Motherhood, Love, & Purpose

mary anne and me December 2017.jpg

A Mother’s Day Reflection

mother and pie quote

I’m not sure what I expected from motherhood except that life would change – and that expectation has most definitely been met!

My daughters grew inside me and remain a part of me… I can’t imagine life without them but the person who taught me most about motherhood was my own mother – an amazing woman I will probably never stop writing about!

The older my children become, and as I age, the intensity of love for them deepens. I think of them every day, confirming the feelings and wisdom my own mother shared with me in the months before her death in 2009, aged eighty-nine.

She talked about her fears for my brother, George who was undergoing treatment for Leukaemia and said,

‘Loving and mothering is a lifetime responsibility – your children should never die before you. It’s not right.’

I have close friends who have lost adult children. They confirm the truth of Mum’s observation and I know each day for those friends getting up and coping with daily life is a struggle and testament to their resilience to ‘continue and carry on with life’ the way their loved ones would wish. The lead-up and actual celebration of days like today must be particularly difficult and my heart goes out to them.

‘She never quite leaves her children at home, even when she doesn’t take them along.’

Margaret Culkin Banning

When I decided to have a baby I was thirty-two and didn’t truly understand how profound becoming a parent would be personally or the effect on relationships with family, friends – and even strangers.

Born in the 1950s and part of Women’s Liberation in the late 60s and 70s, I was still expected to follow the ‘normal’ path of marrying and having children. It wasn’t my sole aim in life and I didn’t actively plan it but I went with the flow after meeting John and neither of us challenged the system, except I eschewed a white wedding and expensive reception and chose to marry in the garden of the house we bought together and party afterwards with many of the guests ‘bringing a plate’!

On reflection, I can say becoming a mother was the most exhaustive (and exhausting) change in my life – and continues to be – as long as my daughters and I remain intertwined.

I could write a lot about the picture of me in the early days of my daughter Anne’s homecoming – the congratulatory cards still visible, the dessert and glass of wine husband John prepared sitting untouched, me in an exhausted sleep all new mothers know well…

anne's birth 2

I salute my own mother for her guidance, values, and many examples of mothering. How she coped with six of us I will never know! I remember ringing her up and asking her once, after a particularly trying day with a baby plus toddler, ‘How are you still sane?

I know that the deep love and bond I had with her is one of the reasons a loving bond with my daughters came easily.

There are similarities and huge differences regarding how Mum and I parented but not in attitude and determination to be loving and loyal whenever needed. We were both extremely lucky to be with partners we loved (Mum had Dad and I had John).

Partners who wanted children and were supportive, partners unafraid to share the household chores and unglamorous aspects of parenting and in my case, I know, a partner who cherished me and never stopped showing it.

John had been married before and so to a certain extent ‘knew the ropes’ regarding parenting so I was lucky. Although being present at the birth of both our girls, a totally new experience for him just as having me, a feminist as a partner, also a new experience!

In this picture, we are pregnant and ecstatic.

joh and me when I was pregnant with Anne

Say, what is the spell, when her fledgelings are cheeping,
That lures the bird home to her nest?
Or wakes the tired mother whose infant is weeping,
To cuddle and croon it to rest?
For I’m sure it is nothing but Love!’

Lewis Carroll

Cheryl, now my ex-sister-in-law was a friend as well as part of the extended family in 1986. She produced the first of the next generation for our branch of the McInnes Clan in Australia in 1979 and the only ‘modern mum’ I’d observed firsthand.

She visited me in Jessie McPherson Hospital, Lonsdale Street, shortly after Anne’s birth. Into my ear, she whispered, ‘Welcome to the club.’

Her brown and my hazel eyes met as she squeezed my arm gently and with the still vivid memory of that miraculous moment when I held Anne to my breast for the first time, I knew exactly what she meant – becoming a mother, accepting the responsibility for another human being is transformational and understood by other mothers.

Vector Illustration of a happy multicultural group of cute swaddled babies

My first little ray of sunshine born after an emergency dash to Jessie Mac’s in Lonsdale Street at 3.00am, May 24, 1986.

John tailgated a taxi breaking the speed limit ( ‘they know the fastest route and where all the coppers and cameras are’ ). We hit no red lights and made the city in record time.

Three hours later Anne Courtney Neil arrived, three weeks earlier than expected but wide-eyed and ready to take on the world!

When I took Anne home from the hospital little did I know she had a hole in the heart – not discovered for almost twelve months, and then only by the extra diligence of a young doctor on work experience at the local clinic!

I still have cold sweats in the middle of the night when I think of the operation she had for ‘sticky-eye’ and a blocked tear duct when she was barely two months old, the eye specialist and the anaesthetist completely unaware of her heart condition.

There were the usual childhood accidents and illnesses too. The catastrophes that send mothers into a spin, fearful for the child’s wellbeing and welfare – Anne had no broken bones (Mary Jane delivered that excitement) but one day she bit hard and severed her tongue when she collided with a large wooden rocking horse.

I rushed to the local GP at the corner of Albert and McDonald Streets, in my slippers, wheeling five-year-old Anne in her sister’s pusher and carrying a protesting Mary Jane under my arm.

I’d stuffed a wet face-washer in Anne’s mouth to hold the tongue together and stem the bleeding (‘excellent response’ according to the doctor).

The trail of blood in the house and garden that greeted John when he rushed home after receiving a garbled message from his receptionist made him imagine a severed limb and he almost fainted. (The tongue does bleed profusely!)

