Wednesday, May 31, 2017

just below the surface, blessings are about to blossom...

Today, by way of meditation and reflection, I sat on the deck with my honey in the warm Berkshire sun and sipped Scottish tea while reading our local paper. The Berkshire Eagle has been resurrected as a small town voice of wisdom, real news and commentary for our small part of creation. And after years of ignoring it, I have subscribed with enthusiasm. Civic minded citizens bought-out the national chain who had reduced the Eagle to little more than a fish-wrapper for years. Over the course of a year, the new publishers have secured important national columnists, expanded the reporting of regional news, taken clear and compassionate stands on a variety of contemporary issues in their daily editorials, and restored a measure of hope to our struggling community. As a colleague from the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ recently reminded a small group of church leaders: "Just because you can't see immediately the evidence of social transformation, don't think life has become stagnant and hopeless. Just below the surface blessings are about to blossom."

Those were prophetic words for our local church - and small town, too - as we strive to make sense of God's calling during this strange era of transformation, fear and resistance. It would be easy to despair given the cruel incoherence of the current regime in Washington. But their
belligerence and brutality are not the whole story. They must not be denied or ignored, of course; neither should they become the core of our reality. "Just below the surface, blessings are about to blossom." In our region, Mass MOCA just opened their final exhibit hall making this stunning center of contemporary art the largest such museum in the USA. When it was proposed twenty years ago, the dream was ridiculed and opposed. Like many of my Berkshire neighbors, the working class city of North Adams wondered how an art museum would restore economic energy now that manufacturing had collapsed. Today Mass MOCA is the engine that drives creativity and job growth in the Northern Berkshires.

The same goes for the center of our country: after Tanglewood announced their multi-million dollar commitment to a new education and performance center - and the Eagle reported on both the Boston Symphony's investment in our region, and, the revenue it generates each year through tourism - there was more evidence of blessings beginning to bloom from just below the surface.

As I pondered these realities, I read a column written by Andrew Pincus of near-by Lenox (home of Tanglewood) who asked: where are today's JFK and Bernstein? Lamenting the nation's loss of creative vision, Pincus noted that we have gone "from eloquence to tweets. From a public that responds to calls for greatness to a public that feeds on violence and mindlessness in its entertainment." Quoting George Orwell, the author issues this somber picture of what is obvious:

In Orwell's "1984" the 'interrogated declares, 'there will be no loyalty, except toward the Party. There will be no love, except the love of Big Brother. There will be no laughter, except the laugh of triumph over a defeated enemy. There will be no art, no literature, no science. When we are omnipotent we shall have no more need of science. There will be no distinction between beauty and ugliness... there will only be the intoxication of power."

I sat with that for a few moments and then read Carrie Newcomer's note on FB from her "Speed of Soul" column:

The theologian Paul Tillich wrote that faith is not found so much in our conscious beliefs as in the regions of our "ultimate concerns." We are living in troubled times and I must negotiate a daily assault of news that presses mightily upon my ultimate concerns. Today I take in the news of Trump pulling the USA out of the Paris Accords. His isolationist policies threatening not just our children, grandchildren and innocent generations beyond us, but the health, wellbeing and survival of every child now and yet to be born, human and plant and animal. The old models of abundance are passing away, need to pass away, must pass away. And yet there are those who feel that somehow the coal jobs will return and that we might 
miraculously return to 1950 and 60's energy consumption without disastrous results.

It's scary to really take in the environmental moment we are

currently living. It can feel overwhelming. But today I will do my daily part. Yes, I'll send my message to legislators. But more than that, I'll open the conversation, write about what true abundance might look like, sing about a relationship to the natural world that is life giving and soul expanding. Affirm that care of the earth is a beautiful and true act of love and faith.

