Christmas Joy Not Humbug!

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The Twelve Days of Christmas

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to the ‘Twelve days’ …

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

wild woman and christmas message

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

What would Christmas be without a wee miracle?

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

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

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

We scored a candy cane before they entered the lift!

cate with hospital volunteers

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

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

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

my pink-red rose.jpgChristmas Catch-Ups

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

bulleen peace park

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

 

New Acquaintances Not Forgot

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

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

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

book cover from Japan

Serendipity!

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

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

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

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

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

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

He was 24 years old and in his prime.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I also felt tears coming to my eyes…

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

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

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

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

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From a card I bought in Oban, Scotland

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

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

An Epiphany

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Power of  Spiritual Awakening

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John’s response, “Prove it!”

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

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

He answered, “No problem for me.”

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

The Joy of Reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the Hallway
Hoshino Tomihiro (February 20)

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

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

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

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

Something did not make sense…

CROWN-OF-THORNS
Hoshino Tomihiro

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

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

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Flowers Helped Him Bloom

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

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

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

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

CHRYSANTHEMUMS
Hoshino Tomihiro

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

COLUMBINES
Hoshino Tomihiro

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

sunflowers in vase.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I love this poem he wrote  –

poem 1

and this honest observation:

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

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

Dokudami (Houttuynia)
Hoshino Tomihiro

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

Your flowers
Look just like white crosses.

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

HOUTTUYNIA CORDATA
Hoshino Tomihiro

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

A book can be the gift that keeps on giving.

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s to a healthier 2018.

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Stress versus Sense

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

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

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

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

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

I did some serious thinking.

Reflection – Rejuvenate or Retire?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

hard rubbish 1

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

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

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

Planet B Doesn’t Exist
Mairi Neil

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

mordi p.s hens 2017.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

old memorabalia.jpg

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

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

Culture Change Needed To Face Climate Change

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

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

These statistics from last year make sobering reading:

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

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

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

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

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

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

no sweat shop tshirt

There’s History In Old Writing

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

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

car boot sale.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

discarded vacuum.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

plastic gun

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

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

pile of rubbish chelsea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Council Hard Rubbish Collection 2017
Mairi Neil

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

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

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

 

 

 

Chinggis Khaan – A Fascinating Leader Loved and Revered

chinggis khaan statue again copy.jpeg

Day Two – Chinggis Khaan Equestrian Statue and Museum Complex

The drive to the outskirts of the city and beyond revealed the vastness of the country and scenes confirming western assumptions. Miles of dusty, brown and sandy soil, hills and distant mountains bare of greenery after winter snows.

There were horses, goats, sheep, yaks and cattle grazing – all chewing pasture I couldn’t see from the car! Individual gers and clusters in camps dotted the landscape – at last, the something different I’d hoped for.

bird of prey copy.jpeg

Chinggis Khaan a revered leader in the past and today. He and his sons ruled during the ‘Great Khan’ period in 13 and 14 centuries. The 40-metre statue built to honour his achievements, not only for Mongolia but his extensive empire, which influenced half of the known world. 

The visitor complex is 10 metres tall with 36 columns representing the 36 Khans from Chinggis to Ligdan Khaan and designed by sculptor D Erdenebileg and architect J Enkhjargal, it was erected in 2008.

It is the world’s tallest equestrian statue and has the certificate to prove it!

tallest equestrian statue chinggis kahn

On horseback, Chinggis Khaan faces east towards his birthplace, holding the golden whip, which according to legend he found on the bank of the Tuul River at Tsonjin Boldog, the site of the monument. It is 54 kilometres east of Ulaanbaatar and a must-see for anyone visiting Mongolia.

Chinggis Khaan or who we, in the West, refer to as Ghengis Khan was an impressive leader and achiever. I had no idea the Mongolian Empire extended to almost half the world. So many ethnic groups, cultures and religions under the Mongolian umbrella.

Art, Culture, Traditional Craftsmanship On Display

Cultural influences from Turkey, Hungary, Persia, China and beyond were peacefully incorporated. Gifts to the world from his era include games such as chess, knuckles (bones), the precursor of puzzles like the Rubik Cube (invented 1974 by a Hungarian), embroideries, beadwork, tapestries, silk costumes and painting, horsemanship, intricate leatherwork, metalwork and more.

Exhibitions cover Bronze Age and Xiongnu archaeological cultures and fossil finds. Traveller accounts describe the welcome and easy trade and great organisation and tolerance across borders. 

A lesson in real greatness for Trump and current world leaders perhaps!

Chinggis Khaan, also regarded as the greatest military leader in world history although only commanding an army of 100,000 soldiers.

How did he manage to conquer and control countries with populations numbering millions and his dynasty last 150 years?

Some say it was because he felt a great love for his family and his people and would sacrifice his life for them. Others that he was clever and in love with learning.

Since Mongolia parted company with Soviet Russia in 1991, the legend of Chinggis Khaan and his legacy have become increasingly important as part of the Mongolian cultural identity and national pride.

It is also important to those Mongols living in other states, established in Chinggis Khaan’s time such as Afghanistan (the Hazaras), parts of China and the old USSR.  His successful leadership and rule,  the establishment of law and unification of nomadic societies, a constant source of interest to academics and historians.

The following poem was published in a university paper in Inner Mongolia about the Yunnan Mongol community who number under 7000. They identify as Mongol yet only came to the attention of Chinese officials and academia in the late 1970s.

We Are the Sons and Daughters of the Steppes: Children and Grandchildren of Chinggis Khan

We are the sons and daughters of the steppes,
children and grandchildren of Chinggis Khan.
Under the military standard of Zandan,
riding horses and holding bows, we fought
across vast lands of the North and South.
Passing the steppes on our magical horses
and crossing the Jinsha River on (inflated)
leather bags and bamboo rafts,
we camped at the Ka Qu Tuo Frontier,
under the military standard
of Zandan.

We are the sons and daughters of the steppes,
children and grandchildren of Chinggis Khan.
We planted trees and set up schools and promoted
culture and civilisation, and our awesome
cavalry maintained peace and harmony.
Under the leadership of Zandan
we guarded the southern frontier.

We are the sons and daughters of the steppes,
children and grandchildren of Chinggis Khan.

Zandon was the son of Altemur, commander of the Mongol Yuan troops during the Yuan dynasty, his HQ at Qutuo Pass.

(The Yunnan Mongols renewed interest in genealogy similar to that of the African Americans inspired by the novel Roots. They want their children to be able to speak and read and write Mongolian and have imported teachers.)

Chinggis Khaan was a deeply spiritual person but also practical. The changes he brought to the world long-lasting. He encouraged widespread education.

In his time,  people wandered freely, traded, mixed and learnt from each other, sharing ideas as well as goods. Nomadic peoples who glanced at the horizon, ever-mindful of Mother Nature, knowing instinctively where and when to move to survive. 

