Make ‘Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Repurpose’ Reality – Please!

hard rubbish 1

Organising topics for my Life Stories and Legacies Class this term, I was inspired by the notion that one person’s trash is another’s treasure. What makes some of us collectors or even extreme hoarders?  How does that contrast with the modern penchant for minimalism and a spate of books on decluttering?

There are popular television shows about collectors and hoarders, and government brochures with encouragement to downsize. Information about over-consumption and the need to recycle can be found in many places. And despite our ex-PM Tony Abbott’s delusions, I’ll go with expert scientists and agree climate change is affected by human pollution and behaviour.

We are at a tipping point and need to consider our carbon footprint.

Planet B Doesn’t Exist
Mairi Neil

There only is one planet Earth
and we need Plan A to save it
There is no Planet B for us to live –
no matter how eccentrics crave it!

Mountains of waste at danger level
a throwaway culture created mess
built-in obsolescence’; ‘shop ’til you drop
bad habits to abandon – let’s confess!

Less packaging to be disposed of
Less plastics that poison the sea
Less chemical interference with food
Less consumption from you and me!

More recycling goods stopped working
More repurposing products useful still
More local retail and farmers’ markets
More thoughtful behaviour, the general rule!

Think before buying or disposing
Do you really need to use a car?
Can you grow, compost, and share
homegrown food better than afar.

McMansions a blight on suburbia
and planned density now a necessity
but let’s replace lost backyards and trees
because green spaces, not a luxury!

Pollute and Perish,‘ more than a catch-cry
Climate Change promises an unpleasant fate
concerned effort and beneficial action
needed NOW  – tomorrow is really too late!

mordi p.s hens 2017.jpg

Close friends have died recently and that’s always confronting as well as heartbreaking. Friends not only die but some downsize and may move away. Nearing retirement age, I find talk is not of building, renovating or celebrating new homes, but of shedding the accumulation of years, moving into retirement villages, trying a sea or green change!

 ‘Collector’, ‘hoarder’, ‘minimalist’ transforming  abstract to reality.

What particular description or category suits me?  Hint – minimalism doesn’t get a look in, especially when it comes to books but I have been known to cull some!

Motivated by the annual hard rubbish collection, I’ve made another attempt at cleaning out the shed and other rooms in the house with the encouragement and help of my daughters.

The introspection and soul-searching traumatic as I examine everything rationally, discover long forgotten items,  unachieved dreams, good and bad experiences and try to emotionally and physically discard lots of memories with the mementoes.

old memorabalia.jpg

Memories stirred by old concert tickets, boxes of photographs, postcards, political leaflets, baggage tags and souvenirs.

It’s definitely easier to go through the wardrobe and face the fact that even if the youthful 10-12 figure returns, certain items will never be worn again.

Culture Change Needed To Face Climate Change

A report about clothes and landfill recently made me consider the habit of retail therapy, indulged in at various times.

After my mastectomy, a lot of favourite clothes were rendered useless because my cleavage disappeared, but hanging in the wardrobe are rarely worn clothes bought on impulse, or because they were a bargain.

These statistics from last year make sobering reading:

Australians buy an average of 27 kilograms of new textiles each year and then discard about 23 kilograms* into landfill  – and two-thirds of those discards are manmade synthetic/plastic fibres that may never breakdown.

Sustainability consultant Jane Milburn said Australians are the second-largest consumers of new textiles after north Americans who annually buy 37kg each, and ahead of Western Europeans at 22kg while consumption in Africa, the Middle East and India averages just 5 kg per person. These figures are sourced from north American magazine Textile World

There’s been a transformational shift in the way we source, use and discard our clothing which has major social and environmental implications. Fast fashion produced from global supply chains is driving purchasing of excessive new clothing, often discarded after a few wears

Like many people, I grew up in the era where hand-me-downs were common, mending or altering clothes, darning socks and even fixing shoes, valuable skills many parents or grandparents possessed. At school, we learnt sewing by making practical items such as aprons and pyjamas before venturing to make embroidered placemats and doilies.

Maybe it is time to return to sewing on buttons, replacing broken zips, refashioning garments and thinking twice before grabbing that sale item!

I know many friends and a lot of young people who ‘op shop’ for clothes so that’s a step in the right direction but perhaps the biggest change will come when the people who make the clothes are paid decent wages and the price will inevitably rise. Nothing like ‘the hip pocket nerve’ to drive change or a social conscious.

no sweat shop tshirt

There’s History In Old Writing

I’ve uncovered lost writing notes, scribbled poems and stories, and hard copy from computers long dead and abandoned. The poem below, written after I experienced my first ever car boot sale at Mordialloc Primary School ties in with the theme of this blog.

Car Boot Sales a popular way of raising funds. They sometimes replace the traditional school fete, and for a tiny school like Mordialloc Primary, in an era where parental volunteers are shrinking because both parents work outside the home, inviting the wider community to pay $5 – $15.00 to sell items from their ‘car boot’ is less effort and less labour intensive than organising a fete.

car boot sale.jpg

One Man’s Trash is Another Man’s Treasure
Mairi Neil (1992)

For a glimpse of our consumer society
The values some people uphold
Visit the local school’s Car Boot Sale –
And observe what’s bought and sold.

The secondhand clothes and bed linen
Some charities used to receive
Preloved stuffed toys and old hats
Perhaps all harbour nasty disease…

“Spoil Yourself” a sign above decrepit shoes
Makes you wonder at the vendor’s sanity
But no trace of humour marks his face
As he stands proudly beside the inanity!

The dealers arrive when stalls are setting-up
They rummage and poke to find treasure
Greedily grasping valuable items they spy
With their experience of commercial measure.

Mums wander around, children in tow
Conscious of a near-empty purse
Offspring demand toys, or food to eat
Whingeing children every parent’s curse.

Crafty folk proudly arrange their goods
Aware their creativity is on display
But people are hunting for bargains
Not rewarding talented work today.

A spectre-like man haunts every stall
Mr Black Moustache with checkered shirt
Tussled curly hair frames his bald patch,
Trousers reveal shoes caked with dirt.

