Manchester By The Sea – a Review

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Last weekend, I went to see the recently released, Manchester By The Sea, at the Palace Cinema, Brighton with my daughters, Anne and Mary Jane.

Anne has been a fan of the actress Michelle Williams since she was a teenager and has a collection of her movies. When one is released we always try and see it because the subject matter and execution of Indie films are usually more enriching than the Hollywood blockbusters and populist ‘bums on seats’ fillers.

It’s the difference between enjoying reading a lightweight novel, but the stereotypical characters and plot forgettable compared to a novel, where the characters live with you for a lifetime, the story challenges or introduces a different perspective on life.

I want stories that tug at your heart and soul before adding another dimension to what it means to be human.

And there are so many scenes in this film that are touches of brilliance; they add to an already memorable story and characters.

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Michelle Williams plays Randi, Lee’s ex-wife and doesn’t disappoint in Manchester by The Sea – she has been nominated for the best supporting actress award.  The few scenes she has, and a gut-wrenching one, in particular – engages the audience the way good acting should – a total suspension of disbelief.

We are with her, feel her love, anger, pain, sadness, joy, guilt and grief. The whole gamut of emotions.

The logline of the movie is simplistic  “An uncle is asked to take care of his teenage nephew after the boy’s father dies.” There are many stories in the subtext of this screenplay.

This is a film about broken lives and how easily tragedy and change can happen to any of us. It is a story exploring the journey and stages of grief and the effects of sorrow – different for everyone – especially if it compounds on other bereavements.

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Writer and director Kenneth Lonergan has won multiple awards – and I can see why – this film is a powerful story, but he has done a wonderful job of showing not telling, the pacing and tension breath-taking and balanced like any good page-turning novel. 

His choice of casting excellent with Casey Affleck playing a broody, moody Lee Chandler struggling to come to terms with inner demons. The first few scenes in the less salubrious suburbs of Boston sets the tone of the movie and reveals Lee’s personality.

In modern parlance, he has issues. 

He’s grumpy, socially disconnected, drinks alone and has violent outbursts yet he’s young, physically fit, reasonably good-looking and a competent handyman employed as a janitor for a landlord too cheap to pay tradesmen and prepared to ignore building regulations.

For a minimum wage, Lee Chandler does everything from cleaning, plumbing, electrical repairs, moving furniture, clearing snow, and changing light bulbs while demanding tenants treat him as if he’s invisible, beneath them, or to blame for their maintenance woes. Who wouldn’t be moody and pissed off?

But we sense something more to Lee’s surliness and brooding aloneness, especially when after a bout of solitary drinking in a local bar, he explodes into an inexplicable verbal then physical assault on two strangers.

We are intrigued.

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A phone call leads to a mercy dash to a hospital over an hour’s drive away. The pace of the story picks up as Lee is catapulted into a family crisis.

Through flashbacks, we start to piece together the life Lee Chandler left – the familial bonds, the close-knit community, the love for his brother who has just died. The unravelling of his past explains his choice of a life away from the Massachusetts fishing village where his family have worked for generations.

And when the full story comes to light, it is one of those moments, if it was a book, you would place it on your lap, close your eyes and struggle to get your breathing and blood pressure back to normal.  

On screen, these emotionally engaging moments are powerful indeed.

All the important storytelling elements keep the audience engaged with the use of scenery as clever metaphors. The movie begins in winter and ends in spring.

There is a brilliant scene where Lee is arranging his brother’s funeral but because it is winter the burial (they are Catholic) must be delayed, the snow covered ground too hard and the cost of heavy machinery too expensive. When Lee and his nephew Patrick leave the funeral parlour unhappy with the reality Lee can’t find his car because they’ve both forgotten where it was parked. Their actions and dialogue removing the angst and sentimentality often seen in other movies but so believable.

Anyone who has been left numb by grief will relate to trying to cope with the bizarre situations that occur as you go through the motions of dealing with death and funerals, especially if there are fractured family relationships (Patrick’s mother is still alive but left years before), complications of  beliefs (Patrick is not religious), cost and tradition.

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Lee struggles with coming to terms with the unwanted burden his brother has placed on him – legal guardianship of his 16-year-old nephew, Patrick. The relationship between Lee and Patrick, the adjustments and revelations provides much-needed and natural humour as well as penetrating insight into teenage grief.

The scenes where Patrick is trying to consummate a long-standing relationship with a girlfriend and even involves his Uncle Lee to keep an overprotective mother busy are hilarious.

My girls and I discussed the irony of wanting to see a film where one of the main characters is a teenager dealing with the death of his father. They were thirteen and sixteen when their father died.

However,  afterwards, as we discussed the movie they both agreed that the portrayal of Patrick’s reactions, the reactions of his friends, and scenes where his anger explodes are spot on and will deeply resonate with young people who have had to cope with a similar tragedy.

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There is a richness to this film with its multiple layers of stories and character development. Several scenes will haunt me for a long time because my life has been touched by grief – death by accident, death by illness and disease, the horrific shock of suicide and the natural process of ageing. It is strangely comforting to reflect that there’s a commonality with people from a different demographic and different country.

The actors convey real emotion and believability and as Lee Chandler tries to make a go of this new hand he has been dealt, we root for him and really want it to work so that he can be healed too.

(The film begins and ends with scenes on the family fishing boat showing a bond between Lee and Patrick although the events occur eight years apart.)

This story of broken lives reminds us how easily lives can be shattered:

  • a lapsed moment of concentration
  • a bad or rash decision
  • being in the wrong place at the wrong time
  • and good old Murphy’s Law – anything that can go wrong will

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We can’t always distance ourselves from the past, we can’t always beat our demons but we can be open to love and just as chance tragedy can change the direction of your life so can a random spark of friendship and love.

Sometimes we just need a reason to reconnect with that healing journey…

If you go to see Manchester By The Sea, I’ll be interested to hear your impressions and insights.

Visually the film is appealing – Manchester Massachusetts, in the United States, is known for scenic beaches and vista points. 24 miles from Boston, at the 2010 census, the town population was 5,136.

Tonight I’m attending a fundraiser for Hidden Figures – a very different film! I’ll review that in a few days!

 

 

Several Natural Tweets Trumps 45

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Some days the world seems to have exploded with craziness. Who would have thought the man now in the office, often referred to as the most powerful in the world, would spend his days watching cable TV and tweeting? 

Every time I think of Donald Trump as President of America – especially in light of his derogatory remarks about, and to women, I shake my head in disbelief. But there are many other failings that worry me more including the fact he has the power to start a war and has access to the nuclear codes!

I’m part of the generation born in the decade after World War Two in the shadow of the atomic bombs dropped on Japan and the development and proliferation of nuclear weapons.

Three Wise Monkeys
Mairi Neil

Mizaru, Kikazaru and Iwazaru sit on the mantlepiece:
seeing no evil, hearing no evil, and speaking no evil.
A Japanese pictorial maxim transplanted to Scotland;
brought home by a great uncle, a ship’s captain,
these wise monkeys an added admonishment
to a childhood steeped in Presbyterian rules.
Yet, the shadow of evil an unseen cloak
as we lived in the tatters of World War Two.
Crowded cemeteries, buildings awaiting demolition,
food rationing…crippling austerity
shattered families struggling to find meaning,
shuddering when ambulance and police sirens wail.
Speak no evil an achievable rule perhaps
hearing no evil more difficult
and what of seeing evil or evil seen?
The brass monkeys cold. A chilly weight
in my child’s hand, etching a mystic message
of aspirations difficult to achieve.

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Born in Scotland I lived not far from the Holy Loch where American submarines were first based in 1960. People in the peace movement (CND), including my father, protested this base made Scotland a first strike nuclear target.

This was the era of ‘The Cold War‘ and Russia was the enemy to fear, the people and country to demonise.

However, many people who survived WW2 were shocked at the devastation caused by the atomic bombs and believed the only way to safeguard the world was to ban nuclear weapons. CICD, the Campaign for International Cooperation and Disarmament became a part of a worldwide movement.

Fears were realised when interference in Cuba escalated into what became known as the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Polaris submarines were deployed from Scotland but hostile contact averted.

“By midOctober six of the Navy’s new Polaris submarines, based at Holy Loch Scotland had deployed to their battle stations deep under the sea. USS Abraham Lincoln (SSBN 602), in upkeep at Holy Loch, and two other submarines that had just completed shakedown cruises were also prepared on short notice to add their firepower to the nuclear equation.”. . . “ On October 22 at 1900 at DEFCON 3 “Polaris submarines moved to their launch points.”

Cuban Missile Crisis paper from Wilson Center

My mother told me about the day news came of the movements at Holy Loch, after days of tensions being reported on the radio.

A neighbour rushed into our house in Scotland crying hysterically, ‘we’re all going to die!’ She had young children like Mum, had survived the Greenock blitz and horrible memories had been triggered by the threat of another war – this time one that would wipe out sizeable chunks of countries simultaneously.

 

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I used to have a similar poster as this hanging on the toilet door throughout the 70s.

 

Perhaps it is the story from Scotland and recalling other stories my parents shared about the war that feeds an almost morbid fascination with President Trump’s cavalier attitude to the power he has, where he seems more enthralled with his signature than what he is signing.

