Ducks and Albatrosses Down Under

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The beginning of the year always a mixed blessing because January 10th is John’s birthday and a reminder my husband and best friend is no longer around, yet it is a new year and the future beckons and being a glass-half-full person, I look forward to whatever challenges await.

For the last sixteen years, the girls and I have visited Stony Point each January to reflect and remember John – and yes, we chat or share our thoughts with him.

Whenever I give my writing class an exercise to write about their happy place, or a place where they feel serene, I have Stony Point in mind.

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Serenity Writing Exercise

Once a year, sometimes more often, I visit Stony Point on the outskirts of Melbourne. This tip of the Victorian coast looks across to French Island among other smaller islets and the tide flows out to the sea. There is a pier always populated with anglers – more in some seasons than others.

There is a ferry to French Island and half the pier is now fenced off for Navy patrol boats installed during John Howard’s ‘be alert not alarmed’ crusade.

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John requested his ashes be scattered where they would be carried out to sea, being ex-Royal Navy, John was more comfortable on the water than land and Stony Point fitted the bill.

There are mini-wetlands (or mud flats) at Stony Point frequently visited by shearwaters, pelicans and of course the ubiquitous seagulls. The area is attractive to fishermen and regardless of the season, you will always see boats coming and going.

The gutting and scaling table regularly visited by a host of birds who seem to know just when to land and wait for a feed. The take-offs and jockeying for advantageous positions to catch thrown leftovers provide a rambunctious display by the birds, especially the pelicans.

My daughters laugh at my delight and are convinced I have the largest collection of photographs of pelicans in the world! This year, I think they had a bet going and were counting how many pictures I took – I never discovered whose guess was correct!

Many people visit Stony Point and there is a caravan park with permanent residents as well as frequent holidaymakers. Every day there could be bushwalkers, anglers, picnickers, fossickers, commuters to French Island, naval personnel from nearby Cerberus base and a handful of locals who operate a rundown cafe/shop.

But there are times, like the other day, when we were the only ones soaking up the serenity for an hour or so before one boat returned and two families arrived to visit.

I’m sure others like me,  come to sit or walk by the short strand of sand or along the pier. Others relax while waiting for the ferry to French island. The kiosk, the railway station, the car park – so little change in sixteen years.

Stony Point is the end of the line for the train – a little diesel that comes from Frankston. The station personnel seem to be from another era of railway culture – a more friendly era – attuned to the age of steam perhaps – like my Dad and Grandfather…

However, just like the rest of the Victorian rail system, upgrading is happening to the only non-electrified rail line operated by Metro. There will be electrification to Hastings soon, but who knows when the upgrade will reach Stony Point, a place where change is rare.

 

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John’s Story Forever Linked to Stony Point

When I think of John, I remember his love for the sea. The vivid memories of years in the Royal Navy he loved to share. His time at sea an escape from a violent step-father. It gifted skills and room to grow. Life below deck a creative exercise in space management and curled in a hammock beneath clambering pipes was not conducive to sleep. In the 1950s and 60s, he served on destroyers and stowed belongings in lockers between gurgling pipes. Ironically, the life he loved contaminated him with asbestos…

When I think of John, I recall he joined the navy as a fifteen year old ‘boy sailor’ and said he learned to respect and consider others, to cook, clean, and iron, to share, to care for himself, to operate radar and radio, sort and deliver mail, be the butcher and food buyer for the mess, and also train as a deep-sea diver. He mastered calligraphy and latch-hook weaving and became the Mediterranean Fleet’s high jump and long jump champion in Malta. Above deck, he discovered the pleasure and benefits of breathing fresh sea air;  the joy of time to scan for exotic lands, learn to read the stars, be entertained by dancing dolphins, flying fish, and the unforgettable sight of the majestic blue whale.

When I think of John, I hear his voice reciting poetry and doggerel, quoting favourite passages from books he loved or people he admired (he could recite Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address!) and singing songs from favourite entertainers. A man of few words, each sentence counted. John didn’t do small talk…

His stints at sea gave him time to sit and think, to listen to the stories of others, and absorb some of life’s harsher lessons. He witnessed horrific scenes while based in the Mediterranean when Britain became embroiled in the Suez Crisis. He visited many European ports and also South America and South Africa, experiencing a variety of cultures and cuisine. Moved out of the comfort zone of his childhood English village, people and places expanded his heart and vision.

When I think of John, I remember his love for the sea and how it shaped his character. A sea he now roams as his ashes float from shore to shore, revisiting the lands he loved, being part of a marine world he admired – free of human form, he can dance with the dolphins, fly with the fish, or ride a whale.

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When I think of John, I remember his keen sense of humour, can hear his laughter and know he would laugh with us and enjoy the story I’m about to tell of our visit to Stony Point last Wednesday.

I was taking pictures of some Shearwaters and Pacific Gulls sunning themselves on the edge of the slipway jetty when a man in his early 40s and his two children, a boy of 8 and girl of 6, followed me towards the birds. Their conversation –

‘What kind of birds are they Dad?’

‘They’re ducks, son.’

‘No they’re not.’

‘Yes, they are – look,’ he points to the pelicans,’ see how small they are to the albatrosses.’

I’ve seen gannets and black swans at Stony Point but never an albatross.

When I shared the father/son conversation with the girls, we laughed – it reminded us of that funny TV ad for Bigpond or maybe Google, some years ago – when the young boy asked his Dad why the Great Wall of China was built and the dad replied, ‘to keep the rabbits out.’

For the record, the next evening on a walk with buddy Jillian, I took a picture of a duck in Mordialloc Creek.

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And this is a pelican –

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Pelicans – symbols of mutual aid and love

The Australian Pelican (Pelecanus conspicillatus) is the largest of the shorebirds that can be found along Victoria’s coastline. It has a wingspan of 2.3-2.5 metres and weighs 4 to 6.8 kilos. Wild pelicans can live up to 25 years. Predominantly white with black along the perimeters of the wings, it has a large pale, pinkish bill. An Australian pelican was recorded with the longest bill of any bird in the world. It is the most southerly breeding of all pelican species and is the only pelican found in Australia.

Between the bones on the lower bill is a stretchy patch of skin called the gular pouch. The gular pouch will stretch when it is filled with water and can hold up to three gallons. Pelicans also have a large nail on the tip of the upper part of the bill. They have short legs and large feet with webbing between all four toes.

Their diet is mainly fish but they are carnivores and will eat turtles, crustaceans and other waterbirds. They can soar to heights of 10,000 feet and can commute 150 kilometres to feeding areas. Highly social, these diurnal birds fly together in groups which can be very large. They breed in large colonies of up to 40,000 individuals.

Strong, slow fliers they often glide on thermals to conserve energy. During flight, they pull their head inward towards their body and rest it on their shoulders. They have been known to remain airborne for 24 hours as they seek food.

Pelicans pair up every breeding season and stay with the one mate for the rest of the season.

Adult pelicans rarely use the few calls they have but can hiss, blow, groan, grunt, or bill-clatter. The young are more vocal than the adults and will loudly beg for food. Australian pelicans primarily communicate with visual cues using their wings, necks, bills, and pouches, especially in courtship displays.

Like all birds, Australian pelicans perceive their environment through visual, auditory, tactile, and chemical stimuli. Opportunistic feeders, they adapt to human activity quite easily and directly approach humans to be fed or will steal food, which is problematic because they get caught on fishing lines and hooks.

The Pelican’s Paparazzi
Mairi Neil

Always gathered at Stony Point
pelicans wait for boats to arrive
yet with beaks and wings so large
it’s fishing skill keeps them alive

perhaps these pelicans are lazy
or maybe they’re super smart
stocking food for a week in that beak
without having to dive and dart…

Stony Point’s fishermen’s table
a magnet for seabirds galore
shearwaters, seagulls – even swans
compete with pelicans for more

discarded fish guts, heads and tails
whatever fishermen don’t want to eat
I love to watch and capture on camera
the birds vying for a treat after treat

I can’t explain my pelican fascination
except they soar skywards with poise
and whether they stand, sit or float
they exude serenity without noise

they don’t screech, squeal, or twitter
but seem content to ‘just be’
if reincarnation is really a thing
then it’s a pelican I choose to be!

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Anne and me with French island ferry in the background 2018

So little has changed at Stony Point thank goodness, although over the years signs have been added like the new banner announcing the naval facility is now managed by http://www.portofhastings.com and the new sign about French island is detailed and attractive.

Love for More Than One Place

When I developed cancer in 2010, I had lived in Australia nearly half a century, yet still felt I didn’t quite belong, still found myself homesick for Scotland, the land of my birth. I loved Australia, especially my home in Mordialloc where I have lived for thirty-five years. I married there and gave birth to my two daughters and brought them up in Mordialloc, but there was a passion missing, a sense of belonging I needed to ignite because if I was going to die should I return to Scotland?

After I finished chemotherapy I decided to create a bucket list because breast cancer and the treatment had me on the brink of death several times due to complications. I had always wanted to visit Australia’s red centre and see Uluru, in Australia’s heart and a sacred place for the Aborigines. I felt if I could get closer to the earth sacred to Aborigines, a connection to their mother, the country, would perhaps rub off on me.

Through research on the Internet, I discovered a tour company taking a group of writers to walk the Larapinta Trail called Desert Writers. Led by Jan Cornell, we’d spend five nights camping in the desert and walk the trail with two indigenous guides.

I didn’t hesitate and booked to fly to Alice Springs in July 2011 – still almost bald and a little fragile from a lumpectomy, haematoma, then radical mastectomy, three months of chemotherapy and a nasty bout of pneumonia thrown in for good measure.

The trip would not only realise a dream but would affirm I could still travel, which is one of my passions. It promised to encourage me to write, the most important passion I have. However, more importantly, I hoped to gain a greater appreciation and deeper connection to my adopted homeland, something I had not felt since being uprooted from Scotland as a child.

The journey fulfilled all my hopes and last year when I returned to Scotland after a twenty- year absence I loved being back, but returning to Mordialloc was coming home.

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My place is Mordialloc, where I can walk along the seashore and as far as I can see there is freedom, an infinite sea, and endless sky.

I can stroll by the Creek enjoying the beauty of native and imported flowers and trees, listen to birdsong, laugh at the antics of ducks and seagulls.

I can breathe and feel secure, even at night, because wherever I am near the sea, John is with me. We sprinkled his ashes at Stony Point so he can wander distant lands, many he’d visited as a boy sailor but always his spirit can return when he feels inclined to touch these shores again.

Whenever the girls or I am near the sea we know John is there, just as the Aborigines know their country and walk in the knowledge their ancestors are protecting their place and their stories.

When I die, my ashes will be sprinkled into the sea at Stony Point. My first journey will be to my birth country, the Western Isles of Scotland, but I will always return to these shores as long as the girls are here and so much of my life’s story.

At Stony Point, I feel calm, serene and comfortable. It is one of several places I cherish as well as marvellous Mordi!

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Christmas Joy Not Humbug!

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The Twelve Days of Christmas

The popular song aside, traditionally the ‘twelve days of Christmas’ is the period that  Christian theologians mark the time between the birth of Christ and the coming of the Magi, referred to as the three wise men.

It begins on December 25, Christmas Day and continues to January 6, the Epiphany.  For many people that is also the day they take down the Christmas Tree and put the decorations away for another year. Some people do this on January 5th others January 6th.

I can smile now remembering the first discussion my late husband, John and I had about this – I brought up Church of Scotland and non-conformist and he, brought up Church of England (Anglican rather than Episcopalian).

Although born in Australia, John spent the early part of his life in England and Christmas traditions ingrained. As a Scot whose household celebrated Hogmanay, Christmas was low key, centred around the Church:

Christmas Day only became a public holiday in 1958, and Boxing Day in 1974. The New Year’s Eve festivity, Hogmanay, was by far the largest celebration in Scotland.

Emigrating to Australia in 1962, the hot summers didn’t do anything to increase my enthusiasm for some traditions – especially ones involving Yule logs and roast dinners!

Back to the ‘Twelve days’ …

John said the tree had to be down and decorations packed away by January 6th, whereas I believed you left it up until January 6th. A ridiculous debate put in perspective the year my sister divorced her horrible first husband. She left her Christmas tree up until Easter because it brightened the house and welcomed her home with twinkling lights! As good a reason as any to break with tradition…

wild woman and christmas message

Cate’s unorthodox view remembered this year when she became an unexpected house guest for Christmas because her husband needed an urgent operation and the surgeon could fit him into his list at Frankston Hospital on Christmas Eve.

What would Christmas be without a wee miracle?

Brother-in-law Ian came through with flying colours and Christmas lunch a bigger and more special celebration than usual. The few days Cate and I spent, in and around, the large public hospital, sobering and a glimpse of the Christmas others experience.

It got me thinking that Christmas aside, there are always many people trying to ‘brighten’ the lives of others, dedicating their lives to those less fortunate – they don’t need an excuse, they do their job, follow their heart or beliefs, care about human or animal welfare – we don’t focus on the joy often enough, but absorb the negativity the press pander to – the philosophy of TV News – if it bleeds, it leads…

The nursing staff at Frankston did their best to make the ward festive – I loved the use of medical equipment tarted-up (a rubber ring/doughnut cushion stuck with coloured balls) and tinsel wrapped around trolleys and exercise equipment. But it was the effort of wonderful volunteers dressed as Mrs Christmas and elf helper on a 36-degree day that truly impressed!

We scored a candy cane before they entered the lift!

cate with hospital volunteers

Advent for many Christians begins the four weeks preceding Christmas and each Sunday up to Christmas Eve there will be special sermons and services leading up to the arrival/birth of Jesus.

However, for an increasingly secular society, Christmas begins with a flood of consumerism that reaches fever pitch and a frenzy in December but starts late October/early November…

I wrote a poem about this years ago (pre-computer), can’t find it, but suffice to say it wasn’t complimentary to junk mail or the advertising industry, which help with the humbug factor and not the joy that is found among friends and family, who use the lead up to Christmas for gatherings or tȇte-à-tȇtes.

my pink-red rose.jpgChristmas Catch-Ups

I love this time of year because in many of the cards or emails received there is news of how the year has been for friends and family and people make an effort to get together. Give me a chat and cuppa instead of presents any day because if the person lives far away, or is rarely seen, information other than ‘Merry Christmas’ is good to hear.

Sometimes even if people live close by, the busyness of life leaves meaningful conversation a rarity and so the gift of time to chat, go to the movies or a play is refreshing and food for the soul. Christmas is a great excuse and motivation to invigorate relationships. I get to have a coffee or tea with students outside class – I’m not the teacher or motivator but a friend with all ‘the issues’ that enjoy a good airing when we share what’s in our hearts and minds.

Here I am with Elhan who came to my class several years ago at Mordialloc. She is an accomplished writer in English as well as Turkish and writes a column for a Turkish newspaper in Melbourne. She took me to a cafe in Mordialloc owned by Turkish Australians, bought me ‘Turkish tea’ served in a cup with the blue-beaded eye motif to protect me from evil, and gifted me an Orhan  Pamuk novel.

It’s not a Facebook cliche when I write I’m truly blessed with the people who have come into my life through teaching and writing!

I’m transitioning to retirement but some of my friends are already enjoying more leisure time. I went to see a dear friend Uma and husband Kevin who live at Bulleen. It was lovely to have lunch in their home instead of catching up with Uma near her office in the city – our usual Christmas rendezvous.

It was an hour and a half’s journey by public transport – train to Southern Cross and then another to Heidelberg Station – but a relaxing journey that introduced areas of Melbourne I rarely visit. However, visiting will be a lot easier when the Andrews Government’s fantastic infrastructure program is complete. Looking at a time when they may not want to drive everywhere, Uma and Kevin are thrilled that accessing public transport will be so much easier and provide more choice of mode and destinations because they live near one of the many access points for the outer city loop.

After lunch, we walked to the park at the end of their street and Uma shared stories of her neighbourhood with similar pride when she and Kevin came to Mordi at Easter and we walked the foreshore and I shared where I fill up with serenity!

At the park considering the topic of my last post, I was thrilled to discover The Peace Path!

bulleen peace park

What a wonderful project! We watched families play in the park, school children walk home from nearby schools past The Peace Path, a prominent installation, a daily and fun reminder of diversity and connectedness. Well done Manningham City Council.

 

New Acquaintances Not Forgot

Many ex-students who perhaps only came for a semester or two also stay in touch and have become valued friends. At this time of year, it’s lovely to hear how they are going with their life and writing projects.

I received a welcome letter from Naoko in Japan and the delightful gift of a book and a very tempting invitation:

“an autobiography by Tomihiro  Hoshino. He writes poetries and draws paintings by his mouth. He is from my neighbour town and there is a museum. I would like to take you there. So please come visit me!'”

book cover from Japan

Serendipity!

Naoko doesn’t know that for more than twenty-five years I have bought cards and calendars from Mouth & Foot Painting Artists Australia and hold the artists in absolute awe for the exquisite products and attitude to life.

