Sun Facts and Why Australia, the Sunburnt Country may Not like You!

I love a sunburnt country, A land of sweeping plains, Of ragged mountain ranges, Of droughts and flooding rains, I love her far horizons, I love her jewel-sea, Her beauty and her terror – The wide brown land for me!

My Country: Dorothea Mackellar (1885-1968) and recited by the poet on Youtube

I have what is considered ‘a Celtic pelt’ and because of this ancestry and genetics I’m categorised as high risk for skin cancer. In fact I’ve already had one brush in 1983, which resulted in two Squamous Cell carcinomas being removed.

I had just turned 30, had an overseas trip planned with my soon-to-be-husband John, so took the diagnosis in my stride – partly because it all happened so quickly and unexpectedly. My efficient GP, Dr M, now retired,  sent me to a plastic and reconstructive surgeon, Mr K whose excellent ministrations left almost undetectable scars.

In fact, what I remember most about the experience, apart from relief it wasn’t melanoma, was the follow-up visit, to give the ‘all-clear’. The surgeon showed me a photographic album of reconstructed noses. He offered a discount saying, ‘I can make you beautiful, you don’t have to go through life looking like that…’

Well, what could I say?

I refused his offer, of course, John and I being perfectly happy with the nose I’d been born with, plus even with a discount, the price would have meant cancelling our forthcoming overseas trip – and that wasn’t going to happen – I’d had enough surgery and pain.

However, like all writers I mined the experience and entered one of the first writing competitions held by the Anti-Cancer Council of Victoria, in 1995 and my short prose, Beauty is More than Skin Deep, was chosen to be displayed at the Daffodil Day Art & Literary Exhibition, Melbourne Central. I met the late Bryce Courtney who was one of the judges and an Australian author at the height of his popularity.

Short story displayed at Melbourne Central Shopping Centre

The competition was a good exercise in writing to a word count and to a theme, but it also made me more aware of skin cancer and the need for prevention. When John and my daughters accompanied me to the launch I didn’t realise how confronting the day would be – the poems and stories had been printed on giant posters and decorated the walls of a very busy section of the shopping centre. Talk about putting your work out there!

The late Bryce Courtney

In 1998 I had two more stories published under the auspices of the Anti-Cancer council’s Daffodil Day Awards, but this time in a book, Together Alone – slightly less confronting than having posters on a wall.

cover Together Alone

Today I nurse a throbbing toe and await the result of a biopsy because I’ve had cause to revisit my skin cancer experience. I’ve received exceptional care from  the Peninsula Skin Cancer Centre who are being on the safe side, but it’s a timely reminder of the following facts:

  • 2 in 3 Australians will be diagnosed with skin cancer by the age of 70
  • Skin cancers account for about 80% of all new cancers diagnosed each year in Australia.
  • Each year, Australians are 4 times more likely to develop a common skin cancer than any other form of cancer.
  • Over 750,000 Australians are treated for skin cancer each year – that’s over 2,000 people every day.
  • Around 2,000 Australians die from skin cancer each year

As the Sunsmart campaign insists “Australia has some of the highest UV levels in the world: in fact UV radiation is strong enough to cause sunburn in just 11 minutes on a fine January day.”

They advise, “In Victoria, the average UV is above 3 from September until April and sun protection is required during the daily sun protection times. The average UV is below 3 from May until August, so sun protection is not required.

It is common for people in my age group to worry about skin cancer, a lifetime of sun exposure and some unwise and risky behaviour in our youth guarantees many of us will have the unglamorously named barnacles, or sun spots, freckles and moles.

Fortunately, my brush with skin cancer made me more aware as a mother, and my children had the sun smart message reinforced by the popular Slip Slop Slap Campaign, which this year celebrates 35 years protecting Victorians. The girls never played outside without sunscreen, a hat, and their shoulders covered.

Anne & MJ in sandpit

This video was made on the 30th anniversary and brings back many memories of one of the most effective public health advertising campaigns in history. Armed with statistics and personal experience I campaigned for my daughters safety when they went to kindergarten and school. Long after my children left, the local kindergarten still distributed copies of an article I wrote on the importance of being sun smart. When my children went to school, I wrote letters and campaigned for compulsory hats, altered sports timetables and changed lunch breaks. Words can be powerful and make a difference!

The Cancer Council of Australia encourages people to become familiar with their skin, including skin not normally exposed to the sun.  Please consult a doctor if , like me,you notice any change in shape, colour or size of a lesion, or the development of a new lesion.

My latest escapade may prove to be a keloid scar injury or  a wart, or something more sinister, but I am being pro-active. I may also write creatively about it!

Limericks, Laughter and Lessons – Form Poetry is Fun!

Poetry is what makes me laugh or cry or yawn, what makes my toenails twinkle, what makes me want to do this or that or nothing.

Dylan Thomas

Poetry can, but does not always, involve rhyme, rhythm and metre. Poets use words to share experiences, tell a story or express feelings or ideas. Poems are verses that may be spoken or sung. They have many different purposes:  to amuse, to entertain, to reflect, to inform, to educate or to pass on cultural heritage.

Limericks are form poetry with a purpose to amuse. They are five-line poems using rhyme and rhythm to enhance their content.  Usually humorous, they have a twist or surprise in the last line. They are brief and lend themselves to comic effects. Limericks consist of three long and two short lines rhyming pattern: aabba. Rhyme and rhythm are used to enhance the content.

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Lines one, two and five rhyme with each other and normally contain a three beat metre.
 Lines three and four rhyme with each other and contain a two beat meter. Lines three and four are usually shorter than the other lines. This predictable rhyme and syllable pattern contribute to the rhythm and flow of the poetry. I love introducing limericks to my writing classes. -It is a good way to introduce the value of rhyming dictionaries (now available free online). And encourage planning – think of what words you will use to rhyme, then fill in the lines of the poem! Especially if you are going to use people’s names or topical words to create an aa-bb-a rhyming pattern.  (John, Shawn, fawn; Bob, Rob, sob; Ron, Dawn, lawn; Carol, barrel; Cheryl, Beryl feral; Tammy, Sammy, whammy…)

Here are a few of mine –

In Bentleigh a writing class meet
On Tuesdays each other they greet
memories mined
words they find
To produce stories that are such a treat

There once was a writer of tales
who amassed enormous sales
her secret she said
was take to your bed
Explicit stories about sex never fails

Caroline’s a nurse working night shift
who must balance her time with thrift
when patients sleep
a journal she keeps
For writing flash fiction plot twists.

Nurse Caroline’s shifts are at night
Staying awake is a frequent fight
she can’t pop pills
as solutions to ills
So drinks brandy and gets really tight

In Victoria, our Premier Napthine
suddenly wants to be seen as green.
He’s done a deal, he said
to stop possums being dead
but conservationists are not so keen.

There was a Prime Minister called Abbott
whose lying became quite a habit
his policies were trite
delivered in sound bites
broken promises as common as rabbits

Have you heard of global warming?
No longer will bees be swarming
the frogs have croaked
the deserts are soaked
And polar ice caps have stopped forming.

