Writer and Twilight School patron Alisa Piper looks at the precious role of sunlight and shadow in life and love.

Sol y Sombra

My mum loved an occasion. Christmas was a day-long fiesta that started at dawn when she woke before we did, and Mother’s Day was tea with toast burned by us as she pretended to sleep. Birthdays were top of her pops. She insisted they be celebrated uproariously. Her last wish was that every year we raise a glass on the day she was born.

Our family home was a WA sheep station, where my world was bounded by the fences my father regularly rode out to check. Desert country. Unyielding.

But Mum gave me other possibilities. Each night, she recited Edward Lear’s The Owl and the Pussycat to me until I went to sleep. Surrounded by red earth, she whispered of a pea-green boat bobbing on a star-lit sea, and described lush bong-tree woods. I could see the glint of the runcible spoon scooping slices of exotic quince. And of course, there was that impossible couple, owl and cat, dancing under a distant moon.

I know the poem by heart. By my heart and her heart.

Just after I decided to walk across Spain, I heard a psychologist talking about the importance of the tales we’re told as children. He believed the best any parent could offer was The Owl and the Pussycat. The central characters celebrate their differences, he said, and set out on a great quest, with plenty of all they need – honey and money. The decision to marry is the cat’s, and the owl loves her strength.

Not a bad template for life.

Some people were dismayed when I part-financed my Spanish walk by selling the two paintings I’d bought with my modest financial inheritance from Mum, but I think she’d have approved. I used her legacy to take myself out into the world, whispering our poem to unfamiliar skies.

One day on the road, in a one-burro pueblo called Laza in the mountains of Galicia, I hobbled into a supermarket and struck up a conversation with the woman behind the counter. When I told her Mum had been my best friend, the woman’s professional face cracked. She said her mother had died only a year before, at the age of eighty. I said I often walked with mine, that I still felt her absence, after all these years. Suddenly, we were both crying.

Through her tears, she said life is sol y sombra – sun and shadow – and you don’t value one without the other. She kissed my hand as she gave me my change and I walked into the afternoon oblivious to the possibly-broken bone in my right toe.

Sol y sombra.


Photo credit: STACHB

I wondered about it as I limped to the town’s cemetery and looked across the gravestones to the surrounding hills. I remember thinking how Mum would have loved it all – the silent grey stone town, the quince paste I’d bought in memory of the poem, the donkey grazing on daisy-studded grass, the clouds whizzing ahead to road’s end. The otherness. Sometimes I think my yearning for the road is in part a wish to wander on her behalf, a quest for bong-trees.

Sol y sombra, I whispered. Sun and shadow.

I think the lady in the shop was right. We do value the sun more when we have known shadow. Why is that? I refuse to believe suffering is necessary for happiness, but it certainly puts it into sharper relief. I don’t want to believe I love my mother more for having lost her, but it makes the love, all loves, more precious.

Later I learned the Spanish have a drink called sol y sombra. It’s equal parts Cognac and anise. Not for the faint-hearted.

Maybe for Mum’s next birthday I’ll shout myself a glass of sol y sombra and drink to the sunshine Mum gave me to navigate through shadows.

No. Why wait? Loss teaches us to seize our days.

I’ll find a sol y sombra tonight and raise it to love.

Ailsa Piper

Ailsa Piper is a walker, talker, teacher, writer, passionate patron of the Twilight School and the author of Sinning Across Spain – a walker’s journey from Granada to Galicia published by Melbourne University Press.