Writing, Refugees, Responsibility, Reflection

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I chose to have a break from the pressure of writing deadlines, including blogging – and it’s been wonderful – once the guilt receded.

The last few weeks have left me drained and struggling to find my usual positivity and so I gave myself the freedom not to write once my classes finished for the term.

I produced three anthologies for the different classes at Mordialloc, Bentleigh, and Chelsea and it is wonderful to have a record of the delightful writing from last semester’s students. And it encouraged me to polish a few pieces.

However, the editing, laying out, printing and collating of the books entails hours of work and always leaves me tired.

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I appreciate teachers at universities, TAFE, and schools have greater workloads, larger class sizes and more demands on their time than me. However, the pressure of end-of- term projects, bureaucratic paperwork and the looming lesson-planning over the holidays is ongoing for most teachers.

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Therefore, it has been a short-lived break but in the words of an old Monty Python skit ‘a merry one’ – well not exactly merry but a break I needed with some memorable high spots.

I spent quality time with two special friends Glenice Whitting (we attended an evening celebrating the stories and contributions of refugees – more of that in another blog) and Lisa Hill (we attended a one-man show at Kingston Arts Centre: Is it Because I’m An Indian? enjoying a delightful dinner afterwards at the Bawarchi Indian Restaurant, Moorabbin).

An intensive day of shooting over the weekend saw at least the filming completed in another of my projects. This one organised by Kingston Youth Services where participants share their skills and enthusiasm to write, produce and complete a short film based on the theme of Transition.

This intergenerational project involved several workshops with industry professionals and won’t be completed until the end of September with films to be shown at a public screening in October. Our enthusiastic crew is well on the way to meeting the deadlines.

A triumph of networking, flexibility, adaptation and cooperation meant my script Home was accepted, survived several drafts, including a major rewrite to substitute characters and locations and accommodate the availability of people, places, and equipment.

Another dear writer friend (I’ve found writers are the salt of the earth!) accepted the major role and was available for a 6.30am start on a freezing winter’s day!

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I’m looking forward to blogging about the experience from ‘start to finish’ to encourage others to put their hand up and volunteer for Arts projects, especially when you get the opportunity to work with different  generations and people you have never met. The bonus of picking up new skills and knowledge has kept this lifelong learner on her toes.

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The film shoot was Saturday – the preparation (cleaning my house, moving furniture) seemed to last all week!

On Sunday, I helped Kristina, an ex-student of my Monday class and now an active member of Mordialloc Writers’ Group, make our Readings by The Bay more special by hosting an author event with picture storybook writers, Isobel Knowles, and Cat Rabbit. (More of that in another post.)

When Is A Break Not Really A Break?

On reflection, my break from writing fed my passion for writing – on books, refugees, film, collaborative projects, teaching, man’s inhumanity to man …

The last three frenetic weeks filled with things to do, people to see, and places to be. But in the background, some seismic global and local events almost making my mind shut down and energy disappear. 

The Orlando Massacre, a shocking immobilising crime that dominated social and mainstream media and conversations of friends and family. As an activist who is passionate about social justice, I was overcome with sadness. The level of anger, disaffection, hate and desire to hurt others evident by the perpetrators of horrific crimes never ceases to appal me.

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In Australia, we are undergoing the longest Federal Election Campaign I can remember and I’ve been voting for 45 years! One of the issues is the current ruling party wanting a plebiscite on gay marriage. Many people fear this will encourage bigotry, fear and ignorance to flourish.  The consequences for the extensive LGBTQIA community could be terrible. An expensive, divisive plebiscite that is unnecessary because parliament can pass the necessary legislation.

The recent referendum and unknown consequences of the UK’s ‘Brexit’ from the EU also caused me anxiety, especially with the murder of Labour MP Jo Cox that many people seem to have forgotten already. I was born in Scotland and returned there for two twelve-month periods in my early twenties – the murder of a politician like this is devastating. What is happening to Britain?

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It is frightening that immigration and the plight of asylum seekers and refugees are often used in political campaigns here and abroad stirring up xenophobia and racism. There is no doubt we are experiencing the biggest global movement of people since the Second World War and instead of individual nation states closing their borders we need a considered global cooperative approach. Solutions not selfish posturing.

