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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Lessons from the lighthouse

IMG_1538.JPGIt’s exactly a year since I drove into Sydney, my black hatchback crammed with hastily-packed belongings.

I’d left Melbourne in a rush, grief propelling me up the highway on a quest to make a life where I could choose the memories I played on my internal screen, while seeing new vistas.

Well, that was the plan! Memories, of course, will have their own way…

 

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It was a year of hopes dashed and dreams fulfilled. A year of struggle and of miracles. A year of tears, fears and ultimately, cheers.

My focus for the past twelve months was simple.

Find a home.

Find a home.

Find a home.

 

And I did!

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With a lot of help from an unlikely angel in the form of a Sydney real estate agent, I came to rest in the lee of a lighthouse. Nicholas Charles said to me, the first time I met him, “I will find you a home.” I smiled, thinking it was empty rhetoric; the talk of a salesman. But he did. He listened to my incoherent mutterings, heard what mattered, and tolerated my mood swings and heartbreaks. He consoled me and urged me on as we traipsed all over the city, never charging a cent for his time or expertise, and eventually he led me to a new nest, within easy walk of the barber-pole lighthouse on the tip of South Head.

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This image was commissioned for an article I wrote about Nick Charles for Slow Living magazine. Thanks to editor Tim for sending it to me.

I thank him every time I walk out there, and I walk out there almost daily. It is a pilgrimage. A camino, if you want. It is my own Finisterre – land’s end – with a sheltered harbour village on one side and the wild ocean on the other.

And I love it…

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Now for a confession…

I am an Instagram addict.

It is the one social media thingy of which I was an early uptaker. I love it for community and beauty, and for peeks into the lives of others. Mostly, I love it because it taught me new ways of seeing, and when I first spied the red and white lighthouse, I decided I would photograph it every time I visited, as a way of teaching myself that it is possible to look at anything – a lighthouse, a person, a problem, a grief – in myriad ways, and yet always to see it anew.

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My lighthouse has taught me much. I look at it from above and below, from left and right, from up close and personal and from the other side of the harbour, in all weathers and at all times of day.

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I try to do the same with myself. I’ve come to think of those who guide me through rough patches as my lighthouses. I have many. I have learned to look for the ray of light when the going gets tough. I’ve taught my mind and my heart to understand, in a visceral way, that things are in a constant state of change, even as there are constants that can be relied upon to remain the same.

IMG_0911.JPGSuch are the tensions a lighthouse embodies.

It stands sentinel while all around it swirls – yet it also changes, depending on the conditions.

Some days it is cherry red and gold. Some days crimson and harsh white. Some days it is cold and lonely. Some days it is proud; some days humble.

But it is there.

It is always there.

 

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I am grateful for the lessons of the lighthouse. In my way, I’ve been a sailor being guided through rocks, and it has brought me home.

Many times.

It did that for me from the moment I first saw it, and it does it every time I visit.

 

It always shows me another side – invites me to see things in a different light.

IMG_2813This year, as I approach my birthday and consider the things I would like to create or invite into the coming year, my focus is on calm. It’s a humbler goal than finding a home, and yet I suspect it may be harder won. It is not my natural state! Regardless, I feel pretty sure my lighthouse will continue to teach me.

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My sister Amanda took this pic of me and my lighthouse – both a bit scarred!

 

In my birthday wishes for the year ahead, I send light to you, and a hope for smooth sailing. May you never feel you are becalmed or stuck, but may you know deep internal calm. And may you have a lighthouse…many lighthouses…to bring you home.

 

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Thanks to my sister Alanna for making this image – beyond my skills!

Walking home…again…

 

I am in a new place….
IMG_1970It’s a place of exposed cliffs and sheltered bays; of screeching cockatoos and comedian kookaburras; of purple sunsets and moonrises over shimmering ocean; of shy honeyeaters and wheeling lorikeets.

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There are two lighthouses in my new neighbourhood.

There is a General Store where they know everybody’s name.

There are views to infinity and covered lanes, drooping with vines.

There are Port Jackson figs and bad banksia men. There are frangipanis, though the trees are little more than bare stumps just now. But the flowers will come.

I know all this because I am tramping for miles and miles, trying to walk myself into “local” status. It will take a lifetime, of course. Maybe two. I don’t kid myself about that. But let’s face it, it’s the journey, not the destination, and because I don’t presume to know how much time I will have, I am exploring as far and wide and deep as I can, as fast as I can, leaving nothing for some mythical “later”.

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Sailboats make bold in the harbour, but alone on the open sea they are tiny handkerchiefs fluttering in wilful breezes. Ferries pootle about and tugs scurry to work. Busy busy busy. Liners glide and the navy frigates take no prisoners.

