Catastrophe for Science, Catastrophic for our Community

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In response to the government initiated CSIRO cuts, which will result in almost 100 local climate researchers losing their jobs as part of a nationwide cull of 350 jobs, I attended a forum organised by Mark Dreyfus QC MP.

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Great to see so many interested people
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People took notes because not often do we get the chance to hear directly from scientists
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There were many questions asked
in the crowd at CSIRO forum
Me,head down in the crowd behind the two schoolgirls in red blazers
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Mark Dreyfus QC MP introducing panel

Over 200 people crowded into the hall at Aspendale Primary School on Tuesday evening, March 22, and it was heartening to feel the energy in the room and to know so many people cared about the issue because as Mark explained, in the electorate of Isaacs an 80cm rise in sea-level will devastate 9,500 homes.

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Climate Change in Australia Projection for Australian cities, CSIRO 2015

I’ve lived in Mordialloc for 32 years and like many living bayside I’m forever conscious of the fragility of our environment: erosion of cliffs and sand dunes, the need for the perpetual replacement of sand on some of the beaches, the close proximity of the water table and propensity to flood, importance of the wetlands for bird migration and propagation, history of the swamps and flooding in certain areas.

In Mordialloc Writers’ last anthology Kingston My City longtime residents mentioned the engineering efforts to control the sea when creating the suburb, Patterson Lakes.

Now of course with the reality of climate change there will be other stories to write as we see our world change. And change it must according to the CSIRO Marine and Atmospheric Research Centre in Aspendale, one of the most important carbon research centres in the world.

CSIRO NEWSPAPER ARTICLES.jpgCopies of newspaper articles were shared at the meeting revealing how the scientists in Aspendale have been responsible for some of the most significant findings in climate change research in the past 50 years. These job losses have caused outrage and dismay  throughout the world even attracting stern criticism in the editorial of The New York Times.

Meaningful scientific research takes years: painstaking and methodical, it must be thorough and consistent. In the CSIRO’s Southern Slopes Cluster Report 2015 climate change is:

A change in the state of the climate that can be identified (e.g. by statistical tests) by changes in the mean and/or variability of its properties, and that persists for an extended period of time, typically decades or longer.

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Scientist Kathy McInnes, joint author of Climate Change in Australia, answering questions

The same report predicts with ‘very high confidence’ a continued increase in sea level with the rate of rise in the 21st century larger than the average rate during the 20th century as ‘radiative forcing from greenhouse gas emissions continues to grow.

For 25 years the scientists at Aspendale have  monitored sea levels and changes in the Pacific Island region helping the island communities be forewarned and forearmed to cope with the devastation that is already happening. The CSIRO part of the answer whereas our current Federal Government “leaders” choose to joke about the threat to our neighbours.

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Australia’s changing climate represents a significant challenge to individuals, communities, governments, businesses and the environment. Australia has already experienced more frequent hot weather, shifting rainfall patterns and rising seas.

For decades, Australia has run the most advanced and comprehensive atmosphere and ocean monitoring programs in the Southern Hemisphere, providing critical information not only for a nation that is already the driest on earth and fast getting drier, but also for a world in urgent need of such data to search for ways to cope with climate change.

Last month, to the dismay of climate scientists around the world, Australia’s federally financed science agency — the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, or CSIRO— announced plans to shift its focus to commercially viable projects and cut or reassign 350 researchers. The decision, as more than 3,000 climate scientists have declared in an open letter to the Australian government, demonstrates a deplorable misunderstanding of the importance of basic research into what is arguably the greatest challenge facing the planet…

Long-term research on carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, and on changing ocean and weather processes, is essential to learn what lies ahead and how to prepare for it. Moreover, as the open letter from the scientists put it, Australia is a “canary in the climate change coal mine,” spanning different climate zones and experiencing steady decreases in rainfall.

The cutbacks could also obstruct Australia’s role in supporting the landmark climate agreement reached in Paris in December, which, among other things, calls on scientifically advanced countries like Australia to assist developing countries with advice and support.

Many people thought ridiculous decisions were going to change when climate change denier Tony Abbott was deposed as Prime Minister, but it seems for Malcolm Turnbull the prize was the title not the responsibility.

Each speaker at the forum condemned the Federal Government for not opposing the cuts  but also the starving of funds to the CSIRO for many areas of critical research. A rally in support and to save the hundreds of jobs is organised for Saturday April 2.

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The World Meteorological Organisation earlier this week said “Australia will find itself isolated from the community of nations and researchers devoting serious attention to climate change” if the key research programs were lost.

And the Political gets Personal

As if to emphasise the importance of climate change research and the effect global warming is already having on our community, I spent this Easter removing a dead tree from the back garden.  The tree succumbed to El Nino‘s initiated drought, heatwaves and an unseasonal storm we suffered recently, fortuitously crashing down behind the shed and not on it!

“We abuse the land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”

Aldo Leopold, American conservationist.

In 2009, I attended the Melbourne festival of Ideas at Melbourne University where novelist Kate Grenville was the keynote speaker on Artists, Writers and Climate Change. Kate and other writers discussed and debated how writers could use their words and ideas to encourage deeper thought on environmental issues, or even if they should!

We all know what we could be doing to help the environment. We could install solar panels, or drive hybrid cars, or use fewer plastic bags. But there’s often a big gap between what we know we should do, and how we actually behave.

Kate Grenville argued that it is the role of artists and writers to inspire and move people to act on important issues like climate change. She spoke about the way art and literature excites a response in us and the role that plays in understanding ourselves.

As someone who thinks deeply about many issues and has a passion for words and writing I have never been in doubt about expressing how I feel. If  my writing is considered to be a ‘political message’ so be it. Some issues are too urgent for subtlety!

Here is a poem, Pollute and Perish, from my second book More Small Talk, poems for children, 1995:

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Other more recent poems:

The Wind
Mairi Neil

A whispering lullaby
serenading soothing sotto voce
scattering seedlings with abandonment
An explosion of fresh mint
unwrapping a tempestuous embrace
storm warning trumpet blast ––
Beware of changing climate!
An ogre howling in the dark
snatches trees, pelts rocks
reshapes the earth
as he huffs and puffs
to blow Man’s house down.

The Snow
Mairi Neil

Misty mother breaths
soundlessly wrap a cub
in comfortable crocheted shawl.
Lying ‘neath snowflake patterns
curled and asleep
dreams of spring and summer…
A safe white cocoon
soft stellar soundproofed
unaware of the deadly grenade
of melting icebergs…

3.05pm Flinders Street to Frankston 

Mairi Neil

He shovels a healthy salad
into bearded mouth
his bamboo fork environmentally friendly –
but not the plastic container…
She swigs Kamboucha
for inner health
What about Mother Earth’s digestive tract?
Blocked by the plastic bottle and cap.
Fast food aromas embedded
in train carriage upholstery
waft in the air, cling to clothes.
Junk food litter clutters floor
peeks from discarded plastic bags…
Excess packaging the norm
as the world chokes
and even those who profess care sucked in
and swallowed by consumerism
Land fill dumps grow garbage
litter

refuse

muck
There is no ‘away’ in throw!

 

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Mordialloc Beach and Climate Change
Mairi Neil

The day is calm. Tranquil. A great-to-be-alive day. The scent of eucalypts and pine compete with salty air and whiffs of abandoned seaweed.
The cyan sea a mirror for whipped cream clouds. Dainty dollops on a baby blue plate. Gulls sit or glide atop the glassy surface. Bathed in brilliant white sunlight I imagine I too float and dream.
But in the distance, palm tree fronds tremble casting lacy shadows on hot sand. The clink of moorings and creak of masts drifts from the creek and a sudden gust of wind whips sand to sting my legs and face. Airborne seagulls now screeching origami kites.
A dark veil unfurls from the horizon shattering the steel blue mirror swallowing the fluffy clouds.
Peaceful contemplation disappears, waves soap around my feet, slap at ankles, sunlight fades. I retreat to the shelter of groaning eucalypts and pine, the taste of salt bittersweet.

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The Speech a PM Should Make in 2016

Mairi Neil

Men and women of Australia
And those who identify as other
There is no time to waste
You must listen to our Mother

Mother Earth, I’m referring to
The mountains, snows, and sea
The seasons, soil, and sunlight
Providing sustenance for you and me

But Mother Earth is terminally ill
Man has definitely not been kind
We’ve raped, polluted and poisoned
For wealth we craved to find

Addicted to manufactured comfort
We’ve gouged mountains into craters
Safe harbours are now wharves
To accommodate gigantic freighters.

Explosions altered landscapes
Concrete towers replacing trees
Animals hunted to extinction
Polar ice caps no longer freeze.

Climate change is not a phrase
But reality for the natural world
Global warming’s rising tides
Cities consumed as tsunamis twirl

Leaving disasters in their wake
Human structures or nature’s design
Mother Earth almost beyond healing
Unless permanent solutions we find

Climate deniers knuckle draggers
As are those mouthing ‘innovation’
Drought, bushfires, failed crops
The word should be desperation!

