Reflecting on 2014: Joy, Sadness, Love and Laughter – Mindfulness!

Mindfulness helps you go home to the present. And every time you go there and recognise a condition of happiness that you have, happiness comes.

Thich Nhat Han

There is a lot of joy in our house at the moment with Anne’s return, although there are days when she misses the travelling life and all the dear friends she made overseas. Joy too because Mary Jane has completed a great year of studies and is embarking on a career in 2015 doing something she likes, but hopefully still allowing time for her creative juices to flow. For me, thank goodness my established classes and links with the three community houses where I work have been confirmed for another year.

There will be bumps along the way for us all, however, the old adage ‘count your blessings’ is a reminder of what is important in life and to nurture relationships and to keep looking forward to adding to those blessings.

When reflecting on my writing year I’m grateful to work with students keen to learn because through preparing the classes and workshopping, I learn too – and I write. I don’t always have the opportunity to edit and polish my work, but the words are there, scrawled in an increasingly large pile of notebooks. Perhaps the pieces I don’t return to are better left as rough drafts, or are waiting to be discovered months, or years down the track and improved upon with the distance of time and increased skill!

Each year I do try to increase my writing and teaching skillset, and with the generosity of the worldwide web, this is easy to do. This year I took more free courses with Open University Australia, Coursera, and an Easy Journalling Challenge as well as reading widely and attending talks by other writers. This year hearing Paddy O’Reilly (The Wonders, AFFIRMpress), Nicole Hayes (Woolshed Press) and Catherine Harris (Black Inc) in conversation with Lisa Hill, a definite highlight.

Nicole, Lisa, Paddy, Catherine and Yours truly

I’m grateful to Poetica Christi Press for being included in their two anthologies published this year and to Melaleuca Blue Life Writing, which will publish my story Broth and Trouble, in their anthology February 2015. I have to thank my writing buddies and dear friends, Maureen Hanna and Glenice Whitting for always being encouraging and honest when reading my drafts. Thanks too must go to writer and friend, Lisa Hill who writes an amazing award winning blog and has encouraged me to publish book reviews and increase my online presence. And then there is the Mordialloc Writers’ Group meeting every fortnight to share and listen to each other’s words. These workshop nights have been running almost 20 years and have helped many writers to be published as well as form lifelong friendships. Along with the monthly Readings By The Bay where we can also share our work and practise reading to an audience, the writing group is invaluable.

Another site I visit often to learn about memoir and life writing is Women’s Memoirs  established by Matilda Butler and Kendra Bonnett. After winning one of their competitions, in 2010, I now correspond with Matilda and when Mary Jane and I visited America we spent a wonderful day with Matilda and husband Bill, in Portland, Oregon. Writing has given me so much pleasure as well as new friends – and even a bar of Mindfulness Soap!

Kendra and I are pleased to announce the winner of last month’s Women’s Memoir Contest. This woman created an exceptional story complete with recipe and photos for our KitchenScraps feature.
Once we published it, she got out the word to friends, family, and sister writers. When they responded to her story, she promptly added her own comments. She motivated several readers to prepare her mother’s scones and got rave reviews. In other words, she began creating a community around her story.

Of course, when we announced our contest, we didn’t realize that our February winner would live in Australia. So, as I write this blog, Mairi’s bar of Mindfulness Soap is making its way across the ocean. She promises a photo of her once the prize arrives and we’ll post it here.


This year I pushed myself to learn new forms of poetry and a site I love to explore is The Poetry Foundation because you can hear poets recite their poems in their own voice and there is a broad range of articles and examples of poems from all over the world.

This year too, I encouraged my classes to write pantoums – poems especially suited for memoir:

The pantoum originated in Malaysia in the fifteenth-century as a short folk poem, typically made up of two rhyming couplets that were recited or sung. However, as the pantoum spread, and Western writers altered and adapted the form, the importance of rhyming and brevity diminished. The modern pantoum is a poem of any length, composed of four-line stanzas in which the second and fourth lines of each stanza serve as the first and third lines of the next stanza. The last line of a pantoum is often the same as the first… One exciting aspect of the pantoum is its subtle shifts in meaning that can occur as repeated phrases are revised with different punctuation and thereby given a new context.

Mum’s Wisdom

Least said soonest mended
A mantra for good relationships
Wisdom from Mum I respect
Especially when ill-feeling grips

A mantra for good relationships
Helps the journey that is life
Especially when ill-feeling grips
And friendship turns to strife

We all face hard choices in life
Dignity retained when mending rifts
No one wants unsettling strife
Or the fear allegiances may shift

Maintaining dignity, mending rifts
Valuing all the views rendered
Shattering of relationships swift
So least said soonest mended.

Valuing each view rendered
Mum’s mantra for good relations
Wisdom I always respected
And a lesson for warring nations!

Mairi Neil 2014.

Springtime Sorrow

I remember that spring of sorrow
When sadness shadowed every hour
I dreaded facing the morrow
Stopping time not within my power

When sadness shadowed every hour
Minutes smouldering like a claro
Stopping time not within my power
I prayed for courage to borrow

Minutes smouldering like a claro
Facing your death made me cower
I prayed for courage to borrow –
The bitterness of loss oh, so sour

Facing your death made me cower
Dread facing every future morrow
The bitterness of loss still tastes sour
When I remember that spring of sorrow.

Mairi Neil 2014

Mirror to the Past

I could be looking in a mirror
When my daughter smiles at me
Her hair is dark, eyes hazel too
A younger me, I see.

When my daughter smiles at me
Tilts her head and laughs aloud
A younger me I see
No shadow of ageing’s cloud

She tilts her head and laughs aloud
With a chuckle so infectious
No shadow of ageing’s cloud
Her expression purely joyous.

Mary Jane’s chuckle is infectious
Dark hair shines; hazel eyes sparkle
Youthful expression purely joyous
I wish I was looking in a mirror!

Mairi Neil 2014

Seeking Serenity

A stroll by the sea at the close of day
When life’s busyness needs to go
I watch the sun sink and always say
Sunsets give the world its glow

When life’s busyness needs to go
Worries crumble and be blown away
Fears tossed with one easy throw
At waves lapping or roaring at play

Worries must crumble and blow away
Their power not allowed to grow
Waves lapping and roaring at play
Nature’s balm a constant flow

Troubles not allowed to grow
As I watch the sun sink, and say
Nature’s balm is a constant flow
With a seaside stroll at the end of day.

Mairi Neil 2014

Possums – Playful, Pesky and Prolific, Provide Plenty to Ponder for Poetry and Prose

Beauty doesn’t have to be about anything. What’s a vase about? What’s a sunset or a flower about? What, for that matter, is Mozart’s Twenty-third Piano Concerto about?             Douglas Adams, The Salmon of Doubt

Summer in Melbourne means active possums –– love them or hate them, everyone has a possum story –– encounters sad, joyful, poignant, funny or infuriating. Great fodder for writing whether in poetic or prose form, short story or memoir. Unfortunately, the days of prolific numbers of the Australian native in Melbourne, long gone as suburbia encroaches and destroys their habitat and domestic pets make war.

Midnight Visitor

Aurora barks and whines to be outside
Swallowed by the darkness, no need to hide.
I hear her snuffling at the back fence
Low moans and whines –– my muscles tense.
What’s wrong girl? Come inside! I demand
Edging forward, she ignores the command.

A sudden scuffle and my peripheral vision
Spies a tiny possum frozen in foetal position
Atop the fence post out of Aurora’s reach
Terrified, the baby clings like a furry leech.
Aurora growls to let the possum know
This is her territory now and it must go!

Calm down girl, I whisper, he’s doing no harm
Moving closer to the bundle, I turn on the charm,
But the little visitor fearing two enemies’ wrath
Finds new strength to take freedom’s path
Along the palings the tiny possum hastened
Leaving one black dog thoroughly chastened!

Mairi Neil 2014


Australian possums are a diverse group, ranging from tiny gliding possums to large agile climbing brush tails and cuscuses. They all live in trees, although some take up residence in roofs, adapting well to urbanisation and the destruction of their habitat by scavenging in gardens and rubbish bins. Here’s one having fun in the grounds of Melbourne University, in Carlton, coming out to forage when most of the students have left for the evening.

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Plaintive song resounds
in University grounds.
Students hurrying home
ignore skeletal branches
of winter trees, oblivious to
a bird’s lament.

The mournful song
recalls dinosaur dynasties
amid a whirr of bicycle wheels,
footsteps, ring tones,
mobile conversations
and Ipod seclusion.

The full-throated celebration
announces dusk,
a melodious call to rest
lights douse, shadows deepen,
doors lock…
and the campus empties.

Crowded trams trundle past
bathed in artificial sunlight
beneath a star embroidered sky.
Tall grey buildings cover the bones
of long forgotten species
The call of birded tongue
a melancholy echo.

Mairi Neil, 2008

In Melbourne an enterprising business operates: Pete the Possum Man. But be warned, as a protected species, Pete may remove them from your roof, but if he lets them out a few yards away, they’ll be straight back inside!

In Canberra, an old friend from university days has a constant battle with possums who have a penchant for her roses. When I last visited, before we could go out for the day, we had to search through the undergrowth for her shoes, the weapon of choice she uses at night if she spies the little critters munching on the flowers. (Aurora barking saves my roses, but the possums keep my camellia on high alert!)

In April 1996, new laws to encourage responsible pet ownership and protect native wildlife, came into effect across Victoria, concerning the keeping, control and conduct of domestic cats and dogs. Cats had to be registered as well as dogs. Kingston Council, along with others, added laws to foster harmony between the cat and dog owning public and the rest of the community as well as to protect the environment and wildlife.

That Cat Next Door

That cat next door is such a pest.
She walks, she stalks with zeal and zest.
She crawls and creeps
Even pretends to sleep ––
With a great big pounce
Over the shrubs like a ball she’ll bounce
And with her mouth open as if to yawn
She’ll snap at the birds feasting on the lawn!

That cat next door is such a pest
She walks, she stalks with zeal and zest ––
but …
No matter how expertly she hunts her prey
They always manage to fly up and away.