However, he too praised my quick action racing to the surgery rather than ringing an ambulance or panicking. (That and delayed shock came later!)

Sometimes we amaze ourselves how we react and cope as parents.

pictures of mum and me me and mj

Mary Jane’s birth in 1989,  a more traumatic and dramatic story.

She arrived more than a week early and I barely got to Mordialloc Hospital in time for delivery sending the nursing staff into a flap. To this day she is known as ‘the baby born during the tea break’ arriving less than fifteen minutes after I walked through the front door.

John and Dr Ferguson arrived at the hospital just in time for delivery and I’m sure if there had been more traffic police on duty in those days, both would have been booked for speeding – perhaps even reckless driving.

Adding to the drama, Mary Jane breathed the meconium and amniotic fluid mixture into her lungs while in the womb and was born with the umbilical cord around her neck prompting a nurse to say, ‘Oh, she’s dead.’

The baby rushed to an incubator and the nurse reprimanded while everyone in the room paused for a moment taking stock of a miracle birth indeed! I went into shock and apparently kept asking John if I’d had a baby until they brought Mary Jane to me to be cuddled and fed!

 

Later, Mary Jane broke her arm in a ‘monkey bar’ accident at primary school but the seriousness of the fracture ignored by teachers who left her in Sick Bay while they tried to contact me or John and ‘ask what to do’ instead of taking her to a doctor or ringing an ambulance.

Our membership in the ambulance service and private health insurance on record and you can imagine the tongue lashing the administration of the school received from me.

Fortunately, a friend volunteering for reading duty noticed Mary Jane’s distress and demanded action; unfortunately, the delay and subsequent treatment at Sandringham public hospital during the upheaval of the Kennett years meant the arm was badly set and needed to be re-broken weeks later – this was done by a specialist at Como Hospital in Parkdale.

Sadly, Sandringham botched another operation when MJ was in her 20s, damaging her bowel when they discovered endometriosis during a routine operation to remove an ovarian cyst. Who says lightning doesn’t strike twice??

Often at night, I close my eyes and recall the horror of seeing my daughter with multiple tubes hanging from her young body. Flushed, in pain despite high doses of morphine, and unaware of the emergency operation, she murmured through an oxygen mask, ‘What happened?’

The déjà vu of the multiple traumas she has suffered weighs heavily on my heart. I have often wished for a magic wand to reverse the hurts or give my daughters the happiness and pain-free world of fairytales.

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Mother’s Day 1990

Motherhood exposes your deepest fears and inadequacies but it also helps you gain courage and grow – as Sophocles said, ‘Children are the anchors that hold a mother to life.’

Whenever my girls have been ill, in pain, troubled or suffering, I’ve wanted a magic wand to remove their misfortune or possess the ability to swap places and take away their discomfort. Instead, reality over fantasy,  I’ve ‘gone into bat’ for them and fought school and government authorities, bullies, and anyone else who needed to be held accountable.

Like a lioness, I will fiercely fight to protect and defend. These skills and determination I learnt from own mother – she may have been barely five foot tall but her love and commitment to all six of her children taught me to be courageous and resilient regarding caring and coping as a parent.

‘A mother’s love for her child is like nothing else in the world. It knows no law, no pity, it dares all things and crushes down remorselessly all that stands in its path.’

Agatha Christie

Motherhood indeed the most emotional and enlightened transformation for me. Everything I’ve read, shared, learnt and absorbed about other women’s experiences reveals none of our journeys is exactly the same or can be predicted.

There are similarities, but it is a unique life-changing event filled with joys and sorrows, calm and turbulent seas, problems and solutions, holding tight and letting go, embarrassing moments and moments of pride and satisfaction.

‘The heart of a mother is a deep abyss at the bottom of which you will always find forgiveness.’

Honore de Balzac

Around the world, mothers worry about their inadequacies, feel overwhelmed and many like me who became a single parent because our partner died carry guilt about not coping or spending enough time as the ‘default’ parent.

(John died when Anne was sixteen and Mary Jane thirteen – I think most will agree parenting adolescents is tough with two concerned parents, with one, I can assure you, it is challenging and at times very lonely!)

Frustration, financial stress, fear of failure or making mistakes – subjects often discussed between friends, family and in some cases counsellors.

Nurturing has never stopped from their early childhood…

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From miraculous beginnings to challenging responsibilities, navigating hopes and dreams, disasters and near misses, parenting has been rewarding, scary, comical, confronting, but most of all fulfilling.

My life has had a purpose and I’ve experienced and continue to experience a wonderful mutual love.

I am so lucky my girls as young women still want to visit and ‘hang out’ with me, travel together, see movies, play board games, walk the dog, shop, discuss and debate, laugh and even party with me.

They are friends as well as daughters, and often the nurturing role has been reversed – especially when I had breast cancer and now as I age and have lost some confidence about decision-making for the future.

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At the beginning of my writing career, at the launch of my first poetry book, I said children were the inspiration and reason I wrote and also the reason I didn’t write because motherhood is time-consuming.

Over the years, especially caring for John, I can substitute family instead of mothering but I wouldn’t really have life any other way. Loving and knowing John and our daughters have enriched me and made me the person I am today.

I hope I’ve helped add two more productive, caring citizens to the community. I’m grateful that feminism has wrought changes in society and many of the preconceptions about women and their destiny are no longer peddled – my girls have choices their grandmothers didn’t.

