My Nose to the Grindstone and I’m Happy

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A new term, a new student, and returnees – the first day of the Writing for Pleasure Class at Mordialloc pure joy!

The above sign (doctored to suit the blog) necessary because the building works next door to the House still evident, and in fact there doesn’t seem much progress since before the holidays – although I’m sure there will be people more knowledgeable than me who will tell me that digging a big hole takes time.

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December 5, 2016
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January 30, 2017

The next photograph may show the extent of the ‘big hole’ better… and here is a link to my blog in October last year when the excavation started.

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The redevelopment of the block for apartments will take time – a good metaphor for many writing projects. A novel will take more time to write than a short story, an autobiography will be longer than a memoir – and whatever the writing project it will be better if you include learning the craft of writing techniques and understanding genres and your audience.

The seeming lack of progress could also be a metaphor for my personal enthusiasm for writing hitting the doldrums.

Passion, Purpose and Persistence.

This is what we learn and practise in class. And what we need to make sure we actually write!

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We support and encourage each other. Writing is perhaps the loneliest of all professions. Attending a class or workshopping with other writers who understand the desire and need to write, helps keep you motivated and focused.

Becoming a writer is a choice that can be satisfying, rewarding, and fulfil your needs or let you plummet the depths of despair, suffer chronic indecision, and crush your self-esteem!

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It is good to be around people who care and who understand the joys – and the dread – “what if people won’t like what I write or won’t read it?”

Writing takes courage.

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I had a long list of what I was going to achieve during the holidays – especially regarding writing projects.

However, the summer was hot and I seemed to be constantly clearing out accumulated clutter (who said we were going to be a paperless society?).

I caught up with friends and family, but mercurial Melbourne’s climate gave the garden a growth spurt unusual for this time of year which translated into extra weeding and tree branch trimming.

I spent hours researching and planning my big holiday next term on the Trans-Siberian Railway and visiting the UK; I read some delightful books, watched movies, made my daughter some clothes and became obsessed and saddened by the rise of Trump and the decline in compassion for others less fortunate …

In other words, I found any excuse not to keep up that very important mantra I recite to my students – write every day!

I even contemplated throwing in the towel and never writing anything again because nothing I have written seemed substantial.

I wasn’t making any headway with writing projects and I struggled to remain positive about what I wanted to write.  Who was my audience? Why would anyone read my short story, poem, novel, memoir?

Even as I began to write and get published, I hesitated to call myself a writer. There always seemed to be yet another goal to achieve before I could do so.

Real writers wrote novels; I wrote reviews of novels. Real writers published work in magazines you held in your hand; I published pieces online. Real writers made a living as a writer; I had a day job. Whatever I did, it was never enough, in my eyes. I had the arrogance to think that readers would care about what I had to say—the audacity to put fingers to keyboard in the first place—but not enough to say “I’m a writer.” That’s what some might call irony.

Everyone has bouts of impostor syndrome. But in a field that demands attention to meaning and nuance, using the word “writer” can be especially fraught—particularly for those of us who toil away without a bestseller or a byline or an agent. Of all the words I’ve written, “writer” has given me the most trouble.

JESSICA ALLEN

I realised I need to return to work and be in the company of others who care about words.

I’m happy to cultivate the all-important habit of writing every day.

Over the holidays, I discovered that more free time didn’t automatically mean I used that time to write. In fact, I did everything but write, was easily distracted by social media among other things, and in a perverse way welcomed the distractions, yet I’ve never been a procrastinator!

I was experiencing a massive crisis of confidence.

Rummaging through old notebooks and files, I found poems written years ago and snatches of stories. Many written before I started teaching and before I had anything of note published. Pieces I’d written when all I wanted to do was write and scribbled incessantly wherever I went.

A Meditative Walk – January 1, 1995

Mairi Neil

I hurry from the house upset
leaving the sibling rivalry,
the squabbling over toys –
the cross words…
Relaxed in bed, John solves
the crossword in The Age
he is on holiday–

do mothers holiday?

Too late for church services
I march towards the foreshore
and despite a recalcitrant summer
the beach park busy as a carnival
with children amusing themselves,
adults reminiscing the old year

perhaps airing hopes for the new.

Aware of the gloomy grey sky,
I stride towards the beckoning water
to meet a sea matching my mood –
tempestuous waves spewing shells,
seaweed, and driftwood…
white rollers leapfrogging ashore with
gulped plastic flotsam before
carrying our society’s junk seawards.