I’ve had to make a conscious effort to switch off and try and actively look for peace of mind. Luckily, living where I do and working where I do, it has been fairly easy.

Bird Tweets Trump Donald’s

Mother Nature has given us wonderful birds who tweet because it’s their natural way of communicating. Their tweets more inspiring than those from you know who!

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The rainbow lorikeet (Trichoglossus moluccanus) is a species of parrot common along the eastern seaboard, from northern Queensland to South Australia and Tasmania. Its habitat is rainforest, woodland and coastal bush, hence its attraction to Mordialloc!

Limerick for the Birds
Mairi Neil

Australia has parrots galore
feathered wonders love to soar
with squeals and tweets
the Rainbow Lorikeets
brighten our Mordy foreshore.

I spotted a rainbow lorikeet one evening when I was out for a walk with my friend Jillian. Usually, they are in pairs or a cluster but this one sat on the electric wires observing us. Not sure if he was as enamoured with me as I was with him! They really are pretty birds.

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This little fellow that I think is a Thornbill entertains me every morning and early evening. He and a couple of mates flitter in and out the vines outside my kitchen window, moving so fast it is difficult to take a picture. I’m sure they sense me hiding behind the net curtains.

Focused and persistent, they chat to each other as they forage for insects. Their antics make me happy and I look forward to catching a glimpse of their fluttering feathers.

Haiku – Mairi Neil

Winter’s skeleton
Hides the promise of springtime
And the buzz of life

One day recently, having coffee with my friend Lesley in Mentone, a tiny House Sparrow decided to join us and we had a lovely conversation. Although, we were never in any doubt of what he was really after!

One reason for the successful establishment of the House Sparrow in Australia and, indeed, all over the world, is its ability to feed on a wide range of foodstuffs. Birds eat insects, spiders, berries, seeds, flower buds and scraps of food discarded by humans. There are many reports of birds entering canteens in buildings to feed, with birds even learning to activate automatic doors in order to gain entry.

Walks with friends around my neighbourhood of Mordialloc, Parkdale and Mentone, a welcome distraction to current political shenanigans dominating the news and even birds regarded as pests are more appealing than many of those who claim to be leaders.

Mordialloc Beach

Mairi Neil

The day is calm. Tranquil. A great-to-be-alive day.
Eucalypts and pine compete with salty air and
the whiff of abandoned seaweed.
The blue-green sea a mirror for fluffy clouds of whipped cream.
Dainty dollops on a pale blue plate.
Gulls sit or glide atop this glassy sea.
Bathed in white sunlight I imagine I too drift and dream.
In the distance, palm tree fronds tremble casting lacy shadows on hot sand. The clink of moorings and masts drifts from the creek
and a sudden gust of wind whips sand to sting legs and face.
Airborne seagulls now screeching origami kites.
A dark veil unfurls from the horizon, shattering the grey-green mirror
and peaceful contemplation. Waves lap and soap around feet.
I retreat to the shelter of eucalypts and pine,
the taste of salt bittersweet.

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Polluting Politics

The current state of politics and events are repugnant yet there is a fascinating compulsion to follow the relentless shocks – that’s where playing with words relieves the tension. 

Limerick for the Times
Mairi Neil

President 45 an aggressive male
as a leader, he’s destined to fail
dividing his nation
without hesitation
‘Trumplethinskin’ is no fairy tale.

Of course, what passes for Australia’s political leadership is not much better. Some Australian MPs adopting the style, policies, and even similar slogans to Donald Trump.

Limerick for the LNP
Mairi Neil

Cory Bernardi is making news
he’s given PM Turnbull the blues
South Australian Bernardi
now has his own party
being ‘Liberal’ exposed as a ruse!

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And then we had the Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull attacking the Opposition Leader, Bill Shorten in a most unbecoming personal rant while those on the government benches laughed like hyenas savaging prey.

The face of the leader of the National Party and Deputy Prime Minister, Barnaby Joyce dark red like an apoplectic fit in progress, albeit driven by laughter, not anger.

Although apoplexy as a specific medical term is not such a common term now, the word apoplectic certainly is, meaning furious and red-faced with uncontrollable rage (so called because its symptoms of flushed red face and loss of bodily control mimic those of apoplexy).

When Treasurer, Scott Morrison brandished a lump of coal and the Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg championed ‘clean coal’ WA (usually hot in summer) flooded, NSW and Queensland faced the hottest days ever recorded and bushfires destroyed homes and farmlands. SA faced extreme weather conditions and power blackouts. We in Melbourne had four seasons in one day as usual but on steroids as summer temperatures fluctuated more than normal.

Time for harsh words to be written.

Dear Federal Parliament –

You laugh as Australia burns
the LNP MPs taking turns
to promote dirty coal
cut pensions and the dole –
dear PM where’s your soul?

Barnaby’s red face a disgrace
and vitriol sprayed like mace
Appalling barefaced liars,
Climate-change deniers,
all justify influence buyers!

Halt the wheeling and dealing –
it’s our kids future you are stealing
the Antarctic ice cracking
yet you consider fracking!
Show leadership, please
wind turbines need a breeze
the sun doesn’t always shine
all adjustment takes time…

So, instead of point scoring,
lying, bluster, and theatrics
parliamentarians must sit down
to discuss the energy mix.
The public wants clarity
Extreme weather our reality!

From Mordialloc where even a small rise in sea level threatens homes!

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Thank Goodness For Distractions

I’m lucky classes have resumed, limiting the time I have available to check on the latest scandals, shocks, and silly decisions from those who are supposed to lead.

I’ll get more writing done if I ignore social media – yet switching off or ignoring the news at this critical point in history, seems an impossible task – especially when social justice is at stake.images.png

It’s a bit late for New Year Resolutions but I’ve decided to follow the advice I’m always giving my writing students – ‘write every day’. My lack of output directly related to allowing myself to be distracted and become obsessed with ‘the News’, ‘fake news’, ‘alternative facts’ and worrying – which as the quote above implies, is a waste of energy.

My daughter Mary Jane made me a lovely gift at Christmas with a quote from my favourite character, Jo March, from one of my favourite books, Little Women by Louisa May Alcott.

Jo wanted to be a writer and as a nine-year-old reading about her made me determined to be a writer too.

I want to do something splendid before I go into my castle, something heroic or wonderful that won’t be forgotten after I’m dead. I don’t know what, but I’m on the watch for it and mean to astonish you all some day.

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I’m grateful for having parents who valued books. When I was ten I received Jo’s Boys, and the following Christmas my aunt gave me Little Men – I treasure these books.

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I’m not sure I’ll ever achieve something heroic or wonderful but perhaps some of my writing will remain and be read after I’m dead. It may not astonish but it will reflect me and the times I lived.

During the week I received a lovely card (with a bird on it!) and thoughtful presents from a student who said, “thank you for mentoring me so well with my writing.” I’ll treasure these too.

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We may live in tumultuous times where there is much to criticise and feel uneasy about, but with a purpose and job I enjoy, wonderful friends and family and surroundings that provide constant delight, I know I’m privileged.

The mantra ‘one day at a time’ and a conscious effort to stay positive will keep me focused.

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Ten Ice-Breaking Questions For Writers

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Writing For Pleasure & Publication classes started last week and with several new students in the mix a ‘getting to know you’ exercise important.

Icebreakers

There are lots of Icebreaker Exercises available on the Internet. Questions and games for almost every situation you can imagine – I think I’ve tried them all over the fifteen plus years I’ve been teaching. How do you come up with something original and relevant?

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Like all good writing teachers, (indeed writers), I donned a pirate hat and cobbled together ten questions from a day of research. Writers must be good listeners and observers. They must know themselves and others so they can create believable characters.

From a lesson by Annie Dillard, the great writer of literary non-fiction, Alexander Chee, her student learnt:

You need to turn that attention to yourself. Research yourself… what do you think you can write that you couldn’t write before?… How do I use it in fiction?… I would start next, for me, with what feels real out of what I want to invent. Using your life in fiction doesn’t have to mean only replicating it. That I call the mistake of verisimilitude…

The students could use whatever they gleaned (and it may or may not have been ‘the truth’) to write a mini-bio, a short story, a poem, a newspaper report, magazine column – any piece of writing, any format or genre, from the interviewee and share with the class and at home perhaps write their own bio, or produce another piece of writing triggered by work in class.

Ten Questions

  • If you could live in any sitcom on TV past or present, which one would it be? Why? What character would you be?
  • What do you look for in a friend?
  • Describe the best dessert you have ever had? When was the last time you ate it?
  • It’s Saturday morning. What’s the first thing you do when you wake up? Is there a routine to this day?
  • If you were to get a tattoo, what would it say or what would the graphic be? And where would you put it on your body?
  • Why do you live where you do? How long have you lived there?
  • If you could have been told one thing that you weren’t told when you were a teenager, what would you like to have heard? Why?
  • If you were to write a book what would it be about? Do you have a title?
  • If you could be any animal in the world for 24 hours, which animal would you be? Why?
  • Name your three favourite smells, why are they your favourite and what is it they evoke, or what memories do they trigger?

Experiment with the information you have learned – after you have written a factual piece is there anything to trigger your imagination that you could turn into a fictional story?

images-1.png1. What sitcom character would I be?

