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

 

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

 

 

Stories that move…

This is a higgledy-piggledy thought trail.  A bit like one of those roads that twist and turn and loop back and cross over and duck beneath. You get there eventually but you have to trust that the trail is not tricking you.

IMG_3846Firstly, I’m on the road again. Well, more accurately, I’m in the air. I’m off to WA for the Big Sky Festival in Geraldton. This is tremendously exciting. It’s a combined homecoming and discovery. I’ve not been there for decades, and my last trip was on tour as a beginning actress. Geraldton was occasionally a stopping point on the way north to the Gascoyne when we were driving home after a visit to Perth, so I have sketchy memories of it, but I have none of my other destination – the Abrolhos Islands.

Yes, a few lucky writers are being taken over to the Abrolhos, to stay the night. It’s a sanctuary and a wild place. I looked at the expected temperatures, and the maximums and minimums are the same! There are seals and turtles and birds and…wildness. It’s a great privilege to overnight there. Usually only the fishermen who work there are allowed to stay, and under strict supervision. I can’t believe my luck.

IMG_1262Meanwhile, from out on the roads in Spain I am getting missives from pilgrims. September 2009 was when I walked the Camino Frances, my first camino, and so I feel very sentimental about those who are currently making their way. Protective. And a bit envious, if I’m truthful.

Only a bit.

Buen camino one and all, and may the road continue to rise. Gracias for the letters and posts and pictures. I’m coming back.

Yes I am.

And in other news, I’ve decided that I am going to do the Seven Bridges Walk in Sydney on October 27th to raise some money for Cancer research. Next weekend will be the 19th anniversary of my beautiful Mum’s death, and as I approach the age she was when she died, I feel even more keenly how much was taken from her. And from others I’ve lost. I’m also walking in gratitude for those I love who have recovered, and for my own strong legs and heart.

IMG_3993People have given me so much since I put the word out that I was doing the walk. Many of the gifts have been stories. Stories of loss. Stories of hope. Stories of transcendence and grief and euphoria.

I have been moved by accounts of gifted doctors and children’s recoveries, courage and fear and perseverance. We humans, at our best, are truly wonders. We can envision a better future, and that is remarkable.

One such person is Emily Simpson, who was the first to give to my fundraising campaign. Emily is a remarkable woman who has singlehandedly driven a quest to create a permanent labyrinth walk in Centennial Park in Sydney. She is a mighty spirit. Not content with donating to Seven Bridges fund, she also sent me a poem, knowing how much I love a verse hit. And so I share it with you here.

For all of us, on our various roads, heading toward our personal Santiago…

Santiago

The road seen, then not seen, the hillside
hiding then revealing the way you should take,
the road dropping away from you as if leaving you
to walk on thin air, then catching you, holding you up,
when you thought you would fall – and the way forward
always in the end, the way that you came, the way
that you followed, that carried you into your future,
that brought you to this place, no matter that
it sometimes had to take your promise from you,
no matter that it always had to break your heart
along the way: the sense of having walked
from far inside yourself out into the revelation,
to have risked yourself for something that seemed
to stand both inside you and far beyond you…

Excerpt from “Santiago”
From Pilgrim: Poems by David Whyte ©2012 David Whyte

 

Wherever your road is leading you today, may you enjoy the twists and turns, and duck your head when necessary, but remember to look up and make the occasional wish too, won’t you?

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And here is some housekeeping info…

The Events and Media pages are up to date. Click above in the menu bar for info.

I’ll update movements – with Abrolhos pics! – on Facebook.

If you’d like to know more about the Seven Bridges walk, just click here. You might like to put on your boots and join us!

 

Musing…

I’m wrangling. Busy in the head. Scattered. Lost.

So I went to one of my old notebooks, opened it, and found this. It cut through my internal clamour. Only trouble is, I want more of it, but don’t know where I got it. The notebook is ten years old, and I didn’t credit the quote. Any ideas? At least if I knew who penned it, I’d be baffled about one less thing…

IMG_3005There are, it seems, two muses: the muse of Inspiration, who gives us inarticulate visions and desires, and the muse of Realisation, who returns again and again to say “Is it yet more difficult than you thought?”

