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

Open House Bendigo – Doorways to Fun, Friendship, Heritage, and Community

spring blooms bendigo.jpg

I’ve been volunteering for Open House Melbourne for over eight years. In that time, I have had the opportunity to attend workshops and learn interesting facts about architecture, design and heritage. I’ve visited buildings and appreciated aspects and behind the scenes rarely experienced by the general public.

Open House Melbourne is an independent organisation fostering a public appreciation for architecture and public engagement in the future of our cities.

Each year more and more buildings and events are added to this fabulous weekend.  Last year they expanded to Ballarat and this year it was Bendigo. The two regional centres will probably ‘open up’ alternate years.

Both events were a great success with thousands of visitors to the buildings, not only from locals but many people making the trip from Melbourne to take advantage of the warm welcome from the regional communities.

In Melbourne, I’ve been privileged to volunteer at:

Each shift has offered unique experiences. Special ‘thank you’ events for volunteers, allowed behind the scene tours of the Phillips Shirt Factory, Lonsdale Street and Willsmere (the old ‘lunatic’ asylum).

Now open House has expanded, I’ve visited buildings in Ballarat (2017) and this year Bendigo, educating and enjoying myself in the process. The last weekends in July and October now regular dates earmarked on the calendar

Bendigo Beamed in Spring Sunshine

shady trees bendigo.jpg

Bendigo was chosen as a significant regional hub creating an opportunity for locals and visitors alike to celebrate this wonderful city. It was a chance to view different architectural styles and learn about Bendigo’s rich history, its cultural attractions and to consider how future developments will impact the city.

Despite competition from several major events occurring at the same time (The Bendigo Agricultural Show, the second Bendigo Cycling Classic, and Bendigo Sustainable House) the support for the inaugural Open House Bendigo weekend was fantastic (11,000 visits across 23 buildings)!

The weekend provided a range of talks, walks, film screenings and workshops plus the buildings open for inspection and appreciation, all encouraging an exploration of the diversity and design of Bendigo’s built environment and history.

Bendigo was proclaimed a city in 1871, the year the Bendigo Easter Fair began – Australia’s oldest ongoing festival. I was rostered on duty at the Bendigo Tramways Depot, Australia’s oldest continually operating tram depot.

 

All Aboard For A Great Ride

The Bendigo Tramways depot was built in 1901 for the Electric Supply Company of Australia Ltd. At the time of building, the property also included what is today the Bendigo Woollen Mills, which housed the steam engines, generators and boiler until 1972. The depot was completed in 1903 for the operation of electric trams. (The first depot was constructed in 1890 near the railway station.) In addition to the tramway shed, the facility included cooling ponds, a blacksmith’s shop, carpenter’s shed, elevator house, and other support buildings.

The Tramways Depot and Workshop may not have survived had it not been for the Bendigo community’s will to keep the trams running in Bendigo once they were shut down as a public transport option. This led to the introduction of the tourist tram service in 1972. The tourist tram service celebrates 46 years of service in 2018. 

The Bendigo Tramways is known nationally and internationally for its heritage tram restoration capabilities and its rare collection of heritage trams. Trams from all over the country, including Melbourne’s City Circle trams, are all restored to their former glory in the Bendigo Tramways Workshop.

 

There were guided conductor tours on the hour led by an enthusiastic and knowledgeable guide, Ian, along with a specialised in-depth pre-booked tour led by Luke, the Workshop Manager. However, when more people turned up, Luke kindly accommodated them and ended up with a group of 24 instead of 15!

The guides were extremely proud to point out the work carried out so far for the City of Melbourne refurbishing the famous restaurant trams and the vintage trams used on the free city tourist loop.

 

On duty from 9.30am to 1.00pm, I had the opportunity to chat with Pam in the gift shop/cafe. Pam warned about the dust from the imported plane trees and said a light breeze can blow the dust about and start people coughing. She spoke from experience and said if anyone did start coughing to suggest they go to the cafe and she’d supply a glass of water. Pam discovered the problem with the plane trees after going to the doctor thinking she had asthma or an allergy.

in the shop 1.jpg

Many of the others working at the depot are volunteers.  Ian was super knowledgeable, efficient – and passionate about trams like all the volunteers. He loved the people he met volunteering and said, ‘You know, I’ve met people from all corners of the world here. I met someone from Zimbabwe and we discussed their country. I wouldn’t have met him if I wasn’t doing this job.’

Steve, a volunteer driver, in a previous life was a stipendiary magistrate who loved trams! Another Ian was the driver who gave me a lift back to town. The tram was packed and I got to sit up front with him in the driver’s seat.

Ian has been driving the vintage trams for 17 years and when an unusual fault occurred he told me it was only the second time it had happened.

I had no idea the variation in controls until I wandered around the depot peeking inside all the different trams – some still in use, others being refurbished.

Each tram has an interesting history but without the work and passion of a team of volunteers, the tramways could not have achieved many of the major milestones and awards, especially winning gold in the 2016 Australian Tourism Awards or the Hall of Fame in 2014, 2015 and 2016 Victorian Tourism Awards.

No 7 decommissioned in the 1930s, became a sleep-out before being returned for restoration in 1988. In 2000, the body was stripped of any structural additions, cleaned and put on display.

close up green tram.jpg

Tram No 30 was driven by HRH Prince Charles in 1974. This Birney tram was built in 1925 in Philadelphia USA, for South Australia and operated on the Port Adelaide line until 1935. Purchased by Geelong it operated there as Tram No 30 before being transferred to Bendigo and used for spare parts. However, in 1972 it was restored to be one of the Vintage Talking Trams and became the flagship of Bendigo Tramways.

signature tram for bendigo.jpg

One of the volunteer conductors told me the story of Charles and Di’s visit. Princess Diana was standing on the balcony of The Shamrock Hotel where they were staying. Prince Charles knew she would be out there to wave and watch him drive past. He was determined she see him driving and was so excited he went through two red lights. Needless to say, they didn’t forward on the traffic ticket!

tram 44 goldmine.jpg

Tram No 44 was one of two trams restored especially for the Prahran and Malvern Tramways Trust Centenary in 2010. Built in 1914 in Adelaide, South Australia for Prahran and Malvern Tramways Trust it was sold to the State Electricity Commission of Victoria in 1951 for Bendigo operations and painted in green and cream livery of the SEC. Ten years later, repainted maroon and cream, it joined the talking tram fleet.

front of tram 84.jpg

Tram No 84 has the most magnificent feature interior timber work of all the trams in the fleet. Built in Melbourne in 1917 for the Prahran and Malvern Tramways Trust it was later sold to the SECV in 1931 for operation in Bendigo. In 1935 it was configured to be operated by one man. It developed ‘excessive body movement’ issues and was withdrawn from service in 1965 and because of internal disagreements between supervisors didn’t return to use until 1975 when made operational by the Bendigo Trust to run on special outings. In 2010 it was refurbished to its original California configuration for the centenary celebrations of the Prahran and Malvern Tramways Trust.

trams ready use.jpg

Tram No 21, an M class tram was built in Adelaide in 1917 for the Hawthorn Tramways Trust. It was sold to the SECV in 1935 to operate in Bendigo. Retaining its one-man configuration it was repainted in the SEC livery of green and cream and ran until the closure of Bendigo’s public transport system in 1972. In 1992, it was repainted in the grey, white and blue livery of Hawthorn Tramways Trust to celebrate a significant event in the history of the City of Footscray. It operated as a Vintage Talking Tram until 2000 when it was removed to be restored to its 1930s condition. Thanks to the Bendigo Tramways Work for the Dole program it returned to service in 2005.

close up front of tram no 21

Tram No 29 was the focal point to save the trams from being dispersed and sold off when the Bendigo Tramways closed in 1972. State cabinet supported The Bendigo Trust’s proposal to run a tourism tram service using the SECV’s trams and tracks on trial until Easter 1974. However, the SEC had promised Tram No 29 to a museum in Adelaide without consultation or knowledge of the Bendigo Trust.

Community anger manifested itself in a mini-uprising and blockade to stop the tram being taken out of the depot with local businesses sending their vans and cars after the Mayor used the media to rally the citizens. The furore resulted in a ministerial committee and negotiations culminating in the entire fleet being sold to The Bendigo Trust for a ‘mere $1’ in 1977.

