For over a month now, every state in Australia has been in some form of lockdown and the measures taken by various levels of government appear to have worked. Unlike other parts of the world, we have successfully flattened the curve quickly and some states are looking at some relief from isolation by relaxing social distancing advice.
However, in Australia people have died and lives of many changed forever.
Each day there are still fresh cases of coronavirus reported, but nowhere near the numbers other countries are recording. Social distancing and quarantining appear to have worked because most of the population have respected the need for and obeyed the rules and the various public health messages.
In my little corner of Mordialloc, it has been strange–and very pleasant–to see less traffic and few parked cars. People are going on family walks, strolling in pairs or singly, entire families take the dog for a walk! Children play in the street, and chalk rainbows, love hearts, and well wishes.
All of this reminiscent of my childhood in the 50s (Scotland) and 60s (Australia).
Friends in other places have similar observations with a friend in Aberdeen who walks several miles a day through the lovely countryside of Inverurie, commenting when she rang me that the lack of cars has meant less pollution. She only washes her hair every few days rather than daily and no ‘black muck’ appears in the water!
A Time of Reflection
The last few weeks I’ve put up posts with ideas and prompts to help people who want to write or who have been writing but can’t go to classes or their usual groups because of COVID-19.
For some people writing will be a fill-in hobby, others may dream of a novel or collection of short stories sitting in a bookshop window.
There will be people writing life stories or a memoir which is a slice of their life, perhaps family history or researching for a school project or essay.
Feedback suggests the posts have been helpful but now as we near a ‘new normal’, perhaps it is time to record the experiences you’ve had over this period. You can incorporate them in a poem or short story or journal about them – but leaving some record for future generations is helpful – create a time capsule if you will…
People will look for historical records about the pandemic, just as we’ve seen plenty of articles about the 1918 Flu Epidemic, the Ebola and SARS outbreaks and even the Bubonic Plague.
“If writers stopped writing about what happened to them, then there would be a lot of empty pages.”
List what you have been doing to cope
How is it different from life before lockdown and social distancing
Make note of what you like and what you don’t like about isolation – I know some people have already made resolutions to value friendship and family more, live with less material things, value the environment more…
Ponder how your life has changed and whether any behaviours or activities will remain even once free of lockdown restrictions
This is a monumental period in history – global pandemics do not happen that often!
You may have experienced personal tragedy but also joy, or have knowledge of someone whose journey has differed from yours.
Have you made recent friends, lost established friends, or discovered qualities such as strengths or failings in people, whether family members or in the community?
What new skills have you learned?
What old skills have you revived?
Has your opinion of technology changed? Have you improved/increased your use of technology or do you regret your lack of knowledge?
How is homeschooling or working from home actually working out?
Have you received or sent parcels? What were the contents? How did the experience work out?
Are you a hoarder, panic buyer or did you manage to go without those items in much demand like toilet paper, flour, pasta and rice.
Did your use of social media increase, decrease, what you shared change?
Did you join any new online groups?
Have you ‘hit the wall’ yet – how are your anxiety levels?
Are You More Present in Your Life?
Rich sensory experiences surround us daily — IF we take the time to observe and as writers note them down.
Become a keen observer and recorder of the sensory intricacies of life. Make it a habit to jot down your observances in a journal or snap a photo to remind you of the weather, the season, the unusual occurrence… on my daily walks with Josie, I take at least one photograph of something interesting or new I notice – a cloud formation or blossoming flower.
Sometimes these changes are close to home – like this Yucca plant of mine that has flowered for the first time in nearly a decade! And the interesting fungi in the front garden – in fact fungi seems to mushroom all over Mordialloc – or maybe I’m just noticing it more.
Or these pigeons sitting in a bird bath – can you imagine the conversation? The one in my garden annoys the lorikeets but loves feeding on the seeds they spit out, and the ones on the deserted footy oval are excellent at social distancing.
What stories can you make up?
Have the parcel postman or couriers visited more than usual?
Contactless deliveries can bring surprises – write the story behind the parcels:
I haven’t seen my daughter, Anne, for weeks because of COVID-19 restrictions and miss her. I know she misses me and her sister but also misses Josie, our Kelpie/Staffy Cross who gives us so much pleasure. She has earned this certificate made by number two daughter, Mary Jane:
She got a special delivery from Anne to celebrate her first year with us. Josie was a rescue dogbut with the Pet Circle parcel became a lucky dog!
I received a parcel to learn pottery, a gift that gives twice because the arts and crafts have suffered from the economic shutdown and this helps to keep a small workshop viable.
One of my sisters sent me a knitted version of my favourite poet Rabbie Burns – knitting her forte but new projects helping her cope with being stuck more inside than usual and of showing she is thinking of family.
The picture of the praying mantis snapped by me after my daughter told me we had a visitor at the door!
Small delights happen every day and we mustn’t forget to notice and appreciate them and let our imagination roam.
Devote some time to dwell on daydreams. They are spontaneous messages from our subconscious. Not everyone has a daydream-friendly mind. In fact, some people have been taught to repress daydreams as mere distractions.
As writers, however, we should not only welcome daydreams but train ourselves to be aware of them. In fact, the core of most of my novels has come from daydreams. Daydreams are our primal storyteller at work, sending us scenes and topics that our imagination or subconscious wants us to investigate.
Each day, we should devote time (I usually do this before sleeping) to reviewing our daydreams and determining which of them insists on being turned into a story. Don’t push away those daydreams that make you uncomfortable: The more shocking the daydream, the more truthful about us it is. Embrace that truth.
Have Your Rituals Changed?
I’m retired from teaching at the moment – the return of breast cancer and arrival of coronavirus a perfect storm.
My morning ritual of observing the visiting lorikeets goes on for an extended period now and I never tire watching them come and go to feed at other times of the day or enjoying each other’s company in the bottlebrush outside my bedroom window.
Do you have a morning ritual? Has it changed recently like mine has?
Are you doing more cooking? Experimenting? There was a shortage of flour, eggs, sugar – in fact, lots of items disappeared from supermarket shelves in panic buying sprees. This made for some creative recipes being shared on social media.
This variation of Anzac biscuits is a healthier alternative to traditional Anzacs and results in a dark, slightly chewy variety of the biscuit. We understand some ingredients may be difficult to find in supermarkets at present. You could try your local health food shop, otherwise use the substitutes listed under ‘Ingredients’. You’ll still be getting the low-GI goodness of rolled oats.
1 cup wholemeal spelt flour
1 cup rolled oats
1 cup desiccated coconut or shredded coconut
¾ cup coconut sugar
2 tablespoons maple syrup
2 tablespoons water
½ teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
Substitutions (which I used)
Swap the wholemeal spelt flour for plain or wholemeal flour
Swap the coconut sugar for white sugar
Swap the maple syrup for golden syrup
Method:Preheat oven to 160°C and line 2 baking trays with baking paper.
In a large bowl, combine flour, oats, coconut and coconut sugar.
In a small saucepan, stir the butter and maple syrup over medium heat until butter melts and the mixture is smooth. Take off the heat. Stir the bicarbonate of soda with the water and add to butter and maple syrup.
Add to the oat mixture and stir well to combine.
Roll level tablespoons of the mixture into balls and flatten.
Bake in the oven for 15 minutes or until golden.
Allow to cool for 10 minutes and then transfer to a wire cooling rack.
Nutritional Info: Our knowledge of nutrition has progressed somewhat since World War II. We now know that we need to eat more whole-foods and less processed foods. While these biscuits are still a sweet treat, the maple syrup is far less processed than golden syrup traditionally used in Anzac biscuits. Coconut sugar is a lower GI alternative compared to white sugar and provides small amounts of nutrients not found in white sugar. The goodness of rolled oats, an excellent source of beta-glucan soluble fibre that helps to reduce cholesterol; combined with wholemeal spelt flour, provides healthy whole grains to balance out the sweetness.
Has technology been Your Friend or Foe?
I’m lucky because I’ve kept abreast of many of the changes in technology and my computer literacy and competency better than others in my age group. Both my daughters are highly skilled with technology so they fill any gaps exposed when dealing with this catastrophic virus.
I downloaded and have now used ZOOM several times. The first time there were minor glitches but subsequently, there have been no problems.
Courtesy of the Health Issues Centre, I’ve heard medical experts and local consumer health reps discuss the current crisis and offer opinions, ideas and suggestions to the government.
Courtesy of the Australia Institute, I’ve listened to economic experts and been able to ask questions of them, including the Shadow Treasurer, Jim Chalmers MP and hope to take part in other sessions with Media, Environmental and Arts representatives.
Courtesy of the trade union movement, I’ve taken part in sessions with the first woman ACTU Secretary, Sally McManus and the first woman General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, Sharan Burrow.
Many organisations are organising online discussions and hoping for feedback from as many ordinary Australians as possible. This is an unusual time and who knows how much more difficult life will become after the health crisis eases and we must face a devastating economic crisis.
Stay informed, raise your voice, be part of the solution, not part of the problem.
My daughters have used ZOOM and other platforms to catch up with friends all over Australia and internationally, and many people rely on similar software while working from home.
We have had trivia and movie nights and I love hearing the laughter when a group of them get together but I know many people are not so fortunate.
What have been your experiences with technology? Do you have a disaster or comical story? Do you use Face Time on Messenger?
What type of social media helps you stay in touch with those you can’t visit? Or do you prefer a phonecall, text and email?
Here is a piece of flash fiction inspired by a sound (I mentioned incorporating sound in a previous post). The setting is in the 1930s when the world went through the Great Depression – yes; we have survived economic crises before too. Night Terror by Mairi Neil, flash fiction.
But to end on a funny note involving current times and technology, here is another Facebook meme doing the rounds.
Two days ago we experienced the coldest April day on record in Melbourne.
Today is definitely wintry – stay safe inside, stay well and stay strong – and scratch that pen or tap the keyboard. If all ideas fail, you can do what people normally do when they get together – but write don’t talk about the weather!
Long patience and application saturated with your heart’s blood – you will either write or you will not – and the only way to find out whether you will or not is to try.
Most people connected to the Internet and using some sort of social media platform will have seen the quizzes going around like chain letters of old and the finger games with folded paper.
You have to answer personal questions, are given a score or a personality description and then you must pass it on. Frequently, one of the questions wants to know are you an owl or a lark.
We can get right into writing prompts because I’ll assume most people have already put themselves into a category!
It is an important question to answer – know yourself well if you want to create realistic characters with flaws, foibles and interesting features.
Although, as I suggest in the post’s title, during this catastrophic COVID19 pandemic, many of us would love to hibernate like bears and wake up in a few months with the crisis over and some semblance of normality we used to know!
Are you a lark?
Describe your perfect morning.
To what would you compare morning and why?
Have you a morning ritual?
How has the ritual changed over the years?
Did you become a lark when you started working because you had to?
Do you prefer mornings or dark?
Have you an opinion or a story about a rooster?
How do you know it is morning? What morning and evening sounds can you identify?
Think back to your childhood –
Can you remember what mornings were like before you went to school?
Did your mum work outside the home – was there a strict timetable to stick to?
Were you looked after by someone other than family?
Where were you living – city or country?
Is there one particular morning you have never forgotten?
What were mornings like when you attended school?
Were you always early, or late – how did you get there?
Was breakfast cooked or not?
Did you have chores to do?
Did you have pets to feed? Dogs to walk? Horses to groom? Cows to milk?
What were mornings like when you went to high school – more independent?
Did you look after your own uniform? Did you polish your shoes?
Did you walk to school? With siblings, friends, boys and girls?
Did you have a paid job like newspaper or junk mail delivery before school?
Did you have to escort a younger sibling to their school, to kinder?
How old were you when you took responsibility to make your own breakfast?
How old were you if you had to help others in the morning – siblings, ill parent, grandparent?
Have you made a conscious effort to change a morning routine? Why?
Write about what was/is/or could be your perfect alarm clock – this could be birdsong, a piece of music or a particular song, children’s laughter, a purring cat, a romantic kiss… or as my youngest daughter wrote in a writing workshop once, ‘my perfect alarm clock is one that is broken.’
Did you have a routine for working days and another for weekends?
What morning is/was your favourite and why? (Sunday is often a special morning even for those not religious but also special events like Easter or Christmas morning, or a birthday ritual!)
How has your morning changed during this COVID19 crisis?
Are You An Owl?
What time do you normally go to bed – before or after midnight?
Are you an insomniac? Have you a cure for insomnia or tried any that failed?
Are you a shift worker? Has this disturbed your sleep patterns? How did it affect your metabolism?
Did you have a bedtime routine as a child?
Do you have an evening or bedtime routine now?
Did your sleeping habits change when children came along?
Was it a lifelong change?
Did anyone else in the house alter their sleeping patterns?
What daily rituals do you adhere to?
Do you get a second wind in the evenings?
Do you have an afternoon nap? A siesta?
Do you catnap? Do you have forty winks or longer?
Have you any stories about sleeping in, uncomfortable mattresses, disturbed sleep
Do you take earplugs and an eye mask when you travel?
How do you compensate for lack of sleep?
Is there a place you like to go when you can’t sleep?
What is your most poignant and memorable experience of being a night owl?
Write an opinion piece based on your life experience:
Different people have different behaviour patterns and preferences. However, most of us still need the obligatory minimum of 8 hours of sleep per night to look our best, function well and achieve our goals.
Humans are naturally polyphasic (multiple sleep times per day), just like our natural eating habits. Research is often conducted into the impact of cortisol, melatonin, and even caffeine on our sleep-wake cycles, how the use of these can be modified with lifestyle changes. Sleep can be changed based on lifestyle but sleep needs cannot.
The impact of artificial light from computer screens alone has a substantial effect on melatonin production and largely explains why people have trouble syncing their sleep-wake cycle with sunlight. Manipulation of artificial light is used by the military to help soldiers stay awake abnormally long hours and to adjust to different time zones or work shifts.
If I had free choice, I’d be a siesta person. Early to rise and late to bed, with a long nap after lunch.
From A Lark to An Owl Mairi Neil
“….The lark’s on the wing;
The snail’s on the thorn,
God’s in his heaven;
All’s right with the world.”
Robert Browning (1812-1889)
I wouldn’t say I’m a lark, I don’t wake up singing, but I do love the mornings – especially those sunny mornings in spring and autumn with the grass still gleaming with dew. When I step out to a clear sky and the air warm, but not hot, I can smell the promise in those mornings that all is right with the world.
Backyard blackbirds flit from cherry plum tree to Photinia, rest awhile on the fence before singing their joy. Magpies peck the lawn before flying atop the gum trees and carolling, wattlebirds sup nectar from the grevillea and lorikeets munch from the seed block I’ve placed in the bottlebrush.
Most of my life I have been motivated to rise early and get on with whatever task is on the agenda – whether it be study, school, work, or play. One of six children, I was the one who woke the household much to the disgust of siblings – especially during the teenage years. No matter how late I went to bed, my body clock had me rising early to breakfast or I’d suffer a headache. I couldn’t lie in bed until noon like my older sister, Catriona or brother Iain – the two definite night owls in our family.
Mum loved telling the story of me falling asleep over my dinner from when I sat in a high chair up until I went to school. Often I was carried into bed from the dinner table.
