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.
by Wislawa Szymborska
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:
If 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.
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.
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.
The wide brown land is baking today. Fire warnings abound, as all creatures great and small look for caves and cool. Tomorrow, rain and storms are predicted, along with icy southerly blasts. A change, they call it at the weather bureau.
Spring is exiting stage left, but she is not going gentle. She is burning and raving, raging, hurtling to her end, free of fear or doubt. “Adios”, she calls over her shoulder, kicking up dust as she leaves me behind.
When that dust settles, I look down and see the rose, a shock of crimson, past its prime and out of place. This is a lonely path. I chose it because no-one ventures through these ravaged gullies where thousands once excavated for gold, and trees whisper of disappointed avarice. The foot-width trail, made by kangaroos through spindly burned gums, yields wonders sparingly, demanding a walker return over and over to its flinty surface before it reveals a snuffling echidna or a native orchid.
So how did the rose get here?
I want to pick it up and see if there is still any scent to be had, but something stops me. Its stem is short. Was it worn in a lapel to a dance where things did not go to plan? Was it nestled in the upswept hair of a girl as she swayed and dipped across a polished floor? And what befell her, that her rose ended here, at my feet?
The forest is silent. It broods. Would it yield up a body to me if something terrible had happened? We are remote enough to speak of shallow graves.
There are no marks in the dirt to speak of struggle, no indentations or footsteps in dried clay, no signs to tell me how a cultivated, blood-red wonder has been transported to the goldfields rough, its petals in danger of being crunched into the quartz by my boots.
A shard of sunlight finds the rose, exposing it as dry, its stem withered. Done.
“Rose…” I whisper into the eucalypt-scented silence.
I walk away, straining to see or hear something that might explain it, but there is only the creak of a trunk against the branch of a neighbouring tree, and the scrunch of my feet. This forest does not give up its ghosts, but they are out there. Somewhere to my left, the thump-thump of a wallaby; overhead the shriek of a cockatoo; somewhere very close, the slither of grass parting at ground level.
Feet on earth. Marking out time. The scrunch. The rhythm. The passing. On.
To the cemetery.
Coming out of the forest into grazing land, there it lies, framed by grandfather eucalypts and pines, introduced and indigenous standing sentinel around the bones of other grandfathers. And children.
I walk through the creaking metal gates and up the central avenue, passing the century-old plinth where only one word of the inscription remains intact – SACRED; past purple thistles rising out of the earth and marble crucifixes crumbling back into it; past the granite stone for Laurel, “Giver of love and joy”; and past the holly bush that has grown on the still-tended grave of an infant who would now be a woman more than a century old.
On the high ground, under a row of whistling pine trees, there’s a slab of red stone for Norman, who died almost twenty years ago. Neighbour Norm, a flirtatious bear of a man who used to joke that he joined the Progress Association to ensure there was no progress, and whose inscription tells me that the greatest of all is love. To Norman’s right is a matching stone for his grandson Michael, whose life was taken by depression over a decade ago. I’m glad Norman went first.
I plant myself between them, looking over the field of the dead to the young eucalypts planted across the road. They will be harvested for commercial use. Their fate is known.
Norman, Michael and I sit on the hill. Norman reminds me to feast, to laugh and to love well. Michael reminds me to relish the days of sun, because the dark ones can claim us. The eucalypts speak of the honour of usefulness, and the imperative of remembering that the end will come.
Except of course, the end doesn’t come. Why do we assume “it” ends when we do? “It” goes on. “It” keeps turning, and feet keep walking, roses keep growing, and we keep remembering.
The sun is high and the pines smell like Christmas.
Time to move. The road is waiting.
I walk back down the central path toward the eucalypts.
Some of them have been burned.
Their trunks are charred black, but at the base of one tree, silvery grey leaves have sprouted, thick and determined.
It wasn’t the first time I’d been asked that, and I understood the question. After all, walking is just…well…walking. It’s slow, repetitive and not particularly cool or sexy.
All I can say is no, it’s never boring for me. Sometimes it’s hard. Sometimes it’s exhausting. But I’ve never found it boring. My mind, which can judge activities and label them as interesting or dull, is lulled by walking, and even at times released by it. Walking gives my mind a freedom it achieves nowhere else, as I describe in the book.
My compañero from the Camino Francés sent me the following words from teacher, poet and peace activist, Thich Nhat Hanh. I love them because they describe a state I long to achieve in all areas of my life. I trust that it might one day be possible, because I can achieve something like it when I walk. See if you can get your mind to attend to every word. It’s not easy.
To my mind, the idea that doing the dishes is unpleasant can occur only when you are not doing them. Once you are standing in front of the sink with your sleeves rolled up and your hands in warm water, it really is not so bad. I enjoy taking my time with each dish, being fully aware of the dish, the water, and each movement of my hands. I know that if I hurry in order to go and have a cup of tea, the time will be unpleasant and not worth living. That would be a pity, for each minute, each second of life is a miracle. The dishes themselves and the fact that I am here washing them are miracles! Each bowl I wash, each poem I compose, each time I invite a bell to sound is a miracle, each has exactly the same value. One day, while washing a bowl, I felt that my movements were as sacred and respectful as bathing a newborn Buddha. If he were to read this, that newborn Buddha would certainly be happy for me, and not at all insulted at being compared with a bowl.
