Who Will Be In The Class of 2017?

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Mordialloc Neighbourhood House

On Monday, January 30th, my first writing class for the year commences at Mordialloc. My association with this neighbourhood house spans over two decades, first as a volunteer, and then as a paid worker.

Volunteering is not an unusual path to follow to find gainful employment, especially in the arts. If you want to work in an area, seeking activities and others who share that desire is a great starting point.

Most people who know me understand how I feel when it comes to writing and how much I enjoy my classes – I spend most of the holidays researching and gathering the latest ideas and developments in writing and publishing, as well as doing at least one refresher course to hone my craft. (There are many online courses and Udemy is a good place to start and with their $15.00 sale, excellent value.)

I’m happy to promote words, literacy, education, and of course creative writing and reading quality fiction and non-fiction! (For books to read look no further than Lisa Hill’s blog!)

And the practice apparently has proven health benefits!

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However, establishing courses in neighbourhood houses was a steep learning curve for me. The challenge, for the most part, has been fun as starting fresh and making your own blueprint or career path, can reveal hidden strengths and certainly builds resilience. The element of tension and fear attached to any course relying on some form of government funding and the incentive to remain relevant and improve kept me on my toes.

I’ll always be grateful for the guidance of  Bruce Lundgren, who taught at Sandybeach for many years. Bruce invited me to apply for a job teaching Picture Storybook Writing for Younger Readers, a unit in the Professional Writing & Editing Diploma. I started in 2002, but within a few weeks, after a cancer diagnosis, Bruce asked me to take over his Accredited Writing classes.

The anthology,  Good Morning Writers, a collection of tributes to Bruce, by those who worked with him, and from many of his students was published in 2003 with a Foreword by close friend and tutor, Libby Strain:

The phrase “Good morning writers” is resonant with meaning and memories for many of the writers who contributed to this anthology. It was Bruce Lundgren’s usual weekly welcome to the creative writing classes he taught for many years at Sandybeach. The phrase conferred a status and dignity on each of them and on their endeavours. It served to create a sense of fellowship and shared purpose…

Bruce was an inspirational teacher and a caring and supportive friend. He touched many lives in very positive ways.

I contributed a personal reflection to the book, revealing that Bruce’s initial confidence in my ability and job offer was down to mistaken identity!

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Fate, Lady Luck, Serendipity… life can be surprising.

Six Degrees of Separation – 2003

I first heard of Bruce, when I founded the Mordialloc Writers’ Group with Noelle Franklyn in 1995 and she brought along her friend, Shirley Randall. Both of these writers had been students at Sandybeach. They praised Bruce’s teaching, his writing talents, but most of all his encouraging attitude and generosity of spirit…

Over the years, I continually met people who talked about Bruce with similar warmth and admiration. When I was welcomed at the door by the man himself at an Author’s Voice evening, I felt I already knew this polite, gentle gentleman with the ready smile.

In 2001, another ex-student of Bruce’s, and a current member of Mordialloc Writers’ Group, self-published. Bruce launched the book and I was MC for the afternoon. After the launch, Bruce announced that he was happy to meet me at last because he had heard a lot about me. I expressed surprise and suggested that it was me who was glad of the opportunity to chat with him and queried that I was well-known. In the course of our conversation, we discovered that Bruce had mistaken me for another Mairi Neil, assuming her writing credentials and mine were one and the same.

Recovering from mutual embarrassment, Bruce then encouraged me to apply to teach at Sandybeach suggesting I post my resume. He knew they were expanding the writing courses and wanted me on board…

I recall the day Bruce came to my home to hand over his Accredited Writing class details and some of the material he used. Two battered, bulging manila folders represented a lifeline that helped me tremendously, to swim (just) rather than sink amidst erudite and eloquent students, used to an even more erudite, eloquent Bruce…

The day he came to my home, I witnessed his valiant struggle at close quarters. When he left, I watched his retreating back and was overcome by an immense wave of sadness. My husband was dying, yet he too felt that Bruce’s death was imminent. Ironically, Bruce recovered enough of his health to experience several months of quality living (and finish his second poetry book) whereas John’s rapid decline led to him dying before Bruce.

And then Bruce’s health deteriorated. I struggled with my grief and to cope with teaching. Despite his own ill health, Bruce demonstrated remarkable compassion, ringing me or leaving encouraging notes in my pigeonhole – supportive, caring gestures I appreciated.

I started teaching at Sandybeach because of Bruce. I finished the 2002 teaching year because of Bruce, and I remain at Sandybeach because of Bruce’s legacy. I too have a passion for creative writing and want to nurture that passion in others.

The final coincidence of Bruce’s life intertwining with mine happened shortly after his death. I was on a bus returning to Mordialloc from Southland Shopping Centre and met Jackie McInroy, a teacher at Mordialloc Primary School who taught my daughter Mary Jane. Jackie had often invited me to her classes to run writing workshops and encouraged creative writing from her pupils. She informed me that Bruce taught at Mordialloc Primary School and was her mentor when she started teaching there over twenty years ago.

Life is indeed amazing – I too ponder “the wonder and connectedness of all life“** and know the world is a better place because Bruce Lundgren lived.

