With some fear, and not a little trepidation, I’m getting back on the road.
This weekend, I will be back in Aireys Inlet for the Melbourne Writers Festival. The session is titled Journeys of Self Discovery.
Of course, that relates to Sinning Across Spain, and the camino. But when I was booked for the talk, months and months back, I don’t think I could have guessed that I’d be on a longer, tougher and more demanding journey now. This camino of grief tests my mettle every day. Every breath.
What keeps me upright is the monumental outpouring of support from those I love, and from people who don’t even know me but have read the book. That is a strong hand resting along my spine. It is strength and tenderness together.
I’m so grateful.
I was last at Aireys for the Lighthouse Festival. Peter was with me, and he was one of the readers for the weekend. We had such fun. I will walk the beach for him. Aireys is a place he loved from childhood…
And I will remember every person who has helped me walk this road so far. Thank you. I will try not to let you down.
Amanda Smith, producer of The Body Sphere on Radio National, has made a wonderful programme about walking. You will LOVE baby’s first steps! And you might recognise the pilgrim voice at the beginning and end of the show…
It surfaces in myriad ways. One is that I’ve always prided myself on not looking over my shoulder. I live in the present, I tell myself and others. I move forward, I say, I move on.
Well, today, I have a confession. I’m looking back.
Unfortunately, not entirely without pride!
I’ve been trying to imagine how to honour this amazing year, and those who have travelled it with me – for a day, a week, a conversation, a glimpse, or for the time it takes to read a book. Images swirled: my friends holding up copies of the book; faces shining at beachside festivals; blinking into stage lights at the end of the Sinning monologue; the profile of a hero-writer in conversation beside me; singing Gracias a la Vida when I didn’t know I dared sing; holding hands as a confession was made; laughing as a secret was told; crying as pain was shared; asking other writers to sign their books for me; thrilling at coincidences and serendipity…
It was a glorious mental collage, but I thought I’d best be methodical, so I came here to the blog and made a pilgrimage through the posts to my first entry, written with trepidation, about entering the cyber-world. I was a Luddite and afraid. I don’t know why exactly, but I felt I would be exposed in some uncomfortable way.
Stepping forward through the posts, I marvelled at things forgotten in the melee of the months, and I began to see with clarity how very much the sin-walk has given me, and continues to give. That first inexplicable impulse to carry for others still takes me into wild places, and still introduces me to members of my village – a village that has grown and grown, and asked me to expand with it. “Get bigger,” the book has kept shouting to me as it has pulled me after it down new roads and by-ways.
This blog, begun in doubt and nervousness, is now a village all its own. Its history is right here, in the posts, but even more so in the comments, which I think of as the village square where we meet at day’s end to sniff the breeze and check in on each other. No relationship is one-way. They all require exchange of one sort or another, and it is the richness of that exchange that I see when I look at the comments. Such wealth. Such generosity. Such humour. Such tenderness.
I thought I would compile a list of thanks, but it would go for days. I’ve shared stories in Aireys Inlet and Carlton, the Wheeler Centre and the Grumpy Swimmer, Byron Bay and Eltham, Strath Creek and Hampton, Thornbury and Leichhardt, Paddington and under the spire of the Melbourne Arts Centre. I’ve sung the praise of Spain at the Cervantes Institute and with the Spanish Consulate. I’ve been welcomed and championed and – most amazing of all – given away as a gift. I have been applauded and belittled – and learned that neither matter as much as the moments when someone tells me the book has helped, offered an insight, or illuminated a moment. Nothing thrills me more than that the book has given pleasure to some and been useful to others. It has even been re-read. Imagine!
Every day of this miraculous almost-nine-months, I’ve had cause to consider the road, the sins, and the sin-donors. Every day I’ve been grateful. It seems more incredible to me now, after the book has its own life, that people trusted me with their intimacies back in the beginning when it seemed like lunacy. When people tell me secrets now, they know that I can be a vault. It doesn’t make it any less of a privilege for me, but I’m aware that my first sinners took a leap, and I salute them again for their bravery and trust. The book could not have been a book without them.
To share one’s self to that degree is rare. They didn’t give me their air-brushed, curriculum-vitaed, rubber-stamped glossy selves. They gave me their scuffed, tarnished, worn and wept-over bits. Those stories are the most precious cargo I will ever carry. They taught me so much.