My Mum won a scholarship to college in Northern Ireland but her stepmother wouldn’t let her continue with study and ordered her out to work, then came WW2, the ATS and then nursing. Her stymied educational opportunities were what motivated Mum to encourage all six of her own children to study and seek suitable qualifications for what we wanted to be.

I was the first in my family to go to university and I only wish mum could have witnessed me returning to study at 57 years old and gaining a Masters degree in Writing and her two granddaughters earn Bachelor degrees.

season of our lives

Always my wish has been happiness and good health for both girls – to be whatever they want to be and find contentment and fulfilment in their choices.

We are so fortunate to live in Australia and have the privileges we do and I’m glad both daughters are aware they stand on the shoulders of those who have come before, that there are still hurdles to leap, and they will always strive to ‘go higher’ and seek equity for themselves and for so many others not as fortunate.

I am happy they will follow their mother as I followed my mother in fighting for social justice.

‘Youth fades; love droops, the leaves of friendship fall;
A mother’ s secret hope outlives them all.’

Oliver Wendall Holmes.

Happy Mother’s Day to all!

Love Close to Home is Great Therapy

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The benefits of having a pet are well documented, and if that pet is a dog, one of the benefits is fun. Love and loyalty can be added to the laughter!

I wrote earlier this year about having to farewell Aurora, our beloved dog for almost 14 years and since that sad day, we have missed her companionship, affection and unconditional love.

However, we needed space and time for deep grief and because I wanted to carry out some much-needed maintenance on the house, I set a tentative date for welcoming a new member of the household as the end of May. I didn’t want any new member of our family subjected to a lot of noise and having a daily dose of strangers/strangeness.

Of course, as Rabbie Burns told us all those centuries ago ‘the best-laid plans gang aft agley’.

Centrelink ‘lost’ my pension application and worried about dwindling savings, I put major renovations on hold, plus my daughters never missed a moment in reminding me how empty the house was without Aurora – not that I needed much reminding.

I can’t remember too many periods in my life where I have lived without a dog and even wrote a special post as a writing teacher reminding people to include stories about their pets when writing a memoir or life stories.

do not remove the red ball!
There are also cats looking for homes as well as dogs

SADS Saves Lives and Stands for NO KILL

Since 1985 SADS has saved thousands  of dogs and cats from being euthanised — and from day 1 worked towards change from a culture of killing  companion animals to a culture of saving them

SADS is an established leader of the no-kill movement — and successfully operate a Melbourne-based regional animal pound on a no-kill basis, demonstrating that a no-kill policy IS possible

SADS provides veterinary care for animals that are sick or injured — including palliative care for animals that still enjoy a good quality of life

In 2015, they saved 98.6% of dogs and 96.3% of cats. Many of these animals would not have been saved by other shelters.

The Yarrambat shelter is set on 33 acres of environmentally protected land with an existing permit for the holding of 190 dogs and 50 cats. It is fully owned by SADS and has enabled many more animals to be saved, cared for and rehabilitated whilst awaiting permanent adoption. However, the infrastructure is old and badly in need of redevelopment to provide better care for our animals and to comply with the code of practice for animal shelters. This property ensures that even the most traumatised and very large active dogs can be saved due to adequate resources.

Long Stayers

In accordance with the philosophy and operation of Save-A-Dog Scheme as a “no kill” animal welfare organisation SADS honours its charter and saves all animals, both companion and otherwise, which come into its care, with the unavoidable exception of a very small percentage of animals which are deemed dangerous and therefore cannot be returned to the community. This small percentage is accepted internationally as integral when using the term “no kill”.

This save rate leaves SADS with some dogs and cats which are homeable but which do have characteristics which makes them unsuitable for some homes and therefore they do stay with SADS for a long time waiting for that appropriate person/situation to come along.

We decided to visit SADS with a list of possible adoptees from the website profiles – a list I immediately, ignored once we started looking at the dogs – and they looked at us – every set of eyes pleading to be taken home!

I fell in love with Norbet and Dala – who wouldn’t?

 

Norbet, a two-year-old, German Wirehaired Pointer X with ” a lovely personality”.

true to his breed has boundless energy. He is searching for a home where his new human companion can channel that energy in the right direction with training and stimulation. He will not be a dog to leave at home alone all day and may live with another energetic medium size female. Norbet will be great fun and will certainly keep you well exercised! We are currently taking expressions of interest…

Dala, a two-year-old, Foxhound X Beagle “has the typical behaviour of a foxhound”.

she loves being with people but once a scent comes her way that becomes her main focus! She has a very dominant personality and will need AN ADULT HOME WHERE HER HUMAN COMPANION HAS EXPERIENCE WITH CANINE DOMINANCE. She cannot be left alone during the day as she will become bored and possibly destructive.

It just so happened they were the two most unsuitable pets for me. Physically, I couldn’t control Norbet, a part wolfhound and Dala’s ‘destructive tendencies’ when left alone were a worry.

The shelter is an amazing environment full of caring staff and volunteers and I know Norbet and Dala will be well-cared for by the staff even if the right home isn’t found but I still felt awful that I couldn’t take them.

We visited Stonnington on Thursday of last week and if we could, would have brought home a truckload of homeless dogs!

Unfortunately (or fortunately!), Margaret, the manager was delayed and we couldn’t do anything that day except observe the dogs in their kennels and chat to the volunteer staff who were most helpful.

