Phosphorescence by Julia Baird

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.

18 responses

    • It has taken me an inordinate amount of time to write my review because each time I picked the book up, and saw ALL THE NOTES I’d made, I wondered how I would ever cover all the good bits! In the end, I decided it’s the kind of book that will speak to people on a very individual level… that said, reading it in lockdown gives particular significance to many of the ideas Baird explores.

  1. This is going on the reading list. Mountains for me are what put me in my place: their soaring magnificence, and the respect they deserve in all weather conditions. The sea too. Thanks!

  2. This is so weird, I was just thinking about some of these things earlier today – about being small and contentment – and then came and read your review! I’ve not heard of this but I’d be really interested to read it. It doesn’t look like its been published in the UK yet – I can feel a virtual trip to Readings coming on…

    • Well worth seeking out – as I mentioned, I wonder if this book resonated so much because of current circumstances… either way, it has made a lasting impression.

  3. I saw a headline yesterday about happiness being only fleeting and I meant to read it, but I suspect I don’t need to because I’m already an adherent of contentment. Contentment comes from the things you mention in this review.
    Decades ago, when we were on one income and money was tight, I saved and saved to buy a bedspread, And then I had to paint things, to match the bedspread. And one day, I looked at it all, and remembered all the money and effort and thought it wasn’t worth it. Matching stuff wasn’t what made me happy, it actually made me discontented.
    Expecting to be happy all the time is daft. Contentment is the thing…and it’s got nothing to do with stuff.

  4. I had been feeling resistant to this book for some reason, but your review has given me pause to reconsider. Thanks for tempting me and I’m glad to hear you’re doing okay down there in Melbourne right now.

    • If you are feeling resistant, you could dip in and out of it. Some of the chapters are linked, and the book is certainly structured around a theme but it’s not the sort of book you have to read in one go – spread it over a few weeks and it will still be marvelous.

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