I went away for a while.

First to Perth, on the banks of the Swan River, at the edge of the Indian Ocean. Another Finisterre – the most isolated city in the world, they say.

It’s where I went to school, and where I still have childhood friends and a sister; two brothers, a stepfather and a father; and other relationships that are complex and enduring.

It’s where I walk under a sky of a particular blue, my feet locating themselves on known, but now strange, earth. I smell childhood fantasies on the breeze and catch glimpses of teenage willfulness around corners. I taste the longing for movement I’ve known all my life.

I always want to be my best self in Perth, to make an offering that is pure and generous. I have moments of success, but too many of failure. My patterns run deep there. I settle into them without knowing, then try to escape them. I struggle to create new shapes, new ways of being, and to lay those over the old patterns.

I succeed. I fail. I walk away again.

This time I went to Ubud in the hills of Bali, in the shadow of Mount Agung.


Three thousand metres of volcano, rising out of the mist and smoke. It last erupted in the sixties, changing the island and its terrain. It is worshiped and revered. It wears pale cloud to great effect.

 I slept in a house made of bamboo, looking across ripening rice and paradise flowers to palm trees and kites. I woke to footsteps on stone, treading a path to the temple outside the window.

 As frog croaks gave way to cock-squawks, and before whirring motorbikes on the road took precedence, they would come, those gliding dark-haired women, preceded by the smoke of incense sticks. They placed offerings at the door, at the family temple opposite, and at the compound gateway. They placed them on the paths to warungs, and at intersections of three roads. Kadek told me that she makes dozens each day. They are like birds’ nests made of bamboo fronds, filled with flowers and rice, fruit and biscuits. The air fills with perfumed smoke as the neighborhood is dotted with these gifts. At every doorway, statue, shop entrance and tree.

They are infinite in variety and content.



They make me wonder about the offerings I make; the moments when I pause in the day, as they do, to stop and acknowledge ancestors or history, or to give thanks. Kadek told me that the Balinese “work so we can have enough food and make our offerings.”

 Last Saturday, friends cooked lunch for six of us at their home in the rice fields. We sat at their table and ate a mix of Balinese and western flavours. We laughed and told stories. We spoke of gratitude for such beauty and good luck; for peace and generosity.

As ducks went about their business, filling the neighbourhood with racket and making me laugh out loud, we shared news from the wider world. Boats of refugees. Casualties of war. Carping and insults in western politics. Intolerance. Vindictiveness. Such things seemed impossible, at that table. Unthinkable.

 On the narrow path home, the women ahead of me carried tiles and cement to a construction site. They all smiled and greeted me as I passed. A Balinese man who had worked in Dubai for two years spoke of his relief at coming home. In Dubai, he said, they told him not to smile all the time because people would think him foolish, or grasping. For a Balinese, he said, this was heart breaking. He was relieved to be home where his smile could be free.

 Overhead, elaborate woven banners swayed in the breeze, ready for Galunggan, when the forces of good and bad do battle. Good will win, Wayan told me, as he plaited palm fronds into intricate patterns. The tall banners arched like the backs of the elegant women bearing building materials.

I took myself on snail-pace caminos, hours of early morning hills and ridges. Everything thrives there. Grasses sway and palm-trees tilt. The green got higher and deeper as I walked. I kept stopping to marvel at the bigness of their bumblebees, the scale of their snails, and the wealth of species. The density of the undergrowth. The patterns. The beauty. The growth….

 There seemed to be order among all that wild sprouting. As though the winds had worked in concert with the grasses to produce artworks to rival any old master’s. Wisdom at work in the landscape spoke, as it always does to me, through my feet. Again I heard it, the repetition, in all languages, of the mantra I must try to remember….

 Tidak apa apa. No pasa nada. No worries.

Of course there are problems. And things must matter out in the wide world where people are disputing boundaries, rights and entitlements. But for a brief interlude, I de-twitted, read few newspapers and listened to another kind of broadcast. I walked and walked at the pace of a tropical snail, and when I returned to Perth, old patterns could be seen for what they were. Building blocks. Attempts. Offerings. Steps toward understanding – of self, family, friends. Of journeys and mistakes made.

 And now I am back in Melbourne, where the air is chilly and the magnolias are showy. Home. Reflecting…

 In Ubud, I looked into a rice field and I saw the sky. Sometimes, if we go slow, we can look into the past and see the future – or at least a glimmer of what might be possible.


For Melburnians…

On the 16th September, I will be reading at Marieke Hardy and Michaela McGuire’s latest Women of Letters afternoon. They sell out almost immediately, and raise money for a wonderful charity, so do get in quickly if you are keen. Marieke wrote…

For your records, the breathtaking lineup is as follows:

Intrepid writer, actor and walker AILSA PIPER
Esteemed playwright, thespian and all-round awesome lady KATE MULVANY
Doyenne of Australian literature HELEN GARNER
Editor of Meanjin and associate publisher at MUP SALLY HEATH
And adored chanteuse SARAH BLASKO.
Doors open at 2:30pm for a 3pm start.  Rock up early and have a glass of wine and marvel at the mirrored walls in the Theatre’s downstairs ballroom.
The topic of your particular letter for September is ‘A letter to my unfinished business’.
Get in fast to get your tickets!
And for all visitors….
If you want to share these posts around, click on the icons below. If you want to subscribe to get them delivered, go to the SUBSCRIBE button up on the top right and enter your email.
GRACIAS. That’s the most important post script.

