Aware of Bravery and Courage but who Determines these Expectations of Living?

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This past week the media was saturated with talk, film, interviews and documentaries about bravery, especially in relation to ANZAC Day. I thought a lot about a relative cut down in his youth (19years old) and buried far from home.

 This week too,  we discussed in some of my classes that bravery and courage comes in many forms. I asked students to take the writing prompt COURAGE and write a story or personal memoir – fact or fiction – with this as the theme.

One isn’t necessarily born with courage, but one is born with potential. Without courage, we cannot practice any other virtue with consistency. We can’t be kind, true, merciful, generous, or honest.

Maya Angelou

Courage may be standing up to a bully, announcing a divorce, owning up to a misdemeanour, coping with illness or facing a phobia, challenging an unreasonable boss, deciding to emigrate, or travelling alone…

There are plenty of quotes from celebrities about their ideas of the meaning of courage – I distributed a sheet of quotes to trigger a memory, or an essay to agree or disagree.

A concept like courage is a bit like beauty, it can be ‘in the eye of the beholder.’ A topic where we bring our own experiences and emotions to bear. Interpretations very much depending on our perspective, culture, perhaps even religion. 

Society often has a military definition or one where people do something for the civic good, but we all have our own memories of having to show courage, or of witnessing bravery – and when and how we did is a good topic to write about, reflect on, and share the story with others – especially if writing to leave a legacy for others.

Courage is fire, and bullying is smoke.                    

Benjamin Disraeli

The responses from students were inspirational and revealing. It is yet another topic we could fill pages writing creatively about and as usual I suggested to my class if they don’t want to write a ‘true’ account, it’s a good theme for a story or poem – and there is no shortage of anniversaries of battles or conflicts to ensure whatever you produce is topical!

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The refugees and asylum seekers and their rescuers show tremendous courage – picture from The Daily Mail.

Some of the responses in class:

  • It takes courage to believe in yourself, ignore the inner voice that whispers failure, to live your life working towards a goal and not succumbing to those who would sidetrack you.
  • It takes courage to speak socially or even speak one to one if you have inhibitions or a speech impediment or lack knowledge of social graces.
  • Courage is needed to tell close friends what you think, even if your opinion offends or is critical, or not what they want to hear. Suppressing the truth or true feelings is often indoctrinated into our culture and it takes courage to be your own person – that courage has to be tempered with wisdom.
  • For those with a diagnosed mental illness, especially GAD ( Generalised Anxiety Disorder) it takes courage to face the day, mix with people, cope with simple everyday situations, sit exams.
  • People who are different struggle with bullying, rejection, and the expectations of others. It can be a brave decision to get out of bed, never mind leave the house.
  • There are activists and whistleblowers who face losing their job by taking a stand, or speaking out – conscientious objectors as brave as those who sign up for war, or those just ‘doing their duty’.
  • Sometimes it is more courageous to remain silent or not to act – whether a nurse, teacher, or parent – sometimes people have to learn to stand on their own feet or make their own mistakes and onlookers or mentors have to be brave enough to not interfere.
  • There are a range of phobias (here is a list of the top 100)  from fear of spiders (arachnophobia), to fear of heights (acrophobia), fear of open or crowded spaces ( agoraphobia) to fear of small spaces (claustrophobia) and a combination of some or all of these that many people suffer yet try and conquer everyday.

Ideas and topics flow but as creative writers we have to bring others into our world and have them experience our emotions. Not an easy task, especially if you try and avoid cliched descriptions.

One of the challenges a fiction writer faces, especially when prolific, is coming up with fresh ways to describe emotions. This handy compendium fills that need. It is both a reference and a brainstorming tool, and one of the resources I’ll be turning to most often as I write my own books.”

James Scott Bell, bestselling author of Deceived and Plot & Structure

COURAGE-flier

I’ve never considered myself a courageous person, far from it – my body reacts quickly to confronting situations with telltale signs of anxiety or fear. Panic attacks, angry outbursts, hysterical laughter, dry mouthed silence – I’ve experienced them all and at 63, I still blush and suffer a nervous rash that is barely hidden by one of the many scarves I use as camouflage.

I know a dread of speaking in public is high on many people’s lists of fear so my reaction was not unique at the Australia Day Awards, and later International Women’s Day when I had to speak to a room full of strangers, acquaintances, and friends.

My mouth dried and wouldn’t be lubricated by lips  about to crack and a tongue that felt like a piece of wood clogging my throat. I could feel my heart galloping and thought others could see it jumping through my silk blouse. I was sure my face glowed fire-engine red because it felt aflame. The walk to the stage on Australia Day took 30 seconds and my acceptance speech all of two minutes but for me, that was an act of courage.

In my teenage, I survived two severe road accidents, one as a passenger in a car, the other while riding pillion on a motorcycle. I recall trying to stand after both of those accidents, legs shaking uncontrollably and feeling so cold I could have stepped from a freezer. The taste of blood in my mouth metallic and sour. The fear of speed, collision, and pain of getting hurt terrifies me still.

I never tried to get my driving licence, had one lesson from my Dad before I moved out of home. When another car came towards us, I drove the car straight off the road into a ditch and my brothers had to come to get us out. I never sought lessons from anyone else. 

It doesn’t take much for me to relive those accidents and although I’m grateful for all the lifts people have given me in their cars, there are many journeys I avoided or chose a public transport option. Several I have taken took a lot of courage to get into the car. I still apply an ‘imaginary brake’ much to my daughters’ annoyance, although I feel extremely confident in their driving ability.

Nowadays, people are offered counselling after severe traffic accidents but in 1970 and 1971, PTSD or trauma counselling was not terms frequently used – we were grateful to survive and left to our own recovery.

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I laugh often but cry easily too, and as I age, ‘the waterworks’ seem to turn on like a tap much more frequently than in the past. I don’t consider tears a sign of weakness, schoolyard ‘crybaby’ taunts forgotten, but I do wish sometimes I could control the upsurge of tears, especially when teaching. We share a lot of sad stories as well as joyous ones in Life Story classes and as the teacher I should be more in control.

People have said they admire the way I coped with a friend’s suicide and then some months later, the death of my husband, John. However, it was a case of ‘faking it until you make it’ because the outward appearance did not match the turmoil within.

I had a pain in my chest for almost four years as if a stone pressed on my heart, palpitations struck randomly. Often I left Southland Shopping Centre or other places where people gathered, struggling to breathe.

A pattern of insomnia developed too and had me prowling the house in the middle of the night checking doors and each of my daughter’s rooms to make sure they were still safe and breathing.

I didn’t want to be with people but was terrified of being left lonely if something happened to the girls. To all those who thought me ‘brave’, I can only say looks are deceiving.

Many people have to adapt or find extra strength (courage?) to cope with grief, whether it’s losing a person, a home, a job, or health.

I have a fear of heights and have avoided many situations because of this. Although I faced this fear when younger and have the pictures to prove it. However, as I age, I’m not interested in overcoming Acrophobia by bungee jumping or sky-diving or some other extreme challenge and I’ve had occasions when I’ve been rooted to the spot unable to move – up or down!

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My acrophobia is not so severe that I don’t use lifts or stairs, or fear flying, but I can’t watch adventure documentaries without feeling the fear the participants should feel when they do climb or face great physical heights. I walked away when my daughters went on adrenaline generating rides like the current  Batwing Spaceshot and Green Lantern Coaster.

My body reacts as if it is happening to me: trembling, nausea, heart palpitations, tight chest, coldness chilling blood and bone, dizziness…

According to Wikipedia Acrophobia is an extreme or irrational fear or phobia of heights, especially when one is not particularly high up. It belongs to a category of specific phobias, called space and motion discomfort.

Perhaps I only have a version of the phobia because although I sometimes fear the height before I climb, the irrationality that sticks in memory is experiences of what to me seemed ‘great’ height and therefore the fear reasonable!

When did all this start and why? This question discussed in classes when the subject of phobias comes up – and it is a great topic for writers! Give a character a phobia as a flaw and then make them face it, an often-used trope in movies as well as books.

I explored my own fear in depth in a piece of writing because I’ve been scared of heights for as long as I can remember. Not heights in an enclosed space like flying, but when you are high up a mountain (even a hill) and look down. And as someone who loves travel, and has travelled, I’ve a few scary memories and also memories of missing out because of fear.

Standing on a mountain, atop a lookout, a building, a tower… the air circulates, there is no anchor, you can be grabbed or pushed over the edge to float like a scrap of paper to the ground or like a boulder tumble and rumble.

Whatever way I go, the result in mind’s eye, always death or severe pain.

I don’t know why I let my imagination focus on the horrors of losing my grip and/or falling. I can’t remember falling off a ladder and I never slept on a bunk bed until I was 9 years old and on the ship coming to Australia. By that time, my fear was established.

The deep recesses of memory are mined and I wonder if the fear started at middle primary school, at Holmescroft in Greenock, Scotland.

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Holmescroft School circa 1958 – I attended 1961

At Holmscroft, we did gymnastics every morning – well it seemed like every morning but was probably once a week. From memory, the gender segregated school grounds infiltrated the gym class and only the girls walked to the hall. Boys may have been considered more sturdy and exercised outside, or were removed to their own gym before the weaker sex marched in pairs dressed in white blouse and thick, ugly, navy blue knickers.

Inside, we jumped over obstacles, skipped and played ball games, scaled a wall ladder, somersaulted on rubber mats, and climbed a rope dangling from the ceiling. The morning organised and graded to ensure everyone learnt the skills the curriculum deemed necessary.

I close my eyes and can smell that rope; the years of impregnated sweat from thousands of school children who attended over its 74-year history. (Holmscroft was built in 1887.)

I feel the harsh texture as I gripped and pulled myself up the plaited python. It seemed a snake, swaying and wriggling, although anchored by a classmate to hold it steady.

The soft white skin on my hands ache and my upper legs chafe against a rope so hard it could be an iron bar. The climb difficult, chest tightening as I lift and puff using muscles I didn’t know were designed for this effort.

The teacher nags: ‘ Hurry up.’

‘ Use your feet more’

‘Put some effort in’

‘There’s a queue here’

‘For goodness sake stop huffing like an old woman’.

Higher and higher I crawl. Classmates egging on, others giggling calling me names: Frog, Toad, Caterpillar, Beetle. Can they see up the leg of my knickers where the elastic is loose? What do I look like creeping and hauling on this rope? What if the elastic bursts and my knickers fall?

The white ceiling grubby with marks from balls and even blobs of ink where smarty-pants pupils have aimed their pen nibs.

In 1961, we hadn’t been introduced to the luxury of fountain pens;  Biros and ball point still a dream in some inventor’s mind.

Everything blurs from perspiration trickling into my eyes. I want the ordeal to be over, but know I can’t take my hands off the rope to wipe my face.

Tiny fibres from the rope tickle my nose. I want to sneeze. I try to relieve the itch on my shoulder, look down, and stomach lurches. The wooden floor jumps and wobbles like some of my impatient classmates.

Miss King’s face looms large, all glasses and teeth. The parting of her grey hair a squiggly line, the clasp holding her bun in place mottled brown, like the picture of Granny on the mantlepiece at home. ‘Hurry up, girl,’ she snarls, ‘we haven’t got all day.’

