Stories

In an on-line version of Anchor Magazine I recently read an article called “Original Voices, teaching everyone to write”, by Pat Schneider, founder of Amherst Writers and Artists. She is a well known writing teacher who holds workshops that make writing an experience within the reach of anyone who picks up a pen or types at a computer.

She writes, “Every human has a story and every story is valuable. Most of us would agree to that. What might be more difficult for us to agree upon is this: all of us, speaking in our own original voices, achieve at times literary art. It may not be published, but the artistry is there”. Pat goes on to tell the story of a Vietnamese man who attended one of her workshops hoping to learn to write better in English, but each day he became more and more frustrated, until finally on the last day Pat asked him to write in the language he dreamt in, the language of his birth. He then wrote a flowing and moving account of his father, which he read back to the other participants in English. The point she makes from this is that we can all write our stories, despite any perceived lack in ourselves of education, language, or opportunity if we write in our own voice, of our own experiences. These things, so important in the dominant culture, are no guarantee of wisdom or insight. The sparks in a story that light up our interest come from the deep honesty of who we are and what we’ve experienced.

Last month in Gove, in the Northern Territory, where I live and work the Garma festival was held. Four days of Indigenous dance, song and various cultural workshops in the open air and heat of the North Australian bush.It was an enriching experience made possible by the generous sharing of local Aboriginal people teaching us aspects of their culture we could understand. Objective things we could listen to, the resonance of the didgeridoo, hands-on weaving, jewellery and spear making and the colourful visuals of their dancing. Stories were the one thing missing, there was no event or place we could participate in where we could listen or read stories of these ordinary Aboriginal people’s experiences. I wondered what Garma meant to the women teaching us to weave or to make shell necklaces. I wondered what they would have been thinking as they collected multitudes of tiny colourful shells in the months before or for those who would have collected the pandanus grasses for weaving and roots for dying. What did all that mean to them? How did these activities take them away from their families? And the older man who patiently taught the didgeridoo class under the grass-covered shelter, what did he think of young white men wanting to play his traditional instrument? Who can hold workshops for these people in remote communities so they can tell their stories in their own voice? How would they be accepted if they could?

Stories give us insight into other lives, other places and enable us to connect to a much wider world beyond our own thoughts and experiences.They help us develop an inclusive attitude to others different to ourselves. Connection to, and inclusion of, other people is what makes us mature human beings.

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!

Beauty

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.

Namass

The first Christmas I spent as an agency nurse on Badu island I was befriended by the local lady who managed the motel. Two single women rattling around an otherwise empty motel for six weeks led to a close friendship. She invited me to her cousins for Christmas lunch. A beautifully prepared feast of rolled stuffed pork, grilled locally caught fish, salads and vegetables, turtle eggs, coconut damper and dugong. Her cousin and I also became fast friends, she told me about her years working as a chef in Darwin and Rockhampton and most days after that Christmas she called me to stop by her house after work to collect a takeaway container full of tasty food. Both these wonderful women have since passed away but along with my memories of them they left me with many of their favourite handwritten recipes. This one for Namass, is popular in the Torres Straits for preparing raw fish, no doubt other women have their favourite way of preparing it, but this one was Margie’s favourite.
Namass

Make a sugar syrup with quarter cup of each, white sugar and lemon or lime juice, put on a low heat until sugar melted add chopped chillies and sliced Spanish onion. Slice fish (Queen or Trevally are good) thinly and lay on a platter. When syrup cool pour over fish slices and marinade for 1 hour, drain discard syrup and lay onions and chilli over fish.

This picture was taken in Margies kitchen.

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.

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.