Humanity the beast amidst wild beauty…

I ponder poisoned fish
trudge amid food wrappers, bottles, cans,
plastic bags skittering along the sand,
to stink, smother, and spoil…
a discarded thong and wind-cheater
evidence of last night’s revellers

welcoming a new year with old habits.

The environment taken for granted
as the sea whispers and whooshes
the waves crashing to a breathless pause
before the wind reinvigorates the tide
edging ashore,
racing the shadow
of a cloud cauldron on the horizon,
a witches brew conjuring

a change for unpredictable Melbourne.

The wind lessens, my tread lightens,
the threatened storm dissipates
along with resentment and anger–
the sea is rolling, not turbulent
transformed clouds wisps of steam
the sun’s warmth soothing
the wind a refreshing breeze
and shells crunch underfoot.

A glistening treasure trove –

shells for Anne, some for Mary Jane
pockets bulging I hurry home
greeting fellow fossickers with a smile
a lone jogger pounds the sand,
an elderly couple strolls arm in arm,
an excited family cradles surfboards
braving the water with wetsuits and grins

the community enjoying the holiday.

A tantalising smell of sizzling sausages
drifts from the park as families picnic…
tiredness and tetchiness gone
I’m hungry to share my happiness
find the girls repentant and worried
John apologetic and dressed
keen to please and make amends–
we return to walk along the beach.

Shifting sands adapting to change

the children build a sandcastle
relaxing we watch the tide
mesmerised by the sea’s song
cricket and news on the radio ignored
the girls’ laughter infectious
echoing our childhood trips to the seaside
can contentment be personified?

I write down thoughts, memories, images…
a new year unfolds.

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I need to rediscover that joy and spontaneity.

I’m looking forward to getting back into the swing of work – privileged to be doing something I love. Maybe my body and brain just needed a rest – I certainly felt exhausted at the end of the year.

If you want to be inspired and motivated, learn to structure sentences for different audiences, satisfy a creative urge to make up stories, or just record your life in a poetic way –  join me at Mordialloc, Longbeach Place or Bentleigh – or head down to wherever you can find writing classes in your neighbourhood.

I guarantee there’ll be fun and friendship too.

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Can The Past be Put To Rest?

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Yesterday,  Dr Michael Chamberlain died, aged 72 years. A respected academic, husband, father and pastor of the  Seventh Day Adventist Church, however, most of the news concentrated on the infamous 1980 Chamberlain Case, when Azaria, the baby of  Michael and his first wife, Lindy was stolen and killed by a dingo while the family on a camping trip to Uluru. (Then referred to as Ayers Rock)

Search any newspaper archives from that time and you’ll see that it was covered in local, state, national, and international newspapers. There was even a Hollywood film starring Meryl Streep, Evil Angels.

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from Guardian Archives

Lindy and Michael Chamberlain were convicted, pardoned and later exonerated over the death of their baby daughter, Azaria, at Uluru in 1980.

The trial by media, rumours, innuendo, deliberate misinformation, the hounding of the couple and their family and friends, plus the sickening glee of crowds cheering when Lindy went to gaol is a sad and sorry stain on modern-day Australia’s history.

I hope, Michael’s religious faith, which sustained him in life, will reunite him with Azaria and he’ll find the peace and joy that from all accounts he was denied because of the tragedy at Uluru.

The Chamberlains paid a heavy price: not just losing their daughter but the public vilification led to the disintegration of their relationship and family unit although both remarried. They both lost careers and neither fully recovered from the emotional toll of the sensationalist reporting of the tragedy.

Sydney Morning Herald Summary

The Chamberlains’ daughter, Azaria, was snatched from their tent on a camping trip to Uluru in 1980. Both her parents were ultimately charged for their daughter’s disappearance; Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton was given a life sentence in 1982 and Michael Chamberlain convicted as an accessory after the fact.

Ms Chamberlain-Creighton was imprisoned for three years before new evidence was found to overturn the verdict and both were exonerated in 1988. The pair separated in 1990.

It was not until 2012, 32 years after Azaria’s death, that a Northern Territory coroner issued the final report in the case, confirming that Azaria was taken by a dingo.

I was working in the office of The Federated Miscellaneous Workers’ Union (Victoria) in 1980. Of the eight girls in the office, only three of us had sympathy for Lindy and believed her story.