Perhaps it was serendipity that one of my final lessons of the term in the Life Stories & Legacies writing class at Godfrey Street Bentleigh was on the subject of Serenity to put events in the private and public arena into perspective.

Negative feelings and emotions challenge our equilibrium: What can we DO about the horror/sadness/helplessness/hopelessness?

I write and it helps me. I encourage others to try and find words, ideas, and memories to match their feelings and because it is a  Life Story class, I encourage reflection.

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Serenity Writing Exercise

Once a year, sometimes more often, I visit Stony Point on the outskirts of Melbourne. This tip of the Victorian coast looks across to French Island among other smaller islets and the tide flows out to the sea. There is a pier always populated with anglers – more in some seasons than others.

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There is a ferry to French Island and half the pier is now fenced off for Navy patrol boats installed during John Howard’s ‘be alert not alarmed’ crusade.

I visit because my husband John requested his ashes be scattered where they would be carried out to sea, ex Royal Navy he was more comfortable on the water than land and Stony Point fitted the bill.

There are mini wetlands (or mud flats) at Stony Point frequently visited by shearwaters, pelicans and of course the ubiquitous seagulls. The place oozes tranquillity.

The area is attractive to fishermen and regardless of the season you will always see boats coming and going. The gutting and scaling table is regularly visited by a host of birds who seem to know just when to land and wait for a feed. The take-offs and jockeying for advantageous positions to catch thrown leftovers provides a raucous display by the birds, especially the pelicans.

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My daughters laugh at my delight and are convinced I have the largest collection of photographs of pelicans in the world!

I love watching the interaction of the birds, their acceptance of each other – there is a lot of noise and jostling but rarely violence.

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Many people visit Stony Point and there is a caravan park with permanent residents as well as frequent holidaymakers. Every day there will be bush walkers, anglers, picnickers, fossickers, commuters to French Island, naval personnel from nearby Cerberus base and a handful of locals who operate a rundown cafe/shop.

There is also people like me who come for serenity.

Stony Point is the end of the line for the train – a little diesel that comes from Frankston. The station personnel seems to be from another era of Railway culture – a more friendly, relaxed era.

Stony Point’s charm is irresistible. 

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I always leave feeling calm and at peace.

Where do you go for serenity?

(This may be a room, a church, a friend’s house, a special tree in your garden, or indulging in an activity (like writing)…

Have you a special place you visit only once or twice a year? A place that may hold a strong emotional attachment or memory? Perhaps a favourite holiday destination that allows  you ‘to get away from it all’!

What is the opposite of serenity for you? Is there one particular time or event that stands out as particularly stressful? How did you cope and recover or are you still troubled?

Summer’s Serenity Shattered
Mairi Neil

My evening walk a relaxing end
To a day of relentless heat
That baked trees, people, cars, and concrete.
Oven temperature lowered,
I’m no longer a hot lump
Of fatigue and frustration.

Exhausted birds peep
From their sheltered boughs.
They flutter feathers but leave evensong
To the cicadas celebrating the cool breeze
From the foreshore.

The summer sun slides seawards
While the silver shadow of the moon
Waits in line to shine.

Crick, crack…
A faint discordant note
Followed by a crash.
No twig or dead branch
Protesting summer sizzle
But shattered crockery.

Screeching curses jump
From the window of a nearby house
Adult voices spit and spew.
A dog yaps hysterically
Accompanying the invective
Timing perfect, as if scripted.

This is no television drama.
Rather a domestic tragedy
Of Shakespearean proportions unfolds.
Years of resentment boiling over
No stuttering
As domestic bliss unravels

Suddenly, silence

Hold breath, chest aching…
Awaiting the cry of ‘Help!’

What to do?
Pat perspiration from hot cheeks
Stare at white handkerchief…
Have they called a truce?

I remember to breathe.

No more yells or broken china,
No slammed doors or weeping.
Although my body weeps
As voices in normal tones
Float from the window

Sweat snakes from armpits,
Pools beneath breasts.

The summer sun slides seawards
The silver shadow of the moon
Waits in line to shine.

I resume my walk –
Perturbed
Sweltering
Fatigued
Feeling a failure
Seeking serenity.

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Some writing suggestions:

  • Describe your serenity setting.
  • Imagine yourself there. Why are you there? Has something prompted the visit?
  • What happens when this place is disturbed or no longer available, or your plans must change? Do you have an alternative?
  • Write a poem inspired by the word serenity.
  • Write about how you unwind or handle stress – this may have changed over the years.
  • Did you ever consider ‘stress’ before it became a much talked about health issue?