  1. Years ago on the ABC there was a BBC comedy The Good Life. A couple decided to live off the grid and make their suburban house and garden “green” and environmentally sustainable. The good life equating with the simple life.

The blurb says:

A milestone birthday convinces Tom Good to make a change. He talks his wife, Barbara, into giving up the so-called rat race and joining him in a life of simplicity and self-sufficiency. They convert their suburban home into a farm, planting crops in the back garden and bringing in pigs and chickens (including a rooster they name Lenin). The new use of their property comes as something of a shock to their very proper neighbours, Margo and Jerry Leadbetter. A social climber of the first order, Margo can’t bear having chickens roaming the back garden. She’ll have to put up with it, though, since Tom, despite his desire for self-sufficiency, can’t bring himself to kill the chickens.

It aired on TV from 1975-1977

Tom (Richard Briers) turned 40 and in a midlife crisis gave up his job as a designer of the plastic toys that came free with breakfast cereal. (This was really big in the 60s and 70s and as one of six children I can remember having to take turns and arguing over the toys! I guess they were the precursors to the plastic junk given away with McDonalds’ Happy Meals!)

His wife, Barbara (Felicity Kendal), goes along with his aim for sustainable living – their house is paid for and one could say the risks in a change of lifestyle were minimal. However, the conflict and comedy occur when Barbara and Tom continual challenge their friends and neighbours Margo (Penelope Keith) and Jerry (Paul Eddington) and confront their wasteful ways while, as it happens, they often have to rely on them for help!

The self-sufficient lifestyle involves lawns becoming allotments for food not flowers, chickens, and pigs (Pinky and Perky), a goat, and a rooster named Lenin. They generate their own electricity using the animal waste byproduct methane, attempt making their own clothes, have success with homemade wine, and barter and sell produce to bypass and ignore capitalism’s monetary system!

Needless to say, many of the episodes are hilarious.

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Both couples are childless and the political events of the 1970s are used as an effective backdrop because as Bob Dylan warned ‘the times they are a’changing’.

I admired what ‘Tom and Barbara’ tried to do;  the show awakened in me, a real interest in the environment and sustainable living in suburbia.

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Barbara described as –

… a normal, middle-class housewife when the series begins. While she sometimes wilts under Tom’s determined and dominant nature, her sharp tongue puts her on an equal footing. She is the heart of the enterprise, while Tom’s engineering brain designs and builds what they need. She yearns for luxuries but her own determination to succeed, with Tom’s single-minded persuasion, keeps her going.

She was feminine but feisty, practical and independent, compassionate and kind, a loyal friend and well-read and witty, but most of all she had a great sense of humour. What’s not to like?

In many ways, The Good Life was prescient, if not revolutionary – over the years I’ve embraced the mantra reduce, reuse and recycle. I helped make mud bricks for my brother’s Mt Evelyn house, I grow veggies, have solar panels and a water tank. I believe in limiting my footprint on the earth – thank you to Barbara, my inspiration!

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2. What do I look for in a friend?

Many qualities such as – loyalty, honesty, trustworthiness, understanding, compassion, reliability, discretion, support, a good listener, a sense of fun and Monty Pythonesque sense of humour.

I have been and still am blessed with dear friends – special people I love dearly.

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3. What is my favourite dessert and when was the last time I ate it?

My taste in food has changed over the years although my penchant for sweets probably hasn’t. Like most women, I’ll own up to being a chocoholic – hormones the excuse!

My most recent encounter of dining out was at Mordy HQ and always, if Sticky Date Pudding is on the Seniors Menu, it gets my vote. This dessert, all the more delicious because I never make it at home. The same goes for my second choice – cheesecake – there’s something yummy about cooked cheesecake.

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When I reflect, there are two instances when dessert has stood out and in both cases, the delights were one-off occasions so memorable they’re worth writing about.

On our first cruise as a family, we went to the South Pacific on P&O’s Fair Princess in 1997. One special evening, the dining crew marched in bearing Bombe Alaska. The lights were dimmed, the line of waiters glowed. A magnificent line of red and gold-speckled waistcoats on mainly Indonesian and Filipino waiters, their white shirt sleeves stark on stretched arms holding trays aflame.

The delicious dessert of meringue, fluffy sponge and lemon sorbet folded through vanilla ice-cream, studded with juicy raspberries is doused in brandy and set alight just before serving!

A tasty spectacle indeed. Checking the available recipes on the web it seems various fruits and other ingredients and methods can be substituted but they all agree the ‘bonfire’ at the end is what makes it great!

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The other dessert that lives in memory is a meal in London, in a French restaurant, in 1973. My girlfriend, Nobuko worked as a Japanese Air Stewardess for British Airways and we caught up in London. The two pilots on her flight took us out to dinner and the waiter cooked the Crêpes Suzette in front of us at our table. Again this became a once-in-a-lifetime spectacle entailing flames as Grand Marnier and cognac were heated to lift the basic pancake recipe into the realms of the sublime!!

4. Saturday mornings, I usually have no timetable to obey.

No classes to teach, no set time to be anywhere. Luxury. A relaxing breakfast which may extend into a pyjama day if I don’t have to be anywhere or no visitors are expected. In the days when The Age newspaper was delivered, I would have done the crossword but now I might spend time online, check Facebook or maybe curl up in a chair and read, wander the garden, sit at the computer and write.  Occasionally, I may even do housework!

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5. If I ever got a tattoo…

A highly unlikely event, but I’d have a tiny butterfly above my right breast. This would represent transformation because I’ve had to rethink body image since a mastectomy and I must admit I miss my cleavage.

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6. I’ve lived in Mordialloc since 1984

I live in the first, and only house, I’ve ever owned. John and I chose Mordialloc because we both loved the sea. It was easy to fall in love with 21 Albert Street – an old Edwardian weatherboard with character features, including leadlights at the front door.

Crossing the threshold for the first time, I sensed its history but also a benign and calming spirit living within the walls. It became a much-loved home – the girls know no other and in 2002, John died here, in his own bed.

So many precious memories that I’ll leave behind when I too am ‘carried out in a box’.

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Albert Street 1984

7. What knowledge or advice would I have liked to hear as a teenager?

Born into a Scottish Presbyterian family in the 1950s with a strong Protestant work ethic and not yet influenced by the Women’s Liberation Movement, I wish I’d heard that thinking of yourself does not necessarily mean you are selfish.

Guilt, strict sexual mores, and the Protestant work ethic all influences hard to shake! Add the workload expected of mothers when I got married and still out-dated ideas of ‘good wives’ sacrifice and personal denial almost to martyrdom status seemed built into the DNA!

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8. If I write a book about myself…

I’d build on the thousands of words I have already written about my journey to recover from breast cancer. I walked part of the Larapinta Trail not long after I finished chemotherapy to prove to myself life may be different but I still had physical health and strength. It will be called I Feel the Wind in my Hair

9. If I could be any animal for 24 hours

I’d swap places with Aurora,  the family dog. She is loved unconditionally, is totally spoiled with absolutely no responsibilities – nearing thirteen years of age she sometimes forgets to bark fiercely at passersby…

… and she takes the giant part of the Queen-sized bed.

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10. My three favourite smells

Favourites hard to pick because there are many evocative smells I love. However, fresh bread baking sets my olfactory glands working overtime (as does roasting meat) because it reminds me of Mum in the kitchen baking her soda bread, pancakes, scones, Sunday dinner. Yum!

Then there’s the smell of freshly laundered sheets. Whether it is the lemon-scented washing powder and clothes conditioner or just the wonderful fresh air impregnated in cotton, the experience of slipping between fresh sheets absolute heaven.

The other smell is unmistakeable eucalyptus – a pungent reminder of the native trees in my garden and also Vicks Vaporub. The medicinal ointment a reminder of the times during childhood when I’ve been nurtured because of a cold, or when I nursed my daughters.

Another vivid memory is touring Angel Island, a former immigration detention centre and now a state park in San Francisco Bay. Careering around the island on a scenic train and smelling the remnants of a eucalyptus forest planted by an Australian made me homesick!

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Variety Is the Spice of Life

The students interviewed and then introduced each other with sitcom characters ranging from Downtown Abbey’s feminist Isobel and traditionalist Maggie, naughty Brooke in Bold & The Beautiful, Hot Lips Houlihan in MASH, Seinfeld, a reporter or newsreader on a current affair show, Julie from Happy Days, the Goldbergs’ neighbour who plays too loud music, the narrator of Wonder Years, Rachel in Friends and Elana in The Vampire Diaries.

Everyone on the same page when it came to qualities expected from friends: loyalty, sense of humour, discretion, non-judgemental, has empathy, trustworthy, good listener, caring, reliable, warm and loving, shows sincerity, respect, has similar interests, reliable and adventurous.

The favourite desserts revealed sweet tooths: plenty of chocoholics, especially dark chocolate, gooey brownies but also date scones. A strong desire for English Trifle with ‘all the trimmings’ (a missed gift from a friend sadly deceased), homemade apple pie and cream, fresh tropical fruit and cream, chocolate mousse, a chocolate-flavoured sundae from ‘Maccas’, homemade pavlova piled high with fruit and cream, and chocolate fondue.

