Impermanence, Inevitability and Dying with Dignity.

footsteps in sand

I haven’t posted since July 2020, but it is a new year and notwithstanding the recent outbreak of COVID19 in my local area, I am hoping 2021 will be better.

This is actually a reworking of a post from several years ago and if you read to the end, my choice of updating and reposting should make sense. (It’s not just laziness although it is an effort to overcome a lack of enthusiasm and feeling of irrelevance!)

The last six months have been the definition of hell for so many people despite some (including me) attempting to find the glass half full.

I’ve read of achievements, new hobbies, friendships, educational courses, diets and exercise regimes, technology,  books, films, music, imaginative recipes and discovery of  local environmental gems… there were also plenty of negative impacts from panic and fear, lockdowns, isolation, shortage of goods and services, lost jobs and homes, broken relationships and health issues.

The Virus not the Only Health Crisis

For me, health issues loomed large – my last post ended with the news of a stage 4 invasive melanoma diagnosed.  This shock of a recurrence of skin cancer (I had basil cell carcinomas removed when 30 years old) added to the news of breast cancer returning in December 2019, albeit a different and rarer, breast cancer.

A relieved thought (or unvoiced fear) was how lucky can one person be!

It wasn’t the immediate end of the world but I would be lying if I said thoughts of death didn’t loom large. I checked finances and discussed plans with my daughters for  ‘no funeral, just a big party’;  ensured my will, plus medical and financial power of attorney up-to-date.

In the last decade, many health scares, so déjà vu for the Neil household at this regular event!

yearly mammogram

However, the discovery of a brain tumour and the fear it was metastatic cancer shocked the GP who has cared for me for over 25 years. We both fought back tears, our trembling lips hidden by masks, social distancing forgotten as she squeezed my arm in sympathy and murmured about unfairness and not to lose hope because it could be a meningioma.

I’m 67 years old, ironically, the same age as my husband when he died in 2002, (John was 18 years older than me). Whether it is the Highland genes or just my Mother’s Irish superstition, this coincidence played on my mind and also worried my daughters.

Survival rates for cancer vary from person to person but the milestones of 5 and 10 years are always at the back of a patient’s mind when diagnosed. The longer you can go without a recurrence is something to celebrate.

However, survival rates for a tumour in the brain, poor and if an operation required the risk of stroke high.

I was disappointed when breast cancer returned after 9 years but my breast cancer surgeon inspires confidence and he acted quickly and decisively and this time it was a lumpectomy rather than mastectomy.

I don’t put off mammagrams no matter how uncomfortable they are and I follow his advice, even if data suggests most breast cancer is not picked up by mammagrams.

Plus, the shock of another breast cancer diagnosis soon eclipsed by COVID19 anxiety and declaration of the global pandemic.

The recovery from the melanoma and skin graft during severe lockdown, and in the middle of winter, took a little longer with travel permissions to worry about and more stringent rules for clinicians and patients. These restrictions lasted well into the next health surprise.

By the time I went through all the tests and consultations for the brain tumour, it took a lot of energy to even pretend to be positive about the future.  I thought back to the deaths of family and friends I’d witnessed or been involved with in the last stages of their life – hence revisiting this post about my friend Margaret.

Will I be calm and accepting? Do I want to prolong the inevitable? What are my priorities and is there any point in a bucket list?

I almost forgot to breathe when the neurologist decided it was a meningioma and not metastatic cancer. In the words of my breast surgeon on my annual visit in December, ‘You dodged another bullet, Mairi!’

How long I can keep dodging is a mystery but I’ve decided to turn the page on 2020 and try ‘business as usual’ along with my mantra ‘this too will pass’.

Digital Distraction

I spent July to December posting photographs and haiku on Instagram after joining at the suggestion of a dear friend in Japan who posts about Bonsai.

Naoko was a writing student of mine at Mordialloc Neighbourhood House, when she lived in Australia. She said I was an inspiration to her during a difficult time in her life and even wrote a poem about writing class which I published.

We have stayed connected and she returned any perceived favour by inspiring me to learn a new digital platform (with daughter Mary Jane’s help), indulge my love of photography and the environment, and write haiku, a favourite poetry form!

Naoko’s Instagram is #bonsai_sana and mine is #mairineil

Walking the dog each day around Mordialloc, I focused on everyday sights, let my imagination and thoughts wander and in the evening, inspired and guided by the demands of the form, I wrote haiku.