He fills a black bag with various loot
Purchased at haggled, rock-bottom prices
Videos, cutlery, BBQ tools, chipped Esky,
Jaded jacket; a contraption for making ices!
Disappearing like steam to offload booty
Perhaps to a nearby parked car…
Returning to fossick and buy a sun lamp,
Then quibble earnestly for a pottery jar.

Suddenly, it’s anything on wheels
That catches his discerning eye –
Collapsible cot, battered suitcase,
Ironing board, old heater dragged with a tie!

Mr Checked Shirt returns again and again
Flush with an endless supply of cash
No doubt he’ll sell his purchases
Transformed treasure out of trash.

Sizzling sausages tantalise customers,
And baked potatoes scent the air
Joining musty clothes, potting mix
Perfumed spices strange and rare.

The sun drifts behind spreading cloud
The breeze from sea promises a gale
Startled stall holders little time to pack –
The fickle fortunes of a Car Boot Sale!

discarded vacuum.jpg

Do you like collecting things? Are you ever surprised by the things people pick up, collect, keep?

The annual hard rubbish collection for our area of Kingston was picked up on Tuesday, the regular rubbish collection day.

People were asked not to put items on the nature strip until October 9th, however, unsightly piles of discarded stuff gathered for weeks.

The early piles rummaged through with people taking items deemed useful.

I came across a group of tradies excited over a bunch of toy guns they’d ‘rescued’, exclaiming what good condition the collection of twenty or more was in as they divided the booty up.

plastic gun

It was the day after the horrific Las Vegas rampage and they looked sheepish when I suggested maybe the household had a rethink of the appropriateness of giving children replicas of sub-machine guns, revolvers, rifles et al.

Unfortunately, some scavengers often scatter piles leaving nature strips to resemble the aftermath of the hurricanes in recent news broadcasts.

pile of rubbish chelsea

The comforts of modern society are many but there are drawbacks aplenty

How sparingly can we live?  True minimalism, a balancing act with everyone having a different idea of what are bare essentials. 

What possessions can we reduce that will not affect the basic functionality of our lives?

It never ceases to amaze me what people throw away – wooden furniture whose only crime is being unfashionable or needing a coat of varnish or paint.

Solid sofas that could be refurbished, ubiquitous plastic toys needing a soak in hot soapy water to make almost new, and lots of small items easily disposed of via the bins provided for weekly garbage collection.

A walk around the streets at this time shows we really are a society in love with consuming. Maybe we can lose that reluctance to reduce as well as adopting reuse, recycle and repurpose.

Some would rather buy new and buy more, sucked in by the constant bombardment of advertising, lured by the bargain, and the ‘must have’ latest gear, technology, clothes, design – whatever.

Yet a quick survey of my Life Story Class and the students 

  • have a worm farm on an apartment verandah
  • wear hand-me-downs or op shop bargains
  • grow own vegetables, compost and keep chooks
  • make and repair own clothes
  • refashion, repair and repurpose clothes and accessories
  • buy organic when possible,
  • bake bread and cakes,
  • bottle fruit and make jam
  • recycle furniture,
  • take own shopping bags
  • have already downsized
  • nurture trees and plants
  • have discovered secondhand bargains

 

We may be grey-haired but in our hearts we are green!

Apparently, there is a law (although I’ve yet to hear it has been enforced) carrying a fine for taking stuff from the nature strips because piles of ‘hard rubbish’ are council property.

Others suggest councils hope scavengers will collect as much as they can leaving less for contractors to do because the cost of discarding rubbish is high.

The Council sends out a leaflet with a list of items not to be dumped – old paint and chemicals should be taken to a special recycling depot. Old fencing and building rubble are also not allowed. Yet walk around the streets and it’s as if community literacy is non-existent.

Kingston Council even has a place for old computers, televisions and other bits and pieces of technology. A quick check online shows they are not alone  – many councils and other organisations want you to recycle.

I’m glad of the hard rubbish service, especially the opportunity to be rid of white goods and mattresses – and there are always plenty of those discarded.

The safety message of removing doors from fridges and freezers still stipulated to avoid tragedy, whereby a child locks themselves inside an abandoned fridge and the interior magnetic release is broken, or absent.

Although, not many children play in the streets nowadays or have the unfettered freedom I had in childhood.

In this world of readily available toys,  a mountain of abandoned stuff is not an opportunity to explore and play make-believe games – they leave that to adults!

Council Hard Rubbish Collection 2017
Mairi Neil

Utes circling like crows,
four wheel drives and cars with trailers
dedicated kerb-crawlers…
people out walking, slow to a stroll, stop.
A hungry flock pick over the carrion.
The annual hard rubbish collection
reveals scroungers and scavengers,
is anyone immune?
Under the guise of repurposing,
and reusing, even recycling
we rummage and speculate about
the lives of others – frugality, luxury, stupidity, serendipity…
Hoping in their discarded trash,
we find a treasure!

I found various writing prompts on the subject so be inspired:

  1. Sit down in your character’s office or bedroom. Glance in the wastebasket. What’s inside? A photograph? An orange rind? A half empty bottle of whiskey? What we throw away can reveal surprising things about us. Write flash fiction describing the contents of a character’s rubbish bin and why it’s important!
  2. Discuss and write about bargain-hunting.
  3. Did rampant consumerism receive a shot in the arm with the Internet (eBay, websites like Gumtree) or does it encourage more reusing and recycling? Do you remember the days of ads in the local paper, The Trading Post, garage sales, car boot sales and Swap Meets?
  4. Do you donate everything to the Salvos or give to needy friends and family? Have you noticed a change in attitude by charity organisations?
  5. Are you ‘green’? What steps have you taken to live a sustainable lifestyle or do you think the human contribution to climate change is tosh? sculpture in lake.jpg

 

 

 

‘I Am Not Your Negro’ Not to be Missed!

i am not your ego sign front

On Sunday, September 24, I was privileged to attend ACMI for a screening of Raoul Peck’s documentary I Am Not Your Negro and the Q & A session afterwards, which featured former Kansas State Senator Donald Betts Jr and American history professor Michael Ondaatje.

A big thank you to my daughter MaryJane for buying the tickets online when the sessions were announced because tickets sold out very quickly!

