The longing is the path.
US Book Tour!
LA – Seattle – San Francisco – Boston – Chicago – Atlanta – Washington – South Carolina – New York City
Media & communications trainer, Office of the Attorney-General
Full time work for the first time in 10 years! I’ve been assisting the Australian Attorney-General’s electorate office with their media and speechwriting skills, teaching them to write media releases, identify local media opportunities and prepare great speeches.
Mullumbimby, Spain, Italy, the Balkans, France, New Zealand, the Middle East
Tired of ‘wanting’ (wishing wanting wishing wanting) I decided to see what would happen if I surrendered all my wanting and wishing to the impulse of life itself.
What would happen, I wondered one long day as I lay in the sunshine in the garden of my mountain home, if I let go the steering wheel of my life . . . and let life lead me?
I longed to write. And I was fed up with ignoring an inner voice, buried so deeply as to be virtually inaudible, that had been calling me to write every waking moment for years and years and years.
Much as I loved the precious things around me, including my home, I was only half way through my life. I was a woman not wealthy so clearly I faced a choice: I could spend the rest of my life working to have lovely things – or I could not work and set myself free to live.
Lolling on the lounge one rainy day, I suddenly leaped up and began loading books into the car. Instinctively I knew once I’d surrendered the books, there’d no stopping me. After all, I swear the reason I bought the house in the first place was to have somewhere to put my lovely lovely best friend books. I drove them to my daughter’s house at the foot of my mountain and spent the next few weeks selling and surrendering. I came to call it ‘the choiceless path’. Because from this moment on I made no choices. I let life lead me.
In September 2005 I walked with my son Ben across Spain’s northern interior along El Camino, the mystical road to Santiago de Compostela. In 2006 I flew to New Zealand to practice writing beside a bubbling creek that spilled onto the sandy beach at my door. In September 2007 I flew to Rome to walk with Ben, this time for the middle leg of his pilgrimage from Canterbury to Jerusalem. In 2008 I wrote a book. In 2009 I flew again to New Zealand to write a second book. In November 2009 I launched My Pilgrim’s Heart. In November 2010 I launched Hymn for the Wounded Man. In July 2011 I signed a US publishing deal with PRA Publishing for My Pilgrim’s Heart.
Springbrook Mountain, Australia
For some time I’d had a perfectly good job on the Gold Coast Sun as a reporter. One morning I arrived at work as usual, sat down at my desk to write up an interview from the day before and, instead of typing up the story, my fingers tapped out my resignation. I took a breath, fingers poised, and read it curiously. I decided to give myself until lunchtime to find a reason for not handing it in.
At 12 noon, failing to find that reason – my mortgage did not qualify as a good enough reason – I gave the editor four week’s notice.
That afternoon I called by my daughter’s house. I can still picture her, her children small and at her feet, one hand on the open refrigerator door and the other on her hip, sternly reprimanding me: ‘well I don’t know what you think you’re going to do with yourself!’
I felt like an awry teenager. Because the truth was I didn’t know either.
I established a media consultancy called MPower Media. By the time I understood that ‘working for myself’ meant ‘running a business’ I was burned out and exhausted. My little enterprise had been successful. For two years, I had fed and clothed myself, put petrol in my car and paid the mortgage. But I was also burned out. And fed up with doing everything alone.
I bought a bottle of red wine and a block of smooth dark chocolate, closed the office doors and drove home to the mountain. I spent the rest of that particular day in the gentle sunshine with my wine and chocolate, toasting MPower Media and bidding that particular incarnation adieu.
The lost years
What does a woman do when her children are gone and she stands alone in an empty house? In my case, I had no idea what to do. Or even where to go. We had been living in New Zealand and the children left at the same time. They had been raised to independence. They finished school, or in my daughter’s case finished with school, spread their wings and took to the big wide world. I felt the need to be at least within coo-ee of them and I returned to Australia.
But I had no idea where to be.
So I bought a car and drove the east coast of northern New South Wales. I slept in the back of the station wagon, spending my days roaming the beaches, reading on the lazy headlands, fishing and taking my occasional catch down to the local restaurant, where they’d cook it up for my dinner.
