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?
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 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!)
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…
Tales of Our Lives
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’!
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?
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:
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 & Legacieswhere 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:
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.
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
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.
The popular song aside, traditionally the ‘twelve days of Christmas’ is the period that Christian theologians mark the time between the birth of Christ and the coming of the Magi, referred to as the three wise men.
It begins on December 25, Christmas Day and continues to January 6, the Epiphany. For many people that is also the day they take down the Christmas Tree and put the decorations away for another year. Some people do this on January 5th others January 6th.
I can smile now remembering the first discussion my late husband, John and I had about this – I brought up Church of Scotland and non-conformist and he, brought up Church of England (Anglican rather than Episcopalian).
Although born in Australia, John spent the early part of his life in England and Christmas traditions ingrained. As a Scot whose household celebrated Hogmanay, Christmas was low key, centred around the Church:
Christmas Day only became a public holiday in 1958, and Boxing Day in 1974. The New Year’s Eve festivity, Hogmanay, was by far the largest celebration in Scotland.
Emigrating to Australia in 1962, the hot summers didn’t do anything to increase my enthusiasm for some traditions – especially ones involving Yule logs and roast dinners!
Back to the ‘Twelve days’ …
John said the tree had to be down and decorations packed away by January 6th, whereas I believed you left it up until January 6th. A ridiculous debate put in perspective the year my sister divorced her horrible first husband. She left her Christmas tree up until Easter because it brightened the house and welcomed her home with twinkling lights! As good a reason as any to break with tradition…
Cate’s unorthodox view remembered this year when she became an unexpected house guest for Christmas because her husband needed an urgent operation and the surgeon could fit him into his list at Frankston Hospital on Christmas Eve.
What would Christmas be without a wee miracle?
Brother-in-law Ian came through with flying colours and Christmas lunch a bigger and more special celebration than usual. The few days Cate and I spent, in and around, the large public hospital, sobering and a glimpse of the Christmas others experience.
It got me thinking that Christmas aside, there are always many people trying to ‘brighten’ the lives of others, dedicating their lives to those less fortunate – they don’t need an excuse, they do their job, follow their heart or beliefs, care about human or animal welfare – we don’t focus on the joy often enough, but absorb the negativity the press pander to – the philosophy of TV News – if it bleeds, it leads…
The nursing staff at Frankston did their best to make the ward festive – I loved the use of medical equipment tarted-up (a rubber ring/doughnut cushion stuck with coloured balls) and tinsel wrapped around trolleys and exercise equipment. But it was the effort of wonderful volunteers dressed as Mrs Christmas and elf helper on a 36-degree day that truly impressed!
We scored a candy cane before they entered the lift!
Advent for many Christians begins the four weeks preceding Christmas and each Sunday up to Christmas Eve there will be special sermons and services leading up to the arrival/birth of Jesus.
However, for an increasingly secular society, Christmas begins with a flood of consumerism that reaches fever pitch and a frenzy in December but starts late October/early November…
I wrote a poem about this years ago (pre-computer), can’t find it, but suffice to say it wasn’t complimentary to junk mail or the advertising industry, which help with the humbug factor and not the joy that is found among friends and family, who use the lead up to Christmas for gatherings or tȇte-à-tȇtes.
I love this time of year because in many of the cards or emails received there is news of how the year has been for friends and family and people make an effort to get together. Give me a chat and cuppa instead of presents any day because if the person lives far away, or is rarely seen, information other than ‘Merry Christmas’ is good to hear.
Sometimes even if people live close by, the busyness of life leaves meaningful conversation a rarity and so the gift of time to chat, go to the movies or a play is refreshing and food for the soul. Christmas is a great excuse and motivation to invigorate relationships. I get to have a coffee or tea with students outside class – I’m not the teacher or motivator but a friend with all ‘the issues’ that enjoy a good airing when we share what’s in our hearts and minds.
Here I am with Elhan who came to my class several years ago at Mordialloc. She is an accomplished writer in English as well as Turkish and writes a column for a Turkish newspaper in Melbourne. She took me to a cafe in Mordialloc owned by Turkish Australians, bought me ‘Turkish tea’ served in a cup with the blue-beaded eye motif to protect me from evil, and gifted me an Orhan Pamuk novel.
It’s not a Facebook cliche when I write I’m truly blessed with the people who have come into my life through teaching and writing!
I’m transitioning to retirement but some of my friends are already enjoying more leisure time. I went to see a dear friend Umaand husband Kevin who live at Bulleen. It was lovely to have lunch in their home instead of catching up with Uma near her office in the city – our usual Christmas rendezvous.
It was an hour and a half’s journey by public transport – train to Southern Cross and then another to Heidelberg Station – but a relaxing journey that introduced areas of Melbourne I rarely visit. However, visiting will be a lot easier when the Andrews Government’s fantastic infrastructure program is complete. Looking at a time when they may not want to drive everywhere, Uma and Kevin are thrilled that accessing public transport will be so much easier and provide more choice of mode and destinations because they live near one of the many access points for the outer city loop.
After lunch, we walked to the park at the end of their street and Uma shared stories of her neighbourhood with similar pride when she and Kevin came to Mordi at Easter and we walked the foreshore and I shared where I fill up with serenity!
What a wonderful project! We watched families play in the park, school children walk home from nearby schools past The Peace Path, a prominent installation, a daily and fun reminder of diversity and connectedness. Well done Manningham City Council.
New Acquaintances Not Forgot
Many ex-students who perhaps only came for a semester or two also stay in touch and have become valued friends. At this time of year, it’s lovely to hear how they are going with their life and writing projects.
I received a welcome letter from Naoko in Japan and the delightful gift of a book and a very tempting invitation:
“an autobiography by Tomihiro Hoshino. He writes poetries and draws paintings by his mouth. He is from my neighbour town and there is a museum. I would like to take you there. So please come visit me!'”
Naoko doesn’t know that for more than twenty-five years I have bought cards and calendars from Mouth & Foot Painting Artists Australia and hold the artists in absolute awe for the exquisite products and attitude to life.
She does know that I love Japanese poetic formsand their ability to say so much in so few words – most of my classes have been introduced to haiku, tanka, renga, senryu and haibun at some point!
It is not a thick book and translated by Hiroko and Joseph McDermott was an easy read. But it is quite unlike other memoirs I’ve read considering the subject matter. The tone is not ‘poor me’ or bitter and very quickly the focus is how the writer accepted help from others and learned to paint and write with his mouth to bring meaning, purpose, joy and love into his life.
It is an upbeat memoir because yes he even grew to love and marry a faithful nurse ( not always a cliche) and found success as a writer and painter. I understand not everyone with a disability or life-changing accident can be so lucky – but what you learn from the book is that it wasn’t just luck…
His determination and persistence, plus the loyalty, love, and consistent support from those who loved him are powerful elements not only enabling him to survive but thrive.
This First edition published in 1988 is the first of several books from Hoshino who was a high school physical education teacher until an accident in the gymnasium left him paralyzed from neck to toe and hospitalised for nine years.
He was 24 years old and in his prime.
‘I was a physical education teacher. I chose this job, not so much as I was interested in teaching, but as I wanted to keep on doing the sport I had always loved since childhood. This desire was so strong that all day long I would exercise with my students… even after the classes were out, I was running or kicking a ball around until everyone else had gone home and the grounds were empty except for me.’
The first chapter, The Accident (June 1970), is short and to the point with headings:
Do I Still Have Arms?
The Face of My Parents
I Will Not Die
From the Hospital Diary
He uses extracts from his sister’s Diary to explain the precariousness of his situation, the operations and treatment that ultimately saved his life and put his neck bones into place so he could breathe without a respirator.
“It has been decided that he can sleep without the machine. When the gauze was put back in the hole in his throat, he was encouraged to practice talking with the hole in his throat covered up. Ton-chan (my nickname) smiled happily and said in a strong voice, “The weather’s fine today.” He looked so happy that we all burst into laughter.”
The second chapter is The Joy of Writing and we learn, ‘Two years passed. Some people assumed I had died… I wavered between life and death so many times…’
However, the medical attention and constant support of his mother, brothers, sisters and close friends who take turns to nurse him every day, kept him alive. (His mother devotes her life to his recovery from day one!)
He mentions but doesn’t dwell on despondency and despair. ‘ My body had a life of its own, regardless of my wishes, though I no longer had a deep commitment to life.’
I don’t know anything about the Japanese hospital system but obviously, technology and scientific development since the 70s have changed in much the same way as ours. The treatment of accidents like Hoshino’s would be different and perhaps have different outcomes. Hospital treatments, access, cost and even where the hospital is in Japan is not the focus of the story.
There is a glimpse of how rehabilitation has made great advances when he describes the day a visiting child brought a radio-controlled toy car into the hospital and one of the mothers who was looking after her child who was a patient said:
‘If one child brings a toy like that, all the others want their own. You can’t blame them. If you’re rich, it might be okay. But what about families like ours?… Tears were welling up in her eyes.
It’s nothing to cry over…, I thought, and moved closer to the children… It was like a very clever puppy perfectly trained to perform…
Frankly, I felt like crying for one as well… watching the car race around … a certain sadness crept up over me. If people can make a precision toy like this for children, why should I have to stay on a wheelchair which moves only when someone pushes it? Why couldn’t the scientific knowledge used for such a toy also be used to move a wheelchair?
I also felt tears coming to my eyes…
Electric wheelchairs were available but he needed one specifically designed for people who can only move from the neck up. His wheelchair was actually a motorised stretcher.
In 1979, after two boffins from Suzuki Motors visited him they worked out the power and movement he had in his neck and delivered a wheelchair with a driving lever he controlled with his chin.
‘Everything about the world outside then began to look rosier once I found that people like them were working away at some research that could greatly ease my life…
Now my mother could take long-needed rests while I went out for rides.’
In 2016, I was privileged to help start and facilitate a social group for Glen Eira Council. Over the years, I’ve had several people with ABI (Acquired Brain Injury) in my classes and I was approached to help them start a group where they could meet and discuss everything from literature, movies, politics, philosophy, therapies, culture, and even pet peeves… to relax and ‘Chat ‘N Chuckle’ with others who understood that it may take longer to speak, to listen, and understand what someone wants to say.
Many had motorised wheelchairs – today a variety of mobility aids are common but Tomihiro’s thoughts and perspective gave me a deeper understanding of how important aids are and how innate our need for independence.
Tomihiro’s electric wheelchair was a long time coming and despite his mother’s relentless devotion it was often the interaction with others that gave that much-needed spark not to lose hope.
Sharing a room with a seriously ill ex-student from his junior high school who always had a cheerful smile made Tomihiro feel obligated to smile too along the lines of ‘fake it till you make it’.
The relationship that developed between master and student a turning point, especially after the teenager was moved to another hospital and his mother visited Tomihiro, bringing a white, tulip shaped hat belonging to her son, Takaku. He wanted his former roommates to write words of encouragement such as ‘don’t give up’ and ‘have patience’.
Tomihiro wanted to write something but crunching a pen between his teeth, could only manage a tiny dot until his mother moved the hat so he managed to write one of the Chinese characters of his name “Tomi” extending the tiny dot into an “O”.
From that tentative beginning and with months of trial and error to find a painless position for his neck, he finally managed to write a single letter by himself:
“The gauze rolled around the pen in my mouth got soaked with saliva. It was also dyed with blood from the gums since I had strained so much while writing. My mother, who was watching from the side of the bed, also clenched her teeth from the strain. There was sweat on her forehead as well…
All of a sudden my life looked bright again… after having experienced the despair that I would never be able to do anything again, I felt from a single line or letter the same thrill I might have experienced setting a new sports record.”
Another person who not only visited Tomihiro but was instrumental in his healing journey and his development as a writer and poet was a friend from university days.
Yoneya… and I would have dinner at the same table and every evening I would watch him say a prayer. I usually sat down with my hands unwashed and started eating … I never wondered to whom or what he was praying, nor why he said a prayer before every meal…
One day, he told me, “I am going to study in a theological school in Tokyo in order to become a minister.”
… I didn’t know exactly what it meant, but I realized what a hard and serious life he had chosen to pursue.
As soon as he heard of my injury he came to see me in the hospital. later he sent me a copy of the Bible with his apology for being unable to do anything else for me for the time being. I kept the book in a box under the bed…
Actually, I had hesitated for a long time before opening the Bible. I was afraid other people around me might think and say, “He must be in such pain to have turned for help even from the Christian God…”
… I tried to think up some excuse to open the Bible: it would help me understand history… pass the time… requite a favor extended by a senior…
… all along I knew very well what I really wanted. In my mind, I had a faint hope that something in this black-bound book might change me, just as it had changed Mr Yoneya and made him feel grateful for even the poor meals served in the university dormitory…
… when I was forced to lie on my bed unable to move or speak, I had to live a life in which every day I had to face the real me. And the real me was not strong, was not a fine person at all…
The Power of Spiritual Awakening
Tomihiro reads the New Testament and he recognises certain verses he has read on graves in cemeteries (St Matthew 11.28-30):
I had not known what they meant. But somehow the words stuck clearly in my mind. Perhaps I remembered them since I was then really “heavy laden,” carrying manure from the pigsty up to the fields.
