Holiday Games Banishing Stress With a Toolbox of Fun

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

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

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

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

Begone Stress!

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

JK Rowling

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

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

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

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

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

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

Holiday Games

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lizzy

The Writer’s Toolbox

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 FLASH FICTION IN 30 MINUTES

Fijian Fantasy by Mairi Neil (590 words)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He never showed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

YOUR TURN NOW:

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

Your Mother lied to you, that’s the truth!

I have this system for getting exactly what I want out of people.

Dad gave me a wink like we were pals or something…

I loved the way she said ‘balloon’…

He swore on his mother’s grave but then he swore on just about everything.

There I was just standing there…

My only defence was to write down every word they said…

 

Happy Holidays!

 

 

Life Doesn’t Have to Be A Gamble

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I don’t consider myself a wowser but have to admit to disquiet about where we are heading as a nation regarding gambling after a recent report ranks Australia among the world’s biggest gambling nations.

In the past, I’ve smiled at the jokes about Australians having a public holiday for a horse race when the Melbourne Cup is discussed.

I’ve bet on the Cup, bought Tattslotto and raffle tickets, and once when visiting my sister in Albury, even put a complimentary $2.00 in 5cent coins through a machine at their local League Club in an attempt to ‘join in the fun’.

That evening I had to beg my sister to take over my machine because I got bored – each time I thought I’d finished feeding the coins I’d win just enough to keep going! I honestly can’t see the attraction of pokie machines, yet poker machines still account for more than half of all gambling losses in Australia.

Here is an article from our local paper this month:

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The trend is similar in other cities, where disadvantaged suburbs are delivering the biggest returns to the operators of pokies venues.

On a Monday morning, as we sit writing our stories in the Mordialloc Neighbourhood House there is a steady stream of punters going into gamble at the hotel across the Nepean Highway, now named Mordy HQ, although previously called the Kingston Club.

View from the Window

Mairi Neil

The grey monolith of the Kingston Club dominates the streetscape
Seen through the green curtain of trembling palms, the bleakness softens.
Green and yellow flapping fronds a distraction from concrete geometry.
The garden bed of emerald bushes comforts the dull red leaves of the coprosma
dying under the weight of winter. Tiny shoots peek from the tanbark,
promising spring. I imagine white lilies and yellow daffodils dancing.
Still secreted beneath the soil, other seeds prepare for Mother Nature’s show,
Trained to perfection they absorb today’s bright sunshine.A rainbow line of cars gleam, duco washed and polished by weekend rain.
Last night’s downpour, a cleansing river whisking dusty debris, and leaf litter
Into the drains, to be carried to the sea and discharged into the bay
Fired like a cannonball from the stormwater pipe at Mentone.
A woman walks by, head bowed, hands thrust in jacket pockets.
A mother wheels a stroller down the ramp, her smiling toddler eager to play.
Pens scratch as we listen to meditative music of winter sounds in the writing class
Outside sunshine and serenity belies drumrolls of thunder and crashing cymbals.Beyond the window, I imagine the sea. A calm mirror today, wavelets daintily
Tripping to the foreshore. Dog walkers stroll, children shovel sand and laugh
Beachcombers search for abandoned treasure after hundreds of weekend visitors
Tourists, high-spirited revellers, and locals caught in metal detectors’ sweep.
The gamblers and lonely misfits in the grey monolith hope for luck too
Not by the blue sea, nor breathing fresh air, or soaking in the warmth of the sun.
Caught in the magnetic attraction of gaming machines they do not see
Dappled sunshine dancing on the window pane, or the palm trees tremble.

 

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Australia is ranked among the world’s biggest gambling nations.

Dr Piers Howe, a cognitive scientist at the University of Melbourne, believes Australians are among the heaviest punters on the planet on a per capita basis and are probably the biggest.

Our nation’s gambling addiction has deepened with average net losses borne by each adult member of the population climbing to $1242 in 2015.

New national data published by the Queensland government this month shows that total net losses rose 7.7 per cent to $22.73 billion in the 12 months to the end of June last year, driven by massive growth in online sports betting and casino gaming.

New South Wales is the country’s biggest consumer market for gambling, with average losses per head of population rising more than $100 to $1517.

Victoria was the second-highest gambling state with per capita losses rising by around $85 to $1250, although gamblers burnt cash at a slower rate than their NSW counterparts.

 

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The biggest beneficiaries from our national fixation are big ASX-listed gaming and casino operators and the state governments.

  • James Packer’s listed casino business, Crown Resorts, raked in a net profit of more than $400 million for the year to the end of June, on the back of solid returns from flagship casinos in Sydney, Melbourne, and Perth.
  • Packer also owns the local operations of online sports gaming provider Betfair, which is benefitting from the digital gambling boom.
  • Woolworths is another big winner through its hotel joint venture with national pokies king, Bruce Mathieson.

“It’s easy to look at the release of these figures today as just statistics but let’s not forget that every dollar of ‘gambling expenditure’ comes from a real person and much of this from problem gamblers.”

Tasmanian independent MP Senator Andrew Wilkie

Crowning Glory
Mairi Neil

A glittering palace to mankind’s ingenuity
Or a concrete prison to addiction?
A private playground for the rich list,
Convenient bank for money launderers,
Or harmless escapism to chase Lady Luck?
The foyer a curiosity for snap-happy tourists,
Their wondrous delight as cameras flash
And children stare at magic ceilings
While colourful water fountains dance
To Grieg, Tchaikovsky and Verdi…

Beyond smooth marble surfaces,
Polished wood and gleaming brass,
The alluring world of gaming machines hums.
Amid baize Roulette and Black Jack tables
Serviced by smiling seductive croupiers,
Homes are lost, marriages disintegrate,
Unfettered,the leviathan shatters youthful dreams.
In private rooms high rollers
Win what they can afford to lose…

This is a place for saviours to seek sinners.
Priests have intoned ‘the poor are always with us’
As cries of ‘Bingo’ echo in church halls and
School fetes spin wheels to fund libraries.
Government coffers bulge and the
Community Benefit Tax manipulated ––
Everyone celebrates Cup Day and
Glue-stick legs and arms clamp onto the
2,500 metal machines hidden behind glitzy walls…

The cry of a child in the carpark
Bounces off Commodores and shiny Volvos;
Smothered between Land Rovers and limousines,
Jaded Mazdas, new Toyotas, ancient Fords.
Trembling hands swipe plastic cards ignoring
Mobile phone vibrations and merry ringtones
Self-control buried behind pale faces.
Glazed eyes focus with burning intensity
On spinning numbers and gaudy symbols;
Dry lips pray for luck
To a God abandoned long ago…

Security guards turf tipsy losers
Onto Southbank’s smooth walkways.
At the mercy of loutish thugs they
Stumble home to suburbia, seeking courage to
Face frantic family or exhaust-fumed garage  –
Perhaps Gamblers’ Anonymous?
The Yarra River reflects Melbourne’s progress
But at night this River Styx absorbs
The tears of the disadvantaged and
Washes away the writing on the wall.

Each night the news is full of refugees, asylum seekers, homeless, jobless… and although maths has never been my forte you don’t have to be Einstein to work out how much better off society would be if we could get the nation’s addiction under control. If the casino and hotel owners thought of people before profits, and if social programs worked to entice people away from self-destructive behaviour.

A lot of ifs and buts in that dream…

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“As gambling becomes more popular it has less of a social stigma and it might be that social norms around gambling have made it more acceptable.”

I guess what we need to do is change behaviour and in some cases cultural norms. As usual, this must start in childhood – children learn what they live! Here is a modern nursery rhyme from my book of Nutty Nursery Rhymes:

Little Miss Honey
Lost all her money
Down at Crown Casino
She found being broke
Wasn’t a joke
Oh, how her tears did flow!

Little Miss Honey
Went to the bank
To ask for a housing loan
The bank manager said, ‘No,
To the Casino don’t go,
Gambling we won’t condone!’

In this episode of Not for Podcast, by Pro Bono Australia news, special contributor Rachel Alembakis, founder and publisher of The Sustainability Report, follows a group of responsible investors, consumer rights advocates and financial counsellors who are campaigning to get the major banks to cut the credit. Online gambling is under the microscope and discredited.

 

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Olympic Memories Make a Moving Memoir

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After a few days of almost Spring weather, mercurial Melbourne reminded me it is still officially winter and inadvertently revealed a trace of the past. Above, is an outline which appeared on the kitchen window, of a butterfly sticker removed over two years ago!

The heat generated by the gas heater, plus steam from the pot of sweet potato and lentil soup I was cooking for a Union of Australian Women luncheon, revealed this outline despite the glass being cleaned umpteen times  since the sticker was removed.

I’ve never noticed this outline before (day or night) – a ghostlike skeleton from the past – a reminder of something no longer in existence.

A great metaphor for memoir and life story writing when we never know what memory will pop up or be triggered to write about…

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I love creative writing and the four classes I’m teaching this year at three neighbourhood houses (Mordialloc, Longbeach Place, and Godfrey Street) enables me to meet many passionate writers and hear their wonderful stories.

If I can encourage and facilitate these stories into print to be widely shared I feel a sense of accomplishment – especially if the stories are from life experiences. This is how we appreciate and learn from each other – and I’m forever amazed at what turns up!

