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.
There 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.
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.
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.
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.
It’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.
“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.
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
I wake, draw the curtains, and that is the view I see from my refugio window.
The curving bridge is a distant frame with the harbour winking at me in the foreground.
Good morning sunshine, it says.
My breath catches every day. The beauty of these waters is ancient and natural, but also sculpted by man, bent to the will of creators and dreamers, yet still at the mercy of the winds and the water.
Sydney is working its way into my veins. My blood races as I walk the harbour trails stroking knobbled tree trunks and tracing the layers of paperbarks. My heartbeat speeds as a fish leaps from the water, then submerges for a time, then leaps again.
I’m doing that. Flying then deepening.
I’m here for four weeks of writing. Some of it is preparation for Writers Festivals in WA – Perth, Albany and Denmark – where I’ll be giving workshops, performing a monologue and enjoying conversations. Some of it is the next book – actually, I hope a lot of it will be the next book. I’m teaching a workshop, doing a poetry walk along the harbour, and will be in conversation with one of my favourite minds. I’m also dipping my toes into the possibility of two other projects – collaborations with Sydneysiders.
All that, and yet I get distracted.
On my daily caminos, frangipanis fall about me like scented rain. Bougainvillea drapes itself around my shoulders, a prickling purple scarf. Hibiscus blooms flash gaudy colours at me as I try to walk past with serious intent.
“My desk,” I say to them. “My desk.”
They know they will have their way.
When eventually I get to my office, I climb nineteen carpeted stairs before my feet reach the polished wood floor. It gleams. Gleaming even brighter from the other side of the room is the vista across Rose Bay to the city. It is all blue and white and light, except when it is bisected by the roaring red strip of a seaplane.
My desk is at a sideways angle to the view so I don’t lose myself. That harbour is trying to pour itself in through the open window, and I must resist it if I am to work.
How do I resist the fecund, primal vegetation of this place?
It won’t observe boundaries. Tendrils creep over walls and through crevices. Branches burst up from concrete, and trees form sculptures, avenues from my dreamscape. They call to me to wander further, to worship their mystery and history.
Oh, Sydney, I shout. Stop!
Then I round another corner and my knees weaken all over again.
Rocks frame the harbour pool where I swim. They are shaped like great grey whales, but their interiors are exposed to the air, blasted open by the winds and salt, and I stroke the spines, the veins, the coarse gold curves.
Rock and water.
All this beauty. All this wonder.
The new, the other, is always inspiring. But Sydney is not new to me. I lived here many years ago. I swam in the same pool. In the intervening years, I have walked the harbour and sighed at jacaranda time. But this is different. This is a work camino, and I can’t recall when a place last fed me with such riches. If I can’t make something here, then it is nothing but my own sloth.
After walking the Camino Mozárabe, I used to wonder if such intense kindness existed in Australia. Was it simply those roads? Leonardo and Ricardo, my Capitano and Soldato, the ladies pressing food and shelter onto me – was it particular to that experience?
This office, from which I write, has been made available to me by the good grace of Monsignor Tony Doherty and his village of parishioners in Rose Bay.
“Work,” Tony says to me. “Just work.”
I’m doing my best.
The door to my refugio-with-a-view was thrown open to me by Michelle Bartley. We met for the first time when she handed me a key and told me to make myself at home. When I try to thank her, she just shrugs and laughs, and tells me that if more people offered something of themselves, the world would work better. She laughs a lot. She is fair of hair and heart, it seems to me. People speak of patrons. Michelle knew nothing of me – only that I needed space and time. And she gave.
I am made over by their generosity. I am trying with every breath. Their kindness demands to be met with my best; their example calls me to rise.
So here, in my eyrie, I will dream a while.
I work, and it is good – even when it isn’t! I am in safe harbour and I am grateful.
Gracias, Tony and Michelle. Gracias, Rose Bay. Gracias, Sydney.
I wish for you all that is bright and shining and new, all that’s mysterious and soft yet true. I wish for deep waters and lofty thoughts. I wish for breezes that bring you always always home to your heart.
I wish you peace and acceptance with every challenge that arises.
I wish you fulfilment and feting for every summit achieved.
I wish you work that challenges and stirs you, and lets you serve to your full capacity.
