Deep Listening

Papercut by Kate Gillett

‘ We are not threatened by silence. 
We are completely at home in it.
 Our Aboriginal way has taught us to be still and wait. 
We do not try to hurry things up.
We don’t worry. 
We know that in time and in the spirit of Dadirri 
(that deep listening and quiet stillness) 
the way will be made clear. '
- Miriam Rose Ungunmerr

In a dim room, I’m sitting on the floor. Kids are climbing everywhere. Beneath a table, a fray of hair, a curve of naked slim shoulders and dark eyes peering out at me. A cheeky grin, white teeth flashing through pink lips.
    ‘What’s your name?’ She’s echoing me.
    ‘What’s your name?’
    ‘What’s your name?’ Crescendoing voices.
    ‘Sonia.’ She finally gives it up.
Glenys* is speaking quietly beside me, telling me more. A constant stream of half-information given in a half-spoken language. Her English is 300% better than my Martu. 
   ‘My temperature was going up. I had to keep going to clinic. Getting a needle, you know? She was born during Cyclone Tracy. Ate honey ants too young.’ 
Our conversation circles back, trying to cover the blank territory our shared language doesn’t reach.  We sit side-by-side, our gaze meeting only briefly. I can feel the breadth of her shoulders, the rise and fall of breath through her, through me. Body to body, the conversation runs clearer.

The Martu are teaching me to listen.

They are teaching me listening doesn’t involve the words I used to think.  No murmurs of ‘Yes, yes!’, no ‘Exactly!’ or interrupting to fill their story in with my own matching one. No fervent agreement. Listening is quieter than that.

Decades now into healthcare delivered in remote Aboriginal communities we’re still seeing terrible health outcomes. So many teachers and nurses have told me Aboriginal parents don’t care about their kid’s behaviour, speech delays or chronic ear infections. Yet I’ve heard too many Aboriginal parents, voices cracking with frustration, trying to understand a healthcare system delivered in a language other than their own. Surely ‘closing the gap’ must refer to the chasm of misunderstanding devouring the good intentions of both sides? 

When I began describing this gap to Non-Aboriginal managers in a metropolitan centre I was interrupted mid-explanation.
     ‘But you must do more than listen?’ one manager said.
    ‘Sure,’ I relented, ‘I also do therapy.’ But it isn’t working, I finished silently in my head There’s too much I don’t yet understand. 

Aboriginal cultures have a concept of listening called dadirri. It is listening that arises from quiet, still awareness;  listening that comes with waiting. At it’s heart, dadirri holds the responsibility  of awaiting full understanding; that understanding should inform action. But our mainstream Australian (hyper) activist culture pushes  for action. We assume we know enough to just jump in, and that what we do will help. We think we’ll learn on-the-go and achieve something while we’re at it.

How does this look to the Aboriginal people we serve? A culture who looks for actions informed by learning— by wisdom? How do a people with a Law that traces back to the ‘the beginning of time’ view our impulsive spurts of activity with every two year funding cycle?

I met Grace five times and each time I called her Thursley. Each time she swiped her hand through the air at some bothersome fly.
    ‘Nah, I’m Grace.’
    ‘No! Samson!’
She’d walk me through it again: the sisters, the brothers, mothers, aunties, grandsons and I’d listen. When was it enough? Had I been tested? One day she called me over and I sat down in the dirt. Grace’s concerns came tumbling out:  The granddaughter who won’t speak, the grandson calling out in nightmares. Nieces were called out of houses, a family of women gathered round. Babies, old women, young women, teens.
    ‘That’s Noah, he hasn’t spoken.’
     ‘Here’s Millyana, she won’t play with other kids.’
The aunties traced the family story through desert communities over highways to Perth, sisters sharing children. A dog snoozed in the sun having ambushed a camp chair, twitching flies off his ears.

Grace didn’t care about my two-year funding cycle. She waited to see if I’d wait.

In mainstream Australia I often feel caught in a rapid current, hurriedly bubbling downstream. In Aboriginal Australia, I get gripped by the ankles and dragged deeper. It’s darker beneath the surface, dank sediment suspended, noise muffled. Even the sky looks different reverberating through deeper water.

At the hands of patient Aboriginal teachers, I am learning to fall silent. Learning to drop my face deeply into hidden streams and drink fresh water running hidden, on and on through desert lands.

They are teaching me to listen.
To drink from deeper springs. 

*names and details have been changed to protect privacy


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