Does travel broaden the mind or just weary the body?
After 96 days away, I returned to Mordialloc on July 4th, and echoing Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, I agree ‘there’s no place like home.’
Certainly, no place as comfortable as your own bed and pillow! However, unlike Dorothy, returning home was more than just clicking my heels together.
The flight from London via Abu Dhabi entailed 24 hours travelling, including a two-hour stopover in the United Arab Emirates. Waiting time appeared shorter with increased security checks, a long walk to the departure gate for Melbourne flight, and a welcome cold beer and chat to a fellow passenger met on the first leg of my flight.
Laura lives in Melbourne too, loves books and writing and her journey to the UK, to trace family roots in Northern Ireland, mirrored some of my own experiences.
My journey longer and more convoluted, fulfilling a teenage dream to travel the Trans-Siberian Railway and on reaching Britain visit places in my birth country not visited before.
I cover the islands of Orkney and Shetland and spent more time exploring Aberdeen and Edinburgh than on previous visits. I caught up with friends and relatives rarely seen, some never met – one cousin last encountered in 1973, plus a dear friend from high school who came to Australia as an exchange student from Japan!
I discover Colchester, Barnes and Richmond – places near London never explored the five previous sojourns to England – the last visit twenty years ago.
Another world ago – John was alive, I was younger and my girls were children …
This solo trip could not be more different from the outset. The luggage tag a girlfriend gave me partly true!
But unlike past travels I not only planned the journey but hoped the process, the places visited, the people met and paying attention to the details and events along the way would help me rediscover a joy in writing – not just recording or reporting.
I need to discover a purpose more than the journey or destination.
I want to write the way I encourage my students to write.
I hope to produce something worth reading.
I want to leave a legacy for my daughters.
I need to know if random notes, fragments of thoughts, dreams, ideas and triggered memories could mean something and give meaning to not only this journey but others taken.
For some time now I’ve felt a fraud, exhorting others to polish and publish their writing while mine could not even light a fire under kindling, let alone interest a reader.
I needed to regain enthusiasm and originality. I needed the energy and desire to finish pieces of writing gathering dust and silverfish – or have the courage to throw it out and set my sights on another way to earn a living and pass the time!
What is the Creative Process?
The creative process is always a journey into the unknown but my imagination and writing seemed stale and predictable, mystery and miracles absent – much like my life, a little voice whispered.
Something had to change, I had to change and perhaps a term away from teaching and going ‘on the road’ to mark off more of the ‘bucket list’ compiled since John’s death and my mastectomy, the catalyst needed.
As I stare at the scribbles in notebooks, browse through the thousands of photos and reflect on the past few weeks I wonder if it is enough to reignite my passion and confirm the advantages of travel … quantity is not necessarily quality!
At the moment jet lag and injuries from a fall in my last two weeks of travel tend to go with the weary body rather than broadened mind or successful return of writing mojo!
However, a couple of more visits to my local osteopath should sort out the physical muscles and a few more nights of decent sleep and days of walking the dog will banish the jet lag.
Today I managed to type up a page of notes and put the words into some sort of structure – retracing my steps through the words on the page I recall exactly where I was and how I felt.
It may make sense to others who travel the same questioning road.
A Pause Pondering Purpose
Mairi Neil May 2017
I choose a window table,
jam jar posie centrepiece beckoning,
the desire for scones and tea awakened
by the warm comforting aromas
drifting from a steam-filled kitchen.
The cafe noise melts and murmuring voices
from a nearby radio stir memories…
family stories merge with tales absorbed
from the relics of the ancient past
embedded in the cobbled streets walked,
the castle ruins explored, and churches
of monumental proportions visited.
The sea a grey turmoil through misty glass,
eyes imagine selkies safeguarding those
who use this highway from the islands.
So many of your countrymen seafarers –
my ancestors and your descendants.
Did your eyes focus on a distant vessel?
Did you long to leave the confines of land
or did the terror of history leave no choice?
A fat and fuzzy bumblebee attracted to the flowers
flits purposefully from Daisy to Bluebell…
perhaps that’s how it is for us all –
our destiny mapped from birth.
What explanation for my innate restlessness?
The emotion stirred by the cry of gulls,
emerging from patchwork clouds
to wheel, wander, whoosh above?
They bob and land like origami kites
captive to the wind and unpredictable sea
as sailing ships of old and ferries of today.
Salt water always the lifeblood of islands,
feeding and clothing islanders, providing jobs,
this place no different except for its past
fraught with fear, fights, flights, and elusive freedom…
Peopled by Norsemen, Gaels, Celts,
Anglo-Saxons, Spanish and more…
Strong tea melts buttered scone,
the warmth of my mother’s memory
and the radio’s jaunty Scottish tune
conspire to make me smile.
Who am I? What made me, me?
The chasing of ancestors for answers
does this path have purpose?
There are lots of Icebreaker Exercises available on the Internet. Questions and games for almost every situation you can imagine – I think I’ve tried them all over the fifteen plus years I’ve been teaching. How do you come up with something original and relevant?
Like all good writing teachers, (indeed writers), I donned a pirate hat and cobbled together ten questions from a day of research. Writers must be good listeners and observers. They must know themselves and others so they can create believable characters.
From a lesson by Annie Dillard, the great writer of literary nonfiction, Alexander Chee, her student learnt:
You need to turn that attention to yourself. Research yourself… what do you think you can write that you couldn’t write before?… How do I use it in fiction?… I would start next, for me, with what feels real out of what I want to invent. Using your life in fiction doesn’t have to mean only replicating it. That I call the mistake of verisimilitude…
The students could use whatever they gleaned (and it may or may not have been ‘the truth’) to write a mini-bio, a short story, a poem, a newspaper report, magazine column – any piece of writing, any format or genre, from the interviewee and share with the class and at home perhaps write their own bio, or produce another piece of writing triggered by work in class.
If you could live in any sitcom on TV past or present, which one would it be? Why? What character would you be?
What do you look for in a friend?
Describe the best dessert you have ever had? When was the last time you ate it?
It’s Saturday morning. What’s the first thing you do when you wake up? Is there a routine to this day?
If you were to get a tattoo, what would it say or what would the graphic be? And where would you put it on your body?
Why do you live where you do? How long have you lived there?
If you could have been told one thing that you weren’t told when you were a teenager, what would you like to have heard? Why?
If you were to write a book what would it be about? Do you have a title?
If you could be any animal in the world for 24 hours, which animal would you be? Why?
Name your three favourite smells, why are they your favourite and what is it they evoke, or what memories do they trigger?
Experiment with the information you have learned – after you have written a factual piece is there anything to trigger your imagination that you could turn into a fictional story?
1. What sitcom character would I be?
Years ago on the ABC, there was a BBC comedy The Good Life. A couple decided to live off the grid and make their suburban house and garden “green” and environmentally sustainable. The good life equating with the simple life.
The blurb says:
A milestone birthday convinces Tom Good to make a change. He talks his wife, Barbara, into giving up the so-called rat race and joining him in a life of simplicity and self-sufficiency. They convert their suburban home into a farm, planting crops in the back garden and bringing in pigs and chickens (including a rooster they name Lenin). The new use of their property comes as something of a shock to their very proper neighbours, Margo and Jerry Leadbetter. A social climber of the first order, Margo can’t bear having chickens roaming the back garden. She’ll have to put up with it, though, since Tom, despite his desire for self-sufficiency, can’t bring himself to kill the chickens.
