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two soul friends

It was love that broke my sorrow, like a day breaks a long light

Motel, Caitlin Canty

If you know me, you know I talk about one person a lot.

He is a constant companion in my life and the reason I came to explore the wilds of Ireland.

That person is John O’Donohue.

I was introduced to the late Irish philosopher and poet when I working for a man, and later would have a life-altering moment of ending a ten-year relationship pattern of mine (should have taken the alarming sign that he eats his nachos poured WITH MILK), told me about the book Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom. I promptly tried to find it all over Japan and then I found a copy in my favourite secondhand bookstore in Fremantle when I arrived home.

Anam cara is an old Irish Gaelic term, ‘anam’ means soul and ‘cara’ means friend. When I started reading John’s eloquent words on the topic of friendship and spiritual wisdom, I was immediately gripped. How could this person I have never met know me so well?

I highly recommend listening to John O’Donohue’s conversation on The Inner Landscape of Beauty recorded with Krista Tippett of On Being just before his untimely death in 2008. I have listened to it upwards of ten times. His stirring words and magical Clare lilt never fail to move me. This is also a rare recorded video interview with him. You will hear the brilliance of John O’Donohue for yourself.

John O’Donohue was also an ex-Catholic priest, a scholar of 14th-century mystic Meister Eckhart (and fluent in German) as well as best friends with David Whyte. We all know how I feel about David. John sadly passed away at age 52, and his loss is still felt by many, as I’ve experienced travelling around Ireland.

I’ve always loved Irish culture — starting with the portal of music in my twenties. I did my final Honours degree essay on a Damien Rice song, and Glen Hansard saved me at a low point in my life living in New York (have you seen Once?). I only realised Van Morrison was alive in 2020 when I Googled his grave. Now, I would say a favourite place in the world of mine is a cozy Irish pub during a traditional music session.

I have been on a pilgrimage to moss-covered forests and holy sites in my favourite poetry to John O’Donohue’s beloved Burren in County Clare in the west of Ireland. I came here primarily to get closer to his words.

So, what is an anam cara?

I have been living with this question for some time now.

A soul friend is a frequency match.

A solid friend.

You can tell them anything. Even the things you don’t want to tell yourself.

They know your sorrows and elations and insecurities and hold them tenderly.

The person you get excited with, cry to and belly laugh about ridiculous things (I’m talking bellows and howls).

A soul friend that makes you feel safe and seen in the world.

They are also a whole lot of fun. Joy is important.

The hallmark of an anam cara is someone you can be fully yourself around and at different times in your life, this may be different people. The common thread is that a soul friend is someone who has weathered life with you and is still there, either in your heart or physically, or both.

It is in the shelter of each other that the people live. — Irish proverb

A soul friend either is or isn’t, but there can be a little bit of a grey area in my experience. Someone can be an ‘anam cara’ for a period of your life, but my understanding is that a soul friend is timeless (like your soul).

I am blessed to have several friends that I call my anam cara.

I have also seen that people I have previously thought to be an anam cara, are not. We are still friends but not soul friends, and the deciding factor (which I believe to be very important) is that an anam cara is someone that you can:

Speak without censoring yourself and having no fear of saying the wrong thing.

This has been a pivotal realisation in my life.

I have one such anam cara, my precious friend Tiff who speaks my soul’s language. I feel utter ease in my bones when I am around her and we truly delight in each other’s lives. A sanctuary for my spirit and kindness like you wouldn’t believe. She is an absolute treasure and I would gift a “Tiff” to everyone I know if I could.

In friendship, John O’Donohue writes: “With the anam cara, you could share your innermost self, your mind and your heart. You are joined in an ancient and eternal way. This belonging awakened and fostered a deep and special companionship. You are understood as you are without mask or pretension. The superficial and functional lies and half-truths of acquaintance fall away. You can be as you really are.”

The superficial and functional lies and half-truths of acquaintance fall away.

Wow, what a line.

Put simply, an anam cara is your soul’s friend and someone that you feel truly yourself around.

When you really feel understood, you feel free. — John O’Donohue

Can you think of such a person in your own life?

There’s a stanza I love in a Ben Howard song which hits this point perfectly:

I saw a friend of mine the other day
And he told me that my eyes were gleaming
I said I had been away
And he knew, oh, he knew the depths I was meaning
It felt so good to see his face
The comfort invested in my soul
To feel the warmth of his smile
When he said ‘I’m happy to have you home’

That friend that just knows you.

That nourishes your soul.

That fills your cup with belonging.

That person you want to tell your exciting news and crushing disappointments to first.

I often ask myself:

Where would we actually be without our friends?

Who would we be?

When I was broken, my friends put me back together.

Loyal and devoted friends, who will be with you through the highs and the lows. And there will be plenty.

The thing about friendship is that you don’t have to be friends with anyone.

Really, you don’t. I know no one likes talking about it, but a lot of friendships do have their season or end for a reason. It is such a privilege to have true friends in this lifetime, don’t waste yours with people who are not.

Sometimes I might mentally reply to their message but don’t actually get back to them, or forget their birthday by a day, or cancel dinner plans because I really just need a good rest, and my friends will get it. My poor friends also had to listen to me saying: “I’m tired, I’m exhausted” almost continuously for 8 months before I left for Ireland. I was working all the time and bored of hearing myself. (Side note: know when you are becoming a bore).

I always think about David Whyte’s sage advice that: ‘All friendships of any length are based on continued, mutual forgiveness. Without tolerance and mercy, all friendships die.’ This is a valuable lesson I keep learning. Whether you are aware of it or not, one person is usually offering up emotional labour at different points in the friendship, like tending to your house plants, and then it is returned.

Through the lens of anam cara friendships, anything can be forgivable if you actually want to stay friends with this person. In non-anam cara friends, low-level indiscretions or mistakes are a way for people to get out of friendships the first chance they get. This has happened to me and friends of mine, and sometimes whatever was between you has run its course.

Whatever comes, the great sacrament of life will remain faithful to us, blessing us always with visible signs of invisible grace. We merely need to trust. — John O’Donohue

Anam cara is defined by the ease and exuberance with which you relate to each other.

An anam cara always bounces back.

