More than Irish Eyes Are Smiling

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Last year, the frustration of failed words, struggling motivation and dashed hopes seemed to be my lot, although I enjoyed limited success with a poem published in the Australian Senior, July 2019 and a play shortlisted in ARKfest 2020.

Maybe I can still claim the title writer…

Satisfaction came by helping students achieve their writing dreams, which in Mary Robinson’s case (the Irish eyes of this post’s title) was a book she had been working on for several years before coming to the Life Stories & Legacies class at Godfrey Street, Bentleigh, ‘to finally, transform nostalgic reflections into a book to hold.

The class finished in 2018 but I promised Mary to help publish One Last Goodbye, a labour of love and a wonderful legacy for her daughter Catherine, and granddaughter Ilsa.

In the Introduction, Mary expresses why so many ‘pick up a pen’ or attend a writing class…

There are deeply personal reasons to finish writing my memoir. I am, I suppose, like most people who have reached the 80-year mark, conscious of time passing and wishing to reveal information to family members I may not have previously spoken of. I am also keenly aware of my daughter, Catherine, raising her child at a time of tumultuous change in Australia and the world.
I possess that innate human need to link the past with the future so that all our loved ones who came before us are honoured and their stories not lost. I want the generations who will follow to remember how hard their ancestors worked to give us all a better and slightly easier life, and the real sacrifices the Morans made to reach these goals. I want my darling little granddaughter, Ilsa to get a sense of where her kith and kin have come from so that no matter how far is travelled, both in terms of time and geography, she will feel the tug of her Irish roots and be inspired by their great efforts to meet the challenges in her own life as she grows up.

 

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A fellow student, Edna Gaffney, published her memoir in July, to celebrate her 90th birthday, giving Mary a fresh burst of energy to persist. Determination needed to see the project through because a series of health crises, including a bad fall led to an extended hospital stay to heal several broken bones in her hand and other damage.

(Murphy’s Law meant it was the writing hand!)

We set the deadline for November so copies of the book could be Christmas gifts to family overseas and just made it when the happy author held a copy on November 25th!

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The painting Crossroads, Bleaskill, Achill Sound, by Thomas Moran, Mary’s brother, adapted to good effect by my daughter, Mary Jane who has helped me with the ten books I’ve published in recent years.

The title of the book, a phrase Mary’s mother said each time her daughter left after a visit.  Echoed in the last line, it is a fitting end to the book, when on a visit ‘home’ in 2002, was indeed the last goodbye.

We had many discussions about the format (A4), titles and placements of chapters, what photographs to include, the cover design and blurb – a process of close collaboration to ensure the book encapsulates Mary’s love of her birthplace, Achill isle and her family. It was important to tell the story in a natural voice, including Gaelic words and local vernacular.

There is Irish history, information about traditional customs, and immense pride in the Irish diaspora’s contribution  – Mary’s family, the Morans – a clan scattered across several continents, like many others from Erin’s isle.

Before coming to Australia and continuing a long nursing career, Mary was a nun in the USA for 15 years.  This time in her life merits a stand-alone book if she felt inclined, however, it does not define her life of caring for others. Mary’s nursing career took her from London to Chicago, Perth, Port Hedland, Darwin, New Guinea and Melbourne, including an active part in the memorable 1986 Victorian Nurses Strike!

Modest and unassuming, Mary Robinson is typical of many ‘ordinary’ people who have lived extraordinary lives.

I always feel privileged to hear the journeys and help the women record their stories.  Society must not lose valuable contributions to the tapestry of herstory and history.

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Celebrating Each Other’s Success

Another student from the Bentleigh class offered to host a celebration and mini-launch of Mary’s book but organising a date to suit everyone over the Christmas period is not an easy task.

On Friday, December 27, most past students met for a delicious lunch and just ‘like old times’ we all read a piece of writing, listened to each other’s stories and congratulated Mary on her achievement.

Edna read a small piece from her book, Chibby From Brandy Creek reminding us of life in rural Australia during the 1930s Depression. She shared the wonderful news that her daughter was arranging for the printing of more books.

edna reading

A thoroughly modern Jan read a poem she confessed to ‘dashing off’ on her mobile phone while on the train. We sat enthralled at the funny rhyming verse about Christmas and the discovery of decorations like the ‘hairy fairy’.

An impressive, polished poem produced in ‘ten minutes’ – wow – and a demonstration that age is not a barrier to mastering technology!

jan reading her poem

Nora shared a delightful ‘Ode To The Pantry’ and reflected on her life as an Armenian immigrant integrating culinary and cultural practices, especially at a time like Christmas with traditional rituals.

She cleaned out the pantry to prepare for cooking expected treats and pondered the outcome if spices, seeds, sauces and legumes commonly found in Armenian recipes were forgotten or the wrong quantities used.

Special occasions need the added spice…

And we all agreed, we like added spice!

Nora reading her poem story

Janet read her poem The Mirror of ANZAC, written when she attended a ceremony at Gallipoli in 2000.

When she stood at the grave of a man from Mentone buried at Lone Pine, she reflected on the universal story of soldiers everywhere who fight and die far from home.

janet explaing her poem

Annie read a thoughtful essay with observations about various plants in her garden and having conversations with her flowers and trees when she is weeding, fertilising,  pruning and planting.

An ex-teacher, her essays always delve below the surface and like Nora’s stories; they are philosophical reflections on the human condition and human behaviour.

The gardening piece morphed into memories of her first teaching position, a tough gig. Assigned a class of Grade Threes comprising 36 pupils deemed ‘troublemakers’ and unwanted by the other teachers, it made her question her career choice.

Annie reading her story

Annie said to be a good gardener and teacher you have to stay alert and adapt, and like the needs of plants, we must nurture some children more than others.

Mary read a lovely poem about a rose presented to her by the Henry Lawson Society for her 80th birthday.

mary reading her poem

The care and development of the rose and the joy experienced when it blossomed an apt metaphor for the time and effort Mary put into writing her book and how she felt when she held a copy in her hands.

It was a lovely memory day, allowing me to bask and learn from the writing prowess of others.

I’ll finish the post with a memory Mary shares in her book that has remained from the moment she shared it in class:

We had many farm animals and so had to cut and dry a large supply of hay to feed them through the colder months when snow covered the fields and hills. The children helped with this process, gathering in the fields and helping to rake the hay into rows. Haymaking and wet weather made for bad work companions similar to the peat preparations. We always prayed for the rain to stay away. A day in the fields cutting and collecting hay both hard work and happiness. We all looked forward to 3:00pm when Mother came around. We watched eagerly as she passed around cups of tea and slices of home-baked soda bread. This picnic atmosphere made the hard work more bearable.
The next labour-intensive work was hoeing the potatoes out of the ground and piling them in hessian sacks. Father also cut, bundled and stacked the hay for the animals in the barn to last through winter. Farm life harsh with work never-ending. While growing up, I didn’t fully realise how extremely hard my father worked because he suffered in silence, never complaining or being negative. Life was what people did and they just got on with it.
Recently, by sheer accident, my brother, Michael spotted a photograph of Father in one of the many books that are published about our region. The book titled: I Remember It Well: Memories of Yesteryear, 120th Anniversary of Western People, published in 2003 by The Western People newspaper. They had not identified him by name but it was Father all right, just as I remember him, face concentrating on his work, yet managing to convey an air of cheerfulness. Whenever I read the caption: ‘Back-breaking work – an old man carries a creel of turf in Achill, 1967’ tears well and my heart constricts. Father was only in his sixties but looked eighty. All the decades of hard work aged him before his time and sadly, he died of a massive heart attack a few months after this picture was taken.

p9, One Last Goodbye, Mary Robinson

For many years, the regular exodus of Irish families to mainland Britain working skilled or semi-skilled jobs was vital to the British economy, especially the rebuilding necessary after the war. These workers returned home to work farms to provide for their families during the winter months and sent money home at other times. Some never returned home and hence statistics like 60% of the population of cities like Glasgow and Liverpool have Irish ancestry!

Many countries and many economies owe a debt of gratitude to the hard work of Irish immigrants and books like Mary Robinson’s, add faces, names and background details to enrich the stark statistics.

mary robinson and book

 

Australian Creatures Great and Small Need Respect and Restored Habitat but Right Now Rescue Remedies are Priority!

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At our local vet, a baby possum held by a qualified wildlife rescuer

Experts suggest more than a billion animals have died in the bushfires engulfing eastern Australia and animal rights groups have asked the Victorian Government to replicate the action of the NSW Government and drop thousands of kilograms of carrots and sweet potatoes into bushfire-affected areas to save starving wildlife.

Although feeding wildlife and making them dependent on people for food can create problems too. However, Lyn White, of Animals Australia has said:

This is an unprecedented situation which requires unique and innovative solutions.

It is indeed!

And Guardian Australia revealed two days ago that already 80% of the Blue Mountains and 50% of Gondwana rainforests have burned – and the bushfire crisis is ongoing.

As a conservationist and longtime supporter of animal organisations, even proudly earning the title ‘Champion’ from WWF Australia,  never in my worst nightmare did I think the devastation we are experiencing would happen, but the signs have been there for a long time regarding habitat destruction as this 1999 article states:

birds already facing extinction

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Some mythology has the crow as a portent of death…

The terrible losses suffered must motivate all levels of government and all communities to think about development, urban creep, logging, mining, land clearing and overall treatment of our rivers, parks and nature reserves.

Do we want a world with less diversity, a world without birdsong, a world where TV documentaries or zoos are the only available access to certain species?

The only creature on earth whose natural habitat is a zoo is the zookeeper.

Robert Brault

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What have we done & What can we do?

The statistics of a billion animals dead and millions of acres destroyed, and figures skyrocketing daily are too massive for me to comprehend. This is where a picture is worth a thousand words and heart-breaking images saturating social media and the traditional press show the urgency of this climate catastrophe.

There are also heartwarming stories and pictures of animals being rescued and treated for burns, other injuries, plus starvation or thirst because their homes no longer exist.

Communities not affected by the fires have responded in amazing ways. One of the most popular and most needed at the beginning of the bushfire disaster was the plea for pouches for injured and orphaned baby koalas, kangaroos, wallabies, wombats, possums and bats.

