Small steps

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

IMG_5732

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

 

Looking back

Looking back to the meseta on the Camino Frances in 2009

Pride. My sin.

It surfaces in myriad ways. One is that I’ve always prided myself on not looking over my shoulder. I live in the present, I tell myself and others. I move forward, I say, I move on.

Well, today, I have a confession. I’m looking back.

Unfortunately, not entirely without pride!

I’ve been trying to imagine how to honour this amazing year, and those who have travelled it with me – for a day, a week, a conversation, a glimpse, or for the time it takes to read a book. Images swirled: my friends holding up copies of the book; faces shining at beachside festivals; blinking into stage lights at the end of the Sinning monologue; the profile of a hero-writer in conversation beside me; singing Gracias a la Vida when I didn’t know I dared sing; holding hands as a confession was made; laughing as a secret was told; crying as pain was shared; asking other writers to sign their books for me; thrilling at coincidences and serendipity…

 

 

 

 

 It was a glorious mental collage, but I thought I’d best be methodical, so I came here to the blog and made a pilgrimage through the posts to my first entry, written with trepidation, about entering the cyber-world. I was a Luddite and afraid. I don’t know why exactly, but I felt I would be exposed in some uncomfortable way.

Stepping forward through the posts, I marvelled at things forgotten in the melee of the months, and I began to see with clarity how very much the sin-walk has given me, and continues to give. That first inexplicable impulse to carry for others still takes me into wild places, and still introduces me to members of my village – a village that has grown and grown, and asked me to expand with it. “Get bigger,” the book has kept shouting to me as it has pulled me after it down new roads and by-ways.

I’ve tried!

This blog, begun in doubt and nervousness, is now a village all its own. Its history is right here, in the posts, but even more so in the comments, which I think of as the village square where we meet at day’s end to sniff the  breeze and check in on each other. No relationship is one-way. They all require exchange of one sort or another, and it is the richness of that exchange that I see when I look at the comments. Such wealth. Such generosity. Such humour. Such tenderness.

I thought I would compile a list of thanks, but it would go for days. I’ve shared stories in Aireys Inlet and Carlton, the Wheeler Centre and the Grumpy Swimmer, Byron Bay and Eltham, Strath Creek and Hampton, Thornbury and Leichhardt, Paddington and under the spire of the Melbourne Arts Centre. I’ve sung the praise of Spain at the Cervantes Institute and with the Spanish Consulate. I’ve been welcomed and championed and – most amazing of all – given away as a gift. I have been applauded and belittled – and learned that neither matter as much as the moments when someone tells me the book has helped, offered an insight, or illuminated a moment. Nothing thrills me more than that the book has given pleasure to some and been useful to others. It has even been re-read. Imagine!

Every day of this miraculous almost-nine-months, I’ve had cause to consider the road, the sins, and the sin-donors. Every day I’ve been grateful. It seems more incredible to me now, after the book has its own life, that people trusted me with their intimacies back in the beginning when it seemed like lunacy. When people tell me secrets now, they know that I can be a vault. It doesn’t make it any less of a privilege for me, but I’m aware that my first sinners took a leap, and I salute them again for their bravery and trust. The book could not have been a book without them.

To share one’s self to that degree is rare. They didn’t give me their air-brushed, curriculum-vitaed, rubber-stamped glossy selves. They gave me their scuffed, tarnished, worn and wept-over bits. Those stories are the most precious cargo I will ever carry. They taught me so much.

I’ve been asked often whether the road changed me. I think it’s an impossible question to answer, really. I hope it did. It certainly asked me to expand, every single day. It still does. And I hope I’ve been able to meet its requests when they have come to me. I try. I try really hard.

And I fail.

I fall too, as witnessed by a post on this blog!

But I like to think that the sinners, my road companions, my angels from Barcelona, the readers of the book, and my subscribers here, are behind me, propelling me up the hills when they’re steep and watching I don’t fall on the shale of the slippery downhills. When I remember all of them, I know there’s no failure, only expansion. Only growth.