The time for procrastination gone
Also the sand for burying your head
Earth’s lungs struggle daily to breathe
How long before humanity is dead?

 

 

A Hall Full of Harmony

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Harmony Day is a celebration of Australia’s cultural diversity held each year on 21 March.

On Sunday, I was fortunate to take part in a Harmony Day celebration organised by Mordialloc Neighbourhood House. Billed as ‘A Taste of the World‘ and supported financially by the City of Kingston, the event involved displays and performances from a variety of cultural traditions. There was food, music, and dance by immigrants who now call Australia home and homegrown poetry and song.

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Harmony Day is held every year on 21 March to coincide with the United Nations International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. The message of Harmony Day is everyone belongs. It’s a day to celebrate Australia’s diversity – a day of cultural respect for everyone who calls Australia home.

  • around 45 per cent of Australians were born overseas or have at least one parent who was
  • 85 per cent of Australians agree multiculturalism has been good for Australia
  • apart from English the most common languages spoken in Australia are Mandarin, Italian, Arabic, Cantonese, Greek, Vietnamese, Tagalog/Filipino, Spanish and Hindi
  • more than 60 Indigenous languages are spoken in Australia
  • 92 per cent of Australians feel a great sense of belonging to our country.

These facts are taken from ABS 2011 Census Data

About 30 per cent of Kingston’s population was born overseas, with 22 per cent from non-English speaking backgrounds including Vietnamese, Indian, Sri Lankan, Greek, Italian and Chinese societies.

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Lisa Sun, the manager of Mordialloc Neighbourhood House and many of the staff were ably supported by volunteers, including Gabrielle Fakhri who was a magnificent MC as always. Gabrielle travels an hour and a half from the other side of Melbourne to support Mordialloc Neighbourhood House’s multicultural activities.

This is the second year for a Harmony Day celebration and there were a greater number of performers and a much larger audience proving indeed that

From little things big things grow


From little things big things grow

Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody

The local MP, Tim Richardson and also Councillors Geoff Gledhill and Rosemary West OAM attended to show their support with Tim and Geoff presenting raffle prizes. Our elected representatives moving between several events in other parts of the city and left to attend even more.  A great effort that should be acknowledged!

As Tim mentions on his Facebook page:

Incredibly the more than 150,000 residents in the City of Kingston come from 150 different nationalities and heritages, speaking more than 120 languages. Our cultural diversity is one of our greatest strengths in Melbourne, whether it is the celebration of the arts, food, creative arts, culture or history.

Local businesses donated prizes and I was lucky to win an organic facial from Endota Spa Mordialloc. Perhaps I channelled the luck of the Irish (thank you Mum) it being so soon after St Patrick’s Day because I rarely win anything.

Jaden Williams, the grandson of Boon Wurrung elder Carolyn Briggs offered Welcome to Country. As first people of the bay areas Boon Wurrung are proud  to share the history of their people and offer insights into their culture.

The opening act for the afternoon was the spectacular Lion Dance by The Hong De Lion Dance Association  formed in April 2008 by a group of passionate lion dancers with the aim to teach and promote the art to the community. The Hong De Lion Dance Association is a member of the International Hong Teck Association. The instructors have over 20 years experience in the art of the Chinese lion dance.

The next contribution came from Vivace Voices, one of the choirs at Kingston U3A. The choir was formed 12 years ago and has an extensive repertoire performing at concerts in various venues.

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The Pilipino group P.E.A.S.E.R., (Pilipino Elderly Association of South East Region) a voluntary senior citizens group founded in 1993 to assist elderly Pilipinos and their families had a strong presence and entertained a delighted audience with singing and dancing. They also had a well-stocked stall. The group was recognised for community volunteer work by Premier Steve Bracks in the International Year of Volunteers 2001, received Victoria’s Award for Excellence in Multicultural Affairs for Meritorious Service in the Community in 2004, and on Australia Day 2006 they were the City of Kingston’s Community Group of the Year:

… for making its own unique contribution to the broader community while still keeping the Pilipino cultural heritage alive.

Over the years P.E.A.S.E.R. has focused on the broader community.

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After the Pilipino Group, Vanessa Fraser sent the blood pressure of some of the audience sky high and had the rest of us in awe at her belly dancing expertise, energy and how easy she made it look! An absolutely stunning performance of a dance with origins in the Indian sub-continent, Middle East, Mediterranean and northeastern Africa.

We then had the first of several traditional dances by the Kingston Chinese Senior Citizens Club Inc. There was also an instrumental solo of a traditional Chinese instrument like a flute, a difficult instrument to master.

The upbeat dance music had toes tapping and hands clapping and the sound engineer and myself even had a jig. The joy, enthusiasm and desired harmony in the room palpable.

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When it was time for me to read some poetry and acknowledge the power and flexibility of the English language to contribute to harmony and diversity I had many hard acts to follow!

However, words can acknowledge and celebrate our humanity, our differences, our similarities, our needs, our sadness and happiness… and have the power to engage, encourage deeper understanding and appreciation of each other and events, even incite change…

I read three of my own poems:  a haiku, a short poem about asylum seekers, the acrostic poem Words Words Are All I Have and finished with the wonderful poem Unity by aboriginal poet/ author/ artist Kevin Gilbert.

Ningla a-Na! This our land
Indigenous and immigrant
Now sharing history

Seeking Asylum

Despair and desperation in their eyes
they plan to seek a new life
as far away as possible from strife

Seeking a safe haven is the prize
perhaps leaving behind children and wife
despair and desperation in their eyes

For many it may take several tries

Living on the edge of a knife
their only crime seeking a new life
despair and desperation in their eyes.

 

Words Are All I Have

Words are my business
Often they flow, or stay sealed like a time capsule
Remembering, imagining, creating, forgetting…
Depending on mood, knowledge, skill… the dictionary
So they can colour the page: language, meaning, interpretation… frustration

Why does the sentence not work
Or the words engage? Where’s the impact?
Rambling, nothing of substance… stuttering
Don’t start… don’t stop… less is more… Oh, decisions!
Structure? Be sensible, sensitive, sarcastic, serious, succinct, smart, strong

Alliteration can work
Repetition a crafty tool. Pizzaz needed
Especially metaphor and simile

Am I mad?
Losing it?
Laughing, crying, anxious, arrogant, scared… confident…

I squeeze the words from the pen

Hammer the keyboard
And shape the words and worlds to
Vindicate the term ‘writer’
End of story!

Unity by Kevin Gilbert

I am the land
I am the trees
I am the rivers
that flow to the seas
joining and moving

encompassing all
blending all parts of me
stars in my thrall
binding and weaving
with you who belong

sometime discordant
but part of my song
birds are a whisper
the four breezes croon

raindrops in melody
all form the tune
of being belonging
aglow with the surge
to life and its passions
to create its urge
in living expression
its total of one
and the I and the tree
and the you and the me
and the rivers and birds
and the rocks that we’ve heard

sing the songs we are one
I’m the tree you are me
with the land and the sea
we are one life not three
in the essence of life
we are one.

Mairi Neil _n
Yours truly

We then watched a riveting performance of Korean drumming by Mordialloc’s St Brigid’s Primary School . Later, the teacher told me that next year they will also have Korean dance. How lucky  to have access to another culture this way from an experienced teacher and to see the children embrace it so enthusiastically!

St brigid's korean drums

The local Aumsai Sansthen Temple again supported the event and the children gave us the delights of Bollywood, the three-year-old girl setting maternal and paternal hearts aflutter.

After the planned performances finished there were a range of activities to see and do encouraging people to move out of their comfort zone and dabble in diversity: Dressing up in Egyptian costumes and having a photograph with pharaoh, sipping Eritrean coffee, making Chinese lanterns, having a henna tattoo, face painted, tasting delightful delicacies, receiving a balloon animal, and joining in the singsong around the piano.

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There is so much to do in Melbourne every weekend, the March calendar particularly crowded with Moomba, the Labour Day weekend, the Grand Prix and of course this year Palm Sunday and Easter.

I had choices to make too  regarding ‘where to go’ but was thrilled to be part of this lively celebration of multiculturalism. What better way to promote harmony and acceptance  of our diversity than ‘A Taste of the World’ in your own backyard.

For me, it was also a chance to share my thoughts.To remind everyone that we all came from ‘somewhere else’ to this great country and yet the first people still welcome us although we invaded their land. What generosity of spirit to have and encourage.

While we celebrated, laughed and sang, thousands of others marched through Melbourne’s streets asking our political leaders to have a more humane approach to the refugee crisis engulfing the globe.

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Harmony Day in Mordialloc an example of the richness other cultures bring to an already talented community. Long may we continue to celebrate diversity and work to spread that welcoming and inclusiveness.

I look forward to a bigger and better bash next year.

Well done to  Mordialloc Neighbourhood House for initiating this event.

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Life is Absurd – If You Don’t Laugh You’ll Cry

 

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What a week ! Despite all good intentions and a host of ideas I’ve found completing a post for the blog elusive. I had plans to write about my mother in relation to St Patrick’s Day but in the planning I rearranged a class lesson and decided to do a post on all things green and Irish. However, I haven’t got around to editing and polishing the flash fiction and poems that exercise triggered.

