The Ways of the Snail

IMG_5165Anyone who has read a few entries here would know I’m besotted by snails – or at least with what they’ve come to mean to me. As I wrote toward the end of Sinning Across Spain – I believe snails are gurus.

Lately they seem to have been all around, and I’m pretty certain they’re calling me to slow down; or is it to tuck myself inside and withdraw from the world for a while?
Maybe both.

Regardless, I wanted to share with you two of their recent incarnations…

 

When I was walking in the Basque country in France this April, following the GR65 trail from north to south, I came across a detour. It was called the Chemin de L’Escargot, and there were lots of brightly-coloured images of a grinning snail posted on trees and fence-posts, trying to tempt pilgrims off the main path.

Just look at that photo up there. How could I possibly have resisted her invitation?

I veered onto a snaily side-road, and was lead by the cheery mollusc up and down and around some of the loveliest, springiest vistas of the entire journey.

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The detour was completely unpeopled, so I got to soak up big doses of quiet, reflective emptiness along the snail trail.

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This was my first walk as a widow.

I’m not sure what that really means – the word sometimes fits, and at other times I reject it completely. I’m skeptical of most labels, and even “pilgrim” doesn’t describe all of me, much as I like to think of myself as a walker and seeker. But there were times during this widow walk when I couldn’t shake that label of loss, and on the day of the snail diversion, I was feeling particularly dark. On that empty path, I was grateful to be able to shout or wail or weep, without fear of being seen, or without giving concern to those who love me.

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The snail road, in all its beauty and slowness, gave me permission to do a bit of releasing. A good deal of it, actually, along those exquisite, overlooked byways. Pilgrimage, and in particular the journey I wrote about in Sinning, has taught me that mostly, “stuff” is better out than in. I’m not great at release, but solo walking sometimes allows it. For me, anyway. The snail’s chemin, slow, solitary and steady under generous skies, showed me that I could walk myself back into myself – changed, but not diminished. Whole…

Then, at road’s end, in a tiny village called Uhart-Mixe, I was rewarded with a welcoming Gite all to myself, a storybook spire directly across the main square, sun on golden stones, and scrumptious bread and goat cheese to fortify the feet. Ahhhh…..

Guiding snail and pilgrim snail – both very chipper!

Later, washed and laundered, I wandering to the village graveyard, where I was struck by the intensity of the mourners’ plaques commemorating family connections to the countryside I’d walked through. The memorials were so bound to place. I couldn’t help but feel, in that slow corner of the world, the centuries-deep affinity of those who had died to their bountiful land.

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Maybe it was the late summer afternoon silence and the early arrival of the moon, or the church bell sounding, or the whiff of honeysuckle, but I found myself teary again, this time in gratitude for all who have gone before, and for all that we carry in our snail-packs…

 

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I slept deep and long that night.

Back home in Australia, I went to an exhibition of photographs by Caroline Baum. She is mostly known as a writer, book reviewer, journalist and interviewer. But she is also a photographer and designer, and is obsessed with the sea-snails that make their home on rocks along the coast just south of Sydney. She photographs their trails, and has come to know them intimately. A small divergence might be due to the mating dance of a couple. The different colours underneath relate to mineral content and ocean movements and oh so much more…

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To hear her talk of her snails is to hear the same kind of intimate connection to place that I felt in that Basque village. Caro’s tiny, watery snails sketch our vast continent into the sand on their rocky home. They make songlines that look like paintings made by Aboriginal artists. And Caroline has captured these snail visions at their most poetic and evocative.

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My photos of the works can’t possibly do them justice, but hopefully you will get a sense of their wonder. Standing in front of Caroline’s works, I was struck again by the importance of the snail’s teachings. Humility. Small gentle movements. Mapping by the tiniest of increments, yet always inching  forward. Intent on a singular path. Slow…slow and even and calm…

That is what I see anyway. It might all be my projection. Being a snail might be torrid and anxious and fraught! But for now, the lessons I take from these small creatures are profound. I’m better for them, I think…I hope…

Finally, that’s all we can ask, I guess. To get better…inch by inch….

Hello world!

IMG_3610I’m an April Fool in a rush.

Deep breath in. Exhale. Start again….

Today I fly to Rome. It’s the fourth anniversary of the publication of Sinning Across Spain. It’s six years since I last arrived in that city, about to begin the sin-walk. And, amazingly, it’s a year since I inspected the apartment that became my new home – my place of refuge and safety. Clearly, I’m a natural-born fool.

But to the journey.IMG_3630
I wanted you to know, because I’m going to be walking. Only about 300 kilometres, but the challenge for this camino is to walk slowly, like the snail. I have set a strict limit of 25 kilometres per day, which will be exceeded only once, when I cross the Pyrenees toward the end of the walk. I will stride out with my poles and pack for part of the day, and then I will be a flaneur in a village for the rest.

I will take time. I will sit.

I will listen.

I’m going to be on the southern section of the GR65, or the Le Puy chemin, and will end at Pamplona. My pack is once again ready. My last pair of Merrell Sirens are itching to walk, and my heart is beating a little faster. It has been a topsy-turvy month or two, but when my doctor said to me that what was wrong was anxiety and that maybe I needed to go and do something brave again, I knew he was right, though he was joking. It’s time…

So off I go. Out to greet the northern spring with its bluster and blossom, and its tricky little surprises and its gentle embraces. I had taken a French course at the start of the year to refresh my grey cells, so I’m not too rusty. Mind you, I’ve also been learning to swim and taking some dance classes, and if those skills are anything like my French, I might be having some very mangled conversations. But I’m getting there. This morning I did 50 strokes of freestyle without stopping…IMG_3674

 

I’m getting there.

The other big news to share is that my next book, which I’ve co-written with Tony Doherty, a Catholic priest and natural pilgrim, has been picked up by Allen and Unwin and will be guided into the world by Jane Palfreyman. It will be out next year. I couldn’t be more thrilled and grateful. It has been greeted with such generosity and affection. Only a year ago, I thought it was dead and that I wouldn’t write again. Such is the power of anxiety and the dark days…

But today is light.

There is more news to share too. More GOOD news. I’m so grateful when the news is happy.

On my return, in mid-May, I’m hosting four conversations at the upcoming Sydney Writers Festival, with seven extraordinary writers. If you want to know more, go to their website and scroll to my name and you can see details. Go to the website anyway, because there are astounding riches for readers. The reason I mention it here, aside from my excitement, is to tell you that one of those sessions is with a remarkable man called Jean-Christophe Rufin. He is a co-founder of Medicines Sans Frontieres and a distinguished writer – one of the youngest members of the Académie Française, when he was admitted. And the book he is bringing to the festival is a tale about walking the camino to Santiago! It has been a best-seller in France, so we will be taking that, and his whole life, for a walk in our one hour conversation.

So there is much to be grateful for and much to ponder as I set off to walk. It’s a golden morning here and I’ve just walked out to my lighthouse to farewell it. I hope it will stand tall in my absence, and I hope it will light my way home…

Because I am home. I know that because there is a tug when I think of leaving. That has to be good doesn’t it? A little separation anxiety?

Walk strong. May your autumn days be mellow and fruitful…

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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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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

 

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.

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….

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.