That cat next door is such a pest
She walks, she stalks, with zeal and zest ––
but …
Shining silver bells around her neck sway
They tinkle and jingle a warning each day

Look out! Look out!
Little birds fly away
Come back! Come back!
When that cat’s gone away.

Mairi Neil, 1998

Despite some encounters being less than positive, I love possums visiting my garden and believe firmly in the motto ‘live, and let live’ after all they were here first.

We arrived in Australia in the summer of 1962, on December 16, a week before Christmas. Dad’s cousin Kitty lived alone in the Croydon family home and welcomed us into the rambling old weatherboard set in several acres of land, remnants of a timber mill and orchard.

The ramshackle house, rusty machinery and trees gone to seed, a readymade adventure wonderland for 6 children used to the concrete pavements of Greenock, a shipbuilding town, on the River Clyde, 25 miles from Glasgow.

That first summer we discovered the difference between blue tongue lizards and snakes (not much in the fright factor!); how to silence noisy cicadas by stomping near the roots of trees; that kookaburras always laugh when you do something stupid, and they love raw kangaroo meat, swooping low in the evenings to steal from the plates of pet dogs and cats.

We also discovered eating fresh plums can give you hives, and the jam Mum made not quite as delicious as the bramble jelly she made in Scotland, but still yummy. We couldn’t pick the blackberries in Croydon because they were considered a weed and the bushes sprayed regularly with poison.

The days of roaming free from dawn to dusk were heavenly, especially after being aboard a migrant ship for over a month. However, the nights battling mosquitoes (mossies) sheer hell! The tree canopy ideal camouflage for those vicious blood suckers. We looked like the Apaches from Hollywood movies, daubed with Calamine Lotion instead of warpaint as mum tried to stop us scratching and tearing at our skin. The pungent blue smoke of mosquito coils still clings to the inside of my nostrils, as does the vinegar compresses used to counteract the itch and sting of burning skin after too many hours in the sun.

The Australian bush holds delights and dreads. We watched out for the ubiquitous redback spider on the toilet seat, the bull ant bite to toes frisky and free in flapping thongs, and discovered first hand what ‘play possum’ meant, and that acidic possum pee is deadly and stinks!

Our summer freedom changed for the daily routine and discipline of school in February ’63. I started at Croydon Primary School along with brothers George and Alistair; older brother Iain and sister Catriona enrolled at Croydon High School. At the high school, uniform was compulsory (and expensive), but Iain looked smart in brand spanking new white shirt, striped school tie, grey trousers and grey v-necked school jumper with a riband in the school colours of rust and blue. The family budget wouldn’t stretch to blazers, but the jumper was an acceptable everyday substitute.

A couple of weeks into the term we set off for school, but only got as far as the clothesline where we found a tiny possum practising a tightrope act. It may have been its first sojourn alone, or perhaps it had become separated from its family –– whatever the reason, it now had an audience of five wide-eyed school children eager to give it a cuddle.

Brother Iain, the family animal expert took charge, having owned a hamster and a rabbit in Scotland as well as claiming the family Collie as his dog. The possum froze and ‘played dead’. A quick conference and in our ignorance, we decided the possum would make a wonderful family pet. We’d put it in the old disused chook house for safe keeping until we returned from school.

Iain prised the possum from the clothesline and murmuring soothing words cuddled it to his chest. It rewarded him by peeing on his new school jumper and as the shock made him relax his hold, the baby possum leapt back onto the clothesline to reveal how well the tightrope practice worked by scampering along and leaping into a nearby tree. (Ringtail and Brushtail possums have tapering prehensile tails with coiled tips, which they use as a fifth limb. Their digits are arranged so they have a pincer-like grip and long-pointed claws are not to be challenged!)

A day burnt into our memories as the possum pee scalded Iain’s new school jumper, which had to be thrown out because the smell remained despite repeated washing. Like Queen Victoria, Mum was not amused, but we learnt an important lesson about not interfering with wildlife unless absolutely necessary for their welfare, such as a recent intervention by my daughter’s boyfriend when he came to the rescue of a frightened possum trapped in the ladies toilet at the community house where I work.

There had been an electrician working in the roof during the day and a hatch had been left open. A possum found its way into the roof, wandered around and didn’t notice the open hatch. He fell through the cavity and how he managed to avoid going straight down the open toilet bowl is a mystery because the short distance left little room, or time, for recovery of balance. A middle-aged matron went to use the toilet and screamed. Although by the amount of possum poo I swept up later I’m not sure who was the most traumatised!

Glen to the rescue – we had no idea how the possum would react after being trapped for hours and the frightened matron said, ‘it was huge’. A plumber who works for a local council, Glen assured us he often had to remove possums from strange places. Wearing leather gardening gloves and armed with a towel, our knight in shining armour opened the door – and closed it at once. He leant against the wall and took a deep breath, ‘that bugger’s huge!’

It was a hefty adult male possum and its terror had turned to fury by the sounds coming from behind the toilet door. We closed all doors into other rooms and opened the front door wide. Glen would have a clear run along the corridor once he caught the possum. And run was certainly the operative word.

The rescue over in a few minutes; no time to film the hilarious scene as Glen grabbed the possum, struggled backwards from the toilet, rushed towards the door with a frantic grunting possum clawing to be free. Within seconds it leapt free from the towel (or was let go?) to speed outside in a flash of grey fur and growls.

Of course, not all possums survive and when I walked my daughters to school we occasionally came across a dead possum. Distressed, yet curious, they’d have a strange fascination for the horror the transformation of death brings, as children often do.

Poor Little Possum

Poor little possum what happened to you?
If you were human, you’d be cold and blue.
I know you are dead, so still on the ground
The only sign of life, ants scurrying around.

Poor little possum, did you fall from a tree?
Attacked by a cat, you didn’t expect to see?
And then too late – caught unaware
To now loll lifeless with eerie empty stare.

Those glassy eyes, a fixed vacant glare
While hair from your tail fluffs in the air
Your partly-open mouth shaped in a grin
Tips of sharp teeth protruding from within

Did you die of fright? A dog’s sudden movement
Creating a hullabaloo you fell to the pavement?
Did modern disease snatch life’s breath away?
Toxic sprays, car exhaust fumes, air thick grey.

Curled paws reveal claws, perhaps your just asleep –
Tip-toeing nervously closer we dare to peep –
To examine your stiff body, look for a wound
Hope no horrendous injury will make us swoon.

Perhaps you did succumb to ghastly pollution
Although much more likely to be electrocution
Destroyed habitats mean possums struggle to survive
Poor little possum, I wish I could magic you alive.

Mairi Neil 1994

However, my daughters still giggle about an incident at Mordialloc College when they were teenagers. There was a ‘smokers’ tree’ at the edge of the school grounds where smokers gathered beneath a huge gum, to escape detection. One day, lounging and smoking, they chatted and laughed while feeding pieces of fruit to a possum. A teacher was spotted making his way across the oval, everyone jumped to stub out their cigarettes. Terrified by the sudden movement, the possum reacted by running up the trouser leg of a nearby boy – all the way to his groin! The smokers club ‘freaked out’ and forgot the threat of approaching authority!

I’ll save other stories for another day, but encourage writers to share theirs. This passing parade of possum poems, pictures and paragraphs sparked by my travelling daughter who has recently returned home. She looks out for possums on the overhead electric wires on our nightly walks and it is lovely to see her childlike excitement. These walks, our way of meditating to appreciate the beauty of our environment and our many blessings.

Moonlight Walks

Sea breeze absent
Some trees stark statues
beside the fluttering
foliage finery of those
sprouting new life,
shelter for nesting birds
and energetic possums.

Eyes drawn heavenwards
to a rosy sky spreading
bright benevolence below,
to soften the menace of dusk;
harsh reality of empty streets.

Darkness holds no fear
under a glowing orb
and sequinned sky
Their brilliance
a balm for melancholy —
whether brief painful thoughts
or permanent struggle
with life’s tribulations.

Time to ponder the vastness
and possibilities
of an unending universe —
the majesty of a sky
carpeted with twinkling stars.

Recall a tender kiss
soft as a breeze.
Hear the whispers
from the village that is a tree.
Feel Life pulsating in the breath
and beauty of nature’s rhythm
as shadows dance into light.

© 2014

Alphabet Wordplay and A Blessing of Unicorns.

An International Exposition of Wordplay

For all the efforts of purists like Johnson to defend it, the language is incomparably flexible. It is like molten glass: you can stretch it, shape it, chop it, misspell, mispronounce or misinflect it, cruelly misplace its elements and somehow you still end with English. It’s a fun tongue.

The British Council is about to send an exhibition, under the title of “Wordplay”, on just that theme for four years around Eastern Europe. It is backed by The Economist–what is the Czech for “blowing your own trumpet”?–and fun it is, full of puns and palin­dromes, dialects, jargon, simplicity and pomp, cliches, metaphors, oddities, inventions (Bernard Shaw’s famous spelling of “fish – ­ghoti, with gh as in cough, 0 as in women and ti as in -tion–is only just beyond the bounds of the possible). No one, maybe, will learn to write a better computer manual from this exhibition; anyone who does not profit from it, be he as English as Johnson, must be a dull stick. Or, if you prefer nowspeak, a lamebrain.

The Economist, 23 Oct 1993

Just as the quote explains, English is a fun and flexible language and as a writer, I love exploring the different ways you can tell a story, or write about an experience.

Alphabet poems have been around a long time and can be a fun form to try. Often associated with children’s writing, or writing for children, it can be a good tool for adults too. Here is another site with examples of poetry, including alphabet poems and below is a poem I wrote many years ago when I started teaching at Sandybeach Centre.  I used it to introduce the class anthology produced at the end of the year.