As I reread this passage over and over, I felt something warm begin to stream out from the depths of my heart…
I felt that God had prepared this passage for me long before I had even dreamed I might have the accident…when there were hard times, did I have a friend I could unburden my heart to, tell my suffering and pains?…
Lying on my back, looking up at the ceiling, I was seized by an intense sense of loneliness. I felt helpless before it… I thought that a person named Jesus might listen to me, might hold me lovingly in his arms…
Regardless of whether you follow a particular religion or no religion when people are faced with severe trauma, accident, disease, prolonged illness or near the end of life many may at some point ask one or more thought-provoking questions, maybe go through a period of self-reflection or self-doubt. Perhaps they consider what they took for granted or didn’t really worry about, or search for a belief that gives them inner peace:
What is life about? Is there a reason for it all? Why is life on Earth so diverse – was/is there a ‘design’? Can Science explain everything? Can religion? Is there life after death? Will I ever recover? Why me?
Seeking, and finding peace, if not answers, can be healing.
When my husband was dying we had many philosophical discussions because John was ill for a long time. He became an avid reader and thought more deeply about ideas and beliefs because he had time to digest and think about what he was reading. Time is a great commodity and gift if you use it well!
I remember telling him when various friends or family members added his name to their particular religion’s prayer list, he’d say with his usual cheeky grin, “Good, I read an article and people who are prayed for live longer.”
The night before he died when Father Tony, the local Anglican priest called in and prayed at John’s bedside he said, “and the Heavenly Father is waiting for you, John, to hold you in his arms…”
John’s response, “Prove it!”
We all laughed and Father Tony said, “You have to trust me on this, John!” and at the funeral shared the anecdote from “my friend and pragmatist, John.”
We sang John’s favourite hymn from Royal Navy days, Abide With Me plus Lord of The Dance and he was carried out to The Internationale. If people wonder at the apparent conflict of beliefs I tell the story of the writer/educator, Paulo Freire who was asked, “How can you be a Marxist and a Christian?”
He answered, “No problem for me.”
Life is complicated and what people believe and how they cope with challenges is too. The honesty about Tomihiro’s journey, the authenticity in the telling, kept me reading and will remain with me. The simplicity of his explanation of how enriching the spirit and nurturing other senses can compensate for the loss of limbs and movement.
The Joy of Reading
He too discovered how reading enriches life – the power of story:
I spent a lot of time reading, using a simple device that let me lie on my back and read a book hanging open in front of my eyes. My mother would turn the pages for me.
Reading had not been a habit of mine when I was a child or a student… By reading books while lying on my back, I was able to learn the joy of reading. When nobody was at my bedside, there was no way to turn a page. So I kept reading the same page over and over again for as long as thirty or forty minutes.
After such readings, I would often find something I had never noticed or understood. Some parts deeply impressed me, and I copied them into my sketchbooks…
From his hospital bed, or wheeled into the corridors by his mother, Tomihiro enjoyed being a people watcher but one day he catches sight of a person with a fox fur wrapped around her neck.
This inspires his first poem and more contemplation of not only his personal condition but how humans interact, adapt – what it means to be who we are …
And so entranced by the power of words, he studies, writes, and continually strives to improve his own writing.
In the Hallway
Hoshino Tomihiro (February 20)
With glass eyes,
He was watching.
With the weight of his boneless neck
He was chewing his tail,
And he as watching
He noted how the glass eyes looked so sad – perhaps they reflected the feelings of his heart? He thought of the word ‘patience’ often used in letters he received. When he saw the fox transformed into neckwear, he sensed he saw himself:
I too had been living day after day, with my teeth digging into my body the more I tried to be patient… Why do I still need to hear ‘patience’…?
I haven’t really changed. The person I was before this accident – wasn’t that basically the same person I am today, even if I can’t move? Why then should I have to be patient with myself? Why should I live day by day with my teeth clenched?
Something did not make sense…
When you can move but
must stay still,
You need endurance.
But when you’re like me,
And cannot move,
Who needs endurance
And soon enough,
The thorny rope of
Twisted round my body
At this time, Miss Watanabe, a friend of Mr Yoneya’s visits, a Christian too, she cared for her bedridden father for many years. From her first visit, Masako never misses a Saturday and eight years later they marry and return to live in Tomihiro’s home district near his parents. The blossoming of their relationship and her encouragement of his writing and art the impetus for his first major exhibition.
Flowers Helped Him Bloom
When lying in bed, it was the flowers visitors brought that Tomihiro fixated on – they were beautiful, they were close at hand, and for a long time they represented the outside world he missed. Not surprising they were the first subjects he tried to draw.
When spring comes, the hospital garden is full of beds of blossoming flowers. And when I see them in bloom alongside my window my heart cheers up, even though I have to keep lying in bed… even if I feel depressed with all sorts of worries about my physical problems, all the trees outside may be in bud and even small weeds in bloom…
Regardless of what each human being may feel, the seasons go round and round in the flow of time. We may be happy or sad, become even angry and hateful… but what tiny creatures we are in the vast universe of nature!
There were always some flowers at my bedside brought by visitors and arranged in a vase by my mother. Lying on my back, I saw them day and night out of the corner of my eyes…
For over six years
Mr Kobayashi has been coming
To see me
The flowers he grows
Are as strong
As the weeds in the field
Sometimes even generously hosting bugs
I like most.
His flowers come
Wrapped in newspaper
On which there are left
Even a flower
Begins to look nicer,
Someone said so,
Then I began to wonder
If the flowers
Were looking at my painting.
My favourite part in Tomihiro’s awakening and rebirth is when he writes about his mother. This woman deserves her own memoir! For the nine years, he was in the hospital she was with him, leaving the farm and village life in her husband’s care.
Tomihiro describes a New Year in the hospital when some patients and many staff have left for holidays. Those left decided to have a party.
All the attendants sat down together for tea on a straw mat spread in the center of the room. Normally, everybody in the hospital had to sit on a chair, not on a Japanese mat, as they did at home… my mother and the other attendants felt more relaxed squatting…
… I could not join them on the mat, but… I felt as if I was back home sitting on a mat with my mother.
They decided to have a singsong, taking it in turns –
While I was singing, I was worrying about my mother. She was to sing after me, and I had never heard her sing before. Can she sing a song? Does she even know a song to sing?…
Her turn came. She said, “I can’t really sing,” and begged the next person to go ahead. But nobody would… my mother began to sing… in a shy, thin voice… an old song I had never heard before.
… the trembling in her voice died away, and her timbre became stronger and stronger…
I was amazed. My mother, her face as shy as ever, now looked so different to me… the mother I had just seen singing was her real self. I had simply never noticed…
She must have known many songs in her youth. Busy with bringing up children and farming, however, she must have forgotten, before she was aware of it, that she could sing.
While she worked in the small muddy family plot, doing side jobs for a small extra income well after the children had fallen asleep, and bringing us up without buying anything for herself, she must have forgotten about pleasures for herself…
I had never asked what she might want. She must have longed to take a trip or to buy some books to read. Or, even right at this moment, she might be thinking how much she would like to welcome in the New Year with my father back home…
The more I thought, the more ashamed I felt of myself. I had been concerned only about myself, thinking I alone had suffered from this injury…
I love this poem he wrote –
and this honest observation:
“When I was young and healthy, I used to feel very sorry for the handicapped. Sometimes I even felt uncomfortable when I saw them. While going around in my wheelchair, however, I learned something I had not noticed at all before. I was physically handicapped but I was not unhappy, nor did I dislike myself.”
It is all about perception and attitude. He explains it beautifully in a poem about a roadside flower whose Japanese name means poison and pain. He used to hate the flower because of its strange smell and preference for dank places.
And picks you up with care.
You have been scorned and despised
They all say you stink
You have been living very quietly
In this small nook along the road,
Looking up at the feet
As if waiting for someone to come to you
And need you.
Look just like white crosses.
The title of the book is a line from one of his poems written about the same common weed – it too suggests the mind can always be a little more perceptive and appreciative of the world we live in.
I didn’t know
How beautiful you were.
Here so close
But I didn’t know.
A book can be the gift that keeps on giving.
A good thought to end the year on and welcome 2019.
On Wednesday, October 4th, Kingston Seniors Festival 2018 was launched at Westall Community Hub in Clayton South, a new community centre and library that will be twelve months old on Sunday.
The Festival opened by the Mayor, Cr. Steve Staikos who celebrated the completion of the latest Intergenerational Project: The Power’s in the Word.
The project presented in a partnership between the City of Kingston Social Development team, Kingston Youth Services and Kingston Arts.
I heard about it from Lydia Sorenson, the Positive Ageing Officer, Social Development whom I’d worked with when she was with Youth Services in 2016, my first involvement with an intergenerational project.
I was thrilled to work with Youth Services officers Mealea and Sophie who were involved in the earlier project too.
Lydie, me and Mealea
In 2016, I wrote a short film script and collaborated with a multi-aged team to produce it. Along the way, we learned about camera angles, lighting, sound, scouting locations and props, permits, schedules and networking.
Favours asked of friends and family. We shared skills and professional knowledge – I gave a writing workshop, photographers lectured on the importance of light, sound experts ran us through recording equipment and dialogue, cinematographers and not for profit filmmakers gave tips and inspiration on what was possible with a limited budget and excess enthusiasm!
The school children and teenagers involved shared their ideas, knowledge and confidence of new technologies and love of all things screen. The premiere of the completed project held at the Shirley Burke Theatre in Parkdale.
Everyone revelled in the Academy Award atmosphere…
It was such a positive experience, I didn’t hesitate to get involved in this latest project. My friend Jillian and fellow writer played the lead role in my short film, but ill health and travel commitments meant she couldn’t be involved in Power’s in the Word. However, she made the launch and enjoyed the presentations.
This project began in June and entailed a commitment of 12 workshops on a Tuesday evening at the Kingston Arts Centre in Moorabbin.
It was a privilege and fun to be involved with several other seniors and young people. Artwork, including linocuts and poetry, were made and displayed and at the launch, several of us read a poem written for the occasion.
Both projects enabled me, not only to meet and interact with people I may never have met otherwise but also moved me out of my creative comfort zone.
We worked alongside writer Emilie Zoey Baker and visual artist and printer Adrian Spurr who taught and supervised the linocuts we produced. To learn printmaking was the drawcard for me, and to link it with poetry.
Adrian was everyone’s idea of a favourite art teacher. He made a klutz like me feel I’d produced something appealing!
The ten finished pieces from the group looked impressive although I’m not sure what the mayor will do with his framed copy!
Great Things Never Come From Comfort Zones
We started to meet in June and for 13 Tuesday nights we learnt printmaking, discussed various topics, shared stories, and wrote haiku and short prose.
There was a schedule but lots of flexibility.
It was winter and people got sick, or members of their family did. As with any free and volunteer project, people also dropped out. The timeframe coincided with the Melbourne Writers’ Festival, which meant Emilie’s attendance and input varied.
Adrian’s print workshops turned out to be more intense and time-consuming than the organisers realised. The schedule below rearranged as the weeks passed:
Briefly, you imagine yourself in a desert and there is a cube of whatever size, material and colour you choose. There is a ladder – you decide where it goes, and a horse – you decide where it is in the position of the cube and what colour and type of horse. There are flowers – how many, colour, type or where growing is up to you. There is a storm cloud – how far away or severe is again up to you.
Ruminating Over Rumi – Mairi Neil
Miles of sand stretching to the horizon…
a clear blue cube, water glistening like dew
a ladder of tree branches rooted in the earth
the cube drip-feeds a carpet of yellow daisies
a large grey mare, heavy with foal shelters
alongside the cube, nibbling at the flowers
preparing to lie down.
Aware the sky is now changing
white clouds becoming bruises on a sea blue sky
transforming to stormy grey
the ladder trembles and sinks
returning to the earth as the cube begins to melt
the landscape awaiting rebirth…
If you Google there are numerous interpretations of the significance of your responses. Emilie’s interpretation just one of many and had some similarities to this:
The cube represents you. The size of the cube is your ego. What it is made of (wood, marble, or the texture) determines your feelings or personality.
The ladder represents your goals. The length of the ladder shows the scale of your goals, the shorter the ladder the more simple the goal.
The horse represents your ideal partner.
The flowers represent your family and friends. The number of the flowers determines your connections and how close you are to them
The Storm represents the obstacle(s) in your life. If the storm is close to the cube/ stationary, then you are experiencing some emotional, mental and hard situations right now. If the storm is in the distance then you have overcome many challenges and will continue towards victory.
Emilie said she had never come across ‘a pregnant horse’ response before!
Psychoanalysis can make you hungry for comfort food…
After that exercise and the interesting discussion it raised, I was ready for a cup of tea.
Most of the workshops were between 4.30pm and 6.30pm, a couple started at 5.00pm. The lovely council officers ensured food was delivered, they arranged taxis if needed. Always their priority was the happiness and comfort of participants.
In a way, there was too much food, but we gratefully took home plastic containers of leftovers – especially on the pasta and pizza nights that the young folk enjoyed the most. A couple of the participants shared cakes and sandwiches with their U3A writing class the next day!
Collographs and Monoprints and Love
I missed the workshop on Collographflower prints because I fell that day and had an unplanned trip! The work the others produced amazing, particularly when most were new to the art form.
