Monday, March 20, 2017

Broken Hallelujah--The Prequel: Leonard Cohen's Loving Brokenness


In my last blog, I confessed that I had set out to share a eulogy to the great poet and song writer, Leonard Cohen, who died not long ago. I felt moved instead to speak with my own voice. Thus came a meditation on broken, discarded toys under the title of perhaps Cohen's most famous song, (Broken) "Hallelujah."

I invite you now to consider the words of Cohen's close friend, Leon Wieseltier, for a flavor of this earthy-mystic; this joyful pilgrim on the pain-full path.

Here then, is that eulogy that moved me so. A worthy Lenten meditation (links to music at the end):


My Friend Leonard Cohen: Darkness and Praise

By LEON WIESELTIER NOV. 14, 2016
“Dear Uncle Leonard,” the email from the boy began. “Did anything inspire you to create ‘Hallelujah’”? Later that same winter day the reply arrived: “I wanted to stand with those who clearly see G-d’s holy broken world for what it is, and still find the courage or the heart to praise it. You don’t always get what you want. You’re not always up for the challenge. But in this case — it was given to me. For which I am deeply grateful.”

The question came from my son, who was preparing to present the most irresistible hymn of our time to his fifth-grade class and required a clarification about its meaning. The answer came from the author of the song, who was for 25 years my precious friend and comrade of the spirit. Leonard Cohen was the most beautiful man I have ever known.

His company was quickening in every way. The elegance and the seductiveness were the least of it. The example of his poise was overwhelming, more an achievement than a disposition, and much more than an affair of style.

He lived in a weather of wisdom, which he created by seeking it rather than by finding it. He swam in beauty, because in its transience he aspired to discern a glimpse of eternity: There was always a trace of philosophy in his sensuality. He managed to combine a sense of absurdity with a sense of significance, a genuine feat. He was hospitable and strict, sweet and deep, humble and grand, probing and tender, a friend of melancholy but an enemy of gloom, a voluptuary with religion, a renegade enamored of tradition.

Leonard was, above all, in his music and in his poems and in his tone of life, the lyrical advocate of the finite and the flawed. As he wrote to my son, who was mercifully too young to understand, he was possessed by a lasting sensation of brokenness. He was broken, love was broken, the world was broken.

But “Famous Blue Raincoat” notwithstanding, this was not the usual literary abjection, or any sort of bargain-basement Baudelaireanism. Leonard’s reputation for bleakness is very imprecise. His work documents a long and successful war with despair.  The shattering of love has the effect of proliferating it.

Leonard had an unusual inflection for darkness: He found in it an occasion for uplift. His work is animated by a laudatory impulse, an unexpected and profoundly moving hunger to praise the world in full view of it. His attitude of acceptance was not founded on anything as cheap as happiness.
Leonard sang always as a sinner. He refused to describe sin as a failure or a disqualification. Sin was a condition of creatureliness, and his feeling for our creatureliness was boundless. “Even though it all went wrong/ I’ll stand before the Lord of song/ With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah!”

The singer’s faults do not expel him from the divine presence. Instead they confer a mortal integrity upon his exclamation of praise. He is the inadequate man, the lowly man, the hurt man who has given hurt, insisting modestly but stubbornly (except in “I’m Your Man,” when he merrily mocked himself) upon his right to a sacred exaltation.

Leonard wrote and sung often about God, but I am not sure what he meant by it. Whatever it was, it inspired “If It Be Your Will,” his most exquisite song. He sought recognition for his fallenness, not rescue from it. “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” He once told an interviewer that those words were the closest he came to a credo. The teaching could not be more plain: fix the crack, lose the light.

All this gave Leonard’s laughter an uncommon credibility. He put punch lines into some of his most lugubrious songs. He delighted in expressing serious notions in comically homely ways. (On ephemerality, from an unreleased early version of a song: “They oughta hand the night a ticket/ for speeding. It’s a crime.”) We laughed all the time. At the small wooden table in his kitchen the jokes flew, usually as he prepared a meal. While he was genuinely in earnest about the pursuit of truth, Leonard had a supremely unsanctimonious temperament. Whether or not darkness was to be relieved by light, it was to be relieved by lightness. Before Passover, which commemorates the biblical exodus, he sent this: “Dear bro, happy Pesach. I miss Egypt! Love and blessings, Eliezer.” Before Shavuot, which commemorates the giving of the Torah in the desert, he sent this: “Dear bro, See you at Sinai. I’ll be wearing headphones! Love and blessings, Eliezer.” The laughter of the disabused was yet another of his gifts.

