I’m sitting by the window in my bedroom, feeling the breeze and enjoying the blue skies and sunshine. Rain is forecast for most of the week, though we’ve been fortunate to have had a run of wonderful weather lately.
This Lockdown business doesn’t get any easier, does it?
The restrictions keep tightening — necessarily, in my view — and the days we’ve spent with the same people inside the same four walls keep increasing.
But the days are getting longer, too, and warmer. Yesterday Marvel Girl said she smelled a hint of summer in the air, and I suspect she was right.
Yesterday was a good day.
No working or schooling from home. No phonecalls. No Zoom.
We walked down to the netball courts near home, found a vacant hoop and played two on two for a while. Turns out that in addition to having a height advantage The Bloke and I still make a good team when it comes to ball sports. There was plenty of sledging and silliness and we laughed a lot while working up a sweat, then wandered home again.
Later in the evening, The Bloke pulled out the portable firepit we had planned to use on a camping holiday that got cancelled way back at the beginning of Lockdown. We gathered around it, filling it with dry sticks from the back yard and firewood from the servo down the road, and got a crackling blaze going. Soon we had salmon cooking over the flames, and then sat eating from plates laden with fish and salad and rice.
The moon rose, full and white, serene and wondrous.
We saw the International Space Station fly past.
We roasted marshmallows in the embers, ate popcorn and answered a steady stream of trivia questions from Miss Malaprop.
We played music: Christine and the Queens, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, The Wallflowers, Flight Facilities, Quincy Jones.
And then we tumbled into bed — tired, smoky and happy.
Sometimes it’s hard to know what to write when most of the people you know are experiencing exactly the same thing as you are. For me it’s the same four walls, the same family members, the same walk to the surf club and back — just to check the entire Pacific Ocean hasn’t mysteriously disappeared overnight.
The Bloke, knowing full well that I am generally the family member who jollies everyone else along, deadpanned that I should embrace gratitude during Lockdown.
Then again, he has a point, and I do know I am indeed fortunate.
I am fully vaccinated, and The Bloke not far behind me (though the kids are yet to have a vaccine approved for them).
I am gainfully employed (though my work is being frequently interrupted by helping my children with home schooling).
I am happily married (though my anniversary present to The Bloke this year was booking in his second Pfizer shot).
You see the recurring theme, I’m sure — especially if you have a child in Year 5 and have been working through number patterns and algebra problems with them.
Yes, but —
For every upside, it seems there is an inevitable downside.
I’m trying to go back to the things I have learned from tapping away at the keys in this, my little patch of cyberspace. I’m looking for moments of delight. I’m attempting to put into practice the Divine Qualities I began exploring at the beginning of this year. That said, I also freely admit I have uncharacteristically shelved my project to continue looking into them throughout 2021: if past Lockdown experiences taught me anything, it’s that it’s OK to let go of things if it they are adding pressure to my existence rather than relieving it.
As a family, we’re trying to do things together that make us laugh — like watching old episodes of Travel Guides, which not only lets us explore the world from the comfort or our armchairs, but also has us simultaneously giggling and cringing at the antics of the various participants. For example, we watched the South African episode last night, and while we were in hysterics at some of the commentary during the safari portion of the show, we were downright mystified that some of the travel guides had never heard of Nelson Mandela?
There it is again. Yes, but —
You see my dilemma?
I suspect I am not alone in this predicament, and that many parents across the Northern Beaches, across Sydney, and across Australia are, too.
So taking The Bloke’s advice to heart this time, I have challenged myself to come up with a list (in no particular order) of some of the things that I am purely grateful for — no ifs, no buts, no strings attached.
Baked potatoes and pumpkin. Baked lasagne. Baked apple and rhubarb crumble. Baked anything, really.
A reliable internet connection, Netflix and Spotify.
Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall Trilogy (specifically) and fiction (generally).
Piping hot tea, coffee and showers.
Words, and being able to read them, speak them, write them and wield them.
I suppose, given that in a few weeks it will be fifteen years since we tied the knot, I should add The Bloke to the list too — if only so I can publicly proclaim that I do take his advice from time to time. (Pun deliberate, and Dad-joke worthy.)
Lockdown Day 1, and the Thrifty Fictionista has once again taken to her bed.
