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!

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….

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…

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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.

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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?

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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…

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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.

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Walking home

IMG_3632The other day I was on the mobile, talking to a friend, when she asked me what I was doing. Perhaps the heavy breathing made her curious!

“Walking home,” I answered.

I kept striding along the bayside trail and talking to my friend, both activities at a pretty hectic pace, but one part of me had stopped, rolling those two words over and over in my mind.

Walking home.

Walking home.

I’m always walking home, I realised. It’s what I do every time I set out for a stroll, a wander, a saunter or a pilgrimage. It’s what I do when I walk out the front door or into the wind; away from someone I love or toward a challenge; and even when I sit here at the desk, tapping at these keys, I am walking my self home. I’m not sure where that home is, but it’s located somewhere within, I think. It’s the part of me that is still and quiet; the part that grins like a loon when I’m loping along an open road; the part that remembers the rhythm of camino days; the part that knows I need nothing other than air to be happy. To be whole.

When I can locate it, it feels like what they call grace. But it eludes me too often.

I was not walking home when I sat on the phone for an hour yesterday, reporting a faulty telephone line. The call centre staff were doing their best, so why couldn’t I keep my breathing even and my tone calm? I’m not walking home when I wake at 2am panicking about failure or the uncertainty of the future. Of course the future is uncertain. I know there are no guarantees, even for those who have contracts and salaries. Why should that wake me in the night?

At those times, I forget that I am walking home; that every heartbeat, every in-breath and every out-breath is a reminder that if I choose to be, I am getting closer.

PB083824I must choose.

I can’t always expect to know I’m on the path, as I do when I walk out on welcoming, shaded roads.

I must actively choose to see every step as a step toward home. I must hold the memory of that in every cell, and trust that I am getting there. That we are all getting there.

Home.

Home safe.

Home free.

That’s something to write home about, isn’t it?

Coming home. Going home.

“Walking home,” I said, when she asked what I was doing. Even if I never make it, the journey will be beauty-filled if I can only keep that simple mantra close.

Walk home. Walk home. With every breath, may you walk yourself closer to home.

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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!!!

Indulgences

According to Wikipedia – digi-bible of our days – in Catholic theology, an indulgence is the full or partial remission of temporal punishment due for sins which have already been forgiven. According to the Free Dictionary – second on the Google search list – an indulgence is the act, or an instance of, indulging. According to me – pilgrim and self-confessed fool – an indulgence is a favour granted.

Which is what I’m asking of you.

Indulge me.

Anyone who has read Sinning Across Spain, or who has browsed here, will know that my chief delight, other than walking, is poetry; the lusher the better, particularly if it is Spanish.

IMG_2297My lesser known delight is my feet.

I love them. They are my best, my favourite, bits. They have never given me blisters or pains or bunions. They make no complaint when hot or bothered, cold or wet, bruised or swollen.

They just go on.

And on.

And on.

IMG_2695This summer they have had some excellent times traipsing about in sand beside three great oceans – the Pacific, the Indian and the Southern. They have walked me far and wide on both sides of the continent, keeping me grounded but also kicking me through waters and over waves. They have skipped and they have played.

They’ve had a chance to loll, too; to rest and be admired. They’ve even had their toes painted red in celebration of their reliability and fortitude.

So what of the indulgence?

Well, tonight I found a poem by Pablo Neruda – one I’d heard before but had somehow forgotten. A bit like my feet. So in honour of the greatness, and the romance, of feet – indulge me. Please.

Here is a poem from the Spanish master. An indulgence if ever I saw one.

 

Your Feet

When I cannot look at your face
I look at your feet.
Your feet of arched bone,
your hard little feet.
I know that they support you,
and that your sweet weight
rises upon them.
Your waist and your breasts,
the doubled purple
of your nipples,
the sockets of your eyes
that have just flown away,
your wide fruit mouth,
your red tresses,
my little tower.
But I love your feet
only because they walked
upon the earth and upon
the wind and upon the waters,
until they found me.

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Gracias, dear feet. You who are closest to the earth, you are my rhythm-makers. You are my markers of miles and smiles and tears. You are the quellers of my fears, dear feet that achieve such feats. You are my best bits.

Gracias.

 

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PS – Lots of workshops and “doings” under EVENTS AND MEDIA. Click on the tab above. Also, you can subscribe by entering your email address in the box up top, and posts will come to you via email. No, there is no charge for them!

Candlemas


IMG_0622The 2nd February is Candlemas day, when, in the Christian tradition, beeswax candles were brought to the church to be blessed for use throughout the year, in rituals and in homes.

Well, that is one of the results I got from Google when I went searching.

I like the idea of a Candle-mass. I like the idea of blessing candles. They bless me daily.

This morning, waking as I usually do before dawn, I lit the candle by my bed. It had been given to me by a dear friend for my birthday last Monday, and lit up just enough of the space for me to read a few words of a favourite book. Then I put that down and lay, watching gold light fluttering across the walls and ceiling, and inhaling its rose scent.

Such a small flame, and yet it signified so much to me. Wherever I light a candle, I feel at home. As a child, I loved to light them when the generator failed – it was a responsibility and a trust bestowed. Then in churches – a symbol of faith, even when I couldn’t feel it. Somehow I had faith in the light of the candle to show me a way to somewhere brighter. I am never without candles – tea-lights in glass vases, under oil-burners, on tables for shared meals, outdoors by paths…they are celebrations and comfort, hope and promise, history and mystery writ large over all of my years.

IMG_2385I spoke to Tony Doherty about Candlemas this morning, and he remarked on something I had never considered – that even as a candle is shedding light, it is dying. It gets smaller and smaller in direct proportion to the light and heat it emits. Its job is to give itself away.

I loved that.

As I sit here typing this, there is a candle burning opposite me, its flame moving occasionally when a drift of air whirls past. My heart goes out to it in gratitude. I couldn’t even begin to count the number of moments in my life that have been restored or enlivened by those delicate flames.

So today, here in the sacred space of my workplace, I honour and give thanks to candles. Like friends, they are vital to me, and like friends, it’s all too easy to take them for granted in the swirl of these digital, white-light days. This evening, in the home of new friends, I will ask if I can light a candle in gratitude for all my friends, and for my village of readers.

And for hope.

My own Candlemas…

Melbourne April-May 08 044