What motivates people to put pen to paper? In writers’ groups and creative writing classes, people reveal much more than words…

A has aspirations to write a novel
B likes to play with words
C has a loveless life and seeks romance
D thinks Mills and Boon absurd
E loves family history
F reads and journals a lot
G creates settings with descriptive flair
H just loves to plot!
I preaches grammar absorbed from school
J admits to being a hopeless speller
K always suffers from writer’s block
L is an expert storyteller.
M adores purple prose
N employs similes galore
O aches to be published one day
P escapes household chores
Q uses metaphors imaginatively
R nurtures the inner child
S writes for children, but is libertarian
T is erotica gone wild
U is definitely a poet
V writes doggerel and verse
W fears rejection
X is tense and terse
Y dramatises everything producing performance pieces to entertain
and Z – well –
Z writes to understand the world – the musings society’s gain!

Mairi Neil 2002

The poem by Australian Bruce Dawe that inspired me to use the alphabet is a lot grittier because it’s about prison life.

Behind the walls

the walls begin,
behind the bars
are bars
A can make a knife of tin
B can cut out stars
C can get you what you want
a needle, drink or smoke
D can laugh through broken teeth
E can tell a joke
F can fake a heart-attack
G can throw a fit
H can write a letter home
as quick as you can spit
I can con the chaplain
J can con the con
K will know someone to ask
just where your wife has gone
L can keep an eye out
M can pass the word
N can hear the gospel truth
and then forget he heard
O will know which warder
can be got at – and the price
P will offer nothing
but a lot of free advice
Q will want no part of it
R will not be told
S will roll a cigarette
and shudder with the cold
T will hum a lonely tune
U will turn his back
V will lie as still as death
W will crack
X will read his bible
day by holy day
Y with eyes like torches
will burn the bars away

and Z, poor Z, will think the walls
must end where they begin
and that a man, outside, will be
the same as he went in.

Bruce Dawe

Please explore Bruce Dawe’s poetry – he writes about ordinary people facing the everyday. However, his use of poetic techniques makes his poems resonate. They are emotionally engaging and memorable – what more can a poet ask?

Although often used to encourage children to write, I’ve found students in my adult writing classes have a lot of fun with form poetry and having a set structure can encourage the creative juices to flow.  I certainly enjoy the challenge and always write when my students are writing! A lesson I prepared about Acrostic poetry and some of my other poems can be found in Celebrating Poetry: 2014 Poetry Anthology, by Karenzo Media.

I decided to use the alphabet form to describe a wonderful experience I had this year when I went to Sydney with my daughter and experienced my first Oz Comic Con. It was a different way to write about the experience!

The glimpse into a world I had heard my daughters and others talk about, but didn’t really appreciate, an amazing weekend. A world where cosplay lets everyone dress as their fantasy character regardless of gender, race, body build or age. A world of tolerant people who know how to enjoy themselves without hurting others, or themselves, and where there are activities for all the family. I expect for those into popular culture, attendance is deemed compulsory. As a writer/observer there are a hundred stories jumping at you – even as you queue to enter the convention hall.

We flew to Sydney, stayed in a backpacker hostel, and walked to catch the ferry across to Glebe Island where the convention was held. The return ferry trip each day across Sydney harbour a delight, especially at night when the harbour lights twinkled and reflected on the water.

A Blessing of Unicorns

At Glebe Island Sydney on a weekend in September, Comic-Con 2014 was held.

Because my daughter, Mary Jane wanted to attend, I went along for the ride, courtesy of a cheap flight on Tiger Airways.

Celebrities from popular culture such as: films, television, web shows, Anime, Manga, and conventional comic books, attend every year to entertain fans at forums.

Day one, on the Saturday was manic with hundreds of excited attendees queuing to be inside where stalls loaded with merchandise beckoned, plus the possibility of bumping into favourite actors.

Excitement and enthusiasm bubbled; laughter and loud cheerful conversations bouncing off the concrete walls and echoing around the cavernous entrance area.

Friendliness and good humour everywhere despite the wait for the gates to open.

Good vibes from the participants, stallholders, and a host of volunteers with wide smiles and bright green t-shirts created amazing energy reminiscent of childhood anticipation of Christmas or birthdays.

How some of the people squeezed into their costumes a mystery, as was the effort and ingenuity so many displayed to create accurate depictions of their heroes.

I have never seen such an array of characters with so many different interpretations; the cosplay truly remarkable and I could see why Mary Jane found the event attractive.

Just when I thought a character too outrageous or too magnificent to beat, another super hero, or comic book character appeared and my camera worked overtime.

Knights in shining armour, fairytale princesses, royalty galore walking the aisles, their servants, guards and army captains from various historical periods or fantasy worlds, following close behind.

Loki from The Avengers came in different genders as well as all shapes and sizes, as did several other easily identifiable legends.

Marvel Comics have spawned a number of super heroes and villains, their readership spanning generations as well as decades;  their inspiration and influence evident everywhere.

No two costumes looked alike, even if the person inside cosplayed Batman or Wonder Woman.

Over and over again, I witnessed the generosity of those dressed up, as they patiently posed for photographs or shared facts about who they represented, and how their costumes were made.

Photos were available with celebrities too – at a price – William Shatner and Orlando Bloom the most expensive, but generally prices started at $30 upwards to $100.

Queues for tokens to meet the celebrities and for photographs could be lengthy and take up to an hour or more, however fan dedication knows no bounds and manifested in good humour and patience.

Remembering my childhood fantasies, I recognised some of the characters, but as queens and kings roamed the centre, their regal bearing clearing all before them, I struggled to name many, especially the cast of the popular Game of Thrones.

Some characters of course were interpretations and adaptations from literary books that have now become comics, films or graphic novels.

Transformation an obvious theme because cosplay is ideal for shy or introverted people to act out their fantasies or face their internal demons by pretending to be another persona.

Underneath lycra, cotton vests, an array of wigs and headgear, cardboard shields and other paraphernalia, anxieties and feelings of inadequacy disappear.

Various incidents of kindness and courtesy marked the convention too, whether it was people sharing knowledge, helping repair a costume, or saving a place in the many lengthy queues.

Witches and wizards, from Maleficent to Harry Potter, mixed happily at lunchtime; a mutual admiration society gathering around tables sharing pizza slices and sandwiches.

X-rated costumes were few because it is a family convention, although female super heroes in comics and graphic novels have trademark sexiness, and many aspiring lookalikes flashed the flesh.

Young and old, fat or thin, all displayed the same enthusiasm with whole families dressed as the crew from Star Trek, Game of Thrones, the Hobbit, Unhappily Everafter, Guardians of the Galaxy, Firefly, Serenity and numerous other fantasy families.

Zany behaviour perfectly acceptable at these conventions with people indulging in outrageous poses and play-acting, leaving an indelible impression of tolerance, harmony and acceptance of difference and I ponder how truly blessed I am to have been part of Oz Comic-Con 2014.

Mairi Neil 2014

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Shape Up or Ship Out and Deliver on Time!

I like nonsense, it wakes up the brain cells. Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living, it’s a way of looking at life through the wrong end of a telescope. Which is what I do, and that enables you to laugh at life’s realities.Dr. Seuss

The call came just after 7.30am.

‘Hi, this is Adam, from K.… Removals, you’re expecting a delivery today?’
‘Yes, at 12.00.’
‘Can we deliver earlier?’
‘How early?’
‘Within the hour?’
‘Sure that’ll be fine.’
‘Great, see ya soon.’

We were in holiday mode, but this call guaranteed to speed up the juicing of celery and carrot and the cooking of porridge oats! Fortunately, Anne was awake and moved MJ’s car from the driveway and parked it over the road.

This delivery of 10-12 boxes anticipated for some time. Shipped from Canada in July, they’ve been with Australian customs doing a thorough (or slow) job of checking the contents. I’d received a call in October they’d be on their way to Melbourne from customs in Sydney ‘soon’. When pressed the voice on the other end of the phone said, ‘2-3 weeks’. Yesterday they’d rung and arranged deliver for 1.00pm – two days before Christmas.

Murphy’s Law rules!

I offered to store the boxes for D, a family friend until she decides where to resettle after nine years in Canada. There are also two boxes belonging to Anne from her travels. D included them in the shipping. Payment is calculated by space taken up in the  container and a couple of extra boxes didn’t add to the cost. Her kindness meant Anne could keep special paraphernalia collected on her travels and the memories they’d trigger.

The truck duly arrived and I experienced déjà vu…


The same company employed 30 years ago, when John and I moved from our flat in Prahran to the house here in Mordialloc. That truck smaller. One man – not two, and no slide down ramp, straps or compartments inside the truck to make packing and securing cargo easier. No obligatory fluorescent safety shirt either, but definitely the same company. It had survived the various economic shenanigans of Australia’s economy.


In October 1984, we booked the truck early (8.00-8.30am), hoping to travel the 20kms to Mordialloc before the heat of the day set in and also to relieve my parents, who had collected the key and opened up our house. Mum promised ‘to put the kettle on’ to welcome us and christen the place, bringing all the necessary accoutrements from Croydon (a 43km drive).

Although retired, Dad and Mum were full-time parents again after my eldest brother’s divorce. My brother built a sleepout (Aussie slang for small bungalow) at the back of their property, but his two boys moved into the house with my parents. Dad took the boys to kindergarten and primary school; his daily routine revolving around their schedules.

The Girl Guide motto of my youth insisted “Be Prepared” and calculating how long it would take to load the truck and travel, my planning and timing worked out to suit Dad and Mum’s parenting obligations.

Ah, the best laid plans…

No mobile phones in those days and we had disconnected the telephone in our flat and didn’t expect the new telephone in the house to be connected until the next day. Mum and Dad were incommunicado! We hoped all would ‘go like clockwork’. I’d prepared over several weeks: boxes packed and labelled, John and I living like gypsies, washing and wearing the same outfits, cooking one dish meals…

9.00am came and went and no sign of our removal van. We kept busy carrying the furniture and boxes down to the nature strip and stacking them near where we assumed the truck would stop. John muttered about me heavy lifting and ‘where the hell’s this truck?’ A neighbour kindly let us use their telephone, but a disinterested voice said, ‘it’s on the way and should be there soon.’

‘It’ was coming from Hawthorn, 6km away, the company chosen for its proximity to Prahran. Maybe the traffic was bad, or an unforeseeable delay occurred, perhaps a breakdown, or an accident. We vacillated between cursing and feeling guilty the truck could be in trouble.

