gratitude. It was such a privilege to record it with Angela Pulvirenti.

https://www.facebook.com/video.php?v=775815955840476&fref=nf

Homing in…

In Sinning Across Spain, I made the bold claim that “home” was my favourite word in the English language. It must be special to me, because it’s the word I choose to see dozens of times every day…

IMG_1139When I walk in the front door, it greets me – just in case I’d been feeling lost or displaced. I’ve felt both of those in recent times.

But HOME rescues me. The word and the place.

I’ve been pondering what it is that makes home feel like…well, home. How to pin down that feeling – an exhalation in every pore, that lets the body soften and the mind slow and the spirit lighten – when I know I’ve come home.

It starts before I enter the house. It’s the sound of the bell on the front gate, that particular note I’ve been hearing for almost three decades. The bell is rusty now, but the note is true. Then there is that familiar curving brick path; only short, but somehow more welcoming to me than a straight line. It slows me down. Asks me to focus on it, even though it’s so deeply known. I brush my hand against the rosemary hedge – rosemary for remembrance.

I do remember. How could I forget?

Sometimes there are jonquils and magnolia blossoms. Sometimes scented Mr Lincoln roses. But always, always, the rosemary is there for me to drift my fingers across, and to release the scent of memory. Of those I love and have lost…of those who are far away…of near and dear…

Then the pleasure of the key that fits. It never ceases to amaze me, that little piece of metal carved into a particular shape that slots into one particular space, allowing me to come home. All the technology in the world will never replace for me that simple miracle of ingenuity. Access all areas, Ailsa, it says. Welcome home.

Home.

History. Memory. Warmth. Intimacy.

Decades of laughter and music and food and friends and the little dog that used to pitter-pat toward me down the shiny hall; smells and flowers and guitar chords; rehearsals for shows and half-written manuscripts; jokes, good and bad; birthdays and anniversaries and mourning and carousing; late nights and early mornings; sickness and health; cups of tea and pots of tea and vats of tea and gallons of tea; rose petals between sheets; bad jokes and silly walks and funny dancing and crazy hats; being held when grieving; popping corks when succeeding; reading and sharing the reading and stealing a book and giving a book; lolling in the tub as a fat moon wafts overhead; greedy bees drinking at the bottlebrush blooms; winning the possum wars; late night silences and early morning nuzzles; comfort when comfort can’t help but somehow in the end it does; more tea; making Anzac biscuits at Christmas and eating plum pudding in July; watching friends take over the kitchen and marvelling at the results; listening to a lone cello’s notes hitting the high ceiling; stuffing home-grown vine leaves from our backyard and eating them with wide grins; and poems…poems read for birthday parties when people said they felt shy yet couldn’t be silenced….poems sung to old tunes and new…poems written for the occasion, the ultimate gift…poems in every nook and cranny, perched on every piece of furniture, sitting on every chair and making way as humans approach, tucked under bedcovers and at the bottom of the garden…

Home is a poem. It is one long poem. And it’s a love poem. It will always sing of history and mystery and the wonder of connection. These rooms are a poem composed over three decades of love and laughter, of joy and grief, of stillness and mayhem. The poem of this home is deep in my bones. I will sing it all my days.

And I am grateful.

For home.

 

Small steps

With some fear, and not a little trepidation, I’m getting back on the road.

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This weekend, I will be back in Aireys Inlet for the Melbourne Writers Festival. The session is titled Journeys of Self Discovery.

Of course, that relates to Sinning Across Spain, and the camino. But when I was booked for the talk, months and months back, I don’t think I could have guessed that I’d be on a longer, tougher and more demanding journey now. This camino of grief tests my mettle every day. Every breath.

What keeps me upright is the monumental outpouring of support from those I love, and from people who don’t even know me but have read the book. That is a strong hand resting along my spine. It is strength and tenderness together.

I’m so grateful.

