I’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!
My 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.
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…
And this poem, this beloved poem, was at the Rose Bay camino’s heart.
Just as it stays at my heart. Every day.
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
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.
Perth 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.
But 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.
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!
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.
At various times since Sinning Across Spain came out, I’ve been asked about preparations for walking the camino. What did I do before I left? What would I recommend?
I’m loathe to suggest I’m in any way an expert, but I’m happy to share my experiences. Sometimes we fools who learn by trial and plenty of errors can be useful to others. Please remember that time has elapsed since I walked, and I’ve no doubt others can provide more up-to-date advice, so do take all of these suggestions as just that – suggestions. Everyone does it differently, and you will find your own way. That’s part of the joy.
The simplest way to go about this seemed to be to annotate a section from the book, so here we go, from Chapter 3, Flying Sola.
For the Camino Francés I’d read two guidebooks cover to cover…
The guidebooks of the Confraternity of St James are no-frills and concise, and can be bought via their website.
The CSJ are the English-language experts on all things camino, and their site has pointers to lots of other great information, including history, discussion forums and getting the credencial. No matter where you look, do start with them.
Ultimately, although it weighed more, I decided to carry John Brierley’s guidebook, because I enjoyed his snippets of history and spirituality, and I also loved the topographical diagrams and photos. I annotated it with extra info from the Confraternity’s book. I also used Mr Brierley’s guide when I walked from Oporto along the Portuguese route.
For the Mozárabe, I carried Alison Raju’s guide from the Confraternity. Back when I walked, it was very hit and miss, as it hadn’t been updated for a few years. I was glad of my Spanish, because I had to ask directions often between Granada and Mérida. It was pretty accurate once I joined the Via de la Plata. I think there is a newer version now – and as far as I know, it is the only English language guide.
The web is an astounding resource, and these days there are literally hundreds of sites, bulletin boards and discussion groups about the camino. If you want to dream in advance, simply Googling “camino” will help you find the sites or blogs that resonate.
If you speak some Spanish, the equivalent of the CSJ site is probably Mundicamino and I heartily recommend it, as it has amazing detail about every pueblo and waystop. It’s worth a look even if your Spanish is very basic, because the layout is so clear.
The other site I particularly enjoyed was a camino planner that lets you get an idea of timing your walk – for the roads from Seville, Roncesvalles and Le-Puy-en-Velay. When I was prepping for the Francés it was helpful to give me an idea of how many days I’d need. And it is fun. That said, the road kept reminding me that plans were futile, and to submit to its will.
…grilled camino veterans…
I guess that’s what you are doing by reading this! Nothing beats chatting to someone first-hand, and if you live in Melbourne, feel free to check the EVENTS AND MEDIA pages in case I’m going to be doing a talk near you. I’m always happy to natter afterwards. There are camino organisations in most states, and they have regular meet-ups, where much of the information will be more recent than mine.
All that said, I would just keep reminding you that it’s YOUR camino, and in my opinion there’s no right or wrong way to do it if you are going with an open heart and respect for fellow pilgrims – and as you will know from the book, even that can fail you when the camino tests you! There is a lot to be said for the path of the fool with open eyes and ears, but the road will have its way.
…downloaded Spanish podcasts…
I studied French and Italian from school age, so when I was preparing for the Francés I decided to take a few basic Spanish lessons – only a term, as I couldn’t afford more than that. They were wonderfully useful, and if you have either of the other Romance languages, you will find many similarities. Mind you, the differences and peculiarities are intriguing enough to make you want to learn more! I also downloaded many free podcasts from the web, and when I was walking, walking, walking my training paths, I loved to listen to them. I’m sure you could get by on that road without a word of Spanish, but if you can learn some, please do. It will enrich your experience ten-fold – and again, it’s fun!
For the Mozárabe, I’d definitely recommend a good grounding in some Spanish basics. It is now over two years since I walked it, and I’m sure that there may be more facilities, but it’s still unlikely you’ll encounter a lot of English speakers between Granada and Mérida, at least. I gather there are still not many walkers along that road, so you can’t rely on other pilgrims.
