Writing Wellness Into Habits To Improve Health

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

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

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

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

Dr Caroline West

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

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

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

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Brush with celebrity – me with Dr Caroline West

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

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

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

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

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

Yet, her lovely smile and enthusiasm never waned.

An Interesting Intro

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

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

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

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

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

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

Caroline’s mantra:

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

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

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

WE HAD TO STAND UP AND MOVE.  

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

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

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

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

Universal Themes For Good Health

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

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

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

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

Inspiring People To Live Well

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

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

a goal without a plan is just a wish

We Took A Lifestyle Health Quiz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Q: Who volunteers in the community?

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

SURVEY ON RETIREMENT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Q: Who exercises regularly?

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

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

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

  • Fitness makes you feel energetic, positive and confident.

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

  • Make it specific and get started.

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

Creating Rituals To Anchor Our Health

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

Early Morning
Mairi Neil (1992)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Walking In The Evening
Mairi Neil (1992)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Little Steps Rather Than A Grand Gesture

Q. Why do New Year Resolutions fail?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Studies asking what people want as they age revealed:

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

 

CAROLINE’S CASE STUDY:

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

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

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

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

Imagine where you want to be in 5 years time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Today we live longer because of:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

POSITIVES:

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

NEGATIVES:

Chronic disease is affected by lifestyle factors:

  • cancers 71%

  • stroke 70%

  • heart attack 87%

  • diabetes 91%

CAROLINE’S TAKEAWAY:

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

Think of 3Fs:

  • feet,
  • fork,
  • foregoing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Activity trackers

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

Think of exercise as an opportunity, not an inconvenience

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

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

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

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THE BUS EXPERIMENT

In England they did an experiment with workers:

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

Conclusion:

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

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

Sitting is the new smoking

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

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

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

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HOW DOES AUSTRALIA COMPARE WITH OTHER COUNTRIES?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DALAI LAMA & DESMOND TUTU

 

Walk, Talk And Listen – While The Children Tell Their Stories

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Mornington

Last week I received an email from the Arts Centre informing me that “we have another community engagement project at Arts Centre Melbourne that you might be interested in being part of called The Walking Neighbourhood.”

I was definitely interested! Especially if it turns out to be as entertaining and satisfying as Dominoes, my last community volunteering effort.

The two poetry books I published in the 1990s were inspired by my daughters and their friends, so how wonderful to see the world from the viewpoint of current young people. Primary children through to adolescents will be involved – what a privilege to hear their interests,  concerns, imagination and ideas first hand unfiltered by what the media portrays and assumes.

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THE WALKING NEIGHBOURHOOD

In The Walking Neighbourhood, young people take the lead and give you the opportunity to experience life through their eyes as they take you on a unique guided tour of Melbourne’s Arts Precinct. In a series of short walks, you will be taken on a one-of-a-kind exploration of the places and stories that they think are most important.

 This project is community based and is a wonderful opportunity to give children and young people a voice in sharing their ideas and perspective on their neighbourhoods and cities. Children and youth have the capacity to transform a space with their vivid imaginations, their bright and bubbly energy and their ability to think creatively approaching situations from completely different perspectives.

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It is a sad fact that modern children, particularly those who live in the city and suburbs, don’t have the freedom I remember from childhood. Rarely do you see children playing in the street or local park like we did when there were fewer cars and before ‘stranger danger’ instilled fear into so many communities. Fear of children being molested, attacked or kidnapped prevents many families letting children explore or play independent of adults.

Fewer children walk to and from school without parental supervision and exploring unfamiliar places without an adult in attendance is rare.

This intergenerational project the Arts Centre Melbourne has arranged appealed to me because it is a unique opportunity.

Ironically, the children participating in this project will have an adult volunteer like me with them, but we will be stage managers and prop carriers if need be, to be directed by the children. We’ll help them present what they want as they lead the walk and share their stories.

Conceived during residencies with Mammalian Diving Reflex in 2 schools, Tasmania Australia and Toronto Canada, where 11 year olds shared very similar concerns about their lack of autonomy, The Walking Neighbourhood responds to the rising hysteria around children in public space and their safety.

In Melbourne, The Walking Neighbourhood will take place next weekend, Saturday June 4 and Sunday June 5 and my shifts are in the afternoon from 1pm – 4pm. It is a free event and from what I understand from attending an induction evening, there will be more than 100 children involved. This will be the most ambitious program the resident artists and local helpers have tackled since the concept’s inception in 2010.

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On Friday afternoon, I went into the Arts Centre to help make craft items for the event. A space in the Arts Centre will be the launching point for the walks but also a place where adults and children alike  can participate in making craft, interact and get to know each other.

Judy, Nalika and myself were given the task of making God’s Eyes – a simple task if any of us could remember how to do them! A quick Google search and memories were jogged.

The Internet is indeed amazing, but we could have done with a child to show us instead of searching for a strong enough signal to watch a Youtube demonstration.  For a moment we wished we were outside painting with some of the other volunteers!

I have another session this Thursday night where I’ll be working with some of the teenagers on another craft activity – let’s hope it’s one I can do!

I’ve practised at home and made a few more God’s Eyes and just hope I don’t forget the skill for the workshops on the weekend!

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Practice makes perfect.

Working with the volunteers and visiting artists and having a coffee and cake together in the cafe allows us to share our stories and is one of the delightful pluses of these community projects.

I also love the opportunity of seeing the city at different times and in different seasons.

In a couple of my writing classes we have been writing Triolets again and I wrote one on the train home from the Arts Centre on Friday afternoon while thinking of being there late on Tuesday evening and reflecting on what a difference light makes and how it can effect beauty and mood.

Marvellous Melbourne
Mairi Neil

Marvellous Melbourne, majestic and beautiful
Breathtaking reminder of how lucky we are
Of all the world’s cities, you are the most liveable
Marvellous Melbourne, majestic and beautiful
Caught in your spell, my obsession not curable
Strolling Southgate’s walkways, beneath sun or star
Marvellous Melbourne, majestic and beautiful
Breathtaking reminder of how lucky we are

Melbourne Arts Precinct, vibrant and alive
Tourists and locals add culture and mood
Walk Princes Bridge, there is no need to drive
Melbourne Arts Precinct, vibrant and alive!
Yarra River rippling, entrancing – life thrives
Stalls, dancing, busking, a variety of food
Melbourne Arts Precinct, vibrant and alive
Tourists and locals add culture and mood.

 

I can appreciate the beauty of this part of Melbourne regardless of the time of day – what about you?

Have you ever been inspired to capture your love of Melbourne or another city in verse?

 

Aware of Bravery and Courage but who Determines these Expectations of Living?

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This past week the media was saturated with talk, film, interviews and documentaries about bravery, especially in relation to ANZAC Day. I thought a lot about a relative cut down in his youth (19years old) and buried far from home.

 This week too,  we discussed in some of my classes that bravery and courage comes in many forms. I asked students to take the writing prompt COURAGE and write a story or personal memoir – fact or fiction – with this as the theme.

One isn’t necessarily born with courage, but one is born with potential. Without courage, we cannot practice any other virtue with consistency. We can’t be kind, true, merciful, generous, or honest.

Maya Angelou

Courage may be standing up to a bully, announcing a divorce, owning up to a misdemeanour, coping with illness or facing a phobia, challenging an unreasonable boss, deciding to emigrate, or travelling alone…

There are plenty of quotes from celebrities about their ideas of the meaning of courage – I distributed a sheet of quotes to trigger a memory, or an essay to agree or disagree.

A concept like courage is a bit like beauty, it can be ‘in the eye of the beholder.’ A topic where we bring our own experiences and emotions to bear. Interpretations very much depending on our perspective, culture, perhaps even religion. 

Society often has a military definition or one where people do something for the civic good, but we all have our own memories of having to show courage, or of witnessing bravery – and when and how we did is a good topic to write about, reflect on, and share the story with others – especially if writing to leave a legacy for others.

Courage is fire, and bullying is smoke.                    

Benjamin Disraeli

The responses from students were inspirational and revealing. It is yet another topic we could fill pages writing creatively about and as usual I suggested to my class if they don’t want to write a ‘true’ account, it’s a good theme for a story or poem – and there is no shortage of anniversaries of battles or conflicts to ensure whatever you produce is topical!

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The refugees and asylum seekers and their rescuers show tremendous courage – picture from The Daily Mail.

Some of the responses in class:

  • It takes courage to believe in yourself, ignore the inner voice that whispers failure, to live your life working towards a goal and not succumbing to those who would sidetrack you.
  • It takes courage to speak socially or even speak one to one if you have inhibitions or a speech impediment or lack knowledge of social graces.
  • Courage is needed to tell close friends what you think, even if your opinion offends or is critical, or not what they want to hear. Suppressing the truth or true feelings is often indoctrinated into our culture and it takes courage to be your own person – that courage has to be tempered with wisdom.
  • For those with a diagnosed mental illness, especially GAD ( Generalised Anxiety Disorder) it takes courage to face the day, mix with people, cope with simple everyday situations, sit exams.
  • People who are different struggle with bullying, rejection, and the expectations of others. It can be a brave decision to get out of bed, never mind leave the house.
  • There are activists and whistleblowers who face losing their job by taking a stand, or speaking out – conscientious objectors as brave as those who sign up for war, or those just ‘doing their duty’.
  • Sometimes it is more courageous to remain silent or not to act – whether a nurse, teacher, or parent – sometimes people have to learn to stand on their own feet or make their own mistakes and onlookers or mentors have to be brave enough to not interfere.
  • There are a range of phobias (here is a list of the top 100)  from fear of spiders (arachnophobia), to fear of heights (acrophobia), fear of open or crowded spaces ( agoraphobia) to fear of small spaces (claustrophobia) and a combination of some or all of these that many people suffer yet try and conquer everyday.

Ideas and topics flow but as creative writers we have to bring others into our world and have them experience our emotions. Not an easy task, especially if you try and avoid cliched descriptions.

One of the challenges a fiction writer faces, especially when prolific, is coming up with fresh ways to describe emotions. This handy compendium fills that need. It is both a reference and a brainstorming tool, and one of the resources I’ll be turning to most often as I write my own books.”

James Scott Bell, bestselling author of Deceived and Plot & Structure

COURAGE-flier

I’ve never considered myself a courageous person, far from it – my body reacts quickly to confronting situations with telltale signs of anxiety or fear. Panic attacks, angry outbursts, hysterical laughter, dry mouthed silence – I’ve experienced them all and at 63, I still blush and suffer a nervous rash that is barely hidden by one of the many scarves I use as camouflage.

I know a dread of speaking in public is high on many people’s lists of fear so my reaction was not unique at the Australia Day Awards, and later International Women’s Day when I had to speak to a room full of strangers, acquaintances, and friends.

My mouth dried and wouldn’t be lubricated by lips  about to crack and a tongue that felt like a piece of wood clogging my throat. I could feel my heart galloping and thought others could see it jumping through my silk blouse. I was sure my face glowed fire-engine red because it felt aflame. The walk to the stage on Australia Day took 30 seconds and my acceptance speech all of two minutes but for me, that was an act of courage.

In my teenage, I survived two severe road accidents, one as a passenger in a car, the other while riding pillion on a motorcycle. I recall trying to stand after both of those accidents, legs shaking uncontrollably and feeling so cold I could have stepped from a freezer. The taste of blood in my mouth metallic and sour. The fear of speed, collision, and pain of getting hurt terrifies me still.

I never tried to get my driving licence, had one lesson from my Dad before I moved out of home. When another car came towards us, I drove the car straight off the road into a ditch and my brothers had to come to get us out. I never sought lessons from anyone else. 

