Apr 212014
 

Stephanie Dale Vatican

Rome! I am in Rome!!! I am in a gorgeous city that is warm and friendly and pulsing with the ages. I cannot remember ever being more pleased to be anywhere. Perhaps that is freedom’s colossal high, truth’s freewheeling zenith. Nowhere else to be but here. And it is my good fortune that ‘here’ is Rome.

Getting here took the best part of the day, most of it in slow-mo through security at Gatwick – until the announcement of our flight’s imminent departure compelled us to jump the queue and sprint a mini-marathon to Gate 105.

Puffing and laughing in our seats at the back of the plane, I remind Ben of his furious vow never to fly with me again, after I made him hurry to beat the crowd through immigration on a flight home from New Zealand half his lifetime ago. As it turned out, that was our last flight together, until now. We laugh so hard with the memory our eyes fill with tears. In an act of culinary desperation we stuff our faces with Toblerone for breakfast, taking turns to stare out the window, snow-struck by the white mountains far below.

Rome! Fiumicino Airport might have been forgetful had I not lost 250 Australian dollars to a wheeler-dealer at the exchange counter. The ride in from the airport might have been forgetful had I not insisted on taking the train (robbing Peter to pay Paul for the backgammon board) only to end up having to get a taxi to our room near the Vatican anyway.

The taxi drops us into the traffic on the outside of the vast cobbled plain that stretches to the Vatican steps. From there we lug our packs up the hill on the Vatican’s western flank, to the same apartment where Ben stayed when he walked in from Canterbury six weeks ago.

We dump the bags on our beds, grab the cameras and head straight out for lunch at the little deli on the corner, sitting in a basement at the foot of a small set of narrow wooden stairs, at a table with a red chequered cloth and a mound of white bread. And there the journey begins. We order wine. I order vegetarian antipasto, which comes, eventually, loaded with chunky cured meats. Ben orders spaghetti bolognaise and I can’t believe he’s come all this way for a spag-bol. We practise filming as we wait. We film the elderly waiter as he goes up and down the stairs, bringing food for all the guests but us. We raise our glasses and film a toast for the road ahead. We interview each other for the camera and laugh at our self-consciousness and our Australian-ness, stark against the ease of the Romans. The Romans!

We spend the afternoon walking around the streets, laughing in the heat of the day about the burning in our shoulder blades from the daypacks, knowing that it’s going to get one hell of a lot worse. We return to our room and collapse on the beds, rolling about laughing as we kick off our shoes with tell-tale groans because our feet are hot and tired and the walk hasn’t even begun. And we breathe in the simple pleasure of our small apartment, because come Saturday, September 22, two days from now, when day equals night and the sun turns on its heels for its southbound run, even the simplest of comforts – a clean bed, or any bed; a hearty meal, or any meal – will no longer be ours for the asking. For me, the madness is about to begin. For Ben, the madness is about to begin again. It is a privilege to be sharing this walk with my son. He has a grace and ease about him that is uncommon in our world. The first leg of his journey was a quintessential rollercoaster ride of challenge and fun, filling him with the lightness of being that comes to those who meet life as it presents itself. His is a steady eye and an open heart. This is the gift of the road.

Late in the afternoon, we decide to experiment with night filming at the Fontana di Trevi, the city’s famous Trevi Fountain. We ask around for the bus and board with the workday crowds, oblivious to systemic demands that we buy a ticket first, shrugging with the nonchalance of the stranger who doesn’t know and shouldering the free ride. We roll off the bus into the crowded evening, following our senses with the grace of tumbleweeds into the breezy, fluid night.

As far as I know, the only picture I have ever seen of the Trevi Fountain is in the opening credits of an American sitcom I liked to watch as a kid, ‘ To Rome With Love’. I was captivated by the notion that children could have a dead mother and I’d watch the kids on that show like a tiger in the grass, wired for proof of the impossible. In the opening, the children are sitting on the edge of the fountain. In my memory of the opening, the fountain is big and round and white and dramatic and there’s a busy road running around it. So I’m somewhat surprised to find the Fontana di Trevi is: a) neither big nor round; b) doesn’t have a road in sight; and c) packed with tourists jostling in the dark for viewing space. Of course, that was before I knew that the building behind it, the Palazzo Poli, is, depending on who you ask and what you read, considered part of the fountain.

Here in the company of Neptune rising, sea horses galloping and the berobed virgin who found the source of the gushing water in the first place; in the presence of stone waves, tritons and chariots; among tourists crushed alive with the night and locals fishing coins from the water with long magnetic poles; in the heart of a city that hasn’t missed a beat for three millennia, my world stills and I tilt my head to the night, listening ham-radio curious for the ones who walked this way before. Before me. Before you. Before.

I look to the night sky and come face to face with the colours of antiquity: a gold half moon, crisp and poised on its tip, egged on by an audacious indigo sky. Longing rises within me like sap to the warm sun, and I glimpse the obsessive fervour of the artisans, the crazed desire that commanded them to reproduce the ethereal, to give it form, to make it solid, to arrest God and celebrate their genius – or go mad in the trying. Face to the heavens, I smile at the enormity of the challenge before them: to find that blue on Earth!

