Walking, Writing, Wellbeing, And Inspiration

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Most people want a safe and attractive neighbourhood and will get up-in-arms if it is threatened – the NIMBY (not in my backyard) factor, yet their relationship with the local surrounds can often be like the adoration Sir Robert Menzies expressed for Queen Elizabeth 11 in the 1960s “I did but see her passing by and yet I love her till I die.”

In our community, most people travel by car. It’s easy to become disconnected from the immediate neighbourhood and cling to what you think is there.

Changes may go unnoticed until too late, validating the observation ‘you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.’

Walk Your Neighbourhood, Know It, Own It!

While many places have been romanticised as wonderful places to hike or take a walk, I find my local area in Mordialloc just as beautiful as many mentioned in tourist brochures.

I don’t need to travel to walk by the sea along a wonderful foreshore, enjoy a park, or tour streets with well-kept and interesting gardens.

All of these attractions are within walking distance of my house, Mordialloc Railway Station or Mordialloc Main Street – and I’m sure there are similar attractions in suburbs all the way down to Frankston and onto the Peninsula, and up towards the city.

In my street, regardless of the season, council workers do a great job maintaining a lovely display outside a local hall where community groups like Kingston U3A meet regularly.

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Although, it’s not always roses! Vigilance is needed to protect what we have and that’s why walking is important.

We can never assume things will remain the same – whether it’s the neighbourhood or our health – nothing should be taken for granted.

Melbourne is growing. Development is a huge issue with streetscapes changing rapidly as apartment blocks, town houses and units replace the traditional family home on a quarter acre block. The resulting increase in traffic and limited parking often the biggest issue people complain about.

The population is increasing, people need somewhere to live and will flock to desirable areas – especially places like Mordialloc in the south-eastern suburbs bordering Port Phillip Bay.

If councils don’t handle the transition and changes carefully and sensibly, the ambience and advantages people have moved to the area to enjoy will be lost. The natural beauty and good life people seek will disappear.

State Governments and Council Planning authorities are forever changing the rules about who can protest a development, or who needs to know, the height of buildings, the size of apartments etc.

Not everyone accesses the Internet or council websites so communication within a neighbourhood is vital.

Walking the neighbourhood benefits my mental and physical wellbeing but also keeps me aware of what is happening. If there is warning of inappropriate development I can write to my local councillor for an explanation or to protest. (and have done so.)

Sometimes it’s saving a heritage building, trees or vegetation, sometimes it’s reducing the number of apartments to be built or stopping overdevelopment.

Always it is prioritising the neighbourhood’s character and the effect on the people who live here or may want to live here in the future.

Walking Boosts Creativity

The creative effect of absorbing the beauty of the environment also worthwhile. I often walk with a friend. We consciously notice the trees and flowers in gardens, the activities at the foreshore, listen to the birds –  are mindful of the places we walk….

I take my phone because of the camera. Taking pictures helps me remember and can prompt a poem or story later.

I’ve always walked – pushing my children in their strollers, walking them to school, taking the dog for an evening walk. The latter walk often a meditative exercise, alone with thoughts, working through worries and ideas, reflecting on the day.

For me, there is a synchronicity between walking and writing.

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Some Women Writers Who Walked To Reflect & Be Inspired:

(I’ve chosen women in honour of IWD today!)

Virginia Woolf loved solitude and often walked. Perhaps it was genetic because her father, Leslie Stephens, a renowned writer and editor was also a notable walker and mountain climber.

In the biography of Woolf by her nephew, Quentin Bell, he says she’d write in the morning and in the afternoon go for long walks of several miles, usually with her dog. 

Perhaps the walking enabled her to relax and solve any writing problems.

 As a child Woolf summered in St Ives, the inspiration for “To A Lighthouse” in 1926, as she was revising the book, she returned, noting in a letter, ‘all my facts about lighthouses are wrong’.

Domitille Collardey & Alicia Desantes

Agatha Christie loved to walk and think – producing amazing results!

Jane Austen and her sisters took long walks together and the outings gave Jane inspiration to write.

Louisa Mae Alcott was a walker and her companion none other than great thinker Henry David Thoreau who wrote the aptly titled essay Walking. Walking through the natural world a pilgrimage without a destination where he discovered new places to adore.

Mary Oliver, the American poet born in Ohio in 1935, writes poignant observations of the natural world. Nature feeds creativity and Oliver, an avid walker finds inspiration when her feet are moving. Her poems are full of images that come from daily walks near her home.

Jane Goodall moved out of her comfort zone and trekked to places no one in the western world had gone before in her efforts to save the gorillas.

Cheryl Strayed trekked the Pacific Crest Trail and wrote Wild, which later became a movie.

Robyn Davidson trekked 1,700 miles across the Australian outback with four camels and a dog. She wrote Tracks about her epic journey, which was later made into a film.

Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas spent many summers in Bilignin, Ahône Valley 1929, at a villa surrounded by mountains. Stein strolled and wrote letters to Paris about her poodle, Basket – the first of three dogs she gave the name.

Domitille Collardey & Alicia Desantes

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Merlin Coverley wrote The Art of Wandering,  taking the view that walking and writing are one activity. His writer/walkers from the times of Blake, Wordsworth and Rousseau to modern day are concerned with their inner worlds, philosophy and spirituality.

The Twilight Zone
Mairi Neil

At night, just before I fall asleep
I sometimes ponder
on thoughts quite deep.
Why do we exist
and live on earth?
If there is no purpose
why do we give birth?

I can’t believe
some random explosion
put such a balanced world
in motion –
the worm, the fly, the elephant,
the platypus and parasite
interact with precision
like day and night.

The food cycle chain
and each environmental link
intricately interwoven
to really make you think
a clever creator’s hand
has been involved –
that Supreme Being’s identity
still to be solved.

Each religion I know believes
they alone have the answer
destruction wreaked by zealots
a malignant cancer
Allah, Buddah, Krishna, God,
Jesus, the sun, mankind, the trees
human beings worship
one or more, of these.

I have a yearning to know why I’m here
a reason for existing that is clear
I seek an answer to why
the world’s not one
why love and respect’s not mutual
just as we share the moon and the sun.

I’ve not discovered the answer
to explain why we’re here
but to ‘do no harm’ a message
we should all hold dear.
What is my destiny?
My reason for being?
My eyelids droop,
elusive sleep arrives
to stop me from ‘seeing’…

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Walk Your Neighbourhood For a Healthy Body and Healthy Mind

Walking just 20 minutes a day can reduce your risk of premature death by 30%. About 30 minutes of walking a day burns 150 calories, which can help you reach a calorie deficit that leads to weight loss. Walking regulates blood sugar levels, which keeps insulin levels low and diabetes at bay.

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A feeling of happiness and contentment can flow from recognising and appreciating where you live and regular walking is a great way to achieve and maintain a healthy weight. You’ll become leaner, firmer, and fitter.

