Snail trails

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Photo courtesy of Anna Chandler. Gracias companera!

 

Just over a year ago, I wrote a post honouring Domingo.

He was a man I met in 2009 in a pueblo called El Ganso on the Camino Frances.

You may recall his story from Sinning Across Spain, but if not, please click here and have a read.

It’s one of my favourite camino memories, and it still fills me with happiness whenever I recall the time I spent with him at the end of a long and dusty plod. I have longed to go back and see him ever since.

For the last month or so, I’ve been getting updates from a smiling pilgrim called Anna Chandler as she made her way along the trail on the Frances. She’d read Sinning Across Spain and contacted me via Facebook just before she left. I wished her well, and asked her to have a vino tinto for me. She did – and also updated me on blisters and pilgrim numbers. I asked her to have a sol y sombra. I think she did, then she updated me on her progress as she edged toward the meseta. I asked her to look up Domingo for me when she reached El Ganso, out there on the plains.

She did. Sadly, she didn’t find him.

But she did find his sister.

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Anna Chandler with Domingo’s sister. Gratitude to you, Anna, for this gift.

This is what Anna reported via the wonders of Facebook…

“She was thrilled to hear her brother was in a book and is going to pass on your regards to him by phone. If my understanding was correct, either him or his wife had eaten too many sweets, got fat and needed a leg operation. One son or daughter lives in America and Domingo and wife were recuperating in Madrid before heading to the US for a wedding.”

I can’t tell you what it meant to me to know that Domingo was alive, even if he isn’t altogether well. To hear that he is able to go and see his son, when he had told me of that young man back in 2009 – well, it seemed like a miracle.

We live on opposite sides of the globe, and are separated by culture, language and time. We only met for an hour or so. Yet our encounter continues to live in me and to light my days. Domingo came to represent a particular kind of kindness, and his generosity called up something of the best in me. He invited me to attend to him and his life. To really and truly pay attention. He did it by offering me his story.

In the last month, as Anna has been walking and updating me, I’ve travelled across Australia. I’ve talked about Domingo in Geraldton in Western Australia, in Melbourne in Victoria, and in Thirroul in NSW. His story always touches people – perhaps because we all yearn to connect deeply, even if only for an hour or so. Perhaps it resonates because we are so busy and move so fast, even though we know that slowing down is something we should be doing. Somehow…we can’t.

Domingo was a guru for me, and I thank the stars of the Milky Way that he is still on the planet, and that I can continue to remember and honour him by repeating his story. Our stories are sacred, I believe. In the end, they may be all we have. I marvel constantly that I am taken out onto the road by virtue of a book about walking a road. A story leads me out to tell more stories, after having borrowed stories to fill the book. It’s a cycle that keeps on expanding. It’s a cycle that expands me. It’s a trail that always leads me deeper into myself.

The other guru given to me on the camino was the snail. They continue to find me, to remind me. Slow down. Keep your antenna up. Move with care and attention. Just this week in Sydney, I was reminded again!

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Wherever you are walking, let it be at snail’s pace for some of the day.

And may you hear every story that is offered to you along your trail.

Gracias, Anna, for giving me another chapter in Domingo’s story.                                        And congratulations on walking your camino with such joy and optimism.

The gift of story

It’s a time of giving, that’s what we are told. Peace and goodwill.

It doesn’t always look like that! People are harried, brows are furrowed and parking spaces are fought over like miners’ rights.

So, in an attempt to simplify your life, and as a means of honouring some magnificent story-tellers, can I make an offering? Here’s a list of discovered – or rediscovered – books I’ve gobbled and loved recently. Give a book and you give a chunk of another person – usually their best bits. All of these are wonder-full “bits” of phenomenal story-teller citizens. Wander into your local independent bookseller (they are the keepers of the flame) and place your order. They will wrap the gifts while you browse for a story to cool your yule.

