The Writerly Self – A Reflective Essay on a Personal Journey of Professional Development

‘Writing about writing is one way to grasp, hold, and give added meaning to a process that remains one of life’s great mysteries… the moment of exquisite joy when necessary phrases come together and the work is complete, finished, ready to be read.’

writers by the bay - anthology 1, 1997
writers by the bay – anthology 1, 1997

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been engaged with reading and writing. In school, ‘to be a writer’ the first and latterly the only desire expressed whenever asked ‘what career do you want?’ At high school during the end of the sixties the education system, and indeed society, acknowledged females could dream of a career and not a job, however, the proviso ‘until they married to produce the next generation’ was implied.  Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch opened up an amazing new world of questions and ideas.

My working-class migrant home and public high school considered creative writing something done in your spare time; innate talent may lead to ‘discovery’, but rarely a financial success. No courses teaching the craft existed as far as I knew and the feminist rewriting of the male-dominated canon of Australian fiction did not begin until the late 1970s. Parents and teachers assumed ‘journalist’ and ‘writer’ interchangeable.

So, I studied history (another love) at university, travelled, worked at various skilled and semi-skilled jobs, married, had children, started a writing group, became involved in schools and the community, cared for my dying husband, devised courses and began teaching, and always kept writing: academic assignments, articles for magazines, newsletters, stories for family, poetry for myself and others, letters, postcards, haphazard journal entries, lesson plans, even some imaginative creative pieces. Enthralled by the power and beauty of words, I tried to harness the thoughts and stories swirling in my head.

No passion has been as constant, as true as this love‘.

I enrolled in the Master of Arts (Writing) after encouragement from Glenice Whitting, a member of Mordialloc Writers’ Group. A trusted ‘critical’ friend, Glenice finished a novel, won a literary prize and launched her book at the Writers’ Festival after studying a similar course at Melbourne University. This inspiring journey of achievement culminated in a PhD (well done Dr Glenice Whitting) and the completion of another major writing project.

Each fortnight, workshopping at our local neighbourhood house the group gained valuable tips to improve our writing when Glenice shared philosophical and theoretical ideas from her readings. This generosity, found in the Mordialloc Writers’ Group contributes to the quality of each other’s work. The listening, the absorbing, the constructive feedback, the valuing of learning and always striving to be better writers.

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In 2010, with Glenice’s insistent ‘do it,’ I took the plunge and enrolled at Swinburne University: to focus on my writing dreams, to transform entrenched habits and improve my craft, stretch reading horizons, and move out of my comfort zone by seeking help from more accomplished writers within and without, academia. I hoped the experience would make me a better teacher too!

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The online course suited family, financial, and work commitments. However, returning to tertiary study after almost forty years’ absence, a challenge with difficulties I didn’t foresee! The volume and academic style of most set readings confronting and at times overwhelming. Academic texts needed examination, deconstruction and clarification. What did they mean, if anything, to my writing life and style? This deep reflection of my work a new concept, as well as being time-consuming and requiring discipline, but two years in a life of over half a century didn’t seem much of a sacrifice – or so I thought.

I embraced new technology with limited expertise, trusted disembodied relationships with tutors and students, many living Interstate and in different countries. Despite being ‘screen’ tired with a mind ticking over like a Geiger counter, the joy in writing I sought returned, albeit slowly. I began to reflect on the process itself when the initial shock of ‘settling in’ was compounded by a diagnosis of breast cancer. Life is full of surprises, but perhaps the biggest surprise is the strength we find within when needed.

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A new world beckoned. With help and support from family and friends, I adapted my lifestyle, extended boundaries and learnt the true meaning of flexible hours: working into the night, forgetting what television looked like and leaving more of the day-to-day running of the house to my daughters. Although always open to change, this unplanned border crossing was never foreseen for my late 50s. On reflection, the journey not only proved worthwhile but gave me a fantastic focus and distraction through a health crisis I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy! In modern parlance, working towards and achieving my master’s degree a definite ‘game-changer’.

The richness of other student contributions gave new perspectives as well as exposure to a variety of genres. Could I write a suspense novel? A gritty screenplay? A monologue? Poetry? Be a short story writer? What about creative non-fiction? Historical romance?

I had been writing every day but not necessarily the writing I wanted to do. My goal of self-discipline to create time to write every day on a project I desired, and not because a deadline loomed, seemed elusive. The intensity of study, the volume and regularity of the submissions required, left little time for stream-of-consciousness writing or spontaneous creativity, but there was excitement and developing friendships amongst all the learning.

The concepts of dramaturgy and frame theory were new to me, although perhaps I’d been applying frame theory and considering dramaturgy for years without knowing the theoretical name. I visualise each scene before I write and edit – almost as if watching it on television or acting in front of a mirror – the preferred method of Charles Dickens who created characters and acted them out to perfect expressions and voices.

From the beginning there was a very strong connection between the oral and the literary in Dickens’ art.”

I work out the order of the detail in my short stories to help with sentence structure and avoid dangling modifiers. I’m an ‘outliner’, not a ‘pantser’. The dictionary defines dramaturgy as ‘a theory, which interprets individual behaviour as the dramatic projection of a chosen self’. I create characters, put them into situations, and imagine how they walk, talk, and act. I draw on my observations, but also personal experience. Some see dramaturgy as ‘a way of understanding and analysing theatrical performances… to help us understand the complexity of human interactions in a given situation’.

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As a people watcher, I observe and scribble in a notebook, taken everywhere. An event, a smell, sound or person triggers the muse. Later, these pages filled with character profiles, plus ideas for prose and poems become details in stories. Sometimes I’m inspired and start writing the story on the train or in the cafe if I can write undisturbed.

The bones of a story grow. Writers must be curious and record observations because this advice is repeated in almost all articles and books on the craft of writing.

On the city-bound train , two deaf people are having an animated conversation. Six metal bangles on the overweight woman’s right arm so tight they don’t jangle as she waves her hands. The man unkempt, yet an expensive camera hangs across his chest. Are they tourists tired or stressed from travelling? What is it like coping with such a profound disability on public transport where commuters rely on announcements over the tannoy? What if the train breaks down?

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” ‘Playing our parts.’ Yes we all have to do that and from childhood on, I have found that my own character has been much harder to play worthily and far harder at times to comprehend than any of the roles I have portrayed.”

Bette Davis 1908-89

I prefer this quote from Bette Davis to the Shakespearean ‘All the world’s a stage‘. I’ve struggled over the years being dutiful daughter, loving and supportive wife, responsible, nurturing mother, loyal friend and sister, diligent employee, interested teacher… ‘playing’ roles yet aching to be a writer and wondering how well I ‘perform’ when my heart and brain are focussed elsewhere. Everybody is an actor on a stage Shakespeare called ‘the world,’ however, for most people, the stage is a much smaller ‘my life’.

Shakespeare’s gift of using the stage as a metaphor for living clever because everyone is born (makes an entrance); dies (exits) and plays different roles from birth. Researching to find the context for the now clichéd quote I’m sidetracked as usual ( a major failing). So many Internet sites and tomes from bookshelves cite, deconstruct, dissect, and revere Shakespeare.

My ego wonders if in the future anyone will read my writing. Can/will I ever write anything as profound or memorable as the speech by the melancholic Jaques in As You Like It? The ‘seven ages’ of man condensed in cynical terms in a limerick by British poet Robert Conquest:

Seven stages, first puking and mewling,
Then very pissed off with your schooling;
Then fucks and then fights
Then judges chaps’ rights
Then sitting in slippers, then drooling!

When I think of writing Dad’s story and his love of pithy poetry and the verses he made up, I wonder if I should frame each chapter around poetry. Introduce the stages of his life using either a poem or song by Robert Burns, his favourite bard. I reject the last line of Conquest’s limerick. Dad’s dementia and the long period of emotional stress the family experienced will not be reduced to such an image. My Father’s life should not be defined by the changes wrought by illness and ageing.

I want my world to end with a ‘bang’ not a ‘whimper’ to borrow from T.S Eliot. A couple of my short stories work as ‘faction’ so I will keep experimenting. Sometimes it’s easier to fictionalise traumatic events or deep feelings, be the cold observer rather than a participator!

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An article on Dramaturgical Analysis gave me a new perspective and some good ideas on a play about the environment I was asked to write for Grades 5 and 6. An idea to teach the children about environmental sustainability and along a similar theme to Sense and Sustainability: A Fable for our Times. If developing the play, I’ll consider the ideological frame as well as the structural frame. I want the children to identify with the issues and realise they can make a difference. I hadn’t considered using a myth or folktale to provide the organisation for ideas, but appreciate how the reference to well-known stories may add depth to the script and enrich an audience’s understanding. In Australia, because of our multi-cultural population, there are myriads of folk tales to draw on.

It’s a steep learning curve to look through a playwright’s eyes and use dramaturgical analysis as a critical tool, but I enjoyed finding out about the proscenium arch and other terminology associated with theatre; how a play will be presented and the difference images and symbols make. The proscenium arch is the performance area between the background and the orchestra or between the curtain or drop-scene and the auditorium. Many innovative ways to use this space present themselves.

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In a piece of happenstance, I won free tickets to the Victorian Opera’s interpretation of Chekhov’s The Bear. There was a split stage, which gave wonderful visual framing ideas. Aleatory, another new word learned: ‘technology is used to suppress aleatory results‘. Aleatory is defined as ‘depending on the throw of a die or on chance, depending on uncertain contingencies or involving random choice by the composer, performer, or artist.’ Learning to use the Internet for research, it seemed the exact opposite sometimes.

I typed ‘workhouse’ into Google for family history information and came up with 3,460,000 links in 21 seconds. No doubt the number and speed increased since 2010. By only using the word, many irrelevant results and often random associations appear. To save time and get the most benefit out of the Internet I learned to be smarter.

The exposure to other writers in the course led to discussions about books by ‘colonial’ writers revealing heritage and raising issues of identity. I determined to reread many loved favourites as a writer as well as a reader, especially after a tutor asked, ‘to what extent do white writers have to consider their colour as writers?

A difficult question to answer as a white woman, who has always lived in a free society. I agree with bell hooks, there is a ‘link between my writing and spiritual belief and practice… how our class background influences both what we write, how we write, and how the work is received.’

Most white writers don’t give their colour a second thought if they live where they are the dominant culture. However, an Australian writer Harry Nicolaides while living in Thailand was incarcerated for insulting the Thai royal family in his novel. I would think many writers living in some Islamic countries need to be careful. In Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Egypt, Iran and even Turkey imprisoned journalists and writers make the news. We tend to think of Europeans being the main colonial powers in recent history and the colonised non-white, but in the 1930s and 40s Japan expanded its empire. Even in recent times, the Indian sub-continent and African continent have more than their fair share of colonial trauma.