** from Chagall Fading, Starling Seasons, Bruce Lundgren.

Sandybeach To Mordialloc

A newbie teacher at Sandybeach, I was asked to also start paid classes at Mordialloc.  And being one of the longest serving (if not the longest) at Mordialloc, I’m looking forward to classes this year producing memorable writing, whether fiction or non-fiction. With writing prompts including plot, characters, setting, dialogue and themes, I know the students will surpass themselves.

The thought of producing some polished pieces of my own is exciting too!

Students motivate me as much as I motivate them. The 20-30 minutes when we ‘splurge write’ precious writing time.

We’ll craft short stories and poems, record family anecdotes, reflect and write a memoir or vignette.

We’ll discover poetry is an expression of the heart and soul and can be packaged in many different ways: song lyrics, free verse, form poetry, rhymes and prose.

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I look at the names of the writers and read their contributions and it’s as if they are whispering in my ear. Many became friends outside class, and of the class of 2002, Barbara still comes to Mordialloc on a Monday morning; Toula and Denise attend my class at Chelsea!

Doreen remained a student until her death last year and Jeanette still sends me her gorgeous haiku in cards for my birthday and Christmas.

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In 2005, Monday Class members were: Angela, Heather, two Margarets with surnames beginning with B so they were nicknamed B1 and B2 after Playschool’s Bananas in Pyjamas! Phillip and Marjorie also attended, plus Fay, Jeanette, Toula and Kay, Amelia and Doreen.

Divided into pairs, the students interviewed and introduced each other:

An Introduction to the Class of ’05

WW2 announced on the airwaves
Heather’s family gathered round
a ten-year-old girl confused
until air raid sirens sound
much later, the adult Heather
chose Nursing as a career
a passion shared by Angela
who cared for children three.
Angela’s knowledge of medicine
has stood her in good stead
because she daily battles MS
gallantly facing whatever’s ahead

She’s experienced a change in lifestyle
coming to Melbourne from the Apple Isle
like Margaret Birch’s memory of Moorabbin
when gumboots were a necessity, not style
Margaret has watched that city grow
soldier settlements to a busy metropolis
South Road’s dirt track transformed
into a modern traffic terminus.
To escape car fumes and city pollution
visit Margaret Birkenhead’s home
enjoy her beautiful Edithvale garden
a splendid oasis of love to roam
sixty years of devotion begs recognition
spanning the years Marjorie has lived
with similar family values and vision
these two ladies share a thirst for
knowledge as they praise education
Marjorie returned to study at sixty-five
Gained a BA and a new vocation.

She now writes family history,
children’s stories and rhymed verse
this strikes a chord with Phillip
whose words always aim to impress
he produces poems that inspire,
they also enlighten and amuse
a talent shared by Jeanette
who loves theatre and to choose
serenity listening to music
whether operatic or dance
she loves to go to the cinema
whenever there’s a chance
and with beautiful English skin
rosy-cheeks regardless of fashion
she’s travelled from Tibet to Marrakesh
citing bushwalking as a passion

Jeannette’s love of reading and writing
shared by Fay, a first meeting reveals
and grief’s strain on life’s journey
has oft times their sadness sealed
these two widows, like many others
have made a silent promise
they’ll live life to the fullest
and never an opportunity miss!

Kay was born in Wales
and sings as sweet as a bird
she wanted to go on stage
but her Mother said that’s absurd
until WW2 intervened and
Kay found the freedom she craved
in the airforce entertainment unit
performance dreams were saved.
Toula grew up fearful of change
her Greek father ultra strict
often friendless and oppressed
husband George was father’s pick!
Toula escaped through books,
photography and painting too
she wants to write her story
migrant voices being so few.

Amelia is an artist producing poetic
landscapes with her paintbrush
she meditates every morning
with a routine, she’ll never rush
each moment must be enjoyed
since meeting the Dalai Llama
his wise words keep her buoyed.
Whereas Doreen is more practical
divorced for over 30 years
and as a single parent
she conquered many fears
her Mazda 121 is special
it’s twenty-seven years old
driving gives her pleasure
walking leaves her cold.
Doreen is a voracious reader
and her stories entertain
with characters and dialogue
refreshing as spring rain.

Variety is the spice of life
this well-worn cliche we know
and this group of interesting writers
has plenty of seeds to sow
each Monday promises to delight
as their pens move across the page
characters and plots coming alive
as if on a Shakespearean stage.

2017 Here We Come

In less than a fortnight, a group of writers will sit around the table to write – I hope 2017 will be another good year!

“The stories we tell ourselves determine what we value and therefore the kind of world we strive to create.”  

Laura Leigh Clarke

 

People and Places from the Past Inspires Prose

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Some of the happiest times I remember from childhood were the extended meal times. The evenings, when we sat around the table, ignoring the dishes in the sink, as we listened to Dad and Mum share stories about Papa, Dad’s father. A character with a larger than life personality who lived with us when I was born although I only remember the repeated stories.

I never really ‘knew’ my grandparents – Mum’s mother died in 1927, her father died 1939 and Dad’s mother died 1940.

Papa lived with us until he died in 1956 aged 81 years. I was three years old.  My sister, Catriona who was six years old at the time, appears to be the only one of us with clear memories of him.

I have to rely on the scraps of stories I can recall (oh, how I wish I’d taken notes at the time) from those nights when Dad entertained us with the escapades of ‘the old man’ and Mum repeated Papa’s reminisces when she cared for him after his strokes.

