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!

20 thoughts on “Cleaning and purging

  1. AAAh Ailsa,
    thank you for so eloquently describing the turmoil of thoughts swirling about our treatment of our fellow men and women.

    1. Thanks for walking with me Hugo. And a propos of an earlier conversation, the world seems to be many many shades of grey just now, doesn’t it?

  2. Yes, Ailsa, yet again you go straight to the heart of things – the darkness that lies across our society – the abuse of power and the refusal of power to acknowledge its wrong-doing – not the Christ-like way – that’s for sure. But there are heroes none-the-less and (if/especially when flawed – like us all) they surface to inspire us – Bernie BANTON (RIP), Matt PEACOCK; NSW police officer Peter COX, Newcastle Herald journalist Joanne McCARTHY, Beth H (subject of Australian Story some years back re Anglican Church cover-up of her innocence taken by a priest become Bishop – which brought down a Howard appointee Archbishop as Governor-General); the stories – so terrible – of the Stolen Generations; a recent film “Oranges & Sunshine” telling the story of Nottingham social worker Margaret HUMPHREYS and her 23-year struggle to get official recognition of the thousands of children separated from families and sent off to the New World in the mid-years of the 20th century – now a moving film starring Emily WATSON, Hugo WEAVING, David WENHAM – with important references to child sexual abuse of those placed in institutional Catholic “care”! All building to the point of p.m. Julia GILLARD’s call for the Royal Commission. It can’t be swept under carpets or kept behind closed doors – we need to shine a very bright light on it – to understand how adults can take the innocence of children (boys and girls) and not be held to account. Whatever the case – simply knowing of your own compassionate involvement with this issue brings with it a kind of gentle loving-kindness that must be already part of the healing process.

    I know well the procrastinating writers’ route! Yes, clean out that drawer, dust the bookshelves, write the letters that have been begging for replies for ages, go shopping…throw out (to the charity shop, of course) clothes which have been hanging unworn for some years…water the garden! But even in that way lies discoveries and memories – which as you say may have an immediate relevance – truly lying in wait! All the best for this new book back into your childhood – and thanks for reporting on your evening with Monsignor Tony DOHERTY.

    1. Dear Jim,
      Always another useful perspective.
      I loved that list of good people. It is so important to remember them and their work. Vital. We honour them, but we also need their memories for ourselves. History moves fast now – too fast for me at times – and taking stock of the achievements and inspirations is one way to slow it down. Hindsight lets us savour. Thank you. And if they are right, and history really is just about whose story gets told then we really must be sure to keep telling those stories too.

      Cleaning and clearing was wonderful! Lots of memories and space. And all the book bags went from the front fence, bringing delight and stories into other homes, hopefully. There were a couple of recipe books too. I’m finally learning to let go of the idea that I am the sort of person who needs twenty cookbooks! Even that discovery felt liberating.
      Doesn’t take much to divert me!
      Thanks as ever.

  3. Some times it is just enough to know that somebody is listening, in this case reading.

    As a call to action I like these words from L Cohen. There are cracks and illumination is possible.

    The birds they sang
    at the break of day
    Start again
    I heard them say
    Don’t dwell on what
    has passed away
    or what is yet to be.
    Ah the wars they will
    be fought again
    The holy dove
    She will be caught again
    bought and sold
    and bought again
    the dove is never free.

    Ring the bells that still can ring
    Forget your perfect offering
    There is a crack in everything
    That’s how the light gets in.

    We asked for signs
    the signs were sent:
    the birth betrayed
    the marriage spent
    Yeah the widowhood
    of every government —
    signs for all to see.

    I can’t run no more
    with that lawless crowd
    while the killers in high places
    say their prayers out loud.
    But they’ve summoned, they’ve summoned up
    a thundercloud
    and they’re going to hear from me.

    Ring the bells that still can ring …

    You can add up the parts
    but you won’t have the sum
    You can strike up the march,
    there is no drum
    Every heart, every heart
    to love will come
    but like a refugee.

    Ring the bells that still can ring
    Forget your perfect offering
    There is a crack, a crack in everything
    That’s how the light gets in.

    Ring the bells that still can ring
    Forget your perfect offering
    There is a crack, a crack in everything
    That’s how the light gets in.
    That’s how the light gets in.
    That’s how the light gets in.

    The pleasures of writing are vicarious and precarious. My lover is still with me and so away to enjoy the company and also perhaps echar las campanas al vuelo .

    hasta la próxima vez

  4. Gracias, gracias Harry. You have gone to the trouble of writing out the lyrics to one of my very favourite songs – from one of my favourite artists too.
    We all want the light to get in don’t we? But I love LC’s articulation of the cracks in everything. I and many others have felt a bit broken of late – and hopefully that breakage will let in light.
    Disfrutes! Enjoy the company and the pleasures of the day. Thanks for contributing here.