The Olympic Games

School teachers love the Olympics and plan lessons in all subjects around the theme, but I don’t specifically do that in adult classes. However, what a delightful surprise when a student in the Wednesday Life Stories & Legacy class entertained us with her connection to the 1956 Olympic Games held in Melbourne.

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An unused postcard found in the Croydon house when we migrated here in 1962

Donna, not only wrote about the links she had with the 16th Olympiad but brought in a jar containing part of the famous field finishing line!

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This ‘show and tell’ was in response to previous lessons when we discussed nostalgia and memories. Sometimes in class, an item is mentioned and the whole group gives a collective laugh or sigh and says, “Oh, I remember that” or “I haven’t thought about that in years.”

Think carefully…

Have you an item/relic from days gone by, no longer useful apart from being an oddity? Have a look in drawers and cupboards and write about it before passing it on to the op shop!

Donna turned up with an old chutney jar from the back of her mother’s kitchen cupboard. This jar had a piece of the turf from the finishing line (white chalk barely discernible after more than half a century later), historic in more ways than one!

  • The 16th Olympiad was the first time the Games had been held in Australia, and classed as the ‘Friendly Games’
  • It was the beginning of the tradition whereby all athletes walk into the Closing Ceremony as one group, and not individual countries.

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The above newspaper clipping featuring Donna’s mother, “Mrs. John Hellier” explains how she was in a position to souvenir such a piece of Olympic memorabilia.

Heather Hellier was the private secretary to Sir William Bridgeford, the chief executive officer of the Olympic Committee. It was her job to put overseas visitors and other dignitaries at ease (notably the Duke of Edinburgh and Australia’s PM Sir Robert Menzies) as well as a host of officials and journalists from all participating countries.

A typical day for Heather included:

  • arranging press conferences with Sir William for Australian and visiting journalists
  • arranging plane tickets and hotel bookings for one of his interstate tours to publicise the Games
  • typing his many speeches
  • dealing with correspondence and telephone calls
  • receiving numerous guests, visitors, and queries
  • assisting planning for official banquets and receptions (before, during and after the Games) including those for Royal guests of honour
  • controlling the steady stream of people paying courtesy calls and business people seeking meetings with Sir William during the Games

 

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Donna reading her story while Annie reads a copy of the newspaper article

Donna recalled some of her mother’s conversation about that exciting time when she probably had one of the most prestigious and memorable secretarial positions available.

For my mother , it meant long hours, care for every detail, and constant polite communication, culminating in the Games themselves, which were a well-ordered whirlwind of inspirational efforts, patriotic pride, the honouring of Olympic ideals, as well as meetings with Prime Minister Menzies and even a chat about cycling with the Duke of Edinburgh…

It was frantic but went like clockwork due to all the careful planning.

There were winners and there were losers, heroics, and even bloodshed in the pool as the Cold War managed to enter the Melbourne Olympics, better known from that day to this as The Friendly Games…

… as their feet went over that white chalk line they were as one, no longer divided by country. There were many tears shed as the Olympic flag was taken down, the Olympic Flame extinguished and the athletes left the stadium… 

… my mother was horrified to see the Olympic track being unceremoniously dug up in order for the MCG to host a cricket match… this was almost sacrilegious. Always quick on her feet, she ran downstairs and grabbed two pieces of the chalked turf finishing line – one for herself, and one for  Sir William… 

… that piece of white chalk on Olympic turf had done its job, brought pride and achievement, rewarded hard work, stamina, and sheer guts. Its time in the spotlight under the glare of thousands of photographers’ flash bulbs over. Sad to be gone in physical terms but living on in the history of this country, in the minds and memories of all who saw it, and in film (early TV) and photography.

How lucky to see a tiny piece of that memorable event – even if stored in a chutney jar for 60 years!

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I tried to capture that faint white line.

After Donna read her story I remembered some memorabilia from previous Olympic Games that are probably quite rare in Australia.

The Moscow Olympics

In 1980, I worked for the Victorian Branch of the  Federated Miscellaneous Workers’ Union and one of the officials, Frank Brady was fundraising for a close friend going to the Olympic Games in Moscow.

However, Russia had invaded Afghanistan in 1979, and the USA and other countries decided to boycott the Olympic Games. The country was divided about attending and the angst and controversy of the time a direct contrast to the cute bear who was the mascot of the Games.

Frank gifted me the bear and badge.

It holds precious memories of my time in the union office and of Frank who died a few years later. There were many debates and discussions around Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan (ironically the USA also took that path years later), the Olympic boycott, the decisions of individual athletes to go or stay, and the spectacular opening and closing ceremonies. These set a high competitive benchmark for every Olympiad since and the effort to go one better.

As Alexander McCall Smith said, ‘we don’t forget…’ and keepsakes and objects help spark the memories!

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Misha, also known as Mishka designed by children’s book illustrator Victor Chizhikov

The governments of the United Kingdom, France, and Australia supported the boycott but left any final decision over participation to individual athletes and respective NOCs.

The International Olympics Federations protested that the pressures by the US and other supporting countries for the boycott was an inappropriate means to achieve a political end, and the victims of this action would be the athletes.

Needless to say, there have been plenty of politics at every Olympics since and the controversy over Moscow resulted with only eighty participating countries, the lowest number since 1956.

Yet, the Moscow Games have the distinction that more world records were set than by the fuller contingent attending the previous summer games in Montreal, 1976.

The Sydney Olympics

I have several photographs commemorating the 2000 Olympics held in Sydney, Australia, starting with the Olympic Torch Relay. Lots of community members were chosen to take part in mini relays on the lead up to the great day and my friend from the Union of Australian Women,  Amy Duncan ran in Mordialloc.

When the Olympic Torch came to Melbourne, I kept the girls off school and with hundreds of others we cheered the runners at Mentone. We had some morning tea and then caught a tram to spend the afternoon at a special exhibition about Anne Frank at the Holocaust Museum in Elsternwick.

The tram had to stop to let the runners go past, we hopped off and joined the throng of well-wishers. The crowds were so huge, and traffic jammed that we met up with more torch relay runners. It was a slow run because I think the authorities underestimated the thousands who would take to the streets to cheer.

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The girls met several runners (former and current athletes) and they both got to hold an Olympic Torch. Perhaps in a writing class of the future, they’ll write their story of that day.

For most people, the highlight of the 2000 Games was Cathy Freeman and although I would never call myself a sporty person, Cathy, and those Games encouraged me to be a couch potato for a few weeks, and join John and the girls watching the Games!

The Beijing Olympics

The final Olympic story triggered by Donna’s magnificent Mother’s history was of the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

Prior to China hosting the Olympic Games, I was working for Melbourne University Student  Union, and we hosted a delegation of Chinese university students from the same Beijing university that led the protests in 1989 later known as the Tiananmen Square Massacre.

The students were coming to Australia to learn about representative student unions, how to run student elections, and work with university administration.

We had many interesting discussions and I showed them photographs of my time in China in 1979 – long before any of them were born! We also talked about 1989 and what memories they or their parents had. They were optimistic for the democratization of their country’s institutions.

All of them had gifts to share and along with a lovely wall hanging and polished wooden coasters, they gave me an Olympic Games fan, and I requested their autographs.

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Please share whatever memories you have of Olympic Games – past or present!

 

 

When Inspiration Strikes – Write

 

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I’ve often mentioned how lucky I am.  How blessed and privileged, to be working in community houses and teaching people who want to write, and who love words as passionately as I do.

Today, with mid-winter cold and rain creating a day where staying in bed, or hugging the fireplace seemed a good move unless a better option arose, I  cheerfully organised myself for work.

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As a teacher,  you are not supposed to have favourites, but my class on Wednesday morning is pure delight. Ages range from the early 30s to 87 years and each decade in-between.

Our cultural backgrounds and life experience encompass  Armenia, Egypt, Israel, Scotland, Ireland, England and Australia.

Professions: nurse, teacher, event manager, administration, retail, hospitality, lollipop lady, cleaner, small business owner, musician, author, artist, police officer, disability speaker, estate agent, receptionist…

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Life experience: mother, wife, widow, divorcee, never married, single. Some siblings, some knew parents, some brought up by grandparents, some have been in care…

There are travellers, happy-at-home, armchair travellers, ex-military, and those with a bucket list of places to see – exotic and mundane.

We have Post-grads, those whose education was cut short or limited, a Bachelor of Theology, Catholics, Protestants, atheists, agnostics, spiritualists, non-believers, secular Jews, Buddhists…

 

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Wednesday mornings rich with stories, good writing, fun, and laughter. And today was no exception with one of the students, Donna reading a wonderful piece, “Hatitude My Life in Hats” – an earlier version available online.

With Donna’s permission, I’ve started taking photographs because she brightens up the class with her style, stories, and indeed always a fashionable hat!

Her story today eliciting spontaneous applause!

When I opened my curtains this morning, I smiled, despite the rain dancing on the driveway and street, adding that extra swish as cars raced past.

I smiled because my beautiful bird of paradise (Strelitzia reginae)is healthy and blooming, I smiled because it is great to be alive.

And because like  most mornings, Mr or Mrs Magpie visited to sing an aria or two. However, recently the magpies have been upstaged by an extremely vocal Noisy Miner.

So vocal, that my lovely daughter MJ has considered avicide.

I am more forgiving – and Tuesday evening being bin night, my sleep was already disturbed  by the growling and clattering of the garbage truck at 6.00 am, so the off-beat duet didn’t cause me to frown.