I was last at Aireys for the Lighthouse Festival. Peter was with me, and he was one of the readers for the weekend. We had such fun. I will walk the beach for him. Aireys is a place he loved from childhood…

And I will remember every person who has helped me walk this road so far. Thank you. I will try not to let you down.

 

POSTSCRIPT….

Amanda Smith, producer of The Body Sphere on Radio National, has made a wonderful programme about walking. You will LOVE baby’s first steps! And you might recognise the pilgrim voice at the beginning and end of the show…

You can podcast/download here.
http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/bodysphere/talking-about-walking/5694562

 

True North

This blog has never been about my personal life, and I don’t intend to change that focus. Always, the thoughts here have been in some way related to Sinning Across Spain – walking, journeying, poetry, Spain…

But today is different.

As you will know if you have read the book, Sinning Across Spain was dedicated to Peter, my true north.

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Just over two weeks ago, I lost him.

He died of a cerebral hemmorhage. Too soon. Sudden. Without warning.

I want to thank everyone who has contacted me here and on Facebook and by email. Every message means a lot, but please understand that I simply can’t respond individually. Please don’t feel overlooked, or that I don’t appreciate the thoughts and prayers and wishes. I do. So much. I am grateful we are both being held in people’s hearts. Please continue to send him your blessings and wishes, if it feels right.

We were married for 27 years. He was good, truly good. He was kindness personified. And he was funny. A clown, a punster, a wit. He described himself as a flaneur. Peter could always find exactly the right word.

I am managing the days, one tentative step at a time. If I’m absent from here for a time, I am sure you will understand.

This is the poem I associate with Peter. There are a thousand others, of course. We both loved words and poetry. He had his favourites. But this was who he was for me…

 

ATLAS

 

There is a kind of love called maintenance

Which stores the WD40 and knows when to use it

Which checks the insurance, and doesn’t forget

The milkman; which remembers to plant bulbs;

Which answers letters; which knows the way

The money goes; which deals with dentists

And Road Fund Tax and meeting trains,

And postcards to the lonely; which upholds

The permanently rickety elaborate

Structures of living, which is Atlas.

And maintenance is the sensible side of love,

Which knows what time and weather are doing

To my brickwork; insulates my faulty wiring;

Laughs at my dryrotten jokes; remembers

My need for gloss and grouting; which keeps

My suspect edifice upright in air,

As Atlas did the sky.

 

 

U A Fanthorpe

 

 

Anthem at Easter

IMG_4808To close out last year, my friend Louise took me with her to see Leonard Cohen in concert at a Geelong winery.

It was a glorious gift. He has long been a hero, and to have the chance to hear him live was an experience I will never forget. Funny…

We use words like unforgettable and awesome with such profligacy. We reduce their currency in the process.

Leonard, however, reminded me of what it is to be “awesome”. He began exactly on time, showing the performer’s respect for an audience. He expressed gratitude at every turn. He gave and gave until a younger man would have dropped. And all the while, his vast yet gentle spirit reached out across the hills, lighting us up even more than the full moon overhead.

IMG_5580Easter is, for me, a time of walking, reflecting and reading. This year, with glandular fever still making it impossible for me to walk any distances and difficult for my fuzzy brain to hold onto plot twists, I will devote my days to poetry. I’ll dive deep into some old favourites, and delve for discoveries.

So in the spirit of Easter, here’s a poem/song. This is Leonard at his most sublime – and that is saying something.

It feels easter-ly. It feels right.

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Anthem

 

The birds they sang

at the break of day

Start again

I heard them say

Don’t dwell on what

has passed away

or what is yet to be.

 

Ah the wars they will

be fought again

The holy dove

She will be caught again

bought and sold

and bought again

the dove is never free.

 

Ring the bells that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in.

 

 

We asked for signs

the signs were sent:

the birth betrayed

the marriage spent

Yeah the widowhood

of every government —

signs for all to see.

 

I can’t run no more

with that lawless crowd

while the killers in high places

say their prayers out loud.

But they’ve summoned, they’ve summoned up

a thundercloud

and they’re going to hear from me.