The stereotyped subjects of limericks are usually intended to be humorous or regarded as timely warnings. The origins of the Limerick shrouded in mystery, but researchers suggest it goes back before Christ to the Greek comic poets.  A description of a chariot accident translated as:

An amateur driving too fast,
from his car to the roadway was cast,
and a friend kindly said,
as he banged his head,
‘Mr Cobbler stick to your last.’

The word officially entered the English language via the Oxford Dictionary, in 1898, defined as ‘indecent nonsense verse’. Although, it had been around for centuries and in many other languages – including old Irish. There is still a debate whether ‘limerick’ did come from Limerick!

The light verse has ‘light’ subject matter, parodies other poems, or makes serious topics comical. It doesn’t have to make sense or have a point beyond making a sound and having rhythm. Just like the nursery rhymes or children’s verse you read or learned in childhood – many of which are seriously politically incorrect once they reach the playground and are adapted. Many limericks attack the authority of the church, lampoon politicians and are great outlets for protest. A limerick embraces every topic, territory and temperament. It can be indecent like an off-colour joke, encompassing all the follies, failures, fortunes, fallacies and foibles of humanity.

However, the Limerick has a fixed form and is often bawdy, especially in the hands of a master comic poet like Edward Lear. Part of the charm of the Limerick is the surprise, the sudden swoop and unexpected twist of the last line, but Lear often ignored the whiplash ending to create a variation of the first line. His AABBA rhyme scheme often has the last word in the first and final lines being the same. The metrical scheme is easy to pick up with practice by reading limericks aloud and writing them. First and second and last lines normally 8-9 syllables, third and fourth has 6, but like any poem – it is up to the poet if they want to adopt or adapt as they create!

Above all have fun – I certainly do!

In Mordi a group of writers meet
On Mondays, each other they greet
Memories mined
Words they find
Producing stories that are a treat.

Emily travels to class with Michael
Riding tandem on her new bicycle
Wanting to be posh
She tried a car wash
Emily’s bicycle is now a tricycle

There is a writer called Jane
Who went to Singapore by plane
She jumped on the wing
Like a canary did sing
Flight attendants declared her insane

Amelia nursed new babes for years
Helping mothers conquer their fears
Imperfect mummies
Spitting dummies
And so often collapsing in tears

Each Monday Tori arrives by cab
Her Sikh driver a man never drab
A smiling fellow
In turban yellow
And many other colours so fab

A woman called Jan liked to write
and often woke up in the night
she liked to croon
by the silvery moon
Her stories inspired by dawn light

Doreen’s a top student of writing
and her stories she adores reciting
her computer has Dragon
‘cos her eyesight’s flaggin’
it talks back if the plot’s not exciting

A Pool Of Memories

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All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.

F. Scott Fitzgerald

This week, I asked my students to write about summer and gave them a selection of writing prompts. As I reflect on the lesson I remembered various summer activities and memories from childhood.

A few years ago some beancounter or councillor in the City of Croydon looked at the prime land taken up by Croydon Memorial Pool and decided rather than maintain the pool, it could be sold. The public outcry that followed the suggestion, retained the pool, which was built as a memorial to honour those who fought in the Second World War. I have an emotional attachment to Croydon swimming pool, a place that contributed to an idyllic childhood, although,  now living in Mordialloc and in close proximity to a beautiful beach,

Dad’s sister, Chrissie, met us at Station Pier when we arrived in Australia, on December 16th 1962, and the first piece of information she imparted to excite us about our future home was its closeness to a newly opened Olympic-sized swimming pool. Our journey from Scotland, on the month-long voyage aboard SS Orion, gave me my first experience of a swimming pool and along with three siblings, I attempted to swim. Accustomed to the joys of water play and poolside fun, the thought of continuing sessions on land did make our new home more inviting. (I suspect Aunt Chrissie realised this!)

Croydon, eighteen miles from Melbourne GPO and even further from the nearest beach, was considered ‘the sticks’  and for those living in the outer suburbs, summers were long and hot. A public swimming pool, therefore, considered a tremendous community asset for hundreds of children to spend hundreds of hours creating carefree memories.

The egalitarian pool open to everyone regardless of income or generation. Days spent there helped us enjoy adjusting to our new country and to cope with the culture shock of a sweltering Christmas, instead of sleet and snow.

Working class people rarely went on vacation, so the Croydon pool a wonderful alternative to driving the hour or two to the closest coastal beaches of Seaford and Edithvale. No freeways then.

That first summer, we attended the pool almost daily establishing a pattern of regular visits that continued for several years. Each day seemed like a holiday, especially with the crowd that our family and friends made. Fortunately, the entry cost minimal – there may even have been a discount for family groups, I can’t remember. I know we shared a locker, which caused ructions at times if people wanted to go home early and the keeper of the key resented getting out of the water! This sign should probably have been put at the entrance of the pool!

images-1Ignorant of skin cancer people lay smeared with coconut or baby oil, sunbaking on the grass or lying on the concrete surrounds. There were few trees in the early days with those planted still to mature. I recall many sleepless nights with painful burning skin despite mum’s home remedies of vinegar or cold tea compresses. No sunscreen then either.

A few exhausting hours playing at the pool made a walk home in the heat unattractive. We planned visits to coincide with Dad’s shifts or so someone else’s parents could pick us up. With no seat belt rules and few cars on the road, it was amazing how many kids could be crushed into Austin A30s, Morris Minors, Ford Consuls, FJ Holdens or Dad’s Vanguard Utility. We still arrived home hot and sweaty with the cooling benefits of the pool undone, but not as tired if we’d walked!

Mum and Dad were sticklers for ‘no swimming for an hour after you’ve eaten.’ My father’s older brother, John drowned in Corpus Christi in 1927, while serving at sea as an engineer. It was thought he took cramps because he went swimming too soon after a meal.

In addition, my father lived with a personal memory of a traumatic incident from his childhood when he nearly drowned. Therefore, our time at the pool regulated and rules enforced without compromise. Negotiated longer periods for swimming meant going mid-morning and leaving mid-afternoon. We may miss out catching up with chums and went hungry until we returned home; the only sustenance being a frozen Sunny Boy, or Choc Wedge, bought with locker refund money.

Our melting frozen treats held between soft wrinkled fingers, made us fly magnets. We’d sit on the kerb outside the pool waiting to be picked up, competing to see who could kill the most flies with our thongs. Mao Zedong would have been proud of us. Under his ‘four harms’ strategy 1958-62 he urged citizens to kill flies, mosquitoes, rats and sparrows, the four pests that damaged crops. The great campaign almost eliminated the common housefly as the Chinese swatted with zest.

We certainly shared their enthusiasm and aimed a death blow at every fly or mosquito we came across. Dad, who refused to wear thongs, laughed at us, saying, ‘ killing flies the best use for those stupid flip flops!’

Days at the pool hold magical memories: meeting friends at weekends or holidays, mixing with kids from different schools, swimming, diving, playing games and showing off our healthy physiques. Not everyone had the telephone connected, not everyone had a family car, opportunities for meeting and talking outside school hours were few.