My Pilgrim's Heart Australian editionExcept from My Pilgrim’s Heart, by Stephanie Dale

Aug 162012
 

I am in the altered state of the pilgrim – it’s called Delusional.

In 2007, Australian author & journalist Stephanie Dale joined her son Ben for the middle leg of his pilgrimage from Canterbury, in England, to Jerusalem. Her newly released travel memoir, My Pilgrim’s Heart, is the story of their adventures.

EXCERPT: CROATIA: Why am I doing this again?

We wake in the dawn light to the excitement of being back on the road. It takes us a good half-day’s slog to clear Zadar’s industrial corridor and then clod our way through the riot of new cement works on the edge of the city; new freeway, new footpaths, new blisters.

Now why am I doing this again?

After a week of hotels and trains and ferries my biorhythms are not co-operating. My shoulders scream as the extra weight of the computer pushes me beyond anything at all I consider acceptable, even though I’ve posted home everything superfluous, even face cream!

Right on the fringe of the habitation wasteland, we hear the most terrible meowing hastening from the weeds. My heart sinks, certain a cat is about to present itself with half its legs run over.

Rather, it is just an extremely hungry ginger kitten, starving as much for human company as it is for food. Ben opens a tin of tuna and offers it gently to a very grateful little puss.

Half an hour later we take our first rest beneath a small palm with the Adriatic Sea just metres away. I hobble over to the only sign of civilisation this side of the road, a concrete jetty, and there I lie flat on my back among the dry seagull poo.

I look vaguely at the sky and give my attention to the wind. It blows harder. I allow the news it brings of otherworlds to sink into my bones.

I shade my face with my fingers and through the gaps I watch the birds. I like to think they are swooping and soaring just for me.

I am in the altered state of the pilgrim: it’s called Delusional.

We press on. Today is agonising, of spirit as much as anything else. I feel as if I’m dragging a sack of bones along the bitumen and indeed I am – my own. It is the time of the dark moon. I should be in my hammock.

We walk in the noonday sun. It is too much so we stop awhile in the shade of a small tree near the water’s edge. Ben’s great. He is happy to rest when I need to. There by the shores of the Adriatic he gets internet! I harmonise effort and ease and sleep.

We walk on, the heat of the day gone now. There is a row of houses selling produce on the street. We buy tomatoes and a string of dried figs from an old bent woman dressed all in black. I leave Ben to finalise the transaction and walk on. He hollers for me to come back. He’s not paying thirty kuna for figs and two tomatoes, not when he’s just feasted on a massive plate of spaghetti bolognaise for the same price.

I want the figs. They might be so common I scrape them off my bootsoles, but figs is figs and figs is quality dried fruit and besides, I’m presuming she grew them herself – or at least scraped them off her own boot soles.

Civilisation gives way to a two lane road south, bound on both sides by low, dark green scrub. The romance of the Adriatic coastline buckles under the weight of the rubbish that keeps pace with us. I think seriously about buying a donkey.

Then wacko-the-diddleo! We make Sv Petar!

Out of the Adriatic blue, here we are. And there’s a camping ground to meet us. We pitch our tents in time to sit on the rock wall by the shore, dangling our legs over the water, watching the sun go down behind the islands on the western horizon.

Surprisingly, my feet have held up okay. Sure I have new blisters. But they are new blisters. The old ones have held steady and I can walk at sundown without feeling like my bones are poking through the skin of my feet.

This is what it’s for

It is a beautiful evening. A pilgrim’s evening. The sun glows yellow orange through grey clouds. There are only shadows and light around us, the jetty, the islands, the low slung sun. I listen to the water lapping at the rock wall and gaze into the soft lime green of the rocks beneath the shallow waters; my spirit walks the shining golden pathway on the water to the sun.

Ah yes, now I remember: this is why I’m doing this again.

Available from Amazon.com
“You won’t find Stephanie Dale in My Pilgrim’s Heart, you will find yourself.”
Leasher Robinson, Talk the Talk Ladies Book Club
 August 16, 2012  Tagged with: , ,  Comments Off on CROATIA: WHY AM I DOING THIS AGAIN?
Aug 162012
 

Our tents, pitched on the verandah of strangers

In 2007, Australian author & journalist Stephanie Dale joined her son Ben for the middle leg of his pilgrimage from Canterbury, in England, to Jerusalem. Her newly released travel memoir, My Pilgrim’s Heart, is the story of their adventures.

EXTRACT – ITALY: Bed is where you find it

We make it to San Cosimato and neither one of us is willing to scale the steep steps straight up the hill into the town proper to scout for bed and food.

We walk on.

We take a break for bread and cheese and chocolate among the shattered glass and graffitied walls of a roadside bus shelter.

Night is falling.

We walk on, winding around the narrow road overlooking a small river below.

We come to a rather closed looking restaurant. We ask for pasta and happily they feed us. We ask for a hotel. They shake their heads. We ask for a camping ground. They shrug. We ask for ‘tente’. More shrugs. Our fingers make the shapes of church steeples.

Tente,’ we say.

They shrug again.