(When I recorded the history of our local primary school in Mordialloc on its 125th anniversary, I interviewed many past students and staff. A woman who attended the school during the depression years of the 1930s and coped through the tumultuous war years said, ‘no one had stress then – we just got on with life.’)

Reflect on the lives of your parents and grandparents. Do you think they suffered stress? How do you think they dealt with the difficult periods of their lives? Was the pace of life really that different? If so – how?

 

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A picture suggesting serenity, Fitzroy Gardens, Melbourne

 

Seeking Serenity

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The downside of the digital age is bad news travels more than fast – it’s instantaneous. At the moment in Australia, we have a Federal government performing poorly in so many areas that once again ‘the war on terror’ must take central place to keep us living in fear and to make an out of touch government relevant to ordinary citizens.

Unfortunately, throughout the world, there are plenty of images and stories to keep the fires of fear alight. Many stories so horrible that it’s easy to forget the majority of people in Australia live life at peace. Daily life is caring and interacting with friends and family; trying to do their best at work, home, school or play, not coping with bombs like some other countries.

There are bad people in the world, in fact, the epitome of evil judging by the horrific scenes delivered in full cinematic colour and sound to our flat-screen televisions. However, ‘Man’s inhumanity to man’ is not new as this Rabbie Burns poem  often quoted by my father reveals:

‘Many and sharp the num’rous ills
Inwoven with our frame!
More pointed still we make ourselves
Regret, remorse, and shame!
And Man, whose heav’n-erected face
The smiles of love adorn, –
Man’s inhumanity to man
Makes countless thousands mourn!

Robert Burns, From Man was made to Mourn: A Dirge, 1785

To appreciate life is not always ‘gloom and doom,’  I give my students a writing task to write about a favourite place. In the Life Stories and Legacies classes, they ponder about a place that is or was special and reflect on why. This pleasurable exercise invariably calms and reminds us life can be happy, interesting, even satisfying.

Most of us have an idyllic place we visit in our imagination, or a place precious in our heart, perhaps a childhood home or holiday. It may be a longing to visit a dream place,  the motivating thought of crossing it off our bucket list. Nostalgia or desire powerful draw-cards to provide a feeling of wellbeing, relief, and distraction.  It could be a memorable travel experience – finding your Shangri-La.

One of my favourite places is Stony Point on Western Port Bay. This quiet semi-rural coastal spot has a caravan park with 50 powered sites, but no obvious cluster of permanent houses. Popular in summer, it’s the railway terminus for anyone wanting to take a ferry across to Phillip Island (famous for its fairy penguins) and French Island with the little diesel train an oddity on the electrified Metro network.

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I’m a regular traveller to Stony Point since 2002 because my husband, John’s ashes were scattered off the pier at his request. The tide swept them far out to sea, an ideal final journey for someone ex-Royal Navy with a love of the sea. ‘I’ll be on every tide no matter where you are in the world,’ he said and this has been a great comfort to me and our daughters Anne and Mary Jane. We always head for the sea on John’s birthday and the anniversary of his death whether in Australia, USA, Canada or New Zealand… places we’ve been at those times.

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Stony Point’s a popular fishing spot, but in earlier times was the centre of communication by land and sea for the whole of Western Port. All rail and ferry traffic began and ended at Stony Point. The locals were mainly fisherman and farmers and sent their produce to distant markets by train or ferry. A prison farm on French Island and the needs of nearby HMAS Cerberus naval base meant there were government contracts. However, the closure of the prison and subsequent development of French Island and nearby towns have left Stony Point almost in a time warp.

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Tourists who stay in the caravan park can explore the whole of the Mornington Peninsula including the galleries, cycle tracks, wineries and golf courses. The three-lane boat ramp kept in excellent condition and well-used. It attracts flocks of well-fed pelicans. The birds hang around the mud flats and gutting tables until boats return. They are rarely disappointed and fight for the scraps fishermen discard. This misquoted and misattributed poem always comes to mind:

A wonderful bird is the pelican,
His bill will hold more than his belican,
He can take in his beak
Enough food for a week
But I’m damned if I see how the helican!