The larger pieces below examples of Collography.
The writing task was about ‘Love’. I missed out on creating a collograph but could write at home without too much effort.
Can love be put into words?
Trust, passion, security, contentment –
limiting the concept seems absurd.
Love is all encompassing, enthralling,
ecstatic and entrancing, but also
mundane, steady, unconditional ––
not all excitement and romancing.
It’s the years of care from a doting Dad –
caressing his ageing skin and feeling sad.
Massaging Mum’s arthritis, being close
savouring the aroma of her Sunday roast.
It’s marmalade and toast made with
daily devotion – delicious pancakes
and scones triggering emotion.
A smile causing the heart to flutter –
a light behind your eyes for no other.
Unexpected flowers to cheer the day,
orchids or roses have something to say.
A heartfelt cuddle, a warm embrace,
loving strength, if trouble you face
It’s gentle bedtime snores confirming
belonging and comfort at night.
Shared laughter and crazy dreams
It’s pride and happiness on sight.
A special tone of voice, whispering
your name, and other endearments,
a baby suckling at breast, content
the promise of future fulfilment.
Nurturing children, bathing and caring
the pleasure of siblings playing together
the squabbles, support, and sharing.
Holding hands with lovers and
celebrating each day with joy
free to be embarrassed or unduly coy.
What is love? Can words describe it well?
Live it, breathe it, only your heart will tell…
Monoprints – what a challenge
Adrian told the class to follow on from their idea for the Collograph and draw something for a monoprint. This would then be drawn on acetate with ink applied and a print produced.
I can’t draw a straight line without a ruler, in fact, I can’t draw anything and don’t try.
I tried to draw the flower head to appear like a bird – what a mess – a few more strokes and it looked like a bird sucking on the plant.
‘Don’t fiddle’ my mantra – it would have to do.
Adrian gave it the okay and I printed it off. He suggested I use a different paint tool and create a second print. And I did.
In one session I did something I never thought I could.
The monoprint was an expression of a haiku written on the train on the way to the workshop.
After worrying over the session I missed, feeling embarrassed at my artistic ineptitude and lack of talent, I achieve something that doesn’t look too bad.
I’m enjoying this project!
Outside my window July flowering delights homegrown paradise
Writing on Place – haiku
With my first haiku written about a place – the garden – I continued on that theme and write about my home in Mordialloc.
For You – My Garden Haiku
Mairi Neil 2018
Outside my window
July flowering delights
The warm dawn sunlight
penetrates the ti-tree bush
baby birds awaken
withstand sea breezes daily
to perfume driveway
A sturdy bottlebrush
succour to Noisy Minors
Jack’s living tribute
from majestic woody throne
a morning Etude
on blooming grevillea
picnic on the wing
A whiff of rosemary
reminds us of sacrifice
seeds of love and hope
Freshly cut roses
carefully arranged in vase
memories of love
Floral posies in
the colours of love
Marigolds dusk glow
sunflowers smiling happiness
promise of sweet dreams
Comments from Participants
And You Too Can Haiku!
Emilie gave everyone the most common guidelines for haiku: the standard seventeen syllables split up into three lines of five, seven and five syllables respectively.
A good starting point, however, most of the young participants didn’t know about haiku poetry we had a lesson where everyone was writing and mouthing syllables as they counted and worried about fitting into the criteria.
Nowadays the form is more fluid. Poets write one, two or four-line haiku and the syllable count can vary enormously.
The extreme minimalism– absolutely no unnecessary words – and the presentation of a defining moment are the most important requirements.
It is important to present the thing itself, the simple truth. No tricks –
The haiku is a classical Japanese form. It was an important influence on the imagists – poets like Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, and later the Beat Generation, in love with Zen and now it is popular with the generation into mindfulness and ‘living in the moment’.
That is essentially what the haiku is: a moment; a vivid image that seems to make time stand still.
Economy and observation are its two main qualities – excellent disciplines for writers, no matter how old or what genre you prefer.
Writing on Place – Childhood – and an idea for Linocut
Brainstorming, thinking in haiku mode, and seeking an image from childhood that could translate onto a tile to be printed – an image I could actually draw so it resembled my words and was achievable for a novice in the art of linocut!
Childhood Memories of Scotland
At our kitchen table
babble of happy voices
the breath of family
Weather for lamb roasts
rosemary thriving in pot
the smell of Sunday
Scones, pancakes and tea
bramble jam bubbling on stove
Mum’s off-key singing
Bitter icy winds
Jack Frost and his snowmen arrive
snowball fights are fun
The teapot ever ready
Soothing sorrows and worries
culture and comfort
Dad’s railway uniform
always trailing soot and coal
and the sound of steam
Daily tidal dance
a rumbling in the distance
tuning life’s rhythms
But shipyards must close
jobs and happiness are scarce
Australia needs us
At the dinner table
lively discussions hosted
no topic ignored
Time to leave our home
the inner child’s fear frozen
warm climate ahead
The learning curve and level of excitement rose as Adrian demonstrated the various carving and cutting tools and the method for sculpting. We were given a special board to ensure no nasty slips with very sharp objects!
Despite there being octagenarians, septuagenarians and sixty-five year old me around the table, there was no tragic blood-soaked workshops.
It is not an easy task drawing on a tile and then deciding what is positive and negative space so that you cut out a design and produce a print of what you want – what parts of the drawing will remain solid and black, what parts will not be inked.
Tanya, one of the participants who is a well-known artist in her own right, advised me to chalk white the parts that I didn’t want to carve and then wipe off the chalk when finished. Great advice.
Most of us took our tiles home in between sessions and used the tools Adrian kindly lent us so that we’d be finished by the end of the project. I am indebted to my daughter, Mary Jane for helping me and ensuring I didn’t cut away too much of the tile.
My first attempt at inking resulted in a couple of dirty marks. Adrian showed me how to clean up the tile and reprint until I was satisfied with the finished product. The second print was fine.
What a relief to know that you get a second chance, even with something as complicated as this.
Writing on Place – First Home – Belonging – What we remember…
It’s amazing how one memory triggers another and in a writing workshop, like pirates, we pick up gems from others and it helps us to remember, reflect and write.
One of the most sincere forms of respect is actually listening to what another has to say –
Bryant H. McGill
Another youth worker involved in the project was Sophie and one night, some new young people joined us and we did a getting to know you exercise called Intergen Bingo. We moved around the room to discover various facts about each other to match at least three pieces of description to a person:
was born overseas
has a dog
favourite food is pizza
catches public transport
likes listening to rock music
plays a musical instrument
cannot eat a certain food
likes to tell stories
plays a sport
has an older sibling
can speak another language
has a job
has green eyes
likes going for walks
The room was soon abuzz with multiple conversations, laughter and surprise. The questions had led to more questions and a better understanding of each other.
I ticked plenty of the boxes, discovered three others had hazel eyes like me, that dog lovers outnumbered cat lovers and the names of two groups the Avalanchers and Jokers played music regarded as ‘surf rock’ – a genre I didn’t know existed.
We discussed what to read at the launch of the project. The presentation needed to be as close to a minute as possible.
A poem about the house we came to live in when we migrated to Australia in 1962 was deemed suitable.
I grew up in bushy Croydon
the trees grew thick around,
milk and bread delivered
to a tuneful clip-clop sound.
Kookaburras laughed and swooped
to steal our pet cat’s food
it wasn’t Snappy Tom, of course
but ‘roo meat, raw and good.
The streets were mainly dirt tracks
a collection of potholes and clay,
most people walked or cycled
and even strangers said, ‘gidday’.
Our weatherboard house peeled
the corrugated tin roof leaked too,
a verandah sagged under honeysuckle,
the rooms added as family grew.
Mosquito nets caused claustrophobia
possums peered down chimneys three,
but the dunny banished down the back
the most terrifying memory, for me.
Electricity brightened inside the house
so torch or candlelight had to suffice
night noises and shadows of the bush
and the smelly dunny was not nice!
The path to the toilet lined with trees
growing tall to seek the sun
but when the dark cloak of night donned
branches became hands from which to run
During the day our block was heaven
definitely a children’s adventure-land
blue tongues, geckos, tadpoles and frogs
all shared our world so grand.
A snake the greatest danger
or a bull ant bite on the toe
a truly carefree wonderful time
my rose-coloured glasses show.
I also read Sammar Bassal’s haiku because she was too bashful to read it herself.
The poem and tile great representations of how the library was her home as she struggled to learn English and find a place in her adopted country.
A design student, Sammar’s tile detailed all these wonderful fantasy characters emerging from an open book.
Home away from home Surrounded by written words The library has gone
October is a month when Victoria celebrates seniors and the City of Kingston’s Seniors Festival has the theme ‘Get Social’ encouraging everyone to be involved and feel part of their local community.
Involvement in the Intergenerational project and exhibition, visiting the Westall Hub for the first time and meeting up with many new people during the course of a wonderful, learning opportunity was not only social but fun.
Kingston is a proudly diverse city, with residents coming from more than 150 countries, speaking 120 languages and following more than 28 different faiths. Council is committed to helping foster an accepting and inclusive community, regardless of anyone’s origin, ethnicity, faith, economic status, disability, age, gender or sexual orientation.
Cr. Steve Staikos, Mayor, City of Kingston.
Whatever the intergenerational project is next year, watch out for it and participate – you won’t regret it.
Here are a couple of pics of some of the seniors involved plus Sammar and the Mayor ‘getting social’.
Coco Chanel apparently said, ‘Nature gives you the face you have at 20. Life shapes the face you have at 30, but at 50 you get the face you deserve.’
If we sulked or made a funny or unpleasant face, my Mum used to warn, ‘the wind will change and you’ll stay like that.’ Both my parents championed smiling and politeness and modelled being friendly and pleasant.
‘You use more muscles to frown than smile’ is always a good comeback when someone looks glum, but there is no scientific proof behind the old saying!
“Scientists have studied the muscles needed for both facial expressions, and to do a small smile generally uses 10 muscles; a small frown uses 6. On average, a smile uses 12 and a frown 11. However, since humans tend to smile a lot, these muscles are stronger. A frown may be slightly more effort to produce just because we aren’t as used to using these muscles.”
However, scientific proof or not, I’m sticking with smiles, politeness and kindness to people because I feel better when I do and following another piece of Mum advice, ‘civility costs nothing.’
My face – wrinkles et al – reflects life hasn’t been easy but there are plenty of laughter lines and when I meet up with friends there are usually smiles and laughter aplenty and I try and catch up with as many as possible during term breaks.
Spring In Melbourne Town 2018
(A hybrid Haibun)
Today, I won’t be grey and miserable
and definitely ‘not over the hill’
I’m meeting a friend of many years
several hours we’ll happily fill.
On way to the train U3A club gathering ‘Nice day for an outing!’
Dressed for mercurial Melbourne
sturdy shoes and light jackets,
sunglasses, lanyards with names,
backpacks and lunch in packets.
‘Join us?’ their chorus prepared for fun and adventure my kind of ageing…
On the train beside a Metro worker
who’s heading for Glenhuntly Station
we chat about insecure work and gender
driving a train once her inclination.
‘I’m on the bus now Meet you under the clocks C u soon’
A confirmation text received
we’ve embraced the digital age
but I open a book of poetry –
I prefer words written on the page.
Train stops Platform 10 30 steps to reach the street ever mindful of heart health
Food court wafts hot chips, coffee and cake
September’s Showtime and school hols
Flinders station’s abuzz with children
plus seagull, sparrow and pigeon trolls.
Myki tapped lightly eyes seek a waiting friend welcome smiles and hug
Age hasn’t happened all at once
however, we stroll not stride, to NGV
with hours to enjoy art and beauty
top priorities a pee and a cup of tea!
A young girl walks by her straw hat embroidered – the word – ‘paradise‘
Indeed! Melbourne – the world’s most liveable city.
Old friends are gold
Uma and I go back forty years BC (before children) and have encountered storms and defeats; sunny days and triumphs. Recently, retired from full-time work Uma is recovering from a serious back operation. I’m a few years older, almost retired from part-time work – four months to go – but who is counting!
For a just celebrated 61st birthday, Uma received membership to the NGV and as we walked from Flinders Street Station, she extolled the advantages and virtues of access to talks, special events, behind the scene views, plus a membership lounge – our first stop for a complimentary cuppa.
I love the NGV too – it is celebrating 50 years this year and I can remember it being built. In fact, I can remember the obligatory school excursion where you got to lie on the floor and stare up at the magnificent and unusual leadlight glass ceiling.
There are always several special exhibitions at the NGV, plus their permanent collection. Uma’s input and knowledge from attending member lectures added to the richness of the day as we wandered through galleries discussing exhibits.
A recent talk about Nick Cave’s work: Sound Suit made her think differently about the pieces and how we perceive each other.
Nick Cave makes sculptures that you can wear. These outfits cover the body and remove all traces of the wearer’s identity. When you are wearing a Soundsuit, no one can tell whether you are rich or poor, black or white, male or female…he created his Soundsuit series in an attempt to process his trauma associated with the 1992 Los Angeles riots.
…wearable sculptures act as symbols of endurance and a form of protection by obscuring all signs of the wearer’s race, gender, age, sexual identification and class…
…made from everyday materials sourced largely from flea markets, including dyed human hair, plastic buttons, beads and feathers…joyous and spectacular…rattle and resonate when worn in performance.
