This is where I have been…

The photo is taken on the property where I spent my first five years, in the Gascoyne in Western Australia. I flew across the country, drove north with family for company and stories, and travelled back in time over decades, to find another kind of meseta in the outback.

Now I’m home in Melbourne, beginning to try to make something like sense from the pilgrimage. Time will tell whether or not that is possible. I hold onto the words of T.S. Eliot…

We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.

It may take forever to find sense, or to achieve any kind of knowledge, but exploration is surely the vital thing, and in one of those curious serendipitous occurrences, we were back on the land where my mother’s ashes are scattered on the very day when the Fairfax newspapers published this piece I wrote months ago. The photo is theirs. I wish I’d looked so glamorous out on the camino roads! You can read the article online in situ, with ads, here if you prefer.


Sun and shadow

When Ailsa Piper made a walking pilgrimage across the length of Spain, her late mother was a constant companion.
In lock step … the author often felt her mother walking beside her.In lock step … the author often felt her mother walking beside her. Photo: Getty Images (posed by a model)


I write this on my mother’s birthday. Mum loved an occasion. Christmas was a day-long fiesta that started at dawn when she woke before we did. Mother’s Day was tea with toast burned by us as she pretended to sleep. Birthdays were top of her pops; she insisted they be celebrated. Her last wish was that every year we raise a glass on the day she was born.


Often I slip up when toasting her birthday and refer to it as the day she died. It’s as though her birth has become inextricably linked in my mind with her death – as though I can’t think of her beginning without remembering her ending. Maybe it’s because I can’t recall her full-force gales of laughter without immediately seeing her reduced to a coiled spring of suffering in a hospital bed.


Mum died almost two decades ago, her hair still dark, and with few wrinkles, although cancer had begun to etch itself into her face. Now, when I think of her, she is birth and death, pleasure and pain, joy and grief, simultaneously.

After a city birth, I went home with Mum to the family sheep station, where my world was bounded by the fences my father regularly rode out to check. Desert country. Unyielding. But Mum gave me other possibilities. Each night, she recited Edward Lear’s The Owl and the Pussycat to me until I fell asleep. She did it for years, until I could recite it back to her.

Surrounded by drought-afflicted soil, she whispered of a pea-green boat bobbing on a star-lit sea. In a place where every drop of water was as precious as platinum, she described lush Bong-tree woods, and a runcible spoon scooping slices of impossible-to-imagine quince. Strange fruits and lands, exotic and enticing. And, of course, there was that impossible couple, owl and cat, dancing under a distant moon.

I know the poem by heart. By my heart and her heart.


Just after I decided to walk 1300 kilometres across Spain from Granada to Galicia, I heard a psychologist talking about the importance of the tales we’re told as children. He believed the best any parent could offer was The Owl and the Pussycat. Think about it, he said. The central characters celebrate their differences, and set out on a great quest, with plenty of all they need: honey and money. The decision to marry is instigated by the cat, and the owl loves her strength. Not a bad template for life.

Some people were dismayed when I part-financed my Spanish walk by selling the two paintings I’d bought with my modest financial inheritance from Mum, but I think she’d have approved. I used her legacy to take myself out into the world, whispering our poem to unfamiliar skies.

One day on the road, in a one-burro pueblo called Laza in the mountains of Galicia, I hobbled with a possibly broken toe into a supermarket and struck up a conversation with the woman behind the counter. We talked about mothers. When I told her that mine had been my best friend, and how I missed her, the woman’s professional face cracked. She said her mother had died only a year before, at the age of 80. I said I often walked with mine; that I still felt her absence, after all these years. Suddenly, we were both crying, hugging like intimates.


Through her tears, she said life is sol y sombra – sun and shadow – and you don’t value one without the other. She kissed my hand as she gave me my change and I walked into the late afternoon oblivious to the pain in my toe.

Sol y sombra.

I wondered about it as I limped to the town’s cemetery and looked across the gravestones to the surrounding hills. I remember thinking how Mum would have loved it all: the silent grey-stone town, the quince paste I’d bought in memory of the poem, the donkey grazing on lush grass studded with white and yellow daisies, the clouds whizzing ahead to road’s end. The swishing sounds of Spanish. The moss and lichen on granite fences. The mists. The otherness.


Mum never got to go to Europe. Sometimes I think my yearning for the road is in part a wish to wander on her behalf, a quest for Bong-trees.