So, in direct answer to the question about walking, and begging forgiveness from the wise teacher, please consider the following, knowing that your mind will try even harder not to attend!
To my mind, the idea that walking is unpleasant can occur only when you are not doing it. Once you have put on your dusty boots, and loaded your pack onto your back, it really is not so bad. I enjoy taking each step, being fully aware of my foot on the earth, the landscape, and each movement of my chest as I breathe. I know that if I hurry in order to get to the finish line, the time will be unpleasant and not worth living. That would be a pity, for each minute, each second of life is a miracle. The steps themselves, and the fact that I am here taking them, are miracles! Each kilometre I travel, each song I sing, each time I let my arms swing past my hips, is a miracle, each has exactly the same value. One day, while walking, I felt that my movements were as sacred and respectful as bathing a newborn Buddha. If he were to read this, that newborn Buddha would certainly be happy for me, and not at all insulted at being compared with walking.
I hope the venerable Thich Nhat Hanh, and my compañero, will not feel at all insulted at my rephrasing of that beautiful text.
Chop wood. Carry water. Wash dishes. Bathe newborn Buddha. Walk.
Peace was the wish made by my amigo in Baños de Montemayor.
It was a wish made by many of us at last week’s conversation with Tony Doherty. If you’d like to view the YouTube clip of that, please bear in mind that we take up the first 75 or so minutes of the 100 min total. Also bear in mind that our conversation took place the day after George Pell’s press conference about the abuse of children within the church, and as a result the talk is coloured by that.
The last thing I ask you to bear in your wonderful mind is gratitude – to all who read these offerings, and in particular, to all who attended that night. It was humbling – and painful – to hear some of your stories afterwards, and I am walking with you in my heart.
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.
Exactly three years ago, I was in El Ganso, just past Léon on the Camino Francés.
If I close my eyes, I can still smell cut grass on the warm evening air, and the sprig of lavender on my pillow as I drifted into sleep in a mercifully snore-free albergue. I can hear the dog’s bark ringing across the field below the town, reminding me that some creatures were working while I rested.
Most of all, I remember the contentment and internal quiet I felt in that town at the end of a tough and sometimes confusing day.
If you’ve read Sinning Across Spain, you may recall the story of Domingo, the old gentleman, or gentle old man, I met there. With all my heart, I hope he is still alive and well, and that he and his town have not been too much troubled by the economic crisis. I hope one day that I might return to thank him for the gifts he gave me.
The following passage from the book, and these photos, are to honour him and El Ganso. I hope that you, my village, will forgive me for posting something you may have read. But as Arthur Miller wrote – “Attention must be paid.”
And gratitude must be given.
Gracias, Domingo. Gracias, mi compañero.
At the end of a long hot day’s walking, I’d arrived in El Ganso, a pueblo my guidebook called “hauntingly crumbling”. It was dozing, and yes, perhaps a touch melancholy, with its Cowboy Bar at the entrance decorated in saddles and cowskins.
El Ganso means “wild goose”. I didn’t chase any.
I wandered out of the albergue as the sun flirted with the horizon. A lone dog barked and a bird fluttered among the beams of an abandoned adobe building behind me. To my left was the handful of houses that made up the town. To my right was the road out. Opposite was a narrow dirt lane between two tumbledown buildings, and walking towards me up that lane was a man with broad, open features. His eyes were surrounded by deep lines. He leaned on a walking stick and waved with his free hand.
“Buenas tardes, peregrina,” he called, his face creasing into a grin. That smile was my introduction to Domingo. We stood in the main street, talking about the weather, how far I’d walked, and where I was from.
Australia got a good response.
He held out his free arm and suggested a little walk–un camino pequeno.
We set off at Domingo pace, stopping to sniff the wind, to look and listen.
He gave me the grand tour of El Ganso, where he had spent his entire life. We saw the houses of his brothers and sisters; a big two-storey house–not so nice as the low ones; the vacant land, just waiting for a nice lady from Australia to buy it and build a new home; the abandoned houses, falling into disrepair and back into the ground; the edible rose hips; and the scratching chooks with their scrawny chicks.
Stories everywhere. The house where he was born. The families who went away. The home that waits for his son. The flowers he planted for his sister. The figs, so good, so good…
Then he took me to his house and ushered me inside. He showed me his kitchen, and the kettle his wife favoured, their bedroom and bathroom, both modern and cool; the guest room–for next visit? Then his shed, with its tools and folding garden furniture. His backyard, where he picked for me white roses tinged with softest pink, and two perfect pears. He had sons in Seattle and Madrid, he told me. They made a lot of money but they didn’t come home much.