Relations between an aggrieved South Australian museum and the citizenry of Bendigo were later assuaged by the discovery of a sister tram, also a Birney, being used as a garden shed. Representatives of the Tramways trust negotiated the donation of this tram when the owners were promised a replica of a nineteenth century cast iron street lamp created by a skilful committee member.

The tram was restored with a grant from the State Government and presented to the Australian Electric Tramway Museum, Adelaide in 1976. Proving ‘all’s well that end’s well.’

It is mindboggling to see the before and after examples in the workshop – the state of donated or discovered trams, the craftsmanship and skill applied, and the finished product of beautiful polished wood and painted tram interiors.

Of course, the depot has a special supervisor overseeing the work –

birney's office with cat flap.jpg

The rescue cat, Birney joined the team in 2014. Originally, he was to catch mice but the sign on his office promotes him to Tramways Superintendent and of course, the Gift Shop has a range of souvenirs. I was lucky to see him at close quarters but with the increased visitors he wisely withdrew and found some spot in the sun far away from the madding crowds.

Birney the cat welcome.jpg

A Bit Of History Puts Trams In Context

With the advent of electric trams and extended tracks ‘housewives’ moved away from their local shops in the suburbs and bought goods in the heart of the city at a time when shops didn’t close until 11 pm on a Friday night, along with many hotels. ‘As a result, there were many wavering legs on Friday evenings trying to negotiate the flagstones of Pall Mall in a desperate attempt to catch the drunk express home.’

on the talking tram.jpg

I had to get at least one picture of myself on a tram and chose No 8 – it was a number 8 to Toorak that gave me the inspiration to write A Ticket to Vaudeville, the first short story I received payment for when it was published in The Weekly Times in the 80s – ironically that newspaper’s head office is in Bendigo.

Bendigo’s first people, the Dja Dja Wurrung

aboriginal tram

 

The Dja Dja Wurrung Tram takes passengers on a journey of discovery into the unique and fascinating traditions of Bendigo’s first people. The Dja Dja Wurrung, one of the five communities of the Kulin people, a federation of five distinct but strongly related communities, which also includes the Boonerwrung of Mordialloc and other southern bayside places.

All Kulin had as their defining social moiety either Bundjil, the eagle, or Waa, the crow. Long before they had contact with the European world, they had complex trading networks sharing stone axe heads and highly crafted possum-skin cloaks and other examples of useful craftsmanship and art.

bunjil the creator

Archaeological evidence shows their connection to the land extending beyond 40,000 years. It is estimated that between 20,000 and 60,000 people, speaking over 30 languages lived throughout Victoria when Europeans arrived in 1835.

Rapid colonisation, the stealing of Aboriginal land, and the destruction of families by murder and disease forced Aborigines onto missions resulting in a loss of language, traditions and more lives – a cruel devastating and violent period of history.

Today the 25,000 plus Aboriginal people who live in Victoria are concerned about self-determination, maintaining their culture and restoring their lands.

crow

The tram is a moving lesson and illustration of Dja Dja Wurrung culture and painted on the roof sides there is a host of information proudly showing their customs and practices are alive and respected – keeping them connected to the past, the present and the future. Their cultural heritage recognised and protected as a celebration of identity and community.

Even the upholstery tells a story.

Recognition and Settlement Agreement

In 2013, the Dja Dja Wurrung people entered into an agreement with the Victorian Government recognising them as the traditional owner group for this country. The agreement recognises Dja Dja Wurrung people as the traditional owners of Central Victoria and binds the state of Victoria and the Dja Dja Wurrung people to a meaningful partnership founded on mutual respect. The list of recognised Apical Ancestors is also on the tram.

HEALING COUNTRY

The Dja Dja Wurrung have lived on traditional lands and cared for country over many thousands of years. Country is more than just landscape, it is more than what is visible to the eye – it is a living entity, which holds the stories of creation and histories that cannot be erased. The Dja Dja Wurrung have nine aspirations for their country, including…

Rivers & Waterways

Our rivers and waterways are healthy and meet the needs of our people and land.

Land

Our upside-down country is healthy again (healed from the effects of mining).

Djaara (People)

Every Dja Dja Wurrung person is happy, healthy and secure in their identity, livelihood and lifestyle.

Djandak (a traditional way of business)

We have a strong and diverse economic base to provide for our health and well-being and strengthen our living culture.

Self Determination

As our country’s first people, Djaara have an established place in society and are empowered to manage our own affairs

Joint Management

All crown land on Dja Dja Wurrung country is Aboriginal title and we are the sole managers. 

close up of decorated aboriginal tram

Along with illustrations and stories of the creators, there were details of the following native animals:

GNANA-NGANITY (bat) -There are 77 bat species in Australia. Bats are nocturnal and are the only mammals capable of sustained flight. They use echolocation to navigate during the night and to find food. They are natural pest controllers as 70% of them live on a diet of insects. A baby bat is called a pup.

MUMUMBARRA (bee) – There are over 1600 species of bees that are native to Australia. Native bees are smaller than European bees and many of them don’t sting. They can be black, yellow, red, metallic green and also black with blue polka dots, and can range from fat and furry to sleek and shiny.

BALAM BALAM (butterfly) – Australia is home to more than 400 species of butterfly. A butterfly does not eat but receives nutrients from drinking nectar and pollen from flowers and plants.

MUR-MURRA (dragonfly) – the dragonfly is an aquatic insect and spends most of its six-month life near the water. There are 320 known species of dragonfly native to Australia.

GALIYT (witchetty grub) – Witchetty Grubs are mainly found in central Australia. The grub is the larvae of the Cossid Moth. Witchetty Grubs can grow up to 12 centimetres long and are eaten as part of Aboriginal diet.

DUM (frog) – The frog is the only native amphibian to Australia and tends to live near wetlands as their skin needs moisture. Depending on the species some have a special slime coating and others can burrow into the ground to keep moist.

GUWAK (kookaburra) – the kookaburra is the largest member of the Kingfisher family of birds. They eat small mammals, lizards, snakes and insects. The laugh of the kookaburra is actually a call to mark their territory.

BARRANGAL (pelican) – The pelican is found throughout Australia. They can fly 3 kilometres above the earth. Their bills can hold up to 13 litres of water and they can eat up to 9 kilograms of food each day.

WIRRAP (cod) – fish were an important part of the Dja Dja Wurrung diet and were caught in different types of traps made from rocks or nets. The Loddon and Campaspe Rivers are where Dja Dja Wurrung ancestors lived and many types of fish were found in these waterways.

BARAMUL (emu) – Baramul is fast and can run up to 50 kilometres per hour. The female lays eggs and the male emu sits on the nest to hatch the young. Mu equality! The noise that the emu makes in its throat can be heard 2 kilometres away.

YULAWIL (echidna) – The echidna is one of two monotremes, which are egg-laying mammals. The other is the platypus. Both animals feed their babies on milk. A young echidna is called a muggle. Echidnas live for around 45 years in the wild.

DUAN (phascogale) – A phascogale is a relative of the quoll and Tasmanian devil. Their diet consists of insects, spiders and centipedes. They will also eat nectar from the ironbark flowers. The male phascogale dies at around one year of age, just after breeding season. The phascogale is a shy animal and has a very bushy tail.

street art view st 2

I retired to magnolia-on-view, the Airbnb I was sharing with friend Susan whom I met volunteering for Open House Ballarat and reflected on an amazing morning and all the new cultural and historical information absorbed.

The atmosphere in my little corner of Bendigo friendly, relaxed, and fun. I was surrounded by positivity and people giving back to their community. Ian and I both agreed, volunteering for something you love gives you energy.

I met up with Jack who lives in the redeveloped Willsmere and who had been our tour guide for the place. He remembered me. A nice compliment considering as a grey-haired senior I’m often considered to be in the realms of the invisible and irrelevant now…

I laughed with a couple of locals – a retired gentleman who lived in the same street as the Depot but who had never visited. It took Open House Bendigo to change his ‘will do one day’ into ‘will do today’ and he’d brought along a son and grandson who now live in Melbourne!

I met Sandra, a writer and editor who has just moved to Bendigo. She volunteers and writes biographies for people in palliative care.

The weekend was exceeding expectations and making me forget the ache in my ribs from an unfortunate car accident a few days before.

