Ducks and Albatrosses Down Under

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

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

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

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Serenity Writing Exercise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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John’s Story Forever Linked to Stony Point

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘What kind of birds are they Dad?’

‘They’re ducks, son.’

‘No they’re not.’

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

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

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

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

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And this is a pelican –

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Pelicans – symbols of mutual aid and love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Pelican’s Paparazzi
Mairi Neil

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Anne and me with French island ferry in the background 2018

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

Love for More Than One Place

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Christmas Joy Not Humbug!

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The Twelve Days of Christmas

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to the ‘Twelve days’ …

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

wild woman and christmas message

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

What would Christmas be without a wee miracle?

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

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

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

We scored a candy cane before they entered the lift!

cate with hospital volunteers

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

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

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

my pink-red rose.jpgChristmas Catch-Ups

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

bulleen peace park

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

 

New Acquaintances Not Forgot

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

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

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

book cover from Japan

Serendipity!

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

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

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

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

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

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

He was 24 years old and in his prime.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I also felt tears coming to my eyes…

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

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

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

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

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From a card I bought in Oban, Scotland

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

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

An Epiphany

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Power of  Spiritual Awakening

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John’s response, “Prove it!”

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

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

He answered, “No problem for me.”

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

The Joy of Reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the Hallway
Hoshino Tomihiro (February 20)

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

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

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

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

Something did not make sense…

CROWN-OF-THORNS
Hoshino Tomihiro

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

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

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Flowers Helped Him Bloom

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

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

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

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

CHRYSANTHEMUMS
Hoshino Tomihiro

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

COLUMBINES
Hoshino Tomihiro

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

sunflowers in vase.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I love this poem he wrote  –

poem 1

and this honest observation:

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

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

Dokudami (Houttuynia)
Hoshino Tomihiro

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

Your flowers
Look just like white crosses.

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

HOUTTUYNIA CORDATA
Hoshino Tomihiro

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

A book can be the gift that keeps on giving.

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

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Can Poetry Promote Peace and Creativity Challenge Politicians Effectively?

Lake Burley Griffin Canberra

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

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

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

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

Six Excuses Not To Write

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

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

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

I hope he reads them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poppies At Melbourne’s Shrine of Remembrance

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are you looking for a relative?

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

Wait a moment and I’ll get the key…

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

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

Everyman Exhibition

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

In 2005, he wrote:

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

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

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

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

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

EVERYMAN
Siegfried Sassoon


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

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

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

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

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

Actions designed to divide rather than unite.

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

leunig cartoon

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

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

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

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

Reconciliation-5-themes.png

Will We Ever See A War to End All Wars?

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

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

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

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

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

Michael Franti

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

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

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

DULCE ET DECORUM EST
Wilfred Owen 

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

patriotism sculpture.jpg

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

romes delusions of grandeur

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

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

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

Joshua Bernstein
Lost In The Fog

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

recruitment poster

GREEN FIELDS OF FRANCE 

Eric Bogle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ANTHEM FOR DOOMED YOUTH
Wilfred Owen

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

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

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

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

world peace bell 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

peace-symbol-vector

Imagine

Mairi Neil

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

Music and lyrics combined to make the song moving and memorable

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

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

Individual countries, cultures, nationalities, religions, powerful elites

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Dreaming and desiring the impossible…  

 

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

Religious fundamentalists and fanatics insist

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

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

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

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

peace-symbol-vector flip

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

single poppies.jpg

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

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

Dear Mum and Dad
Mairi Neil 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

download.jpg

 

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

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

AUNT KITTY poem.jpg

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

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

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

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

Parliament House, Canberra

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

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Answers to frequently asked questions about the Poppy project.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Placing my knitted poppy beside Uncle George’s name.

1918-2018: 5000 POPPIES – A TRIBUTE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Golgotha
Siegfried Sassoon

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

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Sculpture of Barbarian, Rome Exhibition Canberra

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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soldiers Afghanistan

A Poetic Honour
Bill Charlton, (2013)


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

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

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

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

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

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Sculpture “Unforgiven”

Sleep
George Mansford, (September 2016)


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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sculpture – Finish

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

In Flanders Fields
John McCrae

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

The Unknown Australian Soldier

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank Goodness For Community Initiatives

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

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

TOKU 2010 by artist Shinki Kato born 1955

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

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

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

 

The Pen Mightier Than The Sword

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

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

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

Among the dedications:

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

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

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

 

Purpose, Perspiration, Persistence – the Path to Publication!

 

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The above quote could be my mantra – I find joy in writing and teaching others to be confident writers.

  • Teaching others the various ways they can tell their stories.
  • Encouraging them to play with words until they find the right ones for whatever it is they are writing.
  • To move out of comfort zones, celebrate who they are and the life they have lived.
  • Write their legacy in whatever style they want, whether prose or poetry, fiction or fact, or a combination of both in creative non-fiction.

In the lessons, I prepare for my writing classes memories of my own surface along with an impetus to rediscover and rework writing from years gone by – in some cases discover prose and poetry I’d forgotten.

I often shake my head with bemusement or amazement and think: Did I write that? 

Forgetfulness – is it ageing or Alzheimer’s!!?

I’ll join the millions of others who Google and share a meme discovered because it suits!

forgetful quote

I know it is not de rigour to compliment yourself and I’ve always found it difficult to be self-promoting – it is much easier to promote anthologies that include other writers or the works of writer friends.

However, what a wonderful surprise this week to exchange emails with Matilda Butler, an amazing woman in the United States who helped me gain the confidence to tell my stories and make the first foray into online publishing in 2010!

Other stories followed on the website set up by Matilda and her friend and fellow editor, Kendra Bonnett: WomensMemoirs.com

And then three were chosen for a series of Kindle books in 2015, and these books have now been redesigned and published the traditional way.

Greetings to You…An Author in Seasons of Our Lives 

As one of the award-winning authors in the Seasons of Our Lives anthologies, I have exciting news for you. I invite you to join WomensMemoirs.com in celebrating the publication of paperback versions of the SEASONS OF OUR LIVES. The four volumes (SPRING, SUMMER, AUTUMN, WINTER) are filled with the best, the most inspiring award-winning stories — including yours.

The Kindle version generated a great deal of interest, book awards, rave reviews, bestseller status on Amazon, and we anticipate the paperback version will be equally popular — as well as providing you with the opportunity to let friends and family have their hands on your story.

Will you help us congratulate you and all the other award-winning memoir authors in these volumes by getting the word out about the new paperback version of these stories?

Many of your sister authors requested that these Kindle books be brought out in paperback. It definitely was a good idea, but life gets to be busy, much too busy.

In addition to regular blogging, writing, creating a new series of videos on Marketing, Publishing, and Writing (10+ hours of content to be announced in the coming weeks), and creating new products for our etsy.com stores, we found that it took more time than anticipated to create smart-looking volumes that you would be proud to own and give. These four volumes are finally available. 

These memoir anthologies won seven book awards, and stayed on the Kindle bestseller list for more than a week. A real success story.

Since that time, these stories have continued to resonate with readers across the US and many countries and are now also used by memoir teachers and coaches. These stories are not only inspirational. They are also exemplars of memoir writing.

