It’s hard to Build a Frame of Mind for Writing – Seek Support and Encouragement

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Day Fourteen – Do you still have a blank screen?

For many writers, it’s difficult to make an initial start on a project – to find the words for that first sentence or paragraph.

When a global crisis strikes we’ve just multiplied our difficulties and anxiety a thousandfold!

But as the quote above emphasises unless you start, you can’t shape your idea into the story, poem, play, script, or novel that is inside waiting to be shared.

It’s important to know that all writers – even the ones with published best sellers – struggle at times to write or to write to a standard they’ve set for themselves. They too will be struggling with the consequences of COVID19 as various dramas play out.

We are all learning that human beings, regardless of who you are or where you live, are in this crisis together.

Fortunately, the World Wide Web is literally bursting with creative people sharing their skills and ideas. There is heaps of advice and encouragement suggesting activities.

But if you are isolated alone and depressed, or sharing a house with little privacy, motivation and serenity hard to muster.

Supporting each other and giving positive, critical feedback on a piece of writing is important. Just as important as being prepared to rewrite and edit your writing. Published writers have professional editors to offer support and feedback but for the majority of writers, support is found in understanding friends, writing groups and writing classes.

I look out my window onto a street normally packed with the cars of commuters, workers and visitors to the Aged Care Centre and also U3A attendees – Kingston U3A classes held a block away. Many workplaces are in lockdown and so are U3A classes, along with classes at community houses, schools, colleges…

Writers and those dreaming of being writers have lost their physical support and the important interaction, feedback and inspiration from face to face contact.

Write from memory?

Sore Feet and Soaring Thoughts – a haibun
Mairi Neil

A wonderful warm spring day. A clutch of residents from the nursing home, walk around the block for a dose of Vitamin D and fresh air. The two carers dressed in floral finery, not wings and halos.

Shuffling slippered feet
walker wheels squeak and sticks tap
dull pleated skirts flap…

Without a sideways glance, a gaggle of schoolgirls overtake the pensioner posse. They preen and prance. Laughter tinkles, iPod cords dangle, mobile phones jingle.

A raven squawks as
strutting peacocks and tired chooks
enjoy the sunshine

The ambulatory group not seeking to collide, or slide to the other side – yet. Today’s challenges taken in their stride.

Smiling carers guide
stumbling feet and rheumy eyes
to avoid a fall

Gnarled arthritic hands cling to walking frames bumping over paths once traversed with prams and baby strollers. Reminiscent of bygone children’s frolics, parrots chitter overhead and magpies chortle and caper.

Pavement cracks trigger
memories. Past lives flash of
mothers, daughters, wives.

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For all those finding their writing life interrupted and those new to writing, or using it as therapy, fun, a way to ease the boredom of life in isolation because of COVID9, I suggest you pick up a pen and write whatever comes to mind.

  • Write in response to prompts I’ve posted – not just since COVID19 disrupted our world but there are many posts with suggestions and ideas – just search or flick through the posts.
  • Write whenever a picture, comment, sound, smell triggers a memory or idea – sometimes a walk through your house will do this.
  • Where did you buy that painting? Why? Imagine yourself inside the painting looking out…
  • When and where was that photograph taken? Why? Can you describe the preparation, the occasion … is there something or someone missing?
  • Write a story or anecdote a friend or relative told you
  • Can you remember the funniest story you ever heard? What about the one that revealed life is stranger than fiction? The story you introduce by saying ‘you wouldn’t read about it…’
  • Write whatever you feel like venting about today
  • Write a list of what you have to celebrate
  • Record how you and your friends are coping with the forced isolation and all the conflicting news stories and advice
  • Jot down ideas, lists of observations and descriptions for characters you might use, overheard conversations, remembered dreams, absurd thoughts… all will come in handy when you feel up to writing or have that ‘place of one’s own’ to write.
  • Write a letter or email to a friend you haven’t heard from for a while or start regular correspondence with a friend or relative
  • Send Easter cards, postcards or letters to people you used to catch up with, or in lieu of whatever you used to do at Easter time
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keeping a record of ideas a gift to yourself

Writers Do Need To Write – We Are Society’s Storytellers & Storykeepers

Human beings can’t live without the illusion of meaning, the apprehension of confluence, the endless debate concerning the fault in the stars or in ourselves. The writer is just the messenger, the moving target.

Inside culture, the writer is the talking self.

Through history, the writing that lasts is the whisper of conscience. The guild of writers is essentially a medieval guild existing in a continual Dark Age, shaman, monks, witches, nuns, working in isolation, playing with fire.



When the first illuminated manuscripts were created, few people could read. Now that people are bombarded with image and information and the World Wide Web is an open vein, few people can read.

Reading with sustained attention, reading for understanding, reading to cut through random meaninglessness – such reading becomes a subversive act. The writer’s first affinity is not to a loyalty, a tradition, a morality, a religion, but to life itself, and to its representation in language.

Ego enters in, but writing is far too hard and solitary to be sustained by ego. The writer is compelled to write. The writer writes for love. The writer lives in spiritual debt to language, the gold key in the palm of meaning. Awake, asleep, in every moment of being, the writer stands at the gate.



The gate may open.


The gate may not.


Regardless, the writer can see straight through it.

Edmond Jabès

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Writing Activities To Try Today

MOOD

It was a dark and stormy night’ may be cliched but it is a good example of setting the mood straight away!

  • The MOOD is the created atmosphere or context of your story.

Films set the mood by lighting, sound effects, selected music and the tone and delivery of the actors’ dialogue and actions.

In poetry and prose, writers must rely on the words we use – we must choose the right phrases to paint the scene and create the mood.

By considering the theme and purpose of your story you can determine the mood that will engage the reader:

Sombre, light-hearted, otherworldly, comical, sacred, upbeat, depressing, scary, angry…

  • The PLOT is the sequence of events that happen, the THEME is the underlying thread that connects all of these things.

A theme is what gives a particular work its depth, texture, and meaning.

To remember the difference between plot and theme, author Colin Thiele offers this advice:

A plot is what the book is about. The theme is what the book is really about.”

Points to consider

  • Who is your audience and what do you want to tell them?
  • What effect do you want your words to have on the reader?
  • What word choice will make your work spooky, suspenseful, comical, touching or inspiring…

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Your Turn

Set the mood in the first paragraph and write on the theme of friendship or sacrifice
For example:

  • To have a friend you must be a friend
  • Life is a series of ups and downs

During this catastrophic global crisis – the big picture – there are examples of countries helping each other with medical supplies and workers. There are also many closed borders. What stories can you write about the positives and negatives of borders… narrow it down to the effect on one or two people – lovers separated, families stranded, strangers showing kindness…

Everywhere communities are rejigging how they do things – daily activities turned upside down, new habits formed, a greater awareness of what is important, what are necessities, luxuries, privileges…

  • Scientists sharing knowledge
  • Sudden job loss, facing ill-health, separations but also new friends, hobbies, activities…

Create a character or write from a personal point of view.

Five Writing Prompts Based on Theme

Choose one of the following famous quotes for a story and think of the theme it suggests – you can choose a different one that is assumed:

  1. You never reach the promised land. You can march towards it. (IDEALISM)
  2. At the end of your life, you will never regret not having passed one more test, winning one more verdict or not closing one more deal. You will regret time not spent with a husband, a child, a friend or a parent. (SUCCESS)
  3. Are you there God? It’s me, Margaret. I just told my mother I want a bra. Please help me grow God. You know where. I want to be like everyone else. (YOUTH)
  4. If grass can grow through cement, love can find you at every time in your life. (LOVE)
  5. A truth that’s told with bad intent beats all the lies you can invent. (TRUTH)

Here are some of my old efforts written in class – I know you can do better:)

This one was an editing exercise and ironically seems relevant living under the spectre of COVID19. It was prompted by editing but has a theme of truth The Answer Not Blowing In the Wind, a short story of 395 words by Mairi Neil

This one was from a prompt of ‘a parked white van’, theme love See Change – Mairi Neil

This one was from a prompt about changing seasons, theme love and friendship Late Bloomer a short story of 499 words

Happy Writing

Armchair Travel Can be Fun If You Share Your Stories

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Day Thirteen – Writing About Where you’ve Been – What Have You Seen?

In a world where COVID19 has locked down, cities, countries, and communities and people are practising social isolation, now is the time to reflect and relive your travels.

Time to sort out memories, photographs and mementoes and write about them from the safety of your home.

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my little bear at the mailbox

You may have had time before but needed the inclination or incentive…  hopefully, you’ll gather some ideas as you read this post.

Reality says it may be many months before we will be able to do anything but armchair travel if the destination we seek is in another country or even another state.

Today, think about writing your recollections as a contribution to collective knowledge and adding to history/herstory – especially if you have photographs.

The spread and damage of COVID19, has produced new border controls, changes to travel, work and leisure… the world is not going to be the same after this global catastrophe.

Your memories and stories have always been important to you, they may now be important to others.

I’ve been privileged to travel widely since a child. Since blogging, I’ve shared some recent travels – to Samoa, to Mongolia, to Russia, to England and to Scotland – and many places in Victoria as a volunteer for Open House Melbourne, Ballarat and Bendigo.

I’ve been inspired to write poetry as well as short stories or personal essays to explain  memorable experiences:

Visiting Singapore 1973 – a haibun
Mairi Neil

We crowd on deck as the cruise ship glides into Singapore harbour, a week after leaving Fremantle. The silver sun aglow in a cloudless azure sky. Skin fiery scarlet from too many hours in the ship’s pool as Singapore City wobbles and wilts in the heat.

I ache for relief
from this tantalising veil
and covet the sea

Engines thrum and screeches of gulls mask the first hint a change is on the way. Rain falls in sheets and shafts. Solid blocks of water pound the decks.

Clouds scud across sky
the veil now a fog blanket
hiding the city.

Beneath our feet racing rivers fill deck gutters and our shoes. On automatic pilot, we slosh for cover, although there is no icy wind in this downpour.

No unsettling chill
just instant relief
from relentless heat

Rain hammers metal, swamps furniture and people, drenching everything not covered. Metal rails hiss. Steam sizzles on the shrinking, not sinking ship. No crevice escapes. A continuous stream of trickles and dribbles demonstrates the power of this deluge.

A turmoil of grey
idyllic tropics in grip
of monsoonal rain

Yet, within minutes, the ship docks and the downpour stops as quickly as it began. Singapore city a perfect watercolour painting showcases sunlight and serenity. The tropical shower and haze but a dream as perspiration leaks from every pore.

Share Your Travel Memories

Once you have organised a story – or many – enjoy the pleasure of armchair travel and swap with those in isolation with you.  Or share online via Skype, Face Time or Zoom. The digital tools available ensure your photos or slides will be more entertaining than the slide shows of old.

I remember more than a few family and friends falling asleep when I showed my China slides in 1979!

However, when I taught at Sandybeach Centre 20 years ago, they ran a regular program for people with limited mobility called Armchair Travel, and I volunteered one afternoon to share my China travels. I had learnt to choose the most interesting slides for that audience. I targeted correctly and they retained interest and were appreciative. Make sure your pitch matches your readers, listeners or viewers:)

Anyone who travelled in the 50s – 70s will remember those family slide nights before Super 8 movies superseded the modern version of ‘magic lantern’ shows in village halls.

People have always been fascinated by travel tales, especially of the exotic and unusual. The popularity of Sir David Attenborough or the Leyland brothers is testimony to that!

The shelves of the  Travel Section in bookstores are always overflowing and Lonely Planet publications have been successfully guiding adventurous travellers for years. 

Updates when friends travel flood social media with Facebook and Instagram designed for travel photos more than any other.

But these pics are soon forgotten unless you put them into context with words. Write a few sentences about each pic or retell your experiences over a beer or cuppa.

What Travel Experience Can You Write About?

Think and share what made your travel experience different from those of thousands of others. Even if you haven’t travelled overseas or interstate you have a travel story because you can write about your neighbourhood and everyday journeys.

In 2012, Mordialloc Writers’ Group published our 8th collection of poems and stories, Off The Rails, around the theme of the Frankston Railway Line – a journey thousands of people do daily and a topic the 21 featured writers embraced with relish and creativity.

You might have journeyed on the Orient Express, the Trans Siberian, the Flying Scotsman or Puffing Billy – write about:

  • why you made the journey
  • who was with you
  • the people you met
  • the best memory
  • the worst memory
  • if you would do it again

Remember too, those walks around the neighbourhood you are allowed during COVID19 can turn up ideas for stories – fictionalised if you want. Set a story in one of the houses that intrigues you or garden you admire…

Ask questions that you don’t know the answers to:

  • Who, what, why, when, where… and make up the answers!

I took these pictures this morning when walking the dog.

Who did the drawing? What was their motivation?  How long will the drawings stay there?

Write up the reactions of people – good and bad – was seeing them transformational for someone? Did it trigger memories?

The drawing of Frida Kahlo stunning for a child or teenager to draw – could be the start of an intriguing mystery or a memory of a visit to Mexico?

There are houses with bears or pictures of bears in the window – I’ve put my bear outside yet there are no children living here now.

Your characters in the story don’t have to be obvious or stereotypical.

A house advertised a birthday boy – 8 years old today. His party probably cancelled yet his parents found a way to make him feel special and stay connected to the outside world.

Write a story where you or your character has to find a creative solution to a problem.

How do you make someone feel special in this catastrophic time if you normally treat them to an outing?

 What’s your funniest travel story?

Humour is a great way to make a story memorable and different from everyone else’s experience. The stuff-ups or unexpected laughs are usually the tales we recount first (and often) when we return from our trip.

Humorous framing or retelling can also ease the embarrassment or shame when you make a cultural faux pas or do something stupid like miss a flight, board the wrong train, get lost in a foreign city or say something strange in a foreign language you just learned.

Here is my tale of travelling with a young child in the 90s:

What is the strangest thing that has happened to you travelling?

What is the nicest (or most horrible) food you have eaten when travelling?