It doesn’t take much for me to relive those accidents and although I’m grateful for all the lifts people have given me in their cars, there are many journeys I avoided or chose a public transport option. Several I have taken took a lot of courage to get into the car. I still apply an ‘imaginary brake’ much to my daughters’ annoyance, although I feel extremely confident in their driving ability.

Nowadays, people are offered counselling after severe traffic accidents but in 1970 and 1971, PTSD or trauma counselling was not terms frequently used – we were grateful to survive and left to our own recovery.

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I laugh often but cry easily too, and as I age, ‘the waterworks’ seem to turn on like a tap much more frequently than in the past. I don’t consider tears a sign of weakness, schoolyard ‘crybaby’ taunts forgotten, but I do wish sometimes I could control the upsurge of tears, especially when teaching. We share a lot of sad stories as well as joyous ones in Life Story classes and as the teacher I should be more in control.

People have said they admire the way I coped with a friend’s suicide and then some months later, the death of my husband, John. However, it was a case of ‘faking it until you make it’ because the outward appearance did not match the turmoil within.

I had a pain in my chest for almost four years as if a stone pressed on my heart, palpitations struck randomly. Often I left Southland Shopping Centre or other places where people gathered, struggling to breathe.

A pattern of insomnia developed too and had me prowling the house in the middle of the night checking doors and each of my daughter’s rooms to make sure they were still safe and breathing.

I didn’t want to be with people but was terrified of being left lonely if something happened to the girls. To all those who thought me ‘brave’, I can only say looks are deceiving.

Many people have to adapt or find extra strength (courage?) to cope with grief, whether it’s losing a person, a home, a job, or health.

I have a fear of heights and have avoided many situations because of this. Although I faced this fear when younger and have the pictures to prove it. However, as I age, I’m not interested in overcoming Acrophobia by bungee jumping or sky-diving or some other extreme challenge and I’ve had occasions when I’ve been rooted to the spot unable to move – up or down!

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My acrophobia is not so severe that I don’t use lifts or stairs, or fear flying, but I can’t watch adventure documentaries without feeling the fear the participants should feel when they do climb or face great physical heights. I walked away when my daughters went on adrenaline generating rides like the current  Batwing Spaceshot and Green Lantern Coaster.

My body reacts as if it is happening to me: trembling, nausea, heart palpitations, tight chest, coldness chilling blood and bone, dizziness…

According to Wikipedia Acrophobia is an extreme or irrational fear or phobia of heights, especially when one is not particularly high up. It belongs to a category of specific phobias, called space and motion discomfort.

Perhaps I only have a version of the phobia because although I sometimes fear the height before I climb, the irrationality that sticks in memory is experiences of what to me seemed ‘great’ height and therefore the fear reasonable!

When did all this start and why? This question discussed in classes when the subject of phobias comes up – and it is a great topic for writers! Give a character a phobia as a flaw and then make them face it, an often-used trope in movies as well as books.

I explored my own fear in depth in a piece of writing because I’ve been scared of heights for as long as I can remember. Not heights in an enclosed space like flying, but when you are high up a mountain (even a hill) and look down. And as someone who loves travel, and has travelled, I’ve a few scary memories and also memories of missing out because of fear.

Standing on a mountain, atop a lookout, a building, a tower… the air circulates, there is no anchor, you can be grabbed or pushed over the edge to float like a scrap of paper to the ground or like a boulder tumble and rumble.

Whatever way I go, the result in mind’s eye, always death or severe pain.

I don’t know why I let my imagination focus on the horrors of losing my grip and/or falling. I can’t remember falling off a ladder and I never slept on a bunk bed until I was 9 years old and on the ship coming to Australia. By that time, my fear was established.

The deep recesses of memory are mined and I wonder if the fear started at middle primary school, at Holmescroft in Greenock, Scotland.

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Holmescroft School circa 1958 – I attended 1961

At Holmscroft, we did gymnastics every morning – well it seemed like every morning but was probably once a week. From memory, the gender segregated school grounds infiltrated the gym class and only the girls walked to the hall. Boys may have been considered more sturdy and exercised outside, or were removed to their own gym before the weaker sex marched in pairs dressed in white blouse and thick, ugly, navy blue knickers.

Inside, we jumped over obstacles, skipped and played ball games, scaled a wall ladder, somersaulted on rubber mats, and climbed a rope dangling from the ceiling. The morning organised and graded to ensure everyone learnt the skills the curriculum deemed necessary.

I close my eyes and can smell that rope; the years of impregnated sweat from thousands of school children who attended over its 74-year history. (Holmscroft was built in 1887.)

I feel the harsh texture as I gripped and pulled myself up the plaited python. It seemed a snake, swaying and wriggling, although anchored by a classmate to hold it steady.

The soft white skin on my hands ache and my upper legs chafe against a rope so hard it could be an iron bar. The climb difficult, chest tightening as I lift and puff using muscles I didn’t know were designed for this effort.

The teacher nags: ‘ Hurry up.’

‘ Use your feet more’

‘Put some effort in’

‘There’s a queue here’

‘For goodness sake stop huffing like an old woman’.

Higher and higher I crawl. Classmates egging on, others giggling calling me names: Frog, Toad, Caterpillar, Beetle. Can they see up the leg of my knickers where the elastic is loose? What do I look like creeping and hauling on this rope? What if the elastic bursts and my knickers fall?

The white ceiling grubby with marks from balls and even blobs of ink where smarty-pants pupils have aimed their pen nibs.

In 1961, we hadn’t been introduced to the luxury of fountain pens;  Biros and ball point still a dream in some inventor’s mind.

Everything blurs from perspiration trickling into my eyes. I want the ordeal to be over, but know I can’t take my hands off the rope to wipe my face.

Tiny fibres from the rope tickle my nose. I want to sneeze. I try to relieve the itch on my shoulder, look down, and stomach lurches. The wooden floor jumps and wobbles like some of my impatient classmates.

Miss King’s face looms large, all glasses and teeth. The parting of her grey hair a squiggly line, the clasp holding her bun in place mottled brown, like the picture of Granny on the mantlepiece at home. ‘Hurry up, girl,’ she snarls, ‘we haven’t got all day.’

The room echoes with the slap of sand-shoes skipping, stamping, running… balls bounce. I hear breath after breath of panting children expending energy with an enthusiasm lost to me.

Or is that panting breath mine?

I gasp for air, lose my grip, the python squirms backwards and forwards. Someone below has let go of the rope.

My arms are water pouring from the tap. The giant snake thrashes and whips. I need to pee. I want to throw-up, yet if I take my hands off the rope I’ll crash to the ground.

I let my legs dangle for a moment before sliding to the floor.  Seconds later – thud. The pain excruciating, hands burning as if scalded. Legs and back winded by the wooden floorboards, numb at first before the throbbing begins.

Miss King’s scarlet face spits fury mixed with fright. ‘You stupid girl!’

Friends haul me up, commiserating, comforting. I wipe snot and tears with the sleeve of my blouse. The whiteness and freshness now rope-stained, dust-streaked and sweaty. What will Mum say? She always hoped we’d get ‘a couple of turns’ out of our school blouse.

I think of that eight-year-old, bullied into climbing a rope by an insensitive teacher. Panic triumphing over reason. Is that when my fear of heights began?

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Feel free to share a story of your fear and the courage it takes to conquer or at least survive situations demanding that extra bit of bravery.

Anniversaries and Birthdays Come too Soon

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Anne Brown Courtney 1937

My mother would have been 95 years old on April 15th but she died in October 2009, six months after her 88th birthday. I often think of her – not just on her birthday – but this April, a milestone in more ways than one because it is the 75th anniversary of the Belfast Blitz, an experience Mum never forgot.

In December 2003, when I asked Mum to talk into a tape recorder and share stories about her life, it was obvious the despair and devastation of that night in World War Two had left traumatic memories.

In Easter 1941, Belfast was blitzed and like the incendiary bombs dropped that night, the damage Mum witnessed forever seared in her mind and heart.

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As mentioned in a previous post, I researched Korean poetry because I have a new Korean-Japanese student. I discovered a Korean form called Sijo, which has particular syllable rules and a three-line, or six-line, songlike structure.

NaPoWriMo prompts may be by the wayside, but I’ll still make attempts to write poems.

Belfast Blitz a Sijo by Mairi Neil

Lord Haw Haw, delivered his big Easter Eggs as promised
The bombs pounded; buildings collapsed, land mines exploded
Belfast aflame. That destructive April, the people sacrificed.

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Mum’s Memories:

I joined the army in October 1940 just after Dunkirk, but my eyes took bad. I developed iritis among other problems and the civilian doctor advised me to resign to get my eyes fixed. ‘If you want you can rejoin the ATS but don’t trust army doctors.’

He advised me to take my discharge and the day I received confirmation a rule was passed in parliament about conscripts. However, as a volunteer I was able to get out of the army on medical grounds.

I arrived back in Northern Ireland from Scotland on Good Friday in 1941. I went out to the farm with my brother, Tom and stayed with Uncle Arthur and Aunt Mary at Saintfield.

Everybody was warned to get out of Belfast because Lord Haw Haw had said Hitler was going to give Ulster their Easter eggs. Lord Haw Haw often came on the radio. He talked through his nose and had a distinctive drawl. ‘We’re going to give the people of Ulster their Easter eggs,’ he said.

Well, Belfast emptied – those who could get out. Some of them had to work Saturday. Good Friday wasn’t a holiday in Belfast or Scotland, only in England. But Glasgow and Belfast got Easter Tuesday, so we had Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday off. We were expecting the planes but they never came.

There had been a raid the week before.

The Luftwaffe launched its first attack on Belfast April 7th and 8th. They attacked the docks. That Dockside Raid was a shock. The government thought we were too far away for the Luftwaffe to reach. We’d had 22 air raid siren alerts – each one false – people were careless about the blackout curtains or going to bomb shelters.

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Even London didn’t think we’d be a target and had told Stormont to build air bases. We only had 200 air raid shelters for a population of 500,000. When more than 500 Luftwaffe bombers and escorts took off from northern France – heading for Clydeside and Greenock no one expected eight bombers to veer off to Belfast.

They dropped about 800 incendiary bombs on the dock area. That shook everyone up! Workers lived near the factories and docks, they were sitting ducks. Lots of homes were destroyed. Incendiary bombs set fire to large timber yards. Harland and Wolff dockyards were hit and the Rank Flour Mill. Thirteen people were killed and the Germans discovered how weak our defences were.

However, that Easter weekend we thought we were okay. Everybody returned Tuesday night to start work on Wednesday morning and the beggars came around 11 o’clock Tuesday night.

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It was one of the longest raids of the war. They started about 10.30pm, actually. The first bomb fell before the sirens went and got the main water line in Royal Avenue coming from the reservoir and shortly after 2.00am they got the other water line so there was no water.

About 150 to 160 Luftwaffe bombers dropped over 200 tons of explosives. They targeted the city’s waterworks. At first we thought that the reflection off the reservoir had fooled the pilots into thinking that they were near the docks. But they were no fools. The waterworks were deliberately hit.

The water pressure was so low fire crews found that their hoses were of little use. It was an inferno. It was fire that damaged Belfast – fire did most of the damage.

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It was after 6.00am before the all clear sounded. In the morning when I first looked out Belfast seemed to be surrounded by fire, there were still blazes burning.

Later people said Dublin had warned the politicians the bombers were on their way. Dublin wasn’t in the war but they wouldn’t do anything against us. I don’t know what we would have done without them because things would have been a darn sight worst.

