Beginning again…SPRING 2016….

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It’s spring….

Wattle pops.

Bulbs burst.

Pansies grin.

Poppies pop.

Jasmine scents the still-crisp air while wisteria flings purple rain at our feet.

It’s the time of beginnings.

I have two bags packed behind me. One contains a collection of grey, black, white and blue clothing – all of it soft. Desk-wear! The other holds books, papers, postcards, notebooks and my laptop. When I look at them, they represent hope and fear in equal parts…

img_2426I’m off on retreat. Amazingly, it has been just over a year since I went to Bundanon to immerse, and I look back and see how much has been achieved as a result of that three weeks. A book took final shape and is in the last stages of pre-publication flurry. I’ve written articles and re-shaped a monologue. I’ve read audiobooks and conducted interviews. I’ve given speeches and chaired sessions. A little silence went a very long way.

 

img_4566It’s time to hunker down and return to another silence; time to let the messy stuff of my mind have free rein so that perhaps, with luck and that old fair wind and an even bigger dollop of silence, something can begin to be shaped.

If I had to imagine what the process looks like, it would be akin to peering into a bale of tangled and knotted knitting wool, before plunging my hand in to grab a strand, and then hooking it onto a needle and beginning to knit, without a pattern, or an idea of what colour I had chosen – and hoping for a Fairisle sweater to emerge!

It’s why we have to love hope. It’s the best of the qualities that make us human, don’t you think?

img_1907And then there is fear.

The voice that says I will probably stab myself with that knitting needle, which is likely to be septic or toxic somehow anyway, and cause an artery to bleed, thus ruining the sweater and stopping my life!

All that will, of course, be a good thing, because then I won’t get to write the thing that would have been dreadful anyway.

Look, a day would not be complete without a little bit of catastrophising!

img_4590But the thing is, that is the dance of everything we make, if it matters to us. Every risk. Every creation. Every initiation. Every beginning…

Hope and fear. The possible and the dreadful.

But somewhere in the mix, there is also a thing called faith. I don’t know if it’s a feeling or an idea or a joke, but it’s faith that makes me put down one foot then another when I’m walking. So that is what I hope to do now.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately, as I’ve been performing my monologue at a couple of festivals, about that Antonio Machado poem I love…

Caminante, no hay camino…

Walker, there is no road. We make the road by walking.

img_2434That’s it, isn’t it?

We don’t know anything at the beginning. We don’t even know if there is a road. But we step out, and we walk, and when we look back, we can see the road we made….

I love it. And it seems the right poem for a person who is about to do some tunnelling at a desk, away from home, in silence. Fearing there is nothing; hoping there is…something…

A beginning.

I so hope your spring yields creativity and beauty aplenty, and that each time you take a step, you are making a good road.

28-current-issue_instaPS If you are interested to read two articles that rose from my journey in France and Spain earlier this year (the previous two posts), grab a copy of the Spring issue of Slow Living magazine. It’s in newsagents now, and if it isn’t, please ask yours to get it in! Or you can order online at their website. I think it is a ripper issue – especially for travellers!

 

Lessons from the lighthouse

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…

 

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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!

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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.

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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…

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

 

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

Walking home…again…

 

I am in a new place….
IMG_1970It’s a place of exposed cliffs and sheltered bays; of screeching cockatoos and comedian kookaburras; of purple sunsets and moonrises over shimmering ocean; of shy honeyeaters and wheeling lorikeets.

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There are two lighthouses in my new neighbourhood.

There is a General Store where they know everybody’s name.

There are views to infinity and covered lanes, drooping with vines.

There are Port Jackson figs and bad banksia men. There are frangipanis, though the trees are little more than bare stumps just now. But the flowers will come.

I know all this because I am tramping for miles and miles, trying to walk myself into “local” status. It will take a lifetime, of course. Maybe two. I don’t kid myself about that. But let’s face it, it’s the journey, not the destination, and because I don’t presume to know how much time I will have, I am exploring as far and wide and deep as I can, as fast as I can, leaving nothing for some mythical “later”.

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Sailboats make bold in the harbour, but alone on the open sea they are tiny handkerchiefs fluttering in wilful breezes. Ferries pootle about and tugs scurry to work. Busy busy busy. Liners glide and the navy frigates take no prisoners.

