walking slowly downhill
Ninety-second Day, December 13, Goolwa, the Murray mouth
This morning I wake and instead of driving home away from Milang, Goolwa and the mouth of the river I decide to walk to it again, perhaps for the last time.
As I wake I feel a great need to see the wide flat sand at low tide, the rolling breakers crashing in and the misty haze in the distance, to feel the fresh wind in my face once more.
Perhaps, I think, this second walk will secure the fitness required to be present at the mouth as I walk over the last sandy rise.
But I could walk it a thousand times (I’m now laughing aloud at my own vanity to think that twice would do it; or, then thinking kindly of myself, I consider that perhaps it’s just the inexperience of a beginner that causes such vast miscalculations to take place) and still not be able to describe it in even a remotely adequate language.
I drive to the end of the narrow road that winds along the strip of land separating the ocean from the lake.
I cross the dunes again, over the same path and descend onto the beach.
Eventually I walk past the same fisherman I saw yesterday, sitting in the same spot with the same expression on his face.
Two rods are sunk into the sand on either side of his beach chair, exactly where they were yesterday.
And the mouth is exactly where it was yesterday, with seemingly the very same breakers rolling deep into the river’s throat and then dissolving into Lake Alexandrina.
It was necessary, I now realize, that upon reaching the end of the journey I had to retrace my steps once more.
Because the best description I could offer you of the mouth is to tell you that today it is exactly where it was yesterday; and in order to offer you this description I had to walk to the mouth once more, in order to verify that, yes, indeed, the mouth is still exactly in the same place today.
And because time is the grandest of illusions yesterday might mean ten thousand years ago as much as it might allude to that moment twenty-four hours ago, when I stood in exactly the same spot that I’m standing in right now.
For reasons I will not explicate at this moment because they’re alien to the spirit of this journal I have to also tell you that today my walk has come to an unexpected ending, and it’s fitting that it has done so exactly as I have reached the sea.
Each day, from the new moon of September 13 when I began to descend the snowy slopes of Kosciuszko, until this moment as I stand at the river’s mouth, has brought revelation to me of one kind or another, both minor and major.
I have many to thank for this; firstly all of the elders that have graciously permitted me to walk upon country; Helen Vivien, who as Palimpsest curator initially invited me to present this project; Mark Minchinton, who was to walk alongside me until he suffered a serious leg injury, but who still computed the basic structure of this walk; Steven Rhall, who accompanied me through most of it and who has provided precious insights and generous support of all kinds; my family, who have accepted my long absences with grace and understanding; my mother, who even if she did not fully understand the nature of this project, has accompanied me throughout it, and finally all of you, who have commented on both mine and Steven’s posts with generous responses to such a tenuous undertaking.
I look forward to resuming the journey at some point soon, hopefully whilst I can still walk as efficiently as I have so far.
I thank you all so much for your interest and support.
And perhaps next time I can tell you what I thought of last night, because, well, yes, it does indeed matter.
walking slowly downhill
Ninety-first Day, December 12, Goolwa
I’m walking through the town of Goolwa after having walked, over the last two days, into the little valleys and over the crested hills that rise all through the twenty-nine kilometers from Milang .
It’s a bright sunny day and the wind blows cool and insistent from the south-west.
I walk the bitumen road that runs along the tiny strip of land between lake and sea until I reach a wide-open space used as a car park for those that run their down the ramp and into the blueness.
Then I climb up the dunes walking along a path made entirely of wooden slats.
I walk up and down dunes and valleys, all covered with multi-coloured succulents that have just sprouted emerald green tips, until as I climb over the last rise I come upon a view of the southern ocean.
Festooned as far as my eyes can see with an infinite number of waves, each at a slightly different moment of their constant rising and falling, each graced by the sparkling green-blue of transparency or the iridescent white of their foam.
As I watch their infinite number being conceived, then birthed and subsequently disappear into an inconceivably dense interconnectedness I think of my mother and my father and the gift of my own birth.
And the gift of my presence here at the water’s edge at this very moment and upon each subsequent moment (even this one now, typing away at my keyboard, listening to the blessed, loving inanity of ‘Elf’ unfolding in the background).
