Open House At Abbotsford Convent

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On Sunday, for the sixth year, I volunteered for Open House Melbourne and spent the day at Abbotsford Convent sharing the welcoming duties with Shirley, another volunteer. It was a gorgeous, sunny day for winter and the sun had a sting for my Celtic pelt. Although still officially winter, I regretted not having a sun hat.

Shirley and me

It had been several years since I’d been to the complex and although I didn’t get much of an opportunity to explore the inside of the buildings, the changes to the gardens, grounds, and renovated buildings was a pleasant surprise.

I just had to block from memory the chequered history of the institution and not dwell on the sadness when the convent was a home for “wayward girls”. Instead, I enjoyed the ambience of the grounds and chatted with the 1000 plus visitors I recorded during my 4-hour shift!

A stream of musicians and singers as people arrived to practice for concerts and the opera. Locals who walked their dogs;  met up with friends or attended regular classes in art, writing and other endeavours.

The tiny, grey-haired and softly spoken ‘sister’ in her mid-80s, now retired, but who had come to revisit the place where she worked with ‘so many happy memories’. My writer’s mind had difficulty not flying off at a tangent and recreating a different scenario!

An article in the Journal of the Australian Catholic Historical Society 34 (2013), 70-90 can be read here: Abbotsford convent nuns treatment of girls with details of when it was still functioning in the Catholic network.

Established in 1863, the former Convent of the Good Shepherd was the most important Catholic institutional complex constructed in Victoria. Some outstanding features include the medieval French ecclesiastic architecture, the historical importance of the Industrial School and the Magdalen Asylum, the  grandeur of the Convent building and heritage gardens and the aesthetic qualities of the surrounding farmland and rural setting.

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at the entrance gate

 

In April of 2004, the Abbotsford Convent Coalition and the public finally won the fight to save the Convent. The State Government of Victoria gifted the site to the public; with $4 million to commence the restoration works and the City of Yarra contributed $1 million. With this, the Abbotsford Convent Foundation was born as the custodian of the site to own and manage it on behalf of the people, with a focus on arts, culture and learning. A strong team was built to implement the strategy and vision and the restoration works commenced. With many of the buildings left for years to become derelict and overgrown gardens beyond belief, the job ahead was monumental.

2014)… Ten years on, 60 per cent of the buildings have been restored, hundreds of tenants fill studio and office spaces, the venues are filled with performances, workshops, rehearsals, conferences and meetings, and there is an extensive program of events staged throughout the year. As a community hub and an accessible cultural platform and creative cluster, the Convent hosts a valuable confluence of connectivity, inspiration and ideas. With close to a million annual visitors, the Convent is now one of Australia’s most popular cultural icons.

WURUNDJERI PEOPLE AND CULTURE HONOURED

 

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First People acknowledged

 

Pre 1838 

The Abbotsford Convent is located on part of the traditional lands of the Wurundjeri people. The nearby junction of the Merri Creek and Yarra River at Dights Falls continues to be an important meeting place for the Central Victorian Tribes, who are also known as the Kulin Nation. The site is enclosed in a natural amphitheatre that for centuries provided the Wurundjeri people with a sheltered and resource-rich camping area. The river flats and deep fresh water also provided plentiful opportunities for hunting and fishing. The Wurundjeri have maintained their connection to the site, with their office located in the Convent’s Providence building.

Haiku by Mairi Neil

Ningla a-Na! This our land
Indigenous and immigrant
Now sharing history

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Memory Lane

Of course, further down the street, and visited by most of the people who came with children was the Collingwood Children’s Farm. This brought back happy memories of when the girls and I visited with their primary school and we actually milked a cow!

Not sure if they remember the experience with fondness but I know their Nana was thrilled to hear about the visit because it gave her an excuse (not that Mum ever needed that) to tell stories about her childhood years after her mother died, when she lived on her Uncle Arthur’s farm in Northern Ireland .

collingwood childrens farm

The Good Shepherd Chapel

I did manage to have a quick look inside the restored Good Shepherd Chapel. A testament to devotion and the talents of many skilled artisans. Built in 1871, it is the second oldest building at the Abbotsford Convent site and ‘has enormous cultural and historic significance for Victoria’. The original architect, Thomas Kelly, the great uncle of John Clarke, actor/comedian/writer of the ABC Clarke & Dawe duo!

(I always love the connections and six degrees of separation trivia!)

The Chapel is so much more than a church – it is a vibrant and versatile space for the community to gather, share, learn, laugh and reflect. 

Renovated in 2012, its remaining original features lovingly restored, it is now a popular venue for weddings, baptisms, and funerals. My co-volunteer, Shirley, told me her son had been married in The Chapel.

More an agnostic now than having any close relationship with my Protestant upbringing, I’ve been inside many Catholic churches all over the world and usually find the statues of the crucified Christ and much of the art confronting.  Sunday was no exception and the large sculpture in the foyer didn’t disappoint!

jesus crucified

The Crucifix at the end of the Chapel, in a space called the Avant Choir, was made by Max Kreitmayer who was one of the waxworks owners in Melbourne. He came from Germany where he studied anatomy. The house he lived in across, and down the road from the Chapel near the farm is now a cafe.

Terse Verse by Mairi Neil

Faith isn’t logical,
neither is love
delicate… fragile…
sometimes destructive

 

The stained glass windows include the beautiful Rose Window above the History Centre, and the Wheel Window, behind the altar, which breathes new life after being concealed internally during the 1960s and 70s. The two traciered windows next to the Wheel Window, representing the Good Shepherd and the Immaculate Conception on the left, and St joseph and St john the Baptist on the right.

 

 

The high Altar is still in its original form and was built by Moisseron & L Andre Sculpteures in France. The beautiful marble ordered by Sister Carmel Curtain, the revered sister interred beneath the Chapel nave.

The Apse (Dome) Painting is a set of 5 paintings depicting Mary and two archangels. A visiting artist, Signor Cavallaro, painted the mural in 1899.

Asylum Seekers & Refugees – TREE OF HOPE

The Sisters of the Good Shepherd have always been outspoken on the issue of asylum seekers and many have been active and vocal demanding change in government policies. I wrote a message on a luggage tag and hung it on their Hope Tree –

I hope that all refugees and asylum seekers are released from detention and the Australian Government discovers the meaning of compassion.

 

 

Seeking Asylum by Mairi Neil

Despair and desperation in their eyes
they plan to seek a new life
as far away as possible from strife

Seeking a safe haven is the prize
perhaps leaving behind children and wife
despair and desperation in their eyes

For many, it may take several tries
this plan to seek a new life
despair and desperation in their eyes

Living on the edge of a knife
their only crime seeking a new life
despair and desperation in their eyes.

floor inscription

The Order was founded on activating the values of faith, hope, charity and compassion…

‘Charity and Zeal must be universal, that is, they should reach out and relate to everyone.’

St. Mary Euphrasia Pelletier

 

There is also a Bell Tower with bells cast in the 1880s. The bells still ring on special occasions although the original mechanism has been decommissioned. However, Anton Hassell, maker of the Federation Bells at Birrarung Marr configured a drop hammer mechanism to allow the fickle instrument to resonate when needed, much to the delight of the Convent and neighbourhood.

Many of the buildings have been turned into artist and writer studios and I have to admit to envy – especially when the benign sun shone on Sunday, the first hints of spring budded on trees and there was a serene solidity and suspension of time as you walked on paths -whether earthen or concrete – trod by thousands of feet for thousands of years.


Inside the buildings, there may have been shadows of a dark and painful past but outside the gardens display nurturing care and love. A middle-aged man I spoke to yesterday worked as an apprentice gardener ‘many moons ago’ he said with a smile. He was returning to ‘have a look at the changes’.

I complimented him on all his hard work because the mature trees and plants are a credit to the years of care and somebody’s vision, magnificent shrubs and trees don’t just happen!

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Haiku by Mairi Neil

Sunlight dispels shadows
gardens nurtured with love
brighten everyone’s day.

Mother Nature’s arms
Always soothes and refreshes
Whispering sweet peace

tree skeleton

When it was time to go off duty, Shirley and I headed for the Bakery for a well-earned cup of coffee. So many people visit Abbotsford Convent every weekend for breakfast or lunch, the variety of eating places popular – especially Lentil As Anything. But there is also Kappaya Japanese Soul Food Cafe, Cam’s and the Convent Bakery.

The sound of children’s laughter, adult chatter and the clinking of wine glasses and coffee cups and the biggest variety of dogs I had ever seen in a public space that was not specifically a dog park, was a marvellous testimony to how lucky we are living in a place often voted the world’s most liveable city!

Haiku by Mairi Neil

Coffee for two, please
Friendship needs refills
And a regular fix

Mark your calendar now for next year – Open House Melbourne weekend is a wonderful opportunity to spend time and appreciate marvellous Melbourne.

You can experience buildings with historical, architectural and cultural significance and learn a little more of the development of the city while having fun.