…replaced my heavy boots with lightweight Merrells…
That’s them in the photo up the top of the page – their work done. They were such stars.
I’d always hiked in much heavier, all-leather boots in Australia, and had never done more than one or two hundred kilometres in a week. The camino roads and distances demanded something lighter, and for me, more breathable. Some people walk in heavy boots, some in runners, some even walk in sandles and Tevas. I considered myself lucky to find the Sirens, as they performed magnificently on both roads. I didn’t blister and I was happy to get cold or wet feet occasionally rather than have them become swollen and overheated.
Again, a disclaimer: boots are highly personal. No feet are the same, and you must devote time and energy to getting the right boots. Don’t buy the first pair that feels good. Test them when your feet are hot, with different socks and at varying times of the day. Do make sure there is enough ankle support for you when you are carrying an extra 8 to 12 kilos on your back.
The other indispensables, for me, were my walking poles. As you will know from the book, they became an extension of my body, and I can’t imagine making the trip without them. They offer stability and support, as well as letting you test terrain. They’re also washing lines, shoulder-stretchers and coat-hangers. I’d never used them before the camino, and now I can’t countenance hiking – or distance walking – without them. And they are not necessarily expensive. Mine were about $20 each from Ray’s Outdoors.
…and sourced a smaller backpack…
SO personal. Like the boots. Try many. Test and re-test. Load weights into them. Stand and move in a pack for at least fifteen minutes before you begin to form an opinion. Go back several times. The fact that I am completely obsessed by the Aarn does not mean it will work for you, but it is super-light and fits my body like a glove, and they are two vital considerations.
It was great to have a pack that didn’t need extra rain coverage. The Aarn has an interior sack that is waterproof, so when it rains, you have only to make sure there is nothing problematic in the outer pockets. No flapping or billowing is a fine thing in blustery conditions.
There it is. A pilgrim’s whole world, on a sunny walking afternoon in autumn in the Bierzo.
And no, I don’t use a camel back. I carry bottles. That one was a beauty – hard clear plastic, so I could see how much was left. I’m a guzzler, so visual monitoring of my water allowance is important. And you probably don’t need to have a vase on your pack, but it made me happy!
…I rehearsed saying por favor and buenos días as I hiked favourite sections of Victoria’s Great Dividing Trail…
I guess the most common question I’m asked is how much walking I did before I set out. Again, this is personal. I walk every day in my normal life, for at least an hour, and regularly walk 25 to 35 kilometres on one or both days of a weekend, so I knew that distance and stamina were not issues. I did need to walk with the pack to learn how my body adjusted to carrying it for hours on end, and how best to pack it. My advice is to do as much as you possibly can in the lead-up to the walk, but not to panic if you haven’t achieved your goals in that area. Life takes over. The main thing is not to go at the camino as though it is a competition. It will teach you what is best for you, and the main advice I can give, based on my own painful experience (!) is to listen to your body, to slow down when it tells you to, and to stop if need be.
Also, remember that you are the expert on your body. I had knee problems on the Francés for the first and only time in my life. I exacerbated them by not stopping or slowing down until I was literally brought to my knees in Burgos, but I also made a critical error before I left. I was told by a man in a hiking store that I should have insoles, and so I bought a pair. I have never used an insole in my life, yet I listened. When I returned and went to my osteopath to check why this had occurred, he was aghast at me putting an insole into my boot, because my feet fall evenly and I have no need of them!
That said, I think they served, finally, to slow me right down, and that was a good thing. But it was painful, and I should have listened to my own history and body, instead of giving over to a well-meaning expert.
Which is what I would implore you to do with all of this well-meaning advice. Take what sounds right. Discard what is not you. Walk like a snail. Listen to your feet. And stay open to the road.
I’m not going to list the contents of my pack, as this post is already getting too long, but remember there’s a packlist chapter in the back of the book.