Because an anam cara is beyond friendship, it’s soul recognition.

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If I was ever to leave, I'll say before I go / That you're the best woman I ever known

Burgh Island, Ben Howard featuring Monica Heldal

It was undeniable.

He had the most beautiful hands I had ever seen.

I told him the first time we met.

I was coming out of a season of solitude and trying the dating thing again. I had just got my haircut and he messaged to ask if I wanted to get a drink and I thought, why not? A gal can’t waste an expertly tousled Mandy Moore bob.

We caught up for some coastal Mexican fare and dived straight into interesting conversation fodder around a philosopher we both loved (Kierkegaard – as I had made a pilgrimage to visit his grave in Copenhagen) and other light topics such as what we think happens after death. I didn’t have any exceptionally romantic feelings for him, but then I caught sight of his hands – with a tattoo on each thumb – and was in awe.

After dinner, I said had to leave soon as I had a tea ceremony early the next morning. We said our goodbyes but not before going to look at wildflowers, the street side lit up by his phone torch and his voice pointing out all the different botanical names in the dark.

We swapped numbers. As I unlocked my bike, I said “You have beautiful hands”. I think people should know nice things about themselves, and I also didn’t know if I was going to see him again.

Then I rode off, proud of myself for going on an actual date more than anything else.

The next morning I got a message from him with a link to a playlist he had made me, a YouTube playlist with my name as the title. A bold move considering I had told him of my allegiance to Spotify, but a very appreciated one considering music is my love language. I put a few songs on, nothing really obvious was screaming out to me, and thanked him for the gesture. In later weeks, on a ferry to work, I played it again and one song got my attention and head bopping right away. I then did that thing where you listen to it obsessively on repeat for days.

The next time we saw each other wasn’t particularly remarkable either – dinner and drinks in a pub on a rainy night. But there was something unfolding between us, slowly and organically. An unravelling; two people getting to know each other over long phone calls and cooked meals and the hunger of wanting.

She and I were giving each other the only we truly have to offer: our time. We were going to give each other the living minutes of our life. — Ethan Hawke

Curling into him under his jumper in the rain. Firm hands on the back of my neck waiting in line for Persian food. Walking back to my car in his shirt after The Killers concert. The way he would say my name in a sentence. And his impeccable grammar.

But this isn’t a love story.

This is what happened after four months of realising what someone is not.

After the most bizarre and devastating four days of my life.

Then when my heart was obliterated in four seemingly straightforward words.

“I can’t do this”

He ended it for reasons that my friends know of.

The grief hit me in waves for months.

If a sadness rises up before you larger than any you have ever seen; … You must think that something is happening with you, that life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in its hand; it will not let you fall. — Rainer Marie Rilke

For the first few days after, I wanted to wear a bib that said ‘Freshly Heartbroken’ while riding my bike so that cars would be kind to me when I was finding it hard to merge because SORRY – I can’t see through my splitting headache and chaos of tears.

I was broken and my friends put me back together. A phone call to my brother. Dinner with my mum and stepdad. Jars of food and flowers on my steps. Kind souls checking in.

This is what happens when love gets real for some people. They run and all I wanted was for him to stay.

I craved him like a drug, and it was fucked.

Possibility is a powerful narcotic.

The missing is mental. We miss the physical form. We are creatures of touch.

I just wanted to hear one song without thinking of you.

I was unmoored in an ocean of deep sadness.

It was emotional torture and my heart was so so tired.

In the final month of us being together, I felt myself getting smaller to fit in the spaces I could find around him to make him feel comfortable. We can all be so nimble when we like someone. I was dying to talk to him, and he would take days to reply. He would arrive and say that he had to leave soon. I was going crazy with frustration and yet full of desire.

Now I had to live the “can’t”.

He wasn’t the love of my life, I know that now. But he was selfish and inconsistent, deeply angry, and in the end – cruel, mean and unkind. That last one hurt the most.

I still don’t think he is a terrible person, but his actions were terrible.

As Ram Dass said, hurt people hurt people.

The fact that he showed me his worst traits and I still wanted him seems impossible to me now.

Was it the dopamine? His hands? The sight of his hurting inner child?

I knew something was up when I told him he was beautiful. And he didn’t believe me.

I have observed there is a silent endemic of men who don’t love themselves or don’t think they are worthy of receiving love and no one is talking about it.

We all need connection, belonging and touch.

Sensitive people; even more so.

All that love that had grown for him, had nowhere to go, so it imploded.

You can ask “why why why?!?@?” and cry to the sky for days and you won’t get an answer. (Also side topic: what is it with men hiking in jeans – is it poor planning or a lack of luon?)

I remember reading in The Surrender Experiment that ‘very intense situations don’t have to leave psychological scars if we are willing to process our changes at a deeper level.’ That is, to throw yourself into the hurt, not away from it. Why would you do that? So you can ‘deeply honour the transformative power of life.’ Apparently.

So that’s what I did. I cried, I processed, I spoke to my friends, and sat with tea. I swam in the sea. I pulled tarot cards. I hugged my very soft cat. I smiled at the sun. The tendency to close your heart because it’s just been ripped out of your chest is normal. I get it.

But as Michael A. Singer also writes, ‘joy, excitement and freedom are simply too beautiful to give up.’

I decided to feel the loss fully, as I read in the Tao Te Ching one morning during tea, so I could be completely at one with this loss. Being at one with such a big disappointment is easy to conceptualise, and very hard to do. But making sense of something in the now and not in ten years’ time better serves you and your relationships to come.

Heartbreak begins the moment we are asked to let go but cannot… Heartbreak is an indication of our sincerity: in a love relationship, in a life’s work, in trying to learn a musical instrument, in the attempt to shape a better more generous self. — David Whyte

Angie McMahon’s song ‘Soon’ was pretty much my break-up soundtrack, “I’m so tired of being messed around / I’ll have to face this all alone” since we never spoke again.

I still caught myself thinking of his beautiful hands.

It was not meant to be and it was a hard truth to be okay with.

But still, I didn’t believe that there would be anyone in the world as beautiful as him. I was certain of it.

And for a while, that’s how it seemed.

Then one day, completely out of nowhere, a beautiful Irishman is reciting Yeat’s poetry to me on a work call over Zoom. At like 11 am on a Wednesday.