After standing at the edge and looking at the sea until I cannot see anything any more I begin the nine kilometer pilgrimage upon and though country, walking so very adjacently to the great ocean roaring in to shore on my right.
As I take step after step over billions of grains packed hard by the never-ending tides I thank aloud all the elders that have so generously given me permission to reach this moment by walking through the lands they so invisibly hold in custody for all those that care to see.
Then I remember that I began this walk by proposing that I would enter country as a stranger and beginner, and now, upon reaching the sea I feel less a stranger and more than ever a beginner.
But I haven’t yet reached the mouth.
Or, I have, but cannot tell you about it until I am ready to do so.
Or perhaps just fit to do so.
That’s for tomorrow, in what will be my last post.
Ah, how to reach, in only twenty-four hours, fitness adequate enough to undertake such a task, even if I was to stand the entire time directly under the beneficent light of this new moon!
But if I was to ever reach such fitness, then mere time could never constitute an obstacle.
The question of my fitness is far more complex, yet infinitely simpler than whether I have enough time to achieve it, isn’t it?
Time is the grandest of all illusions.
Because just now I thought…Oh, it doesn’t matter.
walking slowly downhill
Eighty-ninth Day, December 10, Milang
Ninetieth Day, December 11, Milang
Windswept prairies, sparse grasses, bare trees, sullen green water of a lake that’s neither salty nor sweet, ruined houses abandoned long ago, dull eyes.
I walk amongst this again.
Or is all that the substance I carry in me and then project upon sweetest, kindest lands and their peaceful histories?
It feels like a dream that cannot exhaust itself; it simply resumes its residency in me at different times of the day and night.
In two days the walk along the river from Robinvale to Goolwa will come to an end when I walk into the surf of the Southern Ocean.
Then it will be Christmas once more.
Will I keep walking afterwards?
So many of us will be missing; my eldest daughter healing alone somewhere on the east coast, my father gone now almost two years to the day, my mother four months ago.
Walking has somehow become immanent in the rest of what I am, what I do.
So it won’t end when the river walk ends.
And it didn’t begin when I descended from the snowy slopes of Mount Kosciuszko down into Tom Groggin.
I have more to say about that.
Perhaps when I can speak again I will say it.
Then again, I may not.
Or, someone may not.
It’s gotten dark while I’ve been writing this.
Through the crack of the cabin’s curtains I can see the caravan park light; new moon tomorrow morning will shine unseen over my second-last walk.
walking slowly downhill
Eighty-eighth Day, December 9, Melbourne
It’s very early in the morning of my departure back to Milang and the walking.
I’ve come down to the water just to say my goodbye, though I’m not sure to whom or to what.
As I stand by the shore I am just realizing that everything, otherwise known as ‘it’, actually really is ‘what it is’.
In other words, all of it, each single thing individually or the entire big universal messy cloud of dust and gas, it all ‘is what it is’.
People occasionally say it, I hear it as I walk past someone or overhear a phone conversation, usually earnest; ‘Oh, it is what it is…’
Even a good friend of mine says it a lot convinced that it constitutes words of wisdom, or even a life-transforming phrase, if injected into the right context at just the right moment.
But even if each time I’ve heard it it’s made no sense, or has been so seemingly obvious that I’ve ignored it, suddenly it’s blazing bright in big letters on my horizon.
Why is this?
Perhaps because I suddenly recognize that saying it or hearing it said simultaneously brings both a sense of separation and of connectedness to the forefront of one’s mind, as though each condition is actually an inextricable part of the other.
Epimetheus said ‘each object has a separate science’; maybe that has something to do with it.
After all aren’t we are all inexorably aligned to our is-ness?
I know that at times I’ve journeyed down pathways thinking they were new, only to realize they were not the minute I recognized that my response was similar to many I’d had before.
We dig increasingly deeper furrows in our conditioned engagement with the world; each might seem new and authentic as the smell of fresh earth invades our senses, but it’s in fact the same old rhizomatic response-pathways that we attend to, all the while believing that each time we dig we’re expanding the network.
So, if everything ‘is what it is’, why not stop digging?