I was living a delightful, easygoing life – but I was utterly lost.
I got down to my last fifty bucks. Fifty dollars between me and proverbial starvation. I sat on the wide green headland at Hastings Point, the light bright blue above and the deep ocean blue below, staring at the yellow note. I decided to have a yoga lesson, a private session with my old teacher in Byron Bay. I found her number. I rang her from the phone box outside the shop (it was the 90s) and booked my lesson for the next morning at 6am.
I woke in the darkness, snuggled down in my comfortable bed safe and warm in the back of the station wagon parked high on a headland, and drove south to Byron Bay. I was early, so I drove on to Broken Head. As I stood on the dunes looking out at eastern horizon, the morning crisp and clean, I marveled that in all the years I’d been driving to and through Byron Bay I had never previously stopped at Broken Head.
As the rising sun lit the morning gold, I ran down the golden dune towards the water, the sand cold on my bare feet, and walked along the water’s edge. The waves, small and gentle, white and frilly, lapped at my feet. Shoosh. Shoosh. They broke in tiny tumbles over my toes, coming and going, coming and going.
I was lost, my spirit overwhelmed with the lack of direction and purpose. Bathed in the beauty of the earth and her gifts, deeply connected to our natural world, I was without bearings in the realm of human endeavour, or even community and connection.
As the golden sun popped above the horizon I turned my heart to the light and with all the passion and fullness of my entire being raised my eyes to the rising sun and asked a billowing question – ‘what’s it for?’
‘What’s it for?’
At that moment I looked down at the wet sand as a small wet wave tipped her lacy frill onto my feet and receded to deeper waters.
And there, on the damp and spotted golden shore, just near my toes, lay a small green heart.
I stared, and bent slowly to pick it up. I held the polished green heart, the size of my thumb nail, between my fingers. I held it up to the light. I stared in wonder at the precious gift – the universe’s answer to my question.
What’s it for?
This whole human journey is for love.
Of course that didn’t give me direction. But it did give me hope.
As for the rest of those years, I have no idea really where I went or what I did. I know I bought a mango farm up near Gympie and lived in a canvas shelter with an outdoor bath for while. I loved that bathtub – it was set against a small hill, with herbs planted along the rim. I would light a fire beneath the tub in the fading afternoon light and lie there, for hours in the darkness, showered in rain or starlight, watching stars wheel across the night sky.
My daughter gave birth to my granddaughter and then my grandson. In between I flew to Spain to meet a friend. We planned to travel together for nine weeks. I spent my first day in Barcelona looking for her – only to discover she had flown out two hours before I arrived. For nine weeks I wandered Spain alone and swore that never again would I eat a meal at day’s end without companionship.
I worked on newspapers on the north coast of New South Wales and southern Queensland. I worked short stints in politics. I became the editor of a country music magazine, an experience that introduced me to country music, which to this day is my greatest love in music.
And I longed to write. I told myself I would start writing when I had a laptop computer. I bought a laptop and told myself I’d start writing when I got my next laptop. In the end, still directionless, I went to a women’s gathering in New Zealand, on the shores of my beloved Wainui Bay, and vowed to know deeply the call of my own soul. I promised myself I would do whatever I was compelled to do – without reason, without question.
A voice deep within rang like a bell ‘go to Springbrook Mountain and buy a house’. So I did. I had never been to Springbrook and was only vaguely aware of a road sign near the Gold Coast pointing in that direction. I flew to Sydney, drove north to Byron Bay, bought the local paper and sat in a storm while scanning the ‘for rent’ section. There was one house for rent in Springbrook. I rang. I drove straight up there. I signed a lease. I knew there was a forest at the front door. A neighbour told me I could walk through the bush to the one shop on the mountain. It rained for the first week. Heavy rain. Ceaseless rain. Mould on the walls rain. Finally it cleared and I decided to walk to the shop to get a paper. I stepped through the spindly bush across the dirt road in front of my house and beheld one of the greatest surprises of my life: I had forgotten I was on a mountain. From the track I looked out over 3000 hectares of world heritage listed rainforest. There was a 200 ft drop at my feet, there were waterfalls, there were rocks soaring like skyscrapers standing solitary in the wilderness, and many miles away in the distance there was the coast. I wept as I fell in love with a misted forest that was to be my steady companion for the next four years.