Tea room conversations were heated and as often happens in Melbourne, a big divide between Herald Sun readers and those who read The Age. Both newspapers owned by rich families or consortiums, but one less tabloid than the other.

(Well, that was then. Today,  in the 24-hour news cycle, the proliferation of social media and the post or fake-truth era, few media outlets have credit. And people are still hounded, suicidal James Hird a recent victim.)

In 1980, the division between those who consulted with and believed Aboriginal Australians and those who dismissed local indigenous knowledge became obvious quickly. People who lived around Uluru were ridiculed for seeing the dingo as the predator it is. Serious shortcomings in police forensics and the Northern Territory legal system were exposed.

Many people ignore or refuse to believe the reports of dingo aggression, preferring to see the dingo as having more of the qualities of a dog than a wolf.

Sadly, ignorance makes people easy to manipulate and misinformation easier to spread. The court of public opinion almost unstoppable once it gathers momentum and in 1980 the ‘public’ making the most noise wanted Lindy Chamberlain punished.

The important ‘evidence’ that had the public baying for Lindy’s blood was what some perceived as her lack of anguish. She didn’t break down enough, appear inconsolably distressed or sob. She didn’t fit the idealised picture of a ‘good mother’.

Keeping her grief private, she was labelled ‘cold’, appeared too self-controlled therefore must be guilty.

The public’s need to have a saintly, sacrificing mother shattered by Lindy’s persona in interviews. Her grieving portrayed as inadequate.

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In 1992, when another media flare-up occurred after Lindy and Michael divorced, I wrote a poem. I wanted to send Lindy a letter to let her know people cared about her. To my shame, like many good intentions, it never happened.

I can’t begin to imagine the hurt, anger and despair Lindy suffered several times – from the first trial to the last. Nor can I imagine the pain of Michael being charged as an accomplice and having to watch his pregnant wife sent to gaol with ‘hard labour’.

But I remember the sadness, anger and disappointment I felt when work colleagues, friends, and acquaintances believed every sensationalist tidbit the media fed them. (Including the assertion Azaria meant ‘sacrifice in the desert’!)

Many of those feelings returned yesterday as details of the Chamberlain Case resurfaced and I thought of the grave miscarriage of justice.

The past may be gone but a trigger fires the memories.

Lindy
Mairi Neil

Oh, Lindy,
how I wept for you
and in my heart, I still do

those lost years will not return,
the anger you feel
must really burn –
make you want to scream
‘Wake me up, please God,
from this bad, bad dream.’

I watched a film
about your pain
relived those years
all over again

your biggest critics
other women…
instead of support
you were spurned
their judgment stern
without compassion
their hatred voiced
with a zealous passion.

refusal to accept a tragic event
can cause emotion to be spent
you’ll always be guilty
in some people’s eyes
because you could still smile–
what a surprise!

private grief unheeded
to break down publicly
all that’s needed…

I saw a woman
who carried a child for
forty weeks
laboured in childbirth
yet hounded as if a freak.

guilt or innocence
doesn’t lessen the loss
more than Azaria taken
in that desert summer –
a broken family a cruel cost

did you feel like Moses
by a Red Sea refusing to part
as authorities tore another babe
from your grieving heart

dingoes come in different shapes
your family found
demands for your blood
irrational, hateful, an awful sound

lost years can never be regained
justice may never be
many determined to imprison you
others determined you be free.

it may be cold comfort
to know many hearts bled
unwept tears scalded souls
for your little Azaria dead…

people heartbroken
not knowing what to do
caring deeply
but like me, offering
only words to support you!

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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?

 

Farewelling The Old Year

“Poetry is a necessity of life. It is a function of poetry to locate those zones inside us that would be free, and declare them so.”

C. D. Wright  1949–2016

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A Resolution to Stay Resolute
Mairi Neil

Farewell 2016
I’ll be glad to see the back of you
I imagine Mum’s voice as she adds
we must count our blessings
and the ashes of memory remind
that I’ve survived worse…

sure there’s been deaths
but not the heart-wrenching agony
of losing a partner, a child, a parent, a sibling,
a dearest friend…

the world remembers WW1, WW2,
other monumental massacres
wearing cloaks of nationalism,
colonialism, fascism, marxism
and all the other isms used
as excuses to slaughter