My fingers moved too fast typing  this post and ‘flash’ came up auto-corrected as ‘flawed’.  Ha, ha – a Freudian slip or is my iMac confirming the truth of recent findings that computers are smarter than man and will soon be able to control us? Perhaps I should order a robot to write my posts!

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Meanwhile in the search through my files for a poem I wrote about my last trip to Ireland, I came across one written when I worked at Melbourne University. A bit of doggerel born from the time spent travelling on the train each day.

The hour long trip in the morning and the hour home again put to good use writing in my notebook, jotting down ideas often prompted by articles in the free mX newspaper, which had a section of brief stories from around the world titled Weird.

For a creative writer this was manna from heaven and indeed one such story on the lead up to Christmas inspired me to dash off a verse.  The nonsense produced actually fits in with the sense of unreality I’ve felt this week as the media promotes the likelihood of Donald Trump, not only being the Republican candidate for the Presidency, but perhaps the President of the United States of America.

In Australia, we elected Tony Abbott to a position of power so what people do with their vote never ceases to amaze me, but how do we explain Trump’s popularity and the scenes of hero worship and frenzied adulation?

And then I remembered Diana Duyser and her grilled cheese sandwich.

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Ode To A Cheese Sandwich

Mairi Neil, 2004.

Challenging the world’s non-believers
a goodly woman’s news did travel
displaying the Holy Toasted Sandwich
advertised as an E-Bay marvel.
Modern headlines scream of terror,
famine, war, pestilence and more
so the mother of God visited Florida
a lasting impression to make for sure!
The Blessed Virgin was desperate
she’d visited Earth before
statues wept, shrouds wrinkled
wraith-like she’d walked through doors.
But all that is so last century
modern Americans are much more cynical
Mother Mary had to choose a medium
observable without being mystical.
In the year of Our Lord, 1994
checked out of Heaven by God’s clerk
Mary traversed God’s own country
looking for somewhere to leave her mark.
Lo and behold, great tidings
Diana Duyser’s toaster was set just right
and miracle of holy miracles
she instantly saw The Light!
Without any theological training
or a holy life of note
she recognised the Virgin Mary’s visage
upon a sea of butter afloat.
In cotton wool and plastic wrap
two wonders of modern technology
for ten years the blessed sandwich
has defied all toxicology.
And so in December 2004
Golden Palace Casino’s gullible folk
made Diana $A35,000 richer
proving the silly season is not a joke!

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In 2004, I was also studying part time and achieved my Certificate IV in Workplace Training & Assessment. The course spanned 18 weeks – a much more intensive and thorough course than many on offer today – especially those in the scandalous private sector where charlatans have received government money because ideologically driven governments insist private does it better than public.

I was lucky the Sandybeach Centre was founded by a family of teachers who believed in public education. They gifted the centre to the community. My Cert IV tutor had relocated from Canberra and was one of the people who designed the course aiming to ensure people training others had the teaching skills to present and pass on that knowledge.

There were 18 students meeting each week and the insight into the range of skills and ideas for courses, as well as the range of personalities and backgrounds, led to fascinating lessons.

At our farewell luncheon I presented everyone with a poem on parchment, rolled and  tied with a bright red ribbon. The scroll, a little reflection to celebrate the end of what had been an intense course for some.

CERT IV – 2004

At Sandybeach for eighteen weeks
Eighteen students gathered to learn
With expert guidance from Maria
We experienced a pleasant sojourn.

Deanna taught us yoga breaths
Especially breathing through the nose
Encouraging meditation and calmness
Just make sure a handkerchief is close!

Esther explained website design
With a great example of how it’s done
Being first to do the ‘assessment task’
She was the perfect guide for everyone

A veteran of the corporate world
John’s mapping a new career
He enthralled us with statistics
Showing a water crisis is here!

Artistic Shelly displayed flair
We admired her icon painting
But if she’d gone into labour
Some of us would be fainting!

Toni was the second youngest
To be a teacher her ambition
Her presentation on computers
An excellent example of tuition.

Kamil was the youngest in the class
Yet his forte is knowledge of business
To actually gain this qualification
To Kam would be sheer B.L.I.S.S.

Softly spoken Paula’s desire
To train civil celebrants is unique
Her advice for aspiring celebrants
‘Get it right!’ before you speak.

There was a doctor in the ‘house’
Janos Bognar was his name
He shared his knowledge and expertise
The ‘mad cow’ debate to inflame!

Andrea is not demented
And she tested all of us
Her presentation and assessment
Completed with minimum of fuss.

Stefan tackled each session
Enthusiastically with a smile
His commitment to French food
Gave us a salad with style!

Gordon’s morning drive was impressive
His keen participation too
Flowery speech and tussie mussie
Made his presentation difficult to outdo.

Frank kept us entertained most sessions
Mr. Hospitality could be his name
We learnt what makes good coffee
and dealing with complaints is not a game.

Liz recognises signs of conflict
And has solutions that will work
Her triangular presentation
Helped us recognise a jerk.

If ever we suffer depression
Let’s hope Maralyn is on hand
With soft voice and caring manner
Our every symptom she understands.

Eve coached us all for life change
She made us think seriously about time
The quality not quantity
To have a balance just sublime!

Leanne loves outdoors
But suggests gardens need design
Her checklist incredibly helpful
To avoid a strangling vine.

Ann embodied the perfect presenter
Her cool style one to emulate
Customer service is her forte
Her training talent innate.

And last but not least is yours truly
A wordsmith of moderate note
The best thing about Cert IV
is the people about whom I wrote!

Mairi Neil

The celebration with classmates cut short because a close friend had died suddenly.  The funeral to be held in Castlemaine where she had relocated with her family to start a new life in the country and fulfil her dream of bringing her children up in a healthy sustainable lifestyle.

I left a city restaurant, caught the train to Castlemaine and met up with a group of friends, all in a state of shock like me. We’d become acquainted through Alida. I’d taught puppet and writing workshops at her home when she organised large groups of home-educated children. Her two young children had come to my Scottish country dancing classes. Before that they had briefly attended the same Steiner school as my daughters.

Alida had just turned 40. Why were we attending her funeral? As children painted her coffin and a quartet of strings played Mozart, we heard how she had died of a blood infection picked up after she cut herself gardening. Life is indeed absurd.

Alida – one of my angels. She supported me through John’s illness, encouraged me to write and insisted I was a good teacher, giving me opportunities through the home education network. She gave me confidence and the impetus to improve my qualifications. I should have been showing her my certificate not signing a condolence book. She left instructions for her funeral and it was unique like herself. Lots of laughter as children and adults painted flowers, trees and rainbows on her coffin and shared quirky stories about a truly remarkable and memorable person.

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And as this post visits random memories triggered by files on my computer I discovered a story I’d written about another bizarre episode in the Life & Times of Mairi Neil…

Hospitals Take Patience

When Anne was in primary school she ached to roller blade. Each school holiday we received a discount voucher to the local skating rink in White Street and each holiday I promised to go ‘one day’.

My childhood memories of roller skates were of expandable contraptions strapped over shoes. One size fits all. They usually slipped off, loosened, or stretched. Children were fortunate to reach adulthood with ankle bones intact. Skate design improved but I discovered eva in adulthood, risks of broken bones remain.

One Easter, I kept my promise and took Anne to the rink. I hired skates for us both so that I could demonstrate and help Anne skate, but the speed and antics of teenagers whizzing around made me change my mind. It was twenty years since I last roller-skated. One novice on the rink was enough. I returned my skates.

I showed Anne how to stand, glide and most importantly hang onto either my arm or the side of the rink. The first three encirclements slower than a snail on ice. Anne bounced back from falls, her patience, perseverance and endurance astonishing as she alternated between grabbing the side of the rink and me. Confidence and skill improved and she staggered solo.

Fourth time unlucky!

Clipped by a boy as unsure as herself, Anne fell. On the way down her left foot landed on my right foot. The slip-on canvas shoes I wore offered no protection from the wheels of the skate. Oh, the pain! So intense I was glad the general hubbub masked my expletives deleted.

I managed to finish the circuit and endure two more before suggesting we call it quits. Every step of the ten minute walk home excruciatingly painful.

After an uncomfortable night, John insisted I should have an x-ray in case I’d cracked a bone in my foot. (To match the one in my head his unspoken judgement.)

The human foot has 26 bones, 33 joints, 107 ligaments, 19 muscles and tendons. The 52 bones in your feet make up about 25 percent of all the bones in your body.

We went to Frankston, the nearest public hospital and I limped to the reception desk.

‘Do you want see a doctor?’

I hoped the receptionist didn’t hear John’s mumbled, ‘No, we want to see a plumber.’

I managed to keep a straight face while explaining my injury.

Usual questions on personal and medical history were answered before she said, ‘Take a seat and I’ll arrange to have your foot elevated.’

However, a lady sitting at the adjoining window called me over to ask more questions of why I was there. I gave a detailed explanation, which she typed into a computer. My foot throbbed more and a headache developed to match.