We’re all modern women and like digital technology. BUT there is still something special and satisfying about holding a book in your hands, enjoying a story, setting it aside on the coffee table where it lands with a thud rather than a ping, and returning the next day to read more.

From May 14 – June 15, Seasons of our Lives – Spring, Summer, and Autumn are specially priced at just $9.97 on Amazon and the fourth season, Winter, is priced at $10.97. On June 16, these volumes increase in price to $11.97 and $12.97 respectively.

The email resonated with me!

Call me old-fashioned but to hold the hard copy in my hand was more thrilling than having a digital copy on my computer and I thank Matilda and Kendra for all their hard work making that dream a reality for the women whose stories are showcased in the four anthologies.

The links to the printed books are:

Seasons of Our Lives: Spring      https://amzn.to/2KklLXN
Seasons of Our Lives: Summer   https://amzn.to/2HWoSXq
Seasons of Our Lives: Autumn     https://amzn.to/2HUEGtH
Seasons of Our Lives: Winter       https://amzn.to/2KlyXLN

yellow rose with Helen keller quote

Writing In Tune With The Seasons

Ironically, I was in the process of searching what I had written about winter to prepare for lessons and discovered the story about my mother published in the series of Kindle books about the seasons.

And then Matilda’s email arrived…

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SEASONS OF OUR LIVES: WINTER includes 33 memoir vignettes and takeaways to get you thinking about your life, and perhaps writing your own stories. Five of these stories include a treasured family recipe along with the story and tell us of the scents of winter.

The mini-lessons that follow each award-winning story cover many of the topics important in memoir writing such as:

  • creating a memoir title,
  • crafting a powerful opening,
  • linking openings and closings,
  • choosing a powerful point of view,
  • incorporating sensory details for reader engagement,
  • adding character descriptions,
  • showing (not telling) emotions,
  • using dialogue effectively,
  • understanding how time and place can be used in tandem or as stand-alone elements,
  • making word choice a priority,
  • discerning the different impacts of present versus past tense,
  • considering vignette topics to write about,
  • choosing between letting the reader figure out the story behind the story or spelling out all the details,

And much more!

IMG_5917.jpgI was fortunate to meet Matilda and her husband Bill when I went to the USA in 2012 and we spent a lovely day together as they showed me Portland, Oregon.

Although we are almost down to the ‘Christmas” staying-in-touch category I value their friendship and the happy memories we shared.

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Seasons Of Our Lives – memoir for everyone

The stories in the four volumes will charm, intrigue, captivate and inspire you because they speak of and highlight all our lives with details of :

  • childhood,
  • coming of age,
  • adulthood, and
  • ageing

At the same time, the memoir vignettes encompass:

  • passion,
  • friendship,
  • love,
  • sacrifice,
  • betrayal,
  • disappointment,
  • survival, and even
  • unexpected joy

The stories tell of lives intersecting with history, profiling ordinary yet extraordinary experiences unique to the authors – and at their core, they tell of all our lives.

Seasons of Our LivesSpring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter include more than 100 award-winning true stories. They’ll make you laugh. Cry. Feel joy. Experience sorrow.

I have stories in three of the books: Spring, Autumn and Winter.

Rereading them in print was exciting but reading Matilda and Kendra’s critique and  “take-away” advice after all the stories an insightful and inspirational addition to the value of the book, not just as a memento but as a teaching tool.

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The Writer’s Path

I never envisaged that my story would win any writing competition run by WomensMemoirs.com nor did I think them good enough to be chosen for the book series – first Kindle publishing now traditional…

… the path to publication certainly does involve having a purpose (what will we write about?) perspiration (all those hours of writing, rewriting, editing and rewriting) and persistence (for every story sent somewhere you add to your pile of rejections!).

The Editor & Publisher’s Path

Matilda Butler and Kendra Bonnett have co-authored several books together:

  • Rosie’s Daughters: The “First Women To” Generation Tells Its Story – a collective memoir
  • Writing Alchemy: How to Write Fast and Deep – a manual to improve your writing
  • Tales of Our Lives: Fork In The Road
  • Tales of Lives: Reflection Pond

Kendra is a blogger, has ghostwritten several books, is a marketing executive who develops marketing materials for corporations, and a speaker and memoir coach.

Matilda is a psychologist, blogger, online and in-person memoir coach and writing conference speaker. She writes and teaches in Oregon and offers classes in Hawaii.

In recent months, Matilda’s husband Bill has had several operations to save his sight, yet through it all, she kept working on the layout for the anthologies.

Feedback from other authors reveals the covers have their desired effect — grabbing the (potential) reader. It was not a seamless process converting the digital books to print – especially as several years have passed since initial creation.

Matilda and Kendra decided to have a completely different layout and new covers.

The interior layout worked out well. That’s part of what took me so long. The first proof copies looked terrible. I started over with the layout and got another set of proof copies. Then I saw additional elements I could put in. After a couple more rounds of getting the printed proofs, I finally was happy!

We have memoir coaches using them in teaching and that’s quite rewarding.

The books have won the following awards:

  • Next Generation Indie, First place, Women’s Issues
  • Global E-book Award, Gold, Writing Non-Fiction and Silver, Anthologies
  • eLit Book Award, Silver in Anthologies and Bronz in Women’s Issues
  • Los Angeles Book festival, Runner Up, Anthologies
  • San Francisco Book Festival, Runner Up, Anthologies
  • New York Book festival, Runner Up, Anthologies
  • Northwest Book Festival, Honorable Mention, Anthologies

I am humbled and privileged to be part of such a wonderful writing community and holding the books in my hands has given me a little extra oomph to knuckle down and write some more.

Often my writing takes second place to my teaching and helping others achieve their writing goals – Matilda and Kendra have inspired me that there are enough hours in the day and days in the year to do both!

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Why Get Out of Bed In The Morning?

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Receiving an Active Voice Award

Why Do We Do What We Do?

 A presenter at an education conference I attended last month asked this question of the room full of representatives from Neighbourhood Houses and community-based Learn Locals – the sector I have worked and volunteered in for over two decades.

‘WHY’ is such an important question to ask and often the hardest to answer – just ask any parent of a young child!

It is a basic part of human nature to be curious and young children are programmed to ask countless questions as they learn about the world, regardless of whether the answer is easy or esoteric.

Later, in adolescence, the ‘why’ or perhaps a ‘why not’ becomes more a challenge to authority than general inquisitiveness – and giving answers even harder!

The education conference was titled “TOWARDS SMART AND SUSTAINABLE ADULT & COMMUNITY EDUCATION” and organised by Adult and Community Education Victoria. (ACE Vic)

The Topics Explored

  • Looking at smarter ways to work that create flexible and viable options for not-for-profits.
  • How community education & training can continue to be a critical part of the Victorian educational environment.
  • The sharing of models with future ideas and practice in engaging and holding learners.
  • What it means to be a sustainable community organisation. This includes focusing on strategy, strategic business development, the learner-centric positioning of the organisation in a competitive marketplace
  • How you can expand your contacts and networks, capture ideas & opportunities, and improve your market intelligence.

 me outside Mordi neighbourhood house

I was one of the few teachers at the conference – most attendees were managers and administrative staff so I was out of my comfort zone – again.