The guests discussed race politics and resistance from the civil rights era to present day America and with questions from the audience, this included politics of race in Australia and our inglorious colonial past.

i am not your negro sign back

I’m not surprised the screenings were sold out at the recent Melbourne International Film Festival, or the doco was nominated for an Academy Award – it has already won several gongs at various film festivals.

Director Raoul Peck took ten years to make this and his meticulous research, editing and execution are obvious and flawless – also gut-wrenching.

The raw footage of civil rights demonstrations, lynchings, and the aftermath of murders will have you shaking your head in horror, disgust, and disbelief – yet many in the theatre, including myself, lived through what we saw on screen.

I’ve seen other documentaries and movies, braced myself for scenes Selma showcased, and yet I wasn’t prepared for the naked violence, still felt emotionally drained and traumatised that racism and all its ugliness is so endemic – and then came the anger and despair about lack of progress, or progressing too slowly for me to see change in my lifetime.

Thank goodness that alongside the screenings, ACMI will present ‘a series of thought-provoking events discussing race relations, resistance and identity in modern Australia’.

As Baldwin said, “History is not past but present.”

In the light of debates over the date of Australia Day, acknowledging the truth of colonial settlement, the horrific recent deaths of Aboriginal people (Elijah Doughty and Ms Dhu recent atrocities), high-profile cases and deaths in custody of indigenous Australians, and the entrenched inequity of our justice system, this country has many conversations and corrections long overdue!

The Black Rights Matter Movement resonates here.

People hold up banners at a Black Lives Matter rally in Sydney on July 16, 2016.Peter Parks / Getty Images         https://www.buzzfeed.com/susiearmitage/2016-was-the-year-black-lives-matter-went-global?utm_term=.bkdRGwN8KL#.eoY365ADMk

Connecting the 60s Civil Rights Movement to #BlackLivesMatter

I Am Not Your Negro brings to life Remember This House, the unfinished manuscript of American novelist and intellectual James Baldwin. He started to write the book to reflect on his belief the history of the American Negro is the history of America sharing his personal experience of racism as considered through the lens of civil rights leaders, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. Prominent American leaders all murdered within a few years of each other.  Leaders who put their lives on the line in their 20s; leaders who didn’t live beyond 40 years of age!

Baldwin wrote 30 pages and yet, as this documentary, narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, shows, his insights into the history of racism in the United States is much-needed today and should act as a call to action against injustice in modern America and beyond.

White Supremacy is ugly and brutal, and an appalling indictment of humanity. Unfortunately, with the election of Donald Trump as President white supremacists and their supporters have crawled from under their rocks and become more visible and vocal than at any other time this century.

The controversy around sportspeople protesting the unlawful killing by police revealed by #blacklivesmatter and Trump’s labelling those kneeling or linking arms while the American National anthem plays, as unpatriotic, shows the profound and deeply rooted racism Baldwin confronted and challenged, is alive and well.

There is a growing black middle-class and increased wealthy African-American ‘elites,’ but despite some markers of progress, 30% of African-Americans still live in poverty. America grew from slavery, segregation, and subjugation of its citizens and still lock people of colour up in record numbers.

In fact, former Kansas State Senator Donald Betts Jr explained that although he managed to stop racial profiling in Kansas, it exists in many states and unfortunately much of the racism in the USA is also now directed at Latinos, stirred up of course, by Trump’s insistence for that Mexican wall!

Betts asked us to imagine being black in America today, driving your car and seeing the flashing lights of a police car ordering you to stop. What goes through your mind?

Have you your insurance documents, registration papers, your licence?

The police officer approaches your car, points a flashlight in your face, searches the car interior, orders to see your identification.

Do you wind the window down straight away? Do you reach for the glovebox…

US police have already killed more than 100 people this year and overwhelmingly they have been black or native Americans.

 “Never before has Baldwin’s voice been so needed, so powerful, so radical, so visionary”

Director Raoul Peck

james baldwin book covers

Baldwin returned to the United States and became involved in the Civil Rights Movement because he felt obligated to do more than writing from afar.  The three men depicted in the struggle for civil rights are very different and chose different methods to achieve their goals. Baldwin was close to them all and when he describes where he was and how he was told about each of their deaths his grief is palpable.

Several scenes from the documentary will be forever etched in my mind:

The Evil of Segregation

The 1957 footage of a howling white mob pursuing Elizabeth Eckford, as the fifteen-year-old walked into school. She was the first African American to enter a high school desegregated by court order. What courage, what stamina, what poise!

James Baldwin and Lorraine Hansberry were with a group of activists who had a meeting with Bobby Kennedy and begged him or his brother JFK to walk with Elizabeth or at least appoint someone of high-profile from the Federal Government to go with her that first day to show that they were committed to desegregation and also to protect the teenager.

Bobby Kennedy’s response?  He refused, didn’t think it necessary… what a terrible price black Americans pay for the spinelessness of those in authority.

The idea of white supremacy rests simply on the fact that white men are the creators of civilization… and are therefore civilization’s guardians and defenders. Thus it was impossible for Americans to accept the black man as one of themselves, for to do so was to jeopardize their status as white men…

Police Brutality and Rodney King

The footage of a group of LA police officers viciously beating and kicking Rodney King for a traffic violation shocked the world. I was a young mother in 1992 and remember the horror and revulsion at the news bulletin. Yet the four police officers caught and identified on camera were later acquitted – no wonder LA erupted with anger and people rioted.

Baldwin – A Colonial Writer Who Explored His Heritage

I first encountered African American writer James Baldwin, at Croydon High School in the 1960s. His novels, essays and short stories a profound influence when newspapers and television screens of Melbourne were dominated by news of the Civil Rights Movement in America and the Vietnam War.

Baldwin made the political personal and explored questions of identity.

James Baldwin quote.jpg

His essays probed the psychic history of the United States along with his inner self. What language would his ancestors speak? How could he ever know when slaves were stripped of their identity? Who would want to accept the identity given to him by white society – that of worthlessness and inferiority?

When your identity is taken you are psychologically crushed and fear stifles your growth.

The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.

Steve Biko

Baldwin explored spirituality (particularly organised religion and the Pentecostal church), and the complex social and psychological pressures of being black in a racist America – a country he left, to escape the inter-racial tension, homophobia and demands of his social situation.

