Turtles and an Angel

There’s a few turtle stories in Ben’s life. The one that I remember the clearest is when he was about 12 and had collected a number of small turtle shells from a dried up pond. The shells went under his bed until I noticed a smell coming from under there. On looking closer it was apparent the shells weren’t entirely clean and my advice to put them outside on an ants nest was turned into Ben spraying perfume on them and leaving them under his bed! He grew up into a keen fisherman with a through understanding of the sea and for some reason I equated sea turtles with him.

Ten days after Ben’s funeral I was staying with my daughter in Central Queensland. I was browsing in the self-help book section of the local Big W oping to find something to help me articulate my shock and grief. I turned around with that feeling that someone was looking at me. A book had been left open exactly at my eye level on a page about sea turtles. I looked straight into the face of a beautiful sea turtle and knew Ben’s presence instantly.

This was more comforting than any words. A felt presence.

The next day I returned to the same shopping centre for a massage. I hadn’t been there before so I was happy to be seen by any practitioner. I was asked what I wanted and I said I was particularly tense after my sons recent death and just wanted a relaxing massage. The woman introduced herself as Faith. A few minutes into the massage she said to me, “I dont know how it feels to lose a son but when my mother died two years after she lost my brother. They said it was a broken heart.”

I asked after another few minutes he had died here or overseas as the woman was African. “In South Africa”, she replied.

“Was it an expected or a violent death?”

“My brother was a policeman and he was shot and killed by thugs.”

I told her that Ben had been shot and killed by police.

She said that there will never be any justice where the police are involved. She told me not to focus on the details of what happened and why but to look after myself and my other kids and not to push my husband away.

I felt a presence again. I cant explain what it was but it was there and it saw me and knew the words I needed to hear at that time. Still many months later I remember those words and try to live by them.

Turtles and angels have more in common that you realise.

Life is Strange

This is all I can say right now. Life is strange. It hasn’t worked out the way I thought it would when I was younger. Its much more unpredictable and mysterious. There are no formulas for understanding or achieving anything that will deliver a guaranteed outcome. I just read these words in a tiny book on joy…”Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you”…illustrated by the simplest flowers of all…daisies. And I’m wondering if this is true, if only it was as easy as this.

Ben, my eldest son, was a capable country boy. He had practical skills that were always needed by others, friends, family and employers. He was rarely bored. The only times I’ve ever seen him quiet and still was when he was near water, fishing mostly. His usual, fairly predictable self began to disappear last year and he became scattered and chaotic over many months. I attributed this change to prescription medication he was started on, and I still do. He had a month’s reprieve from all this when he came to stay with us in the Northern Territory and that prescription had run out. He was back to being the fishing and country boy we knew and loved. Calm and relaxed and enjoying being able to celebrate his 40th birthday on a camping trip with us.

That was September 2019. In November I volunteered to assist a Rohingya refugee being held in offshore detention for the past six years, to apply for Canadian immigration. A young man of 34, N, has a wife and 10 year old daughter still living in a refugee camp in Bangladesh. He hasn’t seen them for 10 years. He has never seen his daughter, only in photos. We communicated on WhatsApp and shared stories and day to day happenings. I’ve loosely followed the news over the years about Australia’s offshore and onshore detention policies for refugees and felt they were unnecessarily harsh and wished our government was more humane and compassionate in it’s laws. But that’s as far as my thoughts about refugees went. Except, that I knew if I was ever in a position to help I would. N’s life in Bangladesh as a child refugee from Burma (now Myanmar) until being detained on the Pacific island of Nauru by the Australian government began to open my eyes to what countless refugees worldwide experience. I am only beginning to realise the despair, statelessness, trauma and displacement they experience. And I wonder what is hoped to be achieved by mandatory indefinite detention other than causing a form of torture.

On December 6th, N, asked me to be his mother. His parents had died soon after they fled from Burma when N was six years old. He barely remembered them. For him to have a mother again was something he’d barely hoped for. I happily agreed as I’d begun to care for him. I hoped to be able to visit him one day when he was free in Canada.

On December 8th 2019 Ben was killed, shot by Queensland police. I’d told N two days before that I had 2 two daughters and two sons but now I had three sons after agreeing to be his adopted mum. Life is strange. I gained a son and lost a son in two days. And I am still re-thinking what it means to be an Australian. To live in a country (and “believe” in it) that deems it lawful for a young man, father of four children, to be killed by law enforcement officers with no questions asked. And to detain others indefinitely when no crime has been committed.