The room echoes with the slap of sand-shoes skipping, stamping, running… balls bounce. I hear breath after breath of panting children expending energy with an enthusiasm lost to me.

Or is that panting breath mine?

I gasp for air, lose my grip, the python squirms backwards and forwards. Someone below has let go of the rope.

My arms are water pouring from the tap. The giant snake thrashes and whips. I need to pee. I want to throw-up, yet if I take my hands off the rope I’ll crash to the ground.

I let my legs dangle for a moment before sliding to the floor.  Seconds later – thud. The pain excruciating, hands burning as if scalded. Legs and back winded by the wooden floorboards, numb at first before the throbbing begins.

Miss King’s scarlet face spits fury mixed with fright. ‘You stupid girl!’

Friends haul me up, commiserating, comforting. I wipe snot and tears with the sleeve of my blouse. The whiteness and freshness now rope-stained, dust-streaked and sweaty. What will Mum say? She always hoped we’d get ‘a couple of turns’ out of our school blouse.

I think of that eight-year-old, bullied into climbing a rope by an insensitive teacher. Panic triumphing over reason. Is that when my fear of heights began?

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Feel free to share a story of your fear and the courage it takes to conquer or at least survive situations demanding that extra bit of bravery.

Anniversaries and Birthdays Come too Soon

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Anne Brown Courtney 1937

My mother would have been 95 years old on April 15th but she died in October 2009, six months after her 88th birthday. I often think of her – not just on her birthday – but this April, a milestone in more ways than one because it is the 75th anniversary of the Belfast Blitz, an experience Mum never forgot.

In December 2003, when I asked Mum to talk into a tape recorder and share stories about her life, it was obvious the despair and devastation of that night in World War Two had left traumatic memories.

In Easter 1941, Belfast was blitzed and like the incendiary bombs dropped that night, the damage Mum witnessed forever seared in her mind and heart.

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As mentioned in a previous post, I researched Korean poetry because I have a new Korean-Japanese student. I discovered a Korean form called Sijo, which has particular syllable rules and a three-line, or six-line, songlike structure.

NaPoWriMo prompts may be by the wayside, but I’ll still make attempts to write poems.

Belfast Blitz a Sijo by Mairi Neil

Lord Haw Haw, delivered his big Easter Eggs as promised
The bombs pounded; buildings collapsed, land mines exploded
Belfast aflame. That destructive April, the people sacrificed.

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Mum’s Memories:

I joined the army in October 1940 just after Dunkirk, but my eyes took bad. I developed iritis among other problems and the civilian doctor advised me to resign to get my eyes fixed. ‘If you want you can rejoin the ATS but don’t trust army doctors.’

He advised me to take my discharge and the day I received confirmation a rule was passed in parliament about conscripts. However, as a volunteer I was able to get out of the army on medical grounds.

I arrived back in Northern Ireland from Scotland on Good Friday in 1941. I went out to the farm with my brother, Tom and stayed with Uncle Arthur and Aunt Mary at Saintfield.

Everybody was warned to get out of Belfast because Lord Haw Haw had said Hitler was going to give Ulster their Easter eggs. Lord Haw Haw often came on the radio. He talked through his nose and had a distinctive drawl. ‘We’re going to give the people of Ulster their Easter eggs,’ he said.

Well, Belfast emptied – those who could get out. Some of them had to work Saturday. Good Friday wasn’t a holiday in Belfast or Scotland, only in England. But Glasgow and Belfast got Easter Tuesday, so we had Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday off. We were expecting the planes but they never came.

There had been a raid the week before.

The Luftwaffe launched its first attack on Belfast April 7th and 8th. They attacked the docks. That Dockside Raid was a shock. The government thought we were too far away for the Luftwaffe to reach. We’d had 22 air raid siren alerts – each one false – people were careless about the blackout curtains or going to bomb shelters.

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Even London didn’t think we’d be a target and had told Stormont to build air bases. We only had 200 air raid shelters for a population of 500,000. When more than 500 Luftwaffe bombers and escorts took off from northern France – heading for Clydeside and Greenock no one expected eight bombers to veer off to Belfast.

They dropped about 800 incendiary bombs on the dock area. That shook everyone up! Workers lived near the factories and docks, they were sitting ducks. Lots of homes were destroyed. Incendiary bombs set fire to large timber yards. Harland and Wolff dockyards were hit and the Rank Flour Mill. Thirteen people were killed and the Germans discovered how weak our defences were.

However, that Easter weekend we thought we were okay. Everybody returned Tuesday night to start work on Wednesday morning and the beggars came around 11 o’clock Tuesday night.

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It was one of the longest raids of the war. They started about 10.30pm, actually. The first bomb fell before the sirens went and got the main water line in Royal Avenue coming from the reservoir and shortly after 2.00am they got the other water line so there was no water.

About 150 to 160 Luftwaffe bombers dropped over 200 tons of explosives. They targeted the city’s waterworks. At first we thought that the reflection off the reservoir had fooled the pilots into thinking that they were near the docks. But they were no fools. The waterworks were deliberately hit.

The water pressure was so low fire crews found that their hoses were of little use. It was an inferno. It was fire that damaged Belfast – fire did most of the damage.

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It was after 6.00am before the all clear sounded. In the morning when I first looked out Belfast seemed to be surrounded by fire, there were still blazes burning.

Later people said Dublin had warned the politicians the bombers were on their way. Dublin wasn’t in the war but they wouldn’t do anything against us. I don’t know what we would have done without them because things would have been a darn sight worst.

They could see the fires in Dublin and were asked to help and said we’re sending you up fire engines and tanks of water. They sent up every available fire crew about 70 men and 13 engines and they fought the fires for 3 days without rest. They were relieved by fire crews from the Clyde and Liverpool.

I don’t know what we would have done without those volunteers.

“In the past, and probably in the present, too, a number of them did not see eye to eye with us politically, but they are our people–we are one and the same people–and their sorrows in the present instance are also our sorrows; and I want to say to them that any help we can give to them in the present time we will give to them whole-heartedly, believing that were the circumstances reversed they would also give us their help whole-heartedly …”
Eamon De Valera President of Ireland after the Belfast Blitz.

We were four houses down from the top of our street where a landmine landed. A shop stood alone with little damage but there was nobody in there. Nearby two houses took a direct hit.

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One of the houses was empty but in the middle house two daughters and their mother were killed. The father was a guard in the gaol down the road and the brother was in a granary sheltering with the boys brigade so they were saved. The mother had been across the road visiting but when the siren sounded she saw a tiny light through a crack in the blackout curtains and knew that her daughters were home.

Oh, the girls are home I better be with them.’ She rushed out as a landmine fell and the house was demolished. Her body was discovered atop a lamp post and the girls crushed and killed inside their home.

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My stepmother went to Comber to her folk and my uncle pleaded with us to stay with them at the farm until Wednesday morning but Tom said, ‘Oh no, my mammy said we had to come home because she was coming home.’

Well, we got home about half past eight or nine o’clock but she never arrived until nearly half past ten. We had to sit on the doorstep because she wouldn’t give us key.

We had just got into bed and the sirens went so of course it was panic stations. We made our way down the stairs, but before we got down they dropped the landmine at the top of the street.

Our two front and back doors blew in and some of the windows shattered although they weren’t too bad because we had sticky tape on them. We had a Yale lock, plus a big ordinary lock on the door and we had a bar across, yet the door was blown in.

We got down below the stairs and huddled together. We never had a back garden and the nearest air raid shelter no one would go in because it was stinking, dogs peed in it and everything else. It wasn’t kept in good repair at all.

The bombing went on until half past six in the morning.

We always sheltered under the stairs. It was a funny thing although houses were bombed it worked out under the stairs was the safest place to be, and many people survived.

I’ll never forget when I came out of the house and looked out. We lived at a bit of a height and the city seemed to be ringed by fire.

 

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There were unexploded bombs all over the place and this little lad came down the street – he was eleven or twelve years old – and he had some of his belongings over his shoulder wrapped in a sheet that had once been white, but was now dirty grey.

He held a canary in its cage. ‘Were are you from son,’ I said.

Oh up from the Bally streets.

These streets were at the top of the Old Park Road. Four or five streets: Ballyclare, Ballymoney, Ballywalton…Ballymena. They ran to the Clifton Park Road.

Those streets bombed because the Germans were actually aiming for Aldergrove Airfield and the RAF, which was on the other side of the hill called Devil’s Mountain. The RAF boys told us it was easy to confuse from the air because the way the tram lines ran they look like runways and the houses looked like huts.

On one side of the Cliftonville Road was the football ground and the other was the cricket ground so the Germans thought they were bombing the airport but they were on the wrong side of the hill.

The wee boy said, ‘Missus, there’s hardly a house left standing, the Bally streets are flattened.’

‘Oh my goodness,’ I said.

‘I don’t know where my parents are,’ the wee boy cried, ‘they were at the Crumlin Road pictures and they haven’t come back yet.’

Where are you going?

I’m making for my aunt’s down the Shore Road, York Street East.’

I often wondered how he got on because that street was badly damaged. I wonder what happened to that wee boy and so many others like him. It was a terrible night. Around 56,000 homes damaged or destroyed. Nearly 1,000 people were killed and 1,500 injured. 400 of those were seriously and 100,000 homeless.

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War is ugly. I would hate to see another world war. Australia should never have been in Vietnam and should keep out of other countries. Too many innocent civilians suffer.

Two hospitals were hit that night in Belfast, so bodies were lain out in St. George’s Market to be identified. Some were never identified and were buried in mass graves.

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Ronnie Finnegan’s father was the groom at Wilton’s Funeral Parlour and my friends Mrs Calvert said she would never forget to her dying day the squeals of the horses.

The hay took a direct hit and they only managed to rescue a couple of the horses because there was no water to fight the fire. They were the most beautiful horses you could ever see.

They were Belgian and kept in beautiful condition. They shone at funerals, coats gleaming. Ronnie said his father never really got over the loss of the horses because they were like his children.

Aunt Martha ran all the way, through streets of unexploded bombs, from Armagh Road to Albertville Drive to plead with us. ‘Please get out to the farm.

She then went on up to Woodville Road to ask Aunt Minnie to leave. She’d run all that way and was so insistent, we packed to go. Tom had a canary and asked what to do with it.

Take it with us,’ I said. We were about ready to leave when the canary died – delayed shock.

Tom was breaking his heart over the bird when my stepmother grabbed it and flushed it down the toilet. She was like that – a heartless woman.

Of course, there was little public transport because lots of the road had been damaged. We walked to a shortcut we knew to see if there were any buses. Passing Mr and Mrs Scott’s place we noticed their boys had come in from their dad’s farm, which was just above our family farm.

The boys had come in to get Mrs Scott because she was a widow. Bob Scott was dead and they had come to evacuate their mother who said, ‘I’m sorry we can’t take you because there’s no room in the car.’

We understood but asked if they could take our bags. ‘Oh aye, we can squeeze them in the boot.’

What a relief to get rid of the luggage because as we walked downhill everywhere was thronging. The smell of burning flesh, clothes, furniture – everything – clung to our nostrils. We managed to get a bus out to the farm and stayed there for most of the war.