I was shook.

I hadn’t noticed another person until now.

Then I couldn’t stop.

A Casio watch with sun-glow skin and three lines of small tattoos from a bus window.

A husky, baritone voice in the museum hall.

Sea-filled eyes at the farmers market.

The arms of Thor.

Any man reading Braiding Sweetgrass.

Hands that have worked.

There is more than one beautiful man.

These words dropped into my head and I wrote them down in my journal. And in this space of no expectation, just appreciation of the male form, the loveliest things started to emerge.

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I want to go where the rivers are overflowing

I’m Ready, Tracy Chapman

A year is a very long time and nothing at all.

Some things certainly feel like a thousand years ago, or only yesterday.

I am still living in the unfolding.

2022 was split into two.

It began with bans and blacklisting. Amongst the confusion and uncertainty, I resolved to swim in the ocean every day at dawn and dusk — as I told myself: you can’t mandate the sunset. I never lost reverence for ordinary pleasures. I found incredible comfort and solidarity in friendships and realised that deep convictions require a lightness of spirit. I always trust that everyone knows what is right for them. Now, we all know.

I can no longer meet other people’s expectations of me that I never agreed to. — Marlee Grace

The world turns, as it does. In the second half of the year, I started working “full-time” again to fund my Celtic pilgrimage. I now know exactly why it is called that — because it leaves you mostly empty. Work is still not working for me.

To be brutally honest, I never want to see a marketing plan again.

My soul is here to do other things. My best friend Kylie texted me: “Free idea: we stop everything and just make miniature versions of every object that exists. For cats. And for cats only,” and I might just take her up on that.

You have gifts.
The world needs your gifts.
You must deliver them.

The world may not know it is starving,
but the hungry know,
and they will find you
when you discover your cargo
and start to give it away.

— Greg Kimura

Shifting gears, I became a morning person again (hello 5 am). My cycle synced with the moon. I stopped writing lists to improve my memory and it really worked. This is crazy talk for a Virgo. And I was bitten by a spider on my face seven times while sleeping on the eve of my birthday. Please help me figure out what this means?!?!

I got full-blown OBSESSED with Outlander, and why yes I do have a basket collection and wish to clutch a beautiful Scottish man on horseback — just call me Claire. I am the world’s slowest binge-watcher, but even I made it to Season 4 in ONE YEAR. Go me.

It was a year of longing and beautiful questions. You yourself are a beautiful question. For every answer, there is another yearning.

I also reclaimed all the years I didn’t swim in the ocean because I didn’t like how I looked and felt (bloated) in bathers. Nora Ephron was right: ‘Oh, how I regret not having worn a bikini for the entire year I was twenty-six. If anyone young is reading this, go, right this minute, put on a bikini, and don’t take it off until you’re thirty-four.’ In my case, a black one-piece.

I have become less and less interested in my phone. I oscillate between stepping away from online life and coming back for the rush of connection and sharing. This very wry New Yorker article hits a truth nerve and reminds you that the point of Reels and TikTok and whatever is invented next is advertising. This line is gold: ‘As you continue to overwork, be underpaid, and understand the people around you less and less, we know that the hit of dopamine you get from a like is the only thing keeping you warm at night. And we won’t be content until everyone, and everything, is content.’

The truth is, I’m at capacity with content.

We all just want to see our friends’ posts, but the algorithm won’t allow it. I want to grow a salad, write a book, and meet a wild animal. I want contentment. 

To be happy, doing a thousand things no one ever hears of. — still my mantra

I read 73 books in the year and ate just as many coconut carob bears (addicted). I devoured Migrations in one night while staying in an Unyoked cabin by myself for a ‘think week’. Sex at Dawn delivered on its promise of being very good, while The Dawn of Language – not so much. I have high praise for Sacred Earth, Sacred Soul which tells the story of Celtic spirituality and Pelagius who was a monk from Wales and the first historically recorded writer in the Celtic world. The Celts were an oral culture until the second century who worshipped without temples – and said that the wild, forests and the mountains were their “church”. In short: my kind of people. I can still taste the Korean noodles and deep quest for self-knowing in Crying in H Mart, and pretty much will talk to anyone about The Red Tent who wants to hear about it (bring me mead and plait my hair while I bleed). The Great Alone broke me nearly as much as A Little Life did (the unputtable down book of 2022), The Fruitful Darkness is a must-read for spiritual seekers, and Love and Other Words was such a satisfying romance read (Love and Other Poems equally so). Books, as ever, are my solace.

I adopted two elderly cats at the start of 2022 – a mother-and-daughter duo called Evie and CousCous. I loved them instantly and immensely. These two queens live in a sunlit treehouse retreat with me as their worthy servant. Precious 14-year-old Evie soul passed away after a year together on the second day of 2023. It started with Googling “How do I stop my cat from vomiting all the time” and ended with liver cancer. Darling CousCous is weary of most things but not me, and is my little sidekick sitting with me during tea every morning and thriving.

To love more is to discover the truth sooner. — Sri Chinmoy 

Tea is my refuge and has held me immensely this past year. I seriously can’t image my life without it. Serving tea is a great love of mine, and bowl after bowl alone on a rainy day is ultimate heaven. Reading a page from the Tao Te Ching, I am reminded: do your work and let go. My friend Matt and I hosted our first tea gathering in the round (themed to black and white) exploring duality and wholeness in silence. I have listened to this Cloud Hidden tea playlist more than a hundred times. I wrote two articles for Global Tea Hut magazine: sharing my coming-to-tea story and a piece on the practice of chaxi. I also learnt two Japanese mindfulness practices – ikebana, the art of flower arranging (or ‘the path of flowers’) with my friend Kira and taught myself kintsugi, the art of golden repair. KINTSUGI IS HARD GUYS. Both seem simple but are infinitely deep, which is always the way with a Way. In the process of handmaking a ceramic bowl for my ikebana arrangement, the teacher said: “If you rush any step, it just doesn’t work” which is the best accidental life advice I’ve ever heard from a lump of clay.