In January 2020, N, was flown to Australia under the now defunct medivac legislation for medical treatment for which he is still waiting and detained in a motel in a coronavirus hotspot. I have been trying to get him approved for release into the community to live with my husband and I until his case for settlement is finalised. Australians returning from overseas and interstate have found being locked in a motel room for two weeks extremely challenging. Many young men in Melbourne, Brisbane and other places have been detained in motels known as alternative places of detention for month after long wearing, boring month. Many were flown here because of mental health problems.

Since N has arrived in Australia I’ve “met” other young men from all over the world. Tamil men from Sri Lanka, others from Iran, Iraq, Bangladesh and Pakistan. All with traumatic stories of survival, all in need of care and freedom. My life has broadened to include so many others as I’m learning to live with the loss of my firstborn son. Life is indeed strange.

A Red Bird

Its been over a year since my last post. Life was chaotic and grief-filled last year. A young man close to our family shot and killed himself in March. Around the same time my eldest son was slipping into a mental health downward spiral. Months went by and nothing and no-one seemed to help him. I felt like I was watching powerlessly at the edges of his life until he was tragically shot and killed by Queensland police in December.

Since then I’ve read a lot of books about grief, trying to make sense of what had happened, and trying to understand how I felt and find a way to live a normal life again. Nothing feels normal after the death of your child, no matter how old that child is. Ben turned 40 last September. He has four children, siblings, parents and many friends who still dont feel normal. We are stunned, numb and moving mindlessly through each day from sunrise to sunset doing things needed to maintain our lives.

I’ve been reading a book this week called “The Gift of the Red Bird” by Paula D’arcy. Its about the spiritual journey of a woman who lost her husband and young daughter in a car accident when she was three months pregnant. A few years after the accident in her quest to find meaning in her life once more she spent three days and nights fasting on her own in a canyon wilderness. She writes that “During this time, when I experienced hunger, thirst, fear and beauty, a red bird became my constant companion. I know today that this bird was a Cardinal; at the time I was only able to identify him by his brilliant colour. It was startling to feel so much comfort and resonance with a tiny winged creature. On my second night in the wilderness there was a powerful thunder and lightning storm with strong winds from two tornadoes. As I huddled in an empty bunkhouse where I’d run to for slim shelter that night, I felt the full force of life and death and our human fragility. In the morning, having survived, I was anxious to hike back to the where I’d sat during the first two days to see if the bird had survived as well As I pushed open the door of the bunkhouse, there on the doorstep was the red bird, waiting for me. It was inconceivable to me that he knew where to find me, or that this very doorstep was mine. Since that moment, red birds have appeared continuously in my life. They seem to find me. I eventually wrote about the experience of those days spent alone in nature in my book ‘Gift of the Red Bird’. However, I am well aware that no words I can ever write will convey the power of that encounter…red birds are a sign to me of the miracle of life’s deepest connections as well as a sign of the mysterious elegance of being here”.

Its a thoughtful book about loss and human frailty and connections and mystery which doesn’t end with neat or trite answers. Towards the end of the book Paula writes “I am learning to listen (pay attention) to everything. Truth surprises me. It does not always come in the way I anticipate it will. I have found it in traditions different to my own and in people with the least bearing or stature. The hardest to admit is that I have often found truth in places (people/traditions) about whom I’ve had a lot of judgement. God is in everything. That knowledge alone, if grasped, is enough”.

Two mornings ago I was having a conversation on Messenger with a young man, a refugee from Afghanistan now detained in Indonesia for many years. He is a self-taught artist producing drawings and paintings you would expect from a Fine Arts graduate. Shavali Mahfar, lives in a small, shared room with basic equipment but creates images full of life, colour and hope. I’d sent him a photo of a Northern Territory blue wren for a morning greeting and he sent me back a perfectly drawn blue wren on a limb. I asked him if it was for sale but he said it had been sold. I asked him to let me know if he ever drew another bird. He said he had another….

I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, a perfect drawing of the red bird, the cardinal in the book I was reading! How amazing and “co-incidental”, I suddenly felt connected to life and the profound mystery that it is. Like Paula I dont think words can adequately convey such experiences but it reminded me that comfort, connection and meaning haven’t disappeared from my life and this week God came to me in the form of a writer called Paula, an artist called Shavali and a bright red bird.