The modern generation with their mobile phones, capable of instant photos and videos, may take the time to create vivid ‘living’ archives or will they delete or forget to backup the important family history?

Perhaps they’ll find themselves in decades time wishing like me, that their memory was better?

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me with Papa 1955

Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.

John Lennon

I feel privileged to be teaching Life Stories & Legacies at Godfrey Street and my other creative writing classes because I get to write in class too. I can dig deep into memory or imagination and it’s amazing what stories are triggered by the prompts.

In the last term this year, when we returned from the September holidays, I fashioned a lesson around “WATER” because we’d had an inordinate amount of rain and the media was full of stories about floods – a great setting for drama as well as life stories.

Below is a fraction of the brainstorming we came up with:

WATER

Floods have been in the news – have you ever experienced a flood? Know anyone who has?
Write about the experience or put your characters into a flood.

Or consider the following, and write the memory the words or phrase evokes, in an anecdote, essay, story or poem:

  • a bubble bath,
  • a puddle – did you own gumboots?
  • a storm-blown lake,
  • a calm green sea,
  • a child’s wading pool
  • an overflowing sink
  • a broken washing machine
  • a leaky tap
  • a spilt or empty dog’s bowl
  • a basin for soaking aching feet
  • bathing a baby/child for the first time
  • bathing an aged parent
  • bathing someone with a high temperature

It is always a surprise and a delight what memories are triggered and what the writers produce once the pen starts moving.

From this prompt, I remembered a story Dad had told about Papa. I hope I’ve done it justice.

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A Soothing Sunday Soaking

Papa’s feet always ached and he often pondered the culprit.

Was it the years encased in protective hobnail boots as he shovelled tonnes of coal into the cavernous, hungry mouths of steam trains?

Five – nine tonnes a day when he was a fireman – no wonder there was never a scrap of fat on his bones!

When he qualified as a locomotive driver, he rarely sat on the metal block that passed as a stool. Instead, he’d stand, head tilted out of the window to see round the treacherous tracks of the Highlands, or the myriad junctions, including cluttered Glasgow Central.

One misread signal and people’s lives put at risk – 300 tonnes of engine and carriages pack one helluva punch! No wonder, Papa kept on his toes; the hours of standing no help to his feet.

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Maybe it was just that – always being on his feet. Rain, hail, sleet, or snow… whatever the weather he trudged to work.

A five-mile walk there and five miles walk back from the railway yards. Trains, the main form of public transport in Scotland and they didn’t drive themselves. The rostered crew taking out the first train on their own transport-wise.

Twelve-hour shifts common and often Papa was away for several days if trains took goods and people north.

Unsociable shifts rendered bus timetables inconvenient, and in the era when not many working class men could afford a car, ‘Shanks’ pony’ (own feet or legs) the only reliable transport!

For part of his working life, Papa had a bicycle, if the weather suited, but once his sons started high school and apprenticeships, the family bicycle a precious commodity. He took his turn like everyone else but sometimes shifts, or the weather, didn’t go according to plan.

When he wasn’t working for Caledonian and later British Rail, part of his leisure time used to turn over soil, plant vegetables, and weed his allotment. The fruits of his labour supplemented the diet of his household of nine, or more.

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Highland-born, my grandparents ensured ‘extras’ always had food and board. Relatives or friends visiting or looking for work in the city, highlanders down on their luck and needing help. Papa and Granny’s generosity and traditional hospitality well-known in Greenock.

Needless to say, Papa’s feet rarely still or rested, and even when he shed his work boots for slippers, the feet still encased. Scottish weather not conducive to bare feet freedom in or out of the house.

However, there was one luxury for his aching feet and Sunday was the day he indulged!

His religious beliefs respected the Sabbath and made it a work free day. He let others chase the penalty rates, and he traded Sunday for a day of rest so he could attend his Gaelic church, ‘the Wee Free’.

On Sunday afternoons, before the evening walk, and after the traditional roast dinner, he’d remove his socks and shoes, roll up his trousers, slip off his braces, remove cufflinks and studs, and turn up his shirt sleeves. Tie and waistcoat already abandoned.

He’d collect the Gaelic newspapers sent from his native Skye, and donning his reading glasses, relax into the most comfortable armchair in the parlour.

The ritual sacrosanct! No one in the household needed a ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign.

In a basin of warm water with a generous amount of Epsom Salts added, Papa soaked his feet and relaxed. The minerals penetrated deep into his bones, and a rare, euphoric smile grew while he puffed on his pipe and leafed through newspaper stories to catch up with life on his beloved Isle of Skye.

This was how the Wee Free minister found him one Sunday afternoon when he called in unexpectedly and Papa refused to remove his feet from the basin, or get ‘dressed’!
The incident shattered domestic bliss for a week as Granny railed at her embarrassing husband.

Why did he refuse to dress properly for the Reverend?

How will she show her face to the neighbours when the story gets out – and it surely will! Tenements offered little privacy.

Did someone doing God’s work need to see misshapen toes and ugly feet? Not to mention braces hanging loose, shirt tails, no jacket or tie…

What was Papa thinking?

To treat the minister as if he was a nobody…

Now Papa helped found the National Union of Railwaymen, he admired Scottish socialist and the first Labour Member of Parliament, Keir Hardy. He disregarded class and hierarchies.