I never went back to Belfast because I got a job in Saintfield and worked there until my eyes took really bad and I had to see a specialist who saved my sight.

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Without Mum, another Sijo by Mairi Neil

Without Mum, the world is sadder
Without Mum, wisdom is diminished
Without Mum, hearts are crushed
Without Mum, life is less appealing
A mother’s love potent and powerful
My mother’s love not broken by death

 

 

Let There be Light and Enjoy The Illuminations

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I read for emotional engagement – a resonance in my heart as well as mind – and a love of story. Often I don’t finish a book, or take too long  reading  because it’s a struggle to engage with either the characters, plot, themes or the use of language.

However, a poorly edited book will be finished if the story is powerful or the characters grab me. Cliched I know, but a book must leave something with me to think about long after it’s been returned to its owner, library, put back on my shelf, or passed to a friend.

I have no interest in writing about books I don’t like so can never claim to be an objective book reviewer – I’ll leave that to experts on other sites like writer and friend, Lisa Hill.

I’m attracted to writers who can teach me something about  writing, and Andrew O’Hagan is one of my favourite authors. His use of words crafted into delightful and poignant metaphors and similes; minimal but evocative descriptions and always stories and characters with layers of meaning. He deftly structures his novels to lead to surprising revelations and links that have you nodding your head in amazement because of an ‘ah, ah’ moment of understanding.

I’ll be unashamedly partisan, O’Hagan’s lyrical prose speaks to me in more ways than one because he’s Scottish and many of his beautiful passages capture the Scotland and the people I grew up with and know so well. Even although it’s been many years since I lived full-time in Scotland, I can picture places he describes and hear beloved voices. The memories evoked pure nostalgic indulgence.

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I haven’t read all his offerings but first came across his writing in The Missing, a non-fiction book that had a profound impact. I might review this another time because like his fictional works I’ve read, Our Fathers, Be Near Me, and Personality and now this latest offering The Illuminations, O’Hagan tackles relevant social issues and newsworthy events and weaves them into his characters’ lives. He researches and champions important issues affecting the human condition, makes us think and generates empathy for people and situations we may otherwise ignore.

If you become captivated like me, you’ll seek out his other books – I tend to do that with authors. I remember Mrs Saffin, the librarian at Croydon High School in 1965 trying to break me of the habit of working my way through the shelves by reading all the books of a particular author before moving on to a new writer. (She had limited success.)

On reflection, because I always wanted to be a writer, I don’t think it was a bad idea on my part. When I found an author I liked, I was probably subconsciously studying and learning  their craft and how/why they earned my loyalty!

Thanks to a Christmas book voucher I bought The Illuminations at one of my favourite Melbourne bookshops The Hill of Content . A 40 minute train ride worth making. It’s an oasis of intellectual delight where I often discover books you may not pick up elsewhere and the customer service is second to none.

Andrew O’Hagan’s novel The Illuminations is as the blurb suggests ‘a beautiful, deeply charged story, showing that no matter how we look at it, there is no such thing as an ordinary life.

The novel’s chapters alternate between family events in Scotland and Captain Luke Campbell’s experiences in Afghanistan. Luke’s regiment, the Royal Western Fusiliers carry out the decisions of the powers that be who now believe, ‘creating electricity and irrigating the warlords’ poppy fields was a better idea than blasting the population from its caves.

However, this policy unravels along with the mind of Luke’s commanding officer and mentor, Major Scullion, whose ‘friendship used to be like a winter coat to Luke.’

When Luke examined his face he saw the eyes of a little counter-assassin from Westmeath. They were fogged with humanitarianism and strict orders, but they were still the eyes of a man who knew what to do in a dark alleyway.

In Scotland, we are in the world of Luke’s Canadian-born grandmother, Anne Quirk, once a well-known photographer. Anne lives in a sheltered housing complex in Lochranza Court, Saltcoats on Scotland’s west coast, but her mind is unravelling with the onset of dementia. She faces the loss of independence because ‘any resident incapable of working a kettle would have to be moved to a nursing home.’

Fortunately, for Anne, her next-door neighbour, Maureen has a fascination and fondness for the ‘quirky’ resident. ‘Maureen considered herself the warden’s deputy. It wasn’t a real job or anything like that but she could help the older ones with their laundry. She watered the plants and went for the milk, tasks that gave her a feeling of usefulness she had missed.’

Retirement complexes, small towns and villages, streets full of longterm residents all have, indeed need, their Maureens, who while coming to grips with the present, mourn the past when they looked after children.

And one by one they left the house with their LPs and their T-shirts. That’s what happens, Maureen thought, That’s how it is, You kill yourself looking after them and then they get up and leave you. She never imagined she’d end up in a place like Lochranza Court, but it had been six years and she was used to it.’

The novel is really about Anne whose relationship with her daughter, Alice is strained. Maureen observes there ‘was clearly a part of Anne’s life that was off limits or stuck in the past, but the dementia was bringing it out.’ (This ‘illuminating’ of the past is the crux of the novel.) Maureen feels sorry for Alice and keeps her in the loop regarding her mother. She also writes to Luke on Anne’s behalf and keeps that relationship vibrant.

We learn of Harry, Luke’s grandfather, a war hero in Anne’s eyes, and of Luke’s father Sean, another soldier, also a member of the Western Fusiliers, who was killed in Northern Ireland.  Anne’s dementia and occasional episodes of lucidity hint at unresolved traumas from the past and conflicting opinions about the present and future.

“…in “The Illuminations,” the Scottish novelist and critic Andrew O’Hagan has created a story that is both a howl against the war in Afghanistan and the societies that have blindly abetted it, and a multilayered, deeply felt tale of family, loss, memory, art, loyalty, secrecy and forgiveness.”

Dani Shapiro, NewYork Times.

At the beginning of the book, O’Hagan thanks Abdul Aziz Froutan and colleagues in Afghanistan, as well as members of the Royal Irish regiment for answering questions. And in peculiar serendipity as I was reading the novel the ABC was broadcasting the documentary series Afghanistan Inside Australia’s War featuring the same period as the novel.

In their own words and their own extraordinary, never-before-seen helmet-cam battle footage, Australia’s fighting men and women lay bare their hearts in an epic series – not just how they waged a war, but why and to what end.

O’Hagan did his research and it shows with his depiction of life in Afghanistan. He reveals the importance of  violent Xbox games and heavy metal music to modern soldiers, the amount of pills popped and marijuana smoked, the physical, emotional and mental price paid abroad and at home. The horror of the fighting fascinating, but stomach-churning reading. No wonder there is a prevalence of post traumatic stress syndrome in returning soldiers.

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Sitting on the wall, he smoked a cigarette, watched the water. It was a loss of spirit that had occurred in him… He later wished he could capture the peace he had known over those hours on the seawall as he looked into the the black distance, the lighthouse on the Holy Isle beating out a message just for him. The mountains of Arran he felt he had seen in another time, a recent one, but there was no gunfire or flares, no broken sleep, no enemy below, just the mountains themselves, the steady return of the fishing boats and the light that came with the morning.

After a mission goes horribly wrong, Luke leaves the army and in his quest to try and make sense of life he takes his grandmother on a road trip to Blackpool to see the famous Illuminations hoping to shed some light on the part of her life she has kept secret. In his reminiscing of growing up with a special relationship with this grandmother he reflects, ‘There was endless chat about how life used to be, with details missing.’

In the packing up of Anne’s life for the trip to Blackpool and the inevitable move to a nursing home when they return, Luke discovers letters and photographs which in Anne’s lucid moments she can explain. He begins to appreciate how talented she was as a photographer and wants to understand why she gave it all up.

In the observations and discussions about photography, the novelist has again done his homework. Another thank you at the beginning of the book is

...to Yaddo, and to Mary O’Connor and the keepers of the Joseph Mulholland Archive at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, where he studied the papers of the photographer Margaret Watkins. 

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Serendipity struck again – on March 13th my father would be 94 years old if alive. He died of dementia in 2005. He was an amateur photographer and although many of his photographs are of family there are others where I wonder what motivated him to take the picture? What did his artist eye see? What essence was he trying to capture?

And here in this novel we learn so much about Anne Quirk through the discussion of photography and photographs despite her dementia. I remember visiting with my dad and having conversations about the past. But did we talk about what happened? what never happened? what he wished had happened?

Dad manufactured stories to protect himself from past traumas and it seems O’Hagan’s Anne Quirk does the same. ‘You don’t see the connections in your life until it’s too late to disentangle them.’

This novel stirred many connections in my life, even the chapters set in Blackpool a place I visited in 1984 with my late husband just as they were setting up the illuminations. The B&Bs, the dance halls, the promenade, the pubs, the  grey sea – all wonderfully captured by O’Hagan.

Memory resides in the simplest things but to remember is a complex and complicated task. Are we remembering reality or an imaginary world? Is a photograph an accurate memory? What did the lens not see? Are photographs worth a thousand words?

Towards the end of the novel Luke discovers how good a photographer his grandmother was when he unearths a series of rare private photographs of The Beatles 1962:

‘Luke had to stand up, astonished at the scale and the mystery of what she’d done…For all her mistakes and her bad luck, she had managed this…’

And Andrew O’Hagan has managed to create believable characters and take us into their world to make us care what happens to them. Along the way his writer’s toolbox produced some wonderful descriptions and observations. You’l look at the night sky and the variations of light differently after reading The Illuminations.

I’ll give Andrew the last word from his essay explaining the inspiration for Anne Quirk:

My search … was also a search for the women I had grown up with on the west coast of Scotland. … I realised the book was a tribute to the hidden creativity of those women. I was always drawn to them as a child, and their sense of themselves, their pain and their Glasgow houses, were a kind of haunting thing for me. I was always aware of a certain amount of thwarted ambition on their parts, and by the sense of duty that clung to their gingham “pinnies”, their tabard overalls. As a novelist you come to know that people can be metaphors of one another. My fictional elderly lady has a grandson who is a captain in the British army fighting in Afghanistan. She is interested in reality, as every photographer is, but her own story, and the masking of her talent, play a part in explaining the daily news coming from the battlefront… One’s job as a writer is sometimes to find new proteins for the ideas that matter to you, and the story of this forgotten photographer locked on to my family history in a way that gave the novel the building blocks of life.

What more can I say – read and enjoy – or let me know what you don’t like about it!

An Encounter Unexpected, Unexplained, Unforgettable

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A video of a naked toddler running on the highway in America in the middle of the night is going viral on the Internet. The toddler’s run captured by the police car’s dash cam. That blurry image of a lost toddler triggers a buried memory from 1979 Darwin…

After an evening with friends, a workmate Ray offered to drive me back to the hostel where I was staying. Although a hot October night, the hovering storm clouds commonplace. Dark bruises hiding or foretelling sorrow?

My first week in the Top End of Australia marked with high humidity and tropical rainstorms. The start of the monsoon season—or as the locals proclaim, the suicide season. A time when temperaments become as mercurial as the weather. Anyone who can, escapes to more settled climes down south.

Work had sent me north. ‘Not the best time to be seconded from interstate, said Ray, ‘but if you survive you won’t want to leave. The Territory is full of surprises.’ He grinned. “I was sent up here for a week, five years ago.’