2016 no exception
millions fled by foot, lorry, boat and air
seeking solace and peace
but finding what Dad often quoted
man’s inhumanity to man
fulfilling the truism
man was made to mourn

tonight social media will update
conflict and celebration
twins staring at skies ablaze
benign or malignant memories
depending on the hemisphere

will we ponder or explore ‘the missing’?
the melancholic melody masking the year
the absent card, letter or phone call,
the bombed house, the razed street
signals of the uncertainty of life

moths blundering into flames
fallen leaves crumbling to dust
dogs chasing tails
bears hibernating till good times return
birds soaring to great heights if not caged
sperm whales plunging the ocean’s depths
humans circling outer space seeking
the perfect planet as we fuck-up Earth

reflective and resolute
a ‘to do list’ will not be written
wordless feelings weigh like stone
while memories of what I didn’t do
swirl and shout like New Year revellers
singe and sizzle like failed fireworks.

We’ve been through worse and
come out the other side…
Mum’s voice trying to tell me something?

Happy New Year

Like many others, I will try and remain positive, ache for the Hogmanays of the past when life seemed simpler, happier, and as we farewelled the ‘auld year’ we really did look forward to a better one.

I need the whispers of voices like Mum and Dad to keep perspective, shake me from being too solemn and sober – the generation born in the shadows of WW1, who survived the Great Depression and WW2 – they did indeed ‘come through’!

Let us hope 2017 is a happier new year.

Safe celebrating tonight – I’m hoping to count my blessings, shake off the solemnity and may not remain sober!

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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?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Change Is Indeed Constant

 

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Tori’s parting gift to the class

 

Yesterday, a milestone in the Monday class, we farewelled Tori Dowd who has been attending for over a decade. Tori is what you would call ‘a personality’ or  ‘memorable character’ (we are writers after all!) – and she will be missed.

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Tori and me

Tori wrote us a thank you letter plus a card and gave us chocolates. Her mother, Lyn visited with lovely flowers to say thank you and goodbye. Niceties and kindness not everyone remembers and it was truly appreciated.

Lyn wrote:

Thank you to you very special people, Tori’s friends, who have been so inclusive of her at Writing For Pleasure.

To the staff at Mordialloc Neighbourhood House – thank you, one and all. Tori has been welcomed for many years.

With my love and thanks.

Lyn

 Ta Ta Tori
Mairi Neil

A sad Monday Class, farewelling Tori
Admin say the beginning was 2006
Tori a fixture from February to December
A decade of individuality in our midst.

Her wheelchair’s special controls
Enabled whizzing around the room
Two favourites were Barb and Kay
Between them Tori could zoom.

Each Monday, she arrived by special taxi
Most days a grin upon her face
Her greeting “a cup of coffee please”
The other students fetched with grace.

 

Tori’s special loves: her pet dog, Mimi
Watching romance on her bedroom TV
And we’ll remember her sweet tooth
How she looked forward to morning tea!

Chocolate being her favourite food
A love the rest of us also shared
Birthdays celebrated with gusto
Special cakes made because we cared.

But ‘all good things come to an end
Tori’s future safeguarded by sharing
Mother Lyn organised a move to Sydney
Where brothers will help with caring.

Future Mondays will feel strange
No yellow taxi stopping outside
No smiling drivers in coloured turbans
Strong hands the wheelchair’s guide

No teasing about forgotten homework
No whispered, ‘Mairi what can I write?’
No exclamations to Heather or Barbara
Or squeezing hands with all her might.

The dynamics of Mondays will be different
But with prompting poised pens will move
Poems and stories imagined and shared
Writing class mojo continues to groove!

 

Memories To Cherish

Each year as we published class anthologies, Tori contributed her writing, her words a wonderful reminder of who she was and her time with us in class. Although Tori could hold a pen, writing took great physical effort.

However, she was an example, not of disability but making the most of abilities.

Her time with us a reminder of our diversity, the richness it adds to daily life, and the fantastic safe spaces provided in community houses where all adult learners are welcomed to ‘write for pleasure and publication’.

 

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Tori has left her address and so we will now be pen friends in the old fashioned way – Australia Post can expect to be busy!