(A class exercise Monday 15th October 2012 )

Have You a Taste For Travel?
Mairi Neil 

When I went to Alice Springs in 2011, to walk the Larapinta Trail, I braced myself for the time when I would be offered a witchetty grub. I remembered a student, Amelia reading a story of her encounter with the delicacy when she worked as an infant welfare nurse in the Northern Territory in the 1950s. I didn’t want to shame myself by refusing and offending indigenous hosts if they offered me a meal.

Five giggling Aboriginal girls had arrived at Amelia’s house with outstretched hands, displaying half-a-dozen thick white grubs whose sluggish twists indicated they were still alive.

The girls’ gift a gesture to show Amelia she had been accepted by the community. Amelia assured me that once cooked, the grubs tasted meaty. She shared a picture of herself, sitting on the ground in a circle around a campfire, head tilted back and mouth open, ready to accept the long white grub poised above her. Her eyes sparkled as a friend snapped the photograph for posterity.

Could I be as gracious and adventurous as Amelia?

The thought of putting what looked like a fat white caterpillar into my mouth, never mind swallowing it, made me nauseous. I’ve always had what my mother referred to as a ‘weak’ stomach – perhaps if I closed my eyes I’d be able to eat enough not to offend. If I concentrated I’d be able to keep it down rather than gagging or vomiting – my usual reaction to nasty tastes.

The more I thought of eating witchetty grubs the more obsessed I became of what they would taste like. They looked shiny and soft. What meat could they be like with that texture? Perhaps they firmed when cooked. A vision of people crunching on cooked insects surfaced as I remembered the fascinating produce of street vendors when I visited China in 1979.

I remembered too, the constant dissection and examination of every meal on that tour by one of the other travellers in our group. She made me long for a Vegemite sandwich as she poked and dismembered every meal with chopsticks looking for evidence we were being served rat, cat or dog. Cultural assumptions and prejudices rife when it comes to food and her behaviour shameful.

Why I couldn’t I embrace a meal of witchetty grubs, when research provides evidence of their nutritional value? Was I riddled with prejudice too?

Near the end of the five-day trek in Central Australia, I had to face the witchetty grub dilemma. Throat constricted and mouth dry, I could barely form the words to ask our Aboriginal guide, Nicholas to describe the taste of the large fat witchetty grub wriggling in the palm of his hand.

Sweat bubbled on his lip from exertion. A streak of dirt above one eye where he’d wiped his brow, gave a warrior glint to his expression as he showed the delicacy with pride. Nicholas and his auntie had spent almost an hour digging at the roots of an acacia bush to retrieve the prize. ‘It tastes like the yolk of an egg,’ he said, ‘and has a similar texture.’

He watched me closely and must have seen the mix of emotions cross my face, perhaps heard the gulp as I tried to swallow. Egg is not one of my favourite tastes.

‘One witchetty grub,’ he said, almost to himself.

I realised how much he craved the wriggling grub in his hand but innate generosity obliged him to give it to me.

‘It’s not really big enough to share,’ I said. ‘You and auntie did all the hard work. Maybe I’ll taste them another day.’

Our smiles of relief a mirror match as Nicholas hurried away before I changed my mind.

What Armchair Travels Will You Create?

Can you match a photograph with a short poem like haiku or terse verse? I write this after a trip to Italy but it could apply to many famous places crowded with tourists. The joke about ‘exiting through the gift shop’ is very much a reality in our consumer-driven world. What do you think those communities are like now?

Write about what a place was like when you were there and research what it is like now and write a comparison.

Verona Italy

Memories of Lago Di Garda, Italy
Mairi Neil, 2013

Lake Garda absorbs the rainbow on her shores,
sways to the call of African and Indian hawkers,
moans softly as the Peler, a northern breeze,
blows from pine-clad slopes, and is
ready for the challenging midday switch
when Ora, a cooler wind, whistles from the south.
Reminiscent of a Norwegian Fjord
She is the lake who thinks she is the sea

Each afternoon she lifts the rocky hem
of her blue dress and sashays to pick at
sun-bleached pebbles or reedy soil.
Fat ducks and swans float and gossip. Gulls dive,
searching the lake’s belly for lunch or supper
Rumbling planes overhead ripple her dress
and she runs icy fingers through sandy frills
sparkling with a thousand scattered gems.

She ignores the constant drone of tourist motorbikes,
bicycles, cars and coaches speeding through galleries
built by Mussolini and prefers the memories of
Hannibal, Hardy, Goethe, Rilke and Wharton.
Torbole fishermen, tend boats and mend nets
as they have done since the fifteenth century,
amused and puzzled by modern foolishness,
their dark eyes follow colourful flapping sails.

Lake Garda’s duty is to be Madame Bountiful,
nurturing sardines, eels, carpione and trout.
Tourists and locals, promenade to and fro Riva
or ride the ferries that trust her arms.
Summer and winter sun attracts holidaymakers,
but Lake Garda indulges lovers of sports trophies,
scantily clad onlookers, and awestruck children
who worship at the shrine of physical prowess.

Lake Garda – the lake who thinks she is the sea.

More Writing Prompts

  • Write a prose poem about a place or a short story recreating the setting.
    What memories are evoked?
  • Choose a place that makes you happy or sad; or two different places where you have had contrasting experiences. (Perhaps a childhood compared with adult experience, going somewhere alone compared with a trip with family or friends, seasonal visits – winter compared to summer, idyllic memories compared to the place after a natural disaster.)
  • Contrast the two places or the mixed feelings about the same place.

Write a HAIBUN ( a combination of prose and haiku) – about your journey/journeys.

HAIBUN (hie’-bun, the “u” pronounced as in “put”) A Japanese form in which a prose text is interspersed with verse, specifically haiku. A haiku typically appears at the end of a haibun, but other haiku may appear earlier, even at the beginning. Haibun often takes the form of a diary or travel journal.

Write a poem or story using the technique of an extended metaphor:

  • Life is a journey
  • Life is a mere dream
  • Life or love  is a camera full of memories
  • Home was a prison

Have you ever had the holiday from hell?

Have You A Favourite Holiday destination?

Currumbin a Sanctuary of Serenity
Mairi Neil, 2001

Looking from the balcony of our Currumbin holiday flat, the Pacific Ocean roared and vomited white foam onto the golden sand. This was not a beach for non-swimmers or the faint-hearted. Waves crashed against jagged rocks in the distance, massaging them smooth by the next millennium but the continuous licks and slaps hadn’t altered their shape in any noticeable way since my last visit.

I stared at the black shapes rising and disappearing in the waves. Dolphins or sharks? Then laughed as the black shape rose on a wave, stretched and balanced and fell. The group of dedicated surfers braving morning chill certainly needed wet suits, and their crouching and clinging in the force of the gigantic waves an amazing workout.

A group of rosellas arrive on the balcony. They line up on the railings waiting for the plate with seed, confident I will provide their breakfast. Chittering and hopping from ledge to chair back to patio tiles, they nag me to perform my act of goodwill.

Music drifts from above. A radio disc jockey drones, children’s sing-song chatter wafts from the swimming pool below, a van backfires in the distance and the pump that tirelessly cleans the swimming pool chugs into life at regular intervals. There are ten floors of holiday flats but if inside and the balcony door is closed, each flat is soundproof.

Peak hour traffic builds, Currumbin is coming alive and I know if I don’t go for a morning walk I’ll be dodging retirees and their pet dogs, fitness fanatics in lycra shorts and Reeboks, and crew for magazine and film photoshoots because this apron of sand is immensely popular. Thank goodness the flotilla of boats on the horizon don’t try to sail closer to shore.

The rosellas are a mass of squawking as I place the seed plate on the balcony table. A hot rising sun dispels the remaining coolness and shadows of the night. The ocean sparkles turquoise. I shake yesterday’s sand from my sandals, grab a hat and make for the lift. The half-hour walks along the beach towards the surfers just what the doctor ordered.

Even More Writing Prompts

Write a poem or story where you are describing the joys of summer to an extraterrestrial life form.

  • Write a story that begins, “She tripped and fell into the burning sand…”
  • Write a story that ends, “Roll on winter.”
  • Write a poem or story where everything that provides relief during the summer randomly breaks down. The air conditioning suddenly stops working. The power goes out in your home. You can’t seem to start your car.
  • Write a story that begins “This was no ordinary day…”
  • Write a story that ends – “She found her paradise after all.”

Enjoy A Cultural Experience Without Leaving Home

A friend I met when I was working on celebrating the 125th Anniversary of Mordialloc Primary School, told me her husband was scared of flying. They were teachers and all they wanted to do when they retired was travel overseas but she refused to travel by ship.

No flying, no sailing – what could they do to satisfy their desire to visit other countries?

They compromised and innovated. They borrowed books and documentaries from the local library and researched the customs, costumes, music and food of a country. After a few weeks, they visited the place via armchair travel.

They dressed appropriately for the season, cooked a custom meal, played the music you’d expect to hear and totally immersed themselves as if they were in the chosen country. They even spoke learned phrases from a new language to each other.

Armchair travel on steroids! Happy travelling –

Happy Writing!

Write What You Know – and Start With your Hands

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Day Four For Writers Who Want More

If you have a desire to write you will be surprised how the words and ideas flow if you keep an open mind and a sense of fun and move out of your comfort zone.

Throw away preconceptions and expectations, those debilitating comparisons with others and indulge your passion for words. Write honestly and from the heart – don’t self-edit until you finish the first draft.

For inspiration or a first topic look no further than your hands!

hands

Observe your hand for a few moments.

Exercise 1:

  • What do you see that you’ve never noticed or at least not really thought about before?
  • Jot down some observations about your hand/hands/finger/fingers.
  • Do you have white spots on your nails? Chipped or perfect nail polish?
  • Have you ever had broken bones or a severe injury to your hands?
  • Once you have a good list describing what you noticed, ask why and how.

You will probably begin with the physical, but you may find yourself remembering past experiences. You will enter the realm of thoughts and feelings

The writing you produce might be

  • Personal essay
  • Memoir
  • Family History
  • Fiction
  • Poetry
  • Article for a magazine or website

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Exercise 2:

Explore further –

  1. Perhaps your main character in a story or play relies on their hands and tragedy strikes… or they win awards, achieve a dream…
  2. Have you a talent or skill (or did you have) that involves dexterity, precision, mobility, strong hands, nimble fingers…
  3. Do you play a sport that needs strong accurate hands?
  4. Can you remember finger painting – or your children finger-painting and making mud pies
  5. Perhaps you have experienced violent hands or done things with your hands you wished you hadn’t…
  6. Do you wish you were better at knitting, sewing, crochet, gardening, writing… can you teach any of these skills?
  7. Are your hands crippled with arthritis? Do you have sunspots? Skin cancer?
  8. Are your hands like your mother or father?
  9. Do you wear jewellery (rings, bracelets) – how meaningful are they? Is there a story attached to your ring or bangle, or wristwatch?
  10. Do you bite or paint your fingernails – why?
  • Explore prose writing in both fiction and nonfiction. You don’t have to decide which you prefer – try both to help discover what kind of writing you favour.

The idea is to see with a writer’s eyes, spark ideas to life, gain confidence, and experiment with both fiction and nonfiction with an aim to engage the reader.

Exercise 3:

Choose a quote below and write to the theme that may be inferred or whatever story or memory it triggers

God has given us two hands, one to receive with and the other to give with.  

Billy Graham

Show me your hands. Do they have scars from giving? Show me your feet. Are they wounded in service? Show me your heart. Have you left a place for divine love? 

          Fulton J. Sheen

As you grow older, you will discover that you have two hands, one for helping yourself, the other for helping others.                                                                                

Audrey Hepburn

Parents can only give good advice or put them on the right paths, but the final forming of a person’s character lies in their own hands.                                                  

Anne Frank

Exercise 4:

Extend thoughts about hands to other members of your family, partners, parents, children, mentors, teachers… the list can be endless if you are observant and imaginative.

Here is a poem from Heather, who came to my class for years, first at Mordialloc and latterly at Longbeach in Chelsea. She was 90 years old when sadly ill-health, then death stopped her talented pen from writing.

heather yourn

These Hands (A Sonnet)
Heather Yourn

These wrinkled hands with sunspots
have seen far better days
Once so subtle, now stiff with age
deft with needle and thread
able to make the piano sing
Once were taken for granted
pages of writing fill the boxes
recipes, stories, poems, diaries
even a leadlight box crafted.
under supervision, they remain to
celebrate dexterity and youth.
Blue-veined traced and bent
my hands still serve me well
I salute you with grateful thanks.

And one from me…

My Hands
Mairi Neil

These hands fumble now
where they once achieved with ease
buttons now boulders, zips an effort
Velcro fasteners? Oh, yes, please!

What are those raised veins saying –
the lumpy knuckles too?
wedding ring too tight, abandoned
more than the veins are blue.

In the past, skin smooth and soft
and these hands were strong
a past of music, craft and toddlers
weakness didn’t belong…

These hands feeble now
where once they achieved with ease
piano, guitar, sewing, knitting…
house renovations a breeze

Scarred from work and accidents
sun-damaged and skin dry
weakened grip and suspect skill
they’ve earned a rest, I sigh.

But wait, these hands still toil
a means to feed my passion
pens replaced with keypad
writing never out of fashion.

These trusted hands a part of me
what stories they can tell
ignoring arthritic pain and age
I’ll write a memoir to sell!

And now some writing from you…

 

Baraka Challenges Us to Change Our Priorities

moon over Mordi

On February 29, I attended a screening of the 1992 film BARAKA to raise funds for Wildlife Victoria after the devastating bushfire season.

The date is special because it is a leap year and according to Google, this is a lucky year with a spirituality website suggesting, a year “when energies are higher and filled with enthusiasm, optimism, love and compassion. It is a great year to search for spiritual wisdom.”

And considering Australians are facing a climate catastrophe, a coronavirus outbreak, the aftermath of a horrific bushfire season, ongoing drought, and poor economic outlook, luck is much-needed and wisdom always worth seeking – spiritual or otherwise!

It would be nice to have a competent government that fostered optimism and enthusiasm for the future but achieving that needs work and an early election! Meanwhile, if you are not a climate denialist and you believe in social justice like me, please keep raising your voice in whatever way you can.