The anxiety, fear and dark thoughts about health and death receded as once again my passion for writing became therapeutic and a distraction. It gave me a focus and a project.

beautiful sunset creek

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

Steve Jobs

pathways

And for many, death comes too soon…

Farewell To A Friend

The telephone call came out of left field. Tragic news to wreck quality time with a dear friend, yet it  is also a dear friend on the other end of the mobile.  My eyes sting with welling tears, but remain focussed out of the window of the Malt cafe in Beaumaris.

I watch two young mums chat animatedly on the footpath. Relaxed and smiling they are probably enjoying the freedom of the first day of the school year; the little darlings who kept them busy all the summer holidays tucked into classrooms. Another couple on an outside table feed their Golden Retriever tidbits from their plates.

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

The day takes its first lurch into the surreal.

I’m on my way to celebrate a friend’s retirement from decades of teaching. She’s treating several friends to lunch at Sierra Tango, Cheltenham instead of us paying and hosting the celebration for her! The generosity of the invitation indicative of her warm, supportive personality and the venue a tribute to her knowledge of gastronomy, appreciation of fine foods and wine, and a commitment to support local businesses.

Determined not to spoil Lisa’s day, I seal my tragic news into an emotional compartment to be dealt with later…

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

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

How could this be?

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

A  picture of all of us at the Harmonie German Club in Canberra in 1973, was shared in a recent post.  Tall slim Margaret centre stage.

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She can’t be dying – and not of breast cancer. This news, too confronting and scary. I think back to the apartment we shared, and shiver. That old house divided into three and this news means all of the women living there, including me, have breast cancer: one double mastectomy, two single mastectomies and now Margaret with metastatic breast cancer! Bad luck? Coincidence? A cancer cluster?

A problem for another day…

Bad News Travels Fast

During Lisa’s celebration lunch I receive another phone call with news that a European friend who had stayed with me early January had to have an emergency eye operation in Sydney because of a detached retina. There’s a danger she’ll lose her sight.

This super fit friend, a world-renowned marathon swimmer, came ninth in the Pier to Pub swim at Lorne this year. She’s supposed to be leaving Sydney for her home in Italy with a stop in one of Thailand’s resorts, but is now delayed in Australia until doctors allow her to fly.

The day has taken its second lurch into the surreal.

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

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The next day I’m in Canberra and over four days catch up with many old friends from university, make some new ones, and spend hours with Margaret as she adjusts to the effects of radiotherapy and the news of having limited time.

She copes well with the steady stream of people who want to help in some way, as well as saying goodbye. The adage ‘bad news travels fast‘ proving true.

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

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

 ‘Those indeed were the days my friend,’ I say,  ‘we had a lot of fun!’

Margaret agrees. I listen as she describes the highlights of her overseas trips and of her intention to travel again.

Deep down we both know another trip will never happen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The seeds we sow. A wonderful legacy indeed, but I wish Margaret had another 23 years to sort out her life…

I wanted the last few days with her to be surreal and someone to wake me up and say it was all a dream. But of course I faced the reality of saying goodbye and dealing with my grief.

Now, with the reality of declining health I’ll hopefully adjust with similar dignity as Margaret when the inevitable must be faced – with luck still in the distance.

Then again, 2021 may hold bigger surprises than 2020 and they could be good!

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

Robert Louis Stevenson

 

Open House Bendigo buzzes in a BEEHIVE of Activity

Before I write about another fabulous weekend in Bendigo, I acknowledge the Bendigo region of central Victoria is Djadjawurrung or Dja Dja Wurrung Country and recognise the unique relationship of Dja Dja Wurrung People to their traditional Country and pay my respects to their elders past and present.

A good way to learn about the region’s First People is to take a vintage tram ride on the Dja Dja Wurrung Tram – a moving celebration of their cultural heritage that navigates the past and present of the changing environment since colonisation.

For the second year, the City of Greater Bendigo opened its doors and partnered with Open House Melbourne to host Open House Bendigo on the last weekend in October. Supporting partners were Creative Victoria, DELWP, Heritage Council of Victoria and the La Trobe Art Institute.

