Paying Attention

How many of us can remember being told by a school teacher or a parent to pay attention? When you’re a child full of energy and curiosity barely able to sit still, waiting for the moment the bell rings to be allowed to run outside and play with friends, paying attention in the way well meaning adults intended for us was a foreign concept. We did pay attention to things important to us, whether our best friend was at school that day, whereabouts in the yard the class bully was lurking and how much money we had to buy tuckshop. Paying attention is a subjective and often fleeting experience for children and adults alike.
I read, this morning, in a book called “Learning to Walk in the Dark” by Barbara Brown Taylor the following words: “If we could learn to be attentive every moment of our lives we would discover the world anew. We would discover that the world is completely different from what we had believed it to be.” That in a nutshell has been my experience of working with people of different cultures as a remote area nurse. Listening and watching what was going on around me lessened my fears of being among strangers in places I didn’t belong. I learned quickly that Indigenous Australia was very different from what I’d believed or imagined it to be.
Beginning to work among Torres Strait islanders on Badu island, at first, and later working on another seven over the following two years. I listened to the sounds of another language I never knew existed, I ate fresh seafood that melted sweetly in my mouth, I attended family gatherings decorated with colourful flowers and plaited palm fronds, I read the history of the pearl industry and listened to the elders recounting their fight for justice for land and sea rights. I watched the movement of the tides across the fish traps on Darnley and pondered who made them so many years ago. I imagined what it was like to be a parent who has to take their kids all the way to Thursday island to visit a dentist, the cost and inconvenience of it.
Paying attention enables us to live more in the moment and less in our thoughts, more in our bodies and less in our minds. It brings riches into our lives we could barely begin to imagine. But, we are normally so busy running around searching for security and planning for the future, that we forget that childhood lesson. We need an adult to remind us to stop and pay attention.

Expectations

When I arrived for my first agency nurse contract on Badu island in the Torres Strait I wasn’t aware of having any expectations. My main thought was that I was having an adventure. After a day or two I realized I was waiting for “something” to happen. Maybe shouting in the street, or some other type of sudden violence. The Cape York community I’d worked in for two years experienced a high level of violent outbursts. Raised voices in the streets were often the background noise to every other day. I had been initially shocked at that, but by the time I left I had grown accustomed to it.

The Cape York community was my first experience in working as a remote area nurse. I learnt my emergency skills there and began to have some understanding of the health and social difficulties of Indigenous people living in traditional lands. I didn’t know, though, that I expected every group of Indigenous people to be similar. Leaving the place I knew and arriving to work on a small island, my first lesson was about my own expectations. The fact that I had them, and that they were wrong.Since then I have worked almost two years in various Torres islands and can count on one hand the number of times I’ve heard shouting in a street. Becoming aware of my expectations and letting them go is a lifetime’s work. I learnt after those first few days to be more open to what I actually saw and heard instead of living from my assumptions. And I’ve been constantly and wonderfully surprised at the differences within Australian Indigenous cultures and individual people.

Singing Days

The French author Marcel Proust once wrote “There are hilly, difficult days that one takes an infinite amount of time to climb, and there are downward-sloping days that one can race down singing.”

I knew I was going to have many singing days when I stared out of the window of the small plane flying low over the Torres Straits, just off the top of north Queensland. The water below was a collage of blue greens and tiny uninhabited islands. I was on my way to work my first nursing agency contract on Badu island. I had grown used to island life in Samoa, where my partner came from. The long, lazy fishing days, the close knit family and community life that comforted me with the feeling of never being alone, and the endless beauty of the surrounding sea.

From the moment the plane touched down on the Badu airstrip and I saw coconut palms fringing the fence line, I couldn’t stop smiling. The two years I’d been in Aurukun on the western side of Cape York, had been mostly “hilly difficult days”, coping with being a long way from family and friends in a harsh environment. I was looking forward to living and working in a quieter environment. There is nothing as restful as being able to look at the sea and what I enjoyed as I walked in through the door of the Badu clinic, was being able to see straight down the corridor to sparkling water.

Singing days can be created or caused by any number of reasons. My Badu six weeks were filled with songs from the sea.

New Chapters

When I left Aurukun and began working for a nursing agency it was certainly a new chapter in my life. I’d worked for Queensland Health for around 20 years. I enjoyed the certainty and security of permanent work and, while I listened in awe to the stories of agency nurses I’d worked with, I was too afraid to follow them into the wide world of choices and possibilities.
In late 2010 I began work on my first agency contract on Badu island in the Torres Straits off the top of North Queensland. Prior to arriving I knew hardly anything about the islands, but the flight from Cairns to Horn island and then on a smaller plane to Badu whet my curiosity. I had never imagined any kind of life off the tip of Cape York. There had been a time in my adult life were I’d never been further north than Bundaberg, and even that felt like I was about to drive off the edge of Australia.
Flying over the Torres I stared down through a smudged plane window at a blend of ocean blues and greens and tiny uninhabited islands and knew I wanted to stay awhile to get to know this place.
So much has been written and said about new beginnings, basically the fact that the past needs to be let go of to embrace the new. I let go of the need for certainty and security and whole-heartedly embraced a sense of adventure which opened a fascinating chapter of island life and culture.

Breaks

Oddly, where I finished my last blog in my remote area nurse story, there was a natural pause, or break in events. I went from being permanently employed by Queensland Health to choosing uncertainty as an agency nurse. My first contract was on Badu island in the Torres Straits. I’d experienced life on a tropical island in Samoa and in many ways I found a similar culture on Badu.

I haven’t written anything here for five weeks. I’ve just returned home after spending time in Tasmania, another island, and at the opposite end of Australia to the Torres islands. Another island culture, but with few similarities to the tropical north. They share being surrounded by the sea and having a relaxed feel, but then landscape, weather and history diverge.

Breaks are essential to the narrative of our lives and their meanings many. We take a rest from everyday busyness, we end one thing and begin another, we voluntarily plan them or they’re forced on us. They’re usually a waiting time, a marking time until life resumes where we left off or we begin an entirely new thing. Either way, we’re never quite the same person. I went to Tasmania to witness a friends wedding, for her it was a wonderful beginning to something new, for me it was the experience of a place of beauty I’ve never seen before and to which I want to return. And which has given me another view of island life, new possibilities. I will return to my remote nursing story this week and write about life on tropical islands but my thoughts for now are very much still on the break I just took on a more southerly, cooler and greener island.