Places of Inspiration Part 7: Memories, Dreams, Reflections Among the Kookaburras on an Australian Mountain Lookout

Margaret Silf wrote a book called Sacred Spaces in which she explored the various stages of our life-journey in terms of geographical locations. Everything has a symbolic meaning – bridge, crossing place, lake, wood, ford, spring, river, well  – in the ancient Celtic view of the world. And I believe many of us find that the value of a special place lies not only in itself but in the extent to which our memories, dreams and reflections are threaded through it.

So it is for me with Jolly’s Lookout – number 7 in my mini-series Places of Inspiration. Halfway up a mountain near Brisbane in Queensland, Australia, it’s a place where I’ve meditated, socialised, and reached turning points in my life. Jolly’s Lookout is equally loved by picnickers and kookaburras.   It holds memories and has inhabited my dreams. For me, past and future coalesced here. The view has it all, in terms of “soul space” – a valley, a city, a bay, distant mountains. All these hold a symbolic power, a special symbolism for the life-journey.

 

Tourist Map of Australia
Tourist Map of Australia

You can see where Brisbane is here on this map of Australia.

Jolly’s Lookout  – so named after William Jolly, the first Lord Mayor of Greater Brisbane – is a place of happy times  – lunchtime picnics, night-time barbeques, gatherings of local groups who come to eat together then play games afterwards.  In 2007 I was able to take my 12-year-old daughter there and she has shared my love of this inspiring mountain viewpoint ever since.

My daughter Abigail at Jolly's Lookout
My daughter Abigail at Jolly’s Lookout

This lookout is in open eucalypt forest. If you continue up the road from here to Mount Glorious, you may hear bellbirds, and enjoy walks through subtropical rainforest.

a possum in a tree at night
a possum in a tree at night

At night it is the haunt of possums, their bright eyes shining in the torchlight as  visitors come to hang their storm lanterns from the overhanging branches and prepare their barbecues.

A close up of a goana
A close up of a goana

And often if you come at dusk you will find a visiting goana, also keen to share your picnic.

kookaburra
kookaburra

It is likewise home to numerous kookaburras, who love their opportunity to swoop and snatch from a hapless visitor’s fork perhaps a nice chicken breast or piece of steak, foolishly lifted into the air, and held there for a split second before the mouth of the picnicker can close around it.

The view from Jolly’s Lookout is breathtaking. It takes in the Samford Valley, the city of Brisbane, Moreton Bay, and beyond that, further north, up towards the Sunshine Coast, the bizarre and fascinating shapes of the Glasshouse Mountains, so named by Captain Cook purely from the impression they made on him as he sailed past in 1770. During the time I lived in Australia – four and a half years between 1986 and 1990 – I visited Jolly’s Lookout many times.

picnic table at Jolly's Lookout May 2012
picnic table at Jolly’s Lookout May 2012

Is there a special place where you have happy memories, perhaps of wandering alone, or a place where you were part of a social gathering or party that comes vividly to mind whenever you think of the place? Are your memories, dreams and reflections threaded through it? Please share your thoughts about your special place, in the comments below.

Places of Inspiration Part 5: Sydney Opera House – Masterpiece of Human Creative Genius

So far in this mini-series, we’ve visited India, Uluru/Ayers Rock in Australia, London, and Sissinghurst in Kent. And today I’m taking you back again to Australia; to Sydney Opera House.

exterior view of opera house
exterior view of opera house

From the air Sydney Opera House looks like a waterlily at the harbour’s edge. Its location on Bennelong Point integrates it perfectly with the water. Close up, it reminds me of four things: seashells, the sails of a ship, the wings of a bird, or a waterlily. This building is the most beautiful I’ve ever seen.

I find the opera house stunning from every aspect, and even more so the closer you draw to it; and the interior of the building fulfills every expectation that may be raised by the  breathtaking glory of the exterior.

