Monday, April 17, 2017

Nauru




Open jerry can, full
cigarette lighter, poised
Schick razor for lacerating
soft white wrists, scarred
 bedsheet noose, snared
fire blankets, rationed
hydrant, expired
W H & S training, tick


Acres of white gravel
hobnailed, crunch
And rows of ticky tacky
All made the same
marijuana traded for sex
open sewers, incubating
grey linoleum, bulge
fluorescence, pop


The Pacific Solution!

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Iceland

Standing on the wet concrete floor in my red gumboots, ankle length rubber apron and hair net, I plunge the tweezers mercilessly into the slab of pale pink flesh. The pincered end of my tool meets the squirming parasite as I draw it out and deposit it into the container, already writhing with its genetic pool in the centre of the long, underlit table. By mid morning the container’s already full. The slimy little creeps have begun evacuating their vessel and are headed back across the table to their fleshy host. Get back you little fucker, I mutter under my breath, pinching them with ardent, metallic disgust. This is the value of the trawler’s overnight catch, multiple ton of infested Icelandic cod. These were the worst days. Slow drudge days, days of sluggish mood, mean humour. Days when Marianne Faithfull’s ‘The Ballad of Lucy Jordan’ blaring through the speakers with soulful melancholy, felt like your personal anthem. Under the watchful gaze of the passing supervisor, with reckless disregard, I jab the tweezers in again, and again, retrieving dozens of wrigglers from the flesh of the giant fillet. The cod-worm, Nematoda, belonging to a parasitic organism that occupies 90% of the ocean floor, are a common occurrence - don’t believe me? Google it! - and harmless, if cod is cooked to 60°. Yeah right, I’ll just get my thermometer out!
With the supervisor now on his way, I look up and meet the eye of my co-worker. We exchange winks. Without a second thought, I deftly slice the large fillet into meal size pieces and place them, side by side, remaining worms intact, in the shiny laminated box, close the lid, and smack it on the stack of others at the end of the table. No qualms! Done! Just for a moment, I’m dazzled by my audacity. The locals, the sour lot they invariably are, cheat as well, so that makes it right. Right? It’s crucial to buck the system. You see, every box that you pack above your daily quota, the bigger the bonus at the end of the week. The bigger the bonus, the further the travel at the end of your 5-month contract. This was how it had to be.


The recipient nation of this extra-protein-enhanced product are the citizens of the USA. I consider the mild sense of vindication I feel. Didn’t the USA deserve a bit of its own covert treatment? Even if only for the odd nematoda in their chowder! Surveying the pickings that trundle down the conveyor belt in large square plastic bins, I strain with the effort and pull another full load of fin, scale and muscle onto the table, empty its content, pick up my perfectly honed knife and skin half a big beast with one quick flick of my strong wrist.


The bell sounds for morning smoko. A loud rubber thwack, the sound of hundreds of factory workers removing their gloves, cracks open the darkness, as we file out, hungry for pudding, monstrous lashings of sour cream and hot cocoa.


Processing practices are surely different now. I'm talking 35 years ago. Thermometer or not, cod’s been off my personal menu since. Fish fingers? You’d have to be mad. Think worm!!!!