But now the light from the sun setting behind me has faded to an orange glow, tinged green at its edge and darkening to a deep indigo higher in the liquid sky above it.
Just this simple moment, one that’s been repeated an infinite number of times since the very beginning, is enough to sabotage the mind, insistently persistent in its vain attempt to know.
I shut my eyes and allow the sound of the small shallow waves to enter me, acknowledging of course that each tiny wash of salt water upon the shore is uniquely itself, and no matter how many may arise and fall none will ever be replicated.
walking slowly downhill
Eighty-seventh Day, December 8, Melbourne
It’s an extraordinarily windy evening.
All the blinds in the apartment snap and whip as if possessed by some inner force.
They can’t keep still for a second; the sudden mad gusts roaring in from the southern ocean across the Heads either suck them flat into the fly-wire or spit them out away from the window, and then, like sails clinging onto the cross- masts, they hold on desperately to their fittings so as to not be ejected into the room.
They clank and rattle and snap, even though I’ve wound the windows shut.
And suddenly I am inside a sailboat making a crossing, unsure as I am of my departure point or my destination.
I look around me closely to better verify my surroundings; I am indeed inside the cabin of this strange vessel, heading out across space to who knows where.
It feels like the Bounty after the mutiny, sailors and officers and islanders all sleeplessly waiting for the heavens and the wild seas to indicate the direction they must now take, now that the wild thing has been done, now that the commitment to a hitherto unthinkable action has been made.
I try and sleep down in hold, formerly my room, but no luck.
The seas roll and shake and boil, and I must simply wait out for fate’s anger to fade, for its resentment at how things have unfolded to soften in the light of day’s reason.
There is no food in the scullery, only some scraps.
I look around at the collection of photographs I have brought along for the journey.
I simply cannot recognize anyone or anything familiar.
I pray for land to be sighted.
Land of any shape or size, whether cultivable or not.
Even Pitcairn would now do.
walking slowly downhill
Eighty-sixth Day, December 7, Melbourne
We wake early.
Daylight has barely broken.
Everything was packed the day before but there’s always last minute panic; something is missing.
But it’s found.
The drive to the airport is calm, there’s plenty of time.
We don’t say much; departures are usually shrouded in silence.
We manage to find the last car park on Level One.
Then there’s a long walk to Terminal Four.
But everything aligns.
The bags are of course overweight but I just pay the surcharge, there’s nothing else that can be done.
Boarding pass is printed, bags checked in; I buy a coffee and a mineral water for Emma.
Brunetti’s airport café is a pale imitation of its Carlton parent, like a child attempting to follow in its famous mother’s footsteps.
The coffee also attempts to follow, and it does so badly.
After a kilometer’s walk we reach the gate; everything is slow and measured and we anticipate the parting.
We’re at the head of the queue and the door to the waiting aircraft opens; we embrace and I try to sum up in my feverish mind the most significant aspects of both what has taken place and what must now be done, and then quietly pour them into Em’s ear.
But they sound like Brunetti’s coffee tasted.
To her credit she listens gracefully, tears lining her cheeks.
She walks out into the greyness towards the aircraft and we exchange waves until she sat the top of the mobile stairs; she hesitates for a moment, waves again and then disappears into the cabin.
I immediately turn away and walk back into the main body of the terminal.
I walk past a couple that’s been observing Emma and I parting; he says, smiling, see, you’ve made her cry!
I look fully into her tear-filled eyes, her face full of feeling; it was my daughter, I feel compelled to explain.
Oh, so it was your daughter, she says smiling, almost in relief.
But I’ve already walked on, my own eyes now brimming with tears.
I’ve done well to keep all this to myself, I think.
And I just walk on, out of the terminal, across the busy link roads and into the car park, just walking steadily and slowly back to my car.
I climb into the van slowly, back out slowly and then I drive slowly back to the city.
I wind down the window a little and turn up the car radio’s volume; the ABC announcer is interviewing a drug rehabilitation counselor who works in one of the city’s health facilities.
His voice sounds tired, flatly insipid, just like the airport coffee.
I turn the radio off and wind the window down completely so that I can hang my arm out and feel the rushing coolness swirling around it.