It aired on TV from 1975-1977
Tom (Richard Briers) turned 40 and in a midlife crisis gave up his job as a designer of the plastic toys that came free with breakfast cereal. (This was really big in the 60s and 70s and as one of six children I can remember having to take turns and arguing over the toys! I guess they were the precursors to the plastic junk given away with McDonalds’ Happy Meals!)
His wife, Barbara (Felicity Kendal), goes along with his aim for sustainable living – their house is paid for and one could say the risks in a change of lifestyle were minimal. However, the conflict and comedy occur when Barbara and Tom continual challenge their friends and neighbours Margo (Penelope Keith) and Jerry (Paul Eddington) and confront their wasteful ways while, as it happens, they often have to rely on them for help!
The self-sufficient lifestyle involves lawns becoming allotments for food not flowers, chickens, and pigs (Pinky and Perky), a goat, and a rooster named Lenin. They generate their own electricity using the animal waste byproduct methane, attempt making their own clothes, have success with homemade wine, and barter and sell produce to bypass and ignore capitalism’s monetary system!
Needless to say, many of the episodes are hilarious.
Both couples are childless and the political events of the 1970s are used as an effective backdrop because as Bob Dylan warned ‘the times they are a’changing’.
I admired what ‘Tom and Barbara’ tried to do; the show awakened in me, a real interest in the environment and sustainable living in suburbia.
Barbara described as –
… a normal, middle-class housewife when the series begins. While she sometimes wilts under Tom’s determined and dominant nature, her sharp tongue puts her on an equal footing. She is the heart of the enterprise, while Tom’s engineering brain designs and builds what they need. She yearns for luxuries but her own determination to succeed, with Tom’s single-minded persuasion, keeps her going.
She was feminine but feisty, practical and independent, compassionate and kind, a loyal friend and well-read and witty, but most of all she had a great sense of humour. What’s not to like?
In many ways, The Good Life was prescient, if not revolutionary – over the years I’ve embraced the mantra reduce, reuse and recycle. I helped make mud bricks for my brother’s Mt Evelyn house, I grow veggies, have solar panels and a water tank. I believe in limiting my footprint on the earth – thank you to Barbara, my inspiration!
2. What do I look for in a friend?
Many qualities such as – loyalty, honesty, trustworthiness, understanding, compassion, reliability, discretion, support, a good listener, a sense of fun and Monty Pythonesque sense of humour.
I have been and still am blessed with dear friends – special people I love dearly.
3. What is my favourite dessert and when was the last time I ate it?
My taste in food has changed over the years although my penchant for sweets probably hasn’t. Like most women, I’ll own up to being a chocoholic – hormones the excuse!
My most recent encounter of dining out was at Mordy HQ and always, if Sticky Date Pudding is on the Seniors Menu, it gets my vote. This dessert, all the more delicious because I never make it at home. The same goes for my second choice – cheesecake – there’s something yummy about cooked cheesecake.
When I reflect, there are two instances when dessert has stood out and in both cases, the delights were one-off occasions so memorable they’re worth writing about.
On our first cruise as a family, we went to the South Pacific on P&O’s Fair Princess in 1997. One special evening, the dining crew marched in bearing Bombe Alaska. The lights were dimmed, the line of waiters glowed. A magnificent line of red and gold-speckled waistcoats on mainly Indonesian and Filipino waiters, their white shirt sleeves stark on stretched arms holding trays aflame.
The delicious dessert of meringue, fluffy sponge and lemon sorbet folded through vanilla ice-cream, studded with juicy raspberries is doused in brandy and set alight just before serving!
A tasty spectacle indeed. Checking the available recipes on the webit seems various fruits and other ingredients and methods can be substituted but they all agree the ‘bonfire’ at the end is what makes it great!
The other dessert that lives in memory is a meal in London, in a French restaurant, in 1973. My girlfriend, Nobuko worked as a Japanese Air Stewardess for British Airways and we caught up in London. The two pilots on her flight took us out to dinner and the waiter cooked the Crêpes Suzette in front of us at our table. Again this became a once-in-a-lifetime spectacle entailing flames as Grand Marnier and cognac were heated to lift the basic pancake recipe into the realms of the sublime!!
4. Saturday mornings, I usually have no timetable to obey.
No classes to teach, no set time to be anywhere. Luxury. A relaxing breakfast which may extend into a pyjama day if I don’t have to be anywhere or no visitors are expected. In the days when The Agenewspaper was delivered, I would have done the crossword but now I might spend time online, check Facebook or maybe curl up in a chair and read, wander the garden, sit at the computer and write. Occasionally, I may even do housework!
5. If I ever got a tattoo…
A highly unlikely event, but I’d have a tiny butterfly above my right breast. This would represent transformation because I’ve had to rethink body image since a mastectomy and I must admit I miss my cleavage.
6. I’ve lived in Mordialloc since 1984
I live in the first, and only house, I’ve ever owned. John and I chose Mordialloc because we both loved the sea. It was easy to fall in love with 21 Albert Street – an old Edwardian weatherboard with character features, including leadlights at the front door.
Crossing the threshold for the first time, I sensed its history but also a benign and calming spirit living within the walls. It became a much-loved home – the girls know no other and in 2002, John died here, in his own bed.
So many precious memories that I’ll leave behind when I too am ‘carried out in a box’.
7. What knowledge or advice would I have liked to hear as a teenager?
Born into a Scottish Presbyterian family in the 1950s with a strong Protestant work ethic and not yet influenced by the Women’s Liberation Movement, I wish I’d heard that thinking of yourself does not necessarily mean you are selfish.
Guilt, strict sexual mores, and the Protestant work ethic all influences hard to shake! Add the workload expected of mothers when I got married and still out-dated ideas of ‘good wives’ sacrifice and personal denial almost to martyrdom status seemed built into the DNA!
8. If I write a book about myself…
I’d build on the thousands of words I have already written about my journey to recover from breast cancer. I walked part of the Larapinta Trail not long after I finished chemotherapy to prove to myself life may be different but I still had physical health and strength. It will be called I Feel the Wind in my Hair…
9. If I could be any animal for 24 hours
I’d swap places with Aurora,the family dog. She is loved unconditionally, is totally spoiled with absolutely no responsibilities – nearing thirteen years of age she sometimes forgets to bark fiercely at passersby…
… and she takes the giant part of the Queen-sized bed.
10. My three favourite smells
Favourites hard to pick because there are many evocative smells I love. However, fresh bread baking sets my olfactory glands working overtime (as does roasting meat) because it reminds me of Mum in the kitchen baking her soda bread, pancakes, scones, Sunday dinner. Yum!
Then there’s the smell of freshly laundered sheets. Whether it is the lemon-scented washing powder and clothes conditioner or just the wonderful fresh air impregnated in cotton, the experience of slipping between fresh sheets absolute heaven.
The other smell is unmistakeable eucalyptus – a pungent reminder of the native trees in my garden and also Vicks Vaporub. The medicinal ointment a reminder of the times during childhood when I’ve been nurtured because of a cold, or when I nursed my daughters.
Another vivid memory is touring Angel Island, a former immigration detention centre and now a state park in San Francisco Bay. Careering around the island on a scenic train and smelling the remnants of a eucalyptus forest planted by an Australian made me homesick!