She does know that I love Japanese poetic forms and their ability to say so much in so few words – most of my classes have been introduced to haiku, tanka, renga, senryu and haibun at some point!

It is not a thick book and translated by Hiroko and Joseph McDermott was an easy read. But it is quite unlike other memoirs I’ve read considering the subject matter. The tone is not ‘poor me’ or bitter and very quickly the focus is how the writer accepted help from others and learned to paint and write with his mouth to bring meaning, purpose, joy and love into his life.

It is an upbeat memoir because yes he even grew to love and marry a faithful nurse ( not always a cliche) and found success as a writer and painter.  I understand not everyone with a disability or life-changing accident can be so lucky – but what you learn from the book is that it wasn’t just luck…

His determination and persistence, plus the loyalty, love, and consistent support from those who loved him are powerful elements not only enabling him to survive but thrive.

This First edition published in 1988 is the first of several books from Hoshino who was a high school physical education teacher until an accident in the gymnasium left him paralyzed from neck to toe and hospitalised for nine years.

He was 24 years old and in his prime.

‘I was a physical education teacher. I chose this job, not so much as I was interested in teaching, but as I wanted to keep on doing the sport I had always loved since childhood. This desire was so strong that all day long I would exercise with my students… even after the classes were out, I was running or kicking a ball around until everyone else had gone home and the grounds were empty except for me.’

The first chapter, The Accident (June 1970), is short and to the point with headings:

  • Do I Still Have Arms?
  • The Face of My Parents
  • I Will Not Die
  • From the Hospital Diary

He uses extracts from his sister’s Diary to explain the precariousness of his situation, the operations and treatment that ultimately saved his life and put his neck bones into place so he could breathe without a respirator.

“It has been decided that he can sleep without the machine. When the gauze was put back in the hole in his throat, he was encouraged to practice talking with the hole in his throat covered up. Ton-chan (my nickname) smiled happily and said in a strong voice, “The weather’s fine today.” He looked so happy that we all burst into laughter.”

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The second chapter is The Joy of Writing and we learn, ‘Two years passed. Some people assumed I had died… I wavered between life and death so many times…’

However, the medical attention and constant support of his mother, brothers, sisters and close friends who take turns to nurse him every day, kept him alive. (His mother devotes her life to his recovery from day one!)

He mentions but doesn’t dwell on despondency and despair. ‘ My body had a life of its own, regardless of my wishes, though I no longer had a deep commitment to life.’

I don’t know anything about the Japanese hospital system but obviously, technology and scientific development since the 70s have changed in much the same way as ours. The treatment of accidents like Hoshino’s would be different and perhaps have different outcomes. Hospital treatments, access, cost and even where the hospital is in Japan is not the focus of the story.

There is a glimpse of how rehabilitation has made great advances when he describes the day a visiting child brought a radio-controlled toy car into the hospital and one of the mothers who was looking after her child who was a patient said:

‘If one child brings a toy like that, all the others want their own. You can’t blame them. If you’re rich, it might be okay. But what about families like ours?… Tears were welling up in her eyes.

It’s nothing to cry over…, I thought, and moved closer to the children… It was like a very clever puppy perfectly trained to perform…

Frankly, I felt like crying for one as well… watching the car race around … a certain sadness crept up over me. If people can make a precision toy like this for children, why should I have to stay on a wheelchair which moves only when someone pushes it? Why couldn’t the scientific knowledge used for such a toy also be used to move a wheelchair?

I also felt tears coming to my eyes…

Electric wheelchairs were available but he needed one specifically designed for people who can only move from the neck up. His wheelchair was actually a motorised stretcher.

In 1979, after two boffins from Suzuki Motors visited him they worked out the power and movement he had in his neck and delivered a wheelchair with a driving lever he controlled with his chin.

‘Everything about the world outside then began to look rosier once I found that people like them were working away at some research that could greatly ease my life…

Now my mother could take long-needed rests while I went out for rides.’

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From a card I bought in Oban, Scotland

In 2016, I was privileged to help start and facilitate a social group for Glen Eira Council. Over the years, I’ve had several people with ABI (Acquired Brain Injury) in my classes and I was approached to help them start a group where they could meet and discuss everything from literature, movies, politics, philosophy, therapies, culture, and even pet peeves… to relax and ‘Chat ‘N Chuckle’ with others who understood that it may take longer to speak, to listen, and understand what someone wants to say.

Many had motorised wheelchairs – today a variety of mobility aids are common but Tomihiro’s thoughts and perspective gave me a deeper understanding of how important aids are and how innate our need for independence.

An Epiphany

Tomihiro’s electric wheelchair was a long time coming and despite his mother’s relentless devotion it was often the interaction with others that gave that much-needed spark not to lose hope.

Sharing a room with a seriously ill ex-student from his junior high school who always had a cheerful smile made Tomihiro feel obligated to smile too along the lines of  ‘fake it till you make it’.

The relationship that developed between master and student a turning point, especially after the teenager was moved to another hospital and his mother visited Tomihiro, bringing a white, tulip shaped hat belonging to her son, Takaku. He wanted his former roommates to write words of encouragement such as ‘don’t give up’ and ‘have patience’.

Tomihiro wanted to write something but crunching a pen between his teeth, could only manage a tiny dot until his mother moved the hat so he managed to write one of the Chinese characters of his name “Tomi” extending the tiny dot into an “O”.

From that tentative beginning and with months of trial and error to find a painless position for his neck, he finally managed to write a single letter by himself:

“The gauze rolled around the pen in my mouth got soaked with saliva. It was also dyed with blood from the gums since I had strained so much while writing. My mother, who was watching from the side of the bed, also clenched her teeth from the strain. There was sweat on her forehead as well…

All of a sudden my life looked bright again… after having experienced the despair that I would never be able to do anything again, I felt from a single line or letter the same thrill I might have experienced setting a new sports record.”

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Another person who not only visited Tomihiro but was instrumental in his healing journey and his development as a writer and poet was a friend from university days.

Yoneya… and I would have dinner at the same table and every evening I would watch him say a prayer. I usually sat down with my hands unwashed and started eating … I never wondered to whom or what he was praying, nor why he said a prayer before every meal…

One day, he told me, “I am going to study in a theological school in Tokyo in order to become a minister.”

… I didn’t know exactly what it meant, but I realized what a hard and serious life he had chosen to pursue.

As soon as he heard of my injury he came to see me in the hospital. later he sent me a copy of the Bible with his apology for being unable to do anything else for me for the time being. I kept the book in a box under the bed…

Actually, I had hesitated for a long time before opening the Bible. I was afraid other people around me might think and say, “He must be in such pain to have turned for help even from the Christian God…”

… I tried to think up some excuse to open the Bible: it would help me understand history… pass the time… requite a favor extended by a senior…

… all along I knew very well what I really wanted. In my mind, I had a faint hope that something in this black-bound book might change me, just as it had changed Mr Yoneya and made him feel grateful for even the poor meals served in the university dormitory…

… when I was forced to lie on my bed unable to move or speak, I had to live a life in which every day I had to face the real me. And the real me was not strong, was not a fine person at all…

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The Power of  Spiritual Awakening

Tomihiro reads the New Testament and he recognises certain verses he has read on graves in cemeteries (St Matthew 11.28-30):

I had not known what they meant. But somehow the words stuck clearly in my mind. Perhaps I remembered them since I was then really “heavy laden,” carrying manure from the pigsty up to the fields. 

As I reread this passage over and over, I felt something warm begin to stream out from the depths of my heart…

I felt that God had prepared this passage for me long before I had even dreamed I might have the accident…when there were hard times, did I have a friend I could unburden my heart to, tell my suffering and pains?…

Lying on my back, looking up at the ceiling, I was seized by an intense sense of loneliness. I felt helpless before it… I thought that a person named Jesus might listen to me, might hold me lovingly in his arms…

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Regardless of whether you follow a particular religion or no religion when people are faced with severe trauma, accident, disease, prolonged illness or near the end of life many may at some point ask one or more thought-provoking questions, maybe go through a period of self-reflection or self-doubt. Perhaps they consider what they took for granted or didn’t really worry about, or search for a belief that gives them inner peace:

What is life about? Is there a reason for it all? Why is life on Earth so diverse – was/is there a ‘design’? Can Science explain everything? Can religion? Is there life after death? Will I ever recover? Why me?

Seeking, and finding peace, if not answers, can be healing.

When my husband was dying we had many philosophical discussions because John was ill for a long time. He became an avid reader and thought more deeply about ideas and beliefs because he had time to digest and think about what he was reading. Time is a great commodity and gift if you use it well!

I remember telling him when various friends or family members added his name to their particular religion’s prayer list, he’d say with his usual cheeky grin,  “Good, I read an article and people who are prayed for live longer.”

The night before he died when Father Tony, the local Anglican priest called in and prayed at John’s bedside he said, “and the Heavenly Father is waiting for you, John, to hold you in his arms…”

John’s response, “Prove it!”

We all laughed and Father Tony said, “You have to trust me on this, John!” and at the funeral shared the anecdote from “my friend and pragmatist, John.”

We sang John’s favourite hymn from Royal Navy days, Abide With Me plus Lord of The Dance and he was carried out to The Internationale. If people wonder at the apparent conflict of beliefs I tell the story of the writer/educator, Paulo Freire who was asked, “How can you be a Marxist and a Christian?”

He answered, “No problem for me.”

Life is complicated and what people believe and how they cope with challenges is too. The honesty about Tomihiro’s journey, the authenticity in the telling, kept me reading and will remain with me. The simplicity of his explanation of how enriching the spirit and nurturing other senses can compensate for the loss of limbs and movement.

The Joy of Reading

He too discovered how reading enriches life – the power of story:

I spent a lot of time reading, using a simple device that let me lie on my back and read a book hanging open in front of my eyes. My mother would turn the pages for me.

Reading had not been a habit of mine when I was a child or a student… By reading books while lying on my back, I was able to learn the joy of reading. When nobody was at my bedside, there was no way to turn a page. So I kept reading the same page over and over again for as long as thirty or forty minutes. 

After such readings, I would often find something I had never noticed or understood. Some parts deeply impressed me, and I copied them into my sketchbooks…

From his hospital bed, or wheeled into the corridors by his mother, Tomihiro enjoyed being a people watcher but one day he catches sight of a person with a fox fur wrapped around her neck.

This inspires his first poem and more contemplation of not only his personal condition but how humans interact, adapt – what it means to be who we are …

And so entranced by the power of words, he studies, writes, and continually strives to improve his own writing.

In the Hallway
Hoshino Tomihiro (February 20)

A fox
Was watching
With glass eyes,
He was watching.
With the weight of his boneless neck
He was chewing his tail,
And he as watching
Me.

He noted how the glass eyes looked so sad – perhaps they reflected the feelings of his heart? He thought of the word ‘patience’ often used in letters he received. When he saw the fox transformed into neckwear, he sensed he saw himself:

I too had been living day after day, with my teeth digging into my body the more I tried to be patient… Why do I still need to hear ‘patience’…?

I haven’t really changed. The person I was before this accident – wasn’t that basically the same person I am today, even if I can’t move? Why then should I have to be patient with myself? Why should I live day by day with my teeth clenched?

Something did not make sense…

CROWN-OF-THORNS
Hoshino Tomihiro

When you can move but
must stay still,
You need endurance.
But when you’re like me,
And cannot move,
Who needs endurance
Stay still?
And soon enough,
The thorny rope of
endurance
Twisted round my body
Snapped off.

At this time, Miss Watanabe, a friend of Mr Yoneya’s visits, a Christian too,  she cared for her bedridden father for many years. From her first visit, Masako never misses a Saturday and eight years later they marry and return to live in Tomihiro’s home district near his parents. The blossoming of their relationship and her encouragement of his writing and art the impetus for his first major exhibition.

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Flowers Helped Him Bloom

When lying in bed, it was the flowers visitors brought that Tomihiro fixated on – they were beautiful, they were close at hand, and for a long time they represented the outside world he missed. Not surprising they were the first subjects he tried to draw.

When spring comes, the hospital garden is full of beds of blossoming flowers. And when I see them in bloom alongside my window my heart cheers up, even though I have to keep lying in bed… even if I feel depressed with all sorts of worries about my physical problems, all the trees outside may be in bud and even small weeds in bloom…

Regardless of what each human being may feel, the seasons go round and round in the flow of time. We may be happy or sad, become even angry and hateful… but what tiny creatures we are in the vast universe of nature!

There were always some flowers at my bedside brought by visitors and arranged in a vase by my mother. Lying on my back, I saw them day and night out of the corner of my eyes…

CHRYSANTHEMUMS
Hoshino Tomihiro

For over six years
Mr Kobayashi has been coming
To see me
With flowers.
The flowers he grows
Are as strong
As the weeds in the field
Sometimes even generously hosting bugs
Such flowers
I like most.
His flowers come
Wrapped in newspaper
On which there are left
His fingerprints.

COLUMBINES
Hoshino Tomihiro

Even a flower
When praised
Begins to look nicer,
Someone said so,
I remember.
Then I began to wonder
With fear,
If the flowers
Were looking at my painting.

sunflowers in vase.jpg

My favourite part in Tomihiro’s awakening and rebirth is when he writes about his mother. This woman deserves her own memoir! For the nine years, he was in the hospital she was with him, leaving the farm and village life in her husband’s care.

Tomihiro describes a New Year in the hospital when some patients and many staff have left for holidays. Those left decided to have a party.

All the attendants sat down together for tea on a straw mat spread in the center of the room. Normally, everybody in the hospital had to sit on a chair, not on a Japanese mat, as they did at home… my mother and the other attendants felt more relaxed squatting…

… I could not join them on the mat, but… I felt as if I was back home sitting on a mat with my mother.

They decided to have a singsong, taking it in turns –

While I was singing, I was worrying about my mother. She was to sing after me, and I had never heard her sing before. Can she sing a song? Does she even know a song to sing?…

Her turn came. She said, “I can’t really sing,” and begged the next person to go ahead. But nobody would… my mother began to sing… in a shy, thin voice… an old song I had never heard before.

… the trembling in her voice died away, and her timbre became stronger and stronger…

I was amazed. My mother, her face as shy as ever, now looked so different to me… the mother I had just seen singing was her real self. I had simply never noticed… 

She must have known many songs in her youth. Busy with bringing up children and farming, however, she must have forgotten, before she was aware of it, that she could sing.

While she worked in the small muddy family plot, doing side jobs for a small extra income well after the children had fallen asleep, and bringing us up without buying anything for herself, she must have forgotten about pleasures for herself…

I had never asked what she might want. She must have longed to take a trip or to buy some books to read. Or, even right at this moment, she might be thinking how much she would like to welcome in the New Year with my father back home…

The more I thought, the more ashamed I felt of myself. I had been concerned only about myself, thinking I alone had suffered from this injury…

I love this poem he wrote  –

poem 1

and this honest observation:

“When I was young and healthy, I used to feel very sorry for the handicapped. Sometimes I even felt uncomfortable when I saw them. While going around in my wheelchair, however, I learned something I had not noticed at all before. I was physically handicapped but I was not unhappy, nor did I dislike myself.”

It is all about perception and attitude. He explains it beautifully in a poem about a roadside flower whose Japanese name means poison and pain. He used to hate the flower because of its strange smell and preference for dank places.

Dokudami (Houttuynia)
Hoshino Tomihiro

Someone comes
And picks you up with care.
You have been scorned and despised
They all say you stink
You have been living very quietly
In this small nook along the road,
Looking up at the feet
Of passers-by,
As if waiting for someone to come to you
And need you.

Your flowers
Look just like white crosses.

The title of the book is a line from one of his poems written about the same common weed – it too suggests the mind can always be a little more perceptive and appreciative of the world we live in.

HOUTTUYNIA CORDATA
Hoshino Tomihiro

I didn’t know
How beautiful you were.
Here so close
But I didn’t know.

A book can be the gift that keeps on giving.

A good thought to end the year on and welcome 2019.

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Can Poetry Promote Peace and Creativity Challenge Politicians Effectively?

Lake Burley Griffin Canberra

Over the last few weeks, I’ve struggled to write about Remembrance Day 2018 – or write about anything else on this blog because this anniversary was important and I wondered how I could do it justice and make sense of a lot of the thoughts rattling around in my head – particularly considering the fractious state of today’s world – a fact we are constantly reminded of due to the 24 hour news cycle and social media.

So buckle up – grab a cuppa or read the post in stages:)  ponder the words and meaning of the poems, savour the poignancy of some of the photographs.

Peace does begin with ourselves, our families, our communities…

This year, the centenary of the signing of the Armistice in World War One – 11 November 1918 – signified PEACE at last, after four years of carnage, but as many people have already written, humanity ignored all the lessons learned and we’ve hardly stopped skirmishing or creating full-blown battles ever since.

