Two weeks or so ago, I traveled over to Wintergreen Resort
– that year-round recreational center where I spend spring and fall retreats hiking, reading, thinking, and just plain resting. This is my getaway from the daily round of errands and list of have-tos I make for myself every morning. So no matter how happy and content I am in my daily life (and now married life!), still I need some downtime to just get away from daily demands.
One of the high points of my day while at Wintergreen is enjoying a cup of morning coffee, sitting in the rocking chair of the condo’s bedroom, watching the morning sun peek up over the mountains in the distance. (See the lead photo.) This is the iconic image I carry in my mind when I’m home and trying to regain a foothold on peace amid my daily rounds.
I drove over to Afton Mountain
– on top of which the resort sits – on a Monday morning, and by Wednesday the peace was shattered. My husband left a message on my cell phone that he had just found out that his only brother had just died. And so I checked out the next morning and headed back to Richmond. His brother and two of his sons live near Farmington, Connecticut. Thus the next day or so was taken up with making plane and hotel reservations, and travel preparations began for the following week. In the meantime, I got a call right after getting home that the husband of a close friend had collapsed and died that Friday morning. Instead of lingering peace, sadness simply prevailed in our house that weekend. And no matter how hard I tried, I had a hard time recapturing that image of the sun rising over my favorite mountain. That image lived in my mind but not in my heart during those few days of homecoming before setting off again, northbound to Connecticut. Traveling and anticipating all the family dynamics awaiting us. Those dynamics that pretty much always prevail at weddings and funerals that punctuate our lives.
So life. And so our lives go. Around the time all this was happening, I read a book review in the New York Times
(Sunday, January 6, 2019) titled “Hallelujah Chorus” by William Logan (see second photo below). In it, Logan reviews a recent book edited by Robert Faggen and Alexandra Pleshoyano entitled The Flame: Poems, Notebooks, Lyrics, Drawings by Leonard Cohen
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux). Cohen died a couple of years ago and this was a posthumous collection of works by Cohen – as the title would suggest.
Logan’s review is a particularly vicious screed against this edited collection, but mostly a biting and nasty screed against Cohen’s work in general. Logan writes: “The Flame has a little of everything for Cohen fans and nothing for anyone else. ... If this is the best of his barrel scrapings, there’s not much barrel to scrape.” To give you additional flavor:
As poems these squibs are worthless; as lyrics, even sung in that lizardy groan, they often moved millions. His voice, that broken, battered thing, could make almost any song – even “God Save the Queen,” perhaps – sound lonesome, miserable, profound. If singing badly is no bar to stardom, everyone who stands caterwauling in the shower should take hope. You might not even need a whiskey-and-battery-acid cocktail to get there. (p. 11)
Now, in my last book, The Fiction of Our Lives
(2016), I actually celebrate some of Cohen’s work. Even Logan grudgingly mentions two of his songs that have meant a great deal to me: “Suzanne” (rendered beautifully by Neil Diamond), and especially his ‘Hallelujah,” made famous by Jeff Buckley. (I do agree with Logan that Cohen’s singing voice did leave something to be desired. Someone once described his own renditions as “music to slit your wrists by!) Logan writes “it’s hard to understand the cult of Leonard Cohen, the thousands who flocked to concert after concert, leaving with a feeling of illumination or exaltation ...” But both of the songs just mentioned – especially his “Hallelujah” – apparently inspire and move thousands to heartfelt tears at the hearing. Drawing from a book by Alan Light titled The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley & The Unlikely Ascent of Hallelujah
(2012 – see third photo below), Light makes the following observation:
One work, [“Hallelujah”] charged with centuries of meaning, delivered ironically or solemnly or both. It serves as a prayer, perhaps the great prayer of the modern age, regardless of one’s relationship to God. One look at the tears streaming down the faces of a sea of kids singing along with Leonard Cohen at the Coachella festival demonstrates the ability of this song, with one age-old word at its center, to transport listeners in a way that organized religion has largely failed to do for this generation. (p. 162)
As I point out in The Fiction of Our Lives, “most of Cohen’s poetry put to music was a blend of the sacred and of human sensuality – in the deepest sense incarnational and whole – seeing all of life as holy in some deep sense.” There is something I believe embedded deeply in our brains that celebrates life nevertheless. And part of our cultural heritage is the word “hallelujah” – expressing the joy of existence in all its pain and all its blessings.
As I also point out in that section of my book, one of Cohen’s most famous lines is this: “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” I then write “we’re all flawed, and God still flows in through the breaks and cracks in our lives.” And his last verse to “Hallelujah” that Cohen retained, despite the reworking, the adding and subtracting in other renditions by other artists, goes like this: “I did my best; it wasn’t much. I couldn’t feel, so I learned to touch. I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you, and even though it all went wrong I’ll stand before the Lord of Song with nothing on my lips but hallelujah.” (p. 164)
And so shall it be. Despite the deaths, sadness, and pain of these last few weeks, we still can raise our voices and our hearts together – I can still see that morning sun rise up over that mountain – knowing deep down in my heart that our lives are deeply blessed.
Tomorrow is Easter, folks. So here’s to life ... hallelujah!