The Kiss 1907–1908. Oil on canvas. Österreichi...

The Kiss 1907–1908. Oil on canvas. Österreichische Galerie Belvedere. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Now we’re in a pension on the third floor, an old apartment with a little room just for a day bed, and a painting on the wall of a mother with flowers in her hair and a child, the mother with a peaceful but serious expression, fierce; a miniature entranceway with different sized wooden cupboards built into the wall beneath the window, and two doors leading to a long bathroom and a kitchen we don’t have access to. We ate in a traditional restaurant that exuded the ambiance of decades: high wood-paneled walls, high windows, plain rectangular tables in lines.

We had the morning in U—, breakfast, and lunch in V—. The landscape between the towns was white stone river beds, very wide, with small channels of ice-blue water, and trees, some on the turn to autumn. But arid, dry and delicate. Into Austria, it’s greener, but there’s the singularity of conifer forests, and in the valleys, crops, tractors going gamely up the fields with their rotors spinning, and everywhere green, clean and neat, covered by green.

In When things fall apart, Pema calls a perfection a death. She says ‘Abandon Hope’. Hopelessness and confidence go together. She talks about the wound beneath the armour. She also writes about seeing what you see and hearing what you hear, for itself, without meaning.

On Tuesday, we went to the Secession temple and saw Klimt’s Beethoven Frieze, which seemed to say that the suffering of the world, chaos and filled space, is redeemed by the poet, the kiss and the choir of angels. His paintings show humans embedded in tessellated patterns of their clothes, the background, smocks of gold. That night we went to the free, late night opening of MAK, and poked around the galleries with art school students. The most interesting thing to me is that each gallery is curated, or arranged, by an artist.

This morning we had the breakfast at the pension, went to the Freud museum and a gallery that had a large collection of Shiele’s art, who lived to 28 and whose paintings of humans are grounded in sexuality, underbrushed, grotesque knuckles.



English: Bridge over the River Aray from Inver...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The morning was extremely charming, sunny and bright. I charity shop hopped, then walked along the river upstream, through trees. Fly fishers were up to their thighs in waders on the other side, casting around like cowboys. Maybe it was the sun and temperature, but the day had a kind of fluid easiness. Sat on a bank and watched a man help a woman on crutches to the water’s edge, where they both skimmed stones.

Fom the corner of my eye, in the middle of the river away from all the fishermen and stones, I caught sight of a solid shape lift out of the water, and a splashing sound. Maybe it was a fish, but I had a feeling it was Nessie.

Ate lunch at an all you can eat Chinese buffet, which was a disappointment. Afterwards I bought wool and needles from a charity shop by the river, and then walked downstream along the river. It had started raining and the bank was covered with at least a metre of clear water, the grasses and dandelions waving in the water. Took advantage of Tesco’s refrigerator sale shelf, bought a punnet each of blackberries and apricots. Sat in the hostel lounge for the whole evening. Knitted some lines, almost addictive, and not pleasant, maddening.

I stayed in a small, quiet town for four nights. One dispiriting day, I took myself to a castle, read every card, looked at every photograph, toured the garden, fingered the dry tassel flower pods, and hauled myself through a deserted pine forest, up a hill to an old fort and a lookout over the loch. At the top, which was grassy and open, a Scotsman in a t-shirt came up out of nowhere, and told me he wants his ashes scattered at that site. Somehow that day made a difference. It’s true that calm comes from somewhere else, sitting tight.

On the highway, in the fractured, middle-of-the-night bus, I remembered a passage in the book my friend’s father had pushed into my hands ‘it is rain that ruins and again it is the rain that lifts the ruined to gain’. Which had a certain ring to it, but at that point on the bus,  I thought I understood what it meant. It is something about water at the bottom of the well.

Now, after talking to a man for four hours or so on a bus, being in a hostel, seeing the city with a girl I met, another bus, a day in Paris, a night train, mountains to the left in the morning. I’m in Venice, veined through with salt water, or I think it’s salt because there’s seaweed growing on the dock steps. And the streets have such a silence without the sounds of land motors, air conditioning machines.

