Writing Wellness Into Habits To Improve Health

first-light

Last week, I attended an annual ‘exclusive briefing’ by the Commonwealth Bank for Ongoing Service customers. This is the fourth or fifth I’ve managed to make and I always choose the Grand Hyatt venue because it is the closest someone on my income will ever be to the luxurious surroundings and lovely lunch they put on – a glimpse into the world of the bank’s overpaid top executives!

the grand hyatt collins street.jpg

The idea of a free lunch  – especially from a bank – appeals to me.  Although I know it’s not really free – they have my superannuation!

The event always showcases inspirational speakers and if truth be known that is why I make the effort, and I’ve never been disappointed. In the past, I’ve heard Ita Buttrose on her research into nutrition to improve her ageing father’s macular degeneration and blindness, and Robert de Castella on his work with indigenous communities using marathon running to improve their health and self-esteem.

This year it was Dr Caroline West who enriched my knowledge about the importance of a healthy lifestyle and how to achieve it.

Dr Caroline West

On graduating, Dr Caroline West, MBBS  was awarded the prize for most outstanding achievement in community medicine and has spent her life focusing on community wellness.  

Still a practising GP, Media Doctor, Lecturer Lifestyle Medicine (University Southern Cross) and Past President of the Australian Lifestyle Medicine Association, she is much sought-after as a speaker.

Needless to say, as a writer and teacher/presenter, I took copious notes but I also wore my hat as a consumer health representative.

A brush with celebrity -Caroline and me.jpg
Brush with celebrity – me with Dr Caroline West

In fact, Dr Caroline West is a dynamo. A director of her medical practice for over 25 years, she’s mother to three teenage children, and her CV includes an extensive media career as a TV presenter and producer:

Beyond Tomorrow ( enjoyed by a global audience of 50 million through the discovery channel ) Good Medicine, Beyond 2000, 60 minutes , Sex/Life, Living Longer, Everybody , George Negus Tonight , The Midday Show, Tonight Live, Guide to the Good Life. Rural health channel (Foxtel) and Mornings with Sonia Kruger and David Campbell. She is a regular Wellness Blogger ,is the GP expert for Ninemsn and has written regularly for the Sun Herald and Australian Doctor.

banner-freelance-health-writer

I was sitting in the front row listening to the introduction for the keynote speaker. Distracted by a movement beside me, I felt Caroline sit down. When I turned, she gave  such a friendly, moonbeam smile I thought she knew me!

Oozing beauty and energy, she proved to be a consummate speaker and performer.  Bouncing up to her signature tune and slideshow,  strutting the stage with another wide smile to include everyone in the room.

For the next 45 minutes, the audience of retirees and bank employees remained enthralled. Afterwards, she listened patiently as impressed guest after guest, queued to chat and ask questions (free consultations?) and ensured her lunch delayed.

Yet, her lovely smile and enthusiasm never waned.

An Interesting Intro

Dr West bought her first practice at 25 years old. It was above a King’s Cross bottleshop. Arriving at work she’d find a body on the doorstep, people overdosing in the toilets and having seizures in the waiting room.

One of her patients who turned his life around couldn’t appear in an advert for her program because he was wanted in three states!

King’s Cross in the 1980s was, and some people say still is, the epicentre of drugs, alcohol, and violence in Sydney. However, like Melbourne’s St Kilda (pics below) there has been a transformation.

Families and retirees have moved in. A gentrification and softening resulting in the biggest change in Caroline’s 25 years. New housing developments and apartments and the changing nature of work the reasons for the transformation.

It is still a diverse community and her practice, which has grown (now employing 40 people) continues to be fascinating.

What hasn’t changed is that 70% of the health issues on her patients’ lists are directly linked to lifestyle – drugs and alcohol certainly, but also bad diet, lack of sleep and not exercising.

Caroline’s mantra:

The three major factors that affect wellness are exercise, nutrition and your mindset.

Caroline’s simple philosophy: A healthy lifestyle anchors wellness, boosts energy, longevity and peak performance.

She practices what she preaches with surfboard riding, cycling to work, walking the dog and kayaking. Her outdoor activities balanced by her love of art and music and a passion for the ukelele!

WE HAD TO STAND UP AND MOVE.  

Caroline told us to shake and do a little dance. The importance of this evident as her presentation proceeded.

We had been sitting listening to the Bank’s financial keynote speaker and would be sitting listening to her. Her demonstration of swivelling hip and hand moves proved motivational dance should be added to her CV!

c5b0159c557f9e6dc266c4e62f2bb17b.jpg

Caroline’s areas of expertise include nutrition, healthy lifestyle behavioural changes, weight management ,shared care for pregnancy, sleep, exercise, mental health, sexual health, hypnosis and preventative medicine.

She is an S100 prescriber for HIV and remains committed to the latest developments in lifestyle medicine: prevention is the key for better health. A leader in this field she communicates the latest in medical advances not only to patients but also a broader audience through her media work as health broadcaster, corporate speaker and consultant.

Universal Themes For Good Health

  • something to do
  • someone to love
  • something to look forward to

Although her speech was aimed at the audience of retirees, her advice made sense for everyone and spoke to me as a writer – especially as a middle-aged writer!

Not just examining her word choice, and how she presented, but her advice on setting goals, persistence, specific detail, planning and many other points I often talk about in writing classes.

A thought flitted through my mind – ‘physician heal thyself’ – when was I going to take my own advice?

Inspiring People To Live Well

Healthy lifestyle changes are possible. Little changes sustained day after day make a difference.

Unlock the secrets and be inspired to make those changes. Too many of us spend time thinking rather than doing

a goal without a plan is just a wish

We Took A Lifestyle Health Quiz

Q: Who gets less that 7 hours sleep a night?

  • A goodnight’s sleep important because it affects your mood.
  • Lack of sleep contributes to weight gain and diabetes.

People who sleep less, eat more. This is because of decreased levels of the hormone ‘leptin’, which regulates the appetite and helps well-rested people control their cravings for food.

  • Levels of light play a big part in establishing sleeping rhythms  
  • darkness encourages the body to fall asleep and light encourages the body to wake up.

The light emitted from devices like your TV, computer (guilty as charged), phone or even alarm clock will trigger a drop in the levels of a brain chemical that promotes sleep.

Blind people often have trouble with their sleeping rhythms because of their inability to perceive light.

34f1afd.jpg

Q: Who volunteers in the community?

Volunteer participation is proven to improve your quality of life and well-being.

SURVEY ON RETIREMENT

Men are concerned about loneliness, they lose friendship groups when they retire, don’t handle the transition from work well – the Men’s Shed Movement a powerful tool to combat depression.

For women the major worry is health. Go to pilates, yoga, a new strain of Tai chi, dance classes – whatever.

Writing classes are also great (personal plug here!) for learning a new skill, therapy, staving off dementia and keeping connected to a community, making friends, as well as maybe starting a new career writing or completing a family history.

6157137906001a89fbc8d1258ebc3607.jpg

Giving back to the community is proven to extend and improve the quality of life – volunteers live longer.

A study of grandparents health revealed those who helped out at local schools encouraging reluctant readers and helping in the library program.

  • Reduced blood pressure
  • Increased brain function
  • Reignited pathways in brain
  • Removed cobwebs and improved ability

images-5.jpg

Q: Who exercises regularly?

  • What is good for the heart is good for the brain.

Don’t underestimate the transforming power of exercise. It reduces the risk of Alzheimer’s by 45% !

Therefore, exercise 3 times a week for the elixir of youth because 3 times a week for an hour improves your mood, your looks, and your memory.

  • Fitness makes you feel energetic, positive and confident.

Walk more. Look for movement at every opportunity – innovate – take stairs, walk or dance when doing housework – 30 minutes a day is all it takes.

  • Make it specific and get started.

Caroline illustrated that good health does not happen by chance – you need a plan. (Just like good writing needs to be planned and worked at!)

Creating Rituals To Anchor Our Health

Caroline shared her daily ritual – as the sun rises she walks the dog – he seeks his sustenance by sniffing and snuffling, connecting with other dogs, she ends the walk with a coffee in a favourite cafe after chatting with other regular dog walkers.

Early Morning
Mairi Neil (1992)

I love walking in the early morning
That time when the moon and sun
Don’t quite agree whose turn it is
To light the world.

The air smells fresh and clean
The grass soft and moist with dew
The birds have deep, throaty chirps
Proclaiming the new day.

There is a quietness in the streets
Households awaken behind closed doors
Lights glow through drawn curtains
Water burbles in drains.

Cats return home from a night of prowling
Padding softly along pavements
Up driveways, or lie curled in doorways
Awaiting breakfast.

Dogs eager for morning walks
Sit expectantly behind locked gates
Imprisoned and impatient
They growl or bark.

A jogger runs past sweating
Although stripped to the waist
Determination and single-mindedness
Etched on his face

The whistle of a train triggers
The level crossing bells
Signalling rumbling on the rails
Peak hour has begun.

Time to return to rouse sleepy children
Prepare for a new school day
Crumbs on the table
A welcome sign of family life.

sunset USA

Whether you go to the sea and discover what kind of day it will be, or to the park and meet other dog walkers who talk to each other, it is a positive way to start the day.

Walking a dog brings many important lifestyle features together – encouraging you to walk, connect with nature and people, explore paths and nature walks, learning something new.

Walk after work, or in the early evening to relieve stress.

always-activity-on-a-beach

If no dog, maybe sign up for dance lessons, Tai Chi, volunteering – humans need to be connected to improve our health and wellness.

Walking In The Evening
Mairi Neil (1992)

Walking the dog each evening
Should reduce any excess fat
Because Goldie really walks me
Pulling this-a-way and that!

We trot briskly up MacDonald Street
To the footie oval and surrounds
Goldie snuffles, runs, lopes and sniffs
Her restless energy knows no bounds.

Following this endless exuberance
I allow my thoughts to roam free
Aware of damp grass, the rustling trees
Clouds altering above a distant sea.

One night clouds are mashed potatoes
Bursting amidst a jaded dinner plate
Another night perhaps creamed cheese
Ricotta – the type you never  grate!

Other times clouds could be steam
Escaping bubbling cauldron or pot
Perhaps a mist rising on stage
In some tricky theatrical plot.

The sky may have rainbow streaks
Stretched yawns of a retiring sun
Mauves, golds, apricots and pinks
Vibrant colours every brilliant one.

But most evenings the clouds meander
To drift lazily across the wondrous sky
During the day they may have raced,
Crashing together and spinning by.

Like Goldie, they barely pause before
Merging to fade and move away
Darkness falls, Goldie pulls at her lead
We head homewards at the close of day.

Little Steps Rather Than A Grand Gesture

Q. Why do New Year Resolutions fail?

The number one  new near resolution is to lose weight, especially after the indulgences and over-eating at Christmas.

However, Caroline suggests a resolution like this is too big and won’t succeed. Whereas small changes make a profound difference to your health.

If implemented, small changes can be highly effective. They have a knock-on effect for self and others.

