Sweet Charity

Almsgiving.

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.

Mind yourselves,

BJx

2020 in Music: Blue Jai’s Top 5

Most years I am pretty clear about which songs constitute my Top 5 for the year – this is, after all, the only list I produce with any regularity in which the proviso is that any song included on my list has to have been released in the current year.

My problem with my Top 5 for 2020 is that when the world turned upside down (and particularly when it then turned in on itself during the first lockdown), what I listened to ended up being firmly and unashamedly rooted in nostalgia. In the face of such enormous unknowns, I sought refuge in the songs from my teenage years and before. I found myself listening to plenty of songs with fuzzy guitar riffs like Ratcat’s “That Ain’t Bad”, cruisy tunes like The Badloves’ “Green Limousine”, heading back to the inimitable groove of Sam & Dave’s “Soul Man” or going back even further in time to songs like Cannonball Adderley’s “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy”.

It wasn’t accidental, and my trips down memory lane definitely helped me navigate this most troublesome of years.

But there came a point when I had to venture back onto the airwaves and Spotify Playlists I know and love, to connect with the myriad of new releases that artists, also in lockdown, have created in 2020. And from those rich pickings, I present Blue Jai’s Top 5 Songs for 2020.

“Low” by Chet Faker

Just because I feel low, right now

It doesn’t mean all that I’ve got has run out…

I suspect from the moment I heard the opening lines of this song for the first time I knew it would be my favourite of the year. Chet Faker (also known as Nick Murphy) is back, and this song could not have come at a better time. The production on this track is sublime and the lyrics somehow sum up everything about 2020 – I love everything about “Low”. More please, Chet Faker.

“Je disparais dans tes bras” by Christine and the Queens

The entire La Vita Nuova EP from Christine and the Queens is brilliant, right from the plaintive opening song “People I’ve been Sad”, as is the accompanying short film (which I’ve included above, since looking at individual songs on their own doesn’t make as much sense as seeing the entire artistic vision). I probably could have picked any of the songs from this latest offering from multi-lingual Héloïse Letissier and her crew, but I ended up picking “Je disparais dans tes bras” over the title track, “La Vita Nuova” (featuring Caroline Polachek) upon discovering it was one of the songs I listened to most on Spotify this year. If you’ve got a spare fifteen minutes – no, scratch that – find yourself fifteen minutes to watch this film, shot in the beautiful Palais Garnier Opera House in Paris, and immerse yourself in epic choreography and wonderful music.

“Dribble” by SYCCO

SYCCO (which is, of course, pronounced “Psycho”, a moniker apparently inspired by all things psychedelic rather than psychotic) is a Brisbane teenager who, judging from this release, is one to watch. “Dribble” came about when SYCCO was trying to make sense of someone sleep talking, attempting to derive meaning from words that were probably entirely random. The end result is great: catchy melody, driving beat, great song. This one got plenty of airplay at our house and in the car.

“Gold Dust Woman” by Julia Holter

OK, OK…so Julia Holter actually recorded this in 2012, but she released it in 2020, so I’m going to count it in this year’s Top 5. Besides, it’s such a great cover of Fleetwood Mac’s original song that I can’t not let this one through (you can thank me later — the link will take you to audio, not video, but it’s totally worth it). Holter takes Stevie Nicks’ lyrics to an otherworldly place and I honestly couldn’t love this more. Fingers and toes crossed we get from some new music from Julia Holter in the near future; she’s a class act.

“Are You Even Real?” by James Blake

There’s a lot to like about this track from James Blake, who I think is one of the most interesting recording artists on the planet right now. At its core “Are You Even Real?” is a love song, but as with many of Blake’s songs it’s not always easy to tell upon first listen exactly what headspace he’s in: the music and lyrics don’t always line up precisely with the feel of the song. Blake’s “Don’t Miss It” (from 2019) is another great example of this – Cillian Murphy described the lyrics to that song as being “either profoundly sad or profoundly hopeful – perhaps both at the same time”, and that sums up the way I feel about much of James Blake’s music. Ultimately, however, for me one line in “Are You Even Real?” stands out, and is incredibly beautiful:

She runs her hands through my imagination…

I suspect that’s exactly what all great artists do to us when they sing and play, don’t they? And that’s as real as it gets.

So that’s my Top 5 for the year…but here’s some of the best of my nostalgic listening from years gone by to keep your toes tapping and your mood upbeat as we navigate the 2020 Season Finale.

Top 5 Throwbacks for 2020

  • “Red Dress” by the Sugababes (2005)
  • “Dancing Barefoot” by Patti Smith (1979)
  • “She Has to Be Loved” by Jenny Morris (1989)
  • “Peace Frog” by The Doors (1970)
  • “Close But Not Quite” by Everything is Recorded, featuring Sampha

(That last track is brilliant by the way…interweaving Sampha’s ethereal voice with the Curtis Mayfield sample takes it to another level).

So there we have it folks! Blue Jai’s Top 5 in Music for 2020.

Stay tuned for my Top 5 in Books and on Screen, coming soon…