Not because I’m sick, not because I’m occasionally inclined towards melodrama, but because it’s vaguely cold out — meaning it’s fine and sunny and not the slightest bit windy, but the temperature has dipped below 20 degrees Celcius, which is regarded quite decidedly as ugg boot weather in my part of the Antipodes. We’re not wimps, really we’re not…
Besides, now that Greater Sydney has been placed into Lockdown (again) there is literally no chance anyone is going to come knocking on our door, so there’s nothing to stop me from typing away on my trusty laptop under the cover of my delightfully warm doona. The Bloke and the kids are down the other end of the house, and given we are going to be trapped together for the next thirteen days none of them is feeling the need to interrupt me (yet). I even have a hot cup of peppermint tea on my bedside table, though that did require me to give one of my two TBR piles a bit of a shove so it would fit. TBR, for the uninitiated, stands for “To Be Read”, which is both a sacred and dreadful practice of stacking large quantities of books you plan to read on your bedside table, the precipitous nature of which may or may not impede your spouse’s ability to successfully procure clothing from their side of the wardrobe.
At the top of the nearer TBR pile is a biography of Rudolf Nureyev I dived into after writing my last post, the reading of which I have been interspersing with bellyflops into romance novels of dubious quality (not usually a genre I pay the slightest bit of attention to, but every now and then my brain craves a book that is the mental equivalent of chewing gum).
In my defence, my brain probably does deserve a bit of a break. A large chunk of my morning (in between moaning about being in Lockdown again) was spent rescheduling the holiday we had planned to take next week, cancelling the cat sitter, and working out how to make my elder daughter’s 13th birthday next week feel less like she’s spending in Long Bay Jail?
Apologies — am just back from a spot of online shopping; I had to throw out my favourite pair of blue jeans the other day due to the development of a hole in an unmentionable place, and since I can’t go to the Mall or anywhere else for the next two weeks, needs must. I suspect this digression may also enlighten you, dear reader, to the state of my mind at the moment and why I am resorting to reading trashy romances. It’s like a tin of worms in there, folks. Or maybe a bag of fleas?
Anyhooooo….the Thrifty Fictionista, currently warm and toasty but evidently sporting the attention span of a gnat, has now finally recalled the real reason she began tapping away at her keyboard on this fine, sunny, slightly cold but doona-covered afternoon: if you’re boxed in, the best solution is a box set.
YASS QUEEN! It worked for me last time we were in Lockdown (or was it the time before that?), when I cracked through an enormous box set of Sarah J Maas fantasy novels, tomes weighty enough to anchor the QE2 in Sydney Harbour…were it not for the fact that we have closed our international borders indefinitely and the mere sighting of a cruise ship off the coast is likely to send most Sydneysiders into a panic faster than you can say “Ruby Princess”…
This time the box set I have chosen is Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy. I suspect I’ve already read the first two (the ones that both won the Booker Prize) a long time ago, and the third one — well, it’s as gigantic as the others, and I am looking forward to reading all three. At its best, historical fiction is immersive, and what better time than Lockdown to lose yourself in another time and (hopefully not plague-ridden) place?
And we’re not really all expected to clean our houses from top to bottom all over again are we?
I’ve been trying to write this post for weeks, trying to find the words for my next exploration of the Divine Qualities from the Bhagavad Gita. Various things have happened around me recently, however, that have resulted in me struggling to find the right words, and have also necessitated me applying a trigger warning to this post for anyone impacted by suicide.
Ahimsa translates most simply as non-violence but resonates with much deeper meaning, embodying the premise that since every living being contains the spark of divine energy, if you hurt any other living being you also hurt yourself. Mentioned in the Bhagavad Gita and many other ancient texts from the subcontinent, it is one of the core values adhered and aspired to by Hindus, Buddhists and Jains.
I would argue Ahimsa is a quality worth embracing by anyone and everyone, regardless of your religious or spiritual persuasion. You don’t have to be Gandhi to know that actively respecting all living beings is a worthy goal. Choosing a non-violent path is, in my view, a no brainer. Simply put: no one gets hurt.
Recent events in my life have, however, made me wonder — what of non-violence with ourselves?