So at this curious time of endings and beginnings, reflection and revelry, I come with no pride at all, only humility and wonder, to offer thanks. Gratitude. Which has the same beginnings as gracias and grazie. And grace. I have known such grace on this journey.

I trust that it will continue next year, when I will be sinning across Sydney, Perth, Albany and Brisbane at festivals and events. I know it will continue to take me in, deeper and deeper, and out, further and further, to my limits. And that is good. I am still a pilgrim.

Grazie. Gracias. Merci.

Terimah kasih.

That is Bahasa for “thank you”. It translates as “receive love.”

So here is the last poem for 2012. It’s an original this time.

 

Terimah kasih. Terimah kasih.

Terimah kasih, terimah kasih, terimah kasih, terimah kasih.

Terimah kasih.

 

Terimah kasih. Terimah kasih. Terimah kasih.

Terimah kasih.

 

 

May your final days of 2012 be peace-filled and joy-full.

May 2013 bring you dazzling roads and shimmering horizons.

May you be loved.

Always and all ways.

Walking near Glenlyon in Central Victoria. Photo courtesy of beloved walker Carl NP.
Muchas gracias!

 

I will write again in about four weeks, and I hope that you will continue to walk with me into the brave new year ahead.

Gracias, amigos. Gracias.

Buen camino…

 

The ones that keep on giving…

One of the most thrilling sentences I’ve heard this year is – “I’ve just given your book as a present because I know that my Dad/friend/cousin will really enjoy it.”

To be “gifted on” has been the unanticipated joy of writing a book. I have one friend who has popped in several times to ask me to inscribe copies, and each time I feel honoured and excited to be the gift given. Maybe it’s because one of my biggest pleasures has always been to go into a bookstore to select a book for someone. Arranging that marriage of writer and recipient is endlessly fascinating as I weigh up whether the relationship should be challenging, consoling, sensual, amusing or intellectual. It’s made even more of a joy when a knowledgeable bookseller makes recommendations and I have to consider stranger, but equally attractive, possibilities than those I had begun with. Such fun!

Then there is the treat of being given a book voucher and browsing the shelves for myself. That almost equals the moment of receiving a book wrapped in crisp paper!

The other deep pleasure is when I’m recommended a book. “You haven’t read it, Ailsa? I can’t believe that. You must! You will love it!” That certainty. That wish to share the story or poem that has shaken someone’s foundations, or made them step into the world and see it with new eyes. I’ve been recommended some wonders in the past few months, and I thought I would pass on a few of my favourites here. These are the books I have given – and they are also books that keep on giving. In no particular order…

I’ve actually read this twice now. I bought it the minute it came out, and gulped it down greedily, loving Sophie Cunningham’s very particular portrait of her Melbourne, which overlaps and intersects with my Melbourne, but which also uncovered aspects that surprised me, both historically and topographically.

I read it again after asking her to sign a copy for me at Byron, and I’m so glad I did. It merits a second, slower read. Rather like Melbourne itself, it is full of by-ways and diversions. It details our clans and allegiances (yes, like the football…our Cats did not make it to the final this year), and focusses on 2009, the year of fires. It is beautifully crafted, seamlessly blending the personal and the public life of the city and the author. Read it wherever you live.

Rodney Hall’s book of short stories – Silence – was an epiphany for me at the beginning of the year. I waxed about it to everyone I met. We created a night of words and music around it at the Airey’s Inlet Festival. I gave it for birthdays and beloveds.

I have read much of Rodney’s work, and always admired it, but these stories woke me to what a master of the short story he is. They are the work of decades, and they reward reading and re-reading. Infinitely varied in tone and setting, they are by turns fierce, tender and always true.