As you get older, you want less from the world; you just want to experience it. Ordinary things become beautifully poetic. — Richard Linklater

I didn’t quite master being a Projector last year, although I am leaning into ‘wait for the invitation’ more than ever. I just want to be fully alive with a bone-deep level of ease and flow. When I am depleted and exhausted, I am not me and have literally zero to give. I discovered cosmic rest and the seven types of rest you need, and have learnt I NEED TO PAUSE or I will burn out and miss a lot of magic. Being busy is easy. Anyone can fill up a calendar. The challenge is to be well-rested and I don’t want to die tired.

As I wrote:

Life is very big. We all need to prioritise small moments of rest for self-preservation. We also need to change our language. ‘Time off’ does not have to be ‘spent’ well. It cannot be ‘wasted’. Time is not something we ‘use’ – we exist within time. If your life is full, it is going to go very fast. Our lives, like the seasons, need downtime.

My word was 2022 was: trusting.

This has been the hardest word to live yet by far. Sheesh AJ a year ago, you picked a big one.

Trusting is a practice and a sense. I now have a PhD in waiting. Trust doesn’t keep time, or care about your plans (but it does have a playlist).

Trusting is accepting something is not for you even if you want it really bad.

Trusting is not getting what you want because it’s not meant for you.

It is living in the mystery and darkness – feeling around for a solid shape and something to grab onto.

Trusting is subtle – it has a voice but doesn’t speak a language. It’s a feeling, a hunch, an ease, an excitement, a nudge, a knowing. It is not your ego.

The one thing I know for sure: trusting is a process.

Trust that when you don’t know what to do, do nothing.

Trust your body so your body can trust you.

The price for not trusting your intuition is high.

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a 300 year old acorn tree growing in the Netherlands.

I belong here, I belong with you, and all of our questions belong here, too

We Deserve To Dream, Xavier Rudd

It tastes like melancholy jazz or a raspy blues song playing at the back of a bar while no one is listening. A warm red that swishes around your mouth. The chill of a breeze, grazing you unexpectedly. It would be the colour of your mother’s handwriting.

I feel it in an instant when I see a mountain, or a fireplace, or a cabin in the mountains with a fireplace — throw in a Bon Iver song and it feels like I’ve been punched in the stomach.

I thought I knew longing until it devoured me.

Like a wave that hits you out of nowhere and suddenly, you’re swimming for your life.

It was a Saturday night and I was alone. I had just seen my friends for a picnic in a park about an hour from where I live, with no car to get back home. We had all said our goodbyes and went our different directions for dinner. I was standing there on a street corner as the sun was setting, wondering what I would do. I had zero plans.

A subtle panic came over me.

Normally being by myself does not bother me, in fact, I seek out beautiful aloneness. I also love connection when it is right and real, but I protect my solitude.

On this particular evening in early spring when the air was just balmy for the first time, I was thick with a heaviness I could not place.

I got out my phone (that old trick) and wrote a message to meet up with a friend who lives nearby, then I deleted it. I opened an app, spent less than thirty seconds checking for an invitation to hang out, and then I closed it.

I put my phone away, sat down on a planter box in someone’s front garden and asked myself – what exactly was this feeling?

Excitement, anxiety, loneliness — I know them well, but it was none of those.

Could it be melancholy or sorrow? No.

And then it landed. It was longing.

Longing is the biggest clue to the life you want.

For your beloved.

For children.

For your country, a plot of land, an environment.

For something you had just yesterday or have never had before.

To come to love after so much time without it.

It’s how Rilke says, “I am made of longing” because sometimes it sure feels like that. A nameless ache can follow me around, sparked by a song or a scent in the air, unexplainable for days.

It was rising in me now, cinematic even; like the beginning of a saxophone solo. This longing was coming in strong.

Would you even believe
when it finally happens

how easy it is to feel
without any proof

that love may be, could be,
actually is
longer than time. — Alex Dimitrov

I suddenly realised all I wanted was the ease of ready-made plans with someone, my person. 

I sat with this new feeling, on said planter box in a neighbourhood I used to live in for many years, talking it out.

And so I considered: do I, at this moment, go towards or away from myself? This is the central question of solitude.

Longing is a creative and spiritual practice.

Every time I think I have conquered longing, I reach a new threshold.

I started walking towards the main street where the city begins, having decided that the night would take me somewhere and I would take myself out.

I spotted a special place that I hadn’t been to in a long while – a Parisienne meets Perth natural wine bar, the kind of place that drips in chicness and coupledom.

I walked up to the counter and after realising they now take bookings, I replied: “No, just a table for one please”. The waiter looked at me with that face that says ‘ain’t gonna happen’, but it did. There was one free table that I could have for one hour; a candlelit nook.

I no longer pray—
I ache, I desire,
I say “yes” to my longing. — Chelan Harkin

I was seated and the waiter took away one plate and one set of cutlery and offered to hang up my coat. I always love the elegance of having your coat hung up for you.

There is great beauty in eating out alone, I find I can’t take my eyes off people that do. This is something I have been doing actively for almost a decade of my life, ever since I landed on my first night in San Francisco on a bar stool in a vegan Mexican restaurant in the Mission.

So many of us are starving for life and have no idea until the end when we look back and see the uneaten banquet. — Atticus

I don’t really like the word ‘single’ when it comes to labelling someone. For one, the alternative ‘double’ doesn’t make much sense and as I always like to remind people — you are not alone, you have yourself.

Something to ponder: Are you alone, or are you aloneness?

On this particular night with self (linguistic note here), I decided to celebrate with gluten and ordered an incredible homemade sourdough bread with just-churned butter that tasted like cheese and an insanely good white bean dish that makes your soul dance, as I did in the seat.

A glass of rouge in hand, with beats that made me feel like I was in Morocco and olives that tasted like I was in Tuscany.

This was peak date night success.

Am I a loner? No, not intrinsically. I am the most introverted extrovert I know.

Did I want to share this with someone? Yes, sure. But this other person has to feel as good and freeing as my solitude.

But the longings come and go. It’s important to know that this is plural because there is more than one.

The thing is, everyone is not you.

The longing is this.

 

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The world was on fire and no one could save me but you

Wicked Game, Chris Isaak

I was having lunch with my friend Ande a while ago, and the first thing she asked me when she sat down was: “What is a revelation you have had lately?”