At last sitting down I watched as moments later, three youths and an older lady helped a young girl through the doorway. She clung to the woman’s arm, hopping with an obvious swollen ankle. I discovered they were German tourists.

The receptionist deemed it necessary to repeat everything they said accompanied by an increase in the volume of her voice. I don’t think any of them were deaf but apparently your hearing and privacy disappears if your English is limited.

A twenty-something couple with two small children arrived next. They collected food and drink from the foyer vending machines and settled down to watch the television suspended from the ceiling. No reporting to reception – perhaps their TV was broken at home.

It was now 10.00 am. I turned to John, ‘The hospital isn’t that busy, hopefully this won’t take long.’

An orderly wheeled the young German girl away. She returned after having her ankle x-rayed. An hour had passed. The young children bored with the television offerings demanded more snacks.

John checked his watch for the umpteenth time. A pulse in his cheek throbbed as he stabbed at The Age crossword with his pen. I flicked pages so fast in the magazine I was reading they were in danger of ripping.

Anne and MaryJane were being taken care of by a friend but as is usual with emergency child care arrangements I worried. Stymied from voicing guilt and fears for the hundredth time, when a nurse called my name.

I hobbled after her, along the corridor, through double doors to a large area bustling with activity. Health professionals in abundance talked on phones, wrote on clipboards, chatted to patients and each other. People in various stages of treatment occupied three beds. A baby cried from behind a screen and a worried mother nursed a toddler being examined by a young doctor.

How long had these people been here? Was there another entrance to Accident & Emergency I didn’t know about?

The nurse directed me to join a couple sitting on a row of seats against a wall. The elderly man displayed an injured foot and his wife sat beside him holding crutches.

The nurse elevated my foot too and asked me to explain what had happened. She had difficulty finding evidence of ‘vital signs’ but at last announced she’d located a pulse in my foot. We both sighed with relief. She marked the spot with a biro, ‘to make it easier next time.’

She tried to take my temperature with a new machine that plugged into your ear to show body temperature on a portable screen. It didn’t work. She discarded the machine for an old-fashioned thermometer muttering, ‘so much for hi-tech medicine.’

Left alone, I introduced myself to my fellow sufferer and his wife. Fred said, ‘I’ve been sitting here since ten o’clock.’

I panicked. It was nearly midday. I shuffled back to Reception and told John about the back-log behind the scenes. He didn’t need convincing to check on the girls, ‘I’ll grab some lunch and return in a couple of hours.’

I resumed my conversation with Fred who confided a woman pushing a stroller knocked him over. ‘I just got the plaster off this morning and went to the local shopping centre. She careered into me from behind. Hit me good leg and sent me flying. I grabbed a parking meter to save myself but hit the kerb and the leg snapped.’

The woman didn’t stop to help or apologise but when Fred repeated what he said and how, I suggested her lack of response was through fear rather than indifference. His wife nodded in agreement. Righteous anger can be scary.

‘When you say good leg what happened to the other one?’

‘Oh,’ said Fred, ‘I broke that playing golf.’ He pointed to his left leg. ‘It was summer and the ground was dry and hard and I was wearing me winter shoes.’

I hid my ignorance – I didn’t even know there were special shoes for golf, never mind ones for different seasons!

Fred barely paused in his tale of woe. ‘I hit the best shot of me life, swung around but the shoe stayed put. I heard the lower leg and ankle crack.’ He shuddered with the memory.

Both his wife and I let out suitable sympathetic sounds and shook our heads. Some people attract bad luck!

I shared my mishap and laughed at our lack of sporting prowess.

A young intern approached. ‘Steven’s the name,’ he said with the false friendliness of a McDonald’s commercial. ‘What happened to your foot.’

I explained, yet again and wondered if a lie detector lurked nearby checking to see if this fourth retelling any different from the initial one hours before.

Steven attempted to take the pulse in my foot but couldn’t find it despite the biro mark. He expressed surprise at the foot being cold. I reminded him I’d been sitting for an hour in the path of the blast from the air-conditioner and two doorways. He didn’t acknowledge there may be a connection.

‘Are you a smoker?’

‘No.’

‘That’s odd, you have very poor circulation.’

He called a nurse and they both felt for a pulse. The nurse found it near the biro mark. Steven still couldn’t find it. He started to manipulate my toes and move my foot about. He pressed hard. Obsessed about my pulse he forgot about the injury. My not quite muffled scream brought an embarrassed apology and the original nurse over.

‘What’s the significance of this worry over my pulse?’ I wondered aloud. ‘Is it a sign of terminal illness? My foot was smashed by a roller skate. I just want to know if I’ve broken anything.’

The original nurse recognised fear. ‘It means nothing except they can’t find it!’ She dismissed Steven with a glare.

He wandered off to practise on another patient, the nurses returned to their respective posts and Fred and I pondered on the training interns received.

The German girl had joined us and another intern was using sign language and broken English to explain the intricate muscle, bone and nerve structure of the human leg. She paid great attention to his every word, mainly because she couldn’t understand it – neither could we.

He had examined her x-rays, which revealed no broken bones. That would have taken seconds to say. Perhaps he recognised she hadn’t been waiting the obligatory three hours or perhaps because she was young and attractive he wanted to delay her departure.

I wondered if Steven had bothered to order x-rays for me when as if by mental telepathy a young technician appeared with a wheelchair. He asked what happened and so for the umpteenth time I explained why I had come to the hospital.  I had a desire to begin the narration with ‘a tale as old as time… ‘

Half-an-hour later John returned in a mellow mood. Lunch had been delicious, the girls were happy. The x-ray a great advance in his eyes until I reminded him it was after 2.00 pm.

Fifteen minutes later a nurse came over and bandaged the German girl’s ankle and my foot. Steven reappeared and introduced himself to John, ignoring me.

He talked over my head. ‘I don’t think the foot is broken but I’m not saying it isn’t in case you come back and sue my ass off.’

Steven received my most scathing look.  John refrained from speaking. I thought how my Irish mother sometimes mangled the English language but then she had no great love of the English or their language and made no pretence of having studied it at tertiary level.

A nurse bandaged the foot that may or may not be broken. I didn’t tell her being a proud owner of a Ranger Guide First Aid badge, I could have done that at home.

We left Fred demanding loudly if they had misplaced his file while his wife shrunk behind his crutches.

I limped out to the carpark leaning on John’s arm reflecting that before being let loose as a General Practitioner, Steven needed a trifecta: to improve his medical knowledge, master a doctoring technique and find a better bedside manner.

‘You’ll think twice before roller-skating again,’ John said as he helped me into the car.

My smile, lopsided and fleeting as I vowed next holiday, the school’s discount vouchers better be for the cinema.

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Why I Had my Say on International Women’s Day 2016

 

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What a week in the political calendar with International Women’s Day victim to mercurial Melbourne’s weather. An  El Niño escapade creating a  record breaking 41 degrees on Tuesday, March 8th.

On the day women celebrate with various events, mine culminated with a 6.00pm march through city streets after I’d been a keynote speaker in the morning and taught in the afternoon. In local vernacular, by evening I was knackered – the old grey mare ain’t what she used to be!

Although officially autumn, Melbourne sweltered.

When I joined my daughters at the march in the city it was great to be among vocal and delightful young people, but also sad that we are still fighting for many of the same issues that motivated me to action in the 70s.

On the march I had a conversation with a young police officer in his 20s.

‘You drew the short straw,’ I said by way of conversation and indicated the heat.

‘Oh, no, this is just part of general police duties when assigned to the city,’ he replied. ‘Why are you all marching?’

‘It’s International Women’s Day.’

‘Here?’

‘Yes, and all round the world. Where were you born?’

‘In Hong Kong.’

‘Don’t they march there?’

‘Oh, I don’t know…. Why and when did it start?’

I explained the brief history of the event and that marching on this day started in Melbourne in 1975.

‘But why are you marching?’

‘This year we’re seeking wage parity among other things.’

He pondered for a moment and asked, ‘When did women get the vote?’

I wasn’t sure if he was implying ‘what more do you want’ or if he thought women’s suffrage was granted evenly throughout the world, or if he actually cared because our conversation ended abruptly as he fell back to attend to a traffic snarl.

 

 

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The next day there was a protest to keep the plight of asylum seekers facing deportation, in the public eye and although not quite so hot, travelling into the city again after working,  took a toll on my weary body, especially since the unseasonal weather made sleep elusive!

However, I met some marvellous women and we swapped addresses. The female police officer in charge of city duties supportive and caring. The demonstration went off with a lot of good humour and co-operation from police and public.

On Being Asked To Speak

I was surprised when I was asked to be the keynote speaker at the City of Kingston’s annual IWD celebration held at Doyles in Mordialloc. For several years, I’ve  attended as part of the audience if not working, never imagining I’d ever be the main speaker.

However, it is one of several invitations I’ve received since being awarded Kingston Citizen of the Year 2016 and I was more than happy to speak about the Power of Story and Words and champion the value and joy of teaching creative writing in neighbourhood houses.

