A Public Health Crisis Requires Personal Responsibility and a Personal Response

leaflet from chemist.jpg
A leaflet freely available on the counter of my local chemist

Many people know me through my writing and teaching, but another hat I have worn for several years is that of a consumer health representative and as we deal with COVID-19, I’ve attended several excellent ZOOM meetings organised by Victoria’s Health Issues Centre (these are recorded and worth watching). 

Various health organisations continue to work towards improving how health is delivered whether the topic is related to COVID-19 or not. I also presented (via an online platform) to a conference at Melbourne University, organised by medical students for their 2020 MD Student Conference (MDSC). (Details below)

I’ve taken surveys for Swinburne University, where I volunteered for research, the Breast Cancer Network, and given feedback to the Cancer Council of Victoria. Sharing my experience with breast cancer and any health information, I discover, is often a motivation for writing.

life stories anthologies

Health Literacy Must Be A Priority

Health literacy is about how people understand information about health and health care, and how they apply that information to their lives. It is about how they use that information to decide on treatment and lifestyle.

Over the years, I have been able to use my writing skills combined with personal experience of the health system to give input and feedback to help health professionals and various institutions and government bodies improve the health information provided.

The Central Bayside Community Health Centrethe Health Issues Centre and the Cancer Council welcome volunteers and are always willing to hear how they can improve health service delivery and patient outcomes.

From the Australian Commission on Safety & Quality in Healthcare:

  • Individual health literacy is the skills, knowledge, motivation and capacity of a person to access, understand, appraise and apply information to make effective decisions about health and health care and take appropriate action.
  • Health literacy environment is the infrastructure, policies, processes, materials, people and relationships that make up the health system and have an impact on the way that people access, understand, appraise and apply health-related information and services.

https://www.safetyandquality.gov.au/our-work/patient-and-consumer-centred-care/health-literacy

Volunteering To be  A Health Advocate May Help Others 

My health advocate journey began in 2009 when I attended a focus group at Central Bayside to help them rewrite leaflets about Diabetes.

My father had been diabetic for many years (mature-age onset) and moved from tablets to insulin before his death. From firsthand observations, I knew there was room for improvement in the brochures publicly available.

At the time, I was enrolled in the Masters of Writing so my writing skill was, and still is,  useful to share.

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A reference letter explaining my early involvement with community health.

Pandemic Restrictions Resume in Victoria

It is worrying that COVID-19 cases have spiked in Victoria causing a Lockdown of several suburbs.

For me, the upsurge is not surprising because when the initial Lockdown was eased mid June many people behaved as if the pandemic was over despite Premier Daniel Andrews saying repeatedly, ‘just because you can doesn’t mean you should’ and the Chief Medical Officer, Professor Brett Sutton reminding us continually, ‘this coronavirus is ten times more infectious than flu.’

Few, if any, of us enjoy forced isolation, but most people DID put the health of others before social considerations and obeyed the rules. Let’s hope we can do it again!

  • The message of the dangers of COVID-19 has made headlines since March – not just here but overseas. Any other topic has great difficulty gaining oxygen. Most people can access the Internet – there is no excuse for being ill-informed.
  • In the beginning, there were mixed messages, especially from the Federal Government, but by April all States had the same mantra about social distancing and washing hands. Debate continues about wearing masks, but many people have made that choice and it helps reinforce social distancing.
  • There is concern not enough effort was used in Victoria to ensure the message was inclusive of multi-cultural communities but frankly considering every country is touched by COVID-19 and we have multi-cultural television and radio stations with many communities having their own language newspapers, I don’t think that can be the only reason. There is also an excellent website with health translations in more than 100 languages. More likely it is the socio-economic make-up of those suburbs with people working the casual and low paid jobs of hospitality, retail and transport that have continued throughout the Lockdown period – plus the pressure on schools throughout Australia to reopen. The virus is highly infectious – it was never about elimination (a vaccine is a long way off and will ever only be 70% effective anyway) but aiming for suppression and control.
  • Debate still rages about schools going back too early and the opening up of businesses and venues but considering the world is coping with an unprecedented crisis this century our various levels of government are doing their best – it was always going to be a balance between health and economic survival. Again – personal behaviour is the key.
  • Sadly, some people CHOOSE to believe the seriousness of the pandemic and ignore regulations.

It is up to individuals to be aware, follow the rules, and take care.

Recording The Pandemic For Future Generations

In April, my friend Matilda Butler who runs the womensmemoirs.com site in the USA with Kendra Bonnett, asked women to write about COVID-19.

I submitted a reflective piece you can read on the site plus poems and stories from other women or read here as a pdf: article for Matilda

Now, with a sense of security rapidly diminishing if we continue to see larger numbers of infections, an update will be needed and it may well have a different tone!

There are writers all over the world recording this pandemic from a variety of perspectives and journalists and bloggers tapping daily. Next year and the years to follow, we’ll see a plethora of films, documentaries, plays, poems, novels and memoir…

When Lockdown began in April, I wrote a series of blogs with ideas for writing – good therapy to cope with isolation but also starting points to write your perspective on current events.

Here is a snapshot of one lot of research and there will be plenty more – only today, I completed a survey from the Breast Cancer Network.

I’m sure every community organisation and government department and local council is collecting data. The City of Kingston is – so have your say and contribute to the pool of knowledge about this time in history.

COVID 19 SURVEY RESPONSE SWINBURNE UNI

A summary of the results of the City of Kingston’s May 2020 survey:

From the 202 responses collected between 13-21 May 2020, they identified the following insights:

  • A lot of people adapted to using technology to remain connected (89% of people)
  • Around half were worried about being infected, but most (97%) had access to facts and information on quarantining
  • 41% were worried that they or their families wouldn’t recover if infected
  • Physical activity was cited as the main activity providing relief
  • The main concern people had about being isolated was the loss of connection with their social support network

You can access the full report and also see regular updates from the website.

special light to record my interview
a special light was sent by courier for my interview

The Use of Technology Has Zoomed During COVID-19

As mentioned before, I have been extra careful since January because of a recent breast cancer operation and so adapted easily to Lockdown, isolation and social distancing.

When the Cancer Council asked me to contribute to the medical student conference at Melbourne University, I accepted because it could be prerecorded. The session recorded in May, but broadcast on June 25th.

The organisers and presenters plus the film crew amazing. It was a positive and fascinating experience. A great learning curve in the use of technology!

Here are screenshots from the session: “Breaking Bad News”.

This session forms part of the Day 4 program theme “The Ultimate Equaliser”. We have chosen this theme to give medical students the opportunity to have in-depth discussions on mortality and the human condition. We are very fortunate to have a number of esteemed healthcare professionals presenting on Day 4. An integral aspect of medical education is learning from patients, as they are often our best teachers. We feel that it is essential to include personal stories in a session on breaking difficult news, so that we can keep patients at the centre of our education.

 

I was one of three women who volunteered to share their stories on the day, and I read two pages from my story published in the book Journey – experiences with breast cancer.

Here is the selection – EXTRACT FOR MELB UNI MD CONFERENCE 2020. They also attached notes I had discussed with Georgia during the various phone calls and emails preparing for the session. NOTES – interview regarding cancer May 26th 2020.

My initial thank you to the organisers:

Thank you to the organisers for the opportunity to share my story. Thank you, too, for those who will listen who are joining the medical profession – as we have seen during this pandemic, the pressure, expectations, danger and sacrifices for frontline workers has revealed how important, precious and valuable you are for a healthy functioning society.

Personally, I’m grateful to medical science for my life. The improvements in breast cancer detection and research plus treatment available in Australia meant my cancer diagnosis in 2010 disrupted my quality of life but was not a death sentence.

And that is what the mention of cancer means to most people – a terminal illness that once you are diagnosed and even go into remission, it is a coiled snake waiting to strike. That metaphor turned out to be true for me because of my breast cancer, albeit another type, returned in December 2019.

In the words of my wonderful breast surgeon, Dr Peter Gregory – ‘nine years Mairi, you almost reached ten!’ His disappointment and disbelief matched mine because of course there are legendary milestones, whether true or not, of 5 years and 10 years – making those free of a recurrence is believed to extend the likelihood the cancer won’t return , or worst spread to other parts of the body.

Both times my cancer was picked up by breast screening and although at a recent event put on at Peter McCallum’s I discovered only a small amount of cancers are picked up by mammograms, I am so grateful to have access to this free program in Australia.

And my thank you after everything went as planned!

Dear Georgia,

To be cliched – the pleasure was all mine:)
Thank you again for giving me a platform for my story and I think you, Tansy and all the others have done an amazing job considering the circumstances in which you have had to operate.
Thank you for always being so courteous and ready to respond and adapt to my needs, even when it probably inconvenienced your own,
All of you can be immensely proud of what you are achieving but more importantly the place from where your efforts and the impetus has come – creating a first class health system that cares for everyone’s needs.
I was most impressed with – I think it was Lily who said it – ‘welcome, this is the way of the future…’ You and your co-workers are all very talented and I can see the benefits for a lot of digital expertise being applied in the future for conferences etc because who knows how long travel or large gatherings will be risky to organise. Also, what you have done over the last few weeks has been amazing in establishing a pathway for all sorts of voices to be included at conferences where usually only certain ones are invited.
I know the title consumer rep has been coined, especially by organisations fighting for equity in the two-tiered system we have (private V public health) and for a multitude of voices to be heard, but I personally never want to move away from the word patient when I am referred to treatment for my health because it implies being in the care of a doctor/medical clinician. Whereas consumer can so easily be applied to someone shopping or dining whose main interest is value for money rather than the esoteric outcomes of quality of life regarding health procedures! 
We are all individuals and our bodies can respond in various ways and so care provided must always be personal and often tailored to suit the individual – not mass consumption – what works or is accepted by one may be inappropriate or not work on another.
A bit like in the 90s when suddenly those receiving education became clients rather than pupils or students. 
Word choice matters because we all come with our own prejudices, perspectives and experiences but it would be nice if we could agree on a terminology that gets the balance and duty of care right – and in some areas of our society there has to be an authoritative balance some times.
I want to be empowered to have a say in the health system but I also want to acknowledge the expertise of the people looking after me and that their advice is coming from a place of knowledge and wanting to heal me and I am happy to accept they know more than me but I hope they are also prepared to listen and set aside some of their assumptions.
Good luck with all your other planning and remember to take some time out for relaxation and fun – you deserve it:)
All the best
Mairi

 

We have a good health system in Victoria and there are people working all the time to make it better.

The health system had to take stock and organise to cope with the pandemic and remain functioning. It could have so easily become overwhelmed like other countries – especially Italy, Brazil and the USA.

In Victoria, the effort to keep everyone informed and to meet everyone’s expectations has been excellent.

The initial postponement of elective surgeries to ensure there were enough hospital beds and equipment if needed has been lifted, but if people don’t heed the warnings who knows what strain will be put on available resources?

The message I received and took on board is ‘don’t forget your health check-ups’ . An important message to act on. 

I went for my regular skin cancer check and they discovered an invasive melanoma. Despite increased testing for COVID-19 the results of the biopsies came back quickly and an operation including skin graft is scheduled for next week.

But if the system becomes overwhelmed, others in the future may not be so lucky.  We must stop the COVID-19 infection rate increasing!

I started off the post with a leaflet explaining the logic and simple steps to avoid spreading viral infections. These work for flu as well, and one welcome side effect of the isolation rules is that fewer people are contracting flu this season!

Here are just a few of the public notices around Mordialloc I see every day advising people about COVID-19:

I’m sure these informative signs are replicated in every suburb – authorities can only do so much – members of the public must cooperate.

Being in the high risk age group with underlying health issues, I sincerely hope people will make the effort to be informed and obey the rules so we can suppress the rapid spread of this coronavirus.

Support all those frontline health workers, plus the workers in other occupations who have remained or returned to work and must cope with new rules and the compliance necessary to combat COVID-19.

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World Environment Day 2020 – A Time To Appreciate Mother Nature

 

lake in Victoria Gardens

This year’s World Environment theme is time for nature:

The foods we eat, the air we breathe, the water we drink and the climate that makes our planet habitable all come from nature.
Yet, these are exceptional times in which nature is sending us a message:
To care for ourselves, we must care for nature.
It’s time to wake up. To take notice. To raise our voices.
It’s time to build back better for People and Planet.
This World Environment Day, it’s Time for Nature.

World Environment Day 2020

COVID-19 lockdowns restrict movement in neighbourhoods, towns, cities and countryside in countries throughout the world and have done so for several months, and most people now realise how important it is to breathe fresh air and to enjoy outside activities.

The easing of some restrictions in Victoria saw hundreds flock to national parks. Many places were overwhelmed and had to be closed because the recommended 1.5 metres of social-distancing couldn’t be enforced.

We are in the middle of a pandemic that has forced governments to act for the greater good of the public health, even closing international borders despite severe economic consequences.

