Courageous Catalyst For Change

 

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Yours truly with Yordy

 

The Baulkham Hills African Ladies Troupe

Throughout my life, I’ve been involved in movements for social justice, and privileged to meet, see, or read people who leave an indelible mark on my psyche, challenge my opinions, confront me with new knowledge, inspire me – and usually leave me feeling glad there are such amazing, vibrant spirits around working to touch the life of others in a positive way.

The Power of Storytelling And Art

Attending the preview of the film about the making of the stage play, The Baulkham Hills African Ladies Troupe at the Nova Cinema and meeting theatre director and filmmaker, Ros Horin and one of the “African Ladies”, Yordanos left me humbled and richer for the experience.

The after-screening discussion a privilege because we heard responses from refugees and asylum seekers, teachers and writers, radio broadcasters and actors. The raw honesty of so many people working to promote a strong message that violence against women is wrong, and there must be cultural shifts throughout the world – whether first or third world countries, institutions or the home.

Below is a snapshot from an extensive gallery online:

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From the stage production of the play

A Film and A Play

The only time I feel jealous of Sydney is when there is an art exhibition, festival, play or other performance that doesn’t venture south of the border. Melbourne may be the world’s most liveable city and we have memorable art venues and events here, but we missed out on a groundbreaking stage production.

The Baulkham Hills African Ladies Troupe stage play never came to Melbourne although it did tour overseas. A great hit at the WOW  (Women Of the World)  festival in London.

I first heard it mentioned on Q and A by Tony Burke MP who supported the project. (In the film he has a cameo appearance when the then Governor-General Quentin Bryce  and other supporters like Tony, go backstage to congratulate the cast). On Q and A, Tony mentioned how powerful the play is regarding exposing the effects not only of violence against women in war but within families and communities.

Watching the film of how these four inspirational African women came together to not only tell their harrowing stories but work with Ros Horin to celebrate their survival by telling it on stage is the next best thing to actually seeing the play.

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Yordy and Ros at the Nova

 

As an extension of the work of The Baulkham Hills African Ladies Troupe theatre production, this film seeks to share the powerful stories of these four women and their traumatic experiences of civil war, rape, sexual abuse and violence to a much larger Australian and international audience.

The film reveals their extraordinary journeys of struggle, empowerment, and healing through the arts, as the four African women, former refugees, play themselves in a moving story based on their own terrifying experiences.

A Thought-Provoking Film

An inspirational story of courage and resilience, that reveals the transformative power of storytelling through the arts.

I Came By Boat Project

I was invited to see the film preview because I donated to the crowdfunding for the I Came By Boat Campaign another project using the power of storytelling to challenge people’s assumptions and change attitudes.

I guarantee your emotions will be engaged when you hear the stories of the “African Ladies” but also uplifted when you see the empowerment of the women and pride of families, especially their children.

 

The aim of this unique and exceptional project is to be a catalyst for open dialogue about violence within communities all over the world. It needs to reach as many people as possible including schools, government bodies, and social impact groups.

 

Check out their website for screening dates, and if you can, please support the distribution of this film to the wider audience it so richly deserves.

It was such a privilege to witness the honesty and openness by Ros, Aminata, Rosemary, Yarrie and Yordy.  They not only shared the stories for the play but so much more about their personal journeys about acting for the first time – performing as the cold observer on their own story.

There are glimpses in the film about playwriting and acting and it was fascinating to hear all the contingency plans Ros had in place to protect the women from the emotional trauma of retelling their stories.

Yordy had a breakdown and withdrew from the project. Being the cold observer impossible but we see her recover and rejoin the troupe. There is a lot of joy in this film.

I hope The Baulkham Hills African Ladies Troupe has the viewing and success it so richly deserves.

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Writing Wellness Into Habits To Improve Health

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Last week, I attended an annual ‘exclusive briefing’ by the Commonwealth Bank for Ongoing Service customers. This is the fourth or fifth I’ve managed to make and I always choose the Grand Hyatt venue because it is the closest someone on my income will ever be to the luxurious surroundings and lovely lunch they put on – a glimpse into the world of the bank’s overpaid top executives!

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The idea of a free lunch  – especially from a bank – appeals to me.  Although I know it’s not really free – they have my superannuation!

The event always showcases inspirational speakers and if truth be known that is why I make the effort, and I’ve never been disappointed. In the past, I’ve heard Ita Buttrose on her research into nutrition to improve her ageing father’s macular degeneration and blindness, and Robert de Castella on his work with indigenous communities using marathon running to improve their health and self-esteem.

This year it was Dr Caroline West who enriched my knowledge about the importance of a healthy lifestyle and how to achieve it.

Dr Caroline West

On graduating, Dr Caroline West, MBBS  was awarded the prize for most outstanding achievement in community medicine and has spent her life focusing on community wellness.  

Still a practising GP, Media Doctor, Lecturer Lifestyle Medicine (University Southern Cross) and Past President of the Australian Lifestyle Medicine Association, she is much sought-after as a speaker.

Needless to say, as a writer and teacher/presenter, I took copious notes but I also wore my hat as a consumer health representative.

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Brush with celebrity – me with Dr Caroline West

In fact, Dr Caroline West is a dynamo. A director of her medical practice for over 25 years, she’s mother to three teenage children, and her CV includes an extensive media career as a TV presenter and producer:

Beyond Tomorrow ( enjoyed by a global audience of 50 million through the discovery channel ) Good Medicine, Beyond 2000, 60 minutes , Sex/Life, Living Longer, Everybody , George Negus Tonight , The Midday Show, Tonight Live, Guide to the Good Life. Rural health channel (Foxtel) and Mornings with Sonia Kruger and David Campbell. She is a regular Wellness Blogger ,is the GP expert for Ninemsn and has written regularly for the Sun Herald and Australian Doctor.

