Category Archives: A deliberate life

A song for the crossroads


What is it that motivates us to travel? It seems we often come to it when our life is at a Crossroads – and on the journey we take time to step back and assess our options, to process things that have happened to us. Sometimes when we feel stuck in our lives, we take a physical journey, hoping it will lead to psychological progression and life change. And sometimes the more we’re at a crossroads, the more we’re attracted to extreme destinations. None more so for me than on my trip across the Nullarbor Plain at the height of the Australian summer.

When I think of that trip I remember vast flat lands and wide skies. From the Bunda Cliffs, where you feel like you could run and then just drop off the edge of the world, to swathes of sand dunes at Fowlers Bay and the vast treeless plain of the Nullarbor. When you’re wrestling internally, the vast landscape has a calming effect. And sometimes it takes getting out of normal routine to show you what direction you really want to head in, to give you motivation to commit or re-commit to something or someone.

This is the only trip I’ve been on where I’ve slept in a swag – out under the stars in a big canvas bag, where you could look straight up at the domed sky as you fell asleep (with a slight sense of trepidation about possible snakes, spiders or scorpions deciding to slip into the swag spend the night with you). The wide expanse of the sky brings perspective and context to the decisions of individual human beings.

Everyone in our original Nullarbor tour group who braved the hottest part of the journey together, travelling for hours at a time in a minibus with malfunctioning air conditioning through 46 degree days, was at some sort of life junction. An overseas student finishing studies and about to return to her own country, an interracial student couple, a single mother and her son, an accident survior and his partner from another country, a woman who had nearly died and the friend and colleague who saved her, a traveller in search of love, a rural new couple, a widow on a first big trip without her husband, a man devoted to photography and me, and our guide. As we travelled we shared our stories between bus seats and we experienced many firsts together. Posing in front of the iconic Nullarbor signs, huddling under a cattle grid waiting for a road train to drive overhead, sleeping in swags on the empty plain at Afghan Rocks, swimming with dolphins and sea lions at Baird Bay, seeing the Big Galah, spotting yellow footed rock wallabies, Running down the sand dunes at Fowlers Bay and frolicking in the welcome cool of the sea at Streaky Bay.

I just heard last week that our guide on this trip, an excitement loving, well travelled, world weary man, had died. He died living a lifestyle he wanted to live. We were such children when he guided us across the plain: in awe of the sights, questioning the dangers and he drove, cooked, advised, entertained. He could certainly tell the tallest stories. I think of the song that somehow became our bus song on that trip: Starships (a song with some dubious lyrical content that I’d never heard before that trip). Whenever the chorus came on, ‘Starships were meant to fly, hands up and touch the sky’, we’d all do actions. It almost felt like our outstretched arms were flying us across the Nullarbor. When I’m stuck at a crossroads, I remind myself, ‘starships were meant to fly’. It tells me I’m meant for something new, a new life journey, a new life experience and I’m meant to embrace it, to fly. No matter what the lyrics meant originally, in the midst of the mundane they also remind me of the highs of life, the moments in the sun. Such as those minutes spent standing atop a perfect sanddune or singing with arms stretched wide as we moved through a landscape that stretched on farther than the eye could see. And when I need the impetus to move forward from life’s crossroads, I say to myself: ‘let’s do this one more time oh oh oh oh’.

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A walk in the autumn leaves


“Come with me for a walk in the autumn leaves” are some of the forcefully sung lyrics about a relationship at crunch-point that accompany the viseral guitar sound of the Huxton Creepers in their song  Autumn Leaves. Keats wrote more tranquilly of a “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness” in his poem To Autumn. Despite living in Australia where indigenous plants are not seasonally desiduous, my picture of autumn is still shaped by deciduous trees losing their now coloured leaves and by the sight of children and animals frolicking in piles of fallen foliage. Another Australian 80’s band Pseudo Echo’s album Autumnal Park (which didn’t originally contain the title track) has a cover that shows a park in autumn as seen through horizontal slat blinds. What they were inferring with this title I’m not sure – it certainly wasn’t the end of their career, but rather the beginning; perhaps a sense of varied musical tracks like leaves with different colours, or perhaps they just liked the sound of the words. I certainly find a park of deciduous trees beautiful in autumn.