Delirium takes a sharp, silent left hand turn. I don’t know what our faces look like but they’re enough for the owners to take pity on the pilgrims and offer us their verandah for the night, tiled and clean.

We pitch our tents in the dark beneath the full-bellied moon. Both of us have new tents. Neither of us has put them up before. We have no idea how they work and neither tent stands without ropes.

A half hour of madness ensues, until we each tie one end of our tent to the legs of a wrought iron table and on the other end I post my sentinels for the night, a pot of rosemary and a money plant, delighted with the symbolism of both.

My tent with its sentinels

We return to the restaurant, which is around the corner of the same verandah, and order wine. I write while Ben reads Don Bruno’s bible. We roll out the backgammon. Ben asks how I feel.

‘Very tired. Very sore. Better than yesterday,’ I say.

Pilgrim humour being what it is we roll around laughing.

‘That about sums up every day,’ says Ben.

The restaurant family who opened their lives to strangers

The family who owns the restaurant gathers for photographs with us. They are as delirious about our presence on their verandah as we are.

We film them.

Our common language is the language of joy. We laugh. I give the mother the only prize I have, a small handful of Baci chocolates. We hold hands as she receives them.

It’s not long before I leave Ben to his carafe of wine and the company of two young women who have rolled in with the night.

I lie down in my tent. The body remembers. I have walked the road to Santiago and there is nothing novel about this pilgrimage as it lives in my body.

Ben reading his bible

What is novel is a land of no hotels or rooms or camping grounds; just the earthen-tiled verandah of strangers kind enough to meet the needs of those they don’t understand, linguistically or otherwise.

I close my eyes.

Tired. Sore. Better than yesterday. 

Available from Amazon.com
“You won’t find Stephanie Dale in My Pilgrim’s Heart, you will find yourself.”
Leasher Robinson, Talk the Talk Ladies Book Club
 August 16, 2012  Tagged with: , , ,  No Responses »
Aug 162012
 

The spotted hills of Croatia

In 2007, Australian author & journalist Stephanie Dale joined her son Ben for the middle leg of his pilgrimage from Canterbury, in England, to Jerusalem. Her newly released travel memoir, My Pilgrim’s Heart, is the story of their adventures.

EXCERPT – CROATIA:  Life, the colour of roses

We load up and hit the road, hoofing out of Sibenik up a brief and very steep incline on the edge of town.

I am walking hunched over, face to the bitumen, one foot in front of the other in the afternoon sun, feeling like an Egyptian slave hauling blocks for a pyramid.

Three heartbeats later I’m flat on my back on the footpath laughing so hard I swear I nearly burst an appendix. And not because of the slave humour.

Ben had put his arm out to stop me walking into a post just as I spied it myself. What I didn’t see was the sign attached to it. Thanks to Ben I didn’t hit it as hard as I might have, but it still knocked me sideways.

Farewell Sibinek!

I grab the pole and thus prevent myself from being a total write-off, but the laughter sets in and my legs no longer hold me up and here we are, two hysterical pilgrims weeping with laughter as we roll around the footpath on the edge of Sibenik.

The thing is, people do not get us.

They Do Not Get Us.

No matter how clean and tidy and pleasant and polite we are, we are incongruent with everything that exists in this world.

Everything.

So we are already ridiculous.

And something like this happens, me rolling around on my turtleshell back, Ben in tears trying to give me a helping hand, laughing our guts out in the middle of the day on the edge of a town where stony faced is the generally accepted term of engagement.

Once we have me back on my feet, heading for the spotted hills of Croatia, the pack is a whole lot lighter and my spirit a whole lot freer for the laughter.

We walk along the roadside, keeping pace with a concrete irrigation channel funneling water to the vineyards on both sides of the road.

We are in the country; we are off the tourist trail. The road is flat and not busy.

We pass through small villages whose scant inhabitants offer only cool detachment. The strange spotted hills roll along with us, as if the same hill is racing ahead to get there before us.

As the sky lights yellow and the sun dips low, we sit on the steps of a little chapel all by itself on the roadside for a feast of bread and cheese and chocolate and mandarins, watching as the sun concedes the day.

It is a glorious evening, still and bright; the white walls of the chapel are lit crimson-gold by the setting sun, the colours of roses.

Hills ablaze in the dying light

The little church at sunset, the colour of roses

 

Resting in the afternoon light

Available from Amazon.com
“You won’t find Stephanie Dale in My Pilgrim’s Heart,
you will find yourself.”

Leasher Robinson, Talk the Talk Ladies Book Club

 August 16, 2012  Tagged with: , , ,  Comments Off on CROATIA: LIFE, THE COLOUR OF ROSES
Aug 142012
 

In 2007, Australian author & journalist Stephanie Dale joined her son Ben for the middle leg of his pilgrimage from Canterbury, in England, to Jerusalem. Her newly released travel memoir, My Pilgrim’s Heart, is the story of their adventures.

EXTRACT – ROME: let the journey begin!

It is past midnight by the time we get home. We’ve been out doing what the Romans do best at such hours – drinking wine and eating pizza. And now we prepare to walk into the dawn for the next one hundred days. I am being poetic. We have no idea how long the walk to Istanbul will take.