To restate the obvious, ours is an ugly time: ugly, hateful, increasingly stupid in every sense of the word, and impoverished by fear and greed. But the obvious is not the totality of reality. All around me, even within those most wounded by the violence and venom of this regime, is a beauty beginning to blossom in unimaginable ways. Nicholas Kristof, writing in the NY Times, told the story of our ultimate concerns being incarnated on a Portland train:

America may seem leaderless, with nastiness and bullying ascendant, but the best of our nation materialized during a moral crisis on a commuter train in Portland, Ore. A white man riding on that train on Friday began screaming anti-Muslim insults at a black 16-year-old girl and her 17-year-old Muslim friend wearing a hijab. One can imagine people pretending not to hear and staring fiercely down at their phones; instead, three brave passengers stepped forward to protect the girls.

The three were as different as could be. One was a 23-year-old recent Reed College graduate who had a mane of long hair and was working as a consultant. Another was a 53-year-old Army veteran with the trimmest of haircuts and a record of service in Iraq and Afghanistan. The third was a 21-year-old poet and Portland State University student on his way to a job at a pizzeria. What united the three was decency.

When they intervened, the man harassing the girls pulled a knife and slashed the three men before fleeing. Rick Best, the veteran, died at the scene. Taliesin Namkai-Meche, the recent Reed graduate, was conscious as he waited for an ambulance. A good Samaritan took off her shirt to cover him; she recounted that some of his last words were: “I want everybody on the train to know, I love them.” He died soon after arriving at the hospital. (read the whole story here: 

Brother Nicholas' column ends with this poem by one of the wounded, a student poet, Michael Fletcher:

After coming out of surgery, weak but indomitable, Fletcher wrote a poem that offers us guidance. According to the Oregonian, it read in part:

“I, am alive.
I spat in the eye of hate and lived.
This is what we must do for one another
We must live for one another.”

And this is the vision we, too are called to honor and nourish:  we must live for one another. St. Paul spoke of this as "the foolishness of the Cross." It is the truth at the center of creation: as we give ourselves away in love, new life is reborn over and again. It is the spirituality that shapes our seasons where spring always follows winter. It is the logic that guides the cosmos.  "Just because you can't see immediately the evidence of social transformation, don't think life has become stagnant and hopeless. Just below the surface, blessings are about to blossom."

Sunday, May 28, 2017

today was trusting that God's peace changes the world...

Today was Ascension Sunday in the Western Christian world (actually this past Thursday but most of us do not celebrate Holy Days of Obligation in the 21st century - especially Prods!) My message was simple: our confusion can become a doorway into the light of clarity IF we wait and listen for God with our hearts. We are no different from Christ's first disciples who also lived with confusion. Obscurity is not the problem, impatience is, for the promise of Jesus for power from on high is given only to those who wait. And I don't mean idle waiting, but nourishing a grounded discipline of meditative prayer.

Learning to wait and be centered is the best way to live as an ally of the Spirit. We don't need more spontaneity, but consistency in compassion. So I invited the congregation to join me in learning to pray the Anglican Prayer Bead cycle. It is different from the Rosary and the Orthodox Prayer Rope. It is different, too, from the prayer beads of Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism. Yet they are ALL related and help us recenter ourselves in God's peace...

... and in this day and age, learning to rest, live and trust from the center
of God's peace is the most revolutionary act of resistance I can imagine. I know far too many "politically correct" good people who are mostly a pain in the ass. Whether of Left or Right, they know too much of shame and judgment and not enough of trust in a love that is greater than ourselves. I know, too, what an asshole I can be when I am stressed and ungrounded. My offer to the church was (and is) simple: I will make and give to you a set of prayer beads - and share a simple centering liturgy, too - if you will take the time to talk with me about this discipline. Three people made that commitment today. Others said they wanted beads but wouldn't come to our small conversation, so I said, "Nope. Not going to happen. We don't need more liturgical consumers collecting more holy junk." We need real women and men willing to be transformed by patience, love and prayer. I gave away two of my recent creations and will make up one more in time for Tuesday's choir practice. Then we napped and worked in the yard for a few hours. Yesterday, after an important hospital call, we hiked for a short time in the woods, too.