I can’t go another minute without mentioning Charlotte Wood. I know she has had air-time here before, and maybe my admiration for her is already obvious, but she has produced two books in twelve months and both of them are magnificent. Animal People is a novel of dark humour, wisdom and compassion, with a central character who must be put onto a cinema screen. It is one of the most vivid portraits of person and place I’ve ever read, and Sydney streets will always look different after reading this. Love and Hunger is just my favourite book of the year for its generosity, its tender heart, its moral wrangling with contemporary issues and its complexity. Enough said? Not really, but you get the picture!

OK, so there had to be something Spanish!

Lucia Graves is the daughter of Robert Graves. She grew up in Spain, and writes about it with the particular intimacy of an insider/outsider. It is exquisite as biography, as cultural document and as a history of a particular time. It’s not easy to track down but I can’t recommend it enough. And for those of you who enjoy Carlos Ruiz Zafon, it is Lucia Graves who translates his works so brilliantly into English.

Seek her out. Do!

You don’t need me to tell you the wonders inside this cover, but it has been great to go back and re-read, re-savour, replenish.

Even in translation, Lorca’s words pierce psyche, heart, conscience, intellect. All.

They are lush and lovely.

An essential indulgence.

And speaking of lush and lovely…

I couldn’t wait to read Susan Johnson’s new book My Hundred Lovers. I am a paid-up fan over many years. It is one hundred shades of sensuality, and is crafted masterfully. Lap it up. And while you are seeking it out, see if you can find my favourite of hers – A Better Woman. It remains one of those lifelong “besties” for me. I have given it and given it. I re-read it in the light of her new book and it is just as potent and wrenching. Hard to find but you can get it with the help of a good bookseller or online. Maybe we can force a reprint if enough of us ask.

Also potentially hard to get, but worth tracking, is Hilary McPhee’s timeless book Other People’s Words. Hunt it down.

I have loved this since it was first released. It is wise, funny, meticulously observed, full of delicious details, and delivers way more than its humble title suggests.

These are Hilary’s words, and so of course they are gold. If you love Australian writing, this book is almost a primer for you. On every page there is something to savour and remember.

The poet (and friend!) E.A. Horne recommended Bereft at the beginning of the year. I read it in the heat of summer, and couldn’t put it down.

Dark, gothic and poetic, with hints of another favourite, Sonya Hartnett, but entirely individual, it is bound to be a film because every page is so vividly evoked. I could see, smell, taste the place, and held my breath on every page. Brilliant characters and an Australia that is both familiar and strange. Magnificent.

I’m not sure I can add anything to what you already have read about All That I Am. It has won all the big prizes this year, and is a masterly novel that squeezes the heart and challenges the mind. It is also an exercise in writing place – each location is brilliantly evoked. But I did want to remind you about Stasiland, Anna Funder’s previous book, which remains on my all-time top ten. I could just list superlatives endlessly, or you could just get your hands on it!

 

I’m currently finishing off this collection of writings by Robert Dessaix. I would never miss anything he writes, even though I have moments of being shocked by his curmudgeonly take on things.

Or is that why I love him? He’s unflinching and pithy, and his view of the world is particular and incisive. I saw him speak at the Wheeler Centre earlier this year, and just wanted him to go on and on. That mix of generosity and sharpness is entirely seductive. I don’t want the book to end. I know he is not everyone’s taste – I’ve had arguments about this – but I’m in awe of him. And in delight. And anyway, why be to everyone’s taste?

And next?

Well, I’ve already started to delve into Fishing the River of Time, and I know it is going to be a perfect follow-up to Dessaix. Completely different in tone, but equal in craft and detail, from the truly lovely first sentence I was hooked.

Sorry.

Dreadful pun.

Just google it and you will be seduced by the story. The writing lives up to all promises.

I have to stop. I could go on and on, but I have a tale to write for Wednesday’s story-telling night at Grumpy Swimmer bookshop in Elwood, and a letter to pen for Sunday’s Women of Letters event.

And I have books to read. What a privilege that is, and what companions they are.