I would like to sleep but I am wide-eyed and keen with the morning’s coffee. Ben dives into his sleeping bag. I swear my son can sleep anywhere, anytime. It’s been that way since was a child. In his teens, his sleeping bag tendered the kind of companionship others might expect from a faithful dog. He took it everywhere.

We act normal, as if tomorrow will be like any other day, wide open grins and bursts of uproarious laughter giving the game away. September 22. Vernal equinox. A Saturday unlike any other. I bed down and do my best to settle. I think of the Vatican, just down the road, imposing and cold by day, a stunningly majestic apparition bobbing about in the sky by night.

This particular night it is backlit by the silver-gold half moon. If you’re going to proclaim yourself God’s spokesman for all time, then by night it’s a hard act to follow. I can only imagine what the medieval ones might have given for that lighting. I edge into restless sleep to the tune of a t-shirt I saw this afternoon outside the Sistine Chapel. It is the perfect pilgrim shirt. In three words it sums up the road ahead:

Free and Dirty.

*

I stretch into the morning, feeling into my body. Mind and belly a little woozy from the wine we drank at midnight. I do a body roll-call. Feet sweet. Shoulders relaxed. Heart raring to go!

I make ready to walk into a hundred sunrises. We haven’t been able to find a map to the scale we need, but we know we’re heading to Pescara, due east on Italy’s Adriatic seaboard, and from there we will catch a ferry to Split, on Croatia’s central coast. East to Pescara. East to Istanbul! East to the East. East to Byzantium. Besides, we looked it up online and have a vague idea of how to get out of Rome.

I holler into the morning: ‘Yeeeeeeehaaaaaaa!’

‘Hey Ben,’ I say, lest he missed the wake-up call. ‘Let’s go!’

We rise. We pack. We load up and we take a good long look at each other and smile. Let the journey begin, we seem to say. Let the journey begin.

We roll down the hill to God’s Castle where, still running high on yesterday’s brew, my biggest decision is whether or not to have another coffee. With a good two thousand kilometres to walk on four hours sleep, naturally I lean towards the affirmative. We buy cheese and salami rolls at the deli across the road and return to the Vatican concourse, propping ourselves up against a small fountain.

We sit on the cobblestones, unfurl the new backgammon board between us, and eat as we roll the dice for the inaugural backgammon challenge. We film ourselves against the backdrop of the papal palace, speaking our dream-prayers for the road to the camera.

For Ben, it is a journey continued, the minor matter of five thousand kilometres between him and Jerusalem.

For me, it is a new chapter in my life begun, the walk of a thousand incarnations, the minor matter of a showdown with myself that I hope will clear the path for the rest of my life.

Let the pilgrimage begin!

Available from Amazon.com
“You won’t find Stephanie Dale in My Pilgrim’s Heart, you will find yourself.”
Leasher Robinson, Talk the Talk Ladies Book Club

 

 August 14, 2012  Tagged with: , ,  Comments Off on LET THE PILGRIMAGE BEGIN!
Jul 162012
 

It’s over.

I have two days left in the United States of America, three if you count the 12 hours I will spend in a train on Wednesday returning from San Francisco to LA, four if you count the day I spend in US air space getting from LA to JFK in NYC, airport to airport.

That leaves two precious days, one of which is already half gone; spent, like rare coin, in Starbucks.

I know, I can feel the collective shudder of the Australian nation: Starbucks?

I am tying up loose ends from the book tour: free to spend hours and hours accessing high speed free internet for the price of one drink; enjoying the company of strangers in an easy welcoming public place; now and then tuning into the always great sound track in the ceiling above me; sending thank you notes, three months’ worth; unscrambling writers’ notes scrawled on scraps of paper stuffed in my bag; making iPhone travel notes – details of hotel bookings, train schedules and, importantly, flight times.

I am, after all, leaving the US with exactly 65 minutes left on my visa; I need to get it right.

Sunday San Francisco Starbucks swirls around me. I love it here – see? I’m nostalgic already. Starbucks – as with so many American icons – make sense in the USA. It is when they colonise other cultures they are problematic; but in their own land, as an expression of their own culture, they make truly perfect sense.

Standing in the forever queue that spilled out the door, a sight that is replicated all over the country, I wondered why so many of us love Starbucks so much we are willing to wait this long for a coffee.

Or, in my case, a soy chai latte.

It’s partly the logo. She’s beautiful.

And it’s lotly the service.

My order goes like this:

Her:  Can I help you?

Me:  Soy chai latte thanks.

Her:  Name?

Me:  No water thanks.

Her:  Name?

Me:  With 3 pumps of chai.

Her:  Name?

Me:  And extra foam (that’s their word for froth. Finally I have learned to say it.)

Her:  Name?

Me:  Stephanie.

And that’s all there is to it. No attitude. Just my soy chai latte made exactly as I want it, every time, deliciously, richly, spicily, not too sweet with lashings of billowing creamy froth.

And here I sit, lamenting three months in a foreign country that feels so much like home it feels like going away, rather than moving on; as if I am leaving home, rather than traveling through; as if I belong here rather than have no right to return other than through the grace of strangers defending a border.

