Congratulations, Rose Batty – Let us All Raise Our Voices and Condemn Family Violence!

I want to tell people that family violence happens to [anybody], no matter how nice your house is, no matter how intelligent you are.

Rose Batty, Speaking on February 14, 2014

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I feel as if I have been campaigning against domestic violence all my adult life, but perhaps at last there will be concrete and recognisable, change. In the early 1970s, the Victorian Women’s Liberation Movement put sisterhood into action and established women’s refuges for women and children escaping family violence. I worked at Maroondah Halfway House, a refuge in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne where I grew up, and the second such refuge in Victoria.

I have used my writing skills to raise awareness of this issue by writing articles, poems, short stories, and a one-act play I wrote, The Bitter End, was performed at a Domestic Violence Forum hosted by the UAW 2004.  Family and friends have experienced family violence – it is tragic, far reaching and personal!

In 2012, Maroondah Halfway House was recognised for their work in preventing and addressing homelessness at the inaugural National Homelessness Services Achievement awards in Canberra, but how sad it still exists, and so many more houses, are necessary because of the increased scourge of family violence!

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As a member of the Union of Australian Women, I’m glad that at last there seems to be a concerted effort in Victoria, not only to spotlight domestic violence, but actually do something to tackle a longstanding problem in our community.  The new Labor  Government has announced a Royal Commission into Family Violence, and the trade union movement, the Union of Australian Women and many other groups played a hand in making this decision happen.

On April 12th 2014, a small dedicated group of UAW members gathered to hear Jennifer O’Donnell-Pirisi the VTHC Women’s Officer speak on the topic of Domestic Violence. Jen is a member of UAW and has been VTHC Women’s Officer for six and a half years. Her passion and commitment to women evident as she talked, and although the topic is one we discuss regularly, Jen provided fresh and astounding information.

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In 2008, she met with then Victorian Minister Morand and several academics to discuss inserting a Family Violence Clause into industrial awards and agreements to enable affected workers to apply for paid leave when necessary. Gillard Government federal ministers Macklin and Shorten supported funding for academics and union representatives to gather information to enable this to happen.

We all think we know the statistics but they still shock. Jen revealed that 60 women a year are murdered because of domestic violence and 20 children a year are also victims. (The tragedy of Luke Batty  put domestic violence in the spotlight and has led to Rose being Australian of the Year 2015.)

Victoria has the highest rate of domestic violence in Australia and even accounting for the fact more women are reporting the assaults,  it is an epidemic and we are not alone trying to deal with this issue. In Italy, a woman is murdered every 48hours, and in some countries husbands have the right to beat, rape and even murder their wives.

Between February and July 2011, the Australian Domestic and Family Violence Clearinghouse (ADFVC) at the University of New South Wales conducted a national online domestic violence and workplace survey. The survey on the impact of domestic violence at work was completed by over 3600 union members. A full copy of the report is available on the website.

Key findings were:

The majority of the respondents were women (81%), two-thirds were in full time employment and nearly two-thirds (64%) of the respondents were aged 45 and older.

Nearly a third of respondents (30%) had personally experienced domestic violence.

Nearly half those who had experienced domestic violence reported that the violence affected their capacity to get to work; the major reason was physical injury or restraint (67%), followed by hiding keys and failure to care for children.

Nearly one in five (19%) who experienced domestic violence in the previous 12 months reported that the violence continued at the workplace

The major form the domestic violence took in the workplace was abusive phone calls and emails (12%) and the partner physically coming to work (11%).

The main reported impact was on work performance, with 16% reporting being distracted, tired or unwell, 10% needing to take time off, and 7% being late for work.

45% of respondents with recent experience of domestic violence discussed the violence with someone at work, primarily co-workers or friends rather than supervisors, HR staff or a union representative.

48% of respondents who had experienced domestic violence did disclose the violence to a manager/supervisor, though only 10% found them helpful.

For those who did not discuss the problem at work, the major reason given was ‘privacy’, followed by reasons of shame and fear of dismissal.

Over one third of all respondents who had experienced domestic violence reported the violence to the police. 25% of all respondents who had experienced domestic violence had obtained a protection order, but less than half (41%) included their workplace in the order.

Only 14% of those who had experienced domestic violence are still living in the relationship, and only 40% are still living in the family home. Below average numbers (54%) of the respondents who had experienced domestic violence were currently living in mortgaged homes; above average (32%) were living in rented properties.

All respondents thought that domestic violence can impact on the work lives of employees (100%) and a high percentage (78%) believed that workplace entitlements could reduce the impact of domestic violence in the workplace.

For those unfortunate to experience, or live with family violence the responses to the survey would not surprise; they’d recognise the extremes in workplace response:

My workplace swept the whole incident under the carpet – I felt totally unsupported.
(Co-workers) were very supportive of me, and this included accompanying me to court, inviting me to stay at their homes, signing affidavits.

Therefore, the much overdue Family Violence Clause gained a 7 Star Rating and was endorsed by the ACTU Congress.

ACTU Principles : 7 Star Rating System

Dedicated additional paid leave for employees
Confidentiality of employee details must be assured and respected
Workplace safety planning strategies to be developed
Provide referral to appropriate DV support services
Appropriate training for nominated contact persons
Access to flexible workplace arrangements where appropriate
Protection against adverse action or discrimination

The clause recognises the issue only, union representatives are clear during negotiations that experts must be involved. Leave must be certified and evidence based, involving:  doctors, police, counsellors.

Effort must be made to work out safety plans for employees such as relocation, or varying start and finishing times. Flexible work times are important, especially in places where there is no obvious security or swipe card access. People working in large public places such as hospitals, libraries and schools are particularly vulnerable. Statistically, women who are pregnant, especially during the final stage, are the most at risk.

By 2009, 1.3 million workers had the benefit of a Family Violence leave Clause in their workplace agreement.(It is called Family Violence in Victoria and Tasmania, other states call it Domestic Violence.) In 2010, Victoria became the first state to give paid leave (an employee of a council). The maximum anyone has taken off is a week, and on average the leave is half a day. It is not leave that will be abused, it must be certified.

The clause is world’s best practice, quoted in New York by the UN, with Canadian, New Zealand and European unions lobbying for similar paid leave and using the Australian model and the survey findings as support. In Germany they have paid leave for rape and victims of sexual assault, but Australia led the world seeking acknowledgement that domestic violence is not a private matter – women are murdered going to and from work.

Unions are lobbying to get the clause put into the Fair Work Act and hopefully the new government in Victoria’s response is better than the previous minister Wooldridge whose calendar was apparently so busy she couldn’t meet with Jen. The Minister’s advisor also said the clause would be too costly for the public sector to implement!

Currently, it is the private sector and enterprise bargaining achieving success. Modern industrial relations and practice must reflect modern life. Domestic Violence is the biggest contributing factor to homelessness for women under 45. It is a myth that it is only one particular class or cultural group affected and Rose Batty emphasises this too.

If the clause is in the Fair Work Act it means women are protected. They need to feel safe at work and at home. Work protection is empowering and an incentive to stay employed. Family violence often leads to precarious employment and disruptive work history. This clause challenges employers and work colleagues to acknowledge harassment and stalking, to support women who disclose violence at home. They need support and many women say if they had been asked to disclose the true situation they would have – this clause allows work colleagues to be a witness and support for these women.

There are many contributing factors to family violence, but the biggest factor is the need perpetrators have for power and to exercise excessive control. Women know the triggers: often alcohol and drugs but many men abuse even when they have not been drinking.

I hope the current government begins to improve  support services for family violence victims, including secure housing, ongoing counselling and a preventative education program in schools and does not just wait for the result of the Royal Commission. They should also publicly support the union movement’s push to insert Family violence Clauses in all awards.