Because we all share this small planet Earth, we have to live in harmony and peace with each other and with nature. That is not just a dream, but a necessity.

Dalai Lama, Tibetan spiritual leader.

And by the time I arrived at Godfrey Street, Bentleigh, via foot, train, bus, and foot (Bentleigh Station not due to reopen until the end of the month) the rain had stopped and I could enjoy the short walk through the garden and appreciate the love and care enveloping the house.

 

Number Nine Godfrey Street

Mairi Neil 2016

The garden a delight from someone’s green fingers
A profusion of pastel colours glistening
While sunshine smiles and fickle autumn spits rain.
I watch visitors stream inside the nondescript house
Their footsteps echoing on shaded verandah.
Walkers scrape and stroller wheels squeak.
A magpie trills in dinner-suited elegance,
Preening glossy feathers and strutting the footpath
As if ushering passersby to enter stage right ––
The Isadora scarf or Hitchcock cigar missing.

A young woman, nursing a toddler on her hip,
Grins a welcome to the elderly gent who
Clutches his chessboard and secret moves.
Their families farewelled to independence,
Seniors care for themselves in exercise classes.
Small talk in craft sessions produces big results.
Delightful aromas drift from the kitchen ––
Homemade pumpkin soup, sweet chocolate cookies,
Spicy curries –– recipes shared with curiosity and love
Sauced with tales from distant lands.

Oil paintings and pastel drawings, the fruit
Of nurtured local artists decorate the walls
This house celebrates learning, laughter, and leisure …
Friendships bubble and overflow to the neighbourhood
No need to cruise the retail choices of Centre Road,
Sup lonely cafe lattes amid chattering conversations
Or sit mesmerised by mobile screens
A house in Godfrey Street plants seeds
And grows friendships; welcomes newcomers,
Encourages indigenous and immigrant to bloom.

In the house singsong voices of children tinkle
While mellow murmurings of writers’ words
Capture imagination, life experience, and wisdom.
Pens scratch notepads as the sewing group
Across the hall coax machines to whirr into life,
Garments appear patterned by creativity
Wordsmiths spin sentences for pleasure
Every room thrums and hums as
People connect, care and communicate
Their commitment to lifelong learning

I accept the magpie’s invitation
Submit to being ‘led up the garden path’
To follow a thirty-year trail and discover
Like the vibrant blossoms in the garden
Community and harmony flourishes
At Number Nine Godfrey Street.

mordi beach in winter

Escapism Via Flash Fiction

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After class, today, chatting with one of my students who is a fairly new immigrant from Turkey, we shared how the sadness in the world saps our creativity.

Understandably, she is worried about her family and friends after the recent events in Turkey and with family and friends in the UK, USA, and Europe I too seem to be in a constant state of worry – as well as being concerned for my Turkish student and other Turkish friends!

It is too easy to tune into ABC24 and the plethora of social media news, too easy to become addicted or obsessed about hearing the latest updates, too easy to be stressed, too easy to focus on anything but writing!

I tend to be a worrier but also highly sensitive to other people’s woes – compassion a core family value, along with a sense of social responsibility and community.

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My writing can be therapy and escapism, as well as a way to try and make sense or understand the indefensible, irrational and the unfathomable aspects of human nature and behaviour. I don’t keep a journal but often scribble my feelings into notebooks or fashion a poem or short piece of prose.

Times of emotional trauma or physical upheaval make it difficult to concentrate and when local or global tragedies occur, focus on substantial creative projects wanes, or is lost completely.

Thank goodness for writing classes!

Regardless of how empty I feel, once I’m in the safe space of my writing classes with the lesson plan in hand I let my imagination loose for the 15-20 minutes of stream of consciousness writing that is the ‘splurge’.

Sitting beside my students, I can become a writer rather than the teacher.

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The skills of fiction and nonfiction are not mutually exclusive, and mastering or even flirting with one can have a transformative effect on the other.

Zachary Petit, Writer’s Digest

Today, we concentrated on the importance of opening lines. Not just because it is important to grab the reader’s attention but also as a way of jump-starting our imagination.

It never ceases to amaze me the variety and quality of the stories random splurges produce and today was no different.

A good opening line is a powerful thing: It can grab an editor’s attention, set the tone for the rest of the piece, and make sure readers stay through The End!

Jacob M. Appel

This is why it is called a HOOK – just like a fish at the end of the line, you want to keep your readers hanging in there!

Splurge – Try one of these story openings:

  • He’d always had the perfect golf grip. The one he used on the gun wasn’t bad, either.
  • Palm trees always reminded me of him/her. (You can substitute any other flora)
  • Parker was definitely not singing in the rain.
  • I think that after you lose your car keys three days in a row, you should just be able to stay home.
  • The devil always finds work for idle hands to do, according to Mr Smith our science teacher – and he should know.
  • My alter-ego came to life one summer in 1975. (Or another date!)
  • The scraping noise was Grandfather’s chair on the flagged tile floor.
  • ‘Who is it, Madeleine?’
  • The crushed carcass of the car outside the corner garage revealed a truth Constable Thomson didn’t want to face.

 

Night Terror
Mairi Neil (flash fiction of 750 words)

The scraping noise was Grandfather’s chair on the slate floor, but why is he in the kitchen now?

The clock in the hallway, ticked, whirred, and chimed the half-hour. Tim checked his Father’s fob watch on the bedside table: 3.30am.

How did Grandfather manage the stairs by himself – and why? Is Mum downstairs too? Tim held his breath, but no tell-tale cough announced his mother’s presence; no whistle of steam from the kettle on the range.

When Mum’s in the kitchen, there’s always the clink of china cups, although this is a strange hour for a tea party.

Another creak, low and sinister, followed by the scraping noise again.

Tim imagined the chair rocking back and forth in front of the wood-fired stove. The old man huddling forward, gnarled hands stretching towards the open oven door, willing the radiated heat to warm arthritic bones.

Mum must be there – who else stoked and lit the fire? Tim concentrated; listened for murmuring voices.

The morning ritual always the same; Grandfather and his crook legs and weak heart only make it downstairs by leaning on Mum’s arm and gripping the bannister.

Maybe they couldn’t sleep and Mum lit the fire to keep the old man company and now they’re absorbed in one of the story-telling sessions they seem to like so much. Always talking about the past. Tim often wished he had a time machine like the man in the book he borrowed from the library.

He burrowed deeper into warm bedclothes, his small face, a flat white stone in an inky river of shadows. His breath drifted in uneven puffs in the cold air and twitching his nose his eyes widened with remembering. If Grandfather is rocking in front of the fire he’d be smoking his pipe, a habit he said helped him count his blessings. But no pungent tobacco smoke wafted up the staircase to cloud the room.

An asthmatic cough from the room across the hall punctuated the night before fading into gentle snoring almost immediately.

And Mum is still asleep. Who is downstairs? A thief? Tim shuddered. Who could make an intruder leave?

So many homeless men living by the railway line. Men who cadged meals and money before stowing away on one of the frequent goods trains that crisscrossed the land. Desperate men with nothing to lose. Men fighting to survive bad economic times.

Has one broken in and settled by the fire? Tim’s eyelids flickered and he fought back tears. Troubled blue eyes stared at the dresser, found the photograph of his father, pale in the muted moonlight shining through threadbare curtains.

If only the mining accident hadn’t happened, Dad would make the intruder leave. Tim clenched his teeth.

He remembered the burly man at the door yesterday. His offer to chop wood for two shillings – the price of a flagon of sherry.

Mum confessed their poverty and offered a sandwich. The man’s hairy top lip twisted. ‘Only if there’s dessert,’ he said, menacing eyes staring too long at Mum’s chest before returning to her flushed face.

Tim sensed his Mum’s fear as she slammed the door, rammed the bolt across, pressed her shaking body against the entrance as if the oak panels needed help to keep the man out.

His ten-year-old hands fisted, but Grandfather’s restraining hand on his shoulder held him firm. He hated the old man for his whispered, ‘You’re too young, boy,’ but had a rush of pity when Grandfather added, ‘and I’m too old.’

Blood surged in Tim’s ears. He gripped the bedsheets, his racing heartbeat competing with the scraping and rumbling below. He must go downstairs and face the intruder, prove to Grandfather he was not too young, prove to Mum he could protect her.

The curtains billowed and a gust of even colder air swirled around the room. Tim froze. Perhaps it was a ghost downstairs. Dad or Grandmother visiting – they both had favoured the chair by the fire. The scraping noise accompanied by a rustling as if hands searched canisters.

An almighty crash followed the rattling of crockery. Tim cowered under the blankets until a shattering of glass and china was joined by grunting and snarling.

And his Mum spluttering, ‘Damn possums!’

Tim searched for his slippers and met his mother in the hallway as she recovered from a coughing fit.

They hurried downstairs. A tremulous smile playing on Tim’s lips as the stairs creaked and Grandfather’s chair scraped on the slate floor.

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It’s a helluva start, being able to recognize what makes you happy.

Lucille Ball

Writing makes me happy.

Why not choose a first line and write a story – escape from sadness and tragedy for a few moments with some flash fiction fun!

Flash Fiction: Fanciful Fun But Good Writing Practice

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In my classes at local neighbourhood houses, we create a special writing environment to encourage each other to write;  to be in the mood to write when we are in that space.