I saw Baraka a long time ago, but the advertised conversation scheduled after the film captured my attention because it was about “designing the future with hope and humanity” – two principles omitted from many concrete jungles we call cities and media full of gloom and doom.

The film, like a good book, needs to be absorbed and savoured in stillness. It’s like an epic novel or saga with layers of meaning to be digested and reflected upon.

Deep concentration – not a quick glance or speed read – the MC asked us to relax, be drawn into the music and visuals, be still, absorb, listen and watch … be in touch with emotions and senses, enjoy a transformational experience.’

The lights dimmed, the film rolled, I became completely immersed in the visuals and incredible soundtrack. The atmosphere calm and comfortable in the recently renovated Capitol until ironically, someone turned the air conditioner up or forgot to adjust it to the vagaries of Melbourne’s recalcitrant summer.

Luckily, the film was almost over and it was panel time so the discomfort wasn’t too much of a distraction.  

It was then the turn of the two presenters to provide the promised hope and information. To represent the current generation’s ideas for tackling the climate emergency.

To offer man-made solutions to man-made problems.

baraka panel 2.jpg
Design Hub Gallery curator Fleur Watson with climate change and resilience researcher Lauren Rickards and speculative designer Ollie Cotsaftis

BARAKA – Ron Fricke’s Guided Meditation On Humanity

A breathtaking journey across 25 countries on six continents, Baraka is a sublime reflection on the beauty and the chaos of the world. The film brings together spectacular imagery with no plot, actors, script or narrative, transcending nationality, identity, place and time. The result is a meditative panorama of our natural and human landscapes ­– a visual survey made all the more urgent and affecting given today’s climate emergency.

As much a technical masterpiece as it is a conceptual one, Baraka was shot entirely on 70mm with a custom-built computerized 65mm camera. Taking 30 months to complete, with over 14 months on location, the making of the film was a feat within itself.

Baraka quickly became a cult classic for its unique non-linear, non-narrative approach to documentary and its astonishing footage that jumps from the elating to the disturbing. The awe, harmony, destruction and rebirth of nature merge in cycles. Ultimately we are looking at humanity’s interconnectedness and our relationship to the environment.

Promotional blurb

Ger camp Mongolia

When writing, the importance of techniques such as metaphor and simile are important to improve poetry and prose, and so it is with a film. A picture replaces a thousand words especially if revealing a powerful metaphor, and there were many in Baraka.

Music to evoke mood and soundtrack using percussion to great effect are important aspects of cinema and in Baraka, it kept pace with the sweeping and varied scenes of the natural world and cities. Percussion and natural ‘noise’, especially when industrial scenes of production lines, manufacturing and mining activities filled the screen segued seamlessly from panoramic or close-ups of mountains, oceans, deserts and green plains.

Superb cinematography and editing drew us into each scene. Memorable close-ups of the faces of animals and humans, the zooming into the natural and human world’s rhythms.

Time-lapse photography provided scenes of people commuting on foot, by train and car before switching to herds of animals, marching insect lines…back to the expressions on the faces of train travellers in Tokyo … reminding me of writing poetry on peak hour trains to and from the city…

the grey army poem
Published  reflecting on Melbourne, Poetica Christi Press

Have We Forgotten the Value of Stillness?

Baraka is full of juxtapositions – we see Japanese men in a pool following a bathing ritual, crowds of men and women bathing in the Ganges – close-ups of people relaxing, luxuriating in the relaxation and purification of water, not much different to a family of baboons in a hot spring high in the mountains, ice on the baboon’s fur melting crystals as he closes his eyes… his stillness mesmerising.

A Shinto priest surrounded by fast-paced traffic and busy shoppers in Tokyo walks one foot in front of the other, heel touching toe,  as if on a tightrope or narrow ledge, snail-paced, a bell in his hand chiming with each slow, deliberate, step,  no deviation from the path or the rhythm.

I remember Donne’s poem, ‘For whom the bell tolls… ‘ It tolls for thee…

No drones in 1992, yet the visuals are stunning, probably from a helicopter or aircraft but each vein, artery, vivid colour stands out:  of mountains, rocks, snow,-laden fields, trees, shrubbery and humans…

There are painted faces, tattooed bodies, jewellery made from natural items adorning naked or semi-naked bodies dancing and performing rituals indoors and outdoors, in continents across the globe.

The camera visits temples, mosques, synagogues, churches – and most of those performing the rituals or leading the service are male (has the power balance changed?).

In a Buddhist temple, the maroon-robed, adolescent lamas chant as old women sweep the courtyards and surrounding streets and old men slowly sprinkle oil.  I remember visiting Mongolia... 

In an orthodox Christian church, an old woman garbed in traditional black sits beside a table of candles, as if in servitude,  while the priest walks ceremoniously towards an altar agleam with ornate gold and silver. He stops to pray

… and the camera focuses on another priest in another country, walking through cloisters to kneel and pray by an unadorned tomb …

There are scenes of the Hajj where hundreds of thousands of Islamic devotees make the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, a journey connected to the time of Abraham and requiring certain rituals, including walking counter-clockwise seven times around the holy Kaaba.

In Cambodia, we see rows of men in an arc following the lead of a chief/guru with a painted face. He chants and moves his hands and arms in various poses. The men emulate his loud laughs, chants, alternately sitting and standing. Their behaviour is reminiscent of a Maori haka, a ceremonial dance or challenge with vigorous movement, stamping feet, rhythmic shouting and specific facial expressions.

Australian Aboriginal dancers around a campfire sing and act a story after being painted by women who then stand and sway in the background. Females playing a supporting role or performing their own rituals in the shadows mirrored in Kenya and Nigeria…

The film spans 25 countries with a focus on first nation peoples and their connection to the natural world and the rituals that have grown or been created.

The lifestyles of first nation people have been disrupted by industrial development, yet many retain cultural rituals. (Or they did in 1992!)

In South America, tribal children peep from the jungle, behind trees thousands of years old, and wide-eyed watch as a gigantic saw screams and fells trees.  We are still destroying the Amazon rainforest at a horrendous rate.

In cities, descendants of those tribes peep through bars in pigeon-coop-sized apartments huddled in ramshackle confusion, on the side of city hills. Children peep through barred windows on the slum buildings protecting them from falling to their death. Families being contained, exploited … still… the cost of the Rio Olympics to Brazil’s poor in 2016...

native american proverb -FB

“Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil, set off a tornado in Texas?”

The Butterfly Effect

Cities – each building bigger than the last…

From caged people to caged birds, automated conveyor belts as thousands of hens lay eggs. From the cruelty of egg farming to chickens, checked, painted, beaks seared, thrown into chutes one by one and suddenly, there are lines of workers, clocking on and clocking off, jammed tightly on production lines…

Like the tobacco factory in Indonesia, women and girls, making cigarettes, one by one, rolling and clipping the tobacco, shaping the cigarette for a well-dressed, suited businessman to smoke as he joins the line of commuters crossing a Jakarta street…

While in India, at Hindu funerals on the Ganges we see funeral pyres, some can afford a decorated raft, others a homemade stretcher on the banks of the river. As the camera zooms in on a smouldering corpse, I steal a glance at the young lad sitting next to me. He’s ten, perhaps eleven and with his dad and is completely absorbed. I watch those grieving on the screen, the charred remains of their loved one and close my eyes for a few moments as tears sting – being a voyeur uncomfortable and sad.

But what of the crowds of women and children trawling through gigantic rubbish heaps salvaging anything that can be used, eaten, sold, repurposed. They don’t have a choice in lifestyle or of avoiding unpleasant death scenes.

Ragged and dishevelled, the scavengers move amongst bulldozers, smouldering fires and industrial shovels. The scene somewhere in India but it could be the Philippines, Nigeria, rural China… places where reports of populations exploited in this way fill the news cycle.

First Nations sovereignty – the film revealed that the people most affected are often those least responsible for the damage to the earth. A combination of approaches will equal climate justice.

We have a climate emergency as Greta and others warn our house is on fire!

quote from Black Elk.jpg

Learning to Live on the Anthropocene

Anthropocene – the current geological age, viewed as the period during which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment.

We have created an extinction crisis and must act now.  We must accept and appreciate the human impact and population on the natural world and change our behaviour.

Lauren Rickards is a human geographer in the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies at RMIT University Melbourne, where she co-leads the Climate Change Transformations research program of the Centre for Urban Research. Lauren’s research examines the social, cultural and political dimensions of the human-environment relationship, focused on climate change, disasters and the broader Anthropocene condition. A Rhodes Scholar, Lauren is a Lead Author with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change forthcoming Sixth Assessment Report and a Senior Fellow with the Earth Systems Governance network.

Lauren studies how the earth functions and is now starting to dysfunction.

For Australia, this summer of bushfires a stark wake-up call. Fears, scientists thought we had decades to deal with, are here, and we must deal with the crisis.

Here are links to recent articles about the magnitude of Australia’s bushfire crisis:

Lauren said, Baraka, made the familiar strange and makes us face up to what we regard as normal. We must start to think differently. We must not accept the view of politicians like our Prime Minister who talk of ‘the new normal‘!

drought.jpg

 

For example, bushfires are now strange and more threatening to generations brought up reciting Dorothea Mackellar’s poem about an Australia ‘of drought and flooding rains’.

‘You live in the bush. You live by the rules of the bush, and that’s it.’  These were the reflective words of Mrs Dunlop upon seeing the blackened rubble of her home, which made headline news the morning after the first, and most destructive, fire front tore through the Blue Mountains in New South Wales on 17 October 2013 (Partridge and Levy, 2013).

While seemingly a simple statement, it goes right to the heart of heated public and political debates – past and present – over who belongs where and why in the fire-prone landscapes that surround Australia’s cities. Bushfire is a constant and ongoing part of Australian history, ecology and culture. The love of a sunburnt country, the beauty and terror of fire, and the filmy veil of post-fire greenness described in the century-old poem ‘Core of My Heart’ (Mackellar, 1908) are still apt depictions of Australian identity today.

Yet longer fire seasons and an increase in extreme fire weather days with climate change add both uncertainty and urgency to Australia’s ability to coexist with fire in the future (Head et al., 2013).

Geographical fire research in Australia: Review and prospects Abstract

Download the pdf: Geographical fire research in Australia_ Review and prospects

catastrophic fire slide.jpg

Man has an obsession with fire – in the film we see various religious rituals involving lighting candles, lanterns, bonfires. Purification and burial rituals. There are shots of the sun, moon, stars juxtaposed with the fires out of control on the oil fields of Kuwait, and the explosions caused by bombs.

The foundries, crematoriums, mining and other industrial sites, and cities lit up… but also the horror of the Holocaust gas chambers, mass burials, destructive bombings.

We are able to control combustion, we have electricity because of coal but fossil fuels now need to be made strange.

Our relationship to the military-industrial complex where atomic weapons and stockpiling nuclear weapons are seen as normal must be challenged.

The film depicts soldiers on the Chinese and Russian borders protecting piles of weapons, then pans to row after row of USA military planes…

As he witnessed the first detonation of a nuclear weapon on July 16, 1945, a piece of Hindu scripture ran through the mind of Robert Oppenheimer: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds”. It is, perhaps, the most well-known line from the Bhagavad-Gita, but also the most misunderstood.

UK Article August 9,2017

The general notions about human understanding . . . which are illustrated by discoveries in atomic physics are not in the nature of things wholly unfamiliar, wholly unheard of, or new. Even in our own culture, they have a history, and in Buddhist and Hindu thought a more considerable and central place. What we shall find is an exemplification, an encouragement, and a refinement of old wisdom.’

Oppenheimer, quoted from F. Capra, The Tao of Physics.

  • chemicals
  • atmospheric aerosol loading
  • ozone depletion
  • ocean acidification
  • the equivalent of an atom bomb a week in our oceans
  • planetary boundaries transform our approach to growth
  • biodiversity loss
  • great acceleration of climate change and mother earth becomes deeply unfamiliar
  • the threat is here and people already suffering

UN scientists warn that roughly 1 million plant and animal species are on the verge of extinction due to human activity. It would be the first mass extinction since humans started walking the earth and has dire implications for the survival of our own species. Already, humans are losing key ecosystem services that nature provides, including crop pollination, storm mitigation, and clean air and water.

“Ecosystems, species, wild populations, local varieties and breeds of domesticated plants and animals are shrinking, deteriorating or vanishing. The essential, interconnected web of life on Earth is getting smaller and increasingly frayed,” said Prof. Settele. “This loss is a direct result of human activity and constitutes a direct threat to human well-being in all regions of the world.”

The IPBES’ 2019 Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services comes at a critical time for the planet and all its peoples. The report’s findings – and the years of diligent work by the many scientists who contributed – will offer a comprehensive view of the current conditions of global biodiversity. May 6, 2019

Climate Anxiety Exists Now

Lauren suggests we must:

Stop.breathe.think.connect.act

In Baraka you see people following this path, people meditating, pushing back against some of the technology and damaging changes.

We too must question technology of the future – it may be shiny and bright but not normal – Lauren refers to the common symbol we see of a pair of hands holding up the earth. She challenges that image: Let us remember –

the planet holds us up not us holding up the planet.

We need to pierce the politics of denial. Do not accept climate change as the new normal!!

We must move from the idea of a shareholder to stakeholder, not capitalism but a system where the environment is the shareholder.

I think of the endless debates people have about whether climate change is real and wonder how anyone can still be a climate denialist. Then remember a meme doing the rounds of social media and sigh:

recognized experts meme

Bio Cities Living Architecture – Beyond Green Design

The next presenter was Dr Ollie Cotsaftis, a post-disciplinary and speculative designer whose practice sits at the intersection of the human evolution, the built environment and the realm of creative biotechnologies.

His research addresses climate resilience and social innovation in speculative urban futures. Ollie is also the founder and creative director of future ensemble studio, the co-founder of Melbourne Speculative Futures—the Melbourne Chapter of The Design Futures Initiative—experiments with new ideas through his visual art practice, and most recently started a column on speculative and critical design for the This is HCD network.

Ollie wants to answer the question – How do we build our cities and stop the concrete working against us and reconnect with nature?

