“Just one voice
Singing in the darkness
All it takes is one voice
And everyone will sing”
A FEW YEARS ago, I was in a state of quiet panic. My beloved dog had just died – not long after my father, who was, again, a precious presence in my life, now gone. My daughter had been very ill. I held things together, day to day, but in my mind, everything was falling apart. Early morning, just before dawn, was the worst. I would wake, all of a sudden, heart thumping, still trapped in thunderous nightmares, not sure who I was – or where.
But all through those lonely summer days, I had one feathered companion. Through the open bedroom window, a blackbird sang to me, every single morning. One of the first of the dawn chorus to give voice, his beautiful melodies soothed and settled me, made me ready to face the day. He seemed to sing, not for his sake, but for mine, and it was a deeply healing experience.
Ever since those strange panic days, I continue to wake early. I have learned to settle myself better, and my need of the blackbird’s song is less urgent, more celebratory than medicinal, though always a gift.
Small comforts in times of crisis
One week into domestic lockdown, as we move inexorably deeper into national and global crisis, I find myself consoled by the smallest of details. After waking, there is the quiet panoply of birdsong – not just Mr Blackbird, but the squabbling sparrows who nest in my hedges, the warble of the wood pigeons in the nearby wood. At 7 a.m. our ancient boiler kicks in, and hot water flushes through the radiators to warm our day. Then the builder across the road arrives in his van: loud rock music blaring from the open window. And with that – I am up. The new day has begun.
I find that the things which once irritated me, are now curiously consoling. Take that noisy builder, for example, with his loud conversations on the street, his endless house repairs – and the constant deliveries of concrete slabs, huge bags of cement, fluted roof tiles and wooden beams and struts.
The intricacies of this renovation, which has been going on for months now, are beginning to fascinate me. Hemmed in by the need to stay confined to the house, the soap opera occurring across the street, and clearly visible in every detail through the front window, has become a regular source of free entertainment.
Green, green grass of home
Meanwhile, out the back, the scene is a very different one: and balm for the soul. I love my garden. It is a little wild, often somewhat unkempt, but full of green promise. And never more so than now. Just past the Spring Equinox, everything is springing into growth. Scrambling clematis. The uncurling of ferns. Flowering currant bushes – their acrid scent, strangely invigorating. Clumps of narcissus. The sharp blades of iris and monbretia. Snake’s head fritillaries, hanging their pretty heads in shy celebration.
To stand on the grass and simply breathe deeply, is such a privilege: watching the blue vault of the sky above, and feeling the solid earth beneath, and knowing that we will, collectively, survive this terrible time, and that nature itself will help us do so.
It is not just the birds that are singing, of course. On balconies in Italy, the people sing their arias of hope and resilience. On council estates in Scotland, they are belting out ‘Sunshine on Leith’. And in Northern Ireland, the bingo teller perches on a roof top, to call out the numbers to an attentive but quarantined estate.
Sound of silence
Yes, everyone will sing. But now, more than ever, we also have a chance, maybe even a deep need, to be quiet. No airplanes. No traffic. Just our own hearts beating. The great poet Pablo Neruda understood this, and articulated it in his poem, ‘Keeping Quiet’:
“Now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still
for once on the face of the earth,
let’s not speak in any language;
let’s stop for a second,
and not move our arms so much.
It would be an exotic moment
without rush, without engines;
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.
Now I’ll count up to twelve
and you keep quiet and I will go.
from Extravagaria by Pablo Neruda, translated by Alastair Reid (Noonday Press)