The topic agreed upon after a discussion with the council’s Community Engagement Team, Dominic, Kate and Gillian, aptly titled Wellbeing Officers.

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The MC for the morning, Gemma O’Shea, Kingston Young Citizen of the Year, demonstrated poise, a clear voice and skilful handling of the program with a confidence I wished I’d had at her age (and even wished I felt that morning).

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Gemma introducing the Penguin Club speakers

The Mayor, Councillor Tamsin Bearsley spoke well as usual, the audience spellbound as she shared her story and journey towards choosing to stand for public office.

Tamsin confided that she had been brought up as a Christadelphian, in a conservative Christian family where women did not have a voice in church services or the decisions of the church. Christadelphians believe the Bible is the inspired Word of God and take their attitudes from their interpretation of the Scriptures.

Christadelphians also believe that the Bible teaches them to avoid all involvement in politics: no voting, no joining political parties, no demonstrations, no protest groups and no becoming elected representatives.

Tamsin went to school locally at Mentone Girls’ Secondary College and won the Premier’s Information Technology Prize when Jeff Kennett was Premier of Victoria. She found the encounter with Kennett inspiring and while studying Robotics during her teaching degree she met her future husband who is a Catholic. The desire to pursue teaching and marriage entailed a break with the Christadelphians and their strict beliefs.

A friendship with former Councillor and later MP for Carrum, Donna Bauer, who became a mentor, led to Tamsin’s involvement in local politics. She closed her speech encouraging everyone to put their hand up to take a more active role in the community and be empowered to stand for elected office. A strong message considering the obstacles Tamsin overcame to have her voice heard.

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The Mayor, Cr Tamsin Bearsley

The next three speakers were from the Penguin Club of Australia Inc. An organisation which offers a supportive, friendly environment  emphasising participation for women to develop confidence and communication skills, especially in public speaking. The Bayside Group meets twice a month in Clarinda on the 1st and 3rd Wednesday.

I sat nervously awaiting my turn watching Claire Houston, Patricia Buchanan and Ann Keys from the Club. They presented with such confidence it made me envious. They asked two questions I could definitely answer with a ‘Yes!’

Does the thought of standing up to speak fill you with terror?

Would you like to develop the confidence that you admire in other people?

The three spoke eloquently and fluently, giving a short history of the oral tradition most cultures have, including our own, and why famous speeches resonate and how we can learn to emulate impressive speakers.

The next speaker, Mary Rimington OAM, has been a longtime activist in the conservation movement and secretary of the Mordialloc Beaumaris Conservation League for many years.

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Mary Rimington OAM

Mary spoke about the role of women in the MBCL participating in community consultations, preparing submissions, attending hearings, meetings and letter writing. The achievements of this hardworking lobby group are many: protecting the foreshore vegetation and cliffs from erosion, encouraging the clean up of Mordialloc Creek, retaining the Green Wedge, and campaigning for better planning decisions city-wide as well as for Port Phillip Bay.

Mary’s involvement goes back to 1969 and she has campaigned for and against many decisions by politicians of all political persuasions. The newspaper clippings she showed revealed just how feisty negotiations were many years ago and how lucky we are that local people like herself have continued to honour past state premier Rupert Hamer’s vision for retaining green wedges around Melbourne when he claimed in parliament:

that nobody could happily contemplate a future metropolis of seemingly endless suburbia spreading out to infinity.’

We can thank former councillors and some locals who were prepared to be arrested, for stopping a dangerous oil pipeline being routed through the bay. The power of words coupled with action.

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After Mary, it was my turn and I included two poems to give the audience and myself some relief.

I was grateful I had friends sitting in the audience – from Mordialloc Writers’ Group (Eve, Maureen, Kristina, Dorothy, Lisa) and from the Southern Branch of the Union of Australian Women (Amy, Evelyn, Barbara, Mary). Also, Lorna my ‘boss’  from Longbeach Place, Gulay the head of the committee I was on at Central Bayside Health, plus of course my lovely number two daughter, Mary Jane.

Anne couldn’t take time off work, but she listened to me rehearsing the speech the night before and gave valuable feedback. Before the program began, I  discovered two friends  from the days when my daughters attended Mordialloc Primary School. Catherine and Susan had come along because they heard I was  speaking.

The windows revealed Mordialloc Creek looked picture postcard magnificent. At least anyone losing interest had a wonderful view for daydreaming.

Is it better for the nerves to speak in front of friends or strangers? Not sure of the answer, except I was glad when the speech went without  mishap and I even received compliments. I work on the philosophy that people don’t have to say something nice and took all praise at face value.

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me in full flight

International Women’s Day 2016

I acknowledge that this gathering is on Aboriginal land and respectfully acknowledge the past and present traditional owners, the Boonwerung people of the Kulin Nation, and pay respects to their elders past and present. Today, I especially honour and recognise the strength, resilience and capacity of Aboriginal women.

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I thank the Mayor, Cr Tamsin Bearsley, and acknowledge other councillors and representatives from the City of Kingston who facilitated today. I’m still humbled and stunned to be regarded as Kingston’s Citizen of the Year and to be speaking at this celebration.

And it is a celebration, although joy is easily tempered in a world of instant and constant communication reminding us of sorrow. I find it helps to write out my observations about this constant turmoil. Here is a recent poem.

Latte Lament
Mairi Neil

We sit in the cafe
indulging a desire
for coffee and cake
and a need
for each other …

Sensitive souls
we struggle to accept
that sitting, sipping coffee:
skinny latte, cappuccino, mochaccino
long or short black

And devouring slices
of gluten free, fructose free, fat-free,
carrot cake and chocolate muffin –
is not conscience free…

Modern media mobility
screams of drought, bushfires
floods at home and
tragedies abroad: war, random shootings,
terrorist attacks, refugee crises…

France,
Greece,
Indonesia,
Iraq,
Israel,
Kenya,
Lebanon,
Palestine,
Sri Lanka,
Syria,
Turkey,
Ukraine
Manus Island and Nauru…

We skip the sugar and cream
Search mobile screen for funny meme.

 

International Women’s Day first emerged from the activities of labour movements in North America and Europe, at the turn of last century. Now the day has assumed extensive global dimensions.

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We can safely say, International Women’s Day is here to stay! (There’s a nice bit of rhyme for you!) Words and how we use them, important.

Writing can amuse, prick your conscience, stir memories, educate and affect change. Textbooks and media tell their versions of an event but ordinary people live through the experience. Our stories, our points of view are important to record as a legacy for future generations. The pen is mightier than the sword when the stories and poems of a generation remain. They reflect lives more truthfully than a cold observer recording, sifting through records, or perhaps writing what they’re told or paid to write.

For centuries, we had HIStory, not HERstory.

Susan Sontag described a writer as ‘sitting in a room every day, year after year, alone.

Not me! I’m a passionate writer who has become a passionate teacher of writing! Privileged to hear and encourage people to write amazing stories, real or imagined, adding insight into what it means to be human.

 

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Today, a time to reflect on achievements and thank the ordinary women and men in myriad countries and diverse communities for their courage and determination in calling for change. Women’s rights are human rights, feminists are male, female and genderqueer. Our language and attitude must change to be inclusive and recognise diversity.

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The United Nations began celebrating IWD on the 8th March during International Women’s Year in 1975. Some in this room will remember that year with mixed emotions.

In the November, Prime Minister Gough Whitlam was sacked by an unelected Governor General – party politics and the Republican debate aside – many women feared the door to a future of their choosing would be slammed, or the locks changed.

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The Whitlam government’s gifts of free tertiary education, Commonwealth funds flowing to childcare places, Medicare, specialist health and welfare services for women, women’s refuges and rape crisis centres, made a huge difference to women’s lives. This could be snatched away or revert to the privileged few.

In 1971, because I won a Commonwealth scholarship, I was the first and only one of 6 siblings, in my migrant family to attend university. When Gough removed the financial barrier, thousands of women and men enrolled – many as mature age students.

In 1975, I worked as a research assistant at the Museum in Russell Street in a job funded by the Federal Government’s Regional Economic Development Program. A beneficiary of the 1972 Equal Pay Case that women undertaking work similar to that undertaken by men should be paid an equal wage I was devastated when the program and my job disappeared with Gough.

Tumultuous times for me and many young women. Not unusual, however, time and again it is women and children’s services that bear the brunt of government cost saving. Women are often left with no work, or poorly paid work. The progress made in professional fields is not translated to the majority.

However, Mordy Writers benefited from the educational revolution of the 70s. Glenice Whitting went to university and started writing. She is now Dr Glenice Whitting with a prize-winning novel and other writing achievements to her credit. Glenice is one of many who left school early, married, had a family but ached to do something different. In my classes over the years, countless women thanked Gough for making it easier to seek education. A generation of lifelong learners created.

Targeted government support makes a difference to women’s lives.

There have not been many great leaps forward. Progress a hard slog. It was 20 years before the Beijing Conference in 1995 and its twelve areas of critical concern, reviewed last year – another 20 years later.