They could see the fires in Dublin and were asked to help and said we’re sending you up fire engines and tanks of water. They sent up every available fire crew about 70 men and 13 engines and they fought the fires for 3 days without rest. They were relieved by fire crews from the Clyde and Liverpool.

I don’t know what we would have done without those volunteers.

“In the past, and probably in the present, too, a number of them did not see eye to eye with us politically, but they are our people–we are one and the same people–and their sorrows in the present instance are also our sorrows; and I want to say to them that any help we can give to them in the present time we will give to them whole-heartedly, believing that were the circumstances reversed they would also give us their help whole-heartedly …”
Eamon De Valera President of Ireland after the Belfast Blitz.

We were four houses down from the top of our street where a landmine landed. A shop stood alone with little damage but there was nobody in there. Nearby two houses took a direct hit.

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One of the houses was empty but in the middle house two daughters and their mother were killed. The father was a guard in the gaol down the road and the brother was in a granary sheltering with the boys brigade so they were saved. The mother had been across the road visiting but when the siren sounded she saw a tiny light through a crack in the blackout curtains and knew that her daughters were home.

Oh, the girls are home I better be with them.’ She rushed out as a landmine fell and the house was demolished. Her body was discovered atop a lamp post and the girls crushed and killed inside their home.

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My stepmother went to Comber to her folk and my uncle pleaded with us to stay with them at the farm until Wednesday morning but Tom said, ‘Oh no, my mammy said we had to come home because she was coming home.’

Well, we got home about half past eight or nine o’clock but she never arrived until nearly half past ten. We had to sit on the doorstep because she wouldn’t give us key.

We had just got into bed and the sirens went so of course it was panic stations. We made our way down the stairs, but before we got down they dropped the landmine at the top of the street.

Our two front and back doors blew in and some of the windows shattered although they weren’t too bad because we had sticky tape on them. We had a Yale lock, plus a big ordinary lock on the door and we had a bar across, yet the door was blown in.

We got down below the stairs and huddled together. We never had a back garden and the nearest air raid shelter no one would go in because it was stinking, dogs peed in it and everything else. It wasn’t kept in good repair at all.

The bombing went on until half past six in the morning.

We always sheltered under the stairs. It was a funny thing although houses were bombed it worked out under the stairs was the safest place to be, and many people survived.

I’ll never forget when I came out of the house and looked out. We lived at a bit of a height and the city seemed to be ringed by fire.

 

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There were unexploded bombs all over the place and this little lad came down the street – he was eleven or twelve years old – and he had some of his belongings over his shoulder wrapped in a sheet that had once been white, but was now dirty grey.

He held a canary in its cage. ‘Were are you from son,’ I said.

Oh up from the Bally streets.

These streets were at the top of the Old Park Road. Four or five streets: Ballyclare, Ballymoney, Ballywalton…Ballymena. They ran to the Clifton Park Road.

Those streets bombed because the Germans were actually aiming for Aldergrove Airfield and the RAF, which was on the other side of the hill called Devil’s Mountain. The RAF boys told us it was easy to confuse from the air because the way the tram lines ran they look like runways and the houses looked like huts.

On one side of the Cliftonville Road was the football ground and the other was the cricket ground so the Germans thought they were bombing the airport but they were on the wrong side of the hill.

The wee boy said, ‘Missus, there’s hardly a house left standing, the Bally streets are flattened.’

‘Oh my goodness,’ I said.

‘I don’t know where my parents are,’ the wee boy cried, ‘they were at the Crumlin Road pictures and they haven’t come back yet.’

Where are you going?

I’m making for my aunt’s down the Shore Road, York Street East.’

I often wondered how he got on because that street was badly damaged. I wonder what happened to that wee boy and so many others like him. It was a terrible night. Around 56,000 homes damaged or destroyed. Nearly 1,000 people were killed and 1,500 injured. 400 of those were seriously and 100,000 homeless.

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War is ugly. I would hate to see another world war. Australia should never have been in Vietnam and should keep out of other countries. Too many innocent civilians suffer.

Two hospitals were hit that night in Belfast, so bodies were lain out in St. George’s Market to be identified. Some were never identified and were buried in mass graves.

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Ronnie Finnegan’s father was the groom at Wilton’s Funeral Parlour and my friends Mrs Calvert said she would never forget to her dying day the squeals of the horses.

The hay took a direct hit and they only managed to rescue a couple of the horses because there was no water to fight the fire. They were the most beautiful horses you could ever see.

They were Belgian and kept in beautiful condition. They shone at funerals, coats gleaming. Ronnie said his father never really got over the loss of the horses because they were like his children.

Aunt Martha ran all the way, through streets of unexploded bombs, from Armagh Road to Albertville Drive to plead with us. ‘Please get out to the farm.

She then went on up to Woodville Road to ask Aunt Minnie to leave. She’d run all that way and was so insistent, we packed to go. Tom had a canary and asked what to do with it.

Take it with us,’ I said. We were about ready to leave when the canary died – delayed shock.

Tom was breaking his heart over the bird when my stepmother grabbed it and flushed it down the toilet. She was like that – a heartless woman.

Of course, there was little public transport because lots of the road had been damaged. We walked to a shortcut we knew to see if there were any buses. Passing Mr and Mrs Scott’s place we noticed their boys had come in from their dad’s farm, which was just above our family farm.

The boys had come in to get Mrs Scott because she was a widow. Bob Scott was dead and they had come to evacuate their mother who said, ‘I’m sorry we can’t take you because there’s no room in the car.’

We understood but asked if they could take our bags. ‘Oh aye, we can squeeze them in the boot.’

What a relief to get rid of the luggage because as we walked downhill everywhere was thronging. The smell of burning flesh, clothes, furniture – everything – clung to our nostrils. We managed to get a bus out to the farm and stayed there for most of the war.

I never went back to Belfast because I got a job in Saintfield and worked there until my eyes took really bad and I had to see a specialist who saved my sight.

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Without Mum, another Sijo by Mairi Neil

Without Mum, the world is sadder
Without Mum, wisdom is diminished
Without Mum, hearts are crushed
Without Mum, life is less appealing
A mother’s love potent and powerful
My mother’s love not broken by death

 

 

A Poetic Portrait -NaPoWriMo Challenge Day Two

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I checked the NaPoWriMo website for the daily (optional) prompt, a challenge to write a poem that takes the form of a family portrait.

You could write, for example, a stanza for each member of your family. You could also find an actual snapshot of your family and write a poem about it, spending a little bit of time on each person in the picture. You don’t need to observe any particular form or meter. Happy writing!

I read their poet for the day to see if any inspiration in style could be found – or even an idea of where to start. The second day and I’m already having doubts about whether I should follow the prompts (the challenge part as I see it) or just post a verse inspired each day by random thoughts and experiences.

Our poet in translation for today is Indonesia’s Toeti Herati. Born in 1933, she started publishing in her early forties, and her work is known for its feminist bent, using irony to expose Indonesian culture’s double standards. Very little of her work is available in English, but the Poetry Translation Center has posted English versions of seven of her poems online, and also offers a dual-language chapbook featuring her work.

A Woman’s Portrait 1938 by Toeti Herati

The painting conveys her exquisite taste:
ear studs, bracelets, green and yellow selendang;
the sash conceals her pregnancy.
The death she is carrying can’t be disguised.
The life she carries will grasp and cling on.
Yearning, restlessness and the turmoil of fear
are not recorded in the brush-strokes,
pencil outline of a face
surrendering to the flow of history.

The painting, with its final brilliant gesture,
only fully reveals this face
when it is framed by memory.

July 1989

“It’s hell writing and it’s hell not writing. The only tolerable state is having just written.”

Robert Hess

I searched for a family photograph. I’ve been sorting my collection recently – albums, boxes, envelopes – thousands of pics taken over the years, although I never owned a camera until I was 20 years old!

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The Kodak Instamatic, popular in the 70s.

There are probably many albums floating around with badly focused snaps taken from too far away, in poor light and with background and even the tops of peoples’ heads missing. However, the ease of pocket cameras and quick snapshots thrilled a generation introduced to colour photography. The Instamatic a step-up from the Brownie  camera.

I received my Kodak as a birthday gift from my godmother, Ina when travelling in Scotland.  Over the years, I moved on from that little cassette-driven machine that gave me a taste for photography.

I’ve photographs inherited from my Dad who was a keen and excellent photographer. He mainly took black and white film, but also developed, enlarged, and printed the shots at home. I blame him for my photographic bug.

Rather than procrastinate over which photograph to choose, I picked one I came across the other day that stirred a lot of memories. It was taken on my 50th birthday in August 2003.

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The setting, a surprise party my daughters organised, fulfilling a promise made to their father in one of their last conversations together. John died a month after my 49th birthday, which passed almost unnoticed. He was gravely ill, life was bleak, our household in no mood for celebrations.

However, he’d discussed with the girls that the following year was my ‘big five o’ and they’d give me a surprise party. After he died, the planning to do something to cheer me up and show their love probably took on the proportions of the epic movie Ben Hur!

What a big task for two grieving teenagers!

Mary Jane and Anne were only 14 and 17, for my 50th. Sensibly, they sought help from their godmothers – my older sister Cate and younger sister Rita – but the bulk of the organising was their doing.

They found my address book – an old one as it happened – and sent invitations to everyone they thought should come. Needless to say, many of those folk I hadn’t seen in years, some were acquaintances not close friends, and there were others who should have been in the book but their details were only on my computer, or scraps of paper elsewhere so they missed out!

The party indeed a surprise, the guest list even more so and the reunions, conversations and celebration a surprising night full of even more surprises! Get the picture?

How all the thoughts stirred by this family portrait will become a poem  a conundrum – especially at short notice. I believe in writing, rewriting, editing, rewriting, polishing etc ad nauseum.

Participating in NaPoWriMo a challenge indeed. Throwing raw material to the public is cringeworthy but I’m sure good for improving creativity if done often enough!

Family Portrait 2003
Mairi Neil

The four Neils, now three
Mary Jane, Anne, and me
Staring into the camera lens
Ten months after John’s death
And we smile…

How can this be?

A deathbed promise kept
By teenagers who proved adept
At organising a surprise party
Grief boxed for the evening
to be unwrapped later…

The three of us often wept.

Mary Jane, my Thursday child
Withdrawn reclusive – not wild
Anxious and scarred by loss
The balloons a metaphor
For PTSD and inner struggles

Her hazel eyes undefiled.

Anne, my Saturday child smiles too
Leans towards me with eyes so blue
It could be John staring straight ahead
But we all know our rock is dead
Anne his ‘princess’ masks her grief

Fragile as an autumn leaf.

Behind my too bright eyes
Posed pleasure at the surprise
A wall of stoicism holds firm
The ‘hostess with the mostess’
Never admitting life is grim

The closure people seek, just lies.

Looking at the  adolescent faces
The smiles have banished traces
Of the trauma and sadness of loss
The troubles overcome and still to go
Resilience shines, our love for each other

I’m so proud to be their mother.

 

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Sometimes poems have to be put in context. I don’t like making words or ideas deliberately obscure – the reader or listener should understand what you mean without searching through encyclopaedias or dictionaries.

However, cultural nuances can make the writer’s intentions a mystery and so an explanation for mentioning the days my daughters were born can be found in a nursery rhyme my mother often used to recite to help us remember the days of the week.

The Old English nursery rhyme “Monday’s Child” is a poem based on the days of the week
first recorded in 1838 Traditions of Devonshire.

Monday’s Child …

Monday’s child is fair of face,
Tuesday’s child is full of grace;
Wednesday’s child is full of woe,
Thursday’s child has far to go;
Friday’s child is loving and giving,
Saturday’s child works hard for its living;
But the child that is born on the Sabbath day
Is bonny and blithe, and good and gay.

