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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Winging away

I have been obsessed with owls of late. First I was asked to write a piece for a new online magazine called The Barn Owl Journal that has come out of Melbourne’s Twilight School. I found myself trawling books and the internet, looking at owls and considering the mythology around them. Eventually I wrote a piece that was inspired by a heartbreaking image of an owl in captivity, hunkered into a corner of a plywood box.

Then, out walking one day in Sydney, I chanced on a young owl and one of its parents, being harassed by mynahs. I wanted to intervene. To stop the war. But clearly the parent owl was forbidding enough to stop the irritants from coming too close. The baby simply sat on its branch, blinking and gazing down at me with those curios O O eyes.

Back in Melbourne, a miracle occurred one day while I was walking the Elwood canal. A group of people were standing in silence, looking up at what seemed to be an ordinary tree branch. Closer inspection revealed a tawny frogmouth on a nest. IMG_4659Brilliant camouflage, but somehow she had been spotted. Or he. Apparently they co-parent, taking turns on the nest or to find food.

But I digress.

Over time, I watched as that bulge under the wing revealed itself to be two little owl chicks. I began to walk morning and evening. I didn’t take my other paths. My camino was always to the owls. I observed the comings and goings, and struck up conversations with other walkers who had come to feel the owl family was theirs.

The babies seemed to develop personalities – one was cheeky and the other reclusive.

Image 6

 

More and more of us were drawn to them. I would walk faster to get to them, stand for longer underneath them, and drag my heels walking away. We talked excitedly of the changes, we people of the owl. We swapped anecdotes. Felt ourselves to be their guardians.

One day I saw one of the chicks stretch a wing, and my heart thudded. It was long and strong. It stretched wide. I hadn’t realised that the babies were preparing to fly the nest. To me they were family now. Permanents. In spite of the parent owls regarding us with their detached wisdom, I had somehow reached the conclusion that the chicks were ours. Mine.

The adult owls knew better.

Image 7

 

I contacted my sister to come and photograph them. I brought friends to pay homage. I told myself they would not be there forever. I visited more frequently and saw that the chicks had left the nest and were now sitting on another branch, their personalities still the same, but their bodies grown. I was proud of them. Unreasonably excited at their achievements…IMG_4750

Then one Sunday morning, I came running down the path, and they were gone. All four of them, the parents too. Gone. I stood under the branch, looking up, thinking of those people who say they can feel a missing limb after it has been taken. Eventually I walked on. Then I turned and came back, as though I might have snuck up on them unawares. I played that game for several days, visiting at odd times and doubling back.

But they never returned.

Humans did. Sometimes I would come upon a group of other owl-fans, standing below the branch looking up to where they had been, eyes wide and mouths open. All silent. It was like coming to a holy site. We were making a pilgrimage of a kind. The tree – that branch – is now the place where the owls came. It is sacred for some of us. It will always be so. They blessed us by nesting there, and then the parent owls did what all great parents do for their offspring – they gave them wings and taught them to fly.

As I prepare to let go of another year, I hope I can do it with the same grace and beauty of the owls. I hope I can remember to fly above my own petty disappointments or insecurities and soar on the updrafts of gratitude and discovery. I have had a year full of wonders and of kindness. I have been given nests by friends and strangers, so that I could do my work on the next book. I have been asked to share my Sinning Across Spain stories with attentive and welcoming hearts. I have learned and learned. The book has been reprinted, and it is still being given from one hand to another. This is another set of miracles for me.

So, at Christmas, I wish you wings, and a safe nest in which to shelter with those you love. I wish you places of sanctuary and sacredness, wherever you find them. I wish you peace and plenty. And I wish you moments of wonder, where you stand, eyes wide and mouth open, touched by the miraculous possibilities of this astonishing planet.

Thank you. As always. For opening my heart and mind and spirit.

In 2014, I am hoping to complete my next book. I have been given some more “nests”. I start with time in residence at Bundanon, the amazing gift made by Arthur Boyd for the creation of new work. Then I go as writer in residence to another place gifted by an artist – the Katherine Susannah Prichard Centre in Perth. I will be giving talks and workshops while there, so will put up news here and on Facebook as they are settled. Also, Radio National are rebroadcasting the Sinning Across Spain episode of Poetica on January 11th, and on January 12th, they will play the episode of Spirit of Things in which I am in conversation with Tony Doherty.

But for now, gratitude again. Peace to you and yours. Deep peace.

May you fly high and safe in the coming year. Spread your wings and lift off….

Blues…

Abrolhos Island Blues

Abrolhos Island Blues

I’m mad for blue.

It might be my favourite colour.

When I was first shown the cover of “Sinning Across Spain”, the ratio of village to sky was different to the final version. My only request, because I thought the design completely beautiful, was for more sky and less village. That was partly because the experience of walking had been much more about sky and solitude than village and community, but it was also my delight in that intense turquoise, chosen by the brilliant designer.

Blues…

IMG_4368

Smoky Katoomba blues

There are so many of them in life’s Derwent pencil box, and all sing to me of horizons and skies, distance and possibility. Of opening, adventure, salt spray and infinity.