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President of An Comunn Gàidhealach, the Highland Society of Greenock (member of the radical Federation of Celtic Societies) he fought on behalf of the dispossessed and dislocated highlanders and islanders. He didn’t care ‘one iota’ what the minister thought.

The bathing of aching feet, in his own home, non-negotiable.

The Reverend might learn to be more courteous next time and wait to be invited.

Papa remained ‘on his feet’ and worked until 72 years of age, driving ammunition and supply trains for the war effort. His robust health a rarity for a working man in the 1940s.

His larger than life personality left a legacy of many stories of his idiosyncrasies for future generations –this is but one!

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All families have stories and memories, reminding us that behind the glass photo frames or plastic pages of an album the people once lived, laughed, worked and played – knowing their lives, we might better understand our own.

 

Mondayitis or Monday ‘it’s us’

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Mondays, the start of the working week for most people and the school or university week for students. If you’ve been lucky to have an exciting or relaxing weekend, perhaps a glimpse of freedom from the shackles of timetables, it can be hard to get motivated to ‘rise and shine’ as my father used to sing.

Not only did Dad sing, but he’d put on a pipe band record at full blast, grab a mop or brush as his baton and transform into a  drum master leading his troops, albeit from bedrooms to breakfast table!

Along with my five siblings, I did rise ( not sure about the shine) and we’d follow him down the hallway tousled-haired and pyjama-clad into the kitchen to be greeted by the smell of toast and tea.

Mercifully, the massed pipes and drums of the Sutherland Highlanders, Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, the Cameron Highlanders or any number of records from Dad’s collection would then be silenced.

Mondayitis never tolerated in our household – the ‘Protestant work ethic’ inculcated at an early age. Self-inflicted pain from youthful excess and late nights not an excuse for missing school or work.

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Yet Mondayitis is real, like the blues, and if you have a boring or depressing job, or the weather is cold and wet and the bed is warm, or there are a thousand distractions and reasons for staying home – going to the park, meeting up with friends, lying on the beach, curling up with a book… just Life with a capital L – the odd bout of Mondayitis can rejuvenate a jaded spirit.

But it can become a habit.  One of my brother’s high school mates actually thought the teachers wouldn’t notice a pattern to his absenteeism!

However, If you are fortunate to be free of permanent work and study commitments, and have a choice as to how you spend your week,  joining a club, group or class and having an enjoyable activity to look forward to does help. It is even part of a suggested  plan to cure Mondayitis!

As mentioned in other posts, you know the activity I recommend is a creative writing class.

“Writing is an extreme privilege but it’s also a gift. It’s a gift to yourself and it’s a gift of giving a story to someone.”

 Amy Tan

This term at Mordialloc Neighbourhood we’ve had some fun changing the format. Many of my students have been coming for years to the Writing for Pleasure & Publication classes, which keeps me on my toes. There can be no repeat lessons.

So borrowing  cards my daughter made for her Diploma of Art Therapy, we do some flash fiction to start the lesson. An extra writing task added to activate the brain cells.

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Imagination, Ideas, Invention … I’m sounding a little like an Aussie politician at election time but three-word slogans aside – I try to make sure each class is as interesting and inspiring as possible.

I’m always looking for new ways to approach writing and encourage the pens to move.

There is a set lesson but choosing a random card and writing for ten minutes on whatever the picture triggers has produced entertaining and touching vignettes and the potential for some great stories.cards-for-prompts

Dennis chose the Batman card and wrote a witty dialogue between Bruce Wayne aka Batman and a new franchisee in Australia, Dingo Man! Needless to say, there were roars of laughter as he read his piece.

We had emotional memories of family and personal trauma, imaginative mysteries, childhood dreams, poems and essays.  A popular card is Shakespeare’s observation that All The World’s A Stage. It prompts interesting reflections.

I chose a card with a short verse and what looks like Jack climbing a beanstalk – perhaps the picture was intended as a metaphor for the words:

After Zen, Pick Up A Pen
Mairi Neil

‘Into the woods to get my wish
I don’t care how the time is now…’

What is my wish? I ask my heart
A jet flies overhead, I want to depart.
I want to fly – or is it flee?
To be somewhere else, to be really me.

Perhaps live in a cottage, grow veggies galore
Crimson roses climb to frame the door
The sound of the sea a whisper away
Soft sand or pebble beach, to walk each day.

No Internet to distract, banish TV too
Windows to Mother Nature will do.
Imagination unfiltered, pen unfettered
Past, present, and future, stories checkered.

Flowing words and thoughts, false or true
My mojo needs a seismic shift to renew.
But is there a need for woods, or fleeing by air?
Perhaps wishes come true from … anywhere.

I’ll make the time now – seize the day
Harness the words and what I want to say.
If positive encouragement rings in my ears
Dreams can be enough to banish fears!

I’ll take a notepad and pencil, or pen
Seek other dreamers with a writing yen
To say with words what drives the heart
I’ll join a writing class, no need to depart!

The last verse I added at home -a bit of advertising or perhaps convincing myself yearning can be suppressed!  I was putting into words my desire to return to Scotland – a dream I’ve nurtured for a long time.

Another piece of writing to come out of Monday class was in response to events next door to the neighborhood house.

Construction sites a constant in Mordialloc as so many houses are pulled down to be replaced with apartments or townhouses – even when houses have been renovated, as was the case with this house.

