Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these broken wings and learn to fly
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to arise
AT THE START of lockdown in March 2020, I wrote a piece about the consolation of a blackbird, called Just One Voice. I had forgotten this entirely, until I searched for a stock image of my favourite bird, perched so prettily in the picture above, to go with this new blog. How cyclical life is… And the symbol of the blackbird keeps returning.
Shriek of survival
SOMETIME in spring 2021, deep during the Covid restrictions, I noticed a blackbird with a damaged leg, coming to feed in my garden. His right leg was splayed, and the back claw twisted up behind, as if he had caught himself fast, in wire or brambles. But although he wobbled a fair bit when he landed on the bird table, or took pot shots at the bird feeder in the tree – intended for the tinier sparrows and bluetits, with their more petite dimensions – he got around with surprising speed and dexterity. He was also fond of a scrap: flying fearlessly at any rival blackbird, and sending them packing, in a shriek of ink-black tail feathers. He always won. Now there was a survivor, I thought, and I started to look out for him each morning. Stumpy, I called him. My ruffian pirate bird.
From lockdown into the noisy world
Then spring turned to summer, and I lost track of my birds – my garden – myself, for a strange long while. From staying quietly at home, teaching Chi Kung classes online, editing and writing, gardening and growing, I was plunged back into the ‘real world’, teaching in-person classes behind the bewildering muffle of a mask, and jumping into the rough and tumble of a high-stakes, and very beautiful, theatre production – which went on to exceed expectation, and to have full and appreciative audiences, but which exacted a heavy physical and emotional toll on those involved. We just weren’t used to being together, cheek by jowl, for long rehearsal days, still in the shadow of a global pandemic. It didn’t take long for me to become disorientated and exhausted.
I thought I had weathered the Covid crisis pretty well, being, by nature, quite self contained, and content in my own company; introspective and at home in my tiny study, or gazing out of the kitchen window at the green. But when I walked back into the city centre – and the rehearsal room of the theatre – socially distanced, masked and wary, I found its noise, its ego, its physical and psychological exertions, simply too much to bear.
The lessons of illness
Throughout the autumn of 2021, I was unwell and worried, somehow ‘beside myself’ in every way. Health scare after health scare – an ultrasound for ovarian cancer (all clear) – a recall from a routine breast screening (a simple cyst) – a suspicion of bowel cancer (unfounded) – all knocked me for six. Mysterious stomach pains left me breathless, laid me low. A muted panic and claustrophobia lurked at the back of my brain. My ankles were inflamed – dancing was impossible, even walking too far, a tricky proposition. An old tooth infection reared its painful head. My body was screaming at me. Stop! Retreat! Slow down! And so I did. First, I got my neglected garden into shape, chop, chop, chop. And, with the guidance of skilful complementary therapists – a reflexologist, an acupuncturist, an osteopath – as well as my beleaguered GP, I brought my battered mind and body back towards balance. Throughout it all, the quiet beauty of T’ai Chi and Chi Kung and self Reiki gave sustenance, when I was at a very low ebb.
I started to ‘live small’ again, looking out of my kitchen window every morning, searching for the unstoppable regeneration of nature, of the four seasons, of the ebb and flow of weather and light. I was searching also for Stumpy, who seemed, by the onset of winter 2021, to have disappeared entirely.
I presumed him dead: disappeared into the pandemic night, as too many people – and pets – of my acquaintance have done, during this dark and endless time. But I was wrong. One morning in December, I saw him again through the window, fighting like hell with a fellow blackbird, over the remains of a cut up apple I had thrown down with bird seed, the evening before. His claw was still bent back and out of shape. His right leg was still skewiff. But, with his sharp yellow beak pointed sharply forward for action, and his orange rimmed eye beady and determined, he was still marking his territory with determination and verve. And he gave me, in that moment, such a surge of strength and exhilaration. It is possible, he seemed to say, to survive a bad time – to come back bouncing, even if a little crookedly and off centre. He comes to the garden every morning now, to take first pick at the seed and fruit I take out, and to see off all contenders as best he can.
New year, new beginnings
Now it’s January 2022, nearly two years since Covid 19 first struck. Once again, we weather a new – Omicron – wave of infection. Once again there is uncertainty, anxiety and a sense of a deep wounding of the individual and collective mind and body. But wounds can heal, damage can be made good: difficult experiences can be accommodated, and ultimately absorbed into the inexorable imperative of life itself.
I have been writing a new book about the body, called Phoenix Rising, started before the pandemic, but all the more relevant now, which deals with just this theme: of rising again from illness or tragedy and learning to flourish in the most difficult of times. And Stumpy the blackbird has become a grumpy and battle scarred lodestar along my writing – and healing – way.
Sweet solitude and dreams of spring
So now here I am, back in solitude and the land of Zoom for a little while longer. My body, like so many other bodies, has been rocked and challenged by recent events, even while staying (so far) Covid free. But the natural world once again absorbs me: the dank winter garden, which is already showing tentative new shoots of spring, roots and uplifts me. I watch the cycle of life, including the neighbourhood killer cat, who recently ran off down the lawn with a plump pigeon in its jaws – and who was, I am sure, responsible for the flat black corpse of a rat that I found, to my alarm, by the autumn flowering cherry tree, but who has yet to have any murderous luck at all with the indomitable might of Stumpy: truly a blackbird for our times. (I have tried to take his picture many times, but he remains notoriously camera shy…) Sunrise today in Leeds: 8.19 a.m. Sunset: 16.09. One minute of light gained every single day. Savour it. Walk (or fly) towards it. And remember this: ‘ If the universe is meaningless, so is the statement that it is so…The meaning and purpose of dancing is the dance itself.’ (Alan Watts, quoted by Brainpicker on Instagram.)