In London we went into a travel bookshop whilst it was raining, and one of the chapter headings was ‘Lose your mind’.


Groundlessness, islands


Blackberries. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Last week I took a ferry to the island, a pitching, horrible journey, in which the horizon waved wildly, and I almost vomited over a rail. The island is serene, wind-swept so everything is low, the houses are exposed, the stone walls, castle, unsoftened by trees, except fuchsias and stunted willows. The islanders weave island willow, allowed to grow back from rootstock on abandoned plots, into baskets and craft. They sell seaweed. The boat bottoms are tarred. Little parcels of land are divided up all over by the dry-stone walls. A lady said that to avoid seasickness, you should find a spot on the horizon and keep staring at it, it tricks your brain, or reassures your brain, and indeed, you don’t get sick.

Went to sit in a bar and listen to music. The musicians sat around a table, had a drink, had a chat, played, one of them could have been eating nuts. A man bought me half pints of Guinness.

The next day I walked along the main road, and then in a loop through farmland, along narrow sealed roads, beside blackberries practically  black on their creepers. I grew up learning that you shouldn’t eat wild blackberries because they might have been sprayed, but I ate them anyway. I think they remove them manually, anyway.

An article I’ve been reading describes ‘the finer things in life’ as ‘intimacy, trusting others, and being relied upon’.

Strolled to charity shop to make a donation, spent afternoon scouring bookshops for the perfect book, settled finally on the happily titled When things fall apart. Sat in the shade of the Remembrance Park, a pond in the sunken cross. A man called out to me at the traffic lights Excuse me! Excuse me! And came over to me: Excuse me, are you a Hare Krishna? No. Jesus! You look like a Hare Krishna, he said accusatorially, and hurried off. I surveyed my knee-length mustard skirt (slit up the back!), grey shawl wrapped around my shoulders over baggy grey top, yellow ashram shoulder bag, black stockings, tan open-toed sandals, disheveled hair. It seemed plausible.

This has no relevance. When I was doing an induction session to volunteer with a charity, the leader said that you cannot help everyone all the time. She described a woman in the floods whose house was above the water line. From her porch she noticed a man in the flood water clinging to a structure across the way. She must have waved, and he must have waved back, but was well out of reach. When it got dark, she lit a candle on her porch, and stayed up sitting there, and from time to time he would ignite a cigarette lighter and she would know he was still there. But at some point, she stopped seeing his light, and when the sun came up she could see that he’d gone. Maybe he’d let go and floated to safety. She didn’t and couldn’t know. So she went into her kitchen and made herself breakfast and sat down to eat. This is how to help people.

I’m aware now that I have only a few months left of travel, probably,

Now I’m in S—, on the prettiest train route in the world, except it’s twilight. Green is folded into green that’s almost black with sundown. The further hills are a pastely grey. The sky is grey, the clouds are wads of grey. The train has just detached, cleaved two carriages to one place, and two to another.

In When things fall apart, Pema writes: This is where tenderness comes in. When things are shaky and nothing is working, we might realise that we are on the verge of something. We might realise that this is a very vulnerable and tender place, and that tenderness can go either way. We can shut down and feel resentful or we can touch in on that throbbing quality….Things falling apart is a kind of testing and also a kind of healing… When we think that something is going to bring us pleasure, we don’t know what‘s really going to happen. When we think something is going to give us misery, we don’t know… Life is like that. We don’t know anything. We call something bad, we call it good. But really we just don’t know.


I will go back

English: Cabo da Roca, the westernmost point o...

The westernmost point of mainland Europe. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was on the bus around winding Portuguese hill roads, beside a rail with a cart taking cut branches, beside terracotta roofs, and in a kind of desperation finding myself very tedious company. I wondered, if I knew I would return home just the same as I left, would it still be worth it. Yes, I realised. Each day would have no value but the place, the time. I could just be on a bus in Portugal on the other side of the world, and that could be enough.

