Ducks and Albatrosses Down Under

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The beginning of the year always a mixed blessing because January 10th is John’s birthday and a reminder my husband and best friend is no longer around, yet it is a new year and the future beckons and being a glass-half-full person, I look forward to whatever challenges await.

For the last sixteen years, the girls and I have visited Stony Point each January to reflect and remember John – and yes, we chat or share our thoughts with him.

Whenever I give my writing class an exercise to write about their happy place, or a place where they feel serene, I have Stony Point in mind.

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Serenity Writing Exercise

Once a year, sometimes more often, I visit Stony Point on the outskirts of Melbourne. This tip of the Victorian coast looks across to French Island among other smaller islets and the tide flows out to the sea. There is a pier always populated with anglers – more in some seasons than others.

There is a ferry to French Island and half the pier is now fenced off for Navy patrol boats installed during John Howard’s ‘be alert not alarmed’ crusade.

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John requested his ashes be scattered where they would be carried out to sea, being ex-Royal Navy, John was more comfortable on the water than land and Stony Point fitted the bill.

There are mini-wetlands (or mud flats) at Stony Point frequently visited by shearwaters, pelicans and of course the ubiquitous seagulls. The area is attractive to fishermen and regardless of the season, you will always see boats coming and going.

The gutting and scaling table regularly visited by a host of birds who seem to know just when to land and wait for a feed. The take-offs and jockeying for advantageous positions to catch thrown leftovers provide a rambunctious display by the birds, especially the pelicans.

My daughters laugh at my delight and are convinced I have the largest collection of photographs of pelicans in the world! This year, I think they had a bet going and were counting how many pictures I took – I never discovered whose guess was correct!

Many people visit Stony Point and there is a caravan park with permanent residents as well as frequent holidaymakers. Every day there could be bushwalkers, anglers, picnickers, fossickers, commuters to French Island, naval personnel from nearby Cerberus base and a handful of locals who operate a rundown cafe/shop.

But there are times, like the other day, when we were the only ones soaking up the serenity for an hour or so before one boat returned and two families arrived to visit.

I’m sure others like me,  come to sit or walk by the short strand of sand or along the pier. Others relax while waiting for the ferry to French island. The kiosk, the railway station, the car park – so little change in sixteen years.

Stony Point is the end of the line for the train – a little diesel that comes from Frankston. The station personnel seem to be from another era of railway culture – a more friendly era – attuned to the age of steam perhaps – like my Dad and Grandfather…

However, just like the rest of the Victorian rail system, upgrading is happening to the only non-electrified rail line operated by Metro. There will be electrification to Hastings soon, but who knows when the upgrade will reach Stony Point, a place where change is rare.

 

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John’s Story Forever Linked to Stony Point

When I think of John, I remember his love for the sea. The vivid memories of years in the Royal Navy he loved to share. His time at sea an escape from a violent step-father. It gifted skills and room to grow. Life below deck a creative exercise in space management and curled in a hammock beneath clambering pipes was not conducive to sleep. In the 1950s and 60s, he served on destroyers and stowed belongings in lockers between gurgling pipes. Ironically, the life he loved contaminated him with asbestos…

When I think of John, I recall he joined the navy as a fifteen year old ‘boy sailor’ and said he learned to respect and consider others, to cook, clean, and iron, to share, to care for himself, to operate radar and radio, sort and deliver mail, be the butcher and food buyer for the mess, and also train as a deep-sea diver. He mastered calligraphy and latch-hook weaving and became the Mediterranean Fleet’s high jump and long jump champion in Malta. Above deck, he discovered the pleasure and benefits of breathing fresh sea air;  the joy of time to scan for exotic lands, learn to read the stars, be entertained by dancing dolphins, flying fish, and the unforgettable sight of the majestic blue whale.

When I think of John, I hear his voice reciting poetry and doggerel, quoting favourite passages from books he loved or people he admired (he could recite Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address!) and singing songs from favourite entertainers. A man of few words, each sentence counted. John didn’t do small talk…

His stints at sea gave him time to sit and think, to listen to the stories of others, and absorb some of life’s harsher lessons. He witnessed horrific scenes while based in the Mediterranean when Britain became embroiled in the Suez Crisis. He visited many European ports and also South America and South Africa, experiencing a variety of cultures and cuisine. Moved out of the comfort zone of his childhood English village, people and places expanded his heart and vision.

When I think of John, I remember his love for the sea and how it shaped his character. A sea he now roams as his ashes float from shore to shore, revisiting the lands he loved, being part of a marine world he admired – free of human form, he can dance with the dolphins, fly with the fish, or ride a whale.

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When I think of John, I remember his keen sense of humour, can hear his laughter and know he would laugh with us and enjoy the story I’m about to tell of our visit to Stony Point last Wednesday.

I was taking pictures of some Shearwaters and Pacific Gulls sunning themselves on the edge of the slipway jetty when a man in his early 40s and his two children, a boy of 8 and girl of 6, followed me towards the birds. Their conversation –

‘What kind of birds are they Dad?’

‘They’re ducks, son.’

‘No they’re not.’

‘Yes, they are – look,’ he points to the pelicans,’ see how small they are to the albatrosses.’

I’ve seen gannets and black swans at Stony Point but never an albatross.

When I shared the father/son conversation with the girls, we laughed – it reminded us of that funny TV ad for Bigpond or maybe Google, some years ago – when the young boy asked his Dad why the Great Wall of China was built and the dad replied, ‘to keep the rabbits out.’

For the record, the next evening on a walk with buddy Jillian, I took a picture of a duck in Mordialloc Creek.

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And this is a pelican –

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Pelicans – symbols of mutual aid and love

The Australian Pelican (Pelecanus conspicillatus) is the largest of the shorebirds that can be found along Victoria’s coastline. It has a wingspan of 2.3-2.5 metres and weighs 4 to 6.8 kilos. Wild pelicans can live up to 25 years. Predominantly white with black along the perimeters of the wings, it has a large pale, pinkish bill. An Australian pelican was recorded with the longest bill of any bird in the world. It is the most southerly breeding of all pelican species and is the only pelican found in Australia.

Between the bones on the lower bill is a stretchy patch of skin called the gular pouch. The gular pouch will stretch when it is filled with water and can hold up to three gallons. Pelicans also have a large nail on the tip of the upper part of the bill. They have short legs and large feet with webbing between all four toes.

Their diet is mainly fish but they are carnivores and will eat turtles, crustaceans and other waterbirds. They can soar to heights of 10,000 feet and can commute 150 kilometres to feeding areas. Highly social, these diurnal birds fly together in groups which can be very large. They breed in large colonies of up to 40,000 individuals.

Strong, slow fliers they often glide on thermals to conserve energy. During flight, they pull their head inward towards their body and rest it on their shoulders. They have been known to remain airborne for 24 hours as they seek food.

Pelicans pair up every breeding season and stay with the one mate for the rest of the season.

Adult pelicans rarely use the few calls they have but can hiss, blow, groan, grunt, or bill-clatter. The young are more vocal than the adults and will loudly beg for food. Australian pelicans primarily communicate with visual cues using their wings, necks, bills, and pouches, especially in courtship displays.

Like all birds, Australian pelicans perceive their environment through visual, auditory, tactile, and chemical stimuli. Opportunistic feeders, they adapt to human activity quite easily and directly approach humans to be fed or will steal food, which is problematic because they get caught on fishing lines and hooks.

The Pelican’s Paparazzi
Mairi Neil

Always gathered at Stony Point
pelicans wait for boats to arrive
yet with beaks and wings so large
it’s fishing skill keeps them alive

perhaps these pelicans are lazy
or maybe they’re super smart
stocking food for a week in that beak
without having to dive and dart…

Stony Point’s fishermen’s table
a magnet for seabirds galore
shearwaters, seagulls – even swans
compete with pelicans for more

discarded fish guts, heads and tails
whatever fishermen don’t want to eat
I love to watch and capture on camera
the birds vying for a treat after treat

I can’t explain my pelican fascination
except they soar skywards with poise
and whether they stand, sit or float
they exude serenity without noise

they don’t screech, squeal, or twitter
but seem content to ‘just be’
if reincarnation is really a thing
then it’s a pelican I choose to be!