I wish you strength to your formidable heart, so you can shine light on dark days.
I wish you ease and laughter in all your relationships.
I wish you roads that open at every turn, legs that bound along them, a spirit to soar above you, and when required, a compañero whose stride will match yours.
I wish for you to be always coming home. Always on your path. Always free. Always open. Always receiving.
I wish on my star and your star and every other lucky star that your way be made in beauty and your days be made in joy.
I wish you love and love and more love.
The year is picking up pace. I’m off to Sydney to spend time working on my new book, and also, hopefully, to make work with two trusted friends and collaborators. Fingers crossed.
While I’m there I’ll be leading a writing workshop on February 6th from 10am to 1.30pm. I’ll also be in conversation with Monsignor Tony Doherty on February 7th. After the talk we had in Melbourne, which was one of my highlights of 2012, I’m looking forward to it enormously. More details are at the end of this post. Both of these events will be conducted at Tony’s parish in Rose Bay, and if you can come along, or spread the word to others, please do. Tony is a true pilgrim – and an inspiration.
I hope such inspiration is close at hand for you all through this year, and that whatever you undertake, it brings you rewards beyond your imagining.
Thanks, as ever, for sharing my road. I’m excited to see where it is leading us all.
I re-ordered bookshelves and desktop, making room for new research materials. I bundled up all the books that were in need of another home, and hung them out on the front fence for passers-by. I tucked away my recent workshop notes and discarded a pile of advertisements for printers and office chairs. I filed the dreaded tax papers and, then, in desperation, I cleared out my wallet.
I know! It was procrastination and avoidance.
The new book is coming along in fits and starts, but it likes to hide from me at regular intervals. I try to chase after it, running to keep up, but sometimes it just gets away, and so I apply myself to something else as I lie in wait for it to return. Hence, the wallet purge!
Amid the bills and receipts, the forgotten shopping lists and library reminders, I found treasures. There was a holy picture of the Santo Niño de Atocha – the one given to me by Ricardo on the plane to Barcelona. There was a florist’s gift card from eighteen years ago, when I was trying to realign myself after the death of my mother. There was a verse, sent to me almost two years ago by a fellow peregrina in Tucson, Arizona. And there was a tatty piece of paper I have carried for years, maybe decades. On it are lines in my own handwriting – recognisable, but somehow changed – that continue to call to me.
Now, as I’m grappling with a story that has, at its heart, the landscape of my childhood, I wonder how I will ever come close to those words. Perhaps I’ve carried them all this time because I knew that one day I would try to write about my experience of this land, in the same way that Marcus Clarke did. If I’m really honest, though, I think I carry them because I believe they’re perfect, and I don’t know of many things that are. Least of all, me! So from the depths of my battered red wallet, here is a piece of perfection.
In Australia alone is to be found the grotesque, the weird, the strange scribblings of nature learning how to write. Some see no beauty in our trees without shade, our flowers without perfume, our birds who cannot fly, and our beasts who have not yet learnt to walk on all fours.
But the dweller in the wilderness acknowledges this fantastic land of monstrosities. He becomes familiar with the beauty of loneliness. Whispered to by the myriad tongues of the wilderness, he learns the language of the barren and the uncouth, and can read the hieroglyphs of the haggard gum-trees, blown into odd shapes, distorted with fierce hot winds, or cramped with cold nights, when the Southern Cross freezes in a cloudless sky of icy blue.
Last night I had to consider other monstrosities and distortions, when about one hundred people gathered at an event that was billed as a conversation about pilgrimage between me and Monsignor Tony Doherty.
I think it would be fair to say that most of the people in the room were, or had been, Catholics. I think it would also be fair to say that everyone there was reeling from the barrage of information that is surfacing about the extent of abuse – of sinning – that has occurred within the Catholic Church. Words like “horror” and “disgust” were in the air, and with cause.
Tony and I decided it was not possible to avert our gaze from what was happening out in the world. He spoke of his sorrow and distress, and then we went to the book, choosing to discuss my amigo’s story of the childhood sexual abuse and suicide of his brother. Mostly, as I commented in the previous post, conversations about the amigo have focused on my battle with desire. But last night, amid the pain and shock, we were able to honour his story, and the story of his brother’s suffering – and I was once again humbled and grateful for the trust he placed in me when he told it to me.