The change from a lark to an owl arrived with motherhood. My first baby Anne, turned night into day and destroyed whatever energy was needed to face the morning. The tiredness of caring for a newborn babe ranges from fatigue to exhaustion. Sleepless nights breastfeeding on demand, soothing a colicky baby, changing nappies, walking the floor crooning nursery rhymes or any other song that came to mind. (The People’s Flag & Internationale my favourites – no wonder both girls fight for social justice!)
New to parenting I employed all sorts of distracting tricks to calm fractious cries when the girls were ill or just out of sorts. From being a sound sleeper, I became a light sleeper, awake at the least disturbance from cot or bed.
Each morning, I fought to stay awake, sometimes falling asleep with a slice of toast in my mouth from the breakfast tray my loving, but well-rested husband prepared before heading off to work. John’s years in the Royal Navy meant he could sleep through WW3.
My body seemed to relax into a deep sleep two minutes before the 6.00am alarm for John to get up for work. Jolted awake, I faced the morning, not with a joyous song but fear. Would tiredness make me an incompetent mother?
Some say biorhythms determine our health, fitness, and response to nature, and crises occur when these rhythms are off their beat. Motherhood was the first serious change in the tempo of my life but it was not the last. The long period of caring for John when he was ill with COAD, asbestosis and later lung cancer meant I spent many nights lying listening to his struggling breaths. Uninterrupted sleep became a precious commodity.
Older, but not necessarily wiser, my sleep patterns so disturbed I am now officially (a) cuckoo!
Are you an owl? Describe your perfect night. Now throw a spanner in the works and write about when the morning or evening wasn’t so perfect!
… we should not only welcome day-dreams but train ourselves to be aware of them. In fact, the cores of most of my novels have come from daydreams. Daydreams are our primal storyteller at work, sending us scenes and topics that our imagination or subconscious wants us to investigate. Each day, we should devote time (I usually do this before sleeping) to reviewing our day-dreams and determining which of them insists on being turned into a story. Don’t push away those daydreams that make you uncomfortable: The more shocking the day-dream, the more truthful about us it is. Embrace that truth.”
Do you daydream? Do you dream in your sleep? Write a story based on your dreaming experiences – maybe you have a recurring dream?
“I write in the first person because I have always wanted to make my life more interesting than it was.”
Writing Post for Day Five – Count Your Blessings To be Alive
Keeping a sense of perspective and humour amidst all the gloom and doom can be difficult but for mental health – and physical as shown by the fights in supermarkets – it is necessary.
Many people are doing their bit online – sharing jokes, funny memes, clips of singing, dancing, live performances of every creative art and hints, like mine, to ease the anxiety and stress of being cooped up while in quarantine or working from home.
Working at home doesn’t necessarily mean you are alone – especially if children are home from school. Perhaps the only time alone will be in your head! Put those thoughts to good use, focus on ideas (the more positive the better), grab a notebook, and write.
This post is about writing recipes, not for food or cooking. There are plenty of free recipes for that on the Internet and I’m sure with the panic buying and shortages there will be a host of new food recipes doing the rounds.
Not to mention books: How I Survived Covid19 When The Pantry Was Almost Bare…
(I could write that one because I refused to panic buy and with a compromised immune system I’m avoiding the queues in shops!)
Humour & Love Is Needed
I started with my Dr Seuss inspired poem written in a lesson about rhyming poetry to grab your attention. I mean who doesn’t know or love Dr Seuss?
But now, here are some ‘rules’ or suggestions:
Eight Steps For Writing A Recipe To Lift Your Mood
What would your ideal day consist of? Jot points down – often a list is a good format – or maybe even start with the same introductory phrase: Each day I’d love to
Now make a mind map. In the middle of a blank piece of paper write ‘My recipe.’ Here is an example of a mindmap from the Internet from ResearchGate:
Now describe your ingredients. Go through them one by one
All recipes specify quantities for every ingredient. Add these to your ingredients on the mind map.
Try adding similes or metaphors to make your recipe more interesting and imaginative.
(A simile is a comparison of one thing to another using the connecting word ‘as’ or ‘like’, a metaphor just is and doesn’t need the introduction. For example:- When my first daughter was born a popular song at the time was ‘A Little Ray of Sunshine’. If I was using a simile, she’d be like a little ray of sunshine, but with metaphor, she is my little ray of sunshine. A subtle but important difference.)
Method of Preparation – it’s your recipe so explore, be daring, be innovative – give readers a window into your soul…
Serving Suggestions are necessary, of course:
(Add a ‘garnish’ to your recipe, these are the finishing touches that present a dish to perfection.)
Add a title – What word or feeling would sum up your recipe? Try and keep it relevant and short. Or call it like it is:
A Recipe For A Good Mood Mairi Neil (2016)
a chorus of Mary Jane’s chuckles
an eyeful of Anne’s excitement
a cacophony of birdsong
a dash of possum
a snuggle and lick from Aurora
a strong trace of walking on the foreshore
a breath of rosemary and lavender
large helpings of writing time
a ladle of television murder-mystery
unlimited cupfuls of English Breakfast tea
a glass of cider (or two)
a shower of sunshine
a whisper of an autumn breeze
a turntable of favourite music
a reflection on the love of family and friends
Add liberal dollops of Mary Jane’s infectious laughter
Organise Anne’s surprises to drizzle at intervals
Enjoy Aurora’s daily cuddles and friendly licks
Encourage the possums to nestle in the trees
Welcome the magpies’ morning trill, the butcher birds’ songs,
the wattlebirds’ chok-chok and the doves evening coos.
Wait for the aromatic profusion of rosemary, lavender, geraniums
and roses and rainbow colours of seasonal displays
Embrace the sea air and lapping of waves
Mix and serve daily, in no particular order. Whether sunshine or rain this recipe has my personal guarantee.
Try writing another recipe with different ingredients or write a recipe for a friend, a family member, based on what that person likes:
Or perhaps a recipe based on current affairs (especially if you have a solution to the current catastrophe – remember we’re focusing on a good mood but absurd is okay), the perfect holiday, a travel experience…
**And if you are not into poetic -style recipes whatever is stirred up and remembered can be written in prose – another life story, or piece of fiction!
There Are Benefits To using A Mindmap To Brainstorm Ideas Before Writing
A mind map is a diagram that uses words or sketches to note ideas linked to a central keyword. (This is often called theme in creative writing. A piece of writing can have many themes but often there is an overarching one.)
A mind map gives you the opportunity to explore many different concepts and shows the process of developing them. There is no limit to size – if you want to be expansive grab a sheet of butcher’s paper!)
Mind maps are useful for generating, visualising and organising ideas. They are often used to make decisions and solve problems in the corporate world, but for creative writers, we generate ideas for stories or poems, and to recall memories.
What Does Your Ideal Day Consist of?
Prepare the mindmap –
Favourite time of day
Favourite hobby & activity
Favourite films/TV shows
Use whatever interests you, add extra categories.
Write examples next to all or chosen categories – there may be more than one answer. (Go with your initial one perhaps)
When describing your ingredients go through them one by one.
What words would you use? Think of associations with your central ingredient and write them around that. Think of descriptive words that you could use along with similes and metaphors.
Let your mind roam freely, don’t think too hard or edit yet. Try not to judge one word as being better than another at this stage.
Repeat for as many ingredients as you wish and if you use the senses in the description it will help to make your recipe poetic.
This is a Recipe For a Good Mood, rather than a recipe for food, but all recipes have measurements – some are exact like half a tablespoon of sugar…
In your recipe, measurements don’t have to be standard. You can use traditional measures but be creative and add more inventive indications of quantity.
A small amount could be –
A large amount could be –
Think of other ways we measure things, such as time, space, height and distance.
Here is a list of words for measurement (some traditional, others not) – you can add more in the comments:
This recipe is about feelings, therefore, make it as richly descriptive as possible.
Similes add depth to a description. eg. A summer’s evening as soft as velvet Spring blossom falling like snow
If your ingredient is A tranquil summer or A Quiet Summer Day/Evening
Think about comparisons: What things are quiet? for example tranquil as…. a soft wind in the trees, a sleeping mouse (or any pet), an owl in flight, a swan gliding…
Rather than repeat the description of ‘quiet’ twice, choose different words to mean the same thing eg.. A sprinkle of quiet summer, tranquil as an owl in flight.
Do this for one or two ingredients, not every line because you can defeat the impact of the mood you want to create.
•There’s no right or wrong way to approach your method of preparation.
Write out the list of your ingredients onto a piece of paper.
What will you mix your ingredients in?
In what order will you add them?
Is there a special way they need adding?
This is where you can grab one of those recipe books off the shelf that you have stopped using because it is easier to Google but you haven’t thrown them out because of an emotional attachment, they were a gift, or sometimes it is quicker to check a page than wait for Malcolm Turnbull’s oh, so slow, NBN to download.
Check out the instructions on a favourite recipe and substitute your ingredients:
fold in gently,
beat with a fork
You might put a fractious toddler in a large garden and lightly whisk a sprinkle of quiet summer….
Look at the methods of preparation from the list below or choose your own:
Garnishing & Serving Suggestions:
Add a ‘garnish’ to your recipe, these are the finishing touches that present a dish to perfection. You may like to think of it as the cherry on top of your Recipe For a Good Mood
Serve with a sprig of stories and a warm feeling.
Garnish with a cuddle from a sister and enjoy with a relish of friends
Best enjoyed with a glass of Cider
Serve with optimism and chocolate cake.
You can say how many people it serves – perhaps the ‘recipe poem’ is for a special celebration – birthday, anniversary, wedding, christening…
Add a title. What word or feeling would sum up your recipe? Try and keep it short.
Fun, Warmth, A Giggle, Feeling Blessed, Chilling Out…
Write Your Recipe For a Good Mood –
prose or poetry!
And here is a bit of history in a recipe book – a selection of pages of a book put together on my kitchen table for Mordialloc Primary School as a fundraiser in the 90s.
Most parents contributed a recipe, and some helped with surveys and collection and encouraged their children to illustrate. Some of the data is worthy of a time capsule!
There were no computers, no money for offset printing and the book was divided into sections, with bits of general knowledge and current research regarding food sprinkled throughout.
The aim was to encourage harmony, tolerance and an appreciation of each other’s culture and it worked – families had fun contributing and we learnt a lot about different countries and foods.
We even got a review in the Herald Sun – not bad for a wee school and complete novices. You never know where your ‘kitchen’ creativity will lead!
The world is going through a health crisis that is forcing a change in work patterns and community behaviour. There may be lockdowns, extended unemployment or underemployment and a lack of usual social activities.
In creative writing parlance – we are living through a tragedy.
However, if word association makes you think of Shakespeare – the master of tragedies – remember he also wrote comedies and had a great sense of the absurd. (Today we have Facebook memes and the ridiculous toilet paper wars as inspiration for some of those stories!)
Plus, he wrote romance and those stories are what so many songs suggest ‘As old as time‘… because human beings need and indeed thrive on love. (Ironically, the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet was their romance!)
Stories Can And Do Connect Us
For the next few weeks, I’m going to try and do a daily post and share some of the twenty- plus years of lessons and ideas I’ve used in my writing classes and workshops.
Hopefully, they’ll be useful for the many people turning to the Web to relieve their anxiety or boredom from either forced or self-isolation.
I have self-isolated because living with recently diagnosed breast cancer second time round and creeping perilously close to 70, I’m in the high-risk category!
I hope people have decided to use the gift of ‘free’ time to pursue creativity and writing as a hobby or beginning a project they’ve always wanted to do is certainly in that category.
This first post will be focused on having fun. To introduce those not accustomed to writing to an alternative to watching TV or endless hours of Netflix or if you want to add to the important pastime of reading a good book!
Writing is good therapy
You don’t have to have a desire to write a novel or record a memoir
You don’t have to create an alternative income or be driven to monetize (a word I hate hearing but seems to be all the go)
You may not want to share what you have written
You may just enjoy playing with words and wiling away a few hours with pen and paper, or keyboard and screen.
You may have children/teenagers/flatmates who need cheering up
“Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere.”
Writing can be fun!
There are games to be bought online but this blog is all about gifting, passing on, transferring knowledge and pointing people in a direction for further study/research/information so here’s a bit of pirating from a game I enjoy…
Often at the end of term, before I’d expanded my pile of games, I’d take this into class. We’d have fun writing poems and stories, even advertising jingles from unusual prompts. There would be specific time limits or word counts and sometimes stories written in pairs or passed around for everyone to add a line or paragraph.
We let our imagination loose
We gave ourselves permission to be absurd
We broke grammatical rules
We made up words
We moved out of our comfort zone
We tried to entertain
Sometimes we produced gems and surprised ourselves
Always we laughed because the aim was to have fun!
I bought this board game in 1997 and have lost count of how many times we played it as a family and with friends. I also used its ideas at the Mordialloc Writers’ Group end of year break-ups and in writing classes.
According to the blurb ‘It was createdto encourage, promote and inspire the art of literacy. the modern decathlon of the mind…‘
It comes with board and dice, plus an egg timer that gives you 3 minutes to write. The time restriction important – please remember that when judging my imperfect and crazy examples:)
Although I defy anyone not to have a crazy example when you see what is on offer!
The few examples here are a taste of the combinations available with the throw of the dice but the game boasts the possibility of 6000 games about writing:
The character game – you are given three bits of information – a name (invariably absurd), appearance (even more absurd), and occupation (the more unusual the better).
The letter game – you must write to your mother and you are given the name of a character, a city and an age (this is a description with a number eg. an active 85)
The poesy game – you must write a poem, any style, but you must use the words you are given twice. You are given a colour (forget the most obvious ones), an adverb (only some end in ly!) and an adjective (I guarantee you rarely use these ones!).
The slogan game – think of our PM – Scotty-from-Marketing. You must write an advertising jingle or a promo. You are given a brand name (this will make your jaw drop), product (some are saleable) and target audience. This exercise along with the letter starting ‘Dear Mother’ stretches the imagination…
The accent game – you are given a topic, you are given a letter from the alphabet, and you are given an accent. Now write a speech showcasing the particular characteristics/traits of the speech of your designated nationality using as many words beginning with the alphabetical letter or including that letter. This exercise brings out the ham actor in us all and improves after a glass of wine or two.
The genre game – you are given appearance, occupation and setting and you must write about a character of your choice in the particular genre you are given.
Everything listed can be altered – please write creatively – suggestions welcome in the comments!! And there are other games commercially available – shop around.
Adapt, Adopt and Add
Two decades have passed since I bought this game, the digital world has given access to many cultures and created new careers/jobs and sent people travelling to places they may not have known existed. My examples are years old.
Remember this is not about perfection but fun. Who knows what other ideas or talents will be unlocked. Or, as often happens, a ‘bee in your bonnet’ is sent buzzing away, or frustration and anger appeased.
I’ve lost count of how many times in class I’ve heard students say, ‘goodness don’t know where that came from’, or ‘I haven’t thought about that in years’, or ‘fancy, me remembering that?’