Many romances started – and ended –  at the pool. The era of the ‘itsy bitsy teeny weeny’ bikini upon us, although bathers in the 1960s didn’t reveal the flesh of later fashions. However, Speedos were at the height of their popularity and once wet never left much to the imagination. Of course, ex-PM, Tony Abbott has made ‘budgie smugglers’ famous!

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I made my one and only dive from a diving board at Croydon Pool—the small diving board, of course. I lacked the courage to do anything but jump off the big diving board and I only did that once. Through adult eyes, how small those boards look, yet the climb to the top of the ladder and the panic of spluttering chlorinated spume after hitting the water and scrabbling to return to the surface, still haunts me. As does the sting of bellyflops.

Herald certificate 1964

I passed the Herald Learn To Swim Certificate by swimming the 25 yards across the Croydon Pool and even managed to get my Junior Certificate after doing a rather pathetic dive in old clothes from the pool’s edge. Never good enough to be in the school swimming sports, I do remember sitting on the concrete steps cheering my brothers until hoarse. At one stage there were five McInnes’s at Croydon High School and we were all in Surrey House so I would have been waving yellow streamers.

The houses at school named after English counties: Surrey (yellow), Ashburton (red), Guildford (green) and Kent (blue), a veritable chanting rainbow around the pool.

Not a water baby, I preferred the gentle introduction of a dip in the toddler’s pool where the water warmed quickly on a hot day compared to being pushed into the freezing water of the big pool or splashed unmercifully if you tried to ease gradually down the steps at the side.

On some days, Croydon Pool so crowded, that the only safe way to enter the water was sliding into the pool from the edges. Many times an accidental knock left me gasping because I landed in the pool before I was psychologically prepared for the water temperature.

The shallow end of the pool the spot for one of our favourite games – diving for pennies. If we were broke someone would unpin their locker key from their togs and we’d dive for that. We never seemed to tire of playing tag or challenging each other to underwater tricks or races across the pool.

The sensation and taste of chlorinated water bubbling up my nostrils still vivid as we dared to venture into deeper water.  I can recall the ache in lungs as I struggled to complete laps rather than be stranded treading water somewhere in the pool out of my depth. The sandpaper roughness of the sides of the pool and the pain of scraped skin another not so pleasant memory.

Everyone skylarked, even though attendants seemed to really have eyes in the back of their heads and order ‘naughty’ children to take ‘time out’ or ‘be warned’. When bikinis became fashionable there was more than one embarrassing moment as girls were ‘dacked’, or had their tops untied.

Those dolphins who could swim underwater for an amazing length of time played pranks that sent excited squeals and gales of laughter reverberating across the pool, especially if they forced their way through your legs when least expected to tip you over – and under.

Several generations learnt to swim, socialise and have fun at the Croydon Pool. Now more than fifty years from my childhood and many homes have backyard pools, multiple family cars, and the time and money to travel to beaches or resorts. Croydon is no longer considered ‘the sticks,’ but has been absorbed into Melbourne’s urban sprawl.

However, I hope others value their memories of days spent at Croydon Pool and ensure it’s always a community asset.

Today,  schoolchildren, pensioner aerobic classes, toddlers having their first taste of water outside the bathtub, and anyone else cooling off or exercising must be happy the pool is there.

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Photograph by Graeme Saunders

Aaah, summer – that long anticipated stretch of lazy, lingering days, free of responsibility and rife with possibility. It’s a time to hunt for insects, master handstands, practice swimming strokes, conquer trees, explore nooks and crannies, and make new friends.

Darrell Hammond.

I Remember Mum Saying – You’ll Eat Worse Than That before You Die!

The secret of success in life is to eat what you like and let the food fight it out inside.

Mark Twain

Today was probably not the best day to take delivery of an anthology with the title You’ll eat worse than that before you die, edited by Kari O’Gorman and published by Melaleuca Blue. The media is full of a hepatitis A outbreak caused by frozen berries imported from China – no deaths reported, but the number of people falling ill increases each day.

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However, the current crisis aside, I was thrilled to receive my copy of the anthology in the mail because one of my stories is included. Kari has done a magnificent job collating the pieces, which include poems, anecdotes, photographs, quotes and sayings as well as stories and recipes.

Writers want to be read and opportunities to publish short stories and poems difficult to find unless you have a body of work to be made into a book – for the traditional publishers or self publishing. Entering competitions or submitting work to projects with specific themes can be a great avenue and I thank Kari and Melaleuca Blue Publishing for the opportunity to be read and to be included in a delightful and entertaining book.

Broth and Trouble!
Mairi Neil

Beautiful Soup, so rich and green, waiting in a hot tureen! Who for such dainties would not stoop? Soup of the evening, beautiful Soup!

So sang the Mock Turtle in Alice in Wonderland and I often echo this praise of soup when remembering a childhood where it provided healthy and hearty meals— especially if accompanied by freshly baked bread.

Many a night I‘ve carried on the childhood tradition of substituting Scotch Broth or thick vegetable soup as the main course when the day’s dramas left little time for preparing a more elaborate meal, or the energy and inclination for cooking couldn’t be found.

When recovering from chemotherapy in 2011, I chose a July trek of the Larapinta Trail in the Central Australian desert as a challenge and to tick off an item from my ‘Bucket List’. The five nights camping provided opportunities for soup to shine as a nutritious meal; easy and quick to prepare over the campfire for the small family on the trail.

Most days a large pot sat on glowing logs, witches black against grey ash as orange flames danced like dervishes in the gusts of wind common in Arrentre country. The enticing aroma of vegetable soup wafted in the winter air. Soup spiced by additional herbs from the ancient garden surrounding us, where tasty plants have flourished for thousands of years. The healing properties of these plants revealed each day by our Arrentre hosts: Nicholas, Malcolm and Genise.

The pot and its often mysterious contents stirred memories of 1962…

The first few months adjusting to life in Australia proved a testing time, especially for Mum, the centre of our close-knit Scottish family. After leaving London by ship in fogbound November, we arrived in Croydon, nine days before Christmas, to a blistering summer. Croydon, on the outskirts of Melbourne, nestled at the foot of the blue Dandenong Ranges, which were still boasting scars from bushfires in January. The area faced more danger before the summer wilted, necessitating anxious Mum and Dad to organise a bucket brigade. We lugged pails of precious tank water to dowse burning embers carried in the hot north wind when the hills burst into flames. Aware of the vulnerability of the rented ramshackle house of dry cracked timber, Mum soaked the weatherboards and surrounding bush to prevent fire from taking hold.

The ‘old house’ as it is now referred to with affection at family get-togethers, had a wartime Raeburn stove fuelled by red gum logs chopped and stacked weekly by my father and two older brothers. Mum cursed the Raeburn because in the swelter of that first summer she literally baked herself. The heat of the kitchen of wood-lined walls under a corrugated tin roof not relieved by air conditioning, or even a fan. Immersed in the habits of Scotland, our taste buds and customs attuned to cooked meals, not salad and cold meat, meant life was not easy for Mum. Regretfully, we never gave her discomfort a second thought. Six children aged from 3-13 raced each other to the table to devour whatever was on the menu.