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I was thrilled to volunteer again because Bendigo is a place you can easily fall in love with and being part of a volunteer crew hosting a building for Open House, I indulge my love of history and heritage and chat with a host of interesting people sharing a similar love or just satisfying their curiosity about buildings they pass every day or had a connection to in the past …

Whatever the reason, the air comes alive with stories, characters and settings and for a writer – to paraphrase our PM –  How good is an Open House weekend!?

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The crew of volunteers at the end of a busy weekend.

In a thank-you email received yesterday (and the wonderful crew who run Open House nurture and always thank the volunteers!) the statistics have been collated:

  • over 10,000 visits across 27 buildings and 9 special events
  • a clear demonstration of continuing public interest and engagement in the city’s architecture and heritage.
  • as expected the Beehive was the most popular building with over 2,123 people taking advantage of walking through the door

The cooperation and enthusiasm of building managers, owners and architects also make the program possible and local volunteers from a variety of community or educational organisations keen to showcase on this extremely busy weekend for Bendigo.

There is an annual Cycling Classic plus a Sustainable Living festival and lots of cross-pollination between events. I even paused to enjoy the excitement of one of the cycling heats:

 

Bendigo is only 90 minutes by train from Melbourne and although the weather wasn’t as pleasant as last year visitors were not deterred and not only the Beehive Complex saw increased numbers.

People queued patiently outside and inside the building to be allowed a walkthrough of half an hour – 15 minutes downstairs and 15 minutes upstairs and volunteers kept the numbers moving by ensuring the time limit strictly adhered to.

My teaching voice came in handy as I herded those on the upper floor, as did the timer on my mobile phone and the response from a good-natured crowd.

 

Why was the Beehive so busy?

The Beehive Building is a Bendigo landmark and dates back to 1872 when it was the Bendigo Mining Exchange. The building has been through many manifestations since then and therefore holds a variety of memories for the people of Bendigo.

Last year, Open House Bendigo allowed access to the construction site and the interest generated resulted in queues wending around the streets with waiting times of more than two hours – hence the timed viewing and entry this year!

The exclusive ‘sneak peek’ of  ‘never-before-seen restorative works’ and the opportunity to hear from the Developer, Craig Lightfoot, a golden opportunity few locals wanted to miss.

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Craig in deep conversation with one visitor and always the queue of others waiting…

I’ll own up to being critical of many building developers, especially those who seem to want to get rich quick and bulldoze and build rather than restore and redeem but after meeting Craig and seeing the efforts to beautifully restore the Beehive to its former glory  I could become a fangirl!

His enthusiasm and passion for retaining heritage aspects obvious. Parts of the restoration will show the history of the building to spark interest and discussion but also as a reminder of the various tradesmen who applied their skills over the 147-year history of the Beehive. Where it is safe to do so, the history of the building and restoration work will be exposed.

In many of the rooms, you will see traces of past occupiers – paintwork, wallpaper patterns, ornamental plaster, brickwork, fireplaces…

 

Similar in style to Melbourne’s Royal Arcade and by the same designer, Charles Webb, the building’s original uses include a hotel, a mining exchange, a restaurant, offices and function space. The current development uncovers the rich layers of use by removing most of, if not all of the 1920s’ and 1950s’ changes, revealing key features of the original building. Visitors had access to the ground level construction site during the 2018 Open House Bendigo program, and this year visitors will access the newly completed arcade including the second story, revealing the intricate beauty of the glass ceiling not seen for decades.

Behind a still-to-be renovated staircase there will be a quirky memento.  Workers have written their name and date they worked on the building, the earliest entry legible is 1939.

Craig assured me he’ll be adding his signature to the wall and that piece of plaster will be made stable and remain as is!

He laughed when I said his commitment to retaining so many historical details reminded me of Kevin Mc Cloud closing many of the episodes of Grand Designs with praise for the builders who retained the ‘autobiographical details’ of a building!

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The Beehive Project has been several years in the making and started five years ago. After four years of planning,  lots of compliance hoops had to be jumped: Heritage Victoria, CFA building regulations and health and safety issues as well as local building regulations. Times and expectations have changed since 1870.

My post about the restoration of Flinders Street Station provides more detail of what is required by Heritage Victoria.

To ensure disability access, a lift will be installed, modern toilet and plumbing, and most voids had to be removed because of health and safety requirements.  Craig managed to keep the centrepiece that gives those downstairs a view to the floor above and the magnificent glass ceiling by widening the walkway on either side.