‘I’ll tell you this, though, if you don’t feel at home at home, you never really feel at home… you don’t live where you’re happy or, for that matter, unhappy: you do your best to live where you can work.

He escaped the social tenor of the United States in 1948 by moving to Paris, using funds from a Rosenwald Foundation fellowship. This journey abroad was fundamental to Baldwin’s development as an author and self-realization, which included both an acceptance of his heritage and an admittance of his bisexuality.

“Once I found myself on the other side of the ocean, I could see where I came from very clearly, and I could see that I carried myself, which is my home, with me. You can never escape that. I am the grandson of a slave, and I am a writer. I must deal with both.”

Go Tell It On The Mountain was published 1953, the year I was born; Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone, published the year Martin Luther King was assassinated, and Baldwin’s acclaimed critical essays, Notes of a Native Son first published 1955.

These books opened my eyes to conflict (racial, gender, domestic, internal), pain (physical and emotional), anguish, poverty, injustice, and intolerance — mostly an alien world to me, yet Baldwin’s storytelling influenced my lifelong commitment to social justice and to give ordinary people a voice by writing about them and encouraging them to tell their stories.   

He also made me realise it is important we tell our own stories. 

The story of my childhood is the usual bleak fantasy… I certainly would not consider living it again… One writes out of one thing only – one’s own experience. Everything depends on how relentlessly one forces from this experience the last drop, sweet or bitter, it can possibly give…being a Negro writer… I was, in effect, prohibited from examining my own experience too closely by the tremendous demands and the very real dangers of my social situation…I think all theories are suspect, that the finest principles may have to be modified, or may even be pulverized by the demands of life, and that one must find, therefore, one’s own moral center and move through the world hoping that this center will guide one aright…

But it is part of the business of the writer – as I see it – to examine attitudes, to go beneath the surface, to tap the source…

James Baldwin

Born in 1924 to parents who were part of the Diaspora of the descendants of freed slaves who moved north seeking work and a better life, Baldwin chronicles the Black American experience and much of his writing is autobiographical.

‘The nationality of any literature is, at least partly, determined by the language in which it is produced.

Baldwin was the first Black writer I read as opposed to reading novels about Black Americans. (A Patch of Blue and To Kill A Mockingbird two that spring to mind.)

One of the difficulties about being a Negro writer… is that the Negro problem is written about so widely… It is not only written about so widely; it is written about so badly… the past will remain horrible for exactly as long as we refuse to assess it honestly…

Focusing on the personal and interior of black life, he accepted he was part of the Western literary canon:

Be it also remembered that America was a British colony, that I was born in the English language have a British name, and speak as the descendant of the slave of a subject.”

His novels embody startling realism bringing Harlem and the black experience vividly to life.  They touch the heart with emotion while stimulating the mind with a narrative style reminiscent of Dickens, symbolism, and excoriating vision of racism in America.

Moving through time from the rural  South to the northern ghetto, starkly contrasting the attitudes of two generations of an embattled family, Go Tell It On The Mountain is an unsurpassed portrayal of human beings caught up in a dramatic struggle and of a society confronting inevitable change.

However, Baldwin did not feel that his speeches and essays were producing social change. The assassinations of three of his associates, Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X, shattered his remaining hopes for racial reconciliation and his disillusionment is obvious in the documentary.

Don’t Let Them Divide And Conquer

During the Q and A, former Senator Donald Betts Jr talked about his lived experience of the change Baldwin foresaw.

Born in Wichita, Kansas, his political career began in his early 20s when he was elected president of the Multicultural Student Association becoming the first African-American student body president in the University’s history.

Inspired by Barack Obama, he ran for the Kansas State House of Representatives for the Democrats leading a grassroots campaign to better serve and address the needs of his community. Elected at the age of 24, Betts steered a number of successful campaigns to decrease community incarceration rates by setting up a rehabilitation program for first-time drug offenders.

In 2004, he was sworn in as a Kansas State Senator, the youngest Senator serving in the history of Kansas. There was only one other black senator – David Haley, the nephew of the author, Alex Haley, who wrote Roots and started a worldwide interest in genealogy. he told Donald they had to stick together, refuse to be separated by seating and although only two they were powerful.

Donald now lives in Melbourne and is a frequent guest commentator on the ABC, and other local Australian media outlets.

 

outside ACMI after film.jpg
Continuing the discussion after the screening

 

Australians can learn from this documentary; it will help to understand the current crises around race in the USA and help with perspective as well as context.

We need to confront our colonial past and the unfairness of the present. The silence of the white majority regarding indigenous rights, black deaths in custody, and government policies like the Northern Territory intervention, is appalling.

Why don’t we have a treaty? Why hasn’t there been Constitutional reform?

There is irrefutable evidence of institutional and culturally embedded racism. A recent report shows 1 in 5 Australians experienced racism and the rise of One Nation and increase of support for neo-nazi patriot groups should concern us all.

Much of racism is subtle – read this report in our local paper this week:

newspaper clipping Mordialloc robbery

An “African” is mentioned but not the nationality or ethnicity of the teenagers who robbed the shop earlier. Where’s the consistency? And unless a more detailed description, where’s the relevance?

We need to raise it up, we need to fight and to shout, but we also need to bring it down, to talk and to listen in order to make change”

Donald Betts Junior

A good first step is to read Australian indigenous writers – and we have many – from the past (personal favourites  Jack Davis and Oodgeroo Noonuccal ) and also the present.
James Baldwin said: Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.
Listening to and reading others imperative – and then
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Time Traveller – Over Sixty, Solo and Sanguine

travel diary cover.jpg

I returned to work on Tuesday and of course, my writing students wanted to know how my trip went likewise friends and family.

I’ve been overseas for 96 days – a whole term – and as I return to timetables and responsibilities the best way of sharing such an amazing trip is writing about it.

The reflections won’t be chronological or a travelogue but flashbacks and memories in the form of anecdotes, poems and essays. They’ll be triggered by words, sounds, smells, tastes, events, people, postcards and photographs (I took too many!) and whatever else inspires me.

the-world-is-a-book-researching-your-novel-use-Google-Maps-242x300.jpg

Where did I Go? 

