17 January 2007

Coetzee but without the disgrace

I finished up my second shift at the Koala Hospital at around 11.30am with a cup of tea in the staff-room. The conversation was dominated by irritations about Centrelink. Talk then turned to Koala Preservation Society name badges—Amanda had one and said they were available to volunteers prepared to cover the $7 cost involved. I was dying to become "official" so I put my name down for one as did the others. I remarked that I was sure that the koalas would appreciate knowing what to call us. "Hello, I'm Sam and I'll be shovelling your poop this morning". As a volunteer, I also get 10% off from the gift-shop which sells every kind of toy koala and koala-themed merchandise imaginable.

It was good to be off my feet. Even better, the staff-room was stocked with green tea. I looked down at myself — I had dirt under every fingernail, there were red scratches up the soft skin inside my forearm and there was dried dirt in the creases on the inside of my elbow joint. My shirt was wet and muddy. My legs were also streaked with mud. I'd caught sight of myself in the mirror outside the treatment room and saw that, not only was my forehead beaded with sweat, but my hair was fuzzy with humidity. A big tuft stood out from my ponytail where it'd obviously been yanked out by a tree branch.

It was a foreign thing to me to be that dishevelled and dirty. That night in the shower I actually had to scrub at places instead of the usual perfunctory rinse. You don't get too dirty sitting in an air-conditioned office all day. Though invisible, corporate grime is harder to shift; good, honest koala-loving grime on the other hand was a tangible sign of my doing some good. I felt worthwhile.

When I got home I also felt utterly exhausted — not just physically but mentally. I wandered around for the rest of the afternoon in a daze. It was like starting a new job when you are in hyper-alert mode, trying to concentrate on everything you see and hear. That night I slept solidly. You know the quick little falling dreams that wake you with a jolt just as you're entering into your deep sleep? Instead, I was driving down Pacific Drive and a koala bounded in from of my car. I woke up gasping!

I keep thinking about J. M. Coetzee's Disgrace, and how the protagonist's unglamorous work with dogs gave him some sense of absolution from his professional disgrace. Not that I have any episode of disgrace to overcome, but the work is surely ennobling for all its seeming simplicity. Perhaps the simplicity of a routine that nonetheless helps the helpless is where this kernel of soulful satisfaction resides.

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