To write my family history with an Irish mother and a Highland father the experiences of the Irish and Scottish populations must be considered and the effects of England’s colonial behaviour. Dr Johnson’s view in his journal, Journey to the Western Isles of Scotland,reveals a narrow, disdainful individual, whose sojourns into that which is unknown to him may be compared to the impressions of those first Europeans who penetrated the African interior, socially placing its inhabitants as inferior.’

The Highland Clearances and the aftermath sent many people, including some of my relatives to Australia. They lost their land and came out here to displace the indigenous population. I’d like to explore this sad irony and grave injustice in my writing. You can’t rewrite history, but you can examine the story from different angles and make an effort for a balanced account.

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How does my hybridity affect my writing? I feel like an uprooted tree with memories and attachments to many places. I travelled a lot when younger and hope to do so again. I struggle to keep a journal yet when travelling, writing became second nature, especially letters home. Boxes of paraphernalia sit in the garden shed to be turned into stories ‘one day’.

I found a handful of old postcards after an aunt died and a fascination with a first cousin of my Father’s began. He bears Dad’s name and is buried in Egypt – another nineteen-year-old casualty of Gallipoli. I empathised with Hélène Cixous when she stood and cried at her grandfather’s grave, a person dead long before she was born – a photograph in an album, a family legend.

All biographies like all autobiographies like all narratives tell one story in place of another story.

I wrote a short piece of prose about discovering our family’s ANZAC, but further research makes the story change. I learnt his parents still spoke Gaelic and try to imagine what he thought in the trenches of Gallipoli fighting beside Scots as well as other nationalities. Did he identify as an Aussie? Did he think himself noticeably different?

One tutor asked, ‘What do you think of the idea that writing itself is a process of self-knowing… we come to know ourselves through the things we write? Post examples of your ‘voice’ to illustrate how you use language.’

Are the paths our writing takes us down, paths to self-knowledge? Often I surprise myself when I read a poem or story I’ve written. I ponder: did I write that? Even when I think I’m in control of the pen and words, my writerly self takes its own path!

I’m an ‘inheritor as well as an originator’ and like Bell Hooks, I believe my ability and desire to write are blessings. I am the keeper of the stories of parents’ and family, in particular my mother’s. Mum spoke into a tape recorder for several hours telling ‘herstory’, and I am immensely grateful we spent time together to record the events she thought important. It’s still a painful task to listen and type. Mum’s voice triggers strong emotions; fingers freeze on the keyboard and tears flow. Complicated grief can last a long time, her death still feels raw.

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A sense of ‘voice’ crucial in writing therefore I want to make sure it is Mum’s voice and not mine when I write her story. Yet, as I record extracts for a women’s memoir site in America, and life story classes here, my story is being written too. I know my voice changes depending on what I’m writing, sometimes from a conscious effort because I don’t want fictional characters to sound like me, or all the factual characters either!

Years ago, my brother George rang me after reading a story of mine in Mordialloc Writers’ third anthology, Up the Creek With a Pen. ‘Mairi, I had to read it twice it was so good. It’s very different from your other stories, I didn’t even pick you as the writer.

Up The Creek With A Pen, anthology 3, 2003
Up The Creek With A Pen, anthology 3, 2003

This ‘backhanded compliment’ made me go back and read the story again! What made it so different? The topic? The male protagonist? The language? The pacing? Another step along the road of maturity in the craft; learning to pay more attention to how the words sit on the page?

The craft of writing is what I enjoy the most; it’s my comfort zone and I know this is why I love teaching creative writing because for a few hours a week I share my passion for the English language, its nuances, its flexibility, the chance to experiment, and the fire of imagination.

I recall a student comment about family history, ‘It’s funny though, that the stories we tell the most are often the hardest to put to paper. Sometimes the best stories are the ones we are so comfortable with that they live and grow with us and so writing them is counter-productive.

As I interviewed Mum over four years, I noticed repetition in her stories, yet the telling was different. Dad, an entertaining raconteur repeated the same tales with or without embellishments. I don’t see writing them down as counter-productive, rather I consider the stories are part of our family lore, they’ve made an impression to be retained for a lifetime (in my parents’ case, 80 plus years). I want to record the memorable ones, work out why they remain important. Retain them for future generations because idiosyncratic tales make each family unique. I regret not recording Dad before Dementia robbed his memory.

Another student, an accomplished writer commented on poems I’d written, ‘I suppose I’m looking for you to take it one step further – is this the only side of Mum? What brings you to remember? and similarly, for Journey home – are you there? What’s it feel like? I want some personal insight or big picture analysis.’

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.

The Journey Home
Mairi Neil

He squeezes past me
on the escalators
at Melbourne Central
overweight and red-faced
wheezing in time
with the clunk
of her strapless high heels
clattering like hooves
on cobblestones of old

He flings a challenge
over his shoulder
‘The train leaves in one minute!’

wheeze kerplunk clunk clunk
wheeze kerplunk clunk clunk

She puffs and pants
heels galloping
breath exploding
the momentary hesitation
as the ticket machine swallows
and reluctantly spits tickets
into waiting fingers
frantic eyes balloon
at more escalators
to be negotiated

wheeze kerplunk clunk clunk!

Mum was not just the cook, nor indeed ‘just a mum’. I’ve spent a long time (perhaps too long!) researching to ensure her time in the army, as a nurse and many other experiences BC (before children), as well as her achievements and contribution to community and church in Scotland and Australia, are recorded. The jigsaw of her life completed so people understand the big picture. We are all complicated human beings.

I wrote the poem about the scones as a special memory to read at mum’s funeral and it struck a chord with others to be published elsewhere.

‘Although I have not written in this journal for a month, storytelling has been an active and dominant part of my life during this time.’

Skywalker Payne

My writerly self understands imagination works overtime, characters and plots in abundance go unrecorded or not shared with writing buddies. Family history/tales come alive when we recount parents’ or our own lives to children and there’s an urge to record them for posterity. That’s what writers do.

Anais Nin, Katherine Mansfield and Henry Thoreau achieved much in their journals. The beneficial aspect of keeping a diary well-documented. It can be the start of poems, prose, and novels. One of my students kept a journal for 35 years before substituting it with a ‘blog’.

I often think of ‘the women writers whose work and literary presence influences me, shaping the contours of my imagination, expanding the scope of my vision.This blog could help me too.

Novels may still be unfinished, stories lacklustre, poetry mere doggerel – some days I feel everything, but a writer. The longing to write what I want instead of what seems to be needed (by deadlines, briefs, other people) exists. A deep yearning drives me to counteract the reality of creative writing as something squashed between other life commitments. To feel gladness, not just relief, when the words are on paper, will probably always be a difficult goal to achieve.

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I’ll keep scribbling and hoping it will gel one day.

Vale Dear Friend – Have You Solved The Mystery of Death?

The sun exactly at noon is exactly [beginning to] go down.
And a creature when he is born is exactly [beginning to] die.


Hu Shih, Chinese Philosopher,philosopher, essayist and diplomat

On Saturday night I couldn’t settle. A telephone call from Canberra the day before said Margaret’s death was imminent – within 24 – 48 hours. The vigil of her final hours carried out by  two other friends – the remainder of our “gang of four” – sitting either side of her bed at Clare Holland House hospice each holding one of Margaret’s hands.

“You’re too far away Mum to do anything , but worry. Try and relax… we care about you.”

I started a jigsaw puzzle after my daughters insisted I focus on something pleasant. Their words of wisdom, sympathy and nurturing an appreciative role reversal.

“Remember your last few days together in January, focus on that image and all the good times you’ve shared.”

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Margaret’s dying had occupied thoughts and shaken emotional equilibrium for weeks. Daily text messages or phone calls from close friends, an ever present reminder someone I’d known since teenage was dying from breast cancer – a disease my body was fighting successfully – so far. Margaret’s lobular cancer, detected too late had spread to her brain stem and groin. Life seemed unfair and good health such a lottery!

I’ve experienced grief many times, especially over the last few years.  Friends and family farewelled; the most poignant goodbyes being husband John and my parents. I understand about complicated grief. For several years, I could identify with this state.  I appeared to “get on with life” , but my pain never fully receded into the background or diminished. It was even physical, with a permanent pain in my heart as if a stone lodged there, pressing its weight, interrupting normal rhythm. I became the great pretender, perfecting the art of an outward smile without any inner joy.

To endure life remains, when all is said, the first duty of all living beings… If you would endure life, be prepared for death.


Sigmund Freud, Thoughts for the Times on War and Death

Thoughts and memories of those I’ve lost circle in my head on a permanent loop. Each death a reminder of the one before: I don’t believe my yearning and longing for John will ever disappear and memories of others can appear unbidden, triggered by a smell, a piece of music, a photograph, a snatch of conversation… but I do “get on with life”!

And so when the call came at 6.00am Easter Sunday, to say Margaret had died the night before, I knew exactly when the moment had come. On Saturday evening, just after ten o’clock I’d had a strong urge to go outside again and watch the progress of the lunar eclipse. As I stood watching the clear night sky, the angst and worry about Margaret’s dying dissipated. I felt she was at peace, free from suffering and earthly worries .

She breathed her last breath at 10.15pm, April 4th 2015, 25 days short of her 68th birthday. Mary Jane’s photographs capturing my thoughts that Margaret joined all the others who have gone before, including her parents. “Who would have thought dying was so difficult,” she had whispered last week, insisting she saw her parents waiting.

That waiting now over.

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Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely.

Edna St. Vincent Millay

After I received the news, Mary Jane and Anne bought me a beautiful orchid. Tall and willowy, like Margaret, a wonderful gift of life!

” To plant in Margaret’s memory, Mum.”

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Later, I went for a walk by the sea with a writer friend – another life-affirming pleasure and always a solace to me. Although it’s autumn, abundant signs of fresh growth promised new life.

Creating Memories

My garden reflects the rich tapestry of family life. The plants are a mixture of immigrant and native, just like us. Some are already memorials. Two sturdy bottlebrushes (callistemon linearis) remind me that two mothers grieve for sons. The wattle, as straight as a mast, thrives, but reminds me of a friend who died in despair. A rose from Coydon a link to the family home with Mum and Dad. There are cuttings from friends, plus birthday or appreciation plants nestling beside Mother’s Day flowers, nurtured by tiny hands.

Each has a story.

The rosemary bush by the mailbox extra special, an unexpected gift from a lady whom I‘d never met.  In September 2002, when John died after a heroic struggle with debilitating lung disease, a small healthy rosemary plant arrived with prayerful condolences.

