“You’ll know it when you hear it,” she had said, but I was in the garden listening to birdsong, and I didn’t know it.
It was a brief sunny interlude in a fortnight of heavy rain in the first week of February, and despite my weak limbs and lack of energy, I thought it would be good to sit out in the garden for a few minutes. I was sitting in the middle of the lawn on a portable chair dressed in pyjamas, trainers and a long faux-fur coat, my sleeves and pyjama trousers rolled up, exposing the skin on my arms and legs so I would get some Vitamin D from the sun. I was enclosed by the trampoline to the left of me, apple tree to the right of me, and behind me the dark wooden fence, but I reckon the neighbours could probably see me from their upper floors: a strange figure with unbrushed hair and red glasses. I didn’t care – I was enjoying the sun.
I remembered my new friend asking me if I had heard a blackbird sing this season.
“What does a blackbird sound like?” I had asked, and she had said, “oh, you’ll know it when you hear it.”
I lifted up my new iPhone to send her a Voxer message.
“I’m in the garden,” I said, “and I can see lots of birds, but I don’t know if any of them are a blackbird.”
I listened. “See – there – dee-dee-dee, dee-dee-dee – sung like a question with the intonation going up at the end: dee-dee-dee? – is that it?”
I listened again, and the wind shook some drops of rain from the apple tree. It wasn’t the cooing of pigeons or the caw of a magpie, I knew that much. I wish I could have remembered all my childhood knowledge about birds from Enid Blyton books – but then again, they had always frustrated me. She had claimed that certain birds called out “a little bit of bread and NO cheese” but I had never heard such words from a bird’s beak, and couldn’t associate that rhyme with any tune.
She voxed back later. “There is usually only one blackbird in a garden,” she said. “You won’t see lots of them, just one couple. They find a partner and mate for life – the male blackbird is black, and the female is brown.” I liked this idea, and imagined them sharing a worm with their beaks meeting in the middle, just like that clip from Lady and the Tramp.
“You’ll usually see them high on a fence or roof, so they have a good vantage point. I used to think their song was a mating call, and that one blackbird was calling out to the ladies, ‘hey – I’ve got a great house with double garage. Check me out!'”
I smiled as I thought about Twitter and Facebook and the blogosphere. Why do we write? Sometimes we write to boast, to make people think better of us: “check me out!” I glanced at the fence, but there was no blackbird there.
I turned to hear a pair of birds chattering away at each other, seemingly squabbling over some food or some territory. They sounded irate. ‘We do that, too’, I thought.
“Actually it’s not a mating call, because they mate for life,” she was saying. “It’s more like a territory thing, but not even that – it’s just like they are saying ‘I am here, and this is my space around me.’ It’s like an auditory fence.
She then apologised for this analogy, saying she didn’t know how else to describe it, but I liked it. A friend had emailed me yesterday and asked, “why did you start writing?” – and I knew the answer immediately: I wrote because I could no longer talk. I was so isolated in the eighteen months after giving birth, and the lack of people-contact was driving me quietly insane.
I wrote because I wanted to say I was still here, and I had thoughts. I wrote because I didn’t want people to forget me. I wrote simply because I had ideas swirling around my head, and they needed to be let out. I wrote to tell the universe: “I am here, and this is my space around me. This is where I start and stop. These are my thoughts. This is my world.”

“They sing on their own, very early in the morning, when it’s still dark but not pitch black. If you’re woken up by a bird in the middle of the night it’ll probably be the blackbird. I don’t know how to describe it – it’s not like a repetitive call like the ones you heard in your garden, it has its own song, and they change it all the time. I love hearing them.”
Maybe I should have said something more holy, I suddenly thought. Maybe I should have said I write to bring glory to God, or that I write to minister to others or something. Weren’t you ‘supposed’ to say those kinds of things? This is why I so often hesitate to call my writing a ministry. How could it be a ministry or glorifying to God when really it’s just self-indulgence, giving space to my thoughts?
But a blackbird’s song is beautiful, even though it doesn’t have a particular purpose, and beauty gives glory to God. All the best artists and writers said they did art for its own sake – a seemingly narcissistic thing – and yet it is that kind of art that moves people. And a poem by Keats gives glory to God in its own indirect way – the beauty points back to the creative generosity of the Creator.
(At least – I believed a blackbird’s song to be beautiful. I still didn’t know what it sounded like.)
“They start singing about some time in February, and I always feel sad when they stop singing at some point in August, because that means it’s the end of the summer. You’ll know it when you hear it,” she said again, but I thought she was vastly overestimating my ornithological ability.

This morning I woke early. I looked at the curtains: the light was dark grey but softening at the edges. It must have been just before sunrise. I could hear a lone bird singing a long song – a warbling, gargling, ever-changing melody. It sounded so full of joy.
She was right – I knew it when I heard it.
Over to you:

  • Have you heard the blackbird’s song yet this year? (And would you know it if you heard it?)
  • Why do you write or create?
  • Do you think that ‘art for art’s sake’ is narcissistic or that it gives glory to God?

With thanks to Lorraine for the blackbird knowledge. If you want to check out her version of that conversation, go here.

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26 Responses to Blackbird

  1. Cathy Fischer 20th February, 2014 at 11:04 pm #

    “Truth is beauty, beauty is truth…” to the glory of God!

    • Tanya 3rd March, 2014 at 10:17 am #

      Amen, amen!

  2. Tara Owens 20th February, 2014 at 5:39 pm #

    This is so beautiful. It made me cry in that Spirit-is-moving kind of way.

