Rituals and Reminiscing For Auld Lang Syne

Ceremonies cemented the impression that humanity, not chaos, reigned over the universe.

Brian Herbert

We’ve farewelled another year and welcomed 2016. I look back on my post this time last year and the opening paragraph still rings true:

Like many people, particularly in my age group, I wonder where the year has gone and if it’s true that it disappears more quickly the older you are!
If I still lived in Scotland I’d celebrate Hogmanay in the traditional manner http://www.scotland.org/whats-on/hogmanay/ and in years gone by I’ve kept up several of the cultural traditions, but confess to having a quiet evening at home last night and allowing my partying daughters to come home and bring in the lump of coal I left at the front door. Actually it was a briquette (a lump of compressed coal) from the family home at Croydon. Mum gave it to me to use specifically for the ‘first foot’ over the door on Hogmanay, when we moved to Mordialloc over 30 years ago.

This time of year lends itself to reflection as well as remembering cultural quirks, but because it is a ‘new’ year, it still has to unfold, be lived and stories made. I’ll continue to find inspiration and tranquility under the evening sky whether it’s walking the dog, or putting rubbish in the bins or just standing for a few minutes alone staring above at the never-ending twinkling canopy – some habits never change.
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The preparation for Hogmanay always entails cleaning the house and ridding cupboards of unnecessary clutter, tidying up the garden. Physical examples of renewal,  like a journal writer starting each day on a fresh page.

On Christmas night, we experienced the last full moon for 2015 and as Anne and I walked Aurora around the neighbourhood, I tried to capture the moon with my camera phone:

 

December 25, 2015 – Mairi Neil

The moon gleams white, luminescent,
No drifting wisps of shape-shifting cloud.
The man in the moon yet to appear
With his benign expression,
Dark, deep set eyes and
Hint of moustachioed smile.
Tonight a vibrant sky, pink-tinged
While apricot and lilac hues waft to
Colour the rooftops, soften pavements
Breathe beauty into shadows dancing
On bricks, tiles, concrete, and steel.
A flock of parrots settle among
The topmost branches of a stoic gum
Protecting a grey water tank.
Suddenly, as if a giant hand shakes the tree,
Red breasts flash and with squeals and flaps
The birds twirl through the air –
Green wings spinning like frisbees.
Each night my eyes discover something new
A colour never seen, a glorious streak across the sky
Trees dressed in forty-shades of green
A Creator’s vision this glowing orb is perhaps
Designed to magnify…

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Parrots proliferate in Mordy now – they moved in during the last drought and stayed.

In the quiet of the evening I often share significant memories of childhood and at this time of year it is New Year rituals. Family stories deserving to be heard and passed on:

In Scotland, after Mum’s frenzy of cleaning and baking, we savoured her ginger wine and blackberry wine, both non-alcoholic made from essence. How grown-up we felt, drinking ‘wine’ like the adults! (Although they were on whisky after the bells announced at midnight and Auld Lang Syne sung.)

When I returned to Scotland in 1973, at the top of the long list of items missed and to be brought from ‘the auld country’ was ginger and blackcurrant essence. I managed to procure 6 bottles from the local Co-op and Hogmanay ’74 was a good year in Croydon, Australia. A quick Google search and homesick Scots throughout the world have a similar childhood memory and taste for ‘oor ain special Hogmanay treat.’

As far back as I can remember, my parents’ parties were legendary. Not hard to do when you are part of a large family – a crowd’s already there!

Each Hogmanay, in Greenock, carpets were rolled up, Andy Stewart and Jimmy Shand records (78s, later LPs) stacked on the radiogram, and reels and jigs shook the house’s foundations. Dad’s brother, Alec and family came over from Rhu, neighbours popped in, some of Dad’s railway co-workers and even people from their St Ninian’s House Church group.

