Things Are Not Always Bright And Beautiful

creepy crawly chart

Okay, I admit some of the above-mentioned creepy crawlies are beautiful (actually only the butterfly and ladybug) and I understand insects, in fact, all creatures have a place in the ecosystem, but lately there has been more of the creep factor than beauty!

spider web on fence

I’ll confess up front to an ambivalence towards spiders – a creature Australia seems to have too many of and of course, they love my old weatherboard house and surrounds.

I look out the kitchen window and the webs are there.

I walk out to the front porch and the spiders are there along with some other strange insects!

Daughter, Mary Jane complains often about the spider webs stretching from her car mirrors to the garden bed. They appear no matter where she parks in the driveway.

Daughter, Anne can sense a spider in the vicinity even if tiny and an anxiety attack is sparked. The spider must be removed before she’ll settle in a room!

One of my first memories of coming to live in Australia as a nine-year-old was sitting at the kitchen table in the old weatherboard house our family rented in Croydon. I’m not certain if it was my Dad or an older brother who casually pointed above my head at the wall and said, ‘watch out for the spider.’

We were always playing tricks on each other, so I ignored the warning until I saw my sisters and younger brother hurry from the table. I turned around in time to see a huntsman the size of a saucer scurry across the wall. Needless to say, I slithered under the table and followed the others outside.

ausie spider chart FB

Ironically, we became immune to some of the spiders in the ‘old house’ to the extent that one lived above the old wood stove at my dad’s behest because it kept flies at bay. We nicknamed him Oscar.

However, Mum wasn’t as benevolent and didn’t shed a tear when Oscar disappeared up the vacuum cleaner one day!

Fifty-five years later I’ve encountered plenty of spiders – Red Backs along the fenceline and White Tails inside when we renovated.

The other day Mary Jane killed a Red Back on the porch – apparently, there’s an increase of them in Melbourne because of the weather. Around 300 people are bitten every year in Australia.

In recent weeks, pest controllers have been inundated with calls from Melbournians who have spotted the spiders in their homes and gardens… .the hot weather has made them come out in force.

“This time of the year, we’ve got lovely blue skies, we’ve got some humidity and we had some rain a few days ago, so there’s plenty of food for the spiders to eat,” Simon Dixon from Exopest said.

White Tail spiders are nasty little creatures and I’ve been bitten several times. John got bitten once when we were renovating and took a severe allergic reaction.

Whitetail spiders frequently occupy Melbourne homes. They seek shelter in dark nooks and crevices and at night time they go about their business eating other spiders found lurking around the home. As they don’t spin a web to catch prey, when it comes time for them to rest, they sometimes find problematic places. Towels and toys left on the floor, curtains and bedsheets and lonesome shoes are a common hiding place. Whilst they are not vicious spiders, they will bite if feeling threatened. It’s easy to see how an unsuspecting human can quickly become the recipient of a painful venomous bite.

Common signs and symptoms of a Whitetail Spider bites include instant pain similar to a bee sting. There is redness, discomfort and swelling. Ulcerations can develop and the recipient is left open to the possibility of infection at the site. In a minority of victims, there is the potential to suffer a nasty reaction such as flue like symptoms and anaphylaxis.

While working in the garden I’ve often come across various garden varieties of spider, or rather they’ve come across me. Sometimes the bites require a visit to the doctor because of the rash or pain caused.

Like most people, I give spiders a wide berth when I can and not surprisingly they were a subject of my early poetry in Small Talk poems for children, Employ Publishing 1994.

Nature’s Web
Mairi Neil

Caring for the environment is an urgent task,
stop slaughtering wildlife, poisoning waterways,
and polluting the air – is all I ask.

However…

I may respect the right of creatures
great and small
but this doesn’t mean a universal
love for all.
I live life with minimal environmental damage
I don’t buy toxic sprays or insecticides
and in the garden rampage.
Even revolting ‘blowies’, when inside
they venture
are swatted with a plastic hand
as effective deadly censure.

But…

The one creature that has me terrified,
makes me absolutely petrified
if ever it manages to creep inside,
has eight legs and a body round
and in the most unlikely places found –
it can be small and brown, or big and black,
some can swing, some can jump…
all can crawl up your back!

‘Live and let live’ is all right in theory
but if you suffer arachnophobia
that sort of tolerance makes you teary.
I know nature is wonderful
I know nature is grand
but I’d love to be rid of ALL spiders
from this land!

I’m not the only one put off by spiders as this news item about “a sizeable spider” on a suburban train testifies.

The spider successfully annexed a set of four seats on the crowded peak-hour service, as well as two seats in the row behind that it might have been eyeing off for the extra legroom.

Funnel-web spider venom could provide stroke protection

The above headline relates to an article about research being done to prevent stroke victims from suffering brain damage.

 One of Australia’s most fearsome spiders may provide the solution to protecting stroke victims from suffering brain damage.

Researchers at The University of Queensland and Monash University have found that a protein in the DNA of the funnel-web spider’s venom shuts down an ion channel known to malfunction in brain cells after strokes.

In cell experiments, the harmless chemical (called Hi1a) protected brain cells from a toxic flood of ions unleashed after a stroke strikes.

During a stroke, a blockage stops or slows the flow of blood to an area of the brain. The brain cells, suffering from a lack of blood and oxygen during a stroke then switch to metabolic pathways that don’t rely on oxygen. This creates a condition called acidosis and the oxygen-starved regions of the brain start to become damaged and die off.