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I was sitting in the front row listening to the introduction for the keynote speaker. Distracted by a movement beside me, I felt Caroline sit down. When I turned, she gave  such a friendly, moonbeam smile I thought she knew me!

Oozing beauty and energy, she proved to be a consummate speaker and performer.  Bouncing up to her signature tune and slideshow,  strutting the stage with another wide smile to include everyone in the room.

For the next 45 minutes, the audience of retirees and bank employees remained enthralled. Afterwards, she listened patiently as impressed guest after guest, queued to chat and ask questions (free consultations?) and ensured her lunch delayed.

Yet, her lovely smile and enthusiasm never waned.

An Interesting Intro

Dr West bought her first practice at 25 years old. It was above a King’s Cross bottleshop. Arriving at work she’d find a body on the doorstep, people overdosing in the toilets and having seizures in the waiting room.

One of her patients who turned his life around couldn’t appear in an advert for her program because he was wanted in three states!

King’s Cross in the 1980s was, and some people say still is, the epicentre of drugs, alcohol, and violence in Sydney. However, like Melbourne’s St Kilda (pics below) there has been a transformation.

Families and retirees have moved in. A gentrification and softening resulting in the biggest change in Caroline’s 25 years. New housing developments and apartments and the changing nature of work the reasons for the transformation.

It is still a diverse community and her practice, which has grown (now employing 40 people) continues to be fascinating.

What hasn’t changed is that 70% of the health issues on her patients’ lists are directly linked to lifestyle – drugs and alcohol certainly, but also bad diet, lack of sleep and not exercising.

Caroline’s mantra:

The three major factors that affect wellness are exercise, nutrition and your mindset.

Caroline’s simple philosophy: A healthy lifestyle anchors wellness, boosts energy, longevity and peak performance.

She practices what she preaches with surfboard riding, cycling to work, walking the dog and kayaking. Her outdoor activities balanced by her love of art and music and a passion for the ukelele!

WE HAD TO STAND UP AND MOVE.  

Caroline told us to shake and do a little dance. The importance of this evident as her presentation proceeded.

We had been sitting listening to the Bank’s financial keynote speaker and would be sitting listening to her. Her demonstration of swivelling hip and hand moves proved motivational dance should be added to her CV!

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Caroline’s areas of expertise include nutrition, healthy lifestyle behavioural changes, weight management ,shared care for pregnancy, sleep, exercise, mental health, sexual health, hypnosis and preventative medicine.

She is an S100 prescriber for HIV and remains committed to the latest developments in lifestyle medicine: prevention is the key for better health. A leader in this field she communicates the latest in medical advances not only to patients but also a broader audience through her media work as health broadcaster, corporate speaker and consultant.

Universal Themes For Good Health

  • something to do
  • someone to love
  • something to look forward to

Although her speech was aimed at the audience of retirees, her advice made sense for everyone and spoke to me as a writer – especially as a middle-aged writer!

Not just examining her word choice, and how she presented, but her advice on setting goals, persistence, specific detail, planning and many other points I often talk about in writing classes.

A thought flitted through my mind – ‘physician heal thyself’ – when was I going to take my own advice?

Inspiring People To Live Well

Healthy lifestyle changes are possible. Little changes sustained day after day make a difference.

Unlock the secrets and be inspired to make those changes. Too many of us spend time thinking rather than doing

a goal without a plan is just a wish

We Took A Lifestyle Health Quiz

Q: Who gets less that 7 hours sleep a night?

  • A goodnight’s sleep important because it affects your mood.
  • Lack of sleep contributes to weight gain and diabetes.

People who sleep less, eat more. This is because of decreased levels of the hormone ‘leptin’, which regulates the appetite and helps well-rested people control their cravings for food.

  • Levels of light play a big part in establishing sleeping rhythms  
  • darkness encourages the body to fall asleep and light encourages the body to wake up.

The light emitted from devices like your TV, computer (guilty as charged), phone or even alarm clock will trigger a drop in the levels of a brain chemical that promotes sleep.

Blind people often have trouble with their sleeping rhythms because of their inability to perceive light.

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Q: Who volunteers in the community?

Volunteer participation is proven to improve your quality of life and well-being.

SURVEY ON RETIREMENT

Men are concerned about loneliness, they lose friendship groups when they retire, don’t handle the transition from work well – the Men’s Shed Movement a powerful tool to combat depression.

For women the major worry is health. Go to pilates, yoga, a new strain of Tai chi, dance classes – whatever.

Writing classes are also great (personal plug here!) for learning a new skill, therapy, staving off dementia and keeping connected to a community, making friends, as well as maybe starting a new career writing or completing a family history.

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Giving back to the community is proven to extend and improve the quality of life – volunteers live longer.

A study of grandparents health revealed those who helped out at local schools encouraging reluctant readers and helping in the library program.

  • Reduced blood pressure
  • Increased brain function
  • Reignited pathways in brain
  • Removed cobwebs and improved ability

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Q: Who exercises regularly?

  • What is good for the heart is good for the brain.

Don’t underestimate the transforming power of exercise. It reduces the risk of Alzheimer’s by 45% !

Therefore, exercise 3 times a week for the elixir of youth because 3 times a week for an hour improves your mood, your looks, and your memory.

  • Fitness makes you feel energetic, positive and confident.

Walk more. Look for movement at every opportunity – innovate – take stairs, walk or dance when doing housework – 30 minutes a day is all it takes.

  • Make it specific and get started.

Caroline illustrated that good health does not happen by chance – you need a plan. (Just like good writing needs to be planned and worked at!)