I checked the roster and prepared to open another door!

doorway and sign 2.jpg

 

 

 

 

Knitting a Tiny Piece Of A Global Story

quote about knitting by Jennifer Shaw

This meme that did the rounds of Facebook recently reminded me of using a knitting project to calm my mind and complete a commitment I made to a newfound friend when we spent a weekend in Ballarat as volunteers for that city’s first ever Open House.

Susan and I shared a B & B overnight and I heard about her involvement in the 5000 Poppies Project. I first read about this project when I attended the Spirit of Anzac Exhibition at Jeff’s Shed several years ago. Susan reminded me of the mental note I made at the time to follow up the story. She inspired me to ‘pull my finger out’ and participate.

the story of the poppies

That was October and it wasn’t until December when life went a little pear-shaped that I recalled my promise to knit poppies. The thought of an excuse to sit and focus on craft more appealing than sitting at the computer!

brown wool and needles.jpg

Back to School For Knitting Lessons

I have many happy memories of craft, especially when my children attended the Steiner Stream at Moorabbin Heights Primary School in the 90s.  I loved being immersed in creative projects with them. We made felt gnomes, knitted tiny mice and any other animal you could think of to sell as fundraisers for the school.

craft stall 1997

Reconnecting with knitting became a holistic exercise.

  • The pure wool bought, dyed, and wound into usable skeins in the class by the children.
  • Purchased dowels of various thickness from Bunnings hardware were cut to size and the kids sanded the needles smooth before massaging them with beeswax.
  • After collecting tiny gum nuts from the garden and glueing them to the end of the needles, they were ready to knit.

I can’t remember who taught me to knit. Certainly not my mother – she always decried her knitting ability by showing a half-finished sock still on the three needles that she started to knit for Dad in the early days of their marriage. It was even brought out to Australia when we migrated – why will remain a mystery!

Mum loved repeating proverbs and the one she used to explain that lack of knitting prowess was, ‘The road to hell is paved with good intentions.’ 

Maybe it was my Great Aunt Teen who first taught me to knit because she was constantly knitting or crocheting and up until she died in the mid-60s she made all of us a jumper or cardigan for our birthdays.

The last item she made me was a lovely pure wool jacket and I received it the night before we left for Australia. Nine-year-old me adored that jacket and it was so well-knitted and loved that I still have it.

My daughter, Anne, even wore it for a short while although it was slightly yellowed with age. It has dogs as a pattern and she loves dogs!

 

me night before leaving scotland 1962.jpg
9year old me with my lovely white jacket with red trim and black poodle motif – it zips up the front too.

 

Perhaps I learned to knit at Brownies or Girl Guides – I vaguely remember knitting a scarf for a doll – I know my older sister, Cate would have helped because she is as talented at knitting and crocheting as Great Aunt Teen.

However, I learned the basic skills, I know the difference between knit and purl and as a volunteer mum at the Steiner school, I found myself sitting in a circle with a group of the children and teaching them to cast on and knit.

I recall the looks of intense concentration as  7 – 9-year-old girls and boys struggled to master the craft, row by laborious row.

‘Mairi, how many stitches should I have at the end of the row?’

’28, Jaryd.’

‘I’ve got 23.’

‘I’ve got 30.’

‘I’ve got 29.’

And so around the circle… picking up lost stitches, separating some convoluted efforts, unravelling knots, losing excess stitches…

I still have the recorder and music bags my girls sewed, knitted and embroidered just like my mother kept the placemats I made with childish hands.

 

Steiner music bag MJ
Mary Jane’s music bag for her music notes

 

Bridget Whelan, the author of Back To Creative Writing School, wrote that ‘weaving stories in your head while you travel to work or sit daydreaming in a café is not writing.’

I agree, however, sometimes it pays to take a rest from trying to fill the blank page and turn attention to some other form of creativity and that’s what I did when I set myself the task of knitting poppies for the 5000 Poppies Project.

I set myself the task of completing 100 poppies by the January deadline and to submit them on behalf of George Alexander McInnes, a great uncle who served at Gallipoli and is buried in Egypt.

I involved my sisters, who are much better than me at knitting and all things crafty,  plus my younger sister Rita’s mother-in-law.

My older sister, Cate is a quilter and has already quilted a poppy tribute for the Centenary Anzac Exhibition, Lest We Forget.

Best Laid Plans Etc. Etc…

But like all those writing projects needing editing and polishing – I didn’t quite make the target. (Although between us we did, I’m sure!)

I can list the excuses (I’m a writer so very good at excuses):

a bout of ill-health, preparing for visitors from overseas, Christmas, an unbearably hot summer, clearing clutter and preparing for the New Year… etc etc…

I did manage to knit 30 poppies and post them off so don’t feel a complete failure and on reflection 100 was a big target but an absolutely minuscule amount when you think of the number of poppies completed in what has become a global challenge.

Here is a picture from a couple of years ago when a display was placed at Parliament House, Victoria. There have also been moving tributes at the Shrine of Remembrance, the Australian War Memorial, and in London and other places of significance – hundreds of thousands of knitted poppies.

 

tim richardson and poppies
Tim Richardson Member for Mordialloc admiring the poppies

 

 

“These days, we wear our poppies not only as a symbol of remembrance of the fallen but also as a symbol of our support for those who have chosen (or in the case of those who in the past have been conscripted) to serve their country…

… we have again created a most beautiful and moving tribute at Melbourne’s iconic Shrine of Remembrance.  As beautiful as it is … this is only one of many many other tributes that have been created throughout the world … created from our hearts, with love, and honour and respect. 

If you could reflect … and pass on our message to anyone you know who is currently serving, or has served, or has suffered from the ongoing effects of their own service or their loved ones’ service …  it is why we are doing what we are doing …  This tribute is our gift to you.

Our way of saying thank you, and a poignant reminder of the depth of feeling from a grateful nation.
Your service will not be forgotten.
LEST WE FORGET”

5000poppies.wordpress.com

poppies on white ribbon cross

In Flanders Fields by John McCrae, May 1915

In Flanders fields, the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

The Inspiration for “In Flanders Fields”

It was early days in the Second Battle of Ypres when a young Canadian artillery officer, Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, was killed on 2nd May 1915 when an exploding German artillery shell landed near him.

He was serving in the same Canadian artillery unit as a friend of his, the Canadian military doctor and artillery commander Major John McCrae. Being the brigade doctor, John McCrae was asked to conduct the burial service for Alexis because the chaplain had been called away somewhere else on duty that evening.

It is believed that later that evening, after the burial, John began the draft for his now famous poem “In Flanders Fields”. The sight of these delicate, vibrant red flowers growing on the shattered ground caught his attention. He noticed how they had sprung up in the disturbed ground of the burials around the artillery position.

In Dornie, Scotland last year I saw the McCrae memorial honouring their clansmen:

 

The Story Behind the Remembrance Poppy

The origin of the red Flanders poppy as a modern-day symbol of remembrance was the inspiration of an American teacher, Miss Moina Belle Michael, also known as ‘The Poppy Lady.’

She and Frenchwoman Madame Anna Guérin, known as ‘The French Poppy Lady’, encouraged people to use the red Flanders poppy as a way of remembering those who had suffered in war.

The Flanders Poppy became the symbol of remembrance that we know so well today.

colchester

Two days before the Armistice was declared at 11 o’clock on 11th November 1918, Moina Belle Michael was on duty at the YMCA Overseas War Secretaries’ headquarters in New York. She was working in the “Gemot” in Hamilton Hall. This was a reading room and a place where U.S. servicemen would often gather with friends and family to say their goodbyes before they went on overseas service.

On that day, Hamilton Hall was busy with people coming and going because the Twenty-fifth Conference of the Overseas YMCA War Secretaries was in progress. During the first part of the morning as a young soldier passed by Moina’s desk,  he left a copy of the latest November edition of the Ladies Home Journal .

When Moina found a few moments to herself, she browsed through the magazine and came across a page carrying a vivid colour illustration with the poem entitled We Shall Not Sleep.

This was an alternative name sometimes used for John McCrae’s poem,  In Flanders Fields. Moina had come across the poem before, but reading it on this occasion she found herself transfixed by the last verse:

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae had died of pneumonia several months earlier on 28th January 1918.