I can see it in my rear vision mirror, the flesh and muscle soft and droopy at the back of my bicep.
I flex it and slowly twist it so that I can examine it better.
It seems like a stranger’s arm, an arm I don’t know, have never known.
I look away, further down the freeway and grip the steering wheel firmly with both hands.
walking slowly downhill
Eighty-fifth Day, December 6, Melbourne
Today is St Nicholas Day, the patron saint of Italian children and the mysterious visitor that comes overnight and leaves presents, so that when children wake on the morning of the sixth of December, there they all are, lined up on the windowsill, or on the kitchen table or under one’s pillow!
Why do I remember that St Nicholas falls today?
Not so much because of my memories of this day in Trieste, because I haven’t any memories of presents, just of the excitement at the idea that a saintly visitor might have graced our room with his presence, and then astonishment at the mystery of how he had managed to get in and out without forcing the door.
These are the questions that preoccupied me as a young child, even though I managed to glean after the age of five or so from the conversations that went on around me that it was actually parents and grandparents that gave the children the presents, though always in the name of St Nicholas.
To me it somehow didn’t make any difference because I felt that the love and good will and care still abundantly permeated the giving.
So, why do I remember this day each year? Because of a memory, or simply the fragment of a memory, of St Nicholas Day, December 6 1956.
It’s this; I am standing in the early summer sunshine in Smith Street, Collingwood, in front of a brightly coloured Coles store.
I am nine years old and my mother, who is thirty years old, stands next to me.
She is speaking with another young woman from Trieste; I know this because the conversation that is taking place is spoken in our dialect.
They’re talking about St Nicholas Day; how it seems to be ignored by everyone in Smith Street, no one seems to want to celebrate it.
My mother suggests that perhaps no one knows about it here in Australia; her friend agrees.
I am waiting in silence to see if the conversation will include a description of what my sister and I might receive, though it’s already way past the giving-time.
I especially try to listen hard for whispered, conspiratorial conversations that might include descriptions of tiny toys, but there are none.
That’s all; the two young women then exchange goodbyes and the three of us are on our way, heading together towards Gertrude Street.
So, I now realize, this is an amusing memory; a memory of something that didn’t happen, of a present my sister and I didn’t receive, of an empty space on a windowsill.
But there is a tiny fragment of light in all this, a redemptive ray shining from the eyes of St Nicholas, that I imagined was watching the three of us from the cornice above Foy’s Furniture Store as we walked along Smith Street, all the way from the Coles store to Number 35.
The light that shone and warmed my heart that morning, and still does each December 6, was simply the glow of connection that suddenly bridged, via the agency of St Nicholas’ shining eyes, my former life in Trieste to my current one.
In that moment the empty windowsill of a first floor room in Via del Bosco Number 3 was connected forever to the empty windowsill of a room behind the hairdressing salon at Number 35 Smith Street, and perhaps from that day on to all the empty windowsills of all of the rooms I have ever lived in.
This transformed the former nightmare of an unexpected, unmanageable departure (and I realize as I have grown older that perhaps the nightmare I experienced was that of an exile, leaving his birthplace for ever) into the redemptive dream of a final arrival.
No small gift, handed to my sister and I with glowing love, through the shining eyes of St Nicholas, on the very day of his celebration.
Since then emptiness has always appeared to me as abundance waiting to be gifted.
walking slowly downhill
Eighty-third Day, December 4, Melbourne
Sydney Road on an early summer’s day.
Each time I visit this part of Melbourne I am astonished at how it keeps changing.
It used to be full of Italians, Maltese and Greeks.
They’re all long gone, or at least most have left.
The last ten years have seen many families from the Middle East, from African and Asia settle here.
It’s another Melbourne, and there are many of them.
Melbourne is now many cities in one.
I am also made up of many cities.
My great-grandmother on my father’s side was Spanish; Emilia Retez from a small town near Barcelona.
My mother’s ancestry is mitteleuropean; and she herself asserted all her life that her ancient ancestors were the Vikings.
Who am I?
I walk down Sydney Road and I am comfortable with everything I see, hear and feel that isn’t Anglo-Celtic.
Yet we are all here because of the eighteenth century’s British colonial expansion.