Tradition holds that you can predict your child’s temperament based on the day of the week they were born. Numerous versions of the poem exist, with both positive and negative connotations (thank goodness) associated with each day.

In the 1887 version of the Monday’s Child poem, published in Harper’s Weekly magazine,  it is actually Thursday’s child “who works hard for a living” with Saturday’s child having “far to go”.

Thursday children have a long, successful life ahead of them. Sometimes, “far to go” is interpreted as meaning a difficult path, such as children with special needs. However, traditional versions focus on the concept of positive abilities and talents that will take them far in life, rather than attributes to overcome.

Saturday children are hardworking, responsible, and dedicated. Sometimes “hard” is interpreted as difficult or struggling. However, traditional versions view hard work as a positive trait, as opposed to “lazy”, indicating Saturday’s children are passionate about their work and make lasting contributions to the world.

Mary Jane and Anne have all the positive traits of the predictions. Life has provided the negatives, the struggles and obstacles, but they both work hard and will go far and achieve, even more than they have already.

Their close relationship will ensure they cherish each other and me.

I look at the family portrait and the poem and hope I’ve captured our love and devotion. I doubt a casual observer would see any of what I’ve said in the poem but then we don’t always write poetry for the general public.

Please feel free to critique or spend the time rummaging through your own photographs and pondering on the memories or message they might hold.

And pick up your pen and write!

 

Why I Had my Say on International Women’s Day 2016

 

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What a week in the political calendar with International Women’s Day victim to mercurial Melbourne’s weather. An  El Niño escapade creating a  record breaking 41 degrees on Tuesday, March 8th.

On the day women celebrate with various events, mine culminated with a 6.00pm march through city streets after I’d been a keynote speaker in the morning and taught in the afternoon. In local vernacular, by evening I was knackered – the old grey mare ain’t what she used to be!

Although officially autumn, Melbourne sweltered.

When I joined my daughters at the march in the city it was great to be among vocal and delightful young people, but also sad that we are still fighting for many of the same issues that motivated me to action in the 70s.

On the march I had a conversation with a young police officer in his 20s.

‘You drew the short straw,’ I said by way of conversation and indicated the heat.

‘Oh, no, this is just part of general police duties when assigned to the city,’ he replied. ‘Why are you all marching?’

‘It’s International Women’s Day.’

‘Here?’

‘Yes, and all round the world. Where were you born?’

‘In Hong Kong.’

‘Don’t they march there?’

‘Oh, I don’t know…. Why and when did it start?’

I explained the brief history of the event and that marching on this day started in Melbourne in 1975.

‘But why are you marching?’

‘This year we’re seeking wage parity among other things.’

He pondered for a moment and asked, ‘When did women get the vote?’

I wasn’t sure if he was implying ‘what more do you want’ or if he thought women’s suffrage was granted evenly throughout the world, or if he actually cared because our conversation ended abruptly as he fell back to attend to a traffic snarl.

 

 

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The next day there was a protest to keep the plight of asylum seekers facing deportation, in the public eye and although not quite so hot, travelling into the city again after working,  took a toll on my weary body, especially since the unseasonal weather made sleep elusive!

However, I met some marvellous women and we swapped addresses. The female police officer in charge of city duties supportive and caring. The demonstration went off with a lot of good humour and co-operation from police and public.

On Being Asked To Speak

I was surprised when I was asked to be the keynote speaker at the City of Kingston’s annual IWD celebration held at Doyles in Mordialloc. For several years, I’ve  attended as part of the audience if not working, never imagining I’d ever be the main speaker.

However, it is one of several invitations I’ve received since being awarded Kingston Citizen of the Year 2016 and I was more than happy to speak about the Power of Story and Words and champion the value and joy of teaching creative writing in neighbourhood houses.

The topic agreed upon after a discussion with the council’s Community Engagement Team, Dominic, Kate and Gillian, aptly titled Wellbeing Officers.

Slide 1 event order

The MC for the morning, Gemma O’Shea, Kingston Young Citizen of the Year, demonstrated poise, a clear voice and skilful handling of the program with a confidence I wished I’d had at her age (and even wished I felt that morning).

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Gemma introducing the Penguin Club speakers

The Mayor, Councillor Tamsin Bearsley spoke well as usual, the audience spellbound as she shared her story and journey towards choosing to stand for public office.

Tamsin confided that she had been brought up as a Christadelphian, in a conservative Christian family where women did not have a voice in church services or the decisions of the church. Christadelphians believe the Bible is the inspired Word of God and take their attitudes from their interpretation of the Scriptures.

Christadelphians also believe that the Bible teaches them to avoid all involvement in politics: no voting, no joining political parties, no demonstrations, no protest groups and no becoming elected representatives.

Tamsin went to school locally at Mentone Girls’ Secondary College and won the Premier’s Information Technology Prize when Jeff Kennett was Premier of Victoria. She found the encounter with Kennett inspiring and while studying Robotics during her teaching degree she met her future husband who is a Catholic. The desire to pursue teaching and marriage entailed a break with the Christadelphians and their strict beliefs.

A friendship with former Councillor and later MP for Carrum, Donna Bauer, who became a mentor, led to Tamsin’s involvement in local politics. She closed her speech encouraging everyone to put their hand up to take a more active role in the community and be empowered to stand for elected office. A strong message considering the obstacles Tamsin overcame to have her voice heard.

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The Mayor, Cr Tamsin Bearsley

The next three speakers were from the Penguin Club of Australia Inc. An organisation which offers a supportive, friendly environment  emphasising participation for women to develop confidence and communication skills, especially in public speaking. The Bayside Group meets twice a month in Clarinda on the 1st and 3rd Wednesday.

I sat nervously awaiting my turn watching Claire Houston, Patricia Buchanan and Ann Keys from the Club. They presented with such confidence it made me envious. They asked two questions I could definitely answer with a ‘Yes!’

Does the thought of standing up to speak fill you with terror?

Would you like to develop the confidence that you admire in other people?

The three spoke eloquently and fluently, giving a short history of the oral tradition most cultures have, including our own, and why famous speeches resonate and how we can learn to emulate impressive speakers.

The next speaker, Mary Rimington OAM, has been a longtime activist in the conservation movement and secretary of the Mordialloc Beaumaris Conservation League for many years.

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Mary Rimington OAM

Mary spoke about the role of women in the MBCL participating in community consultations, preparing submissions, attending hearings, meetings and letter writing. The achievements of this hardworking lobby group are many: protecting the foreshore vegetation and cliffs from erosion, encouraging the clean up of Mordialloc Creek, retaining the Green Wedge, and campaigning for better planning decisions city-wide as well as for Port Phillip Bay.

Mary’s involvement goes back to 1969 and she has campaigned for and against many decisions by politicians of all political persuasions. The newspaper clippings she showed revealed just how feisty negotiations were many years ago and how lucky we are that local people like herself have continued to honour past state premier Rupert Hamer’s vision for retaining green wedges around Melbourne when he claimed in parliament:

that nobody could happily contemplate a future metropolis of seemingly endless suburbia spreading out to infinity.’

We can thank former councillors and some locals who were prepared to be arrested, for stopping a dangerous oil pipeline being routed through the bay. The power of words coupled with action.

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After Mary, it was my turn and I included two poems to give the audience and myself some relief.

I was grateful I had friends sitting in the audience – from Mordialloc Writers’ Group (Eve, Maureen, Kristina, Dorothy, Lisa) and from the Southern Branch of the Union of Australian Women (Amy, Evelyn, Barbara, Mary). Also, Lorna my ‘boss’  from Longbeach Place, Gulay the head of the committee I was on at Central Bayside Health, plus of course my lovely number two daughter, Mary Jane.

Anne couldn’t take time off work, but she listened to me rehearsing the speech the night before and gave valuable feedback. Before the program began, I  discovered two friends  from the days when my daughters attended Mordialloc Primary School. Catherine and Susan had come along because they heard I was  speaking.

The windows revealed Mordialloc Creek looked picture postcard magnificent. At least anyone losing interest had a wonderful view for daydreaming.

Is it better for the nerves to speak in front of friends or strangers? Not sure of the answer, except I was glad when the speech went without  mishap and I even received compliments. I work on the philosophy that people don’t have to say something nice and took all praise at face value.

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me in full flight

International Women’s Day 2016

I acknowledge that this gathering is on Aboriginal land and respectfully acknowledge the past and present traditional owners, the Boonwerung people of the Kulin Nation, and pay respects to their elders past and present. Today, I especially honour and recognise the strength, resilience and capacity of Aboriginal women.

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I thank the Mayor, Cr Tamsin Bearsley, and acknowledge other councillors and representatives from the City of Kingston who facilitated today. I’m still humbled and stunned to be regarded as Kingston’s Citizen of the Year and to be speaking at this celebration.

And it is a celebration, although joy is easily tempered in a world of instant and constant communication reminding us of sorrow. I find it helps to write out my observations about this constant turmoil. Here is a recent poem.

Latte Lament
Mairi Neil

We sit in the cafe
indulging a desire
for coffee and cake
and a need
for each other …

Sensitive souls
we struggle to accept
that sitting, sipping coffee:
skinny latte, cappuccino, mochaccino
long or short black

And devouring slices
of gluten free, fructose free, fat-free,
carrot cake and chocolate muffin –
is not conscience free…

Modern media mobility
screams of drought, bushfires
floods at home and
tragedies abroad: war, random shootings,
terrorist attacks, refugee crises…

France,
Greece,
Indonesia,
Iraq,
Israel,
Kenya,
Lebanon,
Palestine,
Sri Lanka,
Syria,
Turkey,
Ukraine
Manus Island and Nauru…

We skip the sugar and cream
Search mobile screen for funny meme.

 

International Women’s Day first emerged from the activities of labour movements in North America and Europe, at the turn of last century. Now the day has assumed extensive global dimensions.

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We can safely say, International Women’s Day is here to stay! (There’s a nice bit of rhyme for you!) Words and how we use them, important.

Writing can amuse, prick your conscience, stir memories, educate and affect change. Textbooks and media tell their versions of an event but ordinary people live through the experience. Our stories, our points of view are important to record as a legacy for future generations. The pen is mightier than the sword when the stories and poems of a generation remain. They reflect lives more truthfully than a cold observer recording, sifting through records, or perhaps writing what they’re told or paid to write.

For centuries, we had HIStory, not HERstory.

Susan Sontag described a writer as ‘sitting in a room every day, year after year, alone.

Not me! I’m a passionate writer who has become a passionate teacher of writing! Privileged to hear and encourage people to write amazing stories, real or imagined, adding insight into what it means to be human.

 

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Today, a time to reflect on achievements and thank the ordinary women and men in myriad countries and diverse communities for their courage and determination in calling for change. Women’s rights are human rights, feminists are male, female and genderqueer. Our language and attitude must change to be inclusive and recognise diversity.

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The United Nations began celebrating IWD on the 8th March during International Women’s Year in 1975. Some in this room will remember that year with mixed emotions.

In the November, Prime Minister Gough Whitlam was sacked by an unelected Governor General – party politics and the Republican debate aside – many women feared the door to a future of their choosing would be slammed, or the locks changed.

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The Whitlam government’s gifts of free tertiary education, Commonwealth funds flowing to childcare places, Medicare, specialist health and welfare services for women, women’s refuges and rape crisis centres, made a huge difference to women’s lives. This could be snatched away or revert to the privileged few.

In 1971, because I won a Commonwealth scholarship, I was the first and only one of 6 siblings, in my migrant family to attend university. When Gough removed the financial barrier, thousands of women and men enrolled – many as mature age students.

