Open House Melbourne Will Open Your Eyes To The City’s Charms

sun setting on Skye

2017 is my seventh year volunteering for Open House Melbourne weekend, an experience I love. I’m so glad to be back from an overseas trip for the event, especially since this year is a significant tenth anniversary.

10 Years of Inspiring Architecture

Emma Telfer, the new Executive Director of the Open House Melbourne Program  is

“incredibly proud to lead an organisation that’s committed to empowering citizens to be active participants in the building of our city. 

Open House Melbourne now represents an annual program of talks, tours, workshops and interviews that explore the issues, challenges and success stories of Melbourne’s built environment. 

At the heart of our program is the much-loved Open House Weekend… where 200 buildings are opening their doors so you can learn how the built environment and urban-planning initiatives influence our culture and shape our future.

 

download-4.jpg

Nicholas Building, 37 Swanston Street, Melbourne

I was assigned Folk Architects, a studio on the eighth floor,

longstanding tenants who are capturing the spirit of the place through a publication that aims to uncover the Building’s architectural, social and cultural histories.”

The building itself was built in 1926 and the architect was Harry A Norris. It was an investment by the Nicholas family who made their fortune from Aspro.

From 1926 to 1967 a Coles department store occupied the basement and part of the ground floor. The building was home to businesses associated with the Flinders Lane garment trade, commercial artists, medical practitioners and architects. By the 2010’s the small rooms and relatively cheap rent attracted creative industry practitioners and specialist retailers, some of whom still serve the fashion industry, and it became renowned as one of Melbourne’s ‘vertical lanes’.

The novel Shantaram, written by one of Australia’s most wanted fugitives Gregory David Roberts, was written in the building. In 2003, it is believed a stencil by UK artist Banksy was painted on the building at the corner of Swanston St and Flinders Lane; a piece of plastic was put up over the piece to protect it from the elements but was later painted over by vandals causing a disturbance in the art community.

From Wikipedia

It is listed by the National Trust and is also listed by Heritage Victoria.

The National Trust of Australia highlights the architectural value of the Nicholas Building’s Cathedral Arcade on the ground floor, connecting Swanston Street to Flinders Lane; the Wunderlich terracotta cladding and thirdly, the unique condition of the building with very few alterations from its original design…

from 10 Years of Inspiring Architecture, Open House Melbourne 2017

When I turned up for duty, it is the amazing leadlight ceiling in the Cathedral Arcade and how the stained and etched glass has been incorporated in shop fronts that set the building apart from many of the new shopping malls and high-rise buildings.

There is also a patterned and ceramic tiled floor adding to the heritage signature. No wonder it rates hundreds of 4-star reviews on Trip Advisor and is described as a photographer’s delight.

This Is Why We Must Look Up and Look Down

For people into art deco, the arcade features beautiful, polished wood panels with many of the original features retained by this “interwar palazzo skyscraper“.

Like many other locals, I’ve hurried up Swanston Street or visited one of the many tenants in the Nicholas Building without fully appreciating how stunning the entrance and walkway is – the motif in the domed entrance triggers thoughts of Aladdin and his lamp – a great thought because the design is magical!

cathedral place genie design 2017

The name of the arcade apt too because just across the way is St Paul’s Cathedral, another favourite to visit during Open House, Melbourne.

 

The blurb for Open House Weekend describes how the building “continues to host a burgeoning creative community that is a catalyst for ongoing renewal. The relationship between the Nicholas Building and its inhabitants is inseparable as the building enriches the lives of its occupants.”

 

nicholas bldg 2017 tenants request
Artist tenants looking for companions to share costs

 

As I stood at the entrance to the lifts to guide the 400 plus people who visited Folk Architects on the eighth floor I saw plenty of examples supporting their view that:

“Given that there isn’t a single signature building that defines Melbourne – the Nicholas Building represents the city in many ways as it is unassuming, diverse, culturally rich yet not ostentatious. It is a series of small and diverse tenancies, sublets with folk that are curiously interconnected. The building is also a microcosm of its surrounding laneway networks… it has the capacity to provide something for everybody – however, you might have to look beyond the surface to find the magic!”

Christie Petsinis – Folk Architects

An interesting snippet is that the Nicholas Building was home to the last manually operated elevator in Melbourne.

I worked for the Victorian Branch of the Federated Miscellaneous Workers’ Union in the 1980s and can remember printing off the Lift Attendants’ Award. I can also remember that many buildings in Melbourne employed people to operate the lifts, which before modernisation had two doors and manual controls.