Along with intermittent traffic, Ray’s car sped citywards in racing mode. The clock on the dashboard glowed 11.50pm. The taste of wine consumed at dinner lingered on my tongue;  an alcoholic flush warmed neck and cheeks. I wound down the car window. Two delivery lorries roared past, the blast of air pushing my head back. Hair fluttered and skin cooled.

‘No speed limits here?’ I joked, hoping Ray would slow down, the car’s motion exacerbating a wave of rising nausea. Heat fatigue, alcohol, and a big helping of too–sweet Pavlova pressured my bloated stomach.

I don’t travel well in a car at the best of times having never held a driving licence, but in the moonlight, the six lane concrete highway became a huge swirling silver sea. Each bumpy ridge jolting like a cattle prod.

I jerked upright.’ Stop Ray! That was a child!’ The roaring wind distorted my voice.

‘What?’ Ray eased his foot from the accelerator, ‘Where?’

‘I’m sure that was a naked child by the side of the road. Stop so we can check.’

Silence.

Ray kept driving. Perhaps he thought I was drunk and hallucinating, or maybe it was just typical behaviour from someone whose mantra I suspected was don’t get involved.

I swivelled my head. In the distance, a little figure flitted across the road behind us—a toddler, perhaps three years old. Too young to be deliberately playing chicken with night traffic. ‘Please stop the car. Turn around NOW.’

Fair hair and pale skin glistened in the moonlight.

Miracle of miracles we were the only car on the highway at the time.

A subliminal flash of a bloodied lump of flesh splattered on the grill of a truck, or lying in the gravel as roadkill set me trembling. Ray obeyed the urgency of my voice and slowed almost to a crawl looking for a turnoff while muttering, ‘It really is none of our business.’

‘See, there he is,’ I pointed. ‘Hiding behind that pink frangipani. Stop and I’ll grab him.’

The child was slippery. Perspiration beaded his thin body. Grimy rivulets pooled around neck and groin. His face glowed red from the exertion of running across the highway who knows how many times. I managed to grab him before he launched himself off the kerb again. He giggled and wriggled as if being chased off the highway a regular past time.

A truck growled as it thundered past. Fear coiled in my stomach as I clung to the squirming mass of flesh. ‘What’s your name, son?’ More giggles and grunts. I sniffed at a profusion of purple wisteria dangling over a fence. Sweet relief from the boy’s stale sweat.

‘What’s your name, and where do you live? Where’s mummy and daddy?’ He struggled like a terrified cat.

I stared into the blackness, gradually houses rose from the shadows of shrubbery. Ray, a bemused onlooker to our wrestling match. ‘Let’s go for a walk down some streets and perhaps he’ll point out his home,’ he said.

Once, we were far enough away from the highway, I let Little Eel slide to the ground but still gripped his hand, cajoling him along the street, ‘Is this where you live? Point to mummy and daddy’s house.’

The boy’s reluctance to walk calmly and the lack of light and life from any of the houses exasperating. ‘We need to take him to a police station,’ said Ray, ‘let’s go back to the car.’

I hid my disappointment and picked up the squirming toddler. ‘I’m sure he’s escaped from one of these houses and his parents will be frantic when they discover he’s gone.’

The scorcher of a day produced a warm claustrophobic evening. I had hoped to find an open door or swinging gate to investigate. Most people would have left windows and doors ajar, allowing the night air to circulate, relying on fly screens to keep the mosquitoes and flying cockroaches out. A flywire door easy for this sturdy little chap to negotiate. Tall for his age, babyhood only evident when you were close; he seemed old beyond his years.

When we reached Ray’s car, I spied a service station over the highway–the bright lights probably the attraction for Little Eel.

‘Ray, let’s go over to the servo. They may recognise this little boy. We can ring the police, if there’s no joy.’

We stood beneath the streetlight. Ray stared closely at little Eel as if seeing him for the first time. His nose twitched at the toddler’s pong. He shook his head and grimaced at the glistening bundle with muck embedded in every crevice. Little Eel’s palms left marks on my blouse, and the soles of his feet, caked in grime accumulated over time and not just from today’s roaming, streaked my skirt. Ray’s brown eyes flickered towards the interior of his car, fluffy, sheepskin seat covers glowed white.

‘The servo it is,’ he said, ‘let’s go,’ and with a lull in the traffic, started to walk across the highway.

Little Eel looked even more neglected in the glare of neon lights with sweaty hair plastered and encrusted to his scalp. The man on duty at the service station tutted in disgust.

‘I don’t know the little fella’s name, but his parents come in here all the time when they run out of smokes. Don’t know where they live, except wherever it is they’ll be stoned out of their minds. The kid’s feral, brings himself up.’

‘I thought he lived close, ‘ I said. ‘We found him running across the highway. Lucky he’s not been hit.’

The attendant rolled his eyes, a flush of anger staining his face. His gritted teeth stretched thin lips into a murderous scowl.

Bored with our chatter Little Eel struggled to get down, ’keem, keem…,’ he whined, hands flailing. Surprised to hear words instead of the persistent irritating giggle, I nearly dropped him.

His whiney words clicked. ‘He wants ice-cream.’

A paroxysm of excitement shook his little body as the boy slid to the tiled floor. Although a relief to aching arms, I held firmly to his hand.

‘Can you ring the police for us.’ Ray asked the attendant, and glancing at me, ‘I’ll buy the ice-cream.’ The man gave Little Eel an icy-pole before ringing the police. I smiled as Ray redeemed himself.

‘They’ll be 10-15 minutes coming from town.’

Ray and the service station attendant commiserated about the levels of drug use and abuse in a growing Darwin flooded by people seeking work in the uranium mines or returning after the devastation of Cyclone Tracy. Christmas Day 1974 burned into the psyche of Territorians with thousands still struggling to come to terms with its aftermath.

I basked in the coolness of air-conditioned comfort and limited Little Eel’s exploration of the crowded shelves of the service station, and the sticky trail of dripped vanilla icy pole.

The toddler polished off the treat quicker than a parched lizard. Fifteen minutes stretched interminably. We all sighed with relief when the police jeep arrived and a male and female officer alighted to record our details, and a description of Little Eel’s capers. They knew him and his address, pronouncing the same opinion of his parents and home life as the servo attendant.

Ray hovered at the door like a runner on blocks as I relinquished Little Eel. I blamed hormones for the tears burning the back of my eyes as  the tiny hand left mine.

I watched the police officers wrap him in a towel provided by the attendant and pass him like a parcel from one officer to the other into the patrol car. The female officer adjusted the seatbelt firmly around the toddler’s frame with a, ‘Keep your sticky hands off the buckle!’

My last sight of Little Eel, a grinning face and grimy fingers wiping a farewell of sorts across the car window.

‘He’ll be all right,’ said Ray, ‘kids are resilient.’

‘So speaks a middle-aged bachelor,’ I snapped.

Ray shrugged as he unlocked the car doors. ‘My sister Sally is a widow with six children, I help out with money, babysit, and have the kids for holidays to give her a break.’

The night air chilled. I wished for a large hole to appear so I could slide into it as easily as Little Eel slipped away from me. A concoction of fragrant frangipani and enticing erysimum wafting in the breeze couldn’t remove the toddler’s smell from my clothes. I sunk into the car seat, surrendering to weariness and sorrow.

The journey home completed in embarrassed silence as evidence of the building boom flashed past. Damaged houses derelict since the cyclone, sat alongside empty blocks and new houses, rows of rotten teeth, cavities and shiny new fillings.

I didn’t have a solution or a magic wand to ensure Little Eel’s future. I prayed Ray was right and the authorities would protect the boy, but perhaps not…

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That night I decided not to accept the transfer to Darwin. It was a strange frontier town compared to Melbourne, the climate too hot and the encounter with Little Eel left me unsettled and sad.

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Outside a liminal glow spreads from an almost full moon and I wonder what happened to the child caught in the police video? How many Little Eels have suffered over the last thirty-seven years? Continue to suffer? How many more will suffer in the future?

If I had stayed in Darwin, could I have made a difference to the lives of families like Little Eel’s? What am I doing now to make a difference?

Pastor Peter Marshall said, ‘Small deeds done are better than great deeds planned.’

Some decisions are questionable and some questions unanswerable. There is no going back, but we can learn from experience.

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How To Write your Life In A Poem

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The start of a new term and the probability of new people enrolling in my classes, joining students who have been attending for months or years. The need to reinvent ‘icebreakers’ or use fresh ‘getting to know you’ techniques after 15 years of teaching had me trawling the internet.

I don’t write from ideas so much as from feelings. When something touches me deeply, I write to capture or explore or understand it. This begins in my journal where it’s just for me. Then if it seems like something I want to share, I move out of my journal and start working on a legal pad. I don’t usually know what it’s going to be or who it’s for when I begin. I write to find out!

George Ella Lyon.

I found a beautiful poem by George Ella Lyon. The many templates based on her poem ideal for creative writing students to introduce themselves.  The poem is an excellent way to record the essence of your life. No remembering of dates required, no intensive research – just pure gut feelings, emotional resonance and recalling memorable images, people, things, those snatches of stories heard from relatives.

Where I’m From by George Ella Lyon, writer and teacher

I am from clothespins,
from Clorox and carbon-tetrachloride.
I am from the dirt under the back porch.
(Black, glistening,
it tasted like beets.)
I am from the forsythia bush
the Dutch elm
whose long-gone limbs I remember
as if they were my own.

I’m from fudge and eyeglasses,
from Imogene and Alafair.
I’m from the know-it-alls
and the pass-it-ons,
from Perk up! and Pipe down!
I’m from He restoreth my soul
with a cottonball lamb
and ten verses I can say myself.

I’m from Artemus and Billie’s Branch,
fried corn and strong coffee.
From the finger my grandfather lost
to the auger,
the eye my father shut to keep his sight.

Under my bed was a dress box
spilling old pictures,
a sift of lost faces
to drift beneath my dreams.
I am from those moments–
snapped before I budded —
leaf-fall from the family tree.

Lyon had this to say about her poem:

In the summer of 1993, I decided to see what would happen if I made my own where-I’m-from lists, which I did, in a black and white speckled composition book. I edited them into a poem — not my usual way of working — but even when that was done I kept on making the lists. The process was too rich and too much fun to give up after only one poem. Realizing this, I decided to try it as an exercise with other writers, and it immediately took off. The list form is simple and familiar, and the question of where you are from reaches deep.

Last week, as usual, I wrote in class at the same time as my students. The template we used encourages honesty and self-reflection, but it can be profound or light-hearted. This poem should be a description of who you are for anyone who doesn’t know you – or at least give classmates a hint of your background or the present.

Students could follow the template exactly – if there were anything they felt like adding, or omitting, they could. As always, in my classes, the originality of the poems and information shared was fantastic.

Here is one of my efforts. Like George Ella Lyon, I couldn’t give up at one poem and this and others are still a work in progress…

What Made Me?
Mairi Neil

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

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

Home deliveries by butcher and baker
Bottled milk  at home and school
Coal man blackened and scary
Clouds of dust when cellar full.

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

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

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

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

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

Huntsman spiders sucked up the vacuum
While cicadas chitter announcing summer
Rabbits and hares, native mice a plenty
Magpies swooping – what a bummer!