  • I flew to Mongolia and travelled the Trans Siberian Railway to Helsinki and then London – a journey that’s been on my bucket list for years.
  • I visited family and old friends in England staying in London, Cirencester in the Cotswolds and Colchester, another town with strong links to Roman times. I spent time in Barnes, Bath, Bibury, Burford and Bourton-0n-The-Water and other places with names beginning with a different letter of the alphabet!
  • I visited friends and family in Scotland:  Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Renton and Cardross and surrounding localities like Inverurie, Loch Lomond, Loch Carron, Rhu, Helensburgh, Oban, Plockton, Inverness, Culloden and Falkirk.
  • I visited the Isles of Skye and Arran researching family history and revisiting my own past.
  • I toured Orkney and  Shetland islands -to cross another item off my bucket list.
Nick's drawing for me
A gift to me from Nick, a young tattoo artist my daughter met in London.  Born in France, Mexican mother, father unknown, he considers himself a citizen of the world. The words “where do we come from”  poignant and his talent awesome.

Why?

I could be flippant and say ‘why not?’ however, that wouldn’t be helpful writing this blog post or to those reading it.

Fulfilling several travel dreams high on the list of answers.

(I blame my father for my wanderlust. He bought a set of Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopaedias when I was seven years old. The ten volumes captivated and fascinated. Reading chapters sowed seeds of restlessness and cultivated a desire for knowledge and adventure. )

Arthur Mee's Chidren's Encyclopedia.jpg

I like challenging myself to ignore limits of ageing and osteoarthritis and I wanted to regain the confidence lost after my mastectomy.  As my baggage label announced ‘adventure before dementia’ – the fear of that disease ever-present since my Dad’s diagnosis and death.

Life had become predictable and enthusiasm for writing projects disappeared. I feared my teaching was stale. A change was needed,  echoing Gough Whitlam’s campaign, it was time.

Time to introduce some excitement, step into the unknown, travel to different time zones, open up to new experiences and ways of thinking.

Ignore the negativity and prove to myself and others that the world has more people with good intentions and good in their hearts than the constant sensational news reports would have us believe.

Iona Dawn photo Joce watson.jpg

How To Survive Strange Beds

Mairi Neil July 2017

‘to sleep perchance to dream…’

Toss and turn, turn and toss
an uncomfortable trampoline
too narrow mattress  or oversized
tangled in unfamiliar sheets
repress a tortured scream
as thoughts unbidden creep
a monstrous murky mist
is the bedding clean?

Facebook flickers, Twitter tweets,
parading a plague of bed bugs
supported by a stream of
suited and serious newsreaders
backdropped by dinosaur-sized bugs
horror story feeders
hidden cameras reveal
cleaners who don’t clean.

Visa-less suitcases
dragged internationally
passport checks evaded
no fear of armed border guards
x-ray machines and scanners
no match for expert subterfuge
who sees intestinal worms
bed bugs, or flea circuses?

Counting sheep to sleep
but head hits
brick pillow or fluffy mountain
Never an in-between
too hot  too cold  too salty
the cultural story we know
Air-conditioning? Heater? Open window?
Ah, fresh air!

Silence is golden
until jet engines roar
jumbled voices amplify
motor mayhem, frequent footsteps
a cacophony of chaos
thin walls, rattling doors
barking dogs prowling cats
jet-lagged overactive brain…

Insomnia insinuates interrupts
imagines home
the comfort zone of relaxation
to sleep perchance to dream
of travel!

I wrote this poem in class after an example in an 11-part primer on writing contemporary poetry, available online from Mslexia Magazine.

Your subject will never be new – it’s all been done before. But a contemporary poem must offer a fresh take on its theme. You need to surprise your reader and force them to look at the world in a new way. You can do this by creating some frisson in your language, with a startling metaphor or unusual syntax. Or you can approach the topic from an oblique or unexpected angle.

Linda France, Mslexia’s Poetry Advisor 1999-2005

I’m not sure if I succeeded the way Linda France would approve but one of the complaints/comments made to me and by me was having to adjust (or not) to ‘strange’ beds. And one of the wonderful delights of returning home was the familiarity and comfort of my own bed where of course I dream of travelling!

It may be a first world problem or middle-class obsession but the fear of ‘picking up something’, whether it’s skin irritations, tinea or gastro, a common topic of conversation among seasoned travellers and casual tourists.

I exploited these fears in my poem, however, I never had to worry at any time in my recent travels despite sharing berths on trains and ferries, sleeping in a Mongolian ger, a Russian homestay, and a variety of hostels and hotels.

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Plenty of mattresses and pillows to get used to and I’m grateful for my osteopath’s muscle massaging technique since I returned.  It helps my body get over the inevitable tossing and turning in strange beds and the hauling, lifting, packing and unpacking of luggage during the last three months.

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 Poetry With A Purpose

We’re doing poetry this term at Godfrey Street as we prepare to create the annual calendar where writers respond to the work of artists at the House.

Although the calendar requires haiku or terse verse, other forms of poetry will be studied and attempted as we learn the techniques of the craft: style, imagery, lines, punctuation, rhyme, rhythm, sound, stanza, subject, title and voice.

Your Turn To Write – We Tried This In Class

Adapted from an exercise recommended by Linda France:

  • Think of something you’d like to do. Choose an activity with various stages or metaphorical layers:
    fall out of love, learn to love, find a new hobby, learn to fly like a bird, swim with dolphins, exercise in a pool, sing in a choir, sing in the shower, dance with strangers, dance like no one is watching, dance through life, meditate, lose weight, save the world, cope with bad service, use public transport, recognise happiness…

■ Give your poem a title of the form ‘How to…’ (fall out of love, swim,
etc.) and write a set of instructions, addressing the reader directly and guiding them through the process, or an experience – or whatever you want to do. This is your poem, just be authentic.
■ Use everyday language, but avoid clichés.
■ Focus closely and include lots of physical detail. Think strong VERBS, concrete NOUNS.
■ Include some reported speech.

Have fun and challenge yourself, like I did writing a poem about an aspect of travel. When I was on Orkney I discovered a wonderful photographer and poet, Edwin Rendall.