There was a shipwreck here. I stroke the enormous metal links of an anchor chain as gulls wheel overhead, crying the same desolate sound they must have made when the boat went down.

The clouds here are brushstrokes made by some wildly confident artist who dips her brush into a multicoloured pot and with one sweep leaves us gasping…

 

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The sun rises behind two sandstone steeples. Both are made gold in an instant. Their bells don’t peal – that would be too presumptuous. They ding and dong like twins with different pitches, humble village workday calls that take me back to other walks where equally intimate bells called across fields to me as I hiked.

These are welcoming bells, greeting me just as my neighbours did. They came from downstairs on the day my boxes were delivered, and helped me unpack. We were a team in an instant. The bloke from upstairs knocked one Sunday night with fresh fish fillets, caught that day. He and his bonny wife have a little boy who is getting teeth. I will miss that gummy smile on the stairs when the molars have all pushed through. I hope to be here to see him start to read or to wobble down the hill on training wheels.

Other neighbours tell me they are “here” if I need them.

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I am here too.

I want to be here for a long time.

There are enough trails and mysteries to keep me twisting and turning on myself, getting lost and found, picking up shells and watching sea-snails leave rust-coloured trails, wondering and wandering, for many long days –  should I be lucky enough to have them.

That miracle.

To have days. Days and days of health and light.

To live and breathe and walk…

IMG_1890I walk the clifftops, watching for whales.

And yes, I really do see them.

They’ve been heading north, though I am told that now others are coming south.

Do they greet each other?

Do they swap stories of their watery ways, calling to each other in recognition, as we walkers do on our separate but joined trails.

“Morning! Lovely day!”

It’s always a lovely day…

IMG_1772I’m stepping into these days and these ways, finding my rhythm and my pace, learning the stories underneath my feet and inscribing my own tentative etchings over them. I make my way home, muscles warmed and cheeks red, telling myself to remember.

Remember this day.

This air. This bird call. This sun on my cheek and this glint on the water.

Remember this possibility.

I am walking into a new life. I stumble. I lose my way.

But I’m walking. One step, then the next. I’m walking myself home again…

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A PS – There was an article of mine about this magnificent part of the world in the Sydney Morning Herald on September 19th. Just click here to read. I’m pretty passionate about the subject, as you can tell!

And here’s another from October 14th – a different take on the same issue… www.smh.com.au/comment/dont-turn-south-head-into-a-wedding-production-line-20151007-gk3oxr.html

For some moving pictures, here is a video (with some bolshie locals!) about the issues…

On a different subject…The Accidental Atheist is 30 minutes of searching radio as Gary Bryson, a lifetime atheist, asks whether he has “missed out” on something. One of the people he asked was me! Our conversation took place out on South Head at the entrance to Sydney Harbour – a place of deep meaning for me. You can podcast it by clicking here – https://radio.abc.net.au/programitem/peo9QyyE2Q?play=true

If you are in Australia, grab the spring issue of SLOW LIVING magazine from your newsagent. It’s a beautiful mag, and I have an article in it that celebrates a personal “lighthouse” person – one who got me through some rough water! You can’t get their articles online, but if you are considering subscribing, I can recommend it. Info here… http://www.slowmagazine.com.au/current-issue

Mourning walks

We who claim walking as our salvation do so for myriad reasons, many mysterious even to ourselves. We plod across sand, mud or the dreaded asphalt, carrying water, the ubiquitous dried fruit, and a sleeping bag or tent if we’re fortunate enough to be setting out for a “proper” walk. I’ve shouldered packs as light as air and as heavy as twenty kilograms. I’ve even transported sins. Currently, though, I am laden with grief, and I often find myself in the valley of its shadow.

I’ve been on this path for nine months now – a period of time that usually implies birth. I keep thinking: Shouldn’t I have produced something by now? Made myself over? Haven’t I learned anything? At the many daily crossroads, the way should be obvious, shouldn’t it? But it isn’t.

Mostly I feel I am going nowhere. And quite fast.

IMG_0653On good days I remind myself that after 1300 kilometres under my sin-load, I did make it to Finisterre. I made it to world’s end, to a place where I was free of pain – of my own, and of others. I did it by trudging through flood, snow and searing heat, and never questioning the task. I did it by staying the course when I didn’t want to. I did it by accepting the help of strangers, many of whom became friends. I did it by seeing beauty. Over and over, the beauty of the natural world saved me when my heart or my heels hurt.