The Stonnington Shelter received the Citizen of the Year Award for a Community Group – when you see the volunteers in action you can see why – bless each and every one of them!

There was a puppy we were interested in – Xena, plus a young male dog, Russell who apparently was super friendly to all dogs and had adopted Xena when she arrived.

However, when we returned on Sunday, Xena had already been adopted and removed that morning so Russell was in a cage by himself.

Russell
Russell

The Shelter is situated in an ideal position for dogs – right next to a dog-friendly park. Prospective owners take the dog for a walk supervised by a volunteer and then in an enclosed yard you can play with the dog off-leash.

The last ‘test’ is when volunteers bring out another dog and you can observe how your chosen dog reacts and socialises.

The aim is to ensure you know what dog you are taking home and the Shelter is as sure as they can be of canine and person compatibility.

When we returned to the Shelter on Sunday after a chat with the Manager we ‘park-tested’ several dogs.

The redesigned Tooronga Park was re-opened in 1992 after the construction of the South Eastern Arterial Road and Freeway. A plaque records that ‘redevelopment of the park was made possible by the invaluable contribution of a committee of local residents who assisted in the planning and council staff who implemented their ideas.’

Well done residents and well done Stonnington Council for listening and following through on their promise.

  • The play areas for toddlers and older children well-maintained and fenced so that dogs on or off leash will not be a problem.
  • There is shade, a basketball ring, a cricket practice cage and concrete paths and grassy areas.
  • There are rubbish bins to recycle and free bags for dog poo
Molly
Molly

The first dog we ‘road-trialled’ was Molly, a four-year-old Labrador with that “wonderful labrador nature.”

but she becomes very overexcited with very little stimulation! She is need of a lot of training and will not suit a home with small children as she is too boisterous. Her new human companion will need to be physically strong. Molly does not want to be left at home alone all day

Molly was adorable but very strong and although she would settle down after some training, I decided I couldn’t risk walking her on my own because of her strength and determination to reach another dog, even if it was on the horizon.

Friendly Russell (pictured above) was just that and he showed his love of sticks by picking one up and dropping it every few feet. But he was very attached to the lovely volunteer who was our guide – or perhaps it was knowing she kept treats in the bumbag around her waist!

We were taken with Russell, the three-year-old American Staffordshire Terrier X a “happy dog who enjoys the company of both people and other dogs.” His reference said,

He would probably like to live with an easy going female canine who likes to play. As with most of his breed, he will not settle in a situation where he is left alone all day.

After walking Russell, Mary Jane confided she had fallen in love with a puppy, Josie so we asked to take her for a walk too.

Josie a five-month-old (they think) Kelpie X Staffordshire Bull Terrier. She came to Stonnington via another pound and little was known about her history.

 

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Josie

Josie was like Aurora reincarnated.

I remembered Anne had said, ‘Mum, a dog will choose us.’ 

How true that prediction because from the minute we walked Josie, and while sitting with her in the Reception Area until the Manager was free to discuss her adoption, we were enraptured!

Josie snuggled up to each of us – the girls left to get a lead from the car and prepare the back seat, I dealt with the paperwork.

We weren’t the only happy family to adopt.

In the Shelter, there are several older dogs – ten years old, maybe older. I don’t know all their stories but often older dogs have to be adopted because their owner has become infirm or moved into care and they can’t keep their pet.

I felt sorry for the older dogs, many probably grieving a longterm owner but after losing Aurora, I didn’t want take on a dog in its twilight years – some of the dogs may only have two or three years left in their life cycle.

Maxwell 10 yrs old
Maxwell

How wonderful then, to see the perfect match for gorgeous little ten-year-old Maxwell, a wirehaired Jack Russell X who had recently arrived at the shelter and was still be assessed.

An elderly couple came in looking for a dog. The lady needed a walker and her aged husband walked slowly too. While we were walking Molly, we observed Maxwell strolling sedately, beside his prospective parents. Such a perfect match!

When we returned from the park with Josie, the elderly couple were leaving, the man’s smile like a sunburst.

‘You taking the little dog?’ I asked.

They both nodded. ‘He’s old like us,’ said the man,  ‘not sure how long he has but then we’re not going to be around too much longer either!’

‘I could see you’re made for each other,’ I said.

‘Yep, we’ll be back when he’s been given the okay by the vet.’

Harley

Harley, a four-month-old Staffordshire Bull Terrier X Border Collie was ‘bursting with youthful energy, enthusiasm and the desire to be in the middle of the action all the time!’

He tries very hard to please but finds it difficult to sit still for more than a couple of minutes! Harley would very much like to live with another active youthful medium size friend to keep him busy. He will need a more adult home.

A young couple came in with their Staffy to walk and play with Harley with the aim to adopt a companion for their dog – from what we observed Harley was a perfect match but because they lived in an apartment, I’m not sure the Manager of the shelter will approve.

They may be disappointed but I’m glad the shelter is strict about adoptions and put the needs of the animals first.

When we were given the okay, we were told that if for any reason it doesn’t work out, we must bring the dog back to them.

Our Perfect Match

The trip home with Josie in the car, incident free, even although we were warned that she came via another pound and they had no idea how she travelled in a car. ‘Prepare for her to be sick because she was fed recently…’

They also just removed her stitches from desexing.

However, she was the perfect, uncomplaining angel. No scrabbling about, no whining – she snuggled into Anne in the back seat, occasionally stretching her head to peer out the window or respond to clucky and lovey-dovey noises made by Mary Jane and me when the car stopped at traffic lights.