12 thoughts on “Reflecting

  1. My grand-father aged 19 arrived from rural Kent to W.A. in 1913. He was 19. I’d never been to Indonesia until my wife organised for us to have a week in Ubud on the island of Bali in March of 2010. A beautiful hotel set on the edge of town in the midst of rice fields – reflections of the sky in the ponds and padis – indeed. Walking and cycling with guides explaining the significance of the spiritual emblems and symbols we saw on every hand – and conversations with other folk – sometimes in English, sometimes in Japanese – allowing us glimpses of lives in essence not so different from our own. Packaging – the outer view – remarkable and eye-catching – but that which lies within – the truly human and similar dimension. I’ve just completed reading Jean HATTON Betsy. The story of prison reformer Elizabeth FRY 1780-1845 – friend of William WILBERFORCE and many other social reform personages of that period – who influenced Florence NIGHTINGALE – who sent her friend/disciple Lucy OSBORN to Sydney – following a request from Henry PARKES – in the latter 1860s – to transform hospitals here) – ripples of goodness/transformation. Betsy worked hard assisting women transported to “Botany Bay” – no doubt dove-tailing in some ways with the equally important work being done in Australia over a lengthy period by Caroline CHISHOLM. Women of courage and commitment. Good luck with your appearance at the Women of Letters afternoon on Sept. 16th. Just recently read Helen GARNER’s Consolations of Joe Cinques (sp.?)…

    1. Hello again Jim,
      I love the weft and weave of your reflections. Thanks for another beauty. And for the reminder of how to spell “padi”! All those remarkable people – ripples, as you say, of goodness. I like that thought.
      Joe Cinque’s Consolation is one of my favourite Helen Garner books, and that is saying something, considering how much I love them all. She is as good as it gets anywhere, I think, and I’m pretty terrified about sharing the stage with her. Terrified – but might excited. I am taking a swag of books in the hope that she will sign them for me. Fandom writ large!
      Thanks again for your visit and time.

  2. What I wouldn’t give to be at the Women of Letters gig on September 16. All my fave writers there.
    BTW, our bookgroup are doing Sinning Across Spain for next month’s read, Ailsa, after seeing you at Byron and enjoying your session so much.

    I too have a WA connection.
    My great uncle Sir James Connolly went across to the west from country Queensland at the age of 19, around 1888, to seek his fortune in the gold rush.
    He was third in a family of 11 or 12, from a poor farming family. Using his building skills, he made a pile of money building shops, hotels, houses etc on the gold fields and becoming a man of means, entered politics. He was tinny and smart and eventually distinguished enough to have several landmarks, Rocks Point and Bays of Rottnest on Rottnest island named after his five daughters, Cassie, Vera, Marjorie, Nancy and Joan.
    James was made agent-general for WA in London and moved his family to the UK in 1917, after which he was given papal honours and knighted. Sir James was also agent-general for the British Govt in Malta 1928 – 1932. Quite a rise for a poor country boy. He married well and his daughters ditto into London society and there are now several Lord and Lady hyphenated names among our cousins and second cousins there. At one stage Sir James Connolly lived in and owned a whole block of Knightsbridge.
    Gosh, I have gone on, haven;t I!!!
    Sounds like a book.
    Love your blog,

    1. It certainly does sound like a book Julie! Had you considered James as a subject before? He sounds like an extraordinary man. And think of the places you would need to go in order to do the research. Pack your bags!
      Of course that would mean leaving your beautiful garden and Byron…Hmmm…..
      I’m so flattered that your bookclub has chosen Sinning to read, and hope it will generate some good conversations. The members of one book group in Melbourne all decide to confess a sin and discuss the consequences when they read it – apparently they had a great talk that night!
      Thanks for visiting, and I hope the whales are still happily playing nearby. None in Port Philip Bay, but we do have jasmine in the air at last. Hooray. And I hope you noticed my magnolias!

      1. Hello Ailsa,
        I am not used to this system and think I might have sent an email to you that I thought would go to Julie Thomson. In any case you might find it of interest. I would be pleased if you could pass it on to her if possible.
        I agree that James Connolly would be a great subject for a book. I am surprised that there is not one already.
        Best wishes, Laurie O’Meara.