  • The stocktake decided gender parity in primary education has been achieved, but completion rates and the quality of education are not high across all countries.
  • More women have been elected to public office – about 21% of the world’s parliamentarians are women, up from about 11% in 1995 – but we are still far from parity.
  • More women than ever before are participating in the workforce, but women generally earn less than men and, in rich and poor countries alike, carry a disproportionate burden of unpaid care work which deprives them of time for valuable pursuits like earning money, gaining new skills, and participating in public life.
  • And, while more laws exist to protect women from violence, sexual and gender-based violence continue to occur on every continent and in every country, often reaching horrific levels where there are war and conflict.

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I don’t have to tell people in this room the challenges Australia still faces: we’re not very kind to those in public office, but levels of vitriol and spite for women who achieve high office reached appalling heights against Julia Gillard. And how shameful we needed Rosie Batty and her tragic loss to galvanise governments into concerted action on family violence?

I worked at Maroondah Halfway House in the 70s, the second women’s refuge established in Melbourne. One of my first published writings was in a Croydon church magazine asking for funds for women and children affected by domestic violence. The generous response overwhelming.

There have always been people eager to rectify injustice.

Now we refer to family violence which reflects the true breadth and depth of the problem meriting the Andrews Government’s Royal Commission.

The United Nation’s Women’s Executive’s message this year is ‘Each one of us is needed—in our countries, communities, organisations, governments and in the United Nations — to ensure decisive, visible and measurable actions are taken under the banner: Planet 50-50: Step It Up for Gender Equality.’

Let’s hope that gender equality will see an end to the terrorism women and children face in the place they should be the safest – the home.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon prefaced his message for IWD2016 with a story that reminds us that in some instances there may never be a level playing field for women:

As a boy growing up in post-war Korea, I remember asking about a tradition I observed: women going into labour would leave their shoes at the threshold and then look back in fear. “ They are wondering if they will ever step into those shoes again,” my mother explained.

More than a half-century later, the memory continues to haunt me. In poor parts of the world today, women still risk death in the process of giving life. Maternal mortality is one of many preventable perils. All too often, female babies are subjected to genital mutilation. Girls are attacked on their way to school. Women’s bodies are used as battle fields in wars. Widows are shunned and impoverished.

We can only address these problems by empowering women as agents of change.

Women and girls are critical to finding sustainable solutions to the challenges of poverty, inequality and the recovery of the communities hardest hit by conflicts, disasters and displacements.

They are at the frontline of the outbreaks of threatening new epidemics, such as Zika virus disease or the impact of climate change, and at the same time are the bulwark to protect their families, work for peace, and ensure sustainable economic growth and social change.

In Ban Ki-Moon’s words, ‘We have shattered so many glass ceilings we created a carpet of shards. Now we are sweeping away the assumptions and bias of the past so women can advance across new frontiers.’

The World Health Organisation estimates 830 women die each day from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth. How wonderful to read about a church hall in the Adelaide Hills where volunteers have met since 1999 to put together birthing kits, containing the bare essentials to help reduce the risk of infection for women giving birth in some of the world’s harshest environments.

The wallet-sized kits are lightweight and cheap, costing just $3 to put together and are credited with a 25% reduction in deaths. 1.4 million have been distributed across the globe including Ethiopia, Myanmar and Afghanistan.

How often do women working for change make the headlines? Grandmothers Against Children in Detention collecting toys, writing letters, organising protests, the women in Warragul making kits for breast cancer survivors to wake up to after their mastectomies. When I read their written prayer and good wishes inside my card, I wept. Strangers thinking of me – our sole connection – womanhood.

We stand on the shoulders of those who have come before. I’m grateful my parents told me to use my voice – whether speaking or writing, to always champion social justice and equity. My mother advised, ‘use the gifts God gave you, you have a brain and a good Scots tongue in your head.’  Dad, said, ‘I don’t care if you’re a street cleaner, just be the most educated cleaner you can be.’

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Part of the answer, not part of the problem. Ideas are easy but turning words into compelling reads is hard.

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Who were or are your mentors? What have they taught you? Have you thanked them? Parents, teachers, employers, neighbours, writers, thinkers – people who’ve shown you the way at some point, revealed the beautiful mystery and challenges of life which made sense in their hands.

Inspiration and passion is contagious. It fuels and fires you up. Keep those mentors in your heart, share their wisdom and pay it forward and help someone else. Women can be really good at doing that – sisterhood is indeed powerful.

Another organisation dear to my heart is the Southern Branch of the Union of Australian Women which meets in Mordialloc.

We’re expert at writing letters and signing petitions. In Kingston we can thank members of the UAW for the first kindergartens, libraries, childcare centres, improved roads and parks and even bus routes.

In Kingston, we have a history of hard working females: councillors, managers of neighbourhood houses, school principals, leaders and activists in countless volunteer organisations. We heard from inspirational Mary Rimington OAM today whose pen has ensured we still have a foreshore of indigenous vegetation, a cleaner creek and many parklands including the Green Wedge. Over the years she’s written thousands of words in submissions and has had letters published in the local papers and The Age.

Those in power do listen – sometimes.

My passion is writing: everyone has a story and I believe they have a right to have their stories heard. Writing in all its forms encourages, and enables stories to be shared. And a story shared is the first step towards understanding each other, a step towards a fair and tolerant society.

In tandem with writing is reading – literacy opens doors to education, skills, better communication. Knowledge is power as is storytelling. Stories link us with the first peoples, with our ancestors, our neighbours and strangers; the legacy we leave our children.

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In Kingston, we’re lucky to have Lisa Hill,  writer of the AnzLit blog – Google Lisa and read her reviews. Choose a book from many of our Indigenous authors – move out of your comfort zone.

My motivation to establish and continue to grow classes in neighbourhood houses was to make creative writing courses available and accessible for all. We learn who we are from writing. Where we’re from and about humanity.

If there is a story attached to a painting, a building, an historical event it makes it more interesting, more realistic, more memorable. The tragedy of the Stolen Generations and the current scandals of sexual abuse within institutions like the Catholic Church all the more powerful when we read individual stories. Like Ban Ki-Moon said, the stories haunt you.

Unknown.pngQualified professionals use writing as therapy. Since the 1980s, researchers have found writing and healing go hand-in-hand, writing can help your:

  • immune system
  • memory
  • blood pressure
  • wounds heal
  • sleeping patterns improve

Emotionally expressive writing is powerful. A healing tool to use working toward better health. When people write about feelings as well as thoughts, describe troubling events, try to see from different perspectives, they may make sense or meaning of the situation.

Most of us have experiences, secrets, troubles that could do with an airing and often fictionalising these is a less traumatic way of dealing with their legacy.

Friendships grow in writing classes along with wellbeing.

In class, we begin by splurging. Students write from a prompt or class discussion. A pencil and a piece of paper all that is needed although students with disabilities may use a tape recorder, iPad or laptop.

We don’t think too deeply in the splurge. Don’t edit ourselves. We write everything that comes to mind. A stream of consciousness allowing imaginations to go wherever they want. Nobody— absolutely no author writes a perfect first draft. The goal is to get a story or poem down on the page where you can see it, share it (if you desire) and then start to shape it.

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What a privilege to have a safe space to tell your story and feel validated when people listen, support, comment, admire, encourage, and even ask to hear more. We are lucky the council and state government see the value in funding neighbourhood houses.

Early women writers submitted work under male pseudonyms, many women in the past have been told their stories and opinions don’t matter, yet the majority of my students over the years have been female and disprove societal assumptions.

The oldest student is 95 this year, Ceinwen has written her memoir about the war years and writes beautiful poetry with insightful detail. She insists, the classes and homework give her a reason to get up in the morning and stay engaged with life.

Two students with acquired brain injury write about the person they are now – both refer to their accident as a rebirth. The steep learning curve to physical, emotional and mental health ongoing. Anat wants to publish her memoir, Michael wants to publish a collection of his poems.

Every story is an endless flow of questions – meaning always in the making as we create and change. What would happen if we valued stories regardless of gender, age, colour, or disability? As a woman, a teacher, a mother and a writer I say, why not change the conversation from ‘It would be nice if…’ to ‘It is essential that…’?

To achieve the goal of gender equality the entire system needs to change. Diversity and equity begin with you. What conversations are you having? Who are the people in your social media feeds? When you go home, is your family the same cultural background? When you go to a party, are your friends all the same? When you look at your bookshelf, are most of the books by similar authors?

If your tastes are not diverse, you may be hearing and reading the same stories over and over again.

Finally, words matter, we can make a conscious decision to change words that have demeaned women and others. Ignore the voices that sneer at political correctness – they may never have been the butt of sexism, racism, homophobia, ableism or ageism.

Words, Words, Are All I Have

Words are my business

Often they flow, or stay sealed like a time capsule

Remembering, imagining, creating, forgetting…

Depending on mood, knowledge, skill… the dictionary

So they can colour the page: language, meaning, interpretation… frustration

Why does the sentence not work

Or the words engage? Where’s the impact?

Rambling, nothing of substance… stuttering

Don’t start… don’t stop… less is more… Oh, decisions!