Walking has always been meditative and calming, yet still invigorating to me. Bad moods can be marched out and life put in perspective. 

It’s also a good way to rid yourself of anger – the suggestion ‘go for a walk’ or ‘walk it off’ good advice.

Anytime I need to work through a complex idea or problem, I walk or do something physical while I think.(Yep, even housework!)

Physical activity lets me ‘step aside’ and focus on the ‘real’ world while the thought process continues in the ‘virtual’ sub-conscious world where ideas/problems circulate.

The stresses of life walked out and tumultuous thoughts or emotions replaced by the sounds, smells, and sights of the sensory world of nature.

Keeping active and walking regularly not only helps maintain your weight, but lowers blood pressure, helps build healthy bones and muscles, and can improve “good” cholesterol.

The benefits aren’t just physical. Reports show that those who exercise regularly sleep better, have improved concentration and feel less stressed.

Life will be healthier and happier.

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Towards the end of her life, when my mother visited and she couldn’t walk far, I’d hire a wheelchair from the chemist and take her for ‘walks’ around the neighbourhood.

We’d go down to the beach cafe and have a cuppa while I pointed out changes to the foreshore, or we’d discuss the changes to shops in Main Street since her last visit.

Perhaps in the future, my girls will be wheeling me in a wheelchair where once I wheeled them in a pram!

Walking isn’t just putting one foot in front of the other. It can be a way to socialise, to clear the brain, prevent mental breakdown, get healthier and extend life, solve – or ignore – problems, experience the world around in all its glory, beat insomnia and find a purpose.

Many of the most accomplished and creative people throughout history have also found walking to be an integral part of their daily routines and key to their success as artists, creators, writers, musicians, thinkers, and human beings.

The author, Charles Dickens, who suffered depression went for long walks. After writing from 9 in the morning to 2 in the afternoon, he’d walk – 20- or 30-miles being routine. He suffered insomnia and would prowl London’s streets until dawn. His friends worried, he walked obsessively but the habit worked!  His prolific writing achievements of more than a dozen major and well-regarded novels, several short story collections, a few plays, and non-fiction books.

He said if he couldn’t walk “far and fast,” he would “explode and perish” from the psychological burden of remaining still. He found writing difficult and so walking was a relief. It probably saved his sanity.

His characters also do a lot of walking – perhaps he followed the mantra write what you know –  a character in Our Mutual Friend, spends hours walking around London after dark, sometimes all night. Other characters walk from one town to another, which probably occurred in those days before motorised transportation.

Where you choose to walk can boost your sense of wellbeing. Strolls or hikes in the countryside, close to nature, can have a restorative effect at the end of a hectic working week but so can a walk around your neighbourhood.

Going for a stroll with a friend or family is a great way to spend time together while keeping active.

When you wander daily around your locale, you start to look at it properly and notice its devastating beauty. There’s the ‘naturally’ weird:

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And the  sweet:

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the unusual or  contrary (yes it is a rabbit he’s walking on a leash!):

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There’s architectural loveliness,  unusual plants, unfortunate graffiti and stylish landscaping.

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A walk is NEVER boring.  You don’t have to live next to the greatest park to experience the benefit of walking in the fresh air. Urban areas can give the same effect – there are always tiny local parks, laneways and byways to explore.

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Walking is cheap and doable – you can even walk to music or listen to a book if you have headphones and an iPod.

Does walking figure in your life, help your creativity?

Where do you walk? Has it inspired poetry or prose?

 

Several Natural Tweets Trumps 45

 

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Some days the world seems to have exploded with craziness. Who would have thought the man now in the office, often referred to as the most powerful in the world, would spend his days watching cable TV and tweeting? 

Every time I think of Donald Trump as President of America – especially in light of his derogatory remarks about, and to women, I shake my head in disbelief. But there are many other failings that worry me more including the fact he has the power to start a war and has access to the nuclear codes!

I’m part of the generation born in the decade after World War Two in the shadow of the atomic bombs dropped on Japan and the development and proliferation of nuclear weapons.

Three Wise Monkeys
Mairi Neil

Mizaru, Kikazaru and Iwazaru sit on the mantlepiece:
seeing no evil, hearing no evil, and speaking no evil.
A Japanese pictorial maxim transplanted to Scotland;
brought home by a great uncle, a ship’s captain,
these wise monkeys an added admonishment
to a childhood steeped in Presbyterian rules.
Yet, the shadow of evil an unseen cloak
as we lived in the tatters of World War Two.
Crowded cemeteries, buildings awaiting demolition,
food rationing…crippling austerity
shattered families struggling to find meaning,
shuddering when ambulance and police sirens wail.
Speak no evil an achievable rule perhaps
hearing no evil more difficult
and what of seeing evil or evil seen?
The brass monkeys cold. A chilly weight
in my child’s hand, etching a mystic message
of aspirations difficult to achieve.

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Born in Scotland I lived not far from the Holy Loch where American submarines were first based in 1960. People in the peace movement (CND), including my father, protested this base made Scotland a first strike nuclear target.

This was the era of ‘The Cold War‘ and Russia was the enemy to fear, the people and country to demonise.

However, many people who survived WW2 were shocked at the devastation caused by the atomic bombs and believed the only way to safeguard the world was to ban nuclear weapons. CICD, the Campaign for International Cooperation and Disarmament became a part of a worldwide movement.

Fears were realised when interference in Cuba escalated into what became known as the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Polaris submarines were deployed from Scotland but hostile contact averted.

“By midOctober six of the Navy’s new Polaris submarines, based at Holy Loch Scotland had deployed to their battle stations deep under the sea. USS Abraham Lincoln (SSBN 602), in upkeep at Holy Loch, and two other submarines that had just completed shakedown cruises were also prepared on short notice to add their firepower to the nuclear equation.”. . . “ On October 22 at 1900 at DEFCON 3 “Polaris submarines moved to their launch points.”

Cuban Missile Crisis paper from Wilson Center

My mother told me about the day news came of the movements at Holy Loch, after days of tensions being reported on the radio.

A neighbour rushed into our house in Scotland crying hysterically, ‘we’re all going to die!’ She had young children like Mum, had survived the Greenock blitz and horrible memories had been triggered by the threat of another war – this time one that would wipe out sizeable chunks of countries simultaneously.

 

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I used to have a similar poster as this hanging on the toilet door throughout the 70s.

 

Perhaps it is the story from Scotland and recalling other stories my parents shared about the war that feeds an almost morbid fascination with President Trump’s cavalier attitude to the power he has, where he seems more enthralled with his signature than what he is signing.

I’ve had to make a conscious effort to switch off and try and actively look for peace of mind. Luckily, living where I do and working where I do, it has been fairly easy.

Bird Tweets Trump Donald’s

Mother Nature has given us wonderful birds who tweet because it’s their natural way of communicating. Their tweets more inspiring than those from you know who!