 

Flex Writing Muscles With Flash Fiction Fun

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Mordialloc beach storm brewing

I can’t believe the term holidays are almost over and my  list of ‘things to do’ has morphed into ‘things I should have done’.

I hear my Mother’s voice ‘the road to hell is paved with good intentions...’ Mum loved quotes: proverbs, Bible texts, aphorisms, lines from poems or classical literature and it’s amazing how many come to mind – imprinted on my brain like the times tables from school.

C’est la vie

At least, I’ve almost finished preparing my lessons for the four classes starting soon, and I’ve caught up with some friends, but the clearing of clutter to renovate the shed didn’t happen, nor clearing the boxes of papers from my study.

Maybe spring cleaning will work …

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While filing away old lessons and researching and planning new ones I came across pieces of writing I’d written in class or on the train to work. Such a welcome distraction. The inevitable editing and polishing began until in some cases the original words barely recognised.

I don’t need any excuse to play with words or write and often when I come across a poem or story I can’t remember what the prompt was or why I wrote it!

Like this poem from 2o12, which was buried among notes in a lesson about dialogue!

Sea Dance
Mairi Neil

Shattered nerves soothed
By waves in a slow waltz
One two three four
One two three four
Lapping at feet, teasing the sand
The glittering sun
A silver ball suspended
From an azure ceiling
The vast ocean
A mirrored dance floor
A crooning breeze snatches
Troubles away
To where white sails flutter
And dolphins dream
One two three four
One two three four
Waves in a slow waltz
Soothe shattered nerves.

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Of course, the recent Federal Election and the prospect of a hung parliament is an entertaining (and worrying) distraction. Listening to all the politicians putting their particular spin on an extraordinary turn of events will no doubt fuel many writers, albeit comedians.

However, what it will mean for Australia is anybody’s guess and it is certainly keeping journalists busy. They have no trouble filling the 24 hour news cycle. The rest of us get on with life and hope for the stability promised.

An Election Limerick

Malcolm Turnbull, the PM in Oz
Who decided to be the LNP boss
Well, he turned out a dud
Just like Kevin Rudd
Their poor judgement Australia’s loss

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I discovered a piece of flash fiction with a title that seemed to fit the election result so will share it to show what can come from a prompt I have used a few times over the years in classes. And like most fiction there is a lot of truth because here is a link to where I got my original idea.

Feel free to ‘have a go’ if the prompt triggers a story or poem:

The Writing Prompt

You were walking on the beach this morning and came across a bottle with a note in it.
Were you alone?
Why were you at the beach? Is that important?
Who put the message in the bottle?
Where did the bottle originate?
What does the note say?
How long was the bottle in the water?
Will you have to do something/take some action?
What are the consequences?

The story you write can be fantasy, adventure, horror, humorous, historical, mystery, romance…

Mixed Messages
Mairi Neil

Janet scuffed the sand oblivious to the cry of seagulls and crash of incoming tide. The dullness of leaden clouds grew darker by the minute. Hunched over with hands stuck deep inside her Duffel coat’s pockets, she struggled against the wind.

Straight from the Arctic – cold and frigid – the words Ben used to describe her last night.

She sidestepped a surge of white foam, stumbled over a green bottle vomited ashore with other debris. The jolt made her focus for a moment on something other than her own misery, then she noticed a scrap of paper inside the bottle.

She peered through the sand encrusted glass. The bottle, a peculiar shape with glass reminiscent of the bedside lamp inherited from her grandmother and supposedly from the 1800s.

Wary of touching anything the sea threw up, Janet used her booted foot to roll the bottle free of seaweed and entangled driftwood.

The sea harboured unpleasant creatures; animals that bite and sting.

Janet shuddered, remembering the stab from the stone fish she’d unwittingly stood on as a child. The pain of poisonous spines, the brush with death and disaster – a story her mother retold to anyone who’d listen. A story reinforcing Janet’s anxieties – not just of the sea, but fear of anything unknown.

Scaredy cat! Scaredy cat! The chants of school bullies still hurt 30 years later.

‘You’re scared of your own shadow.’ Another taunt Ben threw at her last night when she offered reasons why she didn’t want to travel to Doha.

‘Not shadows, Ben! Bombs and terrorists – no place is safe over there.’

‘Do you realise how much money is on offer? The lifestyle we can live if we move there?’
It always came down to money with Ben.

Emotion almost choked her as she picked up the bottle before the angry sea reclaimed it. She strode to the bluestone wall separating sand and promenade and sat on the cold bricks. A nearby stick ideal to dig out the weathered cork.

A few shakes and canny manipulation meant the note fell into her hand. Faded paper and blurred ink. However, the scrawled letters clear: HELP!

Janet began to shake, her imagination haywire, heart thudding.

Was someone captive on a ship? Abandoned on an island? Robinson Crusoe sprang to mind – when was that written? Janet tried to remember.

How far away from Australia was the island? What about pirates? Treasure Island’s murderous crew not that far-fetched. Plenty of people imprisoned, tortured and abandoned on the high seas over the years.

Today, the media full of refugees fleeing horror, needing help. How many migrant ships lost at sea? People seeking a new life in another land, survivor or survivors struggling in a lifeboat, minimum supplies gone, burning sun blistering skin, salt water driving the occupants mad…

She breathed deeply, inhaling the freshening wind. Ben always accused her of indecision and procrastination. She straightened her shoulders and with bottle and note in hand, started towards the town.

I’ll call into the police station first. What if they think my ideas fanciful? Tell me they have too much important work to do regarding border security. They’ll dismiss the note as a prank. Maybe accuse me of mischief!

Better to go to the local museum. Double check if the bottle is old or a replica. Ease the fear that someone isn’t desperate for help.

A sixth sense made Janet turn to stare seawards. With the worry over Ben and distraction of her find, she hadn’t scanned the bay this morning for ships heading for the city or leaving for distant oceans.

She loved speculating about their journeys – a not-too distant ancestor had been a sea captain – ‘the sea’s in our blood’ her father always said.

A white speck on the horizon moved fast becoming bigger like an expanding balloon.
A speedboat?
Was that a hand waving – arm pointing?

Janet looked around. No one else on the beach this dreary winter’s day. Even the regular dog walkers avoided the icy weather.

She edged towards the sea like a child worried about seeing the store Santa. The boat bumped over breakers, mounted waves, stayed on course, heading her way. Two people visible – one waving, shouting and pointing. At the bottle?

Her bottle.
How did they know?

A minute later, the boat skidded and juddered onto the sand. A sleek motorboat equipped with the latest technological wizardry. One of the men had binoculars around his neck, the other an earpiece hooked into a radio.

‘The bottle please, madam,’ said the man with binoculars, reaching out a gloved hand.

‘We’re from the CSIRO,’ chimed his companion.

‘The bottle. CSIRO,’ Janet repeated their words. Confused and flustered, she felt an anxiety attack beginning, chest tightening, breathing difficult. Heat in her chest moved up to her neck burning her face. Her legs quivered.

‘How did?’ she began to speak, but gloved hands interrupted.

‘Inside the bottle, there’s a tracking device stuck to the bottom.’

Janet hesitated as if he spoke Swahili. She reluctantly held the bottle up for examination. A glimmer of sunlight managed to break through the bruised clump of clouds now suffocating the foreshore. She noticed a tiny pebble, shook the bottle, it refused to dislodge. A transmitter?

‘Oh,’ she whispered.

Her imagination flew to spies, espionage, invading armies, dredged up a story her grandfather told about the war; explosive devices masked as innocuous wrack washed ashore. Ordinary people blown up because of their curiosity.

She pushed the bottle into outstretched gloved hands. The driver of the boat began to speak.

‘We’re testing the power of waves and…’ his explanation cut short by gloved hands pressuring his shoulder.

Janet retreated a few metres before turning and running towards the promenade. She slowed to catch her breath and shove her shaking hands into pockets.

Wait ’til Ben hears about this, she thought. Will he believe me?

She spun around to get more details about the men, but the boat was already speeding out to sea.

What just happened? What if they were lying? Were they scientists or Defence personnel? Were they even Australian?

A gust of wind whisked her sigh seawards.

She wouldn’t tell Ben. Why invite another lecture of what she should have done? How the world had changed since 9/11 – Australia included.

Ben can go to Doha or anywhere else for that matter. On his own. Stay there for all she cared. Amass his millions at the expense of the poor.

The wind died down, and the dark clouds scudded out to sea as if being towed by the speedboat. Janet threw her head back and laughed, surprised at the sound.

She hadn’t heard herself laugh or felt so relaxed in a long time.

It was over between her and Ben. No indecision or procrastination now!

The winter sun a pale promise in the clearing sky as she strolled home.

 

Today you are you.

That is truer than true.

there is no one alive

who is truer than you!

Dr Seuss

Another Mothers’ Day For Reflection And Giving Thanks

Mum

Memories of Mum and Mortality
Mairi Neil

My Mum is gone
She was ready for that final journey in 2009.
Whispering the 23rd Psalm…
The hospital cubicle a confessional box
as she relived the memory
of holding her dying father in teenage arms.
Mum retold the story,
assured us that a welcome
awaited her.