Ironically, because of less air travel and movement of people, plus reductions in road traffic and industrial pollution, there has been an improvement in some natural areas such as cleaner waterways and a resurgence of wildlife.

However, the consequences of climate change are still severe and deadly and as many people have pointed out – if you believe and obey the science regarding the COVID-19 pandemic why are we not believing and acting urgently on the science about climate change!

As this picture doing the rounds of Facebook shows, the damage fossil fuels cause is not a new discovery – this newspaper date is 1912!

FB_early warning of global warming
a sobering Facebook meme when you look at the date!

The Speech A Prime Minister Should Make in 2020
© Mairi Neil

Men and women of Australia
and those who identify as other
there is no time to waste
you must listen to our Mother

Mother Earth, I’m referring to –
the mountains, snows, and sea
the seasons, soil, and sunlight
sustaining you and me

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

Addicted to manufactured comfort
we’ve gouged mountains into craters
safe harbours are now wharves
to accommodate gigantic freighters.

Explosions altered landscapes
concrete towers replaced trees
animals hunted to extinction
polar ice caps no longer freeze.

Climate change is not a phrase
but a reality for the natural world
Global Warming’s rising tides
cities consumed as tsunamis swirl

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

Climate deniers knuckle draggers
as are those mouthing ‘innovation’
drought, bushfires and failed crops
the word should be desperation!

The time for procrastination gone
also the sand for burying your head
Earth’s lungs struggle daily to breathe
how long before humanity all dead?

dead bird and dandelion

Mordialloc Beach
Mairi Neil © 2013

The day is calm. Tranquil. A great-to-be-alive day. The scent of eucalyptus and pine compete with salty air and whiffs of abandoned seaweed.
The cyan sea a mirror for whipped cream clouds. Dainty dollops on a baby blue plate. Gulls sit or glide atop the glassy surface. Bathed in brilliant white sunlight, I imagine I too float and dream.
But in the distance, palm tree fronds tremble, casting lacy shadows on the warm sand. The clink of moorings and creak of masts drifts from the creek and a sudden gust of wind whips sand to sting legs and face. Airborne seagulls now screeching origami kites.
A dark veil unfurls from the horizon shattering the steel blue mirror swallowing the fluffy clouds.
Peaceful contemplation disappears, waves soap around my feet, slap at ankles, sunlight fades. I retreat to the shelter of groaning eucalypts and pine, the taste of salt bittersweet.

cormorant and seagull

Living Fossils (a villanelle)
Mairi Neil © 2014

Celebrate parks and open spaces
how they let us breathe and play
they put smiles upon our faces

Nature provides wondrous places
adding beauty to the everyday
wildlife parks, wilderness spaces

Trainers recommend 10,000 paces
exercise and be healthy they say
and put smiles upon our faces

In childhood, egg and spoon races
kite-flying, hide-n-seek, even croquet
celebrated parks and open spaces

Living demands no ‘airs and graces’
whether skies are blue or grey
let’s put smiles upon our faces

Find joy in parks and open spaces
because they let us breathe and play
and they put smiles upon our faces

In the future, they’ll discover traces
of how we spent our lives each day
they’ll dig up parks and other spaces
and put names to forgotten faces.

The importance of trees to our wellbeing and the earth’s health is, at last, being recognised by local councils (including Kingston) and I hope many more will become dendrophiles.

tree at park

We Have An Extinction Crisis In Australia

Today, I received an email from birdlife.org.au

Dear Mairi,

This year hasn’t been what any of us expected.

Australia was already in the grip of the extinction crisis, which meant our birds were facing unprecedented threats… and then the devastating bushfires struck. Fighting the extinction crisis became even more urgent.

Now we’re in a pandemic. While it’s changed how we live and work, COVID-19 hasn’t impacted our commitment to save Australian birds for future generations. We know the bushfires have compounded the extinction crisis. And we need your support to continue our vital conservation work.

Our experts estimate that the number of nationally threatened birds could rise from 134 last year to over 150 after the fires. And among them, for the first time I can recall, are birds such as the usually resilient and successful Superb Lyrebird. A wet forest bird, once considered relatively safe from bushfires, this iconic species lost over half its habitat in the inferno.

We fear the Superb Lyrebird may have plunged from being ‘common’ to being ‘threatened’ in just a few devastating weeks over summer.

Lyrebirds now desperately need a refuge.

Are We Birdbrained?
Mairi Neil ©2020

If the birds disappear or die
will bugs be kept in check –
what are the consequences
if Nature’s balance, we wreck?

Birds are landscape gardeners
planting seeds throughout the land
a tiny wren may be responsible
for the towering ash so grand…

Where would you live if your home
vanished from the neighbourhood?
If someone decided it was needed
for farmland, furniture, or firewood…

Would you relocate? Permanently migrate?
It’s Hobson’s Choice – face extinction
or take another’s territory to populate –
hoping survival is your fate.

Not only birds are endangered
global warming threatens us all –
We must act now to stop
habitat destruction, water shortages,
population pressure and urban sprawl!

magpie in garden

3.05pm Flinders Street to Frankston
Mairi Neil © 2016

He shovels a healthy salad
into bearded mouth
his bamboo fork environmentally friendly ––
but not the plastic container…

She swigs kombucha
for inner health
ignoring Mother Earth’s digestive tract
blocked by the plastic bottle and cap.

Fast food aromas embedded
in train carriage upholstery
waft in the air, cling to clothes.
Junk food litter clutters floor
peeks from discarded plastic bags…

Excess packaging the norm
as the world chokes
and even those who profess to care sucked in
and swallowed by consumerism

Landfill dumps grow garbage
litter        refuse       muck
There is no ‘away’ in throw!

Parks and Places to Play Important For Childhood Memories

  1. Write about the wild or natural places you remember playing in as a child.
  2. Where do you go today to breathe in and experience the natural world?
  3. How important is your garden, and what pleasure does it give?
  4. Describe your favourite walk?
  5. What bird, tree, flower do you see from your window/s?

yellow daisies

I spent my first nine years in Greenock, Scotland, an industrial town on the River Clyde that used to be famous for shipbuilding – the yards built the Queen Elizabeth and first Queen Mary, plus submarines for Australia.

I can’t remember much of the first three years living in a tenement in George Square, the centre of the town, but when we moved to Braeside where I started school, there is plenty of material for trips down memory lane.

Despite the rustic name (brae means hill in Scots), there were no built parks for us to play in. We spent a lot of time in back gardens (‘back greens’) and playing games in the street. Traffic minimal in the 50s and early 60s with my dad being one of the few in the street to own a vehicle. He had a motorbike at first, then bought a Bradford van.

Cars rarely disturbed our play which included hopscotch chalked on pavements (we called it ‘beds’), skipping (often with rope leftover from the clothesline), football, rounders, and British Bulldog and similar games involving lots of chasing, hiding and rough and tumble.

However, we also roamed the hill towering over the houses opposite and the farmer’s fields at the bottom of our road and a swathe of land separating upper and lower streets. The housing scheme stretched up a steep hill, Davaar Road being the topmost street and in the middle of that street, our house was number 35.

Across the road, behind a row of houses, there was a path we could climb to the top of the hill and see Gourock and the River Clyde. There were no tall trees but plenty of scrub, granite boulders and heather. Enough natural flora to keep us entertained with games influenced by episodes of popular shows broadcast by the fledgeling television industry: The Lone Ranger, the Cisco kid, Robin Hood and His Merry Men, and whatever adventure story Walt Disney promoted when he invited us to ‘wish upon a star’ on Sunday evenings.

Up the hill, I learned how to make daisy chains and to check who liked butter by waving buttercups under the chin. A memorable part of the long summer holidays was collecting twigs, branches and anything that would burn to prepare for bonfire night in November.
We never forgot Guy Fawkes and to “Remember, remember, the fifth of November, gunpowder, treason and plot!”

The hill also welcomed children roaming in hordes carrying buckets and jam jars to seek blackberries when in season. The incentive of Mum’s delicious bramble jam spurned us on. We even spread our hunt into the farmer’s fields at the bottom of the street where we weren’t supposed to go. We knew the resident bull to be a danger to life and limb – plus when the Tinkers (Gypsies/Travellers) came they camped in the fields and we were warned to respect their privacy.

Mum and Dad didn’t practice overt bigotry against Travellers like some people. Mum helped them whenever she could by paying them to do odd jobs and buying some goods they hawked, such as wooden ‘dolly’ clothes-pegs.

However, any place forbidden meant we incorporated them as a deliberate dare in games. There must be a guardian angel for stupid children!

Stranger danger not indoctrinated, and we were never overly fearful, although warned to be careful, not ‘ask for trouble’ and to obey the limitations placed on us. But I remember roaming even further afield and going to what we called ‘the secret lake’ along the Aileymill Road. This pleasant track linked the new housing scheme with isolated cottages on the way to Inverkip and Skelmorlie, tiny towns further down the coastline.

If she knew, Mum would never have sanctioned that sojourn, but we fished for tadpoles and hunted frogs and let loose our imagination and energy.

I revisited the secret lake in the 70s and like everything else seen through adult eyes; the lake had shrunk to a large puddle rather than a lake. The farmer’s fields smaller too, and the bull nowhere in sight!

I checked out my old house in the 70s and again in 2017 – Davaar Road has not changed much although the houses modernised inside; sadly Aileymill is no longer bush to roam but another housing estate.

fb meme

 

Walk the Neighbourhood Absorb the Beauty of Your Place

Walking to Mordi Station in Winter
Mairi Neil © 2009

Plane tree stripped bare
branches black against
the fading daylight
roosting rosellas
rainbow decorations.
The aroma of roast chicken and gravy
drifts from the Main Street café —
Christmas in July!

“birds are the always-present possibility of an awakening to the natural world that too many people have not yet experienced.”

Corey Finger of 10,000 Birds

egret by creek

A Little Bird Cried To Me
Mairi Neil ©2020

A world without birds, I refuse to imagine
nature’s poetry and music gone
the only tweets from computer geeks
and no delights of avian song…

Marshlands, waterways, local creeks
forests, grasslands – our neighbourhood
birdlife helps keep the climate stable
feathered friends do a host of good!

Yet, species disappear or struggle to exist
habitats destroyed by so-called progress
when wildlife families decimated
conservationists struggle for success

Intensive farming and overuse of pesticides
reduce available safe food for birds
wholesale slaughter by hunter psychopaths
killing for ‘sport’- barbaric and absurd

Factory farms breed fowls for food
exotic birds for the fashion industry
collectors and others cage birds as pets –
but birds are meant to fly free

The world will soon descend to chaos
if all the birdlife disappears from Earth
fragile ecosystems are finely tuned
each creature has an intrinsic worth

A world without birds, devastating
Nature’s poetry and music gone
the only tweets from computer geeks
unless we work to save avian song…

FB_Poem for peace
another lovely gift of words via Facebook

Words can Warm, or Wound, Comfort or Control, Clarify or Confuse…

Aboriginal flag in Mordialloc

I acknowledge the Boon Wurrung as the traditional owners of Mordialloc and recognise their continuing connection to land, waters and culture and pay my respects to their elders past, present and emerging.

Yesterday was Mabo Day, a significant day for First Nation Peoples, a day to honour the vision, commitment and legacy of Eddie Mabo, who paved the way for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander land rights and Native Title in Australia.

It is also the end of Reconciliation Week, which occurs from 27 May – 3 June every year.

The dates mark the May 27,1967 Referendum that amended the Constitution to allow the Commonwealth to make laws for Aboriginal people and include them in the census and ends with June 3 when in 1992, the historic Mabo judgement by the High Court of Australia recognised that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have rights to the land.

A map of the lands of Australian First Nations
A map showing First Nations

The Mabo decision acknowledged the First Nations longstanding and unique connection to the land for the last 65,000 to 80,000 years and declared Australia was not terra nullius – a claim used to justify the colonial invasion and acquisition of the land by Britain. In 1993, the Native Title Act passed in Federal Parliament and this has returned some sovereignty in some areas to First Nation peoples.

I wrote several posts in the last few days on other subjects, but each time stopped before posting because creative writing hints or other topics paled into insignificance with what is happening in the USA and other parts of the world after the recent murder of George Floyd. 

Coupled with news of COVID-19, we have a perfect storm of misery.

George Floyd’s tragic murder captured on mobile video and replayed millions of times throughout the world has led to scenes reminiscent of the 1960s.

Scenes of civil unrest in the USA I remember watching as a teenager as they played nightly on the television news.

Sadly, many of the issues around systemic racism have still not been resolved and most politically aware people know this because what happened to George Floyd has happened to other African Americans, year in, year out!

Why do we remain silent? Why in Australia have we mostly ignored the 2015 death of David Dungay, an Aboriginal man who also struggled and said I Can’t Breathe when pinned to a bed by several prison officers in Long Bay Gaol? (The video of that incident also circulating on social media and just as distressing as George Floyd’s murder.)

Social media has fuelled the current protests, but my newsfeed often filled with videos of appalling racist incidents, particularly since the election of Donald Trump.