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The rainbow lorikeet (Trichoglossus moluccanus) is a species of parrot common along the eastern seaboard, from northern Queensland to South Australia and Tasmania. Its habitat is rainforest, woodland and coastal bush, hence its attraction to Mordialloc!

Limerick for the Birds
Mairi Neil

Australia has parrots galore
feathered wonders love to soar
with squeals and tweets
the Rainbow Lorikeets
brighten our Mordy foreshore.

I spotted a rainbow lorikeet one evening when I was out for a walk with my friend Jillian. Usually, they are in pairs or a cluster but this one sat on the electric wires observing us. Not sure if he was as enamoured with me as I was with him! They really are pretty birds.

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This little fellow that I think is a Thornbill entertains me every morning and early evening. He and a couple of mates flitter in and out the vines outside my kitchen window, moving so fast it is difficult to take a picture. I’m sure they sense me hiding behind the net curtains.

Focused and persistent, they chat to each other as they forage for insects. Their antics make me happy and I look forward to catching a glimpse of their fluttering feathers.

Haiku – Mairi Neil

Winter’s skeleton
Hides the promise of springtime
And the buzz of life

One day recently, having coffee with my friend Lesley in Mentone, a tiny House Sparrow decided to join us and we had a lovely conversation. Although, we were never in any doubt of what he was really after!

One reason for the successful establishment of the House Sparrow in Australia and, indeed, all over the world, is its ability to feed on a wide range of foodstuffs. Birds eat insects, spiders, berries, seeds, flower buds and scraps of food discarded by humans. There are many reports of birds entering canteens in buildings to feed, with birds even learning to activate automatic doors in order to gain entry.

Walks with friends around my neighbourhood of Mordialloc, Parkdale and Mentone, a welcome distraction to current political shenanigans dominating the news and even birds regarded as pests are more appealing than many of those who claim to be leaders.

Mordialloc Beach

Mairi Neil

The day is calm. Tranquil. A great-to-be-alive day.
Eucalypts and pine compete with salty air and
the whiff of abandoned seaweed.
The blue-green sea a mirror for fluffy clouds of whipped cream.
Dainty dollops on a pale blue plate.
Gulls sit or glide atop this glassy sea.
Bathed in white sunlight I imagine I too drift and dream.
In the distance, palm tree fronds tremble casting lacy shadows on hot sand. The clink of moorings and masts drifts from the creek
and a sudden gust of wind whips sand to sting legs and face.
Airborne seagulls now screeching origami kites.
A dark veil unfurls from the horizon, shattering the grey-green mirror
and peaceful contemplation. Waves lap and soap around feet.
I retreat to the shelter of eucalypts and pine,
the taste of salt bittersweet.

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Polluting Politics

The current state of politics and events are repugnant yet there is a fascinating compulsion to follow the relentless shocks – that’s where playing with words relieves the tension. 

Limerick for the Times
Mairi Neil

President 45 an aggressive male
as a leader, he’s destined to fail
dividing his nation
without hesitation
‘Trumplethinskin’ is no fairy tale.

Of course, what passes for Australia’s political leadership is not much better. Some Australian MPs adopting the style, policies, and even similar slogans to Donald Trump.

Limerick for the LNP
Mairi Neil

Cory Bernardi is making news
he’s given PM Turnbull the blues
South Australian Bernardi
now has his own party
being ‘Liberal’ exposed as a ruse!

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And then we had the Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull attacking the Opposition Leader, Bill Shorten in a most unbecoming personal rant while those on the government benches laughed like hyenas savaging prey.

The face of the leader of the National Party and Deputy Prime Minister, Barnaby Joyce dark red like an apoplectic fit in progress, albeit driven by laughter, not anger.

Although apoplexy as a specific medical term is not such a common term now, the word apoplectic certainly is, meaning furious and red-faced with uncontrollable rage (so called because its symptoms of flushed red face and loss of bodily control mimic those of apoplexy).

When Treasurer, Scott Morrison brandished a lump of coal and the Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg championed ‘clean coal’ WA (usually hot in summer) flooded, NSW and Queensland faced the hottest days ever recorded and bushfires destroyed homes and farmlands. SA faced extreme weather conditions and power blackouts. We in Melbourne had four seasons in one day as usual but on steroids as summer temperatures fluctuated more than normal.

Time for harsh words to be written.

Dear Federal Parliament –

You laugh as Australia burns
the LNP MPs taking turns
to promote dirty coal
cut pensions and the dole –
dear PM where’s your soul?

Barnaby’s red face a disgrace
and vitriol sprayed like mace
Appalling barefaced liars,
Climate-change deniers,
all justify influence buyers!

Halt the wheeling and dealing –
it’s our kids future you are stealing
the Antarctic ice cracking
yet you consider fracking!
Show leadership, please
wind turbines need a breeze
the sun doesn’t always shine
all adjustment takes time…

So, instead of point scoring,
lying, bluster, and theatrics
parliamentarians must sit down
to discuss the energy mix.
The public wants clarity
Extreme weather our reality!

From Mordialloc where even a small rise in sea level threatens homes!

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Thank Goodness For Distractions

I’m lucky classes have resumed, limiting the time I have available to check on the latest scandals, shocks, and silly decisions from those who are supposed to lead.

I’ll get more writing done if I ignore social media – yet switching off or ignoring the news at this critical point in history, seems an impossible task – especially when social justice is at stake.images.png

It’s a bit late for New Year Resolutions but I’ve decided to follow the advice I’m always giving my writing students – ‘write every day’. My lack of output directly related to allowing myself to be distracted and become obsessed with ‘the News’, ‘fake news’, ‘alternative facts’ and worrying – which as the quote above implies, is a waste of energy.

My daughter Mary Jane made me a lovely gift at Christmas with a quote from my favourite character, Jo March, from one of my favourite books, Little Women by Louisa May Alcott.

Jo wanted to be a writer and as a nine-year-old reading about her made me determined to be a writer too.

I want to do something splendid before I go into my castle, something heroic or wonderful that won’t be forgotten after I’m dead. I don’t know what, but I’m on the watch for it and mean to astonish you all some day.

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I’m grateful for having parents who valued books. When I was ten I received Jo’s Boys, and the following Christmas my aunt gave me Little Men – I treasure these books.

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I’m not sure I’ll ever achieve something heroic or wonderful but perhaps some of my writing will remain and be read after I’m dead. It may not astonish but it will reflect me and the times I lived.

During the week I received a lovely card (with a bird on it!) and thoughtful presents from a student who said, “thank you for mentoring me so well with my writing.” I’ll treasure these too.

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We may live in tumultuous times where there is much to criticise and feel uneasy about, but with a purpose and job I enjoy, wonderful friends and family and surroundings that provide constant delight, I know I’m privileged.

The mantra ‘one day at a time’ and a conscious effort to stay positive will keep me focused.

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Surprising Thoughts A Bus Ride Sparks

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Two weeks before Christmas I caught a bus to Chadstone Shopping Centre for an appointment. I first heard of Chadstone in the 60s. We called it Chaddy. It was a big deal then – Melbourne’s first suburban shopping centre. At last, we could understand those Hollywood movie references to ‘malls’.