In 1975, I worked as a research assistant at the Museum in Russell Street in a job funded by the Federal Government’s Regional Economic Development Program. A beneficiary of the 1972 Equal Pay Case that women undertaking work similar to that undertaken by men should be paid an equal wage I was devastated when the program and my job disappeared with Gough.

Tumultuous times for me and many young women. Not unusual, however, time and again it is women and children’s services that bear the brunt of government cost saving. Women are often left with no work, or poorly paid work. The progress made in professional fields is not translated to the majority.

However, Mordy Writers benefited from the educational revolution of the 70s. Glenice Whitting went to university and started writing. She is now Dr Glenice Whitting with a prize-winning novel and other writing achievements to her credit. Glenice is one of many who left school early, married, had a family but ached to do something different. In my classes over the years, countless women thanked Gough for making it easier to seek education. A generation of lifelong learners created.

Targeted government support makes a difference to women’s lives.

There have not been many great leaps forward. Progress a hard slog. It was 20 years before the Beijing Conference in 1995 and its twelve areas of critical concern, reviewed last year – another 20 years later.

  • The stocktake decided gender parity in primary education has been achieved, but completion rates and the quality of education are not high across all countries.
  • More women have been elected to public office – about 21% of the world’s parliamentarians are women, up from about 11% in 1995 – but we are still far from parity.
  • More women than ever before are participating in the workforce, but women generally earn less than men and, in rich and poor countries alike, carry a disproportionate burden of unpaid care work which deprives them of time for valuable pursuits like earning money, gaining new skills, and participating in public life.
  • And, while more laws exist to protect women from violence, sexual and gender-based violence continue to occur on every continent and in every country, often reaching horrific levels where there are war and conflict.

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I don’t have to tell people in this room the challenges Australia still faces: we’re not very kind to those in public office, but levels of vitriol and spite for women who achieve high office reached appalling heights against Julia Gillard. And how shameful we needed Rosie Batty and her tragic loss to galvanise governments into concerted action on family violence?

I worked at Maroondah Halfway House in the 70s, the second women’s refuge established in Melbourne. One of my first published writings was in a Croydon church magazine asking for funds for women and children affected by domestic violence. The generous response overwhelming.

There have always been people eager to rectify injustice.

Now we refer to family violence which reflects the true breadth and depth of the problem meriting the Andrews Government’s Royal Commission.

The United Nation’s Women’s Executive’s message this year is ‘Each one of us is needed—in our countries, communities, organisations, governments and in the United Nations — to ensure decisive, visible and measurable actions are taken under the banner: Planet 50-50: Step It Up for Gender Equality.’

Let’s hope that gender equality will see an end to the terrorism women and children face in the place they should be the safest – the home.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon prefaced his message for IWD2016 with a story that reminds us that in some instances there may never be a level playing field for women:

As a boy growing up in post-war Korea, I remember asking about a tradition I observed: women going into labour would leave their shoes at the threshold and then look back in fear. “ They are wondering if they will ever step into those shoes again,” my mother explained.

More than a half-century later, the memory continues to haunt me. In poor parts of the world today, women still risk death in the process of giving life. Maternal mortality is one of many preventable perils. All too often, female babies are subjected to genital mutilation. Girls are attacked on their way to school. Women’s bodies are used as battle fields in wars. Widows are shunned and impoverished.

We can only address these problems by empowering women as agents of change.

Women and girls are critical to finding sustainable solutions to the challenges of poverty, inequality and the recovery of the communities hardest hit by conflicts, disasters and displacements.

They are at the frontline of the outbreaks of threatening new epidemics, such as Zika virus disease or the impact of climate change, and at the same time are the bulwark to protect their families, work for peace, and ensure sustainable economic growth and social change.

In Ban Ki-Moon’s words, ‘We have shattered so many glass ceilings we created a carpet of shards. Now we are sweeping away the assumptions and bias of the past so women can advance across new frontiers.’

The World Health Organisation estimates 830 women die each day from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth. How wonderful to read about a church hall in the Adelaide Hills where volunteers have met since 1999 to put together birthing kits, containing the bare essentials to help reduce the risk of infection for women giving birth in some of the world’s harshest environments.

The wallet-sized kits are lightweight and cheap, costing just $3 to put together and are credited with a 25% reduction in deaths. 1.4 million have been distributed across the globe including Ethiopia, Myanmar and Afghanistan.

How often do women working for change make the headlines? Grandmothers Against Children in Detention collecting toys, writing letters, organising protests, the women in Warragul making kits for breast cancer survivors to wake up to after their mastectomies. When I read their written prayer and good wishes inside my card, I wept. Strangers thinking of me – our sole connection – womanhood.

We stand on the shoulders of those who have come before. I’m grateful my parents told me to use my voice – whether speaking or writing, to always champion social justice and equity. My mother advised, ‘use the gifts God gave you, you have a brain and a good Scots tongue in your head.’  Dad, said, ‘I don’t care if you’re a street cleaner, just be the most educated cleaner you can be.’

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Part of the answer, not part of the problem. Ideas are easy but turning words into compelling reads is hard.

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Who were or are your mentors? What have they taught you? Have you thanked them? Parents, teachers, employers, neighbours, writers, thinkers – people who’ve shown you the way at some point, revealed the beautiful mystery and challenges of life which made sense in their hands.

Inspiration and passion is contagious. It fuels and fires you up. Keep those mentors in your heart, share their wisdom and pay it forward and help someone else. Women can be really good at doing that – sisterhood is indeed powerful.

Another organisation dear to my heart is the Southern Branch of the Union of Australian Women which meets in Mordialloc.

We’re expert at writing letters and signing petitions. In Kingston we can thank members of the UAW for the first kindergartens, libraries, childcare centres, improved roads and parks and even bus routes.

In Kingston, we have a history of hard working females: councillors, managers of neighbourhood houses, school principals, leaders and activists in countless volunteer organisations. We heard from inspirational Mary Rimington OAM today whose pen has ensured we still have a foreshore of indigenous vegetation, a cleaner creek and many parklands including the Green Wedge. Over the years she’s written thousands of words in submissions and has had letters published in the local papers and The Age.

Those in power do listen – sometimes.

My passion is writing: everyone has a story and I believe they have a right to have their stories heard. Writing in all its forms encourages, and enables stories to be shared. And a story shared is the first step towards understanding each other, a step towards a fair and tolerant society.

In tandem with writing is reading – literacy opens doors to education, skills, better communication. Knowledge is power as is storytelling. Stories link us with the first peoples, with our ancestors, our neighbours and strangers; the legacy we leave our children.

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In Kingston, we’re lucky to have Lisa Hill,  writer of the AnzLit blog – Google Lisa and read her reviews. Choose a book from many of our Indigenous authors – move out of your comfort zone.

My motivation to establish and continue to grow classes in neighbourhood houses was to make creative writing courses available and accessible for all. We learn who we are from writing. Where we’re from and about humanity.

If there is a story attached to a painting, a building, an historical event it makes it more interesting, more realistic, more memorable. The tragedy of the Stolen Generations and the current scandals of sexual abuse within institutions like the Catholic Church all the more powerful when we read individual stories. Like Ban Ki-Moon said, the stories haunt you.

Unknown.pngQualified professionals use writing as therapy. Since the 1980s, researchers have found writing and healing go hand-in-hand, writing can help your:

  • immune system
  • memory
  • blood pressure
  • wounds heal
  • sleeping patterns improve

Emotionally expressive writing is powerful. A healing tool to use working toward better health. When people write about feelings as well as thoughts, describe troubling events, try to see from different perspectives, they may make sense or meaning of the situation.

Most of us have experiences, secrets, troubles that could do with an airing and often fictionalising these is a less traumatic way of dealing with their legacy.

Friendships grow in writing classes along with wellbeing.

In class, we begin by splurging. Students write from a prompt or class discussion. A pencil and a piece of paper all that is needed although students with disabilities may use a tape recorder, iPad or laptop.

We don’t think too deeply in the splurge. Don’t edit ourselves. We write everything that comes to mind. A stream of consciousness allowing imaginations to go wherever they want. Nobody— absolutely no author writes a perfect first draft. The goal is to get a story or poem down on the page where you can see it, share it (if you desire) and then start to shape it.

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What a privilege to have a safe space to tell your story and feel validated when people listen, support, comment, admire, encourage, and even ask to hear more. We are lucky the council and state government see the value in funding neighbourhood houses.

Early women writers submitted work under male pseudonyms, many women in the past have been told their stories and opinions don’t matter, yet the majority of my students over the years have been female and disprove societal assumptions.

The oldest student is 95 this year, Ceinwen has written her memoir about the war years and writes beautiful poetry with insightful detail. She insists, the classes and homework give her a reason to get up in the morning and stay engaged with life.

Two students with acquired brain injury write about the person they are now – both refer to their accident as a rebirth. The steep learning curve to physical, emotional and mental health ongoing. Anat wants to publish her memoir, Michael wants to publish a collection of his poems.

Every story is an endless flow of questions – meaning always in the making as we create and change. What would happen if we valued stories regardless of gender, age, colour, or disability? As a woman, a teacher, a mother and a writer I say, why not change the conversation from ‘It would be nice if…’ to ‘It is essential that…’?

To achieve the goal of gender equality the entire system needs to change. Diversity and equity begin with you. What conversations are you having? Who are the people in your social media feeds? When you go home, is your family the same cultural background? When you go to a party, are your friends all the same? When you look at your bookshelf, are most of the books by similar authors?

If your tastes are not diverse, you may be hearing and reading the same stories over and over again.

Finally, words matter, we can make a conscious decision to change words that have demeaned women and others. Ignore the voices that sneer at political correctness – they may never have been the butt of sexism, racism, homophobia, ableism or ageism.

Words, Words, Are All I Have

Words are my business

Often they flow, or stay sealed like a time capsule

Remembering, imagining, creating, forgetting…

Depending on mood, knowledge, skill… the dictionary

So they can colour the page: language, meaning, interpretation… frustration

Why does the sentence not work

Or the words engage? Where’s the impact?

Rambling, nothing of substance… stuttering

Don’t start… don’t stop… less is more… Oh, decisions!

Structure? Be sensible, sensitive, sarcastic, serious, succinct, smart, strong

Alliteration can work

Repetition a crafty tool. Pizzaz needed

Especially metaphor and simile

Am I mad?

Losing it?

Laughing, crying, anxious, arrogant, scared… confident…

I squeeze the words from the pen

Hammer the keyboard

And shape the words and worlds to

Vindicate the term ‘writer’

End of story!

© Mairi Neil 2016

All presenters were given gorgeous flowers. We listened to the Stiletto Sisters, an energetic and joyful trio who played while we indulged in a delicious morning tea.

In what seemed a blink of the eye, it was time to venture into the horrendous heat and go our separate ways.

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A truly memorable International Women’s Day  allowing me to have my say!

Dominoes Down, Happiness Up

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On Saturday, February 6th, we didn’t encircle the world but we linked many parts of Melbourne CBD with giant dominoes. The outcome astounding, and as one member of the public said, ‘I’ve never seen the people in the city so happy.’

There was definitely an upbeat vibe.

The development of earth art and installation art stemmed from the idea of taking art out of the galleries. Involvement in the arts engages people in their community, improves self esteem and builds creative skills.

Dominoes was the third project funded by the amazing philanthropist, Betty Amsden and her Participation Program determined to do just that – engage ordinary people in a creative pursuit and improve community wellbeing.

 

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Betty Amsden in middle, yours truly on right and another volunteer on left.