“Sol y sombra,” I whispered, my bones aching for heat in that cemetery swirling with winds blowing chill from the north.

Sun and shadow.

I think the lady in the shop was right. We do value the sun more when we have known shadow. Why is that? I refuse to believe suffering is necessary for happiness, but it certainly puts it into sharper relief. I don’t want to believe I love my mother more for having lost her, but it makes the love, all loves, more precious.

Later along that road, I learnt the Spanish have a drink called sol y sombra. It’s equal parts brandy and anise. Not for the faint of heart. Maybe next year, on Mum’s birthday, I’ll shout myself a glass of sol y sombra and drink to the sunshine Mum gave me to navigate through shadows. Maybe I’ll raise a glass on the anniversary of her death, too.

No. Why wait? Loss teaches us to seize our days. I’ll find a sol y sombra tonight and raise it to love.



They always make me feel that I’m in the right place, even if that is nothing more than projection of my own hopes. No matter. It was a camino, I was a pilgrim, and I think the road is leading me somewhere. I’ll keep you posted!

Meantime, there are a few events coming up between now and Christmas, all of which will be listed on the “Events and Media” tab above, and updated on Facebook.

Did I just write Christmas? Ay caramba!

Thanks as ever for subscribing, and for your support and comments. And if you are a first-time visitor, welcome! Bienvenido! You might like to click on the “AAA – my favourites” link on the right to get a sense of the journey so far.

Hasta pronto, compañeros.


11 thoughts on “A pilgrimage in time

  1. When my wife and I lived in Spain a half-year in 1977 we were then smokers of the cheap black tobacco Sol y Sombra cigarettes! Hmm! White outer-wrapping – inner-blackened lungs! It’s more than three decades since I smoked (for about a dozen years)! Young and silly! I was! Am?

    Lovely reflections on your mother. Despite your loss. My almost indestructible mother has copped a double-whammy in the past week or so – shingles (jaw/ear/scalp) and Bell’s Palsy on one side of her face. Indomitable though – she laughs about her present beauty – while describing the impossibility of eating with any decorum! Though deafened in one ear apparently – she could still hear me via the ‘phone. My brother and his French wife are her constant support – meals via their wheels – and in addition my sister has come down from Bundaberg to be a companion – though my mother sends her out to catch up with old childhood friends. But it’s a reminder – given her early 80s – that she will NOT always be here! And her contribution to my childhood – letting me read pre-school days from the newspaper – and encouraging me always – through primary and secondary schooling – testing me on Latin and French vocal. before school tests! All of us with mothers who love/d us – what greater fortune can there be!

    1. Wow. Now that is a take on Sol y Sombra that I’d never heard, Jim. I hate to think of the shadows on lungs. Don’t even go there! Glad you stopped…
      I’m so sorry to hear about your mother. She sounds like a wonderful force of nature. Hope she gets through he shingles quickly though. A friend had them recently and suffered terrible pain. A really horrible illness.
      She does sound great though. What a fantastic picture you paint of her, particularly as an encourager of a young mind. Thanks for such lovely images from your life.

  2. Thanks for your memories Ailsa, to Ana and I, your mother was the epitome of glamour and the modern woman. Fond memories of your mum reading the papers in bed on a Sunday, while we all stood around the end and tried to act cool. She always told it like it was, and loved you three with a fierceness!

    1. Hi Margaret,
      Firstly, I’m really sorry we didn’t manage to find time on this visit to WA. My fault. It was a very last-minute trip, prompted by an offer to take me back up to the Gascoyne for the first time in decades. So I went. Had a couple of days in Perth at the end, but they were pretty much swallowed by family. I really hope that on the next visit we can manage that long-awaited sighting.
      Meantime, thank you for another picture of Mum. I had forgotten that – not the bit about trying to act cool. I’ve never been able to manage cool! No, the bit about standing around watching her do her thing. And the reminder that she told it as it was. Yes she did.
      I need no reminder of her the ferocity of her love, thankfully. It was, and is, always with me. I was lucky to have had her.
      As I am to have you to remind me. Thank you. I look forward to a sighting – and maybe a Sol y Sombra! – early in 2013.
      Gracias, amiga. x

      1. Was just sent a terrific quote from my friend, Paul – he who wrote the guest post about Mexico. Thought I’d leave it here for you….

