Wistful Wandering and Poetic Pondering – Words Wile The Time Away.

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Travelling to and from work by train is often my writing time or time to pause, observe and reflect on life.

My notebook full of ideas scrawled as one line reminders or thoughts detailed in partial stories or poems (some may say doggerel).

I write down ideas for prompts for the class – like examining our hands – physically, emotionally, and historically.

Most people will be surprised how many stories they can write about their own hands (or the hands of family or friends). Hands change as you age and activities or abilities can increase or decrease.

Hands
Mairi Neil 2017

These hands fumble now
where they once achieved with ease
buttons now boulders,
zips an effort,
Velcro fasteners? Oh, yes, please!

What are those raised veins saying –
the lumpy knuckles too
wedding ring too tight, abandoned
more than the veins are blue.

In the past, skin smooth and soft
and these hands were strong
a past of music, craft, and toddlers
weakness didn’t belong…

These hands feeble now
where once they achieved with ease
piano, guitar, sewing, knitting…
house renovations a breeze

Scarred from work and accidents
sun damaged and skin dry
weakened grip and suspect skill
they’ve earned a rest, I sigh.

But wait, these hands still toil
a means to feed my passion
pens replaced with keypad
writing never out of fashion.

These trusted hands a part of me
what stories they can tell
Ignoring arthritic pain and age
I’ll write a memoir to sell!

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I’ve written about my mother’s hands for the Women’s Memoir website, USA and took a photograph of her holding a large print Bible because her Christian faith sustained her throughout her life especially in times of grief.

When my Dad was dying, I sat by his bedside holding his hands and reflecting on all the jobs he’d done since entering the workforce, but particularly those taken to improve our lives when we migrated to Australia from Scotland.

Inspiration and Triggers Everywhere

I’m interested in politics, current affairs, and world events. In this era of 24-hour news cycle and social media, it’s difficult to switch off. 

Some days worse than others, some topics too hard to ignore – especially regarding Donald Trump, who so often dominates the headlines.

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That Wall To be Built
Mairi Neil 2017

Humpty Trumpfy wanted a wall
keep Mexicans out, his rallying call
all the white supremacists and the KKK
crawled from under their rocks to have a say.

The Grand ol’ Master, David Duke
his supporters parading as men
marched into Charlottesville one day
but were chased back out again.

Humpty Trumpfy got a bigly shock
even supporters did their block
appalled to see racist rhetoric at work
and their POTUS such a dumb jerk

Humpty Trumpfy wants adulation
each media mention a celebration
his leadership skills account for naught
allegiances intimidated or they’re bought

Humpty Trumpfy will have a great fall
decent people will dismantle the wall
the empty slogans  filling empty heads
disappear from our screens like The Walking Dead

 

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This pigeon poised and alert at Bentleigh Station

We take things for granted on a daily basis, always with the assumption that whenever we need something, it will be there. Sometimes we don’t notice small changes, only the dramatic ones.

The number of apartments, townhouses, and units being built has changed the demographics of Mordialloc where I’ve lived for 33 years.

One of the many Real Estate Agents who rings regularly trying to convince me to sell up said there has been a 60% increase in young couples and families buying into the area. They have moved here because of the charm of Mordialloc’s seaside village atmosphere – ironically the removal of stand alone houses and the increased density of development has put that charm under threat!

C’est la vie…

My negative feelings about the “over” development of Mordialloc remind me of a song by Joni Mitchell, one of my favourite artists:

Big Yellow Taxi

They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot
With a pink hotel, a boutique
And a swinging hot spot
Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
Till it’s gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot

They took all the trees
And put them in a tree museum
And they charged all the people
A dollar and a half to see ’em
Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
Till it’s gone
They paved paradise
And they put up a parking lot

Hey farmer farmer
Put away that D.D.T. now
Give me spots on my apples
But leave me the birds and the bees
Please
Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
Till it’s gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot

Late last night
I heard the screen door slam
And a big yellow taxi
Took away my old man
Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
Till it’s gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot

Songwriters: MITCHELL, JONI
Big Yellow Taxi lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Crazy Crow Music / Siquomb Music Publishing

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mural near Mordi Station

When I returned recently from travelling overseas, I noticed a new mural on a wall in the carpark behind the dentist I visit in Main Street Mordialloc. I mentioned the colourful art work to my daughter,

“When did that go up?”

