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.

Looking back

Looking back to the meseta on the Camino Frances in 2009

Pride. My sin.

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

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

Unfortunately, not entirely without pride!

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

 

 

 

 

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

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

I’ve tried!

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

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

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

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

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

And I fail.

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

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

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

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

Grazie. Gracias. Merci.

Terimah kasih.

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

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

 

Terimah kasih. Terimah kasih.

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

Terimah kasih.

 

Terimah kasih. Terimah kasih. Terimah kasih.

Terimah kasih.

 

 

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

May 2013 bring you dazzling roads and shimmering horizons.

May you be loved.

Always and all ways.

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

 

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

Gracias, amigos. Gracias.

Buen camino…

 

A pilgrimage in time

This is where I have been…

The photo is taken on the property where I spent my first five years, in the Gascoyne in Western Australia. I flew across the country, drove north with family for company and stories, and travelled back in time over decades, to find another kind of meseta in the outback.

Now I’m home in Melbourne, beginning to try to make something like sense from the pilgrimage. Time will tell whether or not that is possible. I hold onto the words of T.S. Eliot…

We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.

It may take forever to find sense, or to achieve any kind of knowledge, but exploration is surely the vital thing, and in one of those curious serendipitous occurrences, we were back on the land where my mother’s ashes are scattered on the very day when the Fairfax newspapers published this piece I wrote months ago. The photo is theirs. I wish I’d looked so glamorous out on the camino roads! You can read the article online in situ, with ads, here if you prefer.

 

Sun and shadow

When Ailsa Piper made a walking pilgrimage across the length of Spain, her late mother was a constant companion.
In lock step … the author often felt her mother walking beside her.In lock step … the author often felt her mother walking beside her. Photo: Getty Images (posed by a model)

 

I write this on my mother’s birthday. Mum loved an occasion. Christmas was a day-long fiesta that started at dawn when she woke before we did. Mother’s Day was tea with toast burned by us as she pretended to sleep. Birthdays were top of her pops; she insisted they be celebrated. Her last wish was that every year we raise a glass on the day she was born.

 

Often I slip up when toasting her birthday and refer to it as the day she died. It’s as though her birth has become inextricably linked in my mind with her death – as though I can’t think of her beginning without remembering her ending. Maybe it’s because I can’t recall her full-force gales of laughter without immediately seeing her reduced to a coiled spring of suffering in a hospital bed.

 

Mum died almost two decades ago, her hair still dark, and with few wrinkles, although cancer had begun to etch itself into her face. Now, when I think of her, she is birth and death, pleasure and pain, joy and grief, simultaneously.

After a city birth, I went home with Mum to the family sheep station, where my world was bounded by the fences my father regularly rode out to check. Desert country. Unyielding. But Mum gave me other possibilities. Each night, she recited Edward Lear’s The Owl and the Pussycat to me until I fell asleep. She did it for years, until I could recite it back to her.

Surrounded by drought-afflicted soil, she whispered of a pea-green boat bobbing on a star-lit sea. In a place where every drop of water was as precious as platinum, she described lush Bong-tree woods, and a runcible spoon scooping slices of impossible-to-imagine quince. Strange fruits and lands, exotic and enticing. And, of course, there was that impossible couple, owl and cat, dancing under a distant moon.

I know the poem by heart. By my heart and her heart.

 

Just after I decided to walk 1300 kilometres across Spain from Granada to Galicia, I heard a psychologist talking about the importance of the tales we’re told as children. He believed the best any parent could offer was The Owl and the Pussycat. Think about it, he said. The central characters celebrate their differences, and set out on a great quest, with plenty of all they need: honey and money. The decision to marry is instigated by the cat, and the owl loves her strength. Not a bad template for life.

Some people were dismayed when I part-financed my Spanish walk by selling the two paintings I’d bought with my modest financial inheritance from Mum, but I think she’d have approved. I used her legacy to take myself out into the world, whispering our poem to unfamiliar skies.

One day on the road, in a one-burro pueblo called Laza in the mountains of Galicia, I hobbled with a possibly broken toe into a supermarket and struck up a conversation with the woman behind the counter. We talked about mothers. When I told her that mine had been my best friend, and how I missed her, the woman’s professional face cracked. She said her mother had died only a year before, at the age of 80. I said I often walked with mine; that I still felt her absence, after all these years. Suddenly, we were both crying, hugging like intimates.

 

Through her tears, she said life is sol y sombra – sun and shadow – and you don’t value one without the other. She kissed my hand as she gave me my change and I walked into the late afternoon oblivious to the pain in my toe.

Sol y sombra.

I wondered about it as I limped to the town’s cemetery and looked across the gravestones to the surrounding hills. I remember thinking how Mum would have loved it all: the silent grey-stone town, the quince paste I’d bought in memory of the poem, the donkey grazing on lush grass studded with white and yellow daisies, the clouds whizzing ahead to road’s end. The swishing sounds of Spanish. The moss and lichen on granite fences. The mists. The otherness.