Farewell No 459 Main Street, Mordialloc
Mairi Neil

Monday morning
First day of term
A scene of devastation,
Dust swirling in the air
The chomp of a front end loader
Crunching bricks
Smashing tiles
Splintering wood
Demolition next door…
The hum of machines
An unwelcome background noise
As the classroom shakes
With the vibration of diggers
In moments the building flattened
A home – gone
A dream – forgotten
Years of living, loving,
Arguing, playing,
Holidaying, working
Birthing, dying
Reduced to dust motes
Lost in the wind
Continuous clattering, splattering
Crunching, munching
Clanging, banging
Until dump trucks cart away
history…
From the rubble
And mounds of soil
A family of mice
Scurry under the fence
Two ravens circle and swoop
To pick over the carcass
The silence deafening.

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Sadly, development is not always in the best interests of the community. This one, in particular, may well lead to the end of my class because those with disabilities struggle to access the house.

Once multiple units are built the few parking spaces in front of the community house will be reduced and those with walkers and walking sticks will not be able to walk the extra distance required.

Already one of my students arrives an hour before class begins to get one of the few disabled parking spots. Now that’s dedication!

Parking always at a premium will be almost non-existent as building works progress, roads are partially blocked, tradesmen park nearby, and more people compete for limited spaces.

Mondayitis will be the least of our problems!

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Writing Wellness Into Habits To Improve Health

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

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

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

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

Dr Caroline West

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

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

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

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Brush with celebrity – me with Dr Caroline West

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

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

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

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

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

Yet, her lovely smile and enthusiasm never waned.

An Interesting Intro

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

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

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

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

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

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

Caroline’s mantra:

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

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

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

WE HAD TO STAND UP AND MOVE.  

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

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

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

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

Universal Themes For Good Health

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

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

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

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

Inspiring People To Live Well

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

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

a goal without a plan is just a wish

We Took A Lifestyle Health Quiz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Q: Who volunteers in the community?

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

SURVEY ON RETIREMENT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Q: Who exercises regularly?

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

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

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

  • Fitness makes you feel energetic, positive and confident.

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

  • Make it specific and get started.

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

Creating Rituals To Anchor Our Health

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

Early Morning
Mairi Neil (1992)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Walking In The Evening
Mairi Neil (1992)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Little Steps Rather Than A Grand Gesture

Q. Why do New Year Resolutions fail?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Studies asking what people want as they age revealed:

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

 

CAROLINE’S CASE STUDY:

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

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

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

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

Imagine where you want to be in 5 years time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Today we live longer because of:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

POSITIVES:

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

NEGATIVES:

Chronic disease is affected by lifestyle factors:

  • cancers 71%

  • stroke 70%

  • heart attack 87%

  • diabetes 91%

CAROLINE’S TAKEAWAY:

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

Think of 3Fs:

  • feet,
  • fork,
  • foregoing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Activity trackers

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

Think of exercise as an opportunity, not an inconvenience

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

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

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

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THE BUS EXPERIMENT

In England they did an experiment with workers:

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

Conclusion:

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

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

Sitting is the new smoking

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

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

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

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HOW DOES AUSTRALIA COMPARE WITH OTHER COUNTRIES?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DALAI LAMA & DESMOND TUTU

 

Holiday Games Banishing Stress With a Toolbox of Fun

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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!

 

 

Promenade with Penguins – the Promise of a Perfect Day!

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On Sunday morning, I looked out the bedroom window to the promise of a beautiful spring day. The Bird of Paradise bush glorious as usual and not a cloud in the sky. A great to be alive day despite the fact it was September and Father’s Day!

Special celebrations like Father’s Day are hard if you are missing a father you loved. My Dad died in 2005, and John, the girls’ dad, died in 2002. The two men I adored no longer around.

We three, remaining Neils have coped with the hype of Father’s Day for a few years now, the weeks leading up to the day where the media and shops are full of reminders, and stories that scream what could have been…

The loss never lessens but there are many people who are in the same boat and deliberately organising the day to focus elsewhere and make a conscious decision to live in the now and not in the past, does help numb rather than exacerbate, the persistent pain.

An Outing To See The St Kilda Penguins

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My friend, Kristine who retired to the other side of the city, belongs to the Altona Adventurers, pictured above with yours truly bottom left. They are an amazing community group, exploring local walks and sites as well as going further afield. On Sunday, Kristine had arranged a trip to see the penguins at St Kilda Pier.

How privileged was I to be included in their outing – they are certainly a friendly, hospitable bunch!

The trip to see the penguins at St Kilda Pier included a special talk and tour by Bronwyn from the Port Phillip Eco-centre. Before we met Bronwyn at the pier, we strolled through the beautiful St Kilda Botanical Gardens land bordered by Dickens Street, Tennyson Street, and Blessington Street. An easy walk from Balaclava Station.

First Stop St Kilda Botanical Gardens

 

The gardens were formally established in 1859 when a boundary fence was erected. By 1907 significant donations of money and plant material had led to the establishment of a rosary, extensive flower beds, and a nursery. Exotic forest trees were planted during the 1870s and Australian species were included in 1932.

Registered with Heritage Victoria, the gardens contain 810 mature tree specimens eight of which are on the significant tree register. In the 1950s the Alister Clarke Rose Garden was established and a Sub-Tropical Rainforest conservatory added in the early 1990’s. Seasonal displays and local indigenous plants provide a valuable collection to study or sit alongside enjoying a picnic.