Hi1a works by blocking the acid-sensing channels in the brain.

Who would have thought it? I might have to revise my opinion of that particular creepy crawly as the article states,

Stroke is one of this country’s biggest killers and a leading cause of disability, striking someone in Australia every 10 minutes.

I’ve also experienced Beetlemania

In December 2012, the Union of Australian Women Southern branch were having their annual Brunch for Peace at the Beach. The gathering is always held on Mordialloc foreshore and as usual as a coordinator and living in Mordialloc, I made my way down early to grab a spot under the shade.

Imagine my surprise to find the place swarming with bugs.

When I arrived, I discovered our usual shady area full of thousands of copulating beetles. Where is David Attenborough when I need him, I thought.

The other women arrived and we tried to ignore the busy insects but the breeding frenzy unsettling and hard to ignore. We tried to brush an area clear but didn’t want to be responsible for reducing some part of the ecosystem’s population. We gave up and moved elsewhere.

After some research, I discovered there were swarms of beetles in suburban gardens in and around Melbourne that summer, identified by scientists as  Plague Soldier Beetles, Chauliognathus lugubris.

A native species, its common name refers to its habit of forming huge mating swarms. They can appear in such large numbers that it is not uncommon for them to weigh down the limbs of weaker plants.

Their bright colour warns off predators and they are capable of releasing distasteful chemicals and so would not make a good meal.

It was nice to know the beetles were not interested in harming humans –

    not so another more recent encounter with the insect world.

When a Bee Turns Out to be A Wasp

During an afternoon working in the garden clearing overgrown vines from the fenceline, I noticed what I thought was half a dozen bees hovering near the corner of the house.

Later in the evening, when I went outside to bring in the washing I noticed the ‘bees’ were increasing in numbers and were going under the house, almost in a straight line. On closer inspection, I was pretty sure my bees were wasps.

European-Wasp-Infographic

A phone call to a local pest control company and their prompt response confirmed my fears were worse than I realised. The busy bees were European wasps and they had started to build a nest under the house!

Removal of the creepy-crawlies was completed by two men suitably attired with protective gear and spray guns full of a natural powdered essence that killed the wasps or put them into a stupor and drove them elsewhere.

Stop Press – Ross River Fever in Frankston

Last month, the Health Minister announced that six cases of Ross River Fever, a mosquito-borne virus had been detected in Melbourne – some in Frankston – a skip and a jump from Mordialloc.

There is a state-wide outbreak.

Usually, the virus is contained to specific areas where the mosquitoes carrying the virus are found. None of the six cases had travelled to those areas.

According to Wikipedia diseases transmitted by mosquitoes also include: malaria, dengue, West Nile virus, chikungunya, yellow fever, filariasis, Japanese encephalitis, Saint Louis encephalitis, Western equine encephalitis, Eastern equine encephalitis, Venezuelan equine encephalitis, La Crosse encephalitis and Zika fever.

I remember the shock when a close friend from university, Jan Storr died from Murray Valley Encephalitis after a camping holiday. John knew this grief too because a young organiser in his Union died from the same disease.

A lot of grief from such a tiny insect…

mosquitoes-large

Are insects taking over the world?

I’m not paranoid but I’ve never had a wasp invasion before and I’ve never seen so many spiders recently which makes me wonder have insect populations increased?

A quick question to Google and I discovered this research

Urban Warming Drives Insect Pest Abundance on Street Trees

Our results provide the first evidence that heat can be a key driver of insect pest outbreaks on urban trees. Since urban warming is similar in magnitude to global warming predicted in the next 50 years, pest abundance on city trees may foreshadow widespread outbreaks as natural forests also grow warmer.

… we’re looking at a future full of tiny, deadly insects.

Though scale insects are harmless for humans and don’t conjure up the shivers the way cockroaches and mosquitos do, they might be far more harmful to the environment than these other apocalypse-loving pests. The main problem is that they attack trees, which are a crucial cornerstone of urban ecosystems.

On Quora the question was asked:

Why don’t insects who outnumber us greatly, take over the world?

The response?

What makes you think they haven’t? 

If we exterminated all insects on this planet by whatever means we could invent, we would also doom ourselves.

We rely upon insects and other invertebrates to pollinate our food crops, if we didn’t have pollinators, we’d be dead.

When something dies, invertebrates clear up the corpse. Without them, we’d be living in a fetid mess of rotting corpses, dying from diseases that make mosquito-borne malaria look like fun.

We depend upon insects, even though they are not aware of it, they do rule the world, without them, we’re goners.

Somehow this rational answer isn’t that comforting – global warming could be driving an increase in more that tree insects.

As a writer with an overactive imagination, it’s the stuff horror movies are made of.

I remember Sunday School in Scotland and lustily singing praise to ‘all creatures great and small’ where the extent of interaction with insects was earwigs and bumblebees.

All Things Bright And Beautiful
Cecil F Alexander

Chorus:
All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful:
The Lord God made them all.

Each little flower that opens,
Each little bird that sings,
He made their glowing colours,
He made their tiny wings.

The purple-headed mountains,
The river running by,
The sunset and the morning
That brightens up the sky.

The cold wind in the winter,
The pleasant summer sun,
The ripe fruits in the garden,
He made them every one.