Both Uma and I were busy mums in 1992, with our firstborns leaving Prep and our second children preparing for playgroup and three-year-old kindergarten. International events reported via radio or television and often delayed by hours but the 1992 LA riots unforgettable because at the same time Australia was facing the reality of the Stolen Generation stories and alarming statistics of Aboriginal deaths in custody.
I expressed my anger and fears at Readings By The Bay, the monthly poetry and story readings held by Mordialloc Writers’ Group:
Our Burning Shame
Mairi Neil 1992
Rodney King – who gave you that name?
A “king’ in a black skin…
some will see the irony
or is it okay as a surname.
Is your destiny entwined
with that other dreamer?
The world watched in horror
as they beat you to the ground…
on the ground
into the ground.
The gang of four with official batons
grasped tightly, wielded as if warriors
beating your head
beating your body
beating your legs
Pounding, pounding, pounding…
a steady funeral dirge
burying the myth racial equality is accepted
Middle-class liberals gasped
horrified at the naked truth
other victims sighed with relief
the truth at last revealed.
Those with the power to change
shrugged away the fuss
A picture is worth a thousand words
a video worth a thousand affidavits
television news beamed across the nation
worth a thousand protests
an opportune political decision
worth a thousand votes
Time dimmed the anger and horror
even brutes deserve a trial…
innocent until proven guilty
but will Nuremberg be revisited?
We waited for the sentence
believing we knew the judgement
A jury without black faces
proved society is controlled
by red necks preferring white liars
who can live with red faces
Now Los Angeles burns –
along with our shame
those with real power
Cosmetics mask ugly faces
waspish capitalists sting
again and again and again…
Shocked Australians are horrified
yet reality reveals our guilt
when black deaths in custody
Our custodians of the law
don’t need lessons in brutality
we watched the scenes in LA
but closed minds
can be switched off
just like television sets
Will our cities burn
Now, of course, the time delay is only seconds. The 24Hour media cycle (circus?) barely gives us time to digest, never mind process, events. There are social media platforms and mobile devices offering no escape or relief, and ironically, the reality of ‘fake’ news.
After almost three decades I have to pause, reflect, and ask how much have attitudes and behaviour changed?
Will the wider dissemination of news and events via the Internet make people seek further knowledge, see a different perspective, consider a change in behaviour or attitude – or will it just cement their own truth and beliefs?
Across the room beside Sound Suits is Amelia Falling by Hank Willis Thomas, a most effective photographic image on a mirror and depicting Alabama 1965– I remember that too almost three decades before the LA Riots! :
Amelia Falling is derived from an archival photograph taken by photojournalist Spider Martin during the Selma to Montgomery marches in Alabama in 1965…
… civil rights activist Amelia Boynton Robinson being carried by fellow marchers after having been gassed and beaten by State Troopers during what was intended to be a peaceful protest…
Willis Thomas states, ‘In a lot of my work I ask the viewer not to be passive but to actually think about active participation’.
What artwork will the Trump era produce – chronicle our despair, facilitate change or confront our shame?
Trumpeting Limericks To Let Off Steam
Mairi Neil, 2016
There once was a candidate Trump
elected by those who took hump
at moneyed elites
according to tweets
by Trump’s collective misogynist clump
He blew bigots up like a bicycle pump
‘deplorables’ swelled to a poisonous lump
forget about facts
diplomacy or tact
winning is all that matters to Trump
As the President-elect Donald Trump
sneered at women considered plump
his unleashed tongue
grotesque insults flung
Trump’s misogyny a cancerous lump
His presidency corrupt at the core
means the United States no more
anger and hate
an uncertain fate
Trump’s only about settling a score
He campaigned with deceit and lies
winning the penultimate prize
of course, he’s a fool
others actually rule
will the majority avert their eyes?
From Mexican artist Joaquin Segura we have Exercises on selective mutism, 2012:
In this piece the artist has recovered a found object – a canvas banner discarded in the aftermath of a protest in Mexico City – and transformed it into a minimalist sculpture by applying layers of white paint to its surface.
The attempt to cover up (literally ‘whitewash’) the banner’s political message is key to the work’s meaning… about efforts to silence, and render invisible, dissent – through omission, spreading misinformation and erasure – and a questioning of conceptual art’s potential to make political claims or to challenge authority.
I love writing Found Poetryand the last lesson for the term in my Writing Creativelyclass was exploring Found Poetry by reading a column in the local paper which collates local news snippets from a hundred years ago.
The exercise was challenging but productive and I hope the students polish the variety of poems they wrote.
Art can Confront, Challenge, move us from our Comfort Zone
Several other installations prompted discussions on a host of current media topics and various events we’d lived through.
Baby boomers have survived tumultuous, exciting times and have adapted to incredible change, especially the rise of the digital world. I’m glad there is still support for art you can touch, walk around, relate to and experience in real time, not just on screen.
Melbourne is rich with events to attend, particularly during holiday times and I never tire of the trip to the city – as a teacher of creative writing, particularly Life Stories & Legacies, cultural experiences and exhibitions offer a mine of information and material for lessons and ideas to write about, plus triggers for personal memories.
When we write about our past, it’s easy to look at memories as if through a fixed lens. Events and people, including self, coldly observed – especially childhood – embarrassments, failings, mistakes, sometimes enlarged or erased with hindsight, successes perhaps forgotten or if unrecognised at the time, now embellished. The telescope pointed at childhood fixed, and often others not consulted, so the memory, reliable or otherwise, is our own.
The immediate past and middle years, early adulthood onwards not so clear to categorise or to talk about – marriage, parenthood, working life – may still have ongoing repercussions – more likely family, friends and fellow travellers, still alive even if not active participants in your life.
The memories may be raw and traumatic and still needing some distance before reflection.
Our childhood distant, but not the experiences of our own children and their effect on our lives still being worked through, as are decisions that may have affected our health:
abandoning regular sport or dancing,
promotion at work,
reducing to part-time
or casual work,
de facto relationships,
… so many experiences and turning points to be written freely or honestly, or perhaps censored with ramifications fully understood.
Shared experiences, Interviewing friends, a Memoir Writer’s fodder
At the NGV, along with discussing the contents of the galleries, Uma and I chatted and remembered events of our forty years friendship. We both are the product of the first wave of feminism and both have daughters who we raised accordingly, hoping they would not go through some of the sexism and inequality we faced.
Uma, as a woman of colour, born in Malaysia, a country with a long history and acculturation from British colonialism, recognises she adapted to Australian society with relative ease compared to other migrants but we agree the conversations around #blacklivesmatter and #metoo are relevant to Australia and long overdue.
Proud to be Feminist
“You’ll love the Guerrilla Girls: Portfolio Compleat,” said Uma as she guided me to the next gallery.
Guerrilla Girls exhibition confronts gender inequality particularly in the creative fields, and because myself and both daughters (a filmmaker and a stop-motion animator) work in creative fields, Uma wanted me to see it.
We found ourselves sharing insights about subtle and not so subtle discrimination in a world that unfortunately still sees power wielded by the privileged, and in western society, the privileged are overwhelmingly white and male.
Uma confided that at work in the public service, even when she was in charge, as the manager or ‘boss’, she sat in the front row at conferences or prominent positions at meetings to be seen and she consciously spoke a little louder to be heard – a woman of colour, she had two hurdles to jump!
Guerrilla Girls is a group of anonymous feminist artists and activists who call themselves ‘the conscience of the art world’. Their posters, billboards, books, videos and live lectures use facts, humour and bold visuals to expose sexism and racism in politics, the art world and popular culture.
The collective formed in New York City in 1985 with the mission to bring gender and racial equality into focus within the greater arts community. The members protect their individual identities by wearing gorilla masks during public appearances and by adopting names of deceased female icons such as Edmonia Lewis, Kathe Kollwitz and Frida Kahlo.
Uma pointed to number four on the list of advantages of being a woman artist.
‘You have another 20 years,’ she said with a grin…
Many of the observations were witty and shocking but in today’s depressing political climate ‘stating the bloody obvious.
On the way to visit another special exhibition, we paused at random objects that caught our eye.
From ‘in your face’ feminism, to the eighteenth century, known for its enlightened philosophes (you’ll be forgiven for only knowing the names of the male intellectuals – Voltaire, Rousseau, Kant, Diderot, Hume…) because women were literally and figuratively trapped – in clothes that limited mobility, a society that denied rights and access to education:
The fashionable ideal for women in the eighteenth century comprised voluminous dresses, open at the front to reveal matching stomachers and petticoats, tall powdered clouds of hair and pointed buckled shoes. Skirts were widened with hoops or panniers to create an exaggerated hourglass silhouette that emphasised the natural waistline.
This work is known as a robe a la francaise (or sack-back gown), distinguishable by its sack-back of loose pleating and front robings trimmed with lace that conveys the luxury and ostentation of the period.
During the first half of the eighteenth century, fashionable women’s shoes for the upper and middle classes followed a common form. Straight and narrow with a pointed toe and thick-waisted heel, most were made of rich silk fabric and often had decorative trimmings known as passamaneria. This pair features exquisite metal thread bobbin lace made by braiding and twisting lengths of thread, further edged by strips of braid work. The shoes do not buckle but are worn with the latchets overlapping at the front.
How did they function?
I loved Georgette Heyer’s Regency and Georgian novels as a teenager and imagined floating around in muslin and silk dresses – a visit to a museum would have given me a reality check!
The research required for good historical fiction is painstaking and often clothes play a huge part in whether the story is believable, even more so for screenwriting.
I visited so many museums and galleries when I travelled and often looked at the displays and pondered the hours of labour to make the material, dress and shoes.
My aunt was a tailoress and my older sister an amazing seamstress too, she quilts, embroiders and does all manner of creative needlework. I know the effort and time hand sewing takes – mind-boggling!
However, the men and women hunched in candlelight, in rooms with little or no ventilation, sewing these glamorous gowns earned a pittance and history did not even record their names…
A Stitch in Time (a villanelle)
She sits sewing by dim lamplight
embroidered threads by her side
contented, happy, eyes shining bright.
In the stillness of evening light
needle and thread silently glide,
as she sits sewing by pale moonlight.
Cross-stitches, pattern small and tight
new techniques taken in her stride
contented, happy, eyes shining bright.
Her creativity in wondrous flight
imagination flows like the tide
as she sits sewing by candlelight.
Machines embraced despite Luddites
mass production becomes her guide
contentment gone, eyes no longer bright
History records seamstresses’ plight
workers stripped of all but pride
many still struggle in shadowed light
exploited, sad, eyes no longer bright.
A Day For All Things Domestic?
Uma was thrilled to come across an installation by an Indian born artist Subodh Gupta called Curry.
A wall displaying the various utensils used for cooking reminded Uma of growing up in Malaysia and observing her grandmother cooking. There were certain types of pots and pans, spoons and ladles found in every Indian household.
The tiffin boxes brought back memories for me too.
I first heard about tiffins and saw one when John and I became close friends with a workmate, Peter Cordeux who had been born and brought up in India as part of the British Army community.
Whenever we had parties, Peter and his wife Kathy brought a tiffin box filled with delicious curries and rice, which Peter always jokingly claimed he made.
Peter died in 2008, but his stories of growing up in India, holidaying in Pakistan and Afghanistan, being stationed in the Middle East, fighting in Malaya in 1948 during the “Insurgency,” and then the various jobs he had before migrating to Australia, including operating an ice cream van, introduced a whole new fascinating world.
His funny and serious tales reflected in those tiffin boxes! My girls loved their Uncle Peter and still miss him.
Cultural references resonate within the make-up of this artwork: the use of stainless steel in bowls, plates and cups is synonymous with the modernisation and economic development of India in the twentieth century.
Stainless steel replaced kansa (or bell metal, a brittle bronze featuring a high proportion of tin) in the 1950s and 1960s and came to transform the kitchen and eating utensils used in everyday life in India.
The nod to the multitudes of India is made in this work, where straightforward, comparatively small, individual elements are brought together at such a scale that they transcend their everyday nature.
A Writing Exercise
A common writing exercise for those writing family history or memoir is to look in cupboards and write about objects kept for sentimental reasons or as heirlooms. What is the story behind them? Why is it important to write their legacy?
Or write about and explain the value and attachment of everyday objects.
How were they acquired and is there a significant memory attached, like a birthday or anniversary, a travel story?
A trip to the NGV or the museum may help to trigger memories – this stainless steel display certainly did for me and Uma – as did the final special exhibition we walked through.
A Modern Life: Tablewares 1930s – 1980s
If you want to date or explain the provenance of that treasured plate or teapot, visit the NGV before 27 January 2019. You’ll have an enjoyable history lesson too and perhaps discover that valuable piece of crockery a la Antique Roadshow!
The layout of some of the displays to mirror popular designs, I found a bit overwhelming and busy, but certainly stunning and there is a great range of designers. So much detail to produce the humble cup and saucer.
Nowadays, in trendy places, you can be offered a jam jar to drink from and your meal served on a wooden board – or even given disposable crockery and cutlery!
Not so in previous decades.
Following the Second World war, societal changes resulted in the decline of domestic servants and many women going out to work. These changes, along with the growing enthusiasm for a modern lifestyle, prompted manufacturers to produce dining wares that were versatile, easily cared for and able to go from the oven to the table.