Sudureyri, Iceland
Winter 1980

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Long Hugsville

He of the coffee-coloured waist-length dreadlocks, over-fed pecs and hemp trousers, Adonis, and she of the saintly expression, bare midriff and colossal bosom, Persephone, are hugging in the centre of the main path leading into the garden café. Greenpeace pin-ups! Not your average shabby tree dweller. Hugee and hugor sway backwards and forwards and from side to side, enjoying the mutual sensation of each others embrace while customers sip soup and break bread inches from their hips. I can’t take my eyes off them. The passing trade finds themselves having to navigate off the path in order to make their way to the bar. I begin to get an uneasy sensation. Are they for real? It’s hard to say around here. After a long minute, or so it seems, I want to interject. Take your devotion to satsang, or get off the bloody path will you! Their complete disregard to the people movement chaos they’re causing gives me the shits. I’m feeling embarrassed, and getting prickly. One minute ten, twenty … Two minutes down and they’re still grafted to each other. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t have a problem with public displays of affection. Mum did. I don’t. Persephone’s peach and lilac skirt blossoms over the path, while the scent of the patchouli oil she’s poured over herself sends the resident water dragons scampering up the central poinciana tree. Adonis is impressively big, as big as the muscular presence of cheetah on the savannah. Clearly he thinks this his urban savannah. A waiter sidles up with a loaded tray, ‘Excuse me’ he murmurs – louder, I want to yell - but the huggers are deaf as well as mute and stupid. I distract myself by sharpening my poison arrows. Wait! There’s someone else in on this. Sitting at the table closest to them, thigh high suede boots, eyes like big green saucers and wearing a belt masquerading as skirt is the other woman. Aphrodite. Is she waiting her turn at a hug with Adonis. She seems very patient. I’ve now moved through and out of embarrassment and sit firmly in mindless rage. Three and three quarter minutes. I position arrow number 1. Ah, movement! They prize themselves apart and I breath a sigh of relief. It’s a false alarm though because they separate, fractionally, faces three inches apart, and gaze into each others eyes. Endlessly they check each other’s iridology, analyse the crusty sleep in each other’s eyes, look for nits nestling in their erotic eyebrows. Buggered if I know what the wilfully unaware do! Puss in boots, sorry, Aphrodite, lingers on the side. She’s not even fidgeting. A few nervous coughs ensue, chairs get shuffled, people snigger – thank god I’m not the only murderer - raised eyebrows, more coughs. I want to throw a bucket of cold water over them! Finally, after a marathon 4 minutes, they give each other a last adoring look. Adonis turns to she of the noble tolerance and nods. Persephone sits back down at the table, picks up her bulging walnut burger, and poises her perfect teeth. Let’s see you eat that with dignity I mutter under my breath. Aphrodite wraps her arm around Adonis’ waist and they disappear out into the street. Only in Mullumbimby!

 

Monday, August 25, 2014

Carla


All it took was the sound of her name
embodied in the other
or the arrival of August
for the memory to return
and melancholy crept back slowly
into the house of her belonging

From time to time she saw her
just for an instant
in the busy mall
the old growth forest
even in Milan
but not often, and sometimes not for years

Or did she imagine she saw her
it was hard to say
for the presence of energy
like the presence of the divine
is the ineffable mystery
beyond ones measure to recall

As the years multiplied
and they became thirty
Cat remembered she too was thirty
when the infant came
but all that was left was frozen
grandmother, mother, child

A holy trinity of profound grief
that tragic, guttural, primal wail
discreet hurried nurses
shocked silence
stillness
a painful endurance

What stays is what remains
long limbs
translucent skin
fine features
indelibly pressed into the spaces
between the spaces of her mind

Where are you now little soul
who whispers to you in the night
and fills your cup with hope
does your heart hunger
for the promise of a peaceful world
when will you come again?
CARLA BURCHALL

27 August 1984



Sunday, August 24, 2014

The cultured cushion

After my volunteer stint in Arnhem Land, I came home with several metres of handmade lino cut and screen-printed cotton produced by the wonderful indigenous women of Maningrida. What was I to do with it? The selfish part of me wanted to adorn my home with its beauty. Hang it on the wall, drape it over my bed, make a dress or skirt. After all, I worked like an ox in a timber yard for its favour, survived stifling humidity and fell victim to great gaps of mental acuity (see fruit loop brain!), and suffered the deprivation of a decent coffee for 2 weeks! I deserved it! The generous part of me, on the other hand, began contemplating my accumulation of ‘stuff’. I have heaps of it. Stuff in the closet, stuff in the storage shed, stuff on the floor, a more than healthy dose of personal stuff, and generally, stuff from here to eternity. Cushions it was then!

