Julia Baird, Phosphorescence (#BookReview)

Book cover

Much as I love watching Julia Baird on The Drum, and much as Mr Gums and I worried about her multiple cancer diagnoses and her extended journey to recovery over recent years, I’m not sure I would have read her book, Phosphorescence: On awe, wonder and things that sustain you when the world goes dark, if my reading group hadn’t scheduled it. However, we did schedule it, and I did read it. I found many of its ideas affirming or confirming, or, if not those, thought-provoking. In other words, although it feels like a self-help book which I usually avoid, I’m glad I read it.

Why? Her hope, which she shares late in the book, is pretty straightforward:

I wrote this book in the hope that it might be a salve for the weary, as well as a reminder of the mental rafts we can build to keep ourselves afloat, the scraps of beauty that should comfort us, the practices that might sustain us, especially in times of grief, illness, pain, and darkness. (p. 274)

She goes on to say that she understands that the things she’s shared, “stillness, kindness, the sea and ancient trees can hardly be a universal panacea for all the suffering on the planet”. This is true, but there is more to the book. In the Prelude, she describes her intention as being ‘to search for “the light within”, for what makes people shine’. What she shares, I’d say, will speak to each reader differently, according to our personal values, beliefs, and life experiences.

The book is divided into four main parts, focussing in turn on awe, wonder and silence; the importance of accepting and valuing failure and imperfection; the art and value of friendship; and the practice of looking and savouring, of paying attention to our inner strengths. Each of these explores its topic from three perspectives: documentary evidence from researchers, writers, philosophers; anecdotal evidence from people Baird knows or has spoken to; and, of course, her own personal experience.

It is an unusual hybrid of a book. Part book of essays, part memoir, and part quest (for “phosphorescence” or “the light within”), it sometimes felt more like a collection of random thoughts and ideas than the coherent argument I was expecting. This may be partly because several of the essays originated in previously published pieces, whose links are not immediately obvious. However, while this uncertainty was at the back of my mind as I was reading, it didn’t stop me enjoying each essay as it came along, because each had something interesting – and often heartfelt – to offer.

So, for the rest of this post I’m going to share some of the ideas that appealed to me and why.

Japanese thought, friendship, imperfection and doubt

First was the frequency with which she references Japanese thinking and aesthetics – and many of you know how much Mr Gums and I like Japan. The ideas, which are hard to put into Western words so my descriptions are loose, are Shinrin-yoku (or forest-bathing, the physiological/psychological benefits of being in the forest); Yūgen (mysterious or sublime, perhaps, experiences of beauty); Wabi-sabi (beauty in imperfection or transience, often characterised by asymmetry, roughness); Kintsugi/Kintsukuroi (repairing broken pottery visibly, so that the damage becomes part of its history and beauty); and Moai (the groups created among newborns in Okinawa to provide lifelong social support).

It’s not surprising that a nation that is generally known for values like stillness and stoicism, for preferring what novelist Juni’chirō Tanizaki calls “a pensive lustre to a shallow brilliance”, might have ideas relevant to a search for our “inner light”.

Anyhow, Moai was discussed in the section on friendship which is titled “We are walking each other home” (after Ram Dass). If there’s one image from the book that moved me it was this, the idea of “walking each other home”. It speaks of grace, tenderness and care, and of the way I’d like to think my friends, family and I are with each other. Baird’s section on friendship is beautiful .

In another evocatively titled section – “We are all wiggly” – Baird discusses failure and imperfection. Again, as in the other sections, she ranges over a wide range of ideas and examples, which are too numerous to share here, but they include honouring our failures, letting ourselves go (appearance-wise), and appreciating impermanence.

In the fourth section, Baird, a Christian, writes about faith and doubt. While I appreciated her discussion of her faith and what Christianity means to her, I most enjoyed her discussions of other forms of faith, hope and stoicism, and its corollary, doubt. Embracing doubt is valid, she argues, though she adds this aside:

(Although, seriously, if you can’t accept what the vast majority of scientists have to say about climate change, it’s not doubt that is your problem.)

I also enjoyed her exploration of the importance of searching for our “ert” (a term coined by marine biologist Lisa-ann Gershwin to oppose “inertia”).

In this section she also refers to Helen Garner and Tim Winton, Australian writers for whom faith is important, but whose thinking about it is personally rather than institutionally focused.

Setting a “low bar”

However, what struck me most was her articulation of a philosophy that I live by. It is, as described by psychologist Barry Schwartz, that “the secret to happiness is low expectations”. Or, at least, Baird adds, “realistic ones, erring on the low side”.

When it first dawned on me that this was how I managed my life, I was surprised. It didn’t seem to accord with my view of myself as an idealist, but I then realised that the two were not mutually exclusive. I could have high ideals of how we should all behave and treat each other but I could also not expect that we all would (all of the time). I worried that this might sound snooty, or holier than thou, but hoped not. For me, this approach encompasses the realisation that we don’t all come from the same place; we don’t all have the same experiences or values; we have not all had the same opportunities; and, perhaps most critically, many of the things that affect us are out of our control and that, to remain sane, I need to be able to accept them.

As I’ve been writing this post, it’s become clear to me that the book does, in fact, satisfy Baird’s goal of searching for “the light within” – even though, while reading it, I sometimes felt I was losing the overall plot as I followed her down multifarious paths. In retrospect, I’ve decided that this could be the book’s strength. Not only does it offer a variety of experiences and thinking, but it enables us to choose paths most suitable for us, paths that may change depending on our circumstances. I won’t be swimming with giant cuttlefish like Baird, but I’m very happy to bathe in the forest.

