algar do carvão, a volcano of deep thought

On the island of Terceira, in the Portuguese island group known as the Azores, there’s an ancient volcanic ruin that now serves as a locals-recommended hotspot. Buses – filled with families and tour groups – drop guests off, their drivers dozing in the front seat while their charges make a circuit deep into the hollows of the volcano.

Algar do Carvão, which translates loosely to “a cavern of coal”, is almost 100 metres deep, with a wide mouth that frames the sky. It’s nestled high on a mountaintop, surrounded by Jurassic-feeling foliage and neighboured by a tiny cafe. At the mouth of the volcano, which is only visible when you have walked down a cold, echoey corridor underneath it, greenery spills – uncontainable and stretching towards the sunlight. A walk into the depths of the volcano is steep, and slippery, and footholds are not aided by patches of ferns peeking between rocks. The water that seeps out of the walls is cold, and the mossy growth on the seams in the rock is soft and squishy, earthly and visceral.

The view to the top

The view to the opening of Algar do Carvao. | Photo by R.

On our visit – which appeared to coincide with the visits of at least 100 other people, no small feat given we’d driven for stretches at a time without seeing other cars on our way to the site – the sky was blue. The past few days had seen rain clouds on a rather constant roll, a grey vista for a tropical area, the drizzly landscape punctuated only by blooming hydrangeas in pastel pinks and blues. (Writing now, it is not lost on me that we spent one of our few blue-skied afternoons underground. Such is the nature, if you will, of adventure.) Families, preparing to leave as we were arriving, briefly nursed piccolos and Donas Amelia (the raisin-studded pastries of the island) in the car park. Children squealed and chased each other among chunks of black lava stone fashioned as seats. This monolithic rock was a deeply exciting – and exceedingly accessible – place to be, and that was infectious.

There are nine separate islands that make up the Azorean archipelago. For our first journey, we visited just two: Terceira, home of volcanic fissures and the occasional bullfight, and São Miguel, the most populated and the site of the international airport. Our decision to visit the Azores was very much a spin-the-globe one; neither of us had heard of the island group before we booked our flights. That, in retrospect, was the perfect fit for what we both needed: a departure from the demands of full-time careers, a check-in with ourselves about what we wanted and needed from our daily life, and a reminder of the capacity of nature to restore our souls.

Hydrangeas in Sao Miguel

Hydrangeas were plentiful on the islands, peppering roads here, there and everywhere. | Photo by R.

The questions I found myself wrestling with before I departed to Portugal (which was part of a larger six-week trip that was otherwise US-based), centered around purpose: what do I want from my career? What do I want from my non-work life? How do I want to show up to the world? What kind of future do I want to create? A monotony of madness had made the answers to those questions unclear, and the speed of modern life had made processing them feel almost impossible. My mind had felt foggy, like the answer was a flicker of light on the end of a rather stubborn candle wick and the amount of focus to get it to spark into a flame was more than I could muster. Fitting, then, that we unconsciously and unintentionally managed to find a location that felt like it was slower, with communities coming together over a religious “festa” down main street and cafes where everyone knew each others’names (a cafe that was also, come nightfall, the bar).

We spent a week on the islands, meandering around, eating lots and lots of limpets (a small shelled mollusc with a coin-sized muscle, best served grilled or steamed and topped with garlic and parsley), and engaging with the natural environment. At one point, we stayed on a micro-farm and char-grilled flanks of a cow that had been raised on the grass in front of us.

A plate of limpets

A plate of limpets for dinner, an Azorean staple. Photo by R.

Originally, we had planned to visit many more natural sites on the islands, unwittingly thinking a ferry could potter us between them like a ferry on Sydney Harbour might deliver someone to Manly from the central business district. (This was not the case.) Our final itinerary was determined much more by the proximity of locations on a paper map, and how we were feeling on any given day. We didn’t see all of the mountains or look-outs, lakes or monuments we set out to see, but what we did see was powerful, and intentional, and perfect.

Like Algar do Carvão, which has patiently sat on a tiny island in the middle of the Atlantic ocean for thousands of years. Little feet, big feet, feet covered in hiking boots and feet loosely “protected” in flip-flops, hauled people up and down the rocky stairs. At one point, a small child called it quits, sitting on the step and sobbing about the climb (which is understandable when your legs are the length of a baguette). At certain points on the descent, where the volcano revealed sparkling stones or angular magnificence, the collecting crowd would pause and quieten. It felt natural, mutual.

It was quietest in the tomb-like basement, where – if you craned your neck enough to the left – a speck of the sunlight at the leafy mouth was distantly visible. A handful of those same eager tourists attempted to take photos of the pit’s lake, and they captured about as much as one who attempts to photograph a ghost. People who had asked their companions for photographs looked at the images with furrowed brows, confused, as they walked back up the steps. Often, they didn’t look at the obsidian-flecked walls they stood in front of in search of that souvenir shot.


There was no shortage of beautiful scenery on the islands. | Photo by R.