Ms Ponosh White, Miss Emma Parade, The Blue Guru, Max Moniless, Mrs Catastro, Jimmy James, Mr Tomorrow, King Whoops, Princess Silly, The Rock Girl
a lazy 40, an old 26, a dreaming 8, a young 59, a busy 3, an active 85, a dying 99, a shining 30, a feisty 21, an overdeveloped 15
Melbourne, New York, Rio, Rome, Paris, Amsterdam, London, Bombay, Cape Town, Beijing
Remember the three basic rules from Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones:
Keep your pen moving
Capture first thoughts
Let yourself write junk
In place of having access to the board game and dice (and even people to play with), write the various names, places, words etc on strips of paper (or your own ideas). Put them in empty jars, or bowls and dip in for inspiration for the writing exercises.
No cheating – what you pick is what you work with:) And feel free to skip my offerings – you won’t get those few minutes back – but then this post is about filling in all that time you discover in quarantine or self-isolation.
Five Writing Exercises to Entertain
A letter to Dear Mother
You should come to Beijing, the city of bicycle bells. Your love of music will be sated as you tune into the constant jingle jangle. This city never sleeps and neither does my companion. Felicity is an overdeveloped 15 and I have to constantly watch her with the tour guide. Why did I agree to be her chaperone? My wild days as The Rock Girl with the R & B band may be over but I fear Felicity’s is just beginning. I’ll need another holiday after this trip.
Cape Town is cloaked in snow now. Climate Change has definitely arrived and eccentric visitors with it. Princess Silly turned up on a morning television show. She arrived in South Africa with an entourage of half-naked escorts, barefoot and hairless – the escorts, not her. How silly is that? Royalty not the same anymore since Britain became a republic. Mind you she defended her title as any feisty 21 year old would – ‘I have more claim to be treated like royalty than that Kim Kardashian you fawn over,’ she said. Mother, global warming’s gone to everybody’s head here and fried their brains. I’ll be home soon.
Here I am in romantic Rome or Roma as the Italians call it. And it is so romantic. I met a marvellous man last night called Max Moniless. He is a young 59 and we danced all night at a masked ball. However, Moniless by name and moneyless by nature. He confessed to being absolutely broke and obviously uses his gift of the gab to woo likely suiters or gullible girls like me. However, I don’t mind as he truly is a Don Juan and last night fun! Caio
You don’t need any more twee examples to write a letter to your mother.
You’re a Poet & Didn’t Know It
Use these words wisely and at least twice in a poem of any length or style. This is the part of the game I love because I find doggerel a lot of fun.
The colours (feel free to think up others): Lily, Raven, Livid, Tan. Rust, Verdure, Saffron, Plum, Azure, Ochre
The Adverbs (usually a no-no according to the gurus): Really, Equally, Instantly, About, Probably, Neither, Cheerily, Legally, Somehow, Habitually
The adjectives (these are such fun to say never mind use): Deranged, foreign, Sudden, Projectile, resonant, Secure, Sloppy, Obtuse, Sociable, Plausible
A Melting Moment
He was foreign with raven hair
She equally strange with a crosseyed stare
They met at the Tower of London
on a wet and windy day
He was shy and unused to talking
but said, please do stay
Stay the night in this foreign city?
She looked at his raven hair
and immediately took pity Equally lost, shy and looking for trust
needing out of the rain for fear of rust
They were waxen models
fallen off the back of a truck
heading for Madame Tussaud’s
before their wheels got stuck!
Sadie was obtuse
She thought the prize a ruse Legally a winner
although a raw beginner
She picked the plum prize
only looking at its size
I said she was obtuse
and thought the prize a ruse
tho’ legallya winner
this lady a raw beginner
won Crown Casino’s plum prize
took home the biggest size
of diamond ring, she’d seen
not on the hand of a queen!
What a Tosser
Tommy had a projectile
he fired about the house
it hit his brother’s pet
a teeny, tiny tan mouse
His mum removed the projectile
and threw it in the bin
with the teeny, tiny tan mouse
Tommy left with stinging skin!
The moral of this tale
be careful about the house
and don’t be cruel
to your brother’s pet mouse.
Jane loved to be sociable
and wanted to dance
her flimsy azuredress
drew many looks askance. Somehow Jake managed
to monopolise Jane
he too loved being sociable
And when that azure dress
caught his lustful eye somehowhe knew
with Jane, he’d fly
Soon midnight came
the dance it was done
Jake and Jane left
to welcome the sun
– or maybe a son?
Some say I am deranged
and really off my trolley
because I always carry
a lovely luminous lily brolly
But then Melbourne’s weather
inevitably decides to change
proving I’m not the one deranged
and my luminous lilybrolly reallyprotects my shopping trolley
Slogans to Put Aussie Scomo in the Shade
You’ve heard of the saying selling ice cream to Eskimos? Be as bizarre as you like with this exercise – goes well with a glass of wine to forget about being PC.
Choose a brand name: perplexed, Smarty, missy, fat, Pssst, Tuboff, Dooby Wacker, Sole Gate, nutritious, Tush.
Choose a product: Ant Poison, Bad breath purifier, Dial-a-figure mirror, Anti-aging nightwear, Flying car, Gossip Magazine, House paint, Bedtime drink, A fax company, Relaxing music
Attention all you athletes out there in the real world. Forget gruelling training, the impossible to keep diets just turn to Missy for the body of your dreams. The dial-a-figure mirror for smart athletes.
Attention all athleteswhether your sport is in the bedroom, the boardroom or track and field – let Missy into your life, the dial-a-figure mirror that prepares you for games inside and out!
Hey, all you studs, when you need a rest at night (you know what I mean, nudge, nudge, wink, wink) drink Sole Gate, the bedtime drink that allows studs to have some downtime!
The accent game: write a speech and deliver it in ‘character’ – this is where your knowledge of stereotypes and tropes can be unleashed! Again an exercise that improves if you have a glass of wine and forget inhibitions… and can use as many words starting with or containing the chosen letter…
Topic: Women, Cooking, Weather, Sport, Love, politics, Walking, Death, Man, public Transport
Good Evening ladies and gentlemen and distinguished members of the League of Long Lost Loyalists. Tonight I will layout the long and short of the politics of voting. Legally, you must line up to vote in Australia. Ladies this should excite all of you. Last century many ladies died fighting for the right to vote. Let’s liken voting to ensuring the powers-that-be learn who is largely in charge. Ah, I thought that would elicit a laugh.
Love, in American, the letter F
Welcome, y’all, – friends from France, Finland and other faraway places. Tonight I want to talk about love – not frivolous love but a deep meaningful love for deep-fried chicken that is finger-lickin’ good. Yeah, folks, I’m a fat Kentucky Fried food girl and find life is only fruitfully good when I get my fill of my funny Uncle Festa’s deep-fried finger-lickin’ chicken.
Women in Irish, letter C
Top of the morning to you all. My name is Cecelia and I represent Celtic women, that is the Celtic women who call themselves completely liberated. I have considered how this creates considerable consternation among our Celtic brothers. It is a challenge for Celtic women to campaign to change Celtic men’s perception of women. Can the 21st century see that change? Celtic women must collectively support each other to cultivate cultural change and consider that this new century is the century for Celtic women.
Write a story in a particular genre after being given the setting. Use the character appearance and occupation and any other items you like and let rip.
Setting: Street Cafe, Trapeze High Wire, Cinema, Under Water, Appollo 11, Nullarbor Train, Kremlin Kitchen, Daintree Forest, Big Australian Home, the Year 2000.
Character appearance: Always has a drink in hand, Tattoo on head, Webbed feet, Black tie, Never sits still, Buck teeth, 3 legs, Green frizzy hair, Half black half white, Naked
Occupation: Plumber, pop Star, Groovy and Gorgeous, Law Enforcer, Ghost, Cosmonaut, Philanthropist, Inventor, Fisherman, Dentist.
This is flash fiction on speed…
Dennis turned over the calendar and breathed a sigh of relief. The millennium scare had passed and it was now the Year 2000. The world hadn’t ended. He drank his coffee, climbed into his sports car and drove to work.
The streets were littered with the bodies of numerous suicides by people who believed the claptrap about the end of the world, and others still in a drunken stupor. Stupid sods. He manoeuvred his car through the lines of emergency vehicles cleaning up the bodies and survivors, grateful he was a dentist and not a doctor. He managed to reach his surgery before the receptionist and grinned. He unlocked the door to his office and stripped off his clothes.
A loud click and door closure announced Julie’s arrival. Had she remembered their bet? If they survived the prophesied meltdown they’d make wild passionate love in his dental chair. Dennis flexed his muscles and took a long look at his tanned naked body in preparation to surprise Julie. He threw open the door but wasn’t prepared for the scream from the middle-aged temp sent to replace Julie who decided to resign.
The Spirit of Adventure
When King Whoops stepped off the plane from Bombay he appreciated the weather in Brisbane was a shining 30 degrees. He revelled in the cool breeze. What a relief from the humidity and heat of India.
His destination was the Daintree Forest and he lost no time in setting out for the rented log cabin where he hoped to search for a special tree holding a secret cure for cancer. On the way, the hired car crashed but King Whoops was pulled free and unhurt except for a dent in his crown and injury to his pride in what had been an unblemished driving record.
The police confiscated his car and he continued the journey on foot, miraculously discovering the tree a few feet from the cabin. His exhilarating ‘whoop’ could be heard in Bombay!
A Minimalist View – tell it tight
Max Moniless donned the diver’s suit bought in Rome. He slid off the gondola like an eel and within seconds was underwaterin the deepest, murkiest part of the main canal in Venice.
The search for Mussolini’s hidden treasure nearly over. Max tugged the line and slowly swam to the surface to triumphantly hand over the best-kept secret of WW2 – Mussolini’s toupee.
A Maximalist View – be expansive
In the Kremlin Kitchen, President Gorbachov’s cook prepared supper for the guest who had just arrived from London. Mr Tomorrow was apparently in Russia to find his mother, a dying 99-year-old who had been sent to Siberia by Stalin and not heard of until recently.
Perestroika softened Soviet attitude to foreigners. The supper served was an English muffin topped with cheese, a snack President Gorbachov’s cook was sure Mr Tomorrow would appreciate.
He was right and as the President and guest munched on the muffins they planned the first step of the journey to Siberia to find Mr Tomorrow’s mother and thaw the very long, bitter Cold War.
Random Short Short Stories Using Occupation and Appearance
Ghost & ‘never sits still’
‘Jimmy ‘never sits still.’ His doting mother’s smile is apologetic. ‘Just has excess energy.’ Whenever their car pulls into the drive I watch Jimmy emerge and emit a tortured groan wishing I was invisible like a ghost and could pretend to be out. However, family courtesy dictates politeness.
I let Cousin Mary in and cope with the hyperactive, obnoxious Jimmy. Unchecked, he rifles cupboards, teases the dog, breaks several stereo knobs, gobbles all the chocolate biscuits and flushes a mysterious something down the loo requiring the inevitable expensive visit from a plumber.
I move next week, no forwarding address.
Tattoo on head & Pop Star
Maud ached to marry a pop star. She haunted concert halls watching members of various bands going in and out. A year passed and almost giving up hope of finding the man of her dreams, she watched a large man get out of a truck. When near the stage door he tripped and fell. His beanie flew off his head revealing a bald pate with an amazing tattoo of an ‘M’.
Maud was smitten. It was a sign. He must be the one.
She smiled as she helped him up and nearby church bells chimed.
Black Tie & Law Enforcer
Daniel was the Law Enforcer in Tucson, Arizona when rustlers attacked the Kruger’s cattle ranch. A clue, the rustler left behind was a black tie slung over the open gate. Daniel examined the silk material carefully and deduced it was an imported speciality item from Japan.
There was only one person in Tucson that fitted the profile and Daniel arrested a protesting Mr Chu refusing to listen that the longterm resident was from China.
Geography never Daniel’s strongpoint.
These exercises encompass important elements of creative writing:
a starting point for ideas
characters to think about that are not stereotypical
unusual settings and situations
thoughts about genre
introducing adjectives, adverbs and colours sometimes ignored
flexing writing muscles first
Allow yourself to write nonsense and in the coming days maybe knuckle down to learn more about the craft and techniques with more serious lessons. Although there are a few more writing games that will be ‘just a bit of fun‘ – the regular comeback of the tabloid journalist character Shaun Micallef lampoons each week on his show.
Last year, the frustration of failed words, struggling motivation and dashed hopes seemed to be my lot, although I enjoyed limited success with a poem published in the Australian Senior, July 2019 and a play shortlisted in ARKfest 2020.
Maybe I can still claim the title writer…
Satisfaction came by helping students achieve their writing dreams, which in Mary Robinson’s case (the Irish eyes of this post’s title) was a book she had been working on for several years before coming to the Life Stories & Legacies class at Godfrey Street, Bentleigh, ‘to finally, transform nostalgic reflections into a book to hold.‘
The class finished in 2018 but I promised Mary to help publish One Last Goodbye, a labour of love and a wonderful legacy for her daughter Catherine, and granddaughter Ilsa.
In the Introduction, Mary expresses why so many ‘pick up a pen’ or attend a writing class…
There are deeply personal reasons to finish writing my memoir. I am, I suppose, like most people who have reached the 80-year mark, conscious of time passing and wishing to reveal information to family members I may not have previously spoken of. I am also keenly aware of my daughter, Catherine, raising her child at a time of tumultuous change in Australia and the world. I possess that innate human need to link the past with the future so that all our loved ones who came before us are honoured and their stories not lost. I want the generations who will follow to remember how hard their ancestors worked to give us all a better and slightly easier life, and the real sacrifices the Morans made to reach these goals. I want my darling little granddaughter, Ilsa to get a sense of where her kith and kin have come from so that no matter how far is travelled, both in terms of time and geography, she will feel the tug of her Irish roots and be inspired by their great efforts to meet the challenges in her own life as she grows up.
A fellow student, Edna Gaffney, published her memoir in July, to celebrate her 90th birthday, giving Mary a fresh burst of energy to persist. Determination needed to see the project through because a series of health crises, including a bad fall led to an extended hospital stay to heal several broken bones in her hand and other damage.
(Murphy’s Law meant it was the writing hand!)
We set the deadline for November so copies of the book could be Christmas gifts to family overseas and just made it when the happy author held a copy on November 25th!
The title of the book, a phrase Mary’s mother said each time her daughter left after a visit. Echoed in the last line, it is a fitting end to the book, when on a visit ‘home’ in 2002, was indeed the last goodbye.
We had many discussions about the format (A4), titles and placements of chapters, what photographs to include, the cover design and blurb – a process of close collaboration to ensure the book encapsulates Mary’s love of her birthplace, Achill isle and her family. It was important to tell the story in a natural voice, including Gaelic words and local vernacular.
There is Irish history, information about traditional customs, and immense pride in the Irish diaspora’s contribution – Mary’s family, the Morans – a clan scattered across several continents, like many others from Erin’s isle.
Before coming to Australia and continuing a long nursing career, Mary was a nun in the USA for 15 years. This time in her life merits a stand-alone book if she felt inclined, however, it does not define her life of caring for others. Mary’s nursing career took her from London to Chicago, Perth, Port Hedland, Darwin, New Guinea and Melbourne, including an active part in the memorable 1986 Victorian Nurses Strike!