Six Excuses Not To Write

1.    I was distracted by the Victorian Election and busy working for the return of the Andrews Labor Government as well as Mordialloc’s local member, Tim Richardson MP who genuinely cares about the local community and works hard. I made this a priority and to be honest enjoyed myself and met many interesting people. No encounter every wasted for a writer…

The personal is political. Ever since my involvement in the Vietnam Moratorium Movement as a teenager, I’ve made activism a priority – the community is too important not to care enough to work for social justice and be a peace activist.  If enough people care to speak up, it does make a difference. A change of government in 1972 and Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam brought the troops home.

At a get-together, before the “Danslide” as Daniel Andrews Labor win is described, we met in Tim’s office and I gave the Premier a couple of Mordialloc Writers’ Group anthologies and advised, ‘there is no better way to understand a community than through the poems and stories of its writers.”

I hope he reads them.

 2.    I mulled for hours at how to express the disquiet I feel about exhibits and projects at the Australian War Memorial being funded by arms manufacturers and the millions of dollars the Federal Government has spent on memorials rather than the health and well-being of veterans.

At the Centenary Celebration in Canberra, I saw first-hand elements of concern. Huge guns and tanks out the front (ironically pointing over the Field of Poppies and at the statue of Sir John Monash) as if these harbingers of death and destruction should be celebrated. There’s always going to be arguments about what is glorification and what is commemoration but there should never be a debate about prioritising the welfare of veterans and recent reports indicate we are letting them down. 

3.    I’ve spent my life studying history (a subject I love), travelling to as many places as I can afford, visiting exhibitions and museums, reading widely – I’m a person who tries to join the dots to understand ‘the human condition’ we writers love to explore. This topic has so many dots to join and I have an overabundance of thoughts that don’t necessarily provide answers or coherence. It was easier to procrastinate … but in a case of physician heal thyself – I did ‘jump in and just write‘ and followed the advice I give students!

4.    I read again the poets of the First World War and visited a poignant and confronting art exhibition at Melbourne’s wonderful Shrine of Remembrance. An experience that deserves its own post although inextricably linked to the topic and so won’t get its own post now – please visit and experience for yourself.

5.    The trips to Canberra, and to Melbourne’s Shrine, were to visit the culmination of the magnificent 5000 Poppy Project. The organisers did a superb job and I was keen to see what happened to my contributions.  (As if I could find mine among the thousands of donations but ego being what it is … I should have been more creative and added sparkles or something so they would stand out!)

In Canberra,  several installations were truly works of art and in Melbourne, the knitted tributes spelt out the familiar quote and linked lines from The Ode from Laurence Binyon’s For The Fallen, and its well-known response. Too many of us probably say the verses without pondering the meaning but I guarantee seeing the words ‘in blood’ sears your heart – especially with the thin red trail linking each line, like droplets of blood and a poignant reminder each poppy represents a lost life.

6.    Maybe the most valid excuse is that the last few weeks of the school year are always manic as I collate and publish class anthologies – and this year, retiring from my position at Godfrey Street after 6 years, I wanted to go out ‘with a bang, not a whimper‘. I cracked the whip for my students and myself and there really is a finite time to sit at a computer and remain healthy.  I crossed that line too often, burning the proverbial midnight oil with bad posture and tension taking its toll on legs, bones, and back.

Poppies At Melbourne’s Shrine of Remembrance

they shall not grow old
they shall not grow old
as we that are left grow old
as we that are left grow old
age shall not weary them
age shall not weary them
nor the years condemn
nor the years condemn
at the going down of the sun
at the going down of the sun
and in the morning
and in the morning
we will remember them
we will remember them
lest we forget
lest we forget

After walking amongst well-tended gardens, I rested in sanctuaries for those broken by experience and memories.  Each secluded ‘garden’ displaying plants of different spheres of war for Australian troops.

I strolled darkened corridors absorbing the important stories we need to remember – depicted in a variety of ways without glorifying conflict. I climbed stairs to have a bird’s eye view and photograph magnificent Melbourne and the sweeping grounds of Victoria and Domain Gardens.

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Skyscrapers and tree-lined boulevards and busy thoroughfares vastly different to 1918. The city those volunteers rushed to defend now remarkably different to what they would have known.

I pondered what Brendan Nelson and Kerry Stokes might learn from the management of Melbourne’s Shrine if they visited. I prefer the way Melbourne presents the story and the stories it chooses to promote. They also have courteous, friendly staff and volunteers.

A young woman approached me when she saw me reading the Memorial Book –

Are you looking for a relative?

Yes, thought I may find my uncle’s name.

Wait a moment and I’ll get the key…

Within minutes, she was back wearing white cotton gloves and wielding a key. She asked for my uncle’s surname, unlocked the relevant glass cabinet, and carefully turned the pages until his name was revealed. She then stood aside so I could take a picture of the page.

It was a busy day for visitors because the poppy installation was being removed the next day, yet the young woman took the time to offer me a service I didn’t know about  – she went above and beyond and personalised my experience! 

Everyman Exhibition

The exhibition by artist Craig Barrett called EVERYMAN is an emotionally moving experience. Craig incorporated poetry into his art.

In 2005, he wrote:

Four men from my family were caught up in the great tides of men fighting on the Western front of the First World War… Great Uncle George remains there… others returned home with their wounds and nightmares.

In recent years I have become aware of the poets of the First World War. These men were artists who conveyed powerful images through words from their camps, their trenches, and their hospitals.

I found myself especially moved by the words of the English poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon… Growing up I knew little and understood less of what these men had witnessed. The poetry of Owen and Sassoon has given me a glimpse of my own family and of the family of Man entangled in war…

These words resonated because I too have an “Uncle George” I’ve written about and it is this exploration and family connection that set me on a path, to learn why a nineteen-year-old relative is buried in Egypt. How did he die? How did his death affect his family, especially sister, Kitty whom we met in 1962 when we migrated to Australia?

I remember, Aunt Kitty’s air of sadness. I was nine-years-old and at night we sat at her feet listening to stories about the Australian branch of the clan, about ANZACS and a war in a land near where our ship had passed when we came through the Suez Canal.

EVERYMAN
Siegfried Sassoon


The weariness of life that has no will
To climb the steepening hill:
The sickness of the soul for sleep, and to be still. And then once more the impassioned pygmy fist
Clenches cloudward and defiant;
The ride that would prevail, the doomed protagonist,
Grappling the ghostly giant. Victim and venturer, turn by turn; and then
Set free to be again
Companion in repose with those who once were men.

they were so young.jpg
a photograph in War Memorial Canberra

Is Every Generation Destined to Repeat The Mistakes Of The Past? 

Is there a need for us all to look deeper into what causes war, and what prevents a lasting peace?

We had the dreadful attack in the centre of Melbourne and sadly, a Federal Government reaction, we have come to expect – increasingly anti-muslim and anti-immigration dog whistling, and wanting to increase the powers of the security forces and introduce tougher anti-terror laws.

Actions designed to divide rather than unite.

Yet, there have been enquiries and research, backed by evidence and statistics, about the need for more resources to work in the community to combat radicalisation, and the alienation from mainstream society many young people experience. Experts encourage projects to improve inclusiveness and the mental health of those at risk of turning to violence.

leunig cartoon

Men who have been caught or suspected of terrorist acts often have a history of domestic violence.  In Australia, more than 72 women and 20 children have been killed since January 2018 because of domestic and family violence. Despite knowing what we must do there seems a lack of political and social will and a lack of coordination and funding of resources to make a national difference to this scourge of homegrown terrorism. 

And then there’s the refusal or reluctance of people to recognise the Colonial Wars and the Aboriginal nations who were here and valiantly fought to keep possession of their land from colonial invaders.

Our First People are still waiting for a Treaty to be signed with peace and reconciliation a work in progress. It should be a national priority but at least the Andrews Government is making a valiant attempt to right historical wrongs. 

As John Lennon so aptly said, we have to make PEACE and do it right!

Reconciliation-5-themes.png

Will We Ever See A War to End All Wars?

Armistice Day November 11, 1918, which led to the end of World War One – the war to end all wars – did not herald a lasting peace. A war has been fought somewhere in the world ever since and many historians agree that the conditions of the peace seemed to set the scene for the Second World War.

Today, Australian troops are still fighting a war and are deployed in Afghanistan (15 years and counting) and Iraq. Our drones controlled by the joint installation with the USA at Pine Gap, bomb Syria and in a plan to become one of the world’s top exporters of arms, like the USA, we sell arms to Saudia Arabia –  a country complicit in the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post contributing columnist. The Saudi regime is also pounding the people of Yemen to oblivion.

Every day the nightly news brings us footage of soldiers and militarised police forces under fire or firing guns of formidable power somewhere in the world.

In many parts of the world, there are generations who have NEVER known peace. I was a volunteer tutor every Saturday morning to a Sudanese refugee for a year. A young woman in her 40s, with five children and a husband still stuck in a camp in Kenya, Mary had lived in a state of war in her country since she was 14 years old.

No life’s worth more than any other, no sister worth less than any brother.

Michael Franti

Peace requires effort and political will and to suggest no one wants war is wrong – arms manufacturers thrive on war, which is why their influence (even in local elections under the guise of ‘shooters and fishers’ ) is alarming.

They fund public institutions and political parties for a reason. Look no further than the power the National Rifle Association wields in the USA. Working towards peace requires recognition that the Roman poetHorace‘s oft-used quote  Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori ( It is sweet and right to die for your country) encouraged militarism and is indeed ‘The old lie” that WW1 poet Wilfred Owens asserts at the end of his most famous poem.

A poem thought to have been written between 8 October 1917 and March 1918 after his years of witnessing the horrific slaughter and destruction on the battlefields of France and Belgium:

DULCE ET DECORUM EST
Wilfred Owen 

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks, 
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge, 
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs 
And towards our distant rest began to trudge. 
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots 
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind; 
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots  
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas!Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling, 
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time; 
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling, 
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime . . . 
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light, 
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning. 
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight, 
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning. 
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace 
Behind the wagon that we flung him in, 
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face, 
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin; 
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood 
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs, 
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud  
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, 
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest 
To children ardent for some desperate glory, 
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est 
Pro patria mori.

patriotism sculpture.jpg

Can we blame the Romans for our culture of militarism and seeking military solutions?

romes delusions of grandeur

Many of us read the words of these WW1 poets at school but whether we really absorbed their message is difficult to say – unless you had experienced war or grief and could empathise – and that’s difficult for school children.

It’s difficult for some adults, which is why writers must choose words carefully and why poetry, short stories and novels can help with empathy. Here is an interesting extract from a short memoir I read recently:

During my deployments, I only had to fire my gun twice in engagements, and, in retrospect, neither of those firings was likely warranted. Suffice it to say that both times, I could feel my heart shaking, and I came close to wetting my pants.
 
The only film I’ve ever seen that captures this feeling—part terror, part adrenaline rush—is The Thin Red Line, and specifically in this woods scene, where the soldier becomes lost in the dark. He hears himself panting. Soon, bullets whish past him—directionless, it seems—and the only precedent for this, apart from Dante, astray on his path in the woods, might be Camus’s hapless prisoner in “The Guest,” who finds himself stranded and alone on the Algerian plains. What makes war so frightening isn’t the likeliness of death. It isn’t the suffering. It isn’t the inconsequentiality of humanness. Indeed, these are all apparent to anyone who’s reached middle age. Rather, it’s that sense of being alone. And I would hypothesize that it only comes to light in a warzone. After all, one realizes, especially in moments like this, that those who kill do not have any inherent fixed loyalties. Each human is invariably alone, regardless of the colors they wear.

Joshua Bernstein
Lost In The Fog

Each year documentaries are made of the tragedy and sacrifice of a whole generation in WW1, but in the words of singer/songwriter Eric Bogle, ‘… it all happened again… And again, and again …’

recruitment poster

GREEN FIELDS OF FRANCE 

Eric Bogle

Oh how do you do, young Willy McBride
Do you mind if I sit here down by your graveside
And rest for a while in the warm summer sun
I’ve been walking all day, and I’m nearly done
And I see by your gravestone you were only nineteen
When you joined the great fallen in 1916
Well I hope you died quick
And I hope you died clean
Or Willy McBride, was is it slow and obscene

Did they beat the drums slowly
Did they play the fife lowly
Did they sound the death march as they lowered you down
Did the band play the last post and chorus
Did the pipes play the flowers of the forest

And did you leave a wife or a sweetheart behind
In some loyal heart is your memory enshrined
And though you died back in 1916
To that loyal heart, you’re forever nineteen
Or are you a stranger without even a name
Forever enshrined behind some old glass pane
In an old photograph torn, tattered, and stained
And faded to yellow in a brown leather frame

Did they beat the drums slowly
Did they play the fife lowly
Did they sound the death march as they lowered you down
Did the band play the last post and chorus
Did the pipes play the flowers of the forest

The sun shining down on these green fields of France
The warm wind blows gently and the red poppies dance
The trenches have vanished long under the plough
No gas, no barbed wire, no guns firing now
But here in this graveyard that’s still no man’s land
The countless white crosses in mute witness stand
To man’s blind indifference to his fellow man
And a whole generation who were butchered and damned

Did they beat the drums slowly
Did they play the fife lowly
Did they sound the death march as they lowered you down
Did the band play the last post and chorus
Did the pipes play the flowers of the forest

And I can’t help but wonder oh Willy McBride
Do all those who lie here know why they died
Did you really believe them when they told you the cause?
Did you really believe that this war would end wars?
Well the suffering, the sorrow, the glory, the shame
The killing and dying it was all done in vain
Oh, Willy McBride, it all happened again
And again, and again, and again, and again

Did they beat the drums slowly
Did they play the fife lowly
Did they sound the death march as they lowered you down
Did the band play the last post and chorus
Did the pipes play the flowers of the forest 

peace protestors.jpg
PEACE PROTESTERS AT WAR MEMORIAL 11/11/2018 – their sign said HONOUR THEM-PROMOTE PEACE

The horrors of WW2, Malaya, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan… we keep adding to the toll, make the words of the poets even more poignant when we realise the average age of soldiers who die in wars are 19, 20, 21, 22…

vietnam-war-timeline
SOLDIERS WHO FOUGHT IN VIETNAM WERE BARELY ADULTS MANY WITHOUT THE RIGHT TO VOTE!

ANTHEM FOR DOOMED YOUTH
Wilfred Owen

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
      — Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
      Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells; 
      Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
      And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
      Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
      The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

Is a Plea for a Change in Priorities to emphasise PEACE too much to ask? 

November 11 is a reminder, not only of the tragedy and futility of  WW1 and many other wars since but a warning of the fragility of peace and the importance of working hard to avoid conflict.

world peace bell 4

The Canberra Rotary Club is making an effort to remind people of the importance of peace and has built an easily accessible World Peace Bell as well as introducing the Rotary Peace Prize.

There are at least 23 of these bells throughout the world with plans for more. Volunteers man the bell at busy times encouraging people to recite an oath as well as ring the bell so the sound carries across the lake.

The volunteer who helped me explained the history and ensured I understood the affirmation, before reciting the lines aloud.

As I walked through Nara Park and visited the National Museum on the other side of the lake, the bell’s beautiful, deep, resonant tone tolled for peace.

The first recipients of the Peace Prize long-term advocates for world peace and activists in raising awareness and requesting an adjustment of society’s priorities:

Dr Sue Wareham OAM, Founding member of ICAN, International Campaign Against Nuclear weapons, and WILPF – ACT Branch, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. Women from several nations and members of WILPF gathered in Europe in 1915 and tried to stop the slaughter of WW1 but to no avail. The organisation consistently works for peace and social justice.

peace-symbol-vector

Imagine

Mairi Neil

Imagine all the people sharing all the world‘ – a line John Lennon wrote

Music and lyrics combined to make the song moving and memorable

And I wonder if people do imagine sharing when they listen to his words…

Great oceans of people, happy, sad, warring, peaceful, worshipping, wondering

Individual countries, cultures, nationalities, religions, powerful elites

Nation states, perhaps individual tribes and families.  21st-century social media exposes

All humanity – those not so lucky or ones we are told to fear –

Those trapped in places where war is an integral part of their journey from birth…

In my lifetime, the Middle East a constant muddle of bombs and brutality

Or the African continent with droughts, internecine wars, deadly viruses and famines

Not forgetting our neighbourhood’s volatility in the hands of Rocket Man & Dotard…  

 

A world of sharing, no possessions to kill or die for, a world of peace

No borders! This dream elicits accusations ranging from lunacy to scorn

Dreaming and desiring the impossible…  

 

Dreaming? Imagining a better future – isn’t that what we wish for our children?

Religious fundamentalists and fanatics insist

Everyone believe or have faith in a deity you can’t see, imagining a heaven and hell

And for many acquisitive others, it is land and possessions – they

Mean power, progress, personal esteem. It is difficult, but so important, to imagine

Sharing ALL the world and its bounties – thank you, John, for gifting your dream…

peace-symbol-vector flip

When you flip the peace sign upside down, it’s composed of the ancient rune ‘Algiz’ inside of a circle. ‘Algiz’ represents life, beginning, and protection; very fitting for a symbol of peace. … Add it all together, and an upside-down peace sign literally means ‘endless peace’.

single poppies.jpg

 I knitted poppies for the 5000 Poppies Project to honour our family’s ANZAC, George Alexander McInnes.