VTHC FAMILY VIOLENCE CLAUSE

1 General Principle
(a) That Victorian Trades Hall Council (VTHC) recognises that employees sometimes face situations of violence or abuse in their personal life that may affect their attendance or performance at work. Therefore, the VTHC is committed to providing support to staff that experience family violence.
2 Definition of Family Violence
The VTHC accepts the definition of Family violence as stipulated in the Family Violence Protection Act 2008 (Vic). And the definition of family violence includes physical, sexual, financial, verbal or emotional abuse by a family member.
3 General Measures
(a) Proof of family violence may be required and can be in the form an agreed document issued by the Police Service, a Court, a Doctor, District Nurse, Maternal Health Care Nurse, a Family Violence Support Service or Lawyer.
(b) All personal information concerning family violence will be kept confidential. Information will not be kept on an employee’s personnel file without their express written permission.
(c) Understanding the traumatic nature of family violence the VTHC will support their employee if they have difficulties performing their tasks at work. No adverse action will be taken against an employee if their attendance or performance at work suffers as a result of experiencing family violence.
(e) The VTHC will identify a contact in human resources, union Shop Steward or go to person who will be trained in family violence and privacy issues, for example, training in family violence risk assessment and risk management. The VTHC will advertise the name of the contact.
(f) An employee experiencing family violence may raise the issue with their immediate supervisor, their union delegate/shop steward or Human Resources.
(g) Where requested by an employee, the contact person will liaise with the employee’s supervisor on the employee’s behalf, and will make a recommendation on the most appropriate form of support to provide in accordance with sub clauses 4 and 5.
(h) The VTHC will develop guidelines to supplement this clause and which details the appropriate action to be taken in the event that an employee reports family violence.
4 Leave
(a) An employee experiencing family violence will have access to 20 days per year (non accumulative) of paid special leave for medical appointments, legal proceedings and other activities related to family violence. This leave will be in addition to existing leave entitlements and may be taken as consecutive or single days or as a fraction of a day and can be taken without prior approval.
(b) An employee who supports a person experiencing family violence may take cares leave to accompany them to court, to hospital, or to mind children.
5 Individual Support
(a) In order to provide support to an employee experiencing family violence and to provide a safe work environment to all employees, the VTHC will approve any reasonable request from an employee experiencing family violence for:
(i) changes to their span of hours or pattern or hours and/or shift patterns;
(ii) job redesign or changes to duties;
(iii) relocation to suitable employment within the VTHC;
(iv) a change to their telephone number or email address to avoid harassing contact;
(v) any other appropriate measure including those available under existing provisions for family friendly and flexible work arrangements.
(b) An employee experiencing family violence will be referred to the appropriate support services/agencies and/or other local resources.
(c) An employee that discloses to Human Resources or their supervisor that they are experiencing family violence will be given a resource pack of information of current support and referral services.

There have been, and are, so many amazing people working to improve the lives of women and children affected by family violence. It is beneficial for those of us who feel we’ve been struggling forever to remind ourselves social justice campaigners are many – we are not alone.

Let’s hope that Rose Batty’s voice  remains  strong and her campaign and wise words are heard often this year so that her wish to see positive change is granted.

Family violence] is an entrenched epidemic that we’ve lived with since time began, so we’ve got a long way to go. But I do believe the tide is turned. It’s no longer a subject that only occurs behind closed doors

Ms Batty after receiving her Australian of the Year award on January 25, 2015.

Happy Birthday Rabbie Burns! And Thank You Mum and Dad – In Praise of Reading and the Value of Books.

Through and through th’ inspired leaves,
ye maggots make your windings;
But O respect his lordship’s taste,
And spare the golden bindings.’

Robert Burns, 25th Jan 1759 – 21st July 1796

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Today is the anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns – ‘oor Rabbie’  and my Father’s favourite Scottish poet. In many countries of the world, as well as Scotland, his contribution to literature will be celebrated at a Burns Supper with haggis piped in, songs sung, poems recited and much Scotch whisky, even Drambuie consumed. If you have an ounce of Scots blood, or lay claim to Scottish heritage, put an attendance at a Burns Supper on your bucket list!

It’s an opportune day to reflect on how my parents influenced me in different ways regarding reading as they inculcated a love of books into our family life. Both parents were strong characters with strong beliefs, but they came from different backgrounds (Dad, Scottish working class, Mum, Irish middle class) and so each had eclectic tastes. Fortunately, they agreed about issues that mattered – ethics and values to guide our lives, the importance of humanity and spirituality – and as prolific readers, both valued education.

Mum read more novels and fiction than Dad, who favoured technical manuals and non fiction books on subjects such as theology, philosophy, and politics. However, both loved history and poetry, and the classics. They kept abreast of the popular literature of the day, and the books considered to belong in an educated person’s library.

When my Dad died, I found an exercise book where he had had written stories, poems and even a short play. ‘Scraps of Paper’  so poignantly captured by Eric Bogle, who also had an erudite railwayman as a father. I realised the reason Dad nurtured and supported my love of creative writing was because it was an unrequited dream of his own. All my life, I knew, he valued the written word,  had a talent for speaking and writing, but sadly never saw his way to living the writer’s life.

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November 1962 – an image etched in my mind of Mum and Dad sitting in our almost bare lounge-room the week before we left Scotland for Australia.

Two packing cases sit in the centre of the floor, greaseproof lining protruding as if a surprise package has just been opened, but these are set aside to pack books for the hold of the ship taking us to Melbourne. Their pungent woody smell almost overpowers the musty smell from piles of books garnered from every room, drawer and bedside shelf in the house and scattered in various sized bundles around the room.

Mum sits on a cushion on the floor examining stacks –   book by book. Dad sits on a kitchen chair (the lounge suite already gifted to a needy neighbour) and he has several books balancing on his knees as he thumbs through a green leather volume in his hand.

Mum looks different, not relaxed as she usually is at night, in an armchair, engrossed in a book, cup of tea by her side, cigarette smouldering in an ashtray, and one hand twirling at her popular Toni perm.

Tonight, she’s wearing new reading glasses and a serious face. There are no guffaws of laughter (a frequent occurrence when she reads a Para Handy novel), or serious sighs (from absorption in an Agatha Christie mystery or Arthur Upfield’s Bony series), or dreamy smiles inspired by her favourite Mills and Boon author, Australian Lucy Walker.

‘We’ll take this one,’ said Dad, handing over Ivanhoe, a Sir Walter Scott Waverley novel, ‘which pile is going?’

Mum looks up, ‘Aye, all right – and this one too,’ she adds, pointing to a pile next to one of the packing cases and placing the Tartan Pimpernel by Donald Caskie on top.

‘Have you been through this pile?’ Dad leans over to check a bundle of books near his feet.
‘Aye,’ said Mum, ‘they can stay.’ She smiles as Dad picks them up to glance at their spines. He doesn’t check inside to see if they belonged to Papa, Granny, or one of his sisters and brothers, instead he mutters, ‘they’ll go.’

Mum laughs and holds up another bundle of books. ‘You decided these should stay?’
Dad nods. ‘Well,’ said Mum, ‘I want them to go.’

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I’m not sure if any books actually remained in Scotland. The evening progressed slowly, books Mum discarded, Dad decided to keep – and vice versa. Thank goodness even our children’s books were packed. No wonder the family home, including my current one, the bookshelves always bulge.

From my childhood, I learned to value books as prized possessions, a necessity for living. In the 50s and 60s, Sunday School and regular School awarded books as prizes – for attendance and for achievement. Books were expensive until the cheaper paperbacks were produced and for working class children like me an amazing gift to receive.

Father Christmas left children’s annuals like the Beano, Dandy, Topper or Bunty plus a popular novel, whether it was Capt W.E Johns Biggles series for the boys, or Louisa M Alcott’s Little Women series for the girls.

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My godmother and other relatives and family friends knew to give me books as presents, were aware of my dream to be like my fictional heroine, Jo March.

