Phosphorescence by Julia Baird

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

I’m not sure if I can review this book. I find myself soaking up the words on the pages, reading and re-reading and thinking – about the ideas, the emotions Julia Baird’s words evoke, about the woman herself. In ‘Lessons from a Cuttlefish’ the author writes about awe. That is what this book inspires in me. I may never get it finished. And my review – an irksome piece of prose that could never do justice to what I am reading.

Phosphorescence is Baird’s term for that inner light that inspires us to continue when life seems gloomy and depressing. The author addresses the difficult question of how to find, nurture and hold on to that inner strength that lets us continue to find meaning in a seeming meaningless world. We can recognise the quality Baird describes in the way that people responded in wartime England when, with bombs falling about them, they made jokes about Hitler’s ancestry and just carried on. We witnessed it in the day after day tragedies of the recent bushfires when men and women (and children too) ignored the immediate and let their own anguished souls look to the assistance of others in trouble.

Baird does not use examples like these but instead, writes of pursuing awe, wonder and purpose she has observed in “forest therapists in Japan, jellyfish scientists in Tasmania…indigenous elders in Arnhem Land…punk-rock musicians, street artists and poets, billionaire bankers in New York, and priests in Colorado” (media release).

Her topic deals with our mechanisms for surviving and overcoming our own fragility when the world appears dismal, when the body and mind are suffering torment, when we feel loss and pain and so on.

Now, there a clinical description of what the book is about. It’s dry and uninteresting, and is everything that the book is not. Science has its place in Phosphorescence and is used by a writer with an expert knowledge of the particular field she is describing. But the key to the book, the major strength of the writer, is the warmth of the prose, the emotive depth of a writing style that treats the reader as a companion, never a pupil. That deep and innate understanding of humanity comes from a thinker who has had occasion to look into the abyss, survived, and understood that a sense of wonder at what might have been and what was to be is her key to a full and healthy and free life.

The book is inspirational, but what is it about? Part One is labelled ‘The Consolations of the Natural World’. It deals with the view of the world from the perspective of an ocean swimmer, detailed in the chapter ‘Lessons from a Cuttlefish’. This is a time-voracious chapter over which I consumed many, long minutes that seemed to pass in seconds. Another chapter in Part One is ‘Why we need silence’. The reader needs to set the alarm before reading this as it, too, is a colossal consumer, but never a waster, of time.

Part Two consists of seven chapters, listed under the general rubric ‘We are all wiggly’. It is a list of reasons “why we need to tell our imperfect stories” (Contents page), and deals with the very human need to laugh at our own silliness. The idea is not new and is summed up in the adage: laugh at yourself and others will laugh with you. Part Three: ‘Walking each other home’ deals with the making available of yourself as a listener, a non-judgmental friend who hears but never broadcasts. The sense of Part Four: ‘Invincible Summer’ (or Regarde: Look and Savour) is revealed in the chapter headings: Thoughts for my son – the art of savouring; Ert, or a sense of purpose; Growing by the light of the moon; Lessons of hope from the Hanoi Hilton; Raiding the unspeakable;  and Embracing Doubt. There is a Coda to complete the book.

The reader should be aware that Baird can make a point that slips past a conscious mind that is fully engaged in savouring the beauty, and the dry wit, of the prose.

“It is as though ageing is a little…embarrassing, unkempt and sloppy” (106)

“I was thirty-six. And apparently not even mutton dressed as lamb, but fast approaching mutton dressing as jerky – if we accept the dubious notion that the way women dress can be likened to the life stages of a sheep” (123).

“Despite everything, if you can somehow try to let your life be your witness to whatever it is you believe, grace will always leak through the cracks” (236).

This is no dry text. It is a book that not only holds the philosophies and specific views of Julia Baird, but holds and displays the woman herself. It is an absolutely beautiful book.

Phosphorescence

(2020)

By Julia Baird

Harper Collins

ISBN: 9781460757154

320pp; $32.99

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