He was 19 years old when they laid him to rest in Egypt and as far as I know, no member of the family has ever visited his grave. His death and the grief that followed changed the lives of his parents and siblings forever – a common tragedy for so many families worldwide detailed in letters, diaries, poems, novels, and memoir.

Dear Mum and Dad
Mairi Neil 

WW1 began in 1914, the fighting lasted four years, but grief lasts a lifetime.

I see you both in my dreams
the image helps suppress the screams
of many mates who have been shot––
This world has really gone to pot!

When I joined up to come and fight
I thought I was doing what was right
But Mum those Bible texts you read
Don’t explain what it’s like to kill – or be dead.

Young Johnny Parker from down the road
Shot on landing. Floats at sea –– a bloated toad.
So many like him, bodies never retrieved
No prayers, no burial, relatives deceived.

If I’m shot soon, or perhaps blown apart
You’ll receive a letter to ease a painful heart
But take what it says with a pinch of salt
It’s madness here -no decency, nobody’s fault.

The cardboard dog tags disintegrated
when a body rots or is incinerated
Identities disappear over time –
whole battalions consumed in lime

So just as I dream of both of you
Hold fast your memories of me too
Because if like snow, I don’t survive
Only reminiscing will keep me alive.

download.jpg

 

My visit to Canberra for Remembrance Day to see the Field of Poppies (62,000 of them) and take part in the national ceremony commemorating the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Armistice that ended the First World War, allowed me to take part in a historic occasion but also made me reflect on the past, present and think of the future.

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What stories we keep, how we pass stories from one generation to another, and the relevance and meaning of the stories we choose, whether personal or public.

AUNT KITTY poem.jpg

In Canberra, amidst the field of poppies, it was sobering to discover people who didn’t know the significance of the flower, and others that didn’t seem to care, like the private security firm that used the field as an opportunity to have a promotional photoshoot – replete with uniforms and guard dogs.

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Two men wandered around on Remembrance Day dressed in WW1 uniforms offering to pose for photos and a volunteer from the poppy project confided she had to chastise a group of young girls who laid down amongst the poppies uncaring of damage because they wanted to pose for pictures on Instagram and Facebook. There were also those who stole souvenirs from the installation, which volunteers spent hours replacing.

The days of the nation stopping for two minutes of silent reflection long gone – apparently the only thing that ‘stops the nation’ now is a horse race, like the Melbourne Cup, yet I remember as a teenager being in Myer in the city and the escalators stopping and people standing with heads bowed.

Parades and displays can be ignored but if everyone’s routine is interrupted – even for two minutes – perhaps it will make people ask why.  Why the carnage, why do we go to war? Is there another way to solve disputes? Should we rely on a few leaders to decide our destiny?

Parliament House, Canberra

There were two displays at Parliament House (270,000 poppies).

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Answers to frequently asked questions about the Poppy project.

The 5000 POPPIES project has left me in awe at how a simple idea encouraged involvement from people all over the world as well as educating about the loss of life in WW1 – and subsequent wars.

If it made people pause and consider the human cost of war, perhaps think of their family and their country’s history, seek information and reflect, then it has been a success.

Always the honour roll of those who died in conflict either at home or abroad confronts and shocks – alphabetical lists that in peacetime are associated with telephone books and thick tomes of the living. 

Australia talks about thousands of lives lost, but for other nations it is millions! When I was in Irkutsk in Russia last year, a guide said to me, ‘In Russia, we list the names of survivors (mainly officers and ‘heroes’, I might add) because there aren’t enough walls to list the dead.’

Throughout the world, we have listed on walls, monuments, and in remembrance books, names while bodies and ashes lie elsewhere.  Many resting in places where loved ones never, or can never visit.

Thousands of blood-red poppies a stunning visual reminder – each one different – representing the individuality of each lost life. The gaps in the field of poppies remind us not every casualty was/is found or identified.

For me, the creative project a chance to DO something and make a practical contribution to remembrance. Others, obviously, felt the same because it fired imaginations and activities in so many places: neighbourhood houses, U3As, schools, churches, numerous community and family groups and private individuals… and hopefully inspired discussions.

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Placing my knitted poppy beside Uncle George’s name.

1918-2018: 5000 POPPIES – A TRIBUTE

At Parliament House, the forecourt installation of handmade poppies will be there from 9-18 November while the Marble foyer poppy installation will remain until 3 February 2019.

This display of poppies, lovingly created by 5000 Poppies project volunteers – many of whom are descendants of original Anzacs – is a tribute to the thousands of Australians who died in the First World War.

It complements the sea of handcrafted poppies that will carpet the Parliament House Forecourt to mark the 100th anniversary of the Armistice, 11 November 1918. With a direct line of sight to the Australian War Memorial, the display connects with the 62,000 poppies installed on the Memorial’s grounds representing every Australian life lost in the First World War.

Courtesy of traditional and social media we’ve been flooded with information – overloaded some will say, yet it is amazing how even after 100 years, new stories and information surface.

I’ve visited places, met people, and learnt history I didn’t know and fulfilled my love of joining the dots and understanding connections. On a recent visit to Caulfield Town Hall, to their art gallery, an amazing Poppy Exhibition made me pause and read the individual stories of local VC recipients but also drew my attention to the memorial boards that cover every wall of the spacious foyer – 31 large bronze panels with 1,554 names.

Although Caufield City Council first started compiling names of soldiers, sailors and nurses from the Caulfield district as early as 1915, it would be more than a decade before they were publicly displayed… In 1930, Caulfield Town Hall underwent a major redevelopment… which included a colonnade portico opening on to a spacious memorial foyer, with a marble dado surmounted by bronze tablets. Inscribed… were the names of all those who enlisted in the Australian Imperial Forces from Caulfield… the criteria for inclusion was to have been living in the City of Caulfield at the time of enlistment, and it includes both lost and returned service people… At the time of its construction, the municipality of Caulfield included the suburbs of Elsternwick, Balaclava, St Kilda East, Carnegie, Murumbeena, Glen Huntly and Gardenvale…

There is a lovely Japanese garden at Caulfield Town Hall and I hope people visiting the Remembrance Day display took some time, like I did, to sit and calm their anger (and it is anger we should feel) at what a senseless waste of life wars are, and especially WW1  – tragedies of epic proportions.

Yet, all over Australia, we have sister city relationships with countries that may have been our enemy at some stage of history – relationships that contribute to understanding and tolerance and help make a lasting peace.

Sassoon recognised how violence and war changed men and struggled to get much of his anti-war poetry published. When he wrote, “I believe that this War is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it,” in an open letter to the House of Commons, it took the intervention of poet Robert Graves to save him from court-martial declaring Sassoon suffered shell-shock and needed to be hospitalised. 

Some could argue that it was only the insane who couldn’t see the truth of his words.    

Golgotha
Siegfried Sassoon

Through darkness curves a spume of falling flares 
That flood the field with shallow, blanching light. 
The huddled sentry stares 
On gloom at war with white, 
And white receding slow, submerged in gloom.
Guns into mimic thunder burst and boom, 
And mirthless laughter rakes the whistling night. 
The sentry keeps his watch where no one stirs 
But the brown rats, the nimble scavengers. 

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Sculpture of Barbarian, Rome Exhibition Canberra

While in Canberra for the commemoration ceremony at the War Memorial,  I visited the current exhibition ‘Rome‘ at the National Museum displaying artefacts from the British Museum. There is a marble statue fragment of a barbarian (Ramleh, Egypt, 160-170 CE), which I thought depicted the anguish felt by war’s victims both civilian and military that the WW1 poets captured in words.

This bound captive is looking up at what remains of a larger figure, perhaps intended to depict Victory. He has Germanic facial features, but he is wearing a Phrygian hat of a style worn in the Eastern Mediterranean region. This suggests that he represents a generic ‘barbarian’ or enemy of Rome. Such depictions emphasise how one of Rome’s great missions was to ‘vanquish the proud’.

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“From War” an Exhibition by the Australian National Veterans Arts Museum at Parliament House, Canberra

For many veteran artists making art is both an expression of personal creativity and a way of ‘making meaning’.

Veteran artistic practices draw upon, and extend beyond, the individual’s experience of war and service. For some, art is a lifeline and a life force; a way to tell stories and ask important questions about themselves and their place in society.

Representing a diverse range of mediums including photography, painting, sculpture, drawing, textiles and poetry, the artists featured in the exhibition reflect on their personal questions and processes, sharing unique stories of their lived experience.

The catalyst for the establishment of the Australian National Veterans Arts Museum was veterans’ mental health. It provides a creative and multi-faceted approach to supporting veterans and families through the arts, engaging with our veteran history and heritage, culture and identity to bring forward an approach grounded in creative expression and community.

Upending modern models ANVAM uses familiar tools, the arts and place, engaging early to promote validation, identity and purpose reframing the future for those returning from war or service. How do you capture the experience of war and its aftermath and convey that to others so they understand? 

Sassoon’s honesty fobbed off as shell shock, which today we know as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) – and almost all veterans will have their share of depression as well as other symptoms of PTSD.

Statistics don’t tell individual stories, official documents can be doctored and presented from a particular perspective depending on what narrative governments want to spin. Even letters and diaries from those who were there or those writing about friends and family may have a particular perspective, may have been censored, or may deliberately alter facts to spare feelings.  

I hope all politicians and senior Defence personnel take the time to look at the artwork and read the poetry on display at Parliament House.

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soldiers Afghanistan

A Poetic Honour
Bill Charlton, (2013)


There is no greater accolade a soldier can be shown
Than to have his deeds recorded in the verses of a poem.
For medals tend to varnish and history can be wrong,
And the stories we are left with, can be stretched as time goes on.

But the simple story-telling that’s contained within a poem
Can survive through generations by word of mouth alone.
And the rhythm/rhyming nature of these classics of the past
Are easy to remember and ensure these stories last.

Great books will parch and crumble and epitaphs will fade
And tombstones all will vanish no matter how they’re made.
But the simple little verses that we pass on down the line
Are remembered with affection and have stood the test of time.

So if you have the fortune to be mentioned in a poem
Or you know some-one who has been, on the strength of deeds alone,
Then be sure that it’s an honour, which can rarely be attained
For it makes a man immortal for as long as it’s maintained.

Bill Charlton, born 1943, joined the Australian Army and served with the 1st Battalion Royal Australian Regiment in the 60s, including South Vietnam. Bill had always been interested in writing verse often sending snippets home to his wife, Robyn, which he never completed. He continued writing snippets for years after his service until he was encouraged to take up writing poetry by his wife and children, then the snippets became poems. His first attempt at poetry resulted in a literary award and encouraged he continued writing and published two books of poetry illustrated by Robyn: A Rugged Bunch of Diggers 1 and 2 and a children’s book Lulu, the Kangaroo. He continues to write individual poems for the 521 soldiers who died during the Vietnam War.

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Sculpture “Unforgiven”

Sleep
George Mansford, (September 2016)


If I could only sleep the sleep of sleeps
To capture sweet deeds I can keep
In the cloak of night greet blissful rest so rare
To dream of peace and even love should I dare

I cannot escape this shrinking smothering room
Painted with spite, hate and terrible doom
I am shackled to the past and never to be free
Deep sleep in pure white sheets is not to be

Oh to be deaf to shrieks and howls spat from spiteful guns
Blind to flitting silent shadows mid the last rays of dying suns
Be gone the shuffling file of haunted faces never to smile again
If only a welcome storm to wash away the guilt and pain

In this lonely bed, to dream of peace, goodwill and love
To walk mid young green forests reaching high above
To hear the joyful welcome calls of feathered birds so bright
To shut out the darkness of yesterday and seek tomorrow’s light.


George Mansford AM, born 1934, served in the Australian Army between 1950 and 1990 including Korea, Malayan Emergency, Malaysia, Thai Border, South Vietnam, New Guinea, Singapore and Cyclone Tracy. Having just returned home from Vietnam 1967, he started to write poetry after his first wife died. On losing his second wife and son, his writing increased dramatically as he discovered that writing was a fortunate distraction from grief and anger of war.

‘I found that promoting peace, love of country and such deep camaraderie was a wonderful sedative. It was what my loved ones and old comrades want.’

George is the author of Junior Leadership on the Battlefield and The Mad Galahs.

 

 

The Progress
Barham J. R. Ferguson, (28 August 2018)

The fog that hugs my legs like a refugee,
Shows the steps of progress towards my own peace.
I have fought for the peace of others
And lost more than blood in the process,
But I know that hope stands not behind me.

See my anguish in the oils,
See my scars in the sculpture,
See my pity in the poetry,
See my failure in the photographs,
Hear my sorrow in the song.

I miss the moment of living the dream,
Of knowing those at home are thinking of me.
Praying for me. Worried about me.
Today however, they only worry about me.
It’s not the enemy that hunts me, nor the
Danger that surrounds me.
It is for the danger within.

My current battle is with doubt. Memories.
Questions I cannot answer.
Images so vivid, I can hear them.

But the fighter in me stands tall.
I can win this war as I have done before.
Not for me, but for others.
This is why I served. This is who I am,
Either in or out of service.
So help me make that step.

And watch me emerge as a similar person
To the one you knew. Similar, but better.
That you can then
See my ambition in oils,
See my skills in sculpture,
See my power in poetry,
See my future in photographs, and
Hear my strength in song.

It is now that I realise,
My child that hugs my legs like a refugee,
Speeds the steps of progress to my own peace.

Barham Ferguson, born 1968, joined the Australian army in 1987 and saw operational service in Papua New Guinea, Southern Thailand, Iraq, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Israel, Lebanon and Jordan. An Ambassador for the Australian National veterans Art Museum and a longtime supporter of veterans’ issues, Barham discharged in July 2018 and lives in Canberra with his daughter. He is the author of Love, Life and ANZAC Biscuits, (2013), and A Feeling of Belonging (1999).


Through The Mirror
Barham J.R. Ferguson, (13 February 2017)

Through the mirror of the past,
I see myself in memories vast.
A warrior, not once outclassed,
This was who I was.

From the dust of duty first,
The last hoorah of machine gun burst,
Wounds of war no longer nursed,
The world knew who I was.

Homeward bound with dreams anew,
Perceptions changed on what I do,
My useful skills seemed less than few,
I defended who I was.

Fighting family, fighting friends,
The war has changed, it never ends.
‘’Is my life pointless?” Now depends,
On knowing who I am.

Where to start, and what to do?
What do I have that pleases you?
There’s things inside that still ring true,
They make me who I am.

Strength and honour. Discipline.
These soldier traits have not worn thin,
Unlike the uniform in the bin,
These traits are who I am.

There’s many more that made me me,
When I was in the military,
But in these threads I now can see,
That made me who I am.

Now it’s time to do what’s right,
To find a mission, and gain insight,
To be the me who can sleep at night,
‘Cause I do know who I am.

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sculpture – Finish

At the Australian War Memorial, there is a Flanders Field Garden planted with poppies and with the words of John McCrae’s poem carved on the walls to remind us that in Ypres, Belgium,  ‘men died in their thousands and the medieval town was reduced to ruins.’

In Flanders Fields
John McCrae

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below. We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields. Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

The Unknown Australian Soldier

This year was the 25th anniversary of the interment of the Unknown Australian Soldier, who represents all Australians who have been killed in war. At the head of the tomb are the words, ‘Known unto God’, and at the foot, ‘He is all of them and he is one of us.’

“Plans to honour an unknown Australian soldier were first put forward in the 1920s, but it was not until 1993 that one was at last brought home. to mark the 75th anniversary of the end of the First World War, the remains of the soldier were recovered from Adelaide Cemetery near Villers-Bretonneux in France and transported to Australia. After lying in state in King’s Hall in Old Parliament House, the Unknown Australian Soldier was interred in the Hall of memory at the memorial on 11 November 1993. He was buried with a bayonet and a sprig of wattle in a Tasmanian blackwood coffin, and soil from Pozieres was scattered in his tomb.”

The eulogy for the Unknown Soldier was first delivered by the Honourable Paul Keating in 1993. In Canberra, on the Centenary of the Armistice, a recording was played of his speech.

The words are memorable and moving but perhaps the lines that need to be emphasised more often are:

This Unknown Australian is not interred here to glorify war over peace; or to assert a soldier’s character above a civilian’s; or one race or one nation or one religion above another; or men above women; or the war in which he fought and died above any other war; or of one generation above any that has or will come later… We have lost more than 100,000 lives, and with them all their love of this country and all their hope and energy… It is not too much to hope, therefore, that this Unknown Australian Soldier might continue to serve his country – he might enshrine a nation’s love of peace and remind us that in the sacrifice of the men and women whose names are recorded here there is faith enough for all of us.’

The current exhibitions in Canberra at the National Museum and National Library add more food for thought as well as steps in the evolution of the ‘nation’ Paul Keating was talking about.