Many still do this today in modern Mongolia, respecting tribal or clan connections. 

Now???

In Europe and other parts of the world, there is so much suspicion, fear and hatred of the other. Border forces and farces. Freedom to travel not a given anymore. Permits needed to build houses never mind move across country with all your goods and chattels!

What would the world look like if Chinggis Khaan had never lived?

Interesting to speculate and those thoughts and much more enriched my visit as I examined exhibits of everyday utensils, clothes, belt buckles, knives, tales of sacred animals,  ancient tools, religious artefacts and objects made or gilded with gold.

 

khan for a day indeed
Chinggis Khaan’s “throne” – I imagined being a ‘khan’ for the day!

 

Outside in the grounds, I was at last up close to a traditional ger albeit dwarfed by statues representing Mongol warriors – the army that protected Chinggis Khaan and also advanced his empire.

From the top of the main statue, the view is stunning and gives you a perspective of the size of Mongolia – vast swathes of dusty plains and snow-capped mountains sparsely populated.

Few trees survive here because of the wind.

At the ger, a little boy three or four years old was fascinated by my speech. He overheard me speaking and approached us to ask Ada, 

How is she talking? What is she saying?”

I smiled and said, “Hello.”

He mimicked me, “Hello, hello.”

Then grabbing his little friend by the arm, he followed me repeating, hello. Perhaps my Scottish accent was a new experience!

I’d smile and answer, “hello” and they’d run a few feet away or to their parents but always returned to dance around us, repeating “hello“.

Ada went into teacher mode and after a quick lecture to the boys in Mongolian, which I assumed was on courtesy, she sent them packing with a critical look at their parents.

The boy and his family left to annoy the man with birds of prey on display.

In the shadow of the horse statues, it was easy to envisage the scenes that inspired the art work I bought from the young artist in Sukhbaatar Square. The image of Chinggis Khaan painted on leather and the two watercoloured cards, contrasting day and night, evocative of the period as were many pictures in the complex.

All this public reverence of Chinggis Khaan is relatively new and linked to Mongolia’s independence from the Soviet Union, although his importance to traditional Mongolian culture never faltered.

The symbol as such has shown not only an amazing level of tenacity but also a high degree of adaptability in taking on new meanings in relation to different historical contexts and different socio-political entities. For the Mongols, it has evolved from a symbol of imperial legitimacy and privilege grounded in absolute kinship ideology and relevant exclusively to the Golden Descendants, to a potent symbol of ethnic/national identity shared by Mongols all over the world, just as the historical Mongols have gradually evolved from an empire of tribal confederation to a nation of and ethnic entity of solidarity. Thus the claim “we are the children and grandchildren of Chinggis Khan”…

Chinggis Khan, From Imperial Ancestor to Ethinic Hero, Almaz Khan

A famous Mongolian rock group, Hongk composed a song about Chinggis Khaan and performed it in March 1990 at the time the new Mongolian Republic was being formed.

Forgive Us

Forgive us for not daring
to breathe your name.
Though there are thousands of statues,
there is none of you.
We admired you in our hearts
but we dared not breathe your name.

The Equestrian Statue and Complex, plus the statues in Ulaanbaatar have rectified the suppression of this important symbol of the Mongol during the Soviet period.

(Founded in 1924, the Mongolian People’s Republic was, until the breakup of the USSR and its empire in 1991, the oldest Eastern Bloc country as well as the second oldest socialist country in the world – after the USSR. Despite political and economic dependence on Russia, much of the national culture enjoyed autonomy and protection.)

There is also a resurgence of Mongolian language and traditional script and a recognition Uighurjin Mongol script has carried history, culture, traditions and customs and fortifies Mongolian independence.

Written vertically, the characters take different forms from the beginning, middle, and end of the word. The oldest existing text believed to be on Chinggis Khaan’s Stone – the replica outside the National Museum in Ulaanbaatar and the original at the Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, Russia.

Mongolian script is not only a writing system but an art form with meaningful strokes. The script’s “tig” strokes were developed in various styles, resulting in an almost abstract style used in calligraphy nowadays.

Huge examples hang in the foyer of the complex with the rich heritage of Mongolian manuscripts categorised into three categories: religious, historical and folklore.

When the Russians influenced Mongolia, the Cyrillic script became official for public buildings and street names and in schools but Uighurjin is making a comeback.

I watched a young girl demonstrate the script and for a couple of dollars, she wrote my name, which looks much more impressive than it does in English!

In between being immersed in the ancient culture, absorbing historical facts, and the context of impressive and expansive exhibits there were interactions with people, like the little boy.

I discovered I wasn’t the only one scared of heights yet determined to climb to the top of the equestrian statue. I chose the stairs and reached the top to a breathtaking view. A lovely family took pictures of me and I of them while we huddled and clung to the wall to make sure the gale force wind didn’t blow us across the steppes.

Outside there was a wedding party using the monument for stunning photographs of their special day just as many Melburnians choose Parliament House or Federation Square or other iconic sites.

wedding in Mongolia

Watching the wedding party prompted a discussion with Bemba and Ada.

Bemba is the youngest of eight siblings. She is not married and has no children. 

Ada is one of five siblings. She married but did not have a traditional big wedding. She has two children. A daughter lives in Melbourne and is studying her Masters in International Accounting at a QUT campus. Ada taught Russian and English in secondary school before working as a tour guide. 

Mongolians traditionally had big families but like westerners, they have fewer children nowadays probably a maximum of three. However, the family unit is still everything.

Ada was born in a ger and grew up in one. Her parents have ‘returned to country’ some distance from Ulaanbaatar and at 76 and 80 years old they have moved into their first house and will enjoy the comfort of permanence, running water, and an indoor toilet.

I returned to the complex to visit the toilet and through a joint doorway, the backs of men could be seen as they urinated. Ah, cultural quirks and customs. It reminded me of a visit to France in 1984 when a similar design was used in several places we stopped.

One last look at the magnificent foyer, the beautifully carved pipe resting on the wings of a mythical beast and a photo opportunity beside the giant traditional boot.

Before leaving for the Terelj National park, I bought a card in Mongolian script as a memento.

A silhouette of a horse galloping free beside the word for joy.

mongolian card meaning JOY

I knew that feeling!

 

 

 

When It’s All Right Not To Write

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My writing journey seems to be much like my life – unpredictable, a mystery, an uphill battle, full of sudden surprises and even miracles.

Some days there is a structure  – usually my teaching days when I write with my students. Other days, there are scribbled notes, ideas and perhaps the start of a poem or story, or just an observation as I try and harness whatever fleeting thought an image, event or overheard word has prompted.