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Late November, I attended a special sewing workshop to make these pouches at Mordialloc Neighbourhood House.

Bushfires had been burning for weeks in Queensland and NSW but increased as summer drew near and temperatures got hotter. Much of the news taken up with debates about climate change, fire resources and apportioning blame and it took some time for the public to understand the impact on our wildlife.

I was aware because of membership of WWF but wanted to do something practical. I can still hear my parents saying, ‘actions speak louder than words’ and I always feel I’ve achieved something if I can see a practical outcome.

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However, it felt strange attending a workshop as a participant, not the facilitator!  I hadn’t visited the House for two years although I’d taught writing there for over twenty and it was the ‘home’ of Mordialloc Writers Group.

There was a new manager, and I didn’t know anyone in the sewing group – in fact, I was the only ring-in who had answered the call advertised on Facebook.

the sewing b at Mordi house

Made welcome immediately and offered a brief tutorial,  I joined the production line, to cut out pouches and listen to expert advice and tips. I took a baker’s dozen pouches home to sew and posted them to Sydney the following week, receiving a lovely email of appreciation.

The patterns are freely available from the Animal Rescue Freecycle Craft Guild and many other places found on Google. You can mix and match material – injured wildlife care about comfort (cotton or other soft materials for liners) not fashion.

Knitters and those able to crochet can make items too and Facebook groups have sprung up advertising community gatherings and mass knitting and crochet events.

I had an attempt at knitting an outer pouch over Christmas but the pile of pouches I sent to Gippsland were mainly liners from cutting up a flannelette sheet.

Not sure if it was because I was recovering from surgery, misread the pattern, or I’m a slow knitter, but the one outer pouch I knitted took ages and turned out a different size than I expected. And here was me thinking the pattern would be easier to follow than the Poppy Project I did!

Support From All Over Australia and Internationally

Just like the firefighting and fundraising efforts, people from all over the world have rallied to send money and craft items for a variety of wildlife organisations. I’ve heard reports the response has overwhelmed some centres with koala mittens and bat wraps, while others desperately need large pouches for kangaroos.

I hope this fabulous outpouring of support will continue but we must put pressure on those in power to accept the realities of climate change, accept the consequences of lost or degraded habitat and instigate policies to turn this tragic situation around.

Life's gamble

Think Global and Act Local

Our CSIRO scientists warned us about the effects of climate change as has Greta Thunberg and the ‘A-list’ of conservationists headed by Sir David Attenborough and Jane Goodall.

As I write, giant hailstones pelt Parliament House, Canberra – I’m sad for the damage to vegetation, homes and birds but oh, how I wish they could knock some sense into the politicians ignoring all the best advice from public servants, emergency service personnel and scientists.

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Meanwhile,  we can all look after the native vegetation and wildlife in our own communities – and for most of us living in suburbia that could include possums, wombats, lizards, ducks and birds. Although experts do not recommend feeding because of increased development and unusual weather patterns, looking out for the health of native wildlife will ensure their survival.

Download Fact Sheets about feeding here: https://www.healthywildlife.com.au/documents-to-download/#/

Ringtail and Brushtail possums in Melbourne have suffered because of increased development, domestic cats, and the periods of intense summer heat becoming longer. Some councils have guidelines to help positive interaction between human and possum.

possum info 2012

On hot days I leave a bit of food and water in the garden for our resident possums. Some friends do the same for their furry friends.

Although nocturnal animals, our little possums come down to sleep in the camellia tree during the day when it is boiling – a behaviour I’ve never seen until recently.

Sadly, when out walking I’ve come across dead possums more often.  They may have died because of the heat, starvation, a cat or dog attack and even electrocution when they’ve got too close to power lines.

Native birds dislocated because of dense development, the drought, changing climate, introduced species and lost habitat can also do with some proactive love if you still want to wake up to birdsong.

It is preferable to plant trees and flowers that provide natural food but that isn’t always possible in an urban environment.

I love it when the magpies, butcher birds, wattlebirds, rainbow lorikeets and even the vocal noisy minors visit me. Several bottlebrushes provide a feast for various birds but I supplement their diet with some wild bird seed and fill the water dish on hot days.

Google information on plants that attract butterflies and bees and trees that nurture the birds – but also the fact sheets on what not to feed them!

But most of all, listen to the scientists and take climate change seriously we do not want this horrific summer with all its tragic losses to be the new norm.

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Learning Sustainable Living is a Glimmer of Hope Amidst the Gloom

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On Saturday, I attended a free workshop arranged by the City of Kingston and hosted by Earthcarers Community Garden at Chelsea Heights Community Centre, Thames Promenade, Chelsea Heights.

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It was another excellent workshop, to help me on my journey of trying to live sustainably and future proof my garden, as we learn about the inevitable effects of climate change. I have attended an information night on solar power and energy-saving materials for the home which was also excellent.

I’m glad the City of Kingston is proactive regarding climate change and has introduced some good environmental policies.

It’s uplifting to spend a few hours with others interested in the environment and always a challenge to learn something new. These workshops the council organise aim to engage and educate but also to foster friendships and community spirit. A bonus is experiencing parts of the city you may rarely visit.

When I walked up Thames Promenade from Chelsea Railway Station and spied the garden from the road and horses in the fields opposite, I thought how rural it seemed compared to the rapid development of townhouses and apartments across Kingston.

You cross where the Long Beach Trail comes from Mordialloc and continues through Centennial Park – I’ve cycled and walked this trail with my children and later with walking buddies.

The community garden has been operating for ten years and welcomes new members. I can remember attending a meeting at Chelsea Heights Community Centre when it was first established but further visits have been rare.  The established garden beds and host of activities offered now are impressive.

Members can have individual garden plots but more than half the beds are communal with work and harvests shared.

An excellent choice of venue to meet others in the community and gain knowledge about sustainability.  Many of the plants were in bloom and the variety was inspiring. We were given a complimentary booklet (available from the Council) crammed with useful information about growing vegetables and herbs, including planning, maintenance, garden health, preparing for harvest and recipes too.

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Green Gecko Publishing 2014 but Kingston Council has the rights to modify the text to reflect future developments and changes to contact details.

The First Step Towards A Very Edible Garden

The workshop was a Wicking Bed Demonstration – Growing Plants that Thrive with Less Water, presented by Jeremy from Very Edible Garden.

A wicking bed is an agricultural irrigation system used in arid countries where water is scarce. It can be used both in fields as in containers. Besides use in fields/containers outdoors, it can also be used indoors.

Wikipedia

If you Google Wicking Beds, the first post from Very Edible Gardens is 2015 but they have a whole new site dedicated to this increasingly popular way of creating sustainable garden beds here https://www.wickingbeds.com.au/and they offer ‘foolproof wicking bed conversion kits and instructional materials to the public‘.

It was a perfect day for being outside and Jeremy reminded us this was an interactive workshop. We’d build a wicking bed together. Before he began his presentation he asked for a volunteer to hold a glass jar while he put a small amount of water in the bottom and inserted a rolled-up piece of paper into the jar.

This was a timer – and Jeremy promised his presentation would be over by the time the paper had absorbed the water.

Capillarity (capillary action) will occur. The phenomenon, in which the surface of a liquid in contact with a solid – the tube of paper – is raised or lowered depending on the relative attraction of the molecules of the liquid for each other and for those of the solid.

This piece of showmanship a great introduction to a basic physics lesson and explanation as to how a wicking bed works – water is drawn up through layers from the bottom by the roots of the plants and is a more efficient way of conserving water and feeding.

Science was not my best subject at school but Jeremy was a good presenter and kept my attention better than Mr Menzies all those years ago at Croydon High.

I understood the explanation of osmosis, how plants absorb water and the cycle of evaporation into the air, but if you are interested the science is explained here.

The inventor of the wicking bed, an Australian Colin Austin has his own website, and his ongoing research into soil and improved wicking beds can be read here.

Most people present had never used a wicking bed. Some, like me, had never heard of the concept until invited to the workshop.

Jeremy noted the list of questions people wanted answers to and proceeded to answer them:

  • what is a wicking bed?
  • can you convert an existing raised bed?
  • what is the cost?
  • what soil is needed and are there different materials to choose from?
  • how small can the bed be?
  • how do you manage size?
  • can you build on concrete?
  • troubleshooting an existing bed.
  • can it be made to water automatically?

The last point was from a couple who were tired of returning from holiday to find many plants in their garden dying or dead.

Jeremy admitted the wicking system allowed you to water less frequently and a garden may survive a week in summer without adding water but it is not designed to be fully automatic.

He added that less water is used if you stay engaged with the garden bed and it is healthier too.  The wicking bed is fixed irrigation, a different type of watering system and doesn’t replace the attention and care you give to the plants apart from ensuring they have water.

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The garden bed we were turning into a wicking bed. The wood already lined with old carpet to protect the plastic.

Essential Steps

Your container can be any waterproof receptacle – a bucket, the colour bond garden beds commercially available, or one similar to the wooden beds of the community garden. Jeremy converted two wine barrels because he lives in an apartment and has a small patio.

A base is not necessary, but a flat surface is – a wicking bed can be built on the lawn, concrete or paving – anywhere strong enough to handle the weight, and any shape that can have a plastic liner inserted if needed because it must be waterproofed.

Jeremy advised choosing the plastic carefully – it has to be thick and lasting. Some cheap commercial products may disintegrate or puncture easily.  His company imports a Canadian product from Adelaide.

Measuring and placing the liner a great example of organisation and cooperation – the size needed cut from a roll and folded before being placed in the bed – the sides then pulled up and clamped in place.

When folding the corners attention must be paid to ensure it is as evenly upright as possible and water can’t be trapped between folds.

The Plumbing

Water is fed into a layer of gravel underneath the soil and moves up through layers so that the plant has access to water all the time. The roots suck up the water when needed.

There is a layer or barrier between the soil and base to ensure the soil is not wet all the time and air is circulating through the soil. This reservoir is important.