Rome reveals how integral the military was to the Roman Empire’s greatness and an exhibition on Captain Cook and his Voyages touches on the Colonial Wars and Aborigines fighting the invasion of their land by representatives of the British Empire.

The powerful Roman and British Empires now diminished and if nothing else, the tide of history seems predictable but has mankind learnt a ‘love of peace’?

Thank Goodness For Community Initiatives

 While national politicians and governments may let their people down, there are plenty of instances of grassroots initiatives – and therefore HOPE.

Nara Peace Park, Canberra, is a case in point – not only has it the Peace Bell but myriad sections, sculptures and plaques making a statement about peace. 

TOKU 2010 by artist Shinki Kato born 1955

Toku was commissioned to celebrate the 1300th anniversary of Japan’s ancient capital, Nara. The sculpture has three main elements: A five-storied pagoda form which represents Canberra; a floating stone representing Nara; and the form of a small bird symbolising peace.

The bird resembles a Latham’s Snipe, a species which migrates annually between Japan and Canberra. The artist has created Toku to express the amicable relationship and mutual understanding shared by Canberra and Nara as sister cities.

There are tranquil areas to meander through or sit and enjoy the beauty of the gardens and lake. The day I visited, families were picnicking and playing.

 

The Pen Mightier Than The Sword

As you walk through the park there is evidence that we shouldn’t take the beauty, or sentiments, for granted. At the base of several trees are plaques – sadly some were damaged and worn by the weather. The plaques reminders that writers from poets to journalists have lost their lives fighting to express and defend ideas and freedom of speech.

“The spirit dies in all of us who keep silent in the face of tyranny”

The plaques and trees were a ‘memorial to writers who have fought for freedom of speech”  and was conceived through the vision and work of the ACT members of PEN International and dedicated by the Minister for Arts and Heritage, Mr Gary Humphries MLA, on 17 November 1996.

Among the dedications:

  • Kenule Beeson Saro-Wewa, Nigerian playwright,
  • Meena Kishwarkanel, poet and journalist,
  • Russians: Galina Starovoitova, ethnographer and dissident politician, and Larissa Ludina, newspaper editor,
  • Konka Kuris Turkish feminist writer,
  • Robert Walker Aboriginal poet, and
  • the Balibo Five, Australian journalists murdered in East Timor 1975: Greg Shackleton, Brian East, Gary Cunningham, Tony Stewart, Malcolm Rennie and
  • journalist Roger East killed in Dili, 1975.

Hopefully, somewhere a memorial plaque will be made for Jamal Khashoggi recently assassinated by agents of the Saudi Government. The plaque, a permanent reminder of those who use words to defend our right to speak and challenge those who think suppression and violence a solution.

However, for every writer silenced, there is always another who picks up the pen to peacefully bring about change. The belief that the pen is mightier than the sword and words can make a difference, a good enough motivation for me to keep writing.

 

Surviving, Existing, Embracing – How Would You Cope In An Australian Desert?

(Warning: Indigenous Australians are advised that some of the links from this blog include images or names of people now deceased.)

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NAIDOC Week 2018 

Under the theme – Because of her, we can! – NAIDOC Week 2018 will be held nationally from Sunday 8 July and continue through to Sunday 15 July.

… Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women have played – and continue to play – active and significant roles at the community, local, state and national levels… As leaders, trailblazers, politicians, activists and social change advocates, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women fought and continue to fight, for justice, equal rights, our rights to country, for law and justice, access to education, employment and to maintain and celebrate our culture, language, music and art…

They are our mothers, our elders, our grandmothers, our aunties, our sisters and our daughters… often been invisible, unsung or diminished… For at least 65,000 years, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women have carried our dreaming stories, songlines, languages and knowledge … and enriched us as the oldest continuing culture on the planet…

Two Sisters – Ngarta And Jukuna

A True Story – Perhaps the first Autobiography written in an Aboriginal language…

In an ideal world, this book would be in school and community libraries and generate important conversations about culture, language, family relationships, and Australia’s history.

A firsthand account it provides a rare primary source of knowledge and insight into the lives of two amazing and courageous women.

We are all enriched by listening or reading with an open mind when people share their authentic, lived experience from the heart, in their own language.  Especially, when the stories are remarkably different from our own as this story.

The sisters couldn’t read or write their language Walmajarri until it was documented and translated into English by Eirlys Richards, one of the co-authors who collaborated with this book.

Eirleys and Pat Lowe, the other non-Aboriginal author are to be congratulated for recognising the importance of recording the stories, helping translate Ngarta and Jukuna’s words, encouraging the telling and persisting towards publication.

The road to publishing would not have been easy. I’ve spent most of my writing life trying to publish stories by everyday Australians in anthologies for the Mordialloc Writers’ Group and classes in community houses and appreciate the hoops to jump through to achieve a joyful result – especially with what is referred to now as ‘traditional publishing.’

This edition of Two Sisters, by the Magabala Books Aboriginal Corporation 2016 and was first published by Fremantle Arts Centre Press 2004 but can be bought from www.magabala.com Email: shop@magabala.com

The book is easy to read and approximately 120 pages and packs a punch.

I guarantee it will remain in your memory! For me, even the timescale is mind-boggling. Ngarta and Jukuna came out of the desert and first had contact with white people in 1961 – the year before I arrived in Australia to live in Melbourne, one of the most developed cities in the world.

United Aborigines Mission from air 1977
An aerial view of the outback Mission 1977 giving an idea of distance

The book includes helpful sections such as pages 83-103 where the story is in Walmajarri. Another singular experience – I’ve not read a book before with the story printed in English as well as an Aboriginal language.

Also included is a Glossary of Walmajarri words and their meaning plus an excellent pronunciation guide. ( Throughout the text some of the Walmajarri words used have no definitive English equivalent because of the 23 different sounds of Walmajarri some are not found in English.)

A potted history of the backgrounds of the authors and how they met also included with helpful historical markers and notes about Aboriginal culture and several maps and photographs.

‘People who lived in the Great Sandy Desert led a distinctive way of life with their own beliefs and customs. In telling their stories, Jukuna and Ngarta took such aspects of their experience for granted, seldom seeing the need to explain what to them was obvious. Because Ngarta’s story is written in the third person, it has been possible to interweave additional information helpful to readers who don’t know the desert or its people…

For most readers there will remain a number of questions arising from both stories, not all of which can be answered with certainty… we have often had to accept that some things are unknowable…’

Pat Lowe

Eirlys moved to Fitzroy Crossing in 1967 to translate The Bible but also establish literacy and reading groups. When Jukuna and her husband Pijaji settled nearby they learnt to read and write their own language for the first time.

By 1980 Jukuna was a fluent reader, one of a small number of people who could read and write the language… her skill in writing did not develop as quickly as her reading did, probably because there was little reason for her to write.’

However, when Jukuna and Eirlys met up in the 1990s Jukuna said,

‘I have written a story about myself, will you read it?’

Eirlys ‘read an account of a young woman leaving her family in the desert to walk with her husband to the unknown country of the white people. I wondered if this might be the first autobiography written by a Walmajarri person in her language.

Two Sisters is about life in a remote area of Australia few will visit, let alone live in. Most of us are not desert or bush dwellers and if we do go there it will be with the support of guides and tourist organisations, or with the knowledge and expertise of technology.

Reading the day to day accounts of hunting animals and gathering and harvesting of plants, the walking from waterhole to waterhole, the hours of digging involved and the setting and packing up of camps is engrossing and exhausting when you imagine the miles, the terrain, the heat, the cold – and the fear!

Underlying the journey of the sisters and the last of the Walmajarri left in the desert is the story of murder and lawlessness by the criminal Manyjilyjarra brothers.

These men were from a family of outlaws, men who lived apart from other people and defied the law, who preyed on their fellows, killing without reason, abducting women and discarding them. Other men feared them, and for a long time they got away with their crimes…

… news of yet another killing reached the scattered bands. No one had the power to control the killers or bring them to puishment. They moved, uninvited into country that was not their own, and eventually they went to Walmajarri country…

This was a time of great change amongst the peoples of the desert. Most of their number had already left the sandhills. Some had chosen to migrate north or west to join relatives on the cattle and sheep stations that had been established in the more generously watered country of their neighbours. Others had been rounded up by white people and brought into settlements….

Desert society had so disintegrated that its normal laws and sanctions could no longer be enforced, and these men were able to intrude with impunity into other people’s country and to prey on the few remaining unprotected inhabitants.

Prologue, two Sisters

Ngarta Jinny Bent and Jukuna Mona Chuguna belong to the Walmajarri/Juwaliny language group. They were children when this mayhem and dislocation happened and the story of fleeing the criminals, meeting up with them and others who suffered and the gradual move north to settlements is covered in their stories.

Ngarta stayed behind with her grandmother to be one of the last to leave country.

‘In the whole of the Great Sandy desert, only a handful of widely scattered groups of people still lived in their accustomed way. Everyone else had gone. In Ngarta’s country there remained just one small band of eight souls: Ngarta, her mother and grandmother, her young brother, Pijaji’s two sisters and his second mother and grandmother…

With so few people to feed… They did not need to travel far with each season to find new stocks of food. Besides they were waiting for their relatives to come back and pick them up…’

page 31

Jilji-a sandhill
Jilji – a sandhill

The little group lived like this happily enough for a couple of years. They didn’t see anyone else in all that time and, but for the knowledge that their relatives were living on a cattle station far to the north, they might have been the last people in the world. Life went on in its age-old pattern: food gathering and hunting, drawing water, making or improvising tools, cooking, camping, firing the country, telling stories around the fire. Everything was the same, yet nothing was the same now that they were on their own.

page 34

waterholes
Searching for water depended on knowledge of where to dig and what jilas held the most or easiest water available

Enter the lawless brothers who killed her brother and beloved grandmother and speared her mother. Ngarta’s story becomes particularly harrowing when you consider she was just a child. She lived in terror and eventually fled surviving on her own for ‘a year or more’… time measured differently by her people.

So I went away on my own, in the afternoon. I went west. I took only a kana for hunting and a firestick. I walked on the grass all the way, till I got to Jarirri.’

Instead of walking on the sand, Ngarta stepped from one tuft of spinifex to another in order to leave no footprints.

She almost reached safety, within sight of Cherrabun hills but ‘… her resolve failed. For reasons she is no longer sure about, she gave up the idea of pushing on to Christmas Creek.’

‘I don’t know why I went back. maybe I was thinking about my country. Maybe I was frightened for kartiya.’ (white people)

Mining company's seismic lines in desert
Mining company’s seismic lines in the desert

…  their country stretches almost as far as the Fitzroy River to the north, but the family of these two sisters came from much further south, from the Great Sandy Desert proper, so that when the first Walmajarri people, the northern groups, were going to work on cattle stations, the southern groups were unaffected… even the bands most distant from one another were linked by marriage and consanguinity… upheavals caused by the settlers of the cattle and sheep stations filtered back along the attenuated communication lines to… the remotest parts of the desert…

Robert Menzies of whom they knew nothing, was Prime Minister when Jukuna and later Ngarta emerged from the Great Sandy Desert… much later… they first heard the word “Australia” and learned that they were not only Walmajarri, but also Australians.

Pat Lowe, contributing author in the introduction to Two Sisters

Ngarta grandmother's grinding stone 1997
Returning to country Ngarta discovered her grandmother’s grinding stone

When Jukuna tells her story she also fills in gaps about Ngarta’s and describes when they were reunited:

‘I’ll tell you about something good that happened. Pijaji and I thought our family, who we’d left in the desert, were no longer alive. So, we pushed the memory of them from our minds, and worked on the station without thinking about them very much, you can imagine my shock when my sister and sister-in-law arrived at Christmas Creek Station. When I heard the news I was overjoyed and we went over to see them and cry with them.’

I know the feeling of joy as a migrant returning to my birth country and meeting kinfolk and friends after many years of separation but there have been letters, phone calls and messages via others.

No such contact for the sisters.

That unembellished paragraph of Jukuna’s about being reunited with family thought dead and hearing their horrific tale of survival such understated stoicism!

Bridging The Cultural Divide

In a chapter titled The World of The Two Sisters, Pat Lowe contributes some helpful information to help non-Aboriginal readers understand the sisters’ stories – especially in the context of the time and reminding us of how isolated the desert dwellers were.

Books like Two Sisters show the differences in culture but also similarities in the development of humankind, the resilience of communities, the dispelling of fears and misconceptions, and adaptations necessary, the contrast between past, present and future.

Both women became artists as well as writers with their paintings exhibited in Australia and overseas. (Ngarta died in 2002)

  • Desert people did not keep track of ages in years, but as stages in life. Children described as newborn, crawling, toddling but as they got older their maturity judged on ability to hunt and the size or agility of animals caught – from small lizards to goannas and pythons, cats to foxes and dingoes. ‘The first time Ngarta killed a cat or a fox was a landmark event.’
  • A girl considered ready for marriage when her body showed signs of physical maturation – menstruation, breast development, pubic hair. Perhaps betrothed since birth to an older man she didn’t cohabit until mature enough and went to live in her husband’s camp. Her husband not allowed to have sexual relations until ‘the right time’ and such restrictions commonly observed. (Unless of course, like the marauding brothers Ngarta encountered men took women and girls and often killed them after rape.) Although Ngarta never talked about it later, she is said to have been taken as a wife by one of the men.’
  • Polygamy was normal practice, maintained by an early marriage of girls and later marriage of men. The presence of other wives, by and large, ensured the protection of the younger girls. It also contributed to complex kinship relationships and in the story, it can become quite complicated when the sisters talk of mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers so don’t read certain tracts when you’re tired! This complex extended kinship and blood relationships, of course, is why the practice of removing children from their family and country is not only outrageous and indecent on humanitarian grounds but a dangerous practice because families lost trace of bloodlines, eligibility for marriage, and ensuring appropriate behaviours and obligations observed. Aborigines will suffer the consequences of  The Stolen Generation for a long time and we must never let that shameful period be forgotten or repeated – no matter what justifications authorities use.
  • A boy’s physical development determined his readiness for going through stages of law and his rank among men and marriageability.
  • Desert people tell stories that may span years. They are not fixated with definitive time the way Europeans are and knowing the age of the sisters at particular times in the story is guesswork.
  • Widows or other grieving females hit themselves on the head with stones until they bled, there is confronting descriptions of this and wailing, tearing of clothes, painting bodies in clay – visible and visceral signs of grief shared by other cultures.
  • Desert dwellers believe in supernatural beings and spirits – some benign others dangerous. They live in hollows and waterholes can enter children and animals, can be helpful to explain good weather or destructive seasons and anything new or unusual like windmills and fences built by settlers and the various types of cattle introduced. They are not the only people to believe in the supernatural or gods that can’t be seen. Men cried when they discovered water in the tank below a windmill having never seen the structure before and always working hard digging for water, they believed evil spirits were at work.
  • Expert hunters and gatherers but living in a sometimes unforgiving environment a great part of the desert dwellers day is spent searching for and cooking food. Most of us would be in awe at their tracking and hunting capabilities and lack of waste – the wisdom of the First People to help us protect and sustain the environment should be a given. But when they first engaged with white people there were many shocks. ‘At Julia Yard, the two men found a drum of tar, used for applying to spayed cows to heal their wounds. They had never seen tar before and thinking it was some kind of food, like honey, they swallowed some of it. It burnt their throats and later they vomited.’
  • Desert and other Aboriginal people drop from their vocabulary the names of recently deceased people. They are disturbed to hear the name or be reminded of someone who is gone. The closer the relationship, the longer the taboo on the use of a name and other similar words in general vocabulary.  “Instead, people usually address and speak of one another by relationship terms, a practice that causes much tearing of hair amongst non-indigenous people trying to follow narratives and identify the actors.”

newspaper article

Epilogue – What About Justice?

The Chapter, Epilogue, became personal in a ‘six-degrees of separation’ way.

A small group of desert dwellers who had never lived under or obeyed ‘white man’s’ law appearing at a remote cattle station and killing stock was news in 1961 but because of language barriers and intense fear and distrust it was some time before teenager Ngarta’s story was listened to – and apparently ignored by authorities.

The two murderers were remanded on cattle killing charges, later reduced to ‘having been in possession of beef suspected of having been stolen,’ and fined fifty pounds or fifty days in prison.

The court case and charges absurd – how would they know about kartiya (white) law and possession or have money for fines!

Tragic too, the public outcry ‘at the perceived unfairness of the sentences’ that followed, which led to the men being soon released and having ‘a happy reunion’ with their group.

The government received written protests from such bodies as the Union of Australian Women, the Joint Railway Unions Committee, the Amalgamated Engineering Union and the Federated Miscellaneous Workers’ Union.

I’m a member of the UAW and worked for the Miscos in the 1980s.  I know these organisations considered themselves progressive and on the side of social justice.

They were at the forefront of many struggles for Aboriginal rights but I wonder if they were able to hear the real story from those desert dwellers in 1961, including the treatment of the sisters, would they still have demanded the men’s release?