Most people indulged their dessert desires recently because of Christmas but one unlucky writer is now lactose intolerant so fondues no more!

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Cats and dogs top the list for animals to be: students wanted to see the world from a dog’s perspective for 24 hours and understand how they interpret human emotions and moods, being a cat would be interesting, or a lion and be leader of the pack, perhaps having the fecundity of a rabbit; a tiny dog is loved and spoiled, dogs have fun, cats get to explore places and are well fed, they’re astute and can work out humans. Someone wanted to be a lioness because they are courageous, proud, and protective.

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The topics chosen to write about varied: a book to help young people understand mental illness, My Melbourne – a book about Aussie life from the 1930s onwards, an autobiography called A Life of Changes, a memoir, family history, autobiography, So She Did, detective stories for children including a clever, funny dog, an autobiography with lots of pop culture references Big Brother in the Suburbs – aka 1984, book of travel experiences, Lauren’s Storybook, Eli’s Story

People lived in a variety of settings:  family homes, with parents, daughters, alone, near public transport, near the sea, in retirement villages, some were long term residents, others recent arrivals. There were houses, apartments and units, gardens and nearby parks or foreshore, ordinary views or scenic views.

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The exercise was a great icebreaker and getting to know you exercise.

It encouraged observation, listening skills, perception, and attention to detail. At home, there will be plenty of reflection, perhaps research, and maybe the start of longer stories, a poem or novel and/or character sketches.

Information on real life people has been shared, realistic settings and a reminder to include the senses, particularly the sense of smell when writing.

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The sense of smell a powerful memory booster and the range of evocative smells included: gourmet cheese and chocolate, flowers like rosemary, scented candles, Estee Lauder perfume, the smell of husband/lover, the rose Black Beauty, food cooking, roast meat especially rabbit, which was eaten a lot after the war, Paco Rabanne aftershave, Chanel Number 5, yellow roses, lavender, daphne, roast chicken, sausages cooking, Dad’s deodorant, new packaging when stuff ordered from E-Bay, garlic in food, paprika, lavender oil, boyfriend’s aftershave, family dog, jasmine scented candle…

I’m looking forward to listening to the homework – these are exercises anyone can do, you don’t need a partner – interview yourself!

Please feel free to share anything you’re inspired to write because as Annie Dillard’s student noted –

You know the least about your life precisely because, for living in it, you might barely notice it.

 Remember we are pirates, so let’s share the treasures unearthed…

My Nose to the Grindstone and I’m Happy

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A new term, a new student, and returnees – the first day of the Writing for Pleasure Class at Mordialloc pure joy!

The above sign (doctored to suit the blog) necessary because the building works next door to the House still evident, and in fact there doesn’t seem much progress since before the holidays – although I’m sure there will be people more knowledgeable than me who will tell me that digging a big hole takes time.

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December 5, 2016
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January 30, 2017

The next photograph may show the extent of the ‘big hole’ better… and here is a link to my blog in October last year when the excavation started.

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The redevelopment of the block for apartments will take time – a good metaphor for many writing projects. A novel will take more time to write than a short story, an autobiography will be longer than a memoir – and whatever the writing project it will be better if you include learning the craft of writing techniques and understanding genres and your audience.

The seeming lack of progress could also be a metaphor for my personal enthusiasm for writing hitting the doldrums.

Passion, Purpose and Persistence.

This is what we learn and practise in class. And what we need to make sure we actually write!

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We support and encourage each other. Writing is perhaps the loneliest of all professions. Attending a class or workshopping with other writers who understand the desire and need to write, helps keep you motivated and focused.

Becoming a writer is a choice that can be satisfying, rewarding, and fulfil your needs or let you plummet the depths of despair, suffer chronic indecision, and crush your self-esteem!

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It is good to be around people who care and who understand the joys – and the dread – “what if people won’t like what I write or won’t read it?”

Writing takes courage.

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I had a long list of what I was going to achieve during the holidays – especially regarding writing projects.

However, the summer was hot and I seemed to be constantly clearing out accumulated clutter (who said we were going to be a paperless society?).

I caught up with friends and family, but mercurial Melbourne’s climate gave the garden a growth spurt unusual for this time of year which translated into extra weeding and tree branch trimming.

I spent hours researching and planning my big holiday next term on the Trans-Siberian Railway and visiting the UK; I read some delightful books, watched movies, made my daughter some clothes and became obsessed and saddened by the rise of Trump and the decline in compassion for others less fortunate …

In other words, I found any excuse not to keep up that very important mantra I recite to my students – write every day!

I even contemplated throwing in the towel and never writing anything again because nothing I have written seemed substantial.

I wasn’t making any headway with writing projects and I struggled to remain positive about what I wanted to write.  Who was my audience? Why would anyone read my short story, poem, novel, memoir?

Even as I began to write and get published, I hesitated to call myself a writer. There always seemed to be yet another goal to achieve before I could do so.

Real writers wrote novels; I wrote reviews of novels. Real writers published work in magazines you held in your hand; I published pieces online. Real writers made a living as a writer; I had a day job. Whatever I did, it was never enough, in my eyes. I had the arrogance to think that readers would care about what I had to say—the audacity to put fingers to keyboard in the first place—but not enough to say “I’m a writer.” That’s what some might call irony.

Everyone has bouts of impostor syndrome. But in a field that demands attention to meaning and nuance, using the word “writer” can be especially fraught—particularly for those of us who toil away without a bestseller or a byline or an agent. Of all the words I’ve written, “writer” has given me the most trouble.

JESSICA ALLEN

I realised I need to return to work and be in the company of others who care about words.

I’m happy to cultivate the all-important habit of writing every day.

Over the holidays, I discovered that more free time didn’t automatically mean I used that time to write. In fact, I did everything but write, was easily distracted by social media among other things, and in a perverse way welcomed the distractions, yet I’ve never been a procrastinator!

I was experiencing a massive crisis of confidence.

Rummaging through old notebooks and files, I found poems written years ago and snatches of stories. Many written before I started teaching and before I had anything of note published. Pieces I’d written when all I wanted to do was write and scribbled incessantly wherever I went.

A Meditative Walk – January 1, 1995

Mairi Neil

I hurry from the house upset
leaving the sibling rivalry,
the squabbling over toys –
the cross words…
Relaxed in bed, John solves
the crossword in The Age
he is on holiday–

do mothers holiday?

Too late for church services
I march towards the foreshore
and despite a recalcitrant summer
the beach park busy as a carnival
with children amusing themselves,
adults reminiscing the old year

perhaps airing hopes for the new.

Aware of the gloomy grey sky,
I stride towards the beckoning water
to meet a sea matching my mood –
tempestuous waves spewing shells,
seaweed, and driftwood…
white rollers leapfrogging ashore with
gulped plastic flotsam before
carrying our society’s junk seawards.

Humanity the beast amidst wild beauty…

I ponder poisoned fish
trudge amid food wrappers, bottles, cans,
plastic bags skittering along the sand,
to stink, smother, and spoil…
a discarded thong and wind-cheater
evidence of last night’s revellers

welcoming a new year with old habits.

The environment taken for granted
as the sea whispers and whooshes
the waves crashing to a breathless pause
before the wind reinvigorates the tide
edging ashore,
racing the shadow
of a cloud cauldron on the horizon,
a witches brew conjuring

a change for unpredictable Melbourne.

The wind lessens, my tread lightens,
the threatened storm dissipates
along with resentment and anger–
the sea is rolling, not turbulent
transformed clouds wisps of steam
the sun’s warmth soothing
the wind a refreshing breeze
and shells crunch underfoot.

A glistening treasure trove –

shells for Anne, some for Mary Jane
pockets bulging I hurry home
greeting fellow fossickers with a smile
a lone jogger pounds the sand,
an elderly couple strolls arm in arm,
an excited family cradles surfboards
braving the water with wetsuits and grins

the community enjoying the holiday.

A tantalising smell of sizzling sausages
drifts from the park as families picnic…
tiredness and tetchiness gone
I’m hungry to share my happiness
find the girls repentant and worried
John apologetic and dressed
keen to please and make amends–
we return to walk along the beach.

Shifting sands adapting to change

the children build a sandcastle
relaxing we watch the tide
mesmerised by the sea’s song
cricket and news on the radio ignored
the girls’ laughter infectious
echoing our childhood trips to the seaside
can contentment be personified?

I write down thoughts, memories, images…
a new year unfolds.

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I need to rediscover that joy and spontaneity.

I’m looking forward to getting back into the swing of work – privileged to be doing something I love. Maybe my body and brain just needed a rest – I certainly felt exhausted at the end of the year.

If you want to be inspired and motivated, learn to structure sentences for different audiences, satisfy a creative urge to make up stories, or just record your life in a poetic way –  join me at Mordialloc, Longbeach Place or Bentleigh – or head down to wherever you can find writing classes in your neighbourhood.

I guarantee there’ll be fun and friendship too.

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Who Will Be In The Class of 2017?

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Mordialloc Neighbourhood House

On Monday, January 30th, my first writing class for the year commences at Mordialloc. My association with this neighbourhood house spans over two decades, first as a volunteer, and then as a paid worker.

Volunteering is not an unusual path to follow to find gainful employment, especially in the arts. If you want to work in an area, seeking activities and others who share that desire is a great starting point.