A pipe outlet is needed – one pipe/hose is used to feed in the water but there needs to be an outlet in case there is a lot of rain that fills the bed and to ensure no overwatering. The pipe must be between the soil and the barrier layer.

The various bits of hose and pipe can be bought from a hardware store or a kit online. Generally, the proportions for the bed are 2/3 soil and 1/3 gravel in the reservoir.

35-38cm soil depth should remain moist when the reservoir is full and the pipe outlet can be lower down at the base of the bed, or just beneath the soil layer. 40cm is a good ballpark figure to use for placement of the outlet.

It was an interactive workshop and each stage of explanation or work, Jeremy called for volunteers. People offered to cut an access point, to seal the washers, to attach the outlet pipe – we were a cooperative crowd!

All the work is upfront – it takes time to build and prepare but once that is completed, choose what you want to plant. A timely reminder to choose plants carefully before placing the bed in either the sun or shade – whatever is appropriate for the climate and situation.

Some plants do better than others in a wicking bed but plants often surprise us by adapting to an environment. According to Jeremy,  ‘plants do life differently to us and are a lot more chill.’

The advantage of a wicking bed is that you can go on holiday and not come back to dead plants providing you are not gone for several weeks!  You don’t have to water daily and you can judge and monitor how much water is used.

The Plumbing in place, now the Layers

The hard work began filling the bed with gravel, soil and mulch. Teamwork meant some people wheelbarrowed, others shovelled, and others watered. (We took it in turns and also watered ourselves with the tea and coffee provided!)

The pipe and hose in place before the gravel put in and water added to ensure a reservoir soaked before adding soil. Care must be taken at all times not to tear or puncture the plastic.

A layer of textured material placed on top of the gravel before soil added – this is to provide the all-important ‘air-obics’, plus measurements to make sure the 40cm drainage outlet.

The Soil Ready to Be Added

Every gardener knows the importance of good quality soil and compost. We wheelbarrowed and shovelled the soil as everyone shared tips and stories about where to get the best quality … Jeremy revealed the soil came from the Zoo…  there were jokes about who knew elephant poo was good fertiliser.

I remembered how a random pumpkin vine appeared in my garden when I had a neighbour who kept Lucy, the pig who loved recycling vegetable waste and rubbing herself against the fence. Nature’s recycling indeed wonderful!

After the soil came the mulch. Jeremy emphasised that the mulch should be dampened during the process. All this preparation is done before seedlings or plants added. This was the time too for trimming and stapling the plastic liner.

The Finished Wicking Bed

our finished bed

Jeremy reminded us:

  • You look after the plants and soil in the top of the bed as you would normally – this is a different type of irrigation that’s all.
  • Do not add fertiliser to the water pipe because it may build up and won’t all be flushed away.
  • Remember, it is a heavy set up and once it is in place it is hard to pull apart and move.
  • It is a fixed irrigation system and less water is used by staying engaged and enjoying looking after your plants. Some plants like garlic that like drier soil may be harder to grow.
  • Enjoy the fruits of your labour!
  • Please share if you discover resources or information that may improve the system or benefit others

After the workshop, I noticed the other beds had similar water systems installed, where the main water outlet was and the community garden’s huge water tanks.

The Grand Tour

Vicky, one of the stalwart Earthcarers gave me a grand tour and I felt honoured as she generously shared her knowledge and commitment to the garden and community.

Vicky is ‘the bee lady’ and I saw the hives. She shared her concern about the tragic loss of human and animal wildlife because of the bushfires but said that many people won’t realise the impact on an already worrying ‘bee situation’ worldwide.

Many Australian beekeepers place their hives in the National Parks and forest reserves believing they’d be more secure and the honey purer. In these catastrophic fires, habitats, houses, and everything else have been destroyed.

She showed me the composting area, where members could deposit stuff for composting and mulching and the healthy soil produced.

There are hens to recycle much of the by-products of gardening. Tables groaned under the weight of plants and herbs for sale.

Seeing the Community Garden through Vicky’s eyes was wonderful – the area where young mothers come with their babies and toddlers (one little boy loves to play ‘au natural’) and the children learn to love and nurture the environment and feel happy in a safe place.

Hopefully, nurturing the environment and gardening will be second nature to them.

Walking around the garden, you notice innovative repurposing of receptacles like baths and barbecues. Reused plant pots – even children’s toys!

There are beds devoted to flowers, to herbs, to companion plants, to fruit… community beds and those cared for by individual members.

I know clubs and schools have their own gardens and I can see the benefit of wicking beds for these places.

The world is faced with climate change and Australia is coping with catastrophic bushfires, drought and floods but it is heartening to know that there are communities and individuals, caring for the environment, nurturing gardens, sharing knowledge and contributing to sustainable living.

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Purpose, Persistence, and Perspiration make Edna a Published Author for her 90th birthday!

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There is no greater thrill for a teacher of creative writing than to see the joy on a student’s face when they hold in their hands, the book they have written.

When that student has put years of effort into making the dream a reality and overcome health problems, the moment even sweeter.

Yesterday, I met up with some past students of my Life Stories & Legacies class that ran from February 2014 – December 2018, at Godfrey Street Community House in Bentleigh. We gathered in Sandringham to celebrate with Edna Gaffney the publication of her memoir, Chibby From Brandy Creek.

The Life Stories class at Godfrey Street, one of the most cohesive, supportive and friendliest classes in my 20 plus years of teaching, which has included four community houses. Several of the students still meet monthly and email or phone each other regularly.

Edna is the second to publish a memoir, another student will have one out for Christmas and another perhaps in the New Year. A great bunch of writers dedicated to their purpose of leaving a legacy for family and friends. They have all led amazing lives spanning decades.

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Edna was in her mid-eighties when she came to my class with a determination to write a book about her mother, family life in Gippsland between the wars, and also her own life as a nurse, particularly, as one of the first nurses to be trained at Cabrini Hospital to care  for cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy.

In her Dedication, Edna wrote:

These efforts to record memories, I dedicate to my family and future generations. I wanted to describe my early life living in Gippsland, rural Victoria, and to honour my mother. Our family experienced a lifestyle and events different to many others and to the expectations of people today.

Miracles can occur in most families, maybe not suddenly, but over time, and I consider the eventual reunion of my siblings after the death of our mother, a miracle. Six siblings were adopted during 1943-44 and the family split up, yet we eventually reunited as adults and became a family once again. I am writing down some details of our early life for those siblings who have no memories of our natural mother.

I also record my own experiences of family and career. Change of attitude, much-needed patience and endurance to cope and care for others, are some of the qualities I learned in my working and family life – becoming a parent a profound change. My chosen profession of Nursing has altered dramatically since I began Mothercraft Nursing at the Berry Street Babies’ Home in 1947.

A Powerful Story Shared

When Edna enrolled in 2014, like many older students, she had no computer skills and in fact, no computer. However, after absorbing what it means to be a writer in the modern world, Edna enrolled in computer classes at the Community House and bought a laptop.

I don’t think she’d mind me saying that her success in writing this book was not replicated in the computer class! Wisely, she concentrated on the writing and saved money and time by allowing her daughters and me help with typing. I have no idea what happened to the laptop except it was often threatened and may indeed have been ‘chucked out the window’.

Edna’s daughter, Jane-Maree arranged the launch yesterday and was a driving force in the final stages of the project as her mother’s health deteriorated. We were determined the book would be published before Edna’s 90th birthday on July 2, 2019, and made the deadline.

However, the actual launch delayed while Edna settled into a nursing home – a disruptive, often devastating, and certainly time-consuming challenge for everyone concerned.

Fortunately, Edna likes her new home and Jane-Maree said, ‘they were great’ providing the comfortable space for the celebration.

The Journey To Publication

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Over the years, I published five of the nine anthologies for the Mordialloc Writer’s Group. Along the way I threw myself into lifelong learning, grappling with InDesign, attending workshops on desktop and digital publishing, reading books, online articles, trawling websites and information from email lists, and watching webinars to keep up with the rapid changes in the writing and publishing industry.

It is a privilege to share those skills with writing students and to be trusted with their precious words when they decide to publish. I know there are some disastrous self-publishing efforts and looking back at my early efforts, improvements can certainly be made, but I have become a small press publisher by accident and will continue to learn on the job.

Software and hardware capabilities and printing options have radically changed in a few short years.  The cost, which has a big impact on choice has changed too – you get a bigger, better bang for your buck nowadays!

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The aim of most writers is to be published – not necessarily a novel, memoir, or poetry book, but perhaps simply a short story or poem that begged to be written, or a slice of family history or an anecdote so memorable, it must be committed to print. (I prefer printed books.)

Some students come to class with a definite project in mind. They have a dream to publish a book with a target audience of friends and family.

Not everyone aims to have a book in Readings or become rich and famous with a bestseller or win a prize.

Not everyone wants to monetize (how I hate this buzz word) their talent or creativity.

Most want to write and publish for the joy and satisfaction of telling a story/stories and being able to share their writing with others who will read and appreciate their words. They desire to write or would feel strange not writing, perhaps love being a wordsmith.

When you believe in yourself and writing, being published is a realistic achievable dream.

Edna had a powerful story to tell and I gladly helped with advice and editing. My talented daughter, Mary Jane designed the cover, as she has done for several book ventures. (A reluctant book cover designer, she doesn’t refuse to help her mum.)

The class gave Edna feedback and encouragement and through this collective effort, a beautiful and readable book was offered free of charge yesterday with an option to donate to Berry Street Babies Home. (most people did!)

When you read Edna’s book you understand her strong commitment to Berry Street, where she trained as a Mothercraft Nurse, but also the deeply emotional link because of family circumstances.

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Books for Purpose Not Profit

This is the third book I’ve produced whereby the writer has donated all or most of the profit because of their commitment to a cause or appreciation of events or people. There was no profit involved with Mordialloc Writers’ anthologies either, with any money from sales going towards the publication of the next book.

When Mordialloc Writers’ Group folded in 2018, I donated group funds to Mordialloc Beach Primary School to create a scholarship and encourage creative writing. The Principal, Sue Leighton-Janse suggested the money provide ongoing writing awards for Junior, Middle and Senior school, in the name of MWG.  I only hope this happens.

