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!

A Tale of Three Cities…

IMG_2560Hola amigos!

IMG_2562I’m back in Melbourne for a fleeting visit, just long enough to plant my feet in the familiar sand of Port Phillip Bay, and dunk myself in waters bordered by bathing boxes.

It has been hot. Egg-baking-on-pavement hot.

But today there is an Irish mist, the temperature has dropped, and I’m donning scarves and warming my hands on my teacup.

That’s my Melbourne.

Never assume you know her. Never get complacent!

IMG_2514My Sydney stay came to a poetic end. To say gracias to those who made my work there possible, I lead a poetry walk along the Rose Bay foreshore. Paperbarks, sandstone and the harbour’s depths inspired me to reinvent the protagonist of my next book, so I dreamed an hour of rhythm and rhyme, and offered it to the beaches and sky in gratitude.

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We were pilgrims walking a camino – joining for a verse and separating to play I Spy, alone to make a wish and united to strew the water with flowers. We made our own bay of roses!

It was a camino of gratitude, and a chance to salute a remarkable piece of land, with its history of plenty and pain, beauty and loss. Rather like all camino roads…

Pentimento, again.

And this poem, this beloved poem, was at the Rose Bay camino’s heart.

Just as it stays at my heart. Every day.

GRATEFULNESS

by Rainer Maria Rilke

If the angel

deigns to come

it will be because

you have convinced

her not by tears

but by your humble

resolve to be always

beginning: to be a

beginner.

And now, in this brief Melbourne hiatus, I’m prepping for Perth, Albany and Denmark, and their festivals. I’m going back for a celebration of words, writers and the wild west.

IMG_5203Perth was where it began for me.

I was born there, on the edge of the Indian Ocean, where the sun waves a final salute before it drops off the edge of the world. Wherever I walk, if I see a body of water, I expect the sun to dive into it at day’s end, leaving a trail of fire glistening on waves.

Sunrises over water still seem strange to me, as though the world has upended itself. Sunsets without oceans seem wasted – they can’t admire their reflected glory.

Considering that my early years were spent in the red desert of W.A.’s Gascoyne, it’s ironic that water has come to be so significant to me. Like this country I love, I am all duality and contradiction.

IMG_2570But aren’t we all, those of us who love this land with its wind-etched rocks, its salt-sculpted cliffs and its blasted desert centre? We live on the edges and dream of the heart. We cling to the wet and sing of the dry. We are flood and fire, drought and drowning.

And we are home, even if we don’t understand its ways. We come home over and over, for it’s in the not-understanding that we live fully. For me, anyway. That’s where mystery lies, and mystery is full of possibility.

Mystery is for beginners. For fools and children. Mystery is humility and softness.

Certainty is hard and unforgiving. Perilous.

Give me the mysteries of this ancient island, with its wide skies that send messages of love in all languages – if we just remember to look for them.

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If you are able to come along to any of my sessions at the WA Festivals, please stay and say hello afterwards. They are all listed on the EVENTS AND MEDIA page, up there on the top of the blog. In particular, my monologue performance on Friday morning means a great deal – I last performed at the Dolphin Theatre when I was a Uni student, back in…well…another lifetime!

May your days be spent under a loving sky…

Commonplace miracles…

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I’m still here in Sydney, and it keeps on delivering miracles. They don’t seem at all commonplace to this pilgrim, though. The way the light hits that water. The way frangipanis scent my inhalations, the way blues shimmer and slither, the way the harbour has snuck into my veins as I slide into it in the mornings. The way people have snuck into my heart…

It has been a busy week. Two writing workshops where people were lions of courage, to coin Mary Oliver’s phrase. They wrote and wrote, they skipped, they ached. Then a wide-ranging conversation with Tony Doherty at the church here in Rose Bay. Hard to read some passages from the book within those walls, but so good to step up to the task and to air painful stories. To let some light in and to release them, in the company of mindful seekers…

And now I’m plotting a poetry camino along my harbour walk for next week. I’m selecting poems and plotting walking treats. It will be an hour of celebration and gratitude to that sweep of salt I have come to know and love. It is beloved brine, and I want to honour it.

It has been an age since I put up a poem here – delinquent behaviour! And so I thought I’d share one of the possibilities for that walk with you. Hope you find miracles all around, wherever you are on your road.

Miracle Fair

by Wislawa Szymborska

Commonplace miracle: 
that so many commonplace miracles happen. 

An ordinary miracle: 
in the dead of night 
the barking of invisible dogs. 

One miracle out of many: 
a small, airy cloud 
yet it can block a large and heavy moon. 