 

Mum never got to go to Europe. Sometimes I think my yearning for the road is in part a wish to wander on her behalf, a quest for Bong-trees.

“Sol y sombra,” I whispered, my bones aching for heat in that cemetery swirling with winds blowing chill from the north.

Sun and shadow.

I think the lady in the shop was right. We do value the sun more when we have known shadow. Why is that? I refuse to believe suffering is necessary for happiness, but it certainly puts it into sharper relief. I don’t want to believe I love my mother more for having lost her, but it makes the love, all loves, more precious.

Later along that road, I learnt the Spanish have a drink called sol y sombra. It’s equal parts brandy and anise. Not for the faint of heart. Maybe next year, on Mum’s birthday, I’ll shout myself a glass of sol y sombra and drink to the sunshine Mum gave me to navigate through shadows. Maybe I’ll raise a glass on the anniversary of her death, too.

No. Why wait? Loss teaches us to seize our days. I’ll find a sol y sombra tonight and raise it to love.

Serendipity.

Coincidence.

They always make me feel that I’m in the right place, even if that is nothing more than projection of my own hopes. No matter. It was a camino, I was a pilgrim, and I think the road is leading me somewhere. I’ll keep you posted!

Meantime, there are a few events coming up between now and Christmas, all of which will be listed on the “Events and Media” tab above, and updated on Facebook.

Did I just write Christmas? Ay caramba!

Thanks as ever for subscribing, and for your support and comments. And if you are a first-time visitor, welcome! Bienvenido! You might like to click on the “AAA – my favourites” link on the right to get a sense of the journey so far.

Hasta pronto, compañeros.

 

Prose and passion

For years, one of my personal mantras was the E.M. Forster quote Only connect!

Recently, I took the trouble to read “Howard’s End”, and learned that other words followed.

Only connect the prose and the passion, Forster wrote, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height.

Prose and passion.

At the end of a camino day, it seemed to me that walking provided both.

There was the prose – the sore feet, the roadside rubbish, the sweat, the search for a sleeping-place, the hand laundering, the scent of massed bodies in crowded quarters, the snoring, the self, and the other pilgrims.

Then there was the passion – the postcard vistas, the roadside flowers, the joyous reunion, the spirit soaring, the self and the other pilgrims.

So much passion…

Discovering a via Romana, a Roman road still intact after two millennia, raised above surrounding fields of faded stalks of wheat.

Ducking beneath the branches of low-hanging fig-trees, their fruit a syrupy sugar-hit to push me forward.

Silence.

A snake crossing the path.

Singing without censoring.

History underfoot. Romans, Crusades, Franco’s wars.

Speaking poems aloud in time with footsteps.

Back in Australia, I say the same poems as I take mini-caminos.

I walk into a southern sunrise, striding my via Romana around Port Philip Bay, the smell of fig in my nostrils. A willy wag-tail flits past and I wonder how he got to be in Spain. A gull squawks. Worlds collide. I can’t stop grinning, and the early-morning joggers look at me with suspicion. They don’t know I’m on a road that dates back to Roman times. Out in the Bay, wet-suited swimmers look like dolphins.

What? There are no dolphins on the camino. No ferries to Tasmania either.

I pass schoolgirls in groups. They chatter and laugh, smelling of citrus and spring. One walks alone, her head buried in a book. Another bounces to her i-Pod. More groups, grinning, greeting.

All over the city, all over the world, caminos are walked, and connections are made. Prose and passion abound. And love is the height to which we all aspire.

 

And don’t forget that on the top right, you can become a subscriber if you want to have these posts delivered hot off my little press. Thanks for visiting. Only connect!

 

When you walk…

…you are able to see…

The world is made over: up close, deeply personal, and in your face. The bubble of the car or bus or plane can’t protect the plodder. When I walk, I am in and of the world in a way I never can be when I’m using mechanised transport.

On my feet, I’m transported.

Like last week, when I was stopped in my tracks by the sight of a calf, freshly slithered from its mother. And the cow? Well, she was busy eating the afterbirth, feeding up on nutrients for the wobbly, slick little critter she had just produced.

Everyday miracles.

They are all along the road, because the world keeps on making them happen. In spite of the violence and cruelty we humans can inflict, there remain births and wonders just waiting to be noticed.

I thought of that Mary Oliver poem as I walked – the one from the previous post. I really was the bride married to amazement as I watched the calf, right there in the miraculous mess of the road. No, I was not just visiting the world, and the cow didn’t care whether I stayed or walked. The cow felt no embarrassment. The cow was busy with life.

Like the butterflies that fanned my face and flew at me in swirling gusts of orange and brown. They were drunk on autumn, it seemed. Dozens of them, rising in drifts from gullies and crevasses. Impossible to photograph but indelibly imprinted on my heart-camera.