The tall trees in the greenwood,
The meadows where we play,
The rushes by the water,
To gather every day.

He gave us eyes to see them,
And lips that we might tell
How great is God Almighty,
Who has made all things well

 I’m not sure the same praise applies living in Australia!

The Australian Museum in Sydney ranks Australia’s most dangerous animals based on the level of threat they pose, plus how likely you are to encounter one in the wild.

The honey bee is number 2 on the list and the funnel web spider is number 7!

 

The humble honey bee, which is not native to Australia, comes second on the list because it’s both common and deadly to small subset of people. Being stung by 100 or so honey bees could put anyone at risk of a fatality, but for those who are highly-allergic, even a single sting can be a life threatening situation.

The honey bee has barbed stings, so it can only sting once. The purpose of the sting is to make you never want to bother a bee ever again…

Since 1927, 14 deaths from the spider have been recorded. It’s only the male bite that has proved fatal, however.

Direct UV light will kill a funnel web, so the spiders need somewhere to hide during the day and have been known to consider a shoe a perfectly adequate location. More commonly, the spiders builds burrows under something like a pile of bricks or a log.

Whenever I go by public transport to visit my daughter Anne I pass a mural at Balaclava Station – large colourful and bright I think it represents the food chain – the insect is much too large for my liking –

Things are definitely not always bright and beautiful – do you agree?

How A Community Celebration Can Teach Tolerance

We are one, but we are many
And from all the lands on earth we come
We share a dream and sing with one voice:
I am, you are, we are Australian.

Bruce Woodley 1987

Yesterday, I moved out of my comfort zone and celebrated Eid with a variety of fellow Australians who happen to be Muslim and have chosen to settle here like my parents did 53 years ago.

DSC_1034#2

Dina, born in Palestine, educated in Dubai as a pharmacist has reinvented herself as a painter, interior designer, book illustrator. Her husband is a doctor and works as an emergency consultant, in much demand all over the world – at the moment he is in Italy.

DSC_1039#3
A new friend from Eritrea
DSC_0999#2
A new friend from Egypt

How do we meet and get to know people?

Yesterday, I met people who live in suburbs I rarely visit (Springvale, Keysborough, Dandenong), so they are not near neighbours. I won’t meet them at school – my children have left those years far behind, plus in Australia schools are divided into private and public and many people send their children to private schools on religious or cultural grounds. My girls went to the local public schools.

I may meet some at work because I teach in community houses, but by and large students and teachers enrol within a locality, their “neighbourhood” so that likelihood is diminished.

The majority of people I met yesterday were Islamic; I wouldn’t bump into them at church either!

So how do I reach out and make them feel welcome to their adopted country? How do they meet me and have the opportunity to understand who I am?

We have to make a special effort – that’s how we can build tolerance and understanding –  to learn from each other, and accept each other.

Yesterday, at the EID Celebration – Many Faiths, One Community – in the Allan McLean Hall, Mordialloc,  for a gold coin donation we could have:

  • A hijab demonstration and buy scarves and dresses
  • Taste Eritrean coffee and cake (the coffee heavily laced with ginger!)
  • Our hands or wrists painted with Henna
  • Watch a delightful cultural performance
  • Be part of a Guided Blessing
  • Dress up as Pharaoh and have a photographic memento
  • Have tea and coffee and a selection of sweet treats

Islamic Australians more often demonised and feared than welcomed, opened their hearts, shared their customs and celebrated who they are and what they offer to Australia.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

A Sheik and Scholar explained the meaning of Eid and where the celebration fitted in the Muslim calendar and blessed the gathering with a prayer.  Poet Anton read 2 or 3 poems in his native language of Malaysian, ably repeated in English by a member of the audience who volunteered to do so.

As a writing teacher, I’m privileged to hear so many original poems from students, but also poems that have inspired them to write. A lovely woman from Iraq introduced me to the wisdom and talent of Rumi:

raise-your-words-not-your-voice-rumi

A band from Lebanon played and sang songs – some religious, others popular – the musicians famous in the music circuit of their birth country before they came to Australia.

There are two Eids celebrated in Islam, and both follow major acts of worship.  The first is Eid al-Fitr, which follows Ramadan and the second is Eid al-Adha, which follows the Hajj.

Most major religions have times that demand particular behaviour – Christianity has Lent, Advent and Christmas.

During the month of Ramadan, Muslims focus on purifying themselves, getting closer to God, and growing in their faith. They fast from sunrise to sunset, which includes refraining from food, drink, sexual intercourse, bad language, and bad behaviour.

They may read an entire chapter of the Qur’an each day (it has 30 chapters), so they finish the book in a month.The knowledge gained by reading the Qur’an encourages good deeds and greater acts of worship.

By fasting, they become more sympathetic to those less fortunate. By understanding what it is like to go without food or drink, they should become more generous and seek to alleviate hunger amongst the poor.

Ramadan helps to bring people together with family, friends, and neighbours because they break their fasts together.  The community is brought closer to God by offering more worship in the form of extra prayer services provided nightly in Ramadan.

Eid al-Fitr (the Festival/Holiday of Breaking Fast) follows. This festival lasts three days and celebrates the successful completion of Ramadan and the newly renewed spiritual cleansing and connection.

Associated with sweets of various kinds, other names for it are the Sugar Festival or Sweet Festival.  There are many different ways to celebrate the Eid, but, in general, the morning begins with the special Eid prayer. On the way there and while waiting for the prayer session to start it is common to recite the Eid Takbir.