Helen Garner, Helen Garner 

I’ve been immersing myself in her words again, from her beginnings with Monkey Grip to her most recent book The Spare Room. It’s like taking a masterclass. Helen Garner has given us ourselves, over and over, in intimate, up-close-and-personal portraits that haunt, sustain and provoke. She has also given us places that become sacred sites. When I moved to Melbourne, the first thing I wanted to see was Monkey Grip‘s Aqua Profonda sign at the Fitzroy Pool. I was coming from Sydney, a city of shimmering surfaces, and moving south seemed like a pilgrimage to Helen and her deeper water.

I could go through every one of her books telling you the tattoos they’ve left on my reader’s skin. You could do the same, I know – because whatever Helen Garner writes, fiction or non-fiction, the heart of it will be true, no matter the cost to her. That’s why it is impossible to avert my eyes from a word she writes.

Small publishing houses

My book was published by Melbourne University Publishing under their Victory imprint. None of that means much to a reader, really, but I have learned, in my year as a novice in the world of books, that small, independent houses are vital to the ecology of our reading world, and that they are often the discoverers of new voices and brave stories. Currently I’m loving the clean prose and insider stories in MUP’s latest release Speechless – A Year In My Father’s Business by James Button. Highly recommended if you are curious about the machinations of contemporary Oz politics but have an aversion to the heat and partisanship of so much that is in the ether.

But lest you think I am just going to do a hard sell for my own publisher, please read on…

I’ve recently read several books from Scribe, another Melbourne marvel in the publishing world. Belatedly, I got to Tony Birch’s dark but hope-laden novel, Shadowboxing. Utterly beautiful.   The new collection of stories from genius Cate Kennedy is called Like A House on Fire. Difficult to imagine her topping her previous collection Dark Roots, but she has. And if you want a great poem or ten, Get a copy of The Taste of River Water. Her poems are distilled epics. Pilgrimage by Jacinta Halloran gave me a different kind of journey to my walk, but asked some similar questions about faith and belief. And love. She is a near-neighbour who also presented her book at the wonderful Grumpy Swimmer bookstore in Elwood. All the others in the image are beside my bed waiting. Hooray. Summer bodes well.

Just last week, Wakefield Press in Adelaide launched Mug Shots by Barry Oakley, esteemed playwright and scallywag. It’s a memoir with the same literary qualities as the cover shot – the raised eyebrow, the wry smile and the piercing gaze. I give thanks to a wise compañero for gifting it to me. There is immense pleasure to be had in reading a book simultaneously with those we love.

Meanwhile, I went to the very happy launch of a new book from Brolga Publishing in Melbourne. It has the seductive title Of Rivers, Baguettes And Billabongs, and is the work of a twinkly-eyed writer and winemaker called Reg Egan. He also happens to be the dad of one of my heroic sinners. Reg’s book is delectable, investigating whether it is possible to love two countries equally and to be loyal to both. You can imagine why I might enjoy it, but Reg sings his hymn to France. He makes me think I may yet be unfaithful to Spain….         No. Not possible! But tempting…

Blasts From The Past

First published back in 1973, Lillian Hellman’s timeless memoir Pentimento is a book I’ve owned for as long as I can remember. I lend it, lose it and gift it – then re-purchase it. The opening paragraphs are perhaps my favourite of any book, and the remainder does not disappoint. By the way, my favourite ending to any book can be found in Timebends, Arthur Milller’s exquisitely wrought autobiography. If you have not read it, do. Please. It helps that both these writers have big stories to tell about big people and events. (Apologies for not posting a cover picture of the Miller – it’s on loan!)

The Great Arch, by Vicki Hastrich, was only published four years ago, but it felt like a classic to me. Wise, ambitious, intimate and yet sprawling, it tells the story of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, and Ralph, the Rector at Lavender Bay, who falls in love with the great arch. But that is the tip of an enormous iceberg, and the story is told in many voices and forms. I can’t believe I missed this when it came out, but I am eternally grateful to Charlotte Wood for introducing me to Vicki Hastrich’s writing. A gift beyond compare.

