Kerry O’Regan, South Australia Regional Meeting

I don’t know how it happened, because none of us is particularly religious, at least not in that sense, but each year the choir that I’m in goes off to the Barossa and sings at a Pentecost service plus a few other things.

Today we started to work on Hodie Completi Sunt by Andrea Gabrieli. It’s polyphonic, which means each part sings its own melody, the various lines winding in and around one another, each doing their own thing but somehow forming a glorious whole. I was thinking (when I wasn’t madly counting and trying to keep track of my line) that it was a good metaphor for life.

Life (well, my life anyway) is not a seamless whole made up of one single tune. It’s lots of different things going on at once, each with its own rhythms, cadences, rests and crescendos — a polyphony of intertwining lines. And messy. Not a beautifully crafted Gabrieli motet.

I’m composing my life polyphony on the run as I live it. (Or someone else is composing it for me. Am I the composer or merely the singer? Now there’s a question).

I work away at one line then jump to another, or try to manage two or more lines at once, partly conscious of the others soaring or swooping away in the background, or being totally mute for a while. New lines join in, others fade out.

Take this week. The big blasting tune that I found so disturbing was the killing of Osama Bin Laden. Shock and disbelief, that’s what I felt. This line was strident and deafening. How could they? Just how could they?

It seemed that a great lynch mob had barged in and carried out its brutal and peremptory form of justice, if ‘justice’ can even be used in such a context. But so many hailed the act as a glorious deed.

Was my horror and revulsion misplaced? My outrage delusional? However much I tried to re-listen, re-sing, re-shape the line, I couldn’t do it any other way. I just felt sorrow and sadness. And despair.

But wait. There was another, a gentler little melody, rippling along as well. This one goes back a long way. Probably, like many things in life, its roots were in my childhood, but consciously much later.

When I was working full-time and caring for a family and renovating houses and living full-pelt, I nursed a fantasy of one day living at a slower pace and raising chooks and growing vegies.

I sort-of retired three years ago and came to live in this dear little house, in a suburb that’s gritty and working class in an historic kind of way , quite close to the sea. Not much of a garden; big enough perhaps for a few vegies. But oh, the soil. It was a fine grey powder, totally lifeless and water repellent. It seemed so hostile and resistant that even the water I put on it would curl up into little balls and run away as fast as it could.

Well, I thought, we’ll see. Someone suggested bringing in some decent soil, but I had neither the means nor the desire to do that. There was something enticing about restoring what was there, nurturing the lifeless back to life again.

I set my marker, my indicator, like Noah’s rainbow, that would show that all was well, that life had returned to my garden. I’d know the soil was once again an organic living thing when there were earthworms in it. Could they just re-appear? I had no idea really, I just knew that would be the sign.

So I started. No dramatic transformation, just me and the soil working it out together, patiently over time. I dug in the compost of my kitchen waste. Not a lot of that in my household of one. In the days when I still had a car, I imported a few bags of horse poo. Recently someone told me of a local place that delivers organic soil conditioner which, among other things, was supposed to improve the water retention properties of your soil. That had to be good.

A few weeks ago, despite the fact there were still no worms in sight, I figured it was time to see if something would grow. Maybe earthworms don’t just come from nowhere. Why should they? Perhaps it was a foolish choice of marker. So I headed off to the nursery and came back
with a basketful of seedlings. Nice feeling. And then, amazingly, mysteriously, miraculously, two days ago I saw it — an earthworm wriggling its way through the soil. What delight! How could one tiny creature bring a person such joy?

Noah’s rainbow had nothing on this (not meaning to be sacrilegious or
anything). My barren, lifeless garden had come to life again and the earthworm was the symbolic messenger. A wondrous thing had come to pass. And I thought on the polyphony of life (though I didn’t think of that exact metaphor until choir this morning).

There were these two strands going on in my life at the same time. Other strands too of course, but these two there, dominant, in my awareness for much of this week.

The one of events in the big wide world, horrible violent events, over which I had no control, and for which I felt such despair. The other of events in my own miniscule bit of the world, the microcosm, the creative and joyous nurturing of life which I had helped bring about. Such a tiny thing, which will probably make no difference to anyone else in the world except me. The other, so huge that it will have implications for most everyone in the world now and forever more. The two strands intertwined and wrapped around each other. I could hear — sing — them together or separately: the tiny, the huge, the joy, the despair, the one, the many, the violent, the tender.

I don’t care much for moralising, in the sense of ‘the moral of this story is…’. It seems terribly heavy handed and unnecessary; people can work it out for themselves. However, I would like to muse a little on the notion of life-as-polyphony.

Perhaps it is just: yes, well, there are assassinations and there are earthworms and much more besides, and that’s life. But for me there’s something more in it.

There are all these melodies going on simultaneously in our lives, in our heads, in our souls. We can try to be conscious of them all, being overwhelmed at times by what is often a cacophony. We may be captivated by the blaring ones, be aroused, angered, called to action or paralysed with despair. But there are other possibilities.

There’s a book called The God of Small Things. Don’t worry, I’m not about to launch into some theological treatise, but there is something in it. You know, the grain of sand, infinity in the palm of your hand stuff. It’s not a matter of denying the dominant lines in the polyphony.

But, sometimes at least, we can turn down the volume on those; we can listen for the fainter, gentler, more delicate voices. To move to the visual realm, we can seek out the sort of thing you might see in a Michael Leunig cartoon. These are the things that can feed our soul and bring delight to our being.

We can rejoice in earthworms.

To hear this divine music, go to

Motet singers,

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