Escapism Via Flash Fiction

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After class, today, chatting with one of my students who is a fairly new immigrant from Turkey, we shared how the sadness in the world saps our creativity.

Understandably, she is worried about her family and friends after the recent events in Turkey and with family and friends in the UK, USA, and Europe I too seem to be in a constant state of worry – as well as being concerned for my Turkish student and other Turkish friends!

It is too easy to tune into ABC24 and the plethora of social media news, too easy to become addicted or obsessed about hearing the latest updates, too easy to be stressed, too easy to focus on anything but writing!

I tend to be a worrier but also highly sensitive to other people’s woes – compassion a core family value, along with a sense of social responsibility and community.


My writing can be therapy and escapism, as well as a way to try and make sense or understand the indefensible, irrational and the unfathomable aspects of human nature and behaviour. I don’t keep a journal but often scribble my feelings into notebooks or fashion a poem or short piece of prose.

Times of emotional trauma or physical upheaval make it difficult to concentrate and when local or global tragedies occur, focus on substantial creative projects wanes, or is lost completely.

Thank goodness for writing classes!

Regardless of how empty I feel, once I’m in the safe space of my writing classes with the lesson plan in hand I let my imagination loose for the 15-20 minutes of stream of consciousness writing that is the ‘splurge’.

Sitting beside my students, I can become a writer rather than the teacher.


The skills of fiction and nonfiction are not mutually exclusive, and mastering or even flirting with one can have a transformative effect on the other.

Zachary Petit, Writer’s Digest

Today, we concentrated on the importance of opening lines. Not just because it is important to grab the reader’s attention but also as a way of jump-starting our imagination.

It never ceases to amaze me the variety and quality of the stories random splurges produce and today was no different.

A good opening line is a powerful thing: It can grab an editor’s attention, set the tone for the rest of the piece, and make sure readers stay through The End!

Jacob M. Appel

This is why it is called a HOOK – just like a fish at the end of the line, you want to keep your readers hanging in there!

Splurge – Try one of these story openings:

  • He’d always had the perfect golf grip. The one he used on the gun wasn’t bad, either.
  • Palm trees always reminded me of him/her. (You can substitute any other flora)
  • Parker was definitely not singing in the rain.
  • I think that after you lose your car keys three days in a row, you should just be able to stay home.
  • The devil always finds work for idle hands to do, according to Mr Smith our science teacher – and he should know.
  • My alter-ego came to life one summer in 1975. (Or another date!)
  • The scraping noise was Grandfather’s chair on the flagged tile floor.
  • ‘Who is it, Madeleine?’
  • The crushed carcass of the car outside the corner garage revealed a truth Constable Thomson didn’t want to face.


Night Terror
Mairi Neil (flash fiction of 750 words)

The scraping noise was Grandfather’s chair on the slate floor, but why is he in the kitchen now?

The clock in the hallway, ticked, whirred, and chimed the half-hour. Tim checked his Father’s fob watch on the bedside table: 3.30am.

How did Grandfather manage the stairs by himself – and why? Is Mum downstairs too? Tim held his breath, but no tell-tale cough announced his mother’s presence; no whistle of steam from the kettle on the range.

When Mum’s in the kitchen, there’s always the clink of china cups, although this is a strange hour for a tea party.

Another creak, low and sinister, followed by the scraping noise again.

Tim imagined the chair rocking back and forth in front of the wood-fired stove. The old man huddling forward, gnarled hands stretching towards the open oven door, willing the radiated heat to warm arthritic bones.

Mum must be there – who else stoked and lit the fire? Tim concentrated; listened for murmuring voices.

The morning ritual always the same; Grandfather and his crook legs and weak heart only make it downstairs by leaning on Mum’s arm and gripping the bannister.

Maybe they couldn’t sleep and Mum lit the fire to keep the old man company and now they’re absorbed in one of the story-telling sessions they seem to like so much. Always talking about the past. Tim often wished he had a time machine like the man in the book he borrowed from the library.

He burrowed deeper into warm bedclothes, his small face, a flat white stone in an inky river of shadows. His breath drifted in uneven puffs in the cold air and twitching his nose his eyes widened with remembering. If Grandfather is rocking in front of the fire he’d be smoking his pipe, a habit he said helped him count his blessings. But no pungent tobacco smoke wafted up the staircase to cloud the room.

An asthmatic cough from the room across the hall punctuated the night before fading into gentle snoring almost immediately.

And Mum is still asleep. Who is downstairs? A thief? Tim shuddered. Who could make an intruder leave?

So many homeless men living by the railway line. Men who cadged meals and money before stowing away on one of the frequent goods trains that crisscrossed the land. Desperate men with nothing to lose. Men fighting to survive bad economic times.

Has one broken in and settled by the fire? Tim’s eyelids flickered and he fought back tears. Troubled blue eyes stared at the dresser, found the photograph of his father, pale in the muted moonlight shining through threadbare curtains.

If only the mining accident hadn’t happened, Dad would make the intruder leave. Tim clenched his teeth.

He remembered the burly man at the door yesterday. His offer to chop wood for two shillings – the price of a flagon of sherry.

Mum confessed their poverty and offered a sandwich. The man’s hairy top lip twisted. ‘Only if there’s dessert,’ he said, menacing eyes staring too long at Mum’s chest before returning to her flushed face.

Tim sensed his Mum’s fear as she slammed the door, rammed the bolt across, pressed her shaking body against the entrance as if the oak panels needed help to keep the man out.

His ten-year-old hands fisted, but Grandfather’s restraining hand on his shoulder held him firm. He hated the old man for his whispered, ‘You’re too young, boy,’ but had a rush of pity when Grandfather added, ‘and I’m too old.’

Blood surged in Tim’s ears. He gripped the bedsheets, his racing heartbeat competing with the scraping and rumbling below. He must go downstairs and face the intruder, prove to Grandfather he was not too young, prove to Mum he could protect her.

The curtains billowed and a gust of even colder air swirled around the room. Tim froze. Perhaps it was a ghost downstairs. Dad or Grandmother visiting – they both had favoured the chair by the fire. The scraping noise accompanied by a rustling as if hands searched canisters.

An almighty crash followed the rattling of crockery. Tim cowered under the blankets until a shattering of glass and china was joined by grunting and snarling.

And his Mum spluttering, ‘Damn possums!’

Tim searched for his slippers and met his mother in the hallway as she recovered from a coughing fit.

They hurried downstairs. A tremulous smile playing on Tim’s lips as the stairs creaked and Grandfather’s chair scraped on the slate floor.

rocking chair

It’s a helluva start, being able to recognize what makes you happy.

Lucille Ball

Writing makes me happy.

Why not choose a first line and write a story – escape from sadness and tragedy for a few moments with some flash fiction fun!

Let’s Lavish Love on Library Volunteers

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On Thursday, May 12, I spoke at Kingston’s Cheltenham Library Branch at a function for Volunteer Week. This year is also the year of ‘Digital Inclusion’ and the library is keen to support this theme.