I did buy the house, by the way. Six months after I moved in I rang the woman who owned the house and asked if she would sell it to me. ‘Funny about that,’ she said. ‘Last night I dreamed you bought it and I’ve been thinking all morning that I was ready to sell.’
She asked how much I wanted to pay. I pulled a figure out of the air. She agreed. I remember thinking my brother would have a fit if he knew I had conducted a property transaction in this way.
The hunting years
Golden Bay, New Zealand
I had a New Zealand friend who mentioned in passing a town called ‘Takaka’. That word rang in my heart, a soft chime that beckoned with such certainty that I spent an entire year saving up for me and my children to go to Takaka. Ben was about to turn 15, Rebecca on the cusp of her 13th birthday. Friends would ask what we were going to do and I would say:
‘We’re going to find a little wooden house to mind on the edge of a national park with a dirt road running past the door and a school bus to take the children to school.’
I was tired. Fifteen years of being the sole provider for my little family had wearied me. I wanted a rest. I wanted to ‘chop wood, carry water’. So we flew to Auckland, caught the train to Wellington, crossed the strait on the ferry and caught a bus to Nelson from Picton. There we bought a car and drove to Takaka, over the big marble mountain they call ‘the hill’ – 300 bends in 25 kilometres – and through the valley to Takaka, the hub of Golden Bay.
We pulled up outside the Wholemeal Café and pinned a sign to its iconic noticeboard: Wanted. Australian family seeks house to mind. Three days later I got a call from an American who wanted someone to mind her house in Wainui Bay for a year. We drove out to check it out – and there was our house. I wrote to my friends: The little wooden house is blue. The bonus, that I had not dared hope for, was that it would be on the shores of a bay. And there it was. From the verandah of the little blue house I could watch the water come and go: tide in, tide out, moon rise, moon set, sunrise, sunset.
It was here that I, a vegetarian all my adult life, learned to hunt wild boar and deer. We came for a year, we stayed for three.
Hunting was the deepest, most enriching spiritual experience of my life.
When you hunt wild boar, you become the wind in the forest. When you hunt deer, you become the forest itself.
These experiences became the material for my second book, Hymn for the Wounded Man.
A career of sorts
Lismore, New South Wales
On finishing my newspaper cadetship, after seven wonderful years in Adelaide, it was time to return to the east. My heart longed for a more spiritual existence and I was drawn to Byron Bay; common sense, however, drew the line at Lismore, where my budding teenagers could visit the party town on the coast (Byron Bay), but not live the wild life as a way of life.
When I announced I was moving to Byron Bay my work colleagues and friends said one or both of two things: ‘there’s no work up there’ and ‘you’ll never find a house’.
I doubted neither. So much so that when I arrived I put off phoning the local newspaper until Friday afternoon, so they wouldn’t say ‘can you start today’. As it happened, The Northern Star’s chief of staff, Jennifer Somerville, said ‘can you start today?’ I put it off till Monday. Six months later, wanting permanent part time work in a world that was barely aware of the concept, I took a proposal to the newspaper’s management for a weekly women’s section. And so I created a three-day-week job for myself on a permanent basis and became the editor of Pizzazz!, a title I hated but was small price to pay for a newspaper section that was all my own. If women said it, did it or thought it, Pizzazz! would write about it. As for the house, we lived in the best house in town, on a small hill near the lookout, with koalas in the front yard and the golf course out the back. The day we moved in the kids rode down the hill to the shops for lemonade – after pushing their bikes back up the hill, they never rode their bikes again!