The allegations that some of the children had been stolen were never followed up, or the brutal and cruel treatment Ngarta and Jukuna suffered – well not by katiya – but interestingly karma or ‘blackfella way’ seems to have worked! (Read the book…)

Two Sisters and its various chapters with perspectives, reflections and new knowledge, a fascinating read of survival, adaptation and growth. An apt book to study because the focus of this year’s NAIDOC theme is – honouring women’s contribution

BECAUSE OF HER , WE CAN!

 

The Staging Post – A Film To Reaffirm Belief in Humanity

staging post.jpeg

Yesterday afternoon as part of the City of Kingston’s Refugee Week I attended a screening of Jolyon Hoff’s film The Staging Post – a remarkable film that leaves an indelible mark on your heart. 

The moving story of the creation of a school and the building of a cohesive community shows a different aspect of the lives of refugees awaiting processing in Indonesia. 

I don’t know whether it will change hardened opinions about our government’s refugee policy but it does confront and challenge and it definitely adds to our knowledge by telling a story not widely known!

This year, Refugee Week, held from Sunday 17 June to Saturday 23 June, aims to raise awareness about the issues affecting refugees and to celebrate the positive contributions they make to Australian society. (There are over 800,000 Australians who were once refugees!)

The film screening plus a scrumptious afternoon tea was held at Shirley Burke Theatre in Parkdale, a comfortable venue for the film and the Q and A session afterwards with the director Jolyon Hoff. A stark contrast to the lives of the thousands of refugees throughout the world who can’t help but feel nobody wants them when you see the news clips and read many of the comments on social media!

A Positive Ageing representative from Kingston’s Access and Equity Committee welcomed the audience and introduced Jolyon. Joanne mentioned it was World Refugee Day and this year the theme was “With Refugees.

Words And How Stories Are Told Matter

When you hear the word refugee what images spring to mind? 

  • Rohingya in their hundreds and thousands trekking through jungle mud,
  • boat people from Afghanistan, Sri Lanka or Iraq arriving in Australia and suiciding in mandatory detention,
  • Africans floundering in the oceans off  Italy,
  • camps in Jordan with miles of tents,
  • crying women and children at the Mexican and U.S.A. border,
  • crowds of young men rioting in Germany,
  • ramshackle cities in Calais and numerous other towns … ?

Do you think the terms asylum seeker, refugee, illegal immigrants, migrants are interchangeable?

Naming is a choice, the words we use – especially the words our political representatives and media choose – are important.

The choice reflects not just perspective on how and why people have begun a journey, but who the people are and their rights. It especially says a lot about the speaker or writer’s opinion towards the people they are describing, and their knowledge or lack thereof.

By choosing to describe asylum seekers as illegal immigrants, economic migrants, or boat people it is easy for politicians to justify denying refugees basic human rights and classify them as less deserving of help.

Define A Refugee

A refugee is a person who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country … ”

The 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees

Protecting refugees is the core mandate of UNHCR.

The word refugee comes from French and was first used in the modern context following the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, which sent the Protestant Huguenots to flee the religious persecution by the French King Louis XIV.

There have been many pograms, persecutions, wars, land clearances, and oppression since.

For most of us, it was the horrendous displacement of people caused by WW2 that has cemented ideas and images in our mind about who or who isn’t a refugee and whether there is empathy for them as opposed to the fear, distrust and contempt that many populist leaders exploit.

The Director’s Introduction

Jolyon came to the story 4-5 years ago when living in Jakarta with his family because of his wife’s work. In 2013, the news broadcast the Australian Government’s latest ‘detention overseas’ policy by announcing anyone arriving by boat would be detained offshore in Manus or Nauru islands; they re-instated mandatory offshore detention.

  • He realised that in the 15 years of asylum seekers being in the news he had never met one.
  • He wondered who are these people and why do they want to come to Australia?
  • He decided to visit where refugees gathered, ostensibly to arrange to make deals with people smugglers and get to Christmas Island to seek asylum in Australia.
  • He drove to the outskirts of the city, went over a shaky bridge and arrived at Cisarua, a bustling village, but also the place considered a staging post for boats to Christmas Island.

The driver pointed to a man and said, ‘Over there, that’s a refugee.’

three film makers.jpeg
Muzafar, Khadim, Jolyon

The meeting with ‘the refugee’ changed both their lives. Hasan introduced him to a cousin, Rizwana who said he must meet her brother, Muzafar, who was a photographer.

Jolyon asked all the ‘stupid but obvious’ questions:

  • Why did you leave your own country?
  • Was it really that bad?
  • How did you get here?
  • How do you manage to live?
  • Why do you want to live in Australia?
  • What is your plan, if you have one?…

Muzafar was an amazing photographer with beautiful photographs of Central Afghanistan who had teamed up with seventeen years old, Khadim who had made short films on his mobile phone and after posting them on the Internet had won awards.

Jolyon considered himself a good filmmaker, he’d studied in Australia but was stunned when he saw Muzafar’s photos and Khadim’s films – films oozing authenticity, raw footage from when both men decided to raise their voices and present their lives, culture, countries to the world and to keep a record of their incredible journeys.

Muzafar and Khadim are Afghan Hazara refugees who were stuck in Indonesia when Australia “stopped the boats”. They faced many years in limbo – at one stage the UNHCR said 5 years, some people had been there 10 years, and the forecast now is 15 – 25 years!!

Not only did they collaborate and complete this film with Jolyon but the majority of the film is about the creation of the Cisarua Refugee Learning Centre an amazing community school that began with a $200 donation, two rooms, one trained teacher and two teenage assistants.

It now has 18 teachers and managers teaching nearly 200 students a day – 110 students in morning classes and 57 older women and mothers ( many illiterate in their own language) in the afternoon. They are trialling Skype classes by a teacher in Australia.

Cisarua Learning Centre.jpeg
Cisarua Learning Centre

When we started we had no idea. What should we teach? How should they teach? Little by little we found our way.

Muzafar Ali

The film does not skirt over the fact that the major issues in the refugees’ lives remain. They are not allowed to work in Indonesia and rely on friends, family, supporters to donate – they receive support from locals as well as concerned people in Australia.

  • Indonesia allows refugees to stay but gives no help or pathway to citizenship
  • Refugees are not allowed to work and not allowed to attend school (since the success of Cisarua, this rule has been ignored!)

There are family members still in their home countries but also others who have been resettled in Europe, USA, Canada and Australia. Unfortunately, some have family members here but because they arrived ‘by boat’ the new, tougher laws in Australia will not allow family members to be reunited!

“Courageous People Never Give Up”

The real value lies in the process behind the outcomes – refugees building trust in one another, confidence, participation in problem solving and decision-making, and a general sense of starting each day with a purpose. After more than two decades working with refugees, this is certainly the most effective pre-departure preparation program I have encountered.

Lucy Fiske, Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Research fellow, UTS, Sydney.

I hope many people see this inspirational film – an example of people who have been brutalised and forced to flee their own country in fear yet proved their resilience, courage and resourcefulness, by creating an amazing community that flourishes on hope.

The film is a must see – riveting and balanced – you laugh and you cry. This is about stateless people creating an energy, a force for the future. No longer perpetual victims or voiceless – they are telling their stories.

Adults with a variety of skills – plumbers, electricians, carpenters, artists, designers – renovating and fitting out a decrepit building into a functioning learning centre…

Two little girls learning to recite the alphabet, others reciting times tables whispering the answers to each other when one stumbles…

Afghani children dancing and singing, preparing for a concert to meet local and overseas children at an International School for the first time – the wonderment and uninhibited joy as the children mix with each other and share their knowledge… asylum seekers and refugees have something to give, a connection is made and a relationship grows in strength…

Khadim finally accepted to be resettled in the USA and as he packs his few belongings, he talks of his love for his mother and sisters, his fears for them, his determination to change a system that has women exchanged as young as 13 to marry men they do not love. He holds a traditional hat his mother made him, snuggles his face close, ‘It is so precious, it carries her smell…’ tears glisten –

I join him… and cry again when Muzafar and family arrive safely in Australia.

with mother and sisters.jpeg

After the film, there was a Q and A session and we discovered that one little girl in the film who had dreams of becoming a doctor is now at college in Texas, top of her class and writing a novel! She will achieve her dream one day!

Khadim arrived in Los Angeles, was given a $500 cheque although he didn’t have a bank account and was turfed out of the ‘resettlement’ hotel after one night and told he was on his own and to get a job.

Using the networks he established online, he is now travelling across America and Canada visiting former refugees. Part of a bigger story than Cisarua. The friendship and project that started all those years ago when Jolyon sought answers.  Understanding continues to grow and spread.

How to Help And Stand With Refugees

To support the filming and an outreach programme you can make a tax-deductible donation at the Documentary Australia Foundation – documentaryaustralia.com.au 

Muzafar fared better because Jolyon and his wife met him and his family at Adelaide airport when they were finally accepted here for resettlement. He is at Adelaide University and also travels promoting the film and the Cisarua Learning Centre, which is now a Public Benevolent Institution with DGR (deductible gift recipient) status.

Their idea is that refugees can be part of the solution. They “uncover the sleeping leaders within the refugee communities and encourage them to start their own refugee-led initiatives, and then accompany them for as long as they need.”

Cisarua Refugee Learning Centre has inspired at least 20 other refugee-led education centres and changed the lives of thousands of refugee families.

There are now over 1,500 refugees receiving education in Indonesia from approximately 100 refugee teachers.

To donate and to find out more to help and stand WITH refugees

  • email info@cisarualearning.com or
  • write to Cisarua Learning, Supporting Refugee Education, Unit 4, 484-486 Bronte Road, Bronte NSW 2024.
  • Buy the DVD,
  • read the stories,
  • stay engaged and be in there for the long haul.

Everywhere asylum seekers are being demonised. We are told stopping the boats was to prevent deaths at sea, yet where is the outrage at the prison-like conditions and deaths on Nauru and Manus – another suicide as recently as two weeks ago!

Many wealthy countries are closing their borders – the USA has halved their refugee intake, Canada has reduced their numbers too and Australia has radically reduced their intake but Minister Dutton and his BorderForce remain tight-lipped and make it increasingly difficult to discover numbers. Most media are denied access to Manus and Nauru.

We need films like The Staging Post to show us a world most of us will never experience and reveal the stories of courage, resilience, love and hope of refugee communities and maybe – just maybe Australians will rediscover the ability to warmly welcome ‘those who come across the seas‘!

The ground-breaking documentary, The Staging Post, is vital in shifting the understanding and debate in Australia to better understand the impact of our current policies.

Tim O’Connor, Director, refugee Council of Australia.

The staging Post is an incredible film and needs to be seen by as many people as possible. it shows how the refugees in Indonesia would make extraordinary citizens, in any country.

Glynis Johns

 

Knitting a Tiny Piece Of A Global Story

quote about knitting by Jennifer Shaw

This meme that did the rounds of Facebook recently reminded me of using a knitting project to calm my mind and complete a commitment I made to a newfound friend when we spent a weekend in Ballarat as volunteers for that city’s first ever Open House.

Susan and I shared a B & B overnight and I heard about her involvement in the 5000 Poppies Project. I first read about this project when I attended the Spirit of Anzac Exhibition at Jeff’s Shed several years ago. Susan reminded me of the mental note I made at the time to follow up the story. She inspired me to ‘pull my finger out’ and participate.

the story of the poppies

That was October and it wasn’t until December when life went a little pear-shaped that I recalled my promise to knit poppies. The thought of an excuse to sit and focus on craft more appealing than sitting at the computer!

brown wool and needles.jpg

Back to School For Knitting Lessons

I have many happy memories of craft, especially when my children attended the Steiner Stream at Moorabbin Heights Primary School in the 90s.  I loved being immersed in creative projects with them. We made felt gnomes, knitted tiny mice and any other animal you could think of to sell as fundraisers for the school.

craft stall 1997

Reconnecting with knitting became a holistic exercise.

  • The pure wool bought, dyed, and wound into usable skeins in the class by the children.
  • Purchased dowels of various thickness from Bunnings hardware were cut to size and the kids sanded the needles smooth before massaging them with beeswax.
  • After collecting tiny gum nuts from the garden and glueing them to the end of the needles, they were ready to knit.

I can’t remember who taught me to knit. Certainly not my mother – she always decried her knitting ability by showing a half-finished sock still on the three needles that she started to knit for Dad in the early days of their marriage. It was even brought out to Australia when we migrated – why will remain a mystery!

Mum loved repeating proverbs and the one she used to explain that lack of knitting prowess was, ‘The road to hell is paved with good intentions.’ 

Maybe it was my Great Aunt Teen who first taught me to knit because she was constantly knitting or crocheting and up until she died in the mid-60s she made all of us a jumper or cardigan for our birthdays.

The last item she made me was a lovely pure wool jacket and I received it the night before we left for Australia. Nine-year-old me adored that jacket and it was so well-knitted and loved that I still have it.

My daughter, Anne, even wore it for a short while although it was slightly yellowed with age. It has dogs as a pattern and she loves dogs!

 

me night before leaving scotland 1962.jpg
9year old me with my lovely white jacket with red trim and black poodle motif – it zips up the front too.

 

Perhaps I learned to knit at Brownies or Girl Guides – I vaguely remember knitting a scarf for a doll – I know my older sister, Cate would have helped because she is as talented at knitting and crocheting as Great Aunt Teen.

However, I learned the basic skills, I know the difference between knit and purl and as a volunteer mum at the Steiner school, I found myself sitting in a circle with a group of the children and teaching them to cast on and knit.

I recall the looks of intense concentration as  7 – 9-year-old girls and boys struggled to master the craft, row by laborious row.

‘Mairi, how many stitches should I have at the end of the row?’

’28, Jaryd.’

‘I’ve got 23.’

‘I’ve got 30.’

‘I’ve got 29.’

And so around the circle… picking up lost stitches, separating some convoluted efforts, unravelling knots, losing excess stitches…

I still have the recorder and music bags my girls sewed, knitted and embroidered just like my mother kept the placemats I made with childish hands.

 

Steiner music bag MJ
Mary Jane’s music bag for her music notes

 

Bridget Whelan, the author of Back To Creative Writing School, wrote that ‘weaving stories in your head while you travel to work or sit daydreaming in a café is not writing.’

I agree, however, sometimes it pays to take a rest from trying to fill the blank page and turn attention to some other form of creativity and that’s what I did when I set myself the task of knitting poppies for the 5000 Poppies Project.

I set myself the task of completing 100 poppies by the January deadline and to submit them on behalf of George Alexander McInnes, a great uncle who served at Gallipoli and is buried in Egypt.

I involved my sisters, who are much better than me at knitting and all things crafty,  plus my younger sister Rita’s mother-in-law.

My older sister, Cate is a quilter and has already quilted a poppy tribute for the Centenary Anzac Exhibition, Lest We Forget.

Best Laid Plans Etc. Etc…

But like all those writing projects needing editing and polishing – I didn’t quite make the target. (Although between us we did, I’m sure!)

I can list the excuses (I’m a writer so very good at excuses):

a bout of ill-health, preparing for visitors from overseas, Christmas, an unbearably hot summer, clearing clutter and preparing for the New Year… etc etc…

I did manage to knit 30 poppies and post them off so don’t feel a complete failure and on reflection 100 was a big target but an absolutely minuscule amount when you think of the number of poppies completed in what has become a global challenge.

Here is a picture from a couple of years ago when a display was placed at Parliament House, Victoria. There have also been moving tributes at the Shrine of Remembrance, the Australian War Memorial, and in London and other places of significance – hundreds of thousands of knitted poppies.

 

tim richardson and poppies
Tim Richardson Member for Mordialloc admiring the poppies

 

 

“These days, we wear our poppies not only as a symbol of remembrance of the fallen but also as a symbol of our support for those who have chosen (or in the case of those who in the past have been conscripted) to serve their country…

… we have again created a most beautiful and moving tribute at Melbourne’s iconic Shrine of Remembrance.  As beautiful as it is … this is only one of many many other tributes that have been created throughout the world … created from our hearts, with love, and honour and respect. 

If you could reflect … and pass on our message to anyone you know who is currently serving, or has served, or has suffered from the ongoing effects of their own service or their loved ones’ service …  it is why we are doing what we are doing …  This tribute is our gift to you.

Our way of saying thank you, and a poignant reminder of the depth of feeling from a grateful nation.
Your service will not be forgotten.
LEST WE FORGET”

5000poppies.wordpress.com

poppies on white ribbon cross

In Flanders Fields by John McCrae, May 1915

In Flanders fields, the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

The Inspiration for “In Flanders Fields”

It was early days in the Second Battle of Ypres when a young Canadian artillery officer, Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, was killed on 2nd May 1915 when an exploding German artillery shell landed near him.

He was serving in the same Canadian artillery unit as a friend of his, the Canadian military doctor and artillery commander Major John McCrae. Being the brigade doctor, John McCrae was asked to conduct the burial service for Alexis because the chaplain had been called away somewhere else on duty that evening.