Okay WOW, I was blown away. I had not been asked such an imaginative question in a while.

Around this time, my life had become a quest for the most beautiful question in the world.

It is now a day-to-day practice and discipline of mine to ask more thoughtful, provoking and invitational questions.

This all started with a poet asking me the most beautiful questions I’d ever heard, and me realising that I had missed many opportunities to do so myself.

A beautiful question always enlarges the context in which you’re living – deepening the horizon – and taking you out of yourself and into yourself at the same time. One of David Whyte’s personal definitions is:

A beautiful question shapes your identity as much by asking it, as by having it answered. It deepens your sense of yourself.

In this search, everything I know about asking better questions can be distilled into this:

Ask beautiful questions, get beautiful answers.

It is as simple and terrifying as that. And also quite hard.

How you ask a question is important.

If you’re going to ask a beautiful question, be prepared to actually listen to the answer. The job is only half done otherwise.

Sometimes the best question to ask is listening.

In Maps to Ecstasy, Gabrielle Roth writes:

In many shamanic societies, if you came to a shaman or medicine person complaining of being disheartened, dispirited, or depressed, they would ask one of four questions:

When did you stop dancing?
When did you stop singing?
When did you stop being enchanted by stories?
When did you stop finding comfort in the sweet territory of silence?

Where we have stopped dancing, singing, being enchanted by stories, or finding comfort in silence is where we have experienced the loss of soul, Roth says.

These are examples of beautiful questions. Ones that lead us to more real, honest, and refreshing conversations.

There’s a brilliant video by Alan Watts where he asks: What would you like to do if money were no object? How would you really enjoy spending your life? Alan Watts tells you to do that and forget the money. Anything you can be interested in will find others.

A beautiful question can completely reshape your life.

There is something so satisfying about a really good question like this. It awakens you, shaking off the sleepiness and inviting you to reveal something new.

A friend once asked me casually in a cafe: What would it take to be yourself?

I am always interested in the shape of your solitude: Can you be alone and do you like the company you keep?

And perhaps there are some questions that will always be unanswered like: What happens if I eat too many pappadums?

A real question is beautiful and a beautiful question is real.

We’re all just waiting to be asked.

Being engrossed in this pursuit of beautiful questions has led me to uncharted territory where I am map-making as I go along. Let me give you an example.

I was having lunch with my beloved mama on Mother’s Day last year and she asked me when I was going to give her grandkids. This is the most asked question in my family (after, where is the salt?) and a bit of a trigger for me. I have told them many times that yes, I wish to have children when I meet the person I want to have children with. My mum explicitly knows this, and yet – I was being asked the same annoying question again as if I could be spontaneously pregnant (like when she bought me a cute wooden tea set for, as I pointed out, the children that I do not yet have). Normally I would blow up, but this time I took a looooong breath and I said instead: ‘Mum, if you ask a beautiful question you will get a beautiful answer.’

We were silent for about thirty seconds. I resolved to not speak until my mum did. Then she asked: ‘What kind of joy do you want to bring into your life?’ Now THAT is a beautiful question and finally, we could have a real conversation.

It is true: joy is coming.

A beautiful question like this leads to a better foundation for understanding.

A real conversation is noticeably different to the humdrum of other ones. It will bring you to a new frontier of understanding yourself, and others as well.

As David Whyte writes:

There is no self that will survive a real conversation. There’s no self that will survive a real meeting with something other than itself… And after a while you realise you don’t want to actually keep that old static identity. You want to move the pivot of your presence from this thing you think is you, into this meeting with the future, with the people you serve, with your family, with your loved ones. It’s in this self-forgetfulness where you meet something other than yourself that all kinds of astonishing things happen.

Glorious as usual, David.

A beautiful question is going to leave you hungry for more.

An average question tends to get an average response.

As David Whyte writes in his 10 Questions That Have No Right To Go Away: ‘A real conversation always contains an invitation. You are inviting another person to reveal herself or himself to you, to tell you who they are or what they want. To do this requires vulnerability. Now we tend to think that vulnerability is associated with weakness, but there’s a kind of robust vulnerability that can create a certain form of strength and presence too.’

So, why is it difficult to ask a beautiful question?

I’ve been sitting with this very question for many months now, and have failed multiple times in the attempt (although they make great examples of what not to say).

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I found peace in the chaos, I found peace in suffering

PEACE, Anna Golden

I remember the first thing Tea said to me was: “Drink your tea and let the longing pour out”.

Had I not been so “lost” in my longing, I would never have found the Way. I had a lifelong dream to live in New York City after watching Home Alone 2 countless times as a child. Later in 2015, I was living in East Village and it was nothing like John Hughes had promised. I was adrift with no job, no family or community, and no prospects (I did try breakdancing though). I then experienced heartbreak when a beautiful Italian man that I met on a train to Colorado — who I had a one-way ticket to see in Florence — told me he’d met someone else. Welcome to my Saturn Return.

Walking into a yoga class at Sky Ting in Chinatown, I saw a poster for a “tea ceremony”. The steam rising from the bowls looked so peaceful, the total opposite of how I felt. A week later I shared tea in silence with a room full of people — surrounded by the immense noise and loneliness of the city. I remember the vivid feeling in my bones: I don’t know what just happened, but I love this. The person serving tea was Baelyn Elspeth and I found out she was the student of someone called Wu De. I tracked down a copy of The Way Of Tea which led me to this lineage.

From that moment, I looked for tea everywhere I went.

In Japan, I travelled to a tea farm in Wazuka (an 800-year-old tea village and the largest matcha producing region in the world) with only the loose directions of: “Follow the road between two forests past a shrine entrance.” In the Canadian Rockies, I hiked to two remote teahouses in the mountains, crossing frozen waterfalls and traversing up glacial trails to reach my version of Heaven – a cabin in the woods serving tea. ‘Synchronici-tea’ is very real in my life, and I will always cherish that.

I opened my first Global Tea Hut package in January 2020 at the intentional community I was living in. My first tea bowl was a shallow palo santo smudge bowl because that’s all I could find in New Mexico! I remember one magical day being snowed in and spending the whole afternoon in my room with music, writing, drinking Ruby Red and staring out my window to the white abyss.