“Not, sure.”

“What was there before?”

“I think it was cartoon characters of the 90s,” MaryJane said, but neither of us really sure, yet we walk along the path to the railway station almost daily!

Maybe we’ll remember this artwork if it changes… or maybe not. Taking things and people for granted, a common failure too many of us have and the saying, ‘you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone,’ sadly true.

Live In The Moment Good Advice Too

 

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C. × crocosmiiflora hybrid an invasive introduced species in Australia

Thankfully, I enjoy my job teaching creative writing because like the train travel, I have the opportunity to write. Whatever topic I plan for my students, I set myself.

On Tuesday afternoon at Godfrey Street, Bentleigh last week, a student Lena suddenly pointed out the window. We turned to watch a beautiful Noisy Miner land on a clump of Crocosmia.

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The lesson reminded students to think about the power of metaphor and simile to improve their writing, particularly poetry.

I worked on a poem started on the train and then added part two, attempting to incorporate the lesson using the wonderful inspiration provided by our visitor.

Poetry in motion and fun too!

A Tuesday in August
Mairi Neil 2017

Morning

A spring-like day
warm sun is out
after hiding for awhile
she’s come out to play
to make us laugh and smile.

A new mural at Mordi Station
catches the eyes of passersby
painted while I’ve been away
A tiger feisty and bright
no room for blues today.

I load some Myki Money
before the train arrives
slip coins into the slot
train’s on time, a win
a happy day my lot!

It is indeed a wonderful world
dear Satchmo got it right
when a warm sun shines
the uplifting joy spreads
to banish worry lines.

Redolent roses perfume paths
camellias bud and delight
enjoy each moment of warmth
‘cos too soon, it will be night.

Afternoon

With a swoop, you arrive
an empty vessel needing a refill
balancing on trembling bells

to sup on nectar deliciously sweet
a  sight not to be missed
a pleasant distraction and inspiration

A Noisy Miner unusually silent
obedient child obeying the Golden Rule –
don’t speak with your mouth full!

Sucking goodness from crocosmia
a lubrication for daily performances
through welcome orange straws

an opera singer turned acrobat
pausing for tasty lunch on the wing
unaware of the Paparazzi nearby.

Wikipedia has information about both the invasive plant and the bird but please see comment below from friend and mentor in all things Aussie Bush to set the record straight in:

Crocosmias are grown worldwide, and more than 400 cultivars have been produced. Some hybrids have become invasive species, especially C. × crocosmiiflora hybrids, which are invasive in the UK, New Zealand, the American Pacific Northwest, and probably elsewhere.

The Noisy Miner feeds on nectar, fruit and insects. In keeping with its highly social nature, the Noisy Miner usually feeds in large groups.

Perhaps there’s a story behind our lone (lonely?) bird – I’ll leave that for you to compose!

Happy writing –

When Inspiration Strikes – Write

 

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I’ve often mentioned how lucky I am.  How blessed and privileged, to be working in community houses and teaching people who want to write, and who love words as passionately as I do.

Today, with mid-winter cold and rain creating a day where staying in bed, or hugging the fireplace seemed a good move unless a better option arose, I  cheerfully organised myself for work.

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As a teacher,  you are not supposed to have favourites, but my class on Wednesday morning is pure delight. Ages range from the early 30s to 87 years and each decade in-between.

Our cultural backgrounds and life experience encompass  Armenia, Egypt, Israel, Scotland, Ireland, England and Australia.

Professions: nurse, teacher, event manager, administration, retail, hospitality, lollipop lady, cleaner, small business owner, musician, author, artist, police officer, disability speaker, estate agent, receptionist…

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Life experience: mother, wife, widow, divorcee, never married, single. Some siblings, some knew parents, some brought up by grandparents, some have been in care…

There are travellers, happy-at-home, armchair travellers, ex-military, and those with a bucket list of places to see – exotic and mundane.