Postwar optimism also encouraged the development of new tableware forms that were decorated in bold colours and modernist patterns.
This exhibition explores the growing engagement with modern design by commercial manufacturers charting the application of technical innovations in production and decorative techniques in pursuit of commercially competitive products.
Whilst focusing on ceramics, the exhibition also explores the use of new materials resulting from wartime technological advances including plastic, aluminium and stainless steel.
As we walked around the cabinets so many memories were triggered. Personal family stories, especially memories of our mothers and the impact of their preferences, tastes and habits on our own behaviour shopping, cooking, serving meals.
Memories of setting up house in the 80s – scrounging furniture, crockery and utensils to build a home.
Uma was surprised to hear I’d worked in Johnson’s Pottery in the 70s – in fact all members of my family, apart from my young sister, worked in the Croydon factory, producing Australia’s best-known tableware.
Dad was a kiln man for ten years, my mother worked on the pinning bench preparing the holders for the pottery to be fired, my brothers were kiln boys helping load and unload the kiln cars and clearing up debris, sorting and stacking; my sister worked in the decorating section and I inspected the finished products and also worked in the office during the traditional three-week Christmas shut-down period.
When the factory closed for maintenance, the only person running the office was Mr Stephen Johnson, the boss and owner before Wedgewood bought the company. Teenage me on university holidays was hired to answer the telephone and type letters.
At the time Johnsons negotiated special deals with shops like GJ Coles, David Jones and Myer – they chose a specific design that became their exclusive tableware. I took a call from the famous GJ Coles who was a personal friend of Mr Stephen’s and made afternoon tea for the many suited gentlemen who visited to seal agreements for the coming year.
I can remember the fuss when Johnsons moved away from traditional whiteware and made their first stoneware as they tried to compete with imports from Japan.
Technology and mass production has made a lot of household items disposable but access to good quality tableware used to be prized – the first complete set of tableware for many being the traditional wedding present of a dinner set.
Most of my family, myself included, had a dinner set gifted as a wedding present. I have a couple of plates, the remnants of the wedding present to my grandparents and parents. Bone China still cherished and on show in cabinets in the homes of many of my generation.
John’s sister in England has a magnificent collection of blue and white pottery (Delftware) and Royal Albert and Royal Doulton Bone China, but the coffee sets and tableware in this exhibition very much examples of the everyday pieces that may not survive intact if their purpose and design enjoyed rather than displayed!
The bold colours of the 70s and 80s obvious and I’m sure similar pieces can be found in Opportunity shops as my generation declutter.
I don’t think young people today place the same value on many of the possessions older generations had to use a greater percentage of their disposable income to acquire.
I can recall seeing the famous blue Willow pattern for the first time when I came to Australia in 1962. We stayed with a cousin of Dad’s and that was the pattern of her everyday dishes. I fell in love with the oriental scenes, my imagination working overtime as usual because I’ve always had a fascination with China.
In the early days of living in Mordialloc, one of the retail chains had a sale of Blue Willow pattern crockery and I bought a set.
When the girls were young, they too ate their cereal from Willow-patterned bowls. I’ll have to ask them if the scenes had any impact on them – I’m pretty sure their answer will be no.
But perhaps in the future, looking back on their childhood or wandering through an art gallery or museum with a friend…
For Auld Lang Syne
I’m lucky to have several dear friends to enjoy the present and some have shared the immediate and not so distant past – the part of life we often struggle to write about in terms of memory and reflection.
Talking about shared experiences or interviewing friends about a particular event can help with perspective when the desire or in some cases, an urgency to record a life for family members or the general community arises.
There are three classes into which all the women past seventy that ever I knew were to be divided: 1. That dear old soul; 2. That old woman; 3. That old witch.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
A couple of centuries have passed since Coleridge made that statement about ‘old women’. I’m heading towards seventy and some friends are there already and we’d all agree he got it wrong.
We may still be fighting for gender equality, and ageism is a reality, but thankfully Coleridge and the other Romantic Poets with patriarchal and sexist views are only around in print and any modern poet expressing similar views will have to contend with shaming by Guerrilla Girls!
I loved my day out with Uma and look forward to catching up with other friends ‘of a certain age’ and intend to enjoy lots of the available activities in October as we celebrate how great it is to be a senior in Melbourne.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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!
… Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women have played – and continue to play – active and significant roles at the community, local, state and national levels… As leaders, trailblazers, politicians, activists and social change advocates, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women fought and continue to fight, for justice, equal rights, our rights to country, for law and justice, access to education, employment and to maintain and celebrate our culture, language, music and art…
They are our mothers, our elders, our grandmothers, our aunties, our sisters and our daughters… often been invisible, unsung or diminished… For at least 65,000 years, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women have carried our dreaming stories, songlines, languages and knowledge … and enriched us as the oldest continuing culture on the planet…
Two Sisters – Ngarta And Jukuna
A True Story – Perhaps the first Autobiography written in an Aboriginal language…
In an ideal world, this book would be in school and community libraries and generate important conversations about culture, language, family relationships, and Australia’s history.
A firsthand account it provides a rare primary source of knowledge and insight into the lives of two amazing and courageous women.
We are all enriched by listening or reading with an open mind when people share their authentic, lived experience from the heart, in their own language. Especially, when the stories are remarkably different from our own as this story.
The sisters couldn’t read or write their language Walmajarri until it was documented and translated into English by Eirlys Richards, one of the co-authors who collaborated with this book.
Eirleys and Pat Lowe, the other non-Aboriginal author are to be congratulated for recognising the importance of recording the stories, helping translate Ngarta and Jukuna’s words, encouraging the telling and persisting towards publication.
The road to publishing would not have been easy. I’ve spent most of my writing life trying to publish stories by everyday Australians in anthologies for the Mordialloc Writers’ Group and classes in community houses and appreciate the hoops to jump through to achieve a joyful result – especially with what is referred to now as ‘traditional publishing.’
This edition of Two Sisters, by the Magabala Books Aboriginal Corporation 2016 and was first published by Fremantle Arts Centre Press 2004 but can be bought from www.magabala.comEmail:firstname.lastname@example.org
The book is easy to read and approximately 120 pages and packs a punch.
I guarantee it will remain in your memory! For me, even the timescale is mind-boggling. Ngarta and Jukuna came out of the desert and first had contact with white people in 1961 – the year before I arrived in Australia to live in Melbourne, one of the most developed cities in the world.
The book includes helpful sections such as pages 83-103 where the story is in Walmajarri. Another singular experience – I’ve not read a book before with the story printed in English as well as an Aboriginal language.
Also included is a Glossary of Walmajarri words and their meaning plus an excellent pronunciation guide. ( Throughout the text some of the Walmajarri words used have no definitive English equivalent because of the 23 different sounds of Walmajarri some are not found in English.)
A potted history of the backgrounds of the authors and how they met also included with helpful historical markers and notes about Aboriginal culture and several maps and photographs.
‘People who lived in the Great Sandy Desert led a distinctive way of life with their own beliefs and customs. In telling their stories, Jukuna and Ngarta took such aspects of their experience for granted, seldom seeing the need to explain what to them was obvious. Because Ngarta’s story is written in the third person, it has been possible to interweave additional information helpful to readers who don’t know the desert or its people…
For most readers there will remain a number of questions arising from both stories, not all of which can be answered with certainty… we have often had to accept that some things are unknowable…’
Ngarta with coolamon of seeds 1989
Jukuna with seed gathered, 1983
Eirlys moved to Fitzroy Crossing in 1967 to translate The Bible but also establish literacy and reading groups. When Jukuna and her husband Pijaji settled nearby they learnt to read and write their own language for the first time.
‘By 1980 Jukuna was a fluent reader, one of a small number of people who could read and write the language… her skill in writing did not develop as quickly as her reading did, probably because there was little reason for her to write.’
However, when Jukuna and Eirlys met up in the 1990s Jukuna said,
‘I have written a story about myself, will you read it?’
Eirlys ‘read an account of a young woman leaving her family in the desert to walk with her husband to the unknown country of the white people. I wondered if this might be the first autobiography written by a Walmajarri person in her language.‘
Two Sistersisabout life in a remote area of Australia few will visit, let alone live in. Most of us are not desert or bush dwellers and if we do go there it will be with the support of guides and tourist organisations, or with the knowledge and expertise of technology.
Reading the day to day accounts of hunting animals and gathering and harvesting of plants, the walking from waterhole to waterhole, the hours of digging involved and the setting and packing up of camps is engrossing and exhausting when you imagine the miles, the terrain, the heat, the cold – and the fear!
Underlying the journey of the sisters and the last of the Walmajarri left in the desert is the story of murder and lawlessness by the criminal Manyjilyjarra brothers.
These men were from a family of outlaws, men who lived apart from other people and defied the law, who preyed on their fellows, killing without reason, abducting women and discarding them. Other men feared them, and for a long time they got away with their crimes…
… news of yet another killing reached the scattered bands. No one had the power to control the killers or bring them to puishment. They moved, uninvited into country that was not their own, and eventually they went to Walmajarri country…
This was a time of great change amongst the peoples of the desert. Most of their number had already left the sandhills. Some had chosen to migrate north or west to join relatives on the cattle and sheep stations that had been established in the more generously watered country of their neighbours. Others had been rounded up by white people and brought into settlements….
Desert society had so disintegrated that its normal laws and sanctions could no longer be enforced, and these men were able to intrude with impunity into other people’s country and to prey on the few remaining unprotected inhabitants.
Prologue, two Sisters
Ngarta Jinny Bent and Jukuna Mona Chuguna belong to the Walmajarri/Juwaliny language group. They were children when this mayhem and dislocation happened and the story of fleeing the criminals, meeting up with them and others who suffered and the gradual move north to settlements is covered in their stories.
Ngarta stayed behind with her grandmother to be one of the last to leave country.
‘In the whole of the Great Sandy desert, only a handful of widely scattered groups of people still lived in their accustomed way. Everyone else had gone. In Ngarta’s country there remained just one small band of eight souls: Ngarta, her mother and grandmother, her young brother, Pijaji’s two sisters and his second mother and grandmother…
With so few people to feed… They did not need to travel far with each season to find new stocks of food. Besides they were waiting for their relatives to come back and pick them up…’
The little group lived like this happily enough for a couple of years. They didn’t see anyone else in all that time and, but for the knowledge that their relatives were living on a cattle station far to the north, they might have been the last people in the world. Life went on in its age-old pattern: food gathering and hunting, drawing water, making or improvising tools, cooking, camping, firing the country, telling stories around the fire. Everything was the same, yet nothing was the same now that they were on their own.
Enter the lawless brothers who killed her brother and beloved grandmother and speared her mother. Ngarta’s story becomes particularly harrowing when you consider she was just a child. She lived in terror and eventually fled surviving on her own for ‘a year or more’… time measured differently by her people.
‘So I went away on my own, in the afternoon. I went west. I took only a kana for hunting and a firestick. I walked on the grass all the way, till I got to Jarirri.’
Instead of walking on the sand, Ngarta stepped from one tuft of spinifex to another in order to leave no footprints.
She almost reached safety, within sight of Cherrabun hills but ‘… her resolve failed. For reasons she is no longer sure about, she gave up the idea of pushing on to Christmas Creek.’
‘I don’t know why I went back. maybe I was thinking about my country. Maybe I was frightened for kartiya.’(white people)
… their country stretches almost as far as the Fitzroy River to the north, but the family of these two sisters came from much further south, from the Great Sandy Desert proper, so that when the first Walmajarri people, the northern groups, were going to work on cattle stations, the southern groups were unaffected… even the bands most distant from one another were linked by marriage and consanguinity… upheavals caused by the settlers of the cattle and sheep stations filtered back along the attenuated communication lines to… the remotest parts of the desert…
Robert Menzies of whom they knew nothing, was Prime Minister when Jukuna and later Ngarta emerged from the Great Sandy Desert… much later… they first heard the word “Australia” and learned that they were not only Walmajarri, but also Australians.
Pat Lowe, contributing author in the introduction to Two Sisters
When Jukuna tells her story she also fills in gaps about Ngarta’s and describes when they were reunited:
‘I’ll tell you about something good that happened. Pijaji and I thought our family, who we’d left in the desert, were no longer alive. So, we pushed the memory of them from our minds, and worked on the station without thinking about them very much, you can imagine my shock when my sister and sister-in-law arrived at Christmas Creek Station. When I heard the news I was overjoyed and we went over to see them and cry with them.’
I know the feeling of joy as a migrant returning to my birth country and meeting kinfolk and friends after many years of separation but there have been letters, phone calls and messages via others.
No such contact for the sisters.
That unembellished paragraph of Jukuna’s about being reunited with family thought dead and hearing their horrific tale of survival such understated stoicism!
Bridging The Cultural Divide
In a chapter titled The World of The Two Sisters, Pat Lowe contributes some helpful information to help non-Aboriginal readers understand the sisters’ stories – especially in the context of the time and reminding us of how isolated the desert dwellers were.
Books like Two Sisters show the differences in culture but also similarities in the development of humankind, the resilience of communities, the dispelling of fears and misconceptions, and adaptations necessary, the contrast between past, present and future.
