Walking, Writing – Is there a Plan? Hello, 2019!

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On a walk with my dearest friend, Lesley, we paused by a beautiful Illawarra Flame Tree to listen to rosellas, ravens and wattlebirds in conversation – perhaps squabbling over the best branch or sharing neighbourhood gossip birds enjoy.

It was a fitting end to 2018 – especially since the New Year has begun with an ‘unprecedented’ heatwave right across the continent.

A visual metaphor perhaps, a warning about global warming?

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LabInitio NZ cartoon

However, being a glass-half-full person, I’d rather accept the experience as an amazing gift from Mother Nature and a reminder there is countless beauty in gardens around the neighbourhood, and in the wild, for all of us to appreciate and share.

The glorious flaming tree emphasised how important the neighbourhood and nature is to me.

The number of wonderful species of plants and animals we have already lost is a worry especially when the bumblebee was added last year to the ever-growing list of endangered species overseas such as the grizzly bear, the northern spotted owl, the grey wolf, and nearly 1 in 3 of our unique Australian mammals are at risk  – mainly through habitat destruction.

But with a Federal Election coming up and climate change always in the news I am full of hope there are people, like myself who value and will work towards changing attitudes and our current Federal Government.

There is only one Earth to be respected, nurtured and shared, not just dug up, mined, fished, dredged, drilled and concreted over.

Greenpeace’s Rainbow Warrior docked in Melbourne in November to remind us there is a community of people who care and are prepared to act.

… as a writer, I am dependent on scientific inquiry for information. If I am going to write coherently – about polar bears, for example – I am dependent upon the scientists who work with polar bears for solid information of a certain sort. And yet I am troubled by this because of the way we approach animals as scientists.

Barry Lopez, from a discussion with Edward O Wilson on ‘Ecology and The Human Imagination,’ University of Utah, February 1, 1998.

Let’s celebrate the natural world

We have much to learn from the animal and natural world.

Birds are constantly adapting to changed circumstances, adversity and catastrophe. Recently, I’ve been entertained by the songs of a butcher bird that decided it likes my garden. I noticed the baby bird a few months ago so move over magpies and wattlebirds.

I am one of the few houses in Albert Street that still has a reasonable number of trees as apartment blocks and townhouses mushroom around me. A self-confessed dendrophile I will be planting more trees this year and spending time cultivating the garden with flowers and vegetables. (Even if the possums ate my broccoli and are munching their way through the top of the five photinias protecting the back fence.)

Indulging the senses

There are lots of inspirational ideas from walking around the suburbs – a mixture of indigenous, imported, practical and ornamental trees and plants attract a variety of birds, butterflies and insects.

Lesley and I have already made a pact to share more cuttings and encourage each other regarding our gardens. We are both transitioning to retirement, so my writing will indubitably reflect either success or failure!

I’ll take a leaf out of Thoreau’s practice of walking, observing, pondering and writing…

… we begin to see the whole man as we follow the crowded, highly charged, and rapidly evolving inner life that accompanies the busy outer life and reveals the thoughts behind the eyes of the familiar photographs.

Robert D Richardson Jr: Henry David Thoreau: A Life of The Mind.

Will I be inspired to be more creative and productive and take the advice I’ve meted out to students over the years? Thoreau mined his journal jottings and got essays and books out of his copious notes – not sure I’ll be so talented…

As a person who likes to ‘join the dots’ I value connectedness when memories spring to mind as I walk or travel by public transport. I have a pile of notebooks to be typed up and documents already on the computer to finish or add to and way too many photographs. (My oldest daughter banned me from ever opening an Instagram account!)

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Will 2019 be the year I use time wisely or perhaps discover a niche other than writing and teaching?

Do I write up and polish, start afresh, a bit of both or ‘now for something completely different’?

Maybe just luxuriate in reading and gardening…

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Tales of Our Lives
Mairi Neil

If you want to record your stories
consider what and ponder why –
list all the events to be remembered
and ask, ‘Who for?’

Is that a sigh?

If wondering ‘who’ don’t worry
there’s joy in a manuscript for one
reflecting on life and lessons learned
gives satisfaction when writing done!

Do we need to record our stories?
Some question the wisdom of revisiting years
but most of us have lived experiences
to prompt laughter as well as tears.

