When Life Throws a Curveball, Love, Friendship and Kindness Nurtures Resilience

 

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message on My Journey Kit

Last month breast cancer loomed large in my life again when an annual mammogram and ultrasound detected a small tumour.

If the worry about bushfires and climate change wasn’t enough to shatter equilibrium, here was a personal crisis requiring me to face pain, grief, loss and other assaults on happiness.

Supposedly, the season of goodwill, quality family time and holidays –  I had a list to complete:

  • putting up a tree and decorations so the glorious smell of pine resonated throughout the house confirming Christmas
  • celebrating the successes of the year – my daughter and I published four books for people wanting to leave a record of their life or a legacy for family
  • publishing a class anthology – an annual event to crown a year or semester of writing for my students
  • shopping for presents for loved ones and friends and writing cards or emails for those annual catch-ups
  • planning outings for visitors from overseas and looking forward to returning a little of the hospitality I received when I travelled to Europe and UK 2017
  • cleaning and decluttering and other rituals associated with Hogmanay – the traditional Scottish New Year, which since childhood signals clean sweeps of cupboards and wardrobes
  • writing a final blog post for the year to share my poems published and play shortlisted in 2019 enabling me to lay claim to the title ‘creative writer’ …

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The best-laid schemes of mice and men gang aft a-gley

Rabbie Burns

Diary of An Unwelcome Diagnosis

Monday, December 2     Mammogram and ultrasound at Mentone. The radiologist said nothing but her body language; the time spent on the ultrasound, the check of x-rays just completed …  a tiny fear formed in my stomach …

‘When are you seeing the breast specialist?’

‘Thursday.’

‘Good. He’ll get the results and report.’

Thursday, December 5  the annual check-up with breast surgeon Peter – nine years since my mastectomy.  I could tell by his body language this visit was not going to end with Happy Christmas…

‘Not great news… something there, probably a cyst… how do you feel?’

‘I’ve had pain, on and off … thought it was coming from my neck …  too many hours at the computer…’

Ever solicitous and kind, Peter asked if he could examine me,

‘Where is the pain… Good, not about the pain but I can’t feel any lump, can you?’

‘No.’

He showed me the mammogram report and the ‘cyst’ causing concern…

Conclusion: New right breast 8 o’clock lesion 50mm from the nipple. This can represent complex cyst or fibroadenoma, ultrasound guided biopsy will be helpful.

‘I’ve arranged for you to have a biopsy tomorrow at Mentone – a fine needle aspiration, and, if necessary, a needle core biopsy.’

‘Needle core biopsy? Oh, that hurts… I remember…’

‘Probably won’t be necessary and I’ve requested Dr Ron Sher do it – the top man!’

Friday, December 6   I spent the night convincing myself and the girls it was a cyst. Routine follow-up biopsy. Peter being cautious. Rather than have my daughters miss work, I caught the train to Mentone and arranged to text my dear friend Lesley when finished.

I’ve had several needle aspirations and knew it would be uncomfortable but did not realise how rough that day would be.

The small room filled quickly with ultrasound equipment, two radiologists and a nurse who with Florence Nightingale compassion held my hand and stroked my arm as a fine needle aspiration became 5 core biopsies.

I received some local anaesthetic permissible for the procedure and remember stilted snatches of conversation as I fought back tears to survive the torture. Everyone was thoroughly professional and empathetic, apologising for the pain being inflicted and allowing me to catch my breath between ‘shots.’

With a collective sigh of relief almost an hour later, I took my bruised breast and instructions for care – and left.

‘You’ll get the results Wednesday at the latest.’

Again, a reading of the body language started foreboding… Lesley took one look at my flushed face and asked if I wanted to go straight home rather than have the coffee and chat we planned.

‘No, if I go home, I’ll curl into a ball and cry – let’s go to Truly Scrumptious and overindulge. I’ll buy you lunch and promise not to cry in public!

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Truly Scrumptious lives up to its name; the ambience, food and service always great. And Lesley, my oldest and dearest friend in Mordialloc, was the most understanding and ideal companion for the start or was it the continuation, of my breast cancer journey.

‘Can’t believe it’s nine years,’ we said in unison as we sat down facing each other.

Later with a heightened sense that life is finite, I admired how window boxes outside softened bricks and mortar, beautifying ugliness.

Lesley shared her knowledge of plants, explaining the popularity and usefulness of Star Jasmine. (She bought this plant for me a couple of days later. Bless her!)

I’m greeted at home with a ‘pamper pack’ from my daughters: Vera and Shetland DVDs, massage oil, Bio-oil, a crossword book, chocolate, butter menthols, Rescue Remedy, calming Lavender oil – no pretence, memories of years before, a fear voiced and unvoiced – suppression of mild panic?

Lots of spontaneous hugs and expressions of love.

 Monday, December 9   Sitting at the computer, completing the final edit of a class anthology, Peter rang to say the pathology arrived.

