R.I.P. Leonard Cohen (1934-2016)


I watched the election results on Tuesday night with growing dismay. The race still hadn’t been decided when I went to bed, but it was clear that Clinton wasn’t going to win. I woke up Wednesday to the news of a Trump presidency and went into shock. I had a lot of work to do, but I found myself staring into space, my mind a blank. After a time, I don’t know how long, I did what I often do when I’m upset. I put on some music. Wednesday it was “The Future,” by Leonard Cohen.

Things are going to slide, slide in all directions
Won’t be nothing
Nothing you can measure anymore
The blizzard, the blizzard of the world
has crossed the threshold
and it has overturned
the order of the soul
I’ve seen the future, brother: It is murder

I’m not sure I found the words soothing, but Cohen always had a way of capturing contradictory impulses and making poetic sense out of them. His songs reached out a hand to love and hate, sex and religion, hope and despair and asked them to dance together. He gave voice to the uncertainty of an uncertain world and celebrated our humanity. He brought light to the darkness around us by holding up a mirror to our confusion and helplessness. He took the poet’s task seriously and, in the process, gave us all a shard of hope to hang onto.

Thursday dawned. I still felt traumatized, but I was able to work. Late in the day, as the autumnal darkness spilled into my room, a headline flashed in the corner of my screen. “Legendary Canadian poet and songwriter, Leonard Cohen, dead at 82.” I ignored the news and kept working. If I let this register, I’d be immobilized, so I put it out of my mind long enough to finish my work. Then, I let the tears come. I felt like I’d been punched in the gut. I was both empty and full of overwhelming emotion, a state Cohen describes so well in his songs.

On his most recent album, You Want It Darker, Cohen sat down with death, looked deep into its eyes, and began singing. I played the title track.

Hineni, hineni
I’m ready, my lord

Hineni is a Hebrew word that, literally translated, means, “Here I am!” In the bible, it’s an acknowledgement of the presence of God, of our ability to pay attention, engage the world and submit to the will of the universe, knowing that the outcome of any action is always uncertain. When the song finished, I heard music from the apartment upstairs. “Suzanne” followed by “Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye.” My neighbor had heard the news and was grieving Cohen’s loss, just as I was. I went to the window, and as the last words of “Goodbye” faded, I heard “Famous Blue Raincoat” coming from the building next to me. There’s a line in that song that has always resonated with me.

New York is cold, but I like where I’m living
There’s music on Clinton Street all through the evening

It made me remember the lonely hours of my youth, when I’d walk through the empty streets of Manhattan on a summer evening, listening to the sounds coming out of open apartment windows, wondering about the lives of the people who were playing the music that drifted through my head as I passed by. Thursday, the music of Leonard Cohen was playing on my block all through the evening. It connected me to all the lonely, happy hours of my life and soothed my heartache. It lifted my spirit to know that others were feeling what I was feeling, celebrating Cohen’s life with his songs, just as I was doing. The poet may be gone, but his songs remain, each one a flame, a tiny prayer illuminating the darkness around us with a spark of love and compassion that can never be extinguished.

—j. poet

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