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Julia Baird
Phosphorescence: On awe, wonder and things that sustain you when the world goes dark
Sydney: Fourth Estate, 2020
310pp. (including 23 pages of Endnotes)
ISBN: 9781460757154

33 thoughts on “Julia Baird, Phosphorescence (#BookReview)

  1. This is such a thoughtful and measured and fair reading of a book still in my e-TBR pile that I almost feel I may not need to read it – you have captured the Julia I read in the week-end SMH and watch as moderator/discussion leader on The Drum. I will read the book of course – though currently I have just finished Pip Williams’ The Dictionary of Lost Words and I am now getting into the Lowitja O’Donoghoe bio by Stuart Rintoul AND Witness by Louise Milligan.

    • Thanks very much Jim … when you read the book, you will see how much is there that I couldn’t begin to cover. So many books, though, eh? I have Pip Williams in my pile, and would like to read the O’Donoghue bio, for a start.

  2. There aren’t really any good sides to the deterioration of the ABC over recent years, but one side effect of the journos feeling insecure is that they are writing books, and some of them are very good. I have Sophie Macneill’s We can’t Say We Weren’t Told which I heard about at the MWF and I’m going to read it as soon as I’ve cleared the last of the NF books I have for review. (I was a bit snowed under when they all arrived at once, but I’m on the home run now).

  3. I love the idea of celebrating flaws as part of an object’s history. I had heard of that concept before, but not that the item was repaired by leaving the flaw in an obvious way. I guess I only got half of it. On the other hand, does that concept apply to people in Japan? It was my understanding that they are also an appearance-obsessed nation.

    • That’s interesting Melanie. I’ve visited Japan four times now, and I’ve never thought of their being appearance-obsessed, at least not the way we Westerners are. I think there’s a more innate interest in aesthetics.

      There is of course some appearance focus-fashion, hair, nails etc but I have never felt they were particularly obsessed. This could just be me. I don’t focus on appearance so I may not really see it, particularly in a different culture.

      • Based on my few ventures into Japan and interactions with Japanese colleagues I got the very clear impression that they are particular about their appearance rather than obsessed. This is particularly the case with women – the female colleagues were always so neatly turned out. Part of me wondered whether this was the way the culture historically has “required’ them to be.

  4. This sounds very worthwhile for multiple reasons.

    I also often find satisfaction through low expectations.

    The Japanese culture here sounds like it explored in a fascinating way.

  5. I was gifted this book recently and loved it. I enjoyed the beautiful writing and deeply personal themes and quite liked letting go of the need for cohesiveness. Reading it was like a ramble through an art gallery.

  6. I confess to being surprised. I shouldn’t, inasmuch as we have no genuine understanding of the characters of people in the public eye, but I was.
    Thanks, ST !

  7. What a lovely review, Sue. Phosphorescence is not the sort of book I’d normally read for the same reasons as you. But I might dip in and out of it on the strength of your review. It was among the last books my mother was reading before she died, and I think I can get a hold of her copy.
    Melbourne’s lockdown has been an object lesson in many of the themes you touch on in this post. My equivalent of forest bathing has been watching several nests of tawny frogmouths in the parks near my place, while also trying to practice small acts of kindness. It is a relief to be out of lockdown, but there are some lessons I hope to take forward.
    Sending light to you.

    • Thanks, Angela. I think my Mum would have found this interesting. The last book my Mum fnished was Pip Williams’ The dictionary of lost words, appropriate for a lexicographer. I gave it to her, and I now have it.

      Anyhow, Phosphorescence is worth checking out I think. And, I think any Melbourne reviewing this could not help, I think, but think about it in relation to the lockdown. I hope we all retain some lessons of this time, but you Melburn les have probably had more time for the lessons to lake stronger root?

      I reflect that light back to you (but will first absorb some for myself!)

  8. I live just around the corner from Julia Baird, WG, and know the beauty she speaks about, although I draw a line at the fish. When I do go swimming now, it’s not the course from Shelly Beach to Manly in the company of shoals of them, or even in the surf, but in the little harbour pool nearby. It’s a wonderful place, with the sea so close, and I feel so lucky to be here – my spirits soar whenever I walk out the door. And on the strength of your lovely review now, Sue, I’m ready to get the book. The beauty of the ‘unfinished’ has always captivated me. Thanks for awakening me to it, and for what both Baird and you have to teach me about Japan.

  9. Lovely post Sue. At first I got excited the book was about the occurrence of phosphorescence in nature because I just watched a David Attenborough show about it. So not exactly what I was expecting, but it sounds like an interesting book nonetheless. 🙂

  10. Like you, I was not planning on reading this book, but then a copy came to me via work, and during a low period of covid-blues, I pulled it off the pile (after reading Kate’s lovely review for it I think), looking for a little pick me up. But I’ve only read the first couple of chapters.
    Now that I know that there are some Japan references I will continue on. It’s not that I’m not liking it, I’m just not that into it yet, or prioritising it. AusReading Month will be the final push to get me to finish it I hope!

    I’ve always been an idealist too Sue, but with high expectations! For myself and others. Over the years I have learnt to lower the bar and have been much happier. But it’s something I’m still learning to do.

    I recently read a book called Fracture, set in Japan, but written by Argentinian writer Andres Neuman, that used the idea of kintsugi for objects and people and even the whole country as the premise for his story.
    Healing, strength and resilience by honouring the damage. I find it to be a powerful idea.

    • Thanks Brona. Keep working at that expectations business. I’ve always tried hard for myself but I think I’ve always been realistic about him humanity! Did books do that? Perhaps!

      I think I’ve heard of fracture but not that inspiration behind it. That adds to the interest for me.

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