To remind people the voids were once there he reversed the fill-in floorboards and although the centrepiece had to be narrowed,  the cast-iron railings remain, albeit they are replicas. Craig said the original railings were removed and sold off or are languishing somewhere in Bendigo.

Interestingly, one of the visitors told Craig for some of the original railings, he should check out Marlborough House in Wattle Street, Bendigo!

Craig duly noted the suggestion and added it to a list of snippets he’d gleaned since opening the building for the public to view. Never underestimate the value of local knowledge!

 

The building has had many reincarnations – Craig’s plans are for the food and beverage industry. A function centre, with retail and pub or cafe downstairs and intimate and cosy private dining rooms and two larger reception areas upstairs, ideal for weddings and other celebrations like corporate functions.

Coincidentally, both weekends I stayed in Bendigo for Open House, I witnessed a traditional wedding party posing for photos – this year the group was on the steps of the Art Gallery.

I hope Craig gets plenty of bookings and if the response from locals is an indication the building will get plenty of use, people love it and regard it as a Bendigo icon, pleased that it will once again be a place to visit.

 

 

A young man dressed in typical tradie gear came through with his mum, grandad and other assorted family members. His first reaction was to retie a striped plastic ribbon cordoning off one of the no-go areas, ‘I’ll get into trouble if this isn’t tied tightly and people go in…’

 ‘If anyone cops criticism it should be me,’ I said, ‘ part of my job is to ensure people stay to designated areas and don’t go into rooms closed for safety reasons or because equipment and tools are stored.’

He took a bit of convincing from his mother and me that it was okay, it was not his responsibility and it was his day off!

I later saw him explaining to his family in great detail, how he stripped the old paint off, what he’d been instructed to leave, how he scraped, sanded and carefully applied new coats…

Careful, painstaking work, but often rewarded by treasures hidden beneath.

I’m sure he is learning a lot about past painting practices and the type of paint used.  Most paints were lead-based and not the healthiest of products so I’m glad he is taking health and safety seriously!

 

A Cat Through The Roof!

As mentioned, Craig was noting a lot of the stories people told him about how they interacted with the Beehive Buildings. He intends to have a ‘Story Wall’ or some kind of archive where people visiting can learn about the building’s past.

The builders have uncovered ‘historic gems’ and some of these discoveries were on display for Open House – artefacts as well as building features like previously boxed-in metal columns, hidden plaster arches and a steel strongroom door thought to have once blocked the public from gold stored on the premises.

 

Last year, people got access to the ground floor, but this year they could venture upstairs and one story stands out – in fact, both Craig and I agreed we’d probably dream about it!

There was a staircase leading to ‘offices’ upstairs – the staircase where the tradies had left their marks.  People were curious:\ ‘what is up there?’, ‘what will it be?’

 

A lady said her Uncle Bob and Aunt Win Woods owned the Dad and Dave Cafe and ‘lived up those stairs.’

She became quite teary talking about them and remembering childhood visits when she was around 7 or 9 years old. She recalled Uncle Bob built a clothesline for his wife and placed an extended wooden walkway above the glass ceiling so she could walk out and hang her clothes.

One day, the Siamese cat that used to follow Aunt Win fell through the glass! How narrow and dangerous was that homemade path to the clothesline?

Craig and I both agreed we couldn’t get the image of a falling cat out of our mind and I kept having surreptitious peaks upwards until the end of my shift.

Perhaps the story influenced my reaction when a young mum carrying a baby leant over the cast-iron railings to stare below. Stomach lurching, I moved closer as the much-criticised scene of Michal Jackson dangling his son from the balcony flashed through my mind.

Thankfully, an anxious friend accompanying her spoke up and the young mum moved away. I didn’t have to declare my nervousness or fear of heights.

Another lady told the story of coming up the back stairs and into a shop to get her wedding dress made. The tailoress specialised in wedding dresses and discreet fittings. Craig has chosen to leave the etchings of past occupants on two of the upstairs columns and restore the various staircases.

 

 

I hope Craig meets his deadline for March 2020 and that Bendigo will be host to Open House again because I know where I’ll be going to have a cup of coffee or ice cream or just a wander through the restored arcade because as I’ve discovered curiosity does not kill the cat!