There was a selection of sweet biscuits and homemade cake available yesterday – delicious!

DSC_0986#3 DSC_0987#3

After praying people have a feast of sorts with their families and or friends usually travelling to family homes.  Typical foods vary by country/region.  In the Middle East, it is common to buy new clothes for the Eid and children often receive Eidia (pronounced like ‘idea’) which is money.  The Eidia received from family and friends comes from an adult to child.  Gifts between adults are rare and gifts from child to an adult even rarer.  Children use the money to buy toys and sweets.

In the US, Canada, Australia and the UK it is often more common to give children presents, not money. This compares with active Christian gifting practices such as Christmas.  Some people make Eid goody bags with trinkets, party favours, stickers, temporary tattoos, and candy to hand out to children after the Eid prayer. Gifts between adults or from child to adult occur too.

Visits to amusement parks/carnivals/circuses also happen more in the West than in other countries probably because immigrants and subsequent generations do not have large extended families to visit.  They spend time going out in smaller family groups and because of the often minority status of their holidays and the abundance of Christian holiday commercialisation they may feel the need to make Eid “extra special” ensuring the interest of future generations.

The children and proud parents yesterday illustrated how to keep the young involved and feeling part of their religion and culture and yet quite comfortable living in Australia.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Tarek Yousery, a Driving Instructor in real life, entertained us all as he paraded his Egyptian background dressed as a Pharaoh, encouraging us all to be Pharaoh for a photo shoot.  Tarek promoted Egypt by ‘working the room’ while his wife helped you decide what costumes and jewellery to wear. Their generosity and good humour a definite highlight of the day.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The queues for Henna painting kept two young, talented women busy. Their artistic brilliance and calm, good nature impressive – I can imagine their hands will be sore because the demand to be “tattooed” relentless. Some children (and adults) went back for more than one decoration. Mine sketched in double-quick time – amazing. Unfortunately, scrutiny made me realise how aged my hands were – how could I have my mother’s hands already??  I still feel young!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

A table with an array of scarves to be transformed into the hijab had a backdrop of gorgeous dresses. Alongside was a table doing a brisk trade with intricate and clunky jewellery pieces. Eid like our Christmas – new clothes and gifts the order of the day as people celebrate peace,  love and family.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The hall echoed with lots of chatter, laughter and children enjoying the relaxed, festive atmosphere. I’d hoped for more locals to witness such an array of talent but bumped into Jenny, a woman I’ve met at various meetings and workshops concerning the environment and community. She had seen the notice down at the Chelsea Hub and was glad she had come along ‘to have a look’.

We both wished there were more people to appreciate the diversity that has made us a successful multicultural country and agreed we must have more opportunities to mix.  Perhaps if we get to know each other, the disgraceful display of intolerance at Bendigo in recent weeks won’t happen again, and we’ll not allow some politicians and sections of the media to keep us in a constant state of fear.

If we could raise one generation with unconditional love, there would be no Hitlers…Mankind’s greatest gift, also its greatest curse, is that we have free choice. We can make our choices built from love or from fear.

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross

Lisa Sun, the Manager of Mordialloc Neighbourhood House and her committee, deserve congratulations for organising this event in collaboration with Springvale Neighbourhood House, the Victorian Multicultural Commission and Al-Emaan Muslim Women’s Support group. The more people come together and share what we have in common, the less likely we will be pushed apart.

We’ve got this gift of love, but love is like a precious plant. You can’t just accept it and leave it in the cupboard or just think it’s going to get on by itself. You’ve got to keep watering it. You’ve got to really look after it and nurture it.

John Lennon

A big thank you to everyone who made the day a success. I felt privileged to meet so many talented and friendly people. A day like yesterday more representative of the community and Australia I love than many of the stories the media seem to enjoy flaunting. Check out Mordialloc Neighbourhood House’s Facebook page for more photos.

The next event to break down cultural barriers will be a Diwali Festival – same venue, but next month!

ABC of October – Anniversary, Breast Cancer, Check-Up

Quote-51

I can’t believe another year is nearly over, but my annual mammogram reminds me, as does the city drowning in pink. To have a mastectomy in October, Breast Cancer Awareness Month can put you off pink for life!

However, I am extremely grateful to be alive and to celebrate five years survival – hooray!

Quote-91

A big thank you to my two daughters for their unswerving, unconditional support and the beautiful flowers they bought me to add to their message of love and gratitude for yet another year.

DSC_0984#2

The memory of being picked up from Cabrini etched like a tattoo. The foyer of the hospital, fences of the local sports ground and numerous businesses festooned in pink,  courtesy of the McGrath Foundation or the plethora of organisations belonging to an extensive breast cancer network. So many women and men working hard and doing an excellent job keeping the disease in the public eye.

Pink balloons, ribbons, posters abounded – even pink buns from the bakery –  as I left the hospital with a drainage tube and plastic bottle where my left boob used to be.

I suppose psychologists will have a name for my word/image association and all the emotions triggered, but I’ll stick to a good old Scots word – scunnered. And I try and avoid all the hype and pinkness I can.

And so, yesterday, like other years, I went for my mammogram and ultrasound at the local radiology centre, which, as usual was decorated like a pink Christmas. However, no joy or excited anticipation for me – the only present I wanted was to hear ‘all clear for another year.’ Thank you, God, I whispered you’re a longer-lasting, caring entity than Father Christmas!