Variety Is the Spice of Life
The students interviewed and then introduced each other with sitcom characters ranging from Downtown Abbey’s feminist Isobel and traditionalist Maggie, naughty Brooke in Bold & The Beautiful, Hot Lips Houlihan in MASH, Seinfeld, a reporter or news reader on a current affair show, Julie from Happy Days, the Goldbergs’ neighbour who plays too loud music, the narrator of Wonder Years, Rachel in Friends and Elana in The Vampire Diaries.
Everyone on the same page when it came to qualities expected from friends: loyalty, sense of humour, discretion, non-judgemental, has empathy, trustworthy, good listener, caring, reliable, warm and loving, shows sincerity, respect, has similar interests, reliable and adventurous.
The favourite desserts revealed sweet tooths: plenty of chocoholics, especially dark chocolate, gooey brownies but also date scones. A strong desire for English Trifle with ‘all the trimmings’ (a missed gift from a friend sadly deceased), homemade apple pie and cream, fresh tropical fruit and cream, chocolate mousse, a chocolate-flavoured sundae from ‘Maccas’, homemade pavlova piled high with fruit and cream, and chocolate fondue.
Most people indulged their dessert desires recently because of Christmas but one unlucky writer is now lactose intolerant so fondues no more!
Cats and dogs top the list for animals to be: students wanted to see the world from a dog’s perspective for 24 hours and understand how they interpret human emotions and moods, being a cat would be interesting, or a lion and be leader of the pack, perhaps having the fecundity of a rabbit; a tiny dog is loved and spoiled, dogs have fun, cats get to explore places and are well fed, they’re astute and can work out humans. Someone wanted to be a lioness because they are courageous, proud, and protective.
The topics chosen to write about varied: a book to help young people understand mental illness, My Melbourne – a book about Aussie life from the 1930s onwards, an autobiography called A Life of Changes, a memoir, family history, autobiography, So She Did, detective stories for children including a clever, funny dog, an autobiography with lots of pop culture references Big Brother in the Suburbs – aka 1984, book of travel experiences, Lauren’s Storybook, Eli’s Story…
People lived in a variety of settings:family homes, with parents, daughters, alone, near public transport, near the sea, in retirement villages, some were long term residents, others recent arrivals. There were houses, apartments and units, gardens and nearby parks or foreshore, ordinary views or scenic views.
The exercise was a great ice-breaker and getting to know you exercise.
It encouraged observation, listening skills, perception, and attention to detail. At home, there will be plenty of reflection, perhaps research, and maybe the start of longer stories, a poem or novel and/or character sketches.
Information on real life people has been shared, realistic settings and a reminder to include the senses, particularly the sense of smell when writing.
The sense of smell a powerful memory booster and the range of evocative smells included: gourmet cheese and chocolate, flowers like rosemary, scented candles, Estee Lauder perfume, the smell of husband/lover, the rose Black Beauty, food cooking, roast meat especially rabbit, which was eaten a lot after the war, Paco Rabanne aftershave, Chanel Number 5, yellow roses, lavender, Daphne, roast chicken, sausages cooking, Dad’s deodorant, new packaging when stuff ordered from E-Bay, garlic in food, paprika, lavender oil, boyfriend’s aftershave, family dog, jasmine scented candle…
I’m looking forward to listening to the homework – these are exercises anyone can do, you don’t need a partner – interview yourself!
Please feel free to share anything you’re inspired to write because as Annie Dillard’s student noted –
You know the least about your life precisely because, for living in it, you might barely notice it.
Remember we are pirates, so let’s share the treasures unearthed…
The signs of Christmas start in earnest mid-November and by early December a walk around Mordialloc or any Melbourne suburb provides an array of decorations and lights. Most workplaces and shops join in the festive spirit although for some it’s the bare minimum.
At Mordialloc Neighbourhood House the children in childcare have fun for weeks before Christmas making decorations and gifts. Their efforts reminding me of my own childhood – Mum teaching us how to make clusters of ‘bells’ using the metallic bottle tops from milk bottles. At Christmas time these tops were silver, gold, red and green.
In school, we used coloured paper squares and yards of crepe paper to make lanterns, cards and streamers. Store bought decorations a rarity as well as a novelty.
This year, Mordialloc sports a tree and rubbish bins have been parcelled in either red or green – just as well many of the residents celebrate and decorate their houses or we might not know it is the season to be merry and bright.
Frankston puts us to shame with their display and a Christmas Market which was very popular the day I visited.
My friend, Barbara lives in the retirement village Richfield and from the entrance hall to every floor level the residents leave you in no doubt it is Christmas.
For many of the older generation, it is important to keep up with tradition, especially the sending of cards, something younger people (and those who are thrifty) are giving away now the digital age has arrived. E-cards, chatty emails or phone calls ensuring the postman’s bag is lighter each year.
I have two friends who still include a page-long newsy letter summarising their year with their card.
An octogenarian friend who likes to buy individual cards ‘a little bit different’ was saved from perhaps offending some friends when she reread the front message before popping them in the envelope:
I have to say I found her error funny and wouldn’t have been offended if I’d received one of the five she had already written. Increasing consumerism and hype adding more than a hint of truth to the message.
However, also a warning sign as eyesight deteriorates to make sure to always put on reading glasses!
Mordialloc Christmas 2016
I smell the promise of a warm day –
pray it’s not a swelter
that silences magpie and butcherbird carols,
traditional birdsong reminders
that this is a time to celebrate…
a walk around the neighbourhood
reveals rainbows dancing in the gardens
jasmine, and honeysuckle embracing over fences
as devoted lovers and bougainvillaea and wisteria
just being neighbourly
roses and camellias peep through pickets
or stand proudly as perfumed sentinels
to announce the arrival of summer.
Agapanthus flutter and geraniums gush
daily floral tonics to banish gloom
and as if Mother Nature needed help,
colourful lights and decorations dazzle –
solar-powered necklaces strung under eaves
and threaded through trees. Seasonal symbols
to twinkle like stars in the evening hush
these jewels are joined by merry icons
dressed for another hemisphere
where ice and snow crackle underfoot…
I have a vision of my doppelgänger treading
a neighbourhood on the other side of the world
walking streets lit by a muted sun and
shadowed by thick clouds and skeleton trees
pigeon or cuckoo the only birds mad enough
to join little robin redbreast and
hustle for crumbs and kindness
what a miracle is Mother Earth!
How resiliently determined her human children
whether melting under a hot sun or shivering
in a fall of snow, many communities celebrate
Christmas their way…
the promise of a warm day permeates the air
warnings of a meltdown ignored
a meditative walk invites gratitude…
the reason for the season a childhood gift
bringing joy to the world of adult angst
The book is filled with highlights from her life, especially the years teaching yoga and meditation. Her friend Mark, a teacher and librarian helped capture this amazing journey by recording and typing interviews with Julie whose health has deteriorated in recent years.
Julie was given my name by a friend who published her first book. She knew I had published the last few Mordialloc Writers’ anthologies to save the group money.
My passion for enabling people to tell their stories has led to editing and book publishing. Helping other writers like Julie meant embracing digital technology – it’s been an interesting ride with plenty more hurdles I’m sure!
I have to thank my daughter, Mary Jane for producing a cover to the exact specifications Julie wanted – simplicity itself!
