Singing for my Psyche 🎶

IMG_2863Last week I stood up with 26 other women in a rather lovely local church, drew breath, and began to sing.

This was the inaugural performance of our women’s choir, “Stamford Sings!” and we were letting our family and friends see and hear some of what we get up to at our weekly sessions on Wednesday evenings. Just formed in the Spring of this year, we have learned new songs and increased our vocal confidence whilst meeting new people, forming friendships and challenging sometimes long-held fears and apprehensions.

The physical and psychological benefits of collective music-making are well-documented and include reducing stress, blood-pressure and anxiety; improving cognitive function and social integration (and addressing problems associated with loneliness and isolation). Stumbling upon a recent article, I also discovered that singing activates the vagus nerve, (the longest nerve in the autonomous system) which has the effect of applying the brakes to our stress response. Group singing, it seems, intensifies that effect on the individual.

Of course, performing can itself be stressful and, depending on our character and personality, takes us out of our comfort zone to a greater or lesser degree. Whilst it’s scary, it’s only by edging out of our comfort zone that it expands, and enables us to discover, both individually and collectively, resources we didn’t know we had. This experience of risk – of shared vulnerability – can create an environment where we are less defensive, more open and empathic, and where strong bonds can forge.

The heritage of group singing is found in mining and seafaring communities, and of course in slavery, where stress, uncertainty, oppression, and all too often tragedy, were woven deep into the collective conscious. Where words and music could give a shared expression to sorrow, resilience, gratitude, joy, and hope.

Our choir’s renditions of songs ranging from Gospel to Disney, via Manilow, aren’t tonally perfect or lyrically spotless, but they are a wonderful vehicle for a group of women to come together once a week and forget about the workplace targets to be met, the school lunches to be packed, the family squabbles to be resolved and the relationships to be tended. For that short interlude in our busy lives, we can put aside our sundry preoccupations and lose ourselves in potent words, and a banging good tune!

Home Again. The Holiday Snaps.

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Back at home, suitcases have been unpacked, clothes have been washed and the all-important photographs have been viewed, labelled and culled. If, like me, you can remember when the height of photographic profligacy was slipping a 36-exposure colour film into your Kodak Instamatic, you will marvel at the sheer quantity of digital images that bounce onto the screen.

I remember, at 17, and on my first ‘real’ trip abroad – by land to Turkey – obsessively checking the little window on my camera, which showed how many shots I’d taken. I would then calculate the number of days left, so that I could ration the remainder accordingly.

This was long before “selfies”. Back then, if you wanted to capture yourself on film without resorting to tripods and timers, you would have to hand your precious camera to a total stranger and hope they didn’t blow the shot with a clumsy finger over the lens. Or worse! Accidentally press the shutter-button twice and waste one of the valuable frames earmarked for Venice the day-after-tomorrow.

Then there was the nail-biting process of extracting the film cartridge from the camera. First (and most importantly) the “rewind” button had to be located and activated. Then the whirring/clicking sound would start as the little motor moved your treasured memories to their safe place on the other side of the spool. Holding the camera to your ear, you would anxiously wait for the whirring/clicking to stop, which would indicate a successful rewind. But, if the whirring/clicking continued, mocking you with its persistence, then you would have to face the possibility of abject loss and failure, because “something would have gone wrong inside”. Sometimes, in my haste, I overlooked the “rewind” part of the process altogether and ruined a film by opening the back of the camera with the film exposed. Disaster.

If, by great good fortune, I managed to avoid all of the aforementioned pitfalls, my film would need to survive the “photos by post” service. In the 1980s these Freepost envelopes would come through the letterbox unbidden and by the fistful. Films and envelopes would have to be carefully labelled with corresponding stickers, requiring a diligence usually reserved for hospital identity tags, before being sealed in the brightly coloured packs and sent away … and then the waiting began.

The week or so that elapsed before the longed-for return of the photos could seem like an eternity. But, hey, it’s Peak Holiday Season, right? You were warned by that small-print disclaimer on the back of the envelope.

In reality, this relatively brief interlude before the glossy prints, along with negatives (for reprints) landed on the doormat, was an exercise in managed disappointment: That shot which, in my memory, encapsulated the essence of the Mediterranean with azure sea and powder blue sky, artistically shot through a bougainvillea tracery, has somehow been rendered in a much less vibrant hue. The close-up, which showed the intricacies of a tropical bloom, comes back blurry and unrecognisable. And the hilariously-posed, ecstatic group-shots reveal the sweaty faces of those afflicted by a strange sleeping sickness – with mouths gaping, and red-rimmed eyes, either staring or half-closed.