It has been attributed to Gandhi but probably comes from elsewhere: BE the peace you long to know. We can't give away what we don't have. So, if you are truly concerned about the state of our world - and you damn well should be - take some time every day to get centered any way that takes you deep. We need more women and men in this land who are ready, willing and able to share compassion with consistency rather than the fad of "random acts of kindness." 

BTW, my offer stands for any of you reading this: if YOU want a set of prayer bead, write to me and I will send you some IF you are committed to working with the, ok?  Here's the simple liturgy I use.

The Cross
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: As it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Amen.

The Invitatory
Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the time of our death. Amen.

The Cruciforms
Holy God,
Holy and Mighty,
Holy Immortal One,
Have mercy upon me.

The Weeks
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me, a sinner.

In a portion of this morning's message that I didn't say out loud, Eugene Peterson cuts to the chase re: why learning the RIGHT way of waiting (read: contemplative way) is so vital in times of fear and loathing.

In every era, but especially in one like our own where fear is rampant and mistrust of those who are different embedded in our political culture, listening with our heart can easily be dismissed as naïve, idealistic or even foolhardy. Whenever fear drives our decisions – personally or politically – we shut ourselves off to God’s Holy Spirit. To which our tradition says: the entirety of God’s grace doesn’t matter if we willfully ignore it. The story of Jesus opening the minds of his disciples only happened because he had trained them in the discipline of the heart for years. They were willing, even in their darkness, to listen to the Master’s instruction about Moses, the prophets and the psalms; they knew that this was short hand for Torah – the embodied practice of justice and compassion and accountability to the community – as honored in ancient Israel. Without loving action and accountability, the way of the Lord remained closed. Biblical scholar and pastor, Eugene Peterson, who reworked the Scriptures into “The Message,” offers a brilliant insight into what Jesus did for his friends in his commentary on Psalm 40. He writes:

There is a brilliant metaphor in vs. 6 of Psalm 40 that literally reads: ears
thou hast dug for me. It is puzzling that no translator has yet rendered that sentence into English just that way. They all prefer to paraphrase at this point, presenting the meaning adequately but losing the metaphor: thou hast given me an open ear… but this loses the power of the Hebrew verb “to dig.” Imagine, a human head with no ears. A blockhead. Eyes, nose and mouth but no ears. Where ears are usually found there is only a smooth, impenetrable surface, granitic bone. God speaks. No response. The metaphor here occurs in the context of a bustling religious activity that is deaf to the voice of God: sacrifice and offering thou dost not desire… burnt offering and sin offering you do not want.

Peterson continues: the people knew some of God’s ways – rituals and sacrifices – but the implication is that something more was required – something that comes from listening and hearing God’s voice with our hearts… “So the Lord gets a pick and shovel and digs through the cranial granite, opening a passage that will give access to the interior depths of the mind and heart… so that we can throw away everything that has stopped-up our hearing with refuse: cultural noise, throw-away gossip, garbage, bitterness, chatter that clog us up so that we cannot hear the compassion the Lord requires. (Peterson, Working the Angles)

On Ascension Sunday Jesus opens the ears of his friends and unclogs their hearts so that they can grasp what the Lord requires beyond ritual, fear and habit. And what does the Lord require? The prophet Micah said: to love mercy, to do justice and to walk with God in humility. Jesus was singing this old song in a new key: in a time of fear, you are to proclaim the forgiveness of sins and the eternal bounty of God’s grace – and not just with words - but with your very essence.

Friday, May 26, 2017

the consistency of leonard cohen: part two

NOTE:  My meandering reflections on all things Cohen continues to take more time than I first anticipated. This is, perhaps, appropriate given my desire to ponder his music closely in my heart to say nothing of the artist's own commitment to painstaking editorial review. After all, he himself noted that there were once over 80 verses to his masterpiece "Hallelujah" that took three years to distill. 

