Cynics on the Camino

23 Jan

It’scamino been an awfully long time between posts on this blog. But I have an excuse – I have been off exploring. Among other things, I walked the Camino pilgrimage in Spain, something that’s been on my hit list for a while. I was very happy to have this article about my walk published in The Age Spectrum: 

Hiking 800 kilometres across Spain was my idea. Several friends had done it. All said it was life-changing. I didn’t need a walk to change my life, my motivation was more mundane. My husband, my two sons and I had decided to travel for six months. We liked to walk and the Camino would be cheap. Done deal.

My main mistake was not allowing enough time. It shouldn’t have been hard with six months to spare, but flights out of Santiago were so much cheaper a few days earlier. Thirty days will be plenty, I decided from the distance of Australia. We don’t have to do it all.

But as soon as we start, not finishing is unthinkable. It is a mission. We have to complete. We do the maths. Twenty-five kilometres per day with no rest days will bring us in on time. We are all fit and used to walking, we’ll be fine.

‘A hell day. Collapsed in albergue,’ reads my journal. We are used to wilderness and hills. The hard surfaces and endless stretches of flat terrain wear us down. My boots disintegrate, leaving deep blisters as a mark of their passing. My sons and I remain stoic but my husband, an intrepid and enthusiastic bushwalker, moans constantly. ‘I only want to finish so I can tell people how bad it is,’ he says. I take to walking well away from him. I have enough to deal with. ‘I wake up with a horrible cold, a deaf ear, a sore knee and a HUGE bedbug bite on my cheek. Only two more thirty k days and we will be back on schedule,’ records my journal. We feel like prisoners on a forced march. But we will not stop.

We bond in shared mirth at our guidebook, which was pressed upon us by a delightful American woman at the start. Our guide, John Brierley, suggests that we attach a sign to ourselves – ‘I am a pilgrim who walks in silence. Peace be with you.’ He meets the devil – identified by his black-feathered staff – on the track and cries with delight upon locking eyes with a silent shepherd. In our weakened state, we also find the trackside graffiti hilarious. ‘Don’t quit before the miracle,’ says one scrawl and ‘If God wanted us to stay in one place he would have given us roots,’ declares another.

I’ve had better walking, I’ve got to say. It is pretty in parts, but nothing compared to Tasmania, New Zealand or Scotland. But still, it grows on me. The albergues – dormitories where we spent the night – are a revelation – remodelled mediaeval churches, mudbrick hillside cottages and architect showpieces. Many ask only for a donation and throw in breakfast and dinner as well. Most of the wardens, or hospitalleros, are big-hearted and generous. They practice what they preach. One night in an ochre-walled town we drink too much red wine while the hospitallero farewells the sun with his bagpipes. Other wardens, like the one we call the coffee Nazi, have clearly had enough of pilgrims.

The towns are remarkable too, each one distinct. Some are seedy like Wild West towns – red-dirt streets framed by looming cliffs. Others are pretty, all cobbles and flower boxes and bright-blue doors. Ancient villages clinging to hillsides remind me of Nepal. Opulent cathedrals and churches are a given, as is the twiggy mess of stork nests in their eaves.

The other pilgrims are also extraordinary, though often bizarrely annoying. Valentino, a handsome middle-aged Italian, struts up and down in underpants and gold chain and snores like a chainsaw. The over-religious Australian, ‘I’ll thank God by taking a photo,’ Cynthia and the ‘I’ve got five Camino apps, but this one is best,’ Seattle guy are also memorable. As is the English mountain bike rider determined to ride her bike on every inch of the track, no matter how narrow and rugged. ‘You can feel the power on the path,’ she says. We become very fond of a young German couple who turn up magically with information whenever we lose one of our party. This happens more often than you’d think, considering the whole way is marked with yellow arrows. The spirituality and niceness of everyone gets a little wearing at times. Where are the bogans, we wonder?

They say that everyone cries or finds romance on the Camino. Some do both. My moment comes without warning at the Iron Cross, the highest point on the walk. It is the place where traditionally pilgrims place a stone in memory of those who are not with them. I trip on a rock and fall flat on my face in front of the cross – the metaphor is not lost on me. Then, remembering my parents, who died within a month of each other, I start to cry and don’t stop for over half an hour. A nice American woman helps me up and insists on taking my photo. I look miserable, covered in dust and tear-streaked. The Camino has broken me.

