The minor fall/the major lift

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.img_0560

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?

51gtdeoragl-_sx325_bo1204203200_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.640_debbie_reynolds_daughtercarrie-fisher-9

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 looki51ehslyjvl-_sx331_bo1204203200_ng 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.

Hallelujah. Hillary.

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.


I live in music

The other day I had a yearning, very specific in its musical nature. I wanted/needed to hear “Dance me to the End of Love,” à la Leonard Cohen when he first recorded it. Maybe not an anthem song in the way “Hallelujah” is, but there must be a reason his last two tours opened with that number. It’s a set-list/strategy that works. Make a show of time with a song of yearning transformed into a wistful me

Tracking down the original is easy these days. Yes, you have to be a fan to appreciate his voice (not that ‘voice’ was ever his strong point). And, yes, only a fan would want to go back, immerse herself in the sound/the spirit/the poetry that first hooked her. For all the change, subtle and otherwise, that years bring to a singer/songwriter, any song is bound to be infused with echoes of its earlier incarnation.

I downloaded. I listened. Found myself transported, in an instant, to another time and place. Nothing does that to me the way a piece of music does. Don’t ask how many nights I needed those “Sisters of Mercy” or slipped into the longing of “Suzanne.” Or told a boyfriend that’s no way to say good-bye.

But this is not about being maudlin (though I can be). It’s about the power of music, the way it infuses itself into your heart/your soul/your bloodstream. It’s about the ways in which a piece of music courses through your body, taking you back, no line between today and yesterday. Here I am/there I was: sprawled on a white Haitian cotton couch, head resting against the pillows, a twenty-something living in a NYC studio apartment, my sanctuary. Take a toke, pump up the volume. Feel the space between the notes and the lyrics. Leonard Cohen got to that crack in my heart. Janis Joplin took a piece of it. Billie Holliday made it ache.

Pink Floyd required my undivided attention.

Bob Dylan LPs had a shelf of their own.

Rubinstein playing Rachmaninoff’s “Piano Concerto No. 2” brought me to tears more than once. When I got around to reading the liner notes (something I still resist before getting my own impression), I learned that the great Russian composer was emerging from a period of despair when he wrote this concerto. Doesn’t the heart know what the mind takes time to figure out?

I happened to live next door to a talented concert pianist. He lived next door to the disco kid. It was the ’80s. Walking down the corridor to my apartment gave new meaning to the battle of the bands. We were all friends.

Turns out my concert pianist friend, Michael Lewin, is a featured artist on “Winds of Samsara,” which won the 2015 Grammy for best New Age Album.   Not long ago I felt compelled to reconnect in the way that old friends do on Facebook. Now I had reason to give a congratulatory shout-out, share the news on my wall, along with a You Tube link of him playing the Ricky Kej/Wouter Kellerman arrangement of a Chopin nocturne I love. What a thrill!

Better yet, it brought us from Facebook to e-mail. We did our best to catch up on twenty+ years. He asked me to choose a CD I’d like in exchange for my book. If just sampling the range of possibilities via his website brought it all back home to me—the sound of his Steinway echoing through the walls—imagine the sensation when I listen to that full spectrum of birdsong made manifest in his enchanting CD, If I Were a Bird. Now I know something even more about him than I did back when.

CD birdMusic is infused into the very fabric of more than one novel by Richard Powers, including his latest, Orfeo.   A glimpse into his way with words may tell you why I just can’t get enough of his work.

Music forecasts the past, recalls the future. Now and then the difference falls away, and in one simple gift of circling sound, the ear solves the scrambled cryptogram. One abiding rhythm, present and always, and you’re free. But a few measures more, and the cloak of time closes back around you.




A Valentine’s Day Playlist . . .

. . . for aging rock ‘n’ roll hearts.

Dylan singing Sinatra standards? Clapton swinging to ‘All of Me’?  A witty, sexy ‘Always’, à la Leonard Cohen?

Put away the weed. Pull out the single malt.  It’s going to be a mellow, once-in-a-blue-moon night.