No surprise I became the swot of the family and only sibling to attend university, the teacher and writer with floor to ceiling bookshelves in several rooms – the one who has happily lost countless hours of  life rummaging in bookshops.

I hear Dad’s voice, ‘I don’t care if you choose to be a street cleaner. Just stick in at school and be the best educated and qualified street cleaner there is!’ and Mum’s plea, ‘never waste the brains or talent God gave you.’

I’ve passed on the love and value of reading to my daughters. They understand that education is not the cramming of knowledge, but nurturing the desire to learn. I wonder what books will bulge from their bookshelves because despite technology they both love the feel, the weight, the smell, the comfort of a ‘real’ book! And they have both become exceptionally creative people in their own fields, including a love for the power of words.

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Dresses made With Love and worn with Joy better than Designer Love!

Pure, intense emotions. It’s not about design. It’s about feelings.

Alber Elbaz

July 2011: The dark blue floral voile  falls soft and sensual against my skin,  the shirring elastic bodice still has elasticity and bounce.

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Anne holds the long flowing dress against her slim body, sways slightly and lets the material swirl at her ankles. ‘Can I have this, Mum?’ She sashays in front of the wardrobe mirror, ‘ it’s so cool.’

I smile and nod. ‘ Your Aunty Cate made it for me. I was 18, maybe 19. To think it once fitted…’ I close my eyes briefly as remembering is hard,  ‘size 10 I think…’

Anne grins and pats my shoulder. ‘You’re beautiful Mum,’ and as if aware of my embarrassment, ‘your body’s great for your age and what you’ve been through.’

I chuckle at the backhanded compliment – and understatement – pushing sixty and living without a cleavage after a mastectomy, plus coping with extra weight from Tamoxifen, this body’s been ‘through the mill’. (I hear Mum’s voice, she loved her proverbs, Bible quotes, adages… they may be cliches, but always ‘hit the mark’!)

I remember choosing the pattern and material for this dress in 1971. Older sister, Cate and I on one of our many sojourns to the South Melbourne Market,  a great place for bargains as well as having an exciting multi-cultural milieu that made every visit memorable in the 60s and 70s, especially for us living ‘out in the sticks’ at Croydon, the foot of the Dandenong Ranges and considered semi-rural.

The baby doll style fashionable in the late 60s and early 70s, but the material and shirring elastic bodice set the pattern apart, as did the smaller puffed sleeves my sister added and the giant zip at the back allowing my then recognisable waist to be shown off!

When I look back, I appreciate how lucky I was to have clever seamstresses in the family. My father’s sister, Chrissie owned a dressmaking school when she sponsored us to Australia in 1962. She  generously taught my sister and I all she knew as well as making the latest styles like muumuus, mini skirts, and hot pants so we could be fashionable despite our low income.  Dad a blue collar worker chasing money so we could be established in Australia. We used Aunt Chrissie’s Singer machines, the large cutting-out table plus all the other accoutrements necessary for tailoring.

In a machine age, dressmaking is one of the last refuges of the human, the personal, the inimitable.

Christian Dior

Needless to say, my sister Cate thrived under her tutelage with an inherited passion and gift  for the craft. I preferred to find a hiding place to read, or go off on an adventure with my brothers. After all, how many  dressmakers did the family need?   Cate, with a natural talent for design and style, infinite ideas and good judgement, expertly manipulated needle, thread and machine. Today her embroidery, sewing and quilting still win prizes, also her porcelain dolls and teddy bears, even crocheted and knitted articles.

Many people (including me) have wedding photo albums full of pictures of bride and bridesmaid dresses Cate made, as well as outfits for formals, debuts, travel, new babies, concerts and any other occasion you can imagine. When she moved out of home, I think  every visit back was spent altering clothes for some member of the family – saved up just for her – that’s the downside of having skill in a big family, everybody wants a piece of you!

I stare at the flimsy material catapulting me back to my youth.  I loved this dress, and those years so much! The dress suited my slim physique and  hopeful outlook – the hippy years at university – and the restless years –  setting off overseas in 1973 and again in 1976.

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In Scotland,  it doubled as a formal dress when I added a hat and attended a cousin’s wedding. It’s that kind of dress – casual, comfortable, but elegant too.

Anne rolls it up, but before she  packs it into her backpack, I hold the dress to my face, breathe deeply and imagine the lingering smell of patchouli, a staple perfume in the freewheeling 70s, when I was in love with Donovan. I feel the warmth of the bodies of lovers I met on my travels, the wonderful last dance at the Mecca in Portsmouth to Procol Harem’s A Whiter Shade of Pale. I hear the crackle and swish as I dance to Steeleye Span’s ‘All around my hat…’  at Melbourne’s ‘summer in the park’ festivals popular in the 80s.

‘So, it’s going to Canada again, ‘I say and with a nod of her blonde head, Anne smiles.  She  throws her arms around me. I hold back tears as she whispers, ‘when I wear it Mum I’ll think of you.’

I swallow the lump of emotion and laugh; returning her squeeze. ‘Well, I hope you have as much fun and good luck as I did on my travels!’

Over the years I have learned that what is important in a dress is the woman who is wearing it.

Yves Saint Laurent

anne in London   anne Toronto 2013

January 2015. I think that’s why I kept the dress – years of clearing out, moving house, pregnancies, seesawing sizes, yet it remained at the back of the wardrobe. A reminder of a happy time, of travelling the world, maturing, learning, becoming independent and my own person. Not always having someone looking over my shoulder expecting me to be… not surrounded by preconceptions, accepted norms.

And now the dress has returned – in need of minor repairs four decades later, but still wearable and still loved.

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A Stitch in Time
Mairi Neil

She sits sewing by dim lamplight
embroidered threads by her side
Contented, happy, eyes shining bright.

In the stillness of evening light
needle and thread silently glide,
As she sits sewing by pale moonlight.

Cross stitches pattern small and tight
new techniques taken in her stride
Contented, happy, eyes shining bright.

Her creativity in wondrous flight
imagination flows like the tide
As she sits sewing by candlelight.

Machines embraced despite Luddites
mass production becomes her guide
Contentment gone, eyes no longer bright

History records seamstresses’ plight
workers stripped of all but pride
Many still struggle in shadowed light
Exploited, sad, eyes no longer bright.

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Memories, Mirrors and Musings to stir the Muse!

She glances at the photo, and the pilot light of memory flickers in her eyes.

Frank Deford

Typewriter-Think

Where have the summer holidays gone? What happened to all my writing plans? The household tasks? The ‘to participate’ list for Melbourne’s wonderful festivals, events and permanent art venues? The catch-up cuppas with friends?

Some of the above were achieved, but not as many as I hoped and now it’s lesson planning time and in less than a fortnight I’ll be back at work at Mordialloc Neighbourhood House, Longbeach Place, Chelsea and Godfrey Street, Bentleigh teaching: Writing for Pleasure & Publication, Writing & Editing, Memoir to Manuscript and Life Stories & Legacies.

I’ve spent many days researching and organising to make the lessons fresh and interesting, the revision and research reminding me of the importance of always honing the craft of writing to learn and apply a variety of techniques. The learning curve necessary for tutor and student alike – I need a challenge too, or I’ll become stale and boring.

At least the writer’s mantra has been applied over the holidays:  read, read, read – and write, write, write – then rewrite, rewrite rewrite!! This blog has helped keep me on my toes,  given me insight to what writers are doing in many other parts of the world and freshened my outlook. Variety indeed the spice of life!

The Internet a seemingly infinite place/space to research, read, find jobs, markets, meet people, network, but most of all learn and much appreciated by a lifelong learner like me.

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Mirror Mirror on the Wall…
Mairi Neil

In the mirror there’s an image I see
Grey hair and wrinkles – how can that be?
Is that old woman really me?

In my head there’s whimsy and fantasy
My body bursts with playful energy
And my growing soul aches to run free!