Do remember that you absolutely don’t need to buy the most expensive things on the market.
I’m always on a tight budget, and there’s no room for glamour or vanity on camino anyway. There are shops along all the roads, so you can buy almost anything you’ve forgotten or might suddenly need.
The only times I didn’t skimp on price, or on legwork, were when I was sourcing boots and pack, and luckily my feet liked reasonably priced boots!
If you have other questions, feel free to leave them here, or on the Facebook page where I’ve been posting snippets and photos of camino news. Also, if someone has better information than mine about any of this, do leave your thoughts for others. I’m happy for this post to stay up a while so that discussion can be facilitated.
As always, thanks for visiting, reading and contributing. I hope that your road is headed somewhere fulfilling, and I wish you my favourite wish, over and over…
Buen camino, peregrinos, amigos, compañeros.
On Sunday 14th October, Melbourne’s Sunday Age and Sydney’s Sun-Herald will publish an article of mine in their Sunday-Life magazine. I hope you enjoy it.
On Monday 15th October, if you are in Melbourne, Channel 31 are screening a show called Behind the Words at 7.30pm, and I recorded an excited chat for it around the time of the book’s release.
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!
Not something to proclaim without thought, but there most definitely are things in which I do have faith.
I believe in the power of forgiveness to transform, in the ache to be better, and the impulse to serve.
I believe in the wispy promise of mornings like this one, when the fog lifted itself to reveal a fierce, determined sun.
I believe in confession with all my heart, telling the true story of ourselves, eye to eye with another human being.
I believe our stories shape our lives, so the more honest we are in those stories, the more freedom we will gain.
I believe in personal accountability, staring down my self in the personal mirror that is an unflinching and constant observer.
I worship in churches where silence prevails: barren plains, rocky hilltops, burnt-out forests and squelching paddocks. Places where the hush of humility has fallen.
I believe in kindness. I believe in kindness. I believe in kindness.
And in the goodness that wants to prevail.
I know there is nothing more sacred to me than the act of putting one foot down on a dusty road, and then putting down the other.
Again and again.
For as long as it takes.
Turning up and doing the work.
And I know that the work never ends.
I know there is beauty in effort.
I believe in betterment via example.
I know snails are gurus.
I know that via example!
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.
I believe in possibility over certainty.
I believe in the hope of rain on parched soil. When I smell that unmistakeable waft, I am reminded that miracles have occurred, and that they will again.
Paso a paso. Step by step.
That’s my mantra. My rosary.
And “buen camino” is the prayer I make for you.
Good road. Good way. Good path.
May it find you, especially on the hard days…
Those pictures were taken on a long walk last Sunday along the Great Dividing Trail and back toward Glenlyon, near Daylesford, in Victoria. Country that makes my heart sing. Thanks to all those who came along to the Glenlyon General Store for the Tapas night. It was a celebration of the warmth of community amid the chill of a goldfields winter night. Gracias Tania and David – and all in that humming kitchen.
I arrived at Finisterre after 1300 kilometres of marvels and mud!
The name has taken on mystical significance for me.
The place of arrival.
Of course there is really no arrival, there is only the ongoing journey – the next road that opens. But sometimes it’s good to honour a milestone, and so today, that is what I’m doing.
After the usual washing of clothes and body, massaging of legs and feet, carb-loading and journalling, I walked uphill out of the port to the lighthouse, passing this pilgrim monument on the way.
It was about 9pm.
Bright, clear and warm.
The sea and sky – the world! – seemed to stretch to forever. A trickle of other pilgrims splayed out along the road in front and behind me, but all of us walked in our own silences, suspended between ending and beginning.
We sat and watched a hot red sun turn to orange then pink, as the sea turned from deep blue to mauve below it.
I burned the list of sins, honouring the tradition of release at journey’s end, and honouring those whose courage had kept me walking.
It felt just right.
Then, as the whole world turned pastel, I walked downhill, stopping to ask a fellow pilgrim to photograph me at this distance marker.
It reads “0.00 km”.