In her autobiography, entitled The Miracle Flower, Moina describes this experience as ‘deeply spiritual’. She felt as though she was actually being called in person by the voices which had been silenced by death.

Three men attending the conference arrived at Moina’s desk and on behalf of the delegates asked her to accept a cheque for 10 dollars, in appreciation of the effort she had made to brighten up the place with flowers at her own expense.

She was touched by the gesture and replied that she would buy twenty-five red poppies with the money. She showed them the illustration for John McCrae’s poem In Flanders Fields together with her response to it We Shall Keep the Faith.

We Shall Keep the Faith by Moina Michael, November 1918

Oh! you who sleep in Flanders Fields,
Sleep sweet – to rise anew!
We caught the torch you threw
And holding high, we keep the Faith
With All who died.

We cherish, too, the poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led;
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies,
But lends a lustre to the red
Of the flower that blooms above the dead
In Flanders Fields.

And now the Torch and Poppy Red
We wear in honor of our dead.
Fear not that ye have died for naught;
We’ll teach the lesson that ye wrought
In Flanders Fields.

 

cameronians memorial
Memorial to Cameronians, Oban Scotland.

 

The delegates took both poems back into the Conference.

The red field poppy came to be known as an internationally recognised symbol of ‘Remembrance’. From its association with poppies flowering in the spring of 1915 on the battlefields of Belgium, France, and Gallipoli, this vivid red flower has become synonymous with great loss of life in war.

wild poppies scotland

Yet the scope of the poppy and its connection with the memory of those who have died in war has been expanded to help the living too. It was the inspiration and dedication of two women who promoted this same memorial flower as the means by which funds could be raised to support those in need of help, most especially servicemen and civilians suffering from physical and mental hardship as a result of a war.

Since the end of the First World War, there has been an armed conflict somewhere in the world every single day!

Out of the Great War came a lesson of ordinary people that were not ordinary. They did extraordinary things.

PAUL KEATING

25000 dead in WW1 had no known grave

When I was in Scotland last year I also read about the Highland Scot who suggested the tomb of the unknown soldier.

tomb of unknown warrior

Love and loss is the essence of our humanity. Returned men and women damaged beyond recognition examples of the extremities of loss and bereavement. They do not get over it, or move on, or get closure.

In Fromelles, France where 5000 Australians died in the most tragic night in the history of WW1 the poppies were a beautiful contrast to the tragic scene of desolation. And of course, those casualties not in uniform were rarely recorded in official history.

The book, What’s wrong with ANZAC? details the huge disparity between public remembrance ( solemn artefacts etc) often misused for militarism and nationalism compared with the ambivalent stories of sacrifice and experience of survivors and the generations of pain resulting from war.

For me, the poppy has always been about acknowledging the devastation and tragedy of lives shattered and lost, remembering, mourning and hoping it never happens again!

Patriotic music written in wartime has been used to express national pride, spread propaganda, encourage enlistment and motivate troops.

Perhaps that’s why Eric Bogle’s antiwar songs written at the time of the Vietnam War but set in WW1, were and still are definitive songs for peace, honouring those who made the greatest sacrifice and pointing out the senselessness of armed conflict, and tragic waste to humanity.

Green Fields of France by Eric Bogle

Oh how do you do, young Willy McBride
Do you mind if I sit here down by your graveside
And rest for a while in the warm summer sun
I’ve been walking all day, and I’m nearly done
And I see by your gravestone you were only nineteen
When you joined the great fallen in 1916
Well I hope you died quick
And I hope you died clean
Or Willy McBride, was is it slow and obscene

Chorus
Did they beat the drums slowly
Did they play the fife lowly
Did they sound the death march as they lowered you down
Did the band play the last post and chorus
Did the pipes play the flowers of the forest

And did you leave a wife or a sweetheart behind
In some loyal heart is your memory enshrined
And though you died back in 1916
To that loyal heart, you’re forever nineteen
Or are you a stranger without even a name
Forever enshrined behind some old glass pane
In an old photograph torn, tattered, and stained
And faded to yellow in a brown leather frame
Chorus

The sun shining down on these green fields of France
The warm wind blows gently and the red poppies dance
The trenches have vanished long under the plough
No gas, no barbed wire, no guns firing now
But here in this graveyard that’s still no man’s land
The countless white crosses in mute witness stand
To man’s blind indifference to his fellow man
And a whole generation was butchered and damned

Chorus
And I can’t help but wonder oh Willy McBride
Do all those who lie here know why they died
Did you really believe them when they told you the cause
Did you really believe that this war would end wars
Well the suffering, the sorrow, the glory, the shame
The killing and dying it was all done in vain
Oh, Willy McBride, it all happened again
And again, and again, and again, and again

Did they beat the drums slowly
Did they play the fife lowly
Did they sound the death march as they lowered you down
Did the band play the last post and chorus
Did the pipes play the flowers of the forest

lone person on beach

Knitting the poppies gave me the gift of calmness and a warm glow that I was doing something useful and taking part in a worthwhile project.

It also helped me reflect and in moments of melancholy reflect on how hard it is to get those in authority to focus on PEACE.

I’m sure I’ll knit a few more poppies in the future too or find another use for the hands-on creativity that helps me rest from facing the blank screen and filling the blank page…

 

’Twas The Season When Ho, Ho Became Oh, Oh!

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I haven’t blogged for a few weeks because of an unexpected health hiccup requiring a coronary angiogram and a host of other tests. I’m on the medical roundabout with some questions still to be answered and other specialist visits lined up, but at least feel more energetic.

I’m lucky to have a GP who is caring and thorough even although answers are elusive. However, broken bodies and minds can be healed and ageing bodies may need some help but they keep functioning! The philosophy of kintsukuroi good to remember. 

Several of my students have also struggled with health issues this year, most are dear friends as well as students – maybe our bodies are in sync as well as our writing minds!

Here’s to a healthier 2018.

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Stress versus Sense

In Australia, the end of semester two coincides with the festive season and the long summer break. As usual, I was busy organising class anthologies, submitting A-frames to secure funding for next year, and at Longbeach Place, in Chelsea, we held our first Open Day.

I prepared some of the work of current students to display and also offered a couple of workshops to encourage people to enrol in 2018. This year has been a wonderful class with some of the students from Mordialloc joining us for the second semester.

Writing Creatively Towards The Future
a featured class at Longbeach Place
learning all-important techniques of writing
to stay ahead in today’s digital race.
Words matter – they entertain, educate, even heal –
we write each week to practice skills with zeal!

There has been the inevitable Christmas get-togethers and catch-ups, shopping for presents and food, preparations for overseas guests, and the annual clearing of clutter for the new year…

I’m too busy to be sick was my first thought, but as my normally low blood pressure wanted to hover around 150-60 after soaring to over 200, and a Stress Echocardiogram indicated my heart ‘never slows down’, the cold whisper of Fate reminded me that heart attacks and strokes can be fatal!

I did some serious thinking.

Reflection – Rejuvenate or Retire?

In Life Story Class we discussed how genetics, personality traits and talents present themselves in families. I look back at what I wrote last year and wonder if, at 64 years of age, this latest health crisis is part of my inheritance!

A photograph of my paternal grandmother sat on the mantlepiece throughout my childhood. Granny died at 63 years of age during WW2. Her demise sudden, and in some people’s opinion, a happy death – if there is such a thing.

My grandmother was attending a ceilidh and sat beside her brother, John, who was stationed in Greenock because he captained a minesweeper. Granny’s daughters, Chrissie and Mary, were dancing a reel while Granny clapped and sang in Gaelic. Mouth music a common accompaniment at Scottish dances organised by Greenock’s Highland Society.

Granny turned to her brother and whispered, ‘I’m going, John,’ and slid to the floor. This massive, fatal heart attack a tragic shock to everyone even although Granny suffered ‘with her heart’ most of her adult life.

No wonder her heart was strained. Birthing thirteen children (Dad was the last) in twenty years, coping with the grief of losing many of them as infants, she also carried too much weight because treatment in those days involved ‘lots of bed rest and taking it easy’ – not the best advice for a heart condition that probably needed regular exercise and fresh air.

Chrissie, Dad’s older sister suffered angina and was 59 years old when she died of a heart attack. She was in her tenth year of living with a mastectomy.