Invited by Monique Gielen, a coordinator of the Home Library Service at Kingston Libraries, I was asked to include my journey to online publishing in its various forms and my experiences with the Mordialloc Writers’ Group, as well as my experiences as Kingston’s 2016 Citizen of the Year.

The Home Library Service is run with the generous help of a group of community-minded volunteers, who visit people in their own homes or aged care facilities, bringing their clients library items, conversation and a link to the community. 

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The function for the volunteers included a welcome and thank you by Kingston’s Mayor Cr Tamsin Bearsley, my speech,  a training session on Kingston’s My Community Life website, and a morning tea.

The afternoon designed to recognise the work of the volunteers and create an opportunity for them to engage with each other. There was the added joy of meeting Kingston’s Junior Mayor, Isaac Madafferi and a pupil from Aspendale Gardens Primary, one of six students chosen to spend the day with the Mayor and learn a little about local government services.


Tamsin explained how important volunteering is to many of the services in our community and quoted recent studies that show people who volunteer are healthier and happier than those who don’t. From my experience, the personal benefits of volunteering are indeed substantial and it is fantastic when volunteer contributions to government services and organisations are acknowledged.

And so to my speech an accompanying PowerPoint Presentation – no mean feat to prepare because having a Mac and using keynote I had to make sure it worked as PPP on a PC – always time-consuming and sometimes a hit and miss that there are no glitches. I could do a whole presentation on dramas with technology!

My presentation on the day a little awkward because there was no remote control and the laptop was behind and to the left of me.

However, with a little help from one of the gracious library staff and the fact I had prepared my speech to stand alone, just in case technology failed, I managed to keep everyone engaged  and even received some compliments afterwards.

Big sigh of relief, I’ve survived yet another anxiety producing ‘speaking in public’ event!

What I said and some of the slides I added follow.

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Kingston Library Volunteer Function 2016

Good afternoon and thank you very much for inviting me today and allowing me to share your spotlight – this day is about all of you being thanked for your contribution as library volunteers.

It is safe to say, I wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t been selected as Kingston’s Citizen of the Year and I’ve been asked to mention how that is working out, so I’ll tackle that first.

On the day, I received the phone call from Tamsin, the Mayor, I was at Southland with my daughter. I was told I was Kingston’s Citizen of the Year and immediately understood what ‘overwhelmed’ meant. On the drive home with my daughter, I kept shaking my head. Mostly in disbelief, which in many ways still has a hold of me, despite many people saying things like:  ‘When I read your name, I was so glad.’

‘You deserve it,’ or ‘about time you got recognition.’

Those reactions reminded me of a line from a Rabbie Burns poem written in 1786.

(For those who don’t know who he is, he wrote Auld Lang Syne and My Love is Like a Red Red Rose plus volumes of other poems that have not been turned into songs! He’s Scotland’s most famous bard and one my father recited all the time.)

The line that comes to mind regarding the praise and support I’ve received is one my father often quoted. This is the anglicised final verse which explains the theme of the poem -:

to a louse verse

The poem is To A Louse (in Australia they’re called nits) , which goes to show you can write about anything and be remembered for centuries!

The narrator sitting behind an upper class lady in church notices a louse roving around in her bonnet. The poet chastises the louse for not realising how important his host is, and then reflects that, to a louse, we are all equal prey, and that we would be disabused of our pretensions if we were to see ourselves through each other’s eyes.

An alternative interpretation (and with poetry as you probably learned at school, there is always an alternative interpretation) is that the poet is musing to himself how horrified and humbled the pious woman would be if she were aware she was harbouring a common parasite in her hair.

Well, for me, my reaction at receiving the award was more than disbelief; I was humbled and overcome by the knowledge that someone saw me in a different light as to how I see myself. I don’t think I’m, or my achievements, are particularly remarkable, but I am honoured and thrilled that teaching in community houses is valued, that caring and working within the community as a volunteer is valued, and the contribution of the Mordialloc Writers’ Group is valued.

I am well aware that there are many people who are more deserving (I just have to look around this room) and many others whose reaction would be ‘Who’s Mairi Neil? Why did she get the award?’

However, if it lifts the profile of neighbourhood houses, and of writing and local writers, I’m happy to be humbled, praised, or criticised! So far I’ve been keynote speaker at IWD and here.

I was supposed to speak yesterday at Clarinda but apparently the event was cancelled through lack of interest – so not everyone is tripping over themselves to hear me speak!

The plus side of the award is I get to meet lots of interesting people – as I hope to do again today.

Now I’ll move to a subject I am passionate about – writing.  Writer Anne Lamott said,

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Libraries are built on books. Schools rely on them and at any given moment there are millions of books on shelves around the world, in homes, in shops and in libraries like this.

Books that share knowledge and experiences of life, that share poetry and prose from every genre imaginable, that entertain, inform, inspire and ignite imagination.

However, as a writer I’m aware that technology has impacted on writing, publishing and reading and I’ll share a little of my journey later, but suffice to say, I personally love the feel of having a book in my hand, and want to not only see my words, but hold them as I read.

An iPad, Kindle, even mobile phone doesn’t do anything for me except make my handbag lighter when I’m travelling. Electronic books are convenient and if video and slide shows are added, they can be more exciting and entertaining than a good old-fashioned print book, but they won’t completely replace them.

You can’t curl up in bed and feel the same relaxation with a kindle. And there’s something magical about having a child on your knee and reading as he or she turns the pages of a picture storybook.

For me communication, learning, community and living – all begin with story.

maya angelou quote

Australia reaps the benefit of the care taken by the original owners of the land, including the Boonerwrung of the KuIin Nation – without a written language their oral histories and knowledge were handed down through yarns, painting, song and dance. Living books.

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Their wisdom helping us preserve this land and thousands of years of knowledge. One of the wonderful developments I’ve seen in my 54 years in Australia is the value added by being able to read the thoughts, ideas, and experience from indigenous writers – their stories no longer filtered through non-indigenous eyes.

Please check out the indigenous literary foundation site and the article by our wonderful local book reviewer Lisa Hill of ANZLit Blog fame, a personal friend, and a Mordialloc writer of course!

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In our culture, to write well you must read. A book is a friend and a teacher.

As a writer I create characters, places and events with words. As a teacher I share my knowledge and love of words to instil the passion I feel for recording stories, putting pen to paper, believing all voices equal. I want to help people tell their stories in the best possible way by learning the craft of writing.


I was asked to explain what was my motivation for starting the Writers’ Group.
Simply, I need to write – it’s part of my DNA and it is my passion. And I didn’t want to have to travel into the city to meet other writers.

I started the Mordialloc Writers’ Group, wrote and self-published two books of children’s poetry, Small Talk and More Small Talk and volunteered to do many writing ‘jobs’ like performing writing workshops in local schools, libraries and community centres.

I gave workshops during school holidays and started a program combining craft with writing to encourage primary-aged children to write. I ran these programs at the Mordialloc Neighbourhood House – self-serving in the beginning because I had two daughters who were at primary school.