There was a shipwreck here. I stroke the enormous metal links of an anchor chain as gulls wheel overhead, crying the same desolate sound they must have made when the boat went down.

The clouds here are brushstrokes made by some wildly confident artist who dips her brush into a multicoloured pot and with one sweep leaves us gasping…

 

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The sun rises behind two sandstone steeples. Both are made gold in an instant. Their bells don’t peal – that would be too presumptuous. They ding and dong like twins with different pitches, humble village workday calls that take me back to other walks where equally intimate bells called across fields to me as I hiked.

These are welcoming bells, greeting me just as my neighbours did. They came from downstairs on the day my boxes were delivered, and helped me unpack. We were a team in an instant. The bloke from upstairs knocked one Sunday night with fresh fish fillets, caught that day. He and his bonny wife have a little boy who is getting teeth. I will miss that gummy smile on the stairs when the molars have all pushed through. I hope to be here to see him start to read or to wobble down the hill on training wheels.

Other neighbours tell me they are “here” if I need them.

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I am here too.

I want to be here for a long time.

There are enough trails and mysteries to keep me twisting and turning on myself, getting lost and found, picking up shells and watching sea-snails leave rust-coloured trails, wondering and wandering, for many long days –  should I be lucky enough to have them.

That miracle.

To have days. Days and days of health and light.

To live and breathe and walk…

IMG_1890I walk the clifftops, watching for whales.

And yes, I really do see them.

They’ve been heading north, though I am told that now others are coming south.

Do they greet each other?

Do they swap stories of their watery ways, calling to each other in recognition, as we walkers do on our separate but joined trails.

“Morning! Lovely day!”

It’s always a lovely day…

IMG_1772I’m stepping into these days and these ways, finding my rhythm and my pace, learning the stories underneath my feet and inscribing my own tentative etchings over them. I make my way home, muscles warmed and cheeks red, telling myself to remember.

Remember this day.

This air. This bird call. This sun on my cheek and this glint on the water.

Remember this possibility.

I am walking into a new life. I stumble. I lose my way.

But I’m walking. One step, then the next. I’m walking myself home again…

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A PS – There was an article of mine about this magnificent part of the world in the Sydney Morning Herald on September 19th. Just click here to read. I’m pretty passionate about the subject, as you can tell!

And here’s another from October 14th – a different take on the same issue… www.smh.com.au/comment/dont-turn-south-head-into-a-wedding-production-line-20151007-gk3oxr.html

For some moving pictures, here is a video (with some bolshie locals!) about the issues…

On a different subject…The Accidental Atheist is 30 minutes of searching radio as Gary Bryson, a lifetime atheist, asks whether he has “missed out” on something. One of the people he asked was me! Our conversation took place out on South Head at the entrance to Sydney Harbour – a place of deep meaning for me. You can podcast it by clicking here – https://radio.abc.net.au/programitem/peo9QyyE2Q?play=true

If you are in Australia, grab the spring issue of SLOW LIVING magazine from your newsagent. It’s a beautiful mag, and I have an article in it that celebrates a personal “lighthouse” person – one who got me through some rough water! You can’t get their articles online, but if you are considering subscribing, I can recommend it. Info here… http://www.slowmagazine.com.au/current-issue

Homing in…

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

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

But HOME rescues me. The word and the place.

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

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

I do remember. How could I forget?

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

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

Home.

History. Memory. Warmth. Intimacy.

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

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

And I am grateful.

For home.

 

Walking home

IMG_3632The other day I was on the mobile, talking to a friend, when she asked me what I was doing. Perhaps the heavy breathing made her curious!

“Walking home,” I answered.

I kept striding along the bayside trail and talking to my friend, both activities at a pretty hectic pace, but one part of me had stopped, rolling those two words over and over in my mind.

Walking home.

Walking home.

I’m always walking home, I realised. It’s what I do every time I set out for a stroll, a wander, a saunter or a pilgrimage. It’s what I do when I walk out the front door or into the wind; away from someone I love or toward a challenge; and even when I sit here at the desk, tapping at these keys, I am walking my self home. I’m not sure where that home is, but it’s located somewhere within, I think. It’s the part of me that is still and quiet; the part that grins like a loon when I’m loping along an open road; the part that remembers the rhythm of camino days; the part that knows I need nothing other than air to be happy. To be whole.

When I can locate it, it feels like what they call grace. But it eludes me too often.

I was not walking home when I sat on the phone for an hour yesterday, reporting a faulty telephone line. The call centre staff were doing their best, so why couldn’t I keep my breathing even and my tone calm? I’m not walking home when I wake at 2am panicking about failure or the uncertainty of the future. Of course the future is uncertain. I know there are no guarantees, even for those who have contracts and salaries. Why should that wake me in the night?