Which is a pity. Because if they had, they would have seen that in the darkest, deepest part of the volcano, uplit with unnaturally white light to compensate for the lack of any direct natural light, tiny green mosses grew. The astounding ability of Mother Nature to remind us – humans – of our infinite tininess, and of how much we have to learn about the world around us, was clear at the site of an over-2000-year-old volcano. It was a reminder of the slowness of progress, that rushing things is not how we came to be a part of this living, breathing planet. It was a reminder that decisions and answers don’t have to come in weeks or months, but can instead reveal themselves in seasons and cycles. And it was a reminder that wherever we go, there we are – consciously, bravely, boldly, kindly, or (by choice) not.

In the darkness of that ancient volcano, I felt a sense of bright wonderment. It was quiet, and so was my mind. The world felt bigger and yet closer; the scope of my intentions felt more grounded and accessible. In the reflective darkness of that subterranean lake, almost 100 metres underground, the water ran on, ebbing and flowing as nature provided.

In the darkness, little ferns and beetles held dominion – and in the darkness, there was growth.


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black coffee and a life without asterisks

Thanks to an emoji-riddled WhatsApp message from a dear friend last month, I was made aware of the fact that the time is nigh for our high school reunion. Given I went to two high schools an ocean apart and graduated, quietly and privately, in year 11, I never quite got the Senior High School Experience. There’s no evidence of my baby pictures in that year’s yearbook. I didn’t do any senior pranks. A lot of people in my year 11 class, and year 12 friends, found out I was graduating when they saw me walk across the stage at graduation. I did not, and will never, have an emblazoned sweatshirt with a quirky nickname.

So when my dear friend, one of the few who knew about my graduating plans while we were doing year 11 together, sent me the date (which she discovered after a chance encounter with a classmate in our old town), I felt removed from what it meant. I had spent years actively getting out of that high school, and then left it early anyway. It wasn’t even for the class I graduated with. Why would I feel anything but nothing at all?

And I didn’t. Life went on. I had just spent eight weeks travelling the globe, returned to Sydney, moved house, unexpectedly headed back to the US, began the process of dealing with a significant loss in the family, returned to Australia, and made the absurd decision to head to work the same day I landed in Sydney after a 24-hour journey from St Louis. (Never before, and never again.)

It was only after reading a brief story in my newspaper about female-strong groups in high school that I thought about the reunion – and then very loosely – at all.

My life has not been short of periods of loss and periods of growth. Every move – every new house, neighbourhood, school – brought with it the challenges and opportunities to create new friendships. Some lasted (including a handful of people I had the great pleasure of meeting in cities across the US and Europe this past northern summer, over great food and hot beverages), and others dissipate – naturally or intentionally. Our relationships come in seasons, and the people we surround ourselves with often reflect the place that we are at at that point in time.

Increasingly, modern times invite conditional relationships: connections with others that are dependent on circumstances or characteristics that can only be fulfilled if those conditions are met. Less belly-laughing, more planning months in advance. Less spontaneity and shared stories, more “if, then” and “this for that”. Less open-hearted vulnerability, more feeling like we’re being fit around more “important”, “pressing” or “essential” demands on our time. Not “conditional” in the sense that they’re relationships that are based on a shared situation (like the pal from book club you see once a month, or the joyful colleague at work) but rather relationships that feel as if they’re restricted by conditions, compared to other options, and a matter of preference. Conditional relationships are antithetical to the way I want to live, and they’re contradictory to finding and providing fulfilling and present connections.

My feelings on the issue have been compounded by various books that I have read over the past few months, including the astutely brilliant and utterly divine How To Do Nothing by Jenny Odell and the yet-to-be-released You’re Not Listening by Kate Murphy. In the former (and I won’t quote from the latter as it will be published in 2020), Odell encapsulates our state of being – “our” being predominately the state of being in the modern, developed, Western world – as one that is increasingly affected by the “attention economy” and the multifaceted demands on our time, productivity, ability and concentration. She unpacks the current crisis of attention by interlacing nature, ecosystems, and a general refocus on our existence as beings in a larger environment than the 9-to-5.

Odell’s book was so deeply affecting that I even – brace yourself – highlighted segments and wrote in the margins. I haven’t unleashed that kind of insanity since high school, and even then it felt like I was stabbing the book’s heart with every fluorescent swipe. “Realities are, after all, inhabitable,” she writes. “If we can render a new reality together – with attention – perhaps we can meet each other there.” Murphy’s book, or at least the version of it that I’ve had the pleasure of consuming (voraciously), notes that human connection – in the form of listening, deeply and intentionally – is the greatest gift we can bestow upon each other (and give ourselves), and one of the simplest ways to fill our cups.

I have written about my feelings on this topic before, so reading published books on the same plane was a literal and figurative fist-pump of joy. At this point in my life, there are few things more important to me than living proudly and with awareness; loving deeply and with abandon; laughing constantly and for no apparent reason; and sharing that life with people who want to do the same. None of those sentiments come with an asterisk; I don’t want the people I spend that time with to either.

In high school, I tried my very darndest to create communities out of the people I was exposed to: the “transfer” students who, like me, had arrived at the school mid-year or from another location, the theatre crew, fellow Spanish-class students, friends of friends. Occasionally, when I could get people on board, I’d organise breakfast at a diner – replete with red booths and sticky menus – and we’d meet before school. (I’d always get the chocolate-chip pancakes because I was convinced Greek yogurt was what made them super fluffy and had to taste-test each time to confirm.) The group didn’t become The Breakfast Club; we didn’t make friendship bracelets. We shared our journeys, laughed and wisecracked, and leant on each other for that adolescent season of our lives. Eventually, people splintered off and pursued their own groups and my relationships with them became independent, or shifted into smaller groups. We graduated, and life went on.