Each autumn I try to make a local pilgrimage to somewhere my senses can drink in the range of red, orange and yellow hues in the cooling air and where I can admire the variety of coloured shapes that cover the ground. Ashes, maples, oaks, liquid ambers, forest pansies, poplars and other trees provide an autumnal feast for the eyes. It is more than just the leaves I want to absorb at this time of year. In a world where we have largely lost a sense of seasons in our disconnection from the agrarian, from religious calendars and other seasonal differentiators, many things that were once special – being only available at one particular time of year -can now be found year-round. Autumn is a transitional season in my mind, it signals the end of hot summers and prepares us for the early darkness and cold of winter days. Autumn is still a sign that plants, animals and humans experience seasonal changes, year by year and throughout each lifespan.

Autumn can be poignant – a metaphor or elegy for lives or relationships drawing to a close, as in the Huxton Creepers song – but as a season where fruit ripen and are ready to harvest, where trees change their state, it can also alude to change; to growth and maturity. In Gilmore Girls, Rory’s first kiss with her beau Dean comes during her hometown Stars Hollow’s autumn festival as the leaves are changing colour. Her mother Lorelai has to process her daughter’s growing independence and adulthood as Rory confides this life first to her friend Lane before her mother and Rory has to negotiate the awkwardness of her first boyfriend becoming a part of her traditional mother/daughter movie night.

Wherever you find yourself in autumn, find a park where the leaves are falling and take stock of what season your life is in. Whether you find yourself weeping at an ending as the leaves fall and the trees are laid bare or whether you’re feeling joyful in the midst of your life, all the more completely as you spy the exquisite shades of the autumn leaves, find a park in autumn and mark your season.

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Travelling conqueror or guest?


I was reminded recently about the board game ‘Risk’, which I used to play with friends and on the computer. If you’ve never played it, the basic premise is for each player to try to conquer the world, one continent at a time. As Westerners I feel like we often travel in this same spirit of trying to conquer the world. Without worrying about the fact that many of our ancestors or countries of origin already decimated peoples, languages, cultures, cuisine, environments and more, we take on some kind of ‘divine right of travel’ and tramp everywhere and anywhere it takes our fancy. Now I have to admit to being someone with wanderlust who likes to visit other lands, but I ask myself as well as our western travel culture, do we go as conqueror or guest to a foreign land?

To me a traveling conqueror wants to go anywhere, regardless of local advice, sensibilities or beliefs. This traveler has expectations that language, food, customer service and other aspects of life will be tailored to suit them, rather than them fitting in with the local way of life. The conqueror believes that their money should buy their way anywhere they want to go.

A guest on the other hand is respectful, unsure of their place and dependant on the welcome of those they visit. Hopefully a guest will be treated well, but this cannot be guaranteed. A guest hopes to fit in with their hosts, to learn their way of life, try out their language. A guest wants to discover local practices and sensibilities and pay regard to them.

A conqueror is like a Zoo visitor – peering at a foreign country through the windows of a tour bus of their own compatriots, always guided by someone who provides a shield between them and the locals, who interprets for you. Looking in on, but never part of, the people and place they visit.

I was in a city recently where there was graffiti that read (in English) ‘Tourists go home’. I can’t say I’m surprised. When I see tour buses pull up filled with identically dressed people with cameras at the ready I shudder too. No wonder people dream up businesses to fleece tourists and pickpockets gather with itching fingers at the ready. If I felt like my way of life was being disrupted and my country’s most treasured or sacred places were being overrun by insensitive dolts and if I had people trying to take a photo of me, my family, my house, my washing on the line all the time, I too would be very resentful. Even outraged. Wouldn’t you?

As with everything in life, the issue of ethical travel is a complex one. In one of his chapters in The Wonder box, Roman Krznaric reflects on the different ways to travel, including as a pilgrim, and raises questions about the ethics of travel.We know that in some places locals have stopped traditional ways of earning a living in favour of running businesses that depend on tourists, which often brings them more money for less physical effort. The way we travel has changed these places and their economies probably permanently and now we all have to live with the results.