In ancient literature and folklore, rosemary is a symbol of remembrance. It’s also an emblem of fidelity with a belief that its properties improve memory. Rosemary has particular significance for Australians because it grows wild at Gallipoli.

Rosmarinus Officinalis (‘Dew of the Sea’) is an evergreen shrub of the mint family. John loved the sea and often shared stories of his 16 years in the Royal Navy. His affinity with the sea led me to scatter his ashes at Stony Point. He’ll revisit many shores, including Mordialloc. And as the girls and I travel the world we know he’s always near.

The girls made tiny sprigs of beribboned rosemary for people to take home after John’s funeral, a custom since 1584. Rosemary even gains a mention in Shakespeare’s Hamlet when Ophelia, decked in flowers said to Laertes: ‘There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance.’ Shakespeare’s plays another love John and I shared – the ties that bind. So many memory triggers…

My garden will always be a work in progress. John’s announcement in 1984 when we bought the house prophetic, ‘the garden will have to survive on neglect. There’s enough to do inside to keep me occupied for years!’ However, like love, the rosemary flourishes and many passers-by and neighbours pick sprigs for their Sunday roast and other dishes. The other plants thrive too, like me they are low maintenance!

The ‘renovator’s delight’ garden still has the original couch grass with a small clump of Strelitzia regina (Bird of Paradise) and a bluey-mauve Blue Moon rose, shrubs spectacular when in blossom. Acquired plants fit the soil and landscape of the area; flora enriching the habitat for native birds, butterflies and bees. Drought-tolerant plants minimise water use and are wildlife friendly. There is beauty inherent in the evergreen native trees and indigenous plants produce the harmony I desire – native and exotic.

Bees and butterflies buzz and flitter from agapanthus to lavender, from rosemary to geraniums. Wattlebirds feast while insects scurry on lobed dark green leaves. A ringtail possum nests nearby. Blazing red hot pokers (kniphofia) create a rainbow in autumn.

Each day as I check the mailbox, or go for a walk, the rosemary reminds me that ’flowers seem intended for the solace of ordinary humanity.’

I ponder where I’ll plant Margaret’s orchid to reflect on life and feel blessed.

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Death is an absolute mystery. We are all vulnerable to it, it’s what makes life interesting and suspenseful.

Jeanne Moreau

Royalty for the Day

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I’ve mentioned before how Dad often recited Rabbie Burns, believing the poems reflected life. At eight years old, I learned the meaning of:

The best-laid schemes of mice and men Gang aft agley And leave us nought but grief and pain, For promised joy

When you are the fourth of six children, special moments with either parent can be few, and in 1961, with Dad working over 40 hours a week as an engine driver, his shiftwork, including weekends, made individual attention, rare indeed. However, I remember spending a whole day with Dad – although we were not entirely alone, but shared the experience with a feisty donkey called Hamish. I consider the day a highlight of my Scottish childhood. images-11 One evening, Dad said, ‘The Sunday School pageant on Palm Sunday is going to have a real donkey.’ Dad was superintendent of St. Ninian’s Sunday School, a Church of Scotland parish accommodating the growing population of Braeside, in post-war Greenock. At the elders’ meeting to discuss ways of engaging non-churchgoing families, someone jokingly suggested that a real donkey on Palm Sunday would draw the crowds. His imagination fired by this casual remark, Dad discussed it with a workmate, Archie Barber who agreed to contact a  friend with a farm on the outskirts of Skelmorlie,  9 kilometres away.

The older boys had football practice, Catriona a commitment with Girl Guides, and Alistair and Rita were too young, so I volunteered to accompany Dad to the farm.

‘You’ll have to wear old clothes,’ Mum said, ‘there won’t be a saddle and the cuddy’s hair will  smell and be greasy.’

Normally, an outing called for Sunday best, and I’d wear the pretty dress sent from Aunt Chrissie in Australia, however, reading mum’s mind, Dad said, ‘We’ll look like a couple of tinkers, but we’ll have fun.’

Saturday came and Dad and I caught a double-decker bus and sat upstairs.  I got to sit by the window. We played I Spy, then counted different colours or types of cars. No competing voices, just the two of us; Dad’s newspaper remaining unopened on his lap.

After what seemed like hours of winding road and stops and starts, we reached Skelmorlie. The farm had a large buttercup meadow. Dad grinned as I held a flower under his chin. Pale flesh glowed. ‘You like butter.’ He tickled me, ‘I love butter.’

Meadow buttercup 2 - Kew

A row of silver birch trees framed the whitewashed farmhouse. The stocky farmer stood beside a tethered donkey. Dad muttered, ‘What a bedraggled animal – thank goodness your mum insisted on old clothes.’

The donkey looked more like a shaggy Highland cow; its mouse-grey, grimy coat in need of a wash. Its short, whiskbroom tail rigid; its huge ears twitching. ‘Meet Hamish,’ the farmer said, ‘I’m afraid, he’s become a bit wild.’

Hamish tugged, kicked his back legs in the air, pushed his ears flat towards the back of his head and brayed. I moved closer to Dad, comforted by the squeeze of his calloused hand. The farmer said, ‘Come away inside and have a cuppa while he gets used to the harness again.’

CampZooDonkey2

A woodburner stove radiated warmth; the kitchen table decorated with plates of freshly baked delights. My mouth watered at the griddle scones, soda bread and apple tart. The farmer’s wife offered me a plate of scones smothered in jam and cream whispering, ‘The one on the end is the biggest.’

Dad accepted a cup of tea and a seat on the comfy black leather sofa, nestled against a limestone wall decorated with black and white photographs. The adults chatted about the weather and Dad passed on news from Archie.

I went to the doorway and watched an uncomfortable Hamish try to wriggle free from the post.  He returned my stare with large white-ringed eyes; the only sound the rasping call of a corncrake hiding in nearby nettles.

I offered Hamish the remains of my scone. He nuzzled my hand with his pink mottled nose, ‘Hee haw!’

I jumped; sure, that Mum heard the bray all those miles away. ‘I’ll get you more food,’ and with that promise I skipped back to the kitchen.

Dad and the farmer were immersed in conversation about the new United States Navy base and Polaris nuclear fleet sited at the nearby Holy Loch. Dad campaigned for Nuclear Disarmament and never missed an opportunity to alert people to the dangers of nuclear bases. We wouldn’t be leaving for some time so I grabbed another scone and pocketed plain biscuits.

‘Your coat is magic, Hamish,’ I confided while explaining his part in the Easter play. I  traced the dark cross on his back with my fingers. Dad had told me about the legend that donkeys had unmarked hides before Christ’s entry into Jerusalem.  People believed the hairs from the crosses on the donkey’s back cured some ailments such as whooping-cough and toothache.

I was wondering if the legend and miracle cures were true when Dad’s voice interrupted my thoughts. ‘Now Hamish is calm we better make a start – it’s a long walk home.’

The farmer lifted me onto the donkey’s back. Hamish was four feet high. It felt like I was on stilts. This was so exciting!  I grinned until my face hurt, especially when the farmer’s wife gave Dad the biggest bag of jelly babies I’d ever seen. ‘Take these and use them wisely. Hamish will be no trouble.’

A few sweets coaxed Hamish from the security of the fields. I clung to his dirty coat. ‘Donkeys love to take dust baths,’ Dad said. ‘They choose a spot in their pasture to dig out and bathe themselves daily.’ I looked at several crumbling cowpats. ‘We won’t think too much about what was in the dirt,’ Dad said with a wink, ‘but he’ll need a good scrub before church tomorrow.’

He chuckled and as an afterthought said, ‘ and so will you!’

Hamish stopped. Donkeys hate water under their feet and always avoid puddles. Dad reverted to jelly baby bribery. Hamish plodded on. When he stopped, a jelly baby, or two, or three, encouraged him. I spoke my thoughts aloud, ‘ I don’t think donkeys are stupid!’ Dad smiled and gave me a jelly baby.

He pointed out marsh violets peeping from beneath a granite boulder. I studied the face almost parallel to mine. Black moustache, thick and neatly groomed, long, patrician  nose all ‘McInnes’s inherited. I sniffed his jet-black hair, Brylcreemed beneath traditional tweed cap. His olive skin, not yet summer brown, revealed the legacy of the survivors of the wrecked Spanish Armada who settled in the Highlands in the sixteenth century. Well that was the story Dad liked to tell.

Suddenly, he burst into song, his magnificent tenor voice encouraging me to join in:

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.

High hedgerows of white flowering blackthorn and bramble bushes with clusters of tiny blackberries hid houses from view. Dad’s tackity boots a rhythmic echo as metal tips scraped tarmacadam. Hamish increased his pace to our rousing rendition of the Uist Tramping Song:

Come along, come along, Let us foot it out together, Come along, come along, be it fair or stormy weather, With the hills of home before us and the purple of the heather, Let us sing in happy chorus, come along, come along.

The hillside bloomed, a rainbow of shy snowdrops, proud dandelions, wild hyacinths and delicate daisies. As I swayed on Hamish’s broad back, I was an Arabian princess seeking the lost city of Petra; Lady Guinevere meeting King Arthur, Mary Queen of Scots fleeing Scotland … and when Hamish allowed himself a gentle trot – Annie Oakley heading to join Buffalo Bill in the Wild West. All the tales I’d read at school or in the set of  Arthur Mee Children’s Encyclopaedia at home, swirled through my head and fired my imagination.

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Hamish fancied the buds and reddish-purple twigs of the birch tree. Dad gently tapped my shoulder. My hazel eyes followed his outstretched arm. A baby deer munched on a similar feast nearby. Bambi!  What a thrill to be able to boast about this adventurous day when I went to school.

Six kilometres from home, we reached Inverkip village. Although a Saturday afternoon and many shops were already shut, the village was a popular tourist destination for picnics. Dad tightened his grip, rubbed his whiskers into my neck. ‘Watch out; there’s witches here.’

I giggled, spied a bumblebee dancing above a clump of bluebells. ‘No there’s not.’

‘Oh, yes there is,’ Dad said, his brown eyes serious as he gave me a history lesson. ‘In the 1600s many young women were accused of witchcraft and imprisoned or killed. It wasn’t a good time at all.’ I shuddered and must have paled because Dad immediately changed the mood.

‘Not last night but the night before,’ he recited, ‘three wee witches came to my door. One with a hatchet, one with a drum and one with a pancake stuck to her … bum!’ I roared with laughter. Dad had paused for affect and said the ‘b’ word instead of thumb.

A car backfired. Hamish jumped as a truck drove past, then  froze. The jelly babies disappeared at a faster rate. We were stationary for so long passersby thought Dad a gypsy, selling donkey rides. He gave several children short rides, but refused the shiny coins offered. Grateful parents bought me ice cream, Smarties and Humbugs, and replenished the supply of jelly babies when we revealed Hamish’s addiction.