Several miracles in one: 
an alder tree reflected in the water, 
and that it's backwards left to right 
and that it grows there, crown down 
and never reaches the bottom, 
even though the water is shallow. 

An everyday miracle: 
winds weak to moderate 
turning gusty in storms. 

First among equal miracles: 
cows are cows. 

Second to none: 
just this orchard 
from just that seed. 

A miracle without a cape and top hat: 
scattering white doves.

A miracle, for what else could you call it: 
today the sun rose at three-fourteen 
and will set at eight-o-one.

A miracle, less surprising than it should be: 
even though the hand has fewer than six fingers, 
it still has more than four. 

A miracle, just take a look around: 
the world is everywhere. 

An additional miracle, as everything is additional: 
the unthinkable 
is thinkable.

IMG_2414If you fancy some walking words, or some workshops or debates or quizzes or conversations or story-telling, or poems and more poems, please have a look over at the page marked EVENTS AND MEDIA in the tab up above. I’m busy in the coming weeks – in WA at writers festivals, and after that, back in Melbourne. The road keeps opening.

Thank you to all the people I met this week at the workshops and the talk. It is such a gift to be given time and talk, and to meet people who want to open things up with questions rather than close them down in certainty. I am profoundly grateful.

Gracias a la vida.

Every day.

Sydney dreaming…

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I wake, draw the curtains, and that is the view I see from my refugio window.

Really.

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.

Elemental.

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.

IMG_2307On 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.

IMG_2312Resist?

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!

IMG_2332Then 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.

Polarities.

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?

No.

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.

IMG_2325I 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.

These are days of wonder.

Sydney rock sculptures
Sydney rock sculpture

Looking back

Looking back to the meseta on the Camino Frances in 2009

Pride. My sin.

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.

I’ve tried!

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.

Terimah kasih.

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.

 

Terimah kasih. Terimah kasih.

Terimah kasih, terimah kasih, terimah kasih, terimah kasih.

Terimah kasih.

 

Terimah kasih. Terimah kasih. Terimah kasih.

Terimah kasih.

 

 

May your final days of 2012 be peace-filled and joy-full.

May 2013 bring you dazzling roads and shimmering horizons.

May you be loved.

Always and all ways.

Walking near Glenlyon in Central Victoria. Photo courtesy of beloved walker Carl NP.
Muchas gracias!

 

I will write again in about four weeks, and I hope that you will continue to walk with me into the brave new year ahead.

Gracias, amigos. Gracias.

Buen camino…

 

The gift of story

It’s a time of giving, that’s what we are told. Peace and goodwill.

It doesn’t always look like that! People are harried, brows are furrowed and parking spaces are fought over like miners’ rights.

So, in an attempt to simplify your life, and as a means of honouring some magnificent story-tellers, can I make an offering? Here’s a list of discovered – or rediscovered – books I’ve gobbled and loved recently. Give a book and you give a chunk of another person – usually their best bits. All of these are wonder-full “bits” of phenomenal story-teller citizens. Wander into your local independent bookseller (they are the keepers of the flame) and place your order. They will wrap the gifts while you browse for a story to cool your yule.

Helen Garner, Helen Garner 

I’ve been immersing myself in her words again, from her beginnings with Monkey Grip to her most recent book The Spare Room. It’s like taking a masterclass. Helen Garner has given us ourselves, over and over, in intimate, up-close-and-personal portraits that haunt, sustain and provoke. She has also given us places that become sacred sites. When I moved to Melbourne, the first thing I wanted to see was Monkey Grip‘s Aqua Profonda sign at the Fitzroy Pool. I was coming from Sydney, a city of shimmering surfaces, and moving south seemed like a pilgrimage to Helen and her deeper water.

I could go through every one of her books telling you the tattoos they’ve left on my reader’s skin. You could do the same, I know – because whatever Helen Garner writes, fiction or non-fiction, the heart of it will be true, no matter the cost to her. That’s why it is impossible to avert my eyes from a word she writes.

Small publishing houses

My book was published by Melbourne University Publishing under their Victory imprint. None of that means much to a reader, really, but I have learned, in my year as a novice in the world of books, that small, independent houses are vital to the ecology of our reading world, and that they are often the discoverers of new voices and brave stories. Currently I’m loving the clean prose and insider stories in MUP’s latest release Speechless – A Year In My Father’s Business by James Button. Highly recommended if you are curious about the machinations of contemporary Oz politics but have an aversion to the heat and partisanship of so much that is in the ether.