To date, I have brooded over Cohen's unique ability to articulate the brokenness of our era in ways that help us both grieve and dance into our aching desires. I have touched upon the sweet intensity he incarnates as a poet and performer, the nuances he brings to his own material, and the importance of other musicians sharing his work with a broader audience. I have noted that at the start of his career as a singer-song writer, the cultural immaturity of the US kept many from grasping the paradoxical truths of his music. And I answered my own question re: the way age and various meditative practices helped him learn to live more comfortably within his own skin. 

Now let me share an overview of the way his music and poetry remained consistent over a 50 year journey.  He ripened and refined his early intuitions of the embrace of sorrow and celebration, but never abandoned it or dumbed-it-down for popular consumption. The constancy of this artistic vision may yet be one more reason Cohen experienced near universal adoration during the final decade of his life: he genuinely remained true to being our Man.

Two quotes from the maturing Leonard Cohen give shape and form to my sense that between 1965 and 2016 the artist rarely wavered in his quest to create honest songs of the heart.  In 1995 he observed that his album, Various Positions, was "an attempt to explore how things really operate, the mechanics of feeling, how the heart manifests itself, what love is. I think people recognize that the spirit is a component of love, it's not all desire, there's something else. Love is there to help your loneliness, prayer is to end your sense of separation with the source of things."  One aspect of Cohen's art celebrated the joy of the transcendent touching our humanity. The other expressed the deficiencies of these sacred blessings that always proved incomplete. 
From his last collection of poems, Book of Longing in 2006:

I had the title Poet
and maybe I was one
for a while
Also the title Singer
was kindly accorded me
even though
I could barely carry a tune...
My reputation
as a Ladies' Man was a joke
It caused me to laugh bitterly
through the ten thousand nights
I spent alone.

In Cohen's laments there is always love. There is often irony and humor in his devotions and the bittersweet confession that the light of hope and healing come to us through the cracks. "Forget your perfect offering - there is a crack in everything - that's how the light gets in."

The light is the capacity to reconcile your experience, your sorrow, with every day that dawns. It is that understanding, which is beyond significance or meaning, that allows you to live a life and embrace the disasters and sorrows and joys that are our common lot. But it's only with the recognition that there is a crack in everything. I think all other visions are doomed to irretrievable gloom... let's look at the balance of dark and light, of truth and lies (Cohen interview 1992)

Starting with his debut album in 1967, Songs of Leonard Cohen, and running through his parting gift in 2016, You Want It Darker, the artist blended a searing honesty about the human condition - including our capacity for cruelty and deceit - with a tender commitment to the sacramental nature of love. "The Stranger Song" from his first recording is emblematic of Cohen's artistic paradigm. The music is haunting, the lyrics complex, the story-line vexing. Cohen writes in a minor key of a liaison that moves like "Joseph looking for a manger" into dreams that evaporate like smoke and feelings that are no more grounded than a game of poker. There is shelter from the storm for a season, but also anxiety. There is a yearning for solace as well as questions of trust 
barely breathed aloud between these lovers. And everywhere you look, there are open doors and railway schedules, culminating in the closing verse:

Let's meet tomorrow if you choose
Upon the shore, beneath the bridge 
that they are building on some endless river
Then he leaves the platform
for the sleeping care that's warm
You realize, he's only advertising one more shelter
And it comes to you, he never was a stranger
And you say,"Ok, the bridge, or someplace later." 
And then sweeping up the jokers that he left behind...
And leaning on your window sill...
I told you when I came I was a stranger.

Besides Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, has there ever been a better line about disappointment than: "He's only advertising one more shelter?" On this same album that so carefully articulates the effects of alienation, Cohen insists on including the innocence of "Sisters of Mercy" and the gentility of "Hey,That's No Way to Say Goodbye." This is not accidental nor mere album filler and fluff. Rather, Cohen has given us the earliest expression of a vision that honors the mysteries of the human heart. It cuts deeper over the next five decades, but remains true to the contours of this first recording. 