Structure? Be sensible, sensitive, sarcastic, serious, succinct, smart, strong

Alliteration can work

Repetition a crafty tool. Pizzaz needed

Especially metaphor and simile

Am I mad?

Losing it?

Laughing, crying, anxious, arrogant, scared… confident…

I squeeze the words from the pen

Hammer the keyboard

And shape the words and worlds to

Vindicate the term ‘writer’

End of story!

© Mairi Neil 2016

All presenters were given gorgeous flowers. We listened to the Stiletto Sisters, an energetic and joyful trio who played while we indulged in a delicious morning tea.

In what seemed a blink of the eye, it was time to venture into the horrendous heat and go our separate ways.

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A truly memorable International Women’s Day  allowing me to have my say!

Let There be Light and Enjoy The Illuminations

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I read for emotional engagement – a resonance in my heart as well as mind – and a love of story. Often I don’t finish a book, or take too long  reading  because it’s a struggle to engage with either the characters, plot, themes or the use of language.

However, a poorly edited book will be finished if the story is powerful or the characters grab me. Cliched I know, but a book must leave something with me to think about long after it’s been returned to its owner, library, put back on my shelf, or passed to a friend.

I have no interest in writing about books I don’t like so can never claim to be an objective book reviewer – I’ll leave that to experts on other sites like writer and friend, Lisa Hill.

I’m attracted to writers who can teach me something about  writing, and Andrew O’Hagan is one of my favourite authors. His use of words crafted into delightful and poignant metaphors and similes; minimal but evocative descriptions and always stories and characters with layers of meaning. He deftly structures his novels to lead to surprising revelations and links that have you nodding your head in amazement because of an ‘ah, ah’ moment of understanding.

I’ll be unashamedly partisan, O’Hagan’s lyrical prose speaks to me in more ways than one because he’s Scottish and many of his beautiful passages capture the Scotland and the people I grew up with and know so well. Even although it’s been many years since I lived full-time in Scotland, I can picture places he describes and hear beloved voices. The memories evoked pure nostalgic indulgence.

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I haven’t read all his offerings but first came across his writing in The Missing, a non-fiction book that had a profound impact. I might review this another time because like his fictional works I’ve read, Our Fathers, Be Near Me, and Personality and now this latest offering The Illuminations, O’Hagan tackles relevant social issues and newsworthy events and weaves them into his characters’ lives. He researches and champions important issues affecting the human condition, makes us think and generates empathy for people and situations we may otherwise ignore.

If you become captivated like me, you’ll seek out his other books – I tend to do that with authors. I remember Mrs Saffin, the librarian at Croydon High School in 1965 trying to break me of the habit of working my way through the shelves by reading all the books of a particular author before moving on to a new writer. (She had limited success.)

On reflection, because I always wanted to be a writer, I don’t think it was a bad idea on my part. When I found an author I liked, I was probably subconsciously studying and learning  their craft and how/why they earned my loyalty!

Thanks to a Christmas book voucher I bought The Illuminations at one of my favourite Melbourne bookshops The Hill of Content . A 40 minute train ride worth making. It’s an oasis of intellectual delight where I often discover books you may not pick up elsewhere and the customer service is second to none.

Andrew O’Hagan’s novel The Illuminations is as the blurb suggests ‘a beautiful, deeply charged story, showing that no matter how we look at it, there is no such thing as an ordinary life.

The novel’s chapters alternate between family events in Scotland and Captain Luke Campbell’s experiences in Afghanistan. Luke’s regiment, the Royal Western Fusiliers carry out the decisions of the powers that be who now believe, ‘creating electricity and irrigating the warlords’ poppy fields was a better idea than blasting the population from its caves.

However, this policy unravels along with the mind of Luke’s commanding officer and mentor, Major Scullion, whose ‘friendship used to be like a winter coat to Luke.’

When Luke examined his face he saw the eyes of a little counter-assassin from Westmeath. They were fogged with humanitarianism and strict orders, but they were still the eyes of a man who knew what to do in a dark alleyway.

In Scotland, we are in the world of Luke’s Canadian-born grandmother, Anne Quirk, once a well-known photographer. Anne lives in a sheltered housing complex in Lochranza Court, Saltcoats on Scotland’s west coast, but her mind is unravelling with the onset of dementia. She faces the loss of independence because ‘any resident incapable of working a kettle would have to be moved to a nursing home.’

Fortunately, for Anne, her next-door neighbour, Maureen has a fascination and fondness for the ‘quirky’ resident. ‘Maureen considered herself the warden’s deputy. It wasn’t a real job or anything like that but she could help the older ones with their laundry. She watered the plants and went for the milk, tasks that gave her a feeling of usefulness she had missed.’

Retirement complexes, small towns and villages, streets full of longterm residents all have, indeed need, their Maureens, who while coming to grips with the present, mourn the past when they looked after children.

And one by one they left the house with their LPs and their T-shirts. That’s what happens, Maureen thought, That’s how it is, You kill yourself looking after them and then they get up and leave you. She never imagined she’d end up in a place like Lochranza Court, but it had been six years and she was used to it.’

The novel is really about Anne whose relationship with her daughter, Alice is strained. Maureen observes there ‘was clearly a part of Anne’s life that was off limits or stuck in the past, but the dementia was bringing it out.’ (This ‘illuminating’ of the past is the crux of the novel.) Maureen feels sorry for Alice and keeps her in the loop regarding her mother. She also writes to Luke on Anne’s behalf and keeps that relationship vibrant.

We learn of Harry, Luke’s grandfather, a war hero in Anne’s eyes, and of Luke’s father Sean, another soldier, also a member of the Western Fusiliers, who was killed in Northern Ireland.  Anne’s dementia and occasional episodes of lucidity hint at unresolved traumas from the past and conflicting opinions about the present and future.

“…in “The Illuminations,” the Scottish novelist and critic Andrew O’Hagan has created a story that is both a howl against the war in Afghanistan and the societies that have blindly abetted it, and a multilayered, deeply felt tale of family, loss, memory, art, loyalty, secrecy and forgiveness.”

Dani Shapiro, NewYork Times.

At the beginning of the book, O’Hagan thanks Abdul Aziz Froutan and colleagues in Afghanistan, as well as members of the Royal Irish regiment for answering questions. And in peculiar serendipity as I was reading the novel the ABC was broadcasting the documentary series Afghanistan Inside Australia’s War featuring the same period as the novel.

In their own words and their own extraordinary, never-before-seen helmet-cam battle footage, Australia’s fighting men and women lay bare their hearts in an epic series – not just how they waged a war, but why and to what end.

O’Hagan did his research and it shows with his depiction of life in Afghanistan. He reveals the importance of  violent Xbox games and heavy metal music to modern soldiers, the amount of pills popped and marijuana smoked, the physical, emotional and mental price paid abroad and at home. The horror of the fighting fascinating, but stomach-churning reading. No wonder there is a prevalence of post traumatic stress syndrome in returning soldiers.

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Sitting on the wall, he smoked a cigarette, watched the water. It was a loss of spirit that had occurred in him… He later wished he could capture the peace he had known over those hours on the seawall as he looked into the the black distance, the lighthouse on the Holy Isle beating out a message just for him. The mountains of Arran he felt he had seen in another time, a recent one, but there was no gunfire or flares, no broken sleep, no enemy below, just the mountains themselves, the steady return of the fishing boats and the light that came with the morning.

After a mission goes horribly wrong, Luke leaves the army and in his quest to try and make sense of life he takes his grandmother on a road trip to Blackpool to see the famous Illuminations hoping to shed some light on the part of her life she has kept secret. In his reminiscing of growing up with a special relationship with this grandmother he reflects, ‘There was endless chat about how life used to be, with details missing.’

In the packing up of Anne’s life for the trip to Blackpool and the inevitable move to a nursing home when they return, Luke discovers letters and photographs which in Anne’s lucid moments she can explain. He begins to appreciate how talented she was as a photographer and wants to understand why she gave it all up.

In the observations and discussions about photography, the novelist has again done his homework. Another thank you at the beginning of the book is

...to Yaddo, and to Mary O’Connor and the keepers of the Joseph Mulholland Archive at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, where he studied the papers of the photographer Margaret Watkins. 

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Serendipity struck again – on March 13th my father would be 94 years old if alive. He died of dementia in 2005. He was an amateur photographer and although many of his photographs are of family there are others where I wonder what motivated him to take the picture? What did his artist eye see? What essence was he trying to capture?

And here in this novel we learn so much about Anne Quirk through the discussion of photography and photographs despite her dementia. I remember visiting with my dad and having conversations about the past. But did we talk about what happened? what never happened? what he wished had happened?

Dad manufactured stories to protect himself from past traumas and it seems O’Hagan’s Anne Quirk does the same. ‘You don’t see the connections in your life until it’s too late to disentangle them.’

This novel stirred many connections in my life, even the chapters set in Blackpool a place I visited in 1984 with my late husband just as they were setting up the illuminations. The B&Bs, the dance halls, the promenade, the pubs, the  grey sea – all wonderfully captured by O’Hagan.