These days, I remain close with a handful of the people from that diner crew. I may not have a senior sweatshirt, but I can remember who ordered their coffee black and drank it out of heavy-bottomed mugs. That would make a great reunion line, I’m sure. It makes an even better request to a barista at a tiny coffee shop in Portugal, or DC, or Chicago, with a mate sitting opposite – and not an asterisk in sight.

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to all the goodbyes I’ve never said

I try to avoid saying “goodbye”. It feels like a full-stop; a period; a closure that suffocates the potential beyond the now. I’ve avoided saying it at the many airport-gate signoffs or tear-felt farewells I’ve endured in my life, because I’ll see you soon imparts a sense of balance to a life spent leaving.

It’s become clear to me this year that the value we’re putting on creating new relationships – and the willingness with which to engage with them – is shrinking. We’re living online, accepting social media as a substitute for socialising. We’re working ourselves sick, with the belief that we have to be available 24 hours a day. We’re here, maintaining many different accounts of that presence, but we’re not showing up.

In May, I headed to Vietnam. I spent a week wandering small streets and eating copious amounts of fresh lychees, knotted in bunches and bought from local farmers. I stumbled through mispronunciations and got lost. One day, I sat in Ben Thanh market and made conversation with a 7-year-old Vietnamese girl who was drinking mango smoothies with her family. She introduced me to her mother and four siblings. Where was I going, they asked via 7’s translations. When I told them, they informed me they were headed to the same place. Would I like to join them?

And so I took the scenic route, walking slowly down tree-lined streets to the War Museum, stopping to watch the siblings jump on staircases or pull faces at passing motorbikes.

On my last night, in Mui Ne, I was invited out on the town by a young stranger with whom I’d shared some of my lychees the day before. Her friend and she had been watching me, she said, and noticed I’d been eating alone at night. They wanted to show me their side of the city. Could I be ready at six for her to pick me up?

And so I ended up gallivanting around Mui Ne with two generous and kind locals, who introduced me to all the street vendors, school friends and aunts we came across, urging me to try this soup and that pancake and hold on tight as we motored up steep coastal hills. The hours stretched ahead. There was nowhere else to be.

In August, I returned to the States. I needed a break from Sydney. I sought the unconditional love of family, and the ease of friendships that stand the test of time. I dropped lines with the people who fill my heart, who remind me of the infinite gifts of being in the right place at the right time (for what is a relationship if not the Universe lining things up with perfect intention?), who accept me as I am.

I spent three weeks between New York City and Chicago, eating and laughing, engrossed in conversations and contentedly listening. I felt whole, and at home in that strange, floating way that resounds for those whose home is not a physical place. It was a timely and important reminder that my stars are all around me, even if they’re not physically with me.

And then there were the strangers. There were the perky couples at comedy clubs and rooftop bars at 2am. There was the guy at the airport baggage carousel, with whom shared jokes manifested into shared stories. There were people at restaurants, in the cab, at the baseball game. I invited these strangers into the conversation or they invited me – and we all showed up.

On my flight home, I ended up next to a girl from Washington. She was on her way further north, via Sydney. I gave her my number and told her to call me if she ever made it to Sydney. She did, and a month later I hosted her and six of her friends. We spent two nights on the town, in speakeasies and trawling the streets. I met friends of her friends, and ended up showing one of them around later that week. A day adventure turned into a dinner downtown, and we parted ways as one of the last trains left the city that evening.

In all of the moments shared, the nights peeled ahead and yet felt still. The weight of the world lifted from my shoulders. I couldn’t feel more deeply that there was nowhere else I could possibly be.

In these moments, my “showing up” was received with an intentional replication of the same. Laughter felt limitless and conversation was unconditional. It was exactly what I was searching for.

And then, despite all my best efforts, I fell back into the grind. I engaged as deeply and enthusiastically with the world as I always do. And I felt I kept coming up short.

I was showing up, but it seemed everyone else had missed the memo. Were they all just too busy, too important, too afraid, too ‘hurt before’, too tired, too fulfilled, too content, too encumbered by too many friends to keep track of? Where were the people who wanted to join me in the space where time stood still?

In these human connections, we are transparently here: physically, emotionally, energised with the electricity of sharing something with someone else. I believe in engaging with humanity – deeply, vulnerably and honestly – because to do so is to be available to the possibilities of the world.

And it leaves me getting hurt – a lot. Not because people are inherently uninterested in such connections, but because to be vulnerable enough to be all we are can be terrifying.

But life is too short to be scared. What greater risk is there than the risk of not engaging with a stranger because one might be rejected? What greater risk is there than the risk of not voicing an interest in someone’s time because we might face embarrassment? What greater risk is there than the risk of existing without living in a way that is true to the unabashedly brave 5-year-old version of ourselves?

And so I persevered. I organised and I invited. I sent emails and made calls and forwarded links to things we’d discussed in conversations. I told people when I was thinking of them.