Why, then, do we say that we “have the blues” when we are sad or wan?  Why not the purples, which seem to me to be much more fraught? Or perhaps the browns, which are murkier to my eye, and more like the way I feel when I can’t see woods for trees.

My online dictionary suggests that the first to use the word “blue” to mean “sad” was Chaucer, back in 1385.  I wonder why he didn’t choose to say he had the “greys” – the colour I associate with those lowering English skies.

IMG_3631

Serene Elwood Blues

And why do people sing the “blues”? The great B.B. King says the blues are an expression of anger against shame and humiliation, but to my mind, that sounds more like the “reds”. The “vermilions” even!

I’ve had a dose of “the blues” lately. Nothing big. Certainly nothing that compares to the stories I was honouring and hearing as I walked 27 kilometres across seven bridges and through miles of national park in Sydney’s Seven Bridges Walk. It was a fundraiser for the Cancer Council, and I’ve rarely been more conscious of how fortunate I am to be walking and laughing with friends.

The Cancer Council employs a bright yellow daffodil on their logo – surely the colour of optimism and hope. Walkers who were supporting research for breast cancer wore pink – for some, the colour of birth and renewal and hope. I wore white  – possibility, clarity, purity, perhaps. My intentions were pure; I was walking for the possibility of a brighter future; and I was holding clear memories of people who had lost lives to cancer.

But, blue. Why blue?

IMG_3751

Sky Sky Sky Blues

You know, I don’t feel I’ve had the blues. I think I’ve had the beiges, actually. A kind of grubby blah colour. Nothing to write home about, and brought on only by focusing on the minutiae of my own fears and inadequacies. I think maybe I need to go out and get me some periwinkle blue sea. Or some cornflower blue sky. Some perspective! After all, there is so much to celebrate…

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Delighted blues! Grateful blues? The book has just had another reprint, for which SO many thanks to all who have recommended it and supported it – and its author. Thank you so much. xx

May you have all of the blues all day long: the best and brightest of blues, the shimmering shiny blues; the deep naviest of blues; the crisp new blues; and the soft soft babiest of blues. Have them all – and throw off any greasy old greys!

And a postscript…If you feel like celebrating, raising a glass, kicking back and hearing some stories and poems, I’m going to be presenting a scaled down version of my Sinning Monologue at Travellers Bookstore in Melbourne on November 21st. I’d so love it if you came along. Claire is a great hostess and I promise to deliver with every bit of me! There will be French vins and fromages, and Spanish vinos and jamons – and hopefully lots of travel stories shared! Details for this – and several other events – are over on the Events and Media page. So hope to see you before the year closes.

photo

The gift of story

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

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

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

Helen Garner, Helen Garner 

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

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

Small publishing houses

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

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

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

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

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

Blasts From The Past

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

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

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

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

And so it goes.

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

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

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

Thank you to all of you who subscribe or visit.

Thank you for welcoming Sinning Across Spain into the world.

You have been MY gifts in this Year of Wonders.

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

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

Following where the road leads…

This road has a mind of its own.

That may not have been clear to me in the beginning, when I thought it was my idea, my project, my monologue that I was going to write, and my decisions that would shape any outcomes.

Hilarious old hindsight, eh?

When I sent out my letter asking for sinner-sponsors, I said my intention was to write a monologue for performance. I even knew the actress who was going to play it – my friend and fellow walker, Louise. Perfect for it, she would be.

Writing a monologue, however, proved another thing.

I struggled to find ways, struggled to compress the story, struggled to feel truthful, or that I was honouring the story. I was met with NO at every turn!

Then one day I began to write prose, and about twelve months later that prose found a publisher. A book allowed me to tell all the stories I wanted to tell, to be as scrupulous about the journeys of others as I could possibly be – and to confess to my own journey, which was never my intention, dreading the “I” voice, as I did.

Publication, and the ensuing road-trip into the blogosphere, the twittoverse and the land of Facebook, as well as the adventure of talking the book at events and on radio and festivals with people I admire and respect…well, that has yielded fruits I’d never dreamed. Pains too. Anxieties and ego-dents. Minor abrasions, only! Mostly, a rucksack full of joys.

Now, here is the latest irony.

I find myself sitting at the desk, penning a monologue for performance to be given by me, the person who swore she would never act on stage again, at the Fairfax Theatre! I began writing a week ago and finished it – more or less! – yesterday. And incredibly, amazingly, it has not been torture. There is a monologue!

Putting aside the horrors of trying to learn and rehearse it in the next eleven days (AAAGGGHH!), the thing that remains a marvel is that it was possible to write it at all, after those attempts when I first came home from the camino.

But I woke this morning with a strong sense of why I’ve been able to do it.

Now that the book is out, I am free to make choices about what parts of the story seem theatrical or dramatic, because the whole story, the entirety of the journey, is in the world. I have honoured the road as fully as I was able, and now I can be selective, just as I was with the Poetica programme.