Recently, I’ve been troubled by an inability to write what and how I want, never finishing the stories or poems – not so much losing interest but struggling to find the joy and passion.

mordi beach october 2016

Sea-Sawing 1
Mairi Neil

When I walk by the sea, I am silenced
Not by roaring waves, tumultuous surf or crying rocks
When I walk by the sea, I am silenced
Not by the lapping wavelets or squelching sand
or the whispers of an ebbing tide.
When I walk by the sea, I am silenced
by the endless mystery of oceans
by this chameleon of colour and mood
by the changing horizon of merging sea and sky
by thoughts of the insignificance of humankind
and our attempts to tame, travel, and tease
and always the awesome sea can choose not to please
When I walk by the sea, I am silenced.

Pausing The Pen

As I prepare to go on what I am calling ‘long service leave’ (unpaid, unfortunately) from my writing classes, I’m hoping to rediscover my ‘mojo’ and enthusiasm for writing. I feel as stale and tired as my words as if I’m repeating myself and walking in circles.

Here’s hoping a term off, and weeks of new experiences as I travel the Trans-Siberian Railway and return to Scotland, my birth country to meet up with old friends and relatives, I’ll be able to reignite lost passion and enthusiasm.

images

Tracking My Journey To Recovery

I’ll use the blog as a sort of journal to track my journey – inner thoughts as well as the outward physical events. I’ll write about the same subjects I suppose but perhaps have a fresh angle – definitely a different perspective!

Entries may be written in the moment, fragments and random happenings recorded – a different process from how I usually write. I’m a planner and outliner when it comes to publication, a worrier about whether anything I write is worth reading or if there is a mistake with research, grammar, spelling…

Become-a-writer.jpg

I’ve been writing since a teenager and I love reading good writing – all I’ve ever wanted to do is be a writer that others want to read.

However, if I’m ever to achieve that dream and finish a couple of important writing projects then radical action is required. I’ll be 64 years old in August – a bit long in the tooth to be regarded as an emerging writer and entering the age bracket conscious that time can run out!

 

gone fishing seat stony pt.jpg
A reminder of life’s fragility the last time I visited Stony Point!

 

Now for Something Completely Different

It’s time to remove myself from the comfort zone of teaching writing and helping others on their publishing journey. Breda now looks after the Mordialloc Writers’ Group – relinquishing that was a major step for me to take because I founded the group over 21 years ago – but the freedom I feel with the cliched weight off my shoulders is wonderful.

I’m going to fulfil another item on the ‘bucket list’ made after I survived a breast cancer interlude. Hopefully, there will be a few more crossed off the list in the future.

A couple of years ago, I went to Samoa and paid homage to Robert Louis Stevenson, a writer who inspired me in childhood.  Samoa, the first of travel adventures I’d dreamed about and promised to visit ‘one day’.

On this Trans-Siberian trip, a teenage dream will be realised and  I’ll pay homage to another favourite writer, Dostoevsky whose book Crime And Punishment, I regard as one of the top ten influences in my life. Like RLS and a few others, Dostoevsky gave me the desire to be a writer.

I’ll also be visiting the Orkney and Shetland islands, another long-held dream and the home of the wonderful writer and poet George Mackay-Brown.

Like Hillary Clinton – I aim high!

20160901_074055-1

When I’m in holiday mode, perhaps I’ll rediscover the joy and spontaneity I’ve lost and succumb to the mystical process of mind linking together random observations, thoughts, dreams and sudden ideas into storylines and poems.

Sea-Sawing  2
Mairi Neil

When I walk by the sea, I am calmed
heartbeat slows, breathing even, steps linger,
imagination sparked as dreams awaken.
When I walk by the sea, I am calmed
shells crunch underfoot, sand soft or solid,
seagulls whirl and twirl their aerial dance.
When I walk by the sea, I am calmed
blueness stretches to meet blueness or
stormy grey prances with white caps,
the horizon a promise of somewhere else.
When I walk by the sea, I am calmed
worries, fears, a bad day assuaged –
this too will pass a mantra of healing and rebirth
When I walk by the sea, I am calmed.

Playfulness Is Not Out Of The Question

My first published poems were for children and I’ve always been attracted to manipulating words for fun. Perhaps my creative journey needs to return where it began!

I know poems don’t have to rhyme, in fact in some poetry circles it’s almost a criminal offence to write what they consider ‘doggerel’ aka anything with a rhyme. However, I love playing with words, love puns and absurdity.

Sea-Sawing 3
Mairi Neil

I must go down to the sea today
to see the waves and splash
I must go into the sea today
salt water will cure my rash!
The sea has healing powers –
that’s what Mum told me
so, don’t take Nature for granted –
especially the magnificent sea.

You can play in the ocean,
swim, sail, and even water ski
it’s such a wonderful playground
so, always look after the sea.
Don’t pollute the water
home to creatures great and small
because if you listen carefully
you’ll hear the mermaids call…

Here’s to rejuvenation and a renewal of purpose or perhaps I’ll return from my journey and decide to knit and craft – reminders of a lovely period in my life when the girls attended a Steiner school and we immersed our lives in all things natural.

Time will tell.

… what we call the Creative Process is in no way limited to art or to individual acts of creating something. It is in fact, a large ongoing movement in our lives, a force that has its own will and its own purpose, and which we manifest on many levels but in definite sequences… a profoundly sacred process… visible in all aspects of my life…

Burghild Nina Holzer 1993.

 

Ten Ice-Breaking Questions For Writers

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Writing For Pleasure & Publication classes started last week and with several new students in the mix a ‘getting to know you’ exercise important.

Icebreakers

There are lots of Icebreaker Exercises available on the Internet. Questions and games for almost every situation you can imagine – I think I’ve tried them all over the fifteen plus years I’ve been teaching. How do you come up with something original and relevant?

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Like all good writing teachers, (indeed writers), I donned a pirate hat and cobbled together ten questions from a day of research. Writers must be good listeners and observers. They must know themselves and others so they can create believable characters.

From a lesson by Annie Dillard, the great writer of literary nonfiction, Alexander Chee, her student learnt:

You need to turn that attention to yourself. Research yourself… what do you think you can write that you couldn’t write before?… How do I use it in fiction?… I would start next, for me, with what feels real out of what I want to invent. Using your life in fiction doesn’t have to mean only replicating it. That I call the mistake of verisimilitude…

The students could use whatever they gleaned (and it may or may not have been ‘the truth’) to write a mini-bio, a short story, a poem, a newspaper report, magazine column – any piece of writing, any format or genre, from the interviewee and share with the class and at home perhaps write their own bio, or produce another piece of writing triggered by work in class.