  • Bio Cities, Living Architecture – Beyond Green design
  • Architecture that is organic
  • Architecture that is sustainable
  • Architecture that is alive

He referred to information from the Bureau of Meteorology that shows temperatures will increase and have been increasing over the last 110 years. The slide courtesy of the CSIRO, July 2019.

temperature slide.jpg

 Ollie suggested we Google action architecture climate change for a wealth of information from people who agree the climate is changing therefore so must architecture.

Carbon dioxide causes global warming. Buildings emit almost half of the carbon dioxide in the USA and that has to stop!

One of the most well-known architects of our time, Bjarke Ingels said: “If we can Change the Climate of the World by Accident, Imagine What we can Achieve by Trying”

Bjarke has become one of the most sought-after architects. In 2019 alone, he and his team completed as many as 13 projects, including large-scale undertakings such as Copenhill, a zero-emission waste-to-energy plant. The innovative solution is the first of its kind in the world: utopia turned reality.

90% of Melbourne’s energy is still based on oil, gas and coal. The CBD is very expensive to live regarding energy use. Ollie has been involved in an experimental project to convert a high-rise corporate building into a sustainable residential alternative.

385 Bourke Street – Hope For The Future

385_Bourke_Street_2017

385 Bourke Street (also known as the State Bank Centre) is a high-rise office building located in Melbourne, Australia. It is the former head office of the State Bank of Victoria and Commonwealth Bank of Australia. It is located on the corner of Bourke and Elizabeth Streets.

The lower levels of the building are the Galleria shopping centre. Major tenants in the building are Energy Australia and Industry Superannuation fund UniSuper.

Photo and this info from Wikipedia

Built in 1983 it had poor energy efficiency. The owners have spent $2.5m for an energy retrofit to transform it into a residential building. The side exposed to the sun had solar panels fitted to capture that energy.

  • Panels have been put on the outside of the building’s upper floors facing the sun and are red because that is the colour that captures the most energy from the sun.
  • There are plants on window sills, in walkways, on ledges.

Researchers are working all the time to improve battery storage options and rechargeable batteries.

There is a micro bacterial rechargeable battery (MRB) not commercially available yet but in 5 years (just like the development of the OPVs) these could be available and embedded in buildings.

385 Bourke Street has been transformed from a carbon positive corporate tower to a carbon-negative residential tower.

The experiment has proven it is possible to transform energy inefficient city buildings into sustainable alternatives –

  • Extrusion
  • Extension of OPVs
  • Cross-section MRBs
  • Affordability is an issue and more information will be available during Melbourne Design Week march 12-22, 2020 and on April 24, where there will be a full presentation at the NGV.

Ollie wants us to think of different perceptions.  A level of awakening needed and the ability to question how we do things differently. to have –

  • Speculative ideas and consider their future
  • Speculative visions of the future

How do we move from object and service (a building) the individual to a collective way of shaping the city?

Shareholders should be the community of the city.  Even change shareholder to stakeholder, not viewing through a capitalism lens but a system where the environment is the shareholder.

A combination of approaches will equal climate justice

First Nations sovereignty important to recognise – Baraka revealed that the people most affected are often those least responsible for the damage to the earth. 

  • Inequities revealed in 1992 and still happening today
  • Environmental and economic problems caused by historical violence inflicted on first nations people – their lifestyle did not cause these events.

  • We have to face the enormous depths of problems created by history and recognise it is getting harder to predict the future and impact of technology because change happens so fast

Who moved the earth into this state of catastrophe?

It is a slow emergency on a geological timescale but for us now there is a sense of urgency. Baraka shows the disintegration of Angkor Wat in Cambodia and the reclaiming of the ruins by nature – through a variety of lens and focus you can lose track of hours and time but you get a sense there is a trajectory we are heading on…

Let’s learn from those who have lived with the earth, let them lead us to repair, restore and be on a better path. In Australia, we must listen to our Indigenous rangers about land management.

An emerging crisis implies a window of opportunity.

Organisations like Wildlife Victoria are helping creatures get through on the short term but also building bridges to an eco future and looking longterm to be positive towards a sustainable future for our wildlife.

In urban settings, we have architects and designers transforming buildings from one function to another. Considering adaptive reuse.

baraka panel 1.jpg

When a bushfire season like the one we have just experienced is so catastrophic, we can be blinded by the vastness of scale which is on the level of global plastic pollution and recycling and the bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef.  It’s easy to miss a lot of slow violence to the earth not necessarily making headline news:

  • Soil degradation
  • land theft from First Nations peoples
  • Poisoning of water and land
  • Species extinction

Ollie explained the city of Jakarta is sinking – water is being drained from tabletops and the city is drowning and must be relocated.  What about the buildings left – will they just rot or will they be reused and repurposed? This is a project to consider under the banner of a speculative future.

  • Can we program a building to degrade itself after a certain lifespan?
  • Can we adapt buildings to our needs?

Principles and ideas shared globally, not just western canon and ethics which has been a problem when everything is Eurocentric or Western-centric.

When tackling projects, cooperation needed around the world between countries and cultures with shared questions.

  • Is this anticipatory?
  • What can go wrong?
  • What are the different scenarios?
  • Have we included everyone and everything to be affected?
  • Are we doing it for the right purpose?
  • Is it the right thing to do?
  • part of the world’s problem is too many design groups are white-centric – we must share principles rather than some grand narrative of design

Greed has led to the Climate Change Catastrophe

How do we go about overtaking and replacing greed and accumulation of wealth as a motivation of the people in power?

  • Law must come into it – positive changes can be imposed by regulations and consequences
  • Often environmental laws are inadequate but even those must be enforced
  • We can funnel channels of greed – eg. You’ll lose money in fossil fuels but make money in renewables
  • We must question fundamental ideas – the shareholder model our society uses feeds inequity
  • We can slow down economic activity – bigger and faster and more luxurious is not necessarily better
  • Change the architecture of our streets to encourage more walking, more sedentary use, more shade, more trees, more places to sit and contemplate, communicate, converse…
life is in acho
a Facebook meme with a great message

A Dickens of An Exhibition For Writers of Fashionable Fiction!

the best of times sign.jpg

While attending two great free workshops on aspects of Scottish history at the Prahran Mechanics’ Institute Victorian History Library last week, I picked up a flyer for another event in Stonnington – also free. (I’m prepared for the jokes about stereotypical Scot being mean!)

This is a fabulous opportunity to learn some historical background and context for many of the female characters in the classic novels of Charles Dickens and to see yet another superb collection of clothes from the Dressing Australia Museum of Costume that provided the wonderful collection of clothes and other items for Be persuaded – Jane Austen, an exhibition by Glen Eira Council in January 2019.

Fiona and Keith Baverstock use the period fashion, textiles and fashion ephemera in their collection to create a themed exhibition, which they then take on tour. The research and attention to detail and the information supplied truly awesome.

Similar to many people, I read Great Expectations, A Christmas Carol, A Tale of Two Cities and Oliver Twist while at high school. Later, I watched the many film and television adaptations of novels such as Bleak House, David Copperfield, The Mystery of Edwin Drood and Nicholas Nickelby produced by the BBC among others.

Many of Dickens’ characters and their utterances are household names. I’ve used quotes from his books in my creative writing classes, also extracts from newspaper articles because Dickens was a journalist before becoming a novelist.

Although, as one exhibit explains, he would fit right into the current complaints of  ‘fake news’ because Dickens had a dramatic streak. Always a creative writer at heart with emphasis on the ‘creative’ instead of factual reporting, he embellished stories to make them more interesting for the readers!

Charles Dickens is revered as a writer and most of the accolades are well-deserved. However, a neat summary of his life, plus many books, plays, and articles written revealing his complex personality, misbehaviour, and shabby treatment of his wife may disappoint some fans.

poster info on Dickens.jpg

First impressions of the Exhibition are of being on set preparing to make a historical film; the display of dresses stunning and cleverly grouped. The varied colours and designs catch your eye and display cases have accessories laid out as if in preparation to be donned.

You start to wander around the room and become absorbed in the stories of the women who peopled the novels of Dickens. You may be fascinated when examining the outfits and imagining their lives. What must it have been like moving around in voluminous gowns, restrictive corsetry and even more restrictive social mores and expectations?

dickens quote

Sairey (Sarah) Gamp from Martin Chuzzlewit

Dickens had a talent for creating memorable caricatures – comical but also despicable. They often personified the seven deadly sins: envy, gluttony, greed, lust, pride, sloth and wrath… and introduced words from the vernacular that became common usage.

Sarah Gamp exemplified greed, selfishness and as a drunken nurse/midwife displayed a callous disregard for others. She was ‘ a potent weapon in the campaign against untrained, incompetent nurses. It took a Florence Nightingale to fully expose and sweep aside the armies of Sarah Gamps.’

 

The 1840s gown with evidence of wear and tear is slate-coloured striped taffeta. She presided over so many deaths so wears a mourning apron and black, crepe trimmed taffeta mourning cape and her ‘gamp’ (umbrella).

The image of Mrs Gamp’s ‘gig’ umbrella clutched to her person wherever she went, or displayed ‘with particular ostentation’ against the chimney breast of her bird-sized apartment above the bird fancier’s shop in Holborn so resonated with readers that ‘gamp’ became synonymous with umbrella, just as ‘Sarah Gamp’ became synonymous with a slovenly, inebriated ‘nurse’.

A gig was a light carriage with two wheels pulled by a single horse. In the latter part of the 19th century, it was deemed suitable for ladies to drive around their estates or into the village.

... ‘the lady would need a nifty weapon to beat off any ne’er-do-wells with the temerity to approach, and when stepping down she would need a handy little parasol. The gold cap comes off the sycamore case, the parasol slides out and screws neatly into the gold tip on the other end, Voila, protection from the sun or rain.’

There was nothing dainty or lady-like about Sarah Gamp. She would have driven a cart and her ‘gamp’ a heavy umbrella.

Catherine Dickens – the discarded wife

It was the actress Miriam Margoyles portraying Catherine Dickens in her play Dickens’ Women based on or inspired by 23 different characters in the novels by Dickens that made me think more deeply about how women were portrayed by the great storyteller.

dress of wife.jpg

One reviewer said the production highlighted Dickens’ “obsession with youthful beauty and his baffling relationships with his sister-in-law”.

The detailed notes along with the chosen gown for Dickens’ wife are not complimentary to the man and emphasise how unfair the legal, as well as the social system,  was regarding the treatment of women.

catherine dickens info.jpg

Reading about Catherine and looking at the dresses on display you can’t help but notice the tiny waists, the design drawing attention to the breasts and of course, being the era of gloves and hats, there was a dress code or expectation a lady had accessories.

  • How long did it take to get dressed?
  • How complicated were the designs to maintain – especially considering the material used?
  • And in an era of women producing baby after baby, how unsuitable were those clothes for pregnancy, breastfeeding and caring for children, let alone housework.

My paternal grandmother was married in 1900, the clothes hadn’t changed that much from the years before and the family story is that she fainted twice on her wedding day as her sister pulled the corset strings tight enough to ensure she had the obligatory 18-inch waist to fit her wedding dress!

Nancy in Oliver Twist, a ‘fallen woman’

Dickens never used the term prostitute or sex worker in his novel but readers are under no illusion about Nancy and her friend Bet described:

“They wore a good deal of hair, not very neatly turned up behind, and were rather untidy about the shoes and stockings. They were not exactly pretty, perhaps; but they had a great deal of colour in their faces, and looked quite stout and healthy. being remarkably free and easy with their manners, Oliver thought them to be very nice girls indeed. Which there is no doubt they were.”

I read Oliver Twist when I was fifteen and stark images of Victorian England and the appalling living standards of the poor in cities like London remain with me. Dickens

… knew how to hold an audience. The themes in his novels did, however, challenge the accepted beliefs of the day. Oliver Twist shines a light into the dark underbelly of life in the cities like London, confronting the comfortable complacent with the relationship between poverty and crime, revealing the iniquity and inequity of the Poor Laws and the Workhouse system – and its inept and corrupt officials.”

I can remember hoping that Nancy, who showed kindness to Oliver, would somehow be miraculously transformed and freed from the seedy clutches of Bill Sykes, but deep down knew her shockingly violent death was inevitable.

The ruched and frilled dress with elaborate cording, tight waist, laced back and revealing cleavage was chosen because the silky style would have appealed to Nancy, even if she would have preferred a more striking colour. This dress was ‘Perkins Purple’ and faded over time to mauve and then pearly grey.

In my imagination, Nancy would have worn feathers in her bonnet and always had a shawl!

Miss Havisham – who can forget a woman scorned?

There have been many adaptations of Great Expectations and it remains one of Dickens’ more popular novelsAgain he takes on the establishment, the ‘haves’ and emphasises the divide between the rich and poor.

The powerful regard poverty as a crime and use prison to punish those who ‘have not’. The story of a young man overcoming obstacles to achieve success another of his recurring themes.

But it is the jilted, embittered, and wealthy Miss Havisham living in a ruined mansion with her adopted daughter Estella, who fascinates and intrigues readers and leaves a lasting impression. She still wears her wedding dress as if frozen in time.

Twenty minutes to nine was the moment the letter arrived revealing the calumny of her fiance. There she was in her wedding gown, the wedding breakfast and adornments laid out in readiness, one satin slipper still to don. And there she remained. Since then, the wedding breakfast, the decorations, the room have been weighed down by dust and cobwebs, have been nibbled by decay and vermin till the house itself is crumbling. The fraudster Compeyson took her future and her fortune (although obviously not all of it) and might as well have taken her life.

Her revenge is Estella, whom she has fashioned into a weapon to destroy men and the hapless Pip is the whetstone on which Estella is to hone her skills…

miss havisham dress.jpg

The addendum to “Expectations unfulfilled – Miss Havisham” states that

Dickens has trouble with consistency when he sets his novels in an earlier era. This is certainly evident with the ages and setting of Great Expectations. We’ve chosen to place Miss Havisham’s wedding in the early 1800s and have dressed her in a distressed, disintegrating Regency style gown.’

All of the costumes are original 19th-century outfits and so the ‘distressed’ signs are natural. Dressing Australia’s disclaimer that they’ve chosen what they think fits/suits each character rather than adhering strictly to the publication date of the novels, although many of the costumes coincide nicely.