My writing profile filtered through various networks and I was approached by the co-ordinator at Mordialloc and one at Sandybeach Centre to teach creative writing to adults (accredited and non-accredited courses).

In between I had been approached by schools, a couple of councils (Port Phillip and Dandenong), the Bayside Gifted Children’s Network and two home-educating groups.  And so started my journey of paid work in the creative writing and teaching field. On the most part not planned – just evolved.


It has been proven that writing can be therapeutic and I’m not going to argue with that! I’ve been through a fair share of grief and illness in my life and I’ve found reading and writing has helped me keep a balanced perspective and a positive attitude. I’ve been inspired by stories from others and comforted.

“Studies show that writing about oneself and personal experiences can improve mood disorders, help reduce symptoms among cancer patients, improve a person’s health after a heart attack, reduce doctor visits and even boost memory…. Writing — and then rewriting — your personal story can lead to behavioural changes and improve happiness.”

New York Times, “Writing Your Way To Happiness,” Tara Parker-Pope, January 19, 2015


Belonging to a group like the Mordialloc Writers’ certainly helped me with many of the writers being close and supportive friends for two decades. We celebrated the 20th Anniversary in 2015.

Reflecting on our beginnings, I remember how 5 writers met at Mordialloc Neighbourhood House in March 1995, put in $1.00 each to cover the rent and decided to meet fortnightly to workshop writing. We wanted to be able to write and meet locally.

Mordy Writers still meet fortnightly. And although numbers fluctuate membership has increased over the years and when we launched our ninth anthology last year, I know we were envied by other local groups that haven’t lasted.

The Bayside Night Writers and Swag of Tales & Swag of Verse – groups that met and/or produced anthologies no longer meet. Even the successful Bayside Poetry Group is struggling with an ageing membership.

It takes a lot of energy to keep a group vibrant and growing and often there are too few people who are prepared to put in the hours and work necessary to keep groups relevant.


Hosting regular public monthly readings on the last Sunday each month, means we meet other writers not living in the area and local writers who may not be in our group. However, our foundation rules have never changed:

  • As a community based writing group we welcome writers in all genres, whether beginners or advanced.
  • We are non-profit, our sole purpose being to encourage and support writers in their endeavours to publish, or just remain motivated to write regularly.
  • We produce anthologies with any monies received going towards the next book.
  • We encourage the love of literature and the importance of creative writing in our culture promoting the versatility and richness of the English language.
  • Our inclusive group abhors discrimination. Age, nationality, race, gender, religion, ethnic background or writing ability all secondary to the desire to write.

We have enabled over 60 writers to be published, nurturing several successful prize-winners. Glenice Whitting’s unpublished novel was listed for the Premier’s Award in 2004, and as Pickle to Pie it later won the Ilura Prize for fiction. Sue Parritt workshopped her novel with us, published 2014 as Sannah and the Pilgrim with the second novel in her trilogy, Pia and the Skyman, to be launched in 2 weeks.

Many others have been supported and encouraged to publish collections of poetry and prose including: John West, Stan Fensom, Dorothy Plummer, Bob Croker, Fay Lucas, Jeff Lasbury, Bob Lawson, Gregory Hill ( a successful co-writer of two books), and Dom Heraclides. Coral Waight and Steve Davies  have recently published Ebooks.

Plays have been written and performed, one of mine at Kingston’s Write Up Festival. Glenice and Greg were short listed for Varuna scholarships. Writer, Helen Merrick-Andrews developed a publishing business after her involvement in our second anthology.

Readings By The Bay still attracts writers from as varied locations as Frankston and Mt Eliza, Fern Tree Gully and Northcote, Bacchus Marsh and Oakleigh as well as local bay side participants. Several of us are published in other anthologies, online and other media. Alan Ward pursues his love of performance poetry in Germany where he is living for 2 years. Along with other ex-pats he posts his efforts on Youtube.


Because I teach writing at three neighbourhood houses there is a lot of networking, connecting and support with the writing by my students and regular members of the writers’ group. Often attendance at Readings By The Bay is the first public airing writers have of their work and the feedback and social contacts makes confidence soar.

Grants from Kingston Council for professional development enabled the group to host workshops by authors Euan Mitchell and Arnold Zable and as Glenice Whitting and myself both gained a Master’s degree in Writing, it is fair to say any workshopping we do with the group is good value.


Creativity has no boundaries, our members have ranged from 14 to 90 years, for Mordy Writers – it’s not ‘menopausal madness’ – the headline a local paper chose to use from one of my throwaway lines before one book launch!  Rather, it’s unpretentious voices attempting to make sense of and celebrate our social and geographical place in the world through the experience of life ‘bayside’.

Ningla- Ana, This our Land

Indigenous and Immigrant together.


Now to the digital age – Adaptability and Flexibility – the modern writer’s mantra.

New book titles published this year:


The following data on books published displayed on the Worldometers’ counter is based on statistics published by UNESCO

United States (2010) 328,259 (new titles and editions)

United Kingdom (2005) 206,000

Australia (2004) 8,602

TOTAL of all countries providing data: approximately 2,200,000

The impact of technology on writing and publishing began 10-15 years ago – when people started reading online and there has been a steady shift of more and more people “googling” ever since.

For most people the first effect was on newspapers and magazines. Advertisers subsidise these – but when people started reading online and didn’t want to pay for it, many journalists lost their jobs.

Classified ads – brought in 1/3 revenue for printed newspapers – that money is gone and will never come back.

Newspapers won’t die they’ll just diminish – even those available online. Social media will see to that. Unfortunately, this has led to a decay in the quality of journalism. There is no money for investigative research or in some cases proofreading – one of my bug bears.

(Read this excellent review of The Media and the Massacre, by Sonya Voumard by Lisa Hill on the same subject.)

If any of you have seen the movie Spotlight about the journalists on the Boston Globe exposing the sex abuse within the Catholic church and subsequent cover up by the church’s hierarchy, you will realise a story like that is more difficult to research today because there is no money to pay investigative journalists. They even hinted at that in the film.

This is why we need independent public broadcasters like the ABC or we’ll be relying on whistleblowers like Edward Snowden for exposés.

However, competing in the digital world and the 24 hour news cycle is more difficult to maintain quality even for a properly funded ABC.

And yet readers are still there for quality journalism and we’ll bemoan and miss good writing.

And the same thing is happening to books.

Unless you are a well-known author or work in the academic world it is very hard to get published and market and sell books in the digital age. We live in a time where there is access to audiences all over the world – anyone can set up a blog or create a pdf and load it up to Amazon or Create Space or WordPress and call themselves a published author.

But how do you find the good stuff from the thousands on Amazon? How do you know the book is a quality read, whether it has been edited, properly researched and even that it’s the author’s own work?

This is where good library staff, like those in Kingston come into their own along with trusted reviewers!

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Hundreds and thousands of books are loaded up online every year, the competition is fierce and authors like myself must learn to be lay-out and design experts, cover designers and marketers – be up-to-date with the various formats and ever-changing software and hardware. That is a very steep learning curve. Especially for my age group – when I left the paid workforce to start a family I thought I was the bees knees because I had a golfball typewriter!


