Just One Voice

“Just one voice

Singing in the darkness

All it takes is one voice

And everyone will sing”

(Barry Manilow)

Blackbird singing

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.

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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.

Builders’ rubble

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.

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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.

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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)

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Back in the garden

IT HAS been a very long, dark, wet winter. And I have spent many hours gazing out of my kitchen window, watching the endless rain roll down, and searching irritably for signs of spring. In the past couple of weeks, those signs are finally there. Tiny narcissus, just three of them, nodding their heads by the garden hedge. Crops of snowdrops, dripping their white gladness over the dank, scruffy borders. And the rosemary, one of my favourite herbs, in a rare ray of sunshine, in glorious bloom…Blue star flowers on shiny green branches, needles of pungent scent filling my greedy fingers with vigour and admonishment, every time I rub my hand against them, when I go out to feed the birds. Get back in the garden! it hisses, silently. What’s your excuse? Time to get on with it. Things to do.

The blackbirds are busy too, bouncing around the lawn in search of seeds and apples, quarrelling wildly with each other, and hanging off the bird feeders with perilous abandon.  Not a rare bird, but a beauty. With its jet black plumage and canary yellow beak. It catches the attention of singers and poets, and I can understand why. Of all the birds, it seems to speak – or sing – of the spirit. And I always feel happy when a blackbird comes into view…Here’s Wallace Stevens, on ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’:

I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.  

There was a moment in my life, a couple of summers ago, when panic would take hold of me in the early hours, just before dawn. There was some good reason – it had been a difficult year. But there was unconscious chaos, too. No idea why. No words. But there was one thing that calmed me, and calms me still, as I remember it: a solitary blackbird, calmly bursting into song, in the moment just before sunrise, in the quiet before the cacophony of the full Dawn Chorus. I came to think that the bird was singing just for me, to lull me back to sleep, to coax me into the morning, and maybe he was, who knows? But it was the sweetest sound I have ever heard and I shall always be grateful… Just as I am grateful now, to those sturdy flowers, pinging with colour and vitality, just a few steps outside my back door.  Entirely for our delight. Heralding the spring.