A couple of weeks ago I was, unfortunately, confronted by the death of someone who had reached such a depth of despair that they no longer recognised the spark of divinity within themselves. This person was a complete stranger to me, but by choosing to end their life outside my workplace they have become someone I have had to find a way — some way, any way — to understand.
I know, in general terms, what they did and where they did it.
I definitely don’t know why they did.
I don’t even know their name.
But I do know that their actions have had unintended consequences — not all of them positive — on me and on those who work with me and around me and, against the odds, I am doing my best to see all of these through the lens of gratitude.
I’m grateful for the woman who works next door to me, for stopping me from going into my office and seeing something I would not be able to unsee, and for giving me a much needed hug after I had dealt with the police and paramedics.
I’m grateful for my boss, who — despite being directly impacted herself — has not only been flexible with my work hours, but has also been someone I can talk to and make sense of this tragedy with.
I’m grateful for my children’s music teacher, who knew what happened and that I didn’t want to tell my kids, and who made music lessons that afternoon as normal as possible even as I sat, trying not to fall to pieces, on her sofa.
I am grateful for my mother, who has let me get every last emotion and reaction off my chest in response to this awful event, and who didn’t need me to explain how difficult this experience was for me because we lost a beloved member of our own family member exactly the same way.
I’m grateful for my husband, who has patiently borne with me as I’ve navigated the flashbacks and other PTSD symptoms that have inevitably arisen over the past few weeks, and who has encouraged me to rest when I’ve needed to, paticularly when hypervigilance has amped up and overwhelmed me.
Life is precious.
Nothing is more important than nourishing the spark of the divine within us, and of encouraging to burn that fire to burn brightly within those around us.
And even when we struggle — really struggle — to get on with people, it is essential that we make an effort to find a way to silently say Namaste and acknowledge the divinity within them, even if we can’t see it for all the world.
Be gentle with yourselves and each other, friends.
I’m not quite sure what it is about April, but it can’t be a coincidence that around Easter each year, many of my intentions end up becoming just that: intentions, not actions. I’ve written about it before, the irony being that in April three years ago, I’d even selected “Intention” as my Word of the Month. Perhaps it’s because the autumn school holidays often fall in April down here in the Great Southern Land, and many of my regular routines go out the window. Or maybe it’s simply because after keeping all the balls in the air for the duration of a ten week term, I’m well and truly ready to let them drop.
Regardless of the reason, as the years go by I am finding it far easier to forgive myself when my intentions do not manifest themselves into fullblown technicolour actions. So when I realised it had been over a month since I had last posted here — despite my intention to examine a Divine Quality from the Bhagavad Gita every two weeks — I was not particularly fazed. Rather than stressing about it (which I probably…no, let’s make that DEFINITELY…would have done in the past), my response recently has been far more Imma let dat go…
And believe me, folks, my new approach is a far more liberating and wholesome response than the riot of mental chatter and self-chastisement that I would have engaged in previously. Not only have I decided that fretting over something I haven’t done is not worth my time or effort, but I’ve also elected not to try to make up for my shortcomings. Yes, I had planned to look into a couple more Divine Qualities — I think they were meant to be Religious Rites (and seriously, when it comes to those, you do you), and Self-discipline (which I generally have in spades, though once again I appreciate the irony of the timing), but now?
Nup. Not gonna.
“Simples,” as those funny meerkats on the TV would say.
Which brings me, without fuss, to the Divine Quality I am going to look at — Straighforwardness.
Oh, you didn’t get those posts done? So what. Move on. What’s the next Divine Quality?
I know, right?
Delicious irony, yet again.
It’s a bit like Fearlessness, the Divine Quality that inspired this whole dive into the Vedas. Straightforwardness is a quality I really did not expect to find on the list. I mean, growing up Catholic I knew that there was a Saint for just about everything — Saint Vitus for sore throats, Saint Florian for chimneysweeps, even an Egyptian hermit called Saint Anthony the Abbot who is apparently the patron saint of pizza makers, fire fighters and pigs.
But a Patron Saint of Straightforwardness?
Nup. Not ever.
How good would it be, though, if straightforwardness was heralded as a virtue more often? How amazing would it be if politicians gave straightforward answers? If the pundits explained things simply? If my children actually acknowledged, up front, that they were not going to clean their rooms?