At those times, I forget that I am walking home; that every heartbeat, every in-breath and every out-breath is a reminder that if I choose to be, I am getting closer.

PB083824I must choose.

I can’t always expect to know I’m on the path, as I do when I walk out on welcoming, shaded roads.

I must actively choose to see every step as a step toward home. I must hold the memory of that in every cell, and trust that I am getting there. That we are all getting there.

Home.

Home safe.

Home free.

That’s something to write home about, isn’t it?

Coming home. Going home.

“Walking home,” I said, when she asked what I was doing. Even if I never make it, the journey will be beauty-filled if I can only keep that simple mantra close.

Walk home. Walk home. With every breath, may you walk yourself closer to home.

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Water

Last week, I was invited to write something to read at the first story-telling night at the Grumpy Swimmer bookshop in Elwood. The theme was “water” – not an element in which I’ve ever felt easy, much as I love it.

At the same time, I was grappling with my piece for Women of Letters. I hadn’t finalised it, and was torn between three wildly different versions. I think the piece for Grumpy might have affected the outcome of my letter. It’s as though I dipped my toes into the water and was able to look back to shore and see where I had come from – and that is what I wrote about.

So, as a way of honouring the process, and as an offering to you, my subscriber-village, I thought I’d post the Grumpy piece here. It’s short – it had to come in under five minutes – but I’m so grateful to it. It is a step on the way to my next major project, I think. And it gave me the first words for my Women of Letters piece, too!

I was born at the end of the world, on the edge of a great ocean. Before my eyes could focus, I was taken to a place in the desert, where, like a cactus, I grew plump, drawing life from the red dust that was my whole world.

One day, they took me back to see that ocean I had not been shown. They told me I could swim in it, walk beside it, make a castle near it. They gave me a bucket and a spade, and I held them close in the hot car for hours while we drove to that great ocean.

They forgot one thing. They didn’t tell me about the noise.

“Look,” they said. “Look at the pretty blue.”

The pretty blue roared and crashed, it thumped and smashed. It frothed and bubbled and hissed, and no amount of cajoling was going to get me to step into its soupy swirls.

I ran from it, craving my desert silence.

When I had grown I went back to the great ocean. It was still loud.

Currents of warmth rose out of frigid depths. Sand slid from under my toes. Seaweed tangled around my thighs, trying to hold me. Water was sirens, sharks and lures. Water was not my element.

Too loud. Too belligerent. Too slippery and unpredictable.

I left the great ocean and returned to the reliable earth, to find my feet and my way. I walked. I walked myself away from my home and into the wide world.

Along the ways, I was always drawn to ocean-people. I loved their roaring laughter, their flicks and head-tosses, their flamboyance. But I couldn’t stay with them. Always I returned to the silence of the earth; to its unassuming wisdom and its wry smile.

One day in the midst of all the ocean-people, I met an earthed man, who brought me to live in his home near a stretch of water that is confident enough about itself not to need to roar. I came home to a sure shore.

On the edge of Port Phillip Bay, there is a trail, where I’ve walked for over two decades now. It is my camino. That word means road, or way, in the Spanish language. It makes a known path feel more seductive to me when I call it a camino. Sometimes, you need to find ways of making the familiar exotic when you walk a road every day.

My camino runs from the end of the Elwood canal, past Point Ormond, and along the beach to Brighton. Sometimes I turn right and head for St Kilda, but it’s busy along there. Too many ocean-people.

On my camino, the rhythm of my feet kicks in, and before I know it I have drifted to other roads…to the desert, to Italy, central Australia, and Tasmania; to the Great Dividing Trail. I can be in Spain, out on the dry meseta tableland.

But then I turn my head, and there beside me on my camino is the bullet-grey of Port Phillip Bay’s water.

Come back. It says. Be here. Be where you are.

Because now, after all these years of tracing that camino bay-trail, it is water that grounds me. Calmer, stiller water. The glint of afternoon sun on that wine-dark bay tells me I’m where I belong. The first pale light of day, sparkling on the lapping edge at my toes, whispers that I’m where I’m meant to be. It is water, that body of water with its softness and its steely grey, that holds me on course and stays the distance. It is that water that calls me home.

End-of-the-world-sunset across my beloved bay

My gratitude to all of you who are subscribers, and in particular to those who have left such rich and thoughtful comments in response to the offerings here. I recently re-read my first ever post, and I remember the skepticism I felt about things digital and social media. I realise I now have new communities. I love sharing snippets and pictures and fast updates on Facebook, and enjoy the thumbs-up LIKEs when they hit a nerve, or give a smile. I have learned that Twitter can take me down tunnels about writers and news outlets I’d never imagined. Here, on the blog, I feel I have conversations with guests at an on-goinng dinner party.

So thank you all, wherever you intersect with me. I will keep trying to offer tasty morsels!