Seasons of a friendship

There are stones in Ailsa Piper’s home named ‘Love’ and ‘Hope’. And when I visit, to enjoy a conversation with dear friends Ailsa and Tony Doherty, I encounter two individuals who might well be named ‘Love’ and ‘Hope’ – but which is which?

In a unique collaboration, arising from a fortuitous first encounter, their (largely) email correspondence has become a book, aptly titled The Attachment. Baldly, it’s a collection of emails, to and fro, categorised in seasons, over several years – but it is so much more than that. While the title refers literally to email attachments, it neatly captures the depth of friendship that arose from their ongoing correspondence.

When Ailsa Piper’s Sinning Across Spain was published in 2012, Tony Doherty, a priest of the Archdiocese of Sydney, emailed Ailsa to tell her how much he enjoyed the book. Ailsa wove an intriguing tale of walking a 1300km camino across Spain ‘carrying’ the sins of others in medieval fashion. Ailsa is an inveterate walker, and Tony’s a walker too, although harbour swimming is his daily passion. Tony was surprised − and delighted – when Ailsa replied immediately. While Tony enjoys receiving letters, Ailsa is the Queen of Correspondence. She loves stationery and stamps and popping a letter in the postbox. She confesses to having a cupboard filled with paper!

The email exchanges continued for a number of years, with Ailsa and Tony traversing in cyberspace topics as diverse as belief, family, travel, church, memory, theology, loss – all infused with openness, grace and wit. As they came to know each other better, various coincidences emerged around shared attachments to particular writers and lands, wanderings and wonderings.

The conversation flowed generously, in a style redolent of the letters of leisured folk in days gone by. However, these co-respondents are not people of leisure. While officially retired, and an octogenarian, Tony is still very much immersed in “the ‘sacrament business’. I think it’s my best work – marrying people, helping people to face death, celebrating new life.” The peripatetic Ailsa says she is a “writer, walker, teacher, theatre director and, once upon a time, actress”. We make time for what matters to us, and amidst busy lives, these two very different individuals continue to build a deep friendship on words.

The disciple Paul wrote letters that are still proclaimed in Christian churches all over the world, and the letters of significant people continue to be valued. The Attachment is a wonderfully grounded, human, engaging collection that advocates that The Letter not become a threatened species!

While Ailsa was raised and educated a Catholic, she does not profess Catholicism today. She does, however, have a deep appreciation of ritual and mystery and she values conversations that explore the big questions. She collects friends (as well as postcards) and is open to encounter, daily.

The distinguishing feature of Ailsa’s second camino was “shouldering the sins of friends, colleagues and strangers….in medieval times, a person could be paid to carry the sins of another to a holy place. On arrival, the stay-at-home received absolution, while the walker got to keep any blisters they’d earned on the way.”

Fast forward a few years, and in one of their e-letters, Tony shares a piece he wrote for an online publication: “To what extent are we prepared to carry the pain of others? In a church which claims to be a supporting community of believers – how do we give hope, in some genuine fashion, to someone whose life is fast unravelling?” There was at the time a particular reference to the sexual abuse scandals of the church, but the broader question holds…and Ailsa carried others’ pain literally.

She couldn’t have known, but her deepest pain was on the horizon. On 18 May 2014, Ailsa’s husband of 27 years, actor Peter Curtin, died suddenly. Later, she wrote, “Peter has taken the great leap.” A year earlier, Tony’s much loved brother, Peter, had died. Both Peters left enormous gulfs in the lives of those who loved them. Much of The Attachment ruminates on death, dying and grief. Ailsa shares the simple fact that “Tony was a stalwart. He was a quiet, reassuring presence on the day of Peter’s funeral. He wrote to me in the time that followed, of course. But he also spoke with me on the phone almost every day afterwards….He ministered to his friend.”

This simple ministry, accessible to all, exemplifies a rare and deep friendship. In our conversation, Ailsa is generous in sharing her life as widow – a word she does not avoid. She writes, “My job was to get on with it; to do the work of a widow.” Building on those intriguing words, she says, “There’s this sense that your job is almost to disappear…wear black…when people asked me, ‘Do you think you will have another relationship?’ I would say, ‘The thing you don’t understand is that I am still married.’ I’m still working out the ways in which I’m inextricably, on a cellular level, knitted to him….think of the black armband? The ways we used to say ‘I’m mourning’ were about bringing death and life into the culture. I was thinking one day on the train, it would be great if there was an app you could hit that would say, ‘There are six people in this carriage who have recently lost someone. Speak a bit gently.’”       

In supporting Ailsa during her darkest days, Tony embodied his understanding of parish as “primarily about healing – first aid stations for the spiritually wounded.” There is a strong echo here of Pope Francis’ epithet, “field hospital”. Tony explains how after learning the stories of the people of God in his last parish, “you see people well below the surface and it’s very satisfying, and it actually takes a good deal of sensitivity, to navigate your language around lots and lots of people…” 

Sensitivity around language is a specialty of both Tony and Ailsa.

Tony says, “My belief in life is that we are held in the hands of a gracious mystery.”

Tony’s cousin, Joan Chittister osb, writes, of “the sacrament of friendship”.

I believe the deep friendship of Ailsa Piper and Tony Doherty is sacramental – it makes holy – and it is a gracious mystery into which the reader of The Attachment is welcomed.        

So when you read a book you really enjoy, email the writer – you never know what might ensue!

Tony Doherty and Ailsa Piper The Attachment Allen and Unwin 2017.  

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Tracey Edstein Image
Tracey Edstein

Tracey Edstein is the editor of Aurora Magazine, the official magazine of the Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle.

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