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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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Vale Amelia Auckett – Artist, Writer, Film Maker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spirit Of The Prom
Amelia Auckett 2004

I am the Prom
A sacred place
A place I love

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

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

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

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

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

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

A kookaburra laughs

 

The Artist and the Nurse

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

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

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

 

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A gift from Amelia when I was going through chemo

 

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

Extract From Amelia’s Memoir

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Extract From Amelia’s Memoir

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Writing Wellness Into Habits To Improve Health

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Last week, I attended an annual ‘exclusive briefing’ by the Commonwealth Bank for Ongoing Service customers. This is the fourth or fifth I’ve managed to make and I always choose the Grand Hyatt venue because it is the closest someone on my income will ever be to the luxurious surroundings and lovely lunch they put on – a glimpse into the world of the bank’s overpaid top executives!

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The idea of a free lunch  – especially from a bank – appeals to me.  Although I know it’s not really free – they have my superannuation!

The event always showcases inspirational speakers and if truth be known that is why I make the effort, and I’ve never been disappointed. In the past, I’ve heard Ita Buttrose on her research into nutrition to improve her ageing father’s macular degeneration and blindness, and Robert de Castella on his work with indigenous communities using marathon running to improve their health and self-esteem.

This year it was Dr Caroline West who enriched my knowledge about the importance of a healthy lifestyle and how to achieve it.

Dr Caroline West

On graduating, Dr Caroline West, MBBS  was awarded the prize for most outstanding achievement in community medicine and has spent her life focusing on community wellness.  

Still a practising GP, Media Doctor, Lecturer Lifestyle Medicine (University Southern Cross) and Past President of the Australian Lifestyle Medicine Association, she is much sought-after as a speaker.

Needless to say, as a writer and teacher/presenter, I took copious notes but I also wore my hat as a consumer health representative.

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Brush with celebrity – me with Dr Caroline West

In fact, Dr Caroline West is a dynamo. A director of her medical practice for over 25 years, she’s mother to three teenage children, and her CV includes an extensive media career as a TV presenter and producer:

Beyond Tomorrow ( enjoyed by a global audience of 50 million through the discovery channel ) Good Medicine, Beyond 2000, 60 minutes , Sex/Life, Living Longer, Everybody , George Negus Tonight , The Midday Show, Tonight Live, Guide to the Good Life. Rural health channel (Foxtel) and Mornings with Sonia Kruger and David Campbell. She is a regular Wellness Blogger ,is the GP expert for Ninemsn and has written regularly for the Sun Herald and Australian Doctor.

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I was sitting in the front row listening to the introduction for the keynote speaker. Distracted by a movement beside me, I felt Caroline sit down. When I turned, she gave  such a friendly, moonbeam smile I thought she knew me!

Oozing beauty and energy, she proved to be a consummate speaker and performer.  Bouncing up to her signature tune and slideshow,  strutting the stage with another wide smile to include everyone in the room.

For the next 45 minutes, the audience of retirees and bank employees remained enthralled. Afterwards, she listened patiently as impressed guest after guest, queued to chat and ask questions (free consultations?) and ensured her lunch delayed.

Yet, her lovely smile and enthusiasm never waned.

An Interesting Intro

Dr West bought her first practice at 25 years old. It was above a King’s Cross bottleshop. Arriving at work she’d find a body on the doorstep, people overdosing in the toilets and having seizures in the waiting room.

One of her patients who turned his life around couldn’t appear in an advert for her program because he was wanted in three states!

King’s Cross in the 1980s was, and some people say still is, the epicentre of drugs, alcohol, and violence in Sydney. However, like Melbourne’s St Kilda (pics below) there has been a transformation.

Families and retirees have moved in. A gentrification and softening resulting in the biggest change in Caroline’s 25 years. New housing developments and apartments and the changing nature of work the reasons for the transformation.

It is still a diverse community and her practice, which has grown (now employing 40 people) continues to be fascinating.

What hasn’t changed is that 70% of the health issues on her patients’ lists are directly linked to lifestyle – drugs and alcohol certainly, but also bad diet, lack of sleep and not exercising.

Caroline’s mantra:

The three major factors that affect wellness are exercise, nutrition and your mindset.

Caroline’s simple philosophy: A healthy lifestyle anchors wellness, boosts energy, longevity and peak performance.

She practices what she preaches with surfboard riding, cycling to work, walking the dog and kayaking. Her outdoor activities balanced by her love of art and music and a passion for the ukelele!

WE HAD TO STAND UP AND MOVE.  

Caroline told us to shake and do a little dance. The importance of this evident as her presentation proceeded.

We had been sitting listening to the Bank’s financial keynote speaker and would be sitting listening to her. Her demonstration of swivelling hip and hand moves proved motivational dance should be added to her CV!