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Anne and me with French island ferry in the background 2018

So little has changed at Stony Point thank goodness, although over the years signs have been added like the new banner announcing the naval facility is now managed by http://www.portofhastings.com and the new sign about French island is detailed and attractive.

Love for More Than One Place

When I developed cancer in 2010, I had lived in Australia nearly half a century, yet still felt I didn’t quite belong, still found myself homesick for Scotland, the land of my birth. I loved Australia, especially my home in Mordialloc where I have lived for thirty-five years. I married there and gave birth to my two daughters and brought them up in Mordialloc, but there was a passion missing, a sense of belonging I needed to ignite because if I was going to die should I return to Scotland?

After I finished chemotherapy I decided to create a bucket list because breast cancer and the treatment had me on the brink of death several times due to complications. I had always wanted to visit Australia’s red centre and see Uluru, in Australia’s heart and a sacred place for the Aborigines. I felt if I could get closer to the earth sacred to Aborigines, a connection to their mother, the country, would perhaps rub off on me.

Through research on the Internet, I discovered a tour company taking a group of writers to walk the Larapinta Trail called Desert Writers. Led by Jan Cornell, we’d spend five nights camping in the desert and walk the trail with two indigenous guides.

I didn’t hesitate and booked to fly to Alice Springs in July 2011 – still almost bald and a little fragile from a lumpectomy, haematoma, then radical mastectomy, three months of chemotherapy and a nasty bout of pneumonia thrown in for good measure.

The trip would not only realise a dream but would affirm I could still travel, which is one of my passions. It promised to encourage me to write, the most important passion I have. However, more importantly, I hoped to gain a greater appreciation and deeper connection to my adopted homeland, something I had not felt since being uprooted from Scotland as a child.

The journey fulfilled all my hopes and last year when I returned to Scotland after a twenty- year absence I loved being back, but returning to Mordialloc was coming home.

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My place is Mordialloc, where I can walk along the seashore and as far as I can see there is freedom, an infinite sea, and endless sky.

I can stroll by the Creek enjoying the beauty of native and imported flowers and trees, listen to birdsong, laugh at the antics of ducks and seagulls.

I can breathe and feel secure, even at night, because wherever I am near the sea, John is with me. We sprinkled his ashes at Stony Point so he can wander distant lands, many he’d visited as a boy sailor but always his spirit can return when he feels inclined to touch these shores again.

Whenever the girls or I am near the sea we know John is there, just as the Aborigines know their country and walk in the knowledge their ancestors are protecting their place and their stories.

When I die, my ashes will be sprinkled into the sea at Stony Point. My first journey will be to my birth country, the Western Isles of Scotland, but I will always return to these shores as long as the girls are here and so much of my life’s story.

At Stony Point, I feel calm, serene and comfortable. It is one of several places I cherish as well as marvellous Mordi!

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Christmas Joy Not Humbug!

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The Twelve Days of Christmas

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to the ‘Twelve days’ …

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

wild woman and christmas message

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

What would Christmas be without a wee miracle?

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

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

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

We scored a candy cane before they entered the lift!

cate with hospital volunteers

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

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

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

my pink-red rose.jpgChristmas Catch-Ups

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

bulleen peace park

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

 

New Acquaintances Not Forgot

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

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

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

book cover from Japan

Serendipity!

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

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

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

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

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

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

He was 24 years old and in his prime.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I also felt tears coming to my eyes…

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

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

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

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

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From a card I bought in Oban, Scotland

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

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

An Epiphany

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Power of  Spiritual Awakening

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John’s response, “Prove it!”

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

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

He answered, “No problem for me.”

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

The Joy of Reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the Hallway
Hoshino Tomihiro (February 20)

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

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

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

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

Something did not make sense…

CROWN-OF-THORNS
Hoshino Tomihiro

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

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

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Flowers Helped Him Bloom

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

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

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

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

CHRYSANTHEMUMS
Hoshino Tomihiro

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

COLUMBINES
Hoshino Tomihiro

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

sunflowers in vase.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I love this poem he wrote  –

poem 1

and this honest observation:

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

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

Dokudami (Houttuynia)
Hoshino Tomihiro

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

Your flowers
Look just like white crosses.

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

HOUTTUYNIA CORDATA
Hoshino Tomihiro

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

A book can be the gift that keeps on giving.

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

sunset glow.jpg

When A Trip is Unforseen, Unplanned and Unappealing…

 

park bench Edinburgh 2017

On Tuesday morning, in a buoyant mood, I set off for work – my last class for the term – and mind already turning over a list of appointments, events, ideas for lessons, and a list of catch-up household chores to be squeezed into the winter break.

In a folder ready for photocopying and collating, the prepared anthology of the writing students of Godfrey Street’s Writing Creatively Class.

I had burned the metaphorical midnight oil for several nights but tiredness banished when I organised the wonderful work produced this semester.  The cliched spring in my step real because a task satisfactorily completed – a job well done.

Pride Comes Before A Fall

However,  life has a way of reminding me never to be too comfortable or smug!

I’d only strode a few yards from home when I was flying through the air before landing with a thud on the concrete path.

Wings definitely clipped!

Three days later, beautiful bruises reveal themselves in places well-hidden but still painful, I  reflect on how lucky I am (no broken bones just sore muscles) and I now obey (within reason) both my daughters’ exhortations, ‘Can you just sit and do nothing – pleeease!’

I’m trying to ‘go with the flow!

windsurfing Mentone.jpg
Windsurfer, Mentone January 2018

Déjà vu or Ground Hog Day?

While sitting in Frankston Hospital’s Accident & Emergency, Facebook reminded me of my travels last year and yes, unbelievably, it was this time last year when I was limping through the last leg of the big overseas adventure because I’d tripped in the hallway at my cousin’s house in Renton near Glasgow.

Despite my lovely cousin’s pleas, I didn’t get checked out by a doctor and ‘walked through the pain,’ which led to all sorts of complications when I returned home.

My daughters were most insistent I didn’t repeat any stoicism.

I reluctantly agreed, despite feeling like one of the guest speakers at a Women’s Hospital function who said once she retired ‘a trip’ became ‘a fall’ and she was sent off to a Fall Clinic as if she had a chronic problem.

My accidents were both unexpected trips, but landing on concrete is more likely to do damage than a floor – and it felt decidedly more painful!

I can laugh about Tuesday now, but the audience of half-a-dozen workers were not laughing when I landed beside them. Several strong pairs of arms hoisted me to my feet when I told them I was ready to stand and prove I didn’t need an ambulance.

At another time I might have revelled being fussed over by a batch of young men but I just wanted to return the few yards home and ‘have a Bex and a good lie down!’

A young man escorted me the 100 feet and carried my bag. He returned a few minutes later to check I was okay but I told him my daughters were on their way.

The cavalry arrived to greet a crying mess sitting draped in a bath towel toga with a large icepack on both knees and double-checking fingers, wrists, elbows, neck and all the other places that hurt.

Maybe it is a sign of age but the pain was excruciating. Shock set in and I started to shake – the girls were decisive.

A cup of tea and a couple of Panadol and we headed for Frankston Hospital.

Mobile phones a godsend that day. They had tried for an appointment with our local doctor when I first rang them but the clinic was booked out. They’d also rang my manager and cancelled the class.

While Mary played nurse and found some looser pants for me to wear that wouldn’t pressure my knees, Anne marched down to the worksite introduced herself and recorded the company’s details. She got a contact name of a supervisor because I’d caught my foot on the corner of a manhole cover they’d removed but left jutting out from the area of pavement blocked off.

Distracted and curious by the activity I tripped, but maybe the whole path should have been closed.  Lessons to be learned all round!

