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!
Losses and griefs of all kinds fade a sense of beauty out of our lives. We forget what we once appreciated and held dear, even what we love and who we are. During the past two weeks remote area nurses in Australia have grieved the murder of one of our colleagues. After the first few days of shocked incomprehension someone on our Facebook site encouraged us to post photos of things that captured our reasons for doing the hard work that we do. The beauty in those shared photos was varied, individual and ultimately uplifting…some were of landscapes and adventures, others were of new-born babies and healthy mothers.Many of us will always see beauty in the shape of a Royal Flying Doctor plane coming in to land after a long night of waiting. Beauty is as unique as a snowflake, it’s to be cherished and nurtured in our lives wherever we find it and however we define it.
I’ve had my share of losses and difficulties since I began this blog site. I had a desire to share my experiences and insights from my remote area life, but beauty quietly disappeared for a while and all I could see and sense around me was a dull, drab landscape. The gentle energy of beauty hid in the shadows from me…until the past few weeks, for all kinds of reasons, and none in particular…colours are appearing again and curiosity beckons me forward. Life is interesting and I’ve picked up my camera and wandered outside.
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.
Everyone experiences loss, in different ways and at different times. Each loss has a different meaning. I’d worked in Aurukun about a year and a half and decided I’d stay for another year and a half. I bought a Toyota landcruiser, rescued a camp dog puppy and was given a scrawny bedraggled looking black kitten, with a car and pets I was ready to settle for a bit longer in a place far from home. Fasi and I nursed our puppy named with the Samoan word for baby, Pepe, to health. We delighted in her antics, Fasi even let her sleep on him. When she was about six months old I went to Samoa for a few weeks to visit Fasi as he’d returned to care for his elderly mother, and arranged for a nurse who lived next door to care for her.
Apparently all went well until the day before I was due to fly back into the community, Pepe became unwell with gastro symptoms. I wasn’t contacted. I had only her to look forward to seeing when I returned, as Fasi had left Aurukun permanently. I kept imagining her joyful welcome during the long flights from Brisbane to Cairns to Aurukun.
As soon as I reached the gate to my yard in the semi-dark of a Cape York evening I knew there was something wrong. The manager of the clinic came across and told me she put Pepe to sleep herself that morning. She hadn’t bothered to phone me.
I walked away and up my steps and sunk to the floor once inside and sobbed. I phoned Fasi in Samoa to tell him and we both cried. It seemed such an unnecessarily cruel thing to do, normally the nurses do all they can to save each others dogs.
I lasted a few days and handed in my resignation, I couldn’t work with the attitude of that manager.
There isn’t just one side to a loss. I felt Pepe’s death keenly, especially the way she died and the thoughtlessness of a nurse from whom people would expect better. After a few days Fasi rightly pointed out that Pepe would have kept me in Aurukun had she lived, I couldn’t travel with a dog. So I reluctantly turned to the next stage in my remote area nursing journey and took up life as an agency nurse, travelling over the top end of Australia experiencing places and people I barely knew existed.
Thank you Pepe.
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.
I’ve been reading “The Creativity Book” by Eric Maisel. I recommend any of his books, he’s a creativity coach and understands well the link between creativity and human well being. He’s also written a book called “Rethinking Depression…How to shed mental health labels and create personal meaning.”
The book I’m currently reading starts off, “When you become an everyday creative person you instinctively solve problems more easily (I have a fridge sticker that says ” What else is possible?), see the world as a richer place, and enjoy life more. You get to use capabilities and skills that may be hidden under a barrel right now. If you’re a writer or would-be writer and begin to unleash your creativity, you write more deeply and more frequently. If you’re a painter or would-be painter, you paint more personally, passionately, and authentically. If you’re self-employed, you see your options more quickly and make changes more fluidly. If you work in a large corporation, you become more self-directing, confident, and aware. Whatever you do, creativity helps you do it better; whatever the details of your life, you feel more alive. Creativity improves your work life and enriches your life in general.”
I can’t add much to that except to underscore it by saying I’m happiest when I’m making something, and how much more creative can any of us get than finding meaning in our lives.
When you find yourself in a remote place you welcome any overtures of friendship. loneliness, culture shock and generally figuring out how you’re going to fill in the hours after work can be quite a challenge.
A sulphur-crested cockatoo befriended Fasi and I one afternoon. It was sitting on the guttering of the clinic building just above our heads, leaning over peering at us as we talked. When we walked the hundred or so metres home along the red dirt track, it flew through the gum trees, over our heads and landed on the metal railing outside the kitchen, loudly calling “hello”. It must have once been someone’s pet, although we never found out whose, and it never ventured far from the back verandah and it’s water and sunflower seed tray, from the day it arrived till the day we left.
I loved that bird, it brought another dimension to the harsh life I was experiencing in Aurukun. Just watching it waddle about on the railing or wandering into the house made me smile.