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.
Well, folks, it seems we Sydneysiders are in it for the long haul.
In addition to being subject to stay at home orders for over six weeks, many of us have also been home schooling our children for the past four. It’s challenging, frustrating and (around 11am each day) occasionally frightening: ain’t gonna lie about that part.
But it’s also incredible, really, how when you start focusing on things for which you’re grateful, you start to notice them more.
Since I wrote my last piece, the Thrifty Fictionista has remembered or noticed a bunch of other things that have made her genuinely happy lately. I’m sharing them in the hopes that if you’re locked down like me, you might discover there are things, however small, that make this strange existence of ours that little bit more bearable.
Here are a few more things that have brought me joy since this current state of affairs landed us at home for the foreseeable future:
I am still pinching myself that when I booked tickets to a performance Hamilton for Marvel Girl’s birthday I chose a date at the beginning of June 2021. Had I selected a date a month later — closer to her actual birthday — we would not have been able to go.
BUT WE DID GO! And we had the best time, and bought ALL the merch, and enjoyed every single minute of the show. Seeing live theatre for the first time in aaaaaages was a blast, and sharing it with my completely Hamilton obsessed elder daughter was completely and utterly brilliant.
Something I really appreciated and did not expect also happened: hearing some of Lin-Maunel Miranda’s lines being delivered by indigenous voices, particularly by Innawonga and Yindjibarndi man Shaka Cook (who played Hercules Mulligan and James Madison), brought the words a whole new resonance. It was great.
It’s winter in Sydney, so we’ve stopped wearing thongs for now and switched to ugg boots instead.
And they rock.
No further explanation required, methinks.
(Picture added for the benefit of those who are slow on the uptake).
Jason, Jason, Jason…what are you, stupid?! Don’t you know who Jimmy Rees is?
Between his “Meanwhile in Australia…” updates, hysterically funny interactions between Jason and “the Guy Who Decides”, and his takeoffs of Botox obsessed ladies from Brighton desperately seeking Pfiiiiiiiizer shots between their yogalaaaaaates classes, Jimmy Rees has brought belly laughs and some much needed hilarity to our household during Lockdown. He’s also known around our place as the artist formerly known as Jimmy Giggle…with apologies to Prince.
You know what to do, folks: pop him in your favourite search engine, sit back and be entertained.
Five stars out of five, Jimmy.
Christmas in July
Supporting local restaurants and businesses has become a priority for many of us during Lockdown. When we finally get out of this mess, we want to be able to rock up to the places we know and love, get a good feed and enjoy the company of people we haven’t seen except via Zoom for the past…forever long?!
So when we figured out that not only were we spending both the kids’ birthdays plus our wedding anniversary in Lockdown, we splashed out on a Christmas in July feast from the fancy restaruant where The Bloke and I got married fifteen years ago. Three courses, all insanely delicious, picked up from the restaurant and finished off in our oven at home…it was glorious.
The unexpected upside of the entire experience was that our children got to eat top notch nosh in the comfort of our home, knowing they could try a whole pile of new things and still get a snack from the fridge if what we had ordered was not to their taste. Needless to say, they loved every mouthful and are now clamouring to be allowed to come with us next time we actually get to do a spot of fine dining.
Best of the Rest
There are other things that have made me unexpectedly happy or grateful during the past couple of weeks, and here they are in random order:
Finishing Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy.
Watching Patty Mills captaining the bronze medal-winning Boomers.
Devouring everything Olympic, generally.
Getting a huge box of fresh fruit and vegetables delivered to my doorstep.
Walking in the sunshine.
A truly heartwarming text exchange with my niece on her birthday.
Hugs from the people I’m sharing these crazy days and same four walls with.
Anyway, whoever and wherever you are, in Lockdown or roaming freely, I do hope that you’re able to find something to enjoy or feel grateful for today. Not in a Pollyanna-ish way, but in a genuine, YEAH — THAT’S GOOD, kind of way.