As the road wound around itself, I realised I’m still the same person as I was when I went traveling at 21, and used to find light simply by realising the fact that I was on the other side of the world. There are lines in the Jack Johnson song Same Girl, I know you’re still my same girl / Who builds her own frames / For the pictures that she paints / The lights of Monterey / Come in across the bay / Right back to my same girl. I talked to my parents on Skype and something I take for granted is not something my parents ever demonstrate, and maybe not something I once believed. But everything I was and am is here.

I read a quote, A man travels the world over in search of what he needs and returns home to find it, George Moore. It’s not just home that I get sick for, it’s the sense that home contains everything, after all. The train passed apartment blocks with lines of household laundry strung below the windows.

The wind was around the cliffs, hazy. I’m organising a trip to a wedding of a friend I knew from university, from a time I often think of as most dynamic, and the prospect of a reunion is like a door.



Holidays for shy people

Entrance to Seyðisfjörður.

Entrance to S—. (Photo credit: Cornell University Library)

Three nights at sea in the cheap bunks in the bottom of the ferry. No carpet on the staircases, but that’s ok, the boat rises and rocks smoothly, you can hear the water break against the hull.

The last morning in Iceland I went to the swimming pool for 45 minutes or so. It was an overcast day and light vapour came off the warm lap pool, old men talked shop in the hot pool, a lady in a cap was doing laps, and some young teenagers were throwing balls around.

I walked through the back streets. Windows are homely but neat, with knick knacks on the window ledges.

At the bus stop, I had a moment where looking back, I couldn’t say what happened for sure. I thought the bus driver looked at me, and I looked at him and his van and wondered if it was him, and he didn’t stop so I kept waiting. But maybe he did stop, and that’s when we looked at each other, but I didn’t go over and he didn’t get out. Anyway, I missed the only bus to the ferry and luckily hitched a ride with some old Islanders whose tour guide ‘welcomed R— from Australia, we’re happy to help you out!’, which I thought was a diplomatic way to tell the paying customer ‘like it or lump it’.

I had a dowdy night reading in my hiking pants and pink thermal, and talking to an artistic German bunkmate, listening to Icelandic folk sing-alongs in the bar, watching the fjord pass from the decks.

In the morning the next day, a grey landshape loomed up, and we started to pass through the Faroe Islands.

I watched the back hatch lower, and walked around for an hour or so. It was misty and drizzly, but the grass was green—i.e. not snow bitten—and daffodils were blooming. An Islander lady told me she thought Iceland was cold. I looked in the window of the Red Cross, prowled around a historic headland with cobblestone streets and turf roofs, and then came back to boat. I finished a book They shall inherit the earth, and liked the sweet naturalness of the couple in love.

In the morning I sat on the top deck and tried to reread Ripples from Iceland (out of novels). I like in that book how she says Icelanders are shy and take a while to get going. It reminds me that outgoing, public personalities are not the given, and that reserved or shy personalities may just as well be the norm in some cultures. The book was written from the perspective of a housewife of a time over fifty years ago, but the German says she thinks they are still shy.

Anyway, I didn’t get much into the book, but spent the morning daydreaming about the pleasant future and looking at the waves. I had my lunch and did a budget on Excel, and had a rest for a few hours. Up on the top deck we had run into mist. I looked through my book of Galway Kinnell’s poems and thought about something I read about telling the truth and writing about your passions and sadnesses etc, so tried for something plain of my own. Ran into the German girl, chatted for a while, read.


Two feet pinched

Volcanic rocks and snow in Iceland

Volcanic rocks and snow (Photo credit: kfcatles)

Tonight I have a room of my own and the man who took my krónur said I can check out late. I said goodbye to my friends at the hostel. I think we were being polite, but they are men with fine aspects. One of them had a nice smile when he smiled, which wasn’t too often. I cooked and ate alone here, and came to my room. I sat at my computer and when I looked up the sky was pink and the sun was setting, which means that it’s late.

The other guy last night said this idea of right and wrong is pretentious and self-obsessed. I’m not sure what specifically he meant, but it reminds me, the right thing and the wrong thing are the same thing, and then there’s everything else—which is life.