Creating Rituals To Anchor Our Health

Caroline shared her daily ritual – as the sun rises she walks the dog – he seeks his sustenance by sniffing and snuffling, connecting with other dogs, she ends the walk with a coffee in a favourite cafe after chatting with other regular dog walkers.

Early Morning
Mairi Neil (1992)

I love walking in the early morning
That time when the moon and sun
Don’t quite agree whose turn it is
To light the world.

The air smells fresh and clean
The grass soft and moist with dew
The birds have deep, throaty chirps
Proclaiming the new day.

There is a quietness in the streets
Households awaken behind closed doors
Lights glow through drawn curtains
Water burbles in drains.

Cats return home from a night of prowling
Padding softly along pavements
Up driveways, or lie curled in doorways
Awaiting breakfast.

Dogs eager for morning walks
Sit expectantly behind locked gates
Imprisoned and impatient
They growl or bark.

A jogger runs past sweating
Although stripped to the waist
Determination and single-mindedness
Etched on his face

The whistle of a train triggers
The level crossing bells
Signalling rumbling on the rails
Peak hour has begun.

Time to return to rouse sleepy children
Prepare for a new school day
Crumbs on the table
A welcome sign of family life.

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Whether you go to the sea and discover what kind of day it will be, or to the park and meet other dog walkers who talk to each other, it is a positive way to start the day.

Walking a dog brings many important lifestyle features together – encouraging you to walk, connect with nature and people, explore paths and nature walks, learning something new.

Walk after work, or in the early evening to relieve stress.

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If no dog, maybe sign up for dance lessons, Tai Chi, volunteering – humans need to be connected to improve our health and wellness.

Walking In The Evening
Mairi Neil (1992)

Walking the dog each evening
Should reduce any excess fat
Because Goldie really walks me
Pulling this-a-way and that!

We trot briskly up MacDonald Street
To the footie oval and surrounds
Goldie snuffles, runs, lopes and sniffs
Her restless energy knows no bounds.

Following this endless exuberance
I allow my thoughts to roam free
Aware of damp grass, the rustling trees
Clouds altering above a distant sea.

One night clouds are mashed potatoes
Bursting amidst a jaded dinner plate
Another night perhaps creamed cheese
Ricotta – the type you never  grate!

Other times clouds could be steam
Escaping bubbling cauldron or pot
Perhaps a mist rising on stage
In some tricky theatrical plot.

The sky may have rainbow streaks
Stretched yawns of a retiring sun
Mauves, golds, apricots and pinks
Vibrant colours every brilliant one.

But most evenings the clouds meander
To drift lazily across the wondrous sky
During the day they may have raced,
Crashing together and spinning by.

Like Goldie, they barely pause before
Merging to fade and move away
Darkness falls, Goldie pulls at her lead
We head homewards at the close of day.

Little Steps Rather Than A Grand Gesture

Q. Why do New Year Resolutions fail?

The number one  new near resolution is to lose weight, especially after the indulgences and over-eating at Christmas.

However, Caroline suggests a resolution like this is too big and won’t succeed. Whereas small changes make a profound difference to your health.

If implemented, small changes can be highly effective. They have a knock-on effect for self and others.

Writers know the value of learning the  craft, writing consistently – maybe only 100 words a day and building up to thousands. Anne Lamott’s book, Bird by Bird an excellent example of this.

Emotional eaters often pile on extra kilos so make a decision to be more active –

  • perhaps as few as 600 – 1000 extra steps a day.
  • Choose smaller dinners (but make sure half your plate is always fruit and vegetables)
  • avoid alcohol at night (no ‘self-medication’, going straight home from work, skipping the gym because you’re too tired, but walking in the door and having a big glass or two of wine.)
  • aim for more sleep.(Anyone who has been sleep-deprived with a young child will know how that in itself can lead to a low mood and grumpiness!)

Studies asking what people want as they age revealed:

  • a safe place to live,
  • financial security,
  • to prevent cancer,
  • have no aches or pains
  • enjoy time with grandchildren.

 

CAROLINE’S CASE STUDY:

Steve 65 was overweight, an ex-heavy smoker, and diabetic at 50.

When he was 62 he was walking down the street and experienced intense indigestion, went clammy and felt severely ill.

  • He was having a heart attack.
  • He realised he had a lot to live for – his grandkids keep him buoyant.
  • He turned his life around because his health is about energy to cope with grandkids –and he wants a girlfriend.

Waiting for a crisis like Steve is a high-risk strategy.

Imagine where you want to be in 5 years time.

Money and security are important but health and capacity to enjoy life more important.

Caroline showed a picture of her grandfather in Royal Navy garb looking healthy on the deck of a ship.

He was born in 1903, a period where one in seven children died.

A time of no antibiotics and lots of viruses. The average lifespan for men was 47 years old, women 49 – (the audience including me shuddered).

The biggest killers were diseases such as gastroenteritis, pneumonia, and flu. Spanish flu devastated that generation.

In 1918, 42% of the planet was affected. 50 million people died – three times the number killed in WW1.

Flu Vaccination is important today. Remember that Spanish flu took out young healthy adults.

Today we live longer because of:

  • antibiotics,
  • vaccinations,
  • surgery,
  • transplants
  • better knowledge of benefits of nutrition

There has been an incredible change in medicine and medical practice.

Technology has changed too – the first mobile phone referred to as a brick. Today a mobile can do everything and fit into your pocket.

In the western world, we are a complicated highly connected society.

However, not all inventions have been good for our health. Caroline picked on the elastic waistband as one because it ensures we don’t know if we are gaining weight – makes our clothes too comfortable! (Oops – guilty as charged!)

  • We are supersize now – food and everything else.
  • We are living longer but living with chronic conditions.
  • Almost everyone 50 plus is managing a form of arthritis.

