Watch ‘Edie’ – Be Inspired, & Keep Your Dreams Alive

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83-year-old Edie believes that it is never too late – packing an old camping bag, leaving her life behind and embarking on an adventure she never got to have – climbing the imposing Mount Suilven in Scotland.

My daughters bought me this DVD for Christmas and I took the opportunity last weekend amidst our autumn heatwave to watch it. (Something positive and uplifting to take my mind off worrying that those we trusted have left action on climate change too late…)

Empathy

I was only pushing 65 when I went on my travel adventure but since it also included Scotland, I imagine that influenced my daughters’ decision to buy me this DVD.

It certainly is a spectacular showcase of the beauty of my birth country, especially of parts that regular tourists may not see.

Anne and Mary Jane are too young to appreciate what a brilliant actress Sheila Hancock is and probably didn’t realise how much I admire her work. I can still remember the TV series The Rag Trade (circa 1961)  with Miriam Karlin – a show my Mum never missed. (even thinking about it triggers memories of Mum’s laughter and giggling drifting up the stairs in our house in Scotland – a wonderful sound to fall asleep to – an added bonus when gifts of books, DVDs and CDs of music trigger happy memories.)

Sheila also worked on stage, other television productions, and many films – a stellar career.

Sheila Cameron HancockCBE (born 22 February 1933) is an English actress and author. Hancock trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art before starting her career in repertory theatre. Hancock went on to perform in plays and musicals in London, and her Broadway debut in Entertaining Mr Sloane (1966) earned her a Tony Award nomination for Best Lead Actress in Play. She won a Laurence Olivier Award for Best Performance in a Supporting Role in a Musical for her role in Cabaret (2007) and was nominated at the Laurence Olivier Awards four other times for her work in Sweeney Todd (1980), The Winter’s Tale (1982), Prin (1989) and Sister Act (2010).

Wikipedia entry

She is an author of several books. I have her 2004, The Two of Us,  a dual biography, of her life with second husband, actor John Thaw. The book focuses on their careers and 28-year marriage. John died of oesophageal cancer in 2002, the same disease that killed her first husband, actor Alec Ross in 1971. Sheila is also a breast cancer survivor.

(As a widow who also nursed a husband through cancer and then survived breast cancer myself, Sheila’s book resonated with me.)

Not surprising with all the personal emotional and physical obstacles overcome in her life,  she is superb as feisty Edie and any ‘acting’ seems effortless.  At 84 years old when making the movie, Sheila did all the scenes in real time and remains the oldest person to climb Mount Suilven (731 meters or 2398.29 feet) – the normal suspension of disbelief required in cinema easily achieved.

The movie is inspirational and entertaining on several levels – as mentioned the scenery alone absolutely mesmerising, Edie could have been made for the Scottish Tourism Board – I can imagine visitors to Sutherland increased after the film’s release in 2017.

Suilven is one of the most distinctive mountains in Scotland. Lying in a remote area in the west of Sutherland, it rises almost vertically from a wilderness landscape of moorland, bogs, and lochans known as Inverpolly National Nature Reserve. Suilven forms a steep-sided ridge some 2 km in length.

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Mt Suilven Scotland – Wikipedia

A Positive Ageing Story

Edie is not the usual cliched ‘grey power’ movie. There is no reuniting with or meeting a new love interest,  no romantic entanglement, no outsmarting or put down of the younger generation or authority, and no tear-jerking death scene.

Instead, there are interesting layers to unpack and questions left unanswered, leaving food for thought or discussion.

  • Will she now be able to control her future and remain ‘feeling alive’?
  • Has she finally put the past to rest?
  • Can she heal her relationship and reconcile with her daughter?
  • What of her newfound friendship with the young guide – will he make the ‘right’ choice for his future?

Easy to watch, the movie’s overall narrative says it is never too late to make your special dream a reality and be open to new experiences and new friendships

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It is ‘Herstory’

March is Women’s History Month and we learn of women who have made a difference – some of whom were written out of history.

Edie is not a tale of a ‘famous’ female achiever, but it tells a story of limited choice and restrictions familiar to many women, especially of a particular generation – and sadly, perhaps still too familiar!

Edie could be ‘everywoman’ who put the needs and desires of fathers, brothers, husbands, sons and daughters before her own happiness. It is uncomfortable viewing at times.

At the beginning of the movie, we see Edie is the sole carer for a wheelchair-bound husband, George (Donald Pelmear). He can’t speak and has to be aided to eat. When he dies, it is not long before the house is up for sale and daughter, Nancy (Wendy Morgan) is taking Edie to view a residential aged care centre that on first glance looks like a luxury hotel (the camera through Edie’s eyes drawn to a huge golden chandelier in the entrance hall) but to Edie the place represents first class misery.

There is little dialogue in the early scenes but plenty of good acting, directing, and camera work. Edie’s expressions and body language show how unimpressed she is with the facility, despite the over-enthusiastic praise of residents and activities by Nancy.

Trying too hard to ‘sell’ the place,  Nancy and the staff reminiscent of parents talking up boarding school to a reticent child. Naturally, Edie is not cooperating!

The scene where she is supposed to be learning flower-arranging and churlishly snips off the head of a flower once the instructor walks away, a great metaphor – and hints at the rebellion to come.

Edie and Nancy return to pack up the house and encounter a life-changing shock:

  • Edie focuses on an old postcard of Mt Suilven from her Dad promising they’d ‘climb it together‘.
  • Nancy finds a journal her mother kept and is appalled by the anger and misery in the short entries. Edie complains about being trapped, having to look after a child and her sick husband, having no support or pleasure, the unfairness of her workload, of being depressed at the drudgery her life has become and living a life she hates.

Nancy is hurt, offended, and furious, and not interested when Edie tries to explain the journal was a way to release her frustrations at the miserable and restrictive marriage, not motherhood… the crushing of her dreams and loss of independence… She was upset about the demands of caring for her husband after his severe stroke so early in the marriage.

It wasn’t meant to be read by anyone else!’

Nancy is too hurt and stunned to have sympathy.

But I always did my duty,’ Edie yells as her daughter storms out. (It was 30 years of caring.)

And I’m tired of doing my duty,’ Nancy yells back as she tearfully slams the gate.

No winners in that argument just valid points about the strain of changing relationships, the carer’s role, which can occur at any age, and the very human habit of not communicating honestly with those we love, and the huge gaps in society’s resources to help families in times of crises.

Appropriately, it’s a bleak, stormy, wet day and Edie is left standing at the gate drenched in rain (tears?)… like novels, metaphor important in scene setting.

That night Edie burns her journals and almost incinerates the postcard but rescues it and sits staring into the flames, deep in thought.

We glimpse ageing in suburbia with Edie’s only relief from drudgery a cuppa in a favourite local cafe where she is someone other than trapped wife or recalcitrant mother.

A lightbulb moment springs her to action and the gorgeous visuals of the journey north by train begins.  Determined to climb that mountain and keep her father’s promise she has packed ancient equipment, which must be replaced of course and the shopping trip for the latest gear from the Scottish equivalent of Kathmandu provides comedy and pathos.

Many of these scenes resonated with me because when I went into the Tarkine wilderness on a hiking and camping holiday in 2008, I hadn’t shouldered a backpack since Girl Guide days – I was also amazed and shocked at the variety and cost of camping gear but must admit to having fun trying on the clothes just like Edie.

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The Generation Gap

In Scotland, Edie meets Johnny (Kevin Guthrie) and their unusual relationship provides laughs, tension, and poignancy – Sheila Hancock has never lost her comedic timing and the close-ups of her wrinkled face and hands, falling over, and struggling with weakened limbs truthfully portrayed.

There’s a memorable scene where she rests and examines a leaf from a nearby bush. The close-up shows the veins on the leaf held beside the back of her hand – roots pump water and minerals to branches and leaves, the heart pumps blood through our veins to limbs… a leaf can be the sign of a new beginning or reaching maturity…

It is a beautifully filmed sequence and her smile and demeanour say she is glad to be alive and grateful to be in that place, at that time.

I’ve been fortunate to have many private moments in wonderful places of natural beauty, I too have been able to sit in silence and contemplate… this was a lovely moment in the narrative and I’m sure contributed to the film winning its two awards.

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At the start of her adventure because of a mix-up, Edie has to spend a night in Johnny’s share house. Two scenes are funny and emphasise gender and generation gap many people can relate to:

  1. She prepares for bed in a bathroom/toilet shared and neglected by the all-male, twenty-something household
  2. Leaving the next morning she has to navigate past four young men sprawled on the lounge room floor after a heavy night of drinking.

Genuine warmth and friendship develops between Edie and Johnny, who has his own relationship troubles because his girlfriend, Fiona (Amy Manson) is in the middle of negotiating a bank loan to create the biggest camping store in the north of Scotland while he feels trapped and longs to escape his job as a guide in what he considers a parochial area. He took on the job of training Edie for the climb solely for the money, thinking it would be easy because she would back out.

In an honest exchange of stories, we learn Edie’s life and how her spirit was broken by her husband who was a control freak. He estranged her from her father to ensure she forgot being ‘a wild child’ and just as she realised the marriage was not what she wanted and stood up to him, he had an almost fatal stroke. She sacrificed the next 30 years to dutifully care for him and ensure her daughter would have choices she didn’t.

The wisdom of age juxtaposed with impetuous youth exchanged like their stories.  But when Johnny is looking forward to guiding, Edie surprises him by insisting she climb Suilven alone! Wow – who is risk-taking and foolish now!?

The drama and tension speed up at this point – for all the characters – and the reunion of Johnny and Edie near the top of the mountain and him stepping back and letting her move unsteadily alone to the peak to add her small stone to the cairn, speaks volumes about their changed relationship. His happiness and joy reflected in a huge smile and glistening eyes.

Exhausted Edie stands proudly surveying the raw haunting beauty of Suilven and Lochinver and for Scottish me with roots still in my birthplace, the scenery and emotions evoked, breathtaking.

A satisfying and inspirational movie that is also thought-provoking because, barring tragedy, we are all ageing and/or watching loved-ones age, and how we navigate and cope with the process and live affects wellbeing and happiness.

There is a marvellous interlude when we think Edie will not survive – her equipment lost in a terrible storm and she is alone in the dark until she discovers a hermit’s hut – this episode has even more layers you can unpack if you like philosophy and ponder our relationship with nature and each other.

Triggered Memories of My Mountain Climbed

I replicated Edie’s journey, in a tiny way, when I was in Skye in 2017 – not that climbing The Storr (or Old Man of Storr as it is known) was near the effort of Mt Suilven but for someone who suffers acrophobia, I’m proud of my achievement.

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approaching The Storr

I’ve written about when I think my fear of heights started here and although The Storr has a path described as ‘well-constructed’, for me it was a challenge.

Looks can be deceptive, the gradient, the instability and variable surface of the ground underfoot, and the constant force of the wind the day I climbed presented a challenge too.

The Storr (ScottishGaelic: An Stòr) is a rocky hill on the Trotternish peninsula of the Isle of Skye in Scotland. The hill presents a steep rocky eastern face overlooking the Sound of Raasay, contrasting with gentler grassy slopes to the west.

The Storr is a prime example of the Trotternish landslip, the longest such feature in Great Britain. It is the type locality for the mineral gyrolite.

The area in front of the cliffs of the Storr is known as The Sanctuary. This has a number of weirdly shaped rock pinnacles, the remnants of ancient landslips.

