IMG_1538.JPGIt’s exactly a year since I drove into Sydney, my black hatchback crammed with hastily-packed belongings.

I’d left Melbourne in a rush, grief propelling me up the highway on a quest to make a life where I could choose the memories I played on my internal screen, while seeing new vistas.

Well, that was the plan! Memories, of course, will have their own way…



It was a year of hopes dashed and dreams fulfilled. A year of struggle and of miracles. A year of tears, fears and ultimately, cheers.

My focus for the past twelve months was simple.

Find a home.

Find a home.

Find a home.


And I did!


With a lot of help from an unlikely angel in the form of a Sydney real estate agent, I came to rest in the lee of a lighthouse. Nicholas Charles said to me, the first time I met him, “I will find you a home.” I smiled, thinking it was empty rhetoric; the talk of a salesman. But he did. He listened to my incoherent mutterings, heard what mattered, and tolerated my mood swings and heartbreaks. He consoled me and urged me on as we traipsed all over the city, never charging a cent for his time or expertise, and eventually he led me to a new nest, within easy walk of the barber-pole lighthouse on the tip of South Head.

This image was commissioned for an article I wrote about Nick Charles for Slow Living magazine. Thanks to editor Tim for sending it to me.

I thank him every time I walk out there, and I walk out there almost daily. It is a pilgrimage. A camino, if you want. It is my own Finisterre – land’s end – with a sheltered harbour village on one side and the wild ocean on the other.

And I love it…


Now for a confession…

I am an Instagram addict.

It is the one social media thingy of which I was an early uptaker. I love it for community and beauty, and for peeks into the lives of others. Mostly, I love it because it taught me new ways of seeing, and when I first spied the red and white lighthouse, I decided I would photograph it every time I visited, as a way of teaching myself that it is possible to look at anything – a lighthouse, a person, a problem, a grief – in myriad ways, and yet always to see it anew.


My lighthouse has taught me much. I look at it from above and below, from left and right, from up close and personal and from the other side of the harbour, in all weathers and at all times of day.


I try to do the same with myself. I’ve come to think of those who guide me through rough patches as my lighthouses. I have many. I have learned to look for the ray of light when the going gets tough. I’ve taught my mind and my heart to understand, in a visceral way, that things are in a constant state of change, even as there are constants that can be relied upon to remain the same.

IMG_0911.JPGSuch are the tensions a lighthouse embodies.

It stands sentinel while all around it swirls – yet it also changes, depending on the conditions.

Some days it is cherry red and gold. Some days crimson and harsh white. Some days it is cold and lonely. Some days it is proud; some days humble.

But it is there.

It is always there.




I am grateful for the lessons of the lighthouse. In my way, I’ve been a sailor being guided through rocks, and it has brought me home.

Many times.

It did that for me from the moment I first saw it, and it does it every time I visit.


It always shows me another side – invites me to see things in a different light.

IMG_2813This year, as I approach my birthday and consider the things I would like to create or invite into the coming year, my focus is on calm. It’s a humbler goal than finding a home, and yet I suspect it may be harder won. It is not my natural state! Regardless, I feel pretty sure my lighthouse will continue to teach me.

My sister Amanda took this pic of me and my lighthouse – both a bit scarred!


In my birthday wishes for the year ahead, I send light to you, and a hope for smooth sailing. May you never feel you are becalmed or stuck, but may you know deep internal calm. And may you have a lighthouse…many lighthouses…to bring you home.


Thanks to my sister Alanna for making this image – beyond my skills!