We’re living longer, but with more years of poor health

POSITIVES:

  • Smoking rate has reduced
  • Heart attack rate reduced
  • Lifespans improved.

NEGATIVES:

Chronic disease is affected by lifestyle factors:

  • cancers 71%

  • stroke 70%

  • heart attack 87%

  • diabetes 91%

CAROLINE’S TAKEAWAY:

Lifestyle equals medicine. Daily walking, even slowly, helps.

Think of 3Fs:

  • feet,
  • fork,
  • foregoing

Cut down on what you put on the fork,  eat and drink less of the unhealthy foods, and use your feet to walk/run/dance – move.

 If you start your morning with a breakfast muffin and a coffee, you are essentially having the same amount of calories as a Big Mac and a small Coke – that’s 530 calories!

Improved lifestyle helps with the big health issues older people face:

  • prevention of dementia
  • prevention of heart disease
  • prevention of diabetes

Caroline’s father died of dementia at 75. (My father died of dementia at 83)

When you’ve witnessed a parent struggling, deteriorating and ultimately dying of dementia you live with the fear that one day it may be you.

Pharmaceutical companies are going gangbusters to find a cure for Alzheimer’s – the next big drug breakthrough for them.

But Caroline’s presentation wasn’t about drugs, rather it was about personal effort and control of your own health by improving lifestyle.

Activity trackers

It is usually safe to get your heart rate up (check with your doctor if you are concerned), because exercise is protective,and aerobic fitness important.

Think of exercise as an opportunity, not an inconvenience

Exercise must be specific to get started on the journey to better health choices.

  • Most people agree there is a 50% gap between recall (memory) and reality.
  • Use it as a motivational tool to walk anywhere between 600 – 1000, 6,000 – 12,000 steps daily (the higher number facilitates weight loss)
  • Start low, go slow, build up
  • Strength training builds muscles – do resistance training once a week.

Better to get your progress monitored if you can’t focus at home so join a club, gym, or class.

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THE BUS EXPERIMENT

In England they did an experiment with workers:

They monitored driver and conductor’s health on the double decker buses.
Drivers had a much higher rate of heart attacks.

Conclusion:

You need to move – every 30 minutes – important more than ever in sedentary jobs and for those (like writers!) sitting in front of computers.

  • Sit for 20, stand for 8 and move for 2. Put music on and wiggle, walk around the office or the house.
  • Exercise and movement part of treatment for chronic pain.
  • If you get up to move around at regular intervals it will increase concentration, mood and the ability to remember information.

Sitting is the new smoking

Remember! Make exercise specific – write a note and put it somewhere prominent (writers should be good at this!):

I will this week do (activity)  At this (time) and (place)  With (my friend/dog/alone)

Technology provides lots of Apps now to improve the performance of activity trackers (even on your mobile phone) and to help with lifestyle – Caroline smiled when she gave the example of one called Spreadsheets – a tracker for sex – the ins and outs, the sounds – sex is a great exercise! (Let’s hope Steve has some luck looking for a girlfriend.)

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HOW DOES AUSTRALIA COMPARE WITH OTHER COUNTRIES?

Healthy zones have been studied in countries like Japan and Greece to discover why some populations are more healthy.

  • They eat well – mostly plants and small portions of fish.
  • They move – they integrate activities in their daily life
  • They connect – friends and family come first – this proves to be an incredibly powerful tool for health, fostering resilience and improving mental health.

Caroline finished with a gardening metaphor – focus on getting the lawnmower out regularly, then do the weeding.

Develop a clear vision – and then take the first step. And remember medicine is not just about medication and surgery!

As a writer/teacher,  Caroline’s keynote address was a reminder to look after my own health, curb bad habits like sitting too long without moving but also apply her motivation advice to writing practice:

  • tackle writing projects in little steps,
  • be consistent and write every day
  • keep the final goal in mind and have a plan!
  • And value our health above all else

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No dark fate determines the future – we do. Each day and each moment, we are able to create and recreate our lives and the very quality of human life on our planet.

DALAI LAMA & DESMOND TUTU

 

Holiday Games Banishing Stress With a Toolbox of Fun

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I love this picture of husband, John with daughter, Anne. In 1986, he may have been the Secretary of one of the largest and most powerful trade unions in Australia but he was also a new father, albeit second time round.

And the second time round he had his priorities right. Whenever he came home, or if I met him after work, he switched off, and lived in the moment – moments of love and joy, concentrating on family and where and how we fitted into the big picture of Life.

This week is the anniversary of John’s death and as usual reflection and memories of our time together are more intense but I’m always grateful for the many gifts John left me. The most important of course being our two beautiful daughters, but also his wisdom about taking the time to value what is really important in life:

  • the respect and love of those you hold dear,
  • the difference you make in their lives,
  • and the legacy you leave for them.

Begone Stress!

“I find it makes life a lot easier if you just forget a lot of stuff you’re supposed to be doing.”

JK Rowling

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We never took advantage of the perk of having our home telephone paid even although many times calls were work-related. We chose to have a silent number, more expensive but unlisted in the telephone directory. This helped to separate home and work, especially random calls from the media, plus abusive calls and death threats – although unfortunately some of the latter got through.

It wasn’t a perfect system but a thousand times better than today’s mobile world where everyone is urged to be contactable regardless of where they are – the flexibility to work marketed as a plus, feeding the idea that we are indispensable and therefore don’t switch off. Add the 24-hour news cycle and social media platforms like FB and Twitter and in some cases, it is a perfect storm for anxiety and overwork.  

I dread to think how different some of the tough periods we experienced could have been in today’s world. It is a brave person who puts their hand up for a job requiring time in the public eye.

A child pretending to talk into a phone has become children as young as pre-schoolers actually having a proliferation of digital tools for entertainment, including computers, game consoles, phones, and iPads. 