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

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

I’m from triple-fronted brick veneer
Replacing dilapidated weatherboard
Coloured TV, Phillips stereo and cassettes
Furniture no longer wet when rain poured.

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

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

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

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

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Here is the WHERE I’M FROM Template:

I am from _____ (everyday thing), from ______ (product or brand name), and _____ (everyday thing).
I am from the_______(describe where you live, adjective, adjective, detail)
I am from the_______ (natural thing like: ocean, lake, flower, plant near your house or that you love), and the________(natural thing)
I am from_________(family tradition such as: a holiday, a place you go together, something you celebrate), and________ (something special about your family), from _______(name of person in your family), from________(another person in your family) and _______(another person in your family).
I am from the________(something your family does all the time) and________(another thing your family likes or does a lot).
From_____________(something you were told as a child, such as: santa claus, tooth fairy) and_____________(another thing you were told as a child).
I am from_________(the place you were born or where your family is from that is important to you),________(two food items that your family makes or that is special to your family).
From the__________(story about someone in your family, who is alive or dead),________________(another detail), and the_________________(another detail).
I am from____________(the place where your family keeps important pictures, keepsakes, things from your childhood)_______________(What do these things mean to you?)

Here is another version:

I am from (a specific item from your childhood home)
from (two products or objects from your past)
I am from (a phrase describing your childhood home)
and (more description of your childhood home)
I am from (a plant, tree or natural object from your past)
whose (personify the natural object)
I am from (two objects from your past)
from (two family names or ancestors)
and from (two family traits or tendencies)
from (another family trait, habit or tendency)
I am from (a religious memory or family tradition)
from (two foods from your family history)
from (a specific event in the life of an ancestor)
and from (another detail from the life of an ancestor)
(Memory or object you had as a child)
I am from the moments…
(continue this thought or repeat a line or idea from earlier in the poem)

Start writing your life in a poem and please share and let me know if it becomes addictive!

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Echoes of The Past

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“Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined.”

Henry David Thoreau

When I think about my father I appreciate he always supported my dream to be a writer. He encouraged and praised me. He was the first person to show me how powerful, amazing and entertaining the English language can be. He introduced me to many brilliant and effective authors and poets, but most of all he believed in my desire and need to write.

Although a flawed man with many personal demons he truly loved his family. When I discovered a notebook of his after he died my tears were for his lost dreams as I read poems, snippets of stories and even a short play.

As my older sister Cate said at Dad’s funeral, ‘who knows what dad could have achieved if he’d had  educational opportunities and economic freedom to make choices…’  Like many of his generation who lived through the Great Depression and WW2, he never went to high school and always chased money to survive, and support his family.

 However, he did go to night school, he did constantly improve himself no matter what job he had and he was a prime example of someone with a thirst for knowledge, who educated himself. Education was the key to success as far as Dad was concerned. We must study hard at school and not waste ‘the talents God gave you’. No doubt the regrets he felt at his own failure to stay engaged with the school system coloured his attitude.

Today, the tenth anniversary of his death, I reflect on how glad I am that he was my Dad and be grateful for the gifts he gave me and the memories I choose to honour.

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“Why am I compelled to write? . . . Because the world I create in the writing compensates for what the real world does not give me. By writing I put order in the world, give it a handle so I can grasp it…”

Gloria E. Anzaldúa

August 25, 2005

The air carries the smell of spring, but it will be some hours before the sun provides daylight and any warmth. I make an effort to peer into the night with weary and moist eyes. The raucous laughter of kookaburras breaks the stillness – an echo triggering memories of childhood days spent at Croydon in the 1960s. Kookaburras swooped down and stole our cat’s dinner, the raw kangaroo meat an irresistible and easy meal. The birds returned to the trees their laughter like petals blown in the wind.

Tonight the birds swoop from tree to tree, searching for breakfast or perhaps a late supper, their demeanour similar to a hawk. It is 4.00am. Are they congratulating each other on a successful hunt, or have they spotted prey? The hospital grounds and car parks studded with trees may provide what the birds seek. If not, the mini forest stretching north towards Belgrave like a thick, mottled green tablecloth undoubtedly holds enough scurrying mammals to keep the kookaburras laughing for some time.

I can’t recall the last time I heard a kookaburra in Mordialloc where I have lived for twenty-one years. Close to the sea, the gulls are prevalent, but because of the prolonged drought, it is more likely the squealing of rosellas and harsh caws of wattlebirds and ravens demanding or complaining at the lack of food.

I look from the window of Room 2 East Ward on the second floor of William Angliss Hospital, in the aptly named Melbourne suburb, of Ferntree Gully. The shadows of the night change shape to become recognisable objects. There is solace in the ordinariness of the scene – a maintenance worker parks his car and toolbox in hand disappears into the bowels of a building I assume houses the hospital generator. Nurses travel between the adjacent nurses’ home and the main hospital; navy cardigans clasped around shoulders, the only indication there is an early morning chill to the air.

I press my legs against the wall radiator, but the artificial warmth of hot water pipes will not relieve the coldness I feel. I want to open the window wide and scream, ‘Don’t you know my father is dying?’ Nothing has prepared me for this night, even although it is barely three years since I farewelled my husband, John. You can never prepare or become used to losing someone you love. Death is indeed the last frontier. I grip the windowsill realising the harsh reality of day may deliver a cruel blow.

The nurse turned down the wall radiator earlier in the evening with no noticeable cooling of the room apart from the removal of body heat when others in the family left just before midnight. The dodgy heater a bit like Dad’s health the last few years: sometimes okay, other times difficult to know if operating well. The intermittent work of his pancreas made his diabetes almost impossible to regulate. So many years he struggled with diabetes – a terrible sentence for someone with a sweet tooth and robust appetite.

The softness of Dad’s hands as I held them a few minutes ago lingers on my skin. Hands, once dry, calloused worker’s hands transformed soft and smooth despite the accumulated wrinkles of 83 years. Stretched over arthritic bones, his fragile skin, like precious parchment. The paleness almost transparent, belying his olive complexion inherited from the survivors of the wrecked sixteenth century Spanish Armada intermarrying with the inhabitants of Scotland’s west coast islands. Well, that’s the mythology still hotly debated by historians. I can hear Dad’s voice disparagingly saying, ‘but what do academics know.’ He was a great storyteller and as Robert McKee teaches, it’s all about the power of story!

The memory of our trip to Australia in 1962, on the migrant ship SS Orion, makes me smile. The ship picked up 500 Greek migrants at Piraeus and after a few days in the Mediterranean sun, the Greek passengers approached my sun-tanned Dad thinking he was Greek. How could this olive-skinned man, sporting coal black hair and moustache be Scottish!  For the rest of the voyage, they tried to strike up conversations. ‘Sorry Jimmy,’ said Dad like a typical Glaswegian, ‘don’t know yir lingo.’

The subdued lighting of the hospital room dulls the age and sun spots, mottling the backs of his hands. The marks fade into insignificance on his thin muscle-wasted arms. When younger and stronger, and employed as a ‘boy wakener,’ he knocked the doors of sleeping drivers with those hands at a time when working class people didn’t own watches or clocks and there were no telephones for early morning wake up calls.

As a fireman, he shovelled 5 tonnes of coal a day into the ferocious flames of a steam train’s furnace. As a locomotive driver, he manipulated train controls and signals and became a diesel instructor and acting depot foreman during a twenty-five-year career with British Rail. In Australia, Dad worked at many semi-skilled jobs as he chased money for his family during a further twenty-seven years driving. His arms steering everything from petrol tankers, delivery vans, trucks, tractors, forklifts, buses, utilities, and station wagons.

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He never went to high school, but when it came to a car engine he could revive and fix motors others would abandon to the wrecker’s yard. I picture him wiping oily hands on a cloth or his dungarees.  I’ve never driven a car but surprise myself with the mechanical knowledge absorbed from endless conversations between Dad and my brothers.

I remember as a little girl in Scotland waiting for my dad’s train to pass by the house. Whenever he drove the steam engine he nicknamed “Ivanhoe” he would blow the whistle loudly just as he rounded the bend. In the distance, we could see his once snowy white handkerchief appear as a tiny speck amongst the belching smoke and steam as he gathered speed for the hill before him. We knew he could see the bed sheet we frantically waved with Mum’s help from the upstairs bedroom window because another long-drawn blast which sounded like “Ivanhoe, oh, oh,o …” echoed throughout the valley.

dad on engine

Younger, stronger arms cuddled a wife and six children, ten grandchildren and embraced four step-grandchildren when they joined the clan. How I ache for those arms to hold me close once more, to make me feel safe. Dad always fearless, his strength, a refuge. He took on bullies in the workplace, bullies in the street. His slightly misshapen nose testimony to defending a stranger from would-be muggers, teaching a scab a lesson on worker solidarity and corralling a bull that escaped in the rail-yards. A trophy of fights he could have done without, but Dad often as game as a dozen commandos.

I rub my thumb along his; trace the outline of his nail. His fingernails, longer than I recall, strong and manicured – testimony to the attentive personal care received in the nursing home where he has lived as a dementia patient for the last seven years.

Strangers cut his nails, bathe him, trim his hair and moustache, and even wipe his bottom. I remember, his fingernails never long but always clean. Scrubbed to remove the embedded coal dust when he was a railwayman in Scotland. Scrubbed even harder to be rid of engine oil with his first job in Australia of petrol tanker driver and then a serviceman for Exide Batteries. Over the years, scrubbing removed a variety of debris from his many blue-collar occupations, including pottery dust and garden soil.

Yet, Dad’s hands were much gentler than Mum’s – not the skin, but his touch. He was the one who washed wounds gently, dabbed calamine lotion on even the tiniest mosquito bite or chickenpox blister. Perhaps, if he had not been the youngest of thirteen children and denied the opportunity for further education, he may have been a doctor. His dedication to self-education at night school and constant thirst for knowledge proved he had the intellectual capacity.

A moan reminds me that Dad is still in this world. His laboured breathing eases to an almost gentle rhythmic snore. I sit in the uncomfortable visitor’s chair, grateful my sister, Rita left a large curved pillow squashed to support a back beginning to ache with tension and lack of comfortable sleep.

Dad’s slack-jaw repose, unsettling. Awed at his vulnerability, I remember a man with an explosive temper, yet the patience to teach and to learn. Now he lies helpless at the mercy of a hospital system that sees him as a nuisance. A dying old man, taking a bed and resources more useful to younger, fitter others. I relive the argument between my brother George and the Charge Nurse earlier in the day when they tried to convince us Dad should be discharged and sent back to the nursing home. Our system has a lot to learn about dying and grief.

An unwanted patient here, Dad showed much patience in his life. He spent hours to find an intermittent fault on electrical equipment or the origin of an unusual noise in a car or motorbike engine. More hours in makeshift darkrooms developing black and white photographs until the best possible copy was printed. He often shared a useful or attractive object produced from leftover scrap wood from off-cuts in the bargain bin outside the local hardware shop. His photographic and developing skills, his expertise with cars and motorbikes and his DIY talents all passed on to his children with varying success.