Modest and unassuming, Mary Robinson is typical of many ‘ordinary’ people who have lived extraordinary lives.
I always feel privileged to hear the journeys and help the women record their stories. Society must not lose valuable contributions to the tapestry of herstory and history.
Celebrating Each Other’s Success
Another student from the Bentleigh class offered to host a celebration and mini-launch of Mary’s book but organising a date to suit everyone over the Christmas period is not an easy task.
On Friday, December 27, most past students met for a delicious lunch and just ‘like old times’ we all read a piece of writing, listened to each other’s stories and congratulated Mary on her achievement.
Edna read a small piece from her book, Chibby From Brandy Creekreminding us of life in rural Australia during the 1930s Depression. She shared the wonderful news that her daughter was arranging for the printing of more books.
A thoroughly modern Jan read a poem she confessed to ‘dashing off’ on her mobile phone while on the train. We sat enthralled at the funny rhyming verse about Christmas and the discovery of decorations like the ‘hairy fairy’.
An impressive, polished poem produced in ‘ten minutes’ – wow – and a demonstration that age is not a barrier to mastering technology!
Nora shared a delightful ‘Ode To The Pantry’ and reflected on her life as an Armenian immigrant integrating culinary and cultural practices, especially at a time like Christmas with traditional rituals.
She cleaned out the pantry to prepare for cooking expected treats and pondered the outcome if spices, seeds, sauces and legumes commonly found in Armenian recipes were forgotten or the wrong quantities used.
Special occasions need the added spice…
And we all agreed, we like added spice!
Janet read her poem The Mirror of ANZAC, written when she attended a ceremony at Gallipoli in 2000.
When she stood at the grave of a man from Mentone buried at Lone Pine, she reflected on the universal story of soldiers everywhere who fight and die far from home.
Annie read a thoughtful essay with observations about various plants in her garden and having conversations with her flowers and trees when she is weeding, fertilising, pruning and planting.
An ex-teacher, her essays always delve below the surface and like Nora’s stories; they are philosophical reflections on the human condition and human behaviour.
The gardening piece morphed into memories of her first teaching position, a tough gig. Assigned a class of Grade Threes comprising 36 pupils deemed ‘troublemakers’ and unwanted by the other teachers, it made her question her career choice.
Annie said to be a good gardener and teacher you have to stay alert and adapt, and like the needs of plants, we must nurture some children more than others.
Mary read a lovely poem about a rose presented to her by the Henry Lawson Society for her 80th birthday.
The care and development of the rose and the joy experienced when it blossomed an apt metaphor for the time and effort Mary put into writing her book and how she felt when she held a copy in her hands.
It was a lovely memory day, allowing me to bask and learn from the writing prowess of others.
I’ll finish the post with a memory Mary shares in her book that has remained from the moment she shared it in class:
We had many farm animals and so had to cut and dry a large supply of hay to feed them through the colder months when snow covered the fields and hills. The children helped with this process, gathering in the fields and helping to rake the hay into rows. Haymaking and wet weather made for bad work companions similar to the peat preparations. We always prayed for the rain to stay away. A day in the fields cutting and collecting hay both hard work and happiness. We all looked forward to 3:00pm when Mother came around. We watched eagerly as she passed around cups of tea and slices of home-baked soda bread. This picnic atmosphere made the hard work more bearable.
The next labour-intensive work was hoeing the potatoes out of the ground and piling them in hessian sacks. Father also cut, bundled and stacked the hay for the animals in the barn to last through winter. Farm life harsh with work never-ending. While growing up, I didn’t fully realise how extremely hard my father worked because he suffered in silence, never complaining or being negative. Life was what people did and they just got on with it.
Recently, by sheer accident, my brother, Michael spotted a photograph of Father in one of the many books that are published about our region. The book titled: I Remember It Well: Memories of Yesteryear, 120th Anniversary of Western People, published in 2003 by The Western People newspaper. They had not identified him by name but it was Father all right, just as I remember him, face concentrating on his work, yet managing to convey an air of cheerfulness. Whenever I read the caption: ‘Back-breaking work – an old man carries a creel of turf in Achill, 1967’ tears well and my heart constricts. Father was only in his sixties but looked eighty. All the decades of hard work aged him before his time and sadly, he died of a massive heart attack a few months after this picture was taken.
p9, One Last Goodbye, Mary Robinson
For many years, the regular exodus of Irish families to mainland Britain working skilled or semi-skilled jobs was vital to the British economy, especially the rebuilding necessary after the war. These workers returned home to work farms to provide for their families during the winter months and sent money home at other times. Some never returned home and hence statistics like 60% of the population of cities like Glasgow and Liverpool have Irish ancestry!
Many countries and many economies owe a debt of gratitude to the hard work of Irish immigrants and books like Mary Robinson’s, add faces, names and background details to enrich the stark statistics.
Last month breast cancer loomed large in my life again when an annualmammogram and ultrasound detected a small tumour.
If the worry about bushfires and climate change wasn’t enough to shatter equilibrium, here was a personal crisis requiring me to face pain, grief, loss and other assaults on happiness.
Supposedly, the season of goodwill, quality family time and holidays – I had a list to complete:
putting up a tree and decorations so the glorious smell of pine resonated throughout the house confirming Christmas
celebrating the successes of the year – my daughter and I published four books for people wanting to leave a record of their life or a legacy for family
publishing a class anthology – an annual event to crown a year or semester of writing for my students
shopping for presents for loved ones and friends and writing cards or emails for those annual catch-ups
planning outings for visitors from overseas and looking forward to returning a little of the hospitality I received when I travelled to Europe and UK 2017
cleaning and decluttering and other rituals associated with Hogmanay – the traditional Scottish New Year, which since childhood signals clean sweeps of cupboards and wardrobes
writing a final blog post for the year to share my poems published and play shortlisted in 2019 enabling me to lay claim to the title ‘creative writer’ …
The best-laid schemes of mice and men gang aft a-gley
Diary of An Unwelcome Diagnosis
Monday, December 2 Mammogram and ultrasound at Mentone. The radiologist said nothing but her body language; the time spent on the ultrasound, the check of x-rays just completed … a tiny fear formed in my stomach …
‘When are you seeing the breast specialist?’
‘Good. He’ll get the results and report.’
Thursday, December 5 the annual check-up with breast surgeon Peter – nine years since my mastectomy. I could tell by his body language this visit was not going to end with Happy Christmas…
‘Not great news… something there, probably a cyst… how do you feel?’
‘I’ve had pain, on and off … thought it was coming from my neck … too many hours at the computer…’
Ever solicitous and kind, Peter asked if he could examine me,
‘Where is the pain… Good, not about the pain but I can’t feel any lump, can you?’
He showed me the mammogram report and the ‘cyst’ causing concern…
Conclusion: New right breast 8 o’clock lesion 50mm from the nipple. This can represent complex cyst or fibroadenoma, ultrasound guided biopsy will be helpful.
‘I’ve arranged for you to have a biopsy tomorrow at Mentone – a fine needle aspiration, and, if necessary, a needle core biopsy.’
‘Needle core biopsy? Oh, that hurts… I remember…’
‘Probably won’t be necessary and I’ve requested Dr Ron Sher do it – the top man!’
Friday, December 6 I spent the night convincing myself and the girls it was a cyst. Routine follow-up biopsy. Peter being cautious. Rather than have my daughters miss work, I caught the train to Mentone and arranged to text my dear friend Lesley when finished.
I’ve had several needle aspirations and knew it would be uncomfortable but did not realise how rough that day would be.
The small room filled quickly with ultrasound equipment, two radiologists and a nurse who with Florence Nightingale compassion held my hand and stroked my arm as a fine needle aspiration became 5 core biopsies.
I received some local anaesthetic permissible for the procedure and remember stilted snatches of conversation as I fought back tears to survive the torture. Everyone was thoroughly professional and empathetic, apologising for the pain being inflicted and allowing me to catch my breath between ‘shots.’
With a collective sigh of relief almost an hour later, I took my bruised breast and instructions for care – and left.
‘You’ll get the results Wednesday at the latest.’
Again, a reading of the body language started foreboding… Lesley took one look at my flushed face and asked if I wanted to go straight home rather than have the coffee and chat we planned.
‘No, if I go home, I’ll curl into a ball and cry – let’s go to Truly Scrumptious and overindulge. I’ll buy you lunch and promise not to cry in public!
Truly Scrumptious lives up to its name; the ambience, food and service always great. And Lesley, my oldest and dearest friend in Mordialloc, was the most understanding and ideal companion for the start or was it the continuation, of my breast cancer journey.
‘Can’t believe it’s nine years,’ we said in unison as we sat down facing each other.
Later with a heightened sense that life is finite, I admired how window boxes outside softened bricks and mortar, beautifying ugliness.
Lesley shared her knowledge of plants, explaining the popularity and usefulness of Star Jasmine. (She bought this plant for me a couple of days later. Bless her!)
I’m greeted at home with a ‘pamper pack’ from my daughters: Vera and Shetland DVDs, massage oil, Bio-oil, a crossword book, chocolate, butter menthols, Rescue Remedy, calming Lavender oil – no pretence, memories of years before, a fear voiced and unvoiced – suppression of mild panic?
Lots of spontaneous hugs and expressions of love.
Monday, December 9 Sitting at the computer, completing the final edit of a class anthology, Peter rang to say the pathology arrived.
‘I need to see you tomorrow and you’ll be in the hospital next week.’
It was after 8.30pm. A little voice inside commended his diligence for checking the pathology results and letting me know straight away but I blurted,
‘I can’t come tomorrow, I’m working. It’s the last class for the year… I can’t miss it…’
‘Well, come to my rooms as soon as you can after finishing work. I’ll tell my secretary to expect you when you can make it.’
Concentration weakened and no ‘good’ night’s sleep ahead!
I made stupid mistakes editing the class anthology – thankfully, my work (always the last included) and not a student’s.
The copy since corrected – bless the digital world! But the news of cancer returning was the beginning of a month of inner turmoil and ‘putting on a brave front’, the shrivelling of any desire to write or have confidence in what to write.
Tuesday, December 10 while preparing for the final class of the year radiologist Ingrid from Mentone rings, ‘How are you feeling? How is your breast?’
I’ve never had a follow-up phone call before and thank her while explaining I’d be seeing Peter that afternoon. I got through the class with a tight knot in my stomach and tears burning the back of eyelids.
After sharing the disconcerting news and showered with love and concern for what lay ahead, we played some fun writing games.
Would this be the last class I teach?
Late afternoon, daughter Mary Jane came in with me to hear Peter explain the result of the biopsies. He showed me the report – a paragraph of scientific gobbledegook swimming before my eyes but the last line, in capitals and underlined:
RIGHT BREAST 8.00 5CM FROM NIPPLE CORE BIOPSY – FEATURES CONSISTENT WITH ADENOID CYSTIC CARCINOMA.
‘This is a rare cancer, but we’ve caught it early. You may need some radiotherapy but no chemo…’
I glanced at Mary Jane who was taking notes (always have someone you trust with a notebook!) in case I mishear or forget the conversation.
Tears glisten and she struggles to keep it together while I surprise myself at feeling so calm. I joke to break the tension,
‘Of course, it’s a rare cancer, I’m a rare person!’
Amid the laughter, Peter explains I’d have a blood test before I leave and his receptionist will explain the arrangements for a sentinel node biopsy and hospital booking.
In a room down the corridor, Jack draws blood – an unusually pain-free experience. Well done Jack!
Many people struggle to get blood from my veins – and it’s not because I’m Scots and we give nothing away!
While Jack worked, we discussed taste in movies – he was young but didn’t like Sci-Fi or Marvel movies, preferring Realism.
Then he expressed his annoyance with computer technology – a new program recently installed by IT made his life more difficult not easier. Ah, a familiar story – just hope whatever details of mine fed into the machine arrive where they’re supposed to!
In the evening, daughter Anne stays the night – there are tears, cuddles, cider, a favourite funny DVD that has us laughing…
We’ll get through whatever lies ahead – we’ve done it before. There’ll be disrupted sleep patterns ahead, inappropriate food choices (who said chocolate is bad for you?) and a rollercoaster of emotional energy including outbursts, tears, withdrawal and fear.
We cancel our holiday to Port Campbell booked months ago. We were to leave on Boxing Day but with the operation scheduled for Tuesday 17th, I probably won’t feel in holiday mode, nursing a sore boob. Nor will I be able to walk the dog and the attraction of Port Campbell was the dog-friendly cabin.
Wednesday, December 11 I receive a call from Brightways, a breast care nurse cancer service. They want me to come to Cabrini on Friday morning and talk about the operation, what to expect and how they can support me.
Beautiful flowers arrive from Tash, a dear friend who claims to be daughter number 3:
Joy and Fun lighten the mood…
At 10.00am my friend Jillian picks me up and we attend an end-of-year concert by Silver Blades, the Olympic Ice Skating Group of Oakleigh.
Jillian’s friend Rosey one of the group that is a mix of ages. However, the majority retired and/or aged pensioners. Seniors skating on (thin?) ice – haha!
To the strains of Abba’s Mamma Mia and other upbeat tunes, the Silver Maids (and a token male) glide around a skating rink I hadn’t visited for 40 years.
The solo displays of skill, fun, themed, team displays, glossy and glittery costumes, and a grand parade delightful and impressive.
Suddenly, it’s home time. Thank you, Jillian, for a bright spot in a so so week!
On the drive home I reminisce about teenage years in the late 60s.
A carload of excited adolescents looking for romance and excitement or just freedom from the mundane travelled from Croydon to Oakleigh on Friday or Saturday nights.
We spent most of the evening clinging to the barrier, bumping into each other or on our bottoms before returning home sitting on towels to protect the car upholstery.
I remember a lot of laughter, cold numbness of hands and feet and the discomfort of wet jeans!
Jillian is my walking buddy, a good friend, and an inspiration. A patient of Peter’s who survived breast cancer – twice, she shared that her second cancer different too and occurred thirteen years after the first!
I imagine Jillian has experienced the tangle of thoughts coursing through my mind. A FB post makes me think Google is listening not just to my spoken words but thoughts!
Wednesday, December 11 News is spreading to dear friends and family. A close friend and writing colleague, Lisa turns up with a beautifully worded card, a box of sunshine, plus empathy and support.
I can unpack the contents one by one or all at once – I do it gradually but here are pics of the wonderful, thoughtful, organic products – what a box of loving sunshine!
Another friend Glenice pops in with ‘fun’ presents for under the tree and words of love and encouragement. Her husband’s health is frail yet she’s taken time out to visit me and I know she is supporting others through health crises.
Emails from friends and relatives in the UK and those living here also cards form ex-students. The cliches ‘no news is good news’ and ‘bad news travels fast’ spring to mind.
Maureen calls and continues to do so regularly, also sends texts and emails. She visits with chocolates, DVDs and buckets of love.
Barbara calls and later visits with a gorgeous orchid.
All the support and love is humbling… and a sharing of the collective strength of resilient women memorable.
‘I bounce – we bounce!’
Thursday, December 12 Longbeach Place staff break-up lunch at Chelsea RSL. A nice meal and we cover various topics while not dwelling too long on stories about breast or any other cancer!