In the mirror this image I see
Grey hair and wrinkles – who can she be?
An old woman – yes –  but not really me!

A mirror mirage with lips that plea
The grey hair and wrinkles others see
Belong to a future that’s still to be…

In the book of life I accept my age
Uncomplaining – feel no need to rage
As long as each day begins a new page

Wrinkles represent life’s trials -a trace
Of hardships and triumphs we all face
Effects of ageing accepted with grace

In the mirror there’s an image to see
Grey hair, wrinkles layered as a tree,
But that  woman is not the real me!

I still believe in whimsy.  Need fantasy
So must harness lots of playful energy
To be the me, I want to be!

The variety of classes I teach make life interesting and a challenge, particularly when many students return for another year and there is a range of age groups (the oldest student will be 94, the youngest 24), backgrounds, abilities, dreams and needs (some students have mental and physical health issues, but thrive in the safe friendly environment of a community house).

What a blessing and privilege to be teaching a subject I love in local centres with students who choose to be there,  to share their life experiences, imagination and personalities,  knowledge spanning several generations, countries, genders, continents!

A shelf groans with class anthologies and revisiting their delightful contents – each poem, story, anecdote and memoir takes me back into the classroom to hear the voice of the writer, picture them writing and reading… imagining… ‘pilot light of memory’ flickering.

Memory… is the diary that we all carry about with us.

Oscar Wilde,The Importance of Being Earnest

We put so much of ourselves into our words. We share each other’s triumphs and support each other’s writing goals. When a poem a student wrote in my class was accepted into Poetica Christi’s latest anthology her joy jumped off the Christmas card she sent me. Let’s hope there are more successes to come. it’s wonderful when the words work and are appreciated by others.

The Mirror
(after Sylvia Plath)

Why do you challenge me every morning? Do you think muted morning light will make a difference to the harsh incandescence of nightly fluorescents? Your eyes seek what I cannot give. I cannot stop you turning into your mother, or give you back your youth. I cannot heal the surgeon’s scar; replace the slice that changed your life.

I know you think I’m fickle. You rub to polish my view, seek a clarity I cannot give. It may make me reflect more clearly your desires, but not reality. A trick of the light your excuse as those once bright eyes mist and dull. I cannot control your heart or mind. I tell it how it is for me. I may be silver-coated but not silver-tongued.

But, why believe me? Does my opinion matter? I cannot reach out into the world, engage with people the way you can. Take well-worn advice, seek and ye shall find. There’s a window to your soul only you can unlock, and change is constant. Don’t challenge me because my view will always be limited. My reflections dependent upon light.

My power is gifted – take it back.

Mairi Neil 2013

Now back to my planning, revising and writing because …

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Poetry is thriving – There are so many lovely Trees!

“People in suburbia see trees differently than foresters do.  They cherish every one.  It is useless to speak of the probability that a certain tree will die when the tree is in someone’s backyard ….   You are talking about a personal asset, a friend, a monument, not about board feet of lumber.”

Roger Swain

Today is the anniversary of the birth of A.A. Milne, author and creator of Winnie-the-Pooh, Piglet, Eyore and Tigger. An appropriate day for Anne and I to take Aurora for a walk into Bradshaw Park, a small bushland reserve in Mordialloc, just as important to my daughters’ childhood as the hundred acre wood!

Trees
Joyce Kilmer

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.

A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;

A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;

A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;

Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.

Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.

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When Anne and MaryJane were at primary school I was involved with the Friends of Bradshaw Park as a volunteer. Once a month on a Saturday morning , we would weed, plant flora and observe the fauna. The group worked hard building relationships with schools and the council to ensure the park remained as a reserve and did not get swallowed up in a tide of development that was threatening to swamp parts of the City of Kingston, especially when the Kennett Government swept to power. Many park rangers were made redundant, funds were slashed and compulsory competitive tendering became the norm because of the mistaken belief that privatisation of public assets and jobs is cheaper and better. When dual occupancies and high-rise are seen as the most profitable use of land many people are unaware or scathing of the value of places like Bradshaw Park.

It was a difficult and uncertain time, but I met many dedicated conservationists, environmentalists and knowledgeable gardeners in the small group of community-minded volunteers who made up the Friends of Bradshaw Park. They generously passed on their knowledge and nurtured indigenous plants to sell for much needed funds. My garden at Mordialloc benefited and the native bushes and trees that still give me pleasure today originated from Bradshaw Park.

Anne recalled how our involvement in Friends of Bradshaw Park led to  hours of after school fun with mates,  playing chasie, hide and seek and a host of other make-believe games. The children loved the place and learnt to value the importance of indigenous plants and trees in a natural setting. It’s no surprise  both daughters are  active environmentalists with strong opinions about climate change, food sustainability, the importance of rainforests and the scourge of overdevelopment.

“I am the Lorax, I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues.”
 

Dr. Suess

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I held writing workshops in Bradshaw Park for groups of children, many being home educated, others pursuing creative writing and appreciating a hands-on experience in a natural environment.  To raise awareness of the Park and the Friends group, I collated an education kit in 1998 with the help of a council grant. Every primary school in Kingston received a kit, which was packed with history, nature facts, quizzes, colouring-in sheets, poetry, writing prompts, a cassette tape of bird song and guided walk around the park, and my book ‘It’s a Dog’s Life’ written to illustrate importance of keeping dogs under control in suburbia  and cleaning up their poo!  Talented members of the group helped with research, information and drawings.

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“Many people, other than the authors, contribute to the making of a book, from the first person who had the bright idea of alphabetic writing through the inventor of movable type to the lumberjacks who felled the trees that were pulped for its printing.  It is not customary to acknowledge the trees themselves, though their commitment is total.”

Rada and Forsyth, Machine Learning  

Oh, Ancient Tree
Mairi Neil

What are you thinking
oh, ancient tree,
have you thoughts to share
with insignificant me?
I stand before your trunk
so sturdy and strong
the canopy of your branches
stretches loose-limbed and long.
Will your rustling leaves
whisper secrets from the past,
tell of devastating changes
and the die being cast?

Are you just happy to be alive
and home for many creatures?
Glad you’re not yet floorboards,
wood-chips, or someone’s furniture features!

I can see you have scars
from days of long ago,
but never mortally wounded,
you’ve continued to grow and grow…
Beetles and worms nurture
the soil beneath your feet,
and the birds in your foliage
ensure insects don’t overeat.
The birds nestle in your boughs
singing daily as they dally,
enjoying food as well as safety
for your health they’ll rally.
And just by being here
you give sweet breath to me,
there’s truly nothing on this earth
as wonderful as you –
oh, ancient tree!

“When you enter a grove peopled with ancient trees, higher than the ordinary, and shutting out the sky with their thickly inter-twined branches, do not the stately shadows of the wood, the stillness of the place, and the awful gloom of this doomed cavern then strike you with the presence of a deity?”
   

Seneca

International Odyssey
Mairi Neil

The trees cling to fragile foliage
like mothers reluctant to let
their children go.
And the winter sun radiates
white light promising a day
of autumn glory…
It is Melbourne after all.

A blue sky pockmarked by fluffy clouds
reflects a sea of shimmering blue.
But beyond the benign bay
tragedy intrudes as
fear and desperation meets
fear and distrust.

No need of Siren’s song
to lure the mariners to their death.
The monster from the deep is
dressed in political spin and
ideological hubris.
Christian charity is in short supply.

To seek asylum is now illegal
it is Australia after all.

July 2014

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Lyre Bird’s Lair
Mairi Neil

A forgotten memory like shadow cast
Feeds a yearning for the past,
A picture of childish eyes entranced
The memorable day the lyrebird danced.
Performing his usual repertoire of sound
The lyrebird proudly claimed his ground
Tail feathers splayed shimmering white
Brown head hidden from onlookers’ sight.
And without proud peacock arrogance
The bird shyly began a seductive dance.
Throughout the day lovers came and went
Until the lyrebird with energy spent
Disappeared amongst the haze of trees
Ephemeral as the evening breeze.

