HarperCollins Australia, $32.99
While published well before Covid-19 reached Australia, this book – subtitled On awe, wonder and things that sustain you when the world goes dark, is a timely read for this global pandemic.
Dr Julia Baird is an author (her 2016 biography of Queen Victoria was widely acclaimed), TV presenter and journalist. In 2018, she received an honourary Doctor of Divinity from the University of Divinity in Melbourne.
A keen ocean swimmer, Baird starts Phosphorescence with descriptions of the hypnotic creatures that light up the oceans and briefly glow in dark skies (think jellyfish, fireflies). This luminosity is a metaphor for what we need to sustain us in difficult times, she says – and goes on to suggest where to find it.
Baird is no stranger to pain and grief. Her own life experience, particularly of aggressive cancer requiring three major surgeries, while raising two children as a single mother, gives her an air of credibility.
Some of her book’s most powerful insights come from her discussion of the importance of awe and wonder. Being awestruck – whether by watching an electrical storm, hiking the Himalayas or watching life on the ocean floor – doesn’t just leave us temporarily thrilled. An increasing body of research shows that it does our psyches lasting good. Even a hospital room overlooking a garden can improve a patient’s health (Florence Nightingale observed this in the 19th century). Luckily for us Australians, apparently just looking at the ocean is good for us. So is paying attention, living in the moment, taking our time and savouring everyday things.
Reading this book in early 2020 brought home to me how much access to nature and beauty is unevenly distributed. Witness the numbers who flocked to Sydney’s parks and beaches during the Covid-19 restrictions – and how the ease of such access varied dramatically depending on your postcode.
Others of Baird’s prescriptions are more familiar: loyal friends, community networks and a supportive family are enormously helpful for those dark nights of the soul. “Meeting wonderful people is luck; keeping them in your life takes thought, care, forgiveness and devotion. Friendship is an art and a gift …”
At times the connection between her chapters and the book’s central themes seems a bit thin. Baird devotes chapters to her struggle (ultimately unsuccessful) for the ordination of women in the Sydney Anglican Diocese; her encouragement of women with PhDs to use their Dr titles; the pernicious influence of Instagram and other social media on the self-image of young girls. Phosphorescence is part self-help book, part memoir, part social commentary, but is at its best when Baird sticks closely to the central question: What really matters when life seems unbearable?
But I quibble. This is an uplifting book, well written and researched. Read it, ideally somewhere where you can look at the ocean, a rainforest, or at least a patch of green grass.