One afternoon, Mum cooked a pot of vegetable and barley soup. The tureen sat on the side of the old stove until she slid it across to warm for dinner. The eight of us gathered around the large cedar table protected by a green and white chequered oilcloth. The meal was early because Mum wanted to visit an elderly aunt in hospital. The soup swiftly ladled into blue and white Willow-patterned china bowls with the order to ‘hod yer wheesht (be quiet) and eat.’

Brother Iain, the fussiest eater in the family inspected and prodded with his spoon. ‘What are those black bits in the soup, Mum?’

‘Barley,’ Mum replied as she sliced a loaf of bread.

Iain examined the soup on his spoon in more detail, ‘But the black bits have legs.’

Interest sparked, we all searched our soup for black bits. Brother George, declared, ‘Mine have legs too,’ with closer inspection he announced with triumph, ‘They look like ants!’

We moaned as if poisoned, pushing the plates away, gulping water, dramatising as only six siblings can when trying to outdo the other’s reaction. It took a thunderous roar from Dad to restore order.

An army of ants had drowned or been boiled alive in the soup, a sprinkling of their cadavers in all the bowls. Dad suggested they had found their way into the soup via loose mortar in the chimney bricks, ‘This house was built during the First World War and has been neglected ever since.’

However, Mum always had an answer for everything. ‘A few dead ants won’t hurt you,’ she said, checking the time so as not to be late. Her final word, ‘The Aborigines eat them so stop your nonsense and finish your dinner.’

‘But Aborigines only eat Honey Ants,’ said Iain, who also happened to be the family encyclopaedia.

A withering look from stressed Mum chastised us to silence. We rolled eyes and exchanged funny looks behind her back as she debated with Dad whether to strain the soup and salvage the meal, or throw it out and open a tin of tomato soup kept in the cupboards for emergencies. Money always being tight in our working-class home, the thought of wasting food was unthinkable. Those still with a desperate appetite supped the strained soup, the others filled up on toast and jam. Not surprisingly, Scotch broth was renamed Ant Soup in the family lexicon forever onwards.

The camp cooks, Karl and Kathleen, interrupted my musings and I was back in 2011. Soon we would queue for a meal of spicy vegetable soup, camel sausages, and sizzling kangaroo steak, mushrooms and salad. I pondered the difference in menu to those early days at Croydon and what I would be eating with my daughters if home in Mordialloc.

One of the camp hosts, Nicholas, grinned and whispered his appreciative ‘good tucker’ looking forward to piling his plate high. Earlier that afternoon he had managed to dig up a witchetty grub, a delicacy he was prepared to share with me, advising ‘it tastes like cooked egg yolk.’ But I had watched the effort it had taken to unearth the white grub. Small and wriggling in the palm of his hand; it was hardly ‘a meal.’ His brown eyes begged me to refuse his offer and I obliged. A sacrifice I was happy to make; insects and grubs still a taste I have yet to acquire.

‘Fetch your mugs, it won’t be long till we serve.’ The pot of soup was eased off the fire and I watched ants scurrying over leaf litter around the campfire not far from the pot.

I Can’t Take the Heat, Even When Out Of the Kitchen!

Let us dance in the sun, wearing wild flowers in our hair…”

Susan Polis Schutz

Today, it will be 36ºC – another scorcher in a mercurial Melbourne giving us a summer of weather surprises. On the other hand, it may only reach 34º, depending on what forecast you believe, and the rest of the week will be a wonderful 23º. If that is the case, I may feel like dancing, but the last time I wore wild flowers in my hair was the 70s at university inspired by Scott Mckenzie’s instant hit, ‘If You’re Going to San Francisco‘. When I revisited San Francisco three years ago I didn’t really have enough hair to weave flowers through and I was grateful the weather was not too hot.

I’ve always preferred winter and cooler days to hot summers and have decided anything over 30ºC must be suffered rather than embraced. You can pile on clothes to get warmer, but once you’ve stripped to your skin, what else can you do to keep cool? Perhaps lie in front of a fan or beneath an air conditioner, or immerse in a cold bath or shower, but these options may not be available, plus as I get older stripping off and diving into a pool or the sea to cool, appeals less than years gone by. I certainly can’t imagine skinny dipping as I did in teenage years –  the world, nor me, quite ready for that image, especially since a mastectomy took a breast and a slice of self-esteem! Modesty the go now, although not quite like days gone by.

images-3Strange as it may seem, considering the reputation of Scottish weather, my first conscious memory of the effects of a hot day is from my childhood in Scotland. My Dad loved repeating the old joke, ‘I remember the summer it was a Thursday,’ because hot Scottish summers are rare. However, they do happen and because of climate change, more frequently than usual. Unlike Australia’s current Prime Minister, the Scottish Government is not in denial.

The year I was born, 1953, temperatures were higher than average and people talked about an Indian summer. My Mother remembered it as being long and hot. Since I was born in August, the last few weeks of her pregnancy must have been uncomfortable, which may explain why I didn’t waste much time coming into the world, producing the family record for the fastest birth. At 8.45pm Mum decided it was time and climbed the stairs to her bedroom with the midwife. At 9.05pm I entered the world!

However, the hot day stuck in my psyche occurred when I was five years old.   Mum, pregnant with child number six had an appointment ‘in the town’ and I was left to play with a best friend, Jean, in her garden next door. Mrs Robinson came out with a sandwich for our lunch and as children often do, we ignored her call to eat because we were too engrossed in play. When we turned our attention to food, the bread had curled at the corners, the margarine and mashed banana tasted sour and the accompanying glass of lemonade, warm and unpleasant. Jean pestered her mother for another sandwich, but I had Mum’s voice in a loop in my head lecturing me to eat what was given and to be on my best behaviour.  I ate the sandwich.

That night, as I vomited, I learned that food goes off quickly in the heat, and in future to trust my sense of smell and taste rather than an inculcated mantra of ‘waste not want not’. I developed a scunner (a good Scots word meaning disgust and dislike) for bananas and never ate another one for 30 years. To this day I rarely drink lemonade unless it transforms into ‘lemon, lime and bitters’.

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The avoidance of bananas an awkward decision because it was the one fruit plentiful in our neighbourhood, courtesy of Dad. A locomotive driver, he brought huge bunches home for free when the banana boats were unloaded from the West Indies. Green bananas ripened in the airing cupboard and others distributed to neighbours. Our community shared the bounty. Most people, like my parents, tried to honour their Christian beliefs, as well as continuing habits of wartime – making do and sharing what you have, especially essentials like food.

This was 1950s Scotland, food rationing only ending July 1954. No one in our working class neighbourhood owned a refrigerator. Lifestyle and weather didn’t warrant a fridge; people bought perishables daily from the various vans that cruised the housing scheme selling meat, vegetables, groceries and household goods. Most families lived from week to week on meagre pay received each Friday. Daily budgets strictly adhered to if you wanted to remain debt free from the ‘never-never man’ offering all sorts of post war delights on hire purchase.

