Christmas Joy Not Humbug!

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The Twelve Days of Christmas

The popular song aside, traditionally the ‘twelve days of Christmas’ is the period that  Christian theologians mark the time between the birth of Christ and the coming of the Magi, referred to as the three wise men.

It begins on December 25, Christmas Day and continues to January 6, the Epiphany.  For many people that is also the day they take down the Christmas Tree and put the decorations away for another year. Some people do this on January 5th others January 6th.

I can smile now remembering the first discussion my late husband, John and I had about this – I brought up Church of Scotland and non-conformist and he, brought up Church of England (Anglican rather than Episcopalian).

Although born in Australia, John spent the early part of his life in England and Christmas traditions ingrained. As a Scot whose household celebrated Hogmanay, Christmas was low key, centred around the Church:

Christmas Day only became a public holiday in 1958, and Boxing Day in 1974. The New Year’s Eve festivity, Hogmanay, was by far the largest celebration in Scotland.

Emigrating to Australia in 1962, the hot summers didn’t do anything to increase my enthusiasm for some traditions – especially ones involving Yule logs and roast dinners!

Back to the ‘Twelve days’ …

John said the tree had to be down and decorations packed away by January 6th, whereas I believed you left it up until January 6th. A ridiculous debate put in perspective the year my sister divorced her horrible first husband. She left her Christmas tree up until Easter because it brightened the house and welcomed her home with twinkling lights! As good a reason as any to break with tradition…

wild woman and christmas message

Cate’s unorthodox view remembered this year when she became an unexpected house guest for Christmas because her husband needed an urgent operation and the surgeon could fit him into his list at Frankston Hospital on Christmas Eve.

What would Christmas be without a wee miracle?

Brother-in-law Ian came through with flying colours and Christmas lunch a bigger and more special celebration than usual. The few days Cate and I spent, in and around, the large public hospital, sobering and a glimpse of the Christmas others experience.

It got me thinking that Christmas aside, there are always many people trying to ‘brighten’ the lives of others, dedicating their lives to those less fortunate – they don’t need an excuse, they do their job, follow their heart or beliefs, care about human or animal welfare – we don’t focus on the joy often enough, but absorb the negativity the press pander to – the philosophy of TV News – if it bleeds, it leads…

The nursing staff at Frankston did their best to make the ward festive – I loved the use of medical equipment tarted-up (a rubber ring/doughnut cushion stuck with coloured balls) and tinsel wrapped around trolleys and exercise equipment. But it was the effort of wonderful volunteers dressed as Mrs Christmas and elf helper on a 36-degree day that truly impressed!

We scored a candy cane before they entered the lift!

cate with hospital volunteers

Advent for many Christians begins the four weeks preceding Christmas and each Sunday up to Christmas Eve there will be special sermons and services leading up to the arrival/birth of Jesus.

However, for an increasingly secular society, Christmas begins with a flood of consumerism that reaches fever pitch and a frenzy in December but starts late October/early November…

I wrote a poem about this years ago (pre-computer), can’t find it, but suffice to say it wasn’t complimentary to junk mail or the advertising industry, which help with the humbug factor and not the joy that is found among friends and family, who use the lead up to Christmas for gatherings or tȇte-à-tȇtes.

my pink-red rose.jpgChristmas Catch-Ups

I love this time of year because in many of the cards or emails received there is news of how the year has been for friends and family and people make an effort to get together. Give me a chat and cuppa instead of presents any day because if the person lives far away, or is rarely seen, information other than ‘Merry Christmas’ is good to hear.

Sometimes even if people live close by, the busyness of life leaves meaningful conversation a rarity and so the gift of time to chat, go to the movies or a play is refreshing and food for the soul. Christmas is a great excuse and motivation to invigorate relationships. I get to have a coffee or tea with students outside class – I’m not the teacher or motivator but a friend with all ‘the issues’ that enjoy a good airing when we share what’s in our hearts and minds.

Here I am with Elhan who came to my class several years ago at Mordialloc. She is an accomplished writer in English as well as Turkish and writes a column for a Turkish newspaper in Melbourne. She took me to a cafe in Mordialloc owned by Turkish Australians, bought me ‘Turkish tea’ served in a cup with the blue-beaded eye motif to protect me from evil, and gifted me an Orhan  Pamuk novel.

It’s not a Facebook cliche when I write I’m truly blessed with the people who have come into my life through teaching and writing!

I’m transitioning to retirement but some of my friends are already enjoying more leisure time. I went to see a dear friend Uma and husband Kevin who live at Bulleen. It was lovely to have lunch in their home instead of catching up with Uma near her office in the city – our usual Christmas rendezvous.

It was an hour and a half’s journey by public transport – train to Southern Cross and then another to Heidelberg Station – but a relaxing journey that introduced areas of Melbourne I rarely visit. However, visiting will be a lot easier when the Andrews Government’s fantastic infrastructure program is complete. Looking at a time when they may not want to drive everywhere, Uma and Kevin are thrilled that accessing public transport will be so much easier and provide more choice of mode and destinations because they live near one of the many access points for the outer city loop.

After lunch, we walked to the park at the end of their street and Uma shared stories of her neighbourhood with similar pride when she and Kevin came to Mordi at Easter and we walked the foreshore and I shared where I fill up with serenity!

At the park considering the topic of my last post, I was thrilled to discover The Peace Path!

bulleen peace park

What a wonderful project! We watched families play in the park, school children walk home from nearby schools past The Peace Path, a prominent installation, a daily and fun reminder of diversity and connectedness. Well done Manningham City Council.

 

New Acquaintances Not Forgot

Many ex-students who perhaps only came for a semester or two also stay in touch and have become valued friends. At this time of year, it’s lovely to hear how they are going with their life and writing projects.

I received a welcome letter from Naoko in Japan and the delightful gift of a book and a very tempting invitation:

“an autobiography by Tomihiro  Hoshino. He writes poetries and draws paintings by his mouth. He is from my neighbour town and there is a museum. I would like to take you there. So please come visit me!'”

book cover from Japan

Serendipity!

Naoko doesn’t know that for more than twenty-five years I have bought cards and calendars from Mouth & Foot Painting Artists Australia and hold the artists in absolute awe for the exquisite products and attitude to life.

She does know that I love Japanese poetic forms and their ability to say so much in so few words – most of my classes have been introduced to haiku, tanka, renga, senryu and haibun at some point!

It is not a thick book and translated by Hiroko and Joseph McDermott was an easy read. But it is quite unlike other memoirs I’ve read considering the subject matter. The tone is not ‘poor me’ or bitter and very quickly the focus is how the writer accepted help from others and learned to paint and write with his mouth to bring meaning, purpose, joy and love into his life.

It is an upbeat memoir because yes he even grew to love and marry a faithful nurse ( not always a cliche) and found success as a writer and painter.  I understand not everyone with a disability or life-changing accident can be so lucky – but what you learn from the book is that it wasn’t just luck…

His determination and persistence, plus the loyalty, love, and consistent support from those who loved him are powerful elements not only enabling him to survive but thrive.

This First edition published in 1988 is the first of several books from Hoshino who was a high school physical education teacher until an accident in the gymnasium left him paralyzed from neck to toe and hospitalised for nine years.

He was 24 years old and in his prime.

‘I was a physical education teacher. I chose this job, not so much as I was interested in teaching, but as I wanted to keep on doing the sport I had always loved since childhood. This desire was so strong that all day long I would exercise with my students… even after the classes were out, I was running or kicking a ball around until everyone else had gone home and the grounds were empty except for me.’

The first chapter, The Accident (June 1970), is short and to the point with headings:

  • Do I Still Have Arms?
  • The Face of My Parents
  • I Will Not Die
  • From the Hospital Diary

He uses extracts from his sister’s Diary to explain the precariousness of his situation, the operations and treatment that ultimately saved his life and put his neck bones into place so he could breathe without a respirator.

“It has been decided that he can sleep without the machine. When the gauze was put back in the hole in his throat, he was encouraged to practice talking with the hole in his throat covered up. Ton-chan (my nickname) smiled happily and said in a strong voice, “The weather’s fine today.” He looked so happy that we all burst into laughter.”