Silver Linings

The day became surreal and emotions ran high – suffice to say various temperaments exposed and moments bordered on slapstick, television soapie, Grey’s Anatomy, Brooklyn 99 and then an unexpected lovely moment…

We arrived home from Frankston to find a huge box of fruit on the doorstep and a handwritten note from one of the workers hoping I am okay and wishing me well.

I really appreciated their kindness.

fruit bowls.jpg

I also appreciated my daughters’ devotion and decisiveness – they proved themselves capable and caring adults and in all the drama I had a moment of parental pride and joy – they will survive, perhaps thrive – without me and have obviously discussed and thought about ‘the ageing me’ with one of them declaring at one stage, ‘You are not superwoman and don’t have to be supermum anymore.’

And so for a few days, I am ‘taking it easy’ factoring in Panamax and Voltaren Emulgel with the vitamins and blood pressure tablets!

I’ve been touched by visits and phone calls from friends and I’m blessed that injuries don’t seem to be too drastic and the holidays will be great recuperation time.

Happenstance indeed!

sculpture sitting.jpg

And Today is Poet’s Day

POETS day is a term used by workers in the United Kingdom to refer jocularly to Friday as the last day of the work week. The word “POETS” is an acronym for “Piss off early, tomorrow’s Saturday”: hence Friday becomes “Poets day“.

With ‘enforced’ leisure I’ve started going through notebooks and extracting the ideas jotted down – maybe I’ll get some creative writing done!

I came upon this poem – apt because it was Tuesday Class I was heading to when I tripped so here’s ‘the postcard’ I ‘didn’t send’.

Remember the perennial joke from primary school if you witnessed somebody tripping?

Oops, I tripped.

You didn’t send me a postcard!

An Acrostic Tuesday

Mairi Neil

Tuesdays during school term, I teach in Bentleigh

Up the line from Mordialloc towards the city

Easy to get to by public transport, especially trains

So convenient! And I love it! I know I am lucky, even on

Days when inclement weather suggests

A day in bed or seat by the fireside…

Yet, I‘d never use bad weather as an excuse. Unless

 

Catastrophic cyclone creates wailing whistling winds

Large hailstones the size of tennis balls thunder down

An unseasonal snowfall blocks doors, driveways, footpaths

Sleet, slush or slippery ice replaces stable ground –

Scenarios unimaginable in Mordialloc – unless you are a writer!

empty classroom

Happy Holidays and Happy Poet’s Day!

 

 

Unexpected, Unplanned, and Unpredictable but Marvellous Melbourne!

mairi melbourne museum

On Saturday, I met my older sister, Cate at Southern Cross Station. A quilter, she had come down from Albury for the weekend to attend a Stitches & Craft show at the Exhibition Buildings in Carlton. We discussed attending weeks ago but no definite arrangements were made until she knew she could get time off work and a seat on the train.

I’m catching the train at 6.00 am – see you at 10.30.”

‘The weather’s forecast to be hot and humid – don’t overdress!”

In September, when Cate visited for the Dior Exhibition at the National Gallery we experienced a warmer than average spring day and she regretted wearing too heavy clothes while I worried about her increasingly flushed face and a shortage of breath.

Yes, we are both at that age where warnings about blood pressure, heart strain or breathing difficulties loom large and prescription pills rattle in our bags!

Don’t worry,’ she said, “I’m prepared this time.’

Plans, Preparation – and the Weather!

We caught a tram up Collins Streets and walked through the gardens at Carlton admiring the lush greenery and bright blooms. Lulled into peaceful serenity by the azure sky and fluffy clouds, families having fun, and tourists snapping selfies.

We shared pleasantries and the promise of a wonderful day catching up and enjoying the exhibition.

 

The 138-year-old Exhibition Building a new venue for Stitches & Craft but a magnificent setting. Cate and I had last visited here when some of her work was shown at the quilting show.

The Exhibition Building feeds my love of history and depending which entrance used, I learn something new every time – like this snippet of history and the monument I’ve dubbed ‘the protest sculpture’.

I’m sure the debate of the day mirrored many we still have about imports being favoured over local products but how many of our current MPs would put their money where their mouth is like the Hon. John Woods?

 

When we rounded the corner, we were relaxed and comfortable – and surprised the entrance silent and deserted.

  • Where were the queues of excited participants?
  • Where were the clusters of crafters discussing techniques, products, and great bargains?

The beautifully carved doors shut tight and no huffing, puffing or pushing or whispering magic words like ‘open sesame‘ made a bit of difference.

We met a couple of young women who were also confused. At first, I thought they were just admiring the architecture but then discovered they were itching to stitch and craft…

doors to exhibition buildings

Cate, who is more computer savvy than me quickly Googled.

The venue correct – the date wrong. ‘It’s next weekend...’

The girls looked crushed. The surrounding water from fountain and lake a metaphor for tears.

mini lake carlton gardens 2

We just felt a little like ‘Dumber and Dumbest,’ but recovered instantly. After all, we were standing beside another fantastic venue and reading the advertising signs, the Victorian Museum offered several new exhibits, as well as the bonus cafe.

Within moments we had cloakroomed Cate’s bag, and clutching entry tickets we enjoyed a cuppa before wandering through what must be one of the most delightful, airy museums in Australia.

I appreciate the improvement more than most because in 1974  I was a research assistant attached to the library at the museum when it was housed in Russell Street.

The modern layout and approach to exhibits and the knowledge shared absolutely amazing compared to the archaic and ancient displays of the dark, drafty building where I used to work.

Weaving A Story

On the first floor as you walk along feast your eyes on The Federation Tapestry designed and made by the Victorian Tapestry Workshop to mark the centenary of Australia’s birth as a nation.

Murray Walker, the principal artist/designer, collaborated with more than 20 artists to develop the tapestry around the theme “One People, united in peace“.

There is a short video that tells the story of how 24 weavers worked an estimated 20,000 hours to create the 10 panels. It was woven at the Victorian Tapestry Workshop in Melbourne 2000-2001.

The tapestry presents some of the great themes of the Australian story: dispossession, settlement, adaptation, the land, celebration, hope.

There are household names to recognise – Patrick White, Henry Lawson, Mirka Mora, Bruce Petty…

The artists set out to trigger memories and inspire reflection about the future of our land and as a writing teacher, I know students could spend hours here using the various frames for inspiration.

My favourite has to be the drawings and words from indigenous children and their aspirations for the future:

  • People should care about each other.
  • I want Australia to be happy.
  • And I want my family to be happy.
  • I want the animals to be free.
  • I want us all to be happy all of our lives.
  • I want all the trees to grow happy.

children's tapestry.jpg

The talent and cleverness of the artists and weavers truly a wonder to behold.

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Women Of The Land

A collaboration between the Invisible Farmer Project and Her Place Women’s Museum Australia celebrates rural women who work, protect and heal the land.

We farm to feed those we love and our communities. Within my community, I have an amazing tribe of women that I surround myself with. They’re the ones that buoy me in times of need and celebrate with me. Women supporting one another is a primal and magical thing.

Amy Paul, Ruby Hills Organics, Walkerville.

The Invisible Farmer Project acknowledges and records the diverse, innovative and vital role of Australian women in agriculture. The project involves a national partnership between rural communities, academics, government and cultural organisations.

Launched this year in March, several of the stories feature in a mini exhibition, along with artefacts like one participant’s hat, which embodies the important role she played in leading farming communities and rural organisations.

There is great detail about the first four women interviewed for the project and more information  can be found at invisiblefarmer.net.au

What an invaluable resource for any writer researching contemporary Australia’s female farmers! And the stories a wonderful learning tool for us all, whether we need to use the information or not because the project aims to:

  • Create new histories of rural Australia
  • Reveal the hidden stories of women on the land
  • Learn about the diverse, innovative and vital role of women in agriculture
  • Stimulate public discussions about contemporary issues facing rural Australia and its future
  • Develop significant public collections that will enable far-reaching outcomes in research, industry and public policy

A Gathering was held for women on farms and I snapped Cate appreciating the sewing and design of the squares making up a commemorative banner of those organisations that participated.

