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!

Saying HI!

 

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Blimey! It’s 2015 and I’ve clearly not been plugged in. Oops.

But here I am, trying to remedy that, though I’m not sure how I will go with being nice. Certainly I am saying Hi. “Hi”, and also thank you for patience and forbearance.

2015.

For this pilgrim, it began with movement. Planes and cars and trucks. Not very much walking, sadly – but that will change. The minute I have sent this note into the ether, I will head out into the afternoon to let my legs lead me. For now, though, the fingers are the only moving part. They must try to capture my wishes for you….

May you have days and days of benign uneventfulness under wide blue skies, broken only by delicious AHA! moments of realising that peace, in self and place, is the greatest gift.

A village full of healthy laughing friends and family to applaud you through your days, sharing the ups and buoying you in the downs.

Licorice allsorts. Plenty.

Possibilities swirling, all of them expansive.

A shady spot under a spreading tree. An umbrella when it pours. Or not, if you like to be drenched.

A mind and heart that say YES to all the right questions, and can say a loud NO when necessary.

The freedom to continue to breathe and walk and speak and live without fear, and the courage to keep on doing those things when fear intrudes. As it does. As it will. As it must, I suppose. That too is life. But I wish you oceans of courage and freedom, that you may wake each day and give thanks.

Gratitude.

I give it to you and I wish it for you.

And love. With every step, every meeting, every parting and every keeping.

Most of all, I hope you can have what I am claiming for myself. While in Ubud recently, I wished a boy “happy new year”. He smiled back at me and said “And you – you have more happy.”

It’s my only resolution.

Have more happy.

2015.

May it be a bright bright bright new year, full to the brim with more happy.

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And a postscript…

I have been remiss. Forgot to let you know about a couple of things during my unplugged days, but there is a show called The Truth About Us on the Foxtel Bio Channel. One episode was a great celebration of my friendship with the beautiful friend Kat Stewart – a remarkable human being for whom I have so much respect and gratitude. It was such a privilege to record it with Angela Pulvirenti.

https://www.facebook.com/video.php?v=775815955840476&fref=nf

Small steps

With some fear, and not a little trepidation, I’m getting back on the road.

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This weekend, I will be back in Aireys Inlet for the Melbourne Writers Festival. The session is titled Journeys of Self Discovery.

Of course, that relates to Sinning Across Spain, and the camino. But when I was booked for the talk, months and months back, I don’t think I could have guessed that I’d be on a longer, tougher and more demanding journey now. This camino of grief tests my mettle every day. Every breath.

What keeps me upright is the monumental outpouring of support from those I love, and from people who don’t even know me but have read the book. That is a strong hand resting along my spine. It is strength and tenderness together.

I’m so grateful.

I was last at Aireys for the Lighthouse Festival. Peter was with me, and he was one of the readers for the weekend. We had such fun. I will walk the beach for him. Aireys is a place he loved from childhood…

And I will remember every person who has helped me walk this road so far. Thank you. I will try not to let you down.

 

POSTSCRIPT….

Amanda Smith, producer of The Body Sphere on Radio National, has made a wonderful programme about walking. You will LOVE baby’s first steps! And you might recognise the pilgrim voice at the beginning and end of the show…

You can podcast/download here.
http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/bodysphere/talking-about-walking/5694562

 

From an absent friend…

IMG_5256Last time I wrote, I spoke of my superstition that January can foretell the year. In some ways it did. I’m in-residence again, this time at the Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers’ Centre in the foothills outside Perth.

What I couldn’t have guessed when I wrote from Bundanon was that I would get glandular fever, and with it a master class in s-l-o-w. Hence my lengthy absence, for which I apologise.

The community at this site – my “village” – has been a constant for me since before Sinning Across Spain was released, and I value the comments and care I’ve received from you here, so to have gone AWOL feels neglectful. I’ve been an absent friend.

I’m sorry.

IMG_0278While I’ve been here in Perth – almost four weeks now – the temperature has only dropped below 30 degrees on two occasions. Today it was 37 again. The trees outside my cabin drop their bark as though they’re being stifled by layers of cardigans. The clay earth has closed over completely, trying to retain what little moisture it holds. Magpies and crows start the day with loud calls, wheeling between the trees and past my window. But by day’s end, they can barely hop, and their voices are little more than faint squawks.

IMG_5306The sunsets from my writing perch, looking down to the city, have been end-of-worldly.

I am cocooned in this cabin, just down the hill from Katharine’s place. I’m aware of her and of her work every time I open the door to sniff the air. “Get back inside,” I hear her scold. “Stay still and conserve your energy for your work.”

Everyone tells me to conserve my energy. I’m not sure how to do that. It has never been an issue for me before. I’m on a different camino. I’m learning…learning…

The lessons of the guru-snail.

Listen to the internal rhythms. Slow. Stop.

I’ve barely left this piece of land in all the time I’ve been in the west, but last weekend my sister took me to Cottesloe to see the sculptures there. It happened to be one of the two cool days, and the breeze was intoxicating. I crawled along, more entranced by the sea and the salt spray than by any of the installations, wonderful as they were. Moisture, cool, families, movement, swimmers, music, gulls wheeling…

Ken Unsworth's Entry in Sculpture by the Sea

Ken Unsworth’s Entry in Sculpture by the Sea

Life jostled about me, and it was good to be among it again. Good to see the whirling and colours and to hear shouts and laughter, the rhythm of running feet on pavement.

No. Not mine!

After less than an hour of toddling like a two year old on wobbly pins, I was ready to go. When you’ve been so solitary, the world is a wonder. Almost too much.

But no. Never too much. Never.

I know it’s there waiting. And I’m coming back, world. Yes I am.

S-l-o-w-l-y.

Meantime, may good health and strong legs be yours, ever and ever. Walk strong. xxx

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Spot the fevered pilgrim photographing the wondrous mirror-dog, if you can

PS. Thank you Alanna for all your help. I couldn’t have done it without you, mysis.

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.