We were challenged to articulate why we do what we do…

  • what’s our purpose, cause, belief?
  • why do we get out of bed in the morning?
  • why should anyone care?

The presenter referred to The Golden Circle, a TED talk by Simon Sinek who declared “people buy why you do it not what you do.” Check it out on youtube.

Sinek wrote the book “Start with Why” and his premise is not the “what” that motivates us to jump out of bed in the mornings, it is the “why.”

In 2009, Simon Sinek started a movement to help people become more inspired at work, and in turn, inspire their colleagues and customers. Since then, millions have been touched by the power of his ideas, including more than 28 million who’ve watched his TED Talk based on START WITH WHY — the third most popular TED video of all time. Sinek starts with a fundamental question: Why are some people and organizations more innovative, more influential, and more profitable than others? Why do some command greater loyalty from customers and employees alike? Even among the successful, why are so few able to repeat their success over and over? People like Martin Luther King Jr., Steve Jobs, and the Wright Brothers had little in common, but they all started with WHY. They realized that people won’t truly buy into a product, service, movement, or idea until they understand the WHY behind it. START WITH WHY shows that the leaders who’ve had the greatest influence in the world all think, act, and communicate the same way — and it’s the opposite of what everyone else does. Sinek calls this powerful idea The Golden Circle, and it provides a framework upon which organizations can be built, movements can be led, and people can be inspired. And it all starts with WHY.

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Most people agreed that it is not the “what” that drives us to give great service and try and excel, but the “why.

And losing sight of your “why” is destined to make you an average or poor performer, probably unhappy, and not where you want to be.

Each table in the room was asked to discuss

  • what we do,
  • how we do it, and more importantly
  • why we do it!

The presenter had Powerpoint and we had the ubiquitous large piece of paper and pens to record ideas.

brainstorming at conference.jpg

I shared a table with representatives from Echuca, Ararat, Beaufort, Yarraville, Footscray, Bacchus Marsh, and Ballarat. Although the sector is female dominated, we had a few males and there was a range in age in the group too. Diversity important.

Firstly, we made sure we were clear on 

What we do:

  • we provide a safe space to learn, grow and build
  • we build a community
  • we create community connectedness

 

Then we moved on to –

Why do we do it?

  • Because we love and value people and community
  • Because we want to educate the community
  • Because we believe everyone has a right to education to lead a better life
  • Because we believe everyone deserves a chance and we can help them to be happy if they join our family – we are about inclusion
  • To empower people – living our values – we want to share and let them enjoy our values
  • To provide an opportunity to people who often wouldn’t fit into any other educational system
  • To act and show our actions say to people ‘we love you and want to make you happy’
  • To provide a sense of direction and offer an opportunity to as many people as possible
  • To empower people to live a fuller life with access to education to suit their needs

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First Memoir to Manuscript Class at Longbeach Place Chelsea

For the community education sector this discussion and reflection on doing the valuable job we do

  • provides guiding principles as to what we do and how we do it
  • informs our clients of our reason for being.
  • determines our behaviour
  • reflects our values.
  • determines the sort of clients we will attract and deal with because they will share in our why
  • determines the sort of people who will work in the centres and continue to represent the sector

Understanding The Sector

  • We are not commercially based providers but community-based.
  • The sector is unique.
  • The sector is not a public provider like others, nor is it commercial. It is not for profit, but we can provide programs similar to TAFE.
  • The research has been done and the government will give support through quality partnerships so there can be no implication the standard at the community level is less than expected from the TAFE sector.

Adult community education provides

  • employment pathways,
  • recreational activities, 
  • builds life skills, and
  • also gives people a second chance at education.

The community sector is a dynamic contribution to all of these reasons of why people enrol in courses or attend activities!

As a writing teacher, I know why I do what I do

Writers are continually told to remember the “W’s” – who, what, where, when and why…

If you want a story to be memorable and engaging getting the why right is a winner – a strong character needs motivation, reader’s demand a mystery or back story that explains the good and bad actions of the hero and villain as well as the current reasons for their actions and story conflict.

And so it is with a one-off workshop or a career teaching others to write –

We need to reflect and dig deep and answer honestly what inspires us and what motivates us so that we can not only give of our best but also be satisfied and happy ourselves.

Enthusiasm, passion and joy necessary to inspire others.

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  • Understanding why we do what we do comes with deep reflection of self.
  • Awareness of what makes our heart beat. 
  • What experiences/values in our lives lend an influence as to why we do the things we do.

Looking back I remember why I started to write and also teach writing.

( I always say I fell into the teaching career, but on reflection it was perhaps a natural progression from volunteering and establishing the Mordialloc Writers’ Group to teaching at Sandybeach Centre and then Mordialloc Neighbourhood House, Godfrey Street Community House and Longbeach Place, Chelsea – a tiny ripple in a small pond.)

  • I was lucky to have the influence of some great teachers – one in particular Dr Norman Saffin (PhD in Literature). He taught me four HSC subjects in my last year at Croydon High School and instilled a love of history but also a confidence in my writing ability.
  • I had wonderful parents who nurtured a love of books and great writers.  A book can change your life – never underestimate the power of story – you are never alone if you can read!
  • My father’s belief in socialism and my mother’s Christianity instilled a commitment to serving community and fighting for not only equality but equity.  I can’t imagine a life that didn’t include being of service.
  • My Dad had a talent for creative writing and loved poetry – I can still hear his voice reciting Rabbie Burns. Dad always encouraged me to fulfil my dream of being a published writer – I suspect because if times were different that’s what he would have chosen to be.
  • Writing is as natural as breathing to me.
  • The joy I feel when I write keeps me alive – whether I share the words with others or not. I feel privileged to have been able to follow my heart – to see my words in print and to help others become published.
  • What a wonderful motivation it is when words work  or connect with a reader and they take the time to tell me or thank me for helping them on their writing journey,  and being in a classroom with people who want to write is a fantastic privilege – especially because so many are talented writers!

the journey of writing workshop.jpg

Doing what you like is freedom.

Liking what you do is happiness.

Next month the City of Kingston will be showcasing neighbourhood houses at the Arts Centre in Moorabbin, and people will have the opportunity to participate in a free writing creatively class as well as other activities.

  • Date& Venue: Monday 21 May at 1.30pm – 3.30pm Writing Creatively in Gallery 2.
  • Contact Rebekah Longbeach Place on 9776 1386

Come along and say hello to me – you never know you might discover that writing or another activity will decide or confirm why you get up in the morning!

FINAL-Neighbourhood-House-Week-A4-Flyer

Come celebrate community heART

I start work tomorrow for the new term at Godfrey Street Community House – another venue to check out for great activities.

Tuesday Class Poem – Godfrey Street, Bentleigh

Mairi Neil

Tuesday, a scarlet day, like a magnificent sunset
It’s a blushing woman, ‘Gone with the Wind
It’s a juicy Victoria plum, dripping sweetness
It’s a burning bush, splashing golden sparks
It’s the last glass of claret, enriching palates
It’s a heated argument, getting out of hand
It’s a colicky baby, seeking comfort
We muse, we brainstorm, we mindmap
Writer’s block banished as we write.