I only hope the rage is maintained and results in a definite change.

Too many people are still reluctant to acknowledge systemic and institutionalized racism and white privilege exists or that people of colour are targeted by the police here in Australia and the USA.

Australia had a Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (1987-1991) but there has been a lack of action on the recommendations and avoidable deaths are still occurring.

FB_hope for the future

Please Deal the Cards Again
Mairi Neil © 2020

English has a list of words describing you
I checked the dictionary and thesaurus too
but really words will fail to record
your harmful legacy of bitter discord

How sad the office of American President
is sullied by you, the 45th resident
a narcissistic, dastardly, vainglorious fool
boastful, vacuous as you let ego rule

Pusillanimous, brutish, pompous, offensive
spouting ignorance when on the defensive
craven, fatuous, corrupt, and oafish
your addled tweets so often malicious.

A destructive numbskull you need to resign
the current civil unrest another warning sign
just go to Florida and there please stay
allow decent adult voices to have their say

Your election a nasty global surprise
a long three years have exposed your lies
let’s hope the tide will really turn blue
and in November we’ll be rid of you!

Civil Rights An Ongoing Struggle

I recall vividly hearing the news of JFK’s assassination in November 1963, the murder of Martin Luther King Jr in April 1968, and of Bobbie Kennedy in June 1968. I’m sure many people my age remember where they were exactly when they heard the news of the killings.

I’ve reviewed the film Selma, and the documentary I Am Not Your Negro – two good starting points for the background to what is happening in the USA now, also the film Hidden Figures.

Martin Luther KingJr 1968

When I went to university in Canberra in 1970 and took part in the protests supporting the Aboriginal Tent Embassy and Land Rights, I learnt firsthand the depth of Australia’s institutionalised racism and started on a journey to educate myself and to seek ways of being part of the answer and not part of the problem.

It is important not to remain silent – words in the form of poems, essays and stories are my way of working through the pain, anger and powerlessness I often feel when events like the murder of George Floyd or Aboriginal deaths in custody occur.

I also write letters to politicians and write blog posts and have conversations with people – encouraging others to be more aware and accept systemic racism exists.

When I look at the poems, I wrote in the 90s and in 2000; it seems there has been little progress, but I’ll keep writing because words are all I have and effective cultural change takes a lifetime.

When Mordialloc Writers Group hosted regular monthly Readings by The Bay, the poems and stories shared often sparked important conversations about racism. That forum no longer exists, but every community group can start conversations!

Our Burning Shame
Mairi Neil © 1992

We watched with horror
as they beat you to the ground…
on the ground
into the ground

The gang of four wielding batons
grasped tightly to
beat your head
beat your body
beat your legs…

Pounding, pounding, pounding,
pound.

A steady funeral dirge
burying the myth
of racial equality –
of equal rights

Middle-class liberals gasped
horrified at the naked truth
victims sighed with relief
the truth at last revealed
those with power to change
shrugged –
what’s the fuss about?

Rodney King – who gave you that name?
A king in black skin – a hint of irony
– or is it okay if a surname?
Your destiny now entwined
with that other dreamer…

A picture is worth a thousand words
a video worth a thousand affidavits
television news worth a thousand protests
political decisions worth a thousand votes…

Time dimmed the anger and horror
even brutes are innocent until proven guilty
at the scheduled trial
will Nuremberg be revisited?

We waited for the sentence
believing we knew the judgement
but a jury without black faces
proves society controlled by red necks
and white lies let injustice triumph…

Los Angeles burns along with our shame
those with power remain unchanged
cosmetics mask the ugly face
waspish capitalists sting… again and again.

Australians are shocked. Horrified!
Yet reality reveals our guilt.
Our smugness shattered
when black deaths in custody
inspire jokes among police
our custodians of law
don’t need lessons in brutality

We watch L.A aflame
but closed minds switch off
like television sets.
Will Australia suffer the same fate?
Today
Tomorrow
Next Week…

FB_IMartin Luther King Jr quote

I can only imagine the despair of many people of colour in the USA and our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people here but I stand in solidarity with their struggle for justice and will continue to promote events, books and articles to help others to stand in solidarity too.

It’s 20 years this week since the Reconciliation Walk across Sydney’s Harbour Bridge, a defining moment in the tortured history of Indigenous affairs in Australia.

Reconciliation
Mairi Neil, © 2000

The Past

Ningla a-Na!
We are hungry for our land!
The catch cry of the seventies
as angry black activists
reclaimed a slice of land…
They protested by establishing
an Aboriginal Tent Embassy
opposite Parliament House, Canberra

When the Embassy brutally dismantled
thousands of people
black and white together
linked arms to prevent
dispossession, yet again.

The Present

We celebrate Corroboree 2000
hundreds of thousands of people
black and white together
march across the Sydney Harbour Bridge
but how far have we come when
Treaty is still a dream
Mandatory sentencing a reality
Black deaths in custody a shame
Government statistics used to deny
the devastating generational horror
of the Stolen Children!

Despite historical misinformation
and the cultural exclusiveness
of our education system
we cannot say we did not know!
We must be honest and admit
we didn’t care enough to seek the truth
confront the injustice
move out of our comfort zone…

The Future

It is a new century
we have a second chance
to right past wrongs
resolve to move forward
all contributions important – so
write a letter of protest
challenge a racist remark
invite Aboriginal speakers
to address schools and clubs
one nation honouring
the First People of this land
Ningla a-Na
This our land.

FB_Jenny Leong MP

#black lives matter

Lament For Another Aboriginal Death In Custody
Mairi Neil ©February 2000.

What were your thoughts, young man
When you stared out the window each day
were they of family and friends
now replaced by walls tall and grey?

Did the future look bleak and sad
as inside your spirit ached
for the call of the distant past
and colours of earth sun-baked?

Did you dream of lying beneath the stars
on a blanket of gum leaves and grasses
at odds with European ideas of comfort
and structured constricting classes?

Did the dark shadow of depression
devour teenage thoughts of fun and love
your inner child struggling to grow –
plans abandoned like an ill-fitting glove?

A young man caught between two worlds
coping with life’s most turbulent age
a fifteen-year-old orphan feeling lost
confined to a cold and lonely cage

Colonial laws stole your land
foreign culture crushed traditional way
and mandatory sentencing ensures
more despair-filled cells each day

Your name now recorded in history books
will your desperate act be in vain?
Australia as a nation can only progress
if we acknowledge your people’s pain.

tree by creek

Resources Abound To Learn About Racism & Diversity

The ABC has a lot of educational resources, including videos written and produced by First Nation Peoples.

Lisa Hill’s Indigenous Literature reading list, which she compiles and adds to each year, is a fabulous resource for readers and writers.

The Little Bookroom bookshop has compiled an excellent list of books for adults and children, which they have in stock or can obtain for you.

WordPress.com has a special blog about the situation in the USA and have a detailed list of links to find out more about current events, the political context, and what you can do to help and where you can donate.

Here are practical ways you can support Aboriginal Lives Matter and a guide to researching and educating yourself on the issues.

The Victorian Women’s Trust has also compiled a list of anti-racism resources.

FB_love these messages
another fabulous meme circulating on Facebook

In a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist. We must be anti-racist.

Angela Davis

Walking, Wellbeing, & Writing – a commonality beyond the first letter

woodland walk Aberdeen

It has been two weeks since my last post, but considering the hive of activity online with free courses, art-related and celebrity freebies, newspapers and journals unlocking paywalls, plus the constant news updates about the coronavirus, I doubt anyone has missed my jottings!

We also had Mother’s Day last weekend, which I enjoyed even if the movie and treats shared via ZOOM on the day because stage three lockdown still operated and Anne couldn’t visit.

MJ snapped this pic of one of the delightful gifts that arrived before the day. We laughed at this clever remix of Premier Daniel Andrews’ advice ONLY to happen when Lockdown is over.

The girls and I fangirls of the Victorian Premier who has shown impressive leadership through the COVID-19 crisis.

I have a feeling this will be a favourite number played in every pub/club in Melbourne when Victorians can truly ‘get on the beers‘ and socialise guilt-free!

(My preferred tipple is cider and here I am enjoying one after a day gardening…)

Get On The Beers

I know I’m not alone in receiving more parcel deliveries during the pandemic than in recent years. The service convenient, especially online grocery shopping, which I’ve found excellent.

If you can’t go out shopping safely,  how wonderful to receive deliveries.  I’ve loved receiving real mail in the mailbox other than bills, real estate ads and donation-seeking charity blurbs.

Good Things Come In Small & Big Packages

Students from past classes have posted lovely cards and letters asking after my welfare, and my incredible friend, Lisa, sent me a gorgeous box of super healthy fruit! 

My sister knitted a Rabbie Burns doll (oh, if I could write like him!) and I’m enjoying the beautiful indoor plant and excellent read (a biography of NZ PM) from the girls and looking forward to next weekend when Anne visits and we’ll play a new board game.

Another dear friend, Lesley dropped off flowers to plant after her husband, Ian did some culling.

A day in the garden aroused Josie’s interest and jealousy. She spent the next three days digging up the cuttings one by one!

Lesley assures me there are more cuttings on the way…

When Lesley delivered the cuttings, I could give her some freshly made Anzac biscuits – a firm favourite with me and the girls now I use the already mentioned recipe from the Jean Hailes Clinic!

I also gave a batch to Mark, my wonderful neighbour who while working from home offered to clean out the gutters and fix a broken bracket. Jobs he noticed needed doing. 

I truly am blessed with the people who come into my life!

flowers from Anne

I’m fortunate with the view from my window because watching the lorikeets visit to feed is a fantastic start to the day and I don’t notice if there is any work needing doing!

two lorikeets feeding

Social Distance Lorikeet Style
Mairi Neil

Lorikeets visit the bottlebrush to feed
Often lingering after munching on seed
Red and green flashes flutter and flitter
I watch from my window as they joyously twitter
Knowing they perceive humans as a threat
Ever alert to danger, we have never met
Even camera clicks produce a pause and glare
Their nervousness shames me – but I won’t despair
Some day I hope, love and trust we will share.
©2020

bridge over creek

I take every opportunity to laugh these days because, despite the worst-case scenarios not eventuating in Victoria and being a glass-half-full person, there have been days when anxiety about the present and the future has been almost overwhelming.

Living Dangerous
Mairi Neil

We will not forget the year 2020
Coronavirus stories will see to that
pandemic panic and widespread crying
no country free from the sick and dying
people forced to isolate and quarantine
practise social distancing
whether pauper or queen…

Wildlife too, adjusted behaviour
we will not forget the year 2020
many relationships shape-shifted
the Earth a pandemic was gifted…
Wildlife’s observations during isolation
would make any book they published
a headline grabber and selling sensation!

Life as I knew it will return in some form but until then…

A chat with Mary Jane, or a phone call or FaceTime with Anne or a friend always helps calm anxiety, but the best antidote is a lengthy daily walk with Josie, a companion like no other – her unconditional love brightens the day.

There are plenty of statistics about the health benefits of walking – not just the physical but emotional and mental health benefits. Plus, there are health benefits of owning a dog.

When the time suits, I’ll be out walking Josie without creating a schedule.

Whether the weather is the cliched ‘rain, hail or shine’, dressed appropriately I walk the dog – or rather Josie walks me!

Josie loves Mordialloc too, and when we are heading to friend Jillian’s house she breaks into a trot.

Walking and inhaling the beauty of our surrounds – neighbourhood gardens, Mordi streets, the parks, the Creek, the foreshore area… restores soul and energy – and we both know it.

The sea breeze rustles trees, birds sing from branches, insects hum and water ripples – nature’s beautiful chimes announce all is right with the world.

Walking is calming and observing details to write about helps me focus on anything but the troubles the world faces.

heron graceful

If confined to stay at home with no outside stimulation, I would retreat more often to the computer not doing anything productive. Crosswords and games online or scouring Internet articles interesting but not riveting or remotely relevant to current creative projects.

I’ve discovered I can spend the day doing absolutely nothing but going around in circles – literally hearing mum’s voice when she lamented, “I can’t get out of my own road.

I often think of Mum’s little sayings and they make perfect sense!

I know other friends have shared this experience – truly a sign of these times we are living through. Crises take effort to adjust despite the many ads about the pandemic proclaiming; we are all in this together – it is a shared global experience.

Hopefully, witnessing the effect on other countries, everyone will be more aware of how precious and fragile life on Earth is and the urgent need to address the effects of climate change and inequity – pressing issues BEFORE the pandemic.

The latest news from the USA is not surprising, showing it is the poor who suffer the most in a pandemic. The article refers to New York, but it is a similar story throughout the world – we may all be going through the same storm but are definitely not in the same boat!

I hope when the worst of the pandemic is over there is more effort to ensure sustainability and a healthy world for all living creatures wherever their home may be.

tree at creek - woman watching

How has your day been?‘ 

This is a daily question from Anne as she checks in on me.