 

nicholas bldg 2017 lifts first floor
The lifts on the first floor

 

This Is Why I Volunteer

Part of the enjoyment of volunteering for Open House Weekend is the interaction with the people you meet as well as enjoying a different perspective of the building. I’ve been lucky over the years with those I’ve worked with but also with the buildings allocated.

Last year it was Abbotsford Convent in Collingwood, the year before it was Edgewater Towers, St Kilda. I’ve been on duty at Como House, Fitzroy High School and the Women’s Centre in Lonsdale Street where the Jessie Mac hospital used to be. Different buildings and settings encapsulating the diversity of Melbourne’s architecture and design.

Yesterday Vincent my co-volunteer who works at Crown Casino and another gaming establishment volunteered “to stay connected and give back to the community“. Gabrielle, the Precinct Manager is in her seventh-year too and loves the possibilities of learning and appreciating Melbourne by visiting lots of buildings over the weekend. She was excited that her children now participate.

I love the sharing of stories that begins even before the weekend starts. When I mentioned to a friend where I was on duty she reminisced about her hairdressing days decades ago when she was employed in a salon in the Nicholas Building. An author now she reminded me that The Wheeler Centre used to be in the Nicholas Building and I recalled attending events there.

There is still a bookshop on the first floor which hosts author events – the owner forthright about being captive in a much-photographed building!

There were several women who had come for a special presentation in The Kimono House on the second floor. The demonstration of various ways to don a kimono and explanation of the textile, design and various garment parts was a booked-out event.

I convinced the attendees who had some time to spare to take the lift up to the eighth floor and take advantage of Open House or call in when their event was finished.

Many of those who were visiting other floors were happy to join in Open House once I explained the aim of the weekend. Thank goodness the organisers give volunteers the identifying scarf and badge, but more importantly the book with information on the buildings open.

It was satisfying to direct people to nearby open buildings, especially those who were tourists and had only a few hours in the city.

This year the theme colour of black and white may have been popular with Collingwood supporters, however for members of the public, the scarves were drab and hard to spot. In the words of one lady, “You blended into the walls, I didn’t see you there!”

Not exactly a self-esteem boost but accurate nonetheless. Signage and identifying colours important, especially for those people racing from one building to the other and not taking the time to research the exact location or opening times.

 

7 years of volunteering Open House
Vibrant colours work best

 

On the train into the city, I sat beside Yvonne who used to own The Cowboys, a retail outlet in Mordialloc. The place a legend when my daughters were growing up – reinventing itself from bric-a-brac and second-hand goods to antiques. She owned the shop with her first husband, Graham.

With her new partner, John,  she heading into Melbourne to enjoy Open House, “a weekend not to be missed.”

My badge a conversation starter. Yvonne loved attending Open House and she and John had a list of places to see. They booked into a hotel overnight to make attending some of the popular places easier. A great idea.

We shared stories of Mordialloc and mutual acquaintances – it is indeed a small world!

As I stood at the entrance to the lifts I reflected on how life is never boring. One lady remembered attending ‘a school for young ladies‘ in the building and learning commercial subjects. At the same time, she recalled there was a ‘film studio’ on another floor where “those kinds of films” were made with “not so nice young ladies“.

A book on past tenants is bound to be a best seller!

Ten Stunning Photos From the Nicholas Building

Before I took up duty on the Ground Floor, I spent some time appreciating Folk Architects – especially the view from Room 815!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I asked Tim how he remained focused on work. I’d be tempted to stare out of the window.

He agreed it was difficult some days and said how privileged he was particularly seeing the change of seasons on the swathe of trees lining St Kilda Road and surrounding parkland.

However, when it is an everyday availability, human nature kicks in and despite the distraction, familiarity lets you concentrate on work at hand.

And what amazing work Tim and his partner showcased.

Visitors heard or saw evidence of the various briefs completed and works in progress. Their fresh, innovative and sustainable approach evident in the pictures on the wall, objects in the room and awards and plans on display.

Most of the work for suburban or outer suburban landscapes but Tim’s design also used at Abbotsford Convent.

 

Visitors could see examples of materials and quirky as well as practical design. One woman attempted to sit on a chair made from a bicycle seat but thankfully changed her mind. I know basic first aid but wouldn’t consider myself an expert!