A well-constructed path, used by many sightseers, leaves the A855 just north of Loch Leathan. It heads up through a clearfell area that was formerly a conifer plantation. Most day-trippers are content simply to wander around the Sanctuary, admiring the pinnacles and gazing up at The Storr’s eastern cliffs. Walkers can easily ascend to the summit, however, by skirting below the cliffs whilst heading north from the north end of the Sanctuary. After passing over a fence at a makeshift stile and climbing a brief steep section of loose rock, the recommended route for walkers heads north-west as far as Coire Scamadal, 1 km north of the summit, then doubles back and heads southwards along the north side, climbing towards the summit. From this route, visible breaks in the cliffs offer tempting short cuts, but these are steep, may not save time and may not be safe…

Wikipedia

The Storr is 719 metres (2,359ft) at its highest point – I reached the base of the steepest pinnacle but discretion being the better part of valour and considering I was on my own, I did not scramble around the narrow ledge to ‘touch’ the pinnacle because I feared the wind would blow me away or a panic attack make me freeze.

In fact, a few times during the climb I wondered if my travel insurance would pay out because I signed a clause saying I was not planning any unusual extreme ventures!

At the start, I took photographs of the area known as The Sanctuary and met plenty of tourists ‘scrambling’ and climbing to a vantage point for good views.

I then started the ascent in earnest, stopping plenty of times for photographs but also to chat with people coming down or going up:

  • How long did it take you?
  • Is the going rough?
  • Are there any landslides?
  • What’s the best side to tackle?
  • Where are you from?
  • Have you done this before?
  • Did you get to the Pinnacle?
  • The wind will blow you away!
  • It’s too hard!
  • It’s too dangerous!
  • I made it – just wanted a photo for Instagram… Facebook …
  • I took a Selfie to prove it I reached the top!

It was treacherous underfoot and I found it took all my concentration and physical ability to navigate some steep and slippery sections.

I met a lovely father and daughter from India but the little girl of eleven refused to be as enthusiastic about the challenge despite coaxing from her Dad.

They only climbed part of the way and were still negotiating about going further when I met them on my way down!

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Two lovely Italian girls shadowed me part of the way – perhaps thinking I was going to need assistance. We were all thumbs up and celebrating when we reached the base of the Pinnacle and through sign language and limited English, they said they admired someone of ‘my age’ for even attempting the climb!

I don’t know about Sheila Hancock in Edie but I found the descent as daunting as the climb and several times thought I was going to lose my footing. However, I did climb, Old Man of Storr and have some wonderful photographs of the view of Skye I would otherwise not have… and as you can see by my smiles it was a good feeling to have a small triumph over a lifelong fear of heights.

Edie, the movie, and Sheila Hancock, the actress – both inspirational.  I won’t be queuing up to climb Suilven when I’m 85 but I hope to achieve other dreams.

Did You Know 35% of 15-Year-Olds Are NOT Digitally Literate or Proficient in Technology?

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As mentioned in a previous blog, I attended a conference on Adult Education in the community sector where I’ve worked for two decades. This was a great opportunity to consider how learning has changed and what it will look like into the future.

The Foundation For Young Australians was represented by Shona McPherson who is passionate about redefining the role of young people in our society, as well as her belief that the not-for-profit sector can drive social innovation in Australia.

The Foundation has produced detailed reports and these can be downloaded or read on their website. The shocking statistic in the title for this blog is one of them.

Before saying, “Oh, that can’t be true,” it is worthwhile reading the research.

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Teenagers may be big on using Facebook, gaming, and texting but that is not necessarily literacy.

  • Can they use more than Google’s search engine to find information and when they find it can they verify its provenance?
  • Can they format a document?
  • Can they write and send a coherent email?
  • Do they know the difference between various types of files?
  • Do they understand about security on the Internet?

In 2018, we have more than one generation of digital natives, but not necessarily literate ones yet 90% of jobs will require digital literacy

Digital literacy involves:

  • basic skills
  • getting online
  • communication knowhow
  • navigate online
  • create documents

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What Does Being Literate Mean?

Shona focused on digital literacy and building a different mindset for the future but another speaker, Sally Thompson, the Deputy Director of the Future Social Service Institute, who is an education analyst and leader with a background in adult literacy, challenged us to think about how we view literacy and what it will mean for future adult learning needs.

What do adults use literacy for and how do they learn?

Why do they learn?

  • How do we apply reading and writing in everyday life? 
  • In this world of globalisation, many people speak read and write variations of English.
  • It is also a digital world.
  • The main game for us in the community education sector is building a network so people can live meaningful lives.
  • This is complex.

A project by the Australian National University mapped literacy in an Aboriginal community where indigenous language has been retained.

What is reading and writing to them and what did they use their literacy skills for?

Researchers discovered the church, community radio, and other shared hubs for community life were where text was generated.

  • making of culture was the aim,
  • also interacting with other groups
  • and there was extensive use of literacy mediators.

For example, in the Aboriginal community, there were a lot of fly-in/fly-out service providers. When people encountered new texts they didn’t try and master all of it but sought help from the Christian pastor, retail workers in the shops (mainly young women) and those permanent workers or volunteers at community hubs like the radio station.

We all use literacy mediators!

If you have a new mobile phone you don’t read the manual you find a teenager.

If you buy furniture or any other item that needs assembling (think Ikea) you may call a friend or check Youtube.

If you want to understand the prospectus of a tertiary institution, health information, public transport timetables, and numerous other pieces of information that may be delivered in an unfamiliar or detailed format, you ask a friend, a family member, an employee, a receptionist… even a passing member of the public who looks as if they are knowledgeable or confident!

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Globalisation has made literacy a patchwork.

It takes a village to be literate in the modern globalised world.

The image we have of someone illiterate is confirmation bias. We think poor, disadvantaged, miserable but research has proven this is NOT TRUE!

  • Researchers discovered the majority of those traditionally regarded as miserable actually live fulfilled meaningful lives by relying on networks to navigate texts.
  • They don’t see themselves as dependent nor do they usually employ someone to read and write for them.  If they do, a lot of trust is required.

However, Sally said the cliches still exist.

If you have no mates you’re in trouble, if low literacy and no friends you are in diabolical trouble.

In the community sector, we often deal with the cliches (those in diabolical trouble, friendless and illiterate, or with poor literacy skills.)

We work incredibly hard in the adult education sector to ensure people can return to education or continue lifelong learning.

However, regardless of our position, we are all literacy mediators especially administration staff who are the first responders to people coming in and needing brochures/leaflets interpreted.

Similar scenarios occur in medical facilities, retail establishments and many government or banking offices. 

There are numerous social interactions and explanations where staff are entrusted to help people or where people help others understand a map, a guidebook, operating instructions etc.

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The research into various communities showed that:

Tradesmen’s wives, parish secretaries, administration and reception staff – these people often have bi-cultural experience or knowledge.

The work they do is invisible. Comfortable in their environment, available, non-judgemental, and not in a position of authority, they will share their literacy skills.

Reflect on the number of times you have asked someone to decipher instructions, explain a form to be filled in, even translate a menu!

Literacy today is a complex issue. 

Especially financial literacy.

There are lots of mediators necessary because who can say they understand superannuation and the taxation system?

Not many as the current Royal Commission into the banks is revealing.

And as more and more services go online digital literacy is necessary to pay bills, pay for goods, issue accounts and quotes.

Sally suggests that there is a policy disconnect because the government thinks you can only teach and examine levels of literacy in a particular way and so there is a political origin of the tests we use to judge skills.

Isle of Arran 2017

How do you measure literacy?

The current tests are too narrow because we are dealing with human beings, not problems to be solved. A competency-based assessment doesn’t necessarily help.

  • We are not prepared for the modern globalised world.
  • We need to make what is needed visible and encourage the government to change its attitude to funding and other measures because technology is here to stay and in every aspect of our lives.

A conference member told a story of her 17-year-old son who wanted her to play a game on his iPad. She couldn’t understand the technology, or ‘language’  used nor the rules. He became so frustrated with trying to explain that he gave up playing with her.

When getting into the city building where the conference was held we confronted technology.

A keycard with your unique code had to be collected from a central reception area, the card was swiped to go further into the foyer and gain access to a lift to our particular building and floor.

The card had to be held in a way that the barcode was read, not swiped or tapped, which was the first instinct for most people and caused a bit of confusion.

To leave the building was a similar process – a bit like tapping on and off a Myki for the trains and trams (and this was a new experience for country members).

The use of barcodes and scanning is increasing.

I remember when I volunteered at MIFF (Melbourne International Film Festival) a few years ago only a few patrons downloaded movie tickets onto their mobile phones and the scanners we had were unreliable and didn’t always work.

Today, most people print off tickets or download them onto their phones. If you don’t, you suffer long queues at venues where less staff are employed to deal with the “digital dinosaurs”.

However, navigating websites for information or to buy products can be a nightmare because of poorly worded instructions.

Southland Shopping Centre has introduced paid parking since the train station has opened. Shoppers get the first 3 hours free and movie-goers get an extra hour if they ‘scan the barcode on their ticket’.

What is not clearly understood is that you must take your downloaded ticket to the box office and exchange it for a barcode because just scanning your printed ticket won’t give you that extra hour free. It would be helpful if these instructions were on the website or added to the ticket.

To “get out the carpark free” you have to scan the collected barcode, key in your car number plate and wait for a confirmation.

When I went with my daughters to see the latest Marvel movie (fantastic by the way!) there were a lot of confused customers, a queue at the ticket machine, and most people had to try several times to get the instruction sequence right.

Digitalisation is increasing but so are frustration levels and those not competent with new technology will be increasingly isolated.

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What does it mean to be smart?

Shona  McPherson asked the conference who was the smartest person at school and why did we think they were smart.

A quick discussion around the tables revealed we judged people’s smartness in different ways but usually who got the highest marks in a test or performed better at a sport.

On reflection, we know this is a bad perception, but we still look at who gets the highest TER at VCE.

We carry these perceptions into adult life and yet it should be challenged – employers are usually not interested in high school scores.

But, we still think in numbers when we judge success. In workplaces, it is the ones who have the best sales figures or best results who are considered the smartest.

 A truck driver may not think he is good at maths and may not be able to write well and yet he can look at a truck and know exactly how many pallets it will take, its capacity and weight and fill out relevant forms.

For us, it’s about working out the student needs and directing energy to what they don’t know, not what they already know, and giving them the confidence to see what skills they already have and to build or adapt them to the digital future.

The perception that high test scores are the indicator of smartness is now outdated in workplaces and should be challenged. Other skills are more important and not necessarily quantified by numbers

  • financial literacy, personal initiative, enterprise skills, computer coding, communicating via email etc
  • the practical application should be building those skills in schools, looking at the VCAL system to improve outcomes and adapting to digital workplaces
  • intergenerational learning – using young people skills for older learners

Accreditation will be different – individual and acquired skills will be judged holistically.

Watching 3 TED Talks you have completed learning but how do you measure it? The motivation for learning must be the number one priority but how do you provide the carrot to excite students?

And talking about TED talks these ones by Sir Ken Robinson are worth watching:

What will learning look like in the future?

  • On-demand learning, e-Learning, just in time, and m-learning (mobile learning).
  • It will be modern and contemporary, MOOC, in-bundling and less sitting in classrooms
  • Learning will be done when you want to do it.
  • It is the era of the individual – what do I need? How do I get it?
  • Less structure, more independence and embracing technology.
  • Increasingly there is the attitude ‘get on board or get out of the way.’
  • Don’t reject it because it’s everywhere like SMART phones!
  • Learning is not just face-to-face anymore but we are still connected whether through videos, podcasts, webinars, Skype, Messenger, closed Facebook groups…

Our city is changing rapidly and so must we – I was struck by how isolated Bunjil, the Great Eagle sculpture looked – almost swamped by high-rise and high-tech – and yet Aboriginal culture survives, has adapted, adopted, and influenced…

People look insignificant from the top floors of the buildings too. The future, like our city, will look different but that doesn’t have to be negative.