I’m pretty sure the plump and colourful result of my labour would make the women happy. They’re unique and original. If you run your fingertips over the fabric, you can feel the rawness of paint, imagine the women at work. They come complete with imperfections from the hand printing process, with piping in a compatible or contrasting hue, have twin ties to fasten them on the back, and are filled with the softest, bounciest, and most eco-friendly cushion inserts ever, and made from recycled water bottles.

I’m offering them for sale at $50 a pop.

Call me

0431 600 138


 

 

 

 

 

Sunday, August 10, 2014

What do you do?

'Hi, I’m X, and I’m a senior lecturer at Southern Cross Uni. What do you do?’ This enquiry comes with distracted, feigned interest, a flick of her long dark superior hair and a smugness that makes me want to puke. I fucking hate this question. I try to be magnanimous, but on less charitable days my mind leans toward the cynical. ‘What do you really want to know? What I do or how I earn my money?’ I don’t go there! Regardless, my reaction to this prescriptive, potentially socially isolating and dead-end question is probably written all over my face. I feel it instantly. The protective little hairs on the back of my neck rush toward the horizontal as my emotional landscape freezes. ‘I do lots of things" I blurt. ‘Have my finger in lots of pies’. ’ The Bard says it better than I ever could!
But really, how do I answer that question? And what question would I prefer? I ‘do’ lots of things. Sometimes I lie on my bed for hours reading. This is luxurious to the point of guilty discomfort. The only way to silence the judge that criticises my down time is to just read! I sew, curse, and unpick, and sew, curse and unpick again. A crowd of cushions I’ve been making from the fabric I was given in Arnhem land has begun to colonise my workroom. One morning a week, I head to my beloved Playback Theatre. Each week we rehearse and prepare for upcoming gigs by playing silly warm-up games for an hour, and then telling our stories. After 16 years I’m still astonished by the healing power of shared personal story, and the captive, deep-listening ensemble of actors who play them back. On Friday morning I trampse down to the farmers market to buy fruit and veg for my hospice client, and head back up to the hills to be with her. Every now and then I work as a facilitator on rite of passage camps for teenagers transitioning to adulthood. These are 5-day bush retreats and involve lots of preparation, weeks of it. Occasionally I’ll spend hours writing a blog. I’m a laborious thinker! Two or three times a week, I drive down to Brunswick Heads on a whim just to walk out onto the breakwall to feel the swell of the ocean in my bones. I cook, pick citrus, covet the neighbour’s passionfruit, sit in cafes and talk to strangers, listen to birdsong, marvel at the paragliders who sprinkle the sky outside my window, support and exasperate my friends and family, play my uke, walk the dog, and reflect on the myriad of emotions I feel during the day. Envy, desire, blame, grief, confusion. Oh yeah, I'm never short of strong feeling! I attend a weekly Buddhist study group, committee meetings, and volunteer at numerous political and community-building events. It's a long coooeee from my past life as a legal/parliamentary secretary in Melbourne, far more connecting and fulfilling, and paradoxically, virtually impossible to articulate to those with a more conventional working life.

So, next time somebody asks me that oh-so-bloody-boring question I’m going to plagiarise a response I heard at the writers’ fest. ‘I work for Arnotts in Food Technology and am currently developing a product that stops the marshmallow on an Iced Vovo from sagging’!!




Sunday, August 3, 2014

Cancer: fear, care and reflection


This photo was extracted from Google Images. It’s a fungating breast tumor, the result of breast cancer left untreated. It’s identical to the growth on the breast of a hospice client I’m caring for, as big as a dinner plate, ugly, and very unpleasant on the nose. I’ve chosen to show you this image because it’s not something you’d ordinarily see. My daughter was horrified when I showed her, but it had the effect of promoting conversation. One of my interests is to demystify the often taboo subject of death. This is a provocative way of doing it. No apologies.