If it wasn’t for the reflections and little ‘happenings’ from walking, I’m not sure our conversation would last long.

I don’t practice formal mindfulness, but when I walk with Josie, I find this is a time of peace and meditation. A time to focus on anything other than problems or worries.

Most days it is answering emails, sorting through old papers or photographs, cooking the dinner, trying out a cake or biscuit recipe, editing a short story or poem, weeding the garden, washing clothes… jumping from one task to another, no rhyme or reason…

Did I achieve or finish anything?

Does it matter?

There is pleasure in the hours of walking, observing, and greeting (from a distance) other dog walkers, friendly strangers, friends, and acquaintances not seen for a while!

People working from home or at home because they have lost their job walk for exercise and are more visible than when in their cars.

(A definite bonus of isolation is meeting people from the past. People I met when involved with Mordialloc Primary School, the Mordialloc Writers’ Group, and who attended writing workshops I’ve held.)

two cormorants perched

Protecting Wellbeing

Like many people, during the first few weeks of COVID-19 crisis, I had an almost unhealthy obsession with the news – not only of how the pandemic was playing out in Australia but each gruesome detail of disastrous death tolls and the lockdowns in Asia, Europe, UK and USA.

I soon discovered the day much better if I limited the news source to one or two outlets, only once a day or even news-free days.

My daughters agree:

Think of your blood pressure Mum’

‘You’re dealing with cancer – one crisis at a time’

‘Let us worry about that – we’ll do the shopping’

… and true to their word, I don’t have to go anywhere except for medical visits and exercise – the latter entails gardening and walking the dog. 

Safe and contactless living!

Friends and family I haven’t been able to connect with face to face have stayed connected over the Internet and by phone. The severe social consequences some have suffered because of isolation hasn’t happened to me.

The change in circumstances has made me think more deeply from the perspective of those with disabilities or illness who always have a limited connection with the outside world and must rely entirely on carers.

Let’s hope some creative ways ZOOM and similar programs have been used to provide services will remain and give access to a richer day to those permanently socially distanced!

mushroom half circle

My walks alternate between Mordialloc Creek and McDonald Street football oval and surrounds plus wandering around the suburban streets.

Joyful as this is, I know Josie will be beside herself when we return to the off-leash dog park and she catches up with other dogs en masse. Dogs are pack animals and not overly enamoured with social distancing.

Josie loves to chase and fetch. When off-leash, she’ll be able to exercise her full potential running after balls thrown from the special holder we have to turn the ball into a long-distance missile. 

a different view of creek

Seasons Don’t Recognise Pandemics

The change from summer to autumn in the gardens has been delightful to watch. Gardens seem to have been a riot of colour this year and people have worked hard transforming their gardens or homes with imagination.

A house where a couple created a beautiful Japanese-type garden is now up for lease – maybe it is their retirement income. Kudos to them both for putting so much effort into a garden for others to enjoy. Josie and I enjoyed our daily chats and seeing the shrubs, pavers and water feature being installed.

yellow roses and lavender

I’ve watched a house around the corner being built and Josie has loved the attention from the tradies.

 

It has been pleasant to have so few cars parked in the street because of fewer commuters and no U3A classes in the Allan McLean Hall at the end of the street.

Lockdown rules changed after Mother’s Day, allowing small gatherings, businesses and workplaces to open if they can manage the social distancing guidelines. People are visiting friends and family and larger groups play or exercise in the parks or practise sport.

People are resilient, small businesses often adapt – I spotted this van in Albert Street.

cafe starstruck-cute name

But people are hurting and the local Presbyterian church recognises this and has set up a community pantry.

However, not a lot has changed in my little bubble but then apart from the dramatic decrease in traffic and more people walking and chalked pavements from kids being schooled at home, not much seemed to change in Mordialloc at the beginning of the pandemic lockdown.

We are a coastal suburb with plenty of open space and I have been steering clear of busy shopping centres since Christmas because of poor health. Other suburbs will have their unique experiences.

cormorant like a statue

Now to writing:

Where do you go for serenity?

This is something to reflect on and write about  – it might be helpful to first record where you go or what you usually do to ease anxiety.

If yoga class is something you do, or dancing or working out at the gym many of these now have classes online you may have joined.

You may favour a room, a church, a friend’s house, or a special tree in your garden.

Or perhaps you indulge in an activity like writing or walking… maybe sewing or cooking…

Your serenity place or activity may be difficult to substitute during the lockdown, or you might have found it easy to adapt.

Do you have a special place you visit only once or twice a year? A place that may hold a strong emotional attachment or memory? Writing about it may help capture the calmness and peacefulness the place represents. 

Perhaps there is there an activity or place in your daily routine easily adapted to isolation rules.

Here are more writing suggestions:

  • Imagine yourself where you find serenity. Why are you there? Has something prompted the visit?
  • Describe your serenity setting.
  • Compare at least two visits to your serenity place.
  • What happens when this place disturbed, or no longer available, or your plans must change?
  • Do you have an alternative?
  • Write a poem inspired by the word serenity.

What is the opposite of serenity for you? Is there one particular time that stands out?

Write about how you unwind or handle anxiety – this may have changed over the years.

List the various ways you are meeting the challenge of isolation and practising social-distancing. 

Did you ever consider ‘stress’ before it became a much talked about ‘modern’ disease?

(When I recorded the history of our local primary school in Mordialloc on its 125th anniversary, I interviewed many past students and staff.  I’ve never forgotten a woman who attended the school during the depression years of the 1930s and coped through the war years commenting,  ‘ No one had stress then – we just got on with life.’)

Reflect on the lives of your parents and grandparents. Do you think they suffered stress – even if they didn’t call it that?

Do you know how they dealt with the tough periods of their lives? Were the pace of life and the responsibilities they had really that different from nowadays? If so – how?

ducks happy

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.

Steve Jobs

Happy Writing!

ANZAC DAY 2020 – Light Up The Dawn

light up the dawn.jpg

A commemoration like no other…

In a few hours, thousands of people across Australia will stand in their driveway or pause inside their home to pay respects and remember those who gave their lives in WW1.

This special commemoration of an important day in the Australian calendar for national remembrance is because of COVID-19 and the unprecedented lockdown and social-distancing restrictions placed on the community to halt the spread of the virus.

Mordialloc’s local member of parliament,  Tim Richardson MP, sent a special newsletter detailing the celebration of ANZAC Day and paying tribute to veterans.

ANZAC Day Dawn services are still being held without the crowds, so the RSL has asked those who have a brass instrument to play the Last Post for their neighbourhood who will #StandTO as the official service ends with the usual minute silence.

I’ve written other posts about ANZAC Day, not to elevate or celebrate the importance of military prowess but from the perspective that all war is a tragedy and a senseless waste of human life.

I took part in the Centenary Poppy Project and my sister’s quilt block was part of an Australia-wide Gallipoli Project, one of 100 blocks chosen to mark the WW1 Centenary.

WW1 is part of our family history – the trauma is personal. We have genuine heartache and tears remembering those who paid the ultimate price. The uncle buried in Egypt, who fought at Gallipoli, shares the same name as my father.

However, I fervently wish we had a national day every year to celebrate and work towards world peace!

The details of the grave of GEORGE ALEXANDER McINNES_is here. He is one of over 60,000 who sacrificed their life in WW1.

George Alexander McInnes.jpg

The Annual Service At The Shrine

duty done artwork
sculpture at Soldiers’ memorial Bendigo

I’ve only attended the Shrine Dawn Service once but have never forgotten the emotional experience:

Ten years ago, I booked a seat on the free bus to the ANZAC dawn service at the Shrine, leaving Mordialloc Station at 4.20am. No alarm needed because I toss and turn half asleep, fearful of missing the bus. Warm clothes required for the short walk along Albert Street – especially for my head recovering from the ravages of chemotherapy.

Exhaustion, the chill from the sea air, and discomfort from cancer recovery negligible compared to what my Uncle George and other soldiers endured. I clutch a travel mug of freshly brewed tea and hurry towards a group of shadows hovering at the bus stop.

A blonde in a fur-trimmed camel coat and matching hat detaches herself from the fence and returns my ‘good morning’ with a smile. A mother and teenage son turn away obviously not wanting a conversation – it is a bit early to be chatty. An indecipherable black figure doesn’t move from a post further down the street.

The blonde speaks, ’I wish I’d thought of a travel mug.’

‘One of my better ideas. I never slept.’

‘Nor me, and I went out last night.’

‘Gosh, no point in going to bed then.’

As we laughed a ringtail possum scurried along the electricity wires, ‘He’s probably wondering what we’re doing here in the middle of the night,’ I said.

‘This is my first time.’

‘Me too,’ I say, ‘ it’s on my Bucket List.’ I point to my mauve turban, ‘breast cancer.’

‘Good on you. I’m meeting a friend who goes every year. Her dad’s a vet…’

The bus grumbles to a stop and a dozen more passengers materialise from parked cars in the street and station car park. The night streets are silent as we drive to the city, neon lights stab the inky sky, masking the stars.

At the Shrine, a sea of people merges in the predawn dimness. The number of people takes me by surprise. Such a hive of activity. All ages and genders, all shapes and sizes… a steady stream of buses from rural and suburban Melbourne, drop people off to join the crowd.

The Shrine looms out of the fog. Soldier and media scrum silhouetted against the brightening sky. A handful of lights dot the skyline, making the buildings on St Kilda Road discernible except for a massive glowing cube, changing from blue and green to red and silver, atop a building.

Perhaps Dr Who or Daleks will arrive from this gigantic ice cube to remind that man was made to mourn and peace is an elusive concept for every generation…

Serendipity or synchronicity, but even that light doused when a church service hush descended.

45,000 attend this Dawn Service.

The words and music of Buffy St Marie’s Universal Soldier and John Lennon’s Imagine come to mind just as the public address system fails miserably. I can’t hear what they say, despite gigantic strategically placed speakers.

Silently, I recite the 23rd Psalm in place of whatever solemn speech is being intoned.

To be close to the front, I squelched through grass still soggy from a recent storm and rapidly churned to mud by the crowd. I imagine George sleeping in the trenches and emotion lumps in my throat.

Buried in Egypt, he died six months after arriving at Gallipoli. A working-class boy from Williamstown. He would never have imagined this huge, eclectic crowd, heads bowed, remembering him and others who did not come home.

Colour crept into the sky, a dark red stain obliterating the fog. Two fruit bats hover and fly away, not the squadron of nesting bats a friend complained marred last year’s ceremony.

The flypast invisible because of heavy clouds but the aircraft’s’ rumble and drone a cause to celebrate with a rifle salute that startles me, even although I was prepared. How did George and his mates cope with constant bombardment? No wonder so many came home shell-shocked.

A glimmer of sunlight bounces off the medals adorning chests lined up centre stage and on the chests of people around me. No need for uniforms to remind us this is a military occasion.

The smell of traditional breakfast – sausages, bacon, eggs, toast… a drawcard for many but I have no appetite.  I weave through the crowd and climb on the bus to return home, fighting back tears and overwhelming sadness.

George, like so many others, died alone in a foreign land, never understanding what the war was about. His grave never visited by family…  Lest we forget.

FB_IMG_Harry Patch quote.jpg

World War One began in 1914 and lasted for four years; 416 809  Australians volunteered for service. 324 000 served overseas and over 60 000 were killed, including 45,000 who died on the Western Front in France and Belgium and more than 8,000 who died on the Gallipoli Peninsula in Turkey.

Many nurses in the Australian Army Nursing Service served on the Western Front. These nurses worked in overcrowded hospitals for up to 16 hours a day, looking after soldiers with shocking injuries and burns. Those who worked in hospitals close to the fighting were also in danger of being shelled by the enemy.

Red poppies worn on Remembrance or Armistice Day, November 11, are often used as a symbol for ANZAC Day too.

The tradition has its origins in a poem written in 1915 by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, a doctor in the Royal Canadian Medical Corps. Lieutenant Colonel McCrae noticed that, despite the devastation caused by the war to towns, farms and forests, thousands of small red poppies began growing everywhere in Spring. This inspired his poem, first published in England’s Punch magazine in December 1915.

Within months it came to symbolise the sacrifices of all who were fighting in WW1.

In 1918 Moina Michael, an American, wrote a poem in reply, We Shall Keep the Faith, in which she promised to wear a poppy ‘in honour of our dead’ and so began the tradition of wearing a poppy in remembrance.

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.

wild poppies in parkdale

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.

 

Nurses and Doctors Always In the Front Line

During the current coronavirus catastrophe, we have lauded medical staff as heroes. This acknowledgement of their dedication and courage is important. They put themselves at risk and serve the community in peacetime and war.

When I was on duty at the Soldiers Memorial Institute for Open House Bendigo 2019, their historical exhibits and telling of Bendigo stories impressed me. I’ve been to many historical exhibitions and museums commemorating WW1, especially during Centenary celebrations, and I always learn something new or discover another aspect not considered before.

In the recently refurbished building, they present well the stories of Bendigo nurses and doctors who went to war and also Chinese Australians.