Knitting a Tiny Piece Of A Global Story

quote about knitting by Jennifer Shaw

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

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

the story of the poppies

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

brown wool and needles.jpg

Back to School For Knitting Lessons

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

craft stall 1997

Reconnecting with knitting became a holistic exercise.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

’28, Jaryd.’

‘I’ve got 23.’

‘I’ve got 30.’

‘I’ve got 29.’

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Best Laid Plans Etc. Etc…

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

5000poppies.wordpress.com

poppies on white ribbon cross

In Flanders Fields by John McCrae, May 1915

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

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

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

The Inspiration for “In Flanders Fields”

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

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

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

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

 

The Story Behind the Remembrance Poppy

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

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

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

colchester

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We Shall Keep the Faith by Moina Michael, November 1918

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

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

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

 

cameronians memorial
Memorial to Cameronians, Oban Scotland.

 

The delegates took both poems back into the Conference.

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

wild poppies scotland

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

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

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

PAUL KEATING

25000 dead in WW1 had no known grave

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

tomb of unknown warrior

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

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

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

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

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

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

Green Fields of France by Eric Bogle

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

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

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

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

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

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

lone person on beach

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

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

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

 

Ice Broken But Writing Inspiration Harder to Crack!

butterfly on lavender 2

Happiness is writing for me but where does the time go and how much do I actually write?

How do I inspire others to write, if I don’t?

Does time disappear more quickly as we age? The days certainly seem to be racing by – January has gone already and February more than halfway through…

I remember Dad telling me not to wish my life away when I was a teenager but I couldn’t wait to be an adult and complete a host of dreams on my wish list.

Life will disappear fast enough,’ he said wistfully, the shadow of melancholy making his dark eyes even darker.

I didn’t listen, of course.  I fitted the cliche – there was no old head on young shoulders. Now, with grey hairs and arthritic bones, any wisdom garnered over the years has me reflecting and regretting all that wishing life away.

Maybe that’s why I am so passionate about encouraging others to write – all those years I thought I had to sit down and write when there wasn’t something more exciting to do…

It is Week Three of Writing Creatively Already

The enticing aroma of Hot Cross Buns drifts from supermarket bakeries and packets of the yummy treats fill the shelves, friends are sharing their camping plans for Easter holidays and pictures of the King and Queen of Moomba, one of Melbourne’s favourite autumn events appears on social media.

This is a short first term – Yikes!

New students are only starting to relax and old students are getting back into the swing of lessons and homework.

However, auditors must be appeased that any government investment in our particular slice of the adult education budget has been well spent and hopefully as the seven weeks roll on everyone will find some inspiration and motivation – and the elusive time to rewrite and edit!

And judging from the writing produced and/or planned from the icebreaker exercises whatever is produced will be a good read. (I could add ‘as usual’ but then I’m biased.)

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Introductions – First Exercise

When I googled ‘icebreaker activities’ I got ‘about 4,620,000 results (0.64 seconds)’ but it took a lot longer to find and adapt ones that would lend themselves to a creative writing lesson.

I chose one that encourages people to think about how they introduce a sense of place.  Encourages the writer to think about how a place may shape you and how they (or the characters) feel a sense of belonging.

The students sat quietly and thought of three clues to describe but not name, either their country of birth (if different from Australia) or their birthplace in Australia: city suburb, country town or interstate.

They then had to think of three clues to see if people could guess a foreign country they had visited, a favourite foreign country, or one they dream of visiting.

Then they wrote what they liked best about their birth country and the favourite foreign country.

I stressed it was not a competition to see who was the best riddle maker and not an invitation to see if people could be tricked.

The exercise designed to look at places and perhaps describe them using an aspect with some creativity. To think of how places are presented or could be presented in a more interesting way, perhaps emphasising an aspect that may define a birthplace and somewhere else that appeals rather than writing a one-sentence statement:

Hi, my name is Mairi and I was born in Scotland but always dreamed about visiting Samoa and managed to do that a couple of years ago…”

I rewrote this to introduce myself to the class while thinking about the writing advice of showing rather than telling!

Hi, my name is Mairi. I was born where lochs and glens adorn postcards and men are not embarrassed to go without trousers, and our national musical instrument was declared a weapon of war.

A few years ago I visited a country and climbed a mountain to visit a grave, went to church and prayed for their rugby team to win, and ate banana pancakes.

I love the sense of humour and hospitality in my birth country and that warmth of welcome and fun was also experienced in the foreign country of my dreams.

Glasgow Bus terminus.jpg
Buchanan Bus Depot Glasgow

Reflection, Rewriting and Road Maps To Fresh Ideas

It is surprising what people came up with when they had to think about their birthplace and what aspects they described to give clues to others – for those writing memoirs it gave them an opportunity to consider a more intriguing or inviting introduction too.

  • Aboriginal name in the address
  • a hospital nearby that is still a medical facility
  • a Mediterranean country
  • not an ally in WW2
  • speak a language as easy to learn as English
  • a Melbourne suburb still regarded as exclusive
  • streets of shady trees nearby
  • it claims Luna Park, the Victory theatre and a huge junction
  • a capital city
  • landlocked apart from the northern border
  • turbulent history but now thriving democracy
  • peopled by immigrants from many cultures
  • some of the most fertile land in the area
  • potatoes the favourite crop
  • part of a soldier settlement deal
  • a hot and dangerous country
  • people speak Afrikaans
  • southern hemisphere
  • third planet from the sun
  • southern cross never sets over hometown
  • mell of Kugloff cake in the air
  • often hear the sound of violins
  • cottage close to the Danube
  • hot and dry but lots of oranges are grown
  • lots of Aussie songs written about this foreign place
  • sung about in Gilbert and Sullivan productions
  • artists’ colony
  • filmed endlessly
  • rocky coastline
  • it’s the end of the world…

Sometimes it is impossible to know where you are headed without reflecting on where you came from. Understanding your heritage, your roots and your ancestry is an important part of carving out your future.

family grave Greenock.jpg

Technology and transportation today give us the opportunity to learn, often first hand, about the rest of the world. You may not have had the privilege of travelling overseas but had the thrill of talking with foreigners online, writing to pen pals, or working beside people from overseas, or maybe even have immigrants or visitors as neighbours.

The world shrinks and differences are less the more we learn and understand about each other. Everyone is capable of dreaming about crossing borders, venturing into the exotic, trying something new.

In class, we shared stories about dreams of visiting or actual visits to Vietnam, Italy, Malta, Greece, Galapagos Islands, Turkey, Morocco, Egypt, USA, Germany, France, New Zealand, Ireland, Russia, Spain, South Africa, France, Hungary and Sweden, China, Poland, Pacific Islands, England, Scotland, Israel and Chile…

Ideas For Writing At Home

Needless to say that after the first exercise we all knew a lot more about each other and of places that could become settings in our stories and poems.