Writers know the value of learning the  craft, writing consistently – maybe only 100 words a day and building up to thousands. Anne Lamott’s book, Bird by Bird an excellent example of this.

Emotional eaters often pile on extra kilos so make a decision to be more active –

  • perhaps as few as 600 – 1000 extra steps a day.
  • Choose smaller dinners (but make sure half your plate is always fruit and vegetables)
  • avoid alcohol at night (no ‘self-medication’, going straight home from work, skipping the gym because you’re too tired, but walking in the door and having a big glass or two of wine.)
  • aim for more sleep.(Anyone who has been sleep-deprived with a young child will know how that in itself can lead to a low mood and grumpiness!)

Studies asking what people want as they age revealed:

  • a safe place to live,
  • financial security,
  • to prevent cancer,
  • have no aches or pains
  • enjoy time with grandchildren.

 

CAROLINE’S CASE STUDY:

Steve 65 was overweight, an ex-heavy smoker, and diabetic at 50.

When he was 62 he was walking down the street and experienced intense indigestion, went clammy and felt severely ill.

  • He was having a heart attack.
  • He realised he had a lot to live for – his grandkids keep him buoyant.
  • He turned his life around because his health is about energy to cope with grandkids –and he wants a girlfriend.

Waiting for a crisis like Steve is a high-risk strategy.

Imagine where you want to be in 5 years time.

Money and security are important but health and capacity to enjoy life more important.

Caroline showed a picture of her grandfather in Royal Navy garb looking healthy on the deck of a ship.

He was born in 1903, a period where one in seven children died.

A time of no antibiotics and lots of viruses. The average lifespan for men was 47 years old, women 49 – (the audience including me shuddered).

The biggest killers were diseases such as gastroenteritis, pneumonia, and flu. Spanish flu devastated that generation.

In 1918, 42% of the planet was affected. 50 million people died – three times the number killed in WW1.

Flu Vaccination is important today. Remember that Spanish flu took out young healthy adults.

Today we live longer because of:

  • antibiotics,
  • vaccinations,
  • surgery,
  • transplants
  • better knowledge of benefits of nutrition

There has been an incredible change in medicine and medical practice.

Technology has changed too – the first mobile phone referred to as a brick. Today a mobile can do everything and fit into your pocket.

In the western world, we are a complicated highly connected society.

However, not all inventions have been good for our health. Caroline picked on the elastic waistband as one because it ensures we don’t know if we are gaining weight – makes our clothes too comfortable! (Oops – guilty as charged!)

  • We are supersize now – food and everything else.
  • We are living longer but living with chronic conditions.
  • Almost everyone 50 plus is managing a form of arthritis.

We’re living longer, but with more years of poor health

POSITIVES:

  • Smoking rate has reduced
  • Heart attack rate reduced
  • Lifespans improved.

NEGATIVES:

Chronic disease is affected by lifestyle factors:

  • cancers 71%

  • stroke 70%

  • heart attack 87%

  • diabetes 91%

CAROLINE’S TAKEAWAY:

Lifestyle equals medicine. Daily walking, even slowly, helps.

Think of 3Fs:

  • feet,
  • fork,
  • foregoing

Cut down on what you put on the fork,  eat and drink less of the unhealthy foods, and use your feet to walk/run/dance – move.

 If you start your morning with a breakfast muffin and a coffee, you are essentially having the same amount of calories as a Big Mac and a small Coke – that’s 530 calories!

Improved lifestyle helps with the big health issues older people face:

  • prevention of dementia
  • prevention of heart disease
  • prevention of diabetes

Caroline’s father died of dementia at 75. (My father died of dementia at 83)

When you’ve witnessed a parent struggling, deteriorating and ultimately dying of dementia you live with the fear that one day it may be you.

Pharmaceutical companies are going gangbusters to find a cure for Alzheimer’s – the next big drug breakthrough for them.

But Caroline’s presentation wasn’t about drugs, rather it was about personal effort and control of your own health by improving lifestyle.

Activity trackers

It is usually safe to get your heart rate up (check with your doctor if you are concerned), because exercise is protective,and aerobic fitness important.

Think of exercise as an opportunity, not an inconvenience

Exercise must be specific to get started on the journey to better health choices.

  • Most people agree there is a 50% gap between recall (memory) and reality.
  • Use it as a motivational tool to walk anywhere between 600 – 1000, 6,000 – 12,000 steps daily (the higher number facilitates weight loss)
  • Start low, go slow, build up
  • Strength training builds muscles – do resistance training once a week.

Better to get your progress monitored if you can’t focus at home so join a club, gym, or class.

health-wellness-and-fitness-O0jr3r-clipart.jpg

THE BUS EXPERIMENT

In England they did an experiment with workers:

They monitored driver and conductor’s health on the double decker buses.
Drivers had a much higher rate of heart attacks.

Conclusion:

You need to move – every 30 minutes – important more than ever in sedentary jobs and for those (like writers!) sitting in front of computers.

  • Sit for 20, stand for 8 and move for 2. Put music on and wiggle, walk around the office or the house.
  • Exercise and movement part of treatment for chronic pain.
  • If you get up to move around at regular intervals it will increase concentration, mood and the ability to remember information.

Sitting is the new smoking

Remember! Make exercise specific – write a note and put it somewhere prominent (writers should be good at this!):

I will this week do (activity)  At this (time) and (place)  With (my friend/dog/alone)

Technology provides lots of Apps now to improve the performance of activity trackers (even on your mobile phone) and to help with lifestyle – Caroline smiled when she gave the example of one called Spreadsheets – a tracker for sex – the ins and outs, the sounds – sex is a great exercise! (Let’s hope Steve has some luck looking for a girlfriend.)

Screen-Shot-2013-07-30-at-2.54.28-PM.png

HOW DOES AUSTRALIA COMPARE WITH OTHER COUNTRIES?

Healthy zones have been studied in countries like Japan and Greece to discover why some populations are more healthy.

  • They eat well – mostly plants and small portions of fish.
  • They move – they integrate activities in their daily life
  • They connect – friends and family come first – this proves to be an incredibly powerful tool for health, fostering resilience and improving mental health.

Caroline finished with a gardening metaphor – focus on getting the lawnmower out regularly, then do the weeding.

Develop a clear vision – and then take the first step. And remember medicine is not just about medication and surgery!

As a writer/teacher,  Caroline’s keynote address was a reminder to look after my own health, curb bad habits like sitting too long without moving but also apply her motivation advice to writing practice:

  • tackle writing projects in little steps,
  • be consistent and write every day
  • keep the final goal in mind and have a plan!
  • And value our health above all else

bradbury

No dark fate determines the future – we do. Each day and each moment, we are able to create and recreate our lives and the very quality of human life on our planet.

DALAI LAMA & DESMOND TUTU

 

Holiday Games Banishing Stress With a Toolbox of Fun

john and anne 1986 1.jpeg

I love this picture of my husband, John with daughter, Anne. In 1986, he may have been the Secretary of one of the largest and most powerful trade unions in Australia but he was also a new father, albeit second time round.

And the second time around he had his priorities right. Whenever he came home, or if I met him after work, he switched off, and lived in the moment – moments of love and joy, concentrating on family and where and how we fitted into the big picture of Life.

This week is the anniversary of John’s death and as usual reflection and memories of our time together are more intense but I’m always grateful for the many gifts John left me. The most important of course being our two beautiful daughters, but also his wisdom about taking the time to value what is really important in life:

  • the respect and love of those you hold dear,
  • the difference you make in their lives,
  • and the legacy you leave for them.

Begone Stress!

“I find it makes life a lot easier if you just forget a lot of stuff you’re supposed to be doing.”

JK Rowling

Me an ET Sydney 2014.jpg

We never took advantage of the perk of having our home telephone paid even although many times calls were work-related. We chose to have a silent number, more expensive but unlisted in the telephone directory. This helped to separate home and work, especially random calls from the media, plus abusive calls and death threats – although unfortunately some of the latter got through.

It wasn’t a perfect system but a thousand times better than today’s mobile world where everyone is urged to be contactable regardless of where they are – the flexibility to work marketed as a plus, feeding the idea that we are indispensable and therefore don’t switch off. Add the 24-hour news cycle and social media platforms like FB and Twitter and in some cases, it is a perfect storm for anxiety and overwork.  

I dread to think how different some of the tough periods we experienced could have been in today’s world. It is a brave person who puts their hand up for a job requiring time in the public eye.

A child pretending to talk into a phone has become children as young as pre-schoolers actually having a proliferation of digital tools for entertainment, including computers, game consoles, phones, and iPads. 

Childhood a different experience than when my daughters were young. I’m not sure if many modern children learn how to switch off or disconnect. This may be a contributing factor to the high rates of anxiety and depression we hear about.

images.png

I must factor in a proper break – I know a failure to do this has consequences – my body tells me that in no uncertain terms. In the last few weeks, I’ve experienced the extreme effects of a bout of labyrinthitis – not the ideal way to slow down but the illness leave you no option.

Holiday Games

In my healthy world, there are lots of books to read and word and writing games to help me slow down and relax, as well as a variety of craft which I enjoy.

I have a Scrabble buddy, Helen, and the girls and I enjoy board games like Cluedo (we have various boutique variations) but my all-time favourite is Sequence ( a combination of cards and poker chips). I also love crossword puzzles and now use these as a preferred way of switching my mind off to drift into sleep.

By the time term ends, I figure everyone is looking to wind down and have some fun so I step out of the normal lesson structure and encourage free-fall writing and see what eventuates.

America has produced innovative writing teachers along with amazing writers. We may bemoan the changes they have made to English spelling and grammar but there is no denying they have also enriched the English language and culture. The best writing games I have come from the USA.

images-4.jpg

I have several games I’ve bought online but also a couple that I’ve discovered in Melbourne shops. Serendipitous finds that I share with my writing group or classes.

Memories of Mordialloc Writer’s Group’s traditional Christmas get-together before the summer break still makes me chuckle as I recall the weird, wacky and wonderful stories produced.

In many of my end of term classes, it is the same.

Outrageous first lines, off-the-planet characters, ridiculous plots, absurd settings – a toss of the dice or a random choice that forces you out of your comfort zone. Pushes you in directions not attempted before.

Permission to be fanciful, funny, and free of being politically correct, or following accepted structures and expectations.

14316882_10158094063825377_790145542479657339_n

Amazingly, a gem may be produced, an idea salvaged to be usable or a memorable entertaining story to remind us how wonderful manipulating words can be.

We’ve been told often enough there are only seven basic plots, seven archetypal themes recurring through every kind of storytelling whether ancient myths, folk tales, plays, short stories, novels, movies or TV soap operas:

  • Overcoming the Monster
  • Rags to Riches
  • The Quest
  • Voyage and Return
  • Comedy
  • Tragedy
  • Rebirth

We also know the hero has a thousand faces and we must always be at war against cliché!

However, for a few minutes, in my last classes for the term, we race against time, let all the rules and tools of crafting fiction we’ve absorbed loose, and have some fun – stereotypes and clichés abound or may disappear.