 

Folk Architects was open from 10.00am to 1.00pm but before leaving the Nicholas Building I had a last look at some of the other floors.

The stairwells and shop fronts also attractive to photographers I’m sure.

The steady stream of people using the lifts included tenants and workers. I saw several men wheeling trollies with laundry and toilet supplies as well as artists turning up for work in their studios clutching the obligatory cup of coffee heart starter.

However, I’m glad there were over 400 extra visitors -including me – to appreciate one of the city’s architectural gems!

I wonder what building I’ll be assigned next year.

 

Things Are Not Always Bright And Beautiful

creepy crawly chart

Okay, I admit some of the above-mentioned creepy crawlies are beautiful (actually only the butterfly and ladybug) and I understand insects, in fact, all creatures have a place in the ecosystem, but lately there has been more of the creep factor than beauty!

spider web on fence

I’ll confess up front to an ambivalence towards spiders – a creature Australia seems to have too many of and of course, they love my old weatherboard house and surrounds.

I look out the kitchen window and the webs are there.

I walk out to the front porch and the spiders are there along with some other strange insects!

Daughter, Mary Jane complains often about the spider webs stretching from her car mirrors to the garden bed. They appear no matter where she parks in the driveway.

Daughter, Anne can sense a spider in the vicinity even if tiny and an anxiety attack is sparked. The spider must be removed before she’ll settle in a room!

One of my first memories of coming to live in Australia as a nine-year-old was sitting at the kitchen table in the old weatherboard house our family rented in Croydon. I’m not certain if it was my Dad or an older brother who casually pointed above my head at the wall and said, ‘watch out for the spider.’

We were always playing tricks on each other, so I ignored the warning until I saw my sisters and younger brother hurry from the table. I turned around in time to see a huntsman the size of a saucer scurry across the wall. Needless to say, I slithered under the table and followed the others outside.

ausie spider chart FB

Ironically, we became immune to some of the spiders in the ‘old house’ to the extent that one lived above the old wood stove at my dad’s behest because it kept flies at bay. We nicknamed him Oscar.

However, Mum wasn’t as benevolent and didn’t shed a tear when Oscar disappeared up the vacuum cleaner one day!

Fifty-five years later I’ve encountered plenty of spiders – Red Backs along the fenceline and White Tails inside when we renovated.

The other day Mary Jane killed a Red Back on the porch – apparently, there’s an increase of them in Melbourne because of the weather. Around 300 people are bitten every year in Australia.

In recent weeks, pest controllers have been inundated with calls from Melbournians who have spotted the spiders in their homes and gardens… .the hot weather has made them come out in force.

“This time of the year, we’ve got lovely blue skies, we’ve got some humidity and we had some rain a few days ago, so there’s plenty of food for the spiders to eat,” Simon Dixon from Exopest said.

White Tail spiders are nasty little creatures and I’ve been bitten several times. John got bitten once when we were renovating and took a severe allergic reaction.

Whitetail spiders frequently occupy Melbourne homes. They seek shelter in dark nooks and crevices and at night time they go about their business eating other spiders found lurking around the home. As they don’t spin a web to catch prey, when it comes time for them to rest, they sometimes find problematic places. Towels and toys left on the floor, curtains and bedsheets and lonesome shoes are a common hiding place. Whilst they are not vicious spiders, they will bite if feeling threatened. It’s easy to see how an unsuspecting human can quickly become the recipient of a painful venomous bite.

Common signs and symptoms of a Whitetail Spider bites include instant pain similar to a bee sting. There is redness, discomfort and swelling. Ulcerations can develop and the recipient is left open to the possibility of infection at the site. In a minority of victims, there is the potential to suffer a nasty reaction such as flue like symptoms and anaphylaxis.

While working in the garden I’ve often come across various garden varieties of spider, or rather they’ve come across me. Sometimes the bites require a visit to the doctor because of the rash or pain caused.

Like most people, I give spiders a wide berth when I can and not surprisingly they were a subject of my early poetry in Small Talk poems for children, Employ Publishing 1994.

Nature’s Web
Mairi Neil

Caring for the environment is an urgent task,
stop slaughtering wildlife, poisoning waterways,
and polluting the air – is all I ask.

However…

I may respect the right of creatures
great and small
but this doesn’t mean a universal
love for all.
I live life with minimal environmental damage
I don’t buy toxic sprays or insecticides
and in the garden rampage.
Even revolting ‘blowies’, when inside
they venture
are swatted with a plastic hand
as effective deadly censure.