To be a good provider for his wife and children and to be a good parent his driving force. He never appeared hesitant making the tough decisions once we were capable of understanding and contributing. He laid down rules about our social life, the friends we chummed with, insisted we apply ourselves at school and take responsibility for chores in and out of the home. Robust arguments about the length of my brother’s hair in the 60s, when my sisters and I could start ‘dating’, our behaviour at school and at home all memories that fade into insignificance in comparison to the years he sacrificed to keep us healthy and safe.

The Protestant work ethic and the Church of Scotland shaped much of Dad’s thinking, but also socialist writers like Robert Tressell who wrote, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists and he identified not only with the poetry of Robert Burns but the imperfect man. We grew up with Burns’ quotations ringing in our ears and all of us can recite verses, especially the ones with moral and ethical points! Dad admired politicians like Keir Hardie and the Bevan brothers. Papa had bought Tressell’s book for Dad to read, and Dad encouraged his children to read it.  I bought copies for my daughters.

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I change the cassette tape that is playing softly in the background. Rabbie Burns poetry set to music or songs he has written. Scottish singers as diverse as Duncan Macrae, Andy Stewart, Kenneth McKellar, the Alexander Brothers and The Corries singing their hearts out

I flick through the box of tapes brought from the nursing home. Each song or artist stirs memories of family celebrations or other occasions. I picture Dad working in his shed happily ‘making sawdust’ as he referred to his woodworking hobby. Or he’s reclining in his armchair, a glass of brandy (or a good malt whisky when he felt flush), not far from his hand. He loved his music and the advancements in technology from old 78s to vinyl LPs; reel to reel to cassette tapes – all marvellous inventions in his eyes. Unfortunately, with the onset of dementia, he missed the proliferation of CDs – and I can’t conjure an image of him with an iPod or MP3 player either – his hearing aids would get in the way and I think he’d be a vocal critic of social media! ‘If someone wants to talk to me let them say it to my face, or pick up the phone!’

When diagnosed with Tinnitus in the 70s his love of playing music intensified as he tried to block the constant noises and ringing in his ears. He used alcohol too and became someone else, his personality forever damaged by attempts to cure this cruel byproduct of industrial deafness and medication after the Hong Kong Flu. I recall the pain in his eyes when he read a poem of mine about Bermagui where I referred to ‘the silence of nature’.

‘Oh, what I’d give for silence,’ he murmured through tears.

A gurgling erupts from Dad’s throat and his brow furrows. He screws his eyes even more tightly shut and pulls his knees up towards his chest and moans. I remember the stabbing pains of early labour and assume his frail body is experiencing waves of uneven pain. I shiver. Is that the scent of death on his breath? I know medication and his lack of sustenance are probably causing the unusual sweet/sour smell, but fear freezes my heart.

I stand up to seek out a nurse when the door creaks open and two nurses on night duty tiptoe into the room. I chatted with these friendly women at the beginning of their shift. They have no problem with my family’s determination to ensure one or more of Dad’s kinfolk will be with him until the end and are not surprised to see me.

The small dark-skinned nurse came from a family of eight and trained in England, ‘We just want to turn your Dad and check how he is going.’

The grey-haired nurse with a Queensland drawl worked as a relief sister in Dad’s first nursing home. She speaks with familiarity, ‘We’ll just give George a bit of a sponge and change.’

Thank you,’ I whisper. ‘He appears to be in a bit of pain… writhing around.’

The other nurse flicks through Dad’s chart, ‘No problem, we’ll give him something for the pain.’

‘Yes,’ agrees the Queenslander leaning over to take his pulse,  ‘we’ll look after your dad, don’t worry.’

Kenneth MacKellar is singing ‘Keep right on to the end of the road’ and my heart begins to race.

Ev’ry road thro’ life is a long, long road,
Fill’d with joys and sorrows too,
As you journey on how your heart will yearn
For the things most dear to you.
With wealth and love ’tis so,
But onward we must go.

Keep right on to the end of the road,
Keep right on to the end,
Tho’ the way be long, let your heart be strong,
Keep right on round the bend.

I desperately need fresh air. ‘I’ll just go outside for a few minutes,’ I stutter. The nurses nod their approval.

Outside I stare at the sky and try to identify Orion – the shapeshifter that to me is a saucepan – and the Southern Cross. If I can see them, the world will be okay because for as long as I can remember since moving to Australia, I have always searched the night sky for those constellations. I breathe in the eucalyptus air. A dark shape swoops. Kookaburras laugh.

Who am I trying to fool? My world will never be the same again. I realise I’ve been crying and dab away the tears before returning to resume my vigil. It will be daylight soon and my sister Cate will come to relieve me, but I know I will not leave Dad – not just yet.

Dad 2004
Dad 2004

Expressing Emotions and Finding The Words

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The school holidays are over.  Like most teachers, I return to teaching tomorrow after spending much of the break researching and planning for my classes.  I did manage some relaxation and fun, but also tackled clearing out in preparation for springtime painting and came across a box with newspaper clippings and some old stories and poems, which reminded me of why I began writing.

I was reminded too of some successes and that is no bad thing – it is too easy to let rejections or disappointment loom large and forget the joy when your words work and others appreciate them too.

I’ve always enjoyed telling stories about ordinary people, showing them triumph or cope in the midst of life’s challenges, giving hope or showing they are not alone in their suffering, grief, adventure, experience, relationship difficulties… ordinary people can live extraordinary lives and they deserve a voice. I love it when someone remembers my characters or stories, the words have resonated, a connection has been made.

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In the early days of Mordialloc Writers’ Group when I was a beginner writer, my husband John was diagnosed with asbestosis and later cancer. Through his work within the trade union movement and when I was employed there too, we had come in touch with many people with various types of cancer, but now it was personal. Ironically, it became more personal for me when I was diagnosed with breast cancer after John died.

Unsurprisingly, a lot of my writing was around the subject of cancer, people struggling with the disease, how people react when diagnosed, how they live with it, although I never set out to write solely on that subject and did write about other topics, especially in my writing for children.

However, my first published successes were on the subject of cancer. I tried  to make my words emotionally moving for readers so they understood or cared about people dealing with it directly or indirectly and the outlet for my work was the Anti-Cancer Council’s  Daffodil Day Literary Competition. 

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The competition had very specific rules and in the early days the word limit was 500 words, then 750 words, and today I think stories can be 1000 words or more.

Along with the newspaper cuttings and congratulatory letters I also found a bundle of stories I never sent in, but wrote with a theme or specific word count in mind. The following is one I wrote about Fred, a very dear friend of John’s. We shared his battle with inoperable lung cancer. I hope I do him justice.

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Twelve months! Is that what the Doc said? Maybe longer with treatment. This is not happening. Not today, with that vivid blue sky and the sea a turquoise carpet – hope it’s magic.

There’s that deformed bloody seagull screeching, scavenging balancing on a spindly leg, determined to stay in the game. I’m with you matey!

I’ll have the chemotherapy, radiotherapy, pills – whatever lengthens the odds. Perhaps return to sea on a coastal vessel. I’ve survived plenty of turbulence and near disasters – I’ll survive this hiccup ashore. Doctors can be wrong… I’ll get a second opinion.

When will I be returning to work? Can’t you read? What does it say on that doctor’s certificate? I have terminal cancer and twelve months to live. Today they gave me some hope… chemo seems to be working. I could be in remission. No, that doesn’t mean I’m cured! Who’s going to employ me sonny?

Mountains of red tape just to keep cash coming in. Big bucks out – for doctors, radiographers, chemists, physios, hospitals. I’ve worked hard, always paid my fair share of tax and now every snotty-nosed kid and snooty-nosed government official know more about my finances than I know meself! Trying to find out about Super’s a nightmare!

Why me? A couple of more years and I’d be on the pension, taking the dream cruise or grey nomad adventure!

The support group did help – glad I went. Never thought I’d be meditating or obsessing about nutrition. Fancy swallowing herbs in preference to a beer? Thought that lark was for hippies and cranks. If the blokes down the wharves knew! Well, I’ll drink as much foul-tasting goo as necessary if it keeps me alive.

Life is better when I’m calmer. When meditating I can feel Jean’s presence, helping me cope. I appreciate the blokes ringing and neighbours popping in. The sunlight danced on the waves this morning, the sand glittered like sprinkled fairy dust. Yeah, those bloody herbs, or the meditation must be working!

I’m doing all right. Lost the last bit of hair yesterday, but bald is fashionable. Look at Peter Garrett and all those young ones shaving their heads! Bought meself a surfboard to paddle on Patterson River every morning. Will rebuild the strength in my arms; keep the muscles toned. I’m not ready to shuffle off yet, got things I want to do.

Think I’ll take up diving, consider the sea from a different angle. Doc told me to keep looking forward.

What beaut staff at Peter Mac’s. Great to have access to all this equipment and care. But I’ll be happier when Greg comes home and he can drive me in and out for treatment. Don’t feel as confident driving anymore, get so bloody tired. Look at that poor bugger. At least I’m not that far gone. But he always has a smile and cheery word, probably happy pills. Doc said I can have some if depression hits.

Lucky Greg was with me when I had that bit of a funny turn. Some sort of fit. More bloody tests. CAT scans, ultrasounds – the works. Their best shot. Guess what will be, will be. Greg’s staying ashore to look after me, building a unit in the backyard. Turn up for the books, considering all the scrapes I got him out of when he was a kid! I won’t give up because I know everyone is praying for me.

A brain tumour caused the convulsion. Cancer’s spread. Must beat the odds old son… Just stormbound for a while.

Greg’s a bit quieter these days. S’pose it reminds him of when his mum died. Doesn’t seem like three years. I keep thinking of Jean too, thought she was standing by my bed. Guess I’ll see her soon enough.

Thank God for family. Big sister, Sal’s a trouper taking the load off Greg. Poor bugger doesn’t know whether he’s coming or going. He’s done well arranging with the hospital to borrow equipment. Might as well watch the telly in my own place and the airbed is heaven. Sal doesn’t mind Melbourne’s weather – something to moan about when she returns to Queensland.

‘He’s asleep. Sleeps most of the time now. Very peaceful. No pain at all. I won’t forget to tell him you rang. Yes, he knows how much he’s loved.’

Vale Fred Watson 2001

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‘Found Poetry’ or How to Find Poems Where You Least Expect Them.

Central Australia 2011
Central Australia 2011

I suppose shaping words into poems is not too hard, however, creating a poem that others like or appreciate is difficult. This task, like all creative writing,  is worth pursuing – a challenge that can be fun.

I try to bring new ideas to class, to stretch the imagination of  students. It’s good to  move  out of  comfort zones, adapt, perhaps extend and improve writing skills. Many of my students went to school in an era where poetry was defined by set verses, set rhymes. They usually read works by  Wordsworth, Tennyson, Byron, Keats, Coleridge, Rosetti, Hope, Eliot… great and famous poets, but they provide only a small percentage of the poetry written, not only in our culture, but elsewhere.

A way of learning about poetry and how poets work is to write your own poems. Writing a Found Poem means you don’t start from scratch – rather you look for words, phrases, similes, metaphors, headlines, titles, – any text that appeals to you – and use it in a poem. You find interesting or ordinary prose  – look for strong verbs, concrete nouns, words with a richness and interest that fires imagination.

Found poems are excellent for understanding the essence of a piece of writing or seeking the essence not apparent in the prose. You choose words and distance yourself from the original writing while creating a different form by transforming the words into your poem.