She was ready to go –
but we were not.
Surely, a broken hip can be repaired?
Hopeful adult children huddled beside
Grandchildren.  And friends.
With hearts numbed
Cheeks tearstained.
Fearing the loss of Mum, ‘The Nana,’
Fearing a fractured future…

And the world hasn’t been the same.
I miss our chats
The wisdom of eight decades and more.
I ache to hear familiar laughter –
infectious chuckling and girlish giggle.
Laughter that appreciated farce
Eccentricity and spoonerisms.
Dad’s Army a favourite
Relief that darkness never lasts.

I long to hear the wise sayings
The knowledgeable ‘aye’ at the end
or beginning of conversations.
I miss those all-seeing eyes –
blue-grey pools with new shamrock pupils
eyesight saved when young. Later
destroyed by disease and old age.
I’ll always weep whenever I hear
Amazing Grace.

In the mirror, I see you, Mum
and a glimpse of what lies ahead
But I need you here now –
To tell me you love me
And that I’ll cope
If the future strips me of sight.
It is already stealing my hearing…
Dad joked your hearing aids tuned into Mars.
Will I learn selective deafness?

Mum, I hope you knew
how much you were loved.
That you hear how softer our voices
become when you are mentioned.
You hear the chuckles
as we enjoy remembrances
No anger fans flames in my heart
No resentment or accusations of neglect
Only a deep longing for what is lost

I may be child number four
but always felt number one
I want to hold Mum’s hand once more
Caress the papyrus skin
traverse blue-veined ridges
Try and stem the tears as I remember
The cuddles when I was sick
The courage when I was scared
The cooking when I was hungry
The cleaning, shopping, and encouraging
The relentless mothering…

When it is my time to leave this world
I hope my daughters are by my side,
Listening as  I retell the story
of the night my mother said goodbye.
Of how I held her in my arms
thanked her for a legacy of love…
Cherishing a library of family stories
I hope to be peaceful and calm
in the knowledge a welcome awaits.

 

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Me and Mum 1953 and 2007

Dearest Mum…

The gypsy prophesied you would cross the seas
Bear seven children
And cross the seas again.

She did not tell of
being a teenage orphan
losing a daughter
blindness and profound deafness
nursing ailing in-laws
a husband’s disintegration with dementia

The gypsy discreet, her crystal ball dimmed
Although courageous and compassionate
Dear Mum,
If you had glimpsed the future
I may not be here.

 

 

sound advice
A Facebook meme to inspire a writer

 

Do Nuns Wear Knickers? Tales From School Unleashed.

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In the midst of returning to classes after the holidays and farewelling my daughters on their overseas trip, the arrival of the latest anthology from Melaleuca Blue Publishing was a pleasant surprise. I mentioned in a previous post, that one of my poems had been chosen. However, a delay in printing meant the expected February arrival of my copy was delayed until April.

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For me, seeing something I’ve written accepted for publication is always thrilling – a vindication that just maybe I can write what others like to read, and someone believes it is worth printers’ ink.

It’s why I love producing anthologies for my students, albeit the print run is only for them and their friends or families. Writing and publishing go together like paint and canvas, cameras and developed photographs.

I consider the tangibility of holding a book, a painting or photograph one of the delights of the creative process. I’m looking forward to meeting the hard-working Kari O’Gorman (this is the third collection of life stories she has produced) and some of the other contributors at the launch/celebration in August – our ’15 minutes of fame’ moment.

The other stories and poems in Do Nuns Wear Knickers? a cross section of memories from schooldays in Australia through several generations and from the point of view of student and teacher.

… a collection of memories from award winning Australian writers expressing the joy, pain, humiliation and humour of growing up and attending school from the 1940s to the current century.

Discover why nobody uses surfboards, how to bust your teeth on a piece of fabric, what really happens on school camp, how ink wells help beat boredom, the thrill of certain library books, how coins leave callouses, why rah rah and loose bras are dangerous, how to know when to retire as a teacher, and whether or not nuns really do wear knickers.

There are stories to make you laugh and others are poignant reminders of how tough growing up can be and that some teachers were friends and mentors, others tormentors.

Sister Elizabeth’s weapons consisted of an acid tongue and a long wooden ruler which she would crack on the desk as a means of control. By the end of the day our self-esteems were as crushed as our school tunics.

The expectations we have and the pressures put on teachers captured too, especially the introduction of new technology and demands of extra-curricular activities.

Teaching staff entered the theatre, sinking into padded seats, eyes drawn forward, voices whispering, ears gossip tuned, lights dimmed… another damn after-school meeting!

Lost in semi darkness faces peered expectantly at the Power Point presentation of a Headmaster’s dream, encompassing the master plan for the much vaunted 90s IT revolution in schools…

The honesty of reflection admirable, revealing how tough transition from child to teenager, to adult can be and showing that regardless of which decade you attended school issues, idiots, inadequacies and ideas appeared.

At school, I was always the dunce trying to be king, the nerd trying to be liked. I wanted to wear the brands everyone else wore like Rip Curl and Billabong. I wanted to have the toys everyone else had like Tamagotchis. I wanted to listen to the music everyone else listened to like No Doubt. I wanted to style my hair the way everyone else did with a messy bun, butterfly clips and tons of bobby pins.

The stories remind me of my own school days, discussions in writing class with students older than me, and the reminiscing of my daughters who are twenty-somethings now.

The book is enjoyable reading and the stories trigger memories, more stories and ideas on how to write them. One of the great takeaways provided by anthologies for writerly readers.

Congratulations to Kari  – a great result and a lot of effort. This being number three, no wonder she has decided to take a rest from publishing and will concentrate on her own writing for the next year or two.

A decision I applaud and hope to emulate with no plans to produce another anthology for the Mordialloc Writers’ Group until I finish a couple of my own writing projects!

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Croydon Primary School Grade 5 1963 – I’m the last one, second row(RHS), teacher Miss O’Toole

I had sent a couple of pieces for consideration. They didn’t make the book but I’m glad I took the time to write down some memories.

The Road to Enlightenment…
Mairi Neil

It’s funny what or who we remember from school days. For me, characters stand out more than events, although the memory usually links a person with an incident.

1963 – I arrive in Australia from Scotland in December 1962 so enjoy the long summer holidays before starting term one at Croydon State School.

Although nine and half years old I’m promoted to Grade 5 because I know Long Division and LSD (money sums not the drug!).

The teacher, Miss O’Toole has tightly permed black hair and wears a pleated grey skirt every day with different coloured twin sets, favouring red the most. She sits on the corner of the desk swinging one of her stockinged legs in such a way we sometimes see the tip of her suspender belt and the fleshy top of her leg. This causes giggles and jokes from the boys in the playground.

I like Miss O’Toole because she has the same Irish accent as my Mum and shares lots of interesting stories about books and places she’s travelled.

A new friend, Nola Tickner leaves school early every day because she sat on a needle and BoxHill Hospital is monitoring its passage through her bloodstream. It eventually comes out through her big toe!

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Croydon State School 1964, Mr Stuart the teacher. I’m front row 3rd from left – worrying that if the wind changes will my face stay like that!

1964 – Mr Stuart, the Grade 6 teacher likes to strap, but thank goodness girls are exempt! He wears a grey suit, but his jacket is tight over a portly frame and never meets to button. He sometimes wears a waistcoat and tie. When he laughs his belly wobbles. He lets us put on a play I’d written after listening to the ABC Radio school hour. It’s about the three field system in Medieval England. We have a lot of fun dressing up. I play the Lord of the Manor because it was my idea. I wear a pair of pince-nez glasses that belonged to my grandmother and think I’m the ‘bee’s knees’.

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Sally Joffey has bright red hair and soft white freckled skin.  She comes to school one day with a face matching her hair except for white rings around her eyes. She looks like a strange panda and confesses she spent too long under her older sister’s sun lamp because she wanted a tan. It took weeks for her skin to return to normal.

1965 –  First Form at Croydon High School with Mr Lurajud who has a moustache and hairstyle like Hitler’s. We cruelly whisper ‘Sieg Heil’ behind his back. I’m Form Captain and at a class fundraiser, I take a plate of Tablet my mother has made. This very sweet Scottish fudge enchants Mr Lurajud, who tastes one piece and buys the whole plate for himself!

Mr Butler, the headmaster frightens us at Monday morning assembly warning of the ‘red menace’ waiting to invade Australia from Indonesia. He urges the older boys to join the Army and fight for freedom in Vietnam. Later, when an ex-student is one of the first national servicemen to die in Vietnam after stepping on a landmine, I wonder if Mr Butler regretted some of his scary speeches.

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Home from Croydon High School at lunchtime

1966 – Mr Wilson the balding Geography teacher always behaves as if he’s slumming at the school. Class handouts have to be coloured in, but he never stipulates a colour, rather just states Derwent Number 12 or Derwent Number 32…

One of six children, I don’t own Derwent pencils. I ask what colour to use and Mr Wilson lectures, ’Derwent pencils were on the booklist. Your parents should have bought them.’ Mum bought cheaper pencils at Croydon Market and I blush with shame. I learn a valuable lesson. It’s not a crime to be poor and children will never forget how you make them feel.