Mid 19th century: French, past participle (used as a noun) of clichér ‘to stereotype’.

They are very similar. A stereotype is a generalization, it’s usually considered negative, and is oversimplified. Oxford uses “the woman as the carer” as their example of a stereotype. Not all women are “carers” so it is a stereotype. A cliché is any word, phrase, situation, or idea that has become so popular it is tired and overused. It can be a stereotype, but it can also be a fact. Popular phrases can be cliché, a stereotype can be a cliché or even common things in poetry can become a cliché, like the very overused “babbling brook” “pouring rain” or “everlasting love.”

Lizzy

The Writer’s Toolbox

This term, we used The Writer’s Toolbox, a game I picked up in Readings, St Kilda, for a mere $14.95 last September. A bargain I’m still crowing about.

20160918_135313-1.jpg

A box of fun guaranteed to banish stress and clear writer’s block – and to paraphrase Star Trek – your imagination travels where you’ve never been before!

We didn’t have time to use the game to its full extent because lessons are finite but I cherry-picked parts so we had the opportunity to share everyone’s delightful masterpieces.

We also bent the rules – some managed to use every prompt they were given, others used some and others altered their lines or words to suit their story. That’s what is wonderful about writing games – the only rules are imagination and that moving pen!

20160918_135522-1.jpg

I’ve listed my prompts and the bizarre flash fiction result follows.

First sentence: (To start with a surprise) My brother did this weird thing with turtles…

NonSequitur: (a surprising transition) … that weekend in Duluth

The Last Straw: (to create a dramatic arc) … “We were drinking champagne and losing our shirts.”

Three Sixth-Sense cards: (reminders to include the senses)  fresh floor wax; the toenails of the yoga girl; the smell of Susie’s leftovers

 FLASH FICTION IN 30 MINUTES

Fijian Fantasy by Mairi Neil (590 words)

My brother did this weird thing with turtles when he was drinking. I’m not talking tea or coffee, of course, but the hard stuff. Straight whisky – shots Jack called them.

After a few shots, he’d balance the turtle on his head, sway forwards so the turtle slid down his neck, disappeared into his ghastly, fluorescent shirt, and I don’t know how, because they’re the slowest creatures I know, but the darn thing popped out the front of his shirt the minute he straightened up – much to the surprise and applause of the audience.

Jack wasn’t on a stage, of course, but in a bar. Any bar, makeshift or otherwise. One of many found in the Fijian Islands where he’s lived for the past eighteen years. Needless to say, his audiences all mad or as drunk as him. It wasn’t the life our conservative parents envisaged and they clung to a belief Jack would, as father often said, ‘grow up and get a real job.’

But tropical sunsets and island life suits Jack and he can sing too. He’s made a precarious living entertaining the tourists with his weird turtle act and Frank Sinatra voice – until that weekend in Duluth.

Duluth, outback Australia, the most boring place on earth, but where my parents decided to retire and request brother Jack and I turn up for their 50th wedding anniversary celebration.

When Jack received the invitation, he said it was more of a royal command and spoiled the promise of the best relationship of his life. ‘We’re drinking champagne and losing our shirts,’ he boasted. ‘Susie’s teaching me yoga and my body’s discovering positions I never knew possible.’

‘Too much information, Jack!’ I said, ‘And you have to be here. Now get on a plane with shirt, minus turtle and be in Duluth by Tuesday.’

He never showed.

The oldies were devastated and I was despatched to Fiji to check Jack was okay. He’d fallen off the radar since our last conversation.

I arrived at his house, well shack really. (The smell of Susie’s leftovers still cling to my nostrils.) Jack told me she had a penchant for kippers and hash browns. Neither were clean freaks because the place looked like the aftermath of a hand grenade explosion. I doubt if Jack could find a shirt for turtle act or anything else among the piles of gaudy floral clothes. By the smell, they may even have taken root.

I discovered toenails of the yoga girl strewn like red confetti on the bathroom floor. I assume they were hers unless Jack kept more secrets from the oldies. My blood pressure rose along with my temper but as I turned to leave, I spied a scrap of rainbow-coloured paper fluttering on the fridge door.
When you’re ready to leave turtles and shots meet me at Hotel Marau

On arrival, at the swankiest hotel on the island, you’re assaulted by fresh floor wax, sparkling mirrors, polished mahogany tables, and an ambience of soft piano music, tinkling water fountains and slippered feet gliding on parquet tiles.

Jack’s dirty shambles existed on a different planet so I almost fainted to see him on stage, his dinner-suited elegance crooning a la Frank Sinatra.

A glamorous woman, oozing chiffon and bling, sat at the front table enthralled, red fingernails tapping a martini glass. Susie, the yoga girl?

A wedding ring glittered on her finger matching the one on Jack’s hand clutching the mic.
Duluth may not be amused but at least no turtles or shots in sight.

YOUR TURN NOW:

Here are a few examples of some of the First Line prompts. Find a quiet spot and see what your imagination produces.

  • Your Mother lied to you, that’s the truth!
  • I have this system for getting exactly what I want out of people.
  • Dad gave me a wink like we were pals or something…
  • I loved the way she said ‘balloon’…
  • He swore on his mother’s grave but then he swore on just about everything.
  • There I was just standing there…
  • My only defence was to write down every word they said…

 

Happy Holidays!

 

 

Resisting The Fear of Terror, Trump and Tempestuous Times

oak tree exhibition gardens.jpg

 

In a world of instant news, we seem to be inundated with horror, and as the well-known dictum suggests: Bad news travels fast.

A couple of days ago, I received an email with news I hadn’t yet heard. It was from my dear friend Tanja, who now lives in Italy.

Last night a crazy guy shot many persons in Munich. My children are all well. They live in the center of Munich. I feel very sad for this crazy world.’

I sighed with relief  while feeling tremendous sorrow and heartbreak for those who had suffered!

Since then, the number of dead and injured in Kabul has risen, there have been more incidents in Iraq, ongoing carnage in Syria, and fearful repercussions of what may or may not have been a well-organised coup in Turkey while the people still recover from suicide bomber attacks. And more shootings involving police and African-Americans in the USA.

building a better world peter marshall.jpg

I’ve mentioned before how privileged I feel to have the world of my writing and teaching to keep me sane and grounded in reality. A reality that there is only a small percentage of human beings committing these acts of terror and violence, but we must all work towards a solution to stop people feeling angry and disenfranchised, or forcing their view of the world on others.

Irresponsible political leaders and celebrities like American Donald Trump, Britain’s Nigel Farage and Australia’s Pauline Hanson peddling the politics of fear, ignorance, lies, and hate in the West and multiple groups and leaders fighting for power in the Middle East – the place we are led to believe is the origin of current acts of terror – can’t be allowed to define who we are.

Limericks Against Loose Language

There’s a presidential hopeful called Trump
From Australia, he looks quite a chump
He speaks in platitudes
With aggressive attitudes
Yet, his popularity is not in a slump!

So many seem to admire Donald Trump
Because ‘political correctness’ he’ll dump
But dissecting his words
Reveals policies absurd
If he wins ‘stop the world’ let me jump!

In Oz, we have a female version of Trump
Pauline Hanson is back with a thump
Fear she’ll expand
’All Muslims banned’
But ask for the logic, and she’s gazumped

Pauline’s no stranger to misinformation
Founding the ironically named ‘One Nation’
She nurtures division
With xenophobic precision
Be welcome as long as you’re not Asian!

mornington and marshall quote.jpeg

Study History and be Informed

If you have lived over six decades, like me,  you’ll remember the prolonged bombings, murders, and plane hijacks by nationalist groups such as the IRA, PLO, Spanish ETA, not to mention others with perhaps a broader agenda like the Red Brigade, Baader-Meinhof , American Weathermen, the Front de libération du Québec and too many guerrilla groups in South America and the African continent  to list. Who can forget Pol Pot, the Tiger Tamils, extremist groups in India, Pakistan, Indonesia and Burma, the plethora of groups involved in the Vietnam War, China’s Cultural Revolution, the Sarin Gas Subway attack in Japan … and the list goes on

Google isn’t the only source of knowledge and shouldn’t be but it is a good start if you type in any of the above struggles, countries, or causes.

Turmoil and tempestuous times are not new but having instant access on our phone which we carry everywhere means we have difficulty escaping from whatever circulates on social media as well as mainstream news.

Bigger television sets with clearer satellite images and on the spot reporting beamed into our homes, every doctor, dentist or hospital waiting room, pub, shopping centre and anywhere else people gather, ensures 24-hour shock and horror with often limited context or facts. Creating and marketing fear second nature to some sections of the media.

May we… be part of the answer, and not part of the problem.

This quote, also from the Rev.  Peter Marshall  was on a plaque above our mantelpiece when I was growing up. My parents shared a lot of the values of Peter Marshall, which was not surprising because they were Scottish Presbyterians before coming to Australia and joining what became the Uniting Church.

dalai lama quote.jpg

I was lucky to be brought up with what I consider good core values, particularly in regard to social justice and belief in equity and the priority of peace. My parents were Christians who acknowledged that others, as well as their own children, may not necessarily have the same views. They may not have celebrated our drift away from their religious practices, but they accepted it.

Dad spent his life studying and questioning the tenets of his Christian faith. He was a deep thinker and loved philosophical discussions.  I’ve inherited some of his books, including one about Comparative Religions, which he encouraged me to read when I was studying Eighteenth Century history in my final year of high school.

We listened to the Boyer Lectures on the ABC together and had great discussions on the wide-ranging  topics covered.  Dad read and listened to tapes by the Rev. William Barclay, who many considered preached heresy. He loved debating aspects of religion and church life and read and admired Paulo Freire. Sometimes discussions could be prolonged, passionate, even heated and sometimes ended with agreeing to disagree!

In today’s world, voices of religious fundamentalism of various persuasions and fanaticism want to dominate. We could do with more people like my father.  Dad enjoyed seeking and sharing knowledge, having a respectful debate, not only being tolerant but accepting different religious and spiritual beliefs.

images-1

The world does seem crazy, so I focus on the wellbeing of family and friends, celebrate birthdays and achievements, share coffee catch-ups with past students and close friends, enjoy the seasonal changes of my garden.

I throw myself into the various volunteer events I enjoy. (Next weekend is Open House Melbourne.) I’m glad the discussions and laughter shared in writing classes are meaningful, life-affirming and a source of joy – and we all love the writing time.

peter marshall quote

 

My Five Memorable Experiences This Past Week To Keep Me Singing and Wondering:

  1. I receive a delightful and humbling thank you email plus a gorgeous gift from past student Trish when we meet for lunch. She had created the mini garden just for me and sent a lovely poem by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross.

present fro Trish

 

Journal Newsletter

2. I prepare a book for publication by a beautiful woman who has helped many people find peace in meditation and yoga. She wants to leave a legacy of her life’s journey, which is a triumph of survival against barriers, cancer, and other life events that would have defeated others. Julie Wentworth’s, A Life Shared will be as treasured as her first book, Love & Light.