But lest you think I am just going to do a hard sell for my own publisher, please read on…

I’ve recently read several books from Scribe, another Melbourne marvel in the publishing world. Belatedly, I got to Tony Birch’s dark but hope-laden novel, Shadowboxing. Utterly beautiful.   The new collection of stories from genius Cate Kennedy is called Like A House on Fire. Difficult to imagine her topping her previous collection Dark Roots, but she has. And if you want a great poem or ten, Get a copy of The Taste of River Water. Her poems are distilled epics. Pilgrimage by Jacinta Halloran gave me a different kind of journey to my walk, but asked some similar questions about faith and belief. And love. She is a near-neighbour who also presented her book at the wonderful Grumpy Swimmer bookstore in Elwood. All the others in the image are beside my bed waiting. Hooray. Summer bodes well.

Just last week, Wakefield Press in Adelaide launched Mug Shots by Barry Oakley, esteemed playwright and scallywag. It’s a memoir with the same literary qualities as the cover shot – the raised eyebrow, the wry smile and the piercing gaze. I give thanks to a wise compañero for gifting it to me. There is immense pleasure to be had in reading a book simultaneously with those we love.

Meanwhile, I went to the very happy launch of a new book from Brolga Publishing in Melbourne. It has the seductive title Of Rivers, Baguettes And Billabongs, and is the work of a twinkly-eyed writer and winemaker called Reg Egan. He also happens to be the dad of one of my heroic sinners. Reg’s book is delectable, investigating whether it is possible to love two countries equally and to be loyal to both. You can imagine why I might enjoy it, but Reg sings his hymn to France. He makes me think I may yet be unfaithful to Spain….         No. Not possible! But tempting…

Blasts From The Past

First published back in 1973, Lillian Hellman’s timeless memoir Pentimento is a book I’ve owned for as long as I can remember. I lend it, lose it and gift it – then re-purchase it. The opening paragraphs are perhaps my favourite of any book, and the remainder does not disappoint. By the way, my favourite ending to any book can be found in Timebends, Arthur Milller’s exquisitely wrought autobiography. If you have not read it, do. Please. It helps that both these writers have big stories to tell about big people and events. (Apologies for not posting a cover picture of the Miller – it’s on loan!)

The Great Arch, by Vicki Hastrich, was only published four years ago, but it felt like a classic to me. Wise, ambitious, intimate and yet sprawling, it tells the story of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, and Ralph, the Rector at Lavender Bay, who falls in love with the great arch. But that is the tip of an enormous iceberg, and the story is told in many voices and forms. I can’t believe I missed this when it came out, but I am eternally grateful to Charlotte Wood for introducing me to Vicki Hastrich’s writing. A gift beyond compare.

I know I have forgotten someone. There are dozens of books I covet, and piles here beside me waiting to be read, but I think it only fair to report on those I’ve experienced. I haven’t jogged your memory about the work of another favourite, Michael Cunningham, or suggested you lash out on some poems by Rumi, or that you get your kids a copy of something by Shaun Tan. I’m remiss. I’m sorry. Please don’t forget there are two earlier posts about books here and here, which do at least supplement my addled blonde pre-Christmas dizziness.

All three book posts talk about giving. Funny, because many of the books were gifts I gave myself! But I always think of a book as a potential gift. Sharing a story has been part of my life since that Owl sailed off with the Pussycat, and Mary Grant Bruce’s Norah of Billabong showed me that a little girl’s bush life was worthy of being a story. Choosing a book to give is as close as I will ever get to being a psychologist, as I respond to my friends’ foibles and fabulousness via the shelves of a good bookstore. I’m elated when a friend tells me they have loved a book I’ve found for them, and intrigued when a friend doesn’t like a book that has sung to me. We don’t have to agree. Disagreement over a book can lead to a deepening of friendship. Why? Really? I never knew that!

And so it goes.

Wherever you are as you prepare for this season, if you do celebrate it with an exchange of gifts, let some of them be stories. They are the gifts that define us; the gifts that expand us. Those black shapes on a page or a screen are the trails left as human hearts were being mapped. Caminos, every one…

Buen camino, fellow readers. Aren’t we lucky to be able to share such tales?

And gracias to storytellers everywhere. Without the books I’ve read and loved – and those I’ve rejected, too – my life would be a barren place, and I would never have dared to try to tell stories of my own.

Thank you to all of you who subscribe or visit.

Thank you for welcoming Sinning Across Spain into the world.

You have been MY gifts in this Year of Wonders.

(Now that’s another great book, don’t you reckon?)

 P.S. Please take a minute to read the comments on this post. More great recommendations. Not that I’m surprised – your comments are always rich with insight and observations.

Cleaning and purging

Today I cleaned.

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.

Gracias, gracias.

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?

Gracias. Again!