  • the friendliness and delicious food of Vietnam and how easy it is to hire mobile phones and pushbikes
  • Malta has several islands and lots of churches and is the only country to be awarded a medal of honour for valour during WW2
  • Ithaca, a Greek island has close links to Italy with the people coming and going in ancient times without animosity
  • the delightful birds on Galapagos Islands were made famous by David Attenborough and the Origin of The Species filmed there
  • it is a spiritual experience visiting Uluru and walking around the sacred rock
  • a visit to Gallipoli gives a new appreciation of its significance in the Australian psyche and of war – the terrain, the cove, the rows of crosses commemorating war dead and the statues in the streets of heroic Turkish soldiers.
  • Morocco has amazingly bright, colourful architecture, beautiful places of worship and exotic culture displayed yet marred by the differences between rich and poor
  • Egypt embodies a sense of history and place – the awe touching buildings that have stood for thousands of years
  • the water is blue, so blue and blue in New Zealand and people laid back
  • Christchurch devastated by earthquake and so many beautiful buildings lost
  • Ireland a place to start the history of many Australian families
  • beautiful beaches in Fiji but humid – everyone says Bula – hello
  • Paris may have the most prestigious art galleries in the world but people need to learn to clean up after their dogs
  • The Moscow metro is cheap and a great way to travel around the city
  • when you visit Hungary you may get a feeling you are under surveillance – cameras everywhere
  • the significance and beauty of historical buildings a wonderful reason to visit Barcelona, Spain which is renowned for its architecture
  • beware the risk of getting gastro on cruise ships in the Pacific…

The Task If You Want To Write Too…

Write at least 300-500 words explaining your connection to and love of your birth country and the favourite foreign place.

  • Or perhaps you have a vivid memory to share – good or bad.
  • Maybe travelling advice
  • or write about a character you met

The exercise, or listening to others may have prompted an idea for a short story or poem.

At Longbeach Place in Chelsea where I teach Mondays, they have a wonderful YarnArt group which hosts a community story trail each year.  There is a magnificent knitted peacock in the entrance hall of the centre and I’ll leave you with its symbolism.

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Hi Ho, Hi Ho, A-Writing We Will Go…

hotel Irkutsk

An exchange of emails and telephone calls confirm lesson plans made can now be actioned…

Hallelujah! – I have work…

Schools have gone back but my classes in community houses don’t commence until this week, and as is the nature of being casual, contract, part-time, temporary… confirmation usually doesn’t happen until enrolments are confirmed, and that can be very last moment.

(If lucky, sometimes managers decide to run a class in the hope people will turn up on the starting day.)

An email midweek from one employer confirmed enrolments in tomorrow’s class are enough – the class will run. A telephone call Friday confirmed the other classes have numbers too.

Returning to work, after the long summer break without an income is definitely a cause for celebration – and that good old-fashioned, ‘Hallelujah.’

I’m not alone working in jobs reliant on funding and nearly everybody is at the mercy of the vagaries of the economy. Most workers are hostage to an employer whether it be in the public or private sector. And the courageous few who establish a business spend a lot of time worrying too.

It is wonderful to be told you have paid work – the certainty helps with budgeting!

In the adult education field, many teachers are employed on short-term contracts or a casual basis. Sadly, this even happens within the school system nowadays.

Uncertainty, flexibility, adaptability – the modern workers buzz words. The only guarantee is there are no guarantees.

red rose bud.jpgWho Are My Students? Uncertainty and Anticipation

Some students are returning and I wonder what they have written over the holidays and if their writing projects and aims have changed. (Or have they shared my struggle to write!)

I’m curious about the new students. Always, the stirrings of excitement a motivation to remember and act upon the Girl Guide Motto, “Be Prepared.”

Despite teaching for 20 years I love the research of planning lessons. Seeking new ideas, books, craft information, a variety of sources, prompts and challenges to ensure we move out of comfort zones.

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Did Anyone Put My End-of-Year Present To Work?

When classes ended for the summer holidays, and because it coincides with Christmas there is often an exchange of presents or an expectation to give a gift.

Gift giving often problematic, if you are someone like me who likes to give a book. Writers are usually avid readers and the chances of giving a book the recipient already has is high.

Print books can be expensive, especially new releases.  I decided to promote writing and wrapped up a pocket notebook and pen for each student.

I asked them to keep the notebook handy and every day write down ideas for stories or poems: observations that strike them as interesting, perhaps overheard dialogue, a memorable smell, unusual sound, evocative texture or taste – all the happenings and minute details that are important to engage with readers.

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Paying it Forward

I first started using a pocket notebook over 30 years ago after hearing Australian writer,  playwright and poet, Dorothy Hewett interviewed on the ABC. She talked about having a notebook and pen in her apron pocket and mentioned some of the stories that grew from her scribbled thoughts.

I’m still old school and usually write by hand before recording onto the computer. Adding words, rewriting, subsequent drafts, plus editing, are all done on the computer, but that initial writing by hand allows me to be more in tune with thoughts, whether brainstorming, a stream of consciousness, or what I call ‘the splurge’ in class, or just musing.

The downside of course is finding it difficult to decipher my writing if I’ve scribbled while on public transport or in the middle of the night (I keep a notebook and pen by the bed) or under the influence of a strong emotion like anger or grief with my mind in overdrive and the hand finding it difficult to keep up.

I’m sure observers the other day thought I was mad as I paused in the middle of Main Street to jot in my notebook. (Maybe I’ll appear in another writer’s notebook as an eccentric old woman.) But I had to note a couple of young girls giggling as they crossed the road arm in arm, one wearing a t-shirt that said, “Mermaids don’t do homework”.

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Uncover or Discover Stories to Record

It’s easy to become stuck in a routine or feel life is ‘same old, same old’, to rely on books, television, movies, and various social media platforms for entertainment, experience, and to extend imagination.

There is an endless amount of stories out there but it’s easy to convince yourself ‘nothing is new under the sun’ and all the original stories have been written by someone more capable or talented.

Writing is hard work, it takes effort – 5% inspiration and 95% perspiration – that’s why it helps if you have other writers encouraging, supporting and motivating your pen to move!

I discovered a poem I wrote after an icebreaker session when the writing students interviewed and introduced each other. I listened (the most important part of any learning process) and made notes to help me remember the students.

The poem takes me back to that class, remembering the students and recalling what they wrote. It may be rhyming doggerel but it also a record of part of my life.

Poetry is great for recording snapshots of life.

Writing Class at Mordialloc Neighbourhood House 2005

Mairi Neil

WW2 was announced on the airwaves
and Heather’s family gathered round
a ten-year-old girl confused
until the air raid sirens sound.
Later, the adult Heather
chose Nursing as a career
a passion shared by Angela
who cared for children three.
Angela’s knowledge of medicine
has stood her in good stead
because she daily battles MS
gallantly facing whatever’s ahead
She’s had environmental change
to Melbourne from the Apple Isle
like Margaret Birch’s Moorabbin memory
gumboots a necessity, not style.

Margaret watched Moorabbin grow
from soldier settlements to busy metropolis
South Road’s dirt track transformed
into a modern traffic terminus.
To escape car fumes and pollution
visit Margaret Birkenhead’s home
meditate in her Edithvale garden
a splendid oasis of beauty to roam.
Sixty years of devotion and giving
mirrored by Marjorie’s journey
a shared vision of contentment
family values central to living.
These two ladies share a thirst for
knowledge and highly value education
Marjorie returned to study at sixty-five
gaining a BA and a new vocation.

