My thought today is simply, that we can be surprised by beauty in unexpected places and what a delight that is!
I saw this drawing in a community hall in Yirrkala a few months ago and was drawn to the expressive movements of the women in dance and how well the art work was executed. When I asked if anyone knew the artist I was told it was a local worker, not someone who made their living from art. It’s not there now, maybe the artist wanted it back, or maybe a lucky person purchased it The day I saw it was a working day for me, driving around in the heat of midday looking for patients in the community, the passionate dancing image twirled my mind into a place of joy for just a few moments.
Surprises like this give me reasons to smile and remember that days, especially working days, aren’t only filled with serious effort, there’s lightness as well if we’re open to it.
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.
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.
History put things in context. It isn’t just a boring subject with datelines and exam questions. It lives when stories are recounted and to the listening ear it gives a lot of answers.
I’m writing a memoir of my working life as a remote area nurse and I’ve struggled with how to write about some things I’ve seen in Indigenous communities. I don’t want to add to the negative views already held by much of the dominant culture. I was pondering all this during my last contract in East Arnhem land in the Northern Territory when I had the good fortune to attend a workshop on cross-cultural understanding hosted by Richard Trudgen. He prefaced the two days by giving a short history of East Arnhem land. After he’d presented the past, the present was more easily understood.
I realized that my writing needed some history of Aurukun and other places to put the present into context. I found three well researched television documentaries about Aurukun from the ABC program “Four Corners”. Dating from the late 1070’s. I wasn’t prepared to be moved to tears by the interruption to the lives of local people from state government intervention with the introduction of alcohol, that alone caused social destruction on a large scale.
Now my writing is stuck at my time in Alice Springs…so here I go again to research some history of that place an
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 often said to other remote area nurses that we haven’t done ourselves any favours by doing the work that we do as we often feel we don’t fit in anywhere anymore. I read something recently that reinforced that opinion. In a book called “Other People’s Country” by Maureen Helen, her account of her work in remote Western Australia in the nineties, she speaks with a nurse who’s leaving after many years working in the same community: “It was to have been my big adventure,” she said wryly. ‘I’d planned it for a couple of years and thought I was lucky to get this job. But I hate the heat. And I miss my family, ‘she confides. ‘Sometimes I can’t remember why I came. everything’s so different. It’s like a foreign country, isn’t it? I feel as if I can’t talk to people who’ve never been here because they don’t understand. And people who live up here permanently are so comfortable they’re almost smug.”