However, to witness Julie’s joy and pride holding the finished product of her labour, and see a queue of devotees lining up for her signature, a wonderful reward.
The celebration of Julie Wentworth: A Life Shared was held in the Baptist Church hall where Julie held her Yoga and Meditation classes.
One day, a Friday, in the Ashburton class, (they’re very special yogis, that group), they are strong women, each one so busy and leading full lives.
All of a sudden I couldn’t speak, couldn’t move, I couldn’t even read my notes, what I’d written for this planned class. And there was silence, and the class waited for me. And I was waiting and I thought, Am I going to drop dead here or just sit here and die? A strange feeling, a strange moment.
Eventually I said, ‘Come on, four by four, use it work with it.’ Then I just said to the class, ‘I’m sorry I don’t know what happened there; let’s move on.’ Which I did.
Then, two students phoned me and they said, ‘Julie we’d like to pay for you to go to the Golden Door, in NSW, a health retreat. They have this special offer. Would you have enough money to pay for your own airfare to Newcastle and back?’ ‘Yes, I would.’
I did that. So generous, these yogis of mine. I was in a beautiful room. Walked around, did a few sessions, just relaxed and was still. Came back renewed, refreshed. How generous. The stairs of this Golden Door, seemed to go up to heaven. You opened the golden door and all you saw were the stairs. It has a good name, good people, good food, good activities. They paid for it. What a gift!
Light streamed into the room through large glass windows and our eyes feasted on a lovely garden. The tranquility and beauty an apt setting for the author’s memories and story.
The room soon filled with Julie’s friends (many of whom were past students) with the love in the room palpable. The pile of books dwindled and I joked about writer’s cramp as Julie signed one dedication after another.
Julie’s previous book (written when 69 years old), Love And Light: Yoga for cancer HIV/AIDS & Other Illnesses, a manual sharing her knowledge and teaching techniques, but this short autobiography reveals her amazing journey from gifted singer and music teacher to one of the most highly respected yoga teachers in Melbourne.
It includes personal details not shared before.
When called upon to launch the book, Glenice praised Julie’s courage and determination.
Her courage to compete and win singing awards.
Dame Joan Sutherland wrote, You have great courage and obviously a great talent.
Courage to teach music while struggling with deteriorating hearing.
Courage to leave a toxic marriage
Courage to survive cancer
Courage as a single mother to reinvent herself and support her son
Julie changed her name for protection, travelled the world to study and eventually established her own Yoga school.
In their darkest hours, Julie worked with those afflicted by Cancer and Aids.
Michelle, a palliative care nurse, spoke about Julie’s inspiration, guidance, and support.
After a move into assisted living accommodation, Julie now faces her own health challenges with her signature courage and delightful sense of humour.
Mark spoke of the life’s lessons he’d learned from Julie, of visiting many of the sacred places overseas she mentions in the book. How she has taught him to appreciate silence.
He shared one of his favourite passages from the book:
It is one of the great losses, that people have forgotten how to just let the silence be, they tend to talk to fill that space.
It’s to do with feeling the vibration. Being aware of the good vibration or the bad vibration. You are more present. It’s the peace.
At the end of the day, when I pull out my hearing aids, I give thanks for the silence, the peace at that time of the day.
It was a privilege to play a small part in bringing this wonderful book into ‘the light’.
All books were sold on Saturday and Julie hasn’t decided if she will have more printed.
What better recommendation can an author have than to know your book is in demand!
Julie often finishes her own meditation with a Metta from Jack Kornfield:
After a few days of almost Spring weather, mercurial Melbourne reminded me it is still officially winter and inadvertently revealed a trace of the past. Above, is an outline which appeared on the kitchen window, of a butterfly sticker removed over two years ago!
The heat generated by the gas heater, plus steam from the pot of sweet potato and lentil soup I was cooking for a Union of Australian Women luncheon, revealed this outline despite the glass being cleaned umpteen times since the sticker was removed.
I’ve never noticed this outline before (day or night) – a ghostlike skeleton from the past – a reminder of something no longer in existence.
A great metaphor for memoir and life story writing when we never know what memory will pop up or be triggered to write about…
If I can encourage and facilitate these stories into print to be widely shared I feel a sense of accomplishment – especially if the stories are from life experiences. This is how we appreciate and learn from each other – and I’m forever amazed at what turns up!
The Olympic Games
School teachers love the Olympics and plan lessons in all subjects around the theme, but I don’t specifically do that in adult classes. However, what a delightful surprise when a student in the Wednesday Life Stories & Legacy class entertained us with her connection to the 1956 Olympic Games held in Melbourne.
Donna, not only wrote about the links she had with the 16th Olympiadbut brought in a jar containing part of the famous field finishing line!
This ‘show and tell’ was in response to previous lessons when we discussed nostalgia and memories. Sometimes in class, an item is mentioned and the whole group gives a collective laugh or sigh and says, “Oh, I remember that” or “I haven’t thought about that in years.”
Have you an item/relic from days gone by, no longer useful apart from being an oddity? Have a look in drawers and cupboards and write about it before passing it on to the op shop!
Donna turned up with an old chutney jar from the back of her mother’s kitchen cupboard. This jar had a piece of the turf from the finishing line (white chalk barely discernible after more than half a century later), historic in more ways than one!
The 16th Olympiad was the first time the Games had been held in Australia, and classed as the ‘Friendly Games’
It was the beginning of the tradition whereby all athletes walk into the Closing Ceremony as one group, and not individual countries.
The above newspaper clipping featuring Donna’s mother, “Mrs. John Hellier” explains how she was in a position to souvenir such a piece of Olympic memorabilia.
Heather Hellier was the private secretary to Sir William Bridgeford, the chief executive officer of the Olympic Committee. It was her job to put overseas visitors and other dignitaries at ease (notably the Duke of Edinburgh and Australia’s PM Sir Robert Menzies) as well as a host of officials and journalists from all participating countries.
A typical day for Heather included:
arranging press conferences with Sir William for Australian and visiting journalists
arranging plane tickets and hotel bookings for one of his interstate tours to publicise the Games
typing his many speeches
dealing with correspondence and telephone calls
receiving numerous guests, visitors, and queries
assisting planning for official banquets and receptions (before, during and after the Games) including those for Royal guests of honour
controlling the steady stream of people paying courtesy calls and business people seeking meetings with Sir William during the Games
Donna recalled some of her mother’s conversation about that exciting time when she probably had one of the most prestigious and memorable secretarial positions available.
For my mother , it meant long hours, care for every detail, and constant polite communication, culminating in the Games themselves, which were a well-ordered whirlwind of inspirational efforts, patriotic pride, the honouring of Olympic ideals, as well as meetings with Prime Minister Menzies and even a chat about cycling with the Duke of Edinburgh…
It was frantic but went like clockwork due to all the careful planning.
There were winners and there were losers, heroics, and even bloodshed in the pool as the Cold War managed to enter the Melbourne Olympics, better known from that day to this as The Friendly Games…
… as their feet went over that white chalk line they were as one, no longer divided by country. There were many tears shed as the Olympic flag was taken down, the Olympic Flame extinguished and the athletes left the stadium…
… my mother was horrified to see the Olympic track being unceremoniously dug up in order for the MCG to host a cricket match… this was almost sacrilegious. Always quick on her feet, she ran downstairs and grabbed two pieces of the chalked turf finishing line – one for herself, and one for Sir William…
… that piece of white chalk on Olympic turf had done its job, brought pride and achievement, rewarded hard work, stamina, and sheer guts. Its time in the spotlight under the glare of thousands of photographers’ flash bulbs over. Sad to be gone in physical terms but living on in the history of this country, in the minds and memories of all who saw it, and in film (early TV) and photography.
