Walking, Writing – Is there a Plan? Hello, 2019!

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On a walk with my dearest friend, Lesley, we paused by a beautiful Illawarra Flame Tree to listen to rosellas, ravens and wattlebirds in conversation – perhaps squabbling over the best branch or sharing neighbourhood gossip birds enjoy.

It was a fitting end to 2018 – especially since the New Year has begun with an ‘unprecedented’ heatwave right across the continent.

A visual metaphor perhaps, a warning about global warming?

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LabInitio NZ cartoon

However, being a glass-half-full person, I’d rather accept the experience as an amazing gift from Mother Nature and a reminder there is countless beauty in gardens around the neighbourhood, and in the wild, for all of us to appreciate and share.

The glorious flaming tree emphasised how important the neighbourhood and nature is to me.

The number of wonderful species of plants and animals we have already lost is a worry especially when the bumblebee was added last year to the ever-growing list of endangered species overseas such as the grizzly bear, the northern spotted owl, the grey wolf, and nearly 1 in 3 of our unique Australian mammals are at risk  – mainly through habitat destruction.

But with a Federal Election coming up and climate change always in the news I am full of hope there are people, like myself who value and will work towards changing attitudes and our current Federal Government.

There is only one Earth to be respected, nurtured and shared, not just dug up, mined, fished, dredged, drilled and concreted over.

Greenpeace’s Rainbow Warrior docked in Melbourne in November to remind us there is a community of people who care and are prepared to act.

… as a writer, I am dependent on scientific inquiry for information. If I am going to write coherently – about polar bears, for example – I am dependent upon the scientists who work with polar bears for solid information of a certain sort. And yet I am troubled by this because of the way we approach animals as scientists.

Barry Lopez, from a discussion with Edward O Wilson on ‘Ecology and The Human Imagination,’ University of Utah, February 1, 1998.

Let’s celebrate the natural world

We have much to learn from the animal and natural world.

Birds are constantly adapting to changed circumstances, adversity and catastrophe. Recently, I’ve been entertained by the songs of a butcher bird that decided it likes my garden. I noticed the baby bird a few months ago so move over magpies and wattlebirds.

I am one of the few houses in Albert Street that still has a reasonable number of trees as apartment blocks and townhouses mushroom around me. A self-confessed dendrophile I will be planting more trees this year and spending time cultivating the garden with flowers and vegetables. (Even if the possums ate my broccoli and are munching their way through the top of the five photinias protecting the back fence.)

Indulging the senses

There are lots of inspirational ideas from walking around the suburbs – a mixture of indigenous, imported, practical and ornamental trees and plants attract a variety of birds, butterflies and insects.

Lesley and I have already made a pact to share more cuttings and encourage each other regarding our gardens. We are both transitioning to retirement, so my writing will indubitably reflect either success or failure!

I’ll take a leaf out of Thoreau’s practice of walking, observing, pondering and writing…

… we begin to see the whole man as we follow the crowded, highly charged, and rapidly evolving inner life that accompanies the busy outer life and reveals the thoughts behind the eyes of the familiar photographs.

Robert D Richardson Jr: Henry David Thoreau: A Life of The Mind.

Will I be inspired to be more creative and productive and take the advice I’ve meted out to students over the years? Thoreau mined his journal jottings and got essays and books out of his copious notes – not sure I’ll be so talented…

As a person who likes to ‘join the dots’ I value connectedness when memories spring to mind as I walk or travel by public transport. I have a pile of notebooks to be typed up and documents already on the computer to finish or add to and way too many photographs. (My oldest daughter banned me from ever opening an Instagram account!)

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Will 2019 be the year I use time wisely or perhaps discover a niche other than writing and teaching?

Do I write up and polish, start afresh, a bit of both or ‘now for something completely different’?

Maybe just luxuriate in reading and gardening…

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Tales of Our Lives
Mairi Neil

If you want to record your stories
consider what and ponder why –
list all the events to be remembered
and ask, ‘Who for?’

Is that a sigh?

If wondering ‘who’ don’t worry
there’s joy in a manuscript for one
reflecting on life and lessons learned
gives satisfaction when writing done!

Do we need to record our stories?
Some question the wisdom of revisiting years
but most of us have lived experiences
to prompt laughter as well as tears.

Ordinary people live extraordinary lives
an observation you often hear said –
so concentrate on the who and what
think how your stories will be read.