War Exhibited
Mairi Neil
(a found poem from an article in Royal Auto magazine)

Night follows day
Rain turns to sun
And tanks roll
20,000 kilometres away.
After extensive planning,
As if choreographed
Buildngs are devastated
barbed wire erected
parapets protected.
But the impact of war
Profound.
These are real people
Not artefacts.
Giant screens
In our lounge rooms
Evocative deep shadows
Of horror revisited
in sequence
Locating, arranging, recording
With focused narrative
Newsreaders
Force us to embrace
The world at war.

Maybe there is a snatch of conversation you recorded in your writer’s notebook, an idea triggered by a piece of junk mail, a moving phrase in a story, a striking word in a newspaper article, a fascinating headline or book title.

Hopeful Ageing
Mairi Neil
(a found poem from advertisements for seniors)

A health breakthrough
Exceptional
Extraordinary
Coordinated
Ultimate comfort
Never again
Aching joints
Problem toes
Swollen ankles and feet
Strained muscles
Hand pain
Knee discomfort
Blemishes and age spots…
CLASP
A body shaper
Angled
To improve blood pressure
Mobility without straining
No slipping, sliding…
Warm, soothing, soft as silk companion
Retain independence
Quality of life
Reduce exercise
GRIP
And take advantage of
Extra support
Never needs sharpening
Perfect relief
What is this breakthrough?

Why – it’s a miracle!

Poems – short or long, form or free verse –  language rearranged, emotions hidden until the possibilities of language explored and shared.

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Using existing text to construct a poem lessens the demands of writing, but gives the opportunity for creativity and imagination. When a poem eventuates there is a sense of satisfaction. It increases a knowledge of words and builds confidence.

The Necklace
Mairi Neil
(a found poem based on The Necklace, a short story by Guy de Maupassant)

She drew near
‘At last it is done!’
I examined my sister closely
As if for the first time.
No jewellery –
Where was the necklace?
She was the prettiest
No need of fancy dresses

Where was the necklace?
It is done…?
‘Are you not making a mistake?
Selling an inheritance worth
Millions’ – I turn away
‘How dare you!’

She was always the prettiest
Now she is the wealthiest.
What blunder of destiny
Made us sisters?
My unhappiness chokes me –
Or will strangle her…

Found poetry helps demonstrate we can all construct poetry using the everyday as inspiration. We learn how poetry works and how to experiment with poetic form, using the various creative tools and language conventions we know, in an enjoyable way. Writing found poems is about keeping your ears and eyes alert to the possibilities of ordinary language.

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To have fun is rule number one!  If the poem is written in stages it helps lessen the sense of panic and confusion some students have when asked to try something new and ‘think outside the box’.

Ten Simple Steps For Writing a Found Poem

1. Choose an article, a short story, a novel, a cereal packet, junk mail, newspaper headlines, obituaries, letters, bulletin boards, menus, advertisements – whatever piece of prose you want. You can even use several sources for one poem. Check your notebook for ideas, dialogue, words you may have noted.
(NB: Do not use other poems or song lyrics – they’re already poetry!!)

2. Find 50 to 150 words you like – cut them out, highlight or underline them. Remember these must be interesting words, but not necessarily unusual – strong words the key.

3. Copy the words/language (it may be a phrase) in the order you ‘found’ them.

4. Study the words carefully (this is why 150 is a good number) and remove any that are dull, offensive, sound a bit ‘off’. Reduce your number by half. With the words left, you can change punctuation and tense of you want, perhaps capitalise – a word may be a common noun easily adapted to a proper noun etc. , make the words into a possessive or plural.

5. Work on these words, maybe pare some more, until you have a cohesive poem developing. You might have to add a few words of your own although the secret is to make minimum additions – it is a found poem after all!

6. Arrange the words – maybe key words are put at beginning of lines, or perhaps the end. Maybe words going together can be split and put on different lines. Think of ending each line on a notable sound. Keep the reader’s interest . What are you trying to say?

7. Read the poem aloud as you work, listen to where you want to pause. Do the words sound good and is pacing right? Listen for the rhythm.

8. When reading your poem consider a title.

9. With found poems the rules are yours – you can change fonts, use form poetry, be as creative as you want. There are few conventions to worry about – and anyway you make the rules just as you choose the words to include!

10. As a footnote, or included under the title you can give credit to the source of your found poem(see above), particularly if all the words are taken from a story or novel.

eg. From Chapter Four, Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen.
     From Mordialloc Chelsea News, What’s On Section.
    Overheard while waiting for a train on the Frankston Line.
    From Myer’s Winter Catalogue.

The process of recasting the text you are reading in a different genre will help you become a more insightful reader and develop creativity in thinking and writing. Don’t be too concerned about the ideas in the article/story you choose, focus on the words, the headings, the language.

Arrange your word list, break the words into lines, add punctuation if desired, determine the use of white space, the lay out, and you have created a found poem!

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Good luck and happy writing!

Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow

Cancer is really hard to go through and it’s really hard to watch someone you love go through, and I know because I have been on both sides of the equation.

Cynthia Nixon

This year, as I tiptoe towards 5 years of being clear of breast cancer, the disease seems to haunt me. My dear friend Margaret lost her battle a few weeks ago, another friend is beginning the fight again after being 13 years clear, and I’ve reconnected with a past student because she wanted me to edit what she has written about her battle with depression after her diagnosis.

Sometimes it is hard to remain positive and I’m grateful I’ve been able to use my writing as therapy to work through a lot of negativity.

Rainbow in NZ leaving Oamaru

When I was diagnosed with breast cancer in September 2010 after my 57th birthday mammogram I was stunned into silence – and for anyone who knows me that is a rare state! I’ve been described as chatty, sociable, loquacious and vocal as well as the negative connotations – talkative and verbose!

You can’t plan or know how you will react when you receive a cancer diagnosis. Sometimes silence is the best option until you work out how to knuckle down and get on with the treatment – one day at a time.

Through the several operations, chemo and other treatment my mantra became “This too shall pass.”  I had to survive. My girls had already lost their Dad, it was too soon and they were too young, to grieve over their Mum!

Fortunately, I had friends who had survived. They were only too happy to support me, share their journey, and show me there was a future.

me and Diane

However, chemotherapy takes you to a place you never want to revisit, but you do get through it and recently I found this piece I wrote about my experience.

Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow

Mairi Neil

The rows of chairs along the walls face each other like a hairdressing parlour. They are reclining armchairs, not the swivel seats found in salons, but the clientele has a fixation on hair even if fragrant shampoos and conditioners are absent. Everyone aches to be transformed, hopes for some magic from the experts.

Unlike a trip to the hairdresser, wearing trackie pants and t-shirt to be beautified for a glad-rag event later in the evening, I take great care preparing for an all-day stint in the Chemo Room at Cabrini Hospital. Personal grooming necessary to feel good, clothes chosen to lighten spirits. A whiff of antiseptic with metallic and chemical strains assaults the nose and salivary glands, intensified by the pungency of rubber aprons and gloves. Amidst this proliferation of hospital smells, diligent nurses measure each person’s dose of poison for the day.

I’ve massaged copious moisturiser into skin and discharged several sprays of perfume to mask the clinical and industrial odours wafting around the armchairs, where even the white freshness of laundered pillowcases hint at harsh detergents.

Turban or scarf selected with care so I can pretend to be Maggie McNamara in Three Coins in the Fountain or Sophia Loren in Sunflower. Acetone from the black polish layered on brittle fingernails the night before still teases my nostrils. I hope the effort will save them from disintegration considering the treatment already wreaks destruction on my scalp.

If a real hairdressing salon, I’d sue, but I’m told bald is beautiful and a more common ‘hairstyle’ today than years ago. I’m a reluctant convert.
Nurses squeak a metal trolley over the gleaming waxed floor, a testimony to the courageous cleaners’ care. They too work in this dangerous environment, put themselves at risk of exposure. The waste receptacles of bright purple and yellow, scream danger as I am hooked up to the IV machines beeping loud and insistent as prescribed concoctions are programmed.

I murmur appreciation as the sweetness of mint-scented buttercream drifts from my feet where Marge, a regular volunteer, caresses and smooths. Closed eyes and a huge sigh tunes me out, as valium laced relaxants transport me to a far-off tropical beach. My destination any of the idyllic scenes depicted in the array of paintings decorating walls and softening the harsh reality.

Music flows from my iPod and John Denver reminds me Some Days are Diamonds and Some Days are Stone. Without thinking, I feel where my breast once was and tears well again. Marge senses me tense, encourages me to concentrate on the healing rhythm of her massage – or we could discuss the latest book her bookclub has chosen – have I read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society novel? A joyful book celebrating how reading brings people together, affirming messages about the strength of the human spirit and the value of relationships, even unexpected ones.

In the past, a trip to the local hairdressing salon referred to as a life-saver, but the Cabrini visits have actually saved my life. Each trip I’m challenged by the stories shared by other recipients: tips to adapt to loss, shared fears and tears, deliberate efforts to laugh, and always admiration at the dedication of staff.

Life will never return to what it was before breast cancer and I may never find the person I was, but surgery and chemicals triumphed to keep me alive. Hair regrows and protheses improve – I’ll just dig deeper for the diamond days.

One wonderful diamond day was the night the girls took me to see Neil Diamond. Lost in the music and flanked by Anne and Mary Jane, I swayed to Song Sung Blue and other numbers. The wonderful evening concluded and a complete stranger appeared at our sides. She said, ‘I’ve been watching the love between you three all night,’ she squeezed my shoulder, ‘you’re going to be all right.’

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 There were many random incidents like that – complete strangers coming up to me in the street or in shops and telling me I’d come through the breast cancer and be stronger for it. Supportive friends visited prior to hospital visits to cheer me up, remind me that sisterhood is powerful!

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Courtesy of the ABC, I won a lunch date with NZ cooking guru Annabelle Langbein. I may take her up on an invitation to visit her farm one day!

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I returned to work and coped better after an 8 week stint with Encore, a wonderful program that helped me regain body strength and my equilibrium.

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I walked the Larapinta Trail, camped in the desert, and reflected on my life and future.(The story of this journey still to be published.)  The last day in the desert I texted my daughter: “Yay! I can feel the wind through my hair.”

 My hair almost normal when I farewelled daughter, Anne on her travels to North America in July 2011. Twelve months still to be reached, but the worst was behind me – I hoped. More up-lifting news of  a student achievement award and receiving my master’s degree helped too!

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I ‘m praying nightly that my friend in NZ will come through her cancer’s return and recover quickly to enjoy life again. I pray too this depression and foreboding I feel will pass…

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Memories are important, they help me understand who I am!

Sooner or later we all discover that the important moments in life are not the advertised ones, not the birthdays, the graduations, the weddings, not the great goals achieved. The real milestones are less prepossessing. They come to the door of memory unannounced, stray dogs that amble in, sniff around a bit and simply never leave. Our lives are measured by these.

Susan B. Anthony

A very good quote, except today it is a “milestone” I’m remembering because if my mother was still alive, she would be celebrating her 94th birthday. Annie Brown Courtney (later McInnes) was born on April 15, 1921, in Northern Ireland, on the border of County Antrim and County Down.