Feel free to share it in the comments if you want: who knows, maybe it will brighten someone else’s day.
I knew surrendering to the doona on Sunday afternoon was a mistake. Naturally, every last one of the weather gods took note of my devil may care attitude to the sunny weather they had provided, and proceeded to drench the Northern Beaches in several of days of rain. Admittedly, there was a splash of variety to said rain: it was either steady and incessant, or squally and hitting when you least expected it, but the fact remains that it was still rain. On the one occasion I actually left the house (for 2 of the 4 allowable reasons under the current stay at home orders), I even drove through pouring rain in bright sunlight…which is a seriously weird experience even when one is not in Lockdown.
Anyway, after a shaky start (replete with yelling from all sides), both of my children appear to have adapted to this new regime reasonably well — which is rather a relief, given The Bloke and I are both working from home in finance-related jobs and Lockdown has conincided with EOFY. Marvel Girl and Miss Malaprop have been keeping each other admirably entertained, including boisterous exercise sessions outside and plenty of creative pursuits inside, and have sometimes even remembering to clean up after themselves. Needless to say, I have issued an open invitation to all family members to empty the dishwasher whenever they find it full of shiny, clean crockery and cutlery, but sadly so far only The Bloke has taken me up on this salacious offer. OK…it’s not even remotely salacious, it’s just flipping necessary…
Miss Malaprop and I have indulged in a spot of Lockdown Baking — no, not sourdough — which is hardly surprising as we are both rather fond of bunging things in the oven and being able to eat them in the not too distant future. Spotting a claw of increasingly blackened bananas darkening the kitchen fruit bowl, we made Banana Bread. Not just ANY garden variety banana bread, but Yotam Ottolenghi’s Banana Bread featuring roasted pecans, if you don’t mind, which is why this particular baked offering requires the use of Capitals…so la dee dah..
Recalling her recent online shopping for new jeans, the Thrifty Fictionista has resolved not to bake too much during Lockdown, lest she find herself unable to fit into said jeans, which are yet to wend their way to my doorstop. That has not, however, stopped her from ummm… well, from ordering…a few, no…a largish pile, let’s see… shall we say “several other” things online? They’ve all been necessary purchases, of course, like a lovely tartan woollen blanket. And an iPad case. And two sweatshirts. And the Nespresso pods that are due to arrive this afternoon. You cannot seriously expect me to endure Lockdown with coffee, can you?! Besides, it’s not like I’m rushing to the nearest supermarket to panic buy toilet paper…
So far, despite adding many things to cart when I probably should have said, nay shouted at the top of my lungs: “NO! Begone, tempting online shopping demons of the Interwebs!“, the Thrifty Fictionista is rather proud of herself for not purchasing any more books — with the (exceedingly) permissible exception of some small tomes she sent to New Zealand for a friend’s upcoming birthday. Resisting the seductive siren song of Booktopia and the Book Grocer and all those other sublime online book retailers has not been easy, but I am pleased to announce that managed to apply myself and diligently finished the Nureyev biography (which I struggled to complete, simply because I knew it would have to end inevitably with his demise and that’s not the cheeriest subject matter to confront while unable to freely leave your house for the foreseeable future).
Next, however, the Thrifty Fictionista took her own advice and cracked open the very beautiful (hardbacked and bookmark ribboned) Hilary Mantel box set I had been waiting to devour. Quite honestly, I am relishing every single moment I am spending with Thomas Cromwell in Tudor England.
Right from the opening line of Wolf Hall, the first book, I was entranced all over again:
So now get up…
It’s not such a bad suggestion, and one I probably should have heeded last Sunday instead of allowing the doona to welcome me as its own.
So now get up…
It really did remind me that Lockdown doesn’t have to be all bad. It doesn’t have to mean forgetting to shower on a regular basis, or spending days in your pj’s because you can’t be bothered getting dressed, or lamenting the fact that you can’t do anything.