I walked by the fjord when I left them in the morning, mild sunlit day, and sat down on the far side on tufts of grass to eat hazelnuts and read a few chapters of Ripples from Iceland. But I felt tied somehow to them at the hostel and little kernels of conscious about how we will part. I wondered if my new hiking boots were, in fact, a size too small.

On the bus the landscape is the colour of an orca, black and white in daubs. I looked around the bus and an old man was sitting in the seat across the aisle, with white eyebrows and stubble, and pale rosey cheeks, and he seemed ok with whatever he’d done in his life.

Last night the S— guy was telling me places to go, and then he bought beers for us, and later a C— guy sat down and talked nice. As my friend says, with travel is loss.

Rilke writes only someone who is ready for everything, who doesn’t exclude any experience, even the most incomprehensible, will live the relationship with another person as something alive and will himself sound the depths of his own being.

And on writing poetry, he writes Try to raise up the sunken feelings of this enormous past; your personality will grow stronger, your solitude will expand and become a place where you can live in the twilight, where the noise of other people passes by, far in the distance. – And if out of this turning-within, out of this immersion in your own world, poems come, then you will not think of asking anyone whether they are good or not. Nor will you try to interest magazines in these works: for you will see them as your dear natural possession, a piece of your life, a voice from it. A work of art is good if it has arisen out of necessity. That is the only way one can judge it.


Mountain time

alta powder snow

powder snow (Photo credit: limaoscarjuliet)

A night on the train. I stayed up reading in the lounge car while the train was barreling unstoppably fast and blaring its horn somewhere up ahead. My eyes were sore but I had to read my book to the end. Then I went to my seat and rested my cheek so when I opened my eyes I could see out the window without moving my head. On the horizon inaudible lightening flashed orange and white.

I thought I’d write: California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Nebraska. Place names in quiet-town America sound romantic to me: Grand Junction, Great Falls, Spokane, an American texture. I found a poetry journal in a second hand book shop in S—, which described the American landscape as ‘fierce and sublime’. I think these place names speak to that idea of grit and wonder.

My checked bag did not make it to S— with me, however. We took a taxi at 4am to a hostel with ‘24 hr reception’ but the door was locked, and only when a resident woke to go to work and let us in, could we read the sign on the office door that said to call to be let in.

After one day, we found the Goodwill and bought warm clothes, and took a shuttle into the mountains. Because my bag still hadn’t turned up, I put plastic bags over my expensive sandals so I could walk in the snow. A little way up the hill skiers whizzed gleefully along, some little kid skiers didn’t have poles. A middle-aged man from the bus nodded to us as he skied past. We had a cup of tea in the restaurant. On the bus back the man sat with us and explained that the snow hadn’t been so good today for him, the surface had gone a little crusty with ice. Yesterday, it was more powdery, which makes going a little slower, but feels like you are floating on the snow. East coasters are used to the crusty ice, but the powder is the best.

We went back for bags and food, and got on the train around 3.30am. We went through the remainder of the night and through the day to D—. The distance was not great, but we were going through the mountains, and now ran almost constantly alongside snow, slowly winding around the curves, until it did snow outside the M— Tunnel. The train gets like home.

Another hostel. Some more reading. I was reading ‘Children of the book’ by Geraldine Brooks, and was impatient to finish. We went out for sliders at a bar around the corner.

The next day we took a bus to B—. We looked in a mystical bookshop, and I found books by the Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön. Flicking through, there was a sentence that said something like, Sleeping, making a cup of tea, going to the toilet, talking to people, this is what life is.

We walked along the creek path, past the town and into a canyon. The evergreens there and everywhere were leafless although technically it is spring. The landscape then is drab-brown, pale and woody. but my life is smaller than the world, and those trees were there, intricate and fallow, and lovely in their way. Up in the canyon patches of snow lingered by the trail and in patches on the slope. Mountain bikers and joggers passed us, and down in the creek fishermen pulled lines through pools.