The muse of Realisation works with us best when we welcome these obstructions – this is also the muse of form, and form serves us best when it works as an obstruction to baffle us and deflect our intended course. Why? – because when we no longer know what to do we have come to our real work, and when we no longer know which way to go we have begun our real journey…perhaps…perhaps all this is, is a play of words – though the mind that is not baffled is unemployed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.

Even if you don’t know it, I hope it feeds you as it has me. Or at least gives solace!

And while we are on the subject of solace, this is what was written on the next page of that notebook – the words of the gifted and tender Nick Enright, who died ten years ago. We lost a great writer and a great spirit when he passed, and this says it all.

I’m grateful for the experience of love, it is the only reality. Love is the only reality and everything else is the negation of that.

All the horror and stupidity of the world is the negation of our capacity to love and care for each other.

Vale Nick.

There can be no doubt about who wrote those words.

A postscript – do scroll down through the comments if you are a poetry hound. Some beautiful stuff has been left here, for which I am very grateful to my subscriber family!

Friday Goodness

IMG_1170Late afternoon Good Friday.

Not a breath of air. A bird chirrups. A plane drones somewhere.

Out the window are grey clouds and the tin roof of next door’s house.

The sounds, and that view, feel remote from me.

Muffled.

Other-worldly.

Inside my study, I’m struggling. My childhood as a Catholic taught me that Good Friday is a day to commemorate a death – a solitary and agonising death, one that must have felt endless, given the way that pain can stretch time.

If I sit up straight, I catch sight of the top of an elm. Its branches form a skeleton against that grey sky. Autumn will finally have its way, it seems. Summer has been holding it at bay, but the season of the dying fall will be victorious. All week summer tried, pushing temperatures and tempers over the top, but the southerly buster came, and the rain with it. Woollens were snatched from cupboards and night closed in earlier. Leaves swirled from the trees and huddled against fences. Puddles formed in ditches and canals. Summer dusted off her skirts and took her leave, giving autumn centre stage.

And now, the world hangs in suspension. All is cool and still. In limbo. And my thoughts are of endings and deaths.

IMG_2529Three years ago I was in Rome for Good Friday, traipsing the streets of the eternal city with my friend Susan, trying to see if we could find an easter vigil to attend. There, Good Friday is a day of commerce and busyness, as you’d know if you have read Sinning. It was a shock to me to see all the activity and the spruiking. But now, I see that it makes sense for them. The focus in the northern hemisphere is on Easter Sunday. Resurrection. Why ever not? It is spring, and flowers are thick on the ground, their scent wafting from grasses and gardens. Blossom bursts from branches and wisteria droops. All is renewal and birth, in line with pagan celebrations of the season. Persephone returns, bringing new life and possibility. Spring gets sprung.

IMG_3007But here, easter falls in autumn, when the world hunkers for winter. Maybe that’s why my easter focus has so often been on Good Friday – and why my mind dwells on death.

It’s not an unfamiliar place. I go there often, and don’t find it frightening. But it is sombre. The contemplation of endings is serious business, and for me, must be undertaken in stillness and silence. I tried to play music just now, but to no avail. Not appropriate, even Arvo Part.

A crow caws. Again. He is insistent.

He seems appropriate.

Mortality. Death. Ending. Closure.

One day I will die. It’s good to have at least one certainty. I know of no other.

But I do hope to be given time to make over more days in beauty. I hope to be given hours to walk. I hope to be given days to work. I hope to be given months to live more consciously and with more compassion. I hope to be given years to continue to explore what it is to live “the good life”. To do better.

Maybe that is the goodness to take from today. The awareness that this will end makes me commit to love each minute to the full – even if the minutes are melancholy. I will give myself over to that autumnal emotion, and not judge it as less worthy than the summery smiling days. I will sit with it and honour it, knowing that it too holds promise.

And if I’m honest, I think the leaves of autumn are more beautiful than the summer greens. Maybe later I will go and collect some, and put them in a bowl on my desk, to remind me of the lessons of endings.