She now writes family history,
children’s stories, and rhymed verse,
which strikes a chord with Phillip
whose words forever impress.
He produces poems that inspire,
they also enlighten and amuse
a talent shared by Jeanette
who adores theatre and to choose
serenity listening to classical music
whether operatic or dance
and loves to go to the cinema
whenever she has a chance.
With her beautiful English skin
rosy-cheeked regardless of fashion
She’s travelled from Tibet to Marrakesh
and cites bushwalking as a passion.

Jeannette’s love of reading and writing
shared by Fay, their meeting revealed
how grief’s strain on life’s journey
has oft times their sadness sealed.
These two widows like many others
have made a silent promise
they’ll live life to the fullest
and never a writing class miss!

Ceinwen was born in Wales
and sings as sweet as a bird
she wanted to go on stage
but her Mother said, ‘how absurd!’
Until WW2 intervened and
Ceinwen found the freedom she craved
in the RAF’s Entertainment Unit
performing dreams were saved.

Toula grew up fearful of change
with a Greek father ultra strict
friendless and often oppressed
her husband was father’s pick!
Toula escaped through books,
photography, and painting too
she wants to write her story
migrant women’s voices too few.

Amelia is an artist producing poetic
landscapes with her paintbrush
she meditates every morning
a daily routine she’ll never rush,
each moment must be enjoyed
since meeting the Dalai Lama
his wise words keeping her buoyed.

Whereas Doreen is more practical
divorced for over thirty years
and as a single parent of four
she conquered many fears.
Her Mazda 121 is special
it’s twenty-seven years old
driving gives her pleasure
and walking leaves her cold.
Doreen’s a voracious reader
writing stories that entertain
with characters and dialogue
refreshing as spring rain.

Variety is the spice of life
a well-worn cliche we know
but this group of writing students
have plenty of seeds to sow.
Each Monday promises to delight –
as their pens move across the page
characters and plots coming alive
as if on a Shakespearean stage

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A friend recently commented, ‘Wow, what richness in that class of skills and life experience. I bet they wrote some great stuff!’

They did indeed!

Her observations right – I’ve been privileged to meet some truly inspirational people with powerful stories told well.  The writers who have peopled my classes over the years did produce amazing poems and prose.

Unfortunately, some of the Class of 2005 are no longer here, others attended a short time, but two of the writers are still coming to classes, honing their craft and enjoying their passion for words.

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Not so long ago I was celebrating the lack of timetables and freedom from routine as the summer holidays commenced… but I’ll accept the persona of the female stereotype and change my mind.

Now, I look forward to the beginning of the term and the predictability of the working week to re-establish regular writing practice and share the journey with old friends and new students.

’Twas The Season When Ho, Ho Became Oh, Oh!

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I haven’t blogged for a few weeks because of an unexpected health hiccup requiring a coronary angiogram and a host of other tests. I’m on the medical roundabout with some questions still to be answered and other specialist visits lined up, but at least feel more energetic.

I’m lucky to have a GP who is caring and thorough even although answers are elusive. However, broken bodies and minds can be healed and ageing bodies may need some help but they keep functioning! The philosophy of kintsukuroi good to remember. 

Several of my students have also struggled with health issues this year, most are dear friends as well as students – maybe our bodies are in sync as well as our writing minds!

Here’s to a healthier 2018.

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Stress versus Sense

In Australia, the end of semester two coincides with the festive season and the long summer break. As usual, I was busy organising class anthologies, submitting A-frames to secure funding for next year, and at Longbeach Place, in Chelsea, we held our first Open Day.

I prepared some of the work of current students to display and also offered a couple of workshops to encourage people to enrol in 2018. This year has been a wonderful class with some of the students from Mordialloc joining us for the second semester.

Writing Creatively Towards The Future
a featured class at Longbeach Place
learning all-important techniques of writing
to stay ahead in today’s digital race.
Words matter – they entertain, educate, even heal –
we write each week to practice skills with zeal!

There has been the inevitable Christmas get-togethers and catch-ups, shopping for presents and food, preparations for overseas guests, and the annual clearing of clutter for the new year…

I’m too busy to be sick was my first thought, but as my normally low blood pressure wanted to hover around 150-60 after soaring to over 200, and a Stress Echocardiogram indicated my heart ‘never slows down’, the cold whisper of Fate reminded me that heart attacks and strokes can be fatal!

I did some serious thinking.

Reflection – Rejuvenate or Retire?

In Life Story Class we discussed how genetics, personality traits and talents present themselves in families. I look back at what I wrote last year and wonder if, at 64 years of age, this latest health crisis is part of my inheritance!

A photograph of my paternal grandmother sat on the mantlepiece throughout my childhood. Granny died at 63 years of age during WW2. Her demise sudden, and in some people’s opinion, a happy death – if there is such a thing.

My grandmother was attending a ceilidh and sat beside her brother, John, who was stationed in Greenock because he captained a minesweeper. Granny’s daughters, Chrissie and Mary, were dancing a reel while Granny clapped and sang in Gaelic. Mouth music a common accompaniment at Scottish dances organised by Greenock’s Highland Society.

Granny turned to her brother and whispered, ‘I’m going, John,’ and slid to the floor. This massive, fatal heart attack a tragic shock to everyone even although Granny suffered ‘with her heart’ most of her adult life.

No wonder her heart was strained. Birthing thirteen children (Dad was the last) in twenty years, coping with the grief of losing many of them as infants, she also carried too much weight because treatment in those days involved ‘lots of bed rest and taking it easy’ – not the best advice for a heart condition that probably needed regular exercise and fresh air.

Chrissie, Dad’s older sister suffered angina and was 59 years old when she died of a heart attack. She was in her tenth year of living with a mastectomy.

Dad was in his 60s when he had his first heart attack, later followed by a stroke and then dementia.

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I love writing, I love teaching writing and I love all the volunteer activities I do in the community but as I head towards retirement and a choice of whether to stay working or not, I realise life must change if I want to reduce stress and be healthy. 

My daughters, wonderful as ever, demand I stop thinking negatively. In the words of Simon & Garfunkel, I’m told I just need to “slow down, you’re moving too fast”…

Some choices were made for me – my job teaching at Mordialloc Neighbourhood House cancelled via email in July after almost 18 years teaching. The brave new impersonal world in action…

I withdrew from coordinating the Mordialloc Writers’ Group last year – I needed a break. However, the numbers attending dwindled and in December the group decided to stop meeting. I won’t be reviving it – my energy will be focused on finishing numerous writing projects, including writing about the wonderful three months I spent travelling through Mongolia, Russia and the UK.

Perhaps that mystery novel will be finished and not end up a cold case, or my Mother’s life story woven into an entertaining memoir to do justice to her amazing fortitude and extensive legacy. Boxes of scribbled notes, short story outlines, ideas for children’s books and poetry — all need to be revisited, rewritten, expanded, edited and perhaps published!

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 I also decided to stop facilitating Chat ’N Chuckle a social group for people with ABI I’ve been privileged to work with since 2016.

I admire all the ‘chatty chucklers’ and their carers, their courage, resilience, and sense of humour. How would I cope if faced with many of their daily challenges? They kept me grounded and humbled; a reminder to count my blessings and not complain about minor physical ailments, breathe deeply of fresh air and give thanks for health. Make a choice to be happy.