The list is far from complete. The year has delivered so many other treats – essays and ruminations, picture books and poetry, genre novels and plays. But I offer these up as possibilities. Walk into a bookstore or a library in search of one of them, and I guarantee you will emerge with a friend.

Or a gift – for yourself or someone else. No matter. You will have had pleasure before you even open the pages!

*******************

OOPS! A postscript added later.

The other thrilling sentence of this week was “Did you see that great review in Sunday’s Sun-Herald in Sydney?”

I hadn’t, but friends sent me a photo. And here it is for you. My gratitude for the pic, and also to the reviewer – Rosemarie Milson – for her kind words.

Offerings…

If I could paint, this is what I would paint for you.

Lighthouses have become significant for me in so many new ways lately.

But they have always spoken to all of us.

And they speak in light.

Like music, it’s a language I love, but speak without fluency.

This is my attempt to speak with light.

An attempt to offer thanks.

My next offering is in the language of sound.

Not music, although music does play a part.

And there are some words.

I’m hugely excited to tell you that ABC Radio’s Poetica programme has made a companion piece to the book. It was produced with great delicacy by Anne McInerney and engineered by Angela Grant, and it highlights the poems that inspired me, poems that were written for me, and poems that found me along the road.

I’m indebted to Anne for making something so beautiful, and for giving me a chance to expand on one of the key themes of the book – the way that poetry shapes my days.

Please download and listen.

It’s free – and it’s absolutely for you.

http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/poetica/2012-05-05/3967108

Finally, I want to offer you some words written as an offering to a man who ran a bookshop in Barcelona.

A man whose family had run it for over 120 years.

A man of dignity and spirit.

This piece was an offering to him, and it is now for you, courtesy of Melbourne’s magnificent Wheeler Centre for ideas, books, words and all things good and great.

I’m lucky to be there, as I was for Debut Monday two short weeks ago.

Please have a read, and hold Señor Martinez in your thoughts for a moment.

Such losses are hard to bear.

http://wheelercentre.com/dailies/post/2ee069a28671/

And if you feel inclined to leave him a message on the Wheeler site, please do. I will be sending him the link so that he can read the piece, and know that over here in Australia, his kindness impacted.

Offerings.

Me to you.

I hope you find some sustenance.

Or pleasure.

Time and the pilgrim

 

Only a week ago, I woke up to this view. Sparkling blue and a lighthouse.

I was at Aireys Inlet for the Lighthouse Literary Festival, a stupendous weekend of illumination, within and without. I taught a workshop, directed actors, curated a session and spoke about SINNING ACROSS SPAIN. Mostly though, I listened – to activists, to brilliant fiction writers, to poets and to an audience lit up by possibilities. We were all imagining together, dreaming a future.

 

Two years ago I was approaching Finisterre – land’s end – where there is also a lighthouse, beaming out into the darkness of a wild and roaring sea. Then I was empty of all thought, save for gratitude.

I had made it.

A miracle!

Last weekend I walked the beach at Aireys with no pack, in company with two of my nearest and dearest. We laughed, we talked, we drifted into separate silences. I threw myself into the ocean and wallowed in the luxury of being kept afloat, and the sharp sting of salt on skin and tongue, in eyes and mouth.

I was present. Resoundingly present in a privileged, gifted life of free expression and unspoiled nature. And friends…

Two years ago, I walked toward Cape Finisterre with my pack, knowing that the journey I had undertaken was almost done. I look back at myself now, and I feel such affection for that demented blonde. She too was deeply present, without thought of anything other than the steps required to get to home. 

Last weekend, as evening fell, I walked the beach at Aireys again, unable to resist the purity of its stretch of white sand, and the ceaseless crash of those ribbons of waves. The sunset could have been crafted by a lighting designer, and the soundscape was better than Beethoven. Ahhhh. It was good!

Two years ago, at Finisterre – land’s end – I sat under the lighthouse and watched the sun disappear into the ocean, dropping off the planet into oblivion. There were only gull cries and silence then. And the crackling of a small fire as it burned the list of sins. It was good.