The Returned Soldiers’ Memorial Hall grew out of the returned soldiers’ associations that were established throughout Australia during and after World War I. The first such association in Bendigo was established at the home of a local woman but by 1917 the Returned Soldiers’ Association was advocating for the creation of club rooms at the former Hustler’s Royal Reserve mine site, Pall Mall.

Local architect George Dawson Garvin was commissioned to design the Memorial Hall and the Governor of Victoria officially opened it in 1921. They added the Institute building to the Victorian Heritage Register in 1997. Recent conservation works by Lovell Chen have included the removal of past extensions and, as the building is sited over old mine shafts and on a compacted mullock heap, underpinning.

A new gallery, designed to Passive House standards and conceived as a contemporary interpretation of the arcaded loggia, nestles behind the Institute. The external use of a single material for the walls and roof blurs the scale of this new addition, allowing it to read as a single storey building. An entry vestibule at the north end mediates between the inner gallery and an encircling verandah that also provides additional exhibition space. The verandah is timber lined (floor, walls and ceiling) focusing and framing the visitors views constantly outwards through the arcaded openings, in-filled with glass and perforated mesh.

Open House, Melbourne

Seventy-four Bendigo nurses volunteered to serve in Egypt, the Dardanelles, Salonika, France, Belgium, England, Italy, India, and on hospital and transport ships. Their qualifications ranged from infectious diseases, acute care, experience in theatre, ward and hospital management. They cared for the injured and sick with care and compassion.

Of the local nurses who served, two died because of their service, and twelve were invalided home. Four were Mentioned in Despatches, one received the award of the Royal Red Cross and four received the Royal Red Cross Second Class.

bendigo nurses ww1

Thirty-one doctors from Bendigo volunteered to serve, leaving the safety and security of their positions at the Bendigo Hospital, medical practices, or studies. Some supported the recruitment and training effort in Australia, others went overseas.

The local doctors came from two distinct groups. Fifteen were linked to the Bendigo Hospital; sixteen were born or educated in Bendigo, or had family connections to Bendigo and had practised in central Victoria.

Non-combatant medical officers, they dealt with horrific wounds, grave illnesses and deaths associated with war with constant compassion and dedication.

Of the Bendigo doctors who served, three died because of service, several were invalided home, seven Mentioned in Despatches, four received the Military Cross, two received foreign decorations, one received the Distinguished Service Order and three admitted to the Order of the British Empire.

bendigo drs ww1

Over 200 Chinese-Australians joined the AIF. Almost all were born in Australia. Many were descendants of immigrants who came from southern China to central Victoria during the 1850s gold rushes.

chinese australian ww1

Samuel Tong-Way was born in Ballarat to Chinese-born parents. Despite being initially rejected by recruiting officers in 1916, Tong-Way persevered and enlisted in 1917 when there was an easing of restrictions. After training, he was posted to France in December 1918, just after the Armistice. Before returning home, Tong-Way obtained study leave at the Imperial College of Science and Technology in Kensington.

He returned to Australia in 1920 and resumed studies teaching. He taught at the Violet Street and Gravel Hill state schools and marched every ANZAC Day in Bendigo until the year before his death in 1988.

Whenever I see the honour rolls of war dead, the immensity of the loss to families is always overwhelming.  On the Bendigo roll, many surnames the same, and reflect a similar story in other Australian country towns – you ache for the farming families who lost several sons and cousins.

wwi honour roll.jpg
The Honour Roll for WW1 Bendigo and surrounding districts

This ANZAC Day, I hope all those who pass the Gallipoli Precinct at St Nicholas’ Church in Mordialloc, will pause.

Please think of the tragic loss of life in all wars and make a commitment to always champion peace. I know I will when having my daily exercise walking Josie.

Lest We Forget

 

 

Poetry and Prose Lets You Still Smell The Rose

roses canberra

Day Nineteen – Write so Readers Smell the Scene

Our sense of smell can do more to revive a memory than other senses and yet it is often a sense writers forget to include. Whether you are writing about indoors or outdoors remembering to include a smell will enrich the scene for the reader.

How often have you caught a whiff of perfume or food cooking and you are reminded of someone or transported to a place in memory?

Many smells are accompanied by a particular taste – sour or sweet, bland or tangy, ‘to die for’ or vomit-inducing… the experience for the reader can be visceral.

Senses empower limitations, senses expand vision within borders, senses promote understanding through pleasure. 

Dejan Stojanovic

A Lesson On Smell

Whenever we had a lesson to encourage the inclusion of smell in writing, I’d ask for suggestions and the student responses often overlapped because certain pungent smells stick in everyone’s mind.

However, the more we wracked our memories ‘to be different’ or recall what made an impression, the list grew – maybe you can add to this collection from a variety of classes:

  • The strong odour of our pets – dogs, cats, reptiles.
  • Gardens enlivened by rosemary, lavender, geraniums
  • Special perfumes – Estee Lauder, Chanel, Christina Ricci…
  • Working as a nurse in hospitals/nursing homes/clinics – the smell of disinfectant, anaesthetics, lotions and creams
  • The perspiration and sweat of fellow teammates playing a sport, the smell of lovers, of commuters, workmates, sweaty feet, old sneakers, shoe polish
  • Fresh country air, honeysuckle in hedges and cow pats in the fields
  • Lilacs and lily of the valley and roses, Daphnes – flowers with a redolence that lingers
  • The smell of the sea, seaweed, tea-tree bushes, rotting fish
  • Steam train smoke, fires burning red gum logs, barbecue and campfire smoke
  • New car smell, leather upholstery, new carpet smell, polished furniture
  • The smell of freshly turned soil, padded down straw in chicken coops, horse manure
  • Foul-smelling tanneries, abattoirs, processing sheep gut, rotting flesh, rotten meat, sour milk, vomit,
  • Antiseptic like Fennel, Dettol, bleach, ammonia, outdoor toilets, raw sewage
  • Chocolate and sweet shops, jam being cooked, baked bread,
  • Mustiness and the dank smell of cellars, caves, old, buildings
  • Dry and decaying wood – the smell of death, animal and human urine
  • Mowed grass, the eucalypts and other trees, dead flowers
  • Fish and cod liver oil, garlic, onion – many different spices
  • Whisky, rum, beer, cordial, coffee, cocoa, tea…

selection of flowers.jpg

Flowers are always a favourite and easy to include in a poem or story because they are found inside as well as outside. Every season has some shrub flowering and pot plants or cut flowers in vases are common whether on balconies or dining tables.

And what if you had no sense of smell?  People can lose it after an illness or injury. At the moment while we fight COVID19, some people are saying their sense of smell and taste are not only affected but don’t fully return once they recover from the virus.

How frustrated and disappointed would you be if unable to smell fresh coffee or baking bread?

It might be dangerous if you can’t smell because sometimes a bad smell is the first sign of danger like a gas or petrol leak.

A student who was a carpet layer said if he didn’t have a sense of smell he’d be more cautious because many of the old carpets he had to remove have animal and human urine stains and other nasties. 

You might have to rely more on the reaction of other people. Think about this if you give a character either no sense of smell or keenly developed olfactory glands. 

A Sense of Smell
Mairi Neil

If I lost my sense of smell
how could I tell
when dinner was ready or
when the dog needed a bath
I’d have to watch visitors up close
for signs of irritated eyes and nose

No memorable scents of changing seasons
to uplift and linger…
spring jasmine
honeysuckle summer
autumn lavender
winter rosemary massaged between fingers.

A walk by the sea to enliven senses
without salty air
could lead to despair
I’d drift disengaged
like floundered fish or discarded shells
without those pungent seaweed smells.

No comfort at home
from the smell of fresh sheets
and clothes newly laundered
no thrill of familiarity from a lover’s body
or distinctive perfume tied like shoelaces
to family, friends, and favourite places.

Gone the delight of visiting the lolly shop
to choose a special treat for the movies
or sniffing freshly baked bread and brewed coffee
and of course, the milky delight of newborn babies
shampooed hair and soft moisturised skin
the list is endless once you begin…

On the other hand
life could be grand
without smelly feet or rancid meat
no dog poo or stinky loo
no foul smells to make the nose twitch
oh, how I wish for an on and off switch!

© 2012

‘There should be an invention that bottles up a memory like a perfume, and it never faded, never got stale, and whenever I wanted to I could uncork the bottle, and live the memory all over again.’

Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier

lorikeet in bottlebrush.jpg

“When you write the story of your life, don’t let anyone else hold the pen!(origin unknown but quoted by Gurbaksh Chahal, Huffington Post)

Who Attends Life Story Classes?

In Life Stories Class, for three hours, students write, discuss, chat, laugh and cry, sharing experiences, memories, opinions, dreams and reflections.

  • Most classes vary in age but one class the students spanned 9 decades of living.
  • Families can be traced to colonial times or have arrived with the waves of migrants after WW2. For some English is a second language, others wish they still knew a language or culture that is lost.
  • Some have never married, others are divorced or widowed, some childless, others have children and grandchildren.
  • Some write about ancestors, immediate family, friends, ourselves, the joys and tragedies.
  • Some write prose and poetry, essays and anecdotes, flowery descriptions or minimal words.
  • Some learn how to craft the stories to include the senses, dialogue, humour or pathos.
  • We all remind ourselves how we felt, what we feel now, what we want others to know.

We gift of ourselves as we gift our words, nurturing each other, supporting each other – and most importantly, we have fun!

Here is a list that I give students and ask them to write at least a paragraph of what the smell means to them – later they are asked to expand at least two into a personal essay.

Try it – you are relying on your memory here, you don’t have to break lockdown and go outside. Many of the smells may be found inside your home or garden shed!

Think about the smells – is the smell sweet like perfume, or stinky like sewage, faint or strong, current or in the distant past? What person, place or event does it revive or what character and story can you create?

  1. pine needles
    cut grass
    Sunscreen
    eucalyptus
    rubbing alcohol
    cinnamon
    stale beer
    pencil erasers
    vinegar
    newly-vacuumed carpet
    orange peel
    radiators heating up
    mothballs
    fish – oysters
    a new car
  2. frying bacon
    damp paper
    shoe polish
    paint
    perfume
    petrol
    kerosene
    furniture polish
    floor wax
    BBQ – meat or onions
    roast or curry,
    stewed apples
    baked pie
    fresh bread
    seaweed
  3. soap
    lavender
    roses
    rosemary
    lemon
    blood
    burning
    cigarettes
    pipe smoke
    disinfectant
    nail polish/acetone
    jam cooking
    anaesthetic

Here is a piece I was triggered to write in class Letter from 17-year-old self by Mairi Neil   You might guess what smell by this old photo:

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Here is a mindmap template you can download for a bit of brainstorming: sensory image and language mind map

Writing Exercise 1:

  • What person, place or event do the smells revive or what character and fictional story can you create?
  • What about writing a poem –  choose one word/smell to write about – fill your white page with associations with the smell you have chosen.
  • write about morning or evening smells The Smell of Morning, 448 words by Mairi Neil

Writing Exercise 2:

List the smells you associate with a particular season:

  • The smells of summer
  • The smells of autumn
  • The smells of winter
  • The smells of spring

Now weave some of them into a story or poem…

In The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald introduces us to the Buchanans in early summer. He emphasises the breeze blowing through the room, billowing the curtains and the women’s dresses. Later, the same characters are seated in the same place in the heat of summer as weighted down, dispirited, languid.

The story has progressed and so have the characters but he connects them to the place and reveals how they have changed through the weather/season – they are no longer bright, breezy and carefree. Circumstances have changed and so have they and their earlier energy no longer on show.

He has added balance and unity to both character and story.

In their magazine a long time ago, the Victorian Writers’ Centre used to publish a writing prompt for members to practice their craft. I think there was a prize of reduced membership – not sure. I never submitted a story just used the exercise as a bit of fun.

This one had to be exactly 250 words about a ghost haunting a Georgian mansion in Southern Ireland, the visitations always accompanied by a foul smell.

The Truth Stinks
Mairi Neil

The cottage door burst open and several burly members of the local constabulary filled the room. Seamous O’Flaherty blanched with fear.

‘Ye murdering swine,’ barked Sergeant O’Neill, ‘we found your dagger outside the big house, still dripping wit poor William O’Malley’s blood.’

O’Flaherty crouched against the wall of his tumbledown cottage pleading for his life. O’Malley had been the Head Gamekeeper for George Thomas, the English aristocrat who owned half of Kiltmargh in County Mayo and the rights to land with the best game and fish. O’Malley and O’Flaherty often hurled abuse at each other after a few ales in their local.

‘Yerve got the wrong man,’ Seamous whined, ‘lots of poachers use the same kind of knife!’

‘We know ‘tis yours,’ sneered the Sergeant.

‘I’m innocent, please listen. Let me go!’  The constables ignored his pleas and hauled snivelling Seamous into the police wagon.  The rough justice continued, until within the hour, Seamous hung from the rafters of the stables nestled in the shadow of the Thomas family’s Georgian mansion.