Mum’s feast prepared and eaten before midnight, included clootie dumpling (cooked in a clout /cloth) where we all fought to have a slice with the skin attached – delicious, hot or cold. There are many variations of this traditional treat:

Clootie Dumpling

250g (8oz) plain flour
125g (4oz) margarine
75g (4oz) currants
75g (4 oz) sultanas
75g (3oz) soft brown sugar (or substitute treacle)
2 lightly beaten eggs
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
I teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon bicarb soda
1 tablespoon golden syrup
3/4 cup buttermilk

(extra flour for cloth to produce the much-loved thick skin)

  • In a large bowl mix the flour, and softened margarine, fruit, sugar, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and bicarb of soda. Add the beaten eggs and syrup, then stir in sufficient buttermilk to form a soft batter.
  • Dip a pudding cloth into boiling water and sink it in a bowl large enough to hold the mixture, dredge lightly with flour and spoon in the mixture.
  • Draw the cloth together at the ends and tie tightly with string – make sure you leave room for expansion during cooking!
  • Place a saucer in the bottom of a large saucepan and lift the dumpling into the pan of boiling water and simmer for 3-4 hours.

Clootie Dumpling is usually served hot with cream, ice-cream or custard but is delicious cold, spread with butter or margarine and jam. Mum made a clootie at other celebrations throughout the year, especially for Dad’s birthday.

One memory of Hogmanay in early 1960s Scotland stands out over all others.

As usual we children were the first awake, and of course headed straight to the toilet. The bathroom/toilet was upstairs near all our bedrooms, but the door was locked. A quick head count and checking of beds and we knew it must be an adult inside. We waited.

And waited. Discreet tapping. No answer. Whispering then louder tapping and talking. Cousins awake as well as siblings. Lots of whispering and tapping. No answer.

Fear of admonition if we made a noise or woke hungover adults forgotten when desperation kicked in. The boys could go outside even if it was ‘brass monkey weather‘ but Catriona and I needed the bathroom. (Yes, all our cousins were male. Of three brothers, Dad was the only one to produce female offspring.)

We jiggled the door handle but couldn’t open the door. We peeked through the keyhole.

‘Uncle Alec’s asleep on the floor.’

‘His head’s against the toilet and his feet must be blocking the door.’

‘Why doesn’t he wake up?’

‘He’s drunk.’

‘Or dead.’

‘We better get Dad.’

We didn’t need to fetch Dad. Trying to be ‘as quiet as church mice’  we  ‘made enough noise to wake the dead’.

Dad couldn’t rouse his older brother either so one of the boys was sent up the drainpipe to climb in through the outside window and open the door. Dad helped an embarrassed Uncle Alec to bed and we had a story to share on Hogmanay for years, embedded in family history.

 

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Years later an incident in 1970s Croydon, Australia not forgotten, especially by Mum and Dad. A sizeable crowd gathered in a circle in our lounge room waiting for the clock to strike twelve. Large enough to require two bottles of whisky for the all-important dram.

Dad, the host, had his favoured drop – Teacher’s, a smooth malt. Uncle Bill had a bottle of traditional Bells.

Midnight announced, Auld lang Syne sung, the first foot (my dark-haired older sister, Catriona) welcomed over the door carrying the lump of coal. The bottles opened for everyone to receive ‘the water of life‘.

Half the room sipped and smiled, the other half looked sour or stunned. Mum’s Highland friend Christine McDonald blurted, ‘What’s this? Bloody water!’

Dad had finished pouring and gulped his whisky, which he immediately spat out. The room suddenly abuzz with more than Christine examining their glasses, re-tasting and then looking for a refill of ‘proper whisky.’  Thankfully, there were always plenty of bottles available at Scots/Irish gatherings.

An examination of the bottle of Teacher’s discovered in fine print “For Display purposes Only“.

Soon everyone joked about ‘bringing in the New Year with cold tea’ but my Father’s  laugh was restrained. As the host he felt deep embarrassment.

Dad had a mercurial temper at the best of times so Mum thought it wise she return the bottle when the shops reopened.

How it came to be sold a mystery never solved and the Manager of Supa Value Supermarket’s bottleshop offered apologies.  A replacement given without fully understanding the cultural significance of what my Father perceived as a Hogmanay horror story!

Mum slid into the car beside Dad, related the manager’s apologies and handed over the bottle of whisky. ‘Is this the right Teacher’s?’