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The second chapter is The Joy of Writing and we learn, ‘Two years passed. Some people assumed I had died… I wavered between life and death so many times…’

However, the medical attention and constant support of his mother, brothers, sisters and close friends who take turns to nurse him every day, kept him alive. (His mother devotes her life to his recovery from day one!)

He mentions but doesn’t dwell on despondency and despair. ‘ My body had a life of its own, regardless of my wishes, though I no longer had a deep commitment to life.’

I don’t know anything about the Japanese hospital system but obviously, technology and scientific development since the 70s have changed in much the same way as ours. The treatment of accidents like Hoshino’s would be different and perhaps have different outcomes. Hospital treatments, access, cost and even where the hospital is in Japan is not the focus of the story.

There is a glimpse of how rehabilitation has made great advances when he describes the day a visiting child brought a radio-controlled toy car into the hospital and one of the mothers who was looking after her child who was a patient said:

‘If one child brings a toy like that, all the others want their own. You can’t blame them. If you’re rich, it might be okay. But what about families like ours?… Tears were welling up in her eyes.

It’s nothing to cry over…, I thought, and moved closer to the children… It was like a very clever puppy perfectly trained to perform…

Frankly, I felt like crying for one as well… watching the car race around … a certain sadness crept up over me. If people can make a precision toy like this for children, why should I have to stay on a wheelchair which moves only when someone pushes it? Why couldn’t the scientific knowledge used for such a toy also be used to move a wheelchair?

I also felt tears coming to my eyes…

Electric wheelchairs were available but he needed one specifically designed for people who can only move from the neck up. His wheelchair was actually a motorised stretcher.

In 1979, after two boffins from Suzuki Motors visited him they worked out the power and movement he had in his neck and delivered a wheelchair with a driving lever he controlled with his chin.

‘Everything about the world outside then began to look rosier once I found that people like them were working away at some research that could greatly ease my life…

Now my mother could take long-needed rests while I went out for rides.’

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From a card I bought in Oban, Scotland

In 2016, I was privileged to help start and facilitate a social group for Glen Eira Council. Over the years, I’ve had several people with ABI (Acquired Brain Injury) in my classes and I was approached to help them start a group where they could meet and discuss everything from literature, movies, politics, philosophy, therapies, culture, and even pet peeves… to relax and ‘Chat ‘N Chuckle’ with others who understood that it may take longer to speak, to listen, and understand what someone wants to say.

Many had motorised wheelchairs – today a variety of mobility aids are common but Tomihiro’s thoughts and perspective gave me a deeper understanding of how important aids are and how innate our need for independence.

An Epiphany

Tomihiro’s electric wheelchair was a long time coming and despite his mother’s relentless devotion it was often the interaction with others that gave that much-needed spark not to lose hope.

Sharing a room with a seriously ill ex-student from his junior high school who always had a cheerful smile made Tomihiro feel obligated to smile too along the lines of  ‘fake it till you make it’.

The relationship that developed between master and student a turning point, especially after the teenager was moved to another hospital and his mother visited Tomihiro, bringing a white, tulip shaped hat belonging to her son, Takaku. He wanted his former roommates to write words of encouragement such as ‘don’t give up’ and ‘have patience’.

Tomihiro wanted to write something but crunching a pen between his teeth, could only manage a tiny dot until his mother moved the hat so he managed to write one of the Chinese characters of his name “Tomi” extending the tiny dot into an “O”.

From that tentative beginning and with months of trial and error to find a painless position for his neck, he finally managed to write a single letter by himself:

“The gauze rolled around the pen in my mouth got soaked with saliva. It was also dyed with blood from the gums since I had strained so much while writing. My mother, who was watching from the side of the bed, also clenched her teeth from the strain. There was sweat on her forehead as well…

All of a sudden my life looked bright again… after having experienced the despair that I would never be able to do anything again, I felt from a single line or letter the same thrill I might have experienced setting a new sports record.”

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Another person who not only visited Tomihiro but was instrumental in his healing journey and his development as a writer and poet was a friend from university days.

Yoneya… and I would have dinner at the same table and every evening I would watch him say a prayer. I usually sat down with my hands unwashed and started eating … I never wondered to whom or what he was praying, nor why he said a prayer before every meal…

One day, he told me, “I am going to study in a theological school in Tokyo in order to become a minister.”

… I didn’t know exactly what it meant, but I realized what a hard and serious life he had chosen to pursue.

As soon as he heard of my injury he came to see me in the hospital. later he sent me a copy of the Bible with his apology for being unable to do anything else for me for the time being. I kept the book in a box under the bed…

Actually, I had hesitated for a long time before opening the Bible. I was afraid other people around me might think and say, “He must be in such pain to have turned for help even from the Christian God…”

… I tried to think up some excuse to open the Bible: it would help me understand history… pass the time… requite a favor extended by a senior…

… all along I knew very well what I really wanted. In my mind, I had a faint hope that something in this black-bound book might change me, just as it had changed Mr Yoneya and made him feel grateful for even the poor meals served in the university dormitory…

… when I was forced to lie on my bed unable to move or speak, I had to live a life in which every day I had to face the real me. And the real me was not strong, was not a fine person at all…

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The Power of  Spiritual Awakening

Tomihiro reads the New Testament and he recognises certain verses he has read on graves in cemeteries (St Matthew 11.28-30):

I had not known what they meant. But somehow the words stuck clearly in my mind. Perhaps I remembered them since I was then really “heavy laden,” carrying manure from the pigsty up to the fields. 

As I reread this passage over and over, I felt something warm begin to stream out from the depths of my heart…

I felt that God had prepared this passage for me long before I had even dreamed I might have the accident…when there were hard times, did I have a friend I could unburden my heart to, tell my suffering and pains?…

Lying on my back, looking up at the ceiling, I was seized by an intense sense of loneliness. I felt helpless before it… I thought that a person named Jesus might listen to me, might hold me lovingly in his arms…

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Regardless of whether you follow a particular religion or no religion when people are faced with severe trauma, accident, disease, prolonged illness or near the end of life many may at some point ask one or more thought-provoking questions, maybe go through a period of self-reflection or self-doubt. Perhaps they consider what they took for granted or didn’t really worry about, or search for a belief that gives them inner peace:

What is life about? Is there a reason for it all? Why is life on Earth so diverse – was/is there a ‘design’? Can Science explain everything? Can religion? Is there life after death? Will I ever recover? Why me?

Seeking, and finding peace, if not answers, can be healing.

When my husband was dying we had many philosophical discussions because John was ill for a long time. He became an avid reader and thought more deeply about ideas and beliefs because he had time to digest and think about what he was reading. Time is a great commodity and gift if you use it well!

I remember telling him when various friends or family members added his name to their particular religion’s prayer list, he’d say with his usual cheeky grin,  “Good, I read an article and people who are prayed for live longer.”

The night before he died when Father Tony, the local Anglican priest called in and prayed at John’s bedside he said, “and the Heavenly Father is waiting for you, John, to hold you in his arms…”

John’s response, “Prove it!”

We all laughed and Father Tony said, “You have to trust me on this, John!” and at the funeral shared the anecdote from “my friend and pragmatist, John.”

We sang John’s favourite hymn from Royal Navy days, Abide With Me plus Lord of The Dance and he was carried out to The Internationale. If people wonder at the apparent conflict of beliefs I tell the story of the writer/educator, Paulo Freire who was asked, “How can you be a Marxist and a Christian?”

He answered, “No problem for me.”

Life is complicated and what people believe and how they cope with challenges is too. The honesty about Tomihiro’s journey, the authenticity in the telling, kept me reading and will remain with me. The simplicity of his explanation of how enriching the spirit and nurturing other senses can compensate for the loss of limbs and movement.

The Joy of Reading

He too discovered how reading enriches life – the power of story:

I spent a lot of time reading, using a simple device that let me lie on my back and read a book hanging open in front of my eyes. My mother would turn the pages for me.

Reading had not been a habit of mine when I was a child or a student… By reading books while lying on my back, I was able to learn the joy of reading. When nobody was at my bedside, there was no way to turn a page. So I kept reading the same page over and over again for as long as thirty or forty minutes. 