Maybe it’s because I’ve never been backward in coming forward that I find straightforwardness so appealing as a Divine Quality. Honestly, the fact that the Bhagavad Gita suggests that being straighforward brings you closer to the divine truly tickles my fancy. It’s so…practical.
Just tell it like it is, and walk your talk, and you’ll be on the path to divinity? That’s awesome! Bring it on.
Because life is messy.
Regarless of our intentions — good, bad, indifferent — I suspect life will ALWAYS be messy. Probably at least twenty seven kinds of messy all at once, if I’m honest.
So if you ever feel like you’re hurtling towards the abyss, or you find yourself mimicking a meercat in a cravat and ruby-coloured crushed velvet dressing gown, or (even worse) you end up hunched on a riverbank an in ill-fitting robe beside a pig, try a little straightforwardness.
By some small miracle, I managed to wend my way through the shitshow that was 2020 without consuming a single drop of alcohol. It was a conscious choice, and one that I adjusted to astonishingly quickly, surprising no one more than myself.
When 2021 rolled around, however, I found myself wrestling with whether I should continue on being alcohol free, or have the occasional drink? Facing this choice, weirdly, was impacting my peace of mind more than going through 2020 (of all years) without alcohol. The prospect of having my “first drink” after more than a year of abstinence loomed large in my consciousness, turning it a much bigger deal than it actually was. Better to get it over with, I thought, than have that first drink loaded with “meaning” or “consequence” — I could still, I reasoned, go back to being alcohol free just as easily as I did the first time around.
And so, on holidays after our Christmas lockdown, I had a glass of wine. I didn’t feel the need for a second glass; in fact, I didn’t have another glass at all until some weeks later.
But then, more recently, I found myself slipping back into old habits. Having one drink on a Friday evening was followed by three glasses of wine on a Saturday night.
And so, I’ve stopped again. Point blank — because I’ve discovered that’s the best way for me to do it.
Ironically, the next Divine Quality from the Bhagavad Gita I am looking into is self-restraint, which relates specifically to physical self-restraint. I am aware the timing, given my alcohol dilemma, could not be more perfect: for me, drinking is one of the only things in my life that seems to require an all or nothing approach, and it’s probably good for me to review my relationship with alcohol through that lens.
Gretchen Rubin, after conducting extensive research into habit formation, happiness and a bunch of other interesting things, has written at length about Abstainers and Moderators — you can read more about her insights here. Simply put, some people need to give things up completely to achieve their goals, while others are able to pursue their goals while indulging moderately.
You see, most of the time I am a classic Moderator: I’m really good at savouring things and exercising deliberate self-restraint. I can buy a block of chocolate and eat it piece by piece over several weeks. I can curb my intake of all sorts of things: sugar, caffeine, wheat, whatever. I have even been known to deliberately slow my (usually breakneck) reading pace to make a book I am loving last longer. At home and at work I live by the mantra of “do what you have to do, then do what you want to do”, and as a result I get a lot done. Admittedly, sometimes there is not as much “doing what I want to do” as I would like, but after many years of being rigorously self-restrained and self-disciplined in both these spheres, I am also learning to include and prioritise self-care in my routine.
When it comes to alcohol, however, I have discovered my situation is quite different. Drinking seems to be the only thing I am unable to moderate with the degree of self-restraint I would like (and believe me, coming from a long line of drama queens and control freaks, that is a big admission). Don’t get me wrong: I don’t drink myself into oblivion; I haven’t been drunk in a long time. In fact, the vast majority of the time I don’t drink at all. But after being alcohol free for a year, I am now able to see — very clearly — what was much more hazy before: that drinking inhibits the ability of my usually vigilant inner Moderator to do its job. And when my inner Moderator is unable to perform at its peak, I find it works best for me to bring out the Big Gun: the Abstainer.
Knowing yourself, said Aristotle, centuries ago, is the beginning of wisdom.
I’m grateful I now know myself well enough to understand that in most things, it is easy for me to find and walk the middle ground, to be a Moderator. I am also glad to have discovered that alcohol is the one thing that undermines my ability to exercise self-restraint, and that my best approach with drinking is to be an Abstainer.