‘As long as it’s not cold tea it’ll be fine,’ Dad said with a grin, removing the bottle from the brown paper bag, ‘there’s no such thing as bad scotch – just some are better than others.’ Almost immediately, his dark brown eyes lost their twinkle, the smile became a frown.

‘What the…’ he exploded, and passed the bottle back to Mum pointing to the label. In fine print it said, “For Display purposes Only”.

At least they hadn’t moved from the parking lot, but it was a less conciliatory Mum who returned the second bottle. She gave a very embarrassed manager ‘a piece of her mind’ and a lecture on shelving stock. The second replacement bottle checked and double-checked before she left the shop.

Apparently, lightning does strike twice!

A third funny memory of Hogmanay takes place back in Scotland, but this time in 1997. My girls and I stayed a few days with relatives in Kilmarnock. This was the first Scottish New Year the girls experienced (and to date, the only one!)

Thick snow lay outside and inside Valerie and Jim’s cosy house a party was in full swing. Most of Val and Jim’s friends had two or three children, all as excited as my girls at being allowed to stay up late to dance and play. All of them taking advantage of distracted adults, more relaxed than usual.

Midnight neared and a scramble to round up everyone spread throughout the house. Jim slipped out the back door with a lump of coal to first foot at the front. The bells came and went, Auld Lang Syne sung, the children transformed the circle into a jig. Few people were interested in filling their glasses, the music turned up a notch or two and happy chaos reigned.

We forgot about Jim.

No one heard the knocking at the door. John rang from England to wish us ‘happy new year’.

Suddenly,  Valerie asked where Jim had got to.

Oops!

Jim stood at the front door, teeth chattering and icicles forming on his slippers, ‘I knew you’d eventually remember, ‘ he said with an alcohol induced smile. Warm hugs all round and an extra kiss from Valerie made up for being abandoned.

Anne and Mary Jane still talk about that Hogmanay and giggle. It’s good to have a happy memory because unfortunately Valerie passed away in August 2014  after developing a rapidly progressive myeloma (bone cancer). By then she had two lovely girls of her own, heartbreakingly young to be left motherless.

Perhaps one day they’ll visit Australia and take away a happy Hogmanay memory from us.

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A final traditional Scots greeting for 2016:

Lang may yer lum reek – happiness, good health and the prosperity you seek!

Flexible Writing Forms, Write a Villanelle and Have More Poetry Fun

‘Whatever is flexible and flowing will tend to grow, whatever is rigid and blocked will wither and die.’

Lao Tzu, from the Tao Te Ching.

Farewell to 2014 and welcome to 2015. Like many people, particularly in my age group, I wonder where the year has gone and if it’s true that it disappears more quickly the older you are!

If I still lived in Scotland I’d celebrate Hogmanay in the traditional manner and in years gone by I’ve kept up several of the cultural traditions, but confess to having a quiet evening at home on New Year’s Eve, allowing my partying dark-haired daughter to bring in the lump of coal I left at the front door.

Actually, it is a briquette (a lump of compressed coal) from the family home at Croydon. Mum gave it to me to use specifically for the ‘first foot’ over the door on Hogmanay, when I moved into my own home in Mordialloc over 30 years ago.

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This time of year lends itself to reflection as well as remembering cultural quirks. Reflection is an important part of growth and change, especially for someone like me who teaches as well as writes.

  • What lessons worked, what ones didn’t inspire?
  • What writing resonated with others, when did the words fail?
  • What new methods can I try to inspire other writers?
  • What new techniques and tools will I introduce in this amazing digital age?
  • How will I grow and change as a writer forever seeking to improve and connect?

It’s no secret to those that know me that I’m passionate about writing and reading – because of course, they go hand in hand. I love sharing knowledge and encouraging others to be equally as passionate about the craft of writing and to expand their reading lists and writing repertoire. As I encourage others to move out of their writing comfort zone, so must I.