3. I attend two consumer focus groups with people like myself determined to make our health system the best it can be.

(a) One to help the Cancer Council’s  Quit Campaign improve its approach and be more effective and advise on the language used on their website.

(b) One to improve quality and safety in our hospitals with the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) Quality and Safety Framework Consumer Focus Group at the Health Issues Centre.

4. I spend a Saturday afternoon with Karen Corbett one of the best theatre/drama teachers in the business learning to improve my play-writing skills to submit a monologue to Baggage Productions annual Madwomen’s Monologues. Shortlisted two years ago I will keep trying in the hope my work is performed.

5. Two long-standing writing buddies and dear friends help me workshop a novel started in 2008 (!), abandoned when I was diagnosed with cancer –  but now ready to be resurrected. I am so blessed having valued critics with amazing writing talent. When the three of us get together we have a lot of fun as well as work hard  workshopping our words.

Writing Class
Mairi Neil

A library of imagination
Pens fill blank pages
Words arranged and stacked
Released to the public
Knowledge laced with fantasy
A choice of genres
To receive a stamp of approval

I hope after reading this post people can count their blessings and perhaps create a list too! A great buffer against negativity.

 

Anniversaries and Birthdays Come too Soon

mum 16 years old.jpeg
Anne Brown Courtney 1937

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

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

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

belfast's darkest night.jpeg

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

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

Belfast Blitz a Sijo by Mairi Neil

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

270px-AIR_RAID_DAMAGE_IN_THE_UNITED_KINGDOM_1939-1945_-_H_9476.jpg

Mum’s Memories:

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

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

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

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

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

There had been a raid the week before.

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

images.png

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

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

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

showpic2.php.jpeg

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

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

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

_48995530_blitz9.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

market street mortuary.jpeg

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

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

Belfast-blitz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Annadale street.jpg

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

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

Oh up from the Bally streets.

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

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

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

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

‘Oh my goodness,’ I said.

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

Where are you going?

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

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

evacuees.jpg

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

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

hospital blitzed.jpg

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mairi-Neil-2-mum-and-mairi-300x237.jpg

Without Mum, another Sijo

Mairi Neil

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

 

download

A Poetic Portrait -NaPoWriMo Challenge Day Two

Unknown.jpeg

I checked the NaPoWriMo website for the daily (optional) prompt, a challenge to write a poem that takes the form of a family portrait.

You could write, for example, a stanza for each member of your family. You could also find an actual snapshot of your family and write a poem about it, spending a little bit of time on each person in the picture. You don’t need to observe any particular form or meter. Happy writing!

I read their poet for the day to see if any inspiration in style could be found – or even an idea of where to start. The second day and I’m already having doubts about whether I should follow the prompts (the challenge part as I see it) or just post a verse inspired each day by random thoughts and experiences.

Our poet in translation for today is Indonesia’s Toeti Herati. Born in 1933, she started publishing in her early forties, and her work is known for its feminist bent, using irony to expose Indonesian culture’s double standards. Very little of her work is available in English, but the Poetry Translation Center has posted English versions of seven of her poems online, and also offers a dual-language chapbook featuring her work.

A Woman’s Portrait 1938 by Toeti Herati

The painting conveys her exquisite taste:
ear studs, bracelets, green and yellow selendang;
the sash conceals her pregnancy.
The death she is carrying can’t be disguised.
The life she carries will grasp and cling on.
Yearning, restlessness and the turmoil of fear
are not recorded in the brush-strokes,
pencil outline of a face
surrendering to the flow of history.

The painting, with its final brilliant gesture,
only fully reveals this face
when it is framed by memory.

July 1989

“It’s hell writing and it’s hell not writing. The only tolerable state is having just written.”

Robert Hess

I searched for a family photograph. I’ve been sorting my collection recently – albums, boxes, envelopes – thousands of pics taken over the years, although I never owned a camera until I was 20 years old!

Instamatic54X2Pimages.jpeg

The Kodak Instamatic, popular in the 70s.

There are probably many albums floating around with badly focused snaps taken from too far away, in poor light and with background and even the tops of peoples’ heads missing. However, the ease of pocket cameras and quick snapshots thrilled a generation introduced to colour photography. The Instamatic a step-up from the Brownie  camera.

I received my Kodak as a birthday gift from my godmother, Ina when travelling in Scotland.  Over the years, I moved on from that little cassette-driven machine that gave me a taste for photography.

I’ve photographs inherited from my Dad who was a keen and excellent photographer. He mainly took black and white film, but also developed, enlarged, and printed the shots at home. I blame him for my photographic bug.

Rather than procrastinate over which photograph to choose, I picked one I came across the other day that stirred a lot of memories. It was taken on my 50th birthday in August 2003.

the girls and me 2003 copy.jpeg

The setting, a surprise party my daughters organised, fulfilling a promise made to their father in one of their last conversations together. John died a month after my 49th birthday, which passed almost unnoticed. He was gravely ill, life was bleak, our household in no mood for celebrations.

However, he’d discussed with the girls that the following year was my ‘big five o’ and they’d give me a surprise party. After he died, the planning to do something to cheer me up and show their love probably took on the proportions of the epic movie Ben Hur!

What a big task for two grieving teenagers!

Mary Jane and Anne were only 14 and 17, for my 50th. Sensibly, they sought help from their godmothers – my older sister Cate and younger sister Rita – but the bulk of the organising was their doing.

They found my address book – an old one as it happened – and sent invitations to everyone they thought should come. Needless to say, many of those folk I hadn’t seen in years, some were acquaintances not close friends, and there were others who should have been in the book but their details were only on my computer, or scraps of paper elsewhere so they missed out!

The party indeed a surprise, the guest list even more so and the reunions, conversations and celebration a surprising night full of even more surprises! Get the picture?

How all the thoughts stirred by this family portrait will become a poem  a conundrum – especially at short notice. I believe in writing, rewriting, editing, rewriting, polishing etc ad nauseum.

Participating in NaPoWriMo a challenge indeed. Throwing raw material to the public is cringeworthy but I’m sure good for improving creativity if done often enough!

Family Portrait 2003
Mairi Neil

The four Neils, now three
Mary Jane, Anne, and me
Staring into the camera lens
Ten months after John’s death
And we smile…

How can this be?

A deathbed promise kept
By teenagers who proved adept
At organising a surprise party
Grief boxed for the evening
to be unwrapped later…

The three of us often wept.

Mary Jane, my Thursday child
Withdrawn reclusive – not wild
Anxious and scarred by loss
The balloons a metaphor
For PTSD and inner struggles

Her hazel eyes undefiled.

Anne, my Saturday child smiles too
Leans towards me with eyes so blue
It could be John staring straight ahead
But we all know our rock is dead
Anne his ‘princess’ masks her grief

Fragile as an autumn leaf.

Behind my too bright eyes
Posed pleasure at the surprise
A wall of stoicism holds firm
The ‘hostess with the mostess’
Never admitting life is grim

The closure people seek, just lies.

Looking at the  adolescent faces
The smiles have banished traces
Of the trauma and sadness of loss
The troubles overcome and still to go
Resilience shines, our love for each other

I’m so proud to be their mother.

 

afabf5cce61bee1873448e80c5ca442f.jpg

 

Sometimes poems have to be put in context. I don’t like making words or ideas deliberately obscure – the reader or listener should understand what you mean without searching through encyclopaedias or dictionaries.

However, cultural nuances can make the writer’s intentions a mystery and so an explanation for mentioning the days my daughters were born can be found in a nursery rhyme my mother often used to recite to help us remember the days of the week.

The Old English nursery rhyme “Monday’s Child” is a poem based on the days of the week
first recorded in 1838 Traditions of Devonshire.

Monday’s Child …

Monday’s child is fair of face,
Tuesday’s child is full of grace;
Wednesday’s child is full of woe,
Thursday’s child has far to go;
Friday’s child is loving and giving,
Saturday’s child works hard for its living;
But the child that is born on the Sabbath day
Is bonny and blithe, and good and gay.

Tradition holds that you can predict your child’s temperament based on the day of the week they were born. Numerous versions of the poem exist, with both positive and negative connotations (thank goodness) associated with each day.

In the 1887 version of the Monday’s Child poem, published in Harper’s Weekly magazine,  it is actually Thursday’s child “who works hard for a living” with Saturday’s child having “far to go”.

Thursday children have a long, successful life ahead of them. Sometimes, “far to go” is interpreted as meaning a difficult path, such as children with special needs. However, traditional versions focus on the concept of positive abilities and talents that will take them far in life, rather than attributes to overcome.

Saturday children are hardworking, responsible, and dedicated. Sometimes “hard” is interpreted as difficult or struggling. However, traditional versions view hard work as a positive trait, as opposed to “lazy”, indicating Saturday’s children are passionate about their work and make lasting contributions to the world.

Mary Jane and Anne have all the positive traits of the predictions. Life has provided the negatives, the struggles and obstacles, but they both work hard and will go far and achieve, even more than they have already.

Their close relationship will ensure they cherish each other and me.

I look at the family portrait and the poem and hope I’ve captured our love and devotion. I doubt a casual observer would see any of what I’ve said in the poem but then we don’t always write poetry for the general public.

Please feel free to critique or spend the time rummaging through your own photographs and pondering on the memories or message they might hold.

And pick up your pen and write!

 

Dominoes Down, Happiness Up

images-10.jpeg

On Saturday, February 6th, we didn’t encircle the world but we linked many parts of Melbourne CBD with giant dominoes. The outcome astounding, and as one member of the public said, ‘I’ve never seen the people in the city so happy.’

There was definitely an upbeat vibe.

The development of earth art and installation art stemmed from the idea of taking art out of the galleries. Involvement in the arts engages people in their community, improves self esteem and builds creative skills.

Dominoes was the third project funded by the amazing philanthropist, Betty Amsden and her Participation Program determined to do just that – engage ordinary people in a creative pursuit and improve community wellbeing.

 

with betty amusden 2 copy
Betty Amsden in middle, yours truly on right and another volunteer on left.

Dominoes by Station House Opera supported by Arts Centre Melbourne on Saturday 6 February, ticked all the boxes.

There was

  • excitement
  • enthusiasm
  • passion
  • wonderment
  • learning and laughter
  • fun and fandom (we all love Betty)
  • chatting and connection
  • in depth conversations
  • friendship making
  • and even some dancing…

At the afterparty, a new friend Rhonda found just enough energy to do a bit of rock and roll with me when I decided to take my weary body and sore feet home! Below she greets a very hot and sweaty me at the end of the line where the last structure was being dismantled outside the Arts Centre.

 

Conceived and directed by UK-based Station House Opera, Dominoes was first created as a celebration to link the five host boroughs for the London Olympics Arts Festival. Dominoes takes as its starting point the simplest of ideas – a line of dominoes – and will transform the rhythm of the city for one special day.

Thousands of breezeblocks are used to create a moving sculpture, which runs through the city, unfolding over the course of the day. Occasionally disappearing from sight and then resurfacing, sometimes pausing for sculptural performances, the line of dominoes will thread its way through historic and everyday parts of Melbourne.

