Letters to the past – an invitation to write

row-of-boxes-at-Watson

Today is the Winter Solstice in the Southern Hemisphere. Last night I walked around    Lake Burley Griffin, and the energy was the opposite to what I had imagined, leading up to this shortest day of the year. Instead of feeling hunkered down and small, I felt enlivened, expansive and playful. From under Kings Ave Bridge I watched the lights on the water as cyclists hurtled past, and fellow solstice seekers strolled by in the shadows, the week’s work behind them, on their way to the weekend and all its promise, so near to the turning point of the year, feeling the tilt of the earth. I do feel introspective though, as well as energetic, and it is a great feeling.

I would like to share some letters l wrote a little while ago. The shortest day of the year seems to be saying something about time to me, and it has reminded me of these letters, these fragments. A student asked me to write about teaching, for an anthology they were editing. I preferred to turn it around and write about the experience of being taught, instead, and acknowledge those continuing connections with teachers through memories and emotions. Students, teachers, we are all the same really, learning together, in my view. My student didn’t end up using the the letters for their project, but I was glad I wrote them. At the time I called the little series Primary and Secondary.  The letters are not the sort to be sent, most of the people I was writing to are dead. I felt compelled to write to them anyway.  (In The New Diary, Tristine Rainer writes of the ‘unsent letter,’ as a useful technique in journal or diary writing. I love this thoughtful book, I recommend to anyone keeping a journal, or wanting to practice writing.) It just occurred to me  that in a way I am sending the letters, by including them in this post, by ‘posting’ them. Why not? The first four are to primary school teachers, and the last is to a high school teacher.

Dear Mrs Sinclair,

Thank you again for writing to me. I know I sent you a card at the time, but I feel I have to write again.

When I read your letter, I imagined you flipping through ‘She’s a train and she’s dangerous‘ in the book store (probably in the feminist or women’s writing section) and recognising my name and reading ‘In the House Alone’. (In my mind I still look up at you as if I was a child. I stand by you, waiting.) Your letter made me remember school and teachers and I often recall that care you took to contact me. You know I like to write in fragments. And you have a literary bent, so you wouldn’t mind the epistolary form of this little letter/narrative. The fact that you remembered me when you saw my name or read my story really touched me and I often think of that.

I remember you taking us to Liggins – and the primary school library (which was in a room next to the hall), and how special that was, walking through the rows of books, the bookcases at child height, and the wonder of it, the library card, the blue stamp, the book to take home in my library bag. I remember lining up at your desk to receive my next reading card, wondering what colour it would be.

 I have been teaching for awhile now, and though I mainly teach adults, it is my school teachers I often recall when reflecting on teaching. I remember the weave of the cloth on the sleeve of your jacket as you paused beside my desk, watching me write and copy. ‘Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, For thou art with me …’ I remember your greying hair, the smell of your face powder, your poise …

 

Dear Mrs MacDonald,

 Thanks for reading to us in the afternoon. The sorrow and love of The Incredible Journey still rises within me, forty years later, and the memory of the hot open windowed afternoons of our story time, and your voice in the stillness after the busy morning. I remember your stories that weren’t from books as well, about the Vikings and their Long Boats and how Germany couldn’t invade England but they did in those boats, and about Nature and God’s perfection, and Man’s imperfection.

 Mrs Mac, I remember the end of year afternoon tea at your house, your shadowy cottage, the cakes on the table, the wild heavy blooms at your front door as we stood on tip toes to ring the front door bell …

 Dear Mrs Newell,

 I remember your authority, your thin wiry way, your tight curls gliding above the song of the times tables. Do you remember the arm that rose unexpectedly from the centre row – and the question – ‘What happens to a child when they die?’ You gave such a certain answer – ‘They go straight to heaven,’ you said. Your voice was so clear and certain. What peace you gave me! I wonder, were you asked that question very often?