At night’s end, I felt changed. I remain appalled and enraged about the unimaginable suffering of so many at the hands of clergy, but I’d been reminded that it’s only by facing up to darkness, by looking squarely at it, and expressing our grief and abhorrence, that any kind of change can occur – and that then, we might be able to offer solace and support.
It had been a tough day for other reasons, too. I’m currently wading through the “Bringing Them Home” report on the stolen generations. The first-hand testimonies are heartbreaking and shameful. Fresh in my mind was “Devil’s Dust”, the two-part TV drama about James Hardie’s handling – or total non-handling – of the many who fell ill and died from exposure to asbestos while working for them.
So much suffering, and such unwillingness to take responsibility. Why the stubborn refusal of some in power to do the simple human thing of looking people squarely in the eyes and saying “sorry”?
I don’t understand why it is so hard. I don’t care about the legalities and the reputations and the money. I can’t understand. I don’t think we can ever be fully at home – in ourselves, with each other, or on this perplexing and mysterious land of hieroglyphs and wilderness – until we are able to do, privately and institutionally, what my amazing sinners did: to look directly into the eyes of another, to admit to shortcomings and fault, and then to begin to create change from that position of humility.
Hard but beautiful, that humility. And within it, surely, lies hope.
At the end of last night’s discussion, a lady called Eve Cazalet came to say hello. She said she was into her third reading of my book, which was gift enough for this first-time author, and then she handed me an envelope. When I opened it, I saw that she had inscribed a translation of selected lines from Antonio Machado’s poem – my amigo’s favourite. His road gift to me, given again after we had remembered him in conversation. A circle closed with a soft click.
Thank you Eve. Cleaning and purging might well have been avoidance, or perhaps it was a natural response to horrors, but you and Marcus Clarke both reminded me that there remain glimmers of perfection. I will look out for them.
Thank you to everyone who came last night, and loud applause to Garry Eastman and the Garratt Publishing team for making it possible. Deep gratitude and admiration to Tony Doherty for his honesty and generosity.
It means “grace” as well as “thank you”.
A postscript on 22nd November…
Some of the comments on this post are particularly long, generous and thoughtful. If you can find the time to scroll through to the end, you will find gems. Gracias to the amazing sub-scribers. I’d never considered it before – but you are scribing when you comment. Isn’t that lovely?
Some say it was the name of an Italian princess, but for me it’s spring in Andalucía.
Neroli is the essential oil distilled from the flowers of Seville oranges, and it was the scent of Granada, Córdoba, Mérida, and most of the pueblos between them when I walked the Camino Mozárabe. The streets and squares of my stops were lined with citrus trees in blossom. The air smelled fresh and pure, tangy, a little sharp, and full of the promise of summer.
Like a princess, perhaps?
Probably not like a pilgrim!
This morning I stepped out the back door and stopped in my tracks. I was in Spain. Late afternoon. Road’s end. Treading on cobbles strewn with white petals, inhaling the name of a princess.
The lemon tree is in flower! It’s not quite neroli, but it’s close.
But then, Melbourne isn’t quite Granada…or Córdoba…
It’s late spring here at the bottom of the world, but if I close my eyes, that scent and its associated memories can almost make my toes throb as though I’ve walked 30kms. Almost!
My memory of those days is becoming like mobile phone photos.
Hazy and soft focus.
I’m glad I had a journal and my sister’s camera with me when I walked. Now, when I look back, those photos and scrawls balance my tendency to romanticise. They are there to remind me of the hard yards, the bigger pictures and the non-pastel days; the harsh light and the cold winds; the fear of failure; the sombra that is the contrast to all my remembered sol.
I’m in conversation with Monsignor Tony Doherty next week – do read his guest post here if you haven’t already, and check the Events and Media tab above if you’d like to come. My prep for that event has made me reflect on my amigo, and our time walking together. Always, when people enquire after him, what they want to know about is my wrestle with desire. Rarely am I asked about the secret he carried, and the pain it gave him. Rarely does anyone want to discuss the shame that he felt, for himself and his brother. That may be politeness and good manners, but I wonder sometimes if it is more about a collective unwillingness to dwell in those places because we feel helpless. I certainly did, in the face of his story. Nonetheless, while I know that conversations about suicide and abuse are difficult, I do believe they are vital for understanding, and hopefully, for change.