We have Post-grads, those whose education was cut short or limited, a Bachelor of Theology, Catholics, Protestants, atheists, agnostics, spiritualists, non-believers, secular Jews, Buddhists…

 

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Wednesday mornings rich with stories, good writing, fun, and laughter. And today was no exception with one of the students, Donna reading a wonderful piece, “Hatitude My Life in Hats” – an earlier version available online.

With Donna’s permission, I’ve started taking photographs because she brightens up the class with her style, stories, and indeed always a fashionable hat!

Her story today eliciting spontaneous applause!

When I opened my curtains this morning, I smiled, despite the rain dancing on the driveway and street, adding that extra swish as cars raced past.

I smiled because my beautiful bird of paradise (Strelitzia reginae)is healthy and blooming, I smiled because it is great to be alive.

And because like  most mornings, Mr or Mrs Magpie visited to sing an aria or two. However, recently the magpies have been upstaged by an extremely vocal Noisy Miner.

So vocal, that my lovely daughter MJ has considered avicide.

I am more forgiving – and Tuesday evening being bin night, my sleep was already disturbed  by the growling and clattering of the garbage truck at 6.00 am, so the off-beat duet didn’t cause me to frown.

Because we all share this small planet Earth, we have to live in harmony and peace with each other and with nature. That is not just a dream, but a necessity.

Dalai Lama, Tibetan spiritual leader.

And by the time I arrived at Godfrey Street, Bentleigh, via foot, train, bus, and foot (Bentleigh Station not due to reopen until the end of the month) the rain had stopped and I could enjoy the short walk through the garden and appreciate the love and care enveloping the house.

 

Number Nine Godfrey Street

Mairi Neil 2016

The garden a delight from someone’s green fingers
A profusion of pastel colours glistening
While sunshine smiles and fickle autumn spits rain.
I watch visitors stream inside the nondescript house
Their footsteps echoing on shaded verandah.
Walkers scrape and stroller wheels squeak.
A magpie trills in dinner-suited elegance,
Preening glossy feathers and strutting the footpath
As if ushering passersby to enter stage right ––
The Isadora scarf or Hitchcock cigar missing.

A young woman, nursing a toddler on her hip,
Grins a welcome to the elderly gent who
Clutches his chessboard and secret moves.
Their families farewelled to independence,
Seniors care for themselves in exercise classes.
Small talk in craft sessions produces big results.
Delightful aromas drift from the kitchen ––
Homemade pumpkin soup, sweet chocolate cookies,
Spicy curries –– recipes shared with curiosity and love
Sauced with tales from distant lands.

Oil paintings and pastel drawings, the fruit
Of nurtured local artists decorate the walls
This house celebrates learning, laughter, and leisure …
Friendships bubble and overflow to the neighbourhood
No need to cruise the retail choices of Centre Road,
Sup lonely cafe lattes amid chattering conversations
Or sit mesmerised by mobile screens
A house in Godfrey Street plants seeds
And grows friendships; welcomes newcomers,
Encourages indigenous and immigrant to bloom.

In the house singsong voices of children tinkle
While mellow murmurings of writers’ words
Capture imagination, life experience, and wisdom.
Pens scratch notepads as the sewing group
Across the hall coax machines to whirr into life,
Garments appear patterned by creativity
Wordsmiths spin sentences for pleasure
Every room thrums and hums as
People connect, care and communicate
Their commitment to lifelong learning

I accept the magpie’s invitation
Submit to being ‘led up the garden path’
To follow a thirty-year trail and discover
Like the vibrant blossoms in the garden
Community and harmony flourishes
At Number Nine Godfrey Street.

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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

 

Smiling and Sharing, Celebrating Success

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I’ve received one of those emails that starts the day with joy. Matilda Butler, an accomplished writer/publisher I met through the Internet in 2009 has produced more remarkable books to help women tell their stories.

Here is part of the email:

Just Released and Already in the Top 3 Bestseller List for Writing Skills

It was just two years ago that I shared news about the release of a four-volume anthology series called Seasons of Our Lives. Those volumes went on to win 9 book awards and were ranked in the top 5 in Kindle’s bestseller list for Writing Skills and in the mid-20s for Memoir.