The whole tour took maybe an hour. Details, affection, the wonder of his almost-abandoned town…
“Te gusta mi pueblo?” You like my town?
I did. I still do.
As the sun set, he walked me back along the empty main street to the albergue, where he left me with a stiff bow and a sweep of his free arm, saying, “Ésta es mi pueblo.”
This is my town.
I watched him walk away, the scent of pears and roses wafting in the warm air as the church steeple turned orange. All around his retreating figure, the stones of the houses glowed. His home was radiant, radiating. I saw how full it was of loves and losses, and how much richer I was for him having stepped into my life to tell me of them.
I took my fruits and flowers to adorn my table at the Cowboy Bar. Cowboys were a disappearing breed, and I wondered about the future of those pueblos. Would they survive the rush of the young to the cities and beyond?
Last week, I was invited to write something to read at the first story-telling night at the Grumpy Swimmer bookshop in Elwood. The theme was “water” – not an element in which I’ve ever felt easy, much as I love it.
At the same time, I was grappling with my piece for Women of Letters. I hadn’t finalised it, and was torn between three wildly different versions. I think the piece for Grumpy might have affected the outcome of my letter. It’s as though I dipped my toes into the water and was able to look back to shore and see where I had come from – and that is what I wrote about.
So, as a way of honouring the process, and as an offering to you, my subscriber-village, I thought I’d post the Grumpy piece here. It’s short – it had to come in under five minutes – but I’m so grateful to it. It is a step on the way to my next major project, I think. And it gave me the first words for my Women of Letters piece, too!
I was born at the end of the world, on the edge of a great ocean. Before my eyes could focus, I was taken to a place in the desert, where, like a cactus, I grew plump, drawing life from the red dust that was my whole world.
One day, they took me back to see that ocean I had not been shown. They told me I could swim in it, walk beside it, make a castle near it. They gave me a bucket and a spade, and I held them close in the hot car for hours while we drove to that great ocean.
They forgot one thing. They didn’t tell me about the noise.
“Look,” they said. “Look at the pretty blue.”
The pretty blue roared and crashed, it thumped and smashed. It frothed and bubbled and hissed, and no amount of cajoling was going to get me to step into its soupy swirls.
I ran from it, craving my desert silence.
When I had grown I went back to the great ocean. It was still loud.
Currents of warmth rose out of frigid depths. Sand slid from under my toes. Seaweed tangled around my thighs, trying to hold me. Water was sirens, sharks and lures. Water was not my element.
Too loud. Too belligerent. Too slippery and unpredictable.
I left the great ocean and returned to the reliable earth, to find my feet and my way. I walked. I walked myself away from my home and into the wide world.
Along the ways, I was always drawn to ocean-people. I loved their roaring laughter, their flicks and head-tosses, their flamboyance. But I couldn’t stay with them. Always I returned to the silence of the earth; to its unassuming wisdom and its wry smile.
One day in the midst of all the ocean-people, I met an earthed man, who brought me to live in his home near a stretch of water that is confident enough about itself not to need to roar. I came home to a sure shore.
On the edge of Port Phillip Bay, there is a trail, where I’ve walked for over two decades now. It is my camino. That word means road, or way, in the Spanish language. It makes a known path feel more seductive to me when I call it a camino. Sometimes, you need to find ways of making the familiar exotic when you walk a road every day.
My camino runs from the end of the Elwood canal, past Point Ormond, and along the beach to Brighton. Sometimes I turn right and head for St Kilda, but it’s busy along there. Too many ocean-people.
On my camino, the rhythm of my feet kicks in, and before I know it I have drifted to other roads…to the desert, to Italy, central Australia, and Tasmania; to the Great Dividing Trail. I can be in Spain, out on the dry meseta tableland.
But then I turn my head, and there beside me on my camino is the bullet-grey of Port Phillip Bay’s water.
Come back. It says. Be here. Be where you are.
Because now, after all these years of tracing that camino bay-trail, it is water that grounds me. Calmer, stiller water. The glint of afternoon sun on that wine-dark bay tells me I’m where I belong. The first pale light of day, sparkling on the lapping edge at my toes, whispers that I’m where I’m meant to be. It is water, that body of water with its softness and its steely grey, that holds me on course and stays the distance. It is that water that calls me home.
My gratitude to all of you who are subscribers, and in particular to those who have left such rich and thoughtful comments in response to the offerings here. I recently re-read my first ever post, and I remember the skepticism I felt about things digital and social media. I realise I now have new communities. I love sharing snippets and pictures and fast updates on Facebook, and enjoy the thumbs-up LIKEs when they hit a nerve, or give a smile. I have learned that Twitter can take me down tunnels about writers and news outlets I’d never imagined. Here, on the blog, I feel I have conversations with guests at an on-goinng dinner party.
So thank you all, wherever you intersect with me. I will keep trying to offer tasty morsels!
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.