You can read about Julie Wentworth: A Life Shared here. Julie, a teacher of Yoga, mentor and spiritual guide, donated the sale of her books to an orphanage in Africa caring for children with HIV.

Mary Jane and I had the privilege of working with Peter Hocking, who wrote about his recovery from a stroke and sold books to support The Stroke Foundation.

I’m sure writing and publishing is often a labour of love, and if articles discussing the state of publishing in Australia are to be believed, poetry books, even traditionally published, seldom make a profit with publishing houses using the sales from more popular books to counter-balance the low-profit margin in some literary genres.

Another book I worked on this year was a huge labour of love for a woman who wanted to celebrate her 70th birthday by publishing travel diaries kept by her parents on their first overseas trip in the 1970s.

Ruth inherited the handwritten exercise books, 500 slides and meticulously detailed itinerary notes and letters home. What to do with this material so that her brothers and sisters, her children, nieces and nephews, grandchildren will enjoy the old school and very personal travelogue?

She had a friend type the 55,000 words, paid to digitise then print the slides, and commissioned a nephew to draw maps of the route her parents travelled through continents and several countries, to introduce the three separate parts of their trip.

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Ruth only printed 25 of this A4 landscape book, which I edited and published.  Muriel and Len’s observations were side by side and Mary Jane chose 100 of the best photographs. Mary Jane created Ruth’s vision for the cover using Muriel and Len’s passport photos, the best close-up photographs Ruth possessed.

Not every book needs a launch or a large audience. Often writers can cover their costs and break-even. Family members may contribute or if written for a target audience (sporting/hobby club, regional or historical relevance) writers may make a small profit by self-publishing.

Writers keep control and have important input to the content, cover and cost of their book every step of the way from conception to birth if they self-publish.

It’s an exciting and worthwhile journey – not always smooth – but as John Denver sings in one of my favourite songs, ‘some days are diamonds, some days are stone,‘ and yesterday for Edna, her family and friends was a diamond day.

Well done Edna and thank you for allowing me to be a part of your dream!

A Poet’s Response To The News

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When I describe myself as a poet, I know there will be plenty of critics and purists to suggest what I produce is not poetry, others may say it is not ‘good’ poetry.

However, creative writing is subjective, as is taste and opinion,  so I’m sticking with the label poet, defined in The New Penguin Compact Dictionary as ‘a very imaginative or sensitive person with considerable powers of expression.’

Over the years, learning and teaching a variety of poetic forms, I have built up an armoury of words to express myself, and anyone who knows me well will testify to my imagination and sensitivity – especially when it concerns social justice.

So, poet, I am.

I love poetry – because often you can be succinct and make a point with immediate impact about political or social justice issues.

Reactions can be swift and merciless, but at least it’s a reaction and often starts a much-needed conversation about important social issues.

I do miss my classes for those discussions and the input of wonderful writers with a range of views and life experiences.

Write a Poem You Say (A Triolet)
Mairi Neil

Writing poems not for the faint-hearted
Words, technique, emotions expected
Whether for the living or dear departed
Writing poems not for the faint-hearted
Sometimes it’s hard just to get started
Brain, heart and hand not connected
Writing poems not for the faint-hearted
Words, technique, emotions expected

The 24 Hour News Cycle

When I was teaching writing, I often used to write a poem at the beginning of the lesson during Splurge – the first 15-20 minutes of writing time set aside to respond to a prompt or write whatever you want a la stream of consciousness.

Many times whatever was in the newspapers or other media occupied my thoughts – like a random comment made by a high profile public figure, on the public purse, who quite frankly should have kept his out-dated thoughts to himself:

#Me Too Movement 2018
Mairi Neil

Oh, my darling daughters, come listen to me, please
There’s sad news to relate –
the way you dress is a tease
Don’t you know that males can’t control their desire –
a hint of breast or thigh sets their genitals on fire?
No matter that you are children, or entering teenage
Men find you sexually attractive and may attack in rage
How you package your body –  if you dress attractively
Makes you responsible for men’s out-of-control sexuality!

’Tis sad, darling daughters evolution cannot work
exposure to feminism hasn’t made ‘man’ less of a jerk
Some men remain Neanderthal, think women are prizes,
slaves to breed – willing or unwilling –
just somewhere to plant their precious seed!
Countless ages pass, yet progress is oh, so slow
appendages, goods & chattels, sirens, servants,
maiden, wench, slut… terms many women know.

This the 21st century, intelligence and commonsense demands
social justice and equity with or without wedding bands.
Coupling, coming together, sex must always be consensual,
pleasurable and engaging – with behaviour respectful.
Sex, regardless of gender, is about a caring relationship
Not control or violence left over from Stone Age hubris!

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At the moment, we have a Royal Commission into Aged Care happening in South Australia. For many who have experienced the aged care system in Australia, some of the most horrifying revelations will not be a surprise, and the testimony may trigger memories they’d rather forget.

My Dad suffered dementia and was in care for several years and as a family, we can reflect on what was good and what was bad. One brother and one sister bore the brunt of many of the crises and complaints, but all of us learnt to be alert and watchful to ensure Dad was treated with respect and care.

During their late high school and university studies, both my daughters worked part-time in the kitchen of a local aged care centre. Although considered ‘one of the better ones’, it has changed hands several times and in certain aspects needs to improve.

Monday, November 9 (A Triolet)
Mairi Neil

The ambulance left with flashing light
With palpitating heart my emotions roam
As memory stirred of the terrible night
The ambulance left with flashing light
Resuscitation an unforgettable sight
Dad alone and prone, in nursing home
The ambulance left with flashing light
With palpitating heart my emotions roam

I was privileged to have a poem about Dad’s journey published in the anthology,  Memory Weaving, supported by Manningham Council’s Community Grant Program in 2014, and a story in Stolen Moments, 2006, edited by Elizabeth Bezant and Pamela J Eaves and promoted by Alzheimer’s Australia WA, Ltd and Sue Pieters-Hawke, the daughter and carer for much-loved Hazel Hawke, who never ceased to be an advocate for improved aged care resources.

Stories and poems written from the heart can be a great barometer about what is right and what is wrong in the community. Will those with the power to change be prepared to listen and make a difference?

Will the outcome of this Royal Commission provoke the same outrage and promises to accept and act on recommendations as the Banking Royal Commission?

Stolen Years
Mairi Neil

Clovelly Cottage sounds so benign
Perhaps a cottage by the sea
Or among wild mountain thyme…
This was where my Dad ended his days
Trapped in dementia’s memory haze.
A nursing home, no more, or less
Not the worst, but not the best.

Dad’s home for seven long years,
And although a reasonable place,
Most regular visits ended in tears.
Dementia is ‘the carer’s disease’,
Family relationships often a tease.
I was Dad’s sister, long since dead
Other days, a landlady, stingy with bread.

I’d search his face and dark brown eyes
Seeking the beloved Dad I knew
And sometimes, he surprised …
A brilliant smile and ‘hello’ to greet mine
‘How are you?’ followed, ‘I’m just fine!
I shouldn’t be here, take me home today.’
Then the fog of uncertainty carried him away.

For residents to live, and not just exist
Depends on staff and activities
People to cooperate, and not resist.
Many attempts did brighten Dad’s day
Food treats, excursions, music to play.
And when his speech slowly disappeared
His response to songs alleviated some fears.

I accepted the smells of talcum and urine,
The last meal’s clinging aroma
Strong disinfectants, disguising most sins.
I accepted Dad watching Days of our Lives
Forgetting my mother, assuming other wives.
I accepted Dad staring blankly at wall or door
Drooping slack-jawed, even dribbling on floor.

But I’ll never accept all those stolen years
Of a much-loved father and Papa ––
What could have been, still causes tears.
Dad’s ‘episode’ with dementia only part
Of the wonderful man within my heart.
He lived until he was eighty-three
Leaving plenty of positive memories for me!

Pressing Political Issues

Most Australians will be aware that a Federal Election is looming and there are some issues where the major political parties differ starkly in what they see as the problems the country is facing, and the solutions they are proposing.

I hope the majority of voters will think carefully and seek as much information as they can before casting their vote. An informed choice is always better than relying on headlines, adverts and click-bait.

Distraught Democracy (A Triolet)
Mairi Neil

Democracy requires some thought
The right to vote so dearly won.
Truth and Integrity can’t be bought
Democracy requires some thought
Election promises with lies fraught
Politicians desperately seek the sun
Democracy requires some thought
The right to vote so dearly won!

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The recent vote about evacuating refugees on Manus and Nauru islands for medical reasons an example of serious misrepresentation by those who seek to demonise asylum seekers and hope for a return to the horrible campaign of ‘Stop The Boats’ and other three-word slogans that almost stopped compassion and decency as being a motivation for government policy. Our Prime Minister and others should be ashamed to stoop so low again.

Election 2016
Mairi Neil

Australians are having a vote
Malcolm and Bill both want a moat
People smugglers to shatter
‘Cos Refugees don’t matter
We’ve stopped the boats they gloat.

Turn A Blind Eye
(A Villanelle)
Mairi Neil

They float like pieces of flotsam
Fear and desperation in their eyes
Praying for the sea to calm

She hoped for God’s large palm
Would He hear desperate cries,
From floating pieces of flotsam?

The water flooded like a burst dam
Boats upended amid gasps and sighs
They prayed for the sea to calm

A boat crowded like a peak hour tram
Women and children with frightened eyes
Now floating like pieces of flotsam

A rescue boat throws some ties
Refugees human in the Captain’s eyes
No more floating pieces of flotsam
Or praying for the sea to calm.

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Operation Sovereign Borders
Mairi Neil
(a found poem from Refugee Week leaflet)

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

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

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

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

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

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Business As usual in Australia
(A Found Poem)
Mairi Neil

Stunned scientists
Moved into new roles
Unrelated to their specialty
Australia, the nation driest on Earth
Shifts in rainfall but global research community
Disabled

Young climate scientists without direction
The situation depressing
Climate capability gone
Climate modelling cut

This is not about just Australia
Readings of CO2 from Mauna Loa, Hawaii, and Barrow, Alaska
Confirmation of humanity’s dominion
Over the climate.
It is mind-boggling
Grim
Australia is ground zero for climate change
1,000 positions eliminated,
Science easily commercialised

CSIRO’s management
Focus on commercially viable projects
Climate change now settled science
Basic research no longer needed

Paris last year certain
Humans are altering the planet
But Australia’s government
Isn’t serious about climate change
Business comes first!