White Privilege?

This book was published in the UK in 2017. Its written by a London-based journalist about race relations in her country. It won quite a few awards for non-fiction work. The title is provocative and draws the reader in to explore eradicated black history, the link between class and race and what exactly “white privilege” is and why white people are often oblivious to it, or worse, become defensive or angry when it’s pointed out.

Reni Eddo-Lodge, the writer, asks how can it be defined and responds with, “It’s so difficult to describe an absence. And white privilege is an absence of the negative consequences of racism. An absence of structural discrimination, an absence of your race being viewed as a problem first and foremost, an absence of ‘less likely to succeed because of my race’. It is an absence of funny looks directed at you because you’re believed to be in the wrong place, an absence of cultural expectations, an absence of violence enacted against your ancestors because of the colour of their skin, an absence of a lifetime of subtle marginalisation and ‘othering’-exclusion from the narrative of being human”.

Although British, the book describes attitudes and structures in the dominant white culture that exist in all Euro-centric countries. Its valuable reading to make us stop and pause and ponder our privilege and what it means and what each of us can do about it.

The writer sums the book up by saying, ” I know that, at first, talking about race is uncomfortable, because too many white people are angry in denial. And I understand that after white people begin to get it, it’s even more uncomfortable for them to think about how their whiteness has silently aided them in life. A lifetime learning to empathise with white peoples stories means that I get it. But I dont want white guilt. Neither do I want to see white people wasting precious time profusely apologising rather than actively doing things. No useful movements for change have ever sprung out of fervent guilt…We cannot escape the legacies of the past, but we can use them to model our future. The late Terry Pratchett once wrote ‘there’s no justice. Just us.’ I can’t think of any other phrase that best sums up the task ahead.”

I recommend the book to any reader interested in racism, how it feels, it’s history in the UK (and hence its roots can be found for the countries that England colonised?), what it looks like and without providing what she describes as a “magic formula”, what can be done toward dismantling it.

Well worth a read!

Safety

As you know, unless you’re visiting my blog for the first time, I’m a nurse in a remote corner of north-east Arnhem Land. I work in an Indigenous community and live at the edge of another, half an hour away. Recently some young kids broke into the nurses house next door. They took a small blue-tooth speaker and some food. The Aboriginal Medical Service I work for quickly responded by installing security screens on the windows and doors on both our houses. Nurses safety is a priority.

When I started working in remote Australia the Cape York community of Aurukun was my first job and home for two years. It was often in the Queensland media for riots or some other violent infringement. Family and friends used to ask me if I felt safe working there. I always replied that I would feel safer walking down the main street of Aurukun in the middle of the night than my home town of Maryborough because the locals fought among themselves, long standing family feuds that had nothing to do with me.

Safety can be an illusion though. Last Monday morning I woke to a Facebook message from a friend, only it wasn’t really her. Her account had been hacked. The message was about her winning a lottery and my name being on the list. “She” directed me to accept a friend request from a “Ruth Edward” who was the Facebook manager of “360 National Lottery”. But I had to pay an administration fee to collect my winnings. An old scam dressed up in a new guise and yes I fell for it. I was so certain that the first message was from my friend I didn’t even think to pick up the phone to call her and check. I lost $15,000, my savings for a new car. I hadn’t heard of this scam and the only place on the internet I found anything about it was WA ScamNet, a government consumer affairs site that has since been very helpful.

Safety is multi-faceted. Physical safety that needs to be guarded by screens, fences and commonsense. Emotional and mental health safety which needs protective behaviours from high conflict or manipulative people. And Cyber-safety from fraud and identity theft with the resultant violation left with victims of this crime. Is safety from Cyber-crime a priority of the Australian government? In Western Australia alone 18 cases of this Facebook scam have been reported since April this year and over a $100,000 lost to it. The 360 National Lottery website is still on the internet.

So while remote area nurses continue to appeal to state governments and health agencies for safer housing and work safe policies, domestic violence organisations promote having a safety plan and therapists and writers suggest learning behaviours to protect ourselves from high-conflict people close to us. I suggest that Cyber-safety also become a priority  by learning all we can about it and spreading the word.

