Wednesday, 28 October 2020

Julia Baird's Phosphorescence: On awe, wonder & things that sustain you when the world goes dark


We are having bumper meetings these days, because due to COVID-19 we retirees are not travelling the way we usually do through the cooler months. It's lovely actually, though with 10 or more at meetings, the enthusiastic discussions can be hard to follow! I apologise to members whose ideas I've missed, in other words.

This month's book was by Aussie journalist and biographer, Julia Baird, who has had a very tough cancer journey over the last few years. Her book, Phosphorescence: On awe, wonder & things that sustain you when the world goes dark, ostensibly contains the lessons she has learnt to help herself and others through such times. Some of the essays were written (in some form) before her illness, which suggests that these ideas have been swilling around her head for a longer time.

As usual, we started with ...

First impressions


We basically broke into two camps, those who loved the book, and those who liked it but with reservations.

Those who loved it found the writing wonderful, commenting on the way she draws the reader in by observation and experience, and on the personalised, moving way she shared her ideas. They liked the way she drew different threads together. One listened to Julia Baird, herself, reading it on Audible, and found it excellent, so much so that it made her want to buy a print copy to refer back to.

Those with reservations all liked much of the content, and didn't disagree in any major way with what she had to say. Like those who loved it, they found her a bright, intelligent woman, and thought her writing excellent. The reservations varied a little but boiled down to feeling that the book:

  • contained many ideas we could relate to, but offered nothing new;
  • felt disjointed, or as some said, the "phosphorescence" theme didn't play through the book as clearly as was expected;
  • was tedious at the beginning, but liked it more when it became apparent that it was a book of essays; and/or
  • felt a bit glib, and repetitive, which made it somewhat unsatisfying.

The discussion


The discussion, just like some felt the book was, was somewhat disjointed!

Members identified aspects of the book that particularly struck them, which included (excuse the lazy dotpointing!):
  • Baird's looking for nurturing experience from the natural world
  • much of the language and her descriptions 
  • the memoir aspects
  • her encounters with a wide range of interesting people, which we felt was partly due to her journalist career bringing her into contact with such a variety of people (like the millionaire financier in New York)
  • the way she seizes the day
  • the book's beautiful cover
We also talked a little about Baird's discussion of faith and doubt. One admired her being one of those women of faith who can relate to/reach a broad audience. We shared a couple of her comments about doubt:

The mark of a civilised woman, too, is to doubt the wisdom received from men for so long...

Another that several of us liked came during her discussion about its being ok to doubt scientists, who, themselves, recognise that things can change and that they need to "embrace doubt, and see shades of grey...". She says scientists have been wrong in the past "as have politicians, teachers, priests, principals, CEOs and all sorts of authority figures". And then, she adds in parentheses:

(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.)

We all loved that.

We talked about the various references to Japanese aesthetics and philosophy. The prevalence of Japanese thought was interesting given she talks about visiting various places, but not Japan. The ideas, which are hard to express in Western words, are Shinrin-yoku (or forest-bathing, about the physiological/psychological benefits of being in the forest); YĆ«gen (about grace and mysterious experiences that are hard to explain); Wabi sabi (about imperfect or transient beauty); Kintsugi/Kintsukuroi (about repairing broken pottery in ways that the repair can be seen, making the damage part of its history and beauty); and Moai (about the groups created among newborns in Okinawa which provide social support through life).
Moai was discussed in the section on friendship which is beautifully called "We are walking each other home" (Ram Dass). One member loved the concept introduced in this section of Freudenfreude, which is a term coined, Baird says, by psychologists to describe the opposite of Schadenfreude

Another wonderfully named section that we discussed a little is "We are all wiggly" where she talks about accepting and/or embracing failure and imperfection. She describes her own spectacular failure as an activist for the ordination of women in Sydney's Anglican church. She argues that we should appreciate and recognise failed activist action, that we should honour the effort and the commitment. We should also recognise that quite often the issue keeps building and is eventually achieved. 

We also enjoyed her discussion in this section of the pressure on women's appearance - their dress, their hair, etc. We loved that the term "mutton dressed as lamb" was initially positively intended. (Oh, and most of us were surprised to hear that she has a big nose! We hadn't noticed!)

We laughed at some of the stories, such as her son's delightful hoarding of his underpants for the memories they are associated with, and her sock-chewing groodle, Charlie. Other stories that interested us included the story of hope as exemplified by Jim Stockdale who spent over 7 years in Vietnam's most notorious and brutal POW prison, and the subsequent concept of "The Stockdale Paradox".

Some of the other messages we took away included living life deliberately (by paying attention), the (counterintuitive) idea that the clue to happiness is to have low expectations, the value of awe (including "the overview effect"), and the importance of searching for our "ert" (a term coined by marine biologist Lisa-Ann Gershwin to oppose "inertia").

One commented, gratefully (ha!), that Baird didn't talk about the current "in" idea that she's hearing everywhere, gratitude!

The book provoked much thought among many of us about our own lives and values, but what was shared in the room will stay in the room. Let's just say that in the end we decided that, whether we agreed that the work was fully coherent or not, it was a book in which Baird was able to share many of the things she wanted to say and pass on, and that the book can work as "a salve for the weary".

Present: 11 members

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