‘I need to see you tomorrow and you’ll be in the hospital next week.’

It was after 8.30pm. A little voice inside commended his diligence for checking the pathology results and letting me know straight away but I blurted,

‘I can’t come tomorrow, I’m working. It’s the last class for the year… I can’t miss it…’

‘Well, come to my rooms as soon as you can after finishing work. I’ll tell my secretary to expect you when you can make it.’

Concentration weakened and no ‘good’ night’s sleep ahead!

I made stupid mistakes editing the class anthology – thankfully, my work (always the last included) and not a student’s.

The copy since corrected – bless the digital world! But the news of cancer returning was the beginning of a month of inner turmoil and ‘putting on a brave front’, the shrivelling of any desire to write or have confidence in what to write.

Read the anthology here – some fine writing from the students and always interesting to see the varied reactions to same or similar prompts: Longbeach place anthology December 2019

Tuesday, December 10   while preparing for the final class of the year radiologist Ingrid from Mentone rings, ‘How are you feeling? How is your breast?’

I’ve never had a follow-up phone call before and thank her while explaining I’d be seeing Peter that afternoon. I got through the class with a tight knot in my stomach and tears burning the back of eyelids.

After sharing the disconcerting news and showered with love and concern for what lay ahead, we played some fun writing games.

Would this be the last class I teach?

 

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Some writers in the anthology: standing – Susan O’Shea, Ann Hammann, Cynthia Tuvel and sitting: yours truly, Tricia Wasson and Judy Keller.

Late afternoon, daughter Mary Jane came in with me to hear Peter explain the result of the biopsies. He showed me the report – a paragraph of scientific gobbledegook swimming before my eyes but the last line, in capitals and underlined:

 

RIGHT BREAST 8.00 5CM FROM NIPPLE CORE BIOPSY – FEATURES CONSISTENT WITH ADENOID CYSTIC CARCINOMA.

‘This is a rare cancer, but we’ve caught it early. You may need some radiotherapy but no chemo…’

I glanced at Mary Jane who was taking notes (always have someone you trust with a notebook!) in case I mishear or forget the conversation.

Tears glisten and she struggles to keep it together while I surprise myself at feeling so calm. I joke to break the tension,

‘Of course, it’s a rare cancer, I’m a rare person!’

Amid the laughter, Peter explains I’d have a blood test before I leave and his receptionist will explain the arrangements for a sentinel node biopsy and hospital booking.

In a room down the corridor, Jack draws blood – an unusually pain-free experience. Well done Jack!

Many people struggle to get blood from my veins – and it’s not because I’m Scots and we give nothing away!

While Jack worked, we discussed taste in movies – he was young but didn’t like Sci-Fi or Marvel movies, preferring Realism.

Then he expressed his annoyance with computer technology – a new program recently installed by IT made his life more difficult not easier.  Ah, a familiar story – just hope whatever details of mine fed into the machine arrive where they’re supposed to!

In the evening, daughter Anne stays the night – there are tears, cuddles, cider, a favourite funny DVD that has us laughing…

We’ll get through whatever lies ahead – we’ve done it before. There’ll be disrupted sleep patterns ahead, inappropriate food choices (who said chocolate is bad for you?) and a rollercoaster of emotional energy including outbursts, tears, withdrawal and fear.

We cancel our holiday to Port Campbell booked months ago. We were to leave on Boxing Day but with the operation scheduled for Tuesday 17th, I probably won’t feel in holiday mode, nursing a sore boob. Nor will I be able to walk the dog and the attraction of Port Campbell was the dog-friendly cabin.

Wednesday, December 11  I receive a call from Brightways, a breast care nurse cancer service. They want me to come to Cabrini on Friday morning and talk about the operation, what to expect and how they can support me.

Beautiful flowers arrive from Tash, a dear friend who claims to be daughter number 3:

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Joy and Fun lighten the mood…

At 10.00am my friend Jillian picks me up and we attend an end-of-year concert by Silver Blades, the Olympic Ice Skating Group of Oakleigh.

Jillian’s friend Rosey one of the group that is a mix of ages. However, the majority retired and/or aged pensioners. Seniors skating on (thin?) ice – haha!

To the strains of Abba’s Mamma Mia and other upbeat tunes, the Silver Maids (and a token male) glide around a skating rink I hadn’t visited for 40 years.

The solo displays of skill, fun, themed, team displays, glossy and glittery costumes, and a grand parade delightful and impressive.

Suddenly, it’s home time. Thank you, Jillian, for a bright spot in a so so week!

On the drive home I reminisce about teenage years in the late 60s.

A carload of excited adolescents looking for romance and excitement or just freedom from the mundane travelled from Croydon to Oakleigh on Friday or Saturday nights.

We spent most of the evening clinging to the barrier, bumping into each other or on our bottoms before returning home sitting on towels to protect the car upholstery.