25 thoughts on “Lessons from the lighthouse

  1. Ailsa:

    Two days ago I received a recently published (Ginninderra Press) book of poetry from Kathleen BLEAKLEY [& partner ‘pling – photographer]. I am interested in light-houses not because I have ever lived in or near one but because of Robert Louis STEVENSON – whose father, uncle – and grand-father – were among the greatest light-house engineers in the 19th century – and won the contract to build western style light-houses around the rocky coast-line of newly opening up Japan in the mid-latter part of the 19th century – including the one on Tsuno-shima (Horn Island) now the north-west tip of Yamaguchi-ken – and about 90 minutes from where I lived most of my years in Japan. It opened a decade-and-a-half or thereabouts after Hornby – constructed (among others) by the engineer Brunton – sent out to Japan by the STEVENSON firm. One of Kathleen’s poem’s “Keeping the Light at Watson’s Bay” commemorates Dunbar’s sole survivor and then Hornby’s first keeper, James Johnson. The poem just before it: “Lightseekers (South Head)” is to her own forebears Henry Johnson and Mary (née Kenny) who were also light-house keepers of Hornby.

    Alanna’s work on your photography is beautiful!

    1. Oooooohhhhhh thank you Jim. I will track down that book, because I’m beginning to put together a poetry walk around Watsons Bay and South Head, so it sounds just perfect. Thanks so much.
      And weren’t those Stevensons incredible? So many connections to RLS. Of course, being a walker he must have been a good sort!
      Thanks you for another brilliant connection. You always come up trumps!
      Will pass on your comment to Alanna, too. xxx

  2. This is so beautiful! I love your writing! I too am in the midst of change brought about mostly from my camino and Spain. I’m sitting having a coffee break surrounded by the mess that happens when packing. Thank you for your lighthouse lessons.

    1. Hi Jennifer, and thanks so much for reading. Isn’t packing the most exhausting but also liberating thing? Somehow everything seemed very clear to me when I saw my life going into boxes. I knew what mattered an what didn’t. Hope you find the same. And that you find calm at road’s end. xxxxx

  3. Further: Kathleen’s mother Amelia FIELDEN is an old friend first met in Canberra where we both spent some weeks one January at ANU completing a beginner’s Viet-namese language program – and then some 15 years later by serendipitous chance meeting up again when a friend in Japan where I was living invited me to dinner – she had a foreigner – from Australia – as a homestay guest. Within about three of the usual first-time meeting opening gambits we had established our links from ANU. Amelia is a poet – of tanka – in English – and a noted translator from Japanese.

  4. Thank you Nick Charles! I love that you found your home by the Lighthouse and I love that you love Instagram. I have been following you since Charlotte Wood posted on Facebook one of your images whilst you were in Riversdale, Bundanon. Instagram has for me made me look at things differently and have my own inner enquiry. My focus this year is on heart. I send you much love and hopes for inner calm. Gratitude.

    1. Hello Dianne! Don’t you love the way Insta connects our worlds and our wishes? I feel like I know all sorts of lovely snippets about you from the photos there. I’m never interested much in pics of people. Somehow seeing what draws their eye tells me more – or something more enticing anyway. It’s a fantastic view to the world. And yes, hooray for Nick! I could never have done it without him. So much gratitude – and to friends like Charlotte, and the gift of Bundanon….so much gratitude. And to YOU! xxxx

  5. Aaah Ailsa, another lovely piece thank you . Our lighthouse is just a short walk over the hill. Come and compare it. xxx b. T. & h.

    1. Perhaps I could do a camino of lighthouses! Now there is a thought. Thank you for the offer. I may just surprise you this year of calm. xxxx

  6. me again Ailsa! Forgot to add that I am a great follower of Insta and Reg gets quite cross when I come downstairs to breakfast at 6.30am and immediately open my iPad to check what’s happening in the world around me. We are just about to go down to our beach house where those of the family left in good old Melb. are spending the night. No lighthouse in view though,well at least in my mind I can see one and that is probably better!