For nearly 15 years I’ve worked as a volunteer hospice carer with Byron Hospice a service that supports people with a terminal illness who choose to die at home. Each week, before I get out of the car at the home of my current client, I say a little prayer to help ground and centre myself and to seek guidance, put on my invisible hat of compassion and empathy, and go and sit. I’m not there to offer advice. I’m there to listen, hold a hand.  When you speak, you’re often repeating what you already know, but when you listen, you may learn something new.

My client is my age. She’s single, has no family, and has been a very active community-minded advocate for healthy families. She’s scared and vulnerable and doesn’t want to die. Who does?

My clients are my greatest teachers. They teach me about death, but more particularly, they teach me how to live well. Am I doing enough to improve the lives of disadvantaged, marginalized and lonely people? Am I using the skills I was born with for the betterment of humans, our precious planet? Have I forgiven myself my indiscretions? Is there any unfinished business I need to attend to? Have I examined my regrets? Am I ticking items off my bucket list? Do I want to die with fear and confusion, or with dignity and grace? I know the answer to that last question. What about you?

‘The only thing that death teaches us is that it is urgent to love’ Eric Emmanuel Schmit

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Two weeks on the edge


Fellow Scorpio, novelist Kurt Vonnegut once wrote "I want to stand as close to the edge as I can without going over … you see all kinds of things you can’t see from the centre". Having just spent two weeks in remote Maningrida, an Aboriginal community in Arnhem Land, 500 km east of Darwin, I agree. Maningrida’s as far from mainstream Australia as you can get, culturally shocking, and as insightful and stimulating as a trip to India for the first time.

Before I left I was concerned with two things. How my sensitivities would cope with my perceived notion of domestic violence, and whether, as a single woman, I could transition to life there. On those two counts, my concerns proved unjustified.


I worked as a volunteer in the Bawinanga Women’s Centre, a social enterprise providing empowerment and employment for the local indigenous women. Whilst ‘work’ as we know and understand it generally means 5 days slog to enjoy 2 days rest, the opposite seems to be true for our first nations people. Despite earning a wage for hours worked, the women often didn’t show up. Sorry business – the cultural practices and protocols surrounding death which can last up to a week, ceremony, gone fishing, gone walkabout for pandanus gathering, and other long established customs inform their day-to-day and keep cultural tradition alive and well in the community. How real!


The women are sewers, textile print-makers (lino-cuts and screenprints), artists, cleaners, op-shop attendants and much more. To hear them speak ‘language’ in the Centre I was reminded of my own ignorance. An ancient lineage it is and it made me reflect on what values and beliefs I hold dear and how often they direct my life. Notwithstanding a common indigenous view that white people are ‘tissues’ – white person arrives, white person leaves, another one takes their place – I felt their reserved welcome of me, and to make the occasional eye contact, was humbling. I was fortunate to work alongside them, teach them a few sewing techniques, and learn a whole lot more from them. Here’s some of their lovely work.

Dilly bag designs, lino-cuts
Helping with screen-printing. A stunning bamboo design

More screen-printed designs

All these designs, and hundreds more can be viewed, and bought at wwwbabbarradesigns.com.au

A parallel universe it might be, but the alternative reality was at such odds to my own that the cultural difference I experienced left me feeling emotionally drained and disturbed. As far as most of the balandas (white people) there are concerned, the Government ‘Intervention’ is a failure. Housing’s an issue, but mainly for the balandas. There’s never enough. The housing built to accommodate the indigenous people on the other hand, from the outside at least, seemed neither wanted nor needed. While I was told its frowned upon by authorities, the locals look far more comfortable sitting on the dusty red earth around the ubiquitous fire, burning day and night, in the front yard. The constant smell of smoke in town made it hard to breath. The supermarkets bulge with soft drinks, sweet biscuits, potato chips, long life milk products and 2-minute noodles. Sugar is devoured with a kind of manic obsession and the packaging dropped where it lands. ‘White man’s products! White man’s problem’! The town is one depressed looking garbage dump. The mangy, emaciated, scabby dogs in their hundreds satiate their rabid hunger by foraging through the balandas bins, knocked over by one large roaming resident pig who also feasts on dog and human faeces. "Watch that you don’t hit the dogs on the street" I’m warned, ‘Otherwise you’ll pay". Why the dogs appear to command the reverence of a holy cow I never found out. The effects of smoking and sugar consumption pose the two most serious health risks in the community, according to my friend who’s employed by the health service. About 10 percent of the school age children in town turn up to school. And why would they? They’re being asked to learn a curriculum in a language foreign to them! Once the young men are initiated at around 12, there seems no good reason for them to return to school. The school counsellor I spoke to one evening was at a complete loss to know how to engage them. ‘There’s no good male role models in town’ she lamented.