So I’m glad that Tony’s dialogue with me comes now, in spring, when thoughts turn to horse racing and pretty hats; to lazy afternoons and cricket whites; to roses and wisteria. I want to remind myself to check the shadows sometimes, when all this sunshine can dazzle and distract me. I feel safe to do that in Tony’s company, because his generosity, humour and compassion make it possible to walk into any shadow and know that there will be a yellow arrow waiting when we walk out the other side – which we surely will, with him guiding!
It was lovely to surrender to that moment of citrus recall this morning. Seductive, enticing, sensual – and completely sin-free. But I owe it to my amigo, and to all of those who carry loads that cost them dear, to remember that the camino was not always painless – and that it would be foolish to expect that of any road.
I’ve just been told that bookings are now full for the event with Tony. Sorry if you missed out. If you were really really keen to come, I’m told that you can call the number on the booking form and explain that you are a subscriber here and they may put you on a waiting list – but for now, registrations have closed.
And while I’m talking about subscribers, a hearty thankyou for the valuable feedback after the previous post. All of it has been noted, and I’m feeling less like a serial stalker, and more like a contributor to a village conversation. I’m very grateful.
At various times since Sinning Across Spain came out, I’ve been asked about preparations for walking the camino. What did I do before I left? What would I recommend?
I’m loathe to suggest I’m in any way an expert, but I’m happy to share my experiences. Sometimes we fools who learn by trial and plenty of errors can be useful to others. Please remember that time has elapsed since I walked, and I’ve no doubt others can provide more up-to-date advice, so do take all of these suggestions as just that – suggestions. Everyone does it differently, and you will find your own way. That’s part of the joy.
The simplest way to go about this seemed to be to annotate a section from the book, so here we go, from Chapter 3, Flying Sola.
For the Camino Francés I’d read two guidebooks cover to cover…
The guidebooks of the Confraternity of St James are no-frills and concise, and can be bought via their website.
The CSJ are the English-language experts on all things camino, and their site has pointers to lots of other great information, including history, discussion forums and getting the credencial. No matter where you look, do start with them.
Ultimately, although it weighed more, I decided to carry John Brierley’s guidebook, because I enjoyed his snippets of history and spirituality, and I also loved the topographical diagrams and photos. I annotated it with extra info from the Confraternity’s book. I also used Mr Brierley’s guide when I walked from Oporto along the Portuguese route.
For the Mozárabe, I carried Alison Raju’s guide from the Confraternity. Back when I walked, it was very hit and miss, as it hadn’t been updated for a few years. I was glad of my Spanish, because I had to ask directions often between Granada and Mérida. It was pretty accurate once I joined the Via de la Plata. I think there is a newer version now – and as far as I know, it is the only English language guide.
The web is an astounding resource, and these days there are literally hundreds of sites, bulletin boards and discussion groups about the camino. If you want to dream in advance, simply Googling “camino” will help you find the sites or blogs that resonate.
If you speak some Spanish, the equivalent of the CSJ site is probably Mundicamino and I heartily recommend it, as it has amazing detail about every pueblo and waystop. It’s worth a look even if your Spanish is very basic, because the layout is so clear.
The other site I particularly enjoyed was a camino planner that lets you get an idea of timing your walk – for the roads from Seville, Roncesvalles and Le-Puy-en-Velay. When I was prepping for the Francés it was helpful to give me an idea of how many days I’d need. And it is fun. That said, the road kept reminding me that plans were futile, and to submit to its will.
…grilled camino veterans…
I guess that’s what you are doing by reading this! Nothing beats chatting to someone first-hand, and if you live in Melbourne, feel free to check the EVENTS AND MEDIA pages in case I’m going to be doing a talk near you. I’m always happy to natter afterwards. There are camino organisations in most states, and they have regular meet-ups, where much of the information will be more recent than mine.