For a few days I would keep all 36 prints in their glossy wallet, in the vain hope that I would, with fresh eyes, see their “inner” beauty. Or, vainer still, that the holiday-snap-fairy would return the bright and beautiful images I was convinced I’d captured and which had somehow been lost. Eventually, I would ruthlessly dispose of the outtakes, keeping the half-dozen or so which didn’t hit the cutting room floor.

Now, with hundreds of digital images, better cameras and editing options, the chances of getting some good photos are so much better. And yet I still think that the colours I hold in my mind’s eye, the scents I’ve captured in the limbic cortex of my brain, and the feel of the warm breeze, still on my cool skin… these are the things of which memories are made.

 

 

 

A Tale of Three Sisters: Queenstown, Wellington and Christchurch.

 

(This is a blog-post from before we left New Zealand. Internet access had been a little intermittent there. Now we’re in California, it’s all-singing, all-dancing again. So here we go! And if I find I’ve gone metaphor-mad).

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Queenstown.

Of the three sisters Queenstown is the youngest. Conventionally pretty, if a little bland, she is used to getting everyone’s attention and thrives on the novelty of new acquaintance, needing continuous adoration from all-comers. Like the most popular girl in High School, she sets the trends for other, impressionable girls to follow. If you’ve not made it into her coterie of whispering confidants, you may feel desperate about your exclusion and decide to work very hard to make the grade. Alternatively, you may regard her with a certain bewilderment, silently wondering at her infamous popularity and at the devotion she seems to inspire. But of course, you will say none of this; even thinking it seems like a dark act of treachery!IMG_2835

Wellington.

Wellington, the eldest sister, is a very different character. Sassy, confident and edgy, she’s the kind of girl whose personal hygiene is a little suspect, but, hey, she absolutely knows how to have a good time. She’s a heady mix of excitement, bad habits, trashy clothes and contradiction. If you spend time with Wellington, she will probably lead you astray, encouraging you to break out and try new things, before disappearing into the night, leaving an intriguing scent of mystery in her wake.IMG_2830

Christchurch.

Christchurch is the middle child and, suffering the familiar fate of “middle children”, has always struggled to feel secure in her position. Life has been hard for Christchurch and more than once, she has been broken by her experiences. But, if you think she’s a victim, you’re missing her amazing resilience. Time and again, she marshalls her resources, recovers and reinvents herself, emerging more robust and strong, determined to withstand the challenges of the future. Little wonder, then, if at times she seems confused about who she is  IMG_2829

 

 

 

 

Reflections and Moving On.

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Today we crossed from New Zealand’s Southern Island, to the North. Exiting the Airport at Wellington a different pace, population and purpose was evident. But first, some reflections on our experience of the South Island.

Our travels took us from Christchurch on the East Coast, to Greymouth on the West Coast and then southwards to Queenstown. There are whole swathes of the South Island we didn’t even sniff.

What are my abiding impressions? Scenic splendour at every turn. I became punch-drunk on mountain vistas and river plains; sucker-punched by forests, lakes and glaciers. And remoteness. I’m used to the model train-set that is Great Britain, where you are rarely more than an hour from an urban conurbation and less from a motorway. Where the population of the small town where I live is two-thirds that of the entire West Coast. Here, there are vast tracts of uninhabited land, interspersed with “townships” – four or five roadside properties. Where the nearest supermarket is a two-hour drive undertaken once a month. Weather-permitting.

My other abiding memory will be of the people we met:

Jill, in Christchurch, who gave us a unique insight into the impact of the earthquakes in 2010/11, and how the community has been forever changed, and is responding.

Jan, whose amazing beachfront property we stayed at in Rapahoe, and who shared her extensive knowledge of the West Coast, sending us on our way with notes and directions to “must see” places.

Neroli, at Haast, a fourth-generation West-Coaster, who regaled us with tales of her ancestors. Hardy folk from Ireland who arrived amongst the first pioneers, landing cattle from their ships, and eventually developing a particularly heavy-framed herd, which could withstand the gruelling 250 kilometre drive from field to market, without losing condition and value. The descendants of those heavy beasts can be seen in nearby pastures today.

The ranger from the Conservation Department who took time out from grass-cutting, to give us a local history lesson at the far outpost of Jackson’s Bay.

Marc, who suggested we head out of the quaint but very tourist-centric Queenstown, and drive to Glenorchy along the banks of Lake Wakatipu.

All these people generously gave of their time and local knowledge and we greatly benefited from both. They gave our brief visit a unique context through their personal experiences, reflections, and opinions. Thank you.