How lucky to see a tiny piece of that memorable event – even if stored in a chutney jar for 60 years!
After Donna read her story I remembered some memorabilia from previous Olympic Games that are probably quite rare in Australia.
The Moscow Olympics
In 1980, I worked for the Victorian Branch of the Federated Miscellaneous Workers’ Union and one of the officials, Frank Brady was fundraising for a close friend going to the Olympic Games in Moscow.
However, Russia had invaded Afghanistan in 1979, and the USA and other countries decided to boycott the Olympic Games. The country was divided about attending and the angst and controversy of the time a direct contrast to the cute bear who was the mascot of the Games.
Frank gifted me the bear and badge.
It holds precious memories of my time in the union office and of Frank who died a few years later. There were many debates and discussions around Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan (ironically the USA also took that path years later), the Olympic boycott, the decisions of individual athletes to go or stay, and the spectacular opening and closing ceremonies. These set a high competitive benchmark for every Olympiad since and the effort to go one better.
As Alexander McCall Smith said, ‘we don’t forget…’ and keepsakes and objects help spark the memories!
The governments of the United Kingdom, France, and Australia supported the boycott but left any final decision over participation to individual athletes and respective NOCs.
The International Olympics Federations protested that the pressures by the US and other supporting countries for the boycott was an inappropriate means to achieve a political end, and the victims of this action would be the athletes.
Needless to say, there have been plenty of politics at every Olympics since and the controversy over Moscow resulted with only eighty participating countries, the lowest number since 1956.
Yet, the Moscow Games have the distinction that more world records were set than by the fuller contingent attending the previous summer games in Montreal, 1976.
When the Olympic Torch came to Melbourne, I kept the girls off school and with hundreds of others we cheered the runners at Mentone. We had some morning tea and then caught a tram to spend the afternoon at a special exhibition about Anne Frank at the Holocaust Museum in Elsternwick.
The tram had to stop to let the runners go past, we hopped off and joined the throng of well-wishers. The crowds were so huge, and traffic jammed that we met up with more torch relay runners. It was a slow run because I think the authorities underestimated the thousands who would take to the streets to cheer.
The girls met several runners (former and current athletes) and they both got to hold an Olympic Torch. Perhaps in a writing class of the future, they’ll write their story of that day.
For most people, the highlight of the 2000 Games was Cathy Freemanand although I would never call myself a sporty person, Cathy, and those Games encouraged me to be a couch potato for a few weeks, and join John and the girls watching the Games!
Prior to China hosting the Olympic Games, I was working for Melbourne University Student Union, and we hosted a delegation of Chinese university students from the same Beijing university that led the protests in 1989 later known as the Tiananmen Square Massacre.
The students were coming to Australia to learn about representative student unions, how to run student elections, and work with university administration.
We had many interesting discussions and I showed them photographs of my time in China in 1979 – long before any of them were born! We also talked about 1989 and what memories they or their parents had. They were optimistic for the democratization of their country’s institutions.
All of them had gifts to share and along with a lovely wall hanging and polished wooden coasters, they gave me an Olympic Games fan, and I requested their autographs.
Please share whatever memories you have of Olympic Games – past or present!
When I think about my father I appreciate he always supported my dream to be a writer. He encouraged and praised me. He was the first person to show me how powerful, amazing and entertaining the English language can be. He introduced me to many brilliant and effective authors and poets, but most of all he believed in my desire and need to write.
Although a flawed man with many personal demons he truly loved his family. When I discovered a notebook of his after he died my tears were for his lost dreams as I read poems, snippets of stories and even a short play.
As my older sister Cate said at Dad’s funeral, ‘who knows what dad could have achieved if he’d had educational opportunities and economic freedom to make choices…’ Like many of his generation who lived through the Great Depression and WW2, he never went to high school and always chased money to survive, and support his family.
However, he did go to night school, he did constantly improve himself no matter what job he had and he was a prime example of someone with a thirst for knowledge, who educated himself. Education was the key to success as far as Dad was concerned. We must study hard at school and not waste ‘the talents God gave you’. No doubt the regrets he felt at his own failure to stay engaged with the school system coloured his attitude.
Today, the tenth anniversary of his death, I reflect on how glad I am that he was my Dad and be grateful for the gifts he gave me and the memories I choose to honour.
“Why am I compelled to write? . . . Because the world I create in the writing compensates for what the real world does not give me. By writing I put order in the world, give it a handle so I can grasp it…”
The air carries the smell of spring, but it will be some hours before the sun provides daylight and any warmth. I make an effort to peer into the night with weary and moist eyes. The raucous laughter of kookaburras breaks the stillness – an echo triggering memories of childhood days spent at Croydon in the 1960s. Kookaburras swooped down and stole our cat’s dinner, the raw kangaroo meat an irresistible and easy meal. The birds returned to the trees their laughter like petals blown in the wind.
Tonight the birds swoop from tree to tree, searching for breakfast or perhaps a late supper, their demeanour similar to a hawk. It is 4.00am. Are they congratulating each other on a successful hunt, or have they spotted prey? The hospital grounds and car parks studded with trees may provide what the birds seek. If not, the mini forest stretching north towards Belgrave like a thick, mottled green tablecloth undoubtedly holds enough scurrying mammals to keep the kookaburras laughing for some time.
I can’t recall the last time I heard a kookaburra in Mordialloc where I have lived for twenty-one years. Close to the sea, the gulls are prevalent, but because of the prolonged drought, it is more likely the squealing of rosellas and harsh caws of wattlebirds and ravens demanding or complaining at the lack of food.
I look from the window of Room 2 East Ward on the second floor of William Angliss Hospital, in the aptly named Melbourne suburb, of Ferntree Gully. The shadows of the night change shape to become recognisable objects. There is solace in the ordinariness of the scene – a maintenance worker parks his car and toolbox in hand disappears into the bowels of a building I assume houses the hospital generator. Nurses travel between the adjacent nurses’ home and the main hospital; navy cardigans clasped around shoulders, the only indication there is an early morning chill to the air.
I press my legs against the wall radiator, but the artificial warmth of hot water pipes will not relieve the coldness I feel. I want to open the window wide and scream, ‘Don’t you know my father is dying?’ Nothing has prepared me for this night, even although it is barely three years since I farewelled my husband, John. You can never prepare or become used to losing someone you love. Death is indeed the last frontier. I grip the windowsill realising the harsh reality of day may deliver a cruel blow.
The nurse turned down the wall radiator earlier in the evening with no noticeable cooling of the room apart from the removal of body heat when others in the family left just before midnight. The dodgy heater a bit like Dad’s health the last few years: sometimes okay, other times difficult to know if operating well. The intermittent work of his pancreas made his diabetes almost impossible to regulate. So many years he struggled with diabetes – a terrible sentence for someone with a sweet tooth and robust appetite.