Both women became artists as well as writers with their paintings exhibited in Australia and overseas. (Ngarta died in 2002)
Desert people did not keep track of ages in years, but as stages in life. Children described as newborn, crawling, toddling but as they got older their maturity judged on ability to hunt and the size or agility of animals caught – from small lizards to goannas and pythons, cats to foxes and dingoes. ‘The first time Ngarta killed a cat or a fox was a landmark event.’
A girl considered ready for marriage when her body showed signs of physical maturation – menstruation, breast development, pubic hair. Perhaps betrothed since birth to an older man she didn’t cohabit until mature enough and went to live in her husband’s camp. Her husband not allowed to have sexual relations until ‘the right time’ and such restrictions commonly observed. (Unless of course, like the marauding brothers Ngarta encountered men took women and girls and often killed them after rape.) ‘Although Ngarta never talked about it later, she is said to have been taken as a wife by one of the men.’
Polygamy was normal practice, maintained by an early marriage of girls and later marriage of men. The presence of other wives, by and large, ensured the protection of the younger girls. It also contributed to complex kinship relationships and in the story, it can become quite complicated when the sisters talk of mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers so don’t read certain tracts when you’re tired! This complex extended kinship and blood relationships, of course, is why the practice of removing children from their family and country is not only outrageous and indecent on humanitarian grounds but a dangerous practice because families lost trace of bloodlines, eligibility for marriage, and ensuring appropriate behaviours and obligations observed. Aborigines will suffer the consequences of The Stolen Generation for a long time and we must never let that shameful period be forgotten or repeated – no matter what justifications authorities use.
A boy’s physical development determined his readiness for going through stages of law and his rank among men and marriageability.
Desert people tell stories that may span years. They are not fixated with definitive time the way Europeans are and knowing the age of the sisters at particular times in the story is guesswork.
Widows or other grieving females hit themselves on the head with stones until they bled, there is confronting descriptions of this and wailing, tearing of clothes, painting bodies in clay – visible and visceral signs of grief shared by other cultures.
Desert dwellers believe in supernatural beings and spirits – some benign others dangerous. They live in hollows and waterholes can enter children and animals, can be helpful to explain good weather or destructive seasons and anything new or unusual like windmills and fences built by settlers and the various types of cattle introduced. They are not the only people to believe in the supernatural or gods that can’t be seen. Men cried when they discovered water in the tank below a windmill having never seen the structure before and always working hard digging for water, they believed evil spirits were at work.
Expert hunters and gatherers but living in a sometimes unforgiving environment a great part of the desert dwellers day is spent searching for and cooking food. Most of us would be in awe at their tracking and hunting capabilities and lack of waste – the wisdom of the First People to help us protect and sustain the environment should be a given. But when they first engaged with white people there were many shocks. ‘At Julia Yard, the two men found a drum of tar, used for applying to spayed cows to heal their wounds. They had never seen tar before and thinking it was some kind of food, like honey, they swallowed some of it. It burnt their throats and later they vomited.’
Desert and other Aboriginal people drop from their vocabulary the names of recently deceased people. They are disturbed to hear the name or be reminded of someone who is gone. The closer the relationship, the longer the taboo on the use of a name and other similar words in general vocabulary. “Instead, people usually address and speak of one another by relationship terms, a practice that causes much tearing of hair amongst non-indigenous people trying to follow narratives and identify the actors.”
Epilogue – What About Justice?
The Chapter, Epilogue, became personal in a ‘six-degrees of separation’ way.
A small group of desert dwellers who had never lived under or obeyed ‘white man’s’ law appearing at a remote cattle station and killing stock was news in 1961 but because of language barriers and intense fear and distrust it was some time before teenager Ngarta’s story was listened to – and apparently ignored by authorities.
The two murderers were remanded on cattle killing charges, later reduced to ‘having been in possession of beef suspected of having been stolen,’ and fined fifty pounds or fifty days in prison.
The court case and charges absurd – how would they know about kartiya (white) law and possession or have money for fines!
Tragic too, the public outcry ‘at the perceived unfairness of the sentences’ that followed, which led to the men being soon released and having ‘a happy reunion’ with their group.
The government received written protests from such bodies as the Union of Australian Women, the Joint Railway Unions Committee, the Amalgamated Engineering Union and the Federated Miscellaneous Workers’ Union.
I’m a member of the UAW and worked for the Miscos in the 1980s. I know these organisations considered themselves progressive and on the side of social justice.
They were at the forefront of many struggles for Aboriginal rights but I wonder if they were able to hear the real story from those desert dwellers in 1961, including the treatment of the sisters, would they still have demanded the men’s release?
The allegations that some of the children had been stolen were never followed up, or the brutal and cruel treatment Ngarta and Jukuna suffered – well not by katiya – but interestingly karma or ‘blackfella way’ seems to have worked! (Read the book…)
Two Sisters and its various chapters with perspectives, reflections and new knowledge, a fascinating read of survival, adaptation and growth. An apt book to study because the focus of this year’s NAIDOC theme is – honouring women’s contribution
The above quote could be my mantra – I find joy in writing and teaching others to be confident writers.
Teaching others the various ways they can tell their stories.
Encouraging them to play with words until they find the right ones for whatever it is they are writing.
To move out of comfort zones, celebrate who they are and the life they have lived.
Write their legacy in whatever style they want, whether prose or poetry, fiction or fact, or a combination of both in creative non-fiction.
In the lessons, I prepare for my writing classes memories of my own surface along with an impetus to rediscover and rework writing from years gone by – in some cases discover prose and poetry I’d forgotten.
I often shake my head with bemusement or amazement and think: Did I write that?
Forgetfulness – is it ageing or Alzheimer’s!!?
I’ll join the millions of others who Google and share a meme discovered because it suits!
I know it is not de rigour to compliment yourself and I’ve always found it difficult to be self-promoting – it is much easier to promote anthologies that include other writers or the works of writer friends.
However, what a wonderful surprise this week to exchange emails with Matilda Butler, an amazing woman in the United States who helped me gain the confidence to tell my stories and make the first foray into online publishing in 2010!
Other stories followed on the website set up by Matilda and her friend and fellow editor, Kendra Bonnett: WomensMemoirs.com
And then three were chosen for a series of Kindle books in 2015, and these books have now been redesigned and published the traditional way.
Greetings to You…An Author in Seasons of Our Lives
As one of the award-winning authors in the Seasons of Our Lives anthologies, I have exciting news for you. I invite you to join WomensMemoirs.com in celebrating the publication of paperback versions of the SEASONS OF OUR LIVES. The four volumes (SPRING, SUMMER, AUTUMN, WINTER) are filled with the best, the most inspiring award-winning stories — including yours.
The Kindle version generated a great deal of interest, book awards, rave reviews, bestseller status on Amazon, and we anticipate the paperback version will be equally popular — as well as providing you with the opportunity to let friends and family have their hands on your story.
Will you help us congratulate you and all the other award-winning memoir authors in these volumes by getting the word out about the new paperback version of these stories?
Many of your sister authors requested that these Kindle books be brought out in paperback. It definitely was a good idea, but life gets to be busy, much too busy.
In addition to regular blogging, writing, creating a new series of videos on Marketing, Publishing, and Writing (10+ hours of content to be announced in the coming weeks), and creating new products for our etsy.com stores, we found that it took more time than anticipated to create smart-looking volumes that you would be proud to own and give. These four volumes are finally available.
These memoir anthologies won seven book awards, and stayed on the Kindle bestseller list for more than a week. A real success story.
Since that time, these stories have continued to resonate with readers across the US and many countries and are now also used by memoir teachers and coaches. These stories are not only inspirational. They are also exemplars of memoir writing.
We’re all modern women and like digital technology. BUT there is still something special and satisfying about holding a book in your hands, enjoying a story, setting it aside on the coffee table where it lands with a thud rather than a ping, and returning the next day to read more.
From May 14 – June 15, Seasons of our Lives – Spring, Summer, and Autumn are specially priced at just $9.97 on Amazon and the fourth season, Winter, is priced at $10.97. On June 16, these volumes increase in price to $11.97 and $12.97 respectively.
The email resonated with me!
Call me old-fashioned but to hold the hard copy in my hand was more thrilling than having a digital copy on my computer and I thank Matilda and Kendra for all their hard work making that dream a reality for the women whose stories are showcased in the four anthologies.
SEASONS OF OUR LIVES: WINTER includes 33 memoir vignettes and takeaways to get you thinking about your life, and perhaps writing your own stories. Five of these stories include a treasured family recipe along with the story and tell us of the scents of winter.
The mini-lessons that follow each award-winning story cover many of the topics important in memoir writing such as:
creating a memoir title,
crafting a powerful opening,
linking openings and closings,
choosing a powerful point of view,
incorporating sensory details for reader engagement,
adding character descriptions,
showing (not telling) emotions,
using dialogue effectively,
understanding how time and place can be used in tandem or as stand-alone elements,
making word choice a priority,
discerning the different impacts of present versus past tense,
considering vignette topics to write about,
choosing between letting the reader figure out the story behind the story or spelling out all the details,
And much more!
I was fortunate to meet Matilda and her husband Bill when I went to the USA in 2012 and we spent a lovely day together as they showed me Portland, Oregon.
Although we are almost down to the ‘Christmas” staying-in-touch category I value their friendship and the happy memories we shared.
Seasons Of Our Lives – memoir for everyone
The stories in the four volumes will charm, intrigue, captivate and inspire you because they speak of and highlight all our lives with details of :
coming of age,
At the same time, the memoir vignettes encompass:
survival, and even
The stories tell of lives intersecting with history, profiling ordinary yet extraordinary experiences unique to the authors – and at their core, they tell of all our lives.
Seasons of Our Lives — Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter include more than 100 award-winning true stories. They’ll make you laugh. Cry. Feel joy. Experience sorrow.
I have stories in three of the books: Spring, Autumn and Winter.
Rereading them in print was exciting but reading Matilda and Kendra’s critique and “take-away” advice after all the stories an insightful and inspirational addition to the value of the book, not just as a memento but as a teaching tool.
The Writer’s Path
I never envisaged that my story would win any writing competition run by WomensMemoirs.com nor did I think them good enough to be chosen for the book series – first Kindle publishing now traditional…
… the path to publication certainly does involve having a purpose(what will we write about?) perspiration (all those hours of writing, rewriting, editing and rewriting) and persistence (for every story sent somewhere you add to your pile of rejections!).
The Editor & Publisher’s Path
Matilda Butler and Kendra Bonnett have co-authored several books together:
Rosie’s Daughters: The “First Women To” Generation Tells Its Story – a collective memoir
Writing Alchemy: How to Write Fast and Deep – a manual to improve your writing
Tales of Our Lives: Fork In The Road
Tales of Lives: Reflection Pond
Kendra is a blogger, has ghostwritten several books, is a marketing executive who develops marketing materials for corporations, and a speaker and memoir coach.
Matilda is a psychologist, blogger, online and in-person memoir coach and writing conference speaker. She writes and teaches in Oregon and offers classes in Hawaii.
In recent months, Matilda’s husband Bill has had several operations to save his sight, yet through it all, she kept working on the layout for the anthologies.
Feedback from other authors reveals the covers have their desired effect — grabbing the (potential) reader. It was not a seamless process converting the digital books to print – especially as several years have passed since initial creation.
Matilda and Kendra decided to have a completely different layout and new covers.
The interior layout worked out well. That’s part of what took me so long. The first proof copies looked terrible. I started over with the layout and got another set of proof copies. Then I saw additional elements I could put in. After a couple more rounds of getting the printed proofs, I finally was happy!
We have memoir coaches using them in teaching and that’s quite rewarding.
The books have won the following awards:
Next Generation Indie, First place, Women’s Issues
Global E-book Award, Gold, Writing Non-Fiction and Silver, Anthologies
eLit Book Award, Silver in Anthologies and Bronz in Women’s Issues
Los Angeles Book festival, Runner Up, Anthologies
San Francisco Book Festival, Runner Up, Anthologies
New York Book festival, Runner Up, Anthologies
Northwest Book Festival, Honorable Mention, Anthologies
I am humbled and privileged to be part of such a wonderful writing community and holding the books in my hands has given me a little extra oomph to knuckle down and write some more.
Often my writing takes second place to my teaching and helping others achieve their writing goals – Matilda and Kendra have inspired me that there are enough hours in the day and days in the year to do both!
Chelsea Heights Community Centre captures the essence of neighbourhood houses!
On Monday, under the auspices of Longbeach Place where I teach, I did a creative writing workshop at the Kingston Arts Centre as part of a month-long promotion of community houses in the City of Kingston. This was open to the public for free.
Nine community/neighbourhood houses in the City of Kingston were given display space in the galleries to promote activities under the theme ‘the heart of the community‘.
The promotion also coincided with Volunteer Week. The Council is always keen to encourage people to volunteer and neighbourhood houses are a great place to start a fulfilling journey!
If you are keen to help others, want to share or learn a skill, meet people and help curb your own or their isolation, contribute to the wellbeing and social capital of the community, then there is no better place to start than a neighbourhood house!
What is a Neighbourhood House?
A Neighbourhood House is a not-for-profit local organisation set up to provide social, educational, and recreational activities for a community, in a welcoming, supportive, non-judgemental environment.