At last the churchyard appeared in view. In fading daylight, I pretended to be Jesus riding into Jerusalem.  Tethered to a railing, Hamish protested with long mournful brays. He didn’t like being contained in the small unfamiliar space.

The adventure left my legs and bottom aching, but I hid my discomfort.  At dinner that evening, the family listened enthralled as Dad, an amazing raconteur, wittily recounted our day.

Next morning, all the children arrived early to see Hamish. I felt a celebrity too as Dad washed and brushed Hamish for a dress rehearsal. However, Hamish refused to walk up the makeshift ramp into the church despite dangled carrots and a jelly baby trail. Bribery, begging, even scolding, all failed.

The church filled with a congregation eager to see the Easter play. Parents hurriedly cleaned dishevelled children and the pageant proceeded without its star. The play was a success even if Hamish didn’t play his part. Or perhaps he did. Donkeys have a reputation for being obstinate and Hamish was certainly that!

Dad murmured into my ear, ‘The best- laid schemes of mice and men gang aft agley,’ and shrugged.

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I wrote this story as a response to ‘special moments with dad’, a common memoir writing prompt. There were other occasions, but this one has always loomed large in my memory.

Have you got a special moment, or moments, you can write about?

Copyright Note:

  • Sir Harry Lauder wrote Keep Right On To The End Of The Road shortly after his son was killed in action in World War I. The Uist Tramping Song is a Celtic folk song we learned at school from a regular BBC program played over the classroom radio. The Rabbie Burns quote from the poem To a Mouse on turning her up in her Nest with the Plough

Advance Care Planning is Good for your Health

When people not used to speaking out are heard by people not used to listening then real change can be made’

John O’Brien (2007)

For over five years I have been a volunteer consumer representative at Central Bayside Community Health Services and often attend forums and workshops run by the Health Issues Centre. On Friday morning, I caught a train into the city to take part in a focus group about Advance Care Planning. As I’ve mentioned before, participation in events like this is a way of giving back, or contributing to a health system that despite its flaws, saved my life. Hopefully, the system improves when many different opinions are considered and ordinary people stay engaged.

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The discussion about planning for future health care needs and end of life wishes an apt one, considering I have a friend from university days currently undergoing palliative care and I know several others with failing health or with relatives in similar situations. All part of growing older I know, although I don’t want to be accused of being ageist.

The Health Issues Centre has been funded by the Department of Health and Human Services to talk with community members about their experiences of planning for future health care. How people want to be treated when they become ill, issues around the end of life, and if you have started to have this conversation with partners and family, what challenges have been discovered.

They have also been asked to test an internet-based tool that helps to identify personal values and record wishes regarding treatment. E-health is developing rapidly with the aim that most people will have an electronic file of their health information that can be accessed from anywhere in Australia. Your wishes about what treatment you want and what you will refuse can be noted.

Participants in the focus groups regarding Advance Care Planning discussed several questions:

  • Do you think about your health care needs into the future?
  • If time was limited, what treatment approach would you want?
  • Are you responsible for making sure someone else’s future health care needs and wishes are met?
  •  Would you use an online tool to help you identify your wishes for future health care?

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The group I attended were all Seniors and over sixty years of age – a demographic bombarded with advertisements about future lifestyle and health care needs. The Health Issues Centre, in partnership with Cabrini Health, ran the focus group and we discussed issues around planning for future health care. The information collected will be used to guide the work of the Department of Health and Human Services in relation to advanced care planning for Victorians.

Making sure you receive the health care you want’ was the central point of our roundtable discussion.

  • What are your concerns around life and health as you grow older?
  • Is there more to healthcare than keeping people alive?
  • If time was limited what treatment approach would you want?
  • What information and support would you need to plan your future health care?
  • If needed, do you have someone who could advocate for your wishes?
  • Have you shared your wishes with someone you trust?

The discussion recorded, and once transcribed, participants promised a copy of the main points raised.

We certainly gave the facilitators something to think about, beginning with challenging the title ‘Advance Care Planning,’ which appears to be interpreted by most people as end of life planning. One participant commented she was ‘getting older, not old!’ Preparing for health and lifestyle changes as you age does not, and should not, begin and end with palliative care issues.

I suggested more positive words would still let people know what the information was about. ‘Future Wellbeing’ or ‘Caring (or Preparing) for the Future’ would extend the discussion to everyone, not just seniors. After all, no one has a crystal ball and disease or accident can strike at any age and an advance care plan needed. Young people should be involved in the conversation.

In my writing classes I have several young people with an acquired brain injury because of car accidents – they need to be involved in planning for their future healthcare.

Although we were all seniors on Friday, there was diversity among the participants and our life (and death) experiences considerable. Everyone had thought deeply about growing old, everyone wanted to avoid a nursing home, and all, without exception wanted ‘death with dignity’ legislation. Several had already lost partners or other family members with positive and negative experiences of the health system. Some had a Living Will in place or Medical Power of Attorney.

These discussions need to happen and it is an important initiative. I was shocked at stories of elder abuse, the vulnerability of people relying on family members only interested in property or bank accounts. A representative from a multi-cultural organisation offered examples of elderly people being easily manipulated by grandchildren more fluent in English.

At one stage, listening to anecdotal evidence, I thought I must be unusual because I have a strong loving relationship with my two daughters and trust them implicitly to care for me if ever needed and to carry out my end of life wishes. In fact, because of what happened during my treatment for breast cancer, they already had to make decisions for me, run the household and deal with finances. However, it’s obvious not everyone has such comfort.

If you need more information and guidance or are worried about your health needs the following websites and phone numbers will be useful:

Council of the Ageing (COTA) 1300 13 50 90; www.cotavic.org.au
Advance Care Planning Australia www.advancecareplanning.org.au
Better Health Channel www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au (search for advance care plans)
Office of the Public Advocate 1300 30 93 37; www.publicadvocate.vic.gov.au

As well as varied experiences with family, participants shared their lack of confidence negotiating legalities like power of attorney, writing wills and the various cultural sensitivities around ageing, ill-health and dying. There was a role for government, especially the Departments of Health and Justice to ensure the best advice and assistance is available, if needed. Some people may be in a relationship where a partner refuses to discuss failing health, facing death and the future. Living in ‘the now’ or fearful that discussing deteriorating health may tempt fate!

I hope negative feedback about the general attitude of health care professionals towards older people will be addressed. Tales of GPs and others, showing lack of respect, being patronising and not listening properly, made me grateful I have good rapport with my GP, enjoying excellent care for over 20 years. Along with me, only one other participant, would go to the GP as the point of entry into Advance Care Planning.

People with mental health issues and those who can’t make decisions for themselves, need an advocate and definitely need a document guiding healthcare professionals, specifically in regard to surgical operations and whether resuscitation is desired.

Participants feared that nursing homes and hospitals may revoke any advance care plan, which indicated this conversation has a long way to go and dissemination of information must be a priority. Everyone acknowledged there was a need for better health literacy and many brochures, documents and websites need to be rewritten for clarity and understanding.

The meeting went over time even although the two facilitators did an excellent job of keeping everyone on topic. The group proved that people are interested in planning for future healthcare and have ideas about how to go about it. I’ll be interested to read the transcriptions of all the focus groups, although I’m aware many people are excluded from similar conversations because we have a two-tiered health system – private and public. It may be more subtle than in the United States, but your bank balance does count when it comes to choosing healthcare in Australia. Waiting lists can miraculously shorten if you have private health insurance. Money can give you a choice.

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I met several interesting people and gained insight into behaviour and areas  I didn’t know a lot about. Grateful for being given the opportunity to be heard, to share my story and thoughts, and hear the thoughts and stories of others, I look forward to hearing more about the Planning for Future Healthcare Project.

In the meantime I’ll  register my plan for easy access on E-health – access I hope won’t be needed for a long time in the future!

Writing Family History and Life Stories as Literary Non-Fiction

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Rain batters the window as the white fluffy cumulus clouds, gathering and growing all day, decide to join together and release their load. A thunderclap booms and rumbles and a spectacular flash of lightning paints a jagged design across the sky. Nine-year-old Mary Jane huddles closer. ‘I’m not scared Mum, but that was loud, wasn’t it?’ She relaxes into my arms as I murmur, ’you’re safe here, darling,’ and I rest my chin lightly on her auburn head and close my eyes. An image appears of Dad lying comatose in his bed at Maroondah Hospital, Croydon.

False teeth awkwardly protrude from slack-jawed mouth; frail body shrunken and vulnerable. Only with concentration can I detect the almost imperceptible movement of his chest, and as trembling hands scrabble at the cotton bed sheet, I stop holding my breath; release an audible sigh of relief. My nose twitches at the sickly sweet smell from his dry lips and open mouth — it’s the residue of medication, not the smell of death – yet.

Several tears seep from the corners of my eyes, to lie hot and wet on winter-pale cheeks. I shake off the memory of our visit today and stare at the cluster of family photographs atop the maple entertainment unit. Maroondah Hospital, an hour’s drive, but also a world away from my comfortable reality. John’s culinary efforts fill the house with aromatic herbs and spices and in-between the rhythmic chop of vegetables, I hear the breathless tinkle of Anne’s voice, embellishing Year 7 tales.

More thunder rolls, this time far into the distance, but lightning flares again and a barrage of tiny hailstones drum a tattoo on the windowpane. A large shudder reminds me of Mary Jane’s need for reassurance and as I rub her back gently, subliminal flashes of her colicky babyhood make me smile; the nights pacing the floor to ease her pain. A surge of tenderness tightens my hold and I whisper, ‘I love you.’ My eyes ache with unshed tears as outside Mother Nature wails and weeps, reminiscent of a tempestuous night in another country… another time… a world away from Mordialloc.

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It’s Saturday evening at 35 Davaar Road, in 1961 Scotland. The film How Green Was My Valley broadcast on television for family viewing. The youngest siblings, Alistair (5) and Rita (2) are already in bed, but at eight-years-old, along with George (9), Iain (10) and Catriona (12), I’m allowed to stay up later than the usual 7.30pm ‘lights out’ rule of the school week.

Saturday night is ‘treat’ night. Dad has been paid on Friday and the budget allows a choice of favourite chocolate from the ‘Tali’ van coasting the neighbourhood playing Greensleeves. The mobile shop called the ‘Tali’ van and the driver referred to as ‘Tony’ regardless of his real name.

Ice-cream first introduced to Scotland by waves of Italian migrants in the early twentieth century. Most of the cafes, fish and chip shops, ice cream vans and restaurants established or owned by Italian families: Drivandi, Nardini, Capaldi, Spiteri. However, pizza and pasta have still not replaced the popular ‘fish supper’ in most Scottish homes. Italian families have lived in Greenock and surrounding districts for generations and speak with broad Scottish accents, but retain much of their Italian culture, especially Roman Catholicism.