All that said, I would just keep reminding you that it’s YOUR camino, and in my opinion there’s no right or wrong way to do it if you are going with an open heart and respect for fellow pilgrims – and as you will know from the book, even that can fail you when the camino tests you! There is a lot to be said for the path of the fool with open eyes and ears, but the road will have its way.
…downloaded Spanish podcasts…
I studied French and Italian from school age, so when I was preparing for the Francés I decided to take a few basic Spanish lessons – only a term, as I couldn’t afford more than that. They were wonderfully useful, and if you have either of the other Romance languages, you will find many similarities. Mind you, the differences and peculiarities are intriguing enough to make you want to learn more! I also downloaded many free podcasts from the web, and when I was walking, walking, walking my training paths, I loved to listen to them. I’m sure you could get by on that road without a word of Spanish, but if you can learn some, please do. It will enrich your experience ten-fold – and again, it’s fun!
For the Mozárabe, I’d definitely recommend a good grounding in some Spanish basics. It is now over two years since I walked it, and I’m sure that there may be more facilities, but it’s still unlikely you’ll encounter a lot of English speakers between Granada and Mérida, at least. I gather there are still not many walkers along that road, so you can’t rely on other pilgrims.
…replaced my heavy boots with lightweight Merrells…
That’s them in the photo up the top of the page – their work done. They were such stars.
I’d always hiked in much heavier, all-leather boots in Australia, and had never done more than one or two hundred kilometres in a week. The camino roads and distances demanded something lighter, and for me, more breathable. Some people walk in heavy boots, some in runners, some even walk in sandles and Tevas. I considered myself lucky to find the Sirens, as they performed magnificently on both roads. I didn’t blister and I was happy to get cold or wet feet occasionally rather than have them become swollen and overheated.
Again, a disclaimer: boots are highly personal. No feet are the same, and you must devote time and energy to getting the right boots. Don’t buy the first pair that feels good. Test them when your feet are hot, with different socks and at varying times of the day. Do make sure there is enough ankle support for you when you are carrying an extra 8 to 12 kilos on your back.
The other indispensables, for me, were my walking poles. As you will know from the book, they became an extension of my body, and I can’t imagine making the trip without them. They offer stability and support, as well as letting you test terrain. They’re also washing lines, shoulder-stretchers and coat-hangers. I’d never used them before the camino, and now I can’t countenance hiking – or distance walking – without them. And they are not necessarily expensive. Mine were about $20 each from Ray’s Outdoors.
…and sourced a smaller backpack…
SO personal. Like the boots. Try many. Test and re-test. Load weights into them. Stand and move in a pack for at least fifteen minutes before you begin to form an opinion. Go back several times. The fact that I am completely obsessed by the Aarn does not mean it will work for you, but it is super-light and fits my body like a glove, and they are two vital considerations.
It was great to have a pack that didn’t need extra rain coverage. The Aarn has an interior sack that is waterproof, so when it rains, you have only to make sure there is nothing problematic in the outer pockets. No flapping or billowing is a fine thing in blustery conditions.
There it is. A pilgrim’s whole world, on a sunny walking afternoon in autumn in the Bierzo.
And no, I don’t use a camel back. I carry bottles. That one was a beauty – hard clear plastic, so I could see how much was left. I’m a guzzler, so visual monitoring of my water allowance is important. And you probably don’t need to have a vase on your pack, but it made me happy!
…I rehearsed saying por favor and buenos días as I hiked favourite sections of Victoria’s Great Dividing Trail…
I guess the most common question I’m asked is how much walking I did before I set out. Again, this is personal. I walk every day in my normal life, for at least an hour, and regularly walk 25 to 35 kilometres on one or both days of a weekend, so I knew that distance and stamina were not issues. I did need to walk with the pack to learn how my body adjusted to carrying it for hours on end, and how best to pack it. My advice is to do as much as you possibly can in the lead-up to the walk, but not to panic if you haven’t achieved your goals in that area. Life takes over. The main thing is not to go at the camino as though it is a competition. It will teach you what is best for you, and the main advice I can give, based on my own painful experience (!) is to listen to your body, to slow down when it tells you to, and to stop if need be.