Oh dear, there are tears in my eyes.

I am a traveler. Moving on is my way. I have awherever I hang my hat’ kind of life. Yet I cannot wrap my bones around the notion I do not belong here. That a three month book tour is finished. Perhaps it’s the fact I signed that book deal a year ago – and spent an entire year working towards this, and three months devoted to doing whatever was asked from me: all in the name of My Pilgrim’s Heart.

Yes, that’s probably it. Not just leaving the USA, leaving an entire intense stage of a middle aged life.

Trading absolute focus for the wide open plains of a world beyond a land called Booktour.

I have my thoughts about what I will do . . . visit friends in London and soak up the Olympic city . . . watch my mother go for gold in the world tennis championships in Croatia . . . I may walk El Camino again . . . I may pay homage to the funniest year of my life and visit Hopeman, a small fishing village in the far north east of Scotland where four strong sun-tanned Australian teenagers landed overnight in 1975 . . . all the while with my eye on the true prize:  wintering at the North Pole.

In reality I have only one goal: to stay north of the Equator for a year.

Last night I celebrated lifting my hat from its US peg with a fine wine and a tiramisu; I was fresh from the final literary event of the tour – a big crowd and a panel of San Francisco writers; anticipating a TV interview and back to back radio interviews tomorrow.

Loose ends. Or, in my case, ever and always, the absence of.

Salut!

Jun 242012
 

In 2008, I spent a night lost in a Biblical desert with my son, then aged 30 – a night that would change our relationship forever.

Ben had spent the previous year walking, all the way from Canterbury, in England; he had come 5000 miles with his compass set for Jerusalem, and here we were, heading for the fertile crescent by the River Jordan, made famous by the Holy Bible . . . lost.

A year previously, I had flown to Rome to join Ben for the middle leg of his pilgrimage. We walked together for a thousand miles, across Italy and through the Balkans, before the snowbound, thunderstruck mountains of Macedonia put me on a plane for Istanbul.

Those same mountains put pause to Ben’s pilgrimage and so he met me in Istanbul, from where we drove around Turkey together and into Syria.

It is only in hindsight that I understand this was an uncommon journey for a mother to share with her adult son.

It was not the first time we had traveled together.

Two years previously we walked El Camino, The Way, the mystical pilgrimage across Spain – Ben, me and his (then) girlfriend, Renee.

Who does El Camino with his mother and his girlfriend? To fellow pilgrims he was a Very Brave Man.

I have always traveled with my children. There was the time I was in such a hurry to get off the plane that Ben, at 16, swore he was never flying with me again. And there’s my insistence that we get to the airport early because I have no intention of missing a plane.

At some point, however, the leadership tables turned – and that point came when I decided to walk with my son from Rome.

This was his journey, after all.

There was no way on earth you would have found me walking through the Balkans under my own steam – had I not followed my son’s leadership, however, I would never have stared down the horror stories I tell in my mind about these loaded lands.

Surrendering to the son.

For a thousand miles we walked together, navigating the subtle shifting sands of a maturing relationship . . .

* to walk through the dark night on busy highways (Ben – who knew that snow was coming to the mountains) or to rest after a long day’s walking (me – who had no intention of being bowled over by a truck I couldn’t see).

* to sleep beside a sodden rubbish dump in our tents (Ben – saving money) or get a room when one was nearby (me – clean white sheets).

* to walk into the thunderstruck mountains of Macedonia (Ben – let’s go!) or walk the lowlands through Albania (me – I am not equipped for the mountain cold).

At critical needs junctures we learned to find a common language that allowed for the truth of each of us, as defined by ourselves, according to each moment. We learned not to buckle to the forces of pleasing or rebellion, to hold true – then bend accordingly, until finally, we surrendered to forces greater than ourselves and turned our backs on the blackened mountains.

That our relationship as mother and son would be strengthened as the result of this journey was no surprise.

That there was a deeper maturing available to us as adult mother and adult son was astonishing.

There are many significant doorways in a human life, gateways that we mark with ritual and celebration: birth, death, marriage, divorce, puberty, menopause, abandonment, fruition.

How we deal with this commonwealth of human experience determines our capacity to meet the next gateway.

These are butterfly moments, points of change beyond which nothing is ever the same.  And unlike every single one of the rest, there is one transition that is invisible and rarely discussed in conversation, public or private.

This is the completion of the parent, the ripening of the child.

Adult son – adult mother/parent.

The chrysalis for this mother and her son was a barren stony desert on the highlands above the River Jordan.

A week later, Ben and I left Amman at the breakfast hour of Ramadan, the great ring roads that pool out from the city center marking our progress through the darkness. By mid-morning the sun was high and hot. By lunchtime, we were rested beside a shady creek filled with rubbish. By early afternoon we were on a country road that wound around stony hills pockmarked with houses and groves, the lush green valley nowhere in sight, our bellies rumbling and our water bags empty. We stopped for shade beneath an orchard beside a grand house. A man came out to speak to Ben. He explained with his hands that he could not show us his usual hospitality because it was Ramadan, but he could bring us water. Ben nodded and the man returned with a jug and two glasses. We walked on, the spaces between settlements growing wider, the grand houses giving way to poverty. On dusk we reached the top of a long, long hill and looked out over – nothing. And I burst into tears.