All the happy smiling faces and bunting in the world couldn’t suppress the fear lurching from my stomach and squeezing my heart and throat while I waited for the test results to determine whether the cancer is active.

DSC_0982#3

DSC_0983#2

I’m aware I’m in the lucky 90% who survive five years, but the constant reminder that in Australia,  seven women a day die of breast cancer always dulls the joy. This year I lost my dear friend Margaret and another friend, Jillian had the shock of her cancer returning after 13 years. Vigilance and that little gnawing fear ever-present along with the mantras – count your blessings and one day at a time!

I often feel uncomfortable with the pinkness of breast cancer advertising and the endless walks, runs and other events seeking donations. When I saw the film Pink Ribbons Inc in 2013, I knew I wasn’t alone feeling disquiet about the corporatization of breast cancer.

I regularly donate for breast cancer research because I’m truly grateful for the excellent treatment I received, but target my donations. I want to help but shy away from the morning teas, lunches, dinners and the seemingly endless pink products.

As a writer, I can donate my skills. I was thrilled to have part of my story published along with others in a book to raise funds for research and practical assistance to those diagnosed with breast cancer. The book can be purchased from Busybird Publishing and is usually for sale at conferences or events organised by the Breast Cancer Network Australia.

422722_217812234984493_1370160633_n

There are so many physical and mental ailments that people struggle with daily.  My wish is for people to give generously to whatever cause and not expect kudos or a toy/ribbon/trophy in return – and that big pool of medical research will keep expanding and being successful where and when it can! People live with a disability, illness and pain from birth – what courage that must take and many don’t have the collective power of a group!

images-1

My diagnosis was in August 2010 – my birthday mammogram – and although there have been discussions about the benefits of regular testing I can only speak about my journey. I’m blessed to live in a country with access to affordable medical expertise and choice of treatment.

Long live Medicare, bulk billing, public hospitals and government funded research – and access to information so I can think for myself.

Yesterday, one of the women employed at the radiology centre greeted me like an old friend. She has given me mammograms and ultrasounds over the years and even attended a series of writing workshops I did to write up stories of her childhood in Ireland. Her welcoming smile always appreciated, and it beamed even brighter yesterday, ‘It’s been five years? No! How wonderful!!’

When I read some of my journaling from the early days of diagnosis it is indeed a wonder:

September 7th. 2010
I am feeling very poorly– ‘1’ in the rating toolbar of the journal gifted by the Breast Cancer Network Association should have a few minuses. Following diagnosis by BreastScreen, the book arrived by Express Post, accompanied by four other tomes. I only registered online that day!  Efficiency plus but 4 volumes of information: too much, too soon, and too confronting! Talk about information overload…

However, the journal is fabulous with sections for appointments, keeping track of expenses, contacts and personal observation. A practical companion for consultations, hospital visits, and to use as a bedside confidante.

It is the morning after the night before – the drama of my second operation yesterday looms large. Icepacks renewed all day on what remains of my left breast. More breast than I thought I’d have – hooray! I am obsessed with checking my wounds and fear another haematoma but Surgeon Peter assured me, ‘Mairi, I have a patient develop a haematoma once in ten years. You’re the second in as many weeks – the quota is complete until I retire!’

Vigilant and with extra diligence, the nurses check my breast and vital signs. I try to relax, repeating the mantra, ‘I’m in the best place. I’ll be okay.’

The girls’ visit full of last night’s emergency. They both look so young and vulnerable. I hate putting them through this. They explain how my breast and neck merged to burst from my pyjamas; a bright blue balloon because of the dye from the sentinel node biopsy.

‘You were turning into a female version of the Incredible Hulk, Mum,’ said Mary Jane.

‘Except you were blue not green,’ interrupted Anne, ‘and your face was whiter than that cover.’ She pats the cotton bedspread.

‘Actually,’ said Mary Jane, ‘your face was a horrible ashen. I never want to see you look that way again – especially the look in your eyes.’ She shudders, her hazel eyes glisten tears. An anxious flutter of fear ripples across my chest.

‘I knew something was wrong,’ I say quickly, ‘but didn’t know what. I’m glad you ran for a nurse. I don’t think I pressed the buzzer.’

‘You did Mum because I bumped into Hue coming in to ask what was wrong.’

‘My goodness, didn’t he get in a flap? Literally!’

We giggle at the memory. Nurse Hue is male but when he came through the doorway and took one look at me, he threw his hands in the air, flapped and squawked like a frightened bird and ran out of the room, his Vietnamese voice pitched higher than normal  yelling for assistance. Images of the distressed maiden in Victorian novels having ‘a fit of the vapours’ spring to mind and I smile at the memory despite discomfort…

A gaggle of nurses crowd my bedside, checking the swelling, hard and the size of a football. The last nurse to take my blood pressure and temperature assures the Sister-in-Charge everything was fine when she examined me. ‘That’s right, ‘I agree sensing reprimands and guilt trips, ‘I only started to feel unwell after dinner.’

Surgeon Peter materialises by the bed, the nurses part like The Red Sea. Thank goodness he was still doing the rounds of his patients. He holds my hand, his soft voice comforting. ‘You have a haematoma and the operating room is being prepared. Staff cleaning up after the last operation of the day have offered to stay on.’