And invisible from a car.

There are costs in slogging. Sweat, slips, bruises, callouses and occasionally fear. But what rewards…

One of the loveliest gifts for me is the layering of road-memories I have, from decades of walking. There are times when I can barely recall where I am, which road I walk. This weekend I remembered an autumn road in Spain. As I’d walked that road, I’d felt I was I Australia. You can see why!

The road plays tricks with me.

Takes me away to other places and times.

Lets me drift, high above myself and into the past and the future.

Takes me out of my insignificant concerns and reminds me of the ongoing mysteries.

The road brings me home.

Every time.

Home to the ordinary, day-to-day, humdrum wonders and miracles. Birth. Death. Beginnings. Endings. Seasons. Times.

Footfalls on a road.

Like heartbeats.

Sometimes the rhythms find each other.

Then I fly…

Space to move

Lookout overlooking Victoria's Valley of A Thousand Hills

They call it the Valley of A Thousand Hills.

It’s about 80 minutes from Melbourne, but it feels like another world. A place out of time, and a place that gives back the time you felt rushing past you, away from you.

I’d been feeling fraught and helpless; impotent to help people I love, and overcome by world events. Fear was edging in, coupled with a gnawing, undirected fury. I was waking in the night wondering how to rescue people from the fallout of Europe’s financial crises, or rehashing images from TV coverage of the horrors in Syria. Constantly asking that same old question – What can I do?

I ran away.

Cowardly, perhaps. But I know my brain. And it doesn’t function when it is panicking. So I hit the hills to be a pilgrim. The straining of calf muscles, the thunder of the heart trying to break out of the chest, and the burning of lungs as they expand to match a giant landscape – they will quiet the mind every time. And then to reach the top of one of those hills, and to look around into space, all that empty space. A meseta…

Valley of A Thousand Hills. Strath Creek. Victoria

It’s restorative, a bit of perspective. Nothing like being reminded that I’m just a speck, and that the best thing I can do is to settle the mind, and to step back, to take some space and time, and to be still.

I’m returning now to the land of news cycles and bloggofaces. I’m taking small slow steps to understand what I can do that will be productive. Useful. Practical. I will get my house in order so I can be of benefit in some small way.

And I will breathe…

I can make a difference, no matter how small, but not when my angry mind is rattling at its cage.

But I’m grateful to anger. It’s the thing that propels me in the first place. It’s the sin that makes me move, that reminds me I have to DO. It’s a sin with virtues, sometimes!

And in case I needed a reminder that one person can do the impossible, this place emerged, right at the heart of that astonishing valley…

It’s the Hume and Hovell cricket ground!

A perfect cricket pitch, deep green and lush, with a Lords-like pavilion and a cafe serving delectable food. Behind it there is a bunk room that can house two cricket teams! It’s just like a refugio on the camino, and I felt I’d come home. Bunk beds, views for days, and roads leading to the hills.

And at day’s end…cricket, of course.

Sublime and crazy!

And best of all, in the Pavilion Cafe, Chris’s poached eggs! Ask him how he does it. Your mouth will pop open. In fact your mouth will pop open for all of his treats! I recommend the oven-baked tomatoes.

It’s a curious and restorative place. Have a look here…

www.pavilioncafebar.com.au

I wish you space and time. The greatest luxuries on the planet.

And a hill to climb…

A mini-camino. A quasi-meseta.

This last weekend, I let myself walk along the hills of the Great Dividing Trail in central Victoria. Old goldfields country. Some of the path cuts through spindly eucalypt forests, where echidnas were probing the dry clay for just one more ant. Some of the path passes rolling hills and farmlands, waiting now for the autumn rains…

                              Along the Great Dividing Trail

As I walked, I kept experiencing that weird “two places in one moment” feeling. It’s not déjà vu, and it’s not in any way a premonition. It’s just a sense that I am in two landscapes simultaneously.

It often happens to me when I walk.

At the weekend, I was beside those fields you can see in the photo up above, and I was also out on the meseta in northern Spain. Dry clear air. A wind at my back. Golden light. And the memory of how, when I actually walked the meseta, I had felt myself to be in Australia as I plodded.

It was a kind of double palimpsesto. Layers underwriting layers of experience. Layers overwriting layers of memory. Odd, but reassuring. And in Spain, a land where there are so many stories underfoot, from so many centuries of questing souls, maybe it is to be expected.

There are stories carved and hacked into the earth here, too. There are songs that sing low on the whispers of breezes that find me between tree trunks.

We are opposites, Spain and Australia, in so many ways. But we are also mirrors.

My heart seeks the similarities. So do my eyes.

Look at this and see if you don’t too…

                                                               My meseta

Walk well, wherever you are. And keep your ears peeled for stories.

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