A postcard…

Greetings from Bundanon!

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When last I was here, at the height of summer 2014, the days were scorching. Now they are mild and the fields are Irish green.

Life is different in so many ways now – but one constant is my gratitude to Arthur Boyd and his family for the gift of this haven. There are four visual artists in nearby studios, and a musician up the hill. I think we’ve spoken for a total of fifteen minutes in the ten days I’ve been here. The deep silence works its magic and it has been a chance for me to stop and catch breath. I have gone to ground and applied myself, barely putting my head up for air.

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And I have been able to work… 

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Relief floods in…

This little missive is really just a quick hello from me and the wombats, as well as a heads-up to let you know that I was on Radio National’s Blueprint for Living, speaking to Sian Prior, author of the exquisite memoir Shy. We talked about my new home – pics and details in the next post if you keep scrolling down – in the Spirit of Place segment.

You can hear the podcast by clicking on that blue word that says “podcast”!

Wish you were here!

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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.

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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.

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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….

Where stories take me…

I read this little piece on ABC radio’s Australia All Over recently. Jen Dawson contacted me via Twitter and asked if she could access it. I can’t get a copy of me reading it, but here it is Jen, in written form. Thanks for listening. Hope you enjoy it. A story about stories…

IMG_2758Once upon a time, I walked across Spain – 1300 kilometres from Granada to a place called Finisterre. Land’s End.

I carried hurts and disappointments that had been given to me by others. They called them their sins. So did I, back then. But really, they were stories. And those stories became my story.

Along that road, I met Spaniards who told me of pain and of gain. Some told jokes – which are stories with a twist. Some told shaggy-dog tales, designed to keep me guessing. They succeeded. I guessed and guessed for six weeks, out on the Spanish soil.

When I came home I tried to write a play, but the stories decided they wanted to be a book. Sure enough, they had their way. And now that book, called Sinning Across Spain, has its way, taking me down new roads to hear more stories.

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At a festival called Big Sky in Geraldton, on the edge of the Indian Ocean, a man called Gavin tracked me down to tell me that he used to play with my mother when she was a child. He gave me new stories of her.

It was the nineteenth anniversary of her death and he returned her to me with interest.

 

ImageAs a  young actress, I was in a play about DH Lawrence. Thirroul, where he lived for a time, seemed like the most exotic place on the planet to me, living on the west coast of the continent. Decades later, I spoke about my book at the Thirroul library, only a fortnight ago. Stories brought me full circle. They’d transported me.

703884_437981306268635_630632006_oJust lately, I’ve been writing in Sydney, where I’ve been given a home by an actress called Amanda Muggleton. She’s on the road across Australia, touring a play called The Book Club. It’s about how stories can infect you, take you over, make you laugh and weep and make love. And then laugh again. A lot. Her stories on the road are making my new stories possible.

A fortnight ago, in Spain, an Australian woman named Anna walked into a town called El Ganso. She was looking for a very old man called Domingo. Years back, when I was walking that same road, Domingo took me for a tour of his tiny town – an hour – no, more – of intricate details. Losses, loves, chooks and roses. I wrote his story in my book. Anna read it, and in El Ganso she asked for Domingo. He wasn’t there but his sister was. Domingo had gone to Madrid to see his son, she said. He didn’t return often because he was not well, but he was alive. His sister said how happy he would be to be in a book. To have his story told….

On King Island, at the other end of the world, I met a woman in her 80’s. She was wise and funny and seemed to know every story ever told. When I asked her if she liked Melbourne, she said she had never been. She wanted to see Hobart first. She had never left the island, but she’d had books for company all her life. Stories. She was generous with them, too. She gave me tale after tale, laugh after laugh. A tear or two, too.

Stories.

They feed us if we stay at home, and they guide us if we go away. They are our lifeblood and our navigation systems. They are our homing instincts and our lights in the dark. They warm the nights and pass the days. They take us out of ourselves.