Her Place, Women’s Museum Australia

Her Place celebrates the social, civic, and entrepreneurial achievements of Australian women and their role in shaping our nation. Three exhibitions have been curated this year to tour regional and metropolitan Victoria.

Her Place is still working towards the creation of a permanent public space that will collect and preserve women’s records and archives so that the distinctive achievements and contributions of women can be acknowledged and written into history.

(As opposed to herstory being ignored for centuries!)

Four Victorian women strongly bound to the land are honoured. You can listen to them tell their story about living and being committed to the land and their communities, as well as enjoy a display of personal artefacts:

  • Aunty Fay Carter (Yorta Yorta and Dja Dja Wurrung Senior Elder)
  • Maisie Carr nee Fawcett (pioneering scientist)
  • Pat Bigham (farmer and firefighter)
  • Val Lang (farmer and agricultural mentor)

Lunchtime came and went and we could easily have spent all day appreciating what makes Melbourne marvellous in an exhibition that allows you to meander through replicas of arcades and streets of inner Melbourne of the past.

I have a little book somewhere bought from Cole’s Book Arcade and can remember being fascinated by the shop.

Well done to the researchers and writers for all the information made available to the general public and presented in such palatable chunks. Thanks too must go to the designers, tradies and staff who helped create delightful exhibits.

Cate and I decided to head down to the city but found ourselves trapped in the foyer waiting for a very heavy downpour of rain to subside.

The marine creature display apt – even to the look of surprise or is it excitement on the shark’s face? And yes, there were people getting soaked voluntarily so they could take photographs.

One little boy ignored the thunder and had a great time splashing in puddles!

Flash Storm Flushes and Flusters
Mairi Neil

Who will be the first to drown seemed the
challenge from the heavens as clouds exploded
and torrential rain cascaded down.
Not me,’ said everyone with umbrellas held high
Nor me,’ said others huddled inside, and dry.

‘I don’t care,’ cried the little boy with glee as
he splashed in puddles, yelling, ‘Look at me!’

Thunder roared and growled –
was that a lightning flash?
Braving the downpour, some people
made a dash – finding cover in bus shelters
snuggled close to strangers – while others
recklessly crossed streets ignoring dangers.

‘I don’t care,’ cried the little boy with glee as
he splashed in puddles, yelling, ‘Look at me!’

‘Any port in a storm’ a cliche so true
as doorways and porches became home
for much more than a few.
Downpipes sagged and gushed
collapsed under watery weight –
surging water made rivers of roads and
too much rain meant every tram late!

I don’t care,’ cried the little boy with glee as
he splashed in puddles, yelling, ‘Look at me!’

Soaked, sodden, and shivering
commuters crowd tram, train and bus
meteorological or seasonal confusion –
‘It’s Melbourne and no surprise, to us.’

‘I truly don’t care,’ cries the inner child with glee
‘splashing in puddles looks really good to me!’

Despite the rain, we managed to get to Spencer Street and catch a train home.

‘I really enjoyed myself,’ said Cate.

‘Me too,’ I said and quoted Dad’s favourite poet Rabbie Burns, ‘The best-laid schemes … Gang aft a-gley…’ before adding, ‘ but our day was rainbow and never grey!’

 

Do More Than Pop In to The Pop-up Globe

the stage of pop up globe.jpg

On Saturday, I experienced a delightful day – a magical memory day to treasure.

A belated birthday treat from my daughters, Anne and MaryJane, planned months ago, came to fruition as we enjoyed a matinee performance of Othello, at the Pop-up Globe Theatre, an exciting addition to Melbourne’s thriving arts scene.

This full-scale working replica of Shakespeare’s Second Globe Theatre started to ‘pop up’ in July in the newly christened Shakespeare Gardens adjacent to the Sydney Myer Music Bowl.

A huge thank you to Victoria’s Andrews Government, a great supporter of art and culture for enticing this fantastic enterprise to Melbourne. It is an outstanding success. The season, which started on September 21 to finish November 12, has been extended to January 12, 2018.

This mirrors the success of its New Zealand origins, when it opened in Auckland in 2016 and celebrated attendances of 100,000, including 20,000 school students.

The second season in Auckland garnered 100,000 attendees too and public calls for it to be a permanent feature. Thank goodness they had already committed to coming to Melbourne!

program pop up theatre

 

The Pop-up Globe Theatre Company Making History

If you buy the program, you can read all about the history of the venture, the original Globe and The Second Globe Theatre, the research involved, the director’s interpretation of the four plays performed (Othello, As You Like It, Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing), profiles of the actors, and details of the production team, including costuming and choreography.

My love affair with Shakespeare began at Croydon High School, where I was fortunate to be taught by Dr Saffin. How a public high school managed to retain a Doctor of Literature and respected writer is a mystery but under his influence, Shakespeare’s plays not only made sense but inspired me to want to write.

It doesn’t take much imagination for me to be back in the classroom in 1970, mesmerised as Dr Saffin acted out scenes from the plays we were studying at the time: Hamlet and The Tempest. He taught me English Expression as well as English literature so I had a double dose of Shakespeare in the classes with Macbeth studied too.

Dr Saffin had a bad stutter and warned students not to sit in the front desks or they’d get sprayed but miraculously when he was ‘in character’ his stutter disappeared.

He not only nurtured my love of Shakespeare but made me sit an exam run by the Melbourne Shakespeare Society at Melbourne University. I can’t remember the actual exam (blocked out no doubt because I always suffered horrible anxiety and exam nerves) but I do remember the announcement of the results and prize-giving.

Mum, who always had a profound faith in my academic ability insisted that the ‘only reason’ I came second was the judge was biased towards boys.

‘I don’t think so, Mum. What makes you say that?’

‘I just know the way the world works.’

My ever-loyal Mum, sounding like an embittered women’s liberationist yet she never read Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch just published that year.

Dr Saffin told me I did well against the mainly private school and elite public school entries but somehow I felt I let both Mum and him down.

However, I loved the prize, a book I’d never have been able to afford and a resource that has proved invaluable over the years for writing and research and my love for Shakespeare has never diminished!

The Play’s The Thing – Shakespeare On Stage A Must

In 1970, I saw Shakespeare’s The Tempest performed at a Melbourne theatre with the cast dressed in black with minimum props and no scenery. We were to concentrate on the words and actions of the actors.

I’ve lost count of the number of versions of Hamlet I’ve seen.  The latest being the broadcast of the National Theatre with Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role. And of course, ‘that Scottish play’, Macbeth I’ve seen performed, and Much Ado About Nothing set in the 1920s.

When John was alive, we honoured our mutual love of Shakespeare by attending the Bell Shakespeare productions, his favourite being Henry V.

Bell Shakespeare set their version in the WW1 trenches where the St. Crispen’s Day Speech certainly kept its relevance.

Bell set Coriolanus in the time of the rise of Mussolini – again an ideal modern day choice to discuss Shakespeare’s recurring themes of war, power, loyalty and leadership.

The girls were very young when first exposed to Shakespeare but have never forgotten the spectacles and understood the storylines, if not the dialogue. I think that’s why they were so keen to experience the Pop-up Globe.

 

I will wear my heart upon my sleeve For Othello

I’ve seen or studied many of Shakespeare’s plays but Saturday was the first I’d seen Othello on stage and loved the amazing, energetic, and entertaining performance by an outstanding cast.

O beware, my Lord, of jealousy. / It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock / The meat it feeds on.”

Witness Shakespeare’s ultimate psychological thriller in Pop-up Globe’s production of Othello. Take a journey into the diseased mind of the noble Moor as he’s consumed by ‘the green-eyed monster’; jealousy. The twists and turns in this powerful and dark production will have you on the edge of your seat.