The most important part of the class is the writing – for some students it’s the first chance they have in a busy week to put pen to paper, or perhaps take a break from whatever writing project they are working on. Some go to other writing classes like U3A, others are enrolled in TAFE or University courses.

I give prompts to flex those writing muscles, trigger ideas, spark a splurge!

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No one expects a masterpiece in 20 – 30 minutes of stream of consciousness writing but the future poems and prose that arise from the ideas contained in the splurge are guaranteed to be useful when the writer sets to work editing, rewriting, fashioning the poem, fictional story, memoir, faction, play or film script into something readable later.

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Is Time Disappearing More Quickly?

I can’t believe another term is almost over – where did the time go? However as a wintry chill sets in, the days shrink and the nights grow longer, it’s an opportune time to catch up on reading and writing. No excuses necessary to stay inside warm and snug.

This morning, as I stare at rain dripping from the trees and commuters hurrying to the station trying to avoid the puddles gathering on the pavement, it is indeed an inviting incentive to stay at the computer and lose myself in a fanciful world where the sun is shining, roses blossom and children’s laughter floats through the air.

Or perhaps, after examining the dark clouds and the shadows among the shrubbery I’ll start a gothic tale or two!

Imagination knows no bounds…

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From first line triggers, bizarre plots and a selection of picture postcards I’ve encouraged students to try  flash fiction as a way of honing writing skills. To keep word count under a 1000 words, or aim for some of the more prescriptive counts: under 200 , 500 , 800 words, even  50 or 60 word counts – this takes skill in planning, editing and of course seeking the all-important twist or surprise at the end to make the short form worthwhile.

Flash fiction improves your editing skills but also helps you think about plots, how to craft a story in a few words – add the senses, show not tell and all the other attributes important to story-telling and writing.

You can pick up on what is happening around you, what’s in the news, the latest issue that’s the flavour of the month and instead of delving too deeply, taking months of research, you craft a short story and vent and create an up-to-the minute piece!

Since technology has given us the ability to read books on iPad, Kindle, mobile phone and a variety of other portable devices, writers have a huge market to consider – those who read via screen and those short of time. (Which includes just about everybody in the modern world!)

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There have been plenty of studies detailing how reading online differs from reading a traditional book. The most obvious being page and word size and the demand for shorter and more concise writing.

Enter the popularity of flash fiction. These are the 3-5 minute short stories popular in Women’s magazines of old. The ones consumed in a coffee break, but now they be read via devices while people commute, are on trains or aeroplanes, waiting in the doctors or for other appointments, sitting in cafes or parks.

A writing class or group wonderful venues for these exercises because ideas bounce of each other, fellow students can give input if you’re stuck for an ending, or the plot seems awry and most of all there is a plethora of entertaining stories produced by feedback, wandering off in ways you’d never have imagined!

And why not – in most of my classes, although students range in age and ability, the majority are seniors who have lived amazing lives.

All that richness and life experience shared. So many varied ideas like colourful rich threads of a valuable tapestry.

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Here is my effort from an idea of opening a birthday present..

A Birthday To Remember by Mairi Neil

‘Open the presents! Open the presents!’

Julie laughed as everyone in the room took up the chant and she was dragged to where a pile of gaily wrapped gifts surrounded by nibbles and wine glasses sat in the centre of the dining table.

‘Where to begin?’ she murmured to Deb as her best friend released her grasp of Julie’s hand.

There were bags hinting at bottles and ornamental paper shaped like books. Everyone knew Julie’s passion for crime thrillers. A few larger flat parcels with the telltale elegant gift wrap of Haig’s chocolates revealed they knew another of Julie’s passions.

‘Open this one, first,’ said Ben, a fourteen-year-old nephew, pushing the largest present towards his aunt. Round with red crinkly paper flaring at the top, a scarlet ribbon held it together.

‘Curiosity killed the cat,’ Deb quipped as she playfully shouldered Ben aside whispering in Julie’s ear, ‘open mine first – it’s your favourite writer!’

Insistent, Ben begged Julie with pleading baby-blue eyes and all the charm he could muster. ‘This isn’t my present. Mum bought you that,’ and to much laughter from the crowd of mainly twenty-somethings, he pointed to a brightly wrapped rectangle that could only be another book.

‘Okay, you win Mr. Pushy,’ Julie said and winked at Deb to soften the blow. She searched the parcel for a tag. ‘A mystery present – how exciting,’ and her nimble fingers untied the ribbon.

Julie heard the clink of glasses as Deb moved around the small crowd and topped up drinks for the toast. Someone had doused the lights and from the corner of her eyes she saw twenty-five candles flickering atop a cake in her Mother’s hands.

‘We might as well do this now, darling while everyone’s attention is on you.’

Conscious of the heat from the candles as her Mother placed the plate beside the parcel, now stripped of paper and ribbon, Julie clapped her hands at the round hat box.

She glanced around at the baker’s dozen of friends and family. ‘I hope this is what I think it is – you all know me too well!’

She pulled off the lid with a flourish, picturing herself as the winner of the ‘Best Hat’ at the soon-to-be-held Melbourne Cup.

*****

Within the hour DI Flint flicked through his notebook trying to piece together the chaos that followed the opening of the unlabelled present.

Later, he stared at the array of photographs on the Incident Room board. Was Julie the target? Did the person responsible know her mother would bring the cake out at that moment? Could it be a practical joke gone wrong? Ben was a precocious kid but where would he get a cobra?

Flint brushed hands through a mop of tussled brown hair. It was going to be a long night and it didn’t help that half the guests were affected by alcohol and bloody party pills! Deb seemed to be the only sensible one – and yet what if…?

Was it coincidence the book she gave Julie was Death by Surprise?

Exhausted, DI Flint threw his notebook down and shook his head as he checked his watch. Time to visit the morgue and then to the hospital and see if Julie’s in a fit state to be interviewed apparently she adored her widowed mum.

What a case to land the first night he’d given up smoking.

(567 words)

Rattlesnake Green

Here is another from a first line…

Righteous Anger by Mairi Neil

The kiss had surprised her. How dare he take liberties. That behaviour may have been accepted in ‘the good old days’, but this is 2016!

She could have him for sexual harassment. That would wipe the smug smile from his face, slow his arrogant strut to a shuffle.

It’s about power – the perception of coercion – what chance has an employee refusing the boss?

And how much more an uneven relationship can there be than the CEO and a junior clerk?

The kiss wrong on so many levels! The grin he gave afterwards won’t be so wide when he’s slapped with a writ.

I know what the rest of the office will say but I mean it this time. I’m not just going to talk – I’ll do the walk. I’ll hand in my resignation if need be –– in protest at all the young women soiled by office predators.

I mean, I saw it with my own eyes. Disgusting! People in glass offices should remember others look in.

*****

She’s what?

Why wasn’t I told his daughter worked here?

(176 words)

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Prison Blues by Mairi Neil

I survey the ceiling of my prison. Ants march along concrete edges in a never-ending line, in and out of the crumbling mortar above a tiny barred window, too high for me to reach.

A shaft of pale sunlight patterns the opposite wall. There is a world outside this room! Tears buried beneath bravado trickle from the corner of aching eyes, dribbling into my mouth –– the taste of salt a welcome relief from the sickly sweet bun that had passed for breakfast.

A trio of flies buzz around the naked light bulb swinging from the centre of the stained ceiling. The slab whitewashed a thousand years ago and not touched since. Another wave of panic has me gasping for air. How can I be here? I repeat the mantra from yoga class, ‘breathe in, breathe out…’ and trawl through the events of the last two days trying to pinpoint what had gone wrong.

Fear twists my stomach and bowels. Will I throw up or …? I stare at the bucket in the far corner of the tiny cell sitting beneath the solitary tap jutting from the wall, and shudder.

The shuffling and snorting of the guard positioned a few feet down the dank corridor drifts under the buckled door. How many hands and feet spent their anger and despair against that door?

I suppress the urge to humiliate myself. The lingering smell of the last episode hangs in the air like the suspended light bulb. The flies increase their buzzing and frantic swirling. The guard had been almost too quick to respond. His reluctant replacement of the bucket and disdainful glare a warning not to expect such a favour again. The room spins.

I close my eyes willing relaxation. The man from the Consulate will visit again soon –– perhaps with good news. I’m not just any woman. I’m a well-known journalist. Please God, if money and celebrity count for anything get me out of this hellhole.

I’ve learnt my lesson. I’ll never write another story or make a flippant Facebook remark about Thai Royalty. Damn the Internet!  In fact, I’ll never step foot in this country again.

Oh, for the good old days when hard copy was checked by editors.

(372 words)

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Please share any flash fiction ideas or completed pieces or improve on mine and brighten an otherwise dull day!

Happy writing!

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Writing For Pleasure Has Its Own Rewards

A poet always writes of his personal life, inches finest work out of tragedy, whatever it be, remorse, lost love, or mere loneliness.

WB Yeats

We have just celebrated Neighbourhood House Week and working as I do, in three local community houses, I felt the pressure to showcase what my classes achieve to encourage new enrolments and justify my existence.

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Evidence of ‘money’s worth’ and ‘bums on seats’ has to be seen in a world where the power of economic rationalists reign supreme. Everywhere, it seems is pressure to ensure education in the adult sector is all about employability skills with the well-being factor often forgotten, although numerous reports have investigated the ‘social capital / human capital spectrum’.