Josie was walked around the immediate neighbourhood after letting her investigate every corner of the backyard and ‘nook and cranny’ inside the house.

Almost immediately, she claimed our house as her home.

We have adopted again and are gloriously happy – thank you SADS – a song from childhood springs to mind:

If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands

If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands!

If you’re happy and you know it, then you really ought to show it;

If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands!

You then include other actions like stamp your feet… nod your head… turning around…

We did the lot!!

Josie, our new canine companion the best therapy anyone could wish for and here’s to daily ‘happy dances’ as we grow older together!

Today, April 23, is Lover’s Day

A day to celebrate your significant other and let them know how much they mean to you. While the origin of Lover’s Day is a mystery, some sources believe that the unofficial holiday is based on St. George’s Day, a religious holiday celebrated in many parts of Europe.

It doesn’t actually say that ‘your significant other’ must be human.

I’m sure for many people, their pet gives and receives love and is the relationship valued as being the most meaningful.

Josie is now a ‘significant’ partner in my life and considering the horrific news from recent tragedies – whether it be Sri Lanka or Mozambique – I am deliriously happy to have her comforting and loving body sprawled beside me on the couch or walking beside me along the street.

The world would be a more loving and accepting place if we were like our pets – they don’t see our imperfections and their devotion awesome!

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Josie dozing while I watch ‘Vera‘!

 

Underground – an exploration of what lies beneath the surface of a war hero

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Nancy Wake, WW2 Hero

On Thursday night, I attended Underground, a play at the Shirley Burke Theatre, Parkdale – a great venue within walking distance of my home in Mordialloc, but also opposite the Parkdale Railway Station.

When I arrived home, I couldn’t wait to share the experience with my daughter.

‘What a wonderful evening! It made me glad to be a writer – so inspiring. An original interpretation… makes me want to write… keep trying different ways of telling great stories!’

‘Glad you’re so happy, Mum. Obviously, much better than your last experience,’ Mary Jane observed.

Yes, I’ve reached the stage where if I don’t like a play or film, or a book, I don’t force myself to see it through to the end and a couple of months ago, my friend Lisa and I walked out of the same theatre at the interval.  We preferred sharing a coffee and chatting to returning for the second half!

‘Indeed,’ I answered, ‘but… this production was clever, well-acted, and focused. A fantastic retelling of a powerful story about a truly heroic and intriguing woman – who so many people don’t know anything about – you included!’

underground ticket 1.jpgunderground promo.jpg

A Great Night At The Theatre A Much-needed Injection Of Joy

With my own writing in the doldrums, it was a change to feel happy and invigorated about writing. I wanted to talk about the story, the production, presentation, the acting, the stagecraft …

There is a wonderful feeling of elation when you watch a play or a film and it affects you that way. Just like the satisfaction of finishing a good book or short story.

You relish the experience, wish it hadn’t ended, want to prolong the ideas, emotions, and memories stirred. You’re ready for a discussion or to revisit a second show, a replay or reread.

There is no mystery as to why book clubs, and film and theatre appreciation groups thrive.

I missed out getting a copy of the programme – they ran out – but the lady next to me retrieved her folded copy from her bag and I snapped a shot with my phone camera.

The eclectic list of supporters thanked is interesting and indicative of the importance of this work in the wider community as well as the art world.

  • Professor Graeme Wake, a distant relative of Nancy who had joined efforts to see her honoured by New Zealand, said her death was a sad day for the country.
  • Anthony Crowley, multi-award-winning playwright
  • Michael Brindley, writer Stage Whispers
  • The Hon Tim Fischer, retired politician, leader of National Party 1990-1999
  • Uschi Felix -a versatile actress professionally trained in Germany and Australia
  • Josh Burns Labor candidate for the new Federal seat of Macnamara
  • Marisa Cesario, Programming Coordinator at Gasworks Arts Parks
  • Tamara Jungwirth, Director and CEO of Gasworks Arts Park

The Writer, Christine Croyden’s Note

Nancy Wake (1912-2011), now as The White Mouse (die Weisse Maus) left Sydney for Paris at eighteen and became a celebrated WW2 spy. She was one of only thirteen female special agents to survive the war.

My interest in her story began in 2015 when I wrote the book and lyrics for a musical The White Mouse, licensed by DSP in Sydney. In 2017, I spent six months as a resident with a theatre company in Paris where my interest in the French resistance and the German Occupation of France reignited. During this time I wrote Underground.

I describe it as a hallucinatory view of Nancy’s life.

Nancy was never keen on anyone messing with her story and hated all films, TV series and almost everything that was ever written about her, so I doubt she’d like my play.

However, I hope the small grains of truth contained within this fictionalised drama illuminate her complexity. Nancy Wake was (and still is) often referred to as a ‘difficult woman’.

She was not recognised for her efforts during WW2 in Australia until very late in her long life, despite her bravery and the admiration of the French for her contribution to their Resistance and subsequent Liberation.

In a culture where we are finally beginning to recognise women for what they do rather than how they look or behave, I feel Underground has something to say.

Christine Croyden, February 2019.

portrait of Nancy Wake

The above portrait is a rare picture of Nancy wearing some of the honours she received:

  • The George Medal,
  • 1939-45 Star,
  • the France and Germany Star,
  • the Defence Medal,
  • the British War Medal 1939-45,
  • the Croix de Guerre with Palm and Bar,
  • the Croix de Guerre with Star,
  • the US Medal for Freedom with Palm
  • the French Medaille de la Resistance
  • and she is an Officer of the Legion d’Honneur.