Childhood a different experience than when my daughters were young. I’m not sure if many modern children learn how to switch off or disconnect. This may be a contributing factor to the high rates of anxiety and depression we hear about.

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I must factor in a proper break – I know a failure to do this has consequences – my body tells me that in no uncertain terms. In the last few weeks, I’ve experienced the extreme effects of a bout of labyrinthitis – not the ideal way to slow down but the illness leave you no option.

Holiday Games

In my healthy world, there are lots of books to read and word and writing games to help me slow down and relax, as well as a variety of craft which I enjoy.

I have a Scrabble buddy, Helen, and the girls and I enjoy board games like Cluedo (we have various boutique variations) but my all-time favourite is Sequence ( a combination of cards and poker chips). I also love crossword puzzles and now use these as a preferred way of switching my mind off to drift into sleep.

By the time term ends, I figure everyone is looking to wind down and have some fun so I step out of the normal lesson structure and encourage free-fall writing and see what eventuates.

America has produced innovative writing teachers along with amazing writers. We may bemoan the changes they have made to English spelling and grammar but there is no denying they have also enriched the English language and culture. The best writing games I have come from the USA.

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I have several games I’ve bought online but also a couple that I’ve discovered in Melbourne shops. Serendipitous finds that I share with my writing group or classes.

Memories of Mordialloc Writer’s Group’s traditional Christmas get-together before the summer break still makes me chuckle as I recall the weird, whacky and wonderful stories produced.

In many of my end of term classes, it is the same.

Outrageous first lines, off-the-planet characters, ridiculous plots, absurd settings – a toss of the dice or a random choice that forces you out of your comfort zone. Pushes you in directions not attempted before.

Permission to be fanciful, funny, and free of being politically correct, or following accepted structures and expectations.

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Amazingly, a gem may be produced, an idea salvaged to be usable or a memorable entertaining story to remind us how wonderful manipulating words can be.

We’ve been told often enough there are only seven basic plots, seven archetypal themes recurring through every kind of storytelling whether ancient myths, folk tales, plays, short stories, novels, movies or TV soap operas:

  • Overcoming the Monster
  • Rags to Riches
  • The Quest
  • Voyage and Return
  • Comedy
  • Tragedy
  • Rebirth

We also know the hero has a thousand faces and we must always be at war against cliché!

However, for a few minutes, in my last classes for the term, we race against time, let all the rules and tools of crafting fiction we’ve absorbed loose, and have some fun – stereotypes and clichés abound or may disappear.

Mid 19th century: French, past participle (used as a noun) of clichér ‘to stereotype’.

They are very similar. A stereotype is a generalization, it’s usually considered negative, and is oversimplified. Oxford uses “the woman as the carer” as their example of a stereotype. Not all women are “carers” so it is a stereotype. A cliché is any word, phrase, situation, or idea that has become so popular it is tired and overused. It can be a stereotype, but it can also be a fact. Popular phrases can be cliché, a stereotype can be a cliché or even common things in poetry can become a cliché, like the very overused “babbling brook” “pouring rain” or “everlasting love.”

Lizzy

The Writer’s Toolbox

This term, we used The Writer’s Toolbox, a game I picked up in Readings, St Kilda, for a mere $14.95 last September. A bargain I’m still crowing about.

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A box of fun guaranteed to banish stress and clear writer’s block – and to paraphrase Star Trek – your imagination travels where you’ve never been before!

We didn’t have time to use the game to its full extent because lessons are finite but I cherry-picked parts so we had the opportunity to share everyone’s delightful masterpieces.

We also bent the rules – some managed to use every prompt they were given, others used some and others altered their lines or words to suit their story. That’s what is wonderful about writing games – the only rules are imagination and that moving pen!

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I’ve listed my prompts and the bizarre flash fiction result follows.

First sentence: (To start with a surprise) My brother did this weird thing with turtles…

NonSequitur: (a surprising transition) … that weekend in Duluth

The Last Straw: (to create a dramatic arc) … “We were drinking champagne and losing our shirts.”

Three Sixth-Sense cards: (reminders to include the senses)  fresh floor wax; the toenails of the yoga girl; the smell of Susie’s leftovers

 FLASH FICTION IN 30 MINUTES

Fijian Fantasy by Mairi Neil (590 words)

My brother did this weird thing with turtles when he was drinking. I’m not talking tea or coffee, of course, but the hard stuff. Straight whisky – shots Jack called them.

After a few shots, he’d balance the turtle on his head, sway forwards so the turtle slid down his neck, disappeared into his ghastly, fluorescent shirt, and I don’t know how, because they’re the slowest creatures I know, but the darn thing popped out the front of his shirt the minute he straightened up – much to the surprise and applause of the audience.

Jack wasn’t on a stage, of course, but in a bar. Any bar, makeshift or otherwise. One of many found in the Fijian Islands where he’s lived for the past eighteen years. Needless to say, his audiences all mad or as drunk as him. It wasn’t the life our conservative parents envisaged and they clung to a belief Jack would, as father often said, ‘grow up and get a real job.’

But tropical sunsets and island life suits Jack and he can sing too. He’s made a precarious living entertaining the tourists with his weird turtle act and Frank Sinatra voice – until that weekend in Duluth.

Duluth, outback Australia, the most boring place on earth, but where my parents decided to retire and request brother Jack and I turn up for their 50th wedding anniversary celebration.

When Jack received the invitation, he said it was more of a royal command and spoiled the promise of the best relationship of his life. ‘We’re drinking champagne and losing our shirts,’ he boasted. ‘Susie’s teaching me yoga and my body’s discovering positions I never knew possible.’

‘Too much information, Jack!’ I said, ‘And you have to be here. Now get on a plane with shirt, minus turtle and be in Duluth by Tuesday.’