After such readings, I would often find something I had never noticed or understood. Some parts deeply impressed me, and I copied them into my sketchbooks…

From his hospital bed, or wheeled into the corridors by his mother, Tomihiro enjoyed being a people watcher but one day he catches sight of a person with a fox fur wrapped around her neck.

This inspires his first poem and more contemplation of not only his personal condition but how humans interact, adapt – what it means to be who we are …

And so entranced by the power of words, he studies, writes, and continually strives to improve his own writing.

In the Hallway
Hoshino Tomihiro (February 20)

A fox
Was watching
With glass eyes,
He was watching.
With the weight of his boneless neck
He was chewing his tail,
And he as watching
Me.

He noted how the glass eyes looked so sad – perhaps they reflected the feelings of his heart? He thought of the word ‘patience’ often used in letters he received. When he saw the fox transformed into neckwear, he sensed he saw himself:

I too had been living day after day, with my teeth digging into my body the more I tried to be patient… Why do I still need to hear ‘patience’…?

I haven’t really changed. The person I was before this accident – wasn’t that basically the same person I am today, even if I can’t move? Why then should I have to be patient with myself? Why should I live day by day with my teeth clenched?

Something did not make sense…

CROWN-OF-THORNS
Hoshino Tomihiro

When you can move but
must stay still,
You need endurance.
But when you’re like me,
And cannot move,
Who needs endurance
Stay still?
And soon enough,
The thorny rope of
endurance
Twisted round my body
Snapped off.

At this time, Miss Watanabe, a friend of Mr Yoneya’s visits, a Christian too,  she cared for her bedridden father for many years. From her first visit, Masako never misses a Saturday and eight years later they marry and return to live in Tomihiro’s home district near his parents. The blossoming of their relationship and her encouragement of his writing and art the impetus for his first major exhibition.

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Flowers Helped Him Bloom

When lying in bed, it was the flowers visitors brought that Tomihiro fixated on – they were beautiful, they were close at hand, and for a long time they represented the outside world he missed. Not surprising they were the first subjects he tried to draw.

When spring comes, the hospital garden is full of beds of blossoming flowers. And when I see them in bloom alongside my window my heart cheers up, even though I have to keep lying in bed… even if I feel depressed with all sorts of worries about my physical problems, all the trees outside may be in bud and even small weeds in bloom…

Regardless of what each human being may feel, the seasons go round and round in the flow of time. We may be happy or sad, become even angry and hateful… but what tiny creatures we are in the vast universe of nature!

There were always some flowers at my bedside brought by visitors and arranged in a vase by my mother. Lying on my back, I saw them day and night out of the corner of my eyes…

CHRYSANTHEMUMS
Hoshino Tomihiro

For over six years
Mr Kobayashi has been coming
To see me
With flowers.
The flowers he grows
Are as strong
As the weeds in the field
Sometimes even generously hosting bugs
Such flowers
I like most.
His flowers come
Wrapped in newspaper
On which there are left
His fingerprints.

COLUMBINES
Hoshino Tomihiro

Even a flower
When praised
Begins to look nicer,
Someone said so,
I remember.
Then I began to wonder
With fear,
If the flowers
Were looking at my painting.

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My favourite part in Tomihiro’s awakening and rebirth is when he writes about his mother. This woman deserves her own memoir! For the nine years, he was in the hospital she was with him, leaving the farm and village life in her husband’s care.

Tomihiro describes a New Year in the hospital when some patients and many staff have left for holidays. Those left decided to have a party.

All the attendants sat down together for tea on a straw mat spread in the center of the room. Normally, everybody in the hospital had to sit on a chair, not on a Japanese mat, as they did at home… my mother and the other attendants felt more relaxed squatting…

… I could not join them on the mat, but… I felt as if I was back home sitting on a mat with my mother.

They decided to have a singsong, taking it in turns –

While I was singing, I was worrying about my mother. She was to sing after me, and I had never heard her sing before. Can she sing a song? Does she even know a song to sing?…

Her turn came. She said, “I can’t really sing,” and begged the next person to go ahead. But nobody would… my mother began to sing… in a shy, thin voice… an old song I had never heard before.

… the trembling in her voice died away, and her timbre became stronger and stronger…

I was amazed. My mother, her face as shy as ever, now looked so different to me… the mother I had just seen singing was her real self. I had simply never noticed… 

She must have known many songs in her youth. Busy with bringing up children and farming, however, she must have forgotten, before she was aware of it, that she could sing.

While she worked in the small muddy family plot, doing side jobs for a small extra income well after the children had fallen asleep, and bringing us up without buying anything for herself, she must have forgotten about pleasures for herself…

I had never asked what she might want. She must have longed to take a trip or to buy some books to read. Or, even right at this moment, she might be thinking how much she would like to welcome in the New Year with my father back home…

The more I thought, the more ashamed I felt of myself. I had been concerned only about myself, thinking I alone had suffered from this injury…

I love this poem he wrote  –

poem 1

and this honest observation:

“When I was young and healthy, I used to feel very sorry for the handicapped. Sometimes I even felt uncomfortable when I saw them. While going around in my wheelchair, however, I learned something I had not noticed at all before. I was physically handicapped but I was not unhappy, nor did I dislike myself.”

It is all about perception and attitude. He explains it beautifully in a poem about a roadside flower whose Japanese name means poison and pain. He used to hate the flower because of its strange smell and preference for dank places.

Dokudami (Houttuynia)
Hoshino Tomihiro

Someone comes
And picks you up with care.
You have been scorned and despised
They all say you stink
You have been living very quietly
In this small nook along the road,
Looking up at the feet
Of passers-by,
As if waiting for someone to come to you
And need you.

Your flowers
Look just like white crosses.

The title of the book is a line from one of his poems written about the same common weed – it too suggests the mind can always be a little more perceptive and appreciative of the world we live in.

HOUTTUYNIA CORDATA
Hoshino Tomihiro

I didn’t know
How beautiful you were.
Here so close
But I didn’t know.

A book can be the gift that keeps on giving.

A good thought to end the year on and welcome 2019.

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Daylight Robbery

magpie on electric wire

Daylight Robbery

Mairi Neil

In the fading light atop a wire
Mrs Magpie ponders life turned dire
her home’s been lopped
a safe haven chopped
habitat devastated as if by fire

Her brood wanders aimlessly below
pecking and scratching as they go
poking the ground
a discordant sound
a disoriented shambling tableau

How sad the Magpies’ plight
witnessed in the dying light
no nesting to bed
confusion instead
will they find another treed site?

 

Dawn breaks to joyous a song
a chorus from the magpie throng
what a delight
no fly-by-night
this neighbourhood they still belong

It may be a lesson in adaptation
like migrant naturalisation
not an easy move
from comfort’s groove
but necessity and preservation

tree surviving after demolition

As humans continue to multiply
needing houses to build and buy
the land will be cleared
as if blowtorch seared
what then for the family Magpie?

I wonder if down the track we’ll be reading about magpies ‘returning to the suburbs’ after being thought extinct.

An ABC report about Bush stone-curlews being spotted in Canberra and returning to suburbs is heartening but also a warning about how the loss of habitat dislocates and may destroy wildlife.

Thank goodness there are people prepared to put expertise, effort and resources into saving species. (Too late unfortunately for the white rhino...)

Environmental change can be rapid but also less obvious and often public policy plays catch up. It was 1972 before I read Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, an environmental science book published on 27 September 1962 when I was only nine years old.

We are still dealing with the issues she raised and even more serious ones.

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The book had a profound effect on me because it documented the adverse effects on the environment of the indiscriminate use of pesticides.

In 1972, I was involved with the Aboriginal Embassy protest in Canberra and for the first time had deep and meaningful conversations with Indigenous Australians, learning about their country and how the importance for culture and survival depended on their (and ultimately our) relationship with the land.

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A Fortnight, Fear, And The Future

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The months of media speculation finally over and the world now waits with bated breath to see what kind of president Donald Trump will be.

I’m not going to pretend that his win and some of the views of his supporters not only depress and sadden me but also leave a huge question mark over whether the world as we know it will get better or worse.