The softness of Dad’s hands as I held them a few minutes ago lingers on my skin. Hands, once dry, calloused worker’s hands transformed soft and smooth despite the accumulated wrinkles of 83 years. Stretched over arthritic bones, his fragile skin, like precious parchment. The paleness almost transparent, belying his olive complexion inherited from the survivors of the wrecked sixteenth century Spanish Armada intermarrying with the inhabitants of Scotland’s west coast islands. Well, that’s the mythology still hotly debated by historians. I can hear Dad’s voice disparagingly saying, ‘but what do academics know.’ He was a great storyteller and as Robert McKee teaches, it’s all about the power of story!
The memory of our trip to Australia in 1962, on the migrant ship SS Orion, makes me smile. The ship picked up 500 Greek migrants at Piraeus and after a few days in the Mediterranean sun, the Greek passengers approached my sun-tanned Dad thinking he was Greek. How could this olive-skinned man, sporting coal black hair and moustache be Scottish! For the rest of the voyage, they tried to strike up conversations. ‘Sorry Jimmy,’ said Dad like a typical Glaswegian, ‘don’t know yir lingo.’
The subdued lighting of the hospital room dulls the age and sun spots, mottling the backs of his hands. The marks fade into insignificance on his thin muscle-wasted arms. When younger and stronger, and employed as a ‘boy wakener,’ he knocked the doors of sleeping drivers with those hands at a time when working class people didn’t own watches or clocks and there were no telephones for early morning wake up calls.
As a fireman, he shovelled 5 tonnes of coal a day into the ferocious flames of a steam train’s furnace. As a locomotive driver, he manipulated train controls and signals and became a diesel instructor and acting depot foreman during a twenty-five-year career with British Rail. In Australia, Dad worked at many semi-skilled jobs as he chased money for his family during a further twenty-seven years driving. His arms steering everything from petrol tankers, delivery vans, trucks, tractors, forklifts, buses, utilities, and station wagons.
He never went to high school, but when it came to a car engine he could revive and fix motors others would abandon to the wrecker’s yard. I picture him wiping oily hands on a cloth or his dungarees. I’ve never driven a car but surprise myself with the mechanical knowledge absorbed from endless conversations between Dad and my brothers.
I remember as a little girl in Scotland waiting for my dad’s train to pass by the house. Whenever he drove the steam engine he nicknamed “Ivanhoe” he would blow the whistle loudly just as he rounded the bend. In the distance, we could see his once snowy white handkerchief appear as a tiny speck amongst the belching smoke and steam as he gathered speed for the hill before him. We knew he could see the bed sheet we frantically waved with Mum’s help from the upstairs bedroom window because another long-drawn blast which sounded like “Ivanhoe, oh, oh,o …” echoed throughout the valley.
Younger, stronger arms cuddled a wife and six children, ten grandchildren and embraced four step-grandchildren when they joined the clan. How I ache for those arms to hold me close once more, to make me feel safe. Dad always fearless, his strength, a refuge. He took on bullies in the workplace, bullies in the street. His slightly misshapen nose testimony to defending a stranger from would-be muggers, teaching a scab a lesson on worker solidarity and corralling a bull that escaped in the rail-yards. A trophy of fights he could have done without, but Dad often as game as a dozen commandos.
I rub my thumb along his; trace the outline of his nail. His fingernails, longer than I recall, strong and manicured – testimony to the attentive personal care received in the nursing home where he has lived as a dementia patient for the last seven years.
Strangers cut his nails, bathe him, trim his hair and moustache, and even wipe his bottom. I remember, his fingernails never long but always clean. Scrubbed to remove the embedded coal dust when he was a railwayman in Scotland. Scrubbed even harder to be rid of engine oil with his first job in Australia of petrol tanker driver and then a serviceman for Exide Batteries. Over the years, scrubbing removed a variety of debris from his many blue-collar occupations, including pottery dust and garden soil.
Yet, Dad’s hands were much gentler than Mum’s – not the skin, but his touch. He was the one who washed wounds gently, dabbed calamine lotion on even the tiniest mosquito bite or chickenpox blister. Perhaps, if he had not been the youngest of thirteen children and denied the opportunity for further education, he may have been a doctor. His dedication to self-education at night school and constant thirst for knowledge proved he had the intellectual capacity.
A moan reminds me that Dad is still in this world. His laboured breathing eases to an almost gentle rhythmic snore. I sit in the uncomfortable visitor’s chair, grateful my sister, Rita left a large curved pillow squashed to support a back beginning to ache with tension and lack of comfortable sleep.
Dad’s slack-jaw repose, unsettling. Awed at his vulnerability, I remember a man with an explosive temper, yet the patience to teach and to learn. Now he lies helpless at the mercy of a hospital system that sees him as a nuisance. A dying old man, taking a bed and resources more useful to younger, fitter others. I relive the argument between my brother George and the Charge Nurse earlier in the day when they tried to convince us Dad should be discharged and sent back to the nursing home. Our system has a lot to learn about dying and grief.
An unwanted patient here, Dad showed much patience in his life. He spent hours to find an intermittent fault on electrical equipment or the origin of an unusual noise in a car or motorbike engine. More hours in makeshift darkrooms developing black and white photographs until the best possible copy was printed. He often shared a useful or attractive object produced from leftover scrap wood from off-cuts in the bargain bin outside the local hardware shop. His photographic and developing skills, his expertise with cars and motorbikes and his DIY talents all passed on to his children with varying success.
To be a good provider for his wife and children and to be a good parent his driving force. He never appeared hesitant making the tough decisions once we were capable of understanding and contributing. He laid down rules about our social life, the friends we chummed with, insisted we apply ourselves at school and take responsibility for chores in and out of the home. Robust arguments about the length of my brother’s hair in the 60s, when my sisters and I could start ‘dating’, our behaviour at school and at home all memories that fade into insignificance in comparison to the years he sacrificed to keep us healthy and safe.
The Protestant work ethic and the Church of Scotland shaped much of Dad’s thinking, but also socialist writers like Robert Tressell who wrote, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists and he identified not only with the poetry of Robert Burns but the imperfect man. We grew up with Burns’ quotations ringing in our ears and all of us can recite verses, especially the ones with moral and ethical points! Dad admired politicians like Keir Hardie and the Bevan brothers. Papa had bought Tressell’s book for Dad to read, and Dad encouraged his children to read it. I bought copies for my daughters.
I change the cassette tape that is playing softly in the background. Rabbie Burns poetry set to music or songs he has written. Scottish singers as diverse as Duncan Macrae, Andy Stewart, Kenneth McKellar, the Alexander Brothers and The Corries singing their hearts out
I flick through the box of tapes brought from the nursing home. Each song or artist stirs memories of family celebrations or other occasions. I picture Dad working in his shed happily ‘making sawdust’ as he referred to his woodworking hobby. Or he’s reclining in his armchair, a glass of brandy (or a good malt whisky when he felt flush), not far from his hand. He loved his music and the advancements in technology from old 78s to vinyl LPs; reel to reel to cassette tapes – all marvellous inventions in his eyes. Unfortunately, with the onset of dementia, he missed the proliferation of CDs – and I can’t conjure an image of him with an iPod or MP3 player either – his hearing aids would get in the way and I think he’d be a vocal critic of social media! ‘If someone wants to talk to me let them say it to my face, or pick up the phone!’