(Years later, I  buy my daughters Derwent pencils when they start school, not that they were asked for but because I can and because I want to give them something I couldn’t have.)

Mrs Fear, the Sewing teacher lives up to her name and ensures I hate needlework for years. My older sister finishes class projects for me and I get high marks. When my sister hands in her own work she almost fails. Not a good teacher or seamstress Mrs Fear resented my sister because she knew more than her.

1967 – Mrs Walker is a fabulous English teacher. She’d been a journalist in England and encourages me to write with the warning that journalism is not a glamorous occupation. ‘You’ll be asked to cover the local cat show as well as an exciting crime!’

She’s trying to give up smoking and chews gum all the time – her excuse for chewing in class while insisting pupils can’t do the same.

Neville Purchase’s bicycle is hit by a car on the way to school. Rumours fly around the playground he’s dead, but at a special assembly, the headmaster announces Neville has lost a leg. When Neville returns to school we must be considerate and not stare at his prosthesis. It’s the closest I have ever been to someone who has lost a limb.

1968 – Mrs Hurst wears pencil skirts so tight the boys titter about seeing the outline of her suspender belt. Mr Barouma, our French teacher had been a Landscape Gardner and survived real-life exploits living in WW2 Occupied Holland.

On hot summer days because there’s no air conditioning Mr Barouma takes us outside to sit under the trees and read. In classes straight after lunch, he tells us to put our heads down and power nap for 15 minutes. He’s Mr Popular!

water fights a feature on hot summer days
water fights a playtime feature on hot days

1969 – English teacher, Fred Carstairs, the glamour boy on the Staff payroll sports an all year suntan like an Olympian. One day, he leaves a student teacher in our clutches. The young blonde with curly hair begins writing on the blackboard. He foolishly asks if he’s spelt ‘their’ correctly.

Like scavengers fighting over a carcass we soon work out he’s not a confident speller. Even when he writes a word correctly someone tells him differently. Mr Carstairs returns to a blackboard full of misspellings. The student teacher is called Charles Dickens. The irony of his name not lost and compounds our glee.

European History teacher, Mr Jones, a proud Welshman, never lets us forget his origins. He takes us to see the film Oh What A Lovely War. A scene in the movie has a couple of privates refer to the commanding officer as ‘that Welsh bastard’.

A wave of titters floats down the rows of seats at the cinema. On the train journey home to Croydon, the boys repeat the line ad nauseam within earshot of Jones but insist they’re just discussing the film.

Croydon high school oval
the school oval only completed in 1965-66

1970 – Dr Saffin (PhD Eng Lit) my teacher for four HSC subjects. A brilliant man, who could be teaching at university but chooses to work in a state school. He has a horrific stutter and warns new students not to sit in the front row unless they wear a raincoat.

He acts out scenes from Shakespeare and his stutter miraculously disappears. Because of his teaching I win a Commonwealth Scholarship and a place at the Australian National University as well as the Victorian Shakespeare prize.

He challenges pupils to always question texts and accepted beliefs. Tells us to research answers for ourselves. He believes education is not the cramming of knowledge but the nurturing of the desire to learn. He more than any other teacher inspired my lifelong love of learning.

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It’s called Croydon Secondary College now.

Most of the above photos of Croydon High taken from  Friends of Croydon High’s Facebook. It’s depressing how little the school has changed from the outside – I just hope the inside of the classrooms has fared better over the years!

Schooldays from Myopia to Utopia
Mairi Neil

I remember the days of chalk and talk,
They seem such a long time ago…
Some memories vivid, others faded,
Some memories happy; others not so.

In the 50s and 60s corporate punishment
Considered discipline and acceptable force,
Breaking rules or challenging authority
Meant the strap, ruler, or cane – of course.

We sat in rows, faced the front of class,
Teachers used their pointers like spears.
We recited grammar, chanted times tables
Copped many a clip around the ears.

At all times you paid undivided attention
To avoid dreaded lines – or detention,
Teachers often demanded written lines,
‘I must not…’ scrawled hundreds of times.

School desks with lift-up sloping lids
Sweets and secret love notes easily hid
But no moving without permission,
Until the bell signalled intermission.

We wrote in ink with fragile nibs and pens,
Blotters, jotters – rostered ink monitors then
Teachers omniscient, few encouraged discussion
Questioning authority invited concussion.

Originality met with ‘stick to the topic’
British Empire curriculum deliberately myopic,
School uniforms ensured our regimentation
Some playgrounds practised gender segregation.

Mastering reading paramount, by phonetics,
Rote lessons repeated until they’d stick
Mental arithmetic standard daily fare
Holidays longed for, days off so rare.

Our playground at Croydon poorly equipped
We had marbles, ball games, and we skipped
Sent outside at recess whether rain or sun
Kiss Chasie could be dreaded, or was fun!

Tunnel Ball, Tag, and swapping cards galore,
Crossball, Netball, British Bulldog and more.
The boys relished their footie competitions
Girls loved ‘Chinese Elastics’ positions.

Compulsory folk dancing only some enjoyed
Holding the sweaty hands of girls and boys
I remember a boy who had horrible warts
Another’s jumper his handkerchief of sorts.

Bottles of milk delivered to drink for free
Left out in the sun it soon soured for me
Drink ‘for your health’ teachers would say
But I recall many days vomited away.

On Mondays, we assembled to honour the flag
This ritual patriotism made shoulders sag.
Promising obedience to the Law and the Queen
Regular indoctrination – no sincerity seen.

Marched into classrooms by fife and drum band
Pupils’ enthusiasm transient like sand
Migrant kids from a host of different cultures
Their lunches targets for unfriendly vultures.

School toilets always stuck up the back
A lean-to roof on an old wooden shack,
No soap or towels, a sink, nothing more
‘Holding on’ damaged bladders for sure!

Lunchtime litter duty came around each week
Lolly papers and food wrappers we had to seek
Before vying for the right to empty waste bins
Incinerator flames dancing as rubbish poked in.

Today’s resources include technological wizardry
Different attitudes serve a multitude of needs
But the most important gift has never changed
Thank your primary teacher if you can read!

Anniversaries and Birthdays Come too Soon

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Anne Brown Courtney 1937

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

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

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

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

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

Belfast Blitz a Sijo by Mairi Neil

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

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Mum’s Memories:

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

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

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

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

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

There had been a raid the week before.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Belfast-blitz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Oh up from the Bally streets.

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

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

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

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

‘Oh my goodness,’ I said.

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

Where are you going?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Without Mum, another Sijo by Mairi Neil

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

 

 

NaPoWriMo Begs For a Cluster of Poems

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Yesterday, I spent a wonderful day with my daughters visiting the National Art Gallery in Melbourne and immersing myself in the art of Andy Warhol and Ai Weiwei.

happy a and mj with balloons

I’m sure in quiet moments I’ll think over the nuances of the day and be able to write several poems such was the richness of the experience. Being allowed to take photographs and download information will definitely trigger memories and boost any forgetful senior moments! Thank you exhibition curators.

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However, another NaPoWriMo (optional) prompt/ challenge swirled in my head and although I’ve given up publishing a poem a day I’m still motivated to write and share  work I feel ready to share. The editor in me can’t publish stream of consciousness, preferring to use that as a tool rather than an end result.

I’m a plotter not a pantser when it comes to writing. Plus, even when work is polished and published, the perfectionist in me wants to rewrite and change it. What is it they say – those who can, do and those who can’t, teach! Or, maybe I’m just a normal writer – we’re often called a weird bunch.

Indecisive thoughts play in a loop and my confidence believes the ‘Wednesday’s Child is full of woe’ prophesy –  woe translated as dejection and trouble.

Never thinking my work is good enough, I might as well add more ‘P’ words: plodder, procrastinator and pessimist. And being a contrary writer, let’s throw in rejection!

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Reading about Ai Weiwei yesterday, his motivation for an amazingly varied number of installations and projects, his unapologetic declaration that art must be political and that his social activism can’t be separated from his art, was food for my soul.

When I have a purpose for my writing, especially poetry, I feel more fulfilled. He’s inspired me, as I often am by paintings, film and sculpture – we creative types linked by our interpretation of the everyday. And some of Warhol’s paintings and photographs triggered memories of the 70s – especially my trip to China in 1979. But that is writing for another time (or poem).
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The Waste Land,” by T.S. Eliot  declared that “April is the cruelest month.” But NaPoWriMo 2016 asks is it?

Poets are  challenged to think of a month they personally perceive as ‘cruel’ or perhaps joyous, and write about why the month’s been labelled so!

For inspiration they featured Vietnam’s Nguyen Do.

Known for the musicality of his work, Nguyen considers his poems “somber,” but not necessarily “sad.” Cerise Press has made available dual-language versions of several of his poems – see here, here, here, and here. Nguyen is also heavily involved in translating other Vietnamese poets’ work into English, working with Paul Hoover to produce an English-language version of the selected poems of Nguyen Trai, and an anthology of contemporary Vietnamese poetry, Black Dog, Black Night.