Sydney Opera House Concert Hall Northern Foyer
Sydney Opera House Concert Hall Northern Foyer
Inside Sydney Opera House
Inside Sydney Opera House

The story surrounding the creation of the opera house is as engrossing as the design of the building itself. The idea was first suggested by English composer and conductor Leonard Goossens in 1946. The Australian government showed vision by committing to a project that would take generations to fulfill and would win no particular administration any electoral advantage. Then they decided to run an international competition for the design.

The competition was won by a 38 year old Danish architect, Jorn Utzon, with a simple, almost diagrammatic sketch.

Sydney Opera House design sketch
Sydney Opera House design sketch

Work began on the opera house in 1959 and it took 14 years to build, opening to the public on 20 October 1973. Utzon’s vision of wing-like structures nearly defeated the civil engineers Ove Arup until the architect himself suggested the solution: to construct a sphere, then cut shells from it, each of which was a triangular shape.  Then there was a dispute over the design of the interior; in 1966 Utzon “left the job” and a new architect, Peter Hall, was put in charge of that. Utzon never returned to Australia again, though he later met Arup again on friendly terms.  The opera house has progressively increased in stature ever since. And Utzon, although he never returned to Australia to see his beautiful building in reality, knew before he died that it had won UNESCO World Heritage status as “a masterpiece of human creative genius”.

The story is not without its tragedies, blunders, scandals, detractors and failures of communication; yet ultimately imagination, dedication and creative genius triumphed.

This building represents for me a synthesis of human ingenuity, artistry and skill. The poet John Keats said: A thing of beauty is a joy for ever: /Its loveliness increases; it will never/ pass into nothingness.  I could never have believed these words might apply to a man-made structure – and I don’t expect  the Sydney Opera House to last for ever; but it is a building which uplifts by the sheer power of its beauty.

Another admirer, Louis Kahn, said: The sun did not know how beautiful its light was until it was reflected off this building.

 The last time I visited it I also went with my family to see a performance of  Verdi’s Aida there in the opera theatre: an unforgettable  and moving experience.

Sheila, Abigail, Jamie & David in front of Sydney Opera House
Sheila, Abigail, Jamie & David in front of Sydney Opera House

Have you ever visited Sydney Opera House? What are your experiences and feelings about this building? Or perhaps you prefer another of the world’s great buildings – there are many candidates. I’d love to know your own choices!

Places of Inspiration Part 3: Ayers Rock/Uluru, Evidence of Spirit Ancestors

Here is an image of a famous landmark:

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How do you think of Ayers Rock (aboriginal name Uluru)? Do you think of it as that rock in the middle of Australia, which presents a climbing challenge to all tourists? Or do you think of it as a place sacred to the aborigines, a jewel at the heart of this great continent?

Two and a half years ago, I visited Uluru for the second time. As we stepped out onto the tarmac at Ayers Rock Airport at midday local time, the first thing that struck me was intense colour and light.  Glowing ochre earth, blue sky, pearl white ghost gums – and Uluru itself in the distance, dusky pink

Uluru, an iron-rich sandstone monolith arising from the heart of Australia, is sacred to the indigenous traditional owners, the Anangu.  It tells their stories, it shows the actions of the Spirit Ancestors in their violent conflicts during the Dreamtime, displaying evidence of their falls, their spear-thrusts, their lost shields.  Uluru itself has a strong, brooding presence, which you begin to feel as soon as you see it, and which grows as you approach and gaze. 

It speaks with its changing colours, amber, fiery red, deep brown, depending how the light falls upon it at different times of day, and its knife-edge shadows and fissures, flaking surfaces, indentations, pockmarks, wave-like effects, and most outstanding of all, the skull formation.

Skull Formation
Skull Formation

  On another level, it almost seems like a giant plasticine model which a giant has pressed his fingers into or dragged a comb down, or stippled and stabbed with a palette knife. 

For many visitors, this central icon of Australia is inextricably linked with the idea of climbing to the top.  “Go to Australia: climb Ayers Rock”. But, warn the signs at the Aboriginal Cultural Centre, “The Anangu ask that you respect our traditions and customs, and choose not to climb it.”