I feel like I’m in a Monty Python skit and agreeing with John Cleese’s view on life,  ‘what is the bloody point!’

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However, we have survived upheavals and bad leaders before, and now is the time for writers, poets and songwriters to speak up, and letter writers to get busy –

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For several days, I hoped Trump’s election was a bad dream. But as we see protocols and conventions corrupted and ignored,  an array of extreme right-wing, racist, and rabid people placed in powerful positions, we have to accept this is the reality for four years – maybe longer.

A bleak future but we can prove the pen is mightier than the sword and an effective weapon as Trump’s success  unleashes a new push from the ‘loony’ right (climate-change deniers et al) that will make any progress incredibly hard to achieve. The environment an area where we will have to work hard to convince those in authority and the doubting public, we can’t afford to dither or go backwards.

No More Divisive Slogans

The slogan ‘make America great again’ a frightening premonition of what could come and the people who will be excluded, exiled, ejected, expelled, perhaps even eliminated if the KKK have their way!

The implication being America was great before the inclusion of immigrants, empowered women, LBGTIQ and civil rights for African Americans, that ideas and voices of modern America don’t matter, and as Trump’s corporate America tramples over the rights of the Sioux in Dakota, neither do Native Americans. 

I hope many of those who voted for change rather than Trump’s extreme positions will now work to make  change happen decently and fairly and will speak up against divisive policies.

There are plenty of Americans who will challenge outrageous decisions and prove the campaign rhetoric wrong, just as many activists here rally regularly when they feel the government needs reminding to govern for all communities.

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Our community defines us as much as we define our community!

I believe in people power, the power of community, the importance of belonging and inclusion – of welcoming difference rather than embracing fear.

Working in community houses, starting and belonging to community groups, I’ve learned that people have more in common than what divides them – most people want a peaceful world where they can go about their business, bring up their kids, and be happy and healthy.

I love the message from Kev Carmody and Paul Kelly’s song From Little Things, Big Things Grow  – the Gurindji stayed resolute for over 8 years in their fight for land rights and pay equity – an inspiration and example of not giving up.

Recent experiences of the wonderful work being done in our diverse community have kept me sane while the media feeds on a frenzy of bad news.

To stop being smothered by the cloud of despair, I have to be pro-active seeking out people with similar values, people who not only care but do something to make it a better world.

Marriot Support Services AGM

“Specialising in the areas of day services, transition programs and employment for adults with intellectual disabilities, Marriott Support Services is a not-for-profit organisation. It is our aim to achieve greater inclusion in the wider community for people with disability. Let us stand beside you while you reach your goals.  “

I discovered Marriott when Jen, one of the program managers came to my Professional Writing & Editing Class held Monday evenings at Godfrey Street Community House, Bentleigh in 2012 -13.

Marriot offers people with disabilities choices and opportunities for the whole of their adult life in the areas of:

  • Employment
  • Day Services
  • Transition

The organisation, established in the 70s, relies heavily on volunteers as well as government grants. It is also pro-active in generating their own income in various enterprises.

Marriott Industries operates in a modern, fully equipped 3,600 square metre factory offering a suite of services including Pick’n’Pack, Light Assembly, Collating, Sorting, Re Work, Promotional Packs, Shrink Wrapping, Container Unloads and a complete Fulfilment Service.

 Marriott Enviro Services specialises in medium to large commercial horticultural and landcare management.  A qualified management team has decades of horticultural experience between them. Managers and supervisors work alongside a team of 60 employees, in crews of three to five.

Our fleet of modern, well-maintained vehicles and machinery allows us to complete jobs on time and within budget in the areas of:
  • Landcare Management
  • Landscaping
  • Mowing/Commercial
  • Garden Maintenance

 

At the AGM, the auditor reported a healthy bank balance, guest speaker Tim Wilson MP and Virginia Rogers, Chair of Marriott’s Board presented numerous awards for years of service and achievement – the volunteer input ranging from one  to thirty years!

In the room, the enthusiasm, pride and commitment from clients, parents and staff abounded! None more so than the enthusiastic choir (the Marriott Musos) who invited Tim and Virginia to join them in a unique rendition of ‘We Still Call Australia Home’.

marriot-musos

Jen met my daughter, Mary Jane and after learning about her skills in media arts invited Mary Jane to get involved with Marriott.

Mary Jane volunteered and then worked on a digital story project, about people building the social fabric through volunteering. This was funded by a grant from Glen Eira Council.

Networking and six degrees of separation at work…

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Jen and Mary Jane

The project was launched at the AGM and several stories were presented. These can be accessed from Marriott’s website, some are on Youtube:

Jessie’s story

Chris’s story

Jeffrey’s story

Stephanie’s Story

Andrew’s Story

I was a proud mother at the AGM seeing Mary Jane’s digital stories presented – stories celebrating difference and inclusion – stories empowering the participants, stories that may make people think differently about disability.

Mentone Public Library – A Community Asset for 91 Years

I attended another AGM as a participant, not an observer. Mentone Public Library is probably the last subscription library still operating in Victoria and enthusiastically run by a volunteer committee of two now: Julia Reichstein and Tony Brooker.

The AGM revealed a volunteer drought in the City of Kingston, yet the need for the wonderful work Julia and Tony do in promoting local authors, many of whom may not be promoted elsewhere, is obvious.

It is an uphill battle for little known or first-time authors  to be read or afford publicity – Julia’s monthly author events have allowed the public to meet, listen and get up close and personal (yes, the space is small!) with many writers, including Mordialloc Writers’ Group who read selections from Kingston My City for Seniors’ Week celebrations after Amanda Apthorpe read from her latest novel.

A serious looking me with Amanda after her detailed talk about the Greek mythology underpinning her novels. And below, three long-term  members of Mordialloc Writers’ Group: Jillian Bailey, Maureen Hanna and Glenice Whitting.

Next Saturday ( November 26) Glenice Whitting will be the guest author promoting her latest novel, Something Missing.

Two current Kingston councillors and two past councillors were present at the AGM, plus the retiring volunteer Treasurer Lorna (who wants to write her family history and memoir!), the Secretary of the local history society, and a recent volunteer Paul who has retired from the public service and wants to get involved in a community group. (Paul coincidentally used to attend Mordialloc Writers many years ago – yes, it is a small world!)

Two local writers were at the meeting – me and Yvette from Blue Chair Poets. It was a pity more writers who have benefitted from the author events didn’t accept the invitation to attend because Julia and Tony welcomed ideas about how to maintain the library and keep hosting author events for the community. The discussion would have been enriched by more stakeholders contributing their voices.

Although Julia was happy sending me this email:

Thank-you all so much for your attendance, support and input today. You brought much food for thought and instilled in the library team much confidence and hope for the future. We look forward to working with you and hosting you again at the library for future events and meetings.

Writing Class and End Of Year Anthologies

Another event that kept me from sinking into the black hole is the organising of end-of -year anthologies for the classes I teach in neighbourhood houses.

When reading the wonderful stories, poems, anecdotes, memoir and short stories everyone has produced, I relive the amazing discussions we have in class.

I hear the voices, the tears, the laughter and joy. I am in awe of the imaginative use of words, the profound reflections on life,  and the untold stories from history.

The collections bear witness to the hard work writers put in polishing their words. The pride and sense of achievement when they hold printed copies in their hands and can’t believe how much they have written over the term.

I’m still editing and collating but gradually getting there – what would writers be without deadlines! What would I be without writing to focus on!

Learning from ABI

And finally for this post, another group in the community that keeps me grounded and appreciative of family, friends and good health.

These last few months, I’ve been facilitating  Chat ‘N Chuckle,  a social get-together Friday fortnights of people with ABI (Acquired Brain Injury) either by accidents (overwhelmingly in motor vehicles) or through strokes.

The group organised by Belinda Jordan, Community Development Officer of Glen Eira City Council, but initiated by one of my students, Anat Bigos who had a traumatic car accident 11 years ago. Anat is a fantastic example of no matter what hand life deals, play it to the best of your ability.

Anat lives with short-term memory loss as well as reduced physical agility, as do many who have ABI. The patience and understanding the group have with each other and the sense of humour about the vagaries of changed minds and bodies is humbling and inspirational.