Unknowingly, I was making a lifelong friend.

Forces beyond me landed me a last-minute spot at Wu De’s tea and meditation retreat at Esalen, California in February 2020 (read the full story in Bowls of Soul in Big Sur). Tea finally arrived, just not according to my timing, and it is much better that way. It’s like what Elizabeth Gilbert says:

“The truth is bigger than your plans.”

Nowadays, I live back in Australia by the ocean in Fremantle. My tea space is my sanctuary, where I tend to my inner home.

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How 'bout remembering your divinity?

Thank You, Alanis Morissette

I heard myself saying “I’m doing great!” when really I was drowning.

I see it in my friend’s eyes all the time. We do a good job of holding it together when actually we’re not.

In truth, I was in a sea of rush with a back-to-back-to-back schedule and competing commitments pulling me in different directions. I kept going to drink water from an empty glass on my desk… because I didn’t have a spare moment to get up and refill it. Which is crazy to me now.

I had developed this manic pace in my work week that felt like poison in my body. I even wrote down a list of how it felt on a given day (toxic, rushed, wired, overwhelmed, distracted, interrupted, constricted, scattered, not present — and thirsty).

I was enthusiastic about everything I was doing, but it was too much. 

And then on I hit a wall. Obviously.

On the day I declared I would start writing my first book, I started the day with 14 hours of old-fashioned sleep. I didn’t open my laptop for the next three days and three nights. My sheets were definitely not getting washed and it took me two slow hours to make lunch. I could feel I was teetering on the edge of a full-blown sickness. 

I would like to spend the rest of my days in a place so silent, and working at a pace so slow, that I would be able to hear myself living. — Elizabeth Gilbert

Here’s the thing: there’s always SOMETHING to do. Someone to text back or somewhere that wants your attention. Trust me. I’m a Vatta Virgo type and my alter ego (Turbo Teresa) is an all-or-nothing, hyper-productive, multi-tasking gal that eventually feels like that reel of a balloon floating along, deflated. 

I needed to recalibrate and decompress.  

Around this time, I came across that there are seven types of rest, beyond just sleep. There is physical, emotional, mental, sensory, creative, social and spiritual rest. I was lit up. This idea was originally pioneered by ​Saundra Dalton-Smith in her book Sacred Rest and TED Talk. She says poignantly: Staying busy is easy. Staying well rested — now there’s a challenge. I haven’t actually read the book or watched the talk, but I loved the concept immediately and started experimenting with it. Although I noticed that there was one missing. 

I call it: cosmic rest.

When you are bone tired and your soul is exhausted and you have nothing sincere to give. I knew I needed cosmic rest when I didn’t have the energy to sit for tea and not even a Sandra Bullock film could revive me.

So I decided to STOP. To feel the sun on my face for a beat. I am in a week of restorative rest to experience the seven types for myself and experience cosmic rest. The first night I laid in the dark with two candles burning and re:stacks on repeat, falling asleep at 7:30pm. Bliss. 

The first, the wildest and the wisest thing I know: that the soul exists and is built entirely out of attentiveness. – Mary Oliver

I could no longer allow myself to feel like I was always running late to the bus when there was in fact, no bus to catch. This is the modern-day equivalent of running from a tiger in Flight or Fight mode, but now instead of a tiger there is your pinging inbox. I needed to soften into stopping. Do away with my colour-coded calendar. Fill up my damn water glass and just be

If you think to rest is wildly privileged, you’re right — it is.

And to take rest is also your birthright to be well.

My friend Yas had messaged and after I said I was taking three days and nights of rest, she replied: “Like when you’re not sick? Never have I ever”. I know, it’s wild. A lot of us don’t give ourselves permission to receive rest. Taking time ‘off’ (I even resist saying this term because of our conditioning that being ‘on’ is productive; capitalism has made us into dancing monkeys) means saying no and saying no makes us uncomfortable.

But, in my experience, you won’t know the privilege of your health and vitality as your highest values in life until you are very unwell. So why not take a pause before that happens?

Health brings a freedom very few realise, until they no longer have it. — Bronnie Ware

I literally have to stop and ask myself twelve times a day: What’s the rush, AJ? And think, as Henry David Thoreau so brilliantly said: “It’s not enough to be busy, so are the ants. The question is, what are we busy about?” 

We all need to rest our body, mind and spirit from time to time.

I have never protected my serenity, joy, happiness, safety, nervous system, creative practice, self worth, or attention more than I have in the last three months. The boundaries it has taken to do this has been extremely uncomfortable. To give up people pleasing is not a simple act. The rewards are plentiful. The reward is a comfort within myself I have never experienced before now. The reward is expansive. — Marlee Grace 

I wanted to share how cosmic rest is a gamechanger and the seven types of rest that remarkably brought me back to life:

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I was so happy just to be with you, I would have said anything at all

McCormack's Wall, Glen Hansard

I quote David Whyte more than David Whyte quotes David Whyte.

​​Of all the things I love about David Whyte (and there are many, see below), I am most fond of the way he asks questions. Or as he calls them – invitational questions. Bold and thoughtful. Quiet and stirring. Courageous and refreshing, like throwing your face up to the wind and breathing in the breeze for a sweet moment. Beautiful questions that have enlarged my life.

I first came across the Irish-Yorkshireman poet and author David Whyte in 2014 when I launched The School of Life pop-up in Perth. David is a modern-day philosopher and his book, The Three Marriages (about how work, self and relationships are our three core commitments) was in our treasure trove bookstore and his poetry peppered throughout the classes teaching emotional intelligence and life skills to adults.

I recently dug up an old notebook to find one of the first things I wrote down from David Whyte – it comes from his poem Self Portrait: ‘I want to know if you know how to melt into the fierce heart of living, falling toward the centre of your longing.’ Audible wow. 

If you are thinking, David who?

You can start with his popular conversation on The Conversational Nature of Reality with On Being’s Krista Tippett (which he says is ‘his chief theme’, in his own words). If you want something short, try this mediative story on how ​​We Become The Places We Love – you won’t hear a more soothing voice today. There is of course his lauded TED Talk on A lyrical bridge between past, present and future (repeating lines is a poetic convention) or you could just pop on David reading his poem Sweet Darkness to you (the last sentence is my life mantra – anything or anyone that does not bring you alive is too small for you). My enduring favourite is The House of Belonging.