Enthused by dreams of aeons past
I return to Sherbrooke Forest at last
Spongy green moss cushions city feet
Melodious warbles and insects meet.
Fragile maidenhair decorates the trail
Flighty butterflies appreciate their veil.
Eucalyptus tang replaces rich loam smell
Towering Mountain Ash cast their spell.
I hope to glimpse again the lyrebird’s dance
Tho’ its talent for mimicry limits my chance
This bird can repeat the magpie’s trill
Replicates man-made sounds at will −
Chainsaw, hammer, or car alarm
All perfected as part of his charm.

I pant with the exertion of the climb
Birds chitter and sing with voices sublime
My misty gasps whisper to the trees
When nearby rustling makes me freeze
Low in the fork of a wattle tree
A sight I never expected to see
Constructed with meticulous precision
A lyrebird family’s nesting vision
A beautiful ball-shaped structure appears
An ideal home developed from years
Of evolution, and remarkable adaptation
By a bird unique to the Australian nation.
But alas like the palette of fleeting dawn
The enigmatic lyrebird’s chick has flown.

2013

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Summer days Enjoying the Present, Pondering the Past and Looking Forward.

Memory is a way of holding onto the things you love, the things you are, the things you never want to lose.

From the television show The Wonder Years
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Yesterday, I caught up with a writer friend who can no longer come to our workshop nights because she works late afternoon shifts to fit in with caring for her 89 year old mother. It was a lovely morning exploring her suburb of Edithvale, or Edie as the locals refer to the seaside town, two train stops away from Mordialloc, on the Frankston railway line.

I enjoyed hearing her praise Edie; see her smile with pride when relating stories about her love for the place. We both appreciated the blessing of living in a beautiful and safe area. We sampled tea in two different cafés, starting off at the one by the beach and having another cuppa in one ‘up the street’. We explored and grabbed bargains at St Vinnie’s Opportunity Shop while I absorbed her local knowledge.  To learn about a place from someone who loves it, to see through their eyes, a great way to explore the unfamiliar. I was pleased she still writes and keeps a journal, recording stories, events, thoughts on books she reads and films she sees –  no lull in our conversation or awkward silence as we chatted about authors and poets. A great catch-up even although we don’t see each other as often as before!

We shared admiration for Philip Larkin, but I was able to introduce her to Roger McGough.

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Mecurial Melbourne decided to give us a taste of winter as we sat huddled in the beachside café watching the wild sea. Not alone,  venturing seaward we laughed as three preschool children entertained onlookers by racing along the beach, playing chasie, throwing seaweed at each other and exclaiming at shells and stones discovered. Having uninhibited fun as children do, in-between returning to the table to interrupt the conversation of their  mothers  and remind them to ‘Look at me, Mum! Look what I found.’

Their joie de vivre triggered a memory of the first time I visited a beach in Melbourne with my brothers and sisters. We’d migrated  from Scotland in the summer of 1962. The pictures taken at Seaford, a beach in close proximity to Edie. No doubt, we would have driven by this place, or even stopped to sample the swimming here too, all those years ago. Another newly-arrived Scots family accompanied us – the pictures show a crowd of lily-white bodies excited about being in a warm sea!

img367   first swim in oz at seaford

I thought too of the days spent on Mordialloc beach with Anne and Mary Jane.

ScanI even recalled memories of visiting Pencil Point in Largs for that one day of the year we could call summer on the west coast of Scotland! (An old Andy Stewart joke – ‘of course, I remember summer! It was a Thursday!’)

I’m sure most people, if they sit in a café by the sea, could conjure memories of childhood, or of their children growing up, so if you are a writer don’t forget your pen and notebook! Relax and enjoy the aroma of fresh tea or coffee, listen to the rhythm of music, birdsong, voices, the sea – whatever surrounds you. Write what you see, hear, touch, feel; what you think, what you remember, what story you want to share…

The Shell
Mairi Neil

The sea a bright smudge of paint
reflects the powder blue sky,
now dotted with wisps of clouds
as if a child applied sunscreen –
long smears and uneven dollops.
My daughters prance in the shallows
collect shells and splash each other.
Laughter and joie de vivre contagious.
Tiny hands tremble with excitement
and clutch a pretty conch shell.

Let’s listen to the ocean, I whisper…

Childhood fantasies return as I
hear lapping waves caress the shore,
recall the whorls and serrated edges
of a giant shell sitting by the fireplace,
in a Scottish home. A relic of the sea;
frills worn smooth by tidal dances.
Children fascinated, imagination inspired.
The salmon pink interior, examined ––
What creature abandoned this home?
The answer forgotten, but not the whoosh
and echo of ocean waves.

The girls pocket their treasures.                                                              DSC_3702
Walking home, I share the story
of a bleached skeleton from the Irish Sea
transplanted 12,000 miles to Australia,
along with other family treasures.
Science suggests ambient noise –
not the whispers of distant seas,
but in the soothing songs of shells
Life’s mystique remains, and the girls
ponder connections to distant lands,
Life’s mysteries; the vastness of the sea.

Shell Cinquain
Mairi Neil

Shell
robust, resilient
dazzling, whorling, adorning
eternal colourful valuable mysterious
Dowry

Memory is a child walking along a seashore. You never can tell what small pebble it will pick up and store away among its treasured things.

Pierce Harris, Atlanta Journal


Quirky Signs and Witty Words are useful Writing Triggers

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Some days you have to dig deep for smiles – make that some weeks! At the beginning of January because it is John’s birthday, our household struggles with grief – it may be 12 years since his untimely death, but I can close my eyes and it could have been yesterday. We pine for those lost years, imagine all the what ifs…

The girls and I have worked out ways of supporting each other and we have a shelf of DVDs for escapism – movies combining clever dialogue and good old fashioned slapstick, allowing the suspension of disbelief and belly laughs – plus comfort food and cider!

I admire quick wit and words used in a clever, unusual and/or unexpected way. Even in the most tragic circumstances something humorous may happen, and often when reflecting on a bad experience a funny side appears. It may not have seemed funny at the time, but put in perspective we laugh and consider ‘it could have been worse,’ or as my Irish Mother would say, ‘worse things happen at sea.’ We make a point of recounting happy memories of John rather than focusing on the sad effects of his illness and death. One of the attractions, which drew me to John was his keen sense of humour and the ridiculous and we like to honour that!

Social media is full of funny memes, jokes and succinct messages to leave me in awe of the creativity of fellow human beings. There’s the obvious and the subtle, but it’s great someone took a moment to think about what words to use and how to use them, or to search for inspirational quotes, comments and graphics. So many are thought provoking and can inspire  writing.

This quote from Jim Morrison reminded me of how The Doors wore  out my turntable at university, along with Bob Dylan and Joan Baez records! However, daughter Anne loves the music of that era and returned from Canada with vinyl in her suitcase (yes, records are making a come-back), including a rare record by Ian Mathews, which I will listen to when I write about my sojourn on the Isle of Arran in 1973. Listening to music a great trigger for writing memories, but also setting a mood and firing the imagination.

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However, some signs can be excruciating – blatant spelling or grammar mistakes that make wordsmiths cringe. We’ve all been guilty of pressing send/post/submit to soon or with mistakes we’ve overlooked, but when commercial or government companies pay for professional signs and hang, print, publish or concrete them into the ground for posterity, you have to shake your head and wonder who’s head will roll?

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Frankston Council is not sure what word is right so they made several signs – for the same street near Chisholm TAFE of all places – were they looking for ‘exempted’ ? Not sure!

There were many innovative signs to raise a smile when MaryJane and I travelled around the USA by train in 2012. Some were curiosities, some clever, some confronting and all could inspire a poem, travel anecdote or story.