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Caroline’s areas of expertise include nutrition, healthy lifestyle behavioural changes, weight management ,shared care for pregnancy, sleep, exercise, mental health, sexual health, hypnosis and preventative medicine.

She is an S100 prescriber for HIV and remains committed to the latest developments in lifestyle medicine: prevention is the key for better health. A leader in this field she communicates the latest in medical advances not only to patients but also a broader audience through her media work as health broadcaster, corporate speaker and consultant.

Universal Themes For Good Health

  • something to do
  • someone to love
  • something to look forward to

Although her speech was aimed at the audience of retirees, her advice made sense for everyone and spoke to me as a writer – especially as a middle-aged writer!

Not just examining her word choice, and how she presented, but her advice on setting goals, persistence, specific detail, planning and many other points I often talk about in writing classes.

A thought flitted through my mind – ‘physician heal thyself’ – when was I going to take my own advice?

Inspiring People To Live Well

Healthy lifestyle changes are possible. Little changes sustained day after day make a difference.

Unlock the secrets and be inspired to make those changes. Too many of us spend time thinking rather than doing

a goal without a plan is just a wish

We Took A Lifestyle Health Quiz

Q: Who gets less that 7 hours sleep a night?

  • A goodnight’s sleep important because it affects your mood.
  • Lack of sleep contributes to weight gain and diabetes.

People who sleep less, eat more. This is because of decreased levels of the hormone ‘leptin’, which regulates the appetite and helps well-rested people control their cravings for food.

  • Levels of light play a big part in establishing sleeping rhythms  
  • darkness encourages the body to fall asleep and light encourages the body to wake up.

The light emitted from devices like your TV, computer (guilty as charged), phone or even alarm clock will trigger a drop in the levels of a brain chemical that promotes sleep.

Blind people often have trouble with their sleeping rhythms because of their inability to perceive light.

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Q: Who volunteers in the community?

Volunteer participation is proven to improve your quality of life and well-being.

SURVEY ON RETIREMENT

Men are concerned about loneliness, they lose friendship groups when they retire, don’t handle the transition from work well – the Men’s Shed Movement a powerful tool to combat depression.

For women the major worry is health. Go to pilates, yoga, a new strain of Tai chi, dance classes – whatever.

Writing classes are also great (personal plug here!) for learning a new skill, therapy, staving off dementia and keeping connected to a community, making friends, as well as maybe starting a new career writing or completing a family history.

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Giving back to the community is proven to extend and improve the quality of life – volunteers live longer.

A study of grandparents health revealed those who helped out at local schools encouraging reluctant readers and helping in the library program.

  • Reduced blood pressure
  • Increased brain function
  • Reignited pathways in brain
  • Removed cobwebs and improved ability

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Q: Who exercises regularly?

  • What is good for the heart is good for the brain.

Don’t underestimate the transforming power of exercise. It reduces the risk of Alzheimer’s by 45% !

Therefore, exercise 3 times a week for the elixir of youth because 3 times a week for an hour improves your mood, your looks, and your memory.

  • Fitness makes you feel energetic, positive and confident.

Walk more. Look for movement at every opportunity – innovate – take stairs, walk or dance when doing housework – 30 minutes a day is all it takes.

  • Make it specific and get started.

Caroline illustrated that good health does not happen by chance – you need a plan. (Just like good writing needs to be planned and worked at!)

Creating Rituals To Anchor Our Health

Caroline shared her daily ritual – as the sun rises she walks the dog – he seeks his sustenance by sniffing and snuffling, connecting with other dogs, she ends the walk with a coffee in a favourite cafe after chatting with other regular dog walkers.

Early Morning
Mairi Neil (1992)

I love walking in the early morning
That time when the moon and sun
Don’t quite agree whose turn it is
To light the world.

The air smells fresh and clean
The grass soft and moist with dew
The birds have deep, throaty chirps
Proclaiming the new day.

There is a quietness in the streets
Households awaken behind closed doors
Lights glow through drawn curtains
Water burbles in drains.

Cats return home from a night of prowling
Padding softly along pavements
Up driveways, or lie curled in doorways
Awaiting breakfast.

Dogs eager for morning walks
Sit expectantly behind locked gates
Imprisoned and impatient
They growl or bark.

A jogger runs past sweating
Although stripped to the waist
Determination and single-mindedness
Etched on his face

The whistle of a train triggers
The level crossing bells
Signalling rumbling on the rails
Peak hour has begun.