How did this happen?

We had walked 16 hours, I had given my son all I had to give, we were supposed to be in a fertile valley and here we were on sundown with no food, no water and stony hills rolling bare as far as the eye could see. In a thousand ways, I was depleted. I sat on a rock. I cried and cried. Once again we had set out for a fertile valley and once again we were in a barren land. Ben asked me if I wanted to walk on or camp. I told him not to speak to me. He told me I needed to take more responsibility for myself. I told him it broke my heart to hear him say this, because I had taught him this.
Extract from My Pilgrim’s Heart

Because I had taught him this.

Not for the first time on this journey was I was face to face with my younger self.

That night lost in a biblical desert matured me as a mother in ways that liberated me – and my son – from the petty disciplines of being either mother or child. By facing up to everything that burned in me as a mother – every ounce of guilt, blame, shame and uncertainty, I burned it all off – and emerged transformed as a mother.

I became, in short, an adult mother – in other words, a complete woman, undefined by the role – yet, paradoxically, honoured for the role.

As they say, it’s the journey that matters in the end.

 June 24, 2012  Tagged with: ,  No Responses »
May 032012
 

NEW ORLEANS SNAPSHOTS

 

It’s a dang shame we can’t photograph music.

Although if we could, Arabic writing might be close as I can imagine.

Fortunately for me, a day that promised rain held off long enough for me to wander the streets all afternoon.

But not before I made that excursion on the trolley, oops sorry, that’s Texas talk, I mean street car, out to Whole Food Paycheck for my Texas salsa to eat with my corn chips tomorrow on the train.

That street car was a timeless wooden thang clattering so loud my ear drums were vibrating, rattling so wild my teeth were chattering, ding ding dingin’ all the way up St Charles Avenue, along a parade of grand old houses that bespoke a different time and a different tune. And I’m not talkin’ ’bout the music.

The wind blew through those wide open windows on the street car; occasionally the bruised purple clouds above broke, throwing down water like a sheet. The wheels and the tracks of those street cars must be all steel to make a noise like that.

I had my eyes peeled for Jefferson, because down Jeffereson I’d find Magazine and on Magazine I’d find my food barn heaven.

Wandering along past those beautiful homes reminded me of Rathgar, the stately old mansion in Grafton where my grandparents ran a home for girls whose parents couldn’t or wouldn’t take good care of them, many years ago.

The houses were gorgeous, of course. The trees lining the streets, sprinkled in ancient moss, of course. Jasmine wafted my way, of course. The gardens, unsurprisingly I guess, and disappointingly, were of a genre we might term ‘modern maintenance free’.

Now and then I sheltered in dry spots beneath the old trees, moving on when the rain backed off.

I turned the corner onto Magazine and a pretty little street lined with small boutiques brightened my already raised spirits. Designer shops, coffee shops, a beauty parlour that specialised in shoes . . . of course, any southern belle worth her salt wants new shoes with her facial.

In food barn heaven I stocked up on everything but that fresh tomato sugar free Texas salsa and sat on a bench with my pocket knife crafting little smoked salmon rolls crammed with fresh mozzarella, snapping off salted dark roasted almond chocolate for dessert.

I licked my fingers clean, picked up my paper shopping bags and headed back the way I came to the street car, past the grand old houses . . . it wouldn’t take much . . . perhaps evening to fall, creating shadows on the trees and houses, mist from speckled evening rain, and the New Orleans of my imagination springs to life . . . but in reality I’m praying those purple clouds would not make good on their promise of rain. At least till I got those paper bags onto the street car!

I started singin’ a new song . . . jambalaya and a crawfish pie and file’ gumbo . . . apparently, I had to try the gumbo, it was just a small matter of where.

The street car turned up before the rain, its cyclops eye lit bright to let me know it was coming round the bend on those grassy tracks, and my paper bags made it home in time to put my cheese and fish in the fridge. I eat a second lunch of pilgrim food –  hard cheese and apple – and head out again lookin’ for bookshops.

A beggar man stopped me near Canal Street, showin’ me his limousine driver licence to prove, I guess, he wasn’t really a beggar. He wanted money to get a shower at the Salvation Army.

‘You gotta pay to shower at the Salvation Army?’ I asked, incredulous actually. What are we all donating to ’em for if they charge for a shower?

He assured me he did.

‘How much they charge?’ I wondered aloud.

‘Eight dollars,’ he said. Eight dollars for a shower at the Salvation Army?

I reached into my jeans pockets, figuring he could have what was in there.

Fortunately for him, there was a ten. I glanced at it, knowing it was more than I intended. Anyone who’s read My Pilgrim’s Heart knows that a while back I suspended my alms policy. It’s been reinstated on new terms, one of which is that . . . well, my reasoning’s irrelevant really.