        “True journey is return . . . ”

        The Dispossessed
        Ursula K Le Guin

  3. Have you ever seen the Paul Kelly,made for TV movie called
    “One Night The Moon” Ailsa ?
    It’s rather a sad movie about a girl who wanders off into the desert chasing the moon.
    But when you wrote in the above post “But Mum gave me other possibilities. Each night, she recited Edward Lear’s The Owl and the Pussycat”,it reminded me of the scene where the mother in the movie (and real mother…it’s Paul Kelly’s daughter and ex-wife in the scene) is singing “One Night The Moon”
    Paul wrote this song and comes in to sing it too.
    I met Paul at last years BBWF and bought his great book (and CDs)
    “How to Make Gravy”
    I still haven’t seen him sing live though.
    I had to buy a copy of “One Night The Moon” on DVD as I couldn’t find the movie anywhere to rent,or on the internet.
    It was worth it though.

    And here is another quote which is staring me in the face on my desk by Marcel Proust -“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes,but having new eyes to see”.

    1. I love the connections here Darren.
      Yes, I remember the film vividly. It struck me as one of the rare occasions when I had seen poetry on film. Poetic landscapes and dialogue and the story too. Fantastic stuff. “How to make gravy” is waiting for me as my Christmas read – only a year later, but I’ll get there. I’ve had the great good luck to see Paul Kelly performing live on quite a few occasions, as he pops up in melbourne with his nephew Dan, and also doing his fantastic A to Z shows. He’s brilliant. Hope you get to see him one day – he never disappoints.

      And the Proust is also wonderful. Thank you. Keeping those eyes “new” and open is an ongoing challenge, isn’t it?

      1. The funny thing with Proust is that he keeps popping up in my life at the moment,although I have not read any of his works.
        I saw the movie “On the Road” on the weekend and Kerouac (Paradise in the movie) always seemed to have a copy of Swann’s Way
        lying around when he was writing.
        And the book that I’m reading at the moment “Sex,Drugs,Einstein,& Elves” is basically a love letter to Proust. It’s a great book too,don’t be put off by the title,I think you would like it.

        1. Oh those darned madeleines! At some point I too have to give myself over to Proust. I have only ever read snippets, but I think that the time is approaching.
          I am captivated by that title, by the way! Will check it out. Thanks as ever for great tips!

  4. Dear Ailsa,

    That palimpsesto is rearing again. Your post is the fourth anniversary of my mother’s death. And like you and several of your commenters, I feel truly blessed to have been loved so truly and wonderfully by a mother. I think your use of her inheritance to fund your walk was a beautiful tribute and a quest she would have approved and cherished.
    I hear you when you say you walked for and with your motherr. I feel as if I am still walking and talking to my mother and refer to her almost every day of my life, be it in laughing memory of her funny and wise sayings, incredible memory, gift of storytelling, graceful tolerance, pride and admirable forebearance. I am waiting on her estate to be finalised and hope to use my share of the small inheritance I expect to do a similar trek. Having read your book, I took to heart so many many things you said – one of which is that comfort can leach your courage. I fear I might get too comfortable in life.
    Our book group loved and relished your book and all its revelations. Sol y sombra indeed is what we all agree our lives are and the other line that resonated was how we love: because of, when we are young and in spite of when we are older. My challenge is to remember that.
    Another coincidence arising from your post with the picture of Gascoyne WA on, is that my husband that same day saw a travel piece in a newspaper where he works and decided to book a trip on the Indian Pacific to Perth for our anniversary in February. Why did he choose that day? Looks like I will get to trace my great uncle Jack’s path before too long.
    All best wishes to you.

    1. Dear Julie,
      My sympathies and empathy on the anniversary. They always provoke something surprising, don’t they? Just when we think that memory or grief is neatly packaged somewhere in our psyche, it can jump up and catch us unawares. I’m sure you honoured your mother beautifully – and I think a trek is a great way to take time to reflect on her legacy. A literal and figurative one, it will be.
      The anniversary trip on the INdian Pacific sounds fabulous. I have always fantasised about that myself. Or the Ghan. Thrilling that those train journeys are still possible in this digital age. A chance to slow and really ponder this amazing land of ours.
      Thanks for the wonderful feedback on the book group response. I’m glad it provoked some discussion and recognition. I’ve been asked by a couple of people to provide some book club questions, so will be applying myself to that in the coming days.
      I hope the garden is bringing you solace, and that spring feels like renewal and possibility. Thanks again for such a lovely response.

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