In Australia, I learnt another lesson about the effect of heat on food, this time with milk. In the 1960s small cartons of milk (1/3 of a pint) were delivered to primary schools to be freely distributed at morning playtime. An initiative taken up by schools in the UK, NZ and Australia to improve the health of children. The crates piled high with cartons often sat in the sun at the school door, or just inside in a corner of the corridor. Milk sours rapidly in the summer heat. I developed severe migraines and nausea, and only a letter from my mother exempted me from the morning ritual deemed compulsory ‘for your own good’. I stopped drinking the milk at school and Mum had a battle to get me to drink it at home. This stubbornness must have given Mum, an ex-nurse, schooled in the importance of calcium for growing bones,  a headache!  I still dislike milk unless it is refrigerator-cold and for years it was consumed under sufferance disguised in puddings and flavoured drinks. I can relate to this picture on Google where the schoolgirl looks far from impressed!

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Summer also brings sunburn and heat rashes. The Australian sun unkind to those sporting a Celtic pelt. Despite Mum’s carefulness and encouragement for us to cover up, there were days when we played under the sprinklers on the lawn oblivious to the sun’s harmful rays. No water restrictions in the 60s and 70s in Melbourne and no Anti-Cancer Council, ‘slip slop slap’ campaign.

Cold tea or vinegar ssolution easedthe pain of scorched skin and blistered shoulders, but after the throbbing and discomfort the itchy irritation when dead skin peeled and flaked. All that pain and not even a decent suntan. When I became a teenager self-inflicted injury continued;  fashion dictated ‘itsy-bitsy’ bikinis and lubricating the skin with Johnson’s Baby Oil before lying on a Lilo or towel thrown on the grass. I cooked like the Sunday roast. Vanity (or on reflection stupidity) thy name is woman! At least in this pre-teen photograph I’m wearing a hat!

older sister Cate claiming the Lilo

Sleep always elusive on hot nights in those early days. The old house we rented for the first five years had no fly-screens. Claustrophobic mosquito nets blocked the inadequate breeze from open windows, and the persistent buzzing of mozzies angry at the foiling of their bloodthirsty mission, just another element to keep us awake. No air conditioning, or even ceiling fans in the house until we moved into the new home my parents built, and then it was the 70s before we could afford to have an air conditioner installed in the window of my parents’ bedroom. Dad, a shift worker and our main breadwinner, needed a decent night (or day’s) sleep especially when most of his jobs involved controlling machinery or on road driving.  I have memories of us all squeezing into that room to eat dinner on trays, study or chat in comfort when the rest of the house felt like a kiln.

Most people in Australia will have memories of sleepless nights and uncomfortable days coping with heatwaves, yet unlike our Mediterranean cousins and parts of Asia there are no siestas. I’ve often wondered why. Too strong an attachment to ways imported from Mother England, stiff British upper lip? That certainly seemed the case at school when uniform was strictly enforced until the temperature reached 99ºF and an announcement over the tannoy said, ‘boys may remove their ties.’ When the thermometer climbed to the magic 100º F those with a parent or responsible adult at home could leave school early, the others released into the playground to squirt water at each other from outside taps and dream of being home to play with water pistols, drop ice cubes down each other’s shirts, or go for a swim at Croydon Memorial Swimming Pool.

My first summer in Australia a definite culture shock in more ways than one. We left the fog and snow of a British winter, arrived here in December 1962, and didn’t see substantial rain until February ‘63. When it arrived in a thunderstorm we danced like American Indians, holding hands and whooping in Disney style as the clouds burst and rain splattered in huge drops, to be absorbed into the parched earth almost immediately. Our light cotton clothes soaked, but dried quickly in the steamy heat. The relief from the drought palpable with Dad and Mum giggling and jiggling too, as we sang ‘ring-a-ring o’ roses’, splashed in rapidly dissolving puddles, and laughed at each other’s plastered hair.

‘What would the folk back home think if they could see us now?’ said Mum.
‘That we’ve gone troppo,’ Dad replied with a grin.

How true, considering ‘back home’ was Greenock, the place with the reputation of having the highest rainfall in the UK prompting other Scots to joke, ‘if you’re born in Greenock, you’re born with webbed feet.’

Today, I sit at my computer with a ceiling fan ruffling my hair. Outside there is a slight sea breeze, but leaves still curl and flowers droop from the relentless heat of the sun. The magpies‘ trill muted, the noisy miners silent. Thank goodness no gusty hot north wind adds to the discomfort. Two cabbage white butterflies flit to and from in the garden and for a moment I forget about the weather and watch their dance in the sun.

Fleeting thoughts
Mairi Neil

 It’s too hot –– breathing an effort.
Yet you flitter and flutter
with energy to spare.
Like pretty scraps of paper
buffeted by the hot north wind.
From flower to flower you dance
dainty feet tripping from
geraniums, to agapanthus, to rosemary…

Iced water soothes parched lips,
I find relief and feel better
with minimum effort
as you flitter and flutter,
quenching your thirst,
supping nectar or water,
with a drinking straw
provided by Mother Nature

This interminable summer and
global warming’s topsy-turvy world
has you searching for peace
to lay your eggs,
propagation your solace.
Diligently seeking perfection
or frantically rushing to fulfil
Mother Nature’s timetable.

The computer screen demands words
a deadline squeezing joy
from a task begun with passion.
Time more your enemy
you have a week, or months – if lucky.
Oh, little butterfly
do you ever flitter and flutter
just for pleasure?

Your cousins in America
exotic and colourful Monarchs
travel 2000 miles
from California to Mexico
to breed and stay alive.
The timeline of their migration
now dead lines as farming and
pesticides exact a toll.

You, a reliable commoner,
flitter and flutter in pale anonymity
yet brighten my day.
My fingers flitter and words flutter
Capturing thoughts – as you capture –
what?
I wish I had an answer and your energy,
Breathing an effort –– it’s too hot!

Injustice and Inaction In Our name – ‘Suffer the little children’

There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.”

Nelson Mandela

There has been a lot of talk this week about crime and punishment and the rights and wrongs of government sanctioned killing by administering the death penalty. Two Australian citizens, Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan, part of the infamous Bali Nine face execution.

The mothers of these young men, their families and many in the wider community are devastated and in parliament there were emotional pleas and a unanimous vote for the Indonesian President to grant them clemency. Amid this bipartisan anguish the Human Rights Commission report into Children in Immigration Detention, The Forgotten Children National Inquiry 2014 was released by the Federal Government, although the Attorney General, George Brandis received the report in November 2014.

Australia is treating almost 1000 children as though they were adult criminals. The report is confronting reading, but there is no bipartisan outrage or rush of compassion for these children and their families because both major parties have mandatory detention as policy and have done since The Tampa.