Underground has a lot to say and the execution by superb actors – especially Margot Knight – was impressive.

The technique of having an aged Nancy reflect on her life just before another ceremony lauding her war service, and having other actors portray the flashbacks on stage, sometimes with the older Nancy interacting, worked extremely well.

Margot Knight stayed in character throughout – her slower movements, facial expressions and word delivery never faltered. She was Nancy!  Her memories a bit addled from age, grief, and her love of Gin, but with such clear and believable delivery.

Nancy Wake was in her 99th year when she died. Her life before, during, and after the war could fill volumes.

Christine Croyden’s attempt to capture the essence of this complicated human being deserves high praise.

The ‘White Mouse’ helped countless people escape death and torture in Occupied France. On the Nazi’s ‘Most Wanted’ list she earned the moniker White Mouse because of her elusiveness. after effective operations against the enemy.

When she managed to escape to England she trained as a spy and was parachuted back into danger despite knowing the consequences if she was caught. Her French husband, Henri was tortured and murdered by the Nazis.

Nancy earned the reputation of being strong mentally, physically and emotionally – legend has her killing a man with her bare hands and executing a German agent by shooting her in the back of the head.

Underground tells us the highlights of Nancy’s life focusing mainly on the WW2 era and the drama is enhanced by song and choreography.

The story of Nancy Wake’s exploits as spy and hero are well-documented with several online links containing excellent detail. There is some repetition and the usual discrepancies regarding dates and other information because most of the articles reflect the paucity of resources available.

Everyone agrees that for a very long time Nancy Wake was ignored/neglected in a way no male war hero ever suffered.

Nancy Wake on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nancy_Wake

Nancy Wake – the girls who spied: https://www.abc.net.au/radio/programs/fierce-girls/nancy-wake-the-girl-who-spied/9485892

Nancy Wake OA – Education Services Australia: https://www.civicsandcitizenship.edu.au/cce/nancy_wake,17565.html

Nancy Wake, A larrikin and a hero: http://www.convictcreations.com/history/nancywake.htm

National Portrait Gallery – Capturing TheMouse
Nancy Wake – The White Mouse, 2001 by Melissa Beowulf: https://www.portrait.gov.au/magazines/13/capturing-the-mouse

My Mother was a huge fan of telling the stories of women’s contribution because she felt ‘herstory’ important. It was Mum who bought me a book on Joan of Arc, The Maid of France, the French author Collette and Nancy’s book which was first released in the 1980s. Mum encouraged me to read widely and seek the untold or rarely told stories.

I read the autobiography and later when studying at university, bought a biography written in 1956 about Nancy by Russell Braddon who had been a POW of the Japanese. A prolific author, he suffered a mental breakdown several years after the war, which doctors attributed to his war experiences.

The effect of trauma and the horrendous violence people witness and become part of during a war and how it may change your attitude and personality, and most certainly your outlook on life is explored in Underground. 

The stresses and effect of the journey of other characters and their relationships with Nancy included.

However, it is the price Nancy paid for her courage and persistence and the price she saved others from paying that you think about long after the play is over.

There was a TV series starring the brilliant Noni Hazelhurst as Nancy a few years ago too and a couple of documentaries worth following up.

Why Do We Do What We Do?

That question of WHY concerning human behaviour is difficult to answer and because all of us are complex with varying degrees of experiences, different backgrounds and perspectives with various wants and needs, it is an eternal conundrum to be explored.

The ‘human condition’ a topic most writers of every genre are drawn to explore.

To dissect, and attempt to understand… Scottish poet, Rabbie Burns said, ‘the moving why they do it‘… It may be an unanswerable question.

… To step aside is human:

One point must still be greatly dark,

The moving Why they do it;

And just as lamely can ye mark,

How far perhaps they rue it…

from Address to the Unco Guid, or the Rigidly Righteous by Robert Burns

Christine Croyden has succeeded in tackling that bastion of male stories – heroism during wartime, with Underground. Succeeded shedding a little light on the motivation of Nancy Wake and her legacy.

The Allied authorities acknowledged Nancy’s exuberant spirits and physical daring but thought she was just ‘good for morale’ whereas the men and women on the ground who saw her in action formed a different opinion.

“She is the most feminine woman I know until the fighting starts. Then she is like five men.”

one of Nancy’s WW2 comrades she Captained

It is a contemporary play with a powerful beginning which gives a nod to Nancy’s New Zealand roots when the aged Nancy performs the Māori haka – a memorable visual feast.

A creative way of declaring her birthplace and links to a proud warrior race plus the profound links between Australia and New Zealand through the commemoration of ANZAC.

Nancy’s pre-war career as a journalist is used to good effect too and employing poetic licence we hear Nancy describe the horrific events of the 1938 Kristallnacht while recounting her experience of going to Vienna in 1933 to interview Adolph Hitler.

Nancy witnessed the ill-treatment of the Jewish population and the emotional rendition by Margot Knight leaves you in no doubt why Nancy dedicated her life to fighting the Nazis.

The playwright has drawn on all the available information but Margot Knight gives us insight into the horror’s effect on a young Nancy who wrote about her visit to Vienna.