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There are 16 participants in the group, with numbers fluctuating each fortnight according to people’s availability, but on average 8 or 9 turn up to share stories and have a chuckle! The expertise and life experience in the group range from young people in their early 20s to older retired people.

Often carers will sit in too and share their interesting lives.

Opportunities for research projects and tips to improve mobility and memory are swapped with many of the group presenting regularly to schools.

Last Friday Phillip, who had a stroke that ended his accountancy career, showed us a short film he uses when he talks to school children about APHASIA The Treasure Hunt an award winning animation.

Aphasia is an impairment of language, affecting the production or comprehension of speech and the ability to read or write. Aphasia is always due to injury to the brain-most commonly from a stroke, particularly in older individuals. But brain injuries resulting in aphasia may also arise from head trauma, from brain tumors, or from infections.

Aphasia can be so severe as to make communication with the patient almost impossible, or it can be very mild. It may affect mainly a single aspect of language use, such as the ability to retrieve the names of objects, or the ability to put words together into sentences, or the ability to read. More commonly, however, multiple aspects of communication are impaired, while some channels remain accessible for a limited exchange of information.

As a writer, I can’t imagine what it would be like not recognising words, losing words from my vocabulary, or being confused and mixing up words.

This group of ‘chatty chucklers,’show such dedication to getting on with life to the best of their ability.  They are examples of  how a community builds relationships with a sense of purpose and mutual respect. An example of surviving against the odds.

So despite the doom and gloom elsewhere, I do appreciate and feel blessed that in my tiny corner of the world there are many people working to make life better for others. There is no magic wand just magical people!

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Honouring A Life Shared

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The Launch of Julie Wentworth: A Life Shared

On Saturday, I went to a book launch, in Ashburton,  with my close friend and writing buddy, author Dr Glenice Whitting. This time, the celebrity of the launch was Glenice’s cousin,  Julie Wentworth.

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Glenice and Julie

 

In July, I mentioned about preparing Julie’s book for publication.

The book is filled with highlights from her life, especially the years teaching yoga and meditation.  Her friend Mark, a teacher and librarian helped capture this amazing journey by recording and typing interviews with Julie whose health has deteriorated in recent years.

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Mark and Julie

 

Julie was given my name by a friend who published her first book.  She knew I had published the last few Mordialloc Writers’ anthologies to save the group money.

My passion for enabling people to tell their stories has led to editing and book publishing. Helping other writers like Julie meant  embracing digital technology – it’s been an interesting ride with plenty more hurdles I’m sure!

 I have to thank my daughter, Mary Jane for producing a cover to the exact specifications Julie wanted – simplicity itself!

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However, to witness Julie’s joy and pride holding the finished product of her labour, and see a queue of devotees lining up for her signature, a wonderful reward.

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To know each book sold provided money for Rainbow Cottage Children & Babies Home, South Africa, a fantastic bonus.

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Lily did the honours – the pile of books dwindled rapidly.

 

The celebration of  Julie Wentworth: A Life Shared was held in the Baptist Church hall where Julie held her Yoga and Meditation classes.

One day, a Friday, in the Ashburton class, (they’re very special yogis, that group), they are strong women, each one so busy and leading full lives.

All of a sudden I couldn’t speak, couldn’t move, I couldn’t even read my notes, what I’d written for this planned class. And there was silence, and the class waited for me. And I was waiting and I thought, Am I going to drop dead here or just sit here and die? A strange feeling, a strange moment.

Eventually I said, ‘Come on, four by four, use it work with it.’ Then I just said to the class, ‘I’m sorry I don’t know what happened there; let’s move on.’ Which I did.

Then, two students phoned me and they said, ‘Julie we’d like to pay for you to go to the Golden Door, in NSW, a health retreat. They have this special offer. Would you have enough money to pay for your own airfare to Newcastle and back?’
‘Yes, I would.’

I did that. So generous, these yogis of mine. I was in a beautiful room. Walked around, did a few sessions, just relaxed and was still. Came back renewed, refreshed. How generous. The stairs of this Golden Door, seemed to go up to heaven. You opened the golden door and all you saw were the stairs. It has a good name, good people, good food, good activities. They paid for it. What a gift!

Light streamed into the room through large glass windows and our eyes feasted on a lovely garden. The tranquility and beauty an apt setting for the author’s memories and story.

The room soon filled with Julie’s friends (many of whom were past students) with the love in the room palpable. The pile of books dwindled and I joked about writer’s cramp as Julie signed one dedication after another.

julie-signing

Julie’s previous book (written when 69 years old),  Love And Light: Yoga for cancer HIV/AIDS & Other Illnesses, a manual sharing her knowledge and teaching techniques, but this short autobiography reveals her amazing journey from gifted singer and music teacher to one of the most highly respected yoga teachers in Melbourne.

It includes personal details not shared before.

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When called upon to launch the book, Glenice praised Julie’s courage and determination.

Her courage to compete and win singing awards.

Dame Joan Sutherland wrote, You have great courage and obviously a great talent.

  • Courage to teach music while struggling with deteriorating hearing. 
  • Courage to leave a toxic marriage
  • Courage to survive cancer
  • Courage as a single mother to reinvent herself and support her son

Julie changed her name for protection, travelled the world to study and eventually established her own Yoga school.

In their darkest hours, Julie worked with those afflicted by Cancer and Aids.

Michelle, a palliative care nurse,  spoke about Julie’s inspiration, guidance, and support.

michelle
Michelle

 

After a move into assisted living accommodation, Julie now faces her own health challenges with her signature courage and delightful sense of humour.

Mark spoke of the life’s lessons he’d learned from Julie, of visiting many of the sacred places overseas she mentions in the book. How she has taught him to appreciate silence.

He shared one of his favourite passages from the book:

It is one of the great losses, that people have forgotten how to just let the silence be, they tend to talk to fill that space.

It’s to do with feeling the vibration. Being aware of the good vibration or the bad vibration. You are more present. It’s the peace.

At the end of the day, when I pull out my hearing aids, I give thanks for the silence, the peace at that time of the day.

mark-reading

It was a privilege to play a small part in bringing this wonderful book into ‘the light’.

All books were sold on Saturday and Julie hasn’t decided if she will have more printed.

What better recommendation can an author have than to know your book is in demand!

Julie often finishes her own meditation with a Metta from Jack Kornfield:

May I be filled with loving kindness

May I be well,

May I be peaceful and at ease,

May I be happy.

A wonderful prayer for us all!

An Anniversary, a Book and a Celebration

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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

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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:

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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.

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Alan Spence – His Writing Memorable and More Than Fine

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I’m not sure Somerset Maugham‘s quote is accurate for all texts, but the books I cherish have certainly resonated deeply and a recent gift from a writer friend is a case in point. Dave, who does have Scottish ancestry, but sounds as ocker as they come is a wonderful friend who shows he is thinking of me by gifting books he discovers in opportunity shops, secondhand bookstores, or passes on books he has enjoyed.

We met for a Senior’s meal at the local Mordialloc Sporting Club and he gave me a recent find.

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First published William Collins Sons & Co Ltd, 1977. Later Phoenix Paperback, 1996.

I don’t often do book reviews because as a writer I’m more comfortable reading and writing short stories and I’ll leave book reviews to my dear friend Lisa Hill who has a well-deserved prize winning blog prioritising books by  Australian and New Zealand writers, but who was kind enough to have me as a guest reviewer last year.

However, Its Colours They Are Fine is thirteen interlinked tales in Alan Spence’s first collection of short stories. Set in Glasgow, they depict aspects of life recognisable to the majority of Glaswegians who grew up there in the 50s and 60s. As someone who was born in Greenock in 1953,  a ‘kick in the bum’ or ‘stone’s throw’ away from Glasgow, I found the stories irresistible and meaningful.

Memorable, not because of what happens, but on account of the mood that is created and the shifts of feeling that are revealed. They are memorable because they ring true. They are rather like Chekhov’s stories. Spence, too, takes a little moment of ordinary experience and transforms it, in the simplest possible manner, into something significant… In an age of ugly preoccupation with violence, he draws attention to moments of beauty and stillness. He is a gentle writer, but never sentimental. The beautiful moments have always been earned… he is a writer to cherish, one offering deep and fulfilling pleasures.