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Poignant signs on the sidewalk in Astoria, Oregon and John Lennon’s Imagine mosaic in the Strawberry Fields memorial and memorial seats to regular users of Central Park New York all fodder for the imagination as did being in LA the day Neil Armstrong died and seeing his pavement star decorated with beautiful flowers, or the seat in honour of the woman who spearheaded the domestic violence awareness program.

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The main reason we visited Portland Oregon and took a trip down the Columbia River to Astoria was to discover more information about an ancestor – Captain John McInnes of Skye, who went down with all hands when his sailing ship, the Cadzow Forest, hit the infamous and treacherous waters near Oregon in 1896. Reading the captions in the maritime museum and seeing relics, emotional as well being informative.

Cadzow Forest article

I kept a journal while we travelled, as all writers should, even although some days it was just random jottings to remind myself to write more detail later. When I write  I focus on character because when I read stories it is the characters who interest me the most, curiosity and caring about their lives a must for me to continue reading.

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Here are two characters from our few days in LA – both encountered at Union Station:

Union Station LA

The taxi ride to Union Station short and uneventful and after I booked us in, I went looking for a coffee and snacks to take on the train. Famima Supermarkets everywhere and if you buy goods, they give you a chit for a free coffee. I laughed. ‘It’ll be another month before we return to Union Station.’

The young assistant smiled and said, ‘that’s fine, there’s no expiry date.’

‘But my memory will probably expire or I’ll lose the chit!’ I said, raising a chuckle of understanding from another middle-aged customer.

I return to our seats and find MJ deep in conversation with Roger and Zac, a father and 14 yr old son  on vacation. They approached Mary  to take their photo. Our waiting time flies as Roger chats non-stop – we learn about his divorce, his recovery from alcoholism, his ex-wife’s bipolar, his 19 yr old daughter’s heart operations and her desire to study film and his son’s college aspirations. Roger, an engineer was born and raised in San Francisco. His job pays well and he pays a lot of taxes, but doesn’t mind and hopes Obama is re-elected. He hates George Bush and Mitt Romney, fears America will go into Iran. He goes dancing every week, has joined single parent and divorcee organisations, wants to lose weight, wants to be in a relationship again, but not ready yet. Would like sex, but is prepared to wait; went skinny dipping at the hotel the night before and dallied with another recovering alcoholic, but she has too many issues… All of this gushed in what seems a single breath, but random order. He’s excited we will be on the same train and suggests we have dinner together that evening.

We are in the same car, but MJ and I go to the Observation Car and get chatting with some other people.  We never see Roger and an embarrassed Zac again – I have a feeling it’s not only Roger’s ex-wife who is bipolar because he appeared manic to me.

However, I dropped the hint I was 10 years older, a widow and not looking for another relationship I think I halted his pursuit and so heard no more of extremely personal confessions!

LA Again
It’s 4.15am and we have time to kill on our return to Union Station because although we told  Jeremy, our Airbnb host we’d arrive early, we didn’t want to outstay our welcome immediately!

In Starbucks, a strange lady takes over two stools in a corner and starts to change her clothes and repack her bags. She’s in her 60s, maybe older, or maybe late 50s with skin wrinkled and leathery from the Californian sun. Her blonde/black streaked hair has tips or highlights, or just a bad result from hairdressing at home. It is short and  frames her face and she wears a brightly striped rosette clip. A cotton crocheted top, an eye-hurting fluoro pink is pulled over a black skintight t-shirt. She’s petite and has a lead pencil stuck behind her ear. Sunglasses hide her eyes and reapplied bright red lipstick gleams. She’s making heavy weather of all her luggage reorganising hindered only slightly by  a leg brace velcrozed to the outside of her three quarter denim-look pants. Socks and shoes are changed after meticulously placing the insoles on the tiled floor as if they are walking into her bags! Silver geometric earrings dangle from pink ears and a thick elastic band adorns one wrist – perhaps she is compulsive obsessive or suffers anxiety and the rubber band is to remind her to stay calm?
At last she has packed a tapestry carpet bag and a green enviro bag. Two black leather bags, one a smaller handbag, are strung across her back criss-cross fashion.  She limps out of the cafe where she has been for over an hour, abandoning a coffee cup  as evidence she has been there,  it’s not binned despite all her luggage tidying!

I have a description and the beginning of questions about these fleeting cameos in my travelogue. If I want to include them as characters in a piece of fiction I must work to give them a life, personality, dreams and disappointments, goals and obstacles – and make readers be interested, intrigued, engaged and care about them – something I wouldn’t be able to do, if I hadn’t observed with a writer’s eye and recorded details to help set the scene.

How Haiku led me to Haibun and the importance of Kintsukuroi to my Writing Life

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Oh, how we need inspirational quotes and prods from friends and that nagging inner voice, to pick up the pen, or in modern parlance, sit in front of the computer and tap doggedly at the keys.

Today, when so many people are writing it is easy to be discouraged if you go down the track of comparing your offerings in a negative way. Instead of learning, experimenting, editing and rewriting, you give up because you think I can’t write like that… my book won’t be as popular as that… he/she writes so much better than me…no one wants to read what I write… I’m a poet, a short story writer, a musician, a blogger, a novelist, I don’t understand other genres… I’m not good enough… it’s too hard to change… (or is it in Robert Louis Stevenson’s words ‘the malady of not wanting’!)

Almost everyone in the creative arts, not just writers, suffers at some time on their journey from the fear of failure, rejection, inadequacy and ridicule, but we also experience the incredible satisfaction of doing what we love and when it works its akin to ecstasy! For me, as a writer, the secret is to ‘hang in there’ like a surfer clinging to a board in a turbulent sea. I also venture into unknown waters, sometimes a paddle, other times a deep dive, and most of the times I’m waving not drowning!

One of my changes of directions involved learning haiku, which led to experimenting with other forms of Japanese poetry and like most form poetry, attempting to ‘get it right/write’  can be a wonderful and creative distraction when words fail elsewhere in your writing life. I’ve shared some of my haiku in earlier posts and want to thank Nobuko Sakai, a longtime friend for introducing me to Japanese verse. Nobuko came into my life when I was sixteen and she attended my high school in 1970 as a Japanese exchange student. We have been friends ever since, visiting each other here in Melbourne, Tokyo,  and in London, England where she now lives.

Nobuko sent me The Penguin Book of Japanese Verse (1964), translated by Geoffrey Bownas and Anthony Thwaite, which introduced me to the great Matsuo Bashō and Kobayashi Issa and so many others, as well as giving a potted history of 1500 years of Japanese tradition. (There is a not so glowing review of the book here, but sixteen years old me did not have the knowledge (or desire) to critique like this, I was just enthralled to discover a new world of writers!)

A more recent gift of a carload of books by a generous daughter from the estate of her mother, a local writer/artist, included Classic Haiku, a Master’s Selection (1991), a gold mine of poetry translated by Yuzuru Miura with a poet’s eye and they fit Bownas & Thwaite’s description:

(a haiku’s)… seventeen syllables should ideally – and nearly always did – end in a noun or an emotional ejaculation, and should contain their ‘season word’ (kilo) or expression hinting at the time of the year appropriate to the context.’

However, like all adaptations, if you become involved in the poetry scene you’ll find those who insist on traditional haiku, and those who accept changes to the form, whether in syllable count or subject matter. My advice – just write a three line image, manipulate the words as best you can and say what you want to say whether it exactly fits the parameters, or not. (It’s amazing how often it does!)

A frozen puddle
trip back to my childhood
worth wet socks all day

Mairi Neil, Hobo Poetry Magazine, Issue 21. (no longer in print)

Last year I introduced myself and the class to Haibun and without becoming too pedantic about the rules I tried to combine haiku and prose to tell a story aiming for the moon, but sometimes remaining on earth:

In good haibun, the prose deepens the understanding of the poetry, and the poetry gives greater energy to the prose. The relationship is like that between the moon and the earth: each makes the other more beautiful.