I gave him the ten, figuring at least if he got clean he’d have a better chance of gettin’ a job. He wanted a hug. I declined. He said he understood, he was dirty. I said it wasn’t cos he was dirty. I was gonna say it’s because I can’t be bothered being hugged by men who want anything at all from women (and I’m not talkin’ about the money), but decided to keep my attitude to myself.

I walked on in air blown warm by the wind. I have a friend who says Los Angeles is the USA’s gaudy face, New York is the masculine meeting the world, and New Orleans is the moist softness of a woman.

I turn into Royal Street, one down from Bourbon. It is mid afternoon and men of varying backgrounds and cultures, tourists and locals with a problem with sobriety, swagger along the street with a beer in hand. Most would not do this in their home town . . . I wonder what is so heroic in their own minds they need to do it here.

Church Quiet Zone

I wander along Royal, past galleries with gorgeous paintings of the city, my favourite an oil with a turquoise background with four skinny lampposts swaying to music of their own making. I turn down Pirate Alley – how could I not? Check out this sign. I figure it must be for the pirates.

I follow the music to  the end of Pirate Alley, and there in an open square I find the New Orleans I might have imagined in a modern world, for like Woody Allen I am prone to romancing the past and tangling it with the present, thus disappointing the future.

Those men could play!

I sat on the steps among the elderly and disabled, the young and the sober, tapping my toes to a feast of sound. Gypsy fortune tellers touted for customers on the fringes. An old man with a golf club for a walking stick, not so sober, danced with a young woman, a little more sure footed but just as inebriated.  I watched those musicians belt out music they pulled outa thin air, they were wonderful. I wondered why it is women don’t take up public space like this. I gave them a fiver.

I circle Chartes, still looking for bookshops. In the end I give up on them – they’re all antique shops parading books like ornaments, though one gives me a list of modern bookshops on the other side of Canal – and so I turn my attentions to the best seafood gumbo I can find.

Rocking horse monkey

I turn on my heel and head back up Royal. There is a French gallery owner who engaged me in conversation in his shop. He has lived in Noo ORlins for 30 years, he’d have to know where to find good gumbo.

He does. There’s the Gumbo Shop on St Peter and there’s Acme back toward Canal. He says try Acme. I take his advice.

On my way back up the street I found her, a woman playing music on the street of New Orleans. It was the melody that called me, stopped me, enfolded me and, when I sought to ignore it and move on, caused me to weep.

Ram Goddess

I turned to the music. She was playing a violin. If I am an angel without wings, as those fridge magnets like to say, then those are my notes. I try to move on, the music calls me back. I make a point of stopping properly – where on Earth could I be going that’s more important than this?

She finishes her tune. I walk up to Acme. I’m not particularly hungry, but I figure I’ll see if they take bookings – from the line outside I doubt it. Must be good gumbo.

I stand in line. I am one person. She lets me in, along with the woman behind me. We sit together at the bar, ordering our food and drinks, separate, each in our own world.

I order the gumbo. I order a beer. I raise the bottle to the mirror behind the bar and say ‘cheers, me!’

Okay, I forgot I was in public.

The woman beside me laughs and raises her glass. We toast each other. She’s a television presenter from New York.

Did you get that?

She’s a TV presenter from New York.

Serendipity is a blast, isn’t it?

We laugh. We chat. We go our own way.

But not before exchanging cards.

The gumbo is awful. It’s like dead food. Like tasteless beef stew with prawns in it. I’m sorry I didn’t order the po’boy the woman next to me ordered. Po’boy, I now know, is fried fish in white bread.

The beer wasn’t great either. Shiner Bluk Bock. I added the bluk.

But whenever I spend a single moment disappointed about my gumbo, I remember Marta, the television presenter from New York.

That gumbo and that beer were worth Marta – not for the contacts she generously shared, but for the hope of what’s possible in this world.

I just hope that hope spreads to restoring liquidity tomorrow when the banks open. For some $%^&* reason not a single ATM between the restaurant and my hotel will accept my card and I’ve given away all my paper money. At the very least I need a taxi fare to the train.

But that’s tomorrow’s problem.

Today, I’m a woman who’s spent two days in New Orleans.

And tomorrow, I’m going to Jackson!

Look out Jackson town.

The link is Johnny Cash and June Carter at San Quentin – were they singin’ about my Jackson? Dunno, but check it out.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Apr 242012
 

LA – SAN DIEGO

‘From the train I look into people’s backyards. I see their junk and their washing and whatever in the world they don’t care for. Out front is their public face and, inside, the soft underbelly of their lives. The train window is a cocoon for the voyeur with the legitimacy of a paid ticket. Staring into backyards is a bit like surprising a woman in her nightgown in the middle of the day: when we meet her later, we pretend we didn’t see.’
From My Pilgrim’s Heart 

 

I am stunned, yes really, by how Mexican Southern California is.

I am used to Europe, where cultures stop at the border like the foot-stamp of a marching soldier called to halt.

I don’t know why the United States don’t hand it over, fix the border problem once and for all.

But of course it wouldn’t.

It’d just move it north.

Because even if Uncle Sam is built on their backs, that border crossing is a symbol of so much more than dust, community and Mexican signage.