It is believed that later that evening, after the burial, John began the draft for his now famous poem “In Flanders Fields”. The sight of these delicate, vibrant red flowers growing on the shattered ground caught his attention. He noticed how they had sprung up in the disturbed ground of the burials around the artillery position.

In Dornie, Scotland last year I saw the McCrae memorial honouring their clansmen:

 

The Story Behind the Remembrance Poppy

The origin of the red Flanders poppy as a modern-day symbol of remembrance was the inspiration of an American teacher, Miss Moina Belle Michael, also known as ‘The Poppy Lady.’

She and Frenchwoman Madame Anna Guérin, known as ‘The French Poppy Lady’, encouraged people to use the red Flanders poppy as a way of remembering those who had suffered in war.

The Flanders Poppy became the symbol of remembrance that we know so well today.

colchester

Two days before the Armistice was declared at 11 o’clock on 11th November 1918, Moina Belle Michael was on duty at the YMCA Overseas War Secretaries’ headquarters in New York. She was working in the “Gemot” in Hamilton Hall. This was a reading room and a place where U.S. servicemen would often gather with friends and family to say their goodbyes before they went on overseas service.

On that day, Hamilton Hall was busy with people coming and going because the Twenty-fifth Conference of the Overseas YMCA War Secretaries was in progress. During the first part of the morning as a young soldier passed by Moina’s desk,  he left a copy of the latest November edition of the Ladies Home Journal .

When Moina found a few moments to herself, she browsed through the magazine and came across a page carrying a vivid colour illustration with the poem entitled We Shall Not Sleep.

This was an alternative name sometimes used for John McCrae’s poem,  In Flanders Fields. Moina had come across the poem before, but reading it on this occasion she found herself transfixed by the last verse:

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae had died of pneumonia several months earlier on 28th January 1918.

In her autobiography, entitled The Miracle Flower, Moina describes this experience as ‘deeply spiritual’. She felt as though she was actually being called in person by the voices which had been silenced by death.

Three men attending the conference arrived at Moina’s desk and on behalf of the delegates asked her to accept a cheque for 10 dollars, in appreciation of the effort she had made to brighten up the place with flowers at her own expense.

She was touched by the gesture and replied that she would buy twenty-five red poppies with the money. She showed them the illustration for John McCrae’s poem In Flanders Fields together with her response to it We Shall Keep the Faith.

We Shall Keep the Faith by Moina Michael, November 1918

Oh! you who sleep in Flanders Fields,
Sleep sweet – to rise anew!
We caught the torch you threw
And holding high, we keep the Faith
With All who died.

We cherish, too, the poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led;
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies,
But lends a lustre to the red
Of the flower that blooms above the dead
In Flanders Fields.

And now the Torch and Poppy Red
We wear in honor of our dead.
Fear not that ye have died for naught;
We’ll teach the lesson that ye wrought
In Flanders Fields.

 

cameronians memorial
Memorial to Cameronians, Oban Scotland.

 

The delegates took both poems back into the Conference.

The red field poppy came to be known as an internationally recognised symbol of ‘Remembrance’. From its association with poppies flowering in the spring of 1915 on the battlefields of Belgium, France, and Gallipoli, this vivid red flower has become synonymous with great loss of life in war.

wild poppies scotland

Yet the scope of the poppy and its connection with the memory of those who have died in war has been expanded to help the living too. It was the inspiration and dedication of two women who promoted this same memorial flower as the means by which funds could be raised to support those in need of help, most especially servicemen and civilians suffering from physical and mental hardship as a result of a war.

Since the end of the First World War, there has been an armed conflict somewhere in the world every single day!

Out of the Great War came a lesson of ordinary people that were not ordinary. They did extraordinary things.

PAUL KEATING

25000 dead in WW1 had no known grave

When I was in Scotland last year I also read about the Highland Scot who suggested the tomb of the unknown soldier.

tomb of unknown warrior

Love and loss is the essence of our humanity. Returned men and women damaged beyond recognition examples of the extremities of loss and bereavement. They do not get over it, or move on, or get closure.

In Fromelles, France where 5000 Australians died in the most tragic night in the history of WW1 the poppies were a beautiful contrast to the tragic scene of desolation. And of course, those casualties not in uniform were rarely recorded in official history.

The book, What’s wrong with ANZAC? details the huge disparity between public remembrance ( solemn artefacts etc) often misused for militarism and nationalism compared with the ambivalent stories of sacrifice and experience of survivors and the generations of pain resulting from war.

For me, the poppy has always been about acknowledging the devastation and tragedy of lives shattered and lost, remembering, mourning and hoping it never happens again!

Patriotic music written in wartime has been used to express national pride, spread propaganda, encourage enlistment and motivate troops.

Perhaps that’s why Eric Bogle’s antiwar songs written at the time of the Vietnam War but set in WW1, were and still are definitive songs for peace, honouring those who made the greatest sacrifice and pointing out the senselessness of armed conflict, and tragic waste to humanity.

Green Fields of France by Eric Bogle

Oh how do you do, young Willy McBride
Do you mind if I sit here down by your graveside
And rest for a while in the warm summer sun
I’ve been walking all day, and I’m nearly done
And I see by your gravestone you were only nineteen
When you joined the great fallen in 1916
Well I hope you died quick
And I hope you died clean
Or Willy McBride, was is it slow and obscene

Chorus
Did they beat the drums slowly
Did they play the fife lowly
Did they sound the death march as they lowered you down
Did the band play the last post and chorus
Did the pipes play the flowers of the forest

And did you leave a wife or a sweetheart behind
In some loyal heart is your memory enshrined
And though you died back in 1916
To that loyal heart, you’re forever nineteen
Or are you a stranger without even a name
Forever enshrined behind some old glass pane
In an old photograph torn, tattered, and stained
And faded to yellow in a brown leather frame
Chorus

The sun shining down on these green fields of France
The warm wind blows gently and the red poppies dance
The trenches have vanished long under the plough
No gas, no barbed wire, no guns firing now
But here in this graveyard that’s still no man’s land
The countless white crosses in mute witness stand
To man’s blind indifference to his fellow man
And a whole generation was butchered and damned

Chorus
And I can’t help but wonder oh Willy McBride
Do all those who lie here know why they died
Did you really believe them when they told you the cause
Did you really believe that this war would end wars
Well the suffering, the sorrow, the glory, the shame
The killing and dying it was all done in vain
Oh, Willy McBride, it all happened again
And again, and again, and again, and again

Did they beat the drums slowly
Did they play the fife lowly
Did they sound the death march as they lowered you down
Did the band play the last post and chorus
Did the pipes play the flowers of the forest

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Knitting the poppies gave me the gift of calmness and a warm glow that I was doing something useful and taking part in a worthwhile project.

It also helped me reflect and in moments of melancholy reflect on how hard it is to get those in authority to focus on PEACE.

I’m sure I’ll knit a few more poppies in the future too or find another use for the hands-on creativity that helps me rest from facing the blank screen and filling the blank page…

 

A Discordant Note On Harmony Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ai Weiwei: Chinese dissident artist 

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Operation Sovereign Borders
Mairi Neil

(a found poem from Refugee Week leaflet)

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

International Odyssey
Mairi Neil

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

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

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

It is Australia after all.

 

 

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Reading poetry at a Harmony Day event in Mordialloc 2016

 

A World of Bubbles
Mairi Neil

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

‘I want to help, but what can I do?’

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

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

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

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

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

Roll May

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

Haiku – Mairi Neil

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

Acrostic – Mairi Neil

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

Seeking asylum is not a crime.

 

Sunshine, Sand, Seagulls, Sparrows – Serenity Strolling By The Sea

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Edithvale Beach March 1, 2018

Yesterday, with no classes to teach, I caught up with friends and walked on the beach. In the morning, at Edithvale, in the evening at Mordialloc.

My friends, Chris and Jillian, both agreeing how lucky we are to live so close to the sea, and to have a community and council that values, cares, and conserves the wonderful foreshore.

A recent article doing the rounds of Facebook extolling the virtues of the beach not a surprise to those of us lucky to be living by the coast. We know all about “blue space“…

Rebirth

Mairi Neil

Lying on the beach
waves roll over me,
smoothing
life’s pain.

the warm waves
caress and massage
manipulating
moulding
malleable me

until colder waves
carve and chip,
with each sharp
intake of breath
a new shape emerges

I am reborn.

Chris met me at Edithvale Station and we walked to the Seabreeze Cafe, our usual coffee place that has reopened at the request of Kingston Council, albeit briefly because plans to build a new surf lifesaving clubhouse are delayed and forcing the cafe to close at the end of last year was premature.

Thank goodness the proprietor who is opting to retire, is good-natured enough to take the upheaval in his stride. He had let staff go but hadn’t sold off all the equipment and can still serve his loyal customers and occasional passersby, like me!

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Two regular visitors at Seabreeze Cafe

I couldn’t resist a delicious savoury scone – spinach and cheese – and succumbed to the begging of little sparrows who sat on the sea wall beside our table.

I know there will be intakes of breath and frowns of disapproval from friends, “You don’t feed birds crumbs,” and even Chris said, ‘Oh, no, you’ve done it now!’ as a watchful seagull swooped closer.

However, the sparrows were there because it was their ‘hunting ground’ and were not going to be intimidated, understood tactics, and gathered with the bravado of safety in numbers!

I was so focused on trying to just scatter a few crumbs at my feet for the sparrows while excluding the bullying seagulls that my scone crumbled. A larger piece than intended fell to the ground.

The sparrows multiplied and so did the seagulls.

Some may say… ‘Poetic justice’, ‘Serves you right’, ‘That should teach you not to interfere with nature’ ‘Don’t do it again’…

But, sorry, can’t promise, I won’t…

In recent times, the birds I come into contact with on a daily basis are coping with the loss of their habitat due to increasing property development and people.  I have installed a bird feeder with wild birdseed at home because several large gums and other trees have disappeared from the neighbourhood.

I haven’t felt so concerned for the birdlife since the extended drought years ago.

For better or worse these sparrows (and the seagulls) are probably still adjusting to the removal and then reopening of Seabreeze Cafe too. They’ve probably had to go further afield or do without as beach traffic fluctuates.

Yesterday, they shared the spoils – what little there was – before Chris and I went for a walk to share the matters causing dislocation or joy in our lives.

We spotted a pair of birds uninterested in hanging around the cafe for crumbs, preferring to enjoy the spirited breeze by the water’s edge. They were not seagulls or sparrows often considered scavengers and pests at the seaside but terns.

Terns are long-lived birds and are relatively free from natural predators and parasites; most species are declining in numbers due directly or indirectly to human activities, including habitat loss, pollution, disturbance, and predation by introduced mammals. 

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The Wild Sea
Mairi Neil

The sea is wild today
the wind robust and strong
blowing water onto land
and pushing me along.
Bruised and grey it mirrors
the storm clouds above
I’m buffeted and battered
by the huge waves, I love.

I’m awed at its power
the force of the sea
Like flotsam it tosses
insignificant me…
Flying high as a bird I glide
swirl, splash in downward slide
arriving breathlessly ashore
Invigorated to run
freely seaward for more.

In the shallows with
white foam bubbling
a gentler touch craved
to stormy sea pummelling.
Each wave demands a dance
sudsy fingers snatch and lift
with energetic sighs
atop tickling, teasing rollers
where saltwater stings eyes.

The surf’s determined to perform
and deposit me ashore
but the wind suddenly drops…
The wild sea is no more.

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Chris is sole carer for her 91-year-old mother and I confided that another dear friend was enduring the bedside vigil of an elderly uncle farewelling this world.

We agreed that we’ve reached ‘that age’ where Advanced Care Planning is important as well as acknowledging that we don’t live forever, no matter how healthy our lifestyle is!

I’ve survived the final hours of my beloved husband John, my Mum and Dad and appreciate every death is different and life is indeed fleeting. My brush with aggressive breast cancer showed me how we can be buffeted by changes that come too fast.

It’s not surprising conversations with close friends are often philosophical and always meaningful. We discuss the ‘big stuff’ laugh over the ‘small stuff’ and share information if we think it is of value.

Yesterday was no exception.

Chris recommended a book she has finished reading: Letting Go: How to Plan for a Good Death by Charlie Corke and as the sun played hide and seek with thickening clouds, and the wind and waves harmonised, I recalled how comforting the sea had been to me the day John died.

We both loved Mordialloc and John’s years in the Royal Navy meant he had a special affinity with the sea. I was born in a ship-building town, felt the sea was in my blood.

John died early in the morning and that evening a dear friend asked was there anything I wanted, anything she could do…

“I saw the sunrise with John, I’d like to see the sunset on our favourite spot at the beach.”

“I’ll pick you up in five minutes.”

In the last few months of John’s life, we would take a glass of chardonnay or a cup of tea into the conservatory to catch the last of the sun and together sit in harmony with ourselves, each other, and our world. The girls engrossed in teenage activity, the dog curled at our feet, and the familiar soothing sounds of the sea in the distance, the occasional rumbling train, and birds nesting in the trees.

John always believed that death was a matter of going to sleep as if a dark velvet rug had been placed over you. There is no more pain – a nothingness. He was undecided about the Hereafter and like many others Faith eluded him – and me…

But sitting with my back to the bluestone sea wall, sipping from the bottle of champagne my friend had brought, I watched the sunset on Mordialloc foreshore.

Enthralled by Mother nature’s beauty,  I listened to the gentle lapping of the evening sea caressing the sand. As the water sparkled before darkening, I felt immense peace. I felt the pressure of  John’s arms around me and the weight of his last gesture of tenderness…and knew he was at peace too.

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Mordialloc Beach

Mairi Neil

The day is calm. Tranquil. A great-to-be-alive day. Eucalypts and pine compete with salty air and the whiff of abandoned seaweed. The blue-green sea a mirror for fluffy whipped cream clouds. Dainty dollops on a pale blue plate. Gulls sit or glide atop a sea bathed in white sunlight.

I too drift and dream.

In the distance, palm tree fronds tremble casting lacy shadows on the hot sand. The clink of moorings and masts floats from the creek and a sudden gust of wind whips sand to sting legs and faces. Airborne the seagulls transform to screeching origami kites.

A dark veil unfurls from the horizon shattering the grey-green mirror and peaceful contemplation. Waves lap and soap around feet and as I retreat to the shelter of eucalypts and pine, the taste of salt bittersweet.

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Mordialloc Beach looking towards pier

Metaphorically speaking …
Mairi Neil

Ideas are fleeting like a butterfly
my mind flits from one thought to another,
but occasionally focuses to write
something meaningful
or to finish a project.

Life is the sea, stormy or smooth
ever-changing
I roll with the waves
prepare for a tsunami
but pray for calm waters.

Happiness is a kite, elation as
the wind blows steadily
everything okay
until the unexpected breeze
brings me crashing
to the ground.

Hope is a candle flame
flickering,
showing the way
from the darkness
burning bright
although fragile
sometimes ephemeral
can be smothered
or dampened
but always relit

John was my rock,
Mum, a safe harbour,
Dad, a shield
Education, a panacea,
but also a lantern
shining on the path
as I stumble through life.

Life is a speeding train
sometimes out of control,
but heading straight
until I reach a destination
on time,
a little late
perhaps too soon…

Death is a sunset
inevitable but beautiful
if I die of old age –
the closing of my day.

mordi sunset-EFFECTS

 

 

What Price Would you Pay to have ‘All The Money In The World’?

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On Wednesday evening, my daughters and I went to Southland to see the latest film release of Michelle Williams – All the Money In the World.

As I’ve mentioned in other reviews, she is a favourite actress. We love to support her films and this one seems especially relevant for our times when we have supposedly one of the richest men in the world as President of the USA and people divided as to his character.

Are wealth and business acumen an indication of character? Are they the most important attributes of a man/leader? Or is all wealth and power from wealth corrupting?

The film, directed by Ridley Scott, will also be forever linked to controversy because of the #Me Too Movement, Kevin Spacey’s hurried exit, and also the pay inequality exposed by the reshoot when the disparity of Michelle and co-star Mark Wahlberg’s payment made headlines.

Definitely a movie for celebrity-obsessed, social media times!

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The Power Of Story – Does Everyone Have A Price?

All the Money In the World inspired by real-life events and based on a book about the 1973 kidnapping of teenager John Paul Getty 111 (played by Charlie Plummer).

There is the usual criticism from historical purists.

(The latest film about Churchill and WW2 released at the same time and on my to see list suffering a similar fate.)

However, as I said in my review of The Greatest Showman if you are seeking historical accuracy and “the truth”, which, in my view, is almost impossible to ever discover, please don’t expect it from Hollywood, an industry first and foremost about entertainment!

There are libraries, museums, historical documents and research institutes aplenty – seek your own facts but as far as movies are concerned, accept that stories inspired or based on real people or events will be dramatised to fit into a 2-3 hour window and suspension of reality.

Creative non-fiction is a literary genre and movie scripts based on fact aim for authenticity but sacrifice accuracy for the power of story too.