Meanwhile, huffing and puffing up and down several flights of stairs, we wished we lived on the ground floor, although grateful to have attracted half a dozen  neighbours generous enough to help us. I’m sure they felt sorry for John – I had 43 boxes of books – yes even then I was an avid reader, dreaming of being a writer. An incorrigible hoarder of books, I regarded each one a friend and couldn’t cull!

11.00am, hot and exhausted we took to checking nearby streets in case the truck had got lost. On full display for passersby to gawk and shake their heads, our goods and chattels filled cardboard boxes, the contents and destination (kitchen/bedroom/lounge…) marked in black Texta on the side. Suspended in the air between us the unspoken fear – what if the removal van doesn’t show? John glanced at his watch for the hundredth time. The smell of coffee and toast drifted from a little cafe on Greville Street.

‘Mum and Dad will have put the kettle on,’ I said.

‘I’ll make you a cuppa, ‘ said June from the top floor flat as her partner Hans dabbed his brow before turning to John, ‘we need a beer, mate!’

‘I wish,’ said John, ‘but I better see how much of this lot I can put in the car.’ He started separating some of the smaller boxes. ‘We won’t have much time to load up.’

I peered at my watch and did a quick calculation in my head, Dad has to leave at 2pm to be in time for the boys – will we make it?

Our morning began with excitement and anticipation of taking possession of a house we’d bought to build a life together in a place we loved, but the day was souring by the second. Panic worked its way through my digestive system from my squirming stomach. The pulse on John’s right cheek throbbed, a sure sign of building anger and frustration.

I’m not sure whether we heard the truck’s engine, the grating gears, or just the vibration as it rattled around the corner and turned into our street, but at last it arrived, dilapidated and belching exhaust fumes. No websites in those days or Google Earth; we’d relied on the advert in the newspaper and a pamphlet. Pictures that didn’t match what grumbled to a halt.

The driver emerged, mumbled hello, and stared at what was to go into the truck. Oh, if only camera phones had been around! The young man, alone and quite stoned. Long dark hair, unkempt beard and demeanour and crumpled t-shirt advertising how much he loved the 70s! John and I exchanged glances, we were in a sitcom waiting for the next slapstick gag.

The stoner stood immobile. Eyes fixed on our stuff for so long we thought he was trying to load the truck by osmosis.
John said, ’Mate, we have a deadline and you’re nearly three hours late. Haven’t you got a sidekick?’
‘Sorry, but … mumble, mumble… only me today.’
He took a pouch of Old Port tobacco from his pocket. Crammed it back in straight away when we glared our disapproval. A scratch of the head and beard before announcing, ’Okay, we’ll do the boxes of books first.’

Once we got him moving he did know how to pack the truck, but only had two speeds: slow and stop. The loading process so unhurried, we left him to his own devices and took some bare essentials in the car because I feared it would be midnight before he finished the job and we had to get down to Mum and Dad.

Suffice to say, he did finish loading and everything arrived undamaged, but darkness had fallen before he found Mordialloc and as we helped him unload, my prediction on timing very close to the mark!

How the company survived is a mystery… yet 30 years later it appears to be working well, or perhaps not …

‘Mrs Neil?’
‘It’s Adam from K….Removals. We’ve found another box on the truck for you. Sorry, our mistake. Can we drop it off later.’
‘Another box? Are you sure?’
‘This is definitely for you.’
‘Okay, I’ll be home this afternoon.’

I stared at the 22 boxes filling the garage, plus a large green wrought iron shelving unit. No one had said anything about furniture. Anne couldn’t remember furniture being shipped, so with a bit of rummaging we discovered several boxes stamped with ‘Laura Ashley shop supplies.’

I rang D at her sister’s home in Mildura.

‘Hi D, your boxes have arrived. How many are there supposed to be? And did you ship over furniture?’
‘Furniture? No. There are 18 average-sized boxes, two of them Anne’s. They’re all numbered.’
‘Right… I’ll be in touch.’

What is going on? The truckies hoped to finish work early, which is why they changed the original delivery time. They’re not going to like my phone call.
‘Hi Adam, this is Mairi Neil from Mordialloc. It’s about the boxes.’
‘We’ll be there shortly…’
‘I’m not hurrying you up… it’s just I’ve checked with my friend and she didn’t ship furniture, or giant boxes. There’s been a stuff up.’
‘Are you sure?’
‘Yes. There’s a wrought iron shelving unit that shouldn’t be here, plus several large boxes.’
‘I’ll check, but my instructions say they’re for you.’
‘I suppose I could E-bay them, but whoever ordered them may get upset.’
Forced laughter.

The boxes were duly picked up and the stray box delivered. I assume the removalists managed a happy ending to the day. They’d work it out eventually.

The whole episode a metaphor for writing – a good idea to start with, chopping, changing, different perspectives, worry over word count, words in, phrases out, thinking of the reader, different interpretations, setting deadlines, worrying about making them, but managing to do it, is the finished product perfect, does it have to be?

Rewriting, (history or not) embellishments, omissions…  what a difference a day makes Dinah Washington sings. Try 30 years!

Sometimes the more things change the more they stay the same and it’s never too late to write up that story – you know the one you recount to people and they say you should write about it!

Life is full of stories. I look at the first picture of our home and the one snapped this morning – stories in every tree, plant, fence line, and houses on either side. Maybe my next story will be ‘The renovator’s delight (yes, that was the advert we saw in 1984) now a loving comfortable home surprises, disasters and triumphs included!’

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A Stroll by the Sea Inspires: A Carousel of Sand, Surf, Shells, Sea Gulls, Sail and Serendipity…

‘Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart.’

William Wordsworth

Today, as I walked along the foreshore with my ‘gypsy’ daughter I realised how privileged we are to live in Mordialloc; my home for over 30 years. The bayside setting has inspired me to write poetry, prose, plays, memoir and a mystery novel – alas, the latter still unfinished!

mordy creek december 2014gtoward mordy from parkdale dec 2014

mordy beach near pier december 2014information on mordialloc creek

The Creek and seaside has a long rich history especially before white settlement. Mordialloc Writers’ Group celebrated this in our fifth anthology, A Rich Inheritance, published 2007.

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cairn to macdonald in mordy cairn to first white settler of mordialloc

A village-like atmosphere still exists in Mordy although there is a constant struggle against property developers and those who want to replicate St Kilda and even Queensland’s Gold Coast. High rise development would destroy our lovely foreshore. Fortunately, those who value our environment still outnumber those who don’t, plus we have some excellent associations with a long history of  protecting our parks and the beach.

Mordialloc-Beaumaris Conservation League has worked hard since its formation in 1969 and local resident Mary Rimington OAM, a prolific letter-writer to the newspapers and politicians, ensures residents are informed on issues of sustainability and the need to protect  the environment. Now, in her mid 80s, Mary is still a community gem with a caring heart and discerning mind; losing none of her determination to fight for the community in which we live!

mordi pier sign mordi pier view boat on beach

fishing mordi cyclists beach road

Beach Road shadows the foreshore and in the summer, cars, motorbikes, and bicycles, as well as the usual buses, jam the thoroughfare as if it were a major highway. The blare of car horns and occasional angry words punctuate the normal traffic din as people journey to and fro, seeking the fun and enjoyment of warmer weather. On a weekend when cyclists race between Frankston and St Kilda tempers have been known to flare at the behaviour of some dubbed as ‘lycra louts’.

Haiku inspired by the sea…

Birds soaring seawards                                     Deserted barbecues
Tossed by winter thermals                               Empty swings motionless
Aerial ballet                                                          Winter by the sea

The full moon’s glow                                          Late spring afternoon
Suffused across the sea                                     Mordialloc Pier fishing
A mirror of calm                                                  Eskies overflowing

Pelican circling                                                    Quivering palm trees
A well-designed airplane                                   sun sets in Mordialloc
from Mother Nature                                           to chatter of birds

Sunset or sunrise                                                Hot humid evening
The sea a wondrous playground                      Tossing turning breathlessly
For foreshore frolics                                           Longing for sea breeze

The sea melds with sky                                      Saturday sojourns
Dark shore dreams of light caress                   Lycra louts and fitness freaks
And whimsy clouds flee                                     Negotiate roads

Fiery sky aglow                                                   Holidays at last!
Warning to sailors at sea                                  Slippery paths to the sea
Lighthouse their saviour                                  Lead to splashing fun

Cliff top turbulence                                           Water licks boat side
An explosion of feathers                                  Anglers and fish mesmerised
Gulls blown out to sea                                      dinner table delight

Turtles seek refuge                                            Prisoners of war
But the crunch of boot is not                          Glass bottle thrown overboard
The sound of safety                                           Unread message sinks

Pelican perches                                                  Dolphins dance and squeal
Atop electricity pole                                          Fishermen sail into port
Fishing boats bring lunch                                to feeding frenzy

Pelicans leave pier                                             Empty rowing boat
aerial acrobatics                                                 Abandoned on pebbled beach
Sightseers enjoy the show                                Yearning for summer

Gusty gales blow boats                                      The rolling sea soothes
Forceful waves and jagged reefs                      like a mother’s caress
Gnashing angry teeth                                         banishing pain

The walking trail parallel to Beach Road becomes crowded and sometimes dangerous with family cyclists, dog walkers, joggers, parents pushing strollers, keep fit enthusiasts and tourists ambling the track to soak up the beauty of the bay. Although Australia, one of the driest countries on earth is considered a sunburnt country and land of ‘droughts and flooding rains’ most of the population has settled on the coast and can identify with the sea.

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In 2010, I took part in an amazing project organised by the Red Room Company of Sydney that became Sea Things Online Exhibition. Poets were invited to write about the sea and I took a bundle of submissions from the writer’s group and class at Mordialloc, met with other poets down at the docks and presented the poems to the captain and crew of a huge ship. The poems were put in the Captain’s postbag and freighted all around Australia, added to by other poets wherever the ship docked. The bag eventually opened at a special ceremony in Sydney and poems posted online. A fabulous writing exercise, but also building a sense of community. Down at the docks I met Avril, another poet from Frankston, and we keep bumping into each other at book launches for anthologies where our poems have been included. The experience of being on the bridge of the ship with a view similar to the rooftop of a multi-storey building certainly a day to remember  – and write about!