Lyons_Maid_Ice_Cream_Van    six of us

Allowed to stay up late to watch the Saturday Night Movie on television, we munch on chocolate (Cadbury’s Flake my choice of delicacy) and sprawl on the dark green and faded gold sofa; its tired cloth worn thin from thirty years of service. Wide sofa arms make great horse rides to watch The Lone Ranger and The Cisco Kid after school and the hard horsehair stuffed cushions become formidable weapons in sibling squabbles.

This lounge suite inherited from Dad’s family home takes up most of the spacious living room, just as it did in 2 George Square, the tenement where I was born. A Radio Rental television the only new item of furniture, ‘standing out like a sore thumb’ in my Irish mother’s opinion, alongside other items from George Square: a 1900 rosewood china cabinet, a 1950s radiogram and 1930s walnut bed-cabinet, the drawers of which store spare bedclothes wrapped in tissue paper, and a home for Iain’s hamster when it makes one of its many escapes from his fireside cage.

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We ‘flitted’ to Davaar Road when I was three years old, a successful privately negotiated house swap with a couple who wanted to move into the centre of the town. Mum and Dad were thrilled at the move to the new estate of Corporation houses at Braeside, the result of a building boom filling the twenty-years of demand for houses, to replace the hundreds of homes lost during the Greenock Blitz. The new houses provide front and back gardens to cultivate flowers and vegetables, room for pets, a washing line with poles, and grassy playing space. Luxury!

Three large bedrooms upstairs provide room for an expanding family (ours increased by two); plus separate bathroom and toilet. Downstairs, a welcoming vestibule leads to a kitchen, dinette and living room, plus an inside coal bunker in the back lobby. A profound and welcome change from the two rooms, kitchen and bathroom shared in George Square with Dad’s father and unmarried sister, Mary. Even although we were better off than the majority of Scotland’s population living in tenement flats of either one room and kitchen houses or ‘single-ends’ (a single room with a communal toilet and bathroom at the end of the hall), the cramped conditions of George Square meant Mum and Dad couldn’t wait to move out.

The bed-cabinet, Aunt Mary’s bed for years in George Square and latterly shared with Catriona, now only used at New Year when the family came to stay to celebrate Hogmanay. The ‘hole-in-the-wall’ bed, a unique Scottish adaptation to alleviate overcrowding, not missed either. Papa slept in this bed set in the wall cavity in the kitchen, which may have contributed to his deteriorating health. Research shows it caused shocking health problems, particularly respiratory disease. Poor housing, poverty, and ill health — the struggle for men to make ‘a living-wage’— a common story in a capitalist society and borne out by statistics. Most Clydeside families watching How Green Was My Valley empathising with the characters’ lives and struggles.

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Despite the limitations of black and white technology, which realistically depicts the bleakness of the lives of Welsh coal miners in the years between the first and second world wars, the film reveals the magnificent grandeur of the Welsh valleys. The story unfolds of a little boy growing up in a large caring family. His father comes home covered in black dust after a physically demanding day down the coal mines. My father comes home covered in black dust after a physically demanding day shovelling coal and driving steam trains as a locomotive driver. he works hard to support our big family, which for a long time included his father and sister.

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The film on the BBC is free from the advertisements that irritate my parents, and for once, Mum is happy our eyes are ‘glued to the screen’. However, I’m devastated when the father dies in the film. Overcome with sadness, sitting on Dad’s lap, the privileged throne for the youngest in the room, I sob into his shoulder. Grateful for the large man’s handkerchief he extracts from his trouser pocket, I give ‘a big blow’ at his suggestion and snuggle into his strong arms trying to imagine what life would be like if he died. A memory stirs of our first year at Braeside. The sadness of Aunt Mary’s long illness and death; followed a few months later by my Papa’s stroke and death. I don’t want life to be like that and cling to Dad’s woollen pullover to anchor him to me forever.

The living room cosy from the embers of a glowing coal fire and the subdued light of a standard lamp, but a November gale rages outside, a fitting backdrop to the tragedy witnessed on the television and mirroring my mood. Mum leaves Dad to console me and heads to the kitchen to prepare a bedtime Bovril. Dad suggests a piggyback up the stairs to bed, in a ploy to stem the flow of tears. Attempts by the others to ‘jolly me up’ abandoned immediately to race ahead in noisy competition. Iain piggy-backs George with a giggling Catriona as helper-cum- boss.

Instead of taking me straight to bed, Dad pauses on the landing at the top of the stairs. He thinks I’m shuddering and scared of the thunder and pulls back the pink floral curtains from the window. ‘Look, love, don’t be frightened. You’re safe inside. The storm is moving back out to sea.’

My hazel eyes stare at the window watching our breath steam the glass. I can just see the dramatic dance being played out over the tiled rooftops of neighbouring houses and across the heather clad hills. Shredded black capes of clouds flap across the sky driving icy rain to sparkle like crystals while bouncing off roof tiles and tree branches stripped bare of leaves.

Suddenly, as if by magic the wind runs out of puff; the rain eases. Supported by Dad’s strong arms, I caress the soft smoothness of his neck with my cheek; let eyelashes gently scrape his ears and feel his hair tickle my nose. Safe and consumed with a powerful love I breathe in the familiar fresh soaped skin, hair faintly Brylcreamed; a shirt collar impregnated with his perspiration. He smells so alive that the fear of losing him recedes.

His soft voice explains that lightning causes thunder. He talks about extreme heat, expansion, shock and sound waves, reminds me to read again the book What is Weather that I won for being first in my class at Ravenscraig Primary School. However, this is not school and staring into the darkness, I see thick, menacing, black clouds hiding the moon and stars. The foggy window’s tear-streaked glass shares my sorrow. I shiver, unsure whether the shadow hovering by the street lamp is a bat. I cling to Dad’s strong back and whisper, ‘I love you Dad. Don’t ever go away.’

With a surprise twirl, I’m swung around to sit on the windowsill, cold glass pressed against my back; transfixed by Dad’s dark brown eyes as he explains, ‘every living thing has a life cycle… I have to die one day darling.’ My horrified face crumples. He tries a joke. ‘If nobody died the world would be very crowded – eight in the bed everywhere, every day.’

He’s trying humour by recalling our special Sundays as a family. Sunday, the only day he doesn’t go to Ladyburn Depot to work for British Railways. The Sabbath important: we must rest, just as God rested on the seventh day after creating the world. For years, Dad has refused the lucrative double time he could earn by working on a Sunday. He swaps shifts with others so that he can honour his commitment to God, St Ninian’s Church, and family.

On Sunday mornings, we dive into Mum and Dad’s double bed for a rough and tumble, a tickle, and games such as I Spy and my Aunt Jane Went On Holiday. When it’s time to get up to prepare for church Dad sings, ‘There’s eight in the bed and the little one said,’ and baby Rita chants ‘roll over’. Then we all sing, ‘and we all roll over and one fell out,’ and of course the first one out is Mum as our raucous fun continues.

Down the stairs Mum pads, to light the coal fire, set the porridge on the gas stove, fold our underwear into the linen press to warm against the hot water pipes, set the Formica table for breakfast and buff our leather shoes lined up at the back door. The weekly ritual to be in our Sunday best, a triumph of organisation with only one bathroom and toilet to share, yet we make the nine o’clock family service at St. Ninian’s — and are never late – despite the local Church of Scotland where Dad is an Elder and Superintendent of the Sunday School, being a good half hour walk away. Our attendance records an amazing feat of achievement only rivalled by Mum’s similar success shepherding us out the door, on school days.

Mum’s nurturing taken for granted. It’s years before we reflect on how she was able to function on only a few hours sleep, rising with Dad’s soul-destroying shifts to ‘see him out’ and staying up ‘to see him safely home,’ while coping with the demands of motherhood, housekeeping routines and all the unexpected trials and tribulations of caring for in-laws as well as our big family.

In the kitchen, Mum clatters dishes, stirs pots and feeds the toaster with a loaf of bread, while the singing continues, until Dad and Rita are the last downstairs. A joyful family tradition, but the remembering only emphasises what a loss Dad’s death will be. I sniff and stifle a sob. Dad realises his mistake and tries another tack.  ‘I won’t be alone, Mairi. I’ll be with Jesus in Heaven and your Papa and Mamie will be there too.’

Shattered, the tears flood as if someone turned on a tap. I don’t want to be left lonely and sad like the boy in the movie. I don’t want to be reminded that people you love disappear. My chest heaves with wracking sobs. I’m conscious of moonlight reflecting off George’s glasses as he peeps from behind the bedroom door he has pushed ajar to see what’s going on.

The pain of my heart beating so fast it blocks my throat makes it hard to swallow. Red eyes ache as if full of grit; I rub my face into Dad’s shoulder transferring tears and snot, but he doesn’t mind. I want to bury myself beneath the blankets of the three-quarter bed I share with Catriona; forget the film, forget the storm, forget Dad’s attempts at making me feel better. Catriona doesn’t like me on her side of the bed, but perhaps tonight she’ll let me cuddle into her back…

‘Are you okay, Mum?’ Mary Jane places a tiny hand on my chest and pats it gently. Her other hand dabs at my tears with a tissue.  ‘Are you thinking of Papa?’ Her sympathy reflects an intuitive perception beyond her years.

These last few months have seen Dad deteriorate physically and mentally. At 76 years old, he’s a comparatively young man, in a society where we are being told seventy is the new sixty. However, an inexplicable, inexorable, inexpiable struggle with dementia is faced daily and I revisit the fear and pain of that long ago night each time a piece of music, a cooking smell, a photograph, a snatch of conversation conjures vivid images as if burnt into memory with a branding iron. Memories of a strong loving dad, not the shell of a man I visit in hospital or the nursing home where he resides and where I visit my future – perhaps. None of us has a crystal ball or knows how we’ll age!

The storm eases and the grandfather clock in the hall chimes seven o’clock. ‘Yes darling, I think about Papa all the time.’

The storm is over. Mary Jane eases from my grip. She kisses me again and notes my tear-stained face with concern. ‘I’m always thinking of Papa,’ I whisper.  She wraps her nine-year-old arms around my shoulders and buries her head into my neck, squeezing as tightly as she can.

‘I love you, Mum; I’m sorry about Papa. I wish he was safe with Jesus.’ My body wilts and I unashamedly sob just as I did all those decades ago.