We caught the shuttle from the Yulara resort, planning to do the base walk.  On the 9.2 kilometre trail around the Rock, it was evident that the number of fenced-off sacred areas had been increased since my last visit, pushing the path further out.  And yet despite this, a walk around Uluru is full of marvels.  The trees and shrubs are all much greener than you might imagine – the wattles, the fig trees, the desert bottlebrush.  The aboriginal cave-paintings fill you with wonder, every experience defeats your expectations – none more so than the Mutitjulu Waterhole.  We came upon it unexpectedly, tranquil and mysterious, the Rock’s multi-dimensional character reflected in its quiet waters.

Uluru glowing at sunrise
Uluru glowing at sunrise

The feeling I brought away with me after walking round the Rock was almost that of walking round a great and beautiful cathedral, imprinted with the devotion of many centuries. I can well understand how the Anangu revere the Rock, which has taken on an awesome spiritual power from the thousands of years of sacred ceremonies and teaching and story-telling centred upon it. 

For me it is another of my places of inspiration: a vist here allowed me a deeper insight into the meaning of the aboriginal culture, enriching my own understanding. Have you ever visited Uluru? How did you find the experience? And if it has only ever been a picture in a brochure, or a news report, what has been your impression of the famous “Ayers Rock”?

Places of Inspiration Part 1: Exotic Marigolds, Mystical Mountains and Memories of India

I recently watched The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, and found it a movie full of insight, humour and hope.  I vividly recalled my own arrival at Delhi Airport several years ago for a visit to Northern India, and the noise, the brilliant jewel-like saris, the garlands of marigolds placed around our necks. The images flooded in on me:  colour, chaos, begging children, families camping and cooking in the middle of the central reservation in major roads in Delhi. I relived the shock of seeing leprous beggars, the pity I felt on meeting girls who appeared to be only about 10 years old, carrying tiny babies on their backs, holding out their hands for free offerings of food or money; the disease and poverty, and also the spirituality, the beauty and the profound joy of India.

In ‘the Land of the Gods’ the Garhwal Himalayas – I journeyed in a minibus up a perilous mountain road, our final destination being Badrinath, place of Hindu pilgrimage, just before the Tibetan border. The road was lined with signs saying things like “Yours Hurry is Another’s Worry”.  We reached the mountain village of Joshimath late in the afternoon. As I inhaled the fragrance of a syringa bush there, I realised a local resident stood beside me. He remarked: “the might of God is all around” in a very casual way, reflecting what I was thinking and feeling at the time. And I thought: This wouldn’t happen in England. And if it did it would have a very different cultural context!

Our journey ultimately led to Badrinath. We arrived as dusk fell and there before us was the peak of Neel Kanth, luminous in the full moon. It was a sight I would never forget.  Since then I’ve seen a number of images on Google of Neel Kanth, and yet none comes near capturing the impact this mystical mountain had on me that night as I arrived in Badrinath.

There too, on the mountain path above Badrinath, I met a Sadhu – India holy man who lived in a cave. See my recent post for a photo of this holy man, whose tranquil expression made a lasting impression on me.

So to sum up my reflections on India: there may be squalor, social injustice, and dysfunctional public services, but this is a country of extremes, and I felt a visit here should also have a profound spiritual impact, as it did for the characters in “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”, transforming the lives of each one of them, bringing all of them clarity and moments of radical decision.

This is a personal reflection on India, and I know there will be many visitors who feel differently about it. Have you visited India? And what are your thoughts on this country of extremes?