Ten Questions

  • If you could live in any sitcom on TV past or present, which one would it be? Why? What character would you be?
  • What do you look for in a friend?
  • Describe the best dessert you have ever had? When was the last time you ate it?
  • It’s Saturday morning. What’s the first thing you do when you wake up? Is there a routine to this day?
  • If you were to get a tattoo, what would it say or what would the graphic be? And where would you put it on your body?
  • Why do you live where you do? How long have you lived there?
  • If you could have been told one thing that you weren’t told when you were a teenager, what would you like to have heard? Why?
  • If you were to write a book what would it be about? Do you have a title?
  • If you could be any animal in the world for 24 hours, which animal would you be? Why?
  • Name your three favourite smells, why are they your favourite and what is it they evoke, or what memories do they trigger?

Experiment with the information you have learned – after you have written a factual piece is there anything to trigger your imagination that you could turn into a fictional story?

images-1.png1. What sitcom character would I be?

  1. Years ago on the ABC, there was a BBC comedy The Good Life. A couple decided to live off the grid and make their suburban house and garden “green” and environmentally sustainable. The good life equating with the simple life.

The blurb says:

A milestone birthday convinces Tom Good to make a change. He talks his wife, Barbara, into giving up the so-called rat race and joining him in a life of simplicity and self-sufficiency. They convert their suburban home into a farm, planting crops in the back garden and bringing in pigs and chickens (including a rooster they name Lenin). The new use of their property comes as something of a shock to their very proper neighbours, Margo and Jerry Leadbetter. A social climber of the first order, Margo can’t bear having chickens roaming the back garden. She’ll have to put up with it, though, since Tom, despite his desire for self-sufficiency, can’t bring himself to kill the chickens.

It aired on TV from 1975-1977

Tom (Richard Briers) turned 40 and in a midlife crisis gave up his job as a designer of the plastic toys that came free with breakfast cereal. (This was really big in the 60s and 70s and as one of six children I can remember having to take turns and arguing over the toys! I guess they were the precursors to the plastic junk given away with McDonalds’ Happy Meals!)

His wife, Barbara (Felicity Kendal), goes along with his aim for sustainable living – their house is paid for and one could say the risks in a change of lifestyle were minimal. However, the conflict and comedy occur when Barbara and Tom continual challenge their friends and neighbours Margo (Penelope Keith) and Jerry (Paul Eddington) and confront their wasteful ways while, as it happens, they often have to rely on them for help!

The self-sufficient lifestyle involves lawns becoming allotments for food not flowers, chickens, and pigs (Pinky and Perky), a goat, and a rooster named Lenin. They generate their own electricity using the animal waste byproduct methane, attempt making their own clothes, have success with homemade wine, and barter and sell produce to bypass and ignore capitalism’s monetary system!

Needless to say, many of the episodes are hilarious.

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Both couples are childless and the political events of the 1970s are used as an effective backdrop because as Bob Dylan warned ‘the times they are a’changing’.

I admired what ‘Tom and Barbara’ tried to do;  the show awakened in me, a real interest in the environment and sustainable living in suburbia.

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Barbara described as –

… a normal, middle-class housewife when the series begins. While she sometimes wilts under Tom’s determined and dominant nature, her sharp tongue puts her on an equal footing. She is the heart of the enterprise, while Tom’s engineering brain designs and builds what they need. She yearns for luxuries but her own determination to succeed, with Tom’s single-minded persuasion, keeps her going.

She was feminine but feisty, practical and independent, compassionate and kind, a loyal friend and well-read and witty, but most of all she had a great sense of humour. What’s not to like?

In many ways, The Good Life was prescient, if not revolutionary – over the years I’ve embraced the mantra reduce, reuse and recycle. I helped make mud bricks for my brother’s Mt Evelyn house, I grow veggies, have solar panels and a water tank. I believe in limiting my footprint on the earth – thank you to Barbara, my inspiration!

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2. What do I look for in a friend?

Many qualities such as – loyalty, honesty, trustworthiness, understanding, compassion, reliability, discretion, support, a good listener, a sense of fun and Monty Pythonesque sense of humour.

I have been and still am blessed with dear friends – special people I love dearly.

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3. What is my favourite dessert and when was the last time I ate it?

My taste in food has changed over the years although my penchant for sweets probably hasn’t. Like most women, I’ll own up to being a chocoholic – hormones the excuse!

My most recent encounter of dining out was at Mordy HQ and always, if Sticky Date Pudding is on the Seniors Menu, it gets my vote. This dessert, all the more delicious because I never make it at home. The same goes for my second choice – cheesecake – there’s something yummy about cooked cheesecake.

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When I reflect, there are two instances when dessert has stood out and in both cases, the delights were one-off occasions so memorable they’re worth writing about.

On our first cruise as a family, we went to the South Pacific on P&O’s Fair Princess in 1997. One special evening, the dining crew marched in bearing Bombe Alaska. The lights were dimmed, the line of waiters glowed. A magnificent line of red and gold-speckled waistcoats on mainly Indonesian and Filipino waiters, their white shirt sleeves stark on stretched arms holding trays aflame.

The delicious dessert of meringue, fluffy sponge and lemon sorbet folded through vanilla ice-cream, studded with juicy raspberries is doused in brandy and set alight just before serving!

A tasty spectacle indeed. Checking the available recipes on the web it seems various fruits and other ingredients and methods can be substituted but they all agree the ‘bonfire’ at the end is what makes it great!

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The other dessert that lives in memory is a meal in London, in a French restaurant, in 1973. My girlfriend, Nobuko worked as a Japanese Air Stewardess for British Airways and we caught up in London. The two pilots on her flight took us out to dinner and the waiter cooked the Crêpes Suzette in front of us at our table. Again this became a once-in-a-lifetime spectacle entailing flames as Grand Marnier and cognac were heated to lift the basic pancake recipe into the realms of the sublime!!

4. Saturday mornings, I usually have no timetable to obey.

No classes to teach, no set time to be anywhere. Luxury. A relaxing breakfast which may extend into a pyjama day if I don’t have to be anywhere or no visitors are expected. In the days when The Age newspaper was delivered, I would have done the crossword but now I might spend time online, check Facebook or maybe curl up in a chair and read, wander the garden, sit at the computer and write.  Occasionally, I may even do housework!

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5. If I ever got a tattoo…

A highly unlikely event, but I’d have a tiny butterfly above my right breast. This would represent transformation because I’ve had to rethink body image since a mastectomy and I must admit I miss my cleavage.

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6. I’ve lived in Mordialloc since 1984

I live in the first, and only house, I’ve ever owned. John and I chose Mordialloc because we both loved the sea. It was easy to fall in love with 21 Albert Street – an old Edwardian weatherboard with character features, including leadlights at the front door.

Crossing the threshold for the first time, I sensed its history but also a benign and calming spirit living within the walls. It became a much-loved home – the girls know no other and in 2002, John died here, in his own bed.