Built features in the gardens include a giant chess board, ornamental pond with Rain Man fountain, children’s play space, gazebo, glasshouses and the Eco-centre which facilitate lessons on sustainable living practice.

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The gorgeous spring weather helped everyone’s mood but I can imagine the well-kept gardens is an oasis of serenity in any weather. How lucky we are to live in Melbourne – one of the world’s most liveable cities – a title won several times!

The gardens boast an ornamental lake and a lovely sculpture by artists Corey Thomas and Ken Arnold. RAINMAN is a solar powered water feature in harmony with the environment, utilising the sun’s energy, the variations in light are reflected by the flow of water.

On a sunny day, rain will fall onto the figure from under the umbrella, the figure’s hand stretched to feel the day beyond. A cloud passes over, it starts to rain, the solar power ceases, a dry Rainman reaches from beneath the umbrella to feel the rain.

(The solar panels and pump integral to the project were donated.)

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I was delighted when I came across a garden bed with ‘desert’ plants because it triggered a memory of San Antonio when Mary Jane and I visited The Alamo Mission. San Antonio must be one of the most beautiful cities in the USA and one I’d love to revisit.

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Living Fossils
Mairi Neil

Celebrate parks and open spaces
How they let us breathe and play
They put smiles upon our faces

Nature provides wondrous places
Adding beauty to the everyday
Wildlife parks, wilderness spaces

Trainers recommend 10,000 paces
Exercise and be healthy they say
Remember smiles upon our faces

In childhood egg and spoon races
Kite-flying, hide-n-seek, even croquet
Celebrates parks and open spaces

Living demands no ‘airs and graces’
And whether skies are blue or grey
We must put smiles upon our faces

In the future, they’ll look for traces
Of how we spent our lives each day
They’ll dig up parks and other spaces
Perhaps put names to long gone faces…

Celebrate parks and open spaces
Breathe deeply and enjoy your play
And remember put a smile upon your face!

Second Stop the delights of Acland and Carlisle Streets

From the Botanical Gardens, we walked to Acland Street for an early tea before heading to the pier for dusk. For some of the Altona Wanderers, the delights and oddities of Acland were a joy to behold and will no doubt entertain many a future coffee break chat.

One of the group had extra special memories – she had been married in the Botanical Gardens and the surrounding streets triggered lots of stories too.

Many Melburnians consider St Kilda synonymous with live music venues like The Espy, but heritage buildings are being redeveloped at an alarming rate.  There is also the fabulous and wonderful Luna Park. Who hasn’t got a story about the Great Scenic Railway (rollercoaster) and other vomit-inducing rides? How many teenage love stories can those rides tell?

Walking towards the pier I saw Edgewater Towers where I’d volunteered last year for Open House Melbourne. A fabulous day spent in a fascinating place with a great history. What serendipity I could take a picture from a different angle this year and see the building from a different perspective.

You really do notice so much more when you walk!

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A Promenade Towards The Pier

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We walked past the partly completed Stokehouse Restaurant tragically destroyed by fire but now being rebuilt to the highest of “green” environmentally friendly standards.

There was the famous Donovans, catering for up-market clients and also four-legged friends. It was just wonderful to enjoy expanses of sand and ocean and stroll with happy singles and families as we prepared for the aim of the evening – our date with the penguins!

 

Despite the sizeable group and people ‘doing their own exploring’ we all managed to make it to the pier.

Bronwyn gave excellent hints, information, and advice about the Port Phillip Environment and future foreshore sustainability in general. The dangers of microbeads to ocean life one of the biggest challenges we face. She searched in the sand to show us some microbeads, and Neil, the other ranger from the Eco-centre explained how natural the pink tide was when we were all imagining something sinister!

We had never seen the pink frill before and thought it may have to do with the dredging of the bay or pollution, but it seems it is a natural and healthy occurrence!

On the way back from observing the penguins nest for the night, Bronwyn threw a stone in the water to show an explosion of the blue phosphorescence underneath the pink. Truly amazing! It certainly kept me and nearby tourists amused.

Watch amazing shades of orange, yellow, pink and blue reflect off Port Phillip Bay’s calm waters. The view from St Kilda Pier is simply mesmerizing. Hang your legs over the pier, feel the cool breeze and gaze at the horizon as the day’s light slowly fades away.

The friends of Port Phillip’s Eco-centre and volunteers looking after the penguins are also helping refurbish the breakwater and extension to the pier that holds the rockery where the Little Blue Penguins nest and breed.

We helped carry buckets of sand to spread alongside the rocks to prevent erosion. Groundcover (Disphyma crassifolium, Rounded Noon Flower) similar to pigface is planted along with saltbush.

We owe much to the dedication of volunteers in environmental groups. They contribute enthusiastic caring for the places that make Melbourne such an attractive city!

Bronwyn encouraged us to have some bush tucker and I tasted saltbush for the first time. I will now learn more about what food and medicine can be found in plants we take for granted.

In fact, the evening was a salutary lesson about how wonderful the world around us can be – the little penguins have returned in greater numbers because people continue to work hard to maintain their habitat and protect them. I’ve heard estimates their numbers to be anywhere from 700 – 1200.

We were asked not to use flash photography, to keep our distance, and respect the Little Penguins. To stay on the viewing platforms or path, and to cover any torch with red paper to limit the shock to the penguins.