According to Wikipedia:

Chadstone Shopping Centre is a super regional shopping centre located in the south-eastern suburb of Malvern East, Victoria in the city of Melbourne, Australia and is the biggest shopping centre in Australia and claims to be the biggest in the Southern Hemisphere. The centre opened on 3 October 1960 and was the first self‐contained regional shopping centre in Melbourne.

The centre contains 129,924m2 of shop floor space, about 530 stores and more than 9300 free car parking spaces. It has as many as 68,000 visitors on its busiest trading days and attracts about 400,000 tourists a year from interstate and 200,000 from overseas. Sales at the centre exceed $1.4 billion—the highest turnover of all Australian shopping centres—and it has more than 20 million visitors annually.

Huge as it is now, we locals still call it Chaddy!

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2007

 

Chadstone has been constantly reinventing itself but this visit I became disoriented. When I stepped off the bus from Mordialloc I didn’t recognise the place; the change so great from my last visit a couple of years ago.

There was a new bus interchange – no longer did you get dropped alongside an entrance I recognised.

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I wanted to visit the Oxfam Shop but where was it? The old bus stops that flanked the entrance demolished, shopfronts moved or renovated, the centre expanded.

Sculptures and garden beds existed. Welcome cafes had me twisting and turning wondering which way to go.

Chaddy has expanded with age, like me. The expansion causing heartaches for those living nearby as homes gobbled but also nightmares for commuters and clients.

Anecdotal stories circulate of people driving around for hours trying to find a parking spot in the centre. My last experience of that was 20 years ago when John was still alive and the girls were in primary school. One of them had been invited to a birthday party at the ten pin bowling alley. (Is it still there?) Another time one of the girls invited to a movie (the cinemas are still there). To say we got lost both times is an understatement.

Even all those years ago the centre was huge with multiple entries and exits to car parks and a labyrinth of corridors and floors. We spent 20 minutes looking for a park and a further 10 minutes finding wherever we had to go. All of us stressed, no one arriving in a party mood. ‘Never again,’ John said, and I agreed. Even the girls thought, ‘it sucks’ and confided our local Southland Shopping Centre was better. (Comfort zone triumphs.)

However, like ex-Prime Minister John Howard’s promise to never ever introduce a GST, I’ve been back to Chaddy several times over the decades. At least ten times because often I do market research for YouSource based at Chadstone. I take public transport so have no issues with parking.

Once I figured the right direction and entered the mall I discovered a pleasant surprise – a real bookshop! Robinsons –– a branch of an independent bookshop I frequent in Frankston. I confided to the staff I had no idea they had another shop. The girl at the counter laughed.

‘We have eight stores,’ she said and proceeded to reel off names including large shopping centres like Eastlands, Fountain Gate, Northlands and Highpoint West. I didn’t absorb them all because like most Melburnians, depending on what side of the Yarra River or Port Philip Bay you live, it’s rare to shop outside your comfort zone.

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People are parochial: western suburbs, eastern suburbs, south-eastern suburbs, northern suburbs, the peninsula…

The bus service between Mordy and Chaddy excellent and entertaining. The route passes several schools and suburbs, stops at Mentone and Oakleigh Railway Stations and multicultural Australia hops on and off as well as the silent majority, great unwashed, salt of the earth, uninterested masses – stereotypes and atypical depending upon your point of view and life perspective.

There are young parents with toddlers, grandparents with shopping jeeps; giggling and dour teenagers.

Characters galore and wonderful fodder for a writer considering the trip takes almost an hour. I love to use the trip to catch up with reading too, but always have my notebook handy:

Old man climbs the stairs to board the bus. It is an effort.
Greek? 80s?
A full length dark blue trench coat almost sweeps the ground. He’s hatless, grey hair atop brown wrinkled face. Two-three inches of trousers crumple over light blue trainers.
He swings a bag of oranges in his right hand and clutches a plastic bag bulging with 20 cent coins in the other along with a rosary, the light blue beads bright against a dull silver crucifix. He mumbles to himself, reciting prayer or penance as he shuffles down the aisle.

Who is he? Where is he going? Why the oranges? Why the coins? Is he a retired priest? What’s with the blue trainers?

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Houses and shops and public buildings viewed from the bus window all hold a story or make interesting settings.

I spot a sign, a rectangle of white cardboard hammered to a telegraph pole. Black Texta announces: ‘I buy houses’ and a mobile phone number is listed. The sign placed near a bus stop and intersection to attract passengers and motorists.
Who is buying the houses? A local or foreign syndicate? A developer wanting to make a killing?

Who? Why? Where? When?

Drivers play the radio or motor in silence. Many wear bright turbans along with their uniform. More women are drivers now. Often the bus pulls over in Warragul Road near the depot and there is a change of shift. Each driver has their own code, signs off and takes their cash box and a bag with their personal belongings.

Most still bring sandwiches from home, have a thermos, a book or newspaper to fill in the time when traffic, timetables or sudden changes give them spare minutes. Although less smoke nowadays, it is not unusual to see drivers pacing outside the bus enjoying a cigarette. Or more likely chatting on a mobile phone!

Mornings or Afternoons
Mairi Neil

The bus arrives to a restless queue
Driver grumpy, wishing time flew
Passengers board like a mutinous crew
No smiles, or greetings, courtesies few.

Timetables set and must be obeyed
When punctual, the memories fade
Lateness, delays, cancellations weighed
Invoking criticism, complaints, tirades!

What do passengers care of roadworks?
Better to assume all drivers are jerks
Perhaps skiving off, looking for perks
Responsibility of time, theirs to shirk.

Traffic jams, stress, interrupted flow
Vehicles broken down or going slow
Bicycles hesitant of where to go
Negotiating routes even hard for a pro.

Who’d be a bus driver, I often ask
Their daily challenge an unenviable task
The bus arrives to a restless queue
The long-suffering driver wishing time flew…

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Passengers plug into iPods, read books, message or chat on the phone, talk with each other or ignore the veritable Babel as English and a dozen other languages punctuate the air.

A girl, perhaps 14 sits opposite me reading Douglas Adams The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. The comic Sci-Fi popular in the late 70s – I suppose in a world inhabited by Trump and his supporters the bizarre world created by Adams will seem normal!

A teenage boy, perhaps 16 talks loudly to impress his girlfriend and uses the ‘f’ word freely. A woman in her 60s or late 50s tells the boy to ‘Have some respect for others on the bus. Mind your language.’ Duly chastised he remains silent until he and his companion got off two stops later.

Good on her for speaking and good on him for respecting her point of view. I ponder the times when I’ve been in a train carriage and a portable player booms rap or techno music and I’ve wished the owner would turn it down but avoided confrontation by not speaking up. Sometimes we allow our fears and inhibitions to cloud our judgement.

