You may well ask what drinking gin from the cat dish has to do with the Bhagavad Gita…but in this, my second foray into looking at the Divine Qualities, I’m looking into wholesome purities of mind and heart.
Well, this quote from one of my favourite writers, Anne Lamott, may help:
You see, I think most of us aspire to having pure minds and pure hearts, but there are times when what we think and feel doesn’t always reflect the best version of ourselves. Times when we criticise ourselves or others, or when we catastrophise, or when our thoughts descend into worries or jealousies or biases.
For me, this happens on a daily (if not hourly) basis: no matter how much I attempt to fix my mind on thinking the best of every situation and personal encounter I have, or how much I try to be open hearted and open minded, or how much I actively choose to see and experience life as it is without judging it, I fail.
And sometimes I, too, think thoughts so vile they would have Jesus (or Buddha or any other spiritually enlightened historical figure you care to mention) reaching for a cat dish full of gin.
I suspect, however, that the entire point of embracing wholesome purity of mind and heart as a Divine Quality is to keep aiming for it — after forgiving ourselves when we inevitably, humanly, fall short.
As I write this, I am waiting for a phone call from the hospital to let me know when I can collect my husband, because The Bloke had an altercation with his own surfboard this morning (on his first wave of the day, no less), split his lip and has required surgery. It has been a valuable experience in learning to let go, not knowing all the details of what has happened, how he is going, or when he can come home.
Today’s events have also reminded me how grateful I am that we have easy access to excellent health care. That The Bloke was so unfazed by what happened that he didn’t need painkillers when he got to Accident and Emergency. That he wasn’t injured more seriously. That because hadn’t eaten breakfast he was able be put straight under general anaesthetic. That a plastic surgeon was already at the hospital and made time to operate at short notice. That we are blessed with friends who took him to A & E, stayed with him until he went into theatre, brought his car home, and have checked in to see how he is going.
Writing, as always, has helped me to stay calm. To stop my monkey mind from taking over. To break the information I know down into small chunks so I can quietly process what has happened and realistically predict what is likely to happen next.
I still may end up drinking gin from the cat dish after The Bloke is safely home, but at least I know that will be entirely by choice, rather than because I’ve let unhelpful thoughts and feelings get the better of me.
And, naturally — because I suspect this is how the universe works — as soon as I have finished writing this, The Bloke has called and told me himself that he is OK.
At the beginning of each year I attempt to find a word or theme to guide me through the twelve months ahead. It makes sense to me to do this, not only because here in the Southern Hemisphere the school year mirrors the calendar year, but also because my birthday falls in January. I find it useful to embrace an overarching concept that often ends up informing what I do, what I read, what I think, and even the way I approach my life.
Last year, I took delight as my guiding principle after dipping into Ross Gay’s Book of Delights. Prior to that I (perhaps less successfully) delved into the lives of diverse people — Marcus Aurelius, Virginia Woolf, Keith Richards — to see how their perspectives might inform my own. Another year I chose a different Word of the Month to engage with.
In 2021, I’m taking myself going down a slightly different path again — one decidedly unfamiliar to me, raised as I was in a reasonably conservative Roman Catholic home by parents who remain steadfast in their faith and who chose to send me to Catholic schools throughout my primary and secondary education. This year, inspired by reading Jay Shetty’s book Think Like a Monk, I’ve chosen to explore the Divine Qualities outlined in Chapter 16 of the Bhagavad Gita.
There are 26 Divine Qualities listed in the Gita, so I am hoping to tackle one every couple of weeks. Quite obviously, I haven’t been raised Hindu and have little experience with the Vedic tradition other than what I’ve learned from various teachers when attending yoga classes from time to time, which means I am engaging with each quality as outsider. From the oustet I think it is important to state that I do not intend to bring a religious slant to any of my posts and I mean absolutely no disrespect to believers in this or in any religion: I am simply using the Divine Qualities mentioned in the Bhagavad Gita as a starting point and exploring how these, as I understand them, apply to my own life.
The first Divine Quality mentioned in the Bhagavad Gita is FEARLESSNESS.
What a way to kick things off, huh?!
You may, given the current state of the wider world, now have an inkling of understanding as to why I was intrigued by the Divine Qualities: given that much of 2020 involved a global pandemic, trade wars, continuing environmental crises and particular politicians peddling lies and failing to protect their own people, there were many things about last year that made me FEARFUL. I often wondered, in 2020, whether my family would stay physically safe in the face of an invisible disease and mentally strong when confronted with multiple lockdowns, whether my husband’s business and those of his clients would survive the associated economic upheaval, and whether the world was actually going to hell in a handbasket.
Fearlessness? I’ve never lived through a year more prone to making people fearful, or for provoking (at best) garden variety anxiety on a daily, if not hourly, basis!