  • How do you quantify or monetise the benefits a ‘Writing for Pleasure‘ class brings to society?
  • Unless students write their individual stories how will the bean counters or the decision makers know that friendships have formed and limited the number of doctor visits and prescriptions for anti-depressants?
  • How do you recognise the importance of gaps in education being filled for students beyond working age?
  • What about the benefit to future generations of the family histories that are written, the individual legacies recorded?
  • Who considers the pride and soaring confidence when someone writes a poem or a short story, a novel or a play and achieves a dream they never thought possible?

Two of my classes have concentrated on poetry this term so that we could produce a zine for Neighbourhood House Week. (The covers above)

With the 8-page booklet, I manage to get the majority of students to polish some poems to include.  I even wrote a few new ones myself during our splurge time!

We’ve studied rhyme, metaphor and simile, form poetry including limerick and clerihew, and free verse.

Lessons in Rhyme
Mairi Neil

On the train, stations slip by
My thoughts are fleeting too
Years of commuting make me sigh
Respite days, oh, so few.
And yet there’s something comforting
About train journeys I have taken
They’re a metaphor for life
Places loved and others forsaken.
The stations and various signals
Stop start – get off – get on
Stay on the rails or let loose
But always journey on.

Bentleigh station May 2016
Bentleigh Station in the midst of renovation

Haiku Selection
Mairi Neil

Twilight glow from sky
Pier promenade shelters us
From gathering storm

Ships in harbour creak
Moored safely for the night
Silent sentinels

Beneath the water
Life blossoms and flourishes
Our ecosystem works

A tourist mecca
Attracts people in all weather
Revenue alleys

I Love Cooking (After Dr Seuss)
Mairi Neil

I love cooking, I love the smell
I love it more when it turns out swell.
I love old recipes, they are the best
I gather ingredients and begin with zest.

I love my oven, it’s electric. If it was gas I’d be sick.
I love my bench top, granite and wide, equipment sits side by side.
I think my cooking is okay, there’s not much more I can say.
I’m not an expert like some boast, I’ve been known to burn the toast!
There’s people who just love their food, always categorising, bad or good.
I eat to live, variety’s not king, a few favourite recipes are my thing.

I’m happy to bake my apple cake. I am.
Can even manage scones, cream and jam.
I love to peel, dice, chop and knead.
It’s from cleaning up I want to be freed.

I love cooking – it’s a necessary evil – we have to eat.
But boy I’m glad – really glad – Nandos have opened up the street!

Election 2016
Mairi Neil

Australians are having a vote
Malcolm and Bill both want a moat
People smugglers to shatter
‘Cos Refugees don’t matter
We’ve stopped the boats they gloat.

Writing Class
Mairi Neil

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

Albert Street May 2016 copy
Albert Street at dusk

21 Albert Street
Mairi Neil

My Edwardian house no longer sags
And sinks into sandy soil
Aged and in need of renovation
It now squats on renewed stumps
A bulldog ready to scare off
A proliferation of developers.

Mary Jane’s car gleams, winking in sunlight
A cheeky adolescent ready for adventure
Compact and fuel efficient
It darts in and out of traffic
A trainee athlete refusing to be intimidated
By those more powerful.

My garden an oasis of peace today
But as the rain continues flora flourish
the garden transforms
An island of tranquility becomes
A factory production line of
Unwanted grasses and weeds.

Aurora, my ever-alert sentinel
Listening, watching, protecting
Warning of danger.
Aurora, a loyal, loving companion
My four-legged disciple of friendship
Epitome of unconditional love.

Keep Mordialloc Beautiful
Mairi Neil

Albert Street busy each morning
Passersby always on a mission
They head for church, railway station,
U3A, public schools – people in transition
They’ve found God, want to learn
Are travelling near and far
Perhaps they just love to shop
Or are looking to park their car!

I love this changing scenery
Glad Council upkeeps the greenery
But I don’t like the litterbugs
The ones who care nought for others
They chuck containers, cans and bottles
Did they learn nothing from their mothers?

A magpie pecks at sodden ground
Moves to nibble at bark on trees
He takes what he needs, moves on
No rubbish left when he feeds
So, why do humans leave their litter
To clog drains and on roads skitter?

Albert Street an extension of my home
And passersby are free to roam
But please keep your trash, bad manners too
That’s a plea, from me to you!

 

A Wake Up Call
Mairi Neil

The people of Longreach
Appeal to fellow Australians
You’ve forgotten us they cry
The rain has stopped
Not seen for years
The grass all withered and dry.

The people of Longreach
Appeal to fellow Australians
Do you know what it’s like here?
Drought has destroyed
Our way of life
The community we hold so dear.

The people of Longreach
Appeal to fellow Australians
Climate Change must be faced
This parched land
No longer produces
Bore water has poison laced

The people of Longreach
Are silent and so sad
Heads bowed at funeral pyre
People, cattle, farms
Now dust to dust
Their history erased by fire

The people of Longreach
Not the only community to die
The driest continent
Will shrivel and shrink
Global warming is making us fry!

 

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Writing For Pleasure & Publication at Mordialloc Neighbourhood House
A Reflection by Teacher Mairi Neil.

The writing class at Mordialloc Neighbourhood House is the longest running, continuous class since the House was established. The size of classes has fluctuated over the years, reflecting the growth in U3A in the area and a variety of writing courses at TAFE and online, but for students attending Mordialloc the motivation, inspiration and intimacy they gain is invaluable.

For several years we ran classes in the morning and afternoon. Student Barbara Davies has been attending since 2002 and Dennis Worledge has joined this year.

A retired primary school teacher, Barbara taught creative writing for fourteen years at U3A and joined the class at Mordialloc to encourage her own creativity.
‘I love coming to this class and have made so many friends over the years while improving my writing.The class is a safe environment to write, a place of trust to share confidences.

Barbara is one of many students writing memoir in a creative way but also having fun with imaginative stories and poems.

When individuals take the time to reflect and document even 10-20 short stories about their family history, culture, life experiences, opportunities, challenges, gratitude, disappointments celebrations and ideas, they communicate their wisdom, values and generosity to the next generation in a very positive and instructive way.

New student Dennis agrees. ‘I love writing and want to further develop my skills as well as enjoy the fellowship and fun I’ve found in this class. I hadn’t anticipated writing poetry and am amazed I enjoy the challenge!’

Heather, Amelia and Kay joined the class in 2004. In the years between Heather moved from Beaumaris to Mt Eliza, but still makes the trip each Monday morning. ‘I’ve been coming forever,’ she says with a laugh, ‘because of the fun and friendship and I love the mental stimulation.’

Heather added, ‘I’m staving off senility and it’s keeping me fit. I attend poetry readings, visit libraries and bookshops because through the class I’ve become a more discerning reader.’

Kay published her memoir from workshopping stories in class as have other students: Fay Lucas (a book of poetry about life in the Mallee) and Bob Croker (tales of being a grey nomad travelling around Australia). All of the students have work published in class anthologies.

However, the class is not all about retirees. More than 140 students have participated over the years, many like Tori who joined in 2008 and loves coming to the class because she is accepted as a writer and storyteller. We see her ability, not disability.

Tori Dowd and me May 2016Younger students have included Michael (23) who thrived despite his ABI from a severe car accident and now publishes poetry online. Often the carers discover latent writing talent as they join in!

Young women have come for semesters while on Maternity Leave using the great childcare facilities to have alone time and write about the changes in their lives. Students with English as a new language like Mari and Naoko love how creative writing improves their understanding of the nuances of English as well as extending themselves to learn techniques while making friends.

Although it is a constant struggle to find funding and support for the classes in community houses, I hope they continue to provide everyone with the opportunity to reflect, write and share their stories and imagination for themselves, their loved ones and their communities. We have established a great tradition of that at Mordialloc.

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

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

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

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

Maya Angelou

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

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

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

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

Courage is fire, and bullying is smoke.                    

Benjamin Disraeli

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

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

Some of the responses in class:

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

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

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

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

COURAGE-flier

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Holmescroft School circa 1958 – I attended 1961

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

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

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

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

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

The teacher nags: ‘ Hurry up.’

‘ Use your feet more’

‘Put some effort in’

‘There’s a queue here’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or is that panting breath mine?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Hall Full of Harmony

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Harmony Day is a celebration of Australia’s cultural diversity held each year on 21 March.

On Sunday, I was fortunate to take part in a Harmony Day celebration organised by Mordialloc Neighbourhood House. Billed as ‘A Taste of the World‘ and supported financially by the City of Kingston, the event involved displays and performances from a variety of cultural traditions. There was food, music, and dance by immigrants who now call Australia home and homegrown poetry and song.

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Harmony Day is held every year on 21 March to coincide with the United Nations International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. The message of Harmony Day is everyone belongs. It’s a day to celebrate Australia’s diversity – a day of cultural respect for everyone who calls Australia home.

  • around 45 per cent of Australians were born overseas or have at least one parent who was
  • 85 per cent of Australians agree multiculturalism has been good for Australia
  • apart from English the most common languages spoken in Australia are Mandarin, Italian, Arabic, Cantonese, Greek, Vietnamese, Tagalog/Filipino, Spanish and Hindi
  • more than 60 Indigenous languages are spoken in Australia
  • 92 per cent of Australians feel a great sense of belonging to our country.