The opportunity to meet this group of people and reflect on how quickly life can change an unpredictable but amazing gift, reaffirming I must indeed live and cherish the moment!

The group is now ready for those who attend to take turns facilitating and although I will miss those Fridays I’m glad for the small part I played in helping establish the group, encouraging friendships to flourish, and most of all, empowering participants to take charge!

Each time I look at the beautiful orchid the group gave me my spirits lift.

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The support of family and friends made my breast cancer journey bearable and I am truly lucky having many people care about me. I know whatever problem scheduled tests reveal I’ll rejuvenate!

 

 

Ten Pound Poms – Privilege At A Price!

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There are advantages of being a senior in Victoria, especially in October each year during the Seniors Festival when so many free and fun events are scheduled.

This year was no exception, the delight magnified when I shared a day out with my sister, Rita.

We attended Melbourne’s Immigration Museum to enjoy a sneak preview of their latest exhibition: British Migrants: Instant Australians?

An exhibition close to our hearts because we were part of the assisted migration program when our family migrated from Scotland in 1962.

– yes, the Scots, Northern Irish and Welsh were labelled ‘Poms’ too!

identity yours and mine.jpg

Migrant Myths and Memories

I love the Immigration Museum and have attended many special exhibitions, as well as frequent visits to the permanent reminders that more than nine million people have migrated to Australia since 1788. 

Immigration is about us all – those who were here and those who came.  Everyone has a story to tell – about ourselves, our families, friends and ancestors. It is in the telling of these stories that we can begin to understand Victoria’s rich histories.

The exhibition includes objects, historical film, images, and innovative multimedia experiences to explore the personal stories of British migrants and the contemporary perspectives of migrants and commentators.

(It)… incorporates a rich and diverse range of voices to explore narratives at both a national and personal level, focusing on questions of identity and impact on contemporary Australia.

There are plenty of well-known Aussies who were ‘Ten Pound Poms” or whose family were:

The Bee Gees (English), Hugh Jackman (English), Kylie Minogue (Welsh), Olivia Newton-John (English), Jimmy Barnes (Scotland), Bon Scott (Scotland), George Young (Scotland), Noni Hazelhurst (English), and cricketers Harold Larwood and Frank ‘Typhoon’ Tyson…

And of course two ex-Prime Ministers: Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott.

Not to mention a few other politicians caught in the recent Constitutional conundrum over dual citizenship and the right to sit in parliament.

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Picture gloomy, weary post-World War II Britain — England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales.

Imagine the prospect of distant, sunny, booming Australia. Where would you rather be?

… Australia that was predominantly white and British — it had worked hard to be so.

Newcomers from Britain had all the advantages of a shared language, culture and history. So fitting in should be easy.

But reality is never that simple.

What did the British actually experience?

What did this mass migration mean for Australia at the time?

What does all this mean for us today?

Dr M McFadzean, the Exhibition’s curator talked about the methodology, research and work that went into putting the exhibition together. Several people shared their stories and visitors can listen to or read firsthand accounts from British migrants who travelled to Australia as part of the scheme.

  • 300,000 paid their own way
  • 80% of the 1.5 million from the UK were English
  • British migrants were the preferred migrants and didn’t have to be citizens to vote. (This changed in the 1970s)
  • British migrants could vote after 6 months, become citizens after a year and obtain an Australian passport – non-British had to wait 5 years.
  • British migrants could receive social security – they were considered lucky
  • Yet 25% returned within the two year period required for the assistance scheme and had to repay their fares.
  • Of those who returned to the UK, 25% came back to Australia!

The Tribute Garden

… the Tribute Garden is a public artwork that pays tribute to 7000 people who have made the journey to Victoria. 

The Tribute Garden features the names of immigrants who came from over 90 countries, from the 1800s to the present day.

The region now known as Victoria is represented by the people of the Kulin Nation as traditional owners of the land and records the names of languages and dialects spoken by Aboriginal communities.

Melbourne-based artist Evangelos Sakaris designed the original artwork, which was launched in 1998. Gina Batsakis led the design for the following stages of the project. The project concluded in 2002

 

I donated to the original art project so that my parents’ journey could be acknowledged.

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Our family recorded as coming across the sea: George T & Annie B McInnes and Family

Our family came under the auspices of the Personal Nomination Scheme because Dad’s sister Chrissie nominated us and guaranteed accommodation for the family, and to support us until Dad found a job.

Chrissie and her husband Bill arrived here 14th July 1952. He was an electrician and she was a tailoress. They came out to cousins whose family roots went back to the exodus from the Isle of Skye in the 1850s. We were lucky to have their support but childless Chrissie was so desperate to have immediate family join her she ‘gilded the lily’ and never foresaw the many adjustments our family of 8 would have to make.

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Many British migrants were accommodated in government hostels. These were usually a collection of corrugated iron Nissan huts left over from WW2, uncomfortable and unpleasant whatever the season, proving assumptions about the privileges of British migrants deceptive.

Breaking the Myths The Brits Got It Easy

Some migrants came out to jobs in the shipyards, railways or electricity commission, but most had to find their own employment. Even if eligible for Social Security many would not take it because of pride, others found the money inadequate and constantly struggled and worried about their poor prospects.

They often discovered their qualifications not accepted, their particular skill set not acknowledged, or required, or in my father’s case, he was considered “too old” at 40 to be an engine driver.

Vic Rail offered him a job as a cleaner, which he refused.

He had to abandon the idea of working on the railways and became a truck driver. In those days, more so than now, men were the breadwinners, their identity and self-esteem tied up with their employment.

For the first few months in Australia, my Father said he drove to work with tears in his eyes and sometimes streaming down his face as he adjusted to the sadness of no longer belonging to a railway community and doing a job he loved. He hated the ‘old house’ we rented with its ‘dry’ toilet down the back and a tacked on bathroom with no bath. He worried about the decision to migrate and our future.

He had worked for British Railways for 25 years, his father had been a railwayman. Both were proud to be train drivers – Dad competent with steam, diesel and electric. Like many migrants, the thought his skills would not be recognised or not needed never crossed his mind.

However, Dad said the Australian Government knew what it was doing when it insisted that assisted migrants remain at least two years or pay back their fares. Homesickness and culture shock genuine problems as many of the stories in the exhibition illustrate.

  • Some people took longer to adjust than others.
  • Some never adjusted.

sum of our parts

  • Family were left behind – loving grandparents, aunts and uncles
  • Established friendships abandoned or broken whether it be  at work, school, or neighbourhoods
  • The British thriving arts and culture scene – the Beatles, Mary Quant, Carnaby Street… was missed by many children and teenagers who had no choice but to follow their parents

A family arrived in Adelaide to be told by one of the ship’s crew, ‘Put your watch back 20 years…’

  • the city was ‘dead’ on a Sunday
  • no shops opened on a Saturday
  • pubs closed at 6.00pm

Two teenage migrant girls went to a dance dressed in latest gear from trendy Liverpool. The local hall full of girls with ’50s style frocks. You couldn’t dance unless a boy asked you.  The music outdated. The girls shunned for dressing weirdly.