Edwin’s work appears on cards and bookmarks and this short verse coupled with his photography I particularly love – perhaps with practice, I’ll be able to create something similar to convey my memories.

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Hidden Figures – A Review

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I went to a special screening of the film Hidden Figures at the Nova Cinema Sunday night.

Hidden Figures celebrates the African-American women whose calculations enabled the Moon landings, and were then forgotten for 40 years. All profits from the event go to Unite for Reproductive and Gender Equality (URGE), an organisation led by women of colour that fights for reproductive justice in poor, and particularly black, communities. It is on the front line of the struggle against Trump. This is the first of hopefully many events to raise funds for those resisting the right-wing tide.

The event raised $1500 – a great achievement because it was organised at short notice and solely through social media. It didn’t take long to fill the cinema.

NASA’s “Colored Computers”

Hidden Figures is entertaining, empowering, and an all round excellent film. And as most of the advertising hype suggests, it is a story long overdue in the telling, focusing on the journey of three clever women: Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson.

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I consider myself well-read and I have a double history major, yet I never knew about the “colored computers” as they were referred to by NASA.

Before IBM mainframes took over NASA’s number-crunching duties, the organization’s “computers” wore skirts. While an all-male team of engineers performed the calculations for potential space travel, women mathematicians checked their work, playing a vital role at a moment when the United States was neck-and-neck with (and for a time, running behind) the Soviets in the space race.

In tandem with the space race between America and Russia is the burgeoning and increasingly effective civil rights movement. Clips from real life news broadcasts and newspaper headlines are shown and there is some re-enactment of protests, but the film’s focus is detailing the achievements of three women who were crucial to the success of NASA’s program. They also trail-blazed for not only African-American rights but rights for all women to be treated as intelligent as their male counterparts.

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The Evils of Segregation

The film, set in the early 1960s shows the struggle for desegregation being fought state by state. Like Apartheid South Africa, coloured people are barred, separated, and herded by the predominant white authorities:

  • coloured drinking fountains,
  • coloured waiting rooms,
  • coloured toilets,
  • coloured canteens
  • coloured offices,
  • coloured counters in cafes and shops,
  • and of course coloured seats at the back of the bus despite the brave actions of Rosa Parkes.

This segregation appalling when seen on the screen, especially regarding the effect on innocent children. It’s almost impossible to understand what it must have been like – and it is not that long ago!

Thank goodness we have films like Hidden Figures and Selma to remind us of our common humanity and the evils of bigotry and hate.

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

At NASA’s Langley, in the 1940s and 1950s, the women were split into two pools – the East computing unit for white women, and the West computing unit for black women. This segregation a requirement of Virginia state law that continued into the 1960s.

The three African-American women heroes were crusaders for both feminism and civil rights in segregated Virginia and helped put an American into orbit, which ultimately led to America beating Russia in the race to put a man on the moon.

NASA at least recognised the ability of women to work in the field, but in 1962 the “colored computers” were not afforded the same rights or treated with the same respect as their white male colleagues.

The detailing of overt and ingrained racism some of the most powerful and poignant scenes in the movie. Although the focus is always on the contribution and efforts to achieve a successful launch into space, the three women challenge and defeat prejudice and unfairness in the workplace.

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Dorothy Vaughan, played by Octavia Spencer, was the first black supervisor in charge of West Computing and is one of the main characters in the film.  One of the first computer programmers when tasks from the engineers came in, she would allocate the work and show her team what they needed to do. Her ingenuity and intelligence and determination to be ahead of the game and yet protect her team, absolutely awesome.

She often goes toe to toe with her white manager, Vivian played to condescending perfection by Kirsten Dunst who has a face you itch to slap. As a woman, Vivian recognises discrimination yet refuses to accept her own attitude and behaviour as racist, not supporting Dorothy’s right to the title and pay of supervisor and saying such lines as:

“Y’all should be thankful you have jobs at all”

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Katherine Johnson played in the film by Taraji P. Henson, was a brilliant geometry expert who worked as a human computer – a person who computes – she was a child prodigy and calculated the trajectory for Alan Shepard, the first American in space.

In the film, there is also a scene where astronaut John Glenn asks for Katherine to check the calculations for returning safely to earth before he gets into the spacecraft.

NASA’s chief historian, Bill Barry, explains that the film, which has been nominated for a slew of awards, depicts many real events from their lives. “One thing we’re frequently asked,” he says, “is whether or not John Glenn actually asked for Katherine Johnson to ‘check the numbers.'” The answer is yes: Glenn, the first American in orbit and later, at the age of 77, the oldest man in space, really did ask for Johnson to manually check calculations generated by IBM 7090 computers (the electronic kind) churning out numbers at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

Though the film shows Glenn asking for Johnson’s approval from the launch pad, she was actually called in well before the launch. Calculating the output for 11 different variables to eight significant digits took a day and a half. Her calculations matched the computer’s results exactly. Not only did her conclusions give Glenn and everyone else confidence in the upcoming launch, but they also proved the critical computer software was reliable.

When she is transferred into the all white domain in the West Computing Wing the tension and underlying resentment from one male worker, Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons plays the stereotypical subdued white collar racist to perfection)  is palpable. It is the scenes in the operational room before and during the space launches that provide the most tension in the movie.

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Mary Jackson, played by Janelle Monae, was a mathematician and aerospace engineer. She petitions a judge to let her take the necessary night courses in the all-white high school that will allow her to apply for an open engineering position at NASA.

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Hidden Figures is based on a book by Margot Lee Shetterly: Hidden Figures, The Untold Story of the African-American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race, a TIME magazine top 10 nonfiction book of 2016.

We’ve had astronauts, we’ve had engineers—John Glenn, Gene Kranz, Chris Kraft. Those guys have all told their stories. Now it’s the women’s turn.

Margot Lee Shetterly

There is plenty of humour in the film as well as a great soundtrack. The fashions – from beehive 60s hairdos to colourful and impractical stilettos and skirts and cardigans detailed to perfection to brighten the sets. There are classic gas guzzling cars too.

Real footage of the times from speeches by JFK, shots of Dr Martin Luthor King Jr, and scenes of space launch successes and disasters all used to good effect in the film.

