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

IMG_5320

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.

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…

IMG_4435

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

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.

IMG_4184

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…

IMG_4363

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.

Snail trails

IMG_4310

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.

IMG_4309

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!

IMG_4290

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.

Hace tres años…

IMG_2993Three years ago I was in Córdoba.

Rather like this morning in Melbourne, I woke to rain, but back then, I dressed in a rush and stepped out across cobbles made slippery by fallen orange blossom, to attend a service at the Mezquita.

If you’ve read the book, you know the rest of the story of that day…the marvel of poetry floating overhead, wonder at the city’s history of inter-faith tolerance, sorrow at the way it ended, hunger for the faith of the Spanish ancianos, gratitude for the sunshine that arrived to release the scent of neroli, pleasure at sweet treats in an Arabic tea shop…

And the breakdown suffered by my theologian.

“I am so afraid,” he said more than once.

Some readers tell me they found him difficult company, and were glad when we parted. I’m sorry for that. I suppose they’re experiencing him through my eyes, feeling my wish for solitude and freedom from his sadness. His breaking.

I’m grateful I was there to be with him that day in Córdoba. For all that it was hard, and I was not having the solitary camino of my dreams, what passed between us was honourable. Decent. He broke. I bore witness – and gave some small comfort. It was an exchange that cost us both, but also enlarged us, I hope.

IMG_3012It’s not always easy or pleasant to bear witness to the fullness of another person. It’s also hard to allow someone else to see the fullness of ourselves. The “Facebook selfie”, selected to give just the right airbrushed impression, has become ubiquitous, and we are in danger of becoming less and less able to sit in the discomfort of another’s full humanity – their contradictions, errors, ugliness and frailty. Also, and this may be more of a “sin” than we care to acknowledge, we become less and less able to reveal our own frailties and ugliness.

Or is that a confession?

I should know by now to be wary of speaking for “we” and “us”. Generalisations and sweeping claims are dangerous, and all I know is the compass of my own limited experience. Lately I feel that diminishing. Fear and doubt sidle up to me more often than I’d like. There are days when I can’t listen with care or patience as I did in Cordoba. There are days when I am not true to myself – to the person I was in Cordoba, for all her shortcomings. And there are days when I will only serve up the tidy, edited version of myself. For all of that, I’m sorry.

I suppose that does make this is a confession, then.

And I will try to do better.

Funnily enough, I’d intended to write of “good news”today, because there’s plenty of it.

IMG_3043“Sinning Across Spain” has just come out in a beautiful scaled-down B version that sits in the hand perfectly. It was released on April Fool’s Day, exactly one year after the original publication date. I think of that fool’s day as my day, so the serendipity pleases me.

And there is more to celebrate! I’m going to be at the Sydney Writers Festival on May 23rd, in conversation with the luminous Caroline Baum, and the remarkable Cheryl Strayed, who wrote “Wild”. Details are on the Festival website.

My intention when I sat down was to write about those two pieces of news, but somehow it didn’t seem right to pump out “publicity” here. I strive for something real in my community of subscribers and commenters, and feel I owe something to this village - fidelidad. As I learned with my amigo, it is in fidelity to self and others that we expand.

So on this rainy Melbourne day, let me confess that I’m not always walking with a sure step just now, and writing eludes me at times, but I’m doing my best and trying to live up to the faith that people have in me. That faith spurs me on, and lets me believe that the sun will reappear, and with it, perhaps even the scent of neroli.

IMG_3058

 

A very belated heads-up, if you didn’t see it on Facebook…

Here is an article I wrote recently, turning some of these feelings into something like sense – for me anyway. Hope it resonates: The Gift of Sadness

Friday Goodness

IMG_1170Late afternoon Good Friday.

Not a breath of air. A bird chirrups. A plane drones somewhere.

Out the window are grey clouds and the tin roof of next door’s house.

The sounds, and that view, feel remote from me.

Muffled.

Other-worldly.

Inside my study, I’m struggling. My childhood as a Catholic taught me that Good Friday is a day to commemorate a death – a solitary and agonising death, one that must have felt endless, given the way that pain can stretch time.

If I sit up straight, I catch sight of the top of an elm. Its branches form a skeleton against that grey sky. Autumn will finally have its way, it seems. Summer has been holding it at bay, but the season of the dying fall will be victorious. All week summer tried, pushing temperatures and tempers over the top, but the southerly buster came, and the rain with it. Woollens were snatched from cupboards and night closed in earlier. Leaves swirled from the trees and huddled against fences. Puddles formed in ditches and canals. Summer dusted off her skirts and took her leave, giving autumn centre stage.

And now, the world hangs in suspension. All is cool and still. In limbo. And my thoughts are of endings and deaths.

IMG_2529Three years ago I was in Rome for Good Friday, traipsing the streets of the eternal city with my friend Susan, trying to see if we could find an easter vigil to attend. There, Good Friday is a day of commerce and busyness, as you’d know if you have read Sinning. It was a shock to me to see all the activity and the spruiking. But now, I see that it makes sense for them. The focus in the northern hemisphere is on Easter Sunday. Resurrection. Why ever not? It is spring, and flowers are thick on the ground, their scent wafting from grasses and gardens. Blossom bursts from branches and wisteria droops. All is renewal and birth, in line with pagan celebrations of the season. Persephone returns, bringing new life and possibility. Spring gets sprung.

IMG_3007But here, easter falls in autumn, when the world hunkers for winter. Maybe that’s why my easter focus has so often been on Good Friday – and why my mind dwells on death.

It’s not an unfamiliar place. I go there often, and don’t find it frightening. But it is sombre. The contemplation of endings is serious business, and for me, must be undertaken in stillness and silence. I tried to play music just now, but to no avail. Not appropriate, even Arvo Part.

A crow caws. Again. He is insistent.

He seems appropriate.

Mortality. Death. Ending. Closure.

One day I will die. It’s good to have at least one certainty. I know of no other.

But I do hope to be given time to make over more days in beauty. I hope to be given hours to walk. I hope to be given days to work. I hope to be given months to live more consciously and with more compassion. I hope to be given years to continue to explore what it is to live “the good life”. To do better.

Maybe that is the goodness to take from today. The awareness that this will end makes me commit to love each minute to the full – even if the minutes are melancholy. I will give myself over to that autumnal emotion, and not judge it as less worthy than the summery smiling days. I will sit with it and honour it, knowing that it too holds promise.

And if I’m honest, I think the leaves of autumn are more beautiful than the summer greens. Maybe later I will go and collect some, and put them in a bowl on my desk, to remind me of the lessons of endings.

But for now, I will still my legs, and my mind, and be with autumn.

This is Friday, and it is Good.

IMG_4130