If the indignity of such an ignominious death was not enough, the vigilante executioners had dragged Seamous through a pile of fresh horse manure before stringing him up.

On October 31st each year, on the anniversary of that terrible night, Seamous returns searching for evidence to prove his innocence. His visitations are always accompanied by a foul smell, earning him the nickname of the farting ghost.

It appears in death as in life, poor Seamous O’Flaherty stands wrongfully accused!

© 2000

Writing Exercises From Photo Prompts 

A marvellous little book compiled by Michael Marland called Pictures For Writing, published in 1996 by Blackie & Son Ltd, Glasgow and London proved a godsend in early days of teaching.

I used it a lot when I started teaching almost full-time at Sandybeach Centre and Mordialloc neighbourhood House after John died.  Here are two photographs that may spark a story. Remember to introduce smells or a smell:

three girls by shore

fighting bushfire

The bushfire picture is definitely topical as far as those living in Australia are concerned – I’m sure there will be plenty of stories, novels and poems featuring the catastrophic summer we have lived through. Tragedy compounded now by COVID 19.

Here is a short story I wrote in the last class we had for the year inspired by the summer bushfires, Bushfire Blues by Mairi Neil  

Bush On Fire
Mairi Neil
(written after Black Saturday)

The sun is dulled by a veil of cloud
animals culled, Mother Nature a shroud
This defeated giver of life so dear
a dried-up river with power unclear
a red threat creeping, gathering power
creatures weeping, air rancid and sour
It dances with glee destroying with ease
devours blade and bush its direction a tease
whipped and encouraged by wind’s collusion
fiery menace forages and causes confusion
until the sun’s conscience explodes and
a large nimbostratus cloud reveals worth
the life-saving rain soaks the scorched earth.

© 2009

More Writing Exercises

  • You return to the house where you grew up, only to learn it has been condemned.
  • Why I love the smell of …
  • Why I hate the smell of …
  • Two characters are lost in the woods or the mountains – they have to survive overnight before rescue.
  • Write a story, essay or poem using the following title: Yesterday’s Coffee, Sunsets will never be the same again or Unforgettable or The worst mess I ever had to clean up
  • What comes after this opening sentence:
  1. Why is this on the front porch?
  2. I’ve got to get out of these clothes—fast.
  3. If you want to annoy me, just

We have read stories about paparazzi haunting the alleyways and snapping celebrities putting the rubbish out, and stalkers going through bins.

Did you know the City of Kingston do spot checks of bins to ensure people are recycling properly and putting the appropriate rubbish in the right bins? Apparently, you’ll get a note to improve or a sticker to say well done.

Writing Exercises:

  • If someone inspected your rubbish bin – or recycling bin – what could they surmise about you – would they be mistaken?
  • Do you have a favourite celebrity (or one you don’t like) what do you think they’d have in their trash worth writing about?
  • Write about someone who takes shelter. What is the most dominant smell and why should it matter? (Think bus shelters, doorways, under a table, in a foxhole, in someone’s arms, in a church, in a cave …)

Two Quotes For Inspiration

This one is particularly relevant considering the disastrous economic consequences of the current lockdown because of COVID 19 and the pain many people are experiencing with social-distancing and isolation:

The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practising an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake.

Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.” 

Kurt Vonnegut

and from another successful writer:

Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It’s about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy. 

Stephen King

As always – feel free to share the post and ideas, or any work you’ve been inspired to write:)

Happy Writing

Seasonal Changes Can Inspire Us All To Write

st kilda statue in gardens

Day Seventeen – Melburnians Ditch the Sunscreen

Winter isn’t supposed to start until June in Australia, but yesterday and today in Mordialloc, after torrential rain most of the night, we woke to a decidedly, wintry chill.

When I opened the door to take Josie for her walk, a cold blast of wind from the sea had collected the temperature from the South Pole and Josie gave me a look that said, ah, now I know why you put that coat on!

For those who don’t know, Melbourne has a reputation of ‘four seasons in the one day‘ so this quick turnaround in the weather (temperatures dropping from low 20s to 8 degrees) doesn’t really come as a surprise.

However, it is still autumn and I’ve always advised overseas friends to visit Melbourne in autumn, the season when I think the city looks its best. Here’s hoping the icy blast is an aberration and not the future because of climate change, the other catastrophe we face along with COVID 19!

Autumn
Mairi Neil

Autumn… a time to enjoy
the clocks changed
an extra hour
To snuggle beneath the doona

Autumn… a season with warm days
pretending summer still around
walks in the park
crunching leaves underfoot

Autumn… a time of colour
rainbows drop from trees
vibrant flowers
playing peek-a-boo through fences

Autumn… a season to pause
contemplate winter’s chill
prepare body and soul
with warming soups and good books

Autumn… a time of contemplation
remembering sacrifice
Easter story and ANZAC
Love and hope the best human qualities

© 2013

Exercise 1:

  • Write down your thoughts on autumn, or any other season for that matter?
  • Think of the likes and dislikes, the activities you can or can’t do,

bird in backyard Mordialloc

Other parts of the world are heralding spring and as I discovered when I visited Siberia in April 2017, there are places where winter lingers longer than others.

And if you live in the Pacific Islands, summer seems to last all year. Here is the survival kit I advise everybody to have when they visit Samoa like I did!

samoan-survivial-kit-insect-repellent-sunblock-water-fan-and-a-cool-sarong

No matter where you live you can write about the seasons and if you have been lucky enough to travel there is the added material of comparison and maybe even the awe factor depending on where and when you travelled.

Exercise 2:

Look at any photographs to jog your memory and help add colour and authenticity to your stories if you describe what you see.

Some countries specialise in having breathtaking seasons like Cherry Blossom time in Japan, where I was fortunate to visit in 1984. Here is a short piece about the trip. cherry blossom time by Mairi Neil

I also wrote some haiku after the visit – that’s almost compulsory!

Haiku
Mairi Neil

Cherry blossoms fall
pink velvet raindrops
crushed underfoot

Tranquil and silent
old men hushed
as blossoms on ground

Children play peek-a-boo
mothers ponder
the change in the wind

Vibrant colours everywhere
blossoms float and fall
brightening my day

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Seasonal Snippets

Exercise 3:

  • What is your favourite season?
  • Why?
  • What season do you dislike?
  • Why?
  • Write a short story so we know what season it is but don’t mention the name of the season

Here is an effort I wrote in class a few years ago The Luck of The Irish by Mairi Neil.

Exercise 4:

  • Have you an opinion about changing the clocks?
  • Write a story about the main character forgetting to change the clocks.
  • have you ever forgotten to change the clocks? What happened – were there consequences?

Exercise 5:

Choose a group of words and write a story, poem, anecdote – set a time limit of 10-20 minutes – this would be the average writing time in a class. You can change the form of the word but try and include them all.

  • frost, grey, drizzle, crowded, pause, research, lifeless, overheard, swirl, honey
  • flap, dreamy, duty, pondered, valley, obscure, spectacle, scrumptious, harvest, wax
  • wildflowers, whispers, forest, starlight, misted, map, fireplace, trail, tumbling, butterfly
  • umbrella, breezy, peaceful, sandals, cascade, seashells, glance, waves, dolphin, silver

Remember – leave your writing for a day or two and then reread, edit, rewrite:)

Playful Seasons
Mairi Neil

In dewy meadow, Spring flowers bright
buttercups bloom, a magnificent sight
while strolling upon this carpet of gold
a test is remembered from days of old
a yellow flower waved under the chin
do you like butter, we asked with a grin.

In dewy meadow, under strong Summer sun
childhood revisited as we have some fun
clumps of wild daisies smile up at me
their perfect white petals fluttering free
a bunch of daisies transformed with love
necklace and bracelet feather soft as a dove

In dewy meadow, Autumn leaves fall
dandelions transform into puffballs
with gentle breaths, we blow and blow
discovering Time as spores drift like snow
one o’clock, two o’clock –– maybe three
until naked stem is all we can see.

In dewy meadow, Winter walks are brisk
the puddles ice over putting feet at risk
I spy a toddler wearing bright rubber boots
splashing in puddles, not giving two hoots
a flashback to childhood appears in the rain
it’s worth wet socks to feel carefree again.

© 2014

How many Seasons Are There? Does Australia Have More Than Four?

In 2014, Dr Tim Entwisle, the director of Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens wrote a book called, Sprinter and Sprummer challenging the traditional four seasons, and encouraging Australians to think about how we view changes in our natural world. He said, since 1788, Australia has carried the yoke of four European seasons that make no sense in most parts of the country. 

When he was on the ABC to explain his book and ideas he stirred up interest, support, antagonism and fascination. Many people agreed with the author that the reality for Australia is many more seasons than the traditional four but few liked Sprinter and Sprummer as names!

Living in Sydney, London and now Melbourne, I’m convinced that the four traditional seasons don’t make sense in Australia. My proposal is that we instead have five seasons based on the climatic and biological cycles we observe around us.

… minutes, hours, days and months are the way we organise our lives—sowing crops, attending job interviews, picking up kids from child care, playing footy, getting our hair cut and so on. Seasons are for noting, celebrating and tracking the changes in the world around us. If we get them wrong we don’t lose our crop, job or children.

It’s a tweaking of the current system. The familiar anchors, summer and winter, are there, but the bits in between and the duration of the seasons are adjusted for the southern Australian climate…

We could embrace one of the Aboriginal seasonal systems, but I fear this might be just too radical for most Australians (who, contrary to popular belief, are a rather conservative people)…

Then there is climate change and the fact that the seasons are changing, whether we like it or not. Perhaps we need an evolving system of seasons. However, we should at least get it right in the first place and try to reflect, if not our specific region, then large sections of the country.

There are no perfect or correct seasons. I am happy for my system to be rigorously debated and tested, and I would be thrilled if, through more people observing and monitoring the natural world, I have to totally redesign it.

In the South West of WA – there are some widely acknowledged Noongar Seasons which correspond well with what is suggested in the article.

Djilba (Sprinter) – Aug-Sep
Kambarang (Sprummer) – Oct-Nov
Birak-Bunnuru (Summer) – Dec-Mar
Djeran (Autumn) – Apr-May
Makuru (Winter) – Jun-Jul

People in Melbourne should also visit the Indigenous Garden and Forest display at the museum (after lockdown is over) and learn what our indigenous people call the seasons – and there are more than the arbitrary four we cling to, although I have devoted past posts to writing about winter.

Exercise 6:

  • What are your thoughts on Sprinter and Sprummer? Have you alternative names?
  • How do you cope with the seasons – is there a special ritual attached to your changing seasons, maybe they should be called that eg. Vegetable planting season, tree trimming season, burning-off season …
  • in suburbia, it could be tourist season and roadworks season
  • or maybe we should have flu and COVID19 season and healthy season…

charles dickens quote.jpg

There will be plenty of creative writing around coping with COVID19 and speculation as to how the world coped with the global crisis.

Writers draw inspiration from observing the world, people, situations, politics, trends – we are all opinionated! Sometimes it is good to let your thoughts marinate and have the benefit of hindsight or reflection.

Most people are worried about the next few months but many are also planning the shape of the world’s recuperation and recovery:

poster at st michaels 2016.jpg

The Fall of 2016
Mairi Neil

For some the change of seasons
can be bitter chocolate…
Autumn succumbs to winter,
days darken like spiced cider
and blackened bark,
heralding winter’s deadly cull,
lauding lifeless landscapes.

Sticks and stones underfoot
not grassy knolls or mossy rounds.
Colourful autumn foliage invites
fanciful names…
Rickshaw red
Obstinate orange
Spiced cinnamon
Frog Pond green
Golden treasure
Moroccan sunset
Chile sunrise…

But like Wall Street’s
soulless stock surprises
and the rust belt of America’s
presidential choice,
winter winds bluster
sweeping lonely leaves loose…
Colours crunched to mush

Ashes to ashes
Dust to dust
Intoned                      endured
until Mother Nature’s miracle
rebirths Earth…

And a tiny shoot springs to life.

We Always Need Hope especially In Today’s World

Hope is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the conviction that something is moral and right and just and therefore you fight regardless of the consequences.

Hope is the quality of character that sustains belief under seemingly impossible situations – when kindness seems impossible or poverty inevitable or when the world seems cruel and life unbearable.

People encounter sources of hope in the imagination, in the words and examples of others, and in witness to the natural wonders around us every day.

Hope does not extinguish suffering but sustains the belief that there can be an end to it, if not in your own life, then in the future. And so hope propels you into action.

Vaclav Havel,playwright and former Czech Republic President 

Here is a short story Spring has Sprung by Mairi Neil

And just because it has been so wet this weekend, here’s a reminder we are a country of ‘drought and flooding rains’ with a poem and a piece of flash fiction written in class splurge time A Roof Over One’s Head by Mairi Neil

Flash Storm Flushes and Flusters
Mairi Neil

Who will be the first to drown
from the heavens challenge
of a waterfall tumbling down?
‘Not me,’ said those with umbrellas held high
‘Nor me,’ said others huddled inside and dry.