Oliver Twist was published in 1837, but Nancy’s gown is from a later decade. It was chosen to represent the ‘tart with a heart‘ and Nancy’s notion of what is ladylike. Estella’s exquisite gown is from the late 1850s when Dickens was writing Great Expectations, published in 1860, although the story was set in an earlier era.

Madame Defarge – Knitting while heads rolled

Madame Defarge in A Tale of Two Cities, a novel set in the time of the French Revolution is the embittered wife of a wine shop owner who owed his status and business to her revolutionary fervour.

She enjoyed knitting the names of the aristocrats she plotted to send to the guillotine and while weaving their names into Liberty Caps sat and watched their heads roll off the beheading machine.

Acknowledged as a leader of the Tricoteuse Movement, which evolved from the Market Women heroines who marched on Versailles and became ‘too uncontrollable and troublesome, and barred from the gallery of the National Convention and from political assemblies’ she proves to be devious and brutal even if her vengeful crusade facilitated by The Reign of Terror is justified.

Madame Defarge’s sister and unborn child, brother, brother-in-law and father were all killed by Darnay’s uncle, assisted by his father.


The green shot silk gown is ‘somewhat distressed’ polonaised over a black quilted satin petticoat. The Liberty Cap is pinned with a rosette and a rose. (Madame Defarge popped a rose in her cap warning that ‘outsiders’ were nearby and it was not safe for revolutionaries or the Tricoteuse to speak.)

Confronting the Ghosts of Christmas

A Christmas Carol probably ranks as one of the most read of Dickens’ novels along with Oliver Twist and Great Expectations. If not read, most English speaking people will still have heard of Scrooge or know what it means to call someone a scrooge!

A Christmas Carol sold out the minute it hit the bookstands in 1843 and has remained a favourite ever since. It has the feel-good factor – goodness triumphs over the mean and mean-spirited, adversity can be overcome, redemption is possible…

A man without conscience is not confronted by his own humanity, yet that is precisely what the Ghost of Christmas Past does to Scrooge. Look at how you used to be. Look at how others used to view you. Look at how you felt when facing rejection. Look at the beginnings of your loss of innocence when you chose greed over love.

A man entirely without compassion cares not when confronted by disturbing images of the distress of others, a man without imagination does not see what he might be missing. Yet that is precisely what the Ghost of Christmas Present shows Scrooge.

A man who is impervious to the consequences of his actions, who cares not that he has alienated all who might care for him, who does not mind a lonely, uncelebrated life and death will take no notice of the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come. And yet Scrooge does.

He has confronted his ghosts, is redeemed and regains his humanity and compassion.

The exhibition’s vision of the three ghosts as women enabled an interesting choice of costumes:

  • Christmas Past represented by a distressed Regency gown – a style from Scrooge’s youth
  • Christmas Present represented by a brown moire two-piece gown – a style from Scrooge’s present.
  • Christmas Yet to Come represented by a brown stripe taffeta gown of 1869 – a style yet to come.

There are so many characters from other novels with their stories summarised and the reasons for the choice of garments explained – please catch the exhibition before it closes.

Stand and ponder how these women lived – imagine riding in a carriage beside them, walking down a crowded London street navigating flower sellers, spruikers, beggars, even chimney sweeps… attending a dress fitting, visiting for high tea, soliciting, waiting for an errant husband or an abandoned lover, knitting while aristocrats lost their heads or haunting mean-spirited men!

Pity the poor seamstresses

Whenever I read about the world of Dickens and see the clothes of the era, the textiles, antiquated machinery, and the appalling factory conditions I am amazed at the complicated patterns, intricate beading and buttons, and delicate embroidery on the gowns, shawls and hats.

How resilient and talented must those tailors and seamstresses have been and yet we know workers in the clothing trades historically and even in current times are consistently some of the most abused, underpaid and exploited.

In much more modern times, my Aunt Chrissie was a tailoress in Scotland and eventually owned her own sewing school when she migrated to Australia. My older sister, Cate inherited Chrissie’s gift for sewing, crochet, knitting, embroidery… all handicrafts and I’ve written about her talent and her award-winning quilting.

One night, watching my sister sit and sew by a bedside lamp I was inspired to write a villanelle…

A Stitch in Time
Mairi Neil (2014)

She sits sewing by dim lamplight
embroidered threads by her side
contented, happy, eyes shining bright.

In the stillness of evening light
needle and thread silently glide,
as she sits sewing by pale moonlight.

Cross stitches pattern small and tight
new techniques taken in her stride
contented, happy, eyes shining bright.

Her creativity in wondrous flight
imagination flows like the tide
as she sits sewing by candlelight.

Machines embraced despite Luddites
mass production becomes her guide
contentment gone, eyes no longer bright

History records seamstresses’ plight
workers stripped of all but pride
many still struggle in shadowed light
exploited, sad, eyes no longer bright.

It was standard practice for women to learn how to sew and for those who did not have to work or scrabble for their living, sitting doing crochet, cross-stitch and embroidery of Bible texts, the alphabet or seasonal motifs considered a genteel pastime.

The exhibition has a lot of interesting historical detail and invaluable research for any would-be writer. Information about waves of migrants bringing new skills, new technology and techniques and of course, fashion fads. Wonderful background fillers that may even inspire short stories or novels.

Stitched with Love

“The first printed patterns for stitching woolwork on canvas were produced in Berlin in the first half of the 19th century. The craft, which became known as Berlin woolwork was promoted at the Great exhibition of 1851 in London just as the middle classes were expanding and more women had the leisure to stitch, and just as new chemical dyes produced never before imagined colours.

Some of the most popular designs were for slipper vamps and uppers. Some, like these, were never attached and have survived for us to admire. A favourite dog stitched with love.”

 

 

A National Writing Day Motivates the Muse

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I’m on holiday from classes until July 30th and in my FB feed the Scottish Poetry Library announced June 26th 2019 as ‘International Writing Day’ with a link to https://www.nationalwritingday.org.uk/

Whether international or national – it is wonderful to have a writing day and that’s what I did, sharing Wednesday with a dear friend first met through the Mordialloc Writers’ Group.

Sitting at the kitchen table, we talked about writing goals and then wrote some poetry.

We both had discovered old notebooks containing poems written years ago and discussed how many versions need to be written to ‘get it right’ – and how it never is!

Have we improved or were those early words better? Did the words come easier then? What makes a ‘good’ poem?

We both agreed that in some cases, our poems recorded life and how we felt – a bit like journalling and many poems reminded us of past events we’d forgotten.

Other poems explored language, exercised our imagination, captured a moment or were a bit of fun …

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Searching for Words and Meaning…
Mairi Neil

In writing class
we explore language
seek living words
lively words
alive words
volume high
sentencing each other
to work it out
or perhaps not
just listen, absorb and be
explore the language
search for words
taught in childhood
read in books
overheard on the train…
volume doesn’t matter
one sentence or two
from me or you
language exploration
job description
happiness prescription
research for a living
search for meaning
out-search a life
my sentence
to teach
writing in class…

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Port Campbell Sunset With Mary Jane
Mairi Neil, 1995

We stand together to watch the sun go down
sharing a marvellous miracle –
the silvery-white ball now a shade of pink,
a glowing mandarin, yellow tint, then red
and settling seagulls strutting by the water
appear to blush, blending with the foaming tide
flowing in with a rush

The fiery sphere radiates brilliant orange
colour spreads across the sky, the orb starts to
slip
slowly
seawards
silently
sinking

This forehead and eyebrows of a sleepy giant
jaundiced
floppy
fluid
flaccid
pliant

Until suddenly, the sky explodes aflame
our hearts pound
the sky astounds
The sun a misshapen balloon
Disappearing fast
going
gone
too soon…

A semi-darkened sky of colourful pools, puddles,
mere splashes mid-air
Was that brilliant display ever really there?

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A Note To Kingston Council
Mairi Neil, 1999

(responding to a report in the newspaper of a resident weeping as a gum tree aged 100 years old was chopped down to make way for new development)

A concerned citizen stood weeping
wringing her hands in despair
but the chainsaws grind and gobble
so another block’s laid bare
gum trees go that once grew tall
shading homes for a hundred years
those living links to the past
chopped down despite her pleas

Eucalyptus gums are indigenous
native grasses and bushes too
home to a thousand insect species
and native birds becoming so few
where one house stood in a garden
two units are built – or more
imported trees, shrubs in fancy tubs
surrounded by a concrete pour

Developers have their dreams
And indigenous trees get in the way
‘Clear the land of all vegetation –
especially big trees,’ what they say!
Bulldozing through regulations
and done with unseemly speed
‘We own the land now and have rights,’
but neighbours see only greed.

Some developers say they deserve thanks
After all, they’ve ‘improved’ the land
sanitised lawns introduced boutique trees
concreted paths added buildings grand!
Individual rights must be paramount
because the ‘ME’ mentality rules
environmentalists caring for community
are soft-hearted, irrelevant fools.

Who cares about rangy, old gums
that provided shade and privacy too
Who cares about a balanced ecosystem
and that birds and butterflies are few?
If YOU care about what is happening
In community streets and suburbs
Then speak up, get involved, write letters –
and counteract the Real Estate blurbs!

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Winter Stillness
Mairi Neil, 1996

A winter’s morn
white mist hides the sun
shrouding treetops
birds twitter unseen
Was it the coldest night?

A walk to the station
familiar path unseen
cold air, chilled bones
a bleak beginning
to another day of toil

At the railway station
commuters huddle in silence
but aboard in warmth a thaw
familiar faces smile greetings
cheerful chatter melts winter blues

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The World Loves PowerPoint
Mairi Neil, 1996.

I got a CDRom to make an interactive PPP
this multimedia task completely confounds me
I sit with mouth agape marvelling at the show
from Encarta ’96 – so much I don’t yet know

I don’t know how computers work
the science and technology a wonder
the subliminal flickering of the cursor
disappears off screen – oh, my blunder?
Clicks and movement directs this brain
finger muscles used again and again
activating programs seems a breeze
but this technology can be a tease
my hands don’t appear to accept the hype
as on the keyboard they stumble to type
and repeat out-dated typewriting rules
trying grammar and spelling used at school

I got a CDRom to make an interactive PPP
This multimedia task completely confounds me
Bill Gates and Microsoft what have you started –
my confidence and sanity swiftly departed!

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A Winter Walk in Woodland
Mairi Neil, 1997

The winter day cold but not drear
unusually, warm for this time of year
we choose a walk through the woods
and frost-hardened leaves crack
the path piled with fallen snow
our boots stain the pristine track

Children run ahead to climb steep hills
curbing their enthusiasm a battle of wills
they’re keen to explore and with innocence
embrace the wild creatures in this place
but most are hiding, nowhere to be seen
hibernating while of summer they dream.

The children lament the ‘waterfall’ too small
a mere trickle of water, no cascade at all
plus modern development is eating the wood
motorway and shops gobble habitat for good
landscapes changed, altered beyond repair
rivers dried – the trees weep in despair

At an old canal, hopeful enthusiast rebuild
boxes to protect dormice with optimism filled
Mother Nature resilient, she can adapt and adjust
but nurturing people’s help a definite must
tiny snowdrops gleam – such a welcome sight
of unspoilt beauty to hold in memory tight.

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I Never Thought
Mairi Neil, 1998

When we first met
I never thought
we would lie side by side
in a large comfortable bed
and not drown in passion
maturity and familiarity
take their toll

Our bodies still tingle
when hands caress
but we have grown
comfortable and content
seeking thrills less often

It is enough to know
desire and satisfaction
still exist

I never thought
we would lie side by side
and talk of mundane matters…
doors to be painted
garden beds to be weeded
leaky taps to be fixed
seams to be mended…
yet we do not rush
to start a project
or worry a task
is incomplete

It is enough to know
there is tomorrow

I never thought
spending a morning
with you puzzling to solve
a cryptic crossword
and I puzzling to
write a poem
would create a warm inner glow
provide contentment and pleasure

Our past… and imagined future
flows easily between us
Our love has a comfortable silence
as well as public vows

It is enough to know that you are here.

 

 

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I Love Cooking (after Dr Seuss)
Mairi Neil

I love cooking, I love the smell
I love it more when it turns out swell
I love old recipes, they are the best
I gather ingredients and begin with zest.

I love my oven, it’s electric. If it was gas I’d be sick.
I love my bench top, granite and wide, equipment sits side by side.
I think my cooking is okay, there’s not much more I can say.
I’m not an expert like some boast, I’ve been known to burn the toast!
There’s people who just love their food, always categorising, bad or good.
I eat to live, variety’s not king, a few favourite recipes are my thing.

I’m happy to bake my apple cake. I am.
Can even manage scones, cream and jam.
I love to peel, dice, chop and knead.
It’s from cleaning up I want to be freed.

I love cooking – it’s a necessary evil – we have to eat.
But boy I’m glad – really glad – Nandos has opened up the street

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Here’s to more National Writing days!

 

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Will This be a Winter of Discontent?

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The above meme is doing the rounds of Facebook and what Graham Norton says is such a no brainer you do wonder at those greedy people who employ tax consultants to minimise and avoid paying their share.

What kind of community do they want to live in?

One that is permanently gated with more police and security guards than teachers and doctors?

It is a timely reminder for Australians as the soon-to-be-announced (oh, please get on with it!) Federal Election is due.

It has been well-documented how many large corporations don’t pay tax and the many wealthy people, including our former PM Turnbull, who secrete money offshore in tax havens.

It looks as if the current politicians will make Taxation and the Economy the big issues – despite the fact that the LNP have now adopted some of the Labor Party’s policies.

Remember it is our money. The Federal Government has no money of its own.  So, when the tax is divided up, it is important that everyone pays their fair share and it goes where it is most needed!

We must determine where our taxes are spent and I’m glad young people are demanding governments do more to combat climate change – an issue sadly not addressed in the recent Budget.

Nor was underemployment, contract and casual employment, or the poor level of financial assistance we give to those living on Newstart addressed. This is an appallingly inadequate allowance.