This is the temple of my adult aloneness and I belong to that aloneness as I belong to my life. There is no house like the house of belonging. — David Whyte

I really resonate with his entire oeuvre of work and gravitate towards his topics on courage, friendship, longing, and embracing the unknown as an edge that is beckoning us all. David’s words remind you that even in your deepest loneliness you are not alone.

Now to the question of questions.

Most of my life has been a series of pilgrimages and quests to answer questions. As Zora Neale Hurston wrote, ‘There are years that ask questions, and years that answer them.’ I am very versed in the former. I have been apprenticing myself to a word each year for some time now (current word: trusting). And to experience things first-hand, I have gone on many solo travels to places like Japan, Indonesia, Denmark (I had to visit Kierkegaard), Canada and the United States many times over.

Therefore, at any time of life, follow your own questions; don’t mistake other people’s questions for your own. — David Whyte

I tried for many years to attend one of David’s workshops in person when I travelled extensively for work but it never lined up.

Then I ‘met’ David Whyte without actually going anywhere.

At the beginning of 2020, I lived in New Mexico in an intentional community. As I was writing my yearly list ritual, I had this very clear thought that I wanted to “meet David Whyte”. Strangely, I didn’t write this down as one of my intentions for the year (but I did write down ‘join a drumming circle’). It seemed too wild and impossible but oh boy, did I want this deep in my bones.

We are more real in our simple wish to find a way, more than any destination we could ever reach. — David Whyte

I had dreamed for a long time of attending one of his walking and poetry tours on the West Coast of Ireland (those cliffs and cozy pubs!). I was shy about it now, and I didn’t know why. Next thing: cue global meltdown – and no one was going anywhere.

But when you want something in your heart of hearts, things tend to conspire for you.

In April of that year, I saw that David was offering a new way to study with him — in a Three Sundays live online talks from his home study on Whidbey Island, in the Pacific Northwest. This was second best and of course, I signed up.

I’ve been participating in David Whyte’s Three Sundays series for two years now. Sitting down every other month to absorb and jot down copious notes on David talking about everything from vulnerability, courage, bravery, parenting, friendship, love, mothers, despair, grief, and his poetry of course. Through this transmission of wisdom, and his warm laugh, spirited energy and many great Irish-isms (that make me nostalgic for a place I haven’t yet been); I felt enlivened, comforted, and equipped with a new kind of self-knowledge. This world doesn’t offer much peace, so you have to take it whenever you can — and I found it in his voice.

One brilliant idea that immediately jumped out to me is David’s idea of ‘a beautiful question’. I am a fast notetaker and wrote in fervour as many questions as I could that he asked me. Some of which are the most beautiful questions I’ve ever heard.

So, what makes a question beautiful?

This is something I am in the midst of understanding myself. A beautiful question is a gamechanger; a question that calls you to take notice. It opens a door to articulate your deepest longings and truths and wakes you up in a sea of how are yous? Bringing you to a frontier where deeper intimacy is possible with yourself, the person asking, and the world.  

As David Whyte said in an interview:

You don’t ask a beautiful question with your strategic mind. That’s needed, but the last place it gets articulated. You ask it with your body. You ask it with your longing. And you can ask a beautiful question in complete silence with no verbalization whatsoever, just in the way you’re paying attention.

A beautiful question can be thought of as presence + vulnerability + making a real invitation. One that allows for a real conversation to happen.

David Whyte also explains:

The ability to ask beautiful questions, often in very unbeautiful moments, is one of the great disciplines of a human life. And a beautiful question starts to shape your identity as much by asking it as it does by having it answered. You just have to keep asking.

And before you know it, you will find yourself actually shaping a different life, meeting different people, finding conversations that are leading you in those directions that you wouldn’t even have seen before.

In this way, asking a beautiful question does not expect a perfect answer. It’s more like a knock on the door of someone’s soul to make a real invitation by asking a different kind of question. Hello, can I be real with you for a moment… and to ‘hear yourself saying something you didn’t know you know.’

A satisfying conversation is one which makes you say what you have never said before.  Theodore Zeldin

What is something you have never asked before?

There is a story that David Whyte tells that after his teenage daughter slams her bedroom door during a disagreement between them, he says: ‘I was just about to say that last, deeply satisfying unhelpful thing. But I caught myself and said, “David, this isn’t a real conversation. How do you make this a real conversation?” So he went and made them both a cup of tea and set them on a tray with cookies, then knocked on the door again and asked: “Charlotte, tell me one thing you’d like me to stop doing as a father. And tell me one thing you’d like me to do more of.” An invitation was made.

As soon as you trust yourself: you will know how to live. — Johann Wolfgang von Goeth

I am interested in the things we don’t allow ourselves to say. The real answers. And how to get past everything preventing us from the intimacy of real connection. To get to the possibility of a real conversation.

How do you make a conversation real?

Good question!

I’ve been trying to put this into practice myself by asking more invitational questions, pausing before I speak next, and being more honest and available to the conversation that is actually happening (not the one I want to happen, or something in the future). I often find when I ask a better question, I get a refreshing answer back. Sometimes I ask a beautiful question, almost unexpectedly flowing out of me. It can take a few times. When I am not fully in the conversation, I often hear myself fumbling with a shallow response. I am learning to say, ‘Sorry, can you please repeat that? I was elsewhere for a moment.’

Part of walking the path is losing the path. — David Whyte

In his Three Sunday Series, David asks many noteworthy questions. Questions that nourish you, upend your beliefs, probe dormant parts of your thinking, and incite excitement and possibility. In a world of noise, these questions enlarge our conversations with space for pause and thought. As he says, the hope is to be an invitational human being – someone who in your presence, other people can come alive. Like how you might feel your aliveness being in your favourite place (for me, it’s any farmer’s market in the world), with your beloved or animal friends. You are just fully you.

Here are all the beautiful questions that David Whyte asked me:

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Andjelka Jankovic Tea Ceremony

I know I haven’t written anything this past year here. I have written at least 383 things in my head (and also 144 posts on chicken).