Because there’s always something to do, somewhere, if you’re willing to look for it.
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?
It’s a basic building block of society. A moral imperative. Something we raise our kids to do; something we expect of each other. And yet, in an era where Fake News is a real and troublesome thing, it’s good to be reminded every now and then of how important telling the truth acutally is.
Truthfulness, not surprisingly, is one the Divine Qualities mentioned in the Bhagavad Gita, and while I’ve written about truth before, having the opportunity to view all sorts of virtues through a different lens has kept me interested in exploring the Divine Qualities during the course of this year. And, having spent last year focusing on delight in all its myriad and unexpected forms and often finding joy the tiniest of details, it is equally unsuprising to me that a couple of things have happend to me lately that inspired me to view truthfulness via…ballet.
Relax, please relax — I’m not about to include video footage of myself or anyone else explaining truth via interpretative dance.
Rather, the first oddly inspirational thing that happened was that I didn’t go to the Ballet, even though I had planned to see the Australian Ballet’s final Sydney peformance of Counterpointe. The truth, difficult as it was to admit to myself, was that I was simply too tired to go. Circumstances (think sick kids, a bunch of meetings, various deadlines, a whole pile of domestic detritus and an emergency call to the Fire Brigade when my car unexpectedly started spewing petrol from its undercarriage) conspired against me, and I was exhausted.
So I owned it.
And I didn’t go.
I didn’t go, even though I would have genuinely loved to. I didn’t go, despite the fact it meant I missed out on the first live performance I’d planned to see since COVID hit. I didn’t go, which means I haven’t ventured across the Sydney Harbour Bridge in well over a year.
Most importantly, I didn’t go because I was honest with myself — and, as a result, was dressed for bed before the dancers stepped on stage and was slumbering well before the final curtain fell. I deliberately chose not agonise over my decision to stay home, so I slept soundly. I did not succumb to the sickness my kids had brought home, because I consciously prioritised rest. And that meant…drumroll please…that I was free to do the things I wanted to in the days that followed.
It may not sound like much — going to bed instead of going to the ballet — but, if 2020 taught me anything, it was that the little things are often the ones that really count.
Except when you’re Rudolf Nureyev, and then the BIG things count.
And, of course, that brings me to my second inspirational thing: watching Jacqui and David Morris’ 2018 documentary Nureyev. Even though the film has its flaws (when Rachel Saltz reviewed it for the New York Times she noted in her title “His Life was High Drama: this Film Could Use More”), all of the footage depicting Nureyev is transfixing. Regardless of whether he was performing on stage, being interviewed on television, or simply walking down the street, Nureyev commanded attention — and deservedly so.
Nureyev wasn’t just a star, he was more like a comet blazing through the skies.
His story has everything: childhood poverty, Stalinist persecution, rising fame across the Soviet Union, defection to the West at the height of the Cold War, global stardom, tumultuous relationships on and off stage and, finally, death from an AIDS related illness. He was a man in motion, from the moment of his birth — on a train, en route to Siberia in 1938 — and he lived and danced with an instantly recognisable intensity. The documentary does show some archival footage of Nureyev dancing, rehearsing and teaching, and also includes some memorable still photographs taken by Richard Avedon, but somehow the audience is still left wanting more — more Nureyev, more, more more.
And yet, despite its shortcomings, a couple of moments in the film took my breath away.
The first was during an interview, when Dick Cavett asks Nureyev (resplendent in a snakeskin tunic and matching thigh-high platform boots) whether he remembers the first time he knew he wanted to be a dancer. The camera switches to Nureyev’s face, capturing the exact moment when his dark brown eyes begin to gleam as he nods his head slowly, recollecting the occasion, and no doubt the feeling, of knowing that was what he wanted to do.
The truth in this exchange — not verbalised, but demonstrated — is palpable, and beautiful.