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Literary Non-Fiction – Marrying Creative Reminiscing with Factual Events when Writing Memoir

Nonfiction is a very old genre. Go back to The Confessions of St. Augustine. For so long, individuals have attempted to understand how one lives and what one is to make of one’s life…

There is a bit of self-congratulations in “literary nonfiction.” One reason I prefer it is because it embeds the work in a tradition and a lineage. Instead of implying this is something new, it says this type of writing has been around for a long, long time. In English literature, there is the great tradition of the English essay, with Samuel Johnson, Hazlitt and Lamb, Robert Louis Stevenson and de Quincey, Matthew Arnold, McCauley, Carlisle, Beerbohm, and on into the twentieth century, with Virginia Woolf and George Orwell. By saying you write literary nonfiction, you’re saying that you’re part of that grand parade.

Phillip Lopate, 2008

This week I’m struggling to write a piece for the celebration of the life of a dear friend, Margaret who is not expected to survive much longer, in the palliative care ward of Calvary Hospital. Too frail to be moved as planned, to Canberra’s hospice, Clare Holland House, she has been shuffled in and out of  ICU, but is now in a private ward crammed with flowers and cards, where she can say goodbye to a constant stream of visitors, the attention and outpouring of love a tribute to how many lives she has touched here and overseas.

We flatted together when I  lived in Canberra attending ANU, we waitressed together at the Staff Centre on campus, we shared tragedies and triumphs, attended demonstrations for Aboriginal Land Rights and Peace, shared a love of reading, history and travel.  I’m eternally grateful for some of the memories we created together including some valuable life lessons on my road to maturity.

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Always practical, Margaret helped me through a devastating crisis offering more than sympathy and emotional support. A few years older than my twenty years, her wisdom and care saved my life and sanity.

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Her friendship, one of Life’s blessings, as was the opportunity to fly to Canberra recently and spend four days with her and some other friends, before her health deteriorated.  Three friends have been stalwarts since I was eighteen, now they have a bedside vigil of indeterminate length. Thankfully, in the digital age, I’m kept informed daily – sometimes more often – via text, email, and long telephone conversations as we try to make sense of this time in our lives.

When a group of friends of many years face the disintegration of their circle, it’s like facing the imminent death of a sibling – sometimes worse because most families grow apart, develop separate lives whereas friends can be constant and consistent. My Mother, who was fond of quoting her own father used to say: God gives you your relatives, but thank God he allows you to choose your friends. 

And so, living in a surreal time-zone, waiting for the inevitable telephone call, I’m frozen with indecision, grieving the loss of Margaret already and yet nurturing a minuscule fragment of hope that somehow a miracle will happen and the last six weeks have been a bad dream. It is déjà vu – my friend Caroline’s death 2001,  husband John’s death 2002,  Dad’s death 2005 and Mum’s death 2009 – with myriad funerals in between of friends and distant relatives. I seek solace by the sea and visit Stony Point where we’ve scattered John’s ashes and where, when it’s time,  I too will feed the fishes, travel with the tides… a quiet, serene place of solitude that never seems to change…

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I often visit Mordialloc foreshore and find an early morning or evening walk the most beneficial – an unsurpassed meditation time.

Mordialloc Beach 2013

Mairi Neil

The day is calm. Tranquil. A great-to-be-alive day. Eucalypts and pine trees compete with salty air and the whiff of abandoned seaweed.
The blue-green sea a mirror for fluffy clouds of whipped cream. Dainty dollops on a pale blue plate. Gulls sit or glide atop this glassy sea. Bathed in white sunlight I imagine I too drift and dream.
In the distance palm tree fronds tremble casting lacy shadows on hot sand. The clink of moorings and creak of masts drifts from the Creek and a sudden gust of wind whips sand stinging legs and face. Airborne seagulls now screeching origami kites.
A dark veil unfurls from the horizon shattering the grey-green mirror and my peaceful contemplation. Waves lap and soap around my feet as I retreat to the shelter of eucalypts and pine, the taste of salt now bittersweet.

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At this point in time, creativity is at an all-time low.  I’m so grateful I have students and classes to encourage and inspire me to shake out of the doldrums.  Whether it is memories stirred or the confronting reminder that my breast cancer could easily metastasise like Margaret’s, or facing ageing and worrying about unfinished business, or the reminder of past losses and grief – my spirits have been depressed with energy levels just enough to complete necessary tasks – the inner well dry and desolate.

Several years ago, I started teaching memoir and classes to encourage others to record life stories and think about their legacy. In the process, I’ve written thousands of words reflecting on my own life, family history and my parents, along with poems and short stories. This blog is another way of  leaving a legacy for my daughters – writing down thoughts and events, ideas, memories and dreams in essays, short stories, anecdotes and poems – like an online journal, but not just stream of consciousness or venting – more focussed on what I want to express at  a particular time, or about a particular experience.

All the reading I have done about the memoir genre explains it can be about anything personally experienced, or a life event significant enough to want to retell, or it can simply be a snapshot of a moment or a description of a person, place, or thing in your life –  that’s what I tell my students  – and so it is true for me too!

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I hope I can do justice to Margaret’s legacy when the time comes and be privileged to hear what she means to others.  Eventually, the sun will shine inside me and I’ll feel joy because the sun rises each day as Mother Nature reaffirms life each morning.

The reality is that you will grieve forever. You will not ‘get over’ the loss of a loved one; you will learn to live with it. You will heal and you will rebuild yourself around the loss you have suffered. You will be whole again, but you will never be the same. Nor should you be the same, nor would you want to.

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and John Kessler

Sun Facts and Why Australia, the Sunburnt Country may Not like You!

I love a sunburnt country, A land of sweeping plains, Of ragged mountain ranges, Of droughts and flooding rains, I love her far horizons, I love her jewel-sea, Her beauty and her terror – The wide brown land for me!

My Country: Dorothea Mackellar (1885-1968) and recited by the poet on Youtube

I have what is considered ‘a Celtic pelt’ and because of this ancestry and genetics I’m categorised as high risk for skin cancer. In fact I’ve already had one brush in 1983, which resulted in two Squamous Cell carcinomas being removed.

I had just turned 30, had an overseas trip planned with my soon-to-be-husband John, so took the diagnosis in my stride – partly because it all happened so quickly and unexpectedly. My efficient GP, Dr M, now retired,  sent me to a plastic and reconstructive surgeon, Mr K whose excellent ministrations left almost undetectable scars.

In fact, what I remember most about the experience, apart from relief it wasn’t melanoma, was the follow-up visit, to give the ‘all-clear’. The surgeon showed me a photographic album of reconstructed noses. He offered a discount saying, ‘I can make you beautiful, you don’t have to go through life looking like that…’

Well, what could I say?

I refused his offer, of course, John and I being perfectly happy with the nose I’d been born with, plus even with a discount, the price would have meant cancelling our forthcoming overseas trip – and that wasn’t going to happen – I’d had enough surgery and pain.

However, like all writers I mined the experience and entered one of the first writing competitions held by the Anti-Cancer Council of Victoria, in 1995 and my short prose, Beauty is More than Skin Deep, was chosen to be displayed at the Daffodil Day Art & Literary Exhibition, Melbourne Central. I met the late Bryce Courtney who was one of the judges and an Australian author at the height of his popularity.

Short story displayed at Melbourne Central Shopping Centre

The competition was a good exercise in writing to a word count and to a theme, but it also made me more aware of skin cancer and the need for prevention. When John and my daughters accompanied me to the launch I didn’t realise how confronting the day would be – the poems and stories had been printed on giant posters and decorated the walls of a very busy section of the shopping centre. Talk about putting your work out there!

The late Bryce Courtney

In 1998 I had two more stories published under the auspices of the Anti-Cancer council’s Daffodil Day Awards, but this time in a book, Together Alone – slightly less confronting than having posters on a wall.

cover Together Alone

Today I nurse a throbbing toe and await the result of a biopsy because I’ve had cause to revisit my skin cancer experience. I’ve received exceptional care from  the Peninsula Skin Cancer Centre who are being on the safe side, but it’s a timely reminder of the following facts:

  • 2 in 3 Australians will be diagnosed with skin cancer by the age of 70
  • Skin cancers account for about 80% of all new cancers diagnosed each year in Australia.
  • Each year, Australians are 4 times more likely to develop a common skin cancer than any other form of cancer.
  • Over 750,000 Australians are treated for skin cancer each year – that’s over 2,000 people every day.
  • Around 2,000 Australians die from skin cancer each year

As the Sunsmart campaign insists “Australia has some of the highest UV levels in the world: in fact UV radiation is strong enough to cause sunburn in just 11 minutes on a fine January day.”

They advise, “In Victoria, the average UV is above 3 from September until April and sun protection is required during the daily sun protection times. The average UV is below 3 from May until August, so sun protection is not required.

It is common for people in my age group to worry about skin cancer, a lifetime of sun exposure and some unwise and risky behaviour in our youth guarantees many of us will have the unglamorously named barnacles, or sun spots, freckles and moles.

Fortunately, my brush with skin cancer made me more aware as a mother, and my children had the sun smart message reinforced by the popular Slip Slop Slap Campaign, which this year celebrates 35 years protecting Victorians. The girls never played outside without sunscreen, a hat, and their shoulders covered.

Anne & MJ in sandpit

This video was made on the 30th anniversary and brings back many memories of one of the most effective public health advertising campaigns in history. Armed with statistics and personal experience I campaigned for my daughters safety when they went to kindergarten and school. Long after my children left, the local kindergarten still distributed copies of an article I wrote on the importance of being sun smart. When my children went to school, I wrote letters and campaigned for compulsory hats, altered sports timetables and changed lunch breaks. Words can be powerful and make a difference!

The Cancer Council of Australia encourages people to become familiar with their skin, including skin not normally exposed to the sun.  Please consult a doctor if , like me,you notice any change in shape, colour or size of a lesion, or the development of a new lesion.

My latest escapade may prove to be a keloid scar injury or  a wart, or something more sinister, but I am being pro-active. I may also write creatively about it!

Limericks, Laughter and Lessons – Form Poetry is Fun!

Poetry is what makes me laugh or cry or yawn, what makes my toenails twinkle, what makes me want to do this or that or nothing.

Dylan Thomas

Poetry can, but does not always, involve rhyme, rhythm and metre. Poets use words to share experiences, tell a story or express feelings or ideas. Poems are verses that may be spoken or sung. They have many different purposes:  to amuse, to entertain, to reflect, to inform, to educate or to pass on cultural heritage.

Limericks are form poetry with a purpose to amuse. They are five-line poems using rhyme and rhythm to enhance their content.  Usually humorous, they have a twist or surprise in the last line. They are brief and lend themselves to comic effects. Limericks consist of three long and two short lines rhyming pattern: aabba. Rhyme and rhythm are used to enhance the content.