Teachers in the Sector have been Called to Action

  1. Challenge what you think you know
  2. More important work out what you don’t know
  3. Make a plan for the future
  4. Planning meets opportunity = luck
  5. Ask questions of mentors and others in your professional network

Lifelong learning will look different

  • Risk being foolish and making mistakes with technology.
  • Learning programs must be co-designed – sharing technical knowledge and talent.

Skills are transferable

  • behaviour management
  • confidence building
  • navigating your way around work

Don’t be a Digital Dinosaur!

How Do Writers Benefit?

Mastering digital technology has empowered writers to publish their work and keep all the income for themselves. Some writers have embraced this control and thrived, but many more still struggle striving for elusive success.

Not every writer wants to, as the latest buzzword insists “monetize” their creativity, some just want to publish their poetry, short stories, family history or novel for the joy of writing and sharing.  Even so, skills and quality control are needed.

There are many steps in the process of writing and publishing – each one important:

  • good editing
  • design formatting
  • ISBN
  • quality covers
  • copyright
  • launching – real and/or virtual
  • publicity and marketing – blogging, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Youtube…
  • financial matters such as how will people pay, downloading, invoicing and taxation responsibilities

At every step, you will encounter technology – be prepared and learn – and I can think of no better place to upgrade skills and confidence than at your local neighbourhood house.

The following are just a selection of what is on offer at Godfrey Street in Bentleigh (9557 9037), but similar classes will be found at Longbeach Place in Chelsea (9776 1386) and other community houses around the Victoria.

Understanding and mastering the new technology in a sensible, ordered way will assuage fear and frustration, limit mistakes, and save valuable writing time!

And you never know – you may be more digitally literate than you think. 

A fun lesson is writing a poem, short story, even a novel in bite-sized sentences of no more than 140 characters – the standard number for a Tweet – good luck!

Penultimate by M C Neil
The writing class complained
Digital tools are not for them
Pen and ink and even type
Will outlast this Twitter hype!

Nevertheless, they wrote some great poems and flash fiction.

 

 

 

A Discordant Note On Harmony Day

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Harmony Day is celebrated throughout Australia on 21 March. It has become a significant day of the year when Australians are encouraged to celebrate the cultural diversity of our country.

21 March is also the United Nations International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

We even have a government agency dealing with cultural, racial and religious intolerance, by promoting respect, fairness and a sense of belonging for everyone.

Orange is the colour chosen to represent Harmony Day. Australians are encouraged to wear orange clothing and/or the distinctive orange ribbon to show their support for cultural diversity and an inclusive Australia. 

I imagine our politicians have a drawerful of colourful ribbons and need advisors to remind them which one to wear!

However,  considering our two major parties have shown a shocking disregard for the plight of refugees still stuck in offshore detention perhaps they should refrain from being hypocritical today and leave the orange ribbon in the drawer.

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“I struggle with Australia’s record towards refugees. Australia is a nation of migrants and its culture accepts and tolerates difference. But Australia’s refugee record is quite poor internationally. This is a very bad position for a state because people judge states on their acceptance and tolerance of people who need help.

There is no excuse for any kind of policy which does not consider or protect very basic human rights.” 

Ai Weiwei: Chinese dissident artist 

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Operation Sovereign Borders
Mairi Neil

(a found poem from Refugee Week leaflet)

Refugees and asylum seekers
wanting safety
protection
a new life
cross stormy waters
with courage
seeking justice
and a welcome
from Australian society ––
young and old.

Amazing personal stories
of darkness,
bribery,
corruption
challenges faced
uprisings survived…
Prisoners of conscience
student leaders
from Afghanistan and Burma
seeking resettlement
and freedom
seeking to celebrate and contribute.

Their hopes crushed
basic human rights violated
harsh lessons in cruelty
as the innocent
are locked up.

In limbo
on Nauru and Manus Islands
detention not freedom ––
Why?

We can do better
Stand up, Speak up
Refugees and Asylum Seekers
Welcome here

 

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Ai Weiwei’s thought-provoking sculpture about the refugee crisis

 

 

International Odyssey
Mairi Neil

The trees cling to fragile foliage
like mothers reluctant to let
their children go.
The winter sun radiates
white light promising a day
of autumn glory…
It is Melbourne after all.

A blue sky pockmarked by fluffy clouds
reflecting a sea of shimmering blue
But beyond the benign bay
tragedy intrudes
fear and desperation meets
fear and distrust.

No need of Siren’s song
to lure the mariners to their death.
The monster from the deep is
dressed in political spin and
ideological hubris.
Christian charity in short supply.
To seek asylum deemed illegal

It is Australia after all.

 

 

Mairi Neil _n.jpg
Reading poetry at a Harmony Day event in Mordialloc 2016

 

A World of Bubbles
Mairi Neil

Sometimes the weight of sadness
crushes and destroys,
a cement mixer churning wails and tears
of the downtrodden –
the enslaved, imprisoned, tortured,
refugees and homeless…
a tsunami of pain
a relentless darkness
a night without dawn.

‘I want to help, but what can I do?’

A plea from compassionate people
whose words may become actions –
the cliched ‘drop in the ocean’.
Causes close to home a priority –
employees need to work,
families nurtured,
households serviced,
sick friends visited.
Joy sought in rituals
for normality’s sake.

Cocooned in bubbles we float
to survive turmoil we can’t control,
to escape the weight of crushing sadness.

Our bubbles must stay intact,
a prism of sunlight
not a prison of insensitivity.
Perhaps kiss other bubbles…
to share light and love,
to ease global sadness
resilient like a mother’s womb.

download-1.jpg

Earth is as diverse as the planets in the universe. For most of us, each day is not a new adventure but the ‘same old same old’ unless we make an effort to move out of our comfort zone.

Communication leads to community, that is, to understanding, intimacy and mutual valuing. 

Roll May

That comfort zone may involve embracing different cultures, envisaging a different Australia to the one we are used to, learning to accept, not just tolerate – welcome others to country as the Aborigines continually welcome people to country.

Haiku – Mairi Neil

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

Acrostic – Mairi Neil

Healing words soothe
A heartfelt hug or sincere smile
Receptive, not racist
Multicultural vibrancy Australia’s style
Outsiders no more
Not only tolerance but acceptance
You are welcome – We are enriched

Seeking asylum is not a crime.

 

Seeking Inner Peace in Outer Mongolia

cairns 2017.jpeg

I freely admit to not being in harmony with my spirit for a long time.

I find Maya Angelou inspiring but whether experiencing delayed and complicated grief or just burn-out, a growing melancholy is difficult to shake off and so I am an expert in masking how I feel. Last year, the pretence life was okay became harder to mask.

I felt broken; fatigued and shattered.

How to fix broken me a difficult conundrum, but not new.

All my life I’ve been accused of over-thinking, being too sensitive, too serious, caring too much. Even primary school teachers wrote “highly strung” in reports when personality assessments sat beside grades.

Weary, disillusioned and disappointed in myself I wondered is it just coming to terms with ageing, or is existing rather than living going to be the norm?

Were the fast approaching ‘twilight years’ affecting me as they did my father who often recited the cynic’s song:

Twas always thus since childhood’s hour, I’ve seen my fondest hopes decay, I never loved a bird nor flower, than the darned thing died or flew away!”

The Physical and Metaphysical

There were physical aspects to how broken I felt.

I visited my oncologist because I wanted to come off Tamoxifen. Her reaction to my complaints about joint pain, rashes, and palpitations, “it’s not just cancer, you’ve never got over losing John…” and while writing a script for anti-depressants,  “I’ll give you these but I know you probably won’t take them…”

She was right about the pills – I didn’t fill the prescription, particularly after researching the possible side effects, mirroring some of the symptoms, which motivated me to make the appointment!

Symptoms I believed from Tamoxifen, the drug keeping my breast cancer under control.

She was also right about my grief for husband John, who I loved passionately and miss every day, but conflating that with the visceral effects of Tamoxifen didn’t help my anxiety.

When I left the specialist’s rooms that day, instead of catching the bus, I walked for an hour, my mind in overdrive and future uncertain.

Decisions to make.

To ignore the prescription for anti-depressants and also come off Tamoxifen. (And when the most worrying physical symptoms disappeared, I was vindicated!)

But what to do about the cloud of depression shadowing me most of my life and now threatening thunderstorm proportions?

Throwing myself into work whether paid or volunteer often an effective distraction. I’ve always been a great believer in focusing and helping others as a way of minimising personal problems.

It sometimes works, but deep down distraction is the right word. Also, it’s a solution that’s often temporary.

Peter Sarstedt in his hit song of the ’60s sang:

But where do you go to my lovely
When you’re alone in your bed
Tell me the thoughts that surround you
I want to look inside your head

No one would want to look inside my head – not even me! Where is the off button?!

The 24hour news cycle and social media with its emphasis on tragedies take a toll on heart and soul too. There are always external factors as well as internal factors feeding melancholia and as a person interested in politics and social justice I know the constant barrage has made it worse.

Going Travelling instead of Going to Pieces

Active solution?

By planning a holiday to places on my bucket list, I hoped travelling and a rest from the everyday would give time to think and heal.

I sent an email to Flower Travel, Trans Siberian journey specialists, plus emails to friends and relatives overseas in the UK, a place not visited in 20 years. I decided to travel where I’d never been and tour Orkney and Shetland.

“The discipline of writing something down is the first step toward making it happen.”

Lee Iacocca

I plundered superannuation and took a term off from teaching…

As a solo traveller, there would be plenty of time for soul-searching, especially visiting Mongolia and Siberia, places as different from my lifestyle as the proverbial ‘chalk and cheese’!

Day Two In Mongolia

I’m scheduled to stay in a traditional ger at Buuviet Ger Camp, Terelj National Park, 65 kilometres northeast of Ulaanbaatar.

The ideal opportunity, at the beginning of my travels, to start that soul searching and a walk at dusk provides time to be quiet and still.

dusk in ger camp - poem.jpg
Dusk in the Ger Camp

“The National Park Gorkhi-Terelj includes the southern Khentil mountain range. Terelj is one of the protected areas most frequently visited. It offers naturally beautiful scenery, interesting rock formations and is covered by forests, wetlands and alpine tundra…”

entrance to campsign to camp

The Buuviet Ger Camp is open all year round and the information listed facilities to include:  220 V electricity, deep well artesian water, 70 gers with guest beds for overnight stay, 16-bed winter houses, ger restaurant with seating for 60 and information ger with Mongolian national games, modern bar in a ger, souvenir shop, fully equipped restrooms (summer only) and an outside BBQ and bar – not the isolated wilderness some may think!

However, I’m not the first and won’t be the last traveller to discover a discrepancy in what is advertised and reality, but I didn’t mind. In fact, the experience probably more authentic because of it. I wasn’t looking for “Glamping” as one travel site described: 

Go glamping

Sleeping in a rough-and-ready Mongolian ger is a quintessential grassland experience, but a growing number of tour operators are establishing sustainable, nomad-run ger camps that target the posh adventurer with innovative luxuries. Nomadic Journeys operates ger camps at pristine wilderness sites that feature heated eco-showers, hand-painted beds with thick yak’s wool blankets, and even a sauna ger. For the truly adventurous, they’ll open up an airstrip and fly people into the great Mongolian void – 365 degrees of pristine emptiness, and it’s all yours.

The spacious and comfortable ger was cosy and I eventually settled to sleep… although that was a long time coming…

Staring at the shadows from the starlight shining through the roof, I relived the minutiae of the day, tortured myself with past imperfect scenarios, tried to imagine perfect scenarios…

… the wee hours never easy for what my mother called ‘an overactive brain‘. Nighttime rarely a relief from the busyness of the day.

The silence in the ger “deafening’! There are none of the sounds I’m used to – machinery, cars, trains, footsteps on pavements, crickets, pigeons cooing, sirens, dogs barking….

At times the wind whistles through the roof but I could be the only person on earth although the faint buzz of security cameras and an outside light just discernible. Once I heard distant barking – dogs warning of wolves?