An electric current of joy bound the girls and me as we sat enthralled. We laughed, sighed, held our breaths and teetered on the verge of tears to the thrilling performances and interpretation of a storyline showing the terrible consequences of jealousy and the despair malevolent envy fosters.

Director, Ben Naylor has incorporated the background of the original production and subsequent productions in colonial New Zealand to hint at ‘a darker side to the history of this play about otherness in a colonial context. ‘

Naylor explains that Othello was the first play to be written under King James’ patronage so Shakespeare recognised the King’s ‘interests in the manifestations of worldly evil and the operations of the Devil…’

And now: as nationalism and its attendant demons – racism and xenophobia – again insinuate themselves into mainstream political discourse worldwide, and as the choices of individuals and societies continue to be driven by envy and jealousy, the play asks us once more to confront the lies that sound like truth.

Oh, yes!

This is why I love Shakespeare and why he is still studied and always relevant. He writes about the human condition and explores our behaviour and relationships. His plays are timeless and can be transplanted into modern settings, appropriated, and adapted into novels and movies.

… one that loved not wisely but too well

The International Day of the Girl Child celebrated this week brings into focus issues raised by Shakespeare all those centuries ago. The two main female characters: Desdemona and Emilia are powerless against the physical, emotional and financial control their husbands exercise. The women are friends, even although one is the mistress, the other the servant, however, they live by different moral codes.

This production does not shy away from depicting domestic violence or the consequences of drunkenness and other violence. And society’s hypocrisy.

We witness how those in power enable the subjugation of women and the double standards of so many regarding ideas of ‘womanhood’.

 ‘Thou weigh’st thy words before thou givest them breath…’

All of Shakespeare’s plays you read or watch remind you of how much our language and culture owes to this playwright. Some of the words and ideas may not have been his original thought but because of the popularity of his plays the phrases are embedded in our language, adding to the nuances of English.

No wonder many ESL students have difficulty understanding some of our expressions.

I’ve already highlighted some of the quotes from Othello but list some more cultural references. These may have been altered over the centuries but nonetheless, have Shakespearean roots:

jealousy; It is the green-ey’d monster,

…Jealousy is a monster that gives birth to itself.

… Heaven is my judge, I will wear my heart upon my sleeve

my heart is turn’d to stone

Of one that loved not wisely but too well;

… T’is neither here nor there.

To mourn a mischief that is past and gone is the next way to draw new mischief on.

Men in rage strike those that wish them best.

Our bodies are our gardens, to which our wills are gardeners:

...he that filches from me my good name, Robs me of that which not enriches him, And makes me poor indeed…

When devils do the worst sins, they first put on the pretence of goodness and innocence…

To be poor but content is actually to be quite rich. But you can have endless riches and still be as poor as anyone if you are always afraid of losing your riches.” 

Pop-up Globe Better Than Expected

In London recently, I missed going to The Globe – I did but see it passing by – from a ferry on the Thames, so attending the Pop-up Globe a dream come true. In fact, if the attendant manning the merchandise stall is to be believed the Pop-up Globe is more authentic than the one in London. (Read all about it in that valuable program guide I mentioned.)

on the Thames River.jpg

The Pop-up Globe is intimate with a variety of seating options and despite my failing hearing, I only missed a few words but none of the meaning or action.

No matter where you sit or stand in the Pop-up Globe theatre you will be no more than 15 metres from the stage. So wherever you choose you’ll be close to the action.

Pop-up Globe is based on staging of the second Globe theatre as much as possible. There are two large structural pillars situated on the stage and because the actors play in 360 degrees, it is likely that no matter where you sit or stand your view may be slightly restricted or you may miss a line or two!

The action on stage moves quickly so no matter where you are situated you might see and hear something completely different from someone on the other side of the stage.

Apparently, A, B, C Reserve tickets are comfortable backed seats. The girls’ budget bought D Reserve tickets, which are a combination of comfortable backed seats and backless wooden benches with cushions.

We had a good view but sat on wooden benches with cushions already showing signs of too many bums on seats, so if you need to sit super comfortably perhaps take your own cushion.

The cheapest tickets are Groundling tickets in a standing only area, where sitting is not permitted for safety reasons. Nor are any bags and these have to be checked into the cloakroom.

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The play goes for two and a half hours with a short interval.

This is around the same length of time that most performances took 400 years ago. We know this because in Romeo and Juliet, the Prologue mentions the ‘two hours traffic of our stage’.

If you decide to be a Groundling you will be close to the action and actors, which may not compensate for having to stand for a long time.

One young man in a blue denim shirt fascinated me as he pressed so close to the stage he could have been welded to it. Immobile, his nose level with the stage floor, he would have heard every intake of breath, felt the vibration of footsteps, and even seen the hairs in the actor’s nose!

However, he moved with lightning speed when Othello stabbed himself and the fake blood spurted skywards and outwards like lava from a volcano. Outside after the play, there were several people with telltale red spots in their hair, on their face and clothes. The price paid for being close to the action.

Groundlings on either side of the path and stairway to the stage experienced a similar spattering and in some cases drenching when Roderigo appeared ‘from the sea’ spluttering and spitting like a whale (a very funny scene).

Roderigo regurgitated the largest amount of water I’ve ever seen anyone hold in their mouth, albeit done with aplomb and excellent timing.

Fortunately, no one in the audience replicated disgruntled tomato throwers from Shakespeare’s time despite Pop-up Globe’s authenticity.

Groundlings are ‘the pits’ for the common folk but there are Royal Rooms on the Pop-up Globe stage. I could see the occupants of these clearly.

Each accommodates up to six guests. Seats can be booked individually, as a romantic room for two or as a private room for a larger group. “All sixteen seats can be booked as a perfect option for entertaining clients or friends.”

Perhaps some corporates will see this as a unique Christmas outing – if they have a large expense account!

Royal Room bookings include a complimentary premium hamper and a
season programme per person. But it’s not cheap to copy Elizabeth or James 1st, the two monarchs most closely associated with Shakespeare. ($304.67 per seat.)

Othello is one of Shakespeare’s greatest psychological thrillers. In a theatre of war, a great general is brought down by the power of his own love and the prejudice of others.

Othello forces us to confront a timeless fear: does the Devil move among us? Racism, jealousy and envy conspire in Shakespeare’s dark tragedy, in this full production inspired by the Jacobean period, performed by a specially-formed international ensemble in spectacular bespoke costumes.

The Pop-up Globe Queen’s Company is Pop-up Globe’s resident mixed company of male and female actors and musicians, working with world experts to bring you the shock of the old: the effect of Shakespeare’s plays performed in the space for which they were written.

 

The stagecraft of this production is magnificent, as are the costumes and the final scenes are awesome. The main character is Othello, but it is Iago, the villain, who if not present in every scene, makes his presence felt.

The themes of love, appearance and reality, jealousy, revenge, prejudice and despair, exposed and explored in the final dramatic scenes.

When Iago’s villainy is revealed and he is ‘strung up’ the whole theatre is shocked. There is a collective holding of breath and I felt the tension from Anne and Mary Jane, and I’m sure all of us prayed the workmanship and health and safety guidelines met expectations.

Iago was carefully pulled up towards a hole in the ceiling, his arms outstretched crucifixion style, not just symbolically, but to ensure the hoist went smoothly. Smoke allowed a mystic disappearance into ‘the heavens’ and when he was ‘resurrected’ in the final scene he was helped out of a trapdoor in the floor as if brought back from ‘hell’!

The wonderfully choreographed dance of all the cast at the end a triumphant celebratory ‘haka -like’ tribute. Regan Taylor is a great Othello incorporating his experience of innovative Maori theatre, Te Ao Maori in his performance.

The actors used all of the space and opportunities to engage the audience – even acknowledging those ‘in the gods’, the privileged Royal Boxes, as well as the groundlings.

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Shakespeare must be seen and heard to be appreciated. A play on stage, more than the screen, relies on dialogue and how the actors use the stage, props, their bodies and voices.