‘I don’t care,’ cried the child with glee
splashing in puddles; yelling, ‘Look at me!’

Thunder roared and growled –
was that a lightning flash?
People braved the downpour
and made a dash – for bus shelters
snuggled close to strangers – others
crossed streets ignoring dangers.

‘I don’t care,’ cried the child with glee
splashing in puddles; yelling, ‘Look at me!’

Any port in a storm a cliche true
doorways and porches home
for more than drenched few
downpipes sagged and gushed
collapsed under watery weight
surging water made rivers of roads
scheduled transport cancelled or late.

‘I don’t care,’ cried the child with glee
splashing in puddles; yelling, ‘Look at me!’

Soaked, sodden, and shivering
commuters crowd tram, train and bus
meteorological or seasonal confusion?
No, – it’s Melbourne – no need to fuss.
Who cares? cries the inner child with glee  –
splashing in puddles looks fun to me!

© 2017

lone magpie

Happy Writing!

Do You Talk to Yourself or the Dog or Maybe the Furniture?

board outside kiosk Mordialloc.jpg

Day Fifteen – Add Dialogue to the Scene

How we talk and what we say is part of our personality and our character. Others will often judge us by our speech (the content as well as manner), may even identify us by the way we talk.

For instance, because I still have a recognisable accent people will refer to me as ‘that Scotswoman’,’the Scots lass’, ‘the lady with an accent’, ‘the woman who speaks funny’,  ‘Jock’, ‘the Pommy’, ‘the Brit’, ‘the Irish one’ – I’ve also had variations not so complimentary ‘the foreigner’, ‘the red-ragger’ ‘that wog’  …

What you say and how you say it is important. It is important in real life and therefore is important in writing – with a few tricks and rules of what not to do thrown in.

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People pick up your mood by your tone of voice – those who know you will not only pick up the obvious mood but also the nuances.

You know, how a domestic scene can play out:

Do you like my new dress?

A few seconds pause.

Of course, I do, dear.

You didn’t even look.

Yes, I did dear.

No, you didn’t.

Remote Control for TV is grabbed, stabbed and television silenced.

You can have a really good look now.

Hmmm. Very… nice… dear.

talking statue Isaac Newton - British Library.jpg
You can ask questions of many of the statues around London and learn about the life of famous people such as Isaac Newton at the British Library…

Dialogue Is Important

But it can be difficult to write so that it sounds natural. you don’t want your characters to sound like a talking statue – wooden, without warmth, boring, unrealistic…

Dialogue is difficult to master as a writer. You have to constantly work at it to sound natural but you can’t be over the top with accents or else characters can become caricatures.

Most people don’t speak in grammatical or even complete sentences but you can’t write in all the ums and ahs either. There has to be a balance.

It is as author Stephen King advises,

Writing good dialogue is art as well as craft.”

Filmmaker Quentin Tarantino adds,

“If I’m doing my job right, then I’m not writing dialogue; the characters are saying the dialogue, and I’m just jotting it down.”

This is what I tried to do in a class exercise years ago – the students could choose a picture as a prompt and had to write more than one voice into the scene without using he said, she said etc. A Fishy Story by Mairi Neil

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Try these simple exercises—

Go to a busy place and listen to people. Dialogue moves a story along quite quickly but it must sound authentic.

At the moment with COVID-19 if you are in lockdown, you will have to rely on memory or eavesdrop on neighbours or whoever is sharing your house, or put on a DVD of a film or watch a documentary, game show, (even adverts) to make notes of conversations. (Scroll down for exercises)

If people are with friends or family, they will speak more naturally.  Find someone who is sitting with a friend and listen (don’t be too intrusive or you might be accused of stalking or receive threats with violence for being rude and nosy!).

If you’re in a coffee shop, you might overhear people talking to friends about what’s been going on in their life. This is the best way to hear a conversation you can write as natural dialogue. For me, the best inspiration for stories and dialogue tips found when travelling on public transport

The old man eased into the seat opposite and raised his trilby. His courteous nod revealed a bald patch atop thinning grey hair. A Lancashire brogue boomed, ‘Morning ma’am, Fred’s the name, pension bludger’s me game.’

Doris smiled. In her cultured Australian accent, she said, ‘I’m Doris and I’m retired too.’

‘I’m eighty-five,’ Fred said waving a gnarled hand, ‘and feeling it today.’ His rheumy blue eyes darted from Doris to other passengers engrossed in conversation or plugged into mp3 players. ‘ I don’t know why I’m still alive,’ he added with a fit of coughing.

Brown eyes widened as Doris squirmed in the vinyl seat; picked at an imaginary spot on her linen skirt. In a barely audible voice, she said, ‘I’m eighty-five too and thank God for still being here.’ She blinked. ‘Many of my friends aren’t.’

Fred adjusted silver-rimmed spectacles slipping close to the edge of his hooked nose. He rubbed at his short beard; licked creased lips. A garden gnome coming to life flashed into Doris’s mind, but her smile disappeared when he said, ‘I don’t believe in God or Eternal Life. Don’t worry about shuffling off. Don’t give a toss what happens when I die.’

Doris kneaded her wedding ring and clasped her hands to still restless fingers. Fair eyelashes flickered behind tortoiseshell glass frames as she noted Fred’s blue-grey cotton bomber-jacket and matching trousers, his fashionable fine-checked shirt. Tieless, but neat; plus his black leather loafers gleamed and screamed ex-army. Arthur always said, ‘you can tell an ex-serviceman by their polished shoes.’ He was inevitably right.

Not wanting to give offence, she chose her words, adopting the placating tone she used when her husband got in one of his moods. ‘Our generation, who served throughout the war, question what we were taught to believe.’ She tensed thin shoulders. ‘A wiser power than us will reveal the truth when ready.’

Fred ignored the last sentence. ‘That’s right love, eight years in the Royal Navy – joined up for the duration and stayed on a bit.’ His voice flattened, ‘survived being bombed, being sunk twice and,’ he ended with a flourish, ‘bad grub and too much grog.’

Doris laughed. Students sitting nearby smirked, the plump matron lowered her magazine. Doris thought of Arthur and the legacy of his experience. The tram stuttered past towering office blocks, darkened inside as a large cloud swallowed the sun. She shivered. Did Fred suffer night sweats and awful dreams? She remembered Arthur’s flashbacks of the trauma of his war; his years of heavy drinking. Did Fred’s wife contend with erratic and sometimes violent outbursts amid his jolliness?

She forced her attention to the present as her companion said, ‘I had eight brothers you know –– and they’re all dead. I’m the lucky last!’ He paused. ‘Well, I don’t know about luck, but I’m the bloody last.’

from Just for The Moment, Mairi Neil

Watch a good movie. Quentin Tarantino movies are known for their excellent dialogue, but there’s an endless list of what you can watch to improve your writing. Dialogue is usually well planned in films for maximum value. There’s only a limited amount of time to say something on the screen. The film is a great reference for studying good AND bad dialogue.

Write a scene where each character can only say one sentence. How will you convey what they’re trying to say and move the story along with a limited amount of dialogue? This will also help you improve your descriptive writing. Remember, sometimes less is more when it comes to dialogue. You want to show your readers what’s going on, not tell them.

Watch a clip from either a TV show or a movie, and rewrite the dialogue in that scene. How can you improve it? What can be cut out? What can be added? This will help you understand dialogue and how you can improve your own.

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Shop in Orkney

Be a good observer and listener

Identify some key variables and play with them. if you write good dialogue, the reader feels they are in the story with the character. They are right there and can hear the voice. You have to avoid just having talking heads with no real action or using the dialogue to dump a lot of information rather than move the story forward.

Think back and analyse a recent conversation and ask these questions:

  • What was said?
  • How was it said?
  • Who said it?
  • Why was it said?
  • How did you perceive it?

If you can remember the last argument, debate or disagreement you had or witnessed even better to capture it in words.

If you can “hear” the character’s voice in your head, that’s better than any worksheet. Think of the key variables influencing dialogue:

Perhaps goals and agendas, characters’ knowledge of each other, characters’ attitudes toward each other, relative status of the characters …

  • What type of vocabulary does a character use (formal, slang, profane, simple sophisticated… )
  • How does the character structure their sentences (hesitations, complex or simple, fragmented, long-winded… )
  • What attitude or tone of voice does the character have (abrupt, sarcastic, imperious, humble, polite, rude, boastful, flirtatious, angry, pedantic… )
  • What subject matter or commentary does the character prefer ( egotistic, talking about self, sensitive, gossipy, apologetic, religious, anxious, worried about money, bombastic…)

Here is a story I wrote from a prompt that said you had to have three characters with very different voices Without Grace a short story Mairi Neil

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It is also important to remember that silence or a pause in a scene can be realistic dialogue and reveal more about the character and plot development than pages of dialogue or telling.

Action is the best way to show external conflict and dialogue and internalisation by the character (thoughts) the best ways to present the internal struggles.

Your Turn To Write

I’ve chosen some pictures of scenes that scream story – you can manipulate the setting and people to any country or era you choose.

I love Edward Hopper‘s paintings – they are evocative of an America from an era I remember in movies, television shows and many novels.

These pictures are from a beautiful book of his most famous works I picked up in a wonderful bookshop in Melbourne’s centre.  They sold Remainder hardback stock at a fraction of the original cost. I’ve never been in a job with a high salary but when I was young and single and working in the city in the 70s and 80s, I haunted Mary Martin’s bookshop.

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Nighthawks 1942 by Edward Hopper a painting that portrays people in a downtown diner late at night. It is Hopper’s most famous work and is one of the most recognisable paintings in American art.
Hopper 2
Chop Suey, 1929, two women in conversation at a restaurant
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Office At Night, 1940, open to endless interpretation.

Throughout his career, Edward Hopper was concerned with the relationship between “the facts” of observation and the improvisation that happened when making a work of art. Use your imagination and write about the characters.

Reveal their personalities and character through dialogue as well as behaviour.

Things to think about:

You can write from the point of view of one character – what is their goal or agenda?

  • Does the non-point of view character have a hidden agenda? What is their backstory?
  • Change one character’s attitude toward the other 
  • Change one character’s knowledge about the other.
  • Change the relative status between the characters (increase or decrease the difference in status, or swap their statuses)

If these pictures don’t spark your imagination then practise writing dialogue by:

Write a scene with two characters having an extremely tense conversation in a peaceful setting such as

  • the botanical gardens,
  • an avenue of cherry blossom trees,
  • an empty beach
  • an empty church
  • a cemetery

OR

Imagine a courtroom scene or a police interview room,  a telephone conversation between a teenager and parent, or a scene at a reception desk where there has been a mistake with a booking.

Finally – You Can Do a Dr Doolittle…

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Write a story from the point of view of animals at the zoo or domestic pets – give them a voice!

Happy Writing

Tell Me Five Things That Make You Happy

dancing 2008

Day Eleven – Is Alone Time Heaven?

Or would you rather be in Devon? (It rhymes!) Or anywhere but isolation, quarantined and unable to do what you usually do.

There are many memes doing the rounds of Facebook along with thousands of others, plus videos of people joking/coping at their changed circumstances because of COVID19.

Two are relevant to this post because I’m promoting writing as a means to fill in time, relieve boredom, improve your creative output, write that novel, memoir, poem, letter, journal you’ve always wanted to write – or just have fun playing around with words.

Today I want people to think about happiness – specifically –

What makes you happy?

Have you figured out the things in life that truly make you happy? Have those things changed as you’ve gotten older? Or changed since the onset of the global catastrophe of COVID19?

Here is another quote by Anne Frank you can use as a prompt  – write down your answer after you have looked around – whether it be out your window, in your home or garden or workplace.

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In a 2010 article in the New York Times, (I did say at the beginning of these daily postings, I am recycling old lessons!) “The Keys to Happiness,” Victoria Shannon reports on what we know about how to achieve happiness, according to recent research and expert advice:

Make Friends and Family a Priority

One of the longest-running studies on living well and happily emphasises the importance of your relationships with family, friends and spouses.

At this time of upheaval, this is obvious.  However, it will also have its negatives and be a testing time for many families. Sadly, in times of crisis incidences of domestic violence increase, the likelihood of divorce too sometimes sooner rather than later.

On the positive side, some relationships strengthen and I think in some countries, if not all, there may be a baby boom!

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My daughters got complementary tattoos to cement their love for each other (inspired by Neil Diamond, their Dad’s favourite singer)

… Especially on Weekends

Busy lives can get in the way of happiness. Our feeling of wellbeing peaks on weekends, largely because of more time spent with friends and family, if you are lucky to have that regular time off. This is when people go to the zoo, visit museums, have picnics, trips to the beach, attend festivals, go for that regular bike ride…

You can’t do any of the above at the moment but you can visit many of those public facilities online – most museum and art institutions have virtual tours, zoos are posting what the animals are getting up to, and unless you are in lockdown, you can walk around the neighbourhood. Obey social distancing rules and wave to others, walk the dog, absorb the beauty in gardens – and you can still go for a bike ride.