A bus ride can have your brain ticking over like a Geiger Counter and also send you off on a philosophical journey, or into the past – all fodder for a writer.

Retail Therapy Flash Fiction
Mairi Neil

Sarah tapped the credit card on the machine just as the TV commercial advised. The shop assistant smiled; handed her the parcel.
Sarah beamed and said, ‘technology’s wonderful isn’t it?’
Happily swinging the bag containing her Nikes, she visited Prouds to take advantage of their jewellery sale. Purchases in exclusive boutiques followed. How she loved end-of-season sales, the packed shops, the casual assistants doing their best.
Chadstone a retail paradise that Sarah appreciated more than ever. In less than an hour, she’d spent $4,000.
What luck that the old dear had left her credit card on the counter this morning when Sarah served her coffee.

The Bus from Mordialloc to Chadstone
Mairi Neil

The sea a mix of grey, blue and green
as white sails parallel to the pier
leave the Creek as if pulled on a string
outdoor tables and chairs filled with families
a kaleidoscope of  colourful dots on the beach
groups and singles claiming patches of sand
and in the distance wetsuits mimic dolphins
the swimmers braving a tumultuous sea
gulls circle above gannets poised on rocks
myriad hungry eyes ever-watchful for food…

An old lady wearing too much makeup boards
with gaudy red lippy and rouge-stained cheeks
manicured red talons clutch bag and brolly
she sits beside a young girl whose compact mirror
wobbles as she applies mascara and eye shadow
the risk of losing an eye high as the bus bounces
over gouged lumps and road bumps
the old lady stares in disapproval or is it awe…

on the pavement solitary walkers stride
solo by choice or circumstance
perhaps walking through depression
a man and woman pant past
jogging fitness freaks, hot and sweaty
obligatory cords dangling from ears
music or meditation to increase their speed
not keep in touch with world affairs
an overweight man pushes a shopping jeep
looking uncomfortable and miserable –
for his generation, this was a wifely duty
or is he reduced to delivering junk mail
to maintain a quality of life?

when Oakleigh comes into view
graffiti walls compete with inner city lanes
the bus almost empties of people
going to work, to study, to shop
to catch a train to the city…
but just as many climb aboard
heading for Holmesglen TAFE
or the irresistible magnet of Chaddy
towering blocks of concrete and glass
studded with neon gems and greenery
surrounded by vehicles disgorging people
into a bustling commercial hub
no longer unique but replicated
throughout Australia and the world…

Please feel free to comment –

What experiences have you had on public transport that could be a poem, story or perhaps a novel?

 

Mixed Memories of Christmas 2016

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The tree made by the childcare staff Mordialloc Neighbourhood House

The signs of Christmas start in earnest mid-November and by early December a walk around Mordialloc or any Melbourne suburb provides an array of decorations and lights. Most workplaces and shops join in the festive spirit although for some it’s the bare minimum.

At Mordialloc Neighbourhood House the children in childcare have fun for weeks before Christmas making decorations and gifts. Their efforts reminding me of my own childhood – Mum teaching us how to make clusters of ‘bells’ using the metallic bottle tops from milk bottles. At Christmas time these tops were silver, gold, red and green.

In school, we used coloured paper squares and yards of crepe paper to make lanterns, cards and streamers. Store bought decorations a rarity as well as a novelty.

This year, Mordialloc sports a tree and rubbish bins have been parcelled in either red or green – just as well many of the residents celebrate and decorate their houses or we might not know it is the season to be merry and bright.

Frankston puts us to shame with their display and a Christmas Market which was very popular the day I visited.

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My friend, Barbara lives in the retirement village Richfield and from the entrance hall to every floor level the residents leave you in no doubt it is Christmas.

 

For many of the older generation, it is important to keep up with tradition, especially the sending of cards, something younger people (and those who are thrifty) are giving away now the digital age has arrived. E-cards, chatty emails or phone calls ensuring the postman’s bag is lighter each year.

I have two friends who still include a page-long newsy letter summarising their year with their card.

An octogenarian friend who likes to buy individual cards ‘a little bit different’ was saved from perhaps offending some friends when she reread the front message before popping them in the envelope:

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I have to say I found her error funny and wouldn’t have been offended if I’d received one of the five she had already written. Increasing consumerism and hype adding more than a hint of truth to the message.

However, also a warning sign as eyesight deteriorates to make sure to always put on reading glasses!

Mordialloc Christmas 2016

Mairi Neil

I smell the promise of a warm day –
pray it’s not a swelter
that silences magpie and butcherbird carols,
traditional birdsong reminders
that this is a time to celebrate…

a walk around the neighbourhood
reveals rainbows dancing in the gardens
jasmine, and honeysuckle embracing over fences
as devoted lovers and bougainvillaea and wisteria
just being neighbourly

roses and camellias peep through pickets
or stand proudly as perfumed sentinels
to announce the arrival of summer.
Agapanthus flutter and geraniums gush
daily floral tonics to banish gloom

and as if Mother Nature needed help,
colourful lights and decorations dazzle –
solar-powered necklaces strung under eaves
and threaded through trees. Seasonal symbols
to twinkle like stars in the evening hush

these jewels are joined by merry icons
dressed for another hemisphere
where ice and snow crackle underfoot…
I have a vision of my doppelgänger treading
a neighbourhood on the other side of the world

walking streets lit by a muted sun and
shadowed by thick clouds and skeleton trees
pigeon or cuckoo the only birds mad enough
to join little robin redbreast and
hustle for crumbs and kindness

what a miracle is Mother Earth!
How resiliently determined her human children
whether melting under a hot sun or shivering
in a fall of snow, many communities celebrate
Christmas their way…

the promise of a warm day permeates the air
warnings of a meltdown ignored
a meditative walk invites gratitude…
the reason for the season a childhood gift
bringing joy to the world of adult angst

Love, peace, and goodwill to all.

Garden Delights and Nighttime Sights

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Now Back to Writing

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

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

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

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

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

Stop   Breathe   Reflect…

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

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

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Haiku by Mairi Neil

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

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

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

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

Why Write?

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

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

2016 – A Reflection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I make a choice to be happy.

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

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A snap Anat’s father took of the first meeting

 

Some Student Reflections:

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

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Reflect
Mairi Neil

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

For now, I’ll

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Mordialloc Sunset
Mairi Neil

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sometimes We Need To Pause

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A Juvenile Grey Butcherbird Belts Out a Rollicking Song.

Mairi Neil

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

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

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

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

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

Writing The Senses

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

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

The Smell of Morning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Spring Has Sprung A Leak

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Yesterday, it rained and rained and rained. Today it reached the magnificent temperature of 14 degrees! It is spring…

Okay, I know we live in mercurial Melbourne, famous for four seasons in one day – so where are the other seasons – lately we seem to be stuck in winter.