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For many locals, including me, the beach on a very hot day is better avoided; instead the evening or early morning become favourite times to walk the foreshore, or the cooler days, when a winter breeze chills the air and spasmodic rain enlivens the scent of tea-tree, eucalypts and banksias. In cooler months, the population of Mordialloc returns to normal levels; the sandy shore and paved promenade dotted with only a handful of people – mostly dog walkers tracing their path along the water edge, health fanatics, or tourists visiting locals.

Memories of the beach provide many experiences to use in writing, especially adding the senses: being rocked in the slight waves, walking and getting soaked to the seat of my pants by an expectedly deep wave slapping my ankles trying to drag me seaward, splashing in shallows and feeling the sand shift, grit between my toes, the crunch of shells, the pong of seaweed, the squeal of gulls, the taste of salt, watching a sunset from the pier, and serendipitously running into friends who happen to be enjoying the breathtaking beauty too. We chat and share stories as part of a community, appreciating the feeling of belonging. Life can be unexpectedly kind and beautiful, just when you need it most.


Lying on the beach
waves roll over me,
Life’s pain

the warm waves
caress and massage
malleable me

until colder waves
carve and chip,
with each sharp
intake of breath
a new shape emerges

I am reborn

(published page seventeen Issue 2, Celapene Press, 2005)

mordi sunset 2 mordi sunset

In the Presence of Christmas Past

bicycles in snow Toronto

One writes out of only one thing—one’s own experience. Everything depends on how relentlessly one forces from this experience the last drop, sweet or bitter, it can possibly give.” —James Baldwin

Mercurial Melbourne did it again yesterday. As I listened to the wind howl and the rain splatter and felt the temperature plummet, I wondered what happened to the notoriously hot Christmas weather sunny Australia promises? But then, it is Melbourne – four seasons in the one day, and predictable in its unpredictability.

A good time to pause and remember last year when I was somewhere predictable – and cold – very cold! I spent the Christmas with my daughter Anne, into her third year travelling in North America and resident in Toronto for a couple of those years.

On Facebook, I read a message from Tovah and Michael and the photograph of their hanukkiyah in their window holding the candles to celebrate Hanukkah. This photograph lets me time travel to last year.

view from Tovahs window with candles

A Christmas Surprise

I pause at the nearest panoramic window and soak in the first outside view of Pearson Airport, Toronto. Incandescent fixtures gleam with a second skin and neon lights transform mundane utilities into glittering crystal artefacts. A cheap flight enabled this holiday to be with oldest daughter Anne, a back-packer who fell in love with

‘Look Mary Jane! Isn’t it beautiful?’ I gush, unable to hide the rising excitement at the prospect of a Christmas not experienced since I was nine-years-old. My family emigrated from Scotland to Australia in 1962 and we had to acclimatise to the cultural shock of Christmases ‘Downunder’.

Born in Australia where Christmas is often spent at the beach and a white Christmas only a song until now, my daughter laughs and catches my childish enthusiasm.  Our grinning reflections vindicate the spur of the moment decision to fly to Canada. I click my camera phone and capture a winter scene, albeit a world of workers swathed in fluorescent safety gear attending planes through a shimmering veil of snow.

pearson airport christmas 2013

A close-knit trio, since the death of husband John when the girls were teenagers, we’d adjusted to the sadness of special days like birthdays, anniversaries and seasonal celebrations, however, into her third year away from home, the last two Christmases without Anne only made bearable by Skype.

The most special gifts don’t involve money and when Mary Jane and I discussed the ubiquitous Christmas List, we agreed with Dr Seuss, Christmas, ‘doesn’t come in a store…(it) means a little bit more.’ In a tone that did the Spice Girls proud, Mary Jane said, ‘What I really really want is for us to be together–-all of us!’

And here we are walking into the widespread arms of Anne wearing a smile as warm as an Aussie Christmas. She clutches two single red roses and a bundle of winter accessories in case we are ill-prepared. With a mock shiver, she explains, ‘It’s the chill factor that makes you freeze.’

The uninhibited joy and unconditional love etched on the faces of the girls, a delicious moment to be stored in my memory bank, along with Anne’s protracted ‘Mum!’ which blocked the cacophony of the airport terminal for the few seconds it took me to exit customs. The bear hug lifted me off my feet.

anne and mj at airport in Jane hats

From the airport, we catch a bus and two trains to Ossington where Anne shares a house with three young Canadians. The journey seamless, if a little cold, as we adjust to winter’s icy clutches and the face-numbing air. Evidence of Christmas abounds with passengers toting brightly wrapped parcels and bulging bags. The occasional decoration glimpsed as suburbs flash past. When we climb out of the subway at Ossington a silent fall of snow greets us. Anne suggests a taxi, fearing black ice; a treacherous surprise turning pavements into obstacle courses. ‘You left Melbourne 32 hours ago and must be tired!’

We insist on walking. Mary Jane determined to savour her first sojourn in the snow, and I have a wonderful feeling of love and contentment to keep me warm. A wind is absent, but snowflakes swirl and tantalise, falling soft and gently like feathers. Mary Jane tilts her head back, turns her face to the starlit sky, pokes out her tongue and drinks the gifts from Heaven. Our hats, scarves, and coats dusted with icing sugar specks. A magical transformation.

We giggle and twirl, slip and trudge, drag suitcases along the street, Anne confides it is usually empty and dark at night, yet houses twinkle and shine lighting our way. Christmas advertised–more flamboyantly by some–until we reach the house opposite Anne’s. It groans under the weight of bud lighting flashing every colour in the spectrum to make rainbows in the air and on the snow-stained road. We spot Santa and his sleigh, reindeers, candy canes, snowmen, penguins, bells and lanterns, trees and presents; every commercial Christmas motif imaginable.

overdecorated houseschristmas lights galore from the house opp annes

Cannily stepping in footprints carved by others, we cross the road to Anne’s home above a Portuguese bakery; dim and conservative in comparison to brightly lit neighbours. We climb internal wooden stairs, the heat like a blow torch. We don’t need encouragement to strip off protective gear in the tiny hallway. ‘Welcome to Canada,’ Anne jokes, ‘where you allow 20 minutes just to put on and take off all the extra winter layers!’ Housemates appear from their rooms to welcome us and point to a huge sign they’d made declaring themselves: ‘The Neil Appreciation Union’.

neil clan sign in canada

It is almost a week until Christmas Day, but Anne announces a surprise. Her close friends Tovah and Michael have offered their cosy flat to us to spend Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day. They’ll be visiting relatives out of town and thought we’d appreciate a ‘home away from home’ to be a family at this special time of year. This practical embodiment of the spirit of Christmas from two strangers becomes the highlight of our Canadian trip.

The few days before Christmas Eve, Mary Jane and I explore Toronto while Anne is at work despite a ‘catastrophic ice storm’ slamming the city, destroying 20% of tree coverage and leaving hundreds of thousands without power. Fortunately, Ossington is relatively untouched, but as subzero temperatures and wind chill announcements dominate nightly News, I wake each morning to the drip of ice melting and pooling on the windowsills in Anne’s tiny room. I miss the raucous sound of Australian birdsong: magpies carolling, the wattlebirds harsh chok-choks, and Australian ravens cawing as colourful rosellas swoop and squeal.

However, the winter hush has its own charm and I have my two daughters close. Grey squirrels cavort among tree branches stark and dead beneath winter’s cloak, and on our walks home in the evening tree branches turn majestically silver with coruscating stars and pale moonlight highlighting their breathtaking beauty.

ghostly tree branch and snow

Christmas card scenes are everywhere, icicles suspended from eaves and gutters, rooftops and gardens caked with snow while brown and withered foliage peep from pristine white coats. Coated with frost, hardy plants still live although their crystallised leaves snap if touched. Squeals and laughter infectious as families toboggan and slide in nearby parks, and cute dogs wearing booties chase frisbees and balls.

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Tovah and Michael’s apartment has double glazing and power.They leave a message on their kitchen whiteboard after Googling Aussie slang. Any feelings of being in a strange land dissolve with our laughter:


Good arvo and Merry Chrissie cobbers!
Open some prezzies and drink some amber fluid.
There is a Maccas within cooee and a bottle-o a few doors down!
Eat a lot of lollies and have many grogs,
hopefully not to be followed by a liquid laugh? Or technicolour yawn (what!?)
Yabber on ladies…

On Christmas morning as dawn penetrates the blanket of light grey cloud, I stand by the window and watch snowflakes flutter to the ground. Within moments, already partly covered bicycles and parked cars are submerged and roads and paths disappear as if a gigantic can of white paint has spilt. Street lamps glow orange, the world is silent and still. I have a lightness of being.


Gentle snores from Anne and Mary Jane mingle with the poetry from countless carols playing in my head and memories of Christmases past. The age-old Christmas messages of joy, peace and love my reality this wonderful Canadian Christmas.

Canadian Christmas Haiku

Mairi Neil

Leaden cloud, blankets
sleeping expectant city.
Christmas snow surprise

Snowflakes caught in flight
silent flurries, dancing fluff
Christmas Day memory.

Patch of blue sky winks.
Memories stirred of home
and hot Aussie sun.

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Celebration of Classes and Community facilitates Christmas Cheer and Goodwill!

‘If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.’

Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Read The Little Prince, a wonderful example of never giving up your dreams.

This quote and the great example of the author’s life so appropriate when I think of why I teach and the positive reinforcement approach I use in my writing classes at local community houses: Writing for Pleasure & Publication, Writing & Editing, Memoir to Manuscript and Life Stories & Legacies.

This past week as the classes end for the year I distributed anthologies I’d prepared of people’s work so they could see their writing published. At Godfrey Street we also produced a calendar – writing haiku and terse verse inspired by the work of the painting & drawing classes. The calendar is sold as a fundraiser. Most students were amazed at the quantity, quality, and range of their polished pieces. Looks of pride, accomplishment and joy abound when the writers see their names in print!