 

Ring the bells that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in.

 

You can add up the parts

but you won’t have the sum

You can strike up the march,

there is no drum

Every heart, every heart

to love will come

but like a refugee.

 

Ring the bells that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack, a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in.

 

The birds they sang

at the break of day

Start again

I heard them say

Don’t dwell on what

has passed away

or what is yet to be.

 

Ah the wars they will

be fought again

The holy dove

She will be caught again

bought and sold

and bought again

the dove is never free.

 

Ring the bells that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in.

 

 

We asked for signs

the signs were sent:

the birth betrayed

the marriage spent

Yeah the widowhood

of every government —

signs for all to see.

 

I can’t run no more

with that lawless crowd

while the killers in high places

say their prayers out loud.

But they’ve summoned, they’ve summoned up

a thundercloud

and they’re going to hear from me.

 

Ring the bells that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack, a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in.

 

You can add up the parts

but you won’t have the sum

You can strike up the march,

there is no drum.

Every heart, every heart

to love will come

but like a refugee.

 

Ring the bells that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack, a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in.

That’s how the light gets in.

That’s how the light gets in.

 

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May your days be peaceful and may the colours of autumn float about you in all their warm tones, reminding you of the deliciousness of change.

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From an absent friend…

IMG_5256Last time I wrote, I spoke of my superstition that January can foretell the year. In some ways it did. I’m in-residence again, this time at the Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers’ Centre in the foothills outside Perth.

What I couldn’t have guessed when I wrote from Bundanon was that I would get glandular fever, and with it a master class in s-l-o-w. Hence my lengthy absence, for which I apologise.

The community at this site – my “village” – has been a constant for me since before Sinning Across Spain was released, and I value the comments and care I’ve received from you here, so to have gone AWOL feels neglectful. I’ve been an absent friend.

I’m sorry.

IMG_0278While I’ve been here in Perth – almost four weeks now – the temperature has only dropped below 30 degrees on two occasions. Today it was 37 again. The trees outside my cabin drop their bark as though they’re being stifled by layers of cardigans. The clay earth has closed over completely, trying to retain what little moisture it holds. Magpies and crows start the day with loud calls, wheeling between the trees and past my window. But by day’s end, they can barely hop, and their voices are little more than faint squawks.

IMG_5306The sunsets from my writing perch, looking down to the city, have been end-of-worldly.

I am cocooned in this cabin, just down the hill from Katharine’s place. I’m aware of her and of her work every time I open the door to sniff the air. “Get back inside,” I hear her scold. “Stay still and conserve your energy for your work.”

Everyone tells me to conserve my energy. I’m not sure how to do that. It has never been an issue for me before. I’m on a different camino. I’m learning…learning…

The lessons of the guru-snail.

Listen to the internal rhythms. Slow. Stop.

I’ve barely left this piece of land in all the time I’ve been in the west, but last weekend my sister took me to Cottesloe to see the sculptures there. It happened to be one of the two cool days, and the breeze was intoxicating. I crawled along, more entranced by the sea and the salt spray than by any of the installations, wonderful as they were. Moisture, cool, families, movement, swimmers, music, gulls wheeling…

Ken Unsworth's Entry in Sculpture by the Sea

Ken Unsworth’s Entry in Sculpture by the Sea

Life jostled about me, and it was good to be among it again. Good to see the whirling and colours and to hear shouts and laughter, the rhythm of running feet on pavement.

No. Not mine!

After less than an hour of toddling like a two year old on wobbly pins, I was ready to go. When you’ve been so solitary, the world is a wonder. Almost too much.

But no. Never too much. Never.

I know it’s there waiting. And I’m coming back, world. Yes I am.

S-l-o-w-l-y.

Meantime, may good health and strong legs be yours, ever and ever. Walk strong. xxx

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Spot the fevered pilgrim photographing the wondrous mirror-dog, if you can

PS. Thank you Alanna for all your help. I couldn’t have done it without you, mysis.