We lay down and read and went back to the slider bar. A man with smooth skin and a dark beard sat down at our table and announced that someone wanted to beat him up. When they called last drinks he asked if we’d like to come back to his apartment and see the skyline. My sister said, Do you have any alcohol? and he looked put out for a moment, and said No… but I do have video games. But I remembered the lecture of the Australian girl in Chiapas, and didn’t feel bad about saying no.

The next day my sister and I read across the booth in a Thai restaurant. Is this a book club?, the waiter asked. No, we’ve just been spending every hour together recently, I said. There’s nothing left to say, my sister said, and we went back to reading.

The book I finished in the middle of Nebraska last night was Wild by Cheryl Strayed about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. What impresses me is Strayed sets out not to find out who she is, but who she used to be. She finds that on the trail, she can only be herself. She ends by saying:

Thank you, I thought over and over again. Thank you. Not just for the long walk, but for everything I could feel finally gathered up inside of me; for everything the trail had taught me and everything I couldn’t yet know, though I felt it somehow already contained within me. How I’d never see the man in the BMW again, but how in four years I’d cross the Bridge of the Gods with another man and marry him in a spot almost visible from where I sat now. How in nine years that man and I would have a son named Carver, and a year and a half after that, a daughter named Bobbi. How in fifteen years I’d bring my family to this same white bench and the four of us would eat ice-cram cones…

It was all unknown to me then… Everything except the fact that I didn’t have to know. That it was enough to trust that what I’d done was true. To understand it’s meaning without yet being able to say precisely what it was.. To believe that I didn’t need to reach with my bare hands anymore. To know that seeing the fish beneath the surface of the water was enough. That it was everything. It was my life… so very close, so very present , so very belonging to me. How wild it was to let it be.


Into the desert, heartbreak at the halfway hostel

Train Wheels

Train Wheels (Photo credit: i am indisposed)

I’m on the train in the Nevada desert. The sky is a shimmering blue through polaroid on my glasses and the window like the sky from an aeroplane. The plain is everywhere the same brown-green, everything: the grass that looks bitten down though there are no cattle, the bushes. Parallel to the tracks is a highway with miniature trucks. On each side is a low mountain range touched with white snow. My sister and I left San Fransisco in the morning. First the landscape was the bay, coffee-coloured, mud silted waves; then conifers in the mountains, and snowbanks.

We stayed in a kind of halfway hostel which smelt very particularly and had a high proportion of single, male residents. One nipped out for a joint in the laneway pretty regularly (we were sitting in the front stair well on account of the lounge being closed past 11pm for staff sleeping quarters). A toothless European worked there, changing the faux satin sheets. It was kind of cozy after all, the beds were good and our room was quite warm for some reason, and there were other backpackers to laugh with. We switched to a former luxury hotel for the last two nights though and the vibe was more congenial. We stayed in the Tenderloin quarter, famous for its local flavours. The second hostel had a brochure advising to ‘use street smarts’ when walking around: ‘the TL is not so much dangerous as it can be ugly sometimes’.

A lady wearing leather pants walked along Market St and sternly called to her little dog ‘Lesterrrr, Lesterrr, C’mon, Let’s roll’, before she strode off.

I went for a walk along the lonely piney shore to look out at the Golden Gate Bridge, and surfers at the base of the cliff. The air near the bus stop smelt like blue gum.

I found a book in the Goodwill: The Creativity Book; a year’s worth of inspiration and guidance by Eric Maisel. The first exercise was to write an autobiography. I wrote it on the train. Eric said it transformed his college students: Writing a 2500 word autobiography is its own kind of creative act and looking back at one’s life is a revelatory experience. It can be hard work, intellectually taxing and emotionally draining, but it’s invaluable work and exactly the right kind of work to inaugurate our religion [of creativity]. I did find it taxing. I focused on my most shameful experiences in the hope of catharsis, and afterwards I felt, bad. But it’s done. If I was reading it and it was someone else’s story I would think, Alright, it’s a story, it’s someone’s life. I wonder if I told the truth.

My sister told me she thinks I’m more withdrawn than before; that from the time we quit our share house in 2010 I haven’t wanted to talk as much, my sense of silliness has gone, my strong will ‘evaporated’. I can account for this time, but it’s a long time to have turned away from the world, and I’m sorry for it. It’s made my head ache.