But there was no insect noises or hum of an electricity generator. The ger cocoon the perfect place for ‘endless musings and ramblings, recriminations and replayed conversations.’

The writing ‘mojo’ I hoped to rekindle struggled to appear, and energy absent, but regrets, remorse, resentment, recriminations, fears, fantasies, grief and even giggles took their turn before I gradually dropped off to sleep!

When we arrived at the camp, snow still lay on the ground. The weather of the last few days just beginning to allow for maintenance and preparation for the spring and summer tourist season.

Being the only guest, I understood why the electricity (stored in batteries) was not switched on, and the ‘fully equipped restrooms” still shrouded and protected from winter.

It was pleasing to see signs explaining efforts to marry environmental awareness with tourism.

A love of travel motivates me, but I readily admit it’s a privilege and carry first world guilt about my environmental footprint.

Cultivating an attitude of neutrality, I consider most people to have good intentions, are not out to be bad or destructive.  The majority are kind and helpful and so I do my best to be trusting, suppress suspicion and hesitation, and extend friendship.

There are myriad cultural and ethnic stereotypes promoted in movies, comedy routines, novels, and plays. Lazy writers thrive on stereotypes and cliches and the success of soap operas and pulp fiction show there is a market. But I hope to absorb and capture the vibrant and fascinating Mongolia that has stunned me, albeit with only two days of experience.

I prefer to take people as I find them and form opinions based on personal experience and observation.

A large sign explained Buuviet Camp’s mission to be an “eco-camp”:

Idopt a tree

Buuveit camp of Tsolmon Travel LLC was nominated and certified as the first “Eco Camp” today we are working to bring you close to nature by developing beautiful garden at our camp.

Goal:

  • save and preserve the endangered species of plants, trees and shrubbery
  • increase the number by replanting
  • provide botanical education

Our garden is dedicated to the collection, cultivation and display of wide range of plants from Gorkhi Terelj National park and Khan Khentii Protected Area.

Thousand Trees Every YEAR
Please join our effort to give back to the nature by planting trees and flowers any help would be appreciated
For more info please ask the camp manager.

I saw the area mapped out for a vegetable and fruit garden, still empty of growth because of winter.  However, Jemina, my host excited at seeing a tiny shoot of green and bent down to examine it.  New growth means his horses and cattle will have more feed. 

Traditionally, Mongolian nomads raise five species of livestock known as the five muzzles or snouts: horses, cows or yaks, sheep, goats, and camels. Reindeer are raised by the Tsaatan people who live in the northwest areas around the lake Khovsgol bordering Russian Siberia. 

A life of wrestling with the vagaries of the seasons evident on Jemina’s face, skin, and wiry body. This vast almost limitless space, a tough place in winter.

first sign pf spring

I saw living proof that Mongolia is one of the least densely populated countries on earth when standing in the centre of camp:

  • no sight or sound of another person,
  • a panorama of unfolding pastures, dusty paddocks,
  • and hilly peaks draped with snow.

A wonderful gift to experience, I’m in awe at this wilderness and appreciate the lifestyle enjoyed in Mordialloc.

Ada had been worried and apologetic about some facilities being closed. But why would I mind using the squat toilet on the edge of the site, or top and tailing at the wash basin rigged to be fed by a bucket of water?

I thought of an old Monty Python skit ( Four Yorkshiremen) – these facilities luxury indeed compared to how some people have to live, without shelter, clean water or decent food!

Because of the nomadic lifestyle and the climate, Mongolians have always played a variety of games and are skilful horse riders.  I saw where outdoor games could be played but had to make do reading about the cultural heritage developed over many centuries to suit nomadic life.

Likewise, the restaurant and other communal buildings, BBQ and bar remained closed for my one night, but I could imagine the delight of tourists in peak season.

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After a wander around and peeking in windows, I’m sure would-be guests during peak tourist season could consider it ‘glamping’!

Looking at my notebook, I read “has it only been a day since I flew into Mongolia?”

“I don’t know where I’m going, but I’m on my way.”

Carl Sagan

An Awakening of the Land – and Me…
Mairi Neil

From the plane, I spy brown, dry earth
and undulating hills
peaks dotted with snow
the iced mountains and streaked steppes
like shattered shards of glass
nomadic houses – gers
could be iced buns or polka dots
instead of circles of civilisation
and isolation

The plane manoeuvres around mountains
and patchwork dark green shadows
forest in a land famous for no trees
Thick cloud envelops
accompanied by an ominous grunt…
the landing gear drops
we hover over mountains
panda seat display announces
two degrees on the ground

river tributaries appear
flowing free
or perhaps just melting snow
as isolated gers multiply
blend to suburbs of Ulaanbaatar…

A long straight highway glimpsed
high-rise buildings glint in sunlight
seat upright, seat belt fastened
alert and nervous
I anticipate the adventure ahead…

 

me with hosts at ger camp
Jemina and daughter Aruna run the Buuviet Ger Camp

Notes By Candlelight…1

Tonight I’m in a ger – the only guest in the village because winter is not quite over. Aruna and her father Jemina run the place. Although only 22 years old, Aruna is extremely competent. She had to step up when her mother died 6 years ago. Her father is 59. An older brother and sister have moved away with their own families.

Aruna told me she has a pony, also books and television as relaxation and entertainment. She writes in her journal. Like young people everywhere she has a mobile phone and loves the Internet.

Our conversations stilted and difficult because of the language barrier. How I wished we could communicate better – I’d love to know what she reads and writes… and of her dreams for the future.

I can imagine how busy it will be in the summer – a lot of work for a young woman. I feel guilty at a fleeting moment of regret that the new washing and toilet facilities are not operational. No luxury hotel comforts for me. Not even electricity in the ger because it’s not worth connecting the battery for just one guest.

On the plus side, I’m experiencing a more traditional lifestyle as I read by candlelight, use the squat toilet, and sponge myself down at the tiny sink with water from a bucket!

I told Heidi at Flower Travel I wasn’t “precious” so in modern day vernacular I’m “sucking it up”!

When we migrated to Australia in 1962, the house we rented for four years had no septic tank or sewer. We trekked down to the bottom of the backyard day or night and used the ridiculously named “dry toilet” or dunny in Aussie vernacular. (My father and brothers often peeing in the bushes or ‘by the lemon tree’!)

The pan emptied each week by the “night man,” who actually came during the day. And what a grump he was too, but with such a “shit” job, no wonder!

My Aussie Childhood
Mairi Neil

I grew up at Croydon
when the bush was thick around,
milk and bread delivered
to a tuneful clip-clop sound

kookaburras laughed and swooped
to steal our pet cat’s food
it wasn’t Snappy Tom, of course
but ‘roo meat, raw and good.

Streets were mainly dirt tracks,
collection of potholes and clay,
most people walked or cycled
and strangers said, ‘G’day!’

Our weatherboard house peeled
paint – the tin roof leaked too,
verandahs sagged under honeysuckle,
rooms added as the family grew.

Mosquito nets caused claustrophobia,
possums peered down chimneys three
but the dunny banished down the back,
the most terrifying memory, for me.

Electricity only brightened inside,
so torch or candle had to suffice,
night noises from shadows in bushes,
and the smelly dunny – not nice!

The path to the toilet lined with trees
growing tall to seek the sun
but in the scary, dark cloak of night
branches became arms from which to run.

But during the day, our block was heaven
definitely a children’s Adventureland
blue tongues, geckos, tadpoles, and frogs
all shared my world so grand.

A snake was the greatest danger
or a bull ant bite on the toe,
a rule carefree wonderful time –
my rose-coloured glasses show!

Notes By Candlelight…2

More often than not it was outside squat toilets when I visited communes and factories and some tourist attractions in China in 1979 – the unforgettable smell of human waste reminiscent of the latrines we dug at girl guide camps.

That ‘farmyard’ smell triggers many memories just as staring at the flickering candle flame does!

Sipping a cup of Nerada tea I’ve brought from Australia I wonder how many others have sat in this ger?

The teabags and a tube of Vegemite brought along as emergency rations. A cup of tea does wonders and Vegemite on bread or cracker biscuits as good as a meal!

Deep breaths and I imagine the eucalypts in the garden at Mordialloc, the sweet smell of Mary Jane’s favourite incense that permeates the hall, the smoothness of Aurora’s fur as she cuddles me each night.

Will this trip invigorate me or just emphasise my aloneness – or make me lonely ?

A big drawback of solo travel – not having someone to talk over the day’s experiences – the joys, upsets… the wonder.

My first published poem in the form of a bookmark resulted from a writing workshop where the teacher lit a candle in the centre of the table and told us to pause, reflect and write…

is it just tiredness or feeling overwhelmed that is blocking inspiration tonight?

There were several hours to walk and explore the camp and beyond. I discovered a prayer site of shaman ritual. Shamanism deeply rooted in nomadic Mongolia and lives happily with Buddhism. You often see the circles and cairns where rituals have taken or will take place and memorial stupas.

People ask to be healed, for good crops or to do well in an exam or job interview – many reasons to thank the gods – and ask for guidance from ancestors.

Buddhism and Shamanism coexist in Mongolia and are often interconnected. 

Stalin’s purges led to religious orders being decimated. At the time 25% of the male population were Buddhist priests so you can see why he considered them a threat and you can also understand why people clung to shamanism. 

In the solitude, I felt relaxed, daylight drifted away as a veil of serenity fell.  I discovered a spiritual sanctuary amidst ancient stones. I could be sitting in an empty church – sitting quietly in contemplation without sermons or fuss.

The rocks materialising into shapes –  eyes, faces, figures – as if ancient folk still live.

Three monks in their cowls with heads bent in prayer, a mother, and her child, a grandparent squatting with a child leaning on his shoulder; animals too – crouching, lying, poised and cowed.

Who comes here? Is the discarded bottle Jemina’s? Is this where he comes to grieve? Or do people gather for spiritual salvation? 

Secret cavities leading to where? Did Mankind begin here? Do ancient souls still hover?

I see brown open landscape, miles of emptiness
I hear the cry of a crow – a kite circles
I smell aromatic herbs and woodsmoke
I taste the tang of unfamiliar meat sauces from dinner
I touch textured rock scarred by time and weather

I imagine the endless universe… the circle of life

ger camp from hill.jpg

There are only two faces to existence – birth and death –
and life survives them both, just so sunrise and sunset
are not essentially different:
it all depends on whether one is facing east or west.

Joy Mills, Release into Light

Nature called…

The toilet was far enough away to be disconcerting in the dark even although I had a torch.

There were holes and uneven ground caused by the marmots coming out of hibernation and despite knowing I was the only one booked into the camp, a walk across open land amongst shadows and the silhouettes of buildings, conjured the fearful (although unfounded) sensation that people were watching, perhaps even wishing me harm! 

Imagination a curse at times and never more so in a strange place in the dark.

No wonder I took Ada’s suggestion and snuck behind the tent and peed – it was about 3 or 4 am, absolutely freezing, the only sound my stream of urine scalding and steaming tufts of dead grass and melting thick frost.

Of course, I did have a middle-class moment – what if Jemina was up and about? But that was fleeting and made me smile at my own ridiculous thoughts.

What about ticks?

Ada told me a story about her friend being bitten on the head and contracting Lyme Disease. It was tick season and according to Ada, they love the wind and your hair, but will also go up your leg.  I dutifully wore hat, scarf, and boots when outside.

Fear made me check the bedclothes and the wheels of my luggage – just in case!  When a fly got through the door with me, I watched where it flew as if an enemy ready to attack. What a relief to see it leave via the circular gap in the roof dome. 

No windows in the ger but starlight, moonlight, sunlight, first light, all through the hole in the roof for the chimney.