In Saturday’s performance, there were no weak links and even the ignominious cast members with titles ‘officer’ and ‘soldier’ contributed unforgettable performances as they immersed themselves in the roles.

The range of experience and talent of the actors helps make this production such a success and I can honestly say it’s the best Shakespearean experience I’ve had.

The season has been extended so perhaps if I hint loud enough I might manage a ticket to another play in this marvellous company’s repertoire.  Afterall, Christmas is on the horizon!

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A walk through the Queen Victoria Gardens, lunch at the National Gallery.

Then a fun and successful attempt to negotiate the maze at the House of Mirrors added to my birthday treat.  I would probably still be wandering but the girls got us out in 10 minutes.

On the way home to Anne’s flat for a cuppa and to pick up MaryJane’s car, we walked through the Alma Park.

As we delighted in spring buds, blooming flowers, lush greenery and numerous friendly dogs being walked by their owners, we reflected on the tragedy of gentle, spiritual Desdemona and anguished Othello.

We were glad of the durability of Shakespeare, but more importantly our strong loving bond.

What a perfect day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now Back to Writing

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When I finished teaching this year I fell in an exhausted heap – emotionally as well as mentally and physically. Like so many others I felt saddened and guilty – how could we be organising a festive season when images of the death, devastation, and despair in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan and many other countries filled our screens.

‘Turn off television’ and ‘ignore social media’ great mantras but in reality, difficult to do especially as this year we became addicted to and bombarded with every minute detail of the US Presidential Election.

And when my deepest fears were realised and Donald Trump triumphed after trashing all ethical and decency codes people thought mandatory for leadership – I really wished the old song could be the reality – I wanted to stop the world and get off!

Instead, numb and going through the motions of what was expected I retreated from and neglected the one thing that has kept me sane and focused on living through many personal traumas – my writing.

So back to work and hopefully, the spark will return …

Stop   Breathe   Reflect…

Again the Godfrey Street writers contributed to the annual fundraising calendar for the community house. Inspired by the paintings from the artists who meet at the house we wrote terse verse and haiku.

The calendar a wonderful showcase of creativity and dedication – for many of the contributors it is the first time they have shared their work with the public – and that takes courage as well as the celebration of achievement.

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Haiku by Mairi Neil

A third eye is useful
to view the world uniquely
the Picasso perspective

The writers in all my classes submitted work for our annual anthologies, an exercise to complete projects to publication. For some of the writers, it is the first time they have been published and they can all be proud of their finished poems, prose, stories and memoir.

The 37 writers at Mordialloc, Bentleigh and Chelsea produced quality writing to be enjoyed by family and friends.

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What motivates people to put pen to paper? In writers’ groups and creative writing classes people reveal much more than words – here is a poem I wrote fifteen years ago when I started teaching at Sandybeach Centre:

Why Write?

A has aspirations to write a novel
B likes to play with words
C has a loveless life and seeks romance
D thinks Mills and Boon absurd
E loves family history
F reads and journals a lot
G creates settings with descriptive flair
H just loves to plot!
I preaches grammar absorbed from school
J admits to being a hopeless speller
K always suffers from writer’s block
L is an expert storyteller.
M adores purple prose
N employs similes galore
O aches to be published one day
P escapes household chores
Q uses metaphors imaginatively
R nurtures the inner child
S writes for children while libertarian
T is erotica gone wild
U is definitely a poet
V writes doggerel and verse
W fears rejection
X is tense and terse
Y dramatises everything producing performance pieces to entertain
and Z – well –
Z needs to write to share emotion – the musings society’s gain!

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In each of the neighbourhood houses where I teach, the last class for the year is always relaxed. We play writing games and reflect on the year, especially in the Life Stories & Legacies Class where reflection is built into the writing lessons.

2016 – A Reflection

A change in my life this year, which I didn’t predict was being involved in the establishment of Chat ’N Chuckle. This group, held fortnightly on a Friday, at Godfrey Street, Bentleigh, encourages socialisation and friendship among people with ABI (Acquired Brain Injury), bringing together adults who have suffered a brain trauma through accident, stroke, or disease. There are no boundaries of age or gender. 

The year became a learning curve as I learnt more about types of ABI, its effect on abilities, the recovery process and healing time, and the range of ongoing difficulties. Over the years I’ve had students with an ABI attend my classes.

Chat ’N Chuckle formed at the instigation of Anat Bigos, one of my Life Stories & Legacies students, and her parents. They worked with Belinda Jordan, Community Development Officer at Glen Eira Council to establish a need, discuss structure, acquire funding, set up a meeting place, advertise, and then employ me as the facilitator.

Anat is an inspiration as a motivational speaker on the school circuit but also at Chat ’N Chuckle sessions and other events she supports. When you meet Anat you remove the ‘dis’ from disability.

I’m honoured to be involved with this group but was filled with anxiety when first asked. What was my role? Could I do what was expected? Was there someone more qualified, or more suited?

Some months down the track and we have extended the meetings by half an hour. We have a small core of regular attendees numbering a dozen who come at least once a month and a fluctuating number who attend or have attended various sessions. Some people have come once and not returned.  The group consists of people with severe physical difficulties, memory or speech problems, and others high functioning, the effects of their ABI perhaps not obvious.

Discussions have included movies, books, dance, music, poetry, family life, football and other sports, cars, public transport, taxis, food, gardening, school days, holidays, tattoos, ways to give up smoking, achievements, disappointments, research opportunities, employment, travel, and even touched on no-go areas of religion and politics, as well as sharing how the ABI happened. There have been presentations on aphasia, research into disability aids and one participant shared family history.

There have been presentations on aphasia, research into disability aids and one participant shared family history. Always there is courtesy and patience as some people struggle to find the words or articulate what they mean. My job is to ensure everyone feels included.

Some carers stay in the room, others use the time to chat with each other or have some time-out. Those who stay in the room participate in discussions and are not bystanders or observers.

Anat’s mother provides finger food of biscuits and dip and seasonal fruit such as strawberries. Carers will make tea and coffee if requested. The group often runs over time and as the year has progressed friendships and greater understanding and appreciation of each other have developed. From hesitating about the unknown, people enter the room relaxed.

It is amazing how people with severe memory problems can remember names and of course, a welcoming smile doesn’t require a name to be attached!

I am in awe of the participants each time I facilitate Chat ’N Chuckle – and there are always chuckles. Anat came up with the name and it speaks volumes about her personality and positive attitude to life. She initiated the project, takes a leading role ensuring ‘the show runs smoothly’, often starting the conversations as well as providing the food. One of her gems is ‘memory can be better than reality’ and for many present it is, yet they make the best of the hand they have been dealt.

I admire all the ‘chatty chucklers’, those with ABI and their carers, their courage, resilience and sense of humour. How would I cope if faced with many of their daily challenges? They keep me grounded and humbled: a reminder to count my blessings and not complain about minor physical ailments, breathe deeply of fresh air and give thanks for health.

I make a choice to be happy.

The opportunity to meet this group of people and reflect on how quickly life can change has been an unpredictable but amazing gift this year, reaffirming I must indeed live and cherish the moment!