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“Mandatory sentencing – which I prefer to call compulsory jailing – is a nasty insidious creation of our generation that not even the convict settlement introduced. What is more – compulsory jailing legislation expressly abandons the internationally agreed principle of imprisonment as a sanction of last resort, with priority given to other interests.”
“We are now the only developed country in the world which practises indiscriminate indeterminate incommunicado detention of asylum seekers. Alone of all countries in the world, including Canada, the United States and the nations of Europe and Scandinavia, we have indiscriminately detained all of them – the elderly, the children, the sick and the pregnant – at a cost by the way of around $50,000 per person per year….”
May 2001 – The Hon Justice Marcus Einfeld (AO, QC, PhD) in a speech at the Jessie Street Trust Annual Gathering. Parliament House NSW
Transcript available at ABC Radio National Background Briefing (2 June 2001)

Thank goodness there is a groundswell of progressive and caring groups and individual activists determined to challenge the politicians. One of the most recent is Grandmothers against detention of Refugee Children.

As grandmothers we are in a unique position to bring intergenerational insight into the very special needs of children. We believe that for Australia to incarcerate refugee and asylum seeker children is unconscionable. We find it imperative to stand up and be counted in defence of these vulnerable children.

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The women who came together at the inaugural meeting were concerned about the impact on brain and social development of traumatised and detained children knowing development impaired can be repaired, but children in detention have no access to appropriate facilities. Instead they are crammed into confined and bleak living quarters. In Darwin, the detention centre does not even have safety rails on bunk beds used by young children.

About 70 friends networked and gathered at an initial meeting in Fairfield (one lady even attended from Frankston). The women, from fields of childhood education, or those affecting the development of children, were versed in the appropriate environments which allow children to flourish. Outraged at children being detained; aware of how harmful mandatory detention is for adults, and appalled at children being locked away indefinitely with no idea of what decision could be made about their status, motivated the group to action. The commonality was the horror at children being mistreated. By August last year the  group numbered 200. In 2015, their supporters are in the thousands.

Recognition of the damage to the mental health and wellbeing of these children, and others in detention is not new, but those in power have spent over a decade not listening:

“….the truth of the matter is that 85% of these people will become Australian citizens, or at least be released into the community on temporary protection visas.
And I believe that we’re taking survivors of some of the most ruthless political regimes and destroying what little resilience they have left.
And we’re really breaking people and making it extremely difficult for them to make an ongoing productive contribution to Australian society.
And I suspect that this is going to place a large burden on the health system, as people get released from detention.
And there’s already substantial evidence to support that in services being provided to some of these people after release.

Dr Zachary Steel, co-author of Silove D & Steel Z.(1988), The Mental Health of and Well-Being of On-Shore Asylum Seekers in Australia.. Psychiatry Research and Teaching Unit, University of NSW.
Zachary Steel, Clinical Psychologist  University of NSW, quoted from ABC “Asylum Seekers in Detention”, Winner of the 2001 Walkley Award for Best Radio Feature Documentary or Broadcast Special.

By highlighting the inhumanity of mandatory detention Grandmothers Against detention of Refugee Children hope to influence Australian citizens and politicians to action and avoid creating a generation of children with terror and hate in their heart. Churches have been supportive allowing their premises to be used free of charge for meetings and in September last year I took part in a sobering and poignant protest the group organised in the city centre.

A makeshift cage and hundreds of dolls represented the children detained. Passersby were asked to ‘free’ a child and sign a letter to their local member of parliament.

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A young man spoke about his experience escaping the Taliban, of spending four years in detention on Christmas Island. He has excelled at school after being granted refugee status and aims to study medicine to give back to the community. Sadly as he spoke abuse was yelled from a passing tram. I fear it is these loud, xenophobic, angry voices that determine the policy of our government.

Although there is hope when the Sydney Morning Herald champions a change in policy by repeating troubling questions raised by nine Christian denominations in their report on immigration detention titled Protecting the Lonely Children, July 2014. The Herald believes detention of children is a vastly disproportionate policy response to stopping boats, and that treating children humanely would hardly affect deterrence. They have suggested the current government is trying to ‘shoot the messenger’ instead of accepting the need for dramatic changes to the treatment of asylum seekers, especially children.

Anna Burke and Melissa Parke are two Labor members of parliament who have voiced the need for the ALP to change their policy on refugees. Anna Burke spoke at the AGM of the Union of Australian Women in November 2014  and agreed that accepting and supporting asylum seekers is just the right thing to do!

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There is a refugee crisis throughout the world, but not for us. Worldwide it is a huge issue creating a humanitarian crisis in the Middle East, and even Europe, but this is not impacting on our borders. The issue should never have become a political football or divisive issue. Refugees are human beings. Prime Minister John Howard created ‘the other’, scaring people, waging a campaign, which led to fear and loathing and the demonisation of people attempting to find a safe country. At the time I wrote a short story Stormy Passage published in Byways an anthology by Bayside Night Writers as a creative writer’s response to a terrible situation. (It can be read here Stormy Passage, a short story)

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Both main parties have raced to the bottom on the issue ever since Tampa,  manipulating and politicising an issue that should be free of party politics. Australian voters should seek a bipartisan solution.

There are changing dynamics within the world. Not all those fleeing are economic refugees, or fleeing starvation or conflict. There are anomalies, but everyone has the right to flee persecution and fear. The United Nation’s figures suggest over 50 million people are displaced and seeking refuge – a world record. There are more Syrians out of Syria than remain there! In our region we need to acknowledge and deal with why Tamils and Hazaras still need to flee.

Seven million people seek asylum, but most just want to go home. If internal conflicts are solved most would return home. 3% of those 7 million seek to come to Australia. Most Tamils first preference is Canada because there is a large Indian community there. Of the 3%, Australia takes 13,000 as our humanitarian quota. The ALP policy pre-election was to increase this to 20,000 – it has never been increased.

Canada, America and Australia are the only 3 countries who will take refugees who have made transitory stops. The crisis in Africa and the Middle East is flooding Europe with refugees. Climate change will result in many more refugees, especially in the Pacific. New Zealand already is dealing with this and an increase in the number of Pacific islanders seeking refuge. Australia must face reality and discuss our responsibilities in this global crisis.

This is not an easy issue and politicians have a fear of electoral backlash, but I hope for the sake of the children in detention politicians of all political persuasions will find their moral compass.

“No longer can we turn a blind eye to the sexual, physical and psychological abuse that these policies of indefinite detention are inflicting on children.”

Sarah Hanson-Young

Selma – A Memorable Story about an Inspirational Man and Courageous People

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Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power. We have guided missiles and misguided men.

Martin Luther King Jr., Strength to Love, 1963

There were plenty of misguided men in power in the USA when Dr Martin Luther King Junior devoted his life to the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. America was fighting a war in Vietnam supposedly to free the Vietnamese from tyranny yet denied their own citizenry basic rights because of the colour of their skin!

Not surprising that my generation, who observed the nightly television news and read the newspaper headlines believed they’d never see an African-American as President of the United States.  I’m sure many, like me, wept with joy at President Obama’s Inauguration in 2009. 

Tonight, I attended a preview of Selma courtesy of Taylored Film and StudioCanal and highly recommend this moving account, of 1965, when Dr Martin Luther King Junior became inextricably linked with others in  Selma, Alabama to fight for all African-Americans to have the right to vote.