12/31/12: On the Edge

There invariably comes a moment at a Leonard Cohen concert when singer/songwriter gives way to pure poet.  The softer he speaks, the more closely you listen. It’s a marvel to me, hearing echoes of a song I love, words that were their own music before they would become a song. If the achingly gorgeous  “AIce Art Boot Thousand Kisses Deep” he sings with Sharon Robinson on Ten New Songs owes its genesis to a poem written years earlier, what could be a more fitting expression of the fluid nature of words than to recite them in the incarnation stripped bare of melody? Not that I don’t hear it.

Then there’s the song itself, which, according to Sylvie Simmons’s new, wonderful biography, I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen, has a story of its own. As Rebecca De Mornay tells it, it’s a song he kept writing over and over, “like a painter who paints over his original painting that you loved, and paints a whole new painting on top of it, and then he paints a whole new one on top of that, and ten years later it exists on a record and doesn’t have a single note or word that’s the same as anything I heard when he first played the song.”

The other night words that seemed to be the beginning of something, maybe a poem, popped into to my head.  During this last week of the year, when time seems to both race ahead and stand still, I feel in a state of limbo.  A visit from my daughter makes very little else matter. More time with friends face-to-face means less time with friends on Facebook.  Even without saying it outright, a kind of taking stock of what I set out to do this past year, my own measures of success and failure, takes hold.  So much to put behind, so much more to look forward to.

You could be forgiven
      for wanting
To pack up the dream
Slip it into that swelling suitcase
    tucked under the bed  . . .

These words surface from some place in my consciousness just as Kevin Costner, young and handsome and in as high-definition as it gets on a television screen, is convinced that he has to clear away the corn on his farm in order to create a baseball field. It is a perfect moment of synchronicity for me. If another favorite holiday movie of mine, It’s a Wonderful Life, speaks to the spirit of how our lives are shaped by the singular fact of our existence  (not to mention the places that caring takes us), Field of Dreams speaks to the spirit of how our lives are shaped by the choices we make, and the edges that bring us to those choices.

To be ‘on edge’ is worlds apart from being ‘on an edge.’  An edge is a door, a threshold, a tightrope, the perfect fold of a towel. A precipice on which I stand, or sit, staring into a chasm. A surfboard teetering on a wave. Standing tall on water skis, holding on, not for dear life so much as to steady myself.  Once you think about falling, you topple over.

Ray (Kevin Costner) and Annie (Amy Madigan) invite Shoeless Joe Jackson into their home after he has played some ball on the magical field wrought of leveled corn.  The camera pans down to his shoes pointed toward the line in the dirt, the edge, the place where the field ends and the rocky path of the real world is drawn.  He stops dead in his tracks. He cannot cross over.

Later in the movie the younger incarnation of  Doc ‘Moonlight’ Graham (Burt Lancaster) has come to play baseball on this field of second chances. Karin Kinsella, the daughter of Ray and Annie, is lying on the ground, the air knocked out of her from a fall while chewing on a hot dog. The camera zooms in on a young Archie Graham. He can be forgiven what seems a moment of youthful hesitation but the cards really are stacked. Going back in time does not mean changing the course of his life for that glorious sound of bat hitting ball. The choice he made the first time around – to become a doctor – was not so much choice as calling.  He crosses over. Saves the girl.

The ponies run the girls are young
The odds are there to beat
You win a while and then it’s done
Your little winning streak
And summoned now to deal
With your invincible defeat
You live your life as if it’s real
A thousand kisses deep.

To be ‘on edge’ is to be in a state of contraction, riddled with anxiety, uncertainty. One word, one syllable, an article as indefinite as it gets, makes the phrase breathe, infuses it with possibility.  A poem, “Thousand Kisses Deep,” becomes a song, “A Thousand Kisses Deep.” When I am on edge, disappointment over what is not calls into question all the good that is. When I am on an edge – slippery or smooth, rocky or foggy – bidding  one year good-bye means nothing more than ringing in a new one.

Photo copyright © Christine Boyka Kluge


12/12/12: You say it’s your birthday . . .