Eliezer was his Hebrew name. We sometimes read and studied together, Lorca and midrash and Eluard and Buddhist scriptures and Cavafy. We could get quite Talmudic, especially with wine. In Judaism there is a custom to honor the dead by pondering a text in their memory. Here, in memory of Eliezer ben Nisan ha’Cohen, is a passage on frivolity by a great rabbi in Prague at the end of the 16th century. “Man was born for toil, since his perfection is always being actualized but is never actual,” he observed in an essay on frivolity. “And insofar as he attains perfection, something is missing in him.

In such a being, perfection is a shortcoming and a lack.” Leonard Cohen was the poet laureate of the
the lack, the psalmist of the privation, who made imperfection gorgeous.

- from the New York Times

(Leon Wieseltier is the Isaiah Berlin Senior Fellow in Culture and Policy at the Brookings Institution and the author of “Kaddish.”)


Saturday, February 25, 2017

A Broken Hallelujah

Broken and discarded toys can get to me. We see them every day in the trash. Most of the time I don't think much of it--headless Barbies, a trike without a wheel, stuffed animals--but once in a while the images speak to me of almost impossible joy and loss.

Little children imagine the world differently from most grown-ups. More truly, I think. They don't distinguish between an animate and inanimate world. Everything around them is alive.

When Charlie was six, we bought a newer car. When she was at school, we sold the green station wagon--HER car. The one she knew from her beginning.

The one that took her places while she had important phone meetings.

Cars, animals, stuffed animals, people, trees--all live together in the living world that children experience. So when Charlie heard on the way home from kindergarten that her beloved green car had been sold, she burst into tears: "I DIDN'T GET TO SAY GOODBYE!"

But she did get to. The new owners had not yet picked up the car. Still moist with tears, Charlie erupted with joy to see her beloved green car in front of the house. When the time came for her car to leave with its new people, Charlie tenderly walked up and patted the hood. "Goodbye," she said. Quite similar to the way in which she had said "Goodbye Nana." at my mother's casket the summer before.

My tears are too often sentimental. But children don't feel sorry enough for themselves yet to be sentimental. Their tears are direct, immediate and relational. As is their joy and wonder. This changes as we get older. Therefore the world, as we see it, changes. It can become a world of "things" for which we have little feeling. People can become things--useful or not--to us too.

Sometimes, when I look at a discarded Teddy Bear, it overwhelms me.  The hallelujah and the brokenness of our being-here. That which children are vulnerable to feeling unguardedly. That which mystics of any religion (or non-religion) see. About which poets write.

Jesus is said to have said, in response to his young men arguing over who was greatest among them, "Unless you turn and become like little children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. For to such it belongs." Jesus' "kingdom" was a satirical inversion of the Roman kingdom. Fearless love over fearful power.

"And a little child shall lead them," declares Isaiah's vision of a peaceful kingdom. It's about unquestioned belonging, where everyone and everything is included. Exquisitely painful. I guess we are too afraid for that. Or are we?

(Note: I intended this blog to be a eulogy of Leonard Cohen. Thus the title. But I think his spirit overtook my hands. Maybe something more directly about him later...)





Sunday, February 5, 2017

A Few Minutes of Fame



 To my surprise and delight, StoryCorps picked up on Rev. Dr. Garbage Man, and thought my daughter, Charlie might interview him (Dad, Silly Old Man) for a segment. Thanks to my colleagues at Wisdom Ways who turned them on to this in the first place, Barbara Lund and Sonja Ausen-Anafrani.

My daughter, Charlie and I recorded for over an hour. They assured us that less than one percent of their interviews reach the weekly national radio broadcast. I was surprised then, when I got a call on Thursday, January 19th saying we were going to be broadcast on NPR the next morning. It was inauguration day. Our audience was huge. Bigger than any ever before, or ever after. Enjoy...

Listen to StoryCorps Interview Here