I learn that the State Government funding body has decided not to fund writing classes in neighbourhood houses – not enough employability outcomes for the demographic attracted to the classes. Not surprising since many of the students have retired that’s why they have the time to study non-Accredited courses in community houses. But surely improving skills and education access doesn’t stop – whatever happened to a commitment to lifelong learning?
Yet, so many studies and reports talk about the challenge of our ageing population, combatting loneliness and depression, cultivating belonging, easing the tragedy of mental illness, the need for ESL students to learn the nuances of English, the importance of recording personal histories.
Ah, well, interesting timing…
Friday, December 13 Superstitious people say the day is unlucky but I have already compromised my luck! Anyway, Dad always said 13 can be lucky – he was thirteenth in his family, was born on 13th March and had thirteen letters in his name. He always chose 13 as his lucky number.
Bronwyn, the smiling face on the Brightways brochure meets us at Cabrini. She explains the role of breast care nurses and gives me a lovely floral pillow to use post-op.
There is not an available bra in my size but she promises they will post a free Berlei bra to me. I’m advised to register for My Journey Kit from Breast Cancer Network Australia. The kit available online.
‘Thank goodness – I remember when the hard copy arrived by express post last time.’
‘Yes, the size of a couple of house bricks,’ Bronwyn said with a smile.
‘Overwhelming too – at least online I can choose what to read, download or skip.’
Thank you Berlei – funding My Care Kit is an altruistic, much appreciated financial commitment.
Estimated number of new cases of breast cancer diagnosed in 2019 19,535 = 164 males + 19,371 females
Estimated number of deaths from breast cancer in 2019
3,090 = 32 males + 3,058 females
Chance of surviving at least 5 years (2011–2015) 91%
People living with breast cancer at the end of 2014 (diagnosed in the 5 year period 2010 to 2014) 71,943
I’m not special – just one of many living with a breast cancer diagnosis – I acknowledge how entitled and fortunate I am to be in Australia with a network of professionals and access to excellent medical care…
At Cabrini, there were reminders of Christmas and the spirit of giving:
On the way home, we discuss the information about the operation – a lumpectomy this time – and the logistics of getting to and from the hospital.
We’re aiming for upbeat.
I notice a car parked by the side of the road and we giggle about alternative business names after Anne googles the company…
The girls drop me home and pick up a Christmas tree. We spend a lovely couple of hours decorating the tree, discussing arrangements for Christmas Day and leaving all Christmas shopping to them.
I almost feel normal!
Monday, December 16 On this date, 57 years ago, nine-year-old me arrived in Australia with my family. This bit of sentimental trivia sprung to mind as I prepared to go to I-MED Radiology Moorabbin for a Sentinel Node Injection before surgery.
They sent me a video to watch to prepare – this is not a pain-free procedure you’d volunteer for!
Jess, the young lass who injected small amounts of radioactive dye around my nipple apologised for the pain and said I was very brave – often people cry or baulk at the procedure.
After the injections, I had to massage the breast to make sure the fluid distributes evenly. ‘Positively erotic,’ I joke, ‘if it wasn’t so painful!’
Jess and Mary Jane laugh.
The next step, a scan and gamma-ray photo to show the radiation has highlighted the tumour and lymph nodes. Apart from a dull ache in the breast and the beginning of a tension headache, I feel fine. Alas, no turning into the Hulk with super strength!
Tuesday, December 17 The Blue Moon rose growing outside my window, vibrant and beautiful as I got into the car to head to Cabrini for 10.30am. Both girls were with me and in true grief/loss reaction, I feel guilty they are going through this trauma a second time.
We don’t voice our fear – will things go pear-shaped like last time? (A lumpectomy, haematoma, more cancer discovered, mastectomy, mistaken chemo dose and pneumonia… ) Please no ‘Oops.’
Flashbacks to John’s death and feeling his absence keenly. None of us slept well – me least of all – it was after 1.00am when I drifted off, before waking at 2.00am. John’s sister, Janet rang from England, sending love and wishing me luck.
How lovely to hear her voice, know her genuine concern but she’d forgotten how many hours difference between zones so I was the dopey – and then couldn’t sleep much afterwards because many memories stirred.
And then one of those inexplicable experiences occurred – did I imagine, dream, hope? There’s a shadow in the doorway of positive, loving energy – John, Mum… the little girl whose spirit lives in the house?
Will I get through this latest health hiccup? Is this a primary or secondary cancer? What is death like? What is life about? What have I achieved? Does it matter? What is my legacy? Will the girls be okay?
Wide awake I didn’t need the alarm to go at 6.30am so I could have a light breakfast before fasting at 7.00am!
The operation was super successful (a huge thank you Peter!) and although Christmas cards were late; I sent them out with this ditty:
An Excuse of Sorts…
Please pardon this generic computer note to explain
how plans derailed when breast cancer struck again.
Mammograms, scans, doctor visits, biopsies,
hospital trips, lumpectomy and opinions galore…
this whirlwind treatment left my only boob sore!
But the surgeon triumphed, ‘I got all the tumour -‘
I smiled thanks from my drug-induced stupor,
Therefore, if he’s that happy, why not me?
I’ll also revel in being again cancer-free!
Now this health hiccup came at an awkward time
so please, accept my apologies in this twee rhyme.
I’ve been otherwise busy to muster the usual cheer
but rallying like a true Scot, ’Here’s to a guid New Year!’ Mairi Neil 2019
Another Facebook meme doing the rounds seems appropriate.
I’ll get back to writing about important happenings not centred around me in the next few posts. Finish the ‘to do’ and partially written list!
Meanwhile, to all those who read my blog. Belated best wishes for a productive, prosperous and most of all peaceful 2020
It’s uplifting to spend a few hours with others interested in the environment and always a challenge to learn something new. These workshops the council organise aim to engage and educate but also to foster friendships and community spirit. A bonus is experiencing parts of the city you may rarely visit.
When I walked up Thames Promenade from Chelsea Railway Station and spied the garden from the road and horses in the fields opposite, I thought how rural it seemed compared to the rapid development of townhouses and apartments across Kingston.
You cross where the Long Beach Trail comes from Mordialloc and continues through Centennial Park – I’ve cycled and walked this trail with my children and later with walking buddies.
The community garden has been operating for ten years and welcomes new members. I can remember attending a meeting at Chelsea Heights Community Centre when it was first established but further visits have been rare. The established garden beds and host of activities offered now are impressive.
Members can have individual garden plots but more than half the beds are communal with work and harvests shared.
An excellent choice of venue to meet others in the community and gain knowledge about sustainability. Many of the plants were in bloom and the variety was inspiring. We were given a complimentary booklet (available from the Council) crammed with useful information about growing vegetables and herbs, including planning, maintenance, garden health, preparing for harvest and recipes too.
The First Step Towards A Very Edible Garden
The workshop was a Wicking Bed Demonstration – Growing Plants that Thrive with Less Water, presented by Jeremy from Very Edible Garden.
A wicking bed is an agricultural irrigation system used in arid countries where water is scarce. It can be used both in fields as in containers. Besides use in fields/containers outdoors, it can also be used indoors.
If you Google Wicking Beds, the first post from Very Edible Gardens is 2015 but they have a whole new site dedicated to this increasingly popular way of creating sustainable garden beds here https://www.wickingbeds.com.au/and they offer ‘foolproof wicking bed conversion kits and instructional materials to the public‘.
It was a perfect day for being outside and Jeremy reminded us this was an interactive workshop. We’d build a wicking bed together. Before he began his presentation he asked for a volunteer to hold a glass jar while he put a small amount of water in the bottom and inserted a rolled-up piece of paper into the jar.
This was a timer – and Jeremy promised his presentation would be over by the time the paper had absorbed the water.
Capillarity (capillary action) will occur. The phenomenon, in which the surface of a liquid in contact with a solid – the tube of paper – is raised or lowered depending on the relative attraction of the molecules of the liquid for each other and for those of the solid.
This piece of showmanship a great introduction to a basic physics lesson and explanation as to how a wicking bed works – water is drawn up through layers from the bottom by the roots of the plants and is a more efficient way of conserving water and feeding.
Science was not my best subject at school but Jeremy was a good presenter and kept my attention better than Mr Menzies all those years ago at Croydon High.
I understood the explanation of osmosis, how plants absorb water and the cycle of evaporation into the air, but if you are interested the science is explained here.
The inventor of the wicking bed, an Australian Colin Austin has his own website, and his ongoing research into soil and improved wicking beds can be read here.
Most people present had never used a wicking bed. Some, like me, had never heard of the concept until invited to the workshop.
Jeremy noted the list of questions people wanted answers to and proceeded to answer them:
what is a wicking bed?
can you convert an existing raised bed?
what is the cost?
what soil is needed and are there different materials to choose from?
how small can the bed be?
how do you manage size?
can you build on concrete?
troubleshooting an existing bed.
can it be made to water automatically?
The last point was from a couple who were tired of returning from holiday to find many plants in their garden dying or dead.
Jeremy admitted the wicking system allowed you to water less frequently and a garden may survive a week in summer without adding water but it is not designed to be fully automatic.
He added that less water is used if you stay engaged with the garden bed and it is healthier too. The wicking bed is fixed irrigation, a different type of watering system and doesn’t replace the attention and care you give to the plants apart from ensuring they have water.
Your container can be any waterproof receptacle – a bucket, the colour bond garden beds commercially available, or one similar to the wooden beds of the community garden. Jeremy converted two wine barrels because he lives in an apartment and has a small patio.
A base is not necessary, but a flat surface is – a wicking bed can be built on the lawn, concrete or paving – anywhere strong enough to handle the weight, and any shape that can have a plastic liner inserted if needed because it must be waterproofed.
Jeremy advised choosing the plastic carefully – it has to be thick and lasting. Some cheap commercial products may disintegrate or puncture easily. His company imports a Canadian product from Adelaide.
Measuring and placing the liner a great example of organisation and cooperation – the size needed cut from a roll and folded before being placed in the bed – the sides then pulled up and clamped in place.
When folding the corners attention must be paid to ensure it is as evenly upright as possible and water can’t be trapped between folds.
Water is fed into a layer of gravel underneath the soil and moves up through layers so that the plant has access to water all the time. The roots suck up the water when needed.
There is a layer or barrier between the soil and base to ensure the soil is not wet all the time and air is circulating through the soil. This reservoir is important.
A pipe outlet is needed – one pipe/hose is used to feed in the water but there needs to be an outlet in case there is a lot of rain that fills the bed and to ensure no overwatering. The pipe must be between the soil and the barrier layer.
The various bits of hose and pipe can be bought from a hardware store or a kit online. Generally, the proportions for the bed are 2/3 soil and 1/3 gravel in the reservoir.
35-38cm soil depth should remain moist when the reservoir is full and the pipe outlet can be lower down at the base of the bed, or just beneath the soil layer. 40cm is a good ballpark figure to use for placement of the outlet.
It was an interactive workshop and each stage of explanation or work, Jeremy called for volunteers. People offered to cut an access point, to seal the washers, to attach the outlet pipe – we were a cooperative crowd!
All the work is upfront – it takes time to build and prepare but once that is completed, choose what you want to plant. A timely reminder to choose plants carefully before placing the bed in either the sun or shade – whatever is appropriate for the climate and situation.
Some plants do better than others in a wicking bed but plants often surprise us by adapting to an environment. According to Jeremy, ‘plants do life differently to us and are a lot more chill.’
The advantage of a wicking bed is that you can go on holiday and not come back to dead plants providing you are not gone for several weeks! You don’t have to water daily and you can judge and monitor how much water is used.
The Plumbing in place, now the Layers
The hard work began filling the bed with gravel, soil and mulch. Teamwork meant some people wheelbarrowed, others shovelled, and others watered. (We took it in turns and also watered ourselves with the tea and coffee provided!)
The pipe and hose in place before the gravel put in and water added to ensure a reservoir soaked before adding soil. Care must be taken at all times not to tear or puncture the plastic.
A layer of textured material placed on top of the gravel before soil added – this is to provide the all-important ‘air-obics’, plus measurements to make sure the 40cm drainage outlet.
The Soil Ready to Be Added
Every gardener knows the importance of good quality soil and compost. We wheelbarrowed and shovelled the soil as everyone shared tips and stories about where to get the best quality … Jeremy revealed the soil came from the Zoo… there were jokes about who knew elephant poo was good fertiliser.
I remembered how a random pumpkin vine appeared in my garden when I had a neighbour who kept Lucy, the pig who loved recycling vegetable waste and rubbing herself against the fence. Nature’s recycling indeed wonderful!
After the soil came the mulch. Jeremy emphasised that the mulch should be dampened during the process. All this preparation is done before seedlings or plants added. This was the time too for trimming and stapling the plastic liner.
The Finished Wicking Bed
Jeremy reminded us:
You look after the plants and soil in the top of the bed as you would normally – this is a different type of irrigation that’s all.
Do not add fertiliser to the water pipe because it may build up and won’t all be flushed away.
Remember, it is a heavy set up and once it is in place it is hard to pull apart and move.
It is a fixed irrigation system and less water is used by staying engaged and enjoying looking after your plants. Some plants like garlic that like drier soil may be harder to grow.
Enjoy the fruits of your labour!
Please share if you discover resources or information that may improve the system or benefit others
After the workshop, I noticed the other beds had similar water systems installed, where the main water outlet was and the community garden’s huge water tanks.
The Grand Tour
Vicky, one of the stalwart Earthcarers gave me a grand tour and I felt honoured as she generously shared her knowledge and commitment to the garden and community.
Vicky is ‘the bee lady’ and I saw the hives. She shared her concern about the tragic loss of human and animal wildlife because of the bushfires but said that many people won’t realise the impact on an already worrying ‘bee situation’ worldwide.
Many Australian beekeepers place their hives in the National Parks and forest reserves believing they’d be more secure and the honey purer. In these catastrophic fires, habitats, houses, and everything else have been destroyed.
She showed me the composting area, where members could deposit stuff for composting and mulching and the healthy soil produced.
There are hens to recycle much of the by-products of gardening. Tables groaned under the weight of plants and herbs for sale.
Seeing the Community Garden through Vicky’s eyes was wonderful – the area where young mothers come with their babies and toddlers (one little boy loves to play ‘au natural’) and the children learn to love and nurture the environment and feel happy in a safe place.
Hopefully, nurturing the environment and gardening will be second nature to them.
Walking around the garden, you notice innovative repurposing of receptacles like baths and barbecues. Reused plant pots – even children’s toys!
There are beds devoted to flowers, to herbs, to companion plants, to fruit… community beds and those cared for by individual members.
I know clubs and schools have their own gardens and I can see the benefit of wicking beds for these places.
The world is faced with climate change and Australia is coping with catastrophic bushfires, drought and floods but it is heartening to know that there are communities and individuals, caring for the environment, nurturing gardens, sharing knowledge and contributing to sustainable living.
It’s lovely to have a book signed by an author and although I couldn’t get to the book launch because of another launch, a friend kindly picked up a copy of Ros Collins’ latest book, Rosa by Hybrid Publishers.
The blurb announces the memories of Rosa are presented ‘with a deliberate overlay of lies and licence.’ The boldness of this statement, a little confronting, especially sincethe book is labelled Memoir – defined in the dictionary as a narrative or biography written from personal experience.