        1. Hi Laurie,
          I’ve forwarded the email to Julie. I’m sure she will be in touch. She is a lovely correspondent.
          Ailsa x

    2. Hello Julie,
      I have read your interesting story about James Connolly and am delighted to have that information. I am writing a book about Rottnest Island and he played a major role in its change from an Aboriginal prison to a tourist resort. I have recently completed a 12 year stint as a member of the Rottnest Island Authority, the last eight as its Chairman.
      Any further information you have on him would be most welcome.
      Kind regards, Laurie O’Meara

  3. Ailsa
    Your reflections on your life embarked upon from an earth’s edge are charming indeed. It seems to contain a longing for something that many seek as they reach a certain age, the sort of ownership or belonging that we found in our youth when the world was small and we lived large and sure in it.
    When I lived large and young, some call the phase young dumb and full of… I started University with some mates. Suddenly the world grew full of new and interesting people. One of my friends knew a girl Linley and one day on a luscious lawn in a shaded fragrant garden my mates and I met some of her school chums. There was storming and reforming and tensions and separations and all manner of things occurred. Argh the late 70’s
    I don’t have many artefacts from that period. Not much survived the eruptions and ructions. I left the University and went off to work for a while. I met and married. Geographic dislocation and children followed then more dislocation until my family ended up in a place that we really love. One thing has followed me though and it has always been a source of mild annoyance and a sense that I must put it right.
    During those intense days at University I spent some time in libraries and cafes with one of Linley’s school friends. They had all been educated in a beautiful school near the river, a place near where some of the photos in your post came from. (My own daughter has a view over those places and into the grounds of that school from her bedroom. It is indeed a small world.) After talking about music one day this girl offered to lend me a record and she bought it to me a few days later. Very soon after that I left and did not return the record and I have never seen the girl again ( or Linley, Krista or Jill), except for a tasteful nude promoting a play at the Octagon I think, A Mid-summer Nights Dream I think.
    I saw the girl on ABC Big Ideas Short Cuts last week. I love that show and break my study to watch whenever I can. I have only just gone back to University after working a while. This is a long way round of saying I still have your copy of David Bowie Live at the Tower Philadelphia 1974. I need to return it to you. A little bit of the 70’s recovered intact perhaps.
    I have a lot of reading in front of me right now but I am looking forward to reading your novel towards Christmas perhaps.
    Kind regards Harry Hercock

    1. Wow. Harry! Hello…
      I couldn’t respond to this immediately when it arrived. I had to go away and let my mind wander back to names and places long gone. So much of my Perth years is lost to me, or hazy at best. I often wonder about my memory – whether I have been lazy about holding onto things, or whether my poor brain is just not big enough to hold all that I want. I have the same issue sometimes with books I have loved. I remember only one aspect – a character, a plot point – years later.
      You have summoned up many will-o-the-wisps…
      That photo of me as Titania. My father’s disapproval, in spite of the fact that I was not nude but wearing a shimmering silver body stocking!
      The cafe at the library, surrounded by the moat, and their excellent cinnamon buns! That I do recall.
      The verdant lawns of UWA, and tumbling about with so many gorgeous folk on them.
      The University Dramatic Society…
      I don’t remember giving away my David Bowie, so won’t take you to task on it, and I suspect that it is now yours, having cared for it for so very long. I couldn’t play it now anyway – don’t have a player. But I may have to go to iTunes and seek out a copy for my digi-library, to bring back the foreshore and black swans.
      How wonderful that you are studying, and intend to write. How wonderful that you have come back. I’m going to take a moment to locate my photo albums from that time, and see if I can locate your younger self.
      Thanks so much for your lovely response, and when you do read the book, I hope it will feed you.

  4. Ah yes fathers disapproval, moats and cinnamon buns. There must be a book in that, wait isn’t that what I am doing oops. Writing essays after 30 something years away from Uni is a shock to the system but some of them have been good according to my tutors at least and they have never seen me. The study has led me to many good writers, particularly Australian women, Wilkins, Lazaroo and now you. Tell me do you know Christos Tsiolkas. (there’s another question in that ) I am up to my armpits in Jeanette Winterson too and am really engrossed, even when I should be studying. Oh and Jon Doust, if you haven’t you must, Boy on a Wire and I am just about to start To The Highlands.
    I am sure your Spanish Memoir (sorry I called it a novel) will nourish me when I get to it. If you are ever down this way look me up. I think I can still play the album and I have the MP3 anyway. I make good coffee according to my wife and children and there is a good view here to enjoy as the flavours take you to PNG or Honduras.

    Kind regards Harry

    1. Hi Harry,
      Great list of writers you have there, and while you are on the subject of Aussie women, consider Charlotte Wood, Favel Parrett and Susan Johnson. Three superlatives. So many more, but I’m going to do a blog post soon about my year of reading, and so will wait and share more formulated thoughts then. But you sound like you are having the most wonderful period of discovery. Isn’t that thrilling? A new voice is such a charge. Trust my story doesn’t disappoint. It’s humble, but hopefully has heart and some style.
      Very tempting invite that one. When next I’m out west, Honduras and Bowie could be just the ticket!
      Thanks for stopping by again.

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