I know I have forgotten someone. There are dozens of books I covet, and piles here beside me waiting to be read, but I think it only fair to report on those I’ve experienced. I haven’t jogged your memory about the work of another favourite, Michael Cunningham, or suggested you lash out on some poems by Rumi, or that you get your kids a copy of something by Shaun Tan. I’m remiss. I’m sorry. Please don’t forget there are two earlier posts about books here and here, which do at least supplement my addled blonde pre-Christmas dizziness.

All three book posts talk about giving. Funny, because many of the books were gifts I gave myself! But I always think of a book as a potential gift. Sharing a story has been part of my life since that Owl sailed off with the Pussycat, and Mary Grant Bruce’s Norah of Billabong showed me that a little girl’s bush life was worthy of being a story. Choosing a book to give is as close as I will ever get to being a psychologist, as I respond to my friends’ foibles and fabulousness via the shelves of a good bookstore. I’m elated when a friend tells me they have loved a book I’ve found for them, and intrigued when a friend doesn’t like a book that has sung to me. We don’t have to agree. Disagreement over a book can lead to a deepening of friendship. Why? Really? I never knew that!

And so it goes.

Wherever you are as you prepare for this season, if you do celebrate it with an exchange of gifts, let some of them be stories. They are the gifts that define us; the gifts that expand us. Those black shapes on a page or a screen are the trails left as human hearts were being mapped. Caminos, every one…

Buen camino, fellow readers. Aren’t we lucky to be able to share such tales?

And gracias to storytellers everywhere. Without the books I’ve read and loved – and those I’ve rejected, too – my life would be a barren place, and I would never have dared to try to tell stories of my own.

Thank you to all of you who subscribe or visit.

Thank you for welcoming Sinning Across Spain into the world.

You have been MY gifts in this Year of Wonders.

(Now that’s another great book, don’t you reckon?)

 P.S. Please take a minute to read the comments on this post. More great recommendations. Not that I’m surprised – your comments are always rich with insight and observations.

Of newborn buddhas and dusty boots

On the Great Dividing Trail – no division!

“Isn’t all that walking boring?”

It wasn’t the first time I’d been asked that, and I understood the question. After all, walking is just…well…walking. It’s slow, repetitive and not particularly cool or sexy.

All I can say is no, it’s never boring for me. Sometimes it’s hard. Sometimes it’s exhausting. But I’ve never found it boring. My mind, which can judge activities and label them as interesting or dull, is lulled by walking, and even at times released by it. Walking gives my mind a freedom it achieves nowhere else, as I describe in the book.

My compañero from the Camino Francés sent me the following words from teacher, poet and peace activist, Thich Nhat Hanh. I love them because they describe a state I long to achieve in all areas of my life. I trust that it might one day be possible, because I can achieve something like it when I walk. See if you can get your mind to attend to every word. It’s not easy.

To my mind, the idea that doing the dishes is unpleasant can occur only when you are not doing them. Once you are standing in front of the sink with your sleeves rolled up and your hands in warm water, it really is not so bad. I enjoy taking my time with each dish, being fully aware of the dish, the water, and each movement of my hands. I know that if I hurry in order to go and have a cup of tea, the time will be unpleasant and not worth living. That would be a pity, for each minute, each second of life is a miracle. The dishes themselves and the fact that I am here washing them are miracles! Each bowl I wash, each poem I compose, each time I invite a bell to sound is a miracle, each has exactly the same value. One day, while washing a bowl, I felt that my movements were as sacred and respectful as bathing a newborn Buddha. If he were to read this, that newborn Buddha would certainly be happy for me, and not at all insulted at being compared with a bowl.

So, in direct answer to the question about walking, and begging forgiveness from the wise teacher, please consider the following, knowing that your mind will try even harder not to attend!