 

 

Celebrating NAIDOC – Voice, Treaty, and Truth long overdue

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Image from the official Naidoc site https://www.naidoc.org.au/get-involved/2019-theme

Warning: Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander people are advised this post may contain names and images of deceased people.

I couldn’t let this week pass without celebrating NAIDOC, especially since the message is such an important one for all Australians to heed.

We invite you to walk with us in a movement of the Australian people for a better future. The Indigenous voice of this country is over 65,000 plus years old.

They are the first words spoken on this continent. Languages that passed down lore, culture and knowledge for over millennia. They are precious to our nation.

It’s that Indigenous voice that includes know-how, practices, skills and innovations – found in a wide variety of contexts, such as agricultural, scientific, technical, ecological and medicinal fields, as well as biodiversity-related knowledge.  They are words connecting us to country, an understanding of country and of a people who are the oldest continuing culture on the planet.

And with 2019 being celebrated as the United Nations International Year of Indigenous Languages, it’s time for our knowledge to be heard through our voice.

For generations, we have sought recognition of our unique place in Australian history and society today. We need to be the architects of our lives and futures.

For generations, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have looked for significant and lasting change.

Voice. Treaty. Truth. were three key elements to the reforms set out in the Uluru Statement from the Heart. These reforms represent the unified position of First Nations Australians.

https://www.naidoc.org.au/get-involved/2019-theme

 

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map of Aboriginal Australia and the different ‘countries’, First Australians Gallery, National Museum Canberra

Unfortunately, because of circumstances beyond my control, I haven’t attended any events this year as in the past, but as I continue to organise the house in preparation for full retirement, I unearthed newspaper clippings and articles on various subjects, that I kept for research or out of interest.

Revisiting this treasure trove stirred a lot of memories of connection with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples since my university days and involvement in the first Aboriginal Embassy, 1972.

I’ve spent several days of reflection thinking about what I’d write today.

It’s sobering to remember that it was only in 1975 that the one-day acknowledgement of National Aborigines Day became a week-long celebration with diverse activities to acknowledge our past, examine our present and hopefully look toward a better future.

Whose Voice?

Among the pile of paper, I must decide to scan or throw out, there are many book reviews, opinion pieces and essays written by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders as well as academic or investigative reports by non-indigenous writers.

However, the realisation that there has been some progress made is tempered by the current Federal Government’s reluctance to consider a true voice in parliament for First Australians and its outright rejection of the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

Broaden Your Knowledge About Australia and Its History/Herstory

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Aboriginal language map

This is also the International Year of Indigenous Languages – a United Nations observance in 2019 with aims to raise awareness of the consequences of the endangerment of Indigenous languages across the world and to establish a link between language, development, peace, and reconciliation.

The traditional owners of Melbourne are people from the Kulin Nation, with surrounding groups including the Woiworung and Boonwurrung (the Mordialloc traditional owners) and you can learn some words here.

Please check out two blogs I follow for reviews of the work of current indigenous authors and plenty of other interesting information: Lisa Hill’s ANZ LitLovers LitBlog and Bill Holloway’s the Australian Legend.

Last year, I visited Canberra and the National Museum, which has some great exhibitions as a starting point for those seeking knowledge and understanding:

empathy, not sympathy; acceptance not tolerance.

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At the entrance of the National Museum is a magnificent set of sculptures of the Bogong Moth, acknowledging the cultural traditions of the Aboriginal peoples who lived in the ACT prior to the European invasion and settlement.

 

 

What do our First People mean by Country?

Almost every public ceremony at all levels of government now includes a ‘welcome to country’.  If you wonder why or don’t know how to explain it to visitors, an explanation follows.

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Country’ is more than just the name of a place. When used by the Aboriginal people it is about a connection to all aspects of the land; landscape, ecology, spirituality, seasonal rhythms, people and culture.

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a wall capturing the thoughts of Aboriginal visitors

 

 

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For most of us, everything we read about our First People is either white/colonial/European perceptions of Aborigines or Aboriginal perceptions of themselves.

To read Aboriginal writing allows Aborigines to speak for themselves and state their view of Australian history.

In 2019, there is a wealth of Aboriginal writing to choose from including poets, creative writers, non-fiction and academia.