I'm not looking for another as I wander in my time
Walk me to the corner, our steps will always rhyme
You know my love goes with you as your loves stays with me
It's just the way it changes, like the shoreline and the sea
But let's not talk of love or chains and things we can't untie
Your eyes are soft with sorrow
Hey, that's no way to say goodbye.

This vision of what it means to love and live for compassion in the realm of sorrow and shadows is vigorous - and becomes ever more universal in the years that follow. 

(Apparently there are additional installments to come... who knew?)

Friday, May 19, 2017

the consistency of leonard cohen: part one...

NOTE  I started this two weeks ago in Montreal but needed to let it simmer and ripen. In part one I describe a dialectic in the art of Leonard Cohen that worked at embracing both the anguish of real life and the promise of solace through mature love. Part two will offer deeper examples from both his early poetry and later music.

It wasn't my design to spend three weeks in Montreal thinking about Leonard Cohen. I had planned on resuming my reading about spiritual direction and wandering through the neighborhoods I had somehow overlooked. But the Scriptures are right: the Spirit blows where she will. So if we are listening, it is best to follow her lead - and that's what I tried to do with this on-going consideration of Leonard Cohen. In Montreal, I took time to walk in some of the places he walked, listened anew to what he had recorded, read again what he wrote, and ate at some of his favorite restaurants (next time its Moishe's Steakhouse on St. Laurent for sure.) Like the artist, I have an abiding fascination with the Montreal that only comes out at night and spent a number of late evenings in various jazz clubs. I have wrestled with my own haunting melancholia and embraced a spirituality linking mysticism with sensuality. My surprising pursuit of all things Cohen, therefore, was not merely a musical encounter; it was also a contemplative spiritual practice at the intersection of culture, art and illumination.

One discovery that intrigues me is the way public perception and artistic critique of Cohen has morphed since 1965. In his early days, Cohen was deemed the prophet of despair yet became an honored senex 50 years later. My hunch has been that this transformation is more about Western culture than Leonard Cohen. He remained steadfast in his brutally honest assessment of human integrity that was married to the efficacy of love. I also now sense that Cohen's deepening non-denominational song prayers helped create a "liturgical experience" for those without clearly defined spiritual or faith communities. He also tapped in to our inchoate longing for experiences of share beauty, awe, confession and trust in a transcendent grace.

From the earliest poems of Let Us Compare Mythologies in 1956 and Spice Box of the Earth in 1961, to music like the "Song of Isaac" in 1968, "The Future" in 1992, or "You Want it Darker" in 2016, the inventiveness human beings possess for wounding one another has been woven throughout his works. This carnage can be systematic and political, transforming a nobility just a little lower than the angels into a Social Darwinism that devours its young. Or it may also manifest itself in an intimacy that first burns hot with ecstatic joy only to turn ashen and bitter beyond rhyme or reason. Cohen has consistently named, witnessed, perpetrated and lamented this capacity for betrayal.

At the same time, the tapestry of Cohen's art is a testimony to the power of love to overcome hate - if only for a moment. Like St. Paul in a zendo, Cohen grasped that while love may be fleeting, it brings solace to weary souls. Yes, "Dress Rehearsal Rag" is constructed upon cynicism and depression. Still Cohen couples his critique with the exquisite innocence of "Sisters of Mercy." Mourning often dances with delight in his poetry and songs. Like the prophet Isaiah sang: Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.

This is not to say that Cohen has always succeeded in his quest for balance: he has known emptiness, flirted with suicide, inflicted agony upon those he cherished and been out of his mind on drugs and alcohol only to dash back to the shelter of Roshi Joshu's meditation center. Still, he never chose to sleep long in the bleak house. He yearned for the "sun that pours down like honey on our Lady of the Harbor" and found it among lovers, partisans for justice, and allies in art who lived to nourish beauty with their whole beings. In an interview from 1993, he said:

I am so often accused of gloominess and melancholy. And I think I'm probably the most cheerful man around. I don't consider myself a pessimist at all. I think of a pessimist as someone who is waiting for it to rain. And I feel completely soaked to the skin. … I think those descriptions of me are quite inappropriate to the gravity of the predicament that faces us all. I've always been free from hope. It's never been one of my great solaces. I feel that more and more we're invited to make ourselves strong and cheerful. cheerfulness keeps breaking through.