To my mind, the idea that walking is unpleasant can occur only when you are not doing it. Once you have put on your dusty boots, and loaded your pack onto your back, it really is not so bad. I enjoy taking each step, being fully aware of my foot on the earth, the landscape, and each movement of my chest as I breathe. I know that if I hurry in order to get to the finish line, the time will be unpleasant and not worth living. That would be a pity, for each minute, each second of life is a miracle. The steps themselves, and the fact that I am here taking them, are miracles! Each kilometre I travel, each song I sing, each time I let my arms swing past my hips, is a miracle, each has exactly the same value. One day, while walking, I felt that my movements were as sacred and respectful as bathing a newborn Buddha. If he were to read this, that newborn Buddha would certainly be happy for me, and not at all insulted at being compared with walking.

I hope the venerable Thich Nhat Hanh, and my compañero, will not feel at all insulted at my rephrasing of that beautiful text.

Chop wood. Carry water. Wash dishes. Bathe newborn Buddha. Walk.

Peace.

Peace was the wish made by my amigo in Baños de Montemayor.

Paz.

It was a wish made by many of us at last week’s conversation with Tony Doherty. If you’d like to view the YouTube clip of that, please bear in mind that we take up the first 75 or so minutes of the 100 min total. Also bear in mind that our conversation took place the day after George Pell’s press conference about the abuse of children within the church, and as a result the talk is coloured by that.

The last thing I ask you to bear in your wonderful mind is gratitude – to all who read these offerings, and in particular, to all who attended that night. It was humbling – and painful – to hear some of your stories afterwards, and I am walking with you in my heart.

Paso a paso. Step by step.

 

El Ganso

Exactly three years ago, I was in El Ganso, just past Léon on the Camino Francés.

If I close my eyes, I can still smell cut grass on the warm evening air, and the sprig of lavender on my pillow as I drifted into sleep in a mercifully snore-free albergue. I can hear the dog’s bark ringing across the field below the town, reminding me that some creatures were working while I rested.

Most of all, I remember the contentment and internal quiet I felt in that town at the end of a tough and sometimes confusing day.

 

If you’ve read Sinning Across Spain, you may recall the story of Domingo, the old gentleman, or gentle old man, I met there. With all my heart, I hope he is still alive and well, and that he and his town have not been too much troubled by the economic crisis. I hope one day that I might return to thank him for the gifts he gave me.

The following passage from the book, and these photos, are to honour him and El Ganso. I hope that you, my village, will forgive me for posting something you may have read. But as Arthur Miller wrote – “Attention must be paid.”

And gratitude must be given.

Gracias, Domingo. Gracias, mi compañero.

Gracias…

At the end of a long hot day’s walking, I’d arrived in El Ganso, a pueblo my guidebook called “hauntingly crumbling”. It was dozing, and yes, perhaps a touch melancholy, with its Cowboy Bar at the entrance decorated in saddles and cowskins.

El Ganso means “wild goose”. I didn’t chase any.

I wandered out of the albergue as the sun flirted with the horizon. A lone dog barked and a bird fluttered among the beams of an abandoned adobe building behind me. To my left was the handful of houses that made up the town. To my right was the road out. Opposite was a narrow dirt lane between two tumbledown buildings, and walking towards me up that lane was a man with broad, open features. His eyes were surrounded by deep lines. He leaned on a walking stick and waved with his free hand.

Buenas tardes, peregrina,” he called, his face creasing into a grin. That smile was my introduction to Domingo. We stood in the main street, talking about the weather, how far I’d walked, and where I was from.

Australia got a good response.

He held out his free arm and suggested a little walk–un camino pequeno.

We set off at Domingo pace, stopping to sniff the wind, to look and listen.

He gave me the grand tour of El Ganso, where he had spent his entire life. We saw the houses of his brothers and sisters; a big two-storey house–not so nice as the low ones; the vacant land, just waiting for a nice lady from Australia to buy it and build a new home; the abandoned houses, falling into disrepair and back into the ground; the edible rose hips; and the scratching chooks with their scrawny chicks.