“The stormtroopers had tied the Jewish people up to massive wheels. They were rolling the wheels along, and the stormtroopers were whipping the Jews. I stood there and thought, ‘I don’t know what I’ll do about it, but if I can do anything one day, I’ll do it.’ And I always had that picture in my mind, all through the war.”

Nancy Wake went on to become the Allies’ most decorated servicewoman, eventually collecting bravery awards from France, England, Australia and the United States.

In answer to being overlooked, she said of Australian authorities, ‘they can stick their award and be thankful it’s not a pineapple’.

Australia was slow to acknowledge her contribution but New Zealand is still to officially acknowledge their ‘daughter’ despite the efforts of a relative Professor Graeme Wake.

Professor Wake who met up with Nancy in 1990 said:

When I met her she was always adamant she was a New Zealander, she kept her New Zealand passport right through to when I met her and I believe beyond…

She never lived much of her life in New Zealand and left as a small child, when she was taken by her parents to Australia and hardly came back…

I believe she made one fleeting visit as a youngster to see her father before she went to Europe …

She was a forthright person, very direct on her views, clear on her views.  You knew exactly where you stood with her… a toughness of spirit which you can only admire.  

So Many Stories Still to be Told

Other Nancy quotes:

I hate wars and violence, but if they come I don’t see why we women should just wave our men a proud goodbye and then knit them balaclavas.’

‘I got away with blue murder and loved every minute of it.’

She is also reported to have said she hoped to go down in history as the woman who turned down 7,000 sex-starved Frenchmen! 

Perhaps her personality and attitude came from a tough early life when her journalist father returned to New Zealand deserting his wife and six children.

She was certainly no shrinking violet or demure lady often portrayed as the norm.

Nancy was a nurse in Australia during the early 1930s but harboured dreams of a different life and when she inherited money from an aunt left for Europe as soon as could be arranged.

What would her life have been like if no world war?

Nurse, ambulance driver, journalist, spy, commando, war hero, would-be politician…

Underground is a great play but it sparks interest and shines a light on a host of other stories deserving to be told about Nancy and many others from that era.

The play is an inspiration for telling stories in an entertaining and memorable way and I hope it returns to Kingston and more people take the opportunity to see it.

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A Week When Words And Actions Mattered and Yet I Couldn’t Write…

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What happened in Christchurch last Friday was so horrific, it is difficult to express in words. Sorrow, a lump of marble pressing on my heart.

I can sympathise and empathise but any personal response to such a violent, hateful act seems totally inadequate.

Paralysis almost instantaneous – horror seems to happen a lot, news of violence and terror of varying scales, reported on every media platform but this time because it was multiple deaths close to home, it seemed to hurt more.

I’ve known grief but can’t imagine the immense suffering of the dead and injured in the shootings at the Al Noor Mosque and the Linwood Islamic Centre in Christchurch, and the effect on the wider Islamic community.

The process of writing and friends in the writing community, along with close family, have always been a solace – being able to write a way of working through trauma towards healing.

However, in the last few days, an inner voice and feeling of fatigue told me writing is pointless in the face of so much hate, violence and ignorance because the people who hold such angry and irrational views won’t read or care what I write.

Perhaps expressing how I feel will not be helpful.

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However, in recent days, along with expressions of shared grief and love, there has been acknowledgement and reflection that hatred and extremism do not operate in a vacuum.

There have been thousands of words spoken and written by others expressing the belief that in private and public conversations we can, and indeed must, do better, unless we want to see a repeat and even an escalation of atrocities.

The more of us who publicly support those who need it and condemn the aggressors and hate-mongers, the better.

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We can watch our words – think before we speak because the childhood rhyme of  “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” although well-meaning is patently untrue for the many people who suffer abuse and vilification every day because of their colour, ethnicity, sexual orientation, race, religious faith, country of origin or socioeconomic status. 

Society seems too ready to marginalise groups of people and too slow at being inclusive and kind.

We can modify behaviour – our own definitely,  but also encourage others to be kinder and more welcoming – and many people do. Participating in Harmony Day celebrations is a good start but there are many organisations and events available throughout Australia.

We can all reach out and promote peace and goodwill.

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Christchurch 2019
Mairi Neil

Friday’s Breaking News
a barrage of bullets…

Broken bodies
Shattered lives
Crushed dreams
Broken hearts

The terrorist filmed his ranting rampage
to maximise hatred and fear
stunned we recoiled in horror
but amid the shock
recognition and reflection…

Who made the bullets he fired?
Who marginalised and vilified
the targets of this cowardly attack?
Who formed, repeated and spread
words of hate seeking to fracture
and divide humanity?

Thoughts and prayers are not enough

The Scales of Justice seesaw
Responsibility     Guilt                  Shame
Tolerance           Acceptance        Love

Belonging must be felt
and welcoming arms outstretched.

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World history and experience proves the power of words. That’s why manifestos are issued by demigods, tyrants, megalomaniacs and political parties of every persuasion.

Words of philosophy and faith with the aim of spreading tolerance and peace can be uplifting and healing but words can be dangerous if used to deceive by spreading misinformation, bigotry and reinforcing harmful stereotypes.

Writers must take responsibility and consider who will read our words even although we can’t control how a reader interprets what we write.

Some may argue that rules and responsibility are for those writing about and reporting facts –

  • researchers must cast their net wide and gather as much information as possible to appear balanced,
  • journalists must differentiate between report and opinion,
  • academic language and style should not be emotive, biased or inflammatory.

