My Australian home is sandwiched between the Pacific Ocean and rainforest mountains on lands traditionally owned by the Bundjalung and Arakwal people. In most directions you can find places free of footprints. The Beech forests of Lamington National Park, for instance.
When I weave my way through these ancient trees I am reminded of Srivilliputtur’s mountain backdrop. This temple town, in the deep south of Tamil Nadu, is a second home. It lies at the foothills of India’s Western Ghats, a primeval wilderness older than the Himalayas.
Australia and South India were once joined as Gondwana, a name derived from the Sanskrit: forest of the Gonds. There are still the remnants of a shared ecology despite each evolving into landscapes of unique diversity. Every visit to these wildernesses is a reminder – they are calling to us – take care of them.
In my fledgling days as a writer I discovered Jay Griffiths’ book Wild: An Elemental Journey. Though not about writing per se her words shifted my relationship to the blank page greeting me at the beginning of each writing day.
Jay says: To me, the human spirit is one of the most striking realizations of wildness. It is as eccentrically beautiful as an ice crystal, as liquidly life-generous as water, as inspired as air. Kernelled up within us all, an intimate wildness, sweet as a nut. Every dawn, the lucky skies and the pipes. Anyone can hear them if they listen. We are – every one of us – a force of nature, though sometimes it is necessary to relearn consciously what we have never quite forgotten; the truant art, the nomad heart.
Yes to truant art and a nomad heart. To the insights found sitting at the base of a mountain and others when you climb to its peak. Times to surrender and times for fearlessness.
In every encounter one or more of the our five senses comes to play. A whirring fan, the perfume of roses on a Sufi shrine; my trembling hands. Scents of baking bread and a muezzin’s call in an Iranian village. The weight of an elephant’s trunk on my head in an Indian temple, his warm grassy breath. The throbbing sensation in a knee as I meditate in a Yangon monastery to the clangs of a neighboring panel beater. Dappled light in a Galician orchard and the sour-sweet of fermenting apples.
A Little History
My father was born to missionary parents in the Himalayan hill station of Simla. Perhaps the happiest time in his life was sailing the world’s oceans on a four masted barque. My maternal grandmother yearned to travel to India and kept books by Tagore and Kabir near her bed. Do their dreams and experiences somehow fuel mine?
Winding Path to Writing
Poetry and meditation practice have been constants in my life; both of them, eventually, again and again, leading to that koan of koans. Who am I? This deep-down question unsettled any propensities for a normal 9 -5 get married and have babies life. I wanted to travel, especially India. But getting there was circuitous. I fell in love with a gadabout boy in my first year at university – I was already on my way, studying Hindi with Dr V. N. Shukla and Asian Studies with the inimitable Professor Basham.
The boy said, ‘Let’s go to London,’ and I said, ‘Yes, but really, I just want to go to India.’ He said, ‘Don’t worry.’
I took the next year off and we flew away. A stint as a barmaid in Shepherds Bush, then as a disability worker in Kingston upon Thames, generated enough English pounds for a bus ticket to Athens, then more bus-hopping across Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, to India. Fast forward the decades and my love for this land of goddesses and gods endures.
And writing? Walking the Spanish Camino – those long and pared down days of reflection – was the catalyst for picking up a pen. Writing, it turned out, was as much a pilgrimage as those seven hundred and fifty kilometers. Step by step, word by word, my memoir The Way is a River of Stars was born. In those early years I joined a writing circle of wonderful women and was selected for residencies with Byron Writers Festival, Varuna, the National Writers’ House, and Hachette/Queensland Writers Centre. All these experiences continue to nurture my writing life.