They are songlines and dreamings, bush tucker and essential oils. They are our best bits and our secrets. They are our stories, and they keep on telling us. Over and over and over. We might have full stops, but stories go on…

To Land’s End and back.

All over Australia.

Yesterday, today and tomorrow.

Never never.

Always and all ways…

We are our stories, and we will keep on being told…

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I’m thinking of everyone in NSW, and particularly the Blue Mountains, where I was writing last week. Hoping that the rain from the south travels to you and that peace is restored.

Talismans

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Everyone has a talisman or two – in my case, a dozen! They hold memory and meaning; they can be comfort or inspiration; they can take us home when we are away. Their significance can be instant or it can sneak up on us over time.

Locating meaning isn’t always like looking for the grail, and is often found when we least expect it, in humble places and objects, out under a wide sky or nestled at the foot of a burnt tree. To find meaning does require attention, though, and when I look at the talismans on my desk, I’m reminded that not all of their significance was obvious to me when I first saw them, so I’m glad they called in loud voices.

That eraser in the picture at the top, for instance…                                                                  I was in Rome, visiting the Ara Pacis – the altar to Peace. White and luminous and stretching back to 9 or 10 BC, it seemed impossible to me that there were cars whizzing past outside, and mobile phones pinging in the corridors around it. I was transfixed by the life of the characters in the friezes, and the delicacy of the rendering of vines and trees. Someone, centuries ago, had loved the world just as I did, dreaming of the possibility of peace between people, and trusting that we might find it if we learned to live lovingly with nature.

Or that’s what I saw!

At the giftshop I went seeking something to remind me of an extraordinary day when time had stood still and peace seemed possible. What did I find? A humble rubber with a message that seemed, at first, to be nothing more than another Roman joke. I don’t know why I didn’t buy images of the altar itself. Perhaps because I decided that no image could do justice to it. Maybe I wanted something solid to hold in my hand. Perhaps it was the outrageous scale of that rubber – the promise that it would be able to erase my multitude of human errors! Forgiveness might be divine, but for earthly muck-ups, that rectangle would get rid of plenty of mess!

I brought it home where it sat unused on my desk for months, a memento and nothing more. Then, one day, feeling wretched about writing that wouldn’t bend to my will, I picked up my Ara Pacis souvenir, and I let rip. I rubbed and rubbed the page, watching mistakes and false starts disappear, leaving an almost clean slate. There were traceries etched into the page, but it was fresh again, waiting for me to rethink, restart.

And I did.

And it was good and bad and right and wrong.

Something in that feverish act of ridding myself of the work that hadn’t worked was healthy and helpful. I learn things best by experience, and while I had always known intellectually that error is human and vital to the creative process, and that I should forgive myself and move one, it was only when my body enacted the words that I actually “got” their meaning. Rather like when I am following a trail and take a “wrong” turning. I do understand now that there is no such thing, and that I am never lost – I’m just where I am.

I don’t often use the Ara Pacis rubber, because I mostly write in pen, but it travels with me, and when I want to really play and muck up and risk, I will take a pencil and paper, and my talisman, and let rip. It is fun and freeing, and I am grateful. I hope it will travel with me for a very long time, reminding me to be human and to err with gusto in my work.

photoThere are other talismans – the precious Finisterre shell, reminding me that if I can walk 1300 kilometres to collect it, step by step, then I can complete my word-count camino at the desk, sentence by sentence. There are my beads for fingering in times of stress; the stones that are identifiers, reinforcers and weights to ground me; the dragonfly – libellula – to remind me of love and laughter; the postcards from afar that prompt me to do better for those I value; and the fat silver heart that says it all…

And there are the stamps with their tin of red ink.

Why?

Well, they are the things I want to send at the end of every missive – a piece of my best self, and love in all languages. For today, consider this a page of thick white parchment with a piece of me on it, sent to you wherever you are in the world, with love in sticky red ink pressed into the bottom right hand corner.Image 2

Update – 29th May 2013

Thanks to all who came along to the Sydney Writers Festival session with Cheryl Strayed and Caroline Baum. It was such fun, and you can listen to  it by clicking here.