Albeit almost two decades ago, in his book, Writing from the Fringe: A Study of Modern Aboriginal Literature, Hyland House, Melbourne 1990, Mudrooroo Narogin divides Aboriginal history into five periods:

  1. From the Beginning to 1788: the time of the dreaming, before the coming of the Europeans.
  2. The Time of the Invasion(s): Aboriginal culture is threatened and is forced to adapt.
  3. The Utter Conquering of the Aboriginal Peoples: many of the old ways of communication are destroyed or drastically changed.
  4. The Colonial Period: outright oppression gives way to paternalism, then to assimilation.
  5. The Period of Self-Determination: dating from the Referendum in 1967 and the Whitlam government in the early 1970s – still continuing…

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Evidence of early Aboriginal habitation of the continent includes bones uncovered at Lake Mungo in south-eastern Australia and the sites of volcanoes, such as those at Tower Hill, near Melbourne.

The oldest continuing culture in the world dates back 50,000 – 60,000 years depending on what archaeological discoveries you choose to focus on.

What we know now is that Aborigines comprised many language groups, each with their own country. They created a network of overland commerce, developed ingenious ways of finding water and food in deserts, were expert trappers and fishers, skilled herbalists and farmers with a hundred different plant foods to supplement a diet of meat, fish, eggs and insects.

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Colonial Invasion Without a Treaty

From the late 18th century, British and other Europeans arrived on the shores of this continent, some willingly, others with no or little choice: – officers, soldiers and sailors of the Crown, convicted felons, free men and women searching for economic opportunity and a new life or fresh start.

They built towns on Aboriginal land tended and shaped over thousands of years and so began the Frontier Wars and decades of conflict over the sovereignty of the land.

There never was a treaty or proper recompense for the shameful land theft but hopefully, this will be rectified soon. At least the State of Victoria is working towards a treaty.

Aboriginal writers of note during the 1960s and 70s argued for Aboriginal land rights and self-determination. People like Oodgeroo Noonuccal (Kath Walker) and Kevin Gilbert brought an Aboriginal voice to wider audiences. Both of these wonderful poets died in 1993 – a tragic loss to Australian writing.

Truth Telling

A newspaper clipping I have from The Sunday Herald, August 20, 1989, has a story by Brett Wright titled, Our Forgotten War. This challenges the lie that Aborigines didn’t fight for their country or were always the victims.

” John Lovett, Aboriginal Advisor and former elder of the  Kerrupjmara clan, surveys the stony ruins of a lost culture.

“This is one here,’ he says, standing in a ring of weathered rocks, barely discernible in a volcanic landscape strewn with boulders. Further afield, at the edge of a drained swamp known as Lake Gorrie, are the remains of stone fish traps, used to catch eels when the lake flooded.

Historians say the ruin is almost certainly the base camp of a group of Aboriginal guerrilla fighters who fought the squatters in the black version of Vietnam: the Eumeralla War of the 1840s.

Records show the resistance to white settlement was intense and bloody in Victoria’s Western District. The 1838-39 drought left the Aboriginals short of food and water, and they were forced to drive off the squatters.

In 1842, two clan leaders, Tarerarer and Tyoore, nicknamed Cocknose and Jupiter, led attacks on stations around Eumeralla River, near Macarthur. They attacked shepherds and took their sheep for food.

The Eumeralla War had begun. An unknown number of lives were lost on both sides, as the attack led to fierce reprisals by the settlers. One of the raiding parties from the Nillangundidji tribe numbered 150.

“The tactics used were very similar to those used by the Viet Cong in the Vietnam War,” Mr Lovett said.

… concentrating their attacks on settlers who had taken up land around sacred sites, the Lake Gorrie guerrillas were very successful… the campaign continued for two years until native police killed Jupiter and Cocknose. With the leaders gone, the resistance movement faded.

“What we were fighting for was to survive, to maintain and keep our traditional areas,” said Mr Lovett …(who) believe sites such as Lake Gorrie should be recognised. “It’s relevant for white and black people to know the history of Australia.’

Fast forward 20 years and a lot more truth about how the invasion and settlement of Australia played out debunks peddled myths that the Aborigines didn’t fight for their land or try and repel the invaders.

For more on Eumeralla and other Victorian sites of massacres and conflict check out this website on Australia’s Frontier Wars.

Wikipedia has more information specifically on Eumeralla and an article from The Sydney Morning Herald, August 10, 2013, A Forgotten war, A Haunted Land.