(Words found in ‘Australia Cuts 110 Climate Scientist Jobs’, an article in Scientific American By Gayathri Vaidyanathan, ClimateWire on February 8, 2016)

Tasmania’s Beauty
Mairi Neil

Save the wilderness
from logging
Ancient trees Earth’s lungs.

Lake and hills
Reflecting pool of the future
Wilderness or resort?

Bush On Fire
Mairi Neil

The sun is dulled by a veil of cloud
Animals culled, Mother Nature a shroud
This defeated giver of life so dear
Now dried up river, its power unclear

A red threat creeping, gathering power
Creatures weeping, air rancid and sour
It dances with glee destroying obstacles with ease
Devours blade and bush, its direction a tease

Whipped and encouraged by angry wind’s collusion
The fiery menace plundered with no delusion
The sun’s conscience exploded, the cloud revealed worth
Only life-saving rain saved the scorched earth.

Haiku – Mairi Neil

Frog or toad – who knows?
No croaking from pond or lake
dooms civilisation

In a soapy swirl
of polluted waterways
purple the colour of hope

Flash Floods Not Fiction (A Haibun)
Mairi Neil

City streets awash
El Nino’s temper unleashed
Climate Change ignored

NSW, Queensland and Tasmania storm-blasted. Flooding horrendous. Cars submerged in streets, people drowned or missing. A man fishing from his balcony excites social media when the lake thirty metres from his home visits – and stays. New residents in ground level apartments, shops, and public buildings.

All life disrupted
reptiles infest the buildings
as rivers burst banks

Doctors warn of waterborne disease and the risk of bites from creatures otherwise unseen. Funnel Web spiders flushed inside, pets swept outside.

Winds howl, puff and huff
roofs wrenched from buildings and sheds
squalls strength abnormal

Storms unknown in most people’s lifetime. Sea swells surging over jetties, boats, and homes, with tsunami intent but not its reach. Was it really like this a century ago? Record keeping not an exact science.

Angry seas pummel
rocks and aged roots shaken loose
the clifftops shudder

Countryside recovering from summer bushfires, firestorms, and drought. Life sucked from weary soil, then too much water.

Fragile soil stolen
farmers tears match the deluge
Nature’s balance gone

Doomsayers shake their heads. Sacked scientists despair at self-serving politicians, the population seek soothing before resigned and resilient acceptance. Adaptation anyone?

Our planet’s life finite
Earth will return to stardust
Creation’s downside

A Wake-Up Call
Mairi Neil

The people of Longreach
Appeal to fellow Australians
You’ve forgotten us they cry
The rain has stopped
Not seen for years
The grass all withered and dry.

The people of Longreach
Appeal to fellow Australians
Do you know what it’s like here?
Drought has destroyed
Our way of life
The community we hold so dear.

The people of Longreach
Appeal to fellow Australians
Climate Change must be faced
This parched land
No longer produces
Bore water has poison laced

The people of Longreach
Are silent and so sad
Heads bowed at funeral pyre
People, cattle, farms
Now dust to dust
Their history erased by fire

The people of Longreach
Not the only community to die
The driest continent
Will shrivel and shrink
Global warming is making us fry!

So there it is folks – a poet’s response to events in the media from sexism to political gaming on refugees and aged care, to climate change and fire, flood and drought…

The Speech a PM Should Make in 2019
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
Providing sustenance for you and me

But 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 replacing trees
Animals hunted to extinction
Polar ice caps no longer freeze.

Climate change is not a phrase
But reality for the natural world
Global warming’s rising tides
Cities consumed as tsunamis twirl

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

Climate deniers knuckle draggers
As are those mouthing ‘innovation’
Drought, bushfires, 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 is dead?

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school children strike for their future The Times, UK

Icebreakers For Writers -Lessons That Work

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This year, in semi-retirement, I’m not working at the moment but I’m sure there are teachers/trainers/facilitators who are trawling the Internet or books, for fresh ideas for the first class and will appreciate some of these hints.

At this time of year, as schools reopen, so do neighbourhood houses and other groups providing activities and it is so important to be inclusive and encourage a friendly atmosphere.

People absorb more and learn better when they’re relaxed and happy.

I’m normally preparing first lessons for various classes in creative writing and although many of my students returned, or had been together for several terms, if not years, there would always be someone new so it was important to have icebreakers.

How do you help someone ‘fit in’ quickly and as easily as possible?

In 2017, I wrote a post of 10 icebreaker questions I used with a bit of tweaking for both my Writing Creatively classes and Life Stories & Legacies class.

Try them – even if your group is not specifically for writers.

For years I had a good format that involved people interviewing the person beside them and then introducing each other to the class.  This could be tweaked by changing the questions to be specific, limiting the time so it was like speed dating, ensuring people interviewed someone they didn’t socialise with outside class or didn’t know at all.

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We soon knew each other’s names and a bit about everyone’s personality – maybe even a condensed life story!

Here’s a poem I wrote after my Monday morning class at Mordialloc Neighbourhood House.

What’s in a name?
Mairi Neil

To break the ice in writing class
much to some students’ dismay
we asked each other questions
in a ‘getting to know you’ kind of way.

At first, we pondered each other’s names
their origin – had family tradition won?
We discovered Barbara may be a saint
and Victoria’s Tori is much more fun.

Amelia loves her name, as does Heather,
who hates nicknames or shortened versions
while Emily feels loved when she hears Em,
and Jan became Janette if family ructions.

A lipstick released and called Michelle
ensured Jane’s mother chose simply Jane
Michael never wants to hear Mike and
Mairi wishes her spelling more plain.

What’s in a name, I hear you say?
What’s the creative writing motivation?
Well, as any writer will tell you
all knowledge ripe for exploitation!

Who hasn’t heard of Oliver Twist,
Jane Eyre, Miss Faversham or Lorna Doon
of Harry Potter, Hercules Poirot?
And Mr D’Arcy still makes folk swoon!

Most storytellers invent characters
and characters usually need a name
think carefully as you bring yours to life
Because they may be on the road to fame!

Another year we actually ‘broke the ice’ by writing a poem after answering a series of questions. The exercise based on a famous and much-loved memoir poem Where I’m From by George Ella Ryan (writer and teacher).

Click on the link for two templates that are guaranteed to work as an icebreaker and with revision and effort some powerful poetry and maybe a short story or two will result!

Here’s my effort –

Family_Resemblance.jpgWhat Made Me?
Mairi Neil

I am from ‘wakey-wakey’ for breakfast
Storytime books and kisses goodnight.
From hopscotch, skipping, dress-ups,
Backyard games and street delights.

Childish rhymes and daisy chains,
From buttercup tests and bramble jars,
Walking to school or riding bicycles
Streets were for playing – not for cars!

Home deliveries by butcher and baker
Bottled milk at home and school
I’m from coal man black and scary
Clouds of dust when cellar full.

Shouts of ‘any old rags?’ recycled clothes
The buttons and zips Mum always kept
Eager friends traded their Dad’s best suit
Mothers screamed and children wept.

I am from Chinese checkers and chess
Scabby Queen and what card to choose
Roars of laughter, or tears and tantrums
Gracious winning and learning to lose

A migrant family farewelling the familiar
Adjusting to new home across the seas
On a long ship’s voyage. we acclimatised
To be from a house among gum trees.

Hot days of summer and restless nights
Long dry grass and fear of snakes
Mosquito netting to avoid nasty bites
No escaping plum and apple fights.

Bluetongue lizards and pesky possums
A boat full of tadpoles and croaking frogs
Screeching cockies, laughing kookaburras
A house full of stray cats and dogs.

Huntsman spiders sucked up the vacuum
Cicadas chitter to announce summer
Rabbits and hares, native mice aplenty
Magpies swooping – what a bummer!

I’m from Choc Wedges and icy poles
Long summer days at Croydon Pool
Driveway tennis and park cricket
Trips up Mt Dandenong for cool.

I’m from high school softball and hockey
A Holden car swapped for Morris van
Holidays in army tent at Coronet Bay
Shift worker Dad visiting when he can.

I’m from triple fronted brick veneer
Replacing dilapidated weatherboard
Coloured TV, Phillips stereo, cassettes
Furniture wet when rain poured.

I’m from white weddings and sad divorces
In-laws plus nephews and nieces
Heartaches of friends and relatives
Falling apart and picking up pieces…

I’m from sick and ageing parents,
Death’s challenge not ignored
A houseful of wonderful memories
As bulldozers destroyed James Road.

In the hush of evening sunsets
Imagining childhood with closed eyes
Daily shenanigans, laughter and tears
From that ‘wakey-wakey’ surprise.

I’m from hardworking parents
Love always their motivation
Gifting me ethics and values
I’m a product of their dedication.

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Melding the Power of Words, the English Language, Our Imagination and Life Experience

Introductions – Exercise One in Class

This is a fun exercise but requires a little thought and brainstorming before you write and remember to make it as creative as possible.

  • Before you say your name, sit quietly and think of three clues that describe, but doesn’t name, either the country where you were born  (if it is different from Australia) or the place in Australia you were born (could be a city, country town, interstate).
  • Now think of three clues and see if people can guess a foreign country you have visited, your favourite foreign country, or one you dream of visiting.
  • Next, say your name and your clues and others will guess the answers. (You don’t have to make it difficult! It is not a competition but just a way of introducing an aspect of yourself others may not know.)
  • Now say what you like best about your birth country and the favourite foreign country.

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

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

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

You don’t have to be Einstein to work out my birth country is Scotland but you may not pick up the clue about Samoa. I’ve written about the journey of my dreams here.

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Samoan survival kit – insect repellant, sunblock, water, fan and cool sarong

Always whatever people write and discuss can inspire the others in the class, and furnish lots of anecdotes, memoir or imaginative pieces to write about later.