The Scotsman Review

Spence’s dialogue in vernacular (braid or broad) Scots, evokes tenement life, the slums and their inhabitants, with voices of the young and old, Catholic and Protestant, Tinkers (gypsies/travellers), immigrants from Commonwealth countries, the employed and unemployed, the hopeful and disillusioned – and beneath the surface, the deeper currents of the Irish connection, the Protestant and Catholic divide manifested through adherence to Rangers or Celtic football club.(The Old Firm).

I’ve seen some statistics that say 60% of the Glasgow population has Irish ancestry  and having an Irish mother that figure wouldn’t surprise me. There have been plenty of books and films about Glasgow, showcasing the harshness of life in the tenements, but also the humour and resilience of the people. The hooliganism and open violence associated with the two major football teams,  the bigotry fuelled violence manifested in street games, school playgrounds, pubs and clubs and of course family life, still provide high drama today.

Billy Connelly’s honest humorous presentations of growing up in Glasgow, uses language and subject matter not to everyone’s taste. This video of Billy singing I Wish I was In Glasgow is sentimental and expresses feelings I can relate to, although I’d substitute Greenock. However, we are both ‘West Coasters’!

When I was reading the various stories, I kept having flashbacks to my childhood,  remembering snatches of stories from the long after-dinner sessions of storytelling from Mum and Dad. Homesickness has been described as nostalgia for the past – well I experienced plenty of nostalgia from these stories, but also admired how he elevated moments in the lives of ordinary people to memorable, magical and unforgettable events with language of poetic potency.

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The title of the book comes from a story about the Orange Walk, a day when the main character Billy declares ‘God must be a Protestant’ and can’t wait to sing The Sash My Father Wore, the chorus being:

It is old but it is beautiful, and its colours they are fine
It was worn at Derry, Aughrim, Enniskillen and the Boyne.
My father wore it as a youth in bygone days of yore,
And on the Twelfth I love to wear the sash my father wore.

Like many of the stories, it is peopled by working class Protestant characters, many flawed and bigoted, but they also can be loyal, warm and humorous friends. This particular story has the march starting off on a sunny Saturday and by the end of the day they’re in a field in Gourock amid pouring rain. “Wher’s yer proddy god noo!” asked his friend.

In a few pages Spence explores the religious divide, the bigotry, the violence and the ignorance that feeds the Orange Walk and other inappropriate symbols and celebrations, but also the spiritual dimensions to everyday experiences, the importance of rituals and how people can enjoy spectacles without fully understanding their cultural or historical significance. Maybe one day the Orange Walks will go the way of the Confederate Flag , another symbol well past its used by date. Hopefully, people in Northern Ireland, Scotland and beyond will see the divisive celebrations around July 12th for the anachronism they are and consign them to history books.

Other stories focus on family relationships with Tinsel exploring a child’s excitement at putting up the Christmas decorations in a tenement flat with a father ill and out of work and a mother doing her best to keep everything together. The bright decorations and warmth and love inside contrasts with a city still reeling from the damage of world war two, cramped and crowded living conditions, and high unemployment.

The decorations left over from last year were in a cardboard box under the bed…Streamers and a few balloons and miracles of coloured paper that opened out into balls or long concertina snakes. On the table his mother spread out some empty cake boxes she’d brought home from work and cut them into shapes like Christmas trees and bells, and he got out his painting box and a saucerful of water and he coloured each one and left it to dry – green for the trees and yellow for the bells, the nearest he could get to gold.

This story stirred memories of my mother making do; determined to give us the trimmings of Christmas. She helped us make decorations from crepe paper, and even the bright coloured milk bottle tops were useful to cluster together as bells. We  cut up cardboard breakfast cereal packets and covered shapes with the silver paper from inside cigarette packets, and colourful sweetie and chocolate wrappers. There was never the disposable cash to be able to buy the glittering ornaments available today, nor the distraction of all the screen-based entertainment. Making objects and decorating the tree and the house was ‘something special to come home for… and feel warm and comforted by the thought.’

Mum holding me Christmas 1953
Mum holding me with Catriona
Dad’s sister Mary (Aunt Mamie) holding me

The story Sheaves about Harvest Sunday is told from a young boy’s viewpoint too as he tries to understand the deeper significance of Bible texts and parables in relation to his own life. Torn between pleasing his Mother by getting ready for Sunday School yet envying and wanting to play with his friends. The ritual of Sunday best, the giving of fruit and vegetables and other food to thank God for the seasons is another strong memory for me, especially singing a favourite hymn:

We plough the fields, and scatter the good seed on the land;
But it is fed and watered by God’s almighty hand:
He sends the snow in winter, the warmth to swell the grain,
The breezes and the sunshine, and soft refreshing rain.

Chorus:

All good gifts around us
Are sent from heaven above,
Then thank the Lord, O thank the Lord
For all His love.

Spence has the Sunday School teacher remind the city children who have no experience of cultivating the land and who struggle with understanding the language of the Bible:

And no matter what happens to you, even if the dirt of the world seems to have settled on you and made you forget who you really are, deep inside you are still his golden sheaves. And no matter how drab and grey and horrible our lives and this place may sometimes seem, remember that this is only the surface. And even the muck of hundreds of years cannot hide that other meaning which is behind all things. The meaning that we are here to celebrate. That God is love and Christ is Life.

The inscription at the beginning of the book is “To Nityananda and Shantishri (Tom and Maureen McGrath)” and a couple of the stories reflect Spence’s interest in the Indian spiritual teacher Sri Chinmoy.  A recurring theme in the stories is that there are greater cosmic forces beyond earth and although it may be fleeting we can all experience or gain insight into this at different times in our lives, a spiritual dimension to everyday life.

The Rain Dance is a wonderful rich story with many layers about a “mixed” marriage (a Protestant marrying a Catholic) in a registry office and the rituals and festivities surrounding this event. From the noisy “hens” party parading the bride-to-be in the streets for kisses and pennies to the Scramble for bell money – the father of the bride throwing a handful of coins after the church ceremony to be scrambled for by waiting children and other onlookers.

Ah remember reading,’ said Jean, ‘that scrambles go right back tae the olden days, when the didnae keep records an that. An it wis so’s the weans an everybody wid remember the wedding. then if they ever needed witnesses, they’d aw mind a the money getting scrambled.

My parents had a registry office wedding in Glasgow in 1948. No member of Dad’s family attended because they objected to him marrying Mum – upset he chose to marry an Irish woman! Fortunately, Mum’s brother Tom and wife Bessie caught the overnight boat from Belfast and along with the best man witnessed the marriage, and shared a celebratory meal and drink in a nearby hotel. My parents eventually made up their differences with Dad’s family, but I often think how sad their ‘special day’ probably was and try to imagine the ceremony and their feelings.

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Dad and Mum married at registry office Glasgow 16/12/1948
Mum and Dad's wedding day with Tom and Bessie Courtney, Mum's brother and wife
Mum and Dad’s wedding day with Tom and Bessie Courtney, Mum’s brother and wife

Spence describes the day in a way that is culturally specific to Scotland yet full of universal observations and emotions and the description of the actual ceremony particularly poignant for me.

It was over so quickly… awkward, on the pavement, trying to keep out of the wedding-group photos of the couple that had just come out; confusion over which door to go in, then somebody showing them the way; hustle along the corridor, a few minutes’ wait, hushed, in the hall; a door opening, another wedding-group bustling past; another door opening and the registrar ushering them in.

In a low, bored drone he intoned the preliminaries… Brian was staring at the pattern on the carpet, as if he could read there the meaning of it all, the meaning they all knew at that moment. Not the lifeless ceremony, the cardboard stage-set, the dead script, the empty sham. Not that, but something at the heart of it, something real. In spite of it all, they knew, and that was what moved them, to laugh or to cry.

The other stories observe detailed fragments of life in Glasgow. Spence draws on his own childhood, with real and imagined stories. The prejudice and violence often confronting and embarrassing, none more so than Gypsy when he reveals the shameful bigotry and bullying of the people we referred to as tinkers. How sad that those at the bottom of society’s pecking order have to find  other more marginalised people to despise.