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Lines one, two and five rhyme with each other and normally contain a three beat metre.
 Lines three and four rhyme with each other and contain a two beat meter. Lines three and four are usually shorter than the other lines. This predictable rhyme and syllable pattern contribute to the rhythm and flow of the poetry. I love introducing limericks to my writing classes. -It is a good way to introduce the value of rhyming dictionaries (now available free online). And encourage planning – think of what words you will use to rhyme, then fill in the lines of the poem! Especially if you are going to use people’s names or topical words to create an aa-bb-a rhyming pattern.  (John, Shawn, fawn; Bob, Rob, sob; Ron, Dawn, lawn; Carol, barrel; Cheryl, Beryl feral; Tammy, Sammy, whammy…)

Here are a few of mine –

In Bentleigh a writing class meet
On Tuesdays each other they greet
memories mined
words they find
To produce stories that are such a treat

There once was a writer of tales
who amassed enormous sales
her secret she said
was take to your bed
Explicit stories about sex never fails

Caroline’s a nurse working night shift
who must balance her time with thrift
when patients sleep
a journal she keeps
For writing flash fiction plot twists.

Nurse Caroline’s shifts are at night
Staying awake is a frequent fight
she can’t pop pills
as solutions to ills
So drinks brandy and gets really tight

In Victoria, our Premier Napthine
suddenly wants to be seen as green.
He’s done a deal, he said
to stop possums being dead
but conservationists are not so keen.

There was a Prime Minister called Abbott
whose lying became quite a habit
his policies were trite
delivered in sound bites
broken promises as common as rabbits

Have you heard of global warming?
No longer will bees be swarming
the frogs have croaked
the deserts are soaked
And polar ice caps have stopped forming.

The stereotyped subjects of limericks are usually intended to be humorous or regarded as timely warnings. The origins of the Limerick shrouded in mystery, but researchers suggest it goes back before Christ to the Greek comic poets.  A description of a chariot accident translated as:

An amateur driving too fast,
from his car to the roadway was cast,
and a friend kindly said,
as he banged his head,
‘Mr Cobbler stick to your last.’

The word officially entered the English language via the Oxford Dictionary, in 1898, defined as ‘indecent nonsense verse’. Although, it had been around for centuries and in many other languages – including old Irish. There is still a debate whether ‘limerick’ did come from Limerick!

The light verse has ‘light’ subject matter, parodies other poems, or makes serious topics comical. It doesn’t have to make sense or have a point beyond making a sound and having rhythm. Just like the nursery rhymes or children’s verse you read or learned in childhood – many of which are seriously politically incorrect once they reach the playground and are adapted. Many limericks attack the authority of the church, lampoon politicians and are great outlets for protest. A limerick embraces every topic, territory and temperament. It can be indecent like an off-colour joke, encompassing all the follies, failures, fortunes, fallacies and foibles of humanity.

However, the Limerick has a fixed form and is often bawdy, especially in the hands of a master comic poet like Edward Lear. Part of the charm of the Limerick is the surprise, the sudden swoop and unexpected twist of the last line, but Lear often ignored the whiplash ending to create a variation of the first line. His AABBA rhyme scheme often has the last word in the first and final lines being the same. The metrical scheme is easy to pick up with practice by reading limericks aloud and writing them. First and second and last lines normally 8-9 syllables, third and fourth has 6, but like any poem – it is up to the poet if they want to adopt or adapt as they create!

Above all have fun – I certainly do!

In Mordi a group of writers meet
On Mondays, each other they greet
Memories mined
Words they find
Producing stories that are a treat.

Emily travels to class with Michael
Riding tandem on her new bicycle
Wanting to be posh
She tried a car wash
Emily’s bicycle is now a tricycle

There is a writer called Jane
Who went to Singapore by plane
She jumped on the wing
Like a canary did sing
Flight attendants declared her insane

Amelia nursed new babes for years
Helping mothers conquer their fears
Imperfect mummies
Spitting dummies
And so often collapsing in tears

Each Monday Tori arrives by cab
Her Sikh driver a man never drab
A smiling fellow
In turban yellow
And many other colours so fab

A woman called Jan liked to write
and often woke up in the night
she liked to croon
by the silvery moon
Her stories inspired by dawn light

Doreen’s a top student of writing
and her stories she adores reciting
her computer has Dragon
‘cos her eyesight’s flaggin’
it talks back if the plot’s not exciting

Impermanence, Inevitability and Dying with Dignity.

Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

Steve Jobs

The telephone call comes out of left field. Tragic news to wreck quality time with a dear friend, yet it  is also a dear friend on the other end of the mobile.  My eyes sting with welling tears, but remain focussed out of the window of the Malt cafe in Beaumaris. I watch two young mums chat animatedly on the footpath. Relaxed and smiling they are probably enjoying the freedom of the first day of the school year; the little darlings who kept them busy all the summer holidays tucked into classrooms. Another couple on an outside table feed their Golden Retriever tidbits from their plates.

I’m surrounded by the chatter of other customers; the cafe almost filled to capacity. The aroma of  fresh muffins, fruit toast, and homemade jam mingles with my skinny latte and Lesley’s extra strong cappuccino. However, normality dissipates as I absorb the details of the call.  My body trembles. I feel as if I’ve been punched in the stomach and as usual Tamoxifen blesses me with a hot flush as anxiety peaks and emotions rage.

The day takes its first lurch into the surreal.

I’m on my way to celebrate a friend’s retirement from decades of teaching. She’s treating several friends to lunch at Sierra Tango, Cheltenham instead of us paying and hosting the celebration for her! The generosity of the invitation indicative of her warm, supportive personality and the venue a tribute to her knowledge of gastronomy, appreciation of fine foods and wine, and a commitment to support local businesses. Determined not to spoil her day, I seal my tragic news into an emotional compartment to be dealt with later…

I remember a poster I had on my wall at Burgmann College in 1971, when I lived on campus at ANU; my first year away from home. A poster long since eaten by silver fish when it was consigned to the garden shed, but there’s graphics with the same message – a sightly more colourful way of describing “left field”:

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The telephone call from Canberra, from a friend from those university days. She can’t keep shock and horror from her shaky voice.  A mutual friend, someone I shared a flat with in the 70s, is dying. She  was the first non-family member I lived, worked and studied with – we even shared the double bed that came with the one-bedroom unit – and thought nothing of it!  She’s now on borrowed time. How could this be?

A voice laced with tears explains that a late discovery of inoperable breast cancer, treated with letrozole, has metastasised to the groin and brain stem. The condition kept secret for two years, while she spent time travelling overseas and going through her bucket list. Now, she is in palliative care, her time to live numbered in weeks rather than months – or only days if she experiences a seizure or rapid deterioration of the brain.

I shared a picture of all of us at the Harmonie German Club in Canberra in 1973 in a recent post.  Tall slim M centre stage. She can’t be dying – and not of breast cancer. This news too confronting and scary. I think back to the old house we shared, living in one of the three apartments it was divided into.

I shiver. This news means all of the women living in that house, including me, have breast cancer: one double mastectomy, two single mastectomies and now M with metastatic breast cancer! Bad luck? Coincidence? A cancer cluster? A problem for another day…

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During the celebration lunch I receive another phone call with news that a European friend who had stayed with me early January had to have an emergency eye operation in Sydney because of a detached retina. There’s a danger she’ll lose her sight. This super fit friend, a world-renowned marathon swimmer came ninth in the Pier to Pub swim at Lorne this year. She’s supposed to be leaving Sydney for her home in Italy with a stop in one of Thailand’s resorts, but is now delayed in Australia until doctors allow her to fly.

The day has taken its second lurch into the surreal.

On my way home, I have the Serenity Prayer playing in my head as I try to put the sad news into perspective and decide on a course of action.

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The next day I’m in Canberra and over four days catch up with many old friends from university, make some new ones, and spend hours with M as she adjusts to the affects of radiotherapy and having only a limited time left. She copes well with the steady stream of people who want to help in some way, as well as say goodbye. The adage ‘bad news travels fast‘ proving true.

The busyness reminds me of  my husband John’s last days – the irony of  a  busy vibrant house,  comings and goings, laughter and noise, feasts and endless cups of tea and coffee yet someone is dying.

We share meals, laughs and stories. I spot photographs in an album – and snap copies with my camera.

 ‘Those indeed were the days my friend,’ I say,  ‘we had a lot of fun!’ M agrees. I listen as she describes the highlights of her overseas trips and of her intention to travel again. Deep down we both know another trip will never happen.

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Before I leave I water the plants and pick flowers to brighten inside.   M manages to negotiate back steps with some help and watches me water the garden, pointing out several special plants that came from other people’s gardens, or were received as gifts.

‘This can’t be happening,’ she whispers and I know she isn’t talking about my watering efforts. She alludes to her parents’ longevity, father ‘Digger’, dying a few years ago aged 93, her mother living into her 80s.

Her head shakes slightly, ‘I thought I had 23 years before I had to worry about all these decisions … what to do with things … ‘ Her voice trails off as her eyes drink in the beauty of flowers flourishing from the effect of an unusually cool Canberra summer that’s provided higher than average rainfall.

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I help her back inside wondering if this will be the last time I will feel the weight of her arm. The last time I brush fallen hair from her shoulders as her scalp reacts to the radiotherapy.

Why is the sun still shining? The magpies trilling? Laughter drifting from nearby apartments…

I recall a speech from one of the many Aboriginal women in our friendship circle. She thanked M for all the books she bought her children over the years, the encouragement to access education. ‘One son got his PhD last year, all my girls have tertiary qualifications – thank you from the bottom of my heart.’

Others repeated similar sentiments. ‘You may not have any children of your own, but what you have done for our children means they are yours too!’

The seeds we sow. A wonderful legacy indeed, but I wish she had another 23 years to sort out her life… I want the last few days to be surreal. I want someone to wake me up and say it was all a dream.

That (wo)man is successful who has lived well, laughed often, and loved much, who has gained the respect of the intelligent men (and women) and the love of children; who has filled his(her) niche and accomplished his (her) task; who leaves the world better than he (she) found it, whether by an improved poppy, a perfect poem, or a rescued soul; who never lacked appreciation of earth’s beauty or failed to express it; who looked for the best in others and gave the best he(she) had.

Robert Louis Stevenson

Congratulations, Rose Batty – Let us All Raise Our Voices and Condemn Family Violence!

I want to tell people that family violence happens to [anybody], no matter how nice your house is, no matter how intelligent you are.

Rose Batty, Speaking on February 14, 2014

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I feel as if I have been campaigning against domestic violence all my adult life, but perhaps at last there will be concrete and recognisable, change. In the early 1970s, the Victorian Women’s Liberation Movement put sisterhood into action and established women’s refuges for women and children escaping family violence. I worked at Maroondah Halfway House, a refuge in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne where I grew up, and the second such refuge in Victoria.