Write about what activities you can still do – have you made new friends? reconnected with old friends? Learnt a new skill?

Or you can write about any of the activities you used to do at the weekends – perhaps the most memorable visit. Maybe a character in your story has to adjust to being housebound or restricted in some way – there are many people where being restricted is the norm!

Perhaps Anne Frank’s experience teaches us to count our blessings… write about how blessed you are now.

Income Equality Helps (So Move to Scandinavia)

National unhappiness is strongly associated with a country’s social inequality, research shows. One index finds that Scandinavia, a place with a wide and broad social net, is the location of the world’s happiest countries.

However, perhaps after this global crisis things will change… can you write down some ideas, dreams of what will improve where you live?

There was a lovely video of happy Italians playing music and singing from the balconies of their apartments during their lockdown. Another report from the UK showed a special hour where millions of people stood in their gardens or doorways clapping and cheering the workers in the National Health System to thank them for working during this health crisis.

When we value our community and the workers that keep important facilities and services there is more cohesion and happiness, less war and conflict and we all feel better.

What do you value in your community or friendship circle?

Gratitude Does, Too


Pharrell Williams, the star behind the 2014 hit music video “Happy,” on the happiness phenomenon: ”If you’re grateful, you can find happiness in everything.”

  • Are you grateful for being accepted in a new country, or new suburb, new club?
  • Are you grateful for your parents, children, siblings?
  • Are you grateful for your pets?
  • Are you grateful for your home, workplace, community house?

Now you have the time, reflect on what makes you happy and grateful – and express that thanks in writing.

I am blessed, I know and have often written about being grateful for the constant expression of love from my daughters and friends.

I try and reciprocate and pay it forward too.

The Health Factor

A correlation between happiness and good health has been evident for centuries. But which comes first? Does robust health lead to a good mood or the reverse?

Now is the time to find out, discuss, reflect and write!!

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from Facebook – some food for thought.

It’s Really Good for Kids

Happy kids learn faster, think more creatively, tend to be more resilient in the face of failures, have stronger relationships and make friends more easily.

Well, most of them. There have been plenty of reports and investigations into cyberbullying, the negative effects of social media etc. There are unhappy children and adolescents and so adults must all work harder to ensure we create an environment for happy children.

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Don’t Overdo It
 or Obsess About It

Happiness engineers, chief fun officers, ministers of happiness … there’s evidence that “fungineering” at work might have precisely the opposite effect: making people miserable.

Write your thoughts on the belief that the pursuit of happiness may be an unhealthy preoccupation. Do some people have too high expectations?

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If All Else Fails, Fake It


Can you fake your way to confidence and happiness? if you read some of the self-help and advice books circulating, the answer will be ‘YES’.

Some people swear by the power of positive thinking to banish negativity. They say focus on achieving your dreams or surviving bad times and things will work out.

 

  1. What recent moments of happiness have you experienced, whether large or small?
  2. What do you think made them so satisfying?
  3. Have you figured out a “magic formula” for happiness that works for you?
  4. A few days ago I wrote about a recipe for a good mood.   Can you share your recipe for happiness?
  5. What will change as you get older – or what has changed recently as you cope with COVID19 news?
  6. What is your reaction to the keys of happiness listed above?
  7. Did any of the keys surprise you – is there something missing? A spiritual aspect to life perhaps that is important?
  8. In an earlier post, I talked about keys – did you write about the key to happiness then?

How Full Is Your Glass?

  • People have a significantly lower death rate over 30 years if they maintain an optimistic attitude.
  • Are you an optimist or a pessimist?
  • What do you think is healthy about whichever attitude you possess?
  • What might be some benefits to viewing life from the opposite perspective?
  • Write a story of an optimist and pessimist being trapped somewhere together – unlikely holiday companions, work buddies during a crisis, living in a share house, trapped in a lift – or in a cabin on a cruise ship!

Five Things That Make Me Happy

Mairi Neil

  1. Birdsong in the morning and watching the birds cavort in the garden – especially the wattlebirds feeding on the grevillea and the magpies searching the ground for worms or carolling to each other from the electric wires. I also love when the lorikeets visit each day and feed on the bottlebrush outside my window.
  2. Clean sheets – I love getting into bed between clean sheets, the smooth feel and fresh smell.
  3. I’m happy when my daughters are – Mary Jane’s witticisms and her infectious laugh; Anne’s smile lighting up her deep blue eyes especially when she shares stories of her travels.
  4. I’m happy when the words come and I can finish a writing project.
  5. I’m happy when I get a phone call from friends, to chat or catch up over coffee, or when they drop in for a visit whether planned or unplanned.

Please share what makes you happy – and remember

… once the storm is over you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure, in fact, whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.

                                                      Haruki Murakami

The sharing of joy, whether physical, emotional, psychic, or intellectual, forms a bridge between the sharers which can be the basis for understanding much of what is not shared between them and lessens the threat of their difference.              

                                                      Audre Lord

Here is a short story with a theme of love and happiness – the prompt was a picture of four elderly people sitting on a bench… waiting… Unspoken, a short story by mairi neil

Happy Writing

Do You Know Who’s Telling The Story?

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Day Eight – Storytelling Is Great

What story will you tell? How are you going to tell it?

  • What style? Short sharp sentences? Long flowery paragraphs?
  • Who will tell the story?

These are two important questions to answer and the impact on each other of your choice matters.

Point of View (POV) is very important because it is linked closely to ‘voice’ which determines style, and is usually individual and recognisable. (This is why we often get attached to particular writers, not just because of the subject matter of their novels but how they write.)

Point of View

Is the perspective from which a story is told and generally these are the most common ones used in creative writing:

  • Third Person Omniscient – the narrator knows all the thoughts, motives and feelings of each character
  • Third Person Limited – the narrator stands outside the action and focuses on one character’s thoughts, feelings and observations.
  • First Person – the main character tells his/her own story and refers to himself as I, or another character tells the story from their point of view – a voyeur watching/interpreting the protagonist’s life
  • Second Person – the story is told by a narrator talking to the reader, using the key words You or your. (This is a difficult one to sustain in a long piece of writing and can become irritating for the reader too.
  • Third Person – the story is told by the narrator using the key words He/She/They
  • Objective – the Narrator does not tell the thoughts or feelings of anyone, so only action and words are reported

Some writers favour one particular point of view, others change their style depending on the story and genre.  Some writers will experiment, perhaps flitting between more than one narrator.

If you choose the first-person often it is a personal narrative. (Memoir/Life Story/Autobiographical) but it can also be used in a short story fictional story.

  • Will you make it moody with lots of description? Chatty and informal? Dark and/or Gothic?
  • One hazard of writing in the first person is that your readers tend to think that I-the-narrator is actually I-the-author – so be clear if you are writing fiction.

Whatever your point of view, when choosing the tone, pick whatever POV you feel you can sustain and remain easy and consistent.

  • Don’t take on a  tone that is unnatural for you.
  • Watch you don’t change tone or direction – perhaps taking too long to write the story, and in the long gaps between sessions, your mood and motivation have changed.
  • also, be wary of editing to perfection, or for brevity and destroying the flow of your story:)

A consistent tone is preferred for each short story and usually, it works better if told in one voice.

POV is a writer’s closest connection to the readers.

  • It creates meaning beyond that offered by the simple combination of character and plot; it adds subtext and secrets and suspense.
  • It is a writing element every bit as important as pacing or setting and, for that matter, is an essential part of developing plot and character.
  • It filters the experience of the plot events through the personalities and perceptions of the characters. Who is narrating the event (that is, the POV character) determines in great part how the reader experiences it.

Therefore, it is considered best practice to stick with just one point of view telling your story. (But there are always exceptions… once you are a confident writer.)

In a short story, that means the hero or heroine, the main character, the protagonist – whatever you want to call them is telling the story.

  • Too many points of view and the reader may be confused. Let them see the world of the story through the eyes and feelings of one character.

If you are writing in First Person, be careful not to read the thoughts of others in your story! 

The modern way is to tell the story from a single point of view. Head-hopping is discouraged.

Always remember, if writing from ‘I’, the first person, you cannot witness events you are not directly involved in, just like you cannot know what another character is thinking. If you want to be all-knowing then choose third-person omniscient!

Experiment and see what is right for your story and what POV you will use.

As always, once you know what you are doing you can experiment and break the accepted rules but expert writers usually advise not to experiment with POV – think about the confusion you can visit upon the reader!

However, an example of originality is a novel I loved, but I know many didn’t: The Time Traveller’s Wife, (2003) the first novel by  Audrey Niffenegger. (Please note, I loved the book, not the movie!)

Written in the first person, the novel is divided between the viewpoint of the two main characters Henry and Clare. The reader has an insight into the detailed emotions, feelings, thoughts and experiences of each main character.

Here is an example of a short story I wrote in 2004, influenced I admit by reading The Time Traveller’s Wife, (I got the courage to move away from the straight first person and my usual third person).  I tell a story from the viewpoint of three characters.

Impasse a short story, by Mairi Neil

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My story was published in Directions, an anthology by Bayside NightWriters  and written in one of my classes from a prompt:

  • Tell a story from different viewpoints of at least two characters, include a mobile phone, a truck driver and a traffic accident.

Writing Exercises For You:

  1. Take the prompt I had and write a story with two or three characters involved in an accident (could be traffic/air/boat)
  2. Kay frowned as she opened her locker. A few feet away Alexis and Christine grinned. I stood unsure of what to do.
  3. He grabbed the waitress by the arm and said, ‘ I’m senior detective Frank Jones and…
  4. Twinkling eyes can mean many things but the one twinkling at me right now is…
  5. I woke up to a strange noise and looked around the room. Where was I and how did I get here?

Ask questions to get a start on a story:

  • Who are all these people,
  • where are they,
  • what was in, or had been removed from the locker.
  • Why is the police officer grabbing the waitresses arm?
  • Are the twinkling eyes human? Is this set indoors or outdoors?
  • Are you the cold observer, or are you involved in some way? How?

Write from the first-person or third-person point of view and perhaps experiment with the others – whatever you feel the most comfortable with to make the ideas and words flow.

Stories Are Influenced By Current Events & Inventions

I can imagine we are going to be hearing about COVID19 for a long, long time! Writers are important to historians – we chronicle the time we live in, we exercise our reflective powers, our insight, our perspective, we discern the mood and we add our imagination and flair.

In 2004, mobile phones were just starting to proliferate although some business people had been using them for years. They were expensive, many thought them intrusive and unnecessary, and rumours they caused cancer abounded.

They were the latest invention/technology to be included in a lot of writing prompts with many pieces produced – usually not seeing them as a plus for society!

How things change!

Today, in this crisis of social isolation, we are grateful for having mobile phones – especially Smartphones!

Last night and tonight,  it was wonderful to hear laughter resonating throughout the house as my daughters caught up with friends using Facebook Messenger and Skype!

Each day of the Coronavirus Crisis I have been able to ring or message friends, family and ex-students to check they are okay.

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Not so long ago this was a common sentiment:

My parents did not even have a telephone or a TV set until the early 60s and thank God no mobile phones or computers, which take up an extraordinary amount of time these days.

When I wrote this poem in 1998 I was an observer and by the tone, you can see I held a different viewpoint from today because of my lived experience. In writing, context is everything.

Social Mobility a la 1998
Mairi Neil

They’re at the beach on a hot day,
in the queue at the Post Office,
interrupting a teller at the bank,
in the supermarket aisles and the checkouts,
sitting outside at a sidewalk cafe
at Southbank,
sitting inside in the Food Court
at Southland,
on trains, buses, trams,
on bicycles,
in cars, trucks, taxis,
walking the streets,
waiting at bus stops,
on train platforms,
at school gates,
in department stores,
in shopping malls,
in museums and art galleries,
at the zoo,
at meetings,
on picket lines,
at demonstrations,
outside courtrooms,
in lifts, on stairwells,
in public toilets,
in the school ground,
at school concerts,
at school assembly,
in church, at the theatre,
at the cinema, in hairdressers,
in classrooms at community houses,
and even at a funeral…
anywhere… anytime…
mobile phone
… anyone?

Today I might add Ubers and perhaps I would use a different tone, content, and context. perhaps I’d emphasise different experiences. That’s what is so wonderful about being a creative writer and continually being observant. Detail matters too.

Visual Prompts For POV

  1. What could these two lorikeets be talking about? Who took the picture? Why and from where? Is there danger lurking?

lorikeets feeding

  1. Who lives in this broken-down house? Why? What are the neighbours like? What conflicts could arise? What would happen if a developer bought it?

old house ormond street

It is a time of rapid change and anxiety – don’t be too hard on yourself – perhaps just aim for one great sentence or even a great idea for a story or poem you will get to ‘one day’.

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Happy Writing