And like many things you buy online, illustrations can be deceptive and the hype about a book can be just that. Sure we read of successful authors and how much money people make from downloads but reality is if you are a writer in Australia be prepared to have another job as well if you like to eat – especially if you are a  creative writer.

I had to embrace new technology with limited expertise; trust disembodied distant relationships with tutors and students when I did my Master’s degree; adapt lifestyle, extend boundaries, be flexible and most of all, be open to change.

Everywhere I went with workshops and in my teaching I met and still meet writers who don’t understand technology. I’ve learned to never make assumptions about people’s digital knowledge or ability.

Here is a poem I wrote in 2001 after a workshop I did to help the local U3A class put together an anthology – Mavis exists, albeit under a different name.


Mavis wanted to be a writer,
a desire throughout her life
but circumstances meant priorities
of being a mother and a wife.
And then her dream was realised
in her twilight years
Mavis joined U3A
Writing For Pleasure banished fears.
Encouraged to write short stories
and poems inspired from muse
her tutor suggested a computer
was the recording tool to use.
Mavis approached her grandson
an accountant, he knew computing well
being a prolific writer, Mavis had
thoughts of a book to sell.
She sat at her grandson’s computer
set at the program called Excel
and typed her poetry and prose
a line to every cell!
© mairi neil 2001

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My writing and teaching journey is proving worthwhile, despite constantly feeling ‘screen’ tired with a mind ticking over like a Geiger counter.

The craft of writing is what I enjoy the most; it is my comfort zone and I know this is why I love teaching creative writing because for a few hours a week I share my passion for words, the nuances, the flexibility, the chance to experiment, the fire of imagination.

In my experience, the most difficult aspect of writing is editing and rewriting to ‘get it right’ and it is the aspect too many writers put in the ‘too hard’ basket.

The field of writing is more competitive now than in the past and the proliferation of writing courses, celebrity authors and the need to compete with technological entertainment has had a profound change on the world of wordsmiths.

The U3A writing classes, people living longer and being active, e-publishing, print on demand– a whole range of things will impact on people like me.

But when dealing with publishers, printers, editors and even other writers  I remember the three Ps:–preparedness, politeness and persistence and just like the 70s I know the times are a changing and as a lifelong learner I’m determined to keep up.


When I finished my talk I played a short digital story I made a couple of years ago through the Center of Digital Storytelling in America. Their workshops were online and my introduction to international conferencing and webinars and the amazing possibilities of online teaching and digital storytelling.

It was a reality check on the skills I thought I had but a wonderful experience workshopping with people from countries as diverse as Jamaica, Scotland, Australia and a variety of American States! Many of them giggled when by the third week of checking in at 4.00am I admitted to appearing in my pyjamas – trendy as they were!

No appearing in pyjamas at Cheltenham though!

After the talk it was lovely to meet up with a past student and fellow writer and take a selfie; visit Ancient Greece and look forward to going home and reading the latest history of Mordialloc by local historians Leo Gamble and Graham Whitehead, a delightful thank you gift.

There are some perks in being Citizen of the Year – and the warm welcome and meeting the dedicated staff and volunteers at Cheltenham Library is definitely at the top of the list.

The Power of Words and the Process of Writing

“We ought to do good to others as simply as a horse runs, or a bee makes honey, or a vine bears grapes season after season without thinking of the grapes it has borne.”

Marcus Aurelius

This week we could do with someone like Marcus Aurelius. Considered one of the  five ‘good’ Roman emperors. The world at the moment is begging for more wisdom,  more compassion and humanity, especially from our so-called leaders!

At the moment to Australia’s north we have a humanitarian crisis and thousands of desperate asylum seekers floating to their death because Australia’s neighbours have decided to copy our government’s ‘stop the boats’ policy and ignore desperate people trying to reach a haven and start a new life  – even if risking death on the high seas.

These pictures from Reuters reminiscent of the hundreds fleeing Syria, Nigeria, Yemen, Sudan, Afghanistan, Iraq… I’m ashamed Australia has led the way in ignoring human rights and the UN Refugee Conventions.



International Odyssey
Mairi Neil

The trees cling to fragile foliage
like mothers reluctant to let
their children go.
The winter sun radiates
white light promising a day
of autumn glory…
It is Melbourne after all.

A blue sky pockmarked by fluffy clouds
reflecting a sea of shimmering blue
But beyond the benign bay
tragedy intrudes
fear and desperation meets
fear and distrust.

No need of Siren’s song
to lure the mariners to their death.
The monster from the deep is
dressed in political spin and
ideological hubris.
Christian charity in short supply.
To seek asylum deemed illegal

It is Australia after all.


Yes, some days it is almost impossible to find joy, but I have learnt over the years to search for  bliss and happiness. It’s too easy to fall into the abyss of depression, and a culture of anger or negativity. This is not about being a glass half full or glass half empty person. A  determination to seek happiness is hard work.

I look for beauty and joy in nature, comfort from family and friends and seek something, albeit how small, in my daily life, to balance sad reality and the examples of disrespect for human rights playing in a loop inside my head.

I also write poetry – well what I call poetry!

Writing is healing, is therapeutic, I can express a range of emotions. Words are something I can control, the process empowering!

Random Haiku

Mairi Neil

Sunset or sunrise
The glorious sky delights
Crops thrive in God’s glow

Age does not weary love
Nurturing flowers and shrubs
Investment in health

Sleepy country town
Yesteryear’s trades and dreams
No dust storm can erase

The road travelled
Towards dreams and memories
Needs replenishing

caroline's orchids 3

Unless living as a hermit, we are surrounded by sadness and tragedy. Everywhere people struggle with life’s challenges, coping with grief and loss – whether that’s illness, death, redundancy, broken relationships, homelessness, internal conflict, war…

My writing classes save my sanity.

Searching for Words and Meaning…
Mairi Neil

In writing class
we explore language
search for living words
lively words
alive words!
Volume high
sentencing each other
to work it out
or perhaps not –
Just listen, absorb and be

Explore the language
search for words
volume doesn’t matter
one sentence or two
from me or you
language exploration
job description
happiness prescription
research for a living
search for meaning
out-search a life

My sentence
writing in class…

And the media in this digital age provides a 24 hour news cycle that focuses on drama – nearly all tragic.

I seek and manipulate words to express feelings, make sense of people and events, release the pressure of inadequacy and hopelessness I often feel. Perhaps my words will make a difference, let others empathise, be a call to action for those in power and for all of us who put them there!

Here is a letter I wrote on behalf of the UAW and sent to Tanya Plibersek MP and a similar one to Julie Bishop, the Minister for Foreign Affairs.

The Hon Tanya Plibersek MP
Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs and International Development
Parliament House
Canberra ACT 2600

February 21st, 2015 Dear Shadow Minister,

We the undersigned thank you for showing compassion, and participating in rare bipartisan support when you and the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Hon Julie Bishop, spoke in parliament this week seeking clemency for Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukamaran. Indeed state sanctioned execution is wrong and we hope your appeals for mercy are successful.