Perhaps the greatest lie that I was taught at school regarding Aborigines was that there were no Aborigines left in Tasmania after Trugannini died. The National Museum has a fantastic exhibition detailing the cultural heritage of the Tasmanian First People.

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There are many stories showing the diversity and richness of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and the most compelling are those of resistance, resilience, cultural adaptation, creativity and leadership.

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Yarning Circle

There is a lot to take in when you walk through the galleries devoted to Australian history and culture and so it’s a relief to sit and rest in a special place designed to help you relax, reflect, and yarn. And yes, you can recharge your mobile phone, if like mine the battery is low because the camera worked overtime!

 

 

Yarning circles and gathering circles are important places. They are where stories and knowledge can be shared in a caring environment that’s relaxed and comfortable. With our bodies, we include ourselves in the listening and learning that is being gifted.

Nancy Bamaga, Thabu/Samu

We could do with yarning circles in every home and community.

 

 

Impermanence, Inevitability and Dying with Dignity.

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I haven’t posted since July 2020, but it is a new year and notwithstanding the recent outbreak of COVID19 in my local area, I am hoping 2021 will be better.

This is actually a reworking of a post from several years ago and if you read to the end, my choice of updating and reposting should make sense. (It’s not just laziness although it is an effort to overcome a lack of enthusiasm and feeling of irrelevance!)

The last six months have been the definition of hell for so many people despite some (including me) attempting to find the glass half full.

I’ve read of achievements, new hobbies, friendships, educational courses, diets and exercise regimes, technology,  books, films, music, imaginative recipes and discovery of  local environmental gems… there were also plenty of negative impacts from panic and fear, lockdowns, isolation, shortage of goods and services, lost jobs and homes, broken relationships and health issues.

The Virus not the Only Health Crisis

For me, health issues loomed large – my last post ended with the news of a stage 4 invasive melanoma diagnosed.  This shock of a recurrence of skin cancer (I had basil cell carcinomas removed when 30 years old) added to the news of breast cancer returning in December 2019, albeit a different and rarer, breast cancer.

A relieved thought (or unvoiced fear) was how lucky can one person be!

It wasn’t the immediate end of the world but I would be lying if I said thoughts of death didn’t loom large. I checked finances and discussed plans with my daughters for  ‘no funeral, just a big party’;  ensured my will, plus medical and financial power of attorney up-to-date.

In the last decade, many health scares, so déjà vu for the Neil household at this regular event!

yearly mammogram

However, the discovery of a brain tumour and the fear it was metastatic cancer shocked the GP who has cared for me for over 25 years. We both fought back tears, our trembling lips hidden by masks, social distancing forgotten as she squeezed my arm in sympathy and murmured about unfairness and not to lose hope because it could be a meningioma.

I’m 67 years old, ironically, the same age as my husband when he died in 2002, (John was 18 years older than me). Whether it is the Highland genes or just my Mother’s Irish superstition, this coincidence played on my mind and also worried my daughters.

Survival rates for cancer vary from person to person but the milestones of 5 and 10 years are always at the back of a patient’s mind when diagnosed. The longer you can go without a recurrence is something to celebrate.

However, survival rates for a tumour in the brain, poor and if an operation required the risk of stroke high.

I was disappointed when breast cancer returned after 9 years but my breast cancer surgeon inspires confidence and he acted quickly and decisively and this time it was a lumpectomy rather than mastectomy.

I don’t put off mammagrams no matter how uncomfortable they are and I follow his advice, even if data suggests most breast cancer is not picked up by mammagrams.

Plus, the shock of another breast cancer diagnosis soon eclipsed by COVID19 anxiety and declaration of the global pandemic.

The recovery from the melanoma and skin graft during severe lockdown, and in the middle of winter, took a little longer with travel permissions to worry about and more stringent rules for clinicians and patients. These restrictions lasted well into the next health surprise.

By the time I went through all the tests and consultations for the brain tumour, it took a lot of energy to even pretend to be positive about the future.  I thought back to the deaths of family and friends I’d witnessed or been involved with in the last stages of their life – hence revisiting this post about my friend Margaret.

Will I be calm and accepting? Do I want to prolong the inevitable? What are my priorities and is there any point in a bucket list?

I almost forgot to breathe when the neurologist decided it was a meningioma and not metastatic cancer. In the words of my breast surgeon on my annual visit in December, ‘You dodged another bullet, Mairi!’