I have to admit the word shocked me when I first read it, right at the top of the list of Divine Qualities. It felt like such a foreign concept in these strange and unusual times.
And yet, the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to embrace fearlessness.
Many of us spend far too much time worrying about — or even fearing — things beyond our control. What if we stopped fearing what other people might think of us, or whether we’re good enough, or if the timing is right? What if we started to trust ourselves and our abilities more, to do what is right and responsible, to make our best effort every time with the knowledge and resources we have?
For me, staring fearlessness in the face meant asking myself:
What if I actually finish my novel?
What if I allow myself time to exercise every day?
What if I publish more on this blog, even if it exposes me to potential ridicule?
What if I say no to stuff that no longer serves me?
What if I say yes to trying new things?
And I’ve decided, on balance, that all of those things are worth doing.
That it’s worth letting go of fear and trusting the universe (or God, or whatever you believe in) has my back.
That it’s important to have faith that the vast majority of people on this planet are doing their best and are kind and decent human beings.
Well, I’ve covered my Top 5’s for 2020 in music and on screen, and now it’s time for my alter ego, the Thrifty Fictionista, to take centre stage and reveal Blue Jai’s Top 5 Books of 2020.
I don’t normally keep track of how many books I read, but for some bizarre reason utterly unknown to me I did in 2020 – and, despite home schooling and remote working, somehow found time to escape into more than 60 books. They ranged from non-fiction to biography to literary fiction to fantasy, read either on the page or on an iPad using the Libby app (which I think is brilliant).
Along the way I read some stuff I definitely won’t pick up again but which served its purpose during the darker times of the year just gone, but I also uncovered some genuine gems which, without further ado, make up Blue Jai’s Top 5 Books of 2020.
Phosphorescence: on Awe, Wonder and Things that Sustain You when the World Goes Dark by Julia Baird (2019)
I actually kicked off 2020 by reading Julia Baird’s masterful biography of Queen Victoria (which, if that sort of thing is your jam, I highly recommend). But it was this gorgeously ornamented hardback volume, which I will refer to simply as Phosphorescence for short, which took my breath away. In it, Julia Baird has delivered what I view as the best kind of writing: thoughts and ephemera so beautifully expressed and interwoven that you want to start reading the book again as soon as you have finished it.
In preparation for writing this post I was flicking back through Phosphorescence trying to find a specific passage which stuck in my memory – it was a description of sunrise on the East Coast of Australia, which compared (if I recall it correctly) the suddenness of the sun’s appearance over the rim of the Pacific to a lit match being dropped into petrol.
I couldn’t find the precise quote I was looking for…but as I leafed through the pages of this wonderful book, it reminded me of all the amazing things Baird talks about: not only phosphorescence, but storm chasing, and the Overview Effect, and forest bathing, and so many other glorious things. And in the process, I found another, completely different passage, which probably sums up even better what I love about this book:
If we accept flowering by its nature is a fleeting occurrence, then we are more likely to recognise each blossom as a triumph. And if we accept impermanence, we are far more likely to live in the present, to relish the beauty in front of us, and the almost infinite possibilities contained in every hour, or every single breath.
Enough said, yes?
Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo (2019)
Turning now to fiction, I could not fail to include Bernadine Evaristo’s prize winning Girl, Woman, Other, which deservedly took out the Booker in 2019. The intersecting stories and perspectives in this book stayed with me for a long time. Reading this novel might be described as the literary equivalent of looking into one of those glass faced clocks you can see the inner workings of – all the wheels and cogs are separate but still necessarily connected, which I loved. I also appreciated the diverse perspectives were overwhelmingly female, and the characters’ experiences – both good and bad – eminently familiar to female readers. Girl, Woman, Other is well worth your time and money, and I highly recommend it.
Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry (2019)
Charlie Redmond and Maurice Hearne are “fading gangsters from Cork City”, sitting in the port of Algeciras, looking for Maurice’s missing daughter, Dilly. The entire novel takes place over the course of a single day, but because it is packed full of reminiscences of their time drug running in Spain and the various ups and downs of their lives in Ireland, it feels like it takes in decades.
Kevin Barry’s ability to capture the nuances of speech of the various characters in the book –particularly of the two main protagonists – stayed with me for long after I’d finished it. This novel definitely has a streak of darkness at its heart, made lighter by comedic turns and the banter between two old and very battered mates.
Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld (2020)
The Thrifty Fictionista has come late to the Curtis Sittenfeld party, not having read American Wife or Sisterland or any of Sittenfeld’s other novels. And yet, the premise of this book – whatif Hillary hadn’t married Bill? – had me hooked from the start. By necessity, the first part of the novel deals with Sittenfeld’s imagining of the romance between university students Hillary Rodham and Bill Clinton, but midway through the book they part: and when Hillary refuses Bill’s proposal of marriage, a very different version of “history” ensues.