When diagnosed with Tinnitus in the 70s his love of playing music intensified as he tried to block the constant noises and ringing in his ears. He used alcohol too and became someone else, his personality forever damaged by attempts to cure this cruel byproduct of industrial deafness and medication after the Hong Kong Flu. I recall the pain in his eyes when he read a poem of mine about Bermagui where I referred to ‘the silence of nature’.
‘Oh, what I’d give for silence,’ he murmured through tears.
A gurgling erupts from Dad’s throat and his brow furrows. He screws his eyes even more tightly shut and pulls his knees up towards his chest and moans. I remember the stabbing pains of early labour and assume his frail body is experiencing waves of uneven pain. I shiver. Is that the scent of death on his breath? I know medication and his lack of sustenance are probably causing the unusual sweet/sour smell, but fear freezes my heart.
I stand up to seek out a nurse when the door creaks open and two nurses on night duty tiptoe into the room. I chatted with these friendly women at the beginning of their shift. They have no problem with my family’s determination to ensure one or more of Dad’s kinfolk will be with him until the end and are not surprised to see me.
The small dark-skinned nurse came from a family of eight and trained in England, ‘We just want to turn your Dad and check how he is going.’
The grey-haired nurse with a Queensland drawl worked as a relief sister in Dad’s first nursing home. She speaks with familiarity, ‘We’ll just give George a bit of a sponge and change.’
‘Thank you,’ I whisper. ‘He appears to be in a bit of pain… writhing around.’
The other nurse flicks through Dad’s chart, ‘No problem, we’ll give him something for the pain.’
‘Yes,’ agrees the Queenslander leaning over to take his pulse, ‘we’ll look after your dad, don’t worry.’
Kenneth MacKellar is singing ‘Keep right on to the end of the road’ and my heart begins to race.
Ev’ry road thro’ life is a long, long road, Fill’d with joys and sorrows too, As you journey on how your heart will yearn For the things most dear to you. With wealth and love ’tis so, But onward we must go.
Keep right on to the end of the road, Keep right on to the end, Tho’ the way be long, let your heart be strong, Keep right on round the bend.
I desperately need fresh air. ‘I’ll just go outside for a few minutes,’ I stutter. The nurses nod their approval.
Outside I stare at the sky and try to identify Orion – the shapeshifter that to me is a saucepan – and the Southern Cross. If I can see them, the world will be okay because for as long as I can remember since moving to Australia, I have always searched the night sky for those constellations. I breathe in the eucalyptus air. A dark shape swoops. Kookaburras laugh.
Who am I trying to fool? My world will never be the same again. I realise I’ve been crying and dab away the tears before returning to resume my vigil. It will be daylight soon and my sister Cate will come to relieve me, but I know I will not leave Dad – not just yet.
You get your ideas from daydreaming. You get ideas from being bored. You get ideas all the time. The only difference between writers and other people is we notice when we’re doing it.
I spend much of my time thinking up writing prompts and triggers to inspire my students and then more time planning lessons around the craft to improve the readability of their writing.
Often we write for ourselves, but if most of us are honest, we write to share our thoughts and ideas and receive a boost to ego when someone appreciates our words. Competitions or requests for submissions on a particular topic are good exercises to flex writing muscles, move out of comfort zones, find a home for a story or poem, or just enjoy the challenge of polishing a piece to share with others.
For this reason, I make an effort to send work to Poetica Christi Press who, as their latest anthology Inner Child, boasts have been ‘Proudly publishing Australian poetry for 25 years.’ I also encourage my students to send their work ‘out there’…
Tomorrow Poetica Christi will launch another anthology. I’m thrilled not only to again have one of my poems selected, but also a poem from one of my students, Jan Morris who excels at performing Aussie Bush Poetry usually with a backdrop of a painting she has done. Her canvas for the paintings, old curtains salvaged from op shops – curtains with special backing to block out the sun.
Jan incorporates humour in the short stories she writes in class and is an example of someone who makes the effort to ‘Always look on the bright side of life‘. A retired nurse and a widow of a Vietnam veteran affected by Agent Orange, she has an amazing stockpile of sad stories, but chooses to concentrate on blessings, jokes, eccentricities and funny events!
In the Foreword of the anthology the editors say:
‘…the inner child is celebrated, recalled, reinvented and shared. The poems are a poignant, honest and often humorous reminder that our inner child is only a heartbeat away.
Jan reminisced about her childhood when milk was delivered by horse and cart:
Winner of the Poetica Christi 2014 prize was another accomplished poet, Chris Ringrose:
There are many other poets, some with several poems. Each anthology inspiring other writing and giving me something to aim for to improve my own efforts. As someone who doesn’t consider themselves a poet – rather a writer who tries to write poetry – I’m thrilled one of my poems was included. It tells the story of an object from my childhood, a link with my mother and my children. It’s the kind of poem you can write in a memoir or life story class and as I often tell my students, ‘memory poems’ are a great way of recording the past.
I wrote about a shell that sat by the fireside in Scotland when we lived there, then sat on the sideboard when we migrated to Australia. I have no idea what beach it was first washed up on or its true origins – writer’s imagination kicked in. I may never have written this poem, if the prompt of the competition hadn’t arrived in my email box!
This poem by editor Leigh Hay made me smile, reminiscent of the day I caught daughter MJ trimming Barbie’s hair!
I can’t attend the launch because I’m volunteering at Open House Melbourne tomorrow – my fifth year at this event. However, I’m sure there will be plenty of others attending – the wordsmiths of Poetica Christi Press put on a wonderful afternoon tea, great performances by some of the poets and always a lovely classical musical recital. If I close my eyes I can picture the hall and the event, but I’m so glad I have the book to dip into whenever I want to get in touch with my Inner Child!
‘Child, to say the very thing you really mean, the whole of it, nothing more or less or other than what you really mean; that’s the whole art and joy of words.’
Ten Steps to writing your own memory poem:
1. Write down in a couple of sentences of the first memory you have as a child when you were outside by yourself, or another vivid memory you often think about.
2. List the words: sight, sound, touch, taste and smell.
3. Next to these words jot down whatever you experienced related to these senses.
4. Write what happened: what were you feeling at the time? Where were you? Why do you think this memory remains significant? Write this in prose so you get everything down.
5. Revisit the words you wrote alongside the 5 senses. What descriptions capture the emotions you have written about in your prose?
6. Cross out or ignore everything else unrelated – a poem, like a short story doesn’t have to include everything and is stronger if you concentrate on the important details.
7.What emotion do you want to convey about the time? How do you want the reader to feel after reading it? It will probably be complex, but no one is going to read your exploration/explanation about what you were trying to do! They’ll be reading your poem and interpreting it from their point of view and experience. However, it’s always a bonus if people “get it” and understand the emotion of the writer.
8. Remember poems don’t have to rhyme, but usually there are line breaks and punctuation so the reader knows the rhythm and captures the mood of the poem. Think of pacing – do you want the words to move slowly or quickly over the tongue.
9. Write your poem now – whatever way you want – remember to include action – strong verbs, concrete nouns, the emotion you felt.
10. Revise your poem by cutting out any words or phrases that don’t fit in with the feelings and mood you decided to create.
Let the poem sit for a few days before final revision – and if you’re anything like me, you’ll revise it every time you read it!!
Happy writing! And please feel free to share your poem or thoughts.