Most people who know me understand how I feel when it comes to writing and how much I enjoy my classes – I spend most of the holidays researching and gathering the latest ideas and developments in writing and publishing, as well as doing at least one refresher course to hone my craft. (There are many online courses and Udemy is a good place to start and with their $15.00 sale, excellent value.)

I’m happy to promote words, literacy, education, and of course creative writing and reading quality fiction and non-fiction! (For books to read look no further than Lisa Hill’s blog!)

And the practice apparently has proven health benefits!

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However, establishing courses in neighbourhood houses was a steep learning curve for me. The challenge, for the most part, has been fun as starting fresh and making your own blueprint or career path, can reveal hidden strengths and certainly builds resilience. The element of tension and fear attached to any course relying on some form of government funding and the incentive to remain relevant and improve kept me on my toes.

I’ll always be grateful for the guidance of  Bruce Lundgren, who taught at Sandybeach for many years. Bruce invited me to apply for a job teaching Picture Storybook Writing for Younger Readers, a unit in the Professional Writing & Editing Diploma. I started in 2002, but within a few weeks, after a cancer diagnosis, Bruce asked me to take over his Accredited Writing classes.

The anthology,  Good Morning Writers, a collection of tributes to Bruce, by those who worked with him, and from many of his students was published in 2003 with a Foreword by close friend and tutor, Libby Strain:

The phrase “Good morning writers” is resonant with meaning and memories for many of the writers who contributed to this anthology. It was Bruce Lundgren’s usual weekly welcome to the creative writing classes he taught for many years at Sandybeach. The phrase conferred a status and dignity on each of them and on their endeavours. It served to create a sense of fellowship and shared purpose…

Bruce was an inspirational teacher and a caring and supportive friend. He touched many lives in very positive ways.

I contributed a personal reflection to the book, revealing that Bruce’s initial confidence in my ability and job offer was down to mistaken identity!

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Fate, Lady Luck, Serendipity… life can be surprising.

Six Degrees of Separation – 2003

I first heard of Bruce, when I founded the Mordialloc Writers’ Group with Noelle Franklyn in 1995 and she brought along her friend, Shirley Randall. Both of these writers had been students at Sandybeach. They praised Bruce’s teaching, his writing talents, but most of all his encouraging attitude and generosity of spirit…

Over the years, I continually met people who talked about Bruce with similar warmth and admiration. When I was welcomed at the door by the man himself at an Author’s Voice evening, I felt I already knew this polite, gentle gentleman with the ready smile.

In 2001, another ex-student of Bruce’s, and a current member of Mordialloc Writers’ Group, self-published. Bruce launched the book and I was MC for the afternoon. After the launch, Bruce announced that he was happy to meet me at last because he had heard a lot about me. I expressed surprise and suggested that it was me who was glad of the opportunity to chat with him and queried that I was well-known. In the course of our conversation, we discovered that Bruce had mistaken me for another Mairi Neil, assuming her writing credentials and mine were one and the same.

Recovering from mutual embarrassment, Bruce then encouraged me to apply to teach at Sandybeach suggesting I post my resume. He knew they were expanding the writing courses and wanted me on board…

I recall the day Bruce came to my home to hand over his Accredited Writing class details and some of the material he used. Two battered, bulging manila folders represented a lifeline that helped me tremendously, to swim (just) rather than sink amidst erudite and eloquent students, used to an even more erudite, eloquent Bruce…

The day he came to my home, I witnessed his valiant struggle at close quarters. When he left, I watched his retreating back and was overcome by an immense wave of sadness. My husband was dying, yet he too felt that Bruce’s death was imminent. Ironically, Bruce recovered enough of his health to experience several months of quality living (and finish his second poetry book) whereas John’s rapid decline led to him dying before Bruce.

And then Bruce’s health deteriorated. I struggled with my grief and to cope with teaching. Despite his own ill health, Bruce demonstrated remarkable compassion, ringing me or leaving encouraging notes in my pigeonhole – supportive, caring gestures I appreciated.

I started teaching at Sandybeach because of Bruce. I finished the 2002 teaching year because of Bruce, and I remain at Sandybeach because of Bruce’s legacy. I too have a passion for creative writing and want to nurture that passion in others.

The final coincidence of Bruce’s life intertwining with mine happened shortly after his death. I was on a bus returning to Mordialloc from Southland Shopping Centre and met Jackie McInroy, a teacher at Mordialloc Primary School who taught my daughter Mary Jane. Jackie had often invited me to her classes to run writing workshops and encouraged creative writing from her pupils. She informed me that Bruce taught at Mordialloc Primary School and was her mentor when she started teaching there over twenty years ago.

Life is indeed amazing – I too ponder “the wonder and connectedness of all life“** and know the world is a better place because Bruce Lundgren lived.

** from Chagall Fading, Starling Seasons, Bruce Lundgren.

Sandybeach To Mordialloc

A newbie teacher at Sandybeach, I was asked to also start paid classes at Mordialloc.  And being one of the longest serving (if not the longest) at Mordialloc, I’m looking forward to classes this year producing memorable writing, whether fiction or non-fiction. With writing prompts including plot, characters, setting, dialogue and themes, I know the students will surpass themselves.

The thought of producing some polished pieces of my own is exciting too!

Students motivate me as much as I motivate them. The 20-30 minutes when we ‘splurge write’ precious writing time.

We’ll craft short stories and poems, record family anecdotes, reflect and write a memoir or vignette.

We’ll discover poetry is an expression of the heart and soul and can be packaged in many different ways: song lyrics, free verse, form poetry, rhymes and prose.

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I look at the names of the writers and read their contributions and it’s as if they are whispering in my ear. Many became friends outside class, and of the class of 2002, Barbara still comes to Mordialloc on a Monday morning; Toula and Denise attend my class at Chelsea!

Doreen remained a student until her death last year and Jeanette still sends me her gorgeous haiku in cards for my birthday and Christmas.

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In 2005, Monday Class members were: Angela, Heather, two Margarets with surnames beginning with B so they were nicknamed B1 and B2 after Playschool’s Bananas in Pyjamas! Phillip and Marjorie also attended, plus Fay, Jeanette, Toula and Kay, Amelia and Doreen.

Divided into pairs, the students interviewed and introduced each other:

An Introduction to the Class of ’05

WW2 announced on the airwaves
Heather’s family gathered round
a ten-year-old girl confused
until air raid sirens sound
much later, the adult Heather
chose Nursing as a career
a passion shared by Angela
who cared for children three.
Angela’s knowledge of medicine
has stood her in good stead
because she daily battles MS
gallantly facing whatever’s ahead

She’s experienced a change in lifestyle
coming to Melbourne from the Apple Isle
like Margaret Birch’s memory of Moorabbin
when gumboots were a necessity, not style
Margaret has watched that city grow
soldier settlements to a busy metropolis
South Road’s dirt track transformed
into a modern traffic terminus.
To escape car fumes and city pollution
visit Margaret Birkenhead’s home
enjoy her beautiful Edithvale garden
a splendid oasis of love to roam
sixty years of devotion begs recognition
spanning the years Marjorie has lived
with similar family values and vision
these two ladies share a thirst for
knowledge as they praise education
Marjorie returned to study at sixty-five
Gained a BA and a new vocation.

She now writes family history,
children’s stories and rhymed verse
this strikes a chord with Phillip
whose words always aim to impress
he produces poems that inspire,
they also enlighten and amuse
a talent shared by Jeanette
who loves theatre and to choose
serenity listening to music
whether operatic or dance
she loves to go to the cinema
whenever there’s a chance
and with beautiful English skin
rosy-cheeks regardless of fashion
she’s travelled from Tibet to Marrakesh
citing bushwalking as a passion

Jeannette’s love of reading and writing
shared by Fay, a first meeting reveals
and grief’s strain on life’s journey
has oft times their sadness sealed
these two widows, like many others
have made a silent promise
they’ll live life to the fullest
and never an opportunity miss!

Kay was born in Wales
and sings as sweet as a bird
she wanted to go on stage
but her Mother said that’s absurd
until WW2 intervened and
Kay found the freedom she craved
in the airforce entertainment unit
performance dreams were saved.
Toula grew up fearful of change
her Greek father ultra strict
often friendless and oppressed
husband George was father’s pick!
Toula escaped through books,
photography and painting too
she wants to write her story
migrant voices being so few.

Amelia is an artist producing poetic
landscapes with her paintbrush
she meditates every morning
with a routine, she’ll never rush
each moment must be enjoyed
since meeting the Dalai Llama
his wise words keep her buoyed.
Whereas Doreen is more practical
divorced for over 30 years
and as a single parent
she conquered many fears
her Mazda 121 is special
it’s twenty-seven years old
driving gives her pleasure
walking leaves her cold.
Doreen is a voracious reader
and her stories entertain
with characters and dialogue
refreshing as spring rain.

Variety is the spice of life
this well-worn cliche we know
and this group of interesting writers
has plenty of seeds to sow
each Monday promises to delight
as their pens move across the page
characters and plots coming alive
as if on a Shakespearean stage.

2017 Here We Come

In less than a fortnight, a group of writers will sit around the table to write – I hope 2017 will be another good year!