I’ve been asked often whether the road changed me. I think it’s an impossible question to answer, really. I hope it did. It certainly asked me to expand, every single day. It still does. And I hope I’ve been able to meet its requests when they have come to me. I try. I try really hard.
And I fail.
I fall too, as witnessed by a post on this blog!
But I like to think that the sinners, my road companions, my angels from Barcelona, the readers of the book, and my subscribers here, are behind me, propelling me up the hills when they’re steep and watching I don’t fall on the shale of the slippery downhills. When I remember all of them, I know there’s no failure, only expansion. Only growth.
So at this curious time of endings and beginnings, reflection and revelry, I come with no pride at all, only humility and wonder, to offer thanks. Gratitude. Which has the same beginnings as gracias and grazie. And grace. I have known such grace on this journey.
I trust that it will continue next year, when I will be sinning across Sydney, Perth, Albany and Brisbane at festivals and events. I know it will continue to take me in, deeper and deeper, and out, further and further, to my limits. And that is good. I am still a pilgrim.
Grazie. Gracias. Merci.
That is Bahasa for “thank you”. It translates as “receive love.”
So here is the last poem for 2012. It’s an original this time.
My body crashed against concrete, and all my weight came down on my right hip and shoulder, while skin was dragged from my elbow and hand. The action of falling seemed to go on forever. I witnessed the ground rising up to meet me, taking an eternity before it smashed against my bones. I angled my body to the right as it moved through the air, trying to protect my phone in my left pocket. I entertained a parade of thoughts in the second or two before the ground whacked into me: You idiot. You should have been looking down. Put your right arm out to break the fall. This is pride because you were feeling so bloody clever at having finished your tax. Hold your head away so you don’t smash your teeth. How can the great walker fall? You haven’t fallen since Finisterre. Not concrete. Not asphalt. No. No. You were going too fast. You brought this on yourself. You are an idiot.
And then the tears.
A little boy approached on his bike. He slowed to look at this unexpected sight – a lady face down on the pavement, crying.
“Are you ok?” he said.
“Yes,” I sniffed.
He nodded. “Be careful,” he said, then pedalled away at speed.
I don’t want to be careful. I don’t want to watch my back and check the path for cracks. I don’t want to pack seconds of everything “just in case”. I don’t want to think of rainy days. I don’t want to walk in a world where every pace is monitored.
But I also don’t want to fall. It’s scary. Something happens when we fall. Something decidedly outside of our normal, constructed, adult world.
There I lay on the ground by the Elwood canal, sobbing into the dirt. I couldn’t stop. I was like a child, choking on sobs as the adult part of me looked around to make sure no-one could see. I knew this was shameful somehow, but couldn’t stop it. Yes, there was pain. Skin had ripped and bones were assuredly bruised. But that didn’t account for the wracking, choking sounds and the tears that would not stop coursing down my face. I tried to stand and could barely drag myself to a sitting position. When eventually I began to move, it was in the gait of an ancient, feet not trusting the earth to hold me upright.
I was old. I was a child. I was ashamed. I was afraid.
What is it about falling that shook me so? A dent to the ego? The realisation that I’m getting old? Children fall and pick themselves up in an instant, but old people’s lives can be cut short by a fall. Some never recover from the earth rushing toward them in that telescopic fracturing of all that is normal.
Yesterday I fell from a kind of gracelessness – a lack of gratitude. I take for granted that I can stand. That I can walk. That I am strong. I also take for granted that the earth doesn’t betray me, and maybe that is arrogant. Maybe I need to pay more attention. To take for granted is not to love. Maybe I was so caught in my own petty triumph over paperwork that I had forgotten to pay attention to the earth.
Today, everything hurts. Hips, shoulder, elbow, skin, ego – they are all shouting. But when next I walk, I will remember to check the earth as well as the sky. The cracks in the pavement have their own story to tell.
While we are talking about falling, I have been prompted once again to consider modern sins. Caroline Baum asked some pertinent questions about contemporary misdemeanours, and the authors we look to for moral guidance, over at the Booktopia site. Have a look.
She set me to thinking.
