As usual, I had unplugged from my devices in the early evening. I had no idea of the barrage of emails and facebook messages pouring into my phone, or of the news release behind them all: Leonard Cohen, dead at the age of 82. I woke to the news the next morning. And I waited for the sadness to sink in.
I had considered this moment for a long time. You can’t be a Leonard Cohen fan without having mortality—his and yours—right in front of you. As a recent New Yorker review noted, “Cohen’s songs are death-haunted, but then they have been since his earliest verses.” There was that warning note that went viral this summer, a word of enduring love Cohen sent to his partner and muse from a few lifetimes ago: “Well Marianne, it’s come to this time when we are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon. Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine.” I hoped that these words were just one more beautiful Cohen reflection on the fragility of this life, but his death didn’t exactly come as news either.
I couldn’t access the sadness that I had anticipated feeling. There is nobody else in the world for whom I feel the same sense of admiration (adulation or even hero-worship, if I’m honest). My last blog was about my near-idolatrous feelings for him. The messages of condolence, and/or of shared grief, that I began to sift through spoke as if he were my friend. Friends spoke of sadness for my loss. But of course, my relationship with him will continue on as it always has. His body of work, more than any other artist I have experienced, continues to elicit new insights and connections. Like Scripture, I can hear his words multiple times before catching something he has sung or written as if for the first time. That is the thing about celebrity death. We have a relationship with the person’s work, not the person. And so the relationship we have known continues on essentially uninterrupted.
It also isn’t the case that the circumstances of his death warranted that sadness either. He could have lived longer. I had hoped for a resurgence of health, another tour, more albums. But his life wasn’t cut short like Bowie or Prince. The Rollingstone review of his newest album noted that “You Want It Darker is the sound of a master soundtracking his exit with advice for those left behind.” He gave us a great work as he stared death in the face. He died peacefully with, as his son said, “the knowledge that he had completed what he felt was one of his greatest records. He was writing up until his last moments with his unique brand of humour.” His life’s work was seemingly caught up in this last act of death. it is the end that I hope for myself and for everyone I love.
I couldn’t access sadness in the face of this news. I almost wrote it in a few return email messages: “sad day,” or something equally bland. But I couldn’t, because it wasn’t true, and I had to honour him at least with truth. The only feeling that I could name in connection to this news was gratitude.
I feel grateful.
I feel grateful that Michael Thompson, my mentor and colleague and supervisor when I was first ordained a priest, introduced me to Leonard Cohen. He played KD Lang’s version of Hallelujah while travelling to a meeting. “I love her version,” he said to me, as if of course I knew this song already. “There’s a little catch in her voice when she sings the ‘hallelujah’ that just gets to me.” I was so taken with the song that the next day he deposited a Best of Leonard Cohen album onto my desk, wrapped in cellophane, newly purchased just for me. I think of how Michael supported me unconditionally in those first years of naïve, and sometimes quite arrogant, ordained ministry. I was young and sentimental, he was my elder in wisdom and experience and the ways that life can break us. He made it clear that a thin skin can be a gift in how we care for others and preach the Gospel. He wasn’t afraid to be sad. His introducing me to Cohen is part and parcel of all of the important lessons he taught me and how he provided such a safe and supportive start to my life as a priest, of how that kindness and honesty has served me well, been instrumental in my knowing joy in ministry.
I feel grateful for the friends I have made because of loving Leonard Cohen. George, Natalie, Charles, among many others. It has been said that being a Cohen fan is like demonstrating the secret handshake, and suddenly you can access the soul of another person because you know that their soul understands the same things that yours does. I think of my dear friend Faith, one of my favourite people in the world, and how a simple meeting over coffee (I wanted to quiz her on her experience of a recent visit to my church with her grandmother) turned into a cherished friendship when, as we were clearing our mugs from the table, we let slip that we both loved Leonard Cohen. Our friendship deepened shortly thereafter when we got together for dinner just after she had had a carefully-planned tattoo tribute to him inked onto her body. “There’s a spelling mistake!” she cried over the sushi menu. We laughed and reflected on that mistake again and again because, of course, it was perfect. It was perfectly Cohen. She had picked a verse of his poetry, she had found a sample of his handwriting; she so passionately wanted to make permanent her sense of connection to this artist. And we don’t get to make perfect or permanent responses to what moves us and touches us. Her tribute to one of history’s greatest masters of the English language has a spelling mistake in it. “Ring the bells that still can ring,” Cohen would say. “Forget your perfect offering.”
I feel grateful for my husband. I fell in love with him all over again when he responded to the news with me that morning. “I’m heartbroken,” he said simply. His insight and his eloquence then led him to post the perfect epitaph on his facebook page. “I will speak no more. I shall abide until I am spoken for. If it be your will.” I think of how he secured us tickets for Cohen’s last tour, and of the incredible blessing of having a loved one care enough about me to know the perfect gift to give me, and then to go about making the arrangements to give it, of how, more than anyone else in the world, he was the one to share that concert with, to marvel with me for days and years afterward at the religious experience of seeing one of this age’s great mystics share his craft with the world.
I feel grateful for the permission Leonard Cohen gave us. That is where the sadness comes in. I’m not sad about his death. I was permitted to be sad because of his life. This will sound confusing to some readers, and some will know exactly why it is a gift to be able to lift up the dark and trust that the light will get in too. “As I grew older, I understood that instructions came with this voice,” Cohen said in 2011. “What were these instructions? The instructions were never to lament casually. And if one is to express the great and inevitable defeat that awaits us all, it must be done within the strict confines of dignity and beauty.” I have wondered over the years if it gets old and predictable how often my reflections are tinged with death or how grief is so many times my starting point for writing. And I have remembered that this is okay because, maybe I too am invited to lament, as long as it is done with an eye to what is true and lovely.
I read an essay long ago, shared by Bruce Iserman my grade 13 English teacher, that provided a vision of heaven. I wish I could remember the name of the writer or the collection in which it appeared. He described many of the gentle, warm and lovely images we would associate with paradise. But he included in his description a hint of sadness, a shadow of regret, that small ache in the chest or catch in the throat, that speaks to what it all costs, how precious and fleeting it all is, and how we have been created with the ability of naming both love and loss and it is in that tension where ecstasy is found. Heaven has to include that ache. Leonard Cohen contrasted the rawest and most wounded, the humorous and sensual parts of our human existence with utter surrender to God’s love and power. “Even if it all went wrong, I’ll stand before the Lord of Song with nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah.”
I trust that he is now standing and singing, that his beloved Marianne did indeed linger on the road ahead with a hand stretched back waiting for his.
Thank you, Leonard Cohen. Rest in peace and rise in glory.