Dad was in his 60s when he had his first heart attack, later followed by a stroke and then dementia.

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I love writing, I love teaching writing and I love all the volunteer activities I do in the community but as I head towards retirement and a choice of whether to stay working or not, I realise life must change if I want to reduce stress and be healthy. 

My daughters, wonderful as ever, demand I stop thinking negatively. In the words of Simon & Garfunkel, I’m told I just need to “slow down, you’re moving too fast”…

Some choices were made for me – my job teaching at Mordialloc Neighbourhood House cancelled via email in July after almost 18 years teaching. The brave new impersonal world in action…

I withdrew from coordinating the Mordialloc Writers’ Group last year – I needed a break. However, the numbers attending dwindled and in December the group decided to stop meeting. I won’t be reviving it – my energy will be focused on finishing numerous writing projects, including writing about the wonderful three months I spent travelling through Mongolia, Russia and the UK.

Perhaps that mystery novel will be finished and not end up a cold case, or my Mother’s life story woven into an entertaining memoir to do justice to her amazing fortitude and extensive legacy. Boxes of scribbled notes, short story outlines, ideas for children’s books and poetry — all need to be revisited, rewritten, expanded, edited and perhaps published!

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 I also decided to stop facilitating Chat ’N Chuckle a social group for people with ABI I’ve been privileged to work with since 2016.

I admire all the ‘chatty chucklers’ and their carers, their courage, resilience, and sense of humour. How would I cope if faced with many of their daily challenges? They kept 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. Make a choice to be happy.

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

The group is now ready for those who attend to take turns facilitating and although I will miss those Fridays I’m glad for the small part I played in helping establish the group, encouraging friendships to flourish, and most of all, empowering participants to take charge!

Each time I look at the beautiful orchid the group gave me my spirits lift.

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The support of family and friends made my breast cancer journey bearable and I am truly lucky having many people care about me. I know whatever problem scheduled tests reveal I’ll rejuvenate!

 

 

Poetry In Motion Captures Daily Joy

 

Tinsel Aurora
 Aurora loves Christmas tree decoration time!

 

I love Mary Oliver’s poetry and have been enjoying sharing the poems from Dog Songs, published by Penguin in 2013 a gift from the USA from my daughter, Anne.

Fortunately, most of the students in my classes are pet lovers and on the last count, the dog lovers outnumbered cat lovers.

Regardless of preference, the keen observations of the talents and quirks of dogs and owners in Mary’s poems and prose, the detailing and expressions of love, the bonds created, and how dogs capture your heart can be appreciated by everyone.

Because of the dog’s joyfulness, our own is increased. It is no small gift. It is not the least reason why we should honor as well as love the dog of our own life, and the dog down the street, and all the dogs not yet born. What would the world be like without music or rivers or the green and tender grass? What would this world be like without dogs?

page 119-120

In a lovely short short story, Ropes, about Sammy, an escape artist known for chewing through ropes and a dog Mary ‘inherited,’ there are a few tales about his wandering and the consequences. The reflection in the punch line a beauty: –

This is Sammy’s story. But I also think there are one or two poems in it somewhere. Maybe it’s what life was like in this dear town years ago, and how a lot of us miss it.

Or maybe it’s about the wonderful things that may happen if you break the ropes that are holding you.

page 45

spring bush purple.jpgEach day is a precious gift and like most writers, I carry a notebook to jot down observations, ideas and feelings. 

I’m lucky to have a job I love teaching in community houses and to be passionate about writing.  However, I’ll be the first to admit I don’t always sing “Hi ho, Hi ho, it’s off to work I go” as cheerfully as the seven dwarfs in Disney’s Snow White!

But I do try to be a glass half full person…

Here’s one of last week’s jottings, influenced of course from absorbing the lessons from The Gathering of Kindness

Feeling Joy – The Small Stuff Matters
Mairi Neil

Friday morning, on the way to work
I kept a lookout for some joy, and
it wasn’t long before I witnessed –
the love between a father and his boy.
Two peas in a pod’ they dressed alike –
matching smiles, strolling side by side.
The loving bond between the two
seemed as strong as a rhino’s hide.

The child’s face lit up at a noisy digger
munching and crunching on concrete,
and the audience of fluro-vested men
standing mesmerised by this feat.
But the toddler refused to be side-tracked
‘It’s the trains he’s after,’ said Dad.
They followed me to Mordi Station
where trundling trains made him glad.

Aboard the train approaching Parkdale,
a clump of ‘red hot pokers’ delight,
planted to greet weary commuters,
the orange sentinels glow in sun’s light.
The next stop was Cheltenham Station
how uplifting and joyous to see
beautiful art brighten graffiti-free wall –
possum, parrot, and magpie trilogy.

Highett Railway Station the next stop
along a track lined with grey-green trees
until a bottlebrush blooms blood red
and Noisy Minors serenade to please.
The tunnel into Moorabbin is next
a dullness failing to darken the day,
momentary shadows before sunshine
a courteous student a smiling ray.

Not long to reach Patterson Station
passing homes simple and grandiose
traditional backyards disappearing for
townhouses that house the most.
And right at the Station’s doorstep
from a third floor balcony, quite unaware
a sleepy man plumps blue pillows
we watch him inhale morning air.

Too soon, I’m at Bentleigh Station
and striding along busy Centre Road.
There are shoppers, school kids, workers
negotiating others in relaxation mode.
Old men gathering outside cafes to chat
over Turkish coffee and sweet cakes
weekly reminiscing, current politics too –
get-togethers a community makes.

Benn’s Bookshop appears on the horizon
and I turn into Godfrey Street
delicious aromas of chicken and coffee
at close quarters my regular greet.
An octogenarian shuffles her walker
a shopping bag ready for weekly refill,
guarding fiercely her independence
a faithful fox terrier follows at heel.

Turning into the Community House
prepared for the delightful writing class
spring flowers a brilliant scented rainbow
amidst freshly-trimmed green grass.
A young mum pushes an empty stroller
her daughter dancing fantasy behind
in a lurid pink tutu and glittering tiara
a more joyful princess you’ll never find!

fairy ring.jpg

Please share any daily moments of joy or note them down to savour for later.

Walking, Writing, Wellbeing, And Inspiration

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Most people want a safe and attractive neighbourhood and will get up-in-arms if it is threatened – the NIMBY (not in my backyard) factor, yet their relationship with the local surrounds can often be like the adoration Sir Robert Menzies expressed for Queen Elizabeth 11 in the 1960s “I did but see her passing by and yet I love her till I die.”

In our community, most people travel by car. It’s easy to become disconnected from the immediate neighbourhood and cling to what you think is there.

Changes may go unnoticed until too late, validating the observation ‘you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.’

Walk Your Neighbourhood, Know It, Own It!

While many places have been romanticised as wonderful places to hike or take a walk, I find my local area in Mordialloc just as beautiful as many mentioned in tourist brochures.

I don’t need to travel to walk by the sea along a wonderful foreshore, enjoy a park, or tour streets with well-kept and interesting gardens.

All of these attractions are within walking distance of my house, Mordialloc Railway Station or Mordialloc Main Street – and I’m sure there are similar attractions in suburbs all the way down to Frankston and onto the Peninsula, and up towards the city.

In my street, regardless of the season, council workers do a great job maintaining a lovely display outside a local hall where community groups like Kingston U3A meet regularly.

alan mclean hall display

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mordialloc gardens.jpg

Although, it’s not always roses! Vigilance is needed to protect what we have and that’s why walking is important.

We can never assume things will remain the same – whether it’s the neighbourhood or our health – nothing should be taken for granted.

Melbourne is growing. Development is a huge issue with streetscapes changing rapidly as apartment blocks, town houses and units replace the traditional family home on a quarter acre block. The resulting increase in traffic and limited parking often the biggest issue people complain about.

The population is increasing, people need somewhere to live and will flock to desirable areas – especially places like Mordialloc in the south-eastern suburbs bordering Port Phillip Bay.

If councils don’t handle the transition and changes carefully and sensibly, the ambience and advantages people have moved to the area to enjoy will be lost. The natural beauty and good life people seek will disappear.

State Governments and Council Planning authorities are forever changing the rules about who can protest a development, or who needs to know, the height of buildings, the size of apartments etc.