Also, remember that you are the expert on your body. I had knee problems on the Francés for the first and only time in my life. I exacerbated them by not stopping or slowing down until I was literally brought to my knees in Burgos, but I also made a critical error before I left. I was told by a man in a hiking store that I should have insoles, and so I bought a pair. I have never used an insole in my life, yet I listened. When I returned and went to my osteopath to check why this had occurred, he was aghast at me putting an insole into my boot, because my feet fall evenly and I have no need of them!
That said, I think they served, finally, to slow me right down, and that was a good thing. But it was painful, and I should have listened to my own history and body, instead of giving over to a well-meaning expert.
Which is what I would implore you to do with all of this well-meaning advice. Take what sounds right. Discard what is not you. Walk like a snail. Listen to your feet. And stay open to the road.
I’m not going to list the contents of my pack, as this post is already getting too long, but remember there’s a packlist chapter in the back of the book.
Do remember that you absolutely don’t need to buy the most expensive things on the market.
I’m always on a tight budget, and there’s no room for glamour or vanity on camino anyway. There are shops along all the roads, so you can buy almost anything you’ve forgotten or might suddenly need.
The only times I didn’t skimp on price, or on legwork, were when I was sourcing boots and pack, and luckily my feet liked reasonably priced boots!
If you have other questions, feel free to leave them here, or on the Facebook page where I’ve been posting snippets and photos of camino news. Also, if someone has better information than mine about any of this, do leave your thoughts for others. I’m happy for this post to stay up a while so that discussion can be facilitated.
As always, thanks for visiting, reading and contributing. I hope that your road is headed somewhere fulfilling, and I wish you my favourite wish, over and over…
Buen camino, peregrinos, amigos, compañeros.
On Sunday 14th October, Melbourne’s Sunday Age and Sydney’s Sun-Herald will publish an article of mine in their Sunday-Life magazine. I hope you enjoy it.
On Monday 15th October, if you are in Melbourne, Channel 31 are screening a show called Behind the Words at 7.30pm, and I recorded an excited chat for it around the time of the book’s release.
I’m holding a copy of the reprint of Sinning Across Spain. I may be a long way from having a publishing phenomenon on my hands, but I feel such gratitude that the book has found people who have enjoyed it and told others about it and given it to friends. It’s such a wonder to me that it has made its way into the world – and that now, with this reprint, it can continue to do that. Thank you with all my heart for support and encouragement.
It seems a long time ago that I set off to walk the Camino Mozarabe. There are moments now when I think I am another person. But then I open my mouth to speak about it, and I am back there again, walking the dusty white trails lined with poppies, smelling the neroli in Córdoba or tasting the heat of a sip of sol y sombra at day’s end.
Recently, I found this piece of Rilke.
I know. I always seem to be finding Rilke.
But I wanted to pass it on, because it is such a spur. It reminds us to trust that it’s only by living, sucking up every bit of the juice of life, the sweet and the sour, and then letting it distill and transform, and waiting, waiting, waiting…that writing will come.
That all good will come.
And so I’m trying to heed Mr Rilke. Living, tasting, waiting. Being patient and grateful.
And offering this up to you. I hope it fills you as it does me.
“For the sake of a few lines one must see many cities, men and things. One must know the animals, one must feel how the birds fly and know the gesture with which the small flowers open in the morning. One must be able to think back to roads in unknown regions, to unexpected meetings and to partings which one had long seen coming; to days of childhood that are still unexplained, to parents that one had to hurt when they brought one some joy and one did not grasp it (it was joy for someone else); to childhood illness that so strangely began with a number of profound and grave transformations, to days in rooms withdrawn and quiet and to mornings by the sea, to the sea itself, to seas, to nights of travel that rushed along on high and flew with all the stars-and it is not enough if one may think all of this. One must have memories of many nights of love, none of which was like the others, of the screams of women in labor, and of light, white, sleeping women in childbed, closing again. But one must also have been beside the dying, one must have sat beside the dead in the room with the open window and the fitful noises. And still it is not enough to have memories. One must be able to forget them when they are many, and one must have the great patience to wait until they come again. For it is not yet the memories themselves. Not until they have turned to blood within us, to glance, to gesture, nameless and no longer to be distinguished from ourselves-not until then can it happen that in a most rare hour the first word of a verse arises in their midst and goes forth from them.”