To make an extraordinary event like this,  Arts Centre Melbourne needs literally hundreds of volunteers to help build the 2km line of dominoes with more than 7000 breezeblocks. Arts Centre Melbourne’s team is looking for about three hundred volunteers!

Press Release : Planet Arts Melbourne, December 2015

images-15.jpeg

The day to participate arrived and the weather forecast said the day would be HOT – 32 degrees hot!  Despite my Celtic pelt, menopausal weight gain, and propensity to perspire profusely once the temperature hits 30 degrees, I set off for the city with hat, sunscreen and the fervent hope I’d be assigned somewhere with shade.

Melbourne hadn’t sweltered for days like Perth, WA, but by the time I reached Flinders Street Station and commenced the short walk to the Arts Centre, the concrete pavement and city buildings oozed heat.

Tingles of trepidation building in my stomach exploded with joy when I discovered my assigned section for the day was Hamer Hall. Hurray! It was ‘next door’ to the Arts Centre, there would be easy access to toilet facilities and bliss, oh bliss, air conditioning.

I sat down with my Section 10 to hear the last minute pep and the all-important risk management talks feeling I’d won Tattslotto. I introduce myself to others: Alison, Jenny, Wei,Rhonda, Jeff, Ian, Colin …another Jeff…

Unfortunately, some volunteers did not turn up on the day. Perhaps the weather played a big part in this because the whisper said almost 20% failed to report, an unusually high number.(Organisers usually plan for 10% of volunteers failing to show.)

Regardless of the reasons, we were delayed setting off to allow a reshuffling of numbers. We lost 5 members to another section. I felt guilty not putting my hand up to swap sections but decided to be selfish – Fate had dealt me a good venue and I don’t tempt Fate.

At last, wearing  our distinctive  t-shirts and orange backpacks, we followed our leader Stacey to Hamer Hall where she walked us through our route and explained various roles.

2016 pics and videos 032.jpg

The venue would be open to the public at 1.00pm so there was no time to waste unpacking the blocks from several pallets and placing them in strategic spots for the set up.

The domino line would come in from Southbank and move up the stairs towards street level. The route is explained here.

hamer hall 1 copy.jpg
The entrance point with our orange kit bags : water, gloves,poncho in case it rained – fat chance!- and brochures of the route.

A reality check altered the picture I had of the task ahead. Our dominoes would start at the door but after moving through the building we had to build a considerable number outside to link up with those heading for the grand finale at the Arts Centre.

I wasn’t going to escape the heat entirely. And there’d be mega crowds because we were so close to the finish line. Thank goodness volunteers had distinctive T-shirts and Stacey and Lachlan, the section leaders had bright red tops.

I looked around at my fellow volunteers – mostly  in their 60s like me – thank goodness we had several younger men and women too. Whoever organised the groups did well.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

From the moment we started work I appreciated our friendly team and the display of commonsense, cooperation and congeniality. Although none of us had been involved in something as daring as Dominoes, most had volunteered in some capacity before. We were an eager team!

We had a lovely family with two young children. The youngest, Eliza, drowning in a much too big t-shirt while she helped me clean up the considerable amount of concrete dust that fell off each block as we manhandled them into position. Eliza held the rubbish bag open for me and was most diligent throughout the day. My little friendly shadow.

The gloves in our kits earned their keep protecting hands because with several hundred blocks to shift bare skin would have suffered. The gloves also helped our grip and although there’d been an allowance for breakages we didn’t drop one. Go team!

hamer hall 4 copy.jpg
The first flight of stairs
hamer hall 3 copy.jpg
Marble and mirrors – extra care needed!

We emptied the first pallet of dominoes with a speed that surprised ourselves. Stacey beamed, “The way to go, Team!”

Organisation the key as we spread in even distances  up the stairs and played pass the parcel with the blocks. Every 10th or 15th block left lying down just in case anyone knocked the dominoes accidentally.

Later in the afternoon outside, a little boy tested the domino theory much to his parents’ embarrassment. Jeff and Jenny fixed it in a trice.  We tried to comfort the family that no harm had been done; it was all part of the unexpected fun of the day.  However, we were glad only a few blocks had to be set up again.

Indoors required patience and persistence too. There were two flights of stairs, several general areas, plus the foyer. Surfaces varied:

  • tiles
  • marble
  • polished wood
  • carpet

And of course those fragile mirror walls!

hamer hall 2 copy

 

2016 pics and videos 035

 

The females in the group more conscious of the mess and the danger of scratching the beautiful interior surfaces. I had flashbacks to childhood:

Careful you’ll scratch that!                   Watch you don’t break that!

We carried the 8kilo blocks and manoeuvred them into position mindful of workplace health and safety rules and protected each other:

Lift one block at a time!     Bend your knees.       Mind your back!    Have a rest.         Let me help.

Hours disappeared as we worked ahead of schedule.

Before the expected public invasion, there was a short break for a tasty lunch delivered in brown paper carry bags by other volunteers. A salad roll, sandwiches, square of chocolate cake and an apple, plus fresh bottles of water. Volunteers from the section setting up along Southbank joined us, seeking relief in the coolness.

Outside was really hotting up. I discovered I’d missed a call from number one daughter who’d decided to pop by and say hello but couldn’t get inside the building and so went home. C’est la vie.

In the foyer, we had to leave big gaps for public access to the ticket counter. We carried on building to the bemusement of arriving staff. Anticipation and crowds building too.

We finished ahead of schedule, but knew once the signal was given we’d have little time to place the missing blocks into position. Betty Amsden‘s words rang in our ears. “Things will go wrong, but it doesn’t matter. Having fun does.”

A morale-boosting visit by Betty and Arts Centre Staff and some of the creative Station House Opera team from England reinvigorating. Lots of interesting interaction with the public and chats among volunteers fulfilled the participation aim of the project.

It was Chinese New Year, the city buzzed with visitors and locals. Some had heard of Dominoes, others were thrilled they’d chosen this day to explore Melbourne’s delights.

The Dominoes route coincided in part with the display of Chinese characters on the Crown Riverwalk:

chinese new year sign copy

After we’d packed up for the day I strolled along snapping as many pictures as I could but decided the year I was born, 1953, the Year of the Snake didn’t sound like it produced nice people. Oh, dear!

I put the categories in the same basket as horoscopes (horror-scopes) and clairvoyants. Negativity wasn’t going to spoil the wonderful day – one day I may check out if Celtic predictions are better!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

One of the fun parts of participation was allowing young people and others to pick up the blocks and watch the surprise or glee on their faces at the weight and texture. When they were told the blocks are given away and recycled some said they’d like one, others were glad organisations were already planning to use them.

Some children were too little to pick  up the blocks, but I found a way for one family to participate by suggesting two little boys use the wood packing strips to build their own domino line. While they were amused their parents took photos and learned about the project.

 

There was a lull in activity once our section was completed without disrupting public access too much. Jenny and I were assigned to ‘guard’ the line, particularly from cyclists cutting through to City Road. Cyclists who were supposed to dismount and who in 99.9% cases never did – even when they saw the crowd, and the blocks. Oh, dear again! (Maybe they were all born in the Year of The Snake.)

2016 pics and videos 050.jpg

The deadline drew closer – the first domino to fall scheduled for 5.00pm, the last at 5.25pm.  I wondered how the grand finale was shaping up. It seemed an incredible task to achieve in a short timeframe.

a community like a ship.jpeg

However, not only did the jobs get done but when Stacey and Lachlan announced the line had started to fall the excitement really did reach fever pitch. In fact, it all happened so quickly the 15 or so minutes it took to reach Hamer Hall seemed like seconds.

The roar of joy and anticipation as the blocks clunked and fell up the stairs to whizz past me is a few moments of drama on my mobile. And suddenly I was surrounded by a cheering, rushing, crushing scrum following the dominoes up the hill towards the Arts Centre tower.

Wow! An unforgettable adrenalin rush and an astounding success.

But for every high there is a low, what goes up must come down. In what was probably the hottest part of the day because of the build-up of heat, we began the big clean-up.

Our A-team cleaned up Hamer Hall and then some of us helped the Southbank section. It was well after 7.00pm by the time we finished but the organisers had chosen section managers well and the arduous job went smoothly.

The thank you party was in full swing when I got there and the food and bar offerings a welcome sight. I found other members of my team and watched the quick edit of the day’s events filmed by a number of volunteer film makers and photographers.

 

The project and the day were awesome with cheers of the volunteers and organisers reinforcing that as people recognised themselves or their venue on the screen. The artists, organisers and volunteers did a magnificent job. Betty Amsden’s vision satisfied and the city of Melbourne the winner.

As I walked over Princes Bridge towards Flinders Street Station I breathed in the smells of the city at night: coffee and delicious food from street cafes, the pungent manure and sweat from horse drawn carriages, the brake fluid and exhaust fumes from traffic, the scent of a thousand perfumes and deodorants – and my own sweat from a hard day.

Two women called me over to their table, wine glasses in hand.

How did you do it?’

Pardon?

How did you keep your temper.

And you were so patient!

I couldn’t do it!

You mean building the dominoes?

And keeping the crowd from knocking them over .Some people were silly…

… And pushy.

Oh, were you at Hamer Hall? Did you enjoy it?

We loved it! Wouldn’t have missed it for anything!

I’m so glad. That’s what it was all about. 

I continued on, until amidst the cacophony of traffic and revellers I heard the haunting yet uplifting sound of Indian music. Was it the Hare Krishnas? An advert for a show or other celebration?

I peeped over the bridge to Southbank and spent a few minutes absorbing the tranquillity of the River Yarra and the joy of living in multicultural Melbourne.

We live in a wonderful city and when I think of the many trouble spots throughout the world we are truly blessed.

Dominoes down, happiness up indeed!

 

And here is the finished film of the day – not just the small part I played, but the bigger picture, including footage taken before the city event.

The first half of the film shows the dominoes making their way from the Port of Melbourne through Footscray, Brighton, Toorak, Richmond, Fitzroy and laneways in the CBD to the beginning of the live route at Melbourne Town Hall. The second half features the live event on 6 February.  Logistically, they couldn’t capture footage of each and every block that fell, but the film brings back some of the thrills (and spills) of the day!

The film credit goes to:

DOMINOES
by Station House Opera
Presented by Arts Centre Melbourne
Project III of the Betty Amsden Participation Program

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rituals and Reminiscing For Auld Lang Syne

Ceremonies cemented the impression that humanity, not chaos, reigned over the universe.

Brian Herbert

We’ve farewelled another year and welcomed 2016. I look back on my post this time last year and the opening paragraph still rings true:

Like many people, particularly in my age group, I wonder where the year has gone and if it’s true that it disappears more quickly the older you are!
If I still lived in Scotland I’d celebrate Hogmanay in the traditional manner http://www.scotland.org/whats-on/hogmanay/ and in years gone by I’ve kept up several of the cultural traditions, but confess to having a quiet evening at home last night and allowing my partying daughters to come home and bring in the lump of coal I left at the front door. Actually it was a briquette (a lump of compressed coal) from the family home at Croydon. Mum gave it to me to use specifically for the ‘first foot’ over the door on Hogmanay, when we moved to Mordialloc over 30 years ago.