But for now, I will still my legs, and my mind, and be with autumn.

This is Friday, and it is Good.

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Adios primavera

The wide brown land is baking today. Fire warnings abound, as all creatures great and small look for caves and cool. Tomorrow, rain and storms are predicted, along with icy southerly blasts. A change, they call it at the weather bureau.

Spring is exiting stage left, but she is not going gentle. She is burning and raving, raging, hurtling to her end, free of fear or doubt. “Adios”, she calls over her shoulder, kicking up dust as she leaves me behind.

When that dust settles, I look down and see the rose, a shock of crimson, past its prime and out of place. This is a lonely path. I chose it because no-one ventures through these ravaged gullies where thousands once excavated for gold, and trees whisper of disappointed avarice. The foot-width trail, made by kangaroos through spindly burned gums, yields wonders sparingly, demanding a walker return over and over to its flinty surface before it reveals a snuffling echidna or a native orchid.

So how did the rose get here?

I want to pick it up and see if there is still any scent to be had, but something stops me. Its stem is short. Was it worn in a lapel to a dance where things did not go to plan? Was it nestled in the upswept hair of a girl as she swayed and dipped across a polished floor? And what befell her, that her rose ended here, at my feet?

The forest is silent. It broods. Would it yield up a body to me if something terrible had happened? We are remote enough to speak of shallow graves.

There are no marks in the dirt to speak of struggle, no indentations or footsteps in dried clay, no signs to tell me how a cultivated, blood-red wonder has been transported to the goldfields rough, its petals in danger of being crunched into the quartz by my boots.

A shard of sunlight finds the rose, exposing it as dry, its stem withered. Done.

“Rose…” I whisper into the eucalypt-scented silence.

I walk away, straining to see or hear something that might explain it, but there is only the creak of a trunk against the branch of a neighbouring tree, and the scrunch of my feet. This forest does not give up its ghosts, but they are out there. Somewhere to my left, the thump-thump of a wallaby; overhead the shriek of a cockatoo; somewhere very close, the slither of grass parting at ground level.

Feet on earth. Marking out time. The scrunch. The rhythm. The passing. On.

To the cemetery.

Coming out of the forest into grazing land, there it lies, framed by grandfather eucalypts and pines, introduced and indigenous standing sentinel around the bones of other grandfathers. And children.

I walk through the creaking metal gates and up the central avenue, passing the century-old plinth where only one word of the inscription remains intact – SACRED; past purple thistles rising out of the earth and marble crucifixes crumbling back into it; past the granite stone for Laurel, “Giver of love and joy”; and past the holly bush that has grown on the still-tended grave of an infant who would now be a woman more than a century old.

On the high ground, under a row of whistling pine trees, there’s a slab of red stone for Norman, who died almost twenty years ago. Neighbour Norm, a flirtatious bear of a man who used to joke that he joined the Progress Association to ensure there was no progress, and whose inscription tells me that the greatest of all is love. To Norman’s right is a matching stone for his grandson Michael, whose life was taken by depression over a decade ago. I’m glad Norman went first.

I plant myself between them, looking over the field of the dead to the young eucalypts planted across the road. They will be harvested for commercial use. Their fate is known.

Norman, Michael and I sit on the hill. Norman reminds me to feast, to laugh and to love well. Michael reminds me to relish the days of sun, because the dark ones can claim us. The eucalypts speak of the honour of usefulness, and the imperative of remembering that the end will come.

Except of course, the end doesn’t come. Why do we assume “it” ends when we do? “It” goes on. “It” keeps turning, and feet keep walking, roses keep growing, and we keep remembering.

The sun is high and the pines smell like Christmas.

Time to move. The road is waiting.

I walk back down the central path toward the eucalypts.

Some of them have been burned.

Their trunks are charred black, but at the base of one tree, silvery grey leaves have sprouted, thick and determined.

New life from old.

 

My feet crunch on gravel.

The scrunch. The rhythm. The passing.

On. On. On.

The scrunch of feet on gravel – click to hear!

Adios, primavera.

Goodbye spring.