Is it a “sin” not to tick the carbon offset box when I book an airline ticket, if I believe in action to arrest climate change? Is it a lie to say that I don’t believe that the airline will do something honourable with that money? Is it selfishness?
And coming through customs, is it honesty that sees me declaring every single thing in my luggage, or is it really just fear? No, there’s no righteousness to be had in that moment! Fear wins every time. I’d like to say I was taking the high road, but fear keeps me true. What does that say about the settings of my moral compass, I wonder?
Thanks Ms Baum for making me ponder again.
If you’d like to see a conversation about how tricky it is to be good, Big Ideas recorded a panel at the Byron Bay Writers Festival. It’s between me, Caroline, Hannie Rayson and Charlotte Wood, and the link for it is below in blue. They are deeply thoughtful women and I was fortunate to share a stage with them. I apologise in advance for my dodgy American accent!
It’s the little things that are hardest, isn’t it? The nuances? As Bertolt Brecht said…
The sharks I dodged
The tigers I slew
What ate me up
Was the bedbugs
May you keep escaping the bedbugs!
I’m planning on being back in form for a couple of bookish Melbourne events in the next week or so, and would love your company at them.
Next Wednesday 12th September, I’ll be at the Grumpy Swimmer Bookstore in Ormond Road Elwood from 7pm, where Clifford is hosting a night of story-telling on the theme of water. Ten people each speak for five minutes. $10 admission includes wine, or coffee, and all the stories. Come along and hear tales of waves and rivers and waterfalls and maybe tears. I promise I won’t repeat this one!
And on Sunday September 16th from 2.30pm, I will be at the Thornbury Theatre for Women of Letters from 2.30pm. Five of us – Sally Heath, Sarah Blasko, Helen Garner, Kate Mulvany and me – have been invited by Marieke Hardy and Michaela McGuire to deliver a Letter to our Unfinished Business. I’m still wrangling mine, but I have given up on writng to the Elwood pavement! The show is sold out, but Marieke says they may release balcony tickets and she will let me know if that happens, so let me know if you want to be advised – or check on Facebook.
I wonder what a Festival like Byron’s does to the collective consciousness.
We gathered for those three days – hundreds of us – bringing the best of ourselves to conversations, meetings and panels, down the road from the lighthouse at Australia’s eastern-most point. Another Finisterre – land’s end. Under open skies, our bodies unwinding in the warmth, we argued and posited and reflected. We listened to other ways of seeing and possible ways of being. We heard stories and songs. We looked at sculptures. We turned pages. We honoured the word.
And then we left. Many of us, anyway.
Where does all that go, that goodwill and possibility? I keep imagining the site, vibrating, highly charged, humming. I wonder, if I walked there now, would my feet feel the changes? Would I know that this was a place where people had tried to be at their best?
And back home, how are we changed? How do we bring that spirit of openness and curiosity into our everyday worlds?
I’ve struggled a bit.
Like this morning when someone sent me a link to a site because there was a complimentary review of my book. I scrolled down and of course I found another from someone who had hated it, who had not understood my intentions, who clearly loathed my writing.
And what do I recall now? The negative response, of course!
So all those voices of experience at Byron Bay, and all that generosity of spirit, didn’t prepare me for facing down my own ego and hubris, or my desire for the book to be liked. For me to be liked!
It’s possible that it is partly because the book is written in the dreaded “I” voice, so it does seem that someone liking or disliking the book is commenting on me, the person; but in truth, I think it is something else.
Post-Byron, after three days in a bubble of considered discussion and respectfully expressed differences of opinion, it has been a big transition back to the world of blunt opinions in which we mostly exist.
Watching Q and A on the ABC last night, I was struck by the polarising, shouted, argumentative discourse. No-one was heard and nothing of value was said. Reading the daily papers, it’s rare to find an article critiquing a situation where the writer has first endeavoured to see clearly the position of the person being rebutted.
I don’t know how commentators and public figures continue in this environment, but it must be bruising on some level. I was struck, at Byron, by how accessible and warm Bob Brown is. I was bowled over by the grace and generosity of Anna Rose. Both of them have suffered vicious personal attacks and received bags of hate-mail, yet both stay open and engaged; both step toward you with a smile and no caution. This seems to me a miracle, when their first response could be to withdraw and assume that the world is made up of people who will dismiss them or attack them on personal grounds.