David Oyelowo is magnificent as Martin Luther King Jnr, as are some of the others in the cast – yet not one received a nomination for awards, which is disappointing. My daughter, Mary Jane who accompanied me to the preview said Selma has more impact than  Twelve Years A Slave because audiences can’t dismiss the events as being in the distant past.

Selma is about an era recognisably recent. It is not Klu Klux Klansmen being violent and nasty, but ordinary American citizens choosing to discriminate, attack and murder their fellow Americans because those in power allow them to do so.

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There is plenty of archival footage of  MLK and David Oyelowo captures him so well that you have no trouble believing that Dr King is on the screen. His spirituality never a question and the film handles his deep religious convictions and those of others around him very well without making it the focus.

The opening scenes catapult you straight into the story and action. You are shocked by what was a reality for African-Americans so be prepared for your blood pressure to rise and tears to flow. For those who lived through the era, it is a reminder of how ordinary people began to use massive street protests to force governments to change policies – people power.

Archival footage is used effectively in Selma to lend authenticity to the dramatisation of true events. And it is a drama, not a documentary. The filmmakers have done an excellent job telling an amazing story in a couple of hours of screen time. There have been debates about accuracy regarding some of the players during that tumultuous time, but not the essence of King’s leadership and achievements and the courage of the people of Alabama.

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There is in-your-face violence, its accuracy confronting but necessary.  The shooting of the protest scenes, the use of close-ups and slow motion create powerful and memorable images. Other visuals accompanied by music and the effective use of silence enhance the action scenes. Selma’s cinematography is superb.

The divisions within the movement – the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Malcolm X and King’s passive, but provocative, non-violent group of clerics are shown, so too, the larger than life personalities of racists like Governor George Wallace and Sheriff Jim Clark, a man who provoked this response from writer James Baldwin:

I suggest that what has happened to the white Southerner is in some ways much worse than what has happened to the Negroes there … One has to assume that he is a man like me, but he does not know what drives him to use the club, to menace with a gun, and to use a cattle prod against a woman’s breasts … Their moral lives have been destroyed by a plague called color.

As I sat in the cinema tonight I wondered how many in the audience know of Australia’s civil rights struggle and how we treated, and still treat Aboriginal Australians. I was a student at ANU during the campaign for indigenous land rights and witnessed police brutality when they tried to destroy the tent embassy. It was terrifying when the police weighed in with batons and fists.

I hope the cinemas are filled when Selma is released this week and people absorb the lessons of an amazing story and an even more amazing man. I hope too, they ponder what is happening here in Australia right now – the terrible gap in health and educational outcomes for Aboriginal Australians in comparison to other Australians. I hope they are motivated to speak up and to work for change.

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I’m updating this review to provide links to my review of the documentary and talk I attended on the writer James Baldwin – I Am Not Your Negro – another must-see film.

Icebreakers, Introductions, Innovation, and Sharing the ‘Inner’ You…

There is no rule on how to write. Sometimes it comes easily and perfectly; sometimes it’s like drilling rock and then blasting it out with charges.

Ernest Hemingway

My teaching year began this week and although I have many returning students there are also new enrolments. The first lesson always includes writing exercises to help us get to know one another, but coming up with innovative icebreakers isn’t easy.  I think I’ve exhausted all the usual suspects and planning that first lesson takes a great deal of time.

How do you make the information shared ‘new’ for the same people who have been meeting and writing together for over a decade? How do you make someone coming into that established group feel excited about joining and wanting to belong? The variety of ages, life experience, abilities and expectations in adult classes  makes them interesting and enjoyable, but also a challenge.

A good ice breaker helps create a memorable first impression and often encourages lasting friendships – that enjoyable feeling where you say, ‘we just clicked!’

As a teacher I listen attentively to everyone’s responses and encourage the class to do the same – being a good listener very important, but especially so for writers. Often we interview each other and then introduce our interviewee to the class before writing either a story based on some piece of information gleaned, or a journalistic profile or mini biography.

However, when the same people return each year I have to come up with targeted interview questions or word games. This year we went around the room several times describing ourselves with adjectives that began with the same letter as our name (alliteration), but added why we chose the word.

Meticulous Mairi – I love paying attention to detail when I write.
Moneyless Mairi – The need to have a regular income to pay bills keeps me grounded, but also eats into writing time.
Mysterious Mairi – An intriguing song from my youth often plays in my head, Peter Sarstedt’s “Where do you go to My Lovely…” I never want to be described as ‘an open book.’

The ice was certainly broken by the first round as people helped each other to come up with adjectives and explanations of why they chose the word – those with names beginning with ‘I’ having to stretch the mind muscles with inimitable, illogical, immaculate, inventive, innovative, irrepressible, ingenious and informal… One student’s name began with ‘J‘ and we understood why jolly and jocular were easy to say, but jam-lover revealed an interesting snippet we hadn’t heard before!

Not everyone can think ‘off the top of their head’ and although I always leave a dictionary and thesaurus in the centre of the table it was heartening to see how everyone joined in to help each other out when someone got stuck. It’s not as easy as it sounds, to come up with words beginning with the same letter or sound as your name – especially to match descriptions you want to be accurate!

A feature of my classes is always laughter – and my students have never disappointed – a little bit of humour whether self deprecating, satire or full on comedy should be a component of everyone’s day.

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The assigned homework will add to our knowledge of each other if the writers choose my suggestion of modelling a profile on the alphabet. Like list poetry I have discussed in a previous post, using the alphabet as a jumping off point can be helpful to a writer:

Write the alphabet down the page – Underneath the letter or off to the side, write:
A is for __________.
For example, A is for Australia (if you were born in Australia, or perhaps Apple if that’s your favourite fruit). Write a couple of sentences of explanation, description…fantasy, memoir… wherever your thoughts take you.

Next week you will share this ABC profile of yourself and also any story ideas it may have given you. This is a FUN exercise to flex your writing muscles and imagination.
Perhaps the ABC profile might be about a character in a story you are working on, or some other person you want to write about. The more bizarre or unusual the words you choose, the more interesting and original the writing and the more you stretch your imagination! RELAX and keep a good dictionary handy.

Last year among the targeted questions the class pondered and answered we thought about our names. Your name is an integral part of who you are, how you perceive yourself (many people change their names). Names often generate a discussion when you first meet someone – whether it is about culture, origin, similarity to your own, never been heard before, unusual spelling…

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From a writer’s perspective choosing a character’s name is an important part of the writing process. At the end of the first lesson last year we certainly knew each other better and had some interesting ideas for stories and characters.

What’s in a name?
Mairi Neil

To break the ice in writing class
Much to some students’ dismay
We asked each other questions
In a ‘getting to know you’ kind of way.

At first we pondered each other’s names
Their origin – had family tradition won?
We discovered Barbara may be a saint
And Victoria’s Tori is much more fun.

Amelia loves her name, as does Heather,
Who hates nicknames or shortened versions
While Emily feels loved when she hears Em,
And Jan became Janette if family ructions.

A lipstick released and called Michelle
Ensured Jane’s mother chose simply Jane
Michael never wants to hear Mike and
Mairi wishes her spelling more plain.