“The stories we tell ourselves determine what we value and therefore the kind of world we strive to create.”  

Laura Leigh Clarke

 

Can The Past be Put To Rest?

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Yesterday,  Dr Michael Chamberlain died, aged 72 years. A respected academic, husband, father and pastor of the  Seventh Day Adventist Church, however, most of the news concentrated on the infamous 1980 Chamberlain Case, when Azaria, the baby of  Michael and his first wife, Lindy was stolen and killed by a dingo while the family on a camping trip to Uluru. (Then referred to as Ayers Rock)

Search any newspaper archives from that time and you’ll see that it was covered in local, state, national, and international newspapers. There was even a Hollywood film starring Meryl Streep, Evil Angels.

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from Guardian Archives

Lindy and Michael Chamberlain were convicted, pardoned and later exonerated over the death of their baby daughter, Azaria, at Uluru in 1980.

The trial by media, rumours, innuendo, deliberate misinformation, the hounding of the couple and their family and friends, plus the sickening glee of crowds cheering when Lindy went to gaol is a sad and sorry stain on modern-day Australia’s history.

I hope, Michael’s religious faith, which sustained him in life, will reunite him with Azaria and he’ll find the peace and joy that from all accounts he was denied because of the tragedy at Uluru.

The Chamberlains paid a heavy price: not just losing their daughter but the public vilification led to the disintegration of their relationship and family unit although both remarried. They both lost careers and neither fully recovered from the emotional toll of the sensationalist reporting of the tragedy.

Sydney Morning Herald Summary

The Chamberlains’ daughter, Azaria, was snatched from their tent on a camping trip to Uluru in 1980. Both her parents were ultimately charged for their daughter’s disappearance; Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton was given a life sentence in 1982 and Michael Chamberlain convicted as an accessory after the fact.

Ms Chamberlain-Creighton was imprisoned for three years before new evidence was found to overturn the verdict and both were exonerated in 1988. The pair separated in 1990.

It was not until 2012, 32 years after Azaria’s death, that a Northern Territory coroner issued the final report in the case, confirming that Azaria was taken by a dingo.

I was working in the office of The Federated Miscellaneous Workers’ Union (Victoria) in 1980. Of the eight girls in the office, only three of us had sympathy for Lindy and believed her story.

Tea room conversations were heated and as often happens in Melbourne, a big divide between Herald Sun readers and those who read The Age. Both newspapers owned by rich families or consortiums, but one less tabloid than the other.

(Well, that was then. Today,  in the 24-hour news cycle, the proliferation of social media and the post or fake-truth era, few media outlets have credit. And people are still hounded, suicidal James Hird a recent victim.)

In 1980, the division between those who consulted with and believed Aboriginal Australians and those who dismissed local indigenous knowledge became obvious quickly. People who lived around Uluru were ridiculed for seeing the dingo as the predator it is. Serious shortcomings in police forensics and the Northern Territory legal system were exposed.

Many people ignore or refuse to believe the reports of dingo aggression, preferring to see the dingo as having more of the qualities of a dog than a wolf.

Sadly, ignorance makes people easy to manipulate and misinformation easier to spread. The court of public opinion almost unstoppable once it gathers momentum and in 1980 the ‘public’ making the most noise wanted Lindy Chamberlain punished.

The important ‘evidence’ that had the public baying for Lindy’s blood was what some perceived as her lack of anguish. She didn’t break down enough, appear inconsolably distressed or sob. She didn’t fit the idealised picture of a ‘good mother’.

Keeping her grief private, she was labelled ‘cold’, appeared too self-controlled therefore must be guilty.

The public’s need to have a saintly, sacrificing mother shattered by Lindy’s persona in interviews. Her grieving portrayed as inadequate.

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In 1992, when another media flare-up occurred after Lindy and Michael divorced, I wrote a poem. I wanted to send Lindy a letter to let her know people cared about her. To my shame, like many good intentions, it never happened.

I can’t begin to imagine the hurt, anger and despair Lindy suffered several times – from the first trial to the last. Nor can I imagine the pain of Michael being charged as an accomplice and having to watch his pregnant wife sent to gaol with ‘hard labour’.

But I remember the sadness, anger and disappointment I felt when work colleagues, friends, and acquaintances believed every sensationalist tidbit the media fed them. (Including the assertion Azaria meant ‘sacrifice in the desert’!)

Many of those feelings returned yesterday as details of the Chamberlain Case resurfaced and I thought of the grave miscarriage of justice.

The past may be gone but a trigger fires the memories.

Lindy
Mairi Neil

Oh, Lindy,
how I wept for you
and in my heart, I still do

those lost years will not return,
the anger you feel
must really burn –
make you want to scream
‘Wake me up, please God,
from this bad, bad dream.’

I watched a film
about your pain
relived those years
all over again

your biggest critics
other women…
instead of support
you were spurned
their judgment stern
without compassion
their hatred voiced
with a zealous passion.

refusal to accept a tragic event
can cause emotion to be spent
you’ll always be guilty
in some people’s eyes
because you could still smile–
what a surprise!

private grief unheeded
to break down publicly
all that’s needed…

I saw a woman
who carried a child for
forty weeks
laboured in childbirth
yet hounded as if a freak.

guilt or innocence
doesn’t lessen the loss
more than Azaria taken
in that desert summer –
a broken family a cruel cost

did you feel like Moses
by a Red Sea refusing to part
as authorities tore another babe
from your grieving heart

dingoes come in different shapes
your family found
demands for your blood
irrational, hateful, an awful sound

lost years can never be regained
justice may never be
many determined to imprison you
others determined you be free.

it may be cold comfort
to know many hearts bled
unwept tears scalded souls
for your little Azaria dead…

people heartbroken
not knowing what to do
caring deeply
but like me, offering
only words to support you!

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People and Places from the Past Inspires Prose

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Some of the happiest times I remember from childhood were the extended meal times. The evenings, when we sat around the table, ignoring the dishes in the sink, as we listened to Dad and Mum share stories about Papa, Dad’s father. A character with a larger than life personality who lived with us when I was born although I only remember the repeated stories.

I never really ‘knew’ my grandparents – Mum’s mother died in 1927, her father died 1939 and Dad’s mother died 1940.

Papa lived with us until he died in 1956 aged 81 years. I was three years old.  My sister, Catriona who was six years old at the time, appears to be the only one of us with clear memories of him.

I have to rely on the scraps of stories I can recall (oh, how I wish I’d taken notes at the time) from those nights when Dad entertained us with the escapades of ‘the old man’ and Mum repeated Papa’s reminisces when she cared for him after his strokes.

The modern generation with their mobile phones, capable of instant photos and videos, may take the time to create vivid ‘living’ archives or will they delete or forget to backup the important family history?

Perhaps they’ll find themselves in decades time wishing like me, that their memory was better?

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me with Papa 1955

Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.

John Lennon

I feel privileged to be teaching Life Stories & Legacies at Godfrey Street and my other creative writing classes because I get to write in class too. I can dig deep into memory or imagination and it’s amazing what stories are triggered by the prompts.

In the last term this year, when we returned from the September holidays, I fashioned a lesson around “WATER” because we’d had an inordinate amount of rain and the media was full of stories about floods – a great setting for drama as well as life stories.

Below is a fraction of the brainstorming we came up with:

WATER

Floods have been in the news – have you ever experienced a flood? Know anyone who has?
Write about the experience or put your characters into a flood.

Or consider the following, and write the memory the words or phrase evokes, in an anecdote, essay, story or poem:

  • a bubble bath,
  • a puddle – did you own gumboots?
  • a storm-blown lake,
  • a calm green sea,
  • a child’s wading pool
  • an overflowing sink
  • a broken washing machine
  • a leaky tap
  • a spilt or empty dog’s bowl
  • a basin for soaking aching feet
  • bathing a baby/child for the first time
  • bathing an aged parent
  • bathing someone with a high temperature

It is always a surprise and a delight what memories are triggered and what the writers produce once the pen starts moving.

From this prompt, I remembered a story Dad had told about Papa. I hope I’ve done it justice.

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A Soothing Sunday Soaking

Papa’s feet always ached and he often pondered the culprit.

Was it the years encased in protective hobnail boots as he shovelled tonnes of coal into the cavernous, hungry mouths of steam trains?

Five – nine tonnes a day when he was a fireman – no wonder there was never a scrap of fat on his bones!

When he qualified as a locomotive driver, he rarely sat on the metal block that passed as a stool. Instead, he’d stand, head tilted out of the window to see round the treacherous tracks of the Highlands, or the myriad junctions, including cluttered Glasgow Central.

One misread signal and people’s lives put at risk – 300 tonnes of engine and carriages pack one helluva punch! No wonder, Papa kept on his toes; the hours of standing no help to his feet.

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Maybe it was just that – always being on his feet. Rain, hail, sleet, or snow… whatever the weather he trudged to work.

A five-mile walk there and five miles walk back from the railway yards. Trains, the main form of public transport in Scotland and they didn’t drive themselves. The rostered crew taking out the first train on their own transport-wise.

Twelve-hour shifts common and often Papa was away for several days if trains took goods and people north.

Unsociable shifts rendered bus timetables inconvenient, and in the era when not many working class men could afford a car, ‘Shanks’ pony’ (own feet or legs) the only reliable transport!

