It is timely to share Maureen Helen’s Reading Magic in the same week that all Australians are encouraged to stop what they are doing and read for an hour on Thursday September 20th . Maureen’s story is testimony to the power and value of reading during childhood and shows how reading influences one’s path in life.
When I first met Maureen, I was totally engaged by her enviable energy for learning and life itself. Maureen is a co-member of the Mastermind group I attend and we catch-up every few weeks as we update social media skills.
Maureen’s blog How to be eighty is a testimony to her engaging sense of humour and warmth of spirit as she shares her insights on a range of topics. You will find elements of Maureen’s biography shared throughout her story.
The trajectory of my life follows the magic of reading and I can’t imagine being without books and stories. My parents were such avid readers that while my mother was pregnant, my father read to her as she knitted for their new baby (me). Books formed part of our lives and the sound of voices reading cocooned me.
My parents read to me from a variety of authors, including AA Milne, JM Barrie, Mary Durack, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Greek mythology and Lamb’s ‘Tales from Shakespeare’.
Not only that, but the women in my mother’s family told stories. Of strong Irish descent, they’d grown up in Greenough in the mid-west of Western Australia. Their history reflected a different time and place and they embroidered the truth when it suited their purposes. Family stories and myths were part of my childhood, helping to form my world view and imagination.
Highlights of my reading journey
Like most literate people, I could write a memoir about my reading journey, but I’ll simply highlight major events.
- My joy, well before I started school, the day I discovered I could read
- Sitting half-way up the loquat tree in our garden, mostly hidden by the thick green leaves, where I read all the Anne books one summer holiday. LM Montgomery probably sowed the seeds of my lasting passion for the rights of women and those who are marginalized
- Disgust to find the nuns had censored books in the school library with India ink scribble, to prevent their adolescent charges reading things the good sisters deemed ‘unsuitable’
- Theophane, a strong woman, who encouraged me to read poetry and literature in ways that unlocked a new world
- My broken heart when I left school at 15. Dreams of a university education were shattered. My reading fell away in the pain and confusion. I trained as a typist and then as a nurse
- Fast forward twelve years when I pushed a pram laden with three children under three to the public library. It was hot outside and the library deliciously cool. I chose new books to read to my babies and looked around.
‘I used to read once,’ I thought. ’But my life is so different now, I don’t know where to start.’
Walking home with nothing adult to read, I was miserable
It’s hard not to believe in miracles! A week later, I read somewhere about distance education available for adults who couldn’t get to classes. I enrolled in Leaving English and immediately fell in love with my tutor Kevin Byrne.
Kevin directed my reading through the syllabus of Dickens, Ibsen and Judith Wright. I read while I stirred custard and I kept a notebook on the end of the kitchen bench and another on the ironing board.
Kevin liked what I wrote. I passed Leaving English and History (with distinctions!) and enrolled in a BA in Social Science, the only university course available to external students.
My next three children breast-fed to the sound of their mother’s voice reading from whatever text was at hand.
- I read Voss long before Patrick White was ‘discovered’. Fell in love again. Read everything Patrick White wrote
- I discovered Simone de Beauvoir, fell in love with her, and with Jean Paul Sartre. Began to read philosophy and enrolled in a Graduate Diploma in Women’s Studies
- A major turning point came when I discovered Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way a few years before I retired from my career in nursing/counselling/advocacy/management. It rekindled my childhood passion to write seriously.
- With no formal literature or writing qualifications, but a portfolio of nursing and travel articles, a few published short stories and a poem or two, I was accepted to complete a Masters in Writing at Edith Cowan University
- At 69 years of age, I completed a PhD (Writing). My first book, Other People’s Countrywas published a year later and was long listed for a Walkley Award in the Best Books category, and short listed for the WA Premier’s History Award.
Our library, literally a room with books on three walls and a ladder to get to the top, was reduced to a few shelves of books when we down-sized. Mostly now we buy, borrow and swap books, and it works well for us. I’m still reading voraciously, still writing in my eighties.
You can learn more about Maureen on her blog – How to be eighty – www.maureenhelen.com.