These facts are taken from ABS 2011 Census Data

About 30 per cent of Kingston’s population was born overseas, with 22 per cent from non-English speaking backgrounds including Vietnamese, Indian, Sri Lankan, Greek, Italian and Chinese societies.

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Lisa Sun, the manager of Mordialloc Neighbourhood House and many of the staff were ably supported by volunteers, including Gabrielle Fakhri who was a magnificent MC as always. Gabrielle travels an hour and a half from the other side of Melbourne to support Mordialloc Neighbourhood House’s multicultural activities.

This is the second year for a Harmony Day celebration and there were a greater number of performers and a much larger audience proving indeed that

From little things big things grow


From little things big things grow

Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody

The local MP, Tim Richardson and also Councillors Geoff Gledhill and Rosemary West OAM attended to show their support with Tim and Geoff presenting raffle prizes. Our elected representatives moving between several events in other parts of the city and left to attend even more.  A great effort that should be acknowledged!

As Tim mentions on his Facebook page:

Incredibly the more than 150,000 residents in the City of Kingston come from 150 different nationalities and heritages, speaking more than 120 languages. Our cultural diversity is one of our greatest strengths in Melbourne, whether it is the celebration of the arts, food, creative arts, culture or history.

Local businesses donated prizes and I was lucky to win an organic facial from Endota Spa Mordialloc. Perhaps I channelled the luck of the Irish (thank you Mum) it being so soon after St Patrick’s Day because I rarely win anything.

Jaden Williams, the grandson of Boon Wurrung elder Carolyn Briggs offered Welcome to Country. As first people of the bay areas Boon Wurrung are proud  to share the history of their people and offer insights into their culture.

The opening act for the afternoon was the spectacular Lion Dance by The Hong De Lion Dance Association  formed in April 2008 by a group of passionate lion dancers with the aim to teach and promote the art to the community. The Hong De Lion Dance Association is a member of the International Hong Teck Association. The instructors have over 20 years experience in the art of the Chinese lion dance.

The next contribution came from Vivace Voices, one of the choirs at Kingston U3A. The choir was formed 12 years ago and has an extensive repertoire performing at concerts in various venues.

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The Pilipino group P.E.A.S.E.R., (Pilipino Elderly Association of South East Region) a voluntary senior citizens group founded in 1993 to assist elderly Pilipinos and their families had a strong presence and entertained a delighted audience with singing and dancing. They also had a well-stocked stall. The group was recognised for community volunteer work by Premier Steve Bracks in the International Year of Volunteers 2001, received Victoria’s Award for Excellence in Multicultural Affairs for Meritorious Service in the Community in 2004, and on Australia Day 2006 they were the City of Kingston’s Community Group of the Year:

… for making its own unique contribution to the broader community while still keeping the Pilipino cultural heritage alive.

Over the years P.E.A.S.E.R. has focused on the broader community.

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After the Pilipino Group, Vanessa Fraser sent the blood pressure of some of the audience sky high and had the rest of us in awe at her belly dancing expertise, energy and how easy she made it look! An absolutely stunning performance of a dance with origins in the Indian sub-continent, Middle East, Mediterranean and northeastern Africa.

We then had the first of several traditional dances by the Kingston Chinese Senior Citizens Club Inc. There was also an instrumental solo of a traditional Chinese instrument like a flute, a difficult instrument to master.

The upbeat dance music had toes tapping and hands clapping and the sound engineer and myself even had a jig. The joy, enthusiasm and desired harmony in the room palpable.

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When it was time for me to read some poetry and acknowledge the power and flexibility of the English language to contribute to harmony and diversity I had many hard acts to follow!

However, words can acknowledge and celebrate our humanity, our differences, our similarities, our needs, our sadness and happiness… and have the power to engage, encourage deeper understanding and appreciation of each other and events, even incite change…

I read three of my own poems:  a haiku, a short poem about asylum seekers, the acrostic poem Words Words Are All I Have and finished with the wonderful poem Unity by aboriginal poet/ author/ artist Kevin Gilbert.

Ningla a-Na! This our land
Indigenous and immigrant
Now sharing history

Seeking Asylum

Despair and desperation in their eyes
they plan to seek a new life
as far away as possible from strife

Seeking a safe haven is the prize
perhaps leaving behind children and wife
despair and desperation in their eyes

For many it may take several tries

Living on the edge of a knife
their only crime seeking a new life
despair and desperation in their eyes.

 

Words Are All I Have

Words are my business
Often they flow, or stay sealed like a time capsule
Remembering, imagining, creating, forgetting…
Depending on mood, knowledge, skill… the dictionary
So they can colour the page: language, meaning, interpretation… frustration

Why does the sentence not work
Or the words engage? Where’s the impact?
Rambling, nothing of substance… stuttering
Don’t start… don’t stop… less is more… Oh, decisions!
Structure? Be sensible, sensitive, sarcastic, serious, succinct, smart, strong

Alliteration can work
Repetition a crafty tool. Pizzaz needed
Especially metaphor and simile

Am I mad?
Losing it?
Laughing, crying, anxious, arrogant, scared… confident…

I squeeze the words from the pen

Hammer the keyboard
And shape the words and worlds to
Vindicate the term ‘writer’
End of story!

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.

Mairi Neil _n
Yours truly

We then watched a riveting performance of Korean drumming by Mordialloc’s St Brigid’s Primary School . Later, the teacher told me that next year they will also have Korean dance. How lucky  to have access to another culture this way from an experienced teacher and to see the children embrace it so enthusiastically!

St brigid's korean drums

The local Aumsai Sansthen Temple again supported the event and the children gave us the delights of Bollywood, the three-year-old girl setting maternal and paternal hearts aflutter.

After the planned performances finished there were a range of activities to see and do encouraging people to move out of their comfort zone and dabble in diversity: Dressing up in Egyptian costumes and having a photograph with pharaoh, sipping Eritrean coffee, making Chinese lanterns, having a henna tattoo, face painted, tasting delightful delicacies, receiving a balloon animal, and joining in the singsong around the piano.

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There is so much to do in Melbourne every weekend, the March calendar particularly crowded with Moomba, the Labour Day weekend, the Grand Prix and of course this year Palm Sunday and Easter.

I had choices to make too  regarding ‘where to go’ but was thrilled to be part of this lively celebration of multiculturalism. What better way to promote harmony and acceptance  of our diversity than ‘A Taste of the World’ in your own backyard.

For me, it was also a chance to share my thoughts.To remind everyone that we all came from ‘somewhere else’ to this great country and yet the first people still welcome us although we invaded their land. What generosity of spirit to have and encourage.

While we celebrated, laughed and sang, thousands of others marched through Melbourne’s streets asking our political leaders to have a more humane approach to the refugee crisis engulfing the globe.

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Harmony Day in Mordialloc an example of the richness other cultures bring to an already talented community. Long may we continue to celebrate diversity and work to spread that welcoming and inclusiveness.

I look forward to a bigger and better bash next year.

Well done to  Mordialloc Neighbourhood House for initiating this event.

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Why I Had my Say on International Women’s Day 2016

 

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What a week in the political calendar with International Women’s Day victim to mercurial Melbourne’s weather. An  El Niño escapade creating a  record breaking 41 degrees on Tuesday, March 8th.

On the day women celebrate with various events, mine culminated with a 6.00pm march through city streets after I’d been a keynote speaker in the morning and taught in the afternoon. In local vernacular, by evening I was knackered – the old grey mare ain’t what she used to be!

Although officially autumn, Melbourne sweltered.

When I joined my daughters at the march in the city it was great to be among vocal and delightful young people, but also sad that we are still fighting for many of the same issues that motivated me to action in the 70s.

On the march I had a conversation with a young police officer in his 20s.

‘You drew the short straw,’ I said by way of conversation and indicated the heat.

‘Oh, no, this is just part of general police duties when assigned to the city,’ he replied. ‘Why are you all marching?’

‘It’s International Women’s Day.’

‘Here?’

‘Yes, and all round the world. Where were you born?’

‘In Hong Kong.’

‘Don’t they march there?’

‘Oh, I don’t know…. Why and when did it start?’

I explained the brief history of the event and that marching on this day started in Melbourne in 1975.

‘But why are you marching?’

‘This year we’re seeking wage parity among other things.’

He pondered for a moment and asked, ‘When did women get the vote?’

I wasn’t sure if he was implying ‘what more do you want’ or if he thought women’s suffrage was granted evenly throughout the world, or if he actually cared because our conversation ended abruptly as he fell back to attend to a traffic snarl.

 

 

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The next day there was a protest to keep the plight of asylum seekers facing deportation, in the public eye and although not quite so hot, travelling into the city again after working,  took a toll on my weary body, especially since the unseasonal weather made sleep elusive!

However, I met some marvellous women and we swapped addresses. The female police officer in charge of city duties supportive and caring. The demonstration went off with a lot of good humour and co-operation from police and public.

On Being Asked To Speak

I was surprised when I was asked to be the keynote speaker at the City of Kingston’s annual IWD celebration held at Doyles in Mordialloc. For several years, I’ve  attended as part of the audience if not working, never imagining I’d ever be the main speaker.

However, it is one of several invitations I’ve received since being awarded Kingston Citizen of the Year 2016 and I was more than happy to speak about the Power of Story and Words and champion the value and joy of teaching creative writing in neighbourhood houses.

The topic agreed upon after a discussion with the council’s Community Engagement Team, Dominic, Kate and Gillian, aptly titled Wellbeing Officers.