However, as a teacher of Life Story writing, I’ve lost count of how many times class discussions have debated the concept of truth in relation to the reliability and perspective of our memories, coupled with the attendant fear of causing hurt to someone still alive or even tarnishing the memory of someone deceased.
A memoir is considered ‘Creative Non-fiction’ and who is to say the emphasis is not on the word creative, which can be interpreted as ‘having the quality of something imaginatively created’ or ‘containing misleading inventions designed to falsify or conceal the facts’!
… memoirs depend on memory and, despite being the subject of philosophical investigation going back as far as Plato and of plentiful scientific research since the mid-nineteenth century, memory remains an elusive topic. How does it work? Can our fondest memories of childhood and loved ones really be reduced to molecular activity in the neurons of the brain? Will medical science one day be capable of eliminating the traumatizing memories that can paralyze us, and implanting happier memories in their place? Are memories the cause of the biographical continuity that bolsters our belief in personal identity? And how accurate are memories even among the healthiest of us? Does it make sense to base our present-day attitudes and emotions on recollections of our past experiences?
Robert Atwan, Creative Nonfiction, Issue #55, The Memoir Issue
In her introduction, Ros uses softer words to explain how Rosa differs from a previous book about her life, it is ‘much more personal… freely written’ and she admits to ‘taking liberties with the truth’.
There is still a lot of family history included in Rosa – she revisits Solly’s Girl (2015), a book that was as ‘accurate as my memory would allow’ and written as a companion piece to her now-deceased husband’s Alva’s Boy (2008). An acclaimed writer, Alan Collins wrote short stories and books about his Bondi childhood.
Ros Collins writes to entertain as well as inform and her conversational style with well-researched detail has produced wonderful stories revealing scenes of Anglo-Australian-Jewish life probably unfamiliar to many readers, and which I found fascinating.
‘Memoir with a little fiction, or fiction with a little history? It’s hard to say, Memories with licence.’
Although of a different generation, there were historical references, organisations and events I recognised. They triggered memories, especially involvement with the labour movement and the Australian Labor Party and various campaigns in the 60s, 70s, and 80s.
The divisiveness of the Vietnam War, the election of the Whitlam Government and the opening up of educational opportunities for older women, which Rosa took advantage of. ‘The Palestinian Debate’ which still causes angst and the trade union campaigns to improve conditions for Victorian teachers that raised the ire of Premier Henry Bolte.
Rosa ticked several boxes in the list of why I read books: for enjoyment, to be immersed in a different world, to learn something new, to encourage me to seek more information and to reflect on the human condition.
Ros is a woman of many accomplishments with several great achievements as a qualified librarian, yet, there is no pretentiousness when she explains her journey to becoming a director of a Jewish community library at fifty-seven and her vision of a national Australian-Jewish library.
With dedication, commitment, and tenacity she created the successful ‘Write Your Story’ program whereby the eclectic members of the Jewish community can access funds and help, and write their memoir.
‘Most memoirs -so far, more than 140 have been published, the largest such series in the world – are related to the Holocaust; eventually, as generations pass away, the stories will become more Australian, less European.’ (p122)
Her involvement with the community library for thirteen years followed by twelve years cataloguing the Yiddish library:
‘She brings the boxes of shabby books home to catalogue… A little pamphlet, held together with rusty staples; cheap yellowed paper, crumbling to pieces; no cover; a grey, grainy author’s picture.
… a first-hand account of how his village was destroyed during the Holocaust – most of the Jewish community died, locked up in the synagogue and then set on fire – he hid in a barn.’
Ros is reduced to tears translating the story for her husband – such is the power and importance of recording and sharing stories.
‘I couldn’t even find the village in the atlas, it’s been erased by some thoughtless publisher. It’s Yiddish, only a few people will ever find out what happened; there’s just my catalogue entry to provide a link.’
Her husband responds, ‘Libraries are important. This is your contribution.’ (p124)
Ros has catalogued and encouraged the recording and publication of so many stories of the Jewish diaspora and so it is fitting and fortunate, she decided to share her own life story and reflections – albeit with several references to her husband’s story and books. She has added a creative flair to her memories.
The deep love and respect Ros has for her parents, husband Alan, her sons and several close friends mentioned in Rosa shines like a beacon. There is no malice in any of her memories but there is a theme of regret.
Ros repeats several times how she wished Alan had been more open and honest about his feelings – not for her but the damage done in his childhood and the guilt he carried because his mother died in childbirth. Ros also regrets not having a closer relationship with her own mother.
‘Themissing mother. Rosa had always been aware, but when she first read his stories she’d never put it all together in her mind, never ‘joined the dots’, done the whole ‘lit-crit’ exercise. Perhaps it would have led them to deep and meaningful discussion and enriched their relationship if they’d talked about his emotions, but then, she reflects, he’d only have turned it into a quip, slid away from the subject with a bit of banter.(p156)
We learn about their unconventional courtship in London and Rosa’s decision to migrate to Australia as a ‘ten pound Pom’, their determination to build a home – physically a house and financially a business but also emotionally with children – three sons, plus later, a teenager, ‘the Boy’, a fostered child described but not named.
‘The six-year-old and the five-year-old took the view that they had now acquired an older brother, but for the three-year-old, the Boy represented an heroic Superman figure; their relationship became very special and the rift, when it came, was all the more painful.’ (p89)
A family disagreement and period of estrangement always difficult to write about, the temptation to omit or embellish to justify an action. In Rosa, it is deftly handled although Ros did give herself a ‘memory with licence…’
The use of dialogue to good effect, the attention to detail and use of senses to describe food, flowers and situations – techniques writers keep in their toolbox – Ros uses all of them to produce a good read.
Italics for non-English words and terms but also for emphasis and reflections in her voice. There is a flitting backwards and forwards to weave all the family stories and people together along with their place in history without rupturing the fabric of the overall story, which is why I believe others writing their life story could use Rosa as a template.
Our memories don’t all come in a linear or chronological fashion and from my experience in writing class piecing together short stories is a natural way of collating memories and weaving the threads together.
Ros is a proud secular Jew yet is determined her grandchildren will know the family history but does not want them to be weighed down by the Holocaust.
Throughout the book, the workings of family, worship, differences in synagogues, sects, customs and the politics of ‘those of Jewish persuasion‘ Alan’s wry remembrance of the phrase often used in the past, are explained and placed in historical as well as an Australian context. The knowledge and explanation of beliefs and practices, I found invaluable.
‘For many non-Jews, the Shoah, the Holocaust, is just another part of the war: Hitler had plans for something called the ‘The Third Reich’, and, by the way, he also intended to exterminate all of Europe’s Jews.
For Jews, the Holocaust is the war and Israel is our miracle: In every generation from Pharaoh to Hitler they have tried to destroy us; never again!’
Remembering is a solemn duty, as is recording and researching. Jewish literature wrestles with stories of survival, heroism and of course the complexities of the Middle East. Museums and memoirs multiply. Al, fifth-generation Australian and Rosa, second-generation English and ‘more British than the British’ do not exactly fit the norm for Melbourne Jewry, which is home to one of the largest communities of Holocaust survivors in the world. She thinks: We’re a perfect example of how deeply embedded the history is in our psyches even though neither of us was directly involved. (p117)
Ros relates a speech husband, Alan made at a Shoah commemoration event at Melbourne’s Holocaust Museum where he painted a picture of 1930s Sydney and his father:
‘a devout xenophobe with a particular focus on Jewish refugees who told him; ‘not to mix with them’, ‘Jew-hating out-of-work Australian labourers’ and ‘well-meaning policemen who called me Ikey.’
The older audience members nodded sadly in remembrance. (p118)
The more we share our stories and make a habit of listening to others the more tolerant society we will become – I hope!
Ros explained Alan finished his talk, given over 30 years ago at the Holocaust Museum thus:
So I write about what I know which is what it is like growing up and living and dying in this country where thank God, patriotism and zealotry are negligible and when a letter arrives with OHMS on the envelope it doesn’t contain an imperative to pack your bags. (p73)
Ros reflects in 2018 that she ‘doesn’t quite share his belief in the fundamental goodness of Australia, and long ago she cast off her allegiance to England…(p73)
Therefore, a book like Rosa that ‘flings open the windows and doors‘ and invites us to learn about a world of cultural habits and rituals often misrepresented, misunderstood, or unknown is one to grab for the bookshelf.
In the final chapter, aptly titled Rose Garden, Ros discusses the Jewish section of a cemetery and thoughts sparked by physicist/musician/celebrity Brian Cox’s remarks on television …
…belief in some form of afterlife ‘feels right’ or more precisely, the alternative, that after death we are nothing but a bag of chemicals from which ‘nothing has left, yet what is left is not longer me’ somehow ‘feels wrong’…
The central question is, can you build a time machine? The answer is yes, you can go into the future… Going back in time, or returning to the present, would be slightly trickier, however…(p183)
Rosa harks back to childhood and a fascination with Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and repeats a conversation she had with a grandson.
‘Where will you go when you die, Grandma?’
‘Well I’m not absolutely sure because no one comes back after they die, but I think I shall go on a journey.’
‘A long one?’
‘What will you take with you?’
‘I think I can take my memory. Clever people now think it might be possible to travel through time – backwards and forwards.’
‘Oh, I’m sure you can Grandma, I once read a story like that.’
‘So did I, darling! (p185)
Many of us can identify with this conversation, fear of or concern about dying common.
The conundrums, worries and questions of life wax and wane as we live and age, but writers continually reflect on the significance to the big picture, as well as the importance of those near and dear. Who do we love and how much do we matter to them and they to us?
It doesn’t matter what your background, race or religion as we near the end of our life most of us have failing health, increased vulnerability, and wonder how and in what manner we will die – and then what?
Rosa explores the distant and not so distant past, the present, and voices curiosity about the future. Ros has written a wonderful legacy and future descendants will understand their family’s Jewish history, current festivals and rituals, even if they choose to rationalise like she often did: The significance lies in the fact that we are together around the table, never mind the calendar.
Ros Collins was born in 1938 and after supporting her husband’s writing endeavours began to write short stories and now has two books to her credit – an inspiration indeed!
There is no greater thrill for a teacher of creative writing than to see the joy on a student’s face when they hold in their hands, the book they have written.
When that student has put years of effort into making the dream a reality and overcome health problems, the moment even sweeter.
Yesterday, I met up with some past students of my Life Stories & Legacies class that ran from February 2014 – December 2018, at Godfrey Street Community House in Bentleigh. We gathered in Sandringham to celebrate with Edna Gaffney the publication of her memoir, Chibby From Brandy Creek.
The Life Stories class at Godfrey Street, one of the most cohesive, supportive and friendliest classes in my 20 plus years of teaching, which has included four community houses. Several of the students still meet monthly and email or phone each other regularly.
Edna is the second to publish a memoir, another student will have one out for Christmas and another perhaps in the New Year. A great bunch of writers dedicated to their purpose of leaving a legacy for family and friends. They have all led amazing lives spanning decades.
Edna was in her mid-eighties when she came to my class with a determination to write a book about her mother, family life in Gippsland between the wars, and also her own life as a nurse, particularly, as one of the first nurses to be trained at Cabrini Hospital to care for cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy.
In her Dedication, Edna wrote:
These efforts to record memories, I dedicate to my family and future generations. I wanted to describe my early life living in Gippsland, rural Victoria, and to honour my mother. Our family experienced a lifestyle and events different to many others and to the expectations of people today.
Miracles can occur in most families, maybe not suddenly, but over time, and I consider the eventual reunion of my siblings after the death of our mother, a miracle. Six siblings were adopted during 1943-44 and the family split up, yet we eventually reunited as adults and became a family once again. I am writing down some details of our early life for those siblings who have no memories of our natural mother.
I also record my own experiences of family and career. Change of attitude, much-needed patience and endurance to cope and care for others, are some of the qualities I learned in my working and family life – becoming a parent a profound change. My chosen profession of Nursing has altered dramatically since I began Mothercraft Nursing at the Berry Street Babies’ Home in 1947.
A Powerful Story Shared
When Edna enrolled in 2014, like many older students, she had no computer skills and in fact, no computer. However, after absorbing what it means to be a writer in the modern world, Edna enrolled in computer classes at the Community House and bought a laptop.
I don’t think she’d mind me saying that her success in writing this book was not replicated in the computer class! Wisely, she concentrated on the writing and saved money and time by allowing her daughters and me help with typing. I have no idea what happened to the laptop except it was often threatened and may indeed have been ‘chucked out the window’.
Edna’s daughter, Jane-Maree arranged the launch yesterday and was a driving force in the final stages of the project as her mother’s health deteriorated. We were determined the book would be published before Edna’s 90th birthday on July 2, 2019, and made the deadline.
However, the actual launch delayed while Edna settled into a nursing home – a disruptive, often devastating, and certainly time-consuming challenge for everyone concerned.
Fortunately, Edna likes her new home and Jane-Maree said, ‘they were great’ providing the comfortable space for the celebration.
The Journey To Publication
Over the years, I published five of the nine anthologies for the Mordialloc Writer’s Group. Along the way I threw myself into lifelong learning, grappling with InDesign, attending workshops on desktop and digital publishing, reading books, online articles, trawling websites and information from email lists, and watching webinars to keep up with the rapid changes in the writing and publishing industry.
It is a privilege to share those skills with writing students and to be trusted with their precious words when they decide to publish. I know there are some disastrous self-publishing efforts and looking back at my early efforts, improvements can certainly be made, but I have become a small press publisher by accident and will continue to learn on the job.
Software and hardware capabilities and printing options have radically changed in a few short years. The cost, which has a big impact on choice has changed too – you get a bigger, better bang for your buck nowadays!
The aim of most writers is to be published – not necessarily a novel, memoir, or poetry book, but perhaps simply a short story or poem that begged to be written, or a slice of family history or an anecdote so memorable, it must be committed to print. (I prefer printed books.)
Some students come to class with a definite project in mind. They have a dream to publish a book with a target audience of friends and family.
Not everyone aims to have a book in Readings or become rich and famous with a bestseller or win a prize.
Not everyone wants to monetize (how I hate this buzz word) their talent or creativity.
Most want to write and publish for the joy and satisfaction of telling a story/stories and being able to share their writing with others who will read and appreciate their words. They desire to write or would feel strange not writing, perhaps love being a wordsmith.
When you believe in yourself and writing, being published is a realistic achievable dream.
Edna had a powerful story to tell and I gladly helped with advice and editing. My talented daughter, Mary Jane designed the cover, as she has done for several book ventures. (A reluctant book cover designer, she doesn’t refuse to help her mum.)
The class gave Edna feedback and encouragement and through this collective effort, a beautiful and readable book was offered free of charge yesterday with an option to donate to Berry Street Babies Home. (most people did!)
When you read Edna’s book you understand her strong commitment to Berry Street, where she trained as a Mothercraft Nurse, but also the deeply emotional link because of family circumstances.
Books for Purpose Not Profit
This is the third book I’ve produced whereby the writer has donated all or most of the profit because of their commitment to a cause or appreciation of events or people. There was no profit involved with Mordialloc Writers’ anthologies either, with any money from sales going towards the publication of the next book.