What’s in a name, I hear you say
What’s the creative writing motivation?
Well, as any writer will tell you
All knowledge is ripe for exploitation!

Who hasn’t heard of Oliver Twist,
Jane Eyre, Miss Faversham or Lorna Doon
of Harry Potter, Hercules Poirot?
And Mr d’Arcy still makes folk swoon!

Most storytellers invent characters
And characters usually need a name
Think carefully as you bring yours to life
Because they may be on the road to fame!

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Ice breakers help the class explore their thoughts on a common issue and for a group of writers they can be a perfect segue into a topic or technique important to the craft of writing. When I reflect on the class responses I may see a snapshot into their current thinking or knowledge of writing, as well as recognising changes in the lives and health of those who have been attending for a long period of time. The lessons from that first lesson shape the term as we continue on that wonderful road paved with words, ideas and more words!

A writer’s problem does not change. It is always how to write truly and having found out what is true to project it in such a way that it becomes part of the experience of the person who reads it.

Ernest Hemingway

Impermanence, Inevitability and Dying with Dignity.

Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

Steve Jobs

The telephone call comes out of left field. Tragic news to wreck quality time with a dear friend, yet it  is also a dear friend on the other end of the mobile.  My eyes sting with welling tears, but remain focussed out of the window of the Malt cafe in Beaumaris. I watch two young mums chat animatedly on the footpath. Relaxed and smiling they are probably enjoying the freedom of the first day of the school year; the little darlings who kept them busy all the summer holidays tucked into classrooms. Another couple on an outside table feed their Golden Retriever tidbits from their plates.

I’m surrounded by the chatter of other customers; the cafe almost filled to capacity. The aroma of  fresh muffins, fruit toast, and homemade jam mingles with my skinny latte and Lesley’s extra strong cappuccino. However, normality dissipates as I absorb the details of the call.  My body trembles. I feel as if I’ve been punched in the stomach and as usual Tamoxifen blesses me with a hot flush as anxiety peaks and emotions rage.

The day takes its first lurch into the surreal.

I’m on my way to celebrate a friend’s retirement from decades of teaching. She’s treating several friends to lunch at Sierra Tango, Cheltenham instead of us paying and hosting the celebration for her! The generosity of the invitation indicative of her warm, supportive personality and the venue a tribute to her knowledge of gastronomy, appreciation of fine foods and wine, and a commitment to support local businesses. Determined not to spoil her day, I seal my tragic news into an emotional compartment to be dealt with later…

I remember a poster I had on my wall at Burgmann College in 1971, when I lived on campus at ANU; my first year away from home. A poster long since eaten by silver fish when it was consigned to the garden shed, but there’s graphics with the same message – a sightly more colourful way of describing “left field”:

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The telephone call from Canberra, from a friend from those university days. She can’t keep shock and horror from her shaky voice.  A mutual friend, someone I shared a flat with in the 70s, is dying. She  was the first non-family member I lived, worked and studied with – we even shared the double bed that came with the one-bedroom unit – and thought nothing of it!  She’s now on borrowed time. How could this be?

A voice laced with tears explains that a late discovery of inoperable breast cancer, treated with letrozole, has metastasised to the groin and brain stem. The condition kept secret for two years, while she spent time travelling overseas and going through her bucket list. Now, she is in palliative care, her time to live numbered in weeks rather than months – or only days if she experiences a seizure or rapid deterioration of the brain.

I shared a picture of all of us at the Harmonie German Club in Canberra in 1973 in a recent post.  Tall slim M centre stage. She can’t be dying – and not of breast cancer. This news too confronting and scary. I think back to the old house we shared, living in one of the three apartments it was divided into.

I shiver. This news means all of the women living in that house, including me, have breast cancer: one double mastectomy, two single mastectomies and now M with metastatic breast cancer! Bad luck? Coincidence? A cancer cluster? A problem for another day…

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During the celebration lunch I receive another phone call with news that a European friend who had stayed with me early January had to have an emergency eye operation in Sydney because of a detached retina. There’s a danger she’ll lose her sight. This super fit friend, a world-renowned marathon swimmer came ninth in the Pier to Pub swim at Lorne this year. She’s supposed to be leaving Sydney for her home in Italy with a stop in one of Thailand’s resorts, but is now delayed in Australia until doctors allow her to fly.

The day has taken its second lurch into the surreal.

On my way home, I have the Serenity Prayer playing in my head as I try to put the sad news into perspective and decide on a course of action.

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The next day I’m in Canberra and over four days catch up with many old friends from university, make some new ones, and spend hours with M as she adjusts to the affects of radiotherapy and having only a limited time left. She copes well with the steady stream of people who want to help in some way, as well as say goodbye. The adage ‘bad news travels fast‘ proving true.

The busyness reminds me of  my husband John’s last days – the irony of  a  busy vibrant house,  comings and goings, laughter and noise, feasts and endless cups of tea and coffee yet someone is dying.

We share meals, laughs and stories. I spot photographs in an album – and snap copies with my camera.

 ‘Those indeed were the days my friend,’ I say,  ‘we had a lot of fun!’ M agrees. I listen as she describes the highlights of her overseas trips and of her intention to travel again. Deep down we both know another trip will never happen.

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Before I leave I water the plants and pick flowers to brighten inside.   M manages to negotiate back steps with some help and watches me water the garden, pointing out several special plants that came from other people’s gardens, or were received as gifts.

‘This can’t be happening,’ she whispers and I know she isn’t talking about my watering efforts. She alludes to her parents’ longevity, father ‘Digger’, dying a few years ago aged 93, her mother living into her 80s.

Her head shakes slightly, ‘I thought I had 23 years before I had to worry about all these decisions … what to do with things … ‘ Her voice trails off as her eyes drink in the beauty of flowers flourishing from the effect of an unusually cool Canberra summer that’s provided higher than average rainfall.

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I help her back inside wondering if this will be the last time I will feel the weight of her arm. The last time I brush fallen hair from her shoulders as her scalp reacts to the radiotherapy.

Why is the sun still shining? The magpies trilling? Laughter drifting from nearby apartments…

I recall a speech from one of the many Aboriginal women in our friendship circle. She thanked M for all the books she bought her children over the years, the encouragement to access education. ‘One son got his PhD last year, all my girls have tertiary qualifications – thank you from the bottom of my heart.’

Others repeated similar sentiments. ‘You may not have any children of your own, but what you have done for our children means they are yours too!’

The seeds we sow. A wonderful legacy indeed, but I wish she had another 23 years to sort out her life… I want the last few days to be surreal. I want someone to wake me up and say it was all a dream.

That (wo)man is successful who has lived well, laughed often, and loved much, who has gained the respect of the intelligent men (and women) and the love of children; who has filled his(her) niche and accomplished his (her) task; who leaves the world better than he (she) found it, whether by an improved poppy, a perfect poem, or a rescued soul; who never lacked appreciation of earth’s beauty or failed to express it; who looked for the best in others and gave the best he(she) had.

Robert Louis Stevenson