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It’s a labour of love preparing these books, extra work at home, but they are an invaluable historical record, as well as a wonderful legacy of the fantastic writers I’ve met over the years. When I read the poems and stories I hear the voice of the writer, picture them in class and often relive the lesson or social interaction. Many of the students return each year, others come back after a gap of years, others spend a term, a semester or a year and then move on – all leave an impression on me. When the receptionist at Mordialloc Neighbourhood House had an enquiry about what we do on a Monday morning,  ‘ what do they write about?’ she said, ‘I’m not sure, but they laugh a lot!’ And indeed we do. Our class is marvellous therapy for Monday morning blues. Nicknamed ‘Minnie Ha Ha’ by my parents when I was growing up, I’ve always believed in laughter as therapy and many doctors will agree!  It helps of course when you have people who enjoy a laugh with you. One of my students is unpredictable and delights us with the various props she will bring along to illustrate her homework!


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First and foremost I try to instil a passion for words  – for reading as well as writing. Encouragement to move from comfort zones to try different genres, write from the heart, start with stream of consciousness, but then go back and edit, rewrite, edit – even start from the beginning! A writer’s life is hard work.

Last Saturday, along with Glenice Whitting, I represented Mordialloc Writers’ and ourselves at the local end of the year author thank you hosted by Mentone Public Library. Local children’s author George Ivanov spoke about his recent success in gaining a publishing deal with Random House that has changed his life. George was generous and enthusiastic in sharing his long journey to success, his process of writing and tips and the knowledge he has garnered along the way.

The one message that came across loud and clear was EVERY writer, no matter how successful, must consult a good editor! Even if you are competent to edit your own work someone else needs to read the manuscript and give you an honest opinion, not so much about line editing such as spelling and grammar, but the all important structure! Do you need that paragraph, or chapter? The plot comes unstuck and doesn’t make sense in chapter six because those characters have never met before! Who are your audience because chapter seven is gruesome/too childish/airy fairy/romantic mush…? Do you need to lose chapter three because it slows the pace too much…

In a world where authors are taking control and self-publishing proliferates this is an important point to be mindful of and to follow. A friend and fellow writer Lisa Hill who has an award winning site reviewing books refuses to review self-published work for that very reason. Inundated with books to review from traditional publishers here and overseas, she gives their books priority because she knows they have at least gone through a professional editing process and that is how she chooses to use her precious reading time. More and more there are sites where authors can share their work and receive feedback and use these reviews to improve and promote their work, but they should do this process BEFORE releasing their work to the general public, to ensure their writing is the best quality it can be. The other alternative of course is to belong to a writers’ group and receive regular support and feedback. Mordialloc Writers’ Group has been helping authors this way for 20 years.

I founded the group because I wanted to meet others who loved writing and to have their support and critique. A couple of stories were commercially published and I’d started a writing course by correspondence, but craved the company of people who understood what it was like to have characters and ideas taking over thought processes and lying awake at 3.00am figuring out plots and storylines! At a local exhibition of my children’s poetry a man with a look of incredulity on his face, said, ‘ how does your mind work?’ I’m still working out whether it was a backhanded compliment or a suggestion I needed help! The company of fellow creatives a great solace.

I love history and mythology, but don’t write fantasy or horror. Most of my short stories are character driven. To have the reader believe in your characters and engage emotionally and care about their journey, always my starting point. I want to write about ordinary working people; celebrate their lives, struggles and triumphs – the cliched ‘human condition.’ Not surprising when I grew up with a father who quoted ‘our Rab’ daily especially these verses from Address To The Unco Guid, Or The Rigidly Righteous, 1786:

Then gently scan your brother man,
Still gentler sister woman;
Tho’ they may gang a kennin wrang,
To step aside is human:
One point must still be greatly dark, –
The moving Why they do it;
And just as lamely can ye mark,
How far perhaps they rue it.

Who made the heart, ’tis He alone
Decidedly can try us;
He knows each chord, its various tone,
Each spring, its various bias:
Then at the balance let’s be mute,
We never can adjust it;
What’s done we partly may compute,
But know not what’s resisted.

Deconstructing the message, this poem celebrates what I love about writing and writers – the insight and ability to express the experience of the flaws and foibles of human nature, but plead for tolerance and understanding. Put yourself in another’s shoes, look through my eyes…

Considering the state of the world at the moment and tragedies such as Australia experienced yesterday when a very angry and disturbed man decided on a suicidal path for publicity and innocent people were caught up in the turmoil, the world needs writers to dig deeper, comment, suggest alternative views, explore what it means to be human and how we do, should or could relate to the world we live in, and the possibilities of what happens afterwards.

I don’t want to live in the kind of world where we don’t look out for each other …
I want to touch the heart of the world and make it smile.
Charles de Lint

As I reflect on the year, I also reflect on my writing journey. Each year I strive to improve by doing professional development, and each year I realise how far I have to go! Here is the first piece of writing I was actually PAID for (if it was today I would have taken a picture of the cheque with my phone, it’s such a rarity!), published in The Weekly Times, a Victorian newspaper that had a circulation of 125,00 in its heyday – big numbers considering the population at the time, but now I think it is mainly read online, like so many others.

I was inspired by a character of course – a tram driver well-known to public transport users in Melbourne in the 70s and 80s. A man I observed, one night a week for a term, when I travelled out to Stonnington after work for night classes in creative writing with Gerald Murnane and John Powers.

A Ticket To Vaudeville

Pierre waited at the depot for the duty inspector to allocate the routes. Leaning against a stationary tram, he grinned at the friendly banter of the milling trammies, the conversations reflecting the varying backgrounds of the multicultural crews. I’m lucky, he mused. I have good health despite nearing sixty. I have a job I enjoy, although I still get confused with figures. My friends are loyal, and most of all… I am free.

Dewdrops glistened like beads of sweat on tram doors, tram windows, even uniforms and Pierre rubbed his bony hands together like firesticks, willing the sun to melt the hazy early morning mist and produce another glorious autumn day for Melbourne. A smell drifted past and Pierre sniffed, contorting his large hooked nose to imprison the aroma forever. Freshly baked bread and the fragrance of certain cheeses reminded him of his hometown Toulouse, in southern France. He smiled and shook his head.

I tell Banija not to refer to Yugoslavia as home, yet here am I doing the same thing although I’ve lived here half my life in peace and freedom , away from Gestapo jackboots. Why I’d probably get lost in Toulouse now…

Jack’s strident Australian voice shattered Pierre’s reverie. ‘Come on dopey Pierre. We’re on Route 67. Shake yer gangly leg, we leave in five minutes!’ Gathering his money float and bag of tickets, Pierre followed Jack to the empty tram. Performing his Rudolph Nureyev imitation he leapt aboard, smiling to an appreciative audience of laughing trammies awaiting their allocation. ‘Au Revoir Pierre,’ they chorused. Pierre laughed too, the sound banishing memories of war-torn France from surfacing.

Tram Number 67 trundled through the city streets filling rapidly with peak hour commuters. Pierre said, ‘Gude Morning’ to each passenger as he collected fares. There were some familiar faces. He punched their tickets before they spoke. Sally blushed yet again when he commented on her beauty. The hospital matron giggled like a schoolgirl when he kissed her hand with exaggerated Gallic gallantry. The suited business brigade hid their faces in newspapers to avoid Pierre’s piercing blue eyes peering over his bifocals. A mischief maker, Pierre rustled their papers, pestered them to join him in song. Ignoring their embarrassed silence, he rejoiced, clicking his puncher rhythmically, ‘Money, money, money eez all I want…’

Schoolboys bunched in the doorway sniggered at the ‘loony conductor’. ‘I won’t deeezapont youz ma frens.’ Pierre called as he clicked the last ticket. Prancing down the aisle with practised ease, he pulled a yellow yo-yo from his pocket and flicked it in front of astonished passengers. ‘Flash those concession cards, eh boys! You think I’m an old fool but I do my job well!’

The tram shuddered to a halt at Flinders Street Station. Pierre bowed with a flourish to the departing throng, satisfied most customers left smiling. ‘Roll up! Roll up! Take your seats for the next show,’ he announced before the tram chugged onwards. While collecting fares, Pierre began his ritual of greeting each passenger with crazy antics and candid comments. Most responded with surprised chuckles.

At the end of the aisle, Pierre turned to see some downcast faces. He pushed his hat sideways, twisted his angular face into a comical, shape, pursed his lips and whistled, ‘Let’s Twist Again’. Weighed down with his satchel, he gyrated awkwardly in the confined space. Another stop. More giggling commuters alighted. A couple climbed aboard. The tram trembled before proceeding.

Pierre pretended to be Tarzan, swinging through the length of the tram using the ceiling straps. Two ladies convulsed with laughter couldn’t ask for a ticket. Pierre pulled off his hat, threw it in the air, bowed slightly, then caught it expertly with his balding head. ‘At your service mademoiselles.’

The tram turned into Toorak Road for the final leg of the journey. Pierre plonked into a vacant seat. Bathed in a beam of sunlight, he confessed,

‘Ladeez and Chentlemen, remember these words from Pierre. Smile and the world smiles with you, cry and you cry alone.’


Waiting Rooms, Patience and Patients…

It is my annual check-up with the breast surgeon in Brighton. I made the appointment for 8.30am because in the afternoon I have  my last class for the year at Godfrey Street, Bentleigh. Of course, the traffic has to be horrendous. Patience is a virtue, but I keep this thought to myself as my daughter curses the idiots abroad. Every set of traffic lights turns red as we approach – it’s always the way when you’re stressed or pushed for time.

Australia is a country in love with the car and with governments reluctant to invest in public transport, traffic congestion is the norm all over Melbourne, especially during morning and evening peak hours. Mary Jane drops me off a few minutes late and goes hunting for a parking spot – as rare as gold in some places, especially around shopping centres, railway stations, public buildings – the places we all want to go! The cluster of medical specialists in Brighton are popular and never short of patients. As I hurry into the waiting room I envisage MJ’s face reddening, to match the colour of her little Hyundai as she trawls the nearby streets for a parking space; frustration feeding her worry.