    • Tanya 3rd March, 2014 at 10:17 am #

      I LOVE that you loved it. Thanks, lady. πŸ™‚

  3. Rachel Franklin 20th February, 2014 at 3:49 pm #

    I think, maybe I have come just to realize, while I might not have started blogging for the reasons you list, I blog for them now. As circumstances change, so does the view. Thank you for writing this post, it is very helpful to me. The more I remain faithful to the art for the art’s sake, the more I see how it glorifies God. It must be laid upon someone, why not let it be Him.

    • Tanya 3rd March, 2014 at 10:16 am #

      That’s so interesting, the way we change and adapt our reasons for blogging as we go on. I’m so glad this piece was helpful to you!

  4. Janice 20th February, 2014 at 3:42 pm #

    Tanya, I’m so super-duper excited to see a couple posts from you this week! Yes, super -DUPER. Not just super.

    And your post got me thinking, Is it possible that ministry is just sharing ourselves with other people? Every once in a while I get something from a “teaching” sort of ministry. But it’s often a fact or something. So I’m often not really impacted by anyone “ministering” toward me in that way, but when I read your thoughts and can come along with you in as you absorb the beautiful truth about beauty and glory and grace and the purpose of our actions, well that makes my heart lift because, Good Lord! Can it be so simple that God glories in the beauty of the black bird? How freeing and sweet and gentle and life-giving.

    Can I thank God just a tiny bit this morning that you were isolated after your pregnancy so that I could someday read your words? (Ok, typing that feels horrific and selfish and possibly heretical, because mostly I wish you robust health. But I am glad for the way God used this crazy internet to let you share your words with us.) Because I want to thank him for it in a tiny way along with the enormous thanks that that you’re feeling well enough to type these words today.

    • Tanya 3rd March, 2014 at 10:15 am #

      “Is it possible that ministry is just sharing ourselves with other people?” – I love this thought. (You should write a blog post on it!) This is along the same lines I was thinking when I wrote ‘the Truth that comes in sideways’. Maybe that’s why the Bible is so full of narrative.

      And – your end paragraph made me cry. And reading it again, it still makes me cry. (in a good way). I think it’s that I know you feel the weight with me of the isolation but you can still point to something redemptive in it. That means so much.

      Thank you, girl. You are such a blessing to me.

      • Janice 3rd March, 2014 at 3:16 pm #

        You know, as I wrote the part about ministry I did realized I was preaching to the choir because that’s an idea I get regularly from your writing. A blog post on it? That would mean I would have to gear up to write something more complex than a story about my son’s stuffed worm. Now you have me wondering if I’m up to it…

        And I do hope all of our comments are a blessing to you. It seems only fair since your posts are such blessings to all of us.

        • Tanya 4th March, 2014 at 10:14 am #

          Why, SURE you can! Let me know when you do πŸ™‚

  5. Marius 20th February, 2014 at 3:12 pm #


    • Tanya 3rd March, 2014 at 10:12 am #

      Thank you, Marius

  6. sandra hughes 20th February, 2014 at 2:42 pm #

    I love the blackbird song, but haven’t heard one this year yet. We usually have a pair in our garden, so are very lucky. I think your writing is a “ministry”, but I think sometimes, we need to be told that by someone else. I have always loved writing, but it was only when someone called it ” A ministry” I could see that it was, as well as being something I enjoy. I think we often do not like to “boast” about things we do….especially if it is something that helps us at the same time. I love reading your posts, and others from different people, and they have helped me at low times, but also affirmed things going on in my own life.
    I think we often worry too much about “things”, when we should just be enjoying God’s creation. I love the way you explained about just wanting to let people know “I am still here” when we can feel cut off with the isolation often imposed by the ME, and I have tried to explain to friends why I am on Facebook so much, as I still feel connected to the world.
    Thank you, God Bless, and looking forward to the blackbirds returning to our garden now you have reminded me. πŸ˜‰

    • Tanya 3rd March, 2014 at 10:11 am #

      ” I think sometimes, we need to be told that by someone else.” – YES.
      And thanks for relating about feeling the isolation from ME and the need to connect via the internet etc. Much love to you!

  7. Mark Allman 20th February, 2014 at 2:07 pm #

    I do know what you do Tanya is a ministry no matter how it feels to you; no matter if you feel you are singing a song only you can sing; no matter if you pursue this because you could not not write.

    Don’t you think God’s hand is with us in that the things we love can bring glory to him when we pursue them. I think He blesses us this way; we love doing this or that and those things can be used to bring Him praise.

    I am sure it does not go this way but I could imagine God telling Jesus that “hey Tanya loves writing and she is really good; we can make that work”. πŸ™‚

    I am glad you are there and I am glad you are singing in a way only you can and you will never be forgotten. Thanks for letting us see a part of your garden.

    • Tanya 3rd March, 2014 at 10:10 am #

      “God telling Jesus that β€œhey Tanya loves writing and she is really good; we can make that work”. ”
      – I LOVE this thought! made me smile. Thanks, Mark.

  8. Nick 20th February, 2014 at 1:03 pm #

    It also serves as a reminder to me that there can be a sort of ‘seasons’ to writing. There are times when we go quiet, and this isn’t unnatural or even necessarily a bad thing. And I, for one, am a blackbird in winter right now… Which rather puts a strain on time for lent courses (and the three sermons I’m preaching next month…)
    Thanks for another fab and thought-provoking post πŸ™‚

    • Tanya 3rd March, 2014 at 10:09 am #

      YES. Seasons has been a big thing in my thinking lately too. It is such a helpful thing to consider. (exciting that you’re preaching lots! hope that all goes well).

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