I murmur appreciation, apologise for the fuss.

Barely nine hours since the last general anaesthetic, my full stomach and collapsed veins a concern. Peter assures an excellent anaesthetist has had his dinner interrupted and is on his way. The subliminal message, ‘you are in good hands,’ designed to allay fears.

I smile thanks, wrack my brains for knowledge about haematomas. Judging by the reaction of the nurses, Peter’s sombre demeanour, and the horror in the girls’ eyes, it’s serious. The phrase ‘deep shit’ springs to mind. I see the popular poster of a cat clinging to a tree branch by one paw my sister has in her toilet. I want to be a cat and have nine lives!  I recall the various crises my brother George survived as he battled leukaemia and relaxed into the pillow. What will be will be…

I watch Peter’s face as he explains the emergency to the girls. Anne pales, tears bubble in ice blue eyes, she looks about to faint. Peter directs his calm voice at Mary Jane realising that although the youngest she is handling the situation better. He leaves to prepare himself for theatre just as a nurse manoeuvres my bed towards the door, requesting help from the girls to push it to the lifts.

We gather speed; I sense the pushers are trotting, hear heavy footsteps along with squeaky wheels. The faces of the nurses and patients we pass beam uncertainty… pity from the tea lady as she squeezes her trolley out of the way.  Hue’s whispered, ‘good luck’ sounds more like ‘good bye’. Am I going to die?

Fear claws at my throat, I grip the mattress until fingers ache, I want to see my daughters’ faces but have lost my voice. The lift doors slide open, the bed bumps over a metal strip. Inside the claustrophobic space, I meet John.  His wraith-like presence is beside me, bending over, reaching arms out to gather me up. Without moving my lips I plead, ’Please darling, I can’t come yet, the girls need me.’ He smiles, understands, dissolves…

The harsh lights of the operating theatre startle me and the near empty space echoes with voices, footsteps, indeterminate noises. Everyone has gone home except for the cluster of nurses waiting to begin preparations: my vital signs monitored, inflatable white leggings attached to protect me from blood clots. Michelin Man again. Protective hat and socks fitted.

Nurse Pam introduces herself and mumbles about my full stomach, shakes her head. A portent of death.

The young anaesthetist struggles to find a vein with his portable ultrasound machine. Three attempts leave me bleeding and wincing before success and a stent inserted.

Mary Jane squeezes my hand, smiles assurance; Anne strokes my face, forgetting to wipe the tears dribbling down her pale cheeks. She bravely remains close despite her paranoia of needles. In a silent pact the girls and I ignore Nurse Pam’s voice of doom, keep fear under control, the  girls joke that the leggings make me even more like the Incredible Hulk.  I close my eyes and smile Michelin Man from an era before their time… so many memories

‘I drained a litre and a half of blood from that breast,’ Peter’s incredulous voice a wonderful sound.

I am back in the ward; the girls sit grinning at the end of the bed. The clock whirs, the small hand clicks as it leaves midnight and a ‘breast cancer complication’ behind.

September 6th disappears into the stuff of legend. The first day of the rest of my life begins…

I love this text my daughter sent me yesterday:

84e617978b2a1c059fccdf840b0811fd

With support and attitude like that how can I not feel positive!

Happy writing indeed!

Trauma at the Shrine

“There are wounds that never show on the body that are deeper and more hurtful than anything that bleeds.”

Laurell K. Hamilton, Mistral’s Kiss

This week there has been much in the news about war – it is the 70th anniversary of the end of the war in the Pacific when the Japanese surrendered shortly after the dropping of the atomic bombs and in Australia, a government backbencher exhorted the government to start bombing Syria deeming the escalation of the ‘war on terror’ necessary.

I’ve been writing a series of stories about my family that may turn into a novel and in the research process I’ve attended lectures at the Shrine in Melbourne because one of the “characters” is  an uncle who fought at Gallipoli and later died in Alexandria of enteric fever.

Through reading factual accounts, novels and poetry you learn of the deep and abiding sorrow that comes from war. Why are some people so keen to fight? So desperate to invade or bomb another country? Whether it’s the 100th anniversary of Gallipoli or the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII, the mourning and grieving never ends and as writers we must try and be honest about that and perhaps make our contribution to world peace. We must try and put a human face on statistics.

This quilt block from an exhibition I attended in April needs no words.

receiving the telegram

And this one a sentiment that touched my heart as I write about our family’s loss in the “war to end all wars”.

a beautiful sentiment many shared_1024

Three days after Hiroshima, an American B-29 dropped an atomic bomb on Nagasaki. It was  August 9, 1945,  74,000 people died. Most of the dead were civilians and much of the city obliterated. On a summer morning three days before, the epochal use of the first atomic bomb  on Hiroshima stunned the world. Tokyo and Yokohama and other cities had been extensively fire-bombed, but no one could have imagined the devastation of the A-bombs (I hope no human being will ever again wreak such widespread and long-lasting pain and suffering on fellow human beings).

This poignant expression of grief from a survivor, interviewed in 1995, 50 years after the bombings:

Like so many, Shima has always wondered why she lived and her daughter did not. Not a single photograph of Akiko survived, but Shima still carries her image everywhere, just below the surface, like the tiny shards of glass embedded in her scalp.” 