We all wake up with the same amount of time ahead of us; every day, I spend 8-and-a-half hours of it working and 3 hours of it commuting. I want to spend what I have left prioritising human connection. Hour-long phone calls? I’m ready. Letters and postcards? Count me in. Flying to another city to meet you in the middle? Let’s compare calendars.

I value these connections because every other person in this world has so much to teach me. I value these conversations because there is no substitute for the intrinsically human ability to engage with someone through a combination of words, body language and laughter. I value these things because when you don’t have the luxury of growing up with a safety net, a graduating class that you’ve known since pre-K, family nearby or a consistent routine, moments of human connection and those conversations are the method with which you can create everything else.

It’s okay to tell people you are thinking of them. It’s okay to call. A lack of reply is not a reflection of one’s worth. We are all facing challenges, and timing is everything.

And so I persevered. I reiterated where I stood. And slowly, slowly, strangers began to respond. Some didn’t. Some strangers became friends. Some didn’t. That’s okay.

Stranger, friend: I hope you might see me showing up – and know that this space, this connection, is a safe realm for you to show up as all you are. To do so is to live boldly and bravely, with a courage that society often wants us to believe is unusual, unacceptable and “too enthusiastic”. I see all you are, and I cherish it.  I hope you might give me the chance to understand your world, because you have no idea how highly I value that privilege. 

At the end of the day, after the long hours and “the rat race” (a term my dearest mate reminded me of this week), I circle back to those rare connections with strangers, those elastic nights with old friends in foreign homes, and the feeling of enjoying someone’s company so much that you forget your eyes are getting heavy and the trains stop running. When you remember that early mornings don’t really matter that much. That distance isn’t really that difficult. That whatever this is doesn’t have to end just because the odds are stacked against it.

Society spends so much energy on things designed to remind us how little time we have, with algorithms that short-circuit our psychology to feel hungry for things that don’t fulfill us. We sap energy on issues that don’t deserve it, and let the scales tip towards concerns that won’t matter this time next year. We over-commit and under-deliver, lament our lack of time and the bounty of exhaustion, when all we really want is the opportunity to be seen, heard and to share.

I see all you are, and I cherish it.

Life is short. The grind feels unrelenting. The nights are never as long as they seem.

I say “see you later”, you see, because I never was one for “goodbye”.

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returning to the uncomfort zone

In two weeks and four days, I am taking myself on an adventure. I am taking myself on an adventure because it is long overdue and I have become intertwined with routine in a way that feels somewhat like I’d imagine an unhealthy, unfulfilling relationship to feel like.

I am taking myself on an adventure to a place where I have long wanted to go; a place that I have heard about from passionate globetrotters, who resolve that there is no place in the world – no place with the kind of people, or food, or history – like this place. I am taking myself on an adventure to this place because it’s high time I returned to the place that I’ve missed: that thin strip of experience squarely outside my comfort zone.

I anticipate that returning to that sliver of time and space – a place I have occupied, comfortably, for an extensive period of my life – will be a return to self. It is only fitting that the return to self should happen in a geographical location entirely unfamiliar. This is the way it goes.

Part of the reason for the adventure is that it has been one year since I last had a holiday. Another part is that I am worn out and ready for some downtime. Another part is that I need to be reminded of how deeply lucky I am that the routine I’m “trapped” in, in fact, belongs to me.

Every day, I commute three hours to work. On a good day, it’s an hour-and-a-half to get there, and the same the way home. The trip consists of a 10-minute walk, then a 40-minute bus ride, then a final 30-minute stint of a combined bus-and-train ride or a walk-and-ferry jaunt, and then another short walk.

At the beginning, it was bearable. I’d be getting exercise! I’d be experiencing the very best of Sydney’s public transport! I’d be surrounded by people, all whom might serve as inspiration for my writing or as vessels for messages from the Universe!

I’ve been doing this commute for almost two years. In that time, the city of Sydney has continued to destabilise infrastructure (of course – and admirably – in the pursuit of future-proofed public transport) and ax bus routes, thereby slowing the slog down to a molasses-like semi-standstill. In that time, I got sick; my patience grew shorter; my frustrations – warranted or not – grew more significant. My perspective became narrower.

Often, the people I sit next to or across from, or stand among, are loud or jittery or seemingly unaware of their fellow passengers. There’s rarely a chatty Kathy, or Ken, but when there is, they most certainly are. You’ve got your feet-on-seaters and your breakfast-eaters and your phone-call-takers. You’ve got all sorts (a most perfect, beautiful, infuriating microcosm of the city we’re all navigating) and as I’ve crawled towards the two-year mark of this commute, I’ve felt increasingly agitated, ungrateful, and hard done by.

Of course, I’m not. I’m not hard done by at all.

This is obvious in every way, but most apparent in the fact that every day, twice a day, I cross the Sydney Harbour Bridge and enter one of the safest, smartest, most beautiful central business districts in the world. Every day, four times a day, I get on a bus without the deep-seated awareness that I used to have when I’d catch the MBTA’s Green Line in Boston, that the person sitting next to me might just be carrying. Every day, countless times a day, I edit stories from stringers on the ground in war zones, or on the front lines of an environmental, social or cultural catastrophe – and from the comfort of my desk, with a red pen, cross-check the history of violence, disease or destruction in far-flung places around the globe. I am not the stringer on the ground. I’m not at the front lines of disaster. I’m not hard done by at all.