It always takes me a bit of time to fully digest and process things in a new cycle. Looking back on 2021, I read many excellent books. I made Japanese miso from scratch and drizzled sesame oil on everything. I developed a pigmentation right on the bridge of my nose. I am yet to find the perfect comfortable underwear and I have not made peace with this. I washed and dried my linen sheets in the sun and made my bed, all in the same day; the definition of being an adult. And I picked up some new skills like growing oyster mushrooms from a log, the heartbreak that is tending to tomato plants in summer, and learning how to roll my own beeswax pillar candles (getting ready for cabin life).

I worked a whole year in hospitality and now my right shoulder hurts. I wanted to put the idea of ‘service’ into practice – in service to my brother and his dream, literally serving food, sharing tea in ceremony, and fostering five gorgeous kitties across the year. I now understand that being in service is about putting your ego out of the equation and mostly being invisible for a greater good. The act of service is the reward itself, not being recognised for it.

Service is never-ending and you have be wary of spiralling into a ditch because if you’re down there, you can’t help yourself or anyone really. I did nearly burn out a few times and so I made abundant rest a non-negotiable to survive the year; it wasn’t perfect but it was better than before. As my friend Si says, rest is a revolution. WE ALL JUST NEED MORE SLEEP.

I do not know if the soul survives physical death – and I do not care – but I know that to lose your soul while you are alive is worse than death. – Jeanette Winterson

I took great delight in beautiful dates with solitude. Matinee film screenings (Nomadland is a standout; “What’s remembered, lives”) with my dark chocolate sorbet and GF waffle cone hack. A seat at a Parisienne-feeling bar with half a dozen oysters and a bowl of frites. Hike days in the forest. And soaking in my bathtub with the moon and the serene nothing.

It’s my Jesus year apparently (I’m thirty three) and he was a revolutionary.

My music tastes have changed considerably this past year. Although indie folk and anything melancholy will always have a place in my bleeding heart repertoire, a large part of my music listening has been of atmospheric, neo-classical and instrumental tracks. My Spotify Wrapped says, “peaceful and wistful.” (I love that.) It might have something to do with my tea practice. This song by Luke Howard. This playlist by Alaskan Tapes. And my most listened to album of 2021 – Silencia by Hammock, an ambient masterpiece by a Nashville duo who I had never heard of. There isn’t a single lyric in the whole album, and if you know me, you know this is a big deal.

It was a year of lockdowns and creative concerts. Lie on the floor, put a speaker near your head and listen to Bon Iver songs in the dark. It sounds like Justin Vernon is in your house. True story. I also cannot be more OBSESSED with this magnum opus by Taylor Swift.

Many books were huge in my life: Braiding Sweetgrass is a must-read requiem for forgotten and wounded nature. Carl Jung’s The Red Book blew my mind as I read the details of his (and I’m still finding the pieces), as well as anything Martha Beck says or writes is hitting the sweet spot – highly recommend starting with The Way of Integrity, and let this word change your life too.

The exquisite risk – to be fully alive, open, available, living true to our heart. — Mark Nepo

A few things were quite radical to me; like Thinx period underwear. I transitioned to them for the first nights of my cycle and it is so liberating to bleed freely now (along with my moon cup) without using any plastic or disposable items. I learnt a self-compassion technique called R.A.I.N by Tara Brach at a silent meditation retreat in Denmark which I clearly needed, after having a minor meltdown when I arrived. I’ve also been slowly unpacking my beliefs and narratives around money, realising how unconscious the conditioning is and how hard (but worthy) it will be to rewrite new truths. I will also sing the praises of finally getting a pair of Blundstone boots and feeling pretty invincible.

My word for 2021 was listen.

I had no idea what I was in for.

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Person drinking Tea In A Canola Field

The sea was all in our minds

The Sea, Lily Kershaw (feat. Jon Bryant)

My top played song on Spotify last year was called Solitude No.1 by Ukrainian pianist and composer Lubomyr Melnyk. It’s a funny and welcome coincidence since this was the theme of my 2020.

I went from living in an intentional community in New Mexico to returning home to Australia and moving to Fremantle. It felt like l lived twelve lifetimes in those twelve months. A year that seemed as if we were all living towards the end of the world. A time of radical simplification.

Staying indoors. No touching. Isolating. Coming to terms with not travelling and no freedom, while group chats exploded along with existential dread, ceaseless snacking and Zoom fatigue. All our cancelled plans and possible futures gone, plus the renaissance of sourdough baking and puzzle making.

It was the year I discovered Phoebe Bridgers, learnt how to pickle zucchini and make apricot jam, watched anything British (Sliding Doors is still a filmic masterpiece), relished the Before trilogy again, and the arrival of my second nephew, little River.

I found great comfort in escapist fiction (highly recommend Where The Crawdad Sing and The Flatshare). I was shook by Normal People — the show of 2020. My half-decade Saturn Return also ended (it was a long one, folks) and with that came a new kind of ease and settling into my skin.

Most profoundly, I lived on my own for the first time. Subleasing a New York-style warehouse space that I’d searched my whole twenties for (even after living in the actual East Village). I started a newsletter for close friends. The world didn’t need another hashtag but I wrote small town travel guides (check out #AJlovesWA) for my road trips around Western Australia.

It wasn’t all upskilling and roses though — I didn’t work for most of the year, had a big wakeup call to my privilege, and fell into spells of despair (joy is coming). I also didn’t learn the tap dance routine in Fiona Apple’s Paper Bag music video, and I still don’t know how to play You Were Meant For Me by Jewel on guitar. I did collect a lot of interesting sticks and foliage though.

In February, just before everything shut down, a series of synchronicities led me to Big Sur in California to meet my tea teacher Wu De and learn the ancient practice of Cha Dao and tea ceremony. It was a culmination of a six-year calling that I had almost given up on and it came to fruition just when I had least expected.

Arriving home in March, I had no idea that the next year would be in total antithesis to the life I’d lived so far. None of us did.

Quest for truth only works if you’re prepared to take action on what you find. — Bruce Lee

My word for 2020 was transformation.

Straight up transformation is terrifying. Hard. None of it is necessarily comfortable.

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