Slide 1 event order

The MC for the morning, Gemma O’Shea, Kingston Young Citizen of the Year, demonstrated poise, a clear voice and skilful handling of the program with a confidence I wished I’d had at her age (and even wished I felt that morning).

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Gemma introducing the Penguin Club speakers

The Mayor, Councillor Tamsin Bearsley spoke well as usual, the audience spellbound as she shared her story and journey towards choosing to stand for public office.

Tamsin confided that she had been brought up as a Christadelphian, in a conservative Christian family where women did not have a voice in church services or the decisions of the church. Christadelphians believe the Bible is the inspired Word of God and take their attitudes from their interpretation of the Scriptures.

Christadelphians also believe that the Bible teaches them to avoid all involvement in politics: no voting, no joining political parties, no demonstrations, no protest groups and no becoming elected representatives.

Tamsin went to school locally at Mentone Girls’ Secondary College and won the Premier’s Information Technology Prize when Jeff Kennett was Premier of Victoria. She found the encounter with Kennett inspiring and while studying Robotics during her teaching degree she met her future husband who is a Catholic. The desire to pursue teaching and marriage entailed a break with the Christadelphians and their strict beliefs.

A friendship with former Councillor and later MP for Carrum, Donna Bauer, who became a mentor, led to Tamsin’s involvement in local politics. She closed her speech encouraging everyone to put their hand up to take a more active role in the community and be empowered to stand for elected office. A strong message considering the obstacles Tamsin overcame to have her voice heard.

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The Mayor, Cr Tamsin Bearsley

The next three speakers were from the Penguin Club of Australia Inc. An organisation which offers a supportive, friendly environment  emphasising participation for women to develop confidence and communication skills, especially in public speaking. The Bayside Group meets twice a month in Clarinda on the 1st and 3rd Wednesday.

I sat nervously awaiting my turn watching Claire Houston, Patricia Buchanan and Ann Keys from the Club. They presented with such confidence it made me envious. They asked two questions I could definitely answer with a ‘Yes!’

Does the thought of standing up to speak fill you with terror?

Would you like to develop the confidence that you admire in other people?

The three spoke eloquently and fluently, giving a short history of the oral tradition most cultures have, including our own, and why famous speeches resonate and how we can learn to emulate impressive speakers.

The next speaker, Mary Rimington OAM, has been a longtime activist in the conservation movement and secretary of the Mordialloc Beaumaris Conservation League for many years.

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Mary Rimington OAM

Mary spoke about the role of women in the MBCL participating in community consultations, preparing submissions, attending hearings, meetings and letter writing. The achievements of this hardworking lobby group are many: protecting the foreshore vegetation and cliffs from erosion, encouraging the clean up of Mordialloc Creek, retaining the Green Wedge, and campaigning for better planning decisions city-wide as well as for Port Phillip Bay.

Mary’s involvement goes back to 1969 and she has campaigned for and against many decisions by politicians of all political persuasions. The newspaper clippings she showed revealed just how feisty negotiations were many years ago and how lucky we are that local people like herself have continued to honour past state premier Rupert Hamer’s vision for retaining green wedges around Melbourne when he claimed in parliament:

that nobody could happily contemplate a future metropolis of seemingly endless suburbia spreading out to infinity.’

We can thank former councillors and some locals who were prepared to be arrested, for stopping a dangerous oil pipeline being routed through the bay. The power of words coupled with action.

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After Mary, it was my turn and I included two poems to give the audience and myself some relief.

I was grateful I had friends sitting in the audience – from Mordialloc Writers’ Group (Eve, Maureen, Kristina, Dorothy, Lisa) and from the Southern Branch of the Union of Australian Women (Amy, Evelyn, Barbara, Mary). Also, Lorna my ‘boss’  from Longbeach Place, Gulay the head of the committee I was on at Central Bayside Health, plus of course my lovely number two daughter, Mary Jane.

Anne couldn’t take time off work, but she listened to me rehearsing the speech the night before and gave valuable feedback. Before the program began, I  discovered two friends  from the days when my daughters attended Mordialloc Primary School. Catherine and Susan had come along because they heard I was  speaking.

The windows revealed Mordialloc Creek looked picture postcard magnificent. At least anyone losing interest had a wonderful view for daydreaming.

Is it better for the nerves to speak in front of friends or strangers? Not sure of the answer, except I was glad when the speech went without  mishap and I even received compliments. I work on the philosophy that people don’t have to say something nice and took all praise at face value.

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me in full flight

International Women’s Day 2016

I acknowledge that this gathering is on Aboriginal land and respectfully acknowledge the past and present traditional owners, the Boonwerung people of the Kulin Nation, and pay respects to their elders past and present. Today, I especially honour and recognise the strength, resilience and capacity of Aboriginal women.

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I thank the Mayor, Cr Tamsin Bearsley, and acknowledge other councillors and representatives from the City of Kingston who facilitated today. I’m still humbled and stunned to be regarded as Kingston’s Citizen of the Year and to be speaking at this celebration.

And it is a celebration, although joy is easily tempered in a world of instant and constant communication reminding us of sorrow. I find it helps to write out my observations about this constant turmoil. Here is a recent poem.

Latte Lament
Mairi Neil

We sit in the cafe
indulging a desire
for coffee and cake
and a need
for each other …

Sensitive souls
we struggle to accept
that sitting, sipping coffee:
skinny latte, cappuccino, mochaccino
long or short black

And devouring slices
of gluten free, fructose free, fat-free,
carrot cake and chocolate muffin –
is not conscience free…

Modern media mobility
screams of drought, bushfires
floods at home and
tragedies abroad: war, random shootings,
terrorist attacks, refugee crises…

France,
Greece,
Indonesia,
Iraq,
Israel,
Kenya,
Lebanon,
Palestine,
Sri Lanka,
Syria,
Turkey,
Ukraine
Manus Island and Nauru…

We skip the sugar and cream
Search mobile screen for funny meme.

 

International Women’s Day first emerged from the activities of labour movements in North America and Europe, at the turn of last century. Now the day has assumed extensive global dimensions.

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We can safely say, International Women’s Day is here to stay! (There’s a nice bit of rhyme for you!) Words and how we use them, important.

Writing can amuse, prick your conscience, stir memories, educate and affect change. Textbooks and media tell their versions of an event but ordinary people live through the experience. Our stories, our points of view are important to record as a legacy for future generations. The pen is mightier than the sword when the stories and poems of a generation remain. They reflect lives more truthfully than a cold observer recording, sifting through records, or perhaps writing what they’re told or paid to write.

For centuries, we had HIStory, not HERstory.

Susan Sontag described a writer as ‘sitting in a room every day, year after year, alone.

Not me! I’m a passionate writer who has become a passionate teacher of writing! Privileged to hear and encourage people to write amazing stories, real or imagined, adding insight into what it means to be human.

 

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Today, a time to reflect on achievements and thank the ordinary women and men in myriad countries and diverse communities for their courage and determination in calling for change. Women’s rights are human rights, feminists are male, female and genderqueer. Our language and attitude must change to be inclusive and recognise diversity.

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The United Nations began celebrating IWD on the 8th March during International Women’s Year in 1975. Some in this room will remember that year with mixed emotions.

In the November, Prime Minister Gough Whitlam was sacked by an unelected Governor General – party politics and the Republican debate aside – many women feared the door to a future of their choosing would be slammed, or the locks changed.

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The Whitlam government’s gifts of free tertiary education, Commonwealth funds flowing to childcare places, Medicare, specialist health and welfare services for women, women’s refuges and rape crisis centres, made a huge difference to women’s lives. This could be snatched away or revert to the privileged few.

In 1971, because I won a Commonwealth scholarship, I was the first and only one of 6 siblings, in my migrant family to attend university. When Gough removed the financial barrier, thousands of women and men enrolled – many as mature age students.

In 1975, I worked as a research assistant at the Museum in Russell Street in a job funded by the Federal Government’s Regional Economic Development Program. A beneficiary of the 1972 Equal Pay Case that women undertaking work similar to that undertaken by men should be paid an equal wage I was devastated when the program and my job disappeared with Gough.

Tumultuous times for me and many young women. Not unusual, however, time and again it is women and children’s services that bear the brunt of government cost saving. Women are often left with no work, or poorly paid work. The progress made in professional fields is not translated to the majority.

However, Mordy Writers benefited from the educational revolution of the 70s. Glenice Whitting went to university and started writing. She is now Dr Glenice Whitting with a prize-winning novel and other writing achievements to her credit. Glenice is one of many who left school early, married, had a family but ached to do something different. In my classes over the years, countless women thanked Gough for making it easier to seek education. A generation of lifelong learners created.

Targeted government support makes a difference to women’s lives.

There have not been many great leaps forward. Progress a hard slog. It was 20 years before the Beijing Conference in 1995 and its twelve areas of critical concern, reviewed last year – another 20 years later.

  • The stocktake decided gender parity in primary education has been achieved, but completion rates and the quality of education are not high across all countries.
  • More women have been elected to public office – about 21% of the world’s parliamentarians are women, up from about 11% in 1995 – but we are still far from parity.
  • More women than ever before are participating in the workforce, but women generally earn less than men and, in rich and poor countries alike, carry a disproportionate burden of unpaid care work which deprives them of time for valuable pursuits like earning money, gaining new skills, and participating in public life.
  • And, while more laws exist to protect women from violence, sexual and gender-based violence continue to occur on every continent and in every country, often reaching horrific levels where there are war and conflict.