However, can you now extend your compassion to the children Australia currently imprisons in detention centres –– children who have not committed any crime? Have you spoken with them or their families?

Will you encourage the Australian Labor Party to change their policy on those seeking asylum and condemn The Pacific Solution? Will you promise action after the horrific details revealed in the Australian Human Rights Commission Report tabled this week? The Forgotten Children – the report of the National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention 2014 provides strong evidence to support the observations of clinicians and others who have visited and worked at detention centres. Many gave evidence to the inquiry that children, the most vulnerable in our society are being abused.

The government has had this report since November 2014! When did the Opposition see this report? It is shameful when there is a refugee crisis worldwide that both major political parties have a solution that abrogates Australia’s responsibilities under the UN Conventions and prefer to score political points at the expense of human lives. It is not illegal to seek asylum.

Did you telephone and speak to the family of Reza Barati, the 23 year old man murdered while in our care? Have you read the Australian Senate committee report, which said the violence at Manus Island was ’eminently foreseeable’? If so, are you working towards changing your party’s policy? These people are not criminals and have not been convicted of any crime.

We are Australian mothers and grandmothers and expect our politicians and governments to value all human life, be consistent in their compassion and their dispensation of social justice. We never support the breach of federal human rights and anti-discrimination laws. Laws devised to protect the most vulnerable.

We look forward to a time when immigration and the global refugee crisis is discussed in a mature manner with an aim that Australia is part of the answer not part of the problem, to ensure desperate people seeking asylum are treated with respect and dignity. We look forward to more mature bipartisan discussions and decent decisions in the future.

Yours sincerely,

After Australia has had months of discussion about the death penalty for the two young men convicted of drug smuggling in Indonesia, the men, along with others were still executed.

Meanwhile across the world, the death sentence was pronounced on another young man in the United States guilty of the Boston Marathon atrocities. Crime and punishment is a conversation civilised societies need to have although definitive answers may never be found.

Boston 2013
Mairi Neil

Before the dust has settled
They sweep in
Keen eyes absorbing
The carnage
The rubble of
Broken lives and dreams

They look for clues
A chunk of backpack
A scrap of wire
A shard of glass
A twisted nail or
Deadly ball bearing

Acrid smoke and burning flesh
Pools of blood
And mangled bodies
A leg here, an arm there
Silence more shocking
Than anguished cries

No matter what they find
There are no answers to satisfy
Grieving family and friends
Mollified mothers, furious fathers
Stunned siblings all scream – Why?

The media frenzy crammed
With words and pictures
Pontificating politicians
Rabid extremists
Know-all academics
Red-necks and rationalists

We learn about anger
Frustration, pain and love
But most of all
We witness courage.

The motivation for such havoc
And hate, a well of horror
Too sad to contemplate.


This past week I’ve grieved over the loss of another workmate from the past and friend. At his funeral I saw and heard the effects of living and ageing on others, as we became reacquainted and reminisced. (One of the most important aspects of the celebration of a life no longer shining.)

My daughter too grieved over the tragic death of one of her friends – a much harder dimming of the light to accept because the young woman was only 27 years old.

And in amongst our struggle with personal pain, global tragedies already mentioned, and others in the far flung corners of the earth,  exploded in the media. Tragedies of such proportions, a mere flicking a switch on television or radio can’t turn off the tortured faces imprinted on hearts and minds.

There’s been a lot of weeping in our house in Mordialloc, not just for friends, but for humanity. We have no word in English for a parent who has lost a child but we have widow and widower. We have no special word for someone who has lost a special friend. Bereft, bereavement, grief – words used in a general way, but do they encapsulate the devastation, the permanent change in personality, how we really feel?

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)

I am privileged. I can participate in the funeral rituals I know to honour those I love and say farewell, but where is the individuality of death for the victims of bombs, and capsized refugee boats? Who will mourn. How do you make sense of the horrific images on our screens?

I have no answers, but in the future, when I have returned to the earth, ‘dust to dust, ashes to ashes’ and my name a mere memory, or even forgotten, perhaps my words will survive as a record of how I experienced life, what I observed, how I felt, how I cared.

 I’ll keep writing!


The pen is the tongue of the mind.


Friendship never Ends, Love Never Forgotten

the blues

Shadows of Sadness Sneak into Consciousness…
Mairi Neil

This blue day
I want to share with you
blue sky,
blue sea,
blue pen,
blue ink…
recording my thoughts.

Blue thoughts of you,
true-blue friend.
My blue bright and positive
a joyous feeling

But for you –

blue held a deeper sombre hue

Invading soul

I tried to convince you
of blue’s beauty
the promise of a new day
the cleansing of pain and fear
a sea of calming blue
not turbulent navy.

But, you took your blue pen
and scribbled your blueness
on blue paper
framed with blue flowers

What were you thinking
in the pre-dawn?

Facing the dark blue diesel…

Melbourne’s autumn
delivered a perfect blue sky
and the blue sea sparkled
mocking our tortuous despair

I forget-you-not true-blue friend.


Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow

Cancer is really hard to go through and it’s really hard to watch someone you love go through, and I know because I have been on both sides of the equation.

Cynthia Nixon

This year, as I tiptoe towards 5 years of being clear of breast cancer, the disease seems to haunt me. My dear friend Margaret lost her battle a few weeks ago, another friend is beginning the fight again after being 13 years clear, and I’ve reconnected with a past student because she wanted me to edit what she has written about her battle with depression after her diagnosis.

Sometimes it is hard to remain positive and I’m grateful I’ve been able to use my writing as therapy to work through a lot of negativity.

Rainbow in NZ leaving Oamaru

When I was diagnosed with breast cancer in September 2010 after my 57th birthday mammogram I was stunned into silence – and for anyone who knows me that is a rare state! I’ve been described as chatty, sociable, loquacious and vocal as well as the negative connotations – talkative and verbose!

You can’t plan or know how you will react when you receive a cancer diagnosis. Sometimes silence is the best option until you work out how to knuckle down and get on with the treatment – one day at a time.

Through the several operations, chemo and other treatment my mantra became “This too shall pass.”  I had to survive. My girls had already lost their Dad, it was too soon and they were too young, to grieve over their Mum!

Fortunately, I had friends who had survived. They were only too happy to support me, share their journey, and show me there was a future.

me and Diane

However, chemotherapy takes you to a place you never want to revisit, but you do get through it and recently I found this piece I wrote about my experience.

Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow

Mairi Neil

The rows of chairs along the walls face each other like a hairdressing parlour. They are reclining armchairs, not the swivel seats found in salons, but the clientele has a fixation on hair even if fragrant shampoos and conditioners are absent. Everyone aches to be transformed, hopes for some magic from the experts.