The second was when the film explored Nureyev’s defection to the West in 1961, an incredibly dramatic event not particularly well rendered visually in the documentary, but memorable because of the voiceover providing the words of Nureyev himself. Faced with the choice of returning to an uncertain future (and possible imprisonment) in the Soviet Union or remaining in Paris, Nureyev calls on the one person he thinks may be able to help him: French socialite Clara Saint, who at the time was engaged to the son of the French Minister for Culture. It is Clara who alerts the gendarmes at the airport that there is a Soviet dancer who may be wanting to defect, and it is also she who explains to Nureyev what he has to do in order to gain their protection.
You have to tell them what you want to do.
In other words: truth.
You have to tell the truth.
Nureyev then tells the French police:
I want to stay here.
And with those words, the truth set Nureyev free.
Sometimes, truth can be found in the tiniest things.
Other times, it’s in the very greatest things of all.
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.
Since I shamelessly borrowed Anne Lamott’s quote about drinking gin from the cat dish for my last post, I thought it entirely appropriate to turn to her again for inspiration in this, my next foray into the Bhagavad Gita. And, brilliant writer as Lamott is, it did not take me long to find words of hers that can easily be applied to the Divine Quality of Steadfastness.
Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait and watch and work: you don’t give up.
You see, there’s something quite paradoxical about steadfastness: it brings to mind words like immovable, unwavering, unchangeable; yet it requires persistence, tenacity and constant striving. How is it that staying the same requires such effort? And even though steadfastness suggests remaining fixed, doesn’t sustained effort end up producing a necessarily different result or state of being?
Steadfastness is sort of like a flame.
Flames, like hope, begin in the darkness.
Flames stay the same, in that they keep burning for as long as they have fuel. If a flame is given more fuel, it burns with greater heat, light and intensity. And yet – and this, for me, is where the strangeness of flames comes in – flames are always, sometimes imperceptibly, changing. They also seem to defy gravity: you can hold a flaming candle or branch any way you care to, tilting it this way or that, but the flame always burns upwards. It’s almost as though flames are here to tell us in their quiet, beautiful, mesmerising way, that if we persist and put effort into to whatever we’re striving for, we will not only remain alight, but we will also always rise.
I’m reminded, when considering steadfastness, of Filippo Brunelleschi, the Renaissance era architect and engineer who managed to build the dome at the top of the Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral in Florence. Construction of the Cathedral began in 1296 but building work paused for fifty years when the original architect, Arnolfo di Cambio, died. Giotto added the campanile around 1330. The Black Death interrupted construction again in 1348. Finally, in 1418, Brunelleschi, backed by the influential Medici family, won a competition to build the Cathedral’s dome.
The challenges facing Brunelleschi were considerable. With a diameter of 48 metres, the octagonal dome was higher, wider and larger than any constructed since ancient times. Its sheer size prevented Brunelleschi from using rafters or scaffolding, it was not known how the dome could be built without collapsing under its own weight, and the Florentine city fathers had forbidden the use of butresses. Despite these obstacles, Brunelleschi held steadfastly to his aim: he revived old building techniques and invented new engineering technologies, he used his intellect and intuition to solve complex structural problems, and he employed hundreds of workers to transform 37,000 tonnes of material (including 4 million bricks) into a dome that rose steadily skyward from 1420 to 1436. Construction of the lantern at the dome’s apex, also designed by Brunelleschi, began shortly before his death in 1446 and was completed in 1461, before being topped with a copper ball and cross in 1469. To this day, the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore dominates the skyline of Florence.
You wait and watch and work: you don’t give up.
There are many kinds of steadfastness.
Steadfastness in Brunelleschi produced an architectural marvel. Steadfastness in a parent ensures a baby grows into childhood, and beyond. Steadfastness in a friend or life partner allows a relationship to weather the storms of life. Steadfastness in a gardener enables flowers to bloom.
Steadfastness can be found anywhere you need to show up, over and over again, even when you can’t immediately – or perhaps ever – see the results.
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.
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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