And finally, the book closes with Blue, a first person account from a grief-stricken boy coping with the death of his mother who had been ill for sometime. He works through the various connotations of “blue” whether it be his Ranger scarf, his Catholic friend’s explanation of the colour and significance of Mary’s robes, the lyrics of diverse songs like Blue Moon and Singing The Blues…

It was as if part of me already knew and accepted, but part of me cried out and denied it. I cried into my pillow and a numbness came on me, shielding me from the real pain. I was lying there, sobbing, but the other part of me, the part that accepted, simply looked on. I was watching myself crying, watching my puny grief from somewhere above it all. I was me and I was not-me.

As a writer and a reader (and as a Scot), I’m grateful Dave discovered this book for me. It is 232 pages of powerful storytelling and as the young boy in the closing story learns, despite the tragedy of his Mother’s death, life does go on and the rest of the world goes about their business. The next day “was the same. It was very ordinary. Nothing had changed…”

Except the reader – the stories will make you ponder the complexities of the human condition and engage your emotions. Trust me, you don’t have to be Scottish to enjoy them!

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Colourful Words

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I can remember when Petula Clark released Colour My World in 1966; I had just entered teenage with hormones rampant, aching for romantic love. The lyrics of this song resonated more than Rabbie Burns’ A Red, Red Rose, a poem-turned-song I knew well because of my Father’s  love of Scotland’s most famous bard. However, it was the 60s, transistor radios and pop music aboundedColour My World had a catchy tune to match memorable words.

You’ll never see a dark cloud hanging ’round me
Now there is only blue sky to surround me
There’s never been a grey day since you found me
Everything I touch is turning to gold

[Chorus]
So you can colour my world with sunshine yellow each day
Oh you can colour my world with happiness all the way
Just take the green from the grass and the blue from the sky up above
And if you colour my world, just paint it with your love
Just colour my world

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What is the difference between poetry and song lyrics?

 It is certainly true that poems are taught (for better or worse) in classrooms and made a part of the canon of literature, whereas songs, especially popular ones, usually are not. If song lyrics are studied in school, often it is ethnographically or anthropologically, to learn something about a culture, not as literature per se. What I suppose some musicians want is not to be considered poets, but for their lyrics to be read with the same respect they imagine poems are…

The ways the conditions of that environment affect the construction of the words (refrain, repetition, the ways information that can be communicated musically must be communicated in other ways in a poem, etc.) is where we can begin to locate the main differences between poetry and lyrics.

Matthew Zapruder, poet, translator, and editor, Boston Review 2012

This week in class we had fun using colour in our poems. I went on the Dulux Paint site and printed off their colour palettes to distribute, not only to have many colours and shades as triggers but also to encourage the use of the innovative and descriptive names given to the colours.

Colour is all around us, affecting our mood, it’s a given that it adds to your writing – sight being one of the most important of our senses. Add a colour when describing and the detail makes the image clearer. I have two beautiful books about poetry addressing the use of colour. Written for children, I discovered them in a local op shop and in the words of another song ‘bless the day’ I did.

 Writing Poems by Michael Harrison and Christopher Stuart-Clark focuses on techniques and forms of verse, with examples and exercises encouraging children to experiment with their writing. Poems include:

Colour
Christina Rossetti

What is pink? a rose is pink
By a fountain’s brink.
What is red? a poppy’s red
In its barley bed.
What is blue? the sky is blue
Where the clouds float thro’.
What is white? a swan is white
Sailing in the light.
What is yellow? pears are yellow,
Rich and ripe and mellow.
What is green? the grass is green,
With small flowers between.
What is violet? clouds are violet
In the summer twilight.
What is orange? Why, an orange,
Just an orange!

and

Grey
James Reeves

Grey is the sky, and grey the woodman’s cot
With grey smoke tumbling from the chimney-pot.
The flagstones are grey that lead to the door;
Grey is the hearth, and grey the worn old floor.

The old man by the fire nods in his chair;
Grey are his clothes and silvery grey his hair.
Grey are the shadows around him creeping,
And grey the mouse from the corner peeping.

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In Hailstones and Halibut Bones, a delightful children’s classic, described correctly as ‘adventures in colour’, Mary O’Neill’s magnificent poems, explore a particular colour, the colour spectrum summed up by the last poem in the book:

Colors
Mary O’Neill

The Colors live
Between black and white
In a land that we
Know best by sight.
But knowing best
Isn’t everything,
For colors dance
And colors sing,
And colors laugh
And colors cry –
Turn off the light
And colors die,
And they make you feel
Every feeling there is
From the grumpiest grump
To the fizziest fizz.
And you and you and I
Know well
Each has a taste
And each has a smell
And each has a wonderful
Story to tell…

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We had wonderful discussions about colours in my classes – we all have favourite ones, particularly regarding fashion and what colour we believe suits us. There were passionate debates about shades and names. About writing reflecting happy and sad moods.

Cheltenham, Tuesday, October 21, 2002
Mairi Neil

Opposite the cemetery
on the bus shelter roof
there’s a drumbeat dirge
this wintry day
in springtime Melbourne.

Grey sky
Grey pavement
Grey faces
Grey tombstones…

A river of vehicles
flowing past
swishing, swooshing
dispersing grey puddles
splashing kerbs.

Roy Orbison’s, Pretty Woman
explodes from a passing car.
Pedestrians pause
eyes a-sparkle
lips stretch into smiles…

At the cemetery gates
a daffodil yellow taxi
ferries a passenger
her pain masked
by rain-splattered windows.

Swamped
in a tsunami of grief
I too, no longer anyone’s
Pretty Woman.

I wrote this poem the day I returned to work, a month after my husband’s death when the whole world did indeed seem grey.  But what of those who are colour blind? Those who struggle with limited colour in their lives. Well, we poets are adaptable and will write about anything!!

The Colourblind Birdwatcher
U.A. Fanthorpe

In sallow summer
The loud-mouthed birds
peer through my hedges
As brown as swallows.

In an acrid autumn
High-flying birds
Splay in formation
As brown as magpies.

In the wan winter
Audacious birds
Besiege my windows
As brown as robins.

In sepia spring
The punctual birds
Resume their habits
As brown as blossom.

At the other extreme, people who hear, taste or smell colour exist. They have synesthesia, a rare neurological condition in which two or more of the senses entwine. I’ve had several student writers over the years with synesthesia and they’ve produced amazing work.

After the class discussion, we wrote a poem together just to get into the swing of thinking about colour before our splurge time of free writing –

Tuesday Class Poem – Godfrey Street, Bentleigh

Tuesday, a scarlet day, like a magnificent sunset
It’s a blushing woman, ‘Gone with the Wind.’
It’s a juicy Victoria plum dripping sweetness
It’s a burning bush splashing golden sparks
It’s the last glass of claret enriching palates
It’s a heated argument getting out of hand
It’s a colicky baby seeking comfort

Monday Class Poem, Mordialloc Neighbourhood House

Red is Monday, in writing class
A happy day full of friendship
An energetic day like an express train
A red-leg day watching doves dance in the garden
A fired-up day flickering like flames
An angry day falling out of bed
A passionate day – beware of love
A taxi day stopping at all the traffic lights
A red-letter day writing in class

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Encouraging each other to ‘think outside the box’  we splurged using the paint cards as a starting point:

What Colour is Tolerance?
Mairi Neil

Green comes in forty shades
The Irish folk group sings
Soft moss by rivers streaming
Tarragon glory of fairy rings

Ireland the true emerald isle
Celtic forests delight and intrigue
Crushed pine perfumes the air
Woodland ferns soften history’s deeds.

When English mist descended
Paradise green became no more
Even Dublin Bay laced with blood
Years of bomb blasts and gore.

Like the famed Amazon jungle
Impenetrable; peace seemed futile
But as spring buds banish winter
Persistence gave reason to smile!

From green felt to cameo silk
Ireland’s metamorphoses proudly displayed
Acceptance of all shades of green and pink
In May 2015, history is made!