Politicians get more for a daily travel allowance than people are expected to live on for a week!

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From Australian Council Of Social Services

If the Labor Party buys into the trope that ‘unemployed equals dole bludger’ or people unable to find a job are not worthy of help, then it is no longer the party of social justice. Bill Shorten’s Budget Reply better be decidedly different from Josh Frydenberg’s!

The ALP has baggage to ditch
forget rhetoric about poor versus rich
it’s about social cohesion
not fanning division
Jacinda Adern has the right pitch!

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the Melbourne march was huge

Limericks Bursting The  Budget Bubble

Mairi Neil

The Budget was delivered by Josh
no surprises there, by gosh
robotic reading
figures misleading
and included a lot of tosh!

No addressing of climate emergency
global warming not treated with urgency
Josh sold his soul
for a lump of coal
condemning us all to Purgatory

And now the hard sell will begin
to politicians lying is not a sin
there’ll be semantics
confusing statistics
the Truth always a victim of spin

The PM is a marketing man
considers winning in the can
splashing cash
to him not rash
hip pocket nerves all part of the plan

ScoMo always smugness and smiles
in Queensland, he travelled miles
to keep Nats sweet
and avoid defeat
he had a Treasury chest of guiles

Josh said the Budget is in the black
the economy on the right track
who’d have guessed
they’d rob NDIS
for that, they should get the sack!

Yet Julie wore a sparkly blue dress
at 1300 dollars it had to impress
red shoes clicked
Parliament flicked
her next job anybody’s guess

Mathias Cormann lonely without Joe
no cigars or smoke rings on show
as Dutton’s man
he’s now ‘also-ran’
a diminished powerbroker who must go

The Budget framed for election in May
when the people will have their say
about stagnant wages
refugees in cages
and prime ministers who never stay

The pork barrel has been rolled out
too late for those areas in drought
Barnaby oughta
be gaoled over water
his incompetency never in doubt

Labor’s in with a chance to win
if they promise more than spin
Bill’s Budget reply
must satisfy
‘cos people’s patience is wearing thin

Social justice can be achieved
relief for all those aggrieved
a fair go reality
if economic parity
and a living wage guaranteed

Action on climate change a must
Australia’s pastures turning to dust
species dying
suicides climbing
we need a government to trust

We’re at a point of no return
global warming a real concern
find a solution
stop pollution
destructive practices we’ll unlearn

To Neoliberalism we say goodbye
trickle down economics proven a lie
support erasion
of tax evasion
and no more turning of a blind eye!

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Is Love All We Need?

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#TravelEverywhereWithLove and Dogman

At the beginning of the week, I had to go into the city and because it has been a while, I took the opportunity to stroll through some of the streets and arcades I don’t normally visit and chanced upon a sculpture that looked vaguely familiar yet I hadn’t seen it before.

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Travel with Love is a global public art project that’s re-uniting the world. In the face of closing borders, it stands for keeping minds open and love flowing.

Gillie and Marc are creating interactive bronze sculptures featuring their iconic characters for leading cities across the world. When people see the familiar and beloved Rabbitwoman and Dogman in a city, they’ll know that they’re welcome there.

When I read the blurb, I remembered where I’d seen similar public art – in December 2017, walking along the St Kilda foreshore with visitors from England after showing them the little fairy penguins.

 As unlikely animal kingdom companions, the Rabbit and the Dog represent diversity and togetherness. Without a definitive race, religion, or culture, they symbolize all people as one.

A Case of Love At First Sight?

The artists, Gillie and Marc met on a film shoot in Hong Kong. Apparently, their differences should have been incompatibilities, but ‘their hearts said something else’. Seven days later they were married on the foothills of Mt Everest and are best friends and soulmates,  collaborating for over 25 years as artists.

They appear to be living proof that indeed ‘love is all you need’ and they are spreading that love by ensuring their art makes a powerful statement as a motivating force for compassion and conversation.

Sydney-based they have created these iconic hybrid characters, which are definitely eye-catching and I believe they do what all good public art should do – they start discussions.

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Dogman as paparazzi?

Two of the sculptures in St Kilda paid homage to well-known women:

  • Inspired by Angelina Jolie’s humanitarian efforts with conservation, education and women’s rights. Angelina RabbitgirlStronger than ever – stands tall and strong showing she’ll never give up.
  • Marilyn Monroe may be the world’s most recognisable sex symbol, but behind her twinkling eyes and dazzling smile was a fragile and fearful rabbit-like woman struggling to cope with her own fame. She was also one of the first celebrities to be honoured by the paparazzi. Happy Birthday Mr President highlights society’s obsession with celebrities in a fun and accessible way.

( Marilyn Rabbitgirl strikes that famous pose I wrote about when Bendigo Art Gallery hosted a giant Marilyn statue and exhibition a couple of years ago)

The third sculpture is of coffee mates a beloved motif in Gillie and Marc’s art. These coffee drinker friends warmly remind viewers of their first-morning coffee. Early Morning Coffee shows Dogman and Rabbitwoman peacefully enjoying a morning coffee.

It was loaned to three separate locations in Melbourne: Melbourne Emporium, 500 Bourke Street and St Kilda Pier.

St Kilda Pier bought the sculpture after their three-month loan period because the sculpture was so successful in bringing together the local community.

I don’t know whether Travel With Love will remain on St Collins but considering the current debate engulfing our parliament in recent days concerning refugee policy, I really hope so, because unlike our Federal Government’s attitude this sculpture encourages unity rather than enmity.

In response to the worldwide plight of refugees and immigrants, and changing border control policies, Travel with Love has been created as a stand for global unity. Connected by the public art project, each visitor (traveller and resident alike) will feel like next door neighbours.

…Rabbitwoman and Dogman tell the autobiographical tale of two opposites coming together to become best friends and soulmates. The Rabbit and the Dog, as unlikely animal-kingdom companions, represent diversity and acceptance through love.

Rabbitwoman and Dogman have a dream that all creatures, regardless of race, religion, or orientation can feel accepted and never be judged.

Dogman holds a magnificent red apple. In Chinese, the word for apple is ping. Ping also happens to be the word for peace –  a critical facet to the sculpture’s design.

2018, the Year of the Dog was going to be a year of good fortune, and the artwork aimed to engage existing community residents, while also attracting new visitors to this vibrant hub of multi-culturalism in Melbourne.

In Chinese tradition, when a dog enters a home it symbolizes the coming of good fortune. Dogs are loyal, clever and brave. Best friends to humans, they are known for having harmonious relationships with people from all walks of life and don’t discriminate against socio-economic status, race, religion, or orientation.

 “In the face of last year’s unstable global landscape, an apple signifying peace holds particular importance by spreading the message of diversity and acceptance for all beings… Gillie and I feel deeply connected to this representation, as all of our art is built upon the foundation of love and togetherness.

We combined the powerful image of Dogman with an apple in the hopes of inspiring the public to be brave in the pursuit of a better world. ”

Gillie and Marc

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Writers & Love

Love is the extremely difficult realisation that something other than oneself is real. Love, and so art and morals, is the discovery of reality.

Iris Murdoch 1919-99: ‘The Sublime and the Good‘ in  Chicago Review 13 (1959) 

Most people experience love, without noticing that there is anything remarkable about it.

Boris Pasternak 1890-1960: Doctor Zhivago (1958)

Love doesn’t just sit there, like a stone, it has to be made, like bread; remade all the time, made new.

Ursula K. Le Guin 1929 – 2018: The Lathe of Heaven (1971)

You know very well that love is, above all, the gift of oneself!

Jean Anouilh 1910-1987: Ardèle (1949)

Romantic love is one of the great and popular themes for art, especially literature and screen and in our society, we even set aside a special day to remind us of the fact!

Love The Day
Mairi Neil

Valentine’s Day, a day for lovers
Mr or Mrs Hallmark tell me so.
A day for lovers under covers
Valentine’s Day? A day for lovers!
A day when you forsake all others
A day that costs a lot of dough
Valentine’s Day, a day for lovers
Mr or Mrs Hallmark tell me so!

Remembering Mum
Mairi Neil

I can see you sitting reading a book
Twisting your hair, deep in concentration
I know you’d rather read than cook
I can see you sitting reading a book
Into another world with such a contented look
Did Dad envy the Mills and Boon destination?
I can see you sitting reading a book
Twisting your hair, deep in concentration

But there is also love of country, place, objects, family, food, music, hobbies, sport, film, books, politics, pets … the list extensive… all can add profound meaning to life, be the inspiration for getting up in the morning, the reason for decision-making, and for daily satisfaction.

LOVE

  • a word, a feeling, a concept, a theme… love can be small, specific, detailed, contained within a personal circle or there can be the bigger picture – a love for humanity.

However, you experience love, I hope it involves tenderness and caring, perhaps duty and responsibility, resilience and loyalty, commitment, maybe even fun if it is something rather than someone.

No matter the interpretation or experience, I agree with Gillie and Marc that life is better with love, and kindness, especially when it comes to treating neighbours, immigrants, refugees and others marginalised.

We are lucky to have talented artists who can confront us with ideas, and councils, philanthropists, and communities prepared to invest in public art – whether it be sculpture, murals or other installations.

When I was in Irkutsk, Russia there was a whole park full of installations, many the embodiment of well-known rhymes and fairytales or figures from mythology.

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I loved this one based on the three wise monkeys: hear no evil, see, evil, speak no evil. A cultural icon originally from the east (Japan) and well-known in the west.

I remember a small brass ornament that always sat on the mantlepiece during my childhood and I know many people in my age group (aged pensioners unite!) will remember something similar.

I wrote a prose poem years ago in class when I gave the students an exercise based on ‘an object of significance’ from their childhood.

Three Wise Monkeys
Mairi Neil

Mizaru, Kikazaru and Iwazaru sit on the mantlepiece:
seeing no evil, hearing no evil, and speaking no evil.
A Japanese pictorial maxim transplanted to Scotland.
Brought home by a great uncle, a ship’s captain,
these wise monkeys an added admonishment
to a childhood steeped in Presbyterian rules.
Yet, the shadow of evil an unseen cloak –
we live in the tatters of World War Two.
Crowded cemeteries, buildings awaiting demolition,
food rationing… crippling austerity,
shattered families struggle to find meaning,
shudder if ambulance and police sirens wail.
Speak no evil an achievable rule perhaps
but hearing no evil more difficult
and what of seeing evil or evil seen?
The brass monkeys a cold and chilly weight
in my child’s hand… etching a mystic message
of rules, to chant in the playground.

In Yekaterinburg, Siberia there was a delightful animal orchestra near the arts precinct. They brought a smile to my face and like the fairytale park in Irkutsk presented a different image of a country often represented in the media by military statues and huge murals of revolutionary figures.

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I also loved this one of folk musicians in a park renowned for festivals and open-air concerts. having lived through the 70s and adoring Dylan and Donovan as well as Baez and Mitchell, this couple melted any language barriers.

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But perhaps my favourite piece of public art when I travelled was Wincher’s Stance by John Clinch (an apt name). It was named by Susan Ritchie and commissioned by Strathclyde Passenger Transport Executive. Of course, it’s in Glasgow.

(In Scotland, winch is to kiss and cuddle. It also means to go out regularly with someone.)

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The emotion this couple radiates is recognisable to anyone who arrives or departs from those they love – it can be the joy of reunion, or ensuring a lasting impression.

It can be easy to walk past public art or grow accustomed to it or take it for granted so I’m glad I came across Dogman and reading the artist’s statement helped me reflect on its message.

Love may not be ‘all we need’ but caring for each other and recognising similarities rather than differences is a good start.  A big thank you to the many public art installations that encourage reflection and conversation!

 

A Poet’s Response To The News

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When I describe myself as a poet, I know there will be plenty of critics and purists to suggest what I produce is not poetry, others may say it is not ‘good’ poetry.

However, creative writing is subjective, as is taste and opinion,  so I’m sticking with the label poet, defined in The New Penguin Compact Dictionary as ‘a very imaginative or sensitive person with considerable powers of expression.’

Over the years, learning and teaching a variety of poetic forms, I have built up an armoury of words to express myself, and anyone who knows me well will testify to my imagination and sensitivity – especially when it concerns social justice.

So, poet, I am.

I love poetry – because often you can be succinct and make a point with immediate impact about political or social justice issues.

Reactions can be swift and merciless, but at least it’s a reaction and often starts a much-needed conversation about important social issues.

I do miss my classes for those discussions and the input of wonderful writers with a range of views and life experiences.

Write a Poem You Say (A Triolet)
Mairi Neil

Writing poems not for the faint-hearted
Words, technique, emotions expected
Whether for the living or dear departed
Writing poems not for the faint-hearted
Sometimes it’s hard just to get started
Brain, heart and hand not connected
Writing poems not for the faint-hearted
Words, technique, emotions expected

The 24 Hour News Cycle

When I was teaching writing, I often used to write a poem at the beginning of the lesson during Splurge – the first 15-20 minutes of writing time set aside to respond to a prompt or write whatever you want a la stream of consciousness.

Many times whatever was in the newspapers or other media occupied my thoughts – like a random comment made by a high profile public figure, on the public purse, who quite frankly should have kept his out-dated thoughts to himself:

#Me Too Movement 2018
Mairi Neil

Oh, my darling daughters, come listen to me, please
There’s sad news to relate –
the way you dress is a tease
Don’t you know that males can’t control their desire –
a hint of breast or thigh sets their genitals on fire?
No matter that you are children, or entering teenage
Men find you sexually attractive and may attack in rage
How you package your body –  if you dress attractively
Makes you responsible for men’s out-of-control sexuality!

’Tis sad, darling daughters evolution cannot work
exposure to feminism hasn’t made ‘man’ less of a jerk
Some men remain Neanderthal, think women are prizes,
slaves to breed – willing or unwilling –
just somewhere to plant their precious seed!
Countless ages pass, yet progress is oh, so slow
appendages, goods & chattels, sirens, servants,
maiden, wench, slut… terms many women know.

