So long, Leonard Cohen.
I woke up early on November 11th and switched on my phone, something I tend not to do first thing in the morning, but something urged me. I saw that Leonard Cohen had passed away. I was glad to see the news ‘first hand’ so to speak. It gave me some time alone to digest a bit, to shed a few private, heartfelt tears, to feel, to begin to absorb this new reality.
I felt strangely peaceful, maybe it was denial, a normal, initial response; he was 82, that’s quite old, he was frail, he had written to his ill friend, Marianne, a few months before that he thought he would join her shortly, he had said the words of the Kaddish, (prayer for the dead), on his newly released album, he had said, Hineini; I am ready. So it wasn’t a surprise, but it was a shock, the world did feel altered, dimmed.
Truth be told, I have had a troubled relationship with Leonard Cohen. My early teenage years, were when I first heard him, I was 14 or 15. Definitely ‘Suzanne’ and ‘So Long Marianne’ were heard frequently on my record player. I was generally melancholic, and was totally drawn to his hypnotic, gloomy voice which I thought was not that great. The music touched me deeply. So I listened repeatedly. The problem was that it made me more depressed, so what was the good of that? If I was in a rare up -beat mood, his droning voice would pull me down, what was the point? Nevertheless, I was hooked.
I survived my teenage years, reasonably unscathed and Leonard Cohen settled on the back burner. I was busy; studying, raising a family, working. He was always somewhere in the background, a haunting if softer voice of sadness, depth, darkness and comfort. If I would randomly hear his voice on the radio, or if his name would come up in conversation, my ears would prick up on high alert, like a cat waiting to pounce on anyone who had a derogatory word to say or who would pretend to understand him when I knew they couldn’t. I was the object of teasing by some family members, in good faith, I suppose, but ‘In my Secret Life’, I felt superior, I had insight, depth, understanding of a gift, they could not appreciate. But I wasn’t threatened, my treasure was safe with me.
Years passed, life was busy, productive even. The parts of me that were in sync with Leonard Cohen, remained present. Parts that searched for meaning, inspiration, that sought to uplift the mundane, the darkness. The heaviness was my friend and my enemy, I wrestled with it, at times making peace, at times feeling defeated.
Then in 2008, a beloved friend gave me a CD for my birthday; Leonard Cohen, Live in London. I was skeptical, he was then 74-years-old, I was out of touch with his music, and thought well, he was great, but no longer. So unenthusiastically, I listened and listened and heard. I was once again consumed, the old music was rearranged and revitalized, it was uplifting, energizing. His voice was older, even less melodious, but so rich and resonant. I couldn’t listen to the old tunes, they triggered too much pain, but the new sound was magical.
I listened to the lyrics, the insights, they were poetic, prophetic, enlightening, guidance on how to make sense of this world. ‘Like a Bird on the Wire’, as fragile and puny as we are, we can find freedom, in individual ways, find our own peace, it matters, our life has significance. We find this value not by denying our frailty, but by embracing it.
‘Everybody knows’, the lowliness of people, the baseness, the realness of the throngs ‘getting lost in that hopeless little screen’. Yet we are not judged for this, there is a compassion, a humanity of the common struggle we face , this is soothing, relieving.
When my dear, beautiful, young colleague, died of cancer in her early 30s, I played ‘Who by the Fire,’ while driving to her funeral, how cathartic. Our last conversation a month before had been me explaining how G-d decides who will live or die on the Jewish New Year, for the year ahead. Nikki, was comforted by the notion that life and death are not random.
I bought his biography by Sylvie Simmons, it was long, but I read it from cover to cover, enjoying getting to know the person, the details, struggles and victories of his life. How he took to the stage at an older age to replenish his money after much had been stolen from him. I found this tenacity so inspiring, getting up and fighting back, ‘There is a Crack in Everything, that’s how the Light gets in.’
‘If it be Your Will’ became one of my Mantras, truly we have so little control over much of our life circumstance, when adversity strikes, we pray, we submit, we know we are in His hands, but we don’t give up, we continue t try, to live, to feel, ‘from this broken hill’.
And of course ‘Halleluya’, praising G-d , through it all, even if we feel broken or cold, we praise Him, we are not alone. The endless interpretations, Pop Idols, Jeff Buckley, The IDF choir and many ,many more, all hauntingly beautiful, Messianic.
After his death I listened to many songs and interviews. Listening to him speak, was possibly more moving than the music, he was human, humble, wise. He described himself as a naturally lazy person who loved TV, so had to stay away and create strict structures for himself of work, meditation, non- excess. How everything he had tried, wine, medication, women , song, even the applause of the masses, were helpful to him in that they made him realize they were intrinsically not truly helpful in creating real joy, he had been too dependant on them all. His children provided companionship and took the edge off his loneliness but truly it was the quiet, contemplative inner life, learning to access his own inner wisdom and giving of himself through his creativity, combined with rigid routine which brought him peace.
I realized with some shock, that I was having similar feelings evoked by Leonard Cohen, of my teenage self, but it wasn’t just about mourning his loss, it was achingly more, I wanted to join him in being at peace and free from the struggle that we all still face in being human. I understood what was happening and caught myself. I still have work to do. I stopped listening to the interviews. Reluctantly, but firmly, I put my feet back on the ground towards the ongoing challenge of aliveness. Hopefully I can take with me some of his life lessons. His music and poetry are surely part of me, but for now, with infinite gratitude and fullness from his spirit, I need to let go and say, ‘So long Leonard Cohen’.