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Difficult People

I’ve just finished reading this book by Bill Eddy, president of the High Conflict Institute. He is a family law specialist and a clinical social worker. He’s seen his fair share of difficult people. But you don’t have to be a specialist to have encountered people at work, socially or in our private lives who disrupt things and cause us problems.

Before I took up my first position as a nurse in a remote area clinic I attended a workshop in Brisbane called, “Dealing with Difficult people in the Workplace.” I met the manager of the clinic I was soon to fly to there. In what I later understood , she said in her straightforward and abbreviated style, “I’m here because I’ve got a difficult person in the clinic. She’ll be in charge when you arrive, just avoid her!” There’s a vast number of books advising how to leave, avoid or manage high-conflict people in our lives. If it were as simple as “just avoiding them” we’d all have peaceful lives.

Bill Eddy notes that, “…you can’t identify an HCP (high conflict personality) by their profession or by how much other people trust them. In fact, highly admired leaders and members of the helping professions (teachers, physicians, therapists, nurses etc), may be slightly more likely to have personality disorders than people in other lines of work, because of an attraction to the intimate relationships and authority positions in these professions.” Interesting thought. I’ve certainly come across disruptive people working in hospitals and clinics among vulnerable patients and kind-hearted staff.

I recommend this book for at least becoming more aware of, spotting warning signs and managing relationships and stressful interactions with difficult people, wherever we might find them. And for recognising when we ourselves might be that person.

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Aurukun Visitors to Yirrkala

Its been a year since I’ve written anything here. I have no good explanation for that except maybe I thought my attention would be so taken up with trying to publish my book that I wouldn’t have time for my blog. As it happens I’ve had time for neither. I’m still working at the health clinic in Yirrkala which takes most of my energy.

I had a surprise this week, when an old friend from Aurukun showed up in the clinic. Vera, along with six other women, were visiting Yirrkala this week to learn about Bilingual schools. I got to spend an hour or so with them at a bush medicine demonstration and had a quick chat. Now, after reading up on both Yirrkala and Aurukun schools I wish I’d spent more time talking with them. Education in both these schools is a vast and interesting topic.

Yirrkala is in the East Arnhem land region of the Northern Territory, Aurukun is on the Western coast of Cape York Peninsula in Queensland. I’ve spent almost equal time in both as a remote area nurse. I’ve learnt a lot about Indigenous health problems, learnt some things about local cultures and been privileged to be part of some people’s daily lives. But my understanding of both communities is very limited, my knowledge of the Yolgnu and Wik languages scant and my comprehension of the problems the local people deal with exists mostly in my own imagination and thoughts. I already knew this at some level, but after reading about Bilingual schools and looking at the websites and facebook pages of both schools, I’ve realised yet again how very little I know about both communities.

Dr Marika, from Yirrkala, in the 1998 Wentworth Lecture is quoted as saying, “The Methodist missionaries came to Yirrkala in 1935…they banned the use of our languages in the mission school.” Over 40 years ago Yirrkala adopted a bilingual program that used Yolgnu culture to teach children to become literate in their own language while learning English and Western culture. Yirrkala is one of nine bilingual schools left in the Northern Territory, once there were 30. Lack of resources is the reason given for the reduction. There is extensive research available to read about the benefits of bilingual education. In the 2007 Little Children Are Sacred report, on page 147 it says, ” Schools teaching and instructing in English alone…develop a failure syndrome for many children as they return home at the end of the day often unable to remember what was taught that day-which causes them to become depressed”. Which can lead to non-attendance and the social and personal problems that result. Banbapuy Whitehead, a Yolgnu teacher at the Yirrkala school, says in an article for The Conversation, an on-line newsletter, “If I know what my language is, I know who I am, then I can see the others clearly…without language I cannot tell you a story, I can’t think. I can’t cry.”

Aurukun State School was opened in 1974. Vera told me the government wouldn’t allow the Wik language to be taught or used for instruction. Obviously the problems faced in Indigenous communities are much more complex than whether language is used in schools or not. But it is undeniably important for the maintenance of culture. I’ve seen first hand the loss of culture in Aurukun and the strength of culture in Yirrkala. Almost 10 years ago a system of teaching called Direct Instruction, a patriotic US privately owned system, was introduced into Aurukun schools. “It was developed for English speaking children with cognitive dysfunctions that inhibit their capacity to process language. The children in Aurukun do not have learning disabilities, they are simply learning English as an additional language. They speak Wik as their first language. Many also speak additional dialects in their daily lives…D.I. is, quite simply, the wrong intervention for the children of Aurukun.” (Dr Misty Adoniou 8/7/16 The Conversation). The Aurukun State School was closed twice in 2014 due to violence against teachers and the recommendation has been to reduce the use of D.I, in the school.