This the 21st century, intelligence and commonsense demands
social justice and equity with or without wedding bands.
Coupling, coming together, sex must always be consensual,
pleasurable and engaging – with behaviour respectful.
Sex, regardless of gender, is about a caring relationship
Not control or violence left over from Stone Age hubris!

me too image

At the moment, we have a Royal Commission into Aged Care happening in South Australia. For many who have experienced the aged care system in Australia, some of the most horrifying revelations will not be a surprise, and the testimony may trigger memories they’d rather forget.

My Dad suffered dementia and was in care for several years and as a family, we can reflect on what was good and what was bad. One brother and one sister bore the brunt of many of the crises and complaints, but all of us learnt to be alert and watchful to ensure Dad was treated with respect and care.

During their late high school and university studies, both my daughters worked part-time in the kitchen of a local aged care centre. Although considered ‘one of the better ones’, it has changed hands several times and in certain aspects needs to improve.

Monday, November 9 (A Triolet)
Mairi Neil

The ambulance left with flashing light
With palpitating heart my emotions roam
As memory stirred of the terrible night
The ambulance left with flashing light
Resuscitation an unforgettable sight
Dad alone and prone, in nursing home
The ambulance left with flashing light
With palpitating heart my emotions roam

I was privileged to have a poem about Dad’s journey published in the anthology,  Memory Weaving, supported by Manningham Council’s Community Grant Program in 2014, and a story in Stolen Moments, 2006, edited by Elizabeth Bezant and Pamela J Eaves and promoted by Alzheimer’s Australia WA, Ltd and Sue Pieters-Hawke, the daughter and carer for much-loved Hazel Hawke, who never ceased to be an advocate for improved aged care resources.

Stories and poems written from the heart can be a great barometer about what is right and what is wrong in the community. Will those with the power to change be prepared to listen and make a difference?

Will the outcome of this Royal Commission provoke the same outrage and promises to accept and act on recommendations as the Banking Royal Commission?

Stolen Years
Mairi Neil

Clovelly Cottage sounds so benign
Perhaps a cottage by the sea
Or among wild mountain thyme…
This was where my Dad ended his days
Trapped in dementia’s memory haze.
A nursing home, no more, or less
Not the worst, but not the best.

Dad’s home for seven long years,
And although a reasonable place,
Most regular visits ended in tears.
Dementia is ‘the carer’s disease’,
Family relationships often a tease.
I was Dad’s sister, long since dead
Other days, a landlady, stingy with bread.

I’d search his face and dark brown eyes
Seeking the beloved Dad I knew
And sometimes, he surprised …
A brilliant smile and ‘hello’ to greet mine
‘How are you?’ followed, ‘I’m just fine!
I shouldn’t be here, take me home today.’
Then the fog of uncertainty carried him away.

For residents to live, and not just exist
Depends on staff and activities
People to cooperate, and not resist.
Many attempts did brighten Dad’s day
Food treats, excursions, music to play.
And when his speech slowly disappeared
His response to songs alleviated some fears.

I accepted the smells of talcum and urine,
The last meal’s clinging aroma
Strong disinfectants, disguising most sins.
I accepted Dad watching Days of our Lives
Forgetting my mother, assuming other wives.
I accepted Dad staring blankly at wall or door
Drooping slack-jawed, even dribbling on floor.

But I’ll never accept all those stolen years
Of a much-loved father and Papa ––
What could have been, still causes tears.
Dad’s ‘episode’ with dementia only part
Of the wonderful man within my heart.
He lived until he was eighty-three
Leaving plenty of positive memories for me!

Pressing Political Issues

Most Australians will be aware that a Federal Election is looming and there are some issues where the major political parties differ starkly in what they see as the problems the country is facing, and the solutions they are proposing.

I hope the majority of voters will think carefully and seek as much information as they can before casting their vote. An informed choice is always better than relying on headlines, adverts and click-bait.

Distraught Democracy (A Triolet)
Mairi Neil

Democracy requires some thought
The right to vote so dearly won.
Truth and Integrity can’t be bought
Democracy requires some thought
Election promises with lies fraught
Politicians desperately seek the sun
Democracy requires some thought
The right to vote so dearly won!

democracy.jpg

The recent vote about evacuating refugees on Manus and Nauru islands for medical reasons an example of serious misrepresentation by those who seek to demonise asylum seekers and hope for a return to the horrible campaign of ‘Stop The Boats’ and other three-word slogans that almost stopped compassion and decency as being a motivation for government policy. Our Prime Minister and others should be ashamed to stoop so low again.

Election 2016
Mairi Neil

Australians are having a vote
Malcolm and Bill both want a moat
People smugglers to shatter
‘Cos Refugees don’t matter
We’ve stopped the boats they gloat.

Turn A Blind Eye
(A Villanelle)
Mairi Neil

They float like pieces of flotsam
Fear and desperation in their eyes
Praying for the sea to calm

She hoped for God’s large palm
Would He hear desperate cries,
From floating pieces of flotsam?

The water flooded like a burst dam
Boats upended amid gasps and sighs
They prayed for the sea to calm

A boat crowded like a peak hour tram
Women and children with frightened eyes
Now floating like pieces of flotsam

A rescue boat throws some ties
Refugees human in the Captain’s eyes
No more floating pieces of flotsam
Or praying for the sea to calm.

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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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Business As usual in Australia
(A Found Poem)
Mairi Neil

Stunned scientists
Moved into new roles
Unrelated to their specialty
Australia, the nation driest on Earth
Shifts in rainfall but global research community
Disabled

Young climate scientists without direction
The situation depressing
Climate capability gone
Climate modelling cut

This is not about just Australia
Readings of CO2 from Mauna Loa, Hawaii, and Barrow, Alaska
Confirmation of humanity’s dominion
Over the climate.
It is mind-boggling
Grim
Australia is ground zero for climate change
1,000 positions eliminated,
Science easily commercialised

CSIRO’s management
Focus on commercially viable projects
Climate change now settled science
Basic research no longer needed

Paris last year certain
Humans are altering the planet
But Australia’s government
Isn’t serious about climate change
Business comes first!

(Words found in ‘Australia Cuts 110 Climate Scientist Jobs’, an article in Scientific American By Gayathri Vaidyanathan, ClimateWire on February 8, 2016)

Tasmania’s Beauty
Mairi Neil

Save the wilderness
from logging
Ancient trees Earth’s lungs.

Lake and hills
Reflecting pool of the future
Wilderness or resort?

Bush On Fire
Mairi Neil

The sun is dulled by a veil of cloud
Animals culled, Mother Nature a shroud
This defeated giver of life so dear
Now dried up river, its power unclear

A red threat creeping, gathering power
Creatures weeping, air rancid and sour
It dances with glee destroying obstacles with ease
Devours blade and bush, its direction a tease

Whipped and encouraged by angry wind’s collusion
The fiery menace plundered with no delusion
The sun’s conscience exploded, the cloud revealed worth
Only life-saving rain saved the scorched earth.

Haiku – Mairi Neil

Frog or toad – who knows?
No croaking from pond or lake
dooms civilisation

In a soapy swirl
of polluted waterways
purple the colour of hope

Flash Floods Not Fiction (A Haibun)
Mairi Neil

City streets awash
El Nino’s temper unleashed
Climate Change ignored

NSW, Queensland and Tasmania storm-blasted. Flooding horrendous. Cars submerged in streets, people drowned or missing. A man fishing from his balcony excites social media when the lake thirty metres from his home visits – and stays. New residents in ground level apartments, shops, and public buildings.

All life disrupted
reptiles infest the buildings
as rivers burst banks

Doctors warn of waterborne disease and the risk of bites from creatures otherwise unseen. Funnel Web spiders flushed inside, pets swept outside.

Winds howl, puff and huff
roofs wrenched from buildings and sheds
squalls strength abnormal

Storms unknown in most people’s lifetime. Sea swells surging over jetties, boats, and homes, with tsunami intent but not its reach. Was it really like this a century ago? Record keeping not an exact science.

Angry seas pummel
rocks and aged roots shaken loose
the clifftops shudder

Countryside recovering from summer bushfires, firestorms, and drought. Life sucked from weary soil, then too much water.

Fragile soil stolen
farmers tears match the deluge
Nature’s balance gone

Doomsayers shake their heads. Sacked scientists despair at self-serving politicians, the population seek soothing before resigned and resilient acceptance. Adaptation anyone?

Our planet’s life finite
Earth will return to stardust
Creation’s downside

A Wake-Up Call
Mairi Neil

The people of Longreach
Appeal to fellow Australians
You’ve forgotten us they cry
The rain has stopped
Not seen for years
The grass all withered and dry.

The people of Longreach
Appeal to fellow Australians
Do you know what it’s like here?
Drought has destroyed
Our way of life
The community we hold so dear.

The people of Longreach
Appeal to fellow Australians
Climate Change must be faced
This parched land
No longer produces
Bore water has poison laced

The people of Longreach
Are silent and so sad
Heads bowed at funeral pyre
People, cattle, farms
Now dust to dust
Their history erased by fire

The people of Longreach
Not the only community to die
The driest continent
Will shrivel and shrink
Global warming is making us fry!

So there it is folks – a poet’s response to events in the media from sexism to political gaming on refugees and aged care, to climate change and fire, flood and drought…

The Speech a PM Should Make in 2019
Mairi Neil

Men and women of Australia
And those who identify as other
There is no time to waste
You must listen to our Mother

Mother Earth, I’m referring to
The mountains, snows, and sea
The seasons, soil, and sunlight
Providing sustenance for you and me

But Mother Earth is terminally ill
Man has definitely not been kind
We’ve raped, polluted and poisoned
For wealth we craved to find

Addicted to manufactured comfort
We’ve gouged mountains into craters
Safe harbours are now wharves
To accommodate gigantic freighters.

Explosions altered landscapes
Concrete towers replacing trees
Animals hunted to extinction
Polar ice caps no longer freeze.

Climate change is not a phrase
But reality for the natural world
Global warming’s rising tides
Cities consumed as tsunamis twirl

Leaving disasters in their wake
Human structures or nature’s design
Mother Earth almost beyond healing
Unless permanent solutions we find

Climate deniers knuckle draggers
As are those mouthing ‘innovation’
Drought, bushfires, failed crops
The word should be desperation!

The time for procrastination gone
Also the sand for burying your head
Earth’s lungs struggle daily to breathe
How long before humanity is dead?

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school children strike for their future The Times, UK

Empathy, Acts of Kindness, Friendship – All Make Life Better

kindness is free

We dropped a couple of boxes of chocolates and a thank you card into the Kingston Veterinary Hospital when we were shopping at Thrift Park the other day because the staff at the clinic always go ‘the extra mile’.

Over my lifetime, I’ve had many pets – usually dogs – and count myself lucky most have lived long lives because it is never easy saying farewell. Dogs bring such joy and unconditional love and warmth into your life, no wonder they’re the ideal therapy pet.

But how heartbreaking when you have to say goodbye like we did last week, to our Aurora, and so many friends on Facebook were kind in their comments acknowledging how important she was in our life.

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Saying goodbye to a pet you’ve had for 14 years a wrench, and no matter how you rationalise these decisions, grief is profound. Compassionate vets, animal attendants, and understanding friends help ease the pain.

The young women we have been dealing with at Kingston Veterinary Hospital were not only loving and considerate with Aurora but cared about our welfare too. They even sent a handwritten sympathy card with a laminated imprint of Aurora’s paw – one for each of us.

card from vet

I’ve written about kindness before, the importance of it for humans in the medical world but we shouldn’t forget our relationship with the animal kingdom.

The Life Stories & Legacies writing teacher in me has to remind those who read my blog that they should not forget to record the stories of their pets because usually those stories reveal a lot about yourself and family life.

Dogs are my favourite pets and I can’t remember the family home every being without one – in fact, often two dogs.

They can be fun stories to write, dramatic, and of course sad but because family pets are like children (some people even prefer them to children) – they can be naughty, mischievous, loving – destructive (even if unintentional) – each one having their own personality and therefore great characters for you to write about.

Here is a piece I wrote in response to an exercise I gave to my class asking them to write a snapshot of their morning and to include at least one of the senses: sound, sight, smell, touch without forgetting that all-important emotional engagement for the reader.

Mornings
Mairi Neil

The 5.24am rumbles past, and on cue, Aurora begins nudging my back.

‘Too early,’ I croak and snuggle under the doona for a couple more hours sleep.

‘Yuk, your breath stinks. These early morning kisses have to stop.’

In what seems moments, a glimmer of daylight dances on the wall, then a steady rhythm of click and tap from footsteps hurrying to the railway station, after slamming car doors.

It is useless to try and sleep. Aurora, also exhausted from her alarm clock routine, lifts her head and large brown eyes to plead with me.

‘Okay, okay, I’m getting up. Now please move off my slippers and give me some space.’
She scrambles to her feet as fast as arthritic bones can and my aged body does the same.

‘Happy now?’ I grumble.

The flushing of the toilet Aurora’s signal to almost trip me up in her eagerness to be first at the backdoor where Smackos sleep in a drawer waiting to be gobbled.  She snatches the treat from my hand and dribbles as the chicken flavoured snack crumbles before disappearing into her expanding tummy.

‘That’s it,’ I say, ‘the vet’s orders!’

We shuffle back to the kitchen together to start another day.

I put the kettle on to sing, and dangle a teabag into a favourite mug souvenir from sunny California before checking the view from the kitchen window. Jasmine trembles along the fence and I wonder if the sea breeze promises a sunny day in Mordialloc.

Aurora coughs and totters into the lounge room to claim her favourite armchair and wait for me to bring my steaming cup of tea to join her.

We watch ABC24 together and discover the good and bad news before she demands a play with the ball or walks along the street – most days, like a spoilt toddler she’ll get both.

 

Aurora.jpeg

Writing about pets:

  • Do you think that animals feel love?
  • Do you think a dog can feel love? A cat?
  • These are ‘conventional pets’ what about less loveable animals?
  • What about a cow, a snake, or a spider?
  • What makes you think so?
  • Have you ever cared for or loved an unusual pet?

While we sat with the vets who shared Aurora’s dying, I asked them what was the most unusual pet they’d looked after.

Jane, a tall stunning blonde with a delightful smile, surprised me when she said she had a pet snake, ‘Great pets, easy to look after and I only have to feed it every couple of months.’