My daughters fear this visit as much as I do. An unforeseen complication after my initial mastectomy four years ago led to an emergency operation and they had to approve refusing life support (my wishes) and wait a harrowing few hours to see if I survived.  Traumatised onlookers, they are haunted by memories  I don’t have because of effective modern anaesthetics.  Carers now have more recognition and much deserved praise, but there’s still a lot we could do within primary health care to support them, especially when events turn dramatic!

So, here I am again – twelve months disappear fast. I remember my Mum lamenting time passing more quickly as you age – at least I’m down to annual visits…

Christmas tree in the corner, bamboo stars in the window, tinsel trailing along the windowsill. Christmas filling a corner of the waiting room for the patients, brightening the severity of the black leather lounge suites interspersed with black vinyl chairs. My hazel eyes are drawn to the silhouette of a bird sitting on the electric wires outside the window. A crow? A premonition? (I have a lot of my Irish mother in me and the Scots are no slouches when it comes to being fey!)

From the corner of the room a ghetto blaster tuned low, plays music – not predictable Christmas carols, but soothing melodies. I recognise the song and struggle to suppress the tears lurking behind my eyes,  raw emotion threatens to undo the calm exterior I  portray on these visits. I take a deep breath, this is a positive omen, surely?  John is with me as our special song wafts across the room, Always On My Mind...  his spirit definitely here!

I glance around the room. There are two couples and three single women, including me. Another couple sit outside the Pathology Lab. I don’t think we are all waiting for the same doctor, he’s usually well organised. However, it is Christmas and the long summer break ahead, a time of year always difficult to schedule.

The reception area filled to capacity; six receptionists working hard, including a male, a new addition since last visit. They’ve claimed a little of the Christmas atmosphere by stringing glittering gold balls along the counter. One young lass even has tiny reindeers dangling from her ears.   The couple beside me are called into pathology and one of the women is led into a nearby room. The doctor works from two rooms. This is year four for me, I know the drill. He deals with one patient while another is disrobing for examination in the other. Almost immediately another woman is called to pathology. The doctor’s efficiency won’t let me down, it will soon be my turn.  I try not to stare at the couple leaving. She is pregnant and they have a toddler. Cancer sucks.

Waiting Room – such an apt title and great writing prompt. In fact, I gave the following scenario (courtesy of one of the many writing prompt sites on the Internet) to my writing class this week. A surprising coincidence because I plan my lessons well in advance. Perhaps my sub-conscious was at work to create such serendipity!

Waiting room
Three strangers are sitting in a doctor’s office waiting for their appointments. A patient’s bag tips over on the floor and something falls out. What is it? What do the characters say to each other that makes this a significant moment in their lives?


How many waiting rooms have I (and many others) sat in during a lifetime? Dentists, doctors, hospitals, train and bus stations, job interviews, government departments, council offices, schools, universities, funeral parlours … enough to become a patient with patience!

I try to remember the first waiting room and decide it was the dentist’s and I determine to block that 1950s experience out because I can still taste the horrible rubber mask, smell the gas and feel the bitter mouthwash as my blood swirls down a tiny sink attached to the chair.  I can hear Mum promising to buy me ‘something special for being a brave girl.’

There were no childhood visits to the doctor because in Scotland our family doctor, Dr Reid,  made house visits. He delivered me at home.  Scotland also had a system of health visitors, district nurses a la the popular television series Call the Midwife. No waiting rooms filled with harassed mothers and hyped up, bored, or crying children.

Dr Reid was a regular visitor to our house in Braeside, Greenock and had a penchant for Mum’s baking. A fresh pancake, Irish soda bread, scone or fairy cake served with a cup of tea whenever he called. Mum was a ‘tea jenny‘ her greeting to all visitors, ‘a cup of tea?’

Another reason for Dr Reid calling frequently was my parents’ generosity with the telephone. When making visits in our area, Dr Reid would check in with his surgery or family, or perhaps arrange an ambulance or book people into hospital – all from our phone. Today with the proliferation of mobile telephones it is sobering to recall a childhood where ‘being on the phone‘ was an expensive luxury for most, and a rarity in working class homes.

My parents made the decision to have a telephone because it would allow Dad to work more, therefore a good investment. A train driver easily contactable was offered more shifts – an important fillip to our budget. Supporting a wife and six children never cheap!

Number 35 Davaar Road was the first house in the immediate housing scheme to get the telephone connected, and to my knowledge the only one  to generously share the instrument. (Some people left coins in the money box that sat beside the phone, but not always. Calls were timed therefore many people were reluctant to risk big bills by trusting others.)


Mum had a clatter of eager messengers. My older siblings ran to fetch or tell neighbours a relative was on the phone, they had to report to work early, travel arrangements were changed, or a myriad of other personal messages. Mum was privy to emergencies, planned celebrations like marriages, sad news of illness and death, joyous (sometimes) announcements of pregnancies, job offers, exam and scholarship results, visiting relatives, holiday plans… the full gamut of community life.

A natural disaster in America meant a distressed neighbour worried about her sister. Mum rang the US Embassy, got a number to call for information, and after several anxious hours, exacerbated by the time difference, reached the neighbour’s  sister on the phone. Those women never forgot Mum’s kindness and continued to thank Mum every year in a Christmas card until their death. There were other dramas witnessed – all because of a revolutionary communication tool, which in my lifetime has been transformed beyond recognition.


Today, with instant communication across the world via satellite, the expectation everyone has either a mobile phone or access to the Internet, reflecting on my Scottish childhood confirms the past is indeed ‘another country’ in more ways than one!

A receptionist ushers me into a room for the next stage of waiting for the doctor.  I put on the gown with the flap open at the front. My surgeon is one of the most respectful, professional men I’ve met on this journey, but despite his manner I always feel vulnerable clutching the white cotton gown at my chest, sitting in a chair staring at the examination table and waiting…

It is good news. Another year notched up without the cancer appearing in my remaining breast or other parts of the body (metastatic disease). I can breathe normally. I text my daughter and wait outside looking skywards and soaking in the sunshine. The bird on the electric wires not a crow, but a  butcherbird (Cracticus nigrogularis) that has a beautiful call. I hope he will sing. This patient with patience waits and is rewarded. Another year to feel blessed.


Health, Research and Giving Back

Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick.  Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.  ~Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor, 1977

How true! And after my sojourn with breast cancer I’m determined to try and keep my travels in the ‘kingdom of the well’. However, life can be a lottery: travelling on public transport, or teaching in community houses as I do, contact with the public can mean a random sneeze or cough transfers bacteria or virus. Then there’s genetics –– everyday it seems scientists discover links explaining why and how illness or disease occurs and whether family inheritance and/or environmental factors determines which passport you hold for the passage through life, and whether you can change your ticket. In the developed world, most of us are fortunate to choose our own lifestyle and our choices impact on our health.

Most people understand the value and importance of medical research and probably all know someone who has benefited from ground-breaking discoveries, many of which save lives, improve the quality of lives, and lead to huge advances in healthcare and public wellbeing. Various sciences need to be encouraged, developed, supported and sustained within our universities if medical research is to be advanced. There is an ever-growing patient demand for more effective treatments and care pathways to improve our health and wellbeing, and clinical science contributes greatly to ensuring the effectiveness of clinical care, but human guinea pigs are often necessary.

Almost ten years ago, I began volunteering for various research projects at Swinburne University of Technology and Melbourne University. The majority of the projects carried out by PhD students and their supervisors, and most related to Alzheimer’s disease, dementia and ageing, although there were some related to arthritis. Putting my hand up for a variety of relatively non-intrusive tests is not entirely altruistic –– with a family history of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, dementia, arthritis and cancer –– I want to encourage clinicians and research-active physicians to evaluate the nature of the information that they are provided with from academia and apply it to improve current practices.

Even before I was diagnosed with breast cancer I had joined Lifepool, Australian women finding answers,  because my paternal aunt had a radical mastectomy in 1962. I lived with the fear/premonition that I was at risk. Unfortunately, there was no data collected on my aunt to be useful in my case. Breast cancer is assumed to be passed on through the maternal line, but it would have been interesting to investigate if there was a genetic or lifestyle link. Therefore, since my own diagnosis, the data they collect about me takes on greater significance. I have two daughters –– if there is the slightest chance researchers can prevent them developing breast cancer, I want to be part of that solution.

On Friday, I agreed to take part in a study exploring changes in blood flow in the brain of people of different ages using a new technique of inhaling carbon dioxide in room air. The project, designed to help researchers see how the brain changes with age, could lead to greater understanding of age-related cognitive decline in memory and thought processes. An MRI scan measured changes in blood flow in the brain while I performed finger tapping tasks, and then briefly breathed the carbon dioxide mixed with room air. There were many safeguards to this experimental research, a long checklist for suitability and a nurse and doctor nearby. The process took three hours because of the necessity of blood pressure and heart monitoring before and after the MRI, plus cognitive computer tests, breathing monitoring and an ultrasound of the cerebral artery.

Other trials, investigating memory, that I’ve taken part in over the years, involved green tea, special diets, herbal pills and numerous computer cognitive exercises and mobility tests. I’ve had caps sprouting electrodes gelled to my head, requiring a shampoo (but not set) before I left the building, and fasting and blood tests along with substituting different foods in my diet and keeping a record of food and drink consumed. All in the name of science with a lot of trust needed between researchers and participants. The other morning, I changed into partial ‘scrubs’ and through observation and conversation became part of a very different world for a few hours, reminding myself that all experiences are ‘grist to the mill’ for writers.


Lying in the MRI scanner, head encased in a plastic helmet to ensure I kept still, I listened as the machine grunted its way through the steps to capture images. The ear plugs limited the sound, but the vibrations and persistent grinding could not be ignored, even with a David Attenborough nature DVD to distract me. I managed to suppress claustrophobia and cope with the experience by letting my mind wander and my imagination run wild. That overactive imagination criticised in childhood does come in handy!