Later, my husband cries too, when watching a child play hide and seek. He finds it poignant. I think we may both have Stockholm Syndrome. My younger son escapes unscathed but my older one falls for a Turkish girl he meets in Leon and, skipping the last section, hitchhikes to Santiago to be by her side. A few days later we run into him by chance outside Santiago Cathedral. He is perched on a stone wall smoking a cigarette and looking melancholy. He doesn’t want to talk about it.

I asked my husband the other night how he feels about The Camino now. ‘It was a profound experience,’ he says and he’s not even joking. ‘It was humbling.’

‘I wouldn’t mind doing The Camino again,’ says my younger son out of the blue as we chat on Skype one evening. Oh memory, you are a fickle beast.  I’d do it again too.

 

 

Winner of the Australia Day Blog Hop Giveaway

30 Jan

Thank you to everyone who visited my blog and a big thanks to Shellyrae from Book’d Out for hosting the blog hop. I have randomly chosen a winner and it is Gemmie Alliston. Congratulations Gemmie, I’ll have that book on it’s way to you very soon!

Australia Day Blog Hop Giveaway – My ‘Gap Year’ Pilgrimage

24 Jan

2016australiaday-bloghopOver the last ten years or so it seems like everyone I meet has just done, or is about to do, a pilgrimage.  Those who have returned talk about it ecstatically – it was life changing, they say. The idea attracts me. I visualise the experience as a chance to take stock and maybe change direction.

Some say the modern-day rush of pilgrims began in 1987 after Paulo Coelho’s book ‘The Pilgrimage’. The Camino pilgrimage in Spain now has over 200 000 pilgrims each year, compared to 600 in 1985. But the phenomenon is broader than this. The Shikoku pilgrimage in Japan, a 60 day trek to 88 temples is also booming.  Over a decade its numbers have tripled to 150 000 pilgrims every year.

Traditionally, pilgrimages were taken in order to cleanse the pilgrim of their sins. They offered a state of transition which led to transformation. Bad luck with jobs, health or romance are common reasons for pilgrims to set out on the Shikoku walk. Young Japanese women commonly walk alone to recover after a breakup.

A few years ago, inspired by pilgrims’ tales, I started to write a novel about a woman walking the Shikoku pilgrimage. I bought a lot of books and became quite an armchair expert, but I could never find the time to go. The book was on a roll so, loathe to put on the brakes, I got creative and changed the setting.

Arkie, my protagonist, travels no further north than Noosa and no further south than Sydney. She is a ‘do it yourself’ pilgrim, finding transcendence on the highways and byways of my local area on her way to the next ‘big thing’.

In a stroke of serendipity, my husband, my two grown-up kids and myself have now found ourselves perfectly timed to take ‘a gap year’ together (actually a gap six months.). We are planning to do a pilgrimage walk in Japan and also walk the Camino.

arkie cover 2Most people write the book after they do the pilgrimage, but I thought I’d try it the other way around. I’m sure there’s another book in there somewhere.

Leave a comment on this blog to go into the draw for a copy of ‘Arkie’s Pilgrimage to the Next Big Thing.’ The prizewinner will be announced on this blog on January 31st. And go to Book’d Out to check out the rest of the blogs with giveaways on the Australia Day Blog Hop.

My story ‘Romantic’ in the Review of Australian Fiction

8 Dec

RAF_VOL16_ISS_5My story ‘Romantic’ appears in the Review of Australian Fiction this week, partnered with a story by Emma Ashmere, ‘Seaworthiness’. Emma’s first novel, ‘The Floating Garden’ came out this year and you can find my review of it here.

The Review of Australian Fiction is an online magazine that aims to support Australian fiction by publishing stories by established writers partnered with an emerging writer of their choice. In 2012 I was published in the RAF as an emerging author, introduced by Venero Armano and three years later, I am now honoured to be able to introduce Emma.

The Review of Australian Fiction operates by passing royalties on to the authors of the stories so you can subscribe, happy in the knowledge that you are keeping an author in coffee!

Read a preview here.

 

A wandering tale – finish my story to win a 5 night holiday

6 Aug

If you’re heading along to the Byron Bay Writers Festival and you wouldn’t mind a 5 night luxury holiday then this ‘finish the story’ competition is for you. All you have to do is pop along to the Elements of Byron tent and register, read the beginning of the story which I’ve written and then write a 500 word ending within 2 weeks of the festival. The details of the competition are here. And that picture is me in the setting of the story.

Author Lisa Walker at one of the Elements of Byron sites for A Wandering TaleI’ll also be on two panels at the festival, ‘Meet the Locals’ at 9am Saturday and ‘Pathways to Publication’ at 4pm Sunday. Hope to see you there!