Has the exercise, or listening to others prompted an idea for a short story, poem or family history?

AT HOME:

  • Reflect – technology and transportation today give us the opportunity to learn, often first hand, about the rest of the world. You may not have had the privilege of travelling overseas but had the thrill of talking with foreigners online, writing to pen pals, or working beside people from overseas, or maybe even have immigrants or short term visitors as neighbours.
  • The world shrinks and differences are less, the more we learn and understand about each other.
  • And everyone is capable of dreaming about crossing borders, venturing into the exotic, trying something new.

Write at least 300-500 words explaining your connection and love of your birth country and favourite foreign place or perhaps you have a vivid memory to share – good or bad. Maybe travelling advice, or write about a character you met.

Here is a reflective piece of 500 words,  I published in the final anthology of 2018 for the Writing Creatively Class at Longbeach Place, Chelsea.

A Scottish Summer
Mairi Neil

Memory can burst into the present like a firecracker or be kindled like a flickering candle flame.

Proust

Despite Scotland’s dreary weather reputation, I remember lying on dewy grass among bluebells, and purple heather, breathing in the salty air of the River Clyde and freshwater scents from Loch Thom. Clouds drifted over the brae as we wove daisy chains and picked buttercups.

Do you like butter,’ we asked, holding the flowers under our chins. We giggled and chased each other waving dandelions, their touch supposedly making you pee the bed and when they ‘died’ the same flower became a fluffy timepiece to blow ‘fairies’ into the air and call out ‘one o’clock, two o’clock…’

In summer we sucked ice-lollies bought from Peter’s shop, a place pervaded by smells of sugar and syrup from jars of sweeties: musk, mint, aniseed, liquorice… The days seemed endless – daylight lasting until near midnight. Mum begging us to come in for supper and bed, but we romped in the hills of Braeside or played games in the street.

Travellers (tinkers to us) came to camp in the farmer’s field among cow pats and sheep dung. Their decrepit caravans and ex-army tents, a tight encampment we were forbidden to visit. They scoured the local streets for odd jobs, standing on doorsteps, unkempt and dank.

In need of a good bath,’ our neighbour said, ‘they don’t half pong. I gae them a couple o’ shillings just to be rid o’ them.’ It was the 1950s and no bathrooms in caravans or tents, not even a clear burn (creek) in the farmer’s field. My childhood curiosity aroused about people living a different life to me and awareness, not all adults shared my parents’ compassion …

The Rag and Bone man another summer visitor. His van toured the housing scheme looking for goodies. If mothers worked or went shopping, lured with promises of a goldfish or a budgie, but more likely receiving a balloon or plastic water pistol, some children handed over their dad’s dinner suit or mum’s Sunday best, taken from wardrobes without permission or smuggled out of the house among shabby clothes. The smell of brake fluid and burning rubber accompanied the yells of angry women chasing ‘Steptoe and Son’ down the street, wanting to retrieve property obtained under false pretences.

Our neighbour’s wisdom again, ‘Never leave wains to their own devices!’

The long summer holidays the time to collect firewood to build a bonfire for Guy Fawkes Night, to make a guy from old clothes and stockings stuffed with newspapers to drag around the neighbourhood on a homemade bogey (go-cart) shouting ‘penny for the guy’. The Davaar Road Gang made up of neighbourhood children clubbed pocket money to amass a kitty for fireworks: Catherine Wheels, Sky Rockets, Whirly Gigs, but mainly penny bungers.

Sometimes we couldn’t wait for November 5th, and the acrid smell of gunpowder in the backyard tipped off our mothers we were exploding fireworks without supervision and we’d hear, ‘Wait until your faither gets hame. He’ll skelp your backside.’

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Three years old me with new found friends wearing their mum’s shoes!

 

Introductions – Exercise Two in Class

This one is a variation of an oldie that often does the rounds – I think there was a radio programme based in it too called Desert Island Discs…

If you were marooned on a desert island, who would you want with you? Or what (a favourite pet, perhaps…?)

  • Sit quietly and think about the situation for a couple of minutes.
  • Choose three people who you would want with you if you were marooned.
  • Introduce yourself and name the people. They can be alive or dead, imaginary, famous or infamous, literary characters, television personalities, family or friends…

My effort:

Hi, my name is Mairi and if I were marooned on a deserted island, I would want John to be with me. Ex navy he understood the vagaries of the sea, was strong, clever and practical. His common sense and calmness a balance to highly strung, impulsive me. He was great fun and an incurable romantic – we wouldn’t be a small population for long!

My second choice would be AJ Cronin, a great ethical doctor but also a wonderful writer and storyteller. We’d have many stimulating discussions and I’d get some great writing tips. And he’d ensure we stayed healthy.

My third choice would be my Mum, the best no-nonsense cook in the world and someone who was amazingly adaptable – making homes in Ireland, Scotland and Australia – she could be relied upon to adjust and settle into the new situation. And no better confidante to give unconditional love.

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Reflection and Discussion Enriches the Lesson

  • How hard was it to choose people?
  • Did you substitute a pet?
  • Were your choices all imaginary? Celebrities?
  • What surprises did you find when listening to others?

Each time I do this exercise with different classes, I change my choices and now as I look over my notes from the years of teaching, I’ve garnered a lot of information and jumping off points to write my own story or even stories.

As always, encourage writing and rewriting at home…

Write an imaginative story about being marooned – either one person or more than one.
Think and perhaps revisit Gilligan’s Island or Lord of The Flies, or perhaps Robinson Crusoe.  No genre is excluded – remember the TV sitcom setting the Family Robinson in Space? Why not have them land on Mars – or even the moon…

Explore your choices of the three companions and write in depth about why you chose them. Is there a relationship with one or more of them that can be explained in a personal essay?

For example, I may write about my mother’s cooking ability or her life’s migration journeys, perhaps choose the move from Ireland, or concentrate on emigrating to Australia.

OR

About being inspired by AJ Cronin – (1896 – 1981) a Scottish novelist and physician who wrote The Citadel (1937), the story of a doctor from a Welsh mining village who moves up the career ladder in London.

I loved this novel. It was recommended by my father and I can’t remember if I read the copy in the house or bought my own. It had controversial new ideas about medical ethics and Dad said it inspired the launch of the National Health Service.

Cronin’s other popular novel was The Stars Look Down. Both were mining novels adapted as films, as have Hatter’s Castle, The Keys of the Kingdom and The Green Years. His novella Country Doctor adapted as a long-running BBC radio and TV series Dr Finlay’s Casebook. This series compulsory viewing in our household and in a piece of serendipity, one of the housemaid jobs I had when I travelled the UK in 1973, was at the Killin Hotel – a hop-skip-and-a-jump from Callander where the series was filmed.

Another bit of serendipity and personal history was in 2017 when I stayed with my cousin in Scotland. She had recently moved to Cardross and walking around the neighbourhood led me to this discovery:

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I don’t expect Cardross to be on the list of places to visit if you went with a packaged tour but it is a bonny place, steeped in history, and definitely worth a look:

I came across lovely gardens and some attractive social housing for the elderly – and as a bonus, the spring flowers were in bloom and the cafe was friendly.

See how that exercise has triggered stories for me…

Please feel free to share your thoughts and add any good icebreaking exercises because I guarantee there will be a teacher/trainer out there trawling the Internet who’ll appreciate it.

 

 

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

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

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

A visual metaphor perhaps, a warning about global warming?

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LabInitio NZ cartoon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s celebrate the natural world

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

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

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

Indulging the senses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe just luxuriate in reading and gardening…

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Tales of Our Lives
Mairi Neil

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

Is that a sigh?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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No More Travelling To Bentleigh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Not Everyone is A Digital Native

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leo Babauto

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

Number Nine Godfrey Street

Mairi Neil

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

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

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

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

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

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Blossoming Bentleigh A Delight

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Last week, I sat in a cafe in Bentleigh near the railway station, pen in hand scribbling away while enjoying coffee and cake.

I’d finished class but had some time to kill before joining an Intergenerational Project within the City of Kingston.

I often use time like this to either wind down by reflecting and writing or observe and write – as I tell my students to do – never miss an opportunity to gather material for stories and poems!

Proust quote

It had been a memorable day. The first real hint of spring warmth in the air and I informed my boss of my intention to retire from Godfrey Street at the end of the year. I’ve decided to apply for the aged pension and ‘retire’ from most paid work.

Instead of teaching and travelling between neighbourhood houses, I will only teach at Chelsea – and not until second term 2019 – giving myself a transitioning period to work out how to stay connected with community, teaching, writers and the craft of storytelling I love.

Sitting and sipping coffee brought relaxation and a sense of relief – I’d made a decision I’d been avoiding although discussed aloud with family and close friends.

The times and life definitely a’changing!

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It has been a long winter – everybody I meet says so and I have to agree, so how wonderful to feel the warmth of the sun – it energised me to be more positive.

Sunshine makes you feel better and brightens the day, especially if you work indoors like me – and so much of writing is expressing inner thoughts, delving into dreams, fears and phobias along with fantasies, imaginings and ideas… classrooms become incubators and separated from ‘outside’.

A breath of fresh air does wonders in more ways than one and I always appreciate walking or using public transport to stay grounded in reality. Having breathing space before and after work and on a sunny day, the walk a senses overload.

Albert Street to Mordialloc Station at this time of year reveals blossoming trees and flowers blooming in various gardens, including my own.

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The magpie trill competes with noisy minors, and the wattlebirds have returned to caw loudly while clawing back their territory as the grevillea and bottlebrush bud. The air is perfumed with apple and plum trees along with camellias and the perennial geraniums.

The garden at the community house in Bentleigh tended by volunteers and is delightful in spring.

The walk from Bentleigh Station up Centre Road to Godfrey street perfumed with a variety of eateries and a more pleasant stroll after State Government and Glen Eira Council’s efforts to beautify the shopping strip ‘back to normal’ after the upheaval of the level crossing removal.

If I hadn’t taken pictures and documented that massive infrastructure project memories would fade as to how it looked.

Recording Memories Important

That’s what I love about my Life Stories & Legacies class – in fact, all my classes where people write their recollections. So many different perspectives and experiences.