 And Mrs Newell, you had a pool! And a pool party! We floated there at the end of the year. After our parents left, your pale daughter sat in the shade sipping coke, in her bikini and dark glasses, her white hair shining, as we lolled and splashed … 

Dear Miss Heath,

I’ve written about you before, and now I want to write to you. I think of you, Miss Heath. I think of your back and up stretched arm as you drew on the blackboard at the beginning of each season. You were in the classroom early, framing the lessons on that giant blackboard, with summer’s breaking waves and spray, with autumn ‘s burnt leaves, winter’s ice cave of blue and white and spring’s chalky tulips, spring’s bursting leaves. And in the frame of your art must have been our introduction to words and numbers and grown up time, (the day, the date, the month, the year).

 I realise now you were an artist. At the reunion Miss Stuart told me. ‘Oh, she died’. Your horn rimmed glasses and French knot or your soft hair falling on your shoulders when it was out, were beyond the ken of the Canteen Mothers and their perms – and you rated as a plain (single) woman, (very kind) – a kindergarten teacher. The pleat of your skirt brushes my shoulder as I sit cross-legged and you lean down to turn the page with me.

 I lined up with my big sister at the New Theatre to buy the tickets to a play she wanted to see, and there you were selling them at the box office. My mother was glad you had something to do on the weekend. I remember your smile …

 Dear Mrs Plimer,

I think you may still be alive and not that far away— that is a good feeling. It is nearly ten years since I spoke to you. I rang you during the bush fires to see if you needed help. I knew the fire was heading towards you. Dear woman, you were packing the car with your research, and were about to leave. You were prepared and strong. When help is needed we try to give it. For weeks you arrived at my house in the morning and helped me into the front seat, put my crutches into the back of your car, and then drove me to school. They were fun weeks of being late to class, careening down halls on my crutches, of healing from my accident, of people making a fuss of me. I think now, looking back, you were helping my mother. She was (and is) strong, but others must have seen her need, that she was alone. I remember small gestures, friends stepping forward to help, your care.

with love

Sarah

For this Winter Solstice ‘Invitation to Write,” write a letter to a teacher. (Hopefully a fond one!) Or to someone from the past that you think of. I’d love to read them. Post them to the comments section, and if you like we can publish them together in a later post. Or write it just for yourself, and them – see what happens.

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An Invitation to Write – Swimming

Very pale green ripply water and if you look carefully you can see grey fish.

In the shallows. Can you see the fish? Northbridge Baths.

I’ve been finding writing a bit difficult lately, how to start, how to continue, well pretty much everything about it. Same old story, eh? But if I cast back over the last three months I notice I have started a number of poems and short stories and some words are there and some of them are okay. That is not as bad as I thought it was. Phew.

I once went to a workshop with the poet Lucy Dougan, and she recounted the memories of her sculptor father, who regularly made maquettes out of sand on the beach, and then destroyed them. The lesson was that he viewed it all as practice and to not feel worried about not continuing and not completing everything, that it is acceptable to start many things and explore them and to not always feel committed to completion. That is how I understood it. I have been to many writing workshops and seminars over the years, and somehow that piece of advice seemed significant to me. So remembering this I will look back over my fragments and consider them, and sweep them away and start again if needs be, like practice sculptures in the sand.

I went swimming yesterday, just in Civic Pool.  (I have just discovered it is actually called Canberra Olympic Pool, which is a bit grander.) If locals asked you where you had gone swimming, I think many people would just say, Civic Pool, so I can be excused. Civic is the term used for the central area of Canberra. I was surprised the outside pool was still open, as it is now Autumn.  I’ve been wanting to exercise more and swimming is my favourite way; I hate getting hot and sweaty (despite my Running on Lava post),  though I did love the humidity in the Big Island of Hawaii. It is a different sort of hot and sweaty than inland Australia, which is peculiarly itchy and irritating (for me at least). Living inland precludes swimming in the sea very often, which is where I prefer to paddle, so I have had to get used to the local public swimming pools, over the years.

Darker, almost ultramarine blue water, with the sun making lighter shades

Deeper water, Northbridge Baths

My childhood local swimming hole, Northbridge Baths, was and still is a magical place. I visited The Baths recently after decades and couldn’t believe they had not changed (except there were a few more yachts around). Northbridge Baths are modest, a little difficult to walk to, down a very steep hill, and are a bit hidden by gardens and houses. They are a tidal pool, and the larger body of water they are part of is known as Middle Harbour. It is the colour of the water that stays with me, or should I say, colours of the water. Within just a few meters, the shades move from palest aqua to deepest ultramarine.

We also swam at North Sydney Olympic Pool for school swimming lessons. This pool is framed by Sydney Harbour Bridge, and is next to Luna Park, and its famous open-mouthed entrance peers over the walls into the pool (or at least it does in my memory, the logistics of that don’t quite add up, to be truthful about it, but it is just next door to the pool). It is a magical place too. The Cha-Cha ride veered close to the pool wall, and screams from riders sometimes rose with the loops and turns of the Cha-Cha as we shivered in the water, blowed bubbles, and practiced mouth-to-mouth on the rough concrete in that earnest mime of resuscitation.  I went on the Cha-Cha a few times, and could see into the pool as we swung towards it through the air. Or is this just how my memory has pieced these places and experiences together? A fire in the Ghost Train ride closed Luna Park for several years and I remember Luna Park strange and derelict as well, as it was opened and closed a number of times after that. I remember walking around its desolate perimeter. These memories add to the magic.

Civic Pool doesn’t quite have the ambience of The Baths and North Sydney Pool. But I think any swimming experience evokes something in me about childhood and a sense of rare freedom that swimming gave me as a child. The rhythmic movement through water, the stretching, the immersion, being so other to the walking about the world self, and being in a group of people, often strangers, who have willingly stripped off and are doing a similar thing, continues to fascinate me.

Recently I found out an old friend I reconnected with at a reunion, who used to swim at Northbridge Baths as well, writes a beautiful blog called Swimming Pool stories. One of my favourites. She is even more fascinated than me!

I love to ‘people watch’ at the pool. Yesterday I watched a man holding his baby, walking on the grass, so happy together, following a duck.  A little girl sunbathed on the bare concrete beside the pool, lying like a fallen statue. I watched young boys negotiate which diving board to spring from, a careful dance played out over twenty minutes, testing each one and each other, and young bikinied girls standing on the edge of the pool tentatively testing the cold, their little brothers ranging around them.  So much of it is about quietly negotiating space and territory.

Freed from the lanes of the lap pool, I didn’t swim straight up and down as usual, but did a few diagonals and curves, and backtracked. My friend enjoyed trying to touch the bottom. It was a deep pool. It is designed for diving. I like to swim slowly, but enjoy when the spirit of play is still within my friends and they are curious, and we splash a little and laugh.

So for this Equinox’s Invitation to Write, let’s write about Swimming. Any aspect of it. Even if you don’t swim, if you hate it, or would like to do it but don’t know how. Be lateral how you interpret it. Wading around will do! Dipping your feet in! Write freely and just enjoy it. I will look forward to how you want to contribute. Just post your writing in the comments, and we may have a conversation. Let’s see what happens. Here is my spontaneous offering, living in my memory of swimming at The Baths as a child.

Dipping below and diving, I hold myself under for one bursting breath, open my eyes to this darker refracted place, the sun and this breathe bubbling on the surface, which I rise, rise to break through. 

Oh, and that is another little bit of writing. I wonder if it is the beginning of a maquette, or if it will form something else one day?