Managed by a volunteer committee and some paid administrative staff, it operates with the assistance of volunteers. There is a wealth of accredited and non-accredited courses provided by teachers like myself, but also niche groups set up such as Longbeach Place’s Yarn Art & Craft Storybook Trail, or groups for carers to have time-out, family history buffs, knitting and art enthusiasts… the list is endless.
Neighbourhood Houses have space to host morning teas, conferences, annual general meetings – regular meetings for almost any community group you can imagine. My Mordialloc Writers’ Group met at a neighbourhood house for over 20 years.
Some of the houses are Registered Training Organisations and many are Learn Locals like Longbeach Place, offering VET courses.
Each paper heart on the display board celebrating Longbeach Place was written by a student. In a word or phrase, they described what the neighbourhood house meant to them:
The contributions from the other houses who also used hearts, echoed the recurring sentiments of a safe, friendly environment, nurturing learning and creativity with lots of fun and educational activities.
When Did Neighbourhood Houses Start?
The Neighbourhood House movement began in Victoria in 1973 with the aim of offering people a supportive, non-threatening environment to share skills and mix socially within local communities.
Neighbourhood Houses represent and serve their community. They are accessible drop-in centres that care about social wellbeing, personal and community growth. They often attract and welcome those who feel isolated, neglected, lonely and forgotten or those who have just arrived and want to “fit in”… they provide a learning environment like no other.
The people who attend usually live, study or work within the local area, and courses and activities offered are dictated by the local community and their needs.
This makes each place unique and some develop particular strengths.
Many Houses started with specific groups in mind depending on their locality.
The 1970s – A Time Of Social Change
It was the 70s and the Women’s Liberation Movement was growing. Most community houses grew from women’s involvement and demands. They saw the need for programmes for people with disability, victims of domestic violence, new migrants and multicultural groups, and Aboriginal/ Torres Strait Islanders, women who needed confidence in returning to study or retraining.
Women wanted childcare and playgroups for ‘stay-at-home mums’ and a place for all people to be treated equally regardless of race, religion, gender or ability. They may have left the workforce to have children but still wanted to share their skills or learn new ones as they adapted to motherhood and parenting.
1972 was a watershed in Australian political history – the Federal Labor Government of Gough Whitlam had a strong commitment to community programmes, to women and to children. State Governments followed their lead – times and our culture a’changing.
Federal money released for the first time to fund programs that actively encouraged women back to study and into the workforce by making higher education and training courses free. There were funds for women’s refuges, programs to assist families, and for childcare.
Many women ‘went back to school’ via courses at neighbourhood houses first and gained the confidence and qualifications to enter tertiary studies. Older women whose families were almost grown up returned to study and used the neighbourhood houses to fill gaps in their education but also to develop courses and activities to help others.
Wellbeing And Creativity
Neighbourhood houses help manage social change and prevent social isolation.
The last few years the Men’s Shed Movement has grown out of community houses. The benefits of men having somewhere to go to cope with adjusting to being alone, coping with health issues, retrenchments, early retirement and adjusting to years of extra life expectancy are universally accepted now.
People often discover and develop creative talents in arts and crafts suppressed at school or never given a chance to grow. Creative courses in neighbourhood houses are often the first step for people, at last, being able to show their artistic or writing talents.
Neighbourhood Houses Victoria
Neighbourhood Houses Victoria (NHV) was established in the early 1970s as the peak body for Victorian Neighbourhood Houses and Learning Centres.
It currently has a membership of over 380 organisations – 90% of the 390 Houses and Centres in the state.
The mission of the organisation is to support and develop the movement of Neighbourhood Houses and Learning Centres as individual organisations and as a collective.
This past year they spearheaded a campaign to have the State Government boost funding for the sector.
And the Andrews Labor Government did deliver by boosting investment in the neighbourhood house network by $21.8 million over the next four years.
I received a letter from Minister for Families and Children Jenny Mikakos MP in response to a postcard I sent as part of the campaign where she confirmed:
The Andrews Labor Government is backing our neighbourhood houses as we want to ensure more Victorians have access to the vital employment, training and volunteering services that many neighbourhood houses provide in our local communities across Victoria.
Well done to everyone who campaigned for such a great result.
It is always a relief to have guaranteed funding so that courses can be planned – and with rapidly changing and increasing demographics neighbourhood house managers and committees are kept on their toes!
Writing Creatively At Kingston Arts Centre
I transplanted my usual Monday Class at Longbeach to Moorabbin along with an open invitation to the public.
At one stage, when five of the regulars sent apologies and I was struck by a dreaded winter bug I toyed with following the line of the old song, “let’s call the whole thing off…”
I had no idea what awaited me on Monday but how thrilling to greet three regular students plus some past students and friends – and a lady who said,
“I’ve never written creatively before.”
The two hours disappeared fast along with the chocolate biscuits I brought and the tea and coffee the Arts Centre provided! Yet, we were too busy to have a designated break.
After brief introductions, we did some productive brainstorming and then with heads down the writing began. After each exercise people shared completed sentences, paragraphs, even vignettes to the prompts. Fascinating and vastly different pieces of writing.
I targeted “the senses.” These are often neglected but improve our writing when included. The variety of responses rich and rewarding.
I love writing workshops!
At the conclusion of the exercise on the sense of smell, one participant concluded, ‘I realise I have a limited vocabulary when it comes to describing smells.’
She continued to suggest others do what she does, “when reading I write unusual and interesting words I discover in a notebook. It helps improve my writing. Now, I’ll watch out for how other writers describe smells.’
This is a perfect example of the wonderful feedback and help fellow writers give each other and how writing exercises and sharing in class can improve our writing.
A Personal Story
A few weeks ago, one of my past students from my 2016 class at Mordialloc Neighbourhood House emailed me. English was not her first language and she needed help with a private matter.
It was great to catch up for a coffee and fortunately, I was able to help her. She is an educated, enterprising woman who had been a journalist in Japan but like many who write facts for a living, she wanted to explore creative writing.
She lacked confidence in her own ability and struggled with the nuances of English. In the class, I encouraged her to express herself through poetry.
Her perceptions about adjusting to life in Melbourne and being able to express her feelings about other aspects of her life was a great healing journey but also led to valuable discussions in class.
She blossomed but I’ll let her tell you in her own words what attending a class at a community house meant:
My Writing Class
I’ve never really liked classes
I’m often less enthusiastic
preferring to study on my own
I was not a good student in writing class
Yet there are good memories
reminiscent of days visiting relatives –
a bit awkward but feeling secure
In class I remembered the joy of writing
I was accepted for who I was
I made an inspiring Turkish friend
I learned authenticity is the essence of writing
I got to know each classmate’s story
From warm words of condolence
I was encouraged to keep my head high
No matter what I faced
I will take home these great gifts I received
From my writing class at Mordialloc beach
And looking at the past I regret
that I have missed the beauties of life
from being arrogant in classes
I only loved my Mum when I was a kid
And growing up into adulthood
I tended to only love one person at a time
I regret now that I may have missed
the beauties of other people
by being narrow-minded on some occasions
I will take home great gifts about life
received from my writing teacher at Mordialloc beach.
When she left for an extended trip to Japan, Naoko gifted me her poem and a beautiful watercolour she had painted. Gifts I will treasure along with her work published in the class anthology.
The poems and stories of all past students are important to me and when I read their words I hear their voice, imagine them in class… memories I value. Another of my students who has been attending my classes for a long time said exactly the same thing – she reads the anthologies and remembers.
Write your stories – leave a legacy – leave an impression for someone to remember!
Writing In the 21st Century
We are in the digital age and the demands of readers have changed – there are websites, blogs, e-books – all read on a variety of devices with different screens and parameters.
If writers want to reach readers our methods must change – how you adapt is your choice. For many people, the traditional printed paper is still what they want to read and how they want to be published.
There is room for both traditional and digital publishing and 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. More importantly, they can keep you motivated.
Writing courses proliferate online and in bricks and mortar but for convenience and cost, community houses are worth a look. We throw in ambience, friendship and sharing of stories and ideas. We learn from each other and the weekly sessions eliminate the isolation and loneliness many writers suffer.
Community houses provide computer classes too – an introduction and welcome to the digital age that is usually self-paced – again the ambience and friendship are free!
This meme that did the rounds of Facebook recently reminded me of using a knitting project to calm my mind and complete a commitment I made to a newfound friend when we spent a weekend in Ballarat as volunteers for that city’s first ever Open House.
Susan and I shared a B & B overnight and I heard about her involvement in the 5000 Poppies Project. I first read about this project when I attended the Spirit of Anzac Exhibition at Jeff’s Shed several years ago. Susan reminded me of the mental note I made at the time to follow up the story. She inspired me to ‘pull my finger out’ and participate.
That was October and it wasn’t until December when life went a little pear-shaped that I recalled my promise to knit poppies. The thought of an excuse to sit and focus on craft more appealing than sitting at the computer!
Back to School For Knitting Lessons
I have many happy memories of craft, especially when my children attended the Steiner Stream at Moorabbin Heights Primary School in the 90s. I loved being immersed in creative projects with them. We made felt gnomes, knitted tiny mice and any other animal you could think of to sell as fundraisers for the school.
Reconnecting with knitting became a holistic exercise.
The pure wool bought, dyed, and wound into usable skeins in the class by the children.
Purchased dowels of various thickness from Bunnings hardware were cut to size and the kids sanded the needles smooth before massaging them with beeswax.
After collecting tiny gum nuts from the garden and glueing them to the end of the needles, they were ready to knit.
I can’t remember who taught me to knit. Certainly not my mother – she always decried her knitting ability by showing a half-finished sock still on the three needles that she started to knit for Dad in the early days of their marriage. It was even brought out to Australia when we migrated – why will remain a mystery!
Mum loved repeating proverbs and the one she used to explain that lack of knitting prowess was, ‘The road to hell is paved with good intentions.’
Maybe it was my Great Aunt Teen who first taught me to knit because she was constantly knitting or crocheting and up until she died in the mid-60s she made all of us a jumper or cardigan for our birthdays.
The last item she made me was a lovely pure wool jacket and I received it the night before we left for Australia. Nine-year-old me adored that jacket and it was so well-knitted and loved that I still have it.
My daughter, Anne, even wore it for a short while although it was slightly yellowed with age. It has dogs as a pattern and she loves dogs!
Perhaps I learned to knit at Brownies or Girl Guides – I vaguely remember knitting a scarf for a doll – I know my older sister, Cate would have helped because she is as talented at knitting and crocheting as Great Aunt Teen.
However, I learned the basic skills, I know the difference between knit and purl and as a volunteer mum at the Steiner school, I found myself sitting in a circle with a group of the children and teaching them to cast on and knit.
I recall the looks of intense concentration as 7 – 9-year-old girls and boys struggled to master the craft, row by laborious row.
‘Mairi, how many stitches should I have at the end of the row?’
‘I’ve got 23.’
‘I’ve got 30.’
‘I’ve got 29.’
And so around the circle… picking up lost stitches, separating some convoluted efforts, unravelling knots, losing excess stitches…
I still have the recorder and music bags my girls sewed, knitted and embroidered just like my mother kept the placemats I made with childish hands.
Bridget Whelan, the author of Back To Creative Writing School, wrote that ‘weaving stories in your head while you travel to work or sit daydreaming in a café is not writing.’
I agree, however, sometimes it pays to take a rest from trying to fill the blank page and turn attention to some other form of creativity and that’s what I did when I set myself the task of knitting poppies for the 5000 Poppies Project.
But like all those writing projects needing editing and polishing – I didn’t quite make the target. (Although between us we did, I’m sure!)
I can list the excuses (I’m a writer so very good at excuses):
a bout of ill-health, preparing for visitors from overseas, Christmas, an unbearably hot summer, clearing clutter and preparing for the New Year… etc etc…
I did manage to knit 30 poppies and post them off so don’t feel a complete failure and on reflection 100 was a big target but an absolutely minuscule amount when you think of the number of poppies completed in what has become a global challenge.
Here is a picture from a couple of years ago when a display was placed at Parliament House, Victoria. There have also been moving tributes at the Shrine of Remembrance, the Australian War Memorial, and in London and other places of significance – hundreds of thousands of knitted poppies.
“These days, we wear our poppies not only as a symbol of remembrance of the fallen but also as a symbol of our support for those who have chosen (or in the case of those who in the past have been conscripted) to serve their country…
… we have again created a most beautiful and moving tribute at Melbourne’s iconic Shrine of Remembrance. As beautiful as it is … this is only one of many many other tributes that have been created throughout the world … created from our hearts, with love, and honour and respect.
If you could reflect … and pass on our message to anyone you know who is currently serving, or has served, or has suffered from the ongoing effects of their own service or their loved ones’ service … it is why we are doing what we are doing … This tribute is our gift to you.
Our way of saying thank you, and a poignant reminder of the depth of feeling from a grateful nation. Your service will not be forgotten. LEST WE FORGET”
In Flanders Fields by John McCrae, May 1915
In Flanders fields, the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
The Inspiration for “In Flanders Fields”
It was early days in the Second Battle of Ypres when a young Canadian artillery officer, Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, was killed on 2nd May 1915 when an exploding German artillery shell landed near him.