And in my memories, in my blood, in newfound gestures and glances, are pieces of every person who has helped or listened or written to me, or offered advice or consolation or encouragement. We are still making a road together. You are making the road for me.
I arrived at Finisterre after 1300 kilometres of marvels and mud!
The name has taken on mystical significance for me.
The place of arrival.
Of course there is really no arrival, there is only the ongoing journey – the next road that opens. But sometimes it’s good to honour a milestone, and so today, that is what I’m doing.
After the usual washing of clothes and body, massaging of legs and feet, carb-loading and journalling, I walked uphill out of the port to the lighthouse, passing this pilgrim monument on the way.
It was about 9pm.
Bright, clear and warm.
The sea and sky – the world! – seemed to stretch to forever. A trickle of other pilgrims splayed out along the road in front and behind me, but all of us walked in our own silences, suspended between ending and beginning.
We sat and watched a hot red sun turn to orange then pink, as the sea turned from deep blue to mauve below it.
I burned the list of sins, honouring the tradition of release at journey’s end, and honouring those whose courage had kept me walking.
It felt just right.
Then, as the whole world turned pastel, I walked downhill, stopping to ask a fellow pilgrim to photograph me at this distance marker.
It reads “0.00 km”.
Nowhere else to go.
Nowhere to be.
Just here and now.
I can’t remember any place ever feeling so full, or so empty. Perfect.
The world is rather a whirl just now, as I ready myself to offer up a monologue about the work, this Wednesday night in Melbourne. I’m doing things I’ve not done in years – learned lines, pondered how to project my voice, considered my own body in space.
The road will always surprise us!
But in the midst of the fear around failure that accompanies any task I care about deeply, I took myself out onto the road yesterday and walked along the Great Dividing Trail. After about two hours, I looked up at the wide turquoise sky and began to sob with happiness – that strange, inexplicable thing that can happen sometimes when I know I am in my skin and where I am meant to be, and grateful. So very grateful.
Our neighbourhood is being photographed as a record of the 2012 residents, and as part of it we had to fill out a questionnaire. One query was what we hoped to be doing in ten years time. My answer was – still feeling thankful for a body that is strong enough to carry me along a road.
May you remember to honour your milestones.
May you feel the pleasure of here and now at 0.00kms.
May you be overwhelmed by gratitude when you least expect it.
A couple of reminders!
If you have not listened to my Poetica programme, please remember you can download it:
And don’t forget to read the comments – I love the one from the man in Santiago! Feel free to leave one if you enjoy it – the producer, Anne McInerney, did a glorious job, and is leaving the ABC. She deserves all praise.
And of course, if you would like to be kept updated with posts like this, and the guest posts like Tony’s, please enter your email and hit the subscribe button on the top right.
I hope there will be more, but for now, I’m honoured to offer you this moving and provocative reflection on the book. I am particularly grateful to Tony Doherty for facing head-on the horrors of sexual abuse, and how that plays out for him as a pastor in the Catholic church.
When I was walking, I often passed shepherds with their flocks.
Hola Senor Pastor, I would call. Hello Mister Shepherd.
I think Tony’s “flock” are fortunate to have someone so prepared to wrestle with the realities of trying to live with honesty and compassion – and disgrace – inside the structure of the Church. I feel very lucky to have received his words in response to the book.
To what extent are we willing to carry the pain of others? In a Church which claims to be a supporting community of believers, how do we give hope, in some genuine fashion, to someone whose life is fast unravelling, asks Tony Doherty*
At first blush, the concept seemed frankly medieval. An idea left behind centuries ago. Not just pre-Vatican II but pre-Lutheran. Quaint theology but tinged with medieval superstition, with more than a whiff of magic and money.
The idea – a pilgrim setting out to walk the famous Camino de Santiago carrying on her back an unusual cargo – a load of other people’s sins (for a small monetary consideration). This followed the best traditions of medieval believers who paid others to carry their sins to such sacred sites as Santiago, and so buy forgiveness. Not surrogate parenting, but surrogate reconciliation.
An Australian writer, director and actor, Ailsa Piper took on a 1,300 kilometre pilgrimage walking continually for about 45 days through storms and cold, across the rough and the smooth (this woman is no slouch) to the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostella.