Dixon Lanier Merritt

I’ve taken hundreds of photographs of the pelicans, on visits to Stony Point over the years. The girls laugh at my obsession, but I find the pelicans’ behaviour entertaining, and there is something comforting about their dignified presence. I’ve captured the place in all its seasonal glory, always amazed at how little it changes.

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Although there was drama in 2004 when the Federal Government under Prime Minister John Howard decided we must be “alert not alarmed.” Security around defence establishments was increased and Stony Point changed.

As a writer, carrying my trusty pocket notebook and pen, listening and observing, I share a story from that time – a snapshot of one visit…

Journal Entry January 2004

The kiosk atop the hillock to the left of the railway station has a perfect view of pier and harbour. The dowdy dull building could do with a makeover and I wish again for the capital to give the owners an offer they can’t refuse. It would be an ideal home and income – close to the sea and John. I’m struggling with being on my own with two teenage daughters – a quiet backwater seems attractive.

I buy a cup of coffee and sit down at an outside table to soak up the serenity I crave. A whiff of Peter Jackson brings back memories of John,  a waft of white wine makes me wonder if he floats in on the tide and visits the kiosk to be re-energised.

It’s Saturday. The baby blue water reflects a brilliant cloudless sky as the weekend summer crowd builds. A  light breeze plays with the multicoloured plastic strips hanging from the doorway of the dilapidated kiosk. They’re already pushed and stretched at regular intervals making their purpose of preventing flies entering the shop irrelevant.

It’s not quite noon, but Amy, a local, sits outside on one of the half dozen outdoor table and chair sets. Dressed in summer shorts and skimpy halter-neck top, she could be mistaken for a middle-aged tourist. Crinkled skin on a too-thin neck and slim berry brown arms and legs reveal a life exposed to the sun, salt and sea. Her only encumbrances, a cigarette in one hand, and a half-full wineglass in the other.

The constant chug of boat engines competes with the chattering of noisy miner birds, interrupted at regular intervals by the rhythmic thwack-thwack, as cars trailing boats bump over the speed hump, placed with strategic significance, at the entrance to the ticket box for the carpark.

On the wooden bench beside Amy sit a couple of similar age, plus a young woman bearing such an uncanny resemblance, including her attire, that she has to be Amy’s daughter. They all hold wine glasses recently topped up from a bottle of locally produced Chardonnay now warming in the sun.

Amy sips before speaking, ‘Lil, you should’ve seen the sunrise this morning. It was liquid gold. Just pure gold, before the sky, turned orange and pink.’

‘You must’ve been up early.’

‘Yeah, the navy boat for training cadets closed off half the pier – security they say.’
The occupants of the table follow Amy’s gaze, taking in the hastily erected wire fence.

‘I reckon it was spite meself,’ said Amy, ‘ that’s why they made as much noise as the invasion of Iraq. Honestly, I bet the poor buggers in the cemetery at Crib Point sat bolt upright!’

Lil laughs. ‘What dya mean spite?’

‘Well, there’s always fights at the pub between them and the locals.’ Amy takes another sip, ‘and the muscles you get from hauling nets and sails sure beats the hell out of training that revolves around pushing buttons and tapping keyboards. Navy cadets ain’t what they used to be Lil – not like when we were young.’

Lil blushes, twists her wedding ring, looks at the man sitting beside her. The fifty-something bloke with leathery skin and balding head stares at the pier oblivious to the banter. His deep voice almost a growl. ‘Not many fishing today… the locals are usually spread along both sides of the pier.’

The relaxed group follow his gaze as a ribbon of cars hauling boats, arrive and park. The kiosk a backstop if the anglers have forgotten some item of food or bait, but most are self-sufficient. Liquid to celebrate a good catch or lament a bad one stashed in Eskies amid layers of crushed ice.

Amy sips her wine looking pensive. ‘Word is Ted that they’re gonna erect a permanent wire fence so locals won’t get access to the left side of the pier at all.’

Ted shrugs. ‘Well, it does belong to the Feds. The Port Authority just enforces policy.’

Lil’s slate grey eyes have been following the stream of cars in and out of the carpark by the jetty. Her voice is sharp, ‘Always has done and no-one bothers, Ted. So why make a big deal now? My family’s fished here for years. Everyone knows the best elephant fish and salmon are bagged from that side.’