Ordinary people live extraordinary lives
an observation you often hear said –
so concentrate on the who and what
think how your stories will be read.

Will you write with pen and ink –
forming copperplated words
or tap myriad computer keys
that easily erase the absurd?

You may even take recording
to another level of authenticity,
digital voice and video programs
reproducing ‘you’ with simplicity.

And if you do go digital –
recording voice and visuals – remember
mobile phones, Youtube, Facebook
retain the serious and the trivial…

Stories have entertained us
from the beginning of humankind
witness Stone Age drawings and
precious artefacts archaeologists find.

Storytelling fills a need and
links the present to the past
by exploring our human story –
we ‘nail our colours to the mast’!

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No More Travelling To Bentleigh

It will be strange not going to class Wednesday mornings and catching up with the students in my Life Stories & Legacies class.

As I considered the final anthology, I looked around the room and realised some of the students had journeyed with me for the five years the course has been running. The women scribbling in their notebooks and tapping an iPad now friends, not students. All are amazing writers whose authentic prose and poems from the heart, were written from a depth of experience spanning decades. Edna the oldest will be turning ninety in a couple of months and Anat, the youngest in her thirties.

I watched them grow in confidence as writers, bond and trust each other, learning to be true to themselves and their stories. They shared personal and family secrets, opinions (not always politically correct), anecdotes, and many entertaining and heartbreaking tales of life’s sorrows and joys.

The class established for people who wanted to leave a written legacy. The questions each one had to answer:

  • Who am I writing for?
  • What information do I think they need to know?
  • More importantly, what do I want them to know?
  • What will they remember about me?

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I published 8 class anthologies over the years and if the students finished a semester or year they contributed work. The students who shared their stories 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018:

  • Melissa Quigley
  • Jan Wiburd
  • Annie Crane
  • Edna Gaffney
  • Nora Boghikian
  • Anat Bigos
  • Helen Thomas
  • Donna Hellier
  • Mary Robinson
  • Suzanne Dillon

Some of the students were childless but have dear friends and family to think about or aimed to publish their life stories for the general public.

No students in the final class had a partner – they either never married, were divorced, or widowed. Therefore our stories had a definite female, some may say feminist, perspective.

I am constantly awed at the resilience and determination displayed when journeys are shared – the overcoming or ongoing struggle with illness, disease, disability; the grief and mourning for loved ones touches us all, as well as the additional losses – of country, of culture, of employment, of partners, of children, of health, of pets, of self-esteem… the list can go on.

Writing is appreciating and trying to explain/understand the human condition. Yet a strong aspect of writing classes has always been laughter – not only do we love to laugh with each other but at ourselves.

Another aspect has been the delicious morning teas and birthday celebrations – on Wednesday mornings, Anat’s carer, Jill an integral part of our class family and birthday cake maker extraordinaire!

The tapestry of my life has been so much richer because of Wednesday mornings and although looking to weave new threads, or even have a rest from weaving, I’m going to miss Life Stories & Legacies where I was truly blessed with a wonderful class.

The poems and stories of all past students are important to me and when I read their words I hear their voices, imagine them in class… memories I value.

I have a bookshelf of class anthologies from Sandy Beach, Mordialloc, Bentleigh and Chelsea and reading the poems and stories I can recall the writers:

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Not Everyone is A Digital Native

We are in the digital age and the demands of readers have changed – there are websites, blogs, e-books, podcasts, audiobooks – stories experienced on a variety of devices with different screens and parameters.

If writers want to reach a variety of readers methods must change.

How to adapt is a  personal choice, and for many people, the traditional printed paper is still what they want to read and how they want to be published.

I found most of the students coming to my classes were not digital natives and preferred to keep learning the craft of writing and learning computer skills separate. Some struggled with basic formatting, some were not on email, many had ‘hunt and peck’ keyboard skills.

Fortunately, all were happy to be lifelong learners and even if it was a struggle they’d attend computer classes too, which most community houses or libraries now provide. Coping with a wide range of skills, or lack of skills a fact of life if teaching in community houses and it’s important not to leave anyone behind.

However, whether you write with pen and paper or prefer to tap your laptop or iPad you benefit from regular writing. Writing classes or workshops can be a first step to discovering not only what you want to write while learning the tools of the craft, but also how you want to be published.