But…

The one creature that has me terrified,
makes me absolutely petrified
if ever it manages to creep inside,
has eight legs and a body round
and in the most unlikely places found –
it can be small and brown, or big and black,
some can swing, some can jump…
all can crawl up your back!

‘Live and let live’ is all right in theory
but if you suffer arachnophobia
that sort of tolerance makes you teary.
I know nature is wonderful
I know nature is grand
but I’d love to be rid of ALL spiders
from this land!

I’m not the only one put off by spiders as this news item about “a sizeable spider” on a suburban train testifies.

The spider successfully annexed a set of four seats on the crowded peak-hour service, as well as two seats in the row behind that it might have been eyeing off for the extra legroom.

Funnel-web spider venom could provide stroke protection

The above headline relates to an article about research being done to prevent stroke victims from suffering brain damage.

 One of Australia’s most fearsome spiders may provide the solution to protecting stroke victims from suffering brain damage.

Researchers at The University of Queensland and Monash University have found that a protein in the DNA of the funnel-web spider’s venom shuts down an ion channel known to malfunction in brain cells after strokes.

In cell experiments, the harmless chemical (called Hi1a) protected brain cells from a toxic flood of ions unleashed after a stroke strikes.

During a stroke, a blockage stops or slows the flow of blood to an area of the brain. The brain cells, suffering from a lack of blood and oxygen during a stroke then switch to metabolic pathways that don’t rely on oxygen. This creates a condition called acidosis and the oxygen-starved regions of the brain start to become damaged and die off.

Hi1a works by blocking the acid-sensing channels in the brain.

Who would have thought it? I might have to revise my opinion of that particular creepy crawly as the article states,

Stroke is one of this country’s biggest killers and a leading cause of disability, striking someone in Australia every 10 minutes.

I’ve also experienced Beetlemania

In December 2012, the Union of Australian Women Southern branch were having their annual Brunch for Peace at the Beach. The gathering is always held on Mordialloc foreshore and as usual as a coordinator and living in Mordialloc, I made my way down early to grab a spot under the shade.

Imagine my surprise to find the place swarming with bugs.

When I arrived, I discovered our usual shady area full of thousands of copulating beetles. Where is David Attenborough when I need him, I thought.

The other women arrived and we tried to ignore the busy insects but the breeding frenzy unsettling and hard to ignore. We tried to brush an area clear but didn’t want to be responsible for reducing some part of the ecosystem’s population. We gave up and moved elsewhere.

After some research, I discovered there were swarms of beetles in suburban gardens in and around Melbourne that summer, identified by scientists as  Plague Soldier Beetles, Chauliognathus lugubris.

A native species, its common name refers to its habit of forming huge mating swarms. They can appear in such large numbers that it is not uncommon for them to weigh down the limbs of weaker plants.

Their bright colour warns off predators and they are capable of releasing distasteful chemicals and so would not make a good meal.

It was nice to know the beetles were not interested in harming humans –

    not so another more recent encounter with the insect world.

When a Bee Turns Out to be A Wasp

During an afternoon working in the garden clearing overgrown vines from the fenceline, I noticed what I thought was half a dozen bees hovering near the corner of the house.

Later in the evening, when I went outside to bring in the washing I noticed the ‘bees’ were increasing in numbers and were going under the house, almost in a straight line. On closer inspection, I was pretty sure my bees were wasps.

European-Wasp-Infographic

A phone call to a local pest control company and their prompt response confirmed my fears were worse than I realised. The busy bees were European wasps and they had started to build a nest under the house!

Removal of the creepy-crawlies was completed by two men suitably attired with protective gear and spray guns full of a natural powdered essence that killed the wasps or put them into a stupor and drove them elsewhere.

Stop Press – Ross River Fever in Frankston

Last month, the Health Minister announced that six cases of Ross River Fever, a mosquito-borne virus had been detected in Melbourne – some in Frankston – a skip and a jump from Mordialloc.

There is a state-wide outbreak.

Usually, the virus is contained to specific areas where the mosquitoes carrying the virus are found. None of the six cases had travelled to those areas.

According to Wikipedia diseases transmitted by mosquitoes also include: malaria, dengue, West Nile virus, chikungunya, yellow fever, filariasis, Japanese encephalitis, Saint Louis encephalitis, Western equine encephalitis, Eastern equine encephalitis, Venezuelan equine encephalitis, La Crosse encephalitis and Zika fever.