I have used my writing skills to raise awareness of this issue by writing articles, poems, short stories, and a one-act play I wrote, The Bitter End, was performed at a Domestic Violence Forum hosted by the UAW 2004.  Family and friends have experienced family violence – it is tragic, far reaching and personal!

In 2012, Maroondah Halfway House was recognised for their work in preventing and addressing homelessness at the inaugural National Homelessness Services Achievement awards in Canberra, but how sad it still exists, and so many more houses, are necessary because of the increased scourge of family violence!

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As a member of the Union of Australian Women, I’m glad that at last there seems to be a concerted effort in Victoria, not only to spotlight domestic violence, but actually do something to tackle a longstanding problem in our community.  The new Labor  Government has announced a Royal Commission into Family Violence, and the trade union movement, the Union of Australian Women and many other groups played a hand in making this decision happen.

On April 12th 2014, a small dedicated group of UAW members gathered to hear Jennifer O’Donnell-Pirisi the VTHC Women’s Officer speak on the topic of Domestic Violence. Jen is a member of UAW and has been VTHC Women’s Officer for six and a half years. Her passion and commitment to women evident as she talked, and although the topic is one we discuss regularly, Jen provided fresh and astounding information.

uaw southern branch 12th april 2014

In 2008, she met with then Victorian Minister Morand and several academics to discuss inserting a Family Violence Clause into industrial awards and agreements to enable affected workers to apply for paid leave when necessary. Gillard Government federal ministers Macklin and Shorten supported funding for academics and union representatives to gather information to enable this to happen.

We all think we know the statistics but they still shock. Jen revealed that 60 women a year are murdered because of domestic violence and 20 children a year are also victims. (The tragedy of Luke Batty  put domestic violence in the spotlight and has led to Rose being Australian of the Year 2015.)

Victoria has the highest rate of domestic violence in Australia and even accounting for the fact more women are reporting the assaults,  it is an epidemic and we are not alone trying to deal with this issue. In Italy, a woman is murdered every 48hours, and in some countries husbands have the right to beat, rape and even murder their wives.

Between February and July 2011, the Australian Domestic and Family Violence Clearinghouse (ADFVC) at the University of New South Wales conducted a national online domestic violence and workplace survey. The survey on the impact of domestic violence at work was completed by over 3600 union members. A full copy of the report is available on the website.

Key findings were:

The majority of the respondents were women (81%), two-thirds were in full time employment and nearly two-thirds (64%) of the respondents were aged 45 and older.

Nearly a third of respondents (30%) had personally experienced domestic violence.

Nearly half those who had experienced domestic violence reported that the violence affected their capacity to get to work; the major reason was physical injury or restraint (67%), followed by hiding keys and failure to care for children.

Nearly one in five (19%) who experienced domestic violence in the previous 12 months reported that the violence continued at the workplace

The major form the domestic violence took in the workplace was abusive phone calls and emails (12%) and the partner physically coming to work (11%).

The main reported impact was on work performance, with 16% reporting being distracted, tired or unwell, 10% needing to take time off, and 7% being late for work.

45% of respondents with recent experience of domestic violence discussed the violence with someone at work, primarily co-workers or friends rather than supervisors, HR staff or a union representative.

48% of respondents who had experienced domestic violence did disclose the violence to a manager/supervisor, though only 10% found them helpful.

For those who did not discuss the problem at work, the major reason given was ‘privacy’, followed by reasons of shame and fear of dismissal.

Over one third of all respondents who had experienced domestic violence reported the violence to the police. 25% of all respondents who had experienced domestic violence had obtained a protection order, but less than half (41%) included their workplace in the order.

Only 14% of those who had experienced domestic violence are still living in the relationship, and only 40% are still living in the family home. Below average numbers (54%) of the respondents who had experienced domestic violence were currently living in mortgaged homes; above average (32%) were living in rented properties.

All respondents thought that domestic violence can impact on the work lives of employees (100%) and a high percentage (78%) believed that workplace entitlements could reduce the impact of domestic violence in the workplace.

For those unfortunate to experience, or live with family violence the responses to the survey would not surprise; they’d recognise the extremes in workplace response:

My workplace swept the whole incident under the carpet – I felt totally unsupported.
(Co-workers) were very supportive of me, and this included accompanying me to court, inviting me to stay at their homes, signing affidavits.

Therefore, the much overdue Family Violence Clause gained a 7 Star Rating and was endorsed by the ACTU Congress.

ACTU Principles : 7 Star Rating System

Dedicated additional paid leave for employees
Confidentiality of employee details must be assured and respected
Workplace safety planning strategies to be developed
Provide referral to appropriate DV support services
Appropriate training for nominated contact persons
Access to flexible workplace arrangements where appropriate
Protection against adverse action or discrimination

The clause recognises the issue only, union representatives are clear during negotiations that experts must be involved. Leave must be certified and evidence based, involving:  doctors, police, counsellors.

Effort must be made to work out safety plans for employees such as relocation, or varying start and finishing times. Flexible work times are important, especially in places where there is no obvious security or swipe card access. People working in large public places such as hospitals, libraries and schools are particularly vulnerable. Statistically, women who are pregnant, especially during the final stage, are the most at risk.

By 2009, 1.3 million workers had the benefit of a Family Violence leave Clause in their workplace agreement.(It is called Family Violence in Victoria and Tasmania, other states call it Domestic Violence.) In 2010, Victoria became the first state to give paid leave (an employee of a council). The maximum anyone has taken off is a week, and on average the leave is half a day. It is not leave that will be abused, it must be certified.

The clause is world’s best practice, quoted in New York by the UN, with Canadian, New Zealand and European unions lobbying for similar paid leave and using the Australian model and the survey findings as support. In Germany they have paid leave for rape and victims of sexual assault, but Australia led the world seeking acknowledgement that domestic violence is not a private matter – women are murdered going to and from work.

Unions are lobbying to get the clause put into the Fair Work Act and hopefully the new government in Victoria’s response is better than the previous minister Wooldridge whose calendar was apparently so busy she couldn’t meet with Jen. The Minister’s advisor also said the clause would be too costly for the public sector to implement!

Currently, it is the private sector and enterprise bargaining achieving success. Modern industrial relations and practice must reflect modern life. Domestic Violence is the biggest contributing factor to homelessness for women under 45. It is a myth that it is only one particular class or cultural group affected and Rose Batty emphasises this too.

If the clause is in the Fair Work Act it means women are protected. They need to feel safe at work and at home. Work protection is empowering and an incentive to stay employed. Family violence often leads to precarious employment and disruptive work history. This clause challenges employers and work colleagues to acknowledge harassment and stalking, to support women who disclose violence at home. They need support and many women say if they had been asked to disclose the true situation they would have – this clause allows work colleagues to be a witness and support for these women.

There are many contributing factors to family violence, but the biggest factor is the need perpetrators have for power and to exercise excessive control. Women know the triggers: often alcohol and drugs but many men abuse even when they have not been drinking.

I hope the current government begins to improve  support services for family violence victims, including secure housing, ongoing counselling and a preventative education program in schools and does not just wait for the result of the Royal Commission. They should also publicly support the union movement’s push to insert Family violence Clauses in all awards.

VTHC FAMILY VIOLENCE CLAUSE

1 General Principle
(a) That Victorian Trades Hall Council (VTHC) recognises that employees sometimes face situations of violence or abuse in their personal life that may affect their attendance or performance at work. Therefore, the VTHC is committed to providing support to staff that experience family violence.
2 Definition of Family Violence
The VTHC accepts the definition of Family violence as stipulated in the Family Violence Protection Act 2008 (Vic). And the definition of family violence includes physical, sexual, financial, verbal or emotional abuse by a family member.
3 General Measures
(a) Proof of family violence may be required and can be in the form an agreed document issued by the Police Service, a Court, a Doctor, District Nurse, Maternal Health Care Nurse, a Family Violence Support Service or Lawyer.
(b) All personal information concerning family violence will be kept confidential. Information will not be kept on an employee’s personnel file without their express written permission.
(c) Understanding the traumatic nature of family violence the VTHC will support their employee if they have difficulties performing their tasks at work. No adverse action will be taken against an employee if their attendance or performance at work suffers as a result of experiencing family violence.
(e) The VTHC will identify a contact in human resources, union Shop Steward or go to person who will be trained in family violence and privacy issues, for example, training in family violence risk assessment and risk management. The VTHC will advertise the name of the contact.
(f) An employee experiencing family violence may raise the issue with their immediate supervisor, their union delegate/shop steward or Human Resources.
(g) Where requested by an employee, the contact person will liaise with the employee’s supervisor on the employee’s behalf, and will make a recommendation on the most appropriate form of support to provide in accordance with sub clauses 4 and 5.
(h) The VTHC will develop guidelines to supplement this clause and which details the appropriate action to be taken in the event that an employee reports family violence.
4 Leave
(a) An employee experiencing family violence will have access to 20 days per year (non accumulative) of paid special leave for medical appointments, legal proceedings and other activities related to family violence. This leave will be in addition to existing leave entitlements and may be taken as consecutive or single days or as a fraction of a day and can be taken without prior approval.
(b) An employee who supports a person experiencing family violence may take cares leave to accompany them to court, to hospital, or to mind children.
5 Individual Support
(a) In order to provide support to an employee experiencing family violence and to provide a safe work environment to all employees, the VTHC will approve any reasonable request from an employee experiencing family violence for:
(i) changes to their span of hours or pattern or hours and/or shift patterns;
(ii) job redesign or changes to duties;
(iii) relocation to suitable employment within the VTHC;
(iv) a change to their telephone number or email address to avoid harassing contact;
(v) any other appropriate measure including those available under existing provisions for family friendly and flexible work arrangements.
(b) An employee experiencing family violence will be referred to the appropriate support services/agencies and/or other local resources.
(c) An employee that discloses to Human Resources or their supervisor that they are experiencing family violence will be given a resource pack of information of current support and referral services.

There have been, and are, so many amazing people working to improve the lives of women and children affected by family violence. It is beneficial for those of us who feel we’ve been struggling forever to remind ourselves social justice campaigners are many – we are not alone.

Let’s hope that Rose Batty’s voice  remains  strong and her campaign and wise words are heard often this year so that her wish to see positive change is granted.

Family violence] is an entrenched epidemic that we’ve lived with since time began, so we’ve got a long way to go. But I do believe the tide is turned. It’s no longer a subject that only occurs behind closed doors

Ms Batty after receiving her Australian of the Year award on January 25, 2015.