Spring Lament

Mairi Neil

Today it felt like winter
Cold air crept under doors
Chilling bones, shivering skin
The steel sky released rain
In splashes, showers, and sheets
Torrential rain at windows pounded
Bouncing off pavements
Bruising flowers and trees
Warnings of flooding sounded!

Puddles formed on the road
Transformed into pools and
Swooshing waves
As cars drove by
Wary pedestrians must
Learn to jump – or fly!
The wind wailed, wrestled trees
Icy pellets drummed on roofs
Hailstones tattooing with ease.

Windy gusts grabbed droplets
Dashing them against the letterbox,
Advertising leaflets mush
Nothing survives this onslaught
Buildings and bushes saturated
By relentless    soaking     rain
This spring day surprisingly cold
My heater hums and thrums
A well-known winter refrain.

 

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Mordialloc

 

And as I continued to clear clutter from the shed I discovered this poem from the 90s. I wrote it after sitting on the beach watching the girls with their new foam surfboards.

We loved the beach on wintry days – perhaps if I’d taken myself for a walk along the foreshore yesterday I wouldn’t have felt so depressed at the dreich day?

The Wild Sea
Mairi Neil

The sea is wild today
The wind robust and strong
Blowing water onto land
And pushing me along
The sea bruised and grey
A mirror of storm clouds above
I’m buffeted and battered
By the huge waves, I love.

I’m awed at the force and
Power of the mighty sea
As it tosses flotsam
And insignificant me…

Flying high, like a bird I glide
Swirl and splash downward slide
To arrive breathlessly ashore
Invigorated and free
To run seaward for more.

In the shallows amidst
White foam bubbles
Mother Nature’s touch, I crave
The stormy sea pummels
As I dance with each wave
Sudsy fingers snatch and lift
Throwing me on high
Atop tickling, teasing rollers
Saltspray stinging eyes
The surf performs perfectly
Determined to deposit me ashore
Until the wind suddenly drops…
The wild sea is no more.

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Flash Fiction: Fanciful Fun But Good Writing Practice

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In my classes at local neighbourhood houses, we create a special writing environment to encourage each other to write;  to be in the mood to write when we are in that space.

The most important part of the class is the writing – for some students it’s the first chance they have in a busy week to put pen to paper, or perhaps take a break from whatever writing project they are working on. Some go to other writing classes like U3A, others are enrolled in TAFE or University courses.

I give prompts to flex those writing muscles, trigger ideas, spark a splurge!

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No one expects a masterpiece in 20 – 30 minutes of stream of consciousness writing but the future poems and prose that arise from the ideas contained in the splurge are guaranteed to be useful when the writer sets to work editing, rewriting, fashioning the poem, fictional story, memoir, faction, play or film script into something readable later.

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Is Time Disappearing More Quickly?

I can’t believe another term is almost over – where did the time go? However as a wintry chill sets in, the days shrink and the nights grow longer, it’s an opportune time to catch up on reading and writing. No excuses necessary to stay inside warm and snug.

This morning, as I stare at rain dripping from the trees and commuters hurrying to the station trying to avoid the puddles gathering on the pavement, it is indeed an inviting incentive to stay at the computer and lose myself in a fanciful world where the sun is shining, roses blossom and children’s laughter floats through the air.

Or perhaps, after examining the dark clouds and the shadows among the shrubbery I’ll start a gothic tale or two!

Imagination knows no bounds…

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From first line triggers, bizarre plots and a selection of picture postcards I’ve encouraged students to try  flash fiction as a way of honing writing skills. To keep word count under a 1000 words, or aim for some of the more prescriptive counts: under 200 , 500 , 800 words, even  50 or 60 word counts – this takes skill in planning, editing and of course seeking the all-important twist or surprise at the end to make the short form worthwhile.

Flash fiction improves your editing skills but also helps you think about plots, how to craft a story in a few words – add the senses, show not tell and all the other attributes important to story-telling and writing.

You can pick up on what is happening around you, what’s in the news, the latest issue that’s the flavour of the month and instead of delving too deeply, taking months of research, you craft a short story and vent and create an up-to-the minute piece!

Since technology has given us the ability to read books on iPad, Kindle, mobile phone and a variety of other portable devices, writers have a huge market to consider – those who read via screen and those short of time. (Which includes just about everybody in the modern world!)

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There have been plenty of studies detailing how reading online differs from reading a traditional book. The most obvious being page and word size and the demand for shorter and more concise writing.

Enter the popularity of flash fiction. These are the 3-5 minute short stories popular in Women’s magazines of old. The ones consumed in a coffee break, but now they be read via devices while people commute, are on trains or aeroplanes, waiting in the doctors or for other appointments, sitting in cafes or parks.

A writing class or group wonderful venues for these exercises because ideas bounce of each other, fellow students can give input if you’re stuck for an ending, or the plot seems awry and most of all there is a plethora of entertaining stories produced by feedback, wandering off in ways you’d never have imagined!

And why not – in most of my classes, although students range in age and ability, the majority are seniors who have lived amazing lives.

All that richness and life experience shared. So many varied ideas like colourful rich threads of a valuable tapestry.

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Here is my effort from an idea of opening a birthday present..

A Birthday To Remember by Mairi Neil

‘Open the presents! Open the presents!’

Julie laughed as everyone in the room took up the chant and she was dragged to where a pile of gaily wrapped gifts surrounded by nibbles and wine glasses sat in the centre of the dining table.

‘Where to begin?’ she murmured to Deb as her best friend released her grasp of Julie’s hand.

There were bags hinting at bottles and ornamental paper shaped like books. Everyone knew Julie’s passion for crime thrillers. A few larger flat parcels with the telltale elegant gift wrap of Haig’s chocolates revealed they knew another of Julie’s passions.

‘Open this one, first,’ said Ben, a fourteen-year-old nephew, pushing the largest present towards his aunt. Round with red crinkly paper flaring at the top, a scarlet ribbon held it together.

‘Curiosity killed the cat,’ Deb quipped as she playfully shouldered Ben aside whispering in Julie’s ear, ‘open mine first – it’s your favourite writer!’

Insistent, Ben begged Julie with pleading baby-blue eyes and all the charm he could muster. ‘This isn’t my present. Mum bought you that,’ and to much laughter from the crowd of mainly twenty-somethings, he pointed to a brightly wrapped rectangle that could only be another book.

‘Okay, you win Mr. Pushy,’ Julie said and winked at Deb to soften the blow. She searched the parcel for a tag. ‘A mystery present – how exciting,’ and her nimble fingers untied the ribbon.

Julie heard the clink of glasses as Deb moved around the small crowd and topped up drinks for the toast. Someone had doused the lights and from the corner of her eyes she saw twenty-five candles flickering atop a cake in her Mother’s hands.

‘We might as well do this now, darling while everyone’s attention is on you.’

Conscious of the heat from the candles as her Mother placed the plate beside the parcel, now stripped of paper and ribbon, Julie clapped her hands at the round hat box.

She glanced around at the baker’s dozen of friends and family. ‘I hope this is what I think it is – you all know me too well!’

