Meditations: A New Translation

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A Year in Reading: Ella Baxter

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I read widely but abandon books quickly unless they captivate me. The lowest standard I hold for a book is that I want it to be so psychedelic, so completely discombobulating, that I am torn asunder. I want to read words that turn my bones to dust. I want to be unravelled, drowned, absolutely smote by a book. I wish I wasn’t like this. I wish I could just learn to relax, but those days are over, they are dead. Every day I am grateful that books exist and if you were to cut me open, I would bleed all the words I have banked inside, from all the books that have destroyed me, eyeballs first. 

At the start of the year I was given a copy of How to Win Friends & Influence People by Dale Carnegie, a book on shamanism, and a copy of something else, perhaps a story about Tibet. I moved house so the books are still in tall stacks along one wall, and I can’t seem to find the titles to tell you their serious names.

To distract myself from all of the fame and fortune that releasing a debut novel usually brings, I spent the last of my publishing advance on some books, a haircut, and a pair of cowboy boots. I read Meditations by Marcus Aurelius to ground myself in stoicism, Living with the Gods by Neil MacGregor for perspective, and Things I Didn’t Expect (When I Was Expecting) by Monica Dux because I was also very pregnant and quite terrified.

Throughout my life I have tried—at times, desperately—to become a better person, and nothing triggered me to act on this more than becoming a mother. In the first months of pregnancy, I listened to the audio recording of The Secret of Secrets: The Secret of the Golden Flower by Osho. I played it while I did my leg, butt, and thigh exercises in a bid to double down on self improvement. I also read The Dance of Intimacy by Harriet Goldhor Lerner, and How to Do the Work by Nicole LePera. If I am honest with myself, which I am always trying to be, I have remained fundamentally the same.

I live in Melbourne, which has been in lock down for a total of 262 days since the pandemic began. Regularly, I have felt the need to escape my body and my house by inhabiting fictional worlds. I read In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado, which was profoundly bruising. Outlawed by Anna North was a wonderful feminist Western. In Moonland by Miles Allison was enjoyably bizarre and illuminating. Gunk Baby by Jaime Marina Lau threw me into a suburban consumerist fever dream. I also read Motherhood and How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti, which I loved dearly and plan to reread. And, Death in Her Hands and Homesick for Another World by Ottessa Moshfegh, and the incomparable, edible, stratospheric Luster by Raven Leilani.

I enjoy nonfiction as much as fiction and this year I listened and wept through both Girlhood and Abandon Me by Melissa Febos. Her voice is so calming, and so full of honey, that I would drift off and then come to and have to rewind to listen again. I also read The Believer by Sarah Krasnostein, which left me with a resounding curiosity about gods and ghosts. How to End a Story by Helen Garner was so well written that I wanted to weep. Eating with My Mouth Open by Sam Van Zweden contained some of the most perfect food and family writing I have encountered. Aftermath by Rachel Cusk because there is nothing like a brilliantly perceptive book about a fractured marriage to end the day.

I’m currently working on my second novel, which is about feminine rage and vengeance, which means I am doing a lot of research into the art of revenge. For now, it’s all I read and write about. Fatal Women by Lynda Hart lit the fire in my belly, and then in quick succession there was On the Genealogy of Morals by Friedrich Nietzsche, A Madman’s Manifesto by August Strindberg, and Dirty Weekend by Helen Zahavi, which is one of the most hilarious and genius books out there. I have also read a lot of court documents and forensic profiles and watched an ungodly amount of CCTV footage. I am obsessed with revenge, and I keep finding myself asking people whether they feel it is necessary or not, and to no-one’s surprise, most of us are in favor of it.

In order to learn how to write beautiful sentences, I read Plath. “Aquatic Nocturne,” “A Lesson in Vengeance,” and “Brasilia.” I am also reading poetry by Warsan Shire. Her poem “The House” reveals something new each time I revisit it, and there is another favorite of hers that begins with a father walking backwards into a room. Her poems are alchemical; I promise if you read a poem of hers you might levitate, at the very least you will be changed.

To prepare to give birth I read Spiritual Midwifery by Ina May Gaskin and Birth with Confidence by Rhea Dempsey. I also read Birth Skills by Juju Sundin and The Art of War by Sun Tzu to help develop my focus and rigor. I bought a blow up pool and some stress balls, oiled my perineum, and performed some grounding lunges, but I shouldn’t have bothered with any of it because my baby was so big that he got stuck in my pelvis, and even though I labored for three days, in the end I was cut in twain and he was hauled out of my body unceremoniously. Perhaps what I have been expecting of books was achieved though having my beautiful baby. Perhaps I should use this as a learning exercise.

Birth obliterated me spiritually, physically, and mentally and when I came home from hospital I didn’t want to read or think anymore. I just needed to sit on the couch and look out the big old window for a very long time. A friend told me to read something regularly, even if it was just a sentence or two, so I slowly read smaller pieces. A sentence each day from Pizza Girl by Jean Kyoung Frazier, which was a gloriously snappy novella. The short stories of Paige Clarke’s She Is Haunted, and some snippets of poetry from Keats, Dorothy Porter, and Rumi. I believe only now, four months on, that I am ready to think again.

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