When I finished teaching this year I fell in an exhausted heap – emotionally as well as mentally and physically. Like so many others I felt saddened and guilty – how could we be organising a festive season when images of the death, devastation, and despair in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan and many other countries filled our screens.
‘Turn off television’ and ‘ignore social media’ great mantras but in reality, difficult to do especially as this year we became addicted to and bombarded with every minute detail of the US Presidential Election.
And when my deepest fears were realised and Donald Trump triumphed after trashing all ethical and decency codes people thought mandatory for leadership – I really wished the old song could be the reality – I wanted to stop the world and get off!
Instead, numb and going through the motions of what was expected I retreated from and neglected the one thing that has kept me sane and focused on living through many personal traumas – my writing.
So back to work and hopefully, the spark will return …
Stop Breathe Reflect…
Again the Godfrey Street writers contributed to the annual fundraising calendar for the community house. Inspired by the paintings from the artists who meet at the house we wrote terse verse and haiku.
The calendar a wonderful showcase of creativity and dedication – for many of the contributors it is the first time they have shared their work with the public – and that takes courage as well as the celebration of achievement.
Haiku by Mairi Neil
A third eye is useful
to view the world uniquely
the Picasso perspective
The writers in all my classes submitted work for our annual anthologies, an exercise to complete projects to publication. For some of the writers, it is the first time they have been published and they can all be proud of their finished poems, prose, stories and memoir.
The 37 writers at Mordialloc, Bentleigh and Chelsea produced quality writing to be enjoyed by family and friends.
What motivates people to put pen to paper? In writers’ groups and creative writing classes people reveal much more than words – here is a poem I wrote fifteen years ago when I started teaching at Sandybeach Centre:
A has aspirations to write a novel
B likes to play with words
C has a loveless life and seeks romance
D thinks Mills and Boon absurd
E loves family history
F reads and journals a lot
G creates settings with descriptive flair
H just loves to plot!
I preaches grammar absorbed from school
J admits to being a hopeless speller
K always suffers from writer’s block
L is an expert storyteller.
M adores purple prose
N employs similes galore
O aches to be published one day
P escapes household chores
Q uses metaphors imaginatively
R nurtures the inner child
S writes for children while libertarian
T is erotica gone wild
U is definitely a poet
V writes doggerel and verse
W fears rejection
X is tense and terse
Y dramatises everything producing performance pieces to entertain
and Z – well –
Z needs to write to share emotion – the musings society’s gain!
In each of the neighbourhood houses where I teach, the last class for the year is always relaxed. We play writing games and reflect on the year, especially in the Life Stories & Legacies Class where reflection is built into the writing lessons.
2016 – A Reflection
A change in my life this year, which I didn’t predict was being involved in the establishment of Chat ’N Chuckle. This group, held fortnightly on a Friday, at Godfrey Street, Bentleigh, encourages socialisation and friendship among people with ABI (Acquired Brain Injury), bringing together adults who have suffered a brain trauma through accident, stroke, or disease. There are no boundaries of age or gender.
The year became a learning curve as I learnt more about types of ABI, its effect on abilities, the recovery process and healing time, and the range of ongoing difficulties. Over the years I’ve had students with an ABI attend my classes.
Chat ’N Chuckle formed at the instigation of Anat Bigos, one of my Life Stories & Legacies students, and her parents. They worked with Belinda Jordan, Community Development Officer at Glen Eira Council to establish a need, discuss structure, acquire funding, set up a meeting place, advertise, and then employ me as the facilitator.
Anat is an inspiration as a motivational speaker on the school circuit but also at Chat ’N Chuckle sessions and other events she supports. When you meet Anat you remove the ‘dis’ from disability.
I’m honoured to be involved with this group but was filled with anxiety when first asked. What was my role? Could I do what was expected? Was there someone more qualified, or more suited?
Some months down the track and we have extended the meetings by half an hour. We have a small core of regular attendees numbering a dozen who come at least once a month and a fluctuating number who attend or have attended various sessions. Some people have come once and not returned. The group consists of people with severe physical difficulties, memory or speech problems, and others high functioning, the effects of their ABI perhaps not obvious.
Discussions have included movies, books, dance, music, poetry, family life, football and other sports, cars, public transport, taxis, food, gardening, school days, holidays, tattoos, ways to give up smoking, achievements, disappointments, research opportunities, employment, travel, and even touched on no-go areas of religion and politics, as well as sharing how the ABI happened. There have been presentations on aphasia, research into disability aids and one participant shared family history.
There have been presentations on aphasia, research into disability aids and one participant shared family history. Always there is courtesy and patience as some people struggle to find the words or articulate what they mean. My job is to ensure everyone feels included.
Some carers stay in the room, others use the time to chat with each other or have some time-out. Those who stay in the room participate in discussions and are not bystanders or observers.
Anat’s mother provides finger food of biscuits and dip and seasonal fruit such as strawberries. Carers will make tea and coffee if requested. The group often runs over time and as the year has progressed friendships and greater understanding and appreciation of each other have developed. From hesitating about the unknown, people enter the room relaxed.
It is amazing how people with severe memory problems can remember names and of course, a welcoming smile doesn’t require a name to be attached!