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Greening Me

Mairi Neil

I want to be green
Because the grass is green
Grass grows everywhere
I’d travel far across lands
Meet up with different grasses
Grow anywhere and fit in

I want to be green
Because Kermit the Frog is green
A reminder of childhood
Innocence, laughter and fun,
Easy to be green, like Kermit
Revisiting a joyous green

I want to be green
Because many vegetables are green
The ones really good for you
Green vegetables are nutritional
I’m glad to be healthy and alive
A tasty green too

I want to be green
Because my mother was Irish
The Emerald Isle in my blood
Celtic music and folklore
Memories of Mum in my heart
Green the colour of my love.

Unknown

Colours of a Writer’s Day
Mairi Neil

What is blue? Ink is blue
When my pen flows free and true
What is white? My notebook page
Words rolling raw at every stage.
What is violet? My thoughts a jumble
Ideas, emotions, fears all tumble.
What is brown? My desk is brown
Where I smile and also frown.
What is green? My garden’s green
Daily relief from the computer screen.
What is yellow? My lamp is yellow
Evening air oh, so mellow.
What is red? My editing pen…
Write, rewrite, rewrite again!

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Autumn Feast
Mairi Neil

Frenzied and flaming
Leaves flicked in the air
Scattered by a bitter wind
Whistling through the park
From the icy southern ocean.

Falling autumnal leaves
A plush velvet carpet
Colours of a Caribbean dawn
And Moroccan dusk.

Children skip and skitter
Cherry Ripes and Candy Canes
Giggling and rosy-cheeked
Kicking and throwing leaves

Into nutmeg clusters
Roasted pumpkin piles
Sunflower symphonies
Ruby fountains
Grecian garlands
And emerald delights.

The crunch and crackle
Scuff and crinkle
Perfumes the air…
Eucalyptus, pine, mellow maple
Mature oak, liquidambar
Eastern spice and lemon chiffon.

The sky a Damson dream
Angry clouds of volcanic ash
Dissipate and make way for
The marble swirl of autumn glory
Truly a feast for the poet’s eye!

Next week it will be exciting to read the polished poems produced by the writers and any new inspirations they produce.

What role does colour play in your writing life?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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As a people watcher, I observe and scribble in a notebook, taken everywhere. An event, a smell, sound or person triggers the muse. Later, these pages filled with character profiles, plus ideas for prose and poems become details in stories. Sometimes I’m inspired and start writing the story on the train or in the cafe, if I can write undisturbed. The bones of a story grow. Writers must be curious and record observations because this advice is repeated in almost all articles and books on the craft of writing.

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

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

Bette Davis 1908-89

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Journey Home
Mairi Neil

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

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

wheeze kerplunk clunk clunk
wheeze kerplunk clunk clunk

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

wheeze kerplunk clunk clunk!

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

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

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

Skywalker Payne

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

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

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

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

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

Impermanence, Inevitability and Dying with Dignity.

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

Steve Jobs

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

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

The day takes its first lurch into the surreal.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The day has taken its second lurch into the surreal.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robert Louis Stevenson

Happy Birthday Rabbie Burns! And Thank You Mum and Dad – In Praise of Reading and the Value of Books.

Through and through th’ inspired leaves,
ye maggots make your windings;
But O respect his lordship’s taste,
And spare the golden bindings.’

Robert Burns, 25th Jan 1759 – 21st July 1796

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Today is the anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns – ‘oor Rabbie’  and my Father’s favourite Scottish poet. In many countries of the world, as well as Scotland, his contribution to literature will be celebrated at a Burns Supper with haggis piped in, songs sung, poems recited and much Scotch whisky, even Drambuie consumed. If you have an ounce of Scots blood, or lay claim to Scottish heritage, put an attendance at a Burns Supper on your bucket list!

It’s an opportune day to reflect on how my parents influenced me in different ways regarding reading as they inculcated a love of books into our family life. Both parents were strong characters with strong beliefs, but they came from different backgrounds (Dad, Scottish working class, Mum, Irish middle class) and so each had eclectic tastes. Fortunately, they agreed about issues that mattered – ethics and values to guide our lives, the importance of humanity and spirituality – and as prolific readers, both valued education.

Mum read more novels and fiction than Dad, who favoured technical manuals and non fiction books on subjects such as theology, philosophy, and politics. However, both loved history and poetry, and the classics. They kept abreast of the popular literature of the day, and the books considered to belong in an educated person’s library.

When my Dad died, I found an exercise book where he had had written stories, poems and even a short play. ‘Scraps of Paper’  so poignantly captured by Eric Bogle, who also had an erudite railwayman as a father. I realised the reason Dad nurtured and supported my love of creative writing was because it was an unrequited dream of his own. All my life, I knew, he valued the written word,  had a talent for speaking and writing, but sadly never saw his way to living the writer’s life.

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November 1962 – an image etched in my mind of Mum and Dad sitting in our almost bare lounge-room the week before we left Scotland for Australia.

Two packing cases sit in the centre of the floor, greaseproof lining protruding as if a surprise package has just been opened, but these are set aside to pack books for the hold of the ship taking us to Melbourne. Their pungent woody smell almost overpowers the musty smell from piles of books garnered from every room, drawer and bedside shelf in the house and scattered in various sized bundles around the room.

Mum sits on a cushion on the floor examining stacks –   book by book. Dad sits on a kitchen chair (the lounge suite already gifted to a needy neighbour) and he has several books balancing on his knees as he thumbs through a green leather volume in his hand.

Mum looks different, not relaxed as she usually is at night, in an armchair, engrossed in a book, cup of tea by her side, cigarette smouldering in an ashtray, and one hand twirling at her popular Toni perm.

Tonight, she’s wearing new reading glasses and a serious face. There are no guffaws of laughter (a frequent occurrence when she reads a Para Handy novel), or serious sighs (from absorption in an Agatha Christie mystery or Arthur Upfield’s Bony series), or dreamy smiles inspired by her favourite Mills and Boon author, Australian Lucy Walker.

‘We’ll take this one,’ said Dad, handing over Ivanhoe, a Sir Walter Scott Waverley novel, ‘which pile is going?’

Mum looks up, ‘Aye, all right – and this one too,’ she adds, pointing to a pile next to one of the packing cases and placing the Tartan Pimpernel by Donald Caskie on top.

‘Have you been through this pile?’ Dad leans over to check a bundle of books near his feet.
‘Aye,’ said Mum, ‘they can stay.’ She smiles as Dad picks them up to glance at their spines. He doesn’t check inside to see if they belonged to Papa, Granny, or one of his sisters and brothers, instead he mutters, ‘they’ll go.’

Mum laughs and holds up another bundle of books. ‘You decided these should stay?’
Dad nods. ‘Well,’ said Mum, ‘I want them to go.’

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I’m not sure if any books actually remained in Scotland. The evening progressed slowly, books Mum discarded, Dad decided to keep – and vice versa. Thank goodness even our children’s books were packed. No wonder the family home, including my current one, the bookshelves always bulge.

From my childhood, I learned to value books as prized possessions, a necessity for living. In the 50s and 60s, Sunday School and regular School awarded books as prizes – for attendance and for achievement. Books were expensive until the cheaper paperbacks were produced and for working class children like me an amazing gift to receive.

Father Christmas left children’s annuals like the Beano, Dandy, Topper or Bunty plus a popular novel, whether it was Capt W.E Johns Biggles series for the boys, or Louisa M Alcott’s Little Women series for the girls.

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My godmother and other relatives and family friends knew to give me books as presents, were aware of my dream to be like my fictional heroine, Jo March.

No surprise I became the swot of the family and only sibling to attend university, the teacher and writer with floor to ceiling bookshelves in several rooms – the one who has happily lost countless hours of  life rummaging in bookshops.

I hear Dad’s voice, ‘I don’t care if you choose to be a street cleaner. Just stick in at school and be the best educated and qualified street cleaner there is!’ and Mum’s plea, ‘never waste the brains or talent God gave you.’

I’ve passed on the love and value of reading to my daughters. They understand that education is not the cramming of knowledge, but nurturing the desire to learn. I wonder what books will bulge from their bookshelves because despite technology they both love the feel, the weight, the smell, the comfort of a ‘real’ book! And they have both become exceptionally creative people in their own fields, including a love for the power of words.

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