One of the most shocking of all sights I encountered though was ‘death alley’ (my description). This is a stretch of coastline some 500 metres long at the edge of town where the locals dump the clothes and personal effects of their dead. Custom suggests that the incoming tide will 5 times wash the effects clean of any undesirable spirit energy, and then, in an ideal world, it would be transferred to the tip. This doesn’t happen of course, and the result is a coastline littered with rotting and rusty rubbish, including car batteries, prams, fridges, lengths of iron, mattresses, bed-frames. etc.

I recommend the edge. It's a fascinating place, full of wonder and knowledge.

Thanks women of Maningrida.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Friday, May 2, 2014

Resilience

Carelessness

wallet stolen

Mindlessness

new machine damaged

Death

Aunty critically ill

 

Visitors by three

hungry ghosts

come to shatter the illusion

beware the arrogance

of a closed mind

they seem to want to say

 

The heart will not be broken

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Ode to the ANZACs

 

Brothers and uncles, grandparents and gads

Babes to their mamas, and lovers and dads

With trust and honor they served our shore

Naivety and courage their distinguishing lore

 

When the fighting was done and they all returned home

The welcome was short, yet the life-time long

For the horrors of combat are enclosed in the mind

And the memories live on, the triggers grind

 

‘It’s bullshit’ he’d say with loaded expression

downing a claret to anaesthetize his depression

‘The glorification of war is demonstrably mad’

he reminded us yearly, which just made me sad

 

I was fine all morning till the bugle was played

At the market where all the fresh fruit is displayed

The diggers were two in their medals and stripes

And the tears flowed freely, for suffering, for hype

 

 

Lest we forget

 

Monday, April 21, 2014

A seamstress' Rite of Passage

I sew, therefore I am! Said nobody ever. The functionality of my sewing machines is what I love, although I think I’d still prefer a motorbike. At least you can go places. 

Lately I’ve been sewing again. After a long spell. Because I couldn’t get a job. I didn’t want any of them, but that’s irrelevant. Here’s what I’ve been making. They're made from old woolen blankets.
And they're for sale!

In the early years I’d take up the hems on my dresses to within a millimetre of my arse, whilst fiercely guarding the bedroom door lest mum discover my shameless pursuits. As much as possible I endured, but avoided her silent, grievous look. This was the late 60s and besides, I was told I had good legs. Despite having knock-knees, pidgeon toes and wearing orthopaedic shoes as a child! In the 70s I made most of my work clothes, fancy three piece pin-stripe suits, lace and linen ensembles, backless satin evening dresses. The latter I christened one night on the way home from the Hofbrauhaus in the Dandenongs by throwing up all over it, only hours after finishing it. Classy! In Alexandria, in Egypt in the early 80s I meticulously hand sewed a red gathered skirt to distract myself from shitting water a hundred times a day whilst nursing myself through an acute bout of amoebic dysentry. A few years later, when Phil and I lost our first child, Carla, at birth, I made dozens of tiny white night-dresses for SIDS babies. Carla’s little nightie that I found recently, after a very long time, made me sad. I made our later kids’ clothes, dinosaur and cat suits, but generally I just draped them like rubber mannequins in whatever happened to be my textile fetish at the time. There’s been wedding dresses, bronze chiffon ones, and black emo ones, and period costume for stage and film including an impressive (impressively large) ostrich-skin codpiece. As wardrobe mistress for one of Juliet Lamont’s first documentary short films, The Players, I relished the opportunity to dress two prostitutes. Corsets and stilettos. Now we're talking! 