“One writes out of only one thing—one’s own experience. Everything depends on how relentlessly one forces from this experience the last drop, sweet or bitter, it can possibly give.” —James Baldwin
Mercurial Melbourne did it again yesterday. As I listened to the wind howl and the rain splatter and felt the temperature plummet, I wondered what happened to the notoriously hot Christmas weather sunny Australia promises? But then, it is Melbourne – four seasons in the one day, and predictable in its unpredictability.
A good time to pause and remember last year when I was somewhere predictable – and cold – very cold! I spent the Christmas with my daughter Anne, into her third year travelling in North America and resident in Toronto for a couple of those years.
On Facebook, I read a message from Tovah and Michael and the photograph of their hanukkiyah in their window holding the candles to celebrate Hanukkah. This photograph lets me time travel to last year.
A Christmas Surprise
I pause at the nearest panoramic window and soak in the first outside view of Pearson Airport, Toronto. Incandescent fixtures gleam with a second skin and neon lights transform mundane utilities into glittering crystal artefacts. A cheap flight enabled this holiday to be with oldest daughter Anne, a back-packer who fell in love with T.dot.
‘Look Mary Jane! Isn’t it beautiful?’ I gush, unable to hide the rising excitement at the prospect of a Christmas not experienced since I was nine-years-old. My family emigrated from Scotland to Australia in 1962 and we had to acclimatise to the cultural shock of Christmases ‘Downunder’.
Born in Australia where Christmas is often spent at the beach and a white Christmas only a song until now, my daughter laughs and catches my childish enthusiasm. Our grinning reflections vindicate the spur of the moment decision to fly to Canada. I click my camera phone and capture a winter scene, albeit a world of workers swathed in fluorescent safety gear attending planes through a shimmering veil of snow.
A close-knit trio, since the death of husband John when the girls were teenagers, we’d adjusted to the sadness of special days like birthdays, anniversaries and seasonal celebrations, however, into her third year away from home, the last two Christmases without Anne only made bearable by Skype.
The most special gifts don’t involve money and when Mary Jane and I discussed the ubiquitous Christmas List, we agreed with Dr Seuss, Christmas, ‘doesn’t come in a store…(it) means a little bit more.’ In a tone that did the Spice Girls proud, Mary Jane said, ‘What I really really want is for us to be together–-all of us!’
And here we are walking into the widespread arms of Anne wearing a smile as warm as an Aussie Christmas. She clutches two single red roses and a bundle of winter accessories in case we are ill-prepared. With a mock shiver, she explains, ‘It’s the chill factor that makes you freeze.’
The uninhibited joy and unconditional love etched on the faces of the girls, a delicious moment to be stored in my memory bank, along with Anne’s protracted ‘Mum!’ which blocked the cacophony of the airport terminal for the few seconds it took me to exit customs. The bear hug lifted me off my feet.
From the airport, we catch a bus and two trains to Ossington where Anne shares a house with three young Canadians. The journey seamless, if a little cold, as we adjust to winter’s icy clutches and the face-numbing air. Evidence of Christmas abounds with passengers toting brightly wrapped parcels and bulging bags. The occasional decoration glimpsed as suburbs flash past. When we climb out of the subway at Ossington a silent fall of snow greets us. Anne suggests a taxi, fearing black ice; a treacherous surprise turning pavements into obstacle courses. ‘You left Melbourne 32 hours ago and must be tired!’
We insist on walking. Mary Jane determined to savour her first sojourn in the snow, and I have a wonderful feeling of love and contentment to keep me warm. A wind is absent, but snowflakes swirl and tantalise, falling soft and gently like feathers. Mary Jane tilts her head back, turns her face to the starlit sky, pokes out her tongue and drinks the gifts from Heaven. Our hats, scarves, and coats dusted with icing sugar specks. A magical transformation.
We giggle and twirl, slip and trudge, drag suitcases along the street, Anne confides it is usually empty and dark at night, yet houses twinkle and shine lighting our way. Christmas advertised–more flamboyantly by some–until we reach the house opposite Anne’s. It groans under the weight of bud lighting flashing every colour in the spectrum to make rainbows in the air and on the snow-stained road. We spot Santa and his sleigh, reindeers, candy canes, snowmen, penguins, bells and lanterns, trees and presents; every commercial Christmas motif imaginable.
Cannily stepping in footprints carved by others, we cross the road to Anne’s home above a Portuguese bakery; dim and conservative in comparison to brightly lit neighbours. We climb internal wooden stairs, the heat like a blow torch. We don’t need encouragement to strip off protective gear in the tiny hallway. ‘Welcome to Canada,’ Anne jokes, ‘where you allow 20 minutes just to put on and take off all the extra winter layers!’ Housemates appear from their rooms to welcome us and point to a huge sign they’d made declaring themselves: ‘The Neil Appreciation Union’.
It is almost a week until Christmas Day, but Anne announces a surprise. Her close friends Tovah and Michael have offered their cosy flat to us to spend Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day. They’ll be visiting relatives out of town and thought we’d appreciate a ‘home away from home’ to be a family at this special time of year. This practical embodiment of the spirit of Christmas from two strangers becomes the highlight of our Canadian trip.
The few days before Christmas Eve, Mary Jane and I explore Toronto while Anne is at work despite a ‘catastrophic ice storm’ slamming the city, destroying 20% of tree coverage and leaving hundreds of thousands without power. Fortunately, Ossington is relatively untouched, but as subzero temperatures and wind chill announcements dominate nightly News, I wake each morning to the drip of ice melting and pooling on the windowsills in Anne’s tiny room. I miss the raucous sound of Australian birdsong: magpies carolling, the wattlebirds harsh chok-choks, and Australian ravens cawing as colourful rosellas swoop and squeal.
However, the winter hush has its own charm and I have my two daughters close. Grey squirrels cavort among tree branches stark and dead beneath winter’s cloak, and on our walks home in the evening tree branches turn majestically silver with coruscating stars and pale moonlight highlighting their breathtaking beauty.
Christmas card scenes are everywhere, icicles suspended from eaves and gutters, rooftops and gardens caked with snow while brown and withered foliage peep from pristine white coats. Coated with frost, hardy plants still live although their crystallised leaves snap if touched. Squeals and laughter infectious as families toboggan and slide in nearby parks, and cute dogs wearing booties chase frisbees and balls.
Tovah and Michael’s apartment has double glazing and power.They leave a message on their kitchen whiteboard after Googling Aussie slang. Any feelings of being in a strange land dissolve with our laughter:
Good arvo and Merry Chrissie cobbers!
Open some prezzies and drink some amber fluid.
There is a Maccas within cooee and a bottle-o a few doors down!
Eat a lot of lollies and have many grogs,
hopefully not to be followed by a liquid laugh? Or technicolour yawn (what!?)
Yabber on ladies…
On Christmas morning as dawn penetrates the blanket of light grey cloud, I stand by the window and watch snowflakes flutter to the ground. Within moments, already partly covered bicycles and parked cars are submerged and roads and paths disappear as if a gigantic can of white paint has spilt. Street lamps glow orange, the world is silent and still. I have a lightness of being.
Gentle snores from Anne and Mary Jane mingle with the poetry from countless carols playing in my head and memories of Christmases past. The age-old Christmas messages of joy, peace and love my reality this wonderful Canadian Christmas.