She pulled off the lid with a flourish, picturing herself as the winner of the ‘Best Hat’ at the soon-to-be-held Melbourne Cup.

*****

Within the hour DI Flint flicked through his notebook trying to piece together the chaos that followed the opening of the unlabelled present.

Later, he stared at the array of photographs on the Incident Room board. Was Julie the target? Did the person responsible know her mother would bring the cake out at that moment? Could it be a practical joke gone wrong? Ben was a precocious kid but where would he get a cobra?

Flint brushed hands through a mop of tussled brown hair. It was going to be a long night and it didn’t help that half the guests were affected by alcohol and bloody party pills! Deb seemed to be the only sensible one – and yet what if…?

Was it coincidence the book she gave Julie was Death by Surprise?

Exhausted, DI Flint threw his notebook down and shook his head as he checked his watch. Time to visit the morgue and then to the hospital and see if Julie’s in a fit state to be interviewed apparently she adored her widowed mum.

What a case to land the first night he’d given up smoking.

(567 words)

Rattlesnake Green

Here is another from a first line…

Righteous Anger by Mairi Neil

The kiss had surprised her. How dare he take liberties. That behaviour may have been accepted in ‘the good old days’, but this is 2016!

She could have him for sexual harassment. That would wipe the smug smile from his face, slow his arrogant strut to a shuffle.

It’s about power – the perception of coercion – what chance has an employee refusing the boss?

And how much more an uneven relationship can there be than the CEO and a junior clerk?

The kiss wrong on so many levels! The grin he gave afterwards won’t be so wide when he’s slapped with a writ.

I know what the rest of the office will say but I mean it this time. I’m not just going to talk – I’ll do the walk. I’ll hand in my resignation if need be –– in protest at all the young women soiled by office predators.

I mean, I saw it with my own eyes. Disgusting! People in glass offices should remember others look in.

*****

She’s what?

Why wasn’t I told his daughter worked here?

(176 words)

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Prison Blues by Mairi Neil

I survey the ceiling of my prison. Ants march along concrete edges in a never-ending line, in and out of the crumbling mortar above a tiny barred window, too high for me to reach.

A shaft of pale sunlight patterns the opposite wall. There is a world outside this room! Tears buried beneath bravado trickle from the corner of aching eyes, dribbling into my mouth –– the taste of salt a welcome relief from the sickly sweet bun that had passed for breakfast.

A trio of flies buzz around the naked light bulb swinging from the centre of the stained ceiling. The slab whitewashed a thousand years ago and not touched since. Another wave of panic has me gasping for air. How can I be here? I repeat the mantra from yoga class, ‘breathe in, breathe out…’ and trawl through the events of the last two days trying to pinpoint what had gone wrong.

Fear twists my stomach and bowels. Will I throw up or …? I stare at the bucket in the far corner of the tiny cell sitting beneath the solitary tap jutting from the wall, and shudder.

The shuffling and snorting of the guard positioned a few feet down the dank corridor drifts under the buckled door. How many hands and feet spent their anger and despair against that door?

I suppress the urge to humiliate myself. The lingering smell of the last episode hangs in the air like the suspended light bulb. The flies increase their buzzing and frantic swirling. The guard had been almost too quick to respond. His reluctant replacement of the bucket and disdainful glare a warning not to expect such a favour again. The room spins.

I close my eyes willing relaxation. The man from the Consulate will visit again soon –– perhaps with good news. I’m not just any woman. I’m a well-known journalist. Please God, if money and celebrity count for anything get me out of this hellhole.

I’ve learnt my lesson. I’ll never write another story or make a flippant Facebook remark about Thai Royalty. Damn the Internet!  In fact, I’ll never step foot in this country again.

Oh, for the good old days when hard copy was checked by editors.

(372 words)

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Please share any flash fiction ideas or completed pieces or improve on mine and brighten an otherwise dull day!

Happy writing!

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Writing For Pleasure Has Its Own Rewards

A poet always writes of his personal life, inches finest work out of tragedy, whatever it be, remorse, lost love, or mere loneliness.

WB Yeats

We have just celebrated Neighbourhood House Week and working as I do, in three local community houses, I felt the pressure to showcase what my classes achieve to encourage new enrolments and justify my existence.

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Evidence of ‘money’s worth’ and ‘bums on seats’ has to be seen in a world where the power of economic rationalists reign supreme. Everywhere, it seems is pressure to ensure education in the adult sector is all about employability skills with the well-being factor often forgotten, although numerous reports have investigated the ‘social capital / human capital spectrum’.

  • How do you quantify or monetise the benefits a ‘Writing for Pleasure‘ class brings to society?
  • Unless students write their individual stories how will the bean counters or the decision makers know that friendships have formed and limited the number of doctor visits and prescriptions for anti-depressants?
  • How do you recognise the importance of gaps in education being filled for students beyond working age?
  • What about the benefit to future generations of the family histories that are written, the individual legacies recorded?
  • Who considers the pride and soaring confidence when someone writes a poem or a short story, a novel or a play and achieves a dream they never thought possible?

Two of my classes have concentrated on poetry this term so that we could produce a zine for Neighbourhood House Week. (The covers above)

With the 8-page booklet, I manage to get the majority of students to polish some poems to include.  I even wrote a few new ones myself during our splurge time!

We’ve studied rhyme, metaphor and simile, form poetry including limerick and clerihew, and free verse.

Lessons in Rhyme
Mairi Neil

On the train, stations slip by
My thoughts are fleeting too
Years of commuting make me sigh
Respite days, oh, so few.
And yet there’s something comforting
About train journeys I have taken
They’re a metaphor for life
Places loved and others forsaken.
The stations and various signals
Stop start – get off – get on
Stay on the rails or let loose
But always journey on.

Bentleigh station May 2016
Bentleigh Station in the midst of renovation

Haiku Selection
Mairi Neil

Twilight glow from sky
Pier promenade shelters us
From gathering storm

Ships in harbour creak
Moored safely for the night
Silent sentinels

Beneath the water
Life blossoms and flourishes
Our ecosystem works

A tourist mecca
Attracts people in all weather
Revenue alleys

I Love Cooking (After Dr Seuss)
Mairi Neil

I love cooking, I love the smell
I love it more when it turns out swell.
I love old recipes, they are the best
I gather ingredients and begin with zest.

I love my oven, it’s electric. If it was gas I’d be sick.
I love my bench top, granite and wide, equipment sits side by side.
I think my cooking is okay, there’s not much more I can say.
I’m not an expert like some boast, I’ve been known to burn the toast!
There’s people who just love their food, always categorising, bad or good.
I eat to live, variety’s not king, a few favourite recipes are my thing.

I’m happy to bake my apple cake. I am.
Can even manage scones, cream and jam.
I love to peel, dice, chop and knead.
It’s from cleaning up I want to be freed.