For three years I was the editor of Pizzazz! The advertisers, so excited about a ready women’s market, soon bailed when they realized Pizzazz! was not going to preach an overbearing masculine version of what women’s lives ought to be. Yet, by a miracle of timing, editorial support and not a single advertiser, Pizzazz! survived. Now and then editor Doug Parrington would march out of his office to my desk and demand a recipe – not because he thought women ought to be thinking about dinner, but to keep management off his back. I would oblige – usually with a tofu dish (tofu was pretty radical in 1990). Pizzazz! survived because of the quality of the journalism. In three years I won two big awards – a Prodi Award for best feature (on safe sex for women at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic) and the Sir Harry Budd Memorial Award for a month long campaign against the sexual abuse of children. Cadets rostered to work with me also won their share of accolades. In its heyday, Pizzazz! was The Northern Star’s most widely read section. Call into a Lismore coffee shop on a Thursday and guaranteed someone had pinched Pizzazz! from the centre of the day’s paper.
The lesbian feminist years
Adelaide, South Australia
I have no idea what took me to Adelaide, other than the same impulse that has led me everywhere else. My children were toddlers, on the cusp of turning 4 and 2. And off we went to Adelaide, leaving my mother, brother and sisters in Canberra. As far as I can tell I chose Adelaide because it wasn’t as far as Perth. From Adelaide I could drive home for Christmas. Perth? Perth was a desert away and I feared I’d never make it back. These were pre-credit card, pre middle class welfare days. I was raising my family on ‘the pension’. We had five cents between paydays and that was fine; but big picture money was always an issue.
Adelaide gave me the best years of my life.
I was 23 when I drove into the city and took up residence in a gorgeous stone house nudging the inner city. I could afford it because it had bare floorboards and fissures in the walls that let in daylight.
My radical nature was immediately embraced by the political tide of the day. There was no better place on Earth to be a radically minded woman in 1983 than Adelaide. We were safe, we were wild, we were lesbian feminists, we did as we pleased and we were a tribe, several thousand strong.
We had a soccer team – the Adelaide Armpits – and we played in red and purple because they were the most dreadful collision of colours we could agree on. We held an annual women’s ball with a swing band 30 women strong. We had friendship groups that crossed households like spiders webs. We had women’s dinner parties and women’s pub nights and women’s bands. We laughed. We thought we knew best. We cried. We betrayed each other. We played. We fought the wider world. We were wonderful.
And we had fun; the kind of fun the young, the safe and the invincible believe is theirs by entitlement.
My darling friend Ursula decided to play drums. ‘Great,’ I said, ‘I’ll get a guitar.’ And I did. A red and black electric guitar. And we rehearsed in Urs’s bedroom – Puppet on a String, Auntie Jack, I’m a Believer. I still have the tapes. It mattered not a jot that neither of us could play, or sing. Soon Urs’s housemate Viv came along to take over the vocals. Then came Sally and Kaz and Little Janie on lead guitar, bass guitar and percussion. Thin Ice was born. Thin Ice, as in ‘skating on’ (the name was my idea). I did three live gigs with them, relishing my rock star moments in my fish net stockings, black leather mini skirt, black zipped jacket and red and black guitar . . . before realizing I was, well, on thin ice, and I left them to it. Urs kept the beat going; Thin Ice became Sticky Beat and she drummed her way into Australia’s music history.
My children were a big part of this world. These were pre IVF days, when lesbians with children were few and far between and mine were valued for no other reason than their childhood.
In 1987, I became deeply frustrated and directionless. So much so I kicked in a glass window, blaming, as the young do, my lover for my boredom and desperation. The following morning, knowing something had to give, I drove up to the local College of Advanced Education and knocked on the career counsellor’s door. She laid out my options, all of which bored me to tears. Finally she came to journalism. My attention sharpened.
‘I’ll do that,’ I said.
‘Well you probably won’t,’ she said. ‘They get more than a thousand applicants for 30 places.’
It was like buying a lottery ticket.
‘Fine,’ I said. ‘I’ll take my chances.’
I hit the jackpot.
And for three years I worked around the clock – the college was 20 minutes to the east of our house, work (for by this time I was working three days a week at the local women’s refuge) was 20 minutes to the west and school, thankfully, was just up the road.
It was madness.
It ate up my time.