Here is my first effort at haibun (it doesn’t follow the rules of some traditionalists), but was  published in Celebrating Poetry by  Karenzo Media 2014:

Visiting Singapore 1973

Mairi Neil

We crowd on deck as the cruise ship glides into Singapore harbour, a week after leaving Fremantle. The silver sun aglow in a cloudless azure sky. Skin fiery scarlet from too many hours in the ship’s pool as Singapore City wobbles and wilts in the heat.

I ache for relief
from this tantalising veil
and covet the sea

Engines thrum and screeches of gulls mask the first hint a change is on the way. Rain falls in sheets and shafts. Solid blocks of water pound the decks.

Clouds scud across sky
The veil now a fog blanket
Hiding the city.

Beneath our feet racing rivers fill deck gutters and our shoes. On automatic pilot, we slosh for cover, although there is no icy wind in this downpour.

No unsettling chill
Just instant relief
From relentless heat

Rain hammers metal, swamps furniture and people, drenching everything not covered. Metal rails hiss. Steam sizzles on the shrinking, not sinking ship. No crevice escapes. A continuous stream of trickles and dribbles demonstrates the power of this deluge.

A turmoil of grey
Idyllic tropics in grip
Of monsoonal rain

Yet, within minutes, the ship docks and the downpour stops as quickly as it began. Singapore city a perfect watercolour painting showcases sunlight and serenity. The tropical shower and haze but a dream as perspiration leaks from every pore.

I tried to write another…

Sore Feet and Soaring Thoughts

Mairi Neil

A wonderful warm spring day. A clutch of residents from the nursing home walk around the block for a dose of Vitamin D and fresh air. Two carers dressed in floral finery, not wings and halos, their guardians.

Shuffling slippered feet
Walker wheels squeak and sticks tap
Dull pleated skirts flap…

Without a sideways glance, a gaggle of schoolgirls overtake the pensioner posse. They preen and prance. Laughter tinkles, iPod cords dangle, mobile phones jingle.

A raven squawks as
strutting peacocks and tired chooks
enjoy the sunshine

The ambulatory group not seeking to collide, or slide, to the other side. Today’s challenges taken in their stride.

Smiling carers guide
stumbling feet and rheumy eyes
to avoid a fall

Gnarled arthritic hands cling to walking frames bumping over paths once traversed with prams and baby strollers. Reminiscent of bygone children’s frolics, parrots chitter overhead as magpies chortle and caper.

Pavement cracks trigger
memories. Past lives flash of
mothers, daughters, wives.

The internet is a great resource for reading haibun online. To access several fine sites go to this link and here.

Saturday Morning Sojourn
Mairi Neil

Magpies trill
Ravens squawk, and parrots squeal
In morning mist chill…

The sea breeze tastes salty and brings a whiff of fish. Eucalypts counteract the exhaust fumes from an idling bus. My footsteps tap and click to compete with the clang of bells from the railway crossing, while a pink glow tinges a pewter sky.

An absence of folk
At seven Saturday morn
Commuters sleep-in…

The Frankston train grunts to a standstill, brake fluid turning the air rancid. Carriage doors open at the touch of a button. I smile. The heating works too.

Friday night’s residue
Stale beer and body odour
Bottles, cans, litter…

Fresh air, a relief at Chelsea Station. Community gardens glisten with dew, their morning hush disturbed by eager joggers and dog walkers.

Curtains, and eyes closed
Newspapers asleep on lawns
Doorstop cats restless…

Enticing smells float from a bakery and a group of young people huddle outside the tennis courts. Their dedication triggers memories of school hockey practice.

Teasing and giggling
the scantily dressed teens
Gather for sport…

I walk towards the medical clinic, a sixth sense telling me the lightness of step justified. I chuckle and feel ageless.

I’ll return to these poems and try to salvage the essence or write a new poem because that’s what I do – keep aiming for perfection and searching for words and form to share my thoughts and observations and ‘an overactive imagination’ – my Mother’s words!

And I’m grateful I came across this delightful image, which led to a discovery of another gift from Japanese culture and one I will share with my students when classes return as well as this delightful fable of its origins. The message to me as a writer is to never give up, find a home for those words, or rejig them into something different, perhaps even better, or just accept them for what they are – an expression from a moment in time – whether it be a deep and meaningful observation, a description or fanciful thought!

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As a philosophy kintsukuroi ,  treats breakage and repair as part of the history of an object, rather than something to disguise. As a philosophy kintsugi can be seen to have similarities to the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi, an embracing of the flawed or imperfect.

Not only is there no attempt to hide the damage, but the repair is literally illuminated… a kind of physical expression of the spirit of mushin….Mushin is often literally translated as “no mind,” but carries connotations of fully existing within the moment, of non-attachment, of equanimity amid changing conditions. …The vicissitudes of existence over time, to which all humans are susceptible, could not be clearer than in the breaks, the knocks, and the shattering to which ceramic ware too is subject. This poignancy or aesthetic of existence has been known in Japan as mono no aware, a compassionate sensitivity, or perhaps identification with, [things] outside oneself.

Christy Bartlett, Flickwerk The Aesthetics of Mended Japanese Ceramics

Writers know about knockbacks, shattering truths, and lucky breaks – we also know about rebuilding dreams and that often requires rebuilding or salvaging our words – I can definitely relate to Kintsukuroi in my general life as well as my writing life!

Writers Write – That’s What We Do – Let’s Hope the Readers Read!

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To be a writer is to embrace rejection as a way of life.

Dana Stabenow.

Over the years, I’ve earned more money from my teaching than my writing, but I remember the day I considered myself a writer and decided to keep scribbling and never abandon an activity that has saved my sanity, brought pleasure and pain, and remains a vital part of who I am.

A Ticket To Write

Mairi Neil

The morning is a brilliant blue with a fresh sea breeze and cliched cottonwool clouds. The dog barks her annoyance at a piercing whistle from a city bound train and from my bedroom window, I watch an envelope flop into the letterbox as the postman pedals past.

Gently, I restrain two-year-old Anne’s ebullient rush outside. This ritual, a highlight of her morning. She loves the challenge of turning the key, opening the Perspex door and retrieving the letters while I hold her aloft as her dainty feet brush the agapanthus and geraniums.

I wonder if she notices my seesawing moods during this ritual: excited anticipation, then wistfulness.

Today, I stare at the black letters on the solitary white business envelope, a distinctive logo bold and embossed. I breathe deeply; try to remain calm. Oh, to be Superman with x-ray vision.

Anne, usually adept at opening the letterbox, fumbles today. My legs begin a nervous tremble – a premonition (or hope) pumps blood through my heart to pulse in already throbbing ears. The clear air seems lighter like my head; the scent of nearby lavender and sturdy eucalypts keeping me focused as I concentrate on Anne’s voice delightfully chanting, ‘Here Mummy… only one ‘vope.’

‘Thank you darling.’ I playfully pat her bottom as I set her on the ground, ‘Mummy’ll race you inside.’ This usual conclusion of our journey to the mailbox, one I always lose.

I pretend to run and keep one eye on the toddling fairy while ripping the envelope open. A cheque, attached to a With Compliments slip from The Herald & Weekly Times, flutters free.

I stare at the slip of paper worth $60.00. Blood rushes to my face and at that moment the world changes. Closing my eyes, I cross into a world only visited in dreams. Someone values what I wrote – enough to pay me for it. ‘I’m a published writer!’ I whisper to the plants not expecting a response like Prince Charles, but I need an audience! I babble the significance of the news to Anne, wishing she could understand more than ‘Mummy is very happy.’ She just giggles and laughs as I sweep her into my arms and swirl and twirl into the house, desperate to telephone John.