Mostly though, I’ve undermined my inner needleworker. A combo of mediocre self-esteem, combined with a general belief that every woman sewed, didn’t they, like learning to set the table during home economics at school, or having to check in at the clinic for a Pap smear every so often. You just didn’t talk about it, did you? Well, you mightn’t! 

Anyhow, after a long 40+ year initiation, I’ve grown up, and bought two industrial machines. I’ve grown up to the extent that I’ve even put a dollar value on my capacity to thread a needle (does this needle actually HAVE a fucking hole, and if so, WHERE?) from the right direction. I’m seriously expensive (but I trade ... seeds, vegetables, overseas trips), and I’m worth it!
 
Here's my new housemates.
This is Bess. She’s named in honor of my maternal grandma who taught me to sew with patience and skill, and the heady smell of Craven A and burnt white toast. Thanks for the life-long nicotine habit Grandma! Bess is the older of the two machines, and when I look at her, she inspires a direct memory link to my old 70s stamping ground, Northcote. All grey, sinister, resilient and dependable. She’s my straight stitcher, and she rocks!
And here's Sissy. Color, sass and subversion are her hallmarks and she represents my paternal nana. She's everything Italian and the woman I credit with my passion for international textiles and cultural difference. Home was Villa Bereguardo, in Diamond Creek, and now that I think of it, her rolling hills, lemon-scented gums and deep valleys symbolize my own personal rite of passage, from young girl to young woman. My humming overlocker.


I think I'm going to like my new job. It’s practical and social. And sexy! I get to put my arms around strangers waists. And between their legs. This is as good as it gets.
Open for Business

Monday, June 3, 2013

On gums and bums

5.00 a.m. It's something you have to get used to on the Camino, being woken at insane hours, grumpy at the chorus of nasal trumpeters who've kept you awake half the night. Every night I have the earplugs at the ready, and every night they get inserted, fall out, get taken out because I feel like I'm suffocating via hearing-deprivation, get cursed, and despite my best efforts, get lost or swallowed during the night by the angel of mercy! Your typical pilgrim hostel is dormitory style, which you share with anywhere between 4 and 100 people. Neither privacy nor modesty belong on a pilgrimage. They're first world luxuries. Being woken to the sound of backpacks being dragged across the floor, zips opening and closing, plastic bags being rustled, walking poles collapsing in a racket on tiled floors - it's not the kind of gentle introduction to the day I've come to expect and depend on. Not a morning person! I've had to process my resentment at being woken so cruelly. It doesn't get easier.

This morning I suffer the disturbance for 30 minutes, drifting in and out of sleep, and eventually get up around 5.30, my inner huff clearly audible, I'm sure. I sit on the edge of my bed, and drag my pack to my feet. If you can't beat them, you join 'em. The man on the top bunk, who I could particularly strangle this morning - the entire bunk was vibrating under the force of his gasp last night - is standing directly to my right, his hip virtually in my face, arranging something on his bed. He seriously needs to do something about the shock of matted hair on his back. Should I be the person to tell him? In front of me, at arms length, is a large German woman bent double, attending to her blisters. Her arse is almost in my face. I retreat a little further back onto the bed. To my right, another man, from the top bunk on the opposite side. Some people shouldn't wear lycra. He's emptying the contents of his pack all over the floor - why don't you take up the entire floor space you selfish sod? - while clearing his throat and flossing at the same time. I duck to avoid a projectile. Oh for God's sake! Add to this the passing traffic of people moving backwards and forwards to the dunny, and you've got a pretty clear picture of the normal morning routine in your average pilgrim hostel. I lower my head a little deeper into my pack, ferretting unsuccessfully for the bag that contains the electrical stuff, ipad and phone charger, uke tuner, batteries, and head torch. Suddenly I hear tinkle, tinkle, the sound of something light and metallic meeting tiled floor. I squint down onto the floor. A pair of dentures smiles up at me! Oh please!!!!! I look up, from one arse to another, but no-one seems to have noticed. On impulse, and wanting as little physical contact as possible with the 'visitor, I do what any empathic pilgrim would do and with great dexterity, and a further tinkle, tinkle, flick the dislocated smile back in the direction I presume it's come from. In an instant, a hand darts down into the semi-darkness and retrieves it.