How long I can keep dodging is a mystery but I’ve decided to turn the page on 2020 and try ‘business as usual’ along with my mantra ‘this too will pass’.

Digital Distraction

I spent July to December posting photographs and haiku on Instagram after joining at the suggestion of a dear friend in Japan who posts about Bonsai.

Naoko was a writing student of mine at Mordialloc Neighbourhood House, when she lived in Australia. She said I was an inspiration to her during a difficult time in her life and even wrote a poem about writing class which I published.

We have stayed connected and she returned any perceived favour by inspiring me to learn a new digital platform (with daughter Mary Jane’s help), indulge my love of photography and the environment, and write haiku, a favourite poetry form!

Naoko’s Instagram is #bonsai_sana and mine is #mairineil

Walking the dog each day around Mordialloc, I focused on everyday sights, let my imagination and thoughts wander and in the evening, inspired and guided by the demands of the form, I wrote haiku.

The anxiety, fear and dark thoughts about health and death receded as once again my passion for writing became therapeutic and a distraction. It gave me a focus and a project.

beautiful sunset creek

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

Steve Jobs

pathways

And for many, death comes too soon…

Farewell To A Friend

The telephone call came out of left field. Tragic news to wreck quality time with a dear friend, yet it  is also a dear friend on the other end of the mobile.  My eyes sting with welling tears, but remain focussed out of the window of the Malt cafe in Beaumaris.

I watch two young mums chat animatedly on the footpath. Relaxed and smiling they are probably enjoying the freedom of the first day of the school year; the little darlings who kept them busy all the summer holidays tucked into classrooms. Another couple on an outside table feed their Golden Retriever tidbits from their plates.

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

The day takes its first lurch into the surreal.

I’m on my way to celebrate a friend’s retirement from decades of teaching. She’s treating several friends to lunch at Sierra Tango, Cheltenham instead of us paying and hosting the celebration for her! The generosity of the invitation indicative of her warm, supportive personality and the venue a tribute to her knowledge of gastronomy, appreciation of fine foods and wine, and a commitment to support local businesses.

Determined not to spoil Lisa’s day, I seal my tragic news into an emotional compartment to be dealt with later…

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

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

How could this be?

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

A  picture of all of us at the Harmonie German Club in Canberra in 1973, was shared in a recent post.  Tall slim Margaret centre stage.

Mum's_Picture_of_Margaret_&_Jane

She can’t be dying – and not of breast cancer. This news, too confronting and scary. I think back to the apartment we shared, and shiver. That old house divided into three and this news means all of the women living there, including me, have breast cancer: one double mastectomy, two single mastectomies and now Margaret with metastatic breast cancer! Bad luck? Coincidence? A cancer cluster?

A problem for another day…

Bad News Travels Fast

During Lisa’s celebration lunch I receive another phone call with news that a European friend who had stayed with me early January had to have an emergency eye operation in Sydney because of a detached retina. There’s a danger she’ll lose her sight.

This super fit friend, a world-renowned marathon swimmer, came ninth in the Pier to Pub swim at Lorne this year. She’s supposed to be leaving Sydney for her home in Italy with a stop in one of Thailand’s resorts, but is now delayed in Australia until doctors allow her to fly.

The day has taken its second lurch into the surreal.

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

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The next day I’m in Canberra and over four days catch up with many old friends from university, make some new ones, and spend hours with Margaret as she adjusts to the effects of radiotherapy and the news of having limited time.

She copes well with the steady stream of people who want to help in some way, as well as saying goodbye. The adage ‘bad news travels fast‘ proving true.

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

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

 ‘Those indeed were the days my friend,’ I say,  ‘we had a lot of fun!’

Margaret agrees. I listen as she describes the highlights of her overseas trips and of her intention to travel again.

Deep down we both know another trip will never happen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The seeds we sow. A wonderful legacy indeed, but I wish Margaret had another 23 years to sort out her life…

I wanted the last few days with her to be surreal and someone to wake me up and say it was all a dream. But of course I faced the reality of saying goodbye and dealing with my grief.

Now, with the reality of declining health I’ll hopefully adjust with similar dignity as Margaret when the inevitable must be faced – with luck still in the distance.

Then again, 2021 may hold bigger surprises than 2020 and they could be good!

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

Robert Louis Stevenson