Dominoes by Station House Opera supported by Arts Centre Melbourne on Saturday 6 February, ticked all the boxes.

There was

  • excitement
  • enthusiasm
  • passion
  • wonderment
  • learning and laughter
  • fun and fandom (we all love Betty)
  • chatting and connection
  • in depth conversations
  • friendship making
  • and even some dancing…

At the afterparty, a new friend Rhonda found just enough energy to do a bit of rock and roll with me when I decided to take my weary body and sore feet home! Below she greets a very hot and sweaty me at the end of the line where the last structure was being dismantled outside the Arts Centre.

 

Conceived and directed by UK-based Station House Opera, Dominoes was first created as a celebration to link the five host boroughs for the London Olympics Arts Festival. Dominoes takes as its starting point the simplest of ideas – a line of dominoes – and will transform the rhythm of the city for one special day.

Thousands of breezeblocks are used to create a moving sculpture, which runs through the city, unfolding over the course of the day. Occasionally disappearing from sight and then resurfacing, sometimes pausing for sculptural performances, the line of dominoes will thread its way through historic and everyday parts of Melbourne.

To make an extraordinary event like this,  Arts Centre Melbourne needs literally hundreds of volunteers to help build the 2km line of dominoes with more than 7000 breezeblocks. Arts Centre Melbourne’s team is looking for about three hundred volunteers!

Press Release : Planet Arts Melbourne, December 2015

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The day to participate arrived and the weather forecast said the day would be HOT – 32 degrees hot!  Despite my Celtic pelt, menopausal weight gain, and propensity to perspire profusely once the temperature hits 30 degrees, I set off for the city with hat, sunscreen and the fervent hope I’d be assigned somewhere with shade.

Melbourne hadn’t sweltered for days like Perth, WA, but by the time I reached Flinders Street Station and commenced the short walk to the Arts Centre, the concrete pavement and city buildings oozed heat.

Tingles of trepidation building in my stomach exploded with joy when I discovered my assigned section for the day was Hamer Hall. Hurray! It was ‘next door’ to the Arts Centre, there would be easy access to toilet facilities and bliss, oh bliss, air conditioning.

I sat down with my Section 10 to hear the last minute pep and the all-important risk management talks feeling I’d won Tattslotto. I introduce myself to others: Alison, Jenny, Wei,Rhonda, Jeff, Ian, Colin …another Jeff…

Unfortunately, some volunteers did not turn up on the day. Perhaps the weather played a big part in this because the whisper said almost 20% failed to report, an unusually high number.(Organisers usually plan for 10% of volunteers failing to show.)

Regardless of the reasons, we were delayed setting off to allow a reshuffling of numbers. We lost 5 members to another section. I felt guilty not putting my hand up to swap sections but decided to be selfish – Fate had dealt me a good venue and I don’t tempt Fate.

At last, wearing  our distinctive  t-shirts and orange backpacks, we followed our leader Stacey to Hamer Hall where she walked us through our route and explained various roles.

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The venue would be open to the public at 1.00pm so there was no time to waste unpacking the blocks from several pallets and placing them in strategic spots for the set up.

The domino line would come in from Southbank and move up the stairs towards street level. The route is explained here.

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The entrance point with our orange kit bags : water, gloves,poncho in case it rained – fat chance!- and brochures of the route.

A reality check altered the picture I had of the task ahead. Our dominoes would start at the door but after moving through the building we had to build a considerable number outside to link up with those heading for the grand finale at the Arts Centre.

I wasn’t going to escape the heat entirely. And there’d be mega crowds because we were so close to the finish line. Thank goodness volunteers had distinctive T-shirts and Stacey and Lachlan, the section leaders had bright red tops.

I looked around at my fellow volunteers – mostly  in their 60s like me – thank goodness we had several younger men and women too. Whoever organised the groups did well.

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From the moment we started work I appreciated our friendly team and the display of commonsense, cooperation and congeniality. Although none of us had been involved in something as daring as Dominoes, most had volunteered in some capacity before. We were an eager team!

We had a lovely family with two young children. The youngest, Eliza, drowning in a much too big t-shirt while she helped me clean up the considerable amount of concrete dust that fell off each block as we manhandled them into position. Eliza held the rubbish bag open for me and was most diligent throughout the day. My little friendly shadow.

The gloves in our kits earned their keep protecting hands because with several hundred blocks to shift bare skin would have suffered. The gloves also helped our grip and although there’d been an allowance for breakages we didn’t drop one. Go team!

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The first flight of stairs
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Marble and mirrors – extra care needed!

We emptied the first pallet of dominoes with a speed that surprised ourselves. Stacey beamed, “The way to go, Team!”

Organisation the key as we spread in even distances  up the stairs and played pass the parcel with the blocks. Every 10th or 15th block left lying down just in case anyone knocked the dominoes accidentally.

Later in the afternoon outside, a little boy tested the domino theory much to his parents’ embarrassment. Jeff and Jenny fixed it in a trice.  We tried to comfort the family that no harm had been done; it was all part of the unexpected fun of the day.  However, we were glad only a few blocks had to be set up again.

Indoors required patience and persistence too. There were two flights of stairs, several general areas, plus the foyer. Surfaces varied:

  • tiles
  • marble
  • polished wood
  • carpet

And of course those fragile mirror walls!

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The females in the group more conscious of the mess and the danger of scratching the beautiful interior surfaces. I had flashbacks to childhood:

Careful you’ll scratch that!                   Watch you don’t break that!

We carried the 8kilo blocks and manoeuvred them into position mindful of workplace health and safety rules and protected each other:

Lift one block at a time!     Bend your knees.       Mind your back!    Have a rest.         Let me help.

Hours disappeared as we worked ahead of schedule.

Before the expected public invasion, there was a short break for a tasty lunch delivered in brown paper carry bags by other volunteers. A salad roll, sandwiches, square of chocolate cake and an apple, plus fresh bottles of water. Volunteers from the section setting up along Southbank joined us, seeking relief in the coolness.

Outside was really hotting up. I discovered I’d missed a call from number one daughter who’d decided to pop by and say hello but couldn’t get inside the building and so went home. C’est la vie.

In the foyer, we had to leave big gaps for public access to the ticket counter. We carried on building to the bemusement of arriving staff. Anticipation and crowds building too.

We finished ahead of schedule, but knew once the signal was given we’d have little time to place the missing blocks into position. Betty Amsden‘s words rang in our ears. “Things will go wrong, but it doesn’t matter. Having fun does.”

A morale-boosting visit by Betty and Arts Centre Staff and some of the creative Station House Opera team from England reinvigorating. Lots of interesting interaction with the public and chats among volunteers fulfilled the participation aim of the project.

It was Chinese New Year, the city buzzed with visitors and locals. Some had heard of Dominoes, others were thrilled they’d chosen this day to explore Melbourne’s delights.

The Dominoes route coincided in part with the display of Chinese characters on the Crown Riverwalk:

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After we’d packed up for the day I strolled along snapping as many pictures as I could but decided the year I was born, 1953, the Year of the Snake didn’t sound like it produced nice people. Oh, dear!

I put the categories in the same basket as horoscopes (horror-scopes) and clairvoyants. Negativity wasn’t going to spoil the wonderful day – one day I may check out if Celtic predictions are better!

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One of the fun parts of participation was allowing young people and others to pick up the blocks and watch the surprise or glee on their faces at the weight and texture. When they were told the blocks are given away and recycled some said they’d like one, others were glad organisations were already planning to use them.

Some children were too little to pick  up the blocks, but I found a way for one family to participate by suggesting two little boys use the wood packing strips to build their own domino line. While they were amused their parents took photos and learned about the project.

 

There was a lull in activity once our section was completed without disrupting public access too much. Jenny and I were assigned to ‘guard’ the line, particularly from cyclists cutting through to City Road. Cyclists who were supposed to dismount and who in 99.9% cases never did – even when they saw the crowd, and the blocks. Oh, dear again! (Maybe they were all born in the Year of The Snake.)

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The deadline drew closer – the first domino to fall scheduled for 5.00pm, the last at 5.25pm.  I wondered how the grand finale was shaping up. It seemed an incredible task to achieve in a short timeframe.

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However, not only did the jobs get done but when Stacey and Lachlan announced the line had started to fall the excitement really did reach fever pitch. In fact, it all happened so quickly the 15 or so minutes it took to reach Hamer Hall seemed like seconds.

The roar of joy and anticipation as the blocks clunked and fell up the stairs to whizz past me is a few moments of drama on my mobile. And suddenly I was surrounded by a cheering, rushing, crushing scrum following the dominoes up the hill towards the Arts Centre tower.

Wow! An unforgettable adrenalin rush and an astounding success.

But for every high there is a low, what goes up must come down. In what was probably the hottest part of the day because of the build-up of heat, we began the big clean-up.

Our A-team cleaned up Hamer Hall and then some of us helped the Southbank section. It was well after 7.00pm by the time we finished but the organisers had chosen section managers well and the arduous job went smoothly.

The thank you party was in full swing when I got there and the food and bar offerings a welcome sight. I found other members of my team and watched the quick edit of the day’s events filmed by a number of volunteer film makers and photographers.

 

The project and the day were awesome with cheers of the volunteers and organisers reinforcing that as people recognised themselves or their venue on the screen. The artists, organisers and volunteers did a magnificent job. Betty Amsden’s vision satisfied and the city of Melbourne the winner.

As I walked over Princes Bridge towards Flinders Street Station I breathed in the smells of the city at night: coffee and delicious food from street cafes, the pungent manure and sweat from horse drawn carriages, the brake fluid and exhaust fumes from traffic, the scent of a thousand perfumes and deodorants – and my own sweat from a hard day.

Two women called me over to their table, wine glasses in hand.

How did you do it?’

Pardon?

How did you keep your temper.

And you were so patient!

I couldn’t do it!

You mean building the dominoes?

And keeping the crowd from knocking them over .Some people were silly…

… And pushy.

Oh, were you at Hamer Hall? Did you enjoy it?

We loved it! Wouldn’t have missed it for anything!

I’m so glad. That’s what it was all about. 

I continued on, until amidst the cacophony of traffic and revellers I heard the haunting yet uplifting sound of Indian music. Was it the Hare Krishnas? An advert for a show or other celebration?

I peeped over the bridge to Southbank and spent a few minutes absorbing the tranquillity of the River Yarra and the joy of living in multicultural Melbourne.

We live in a wonderful city and when I think of the many trouble spots throughout the world we are truly blessed.

Dominoes down, happiness up indeed!

 

And here is the finished film of the day – not just the small part I played, but the bigger picture, including footage taken before the city event.

The first half of the film shows the dominoes making their way from the Port of Melbourne through Footscray, Brighton, Toorak, Richmond, Fitzroy and laneways in the CBD to the beginning of the live route at Melbourne Town Hall. The second half features the live event on 6 February.  Logistically, they couldn’t capture footage of each and every block that fell, but the film brings back some of the thrills (and spills) of the day!

The film credit goes to:

DOMINOES
by Station House Opera
Presented by Arts Centre Melbourne
Project III of the Betty Amsden Participation Program

 

 

 

 

 

 

Terror, Tears, Grief, Gratitude and Grit

You must not lose faith in humanity. Humanity is an ocean; if a few drops of the ocean are dirty, the ocean does not become dirty.

Mahatma Gandhi

peace sign after paris terror attacks

Like many others, the last few days have been spent trying to make sense of the indefensible and wondering what the future holds for so many people consumed with grief because of war, terrorism, upheaval and resettlement.

Tragic waves of people risking their lives to seek safety yet minds and borders are closed to their desperate cries for help.