Building on that success, WomensMemoirs.com held a major contest to seek the best stories that reflect on women’s lives and contribute to our understanding of ourselves as well as others. Today I’m pleased to announce the launch of:

TALES OF OUR LIVESReflection Pond, a two-volume anthology of award-winning, inspiring, women’s true stories told from perspectives that illuminate our diverse lives. The second volume is Tales Of our Lives: Fork In The Road.

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And these volumes are already #2 and #3 in Kindle’s bestseller Writing Skills books and #17 and #31 in bestseller Women’s Memoirs.

Note: You still have a few hours left at the special price of $ .99. Soon the price will go up to $1.99.

When I discovered Matilda’s memoir site the information and inspirational stories led to my first foray into sending my work into cyberspace to be read by others.

The guest writers and writing tips on the site invaluable if you want to improve the telling of your stories. You also learn what other people are writing and reading.

I had three pieces published about my mother and my childhood, and even won the regular writing contest Matilda organised to encourage women to share their stories.

Mum’s Legendary Scones (including Mum’s recipe)

Guising and Galoshens (about Halloween customs in Scotland)

Fairy Cakes A Magical Journey (including Mum’s recipe)

Matilda’s first E-books of stories from women were based on the Seasons of Our Lives and I had stories in three of these books. Over the 4 volumes 100 stories were told!

A wonderful teacher who wants to encourage others, Matilda and her business partner Kendra Bonnett ensured a take-away (writing exercise and advice) was always included at the end of each story.

The concept behind the four volumes of Seasons of Our Lives originated on our website WomensMemoirs.com. The idea was that we’d provide content to help women write their memoirs. Over time, we wanted a two-way exchange. We wanted women to be able to share their stories with us and others. And that was the beginning of a series of contests. Then last year, we decided to have just four contests — one focused on stories from each of the seasons of the year. 
• We received hundreds of entries and soon realized that we had some real gems, stories that needed to be shared more widely than just our website. We began the long process of reading all the entries and selecting just the best. 
• But we didn’t stop with just the best of the stories. We decided to write a takeaway, a mini-lesson, for each story. We wanted readers to have comments that would help them reflect on their own life stories and highlight writing suggestions that they can use as they work on their own legacy stories. 

These books are still available at Amazon:

WINTER         SPRING           SUMMER          AUTUMN

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I had the privilege of meeting Matilda in 2012 when my daughter MaryJane and I travelled around the USA by train. The six-week journey, one of recuperation and adventure. I was still fragile from my mastectomy and chemotherapy and MJ from the devastating consequences of a routine operation that went horribly wrong.

After an exchange of emails, when Matilda discovered our plans, she invited us to visit her home in central Oregon. We couldn’t do this, but we were going to Portland.

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Matilda and husband Bill travelled several hours by car and stayed in a hotel overnight so they could be the ‘host and hostess with the mostest.’ As our travel guides for a day in that gorgeous city, they took us to lunch and then the Portland Art Museum. The visit as fresh in my mind as if it were yesterday and a treasured memory.

We were introduced to the indigenous people’s culture and many modern-day artists.

 

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We were in Portland to travel down the Columbia River to Astoria, tracing the steps of Captain John McInnes, my father’s Great Uncle who captained the Cadzow Forest as it plied trade between Britain, Australia and the Americas.

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Unfortunately, the ship went down with all hands in 1896. Captain John’s namesake, my father’s older brother John, also a seaman, drowned off the coast of Texas in 1927. Mary Jane and I researched in the library at San Antonio for more information about both men.

We were so close, yet so far from the younger John’s grave at Corpus Christi, but due to poor planning and the train timetable a visit, there will be an excuse for another trip!

However, by experiencing the mighty Columbia River and visiting the Maritime Museum at Astoria, we imagined and absorbed life through the eyes of men aboard the Cadzow Forest. The information and exhibits in the gallery filled in gaps and provided ideas for research about what life must have been like over a century ago.

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There is no better way to experience a place than through the eyes of an informed local and everyone we met in Portland, including Matilda and Bill were friendly, knowledgeable and hospitable.