When Mordialloc Writers’ Group folded in 2018, I donated group funds to Mordialloc Beach Primary School to create a scholarship and encourage creative writing. The Principal, Sue Leighton-Janse suggested the money provide ongoing writing awards for Junior, Middle and Senior school, in the name of MWG. I only hope this happens.
You can read about Julie Wentworth: A Life Sharedhere. Julie, a teacher of Yoga, mentor and spiritual guide, donated the sale of her books to an orphanage in Africa caring for children with HIV.
Mary Jane and I had the privilege of working with Peter Hocking, who wrote about his recovery from a stroke and sold books to support The Stroke Foundation.
I’m sure writing and publishing is often a labour of love, and if articles discussing the state of publishing in Australia are to be believed, poetry books, even traditionally published, seldom make a profit with publishing houses using the sales from more popular books to counter-balance the low-profit margin in some literary genres.
Another book I worked on this year was a huge labour of love for a woman who wanted to celebrate her 70th birthday by publishing travel diaries kept by her parents on their first overseas trip in the 1970s.
Ruth inherited the handwritten exercise books, 500 slides and meticulously detailed itinerary notes and letters home. What to do with this material so that her brothers and sisters, her children, nieces and nephews, grandchildren will enjoy the old school and very personal travelogue?
She had a friend type the 55,000 words, paid to digitise then print the slides, and commissioned a nephew to draw maps of the route her parents travelled through continents and several countries, to introduce the three separate parts of their trip.
Ruth only printed 25 of this A4 landscape book, which I edited and published. Muriel and Len’s observations were side by side and Mary Jane chose 100 of the best photographs. Mary Jane created Ruth’s vision for the cover using Muriel and Len’s passport photos, the best close-up photographs Ruth possessed.
Not every book needs a launch or a large audience. Often writers can cover their costs and break-even. Family members may contribute or if written for a target audience (sporting/hobby club, regional or historical relevance) writers may make a small profit by self-publishing.
Writers keep control and have important input to the content, cover and cost of their book every step of the way from conception to birth if they self-publish.
It’s an exciting and worthwhile journey – not always smooth – but as John Denver sings in one of my favourite songs, ‘some days are diamonds, some days are stone,‘ and yesterday for Edna, her family and friends was a diamond day.
Well done Edna and thank you for allowing me to be a part of your dream!
I’ve taken a long time framing this post because of recent events and the adversarial way many parts of the media cover topics such as religion, refugees, and immigration and the resultant ire, ignorance and irritation that inevitably results, particularly on social media.
Ignorance is a keyword here – if more people moved out of their comfort zone and made the effort to learn, mix, communicate and appreciate each other’s contributions to the tapestry of society a lot of angst and misinformation could be avoided.
We are lucky living in Melbourne because there are myriad opportunities to access and enjoy what a multicultural community offers. We can live together in peace and mutual respect aware of each other’s contributions.
I’ve attended two enriching events recently, provided by the Kingston Interfaith Network to appreciate the diversity of our community.
It’s heartening to know there are people actively working to breakdown barriers and challenge bigotry and I’d recommend the annual bus trip the Network organises to visit various places of worship.
Religion & Politics Can be Discussed With Civility
Along with many baby boomers, I grew up with family traditions of attending Sunday School and church but it never translated as ‘blind faith’.
Both parents were immersed in church life in Scotland; they continued this involvement in Croydon when we migrated. I drifted away from organised religion in my teens and only returned to be part of a community as a young mother, to eventually drift away again.
None of us chooses the country, culture or community we are born into and the idea that there is a ‘true’ religion or ‘master’ race seems ludicrous and irrational.
I’m grateful for access to education and several fine teachers at high school and university, to have continued that education by travelling, accessing wonderful books, films, and essays and appreciating the contribution of others to a pool of general knowledge more easily available now through the worldwide web.
I know I’m not alone among my peers questioning human existence, our relationship to the natural world and seeking meaning to life – a journey that will end one day and that day is getting closer –
I recall the pithy words of a good friend, ‘We all die and one day we’ll discover whether there is a God or life after death!‘
In the meantime, I intend to enjoy the journey, learning something new every day, look for the joy because focusing on social injustice and world conflicts convinces me we are stuck in Groundhog Day! (“a situation in which events are or appear to be continually repeated” )
John Lennon’s Imagine is often played to a compilation of visuals – technology leaves nothing hidden! We see the horrific death toll of the two world wars, the partition of India and Pakistan, the euphemistic ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland, the Vietnam War, the Biafran/Nigerian War, the Middle East, Idi Amin’s Uganda … oh, how Lennon’s lines resonate with generation after generation …
Imagine there’s no heaven, it’s easy if you try. No hell below us, Above us only sky… Imagine there’s no countries, it isn’t hard to do. Nothing to kill or die for, and no religion too…
There is never a shortage of up-to-the-minute footage of conflicts – the world seems to produce tragedies at an alarming rate. For many people, their religious beliefs and being part of a community helps to make sense or at least alleviate some of the fear and pain.
A meme doing the rounds of Facebook also strikes a chord –
Many Beliefs One Community
The Kingston Interfaith Network ‘celebrates the commonality and diversity of our spiritual communities’.
encourage understanding and respect between people of all faiths and cultures
affirm spiritual and religious freedom
work towards peace, compassion and equality within our local community
In my writing classes, we have some wonderful discussions while sharing knowledge regarding human needs, the importance of belief systems and what form these may take whether philosophical or religious.
Discussion, reflection and sharing information and experiences important for writers to understand and create characters regardless of the genre but also for citizens when we have the current Australian Parliament discussing the introduction of religious freedom legislation.
Since 9/11, the constant stirring of fear and misinformation about Islam looms large.
The Royal Commission into Abuse of Children in religious and other institutions with many still quibbling about compensation to victims has shattered the trust and appeal of several churches, especially the Catholic Church.
Stories about cults or gurus ripping off or abusing vulnerable people are rarely out of the news.
The Israel Folau controversy started a debate about freedom of speech in the context of workplace contracts and religious beliefs.
Any Interfaith Network has its work cut out!
In Kingston, the Network engages with the community by being involved in:
Learning and Education
Community consultations and representation
I worked for the Uniting Church, Hotham Parish until daughter, Anne was born in 1986 and was fortunate to work with Rev. John Rickard who was a strong believer in ecumenicalism and social justice. A pharmacist before ‘getting the call’, he was a great boss – understanding, compassionate and down-to-earth.
I saw the church from a different perspective. Working closely with Hanover Welfare, the church raised money and provided services to people in need in the community, they also owned houses in Curzon Street and ran a kindergarten. ‘The church’ can be a landlord, employer, business entrepreneur, owner of private hospitals and schools. Practicalities to be dealt with that many don’t associate with theologians.
Another learning curve occurred in 2004 when I was commissioned to write the history of St Aidan’s Church and subsequently published The Little Church On The Hill for their Centenary.
The Chelsea/Carrum Anglican community influential in developing and providing youth services, fellowship groups for women, raising money for much needed social services and encouraging the arts but there were internal conflicts, debates about policies and implementation, and adapting to a world where Sunday was no longer sacrosanct.
Talking about the Christian faith my comfort zone but I still treasure a necklace made from a leather strip with the tooth of a moose blessed by an elderly Iroquois Indian when I visited their village in Montreal, Canada 1976. She wanted me to be safe on my travels.
World Book Day 2019
Kingston’s World Book Day was hosted in conjunction with Kingston Council’s Interfaith Committee, established by Council to provide a conduit between Kingston Council and the faith communities within local areas to encourage open communication, interfaith dialogue and partnerships and to address the needs of the local communities.
World Book Day theme for 2019 was Interfaith in the Libraries. Kingston’s Interfaith Committee chose to deliver a book donations event to Kingston Libraries to further support an interfaith dialogue within the community.
Invited to write religious affiliation, I wrote Humanitarian. Nobody baulked at the label, with some attendees commenting they wished they had written that rather than nominating a religion or leaving it blank.
A warm welcome epitomised the evening with many groups taking the opportunity to display the books attached to their Faith and donate them to the library. The buzz of conversations filled the room, people browsed the books and I met acquaintances from past involvement with community groups and Mordialloc Writers’.
There were printed sheets from a variety of religious groups within the Network summarising their core beliefs, sacred texts and laws, places of worship, branches, practices and festivals, origin story, morals and ethics… in no particular order here are the sheets I picked up:
The International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) (aka the Hare Krishna Movement)
Catholic Church (Christian)
ECKANKAR (This means Co-worker with God -founded 1965, main temple Minnesota USA
Sufi works and practices: The Whirling Dervishes, the poetry of Rumi, the works of Ib Arabi…
Zee Cheng Khor Moral uplifting Society Inc (known as DEJIAO in Chinese)
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons)
My knowledge of some of these groups minimal – and to know they worshipped in Kingston and felt welcome at the event is a testament to the religious freedom we already enjoy. (Note to Federal Government don’t fix what’s not broken!)
Fast forward to the annual bus tour I joined recently…
A Journey of Discovery
Kingston Interfaith Committee runs a bus tour once a year to places of worship to provide an opportunity for the public to learn about different faiths. Tour participants see different places of worship and ask questions in a respectful and supportive small group environment. There is no cost and a light lunch is offered by the Council.
I have been wanting to go on this tour for many years but work or other commitments meant I missed out. I was thrilled to join the 23 other participants (some followed the community bus in their own cars) on August 7, leaving from the Council Offices at Mentone.
Guided by Elisabetta Robecchi, Community Development Officer, Social Development, we visited four places of worship. There were people from Glen Eira and Casey communities. The only person with an outward sign of religious affiliation was a Sikh gentleman from Monash who told me most councils have these tours with some providing several a year. He had been on a few tours and generously shared his knowledge.
The places visited change each time so it wasn’t surprising to find some people had toured before, but most were first-timers like me – and what an eclectic group we were!
Elisabetta shared the two group photos taken at a mosque and Orthodox church.
We set off a bit late because of the difficulties of participants finding all-day parking – so for future reference:
use public transport like me, or plan ahead as to where you will park in Mentone and prepare for a walk to the meeting point!
Also, wear comfortable and easily divested footwear – most places you visit require removal of shoes.
Plus slip in a headscarf or make sure your jacket/coat has a hood for the places requiring women to cover their head.
Masjid Westall, Indonesian Muslim Community Cultural Centre, Clayton South
Lunch at Westall Hub
St George Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Church, Heatherton
Turkish Islamic and Cultural Centre, Keysborough
Shri Shiva Vishnu Temple
Hinduism is one of the oldest surviving religions in the world, with an unbroken succession of seers and teachers. It is practised by millions of people living in the vast subcontinent of India and in many other places where Indian migrants have settled, including Australia.
And although it is an ancient religion it continues to evolve and form new branches. Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948) represents modern India and is a religious personality who was loved throughout the world. He preached truth and non-violence and his attempts to reform India’s religious-social tradition of caste legendary as is his fight for India’s independence from colonial rule.
You don’t need to travel to India to immerse yourself in Indian culture and learn about Hinduism.
First impressions of the Hindu temple and grounds is one of spaciousness, then lushness – the garden flowering and emerald green grass plentiful. Driving in from the road you see the Cultural Centre first, and around the corner, you release an audible gasp at the magnificence of the temple barely glimpsed from the road.
Inside, after removing our shoes, the first thing you notice is incense thickened air. A sign requested no photos but apparently, our temple guide (a deacon) gave approval and Elisabetta shared this one she took.
Priests were attending to devotees so I chose to switch my phone off and instead purchased a very informative book about the history of the temple and details about Hinduism, including festivals and beliefs. An incredible bargain at $5.00.
The huge area seems cavernous but there are different sections with mini enclosures holding statues of various deities. The air heavy with incense and burning charcoal and within moments I felt my eyes sting. It was obvious couples and families were worshipping with the three out of the six priests on duty.
A young couple prayed with a priest by a fertility deity (?). The priest ladled into our cupped hands, the concoction made from fruit and flowers and signalled us to drink. The nectar tasteless to me, stirring memory of drinking kava at a ceremony in Fiji. There was a small open fire like a mini BBQ but generating plenty of smoke. The fire alarm constantly beeped because of its copious smoke and from a couple of similar fires.
I had a fleeting thought of what could happen if there were sprinklers!
Our guide explained there are gods (deities) for Education, Fertility, and Birth etc. Planets match your birth sign and some gods look after you. He explained about puja or pooja, a prayer ritual performed by Hindus to one or more deities in devotional worship.
Prayers can also be offered to host and honour a guest or to spiritually celebrate an event. It may honour or celebrate the presence of a special guest, or their memories after they die. A table with baskets of fruit (oranges, apples and bananas) for $15 and a well-stocked kiosk is just inside the entrance. the deities require offerings.
A temple is a busy place with chanting in Sanskrit and the buzz of conversations plus people moving across the polished floorboards and around the perimeter where cabinets or shrines hold statues of the gods. The black, grey, or gold figures often draped with pure silk gowns and scarves.
We walked past a cabinet that appeared to have a Nazi sign scrolled on glass doors – and a member of the group asked the significance of this, which remains an important symbol in Hinduism.
The swastika represented something entirely different for thousands of years before its appropriation by the Nazi Party, and for many, it is a sacred symbol.
Versions of the design have been found in prehistoric mammoth ivory carvings, Neolithic Chinese pottery, Bronze Age stone decorations, Egyptian textiles from the Coptic Period and amid the ruins of the Ancient Greek city of Troy.
Its most enduring and spiritually significant use, however, can be seen in India, where the swastika remains an important symbol in Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism.
Despite the explanation, one of our group whispered, ‘Try going down Carlisle Street with that on your car!’ A reminder that in a multicultural society we have to be even more diligent learning about other religions and beliefs and be perceptive to differentiate when a symbol should provoke instant repulsion and condemnation and when it is used in context of worship.
The etymology of the word “swastika” can be traced to three Sanskrit roots: ‘su’ (good), ‘asti’ (exists, there is, to be) and ‘ka’ (make). That the collective meaning of these roots is effectively ‘making of goodness’ or ‘marker of goodness’ shows just how far the Nazis dragged the swastika away from its Hindu association with wellbeing, prosperity and dharmic auspiciousness.
The symbol, normally with its arms bent towards the left, is also known in Hinduism as the sathio or sauvastika. Hindus mark swastikas on thresholds, doors and the opening pages of account books – anywhere where its power to ward off misfortune might come in handy.
… it was Indian religion and culture that was the original source from which the National Socialists derived the swastika.
In Buddhism, the swastika is thought to represent the footprints of the Buddha. It takes on a liturgical function in Jainism, and in Hinduism, the clockwise symbol (the swastika as we know it, with the arms pointing right) and the counterclockwise symbol, the sauvistika, pair up to portray opposites such as light and darkness.
The scent of flower petals mingled with fruit and incense and oils. I missed a lot of the explanations because naturally our guide spoke without amplification and my hearing is not as good as it used to be. Fortunately, the book I bought, published to celebrate a special Consecration Ceremony in April this year, is full of detail about Hinduism, the temple, the hard work and cohesion of the Indian community.