I remember the shock when a close friend from university, Jan Storr died from Murray Valley Encephalitis after a camping holiday. John knew this grief too because a young organiser in his Union died from the same disease.

A lot of grief from such a tiny insect…

mosquitoes-large

Are insects taking over the world?

I’m not paranoid but I’ve never had a wasp invasion before and I’ve never seen so many spiders recently which makes me wonder have insect populations increased?

A quick question to Google and I discovered this research

Urban Warming Drives Insect Pest Abundance on Street Trees

Our results provide the first evidence that heat can be a key driver of insect pest outbreaks on urban trees. Since urban warming is similar in magnitude to global warming predicted in the next 50 years, pest abundance on city trees may foreshadow widespread outbreaks as natural forests also grow warmer.

… we’re looking at a future full of tiny, deadly insects.

Though scale insects are harmless for humans and don’t conjure up the shivers the way cockroaches and mosquitos do, they might be far more harmful to the environment than these other apocalypse-loving pests. The main problem is that they attack trees, which are a crucial cornerstone of urban ecosystems.

On Quora the question was asked:

Why don’t insects who outnumber us greatly, take over the world?

The response?

What makes you think they haven’t? 

If we exterminated all insects on this planet by whatever means we could invent, we would also doom ourselves.

We rely upon insects and other invertebrates to pollinate our food crops, if we didn’t have pollinators, we’d be dead.

When something dies, invertebrates clear up the corpse. Without them, we’d be living in a fetid mess of rotting corpses, dying from diseases that make mosquito-borne malaria look like fun.

We depend upon insects, even though they are not aware of it, they do rule the world, without them, we’re goners.

Somehow this rational answer isn’t that comforting – global warming could be driving an increase in more that tree insects.

As a writer with an overactive imagination, it’s the stuff horror movies are made of.

I remember Sunday School in Scotland and lustily singing praise to ‘all creatures great and small’ where the extent of interaction with insects was earwigs and bumblebees.

All Things Bright And Beautiful
Cecil F Alexander

Chorus:
All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful:
The Lord God made them all.

Each little flower that opens,
Each little bird that sings,
He made their glowing colours,
He made their tiny wings.

The purple-headed mountains,
The river running by,
The sunset and the morning
That brightens up the sky.

The cold wind in the winter,
The pleasant summer sun,
The ripe fruits in the garden,
He made them every one.

The tall trees in the greenwood,
The meadows where we play,
The rushes by the water,
To gather every day.

He gave us eyes to see them,
And lips that we might tell
How great is God Almighty,
Who has made all things well

 I’m not sure the same praise applies living in Australia!

The Australian Museum in Sydney ranks Australia’s most dangerous animals based on the level of threat they pose, plus how likely you are to encounter one in the wild.

The honey bee is number 2 on the list and the funnel web spider is number 7!

 

The humble honey bee, which is not native to Australia, comes second on the list because it’s both common and deadly to small subset of people. Being stung by 100 or so honey bees could put anyone at risk of a fatality, but for those who are highly-allergic, even a single sting can be a life threatening situation.

The honey bee has barbed stings, so it can only sting once. The purpose of the sting is to make you never want to bother a bee ever again…

Since 1927, 14 deaths from the spider have been recorded. It’s only the male bite that has proved fatal, however.

Direct UV light will kill a funnel web, so the spiders need somewhere to hide during the day and have been known to consider a shoe a perfectly adequate location. More commonly, the spiders builds burrows under something like a pile of bricks or a log.

Whenever I go by public transport to visit my daughter Anne I pass a mural at Balaclava Station – large colourful and bright I think it represents the food chain – the insect is much too large for my liking –

Things are definitely not always bright and beautiful – do you agree?

When It’s All Right Not To Write

a day in Fitzroy gardens copy.jpg

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

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

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

mordi beach october 2016

Sea-Sawing 1
Mairi Neil

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

Pausing The Pen

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

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

images

Tracking My Journey To Recovery

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

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

Become-a-writer.jpg

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

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

 

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

 

Now for Something Completely Different

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

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

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

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

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

Like Hillary Clinton – I aim high!

20160901_074055-1

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

Sea-Sawing  2
Mairi Neil

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

Playfulness Is Not Out Of The Question

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

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

Sea-Sawing 3
Mairi Neil

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

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

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

Time will tell.

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

Burghild Nina Holzer 1993.