He never showed.

The oldies were devastated and I was despatched to Fiji to check Jack was okay. He’d fallen off the radar since our last conversation.

I arrived at his house, well shack really. (The smell of Susie’s leftovers still cling to my nostrils.) Jack told me she had a penchant for kippers and hash browns. Neither were clean freaks because the place looked like the aftermath of a hand grenade explosion. I doubt if Jack could find a shirt for turtle act or anything else among the piles of gaudy floral clothes. By the smell, they may even have taken root.

I discovered toenails of the yoga girl strewn like red confetti on the bathroom floor. I assume they were hers unless Jack kept more secrets from the oldies. My blood pressure rose along with my temper but as I turned to leave, I spied a scrap of rainbow-coloured paper fluttering on the fridge door.
When you’re ready to leave turtles and shots meet me at Hotel Marau

On arrival, at the swankiest hotel on the island, you’re assaulted by fresh floor wax, sparkling mirrors, polished mahogany tables, and an ambiance of soft piano music, tinkling water fountains and slippered feet gliding on parquet tiles.

Jack’s dirty shambles existed on a different planet so I almost fainted to see him on stage, his dinner-suited elegance crooning a la Frank Sinatra.

A glamorous woman, oozing chiffon and bling, sat at the front table enthralled, red fingernails tapping a martini glass. Susie, the yoga girl?

A wedding ring glittered on her finger matching the one on Jack’s hand clutching the mic.
Duluth may not be amused but at least no turtles or shots in sight.

YOUR TURN NOW:

Here are a few examples of some of the First Line prompts. Find a quiet spot and see what your imagination produces.

Your Mother lied to you, that’s the truth!

I have this system for getting exactly what I want out of people.

Dad gave me a wink like we were pals or something…

I loved the way she said ‘balloon’…

He swore on his mother’s grave but then he swore on just about everything.

There I was just standing there…

My only defence was to write down every word they said…

 

Happy Holidays!

 

 

Perspective, Prejudice, and Positivity

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Marie Lightman, an accomplished writer/poet/performer based in Newcastle, England was so incensed at the treatment of asylum seekers and refugees she asked for poets throughout the world to contribute towards an anthology Writers for Calais Refugees

Reception conditions for the refugees in Calais are worsening and there is an increasing death toll of refugees attempting to cross the channel from Calais to Dover. People are getting together all over the UK to send basic aid, that is not being provided in the holding camp in Calais. Writers are in the unique position to be able to express their concerns about the situation that the state does not seem to share.

Writers for Calais Refugees is an anthology in support of people seeking refuge.

After one of my poems was chosen, Marie and I have kept in touch,  through emails and Facebook. In the last few weeks, she called again for writers to raise their voices, particularly after the shocking death of  Jo Cox MP and the divisive BREXIT Campaign but also many incidents across Europe and throughout the world, where bigotry and prejudice flourish.

A new website was born:

WRITERS AGAINST PREJUDICE

As I write this, an alarming number of cases of intolerance are being reported in the press. We as writers are in the unique position to express our concerns over people being discriminated against because of their race, faith, sexuality, or for any other reasons. Everyone should be appreciated for who they are, without fear or judgement.
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Dictionary.com

Prejudice (noun)

1.an unfavourable opinion or feeling formed beforehand or without knowledge, thought, or reason.
2.any preconceived opinion or feeling, either favourable or unfavourable.
3.unreasonable feelings, opinions, or attitudes, especially of a hostile nature, regarding an ethnic, racial, social, or religious group.
4.such attitudes considered collectively: The war against prejudice is never-ending.

Prejudice is Everywhere

As a society, we have to be aware of prejudice, and consistently challenge each other about assumptions and word choice, even if that means being uncomfortable and starting controversial and difficult conversations .

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Writers, in particular, must be aware – after all, stereotypes (we use them all the time in our writing, especially on screen), are assumptions and tropes about certain people (characters)  whether it is the picture postcard Scot who is mean or drunk, the stiff-upper-lip or foppish Englishman, the stupid Irishman, the dumb blonde, the nagging mother-in-law, the larrikin Aussie  etc.

Prejudice is often masked as jokes, perpetuated by media by sensational reporting, and stirred up by irresponsible politicians.

However, we can make a conscious effort to not be prejudiced. Choose to speak out for tolerance and harmony like Marie and countless others do. The power of storytelling and words encourages creative thinking as well as writing. Conversations can change relationships and attitudes.

Perspective -A Cautionary Tale

This week, my family experienced the perfect example of prejudice.

My youngest daughter was coming home late (10pm) Tuesday night after dropping her sister off in Elwood. She stopped the car at traffic lights at Glenhuntly Road and a man appeared from a nearby park and tried to get into her car.

She only got a glimpse of a hooded figure and a gloved hand at the window as he yanked at the door because she screamed and automatically hit the central locking switch, planting her foot to drive away as fast as she could.

Twenty minutes later, she was with me in Mordialloc, ashen-faced, shaken and relating what happened. I insisted on phoning St Kilda Police to report the incident. If the attacker is hiding in the parkland, the next female on her own may not have such a lucky escape!

The telephone call went like this:

I dialled the number for St Kilda Police – the nearest station to the incident. A robotic woman’s voice told me if it was urgent to hang up immediately and dial 000. If not urgent, I had a press-button selection to work through:

Press 1 to speak to a uniform officer…

I didn’t wait for the other options and pressed 1.

After what seemed an interminable delay Constable A answered. I explained briefly why I was ringing and handed the phone to my daughter.

I listened to her story again as told to the officer and she said the word caucasian a few times. She explained the man wore a hoodie or a beanie, it was dark, the encounter was scary and brief, but yes he was caucasian.