I’ve written before about why September is the cruellest month for me because that was the month John died. The love of my life and father of the girls desperately fought to stay alive, but unfortunately asbestosis, emphysema and cancer meant his lungs, in his own words were ‘ well and truly stuffed.’

‘Cruel’ is an apt word as I remember watching John fight so hard to stay with us despite the ravages of illness, but there is joy too in a lifetime of memories – albeit a life cut short  .

September Sometimes Sighs
Mairi Neil

In Melbourne, September serves
Spring sunshine, spreading delight.
School holidays sauced with laughter,
Generous helpings at the Melbourne Show.

Happiness like Mum’s delicious
Homemade buttered scones.

But September also bittersweet
When Spring wears a mask –
Nature and nurture full of surprises
The joy of new life stifled.

Buds ‘neath unseasonal heat
Shrivelled by a searing sun.

My September a cruel month
Grief and lost dreams haunt
A month where the world wilted,
A tragedy of Shakespearean proportions.

Day and night unbalanced in 2002
The vernal equinox hidden.

Instead the blackest of days revealed
Time shuddered and stopped –
Childhood beliefs challenged
A once vibrant spirit shrunk.

The centre of my celestial sphere
Sought his place in the Cosmos.

The world tilted and crashed
Upon the inevitability of death.
The family ship floundered,
Survivors flailed, clung to Hope.

Love struggles to stay afloat
In waves of sorrow

September’s perennial Spring song
Promises renewal and abundant life
But in my heart a cold wind stirs
Memories of the blackest of days.

Days tasting of salt.

Did You Know Marilyn Monroe Was a Poet?

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It’s day six of NaPoWriMo 2016, and as one of those who has ‘fallen behind’ in the challenge I hope to catch up over the weekend. Today, I’m revisiting Day Three when I substituted a different poem for the challenge to:

write a poem in the form of a fan letter to a celebrity. Now, this could be a celebrity from long ago, and needn’t be an actor or singer (though it could be). You could write to George Washington or Dorothy Dandridge, Marie Curie or The Weeknd. Happy writing!

I wanted to write a poem tribute about Marilyn Monroe after visiting the special exhibition Marilyn at Bendigo Art Gallery. This comprehensive display comprises of authentic artefacts, clothing and other memorabilia belonging to, or worn by Marilyn.

There are more than 20 original costumes from some of her greatest films with clips from the movies and interviews with Marilyn playing alongside. She is stunning in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, How to Marry a Millionaire, Love Nest and of course the infamous moment when she sang ‘Happy Birthday Mr President‘ to JFK.

MM entrance to art gallery

There are also numerous dresses and accessories from Marilyn’s personal wardrobe and dresses by her favourite designer Emilio Pucci. She preferred understated style away from the screen and it’s strange to see the grey skirt, plain salmon pink blouse and beige sweater – such a contrast to that revealing white dress adorning the eight-metre-high sculpture, and the white fox fur muffs and gold lamé dress she wore in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

There is a lot in this exhibition to introduce us to a Marilyn most of us don’t know.

Among the many diaries uncovered after she died, there were journals of poetry and long entries retelling her dreams and thoughts and observations about people and events. She kept a writer’s notebook and used her poet’s eye.

There are original scripts with personal notes scrawled in pencil about directions and performance: ‘reveal electricity in dancing’ ‘sparkling face’ ‘didn’t expect success every time’

Monroe was a complex figure, full of paradoxes and contradictions. Her roles seem to define a limited, highly regulated vision of female power and desire, but her performances often subverted and tested these definitions. Shrewd, ambitious, intelligent, vulnerable, politically aware, she wanted to extend herself. She was often anxious and insecure about her abilities, but also determined to do more with them, to take her talents and use the celebrity she understood so well to different ends.

welcome to bendigo sign with MM

In 1953, the year I was born, Marilyn was presented with the 20th Century Fox Award for Sweetest Girl in Motion Pictures, and along with Jane Russell she preserved her hands, footprints and name in wet concrete outside Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, Hollywood.

Marilyn was 27 years old and for seven years was portrayed as a superficial blonde bombshell by Fox Studios. In 1954 after a life-changing trip to Korea to perform for the troops she recognised her worth and popularity, demanded a pay rise and better working conditions. Rebelling against the dumb blonde image, she even started her own production company, Marilyn Monroe productions.

She was ahead of her time because not many actresses were successful businesswomen or liberated enough to establish their own company and renegotiate contracts.

But, in 1962 (the year I was 9 years old and my family emigrated to Australia), Marilyn Monroe was found dead from a drug overdose. Was it accidental? Suicide? Murder? The jury is still out and conspiracy theories abound.

How shocking, married at 16 and dead at 36.

The tragedy and legend of Norma Jeane Baker who became Marilyn Monroe was part of my childhood. In the 1960s, popular and gossip magazines proliferated, celebrity news items tumbled out of Hollywood, television brought the big cinematic stars into lounge rooms.

The shops and cafes in Bendigo have caught the Marilyn bug and are milking her popularity:

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I want to be an artist, not an erotic freak. I don’t want to be sold to the public as a celluloid aphrodisiac.

Marilyn Monroe

In the exhibition you see the books on her bedside table when she died: Of Stars And men, Oh, Careless Love, Man’s Supreme Inheritance and Human response to Our Expanding Universe. She had a personal library of over 400 books and prided herself on lifelong learning and enjoying intellectual conversations.

[about reading Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet] I was never told what to read, and nobody ever gave me anything to read. You know — the way there are certain books that everybody reads while they’re growing up? . . . So what I do is — nights when I’ve got nothing else to do I go to the Pickwick bookstore on Hollywood Boulevard. And I just open books at random — or when I come to a page or a paragraph I like, I buy that book. So last night I bought this one. Is that wrong?
… Arthur Miller wouldn’t have married me if I had been nothing but a dumb blonde.

A prized possession was an autographed photograph of Einstein ‘To Marilyn with respect and love.’

Of course, Gossip magazines are there too:
Motion Picture, Screen Guide, Modern Screen, Foto Parade, 3D Movie, Photoplay and many of the headlines and articles are about Marilyn. Her professional and personal life often in turmoil with a string of unsuccessful marriages and affairs.

1960: The very private life of Marilyn Monroe you’ve waited ten years for...
1961: Can Marilyn live down her past?
Marilyn Monroe Life as a Divorcee… Marilyn Monroe Secret Marriage Plans

Overwhelmed at seeing her name in lights and being famous, she stopped the car one day to take a photograph from a distance saying, ‘Somebody made a mistake.’

You-Dont-Need_outline-300x300.jpgShe suffered chronic insecurity regarding her acting ability and performance anxiety made her physically ill. Add the pain of endometriosis and insomnia. She was often late on set and this tardiness infuriated co-stars and crew.

An actor is not a machine, no matter how much they want to say you are. Creativity has got to start with humanity and when you’re a human being, you feel, you suffer, you’re gay, you’re sick, you’re nervous or whatever.

Marilyn Monroe

Marilyn overcame a difficult childhood. She never knew her father and her schizophrenic mother paid others to look after  little ‘Norma Jeane’ who spent years in care. Shunted from orphanage to foster homes, Marilyn remembered being sexually assaulted and raped.

No wonder she married a neighbour at 16 when her religious fundamentalist foster parents abandoned her by moving interstate. They said they couldn’t afford to take her, but perhaps they were glad to pass the responsibility for their attractive, busty, determined, ambitious charge to someone else.

Visit the exhibition, immerse yourself in the information, objects and atmosphere. Let your imagination loose.

An authentic object that once belonged to an enigmatic star is sure to prompt a frisson of excitement in even the most detached viewer.

Yes, indeed! It prompted me to write a poem.

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I decided to experiment with the pantoum form because I had so much information. There were certain facts about Marilyn’s life that repeated like a motif, plus her story and legacy can’t be captured in a few words.

The poem will need more work but if I don’t post now, another day in the poetry challenge is lost. For those who don’t know, or have forgotten what a pantoum is here are the basic attributes:

• A pantoum is a poetry form originally from Malaysia, invented around fifteenth century, using repetition and rhyme woven like a braid. In a traditional pantoum, each line is repeated twice in a specific pattern.
• English-language pantoums often follow the traditional form loosely, “bending” the rules.
• A pantoum may consist of a few stanzas or go on forever! Using four line stanzas, repetition and braiding it works similar to the villanelle.
• Frequently, in a pantoum, the same line or phrase has a different meaning the second time it appears in a poem, either because of slight changes in the punctuation or wording or because of what’s around it.
• The poet may vary the repeating lines so they are not exactly the same – this is the art of writing in a fixed form to avoid an already repetitive form from becoming boring.
• Variety is the key to writing well in form. Tweak the form a bit, play with repetition, line length, metre and rhythm.
• Pantoums are composed of quatrains, groups of four lines.
• The first line of a quatrain repeats the second line of the quatrain before it.
• The third line of a quatrain repeats the fourth line of the quatrain before it.
• A pantoum thus has an interlocking pattern.

