City Special

Before I come to the city, I look at all the riches of my home: a great selection of clothes, so many books I haven’t yet read, giant containers of moisturisers and a year’s supply of little soaps from hotels. I don’t need to buy anything while I’m there, I think.

Straphanging city life. Pic by  Chang Hsien

Straphanging city life. Pic by Chang Hsien

But after being in the city awhile I find myself starting to be persuaded that I need things I never thought I wanted. It starts on the plane with all the serious-looking watches. Perhaps my bright plastic Swatch is not enough? Perhaps I need a big soft leather handbag. There so much to see in the shop windows!

But looking at prices stems the desire. My monetary wealth consists of a handful of plastic cards and a regular wage. Spending the price of a car on a handbag would not be wise. My cotton bag from Papua New Guinea holds things just as well and gives me a different kind of status.

I knew from a young age that experience and knowledge are the only ‘possessions’ you ever get to keep. Even your body is always changing and changed without your consent. That’s probably why some of us get tattoos — to make a colourful or rhythmic change of our own choice, to our skins: an initiation or transition of the body from culture, not nature.

While riding on a city bus, I see a poster. An actress — bony face, big eyes — has a cleft chin. Unusual in a woman, I think, possibly Photoshopped in to add interest. As we pass by city crowds, I start focusing on people’s chins. It’s as if I’ve never looked at chins before. They form a fine basis to the face. They are also a way of looking at a person’s face without really looking at them.

Julia Marlowe, British-born American actress 19-20th century. Great chin.

Julia Marlowe, British-born American actress 19-20th century. Great chin.

In my late adolescence I developed an uncharacteristic shyness. I became afraid of other people’s judgment. I was worn down by the clamour of city streets, the way their occupants assessed each other instantly on the basis of appearances. I was at the receiving end of dismissive and intrusive looks. Dressing like a hippy or a street urchin probably didn’t help.

An artist I met at a party, noticing my shyness, told me that he always looked at people’s noses. And thus, all those years ago, I began looking at faces again by looking at noses. I gradually lost my shyness. I recall this now as I look at the chins of working people — stoic construction workers, busy office workers, billowy mums — going about their business, waiting to cross the road. I wonder at how much easier it is to look at and think about a single feature than to try to comprehend humans holistically, when there are so many of us teeming along city streets.

Maybe that’s how some people become fixed on a body part. Perhaps it’s easier than facing the complexities of the body as a whole. Maybe it has to do with that loss of control we face in adolescence when limbs get too long or your skin is just terrible. It doesn’t help that there is a complex, intrusive machine of advertising and marketing ready to exploit teenage insecurities. It doesn’t help that there are very few adults at home or at school who have the wisdom or the energy to help young people who are convinced that an outbreak of blackheads, oily hair or big thighs mean they will never be loved or worthy.

Many of my doctor colleagues work on one part of the body only and get to know that system or that set of organs very well. I used to wonder, as a student, how you could spend a career that way. How did that generous man accept that searching the silky insides of intestines for suspicious growths was an okay task to do every workday? Inherent in the question was a student’s lingering disgust for the eliminative tract of the body.  I had also developed the university student’s misconception that your work was your life.

One of my many medical mentors was a doctor who did nothing but early pregnancy terminations for women whose contraception had failed them. She got to the point as I watched her work one day. “I don’t mind that my job is boring,” she said, as she dilated the fourth cervix of the day. Earlier, she had counselled the young woman, who cried — most of the women at that clinic did, handed her tissues, spoken kindly. Now, the patient slept in the care of the anaesthetist at her head, while I chatted with the other doctor by the woman’s relaxed legs. “I don’t need drama in my life,” my teacher continued. “I’m happy doing the same thing I know how to do well every day. And I am helping people, sometimes saving women’s lives. I get that. But if I have a day when it’s all the same all day, that’s a good day. I’ve got other things in my life that are interesting. Sometimes, after you’ve been a doctor for awhile, dull days at work are all you want.” As she looked past me with soft eyes, I wondered what kind of trauma she had been exposed to, working in hospital wards or emergency departments.

When I was little I wanted to be a hairdresser. I loved the way people were soothed by my five-year-old hands playing with their hair. My fantasy was a far cry from the reality of a hairdresser’s life, which includes dealing with shards of hair that can cause paronychia and the carcinogens in hair dye. And that’s before you consider the constant listening a good hairdresser does, a mental health service on top of the actual hairdressing. Even when I was too shy to speak to most as a young woman, I could chat with a barber or hairdresser.

Washing hair, listening. Photo by  Frank C. Müller

Washing hair, listening. Photo by Frank C. Müller

My work as a remote GP is stimulating every day. It continues to play on my mind even after I leave the community. On the first three or four nights of a break I dream of my patients and the clinic all night. That ensures that even during waking hours, I am wondering – should I email about that one, is this one being followed up? But mostly, the dreams are stories with no relation to the reality of my work, the apparent by-product of a brain used to working very hard. By the end of the week I’m dreaming non-medical stories. After a few days more, I dream of clouds.

I’m sure that even watching clouds all day can be a grave responsibility --  ifyou were a meteorologist who had to decode them to ensure safety for those at sea or in the path of an approaching cyclone. You would have to remind yourself sometimes that clouds are exquisite. Just as the perfect instrumentation and sedating medicine to deliver a woman from an unplanned pregnancy can be beautiful. You can see that in the patient’s relaxation as she rests with her cup of tea, wrapped up in a blanket later. I can even see that the shiny pink inside of intestines can be boringly happy – when it means a patient can get on with life, walking chin-first across the busy road, healthy inside and out.


Thumbnail pic of red shoes climbing by Lindsay Henwood.