Apparently, the police officer’s first question after her explanation of events, happened to be, ‘Was  he black or…’

His questioned trailed off into an uneasy silence as if he was searching for another word to describe people. This was why my daughter said ‘caucasian’ and why she had to repeat it because he asked her if she was sure.

Prejudice by the police against people of colour is well-documented and often in the news. But it isn’t until it affects you personally, or you witness the prejudice like my daughter did that you can fully comprehend the extent and consequences of such bias.

The officer should have asked: ‘Can you describe the person who tried to get into your car?‘ Not immediately lead with, ‘Was he black?’

There are a lot of homeless in the St Kilda area and some will sleep in the parks, and a percentage of those are Aboriginal and also migrants, but the preconceived idea and prejudgement that people of colour are more likely to car jack or attack lone drivers just perpetuate prejudice and intolerance. It also can’t be assumed that the man who tried to get into my daughter’s car was homeless or mentally ill – two other groups of people often targetted.

In daylight, there is an obvious scratch near the door handle of the car – the likelihood of the man being armed with a knife a probability.

We haven’t heard any more from the police – no follow-up phone call. We don’t even know if they bothered to go and check out the park or intersection. Perhaps my lack of confidence that they took the complaint seriously shows my prejudice!

Positive Action Required

In these troubled times,  we all need to make more of an effort to encourage harmony and tolerance. To be careful of our choice of words, aware of our own cultural biases, the labelling and placing of people in pigeonholes.

If we make an effort to smile more, be welcoming and open to new friendships, barriers can be broken, prejudice lessened. You can make a difference to someone’s life.

Tolerance
Mairi Neil

To those who fear the
Other
Look not only with
Eyes, but with
Respect, reason, logic and most of all heart.
Are people less human, more evil, if different?
Nationality and ethnicity
Culture, religion, identity
Each of us, ache, bleed, cry, desire – all children of Mother Earth.

Harmonious Haiku
Mairi Neil

To have Harmony
Set aside your prejudice
Give everyone a chance

And to End With a Bit of Positivity

sunflowers

Sunflower Happiness
Mairi Neil

Sunflowers in bloom
Symbols of sunshine
Petals flutter as bees buzz
And butterflies flitter
Interconnected, dependant
Beautiful sunflowers are
Tough and easy to grow
These tall bright blossoms
Enormous examples of
Resilience and adaptability.
Vacant blocks transformed
Into gardens of yellow
Ugliness dispelled
Blandness abandoned
Stunning visual feasts
Sunflowers in bloom
Instant smiles installed!

Promenade with Penguins – the Promise of a Perfect Day!

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On Sunday morning, I looked out the bedroom window to the promise of a beautiful spring day. The Bird of Paradise bush glorious as usual and not a cloud in the sky. A great to be alive day despite the fact it was September and Father’s Day!

Special celebrations like Father’s Day are hard if you are missing a father you loved. My Dad died in 2005, and John, the girls’ dad, died in 2002. The two men I adored no longer around.

We three, remaining Neils have coped with the hype of Father’s Day for a few years now, the weeks leading up to the day where the media and shops are full of reminders, and stories that scream what could have been…

The loss never lessens but there are many people who are in the same boat and deliberately organising the day to focus elsewhere and make a conscious decision to live in the now and not in the past, does help numb rather than exacerbate, the persistent pain.

An Outing To See The St Kilda Penguins

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My friend, Kristine who retired to the other side of the city, belongs to the Altona Adventurers, pictured above with yours truly bottom left. They are an amazing community group, exploring local walks and sites as well as going further afield. On Sunday, Kristine had arranged a trip to see the penguins at St Kilda Pier.

How privileged was I to be included in their outing – they are certainly a friendly, hospitable bunch!

The trip to see the penguins at St Kilda Pier included a special talk and tour by Bronwyn from the Port Phillip Eco-centre. Before we met Bronwyn at the pier, we strolled through the beautiful St Kilda Botanical Gardens land bordered by Dickens Street, Tennyson Street, and Blessington Street. An easy walk from Balaclava Station.

First Stop St Kilda Botanical Gardens

 

The gardens were formally established in 1859 when a boundary fence was erected. By 1907 significant donations of money and plant material had led to the establishment of a rosary, extensive flower beds, and a nursery. Exotic forest trees were planted during the 1870s and Australian species were included in 1932.

Registered with Heritage Victoria, the gardens contain 810 mature tree specimens eight of which are on the significant tree register. In the 1950s the Alister Clarke Rose Garden was established and a Sub-Tropical Rainforest conservatory added in the early 1990’s. Seasonal displays and local indigenous plants provide a valuable collection to study or sit alongside enjoying a picnic.

Built features in the gardens include a giant chess board, ornamental pond with Rain Man fountain, children’s play space, gazebo, glasshouses and the Eco-centre which facilitate lessons on sustainable living practice.

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The gorgeous spring weather helped everyone’s mood but I can imagine the well-kept gardens is an oasis of serenity in any weather. How lucky we are to live in Melbourne – one of the world’s most liveable cities – a title won several times!

The gardens boast an ornamental lake and a lovely sculpture by artists Corey Thomas and Ken Arnold. RAINMAN is a solar powered water feature in harmony with the environment, utilising the sun’s energy, the variations in light are reflected by the flow of water.

On a sunny day, rain will fall onto the figure from under the umbrella, the figure’s hand stretched to feel the day beyond. A cloud passes over, it starts to rain, the solar power ceases, a dry Rainman reaches from beneath the umbrella to feel the rain.

(The solar panels and pump integral to the project were donated.)

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I was delighted when I came across a garden bed with ‘desert’ plants because it triggered a memory of San Antonio when Mary Jane and I visited The Alamo Mission. San Antonio must be one of the most beautiful cities in the USA and one I’d love to revisit.