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Will The Real Marilyn Please Stand Up
Mairi Neil

Dressed in that white dress you set the world on fire
‘The Marilyn Monroe’ – a legacy larger than your life
The personification of womanhood all men desire
Popular pin-up girl, sex symbol, and beautiful wife.

The Marilyn Monroe’ – a legacy larger than your life
What makes you an enduring sex goddess men adore?
Popular pin-up girl ,sex symbol, and beautiful wife
The untarnished ‘girl next door’ archetype no more.

What makes you an enduring symbol for women to adore?
Oozing sensuality, wooing audiences, a photographer’s delight
The untarnished ‘girl next door’ gone, Norma Jeane no more
The childhood sexual abuse, mother’s rejection hidden from sight.

Oozing sensuality, wooing audiences, a photographer’s delight
Glamorous gowns sculpted around a classic hourglass frame
Your childhood sexual abuse and rejection hidden from sight
Privately, you abandoned celebrity fashion; anguished over fame

Glamorous gowns sculpted around your classic hourglass frame
Silks, satins, bugle beads, sequins, sunburst pleats aswirl
Privately celebrity fashion abandoned, you anguished over fame
Marilyn, no calendar girl but an Aphrodite transforming at will.

Silks, satins, bugle beads, sequins, sunburst pleats aswirl
Hiding the scars of endometriosis, surgery, and miscarriage
Marilyn, no calendar girl but an Aphrodite transforming at will
Smouldering siren under floodlights glaring on your marriages

Hiding the scars of endometriosis, surgery, and miscarriage
Unguarded moments reveal your anxieties and desperate aloneness
No smouldering siren when focus on divorces, affairs, and marriages
The singing and dancing blonde bombshell rejected as meaningless

Unguarded moments reveal your anxieties and desperate aloneness
Yet, beneath fragility and addiction, your strong independent mind
Rejecting the singing and dancing blonde bombshell as meaningless
If alive today in a changed world perhaps a sense of self you’d find.

People chose to mock and undervalue your strong independent mind
Marilyn, the educated reader who loved writing poetry and prose
If alive today in a changed world perhaps a sense of self you’d find.
Male power and their fantasies would be declared the real foes

We will not let die the Marilyn you, so wanted to be
Not just the breathy, brainless sex symbol some men desire
But a serious, dedicated actor, seeking to be happy and free
With your talent, as well as beauty, you set the world on fire!

In the early days, struggling to transition from model to actress, Marilyn posed nude for $50. The image in the Avendon calendar was bought for $500 by Hugh Heffner who used it as the centrefold for the first issue of Playboy Magazine in 1953. He sold 54,000 copies!

However, Eve Arnold, another photographer, and a friend captured Marilyn’s unguarded moments…

The legend of Marilyn blossomed like a blast of heady perfume but the smouldering siren was only a pose, a part she played for the very public Marilyn Monroe but couldn’t live…

A Poetic Portrait -NaPoWriMo Challenge Day Two

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

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

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

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

A Woman’s Portrait 1938 by Toeti Herati

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

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

July 1989

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

Robert Hess

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

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The Kodak Instamatic, popular in the 70s.

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

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

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

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

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

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

What a big task for two grieving teenagers!

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

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

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

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

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

Family Portrait 2003
Mairi Neil

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

How can this be?

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

The three of us often wept.

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

Her hazel eyes undefiled.

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

Fragile as an autumn leaf.

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

The closure people seek, just lies.

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

I’m so proud to be their mother.

 

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

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

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

Monday’s Child …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And pick up your pen and write!

 

Life is Absurd – If You Don’t Laugh You’ll Cry

 

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What a week ! Despite all good intentions and a host of ideas I’ve found completing a post for the blog elusive. I had plans to write about my mother in relation to St Patrick’s Day but in the planning I rearranged a class lesson and decided to do a post on all things green and Irish. However, I haven’t got around to editing and polishing the flash fiction and poems that exercise triggered.

My fingers moved too fast typing  this post and ‘flash’ came up auto-corrected as ‘flawed’.  Ha, ha – a Freudian slip or is my iMac confirming the truth of recent findings that computers are smarter than man and will soon be able to control us? Perhaps I should order a robot to write my posts!

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Meanwhile in the search through my files for a poem I wrote about my last trip to Ireland, I came across one written when I worked at Melbourne University. A bit of doggerel born from the time spent travelling on the train each day.

The hour long trip in the morning and the hour home again put to good use writing in my notebook, jotting down ideas often prompted by articles in the free mX newspaper, which had a section of brief stories from around the world titled Weird.

For a creative writer this was manna from heaven and indeed one such story on the lead up to Christmas inspired me to dash off a verse.  The nonsense produced actually fits in with the sense of unreality I’ve felt this week as the media promotes the likelihood of Donald Trump, not only being the Republican candidate for the Presidency, but perhaps the President of the United States of America.

In Australia, we elected Tony Abbott to a position of power so what people do with their vote never ceases to amaze me, but how do we explain Trump’s popularity and the scenes of hero worship and frenzied adulation?

And then I remembered Diana Duyser and her grilled cheese sandwich.

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Ode To A Cheese Sandwich

Mairi Neil, 2004.

Challenging the world’s non-believers
a goodly woman’s news did travel
displaying the Holy Toasted Sandwich
advertised as an E-Bay marvel.
Modern headlines scream of terror,
famine, war, pestilence and more
so the mother of God visited Florida
a lasting impression to make for sure!
The Blessed Virgin was desperate
she’d visited Earth before
statues wept, shrouds wrinkled
wraith-like she’d walked through doors.
But all that is so last century
modern Americans are much more cynical
Mother Mary had to choose a medium
observable without being mystical.
In the year of Our Lord, 1994
checked out of Heaven by God’s clerk
Mary traversed God’s own country
looking for somewhere to leave her mark.
Lo and behold, great tidings
Diana Duyser’s toaster was set just right
and miracle of holy miracles
she instantly saw The Light!
Without any theological training
or a holy life of note
she recognised the Virgin Mary’s visage
upon a sea of butter afloat.
In cotton wool and plastic wrap
two wonders of modern technology
for ten years the blessed sandwich
has defied all toxicology.
And so in December 2004
Golden Palace Casino’s gullible folk
made Diana $A35,000 richer
proving the silly season is not a joke!

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In 2004, I was also studying part time and achieved my Certificate IV in Workplace Training & Assessment. The course spanned 18 weeks – a much more intensive and thorough course than many on offer today – especially those in the scandalous private sector where charlatans have received government money because ideologically driven governments insist private does it better than public.

I was lucky the Sandybeach Centre was founded by a family of teachers who believed in public education. They gifted the centre to the community. My Cert IV tutor had relocated from Canberra and was one of the people who designed the course aiming to ensure people training others had the teaching skills to present and pass on that knowledge.

There were 18 students meeting each week and the insight into the range of skills and ideas for courses, as well as the range of personalities and backgrounds, led to fascinating lessons.

At our farewell luncheon I presented everyone with a poem on parchment, rolled and  tied with a bright red ribbon. The scroll, a little reflection to celebrate the end of what had been an intense course for some.

CERT IV – 2004

At Sandybeach for eighteen weeks
Eighteen students gathered to learn
With expert guidance from Maria
We experienced a pleasant sojourn.

Deanna taught us yoga breaths
Especially breathing through the nose
Encouraging meditation and calmness
Just make sure a handkerchief is close!

Esther explained website design
With a great example of how it’s done
Being first to do the ‘assessment task’
She was the perfect guide for everyone

A veteran of the corporate world
John’s mapping a new career
He enthralled us with statistics
Showing a water crisis is here!

Artistic Shelly displayed flair
We admired her icon painting
But if she’d gone into labour
Some of us would be fainting!

Toni was the second youngest
To be a teacher her ambition
Her presentation on computers
An excellent example of tuition.

Kamil was the youngest in the class
Yet his forte is knowledge of business
To actually gain this qualification
To Kam would be sheer B.L.I.S.S.

Softly spoken Paula’s desire
To train civil celebrants is unique
Her advice for aspiring celebrants
‘Get it right!’ before you speak.

There was a doctor in the ‘house’
Janos Bognar was his name
He shared his knowledge and expertise
The ‘mad cow’ debate to inflame!

Andrea is not demented
And she tested all of us
Her presentation and assessment
Completed with minimum of fuss.

Stefan tackled each session
Enthusiastically with a smile
His commitment to French food
Gave us a salad with style!

Gordon’s morning drive was impressive
His keen participation too
Flowery speech and tussie mussie
Made his presentation difficult to outdo.

Frank kept us entertained most sessions
Mr. Hospitality could be his name
We learnt what makes good coffee
and dealing with complaints is not a game.

Liz recognises signs of conflict
And has solutions that will work
Her triangular presentation
Helped us recognise a jerk.