And now?

Well, it is mighty good.

People ask me what is next. The future?

I have no idea. I’m not sure I want to know. I am here, on the “other side of the world” as they say in Spain. The sun is shining today and the sky is bright blue. Australian blue. It’s particular. And I am going to walk a bit, and write a bit, and stay in the day.

I like the “not knowing.” I always have.

The future will take me by surprise in its own good time. For now, I am grateful to Hannie and Nic for inviting me to Aireys, and to Rachel and Peter and Lou for saying yes when I asked them to jump in and risk, and to everyone who inspired me last weekend. Just as I remain grateful to all those who walked the road to Finisterre. To the lighthouse, as a greater mind once wrote.

May your day be peaceful, and may you find time…

 

Feel free to enter your email at the top right to become a subscriber to these posts – they go out about once a week. And if you want to share with folk, feel free on that score too.

Feel free…

That works!

 

 

Gracias a la Vida

That means “Thank you to Life”.

It’s a song, a memory, a gift from a beloved friend, and a feeling – the feeling I experience most frequently when I walk, and the feeling that overwhelms me in waves just now.

Waves…

That is the beach at Aireys Inlet. That’s where I’m going.

I’m packing my bag for the Lighthouse Literary Festival, curated by Hannie Rayson and produced by Nicole Maher at Great Escape Books, two women of extreme dynamism and heart. They have brought together a group of writers and thinkers of eloquence and wisdom, and to top it off, Paul Grabowsky will come and play a baby grand on Saturday evening. Unfortunately, the weekend is sold out, but if you want to peek at the line-up, have a look here:

http://www.lighthouseliteraryfest.com.au/

Grateful? Me? Si! Si!

Waves of gratitude.

And not just for Aireys.

This week has been all gracias.

Grace and thanks.

My book has been talked about, read from, conversed with, written of, and finally…set free. It is out there in the wide world, making its way. I am learning to let it go, to wave it goodbye for this next stage, and to trust that it is stronger than me and knows the way.

On Monday just gone, I read aloud from it for the first time in public. Thankfully a few of the actor muscles still work, because I could not have anticipated the fear about standing up and putting my words into the air.

I also could not have anticipated the pleasure! Or the gratitude I felt to the those who came in support of me. Looking out into the book-lined walls of the Moat Cafe at the Wheeler Centre and seeing loved faces nodding and smiling encouragement – that will get you over any broken bridge. Gracias gracias.

On Tuesday night, the incandescent Hannie Rayson and I were In Conversation at Readings Bookstore in Carlton. I had no idea what that might mean, even though Hannie had prepped me about timings and topics, and insisted that when she asked me to read, I must select a passage that spoke about some of the hardships of the journey, because of my tendency to be a Pollyanna! I didn’t know that an In Conversation could surprise me with joy, or that it could wake me to wonder…or move me to song!

I know. The unthinkable. The mountain I thought I would never ever have the courage to climb.

I sang in public.

Only a few lines. But I did it.

Hannie asked me to speak a little Spanish so people could hear that language I so love. I thought I’d explain something of my road anthem, Gracias A La Vida, a song given to me on the Camino Frances by my compañero. A song that now lives in my cells, and marks my steps. Instead, I felt so overwhelmed by gratitude for the people who had come to wave the book into the world, that I decided to offer them something truly brave – an attempt at words with the tune!