Stories everywhere. The house where he was born. The families who went away. The home that waits for his son. The flowers he planted for his sister. The figs, so good, so good…

Then he took me to his house and ushered me inside. He showed me his kitchen, and the kettle his wife favoured, their bedroom and bathroom, both modern and cool; the guest room–for next visit? Then his shed, with its tools and folding garden furniture. His backyard, where he picked for me white roses tinged with softest pink, and two perfect pears. He had sons in Seattle and Madrid, he told me. They made a lot of money but they didn’t come home much.

The whole tour took maybe an hour. Details, affection, the wonder of his almost-abandoned town…

Te gusta mi pueblo?” You like my town?

I did. I still do.

As the sun set, he walked me back along the empty main street to the albergue, where he left me with a stiff bow and a sweep of his free arm, saying, “Ésta es mi pueblo.

This is my town.

I watched him walk away, the scent of pears and roses wafting in the warm air as the church steeple turned orange. All around his retreating figure, the stones of the houses glowed. His home was radiant, radiating. I saw how full it was of loves and losses, and how much richer I was for him having stepped into my life to tell me of them.

I took my fruits and flowers to adorn my table at the Cowboy Bar. Cowboys were a disappearing breed, and I wondered about the future of those pueblos. Would they survive the rush of the young to the cities and beyond?

Friends, amigos, compañeros…

“Oh, no. We’re just friends…”

I overheard that while standing in a queue this week, and it struck me as odd. We’ve come to accept that “just friends” means “not romantically linked”, but when I reflected on the words, I felt a bit sad.

JUST friends?

I think friendship is the sustaining force in any relationship, romantic or otherwise, and to be called “friend” is praise of the highest order.

As someone who is lucky to have many remarkable, conscious, supportive relationships, I could never put a qualifier like “just” before the word “friend”. My friends – and they include family – are precious beyond words. And I have never been more grateful for them than in recent times.

 

Democracy in the street

Compañero

Like amigo, it can mean “friend”, but for me compañero has many resonances. Separating it into its component parts, we get “one with whom you break bread”, so there is a faintly religious overtone when I hear it – loaves and fishes, brotherhood of man.

I associate it with my camino compañero, who first taught it to me, and whose life is defined by serving others, by sitting in the poorest of places, breaking bread and listening.

These days, I think of our word “comrade” when I hear “compañero“. In particular, I remember the young indignados – those who were calling for change back when I was in Spain, long before the Occupy movement had begun. They were peaceful, courteous and respectful, but they were warning of problems ahead, and of the loss of possibility and hope, months before politicians were prepared to confront the issues head-on.

In Santiago, I marvelled as they graffitied a slogan on a bank. They didn’t paint onto the walls, but rather, they attached large sheets of paper on which they had written their protests, not wanting to damage the building.

I think of them often, wondering about their future, and how precarious it must feel now.

Companions. Comrades.

I hope they have friendship to sustain them.

 

Words on a wall

This was written in El Raval, in Barcelona. It’s a translation from Brecht.

WAYS TO KILL
There are many ways to kill
They can stick a knife in your guts
Take away your bread
Not cure your illness
Put you into bad living conditions
Torture you to death through work
Take you to war etc.
Only a few of these things are forbidden in our city

I don’t know who wrote it, but they missed out a line: Empujarte al suicidio…

Drive you to suicide…

I hear such sadness from Spain just now – friends, pilgrims, newspaper reports, television. I hear it from Greece and Ireland too.

I also hear resilience and courage. Stoicism and humour.

I hope they are able to take some strength from friendship, camaraderie and family. I hope that they will continue to have bread to break. I hope that we who currently have much will be able to remember our luck, and help where we can.

I hope that I can be more than JUST a friend…

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Gracias, amigos.