If ever we suffer depression
Let’s hope Maralyn is on hand
With soft voice and caring manner
Our every symptom she understands.

Eve coached us all for life change
She made us think seriously about time
The quality not quantity
To have a balance just sublime!

Leanne loves outdoors
But suggests gardens need design
Her checklist incredibly helpful
To avoid a strangling vine.

Ann embodied the perfect presenter
Her cool style one to emulate
Customer service is her forte
Her training talent innate.

And last but not least is yours truly
A wordsmith of moderate note
The best thing about Cert IV
is the people about whom I wrote!

Mairi Neil

The celebration with classmates cut short because a close friend had died suddenly.  The funeral to be held in Castlemaine where she had relocated with her family to start a new life in the country and fulfil her dream of bringing her children up in a healthy sustainable lifestyle.

I left a city restaurant, caught the train to Castlemaine and met up with a group of friends, all in a state of shock like me. We’d become acquainted through Alida. I’d taught puppet and writing workshops at her home when she organised large groups of home-educated children. Her two young children had come to my Scottish country dancing classes. Before that they had briefly attended the same Steiner school as my daughters.

Alida had just turned 40. Why were we attending her funeral? As children painted her coffin and a quartet of strings played Mozart, we heard how she had died of a blood infection picked up after she cut herself gardening. Life is indeed absurd.

Alida – one of my angels. She supported me through John’s illness, encouraged me to write and insisted I was a good teacher, giving me opportunities through the home education network. She gave me confidence and the impetus to improve my qualifications. I should have been showing her my certificate not signing a condolence book. She left instructions for her funeral and it was unique like herself. Lots of laughter as children and adults painted flowers, trees and rainbows on her coffin and shared quirky stories about a truly remarkable and memorable person.

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And as this post visits random memories triggered by files on my computer I discovered a story I’d written about another bizarre episode in the Life & Times of Mairi Neil…

Hospitals Take Patience

When Anne was in primary school she ached to roller blade. Each school holiday we received a discount voucher to the local skating rink in White Street and each holiday I promised to go ‘one day’.

My childhood memories of roller skates were of expandable contraptions strapped over shoes. One size fits all. They usually slipped off, loosened, or stretched. Children were fortunate to reach adulthood with ankle bones intact. Skate design improved but I discovered eva in adulthood, risks of broken bones remain.

One Easter, I kept my promise and took Anne to the rink. I hired skates for us both so that I could demonstrate and help Anne skate, but the speed and antics of teenagers whizzing around made me change my mind. It was twenty years since I last roller-skated. One novice on the rink was enough. I returned my skates.

I showed Anne how to stand, glide and most importantly hang onto either my arm or the side of the rink. The first three encirclements slower than a snail on ice. Anne bounced back from falls, her patience, perseverance and endurance astonishing as she alternated between grabbing the side of the rink and me. Confidence and skill improved and she staggered solo.

Fourth time unlucky!

Clipped by a boy as unsure as herself, Anne fell. On the way down her left foot landed on my right foot. The slip-on canvas shoes I wore offered no protection from the wheels of the skate. Oh, the pain! So intense I was glad the general hubbub masked my expletives deleted.

I managed to finish the circuit and endure two more before suggesting we call it quits. Every step of the ten minute walk home excruciatingly painful.

After an uncomfortable night, John insisted I should have an x-ray in case I’d cracked a bone in my foot. (To match the one in my head his unspoken judgement.)

The human foot has 26 bones, 33 joints, 107 ligaments, 19 muscles and tendons. The 52 bones in your feet make up about 25 percent of all the bones in your body.

We went to Frankston, the nearest public hospital and I limped to the reception desk.

‘Do you want see a doctor?’

I hoped the receptionist didn’t hear John’s mumbled, ‘No, we want to see a plumber.’

I managed to keep a straight face while explaining my injury.

Usual questions on personal and medical history were answered before she said, ‘Take a seat and I’ll arrange to have your foot elevated.’

However, a lady sitting at the adjoining window called me over to ask more questions of why I was there. I gave a detailed explanation, which she typed into a computer. My foot throbbed more and a headache developed to match.

At last sitting down I watched as moments later, three youths and an older lady helped a young girl through the doorway. She clung to the woman’s arm, hopping with an obvious swollen ankle. I discovered they were German tourists.

The receptionist deemed it necessary to repeat everything they said accompanied by an increase in the volume of her voice. I don’t think any of them were deaf but apparently your hearing and privacy disappears if your English is limited.

A twenty-something couple with two small children arrived next. They collected food and drink from the foyer vending machines and settled down to watch the television suspended from the ceiling. No reporting to reception – perhaps their TV was broken at home.

It was now 10.00 am. I turned to John, ‘The hospital isn’t that busy, hopefully this won’t take long.’

An orderly wheeled the young German girl away. She returned after having her ankle x-rayed. An hour had passed. The young children bored with the television offerings demanded more snacks.

John checked his watch for the umpteenth time. A pulse in his cheek throbbed as he stabbed at The Age crossword with his pen. I flicked pages so fast in the magazine I was reading they were in danger of ripping.

Anne and MaryJane were being taken care of by a friend but as is usual with emergency child care arrangements I worried. Stymied from voicing guilt and fears for the hundredth time, when a nurse called my name.

I hobbled after her, along the corridor, through double doors to a large area bustling with activity. Health professionals in abundance talked on phones, wrote on clipboards, chatted to patients and each other. People in various stages of treatment occupied three beds. A baby cried from behind a screen and a worried mother nursed a toddler being examined by a young doctor.

How long had these people been here? Was there another entrance to Accident & Emergency I didn’t know about?

The nurse directed me to join a couple sitting on a row of seats against a wall. The elderly man displayed an injured foot and his wife sat beside him holding crutches.

The nurse elevated my foot too and asked me to explain what had happened. She had difficulty finding evidence of ‘vital signs’ but at last announced she’d located a pulse in my foot. We both sighed with relief. She marked the spot with a biro, ‘to make it easier next time.’

She tried to take my temperature with a new machine that plugged into your ear to show body temperature on a portable screen. It didn’t work. She discarded the machine for an old-fashioned thermometer muttering, ‘so much for hi-tech medicine.’

Left alone, I introduced myself to my fellow sufferer and his wife. Fred said, ‘I’ve been sitting here since ten o’clock.’

I panicked. It was nearly midday. I shuffled back to Reception and told John about the back-log behind the scenes. He didn’t need convincing to check on the girls, ‘I’ll grab some lunch and return in a couple of hours.’

I resumed my conversation with Fred who confided a woman pushing a stroller knocked him over. ‘I just got the plaster off this morning and went to the local shopping centre. She careered into me from behind. Hit me good leg and sent me flying. I grabbed a parking meter to save myself but hit the kerb and the leg snapped.’

The woman didn’t stop to help or apologise but when Fred repeated what he said and how, I suggested her lack of response was through fear rather than indifference. His wife nodded in agreement. Righteous anger can be scary.

‘When you say good leg what happened to the other one?’

‘Oh,’ said Fred, ‘I broke that playing golf.’ He pointed to his left leg. ‘It was summer and the ground was dry and hard and I was wearing me winter shoes.’

I hid my ignorance – I didn’t even know there were special shoes for golf, never mind ones for different seasons!

Fred barely paused in his tale of woe. ‘I hit the best shot of me life, swung around but the shoe stayed put. I heard the lower leg and ankle crack.’ He shuddered with the memory.

Both his wife and I let out suitable sympathetic sounds and shook our heads. Some people attract bad luck!

I shared my mishap and laughed at our lack of sporting prowess.

A young intern approached. ‘Steven’s the name,’ he said with the false friendliness of a McDonald’s commercial. ‘What happened to your foot.’

I explained, yet again and wondered if a lie detector lurked nearby checking to see if this fourth retelling any different from the initial one hours before.

Steven attempted to take the pulse in my foot but couldn’t find it despite the biro mark. He expressed surprise at the foot being cold. I reminded him I’d been sitting for an hour in the path of the blast from the air-conditioner and two doorways. He didn’t acknowledge there may be a connection.

‘Are you a smoker?’

‘No.’

‘That’s odd, you have very poor circulation.’

He called a nurse and they both felt for a pulse. The nurse found it near the biro mark. Steven still couldn’t find it. He started to manipulate my toes and move my foot about. He pressed hard. Obsessed about my pulse he forgot about the injury. My not quite muffled scream brought an embarrassed apology and the original nurse over.

‘What’s the significance of this worry over my pulse?’ I wondered aloud. ‘Is it a sign of terminal illness? My foot was smashed by a roller skate. I just want to know if I’ve broken anything.’

The original nurse recognised fear. ‘It means nothing except they can’t find it!’ She dismissed Steven with a glare.

He wandered off to practise on another patient, the nurses returned to their respective posts and Fred and I pondered on the training interns received.

The German girl had joined us and another intern was using sign language and broken English to explain the intricate muscle, bone and nerve structure of the human leg. She paid great attention to his every word, mainly because she couldn’t understand it – neither could we.