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For Mum
Mairi Neil

I think of you baking scones,
your floral apron streaked with flour.
Ingredients never measured,
just swirled together
by experienced hands,
used to work. And gifting love.
The soft splat of dough
against Formica,
the thump of rolling pin,
scrape of metal cutter,
and then,
the leftover scraps
patted to shape a tiny scone…
‘For you – this special one,’ you said.

This poem was first published February 2010. Included in the vignette, KitchenScraps: Mum’s Legendary Scones, part of a collection based on family recipes published by Women’s Memoirs, an online site in the USA devoted to women’s memoir writing.

It was also chosen to be included in A Lightness of Being, a poetry anthology by Poetica Christi Press, 2014.

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In 2008, I wrote the following tribute to Mum when I was lucky enough to have her staying with me for a few days.

MUM’S HANDS

When I hold my mother’s hands in mine, they’re as soft as rose petals; the translucent skin, fragile. The sense of touch is the most important now Mum’s eyesight and hearing have failed and she loves cradling my hand between hers or places her hands in mine, to be held and stroked.

However, a bruise can appear with the minimum of pressure. When she stayed with me recently an ugly purple mark grew overnight, the result of a bump against the unfamiliar bedside table. At breakfast, the dark smudge merged with sun and aged spots, an ugly blot staining pale skin.

Mum’s delicate hands have shrunk like the rest of her body. Not surprising really because she has just celebrated her eighty-eighth birthday. Yet, sitting side by side on the couch, she grabs my hand with a grip reminiscent of my childhood when she guided me across the road, my fearless protector from rogue cars or lorries.

Nowadays, she wears gloves day and night. Poor circulation makes her hands permanently cold but as we sit in companionable silence on the couch, her love is like an electric current. I feel the strength of those once sturdy hands and reflect on how hard they have laboured, how gently they have nurtured, how faithfully they have worshipped.

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Mum has always been petite and had to accept that once her six children reached adolescence we could all boast about being taller. She laughed off our bragging, reminding us that 4’ 11” was an easy height to beat. She’d repeat one of the many proverbs she liked, ‘good things come in small packages’ or ‘it’s not what a person looks like that makes them what they are, it’s the intent of their hearts and the good they’re willing to do for others that matters’.

On the back of her hands, I trace the dark blue veins resembling mountain ridges and think of the goodness in Mum’s heart; her long history of helping others epitomised by a William Penn verse that sat framed on the mantelpiece in our family home.

I shall pass this way but once;
therefore any good that I can do,
or any kindness that I can show,
to any fellow creature,
let me do it now.
Let me not defer or neglect it,
for I shall not pass this way again.

Mum’s watch slides around her child-sized wrist. Her wedding and eternity rings are too large now for thin fingers; they hang on a gold chain around a wrinkled neck. My fingers look like sausages beside Mum’s thin bones, but with recently diagnosed osteoarthritis, I suppose I’ll develop knobbly arthritic knuckles too. There is no escaping genetics – well not for me. I remember trying on the eternity ring Dad bought for Mum as a surprise, knowing if it fitted me, it would fit Mum’s finger.

I stroke Mum’s skin gently with my thumb, and ponder the changes wrought by a lifetime; recalling the days when her hands were capable and strong. Skilful hands that baked cupcakes, decorating them with a smear of homemade jam and a sprinkle of coconut because it was cheaper and quicker than icing — with six children plus friends, fairy cakes, scones or pancakes rarely had time to cool before being scoffed.

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The cakes filled several tins; enough to feed a gang of children and their mothers in our Scottish neighbourhood when we made our annual trip to the seaside in Dad’s Bedford van. A day trip made each summer, to Pencil Monument at Largs from Davaar Road, Braeside where we lived in a close friendly community. Those tins filled again when we went on a Highland holiday, travelling with the Devlin Family in an old WW2 ambulance Dad and Willie Devlin converted.

Few women worked outside the home in the 1950s and many men in the new housing scheme worked shift work like Dad, especially shipyard workers. Dad was a railwayman, his mate Willie Devlin, a shipyard worker. Summer sojourns planned with precision. The day trip entailed Dad making two trips in the van to Largs, a popular seaside town a half hour journey along curving Inverkip Road. The bends offered thrills to those perched on makeshift seats in the back, but also spectacular views of pretty seaside towns like Inverkip and Skelmorlie.

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The first trip had Willie in the front and children prepared to travel without their mother, in the back. At Pencil Point Park, the back doors of the van were thrown open and there was a mad rush for the sea, or to play on the helter-skelter. Some of us just ran around whooping like Red Indians in what we considered a grand spacious park.

‘What Home do the wains come from?’ asked the park keeper.
‘Ma hame, his hame and half a dozen other hames in oor street,’ said Willie with a laugh.

Dad grinned as the keeper stared at the range of sizes and ages and our uninhibited joy. Dad and Willie understood why the park keeper thought we were from an orphanage. One trip, six-year-old Ian McDonald in his excitement to be at the seaside, kept running, even when he reached the water. Willie fished him out and the poor boy had to spend the day in a spare pair of my knickers, which never bothered him until he was teased about the incident years later in Australia as a ten-year-old!

Willie, left in charge, Dad returned to Davaar Road to pick up the mums, toddlers, and babies –– and the all-important food: Spam, salmon, or corned beef sandwiches, pancakes, scones, fairy cakes and bananas freshly ripened in our airing cupboard. The fruit Dad had got in bunches off the boats– one of the few perks of being a railwayman when the banana boats came in from the West Indies.

There would have been jam sandwiches too, spread with the delicious bramble jelly made from the buckets of brambles we picked from the hillside. We loved blackberry picking – there is something very satisfying about searching through the tangle of thorns for the fattest, glossiest fruit. We often went with the Davaar Road Gang: the Dochertys (Anne Marie, Kathleen and Dennis), the McGrattans (Graham and Billie), Pamela Ritchie and Billy Fleming, the Moffats (Sandra and Margaret), the Devlins (Rose and May) and even Jean Jepson if she had louse-free hair and we were allowed to play with her.

Up over the hill, we’d go, or down to the farmer’s field, searching through hedgerows with our buckets and jam jars swinging from tiny hands. A good picking session a regular feature of autumn half-term holidays because berries thrive in the cooler Scottish summers, where long daylight hours help them to ripen with plenty of flavours. Brambles or blackberries grew profusely in the wild. The scratchy, thorny bushes never deterred us.

Later in Australia, Mum’s hands churned out griddle scones or pancakes at midnight, when as teenagers, we came home with friends, all with the munchies after a night of ten-pin bowling, ice-skating, or partying.

I have lost count of the number of times I sat mesmerised as those hands deftly mixed ingredients in a large bowl – a pinch of this, a handful of that, a swirl, a knead, a pat – to produce scones and apple tarts or pancakes and cupcakes that disappeared within moments and had us begging for more. Mum’s preparation and production of scones legendary, so much so that my daughter Anne, Mum’s namesake and first granddaughter dreams of videoing the process for posterity.

When told of this Mum shook her head in disbelief and laughed. ‘You know I couldn’t cook a boiled egg when I married your father in 1948.’ she said, ‘I was never taught to cook or allowed in the kitchen by old Maggie, my stepmother.’

‘How did you become so good at baking?’

‘Your dad taught me a lot. His mother had a heart condition most of his childhood and he had to help her. When she died at the beginning of the war he was in a reserved occupation and more or less took charge of running the house.’
I laughed. ‘I’ve never seen Dad bake scones or cakes.’

‘Oh, he didn’t teach me how to do that but gave me the confidence to experiment. I learned from the Women’s Weekly and The People’s Friend – and I remembered watching my Cousin Minnie and Aunt Martha out on the farm.’
Mum’s eyes stared into the distance, the fingers fussing with buttons on her cardigan suddenly still… and she was back on the farm…

When grandmother died in 1927, Mum became motherless at six years old. Her grief-stricken father had a pawnbroking business to manage, plus a three-year-old son, Tom. Grandmother’s family offered to take the children to their farm near Boardmills eighteen miles from Belfast. Mum lost her mother and the same day became separated from her father apart from a visit on Sundays when he could make the trip from Belfast.

Six-year-old hands were soon feeding hens and collecting eggs in a wicker basket, patting the smooth flesh of horses released from yoke and plough, filling a trough with a warm meal for the pigs, and learning to form letters in a tiny country school.

Yet the five years spent on the farm until her father remarried and took her back to live in Belfast were the best years of a childhood shattered by grief. It was on the farm her hands became nurturing hands.

From the first week of her arrival at the farm, she helped look after her dead mother’s sister, Annie, whom she was called after. Annie was grandmother’s older sister and suffered from a debilitating muscular disease that sounds similar to motor neurone disease or multiple sclerosis. The symptoms were such that Annie lay in bed 26 years, unable to do anything unaided while her muscles gradually seized. When she heard of her younger sister’s death, it was the last time she was able to communicate by words. She murmured through twisted lips, ‘Poor John, poor weans.’ After that, she communicated by eye signals – one blink for yes, two blinks for no.

Mum recalled a day when Annie made the most horrible gurgling sounds trying to speak, her eyes blinking furiously, as she stared in terror at the open window. Paler than usual her skin gleamed from perspiration. Mum thought an intruder had entered the room or Aunt Annie had seen ‘the shadow of death’ that the Reverend Grim talked about in church all the time. After examining the open window, she turned again to the moaning patient and let out a blood-curdling scream.

Those adults within earshot ran up the stairs two at a time. A giant wasp hovered above bedridden Annie, attracted no doubt by the vase of fresh flowers on the bedside table. The thought of its sting had Mum in a lather of fear too because she was allergic to insect venom.

Over the years, Mum helped care for Annie by massaging her hands with oil and placing cotton wool between her fingers and in her claw hands to prevent sores and calluses and keep the skin supple. Sarah, a woman from the village came daily to attend to Annie’s toilet needs and to feed her. Sarah cleaned Annie’s room, did her laundry and helped with general housework. She would read the Bible and any newspaper or pamphlet that came into the house, to the poor woman lying trapped in a twisted body in the farmhouse bedroom.

Hands that tended an ailing Aunt from a very young age were called upon at teenage to nurse her father, who died in 1939, a few weeks after the declaration of World War Two and a few months after Mum’s eighteenth birthday.

Mum often talked about returning to Belfast at eleven years of age, when her father remarried. Unconsciously fingering her own wedding ring she said, ‘Daddy died in my arms while I recited the 23rd Psalm, his favourite psalm…’

I squeeze her arm, take both of her hands in mine and think of the many times these hands have been clasped in prayer and how Mum’s faith sustained her through life’s hurdles.

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After the war, she nursed patients in the epileptic colony of the Orphan Homes of Scotland (Quarrier’s Homes) while training to be a nurse. Later, married with her own family Mum’s hands were kept busy with the relentless tasks of mothering six children – later still caring for twelve grandchildren – even sacrificing retirement freedom to care for two grandsons after my brother’s marriage ended.

Hands immersed in water, hands red raw from hard work and winter cold, hands stained from bramble jelly, hands dry from bleach, hands massaged with barrier cream – nurturing hands, labouring hands. Hands rarely raised in anger, but often dabbing at tears, cuddling and seeking to comfort, and clasped in prayer.

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