On the train going home from the city to Mordialloc on Monday night, there was a sea of faces reflecting a variety of countries and ethnicity. Voices chattered and laughed in languages other than English. Women celebrated the extra warm spring day with sundresses, shorts and sandals; men wore open-necked shirts, t-shirts and in some cases, thongs. All ages represented with family groups, corporate types, blue-collar workers and students.

This is the Melbourne I love and my heart ached it is not a reality for so many people throughout the world.

I had just left Federation Square hosting yet another vigil/demonstration yet the police presence despite recent events in Paris and Beirut low key – groups of two or three on the perimeter of the crowd of 5000.  Alert but not alarming.

No machine guns here, or helmets and shields. No riot vans or blocked off streets. No demand for identity cards.

How privileged I am. This reality making the tragic events of the past week – and the suffering of some countries for years – all the more poignant and heartbreaking.

Prayers always needed for Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, Lebanon, Kenya, France, Palestine, Israel, Nigeria, Iraq, Syria, Tunisia, Turkey, England, USA…

Have Faith in Humanity
Mairi Neil

Sirens

screams

discord

It rained bullets today
blood filled the gutters
bombs thundered            violence roared
the music stopped

It rained bullets today
flesh painted the pavement
bombs thundered            violence roared
coffee machines silenced

It rained bullets today
bones crunched underfoot
bombs thundered           violence roared
laughter ceased

Survivors

spirit

inspiring

Love reigned today
courage filled the streets
hands joined, fear dispersed
Life and love celebrated

Thank you, Melbourne, I feel safe and cherish the people and places.  The relaxing and fun activities, beautiful surroundings (we are the Garden State), freedom of movement for everyone regardless of ethnicity and religion:

For freedom from fear, the values of liberty, equality and community must always be held dear!

I attended the Vigil for Paris to express the sadness in my heart and stand with others to acknowledge that peace and love must triumph over war and hate.

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It seems sadness and tragedy keep the 24-hour news cycle in overdrive. I’ve reflected on this before:

Boston 2013
Mairi Neil

Before the dust has settled
They sweep in
Keen eyes absorbing
The carnage
The rubble of
Broken lives and dreams

They look for clues
A chunk of backpack
A scrap of wire
A shard of glass
A twisted nail or
Deadly ball bearing

Acrid smoke and burning flesh
Pools of blood
And mangled bodies
A leg here, an arm there
Silence more shocking
Than anguished cries

No matter what they find
There are no answers to satisfy
Grieving family and friends
Mollified mothers, furious fathers
Stunned siblings all scream – Why?

The media frenzy crammed
With words and pictures
Pontificating politicians
Rabid extremists
Know-all academics
Red-necks and rationalists

We learn about anger
Frustration, pain and love
But most of all
We witness courage.
The motivation for such havoc
And hate, a well of horror
Too sad to contemplate.

Federation Square witnessed a vigil for the earlier terror attack in France,  Je Suis Charlie . My attending the vigils small gestures, but an acknowledgement, along with others, of the grief of those who experience the turmoil of war, terror and dislocation.

I left Federation Square as the French Tricolour fluttered to the sounds of La Marseillaise, sung earlier in the evening along with Advance Australia Fair, but it is John Lennon’s Imagine played after the minute’s silence that resonated with me.

Imagine by John Lennon

Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today…

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace...

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world…

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will live as one

The coming together in Federation Square gave an outlet for the grief felt by many of the 6000 French living in Melbourne, and for people like me. It’s hard to make sense of the times we live in and increasingly war is being waged against civilians, the random acts of terror designed to damage, disrupt and divide society. To be with others – especially random strangers – fills me with hope that there is more good than bad, that the majority of peace loving people will win the battle of ideologies, the rush for power and control.

To become a true global citizen, one must abandon all notions of ‘otherness’ and instead embrace ‘togetherness’. The world is no longer white, black, yellow and brown. Through love, tribes have been intermixing colors to reveal a new rainbow world. And as more time passes, this racial and cultural blending will make it harder for humans to side with one race, nation or religion over another. Therefore, practical wisdom should be used to abandon any cultural, social, religious, tribal, and national beliefs of alterity altogether. This is the only way mankind will truly evolve. Segregation is a word of the past. Unity is the key to a peaceful future.” 

Suzy Kassem, Rise Up and Salute the Sun: The Writings of Suzy Kassem

I swear I could smell fresh baguettes and a whiff of toasted croissants. No doubt French wine flowed freely in the  various licensed premises and a French film probably played at ACMI. The majority of people in my age group learnt French at school – despite being thousands of miles away from France. Or we’ve visited Paris or been welcomed in Noumea – it doesn’t take much to trigger memories.

I struggle with learning French because even my English is spoken with a Scots brogue, but I love French writers, philosophers and learning about the French Revolution at school. The ideas of the eighteenth-century philosophes helped birth American indpendence and gave impetus to democratic change in Britain.

 

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Scotland’s association with France goes back centuries to the “Auld Alliance” and our  famous King Robert the Bruce, descended from ancestors in Brix, in Flanders. Sadly, it seems to be the history of the world that alliances and friendships are forged by war rather than peace.

In their darkest hour the Dauphin turned to the Scots, England’s enemy, for salvation. Between 1419 and 1424, 15,000 Scots left from the River Clyde to fight in France. In 1421 at the Battle of Bauge the Scots dealt a crushing defeat to the English and slew the Duke of Clarence.

My hometown of Greenock still has links with France in the form of a memorial to the Free French forces who fought in WW2.

Free_French_Memorial_Greenock.jpg

The Breton language Celtic like Scots Gaelic. The ties that bind.

So many Australians have travelled to Paris, have albums full of photographs and memories. The vigil didn’t make the tragedies of Lebanon or Syria less important (there was a man carrying a Lebanese flag, others had different flags draped on their shoulders). Time and again speakers referred to all the senseless violence and suffering caused by terrorists.

James Merlino MP , Deputy Premier, who spoke for Premier Andrews quoted Martin Luther King:

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.

And love, common sense, reaching out, ignoring the bigots is what we must do. We must try that extra bit harder to love and be kind. To celebrate our commonality, not fear difference.

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“Once we can get all of mankind to see and promote our commonalities over differences, then we can also collectively and passionately enforce equality, truth and justice as the laws of every land. Then there will be stability, prosperity and true peace for all. If we do not, then language, religious, and cultural barriers will continue to prevent us from seeing that we are all one. Does a pineapple have to be called a pineapple in English in another country for an English-speaking person to know what it is? No. A pineapple has a different name in every country, but even a child can still tell its a pineapple. So why can’t we judge mankind the same way? No matter how you dress a human, a human is still a human. And all humans grieve, love, and bleed the same way. How hard is it to see that we are all more similar than different? God did not disconnect mankind, man did.”
Suzy Kassem, Rise Up and Salute the Sun: The Writings of Suzy Kassem

 

 

The Race That Stopped A Heart

Oamaru 2013
Horses agisted at a friend’s place in Oamaru NZ

We’ve just had a history-making Melbourne Cup because for the first time the winning horse was ridden by a female jockey. As a feminist, I applaud Michelle Payne achieving her dream although I’m not a fan of horse-racing with memories more negative than positive.

I saw the ‘sport’ first hand in Adelaide when staying with cousins, one of whom had a passion for betting on the horses. His dream I expect similar to most punters – striking it rich. Ross took me down to the local track to watch a race. For Adelaide, little more than a large country town in 1968, the event was casual, without the fuss and glamour surrounding Flemington.

We stood near the finishing rail and a field of a dozen horses came roaring down the track towards me. I’d never been so close to thundering horse hooves; the beasts appeared like manic sweaty giants. The jockeys in bright-coloured silk garb grunting and breathing as heavily as the horses but also uttering the foulest of phrases and beating the flanks of the horses with their whips. Dust whirled in the air alive with expletives.

As a fifteen-year-old animal lover, I was not impressed. Ross didn’t win anything so we both left the racecourse underwhelmed and disappointed, albeit for different reasons.

Fast forward to 1970. The one and only time I ever attended the Melbourne Cup. The winner that year, Baghdad Note, a New Zealand Thoroughbred, ridden by Midge Didham.

Given most of his previous wins in New Zealand had been on wet tracks Baghdad Note was dismissed before the Cup as a ‘mud-lark’. Despite his solid dead-heat third in the Caulfield Cup and a fifth placing in the Mackinnon Stakes he was sent out by punters a 25/1 chance in the Cup. He duly won the race by ¾ of a length becoming just the third grey to win the race after Toryboy in 1865 and Hiraji in 1947.

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The reason the day and the winning horse sticks in my mind not because I picked the winner – at 17 I still knew nothing about horses or horse racing.  I was only at Flemington because Nobuko, a Japanese exchange student and a school friend at the time, asked me to attend with her host family, the Dobsons.

It was exciting to see the 3200-metre race – finished in a blink of the eye – but the real drama happened a few feet away.  I didn’t expect the man in front of me to have a heart attack and collapse. The presentation of the cup and parade of horses melted into insignificance as St John’s Ambulance volunteers did their best until emergency services arrived.

Everyone over 40 seems old when you’re a teenager. The man who collapsed may have been in his late 30s or early 40s, or even 50. I was shocked because he looked younger than my Dad. He’d been joking, cheering and jumping around with a group of mates, six school teachers from Tasmania. They’d formed a syndicate to put money on ‘the big grey’ to win. Excited and egging their horse on, they were living life to the full and deliriously happy when Baghdad Note won.

But the 3-minute race resulted in one of them dropping to the ground in agony, fighting for air and clutching his chest before going into a coma.

A salutary lesson in how quickly fortunes can change.

In the kerfuffle following the man’s dramatic collapse, I can recall one of his mates mentioning a bet of $400.  At odds of 25/1 it would have netted $10,000. Even divided among six that was a lot of money considering the average annual wage in 1970 was less than half that amount.

The ambulance sped away to the commiserations of bystanders: “Poor bugger” “What rotten luck” “I’d have a heart attack too at those odds” “There goes his winnings on medical bills” “What a way to go” “Hope he gets to spend it”…

Almost half a century later Baghdad Note the only winning horse whose date of triumph I remember. The race that stops the nation stopped that poor teacher’s heart. I too hope he lived to enjoy his winnings.

Flemington on the day of the Melbourne Cup is considered egalitarian but going there would never have been on my working class family’s list of things to do. Instead, Mum and Dad’s sister, Chrissie indulged their gambling whim at the local TAB. They always bet according to the jockey or whatever horses Bart Cummings entered. (This Melbourne Cup the first without this famous trainer.)

For many religious people, gambling is a sin, if not a time-waster, however, the Melbourne Cup the exception. (My Presbyterian parents not wowsers but they frowned on most gambling.) It is also the day that fashion takes over the front page in newspapers, on billboards, television and now the Internet. Melbourne celebrates the Spring Carnival with style!

The Sexual Revolution of the 60s may have encouraged women to throw off compulsory hats and gloves but the second Tuesday in November 1970 was still about hats and fashion. No one in Melbourne had forgotten the scandal of English model, Jean Shrimpton.

1965:  Jean shocked the Melbourne fashion elite with no hat, wearing a mini and no stockings!

At 17, I wasn’t famous or a model. I had to have a hat. In fact, not just a hat, but an outfit.

A few months earlier, a nephew of my uncle’s decided to get married. Mum bought me a lovely white woollen coat, considered chic at the time, plus a wide-brimmed maroon felt hat. The wedding never eventuated (another story) but the outfit was deemed suitable for Flemington where I’d be rubbing shoulders with the Fashion of the Field entrants – well at least sharing the same air!