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I don’t have to tell people in this room the challenges Australia still faces: we’re not very kind to those in public office, but levels of vitriol and spite for women who achieve high office reached appalling heights against Julia Gillard. And how shameful we needed Rosie Batty and her tragic loss to galvanise governments into concerted action on family violence?

I worked at Maroondah Halfway House in the 70s, the second women’s refuge established in Melbourne. One of my first published writings was in a Croydon church magazine asking for funds for women and children affected by domestic violence. The generous response overwhelming.

There have always been people eager to rectify injustice.

Now we refer to family violence which reflects the true breadth and depth of the problem meriting the Andrews Government’s Royal Commission.

The United Nation’s Women’s Executive’s message this year is ‘Each one of us is needed—in our countries, communities, organisations, governments and in the United Nations — to ensure decisive, visible and measurable actions are taken under the banner: Planet 50-50: Step It Up for Gender Equality.’

Let’s hope that gender equality will see an end to the terrorism women and children face in the place they should be the safest – the home.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon prefaced his message for IWD2016 with a story that reminds us that in some instances there may never be a level playing field for women:

As a boy growing up in post-war Korea, I remember asking about a tradition I observed: women going into labour would leave their shoes at the threshold and then look back in fear. “ They are wondering if they will ever step into those shoes again,” my mother explained.

More than a half-century later, the memory continues to haunt me. In poor parts of the world today, women still risk death in the process of giving life. Maternal mortality is one of many preventable perils. All too often, female babies are subjected to genital mutilation. Girls are attacked on their way to school. Women’s bodies are used as battle fields in wars. Widows are shunned and impoverished.

We can only address these problems by empowering women as agents of change.

Women and girls are critical to finding sustainable solutions to the challenges of poverty, inequality and the recovery of the communities hardest hit by conflicts, disasters and displacements.

They are at the frontline of the outbreaks of threatening new epidemics, such as Zika virus disease or the impact of climate change, and at the same time are the bulwark to protect their families, work for peace, and ensure sustainable economic growth and social change.

In Ban Ki-Moon’s words, ‘We have shattered so many glass ceilings we created a carpet of shards. Now we are sweeping away the assumptions and bias of the past so women can advance across new frontiers.’

The World Health Organisation estimates 830 women die each day from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth. How wonderful to read about a church hall in the Adelaide Hills where volunteers have met since 1999 to put together birthing kits, containing the bare essentials to help reduce the risk of infection for women giving birth in some of the world’s harshest environments.

The wallet-sized kits are lightweight and cheap, costing just $3 to put together and are credited with a 25% reduction in deaths. 1.4 million have been distributed across the globe including Ethiopia, Myanmar and Afghanistan.

How often do women working for change make the headlines? Grandmothers Against Children in Detention collecting toys, writing letters, organising protests, the women in Warragul making kits for breast cancer survivors to wake up to after their mastectomies. When I read their written prayer and good wishes inside my card, I wept. Strangers thinking of me – our sole connection – womanhood.

We stand on the shoulders of those who have come before. I’m grateful my parents told me to use my voice – whether speaking or writing, to always champion social justice and equity. My mother advised, ‘use the gifts God gave you, you have a brain and a good Scots tongue in your head.’  Dad, said, ‘I don’t care if you’re a street cleaner, just be the most educated cleaner you can be.’

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Part of the answer, not part of the problem. Ideas are easy but turning words into compelling reads is hard.

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Who were or are your mentors? What have they taught you? Have you thanked them? Parents, teachers, employers, neighbours, writers, thinkers – people who’ve shown you the way at some point, revealed the beautiful mystery and challenges of life which made sense in their hands.

Inspiration and passion is contagious. It fuels and fires you up. Keep those mentors in your heart, share their wisdom and pay it forward and help someone else. Women can be really good at doing that – sisterhood is indeed powerful.

Another organisation dear to my heart is the Southern Branch of the Union of Australian Women which meets in Mordialloc.

We’re expert at writing letters and signing petitions. In Kingston we can thank members of the UAW for the first kindergartens, libraries, childcare centres, improved roads and parks and even bus routes.

In Kingston, we have a history of hard working females: councillors, managers of neighbourhood houses, school principals, leaders and activists in countless volunteer organisations. We heard from inspirational Mary Rimington OAM today whose pen has ensured we still have a foreshore of indigenous vegetation, a cleaner creek and many parklands including the Green Wedge. Over the years she’s written thousands of words in submissions and has had letters published in the local papers and The Age.

Those in power do listen – sometimes.

My passion is writing: everyone has a story and I believe they have a right to have their stories heard. Writing in all its forms encourages, and enables stories to be shared. And a story shared is the first step towards understanding each other, a step towards a fair and tolerant society.

In tandem with writing is reading – literacy opens doors to education, skills, better communication. Knowledge is power as is storytelling. Stories link us with the first peoples, with our ancestors, our neighbours and strangers; the legacy we leave our children.

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In Kingston, we’re lucky to have Lisa Hill,  writer of the AnzLit blog – Google Lisa and read her reviews. Choose a book from many of our Indigenous authors – move out of your comfort zone.

My motivation to establish and continue to grow classes in neighbourhood houses was to make creative writing courses available and accessible for all. We learn who we are from writing. Where we’re from and about humanity.

If there is a story attached to a painting, a building, an historical event it makes it more interesting, more realistic, more memorable. The tragedy of the Stolen Generations and the current scandals of sexual abuse within institutions like the Catholic Church all the more powerful when we read individual stories. Like Ban Ki-Moon said, the stories haunt you.

Unknown.pngQualified professionals use writing as therapy. Since the 1980s, researchers have found writing and healing go hand-in-hand, writing can help your:

  • immune system
  • memory
  • blood pressure
  • wounds heal
  • sleeping patterns improve

Emotionally expressive writing is powerful. A healing tool to use working toward better health. When people write about feelings as well as thoughts, describe troubling events, try to see from different perspectives, they may make sense or meaning of the situation.

Most of us have experiences, secrets, troubles that could do with an airing and often fictionalising these is a less traumatic way of dealing with their legacy.

Friendships grow in writing classes along with wellbeing.

In class, we begin by splurging. Students write from a prompt or class discussion. A pencil and a piece of paper all that is needed although students with disabilities may use a tape recorder, iPad or laptop.

We don’t think too deeply in the splurge. Don’t edit ourselves. We write everything that comes to mind. A stream of consciousness allowing imaginations to go wherever they want. Nobody— absolutely no author writes a perfect first draft. The goal is to get a story or poem down on the page where you can see it, share it (if you desire) and then start to shape it.

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What a privilege to have a safe space to tell your story and feel validated when people listen, support, comment, admire, encourage, and even ask to hear more. We are lucky the council and state government see the value in funding neighbourhood houses.

Early women writers submitted work under male pseudonyms, many women in the past have been told their stories and opinions don’t matter, yet the majority of my students over the years have been female and disprove societal assumptions.

The oldest student is 95 this year, Ceinwen has written her memoir about the war years and writes beautiful poetry with insightful detail. She insists, the classes and homework give her a reason to get up in the morning and stay engaged with life.

Two students with acquired brain injury write about the person they are now – both refer to their accident as a rebirth. The steep learning curve to physical, emotional and mental health ongoing. Anat wants to publish her memoir, Michael wants to publish a collection of his poems.

Every story is an endless flow of questions – meaning always in the making as we create and change. What would happen if we valued stories regardless of gender, age, colour, or disability? As a woman, a teacher, a mother and a writer I say, why not change the conversation from ‘It would be nice if…’ to ‘It is essential that…’?

To achieve the goal of gender equality the entire system needs to change. Diversity and equity begin with you. What conversations are you having? Who are the people in your social media feeds? When you go home, is your family the same cultural background? When you go to a party, are your friends all the same? When you look at your bookshelf, are most of the books by similar authors?

If your tastes are not diverse, you may be hearing and reading the same stories over and over again.

Finally, words matter, we can make a conscious decision to change words that have demeaned women and others. Ignore the voices that sneer at political correctness – they may never have been the butt of sexism, racism, homophobia, ableism or ageism.

Words, Words, Are All I Have

Words are my business

Often they flow, or stay sealed like a time capsule

Remembering, imagining, creating, forgetting…

Depending on mood, knowledge, skill… the dictionary

So they can colour the page: language, meaning, interpretation… frustration

Why does the sentence not work

Or the words engage? Where’s the impact?

Rambling, nothing of substance… stuttering

Don’t start… don’t stop… less is more… Oh, decisions!

Structure? Be sensible, sensitive, sarcastic, serious, succinct, smart, strong

Alliteration can work

Repetition a crafty tool. Pizzaz needed

Especially metaphor and simile

Am I mad?

Losing it?

Laughing, crying, anxious, arrogant, scared… confident…

I squeeze the words from the pen

Hammer the keyboard

And shape the words and worlds to

Vindicate the term ‘writer’

End of story!

© Mairi Neil 2016

All presenters were given gorgeous flowers. We listened to the Stiletto Sisters, an energetic and joyful trio who played while we indulged in a delicious morning tea.

In what seemed a blink of the eye, it was time to venture into the horrendous heat and go our separate ways.

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A truly memorable International Women’s Day  allowing me to have my say!