The blessings of a big sister


This week my dear big sister Jill turned 80, and this is the poem I wrote for her.

Poem for my big sister Jill

I wanted to give you a poem
eighty years back
when you were first-born
and armies were rising
and peace receding.
You learned about consultation
in the womb.

I wanted to give you a poem
to thank you
for protecting me
and holding my hand
and showing the way
and making peace
without any fights or feuds
or atom bombs.

The poem sat in my head for weeks
waiting for Mother’s attention.
On a short dark day
lop-sided day
turn-around day
a fence of shards and sand
and shrapnel sprang up
between the poem and me.

So I clambered over the fence
ripping my shorts
on splinters
lost a shoe
and clambered back to you
the almost perfect baby
to give you what you lacked
the one thing all big sisters need:

your very own big sister
just like Jill
to shelter and protect you
and hold your hand
and take the lead
on dark days
and on bright days too
the way big sisters do.

with love from Rachel 23 June 2016

poem and photo Rachel McAlpine cc by 2.0: feel free to share or quote, but include my name as writer

Decluttering your writing: easier with age?


Written materials are top candidates for decluttering

Not all writing is sacred. Oh no no no. If we kept every word we wrote, writers would all be living in a midden of our own making.

Most writing needs radical surgery before it works

When it comes to poems and plays and novels and other books, killing your darlings, as they say, is mandatory. Don’t take this literally: it just means ripping out whole verses and passages and chapters that you love in order to get the book into shape.

Books of poems seem to shed at least a third of their contents in the process of publication. Sometimes I’ve had to dump entire manuscripts. The good news: usually the book emerges in a new and better form. Humming, my favourite novel so far, was only half its original length when finally published.

Word purging is different from stuff purging in one respect

With stuff, matter, actual thingamebobs, we sometimes know within minutes or days when something is redundant. That garment you got from the op shop without thinking. That book you bought just to save embarrassment.  That gift you hated on sight but accepted out of courtesy. Words, by contrast, often need to lie fallow before you can spot the useless layabouts cluttering up your message and polluting your clarity.

Still, essentially, those surplus words just have to go.

Age and experience are major assets when editing

For most young writers and new writers, making those incisions is painful. They care, they care! Every word is a special needs word that needs cosseting and praise and preservation.

Far more cunning, old writers and experienced writers understand when and why they should hide a piece of personal writing away for a while. And if a deadline looms, they have rules of thumb that make easy to cut and control a manuscript very quickly.

Bonus when you switch from professional writing to personal or literary writing

Old writers get pretty smart at cutting to the chase.

Here’s a thrilling truth for journalists and corporate writers. One day you’ll finally have time for that book you’ve been longing to write. Could be that you lack confidence to switch to a completely new genre. You may feel you’re so stuck in your ways you are ruined as a literary writer.

Cheer up! Those years of brutal discipline as a journalist or copywriter or plain language trainer are worth their weight in anti-matter. Yes, you have heaps to learn, but surely that’s the fun part? And with your experience, you’ll find the crucial stage of editing a breeze. Cut cut cut, be bold, go go go!

Image from Internet Book Image Archive, “North Carolina Christian advocate [serial]” (1894)


Yesterday’s diaries: seductive clutter


Joy of decluttering: know it? Some do, some don’t. I love clearing away clutter: it’s one of my favourite diversions.

Last week I had an excuse to clear out half the contents of a little porch, commonly known as the cat’s ensuite. Any excuse will do. This time, a new clothes drier needs a vent. Whoopee — let’s have a major declutter!

The allure of old diaries

I’d kept at least a dozen desk diaries, and why?

  • I thought they were documents that an auditor might request, should I attract the attention of the IRD. If so, too bad.
  • Maybe I thought they might be of mild historical interest — to whom, for goodness sake? How ludicrous.
  • Maybe I imagined my children idly opening them after my death. Why would they, if even I didn’t open one before tossing it into the shredder bin?

Meantime a paper work diary reduces clutter

Old-fashioned, I know, but I still used a paper diary on my desk. (Love my iPhone calendar too, of course.)

Sticking to certain old technology simplifies life. It frees brain space for more important things than remembering where to find the urgent jobs of the week, appointments of all sorts, and printed itineraries and tickets. All in the diary, diary always on the desk, nowhere else, end of story.

To replace this simple technology  with a bunch of new software and habits could easily clutter up my computer and my life. Before acquiring any new software or hardware I always count to three. From experience I know that perhaps it would streamline my life —  but perhaps not.

3 rules of thumb for keeping clutter at bay

  1. If it ain’t broke, don’t change it.
  2. If you don’t need it, don’t keep it.
  3. Have a chucking-out splurge every now and then: go on, it’s fun!

You are you, I am me. We all develop systems that work for us. What’s yours?


Forgot why you went downstairs? Try audible mindfulness: talking to yourself


Talking to yourself has had a bad rap. I do it, you do it (don’t you?), pretty well everyone does it. We’re not crazy! Self-talk has many useful functions and many benefits. For example, your out-loud private talk can provide company, a pep talk, a safety valve, devil’s advocate, or coaching from your infallible cognitive behaviour therapist. Often we help ourselves to learn something by talking it through.

Keeping your purpose front of mind: a lost skill

Are you inclined to forget why you went into a room or through a door or up or down the stairs? Join the club. Our heads are so full of Very Important Thoughts (the Middle East crisis, global warming, hip operation, granddaughter’s birthday) that we lose track of a thought as mundane as why we walked from A to B.

Here’s a tip that I’ve just started using consciously with awesome results: I just say out loud why I’m moving from A to B.

  • “I am going downstairs to make a rum baba” (in your dreams)
  • “I am going into the study to book my ticket to Timbucktoo”
  • “I am going into the garden to pick parsley” (not to rip out weeds or bring in the washing).

Mindfulness the manageable way: self chatter

Mindfulness day by day, living in the moment, so desirable, so difficult to achieve! And what is this loop of personal jabber but mindfulness in action?

If I can make stair-talk a habit, that gives me 20 or 30 moments of mindfulness a day. Without such a habit, mindful moments are random, and sometimes a whole day goes by without a pocket of mental peace and refreshment.

I am listening to birds

This afternoon I had a very beautiful experience by using this simple expedient.

I was taking my vege scraps to the community garden — no detours allowed.

On the walk, there’s a patch of trees favoured by the Olympic champion bird choirs of Mount Victoria. Today I got massive delight from their performance just because, at the top of the hill I said to myself, “I am listening to the birds.”

Focus. Focus (mindfulness) brings pleasures beyond just accomplishing the task in hand.

Today has been a perfect day, and it’s not over yet.