The Hindu Society of Victoria (HSV) was founded on Saraswathy pooja day in 1982 at the initiative of some Hindu migrants from Sri Lanka. Hindu migrants from India, Malaysia and other countries enthusiastically joined the Society. The topmost priority for this new gathering was to probe ways and means of realising a traditional Hindu temple. Prayer meetings were held on the last Saturday of each month at the Migrant Centre in Prahran. Poojas were performed to the pictures of deities by Sri Raman Iyer on these occasions. On 21 June 1984, this society was officially incorporated and referred to as the Hindu society of Victoria (Aust) Inc.
The HSV decided to buy a plot of land and build a temple… bought a block of land of 14.35 acres in Carrum Downs on 14 April 1985… made up of a bank loan, interest-free loans from devotees and donations. Bhoomi Poojah was performed at the site to invoke the blessings of the Almighty. Since then Thai Pongal Festival was celebrated at the site but prayer meetings continued at the Prahran Migrant Centre.
… there was a prolonged debate about the choice of deities to be installed in the temple. Eventually, the Management Committee decided to build a Shiva Vishnu temple facilitating devotees from all sects of Hinduism….
Building works started in October 1990 and Nagarajan Sthabathy and a team of 8 artisans arrived in November 1992… The Granite and Panchalokha Vigrahas and other artefacts required were crafted by well-known artisans in India. The Granite Vigrahas were sanctified by a special pooja at Kanchi Mutt.
Additional six artisans were brought from India in Jan 1994 to accelerate the temple construction… completed, with the erection of the raja Gopurams and consecration on 25 may 1997. This temple has become an inseparable part in the spiritualemancipation of the Hindus of Victoria. It has also become a must-see icon to all Hindus and non-Hindus in Australia…
Traditional Hindu temples are not just places of worship. They function as a place of learning, foster the arts and encourage social interaction. The Cultural and Heritage Centre opened on 5 May 2012, includes a wedding hall, restaurant with industrial-scale kitchen, library, Hinduism classrooms, museum and conference hall that can accommodate 200 people.
The Hinduism classes for children also offer Bhajan, Yoga and meditation for all ages. The centre hosts ceremonies on auspicious days, Hindu weddings, and a cafe open to the public, which operates six days a week.
A children’s park with playground equipment and an enclosure with peafowls and chicks as well as surrounding gardens with attractive flowers, trees, and lush foliage ensures a relaxing family-friendly environment.
The sign in the garden reads: Nature is Gods vesture. The universe is the ‘university’ for man. Do not pluck flowers treat nature with reverence.
We put on our shoes and joined the ever-patient bus driver after thanking our hosts for their welcome and farewelled the first place of worship for the day.
Shri Shiva Vishnu temple is one of the iconic Hindu temples outside the Indian subcontinent providing a spiritual and cultural legacy for future generations.
Whether you practice Hinduism or not, a visit will add to your knowledge and understanding, and appreciation of the wealth of talent immigrants bring to Australia.
Masjid Westall, Indonesian Muslim Community Cultural Centre
We travelled to Westall for our next visit to learn about Islam, a religion that has suffered the most backlash and bigotry in recent years despite Afghan cameleers being present in Australia since the early nineteenth century.
The first camel drivers arrived in Melbourne, Victoria, June 1860, when eight Muslims and Hindus arrived with the camels for the Burke and Wills expedition.
The word islam means ‘surrender’ and specifically implies ‘surrender to God’. A ‘muslim’ is therefore simply ‘one who surrenders’.
In the Muslim sacred text, the Qur’an, the story of Islam shares a common tradition with Judaism and a common Biblical origin when God (Allah) created the world. Chosen prophets spread the essential message of surrender to the One (Allah).
Muslims recognise all prophets including Moses and Jesus, Rama, Krishna and Buddha but the Prophet Muhammad is the vehicle whereby the Qur’an, the final protected Word of God was revealed.
Islam is the world’s second-largest religion with over 1.8 billion followers. They make up a majority of the population in 50 countries. We mainly hear about conflict in the Middle East but devotees extend all the way from the Atlantic Ocean to the borders of China although the birthplace of this compelling faith was Arabia when it was a semi-nomadic and semi-urban civilization.
Islam is the most adhered to religion in Indonesia and in a 2010 estimate, 87.2% of the Indonesian population (225 million) identified as Muslim making Indonesia the largest Muslim population in the world.
At the Masjid Westall, we were greeted by two deacons who were generous with their knowledge and time. From the outside, the building is not imposing and doesn’t look like a mosque but once we removed our shoes and went inside the calmness and decor confirmed it was not ostentatious but a place of worship.
According to the 2016 Australian Census, the combined number of people who self-identified as Muslim in Australia, from all forms of Islam, constituted 604,200 people, or 2.6% of the total Australian population, an increase over its previous population share of 2.2% reported in the previous census 5 years…
… there are now 604,000 people who identify as Muslim in Australia. In addition, the Census reports that 1,140 of the Muslims in Australia are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders.
After a welcome prayer and blessing, the deacons let us wander freely and ask questions rather than give a formal guided tour. There are 3 Indonesian mosques in Victoria, and they do keep in touch with each other and share Imams, some are students from Saudi Arabia. The mosque is Sunni, the major and orthodox branch of Islam.
Islam hasn’t escaped the fate common to other religions: sectarian divisions. There are sub-sects, but the two main branches of Islam are Sunni and the Shi’ite. They spilt over the question of the line of succession from the Prophet Muhammad.
Muslims pray 5 times a day and a digital clock has the prayer times. During the day up to 5 people will come and pray because most are working – perhaps a taxi or truck driver if nearby, maybe students and teachers from Westall Secondary next door, or others ‘just passing’.
Sundown prayers and Fridays attract the largest number with up to 50 regulars. After Christchurch, many non-Muslims visited to offer condolences and support and prayed in solidarity. The mosque provided hijabs for them but because we were only visiting and not participating we did not need to cover our head.
We all commented on how luxurious the carpet felt beneath our feet and the room was spacious even with a section for the women and children curtained off. There is a library, also a study corner and out the back a kitchen and communal area where crafts and toys are stored on shelves.
Our two gentlemen guides had set up a table with nibbles and tea and coffee – most hospitable and welcome. One deacon tried but failed to get his pictures up on his phone to show me the crowd of well-wishers who came to the mosque after the horrific events in Christchurch.
No question went unanswered and cameras worked overtime. Several people stood with the Imam’s arch in the background, others were fascinated by the displayed prayer times and mentioned seeing taxi drivers pull over to pray.
I remembered a tale of two young men…
In 2013, flying to Italy via Borneo and London, I sat between the pair. One was returning to Egypt for a holiday after being in Australia most of his life, the other, a student returning home after finishing studies at Queensland University.
The young Egyptian/Australian struggled out of his window seat to diligently adhere to the prayer times – there was a prayer mat aft, available for passengers – and throughout the flight, he read the Qur’an.
He confided in me that he had become more devout because of prejudice at work and all the things said about Muslims in the media. He felt he had to learn more about his faith (his parents and sister weren’t devout) and his origins – hence the trip “home”. He seemed unworried about the fall-out from the ‘Arab Spring’ and the ongoing sporadic violence.
The young student, returning home to his family and Muslim country didn’t bother praying and read a popular sci-fi novel in between discussing general topics ranging from history to politics and poetry. He confessed he’d love to return and work in Australia because he loved the freedom to choose his lifestyle and the climate.
I’ve often wondered what happened to these two young men – did their future turn out the way they wanted?
A little more enlightened about Masjid Westall and seeing Westall Secondary College and surrounds for the first time we set off for our lunch stop at Westall Hub – a place I’d never visited before the intergenerational project last year and one I’ve visited twice in the last four months!
I thought about the fuss in Bendigo about the building of the mosque and cultural centre and reflected on how many people would have driven or walked past Masjid Westall with no idea there is a welcome within if ever their curiosity needs satisfied.
Breaking Bread often Breaks The Ice!
Kingston Council hosted a lovely lunch at the Westall Hub providing a chance to sit and make conversation, get to know each other and share observations.
‘That was a while ago,’ I replied, ‘You have a good memory.’
We shared our interest and curiosity about the tour. Ann, a practising Catholic was born in Lithuania; her mother could speak seven languages and because of this Ann understood Russian. Four of the people on the bus were chatting. ‘They’re speaking Russian and probably don’t realise I understand what they were saying,’ she said with a smile.
At lunch, a lady sat down beside me, ‘Do you remember me, Mairi?’
‘When I saw you, I thought you looked familiar, but I can’t place you.’
‘I’m Honey, you came to my library and ran a couple of wonderful writing workshops.’
‘Honey! Of course, that was a long time ago – how are you?’
A small world, indeed. The phrase ‘six degrees of separation’ springs to mind. Almost two decades have passed since I ran workshops at Springvale Library. I cherish the letter of appreciation from Honey and the opportunity she gave me to improve workshop skills.
I was not a ‘big name’ author yet she gave me a chance and a paid gig!
There was only one young person under 30 travelling on the bus but a Samoan family followed in their car a father with his son and daughter who could be teens or twentysomethings.
Chatting at lunch, he was pleased I’d been to Samoa. He new Aniva’s Place where I stayed. I told him about climbing Mt Vaea and paying homage to R L Stevenson’s tomb and we discussed the contribution RLS had made to Samoa, which explained why he was so revered.
He said, ‘His greatest achievement was uniting the chiefs and teaching them to negotiate and achieve independence.’
I mentioned how much new history I’d learned when in Samoa. I had forgotten they had been a German colony and about the peaceful surrender to the British during the war.
‘My great grandfather could speak German and he was an interpreter for the German/British negotiations,‘ he said and confided his Scots ancestry – family names being Crichton and Williams!
We talked a little more about Samoa and how surprised I was at the number and variety of churches in such a small place as Apia. Religion is important to Samoans and there are many rituals, including traditional Sunday feasting.
(A later discussion with his daughter and son ranged from the problem of feral dogs to their relief Folau was Tongan, not Samoan!)
Our conversation ended with a quiz – he asked, ‘What one word did Samoa give to the English language?’
The answer, ‘Tattoo.’
My final lunchtime chat was with Dr Dinesh Sood who said, ‘I used to be a practising Hindu but now I’m a scientist,’ and a lady who used to be Russian Orthodox professed to ‘being an atheist and humanitarian‘…
I said we were an eclectic bunch.
However, what I remember most about the lunch stop happened outside when I went for a walk after spying two galahs on the power lines cuddling up to each other. They looked like a heart and I thought, what a great photo opportunity.
I walked to the edge of the car park and as I aimed my camera, I heard a distressed chirrup. I looked down and a seagull sat on the nature strip with an obvious broken wing, begging for help.
What to do?
I returned to the Hub and asked at reception for help and a wonderful young woman responded immediately, ‘I’ll get a cardboard box and rescue it.’
True to her word, she sprang into action. I watched from the bus in trepidation when her initial effort to pick up the bird caused it to scurry lopsided across the busy road. Wielding her jacket, she persisted and as trucks and cars roared past, I fretted for her safety.
‘Please be careful,’ I murmured … miraculously, the bird and rescuer made it the other side, escaping further injury. She scooped the seagull into her jacket and returned to safety when the road was clear.
St George Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Church, Heatherton
The third visit for the day introduced a completely new church to me and again the obligatory removal of shoes.
We were met by the priest and a warm welcoming committee. There was a powerpoint presentation, also two short talks on the history and origins of what devotees regard as the first church where the name ‘Christian’ applied.
It began in Antioch, with St Peter, after the death of Christ and surviving persecution the faithful travelled to India.
The first family practising this branch of Christianity arrive in Melbourne in 2006. Since then the number of families has reached 200 and within a decade they have raised the money to build their church and also donate thousands to charity.
(They gave $20,000 to the Kerala flood victims among other causes. A generous effort for a small congregation!)
A group of dancers performed a traditional dance of celebration about a reluctant bride being convinced the wedding is a good idea!
The costumes, music and performers a delightful treat and afterwards many took advantage of the opportunity to ask questions and join in discussions. I was fascinated by the striking curtains and altars – the furthest away can only be entered by the priest and designated elders, the smaller one is open to all.
Having St George and Jacobite in the name intrigued me – as a Scot, Jacobite referred to supporters of King James II of England or of the Stuarts claim to the throne. I know many Christian churches use different versions of the King James Bible as their sacred text but never realised one incorporated Jacobite in their name.
The mythology of St George predates Christianity and any stories I learnt as a child about his Christianity – light conquering darkness – were set in the 10th or 11th century, hence him becoming the patron saint of England. The origin story of this church interesting and proves religion is full of surprises.
Later, delicious and sumptuous afternoon tea made some of us reluctant to get back on the bus. We were farewelled with an unexpected gift and will certainly remember our visit!
Turkish Islamic and Cultural Centre, Keysborough
Our final visit for the day was another mosque and one I’d seen from the highway many times. The imposing building flying the Australian flag and one with the symbol of Islam – the star and crescent moon.
Outside, we were warmly welcomed by a teacher from an Islamic school and several students with an open invitation to ask questions and let the students be our guides.
After removing our shoes and covering heads, we sat and listened to a welcome speech by the Imam and a young female student. The Imam’s mobile phone rang, ‘Excuse me, could be Jesus calling,‘ he said.
I love his sense of humour! In fact, laughter and smiles a significant part of the day in all the places we visited.
After the phone call, he continued with his explanation of the Five Pillars of Islam: Shahadah (Creed), Salat (Prayer), Zakay (Almsgiving), Fasting and Pilgrimage (Hajj) and a brief history of the mosque and fielded questions before inviting us on a tour.
The art and woodwork stunning inside the mosque. Most of the artisanship done locally, some imports from Turkey. The ceiling magnificent, the chandelier adorned with a Qur’anic verse in Muhammed’s favourite colour, green.
Oh, I didn’t know he was Irish,’ I quipped and my young guide laughed. She pointed out the balcony upstairs where women worship and explained the delicacy of the stencilling on the ceiling and how time-consuming the job was for the artist.
The colours, designs, placement of artefacts, windows, doors, balcony – all hold symbolic meaning. There are three places where the imam can preach depending on the number of devotees. There is a beautiful raised staircase with detailed carving and inlays.
One of the young students sang a prayer and it reminded me of being in R L Stevenson’s house in Samoa and the young guide singing a verse of his favourite hymn. Another memorable experience was being alone in the church at Hermannsburg Mission, Central Australia and Jan Cornell, the leader of the group I was with sang to test the acoustics.
The unaccompanied human voice raised in a song of praise can be truly beautiful.
Our visit coincided with one of the regular prayer times and the Imam excused himself to attend to several men waiting to pray. We sat up the back in silent contemplation.
I don’t know what the others were thinking but as I watched the prayer ritual it struck me how vulnerable these men were and how trusting. They didn’t know any of us but believed they were in a safe space just like those worshippers in Christchurch and many other places where people have been attacked.
Their trust, vulnerability, and devotion humbling.
We trooped outside for the last few photographs and the bus journey home. If there are different places on the list, I look forward to joining another tour.
No one tried to convert me and I had no epiphany, just interesting conversations and experiences to mull over and deposit in my memory bank.