This is also obvious in the fact that I have a routine, and that I’ve created a life for myself (with hard work, perseverance, and the gift of circumstance) that enables me to be able to eat or readily purchase a takeaway coffee if I need it.

And it’s obvious in the fact that I will soon be able to afford (in time as much as anything else) to take myself on this adventure.

Routine ins a wonderful thing, and I’ve spent years – and many words on this publication and in others – advocating for a future when I have one. Yesterday, I spoke at length with a dear friend in the States who is about to leave a place they’ve been for a few years to start a new journey. Friend has an opportunity ahead of them that offers stability and grounding, but it’s in unfamiliar territory where Friend doesn’t have a large network yet. Friend worries about creating those connections and establishing a routine without the institutional groundwork Friend has had for the past few years.

As I listened to Friend speak about this, I heard myself in a lot of ways. I heard the worries that I’d had – spoken or unspoken – from many of the moves I’ve made in my life, but especially the concerns I’d had five years ago, and again two years ago. And I found myself interrupting Friend and imploring them to remember that routine shouldn’t be a filling of all the gaps with things, or people, or commitments. That routine should be whatever it is for you, Friend, but not an excuse to leave no time for contemplation, or loneliness, or the unfamiliar. Routine should not be a reason to exhaust yourself, or to inadvertently avoid things because of that exhaustion, or to feel frustrated with yourself because you’ve no energy to try the things that are ahead of you. It was many of the things I wish I had heard then, and need to hear again now.

Routine certainly shouldn’t be something you get frustrated with.

And if it is, then it’s time for change. Routine is a privilege. In the insanity of the three-hour commute and the lack of sleep and the visits to doctor’s offices (the latter two, I should note, being highly unpredictable and not a routine but – unfortunately – quite routine), and work, I had forgotten that. So it’s time for change.

Perhaps it’s even time for an adventure.

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trials, errors + stars: on putting it out there and getting it back

Finally, it’s happened.

For the first time in a long time, I feel I have something to say. Or, rather, write. (I’ve had plenty to say over these past few months, but just haven’t figured out a way to articulate my words – to turn a bunch of concurrent, tangential thoughts into coherent, meaningful prose.)

But I feel differently now. And it’s all because of a conversation (which is, truly, the dawn of all great thinking).

Conversation and people – as my Grandma will attest – are two of my greatest joys in life. I seek out great conversation with opinionated and passionate people on a daily basis, and I have no doubt that it’s why I’m in the profession that I am in.

But deep and meaningful conversation – the kind of stuff that gets to the core of who we are as people and what brings us together? There’s not nearly enough of that. So when we have the opportunity to engage in that sort of conversation in a fulfilling way, we should take it. (And we should create the opportunity to have it too.)

It comes with a caveat, though: in order to go deep, you have to be vulnerable. In order to be vulnerable, you have to take risks. And you have to face the reality of rejection head on, which isn’t the most palatable concept, especially for most young people who have grown up in an environment that celebrates instant gratification and relationships of convenience.

To be vulnerable is to reveal our want to be seen for who and what we are; our need to be acknowledged for all we can be; and our readiness to accept the many possible outcomes of the future as they might unfold as a result of that vulnerability. To be vulnerable is to be human, and I think it’s becoming all too easy to forget the humanity of our relationships with other people.

In January, a handful of those dearest to me moved away to pursue incredible personal, professional and academic goals. At the same time, work was amping up and I was doing things I had only dreamed about months before. While that was all happening, my health was starting to deteriorate. I was trying to develop new relationships while mourning the loss of – or changes to – existing or former relationships, and finding such frustration in how far away some of my loved ones seemed and how difficult it felt to overcome that.

In May, I headed to New York City. It was my first holiday in a long time, and I had very few plans. My only commitments were to spend time with family and friends, experiences which were grounding, inspiring and affirming. The time, albeit short – in some cases less than 24 hours – was filled with meaningful chats and perfect, intentional stillness.

Then there were the strangers, or yet-to-be-friends: people I met, talked to, and felt deeply human connections with. There were doormen and waitresses, bartenders and train conductors, fellow bar patrons-turned-new friends. I treasure all of the conversations I had with those people, some which I continue to have. All serve as perfect reminders of the exquisite beauty of the human condition.

In July, I headed to Scotland for a brief conference where I met other young journalists from 42 countries around the world. I found kindred spirits and, after only 48 hours, new friends. Then, thanks to great planning, I was also able to catch up with one of my rocks.

Soon, it was back to Oz; to work; to the grind. And despite all of the achievements of the months prior, I felt exhausted and lonely. Why was I doing what I was doing, and why was I doing it here, if the people I yearned to celebrate the day-to-day with were there and there and there?

And that brings me to today. Because today I had an incredible conversation with one of the people I hold dearest to my heart. We talked and talked and talked and talked, and it still didn’t feel like enough. The international dateline may separate us, but distance shall not.

And today, I explained to that beautiful person my theory on human connection. It’s a theory that has guided me, for many years, in my understanding of the Universe and our place within it. It’s a theory I hold close during trials and tribulations, and one that I should’ve looked to more during these past difficult months.

