Book review | Phosphorescence: On awe, wonder & things that sustain you when the world goes dark | Julia Baird

There’s a magic thought in the first chapter of Julia Baird’s latest book, Phosphorescence: “Maybe it’s just that we’re all made of stardust”. It’s not just fireflies, glow worms, certain bacteria, mushrooms and jellyfish that can emit light in darkness, but so can humans, and it’s that inner light that we search for in our darkest times.

Julia Baird had to find her phosphorescence when she was diagnosed with cancer in 2015 and throughout her subsequent surgeries and recurrence of her cancer. This book is the emotionally raw and honest result of the physical and emotional rollercoaster that the illness afforded her. There is much wisdom imparted in the book from the woman who has not only faced the possibility of an early death but lived an extraordinary and accomplished life. The stories she shares are compelling and research presented in an accessible way that only a skilled writer like Baird could make easy reading.

Julia Baird is a Walkley award winning journalist, author and TV presenter (on ABC’s The Drum) who has a PhD, was senior editor of Newsweek in New York and still writes for the New York Times and the Sydney Morning Herald. Her writing and research are impeccable but that is not the reason to read this book. Baird’s wisdom born of painful and joyous life experiences is a roadmap for life.

Part two of the book explains why we need to tell our imperfect stories and Baird recounts the story of her unsuccessful activism against the Anglican Church in the 1990s, with an assiduous attempt to have the church allow women to be priests. Despite the diocese going backwards, Baird remains a feminist and a Christian though not quite as loyal to the church she says is rendered ‘increasingly irrelevant’. Much is written in the book about spirituality, but Baird remains realistic about the patriarchy endemic in churches. She advocates the importance of faith, and her own Christian faith now centres around love. She says ‘God is light, the ultimate source of phosphorescence, the light we can absorb to later emit’.

The book alludes to other ways to experience spirituality. There is much respect for spending time in nature and Baird points to research into health benefits of nature. She clearly has respect for Rachel Carson, author of ‘Silent Spring’ as well as indigenous understanding of nature. Baird talks of the need to experience silence, the Japanese experience of yugen, and she mentions the ‘Overview Effect’ when astronauts  have a profound reaction to viewing the Earth from outside the atmosphere. She talks of impermanence and the short chapter titled ‘Honor the Temporary’ is particularly moving.

There are chapters devoted to giving advice to her daughter and son, and in turn, the reader. She speaks of her own mother who offers the best insight into resilience: ‘You just get on with it’. Baird’s innate resilience leads her to advise ‘You don’t walk away until the work is done’.

Phosphorescence is imbued with the sadness of a legacy book. Cancer survivors always fear the return of the disease that confronts them with the spectre of death, and sharing knowledge becomes a matter of urgency. Baird has lived a full and privileged life that most of us could only imagine. She has much wisdom to impart.

Julia Baird will be appearing at the Byron Writers Festival 6 – 8 August. For more information and tickets go to byronwritersfestival.com

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