And what about wolves? The wolf pelt in the corner of the office a stark reminder they exist.

wolf pelt

Jemina crept into the ger at midnight trying not to wake me, his torch flickering as he fed the fire with coal. He must have watched for smoke or lack of – and his timing spot on. (Ada had warned me Jemina would need to stoke the fire when we had an explanatory tour of the place before she returned to the city.)

This is bizarre, I thought as I watched his silhouette from the comfort of the bed. What will the girls think when I tell them I agreed that a man who couldn’t communicate with me, could come into my unlocked bedroom in the middle of the night, albeit to stoke the fire. (Another middle-class, western moment?)

The torchlight bright and blinding and Jemina’s face masked with a scarf against the bitter cold as he concentrated on his duties. Hunkering in front of the fire, fiddling with fuel to encourage flames, poking and rearranging with expertise. The wood stirred, flared and crackled to life.

There’s a talent to lighting a fire and heating a stove. Mum had it. So did Dad, although no surprise there because he was a fireman and later steam train driver. Not much Dad didn’t know about fires. Maybe he taught Mum, but since she was brought up on a farm in Northern Ireland where creating heat for cooking an important element in the skillset for country living, perhaps their expertise mutual.

In the modern world, push-button electric, gas or oil heaters ensure generations have no idea how to make or regulate a wood or coal fire.

  • Before John and I renovated our home in Mordialloc, the only hot water came from a wood-burning Raeburn stove. Every weekend John sat for hours in the shed chopping enough kindling for me to use during the week. When Anne came along, it was easier to boil kettles for her baby baths. I recall the joy of instant hot water when a gas hot water service installed.
  • I  remember my parents spreading a newspaper over the fireplace in Scotland to block out air (except for what came down the chimney or ‘lum’ as we called it) until kindling caught. I can see and smell sandalwood tapers used to light the fire – a present from a childless aunt who could afford to travel to exotic places.
  • Images of the coal man surface – heaving and emptying a large hessian bag full of coal into a bunker next to the kitchen. The smell of lanolin, the pink barrier cream Mum massaged into her hands for protection before she handled the coal, and set the fire.

As I skipped down memory lane, Jemina gave the fire his complete attention, but when he realised I was awake, he mimed that he’d return at 2.00am.

Earlier in the evening, the inside of the ger became unpleasantly hot – the coal and wood heater did too good a job in the well-insulated, enclosed space so I mimed to Jemina not to bother returning; I’d be warm enough.

He nodded, and before leaving placed a bucket near my bed.  I assumed it was to pee in if needed.

Jemina crab-walked to the door and braved the cold. I hoped, he understood I didn’t want to be disturbed at 2.00 am. The door of the ger tiny, and crouching definitely the best way to get in and out or earn a bump on the head like me when I forgot to duck coming back in after my peeing expedition!

The fire nearly out so I rekindled the flames and added more wood. I wonder if Jemina is watching for smoke from his ger…

A traditional yurt (from the Turkic languages) or ger (Mongolian) is a portable, round tent covered with skins or felt and used as a dwelling by nomads in the steppes of Central Asia.

Traditional gers consist of an expanding wooden circular frame carrying a felt cover. The felt is made from the wool of sheep, goat or yak and the timber, to make the external structure, is obtained by trade because of the absence of suitable trees on the steppes.

Gers traditionally did not have solid doors. These fitted as camps have grown and the people don’t move as often. Traditional doors were heavy carpets or appliquéd quilts.

ger door

A Visit With A Nomadic Family

Earlier in the day, there was a quick stop with a traditional nomadic family: Mum, her son, and daughter-in-law, plus two kids of 6 and 7. A brother was visiting with his two children and another relative and her children. 

The place packed. Everyone, apart from our hostess, sitting along one side of the room while Ada, Bemba and myself, sit on the other.

A washing machine is churning because it is Sunday, the day they wash their clothes. In between entertaining us, the mother hassles the children for dirty clothes – well I assume that’s what she is saying as they search under chairs and behind boxes and produce items of clothing. The domestic tasks of parenting and managing a household universal – no translation needed!

It’s ingenious the way the ger is built, to be collapsed and packed up at least four times a year. Sometimes they only move 20-25 kilometres, other times 50 – 100 kilometres, depending on where the family’s cattle and horses graze.

This family has horses and display medals they’ve won at Naadam, the great summer festival in July.

They are Buddhist and a shrine sits next to a giant flat-screen TV, the children and some adults engrossed watching Shaun The Sheep!

A traditional musical instrument with horse handle proudly displayed, although no one plays. It sits beside a traditional saddle and ancient costume of hat and whip. They are important symbols to show pride in Mongolian culture and heritage and have been passed down through the family.

musical instrument horse handle

The various ‘sides’ of the ger are designated: woman’s area – kitchen gear (what a surprise!), a symbolic or ornamental area, sleeping area, bathing and washing area.

Gers may look the same from the outside but like our homes are different inside – this one elaborate and heavily furnished. Bright carpets insulate the walls as well as woven hangings.

As an honoured guest, I’m given milky tea swirled in a large steel basin. Milk drained – I have no idea if it was from a horse, yak, cow, goat or sheep. They use whatever is available and make milk, cream, butter, cheese, and yoghurt.

 sweet tea in ger

I ate little round shaped bites like doughnuts, the other plate is dried yoghurt, tasty but so hard you need strong teeth. A sweet/salty butter treat. Mixing salt and sugar common here. The children suck on slices of dried butter as if icy poles.

The tea an acquired taste – sweet – and leaving an aftertaste. Since teenage, I’ve preferred unsweetened black tea and because Ada knew what to expect she asked the hostess to pour only half a cup for me. 

Not wanting to offend, I drink the tea and taste everything offered. Taking food with an acquired taste, not something I cheerfully volunteer for. I’m not an adventurous eater and rarely eat out, rather I eat to live, not live to eat and never watch cooking shows currently popular on television.

There were plenty of smiles and friendly looks and my visit is an income stream for the family, especially in winter when there are not a lot of alternatives.

When they settle in an area like the National Park there is a government school closer to town and the children board there. When I visited, it was the week of school holidays a time when lots of families visit each other. (Not that different from us really.)

To the Mongols, the family unit is everything.

Having to communicate through Ada limiting and because it was a special and busy family day, I felt like an intruder and didn’t want to subject our hostess with twenty questions.

The children too interested in the television to care about visitors, but one woman (family, neighbour?) never took her eyes off me for the half hour or so of our visit. Her intense stare disconcerting and when we left, I could hear daughter, Mary Jane’s voice, “Well, that was awkward!

On reflection, despite the generous hospitality, it was indeed! Perhaps a group visiting makes the dynamics different or maybe I just wasn’t prepared for all the distractions under one roof – this is where having a separate room for guests may have advantages.

Getting to know someone and being invited to their home different to this organised visit. I remember experiencing the same embarrassed reaction after a visit to a commune in China. It just seemed a discourteous intrusion – maybe if it had been a longer visit, more relaxed and we could communicate better I wouldn’t feel so bad.

However, in the morning, all negative feelings disappeared as I lay in bed trying to identify sounds –

Dawn

‘Peeho, peeho’ the call of a bird?
Persistent and guttural like a pigeon but not ‘coo coo’
Silence after 30 seconds.
A soft whish, swish – flapping?
A peek outside –
an eagle or kite swooping, catching breakfast
an unlucky marmot fails to escape
a magical Mongolian moment I won’t forget!

Despite a disturbed night and strange bed, I feel relaxed… a step towards serenity and inner peace?

Things Are Not Always Bright And Beautiful

creepy crawly chart

Okay, I admit some of the above-mentioned creepy crawlies are beautiful (actually only the butterfly and ladybug) and I understand insects, in fact, all creatures have a place in the ecosystem, but lately there has been more of the creep factor than beauty!

spider web on fence

I’ll confess up front to an ambivalence towards spiders – a creature Australia seems to have too many of and of course, they love my old weatherboard house and surrounds.

I look out the kitchen window and the webs are there.

I walk out to the front porch and the spiders are there along with some other strange insects!

Daughter, Mary Jane complains often about the spider webs stretching from her car mirrors to the garden bed. They appear no matter where she parks in the driveway.

Daughter, Anne can sense a spider in the vicinity even if tiny and an anxiety attack is sparked. The spider must be removed before she’ll settle in a room!

One of my first memories of coming to live in Australia as a nine-year-old was sitting at the kitchen table in the old weatherboard house our family rented in Croydon. I’m not certain if it was my Dad or an older brother who casually pointed above my head at the wall and said, ‘watch out for the spider.’

We were always playing tricks on each other, so I ignored the warning until I saw my sisters and younger brother hurry from the table. I turned around in time to see a huntsman the size of a saucer scurry across the wall. Needless to say, I slithered under the table and followed the others outside.

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Ironically, we became immune to some of the spiders in the ‘old house’ to the extent that one lived above the old wood stove at my dad’s behest because it kept flies at bay. We nicknamed him Oscar.

However, Mum wasn’t as benevolent and didn’t shed a tear when Oscar disappeared up the vacuum cleaner one day!

Fifty-five years later I’ve encountered plenty of spiders – Red Backs along the fenceline and White Tails inside when we renovated.

The other day Mary Jane killed a Red Back on the porch – apparently, there’s an increase of them in Melbourne because of the weather. Around 300 people are bitten every year in Australia.

In recent weeks, pest controllers have been inundated with calls from Melbournians who have spotted the spiders in their homes and gardens… .the hot weather has made them come out in force.

“This time of the year, we’ve got lovely blue skies, we’ve got some humidity and we had some rain a few days ago, so there’s plenty of food for the spiders to eat,” Simon Dixon from Exopest said.

White Tail spiders are nasty little creatures and I’ve been bitten several times. John got bitten once when we were renovating and took a severe allergic reaction.

Whitetail spiders frequently occupy Melbourne homes. They seek shelter in dark nooks and crevices and at night time they go about their business eating other spiders found lurking around the home. As they don’t spin a web to catch prey, when it comes time for them to rest, they sometimes find problematic places. Towels and toys left on the floor, curtains and bedsheets and lonesome shoes are a common hiding place. Whilst they are not vicious spiders, they will bite if feeling threatened. It’s easy to see how an unsuspecting human can quickly become the recipient of a painful venomous bite.

Common signs and symptoms of a Whitetail Spider bites include instant pain similar to a bee sting. There is redness, discomfort and swelling. Ulcerations can develop and the recipient is left open to the possibility of infection at the site. In a minority of victims, there is the potential to suffer a nasty reaction such as flue like symptoms and anaphylaxis.

While working in the garden I’ve often come across various garden varieties of spider, or rather they’ve come across me. Sometimes the bites require a visit to the doctor because of the rash or pain caused.

Like most people, I give spiders a wide berth when I can and not surprisingly they were a subject of my early poetry in Small Talk poems for children, Employ Publishing 1994.

Nature’s Web
Mairi Neil

Caring for the environment is an urgent task,
stop slaughtering wildlife, poisoning waterways,
and polluting the air – is all I ask.

However…

I may respect the right of creatures
great and small
but this doesn’t mean a universal
love for all.
I live life with minimal environmental damage
I don’t buy toxic sprays or insecticides
and in the garden rampage.
Even revolting ‘blowies’, when inside
they venture
are swatted with a plastic hand
as effective deadly censure.

But…

The one creature that has me terrified,
makes me absolutely petrified
if ever it manages to creep inside,
has eight legs and a body round
and in the most unlikely places found –
it can be small and brown, or big and black,
some can swing, some can jump…
all can crawl up your back!

‘Live and let live’ is all right in theory
but if you suffer arachnophobia
that sort of tolerance makes you teary.
I know nature is wonderful
I know nature is grand
but I’d love to be rid of ALL spiders
from this land!

I’m not the only one put off by spiders as this news item about “a sizeable spider” on a suburban train testifies.

The spider successfully annexed a set of four seats on the crowded peak-hour service, as well as two seats in the row behind that it might have been eyeing off for the extra legroom.