So many precious memories that I’ll leave behind when I too am ‘carried out in a box’.

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Albert Street 1984

7. What knowledge or advice would I have liked to hear as a teenager?

Born into a Scottish Presbyterian family in the 1950s with a strong Protestant work ethic and not yet influenced by the Women’s Liberation Movement, I wish I’d heard that thinking of yourself does not necessarily mean you are selfish.

Guilt, strict sexual mores, and the Protestant work ethic all influences hard to shake! Add the workload expected of mothers when I got married and still out-dated ideas of ‘good wives’ sacrifice and personal denial almost to martyrdom status seemed built into the DNA!

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8. If I write a book about myself…

I’d build on the thousands of words I have already written about my journey to recover from breast cancer. I walked part of the Larapinta Trail not long after I finished chemotherapy to prove to myself life may be different but I still had physical health and strength. It will be called I Feel the Wind in my Hair

9. If I could be any animal for 24 hours

I’d swap places with Aurora,  the family dog. She is loved unconditionally, is totally spoiled with absolutely no responsibilities – nearing thirteen years of age she sometimes forgets to bark fiercely at passersby…

… and she takes the giant part of the Queen-sized bed.

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10. My three favourite smells

Favourites hard to pick because there are many evocative smells I love. However, fresh bread baking sets my olfactory glands working overtime (as does roasting meat) because it reminds me of Mum in the kitchen baking her soda bread, pancakes, scones, Sunday dinner. Yum!

Then there’s the smell of freshly laundered sheets. Whether it is the lemon-scented washing powder and clothes conditioner or just the wonderful fresh air impregnated in cotton, the experience of slipping between fresh sheets absolute heaven.

The other smell is unmistakeable eucalyptus – a pungent reminder of the native trees in my garden and also Vicks Vaporub. The medicinal ointment a reminder of the times during childhood when I’ve been nurtured because of a cold, or when I nursed my daughters.

Another vivid memory is touring Angel Island, a former immigration detention centre and now a state park in San Francisco Bay. Careering around the island on a scenic train and smelling the remnants of a eucalyptus forest planted by an Australian made me homesick!

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Variety Is the Spice of Life

The students interviewed and then introduced each other with sitcom characters ranging from Downtown Abbey’s feminist Isobel and traditionalist Maggie, naughty Brooke in Bold & The Beautiful, Hot Lips Houlihan in MASH, Seinfeld, a reporter or news reader on a current affair show, Julie from Happy Days, the Goldbergs’ neighbour who plays too loud music, the narrator of Wonder Years, Rachel in Friends and Elana in The Vampire Diaries.

Everyone on the same page when it came to qualities expected from friends: loyalty, sense of humour, discretion, non-judgemental, has empathy, trustworthy, good listener, caring, reliable, warm and loving, shows sincerity, respect, has similar interests, reliable and adventurous.

The favourite desserts revealed sweet tooths: plenty of chocoholics, especially dark chocolate, gooey brownies but also date scones. A strong desire for English Trifle with ‘all the trimmings’ (a missed gift from a friend sadly deceased), homemade apple pie and cream, fresh tropical fruit and cream, chocolate mousse, a chocolate-flavoured sundae from ‘Maccas’, homemade pavlova piled high with fruit and cream, and chocolate fondue.

Most people indulged their dessert desires recently because of Christmas but one unlucky writer is now lactose intolerant so fondues no more!

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Cats and dogs top the list for animals to be: students wanted to see the world from a dog’s perspective for 24 hours and understand how they interpret human emotions and moods, being a cat would be interesting, or a lion and be leader of the pack, perhaps having the fecundity of a rabbit; a tiny dog is loved and spoiled, dogs have fun, cats get to explore places and are well fed, they’re astute and can work out humans. Someone wanted to be a lioness because they are courageous, proud, and protective.

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The topics chosen to write about varied: a book to help young people understand mental illness, My Melbourne – a book about Aussie life from the 1930s onwards, an autobiography called A Life of Changes, a memoir, family history, autobiography, So She Did, detective stories for children including a clever, funny dog, an autobiography with lots of pop culture references Big Brother in the Suburbs – aka 1984, book of travel experiences, Lauren’s Storybook, Eli’s Story

People lived in a variety of settings:  family homes, with parents, daughters, alone, near public transport, near the sea, in retirement villages, some were long term residents, others recent arrivals. There were houses, apartments and units, gardens and nearby parks or foreshore, ordinary views or scenic views.

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The exercise was a great ice-breaker and getting to know you exercise.

It encouraged observation, listening skills, perception, and attention to detail. At home, there will be plenty of reflection, perhaps research, and maybe the start of longer stories, a poem or novel and/or character sketches.

Information on real life people has been shared, realistic settings and a reminder to include the senses, particularly the sense of smell when writing.

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The sense of smell a powerful memory booster and the range of evocative smells included: gourmet cheese and chocolate, flowers like rosemary, scented candles, Estee Lauder perfume, the smell of husband/lover, the rose Black Beauty, food cooking, roast meat especially rabbit, which was eaten a lot after the war, Paco Rabanne aftershave, Chanel Number 5, yellow roses, lavender, Daphne, roast chicken, sausages cooking, Dad’s deodorant, new packaging when stuff ordered from E-Bay, garlic in food, paprika, lavender oil, boyfriend’s aftershave, family dog, jasmine scented candle…

I’m looking forward to listening to the homework – these are exercises anyone can do, you don’t need a partner – interview yourself!

Please feel free to share anything you’re inspired to write because as Annie Dillard’s student noted –

You know the least about your life precisely because, for living in it, you might barely notice it.

 Remember we are pirates, so let’s share the treasures unearthed…

Now Back to Writing

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

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

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

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

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

Stop   Breathe   Reflect…

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

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

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Haiku by Mairi Neil

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

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

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

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

Why Write?

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

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

2016 – A Reflection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I make a choice to be happy.

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

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A snap Anat’s father took of the first meeting

 

Some Student Reflections:

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

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Reflect
Mairi Neil

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

For now, I’ll

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Mordialloc Sunset
Mairi Neil

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Fortnight, Fear, And The Future

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The months of media speculation finally over and the world now waits with bated breath to see what kind of president Donald Trump will be.

I’m not going to pretend that his win and some of the views of his supporters not only depress and sadden me but also leave a huge question mark over whether the world as we know it will get better or worse.

I feel like I’m in a Monty Python skit and agreeing with John Cleese’s view on life,  ‘what is the bloody point!’

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However, we have survived upheavals and bad leaders before, and now is the time for writers, poets and songwriters to speak up, and letter writers to get busy –

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For several days, I hoped Trump’s election was a bad dream. But as we see protocols and conventions corrupted and ignored,  an array of extreme right-wing, racist, and rabid people placed in powerful positions, we have to accept this is the reality for four years – maybe longer.

A bleak future but we can prove the pen is mightier than the sword and an effective weapon as Trump’s success  unleashes a new push from the ‘loony’ right (climate-change deniers et al) that will make any progress incredibly hard to achieve. The environment an area where we will have to work hard to convince those in authority and the doubting public, we can’t afford to dither or go backwards.

No More Divisive Slogans

The slogan ‘make America great again’ a frightening premonition of what could come and the people who will be excluded, exiled, ejected, expelled, perhaps even eliminated if the KKK have their way!

The implication being America was great before the inclusion of immigrants, empowered women, LBGTIQ and civil rights for African Americans, that ideas and voices of modern America don’t matter, and as Trump’s corporate America tramples over the rights of the Sioux in Dakota, neither do Native Americans. 

I hope many of those who voted for change rather than Trump’s extreme positions will now work to make  change happen decently and fairly and will speak up against divisive policies.

There are plenty of Americans who will challenge outrageous decisions and prove the campaign rhetoric wrong, just as many activists here rally regularly when they feel the government needs reminding to govern for all communities.

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Our community defines us as much as we define our community!

I believe in people power, the power of community, the importance of belonging and inclusion – of welcoming difference rather than embracing fear.

Working in community houses, starting and belonging to community groups, I’ve learned that people have more in common than what divides them – most people want a peaceful world where they can go about their business, bring up their kids, and be happy and healthy.

I love the message from Kev Carmody and Paul Kelly’s song From Little Things, Big Things Grow  – the Gurindji stayed resolute for over 8 years in their fight for land rights and pay equity – an inspiration and example of not giving up.

Recent experiences of the wonderful work being done in our diverse community have kept me sane while the media feeds on a frenzy of bad news.

To stop being smothered by the cloud of despair, I have to be pro-active seeking out people with similar values, people who not only care but do something to make it a better world.

Marriot Support Services AGM

“Specialising in the areas of day services, transition programs and employment for adults with intellectual disabilities, Marriott Support Services is a not-for-profit organisation. It is our aim to achieve greater inclusion in the wider community for people with disability. Let us stand beside you while you reach your goals.  “

I discovered Marriott when Jen, one of the program managers came to my Professional Writing & Editing Class held Monday evenings at Godfrey Street Community House, Bentleigh in 2012 -13.

Marriot offers people with disabilities choices and opportunities for the whole of their adult life in the areas of:

  • Employment
  • Day Services
  • Transition

The organisation, established in the 70s, relies heavily on volunteers as well as government grants. It is also pro-active in generating their own income in various enterprises.

Marriott Industries operates in a modern, fully equipped 3,600 square metre factory offering a suite of services including Pick’n’Pack, Light Assembly, Collating, Sorting, Re Work, Promotional Packs, Shrink Wrapping, Container Unloads and a complete Fulfilment Service.

 Marriott Enviro Services specialises in medium to large commercial horticultural and landcare management.  A qualified management team has decades of horticultural experience between them. Managers and supervisors work alongside a team of 60 employees, in crews of three to five.

Our fleet of modern, well-maintained vehicles and machinery allows us to complete jobs on time and within budget in the areas of:
  • Landcare Management
  • Landscaping
  • Mowing/Commercial
  • Garden Maintenance

 

At the AGM, the auditor reported a healthy bank balance, guest speaker Tim Wilson MP and Virginia Rogers, Chair of Marriott’s Board presented numerous awards for years of service and achievement – the volunteer input ranging from one  to thirty years!

In the room, the enthusiasm, pride and commitment from clients, parents and staff abounded! None more so than the enthusiastic choir (the Marriott Musos) who invited Tim and Virginia to join them in a unique rendition of ‘We Still Call Australia Home’.

marriot-musos

Jen met my daughter, Mary Jane and after learning about her skills in media arts invited Mary Jane to get involved with Marriott.

Mary Jane volunteered and then worked on a digital story project, about people building the social fabric through volunteering. This was funded by a grant from Glen Eira Council.

Networking and six degrees of separation at work…

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Jen and Mary Jane

The project was launched at the AGM and several stories were presented. These can be accessed from Marriott’s website, some are on Youtube:

Jessie’s story

Chris’s story

Jeffrey’s story

Stephanie’s Story

Andrew’s Story

I was a proud mother at the AGM seeing Mary Jane’s digital stories presented – stories celebrating difference and inclusion – stories empowering the participants, stories that may make people think differently about disability.

Mentone Public Library – A Community Asset for 91 Years

I attended another AGM as a participant, not an observer. Mentone Public Library is probably the last subscription library still operating in Victoria and enthusiastically run by a volunteer committee of two now: Julia Reichstein and Tony Brooker.

The AGM revealed a volunteer drought in the City of Kingston, yet the need for the wonderful work Julia and Tony do in promoting local authors, many of whom may not be promoted elsewhere, is obvious.

It is an uphill battle for little known or first-time authors  to be read or afford publicity – Julia’s monthly author events have allowed the public to meet, listen and get up close and personal (yes, the space is small!) with many writers, including Mordialloc Writers’ Group who read selections from Kingston My City for Seniors’ Week celebrations after Amanda Apthorpe read from her latest novel.

A serious looking me with Amanda after her detailed talk about the Greek mythology underpinning her novels. And below, three long-term  members of Mordialloc Writers’ Group: Jillian Bailey, Maureen Hanna and Glenice Whitting.

Next Saturday ( November 26) Glenice Whitting will be the guest author promoting her latest novel, Something Missing.

Two current Kingston councillors and two past councillors were present at the AGM, plus the retiring volunteer Treasurer Lorna (who wants to write her family history and memoir!), the Secretary of the local history society, and a recent volunteer Paul who has retired from the public service and wants to get involved in a community group. (Paul coincidentally used to attend Mordialloc Writers many years ago – yes, it is a small world!)

Two local writers were at the meeting – me and Yvette from Blue Chair Poets. It was a pity more writers who have benefitted from the author events didn’t accept the invitation to attend because Julia and Tony welcomed ideas about how to maintain the library and keep hosting author events for the community. The discussion would have been enriched by more stakeholders contributing their voices.

Although Julia was happy sending me this email:

Thank-you all so much for your attendance, support and input today. You brought much food for thought and instilled in the library team much confidence and hope for the future. We look forward to working with you and hosting you again at the library for future events and meetings.

Writing Class and End Of Year Anthologies

Another event that kept me from sinking into the black hole is the organising of end-of -year anthologies for the classes I teach in neighbourhood houses.

When reading the wonderful stories, poems, anecdotes, memoir and short stories everyone has produced, I relive the amazing discussions we have in class.

I hear the voices, the tears, the laughter and joy. I am in awe of the imaginative use of words, the profound reflections on life,  and the untold stories from history.

The collections bear witness to the hard work writers put in polishing their words. The pride and sense of achievement when they hold printed copies in their hands and can’t believe how much they have written over the term.

I’m still editing and collating but gradually getting there – what would writers be without deadlines! What would I be without writing to focus on!

Learning from ABI

And finally for this post, another group in the community that keeps me grounded and appreciative of family, friends and good health.

These last few months, I’ve been facilitating  Chat ‘N Chuckle,  a social get-together Friday fortnights of people with ABI (Acquired Brain Injury) either by accidents (overwhelmingly in motor vehicles) or through strokes.

The group organised by Belinda Jordan, Community Development Officer of Glen Eira City Council, but initiated by one of my students, Anat Bigos who had a traumatic car accident 11 years ago. Anat is a fantastic example of no matter what hand life deals, play it to the best of your ability.

Anat lives with short-term memory loss as well as reduced physical agility, as do many who have ABI. The patience and understanding the group have with each other and the sense of humour about the vagaries of changed minds and bodies is humbling and inspirational.

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There are 16 participants in the group, with numbers fluctuating each fortnight according to people’s availability, but on average 8 or 9 turn up to share stories and have a chuckle! The expertise and life experience in the group range from young people in their early 20s to older retired people.

Often carers will sit in too and share their interesting lives.

Opportunities for research projects and tips to improve mobility and memory are swapped with many of the group presenting regularly to schools.

Last Friday Phillip, who had a stroke that ended his accountancy career, showed us a short film he uses when he talks to school children about APHASIA The Treasure Hunt an award winning animation.

Aphasia is an impairment of language, affecting the production or comprehension of speech and the ability to read or write. Aphasia is always due to injury to the brain-most commonly from a stroke, particularly in older individuals. But brain injuries resulting in aphasia may also arise from head trauma, from brain tumors, or from infections.

Aphasia can be so severe as to make communication with the patient almost impossible, or it can be very mild. It may affect mainly a single aspect of language use, such as the ability to retrieve the names of objects, or the ability to put words together into sentences, or the ability to read. More commonly, however, multiple aspects of communication are impaired, while some channels remain accessible for a limited exchange of information.

As a writer, I can’t imagine what it would be like not recognising words, losing words from my vocabulary, or being confused and mixing up words.

This group of ‘chatty chucklers,’show such dedication to getting on with life to the best of their ability.  They are examples of  how a community builds relationships with a sense of purpose and mutual respect. An example of surviving against the odds.

So despite the doom and gloom elsewhere, I do appreciate and feel blessed that in my tiny corner of the world there are many people working to make life better for others. There is no magic wand just magical people!

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Mingary, The Quiet Place, May Save Your Sanity

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Like many others, I’m waiting (and dreading) the outcome of the American Presidential Campaign.
Like many others, I fear a Trump triumph.
Like many others, I have reservations about Hillary Clinton.
Like many others, I struggle to find a politician here or abroad to admire, or who gives hope for the future of a peaceful world.
Like many others, I despair at the suffering of wars and natural disasters, the world refugee crisis, global warming… so much to overwhelm, destabilise, destroy any sense of wellbeing or being in control.

So to chill out, I remember a wonderful find, a haven to be accessed physically, or if unable to transport to Melbourne, accessed virtually via the web.

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I stumbled on Mingary, the quiet place when I Googled ‘serenity’ for another blog post. Up popped a link to Mingary, ‘a quiet place’, a haven on the west side of St Michael’s Church, corner of Collins and Russell Street, Melbourne.

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I’ve received a lot of strength from my upbringing but classify myself as an agnostic and bookmarked Mingary as a place to visit. The idea of a calm oasis in the busyness of the city appealed to me. Somewhere to go, rest, recoup energy, reflect on life.

The website has photographs and explanations but if you visit physically (a must!) pick up the booklet prepared by Dr Francis Macnab, which includes his poetry.

In addition to his duties as a minister, Dr Macnab founded and is Executive Director of the Cairnmillar Institute which has been at the forefront of counselling, psychotherapy and trauma therapy for more than 50 years.

His commitment to psychological health is rich as he also runs The Big Tent Project which provides therapy for kindergarten children as well as his S.A.G.E project aimed at people 55 – 105 years of age.

Dr Macnab frequently puts pen to paper and has published more than 25 books and is an internationally renowned public speaker, having spoken at several international conferences.

He is the former president of the International Council of Psychologists and a one-time research fellow at Aberdeen University.

**Mingary is of the Gaelic language, which is regarded as the second oldest language in Europe. With origins in the Middle East, the Celts brought it along the Northern Mediterranean, through Western Europe to Ireland and finally to Scotland.

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This place is FREE in every sense of the word, non-denominational, spiritual, not religious, no sales traps or conversion techniques. You take what you want from the visit and can go into the foyer of the church, where there are explanatory brochures and booklets, notices of lunchtime concerts and lectures.

Mingary, The Quiet Place
Dr Francis Macnab

The gates are open.
You stand in the doorway, your foot on the Welcome Stone.
The walls reach out and enfold you with the softening lights.
The large table rock is held in position by two upright rocks – the need for more than one support.
The table rock itself has a deep crevice depicting life’s deep traumas.
Water flows down the rock and falls into the bowl of peace and quietness.

In the bowl are two small rocks –
The red rock is the gift of descendants of the Aboriginal tribe, the Wurundjeri, who once knew this place as theirs;
The green marble rock is from the Isle of Iona, off the coast of Scotland.

Arising from the table rock is the wind of the dove, the ancient symbol of new life and hope. It is turning towards the east wall where a glow of light signifies the beginning of a new day – the hope of all who are going through times of stress or sadness.

As you leave, notice the granite rock at the doorway.
Water run gently over it as a symbol of the flow of life by which we are constantly renewed.

Let there be silence in this place.
In the silence there is strength. And there is healing.

Come in silence – leave in silence.

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**Iona means dove. It is the place of the dove. For many years thousands of people have travelled to Iona for reflection, learning and inspiration.


While I was growing up in a Christian household, I often heard the name Dr Francis Macnab. My Father was an elder in the Church of Scotland, and later when we came to Australia became an elder in the Presbyterian, later Uniting Church, at Croydon.

Mum and Dad were involved in the church in many capacities: Mum in the Ladies Fellowship, later the Women’s Guild (the name change could be the other way around!), and she also bottled honey and raised funds for the Ecumenical Migration Centre for more than two decades.

Mum’s faith was unquestioning but Dad struggled and sometimes lapsed in attendance, hence his interest in the work of Dr Francis Macnab who was unafraid to explore and challenge the traditional church regarding teachings, rules of behaviour, social justice issues, peace, dying with dignity, gender roles and the position of women.

Not surprisingly, Macnab a trained psychologist specialises in helping people cope with the pressures and stress of life, but also seeking to guide us towards a more equitable and peaceful society.

My father was often deeply troubled and struggled with inner demons and I wish Mingary had been available for him to visit, perhaps it would have helped him to sit in silence and reflect, absorb the serenity, contemplate.

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The Mingary Prayer
Dr Francis Macnab

Restore in us
A peaceful mind.
A strengthened spirit.

Restore to us
A new pathway –
a new hope, and a new purpose.

Restore for us
The courage to let go of what is past.
The readiness and strength to walk,
towards the future.

Restore in us
A union with the energy
of this sacred place
and a union with the
soul of the universe.

As we touch the Rock
help us draw strength from the stone.

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Needless to say, ‘the road to heaven is paved with good intentions’ and months passed, rushed trips in and out of the city.  Mingary forgotten – until the anniversary of John’s death in September.

I had to attend a seminar at the Hyatt Hotel, which happens to be opposite St Michael’s Church, host to Mingary. September 21 always emotionally challenging and despite fourteen years having passed, a switch inside clicked and nerve ends tingled: I felt on edge, teary, couldn’t concentrate…  sadness and grief weighed on my heart, a flat, cold stone.

I floated out of the Hyatt adrift on a sea of sadness, looked across the road and remembered Mingary.

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In the foyer of St Michael’s I heard wonderful orchestral music and joyous voices accompanied by the strains of a magnificent organ. A crowd of happy, engaged faces filed from the lunchtime concert expressing their good fortune at hearing one of Melbourne’s finest musicians.

An elderly man busied himself, and I interrupted his tidying and checking pews.

“How do I get to Mingary?”

Kindly eyes smiled. ‘Normally, you can go through that door,’ he pointed to a door blocked off ‘For Renovations’. Apologetic, he asked me to follow and pointed outside, ‘You go down the stairs, turn right at the bottom, walk a short distance and up the stairs round the corner.’

‘Thank you, ‘ I said and fled, suddenly embarrassed. I’d picked up a brochure about Mingary including details of counselling services. Was everyone seeking solace depressed? Would he think me mad? What did he see when he looked at me? Were my indecision, worry, and fragile emotional state obvious?

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Within moments I sat in the serene space of Mingary. I was not alone.

A young man sat in the corner shopping bags on the floor beside his chair. His eyes closed, hands clasped in prayer.

I too closed my eyes.

I concentrated on the trickling water as sounds of the city: footsteps, voices, trams, cars – all faded. Conscious of movement, I opened my eyes.

The young man stood up, stretched, walked back and forth with deliberate steps, moved his arms into practised shapes –  Yoga, Tai Chi poses? He then sat down and returned to prayer.

I examined the sculpture in the centre of the room, watched light dance with shadows, thought of the stone connecting the place with the First People and the stone from my birth country.

St Ninian came from Iona and the church we attended in Scotland bore his name. Memories of childhood and adulthood. Of being John’s friend, lover, wife, of the birth of my children, the death of my parents, and John, my ill-health, cancer, fears for the present and future – nano thoughts, nano seconds…

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He Restoreth My Soul

 

Breathe
Dr Francis Macnab

Breathe out the airs of grief and sorrow.
Breathe in the airs of healing and consolation.

Breathe out the airs of guilt and unforgiveness.
Breathe in the airs of freedom and release.

Breathe out the airs of uncertainty and anxiety.
Breathe in the airs of hope and courage.

Breathe out the airs of solitude and loneliness.
Breathe in the airs of self-soothing and restoring strength.

Breathe out the airs of being here.
Breathe in the airs that bring solace
and strength to the way you will live.

The young man left. I walked around the sculpture, touched the sacred stone, marvelled at the artist’s vision and talent.

I sat and contemplated some more.  I listened to the quietness and took the time to refocus.

Contemplation of birth, life, and death.
Counting blessings not depressings
Calmness about the future
Courage to accept the past
Celebration of the moment
A joy and gladness and thankfulness
for the vision of people like Dr Francis Macnab
Gratitude for my Father’s questioning, seeking and
acceptance of my freedom of thought
my Mother’s unconditional Love and acceptance
Love for John, his gift to me of Anne and Mary Jane.

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Restored. Renewed. Reasonable. Replenished. Refreshed. Refurbished. Revitalised. Relaxed.

Time can heal. 

I remembered an old writing task:

5 things that make me happy:

**Yes writing is on my happy list because I love words with a passion.

  1. Nature: Birdsong and watching birds cavort in the garden – especially the wattlebirds feeding on the grevillea and the magpies searching the ground for worms or carolling to each other from the electric wires.Birds with attitude.
  2. Clean sheets:- I love getting into bed between clean sheets, the smooth feel and fresh smell.
  3. Family: I’m happy when my daughters are – Mary Jane’s witticisms her infectious laugh; Anne’s smile lighting up her deep blue eyes and when she shares stories of her travels.
  4. Writing: I’m happy when the words come and I can finish a writing project.
  5. Friendship: I’m happy when I get a phone call from friends to chat, catch up over a coffee, drop-in for a visit, or walk along the foreshore.

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In these tumultuous times, it takes increasing effort to remain positive, even more, effort to remain serene.  In Life Stories & Legacies we did a writing exercise and discussed comfort and comfort zones. How much wellbeing is linked to what makes you happy:

What or who brings you comfort?  Why? In what way? How often?

  • A hug, (from whom? or who do you give a hug to?)
  • the low vibration of a purring cat,
  • the warmth of a dog
  • the chirping of birds
  • the smell of fresh flowers
  • fuzzy slippers and a favourite housecoat/dressing gown,
  • special socks
  • a favourite cardigan/jumper
  • a special rug/pillow
  • ice cream,
  • money in the bank,
  • Johnny Walker or perhaps a Vodka and Orange?
  • A cup of tea
  • A latte/expresso/flat white/long black
  • Horlicks/Ovaltine/Milo
  • Chocolate
  • a special song on the radio/record player/CD player
  • a special prayer
  • quiet time in a special place – a church, a temple
  • writing
  • reading
  • walking
  • a special friend
  • children
  • grandchildren
  • parents
  • grandparents
  • siblings

Why do certain things make you feel comforted?

  • Have you any advice for people who are stressed or may need comfort from sadness, grief, loneliness, or separation?
  • Can you recite a prayer, a poem, an extract from a book, a proverb – some useful mantra?
  • Have you always been able to find some comfort or was there a time when serenity was too difficult?
  • What colour represents comfort to you? What sound? What taste? What place or thing?

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Sometimes We Need To Pause

juvenile-butcherbird

A Juvenile Grey Butcherbird Belts Out a Rollicking Song.

Mairi Neil

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

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

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

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

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

Writing The Senses

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

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

The Smell of Morning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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