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There were amazing exhibits at the gallery that told stories of the human condition. As writers, we want to engage emotionally and use words. Artists use other skills and several of the pieces at Portland confronted and delved into the darkest aspects of the human soul as well as the brightest and uplifting.

As a parent who frequented art galleries and museums with my children from a young age,  I appreciated this sign, which I have never seen anywhere else.

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An exhibition that will inspire a host of poems or stories for a writing class if they chose to visit was this one by American Edward Keinholz: The Western Motel 1992.

 

 

I was struck by the poignancy the artist has created by attention to detail and my imagination went into overdrive. If ever people feel the need to reinvigorate their love of writing and feel bereft of ideas, I suggest a visit to an art gallery or museum!

Another exhibition that impressed both MJ and me was one around storytelling. By pressing a button you could see a video of Portlanders (not sure if that’s what they’re called) who responded to a request to bring in an object and explain in a couple of minutes why it is important to them.

I can still feel the weight of Mary Jane’s arm as she slipped it through mine, and the warmth of her body as she cuddled close to me while we watched a young woman explain why she had held onto her mother’s X-rays long after her mother had died of an aggressive brain tumour. The story resonated with both of us for different reasons.

I kept John’s X-rays and MJ incorporated them in an amazing short film to explain grief and the human toll of industrial diseases like asbestosis.

Artists thousands of miles apart telling stories through different mediums, purists and cross-pollinators of media – but always focusing on the detail and that all-important human condition. Emotional engagement equals remembering – and we’d all like to be remembered.

Matilda’s latest books, as well as her others, excellent examples of well-written and engaging stories that you can harvest to spark your own stories and improve your readability.

More than that, they are a record showing how extraordinary the lives of ordinary people are!

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Reflecting on 2014: Joy, Sadness, Love and Laughter – Mindfulness!

Mindfulness helps you go home to the present. And every time you go there and recognise a condition of happiness that you have, happiness comes.

Thich Nhat Han

There is a lot of joy in our house at the moment with Anne’s return, although there are days when she misses the travelling life and all the dear friends she made overseas. Joy too because Mary Jane has completed a great year of studies and is embarking on a career in 2015 doing something she likes, but hopefully still allowing time for her creative juices to flow. For me, thank goodness my established classes and links with the three community houses where I work have been confirmed for another year.

There will be bumps along the way for us all, however, the old adage ‘count your blessings’ is a reminder of what is important in life and to nurture relationships and to keep looking forward to adding to those blessings.

When reflecting on my writing year I’m grateful to work with students keen to learn because through preparing the classes and workshopping, I learn too – and I write. I don’t always have the opportunity to edit and polish my work, but the words are there, scrawled in an increasingly large pile of notebooks. Perhaps the pieces I don’t return to are better left as rough drafts, or are waiting to be discovered months, or years down the track and improved upon with the distance of time and increased skill!

Each year I do try to increase my writing and teaching skillset, and with the generosity of the worldwide web, this is easy to do. This year I took more free courses with Open University Australia, Coursera, and an Easy Journalling Challenge as well as reading widely and attending talks by other writers. This year hearing Paddy O’Reilly (The Wonders, AFFIRMpress), Nicole Hayes (Woolshed Press) and Catherine Harris (Black Inc) in conversation with Lisa Hill, a definite highlight.

Nicole, Lisa, Paddy, Catherine and Yours truly

I’m grateful to Poetica Christi Press for being included in their two anthologies published this year and to Melaleuca Blue Life Writing, which will publish my story Broth and Trouble, in their anthology February 2015. I have to thank my writing buddies and dear friends, Maureen Hanna and Glenice Whitting for always being encouraging and honest when reading my drafts. Thanks too must go to writer and friend, Lisa Hill who writes an amazing award winning blog and has encouraged me to publish book reviews and increase my online presence. And then there is the Mordialloc Writers’ Group meeting every fortnight to share and listen to each other’s words. These workshop nights have been running almost 20 years and have helped many writers to be published as well as form lifelong friendships. Along with the monthly Readings By The Bay where we can also share our work and practise reading to an audience, the writing group is invaluable.