I reminded myself that being my father’s daughter, I could easily develop Alzheimer’s disease; this research is personal. My Dad developed insulin-dependent diabetes in his 50s, suffered minor strokes in his 70s and was diagnosed with dementia and in a nursing home by age 76, where he lived for the last seven years of his life.

Writing about his experience and my feelings and fears, and ultimately about Dad’s life to try and reclaim the father I loved from the shell of a man he became, helped me survive those seven years. They were tough emotional years because my husband, John was diagnosed with asbestosis at the same time and told his lungs were so bad that it would be unwise to operate to correct the effects of a broken neck from a car accident. He’d have to live with the pain and limitations of a severe curve at the top of his spine, which of course impacted on his deteriorating lungs.

John in his inimitable style came out of the orthopaedic surgeon’s office saying, ‘I have some good news and some bad news. He can make me straight, but there is more than a 50% chance I will be dead straight, and he doesn’t want to take the risk.’

My mouth went dry, my whole body trembled and I clung to John, the pain of his disappointment and my fear of losing him melding to make us an immobile statue of anguish, until the sadness and sobs I had suppressed over the months of hospital and doctor visits, exploded. A scene played out in many hospital waiting rooms. The future too bleak to contemplate. The two men I loved the most disintegrating, slowly, painfully, inevitably before my eyes: Dad mentally and John physically.

A few months after accepting there was no operation to help John, researchers in England devised a new method of operating on the neck not requiring entering through the chest wall. By this time John’s health had deteriorated too far for any operation to be successful or I would have done what countless others have done to find a cure, or save a loved one. Disregard expense and the upheaval and travel overseas seeking the best help available.

Instead, we devoted our days and nights to quality family time, making sure John always had something to look forward to. Stay focused on the future and take one day at a time, our mantra. Writing, my salvation –– I had to earn money and teaching writing helped pay the bills, but it also helped quiet the mind and work through a roller coaster of emotions. It enabled me to keep life in perspective and function each day as a mother –– protecting and nurturing John and our two daughters daily priorities. Unfortunately, assuaging the troubled mind does not always translate to looking after the body and on reflection several health crises, even before breast cancer, could have been avoided, if I had taken better care of myself. Hindsight a wonderful gift!

Two stories were published in Together Alone, poems and other stories for the Anti-Cancer Council’s Daffodil Day, Text Publishing, 1998. One was about John, from his point of view. The Daffodil Day arts awards have become a fixture each year giving a voice to those who have been touched by cancer, either personally, or through knowing someone travelling that road. I’ve been fortunate to win several of their awards for poetry and short stories over the years –– a sad reflection in one way that I’ve witnessed so many people struggle with ill health, but also uplifting because I’ve seen people survive and get on with their lives.

A poem I wrote about Dad was published in Memory Weaving, An Anthology of Dementia Journeys, Poetica Christi Press, 2014. This anthology developed from Manningham Council awarding a Community Development Grant to Wordsmiths, the local poetry group, to explore the issue of ageing, and families touched by dementia. After a series of workshops they sought contributions from the wider community and my poem, and the poem of one of my students were chosen to be included. What an amazing project, weaving the threads and experiences of so many lives to remind us that being human is not just a list of achievements or solely defined by what you do, but a journey creating memories of loss and love and individual histories deserving of being recorded.




Mercurial Melbourne

From not posting for 4 years, to posting daily, is me struggling to work out the possibilities of blogging – the old adage ‘practice makes perfect.’ I have now worked out how links work properly (thanks again Liz!), but still have some way to go to feel comfortable navigating the intricacies of the bells and whistles of this site.

However,  writing triggers are everywhere…

What a night we had in Melbourne! The city put on a storm like no other: heavy rain, thunder and lightning and even an earthquake in the Eastern suburbs. This photo is courtesy of the Victorian Storm Chasers fb site:


Along with my daughter Anne, I spent a sleepless night calming our nine year old dog, Aurora,  so spooked she ran between our bedrooms panting. Not content to be comforted in the normal way she tried to burrow under the quilts and into the back of our necks. Plenty of midnight cups of tea and frustration at the Neil household last night, which even with the curtains drawn,  lit up like a shopping centre, as the sound and light show played outside.

Anne said she resorted to a Youtube video at 3.00am, playing music to calm puppies, after trawling the Internet in desperation, for tips on how to help dogs scared of storms! Anne has been away for 3 years travelling North America, living and working in Toronto, and checking out the UK, but now realises what hard work her gorgeous and temperamental dog can be on stormy nights. Aurora’s fear increases as she ages, poor love (not the endearment I was saying under my breath last night), so let’s hope mercurial Melbourne won’t deliver weather like that too often. We are all exhausted – even Aurora:


The weather and various seasons are fabulous fodder for writing and when the girls were small I wrote a lot of poetry and stories to entertain them. It was a period of wonderful inspiration. Here are a few triggered by the girls’  reactions to storms.





When I gave author talks, I confessed the girls were the reason why I wrote, and often the reason why I didn’t write – parents, especially mothers, understood!  I published two books of poetry: small talk poems for children, Employ Publishing Group, 1994, and more small talk poems for children, BEST(Inc.), 1995, paying  for some illustrations and using Anne’s kinder or school artwork for others. My husband, John always supportive and encouraging my passion with an amazing faith in my ability.

For a few years, I enjoyed being a productive writer, presenting workshops at local schools and libraries, plus running a holiday program at the local neighbourhood house, for children aged Prep to end of Primary, combining Creative Writing & Craft. The children made a puppet and wrote a poem or short play, they made a pirate’s map or treasure box and wrote poems and stories about pirates, or the sea, they made animal masks and used them for inspiration – many activities to adapt from wonderful craft leaflets the Playgroup Association produced or from the school library at Mordialloc Primary. Sometimes mothers would stay in the sessions and enjoyed releasing their inner creativity  as much as the children.

My daughters participated in all the workshops often as helpers and of course as cleaners. It is amazing how messy glitter, glue and scraps of paper and material can be. Anne and Mary Jane are both talented writers in their own creative fields (Media Arts & Stop Motion Animation and Film & Television).  I hope their memories of that period in our lives are as happy  as mine – a time before their father became ill and life took an unexpected turn…

Who hasn’t experienced plans falling through, being struck from left field, or the totally unexpected? The Neil family has big time! The Scottish poet Rabbie Burns, said it in a few words, quoted and paraphrased around the world:

‘The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft agley’

My childhood was littered with proverbs, wise sayings, Bible texts and Celtic wisdom. I don’t think there was a day that passed without my wee Irish mum exhorting us that ‘if a job is worth doing, it’s worth doing well,’ or ‘a stitch in time saves nine,’ but most importantly ‘do unto others as you’d have them do unto you‘ and many similar pieces of advice!

Dad shared his wisdom and values too, but through anecdotes,  parables like The Good Samaritan, and more often recitations of the poems and songs of his favourite bard, Rabbie Burns. If he was alive he’d be thrilled that Scotland now has a poetry library, and one specifically for children – it may be a country with a small population, but it respects the written word and poetic form and finds the money to fund these public institutions.

Although Burns only had a short life (he died at 37), his  insight into humanity and human foibles, relationships, society and the natural world, produced a prolific creative output astounding for the eighteenth century. He certainly understood the human condition and produced hundreds of poems and songs in the Scottish dialect to challenge your emotions: you weep, you laugh, you yearn, you get fired up, you love!

Rabbie (sometimes referred to as the ploughman poet), spent a great deal of time working the land and observing the natural world. He respected animals, and exhorted  mankind  to understand and appreciate their contribution. They too deserved a protected place – even the humble mouse.

To a Mouse (On Turning Her Up in Her Nest with the Plough, November, 1785)

Wee, sleekit, cowrin, tim’rous beastie,
O, what a panic’s in thy breastie!
Thou need na start awa sae hasty not,
Wi’ bickering brattle!
I wad be laith to rin an’ chase thee,
Wi’ murdering pattle!

I’m truly sorry Man’s dominion
Has broken Nature’s social union,
An’ justifies that ill opinion
Which makes thee startle
At me, thy poor, earth-born companion
An’ fellow-mortal!

Challenging the power of the Presbytery of the Church of Scotland and the way the law favoured the wealthy also a  favourite theme for Burns.

Epistle to a Young Friend. May, 1786

The fear o’ Hell’s a hangman’s whip,
To haud the wretch in order;
But where ye feel your Honour grip,
Let that ay be your border:
It’s slightest touches, instant pause—
Debar a’ side-pretences;
And resolutely keep its laws,
Uncaring consequences.

Burns often poked fun at pretentiousness and stressed the commonality between people regardless of their position in society. Here when sitting behind a posh lady in church he noticed the nits in her hair!

To a Louse, On Seeing one on a Lady’s Bonnet at Church

O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as others see us!
It wad frae monie a blunder free us
An’ foolish notion:
What airs in dress an’ gait wad lea’e us,
And ev’n Devotion!

Auld Lang Syne is now a staple throughout the world to be sung on New Year’s Eve and romantics love his My Love is Like a Red Red Rose, but Burns revealed his burning desire for equality, tolerance and freedom for everyone in:

A Man’s a Man for a’ That

Then let us pray that come it may,
As come it will for a’ that,
That Sense and Worth, o’er a’ the earth
Shall bear the gree an’ a’ that.
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
It’s comin yet for a’ that,
That Man to Man the warld o’er
Shall brithers be for a’ that.

When I read Burns, or listen to others reciting his poems or singing his songs I’m transported into delightful memories of growing up in a warm, loving, noisy household with five siblings. I can hear Dad quoting Burns, or singing one of the many songs he loved, in his magnificent tenor voice .

I teach memoir and life stories and advise my students to put on their favourite music, or listen to a song that evokes a particular time in their lives – it’s amazing what thoughts will be triggered, how the words will flow.

I think I’ll go now and follow my own advice and leave worrying about sidebars, categories and working links for another time. The sun is shining, last night’s storm is a memory, Aurora is curled up asleep, and my garden gleams, reinvigorated by nature’s liquid gold.