He was serving in the same Canadian artillery unit as a friend of his, the Canadian military doctor and artillery commander Major John McCrae. Being the brigade doctor, John McCrae was asked to conduct the burial service for Alexis because the chaplain had been called away somewhere else on duty that evening.
It is believed that later that evening, after the burial, John began the draft for his now famous poem “In Flanders Fields”. The sight of these delicate, vibrant red flowers growing on the shattered ground caught his attention. He noticed how they had sprung up in the disturbed ground of the burials around the artillery position.
In Dornie, Scotland last year I saw the McCrae memorial honouring their clansmen:
The Story Behind the Remembrance Poppy
The origin of the red Flanders poppy as a modern-day symbol of remembrance was the inspiration of an American teacher, Miss Moina Belle Michael, also known as ‘The Poppy Lady.’
She and Frenchwoman Madame Anna Guérin, known as ‘The French Poppy Lady’, encouraged people to use the red Flanders poppy as a way of remembering those who had suffered in war.
The Flanders Poppy became the symbol of remembrance that we know so well today.
Two days before the Armistice was declared at 11 o’clock on 11th November 1918, Moina Belle Michael was on duty at the YMCA Overseas War Secretaries’ headquarters in New York. She was working in the “Gemot” in Hamilton Hall. This was a reading room and a place where U.S. servicemen would often gather with friends and family to say their goodbyes before they went on overseas service.
On that day, Hamilton Hall was busy with people coming and going because the Twenty-fifth Conference of the Overseas YMCA War Secretaries was in progress. During the first part of the morning as a young soldier passed by Moina’s desk, he left a copy of the latest November edition of the Ladies HomeJournal .
When Moina found a few moments to herself, she browsed through the magazine and came across a page carrying a vivid colour illustration with the poem entitled We Shall Not Sleep.
This was an alternative name sometimes used for John McCrae’s poem, In Flanders Fields. Moina had come across the poem before, but reading it on this occasion she found herself transfixed by the last verse:
Take up our quarrel with the foe: To you from failing hands we throw The torch; be yours to hold it high. If ye break faith with us who die We shall not sleep, though poppies grow In Flanders fields.
Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae had died of pneumonia several months earlier on 28th January 1918.
In her autobiography, entitled The Miracle Flower, Moina describes this experience as ‘deeply spiritual’. She felt as though she was actually being called in person by the voices which had been silenced by death.
Three men attending the conference arrived at Moina’s desk and on behalf of the delegates asked her to accept a cheque for 10 dollars, in appreciation of the effort she had made to brighten up the place with flowers at her own expense.
She was touched by the gesture and replied that she would buy twenty-five red poppies with the money. She showed them the illustration for John McCrae’s poem In Flanders Fields together with her response to it We Shall Keep the Faith.
We Shall Keep the Faith by Moina Michael, November 1918
Oh! you who sleep in Flanders Fields,
Sleep sweet – to rise anew!
We caught the torch you threw
And holding high, we keep the Faith
With All who died.
We cherish, too, the poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led;
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies,
But lends a lustre to the red
Of the flower that blooms above the dead
In Flanders Fields.
And now the Torch and Poppy Red
We wear in honor of our dead.
Fear not that ye have died for naught;
We’ll teach the lesson that ye wrought
In Flanders Fields.
The delegates took both poems back into the Conference.
The red field poppy came to be known as an internationally recognised symbol of ‘Remembrance’. From its association with poppies flowering in the spring of 1915 on the battlefields of Belgium, France, and Gallipoli, this vivid red flower has become synonymous with great loss of life in war.
Yet the scope of the poppy and its connection with the memory of those who have died in war has been expanded to help the living too. It was the inspiration and dedication of two women who promoted this same memorial flower as the means by which funds could be raised to support those in need of help, most especially servicemen and civilians suffering from physical and mental hardship as a result of a war.
Since the end of the First World War, there has been an armed conflict somewhere in the world every single day!
Out of the Great War came a lesson of ordinary people that were not ordinary. They did extraordinary things.
25000 dead in WW1 had no known grave
When I was in Scotland last year I also read about the Highland Scot who suggested the tomb of the unknown soldier.
Love and loss is the essence of our humanity. Returned men and women damaged beyond recognition examples of the extremities of loss and bereavement. They do not get over it, or move on, or get closure.
In Fromelles, France where 5000 Australians died in the most tragic night in the history of WW1 the poppies were a beautiful contrast to the tragic scene of desolation. And of course, those casualties not in uniform were rarely recorded in official history.
The book, What’s wrong with ANZAC?details the huge disparity between public remembrance ( solemn artefacts etc) often misused for militarism and nationalism compared with the ambivalent stories of sacrifice and experience of survivors and the generations of pain resulting from war.
For me, the poppy has always been about acknowledging the devastation and tragedy of lives shattered and lost, remembering, mourning and hoping it never happens again!
Patriotic music written in wartime has been used to express national pride, spread propaganda, encourage enlistment and motivate troops.
Perhaps that’s why Eric Bogle’s antiwar songs written at the time of the Vietnam War but set in WW1, were and still are definitive songs for peace, honouring those who made the greatest sacrifice and pointing out the senselessness of armed conflict, and tragic waste to humanity.
Green Fields of France by Eric Bogle
Oh how do you do, young Willy McBride
Do you mind if I sit here down by your graveside
And rest for a while in the warm summer sun
I’ve been walking all day, and I’m nearly done
And I see by your gravestone you were only nineteen
When you joined the great fallen in 1916
Well I hope you died quick
And I hope you died clean
Or Willy McBride, was is it slow and obscene
Chorus Did they beat the drums slowly Did they play the fife lowly Did they sound the death march as they lowered you down Did the band play the last post and chorus Did the pipes play the flowers of the forest
And did you leave a wife or a sweetheart behind
In some loyal heart is your memory enshrined
And though you died back in 1916
To that loyal heart, you’re forever nineteen
Or are you a stranger without even a name
Forever enshrined behind some old glass pane
In an old photograph torn, tattered, and stained
And faded to yellow in a brown leather frame
The sun shining down on these green fields of France
The warm wind blows gently and the red poppies dance
The trenches have vanished long under the plough
No gas, no barbed wire, no guns firing now
But here in this graveyard that’s still no man’s land
The countless white crosses in mute witness stand
To man’s blind indifference to his fellow man
And a whole generation was butchered and damned
And I can’t help but wonder oh Willy McBride
Do all those who lie here know why they died
Did you really believe them when they told you the cause
Did you really believe that this war would end wars
Well the suffering, the sorrow, the glory, the shame
The killing and dying it was all done in vain
Oh, Willy McBride, it all happened again
And again, and again, and again, and again
Did they beat the drums slowly Did they play the fife lowly Did they sound the death march as they lowered you down Did the band play the last post and chorus Did the pipes play the flowers of the forest
Knitting the poppies gave me the gift of calmness and a warm glow that I was doing something useful and taking part in a worthwhile project.
It also helped me reflect and in moments of melancholy reflect on how hard it is to get those in authority to focus on PEACE.
I’m sure I’ll knit a few more poppies in the future too or find another use for the hands-on creativity that helps me rest from facing the blank screen and filling the blank page…
I’m grappling with this question as I prepare lesson plans to start the new writing term. Putting myself in the shoes of prospective students. I know some of my past students are returning – they’ve already been in touch, checking dates and times with several looking forward to continuing their projects, meeting up with old friends, learning new techniques and returning to some structure to their week.
But why do we write?
I’ve been addicted and passionate about words and writing all my life so it’s a question I’ve often asked and been asked!
Is it a desire or need to scribble thoughts on paper, record imaginings, in a belief it is important, or fun, urgent or pleasurable – or a combination of all of these?
So many people express the desire to write and record their story ‘if they had time’ or ‘when I finish work’, ‘when the kids leave home’, or numerous other excuses. Just as many start a book and don’t finish.
And despite stating how much I love writing, I can identify with all those categories and excuses!
Maybe that’s why I love teaching writing classes – it keeps me writing, keeps me motivated and engaged, and keeps the dream of the printed word alive.
The novel may be unfinished but hundreds of stories and poems are written, shared, and published.
Emotion, Trauma, Social Justice – Strong Motivators For Writing
A life-changing experience or strong feelings often encourage people to pick up a pen or switch on a computer. The opposite, of course, can be true – many people write from boredom. They need the adrenaline rush of exercising their imagination and writing the books they love to read!
I am always fascinated by the variety of responses to a single prompt.
Students can fill a page with characters and plot, or pluck beautiful prose from their memory, write original metaphors and similes and then weave the words into remarkable settings to immerse readers and listeners in the power of story.
Or they address and simplify concepts, share life-transforming events that speak to profound truths and touch the heart…
Writing Poetry And Short Stories Can Solve Dilemmas
“A problem shared is a problem halved,” Mum used to say.
“Sleep on it” or “take a walk and mull it over” some other good advice if a burning resentment must be exorcised, difficult decisions faced, or a dilemma solved.
Rather than real life exposes or rants, writers can put characters in a situation, give them the problem to solve, the ethical conundrum, the family feud, the injustice to fight – work it all out on paper.
It’s useful and even therapeutic to have characters take the criticism or kudos, make the mistakes, work through the issues.
Many people have a need to be creative and writing may satisfy that need. You may not have the stamina to produce a novel but exploring poetry can be exceptionally satisfying and fun.
Wordplay, riddles and even returning to childhood rhymes and fairy tales and writing new ones all valid and satisfying writing projects.
Form poetry a good starting point and everything from affairs of the heart, the devastation of war, to the meaning of life can be expressed through poetry.
Writing isn’t all about entertainment or amusement nor does it have to be obscure or difficult to understand but it does have to connect with the reader in some way.
Playful And Powerful – English Has A Word That Fits…
English… What’s That?
English is definitely a funny language –
funny peculiar and funny ha ha!
So many words with double meanings,
unusual spelling – can drive you ga ga!
Let’s take a word like mean,
an average word you understand,
unless like Scrooge you won’t share
or be a bully – and don’t care.
So many words that sound the same,
they’re annoying and confusing,
their meaning drastically different –
mistakes often highly amusing.
Some words sound how they look,
so clap for onomatopoeia and be glad,
but knowing phonetics doesn’t stop
those silent letters making you mad.
You can pinch a pinch of salt,
and we know a flea can flee,
that ship’s sail may be on sale –
but no way can a pea, pee.
The pale moon won’t fit in a pail,
but every tale can have a tail,
a little mite has a lot of might
and that rite may not be right.
A mayor can ride a mare,
he may stand on a stair to stare,
and eat local fare at a fair,
their jobs are always there.
Your genes may fade like jeans,
and I’ll shed a tear over a tear,
worry about the whole of a hole,
being the sole keeper of my soul.
Criticisms of English usage has weight,
when you can eat a date while on a date
and meet a terrible fate at a fete,
by discovering pâté on your pate!
A male can deliver the mail
and a hare without hair is rare,
but both can be weak for a week
if bones creak because of a creek.
And English has many phrases,
difficult for learners to understand,
like ‘pot calling the kettle black’
oh, the language is underhand!
Advice ‘from the horses’ mouth’,
‘without a shadow of a doubt’,
advises dreaded cliches to avoid –
but it’s hard weeding those phrases out.
English language confusing and amusing,
yet its richness can be rewarding –
once mastered, you’ll be addicted,
and it’s not banned or even restricted!
Do You Need to Write or Just Want to Set Your Imagination Free?
I’m looking forward to the start of another teaching year. Meeting new and old students coming together to write. Each one will have their own voice and style and a dream or project.
All will be united in their love of words.
Some will write fact, others fiction.
Some will struggle with the blank page. Their words dripping like a slow-leaking tap, while the ink from the pens of others gushes like Niagara Falls.
Stories that have waited a lifetime to be written will astound, others will be fictionalised to be more palatable or easier to write.
Short story fantasies or gritty realism, profound poems or funny doggerel – all shared to inspire each other.
Passions rekindled and new passions created as genres are explored. From comfort zone to brain challenging learning. Each class new friendships will form as we become a writing community.
The price of wellbeing rarely factored in when the beancounters in government look at community education today. It is all about being job ready or being digitally and technologically savvy.
Wellbeing, not a word to use when applying for education funding apparently.
Yet, some of the most talented writers in my classes have lived 80 years or more. They still want to learn, still want to write, and are producing wonderful stories and poems. Seeking employment and digital glory, not their highest priority!
They create a legacy for the next generations, they focus on writing and building new friendships for a few hours a week… forget age and ability … they have aptitude and attitude!
They’ll embrace new techniques and tools but it’s about the words, emotions and engagement.
A has aspirations to write a novel B likes to play with words C has a loveless life and seeks romance D thinks Mills and Boon absurd E loves family history F reads and journals a lot G creates settings with descriptive flair H just loves to plot! I preaches grammar absorbed from school J admits to being a hopeless speller K always suffers from writer’s block L is an expert storyteller. M adores purple prose N employs similes galore O aches to be published one day P escapes household chores Q uses metaphors imaginatively R nurtures the inner child S writes for children but libertarian T is erotica gone wild U is definitely a poet V writes doggerel and verse W fears rejection X is tense and terse Y dramatises everything writing drama to entertain
and Z – well – Z writes to understand the world – the musings society’s gain!