Nowhere else to go.
Nowhere to be.
Just here and now.
I can’t remember any place ever feeling so full, or so empty. Perfect.
The world is rather a whirl just now, as I ready myself to offer up a monologue about the work, this Wednesday night in Melbourne. I’m doing things I’ve not done in years – learned lines, pondered how to project my voice, considered my own body in space.
The road will always surprise us!
But in the midst of the fear around failure that accompanies any task I care about deeply, I took myself out onto the road yesterday and walked along the Great Dividing Trail. After about two hours, I looked up at the wide turquoise sky and began to sob with happiness – that strange, inexplicable thing that can happen sometimes when I know I am in my skin and where I am meant to be, and grateful. So very grateful.
Our neighbourhood is being photographed as a record of the 2012 residents, and as part of it we had to fill out a questionnaire. One query was what we hoped to be doing in ten years time. My answer was – still feeling thankful for a body that is strong enough to carry me along a road.
May you remember to honour your milestones.
May you feel the pleasure of here and now at 0.00kms.
May you be overwhelmed by gratitude when you least expect it.
A couple of reminders!
If you have not listened to my Poetica programme, please remember you can download it:
And don’t forget to read the comments – I love the one from the man in Santiago! Feel free to leave one if you enjoy it – the producer, Anne McInerney, did a glorious job, and is leaving the ABC. She deserves all praise.
And of course, if you would like to be kept updated with posts like this, and the guest posts like Tony’s, please enter your email and hit the subscribe button on the top right.
I hope there will be more, but for now, I’m honoured to offer you this moving and provocative reflection on the book. I am particularly grateful to Tony Doherty for facing head-on the horrors of sexual abuse, and how that plays out for him as a pastor in the Catholic church.
When I was walking, I often passed shepherds with their flocks.
Hola Senor Pastor, I would call. Hello Mister Shepherd.
I think Tony’s “flock” are fortunate to have someone so prepared to wrestle with the realities of trying to live with honesty and compassion – and disgrace – inside the structure of the Church. I feel very lucky to have received his words in response to the book.
To what extent are we willing to carry the pain of others? In a Church which claims to be a supporting community of believers, how do we give hope, in some genuine fashion, to someone whose life is fast unravelling, asks Tony Doherty*
At first blush, the concept seemed frankly medieval. An idea left behind centuries ago. Not just pre-Vatican II but pre-Lutheran. Quaint theology but tinged with medieval superstition, with more than a whiff of magic and money.
The idea – a pilgrim setting out to walk the famous Camino de Santiago carrying on her back an unusual cargo – a load of other people’s sins (for a small monetary consideration). This followed the best traditions of medieval believers who paid others to carry their sins to such sacred sites as Santiago, and so buy forgiveness. Not surrogate parenting, but surrogate reconciliation.
An Australian writer, director and actor, Ailsa Piper took on a 1,300 kilometre pilgrimage walking continually for about 45 days through storms and cold, across the rough and the smooth (this woman is no slouch) to the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostella.
Before leaving home, Ailsa published the quirky invitation: “I will walk off your sins. Pilgrim seeks sinners for mutually beneficial arrangement. Proven track record. Tireless. Reliable. Seven deadlies a speciality”.
In our so cool and sophisticated, post-modern culture could such an arcane invitation work? “…yes, people gave me their sins. From the first day, there were confessions, even some from strangers who’d heard of the quest.”
Hang about! Confession of ‘sin’ has been replaced has it not by more contemporary and non-judgemental counselling procedures – or have I been out having lunch somewhere?
But confessions they were – genuine admissions of sin from half-believers, once-upon-a-time believers, even acknowledged atheists. Always heartfelt, often unnervingly disclosive. “I have slept with my best friend’s husband. Not once but four times.” The ‘penitents’ left the impression they were just aching to deal with previously undealt with material.