Unlike a trip to the hairdresser, wearing trackie pants and t-shirt to be beautified for a glad-rag event later in the evening, I take great care preparing for an all-day stint in the Chemo Room at Cabrini Hospital. Personal grooming necessary to feel good, clothes chosen to lighten spirits. A whiff of antiseptic with metallic and chemical strains assaults the nose and salivary glands, intensified by the pungency of rubber aprons and gloves. Amidst this proliferation of hospital smells, diligent nurses measure each person’s dose of poison for the day.

I’ve massaged copious moisturiser into skin and discharged several sprays of perfume to mask the clinical and industrial odours wafting around the armchairs, where even the white freshness of laundered pillowcases hint at harsh detergents.

Turban or scarf selected with care so I can pretend to be Maggie McNamara in Three Coins in the Fountain or Sophia Loren in Sunflower. Acetone from the black polish layered on brittle fingernails the night before still teases my nostrils. I hope the effort will save them from disintegration considering the treatment already wreaks destruction on my scalp.

If a real hairdressing salon, I’d sue, but I’m told bald is beautiful and a more common ‘hairstyle’ today than years ago. I’m a reluctant convert.
Nurses squeak a metal trolley over the gleaming waxed floor, a testimony to the courageous cleaners’ care. They too work in this dangerous environment, put themselves at risk of exposure. The waste receptacles of bright purple and yellow, scream danger as I am hooked up to the IV machines beeping loud and insistent as prescribed concoctions are programmed.

I murmur appreciation as the sweetness of mint-scented buttercream drifts from my feet where Marge, a regular volunteer, caresses and smooths. Closed eyes and a huge sigh tunes me out, as valium laced relaxants transport me to a far-off tropical beach. My destination any of the idyllic scenes depicted in the array of paintings decorating walls and softening the harsh reality.

Music flows from my iPod and John Denver reminds me Some Days are Diamonds and Some Days are Stone. Without thinking, I feel where my breast once was and tears well again. Marge senses me tense, encourages me to concentrate on the healing rhythm of her massage – or we could discuss the latest book her bookclub has chosen – have I read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society novel? A joyful book celebrating how reading brings people together, affirming messages about the strength of the human spirit and the value of relationships, even unexpected ones.

In the past, a trip to the local hairdressing salon referred to as a life-saver, but the Cabrini visits have actually saved my life. Each trip I’m challenged by the stories shared by other recipients: tips to adapt to loss, shared fears and tears, deliberate efforts to laugh, and always admiration at the dedication of staff.

Life will never return to what it was before breast cancer and I may never find the person I was, but surgery and chemicals triumphed to keep me alive. Hair regrows and protheses improve – I’ll just dig deeper for the diamond days.

One wonderful diamond day was the night the girls took me to see Neil Diamond. Lost in the music and flanked by Anne and Mary Jane, I swayed to Song Sung Blue and other numbers. The wonderful evening concluded and a complete stranger appeared at our sides. She said, ‘I’ve been watching the love between you three all night,’ she squeezed my shoulder, ‘you’re going to be all right.’


 There were many random incidents like that – complete strangers coming up to me in the street or in shops and telling me I’d come through the breast cancer and be stronger for it. Supportive friends visited prior to hospital visits to cheer me up, remind me that sisterhood is powerful!


Courtesy of the ABC, I won a lunch date with NZ cooking guru Annabelle Langbein. I may take her up on an invitation to visit her farm one day!


I returned to work and coped better after an 8 week stint with Encore, a wonderful program that helped me regain body strength and my equilibrium.


I walked the Larapinta Trail, camped in the desert, and reflected on my life and future.(The story of this journey still to be published.)  The last day in the desert I texted my daughter: “Yay! I can feel the wind through my hair.”

 My hair almost normal when I farewelled daughter, Anne on her travels to North America in July 2011. Twelve months still to be reached, but the worst was behind me – I hoped. More up-lifting news of  a student achievement award and receiving my master’s degree helped too!

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I ‘m praying nightly that my friend in NZ will come through her cancer’s return and recover quickly to enjoy life again. I pray too this depression and foreboding I feel will pass…


Celebration of Classes and Community facilitates Christmas Cheer and Goodwill!

‘If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.’

Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Read The Little Prince, a wonderful example of never giving up your dreams.

This quote and the great example of the author’s life so appropriate when I think of why I teach and the positive reinforcement approach I use in my writing classes at local community houses: Writing for Pleasure & Publication, Writing & Editing, Memoir to Manuscript and Life Stories & Legacies.

This past week as the classes end for the year I distributed anthologies I’d prepared of people’s work so they could see their writing published. At Godfrey Street we also produced a calendar – writing haiku and terse verse inspired by the work of the painting & drawing classes. The calendar is sold as a fundraiser. Most students were amazed at the quantity, quality, and range of their polished pieces. Looks of pride, accomplishment and joy abound when the writers see their names in print!

picture of anthologies 2014DSC_3443

It’s a labour of love preparing these books, extra work at home, but they are an invaluable historical record, as well as a wonderful legacy of the fantastic writers I’ve met over the years. When I read the poems and stories I hear the voice of the writer, picture them in class and often relive the lesson or social interaction. Many of the students return each year, others come back after a gap of years, others spend a term, a semester or a year and then move on – all leave an impression on me. When the receptionist at Mordialloc Neighbourhood House had an enquiry about what we do on a Monday morning,  ‘ what do they write about?’ she said, ‘I’m not sure, but they laugh a lot!’ And indeed we do. Our class is marvellous therapy for Monday morning blues. Nicknamed ‘Minnie Ha Ha’ by my parents when I was growing up, I’ve always believed in laughter as therapy and many doctors will agree!  It helps of course when you have people who enjoy a laugh with you. One of my students is unpredictable and delights us with the various props she will bring along to illustrate her homework!


Jan's folk art tree1jan's folk art tree 2

First and foremost I try to instil a passion for words  – for reading as well as writing. Encouragement to move from comfort zones to try different genres, write from the heart, start with stream of consciousness, but then go back and edit, rewrite, edit – even start from the beginning! A writer’s life is hard work.

Last Saturday, along with Glenice Whitting, I represented Mordialloc Writers’ and ourselves at the local end of the year author thank you hosted by Mentone Public Library. Local children’s author George Ivanov spoke about his recent success in gaining a publishing deal with Random House that has changed his life. George was generous and enthusiastic in sharing his long journey to success, his process of writing and tips and the knowledge he has garnered along the way.

The one message that came across loud and clear was EVERY writer, no matter how successful, must consult a good editor! Even if you are competent to edit your own work someone else needs to read the manuscript and give you an honest opinion, not so much about line editing such as spelling and grammar, but the all important structure! Do you need that paragraph, or chapter? The plot comes unstuck and doesn’t make sense in chapter six because those characters have never met before! Who are your audience because chapter seven is gruesome/too childish/airy fairy/romantic mush…? Do you need to lose chapter three because it slows the pace too much…

In a world where authors are taking control and self-publishing proliferates this is an important point to be mindful of and to follow. A friend and fellow writer Lisa Hill who has an award winning site reviewing books refuses to review self-published work for that very reason. Inundated with books to review from traditional publishers here and overseas, she gives their books priority because she knows they have at least gone through a professional editing process and that is how she chooses to use her precious reading time. More and more there are sites where authors can share their work and receive feedback and use these reviews to improve and promote their work, but they should do this process BEFORE releasing their work to the general public, to ensure their writing is the best quality it can be. The other alternative of course is to belong to a writers’ group and receive regular support and feedback. Mordialloc Writers’ Group has been helping authors this way for 20 years.