All humans are composed of stars: atomically, metaphysically, metaphorically. Once, we orbited in space and we were joined in that orbit by other stars. Then we all fell to Earth. The people with whom, in this human life, we feel the deepest, most inexplicable connections with – whether immediate or over time – were stars on that same journey. The realisation of friendship, then, is the natural momentum of that celestial energy finding itself again.

Or so it goes.

It’s easy to feel lonely when your dearest aren’t your nearest. It’s easy to write off a great connection in a foreign city as a fortune of circumstance – and leave it at that. And it’s easy to let relationships dissipate because distance or time or phone tag keeps you apart.

But I’ve never been one for easy.

So, today I reached out to four people with whom I felt that warmth – new potential friends where there was a hint of that connectivity – and I put it all out on the line. I put it all out on the line because didn’t want to let circumstances define what those relationships could be, and because I didn’t want to let those people disappear. And I put it all out on the line because what is it to be here, to be human, if not to be vulnerable in finding our celestial sparks?

And I heard back.

With three, the feeling was mutual. With one, silence – no recognition, no response, nothing.

The immensity of those moments – waiting for recognition, acceptance, agreement, or dismissal – cannot be overstated. But, as a friend put it to me some years ago, “you have to risk it for the biscuit”.


All too often, we take our stars for granted or forget they’re there – or we don’t let ourselves risk finding them in the first place.

That risk is a gift: to challenge the concept of what friendship can be, how it can start and what brings people together – what potential! (And, surely, we can all afford to take a few more risks.)

It’s important to remember, however, that if risking-it-for-the-biscuit comes up blank, it’s not because our best isn’t good enough. Timing is everything, and sometimes the timing isn’t right. Sometimes, our orbits are a little out of sync. That’s okay too.

But when that risk returns a flicker? A sparkle? An “I feel the exact same way”? Well, the Universe is your oyster. The potential is endless, because you make it so.

This afternoon, after that conversation and all it led to, I felt anew. As a part of a generation that prides itself on the noncommittal – and has come to let surface level suffice for substance – one can feel guilty, and frustrated, for wanting something deeper. Rejection of that vulnerability (or the silence that suggests it) can feel devastating. Effort can seem pushy and overbearing when the crowd isn’t interested. When everyone else is content being quiet, explaining your feelings can sound like an unwanted, echoing shout into a deep, awkward abyss.

Or it could find you a star.

Distance and circumstances do not define us. We define us.

In the challenges we face unaided, we are not alone.

Sometimes we just have to look a little harder in the dark to find the sparks.

And sometimes, it’s up to us to light the match.



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on pausing, and starting again

Lo and behold, I’ve let it happen again. Months – months! – have passed since I last wrote. That is, since I wrote here on twsw. I’ve spent the last six months writing and editing and storytelling elsewhere, for other publications, editors and deadlines, and in the process I’ve neglected my own site; my own writing; my own storytelling.

No more. And I know I’ve said that before, but here’s why it’s different.

I’ve had a tough seven months. It’s been confusing and frustrating and challenging and, at points, debilitating. I’ve been exhausted for a long time, burning the wick at both ends and taking every opportunity that I possibly can. And looking back, I wouldn’t change a thing. It’s enabled me to reach this point, right here.

But now that I’m here, it’s time to make a change. That change starts with writing for me.

I don’t mean to suggest that the work I’ve done this past year – editing newspapers; reporting on conferences in Japan, Sydney, and Scotland; working remotely for a French media organisation; filing stories on some cracker food, hospitality and agriculture movements – hasn’t been work that I’ve loved or that I’ve found fulfilling. It has been. And looking back, it’s been a hell of a lot to squeeze into 12 months.

Now it’s time to reground in what started it all: storytelling, for the sake of telling stories; writing, for the sake of telling stories; mulling and contemplating and challenging ideas, for the sake of telling stories.

In some ways, I feel I’ve got a touch of writers block; I’ve spent months focused on editing newspapers and digital publications, putting the effort into the behind-the-scenes infrastructure that goes largely unnoticed and, rightly, should – the best work in editing is the stuff that you’d read and never think that someone sits with a red pen, on the other end, scratching here, re-conjugating here and underlining there. That writers block has also been compounded by the fact that I feel I’ve been doing so much for so long, that I haven’t had a chance to sit and reflect on any of it for a long time.

So it’s time to slow the hell down. And not just with what I’m doing, but with how I’m doing it. I don’t know at what point I decided that I had to make sure every hour in the day was an hour of work-related productivity, but that’s got to change.

A book I read some months ago was a great catalyst for change, but I wasn’t ready for it then. Rest, by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, is a manifesto for making time for creative rest. He so deftly articulates, through examples of some of the most productive and monumental innovators in our global history, that without resting – intentionally and regularly – we run the very real risk of facing a crushing cycle of exhaustion.

Given that I feel more worn out now than I have in years, I think it’s time I heeded that advice. And when I look back at the 5-year-old me – the person I always aim to make proud when I ask, ‘what would she do?’ – and reflect on what I loved to do then, it’s writing and storytelling. I’m so grateful, always, to have been able to make that my career.


But I miss putting together my own words. I miss telling stories for the sake of documenting this, or that. 


Part of me feels like I’m not really sure where to start, what to write about.