I believe creative writers have a responsibility too. I may not always get it right but I try to be balanced when writing characters and situations, try to avoid creating or perpetuating harmful stereotypes whether sexist, racist, or ageist.

I make efforts to continually educate myself about different cultures aware that we live in a multi-cultural country.

Ten Questions to Ask When Writing Characters

  1. Whose voices will you include?
  2. Whose voices will you ignore or leave out?
  3. What messages or ideas are dominant?
  4. Will you explore or consider alternative ideas to the mainstream?
  5. How do you portray people of different races?
  6. Are you reinforcing or undermining racial stereotypes?
  7. What roles are you assigning to male and female characters?
  8. Are you reinforcing or undermining gender stereotypes?
  9. Will you write about or relate to contemporary issues?
  10. If representing certain beliefs about people and the world are you doing it honestly?

I’ve posted before about the power of books to move me from my comfort zone. Novels have enlightened and influenced me. Stories can reveal inequity and injustice and counter hatred and ignorance. They can nurture empathy and transform tolerance into acceptance.

Reading books from other cultures and about other cultures should be encouraged from a young age.

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Poster from Scholastic Books for Book Week 1992

This post has been difficult to write and the images and detail of what happened in Christchurch will not be forgotten. They will be compartmentalised like other horrific examples of ‘Man’s inhumanity to man’.

Conversations have started at the highest levels of government to ACT and stop the demonisation of particular religious and ethnic groups and to recognise the harm done under the banner of ‘freedom of speech’.

I’m glad world leaders have promised to do something about limiting the reach or forcing corporations to take responsibility for the social media tools accessed and used to spread messages of hate, division and violence.

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And if there is anyone who does not think Islamophobia is not harmful I can relate three examples close to my home and family:

  • On Friday night, two women who work with one of my daughters caught the tram home. This was a few hours after the shootings in the Christchurch mosques. They were women of colour and a white male sitting across from them shaped his hand into a gun, pointed, and pretended to fire twice.

Shocking as this may seem, this is one of many incidents they have had to deal with over the years. Most of their life they have lived under the hysteria and abuse ‘justified’ by 9/11 and the War on Terror. Rarely do passersby intervene, help or support the victims.

My daughter’s friends stopped reporting incidents to the police because, despite the probability of camera footage and even witnesses, the police are not interested or put any follow up in the too hard basket.

  • My other daughter stays in touch with a university friend who happens to wear a hijab. The friend’s Facebook posts heart-rending when she notes, ‘It was a good day today, I was only spat on once.’

If this is happening in Melbourne, the world’s most liveable city, and Australia, the lucky country, believe it when public figures tell you they knew it was only a matter of time before there was a massacre like the Christchurch shootings.

  • On Saturday evening, my daughter was having dinner in a restaurant in Balaclava. When she looked out of the window, she saw a man abuse and grab a Jewish passerby, shove him against the wall and try and grab his Kippah from his head. She jumped up and ran outside but an employee stopped her at the door and said, ‘I’ll go.’ A woman from a nearby shop also went to the victim’s aid. No other diner moved to help and people in the street stared or scurried by.

The rise of anti-semitism is well documented and in the East St Kilda neighbourhood where my daughter lives Swastikas have been daubed on synagogues, schools, shops and fences.

We have said sorry to our First People but there is still not a widespread acknowledgement that this land was invaded and founded on genocide. The Uluru Statement from the Heart was rejected by Prime Minister Turnbull and the current Prime Minister has not changed policy.

Aboriginal Australians know all about abuse, vilification, stereotyping, and marginalisation and yet they have often been the first ones to welcome refugees and migrants into the community.

Whatever actions authorities and all of us take, I hope it is not too little too late.

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

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

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

Empathy

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

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

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

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

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

Wikipedia entry

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

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

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

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

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

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Mt Suilven Scotland – Wikipedia

A Positive Ageing Story

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

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

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

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

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It is ‘Herstory’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nancy is too hurt and stunned to have sympathy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Generation Gap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Triggered Memories of My Mountain Climbed

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

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approaching The Storr

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wikipedia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

kindness is free

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

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

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

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

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

card from vet

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

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

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

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

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

Mornings
Mairi Neil

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Happy now?’ I grumble.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Aurora.jpeg

Writing about pets:

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Three weeks!?’

Pets generate lots of stories! …

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Aurora – the Roman Goddess who liked to chew

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tinsel Aurora

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She trusted me with her signed copy.

You will have worked out where the story is heading…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Mairi, are you okay?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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a lovely message and flowers from daughter number one

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Others bloomed, thank goodness.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Albert Street, Mordialloc

Mairi Neil

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

bless garden sign

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Walking the Neighbourhood

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

shoes for chronic pain

A Walk Down Memory Lane
Mairi Neil

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

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

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

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

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

Of what?

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

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

 

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.

a duck in Mordi Creek.jpg

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.

Mordi Creek bridge.jpg

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!

seagull looking at reflection Mordi.jpg

Christmas Joy Not Humbug!

Mordi pier.jpg

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.”

haiku - owl.jpeg

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.’

a vision of hope verse.jpg
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.”

flowers in vase.jpg

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…

faith verse.jpg

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…

haiku abandoned shell.jpg

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.

sunset glow.jpg

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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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 

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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.

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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.

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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’.

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 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.

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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.

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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’.

peace is essential

“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.

sculpture war finish.jpg
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!