  5. “You have gone to the trouble of writing out the lyrics to one of my very favourite songs”

    Um no, you are sweet, but it is click highlight, copy, paste write some anchoring text and post. Sigh, the way of the world. I’m glad we share a passion for LC. He is inspiring or should that be inspirational????

    It is the writers challenge to “ring the bells that still can ring” which eventually”lets the light in” and it is the thought of that which makes enables me to take pleasure from this song.

    My copy of SAS arrived in the mail. Decisions, leave Jon’s highlands for you yours or be loyal and go over Jon’s cliffs, even though I know it will hurt.

    1. Well, my cliffs and highlands won’t go anywhere, but you may not get another chance at Jon’s. I say walk first and then read. Your muscles will remember the walk you’ve done, and they will feel like they are tramping with me in Spain!
      Buen camino!!!
      I’m off for a three or four hour hike across some goldfields hills today. There is no wind and the temperature is mild. Hooray! A gift of a day.

      1. RE:
        ” I’m off for a three or four hour hike across some goldfields hills today. ”

        Looking forward to you bringing us back some nuggets of wisdom to share from that walk .-)

        1. Not sure about wisdom, but after four hours of hills, valleys, sun and shadow, I’m happy from the toes to the top of the head. A still, spring day is a gift.

  6. I liked how you summarized your walk in the book on page 175 by saying –

    “I know we are all connected,whether we like it or not,and we owe it to this astonishing planet,and those we hope might come after,to acknowledge that fact in our actions as well as our words”.

    While reading those words and thinking back through the book,it reminded me about two of my favorite movies “Dragonfly”
    and “I Am”
    Both made by Tom Shadyac.
    I had never heard of him until I got curious as to who had made “Dragonfly” (probably his least successful $ film to date?) and then discovered his great doco “I Am”.
    That is a film I highly recommend viewing.
    I also liked how on page 256 of SAS you wrote –
    “I opened my inbox to find poems,news and encouragement from home…
    The story of a sixteen-year-old Aussie girl who had sailed solo around the world…”

    I thought it was funny that I met Jessica on the Saturday of the Byron Bay Writer’s Festival and met you on the Sunday of the BBWF.
    Did you end up meeting Jessica at the BBWF Ailsa ?
    I’m hoping you did otherwise instead of connecting (the subject of this comment) it would be more like the passing of two ships in the night between you and Jessica.
    It was an honour meeting both of you (and buying your books) at the BBWF,and I hope you and Jessica got the chance to meet also.
    I also liked how there was a big sculpture of a dragonfly at the BBWF…considering the two Italian guys nick-named you dragonfly on the Camino.
    The world is full of coincidence…isn’t it ?-)

    1. Yes, I did meet Jessica. What a gal! We were actually together on a panel with Anna Rose. It was called Extreme Journeys, and I loved meeting both of those inspirational young women. Gives you a great feeling about the future.
      The world absolutely is full of coincidences, and they give such pleasure, don’t they? I love that feeling that mysteries are conspiring around us.
      I MUST find “Dragonfly” and “I Am”. Both sound intriguing. I need to keep a list of your recommendations. I’m planning a break over summer for a couple of weeks, where I do nothing but read and watch movies and walk and read some more and then walk some more.
      Beyond bliss.

  7. Opps!
    “I liked how you summarized your walk in the book on page 175 by saying…”

    that should have been page 275…sorry 🙂

    1. And the above comment should have read –
      Oops! instead of Opps!
      I should stop writing now,so I don’t have to correct any more comments of mine.

      1. I am always battling auto-correct! That is my undoing. It corrects my colloquialisms constantly. I’m surprised it didn’t make opps into apps.

  8. Hello again Ailsa,

    I certainly relate to the distraction of cleaning and tidying, as a delaying tactic to beginning what I must – but just can’t make myself do. But those little detours often turn up gold, don’t they? The lost book, the hidden note, the blog update – like THIS ONE!

    Just love reading what your readers have to say as well as your own wonderful words, Ailsa and love the jewel you discovered in your wallet clean-out. Ditto the Leonard Cohen song. What a honey Harry is to write it out for you! For all of us.

    I have a keepers email file where I put important stuff about insurance, passwords etc and those lovely touching, inspirational notes that friends or family send me and I know I will want to read again some time.
    But on my person, I carry a piece of prose on a tattered piece of paper in my wallet for the same reasons you describe; because I think it is perfect; because it makes me stop, well up with something like love and prompts me to bring my brightest warmest self forward. Like so many of your thoughts, it is a blessed sign that people care and pay attention to the bits of life that I do and want to share it.
    A lady who rang me from the Rural Fire Brigade earlier today, selling raffle tickets, got lucky as I had just finished reading this keepsake when she called. I felt so full of human kindness, I bought willingly from her. I probably would have given her my children!
    This piece of paper is crumbling from handling, and if anything happens to me when I am out and about in public, I wonder if a stranger who might find this among my things ponder who I was.
    This prose is a speech made by writer Anna Quindlen at the graduation ceremony of a US University where she had been awarded an honorary PhD.