Another site I visit often to learn about memoir and life writing is Women’s Memoirs  established by Matilda Butler and Kendra Bonnett. After winning one of their competitions, in 2010, I now correspond with Matilda and when Mary Jane and I visited America we spent a wonderful day with Matilda and husband Bill, in Portland, Oregon. Writing has given me so much pleasure as well as new friends – and even a bar of Mindfulness Soap!

WOMEN’S MEMOIRS CONTEST WINNER FOR FEBRUARY
Kendra and I are pleased to announce the winner of last month’s Women’s Memoir Contest. This woman created an exceptional story complete with recipe and photos for our KitchenScraps feature.
Once we published it, she got out the word to friends, family, and sister writers. When they responded to her story, she promptly added her own comments. She motivated several readers to prepare her mother’s scones and got rave reviews. In other words, she began creating a community around her story.

Of course, when we announced our contest, we didn’t realize that our February winner would live in Australia. So, as I write this blog, Mairi’s bar of Mindfulness Soap is making its way across the ocean. She promises a photo of her once the prize arrives and we’ll post it here.

Mairi-Neil-2-mum-and-mairi-300x237Mairi-and-Soap-1

This year I pushed myself to learn new forms of poetry and a site I love to explore is The Poetry Foundation because you can hear poets recite their poems in their own voice and there is a broad range of articles and examples of poems from all over the world.

This year too, I encouraged my classes to write pantoums – poems especially suited for memoir:

The pantoum originated in Malaysia in the fifteenth-century as a short folk poem, typically made up of two rhyming couplets that were recited or sung. However, as the pantoum spread, and Western writers altered and adapted the form, the importance of rhyming and brevity diminished. The modern pantoum is a poem of any length, composed of four-line stanzas in which the second and fourth lines of each stanza serve as the first and third lines of the next stanza. The last line of a pantoum is often the same as the first… One exciting aspect of the pantoum is its subtle shifts in meaning that can occur as repeated phrases are revised with different punctuation and thereby given a new context.

Mum’s Wisdom

Least said soonest mended
A mantra for good relationships
Wisdom from Mum I respect
Especially when ill-feeling grips

A mantra for good relationships
Helps the journey that is life
Especially when ill-feeling grips
And friendship turns to strife

We all face hard choices in life
Dignity retained when mending rifts
No one wants unsettling strife
Or the fear allegiances may shift

Maintaining dignity, mending rifts
Valuing all the views rendered
Shattering of relationships swift
So least said soonest mended.

Valuing each view rendered
Mum’s mantra for good relations
Wisdom I always respected
And a lesson for warring nations!

Mairi Neil 2014.

Springtime Sorrow

I remember that spring of sorrow
When sadness shadowed every hour
I dreaded facing the morrow
Stopping time not within my power

When sadness shadowed every hour
Minutes smouldering like a claro
Stopping time not within my power
I prayed for courage to borrow

Minutes smouldering like a claro
Facing your death made me cower
I prayed for courage to borrow –
The bitterness of loss oh, so sour

Facing your death made me cower
Dread facing every future morrow
The bitterness of loss still tastes sour
When I remember that spring of sorrow.

Mairi Neil 2014

Mirror to the Past

I could be looking in a mirror
When my daughter smiles at me
Her hair is dark, eyes hazel too
A younger me, I see.

When my daughter smiles at me
Tilts her head and laughs aloud
A younger me I see
No shadow of ageing’s cloud

She tilts her head and laughs aloud
With a chuckle so infectious
No shadow of ageing’s cloud
Her expression purely joyous.

Mary Jane’s chuckle is infectious
Dark hair shines; hazel eyes sparkle
Youthful expression purely joyous
I wish I was looking in a mirror!

Mairi Neil 2014

Seeking Serenity

A stroll by the sea at the close of day
When life’s busyness needs to go
I watch the sun sink and always say
Sunsets give the world its glow

When life’s busyness needs to go
Worries crumble and be blown away
Fears tossed with one easy throw
At waves lapping or roaring at play

Worries must crumble and blow away
Their power not allowed to grow
Waves lapping and roaring at play
Nature’s balm a constant flow

Troubles not allowed to grow
As I watch the sun sink, and say
Nature’s balm is a constant flow
With a seaside stroll at the end of day.

Mairi Neil 2014