Ask a writer why she writes and she’s bound to say it has something to do with her love of the places reading has always taken her. Stories are what we live by. Great writers tell them in ways that move us with profound insights—not to mention unforgettable characters. Then there’s the music of words into phrases/phrases into sentences/sentences into paragraphs.
Maybe the music that infuses my day-to-day existence is a setup for some other vocation I’m intended for in a future life. Who knows? In this life I have my CDs and LPs, playlists and radio to get me through each day. And my piano. Lately it’s one song I’m needing to have my fingers know by heart.
God knows it’s a song I’ve listened to more times than I can count—in all its glorious, aching, ultimately simple incarnations.
With the year just days from disappearing, the surreal results of the election are, alas, indelibly linked in my brain with Leonard Cohen’s death a day before and Kate McKinnon’s moving, brave Hillary-at-the-piano rendition of his song on SNL a few days later.
However many times it comes up in liturgy as an expression of joyful praise of God is no match for the understated power it takes on in Leonard Cohen’s hymn of longing and loss. I may hear more of the minor fall than the major lift when I listen, but how can I help smiling at his wry, deft touch?
There was a time when you let me know
What’s really going on below
Now you never show that to me, do you?
The history of the song—the changes in lyrics by LC himself and other singing artists who have covered it—makes it all the more a hymn for the times in which we live. Alan Light’s The Holy or the Broken, a virtual ode to the song, is filled with illuminating tidbits: its musicality may have been the prime reason k.d. lang included it in Hymns of the 49th Parallel, but she came to see it as “a song for meditating, for pondering bigger issues, moral issues.”
The dust may never truly settle on how our presidential election played out, but as I sift through it, the anger at learning there was very serious foul play gives way to a very deep distress at something women of a certain age, like me, feel ever so acutely.
An accomplished, extremely bright woman loses out to an incompetent, boorish, completely unprepared boy for the most important job on the planet.
Why does this have echoes of an old high school scenario, even if the consequences are galaxies greater?
Princess Leia dies at 60, her mother a day later. Big fans, like my daughter, worry about what will happen to Carrie’s dog, with his famous tongue.
Prince is gone.
David Bowie is dead.
Sharon Jones. Leon Russell. Gwen Ifill.
Gloria Naylor. Elie Wiesel.
And Leonard Cohen.
On some levels, maybe it’s true, we’ve come a long way, baby. But after the forward movement, how do we live with those two steps (if not more) backward? We build ourselves up, make language our own, call ourselves bitches with all the connotations of kick-ass strength.
But when a man uses the word, it’s as ugly as it ever was.
In the immediate aftermath of the election, I envied anyone who had anyplace to be on a regular schedule. Comfort in commiseration. Yes, I have my husband to listen to me bitch and cry since we both work at home but the freedom of days with routines of my own making, mostly a gift, had me lost at sea. Miserable. I could not even sit down to write. Weeks later I can—with a quiet determination to remain in retreat (not to be confused with denial). There is no denying what I feel deprived of, as a woman who was so sure that finally, after all these years, the bright girl was going to best the jerk. The symbolism is huge. I may still suffer from disbelief.
And even though it all went wrong—big-time—I can’t bring myself to that place of looking at what was in an attempt to come to grips with what is. Survival (again, not denial) has me reading exquisite fiction sparked by the spirit of creativity and resilience instead of pundits analyzing how what didn’t seem possible came to be.
It pleases my poetic heart to place these words side by side, even if the Hallelujah at my fingertips is not the joyful one I thought I’d be singing.