I remember a lot of laughter, cold numbness of hands and feet and the discomfort of wet jeans!

Jillian is my walking buddy, a good friend, and an inspiration. A patient of Peter’s who survived breast cancer – twice, she shared that her second cancer different too and occurred thirteen years after the first!

I imagine Jillian has experienced the tangle of thoughts coursing through my mind.  A FB post makes me think Google is listening not just to my spoken words but thoughts!

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Wednesday, December 11   News is spreading to dear friends and family. A close friend and writing colleague, Lisa turns up with a beautifully worded card, a box of sunshine, plus empathy and support.

I can unpack the contents one by one or all at once – I do it gradually but here are pics of the wonderful, thoughtful, organic products – what a box of loving sunshine!

Another friend Glenice pops in with ‘fun’ presents for under the tree and words of love and encouragement. Her husband’s health is frail yet she’s taken time out to visit me and I know she is supporting others through health crises.

Emails from friends and relatives in the UK and those living here also cards form ex-students. The cliches ‘no news is good news’ and ‘bad news travels fast’ spring to mind.

Maureen calls and continues to do so regularly, also sends texts and emails. She visits with chocolates, DVDs and buckets of love.

Barbara calls and later visits with a gorgeous orchid.

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All the support and love is humbling… and a sharing of the collective strength of resilient women memorable.

‘I bounce – we bounce!’

Thursday, December 12  Longbeach Place staff break-up lunch at Chelsea RSL. A nice meal and we cover various topics while not dwelling too long on stories about breast or any other cancer!

I learn that the State Government funding body has decided not to fund writing classes in neighbourhood houses – not enough employability outcomes for the demographic attracted to the classes. Not surprising since many of the students have retired that’s why they have the time to study non-Accredited courses in community houses. But surely improving skills and education access doesn’t stop – whatever happened to a commitment to lifelong learning?

I’m disappointed we seem to have moved far away from the initial concept of why community houses developed and that wellbeing and social capital don’t get a look in nowadays.

Yet, so many studies and reports talk about the challenge of our ageing population, combatting loneliness and depression, cultivating belonging, easing the tragedy of mental illness, the need for ESL students to learn the nuances of English, the importance of recording personal histories.

Ah, well, interesting timing…

quote about being

Friday, December 13   Superstitious people say the day is unlucky but I have already compromised my luck! Anyway, Dad always said 13 can be lucky – he was thirteenth in his family, was born on 13th March and had thirteen letters in his name. He always chose 13 as his lucky number.

Bronwyn, the smiling face on the Brightways brochure meets us at Cabrini. She explains the role of breast care nurses and gives me a lovely floral pillow to use post-op.

There is not an available bra in my size but she promises they will post a free Berlei bra to me. I’m advised to register for My Journey Kit from Breast Cancer Network Australia. The kit available online.

‘Thank goodness – I remember when the hard copy arrived by express post last time.’

‘Yes, the size of a couple of house bricks,’ Bronwyn said with a smile.

‘Overwhelming too – at least online I can choose what to read, download or skip.’

Thank you Berlei – funding My Care Kit is an altruistic, much appreciated financial commitment.

Estimated number of new cases of breast cancer diagnosed in 2019
19,535 =   164 males +  19,371 females

Estimated number of deaths from breast cancer in 2019
3,090 =   32 males +   3,058 females

Chance of surviving at least 5 years (2011–2015)  91%

People living with breast cancer at the end of 2014 (diagnosed in the 5 year period 2010 to 2014)              71,943

Data source: (https://ncci.canceraustralia.gov.au/diagnosis/cancer-incidence/cancer-incidence)

I’m not special – just one of many living with a breast cancer diagnosis – I acknowledge how entitled and fortunate I am to be in Australia with a network of professionals and access to excellent medical care…

At Cabrini, there were reminders of Christmas and the spirit of giving:

On the way home, we discuss the information about the operation – a lumpectomy this time – and the logistics of getting to and from the hospital.

We’re aiming for upbeat.

I notice a car parked by the side of the road and we giggle about alternative business names after Anne googles the company…

The girls drop me home and pick up a Christmas tree. We spend a lovely couple of hours decorating the tree, discussing arrangements for Christmas Day and leaving all Christmas shopping to them.

I almost feel normal!

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Monday, December 16   On this date, 57 years ago, nine-year-old me arrived in Australia with my family. This bit of sentimental trivia sprung to mind as I prepared to go to I-MED Radiology Moorabbin for a Sentinel Node Injection before surgery.

They sent me a video to watch to prepare – this is not a pain-free procedure you’d volunteer for!

Jess, the young lass who injected small amounts of radioactive dye around my nipple apologised for the pain and said I was very brave – often people cry or baulk at the procedure.

After the injections, I had to massage the breast to make sure the fluid distributes evenly. ‘Positively erotic,’ I joke, ‘if it wasn’t so painful!’