On New Year’s Eve I read a book that had me laughing aloud (good for the health) and admiring the pithy, witty, insightful and succinct use of the English language as well as the skilful political observations of many fellow Australians. Pardon me for mentioning… Unpublished Letters to The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald is a collection of letters commenting on the Aussie political scene late 2011- early 2013 that never made it to print (until now). It is unashamedly topical, but even if you missed some of the events (not sure how) the cleverness of the writers will impress you and the laid-back trademark Aussie humour abounds. After reading this book you’ll look at some of the names and wish they were regular published commentators of life here in Oz! (Although with our current PM, I’m guessing the 2014 edition will be unprintable!)

One letter writer quoted on the back cover:

If I get good service in a restaurant I usually tip 10 per cent of the bill. If the service is poor, the tip I leave to the waiter is: ‘Don’t overwater your bromeliads in winter.’        John Byrne, Randwick

My tip is don’t hold a cup of hot tea or coffee in your hand while reading this book especially in the chapter: Crimes Against the English Language. Yes, as well as being amusing, the book can be used as a learning tool – what better way to learn editing skills and original clever angles than to try and encapsulate what you want to say in the strict word limit of “Letters to the Editor”.

I’ve had several letters published in the past, but like many others, read my newspapers online now and I haven’t sent a letter for some time. However, this book has reignited interest and presented another writing challenge for 2015. When reading their statistics, they receive more than 2000 letters by email a week, plus faxes and handwritten missives, therefore to be published your letter needs to have that something extra – and isn’t that what we’d like for all our writing? I’m sure I can organise a lesson for my students to perfect letter writing and thinking positively, some will be published!

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Last year I introduced different poetic forms to my classes. I mentioned the pantoum in a previous post. After showing some examples, I challenged the class to choose a form and write a poem to suit. The results were magnificent, poignant, touching, funny – the whole gamut of emotions encapsulating life experiences.

Dreams Afloat – a pantoum

Ships on the horizon with cargo varied
Stirring memories of long ago
Migrants dreaming of homes adopted
And of lives they must let go.

Stirring memories of long ago
Ships called into ports enchanted
The passengers must let  history go
Seek new friends and spirits kindred

Ships called into ports enchanted
Exotic foods like mango and sago
Tempted passengers and spirits kindred
Amazing changes they’d undergo

Exotic foods like mango and sago
Migrants introduction to homes adopted
Aware of new seeds they must sow
From ships arriving with cargo varied.

Mairi Neil 2014

According to American poet, Conrad Geller, ‘One traditional form of poetry that can be fun to write, is technically easy compared to the most challenging forms, and often surprises the poet with its twists and discoveries…’ He refers to the villanelle and suggests the name derives from the Italian villa, or country house.

The Poetry Foundation say that it is, ‘A French verse form consisting of five three-line stanzas and a final quatrain, with the first and third lines of the first stanza repeating alternately in the following stanzas. These two refrain lines form the final couplet in the quatrain.’

Whatever its origins, a well-known example of a villanelle is Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night by Dylan Thomas. This powerful poem can be read and heard here.

My offering much simpler, but even so, I suggest a good rhyming dictionary will come in handy and should be added to your toolbox along with a normal dictionary and thesaurus. There is a free Rhyming Dictionary online here worth bookmarking if you don’t want to go to the expense of purchasing hard copy.

As Time Goes By – a villanelle

Age brings reflection on each passing year
Sometimes nostalgia like a fever burns,
Loves and lives lost, births many a tear.

Childhood remembered. Time to conquer fear
Learning that paths have many turns
Age brings reflection on each passing year.

Like an uprooted tree, farewell those dear,
The roots left behind for memory churn
Loves and lives abandoned, births many a tear.

Building a new life; opportunities near
Success or failure? You must discern
Change brings reflection on each passing year.

Time marches on, the well-worn maxim clear,
No immunity from grief, mistakes to unlearn
Loves and lives lost, births many a tear.

And when the end of the road draws near
Count blessings. Hope your life did no harm
Age brings reflection on each passing year,
Loves and lives lost, spills many a tear.

Mairi Neil 2014.

Here’s to a happy, healthy and productive 2015 where the words will continue to flow and grow!