For part of his working life, Papa had a bicycle, if the weather suited, but once his sons started high school and apprenticeships, the family bicycle a precious commodity. He took his turn like everyone else but sometimes shifts, or the weather, didn’t go according to plan.

When he wasn’t working for Caledonian and later British Rail, part of his leisure time used to turn over soil, plant vegetables, and weed his allotment. The fruits of his labour supplemented the diet of his household of nine, or more.

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Highland-born, my grandparents ensured ‘extras’ always had food and board. Relatives or friends visiting or looking for work in the city, highlanders down on their luck and needing help. Papa and Granny’s generosity and traditional hospitality well-known in Greenock.

Needless to say, Papa’s feet rarely still or rested, and even when he shed his work boots for slippers, the feet still encased. Scottish weather not conducive to bare feet freedom in or out of the house.

However, there was one luxury for his aching feet and Sunday was the day he indulged!

His religious beliefs respected the Sabbath and made it a work free day. He let others chase the penalty rates, and he traded Sunday for a day of rest so he could attend his Gaelic church, ‘the Wee Free’.

On Sunday afternoons, before the evening walk, and after the traditional roast dinner, he’d remove his socks and shoes, roll up his trousers, slip off his braces, remove cufflinks and studs, and turn up his shirt sleeves. Tie and waistcoat already abandoned.

He’d collect the Gaelic newspapers sent from his native Skye, and donning his reading glasses, relax into the most comfortable armchair in the parlour.

The ritual sacrosanct! No one in the household needed a ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign.

In a basin of warm water with a generous amount of Epsom Salts added, Papa soaked his feet and relaxed. The minerals penetrated deep into his bones, and a rare, euphoric smile grew while he puffed on his pipe and leafed through newspaper stories to catch up with life on his beloved Isle of Skye.

This was how the Wee Free minister found him one Sunday afternoon when he called in unexpectedly and Papa refused to remove his feet from the basin, or get ‘dressed’!
The incident shattered domestic bliss for a week as Granny railed at her embarrassing husband.

Why did he refuse to dress properly for the Reverend?

How will she show her face to the neighbours when the story gets out – and it surely will! Tenements offered little privacy.

Did someone doing God’s work need to see misshapen toes and ugly feet? Not to mention braces hanging loose, shirt tails, no jacket or tie…

What was Papa thinking?

To treat the minister as if he was a nobody…

Now Papa helped found the National Union of Railwaymen, he admired Scottish socialist and the first Labour Member of Parliament, Keir Hardy. He disregarded class and hierarchies.

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President of An Comunn Gàidhealach, the Highland Society of Greenock (member of the radical Federation of Celtic Societies) he fought on behalf of the dispossessed and dislocated highlanders and islanders. He didn’t care ‘one iota’ what the minister thought.

The bathing of aching feet, in his own home, non-negotiable.

The Reverend might learn to be more courteous next time and wait to be invited.

Papa remained ‘on his feet’ and worked until 72 years of age, driving ammunition and supply trains for the war effort. His robust health a rarity for a working man in the 1940s.

His larger than life personality left a legacy of many stories of his idiosyncrasies for future generations –this is but one!

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All families have stories and memories, reminding us that behind the glass photo frames or plastic pages of an album the people once lived, laughed, worked and played – knowing their lives, we might better understand our own.

 

Surprising Thoughts A Bus Ride Sparks

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Two weeks before Christmas I caught a bus to Chadstone Shopping Centre for an appointment. I first heard of Chadstone in the 60s. We called it Chaddy. It was a big deal then – Melbourne’s first suburban shopping centre. At last, we could understand those Hollywood movie references to ‘malls’.

According to Wikipedia:

Chadstone Shopping Centre is a super regional shopping centre located in the south-eastern suburb of Malvern East, Victoria in the city of Melbourne, Australia and is the biggest shopping centre in Australia and claims to be the biggest in the Southern Hemisphere. The centre opened on 3 October 1960 and was the first self‐contained regional shopping centre in Melbourne.

The centre contains 129,924m2 of shop floor space, about 530 stores and more than 9300 free car parking spaces. It has as many as 68,000 visitors on its busiest trading days and attracts about 400,000 tourists a year from interstate and 200,000 from overseas. Sales at the centre exceed $1.4 billion—the highest turnover of all Australian shopping centres—and it has more than 20 million visitors annually.

Huge as it is now, we locals still call it Chaddy!

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2007

 

Chadstone has been constantly reinventing itself but this visit I became disoriented. When I stepped off the bus from Mordialloc I didn’t recognise the place; the change so great from my last visit a couple of years ago.

There was a new bus interchange – no longer did you get dropped alongside an entrance I recognised.

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I wanted to visit the Oxfam Shop but where was it? The old bus stops that flanked the entrance demolished, shopfronts moved or renovated, the centre expanded.

Sculptures and garden beds existed. Welcome cafes had me twisting and turning wondering which way to go.

Chaddy has expanded with age, like me. The expansion causing heartaches for those living nearby as homes gobbled but also nightmares for commuters and clients.

Anecdotal stories circulate of people driving around for hours trying to find a parking spot in the centre. My last experience of that was 20 years ago when John was still alive and the girls were in primary school. One of them had been invited to a birthday party at the ten pin bowling alley. (Is it still there?) Another time one of the girls invited to a movie (the cinemas are still there). To say we got lost both times is an understatement.

Even all those years ago the centre was huge with multiple entries and exits to car parks and a labyrinth of corridors and floors. We spent 20 minutes looking for a park and a further 10 minutes finding wherever we had to go. All of us stressed, no one arriving in a party mood. ‘Never again,’ John said, and I agreed. Even the girls thought, ‘it sucks’ and confided our local Southland Shopping Centre was better. (Comfort zone triumphs.)

However, like ex-Prime Minister John Howard’s promise to never ever introduce a GST, I’ve been back to Chaddy several times over the decades. At least ten times because often I do market research for YouSource based at Chadstone. I take public transport so have no issues with parking.

Once I figured the right direction and entered the mall I discovered a pleasant surprise – a real bookshop! Robinsons –– a branch of an independent bookshop I frequent in Frankston. I confided to the staff I had no idea they had another shop. The girl at the counter laughed.

‘We have eight stores,’ she said and proceeded to reel off names including large shopping centres like Eastlands, Fountain Gate, Northlands and Highpoint West. I didn’t absorb them all because like most Melburnians, depending on what side of the Yarra River or Port Philip Bay you live, it’s rare to shop outside your comfort zone.

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People are parochial: western suburbs, eastern suburbs, south-eastern suburbs, northern suburbs, the peninsula…

The bus service between Mordy and Chaddy excellent and entertaining. The route passes several schools and suburbs, stops at Mentone and Oakleigh Railway Stations and multicultural Australia hops on and off as well as the silent majority, great unwashed, salt of the earth, uninterested masses – stereotypes and atypical depending upon your point of view and life perspective.

There are young parents with toddlers, grandparents with shopping jeeps; giggling and dour teenagers.

Characters galore and wonderful fodder for a writer considering the trip takes almost an hour. I love to use the trip to catch up with reading too, but always have my notebook handy:

Old man climbs the stairs to board the bus. It is an effort.
Greek? 80s?
A full length dark blue trench coat almost sweeps the ground. He’s hatless, grey hair atop brown wrinkled face. Two-three inches of trousers crumple over light blue trainers.
He swings a bag of oranges in his right hand and clutches a plastic bag bulging with 20 cent coins in the other along with a rosary, the light blue beads bright against a dull silver crucifix. He mumbles to himself, reciting prayer or penance as he shuffles down the aisle.

Who is he? Where is he going? Why the oranges? Why the coins? Is he a retired priest? What’s with the blue trainers?

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Houses and shops and public buildings viewed from the bus window all hold a story or make interesting settings.

I spot a sign, a rectangle of white cardboard hammered to a telegraph pole. Black Texta announces: ‘I buy houses’ and a mobile phone number is listed. The sign placed near a bus stop and intersection to attract passengers and motorists.
Who is buying the houses? A local or foreign syndicate? A developer wanting to make a killing?

Who? Why? Where? When?

Drivers play the radio or motor in silence. Many wear bright turbans along with their uniform. More women are drivers now. Often the bus pulls over in Warragul Road near the depot and there is a change of shift. Each driver has their own code, signs off and takes their cash box and a bag with their personal belongings.

Most still bring sandwiches from home, have a thermos, a book or newspaper to fill in the time when traffic, timetables or sudden changes give them spare minutes. Although less smoke nowadays, it is not unusual to see drivers pacing outside the bus enjoying a cigarette. Or more likely chatting on a mobile phone!

Mornings or Afternoons
Mairi Neil

The bus arrives to a restless queue
Driver grumpy, wishing time flew
Passengers board like a mutinous crew
No smiles, or greetings, courtesies few.

Timetables set and must be obeyed
When punctual, the memories fade
Lateness, delays, cancellations weighed
Invoking criticism, complaints, tirades!

What do passengers care of roadworks?
Better to assume all drivers are jerks
Perhaps skiving off, looking for perks
Responsibility of time, theirs to shirk.