    I won’t transcribe it all; but here is the nub of it:

    Don’t ever confuse your life and your work. Lots of people will do what you do and achieve the same degree, but you will be the only person alive who has sole custody of your life. Your particular life. Your entire life. Not just your life at a desk, or your life on a bus, or in car or at the computer. Not just the life of your mind; but the life of your heart. Not just your bank accounts but also your soul.
    People don’t talk about the soul very much any more. It’s so much easier to write a resume than to craft a spirit. But a resume is cold comfort on a winter’s night, or when you’re sad, or broke, or lonely, or when you’ve received your test results and they’re not so good.

    You cannot be really first rate at you work if your work is all you are. So get a life. A real life, not a manic pursuit of the next promotion, the bigger pay cheque, the larger house. Do you think you would care very much about these things if you blew an aneurysm one afternoon, or found a lump in your breast?
    Get a life in which you notice the smell of salt water pushing itself on a breeze at the seaside, a life in which you stop and watch how a red-tailed hawk circles over the water, or the way a baby scowls with concentration when she tries to pick up a sweet with her thumb and first finger.
    Get a life in which you are not alone. Find people you love and who love you. And remember that love is not leisure. It is work. Pick up the phone. Send an email. Write a letter. Get a life in which you are generous. And realise that life is the best thing ever and that you have no business taking it for granted. Care so deeply about its goodness that you want to spread it around. Take money you would have spent on beer and give it to charity. Work in a soup kitchen. be a big brother or sister. All of you want to do well. But if you do not do good too, then doing well will never be enough.
    It is so easy to waste our lives, our days, our hours and our minutes. it is so easy to take for granted the color of our kids’ eyes, the way the melody in a symphony rises and falls and disappears and rises again. It is so easy to exist instead of to live.
    I learned to live many years ago. I learned to love the journey, not the destination. I learned that it is not a dress rehearsal and that today is the only guarantee you get. I learned to look at all the good in the world and try to give some of it back because I believed in it, utterly and completely. And I tried to do that, in part, by telling others what I had learned. By telling them this: consider the lillies of the field. Look at the fuzz on a baby’s ear. Read in the back yard with the sun on your face. Learn to be happy. And think of life as a terminal illness, because if you do, you will live it with joy and passion as it ought to be lived.

    1. Dear Julie,
      This is wonderful. A blog post in itself. I am going to amend the page to point people to come down and read all the comments to the bottom. Incredible. And you have gone to all the trouble of typing this out, because it was on that tattered paper. We are so lucky here in Sinning-village, to have such a generous contribution form you.
      It’s wonderful.
      Thank you.
      I reckon if someone found this among your things, they’d know they had found a woman of vast spirit.
      The Fire brigade will certainly be thinking that.
      And I know it.
      Thanks for an amazing contribution. My night is made.

  9. And at risk of boring you, dear Ailsa, the other thing I keep to read and re read is this.

    A Sth African friend I met in the UK 32 years ago and with whom I still correspond, but have not seen since 1981, sent me this. I was v touched.

    “One day a woman’s husband died, and on that clear, cold morning, in the warmth of their bedroom, the wife was struck with the pain of learning that sometimes there isn’t anymore. No more hugs, no more special moments to celebrate together, no more phone calls just to chat, no more “just one minute.”

    Sometimes, what we care about the most gets all used up and goes away, never to return before we can say good-bye, say “I love you.”

    So while we have it, it’s best we love it, care for it, fix it when it’s broken and heal it when it’s sick. This is true for marriage … and old cars ..and children with bad report cards, and dogs with bad hips, and aging parents and grandparents. We keep them because they are worth it, because we are worth it.

    Some things we keep — like a best friend who moved away or a classmate we grew up with. There are just some things that make us happy, no matter what.

    Life is important, like people we know who are special, and so, We keep them close!

    I received this from someone who thought I was a ‘keeper’…Then I sent it to the people I think of in the same way. Now it’s your turn to send this to all those people who are “keepers” in your life, including the person who sent it if you feel that way. Suppose one morning you never wake up, do all your friends know you love them?

    I was thinking…I could die today, tomorrow or next week, and I wondered if I had any wounds needing to be healed, friendships that needed rekindling, or three words needing to be said.

    Let every one of your friends know you love them. Even if you think they don’t love you back, you would be amazed at what those three little words and a smile can do.

    Live today to the fullest because tomorrow is not promised.”

    1. Beautiful.
      It’s funny, isn’t it, the people we keep and the people we lose.
      The book has brought some long-lost people back into my life and I am so grateful.
      It has also given me new people, like you, at a time when I thought my heart had all the company I needed. Then it expands, by virtue of being met with love and generosity.
      Thanks for asking me to get bigger, to try to match you.

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