Funnel-web spider venom could provide stroke protection

The above headline relates to an article about research being done to prevent stroke victims from suffering brain damage.

 One of Australia’s most fearsome spiders may provide the solution to protecting stroke victims from suffering brain damage.

Researchers at The University of Queensland and Monash University have found that a protein in the DNA of the funnel-web spider’s venom shuts down an ion channel known to malfunction in brain cells after strokes.

In cell experiments, the harmless chemical (called Hi1a) protected brain cells from a toxic flood of ions unleashed after a stroke strikes.

During a stroke, a blockage stops or slows the flow of blood to an area of the brain. The brain cells, suffering from a lack of blood and oxygen during a stroke then switch to metabolic pathways that don’t rely on oxygen. This creates a condition called acidosis and the oxygen-starved regions of the brain start to become damaged and die off.

Hi1a works by blocking the acid-sensing channels in the brain.

Who would have thought it? I might have to revise my opinion of that particular creepy crawly as the article states,

Stroke is one of this country’s biggest killers and a leading cause of disability, striking someone in Australia every 10 minutes.

I’ve also experienced Beetlemania

In December 2012, the Union of Australian Women Southern branch were having their annual Brunch for Peace at the Beach. The gathering is always held on Mordialloc foreshore and as usual as a coordinator and living in Mordialloc, I made my way down early to grab a spot under the shade.

Imagine my surprise to find the place swarming with bugs.

When I arrived, I discovered our usual shady area full of thousands of copulating beetles. Where is David Attenborough when I need him, I thought.

The other women arrived and we tried to ignore the busy insects but the breeding frenzy unsettling and hard to ignore. We tried to brush an area clear but didn’t want to be responsible for reducing some part of the ecosystem’s population. We gave up and moved elsewhere.

After some research, I discovered there were swarms of beetles in suburban gardens in and around Melbourne that summer, identified by scientists as  Plague Soldier Beetles, Chauliognathus lugubris.

A native species, its common name refers to its habit of forming huge mating swarms. They can appear in such large numbers that it is not uncommon for them to weigh down the limbs of weaker plants.

Their bright colour warns off predators and they are capable of releasing distasteful chemicals and so would not make a good meal.

It was nice to know the beetles were not interested in harming humans –

    not so another more recent encounter with the insect world.

When a Bee Turns Out to be A Wasp

During an afternoon working in the garden clearing overgrown vines from the fenceline, I noticed what I thought was half a dozen bees hovering near the corner of the house.

Later in the evening, when I went outside to bring in the washing I noticed the ‘bees’ were increasing in numbers and were going under the house, almost in a straight line. On closer inspection, I was pretty sure my bees were wasps.

European-Wasp-Infographic

A phone call to a local pest control company and their prompt response confirmed my fears were worse than I realised. The busy bees were European wasps and they had started to build a nest under the house!

Removal of the creepy-crawlies was completed by two men suitably attired with protective gear and spray guns full of a natural powdered essence that killed the wasps or put them into a stupor and drove them elsewhere.

Stop Press – Ross River Fever in Frankston

Last month, the Health Minister announced that six cases of Ross River Fever, a mosquito-borne virus had been detected in Melbourne – some in Frankston – a skip and a jump from Mordialloc.

There is a state-wide outbreak.

Usually, the virus is contained to specific areas where the mosquitoes carrying the virus are found. None of the six cases had travelled to those areas.

According to Wikipedia diseases transmitted by mosquitoes also include: malaria, dengue, West Nile virus, chikungunya, yellow fever, filariasis, Japanese encephalitis, Saint Louis encephalitis, Western equine encephalitis, Eastern equine encephalitis, Venezuelan equine encephalitis, La Crosse encephalitis and Zika fever.

I remember the shock when a close friend from university, Jan Storr died from Murray Valley Encephalitis after a camping holiday. John knew this grief too because a young organiser in his Union died from the same disease.

A lot of grief from such a tiny insect…

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Are insects taking over the world?

I’m not paranoid but I’ve never had a wasp invasion before and I’ve never seen so many spiders recently which makes me wonder have insect populations increased?

A quick question to Google and I discovered this research

Urban Warming Drives Insect Pest Abundance on Street Trees

Our results provide the first evidence that heat can be a key driver of insect pest outbreaks on urban trees. Since urban warming is similar in magnitude to global warming predicted in the next 50 years, pest abundance on city trees may foreshadow widespread outbreaks as natural forests also grow warmer.

… we’re looking at a future full of tiny, deadly insects.

Though scale insects are harmless for humans and don’t conjure up the shivers the way cockroaches and mosquitos do, they might be far more harmful to the environment than these other apocalypse-loving pests. The main problem is that they attack trees, which are a crucial cornerstone of urban ecosystems.

On Quora the question was asked:

Why don’t insects who outnumber us greatly, take over the world?

The response?

What makes you think they haven’t? 

If we exterminated all insects on this planet by whatever means we could invent, we would also doom ourselves.

We rely upon insects and other invertebrates to pollinate our food crops, if we didn’t have pollinators, we’d be dead.

When something dies, invertebrates clear up the corpse. Without them, we’d be living in a fetid mess of rotting corpses, dying from diseases that make mosquito-borne malaria look like fun.

We depend upon insects, even though they are not aware of it, they do rule the world, without them, we’re goners.

Somehow this rational answer isn’t that comforting – global warming could be driving an increase in more that tree insects.

As a writer with an overactive imagination, it’s the stuff horror movies are made of.

I remember Sunday School in Scotland and lustily singing praise to ‘all creatures great and small’ where the extent of interaction with insects was earwigs and bumblebees.

All Things Bright And Beautiful
Cecil F Alexander

Chorus:
All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful:
The Lord God made them all.

Each little flower that opens,
Each little bird that sings,
He made their glowing colours,
He made their tiny wings.

The purple-headed mountains,
The river running by,
The sunset and the morning
That brightens up the sky.

The cold wind in the winter,
The pleasant summer sun,
The ripe fruits in the garden,
He made them every one.

The tall trees in the greenwood,
The meadows where we play,
The rushes by the water,
To gather every day.

He gave us eyes to see them,
And lips that we might tell
How great is God Almighty,
Who has made all things well

 I’m not sure the same praise applies living in Australia!

The Australian Museum in Sydney ranks Australia’s most dangerous animals based on the level of threat they pose, plus how likely you are to encounter one in the wild.

The honey bee is number 2 on the list and the funnel web spider is number 7!

 

The humble honey bee, which is not native to Australia, comes second on the list because it’s both common and deadly to small subset of people. Being stung by 100 or so honey bees could put anyone at risk of a fatality, but for those who are highly-allergic, even a single sting can be a life threatening situation.

The honey bee has barbed stings, so it can only sting once. The purpose of the sting is to make you never want to bother a bee ever again…

Since 1927, 14 deaths from the spider have been recorded. It’s only the male bite that has proved fatal, however.

Direct UV light will kill a funnel web, so the spiders need somewhere to hide during the day and have been known to consider a shoe a perfectly adequate location. More commonly, the spiders builds burrows under something like a pile of bricks or a log.

Whenever I go by public transport to visit my daughter Anne I pass a mural at Balaclava Station – large colourful and bright I think it represents the food chain – the insect is much too large for my liking –

Things are definitely not always bright and beautiful – do you agree?

Nothing Trivial About Halloween

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Sometimes a random event or deliberate attempt to move out of our comfort zone is needed to remind us it’s not ‘all about me’ and that the world on Earth is as diverse as the planets in the universe.

For most of us, each day is not a new adventure but the ‘same old, same old’ unless we make an effort to spice up our lives. Often this is during holiday times, entertaining visitors, celebrating anniversaries or birthdays, or special seasonal highlights like Christmas or  Halloween!

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Halloween celebrated in many countries on 31st October, commemorates the feast of All Hallows Day – the word being a contraction of All Hallows’ Eve . This Christian festival is thought to have been combined with the ancient pagan Celtic festival of Samhain (Samhuinn in Gaelic) held on November 1, to mark the culmination of summer and the harvest period with the onset of the cold, dark winter.

The festival symbolised the boundary between the world of the living and the world of the dead. On the night of 31st October, ghosts of the dead would walk again amongst them. If humans dared to walk abroad they needed light in the form of bonfires or lanterns. They disguised themselves by dressing up or wearing masks and offered gifts of food to keep the ghouls sweet!

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Most people are unaware of the strong Scottish connection and consider Halloween an American import to Australia – especially with the increase of commercialism attached to the event in the last few years. When I first arrived in Australia in 1962, Halloween was a non-event.

I’ve written about my Scottish childhood in Guising & Galoshens, a memoir extract published online in America explaining the traditions we celebrated.  Also, the poem, Halloween  by Robert Burns, one of my father’s favourite poets, depicts traditional beliefs and celebrations going back centuries for the Scots.

  • Guising or galoshens – where we dressed in old clothes visiting neighbours and singing or reciting a song, poem or joke before being rewarded with goodies.
  • Dookin’ for apples – a  game involving trying to grab apples floating in a tub of water by using your mouth with your hands behind your back, or sitting on a chair and trying to spear an apple by dropping a fork from your mouth into the water.
  • Treacle scones – with hands tied or held behind your back, and in some cases blindfolded, participants of this game have to take a bite out of treacle covered scones hanging from ropes after being spun around and made disoriented.

Halloween
Mairi Neil

On the last night of October beware,
The witches and spirits are about
Make sure you dress with special care.
On the last night of October beware,
Perform some tricks for delicious fare
But be extra polite and never shout
On the last night of October beware,
The witches and spirits are about.

Scary apparitions wander street and lane
Halloween is their special night
Your imagination may drive you insane
Scary apparitions wander street and lane.
It’s a night for real ghosts to reign
In the dark where there’s no light
Scary apparitions wander the lanes.
Halloween is their special night.

Ordinary people may don a disguise
As shadowy figures designed to scare
Werewolves, wizards and witches rise
Ordinary people may don a disguise
The ‘best pretend ghoul’ wins the prize
‘Take off your mask’ the fearless dare
To ordinary people donning a disguise
As shadowy figures designed to scare

And as we wander lane and street
Witches and spirits love Halloween
We never think any harm we’ll meet
In that wandering of lane and street
Believing ghosts are just bedsheets
Real evil ghouls are never seen
As we wander lane and street – oh!
We forgot real ghouls love Halloween!

Halloween With a Difference

In Melbourne, Halloween falls in spring. By October, we’ve already changed the clocks to give ourselves more daylight making a mockery of many of the traditions associated with Halloween that emphasise darkness – literally and metaphorically – many of the traditions from a different hemisphere just don’t gel.

But who needs logic once you enter the realm of the supernatural, witches, spirits and mythology?  Australians are adaptable if nothing else. We are a multi-cultural melting pot, therefore many people and places  throw themselves into macabre theatricality for Halloween. (The ‘ghoulish’ photos on here were taken at The Greyhound in St Kilda.)

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On Thursday evening, October 27, I went to The Greyhound Hotel and joined my daughters and two of their friends for a Buffy Trivia night.

The Hellmouth comes to St Kilda for one night only!

Buffy Trivia is coming to the GH hotel.

Join your hostesses Amena Jay and Penny Cillin for a night of trivia to test your knowledge on all things Sunnydale, with special themed shows including songs from Once More With Feeling.

The GH kitchen will be open with heaps of delicious dinner options available.

Heaps of prizes up for grabs, for the winners of each round, best costume and a cash prize for the overall winning team.

So grab your scoobies and book a table now – this one will sell out fast! (teams must be between 2 – 6 only)

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For the uninitiated, Buffy the Vampire Slayer from film and a long-running TV series developed a huge fan-fiction base. Written by Joss Whedon, the character of Buffy is a slayer, one in a long line of young women chosen for a specific mission: to seek out and destroy vampires, demons and other forces of darkness.

