Women In Focus
When Julia Baird slips into the sea every morning, it’s not just a swim, but a plunge into the vastness of the ocean and all it contains. She writes in her book, Phosphorescence: “We spend so much time trying to make ourselves feel bigger; occupying space, commanding attention and demanding respect. So much so, we have forgotten how comforting it can be to feel small…and the awe that comes from being silenced by something that is greater than ourselves and so mysterious. When we shrink into smallness, only then can we become better at living alongside and caring for others.”
Julia Baird is an Australian journalist, broadcaster and writer. She is the regular host of the ABC’s The Drum, and frequently contributes to the The New York Times and The Sydney Morning Herald . Her non-fiction work include a biography on Queen Victoria and her latest best seller Phosphorescence – a memoir on finding joy, wonder and awe when the world goes dark.
And what does Julia know about the world going dark, about resilience and finding the light that shines from within? A damn lot. Three savage and brutal surgeries in 2015 from abdominal cancer, Julia has never given up on finding internal happiness, searching for that inner light that shines through all the “muck and grit”.
Read on as Julia talks about how to find awe and wonder in the world and how her book Phosphorescence may just be what we needed in 2020.
Your job can often be driven by results and outcomes. How do we find value in our work, rather than in our job?
It sounds corny, but by doing what we love most. That may be what we are paid to do – hopefully it is – but it is not always. We find value in our work when it aligns with our values, with who we want to be or help in the world. And never ever underestimate the power of working hard, diligently, at a job that just keeps the cogs running smoothly, that helps the world function in often invisible ways.
What specifically in your work makes your heart beat a little faster?
Breaking a story, uncovering something new, clearing space so someone can tell a powerful story, hearing voices previously cut out of public debate grow louder, uncovering something through investigative reporting (on domestic violence for example) that, if properly responded to, could change people’s lives. I also get adrenalin shots from big yarns, from in depth work done by colleagues on subjects like corruption, juvenile detention, endemic sexual harassment in the legal profession, the cover up of sexual abuse in powerful institutions including the church; from reading beautifully written feature stories and strongly argued, cleverly crafted opinion pieces; from reading or watching things that challenge my own thoughts, make me spin preconceptions on my thumb and see things a different way. My heart also beats faster when a new book from an author I love lands in my hands – such sweet anticipation!
What advice would you give to women who are looking for beauty, wonder, awe and joy in the world, but can’t seem to find it?
To persist. To deliberately hunt it, out your own front door, every day that you can. To find what it is that most inspires awe and wonder in you – or what has inspired it in the past, and focus on that. To be patient, and sometimes allow yourself to sit and wait. Then sit and wait another day – and if you are open to awe and wonder it will surely come.
Who are the people you are helping with your work, and how are they part of your conversation, and not just subjects of the conversation?
I am not sure if “helping” is the right word, but as host of the Drum, my job is all about making sure a wide range of voices are part of the conversation, of including those too excluded, and of making sure we never have a panel who talk “about” a group of people – we ensure someone from that group is there to talk for themselves, whether women, the neurodiverse, First Nations people, farmers, athletes, nurses, those with different kinds of disabilities, survivors of abuse and domestic violence, people of colour, Asian Australians, Muslims, atheists, Christians, young people, old people, middle aged people, doctors, African Australians, refugees, humanities professors, baristas, flight attendants, hospitality workers, hairdressers etc. And the point of having diverse panels is that each person is there to speak on everything – the economy, COVID, politics, education, life, from their expertise and lived experience. It’s hard to get right, but when you work hard at this, as our entire team does every day, the entire conversation changes.
What keeps you curious? What are you curious about right now?
Everything. Where do we go from here? So many of our anxieties, uncertainties, connective strengths and vulnerabilities were cracked open by the COVID stress and lockdown – will we dream of a better world? Will we ever meet other similar life forms in space? Will all those secret boxes in the royal archives ever be released to the public or will they burn in a bonfire like so many other precious historical documents. Will western democracy endure? Will scientists ever fully grasp the astonishing power of awe to uplift us?
Your book Phosphorescence could almost be said was written for COVID 19. Is it coincidental your work/research in this topic is so relevant to the current climate? And how does one cope when the world around you goes dark?
It is entirely coincidental! I just wrote it because I had to, I had this strong urge to put these thoughts in writing, and I wanted to show people how I had found a way to keep walking during a tough period when all I wanted to do was dive off a cliff into the ether.
How do you cope when the world around you goes dark? Well I wrote a whole book about it! In short, some of the things are, to pay attention to the world and to each other, to look outwards, to deliberately see awe and wonder, to eschew drama, luxuriate in friendship, to care for those around us and recognise the soothing power of the ordinary. To understand we walk in ancient paths – many have walked here before us, and we can endure more than we think. We should never under-estimate how much the natural world can sustain us – a love of nature is coiled in our bones, and the more time we spend in it, the better we feel.
You could say, if we sweat and cry saltwater, then the ocean must be in our blood. Ocean swimming is such a big part of you. Why does it bring you such immense joy?
Because I see things I had not dreamed of before I began to swim daily in the ocean; it’s like floating over a beautiful, ever changing garden, that can become almost as familiar, and constantly surprising, as your own. Because water meditates you, it simultaneously engages all your senses and drowns out most common sounds; you are stroking to the rhythm of your own breath. Because I love the community I swim with; every one is so passionate about the sea and everything it contains – and the urgent need to preserve it. And because it constantly exposes me to wonder and awe, possibly the most under-rated of human experiences.
Images Susan Papazian