I got through a few lines before crumpling, but I think it’s safe to say my cabaret career won’t be kicking in any time soon! That said, I climbed over the top of my personal Everest and have lived to tell the tale. Gracias a la Vida, and gracias to Hannie, to all who came along in support, and to that song of songs…

If you want to hear it at its best, look at this link. The late (great is too small a word and too sad to contemplate) Mercedes Sosa sings it. Take a few minutes to listen. Maybe google the lyric in English so you know what you are hearing. It will own you forever once you hear it.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WyOJ-A5iv5I

Then on Wednesday, my day began with celebratory words in The Age newspaper. Suzanne Carbone outed a few sinners and then went on to sing the praises of the book. It has made a new friend, and once again, I give gracias. Her words are here:

http://www.theage.com.au/national/melbourne-life/you-sin-you-win-with-pilgrim-piper-20120417-1x5vl.html

And now I have a bag to pack. I will be in company with heroes and compañeros, friends and strangers, books and readers, writers and actors and a maestro. I will be in salt air and on hilltop paths. I will inhale and I will sing my solitary thanks to the salt-heavy air and the high high sky…el alto cielo.

Gracias, Mercedes. Gracias, mi compañero. Gracias, my true north. Gracias my friends, for being with me on the journey. Here, there and beyond.

Gracias a la vida.

Again and again and again.

From high on the ridge looking down to the beach. Aireys is waiting.

 

 

Heaven?

Heaven.

Paradise, Nirvana, Zion. The hereafter, the next world, the next life. Elysium, the Elysian fields, Valhalla.

Bliss, ecstasy, rapture, contentment, happiness, delight, joy.

Utopia.

The firmament, the skies, the celestial sphere.

El cielo.

Heavens to Betsy. Heaven on earth. Seventh Heaven…

The mind is its own place, and in itself, can make heaven of Hell, and a hell of Heaven.
John Milton

 

Heaven means to be one with God.
Confucius

 

Men and women will retain their sex in heaven.
Pope John Paul II

 

Democracy is only a dream: it should be put in the same category as Arcadia, Santa Claus, and Heaven.
H. L. Mencken

 

Heaven… I’m in heaven,
And my heart beats so that I can hardly speak.
And I seem to find the happiness I seek,
When we’re out together dancing cheek to cheek.
Irving Berlin

 

It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.
Matthew 19. 24

 

Perhaps they are not stars, but rather openings in heaven where the love of our lost ones pours through and shines down upon us to let us know they are happy.
Eskimo proverb

I don’t mean to be facetious, but I’ve been wondering about something…

There is no sin in heaven, presumably. Is that why it’s “a place where nothing happens?”

And isn’t it odd that if heaven is in the sky, so many cultures bury their dead in the ground?

How many heavens are there, anyway? And whose is the “right” one?

Ah, the right one…

So much happens here on earth. So much that is hard to fathom, or to forgive. A place where nothing happens might well be heavenly, now I think about it.

This week is going to be a place where PLENTY happens. Hope that doesn’t imply it will be hellish!!!

Nah. How could it be? Just look at what I’m lucky enough to be doing…

I’ll be talking to Adelaide on Monday morning. Check EVENTS AND MEDIA up above to get details.

On Monday night I’m reading and talking with two amazing writers at the Wheeler Centre, and there will be friends with whom I can celebrate afterwards. That would be you, hopefully.

On Tuesday night the luminous Hannie Rayson is going to lead me in conversation at Readings in Carlton, and then, with luck and a fair wind, we are going to talk to a heap more friends afterwards. Please join us if you can. Details also above.

And then on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, I will be down at Aireys Inlet for the Lighthouse Literary Festival. I’m so excited by this. Hannie and Nicole, from Great Escape Books, have created a breathtaking line-up of words and forums and panels and ideas for sharing. I feel so lucky to be there. There’s a link to the festival in EVENTS AND MEDIA. And here’s the scoop! Paul Grabowsky is playing piano for Saturday night’s SILENCE session. Wow!

And just so you know, I’m now a Spanish Australian! Looky here:

http://www.spanishaustralia.org/index.php?option=com_k2&view=item&id=105:the-call-of-the-road&Itemid=6

So much happening.

I’m in heaven!

I’m grateful to the Melbourne Festival and ACCA for shining Nathan Coley’s installation into the night, two years ago when I returned from walking. It gave me pause and made me consider. Still does.