I can only assume, from my friends visit to Yirrkala, that the Aurukun community is now looking towards it’s own solutions based on the recognition of the importance of the their Wik language. This can only be applauded. Its to be hoped that the Federal and State governments can see the long-term value of continuing or instituting Bilingual education in it’s schools.

I’m so glad to have met old friends this week and to see their engagement and interest, strength and involvement in their community. So much depends on the continuing work of strong women.

 

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Memoirs

The nest of the Bower bird is an intricate weaving of grasses. I was shown this one recently by a nursing colleague who is also a passionate birder. It’s just on the outskirts of town, a miracle of nature. Looking at it and becoming aware of its’ builder in a nearby tree warning us to clear off made me suddenly aware that whole worlds of life must go on around us all the time and aren’t dependant on humans at all. How does a small bird manage to weave a nest this size as well as collecting his stones and coloured paraphernalia of choice?

I can’t weave a nest like this but finally my Remote Area Nurse memoir has been submitted to a publisher. It has been four years of writing and editing memories, travels and thoughts. Highlights and dark strands of story woven together while living my day to day life; existing not unlike the parallel world of nature that lives alongside us. There may be many more submissions to other publishers yet, or I may decide to self-publish but the creating of it is done.

For anybody writing or wanting to write memoirs or fiction I can recommend a few book companions:

“Still Writing-The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life” by Dani Shapiro. This book got me through the final edit.

“How the Light Gets In-writing as spiritual practice.” by Pat Schneider. The perfect inspiration to put words on a page.

“How Writing Works-A field Guide to Effective Writing” by Roslyn Petelin. The nuts and bolts of grammar which I suspect I will always be learning.

“Writing Without Teachers” by Peter Elbow. Again very inspiring for simply putting words on a blank page and being OK with it.

I will keep you posted on here about publication. Thanks for reading my occasional blog during the writing journey!

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Give up your endless searching

Lay down your map and compass,

and those dog-eared travel guides.

Rest your weary eyes from so much looking,

your tired feet from so much looking,

your aching heart from so much hoping.

Lay down on the soft green grass

wet with morning dew, and watch as

the tree heavy with pendulous pears

bends her long branches toward you,

offering you perfection in every sweet bite.

Give up the weight of knowing,

for the reverence of quiet attention

and curiosity, for the delight of

juice that runs in generous streams

down your chin.

Christine Valters Paintner

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Storytelling

Last May I went to as many events as I could at the Northern Territory Writers Festival in Darwin. The highlight for me was a panel of speakers discussing memoir writing and how family might react to the stories shared. All four women had published a recent memoir.The questions asked ranged from, “Do writers edit out parts to protect feelings?” to, “How much time has to pass before dirty laundry can be safely aired and can it ever be aired?”.The consensus was that you have to tell your own story and navigate the “hard stuff” about who it’s going to affect, the wisest, kindest way you can. There was no easy answer to any question raised. Each writer recognised the problem and each had worked out for themselves how to tell their own story with minimal negative impact on family.

Magda Szubanski reminded us that Aboriginal people are very conscious of not telling a story that doesn’t belong to them.She struggled with writing her fathers story, balancing her words carefully so as not to disrespect the Polish Jewish and Catholic communities the family had been a part of. She taught herself to write by finding her own voice and thus making the telling her own, if not the story itself.The memoir took her eight years to complete.

Each person has a unique story, unlike any other. And to be able to tell it freely enables a person to make sense of their life’s experiences. To clarify their emotions, to heal from losses, to inspire and encourage and to preserve cultural identity and so much more. Storytelling is fundamental to human experience. As listeners or readers we are entertained, we learn, we experience vicariously and we are enlarged by the contact with another person’s world. But, for all the benefits it’s still a balancing act to be honest in our telling and to share our story, without taking away from those closest to us what is rightfully theirs. Their story, their perception, their life. And isn’t that the same compromise we face day after day, whether writing a memoir or living our lives.