I'm sick to the back teeth with it all!!

 

 

Friday, May 31, 2013

'Swing low, sweet chariot ...'

Maybe I'm cranky this morning because I drank more than my fair share of red wine last night. At $1.50 a jug, why wouldn't I (over) indulge from time to time? I stop at the first cafe I come to, only 2 kms down the road from where I stayed last night, for my second cup of coffee. The first one doesn't count cos it's from a machine. For the next 6 kms all I can think of is my feet, how much they ache, how sad they feel. It's walking on bitumen that does it; so unyielding. I keep reflecting on the fact I've grown muscle on my arms and legs, but not on my feet. They're working SO hard. Poor tired wasted feet!

So I arrive in the next village, having walked only 8 kms. I need a short day I say to myself, recover a bit, give myself a rest. But it's early, 10.00 am and nothing's open, apart from the cafes. I have my third coffee. I know. Bad! I send a text to a friend who's already reached the end of the camino, have a bit of whinge. I'm heard, and feel a bit better. I give the rose I've collected on the way to the woman behind the bar at the cafe, and feel virtuous!

I summon up the energy to keep walking. There are two options, one by the motorway, slightly shorter, far less mountainous, and one up and over the pass. 13 kms up and over the pass! I remember my note to self, no more bitumen if possible! Before I've even reached the edge of town, however, I get cranky again with a busload of tourists for monopolising the pilgrim statue and taking too long to say cheese to their respective cameras. I try distracting myself by drafting a ditty in my head to my sore feet but it lasts all of a minute. Breathe Catherine!

I begin the climb, my mind a monkey, jumping from one thought to another without the slightest effort! What's with the three married men who've propositioned me so far? How very un-Christian pilgrimage! Am I giving out the wrong signals? (fyi fellas, a woman travelling on her own, whether she's 18 or 60, is NOT an open invitation to have sex, so pull your heads in!) Why haven't I had an epiphany yet? I'm only 150 km from the end! What if I haven't had one before I reach Santiago? What then? What will have been the point of the pilgrimage? Should I continue walking? Another Camino? Will I have enough money? Why are the pilgrims who catch buses from village to village and then walk the last 100 kms entitled to the same 'certificate' at the finish as those who walk the whole 800 km? They're fake! Why are the lycra-clad pilgrim cyclists allowed on the same path as the walkers? Why don't they use their bloody bells? Will I find an albergue with a kitchen tonight to cook the big slab of fresh salmon I've got hanging off the back of my pack (thank God it's a cold day!)? Will there be wifi? Where's my Australian friend? Has she reached the end? Blah, blah, mind is out of control!

I hear the church bell chiming from the valley floor. I stop. Look back down the mountain. It stops.

Walking again, I hear the sound and stop to listen again. Nothing. For the third time I begin walking and hear the sound again. I concentrate on it for a moment, and with a start, realize the sound is coming from my pack. It's my uke. Something is moving against one of the strings inside my pack, producing what sounds like the 'C' note. As soon as it occurs to me I'm making the music by the movement of my body, something shifts in me. In musical terms, or should I say in my simplistic musical knowlege, the note 'C' is what is variously described as the 'home key', the note songs sung in the C major scale often finish in, the comfort key. I'm struck by its significance. Coming home, in the realm of a spiritual practise I've followed for years, is coming home to the present, coming home to right here, right now. In the right here, right now, I begin to practise walking meditation, breathing in, breathing out, one foot in front of the other. It's astonishing how little emotional or physical pain there is when you focus on your breath. I walk on, aware of the birdsong, the wind on my face, the sweetness of the jubes I'm tucking into, the pink clover at my feet, the smell of the wild lavender, and come back to my breath, back to one foot in front of the other.