An Artist’s Feeling for Light and Relationship with the Creative Writer

“Show don’t tell” is one of the most common pieces of advice given to a writer; and this is the case with artists too. Yet sometimes we like to hear an artist explain their method of working. And so the other day I listened to Phyllis Davies, Painter and Textile Artist, as she discussed her art at a presentation to the Association of Midland Artists in Leamington Spa. As she displayed her vibrant wall-hangings, hand-embroidered on digitally printed fabric, she spoke of her feeling for light.  Warmth and coolness, sunlight and shadow, these command her attention first of all, and lead her on to consider texture, line, mass, colour and design. The artists I love the most are those for whom the variation of light is where it all begins. A good example of this, from another period, is Leonardo Da Vinci’s The Virgin of the Rocks, which has long been one of my favourite artworks. The quality of the light and shadow in this great painting fills me with awe.

Phyllis Davies finds her inspiration in Venice, and her glorious wall-hangings are full of the opulence and brilliance and splendour of that city.  She said: “it is always more interesting to look at things through something else.”  So as an artist she prefers to view a basilica, a bridge, a church, through a fence. And this reminded me of the exhibition I reviewed a few weeks ago, Lost in Lace at the Birmingham City Art Gallery & Museum. Everything there was defined by spaces and holes and boundaries, even to the point of one artist tying threads round holes in fences.

Another abstract feature stood out in my mind from Phyllis’s presentation: movement and stillness. She represents this through variation of light and colour, and in the viewpoint she takes of Venetian scenes.  To me, listening to an artist describe how she works is something that feeds directly into how I feel about creative writing. Movement and stillness translates into pace and tone and mood. Warmth and coolness, sunlight and shadow, all play their parts in a novel, as we consider the effect of positive and negative, high emotional stakes and the subtle passing of information – the art of “showing” and not “telling”. Whether the novel is literary or popular, I still feel that these elements are present, there in the writer’s art. 

SC Skillman

Wisdom from Hermitage, Cave and Monastery

a sadhu (Hindu holy man) in the Himalayas
a sadhu (Hindu holy man) in the Himalayas

Sometimes you hear people say “What’s the use of being a solitary contemplative?” How can any of humanity’s problems be resolved by those who withdraw from the world, to live the life of a hermit or a monk? The vital role of the sadhu or holy man is long established in Indian tradition; and renewed interest in monasticism in our society in recent years has focused our attention on The Monastery TV programmes exploring the work of Abbot Christopher Jamison at Worth Abbey in Sussex. His book Finding Sanctuary is one of the finest spiritual books I’ve ever read.

Abbot Christopher Jamison
Abbot Christopher Jamison

 Gifts from the hermitage or monastery or cave may not necessarily come through words. Years ago, I met a sadhu, a Hindu holy man, in the Himalayas. He lived in a cave above Badrinath (the last Indian town of importance before the Tibetan border, and place of Hindu pilgrimage).  He was happy to pose for a photo. Thereby he gave me something of great value:  the serene, tranquil look in his eyes was one of the most powerful memories I brought back from India; an image which would endure for years.

Imagine receiving wisdom and prophetic insight from a solitary contemplative, whether this be sadhu or monk or sage.  Thomas Merton, Trappist Monk (1915-1968) was one of the twentieth century’s greatest spiritual writers, and a prolific correspondent for thousands who wrote to him. Now, reading his  Precious Thoughts I feel as if I’m viewing daily posts from his blog. As I read each one I can see clearly the question his correspondent asked him, the problem that person was troubled by.

Precious Thoughts by Thomas Merton
Precious Thoughts by Thomas Merton

For example someone had evidently written to him concerned about the suffering that animals experience, and whether God cares, or has anything to do with it (a subject of interest to all animal rights activists). Merton replies: Who is to say that He does not in some way Himself suffer in the animals what they suffer? God cannot simply look on ‘objectively’ while His creatures suffer. To imagine Him doing so is to imagine something quite other than God.

Then there was his reply to a writer who had shared her impatient anxiety (something I know well) about the way things were working out in her life; and Merton wrote: Do not attach too much importance to any individual happening or reaction … you cannot scheme, you cannot figure, you cannot worm your way out of it. Only God can unlock the whole business from the inside, and when He does, then everything will be simple and plain.

Treasure the wise contemplatives of this world. They are indeed precious to humanity.