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Two days after the United States announced its intention to launch an artificial satellite, on July 31, 1956, the Soviet Union announced its intention to do the same.

Sputnik 1 was launched on October 4, 1957, beating the United States and stunning people all over the world.

  • October 4, 1957, First artificial satellite – First signals from space Sputnik 1
  • November 3, 1957, First dog in orbit ( Laika) Sputnik 2
  • April 12, 1961, First human spaceflight (Yuri Gagarin)

The footage of the Russian efforts as reported by world news reminded me of my Dad singing a ditty about Yuri Gargarin. Britain wasn’t that involved with the space race and so the Russian success was probably looked upon with more admiration on Scotland’s side of the Atlantic!

YURI GAGARIN

Chorus
Oh dear, Yuri Gagarin,
He flew tae the moon when it looked like a farthing,
He said tae the boys at the moment of parting
“Ah’m juist gaun away for the Fair”

Now inside the ship he lay down like a hero,
The doors were sealed up and the countdown was near-o
Ten-nine-eight-seven-six-five-four-three-two-one-zero
An Yuri went up in the air

Now when he took off he was shook tae the marra
He circled the poles and he saw the Sahara,
He gave them a wave as he passed over Barra
The day he went up in the air

Now when he went up it was just aboot dawning,
The time when the rest of the world wis still yawning
Then Yuri returned to the land he wis born in
Withoot even turning a hair

When he came tae London they tried the saft pedal,
A wee bowler hat and a rolled-up umbreddle
But the foundrymen went an’ they struck him a medal
An gied it tae him at the fair

This song is in praise of the first man to go into space and orbit the earth, the Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, on 12th April 1961.

The song was written in the vernacular by Glasgow actor and writer Roddy McMillan to the tune of ‘Johnny’s So Long At The Fair’ and has been published in a collection of traditional and new Scots songs as a resource for primary schools, Gallus Publishing  Great Britain, 2013.

Praise Long Overdue

Hidden Figures acknowledges the commitment of all those involved in the pioneer space program, including for the first time the contributions of the African-American mathematicians, engineers and computing experts.

Poetic licence sees the sequence of real events compressed and Kevin Costner plays the head of the Space Task group with dramatic flair, along with his crewcut, conservative collar and tie, and constant gum chewing; he’s a man of the times.

This is an important movie and it will trigger many memories for baby boomers – most of us were sent home from school in 1969 to watch Neil Armstrong walk on the moon. In many of my writing classes that day looms large in memory but I guarantee no one knew about the amazing Hidden Figures.

I hope you enjoy the film as much as I did. I’ll leave you with an apt quote from the first man to go into space…

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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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Who Will Be In The Class of 2017?

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Mordialloc Neighbourhood House

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

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

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

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

And the practice apparently has proven health benefits!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Six Degrees of Separation – 2003

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sandybeach To Mordialloc

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Introduction to the Class of ’05

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2017 Here We Come

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

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

Laura Leigh Clarke

 

People and Places from the Past Inspires Prose

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

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

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

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

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

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

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me with Papa 1955

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

John Lennon

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

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

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

WATER

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

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

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

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

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

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A Soothing Sunday Soaking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why did he refuse to dress properly for the Reverend?

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

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

What was Papa thinking?

To treat the minister as if he was a nobody…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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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Vale Amelia Auckett – Artist, Writer, Film Maker

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On Thursday, along with my friend Barbara Davies, I travelled to San Remo to attend Amelia’s funeral. The journey, by public transport, took 2 hours and 58 minutes: first a train to Frankston, a bus  to Cranbourne and then V-line coach to San Remo.

Others attended from further afield: Gippsland, Healesville, and Ballarat. A measure of the lives Amelia touched; her influence and legacy, and the high esteem in which she was held.

Although she has lived for over twenty years in Parkdale, Amelia was born in San Remo and has strong family connections there.  Her sons John and Paul, felt it fitting she be buried where she was born and grew up – her life a full circle!

The wake held at Amelia’s childhood home which is now occupied by a niece.

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When Barbara and I stepped off the coach directly opposite the little wooden church of St Augustine, I gasped.  My eyes immediately drawn to the empty silver-grey hearse across the road. ‘Amelia must be already there,’ I whispered to Barbara.

Each grief reminds you of a previous one and flashes of other funerals and other hearses came to mind. Despite the warmth of a wonderful spring sun I felt chilled.

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The deep azure sky mirrored in the blue sea stretching to Phillip Islandpromised a day of brilliant sunshine. A day for enjoying the beach not attending a funeral.

As I watched the traffic speed by and cross the bridge I wondered how many gave even a second glance to the little church gleaming white in a new coat of paint, belying its 110 years of weathering the storms from the sea, and the countless upheavals of the hundreds of families in attendance over the century or more, of its service to the township.

Amelia was one of my writing students, first at Sandybeach Centre and latterly Mordialloc Neighbourhood House. For many years she attended Readings By The Bay, the public readings by Mordialloc Writers’ Group,  often referred to as ‘The Prom lady’ because Wilson’s Promontory, a place she loved, was the subject of so many of her poems and stories.

Asked to read some of her poetry at the service I, of course, included The Spirit of The Prom. I can recall the day she wrote it in class and the discussion we had about the Aboriginal spirit  Loo-Errn .

Spirit Of The Prom
Amelia Auckett 2004

I am the Prom
A sacred place
A place I love

Walking to Lilly Pilly Gully
On Christmas Day
Cicadas a symphony of sound
Piercing our ears

Yellow-tailed black cockatoos
Feasting on banksia seeds
Forest ravens dancing
Crimson rosellas a splash of colour

Mount Oberon, a guardian
Mount Bishop presiding over the Prom
Kangaroos, wallabies, wombats and emus
Ranging free

Rocks singing
Wind bending the trees
Eleven rainbows viewed from Pillar Point
Within the space of an hour

I am the ocean
Its roaring sound
As breakers run up the beach
Then a soft sigh as they sink back to the sea
Oystercatchers scour the seashore

I am the silence
I am one with Loo-errn
The Spirit of the Prom

A kookaburra laughs

 

The Artist and the Nurse

Amelia was also a prolific artist and belonged to the Mentone-Mordialloc Art Group for several years and even mounted her own art exhibition. Her sons displayed many of her framed works at the church and invited everyone to take one or two pieces as mementoes.