I am in awe of the participants each time I facilitate Chat ’N Chuckle – and there are always chuckles. Anat came up with the name and it speaks volumes about her personality and positive attitude to life. She initiated the project, takes a leading role ensuring ‘the show runs smoothly’, often starting the conversations as well as providing the food. One of her gems is ‘memory can be better than reality’ and for many present it is, yet they make the best of the hand they have been dealt.
I admire all the ‘chatty chucklers’, those with ABI and their carers, their courage, resilience and sense of humour. How would I cope if faced with many of their daily challenges? They keep me grounded and humbled: a reminder to count my blessings and not complain about minor physical ailments, breathe deeply of fresh air and give thanks for health.
I make a choice to be happy.
The opportunity to meet this group of people and reflect on how quickly life can change has been an unpredictable but amazing gift this year, reaffirming I must indeed live and cherish the moment!
Some Student Reflections:
- ‘I shrank during the year – my grandson taller and he calls me a midget.’
- ‘I value early morning and write notes about events to remember later on and see cleaning house and weeding the garden as necessary timewasters.’
- ‘A close friend died and my grief palpable. She made my clothes for over 20 years and spent 60 years working for community groups. I treasure the friends who remain. ‘
- ‘I discovered meditation is difficult to do and even other activities people tell me are beneficial. So I do my own thing!’
- ‘I wake up most mornings feeling happy because I reflect on what makes me feel amazing and make sure I fit that into my day.’
- ‘I write from the ashes of past traumas and find it therapeutic to share with others. I love dance therapy and drawing.’
- ‘I loved receiving Christmas cards in the past but why give cards to people I can see and spend time with. I’ve resolved to ring up and talk to people, even those who are distant and I only hear from at Christmas. I’ve discovered keeping in touch this way very time-consuming but enjoyable. ‘
- ‘A friend bought me a laptop this year and it has changed my life.’
- ‘It’s been challenging but this year I farewelled people who are negative realising it was a waste of time trusting and believing in some people.’
- ‘I love writing. It fills me up, gives me clarity and insight and helps separate the wheat from the chaff.’
- ‘The rain on the roof is a joy when I hear my new water tank fill up.’
- ‘I survived a hospital procedure that fed my anxiety and fears. I surprised myself!’
- ‘This has been the most challenging year since my husband died three years ago because I have a new man in my life…’
- ‘I’ve resigned from two committees, survived a dreadful accident and learnt I am resilient.’
- ‘Three score years and ten now – I’ve discovered I’m classified as old, friends are contracting illnesses like Parkinson’s but writing class and book club brings me joy.’
- ‘Not the best year, my little dog died, I achieved little and worried too much so next year must be better.’
- ‘I consider this year as the beginning of the rest of my life. I started work at 15 and always yearned for more. Family obligations interrupted a commercial art course that started well. Fast forward to 2016 and I’m doing something about that yearning to feed my creativity. I’m determined to write and also learn computers.’
Cleaning out the cobwebs –
literally and metaphorically
Scottish New Year traditions
make us all clean frantically
seeking those dark corners,
out of sight and mind,
plenty of accumulated dust
for any broom to find.
And then there are plans
shelved for reasons
of money and health
I’ve some travelling to do because
old age creeps by stealth…
That dream of a train across Siberia
immersing myself in cultures unknown
the list of excuses swept away
by March 2017 I’ll have flown.
A trip of a lifetime with challenges expected
but the joy of new places and people
means with renewed vigour I‘m infected.
Foreign foods to try; new languages to learn
and no doubt after some weeks
for home, I’ll yearn!
But modern technology is such a gift
when I feel down
Skype, Facebook and Instagram will lift
my spirits, calm any fears
as MJ and Anne, vow love through tears.
We’ll miss each other
but as removed cobwebs reveal
although time passes quickly
love it won’t steal.
My adventures will cease
and I hope I’ll have grown
to know myself and others better
as I head for home.
Those literal cobwebs
clinging to corners of ceilings
will have returned – they always do
but what an incentive to clear out
with travel plans anew!!
I’m determined to keep writing until my joy returns and try and keep perspective on all the doom and gloom and deaths that seem to encapsulate 2016 for many people.
I am lucky to have a holiday planned – and know I’m privileged to realise a teenage dream.
For now, I’ll
1) Read books to remind me of how wonderful writing can be, books to inspire (I’m fortunate to have a pile by my bed!
2) Pick up pieces of writing started in class during splurge and never finished. Lose myself in wherever the imagination goes. Daydream and brainstorm to rekindle the story or poem.
3) Challenge myself to write a certain number of words in an hour, write a poem a day, try different genres, keep this blog active.
4) Try dictating ideas into the voice recorder on my phone and make sure I type it up later. Write to music or sit outside and write.
5) Go for a walk by the sea and be inspired by a sunset or sunrise…
We stand together to watch the sunset
to share this nightly miracle once more,
the silvery-white ball transformed to pink
until glowing orangey-yellow at the core.
Seagulls afloat upon the water blush
matching waves on tide’s inward rush
a fiery sun radiates tangerine across the sky
slipping seawards, sinking silently, no cry.
The sky aflame, from beauty there’s no turning
awestruck, we feel an inexplicable yearning
It’s the forehead and eyebrows of a giant
Heaven’s shapeshifter being fluid and pliant.
This sun settling now a misshapen balloon
disappearing quickly and gone too soon…
its remnant colours just splashes in mid-air –
was that brilliant display ever really there?