They spent the night as ‘wallflowers’.

But Dad did adjust and although he had a series of blue collar jobs and ‘chased money’ to educate, house and clothe us all, he never had any desire to return to Scotland for a holiday and loved the weather and our home in Croydon.

The journey out to Australia by ship at least gave families a month to acclimatise. Many considered the trip a great holiday.  For some, it was the first holiday they’d been able to afford and they established new friends although many were parted at Australian docks depending on their destination.

  • Friendships made and lost
  • Exotic places visited
  • Teenagers sulked but most got ‘over it’ because of many onboard activities
  • Food and cabins either thrilled or disappointed
  • Marriages made, others destroyed.

Once here, migrants realised telephone calls were expensive, as was postage, especially packages.

The 12,000 miles distance from Europe made Australia seem isolated and ‘the end of the world’.

Even for British migrants the change and adjustments were huge. Christmas a shock – too hot – yet cards pictured snow and reindeer – absolutely no relationship to reality.

In Melbourne, they discovered winter is cold and some days the promised sunny Australia seemed a myth. The weatherboard houses referred to as bungalows by the migrants, not as substantial as the brick houses of the UK. There was no double glazing, insulation, or central heating – common attributes in post-war Britain.

Some migrants expected everything to be modern and new, or ‘bushy’. Established cities like Melbourne an initial surprise or disappointment.

I remember my Dad commenting when our ship pulled into Station Pier that Melbourne, “looked just like Glasgow!”

We’d left cold foggy London, travelled through the Suez Canal and stopped at Colombo, Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and arrived to an extremely hot summer.  Heat haze shimmered above melting bitumen, joined by a smoke haze above the ‘blue’ Dandenong Ranges ravaged by fire January and December 1962.

 

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A picture Dad took of the ‘bum boats’ that pulled alongside our ship at Port Said, Suez Canal. The Arab merchants spruiking their wares called every English woman “Mrs Simpson’ and every Scots or Irish “Mrs MacGregor”!

 

Life operated at a slow pace in our new home, semi-rural Croydon on Melbourne’s perimeter. Dress codes relaxed. Dad loved not having to wear a tie most days.

Aunt Chrissie walked to the mailbox in dressing-gown (housecoat) and slippers and no one seemed to mind. She even ran Uncle Bill to the railway station in their old Consol,  still in her nightie – and when she broke down one morning she was helped to start the car (crank handle in those days) by a passerby who didn’t seem surprised!

Mum couldn’t get over the meat trays in butcher shops, or the fruit shops with their plentiful melons, passionfruit, oranges and other fruit, but she sweltered in an old house cooking meals with a wood-devouring Raeburn stove.

Any money left over from Dad’s early pay packets used to buy an electric kettle, electric frypan and electric pot as a matter of urgency!

No matter when they arrived, all immigrants are linked by the common experience of a journey.

Over the past two centuries, the immigration journey to Australia has changed from a perilous sea voyage of up to 3 months to a routine flight lasting up to 24 hours. Changing transport has not only shortened the journey but made it more comfortable and affordable.

The journey remains one of the most memorable aspects of any immigration experience.

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Finding Ten Pound Poms in the National Archives & Public Record Office Victoria

The Immigration Museum invited two experts to explain how much easier it is to research your ancestry in the digital age and answer family history questions.

Terrie Page, National Archives of Australia demonstrated how to access the records of British immigrants. Personal and medical records available from the interviews conducted in the UK of those on the assisted passage scheme.

Go to the website naa.gov.au 

The first access point Terrie detailed was adverse publicity re Immigration scheme. There was plenty of criticism the publicity enticing migrants painted too rosy a picture and ‘facts’ were untrue. (For example, the offered wages were too high – stated in Australian pounds, not British pounds.)

This series is A445, Barcode: 247865 and you can read letters between the Australian and British Governments addressing complaints and articles in the press.

Series No. MP195/1, ( 1948-1958 basic information) MP210/2 (1952-1955) and MP250/2 (1958-1962) holds personal records of the interviews. Type in the name and year of your family and you may discover a copy of their acceptance letter (not every family has one).

Often there was only 2-3 weeks notice given to people. Not much time to pack up and sell goods and chattels and prepare yourself for the journey ahead.

In 1958, the Australian Government chartered the Fairsky for many voyages and although most people came by sea, the first aeroplane carrying assisted migrants arrived in 1959.

The Nominal Roll lets you type in the name of the ship and the date of departure and arrival and you can access Welfare Reports of the voyage, (A446 1962/67618) for example:

  • quality of food
  • entertainment provided
  • education provided
  • if there had been outbreaks of disease
  • if anyone had died

Searching for Melbourne Passenger Arrivals check if the ship came through Fremantle and put in the year of arrival. Items Series No. B4397

  • tick digital list box
  • enlarge to full screen
  • check multiple pages – look for the month (click pages, go up by 100)
  • hover over and find page number (Downloads are slow)
  • type into the box ‘jump to page’
  • remember the last page of every list has births and deaths
  • check passenger lists for a different class, boarding at different ports
  • the lists may not be alphabetical!

Stories Abound

Public servants were not as politically correct as today and many made handwritten notes on the official forms: “applicant obese but seems intelligent enough“, “five-year-old precocious and very bright”

There was a dock strike in Fremantle and migrants sent onto Melbourne by being off-loaded in Adelaide and put on the train. A young boy remembers waking up as the train trundled past Sunshine Station. The sun was rising and bathing the countryside in its glow, ‘What a lovely appropriate name,’ he murmured.

First impressions count.

PROV – Public Records Office Victoria

Charlie Farrugia, the Senior Collection Advisor explained that key records regarding immigration are Commonwealth therefore with the National Archives, but these are easily accessed from PROV State archives. (www.prov.vic.gov.au)

The State archives hold Department of Crown Land and Surveys information and records of statutory authorities such as the office of Valuer-General, School Councils and Courts etc.

  • What happened to peoples lives after migration and the great leap of faith to start afresh?
  • any activity involving State Government can be researched.
  • the key page is Family History
  • records are of a personal and private nature so not everything is kept
  • indexed by Family Name.

Exploration and Self – Discovery – Records May Have  a Key…

Charlie invited everyone to explore PROV’s collections and archives by topic: Wills & Probate (if there was a will required to be lodged for probate), Family History, Births, Deaths & Marriages.

Also inquests and other coronial matters. Land records, Census records (unfortunately rarely kept prior to 1973), some Cemeteries, pupil records from schools now closed (if the school still exists then they hold previous student records), and electoral and municipal voter rolls (in the past you had to own property to vote and not all councils have or kept voter rolls.).

British Migrants: Instant Australians?

Diary Date:

The exhibition opens on 25 November. There’ll be tea and traditional British fare and talks by historians and curators, as well as the personal stories of British migrants.

Rita and I are looking forward to the full exhibition and will be revisiting the museum. We looked through the current exhibitions and left with plenty of food for thought and itching to check out the available records for our family – the months ahead will be busy!

If you have a migration story – please share.

“And it’s a human need to be told stories. The more we’re governed by idiots and have no control over our destinies, the more we need to tell stories to each other about who we are, why we are here, where we come from, and what might be possible.”

Alan Rickman