This post is more about me working through a couple of big ideas than a straight forward travelogue. I guess, if you follow my blog, you know how this works already, so it won’t be a shock.
We began this morning with a city tour (via coach) of Sydney. It was excellent and very informative. I even got to see where Russell Crowe’s first apartment was when he began to get famous. Then, we moved on to the outskirts and a place where you could see “The Gap,” the space that marks the entrance to Sydney Harbour. It’s a dramatic sight, with ocean stretching out between two sets of sandstone cliffs. The side we stopped on happened to be in a populated, sort of wealthy area, with lots of glassy houses overlooking the sea.
Our tour guide told us we would be getting out of the coach to take in the view. To begin, it looked just like a little parkette area, with winding trails leading to a cliffside view. She had told us, though, that it was widely known, in Sydney, as a suicide area. There are more than 1 or 2 suicides a week at this spot. That disturbed me right away. Then she told us the story of a man named Don Ritchie, who lived in a little white house that sat opposite this outlook area. He was nicknamed “The Angel of the Gap” and was given one of Australia’s highest honours just a few weeks before he died in May of 2012. They even named a grove after him, just off the winding trails. The best thing about this visit, actually probably the only good thing about this site, was the quotation that was etched into the wall. ”Always remember the power of a simple smile, a helping hand, a listening ear and a kind word.” The words belong to Don Ritchie and it is said that, at his funeral last year, there were hundreds of people who told his family that they wouldn’t be alive if Don hadn’t stopped them from jumping off the side of The Gap into the ocean. He was, by all accounts, an amazing man.
From what I saw there this morning, it’s truly a shame he isn’t alive anymore. Now, there are closed circuit cameras hovering above the winding trails overlooking the Tasmanian Sea, and signs that say things like “Hold onto Hope. There is always Help.” Right away, you know you’re not in for a traditional seaside walk. It sets you off inside, knowing that many people choose this spot to take their lives.
I cannot, for the life of me, get rid of the images in my head (and heart). They haunt me all these hours later. Walking along by myself, I came upon a pair of grey shorts, laid out neatly, folded, on the top of a low cement wall. To start, I thought, like a Northerner, “Kids must come here to party, overlooking the sea.” It didn’t take long, though, to see that this was not the case. Closer to the edge of the beautiful sandstone cliffs, a pile of clothing sat there, abandoned and sad. Two socks, a pair of underwear, a shirt. They obviously went with the shorts. While other people posed happily for pictures, I felt like vomiting. It struck me to the core. To think that someone had just recently chosen to take their life here marked the beauty of the area, scarring it so that you could feel the sadness seep into your pores. I turned and walked further down the pathway, hoping to shift the feeling, only to turn the corner to find a bouquet of roses attached to the fencing that is meant to prevent people from jumping. The note said, profoundly and achingly, “We love you. We miss you.” For the life of me, I cannot understand why a tour would stop at such a spot. So many lives have ended in this place. Yes, the view is stunning, but the vibrations of sadness and loss, of despair, sinks into the soil. If you are empathic at all, you can sense it. It makes you feel physically ill. It made me feel sick, so that I thought I actually had a migraine coming on. An hour later, having come back into the core of the city by bus, I decided to come back to the hotel, take a migraine pill and sleep. Hours later, I still don’t know if it was a migraine, or a coming flu, but I do know that places have spirit….and that you cannot ignore the horror and pain of such a place.
Also, having dealt with major depressive order myself, having experienced suicidal ideation during very dark periods of my life a few years ago, I cannot stand to see such a place used for tourists. Anyone who contemplates suicide, who has been in that dark soul emptying place, knows that it’s not a place to go and visit, even for the views and camera shots. I came back here and said a silent prayer for those lost souls, the ones who couldn’t make it through the darkness into the light, who felt there was no other option but to jump into the sea. I prayed that they have since found their way into light…away from pain. And, finally, I prayed for the land, which seemed to me to be marked, scarred, psychically bleeding with despair. It needs cleansing, I think, not tour busses stopping for photo ops.
This evening, feeling a bit less heavy and ill, I met a dear poet friend, Sandra, who lives here in Sydney, for dinner. She and I met on a tour of Ireland last summer and hit it off. (I seem to collect poets wherever I go and I feel as if Sandra is a soul sister of sorts.) We wandered through Sydney’s streets, took a bus to The Rocks, the oldest part of Sydney, right next to the harbour bridge, and made our way to the Hero of Waterloo pub. There, we chatted up a storm and had a pint of cider. The building was beautiful, made of sandstone bricks, all of which were dimpled and etched by convicts who populated the early wilds of Australia. On one brick, a stone mason had jotted down his initials, JM, along with the leaves of a gum tree (Australian) and a shamrock (Irish). Not surprising, as a number of Irish were exiled to Australia, some for stealing something as little as a loaf of bread to push against the hunger and poverty. I thought, immediately, of Newfoundlander Ron Hynes singing ”The Fields of Athenry,” which I love to sing, and which tells the tale of an Irish man who is sent away from his wife and children for having stolen an Englishman’s corn to feed his family. He ends up in Botany Bay, far far away from those he loves.
Then, after pints, we wandered further to find Aussie pies and more cider at The Lord Nelson Brewery Hotel and continued our chat about poetry and writing. It’s wonderful when you find like minded souls who “get” what you “get” in terms of creative process and art. When a poet hangs out with a poet, there is no sense of being eccentric or strange, but rather there is a sense of great comfort, of homecoming, of being able to speak of things that you are passionate about without feeling like an outsider. I love that….and I wish Sandra lived closer, but I’m glad we met and were able to get together tonight. She made me realize, in our chat, that I need to give even more time to my work. Sometimes, I forget that I’m a decent poet….and then someone like Sandra comes along, gives me a pep talk, and gets me to push forward again, even further, into engaging my work on a more intense level. So, because of her encouragement, I’m thinking of returning in a year or so, to attend a writing retreat here in Australia….to see what emerges. Before that, I’m going to sign up for a fall course in writing short stories. Sandra convinced me…and I’m thankful for that vote of confidence when I was a bit down on my abilities as a fiction writer.
Tomorrow, a tour of the Opera House, which I’m looking forward to as architecture is a form of poetry and art to me. Then, northwards to Coffs Harbour and a visit with the koalas on Wednesday.