It is appalling that many of the public disregard such simple requests and vandals have  hurt and killed the Little Penguins this year. On Sunday night, I was surprised that even with volunteers politely requesting better behaviour, onlookers flashed cameras, blocked the path of a Little Penguin trying to cross, and made loud noises and startling movements that would distress them.

If we want close encounters with wildlife lets respect the animals and not treat them as pure entertainment.

If you go down to the pier, perhaps offer to carry a bucket of sand and help the volunteers trying to stop erosion and improve the habitat so future generations will enjoy the penguins too.

The Little Penguins are not the only attraction on St Kilda Pier. One of my favourite birds was there – a pelican. Perched atop a lamp post some of our group thought it was a sculpture!

There are photo opportunities to capture other seabirds and to witness the swift moving penguins come ashore. They zip through the water like torpedoes.

A walk along the pier at St Kilda at dusk reveals another aspect or perspective of the city. The skyline is an imposing backdrop, yet the busyness and noise of traffic remarkably absent once you get to the far end of the pier.

In fact, the noise of the penguins mating (it is breeding season) rose to a crescendo several times on Sunday evening and it was hard to believe you were anywhere near urbanisation!

The hundreds of boats at the marina gleamed in the fading light and once street and traffic lights came on, plus the lights of the city buildings, the reflections on the water were truly enchanting. A veritable watery fairyland.

It was with some reluctance that we made our way back to ‘civilization’ to catch the light rail into the city and the train home.

A perfect day indeed!

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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.

postcard melbourne 1956 olympics copy
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!

olympic turf in a jar

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.

newspaper article 1956 Olympics

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!

olympic turf copy
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.

olympic torch 2000

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!

 

 

Colours of Harmony Work Towards Peaceful Co-Existence​

 

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sunrise over Albert Street Mordialloc

 

This post about a wonderful event is late, because as my husband John, used to say, you can never budget for ill-health – it strikes at any time.

He wasn’t just talking about finances, but also the time lost when yourself or a family member is sick. I’ve experienced both recently with the emergency hospitalisation of my youngest daughter and then becoming ill myself with labyrinthitis, a condition I’ve had before and often recurs because of stress.

To top the unfortunate week off, the family dog Aurora had to be taken to the vet and is now scheduled for an operation and treatment we hope will be beneficial for the eleven and half-year-old, who has been remarkably fit. She is lying beside me as I type, still sulking after the visit to the vet! 

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Colours of Harmony Art Exhibition

Therefore, apologies in advance if I don’t do justice to an inspiring local art exhibition I was lucky to be invited to attend as Kingston Citizen of the Year. The Mayor, Cr Tamsin Bearsley, spoke at the Colours of Harmony Art Exhibition sponsored by the City of Kingston Interfaith Network and held at St Nicholas Gallery, Mordialloc.

Interfaith Network in Kingston

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Despite heavy rain drumming on the pavements, and outside becoming the ubiquitous “dark and stormy night” the venue oozed light, love, and harmony.

The title of the art exhibition apt.  I walked through the door to the buzz of conversations and laughter contributing to a feeling of harmony and happiness. I spied a couple of faces from my past association with the church and years melted away.

There is a special aura around people comfortable in their faith, regardless of denomination or creed, as well as those without a religion but who believe in humanity’s goodness.

Kindness, compassion, and spirituality warm and encompassing, like the sunrise and sunset’s predictable beauty of benign light.

sunset USA

It was the first time I had been inside the renovated church and ‘new’ gallery (renovations occurred 2011!), although many years ago, I attended services regularly, helped out with the children’s program (the J-Team), and Father Tony, the priest at the time, officiated at John’s funeral.

However, 2007 was the last time I attended as a parishioner when we took Mum to the midnight mass on Christmas Eve, a service I adored. It’s a memory the girls and I treasure for many reasons, particularly since Mum died in 2009.

For me, a  special ceremony in the calendar of any religion is a spiritual experience and celebrating the birth of Jesus at St Nicholas is always joyous. Even for those who don’t profess a deep faith, Christmas can be special.

The thousands who attend Carols by Candlelight events(or watch them on TV) throughout Melbourne, including events in Kingston, and most notably at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl in the city proper, often discover a sense of community and of peace.

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Renovations and Transformation…

I was impressed by the transformation of the inside of the church building and the addition of the gallery. The sanctity of the church building enhanced and inviting the public to come in and use the space. A link to the world outside and recognition that symbols and ritual have value because meaning will come from interaction and thoughtful contemplation.

St Nicholas will be celebrating 150 years soon and a member of the congregation is researching and writing its history. I understand the commitment he has undertaken because I put together the history of St Aidan’s Anglican Church, Carrum for their centenary. What a wonderful addition to Mordialloc’s history Colin’s research and the resultant book will make.

Little church on HIll
Published 2004

The beauty in the renovated church, especially of the restored brick archways, the polished wood and the lovely baptismal candle and wall hangings, illustrate the care of the congregation in retaining the essence of the original church.

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Given the multicultural nature of the Australian population sometimes the needs of faiths other than Christian are forgotten and so interfaith networks are important.  

I’ve been fortunate to have many life experiences meeting exceptional human beings in places such as:

  • a ceremony in Japan on the Buddha’s birthday,
  • in a Hindu Temple in Singapore,
  • at Harmony Day and Eid celebrations in Mordialloc
  • and countless workshops and events where people gather to advance equity and social justice without professing a particular faith.