I founded the group because I wanted to meet others who loved writing and to have their support and critique. A couple of stories were commercially published and I’d started a writing course by correspondence, but craved the company of people who understood what it was like to have characters and ideas taking over thought processes and lying awake at 3.00am figuring out plots and storylines! At a local exhibition of my children’s poetry a man with a look of incredulity on his face, said, ‘ how does your mind work?’ I’m still working out whether it was a backhanded compliment or a suggestion I needed help! The company of fellow creatives a great solace.

I love history and mythology, but don’t write fantasy or horror. Most of my short stories are character driven. To have the reader believe in your characters and engage emotionally and care about their journey, always my starting point. I want to write about ordinary working people; celebrate their lives, struggles and triumphs – the cliched ‘human condition.’ Not surprising when I grew up with a father who quoted ‘our Rab’ daily especially these verses from Address To The Unco Guid, Or The Rigidly Righteous, 1786:

Then gently scan your brother man,
Still gentler sister woman;
Tho’ they may gang a kennin wrang,
To step aside is human:
One point must still be greatly dark, –
The moving Why they do it;
And just as lamely can ye mark,
How far perhaps they rue it.

Who made the heart, ’tis He alone
Decidedly can try us;
He knows each chord, its various tone,
Each spring, its various bias:
Then at the balance let’s be mute,
We never can adjust it;
What’s done we partly may compute,
But know not what’s resisted.

Deconstructing the message, this poem celebrates what I love about writing and writers – the insight and ability to express the experience of the flaws and foibles of human nature, but plead for tolerance and understanding. Put yourself in another’s shoes, look through my eyes…

Considering the state of the world at the moment and tragedies such as Australia experienced yesterday when a very angry and disturbed man decided on a suicidal path for publicity and innocent people were caught up in the turmoil, the world needs writers to dig deeper, comment, suggest alternative views, explore what it means to be human and how we do, should or could relate to the world we live in, and the possibilities of what happens afterwards.

I don’t want to live in the kind of world where we don’t look out for each other …
I want to touch the heart of the world and make it smile.
Charles de Lint

As I reflect on the year, I also reflect on my writing journey. Each year I strive to improve by doing professional development, and each year I realise how far I have to go! Here is the first piece of writing I was actually PAID for (if it was today I would have taken a picture of the cheque with my phone, it’s such a rarity!), published in The Weekly Times, a Victorian newspaper that had a circulation of 125,00 in its heyday – big numbers considering the population at the time, but now I think it is mainly read online, like so many others.

I was inspired by a character of course – a tram driver well-known to public transport users in Melbourne in the 70s and 80s. A man I observed, one night a week for a term, when I travelled out to Stonnington after work for night classes in creative writing with Gerald Murnane and John Powers.

A Ticket To Vaudeville

Pierre waited at the depot for the duty inspector to allocate the routes. Leaning against a stationary tram, he grinned at the friendly banter of the milling trammies, the conversations reflecting the varying backgrounds of the multicultural crews. I’m lucky, he mused. I have good health despite nearing sixty. I have a job I enjoy, although I still get confused with figures. My friends are loyal, and most of all… I am free.

Dewdrops glistened like beads of sweat on tram doors, tram windows, even uniforms and Pierre rubbed his bony hands together like firesticks, willing the sun to melt the hazy early morning mist and produce another glorious autumn day for Melbourne. A smell drifted past and Pierre sniffed, contorting his large hooked nose to imprison the aroma forever. Freshly baked bread and the fragrance of certain cheeses reminded him of his hometown Toulouse, in southern France. He smiled and shook his head.

I tell Banija not to refer to Yugoslavia as home, yet here am I doing the same thing although I’ve lived here half my life in peace and freedom , away from Gestapo jackboots. Why I’d probably get lost in Toulouse now…

Jack’s strident Australian voice shattered Pierre’s reverie. ‘Come on dopey Pierre. We’re on Route 67. Shake yer gangly leg, we leave in five minutes!’ Gathering his money float and bag of tickets, Pierre followed Jack to the empty tram. Performing his Rudolph Nureyev imitation he leapt aboard, smiling to an appreciative audience of laughing trammies awaiting their allocation. ‘Au Revoir Pierre,’ they chorused. Pierre laughed too, the sound banishing memories of war-torn France from surfacing.

Tram Number 67 trundled through the city streets filling rapidly with peak hour commuters. Pierre said, ‘Gude Morning’ to each passenger as he collected fares. There were some familiar faces. He punched their tickets before they spoke. Sally blushed yet again when he commented on her beauty. The hospital matron giggled like a schoolgirl when he kissed her hand with exaggerated Gallic gallantry. The suited business brigade hid their faces in newspapers to avoid Pierre’s piercing blue eyes peering over his bifocals. A mischief maker, Pierre rustled their papers, pestered them to join him in song. Ignoring their embarrassed silence, he rejoiced, clicking his puncher rhythmically, ‘Money, money, money eez all I want…’

Schoolboys bunched in the doorway sniggered at the ‘loony conductor’. ‘I won’t deeezapont youz ma frens.’ Pierre called as he clicked the last ticket. Prancing down the aisle with practised ease, he pulled a yellow yo-yo from his pocket and flicked it in front of astonished passengers. ‘Flash those concession cards, eh boys! You think I’m an old fool but I do my job well!’

The tram shuddered to a halt at Flinders Street Station. Pierre bowed with a flourish to the departing throng, satisfied most customers left smiling. ‘Roll up! Roll up! Take your seats for the next show,’ he announced before the tram chugged onwards. While collecting fares, Pierre began his ritual of greeting each passenger with crazy antics and candid comments. Most responded with surprised chuckles.

At the end of the aisle, Pierre turned to see some downcast faces. He pushed his hat sideways, twisted his angular face into a comical, shape, pursed his lips and whistled, ‘Let’s Twist Again’. Weighed down with his satchel, he gyrated awkwardly in the confined space. Another stop. More giggling commuters alighted. A couple climbed aboard. The tram trembled before proceeding.

Pierre pretended to be Tarzan, swinging through the length of the tram using the ceiling straps. Two ladies convulsed with laughter couldn’t ask for a ticket. Pierre pulled off his hat, threw it in the air, bowed slightly, then caught it expertly with his balding head. ‘At your service mademoiselles.’

The tram turned into Toorak Road for the final leg of the journey. Pierre plonked into a vacant seat. Bathed in a beam of sunlight, he confessed,

‘Ladeez and Chentlemen, remember these words from Pierre. Smile and the world smiles with you, cry and you cry alone.’