Huge gratitude to Rachael Kohn for inviting me and Tony Doherty to be part of her beautiful programme, The Spirit of Things. Details for listening and download are here.

Gracias otra vez!!!

Converging

Just over six years ago, Hugh Colman and I began work on an adaptation of John Webster’s thrill-ride The Duchess of Malfi. In December 2006, our production of the script opened at Red Stitch in Melbourne, under the title Hellbent.

Today, I’m going in to chat on radio about a new production, opening at the Opera House in Sydney this Wednesday, directed by John Bell for the Bell Shakespeare Company, under the original title.

Preparing for that interview, I have been re-reading our text and also the original. I am surprised by how much we changed. I had grown accustomed to our version, but have been reminded of the boldness we achieved, in company with Rachel Burke and the original cast. More importantly though, I’ve been reminded of the exquisite, muscular, original and imaginative power of Webster’s language – and of its immediacy and accessibility.

That’s why we didn’t tamper with the words. Our version re-arranges and re-assigns the text; it tells a different story; it has a shift of focus – but it leaves the glory of Webster’s words intact. There are times when I think he might have bettered the bard.

Gasp!

But consider these lines, as the heroine faces her death, explaining that the rope with which she will be strangled holds no fear of her:

What would it pleasure me to have my throat cut

With diamonds? Or to be smothered

With cassia? Or to be shot to death with pearls?

 

Or this sharp poke at politicians:

I would sooner swim to the Bermudas on

Two politicians’ rotten bladders, tied

Together with an intelligencer’s heart-string,

Than depend on so changeable a leader’s favour.

Or his mordant humour, in this exchange between the Duchess and her twin brother:

– Diamonds are of most value they say, that have passed through most jeweller’s hands.

– Whores, by that rule, are precious.

And this wisdom:

Though some ministers hold it presumption

To instruct leaders what they ought to do,

It is a noble duty to inform them

What they ought to foresee.

I could go on. And on. Bur for those of you who live in Sydney, I hope you might come along and experience the wonders for yourself. The play is not often staged, due to the sprawling, wayward length of the uncut original. I hope ours makes a strong case for the resonances and value of the writing.

In another funny convergence, it was while revising our adaptation just over two years ago that I came across the detail about pilgrims that began my sin-walk. There were pilgrims in the original Webster script, and I was wondering if we should reinstate them. I began hunting down pilgrim lore, and learned of the sin-carrying custom. Webster’s pilgrims went, and I went on the road! And so the play led to the walk, which led to the book, Sinning Across Spain.

And so this week, many roads lead to the one place. The Opera House.

Our version ends with the words:

Mine is another voyage.

What a voyage Mr Webster has given me!

I thank him, my beautiful script collaborator Hugh Colman, the generous and wise John Bell, and all those who have wrangled and questioned the script through two productions. It has been a miraculous, gifted journey.

For those who don’t know them, the top photo is on the freeway at the entrance to Melbourne, and the bottom is crossing the bridge – that bridge – in Sydney.

More convergences!

A postscript.

Reviews for Duchess of Malfi can be read at these links:

The Radio National interview about Malfi can be found here:

http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/booksandartsdaily/the-duchess-of-malfi/4118124

Vale Peter Steele


Last week we lost a great man.

A poet, a wise one, an elder.

Peter Steele was my teacher at Melbourne University. He was patient yet insistent, insightful yet light of touch, and encouraging at every turn, as he led his students toward their own personal experience of literature, while offering up his vast knowledge as guide.

I remember him smiling. Nodding. Demanding, sometimes. I remember how excited I felt to be in the office of a real, actual poet.

When I open one of his volumes I feel full of admiration for his work, but also bigger, as though I am amplified simply for having met him. Maybe we all were, those of us lucky to have had him make a note in one of our margins.