Writing helps you reflect on your life and changes you’re making. … Writing regularly makes you better at writing. And writing is a powerful skill to be good at in our digital age. Writing for an audience (even if the audience is just one person) helps you to think from the perspective of the audience.

Leo Babauto

More importantly, writing classes can keep you motivated.  Writing courses proliferate online as well as bricks and mortar but for convenience and cost, community houses are hard to beat. They throw in ambience, friendship, sharing of stories and ideas, and a lot of love and caring so I’m glad the classes are continuing at Bentleigh with other teachers.

Number Nine Godfrey Street

Mairi Neil

The garden a delight from someone’s green fingers
a profusion of pastel colours glistening
while sunshine smiles and fickle autumn spits rain
I watch visitors stream inside the nondescript house
their footsteps echoing on shaded verandah
walkers scrape and stroller wheels squeak
a magpie trills in dinner-suited elegance,
preening glossy feathers and strutting the footpath
as if ushering passersby to enter stage right ––
the Isadora scarf or Hitchcock cigar missing.

A young woman, nursing a toddler on her hip,
grins a welcome to the elderly gent
clutching a chessboard and secret moves
their families farewelled to independence,
seniors care for themselves in exercise classes
small talk in craft sessions produces big results
delightful aromas drift from the kitchen ––
homemade pumpkin soup, sweet chocolate cookies,
spicy curries – recipes shared with curiosity and love
sauced with tales from distant lands.

Oil paintings and pastel drawings, the fruit
of nurtured local artists decorate the walls
this house celebrates learning, laughter and leisure …
friendships bubble, overflow to the neighbourhood
no need to cruise the retail choices of Centre Road,
sup lonely cafe lattes amid chattering conversations
or sit mesmerised by mobile screens
a house in Godfrey Street plants seeds
and grows friendships, welcomes newcomers,
encourages indigenous and immigrant to bloom.

In the house singsong voices of children tinkle
while mellow murmurings of writers’ words
capture imagination, life experience, and wisdom.
pens scratch notepads as the sewing group
across the hall coax machines to whirr into life,
garments appear patterned by creativity
wordsmiths spin sentences for pleasure
every room thrums and hums as
people connect, care, and communicate
a commitment to lifelong learning

I accept the marching magpie’s invitation
submit to being ‘led up the garden path’
and follow a thirty-year trail to discover
like the vibrant blossoms in the garden
community and harmony flourishes
at Number Nine Godfrey Street, Bentleigh.

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Winter Discontent Hints At Spring

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I woke up this morning with a list of writing tasks to do:

  • Three classes start next week, so lessons to plan
  • Sharing information about a delightful weekend where I caught the last day of the Gandhi Exhibition at the Immigration Museum and the Barangaroo Ngangamay celebration for NAIDOC in the Community Gallery
  • Plus a book review to finish for Lisa Hill’s wonderful celebration of Indigenous Literature she holds each year during July
  • A review of the fantastic Viking Exhibition at the Melbourne Museum where the girls took me on Mother’s Day (Yep, I’m that far behind in my To Do List!)
  • And an update about the ABC after attending a great rally at Melbourne Town Hall yesterday chaired by the accomplished and internationally famous journalist Professor  Peter Greste
  • More about my travels last year – especially Russia
  • The first assignment for a MOOC I’ve enrolled in at the University of Iowa on Moving the Margins: Fiction & Inclusion
  • Plus poems and short stories to finish, revisit and edit…

Help, I need another holiday or to go on a retreat…

A Moment of Joy…

However, all plans disappeared when I drew back the curtains and noticed my Bird of Paradise had started blooming – one of the most colourful and striking plants in the world it belongs to the plant family Strelitziaceae and I just love it.

The plant was in the garden when we bought the house in 1984 and has survived droughts, renovations, a flood, and thrip invasion.

This winter has been particularly cold – everyone I speak to agrees so it is not just grouchy arthritic me – and saying it’s cold means something considering I’m from Scotland!

But being greeted by my delightful Bird of Paradise almost in full flower warmed me up from the inside out!

In pyjamas, I rushed out to take a few photos.