The railway line is complete, and must be good all the way along. Even in the night, that’s where we are, still going on the track, nothing visible out the black window in Nevada. Just our reflections in the lounge car. And when I put my face up to the glass, one little white light away off in the distance.


On the beach again

Coronado Island

Island (Photo credit: JohnRiv)

We left Mexico after mechanical problems with the plane. The pilot told us a similar thing had happened in Acapulco and the mechanic confirmed it. But taxiing to the runway, the pilot tested the engine and it did not work and he said he’d unload us. But he immediately tried again and said he’d seen this before and he was confident of flying. And, conveniently, the mechanic had already signed his logbook. So, at the hands of the potential-narcissistic-sociopath, we took off. Read airport novel American Dervish right through.

At D—, the immigration officer asked: You have a US visa? Yes. WHY?? Because I ..needed one. Only his job, only his job.

The next flight was serene. We slept in the hostel. The city looks new and modern. It’s small scale, flung out, the river choked up with willow, the university gardened with green grass, with repair patches of green dug in, and bordered by tropical flowers. We took the trolley to the border but didn’t have our passports.

This morning we woke earlier and took the bus to C—, on the beach again. We walked along the boulevard, between the sand and the big hotel, and sat down on a bench to read. Tanned and hatless families walked past, the children had sunbleached hair, but maybe I was looking for the Californian-looking ones.

Military jets flew from somewhere off the horizon and roared over the sand to land. I read the novel Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout. I said to my sister as she was getting up to walk, Do you ever think that there’s a lot of sadness in the world? She said Yes. But doesn’t it also make you feel sad as well? I said. Yes, she said putting her things into her bag, And I also need to pee so let’s go.

The sand along the water had golden flecks through it, and the little waves that lapped over the sand flat separated and sifted in streams fine black particles. Black and gold. The water mellowed me out. The sun and the air and the wave noise.

We went to another beach, and then back to the city to go on the computer, and cook and eat. But on the beach it’s kind of comforting by the waves.


The stories we tell ourselves, in order to live?


Jacarandas (Photo credit: edcarsi)

The experience of our life floats up in the washtub as a narrative. Joan Didion writes in her The White Album, ‘We tell ourselves stories in order to live… We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the “ideas” with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.’ This is the premise behind self help literature and cognitive behavioural therapy: that we can change our behaviour by changing our thoughts or our relationship to our thoughts, by rewriting our stories or our relationship to our stories.

But if I told myself my life is understood by myself as a narrative, I’m also telling myself another story. A narrative is no less true or powerful because it’s just a story, it already exists and I’ve just given it a name.

I think of Shankar Vedantam’s book The Hidden Brain, because to a degree, the stories we tell ourselves—our interpretation of the ‘shifting phantasmagoria’—well up from and respond to unconscious places in our brain that ‘respond to what it sees’. So that if ‘something doesn’t feel right’ about a person, for example, we’ll think up perfectly logical reasoning as to why we don’t like them, although this bias may not have arisen from this intellectual place at all.

When I think about the way I sometimes feel, which is scattered, dissolute, uncertain, defensive, I can guess where this feeling comes from, but really that’s after it arises, working haphazardly backwards to the root.

I picture myself feeling similarly, but several years ago. The difference is that when I see myself then, I see myself holding those feelings, but I am complete, uncomfortable but without dissolution. I see myself whole. And if I feel this way in the present, it is with a magnifier, without accounting for everything else, the streams in the river and the past and future. William Faulkner wrote ‘the past is never dead. It’s not even past.’

The stories we tell ourselves about the world are a part of the shifting phantasmagoria itself. It must be true that they can be changed through conscious effort, such as meditation, mantras, therapy. But what are the stories? And where do they end and the actual experience begins?


Outside the cathedral yesterday vendors sold woven palm fronts and bunches of herbs.

The moon was rising, almost full, into the still-light horizon, and the jacaranda was blue as night.