Memory resides in the simplest things but to remember is a complex and complicated task. Are we remembering reality or an imaginary world? Is a photograph an accurate memory? What did the lens not see? Are photographs worth a thousand words?

Towards the end of the novel Luke discovers how good a photographer his grandmother was when he unearths a series of rare private photographs of The Beatles 1962:

‘Luke had to stand up, astonished at the scale and the mystery of what she’d done…For all her mistakes and her bad luck, she had managed this…’

And Andrew O’Hagan has managed to create believable characters and take us into their world to make us care what happens to them. Along the way his writer’s toolbox produced some wonderful descriptions and observations. You’l look at the night sky and the variations of light differently after reading The Illuminations.

I’ll give Andrew the last word from his essay explaining the inspiration for Anne Quirk:

My search … was also a search for the women I had grown up with on the west coast of Scotland. … I realised the book was a tribute to the hidden creativity of those women. I was always drawn to them as a child, and their sense of themselves, their pain and their Glasgow houses, were a kind of haunting thing for me. I was always aware of a certain amount of thwarted ambition on their parts, and by the sense of duty that clung to their gingham “pinnies”, their tabard overalls. As a novelist you come to know that people can be metaphors of one another. My fictional elderly lady has a grandson who is a captain in the British army fighting in Afghanistan. She is interested in reality, as every photographer is, but her own story, and the masking of her talent, play a part in explaining the daily news coming from the battlefront… One’s job as a writer is sometimes to find new proteins for the ideas that matter to you, and the story of this forgotten photographer locked on to my family history in a way that gave the novel the building blocks of life.

What more can I say – read and enjoy – or let me know what you don’t like about it!

A Stroll To Serenity – thank Goodness for Mother Nature

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It’s been a tough week – no make that a tough year, so far – and although I’ve become accustomed to putting a smile on my face and “faking it till I make it” my mind has difficulty switching off from traumatic events.

Energy is hard to find and inspiration for creative writing, a lost cause.

If my wee, Irish Mum was still alive, she’d suggest I’ve had a week of ‘not being able to get out of my own road’ .

A family member died suddenly, much too young at 48. The unexpected death leaving everyone devastated, especially her thirteen-year-old daughter. This tragedy occurred only weeks after the funeral of a cousin who found living with illness too difficult and chose to end his life. His close family still grieving his older brother’s death (another of my cousins) from a heart attack just before Christmas.

These tragedies feed the superstition that catastrophe happens in threes but this is just an urban legend  –  isn’t it?

Each death made past grief raw with a numbness descending. I had the line ‘what’s it all about?‘ from Alfie playing in a loop in my head.

However, lessons must be planned and presented, letters and emails written, an IWD presentation prepared and worried over, and this blog written – the cliche ‘life must go on’ indeed a truism.

Thank goodness then, for close friends, and nature’s beauty, to distract from the doldrums and reinvigorate a purpose for life and joy in living.

My dear friend,  Glenice Whitting suffered a home invasion and could laugh about it over coffee and despite inclement weather and a busy schedule, another friend Lisa Hill picked me up after work and we went for a walk in the park as a balm to troubled souls.

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Karkarook Park is located on Warrigal Road in Heatherton, nestled among an industrial estate and not far from several housing developments. The park is ideal for a relaxing stroll, providing an oasis of tranquillity. Traffic sounds diminished by evergreen native trees and an undulating landscape.

Karkarook, a tribute to those with vision and prepared to work hard to rehabilitate land owned by a mix of parties, including council, state government and private companies. To shape a place for the public to enjoy with recreational facilities such as: cycle and walking tracks, angling, BBQ and picnic areas, playground, canoeing and kayaking.

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View towards Warrigal Road, Moorabbin

 

“Karkarook Park is a recreational and environmental oasis, revegetated with indigenous plants. The 15 hectare lake is a good spot for canoeing, kayaking or sailing. Explore the park on foot or bike on 6km of trails. Take the dog for a walk. Or try your luck fishing for Rainbow Trout or Red Fin. “

Fisheries Victoria restocks the artificial lake with about 4000 trout a year.

Sanctuary
Peaceful, secure
Feeding, breeding, nurturing
Providing responsible ecological balance
Wetlands
© mairi neil

 

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Parks Victoria provides the following information:

The area around Karkarook would have been a rich source of food for Aboriginal people. “Karkarook” is an Aboriginal term meaning “a sandy place”.

After European settlement, Karkarook was used for flood retarding, market gardens and horse agistment. Through a partnership between Parks Victoria, Boral, Readymix and the community, the area was mined for sand, then transformed into the beautiful park you see today.

Flora and fauna
Karkarook Park is gradually being restored to a healthy environment. Over 500,000 indigenous trees, shrubs and grasses have been planted, many by volunteers. As the park improves, birds are returning to make Karkarook their home. More than 110 species of bird have already been recorded at the park.

Karkarook is represented by the dragonfly, chosen to represent a healthy environment and metamorphosis (transformation). The information display is in the shape of a dragonfly.

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Successive councils and state governments, and the community have supported the concept of a Chain of Parks since it was first suggested and the recent development of Karkarook Park was an important catalyst project.

Kingston has a number of landfills and there are limited ways that land can be used after landfills are closed. The idea of a series of linked parks in the Heatherton/Dingley area has been around since the early 1970s when Sir Rupert Hamer’s  Liberal Government first established the Green Wedges in 1971 .

In 1994, this idea was formalised into a report by the former Melbourne Parks and Waterways (now Parks Victoria) and in September 2002 the Bracks Labor Government finalised new green wedge zones in a process to protect Melbourne’s Green Wedges for future generations.

But of course life is never that simple and environmentalists will tell you the battle in Kingston is unrelenting with the Planning Department forever wanting to rezone land. Fortunately, in 2015, the council made an effort in the northern part of the city for the first time. Kingston City’s C143 amendment rezones old quarries and landfill tips to green wedge and assures no more concrete crushers and similar inappropriate uses.

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Pathways form grey ribbons for relaxing walks

Other parts of the city are not so lucky and currently arable land and a part of the Green Wedge is under threat from The Cemeteries Trust, who want to remove the market gardens and build a cemetery. A chain of parks trail, agricultural activities, equestrian activity such as a riding school, or even environmental conservation such as a horticultural school – all of these preferable to a commercial enterprise involving a lot of buildings, concrete and cars.

The fight for sensible, sustainable environmental policies on going but as Lisa and I enjoyed Karkarook Park I welcomed the chance to reduce my stress level.

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Dusky moorhens
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Pacific Ducks
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Galahs foraging

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bubbling residue in damp sand
Ephemeral evidence of
Mankind’s footsteps

© mairi neil

 

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A Stroll to Shift Mood
A Haibun by Mairi Neil

Determined summer
captive to ardent grey clouds
beams silver sunshine

We stroll sculpted pathways hoping to avoid the next downpour of rain. A Melbourne afternoon justifying the city’s reputation. It’s summer and we’re prepared for winter, but must shed our jackets when the brilliant sunshine ignores bruised skies and radiates heat.

On the gentle breeze
amidst a flurry of rain
a tiny blue wren flits

The park abandoned apart from a seagull susurration above the lake and Pacific Ducks waddling for the water as we approach. Galahs peck at the moist soil but keep their distance. Magpies rush for the cover of trees their movement enticing me closer.

Through a highland mist
the repeated haunting call
of a lonely moorhen

Three Fairy Wrens decorate dull brown branches with brilliant blueness. If only the elusive Hooded Plover skittering along the sandy hem of the lake would pause long enough for the camera to capture his glory. And sheltered from the rain we watch the mist rise and fall over the lake, dark blue-grey clouds sweep across the sky and a defeated sun struggles to assert its authority.

After the shower
the gulls aerial ballet
brightens the dull sky

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The rain arrived
sunshine
and left as the sun came out

 

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A walk always blows the cobwebs away and helps me put life in perspective, especially the curved balls occasionally pitched that hit their mark.

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Melbourne has earned the title of the ‘world’s most liveable city’.  Kingston’s part in The Chain of Parks and the protection of the Green Wedge contributes to Melbourne’s appeal – so here’s to future sensible, sustainable policies maintaining the lungs of our city.

And getting some writing mojo back!

Winds Of Change
Mairi Neil

I am the balmy breeze that becomes the whistling wind
I wonder at the foolishness of architecture
I hear the sighs of lovers and the curses of farmers
I see the cricket matches and the collapsed houses
I want to travel the world and display my power
I am the balmy breeze that becomes the whistling wind

I pretend that I am always in control
I feel the power of Mother Nature’s other children
I touch the clouds and make them weep
I worry that there are places I cannot reach
I howl and keen in the eye of the cyclone
I am the balmy breeze that becomes the whistling wind

I understand the flutter of a baby’s hand
I manipulate heaving white horses
I whisper soft sentences and rant furious prose
I try always for my poetry to be heard
I hope always for a memorable role
I am the balmy breeze that becomes the whistling wind.

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Serenity restored