Trish, a student in my Mordialloc class several years ago recalled a memory about Bentleigh when I gave an exercise about a milestone most of us are eager to celebrate:

‘What do you remember from childhood when you reached double figures?’

On my birthday, the day was sunny – good things happen on sunny days, especially if a Sunday. We lived in Richmond and I was told we were moving to the country. I felt happy and excited because there would be cows and horses. We climbed in the family Buick and drove off to Bentleigh – that was ‘the country’ in the 1940s. It seemed a long drive with outer suburbs just developing and no traffic worries. The house was unfinished and surrounding paddocks our playground. Horses from Mentone intruded into the paddocks sometimes and I was scared of being trampled.

The lady at end of the road had a cow and chickens and I remember the taste of frothy warm milk straight from her cow. Francesco street was where we lived and Mrs White our only next-door neighbour. There were vegetables growing nearby and goods were delivered by horse and cart so plenty of manure available for growing. Whenever I smell the pungent aroma of horse manure, I remember moving to live in Bentleigh when I was ten years old.

There will always be critics of development and change (there are some I don’t like) however, Premier Daniel Andrews’ legacy of upgrading, building and planning much-needed infrastructure for our public transport system is amazing and long overdue. Hats off to the engineers and workers who carried out the vision.

A witness to the important change in Bentleigh:

  • The bottom two tiers of the MCG could have been filled with the earth excavated from under the McKinnon, Bentleigh and Ormond level crossings once intensive digging began for rail under road trench.
  • The Level Crossing Removal Authority estimated 150 tipper trucks left the excavation sites each hour as 500,000 tonnes of earth was moved to a Heatherton tip in the initial ten days.
  • Construction crews of 1000 plus workers toiled around the clock to minimise inconvenience and get the Frankston services running. The job completed in 37 days instead of the scheduled 94!

Short-term pain for long-term gain.

A great new station.

It may come at a political cost because people dislike disruption to their routines and with an election looming whinging from naysayers will be funded and organised by political opponents, but as someone who has never owned a car and with a great belief in living sustainably, I’m glad the state government has made investment in efficient public transport a priority.

Climate change already wreaks havoc, Melbourne’s roads are clogged, reliable public transport the most sensible and sustainable way to move people.

By removing level crossings, adding new lines, linking suburbs, creating a reliable coordinated transport mix – all of these will help a cultural change.

And at Bentleigh as in other level crossings, it will save lives as an extract from one of the Mordialloc Writers’ anthologies, Off The Rails illustrates.

Jeff Lasbury operated the kiosk on Bentleigh station for several years :

Monday, March 23rd 1998 was like any other day until 8.00 am when I heard the train horn blast, a woman scream, and a sickening thud accompanied by the hissing sound of the air brakes being applied by the train driver.

I opened the kiosk door and poked my head out to look down the ramp to the level crossing praying no one had been hurt. I could see nothing untoward and breathed a sigh of relief. I stepped out of the kiosk but decided to turn back because the train had pulled into the station as usual, when I caught sight of a body lying on the tracks almost directly in front of me.

I looked again… everything appeared unreal, an eerie silence descended. It seemed a long time before someone found something to cover the body of the young woman. I assumed the body female because of the scream I had heard but minutes later a hysterical woman came to the kiosk window and between sobs explained it was her
screaming. She had witnessed a young man hit by the train.

Overwhelmed with sadness, I felt numb, and struggled with disbelief…

The young man had been a customer and recently celebrated his 18th birthday. That morning, his mother dropped him off near the station because he was running a bit late. The boom gates came down and the lights were flashing, however, like many pedestrians, he crossed the first line because no train was on that line, but there were
two more tracks to cross. Worried about missing his train, which neared the station, he crossed the barrier, looking in the direction of his approaching train ignoring the other
way. He walked into the path of the city-bound train, which he probably didn’t hear coming because of the Walkman plugged into his ears.

Floral tributes appeared at the level crossing the next day, and a day later, the wire fence in front of the kiosk blossomed with more. Most were single flowers, some not particularly beautiful but left by people who knew and loved the young man, all touching tributes to a tragic lost life…

Some years later, a young woman walked past the kiosk to the ticket machine further up the platform. She took a little time to get her ticket and then came back past. She lost her life in exactly the same way as the young man.

Almost every level crossing will have a similar tale to tell or examples of near misses – I won’t miss the Centre Road level crossing or its clanging lights and boom gates.

A tragedy is far away from my thoughts walking Centre Road on a sunny day, the chaos of mounds of dirt, grunting and growling heavy machinery, buses replacing trains, the traffic and pedestrian diversions are all in the past too.

The new station functions well – toilets and waiting room at street level, a lift and ramp plus stairs – facilities appreciated by everyone, not just rail users.

Murals and music and a delightful community meeting place also appreciated.

I loved the piano that stayed for some time and the many people who took advantage of the freedom to tinkle the ivories… especially the ones who had talent – they attracted smiling listeners, including me.

New cafes and shops have opened and old ones refurbished. Outside tables always abuzz with the old and young plus plenty of canine companions.

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The disconnect of Centre Road caused by the level crossing now gone and people (including myself) visit shops and cafes ignored before.

What will 2019 bring?

I freely admit there will be a period of adjustment for me because I’ll miss the twice-weekly trips to Bentleigh and the community house.

I’m always surprised how easily workplaces you like become a second home but I’m looking forward to spending more time focusing on my own projects ‘at home’ and Bentleigh is only a train trip away!

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Politicians and Poetry – Both Nonsensical Today

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The above quote by Sir Winston Churchill played out today as Australia’s Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull was finally removed by the internal bickering of his own political party!

This is the second time he has lost the leadership and of course, he has done the same to opponents, notably former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, which I wrote about in a previous post in 2015.

I wrote about being glued to the television news coverage and being a political junkie – well the last few days have been deja vu!

Malcolm Turnbull smarter than Tony Abbott, or just a better tactician, pre-empted an assassination attempt, but after a torturous few days for the public,  finally lost and Scott Morrison is now the 30th prime minister of Australia.

Poetry A Good Outlet To Express Feelings

There’s an old saying – if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry… I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling frustrated, bewildered, and angry at the behaviour of the current Liberal politicians and the latest stunt really is beyond belief considering there are so many important issues the voters are worried about…

However, laughter can be the best medicine – or playing with words and writing silly verses can get rid of the anger.

Humour works well in poems, many poets use irony. Repetition and rhyme are great tools too. Added to rhythm and choosing a great subject you could be on a winner like Dr Seuss!

I certainly enjoyed myself manipulating words and making up limericks and clerihews about the hapless lot currently masquerading as our government. Some are unprintable.

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The Muppet Show @ZanettiCartoons

Canberra’s Shenanigans Fodder for Cartoonists but also Poets

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A Limerick is a rhymed humorous or nonsense poem of five lines which originated in Limerick, Ireland. The Limerick has a set rhyme scheme of :

a-a-b-b-a with a syllable structure of: 9-9-6-6-9.

The rhythm of the poem should go as follows: Lines 1, 2, 5: weak, weak, STRONG, weak, weak, STRONG, weak, weak, STRONG, weak, weak Lines 3, 4: weak, weak, STRONG, weak, weak, STRONG, weak, weak…

Part of the charm of the limerick is the surprise, the sudden swoop and unexpected twist of the last line. Like the nursery rhyme, many limericks attack the authority of the church, lampoon politicians and are great outlets for protest.

Limericks Record a Week of Political Lunacy
Mairi Neil

Liberal MPs are rogue again
flushing their PM down the drain
up to power-grab tricks
these self-absorbed pricks
behave as if they are all insane

Malcolm Turnbull has said his ‘Goodbye’
was it only yesterday he said, ‘Hi’?
LNP politics rough
you have to be so tough
‘Cos their loyalty’s in short supply

‘Jobs & Growth’ a slogan, not reality
like all Libs Mal lacks mendacity
a Top Hat forever
his spins are quite clever
Pity he lacks political morality

Tony Abbott always lurked up the back
unforgiving for getting the sack
revenge best served up cold
Biding time to be bold
Then use Dutton to lead an attack

Dud Dutton mistimed Tony’s planned coup
this decision supporters will rue
many thought they had won
dirty deed all but done
till the numbers reduced to a few!

And like Judas, ScoMo can betray
volunteering to save Turnball’s day
with his hyena-like smile
he has prayed for awhile
and been lying in wait for his prey.

Bishop’s catwalks will now be the past
Poor Julie has deputised her last
intimidating stare
and her fixating glare
all gone when her power lunge crashed

Vic MP Greg Hunt rates a mention
No obvious crude rhyme my intention
suffice let me just say
he’s a rat by the way
and deserves careful close attention.

Small ‘l’ Liberals today were trounced
the results of the ballot announced
Dutton’s supporters lost
stability the cost
methinks dastardly deals made with Faust

Josh Freydenberg, ScoMo’s deputy
that may be a strain on fidelity
is there love in his soul
for the mining of coal –
or NEG disappear, plus integrity?

Whoever you vote for, be warned
Peoples’ choices too often scorned
In Canberra’s bubble
Egos foment trouble
Integrity frequently deformed.

What about all those Labor pollies
Scarred by the memory of follies
Libs continually try
But Bill Shorten won’t die
Perhaps that sent them off their trolleys!

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You Too Can Clerihew

A Clerihew (or clerihew) is a very specific kind of short humorous verse, typically with the following properties:

  • It is biographical and usually whimsical, showing the subject from an unusual point of view;
  • but it is hardly ever satirical, abusive or obscene;
  • It has four lines of irregular length (for comic effect);
  • The first line consists solely (or almost solely) of a well-known person’s name.

PM Malcolm Turnbull
must feel a bit of a fool
thought he had power
but his party turned sour

Scott Morrison won
leadership squabbles no fun
reflecting on the past
he must wonder will it last?

Ex-cop Peter Dutton
Should order some mutton
like potatoes, he’s mashed
prime ministerial hopes smashed.