Watching television and reading the various reports this week reminded me how the loss and devastation of World War One also ran deep. And like all wars, the conflicting emotions and opinions about its necessity, its causes and consequences are still being debated today. Death in war always more senseless than the usual death by old age, disease or accident.

I often think of the effect of Uncle George’s death on his family – how do you recover from farewelling a 19 year old and welcoming home his rabbit skin vest, Bible and pipe? Never seeing his dead body, never visiting his gravesite – having to accept, along with thousands of others, your son, brother, husband, father is no more. 25000 dead in ww1 have no known grave!

“We find a place for what we lose. Although we know that after such a loss the acute stage of mourning will subside, we also know that a part of us shall remain inconsolable and never find a substitute. No matter what may fill the gap, even if it is completely filled, it will nevertheless remain something changed forever…”

Sigmund Freud (1856 – 1939)

Some time ago, I attended a lecture by Jen Hawksley from the School of History and Politics at the University of Wollongong where she presented Bereft, a selection from her PhD exploring Trauma, Memory and Madness. A three minute summary of her thesis is here and well worth watching: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6E9hPito5Vc

There were ideas and facts Jen discussed that gave me the proverbial food for thought:

There was a callous use of language by doctors and others when describing the grief experienced by those who lost someone, especially the descriptions of mothers grieving their sons. Many of these women ended up in asylums and were treated abomniably. Many were  not just coping with the death of loved ones, but those missing, and also those who survived, but grieved for the way life was before.

We are not born all at once, but by bits. The body first, and the spirit later; and the birth and growth of the spirit, in those who are attentive to their own inner life, are slow and exceedingly painful. Our mothers are racked with the pains of our physical birth; we ourselves suffer the longer pains of our spiritual growth.”

Mary Antin

Parental bereavement is different to other grief. A language of mourning did/does not exist. We have no word in English for a parent who has lost a child, but we have widow and widower. Uncertainty and with the grief of losing a son, mothers retreated to their own world – many visiting spiritualists.

I have to be grateful my Granny was not committed or admitted to a mental institution. My father’s oldest brother was drowned off the coast of Texas in 1927. As a merchant seaman he was a victim of the economic war of the Great Depression and just like the young men of WW1, he left for an adventure overseas never to return. My Grandmother spent the remainder of her days seeking some word or sign that her John was okay. She went to many meetings of spiritualists who grew in number after WW1.

The rituals of funerals are missing for those whose bodies are never found, or for those buried in foreign soil without loved ones being there. Family can’t see the grave, don’t get the support of the community – all of this traditional support mechanism lost.  “The individuality of death buried under millions of corpses.” (J Winter)

Vietnam was the first war where the Australian Government brought bodies home. However, it makes a difference how popular or unpopular a war is – whether the public consider a soldier’s death a glorious sacrifice or not.  In the first and second world wars parents cloaked themselves with the comfort their sons were one of 40 million combatants and fought in a “just war”. The Vietnam War was controversial from day one and Vietnam Veterans suffered tragic ignominy on their return as Australian poet Bruce Dawe‘s iconic poem indicates:

HOMECOMING – BRUCE DAWE
All day, day after day, they’re bringing them home,
they’re picking them up, those they can find, and bringing them
home,
they’re bringing them in, piled on the hulls of Grants, in trucks, in convoys,
they’re zipping them up in green plastic bags,
they’re tagging them now in Saigon, in the mortuary coolness
they’re giving them names, they’re rolling them out of
the deep-freeze lockers – on the tarmac at Tan Son Nhut
the noble jets are whining like hounds,
they are bringing them
home
– curly-heads, kinky hairs, crew-cuts, balding non-coms
– they’re high, now high and higher, over the land, the steaming
chow
      mein,
their shadows are tracing the blue curve of the Pacific
with sorrowful quick fingers, heading south, heading east,
home, home, home – and the coasts swing upward, the old ridiculous curvatures
of earth, the knuckled hill, the mangrove-swamps, the desert emptiness…
in their sterile housing they tilt towards these like skiers
– taxiing in, on the long runways, the howl of their homecoming
rises
surrounding them like their last moments (the mash, the splendour)
then fading at length as they move
on to small towns where dogs in the frozen sunset
raise muzzles in mute salute,
and on to cities in whose wide web of suburbs
telegrams tremble like leaves from a wintering tree
and the spider grief swings in his bitter geometry
– they’re bring them home, now, too late, too early.

With a poet’s eye Dawe shows how worthless a soldier’s life is when war strips your identity, makes you insignificant even if  bodies are shipped home, not to a hero’s welcome or a society that respects their contribution, but ‘where dogs in the frozen sunset raise muzzles in mute salute,’

Jen Hawksley mentioned there are iconic photographs encapsulating WW1 that like propaganda influence our feelings:

  • the silhouette of a soldier leaning on his rifle by a cross
  • a row of graves
  • devastated countryside and a line of weary defeated soldiers
  • a group of women quayside waiting for soldiers to disembark

If these photographs are deconstructed, as we do with the volume of poetry from the war from Wilfred Owen, Sassoon,  McCrae, Hodgson and others a tear-filled ‘Why?’ rents the air.

images-1

Increasingly, we realise war is not even about soldiers – the greatest casualties are always civilians – just like the atomic blasts all those decades ago.

Returned men and women, damaged beyond recognition suffering the extremities of loss and bereavement. They do not get over it, or move on, or get closure. Survivors with grievous wounds
often chose suicide, others clung to another existence, a shadow of their previous life. There were soldiers who had accidents or illness and died without getting near a battlefield.