I love cooking – it’s a necessary evil – we have to eat.
But boy I’m glad – really glad – Nandos have opened up the street!

Election 2016
Mairi Neil

Australians are having a vote
Malcolm and Bill both want a moat
People smugglers to shatter
‘Cos Refugees don’t matter
We’ve stopped the boats they gloat.

Writing Class
Mairi Neil

Monday writing class
A library of imagination
Pens fill blank pages
Words arranged and stacked
Released to the public
Knowledge laced with fantasy
A choice of genres
To receive a stamp of approval

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Albert Street at dusk

21 Albert Street
Mairi Neil

My Edwardian house no longer sags
And sinks into sandy soil
Aged and in need of renovation
It now squats on renewed stumps
A bulldog ready to scare off
A proliferation of developers.

Mary Jane’s car gleams, winking in sunlight
A cheeky adolescent ready for adventure
Compact and fuel efficient
It darts in and out of traffic
A trainee athlete refusing to be intimidated
By those more powerful.

My garden an oasis of peace today
But as the rain continues flora flourish
the garden transforms
An island of tranquility becomes
A factory production line of
Unwanted grasses and weeds.

Aurora, my ever-alert sentinel
Listening, watching, protecting
Warning of danger.
Aurora, a loyal, loving companion
My four-legged disciple of friendship
Epitome of unconditional love.

Keep Mordialloc Beautiful
Mairi Neil

Albert Street busy each morning
Passersby always on a mission
They head for church, railway station,
U3A, public schools – people in transition
They’ve found God, want to learn
Are travelling near and far
Perhaps they just love to shop
Or are looking to park their car!

I love this changing scenery
Glad Council upkeeps the greenery
But I don’t like the litterbugs
The ones who care nought for others
They chuck containers, cans and bottles
Did they learn nothing from their mothers?

A magpie pecks at sodden ground
Moves to nibble at bark on trees
He takes what he needs, moves on
No rubbish left when he feeds
So, why do humans leave their litter
To clog drains and on roads skitter?

Albert Street an extension of my home
And passersby are free to roam
But please keep your trash, bad manners too
That’s a plea, from me to you!

 

A Wake Up Call
Mairi Neil

The people of Longreach
Appeal to fellow Australians
You’ve forgotten us they cry
The rain has stopped
Not seen for years
The grass all withered and dry.

The people of Longreach
Appeal to fellow Australians
Do you know what it’s like here?
Drought has destroyed
Our way of life
The community we hold so dear.

The people of Longreach
Appeal to fellow Australians
Climate Change must be faced
This parched land
No longer produces
Bore water has poison laced

The people of Longreach
Are silent and so sad
Heads bowed at funeral pyre
People, cattle, farms
Now dust to dust
Their history erased by fire

The people of Longreach
Not the only community to die
The driest continent
Will shrivel and shrink
Global warming is making us fry!

 

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Writing For Pleasure & Publication at Mordialloc Neighbourhood House
A Reflection by Teacher Mairi Neil.

The writing class at Mordialloc Neighbourhood House is the longest running, continuous class since the House was established. The size of classes has fluctuated over the years, reflecting the growth in U3A in the area and a variety of writing courses at TAFE and online, but for students attending Mordialloc the motivation, inspiration and intimacy they gain is invaluable.

For several years we ran classes in the morning and afternoon. Student Barbara Davies has been attending since 2002 and Dennis Worledge has joined this year.

A retired primary school teacher, Barbara taught creative writing for fourteen years at U3A and joined the class at Mordialloc to encourage her own creativity.
‘I love coming to this class and have made so many friends over the years while improving my writing.The class is a safe environment to write, a place of trust to share confidences.

Barbara is one of many students writing memoir in a creative way but also having fun with imaginative stories and poems.

When individuals take the time to reflect and document even 10-20 short stories about their family history, culture, life experiences, opportunities, challenges, gratitude, disappointments celebrations and ideas, they communicate their wisdom, values and generosity to the next generation in a very positive and instructive way.

New student Dennis agrees. ‘I love writing and want to further develop my skills as well as enjoy the fellowship and fun I’ve found in this class. I hadn’t anticipated writing poetry and am amazed I enjoy the challenge!’

Heather, Amelia and Kay joined the class in 2004. In the years between Heather moved from Beaumaris to Mt Eliza, but still makes the trip each Monday morning. ‘I’ve been coming forever,’ she says with a laugh, ‘because of the fun and friendship and I love the mental stimulation.’

Heather added, ‘I’m staving off senility and it’s keeping me fit. I attend poetry readings, visit libraries and bookshops because through the class I’ve become a more discerning reader.’

Kay published her memoir from workshopping stories in class as have other students: Fay Lucas (a book of poetry about life in the Mallee) and Bob Croker (tales of being a grey nomad travelling around Australia). All of the students have work published in class anthologies.

However, the class is not all about retirees. More than 140 students have participated over the years, many like Tori who joined in 2008 and loves coming to the class because she is accepted as a writer and storyteller. We see her ability, not disability.

Tori Dowd and me May 2016Younger students have included Michael (23) who thrived despite his ABI from a severe car accident and now publishes poetry online. Often the carers discover latent writing talent as they join in!

Young women have come for semesters while on Maternity Leave using the great childcare facilities to have alone time and write about the changes in their lives. Students with English as a new language like Mari and Naoko love how creative writing improves their understanding of the nuances of English as well as extending themselves to learn techniques while making friends.

Although it is a constant struggle to find funding and support for the classes in community houses, I hope they continue to provide everyone with the opportunity to reflect, write and share their stories and imagination for themselves, their loved ones and their communities. We have established a great tradition of that at Mordialloc.

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

 

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

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

Although officially autumn, Melbourne sweltered.

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

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

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

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

‘It’s International Women’s Day.’

‘Here?’

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

‘In Hong Kong.’

‘Don’t they march there?’

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

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

‘But why are you marching?’

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

On Being Asked To Speak

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

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

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

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

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Gemma introducing the Penguin Club speakers

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

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

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

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

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

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The Mayor, Cr Tamsin Bearsley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mary Rimington OAM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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me in full flight

International Women’s Day 2016

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

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

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

Latte Lament
Mairi Neil

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

For centuries, we had HIStory, not HERstory.

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There have always been people eager to rectify injustice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Those in power do listen – sometimes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friendships grow in writing classes along with wellbeing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Words, Words, Are All I Have

Words are my business

Often they flow, or stay sealed like a time capsule

Remembering, imagining, creating, forgetting…

Depending on mood, knowledge, skill… the dictionary

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

Why does the sentence not work

Or the words engage? Where’s the impact?

Rambling, nothing of substance… stuttering

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

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

Alliteration can work

Repetition a crafty tool. Pizzaz needed

Especially metaphor and simile

Am I mad?

Losing it?

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

I squeeze the words from the pen

Hammer the keyboard

And shape the words and worlds to

Vindicate the term ‘writer’

End of story!

© Mairi Neil 2016

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

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

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