Amy snorts. ‘It’s all that war on terror stuff,’ she shakes her cloud of red-dyed curls and rolls blue eyes skywards, ‘as if terrorists could be bothered blowing up anything here.’

Lil’s indignation flames her cheeks. ‘HMAS Cerberus is at Crib Point, and the oil refinery, fractional plant, liquid petroleum and ethane gas plant and a crude oil shipping plant – every bloody plant except the kind that will actually keep us breathing!’

She empties her glass with a gulp, ‘the security fences should be a few miles up the road if they’re serious. They only man this depot here during the week.’

The young woman smirks. ‘Maybe we can ask Al Qaida operatives to work to union rules and only attack 9 to 5, Monday to Friday?’

Ted is not amused. ‘They might do it just for the helluvit – we supported the Yanks blowing up Iraq and Afghanistan, yet the 9/11 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia. The whole point of terrorism is to be unpredictable and strike fear into ordinary people. To disrupt and cause panic…’

Lil places a placating hand on Ted’s hairy arm; her voice much calmer, ‘Okay Love, we don’t need a lecture. It’s too nice a day to worry about the war on terror.’

The persistent whine of a boat engine draws eyes seaward before Ted notices the source and points over to the far right. ‘Look at the yachts beyond that motorboat, not often you see yachts down here.’

Amy holds her hand above her eyes to deflect the glare of sunlight. ‘It’s sheltered here. I often get phone calls asking what the weather is like from people who are further up the coast. Mainly from Yaringa, that lovely boat harbour to the top of us.’

She lights another cigarette and takes a long drag. ‘Did you see in the paper a guy on a jet ski was fined for harassing dolphins? Another guy comes down with a hovercraft and goes over the mudflats – you should hear the noise that makes.’

Ted’s voice a grumble, ‘ Probably looking for abalone, the illegal trade will wipe out locals. Bet there’s divers on that yacht and they won’t stop at 5 bags.’

‘Mmm, the most delicious shellfish you’ll ever taste,’ said Lil, licking her lips.

Amy sucks at her smoke, ‘Abalone? Shell useful too, you know. They’re pearl shells,’ she stubs out her cigarette, ‘you can use them as an ashtray like this one.’

Lil’s expression suggests she can taste abalone right now. ‘You know if you are cooking Chinese stirfry cut it against the grain like you’d do meat. Don’t beat it, just dip it in breadcrumbs and egg, then drop in hot oil for a few seconds. Oh, it is beautiful!’

Sunlight bounces off the gleaming glasses, dances on the table, Amy’s silver rings and bangles shooting rays like spears. All eyes focus on several groups fishing at the pier. Families, father and son couples, mate duos, primary school children alongside teenagers, lone anglers. Mesmerised they appear to have run out of conversation. The war on terror may be headlines in the newspapers but is remote here.

Meanwhile, residents of the small fishing village use the kiosk as a backstop, a pick-up point for newspapers or the place to keep up with local gossip. Visitors to the adjacent Caravan Park or local fishermen collect the latest government circular, frequent the sandwich bar or perhaps buy the ubiquitous microwavable packaged pie and sausage roll.

Day-trippers, like me, from Melbourne, off-loaded at the terminus by the old-fashioned diesel train, sit at the tables beneath shady orange and red flowering grevilleas, sipping hot drinks from polystyrene cups or cold drinks from glass bottles or tins. We read the complimentary paper and tourist brochures or contemplate the surprising mellowness of this backwater until it is time to either catch the ferry to French or Phillip Islands or return on the train.

 I walk toward the pier. The tide is coming in with speed now and the water gurgles and glubs as it slaps against the pier pylons. I drop a sprig of rosemary and a strand of lavender into the water and whisper, ‘for you my love, memories of home. We’re doing all right.’

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I feast on the glorious vista of the sea and islands beyond. This oasis of calm embedded in my heart. Worries dissipate and I know I’ve told John the truth – despite life’s upheavals, despite all the madness in the world, we are fortunate and doing all right!

I walk back towards the train station snatching a final look at the sea, sand and endless horizon. In a few hours, I’ll be back in the fray trying to make a difference, being bombarded by shocking news and reminding myself there is a place of serenity!

Carol always remembers
For 10 years on the anniversary of John’s death, Carol, who was the local florist and a close friend left 3 roses on our doorstep.