Traffic jams, stress, interrupted flow
Vehicles broken down or going slow
Bicycles hesitant of where to go
Negotiating routes even hard for a pro.

Who’d be a bus driver, I often ask
Their daily challenge an unenviable task
The bus arrives to a restless queue
The long-suffering driver wishing time flew…

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Passengers plug into iPods, read books, message or chat on the phone, talk with each other or ignore the veritable Babel as English and a dozen other languages punctuate the air.

A girl, perhaps 14 sits opposite me reading Douglas Adams The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. The comic Sci-Fi popular in the late 70s – I suppose in a world inhabited by Trump and his supporters the bizarre world created by Adams will seem normal!

A teenage boy, perhaps 16 talks loudly to impress his girlfriend and uses the ‘f’ word freely. A woman in her 60s or late 50s tells the boy to ‘Have some respect for others on the bus. Mind your language.’ Duly chastised he remains silent until he and his companion got off two stops later.

Good on her for speaking and good on him for respecting her point of view. I ponder the times when I’ve been in a train carriage and a portable player booms rap or techno music and I’ve wished the owner would turn it down but avoided confrontation by not speaking up. Sometimes we allow our fears and inhibitions to cloud our judgement.

A bus ride can have your brain ticking over like a Geiger Counter and also send you off on a philosophical journey, or into the past – all fodder for a writer.

Retail Therapy Flash Fiction
Mairi Neil

Sarah tapped the credit card on the machine just as the TV commercial advised. The shop assistant smiled; handed her the parcel.
Sarah beamed and said, ‘technology’s wonderful isn’t it?’
Happily swinging the bag containing her Nikes, she visited Prouds to take advantage of their jewellery sale. Purchases in exclusive boutiques followed. How she loved end-of-season sales, the packed shops, the casual assistants doing their best.
Chadstone a retail paradise that Sarah appreciated more than ever. In less than an hour, she’d spent $4,000.
What luck that the old dear had left her credit card on the counter this morning when Sarah served her coffee.

The Bus from Mordialloc to Chadstone
Mairi Neil

The sea a mix of grey, blue and green
as white sails parallel to the pier
leave the Creek as if pulled on a string
outdoor tables and chairs filled with families
a kaleidoscope of  colourful dots on the beach
groups and singles claiming patches of sand
and in the distance wetsuits mimic dolphins
the swimmers braving a tumultuous sea
gulls circle above gannets poised on rocks
myriad hungry eyes ever-watchful for food…

An old lady wearing too much makeup boards
with gaudy red lippy and rouge-stained cheeks
manicured red talons clutch bag and brolly
she sits beside a young girl whose compact mirror
wobbles as she applies mascara and eye shadow
the risk of losing an eye high as the bus bounces
over gouged lumps and road bumps
the old lady stares in disapproval or is it awe…

on the pavement solitary walkers stride
solo by choice or circumstance
perhaps walking through depression
a man and woman pant past
jogging fitness freaks, hot and sweaty
obligatory cords dangling from ears
music or meditation to increase their speed
not keep in touch with world affairs
an overweight man pushes a shopping jeep
looking uncomfortable and miserable –
for his generation, this was a wifely duty
or is he reduced to delivering junk mail
to maintain a quality of life?

when Oakleigh comes into view
graffiti walls compete with inner city lanes
the bus almost empties of people
going to work, to study, to shop
to catch a train to the city…
but just as many climb aboard
heading for Holmesglen TAFE
or the irresistible magnet of Chaddy
towering blocks of concrete and glass
studded with neon gems and greenery
surrounded by vehicles disgorging people
into a bustling commercial hub
no longer unique but replicated
throughout Australia and the world…

Please feel free to comment –

What experiences have you had on public transport that could be a poem, story or perhaps a novel?

 

Farewelling The Old Year

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“Poetry is a necessity of life. It is a function of poetry to locate those zones inside us that would be free, and declare them so.”

C. D. Wright  1949–2016

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A Resolution to Stay Resolute
Mairi Neil

Farewell 2016
I’ll be glad to see the back of you
I imagine Mum’s voice as she adds
we must count our blessings
and the ashes of memory remind
that I’ve survived worse…

sure there’s been deaths
but not the heart-wrenching agony
of losing a partner, a child, a parent, a sibling,
a dearest friend…

the world remembers WW1, WW2,
other monumental massacres
wearing cloaks of nationalism,
colonialism, fascism, marxism
and all the other isms used
as excuses to slaughter

2016 no exception
millions fled by foot, lorry, boat and air
seeking solace and peace
but finding what Dad often quoted
man’s inhumanity to man
fulfilling the truism
man was made to mourn

tonight social media will update
conflict and celebration
twins staring at skies ablaze
benign or malignant memories
depending on the hemisphere

will we ponder or explore ‘the missing’?
the melancholic melody masking the year
the absent card, letter or phone call,
the bombed house, the razed street
signals of the uncertainty of life

moths blundering into flames
fallen leaves crumbling to dust
dogs chasing tails
bears hibernating till good times return
birds soaring to great heights if not caged
sperm whales plunging the ocean’s depths
humans circling outer space seeking
the perfect planet as we fuck-up Earth

reflective and resolute
a ‘to do list’ will not be written
wordless feelings weigh like stone
while memories of what I didn’t do
swirl and shout like New Year revellers
singe and sizzle like failed fireworks.

We’ve been through worse and
come out the other side…
Mum’s voice trying to tell me something?

Happy New Year

Like many others, I will try and remain positive, ache for the Hogmanays of the past when life seemed simpler, happier, and as we farewelled the ‘auld year’ we really did look forward to a better one.

I need the whispers of voices like Mum and Dad to keep perspective, shake me from being too solemn and sober – the generation born in the shadows of WW1, who survived the Great Depression and WW2 – they did indeed ‘come through’!

Let us hope 2017 is a happier new year.

Safe celebrating tonight – I’m hoping to count my blessings, shake off the solemnity and may not remain sober!

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Mixed Memories of Christmas 2016

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The tree made by the childcare staff Mordialloc Neighbourhood House

The signs of Christmas start in earnest mid-November and by early December a walk around Mordialloc or any Melbourne suburb provides an array of decorations and lights. Most workplaces and shops join in the festive spirit although for some it’s the bare minimum.

At Mordialloc Neighbourhood House the children in childcare have fun for weeks before Christmas making decorations and gifts. Their efforts reminding me of my own childhood – Mum teaching us how to make clusters of ‘bells’ using the metallic bottle tops from milk bottles. At Christmas time these tops were silver, gold, red and green.

In school, we used coloured paper squares and yards of crepe paper to make lanterns, cards and streamers. Store bought decorations a rarity as well as a novelty.

This year, Mordialloc sports a tree and rubbish bins have been parcelled in either red or green – just as well many of the residents celebrate and decorate their houses or we might not know it is the season to be merry and bright.

Frankston puts us to shame with their display and a Christmas Market which was very popular the day I visited.

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My friend, Barbara lives in the retirement village Richfield and from the entrance hall to every floor level the residents leave you in no doubt it is Christmas.

 

For many of the older generation, it is important to keep up with tradition, especially the sending of cards, something younger people (and those who are thrifty) are giving away now the digital age has arrived. E-cards, chatty emails or phone calls ensuring the postman’s bag is lighter each year.

I have two friends who still include a page-long newsy letter summarising their year with their card.

An octogenarian friend who likes to buy individual cards ‘a little bit different’ was saved from perhaps offending some friends when she reread the front message before popping them in the envelope:

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I have to say I found her error funny and wouldn’t have been offended if I’d received one of the five she had already written. Increasing consumerism and hype adding more than a hint of truth to the message.

However, also a warning sign as eyesight deteriorates to make sure to always put on reading glasses!

Mordialloc Christmas 2016

Mairi Neil

I smell the promise of a warm day –
pray it’s not a swelter
that silences magpie and butcherbird carols,
traditional birdsong reminders
that this is a time to celebrate…

a walk around the neighbourhood
reveals rainbows dancing in the gardens
jasmine, and honeysuckle embracing over fences
as devoted lovers and bougainvillaea and wisteria
just being neighbourly

roses and camellias peep through pickets
or stand proudly as perfumed sentinels
to announce the arrival of summer.
Agapanthus flutter and geraniums gush
daily floral tonics to banish gloom

and as if Mother Nature needed help,
colourful lights and decorations dazzle –
solar-powered necklaces strung under eaves
and threaded through trees. Seasonal symbols
to twinkle like stars in the evening hush

these jewels are joined by merry icons
dressed for another hemisphere
where ice and snow crackle underfoot…
I have a vision of my doppelgänger treading
a neighbourhood on the other side of the world

walking streets lit by a muted sun and
shadowed by thick clouds and skeleton trees
pigeon or cuckoo the only birds mad enough
to join little robin redbreast and
hustle for crumbs and kindness

what a miracle is Mother Earth!
How resiliently determined her human children
whether melting under a hot sun or shivering
in a fall of snow, many communities celebrate
Christmas their way…

the promise of a warm day permeates the air
warnings of a meltdown ignored
a meditative walk invites gratitude…
the reason for the season a childhood gift
bringing joy to the world of adult angst

Love, peace, and goodwill to all.

Garden Delights and Nighttime Sights

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