The caminos I’ve walked, not just in Spain but back here in Australia, taught me the road can break you. It will. It does. Those long trails insisted that everything has a cost. Even life. Even love. But when I kept walking, in that blind-faith action of one-foot-then-the-other, I came through. To somewhere.

And I was remade.

I’m not sure I would have come through this last nine months without my experiences of walking, or the gifts it has given me: resilience; tenacity; an eye for overlooked beauty; a hunger for connection to the natural world; a village of friends who can do hard yards with me; and the lessons of the snail…

Slow. Slow.

This road I’m walking now is long and flinty. Uneven. Lonely, too. But there are glimmers in the dust, and moments of radiance, too. Look left, look right, look down, look up. They are there for the finding.

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On my mourning walks, continuance doesn’t always feel possible, but when the sun shouts to me, or the rain pelts on me, then life races in my veins, and I stride out, relieved that the world is as I knew it.

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On less flamboyant sky-days, when the world offers mostly grey, I must use my own resources to push forward. Those are days for smaller blooms, shy offerings. I have to work for beauty. But it’s there.

 

 

That’s when I can see that if I do two things, I might get through. Just two little things…

Stay with slow and ask for help.

The same two things. The same two things. I come back and back to them.

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I have never been such a snail before.

My belongings are reduced to what fits in my car, and I frequently pull my head into my shell and retreat from the world, but still I find it difficult not to want to race through days.

 

That won’t help. I must stay present to details, like the droplets of dew on blades of morning grass – maybe then I will see them for diamonds.

IMG_0285I’ve never before needed so much help, either. Yet even after carrying pride for 1300 kilometres and getting masterclasses about acceptance from Spaniards and Italians and Peruvian/Americans and so many others, still I get tangled by those three simple words “Help me. Please.”

So. I’ve confessed!

Now you know my sins. Haste and pride. Hasty pride. Prideful haste. Ergh.

Recently I decided that since my emotional “muscles” are being made over, I should perhaps do the same with my physical ones, so I’m learning to swim. I know, I know. How can I have come this far and never had had a lesson? It’s unAustralian!

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Well I grew up in desert country and on farms, with no pools nearby, and by the time I was in the big smoke of Perth, everyone else could swim, so I just did athletics! But I’ve always wanted to learn the strokes so I could manage more than my ungainly dog-paddling breaststroke.

Swimming is hard. One half-lap of the pool exhausts me. My muscles scream. My chest hurts. And worst of all – I can’t do it without intense focus on kicking/breathing/engaging core muscles/tilting/etc/ad nauseum. I’m not good at this! I don’t know how to do it! It isn’t easy for me! I fail! I am upended! I have to ask for HELP!

Grrrrr…..

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My swimming teacher says I have endurance, and it will return in the water. Eventually. But first I must learn to do things differently and to trust that I won’t go under. I must be a beginner. I must give up and do what the water requires of me. I must know that it will take time, and I must practice. I must not expect too much of myself. I must pay attention only to the action that is required, and I must slow.

Grrrrr…

I sink regularly, but I want very much to float, or at least to be buoyant, so I will keep on.

Being a beginner is hard. Always. Asking for help is hard, and so is being a snail. But I’m trying to take the lessons of the water into my days. I am trying to swim through my mourning walks, and sometimes, on better days, I can see some diamonds in the grass.

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Homing in…

In Sinning Across Spain, I made the bold claim that “home” was my favourite word in the English language. It must be special to me, because it’s the word I choose to see dozens of times every day…

IMG_1139When I walk in the front door, it greets me – just in case I’d been feeling lost or displaced. I’ve felt both of those in recent times.

But HOME rescues me. The word and the place.

I’ve been pondering what it is that makes home feel like…well, home. How to pin down that feeling – an exhalation in every pore, that lets the body soften and the mind slow and the spirit lighten – when I know I’ve come home.