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A snap Anat’s father took of the first meeting

 

Some Student Reflections:

  • ‘I shrank during the year – my grandson taller and he calls me a midget.’
  • ‘I value early morning and write notes about events to remember later on and see cleaning house and weeding the garden as necessary timewasters.’
  • ‘A close friend died and my grief palpable. She made my clothes for over 20 years and spent 60 years working for community groups. I treasure the friends who remain. ‘
  • ‘I discovered meditation is difficult to do and even other activities people tell me are beneficial. So I do my own thing!’
  • ‘I wake up most mornings feeling happy because I reflect on what makes me feel amazing and make sure I fit that into my day.’
  • ‘I write from the ashes of past traumas and find it therapeutic to share with others. I love dance therapy and drawing.’
  • ‘I loved receiving Christmas cards in the past but why give cards to people I can see and spend time with. I’ve resolved to ring up and talk to people, even those who are distant and I only hear from at Christmas. I’ve discovered keeping in touch this way very time-consuming but enjoyable. ‘
  • ‘A friend bought me a laptop this year and it has changed my life.’
  • ‘It’s been challenging but this year I farewelled people who are negative realising it was a waste of time trusting and believing in some people.’
  • ‘I love writing. It fills me up, gives me clarity and insight and helps separate the wheat from the chaff.’
  • ‘The rain on the roof is a joy when I hear my new water tank fill up.’
  • ‘I survived a hospital procedure that fed my anxiety and fears. I surprised myself!’
  • ‘This has been the most challenging year since my husband died three years ago because I have a new man in my life…’
  • ‘I’ve resigned from two committees, survived a dreadful accident and learnt I am resilient.’
  • ‘Three score years and ten now – I’ve discovered I’m classified as old, friends are contracting illnesses like Parkinson’s but writing class and book club brings me joy.’
  • ‘Not the best year, my little dog died, I achieved little and worried too much so next year must be better.’
  • ‘I consider this year as the beginning of the rest of my life. I started work at 15 and always yearned for more. Family obligations interrupted a commercial art course that started well. Fast forward to 2016 and I’m doing something about that yearning to feed my creativity. I’m determined to write and also learn computers.’

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Reflect
Mairi Neil

Cleaning out the cobwebs –
literally and metaphorically
Scottish New Year traditions
make us all clean frantically
seeking those dark corners,
out of sight and mind,
plenty of accumulated dust
for any broom to find.

And then there are plans
shelved for reasons
of money and health
I’ve some travelling to do because
old age creeps by stealth…
That dream of a train across Siberia
immersing myself in cultures unknown
the list of excuses swept away
by March 2017 I’ll have flown.

A trip of a lifetime with challenges expected
but the joy of new places and people
means with renewed vigour I‘m infected.
Foreign foods to try; new languages to learn
and no doubt after some weeks
for home, I’ll yearn!
But modern technology is such a gift
when I feel down
Skype, Facebook and Instagram will lift
my spirits, calm any fears
as MJ and Anne, vow love through tears.
We’ll miss each other
but as removed cobwebs reveal
although time passes quickly
love it won’t steal.
My adventures will cease
and I hope I’ll have grown
to know myself and others better
as I head for home.

Those literal cobwebs
clinging to corners of ceilings
will have returned – they always do
but what an incentive to clear out
with travel plans anew!!

 

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I’m determined to keep writing until my joy returns and try and keep perspective on all the doom and gloom and deaths that seem to encapsulate 2016 for many people.

I am lucky to have a holiday planned – and know I’m privileged to realise a teenage dream.

For now, I’ll

1)   Read books to remind me of how wonderful writing can be, books to inspire (I’m fortunate to have a pile by my bed!

2) Pick up pieces of writing started in class during splurge and never finished. Lose myself in wherever the imagination goes. Daydream and brainstorm to rekindle the story or poem.

3) Challenge myself to write a certain number of words in an hour, write a poem a day, try different genres, keep this blog active.

4) Try dictating ideas into the voice recorder on my phone and make sure I type it up later. Write to music or sit outside and write.

5) Go for a walk by the sea and be inspired by a sunset or sunrise…

 

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Mordialloc Sunset
Mairi Neil

We stand together to watch the sunset
to share this nightly miracle once more,
the silvery-white ball transformed to pink
until glowing orangey-yellow at the core.

Seagulls afloat upon the water blush
matching waves on tide’s inward rush
a fiery sun radiates tangerine across the sky
slipping seawards, sinking silently, no cry.

The sky aflame, from beauty there’s no turning
awestruck, we feel an inexplicable yearning
It’s the forehead and eyebrows of a giant
Heaven’s shapeshifter being fluid and pliant.

This sun settling now a misshapen balloon
disappearing quickly and gone too soon…
its remnant colours just splashes in mid-air –
was that brilliant display ever really there?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nothing Trivial About Halloween

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Sometimes a random event or deliberate attempt to move out of our comfort zone is needed to remind us it’s not ‘all about me’ and that the world on Earth is as diverse as the planets in the universe.

For most of us, each day is not a new adventure but the ‘same old, same old’ unless we make an effort to spice up our lives. Often this is during holiday times, entertaining visitors, celebrating anniversaries or birthdays, or special seasonal highlights like Christmas or  Halloween!

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Halloween celebrated in many countries on 31st October, commemorates the feast of All Hallows Day – the word being a contraction of All Hallows’ Eve . This Christian festival is thought to have been combined with the ancient pagan Celtic festival of Samhain (Samhuinn in Gaelic) held on November 1, to mark the culmination of summer and the harvest period with the onset of the cold, dark winter.

The festival symbolised the boundary between the world of the living and the world of the dead. On the night of 31st October, ghosts of the dead would walk again amongst them. If humans dared to walk abroad they needed light in the form of bonfires or lanterns. They disguised themselves by dressing up or wearing masks and offered gifts of food to keep the ghouls sweet!

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Most people are unaware of the strong Scottish connection and consider Halloween an American import to Australia – especially with the increase of commercialism attached to the event in the last few years. When I first arrived in Australia in 1962, Halloween was a non-event.

I’ve written about my Scottish childhood in Guising & Galoshens, a memoir extract published online in America explaining the traditions we celebrated.  Also, the poem, Halloween  by Robert Burns, one of my father’s favourite poets, depicts traditional beliefs and celebrations going back centuries for the Scots.

  • Guising or galoshens – where we dressed in old clothes visiting neighbours and singing or reciting a song, poem or joke before being rewarded with goodies.
  • Dookin’ for apples – a  game involving trying to grab apples floating in a tub of water by using your mouth with your hands behind your back, or sitting on a chair and trying to spear an apple by dropping a fork from your mouth into the water.
  • Treacle scones – with hands tied or held behind your back, and in some cases blindfolded, participants of this game have to take a bite out of treacle covered scones hanging from ropes after being spun around and made disoriented.

Halloween
Mairi Neil

On the last night of October beware,
The witches and spirits are about
Make sure you dress with special care.
On the last night of October beware,
Perform some tricks for delicious fare
But be extra polite and never shout
On the last night of October beware,
The witches and spirits are about.

Scary apparitions wander street and lane
Halloween is their special night
Your imagination may drive you insane
Scary apparitions wander street and lane.
It’s a night for real ghosts to reign
In the dark where there’s no light
Scary apparitions wander the lanes.
Halloween is their special night.

Ordinary people may don a disguise
As shadowy figures designed to scare
Werewolves, wizards and witches rise
Ordinary people may don a disguise
The ‘best pretend ghoul’ wins the prize
‘Take off your mask’ the fearless dare
To ordinary people donning a disguise
As shadowy figures designed to scare

And as we wander lane and street
Witches and spirits love Halloween
We never think any harm we’ll meet
In that wandering of lane and street
Believing ghosts are just bedsheets
Real evil ghouls are never seen
As we wander lane and street – oh!
We forgot real ghouls love Halloween!

Halloween With a Difference

In Melbourne, Halloween falls in spring. By October, we’ve already changed the clocks to give ourselves more daylight making a mockery of many of the traditions associated with Halloween that emphasise darkness – literally and metaphorically – many of the traditions from a different hemisphere just don’t gel.

But who needs logic once you enter the realm of the supernatural, witches, spirits and mythology?  Australians are adaptable if nothing else. We are a multi-cultural melting pot, therefore many people and places  throw themselves into macabre theatricality for Halloween. (The ‘ghoulish’ photos on here were taken at The Greyhound in St Kilda.)

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On Thursday evening, October 27, I went to The Greyhound Hotel and joined my daughters and two of their friends for a Buffy Trivia night.

The Hellmouth comes to St Kilda for one night only!

Buffy Trivia is coming to the GH hotel.

Join your hostesses Amena Jay and Penny Cillin for a night of trivia to test your knowledge on all things Sunnydale, with special themed shows including songs from Once More With Feeling.