It was good to hear the Chairman of the Interfaith Network thank two long term members taking retirement from active involvement in an organisation committed to tolerance and acceptance of other religions. He also encouraged some of the artists to come forward and share their practice and inspiration for the theme of Colours of Harmony.

retiring committee
flowers of appreciation
art teacher
art teacher from Parkdale College

The enthusiastic art teacher from Parkdale College bursting with pride at the magnificent display of students’ efforts, admitted she could have filled all the walls of the gallery and it was difficult to choose just a few works to display such was the response to the topic.

parkdale college
the wall of art from Parkdale College

The students found inspirational quotes or thoughts and went where their imagination and artistry led and produced a variety of responses to Colours of Harmony. Their efforts a comforting balance to the mainstream media’s ‘shock/horror/outrage’ news-bites designed to either keep us all in a constant state of fear and/or ignorant of any in-depth analysis of national and international affairs.

Sadly, the digital age and proliferation of social media contribute to a reduction in quality journalism and as I considered the thoughtful responses to this exhibition’s brief,  I pondered all the challenges the younger generation face. How lucky we are to have teachers like the young art teacher who embraced this opportunity to get her students involved and share their creative responses.

(Sadly, last year was the final year of a creative writing competition I judged involving Parkdale College and Kingston U3A, which initiated the project. Mordialloc Writers’ Group provided the Encouragement Award for the ten years of the project but alas all good things come to an end and Kingston U3A has decided not to continue.)

However, we are lucky to have teachers who embrace opportunities to get students involved with community groups and share their creative responses. Parkdale College has a good track record of doing this.

we dont have to be ordinary
We don’t have to be ordinary
dont get harmony etc
You don’t get harmony when everybody sings the same note
do not judge
Do not judge my story by the chapter you walked in on

 

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It’s a new dawn. It’s a new day, and I’m feeling good.

We live in troubled times and Australia is having many difficult conversations around tolerance and multiculturalism and a recent incident where a group of people calling themselves patriots dressed as Muslims and invaded the progressive Gosford Anglican Church last Sunday, indicates we have a long way to go to reach harmony. 

Congratulations to a local school with no problem embracing the topic and producing insightful artwork like the ones in the exhibition.

The Gallery and Exhibits

Artist/Photographer Suzanne Ashton spoke about seeing the tiny details of life in the ‘big picture’ of the natural and human world. The beauty and wonder others may miss.

Diana Muller’s art is eclectic and her card and crochet pieces depict the soul inspired by poems of Keiko Takahashi. Her message profound, it is in our hands – we can change the future. Her piece The Source reminds us:

We come from the Source, we go back to The Source, and we are The Source.

Felice Cortese in Moordi Walk uses Melaleuca broad-leaved paperbark with water base paint and pigments to create a spiritual piece on prayer and reflection.

Colour on an indigenous tree background inspired from my walks along Mordialloc Creek. Its spirituality and natural beauty.

Richard Newton captured Harmony of Buddha with oil, acrylic, bitumen, gold and silver leaf and layers of resin/mixed medium.

The Thai images of the Buddha are very spiritual and I have attempted to counterbalance the image with a harmonious abstraction… there is an unnatural harmony between the classic old image and the use of colour and line.

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Harmony is about coexistence, and interfaith harmony is a reality when people respect each other’s right to believe and worship their religion without discord and violence. This calls for cooperation and a level of understanding, which may require education and effort – moving out of our comfort zones, reaching out and looking within.

Exhibitions like the Colours of Harmony supported and encouraged by council and community help us grow towards what may seem elusive – an achievable world of mutual respect and appreciation of all cultural traditions so that interfaith and intrafaith dialogues are guided by love and tolerance.

 

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Mother Earth in Harmony by Charmaine Crisp

This idea encapsulated by artist Charmaine Crisp, in her work depicting the Tree of Life and all its nuances. The ethereal glow and exceptional detail in her painting not done justice by my photograph!

“We wake under the one rising sun, which provides warmth and light for all. May love, hope, and charity be our guide in life.”

The Exhibition lasts until August 30 so I hope as many people as possible make the effort to enjoy the 41 pieces of work by talented artists.

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And for those interested in learning more about other faiths in Melbourne we have The Interfaith Centre, which organises World Interfaith Harmony Week. A Multifaith Calendar is available so that organisations can plan events and be mindful they don’t clash with or inadvertently exclude other faiths.

I studied at the ANU in Canberra in the 70s  and often return to visit friends.  I love this statute of Ethos by Tom Bass,  in Civic.  It embodies how I feel about humanity, the world and belonging to a place where people work for harmony, peace, and reconciliation.

Ethos sculpture canberraEthos speaksnew ethos sculpture ed 2

Acrostic by Mairi Neil

Healing words soothe
A heartfelt hug or sincere smile
Reason, not racism
Multicultural vibrancy Australia’s style
Outsiders no more
Not only tolerance but acceptance
You are welcome – we are enriched

Resisting The Fear of Terror, Trump and Tempestuous Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Limericks Against Loose Language

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

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

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

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

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Study History and be Informed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

peter marshall quote

 

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

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

present fro Trish

 

Journal Newsletter

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

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

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

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

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

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

Writing Class
Mairi Neil

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

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

 

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.

rocking chair

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!