Yet ‘walking slowly downhill’ only exists in the form it does because I have been graciously granted permission to walk the banks of the longest river in the continent by those who have been here for close to sixty thousand years before any of our millennial ancestors even knew this vast land existed.
So what keeps calling me to Italy, when I am so many?
The illusion of home.
And in the end it might just be the inside of a Viscount caravan.
The outside too.
walking slowly downhill
Eighty-second Day, December 3, Melbourne
On the third day of its latest occupancy summer takes the reigns.
The sun‘s heat is felt more directly, more urgently.
The edges of formerly green leaves have become over the last three days ever so slightly browned.
I both seek the sun’s solace and then flee from its fierceness the minute it embraces me.
But that’s due to a malaise that’s more than skin-deep.
I dream about shaking it off quickly but I must be patient; it will shed itself of its own accord.
Houses in Italy; once again I’m scanning the website I have somehow become subscribed to for the one that’s ideal.
But none can quite fulfill all the key requirements.
Which I of course keep adding to or reinventing once any house even remotely approximates fulfillment.
They’re either slightly too expensive, or the garden is too large, or in shade, or too small; the rooms look dank, then far too bright.
Some are too remote, some in streets or locations that seem far too busy.
And so it goes on.
We know what all this means, don’t we?
Yes, we do.
Then I think of the ‘walking slowly downhill’ caravan, of its intimate, easy-to-reach spaces, its cave-like, nest-like feel, its simplicity, its unpretentiousness, its rumpled skin; above all its ability to move and shift into any space, in any direction.
Maybe that’s the answer, turn the entire local world into a home and allow the caravan to constitute my body, the kernel of the outer walnut-world.
The light from its inside could seep out from its modest windows and over the rest of my home, trees in the living room, mountains in the kitchen, roaring rivers in the bathroom.
But now that the sun has set and darkness falls upon us I sit in a Queens Parade Greek café listening to Jenny Theologidis’ ancient voice take me straight to the heart of the caravan; not only that, as I look through its windows I see that all at once we are moving across mountains, fording rivers and resting under the shade of trees, and never for a moment do we move outside my home.
And now I understand an astoundingly simple premise: for me, all the world is Italy.
There’s no sign of course, though there may be one somewhere beyond that hill, or by the bridge down there that spans the river.
But I haven’t seen any.
I just know it is.
And I no longer need to seek it.
Because I have never left it.
walking slowly downhill
Eighty-first Day, December 2, Melbourne
Mynahs and magpies, hunting each other, defending each other’s territories.
That’s what I observe today, out on the pavement.
Three mynahs hunt a tiny magpie until the little bird flees into traffic and stutters above the roof of a speeding car, managing to avoid it.
The parents come looking for their little one and once they locate it they flank it on each side with their bulkier presence and slowly stutter off to wait it out under the shade of a tree.
The mynahs now keep their distance.
They watch the magpie family from high above, the three of them perched together on the electric wires that span Queens Parade, ready to swoop should the opportunity present itself.
But it doesn’t.
The magpie parents never leave the side of the magpie child.
At least not while I’m there.
It gets colder as the sun lowers and so I leave.
As I do I look towards faraway trees and bring them into focus for a brief moment; then the bulky silhouette of an ascending skyscraper comes into focus and I stop for a moment to consider it, consider this horizon before me, this world I inhabit.
Suddenly I notice that shadows lengthen, clouds scatter and headlights are switched on. I feel very still as I walk on; paradoxical I know but endlessly, deeply comforting.
Somewhere not too far away there’s a kitchen with a burning hearth, upon which fragrant food is being prepared by carefree, openhearted people; a window opens onto their garden and shards of late sunlight illuminate the leaves of a lemon tree in blossom.
That’s enough for me, I think; I don’t need to be one of those people, or to smell the fragrance of the food or of the lemon blossoms, or even feel the warmth radiating from the hearth.
It’s enough that I believe all of this exists, perhaps only a street away.
I pick up my step and wheel back into my own life, its still narrowness now loosened and fluttering a little from the small breeze, a zephyr really, that winds its way from the very centre of my chest directly into the space just ahead of me.