Taking the project quite seriously, the writer-pilgrim would read the load of sins she was carrying religiously each morning, like some monastic chapter of faults. Her own struggles and sins became part of the daily examination. The honesty and integrity of the author’s description of this process is expressed with uncommon sensitivity and indeed sacredness. At some quite deep level it made totally good sense.
The book, Sinning Across Spain (Victory Books, Melbourne, 2012), tells the story in graceful and stylish voice which at times becomes quite lyrical.
The ‘Camino’ is in the news these days, thanks to Emilio Estevez’s splendid film The Way, the story of a father who, faced with the death of his son killed while attempting the pilgrimage, decides to do the walk carrying his box of ashes to Santiago and eventually the sea. The Piper story and the Estevez film contain a fascinating common thread – carrying a heavy load on the journey: the ashes of a son’s life and the wounds of other people’s lives.
Unburdening oneself of some personal load is an ancient practice on the Camino. At the highest point of the path to Santiago, on top of one of the most challenging hills, there stands a large iron cross. For centuries pilgrims have carried stones, more frequently not much more than we would call ‘gibbers’, often wrapped in paper on which is written a prayer or perhaps a promise. The stones would represent some guilty memory, some emotional wound, perhaps unhealed grief. It might represent a relationship sorely in need of repair or a renewed commitment to the future.
More enthusiastic pilgrims will bring several stones representing the struggles of those left behind at home. Some might choose instead of a stone a symbolic item which better represents what they want to leave behind. The genesis of the Piper invitation, to carry somebody else’s load of sin, probably finds its inspiration in this ancient practice.
Does it make sense? You’d better ask a weary pilgrim struggling up the hill with their heavy swag.
If I may intrude a personal story. Several years ago while walking the Camino I was at the ‘iron cross’ and there on top of the centuries-high pile of stones were two pink baby’s shoes tied together by their laces. I couldn’t get them out of my mind. What did their presence mean? No explanatory note. A pile of symbolic items as untidy as a garage sale. Left there undoubtedly as silent witness of some family tragedy. Hemingway was once famously challenged to write a short story in six words. His story: “For Sale. Baby shoes. Never used.”
So here’s the twist. To what extent are we willing to carry the pain of others? In a Church which claims to be a supporting community of believers, how do we give hope, in some genuine fashion, to someone whose life is fast unravelling?
For Catholics, facing with horror the shocking events of child abuse and sexual manipulation, how do we stop from drowning ourselves? One familiar response is denial. “It can’t be happening.” “Just a few rotten apples.” Another response is angrily scapegoating whatever easy target comes to mind, or the rather shamefully pulling the blankets over our heads and pretending it will go away.
Ailsa Piper’s strategy might hold a valuable clue. Are we strong enough to carry the pain of others – say, the victims of this terrible abuse? Or an even more unspeakable possibility – to carry a little of the disgrace of those seen as responsible.
Sinning across Spain asks the question: how really connected are we? It is a powerful and tantalising question.
* Monsignor Tony Doherty, a priest of the Sydney Archdiocese, is pastor of two Sydney parishes, Dover Heights and Rose Bay. His lifetime search is to find an appropriate language of faith for contemporary adults. He also admits to being a little addicted to walking pilgrimages.
If you would like to see the article in the context for which Tony wrote it, you can go to this link, which is on the website of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan.
Only a week ago, I woke up to this view. Sparkling blue and a lighthouse.
I was at Aireys Inlet for the Lighthouse Literary Festival, a stupendous weekend of illumination, within and without. I taught a workshop, directed actors, curated a session and spoke about SINNING ACROSS SPAIN. Mostly though, I listened – to activists, to brilliant fiction writers, to poets and to an audience lit up by possibilities. We were all imagining together, dreaming a future.
Two years ago I was approaching Finisterre – land’s end – where there is also a lighthouse, beaming out into the darkness of a wild and roaring sea. Then I was empty of all thought, save for gratitude.
I had made it.
Last weekend I walked the beach at Aireys with no pack, in company with two of my nearest and dearest. We laughed, we talked, we drifted into separate silences. I threw myself into the ocean and wallowed in the luxury of being kept afloat, and the sharp sting of salt on skin and tongue, in eyes and mouth.