It demanded everything I had to give. I worked out how much work I could miss and how many lectures I could miss to keep everyone happy and set to work for the busiest three years of my life.
My lecturers were merciless. Journalism students were the elite of the college. As such, we were immune to the ‘rights’ other students enjoyed. Our classes finished not according to a clock, but when our lecturers could be bothered ending them. This, they reasoned, prepared us for the ‘real world’.
My ‘real world’ included children that had to be picked up and so I defied their little game by leaving, on time. Towards the end of my second year, one of the lecturers called me to his office. Quietly, in a between you and me kind of way, he suggested I ‘suspend studies until your domestic situation improves’. I was speechless. I stared at him. ‘You mean till I get married?’ I asked. Wisely for him, he said nothing.
I was determined to pass, to see the final year out, to earn my degree. At the end of the final year, I heard tell on the wind about a handful of surprise cadetships being offered by The Advertiser, Adelaide’s premier daily newspaper. Our esteemed lecturers had hand picked from our group those they thought suitable for the paper. Naturally, I was not one of them. Incensed they did not put the jobs on the noticeboard I applied to sit the cadet exams myself – and blitzed the lot, becoming one of editor Piers Akerman’s ‘Golden Five’ cadets. I was 30 years old; a lesbian feminist and single mother of two who was quite possibly the oldest cadet in newspaper history.
Ah yes, those who remember those days have many a story to tell about life on the wheel of fortune that is the Murdoch press. Suffice to say my golden future blossomed quickly as I rode opportunities not mine by right but freely given by the generous and the princely, only to be sideswiped by the jealous and the bitter who had me banished from the world of elite daily news to a netherworld of women’s writing on the Sunday Mail, in a darker distant corner of the same building.
By the end of that year, qualified but exhausted, I decided it was time for a more reflective life and we moved east to Byron Bay.
In March 1978, I gave birth to my son. You’d think I’d shot the president the way everyone carried on about it, but despite the best efforts of our society at that time I neither aborted nor adopted him.
Although I parried with both.
Three times, 18 and unable to bear the shame of my swelling belly, I went to the hospital for an abortion. The third time, as I was about to be wheeled away in my white gown, the anaethetist’s mask coming down over my head, I stood up and walked away, proclaiming ‘I’ll adopt it’.
And so I did. For all of three days. I gave birth in Canberra, because Canberra gave a young mother a month to change her mind. All needed was to find the courage to choose my baby. Help came in the form of an angel named Susan, a social worker who called by my bed and asked if I would like to see my baby. I nodded, vaguely. She walked me down to the nursery and peered with me through the glass window. A matronly old nurse came out holding him.
‘Would you like to feed him, dear?’ she asked.
I nodded. They sat me down. They put my baby to my breast.
Two women who trusted a young woman with nothing in all the world but a baby to love him and care for him and provide for him as he needed.
When older women are compelled to judge and decry young pregnant women, denying their right to be mothers to their babies, I am compelled to defense of the young. If a young woman has been well mothered, as I had been, or she is a loving human being capable of kindness, as most of us are, her baby will be in fine hands. She needs your support, not your burned out encouragement to abort her baby because you can’t bear the thought. The shame and impossibility of raising a child with small material resources is yours, not hers.
When Ben was 15 months old I was pushing him on a swing one day in the park across the road from our home. ‘Push me, push me,’ he cried.
I thought ‘there’s no way I’m playing alone with you for the next 20 years’ and so I set out on a mission to conceive him a sister. I reasoned she had to be born before he was two, because I had no intention of stringing out the raising of children. I knew then that I would not return to the realm of babies: it was now or never.
I had a six week window to conceive my daughter, so she would be born before Ben was two; she was born five weeks shy of his second birthday.
Well, the world was upset when I had one child ‘out of wedlock’; two was an outrage.
By the time they were three and one I decided to put distance between me and a judgmental world and moved to an old farmhouse called Elm Grove, twenty miles down a dirt road on the edge of Canberra through three paddocks barred with gates. My mother, my sisters and my brother were our entire world.
Two years later, we moved to Adelaide.
New Guinea, all over New South Wales (Australia), Darwin, Scotland