Symbols, I realise in middle age, are everything for us humans, being. They are far more potent than true change, which is ours for the taking of the next breath; in truth we prefer the elusive intangibility of symbolism, for this requires us to reach – not for what we can touch, but for that which is unattainable.

I am a stone’s throw from Mexico. Fancy that. Tijuana is just down the road. Tijuana Brass. My mother had the record, that’s how come I can spell it.

If I had a car I’d be there. Instead I have only feet, supplemented by the centipede wheels of a train.

Which, by the way, dropped me at a rather beautiful old world station with two big blue words on the roof: SANTA FE.

I assure you, and me, I am in San Diego.

And who would have thought I’d need a jacket in San Deigo at summer’s edge? Lucky for me I brought one for the plane. It’s chilly outside!

Someone once told me I would love San Diego. Actually she told me I should move to San Diego, that it was my kinda town. Certainly it’s a lovely city, quiet, roomy. And, oh yeah, filled with lovely food.

Fiiiiiiinally I am outside LA’s fast food strip (thank heaven for for BCD Tofu House and their bubbling soon tofu broth).  In Australia, corporate fast food outlets are a treat. I think. I hope. In LA, I got the feeling those fast food icons were feeding the nation.

And now San Diego. I am in the Gaslamp District – isn’t that beautiful?

The Gaslamp District. Tomorrow I will tell you why Gaslamp. Tonight, it’s all about food.

Tabule.

I roamed the blocks around Hostelling International (at $30 a night, seriously good value in the heart of the best the city has to offer), restaurant bar after gorgeous restaurant bar and as is the way with cities, I blink and I am in the land of pawn brokers and payday lenders.

Blink again.

Tabule.

And a gorgeous local who convinced me to try the ceviches.

It was happy hour. Half price starters and drinks. I happily settled in kerbside while the women fussed around me; ordered Salmon Ceviches and realised it was 10 past six.

Que sera, I”m here to tell you, I don’t mind missing the deadline and paying full price – the food was the best meal I’ve had in the US since arriving on Thursday.

Today on the train, day one of the Pilgrim Heart Whistlestop Book Tour, it was pilgrim food: a banana, two packets of chips and chocolate.

We left the city by the back door . . . could that be LA’s most beautiful river running through the patched cement drain ouside the train window?

OMG, couldn’t you weep for what was here before?

By the way – what was here before?

If I was a betting woman, I’d bet not those silly palm trees.

We chugged through a foreverland of LA industry. Again, this part of the country is like traveling through a foreign land, which of course it is. But you gotta understand, I’m Australian and we get our stories about the US from television.

It doesn’t look like this.

I sit back in my seat and laugh: Australians would have a fit if our signs were bilingual – I mean, they did during the height of the Japanese tourist boom when the signs in Surfers Paradise boasted square squibbles.

Of course the signs here must be bilingual – or mono lingual, i.e. Spanish. It makes sense, in that this is their country much more than any sweet smilin’ diamond crusted whtie person who aspires to making the country what it’s not – rolling green lawns and crystalline palaces.

Like white people everywhere, they’re hellbent on recreating England.

Finally, finally the infrastructure that supports our lives gives way to wide open fields … with a big orange ball in the middle. Could this be the famous Orange County? I figure it must be named for either the Southern Californian orange industry … or Dutch settlers. After all, the last station was called Anaheim.

We pass the field workers. We meet the ocean.

Oceanside the day is so grey there is no horizon.

Big houses give way to jagged hills. Powerlines march 2 x 2, hurrah! hurrah!, little eiffel towers planted strategically over the hills.

A border collie runs like the wind to race the train.

In ten days I will be in New Orleans. On Wednesday I will be headin’ down the line to El Paso. In Australia they make taco shells called El Paso. Then onto Houston. Then New Orleans.

For now, I’m happy to dream of tomorrow’s ceviches.

Wild salmon. Cucumber. Mango. Salsa. Tostadas.

 

 

Apr 172012
 

‘There is nothing else to do but yodel from the edge of courage and claim all of myself and all of my life and trust the freefall and fallout will lead me somewhere alive and true.’
From My Pilgrim’s Heart

 

There is a space where the world pauses to take breath: between tides, before a storm, at equinox.

That breath marks a turning, the point beyond which everything changes, again.

This morning I am that space.

My whiteboard, six weeks ago marked with weeks, a week ago marked with days, overflowing with tasks, is wiped clean.

The whiteboard is – was – on my mother’s lounge room floor, where I have been sleeping – another pause.

Six weeks between full time work and an American book tour.

There was so very much to do and now there is just one word left on the board:  Fargo.

The word came to me recently in a dream.

It was the name of a publication, an old fashioned comic book-like magazine published by me.

Its name was Fargo.

The word is written bold and black on the whiteboard and seems to me a poetic metaphor for the fact I am going very far.

On Thursday, my tide begins to run again, when I board that plane for LA. To catch the train to New Orleans. And from there the train to New York City.

Journeys. Landscapes. People. Crucibles.

Once again I am at the edge of my known world, trusting the freefall will lead me somewhere alive and true.

Intrepid, a few butterflies, I stand alone as I do the farewell rounds of family and friends.

Connected. Distant. Fargo.