Earlier last week, on a day saturated with anxiety, I had two emotionally searing listening experiences: the first a report on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme about unspeakable atrocities perpetrated by army forces on civilians in Myanmar; the second Morten Lauridsen’s rapturously beautiful setting of the Christmas anthem ‘O magnum mysterium’.
The greatest mystery of all is perhaps what it means to live in a world where both of these things are possible. In the face of an apparently absent God, human beings seem to draw out the divine from within themselves. What a world.
Some things just cut straight through to your heart without needing words or thoughts (these come after). So it was with the truly wondrous Blue Whale whose skeletal form swims through the vaulted entrance space of London’s Natural History Musem – which D and I looked in on yesterday during a visit to the capital.
I remember watching a BBC Horizon documetary about the installation a few years ago (‘Dippy and the Blue Whale’), and being moved then as now by the vision behind the project and the commitment, ingenuity and, actually, love from the sizeable network of people and professions involved in resolving its formidably complex logistics. It’s a tribute to human endeavour as well as a timely reminder of human culpabitly in allowing this species to be driven close to extinction. All of this seems to be embodied in the grace and beauty of the installation – the kind of thing that takes your breath away when you first catch sight of it, and leaves me feeling awestruck like a little kid again.
Today I travelled by train for the first time since the pandemic began – from Morayshire in Scotland down to Newcastle. So much seems to have changed over that time – personally and domestically, for friends, organisations and society as a whole; the future not clear. Perhaps no wonder, then, that alighting the train I felt both glad to be making such journeys again and a bit spooked by where we are. A weird feeling in my stomach.
Strange. I’m sitting at my desk trying to work. But I’ve put some algorithm-driven singer-songwriter music on through the built-in sound system of our lovely new house, and what was supposed to be in the background has somehow caught my mood; a plaintive song by a young male singer has tapped into some sadness in the background of my own thoughts and brought it to the surface.
I learnt a long time ago that it’s possible for different emotions to go on in parallel, even if there’s only one that’s explicit in the conscious bit of your mind at any one time. That’s certainly been the way of things since D and I moved into our new place just over six weeks ago. For me, I’ve been thrilled to move to this exciting new space in a new location – all full of new possibilities. But for D, beset by a continuing flare up of chronic anxiety, it’s been a more troubled story (he’s written about it here – as thoughtfully as ever), and that makes me sad and troubled too.
Moving to a new home is never going to be straightforward. On a practical level there are things to be sorted out. Emotionally and spiritually there’s then the matter of building a new relationship with the place – feeling into it, trusting it, learning to live there. That doesn’t happen overnight, even – especially – in a house like this, whose spaces are different (and bigger) than any house we’ve ever been used to. So for D this is challenging, and has brought its travails to us both as he struggles to feel at ease in it. I’m distressed (and, I have to admit, perplexed) at seeing him at times so distraught at our new habitat. Sometimes, though, things will get better for a bit as we nudge things forward with the process of making the house ours – the assembling of bookcases, the placing of pictures ready to put up; that kind of thing – and that rekindles hope.
I had so wanted to celebrate our new home together, as the start of an exciting new journey in our relationship. I still think, or at least hope, that that time will come. I guess getting to that point is itself part of the journey. Time will surely tell. Meanwhile, stubborn optimist that I am, I would still risk saying that I think we’re blessed to be here.
Soon D and I will be moving house. We haven’t signed on the dotted line yet, but before too much longer, the paperwork should be ready both for the house we’re planning to buy and for the sale of our own house, and then it will be a matter of agreeing a date between all the parties and packing everything up. It’s taken us the best part of four years to find a place that’s right for us, but, to cut a long story short, we finally did so in January, and since then it’s been a process of patiently – and sometimes not so patiently, even a little anxiously – watching the legal gears turning, and getting ready to move.
The place we’re buying is a beautiful, light, modern, one-off architect designed house. It’s literally a house of my dreams: I dreamt of such a place over 30 years ago during a short period in counselling, when my psyche was clearly in flux. In my dream the house had a large floor-to-ceiling window and an internal balcony — just like the one we’re moving to; and there were people inside having a good time. Uncanny! I hope our new home really will give us a new burst of life, light, connection with others, and much open-heartedness. That, I guess, is the invitation – and possibly (to echo a conversation I had with D yestereday) the joining of the dream and the upcoming reality may in some way point to life making sense.
Despite the anxieties that go with such a move — the practical logistics, the financial investment, the change of location (we’re moving out of Newcastle down to the Derwent valley) — I feel positive about it all, excitment brewing. At the same time, we’ll both be sorry to leave our current house, in which we’ve invested so much time and love these last 23 years. Now the the reality of our move is starting to sink in, I seem to be seeing our present house anew, and feel even more aware of how much I like it. We’ve done OK with it really, as I shared with D at the dinner table the other night – made it look and feel nice; and it has worked so well for us. We and the house have co-evolved.
So, mixed in with the excitement of the new is some sadness at the loss of the old. But these two things don’t have to cancel each other out. That seems part of the flow of living. What makes it seems all the more poignant is the fact that it’s the early spring, with everything coming into bud and blossom right on our own doorstep.
Resonating with all this is a certain paradox about Spring that I seem more conscious of this year. And this is that the older you get, the more there seems a subtle note of sadness in this beautiful time of year. Or maybe sadness is the wrong word; it’s perhaps, again, poignancy — the awareness that, unlike in childhood when the number of future springtimes (and renewals) seems infinite, that’s clearly now not the case. To me, the Ur-expression of this sentiment comes at the wonderfully moving and beautiful close of ‘The Farewell’ (Der Abschied), the last movement of Mahler’s late orchestral song-cycle, The Song of the Earth (Das Lied von der Erde), whose texts are based on Chinese poems. A wanderer makes his farewell to his friend in the midst of the burgeoning Spring:
I am making for home, my resting-place!
I shall never roam abroad again –
My heart is still and awaits its hour!
Everywhere the dear earth
Blossoms in spring and grows green again!
Everywhere and forever the distance shines bright and blue!
Contributing to this feeling in my own heart is the memory of when, nearly four years ago, D & I looked round the first of what was to be a number of houses that might have been our future home. It was a beautiful sunlit May evening, and also the moment when my step-Mum phoned to tell me that my Dad had died. There seemed to be no contradiction between the profound beauty and sadness of that evening — between new beginnings and saying goodbye.
But, but, but … this is not to get maudlin! Having entertained these thoughts, what’s quite clear to me is that, even though a future moment of farewell is somewhere on the — I hope still pretty distant — horizon, this is emphatically not it. This springtime will, I hope, be one of renewal and reinvigoration; an opening onto a time of well-being, which even if mellower and less ego-driven than in the first half of one’s life, will still be full of joy and creativity. Our new home, together.