Before leaving home, Ailsa published the quirky invitation: “I will walk off your sins. Pilgrim seeks sinners for mutually beneficial arrangement. Proven track record. Tireless. Reliable. Seven deadlies a speciality”.
In our so cool and sophisticated, post-modern culture could such an arcane invitation work? “…yes, people gave me their sins. From the first day, there were confessions, even some from strangers who’d heard of the quest.”
Hang about! Confession of ‘sin’ has been replaced has it not by more contemporary and non-judgemental counselling procedures – or have I been out having lunch somewhere?
But confessions they were – genuine admissions of sin from half-believers, once-upon-a-time believers, even acknowledged atheists. Always heartfelt, often unnervingly disclosive. “I have slept with my best friend’s husband. Not once but four times.” The ‘penitents’ left the impression they were just aching to deal with previously undealt with material.
Taking the project quite seriously, the writer-pilgrim would read the load of sins she was carrying religiously each morning, like some monastic chapter of faults. Her own struggles and sins became part of the daily examination. The honesty and integrity of the author’s description of this process is expressed with uncommon sensitivity and indeed sacredness. At some quite deep level it made totally good sense.
The book, Sinning Across Spain (Victory Books, Melbourne, 2012), tells the story in graceful and stylish voice which at times becomes quite lyrical.
The ‘Camino’ is in the news these days, thanks to Emilio Estevez’s splendid film The Way, the story of a father who, faced with the death of his son killed while attempting the pilgrimage, decides to do the walk carrying his box of ashes to Santiago and eventually the sea. The Piper story and the Estevez film contain a fascinating common thread – carrying a heavy load on the journey: the ashes of a son’s life and the wounds of other people’s lives.
Unburdening oneself of some personal load is an ancient practice on the Camino. At the highest point of the path to Santiago, on top of one of the most challenging hills, there stands a large iron cross. For centuries pilgrims have carried stones, more frequently not much more than we would call ‘gibbers’, often wrapped in paper on which is written a prayer or perhaps a promise. The stones would represent some guilty memory, some emotional wound, perhaps unhealed grief. It might represent a relationship sorely in need of repair or a renewed commitment to the future.
More enthusiastic pilgrims will bring several stones representing the struggles of those left behind at home. Some might choose instead of a stone a symbolic item which better represents what they want to leave behind. The genesis of the Piper invitation, to carry somebody else’s load of sin, probably finds its inspiration in this ancient practice.
Does it make sense? You’d better ask a weary pilgrim struggling up the hill with their heavy swag.
If I may intrude a personal story. Several years ago while walking the Camino I was at the ‘iron cross’ and there on top of the centuries-high pile of stones were two pink baby’s shoes tied together by their laces. I couldn’t get them out of my mind. What did their presence mean? No explanatory note. A pile of symbolic items as untidy as a garage sale. Left there undoubtedly as silent witness of some family tragedy. Hemingway was once famously challenged to write a short story in six words. His story: “For Sale. Baby shoes. Never used.”
So here’s the twist. To what extent are we willing to carry the pain of others? In a Church which claims to be a supporting community of believers, how do we give hope, in some genuine fashion, to someone whose life is fast unravelling?
For Catholics, facing with horror the shocking events of child abuse and sexual manipulation, how do we stop from drowning ourselves? One familiar response is denial. “It can’t be happening.” “Just a few rotten apples.” Another response is angrily scapegoating whatever easy target comes to mind, or the rather shamefully pulling the blankets over our heads and pretending it will go away.
Ailsa Piper’s strategy might hold a valuable clue. Are we strong enough to carry the pain of others – say, the victims of this terrible abuse? Or an even more unspeakable possibility – to carry a little of the disgrace of those seen as responsible.
Sinning across Spain asks the question: how really connected are we? It is a powerful and tantalising question.
* Monsignor Tony Doherty, a priest of the Sydney Archdiocese, is pastor of two Sydney parishes, Dover Heights and Rose Bay. His lifetime search is to find an appropriate language of faith for contemporary adults. He also admits to being a little addicted to walking pilgrimages.
If you would like to see the article in the context for which Tony wrote it, you can go to this link, which is on the website of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan.