School colours

Two image of author around age 6, one dressed up as Batman in the backyard, with gap teeth, pointing the batman at the camera, one in full formal portrait with school uniform looking angelic

I have been thinking about all the school leavers, celebrating, beginning or continuing jobs, waiting for results, and how so many years later startlingly clear memories of early days at school still come back to me. I look at photos of me now, and I can still see that school child, as well as the middle-aged person I am now. I see this same double image of friends I know from school as well. This is an aspect of time and memory that is so beautiful and strange. Perhaps it is a little like living in that fast growing body of a child, and looking down on the pencil marks and dates on the back of a door that recorded your height so recently. Feeling transformed over and over again; outgrowing clothes that still seemed new. So I thought I would share School Colours, which was published in the Canberra Times many years ago.

I also remembered School Colours when I saw Kurzel’s Macbeth  (you will see why). I recalled sitting in the cinema with my class mates and English teachers watching Polanski’s Macbeth, and being taken out of my everyday life onto a cold beach with the three weird sisters. It remains one of my great film going memories, when I felt my world crack open, and I found myself somewhere new (and somewhere very old).

Jack Frost’s fingers reach around the blackboard, touching the letters and numbers. His ice crown drips, the chalk snowflakes stick to his long blue nose. Stalactites (pull up your tights) grow along the bottom of the board. Our Kindergarten teacher draws the seasons. The blackboard monitor, duster trembling, reaches on tiptoe to erase Winter. Chalk flowers bloom in Miss Heath’s hands.

Brush rasp on shiny paper, the hairs bend into the surface. Blue sky, green grass, I bend low so they are all I can see. A red drop falls into the picture and bleeds into the sky and grass. I wipe my nose on my hand and the colour is there too. The colour from myself.

All the junior girls sit cross legged, giggling, hands on heads, teachers clap, and a Television rolls in. Television at school? In the middle of the day? It’s because of that man in the moon. Tiny men bounce, stopping lessons. One small step for a man … The moon is blue. The teachers say to remember this day. I will remember the big TV in the wooden box.

A picture of a a space suit with the authors reflection in the face shield, taking the photo

Self portrait in space suit at Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex

North Sydney Olympic Pool, chlorine blue and salt eyes. Luna Park leers over the wall, at speedo cut crotches, escaping pubes, and breasts sizes A to E. Changing underneath a towel, skidding on the slimy floor, why am I on the end of the highest diving board, with a ladderful of laughing girls behind? The sky, the water, the air, impact, and sudden pain like the humiliation of a twanged bra strap.

Nobody goes into the end toilet. In there is a smoking incinerator, its door ajar, waiting. Everybody watches. Napkins in brown paper bags stuffed in lockers. Red stains. The reticent group of girls who don’t go swimming that week. A smeared pad in the middle of the floor, kicked under the desks.

Leaning forward into the mirror, I check that the blue halter bikini top shows, and undo another button to make sure it does. A hint of beach weekends, and boyfriends with long blonde hair, (nobody knows the bikini is home made.) Silver star sign around my neck, vaseline lips and eyelashes, strands of bleached hair, I wait at the bus stop alone, gripping my pass.

The teacher lays the drama out for us, ambition, betrayal, murder, the natural order turned and the elements exploding. She prowls the class conjuring the story so its poetry will be ours. It begins with the witches, on a cold beach, digging in the sand. They pull from the pit a blue fleshed hand, and ask ‘When shall we three meet again? In thunder, lightning, or in rain?’ We think our teacher is a witch, with her thick lips and dark hair. Does she sway naked in a fire lit cavern like these witches? In the coven I see a girl, her woman’s body newly formed.

The apple is my breakfast, my lunch. Dinner I eat while Mum watches. But the apple, its red skin, white flesh, is my desire for the day, all I will allow my body.

Blue eyeshadow heavy on her sculpted lids, white lipstick, leather mini, long red hair, leaning forward we devour every aspect of her. The disapproval of the Canteen Mothers whispers across the playground, as she explains dialectical materialism, perched on the edge of a desk.

Perhaps there was a story, with a line drawing it through, a thread pulled from the weft for embroidery to embellish. I remember the finger prick, the red stain on the white cloth, my incomplete patterns held up for ridicule.

At the reunion school-day fables are retold, all those triumphs and subversions, characters and jokes. The teachers we hated. I don’t really remember. Incidents shatter as I grow older. I see myself now as the persecuted teacher. A woman earning a hard living.

The mirror turns on itself, corridors of reflections, and a crowd assembles. After ten years the girls are women, each with a life carefully held together. I see the plain girl is beautiful, the stupid girl accomplished, the bright girl dull. But we pretend to be the same for this night, and we are told into a story again.

Afterwards I hold my intensely coloured pictures, my only true memories, and find another, and another within myself, then shuffle them away again. My hands reach out empty and open, at last ready to receive and understand the teachers’ gifts.

Sarah St Vincent Welch attended SCEGGS Redlands, Cremorne (Sydney) from 1966-78. For those 12 years she wore blue, and at night all her dreams were set in school. She was in Roseby house, whose colours were red and white.

 

 

PULSE: reflections on the body

Pulse

 

he finds my pulse, pulse—

milk squirts—our—blood—drum—strum—his—

small hand— on my throat

I have a rather rapid heart rate and pulse rate that is most likely encouraged by high levels of caffeine. I found it embarrassing when I was at school when such things were measured in Sport and Science. (But then I think I found nearly everything at school embarrassing.) And I have caught myself wondering over that esoteric observation that everyone is allotted a certain number of heartbeats in this life; that this is predetermined. In my case, this is not comforting, I have been using mine up quite quickly.

a chalk drawing of a dalek saying recaffeinate outside a cafe

Always. And always with Dr Who reference. Thank you, Lonsdale St Roasters.

I went to the opening of an exhibition PULSE: reflections on the body last week at Canberra Museum and Gallery. I highly recommend it. Twenty-seven contemporary Australian artists are represented, and the public program involves performances, floor talks, and a seminar, and as you know I am jumping in by facilitating a writers workshop – Writing on the body on November 15, 12-5pm at CMAG. We will have some time to view the exhibition, and I will guide writers through exercises and games to respond to the exhibition and to discover and refine writing with/in/about/out of the body. I hope this will be the first of a series of guided writing workshops in response to exhibitions and collections at CMAG and around Canberra. Let’s see how this first one goes.

Write with a sense of the body. I have often offered this advice over my many years of creative writing teaching. This is not just about physical descriptions like hair colour or length or style, eye colour, height, or shape of your characters, but how they actually feel (or even not feel) in their bodies. The body is something we can all relate to, whatever our gender, culture, race, or other cultural definitions that accompany us, and if it is left out in crafting fiction or even poetry, something vital is most likely missing. I often find that this one piece of advice will lift a piece of writing to a new level, and often solve a number of other problems as well.

PULSE: Reflections on the body, is so rich, so stimulating, and so accessible. I really can’t do it justice in a little blog post. But I will engage with the exhibition in this space over the next weeks and invite anyone in town, nearby or passing through, to join my workshop, and more importantly, just go along and enjoy the exhibition. For the workshop book through the ACT Writers Centre, 02 6262 9191 or online https://app.formassembly.com/forms/view/10261

My haiku at the beginning of this post was inspired by Patricia Piccinini’s To fall under gravity, which I wondered over at the opening. This is the artist of Skywhale fame, and dear to many Canberrans’ hearts. In my first encounter with To fall under gravity it seems to me to be a series of floating nipples (or pimples) or they could even be air bubbles. They could be female or male nipples, and they are unassuming but also erotic, and quite plain, just ‘there’. Everyone I watched viewing it smiled, and some (like me) shoved their hands deeper in their pockets, resisting the urge to touch them. This exhibition actually affects your body. Of course it does. Can’t wait to be over this flu and cold (sniff)  and to get back to CMAG and Pulse. (I didn’t get the germ there, don’t worry! I got it at a dance class, or from my mum.)

ecard for Writing on the Body

 

Foot

Medical models of two feet, one with veins and tendons on cross section, and the other a skeleton

Don’t you love medical models of body parts?

 

I long for foot massages, and beg my loved ones anytime we are sitting down together and relaxing, to please rub my feet, to please manipulate the joints and stretch the tendons. In general they kindly comply. I don’t think good feet run in my family (sorry for the pun). I have suffered a lot of pain over the last few years that has meant I have had to stand up a great deal, and now my feet are the sore points. I pore over pictures of foot anatomy and try to locate the exact points of trouble. They have been x-rayed, ultra sounded and injected, and they still hurt to blazes. Massaging can make them better, and can also make them worse, but it is a risk I’m happy to take as it is sheer bliss in the moment.

I have always considered my feet as a point of distinction, as I have two webbed toes on both feet, and whenever I am asked that ‘getting to know you question’ in a class, Is there anything special about you?, I always reveal  the duckiness of my toes. Do you remember those great scenes in Local Hero when the marine scientist, Marina, (played by Jenny Seagrove) randomly emerges from the bay in her wetsuit like a Venus, and then later when Oldsen massages her foot and discovers her webbed toes? (He is played by a young Peter Capaldi, the latest Dr Who incarnation.) Mermaid heritage, I have always believed.

Writing about ‘the body’ has always interested me. Creatively, I have found this preoccupation rich and engaging. It is somewhere we can connect, through our senses, through the rhythms of our flesh, our creatureliness, our pain, our sexuality, our being. It has become an area of research for me as well, the place of body in philosophy and how it is represented in literature. But more of that later.

I remembered a piece I wrote, Foot, that was published in Body lines: a women’s anthology edited by Jillian Bartlett and Cathy Joseph, published by Womens Redress Press in 1991, and thought it was time it got its socks off and came out for an airing. So here it is.

FOOT 

I hold a foot, freshly washed, with dirt ingrained in the whorls of its sole. The flesh of the toes is soft like fruit. I bite it and the skin is powdery and white, but smooth. The sensitive arch cringes, and I hold it firmly as the foot wrenches in the air, and we laugh. It is the foot of a city walker, a pattern of callous, ridges the shape of shoes.

But this foot is made for wandering over plains, for long stretches of earth, for hills. It is made for me to kiss and bite. The toes fit perfectly in my mouth. They only just fit shoes, and they make holes in socks.

I separate the metatarsals, the delicate long bones and ligaments. Remember your foot when you were a child I say, it was like a hand, flexible and playful. Feet at rest and relaxed, relaxes the whole body, and your mind. Toes, their strangely different lengths separate, and manipulated, are free and grasping. The fluid in the joints flow, they rotate.

* She bites my foot again and the pain is so beautiful I nearly kick her in the face and fall off the chair. I can’t stop laughing until she digs her nails in and then massages the sole. She says my feet are dirty even though I just washed them. I don’t care. Remember your foot when you were a child she says. She captures my foot like a fish, trying to slither away. *

I am the massage. My hands and the foot are covered in oil, like they’re ready to be cooked. She kicks the bottle of oil over and it sinks into the carpet. Heat and cold pass between skin. Soft skin, rough skin, the two parts, hand and foot, manipulator and runner. The foot of a dancer. The foot of a singer. Touches the ground, heel and side and each toe in turn. And again, hips swaying, stamp after stamp. I feel the dance in this captured foot. I feel them dangling from a tree, about to touch the ground. I twist it and she loves it.

The other foot is less sensitive and more stubborn, it avoids my teeth. Like grains of earth under the skin, I can feel grit in the sole, small painful pebbles on which she walks. I draw the toes out, pulling them till the joints separate gently. Run my knuckles over the sole, into it. I bend the foot back, and pull it forward. She is almost asleep. I release the foot, the reflection of the body. Her mind is still as I put it down. We rest our feet together, sole against sole.
………………………………………………..

It is good to imagine pain free feet! It is interesting to look back over your writing and to come to understand your preoccupations, what your work might be ‘about.’ “The body’ definitely is important to me.

There is an exhibition about ‘the body’, just opened at the Canberra Museum and Gallery, Pulse: Reflections on the Body. I am running a writing workshop on Saturday November 15 in the afternoon, where you can view the exhibition and write with me and in a group in response to the exhibition. If you are a local or nearby you are most welcome. It is being run in association with the ACT Writers Centre, and you book through them.

ecard for Writing on the Body

Writers Workshop: Writing on the body

with Sarah St Vincent Welch

12pm–5pm Saturday 15 November

Discover how developing a sense of ‘the body’ can take your writing to a new level. Explore the exhibition Pulse: Reflections on the body, at Canberra Museum and Gallery, through writing, with Sarah and a group of fellow writers. Be inspired by visual art and learn ways to bring your writing to life. This guided and immersive workshop caters for all forms, and will include writing exercises and games, time to view the exhibition, and time to write and discuss. Follow up material to encourage participants to continue writing will also be provided.

Sarah St Vincent Welch is a creative writing facilitator with over fifteen years of experience. She received a citation from the Australian Learning and Teaching Council for ‘devising playful writing spaces that surprise, stimulate and support creative writing students to write and keep writing.’ Her short fiction has been published and anthologised, and has won the Marjorie-Graber McInnes Short Story Award twice. She won the inaugural Marian Eldridge Award, and The Jessie Litchfield Award. Sarah is interested in leading a continuing guided writing workshop that responds to exhibitions and collections.

Venue: ACT Writers Centre workshop room
Code: All
Cost: $54 members, $48 concessional members, $84 non-members (includes 6 months of membership)
Bookings: You can book by phone on 6262 9191, online or at the office. Payment is required at time of booking.

In the shadow of the Equinox, a blood moon

A full moon with a reddish orange cast in the night sky

The Lunar eclipse or blood moon in the Canberra night sky 8 October, 2014 (photo by Dylan Jones)

 

 An Invitation to Write

Late is a concept that depends on another one, that of being on time. And yes, my Equinox ‘Invitation to write’ post is late, and let’s hope it is like a late period in its out of timeness, with the associated promises of a birth, or a shedding, a release, or of cycles slightly out of kilter and then renewed. I don’t know. This time seems significant. In my life. In humanity’s life. In the life of mother earth.

I just had a wedding, a glorious experience, but also confronting, and the culmination of over a year of planning with my loved ones. A dear friend died a week before the wedding, and we went to her celebration of life on a bright and sunny hilltop the day before we got married, just as our relatives from all around the country were arriving. I feel so grateful to have known her and that I was able to say goodbye.

So a little after the Equinox I am reflecting in its shadow, and looking for what might be inspiring to write about. There is so much, almost too much, life is full, wild and lovely, so how to choose from this richness?

 

mysterious shadows on the ground

I love taking photos of shadows while out walking

Our marriage was a civil one and it involved telling those with us who we are, and it also involved making a ceremony together that we then shared. As people who are not usually in the centre of things, it was an unusual place to be. It was new.

We probably aren’t the most naturally graceful folk, but we decided to learn a small dance to share with our loved ones before everyone was invited onto the dance floor after the wedding. And we managed it. We remembered the steps, enough. And so so enjoyed it. And we were surprised at how much we enjoyed learning the dance. We even practiced in the empty aisle of a supermarket.

A few days after our wedding we danced it in the open at night, under a blood moon. I think we will be dancing that dance again, anywhere we can.

Do you have any small rituals or celebrations that you have created that mark the rhythm of your lives? Would you like to write about them and share them? Post them in the comments section of this post if you would like to share one, or even two, and I will publish them in a later post, or however it seems right. Consider writing about a personal ritual or celebration in your own blog and telling me you have so I can enjoy it! I would love to read about them.

Dylan Jones made a time lapse of the lunar eclipse and I am sharing it with you here. It is made up of five hours worth of photos taken at five minute intervals on a cold Spring night in Canberra, Australia. I am fascinated by the sense of spinning. Check out all the information from NASA. How blessed are we, with this knowledge and beauty? Let’s all look up at the moon tonight.

Wetland haiku

Misty wetlands with trees reflected in the water

Banksia St Wetlands very early on a Sunday morning

curra-wong, curra –
frog clatter stops – breathe out, in,
morning wetland mist

I lay awake this morning and imagined the wetland. I just wanted to be there, even though it was still dark. I drank some warm milk and tried to go back to sleep, but eventually I knew I must just get up and go there.

Tree submerged in wetland with reflections in still water

This tree perch provides protection for birds and makes beautiful reflections

So at first light I found a warm coat, my notebook and pencil, and decided to try and write haiku in the wetland, like I did back in April. On the way, when I noticed a duck sitting on top of a streetlight on Northbourne Avenue (our main road), I knew I had made the right decision. It seemed like a good omen.

I did question myself, as usual, Will I be able to do it? Will I feel disappointed if I can’t write a poem to my satisfaction? A haiku, just three lines and seventeen syllables, so small a poetry creature, can feel at the same time so large, and the attempt sometimes difficult.

How to reflect or capture experience? This, for me, is always the question. It is a bit like a dare, I might be able to, or I might not. And I won’t know if I don’t try.

It was misty and cold and exhilarating at the wetland this morning. As I found myself in a soundscape of birdcall, frog chorus, and insect hum, it did occur to me that my human language, the marks on the paper, the sounds in my mind, seemed very inadequate in comparison. The haiku at the beginning of this post is what I came up with.

Snail on twig and flower

The snail thinks that flower looks yummy

Like a haiku, Banksia St Wetland seems small and big all at once. It seems tucked away as you approach it, but big as you wander through it. It is the first wetland in the Australian Capital Territory to be developed in an established suburb, and it is a magical place, but also very practical. Water from the storm water drain gathers there, and the reeds and sediment take up the nutrients in the water and improve the water quality of the Sullivan Creek catchment.

Duck crossing sign mother duck with chicks

Duck crossing signs are so gorgeous (and compassionate)

I helped facilitate a community event at Banksia St Wetland earlier in the year, Haiku in the Wetland, with Edwina Robinson (Urban Waterways Coordinator). All the participants wrote beautiful haiku and the Centre for Cultural and Creative Research (CCCR) and the Institute for International Poetry Studies at University of Canberra and the ACT Environment and Sustainable Development Directorate supported the event. You can read the poetry and enjoy photos from that day on the CCCR website.

It felt good to return and write at the wetland again. I might make it a regular writing place.

Mother and father ducks with chicks crossing a bike path

Crossing the bike path

I usually take the photos for this blog, but this morning Dylan Jones came with me and did his usual amazing nature photography. We were very lucky to end our visit by watching a duck family with chicks waddle to the water, and plunge in.

Ducklings swimming close up

Having taken the plunge

Take us by the hand, arts leaders, and tread softly

Childers St street sign

Who knew Mondrian designed the street signs in City West?

I half ran, half stumbled across Civic last Monday morning on my way to the Childers Group Arts Leadership Forum 2014  at the Canberra Theatre Centre and Canberra Museum and Gallery. I said hi to the Antler Girl as I scooted up Ainslie Avenue, and was splashed by icy spray from The Canberra Times Fountain.

Highly stylised and slightly disturbing sculpture of cute girl in floral tut with antlers on her head, called The Other side of Midnight, made by Anne Ross, on Civic Walk

That Crazy Antler girls says hi (detail of the sculpture ‘The Other Side of Midnight’ by Anne Ross), on City Walk

I thought I might be a few minutes  late, but the organisers had left plenty of time for registration and for participants to talk as they gathered. Phew! I was lucky enough to be sponsored by the Faculty of Arts and Design (FAD) at University of Canberra to attend as one of their students, and I didn’t want to miss a thing.

Canberra Times Fountain

The Canberra Times fountain – so glad it’s back on, I missed it

I am not an arts leader; let’s get that clear! But I have roamed around the arts in Canberra since 1987, participating in many ways, and loving every second of it, from being amazed by the (literal) fireworks of Splinters Theatre in Yarralumla Brickworks, to tearing down that fourth wall with Benita Tunks in our installation ‘Writing on the Wall’ in the multi-art-multi- media event, ‘Synchromesh’, at Jigsaw Theatre, to joining Dead Poets readings at Poetry at the Gods in the dead of winter.  I have found Canberra’s  arts community so welcoming and inclusive, especially when I first moved here.

Canberra is an interesting environment in terms of arts practice and enjoyment. It is a relatively small place and also relatively well resourced, and the home of major national collecting institutions and galleries, and always just a little under siege psychologically, a little bit edgy. The citizens of Canberra incur the dislike of the rest of the country, as where we live and work and make art is also where our country’s politicians wrangle each other in Parliament in the big house on (and under) the hill. We have a bad reputation because of this, even though most of us have little to do with the machinations of Parliament.

Like the spurned child in the playground, we make our own fun. And what great fun it is.

Canberra’s Centenary in 2013 was a big focus for arts activities, and our Skywhale now swims through the Australian skies singing of the wonder of her hometown and of the places she visits.

I think there is a sense of regrouping in the arts, a feeling of where to now? And in this climate of cut backs, and major changes in direction in so many areas, what sort of leadership do we need in the arts?  Leadership is a quality and practice whose elements are often interrogated, as leadership is key to the success, or at least the viability, of many organisations and businesses and communities.

So The Childers Group gathered together arts leaders to mull over the topic of leadership in the arts. They are an independent art forum, formed in November 2011, and advocates for the arts in this region.

I have decided instead of trying to condense my whole experience of the forum into one post, to reflect on it over a few. So expect more. It was such a rich afternoon  I will be buzzing with what it offered for quite awhile and I want to share some of what I observed. (In fact, I suspect FAD requires me to!)

As a writer I have a special interest in language and story, and my account of the forum is likely to  be influenced by this perspective. Though I saw friends and colleagues involved in writing, like Kelli-anne Bertram and David Vernon from the ACT Writers Centre, and       Jen Webb and Katie Hayne from The Centre for Cultural and Creative Research, (and at last met Rosanna Stevens from Scissors Paper Pen), and of course Nigel Featherstone who represents literature (among other things) so well in the Group itself, I was reminded writing is just one field in a wide and various art scene. But I did notice many references to the importance of language and story during the discussions, central concerns of the writer. (It is good to feel one’s skills may be useful.)

Canberra Theatre Centre

Canberra Theatre Center (with blossoms)

The first plenary session was held in the Canberra Theatre foyer. The speakers were    David Williams (Emeritus Professor), Harriet Elvin (CEO of the Cultural Facilities Authority) and David Fishel (Board Connect and Positive Solutions).

I was especially struck by Elvin’s reference to the Oxford English dictionary definition of a leader:

One who conducts, precedes as a guide, leads a person by the hand …

One who guides others in action or opinion; one who takes the lead in any business, enterprise, or movement …

The clarity but also the poignancy of leading a person by the hand, its gentle intimacy, but also its respectful quality, resonated with me, and I recognised something in it about my experiences of working with good leaders. I resisted the description ‘effective’ leader here, because I think the adjective ‘good’, also implies a moral and partly selfless dimension that for me is an aspect of the sort of leadership I admire. There is also a sense of travelling together.

To indicate the significance of the arts for our communities Elvin also quoted                 John F. Kennedy’s reflection inscribed on the Cultural Centre named after him. “I am certain that after the dust of centuries has passed over our cities, we, too, will be remembered not for victories or defeats in battle or in politics, but for our contribution to the human spirit.” This rhetoric (in its true sense) places art as part of our core, and is a reminder of our possibilities, of our best. (And, oh my gosh, look at that sentence structure! Exquisite.)

But let’s move from this height, to something very practical. I was impressed that as a leader, Elvin measures her own success by the success of her staff. It says it all, really. Oh, that all leaders should think this way.

She also examined what the arts sector had to offer business, rather than what business offered art. Generally the art sector excels at teamwork. It is an intrinsic part of the arts, getting a live performance together, a publication, a film, a concert, or an exhibition, requires extraordinary levels of cooperation and commitment. The arts also embrace ‘creative lateral solutions to problems’, and ‘creative partnerships,’ as it is always looking for ways to make the most of limited resources and to push the limits of what they can achieve and also sustain.

We are always, always tempted to focus mainly on funding and finances, and I was refreshed to find the conversations that afternoon circled around that eternal dilemma, but also widened to refocus on other goals, on innovative art practice, communication and enjoyment.

Elvin’s quote from a Yeats’ poem, He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven, was also apt, suggesting how to respond to the love and dedication and sometimes frustrations of arts workers for their work, and how leaders needed to be mindful of their staff’s aspirations and vision as well. I think leaders in general need to consider this (I glance to the hill).

‘Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.’

My walk back through Civic that night was with such a light step.

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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