Jess and Mary Jane laugh.

The next step, a scan and gamma-ray photo to show the radiation has highlighted the tumour and lymph nodes. Apart from a dull ache in the breast and the beginning of a tension headache, I feel fine. Alas, no turning into the Hulk with super strength!

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Tuesday, December 17   The Blue Moon rose growing outside my window, vibrant and beautiful as I got into the car to head to Cabrini for 10.30am. Both girls were with me and in true grief/loss reaction, I feel guilty they are going through this trauma a second time.

We don’t voice our fear – will things go pear-shaped like last time? (A lumpectomy, haematoma, more cancer discovered, mastectomy, mistaken chemo dose and pneumonia… ) Please no ‘Oops.’

Flashbacks to John’s death and feeling his absence keenly. None of us slept well – me least of all – it was after 1.00am when I drifted off, before waking at 2.00am.  John’s sister, Janet rang from England, sending love and wishing me luck.

How lovely to hear her voice, know her genuine concern but she’d forgotten how many hours difference between zones so I was the dopey – and then couldn’t sleep much afterwards because many memories stirred.

And then one of those inexplicable experiences occurred – did I imagine, dream, hope? There’s a shadow in the doorway of positive, loving energy – John, Mum… the little girl whose spirit lives in the house?

Will I get through this latest health hiccup? Is this a primary or secondary cancer? What is death like? What is life about? What have I achieved? Does it matter? What is my legacy? Will the girls be okay?

Wide awake I didn’t need the alarm to go at 6.30am so I could have a light breakfast before fasting at 7.00am!

The operation was super successful (a huge thank you Peter!) and although Christmas cards were late; I sent them out with this ditty:

An Excuse of Sorts
Please pardon this generic computer note to explain
how plans derailed when breast cancer struck again.
Mammograms, scans, doctor visits, biopsies,
hospital trips, lumpectomy and opinions galore…
this whirlwind treatment left my only boob sore!
But the surgeon triumphed, ‘I got all the tumour -‘
I smiled thanks from my drug-induced stupor,
Therefore, if he’s that happy, why not me?
I’ll also revel in being again cancer-free!
Now this health hiccup came at an awkward time
so please, accept my apologies in this twee rhyme.
I’ve been otherwise busy to muster the usual cheer
but rallying like a true Scot, ’Here’s to a guid New Year!’
                                                                          Mairi Neil 2019

quote about life changing

Another Facebook meme doing the rounds seems appropriate.

I’ll get back to writing about important happenings not centred around me in the next few posts. Finish the ‘to do’ and partially written list!

Meanwhile, to all those who read my blog. Belated best wishes for a productive, prosperous and most of all peaceful 2020

 

 

 

 

Neighbourhood Houses – The Heart Of Our Community

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Chelsea Heights Community Centre captures the essence of neighbourhood houses!

On Monday, under the auspices of Longbeach Place where I teach, I did a creative writing workshop at the Kingston Arts Centre as part of a month-long promotion of community houses in the City of Kingston. This was open to the public for free.

Nine community/neighbourhood houses in the City of Kingston were given display space in the galleries to promote activities under the theme  ‘the heart of the community‘.

The promotion also coincided with Volunteer Week. The Council is always keen to encourage people to volunteer and neighbourhood houses are a great place to start a fulfilling journey!

If you are keen to help others, want to share or learn a skill, meet people and help curb your own or their isolation,  contribute to the wellbeing and social capital of the community, then there is no better place to start than a neighbourhood house!

What is a Neighbourhood House?

A Neighbourhood House is a not-for-profit local organisation set up to provide social, educational, and recreational activities for a community, in a welcoming, supportive, non-judgemental environment.

Managed by a volunteer committee and some paid administrative staff, it operates with the assistance of volunteers. There is a wealth of accredited and non-accredited courses provided by teachers like myself, but also niche groups set up such as Longbeach Place’s Yarn Art & Craft Storybook Trail, or groups for carers to have time-out, family history buffs, knitting and art enthusiasts… the list is endless.

Neighbourhood Houses have space to host morning teas, conferences, annual general meetings – regular meetings for almost any community group you can imagine. My Mordialloc Writers’ Group met at a neighbourhood house for over 20 years.

Some of the houses are Registered Training Organisations and many are Learn Locals like Longbeach Place, offering VET courses.

Neighbourhood Houses receive some funding from State and Local Governments and donations or partnerships with private enterprises and philanthropists.

Longbeach display Arts Centre

Each paper heart on the display board celebrating Longbeach Place was written by a student. In a word or phrase, they described what the neighbourhood house meant to them:

The contributions from the other houses who also used hearts, echoed the recurring sentiments of a safe, friendly environment, nurturing learning and creativity with lots of fun and educational activities.

When Did Neighbourhood Houses Start?

The Neighbourhood House movement began in Victoria in 1973 with the aim of offering people a supportive, non-threatening environment to share skills and mix socially within local communities.

Neighbourhood Houses represent and serve their community. They are accessible drop-in centres that care about social wellbeing, personal and community growth. They often attract and welcome those who feel isolated, neglected, lonely and forgotten or those who have just arrived and want to “fit in”… they provide a learning environment like no other.

The people who attend usually live, study or work within the local area, and courses and activities offered are dictated by the local community and their needs.

This makes each place unique and some develop particular strengths.

Many Houses started with specific groups in mind depending on their locality.

The 1970s – A Time Of Social Change

It was the 70s and the Women’s Liberation Movement was growing. Most community houses grew from women’s involvement and demands. They saw the need for programmes for people with disability, victims of domestic violence, new migrants and multicultural groups,  and Aboriginal/ Torres Strait Islanders, women who needed confidence in returning to study or retraining.

Women wanted childcare and playgroups for ‘stay-at-home mums’ and a place for all people to be treated equally regardless of race, religion, gender or ability. They may have left the workforce to have children but still wanted to share their skills or learn new ones as they adapted to motherhood and parenting.

1972 was a watershed in Australian political history – the Federal Labor Government of Gough Whitlam had a strong commitment to community programmes, to women and to children. State Governments followed their lead – times and our culture a’changing.

Federal money released for the first time to fund programs that actively encouraged women back to study and into the workforce by making higher education and training courses free. There were funds for women’s refuges, programs to assist families, and for childcare.

Many women ‘went back to school’ via courses at neighbourhood houses first and gained the confidence and qualifications to enter tertiary studies. Older women whose families were almost grown up returned to study and used the neighbourhood houses to fill gaps in their education but also to develop courses and activities to help others.

Wellbeing And Creativity

Neighbourhood houses help manage social change and prevent social isolation.

The last few years the Men’s Shed Movement has grown out of community houses. The benefits of men having somewhere to go to cope with adjusting to being alone, coping with health issues, retrenchments, early retirement and adjusting to years of extra life expectancy are universally accepted now.

People often discover and develop creative talents in arts and crafts suppressed at school or never given a chance to grow. Creative courses in neighbourhood houses are often the first step for people, at last, being able to show their artistic or writing talents.

Neighbourhood Houses Victoria

Neighbourhood Houses Victoria (NHV) was established in the early 1970s as the peak body for Victorian Neighbourhood Houses and Learning Centres.

  • It currently has a membership of over 380 organisations – 90% of the 390 Houses and Centres in the state.
  • The mission of the organisation is to support and develop the movement of Neighbourhood Houses and Learning Centres as individual organisations and as a collective.
  • This past year they spearheaded a campaign to have the State Government boost funding for the sector.
neighbourhood house poster
And the Andrews Labor Government did deliver by boosting investment in the neighbourhood house network by $21.8 million over the next four years.
I received a letter from Minister for Families and Children Jenny Mikakos MP in response to a postcard I sent as part of the campaign where she confirmed:

The Andrews Labor Government is backing our neighbourhood houses as we want to ensure more Victorians have access to the vital employment, training and volunteering services that many neighbourhood houses provide in our local communities across Victoria.

 Well done to everyone who campaigned for such a great result.

It is always a relief to have guaranteed funding so that courses can be planned – and with rapidly changing and increasing demographics neighbourhood house managers and committees are kept on their toes!

Writing Creatively At Kingston Arts Centre

I transplanted my usual Monday Class at Longbeach to Moorabbin along with an open invitation to the public.

At one stage, when five of the regulars sent apologies and I was struck by a dreaded winter bug I toyed with following the line of the old song, “let’s call the whole thing off…”

I had no idea what awaited me on Monday but how thrilling to greet three regular students plus some past students and friends – and a lady who said,

“I’ve never written creatively before.”

The two hours disappeared fast along with the chocolate biscuits I brought and the tea and coffee the Arts Centre provided!  Yet, we were too busy to have a designated break.

After brief introductions, we did some productive brainstorming and then with heads down the writing began.  After each exercise people shared completed sentences, paragraphs, even vignettes to the prompts. Fascinating and vastly different pieces of writing.

I targeted “the senses.” These are often neglected but improve our writing when included. The variety of responses rich and rewarding.

I love writing workshops!

At the conclusion of the exercise on the sense of smell, one participant concluded, ‘I realise I have a limited vocabulary when it comes to describing smells.’

She continued to suggest others do what she does, “when reading I write unusual and interesting words I discover in a notebook.  It helps improve my writing. Now,  I’ll watch out for how other writers describe smells.’

This is a perfect example of the wonderful feedback and help fellow writers give each other and how writing exercises and sharing in class can improve our writing.

A Personal Story

A few weeks ago, one of my past students from my 2016 class at Mordialloc Neighbourhood House emailed me. English was not her first language and she needed help with a private matter.

It was great to catch up for a coffee and fortunately, I was able to help her. She is an educated, enterprising woman who had been a journalist in Japan but like many who write facts for a living, she wanted to explore creative writing.

She lacked confidence in her own ability and struggled with the nuances of English. In the class, I encouraged her to express herself through poetry.

Her perceptions about adjusting to life in Melbourne and being able to express her feelings about other aspects of her life was a great healing journey but also led to valuable discussions in class.

She blossomed but I’ll let her tell you in her own words what attending a class at a community house meant:

My Writing Class
Naoko

I’ve never really liked classes
I’m often less enthusiastic
preferring to study on my own
I was not a good student in writing class

Yet there are good memories
reminiscent of days visiting relatives –
a bit awkward but feeling secure

In class I remembered the joy of writing
I was accepted for who I was
I made an inspiring Turkish friend
I learned authenticity is the essence of writing
I got to know each classmate’s story
From warm words of condolence
I was encouraged to keep my head high
No matter what I faced

I will take home these great gifts I received
From my writing class at Mordialloc beach

And looking at the past I regret
that I have missed the beauties of life
from being arrogant in classes

I only loved my Mum when I was a kid
And growing up into adulthood
I tended to only love one person at a time
I regret now that I may have missed
the beauties of other people
by being narrow-minded on some occasions

I will take home great gifts about life
received from my writing teacher at Mordialloc beach.

When she left for an extended trip to Japan, Naoko gifted me her poem and a beautiful watercolour she had painted. Gifts I will treasure along with her work published in the class anthology.

The poems and stories of all past students are important to me and when I read their words I hear their voice, imagine them in class… memories I value. Another of my students who has been attending my classes for a long time said exactly the same thing – she reads the anthologies and remembers.

Write your stories – leave a legacy – leave an impression for someone to remember!

Writing In the 21st Century

We are in the digital age and the demands of readers have changed – there are websites, blogs, e-books – all read on a variety of devices with different screens and parameters.

If writers want to reach readers our methods must change – how you adapt is your choice. For many people, the traditional printed paper is still what they want to read and how they want to be published.

There is room for both traditional and digital publishing and whether you write with pen and paper or prefer to tap your laptop or iPad you benefit from regular writing.

Writing classes or workshops can be a first step to discovering not only what you want to write while learning the tools of the craft, but also how you want to be published. More importantly, they can keep you motivated.

Writing courses proliferate online and in bricks and mortar but for convenience and cost, community houses are worth a look.  We throw in ambience, friendship and sharing of stories and ideas.  We learn from each other and the weekly sessions eliminate the isolation and loneliness many writers suffer.

Community houses provide computer classes too – an introduction and welcome to the digital age that is usually self-paced – again the ambience and friendship are free!

The two places I work have several courses and I can vouch for their excellence at Godfrey Street and Longbeach Place.

And if you want or see a need for a specialised course, put in a suggestion or offer to run it – that’s the beauty of neighbourhood houses! The community owns it and the community is you!

What are you waiting for?

Student, teacher, volunteer, participant – whatever your label there is a place for you in a neighbourhood house – drop in soon!

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Did You Know 35% of 15-Year-Olds Are NOT Digitally Literate or Proficient in Technology?

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As mentioned in a previous blog, I attended a conference on Adult Education in the community sector where I’ve worked for two decades. This was a great opportunity to consider how learning has changed and what it will look like into the future.

The Foundation For Young Australians was represented by Shona McPherson who is passionate about redefining the role of young people in our society, as well as her belief that the not-for-profit sector can drive social innovation in Australia.

The Foundation has produced detailed reports and these can be downloaded or read on their website. The shocking statistic in the title for this blog is one of them.

Before saying, “Oh, that can’t be true,” it is worthwhile reading the research.

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Teenagers may be big on using Facebook, gaming, and texting but that is not necessarily literacy.

  • Can they use more than Google’s search engine to find information and when they find it can they verify its provenance?
  • Can they format a document?
  • Can they write and send a coherent email?
  • Do they know the difference between various types of files?
  • Do they understand about security on the Internet?

In 2018, we have more than one generation of digital natives, but not necessarily literate ones yet 90% of jobs will require digital literacy

Digital literacy involves:

  • basic skills
  • getting online
  • communication knowhow
  • navigate online
  • create documents

digital-literacy-for-common-core-educators-44-638

What Does Being Literate Mean?

Shona focused on digital literacy and building a different mindset for the future but another speaker, Sally Thompson, the Deputy Director of the Future Social Service Institute, who is an education analyst and leader with a background in adult literacy, challenged us to think about how we view literacy and what it will mean for future adult learning needs.

What do adults use literacy for and how do they learn?

Why do they learn?

  • How do we apply reading and writing in everyday life? 
  • In this world of globalisation, many people speak read and write variations of English.
  • It is also a digital world.
  • The main game for us in the community education sector is building a network so people can live meaningful lives.
  • This is complex.

A project by the Australian National University mapped literacy in an Aboriginal community where indigenous language has been retained.

What is reading and writing to them and what did they use their literacy skills for?

Researchers discovered the church, community radio, and other shared hubs for community life were where text was generated.

  • making of culture was the aim,
  • also interacting with other groups
  • and there was extensive use of literacy mediators.

For example, in the Aboriginal community, there were a lot of fly-in/fly-out service providers. When people encountered new texts they didn’t try and master all of it but sought help from the Christian pastor, retail workers in the shops (mainly young women) and those permanent workers or volunteers at community hubs like the radio station.

We all use literacy mediators!

If you have a new mobile phone you don’t read the manual you find a teenager.

If you buy furniture or any other item that needs assembling (think Ikea) you may call a friend or check Youtube.

If you want to understand the prospectus of a tertiary institution, health information, public transport timetables, and numerous other pieces of information that may be delivered in an unfamiliar or detailed format, you ask a friend, a family member, an employee, a receptionist… even a passing member of the public who looks as if they are knowledgeable or confident!

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Globalisation has made literacy a patchwork.

It takes a village to be literate in the modern globalised world.

The image we have of someone illiterate is confirmation bias. We think poor, disadvantaged, miserable but research has proven this is NOT TRUE!

  • Researchers discovered the majority of those traditionally regarded as miserable actually live fulfilled meaningful lives by relying on networks to navigate texts.
  • They don’t see themselves as dependent nor do they usually employ someone to read and write for them.  If they do, a lot of trust is required.

However, Sally said the cliches still exist.

If you have no mates you’re in trouble, if low literacy and no friends you are in diabolical trouble.

In the community sector, we often deal with the cliches (those in diabolical trouble, friendless and illiterate, or with poor literacy skills.)

We work incredibly hard in the adult education sector to ensure people can return to education or continue lifelong learning.

However, regardless of our position, we are all literacy mediators especially administration staff who are the first responders to people coming in and needing brochures/leaflets interpreted.

Similar scenarios occur in medical facilities, retail establishments and many government or banking offices. 

There are numerous social interactions and explanations where staff are entrusted to help people or where people help others understand a map, a guidebook, operating instructions etc.

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The research into various communities showed that:

Tradesmen’s wives, parish secretaries, administration and reception staff – these people often have bi-cultural experience or knowledge.

The work they do is invisible. Comfortable in their environment, available, non-judgemental, and not in a position of authority, they will share their literacy skills.

Reflect on the number of times you have asked someone to decipher instructions, explain a form to be filled in, even translate a menu!

Literacy today is a complex issue. 

Especially financial literacy.

There are lots of mediators necessary because who can say they understand superannuation and the taxation system?

Not many as the current Royal Commission into the banks is revealing.

And as more and more services go online digital literacy is necessary to pay bills, pay for goods, issue accounts and quotes.

Sally suggests that there is a policy disconnect because the government thinks you can only teach and examine levels of literacy in a particular way and so there is a political origin of the tests we use to judge skills.

Isle of Arran 2017

How do you measure literacy?

The current tests are too narrow because we are dealing with human beings, not problems to be solved. A competency-based assessment doesn’t necessarily help.

  • We are not prepared for the modern globalised world.
  • We need to make what is needed visible and encourage the government to change its attitude to funding and other measures because technology is here to stay and in every aspect of our lives.

A conference member told a story of her 17-year-old son who wanted her to play a game on his iPad. She couldn’t understand the technology, or ‘language’  used nor the rules. He became so frustrated with trying to explain that he gave up playing with her.

When getting into the city building where the conference was held we confronted technology.

A keycard with your unique code had to be collected from a central reception area, the card was swiped to go further into the foyer and gain access to a lift to our particular building and floor.

The card had to be held in a way that the barcode was read, not swiped or tapped, which was the first instinct for most people and caused a bit of confusion.

To leave the building was a similar process – a bit like tapping on and off a Myki for the trains and trams (and this was a new experience for country members).

The use of barcodes and scanning is increasing.

I remember when I volunteered at MIFF (Melbourne International Film Festival) a few years ago only a few patrons downloaded movie tickets onto their mobile phones and the scanners we had were unreliable and didn’t always work.

Today, most people print off tickets or download them onto their phones. If you don’t, you suffer long queues at venues where less staff are employed to deal with the “digital dinosaurs”.

However, navigating websites for information or to buy products can be a nightmare because of poorly worded instructions.

Southland Shopping Centre has introduced paid parking since the train station has opened. Shoppers get the first 3 hours free and movie-goers get an extra hour if they ‘scan the barcode on their ticket’.

What is not clearly understood is that you must take your downloaded ticket to the box office and exchange it for a barcode because just scanning your printed ticket won’t give you that extra hour free. It would be helpful if these instructions were on the website or added to the ticket.

To “get out the carpark free” you have to scan the collected barcode, key in your car number plate and wait for a confirmation.

When I went with my daughters to see the latest Marvel movie (fantastic by the way!) there were a lot of confused customers, a queue at the ticket machine, and most people had to try several times to get the instruction sequence right.

Digitalisation is increasing but so are frustration levels and those not competent with new technology will be increasingly isolated.

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What does it mean to be smart?

Shona  McPherson asked the conference who was the smartest person at school and why did we think they were smart.

A quick discussion around the tables revealed we judged people’s smartness in different ways but usually who got the highest marks in a test or performed better at a sport.

On reflection, we know this is a bad perception, but we still look at who gets the highest TER at VCE.

We carry these perceptions into adult life and yet it should be challenged – employers are usually not interested in high school scores.

But, we still think in numbers when we judge success. In workplaces, it is the ones who have the best sales figures or best results who are considered the smartest.

 A truck driver may not think he is good at maths and may not be able to write well and yet he can look at a truck and know exactly how many pallets it will take, its capacity and weight and fill out relevant forms.

For us, it’s about working out the student needs and directing energy to what they don’t know, not what they already know, and giving them the confidence to see what skills they already have and to build or adapt them to the digital future.

The perception that high test scores are the indicator of smartness is now outdated in workplaces and should be challenged. Other skills are more important and not necessarily quantified by numbers

  • financial literacy, personal initiative, enterprise skills, computer coding, communicating via email etc
  • the practical application should be building those skills in schools, looking at the VCAL system to improve outcomes and adapting to digital workplaces
  • intergenerational learning – using young people skills for older learners

Accreditation will be different – individual and acquired skills will be judged holistically.

Watching 3 TED Talks you have completed learning but how do you measure it? The motivation for learning must be the number one priority but how do you provide the carrot to excite students?

And talking about TED talks these ones by Sir Ken Robinson are worth watching:

What will learning look like in the future?

  • On-demand learning, e-Learning, just in time, and m-learning (mobile learning).
  • It will be modern and contemporary, MOOC, in-bundling and less sitting in classrooms
  • Learning will be done when you want to do it.
  • It is the era of the individual – what do I need? How do I get it?
  • Less structure, more independence and embracing technology.
  • Increasingly there is the attitude ‘get on board or get out of the way.’
  • Don’t reject it because it’s everywhere like SMART phones!
  • Learning is not just face-to-face anymore but we are still connected whether through videos, podcasts, webinars, Skype, Messenger, closed Facebook groups…

Our city is changing rapidly and so must we – I was struck by how isolated Bunjil, the Great Eagle sculpture looked – almost swamped by high-rise and high-tech – and yet Aboriginal culture survives, has adapted, adopted, and influenced…

People look insignificant from the top floors of the buildings too. The future, like our city, will look different but that doesn’t have to be negative.

Teachers in the Sector have been Called to Action

  1. Challenge what you think you know
  2. More important work out what you don’t know
  3. Make a plan for the future
  4. Planning meets opportunity = luck
  5. Ask questions of mentors and others in your professional network

Lifelong learning will look different

  • Risk being foolish and making mistakes with technology.
  • Learning programs must be co-designed – sharing technical knowledge and talent.

Skills are transferable

  • behaviour management
  • confidence building
  • navigating your way around work

Don’t be a Digital Dinosaur!

How Do Writers Benefit?

Mastering digital technology has empowered writers to publish their work and keep all the income for themselves. Some writers have embraced this control and thrived, but many more still struggle striving for elusive success.

Not every writer wants to, as the latest buzzword insists “monetize” their creativity, some just want to publish their poetry, short stories, family history or novel for the joy of writing and sharing.  Even so, skills and quality control are needed.

There are many steps in the process of writing and publishing – each one important:

  • good editing
  • design formatting
  • ISBN
  • quality covers
  • copyright
  • launching – real and/or virtual
  • publicity and marketing – blogging, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Youtube…
  • financial matters such as how will people pay, downloading, invoicing and taxation responsibilities

At every step, you will encounter technology – be prepared and learn – and I can think of no better place to upgrade skills and confidence than at your local neighbourhood house.

The following are just a selection of what is on offer at Godfrey Street in Bentleigh (9557 9037), but similar classes will be found at Longbeach Place in Chelsea (9776 1386) and other community houses around the Victoria.

Understanding and mastering the new technology in a sensible, ordered way will assuage fear and frustration, limit mistakes, and save valuable writing time!

And you never know – you may be more digitally literate than you think. 

A fun lesson is writing a poem, short story, even a novel in bite-sized sentences of no more than 140 characters – the standard number for a Tweet – good luck!

Penultimate by M C Neil
The writing class complained
Digital tools are not for them
Pen and ink and even type
Will outlast this Twitter hype!

Nevertheless, they wrote some great poems and flash fiction.