At the end of a difficult and frenetic year, Jess Berentson-Shaw describes some of the things she has read and listened to that have given moments of rest and stillness, reflection – and a laugh.

It’s a funny old time, Christmas. I feel less like I wind down, and more like I hurtle towards it like a train heading towards the end of the line.

And while I always think I will be “a bit more chill this year” when I return to work, the world we live in right now doesn’t really support that (yet).  A dear friend of mine sent me some of Brene Brown’s words that I find really helpful at this time of year. It’s about wholehearted living – interpret that as it works for you.

Something that stands out for me in particular are her suggestions to move away from exhaustion as a status, and productivity as self worth, and instead cultivate play and rest and calm and stillness. And so I hope over this period you can have moments of that, as I will try to do.

In that light, I have written this week about some of the things I have read and listened to that have given me moments of rest and stillness, reflection and a laugh this year.

Some books 

The Ministry For the Future – Kim Stanley Robbinson

I loved this book, not for its prose or its cracking plot. I loved it because it gave me hope. In a time when post apocalyptic climate fiction (the “after” we did nothing) feels all too bloody real, this is a book about what happens if we act on climate change. What happens if we try all the things, and we get some of it wrong and still we carry on trying to fix up the systems that are breaking our biosphere? What if we try some crackpot ideas like dying the Arctic Sea yellow or drilling into glaciers to slow their melt? What if we try some longstanding proven ideas like relaying the tracks of our economic and financial systems to support the climate’s health instead of extracting from it? What if we supported climate jobs like gardening and planting on a mass scale? Caring for others, or supporting women’s reproductive rights? It doesn’t paint the situation as perfect or without loss, but it is a book that feels like we can do this. And I need to know that. We all do.

Bug Week – Airini Beautrais

This is what I wrote about Bug Week when I finished it earlier this year: “A deep and intense book in which there is much that is raw and tragic. It made me laugh and gasp and get mad at how patriarchal systems hurt us all – women, men, kids, the planet. Also, how can you not love a book in which a Toroa turns up in a Southland bar full of drunken fishers and proceeds to castigate them for an economic system that basically relies on killing everything that we need to survive? Read this book.”

The Sum of Us. What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together – Heather McGhee

Heather McGhee is a woman to admire. A black woman who challenged the (very white and male) policy world to think about racism as a core public policy issue when she ran Devos. She spent years working to document how racism hurts everyone. In The Sum of Us, McGhee takes us through a series of case studies from across the US showing how racism and the systems, practices and behaviours it spawns inevitably tear the heart out of all communities. The meticulously laid out evidence shows racism for what it is – a system that seeks to divide people for the purposes of embedding power and wealth among a few. The draining and concreting-over of public pools across the US is both a depressing case study and an amazing metaphor for how racist mindsets get in the way of ensuring we all have nice things. It is an easy read and makes a very strong case for those of us working on changes that make a big difference to work first on anti-racist action. In New Zealand the Covid-19 vaccination rollout is its own case study in the impacts on everyone when people in policy choose not to engage in anti-racist action first.

The Mirror Book – Charlotte Grimshaw

This book is on my list because I read it cover to cover last weekend. On one level it is a fascinating story about a well-known literary family in New Zealand and what happens when writing compels people more than anything else. On a deeper level, it is about what happens when people don’t know how, and society doesn’t give us the tools, to meet the needs of our children. It’s complex stuff about childhood, parenting, and how we think we should raise human beings, and what happens to us as individuals and families when we don’t get heard as children – or parents don’t know how to hear them over their own needs. For me Grimshaw’s account of her own parenting and children did feel a little too perfect in a book that is about the trauma we carry with us into adulthood when our narratives are denied as children. But it’s her narrative, so she gets to tell it how she needs to. It’s beautiful and important writing.

The Rivers of London Series – Ben Aaronvich

These books are just fun. They start with a young London cop discovering that there is magic in the world and that Isaac Newton was one of the first modern practitioners of it. There are fae, ghosts, vampires, some speculative physics, bad guys who misuse the magic (of course), and trips back in time to pre-Roman London. Oh, and the London rivers are physically embodied by a group of ageless troublemakers (hence the name). It’s clever fantasy writing that is not too white or too male. Escapism at its best.

And here are a couple of podcasts

The Green Pill – Vox Conversations

I have often found myself in a state of cognitive dissonance about eating animals (I felt it was wrong for me but kept doing it). And while I toyed with the idea of not, there was always counter evidence and logic I could find to keep me doing it (it’s how we resolve cognitive dissonance by seeking confirmatory evidence that it is ok to keep something up). Also, feeling guilty is really not that motivating when it’s just so damn hard to not eat animals. Then I listened to this conversation with Dr Melanie Joy and it helped me see that eating animals, especially sentient ones, is a type of cultural mindset we have that is hard to shift from when all the systems we have are set up to mass produce and farm them. The science has moved on and animals have been proven to be far more aware and sentient than we were taught as kids. Technology has too, in that there are other ways to produce and eat protein that works for most of us. However, our systems and mindsets are locking us into how we currently do things. I’m not saying become a vegetarian (though eating far less meat than most of us do is beneficial in many ways). I am saying there are ways to think about it differently that might help make it easier for all of us to create new food systems and resolve the dissonance in a more effective way. This podcast gave me lots to think about.

This is Love

A delightful series about all the different ways we love people, animals, and the world around us. It’s about the stuff that matters. Start at Season 1.

I am also watching The Wheel of Time on Amazon Prime, and I am living a woman-led fantasy adventure.

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