This time of year lends itself to reflection as well as remembering cultural quirks, but because it is a ‘new’ year, it still has to unfold, be lived and stories made. I’ll continue to find inspiration and tranquility under the evening sky whether it’s walking the dog, or putting rubbish in the bins or just standing for a few minutes alone staring above at the never-ending twinkling canopy – some habits never change.
Unknown-2.jpeg

The preparation for Hogmanay always entails cleaning the house and ridding cupboards of unnecessary clutter, tidying up the garden. Physical examples of renewal,  like a journal writer starting each day on a fresh page.

On Christmas night, we experienced the last full moon for 2015 and as Anne and I walked Aurora around the neighbourhood, I tried to capture the moon with my camera phone:

 

December 25, 2015 – Mairi Neil

The moon gleams white, luminescent,
No drifting wisps of shape-shifting cloud.
The man in the moon yet to appear
With his benign expression,
Dark, deep set eyes and
Hint of moustachioed smile.
Tonight a vibrant sky, pink-tinged
While apricot and lilac hues waft to
Colour the rooftops, soften pavements
Breathe beauty into shadows dancing
On bricks, tiles, concrete, and steel.
A flock of parrots settle among
The topmost branches of a stoic gum
Protecting a grey water tank.
Suddenly, as if a giant hand shakes the tree,
Red breasts flash and with squeals and flaps
The birds twirl through the air –
Green wings spinning like frisbees.
Each night my eyes discover something new
A colour never seen, a glorious streak across the sky
Trees dressed in forty-shades of green
A Creator’s vision this glowing orb is perhaps
Designed to magnify…

IMG_3357
Parrots proliferate in Mordy now – they moved in during the last drought and stayed.

In the quiet of the evening I often share significant memories of childhood and at this time of year it is New Year rituals. Family stories deserving to be heard and passed on:

In Scotland, after Mum’s frenzy of cleaning and baking, we savoured her ginger wine and blackberry wine, both non-alcoholic made from essence. How grown-up we felt, drinking ‘wine’ like the adults! (Although they were on whisky after the bells announced at midnight and Auld Lang Syne sung.)

When I returned to Scotland in 1973, at the top of the long list of items missed and to be brought from ‘the auld country’ was ginger and blackcurrant essence. I managed to procure 6 bottles from the local Co-op and Hogmanay ’74 was a good year in Croydon, Australia. A quick Google search and homesick Scots throughout the world have a similar childhood memory and taste for ‘oor ain special Hogmanay treat.’

As far back as I can remember, my parents’ parties were legendary. Not hard to do when you are part of a large family – a crowd’s already there!

Each Hogmanay, in Greenock, carpets were rolled up, Andy Stewart and Jimmy Shand records (78s, later LPs) stacked on the radiogram, and reels and jigs shook the house’s foundations. Dad’s brother, Alec and family came over from Rhu, neighbours popped in, some of Dad’s railway co-workers and even people from their St Ninian’s House Church group.

Mum’s feast prepared and eaten before midnight, included clootie dumpling (cooked in a clout /cloth) where we all fought to have a slice with the skin attached – delicious, hot or cold. There are many variations of this traditional treat:

Clootie Dumpling

250g (8oz) plain flour
125g (4oz) margarine
75g (4oz) currants
75g (4 oz) sultanas
75g (3oz) soft brown sugar (or substitute treacle)
2 lightly beaten eggs
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
I teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon bicarb soda
1 tablespoon golden syrup
3/4 cup buttermilk

(extra flour for cloth to produce the much-loved thick skin)

  • In a large bowl mix the flour, and softened margarine, fruit, sugar, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and bicarb of soda. Add the beaten eggs and syrup, then stir in sufficient buttermilk to form a soft batter.
  • Dip a pudding cloth into boiling water and sink it in a bowl large enough to hold the mixture, dredge lightly with flour and spoon in the mixture.
  • Draw the cloth together at the ends and tie tightly with string – make sure you leave room for expansion during cooking!
  • Place a saucer in the bottom of a large saucepan and lift the dumpling into the pan of boiling water and simmer for 3-4 hours.

Clootie Dumpling is usually served hot with cream, ice-cream or custard but is delicious cold, spread with butter or margarine and jam. Mum made a clootie at other celebrations throughout the year, especially for Dad’s birthday.

One memory of Hogmanay in early 1960s Scotland stands out over all others.

As usual we children were the first awake, and of course headed straight to the toilet. The bathroom/toilet was upstairs near all our bedrooms, but the door was locked. A quick head count and checking of beds and we knew it must be an adult inside. We waited.

And waited. Discreet tapping. No answer. Whispering then louder tapping and talking. Cousins awake as well as siblings. Lots of whispering and tapping. No answer.

Fear of admonition if we made a noise or woke hungover adults forgotten when desperation kicked in. The boys could go outside even if it was ‘brass monkey weather‘ but Catriona and I needed the bathroom. (Yes, all our cousins were male. Of three brothers, Dad was the only one to produce female offspring.)

We jiggled the door handle but couldn’t open the door. We peeked through the keyhole.

‘Uncle Alec’s asleep on the floor.’

‘His head’s against the toilet and his feet must be blocking the door.’

‘Why doesn’t he wake up?’

‘He’s drunk.’

‘Or dead.’

‘We better get Dad.’

We didn’t need to fetch Dad. Trying to be ‘as quiet as church mice’  we  ‘made enough noise to wake the dead’.

Dad couldn’t rouse his older brother either so one of the boys was sent up the drainpipe to climb in through the outside window and open the door. Dad helped an embarrassed Uncle Alec to bed and we had a story to share on Hogmanay for years, embedded in family history.

 

Teachers_04

Years later an incident in 1970s Croydon, Australia not forgotten, especially by Mum and Dad. A sizeable crowd gathered in a circle in our lounge room waiting for the clock to strike twelve. Large enough to require two bottles of whisky for the all-important dram.

Dad, the host, had his favoured drop – Teacher’s, a smooth malt. Uncle Bill had a bottle of traditional Bells.

Midnight announced, Auld lang Syne sung, the first foot (my dark-haired older sister, Catriona) welcomed over the door carrying the lump of coal. The bottles opened for everyone to receive ‘the water of life‘.

Half the room sipped and smiled, the other half looked sour or stunned. Mum’s Highland friend Christine McDonald blurted, ‘What’s this? Bloody water!’

Dad had finished pouring and gulped his whisky, which he immediately spat out. The room suddenly abuzz with more than Christine examining their glasses, re-tasting and then looking for a refill of ‘proper whisky.’  Thankfully, there were always plenty of bottles available at Scots/Irish gatherings.

An examination of the bottle of Teacher’s discovered in fine print “For Display purposes Only“.

Soon everyone joked about ‘bringing in the New Year with cold tea’ but my Father’s  laugh was restrained. As the host he felt deep embarrassment.

Dad had a mercurial temper at the best of times so Mum thought it wise she return the bottle when the shops reopened.

How it came to be sold a mystery never solved and the Manager of Supa Value Supermarket’s bottleshop offered apologies.  A replacement given without fully understanding the cultural significance of what my Father perceived as a Hogmanay horror story!

Mum slid into the car beside Dad, related the manager’s apologies and handed over the bottle of whisky. ‘Is this the right Teacher’s?’

‘As long as it’s not cold tea it’ll be fine,’ Dad said with a grin, removing the bottle from the brown paper bag, ‘there’s no such thing as bad scotch – just some are better than others.’ Almost immediately, his dark brown eyes lost their twinkle, the smile became a frown.

‘What the…’ he exploded, and passed the bottle back to Mum pointing to the label. In fine print it said, “For Display purposes Only”.

At least they hadn’t moved from the parking lot, but it was a less conciliatory Mum who returned the second bottle. She gave a very embarrassed manager ‘a piece of her mind’ and a lecture on shelving stock. The second replacement bottle checked and double-checked before she left the shop.

Apparently, lightning does strike twice!

A third funny memory of Hogmanay takes place back in Scotland, but this time in 1997. My girls and I stayed a few days with relatives in Kilmarnock. This was the first Scottish New Year the girls experienced (and to date, the only one!)

Thick snow lay outside and inside Valerie and Jim’s cosy house a party was in full swing. Most of Val and Jim’s friends had two or three children, all as excited as my girls at being allowed to stay up late to dance and play. All of them taking advantage of distracted adults, more relaxed than usual.

Midnight neared and a scramble to round up everyone spread throughout the house. Jim slipped out the back door with a lump of coal to first foot at the front. The bells came and went, Auld Lang Syne sung, the children transformed the circle into a jig. Few people were interested in filling their glasses, the music turned up a notch or two and happy chaos reigned.

We forgot about Jim.

No one heard the knocking at the door. John rang from England to wish us ‘happy new year’.

Suddenly,  Valerie asked where Jim had got to.

Oops!

Jim stood at the front door, teeth chattering and icicles forming on his slippers, ‘I knew you’d eventually remember, ‘ he said with an alcohol induced smile. Warm hugs all round and an extra kiss from Valerie made up for being abandoned.

Anne and Mary Jane still talk about that Hogmanay and giggle. It’s good to have a happy memory because unfortunately Valerie passed away in August 2014  after developing a rapidly progressive myeloma (bone cancer). By then she had two lovely girls of her own, heartbreakingly young to be left motherless.

Perhaps one day they’ll visit Australia and take away a happy Hogmanay memory from us.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

A final traditional Scots greeting for 2016:

Lang may yer lum reek – happiness, good health and the prosperity you seek!

Christmas – Let Us All Rejoice

“Christmas waves a magic wand over this world, and behold, everything is softer and more beautiful.”

images-3.jpeg

Recently, I celebrated and wrote about Eid and Diwali, major religious festivals at this time of year with similar customs to the Christian celebration of Christmas.

Over the next few posts I’ll share memories of Christmas, the celebration that is part of my culture and Christianity, the religion most familiar to me.

All religions, arts and sciences are branches of the same tree.

Albert Einstein

As I finish my teaching term before the holidays, it is customary to exchange cards and gifts and share special festive foods in the lead up to Christmas.

Some schools and workplaces have Secret Santas or Kris Kringles, special Christmas parties and meals and even outings. It helps that we are heading into summer and annual holidays. The thought of a long break and perhaps an exciting time ahead certainly makes it easier to be in a jolly party mood.

DSC_1577#1.jpg

I’m also aware of the celebration of Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of light because several students are Jewish.

Just as Christians believe Jesus was the Son of God and the Light of the world, Jews celebrate the importance of light.

Hanukkah celebrates the triumph of light over darkness, of purity over adulteration, of spirituality over materiality.