Will you write with pen and ink –
forming copperplated words
or tap myriad computer keys
that easily erase the absurd?

You may even take recording
to another level of authenticity,
digital voice and video programs
reproducing ‘you’ with simplicity.

And if you do go digital –
recording voice and visuals – remember
mobile phones, Youtube, Facebook
retain the serious and the trivial…

Stories have entertained us
from the beginning of humankind
witness Stone Age drawings and
precious artefacts archaeologists find.

Storytelling fills a need and
links the present to the past
by exploring our human story –
we ‘nail our colours to the mast’!

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No More Travelling To Bentleigh

It will be strange not going to class Wednesday mornings and catching up with the students in my Life Stories & Legacies class.

As I considered the final anthology, I looked around the room and realised some of the students had journeyed with me for the five years the course has been running. The women scribbling in their notebooks and tapping an iPad now friends, not students. All are amazing writers whose authentic prose and poems from the heart, were written from a depth of experience spanning decades. Edna the oldest will be turning ninety in a couple of months and Anat, the youngest in her thirties.

I watched them grow in confidence as writers, bond and trust each other, learning to be true to themselves and their stories. They shared personal and family secrets, opinions (not always politically correct), anecdotes, and many entertaining and heartbreaking tales of life’s sorrows and joys.

The class established for people who wanted to leave a written legacy. The questions each one had to answer:

  • Who am I writing for?
  • What information do I think they need to know?
  • More importantly, what do I want them to know?
  • What will they remember about me?

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I published 8 class anthologies over the years and if the students finished a semester or year they contributed work. The students who shared their stories 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018:

  • Melissa Quigley
  • Jan Wiburd
  • Annie Crane
  • Edna Gaffney
  • Nora Boghikian
  • Anat Bigos
  • Helen Thomas
  • Donna Hellier
  • Mary Robinson
  • Suzanne Dillon

Some of the students were childless but have dear friends and family to think about or aimed to publish their life stories for the general public.

No students in the final class had a partner – they either never married, were divorced, or widowed. Therefore our stories had a definite female, some may say feminist, perspective.

I am constantly awed at the resilience and determination displayed when journeys are shared – the overcoming or ongoing struggle with illness, disease, disability; the grief and mourning for loved ones touches us all, as well as the additional losses – of country, of culture, of employment, of partners, of children, of health, of pets, of self-esteem… the list can go on.

Writing is appreciating and trying to explain/understand the human condition. Yet a strong aspect of writing classes has always been laughter – not only do we love to laugh with each other but at ourselves.

Another aspect has been the delicious morning teas and birthday celebrations – on Wednesday mornings, Anat’s carer, Jill an integral part of our class family and birthday cake maker extraordinaire!

The tapestry of my life has been so much richer because of Wednesday mornings and although looking to weave new threads, or even have a rest from weaving, I’m going to miss Life Stories & Legacies where I was truly blessed with a wonderful class.

The poems and stories of all past students are important to me and when I read their words I hear their voices, imagine them in class… memories I value.

I have a bookshelf of class anthologies from Sandy Beach, Mordialloc, Bentleigh and Chelsea and reading the poems and stories I can recall the writers:

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Not Everyone is A Digital Native

We are in the digital age and the demands of readers have changed – there are websites, blogs, e-books, podcasts, audiobooks – stories experienced on a variety of devices with different screens and parameters.

If writers want to reach a variety of readers methods must change.

How to adapt is a  personal choice, and for many people, the traditional printed paper is still what they want to read and how they want to be published.

I found most of the students coming to my classes were not digital natives and preferred to keep learning the craft of writing and learning computer skills separate. Some struggled with basic formatting, some were not on email, many had ‘hunt and peck’ keyboard skills.

Fortunately, all were happy to be lifelong learners and even if it was a struggle they’d attend computer classes too, which most community houses or libraries now provide. Coping with a wide range of skills, or lack of skills a fact of life if teaching in community houses and it’s important not to leave anyone behind.

However, whether you write with pen and paper or prefer to tap your laptop or iPad you benefit from regular writing. Writing classes or workshops can be a first step to discovering not only what you want to write while learning the tools of the craft, but also how you want to be published.

Writing helps you reflect on your life and changes you’re making. … Writing regularly makes you better at writing. And writing is a powerful skill to be good at in our digital age. Writing for an audience (even if the audience is just one person) helps you to think from the perspective of the audience.