Not everyone accesses the Internet or council websites so communication within a neighbourhood is vital.

Walking the neighbourhood benefits my mental and physical wellbeing but also keeps me aware of what is happening. If there is warning of inappropriate development I can write to my local councillor for an explanation or to protest. (and have done so.)

Sometimes it’s saving a heritage building, trees or vegetation, sometimes it’s reducing the number of apartments to be built or stopping overdevelopment.

Always it is prioritising the neighbourhood’s character and the effect on the people who live here or may want to live here in the future.

Walking Boosts Creativity

The creative effect of absorbing the beauty of the environment also worthwhile. I often walk with a friend. We consciously notice the trees and flowers in gardens, the activities at the foreshore, listen to the birds –  are mindful of the places we walk….

I take my phone because of the camera. Taking pictures helps me remember and can prompt a poem or story later.

I’ve always walked – pushing my children in their strollers, walking them to school, taking the dog for an evening walk. The latter walk often a meditative exercise, alone with thoughts, working through worries and ideas, reflecting on the day.

For me, there is a synchronicity between walking and writing.

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Some Women Writers Who Walked To Reflect & Be Inspired:

(I’ve chosen women in honour of IWD today!)

Virginia Woolf loved solitude and often walked. Perhaps it was genetic because her father, Leslie Stephens, a renowned writer and editor was also a notable walker and mountain climber.

In the biography of Woolf by her nephew, Quentin Bell, he says she’d write in the morning and in the afternoon go for long walks of several miles, usually with her dog. 

Perhaps the walking enabled her to relax and solve any writing problems.

 As a child Woolf summered in St Ives, the inspiration for “To A Lighthouse” in 1926, as she was revising the book, she returned, noting in a letter, ‘all my facts about lighthouses are wrong’.

Domitille Collardey & Alicia Desantes

Agatha Christie loved to walk and think – producing amazing results!

Jane Austen and her sisters took long walks together and the outings gave Jane inspiration to write.

Louisa Mae Alcott was a walker and her companion none other than great thinker Henry David Thoreau who wrote the aptly titled essay Walking. Walking through the natural world a pilgrimage without a destination where he discovered new places to adore.

Mary Oliver, the American poet born in Ohio in 1935, writes poignant observations of the natural world. Nature feeds creativity and Oliver, an avid walker finds inspiration when her feet are moving. Her poems are full of images that come from daily walks near her home.

Jane Goodall moved out of her comfort zone and trekked to places no one in the western world had gone before in her efforts to save the gorillas.

Cheryl Strayed trekked the Pacific Crest Trail and wrote Wild, which later became a movie.

Robyn Davidson trekked 1,700 miles across the Australian outback with four camels and a dog. She wrote Tracks about her epic journey, which was later made into a film.

Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas spent many summers in Bilignin, Ahône Valley 1929, at a villa surrounded by mountains. Stein strolled and wrote letters to Paris about her poodle, Basket – the first of three dogs she gave the name.

Domitille Collardey & Alicia Desantes

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Merlin Coverley wrote The Art of Wandering,  taking the view that walking and writing are one activity. His writer/walkers from the times of Blake, Wordsworth and Rousseau to modern day are concerned with their inner worlds, philosophy and spirituality.

The Twilight Zone
Mairi Neil

At night, just before I fall asleep
I sometimes ponder
on thoughts quite deep.
Why do we exist
and live on earth?
If there is no purpose
why do we give birth?

I can’t believe
some random explosion
put such a balanced world
in motion –
the worm, the fly, the elephant,
the platypus and parasite
interact with precision
like day and night.

The food cycle chain
and each environmental link
intricately interwoven
to really make you think
a clever creator’s hand
has been involved –
that Supreme Being’s identity
still to be solved.

Each religion I know believes
they alone have the answer
destruction wreaked by zealots
a malignant cancer
Allah, Buddah, Krishna, God,
Jesus, the sun, mankind, the trees
human beings worship
one or more, of these.

I have a yearning to know why I’m here
a reason for existing that is clear
I seek an answer to why
the world’s not one
why love and respect’s not mutual
just as we share the moon and the sun.

I’ve not discovered the answer
to explain why we’re here
but to ‘do no harm’ a message
we should all hold dear.
What is my destiny?
My reason for being?
My eyelids droop,
elusive sleep arrives
to stop me from ‘seeing’…

sunflowers by window

 

Walk Your Neighbourhood For a Healthy Body and Healthy Mind

Walking just 20 minutes a day can reduce your risk of premature death by 30%. About 30 minutes of walking a day burns 150 calories, which can help you reach a calorie deficit that leads to weight loss. Walking regulates blood sugar levels, which keeps insulin levels low and diabetes at bay.

https://www.quora.com/What-would-be-the-benefits-of-walking-1-30-to-2-00-hours-daily

A feeling of happiness and contentment can flow from recognising and appreciating where you live and regular walking is a great way to achieve and maintain a healthy weight. You’ll become leaner, firmer, and fitter.

Walking has always been meditative and calming, yet still invigorating to me. Bad moods can be marched out and life put in perspective. 

It’s also a good way to rid yourself of anger – the suggestion ‘go for a walk’ or ‘walk it off’ good advice.

Anytime I need to work through a complex idea or problem, I walk or do something physical while I think.(Yep, even housework!)

Physical activity lets me ‘step aside’ and focus on the ‘real’ world while the thought process continues in the ‘virtual’ sub-conscious world where ideas/problems circulate.

The stresses of life walked out and tumultuous thoughts or emotions replaced by the sounds, smells, and sights of the sensory world of nature.

Keeping active and walking regularly not only helps maintain your weight, but lowers blood pressure, helps build healthy bones and muscles, and can improve “good” cholesterol.

The benefits aren’t just physical. Reports show that those who exercise regularly sleep better, have improved concentration and feel less stressed.

Life will be healthier and happier.

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Towards the end of her life, when my mother visited and she couldn’t walk far, I’d hire a wheelchair from the chemist and take her for ‘walks’ around the neighbourhood.

We’d go down to the beach cafe and have a cuppa while I pointed out changes to the foreshore, or we’d discuss the changes to shops in Main Street since her last visit.

Perhaps in the future, my girls will be wheeling me in a wheelchair where once I wheeled them in a pram!

Walking isn’t just putting one foot in front of the other. It can be a way to socialise, to clear the brain, prevent mental breakdown, get healthier and extend life, solve – or ignore – problems, experience the world around in all its glory, beat insomnia and find a purpose.

Many of the most accomplished and creative people throughout history have also found walking to be an integral part of their daily routines and key to their success as artists, creators, writers, musicians, thinkers, and human beings.

The author, Charles Dickens, who suffered depression went for long walks. After writing from 9 in the morning to 2 in the afternoon, he’d walk – 20- or 30-miles being routine. He suffered insomnia and would prowl London’s streets until dawn. His friends worried, he walked obsessively but the habit worked!  His prolific writing achievements of more than a dozen major and well-regarded novels, several short story collections, a few plays, and non-fiction books.

He said if he couldn’t walk “far and fast,” he would “explode and perish” from the psychological burden of remaining still. He found writing difficult and so walking was a relief. It probably saved his sanity.

His characters also do a lot of walking – perhaps he followed the mantra write what you know –  a character in Our Mutual Friend, spends hours walking around London after dark, sometimes all night. Other characters walk from one town to another, which probably occurred in those days before motorised transportation.

Where you choose to walk can boost your sense of wellbeing. Strolls or hikes in the countryside, close to nature, can have a restorative effect at the end of a hectic working week but so can a walk around your neighbourhood.

Going for a stroll with a friend or family is a great way to spend time together while keeping active.

When you wander daily around your locale, you start to look at it properly and notice its devastating beauty. There’s the ‘naturally’ weird:

shaggy tree parkdalelooks like elephant feet

And the  sweet:

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the unusual or  contrary (yes it is a rabbit he’s walking on a leash!):

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There’s architectural loveliness,  unusual plants, unfortunate graffiti and stylish landscaping.

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A walk is NEVER boring.  You don’t have to live next to the greatest park to experience the benefit of walking in the fresh air. Urban areas can give the same effect – there are always tiny local parks, laneways and byways to explore.

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Walking is cheap and doable – you can even walk to music or listen to a book if you have headphones and an iPod.