Labor’s Bill Shorten
votes must be sortin’
perhaps three-word slogans seeking
‘ScoMo must go’ worth tweaking

Clerihews are funny poems you write about specific people and you don’t have to worry about counting syllables or words, and you don’t even have to worry about the rhythm of the poem.

You don’t have to limit yourself to writing clerihews about people you know. You can write clerihews about people you have never met but it works best if you write about someone who is well known, or who at least is known to your readers/audience.

Politicians and celebrities ideal!

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Hollywood Mel Gibson’s home
Where many Aussies like to roam
Mad Max and Braveheart a winning streak
Pity his true character’s so bleak

But you don’t have to limit your clerihews to real people. You can write about characters from books, movies, comics, and cartoons.

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Poems can have many different purposes, e.g. to amuse, to entertain, to reflect, to convey information, to tell a story, to share knowledge or to pass on cultural heritage. Some forms of poetry are associated with certain purposes, e.g. prayers to thank, celebrate, praise; advertising jingles to persuade; limericks to amuse.

Some of the most satisfying lessons I have are when we try different types of poetry in class. Not all the students agree with me or even like poetry but they always make tremendous efforts and write amazing poems!

Splurge Dirge

Mairi Neil

Let’s agree poetry is a way
for words to live in print
Wordsmiths have their say

Sometimes it’s a bit of fun
doggerel, childish ditties,
satire, irony, – even a pun

Practicality can be boring
romance is better in verse
poetry sets emotion soaring

Memories collect and grow
nostalgia breeds a poem
subverting what we know!

Terse verse a picture paints
limericks, clerihews, lunes
ridicules sinners and saints

Messages in greeting cards galore
Quatrains, rhymes, free verse
jingles, psalms, songs and more.

I can’t imagine poetry’s demise
this wonderful chameleon genre
Its devices will always surprise

I have a wonderful student who has been coming to my classes for more than 18 years – she is now 89 years old. I love her poetry, her attitude toward life and treasure the poems she has written about me!

Limericks & Rhyme

Heather Yourn

There once was a tutor called Neil
Who fervently made an appeal
To all in her class
To get off their backsides
And write with some fervour and zeal

It’s hard to write in rhyming verse
When one is used to prose
But when your tutor suggests you try
You had better – I suppose.

There once was a bard from Avon
Whom many have thought a right con
Some said he wrote verse
But others were terse
Claiming he’d never catch on.

Poking Fun At Pollies
Heather Yourn

Poor old Bronwyn bit the dust
After that chopper ride
Even Abbott deserted her
But no-one even cried.

Mr Palmer’s very rich
He always ate big meals
Bit off more than he could chew
With dubious mineral deals.

Malcolm Turnbull goes by tram
Anyone know why?
Even Google is nonplussed
As certainly am I.

Malcolm was Republican
Until the Hard Right to a man
Forced him in another mould.
Now he does as he is told.

That last stanza of Heather’s written in 2016 – insightful!

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Form Poetry Can be Fun

I usually teach poetry by introducing various forms first – templates and structures help people if they have never tried to write poetry or have a fixed idea of what poetry ‘should be’.

Take a TRIOLET

A triolet is an eight line poem or stanza with a set rhyme scheme. Line four and line seven are the same as line one, and line eight is the same as line two. The rhyme scheme is ABaAabAB.

  • line 1 – A
  • line 2 – B
  • 
line 3 – a
  • 
line 4 – A (line 1)
  • line 5 – a
  • 
line 6 – b
  • 
line 7 – A (line 1)
  • 
line 8 – B (line 2)

ad nauseam

Here is my wonderful Heather again… commenting on our class attempting Triolets from visual prompts…

Triolet Torture

Heather Yourn

This here is a Triolet
Stuff the guy who thought them up
A masochistic fool I bet
This here is a Triolet
Just as well we never met
‘cos on his ‘brains’ I’d sup
This here is a Triolet
Stuff the guy who thought them up

Tori’s got the chicken card
I don’t think that’s fair
How can I be champion bard?
Tori’s got the chicken card
I am trying really hard
Pulling each grey hair
Tori’s got the chicken card
I don’t think that’s fair.

Everyone’s still writing
Furrowed brows the deal
Too engaged for chatting
Everyone’s still writing
Are their rhyme fish biting
to please dear Mairi Neil
Everyone’s still writing
Furrowed brows the deal

And because this post is about politics and poetry I’ll end with one of mine and perhaps a message to ‘that mob in Canberra’ who are so entitled and ego-driven they have forgotten why they are there!

Distraught Democracy
A Triolet
Mairi Neil

Democracy requires some thought
The right to vote so dearly won.
Truth and Integrity can’t be bought
Democracy requires some thought
Election promises with lies fraught
Politicians desperately seek the sun
Democracy requires some thought
The right to vote so dearly won!

No doubt there will be an election sooner rather than later and we can get the chance to vote and teach them a lesson!

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Keeping Up with Technology at the Local Library

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It has been many years since libraries have only been about books – and some would argue that’s never been the sole aim of public libraries. Rather they are important community assets, providing critical services and transforming lives.

My local library is at Parkdale – a 3-minute train ride or 15 minutes walk away from where I live in Mordialloc and part of a network of libraries in the City of Kingston.

We are lucky because years ago with the onslaught of computer technology and digital books and proponents of neoliberalism’s desire to privatise and ‘monetise’ there were plenty of people murmuring about whether libraries were worth funding.

Like many public facilities and services, they came under pressure to justify their existence.

Books are outdated,’ a common enough catch cry…

In  The New Penguin Compact English dictionary (updated 2000) the definition of Library is:

1. a room, building or other place in which books, periodicals, CDs, videos etc are kept for reference or borrowing by the public

2. A collection resembling or suggesting a library

3. A series of related books issued by a publisher

Kingston libraries offer:

  • books in large and regular print, audio books, eAudiobooks &eBooks
  • magazines, music CD, DVDs, BluRays & Wi games
  • Wi-Fi and computers with internet access
  • computer & internet classes
  • programs for children – storytime tiny tots, book bugs & school holiday programs
  • Readz teen book club
  • eLibrary resources
  • author talks and workshops
  • items in community languages
  • comprehensive genealogy collection & computers for research
  • local history resources

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Moving with the times…

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3D Printing is an emerging technology and libraries and schools are investing in printers. When I saw these free workshops advertised I booked myself in.

I’d seen a 3D printer in action in 2014 when I spent a long weekend in Ballarat at Easter time and there was a festival happening. The Ballarat Mechanics Institute had a demonstration of a 3D printer but the room was crowded and the queue to get near the machine long, so I didn’t really learn anything except that someone had printed a row of green plastic figurines to amuse any children who’d turn up – and they were the majority of the audience.

3d printing in news.jpegIn October 2014,  3D printers were again in the news when Professor Peter Choong,  led a medical team at St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne and implanted a 3D-printed titanium replica of  71-year-old Len Chandler’s right heel after he was diagnosed with cartilage cancer.

My brother-in-law was in St Vincent’s at the time recovering from having several toes amputated because of his diabetes so the world first operation at the hospital was the main topic of conversation!

The opportunity to learn how to use the technology too good to miss.

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3D printers are commonly associated with plastic – the same substance used to make Lego is the most common plastic used.

It is a filament – a thread fed through a tube into an extruder. The plastic gets hot – 240’ centigrade, the melting temperature required to take the plastic off when dried.

PLA also common with the melting temperature cooler at 190’ centigrade. It gives a more polished finish but a lot harder to take off the machine because more brittle.

ABS and other plastic easier to take off when dried.

More Than Just Plastic

  • 3D printers also use metal and at an industrial level, they use layers.
  • 3D printers also use paper in layers.
  • 3D printers also use food – This developed with the idea of addressing malnutrition and/or feeding the military, making edible objects; a mini-ecosystem
  • 3D printers used in medicine – making copies of hearts to see if there are holes and also making prosthetics.

A Parkdale Library customer printed a prosthetic hand for his grandfather.

3D Printing in the news…

Innovations in 3D printing technology could make it possible to ‘manufacture’ living organs, skin, tissue and bone rather than relying on transplants and artificial materials. Scientists are already creating bio-compatible prosthetics as well as lightweight exoskeletons, 3D models that aid in education and research, and even cool customizable limbs.

The printers enable cheap production and easy design method. Many of the designs available are free under a Creative Common License. 

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The Process

Select how your design will be printed remembering to factor in how much strength may be required to support whatever you are printing to get the shape and proportion you want. A lot depends on the thickness and weight of your object.

The time it takes to print will depend on the size and thickness – a thin bookmark may take a half hour to print, thicker objects 48 hours. Fluffy the three-headed pet of Hagrid in Harry Potter took two days. It was a 6-inch solid object and took less than a reel of the plastic thread, which costs $25 a reel.

The printer the library owns only prints objects in a single colour and the reels of thread we could choose from were primary colours.  (I chose green for my object.)

  • After a look through the designs available, you load a design from the software already on the computer.
  • Follow digital track (data loaded) and save on an SD card like a camera.
  • Think of a design and imagine it in 3D – as a solid cube 
  • The software doesn’t tell you when support is needed – you have to factor that in when you design. eg, if printing a drawer you have to remember there needs to be a space

Objects are printed on a raft – this supports the object and helps with removal from the heat platform.

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Designs using software .spl and .obj are compatible with the library computer. The printer is Duratrax bought for $3000 two years ago.

Customers have found it useful – a man needed a plastic component to fix a window blind but the component was unavailable in Australia and out of date with the product no longer made. He asked the European company to send a file compatible with Parkdale’s 3D printer and he printed off the part!

Kids have completed projects too using the printer.

We were all encouraged to design and print an object – the first 3 hours of printing free, $5.00 for every hour of printing after that, with a maximum of $25.00 (the cost of a reel of the thread).

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There will be a failure to print if the power supply is interrupted while the object is being printed.

Once cleaners pulled out the plug so the print had to be started again!

MJ removing bookmark backing

I chose a ‘Celtic’ bookmark, the design quite intricate. It was calculated to take 1hr and 26 minutes to print.

I picked it up yesterday and my daughter, Mary Jane removed the backing raft.

An old dog has learnt a new trick!