Leo Babauto

More importantly, writing classes can keep you motivated.  Writing courses proliferate online as well as bricks and mortar but for convenience and cost, community houses are hard to beat. They throw in ambience, friendship, sharing of stories and ideas, and a lot of love and caring so I’m glad the classes are continuing at Bentleigh with other teachers.

Number Nine Godfrey Street

Mairi Neil

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
clutching a 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, 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
a commitment to lifelong learning

I accept the marching magpie’s invitation
submit to being ‘led up the garden path’
and follow a thirty-year trail to discover
like the vibrant blossoms in the garden
community and harmony flourishes
at Number Nine Godfrey Street, Bentleigh.

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Sunshine, Sand, Seagulls, Sparrows – Serenity Strolling By The Sea

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Edithvale Beach March 1, 2018

Yesterday, with no classes to teach, I caught up with friends and walked on the beach. In the morning, at Edithvale, in the evening at Mordialloc.

My friends, Chris and Jillian, both agreeing how lucky we are to live so close to the sea, and to have a community and council that values, cares, and conserves the wonderful foreshore.

A recent article doing the rounds of Facebook extolling the virtues of the beach not a surprise to those of us lucky to be living by the coast. We know all about “blue space“…

Rebirth

Mairi Neil

Lying on the beach
waves roll over me,
smoothing
life’s pain.

the warm waves
caress and massage
manipulating
moulding
malleable me

until colder waves
carve and chip,
with each sharp
intake of breath
a new shape emerges

I am reborn.

Chris met me at Edithvale Station and we walked to the Seabreeze Cafe, our usual coffee place that has reopened at the request of Kingston Council, albeit briefly because plans to build a new surf lifesaving clubhouse are delayed and forcing the cafe to close at the end of last year was premature.

Thank goodness the proprietor who is opting to retire, is good-natured enough to take the upheaval in his stride. He had let staff go but hadn’t sold off all the equipment and can still serve his loyal customers and occasional passersby, like me!

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Two regular visitors at Seabreeze Cafe

I couldn’t resist a delicious savoury scone – spinach and cheese – and succumbed to the begging of little sparrows who sat on the sea wall beside our table.

I know there will be intakes of breath and frowns of disapproval from friends, “You don’t feed birds crumbs,” and even Chris said, ‘Oh, no, you’ve done it now!’ as a watchful seagull swooped closer.

However, the sparrows were there because it was their ‘hunting ground’ and were not going to be intimidated, understood tactics, and gathered with the bravado of safety in numbers!

I was so focused on trying to just scatter a few crumbs at my feet for the sparrows while excluding the bullying seagulls that my scone crumbled. A larger piece than intended fell to the ground.

The sparrows multiplied and so did the seagulls.

Some may say… ‘Poetic justice’, ‘Serves you right’, ‘That should teach you not to interfere with nature’ ‘Don’t do it again’…

But, sorry, can’t promise, I won’t…

In recent times, the birds I come into contact with on a daily basis are coping with the loss of their habitat due to increasing property development and people.  I have installed a bird feeder with wild birdseed at home because several large gums and other trees have disappeared from the neighbourhood.

I haven’t felt so concerned for the birdlife since the extended drought years ago.

For better or worse these sparrows (and the seagulls) are probably still adjusting to the removal and then reopening of Seabreeze Cafe too. They’ve probably had to go further afield or do without as beach traffic fluctuates.

Yesterday, they shared the spoils – what little there was – before Chris and I went for a walk to share the matters causing dislocation or joy in our lives.

We spotted a pair of birds uninterested in hanging around the cafe for crumbs, preferring to enjoy the spirited breeze by the water’s edge. They were not seagulls or sparrows often considered scavengers and pests at the seaside but terns.

Terns are long-lived birds and are relatively free from natural predators and parasites; most species are declining in numbers due directly or indirectly to human activities, including habitat loss, pollution, disturbance, and predation by introduced mammals. 

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The Wild Sea
Mairi Neil

The sea is wild today
the wind robust and strong
blowing water onto land
and pushing me along.
Bruised and grey it mirrors
the storm clouds above
I’m buffeted and battered
by the huge waves, I love.

I’m awed at its power
the force of the sea
Like flotsam it tosses
insignificant me…
Flying high as a bird I glide
swirl, splash in downward slide
arriving breathlessly ashore
Invigorated to run
freely seaward for more.