The water is greener here with a strip of darker green and a pattern on the edges of the strip

A shadow, Northbridge Baths

Running on lava

A photo of me running towards the camera on pitch black rocks, with the sun setting in the background

Running on lava at sunset

Heat. Long gulping icy drinks. Tickly sweat trickles. This is my second ‘invitation to write’ and after a long summer day my inspiration is fairly obvious. In fact it is the longest summer day, the Solstice.

SUMMER. Whatever this season means to you, be it cicada song, melting icecream, burning dusty feet, or running on lava, write in response to SUMMER.

Hold this word in your mind for a moment and then play with it in words. Extemporise. Improvise. Don’t stop writing. If nothing comes just write about that eg I don’t know what to write swimming, pools, sweaty, dry etc until more words come. Write for five minutes.

Read it over. You might not like all of what what you’ve written, but there will be something, some small thing of interest, something a little special you could develop and work with.

Just write without thinking too much and let one thing lead to another. You can use a keyboard and bash away or be ‘old school’ and use a pen or pencil and paper (I like pencil myself). Don’t worry about spelling or punctuation or even making that much sense. If you’ve written it by hand then type it up. Don’t be tempted to fix it up too much. Then post it in the comments.

I’ll update this post in a couple of days with my response to SUMMER. But don’t be influenced by what I write. Just put down what comes into your mind. I’ll approve the responses which you’ve posted in the comments and they will go public in about three weeks, either in the comments or as as separate post. And I’ll check in with you about it so don’t worry. And we can discuss our raw little pieces of writing and their potential. I’ll leave the post up so anyone can join in at anytime. I’ll sometimes comment and even make suggestions about where the pieces and fragments might go, and you can too. I’m hoping it will continue to be lots of fun.

A portal opened

A shadowy woman waits, there is the outside world and light behind her, she is at one end of the tunnel/portal, she is surrounded by shadowy nets suspended from the ceiling

The soul carer

I found soul stones in my raincoat pocket. I rolled their smoothness in my palm, surprised by recognition, as I stood in the photocopier room at work. They reminded me that a portal opened in the underpass outside Albert Hall. It was raining so I walked into the portal and I met a soul carer there. She called me Time Mistress and gave me the soul stones. I told her I would always be there, when I left. I walked through the portal many times, it was wide and open to our world on 10 November, 2013, underneath Canberra.

A tall poet in the dark tunnel with shadowy figures and light behind him, a grainy strange atmospheric image

Of course I knew the poet! Aaron! How’d you find your way in, brother? Oh, the words!

I recognised a poet. We have written together in other times and places. We shook hands and I listened to his words.

In very low light tinged with red, a woman who is a seer sits on the ground with her enchanted saucepan observing people, who crouch before her to hear her wisdoms

The seer with her enchanted saucepan.

A seer told me my feet are strong. I thought while I stood photocopying how much they ache and burn, but yes, I thought, they are strong. They have to be.

A suited man with a grotesque mask crouches under a stretched net, and talks to a young girl wearing a dark cloak, he is very attentive, and man with a peaked cap is in the background and is about to walk by

The troll takes some advice on where to live next

A jovial being who sups on public figures, sought advice from us portal visitors, us passersby. Where should he live? Who’s tasty out there?

Some like me knew the portal would open. We came with that knowledge. Others were seeking shelter in their usual underpass, rolling their bikes through webs and flickerlights, soothsayers and demons, tucking away umbrellas to sidle past the tailed and taboo creatures so comfortable here and so comforting. Or they paused to listen to the tones of xylophones, crooners, and pianos from Wonderland. Underpass. Portal. Bus stops. Underworlds. Overworlds. Changing Places. I keep the stones in my raincoat pocket to remind me.

A teddy bear crawling along a metal grid with red back lights, a bit creepy or funny, I'm not sure which

Don’t worry, Teddy is only playing.