But one must begin to know that.


So here goes.
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lessons from the waves

From the sand of Dee Why beach, there’s a plethora of sounds to be heard. Sometimes, it’s the giggles of small children; sometimes it’s the incessant, eclectic ramblings of foreign tourists, or the boom of the lifesavers over the loudspeaker telling that bunch of dudes to get back between the flags. The most consistent sound is the gentle pounding of the waves.

Before today, I can’t recall a visit of the past fortnight where the waves came tumbling in with the intensity or rapidity of the waves this afternoon. Today, the waves were larger than normal and consistent. I bobbed around with my oceanic companions, grateful for the blue sky and the irrefutable satisfaction that comes from springing yourself up through the water in time with the rise of a wave.

Back on the sand, there were some less than savoury characters (think: the sort of people who intentionally leave their trash wedged between sand mounds, or don’t shake their towels in a considerate manner – that is, don’t adhere to the practice of softly shaking it a few centimetres from the ground to avoid the runaway daggers of sand particles moving at breakneck speed towards the next guy’s ears or – worse – nose). For the most part, it was absolutely wonderful.

I was on the beach because I needed to be reminded of my minuteness. It has been an entirely insane summer period over here, with many visitors (and some terrific memories), lots of hosting, work, departures of those near and dear, and the descent from the “rush” that is university. There was at least one pavlova, and a plentiful selection of my lovely neighbour’s baked desserts. With all this change, and celebration, has come my uncontrollable appetite for filling my schedule back up again.

That’s when I have to remind myself that it’s time to go to the beach.

The waves at Dee Why beach, as at all beaches, don’t stop. They don’t take a break one day and then decide to come another day. They don’t run themselves into the ground (except… literally) and then spend a few days sick in bed, refusing to believe they’re sick. Nay. They move in ebbs and flows. There’s a distinctive balance between when they’re full throttle, and when they’re re-centering with the swell, but they’re consistent. There’s a lesson in that. The oceans have been trying to make their way to the shore for billions of years, and they’re still working on it. It’s not a sprint; it’s a marathon.



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signs from purple skies

Last week:

The sky turned purple on my way home from work last night, and ruptured into vivid shades of orange and pink. Hidden in the tendrils of sun-studded colour was the biggest moon I have seen in a long time. It hung in the sky like a saucer, and it smiled at me as I made my way across the Sydney Harbour Bridge in a semi-packed bus full of weekend-ready strangers.

Purple is a colour that has played a significant role in my life in recent years. It represents an incredibly difficult period, and some of the greatest resilience and strength. I look at it now, years on, and see the latter.

Earlier this week, I lost a purple baseball cap. I’m pretty sure I lost it in the back of a cab on my way home from the night shift. The cabbie had removed the headrests from the back seats and I think it fell off backwards, straight into the trunk, while I was stretching my neck after eight hours producing the news. (I’ve called the cabbie in an attempt to retrieve the hat but he hasn’t returned my calls.) The cap was branded with “NYU”, and was purchased when we were last in the Big Apple. It was a tangible connection with a place that I miss greatly, a place that I adore, and a place that I have long devised I would return to.

Perhaps the loss of that hat, then, was a sign.

Because last night, as I crossed the bridge to the backdrop of a purple sky, it became entirely clear to me that this city — this complex, creative, challenging city — is where I want to be. And while there is no confirmation as to what the future holds, it became resoundingly clear to me yesterday that the work that I have put in since returning to this city nearly three years ago is coming full circle.

In two months time, I will be leaving Sydney again for three weeks, taking to Japan for another incredible, unbelievable opportunity. I will return the day after a formative birthday. And I will, again, look at this city with new eyes – saucer-sized eyes, as big as the moon that looked down on its purple sky – eager and ecstatic and awake.

This week:

Last night, this happened:


The view from here. Photo by R.

And tonight, I sat at my desk and watched the sun set while kookaburras sang out across the city. And while I’m still 100% convinced that Sydney is where it’s at, I also found my hat.

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slowing down

I’ve been sent a fair few messages from the Universe these past few weeks.

About a fortnight ago, Sydney was hit with some of the wildest weather we’ve seen in recent decades. Rain and wind slammed the city, the shoreline, and the greater state, and we were warned to stay indoors and avoid non-essential travel. So, pulling through the end of exam period, boxed up inside and ready to be done with uni, I had to take things at a bit of a slower pace.

Yesterday, I slipped and fell (into the splits) as I was walking through an intersection, causing me to stick one leg out and slam onto the knee of the other. I was walking (quickly) home from work in an attempt to catch a bus, and I have the bruises to prove how hilariously intense the landing was; I was physically slowed in my tracks.

Then today, I was walking to another bus stop to catch another bus, in an attempt to get home and pack dinner before heading out again for work, and the entire length of Oxford Street (up to Taylor Sqaure) was at a standstill. A protest had taken over the road. I walked for twenty minutes, up and around the protest and beyond, in pursuit of the next available bus stop. Despite my best attempts to get home quick sticks, I was forced to slow down.

Granted, the Universe has been trying to send this message for some time. It’s only now that I’m finally in a position to listen (literally, in an awkward splits situation in the middle of a street).