It starts before I enter the house. It’s the sound of the bell on the front gate, that particular note I’ve been hearing for almost three decades. The bell is rusty now, but the note is true. Then there is that familiar curving brick path; only short, but somehow more welcoming to me than a straight line. It slows me down. Asks me to focus on it, even though it’s so deeply known. I brush my hand against the rosemary hedge – rosemary for remembrance.

I do remember. How could I forget?

Sometimes there are jonquils and magnolia blossoms. Sometimes scented Mr Lincoln roses. But always, always, the rosemary is there for me to drift my fingers across, and to release the scent of memory. Of those I love and have lost…of those who are far away…of near and dear…

Then the pleasure of the key that fits. It never ceases to amaze me, that little piece of metal carved into a particular shape that slots into one particular space, allowing me to come home. All the technology in the world will never replace for me that simple miracle of ingenuity. Access all areas, Ailsa, it says. Welcome home.

Home.

History. Memory. Warmth. Intimacy.

Decades of laughter and music and food and friends and the little dog that used to pitter-pat toward me down the shiny hall; smells and flowers and guitar chords; rehearsals for shows and half-written manuscripts; jokes, good and bad; birthdays and anniversaries and mourning and carousing; late nights and early mornings; sickness and health; cups of tea and pots of tea and vats of tea and gallons of tea; rose petals between sheets; bad jokes and silly walks and funny dancing and crazy hats; being held when grieving; popping corks when succeeding; reading and sharing the reading and stealing a book and giving a book; lolling in the tub as a fat moon wafts overhead; greedy bees drinking at the bottlebrush blooms; winning the possum wars; late night silences and early morning nuzzles; comfort when comfort can’t help but somehow in the end it does; more tea; making Anzac biscuits at Christmas and eating plum pudding in July; watching friends take over the kitchen and marvelling at the results; listening to a lone cello’s notes hitting the high ceiling; stuffing home-grown vine leaves from our backyard and eating them with wide grins; and poems…poems read for birthday parties when people said they felt shy yet couldn’t be silenced….poems sung to old tunes and new…poems written for the occasion, the ultimate gift…poems in every nook and cranny, perched on every piece of furniture, sitting on every chair and making way as humans approach, tucked under bedcovers and at the bottom of the garden…

Home is a poem. It is one long poem. And it’s a love poem. It will always sing of history and mystery and the wonder of connection. These rooms are a poem composed over three decades of love and laughter, of joy and grief, of stillness and mayhem. The poem of this home is deep in my bones. I will sing it all my days.

And I am grateful.

For home.

 

True North

This blog has never been about my personal life, and I don’t intend to change that focus. Always, the thoughts here have been in some way related to Sinning Across Spain – walking, journeying, poetry, Spain…

But today is different.

As you will know if you have read the book, Sinning Across Spain was dedicated to Peter, my true north.

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Just over two weeks ago, I lost him.

He died of a cerebral hemmorhage. Too soon. Sudden. Without warning.

I want to thank everyone who has contacted me here and on Facebook and by email. Every message means a lot, but please understand that I simply can’t respond individually. Please don’t feel overlooked, or that I don’t appreciate the thoughts and prayers and wishes. I do. So much. I am grateful we are both being held in people’s hearts. Please continue to send him your blessings and wishes, if it feels right.

We were married for 27 years. He was good, truly good. He was kindness personified. And he was funny. A clown, a punster, a wit. He described himself as a flaneur. Peter could always find exactly the right word.

I am managing the days, one tentative step at a time. If I’m absent from here for a time, I am sure you will understand.

This is the poem I associate with Peter. There are a thousand others, of course. We both loved words and poetry. He had his favourites. But this was who he was for me…

 

ATLAS

 

There is a kind of love called maintenance

Which stores the WD40 and knows when to use it

Which checks the insurance, and doesn’t forget

The milkman; which remembers to plant bulbs;

Which answers letters; which knows the way

The money goes; which deals with dentists

And Road Fund Tax and meeting trains,

And postcards to the lonely; which upholds

The permanently rickety elaborate

Structures of living, which is Atlas.

And maintenance is the sensible side of love,

Which knows what time and weather are doing

To my brickwork; insulates my faulty wiring;

Laughs at my dryrotten jokes; remembers

My need for gloss and grouting; which keeps

My suspect edifice upright in air,

As Atlas did the sky.

 

 

U A Fanthorpe

 

 

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

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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.