Looking out of the tunnel we see a little girl dressed as a princess from behind, climbing the stairs in the rain

A princess leaves the portal

In Civic with that antler girl

The American tourists at The Bus Interchange said that Canberra City, our funny old funny new Civic, was a bit quiet. Well, maybe. Why do I even begin this post with them? We so often want the outside observer to validate us. I wish them well and that they find something special here, and I know they will. They already found something pretty special when they bumped into the The Walking Tour with a Difference yesterday.

The walking tour continues past McMuck and The Bus Interchange, led by the antler girl on stilts

Walking past McMuck at The Bus Interchange. We all remember waiting here and missing buses and lots more!

I’ve thought about this seeming quietness of Civic often. I’ve also thought about the seeming quietness of Newtown and Kings Cross in Sydney, on the first days when I came back from India. Where are all the people, I thought? Is it after all just about contrasts, our perception of the character of a place.

The top hatted guide is drumming up the next stories from passersby and the walking tour mob. The mimes are ready. BOOM.

The antler girl, bird people, the mimes, and the top hatted guide on the patchwork of life, just outside Centrepoint.

What of the ever present rumble of stories here, their burble and surprise? They are never quiet, wherever we are, even on the moon. There are stories in this peace, this quietness, this loneliness and community, this everyday, the fragments we shape to place us, and that then make a place for us, and the stories we tell each other and to strangers when we are asked or have a chance.

The mimes and the antler girl and our top hatted guide at the end of the walking tour, back where we began at the Canberra Times Fountain

At the end of the walking tour, phew we’re thirsty, and you can see an antler girl in the background too

We looped Civic, starting at the Canberra Times Fountain. (Whoops, I didn’t even know that was its name until yesterday. It’s just that fountain kids jump in when it’s too hot, where we decide to meet, that sprays us on windy days as we walk past with our shopping, that we missed when it was turned off in the drought.) Civic of African dances and nightclubs and fundraising, sprawling sheep and protests, riding the elephant on the carousel, ravaged art and watching drug exchanges, ice-rinks, stolen poems, gelato, remainder bookstores and Gus’ – double shot espresso.

Antler girl's dress is blowing up in the wind, the saxophone player and mimes help tether it

Shadows and breezes, outside Gus’s gathering stories

What do we say? What do we know and remember? For me it was the terror of those art bastards The Doug Anthony Allstars, and hiding behind a pillar so to hear their last gig. I stumbled across them while finishing the Christmas shopping and listened to their golden choir voices – I heard it through the grapevine! Sprinting across town to get to the SECOND movie – to The Blair Witch Project! Chasing a runaway toddler, screaming his name as he careened towards the road. My Civic is chaotic, loud and physical. Schmoozing at Spiegeltent Empire and following the banana pulp volley, chewed and spat and caught from mouth to mouth (then trying it), watching a child’s first experience of characters on a stage and the stillness of his deep response. We all had stories. These are some of mine. There were plenty of others, from the participants of the Walking Tour with a Difference and from passersby. I hope to go on a Walking Tour with a Difference again soon.

Public places are also our private places, our quiet city, our secrets, our stories here. Thanks Changing Places and antler girl.

Spiegeltent Empire! Canberra!

Bubbles

Bubbles

In the Spiegeltent we greeted, kissed, hugged, breathed, stretched, jiggled, wondered, watched, gasped, laughed, screamed, whooped, clapped, stamped, whistled, heard, whispered, listened, whispered, shouted, laughed, screamed, balanced, spun.

Feat to feat

Feat to feat

Love is in the Spiegeltent, surprise, song, mood on mood, romance, friendship, skill, training, we perform ourselves, ourselves lost and found in mirrors.

Roller skates

Roller skates

Our bodies all so close, in the Spiegeltent. We all laugh about Fuuu – uucking! Oh! Fu…u…u..cking … In the Spiegeltent we are strong and together.

Crazy anime circle spin

Crazy anime circle spin

(All the links to ‘Spiegeltent’ are different in this post,leading to different pieces of information. It is a stunning tradition, check it out.) Newcastle – you’re next!