How the Light Gets In

Leonard Cohen died this week, continuing a brutally tragic year in fine fashion. We've been playing his music all day, we watched the old NFB documentary "Ladies and Gentlemen... Mr. Leonard Cohen," and I listened to his last interview on the New Yorker Radio Hour while Adam Skyped his brother. We both cried--I have been often crying over the last few days, but this time it felt good to cry over a beautiful soul and not the impending end of the world. In a way, Leonard Cohen passing has been a gift: Rather than the usual scroll through endless doomsday posts, we got a wave of people from all over the world sharing their favourite songs and poetry. Momentarily, I forgot that I was so far from home here in Hong Kong and was transported to the streets of Westmount, where Cohen was born and raised, and where Adam and I made frequent walks. I imagined the rows of victorian houses that get bigger the higher up you walk, and the greenhouse, with its lovely refined white frames and dusty windows and holding, sweetly, the fresh greenness therein. 

I was not a lifelong lover of Leonard Cohen like Adam, who chose him to emulate as a teenager, as young boys do, and parted his hair on the side and followed him to McGill University and walked past his house hoping for a chance encounter. Instead, my associations with him live in memories and images in my head, all rooted in Montreal: An early broken-hearted morning in a sun-dusted apartment in Little Italy where I put on "Songs of Leonard Cohen" on the record player and cried on my roommate's shoulder; lying on a picnic blanket in Parc Jarry in the summer, reading "The Favourite Game," imagining two kids running up wintery Westmount slopes so concretely as I have before, walking over the Van Horne overpass in autumn as the old factories and churches of Mile End, bathed in gold, lay before me, listening to "Bird on a Wire" on my iPod.   

The first time I left Montreal, for an internship in Toronto, I was miserable and homesick for months. I hated to leave, and I hated more being away, filling my head with the gilded images of the city in all its splendor until the day I moved back. It's been about a year since I've been gone now, and I hardly think of Montreal, but when I do, it's with fondness and no regrets. This, I guess, is what happens when you leave at exactly the right moment, maybe even a little later for safety's sake. But I miss it today. Sitting in my living room as "Love Itself" plays softly from my laptop speakers, I yearn for the warmth of a heated apartment in the winter, the rich tones of spinning vinyl, the elegant moldings and dark wood floor panelling of a second-floor walk-up; the quality of silence in the middle of the night on Rue St-Denis, with its snow-caked spiral staircases and colorful rooftop rafters; the perfectly passable coffee, formica tabletops and the hearty joual of a St-Henri casse-croûte. It's these images that I cling to when I am in crisis, and I had all but forgotten about them until Leonard put me back in my place of peace. 

In "Ladies and Gentlemen... Mr. Leonard Cohen," there's a clip of him on a CBC panel show. The interviewer asked him if he cared about the issues, as a poet, wasn't it his job to care?  

"When I get up in the morning, my real concern is to discover whether or not I am in a state of grace." he responded. "I make that investigation, and if I am not in a state of grace, I try to go back to bed." 

"What does that mean, a state of grace?" The interviewer asked. 

"A state of grace is that kind of balance with which you ride the chaos that you find around you." 

Today, I am in a state of grace, unwilling to give into the panicked outrage that has subsumed over the world with an ominous grey pallor. Instead, this great man's art and his grace has caught me, it now follows me through the chaos.

Thank you, Mr. Leonard Cohen, for what you have given, and what you continue to give. 

Then I came back from where I'd been
My room, it looked the same
But there was nothing left between
The nameless and the name

All busy in the sunlight
The flecks did float and dance
And I was tumbled up with them
In formless circumstance

I'll try to say a little more
Love went on and on
Until it reached an open door
Then love itself
Love itself was gone