Buffy is at high school and surrounds herself with best friends who are helpers in the fight against darkness. My daughter started watching the show when she was young and fell in love with Joss Whedon’s characters and his writing – he certainly knows how to write suspense and for emotional engagement!

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MJ is regarded as an expert on Buffy – which is one of the reasons her older sister Anne suggested we book a table for the Trivia Night. For those old enough to remember the beginnings of a show called Mastermind Mary Jane could be on that show with Buffy as her special subject, she is that good!

MELBOURNE’S PREMIER ENTERTAINMENT VENUE.

When you think of the GH hotel the first thing that comes to mind is, ‘Iconic St Kilda pub offering a little bit of something for everyone’! With a terrific public bar offering Tasty food, great drink specials and some light hearted entertainment it is the perfect place for an after work drink or chilled out Sunday session.

One of Melbourne’s original live entertainment venues the GH has not only stood the test of time but a recent multi million dollar renovation has seen the addition of the incredible Showroom, playing host to a variety of International acts as well as our own long-running stage shows and DJ’s every Friday and Saturday night.

The evening at The Greyhound was hosted by two well-known drag queens who entertained the crowd through three rounds of quizzes.

MJ did not disappoint  – we were on table 13 (an omen?) – and she came equal first with 9 out of 10 for the first two rounds, only missing out on the third round.

In the bag full of prizes she won for our team called “We wear the cheese’ (a quote that Buffy enthusiasts recognise) there was at least some memorabilia she didn’t have – although not the point of the evening, it is nice she was rewarded. The rest of us wouldn’t have won.

The show was a far cry from anything I’d experienced as a child dressing up and performing for Halloween! It was the first time I’d been to a drag queen performance.

There were plenty of gender jokes and much made of the dresses (several fabulous outfits) and generally mocking each other. The show definitely not ‘politically correct’.  I’m sure some feminists may be offended but clothes don’t define who or what we are and I accepted the over-the-top performances as entertainment. There was no malice in the banter between Amena Jay and Penny Cillin or their interaction with the audience.

The Buffy Trivia Night was fun, the food excellent and it was lovely being with my two daughters and their friends. It allowed MJ and me to recall our wonderful trip to LA in 2012 when we visited the house and high school used for the Buffy Tv series.

The Halloween of my childhood was a time filled with mystery, magic, and superstition rooted in the past. Many of the customs and games I accepted without wondering about their origin. However, in adulthood, on reflection I understand where a lot of my Irish mother’s superstitious sayings and actions come from – in some cases generations of mythology and belief:

  • Avoid crossing paths with black cats because they might bring bad luck.

This idea from the Middle Ages when many people believed that witches avoided detection by turning themselves into cats.

  • Don’t walk under ladders because that invites disaster or bad luck.

This superstition may have come from the ancient Egyptian belief that triangles were sacred.

  •  Avoid breaking mirrors – or risk seven years bad luck.

This dates back to the Romans who believed it took seven years for life to renew itself. If  not of good health, your image would break the mirror and the run of bad luck would continue for the period of seven years, at the end of which  life would be renewed, the body  physically rejuvenated, and the curse ended.

  • Don’t step on  cracks in the road because misfortune will strike

Cracks on the road or pavement lead directly to the underworld and evil demons just waiting to be released. Cracks  signal gaps in the boundaries between the earthly realm and the metaphysical realm.

  • Don’t spill salt or sit 13 at the dinner table or you’ll have bad luck.

These two common superstitions originate from The Last Supper. A close examination of Leonardo da Vinci’s painting of the Last Supper, reveals that Judas Iscariot has knocked the salt cellar over with his elbow. Spilled salt became associated with treachery and lies and so if you spill salt, a pinch thrown over your left shoulder is supposed to blind the devil waiting there. Da Vinci painted the symbolism but the origin is probably from earlier times.

In ancient times, salt was expensive and precious, in some cases  used as currency. Spilling salt was tantamount to throwing away money therefore must have been caused by the devil. A pinch over your shoulder would blind the devil and make him think twice about trying to trick again.

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Today, Halloween provides a safe way to play with the concept of death. People dress up as all sorts of characters including the living dead. In America fake gravestones adorn front lawns along with giant spider webs, skeletons, witches suspended from trees and other decorations. Parties and activities are organised that wouldn’t be tolerated at other times of the year.

Crass commercialism and mass marketing aside, Halloween can be time spent having fun socialising and exploding some of the silly superstitions that have no place in the real world.

Let’s drink to diversity, difference, and delight in all things trivial!

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Escapism Via Flash Fiction

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After class, today, chatting with one of my students who is a fairly new immigrant from Turkey, we shared how the sadness in the world saps our creativity.

Understandably, she is worried about her family and friends after the recent events in Turkey and with family and friends in the UK, USA, and Europe I too seem to be in a constant state of worry – as well as being concerned for my Turkish student and other Turkish friends!

It is too easy to tune into ABC24 and the plethora of social media news, too easy to become addicted or obsessed about hearing the latest updates, too easy to be stressed, too easy to focus on anything but writing!

I tend to be a worrier but also highly sensitive to other people’s woes – compassion a core family value, along with a sense of social responsibility and community.

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My writing can be therapy and escapism, as well as a way to try and make sense or understand the indefensible, irrational and the unfathomable aspects of human nature and behaviour. I don’t keep a journal but often scribble my feelings into notebooks or fashion a poem or short piece of prose.

Times of emotional trauma or physical upheaval make it difficult to concentrate and when local or global tragedies occur, focus on substantial creative projects wanes, or is lost completely.

Thank goodness for writing classes!

Regardless of how empty I feel, once I’m in the safe space of my writing classes with the lesson plan in hand I let my imagination loose for the 15-20 minutes of stream of consciousness writing that is the ‘splurge’.

Sitting beside my students, I can become a writer rather than the teacher.

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The skills of fiction and nonfiction are not mutually exclusive, and mastering or even flirting with one can have a transformative effect on the other.

Zachary Petit, Writer’s Digest

Today, we concentrated on the importance of opening lines. Not just because it is important to grab the reader’s attention but also as a way of jump-starting our imagination.

It never ceases to amaze me the variety and quality of the stories random splurges produce and today was no different.

A good opening line is a powerful thing: It can grab an editor’s attention, set the tone for the rest of the piece, and make sure readers stay through The End!

Jacob M. Appel

This is why it is called a HOOK – just like a fish at the end of the line, you want to keep your readers hanging in there!

Splurge – Try one of these story openings:

  • He’d always had the perfect golf grip. The one he used on the gun wasn’t bad, either.
  • Palm trees always reminded me of him/her. (You can substitute any other flora)
  • Parker was definitely not singing in the rain.
  • I think that after you lose your car keys three days in a row, you should just be able to stay home.
  • The devil always finds work for idle hands to do, according to Mr Smith our science teacher – and he should know.
  • My alter-ego came to life one summer in 1975. (Or another date!)
  • The scraping noise was Grandfather’s chair on the flagged tile floor.
  • ‘Who is it, Madeleine?’
  • The crushed carcass of the car outside the corner garage revealed a truth Constable Thomson didn’t want to face.

 

Night Terror
Mairi Neil (flash fiction of 750 words)

The scraping noise was Grandfather’s chair on the slate floor, but why is he in the kitchen now?

The clock in the hallway, ticked, whirred, and chimed the half-hour. Tim checked his Father’s fob watch on the bedside table: 3.30am.

How did Grandfather manage the stairs by himself – and why? Is Mum downstairs too? Tim held his breath, but no tell-tale cough announced his mother’s presence; no whistle of steam from the kettle on the range.

When Mum’s in the kitchen, there’s always the clink of china cups, although this is a strange hour for a tea party.

Another creak, low and sinister, followed by the scraping noise again.

Tim imagined the chair rocking back and forth in front of the wood-fired stove. The old man huddling forward, gnarled hands stretching towards the open oven door, willing the radiated heat to warm arthritic bones.

Mum must be there – who else stoked and lit the fire? Tim concentrated; listened for murmuring voices.

The morning ritual always the same; Grandfather and his crook legs and weak heart only make it downstairs by leaning on Mum’s arm and gripping the bannister.

Maybe they couldn’t sleep and Mum lit the fire to keep the old man company and now they’re absorbed in one of the story-telling sessions they seem to like so much. Always talking about the past. Tim often wished he had a time machine like the man in the book he borrowed from the library.

He burrowed deeper into warm bedclothes, his small face, a flat white stone in an inky river of shadows. His breath drifted in uneven puffs in the cold air and twitching his nose his eyes widened with remembering. If Grandfather is rocking in front of the fire he’d be smoking his pipe, a habit he said helped him count his blessings. But no pungent tobacco smoke wafted up the staircase to cloud the room.

An asthmatic cough from the room across the hall punctuated the night before fading into gentle snoring almost immediately.

And Mum is still asleep. Who is downstairs? A thief? Tim shuddered. Who could make an intruder leave?

So many homeless men living by the railway line. Men who cadged meals and money before stowing away on one of the frequent goods trains that crisscrossed the land. Desperate men with nothing to lose. Men fighting to survive bad economic times.

Has one broken in and settled by the fire? Tim’s eyelids flickered and he fought back tears. Troubled blue eyes stared at the dresser, found the photograph of his father, pale in the muted moonlight shining through threadbare curtains.

If only the mining accident hadn’t happened, Dad would make the intruder leave. Tim clenched his teeth.

He remembered the burly man at the door yesterday. His offer to chop wood for two shillings – the price of a flagon of sherry.

Mum confessed their poverty and offered a sandwich. The man’s hairy top lip twisted. ‘Only if there’s dessert,’ he said, menacing eyes staring too long at Mum’s chest before returning to her flushed face.

Tim sensed his Mum’s fear as she slammed the door, rammed the bolt across, pressed her shaking body against the entrance as if the oak panels needed help to keep the man out.

His ten-year-old hands fisted, but Grandfather’s restraining hand on his shoulder held him firm. He hated the old man for his whispered, ‘You’re too young, boy,’ but had a rush of pity when Grandfather added, ‘and I’m too old.’

Blood surged in Tim’s ears. He gripped the bedsheets, his racing heartbeat competing with the scraping and rumbling below. He must go downstairs and face the intruder, prove to Grandfather he was not too young, prove to Mum he could protect her.

The curtains billowed and a gust of even colder air swirled around the room. Tim froze. Perhaps it was a ghost downstairs. Dad or Grandmother visiting – they both had favoured the chair by the fire. The scraping noise accompanied by a rustling as if hands searched canisters.

An almighty crash followed the rattling of crockery. Tim cowered under the blankets until a shattering of glass and china was joined by grunting and snarling.

And his Mum spluttering, ‘Damn possums!’

Tim searched for his slippers and met his mother in the hallway as she recovered from a coughing fit.

They hurried downstairs. A tremulous smile playing on Tim’s lips as the stairs creaked and Grandfather’s chair scraped on the slate floor.

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It’s a helluva start, being able to recognize what makes you happy.

Lucille Ball

Writing makes me happy.

Why not choose a first line and write a story – escape from sadness and tragedy for a few moments with some flash fiction fun!

Aware of Bravery and Courage but who Determines these Expectations of Living?

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This past week the media was saturated with talk, film, interviews and documentaries about bravery, especially in relation to ANZAC Day. I thought a lot about a relative cut down in his youth (19years old) and buried far from home.

 This week too,  we discussed in some of my classes that bravery and courage comes in many forms. I asked students to take the writing prompt COURAGE and write a story or personal memoir – fact or fiction – with this as the theme.

One isn’t necessarily born with courage, but one is born with potential. Without courage, we cannot practice any other virtue with consistency. We can’t be kind, true, merciful, generous, or honest.