So the thing I couldn’t do, I am doing. Incredible.

But on the road’s timetable, not mine.

I can’t yet bring myself to think about performing it, but I’m hoping that somehow the road will bring me home to a place where I can manage that too, just for one evening.

I’m reminded of a poem, given to me by Louise. It is by Alice Walker.

 

When We Let Spirit Lead Us.

 

When we let Spirit

Lead us

It is Impossible

To know

Where

We are being led

All we know

All we can believe

All we can hope

Is that

We are going

Home

That wherever

Spirit

Takes us

Is Where

We

Live.

I live and work here, looking out this window and dreaming of things that might be, then being astonished to find that other dreams, bigger dreams, are dreaming me.

Sometimes, the sky confirms that.

 

If you want to see one of the great miracles of the digiverse, click on this link and then scroll down to the post by Johnnie Walker. This is what I mean by connection!

http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/poetica/2012-05-05/3967108

I have been moved and grateful for all the comments there, but that one fair took my breath away. The world is endlessly wondrous.

Please feel free to download the programme and have a listen. It’s another aspect, another unpicking, expanding, re-examining of the story…

La Diada de Sant Jordi

Two years ago today, walking out of Merida, I received a call from my “Barcelona angels”, wishing me a happy St George’s Day. I didn’t realise then how relevant San Jordi was to me.Today, in Barcelona, they will celebrate him again.Saint George or Sant Jordi in Catalan, is patron of Catalonia, and also of writers and scribblers and poets. Love gets a look-in, too!In Barcelona, the main events today will take place in Las Ramblas, where hundreds of flower stalls selling roses and makeshift bookstalls will be set up for the occasion. Lovers exchange gifts: men give their novias roses, and women give their novios a book. By the end of the day, some four million roses and 400,000 books will be purchased, registering half of the total yearly book sales of Catalonia on this day alone!Also, the 23rd April honours the almost-simultaneous deaths of two giants of literature: Miguel de Cervantes and William Shakespeare, on April 23, 1616.

I think of my Barcelona angels now, and all my kind Spanish friends, as they face the economic crisis and its difficulties. I hope they can afford a book and a rose.

And wherever they are, I hope they – and you too! – have a wagging-tailed bird to cheer them and show the way, as this prankster did for me on the 23rd April, two years ago…

 

My village

Often when I walked I was moved by the sense of community I observed in the Spanish pueblos. People in small towns battened down against the elements and the swirling forces of global economies, swapping tomatoes and jokes, bread and comfort, chorizo and chat. They knew each other’s most intimate details, gathered for births, deaths and fiestas, and committed to wading through the tough times together, and celebrating the joys.

The life of a village has always been seductive to me – the idea that we are all responsible to those within the sound of the church bell. Walking across Spain, there would be mornings when I would hear bells from all sides, in all notes, ringing out to me across the fields. I loved it, though it did occasionally make me lonely. I was reminded that in spite of kindness and welcome, I was an outsider, a pilgrim passing through.

It’s easy to forget that I inhabit a village.

Mine isn’t a picturesque camino pueblo with adobe houses, or white-washed walls, or a town square. It isn’t focussed around a church or a community centre or a bar. It isn’t in a physical space at all, although there are places where I can locate deep connection. Places where I have history on the earth, like the house in which I type these words, and the neighbours and shopkeepers nearby.

But that isn’t it.

My village is located in the ether. It lives in the space and time alignment that we call love. It has been forged through travails and triumphs and poems and wishes. It is often glued together by laughter, but tears have cemented much of it too. Loss has also shaped this village, so when there is a gain, we all rejoice.

This last week has reminded me of the depth and breadth and potency of my community. As the book began to make its way into the world, my village has been holding a fiesta! Photos arrived in my Inbox – people I love holding the book, shouting its praises to the skies, and spreading the word as though it was their own. And of course it IS their own! I’ve learned that my book is no longer mine. Maybe it never was. It has its own life, and to see it snuggling into the hands of my village, my beloveds…Well that is joy unexpected and unparalleled.

My villagers have become ambassadors, mailing information to journalists and peers, chirping to the twitterverse, group emailing their fingers raw, and waltzing into bookshops and libraries demanding they stock SINNING ACROSS SPAIN.

“Everyone in Claremont will want to read this book!” one friend said to a bemused bookseller.

Now that is faith!

I was even sent flowers for my opening night! Some of my village know the traditions of the theatre live deep in my bones, and that although there is no curtain or lights up, “attention must be paid.”

Well attention has certainly been paid.

I’m sitting here at my keyboard, the most confounding, wonderful, frustrating view I know, trying once again to suck words from the air to express my gratitude for the miracle of my village life. For the mystery of love, and that I get to wallow in so much of it. For the fact that my journey is your journey. That your days create my days – colour them, infuse them, light them. That we all hear a bell, and move toward a village square that exists in the space between our hearts.

We have a centre. A forum. A meeting place. We know where it is.

And we flock there. Every day.

Thanks for gathering for me this week. Thanks for ringing the bell.

I bow in gratitude.