I was present. Resoundingly present in a privileged, gifted life of free expression and unspoiled nature. And friends…
Two years ago, I walked toward Cape Finisterre with my pack, knowing that the journey I had undertaken was almost done. I look back at myself now, and I feel such affection for that demented blonde. She too was deeply present, without thought of anything other than the steps required to get to home.
Last weekend, as evening fell, I walked the beach at Aireys again, unable to resist the purity of its stretch of white sand, and the ceaseless crash of those ribbons of waves. The sunset could have been crafted by a lighting designer, and the soundscape was better than Beethoven. Ahhhh. It was good!
Two years ago, at Finisterre – land’s end – I sat under the lighthouse and watched the sun disappear into the ocean, dropping off the planet into oblivion. There were only gull cries and silence then. And the crackling of a small fire as it burned the list of sins. It was good.
Well, it is mighty good.
People ask me what is next. The future?
I have no idea. I’m not sure I want to know. I am here, on the “other side of the world” as they say in Spain. The sun is shining today and the sky is bright blue. Australian blue. It’s particular. And I am going to walk a bit, and write a bit, and stay in the day.
I like the “not knowing.” I always have.
The future will take me by surprise in its own good time. For now, I am grateful to Hannie and Nic for inviting me to Aireys, and to Rachel and Peter and Lou for saying yes when I asked them to jump in and risk, and to everyone who inspired me last weekend. Just as I remain grateful to all those who walked the road to Finisterre. To the lighthouse, as a greater mind once wrote.
May your day be peaceful, and may you find time…
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SINNING ACROSS SPAIN is responsible for its first blister!
Today I received this story from Paul, who bought a copy of the book at the airport before leaving Australia on business. He read it on the plane to America, and it lurked around in his thoughts until he got to Mexico, where it decided to have its way with him! Below, with his permission, is his walking story…
As luck would have it, I find myself in Mexico City for work. So yesterday being Sunday I took the opportunity to explore. Wanting to walk out the past week of flying and sitting in conference rooms, and it being a truly gorgeous sunny-cool day, I decide to head out on foot.
Mexico City is not rural Spain. Nevertheless, finding myself treading Spanish-speaking streets put me in mind of your book.
Hmm, maybe I should have paid more attention to the bit about good shoes. I was in a pair of Campers, virtually no soles and no support.
I am staying just south of Colonia Condesa and headed down to the Zocalo in the historic centre. That was about a 10 km stroll. I must have covered another 4-5 in the downtown area, then walked back to Condesa, which was the art deco rich home of movie stars and celebrities until the 1985 earthquake, when it was largely abandoned. In the nineties, the boho art crowd ‘rediscovered’ it and for a decade it was über cool. As with all these kind of neighbourhoods (think Prenzlauer Berg in Berlin, Le Marais in Paris or the Village in NYC), the middle class have discovered the newly-minted amenity and gradually gentrified the place. Anyway, I found a suitably groovy cafe for a late lunch and it was then I discovered that my Campers were not made for walking. By the time I finished my espresso, I could feel a growing blister on my big toe. It felt awkwardly squishy underfoot, so I relented and took a cab the 2 km back to my hotel.
Lest you think the lessons of your adventure were all wasted, I had the wit to hobble to a nearby supermercado and purchase band aids and antiseptic. Lacking a knife, I found a fountain pen with a sharp (ish) nib and managed to penetrate the thick skin to release the pressure. This morning, all good and ready for a day in the office with Hugo, Humberto, Arturo, Eliseo and friends.
So thank you for your (life saving) advice!
One day I will get there, I hope. A city of contrasts and extremes, too wild for me to imagine. And although Campers are made in Spain, I will remember to take the mighty Merrell’s! Pilgrimage needs sole.
Thanks so much Paul, for permission to put the story into the blogosphere. And to Kati, for her images of Mexican silver hearts.
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