How to make sense of all of this?

  • the soldier full of grog and adrenalin coming back off leave and run over by a tram the night before heading for Gallipoli…
  • Clifford later died after 43 years in an asylum in Sydney. Aged 70 he was hit by a taxi on a day out. Irony was that his severe depression, which led to him being committed was because he had been hit by the tram and lost a limb.
  • Aussies bemused to be in Egypt referred to the place as Shit Sand Sin and Syphilis – many died from disease, accidents, crime… families at home refused to accept or were ashamed to announce these deaths as ‘heroic’.
  • Many families abandoned their soldiers if these damaged sons did not live up to expectations.

kollwitz3

The sculpture, The Parents by Käthe Kollowitz in  Roggevelde German war cemetery shows the father being stoic and the mother prostrate at the gap in their lives when ‘boys’ died. As a mother and an artist Käthe captures the anguish endured by mothers on both sides of a conflict. This expression of broken-hearted and traumatised parents easily recognised.

The  extremities of bereavement could have been changed by knowledge during WW1 – parents wanted to know how and where and when their sons died. Photographs of the battle for Lone Pine show utter decimation – so many missing and official silence led to rumour and misinformation. Early dog tags were of compressed cardboard so decomposed with the bodies – so many bodies  lost and no official attempt at recovery for 4 years. Families never received personal effects and there were many suicides at home in Australia after the news of the large numbers killed and how they died.

And what of the non-military casualties? The total number of deaths includes about 10 million military personnel and about 7 million civilians. Rarely are the deaths of those not in uniform recorded in official history.

War is beyond the ordinary person’s control – unless of course we can organise a peace movement:

A peace movement is a social movement that seeks to achieve ideals such as the ending of a particular war (or all wars), minimise inter-human violence in a particular place or type of situation, including ban guns, and often linked to the goal of achieving world peace.

Ordinary people standing together saying loud and clear that the loss in war is never over. The trauma continues for generations. The mourning too.

Bereavement exacerbated by ongoing pain, shame, stigma, confusion lasting decades. How many were ‘put away’ into asylums unable to come to terms with their grief. Unspoken family secrets. Violent alcoholism, domestic abuse from physically and emotionally damaged men and women trying to cope with the tragedy of their lives because of war.

In every process of remembering there is also forgetting. Anniversaries are celebrated, people’s contributions and sacrifices acknowledged, but we must never forget how ugly war is, the devastation left, the people’s lives destroyed.

There is a huge disparity between public remembrance ( the monuments, solemn artefacts) often misused for militarism and nationalism compared to the ambivalent stories of sacrifice and experience of survivors. The poems and stories that people write about their experience so very important for true understanding. We must share our stories and listen to others as they share theirs.

“The following poem brings us face to face with what is easily forgotten. However large or small the conflict, whatever weapons are being used, war means murder, and more often than not a painful and possibly slow death. The dead may be counted, but that’s just a number. What’s important is that each one is an individual, each one’s ‘body is susceptible to pain’, each one shudders, writhes, bleeds, and cries out. Each one could be oneself. The mind or soul may wander, but the body, the individual physical being of each one of us, inescapably ‘is, is, is’. It’s the same for all of us, tortured and torturer, killer and victim. We should not inflict on anyone the pain we would not want inflicted on us.”

Tortures by Wislawa Szymborska

Nothing has changed.
The body is susceptible to pain;
it has to eat and breathe the air, and sleep;
it has thin skin, and the blood is just beneath it;
an adequate supply of teeth and fingernails;
its bones can be broken; its joints can be stretched.
In tortures, all this is taken into account.

Nothing has changed.
The body shudders as it shuddered
before the founding of Rome and after,
in the twentieth century before and after Christ.
Tortures are just as they were, only the earth has grown smaller,
and what happens sounds as if it’s happening in the next room.

Nothing has changed.
It’s just that there are more people,
and beside the old offences new ones have sprung –
real, make-believe, short-lived, and non-existent.
But the howl with which the body answers to them,
was, is and ever will be a cry of innocence
according to the age-old scale and pitch.

Nothing has changed.
Except perhaps the manners, ceremonies, dances.
Yet the movement of hands to shield the head remains the same.
The body writhes, jerks and tries to pull away,
its legs fail, it falls, its knees jack-knife,
it bruises, swells, dribbles and bleeds.

Nothing has changed.
Except for the course of rivers,
the lines of forests, coasts, deserts and glaciers.
Amid those landscapes roams the soul,
disappears, returns, draws nearer, moves away,
a stranger to itself, elusive,
now sure, now uncertain of its own existence,
while the body is and is and is
and has nowhere to go.

Perhaps one day we will build an effective peace movement and there will be strong and immediate public disapproval when politicians take us into war, or as we heard this week a politician recommending we escalate our involvement in someone else’s war. We could instead follow the women who were involved in the peace talks in Northern Ireland:

Male negotiators sometimes worry that having women participate in the discussion may change the tone of the meeting. They’re right. During the Northern Ireland peace talks, the men would get bogged down by abstract issues and past offences. The women would come and talk about their loved ones, their bereavement, their children and their hopes for the future. These deeply personal comments helped keep the talks focused. The women’s experiences reminded the men that it was people who really mattered.’

jk_dvoice