To date I have resisted the urge to go googling down various rabbit holes on the interwebs in an effort to determine whether the very much still living Hillary Rodham Clinton has read this fictionalised account of her life as it might have been and how she has reacted to it, partly because it reminds me a bit too much of Barack Obama adding Fleabag to his list of favourite television series for the year some time back (which raised at least several eyebrows given what Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s character was doing while she watched a video of him making a speech). At least, after American Wife, one can only assume Hillary Clinton can chat to Laura Bush about what must be a truly singular experience.
I’m not going to say any more about this one for fear of spoiling the ending, but I can tell you it is well worth a read.
M Train by Patty Smith (2015)
It’s only fair and fitting, I suspect, that I bookend this Top 5 of 2020 with a biographical meandering far more similar in tone to Phosphorescence than the fiction writing I’ve included as the meat in the sandwich, so to speak.
When my aunt lent me her copy of M Train it took me a while to get into it – I suspect I was on a massive fiction bender (no doubt plowing through a massive fantasy series by Sarah J Maas or someone similar), and after reading a chapter or two I found Patti Smith wasn’t what I was after at the time. When I picked it up again later, however, I devoured the remainder in a single sitting and absolutely loved it. Smith, who is perhaps better known as a singer-songwriter and poet, has – unsurprisingly – a lyrical ability to express emotion and to bring her interior life into the light…such as this passage when Patti visits a friend in Morocco who is close to the end of his life:
Everything pours forth. Photographs their history. Books their words. Walls their sounds. The spirits rose like an ether that spun an arabesque and touched down as gently as a benevolent mask.
—Paul, I have to go. I will come back and see you.
He opened his eyes and laid his long, lined hand upon mine.
Ahhh….I don’t think there’s a better way to end the main part of this post than with such beautiful, poignant words.
The Thrifty Fictionista’s Highly Commended Books of 2020 are, as ever, a mixed bag of goodies:
All Our Shimmering Skies by Trent Dalton (2020) – how I love anything this man writes! A truly unique Australian voice with an abundance of humanity;
The Erratics by Vicky Laveau-Harvie (2017) – a tyrannical mother, a traumatised father, an extraordinary memoir;
The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman (2020) – a mystery, some giggles and a few keenly observed words of wisdom;
Ayiti by Roxane Gay (2011) – short stories that pack a real punch;
Think Like a Monk by Jay Shetty (2020) – a self-help book, but notable because it’s the first I’ve read based on a Vedic perspective;
Education of an Idealist by Samantha Power (2019) – a fascinating autobiography from Barack Obama’s UN Ambassador to the United Nations; and
Negroland: A Memoir by Margo Jefferson (2015) – one of the most engrossing and interesting memoirs I have ever read.
Thanks so much for checking out my Top 5s for 2020!
Here’s to 2021 being a very different year, in only good ways. I am looking forward to delving into a whole trove of excting new volumes and engrossing experiences, all between the pages of books.
Feel free to leave a comment if you’ve read something awesome, or subscribe to receive new posts directly to your inbox using the Follow button.
Folks, I’m still in lockdown as I write this, but am hoping against hope that restrictions will ease tomorrow and we will finally be able to escape the Northern Beaches for the first time since 19 December 2020.
Not surprisingly, escape seems to have been the theme of much of what I consumed on screen in 2020. In my view, desperate times call for comedy, for fantasy, and for distraction – and that’s just what I went for last year. So yes: I watched things like Space Force and allowed my children to binge way too many episodes of Brooklyn 99. But I also needed things to be real, so I devoured (along with most of the TV watching population of the planet) The Last Dance, and also took in Cheer and My Octopus Teacher and other documentaries – even Operation Odessa, from which I am still recovering.
Most of all, now that I reflect on it more deeply, I think much of what I really enjoyed on screen in 2020 revolved loosely around notion of “family” – which, as we all know, is much more about what you make it rather than what you’re born into. I’m very fortunate 2020 brought me closer to my own family than ever before.
So here, in no particular order, is Blue Jai’s Top 5 on Screen for 2020:
The Mandalorian, Season 2 (Disney+)
Can we all just take a minute to acknowledge the genius and greatness of Jon Favreau? The Mandalorian has clearly been such a labour of love for him – and in my view he has triumphed, successfully tying together so many disparate threads from the Star Wars universe, as well creating a thoroughly entertaining series populated with fantastic characters. Our family has loved hanging out together taking in the eight episodes of Season Two, delighting in the developing bond between the Mando and Baby Yoda, watching awesome warrior women like Cara Dune and Fennec Shand kick butt alongside Boba Fett, and screaming with excitement when we finally saw Ahsoka Tano appear on the screen for the first time (as a live action figure, obviously – she was probably the best thing about Star Wars: Clone Wars). And the blockbuster final episode? I want to talk about it so much! But also don’t want to spoil it for anyone…it’s that good.