This is his, shared with you respectfully and lovingly – as he shared his life with his students. Sadly, I can’t show you how his eyes twinkled.

 

Rehearsal

Upright again, fritters of mint in my fingers,
I’m given pause in the kitchen patch
by the car’s whine, the loud harrumph of lorries
that round the stand on Two-Tree Hill
and hustle past the boneyard.

I’ve taken leave of the Cliffs of Moher, the unsmiling
campus guard at Georgetown, the fall
of Richelieu’s scarlet enclosed by the London gloom:
I’ve watched my last candle gutter
for dear ones, back in Paris,

sung, as with Francis, the spill of an Umbrian morning,
each breath a gift, each glance a blessing:
have said farewell to Bhutan of the high passes
and the ragged hillmen, to the Basque dancers
praising their limping fellow,

to the square of Blood in Beijing, to the virid islands
that speckle the Pacific acres,
to moseying sheep in Judaean scrub, to leopard
and bison, a zoo for quartering, and
to the airy stone of Chartres,

But here’s the mint still on my hands. A wreath,
so Pliny thought was ‘good for students,
to exhilarate their minds.’  Late in the course,
I’ll settle for a sprig or two –
the savour gracious, the leaves brimmingly green –
as if never to say die.

 

Update…

I will be talking to Michael Cathcart on Monday 9th July at 10am (all over Australia) on Radio National’s Books and Arts Daily. We will be discussing Duchess of Malfi, which opens in Sydney on July 11th…

My Life is Japanese

Sydney.

The Opera House.

The Vivid Light Festival.

A combination that enthralled locals and tourists alike, in spite of tonight’s rain. We gasped and clicked away as this projection of a lithe young woman rolled and somersaulted across those famous sails.

Magic.

That’s how this whole visit has felt. It has been a camino of wonders.

I’ve laughed and cried, reminisced and rollicked with friends old and new. I’ve talked sins with the charming Richard Glover on Sydney’s ABC 702. I’ve sat in the dark,  awestruck and mesmerised, at The Clock – a 24 hour film installation at the MCA. I’ve seen two plays – Les Liaisons Dangereuses and Under Milkwood – at the Sydney Theatre Company. Both of them were peopled by actors I know and love, who gave such pleasure. Yesterday I sat in a rehearsal room down in the Rocks and heard a reading of The Duchess of Malfi, the script I adapted with Hugh Colman. Such delight! It was fast, funny, very furious and charged with linguistic energy that ripped off the page in the hands of a gifted cast. I walked out into the evening and saw this bouquet of wonders, dancing over my head in the Argyle Cut….

I wandered down to the harbour, gobsmacked by Sydney’s beauty, and my good fortune. I had that old camino feeling of being connected to every person I saw, grinning into the darkness for sheer wonder at the convergence of miracles. I thought too, of those I love who have been travelling every step with me in my head and heart. My stepfather, who came through his heart operation with flying colours. My friends – two of them – who are in the middle of cancer tests and treatment decisions. And my huge-hearted “landlady” here in Sydney, who is mourning the one-year anniversary of her beloved’s passing…

This poem rolled about in my head. It was given to me by Dennis, a fellow pilgrim – one who is much in my thoughts as he walks a difficult road, just now. I post it here in his honour, and to remind myself of connection. Oneness. We are all walking together. All our lives are Japanese…

Gracias Dennis.

Today

My life is Japanese

My life is Swiss

My life is German

from Munich

Today I am Italian

and French

and the food I eat

is from Spain.

Today I feel

New Zealand-ish

I feel Dutch is

I feel Australian mate

Today I walk in

Comfort Canadienne

A bit of Britain

I sway my arms

In Chekoslovakian

My heart beats with the US

But mostly for today

My life is Japanese.

Dennis’s poem is one of those featured in the ABC’s Sinning Across Spain Poetica programme. If you’d like to hear it, and others that inspired the walk, please click here:
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Buen camino!
Gracias…