This is how the story starts…

I wake from a dimly remembered dream. There was a whale. And a rainbow. As I drink my morning glass of water and lemon juice it comes back to me. The whale had blown a rainbow out of its spout. I wash my glass in the sink. The image delights me.  

On my train to the city I ponder the dream. It was a sign, I decide. I need to do something inspiring. Go somewhere that will lift my spirits. I fold my newspaper as the train pulls into Town Hall. I have it – I will go whale watching. In Byron Bay.

The idea dances in my head as I jostle my way up the stairs. Byron Bay – it must be twenty years. Had I really partied on a beach-front roof as lightning forked across the sky then stripped off and run naked into the sea?  I shoulder my bulging handbag as I push through the turnstile. It’s hard to imagine now.

That evening after dinner I buy flights on impulse in a mid-winter sale and pick a place on the internet. It looks beautiful – nestled next to the beach, amongst paperbark forest and wetland. Perfect. I book for three nights – Ruby will love it. I imagine us bonding again as whales leap in front of us. We had so much fun together on that whale-watching trip to Nelson Bay, six years ago when she was ten.

Ruby has been so moody since the divorce. Even when she’s home she shuts herself in her room and barely speaks to me. I miss her – this holiday will be my chance to get to know her again.

A rediscovered slice of Sydney’s history – ‘The Floating Garden’ by Emma Ashmere

29 May

the floating gardenThe Floating Garden is the debut novel by Northern Rivers local, Emma Ashmere. It is set in Sydney in the 1920s, where the arches of the Harbour Bridge are still making their way through the air towards each other. Down below in Milson’s Point, a colony of misfits are losing their homes as construction proceeds.

The Floating Garden interweaves the stories of two women. Ellis is an eccentric who runs a boarding house for women and girls while Rennie is an artistic Englishwoman in an unhappy marriage. When Rennie plucks up the courage to leave her abusive husband, she finds a temporary home in Ellis’s guesthouse, which is about to be demolished.

Both women look to each other to provide security – Ellis needs money, while Rennie needs a bolt-hole to hide out from her husband. As her Milson’s Point home disintegrates, Ellis relives her escape to Sydney at the age of sixteen. Her unlikely saviour was the charismatic, scheming theosophist, Minerva Stranks. She also hints at a troubled liaison in the past with Minerva’s protégé, the fragile Kitty.

I loved so many things about this book, but the characters were especially delightful. Ellis has many secrets, not least of which is her anonymous authorship of a controversial gardening column under the name of Scribbly Gum. The flamboyant Rennie hails from a life of privilege and has a hard time adjusting to her new circumstances in the poorer part of town. Her effort to blend in and cope with her situation provides a subtle touch of humour. I also enjoyed learning more about theosophy – a spiritual belief system which was very popular in the 1920s.

An early review has compared this book to Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet and there certainly are some similarities. Both books explore the wider events in society through the lens of the people affected and both focus on a working class group of colourful individuals. Like Tim Winton, Emma Ashmere has a fine hand with exuberant Australian types.

The author has a PhD focusing on the use of marginalised histories in fiction and her novel does a superb job of bringing this fragment of our past to attention. The Floating Garden is a beautifully written, gently humorous and highly detailed slice of history. It also has an absorbing story-line which kept me turning the page.

This is my third review for the 2015 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

The house with a ‘poo corner’ – ‘Home Truths’ by Mandy Nolan

11 May

Home-Truths-final-cover-724x1024‘Home Truths’ is Mandy Nolan’s third comedic memoir, following hot on the heels of ‘Boyfriends We’ve All Had (But Shouldn’t Have)’ and ‘What I Would Do If I Were You.’ In ‘Home Truths’ she turns her shrewd gaze to all things domestic. And as it turns out, the home is a very funny place.

As a child, Mandy used to wander the streets at night, looking into other people’s windows. She enjoyed the surreptitious peek into their private world. This book is an extension of that early fascination, asking the question – who are we when we close the door?

Mandy introduces us to her childhood, in a small town near Kingaroy, which was of course Joh Bjelke-Petersen heartland at the time. Here in Wondai, she develops a syndrome that stays with her – Fear of Missing Out on Living Somewhere Better.

Leaving Wondai for university, she hooks up with a wild bunch of girls in a share house in Brisbane. This quickly becomes a squalid mess, with a special feature ‘poo corner.’ The girls are too lazy to train their cats to use the kitty litter. This hideous living experience is the harbinger of Mandy’s later self-confessed cleaning fetish.