See, it’s been a busy four months. In February, I started my second-to-last semester of university and last week, I finished it. Currently, I’m working and filling up my schedule with meetings set for later this year. In less than 10 days, I head to South Korea on a media scholarship as one of 11 students nationwide. Then I’m back, and uni starts again.


But if nearly falling on my face, hiking up Oxford Street, on being holed up inside during one of the worst storms in Sydney’s recent past are signs trying to tell me anything, it’s that it’s time to slow the heck down.

It’s just a matter of figuring out how to do that. Does that mean I need to finally start getting through the pile of books that have been accumulating on my coffee table? Does it mean that I should try to conquer a new recipe daily, and find Zen in the method and processes? Does it mean that I need to explore a change of scenery and revel in the unknown? Perhaps it’s all that and more: once we get used to a circumstance or situation, we often forget to appreciate the minutiae of that experience; what makes it important, or useful, or great, or vital.

I think that’s the main message the Universe has been sending me. That it’s time to remember the most important parts of the day-to-day, and the bigger picture. That despite all of the meetings and classrooms and pitches, at any point in time we could reach an impenetrable blockade (or protest), or be struck with unavoidable delays (or weather). That, sometimes, I’m going to have to wait 45 minutes for a bus, because they’re “just running a little behind tonight”. That every day is 24 hours long, and that we have the active choice to decide how we’re going to spend every minute of it. That despite my best attempts to plan, plan, prepare, prepare, maximise the minutes and be everywhere on time, it rarely ever works out that way. And that sometimes, a change of scenery just means trying to see something differently.

So in an ode to “slowing down”, I’m committed to taking the time to reflect on TWSW on a more consistent basis. Hopefully I’ll have plenty of stories to share from South Korea, but in the meantime I’ll aim to share some stories from the day-to-day. After all, it’s those days – tomorrow; Tuesday next week; a Friday 3 months from now – that inspire the best, most important stories.

And I don’t want to have to fall over – dramatically, hilariously, incredibly uncomfortably – in the middle of a street to remember that again.

twelve sunsets

Earlier this month, a visitor came to stay with me. She had (and, I think it is important to note, still does have) long, brown hair and a penchant for singing in public spaces. She had never eaten an avocado and found directions with the word “-town” in them slightly confusing.

Two flights brought her to Sydney, and the countdown began the moment she landed. We only had 12 days.

That’s something I’ve found endlessly fascinating about those who visit from the United States (she was visiting from the United States): they only stick around for a little while. They make the huge trek to this island in the Southern Hemisphere, and then stick around only long enough to see a handful of moons, and eat at a very basic amount of Asian-inspired brunch spots. Alas. We knew this, and we tried our best to make the most of it.

We went to many restaurants and visited many Sydney “must do”‘s while she was here. We tried to go for a surf lesson three consecutive times, but only the third time was the weather acceptable (no lightning) and the beach clear (no sharks).

One day, our plans went awry. We were supposed to have a beach walk in the morning, then catch a ferry to the other side of the harbour, meet up with Madre and Hermano, and have a surf lesson where we would all – in perfect synchronicity – become Layne Beachley like it was no big deal.

But the weather was wonky and the rips were too strong, so we postponed the surf. Instead, we four drove to another beach around the way.

We arrived around sunset. The wind was picking up, but not unpleasantly, and the locals were walking home. The parking areas had freed up, and the tide was moving in.

Riley Wilson_Beach_Sydney

Madre had us go buy fish and chips while she and Hermano manned the one free bench atop the cliff face. My visitor and I collected potato scallops and grilled fish and brought our dinner back to the cliff. The waves pooled in rocks below, and the colours in the sky began to change. The sunset – pinks, mauves, iridescent blues – rolled in. I’d look down and back up again, and the colours would be different, darker and brighter and louder and softer. It was an inescapable, unavoidable change. We couldn’t do anything about it, so we sat there and laughed and ate our fish and chips. (They were good fish and chips too, covered in chicken salt and decorated with chip-shop lemon.)

My visitor was only in Sydney for 12 days. Prior to that, we hadn’t seen each other for eight months. Prior to that, three, and prior to that, a year. We had stayed in touch via letters and emails, never matching the right timezones and never quite catching each other. We had been ships in the night for a long time.

In that moment atop the cliff, we were together looking at them.

Something about that night hit me very hard. It wasn’t the end of her trip, and we had had nothing but great times. There was nothing overly sentimental about the spot, or the fish, or that beach in particular. It was the sunset, and I’m sure of it. The sunset only lasted twenty minutes, and I look back on that evening and question why it made such a lasting, motivating, decisive impression on me. I wonder why we get so caught up in sunsets. They’re always destined to return again, and we know that. One day, tomorrow even, we’ll get the chance to fully enjoy them, viscerally and intentionally, again. They’re living art that lasts only twenty minutes, but it’s never about that. We love sunsets because they pause time; because they’re beautiful; and because they come back.

The colours in that particular sunset seemed sharper and the shadows seemed brighter, and here – to my left – sat a person who had willingly crossed the Pacific Ocean for the first time (her second time crossing an ocean, ever) just to be there. Her trip was only for 12 days, and – looking back – I wonder why I was so sentimental how little time we had.

It’s never about that.

We had twelve sunsets, and – one day, soon – we’ll have twelve more.



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