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.

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.

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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Lunch…

I still work in remote Australia. In a top right-hand corner of the Northern Territory. Like all far away places choices are limited. On the Gove Peninsula it’s luckier than most because there’s ¬†Woolworth’s (and a hospital…no late night emergency call outs for the nurses who work here). Until recently, if I wanted lunch I had to make it everyday and bring it to work, eat it in the small clinic kitchen or try to find a quiet nook somewhere out of the summer heat. This year there’s a choice…an Op-Shop (Second-hand goods) has been opened in Yirrkala by an employment company to give the local women an opportunity to learn how to sort, arrange and display donated clothing and a variety of general goods. But best of all, on Wednesday and Thursday they open a cafe for lunchtime, and learn to cook, serve customers and plate food tastefully on local banana leaves. It’s a welcoming haven for customers, to the background of Gurrumul’s songs, we choose from the menu which includes baked filled potatoes (cheese and bacon), fried rice, fruit skewers, toasted sandwiches, local bush lime juice or brewed coffee. Prior to it’s opening there was no place, apart from the local art gallery, where the community, locals and those who travel to work here could mingle informally. It’s managed by the vibrant warm Ali, whose personality draws you imperceptibly towards, her just to see her smile. I enjoy browsing through donated books, DVDs and music and donating back. To say this old banana shed-turned occasional cafe, is a good thing for the community, is to understate the power of creativity, thought and effort to enhance the lives of others. My Thursday lunchtime baked potato and browse is the highlight of my week. Thank you Ali and the girls!

Grief

Today is a sad day in the Torres, Cairns and beyond. Soon the funeral will begin for eight children killed by their mother last month in Cairns. There are no adequate words for such an unimaginable event. There is no easy way to make meaning of what happened. Sometimes the work of making meaning has to be suspended and grief must be expressed in all it’s many forms. Today is such a day, to grieve for the children, for their fathers, their families and their mother. To remember and stand by all the people in the helping professions that have been involved with this happening over the past weeks and into the future. May we be generous and kind in our grief to all these people. Our minds and lives can be much more fragile than we realize in our busyness, none of us are really super heroes, we don’t know how we would react given the “right” amount of pressure and we don’t really know what’s going on in the minds and thoughts of those around us, even those closest to us. This is part of what it is to be human, to not know. Let us grieve today and be sad in our own way for what happened in Cairns and may it lead us to be kinder and gentler on ourselves and the people around us.

Beauty as Therapy?

I’ve just read an article entitled “Beauty Myths” by Dr Mary Grogan in a magazine called “Mindfood. She writes about how people are attracted to others with symmetrical facial features and how often beautiful looking people have a smoother path in life. But to balance that she mentions a book called “The How of Happiness” (Prof Sonja Lyubomirsky, Penguin 2007) which states that attractive people are no happier than plain-featured folk. Her ideas were interesting but what stopped and made me think was the following: “Interestingly, appreciation of beauty is one of two character strengths that have been shown to be associated with life satisfaction following recovery from a psychological disorder (the other is love of learning).

She continues “In a web-based study of 2087 adults published in The Journal of Positive Psychology 2007 Christopher Peterson and colleagues found that people who had a high appreciation of beauty were more likely to recover from depression and anxiety disorders with greater levels of life satisfaction. Thus, interventions that include how to develop appreciation of beauty may be useful not just as a general life skill, but in enhancing life when experiencing psychological distress and afterwards. So how do we find beauty in our world and appreciate it?”

When I worked in Aurukun, a remote Indigenous community in far north Queensland, for two years my sanity saver was to walk down to what was locally known as the landing on the Archer river after work and watch birds, sunset, sparkling water or misty mangroves depending on the weather and to photograph what was memorable. I’ve found in the years since I left and worked in various remote locations, finding beauty spots in nature and just sitting and watching and maybe photographing (which makes me notice more) has calmed my mind repeatedly. I can’t recommend appreciation of beauty, highly enough as a therapy for stress and a life enhancer. Remote area nurses are lucky to have access to some of the most amazing places in Australia if we take the time to find and notice them.

This photo was taken recently in the Northern Territory across the Gulf of Carpentaria from Aurukun.

When the Sun goes Down…

Have you ever had the experience of a few simple words changing your life? I have, over five years ago sitting on a red Weston’s flour drum at the landing in Aurukun, Fasi was sitting next to me watching local women fish as the November sun set. They were his words, “In my country we have a saying, when the sun goes down it’s the end of the day.” He first spoke them softly in Samoan and I thought I’d never heard anything so wise and sweet. I won’t tell you the rest of the story, except to say, I can still hear the whispered words in my imagination and their simplicity still makes me smile and it’s become a joke between us. I fell in love with him that evening.