    1. Dear Bertina,
      Thanks so much for the update, and I hope that you all have a gorgeous time at the beach house. Being near the sea is such a tonic, and being together as family will be such a tonic. Hold a pic of my dear little lighthouse and think of me as I will think of you…with great gratitude. xxxxxx

  7. Beautiful ailsa. I am glad for your lighthouse. I thought of you today – I went to the send off at the state library of Jessica Hackett, a lovely young woman who has set off to walk to Canberra with a welcome petition on behalf of asylum seekers. I thought that In a sense she is carrying one of the great sins of our nation into (what should be) the light of parliament. I saw her take the first step of her Camino. I thought you would like to know about this – and along came your lighthouse! I am again re-reading ‘sinning’ and each time I read it I learn more from it. After doing the Fred hollows coastrek at point Nepean last November, I now know what it is to walk 30kms, and now have the added layer of a physical appreciation of your book. Happy 2016.

    1. Wow. That’s a wonderful story Jane. What an inspiring and inspired young woman. I will keep an eye out for her story. And yes, that sin is going to be around asking us to examine it for a long while, I fear. Truly an amazing camino. Thanks for continuing to find layers in the book – I suspect they are layers in you! Happy 2016. May it bring many wonders. xxx

  8. Fran and I are looking forward to seeing your lighthouse and you when we come to Sydney in March . We are packing up the car with a cocktail bar and my boogie board and heading up the Nsw south coast from Melbourne for my 60 th birthday beach party road trip. We are so happy that you will be part of it all.

    1. Well that sounds fabulous, Maree. I will do my impression of Gidget and we can sip martinis under the lighthouse. Yaayyyy. Xxxxxxx

  9. no wonder you and the lighthouse are best friends – it is so RED!!! and it is a year… already?? truly?? I can still see us sitting in 10 Greek Plates….tasting and oohh and ahhh… may you and the lighthouse feast up BIG for your birthday…

    1. Hello dearest friend. Yes, red. Passion, fire and warmth. I seek it. But I also love love love the blue. I go into the blue each morning. It is all so beautiful, and I am lucky to have landed in such a place for recovery. Thank you for stopping by. For always seeing my progress. xxx

  10. Great post Ailsa.
    I’m a big lighthouse fan, too.
    My favourite lighthouse would be Cape Byron lighthouse hands down.
    And two years ago at the Byron Bay Writer’s Festival I attended a talk given by the authors, M.L.Stedman and Ian Hoskins all about their love of lighthouses.
    M.L.Stedman wrote the novel,’The Light Between Oceans’ and Ian Hoskins wrote the book,’Coast: A History of the New South Wales Edge’.
    Anyway, I ‘m glad to see that you’re writing more frequently here now, as I’m sure your posts are like a beacon to the readers here.
    I wish for you a calm year, but not too calm, as the calmest seas in the world are in the doldrums and nobody likes to be stuck there for too long 😉
    Shine forth!

    1. Hello Darren! Thanks so much for writing, and yes, you are right – no doldrums allowed. Wonderful books, both of those, aren’t they? I’d love to get back to Byron this year. Such a great festival. And lighthouse! Fingers crossed. Have a wondrous 2016. xx

  11. hello again Ailsa. Just been listening to Macca and heard you speaking to him. Wanted to tell you that we are both sad that you have left Melbourne to live in Sydney but quite understand your decision and feel that I could not live where I do now by myself. Reg was saying to me that he remembers very well the wonderful chat he had with Peter at that book launch years ago and also agreed that he had the most wonderful voice. At least we all have great memories and you are now making new ones near your lighthouse. May you spend many peaceful hours there. I would have emailed you but have changed computer over and lost my old address book.
    Look forward to your next post.

    Bertina and Reg

    1. Ah, thanks so much Bertina. It was lovely to begin the day with Macca, who was such a fan and supporter of Pete’s. Yes, he had a beautiful voice. One of the lovely things about him being an actor is that I have so many recordings of him. I haven’t quite felt up to listening a lot, but they are there and beautiful. And I remember that launch as such a happy night. We adored it.
      Keep well both of you and thanks for writing.
      Much love,
      Ailsa x

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