Inspired, I even wrote a poem – nothing like attempting a bit of poetry (even if it is twee) to get the brain in gear on a chilly morning after a turn around the garden checking what else is in bloom.

trees minus grevillea

Mid Winter Morn in Mordialloc

Mairi Neil

Sunlight struggles to glimmer
in the dull convict-grey sky
any warmth still chained to
clumps of cloud drifting by

A faint frost skins patchy grass
soon to be melted or crunched away,
the day frozen – not quite five degrees
oh, winter please disappear today!

Imagine soft, distant, mauve clouds
hovering over a smooth, azure sea
farewelling the night edging inland
the tired fishing boats now work-free.

Birds scrabble nearby for scarce crumbs
nectar hard to find this time of year
they flap, swoop, chitter and chatter
loud demands still music to the ear.

Winter time a challenge for us all –
come on, spring, make life brighter
when flowers bloom in rainbows
our hearts and steps much lighter.

Red and pink geraniums smile amid
myriad green leaves begging for room –
daisies dance a welcome at the gate
rosemary always remembers to bloom

The beautiful Bird of Paradise flowers,
to hint that mythical Eden does exist
its orange and blue finery ready to fly
to tropical garden and romantic tryst.

Nature’s beauty  a welcome surprise
even in winter. Each splendid new day
bulbs grow and blossom without fanfare
a reminder the spring’s never far away!

Welcome Signs of Spring

Looking closely at the plants the signs of spring are there. Buds beginning to form on the camellia –

camelia buds july 18

but later it was the behaviour of a Magpie I spied out of the window that fascinated me.

magpie flying

I’ve written about the dislocation of many of the local birds because so many trees (their homes) have been removed as Mordialloc’s housing boom continues. The changes have disoriented several magpie families who have been living in the area.

Magpies build large, domed nests in thorny bushes or high up in tall trees using found objects and whatever they can collect for their nests.

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They are a protected species under Australian law and it is illegal to kill them but destroying their homes is obviously not considered illegal – yet the quickest way to destroy a species is to get rid of their habitat!

Magpies mate for life and normally stay together for their entire lives. They mate during springtime when the weather begins to get warmer. That’s usually when they build their large nests.

However, I watched as an industrious Magpie tore strips off an old coir mat and gathered as much material as possible in his/her beak before flying off to distant trees.

The spectacle totally engrossing for several minutes – how he/she managed to keep collecting more material in its beak without losing any amazing.

When I think how I fumble to pick up and grip stuff with hands and fingers yet birds make the most intricate of nests, woven out of a range of natural or man-made materials with mainly their beaks.

They truly are amazing creatures!

I’m sure Mr/s Magpie was gathering for a nest and not food although in winter they eat more plant material, wild fruits, berries and grains, supplemented with household scraps and food scavenged from bird tables, chicken runs, even pet food bowls.

But all bird experts say we should not feed them – especially not bread – no doubt I will do penance in the afterlife for those years of throwing out breadcrumbs when I first moved here!

Like Australian Ravens, Magpies also eat carrion and catch small mammals and birds. In the wild, Magpies prey on larger animals such as young rabbits but with urbanisation despite the destruction of habitat I don’t think they’ll go hungry and so won’t be hunting pet rabbits.

Delights, Distractions but now must ‘Do’…

While exotic plants and paving stones might make gardens appear neat and tidy, scientific advisors suggest cultivating a wilder and more natural environment benefits birds and butterflies.

This appeals to me. I try to plant as many indigenous trees and plants as possible – less maintenance and figure they’ll survive the vagaries of the weather better and hopefully help and encourage native birds.

I have very Noisy Minors who visit daily and manage to drown out the Magpies carolling. The Noisy Minors raid the Bottlebrushes vacuuming up what’s left of the nectar or any insect foolish enough to be caught.

Loss of habitat through global warming is also posing a major threat to wildlife around the world, with some studies predicting that every 1C rise will cause the eventual loss of 10 per cent of all species. (Hard to believe colder winters are in fact probably indicative of global warming as the seasons change…)

Anyway, no apologies for pausing and capturing my garden and the antics of birds on film or in words.

We writers must take inspiration where we find it and nurture the muse, especially when it is as lethargic as mine – or maybe the word is lazy!

Ah, yes, back to that list…

Mordialloc beach in winter-PANO