I look down from the mountain and see the highway snaking its way through the valley. The small dark moving shapes are pilgrims moving along, risking life and limb in the traffic. In three hours I've seen no other pilgrims on the mountain. I made the right decision.

Through the ancient chestnut grove.

'... coming for to carry me home'.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Thank You

Thank you for the wild red poppies and tiny daisies, the hyacinths and even the genetically-engineered canola flowers. They are my ground-dwelling rainbow.

Thank you for my fellow pilgrims, from every nation on earth, including Herman the German, Pavarotti channeller extraordinaire, whose full voice on the mountains and in the valleys brings tears.

Thank you for the chill wind that still blows from the late snow on the mountains surrounding the path, for it cools and comforts the workhorse that is body.

Thank you for the yellow arrows, those trusty hand-painted signs found on trees, rocks, the road and pavement, telegraph poles, houses, hospitals, everywhere. Priceless.

Thank you for the countless sculptures dedicated to the pilgrim. They are a reminder that this is no ordinary walk.

Thank you for Ibuprofen! What remarkable good sense to make the Spanish version three times more powerful than its Australian equivalent.

Thank you for frozen peas, nature's astonishing cold-pack!

Love, Stumpy

 

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Bob and Bloo and the province of the mind


A few days ago I met Bob and Bloo, two Scotsmen, also travelling solo. We've been walking together.

Bob's 73, a grandfather, salesman, and extraordinary storyteller. His stories of the personal lives of European nobility from last century have restored my faith in history.

Bloo (don't ask!) is 62, an ex military pilot, with 35 years experience in the army. Last year he had a stroke, lost his power of speech, but with dogged will and support, has regained it.

When you're walking for up to 8 hours a day, every day, the heat burning down on you, the wind chilling you to the bone, your feet navigating the rocks on the path and screaming 'rest', it tests the fibre of your being, it tests the fibre of your doing. Out on 'the way', in conversation with the other, your common day-to-day censor, fried by the sun or buried underneath the old meat and peas in the deep freeze, becomes inaccessible. Camino Dementia! You become very personal, very quickly.

Keeping pace with the two B's has meant walking faster and further than I normally would. Two days ago, while walking the longest straightest stretch of nothing to date, a 16 km gravel road with no shade, no villages, and nothing to occupy the mind but mind itself, I asked Bloo to tell me what a soldier might be trained to 'think' in similar circumstances. He contemplated the question for a little while and replied 'see that puddle ahead? How far do you think it is?'. Make a guess, then step it out, he suggested. A bit later he continued. 'The horizon, do you want to know how far it is?' Math was never my strong point, but for the sake of conversation, I nodded. His response included words like height, square root and multiplication. Try it, he said. I spat the dummy. 'I'm not playing' I replied. 'That kind of game reminds me of questions thrown at me as a child, questions I could never answer. You remind me of my father!'. OUCH! He stopped, looked at me, and the offence was obvious! Censorius Unavailabilius! What a bitch!

Some time later, falling back to walk separately, my mind attached itself to how strong I was becoming, how powerfully I was walking, and, wait for it, comparing myself with the cripples on the path. Sure, I'd had some blisters but they'd healed. Fifteen minutes later, striding along confidently, my foot suddenly, and momentarily, went numb. I was concerned for half a minute, then not. A kilometre down the road I was crouched on the grass by the side of the road, shoe off, pain searing my foot, the two B's at my side offering comfort.

'4 days, no walking' said the doctor. Tendinitis!

Bye Bob and Bloo. Thanks for the lesson.