Unfortunately, Tuesday, November 3, 1970, was hotter than average for that time of year.  Even with my stylish coat unbuttoned I roasted in 24 degrees under a cloudless sky. To put the heatwave’ in context for that Spring:

  • The hottest day of 1970 was December 3, with a high temperature of 36°C. For reference, on that day the average high temperature is 23°C and the high temperature exceeds 30°C only one day in ten.
  • The hottest month of 1970 was December with an average daily high temperature of 23°C.
  • The longest warm spell was from November 29 to December 5, constituting seven consecutive days with warmer than average high temperatures.

In respect to Cup fashion, times have not changed. One of the delights of train travel during the Spring Racing Carnival is to forget ugg boots, Bermuda shorts, thongs, daggy jeans, singlets and all the other fashion faux pas of picture postcard Aussies and watch commuters transform into silk and taffeta delights and wearers of bow ties, sleek suits, even top hats. Strappy high heels, polished leather shoes, and modern-day spats accompany evening gowns and dinner suited elegance.  An incredible variety of Fascinators is indeed fascinating.

However, the carriages on the way home are often filled with sunburned, bedraggled racegoers their clothes and demeanours the worse for alcohol and high spirits.

Like many public events, people have their stories and memories of Cup Day. I think Victoria is the only place in the world that has a public holiday because of a horse race, but the race that stops a nation an apt catchcry. When I was at university in Canberra, public servant friends became excited about the race.

melbournecup_websml
The Melbourne Cup. Photograph courtesy of the Victoria Racing Club.

In the 70s (and even today), many government departments hold a sweep. In Canberra, some generous person brought their television into work and for 3 minutes everyone downed pens and held their breath to see who would be going home richer. My friend Christine McCafferey from Townsville said it even happened up there.

I haven’t been in a sweep since John died, but for years the union office had one. He’d nominate horses for the girls and me – one or the other often a winner.

But for me Cup Day has a deeper significance. In 1983, that was the day John and I set up home together. We always celebrated it as our special day. The only time we were apart on Cup Day, the year I took the girls to Disneyland – John’s special treat to them when he got access to his superannuation. Too fragile to travel overseas, he stayed with a mate while we were away.

The closest the girls got to horses that year was a day spent at a friend of a friend’s property:

MaryJane horse-riding South Carolina 1997
MaryJane horse-riding South Carolina 1997
Anne horse-riding South Carolina 1997
Anne horse-riding South Carolina 1997

We were on Pawley’s Island South Carolina staying with a childhood friend of mine. John arranged for the delivery of beautiful flowers. The autumn floral arrangement stunning. Not surprisingly,  the girls more impressed by the pumpkin shaped vase and they insisted I brought the pottery pumpkin home to Oz. (Americans make a big deal out of Halloween.)

pumpkin vase

Another memorable Cup Day was a family holiday in Tasmania. We were staying in a bed and breakfast on the east coast halfway between Launceston and Bicheno and managed to buy a Melbourne paper. We picked two horses each, 50 cents or a dollar, each way. John and I choosing our ‘lucky numbers’, the girls picking horses because they liked their names or fancied the jockey’s colours. (We know nothing about horse racing!)

John returned from the general store and we packed the car ready for the day’s journey. I looked at the racing stub, ‘John why have you picked these horses?’

‘What do you mean, love. I just copied down the numbers.’

We double-checked he had the right race. However, he’d chosen barrier numbers!  I did say we were ignorant regarding horse racing!

Back to the general store and choosing the right horses – thank goodness we always put on the minimum. The drive to Bicheno to get decent reception on the car radio to hear the race fraught with tension. Would we find somewhere to hear the race? Because of John’s mistake we had nearly every horse in the field and the girls were sure one of our horses would win. Murphy’s Law dictated otherwise – the three winning horses not on our list!

The girls don’t remember the horse race as much as parking on a dune to hear the race. We watched the sea roll in on mountains of surf through a windscreen covered in seagulls. It was like a scene from Hitchcock’s The Birds.

I had bought fish and chips for lunch and one of the girls had thrown a chip out the window for a passing bird. Big mistake. I don’t know if any records were broken in Melbourne that day, but I’m pretty sure we saw the most squawking seagulls ever recorded on a car windscreen. Not to mention the hungry flocks attacking side windows and doors.

The final memorable Melbourne Cup Day was November 2010. I was recovering from pneumonia caused by the first dose of chemotherapy being too strong. I’d been in Cabrini hospital a couple of days at death’s door and didn’t know the date let alone care – breathing difficult enough.

My two beautiful daughters breezed in carrying a basket of goodies for me to share with the nurses. The girls wore cardboard jockey hats and whips, waved streamers and balloons. A burst of merriment and joy sorely needed by patients and the nurses who worked on a day others spent with family.

Celebrations are what we make them – whether whole-heartedly getting into the spirit of the occasion or adapting and grabbing the chance for enjoyment. And of course, the memories the special events trigger also an opportunity write.

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How To Write your Life In A Poem

creative-writing-prompts

The start of a new term and the probability of new people enrolling in my classes, joining students who have been attending for months or years. The need to reinvent ‘icebreakers’ or use fresh ‘getting to know you’ techniques after 15 years of teaching had me trawling the internet.

I don’t write from ideas so much as from feelings. When something touches me deeply, I write to capture or explore or understand it. This begins in my journal where it’s just for me. Then if it seems like something I want to share, I move out of my journal and start working on a legal pad. I don’t usually know what it’s going to be or who it’s for when I begin. I write to find out!

George Ella Lyon.

I found a beautiful poem by George Ella Lyon. The many templates based on her poem ideal for creative writing students to introduce themselves.  The poem is an excellent way to record the essence of your life. No remembering of dates required, no intensive research – just pure gut feelings, emotional resonance and recalling memorable images, people, things, those snatches of stories heard from relatives.

Where I’m From by George Ella Lyon, writer and teacher

I am from clothespins,
from Clorox and carbon-tetrachloride.
I am from the dirt under the back porch.
(Black, glistening,
it tasted like beets.)
I am from the forsythia bush
the Dutch elm
whose long-gone limbs I remember
as if they were my own.

I’m from fudge and eyeglasses,
from Imogene and Alafair.
I’m from the know-it-alls
and the pass-it-ons,
from Perk up! and Pipe down!
I’m from He restoreth my soul
with a cottonball lamb
and ten verses I can say myself.

I’m from Artemus and Billie’s Branch,
fried corn and strong coffee.
From the finger my grandfather lost
to the auger,
the eye my father shut to keep his sight.

Under my bed was a dress box
spilling old pictures,
a sift of lost faces
to drift beneath my dreams.
I am from those moments–
snapped before I budded —
leaf-fall from the family tree.

Lyon had this to say about her poem:

In the summer of 1993, I decided to see what would happen if I made my own where-I’m-from lists, which I did, in a black and white speckled composition book. I edited them into a poem — not my usual way of working — but even when that was done I kept on making the lists. The process was too rich and too much fun to give up after only one poem. Realizing this, I decided to try it as an exercise with other writers, and it immediately took off. The list form is simple and familiar, and the question of where you are from reaches deep.

Last week, as usual, I wrote in class at the same time as my students. The template we used encourages honesty and self-reflection, but it can be profound or light-hearted. This poem should be a description of who you are for anyone who doesn’t know you – or at least give classmates a hint of your background or the present.

Students could follow the template exactly – if there were anything they felt like adding, or omitting, they could. As always, in my classes, the originality of the poems and information shared was fantastic.

Here is one of my efforts. Like George Ella Lyon, I couldn’t give up at one poem and this and others are still a work in progress…

What Made Me?
Mairi Neil

I am from ‘wakey-wakey’ for breakfast
Story time books and kisses goodnight.
From hopscotch, skipping, dress-ups,
Backyard games and street delights.

Childish rhymes and daisy chains,
From buttercup tests and bramble jars,
Walking to school or riding bicycles
Streets were for playing – not for cars!

Home deliveries by butcher and baker
Bottled milk  at home and school
Coal man blackened and scary
Clouds of dust when cellar full.

Shouts of ‘any old rags?’ recycled clothes
The buttons and zips Mum always kept
Eager friends traded their Dad’s best suit
Mothers screamed and children wept.

I am from Chinese checkers and chess
Scabby Queen and what card to choose
Roars of laughter, or tears and tantrums
Gracious winning and learning to lose

A migrant family farewelling the familiar
Adjusting to a new home across the seas
On a long ship’s voyage we acclimatised
To be from a house among gum trees.

Hot days of summer and restless nights
Long dry grass and fear of snakes
Mosquito netting to avoid nasty bites
No escaping plum and apple fights.

Blue tongue lizards and pesky possums
A boat full of tadpoles and croaking frogs
Screeching cockies and laughing kookaburras
Our house full of stray cats and dogs.

Huntsman spiders sucked up the vacuum
While cicadas chitter announcing summer
Rabbits and hares, native mice a plenty
Magpies swooping – what a bummer!

I’m from Choc Wedges and icy poles
Long summer days at Croydon Pool
Driveway tennis and park cricket
Trips up Mt Dandenong to stay cool.

I’m from high school softball and hockey
A Holden car swapped for Morris van
Holidays in army tent at Coronet Bay
Shift worker Dad visiting when he can.

I’m from triple-fronted brick veneer
Replacing dilapidated weatherboard
Coloured TV, Phillips stereo and cassettes
Furniture no longer wet when rain poured.

I’m from white weddings and sad divorces
In-laws and several nephews and nieces
Heartaches of friends and relatives
Falling apart and picking up pieces…

I’m from sick and ageing parents,
Death’s challenge not ignored
A houseful of wonderful memories
As bulldozers destroyed James Road.

In the hush of evening sunsets
Imagining childhood with closed eyes
Daily shenanigans, laughter and tears
From that ‘wakey-wakey’ surprise.

I’m from hardworking parents
Love always their motivation
Gifting me ethics and values
I’m a product of their dedication.

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Here is the WHERE I’M FROM Template:

I am from _____ (everyday thing), from ______ (product or brand name), and _____ (everyday thing).
I am from the_______(describe where you live, adjective, adjective, detail)
I am from the_______ (natural thing like: ocean, lake, flower, plant near your house or that you love), and the________(natural thing)
I am from_________(family tradition such as: a holiday, a place you go together, something you celebrate), and________ (something special about your family), from _______(name of person in your family), from________(another person in your family) and _______(another person in your family).
I am from the________(something your family does all the time) and________(another thing your family likes or does a lot).
From_____________(something you were told as a child, such as: santa claus, tooth fairy) and_____________(another thing you were told as a child).
I am from_________(the place you were born or where your family is from that is important to you),________(two food items that your family makes or that is special to your family).
From the__________(story about someone in your family, who is alive or dead),________________(another detail), and the_________________(another detail).
I am from____________(the place where your family keeps important pictures, keepsakes, things from your childhood)_______________(What do these things mean to you?)

Here is another version:

I am from (a specific item from your childhood home)
from (two products or objects from your past)
I am from (a phrase describing your childhood home)
and (more description of your childhood home)
I am from (a plant, tree or natural object from your past)
whose (personify the natural object)
I am from (two objects from your past)
from (two family names or ancestors)
and from (two family traits or tendencies)
from (another family trait, habit or tendency)
I am from (a religious memory or family tradition)
from (two foods from your family history)
from (a specific event in the life of an ancestor)
and from (another detail from the life of an ancestor)
(Memory or object you had as a child)
I am from the moments…
(continue this thought or repeat a line or idea from earlier in the poem)

Start writing your life in a poem and please share and let me know if it becomes addictive!

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