Time to return to rouse sleepy children
Prepare for a new school day
Crumbs on the table
A welcome sign of family life.

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Whether you go to the sea and discover what kind of day it will be, or to the park and meet other dog walkers who talk to each other, it is a positive way to start the day.

Walking a dog brings many important lifestyle features together – encouraging you to walk, connect with nature and people, explore paths and nature walks, learning something new.

Walk after work, or in the early evening to relieve stress.

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If no dog, maybe sign up for dance lessons, Tai Chi, volunteering – humans need to be connected to improve our health and wellness.

Walking In The Evening
Mairi Neil (1992)

Walking the dog each evening
Should reduce any excess fat
Because Goldie really walks me
Pulling this-a-way and that!

We trot briskly up MacDonald Street
To the footie oval and surrounds
Goldie snuffles, runs, lopes and sniffs
Her restless energy knows no bounds.

Following this endless exuberance
I allow my thoughts to roam free
Aware of damp grass, the rustling trees
Clouds altering above a distant sea.

One night clouds are mashed potatoes
Bursting amidst a jaded dinner plate
Another night perhaps creamed cheese
Ricotta – the type you never  grate!

Other times clouds could be steam
Escaping bubbling cauldron or pot
Perhaps a mist rising on stage
In some tricky theatrical plot.

The sky may have rainbow streaks
Stretched yawns of a retiring sun
Mauves, golds, apricots and pinks
Vibrant colours every brilliant one.

But most evenings the clouds meander
To drift lazily across the wondrous sky
During the day they may have raced,
Crashing together and spinning by.

Like Goldie, they barely pause before
Merging to fade and move away
Darkness falls, Goldie pulls at her lead
We head homewards at the close of day.

Little Steps Rather Than A Grand Gesture

Q. Why do New Year Resolutions fail?

The number one  new near resolution is to lose weight, especially after the indulgences and over-eating at Christmas.

However, Caroline suggests a resolution like this is too big and won’t succeed. Whereas small changes make a profound difference to your health.

If implemented, small changes can be highly effective. They have a knock-on effect for self and others.

Writers know the value of learning the  craft, writing consistently – maybe only 100 words a day and building up to thousands. Anne Lamott’s book, Bird by Bird an excellent example of this.

Emotional eaters often pile on extra kilos so make a decision to be more active –

  • perhaps as few as 600 – 1000 extra steps a day.
  • Choose smaller dinners (but make sure half your plate is always fruit and vegetables)
  • avoid alcohol at night (no ‘self-medication’, going straight home from work, skipping the gym because you’re too tired, but walking in the door and having a big glass or two of wine.)
  • aim for more sleep.(Anyone who has been sleep-deprived with a young child will know how that in itself can lead to a low mood and grumpiness!)

Studies asking what people want as they age revealed:

  • a safe place to live,
  • financial security,
  • to prevent cancer,
  • have no aches or pains
  • enjoy time with grandchildren.

 

CAROLINE’S CASE STUDY:

Steve 65 was overweight, an ex-heavy smoker, and diabetic at 50.

When he was 62 he was walking down the street and experienced intense indigestion, went clammy and felt severely ill.

  • He was having a heart attack.
  • He realised he had a lot to live for – his grandkids keep him buoyant.
  • He turned his life around because his health is about energy to cope with grandkids –and he wants a girlfriend.

Waiting for a crisis like Steve is a high-risk strategy.

Imagine where you want to be in 5 years time.

Money and security are important but health and capacity to enjoy life more important.

Caroline showed a picture of her grandfather in Royal Navy garb looking healthy on the deck of a ship.

He was born in 1903, a period where one in seven children died.

A time of no antibiotics and lots of viruses. The average lifespan for men was 47 years old, women 49 – (the audience including me shuddered).

The biggest killers were diseases such as gastroenteritis, pneumonia, and flu. Spanish flu devastated that generation.

In 1918, 42% of the planet was affected. 50 million people died – three times the number killed in WW1.

Flu Vaccination is important today. Remember that Spanish flu took out young healthy adults.

Today we live longer because of:

  • antibiotics,
  • vaccinations,
  • surgery,
  • transplants
  • better knowledge of benefits of nutrition

There has been an incredible change in medicine and medical practice.

Technology has changed too – the first mobile phone referred to as a brick. Today a mobile can do everything and fit into your pocket.

In the western world, we are a complicated highly connected society.