I have also realised I no longer need to ask myself why it is that I can successfully moderate my behaviour in almost every way, but I don’t feel like I can when I drink? I no longer need to feel shame or embarrassment that my inner Moderator gets sabotaged by alcohol — because that’s what drinking does: it removes our inhibitions. And knowing this, I can choose to approach drinking differently.
Knowing yourself takes time than we’d like to admit, coupled with a willingess to observe ourselves keenly and confront what we see — even if sometimes we’d prefer not to. But I suspect no matter how unpleasant it is to stare those hard truths in the face, it’s always worth doing in the end.
The word seems such a far cry from fearlessness, the first of the Divine Qualities from the Bhagavad Gita I set out to explore in this, my year of journeying through twenty-six qualities and how they may (or may not?!) apply to me and my life.
Fearlessness is exciting: it shouts in triumph, and I strongly suspect it has wings. Big, powerful wings.
But almsgiving? It’s reserved. It feels far more likely to speak in a whisper, and to shuffle along in the shadows…
For me, the mere mention of the word almsgiving immediately conjures vivid images of darkly hooded monks holding empty wooden bowls, moving in silent procession along dimly lit cloisters. It seems archaic, and somehow austere, not to mention (from where I’m sitting) very Catholic. Almsgiving always reminds me of religion classes in primary school, when our teachers felt the need to regurgitate the same explanation each and every year when they distributed our cardboard Project Compassion boxes that Lent is a time we were meant to give alms, not arms: the Good Lord wanted our money, not our body parts.
I mean, I get it — giving to those less fortunate than ourselves is part and parcel of spiritual traditions the world over. It’s what makes us decent human beings. It’s coins slipped quietly into donation boxes, dollars slid silently onto collection plates, online donations made without fanfare or fuss from the privacy of personal computer. And it’s important — I genuinely believe that.
But even so, almsgiving is not particularly…exciting?
And even though I did not — and still do not — plan to make any of these dives into the Divine Qualities a specifically religious exercise, it occurred to me that perhaps I need to shed yet more of the baggage I have been hauling around since suriving thirteen years of Catholic school?!
In the light of this conclusion, I sought out the secular — and where better to turn than to the silver screen, and to a beautiful, whimsical romantic comedy released twenty years ago this year, Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain, which is better known to English speaking audiences simply as Amélie.
I watched this (still delightful) film with my elder daughter a few weekends ago, and was struck by the fact that the title character, Amélie, is always trying to do the right thing by people. Being shy, she does so secretly, surreptitiously and — in the case of breaking into a neighbour’s apartment — downright stealthily. And even though Amélie doesn’t always get things quite right (let’s face it: the break in is completely illegal), for the most part she makes a genuine effort to improve the lives of the people around her, all while attempting to conquer her own feeling of isolation.
Weirdly, Amélie could almost be said to be about almsgiving in action: as Amélie cultivates generosity towards others, her insular world begins to open up. Without giving too much of the plot away, over the course of the film Amélie befriends a lonely old man, Raymond Dufayel, who lives in her apartment building, painting a copy of the same Renoir picture year after year. She walks a blind man across a street, rapidly telling him all the things she can see so he may get an impression of the hustle and bustle of Montmatre. She hatches a unique plan involving a garden gnome to encourage her father to broaden his horizons. She stands up for Lucien, the grocer’s assistant, who is regularly ridiculed by his boss. She reunites people with long lost possessions. And, ultimately, she falls in love and — with encouragement from Monsieur Dufayel — finds the courage to pursue Nino, the man she has fallen for, and to give him her heart.
Watching Amélie made me realise several things.
That almsgiving at its simplest and most perfunctory is making a donation of money or a possession we no longer require.
With greater thought and commitment, almsgiving may involve giving our services, our intellectual property, our time. You might prepare a hot meal for someone, or draft a letter for a person who doesn’t share your particular professional expertise (whether that be legal or financial or whatever), or you may offer to drive someone somewhere even though it’s out of your way.
Almsgiving doesn’t have to be as exciting as fearlessness for it to be fulfilling. And I think I can safely let go of the idea that almsgiving is something that has to be done — like it seemed to, with no small amount of drudgery, every Lent, every year when I was at school. It’s a choice, and the more thought and better the intention behind the choice, the more fulfilling the act.
Ultimately, there is true power doing things, however small, with great love.
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.
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