Does walking figure in your life, help your creativity?

Where do you walk? Has it inspired poetry or prose?

 

Several Natural Tweets Trumps 45

 

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Some days the world seems to have exploded with craziness. Who would have thought the man now in the office, often referred to as the most powerful in the world, would spend his days watching cable TV and tweeting? 

Every time I think of Donald Trump as President of America – especially in light of his derogatory remarks about, and to women, I shake my head in disbelief. But there are many other failings that worry me more including the fact he has the power to start a war and has access to the nuclear codes!

I’m part of the generation born in the decade after World War Two in the shadow of the atomic bombs dropped on Japan and the development and proliferation of nuclear weapons.

Three Wise Monkeys
Mairi Neil

Mizaru, Kikazaru and Iwazaru sit on the mantlepiece:
seeing no evil, hearing no evil, and speaking no evil.
A Japanese pictorial maxim transplanted to Scotland;
brought home by a great uncle, a ship’s captain,
these wise monkeys an added admonishment
to a childhood steeped in Presbyterian rules.
Yet, the shadow of evil an unseen cloak
as we lived in the tatters of World War Two.
Crowded cemeteries, buildings awaiting demolition,
food rationing…crippling austerity
shattered families struggling to find meaning,
shuddering when ambulance and police sirens wail.
Speak no evil an achievable rule perhaps
hearing no evil more difficult
and what of seeing evil or evil seen?
The brass monkeys cold. A chilly weight
in my child’s hand, etching a mystic message
of aspirations difficult to achieve.

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Born in Scotland I lived not far from the Holy Loch where American submarines were first based in 1960. People in the peace movement (CND), including my father, protested this base made Scotland a first strike nuclear target.

This was the era of ‘The Cold War‘ and Russia was the enemy to fear, the people and country to demonise.

However, many people who survived WW2 were shocked at the devastation caused by the atomic bombs and believed the only way to safeguard the world was to ban nuclear weapons. CICD, the Campaign for International Cooperation and Disarmament became a part of a worldwide movement.

Fears were realised when interference in Cuba escalated into what became known as the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Polaris submarines were deployed from Scotland but hostile contact averted.

“By midOctober six of the Navy’s new Polaris submarines, based at Holy Loch Scotland had deployed to their battle stations deep under the sea. USS Abraham Lincoln (SSBN 602), in upkeep at Holy Loch, and two other submarines that had just completed shakedown cruises were also prepared on short notice to add their firepower to the nuclear equation.”. . . “ On October 22 at 1900 at DEFCON 3 “Polaris submarines moved to their launch points.”

Cuban Missile Crisis paper from Wilson Center

My mother told me about the day news came of the movements at Holy Loch, after days of tensions being reported on the radio.

A neighbour rushed into our house in Scotland crying hysterically, ‘we’re all going to die!’ She had young children like Mum, had survived the Greenock blitz and horrible memories had been triggered by the threat of another war – this time one that would wipe out sizeable chunks of countries simultaneously.

 

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I used to have a similar poster as this hanging on the toilet door throughout the 70s.

 

Perhaps it is the story from Scotland and recalling other stories my parents shared about the war that feeds an almost morbid fascination with President Trump’s cavalier attitude to the power he has, where he seems more enthralled with his signature than what he is signing.

I’ve had to make a conscious effort to switch off and try and actively look for peace of mind. Luckily, living where I do and working where I do, it has been fairly easy.

Bird Tweets Trump Donald’s

Mother Nature has given us wonderful birds who tweet because it’s their natural way of communicating. Their tweets more inspiring than those from you know who!

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The rainbow lorikeet (Trichoglossus moluccanus) is a species of parrot common along the eastern seaboard, from northern Queensland to South Australia and Tasmania. Its habitat is rainforest, woodland and coastal bush, hence its attraction to Mordialloc!

Limerick for the Birds
Mairi Neil

Australia has parrots galore
feathered wonders love to soar
with squeals and tweets
the Rainbow Lorikeets
brighten our Mordy foreshore.

I spotted a rainbow lorikeet one evening when I was out for a walk with my friend Jillian. Usually, they are in pairs or a cluster but this one sat on the electric wires observing us. Not sure if he was as enamoured with me as I was with him! They really are pretty birds.

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This little fellow that I think is a Thornbill entertains me every morning and early evening. He and a couple of mates flitter in and out the vines outside my kitchen window, moving so fast it is difficult to take a picture. I’m sure they sense me hiding behind the net curtains.

Focused and persistent, they chat to each other as they forage for insects. Their antics make me happy and I look forward to catching a glimpse of their fluttering feathers.

Haiku – Mairi Neil

Winter’s skeleton
Hides the promise of springtime
And the buzz of life

One day recently, having coffee with my friend Lesley in Mentone, a tiny House Sparrow decided to join us and we had a lovely conversation. Although, we were never in any doubt of what he was really after!

One reason for the successful establishment of the House Sparrow in Australia and, indeed, all over the world, is its ability to feed on a wide range of foodstuffs. Birds eat insects, spiders, berries, seeds, flower buds and scraps of food discarded by humans. There are many reports of birds entering canteens in buildings to feed, with birds even learning to activate automatic doors in order to gain entry.

Walks with friends around my neighbourhood of Mordialloc, Parkdale and Mentone, a welcome distraction to current political shenanigans dominating the news and even birds regarded as pests are more appealing than many of those who claim to be leaders.

Mordialloc Beach

Mairi Neil

The day is calm. Tranquil. A great-to-be-alive day.
Eucalypts and pine compete with salty air and
the whiff of abandoned seaweed.
The blue-green sea a mirror for fluffy clouds of whipped cream.
Dainty dollops on a pale blue plate.
Gulls sit or glide atop this glassy sea.
Bathed in white sunlight I imagine I too drift and dream.
In the distance, palm tree fronds tremble casting lacy shadows on hot sand. The clink of moorings and masts drifts from the creek
and a sudden gust of wind whips sand to sting legs and face.
Airborne seagulls now screeching origami kites.
A dark veil unfurls from the horizon, shattering the grey-green mirror
and peaceful contemplation. Waves lap and soap around feet.
I retreat to the shelter of eucalypts and pine,
the taste of salt bittersweet.

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Polluting Politics

The current state of politics and events are repugnant yet there is a fascinating compulsion to follow the relentless shocks – that’s where playing with words relieves the tension. 

Limerick for the Times
Mairi Neil

President 45 an aggressive male
as a leader, he’s destined to fail
dividing his nation
without hesitation
‘Trumplethinskin’ is no fairy tale.

Of course, what passes for Australia’s political leadership is not much better. Some Australian MPs adopting the style, policies, and even similar slogans to Donald Trump.

Limerick for the LNP
Mairi Neil

Cory Bernardi is making news
he’s given PM Turnbull the blues
South Australian Bernardi
now has his own party
being ‘Liberal’ exposed as a ruse!

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And then we had the Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull attacking the Opposition Leader, Bill Shorten in a most unbecoming personal rant while those on the government benches laughed like hyenas savaging prey.

The face of the leader of the National Party and Deputy Prime Minister, Barnaby Joyce dark red like an apoplectic fit in progress, albeit driven by laughter, not anger.

Although apoplexy as a specific medical term is not such a common term now, the word apoplectic certainly is, meaning furious and red-faced with uncontrollable rage (so called because its symptoms of flushed red face and loss of bodily control mimic those of apoplexy).

When Treasurer, Scott Morrison brandished a lump of coal and the Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg championed ‘clean coal’ WA (usually hot in summer) flooded, NSW and Queensland faced the hottest days ever recorded and bushfires destroyed homes and farmlands. SA faced extreme weather conditions and power blackouts. We in Melbourne had four seasons in one day as usual but on steroids as summer temperatures fluctuated more than normal.

Time for harsh words to be written.

Dear Federal Parliament –

You laugh as Australia burns
the LNP MPs taking turns
to promote dirty coal
cut pensions and the dole –
dear PM where’s your soul?

Barnaby’s red face a disgrace
and vitriol sprayed like mace
Appalling barefaced liars,
Climate-change deniers,
all justify influence buyers!