My husband’s joy palpable, ‘I knew you’d be published. I’m going out now to buy several copies from the newsagents. Well done, I’m so proud of you.’ A few minutes later, John rings to say my story isn’t in the current issue.

I had sent it six weeks ago – when was it published? I check the ‘with compliments’ slip for a hint, but no luck. I ring my parents who are regular readers of the newspaper. It had been Dad who’d encouraged me to send  a story to their fiction section. He answers the phone, happy and proud, ‘I’ll buy extra copies of the edition.’

‘That’s if, I ever find out, which one it is Dad. They pay on publication, but it’s not in this week’s.’

I ring the newspaper to find out when, or if, my story has been published. The receptionist off-hand, ‘If you’ve received a cheque then it’s already been published.’

I contemplate ringing Dad again; hoping their recycled papers hadn’t been collected, but Mum rings me before I can dial. Great minds think alike! She’d retrieved the paper from the recycle bin. The story published two weeks earlier.

Mum reads every page of newspapers or magazines meticulously. I learn an important lesson –  people read the words – the author’s name may not be noticed or remembered!

That was 1987 when I’d abandoned full-time paid work to be a mother. A confidante to my dreams, John encouraged me to write while I ‘had the time and opportunity.’ Only a man (or non-writer) could make that statement, but I am grateful he valued and encouraged me to write.

The administrative position I held in a busy parish office prior to motherhood hadn’t left much energy for creative writing, although the constant stream of people seeking help and advice fired my imagination, as did church political intrigue. The relentless work of a new baby, breastfeeding on demand and apparently only needing occasional twenty-five minute catnaps throughout very long days and nights didn’t do much for energy levels either! However, I did find time to scribble and polish some words and my imagination never switched off.

I had been writing for years gaining publication of poems and articles at school, university and church magazines, but never actually developing the confidence to send a piece off to a commercial publisher. At work, I was the one people asked to write doggerel on special occasions, or help to write letters. I had the reputation amongst family and friends of being ‘good with words,’ but regarded as a hobby writer. No one saw my writing as a serious career choice – not even me!

The desire to write led me to subscribe to a writing magazine. I read every article I could on the craft of writing. John, a trade union official had long irregular working hours, so attending a writing group, or writing class impossible for me to schedule. I noticed an advertisement in the newspaper for The Writing School. The correspondence course not cheap, but they guaranteed to refund your money if you did not recoup the fee from paid published work by the time you finished the course. Most importantly, it was self-paced with no time limit for finishing the course. What did I have to lose? John gave me the enrolment fee as an early birthday present.

One of the first exercises was to write a story under 800 words based on a character study. My effort returned with positive comments and a couple of punctuation suggestions and the advice to ‘find the story a home’.

Dad, a frustrated writer himself, always encouraged me to write. His love of poetry and frequent recitals of favourite poems made me love the potency of words. Mum, an avid reader ensured our house overflowed with books. Birthdays and Christmas always meant at least one book as a gift. All my life, a daily newspaper had been delivered and subscriptions to various magazines  factored into the family budget. I asked Dad for help to choose a market for my story and he suggested The Weekly Times, a popular newspaper in the 80s.

I sent off an unsolicited manuscript –– a photocopy of the painstakingly retyped story(no home computer then), a covering letter and prepaid self-addressed envelope.

My thoughts on an eccentric tram driver who interacted with commuters and the imaginary past I created for him entitled  A Ticket To Vaudeville became my ticket to publication and a much-needed boost to confidence and self-esteem. (This short story can be read in an earlier post.)

It is easy to become discouraged with writing and I’ve found ‘Life’ events intervene, but there are a lot of supportive groups and writers around who understand the pitfalls and as a writer, regardless of payment or other people’s judgment, I’ll continue to write!

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Fear, Freedom, Fantasy, Reality … Words Do have Power, but Writers Must be Allowed to Write!

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This blog is about writing and promoting creative writing, but today I have to honour those writers and cartoonists who were murdered in Paris for doing what writers and cartoonists in a political magazine do:  challenge, confront, comment, lampoon and satirise authority, whether church or state, political or secular.

My deepest condolences to all those in France who have lost someone they love.

It was heartening to take part in a hastily organised vigil in Melbourne’s Federation Square this evening and be with 3000 others, as a mark of respect for those who have died, and to stand in solidarity with the grieving French community of Melbourne. So many shattered young travellers worrying about their families and homeland, coming together to support each other and trying to make sense of such a senseless violent act.

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Many people queued to write or draw a message of condolence and also a message in defence of freedom of speech.

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I owe a great deal of my development and education to the courage, talent and philosophical ideas of uncensored French writers.

My first real introduction to great French writers and thinkers was studying The Enlightenment during my last year at high school and reading Jean-Jaques Rousseau (The Social Contract) and Françoise-Marie Arouet de Voltaire  (Candide) for Eighteenth Century History.

 “Ecrasez l’infame!”- “Crush the Infamous Thing!”

Françoise-Marie Arouet de Voltaire (1694-1778)

I interpreted the infamous thing as being  superstition and intolerance  – standard behaviour of the Catholic Church of Voltaire’s time, and like many others I often quote what he was reported to have said about freedom of speech. A very appropriate comment to reflect on today regarding intolerant fundamentalism.

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Voltaire promoted empiricism, rationalism, social reform, and freedom of thought. Philosopher, satirist, dramatist, novelist, historian, essayist, poet, social reformer, and the most influential champion of the Enlightenment. Once read, never forgotten!

I was a child when I first saw films based on the books of  Victor Hugo (Les misèrables and Notre-Dame de Paris – The Miserables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame), a  teenager when I read novels by other writers from France: Albert Camus (L’Étranger/The Outsider), Alexandre Dumas (The Three Musketeers, The Count of Monte Cristo and The Man in the Iron Mask and The Nutcracker, which Tchaikovsky based his ballet on.), and Jules Verne (Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Journey to the Centre of the Earth, Around the World in 80 Days). Émile Zola’s defence of Alfred Dreyfus and his echoing  Voltaire in the open letter J’accuse still resonates.

In the 1970s at university I read Simone de Beauvoir, a great feminist ( The Second Sex and The Prime of Life) and the truly amazing Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin, best known by her pseudonym George Sand, existentialist Jean Paul Sartre, Gustave Flaubert (Madame Bovary), the poet Charles Baudelaire, and the playwright Molière.

Books by George Sand, a woman ahead of her time, can be read on the Internet here:  http://archive.org/search.php?query=creator:%22George%20Sand%22&page=1

The most recent encounter with great French writers being for my Masters degree:  Hélène Cixous (The Hélène Cixous Reader and The Writing Notebooks of Hélène Cixous), Roland Barthes (The Death of the Author) and the many writings of Jacques Derrida .

The nineteenth-century historian Thomas Macauley said of Voltaire,

“Bigots and tyrants, who had never been moved by the wailing and cursing of millions, turned pale at his name.”

There has never been a century free from bigots or tyrants – we will always need a Voltaire.

Two seemingly contradictory statements about the importance of writing from Jean Paul Sartre, one of the greatest of French writers and philosophers appeared in an article in the Guardian last year. The first quote he was refusing the Nobel Prize for Literature and the second quote was disappointment at not being able to change French policy in Algeria.

I have always declined official honours. A writer should not allow himself to be turned into an institution. This attitude is based on my conception of the writer’s enterprise. A writer who adopts political, social or literary positions must act only within the means that are his own – that is, the written word.

For a long time I looked on my pen as a sword; now I know how powerless we are.

Sartre was obviously jaded and disappointed, but at least he didn’t stop writing.

I don’t believe writers are powerless and I hope there will always be those with the courage of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists and writers. Here are two cartoons doing the rounds of social media to honour those killed in Paris and to illustrate a belief that the pen will be mightier than the sword!

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