The Mandalorian has brought us joy in a year tainted by so much…other stuff, and I’m so grateful that the Space Western genre is not only alive and well (complete with masterful musical contributions from Ludwig Göransson), but is thriving in the eminently capable hands of Jon Favreau and his team.
Other than The Mandalorian, I don’t think anything on screen in 2020 has been obsessed over as much by me and my family – especially Marvel Girl – as Hamilton. Lin-Manuel Miranda delivers a virtuoso performance as creator, producer and star of this incredibly successful musical. I have lost count of the number of times we’ve watched it or listened to the soundtrack, and lines from the show seem to sneak into our everyday parlance with astounding regularity. The libretto is astonishing – as is Daveed Diggs, but that is a whole other story. Watching this masterwork prompted me to post a note on my kitchen wall reminding me (and the other people who live here): You have as many hours in the day as Lin-Manuel Miranda.
The Bureau, Seasons 1-5 (SBS On Demand)
Let’s change it up a bit, shall we? Once the world (well, my world) became a bit less tense in 2020, I was able to take in content that was more suspenseful. By this I mean that I binged five entire seasons of the brilliant French production The Bureau and loved every minute of it. This spy drama has it all – a superb cast, great characters, gripping plotlines, realistic engagement with current events, the works. You will probably recognise Mathieu Kassovitz, who plays main protagonist, Guillaume Debailly alias Paul Lefebvre alias Malotru, from the cult classic movie Amelie. Here, however, Kassovitz portrays a deep cover agent for the DGSE who is unable to let go of a former love when he is unexpectedly recalled to Paris, setting off a chain of events which have repercussions for him, his lover (played by the luminous Zineb Triki), his daughter, his colleagues, and many others. I sincerely hope Season 6 is in the works – I’d watch it in a heartbeat.
A Suitable Boy(Netflix Series)
I watched a number of shows with a subcontinental theme this year, including Never Have I Ever (which I thoroughly enjoyed, especially since it is narrated by John McEnroe and also features one episode narrated by Andy Samberg) and Indian Matchmaker (which I found hilarious and heartbreaking all the same time). But in the latter part of the year I was delighted to discover something Indian with which I was far more familiar: A Suitable Boy.
I have a rather large soft spot for A Suitable Boy, not least because I had the privilege of meeting Vikram Seth, who wrote the book upon which this show is based, when I was seventeen. It was the first time I’d met a famous published author, and my copy of A Suitable Boy, which he generously inscribed for me, remains a treasured possession – even though The Bloke jokes that it could double as a door stop, such is its size.
The Netflix television adaptation of A Suitable Boy necessarily leaves out some of the incredible detail which characterises Seth’s book, but it remains full of colour and life and tackles the personal and the political in greater depth that I had imagined it would. At its core it’s a love story, but it is so much more besides. Tanya Maniktala does a great job as Lata Mehra, the main character, but for my money Tabu nearly steals the show as Saeeda Bai. This six part series is well worth watching.
The Queen’s Gambit(Netflix Series)
I was tossing up a number of options for my fifth choice, but TheQueen’s Gambit managed to pip several other contenders at the post because of its polish. The production values of this Netflix show (another screen adaptation of a novel, this time by Walter Tevis) are consistently high, and the attention to detail is second to none. I have next to no interest in chess, but this series kept me hooked – probably in part because of the attention to detail paid to the fashion, décor and music of the time in which the series is set. Add to this Anya Taylor-Joy’s mesmerising turn as Beth Harmon, and throw in the ‘chess family’ she ends up with, and I was left well satisfied.
Under the category of Highly Commended for 2020 I would have to include:
Umbrella Academy Seasons 1 & 2 (Netflix) – more escapism and quirky takes on “family”, not to mention the zany brilliance of Robert Sheehan as Klaus;
Douglas(Netflix) – Hannah Gadby’s masterful follow up to Nanette, in which she tells you exactly what she’s going to do to you and you still laugh as she does precisely what she told you she would;
The Highwaymen(2019 Netflix Film) – in which Woody Harrelson and Kevin Costner take on Bonnie and Clyde (I particularly love the way this movie was shot, without showing the faces of Bonnie and Clyde until they are finally ambushed);
Freeman(ABC iView) – introducing Cathy Freeman’s historic gold medal win at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games to my children was a more emotional experience than I ever expected.
That’s a wrap of Blue Jai’s Top 5 On Screen for 2020 – stay tuned for the next episode, in which my trusty alter ego, the Thrifty Fictionista, tackles Blue Jai’s Top 5 Books.