Jesus “Christ” is known as the founder or central figure of “Christianity.” Christmas is a Christian holiday on December 25 that commemorates the birth of Jesus. Ancient Romans also commemorated Jesus’ birth by marking a division of the calendar still in use today. The years before Jesus’ birth are marked as B.C. (Before Christ), and the years after Jesus’ birth are marked A.D. (Anno Domini, which means, in the year of our Lord).

Christmas literally means the Mass (celebration) of Christ. “Christ” is a Greek word and title, meaning “anointed” or one set apart by God for a special purpose. “Christ” is equivalent to the Hebrew word “Messiah.” Based on the words of ancient prophets, the first century Jewish people expected the arrival of the Messiah promised by God as a great deliverer of the people.

When the world seems to be in disarray, it’s wonderful to be surrounded by happiness as people plan family get togethers, holidays, and special meals. Festivities and rituals brighten the mundane to give deeper meaning to communities and individual lives.

In a multicultural country like Australia where Christmas festivities and decorations last through to the New Year, schools and workplaces celebrate regardless of whether people are Christian – it is a time to reach out and spread goodwill.

Love and joy can be infectious!

A Christmas Triolet
Mairi Neil

Peace on Earth, my Christmas dream
Regardless of your religious persuasion
Togetherness, binding like whipped cream
Peace on earth, my Christmas dream
Love and kindness must reign supreme
To mark the joy of a global occasion
Peace on Earth, my Christmas dream
Regardless of your religious persuasion

Shadows of suffering can be dispelled
Light will always banish darkness
No matter where evil has dwelled
Shadows of suffering can be dispelled
Belief in humanity encouraged and upheld
To do otherwise is destructive madness
Shadows of suffering can be dispelled
Light will always banish darkness

Let tolerance be your guiding light
To thoughtful words and deeds
The spirit of Christmas can unite
Let tolerance be your guiding light
Christian principles shining bright
Spreading Love’s promising seeds
Let tolerance be your guiding light
To thoughtful words and deeds

Houses are decorated as are shopping centres, public buildings and even streets. Although it’s only the beginning of December evidence of people embracing Christmas mode is everywhere. The staff at Mordialloc Railway Station have added some new tinsel to well-worn decorations and a house near Longbeach Place in Chelsea is into the spirit of the season.

christmas at mordi station.jpg

 

DSC_1604#1.jpg

Today, as I walked down to Mordialloc foreshore for the annual Brunch for Peace at the Beach with the Union of Australian Women Southern Branch, soothing Christmasy songs floated in the air. The nursing home on the corner of Albert and McDonald Streets prepared for a family Christmas party. Young people helped staff decorate several tables arranged under a marquee.

Hopefully, the music, planned festivities, and presence of family will trigger happy memories for the residents of the home, many of whom suffer dementia. Even if they don’t know what the fuss is about, the activity and presence of young people should brighten their day – it certainly brightened mine as I walked past.

christmas at nursing home on corner.jpg

Some people have the tradition of sending a letter to all of their family members and friends reporting on the major events of the year. Others have particular traditions like decorating the tree, attending Carols by Candlelight, or baking Christmas cake, plum pudding and sharing a meal with extended family. Others always holiday at the same place each year and prepare for Christmas away from home.

christmas tree 2012.jpg
we always have a ‘real’ Christmas tree, the smell of pine needles synonymous with Christmas

I was brought up a Christian and in my Scottish Presbyterian (Church of Scotland) childhood, celebrating the birth of Jesus made Christmas Day and the days leading up to it (Advent), exciting and special. The emphasis on the New Testament’s teachings about loving one another and peace and goodwill towards all mankind were the messages stressed in prayers and hymns.

Although I only occasionally attend a particular denominational church today, I still see Christmas in this light. Santa Claus, rampant consumerism, eating and partying to excess is not my idea of Christmas.

In fact, Scotland did not declare Christmas Day a public holiday until 1958. Christmas in Scotland was traditionally observed very quietly, the emphasis on religious observance not the Christmas festival.

Christmas Giving
Mairi Neil

Generosity heart warming and kind
Inspiring others to rejoice and give
For children the anticipation is exciting
Their joy and delight infectious at
Sharing gifts as well as receiving

Father Christmas  a benign fantasy figure when I was a child. My working class parents explained that he only brought to each child what the parents could afford. This explanation the same one I gave to my children while emphasising it is a season more about giving than receiving!

A great example of bringing Christmas joy to children while practising Christian charity is Senator Sarah Hanson-Young’s “Give a toy to a child in detention”. An opportunity for us to show compassion and care – qualities our Government has lost in its shameful treatment of asylum seekers and refugees.

images-4.jpeg

I teach adults from many different backgrounds and with a range of life experiences. Here is a poem one class wrote:

Class Acrostic Poem 2008

Coming together at Christmas
Happiness for families
Rituals rich in memories
Insights are gained playing inside games
Stirring the pudding
Tinsel and berries, togetherness and traditions
Merrymaking, mulled wine, and mistletoe
Acceptance of gifts and family idiosyncrasies
Sweets, sauces, and sugar plum fairies

More than families have idiosyncrasies looking at Melbourne City Council’s Christmas decorations this year – they’ve got into the craze of yarn art like Longbeach Place! The expertise, time and effort in ‘dressing’ these trees certainly shows devotion.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The Council workers are also erecting a traditional Santa’s Village which was under construction the night I was in the city.

christmas city 8.jpg
The magnificent spire of St Paul’s in the background – a good reminder Jesus is the reason for the season.

Christmas Joy
Mairi Neil

Let’s celebrate another Christmas,
perhaps relive the happiness and joy
that those first Christians felt
when they heard of the birth
of that special boy.
The baby fulfilled God’s promise
from the East travelled Kings three
guided by the Star of Bethlehem
knowing that they would see
a host of angels singing aloud,
and shepherds leaving their flocks
Around the manger all would crowd
to witness the amazing miracle
of the birth of that special child
agreeing He’d been sent to Earth
To secure peace,
Also tolerance and Love
and a place for the meek and mild.

One of my lessons last week focused on Christmas and similar religious celebrations. This is always a rich subject for writers to mine, particularly if you seek publication.

Shelves of bookshops and libraries sag with specialised or niche books. You can start writing today and have something ready for next year’s season – or the year after!

  • Write your annual letter  to family and/or friends recounting the good and bad things that have happened to you this year that could be considered noteworthy. (This could be factual or exaggerated, poignant or amusing.)
  • Write a poem titled Christmas Is… (substitute  your special celebration/belief if it differs from Christmas)
  • List all the trappings, events, beliefs, ‘to do’ list that make your  celebration memorable.
  • How has the celebration changed for you since childhood.
  • Is there one particular year that stands out?
  • Write a memory of the happiest Christmas.
  • A Christmas that was a disaster.
  • Have you ever celebrated Christmas,Hanukkah, Ramadan,Diwali… away from home? With people who had a different custom?
  • Have you a favourite recipe to share that marks these festivities?
  • What difference has technology made to your celebrations – do you still post cards? Have you discovered old or new friends through social media?
  • Did you believe in Santa Claus? When did you stop? Were you honest with your children/grandchildren?
  • Did you ever take part in a school play – what part did you play?
  • What’s the best present you ever received? Why?
  • What’s the worst present? Why?
  • Have you ever regretted or been embarrassed by a present you bought?

christmas flinders street.jpg

 

Terror, Tears, Grief, Gratitude and Grit

You must not lose faith in humanity. Humanity is an ocean; if a few drops of the ocean are dirty, the ocean does not become dirty.

Mahatma Gandhi

peace sign after paris terror attacks

Like many others, the last few days have been spent trying to make sense of the indefensible and wondering what the future holds for so many people consumed with grief because of war, terrorism, upheaval and resettlement.

Tragic waves of people risking their lives to seek safety yet minds and borders are closed to their desperate cries for help.

On the train going home from the city to Mordialloc on Monday night, there was a sea of faces reflecting a variety of countries and ethnicity. Voices chattered and laughed in languages other than English. Women celebrated the extra warm spring day with sundresses, shorts and sandals; men wore open-necked shirts, t-shirts and in some cases, thongs. All ages represented with family groups, corporate types, blue-collar workers and students.

This is the Melbourne I love and my heart ached it is not a reality for so many people throughout the world.

I had just left Federation Square hosting yet another vigil/demonstration yet the police presence despite recent events in Paris and Beirut low key – groups of two or three on the perimeter of the crowd of 5000.  Alert but not alarming.

No machine guns here, or helmets and shields. No riot vans or blocked off streets. No demand for identity cards.

How privileged I am. This reality making the tragic events of the past week – and the suffering of some countries for years – all the more poignant and heartbreaking.

Prayers always needed for Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, Lebanon, Kenya, France, Palestine, Israel, Nigeria, Iraq, Syria, Tunisia, Turkey, England, USA…

Have Faith in Humanity
Mairi Neil

Sirens

screams

discord

It rained bullets today
blood filled the gutters
bombs thundered            violence roared
the music stopped

It rained bullets today
flesh painted the pavement
bombs thundered            violence roared
coffee machines silenced

It rained bullets today
bones crunched underfoot
bombs thundered           violence roared
laughter ceased

Survivors

spirit

inspiring

Love reigned today
courage filled the streets
hands joined, fear dispersed
Life and love celebrated

Thank you, Melbourne, I feel safe and cherish the people and places.  The relaxing and fun activities, beautiful surroundings (we are the Garden State), freedom of movement for everyone regardless of ethnicity and religion:

For freedom from fear, the values of liberty, equality and community must always be held dear!

I attended the Vigil for Paris to express the sadness in my heart and stand with others to acknowledge that peace and love must triumph over war and hate.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

It seems sadness and tragedy keep the 24-hour news cycle in overdrive. I’ve reflected on this before:

Boston 2013
Mairi Neil

Before the dust has settled
They sweep in
Keen eyes absorbing
The carnage
The rubble of
Broken lives and dreams

They look for clues
A chunk of backpack
A scrap of wire
A shard of glass
A twisted nail or
Deadly ball bearing

Acrid smoke and burning flesh
Pools of blood
And mangled bodies
A leg here, an arm there
Silence more shocking
Than anguished cries

No matter what they find
There are no answers to satisfy
Grieving family and friends
Mollified mothers, furious fathers
Stunned siblings all scream – Why?

The media frenzy crammed
With words and pictures
Pontificating politicians
Rabid extremists
Know-all academics
Red-necks and rationalists

We learn about anger
Frustration, pain and love
But most of all
We witness courage.
The motivation for such havoc
And hate, a well of horror
Too sad to contemplate.

Federation Square witnessed a vigil for the earlier terror attack in France,  Je Suis Charlie . My attending the vigils small gestures, but an acknowledgement, along with others, of the grief of those who experience the turmoil of war, terror and dislocation.

I left Federation Square as the French Tricolour fluttered to the sounds of La Marseillaise, sung earlier in the evening along with Advance Australia Fair, but it is John Lennon’s Imagine played after the minute’s silence that resonated with me.

Imagine by John Lennon

Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today…

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace...