Moving up in the world, we venture into the stressful territory of home building. Here Mandy meets the ‘coping guy’ who she imagines as, ‘some sort of super dude who can handle demanding, difficult and obstreperous women like me. I’m up for the challenge…’

Via homelessness and living alone we land in the fashion-challenged life of the ‘at home worker.’ Popping down for a coffee in a pair of black pyjamas Mandy is told that she looks ‘very corporate.’ It’s easy to let standards slip in a town like Mullumbimby.

Mandy delves deep into the psyche of the home – the psychology of missing socks, the optimum number of decorating cushions and the difficult art of Feng Shui. ‘Why change your behaviour when all you have to do is move the bed?’ Boarding up her daughter’s room seems the best solution to a tricky Feng Shui problem in her house.

Full of laugh out loud and uncomfortably honest moments, ‘Home Truths’ is an incisive and exuberant examination at our homemaking instincts.

This review first apppeared in the Northern Rivers Echo.

 

Mandy is launching ‘Home Truths’ in Lismore on May 14. Tickets from the Book Warehouse on 66214204.

I will be on a panel with Mandy Nolan at Bellingen Writers Festival on June 7.

This is my second review for the 2015 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

An insightful look at morality – His Other House by Sarah Armstrong

29 Mar

his other house‘His Other House’ is Sarah Armstrong’s second book, coming ten years after her Miles Franklin shortlisted debut novel, ‘Salt Rain.’ Both books are set in the Northern Rivers Region and the lush environment is an intrinsic part of the story.

‘His Other House’ is a tense domestic drama focusing on a love triangle of sorts. The book was inspired, Armstrong says, by a news story she read about a man who lived a double life with two wives and two families for many years.

Quinn is a doctor whose marriage is pushed to its limits by efforts to have a much longed-for child. A succession of IVF rounds and miscarriages leave him drained and needing a break, but his wife Marianna wants to press on with another attempt. She can’t see how her life will ever be complete without a child.

While Quinn lives in Brisbane he is doing a stint as a visiting doctor in Corimbi, a town much like Mullumbimby. Here he meets Rachel, a disillusioned journalist taking a break from her job. A night-time swim in the town pool leads to an unplanned kiss and soon Quinn and Rachel are involved in a passionate affair.

Quinn’s intention to leave Marianna is tested when she unexpectedly falls naturally pregnant. It is at this stage that the tension ratchets up. Quinn decides to keep his relationship with Rachel a secret, a decision which involves him in a web of lies. ‘He was dismayed how readily he took to lying. He’d always thought of it as a decisive abandonment of the truth. Instead, he realised, it was simply a matter of one word slipping into the place of another.’ While it would be easy to judge Quinn, by now we know him so well that we can only empathise, even if we suspect that it’s going to end badly.

The time this novel has taken to come to fruition shows in its insight and many delightful turns of phrase. As in ‘Salt Rain’ Sarah’s writing is evocative and striking.  While all the characters are believable and finely drawn, it is the children who linger most strongly in my memory. ‘His Other House’ is both a page-turner and a powerful story of morality within relationships.

This review originally appeared in the Northern Rivers Echo.

This is my first review of 2015 for the Australian Women Writers Challenge. Better late than never!aww-badge-2015

Big Things – a taste of Nostalgia

19 Mar

big banana 1972In my book, ‘Arkie’s Pilgrimage to the Next Big Thing’, my protagonist Arkie and her friend Haruko are sometimes bemused and sometimes captivated by the Big Things they encounter on their journey. While they agree that some Big Things are better than others, it turns out that even the most lacklustre have their attractions. The Big Pelican has eyelashes to die for and a rather flirtatious look about it and inside The Big Shell, Arkie can hear the roar of distant seas. The Big Prawn is rather intimidating. A twenty-five metre prawn would be enough to make me flee the water forever, Arkie reflects.

While Big Things first started in America it is probably safe to say that no other country has embraced them with quite the gusto of Australia.  Big Things were originally conceived of as extra-large agricultural products, designed to show travellers how country folk live. They were, in effect, farming theme parks. But that original intention later expanded to embrace practically anything that could be reproduced in a super-sized form.

Big things kicked off in Australia in the 60s with the Big Scotsman, The Big Banana, the Big Stubby and the Big Staircase.  While some folks were sporting Afros and peace symbols, eating pork with prunes and carrying flowers, others were busy building Big Things.