However, not all inventions have been good for our health. Caroline picked on the elastic waistband as one because it ensures we don’t know if we are gaining weight – makes our clothes too comfortable! (Oops – guilty as charged!)

  • We are supersize now – food and everything else.
  • We are living longer but living with chronic conditions.
  • Almost everyone 50 plus is managing a form of arthritis.

We’re living longer, but with more years of poor health

POSITIVES:

  • Smoking rate has reduced
  • Heart attack rate reduced
  • Lifespans improved.

NEGATIVES:

Chronic disease is affected by lifestyle factors:

  • cancers 71%

  • stroke 70%

  • heart attack 87%

  • diabetes 91%

CAROLINE’S TAKEAWAY:

Lifestyle equals medicine. Daily walking, even slowly, helps.

Think of 3Fs:

  • feet,
  • fork,
  • foregoing

Cut down on what you put on the fork,  eat and drink less of the unhealthy foods, and use your feet to walk/run/dance – move.

 If you start your morning with a breakfast muffin and a coffee, you are essentially having the same amount of calories as a Big Mac and a small Coke – that’s 530 calories!

Improved lifestyle helps with the big health issues older people face:

  • prevention of dementia
  • prevention of heart disease
  • prevention of diabetes

Caroline’s father died of dementia at 75. (My father died of dementia at 83)

When you’ve witnessed a parent struggling, deteriorating and ultimately dying of dementia you live with the fear that one day it may be you.

Pharmaceutical companies are going gangbusters to find a cure for Alzheimer’s – the next big drug breakthrough for them.

But Caroline’s presentation wasn’t about drugs, rather it was about personal effort and control of your own health by improving lifestyle.

Activity trackers

It is usually safe to get your heart rate up (check with your doctor if you are concerned), because exercise is protective,and aerobic fitness important.

Think of exercise as an opportunity, not an inconvenience

Exercise must be specific to get started on the journey to better health choices.

  • Most people agree there is a 50% gap between recall (memory) and reality.
  • Use it as a motivational tool to walk anywhere between 600 – 1000, 6,000 – 12,000 steps daily (the higher number facilitates weight loss)
  • Start low, go slow, build up
  • Strength training builds muscles – do resistance training once a week.

Better to get your progress monitored if you can’t focus at home so join a club, gym, or class.

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THE BUS EXPERIMENT

In England they did an experiment with workers:

They monitored driver and conductor’s health on the double decker buses.
Drivers had a much higher rate of heart attacks.

Conclusion:

You need to move – every 30 minutes – important more than ever in sedentary jobs and for those (like writers!) sitting in front of computers.

  • Sit for 20, stand for 8 and move for 2. Put music on and wiggle, walk around the office or the house.
  • Exercise and movement part of treatment for chronic pain.
  • If you get up to move around at regular intervals it will increase concentration, mood and the ability to remember information.

Sitting is the new smoking

Remember! Make exercise specific – write a note and put it somewhere prominent (writers should be good at this!):

I will this week do (activity)  At this (time) and (place)  With (my friend/dog/alone)

Technology provides lots of Apps now to improve the performance of activity trackers (even on your mobile phone) and to help with lifestyle – Caroline smiled when she gave the example of one called Spreadsheets – a tracker for sex – the ins and outs, the sounds – sex is a great exercise! (Let’s hope Steve has some luck looking for a girlfriend.)

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HOW DOES AUSTRALIA COMPARE WITH OTHER COUNTRIES?

Healthy zones have been studied in countries like Japan and Greece to discover why some populations are more healthy.

  • They eat well – mostly plants and small portions of fish.
  • They move – they integrate activities in their daily life
  • They connect – friends and family come first – this proves to be an incredibly powerful tool for health, fostering resilience and improving mental health.

Caroline finished with a gardening metaphor – focus on getting the lawnmower out regularly, then do the weeding.

Develop a clear vision – and then take the first step. And remember medicine is not just about medication and surgery!

As a writer/teacher,  Caroline’s keynote address was a reminder to look after my own health, curb bad habits like sitting too long without moving but also apply her motivation advice to writing practice:

  • tackle writing projects in little steps,
  • be consistent and write every day
  • keep the final goal in mind and have a plan!
  • And value our health above all else

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No dark fate determines the future – we do. Each day and each moment, we are able to create and recreate our lives and the very quality of human life on our planet.

DALAI LAMA & DESMOND TUTU