 

No Way But This, In Search of Paul Robeson, by Jeff Sparrow

In memory of my father who would be 95 today. He loved Paul Robeson and we played Ol’ Man River at Dad’s funeral. I grew up hearing stories about this wonderful man’s life, voice, and commitment to social justice.

This is a fantastic review by Lisa Hill – and here is the cover of one of the records I heard Dad play so often.

20170313_094718-1.jpg

Ten Ice-Breaking Questions For Writers

-printed-books-2.jpg

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

Icebreakers

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

question-mark-hd-wallpaper13

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

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

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

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

Ten Questions

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

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

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

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

The blurb says:

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

It aired on TV from 1975-1977

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

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

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

Needless to say, many of the episodes are hilarious.

images-2

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

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

10457160_653514361385442_5324423728915660749_n.jpg

Barbara described as –

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

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

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

20170125_142246 copy.jpg

2. What do I look for in a friend?

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

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

bombe-alaska-83021-1.jpeg

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

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

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

imgres.jpg

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

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

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

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

recipe-image-legacy-id--562458_11.jpg

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

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

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

imgres-1.jpg

5. If I ever got a tattoo…

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

images-3.jpg

6. I’ve lived in Mordialloc since 1984

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

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

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

21 albert street 1984.jpeg
Albert Street 1984

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

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

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

images-4.jpg

8. If I write a book about myself…

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

9. If I could be any animal for 24 hours

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

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

aurora 2016.jpg

10. My three favourite smells

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

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

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

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

20160720_083213-1.jpg

Variety Is the Spice of Life

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

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

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

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

sweet indullgences.jpg

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

 images-5.jpg

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

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

images.png

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

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

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

20170130_143310.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

People and Places from the Past Inspires Prose

images

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

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

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

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

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

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

papa-with-me-as-a-toddler
me with Papa 1955

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

John Lennon

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

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

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

WATER

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

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

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

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

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

article-2367451-1adc4125000005dc-980_306x344

A Soothing Sunday Soaking

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

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

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

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

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

locomotive-at-greenock-ladyburn-shed

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

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

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

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

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

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

img809

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why did he refuse to dress properly for the Reverend?

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

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

What was Papa thinking?

To treat the minister as if he was a nobody…

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

quote-to-claim-for-socialism-that-it-is-a-class-war-is-to-do-it-an-injustice-and-indefinitely-keir-hardie-111-6-0605

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

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

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

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

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

images-3

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

 

Sometimes We Need To Pause

juvenile-butcherbird

A Juvenile Grey Butcherbird Belts Out a Rollicking Song.

Mairi Neil

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

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

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

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

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

Writing The Senses

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

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

The Smell of Morning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

wattle-and-gum-trees

Vale Amelia Auckett – Artist, Writer, Film Maker

amelias-funeral-1

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

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

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

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

amelias-funeral

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

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

st augustine church 1.jpg

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

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

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

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

Spirit Of The Prom
Amelia Auckett 2004

I am the Prom
A sacred place
A place I love

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

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

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

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

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

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

A kookaburra laughs

 

The Artist and the Nurse

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

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

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

 

20161008_223435-1
A gift from Amelia when I was going through chemo

 

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

Extract From Amelia’s Memoir

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

baby_massage_cover

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

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

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

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

20161003_192807.jpg

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

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

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

 

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

 

Extract From Amelia’s Memoir

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Open House At Abbotsford Convent

Magpie and bench abbotsford convent.jpg

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

Abbotsford Convent sign.jpg
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

 

Wurrundjeri sign abbotsford.jpg
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

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

 

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

images.jpg

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

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

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

Maya Angelou

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

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

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

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

Courage is fire, and bullying is smoke.                    

Benjamin Disraeli

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

2DF394FB00000578-3296558-image-a-54_1446237543455.jpg
The refugees and asylum seekers and their rescuers show tremendous courage – picture from The Daily Mail.

Some of the responses in class:

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

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

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

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

COURAGE-flier

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

bad-things-life-shit-happens-Favim.com-526588.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Courage-to-challenge-the-climb-of-the-cliff_1680x1050

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Holmescroft circa 1958.jpg
Holmescroft School circa 1958 – I attended 1961

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

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

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

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

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

The teacher nags: ‘ Hurry up.’

‘ Use your feet more’

‘Put some effort in’

‘There’s a queue here’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or is that panting breath mine?

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

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

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

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

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

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

thinking-quotes-6.jpg

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