The GH kitchen will be open with heaps of delicious dinner options available.

Heaps of prizes up for grabs, for the winners of each round, best costume and a cash prize for the overall winning team.

So grab your scoobies and book a table now – this one will sell out fast! (teams must be between 2 – 6 only)

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For the uninitiated, Buffy the Vampire Slayer from film and a long-running TV series developed a huge fan-fiction base. Written by Joss Whedon, the character of Buffy is a slayer, one in a long line of young women chosen for a specific mission: to seek out and destroy vampires, demons and other forces of darkness.

Buffy is at high school and surrounds herself with best friends who are helpers in the fight against darkness. My daughter started watching the show when she was young and fell in love with Joss Whedon’s characters and his writing – he certainly knows how to write suspense and for emotional engagement!

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MJ is regarded as an expert on Buffy – which is one of the reasons her older sister Anne suggested we book a table for the Trivia Night. For those old enough to remember the beginnings of a show called Mastermind Mary Jane could be on that show with Buffy as her special subject, she is that good!

MELBOURNE’S PREMIER ENTERTAINMENT VENUE.

When you think of the GH hotel the first thing that comes to mind is, ‘Iconic St Kilda pub offering a little bit of something for everyone’! With a terrific public bar offering Tasty food, great drink specials and some light hearted entertainment it is the perfect place for an after work drink or chilled out Sunday session.

One of Melbourne’s original live entertainment venues the GH has not only stood the test of time but a recent multi million dollar renovation has seen the addition of the incredible Showroom, playing host to a variety of International acts as well as our own long-running stage shows and DJ’s every Friday and Saturday night.

The evening at The Greyhound was hosted by two well-known drag queens who entertained the crowd through three rounds of quizzes.

MJ did not disappoint  – we were on table 13 (an omen?) – and she came equal first with 9 out of 10 for the first two rounds, only missing out on the third round.

In the bag full of prizes she won for our team called “We wear the cheese’ (a quote that Buffy enthusiasts recognise) there was at least some memorabilia she didn’t have – although not the point of the evening, it is nice she was rewarded. The rest of us wouldn’t have won.

The show was a far cry from anything I’d experienced as a child dressing up and performing for Halloween! It was the first time I’d been to a drag queen performance.

There were plenty of gender jokes and much made of the dresses (several fabulous outfits) and generally mocking each other. The show definitely not ‘politically correct’.  I’m sure some feminists may be offended but clothes don’t define who or what we are and I accepted the over-the-top performances as entertainment. There was no malice in the banter between Amena Jay and Penny Cillin or their interaction with the audience.

The Buffy Trivia Night was fun, the food excellent and it was lovely being with my two daughters and their friends. It allowed MJ and me to recall our wonderful trip to LA in 2012 when we visited the house and high school used for the Buffy Tv series.

The Halloween of my childhood was a time filled with mystery, magic, and superstition rooted in the past. Many of the customs and games I accepted without wondering about their origin. However, in adulthood, on reflection I understand where a lot of my Irish mother’s superstitious sayings and actions come from – in some cases generations of mythology and belief:

  • Avoid crossing paths with black cats because they might bring bad luck.

This idea from the Middle Ages when many people believed that witches avoided detection by turning themselves into cats.

  • Don’t walk under ladders because that invites disaster or bad luck.

This superstition may have come from the ancient Egyptian belief that triangles were sacred.

  •  Avoid breaking mirrors – or risk seven years bad luck.

This dates back to the Romans who believed it took seven years for life to renew itself. If  not of good health, your image would break the mirror and the run of bad luck would continue for the period of seven years, at the end of which  life would be renewed, the body  physically rejuvenated, and the curse ended.

  • Don’t step on  cracks in the road because misfortune will strike

Cracks on the road or pavement lead directly to the underworld and evil demons just waiting to be released. Cracks  signal gaps in the boundaries between the earthly realm and the metaphysical realm.

  • Don’t spill salt or sit 13 at the dinner table or you’ll have bad luck.

These two common superstitions originate from The Last Supper. A close examination of Leonardo da Vinci’s painting of the Last Supper, reveals that Judas Iscariot has knocked the salt cellar over with his elbow. Spilled salt became associated with treachery and lies and so if you spill salt, a pinch thrown over your left shoulder is supposed to blind the devil waiting there. Da Vinci painted the symbolism but the origin is probably from earlier times.

In ancient times, salt was expensive and precious, in some cases  used as currency. Spilling salt was tantamount to throwing away money therefore must have been caused by the devil. A pinch over your shoulder would blind the devil and make him think twice about trying to trick again.

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Today, Halloween provides a safe way to play with the concept of death. People dress up as all sorts of characters including the living dead. In America fake gravestones adorn front lawns along with giant spider webs, skeletons, witches suspended from trees and other decorations. Parties and activities are organised that wouldn’t be tolerated at other times of the year.

Crass commercialism and mass marketing aside, Halloween can be time spent having fun socialising and exploding some of the silly superstitions that have no place in the real world.

Let’s drink to diversity, difference, and delight in all things trivial!

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Change Is Indeed Constant

 

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Tori’s parting gift to the class

 

Yesterday, a milestone in the Monday class, we farewelled Tori Dowd who has been attending for over a decade. Tori is what you would call ‘a personality’ or  ‘memorable character’ (we are writers after all!) – and she will be missed.

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Tori and me

Tori wrote us a thank you letter plus a card and gave us chocolates. Her mother, Lyn visited with lovely flowers to say thank you and goodbye. Niceties and kindness not everyone remembers and it was truly appreciated.

Lyn wrote:

Thank you to you very special people, Tori’s friends, who have been so inclusive of her at Writing For Pleasure.

To the staff at Mordialloc Neighbourhood House – thank you, one and all. Tori has been welcomed for many years.

With my love and thanks.

Lyn

 Ta Ta Tori
Mairi Neil

A sad Monday Class, farewelling Tori
Admin say the beginning was 2006
Tori a fixture from February to December
A decade of individuality in our midst.

Her wheelchair’s special controls
Enabled whizzing around the room
Two favourites were Barb and Kay
Between them Tori could zoom.

Each Monday, she arrived by special taxi
Most days a grin upon her face
Her greeting “a cup of coffee please”
The other students fetched with grace.

 

Tori’s special loves: her pet dog, Mimi
Watching romance on her bedroom TV
And we’ll remember her sweet tooth
How she looked forward to morning tea!

Chocolate being her favourite food
A love the rest of us also shared
Birthdays celebrated with gusto
Special cakes made because we cared.

But ‘all good things come to an end
Tori’s future safeguarded by sharing
Mother Lyn organised a move to Sydney
Where brothers will help with caring.

Future Mondays will feel strange
No yellow taxi stopping outside
No smiling drivers in coloured turbans
Strong hands the wheelchair’s guide

No teasing about forgotten homework
No whispered, ‘Mairi what can I write?’
No exclamations to Heather or Barbara
Or squeezing hands with all her might.

The dynamics of Mondays will be different
But with prompting poised pens will move
Poems and stories imagined and shared
Writing class mojo continues to groove!

 

Memories To Cherish

Each year as we published class anthologies, Tori contributed her writing, her words a wonderful reminder of who she was and her time with us in class. Although Tori could hold a pen, writing took great physical effort.

However, she was an example, not of disability but making the most of abilities.

Her time with us a reminder of our diversity, the richness it adds to daily life, and the fantastic safe spaces provided in community houses where all adult learners are welcomed to ‘write for pleasure and publication’.

 

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Tori has left her address and so we will now be pen friends in the old fashioned way – Australia Post can expect to be busy!

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Royalty for the Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ev’ry road thro’ life is a long, long road, Fill’d with joys and sorrows too, As you journey on how your heart will yearn For the things most dear to you. With wealth and love ’tis so, But onward we must go. Keep right on to the end of the road, Keep right on to the end, Tho’ the way be long, let your heart be strong, Keep right on round the bend.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright Note:

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