Maya Angelou

Courage may be standing up to a bully, announcing a divorce, owning up to a misdemeanour, coping with illness or facing a phobia, challenging an unreasonable boss, deciding to emigrate, or travelling alone…

There are plenty of quotes from celebrities about their ideas of the meaning of courage – I distributed a sheet of quotes to trigger a memory, or an essay to agree or disagree.

A concept like courage is a bit like beauty, it can be ‘in the eye of the beholder.’ A topic where we bring our own experiences and emotions to bear. Interpretations very much depending on our perspective, culture, perhaps even religion. 

Society often has a military definition or one where people do something for the civic good, but we all have our own memories of having to show courage, or of witnessing bravery – and when and how we did is a good topic to write about, reflect on, and share the story with others – especially if writing to leave a legacy for others.

Courage is fire, and bullying is smoke.                    

Benjamin Disraeli

The responses from students were inspirational and revealing. It is yet another topic we could fill pages writing creatively about and as usual I suggested to my class if they don’t want to write a ‘true’ account, it’s a good theme for a story or poem – and there is no shortage of anniversaries of battles or conflicts to ensure whatever you produce is topical!

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The refugees and asylum seekers and their rescuers show tremendous courage – picture from The Daily Mail.

Some of the responses in class:

  • It takes courage to believe in yourself, ignore the inner voice that whispers failure, to live your life working towards a goal and not succumbing to those who would sidetrack you.
  • It takes courage to speak socially or even speak one to one if you have inhibitions or a speech impediment or lack knowledge of social graces.
  • Courage is needed to tell close friends what you think, even if your opinion offends or is critical, or not what they want to hear. Suppressing the truth or true feelings is often indoctrinated into our culture and it takes courage to be your own person – that courage has to be tempered with wisdom.
  • For those with a diagnosed mental illness, especially GAD ( Generalised Anxiety Disorder) it takes courage to face the day, mix with people, cope with simple everyday situations, sit exams.
  • People who are different struggle with bullying, rejection, and the expectations of others. It can be a brave decision to get out of bed, never mind leave the house.
  • There are activists and whistleblowers who face losing their job by taking a stand, or speaking out – conscientious objectors as brave as those who sign up for war, or those just ‘doing their duty’.
  • Sometimes it is more courageous to remain silent or not to act – whether a nurse, teacher, or parent – sometimes people have to learn to stand on their own feet or make their own mistakes and onlookers or mentors have to be brave enough to not interfere.
  • There are a range of phobias (here is a list of the top 100)  from fear of spiders (arachnophobia), to fear of heights (acrophobia), fear of open or crowded spaces ( agoraphobia) to fear of small spaces (claustrophobia) and a combination of some or all of these that many people suffer yet try and conquer everyday.

Ideas and topics flow but as creative writers we have to bring others into our world and have them experience our emotions. Not an easy task, especially if you try and avoid cliched descriptions.

One of the challenges a fiction writer faces, especially when prolific, is coming up with fresh ways to describe emotions. This handy compendium fills that need. It is both a reference and a brainstorming tool, and one of the resources I’ll be turning to most often as I write my own books.”

James Scott Bell, bestselling author of Deceived and Plot & Structure

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I’ve never considered myself a courageous person, far from it – my body reacts quickly to confronting situations with telltale signs of anxiety or fear. Panic attacks, angry outbursts, hysterical laughter, dry-mouthed silence – I’ve experienced them all and at 63, I still blush and suffer a nervous rash that is barely hidden by one of the many scarves I use as camouflage.

I know a dread of speaking in public is high on many people’s lists of fear so my reaction was not unique at the Australia Day Awards, and later International Women’s Day when I had to speak to a room full of strangers, acquaintances, and friends.

My mouth dried and wouldn’t be lubricated by lips about to crack and a tongue that felt like a piece of wood clogging my throat. I could feel my heart galloping and thought others could see it jumping through my silk blouse. I was sure my face glowed fire-engine red because it felt aflame. The walk to the stage on Australia Day took 30 seconds and my acceptance speech all of two minutes but for me, that was an act of courage.

In my teenage, I survived two severe road accidents, one as a passenger in a car, the other while riding pillion on a motorcycle. I recall trying to stand after both of those accidents, legs shaking uncontrollably and feeling so cold I could have stepped from a freezer. The taste of blood in my mouth metallic and sour. The fear of speed, collision, and pain of getting hurt terrifies me still.

I never tried to get my driving licence, had one lesson from my Dad before I moved out of the home. When another car came towards us, I drove the car straight off the road into a ditch and my brothers had to come to get us out. I never sought lessons from anyone else. 

It doesn’t take much for me to relive those accidents and although I’m grateful for all the lifts people have given me in their cars, there are many journeys I avoided or chose a public transport option. Several I have taken took a lot of courage to get into the car. I still apply an ‘imaginary brake’ much to my daughters’ annoyance, although I feel extremely confident in their driving ability.

Nowadays, people are offered counselling after severe traffic accidents but in 1970 and 1971, PTSD or trauma counselling were not names frequently used – we were grateful to survive and left to our own recovery.

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I laugh often but cry easily too, and as I age, ‘the waterworks’ seem to turn on like a tap much more frequently than in the past. I don’t consider tears a sign of weakness, schoolyard ‘crybaby’ taunts forgotten, but I do wish sometimes I could control the upsurge of tears, especially when teaching. We share a lot of sad stories as well as joyous ones in Life Story classes and as the teacher, I should be more in control.

People have said they admire the way I coped with a friend’s suicide and then some months later, the death of my husband, John. However, it was a case of ‘faking it until you make it’ because the outward appearance did not match the turmoil within.

I had a pain in my chest for almost four years as if a stone pressed on my heart, palpitations struck randomly. Often I left Southland Shopping Centre or other places where people gathered, struggling to breathe.

A pattern of insomnia developed too and had me prowling the house in the middle of the night checking doors and each of my daughter’s rooms to make sure they were still safe and breathing.

I didn’t want to be with people but was terrified of being left lonely if something happened to the girls. To all those who thought me ‘brave’, I can only say looks are deceiving.

Many people have to adapt or find extra strength (courage?) to cope with grief, whether it’s losing a person, a home, a job, or health.

I have a fear of heights and have avoided many situations because of this. Although I faced this fear when younger and have the pictures to prove it. However, as I age, I’m not interested in overcoming Acrophobia by bungee jumping or sky-diving or some other extreme challenge and I’ve had occasions when I’ve been rooted to the spot unable to move – up or down!

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My acrophobia is not so severe that I don’t use lifts or stairs, or fear flying, but I can’t watch adventure documentaries without feeling the fear the participants should feel when they do climb or face great physical heights. I walked away when my daughters went on adrenaline generating rides like the current  Batwing Spaceshot and Green Lantern Coaster.

My body reacts as if it is happening to me: trembling, nausea, heart palpitations, tight chest, coldness chilling blood and bone, dizziness…

According to Wikipedia Acrophobia is an extreme or irrational fear or phobia of heights, especially when one is not particularly high up. It belongs to a category of specific phobias, called space and motion discomfort.

Perhaps I only have a version of the phobia because although I sometimes fear the height before I climb, the irrationality that sticks in memory is experiences of what to me seemed ‘great’ height and therefore the fear reasonable!

When did all this start and why? This question discussed in classes when the subject of phobias comes up – and it is a great topic for writers! Give a character a phobia as a flaw and then make them face it, an often-used trope in movies as well as books.

I explored my own fear in depth in a piece of writing because I’ve been scared of heights for as long as I can remember. Not heights in an enclosed space like flying, but when you are high up a mountain (even a hill) and look down. And as someone who loves travel, and has travelled, I’ve a few scary memories and also memories of missing out because of fear.

Standing on a mountain, atop a lookout, a building, a tower… the air circulates, there is no anchor, you can be grabbed or pushed over the edge to float like a scrap of paper to the ground or like a boulder tumble and rumble.

Whatever way I go, the result in mind’s eye, always death or severe pain.

I don’t know why I let my imagination focus on the horrors of losing my grip and/or falling. I can’t remember falling off a ladder and I never slept on a bunk bed until I was 9 years old and on the ship coming to Australia. By that time, my fear was established.

The deep recesses of memory are mined and I wonder if the fear started at middle primary school, at Holmescroft in Greenock, Scotland.

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Holmescroft School circa 1958 – I attended 1961

At Holmscroft, we did gymnastics every morning – well it seemed like every morning but was probably once a week. From memory, the gender segregated school grounds infiltrated the gym class and only the girls walked to the hall. Boys may have been considered more sturdy and exercised outside, or were removed to their own gym before the weaker sex marched in pairs dressed in white blouse and thick, ugly, navy blue knickers.

Inside, we jumped over obstacles, skipped and played ball games, scaled a wall ladder, somersaulted on rubber mats, and climbed a rope dangling from the ceiling. The morning organised and graded to ensure everyone learnt the skills the curriculum deemed necessary.

I close my eyes and can smell that rope; the years of impregnated sweat from thousands of school children who attended over its 74-year history. (Holmscroft was built in 1887.)

I feel the harsh texture as I gripped and pulled myself up the plaited python. It seemed a snake, swaying and wriggling, although anchored by a classmate to hold it steady.

The soft white skin on my hands ache and my upper legs chafe against a rope so hard it could be an iron bar. The climb difficult, chest tightening as I lift and puff using muscles I didn’t know were designed for this effort.

The teacher nags: ‘ Hurry up.’

‘ Use your feet more’

‘Put some effort in’

‘There’s a queue here’

‘For goodness sake stop huffing like an old woman’.

Higher and higher I crawl. Classmates egging on, others giggling calling me names: Frog, Toad, Caterpillar, Beetle. Can they see up the leg of my knickers where the elastic is loose? What do I look like creeping and hauling on this rope? What if the elastic bursts and my knickers fall?

The white ceiling grubby with marks from balls and even blobs of ink where smarty-pants pupils have aimed their pen nibs.

In 1961, we hadn’t been introduced to the luxury of fountain pens;  Biros and ballpoint still a dream in some inventor’s mind.

Everything blurs from perspiration trickling into my eyes. I want the ordeal to be over, but know I can’t take my hands off the rope to wipe my face.

Tiny fibres from the rope tickle my nose. I want to sneeze. I try to relieve the itch on my shoulder, look down, and stomach lurches. The wooden floor jumps and wobbles like some of my impatient classmates.

Miss King’s face looms large, all glasses and teeth. The parting of her grey hair a squiggly line, the clasp holding her bun in place mottled brown, like the picture of Granny on the mantlepiece at home. ‘Hurry up, girl,’ she snarls, ‘we haven’t got all day.’

The room echoes with the slap of sand-shoes skipping, stamping, running… balls bounce. I hear breath after breath of panting children expending energy with an enthusiasm lost to me.

Or is that panting breath mine?

I gasp for air, lose my grip, the python squirms backwards and forwards. Someone below has let go of the rope.

My arms are water pouring from the tap. The giant snake thrashes and whips. I need to pee. I want to throw up, yet if I take my hands off the rope I’ll crash to the ground.

I let my legs dangle for a moment before sliding to the floor.  Seconds later – thud. The pain excruciating, hands burning as if scalded. Legs and back winded by the wooden floorboards, numb at first before the throbbing begins.

Miss King’s scarlet face spits fury mixed with fright. ‘You stupid girl!’

Friends haul me up, commiserating, comforting. I wipe snot and tears with the sleeve of my blouse. The whiteness and freshness now rope-stained, dust-streaked and sweaty. What will Mum say? She always hoped we’d get ‘a couple of turns’ out of our school blouse.

I think of that eight-year-old, bullied into climbing a rope by an insensitive teacher. Panic triumphing over reason. Is that when my fear of heights began?

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Feel free to share a story of your fear and the courage it takes to conquer or at least survive situations demanding that extra bit of bravery.