I didn’t need much convincing about the importance of feeling ‘wonder and awe’ when I started reading Julia Baird’s part-memoir-part-essay-collection, Phosphorescence. The book begins with Baird’s experience of ocean swimming. I know the feelings she describes. I know those feelings from the sea. I know those feelings every time I look up at the clouds. I know those feelings when I gaze at the muddy sweep of the Yarra.
Something happens when you dive into a world where clocks don’t tick and inboxes don’t ping. As your arms circle, swing and pull along the edge of a vast ocean, your mind wanders, and you open yourself to awe, to the experience of seeing something astonishing, unfathomable or greater than yourself.
An amazing thing happened while I was reading this book. There was a big rain event in Melbourne and a sinkhole appeared in my suburb. I couldn’t stop visiting! I loved that there were others standing quietly looking at hole as well. Baird speaks of the importance of feeling ‘small’ –
We spend a lot of time in life trying to make ourselves feel bigger – to project ourselves, occupy space, command attention, demand respect – so much so that we seem to have forgotten how comforting it can be to feel small and experience the awe that comes from being silenced by something greater than ourselves, something unfathomable, unconquerable, and mysterious.
She goes on to add that in becoming ‘small’, we shrink in significance, and “…become better at living alongside and caring for others. And we become more content.” The sinkhole, COVID lockdown and my reading of this book aligned, and the timing felt lucky – it gave me a different lens through which to consider the pandemic.
In one sense, there are not a lot of new ideas in this book – we know that we live in a culture that is increasingly ‘silence-avoiding’; that under-appreciates nature; that is faster and faster and faster – but Baird frames it in a new way – the overarching tenet is awe, with a theme of mindfulness, and a foundation of fascinating research. She affirmed so many of the things I know to be true – the power of immersing yourself in water; the intrinsic benefit in volunteering; the importance of social connections and relationships for health and happiness; and the existence of ‘therapeutic landscapes’. The chapters on the need to tell stories are beautifully detailed and multi-faceted. And the chapters on friendship are exquisite. In one section, Baird describes the importance of long friendships –
These people are the crossbeams of our resilience.
That might be my favourite quote in the whole book. It is so, so true, and I keep coming back to it, turning it over in my mind when I speak to dear friends.
It’s not a perfect collection. Baird’s letters to her children, while beautifully written, feel slightly out of step with other chapters. Likewise, the chapters on faith didn’t hold my interest as much as the others, although they allow Baird to come full circle –
Many who don’t attend church or adhere to any particular religion, congregate on beaches, in forests and on mountaintops to experience awe and wonder, to sense a ‘peace that goes beyond understanding’, the ‘sighs that have no words’, and seek ways to bring light into their lives.
I read this book in April, just weeks into lockdown 1.0 for Melbourne. Five months on, still in lockdown, I have reflected on how my world has both shrunk (to a 5km bubble) and expanded, in the sense that this is a problem being experienced the world over. Baird states, ‘When you shrink, your ability to see somehow sharpens’ – these words weren’t written during the pandemic, yet I can’t help but apply them to what is happening now, and wonder what will change as a result.
4/5 A collection I will revisit many times.
I received my copy of Phosphorescence from the publisher, Harper Collins Australia, via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.
Baird refers to the song, Army, that Ellie Goulding wrote for her best friend.