Letting Birdsong Fill This New Pandemic Silence
Shobha Rao on the Quiet Spaces of Our New Reality
Overnight I witnessed the streets of San Francisco, where I live, go from bustling with traffic and pedestrians and café conversation and construction noise to near absolute, obliterating silence. The Covid-19 pandemic has halted almost every facet of life here, as it has in most places. Whereas prior to San Francisco’s shelter-in-place order, which began on March 16, I would grow irritated by the city’s constant clamor, now I find myself nearly cheering when the music is too loud or when a motorcycle backfires or when a door slams in a nearby apartment. Sound, after all, is a sign of life.
In this time of quiet, this time of pandemic, I try to sit and simply listen for a few minutes every day. I close my eyes and I listen. Most often, I hear the reduced traffic noise and the far-off sirens and the ticking of a clock. Sometimes I’ll hear a dog barking or the bells of Grace Cathedral. Sometimes a voice. But as I journey through these sounds, almost always, at the end of it, I’ll hear birdsong. And that’s it. That’s when I know I’ve reached the end. That I will reach no greater sound.
Hindu temples are designed so that when you enter, there is a wide veranda. And then as you proceed through the temple, you have to walk through smaller and smaller rooms. The last room—the one with the statue of the deity—is incredibly small. Just enough room for you and the deity. The idea being that in order to know god, we must shed all our attachments and reach a place of spiritual oneness. Nothingness.
The last room—to my mind, in these times—is birdsong.
This listening, its blue and brazen delving, took some days after the shelter-in-place order was instated. In fact, three or four days went by before I realized that if I was to survive this new silence, this new emptiness, I had to go deeper into it. I have done it before: years ago, stranded overnight in a train station in Jhansi; when I nearly drowned in the stealthy waters of the Caribbean Sea; over a long summer in a lone cabin in the Badlands of South Dakota. But this is different. None of us traveled to this pandemic; the pandemic traveled to us. Though the impulse is much the same: gather our strength, journey hour by hour, and one day, know we will reach its end.
But even as I listen for birdsong, I wonder, How will any of us know when the pandemic has run its course? How will we know when we can walk in the streets or eat at a restaurant or hug a friend without fear? How will we know when it has really and truly ended? Then my thoughts slip their reins. They run roughshod. For that matter, I start wondering, how do we know when anything has ended? A relationship, a piece of writing, a life? And as an immigrant, I ask myself, how is it that I know my search for a home has ended? Who is to say, Thus far and no further? The thoughts are now multiplying, feral, unforgiving. When, I ask myself, does grieving end? Longing? Loneliness? When does hunger know its end? When does hope?
All questions without answers. Or maybe they are not even questions, but what we are meant to shed before we can enter the last room.
The last room.
San Francisco’s shelter-in-place order has now been extended. All of April and into May. I wake up early and I sit on the floor of my apartment. I breathe. The city, on this particular morning, is foggy. The buildings and the lampposts just half a block away are enshrouded in a thick mist. I love fog but today it seems unkind. I feel my despair, spreading, spreading, slow like a stain. But I sit anyway. I close my eyes. All the temples I have ever entered have taught me something of what I must now do. How I must walk, today and every day: quietly, with the wonder of passing through a new country, casting off all that I desire, one by one by one. I think, There aren’t even that many trees on this block. Where could the birds be nesting? And were they always singing outside my window? And what—so full-throated and so emphatic—are they even saying?
Still questions for which I have no answers. But I am near to the last room. Nearer.