True Risk taking is to risk becoming immersed in another culture, to risk getting to know local people and practices and to venture out of your western protective bubble to get into a culture, rather than wandering past it and gawking as if at animals in a zoo.

How can we travel as guests rather than conquerors? Here are ten ideas. Feel free to comment with your own:

  1. Learn at least some basic language before you travel to a country and try to use it, even if you stumble and sound stupid, even if they laugh at you.
  2. Read up on the culture, customs, language, religion/s etc before you visit and go in the spirit of being a fortunate guest in someone else’s house.
  3. Wander around on your own or in small groups to increase your chances of interacting with locals.
  4. Eat at small local restaurants and shop at small local businesses rather than big chain stores or shops you are familiar with from your own country. If you come from a country where tipping is optional, make sure you know what the expectations are in the country you’re visiting.
  5. Stay with locals or in accommodation frequented by locals rather than big tourist hotels or hostels
  6. Observe how locals dress and sometimes go out without your hiking jacket, wide-brimmed hat, bum bag, camera and other obviously touristy attire and try to blend in a bit more. Decide not to take photos of people or places where it seems inappropriate or insensitive or make sure you ask permission.
  7. Visit less-popular attractions rather than just the standard tourist hit list. This will lessen environmental and other impacts on over-touristed sites.
  8. Travel as part of a cultural exchange or hobby program that partners with local groups that you can meet and exchange knowledge or practices with, rather than on a standard tour.
  9. Donate to the up-keep of local national parks, historic attractions and other sites that suffer from tourist impact.
  10. Ask locals what they would like tourists to do and not do in their country and take this on board.



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Next time you approach one, spare a thought for the door

Red door in a stone wall with tower in the background, Corfe Castle, UK

I do love a good Door – a door is complete in itself, and is also the entry to a new world. Every door has its own character and many bear the marks and scars of age and experience: wind-battered peeling paint, fire-burn marks, water-swollen wood, animal scratches and chew marks, furniture moving-day bumps, rusted hinges.

Doors give messages: a locked door denies entry, an open door spells out welcome, a door knocker invites visitors, a wreath celebrates an event or mourns a death in the household. A door creates expectation and sets the tone: a shiny door may indicate a tidy house, a cracked door a run-down house. They keep people in, or they keep people out, they defend people and their possessions against the elements, they hide secrets or provide entry. Sometimes they are solid and impenetrable, sometimes you can see right through them.

Some doors become friends: the back door of a friend’s house, and some doors become enemies: the locked door of a business you needed to get to before closing time. Some doors are famous, like the door of number 10 Downing St, and some ordinary. But doors in themselves are often forgotten once what lies beyond them has been reached. Next time you front up to one, spare a thought for the door: all it is, and all it has seen.

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All the little victories

A stork on her nest on top of a chimney, Kellinghusen, Germany

I’ve been thinking a bit about the nature and symbols of victory as I was trying to choose one photo for this post. The quadriga was one of many ancient symbols of victory: a statue with four horses pulling a chariot ridden by a triumphal figure. In classical mythology it was the chariot of the gods, such as the one Apollo rode across the heavens. Many leaders have built arches and other structures and held parades to celebrate their victories in battle over other nations across the ages. Flags were flown, torches lit, garlands worn, weapons raised high in triumph.

Apart from sporting triumphs, today our major personal victories might be anything from winning a tender for a project at work, having your cancer go into remission or seeing your child finish high school. But we also have little victories every day and the stork above reminds me of this. Sometimes when life is hard it is victory enough to still be living and standing up by the end of the day, to know your family is still safe and dry and to have had the time or the energy to cook a meal before falling into bed. Sometimes surviving physically or mentally is a big victory. And the little victories add up, sometime there may be periods where you’re just surviving but later you have the energy to look out from the nest and see the rest of the world and get back to all the other things that you want to achieve. Victories should be celebrated – yours, mine, everyones – big or small, invite your friends, wave a flag, raise a glass or sing a song. Whatever it was, however big or small, you did it.

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