Forgive me if I seem to be drawing a long bow. I’m not for a moment comparing one person’s response to a book to the tsunami of hate Brown has weathered, or the battering taken by the elegant Anna. What I’m trying to do is to extend myself out from a personal response to something larger – something bigger than ego and pinpricks of pain. Because that is what Byron asked of all of us. That is what any gathering asks, when the parameters are respect, attention and dignity.
We were invited to be the biggest versions of ourselves that we could be. From what I saw, that meant that all opinions, whether in rabid agreement or disagreement, were then able to be heard. Perhaps readers are more able to do that, but I don’t think so. We are all capable of it, all the time. And it doesn’t have to look like political correctness, or shutting down of discourse. It might just look like respect.
So today I’m going to channel my Byron self, and try to listen harder, to take a breath before responding, and to let some things slide away if they are simply not helpful or comprehensible to me in the limitations of my mind.
Luckily, there’s sunshine outside to remind me of Byron and its warmth.
The sky is helping.
And there are the days to come. Hopefully.
Because that is the other reminder that lodged firmly at Byron – the preciousness of these days, and how we can’t take a breath for granted. Gore Vidal died as I was travelling up there. Today I heard of the passing of Robert Hughes. Funeral parlours and crematoriums are always busy. Flesh dissolves into the earth or is burned to dust. Each breath I take is a victory and should be celebrated. I knew that when I saw a distant spume blurt from the ocean last Friday, just after hearing that a whale had died in Sydney Harbour. I think about that burst of water and air on the horizon now, and try to remind myself that each time I exhale, that is what I’m doing – pushing a celebratory plume into the air.
And speaking of celebrating. Thank you to Jonathon Parsons for the festival and for programming us all so thoughtfully; to those with whom I was lucky to share panels – Jill Eddington, Anna Rose, Jessica Watson, John Bailey, Mike Ladd, Tony Taylor, Caroline Baum, Hannie Rayson and Charlotte Wood; to those who came to the workshop I taught; to those who spoke on the panels I watched (many of them my heroes), and to all of us who listened. Here’s to all of us, readers on the grass.
Gratitude too, to the Duchess of Malfi company, whose run in Sydney ended on Sunday.
And to you for reading and subscribing here, beyond Byron.
Thank you. Gracias.
And looking ahead…
Please check the EVENTS AND MEDIA tab up above, or visit my Facebook page if you are inclined. This Thursday I will be in the centre of Melbourne at a wonderful event where seven writers reflect on their love affair with writing. On Saturday I will be performing a sin/poetry/walking monologue in Daylesford, and on Sunday I’ll be sharing a Spanish celebratory lunch and stories at the mighty Pavilion Cafe in the Valley of A Thousand Hills. Maybe come out and join us for some paella, some hills and some air.
Only a week ago, I woke up to this view. Sparkling blue and a lighthouse.
I was at Aireys Inlet for the Lighthouse Literary Festival, a stupendous weekend of illumination, within and without. I taught a workshop, directed actors, curated a session and spoke about SINNING ACROSS SPAIN. Mostly though, I listened – to activists, to brilliant fiction writers, to poets and to an audience lit up by possibilities. We were all imagining together, dreaming a future.
Two years ago I was approaching Finisterre – land’s end – where there is also a lighthouse, beaming out into the darkness of a wild and roaring sea. Then I was empty of all thought, save for gratitude.
I had made it.
Last weekend I walked the beach at Aireys with no pack, in company with two of my nearest and dearest. We laughed, we talked, we drifted into separate silences. I threw myself into the ocean and wallowed in the luxury of being kept afloat, and the sharp sting of salt on skin and tongue, in eyes and mouth.
I was present. Resoundingly present in a privileged, gifted life of free expression and unspoiled nature. And friends…
Two years ago, I walked toward Cape Finisterre with my pack, knowing that the journey I had undertaken was almost done. I look back at myself now, and I feel such affection for that demented blonde. She too was deeply present, without thought of anything other than the steps required to get to home.
Last weekend, as evening fell, I walked the beach at Aireys again, unable to resist the purity of its stretch of white sand, and the ceaseless crash of those ribbons of waves. The sunset could have been crafted by a lighting designer, and the soundscape was better than Beethoven. Ahhhh. It was good!