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Living Fossils
Mairi Neil

Celebrate parks and open spaces
How they let us breathe and play
They put smiles upon our faces

Nature provides wondrous places
Adding beauty to the everyday
Wildlife parks, wilderness spaces

Trainers recommend 10,000 paces
Exercise and be healthy they say
Remember smiles upon our faces

In childhood egg and spoon races
Kite-flying, hide-n-seek, even croquet
Celebrates parks and open spaces

Living demands no ‘airs and graces’
And whether skies are blue or grey
We must put smiles upon our faces

In the future, they’ll look for traces
Of how we spent our lives each day
They’ll dig up parks and other spaces
Perhaps put names to long gone faces…

Celebrate parks and open spaces
Breathe deeply and enjoy your play
And remember put a smile upon your face!

Second Stop the delights of Acland and Carlisle Streets

From the Botanical Gardens, we walked to Acland Street for an early tea before heading to the pier for dusk. For some of the Altona Wanderers, the delights and oddities of Acland were a joy to behold and will no doubt entertain many a future coffee break chat.

One of the group had extra special memories – she had been married in the Botanical Gardens and the surrounding streets triggered lots of stories too.

Many Melburnians consider St Kilda synonymous with live music venues like The Espy, but heritage buildings are being redeveloped at an alarming rate.  There is also the fabulous and wonderful Luna Park. Who hasn’t got a story about the Great Scenic Railway (rollercoaster) and other vomit-inducing rides? How many teenage love stories can those rides tell?

Walking towards the pier I saw Edgewater Towers where I’d volunteered last year for Open House Melbourne. A fabulous day spent in a fascinating place with a great history. What serendipity I could take a picture from a different angle this year and see the building from a different perspective.

You really do notice so much more when you walk!

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A Promenade Towards The Pier

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We walked past the partly completed Stokehouse Restaurant tragically destroyed by fire but now being rebuilt to the highest of “green” environmentally friendly standards.

There was the famous Donovans, catering for up-market clients and also four-legged friends. It was just wonderful to enjoy expanses of sand and ocean and stroll with happy singles and families as we prepared for the aim of the evening – our date with the penguins!

 

Despite the sizeable group and people ‘doing their own exploring’ we all managed to make it to the pier.

Bronwyn gave excellent hints, information, and advice about the Port Phillip Environment and future foreshore sustainability in general. The dangers of microbeads to ocean life one of the biggest challenges we face. She searched in the sand to show us some microbeads, and Neil, the other ranger from the Eco-centre explained how natural the pink tide was when we were all imagining something sinister!

We had never seen the pink frill before and thought it may have to do with the dredging of the bay or pollution, but it seems it is a natural and healthy occurrence!

On the way back from observing the penguins nest for the night, Bronwyn threw a stone in the water to show an explosion of the blue phosphorescence underneath the pink. Truly amazing! It certainly kept me and nearby tourists amused.

Watch amazing shades of orange, yellow, pink and blue reflect off Port Phillip Bay’s calm waters. The view from St Kilda Pier is simply mesmerizing. Hang your legs over the pier, feel the cool breeze and gaze at the horizon as the day’s light slowly fades away.

The friends of Port Phillip’s Eco-centre and volunteers looking after the penguins are also helping refurbish the breakwater and extension to the pier that holds the rockery where the Little Blue Penguins nest and breed.

We helped carry buckets of sand to spread alongside the rocks to prevent erosion. Groundcover (Disphyma crassifolium, Rounded Noon Flower) similar to pigface is planted along with saltbush.

We owe much to the dedication of volunteers in environmental groups. They contribute enthusiastic caring for the places that make Melbourne such an attractive city!

Bronwyn encouraged us to have some bush tucker and I tasted saltbush for the first time. I will now learn more about what food and medicine can be found in plants we take for granted.

In fact, the evening was a salutary lesson about how wonderful the world around us can be – the little penguins have returned in greater numbers because people continue to work hard to maintain their habitat and protect them. I’ve heard estimates their numbers to be anywhere from 700 – 1200.

We were asked not to use flash photography, to keep our distance, and respect the Little Penguins. To stay on the viewing platforms or path, and to cover any torch with red paper to limit the shock to the penguins.

It is appalling that many of the public disregard such simple requests and vandals have  hurt and killed the Little Penguins this year. On Sunday night, I was surprised that even with volunteers politely requesting better behaviour, onlookers flashed cameras, blocked the path of a Little Penguin trying to cross, and made loud noises and startling movements that would distress them.

If we want close encounters with wildlife lets respect the animals and not treat them as pure entertainment.

If you go down to the pier, perhaps offer to carry a bucket of sand and help the volunteers trying to stop erosion and improve the habitat so future generations will enjoy the penguins too.

The Little Penguins are not the only attraction on St Kilda Pier. One of my favourite birds was there – a pelican. Perched atop a lamp post some of our group thought it was a sculpture!

There are photo opportunities to capture other seabirds and to witness the swift moving penguins come ashore. They zip through the water like torpedoes.

A walk along the pier at St Kilda at dusk reveals another aspect or perspective of the city. The skyline is an imposing backdrop, yet the busyness and noise of traffic remarkably absent once you get to the far end of the pier.

In fact, the noise of the penguins mating (it is breeding season) rose to a crescendo several times on Sunday evening and it was hard to believe you were anywhere near urbanisation!

The hundreds of boats at the marina gleamed in the fading light and once street and traffic lights came on, plus the lights of the city buildings, the reflections on the water were truly enchanting. A veritable watery fairyland.

It was with some reluctance that we made our way back to ‘civilization’ to catch the light rail into the city and the train home.

A perfect day indeed!

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