What tools do we use? One only.  It’s called attention.  – Charlotte Joko Beck                                                                    

Monday, December 10th. A dreary morning, the sky gray and spongy, an invitation to head out for  a walk, into the mist. A good pace (coupled with temperatures above normal) keeps the dampness from settling in my bones. It does not keep me from paying attention, my eyes lighting on drops of water not quite ready to let go of the branches where they have settled.  You could almost mistake them for buds. Except for the fact that it’s winter.

I can’t say I love cold weather, but I can say I love what the season brings:  daylight eclipsed by early darkness is nothing if not a metaphor for introspection and reflection;  at the same time, those beautifully bare trees speak to a feeling of being exposed.  Is it all of a piece, that sense of internal exploration and external vulnerability?  The mist takes on the full thickness of fog when I reach the lake.  I stop, entranced by its mystery, paying attention to what might surprise me. I can almost see the fog move.

Last week found me at a Chanukah Retreat, a day marked as a ‘rededication to your soul.’  I infused myself with the wisdom of rabbis, one who led a mindfulness meditation workshop, another who explored Jewish dreamwork. A yoga teacher brought the themes of Chanukah – light, fire, strength – into a workshop.  There were other workshops – sacred chant and movement, Mussar (i.e., spiritual self-development) – but my choices spoke loudly and clearly to me. What I experienced was both new and an affirmation of where life seems to be taking me. I learned that the Hasidic Master, the Sefer Emet, taught that the real miracle of Chanukah was the discovery of the light hidden in the darkness.

It’s not uncommon for my birthday to coincide with Chanukah.  This year is no big one in terms of decade markers, but 12/12/12 cannot easily be dismissed.  My husband has now dubbed this the celebration of my birth week:  Monday night, Gustavo Dudamel at Carnegie Hall (tickets I bought months ago); Saturday brings me to Boston, Leonard Cohen in concert (the gift of a friend);  then there’s the day itself, a once-in-a-century numerological alignment that may (or may not) bear some relationship to the Mayan calendar, with its own calculated wisdom.  The way I see it, if  everyone born on December 12th celebrates in a way deserving of the date, there will be no bang, not even a whimper, to what the world holds on 12/21/12.

Here’s what I plan to do:

Light a candle and meditate

Put aside disappointments and sorrows

Go to a yoga class

Head into the city, first to the Rubin Museum, a sanctuary for me. Then a funky blues club I’ve been curious about, followed by dinner with a few of those dearest to my heart at a favorite SoHo restaurant.  It might have been synchronicity of the highest order to land a ticket or two to the121212 Hurricane Sandy Relief Benefit Concert, but the price of the ticket, even for a charity event, gave me pause.  Not that I didn’t try, what with a line-up like that, my long-time favorites among the stars performing. The truth be known, a show I had the good fortune to attend in 2009, the 25th Anniversary Rock  and Roll Hall of Fame Concert, would be a hard act to follow.

Then again, maybe the stars this day (or this week) have something else in mind for me. The exhilaration of music new to me (Silvestre Revueltas’ La noche de los Mayas) conducted by the oh-so-dynamic Dudamel/Jr. Mack playing blues guitar/the unmatched voice of Leonard Cohen in one week? What more could a birthday girl want? Maybe a little poetry before falling asleep, although my anything-but-Zen husband has his own brand of wisdom.  “Sometimes a giggle in your throat is better than poetry in your head,” he quips. So delightfully consistent with the same man who  takes me to the Carnegie Deli after Carnegie Hall. And who buys me flowers.

I have an app on my iPhone, Zen Garden.  ‘App’ and ‘Zen’ would seem to be an oxymoron, and, yet, it speaks to a certain kind of yearning; the world of spirit is in flux, ways of observance evolving to encompass those of us with a sense that something bigger than a rock concert, more powerful (if less visible) than an app that places a rock garden in my palm  connects us, even as more orthodox orders dig their heels in the sand.  A Zen saying appears on my screen when I open the app; if I exit too quickly before absorbing the message, it disappears. Maybe that’s the point. There are no shortcuts to enlightenment.

Today’s message is one that makes me linger: The quieter you become, the more you hear – Baba Ram Das

So maybe it boils down to this:  Reminding myself, again and again, to cast aside all the ‘what if’s’  for the one ‘what is’ I face each and every moment of the day.