A lovely gift to mourners who will now have a permanent keepsake – I chose a Prom painting but also one from Amelia’s time trekking in Nepal – another period of her life she shared with us in class.

When I went into the Tarkine wilderness, Amelia gave me the backpack she used when travelling ‘I won’t be needing it anymore,’ she said, ‘the Prom’s far enough for me to travel.’

 

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A gift from Amelia when I was going through chemo

 

Amelia’s son, Paul gave the eulogy and his voice reflected the pride in his mother’s achievements which include nursing, writing, painting, music and filmmaking. Her nursing career took her to Central Australia and Canada, and for 25 years she was the Maternal and Child Health nurse at Frankston, Victoria.

Extract From Amelia’s Memoir

When people look at me they see a Miss Marple type. A woman with wisdom gained over the years and a person with knowledge, a love for, and understanding of people. They are not surprised I decided to be a nurse when ten years old. After all, my mother was the Matron of the Deniliquin Hospital in NSW before she married at thirty-two. My eldest sister Mary was two years into her nursing training at the Austin Hospital, Heidelberg, Victoria. Nursing was in the family.

At the age of sixteen in June 1945, I started a twelve months Cadet Nursing course at the Eye and Ear Hospital, East Melbourne. It was an eventful year. The Americans dropped an Atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima on August 6th and a second bomb on the city of Nagasaki on August 9th. The cities were flattened, thousands of people died.

On August 15th 1945 the war in the Pacific ended when the Japanese surrendered. A large group of nurses, from the Hospital, including me, joined thousands of people in Swanston and Collins streets outside the Town Hall that evening, in joyful celebration. We hugged strangers, and each other, We danced, laughed and cried, feeling a great sense of relief. Shouts of, ‘The war is over!’ ‘Peace at last!’ rang out.

We look at older people and what do we see? Who do we see? When they share their stories, or others share them at milestone celebrations or funerals, it is surprising what historical events they have witnessed, what skills they have learned, and their achievements.

When she left an unhappy marriage, Amelia worked hard as a single mother in a time when divorce and single parenting did not have the understanding or support from society like they have today.

Always breaking new ground, she published a book and DVD on Baby Massage. This has been translated into many languages and is a standard fixture in Maternal and Child Health centres throughout Australia. She also wrote music and produced songs as lullabies and for relaxation. Her sons are proud of their mother’s many talents, achievements and unique gifts.

When I was diagnosed with breast cancer and undergoing chemotherapy, Amelia came once a week and massaged my bald head and shoulders. She meditated with me – a peaceful interlude encouraging calm reflection and relaxation, and to focus on healing.

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Claire from Ballarat told me how Amelia mentored her and other infant nurses. Claire helped update the baby massage book for Amelia when Infant Welfare clinics were rebranded. She said the baby massage book was revolutionary and innovative.

I remember using the technique with my daughters who were born in the 80s and how thrilled I was when Amelia joined my writing class in the 90s – although it took me a while to make the connection!

Amelia’s son, John has established a website for people to access Amelia’s work, including his mother reading two poems that he set to music. This recording was played during the service. No shuffling feet or rustling papers disturbed Amelia’s soft rhythmic tones as they filled the room.  The Prayer of Thanksgiving followed, accompanied by a whispering sea breeze through the open side door.

Staring at the pine coffin adorned with a gorgeous display of flowers in various shades of purple, Amelia’s favourite colour, it was difficult to comprehend I wouldn’t see her again.

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On the way to the cemetery, Amelia’s nephew Sam pointed out various places Amelia mentioned in her poems and talked with affection about her affinity with the Prom and her love of the natural environment.

San Remo cemetery is high on a hill with magnificent views as it overlooks the township and the sea. Prime real estate – the pioneers who chose the spot, chose well!

Amelia is descended from the famous Andersons of San Remo and was very proud of her connection to Scotland. Their graves are nearby.

 

On the way to the wake, Sam stopped at Amelia’s favourite beach and as I stood and listened to the lapping of gentle waves I remembered the stories Amelia told of growing up when San Remo was a fishing village, and how calm waters could also be treacherous. The sea claimed the lives of two of her brothers, including her twin.

 

Extract From Amelia’s Memoir

The beach was our playground. In the summer, June, Sam and I swam in the warm water, then lay on our towels on the warm sand, sheltered from the southerly breeze behind clumps of marram grass, in the sand dunes. We floated on our backs in the waters of the fast flowing flood tide, on the beach side of the sandbar, starting from opposite our house, then floated down to the pier. We would then walk back to our starting point and float down to the pier again, again and again. It was pure magic, like floating on air in another world.

Many years later, when our mother died, June and I stayed in her home ‘The Haven’ for a few days clearing the house. During that time we swam at the beach and floated down to the pier, again and again, capturing magical moments from our childhood.

As children we played houses on the beach, creating large rooms divided by very small sand walls, leaving gaps for doors and windows We gathered green lettuce seaweed and shellfish for make-believe food. In the cool weather, we took long walks around the beach, collecting shells and seeing sea anemones and small fish in rock pools.

I loved the space, the freedom, the sun, the blue skies, the glistening clear blue sea, the stormy days and the fun.

The Haven, an appropriate name for Amelia’s family home and after a scrumptious afternoon tea provided by the ladies of the church I was grateful Claire offered to drop Barbara and me home saving us a long wait (the return coach left at 7pm!) and a circuitous trip to Mordialloc.

Amelia never returned to class in July because she fell and fractured her hip but up until then, despite failing health she came by taxi every Monday morning and always gave me a hug when she left, saying, ‘Thank you for a lovely class.’

Hugs were a signature of any encounter with Amelia – I’ll miss them!

 

 

 

 

Life Doesn’t Have to Be A Gamble

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

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

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

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

Here is an article from our local paper this month:

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

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

View from the Window

Mairi Neil

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Tasmanian independent MP Senator Andrew Wilkie

Crowning Glory
Mairi Neil

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

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

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

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

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

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

A lot of ifs and buts in that dream…

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

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

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

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

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

 

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