In the shallows with
white foam bubbling
a gentler touch craved
to stormy sea pummelling.
Each wave demands a dance
sudsy fingers snatch and lift
with energetic sighs
atop tickling, teasing rollers
where saltwater stings eyes.

The surf’s determined to perform
and deposit me ashore
but the wind suddenly drops…
The wild sea is no more.

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Chris is sole carer for her 91-year-old mother and I confided that another dear friend was enduring the bedside vigil of an elderly uncle farewelling this world.

We agreed that we’ve reached ‘that age’ where Advanced Care Planning is important as well as acknowledging that we don’t live forever, no matter how healthy our lifestyle is!

I’ve survived the final hours of my beloved husband John, my Mum and Dad and appreciate every death is different and life is indeed fleeting. My brush with aggressive breast cancer showed me how we can be buffeted by changes that come too fast.

It’s not surprising conversations with close friends are often philosophical and always meaningful. We discuss the ‘big stuff’ laugh over the ‘small stuff’ and share information if we think it is of value.

Yesterday was no exception.

Chris recommended a book she has finished reading: Letting Go: How to Plan for a Good Death by Charlie Corke and as the sun played hide and seek with thickening clouds, and the wind and waves harmonised, I recalled how comforting the sea had been to me the day John died.

We both loved Mordialloc and John’s years in the Royal Navy meant he had a special affinity with the sea. I was born in a ship-building town, felt the sea was in my blood.

John died early in the morning and that evening a dear friend asked was there anything I wanted, anything she could do…

“I saw the sunrise with John, I’d like to see the sunset on our favourite spot at the beach.”

“I’ll pick you up in five minutes.”

In the last few months of John’s life, we would take a glass of chardonnay or a cup of tea into the conservatory to catch the last of the sun and together sit in harmony with ourselves, each other, and our world. The girls engrossed in teenage activity, the dog curled at our feet, and the familiar soothing sounds of the sea in the distance, the occasional rumbling train, and birds nesting in the trees.

John always believed that death was a matter of going to sleep as if a dark velvet rug had been placed over you. There is no more pain – a nothingness. He was undecided about the Hereafter and like many others Faith eluded him – and me…

But sitting with my back to the bluestone sea wall, sipping from the bottle of champagne my friend had brought, I watched the sunset on Mordialloc foreshore.

Enthralled by Mother nature’s beauty,  I listened to the gentle lapping of the evening sea caressing the sand. As the water sparkled before darkening, I felt immense peace. I felt the pressure of  John’s arms around me and the weight of his last gesture of tenderness…and knew he was at peace too.

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Mordialloc Beach

Mairi Neil

The day is calm. Tranquil. A great-to-be-alive day. Eucalypts and pine compete with salty air and the whiff of abandoned seaweed. The blue-green sea a mirror for fluffy whipped cream clouds. Dainty dollops on a pale blue plate. Gulls sit or glide atop a sea bathed in white sunlight.

I too drift and dream.

In the distance, palm tree fronds tremble casting lacy shadows on the hot sand. The clink of moorings and masts floats from the creek and a sudden gust of wind whips sand to sting legs and faces. Airborne the seagulls transform to screeching origami kites.

A dark veil unfurls from the horizon shattering the grey-green mirror and peaceful contemplation. Waves lap and soap around feet and as I retreat to the shelter of eucalypts and pine, the taste of salt bittersweet.

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Mordialloc Beach looking towards pier

Metaphorically speaking …
Mairi Neil

Ideas are fleeting like a butterfly
my mind flits from one thought to another,
but occasionally focuses to write
something meaningful
or to finish a project.

Life is the sea, stormy or smooth
ever-changing
I roll with the waves
prepare for a tsunami
but pray for calm waters.

Happiness is a kite, elation as
the wind blows steadily
everything okay
until the unexpected breeze
brings me crashing
to the ground.

Hope is a candle flame
flickering,
showing the way
from the darkness
burning bright
although fragile
sometimes ephemeral
can be smothered
or dampened
but always relit

John was my rock,
Mum, a safe harbour,
Dad, a shield
Education, a panacea,
but also a lantern
shining on the path
as I stumble through life.

Life is a speeding train
sometimes out of control,
but heading straight
until I reach a destination
on time,
a little late
perhaps too soon…

Death is a sunset
inevitable but beautiful
if I die of old age –
the closing of my day.

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