Halt the wheeling and dealing –
it’s our kids future you are stealing
the Antarctic ice cracking
yet you consider fracking!
Show leadership, please
wind turbines need a breeze
the sun doesn’t always shine
all adjustment takes time…

So, instead of point scoring,
lying, bluster, and theatrics
parliamentarians must sit down
to discuss the energy mix.
The public wants clarity
Extreme weather our reality!

From Mordialloc where even a small rise in sea level threatens homes!

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Thank Goodness For Distractions

I’m lucky classes have resumed, limiting the time I have available to check on the latest scandals, shocks, and silly decisions from those who are supposed to lead.

I’ll get more writing done if I ignore social media – yet switching off or ignoring the news at this critical point in history, seems an impossible task – especially when social justice is at stake.images.png

It’s a bit late for New Year Resolutions but I’ve decided to follow the advice I’m always giving my writing students – ‘write every day’. My lack of output directly related to allowing myself to be distracted and become obsessed with ‘the News’, ‘fake news’, ‘alternative facts’ and worrying – which as the quote above implies, is a waste of energy.

My daughter Mary Jane made me a lovely gift at Christmas with a quote from my favourite character, Jo March, from one of my favourite books, Little Women by Louisa May Alcott.

Jo wanted to be a writer and as a nine-year-old reading about her made me determined to be a writer too.

I want to do something splendid before I go into my castle, something heroic or wonderful that won’t be forgotten after I’m dead. I don’t know what, but I’m on the watch for it and mean to astonish you all some day.

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I’m grateful for having parents who valued books. When I was ten I received Jo’s Boys, and the following Christmas my aunt gave me Little Men – I treasure these books.

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I’m not sure I’ll ever achieve something heroic or wonderful but perhaps some of my writing will remain and be read after I’m dead. It may not astonish but it will reflect me and the times I lived.

During the week I received a lovely card (with a bird on it!) and thoughtful presents from a student who said, “thank you for mentoring me so well with my writing.” I’ll treasure these too.

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We may live in tumultuous times where there is much to criticise and feel uneasy about, but with a purpose and job I enjoy, wonderful friends and family and surroundings that provide constant delight, I know I’m privileged.

The mantra ‘one day at a time’ and a conscious effort to stay positive will keep me focused.

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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?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sometimes We Need To Pause

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A Juvenile Grey Butcherbird Belts Out a Rollicking Song.

Mairi Neil

‘Listen to me, it’s a beautiful day,’
The butcherbird repertoire seemed to say.

Perched high on the electric wire
A songbird above the Frankston line
Announcing a timetable triumph,
Singing, “Hurrah! The trains on time!”
Or could he spy Mordialloc beach,
Colourful sails embroidering the Bay
“Take a walk, breathe in fresh air,
Celebrate this beautiful day!”

Shoulders lifted, weary steps lighter
I played peek-a-boo with my shadow
Dark thoughts like clouds vanished
I felt an inner wellness grow…

A wattlebird hangs upside down
Sipping bottlebrush deepest red
A magpie stalks a juicy worm
Until his desire and hunger fed.
Lorikeets flash red and green feathers
High-pitched chattering over lunch
Wonderful a Cappella entertainment
On flowering eucalypts they munch.

Bees hum in rosemary blossoms
I pause to enjoy the scented bloom
Caress the soft-petalled geraniums
Where butterflies hover and zoom
The Blue Moon rose smiles a greeting
Pink camellia buds nod their care
Birdsong and burgeoning beauty –
I breathe contentment in home’s air.

Writing The Senses

To encourage my students to remember to include the senses when writing we’ll do specific exercises  – here is one: what does morning smell like?

It can be one particular morning, any morning from your past or present, it can be regular mornings, it can be your character’s morning…

The Smell of Morning

Depending on the season my mornings smell different. Not only nature’s seasons but the season of my life.  I now reflect from mature years – the third age as U3A reminds me every morning, while eager students search for parking in Albert Street. U3A’s meeting place only a few yards from my house.

I sleep with the window open and the noise of passing traffic drifts in – whether it’s cars or people – because I live close to the railway station. Occasionally, the unpleasant smell of stale greasy chicken, hamburger, or chips snacked by late night revellers still evident, if discarded leftovers chucked into my garden.

(One of the disadvantages of having no solid fence and living just the right distance from Main Street restaurants and pubs and late night trains – takeaways become throwaways.)

The revving of parked cars and others coming and going has exhaust fumes permeating the air at regular intervals. Not the life-threatening lead strains from years ago, thank goodness.

When John and I lived in Prahran in the 80s, the inner city council released a report revealing the children in the local school had high quantities of lead in their bloodstream – a wake-up call for authorities. Society does advance albeit slowly!

Another industrial smell occurs if the trains brake too early or need maintenance. Pungent diesel oil reminds me of their presence when their noise does not –  you become so used to the railways regular trundling and rumbling you forget their existence.

A more pleasant persistent smell comes when my roses bloom and the geraniums flower. The slightest breeze wafts their perfume into the bedroom. Up until this year, several lavender bushes perfumed too, but after twelve years the woody bush closest to the window needed replacing. 

How blessed we are in Melbourne with the plants we can grow. The demise of the lavender allowed me to add variety to the shrubs I’ve mostly grown from cuttings or received as gifts from friends or bought from school fetes – wonderful local events that provide all sorts of delights.

Arriving in Mordialloc in 1984, the smell (and sound) of horses, always evident. Barkly Street behind and parallel to Albert Street housed several stables, and the patch of grass still frilling the railway line ideal for horses to exercise and nibble on. Weekends and late evening resounded to the clip clop of horses. They also left reminders of their visit.

In Life Stories classes people remember ‘the olden days’ when horsepower was the transport and their parents, or child selves rushed out and scooped up the manure as fertiliser for flower gardens and veggie patches. I’m not that devoted a gardener – I choose hardy plants that survive with the minimum of fuss and effort on my part but several others in the street ‘followed the horses’!  The large blocks and stables have mushroomed into units and town houses, however, it’s good to remember Mordialloc has a proud ‘horsey’ past. 

The same strip of grass renamed ‘shit alley’ as numerous pet owners walk their dogs, but refuse to do poop parade. They escape council officers wrath I expect because during the day the ground is an ad hoc carpark – no one appears to care for the parcel of land except for how it can be used – or abused.

In my fantasies, I’ve dreamt of a community garden… I wouldn’t mind the smell of fresh celery, onions, garlic, carrots, lettuce et al…

 I’ve always had pets so doggy smells linger in and outside the house. Aurora reminds me every morning of her presence, somehow finding her way onto the bed in the middle of the night.

Since John died I no longer wake to his masculine smell or snuggle under the doona where the smell of our sex lingered. If someone had told 30-year-old me when I moved to Mordialloc that I’d be arguing with a dog in the future about my share of the queen-sized bed, I’d have laughed – especially one as big and clumsy as Aurora!

Times change and we change – life would be boring otherwise – and there are many times I’m grateful for the comfort and companionship Aurora provides.

The kitchen smells of the morning are radically different too since John has gone and I no longer control what the girls eat (or not) when they stay here.

John’s passion for Sunday brunch fry-up: bacon, eggs, fried bread, mushrooms, onions – a greasy delight leaving its scent clinging to walls for hours is never cooked because neither the girls or I eat elaborate cooked breakfasts. My porridge and their cereal and toast odourless or an unremarkable breakfast smell unless I cook Anne a spinach omelette or the latest ‘smashed’ avocado on toast. MJ, not a morning person – ‘breakfast’ absent from her lexicon!

In winter, the smell of dewed grass much stronger and when I remove the junk mail from the mailbox, the air is heavy with the aroma from the rosemary bush and salty scents drifting from the seashore.

In Mordialloc, fish, salt, and seaweed strong aromas after heavy rain or on windy days no matter the season.

Now, it’s spring and heading into summer. We’ve had more rain than other years, and everywhere the flowering plants and trees flourish with a depth of colour not seen for some time.

Melbourne being Melbourne we’ve had warm to hot days this week and this morning it’s almost back to winter – the air fresh, indeed even chilly.

On warm days, you can smell the heat. Birdsong is subdued as if they are conserving their energy and I close the window early before the temperature rises.

If it turns out a stinker I’m happy for the fan to circulate the smell of ink, paper, and print as my morning is filled with reading or writing smells…

What does your morning smell like? Has it changed over the years?

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