Health, Research and Giving Back

Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick.  Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.  ~Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor, 1977

How true! And after my sojourn with breast cancer I’m determined to try and keep my travels in the ‘kingdom of the well’. However, life can be a lottery: travelling on public transport, or teaching in community houses as I do, contact with the public can mean a random sneeze or cough transfers bacteria or virus. Then there’s genetics –– everyday it seems scientists discover links explaining why and how illness or disease occurs and whether family inheritance and/or environmental factors determines which passport you hold for the passage through life, and whether you can change your ticket. In the developed world, most of us are fortunate to choose our own lifestyle and our choices impact on our health.

Most people understand the value and importance of medical research and probably all know someone who has benefited from ground-breaking discoveries, many of which save lives, improve the quality of lives, and lead to huge advances in healthcare and public wellbeing. Various sciences need to be encouraged, developed, supported and sustained within our universities if medical research is to be advanced. There is an ever-growing patient demand for more effective treatments and care pathways to improve our health and wellbeing, and clinical science contributes greatly to ensuring the effectiveness of clinical care, but human guinea pigs are often necessary.

Almost ten years ago, I began volunteering for various research projects at Swinburne University of Technology and Melbourne University. The majority of the projects carried out by PhD students and their supervisors, and most related to Alzheimer’s disease, dementia and ageing, although there were some related to arthritis. Putting my hand up for a variety of relatively non-intrusive tests is not entirely altruistic –– with a family history of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, dementia, arthritis and cancer –– I want to encourage clinicians and research-active physicians to evaluate the nature of the information that they are provided with from academia and apply it to improve current practices.

Even before I was diagnosed with breast cancer I had joined Lifepool, Australian women finding answers,  because my paternal aunt had a radical mastectomy in 1962. I lived with the fear/premonition that I was at risk. Unfortunately, there was no data collected on my aunt to be useful in my case. Breast cancer is assumed to be passed on through the maternal line, but it would have been interesting to investigate if there was a genetic or lifestyle link. Therefore, since my own diagnosis, the data they collect about me takes on greater significance. I have two daughters –– if there is the slightest chance researchers can prevent them developing breast cancer, I want to be part of that solution.

On Friday, I agreed to take part in a study exploring changes in blood flow in the brain of people of different ages using a new technique of inhaling carbon dioxide in room air. The project, designed to help researchers see how the brain changes with age, could lead to greater understanding of age-related cognitive decline in memory and thought processes. An MRI scan measured changes in blood flow in the brain while I performed finger tapping tasks, and then briefly breathed the carbon dioxide mixed with room air. There were many safeguards to this experimental research, a long checklist for suitability and a nurse and doctor nearby. The process took three hours because of the necessity of blood pressure and heart monitoring before and after the MRI, plus cognitive computer tests, breathing monitoring and an ultrasound of the cerebral artery.

Other trials, investigating memory, that I’ve taken part in over the years, involved green tea, special diets, herbal pills and numerous computer cognitive exercises and mobility tests. I’ve had caps sprouting electrodes gelled to my head, requiring a shampoo (but not set) before I left the building, and fasting and blood tests along with substituting different foods in my diet and keeping a record of food and drink consumed. All in the name of science with a lot of trust needed between researchers and participants. The other morning, I changed into partial ‘scrubs’ and through observation and conversation became part of a very different world for a few hours, reminding myself that all experiences are ‘grist to the mill’ for writers.


Lying in the MRI scanner, head encased in a plastic helmet to ensure I kept still, I listened as the machine grunted its way through the steps to capture images. The ear plugs limited the sound, but the vibrations and persistent grinding could not be ignored, even with a David Attenborough nature DVD to distract me. I managed to suppress claustrophobia and cope with the experience by letting my mind wander and my imagination run wild. That overactive imagination criticised in childhood does come in handy!

I reminded myself that being my father’s daughter, I could easily develop Alzheimer’s disease; this research is personal. My Dad developed insulin-dependent diabetes in his 50s, suffered minor strokes in his 70s and was diagnosed with dementia and in a nursing home by age 76, where he lived for the last seven years of his life.

Writing about his experience and my feelings and fears, and ultimately about Dad’s life to try and reclaim the father I loved from the shell of a man he became, helped me survive those seven years. They were tough emotional years because my husband, John was diagnosed with asbestosis at the same time and told his lungs were so bad that it would be unwise to operate to correct the effects of a broken neck from a car accident. He’d have to live with the pain and limitations of a severe curve at the top of his spine, which of course impacted on his deteriorating lungs.

John in his inimitable style came out of the orthopaedic surgeon’s office saying, ‘I have some good news and some bad news. He can make me straight, but there is more than a 50% chance I will be dead straight, and he doesn’t want to take the risk.’

My mouth went dry, my whole body trembled and I clung to John, the pain of his disappointment and my fear of losing him melding to make us an immobile statue of anguish, until the sadness and sobs I had suppressed over the months of hospital and doctor visits, exploded. A scene played out in many hospital waiting rooms. The future too bleak to contemplate. The two men I loved the most disintegrating, slowly, painfully, inevitably before my eyes: Dad mentally and John physically.

A few months after accepting there was no operation to help John, researchers in England devised a new method of operating on the neck not requiring entering through the chest wall. By this time John’s health had deteriorated too far for any operation to be successful or I would have done what countless others have done to find a cure, or save a loved one. Disregard expense and the upheaval and travel overseas seeking the best help available.

Instead, we devoted our days and nights to quality family time, making sure John always had something to look forward to. Stay focused on the future and take one day at a time, our mantra. Writing, my salvation –– I had to earn money and teaching writing helped pay the bills, but it also helped quiet the mind and work through a roller coaster of emotions. It enabled me to keep life in perspective and function each day as a mother –– protecting and nurturing John and our two daughters daily priorities. Unfortunately, assuaging the troubled mind does not always translate to looking after the body and on reflection several health crises, even before breast cancer, could have been avoided, if I had taken better care of myself. Hindsight a wonderful gift!

Two stories were published in Together Alone, poems and other stories for the Anti-Cancer Council’s Daffodil Day, Text Publishing, 1998. One was about John, from his point of view. The Daffodil Day arts awards have become a fixture each year giving a voice to those who have been touched by cancer, either personally, or through knowing someone travelling that road. I’ve been fortunate to win several of their awards for poetry and short stories over the years –– a sad reflection in one way that I’ve witnessed so many people struggle with ill health, but also uplifting because I’ve seen people survive and get on with their lives.

A poem I wrote about Dad was published in Memory Weaving, An Anthology of Dementia Journeys, Poetica Christi Press, 2014. This anthology developed from Manningham Council awarding a Community Development Grant to Wordsmiths, the local poetry group, to explore the issue of ageing, and families touched by dementia. After a series of workshops they sought contributions from the wider community and my poem, and the poem of one of my students were chosen to be included. What an amazing project, weaving the threads and experiences of so many lives to remind us that being human is not just a list of achievements or solely defined by what you do, but a journey creating memories of loss and love and individual histories deserving of being recorded.