Now that is an unusual pet, I thought and remembered a neighbour who used to live next door. She had pet pythons too and one escaped – it was three weeks before she confided in me, and only because when I was walking the dog past her gate, I saw what I thought was a snake’s head pop up from a pile of rubble from their renovations.

I took the dog home and nipped next door to say, ‘I may be imagining things but I thought I saw a snake in your front yard.’

‘Oh, so that’s where he got to – I’ve been looking for him for three weeks.’

‘Three weeks!?’

Pets generate lots of stories! …

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Aurora – the Roman Goddess who liked to chew

We brought Aurora home when she was a puppy, and like all puppies, she was teething. However, despite numerous toys bought specifically for her, she found so many other things much more to her taste…

She joined our household a few months before Christmas, the timing right for her large teeth to grow perhaps because she kept us on our toes when we decorated the Christmas tree.

The coloured baubles on the tree, she either didn’t like or liked too much. Each morning when I came through to the lounge room there’d be a trail of pine needles and outside in the back garden tell-tale bright ‘flowers’ in the grass where she had taken the balls and they’d shattered.

When we moved all the decorations up to the top half of the tree hoping she’d find one of her toys more interesting, it was the electric lead of the fairy lights that gained her attention – maybe she didn’t like the carols that played along with the twinkling lights (I have to admit, I found them repetitive and annoying too) …

However, the coup de gras for our tree that Christmas was Aurora becoming entangled in the lights and tinsel and in response to my outrage running across the room and up the hallway with our tree in tow.

Needless to say, the Christmas decorations were packed away early that year – maybe if we had told our aptly named Roman Goddess it was Saturnalia she would have accepted the tree as a temporary fixture and left it alone.

Tinsel Aurora

Along with the tree and decorations, Aurora did enjoy a good chew of shoes – specifically not one, but two brand new pair of leather sandals I bought, on a ‘buy one pair, get the other 50% off’ deal.

For some reason, she only preferred the left shoe! That summer I made my old sandals last another season.

Aurora always took her loot and hid behind the couch or under a bed like a saboteur waiting for the explosion – and she certainly got that when she reappeared – although probably not the satisfaction she desired.

All parents will empathise and understand the situation – who hasn’t experienced that feeling of dread when your toddler is just too quiet or has disappeared from view.

They’re discovered in another room,  under the table, in the backyard … and you just know you’re going to find they’ve scribbled on the wall, ate something they shouldn’t or have something they shouldn’t play with…

However, it’s what Aurora chewed after the sandals that make her the only dog I’ve owned, to be included by a well-known author when he autographed his book to me.

I can tell the story now and see the funny side, but at the time it was one of those moments when I definitely needed more than Minties.  And the event triggered a reaction in me I can’t quite explain – perhaps it was the build-up of grief or just a period in my life when I’d made many life-changing adjustments too quickly… but I had what modern lingo would call ‘a meltdown’.

Aurora replaced Goldie who we had for fourteen years but she also came into my life only a few months after I lost my Dad who I loved dearly.  I was still adjusting to a new job at the Melbourne University Student Union – a full-time job entailing travel into the city after years of working part-time locally.

At the Student Union, I was the receptionist/administrative clerk for the elected student office bearers. The job was full-on because we were in the midst of a campaign to stop the introduction of VSU (Voluntary Student Unionism), a policy that would literally destroy many student activities and collective strength, particularly at small campuses. The employment future of many people at risk – including mine even although I’d literally just started working there.

In 2006, Shadowboxing, a collection of short stories by Melbourne author, Tony Birch was released but as a widow who recently returned to full-time work to put my daughters through high school and university, I lived on a tight budget with no money to spare on non-essentials – and that meant I had to curtail my love of buying books.

Fortunately, one of the Women’s Officers lent me her brand new copy,  ‘Read it on the train and give it to me tomorrow. I know you value books and will look after it.’

She trusted me with her signed copy.

You will have worked out where the story is heading…

Long story short – Aurora stole the book from my handbag, which I foolishly left on the floor in my bedroom. When I discovered the chewed remnants the next morning, the air became decidedly blue – and chilly! My daughters ready in double-quick time to leave for their respective classes.

I slammed the front door with a cursory ‘see you tonight’ through gritted teeth. I’m sure the stumps shook.

All the way to work on the train, blame, shame, and curses seesawed – ad nauseam: Aurora, the girls, myself…

Every stupid or careless thing I’d ever done in my life whirled inside my head, I was sitting down but felt weak-kneed and fought off being sick.

  • How will the owner forgive me – it was a personally signed copy!
  • Why didn’t I take more care?
  • What made Aurora go through my handbag?
  • Why didn’t the girls take more responsibility for the puppy they wanted?
  • How am I going to get a replacement book?
  • And from where?
  • How early do bookshops open?
  • What will the other office bearers think of my carelessness?

Pride is one of the deadly sins  – was that my problem – deeply wounded and worrying about myself and how others will see me? I felt the destroyed book was a betrayal of trust someone had shown in me.

I didn’t deserve the high opinion the Women’s Officer had of me and had let her down – I dreaded the confrontation ahead.

I was a child again…  waiting to be strapped by an overbearing teacher, angry because I’d played in the ‘boys’ playground (yes segregated playgrounds were a thing in the early 60s in Scotland) …

I was twelve years old and explaining to my older sister I’d lost her silver signet ring in the ocean – the ring she’d let me borrow …

By the time I walked into work, I must have looked as distressed as I felt because the one office bearer who was there, came out of his office with a worried look,

‘Mairi, are you okay?’

I burst into tears. If he hadn’t put his arms around me, my trembling legs would have collapsed.

He was the Indigenous Officer and when he heard my tale of woe his reaction immediate, ‘He’s a mate. I’ll give Tony a ring, he lives nearby.’

I couldn’t believe it! Please let him be home and willing to help!

Within a short space of time, Tony Birch arrived at the Student Union with two copies of his book – and the special pen he kept for book launches! He found the story of Aurora’s appetite for literature amusing and was only too happy to rescue me from further embarrassment.

Tony knew the Women’s Officer and replicated the message in the replacement book before signing a book for me – including Aurora’s name – ‘since she’s such a fan’.

I’ll never forget the kindness of that day.  They helped me through the ordeal with a minimum of fuss, maximum efficiency and a sense of humour.

The book returned with the owner none the wiser, keeping the episode secret justified with ‘no harm done’ but knowing what a hotbed of gossip university circles can be, I’m sure ‘the secret’ has been one of those anecdotal tales laughed at over a few beers or after-dinner coffee.

A forgotten memory recounted as I’m doing now and as long as that book sits on my bookshelf, Aurora and her most memorable escapade, never forgotten!

flowers of remembrance.jpg
a lovely message and flowers from daughter number one

It so happens that my dearest friend, Lesley, had to make a similar decision about one of her dogs the day after we farewelled Aurora.

Lesley is my dearest friend in Melbourne. We have known each other since our children were babies. We have literally been through all the big life changes together – birth, deaths, and marriages.

Whether it’s 11am or 11pm we have coffee and unburden ourselves to each other, drawing strength from our shared love and respect and being able to vent about parents, children, the economy, politics, health, neighbours – you name it we discuss it, laugh and cry, forever grateful we have each other.

And so we scheduled a long chat over coffee and a walk.

Our catch-ups and walks around the neighbourhood of whatever cafe we patronise, always a balm to the soul.

This time, we chose Alba’s in Warren Road – a place that is friendly and serves good coffee and tea. We often visit Alba’s because it is close to home and although popular, we always manage to find a table.

On our walk of the surrounding streets, we noted how many of the gardens and parks are suffering because of the recent 40 plus degree heat.

Others bloomed, thank goodness.

We were saddened to see what had obviously been a wonderful garden, neglected and dying.  A mini orchard in fact with heavily-laden nectarine and pomegranate trees.

Perhaps the original owner has died and new owners wait to sell or build and the large block will go the way of so many others in the suburbs – townhouse or apartment development.

I just hope someone enjoys the benefit of such luscious fruit before the trees are cut down if that’s their fate.

At least the area still had some green space in the form of a lovely little park we walked through to return to Warren Road and Lesley’s car, and a young woman walking her dog was grateful for the shady trees.

The lush foliage made the path a welcome and cool respite from the concrete pavements.

We were grateful many of the streets have retained nature strip trees, probably planted 20-30 years ago because they offered great shade as well as adding beauty to the street. Trees and their shade make a huge difference to comfort as our summers grow warmer.

The Andrews Labor Government is carrying through on its promise of money for pocket parks and that will certainly help create green spaces for every community.

A lecture I attended made this very clear and local council and government ignore the science at their peril.

The last few days of over 40-degree heat prompted several discussions about the importance of shaded streets on Talk-Back radio. let’s hope everyone who can do something to improve the situation will take note!

The City of Melbourne is asking people to register ‘exceptional’ trees that are important or meaningful –

City of Melbourne’s Exceptional Tree Register was adopted by Council in 2012. It enables us to recognise, celebrate and protect the exceptional trees that exist on privately owned or managed land in our city.

Perhaps a tree like this beauty Lesley and I passed – there are plenty still left in suburbia and I hope they remain.

 

Albert Street, Mordialloc

Mairi Neil

Albert Street is quiet today
a heat haze hovers
school students absent
and no U3A
the silence partly explained
by the summer holiday

Cars parked by the train track
left by commuters to the city
who’ll be late back hoping
the hovering haze will disappear
absorbed by night’s veil
and the breeze from Mordy pier

No more horses clip-clop in Mordi –
suburbia stole their stables
Pharlap and others
now picture book fables
the birds departed too – no magpie trill
or noisy minors screeching at will

It’s going to be a scorcher
the weather boffins say
and since many trees axed
the birds flew away – leaving
an uncomfortable silence
as if there’s been foul play

A whisper of wing but
no chittering chatter –
there’s no reason to sing…
an absence of wildlife
accompanies heat haze
passersby seem in a daze…

Rows of houses, rows of cars
silent, sweating, waiting
from sunrise to stars
rows of houses, rows of cars
hot steamy fixtures trapped
behind climate change bars

It’s a scorcher today and
most people avoid the heat
obeying Met Bureau warnings
they desert street after street
surrounded and smothered
by heat-hugging concrete

bless garden sign

I look at my front garden and so many of my trees and plants the result of potted gifts or random cuttings from friends. Now I will have more time (theoretically) to work in the garden I have plans to try and make it even more attractive for passersby because I know how much pleasure I get when I walk around and see beautiful gardens.

We are so lucky in Melbourne. When I travelled through Siberia I can remember some host families exclaiming at pictures of my garden, amazed at plants flourishing that they’d only seen inside, or in books.

When you walk around the streets in many parts of Europe not blessed with our weather, house and apartment windows have flowers on the windowsill or window boxes.

It is easy to understand why they value the beauty of flowers. Their deep long winters make people long for the new life and joy plants represent. Some flowers are almost revered because of the length and severity of the winter and the displays inside shops and public buildings are quite elaborate.

On leaving Irkutsk, I searched the marketplace for a basket of Pussy Willows to leave for my host, as a thank you gift. It was April and those flowers have a cultural as well as seasonal significance, being linked to the traditions of the Russian Orthodox Church and the celebration of Palm Sunday.

In Russia Easter is important, celebrated commercially in much the same way as we do Christmas. Several people in Siberia commented how lucky I was to be in Moscow at Easter because of the decorations and events.

There are no palm branches in Russia; believers traditionally carry pussy willow branches to church. Even although my hosts were not religious they still continued the cultural tradition of decorating their homes at Easter.

Walking the Neighbourhood

Strangers often stop and chat or make comments when I work in the front garden, and I’ve given cuttings to them or let them take flowers for special occasions or just to enjoy at home.

In days gone by, especially pre TV and computer, it was a common pastime for couples or families to walk the neighbourhood in the evening, chat with people still working or watering their garden or perhaps relaxing on verandahs.

When Lesley or I, or my evening walking buddy, Jillian, stroll past apartment blocks, we see balconies utilised by the occasional clothes horse and perhaps an ornamental plant but no people. As density living becomes the norm, the need to have more community gardens and parks will intensify and perhaps greater thought put into the design of buildings.

It is a different world now with different ideas of leisure and relaxation but there is a lot to be gained staying grounded in nature and being accessible to meet neighbours.

It was the tail-end of winter when I stayed in Irkutsk. The buildings were houses built in the much-maligned Stalinist era or just after, yet designed so that people’s paths crossed daily. There was play equipment for children, seats for people to sit and chat and necessary shops close by.

Even in the coldest of mornings, I watched people sweep the paths, put the rubbish in bins and then go off to work or take their children to school.

 

At the corner of Albert Street, Mordialloc, an aged care centre has been built but there is only a carpark seen by the public and no interaction at all unless the carers take residents for a walk.

Occasionally, I see a small walking group of folk from the aged care facility and can imagine their pleasure at being outside and seeing the neighbourhood.

I’m so happy when they pause beside my garden or sit on the seats outside the Allan Mclean Hall and exchange greetings.

 

shoes for chronic pain

A Walk Down Memory Lane
Mairi Neil

On a gloriously sunny day
they venture from the security of Bayside Aged Care
tentative steps into a world sometimes strange and hostile
carers cajole, encourage, guide…
vitamin D burrows into pallid skin

Jasmine and honeysuckle trail over fences, heighten senses
a child’s toy abandoned in a garden stirs a memory
washing flapping on the line, a sound from long ago
a garden bed weeded, ready for spring bulbs
sparks discussion

The ginger cat sprawled across concrete path
raises a curious head before resuming sun-baking
a noisy Jack Russell barks a territorial warning,
snuffles at the fence, wet nose nudging painted palings
the shuffling slippered feet no threat

This occasional stroll more frequent in fine weather
hesitation      pauses
clucks      whispers

silent contemplation…
They admire the rosemary bush at my gate
It’s for remembrance …

Of what?

She remembers lavender perfuming sheets
He sees possums dancing along the power lines
He hears doves cooing goodnight
She hears children demanding attention

And smiling at random thoughts
they remember the warmth of a lover’s embrace
and the cicadas’ serenade…