Two years ago, at Finisterre – land’s end – I sat under the lighthouse and watched the sun disappear into the ocean, dropping off the planet into oblivion. There were only gull cries and silence then. And the crackling of a small fire as it burned the list of sins. It was good.
Well, it is mighty good.
People ask me what is next. The future?
I have no idea. I’m not sure I want to know. I am here, on the “other side of the world” as they say in Spain. The sun is shining today and the sky is bright blue. Australian blue. It’s particular. And I am going to walk a bit, and write a bit, and stay in the day.
I like the “not knowing.” I always have.
The future will take me by surprise in its own good time. For now, I am grateful to Hannie and Nic for inviting me to Aireys, and to Rachel and Peter and Lou for saying yes when I asked them to jump in and risk, and to everyone who inspired me last weekend. Just as I remain grateful to all those who walked the road to Finisterre. To the lighthouse, as a greater mind once wrote.
May your day be peaceful, and may you find time…
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It’s a song, a memory, a gift from a beloved friend, and a feeling – the feeling I experience most frequently when I walk, and the feeling that overwhelms me in waves just now.
That is the beach at Aireys Inlet. That’s where I’m going.
I’m packing my bag for the Lighthouse Literary Festival, curated by Hannie Rayson and produced by Nicole Maher at Great Escape Books, two women of extreme dynamism and heart. They have brought together a group of writers and thinkers of eloquence and wisdom, and to top it off, Paul Grabowsky will come and play a baby grand on Saturday evening. Unfortunately, the weekend is sold out, but if you want to peek at the line-up, have a look here:
My book has been talked about, read from, conversed with, written of, and finally…set free. It is out there in the wide world, making its way. I am learning to let it go, to wave it goodbye for this next stage, and to trust that it is stronger than me and knows the way.
On Monday just gone, I read aloud from it for the first time in public. Thankfully a few of the actor muscles still work, because I could not have anticipated the fear about standing up and putting my words into the air.
I also could not have anticipated the pleasure! Or the gratitude I felt to the those who came in support of me. Looking out into the book-lined walls of the Moat Cafe at the Wheeler Centre and seeing loved faces nodding and smiling encouragement – that will get you over any broken bridge. Gracias gracias.
On Tuesday night, the incandescent Hannie Rayson and I were In Conversation at Readings Bookstore in Carlton. I had no idea what that might mean, even though Hannie had prepped me about timings and topics, and insisted that when she asked me to read, I must select a passage that spoke about some of the hardships of the journey, because of my tendency to be a Pollyanna! I didn’t know that an In Conversation could surprise me with joy, or that it could wake me to wonder…or move me to song!
I know. The unthinkable. The mountain I thought I would never ever have the courage to climb.
I sang in public.
Only a few lines. But I did it.
Hannie asked me to speak a little Spanish so people could hear that language I so love. I thought I’d explain something of my road anthem, Gracias A La Vida, a song given to me on the Camino Frances by my compañero. A song that now lives in my cells, and marks my steps. Instead, I felt so overwhelmed by gratitude for the people who had come to wave the book into the world, that I decided to offer them something truly brave – an attempt at words with the tune!
I got through a few lines before crumpling, but I think it’s safe to say my cabaret career won’t be kicking in any time soon! That said, I climbed over the top of my personal Everest and have lived to tell the tale. Gracias a la Vida, and gracias to Hannie, to all who came along in support, and to that song of songs…
If you want to hear it at its best, look at this link. The late (great is too small a word and too sad to contemplate) Mercedes Sosa sings it. Take a few minutes to listen. Maybe google the lyric in English so you know what you are hearing. It will own you forever once you hear it.
Then on Wednesday, my day began with celebratory words in The Age newspaper. Suzanne Carbone outed a few sinners and then went on to sing the praises of the book. It has made a new friend, and once again, I give gracias. Her words are here:
And now I have a bag to pack. I will be in company with heroes and compañeros, friends and strangers, books and readers, writers and actors and a maestro. I will be in salt air and on hilltop paths. I will inhale and I will sing my solitary thanks to the salt-heavy air and the high high sky…el alto cielo.
Gracias, Mercedes. Gracias, mi compañero. Gracias, my true north. Gracias my friends, for being with me on the journey. Here, there and beyond.