The 70s was the decade of pet rocks, hot pants, pineapple cheese balls, curly perms and platform shoes. It also brought us the Big Captain Cook, the Big Crab, the Big Macadamia Nut, the Big Pineapple, the Big Penguin, the Big Mower and the Big Cow. Quirky times.

Some will remember the 80s as being all about pedal pushers, Rubik’s Cube, prawn and avocado cocktail, big hair and acid-wash jeans. But, more importantly, this decade also brought us nineteen big things including the Big Bulls, the Big Mandarin, the Big Avocado and the Big Chook. It’s a wonder people got anything done at all in the 80s with all those Big Things to build.

To me there is something quite surrealistic about Big Things. They raise questions such as, why would you build a Big Cow? Or a Big Prawn for that matter? I suspect that the answer is, Why not? As Arkie says, they are an opportunity to reflect, Magnified to many times its normal size, a cow forces me to consider the essence of ‘cowness’. Cows of course are sacred to Hindus and are often revered as a symbol of wealth and abundance in other religions too. Is building a Big Cow therefore a subconscious effort to call forth good fortune?

Even if you don’t believe, like Arkie, that Big Things are deeply meaningful, you may still think, as I do, that there is something weird and sweet about them. I don’t know about you, but somehow they always make me smile.

PS. The photo is taken circa 1972 of my sister and I with my mother at the Big Banana.

This blog originally appeared at Starts at Sixty.

The Japanese Connection

5 Mar

???????????????????????????????This post originally appeared on Book’d Out

In ‘Arkie’s Pilgrimage to the Next Big Thing’ my protagonist, Arkie, meets her friend, Haruko at Byron Bay railway station on New Year’s Eve. Haruko introduces Arkie to her own way of celebrating. First there is bingo at fourteen minutes past nine, then soba noodles at fourteen minutes past ten and a prayer at fourteen minutes past eleven. At fourteen minutes past midnight Haruko gives Arkie a present in a drawstring bag – the Seven Lucky Shinto Gods. These gods become a touchstone for Arkie on her journey. There is fat and happy Hotei, whose stomach you rub for good luck, Ebisu, the god of fishermen, Bishamonten, who heals the sick and Fukurokuju the god of wisdom.  Arkie’s favourite, the only goddess in the group, is Benzaiten. Benzaiten is the goddess of everything that flows, her shrines are usually situated near water. She is fertile and a competent wife. Everything I am not, Arkie thinks.

Haruko tells Arkie that every New Year’s night the Lucky Gods travel around to houses on their treasure ship. Arkie must draw a picture of the Lucky Gods and place it under her pillow. If she has a good dream then it will come true.

I was drawn to the Lucky Gods because I kept seeing them everywhere I went in Japan. Sometimes they were ancient statues covered in snow, sometimes little models for sale on the street. I began to notice how the individual god’s names popped up everywhere. Ebisu, for example, is both a brand of beer and a locality in Tokyo. I bought a model of the Lucky Gods and brought it home. It sat next to my computer while I wrote the novel and gave me inspiration when I flagged.

Haruko’s present becomes an integral part of Arkie’s journey but she also introduces her to many other facets of Japan. When Haruko writes a trendspotting proposal about pilgrimages she includes a picture of Tori gates – archways which guide you from the everyday world to the spiritual. The picture is from a temple near Kyoto where you walk through hundreds of Tori gates on your way to the shrine at the top of a hill. This shrine, called Fushimi Inari, is for the fox goddess, Inari, who is also associated with fertility.

Inari appears in my story in the form of a white foxy dog with a mysterious influence.

‘Inari possesses you through your fingernails,’ Haruko says.

‘What happens if you are possessed by Inari?’ says Arkie.

‘You go a little crazy,’ says Haruko.

Strange things start to happen. Each way Arkie turns she finds a little bit of magic. A dusty teapot picked up on the side of the road could be Tanuki, Haruko tells her. Tanuki is a racoon dog who is a bit of a trickster. Tanuki takes many forms and often turns himself into a teapot, Haruko says.

Under Haruko’s guidance Arkie’s pilgrimage becomes much more than just a journey to the Big Things. Two worlds merge and every day is filled with new revelations.

 

mary ryanHappily Ever After? 

I will be talking with author Jennifer St George and the always hilarious Mandy Nolan at Mary Ryans Bookshop Byron Bay at 5.30pm on Thursday 12th of March. Join us to explore the joy of books, writing and love. 

This is a free event, but bookings essential on 6685 8183.