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world…

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will live as one

The coming together in Federation Square gave an outlet for the grief felt by many of the 6000 French living in Melbourne, and for people like me. It’s hard to make sense of the times we live in and increasingly war is being waged against civilians, the random acts of terror designed to damage, disrupt and divide society. To be with others – especially random strangers – fills me with hope that there is more good than bad, that the majority of peace loving people will win the battle of ideologies, the rush for power and control.

To become a true global citizen, one must abandon all notions of ‘otherness’ and instead embrace ‘togetherness’. The world is no longer white, black, yellow and brown. Through love, tribes have been intermixing colors to reveal a new rainbow world. And as more time passes, this racial and cultural blending will make it harder for humans to side with one race, nation or religion over another. Therefore, practical wisdom should be used to abandon any cultural, social, religious, tribal, and national beliefs of alterity altogether. This is the only way mankind will truly evolve. Segregation is a word of the past. Unity is the key to a peaceful future.” 

Suzy Kassem, Rise Up and Salute the Sun: The Writings of Suzy Kassem

I swear I could smell fresh baguettes and a whiff of toasted croissants. No doubt French wine flowed freely in the  various licensed premises and a French film probably played at ACMI. The majority of people in my age group learnt French at school – despite being thousands of miles away from France. Or we’ve visited Paris or been welcomed in Noumea – it doesn’t take much to trigger memories.

I struggle with learning French because even my English is spoken with a Scots brogue, but I love French writers, philosophers and learning about the French Revolution at school. The ideas of the eighteenth-century philosophes helped birth American indpendence and gave impetus to democratic change in Britain.

 

images-4.jpeg

 

Scotland’s association with France goes back centuries to the “Auld Alliance” and our  famous King Robert the Bruce, descended from ancestors in Brix, in Flanders. Sadly, it seems to be the history of the world that alliances and friendships are forged by war rather than peace.

In their darkest hour the Dauphin turned to the Scots, England’s enemy, for salvation. Between 1419 and 1424, 15,000 Scots left from the River Clyde to fight in France. In 1421 at the Battle of Bauge the Scots dealt a crushing defeat to the English and slew the Duke of Clarence.

My hometown of Greenock still has links with France in the form of a memorial to the Free French forces who fought in WW2.

Free_French_Memorial_Greenock.jpg

The Breton language Celtic like Scots Gaelic. The ties that bind.

So many Australians have travelled to Paris, have albums full of photographs and memories. The vigil didn’t make the tragedies of Lebanon or Syria less important (there was a man carrying a Lebanese flag, others had different flags draped on their shoulders). Time and again speakers referred to all the senseless violence and suffering caused by terrorists.

James Merlino MP , Deputy Premier, who spoke for Premier Andrews quoted Martin Luther King:

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.

And love, common sense, reaching out, ignoring the bigots is what we must do. We must try that extra bit harder to love and be kind. To celebrate our commonality, not fear difference.

images-5.jpeg

“Once we can get all of mankind to see and promote our commonalities over differences, then we can also collectively and passionately enforce equality, truth and justice as the laws of every land. Then there will be stability, prosperity and true peace for all. If we do not, then language, religious, and cultural barriers will continue to prevent us from seeing that we are all one. Does a pineapple have to be called a pineapple in English in another country for an English-speaking person to know what it is? No. A pineapple has a different name in every country, but even a child can still tell its a pineapple. So why can’t we judge mankind the same way? No matter how you dress a human, a human is still a human. And all humans grieve, love, and bleed the same way. How hard is it to see that we are all more similar than different? God did not disconnect mankind, man did.”
Suzy Kassem, Rise Up and Salute the Sun: The Writings of Suzy Kassem

 

 

An Anniversary, a Book and a Celebration

KingstonmycityFinalCover copy

A wonderful launch! Thank you for a beautiful afternoon filled with love, laughter, tears and great local writing.

Cr Tamsin Bearsley, Mayor of City of Kingston

tamsin Mairi and Bill 2
Mayor Tamsin Bearsley, Mairi Neil, Bill Nixon AO

The Allan McLean Hall echoed with old friends catching up, and the forging of new friendships as over 100 people gathered to help Mordialloc Writers’ Group celebrate 20 years and the launch of our ninth anthology: Kingston My City. Several past and present councillors attended, including our new mayor who wrote the above message in our Guest Book.

This slide show is a great record of the day:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

A resounding success with healthy book sales and hopefully a rejuvenated interest in local authors, the afternoon may encourage attendance at our workshop nights at the Mordialloc Neighbourhood House, or enrolment in the classes on offer at Mordialloc, Longbeach Place and Godfrey Street.

In a brief history of Mordialloc Writers’ Group, I mentioned the importance of belonging to a group or attending workshops. What I said resonated with several people who approached me afterwards.

In the digital age with blogging and e-books many people ‘just write,’ which is a pity because the quality of their writing, in most cases, would improve if they joined a local writing group or attended a class at a neighbourhood house. The feedback, sharing of ideas and support available invaluable, as is the role storytelling plays in creating a connection within our community, our work, our culture, and ourselves.

Mordialloc Writers’ Group had simple beginnings. In the playground of Mordialloc Primary School, (now Mordialloc Beach Primary), I chatted with some other parents with dreams of writing. I contacted Noelle Franklyn after I saw an advert appealing for stories for the Write Now radio program on local community radio 88.3FM. Our conversation revealed a desire from locals to have a writers’ venue nearby rather than travel to other suburbs and the city.

I approached the manager of Mordialloc Neighbourhood House, and we rented a room for $5. Five participants at the first meeting put in a $1 each. We decided to meet fortnightly, and the rest is history. Even with inflation and fluctuating numbers we’ve survived and thrived at doing what wordsmiths do – we write – and have published eight other anthologies.

Mordialloc Writers' group anthologies copy

Fifteen of our members, including myself, have branched out to publish their books or be picked up by traditional publishers and sadly some of our members have died. To honour the writing legacy of the writers no longer with us,  Dr Glenice Whitting and Steve Davies read a selection of work from previous anthologies. Glenice read extracts by Mary Walsh, Margaret Vanstone and Tonie Corcoran:

Chill, by Mary Walsh in Writers by The Bay, published 1997

Australia 1995, by Maggie V in Writers by The Bay, published 1997

Boots, by Tonie Corcoran in Up The Creek… with a pen, published 2003

Steve read extracts from John West and Stan Fensom:

Old Diggers Die Modestly, by John West in Casting A Line, published 2000

The Second Engineer’s Fasle Teeth, by Stan Fensom in Casting A Line, published 2000

Anthologies are always a combined effort and Kingston My City couldn’t have happened without the editing skills of Glenice and the proofreading expertise of Belinda Gordon, who both contributed essays. My daughter, Mary Jane designed the cover. My contribution recognised too, and it was flowers all round!

The fact that I can plant a seed and it becomes a flower, share a bit of knowledge and it becomes another’s, smile at someone and receive a smile in return, are to me continual spiritual exercises.

Leo Buscaglia

The writers’ group gift of gorgeous orchids added to flowers from my daughters and sister ensuring the love and warmth felt at the launch will continue for weeks to come.

Before Bill Nixon, AO, launched the book, the other special guests, Making Waves, a spoken word choir performed three poems: Unity by Kevin Gilbert, an extract from Train Set by Dorothy Plummer and Beannacht (The Blessing) by John O’Donohue.

These three pieces were chosen carefully to suit the day. Under the expert direction of Gaytana Adorna, the poems we read delighted the audience, many of whom had never experienced a spoken word choir. Many people said the performance added to their appreciation of poetry – I hope some may be inspired to join us because we could do with more voices.

Unity by Kevin Gilbert

I am the land
I am the trees
I am the rivers
that flow to the seas
joining and moving

encompassing all
blending all parts of me
stars in my thrall
binding and weaving
with you who belong

sometime discordant
but part of my song
birds are a whisper
the four breezes croon

raindrops in melody
all form the tune
of being belonging
aglow with the surge
to life and its passions
to create its urge
in living expression
its total of one
and the I and the tree
and the you and the me
and the rivers and birds
and the rocks that we’ve heard

sing the songs we are one
I’m the tree you are me
with the land and the sea
we are one life not three
in the essence of life
we are one.

Extract from Train Set by Dorothy Plummer

CLICKETY, CLICKETY, CLICKETY CLACK
WE LOVE TO PLAY WITH OUR RAILWAY TRACK

CLICKETY, CLICKETY, CLICKETY CLACK
WATCH ALL THE TRAINS GO OUT AND COME BACK

When it rains and it pours
We play trains –– dry indoors
While the water on windows is streaming

We will circle the track ––
Fast forward, then back
To the tunnels, where signals are gleaming.

CLICKETY, CLICKETY, CLICKETY CLACK
WE LOVE THE SOUNDS OF THE RAILWAY TRACK

CLICKETY, CLICKETY, CLICKETY CRUNCH
DO WE HAVE TO PACK UP IN TIME FOR LUNCH?

Beannacht (The Blessing) by John O’Donohue

On the day when
The weight deadens
On your shoulders
And you stumble,
May the clay dance
To balance you.

And when your eyes
Freeze behind
The grey window
And the ghost of loss
Gets into you,
May a flock of colours,
Indigo, red, green
And azure blue,
Come to awaken in you
A meadow of delight.

When the canvas frays
In the currach of thought
And a stain of ocean
Blackens beneath you,
May there come across the waters
A path of yellow moonlight
To bring you safely home.

May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
May the clarity of light be yours,
May the fluency of the ocean be yours,
May the protection of the ancestors be yours.

And so may a slow
Wind work these words
Of love around you,
An invisible cloak
To mind your life.

I invited Bill to launch Kingston My City with the following words:

 I know it’s a cliche, but really the words ‘our next guest needs no introduction’ is true! Bill Nixon has been a councillor and mayor. He is a creator, giver and most importantly a believer in ‘getting things done’. Helping many groups to start, he’s on several committees and boards. I’m not sure when he gets the time to eat and sleep!

Most locals in this room have met Bill at some time in their lives and several of the apologies reminded me to give Bill their regards. I can think of no one I’d rather launch our book considering the topic. He’s a legend, and may be one of the few people who have bought all our anthologies and read them because at a meeting a few months ago he confided he’d only just finished them all although they’d been on his bookshelf for years!

And so the book was launched with everyone invited to partake of refreshments from tables groaning under the weight of homemade delicacies. You could be forgiven for thinking you’d stumbled into a bakery. The hall buzzed with conversations, the flashing of cameras and the clatter of dishes as a team of writers turned into kitchen hands for the afternoon, ferrying food to tables and washing empty plates. Mordialloc Writers excellent hosts!

Currently, I’m negotiating with the Council regarding their website hosting our E-book too, but one step at a time. Over the next few days, I hope to make the converted book widely available.

Exciting times ahead for our small group because once we are digital we can rightly claim to be ‘international’ writers with our words able to be read by anyone, anywhere in the world. Power indeed as this infographic says and power we will use wisely.

the-power-of-words-fpss-261111