He had examined her x-rays, which revealed no broken bones. That would have taken seconds to say. Perhaps he recognised she hadn’t been waiting the obligatory three hours or perhaps because she was young and attractive he wanted to delay her departure.

I wondered if Steven had bothered to order x-rays for me when as if by mental telepathy a young technician appeared with a wheelchair. He asked what happened and so for the umpteenth time I explained why I had come to the hospital.  I had a desire to begin the narration with ‘a tale as old as time… ‘

Half-an-hour later John returned in a mellow mood. Lunch had been delicious, the girls were happy. The x-ray a great advance in his eyes until I reminded him it was after 2.00 pm.

Fifteen minutes later a nurse came over and bandaged the German girl’s ankle and my foot. Steven reappeared and introduced himself to John, ignoring me.

He talked over my head. ‘I don’t think the foot is broken but I’m not saying it isn’t in case you come back and sue my ass off.’

Steven received my most scathing look.  John refrained from speaking. I thought how my Irish mother sometimes mangled the English language but then she had no great love of the English or their language and made no pretence of having studied it at tertiary level.

A nurse bandaged the foot that may or may not be broken. I didn’t tell her being a proud owner of a Ranger Guide First Aid badge, I could have done that at home.

We left Fred demanding loudly if they had misplaced his file while his wife shrunk behind his crutches.

I limped out to the carpark leaning on John’s arm reflecting that before being let loose as a General Practitioner, Steven needed a trifecta: to improve his medical knowledge, master a doctoring technique and find a better bedside manner.

‘You’ll think twice before roller-skating again,’ John said as he helped me into the car.

My smile, lopsided and fleeting as I vowed next holiday, the school’s discount vouchers better be for the cinema.

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A Stroll To Serenity – thank Goodness for Mother Nature

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It’s been a tough week – no make that a tough year, so far – and although I’ve become accustomed to putting a smile on my face and “faking it till I make it” my mind has difficulty switching off from traumatic events.

Energy is hard to find and inspiration for creative writing, a lost cause.

If my wee, Irish Mum was still alive, she’d suggest I’ve had a week of ‘not being able to get out of my own road’ .

A family member died suddenly, much too young at 48. The unexpected death leaving everyone devastated, especially her thirteen-year-old daughter. This tragedy occurred only weeks after the funeral of a cousin who found living with illness too difficult and chose to end his life. His close family still grieving his older brother’s death (another of my cousins) from a heart attack just before Christmas.

These tragedies feed the superstition that catastrophe happens in threes but this is just an urban legend  –  isn’t it?

Each death made past grief raw with a numbness descending. I had the line ‘what’s it all about?‘ from Alfie playing in a loop in my head.

However, lessons must be planned and presented, letters and emails written, an IWD presentation prepared and worried over, and this blog written – the cliche ‘life must go on’ indeed a truism.

Thank goodness then, for close friends, and nature’s beauty, to distract from the doldrums and reinvigorate a purpose for life and joy in living.

My dear friend,  Glenice Whitting suffered a home invasion and could laugh about it over coffee and despite inclement weather and a busy schedule, another friend Lisa Hill picked me up after work and we went for a walk in the park as a balm to troubled souls.

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Karkarook Park is located on Warrigal Road in Heatherton, nestled among an industrial estate and not far from several housing developments. The park is ideal for a relaxing stroll, providing an oasis of tranquillity. Traffic sounds diminished by evergreen native trees and an undulating landscape.

Karkarook, a tribute to those with vision and prepared to work hard to rehabilitate land owned by a mix of parties, including council, state government and private companies. To shape a place for the public to enjoy with recreational facilities such as: cycle and walking tracks, angling, BBQ and picnic areas, playground, canoeing and kayaking.

view towards Warrigal Road
View towards Warrigal Road, Moorabbin

 

“Karkarook Park is a recreational and environmental oasis, revegetated with indigenous plants. The 15 hectare lake is a good spot for canoeing, kayaking or sailing. Explore the park on foot or bike on 6km of trails. Take the dog for a walk. Or try your luck fishing for Rainbow Trout or Red Fin. “

Fisheries Victoria restocks the artificial lake with about 4000 trout a year.

Sanctuary
Peaceful, secure
Feeding, breeding, nurturing
Providing responsible ecological balance
Wetlands
© mairi neil

 

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Parks Victoria provides the following information:

The area around Karkarook would have been a rich source of food for Aboriginal people. “Karkarook” is an Aboriginal term meaning “a sandy place”.

After European settlement, Karkarook was used for flood retarding, market gardens and horse agistment. Through a partnership between Parks Victoria, Boral, Readymix and the community, the area was mined for sand, then transformed into the beautiful park you see today.

Flora and fauna
Karkarook Park is gradually being restored to a healthy environment. Over 500,000 indigenous trees, shrubs and grasses have been planted, many by volunteers. As the park improves, birds are returning to make Karkarook their home. More than 110 species of bird have already been recorded at the park.

Karkarook is represented by the dragonfly, chosen to represent a healthy environment and metamorphosis (transformation). The information display is in the shape of a dragonfly.

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Successive councils and state governments, and the community have supported the concept of a Chain of Parks since it was first suggested and the recent development of Karkarook Park was an important catalyst project.

Kingston has a number of landfills and there are limited ways that land can be used after landfills are closed. The idea of a series of linked parks in the Heatherton/Dingley area has been around since the early 1970s when Sir Rupert Hamer’s  Liberal Government first established the Green Wedges in 1971 .

In 1994, this idea was formalised into a report by the former Melbourne Parks and Waterways (now Parks Victoria) and in September 2002 the Bracks Labor Government finalised new green wedge zones in a process to protect Melbourne’s Green Wedges for future generations.

But of course life is never that simple and environmentalists will tell you the battle in Kingston is unrelenting with the Planning Department forever wanting to rezone land. Fortunately, in 2015, the council made an effort in the northern part of the city for the first time. Kingston City’s C143 amendment rezones old quarries and landfill tips to green wedge and assures no more concrete crushers and similar inappropriate uses.

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Pathways form grey ribbons for relaxing walks

Other parts of the city are not so lucky and currently arable land and a part of the Green Wedge is under threat from The Cemeteries Trust, who want to remove the market gardens and build a cemetery. A chain of parks trail, agricultural activities, equestrian activity such as a riding school, or even environmental conservation such as a horticultural school – all of these preferable to a commercial enterprise involving a lot of buildings, concrete and cars.

The fight for sensible, sustainable environmental policies on going but as Lisa and I enjoyed Karkarook Park I welcomed the chance to reduce my stress level.

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Dusky moorhens
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Pacific Ducks
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Galahs foraging

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bubbling residue in damp sand
Ephemeral evidence of
Mankind’s footsteps

© mairi neil

 

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A Stroll to Shift Mood
A Haibun by Mairi Neil

Determined summer
captive to ardent grey clouds
beams silver sunshine

We stroll sculpted pathways hoping to avoid the next downpour of rain. A Melbourne afternoon justifying the city’s reputation. It’s summer and we’re prepared for winter, but must shed our jackets when the brilliant sunshine ignores bruised skies and radiates heat.

On the gentle breeze
amidst a flurry of rain
a tiny blue wren flits

The park abandoned apart from a seagull susurration above the lake and Pacific Ducks waddling for the water as we approach. Galahs peck at the moist soil but keep their distance. Magpies rush for the cover of trees their movement enticing me closer.

Through a highland mist
the repeated haunting call
of a lonely moorhen

Three Fairy Wrens decorate dull brown branches with brilliant blueness. If only the elusive Hooded Plover skittering along the sandy hem of the lake would pause long enough for the camera to capture his glory. And sheltered from the rain we watch the mist rise and fall over the lake, dark blue-grey clouds sweep across the sky and a defeated sun struggles to assert its authority.

After the shower
the gulls aerial ballet
brightens the dull sky

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The rain arrived
sunshine
and left as the sun came out

 

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A walk always blows the cobwebs away and helps me put life in perspective, especially the curved balls occasionally pitched that hit their mark.

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Melbourne has earned the title of the ‘world’s most liveable city’.  Kingston’s part in The Chain of Parks and the protection of the Green Wedge contributes to Melbourne’s appeal – so here’s to future sensible, sustainable policies maintaining the lungs of our city.

And getting some writing mojo back!

Winds Of Change
Mairi Neil

I am the balmy breeze that becomes the whistling wind
I wonder at the foolishness of architecture
I hear the sighs of lovers and the curses of farmers
I see the cricket matches and the collapsed houses
I want to travel the world and display my power
I am the balmy breeze that becomes the whistling wind

I pretend that I am always in control
I feel the power of Mother Nature’s other children
I touch the clouds and make them weep
I worry that there are places I cannot reach
I howl and keen in the eye of the cyclone
I am the balmy breeze that becomes the whistling wind

I understand the flutter of a baby’s hand
I manipulate heaving white horses
I whisper soft sentences and rant furious prose
I try always for my poetry to be heard
I hope always for a memorable role
I am the balmy breeze that becomes the whistling wind.

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Serenity restored