As Entertainment ‘All the Money in The World ‘Succeeds

From July – November 1973, the period the film is set, I was travelling in the UK while enjoying a year away from my university studies in Australia. 

I can remember the newspapers being obsessed by the kidnapping central to the film. At 19 years of age – not much older than John Paul Getty 111, and far from home and family, I could only imagine his terror and how his mother struggled to cope.

I received regular letters from my Mum and every time I rang home (reverse charges!) she would always end with ‘when are you coming home?

How does a family cope with something as horrific as a kidnapping?

How did Paul’s mother, abandoned by husband and powerful father-in-law patriarch negotiate and survive this traumatic turn of events in a world where women were only just beginning to assert themselves? A world, where authority and power were dominated by males.

Michelle Williams as Gail, the teenager’s mother, captures the emotional havoc wreaked by the heinous act, compounded by the seemingly cold, calculated indifference from John Paul’s grandfather ‘the richest man in the world’ and his refusal to pay the ransom.

Her body language, the tone of voice, range of emotion in facial expressions a stellar performance. Believable and engaging.

Her expression in the closing scene, as she looks at a particularly significant piece of Paul Getty Senior’s priceless object d’art collection, sums up how I think every viewer would feel about the billionaire played brilliantly by Christopher Plummer, in an exceptional performance for someone called in as a last-minute replacement for Spacey!

A major thread in the movie is Gail’s ability to stand up to the Getty empire and the powerful Paul Getty Senior. In a divorce settlement she eschews the Getty money for herself and only wants money for the children and sole custody to protect her children from a drug-addled father – hence her dire straits when the kidnappers want $17million for the return of her son.

Money she doesn’t have.

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The tension in the film is all about changing the grandfather’s mind from an initial refusal to pay the ransom because in his reasoning, he had 14 other grandchildren and he would soon have no money if he paid the kidnappers and invited criminal activity.

There is a suggestion that young Paul planned the kidnapping to get back at his grandfather and have a slice of his fortune. A sub-plot that allows Mark Wahlberg’s character, the grandfather’s head of personal security to figure large in the story and have a transformational journey.

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However, when the boy’s ear is sent to a newspaper office to prove the kidnapping is serious and the boy’s life is at risk, the grandfather finally agrees, albeit to offer a much lower sum that is ‘tax deductible’.

The scenes of the frightened teenager shackled in caves and barns, stripped of his wealth and privilege, abused and later mutilated (a harrowing, edge of the seat scene), are visceral and heart-rending and contrast with the luxurious, yet cold and soulless lifestyle of his grandfather.

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There is one kidnapper who develops a friendship with young Paul and nurses him through illness. He is genuinely astounded that a family so rich would value money over life and you wonder if his life circumstances were different would he be a hard-working farmer, factory worker, or professional living and contributing to society or would he succumb to the trappings of wealth and be corrupted… is there ever justification for criminal activity, excuses to be made for bargaining with someone’s life?

Did Marx get the divisions and problems of society right?

We certainly see the lumpen proletariat in action in this movie as well as the capitalists with and without conscience or integrity, and the bumbling, corrupt, brutal and ultimately efficient authorities.

A Movie of Our Times?

In a world still reeling from the effects of the GFC and a rising disgust for what many perceive as the failure of capitalism, the excesses of neoliberalism – this movie doesn’t pull any punches regarding the lack of morality of those who have so much money they become increasingly richer with little or no effort – money makes money if you are prepared to:

  • manipulate stocks,
  • break or manipulate laws or misuse legislation and tax havens
  • ruthlessly buy and sell works of art regardless of provenance or legality
  • ignore family responsibilities and treat people as commodities

The 1% don’t come out looking honourable (or really happy) – although by making Paul Getty Senior their representative, the film makes them larger than life. This richest man in the world revealed to be in a class of his own!

The film also exposes those with an insatiable greed and desire for money – other people’s money – people who don’t want to put in the time, investment or effort to earn a living honestly.

Mafiosi running the networks within the Calabrian underworld who kidnapped Paul Getty 111. They have no honour, no ethics, no integrity and no vision except self-service and dog eat dog.

Economic inequity is not new and All The Money In The World creates the historical background and setting well – Getty made his money by exploiting the Middle East’s oil.

The changing social mores of the 60s turned into the revolutionary and alternative 70s – and Rome was one of the playgrounds of the super-rich.

Hash and marijuana the drug of choice, along with alcohol, soon to be surpassed by cocaine and heroin a scourge of emotionally vulnerable, including the wealthy.

Paul Getty 111, still too young to be an all-out wastrel and bad guy but a rich teenager with more freedom than most. Aware of his status and mixing in adult circles more than the average teenager there is a hint his life will be as aimless as his drug-addicted father.

His kidnapping a brutal shock but not entirely unexpected.

There is the reality of the rise of various terrorist groups, urban guerrillas and ‘freedom fighters’ in the 70s demanding society’s perceived wrongs must be addressed. The Red Brigade operated in Italy and were early suspects in Paul’s kidnapping and although they professed higher ideals their methods just as questionable as the various criminal groups seeking money.

A heady mix of strong characters and action for the movie to handle and it does it well without descending into sensational car chases, shoot-outs, boring stereotypes and gratuitous violence.

Telling a well-known story is always difficult – writers and directors have to find a new angle or techniques to spice up the story to keep people’s interest.

Actors have to capture the essence of the character and try to make them believable but not descend into caricature or be so far removed from reality that those who remember the ‘real’ people reject the story out of hand.

(As an aside, one daughter commented on how busy the wardrobe and hairdressers on set would have been to capture the authenticity of the period so well!)

Through powerful acting and good storytelling, All the Money in The World has focused on what it means to be human – what all art wants to do – confront, challenge, explore the human condition!

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I’m sure this film will generate lots of dinner conversations – least of all the controversies around the making of it, the differences between the script and history, Hollywood’s sexual and pay equity scandals…

However, regarding the actual movie – go see and enjoy.

The production values are top shelf including some stunning cinematography and some memorable acting performances and scenes.

Think About…

What are the most important values for society to adopt?

Why do we revere the rich or cling to trickle down economics or accept the notion that being rich means being successful?

What are our own personal benchmarks?

Regardless of status or wealth is it the choices we make that decide our decency and humanity?

Is the pursuit of wealth in some people’s DNA?

How much is too much wealth?

Is it loving relationships, family, friendship and a feeling of belonging that provide true happiness, respect, and self-worth?

When Paul Getty Senior paid the ransom in All the Money in The World he facilitated the release of his injured and permanently traumatised grandson but didn’t buy happiness or heal damaged relationships – it takes breath and flesh to do that!

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The Gift of Story Creating Care And Compassion

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The Narrative Initiative

On the last day of the Gathering of Kindness Week Dr Lorraine Dickey, Neonatologist from The Narrative Initiative outlined her journey to explain the importance of

Understanding the story – focusing on care and compassion through narrative.

Lorraine is the founder and CEO of The Narrative Initiative and an Advanced Narrative Facilitator as well as being a neonatologist with experience leading a large Neonatal Intensive Care Unit in the USA.

She established The Narrative Kindness Project after she had a catastrophic ski accident and experienced the healthcare system as a patient. Her recovery was slow and arduous with three years of rehabilitation. After she was told she would never work as a physician again because of the traumatic brain injury she did an MBA in Health Care Management.

“She had the privilege of returning to the profession of medicine in 2004 though returning with a vastly different perspective… Armed with the new philosophy of Patient and Family- Centered Care she embarked on leading changes that truly matter to patients, their families, and healthcare staff.”

Health professionals don’t get special care when they’re sick – they have varied experiences like the general public. She changed direction and promoted self-care in the profession after getting burnt out with her new career and developing breast cancer.

She had to personally invest in the culture of self-care! Not necessarily just to be kinder to herself but to understand how it happens.

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“Lorraine works to bring people in health care together to address staff-identified barriers to providing high-quality health care experiences for patients, their families, and healthcare staff using research-based, published, facilitated narrative techniques.”

Some topics include:

  • resiliency,
  • the wounded healer,
  • compassion fatigue,
  • professionalism,
  • dignity therapy
  • principles of Patient- and Family-Centered Care.

Enhancing listening and communication skills through the use of personal story

In 2013, Lorraine entered a second Fellowship in Hospice & Palliative Medicine and now cares for babies and children with serious illness or life-limiting conditions, also their families, facilitating the alignment of parental goals of care and medical goals of care while also providing complex pain & symptom management.

“ It is critical to know what brings a person joy, both as a patient and as a parent. Family-centered care is honored when medical therapies match and enhance the goals a parent has for their child while helping them make decisions under the most difficult of circumstances. Physicians and other healthcare clinicians need to understand that providing therapies that match parental values and family culture IS providing good medical care. Practicing with this philosophy in mind supports what we as physicians got into this profession to do: Help someone do what they cannot do for themselves.”

Dr Lorraine Dickey

In 75 minutes we were given a taste of what is normally done at either a cafe workshop (12 participants) where people attend one or several sessions over a period of time or a half-day for larger groups with narratives focused around a topic of choice.

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The experience of care triggers a powerful biological response in the patient… and emotional memories of care last a lifetime.

Lorraine wanted the forum to address the barriers to kindness and develop ways to overcome them. She talked about communication as perceived by the listener and drew a pie chart showing  absorption was

  • 40% from the tone of voice
  • 55% from non-verbal actions (stance etc)
  • 5% verbal – the actual words spoken.

It is emotionally hard to fathom what is said if there is lack of tone and non-verbal indicators but to have people concentrate and remember what you are saying you must tone down actions and how you say it.

People are motivated to achieve certain needs and some needs take precedence over others.

 

Maslow hierarchy of needs
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

 

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a motivational theory in psychology comprising a five-tier model of human needs, often depicted as hierarchical levels within a pyramid. 

In a hospital situation, if you need the toilet, are hungry or traumatised, these needs will affect your listening skills. Plus ‘a difficult patient’ may not have coping skills.

The same will go for professional needs – often staff are tired, hungry and stressed.

  • Maslow shows emotion trumps logic every time.
  • People must learn to treat each other with respect.

In a hospital, it may be as simple as staff sitting down beside the patient or family member, not standing over and facing them. Staying calm and asking how the person is doing and remembering to use their name.

You cannot reach people’s logic if they are in pain.  When a patient is in pain, self-actualisation is their logic. Kindness lives in the love/belonging space.

Clinicians sometimes need to act to put patient welfare first even although they may be tired, worried and stressed themselves: 

‘I will smile’                  ‘I will be open-minded’

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People perceive acts of kindness differently.

You see someone in a wheelchair and you open the door for them, a natural instinctive courteous and kind act.

But what if the person in the wheelchair can open the door themselves or wants to exercise their independence? Instead, we should ask, ‘do you want me to open the door for you?’ or ‘would you like me to open the door?’

There are probably many kind acts of omission that are never recognised as such. For example, the doctor is ten minutes late and the patient doesn’t mention or complain about the lateness – and vice versa.

Efficient, effective communication happens when words and logic meet and both parties walk away understanding the same thing. We often don’t realise the collateral damage of our actions or our words.

The importance of writing

The act of writing makes us slow down. Writing gives form and shape to experiences that seem formless and shapeless, even chaotic. Writing helps us translate complex experiences into a form more easily grasped such as an obituary or eulogy.

While some participants are talented and accomplished writers it is important to note that these narrative sessions make use of informal writing.

  • Informal writing is not designed to be correct, artistic or accomplished in any special way.
    Informal writing is designed to capture the writer’s honest reaction to a significant experience.

The simple act of reading this type of informal writing aloud, word for word, to an interested and informed audience can itself be a powerfully validating experience.

Write Read Renew

We were given three minutes to write a personal experience of a kind act: spoken or physical gesture. It could be from a professional experience with a patient, their family member or a colleague or a kind act of omission.

This kind act that was either particularly difficult or challenging or alternatively uplifting or inspiring must then be read without changes to the person sitting beside us.

I shared my story with Angela, a Charge Nurse at the Austin Hospital.

My 3 Minute recollection of an Act of Kindness – written without editing:

When my Mother was dying, a nurse suggested we bring a quilt from home my sister had made to brighten the starkness of the bed sheets. I thought that a very kind suggestion amidst the grief of my very big family (six siblings plus partners and children) and friends crowding the room.

In the trauma of Mum dying in hospital, she realised we would have preferred to have her at home and went out of her way to encourage us to replicate some of that familiarity. She had previously arranged a bed for me to stay 24 hours with Mum.

Angela wrote about her daughter having an unplanned emergency causing Angela to leave work for some time. When she returned to work, staff had left flowers, chocolates and a welcome back card with kind words of support. She had no idea how they valued her up until then.

Angela and I discussed our feelings and the incidents we had written about in closer detail, which transformed us from being total strangers sitting at a table together to human beings with empathy for each other.

Empathy is about understanding each other’s needs and not just smiling sympathetically. It is emotional and thrives on good communication.

gathering of kindness forum

 

Several people shared what they had written with the whole room. Our excellent facilitator, Lorraine pointed out specific use of language and wording plus the images and tone of the narratives, as well as encouraging further exploration of the story.

The experience similar to what we do in my writing workshops and classes, especially Life Stories & Legacies

  • encouraging the getting it all down first,
  • the reading aloud,
  • close listening skills,
  • absorption of story
  • understanding of what the writer wants the reader to take away
  • what should be edited.
  • or added!

It can be painful writing about harrowing or life-changing experiences, particularly when it comes to illness and grief, but often these difficult stories are the important ones to share. You still feel the loss and pain, but it can be a therapeutic release and also help to enlighten others.

A story shared about a young woman’s brother who died of brain cancer was very moving. Her mother did not speak English and the doctor didn’t speak her language but despite a sad outcome, their empathetic relationship eased the pain. She talked of brain cancer ‘winning and an earthly miracle not realistic.’

Lorraine noted that winning is everything in medicine and society doesn’t like losers and often the language we use reflects this attitude.

Everyone appreciated how difficult that personal story was to tell and felt privileged and moved. The young woman’s tone of voice quiet and natural, the simplicity of words and detailed imagery mesmerising. We listened.

The stories made us feel connected to each other – and this is how I feel in my writing classes when people share stories of their life.

Lorraine then drew two columns and in a quick-fire room participation, people said what they thought were barriers to kindness and methods to overcome these barriers.

Perceived barriers:

  • not wanting to be kind, selfishness
  • overwork, overtired, and stress
  • ignorance and misunderstandings
  • lack of humility and bad manners
  • insecurity and task focused
  • burn out
  • vicarious trauma – disoriented
  • busyness and lack time
  • lack of training in how to respond
  • not connecting and/or fear of connection
  • inequity, and custom and practice
  • fear of how it will be perceived
  • pressure from being overwhelmed
  • arrogance
  • lack of a role model
  • friendship – wanting to belong and seeking saviour in silence
  • funding model – cut corners because of a shortage of time
  • not being able to forgive
  • the faker
  • cultural differences
  • not actively listening
  • lack insight
  • lack professional boundaries

Methods to overcome barriers:

  • modelling
  • be kind to staff
  • value and acknowledge kind acts
  • self-care
  • be a role model
  • celebrate the small stuff
  • accept feedback
  • value your people
  • reward kindness
  • pause and reflect
  • educate and model
  • value and celebrate difference
  • forgive and learn

gathering of kindness table deco

Lorraine pointed out there was a tiny origami crane among the flowers decorating each table and attendees could agree who takes it home – her act of kindness to us.

Angela asked if she could have it for her daughter and I said of course.

A small act of kindness at a critical point can have an unimaginable impact. Sometimes we need to be kind by breaking rules. Celebrate kind acts, not kind people, talk with, not to people.

What a wonderful day I had and I left with a challenge ringing in my ears:

Remeber to do something different – kindness to self and to the people around you. Bring joy and a giggle to life. 

Focus on what can be done, not what you can’t do.

What is Gathering of Kindness?

 Kindness matters.  There is a direct correlation between organisational negativity and staff wellbeing and effectiveness.  

 The Gathering of Kindness aims to redress this by building, nurturing and instilling a culture of kindness throughout the healthcare system.

 We bring together people from inside and outside the healthcare sector – actors, clinicians, artists, musicians and innovators – to imagine that kindness, trust and respect are the fundamental components of the healthcare system, and that bullying is unacceptable. We look for creative pathways to a more compassionate model of health care.

 This first public Gathering Of Kindness has encouraged the broadening of participation. I’ll pass on a challenge… Be kind and do random acts of kindness at home and at work.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018, is World Kindness Day

  • Smile at strangers and do kind things for them.
  • Give up your seat on the bus/train to someone else.
  • Buy someone a coffee.
  • Volunteer your time at the local op shop or some other charity.
  • Leave a kind note for someone or send an uplifting message.
  • Kindness should not only be reserved for our fellow human beings. Be kind to the animals and to the environment as well.
  • If you have children in your life, teach them the virtue of kindness by practising it in your daily life.

It truly can be a wonderful world.docklands panoramic