Julia Baird
Phosphorescence: On awe, wonder & things that sustain you when the world goes dark
Fourth Estate, Australia, 2020
ISBN-13: 978-1460757154

The American children’s author Katherine Paterson once said that, “If we marvel at the artist who has written a great book, we must marvel more at those people whose lives are works of art and who don’t even know it, who wouldn’t believe it if they were told. However hard work good writing may be, it is easier than good living.” 

Phosphorescence

 

"Baird, a cancer survivor, journalist and television broadcaster, explores a range of fascinating topics such as cuttlefish, midnight swims in the sea, storm chasers and abolitionists. She’s at her strongest when bringing the obscure into focus, helping set our vision on connections we might not otherwise make. Much of her writing is beautiful and worth the read just for the beauty. And it’s impressive how much reading she's done to support each topic."

With so much good and clever writing, it is easy, then, to marvel at Julia Baird’s new memoir, Phosphorescence: On awe, wonder & things that sustain you when the world goes dark. A collection of personal essays divided into four parts, Phosphorescence explores the idea that light and hope abound in the everyday, that there are indeed some people in life whose lives are works of art, regardless of the dark loneliness we might feel or the circumstances which block our vision. Readers may marvel at the honest stories, lovely sentences and amazing research that fill her pages, hoping that each might lead to good livingbut it’s not as easy as that.

Baird, a cancer survivor, journalist and television broadcaster, explores a range of fascinating topics such as cuttlefish, midnight swims in the sea, storm chasers and abolitionists. She’s at her strongest when bringing the obscure into focus, helping set our vision on connections we might not otherwise make. Much of her writing is beautiful and worth the read just for the beauty. And it’s impressive how much reading she's done to support each topic. 

But for all her dislikes of certainties, Baird spends a lot of time supporting her own. She cites so many studies they sometimes weigh down her message. And though she admits to wanting to avoid preachy people (note: Anglicans and men don’t fare well), she goes preachy a lot on topics such as accepting imperfections, defending the LGBT community, and well, what the church needs to be doing. She devotes an entire chapter at the end to embracing doubts, even though she’s spent most of the book using academic study after study to confirm her ideas. 

In other words, Baird is complicated, open about her pain and still trying to work through things. And that’s part of the gift of the book that demands our respect. Baird, like none of us, has it together. And though some of her book reads more like intimate journal entries we shouldn’t be reading, that she wrestled with these issues at all is commendable. Maybe they were cathartic for her to write. Or maybe not everything she explored should have been included in a book that’s trying to get us to pay attention to life. Then again, maybe that’s the point. Life’s messy. Good living isn’t easy. And that’s worth shedding light on through Baird’s good hard work of writing.