My take on this waltzing through the polarities of pain and pleasure is that while Cohen mellowed over time, he never quit calling-out the cruelties of the human experience. In the 60s and 70s, critical reflection on Leonard Cohen was infected by the age of Aquarius. His early fans confused him for the rebellious Bob Dylan of his civil rights incarnation or the saturnalia of Haight-Ashbury (a locale preparing to market the 50th anniversary of "the Summer of Love" even as I write. Quelle horreur!) American culture was saturated in naiveté. The darker Cohen sang, the more he was vilified for his refusal to pay homage to sentimental love. He abhorred the "flabby hippie notions of love" that were ubiquitous and crafted songs of flesh and blood, love and hated as an alternative. His compositions were not for children - especially flower children.

Small wonder cultural critics heard only his agonizing laments without recognizing Cohen's relentless invitation to surrender to the sacrament of shared intimacy. This was not the case in Europe where his recordings sold well. He toured those lands throughout the 70s and 80s. When he could not secure an insightful popular review in the USA, he was honored as a sage throughout England, France, Germany, Israel and later the former Soviet bloc nations after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. 

So what changed? Why did Cohen's music and mature sense of balance become marketable in the USA - even cherished - during the last decade of his life? I submit that it was not a change of heart.To be sure, Cohen learned to better order his emotional life after five years of Zen meditation on Mt. Baldly. Forsaking alcohol played no small part in taming his inner demons, too. Additionally, his new groove of mixing Eastern European folk melodies with pulsing,techno-synthesizers and jazz rhythms seemed to impel his lyrics towards a prophetic and liturgical gravitas. And there's no denying that Disney, Rufus Wainwright and Jeff Buckley brought his works to a younger audience through "Shrek" at the same time he returned to his study of the Talmud and Kabbalah.

All of these changes, however, took Cohen deeper in his exploration of the layered ways sorrow embraces joy. One critical expression of his earliest insights took place with New Wave and Punk artists reclaimed his old songs like "Avalanche." Jennifer Warnes recorded a tribute album, "Famous Blue Raincoat," which did for Cohen in 1987 what Judy Collins had done in 1965: bring his poetry and sound to a broader and younger audience. As he internalized the value of reshaping his music for a new era, Cohen wrestled with the social chaos of the day - especially the LA riots of the early 90s. When Central Los Angeles became a racial war zone, when the first Gulf War evoked fears of the Apocalypse, when the greed of the Reagan Revolution was revealed to be a pyramid scheme for the wealthy, and the glut of once cheap cocaine gave way to horrors of crack: our cultural optimism was over. Lou Reed sang "stick a fork in them... they're done" in his 1989 masterpiece, "New York." 

One reason a Cohen revival took place in the late 80s and 90s is that the nation was ready. Our politics and aesthetics had finally caught up to his somber and broken heart. The ingenuous innocence of American popular culture had finally gone up in smoke. No where is this more clear than on "I'm Your Man" (1987) and "The Future" (1992) Cohen was still crying out against injustice and seeking solace in love. He continued to honor his familial calling in the priesthood of ancient Israel by mixing Judaic liturgy with contemporary jazz. And he was no less damning or caustic in his campaigns against silly love songs in a war zone than before. But now culture agreed with him.
(In part two of this reflection I want to suggest that the late Cohen revival was one part cultural lament for our lost innocence and another part non-sectarian/non-denominational revival through Cohen's secular hymns.)

Thursday, May 11, 2017

letting go of illusions and distractions...

While waiting for another post on Leonard Cohen's music to ripen - a reflection on culture catching up to the artist's once despised but now respected so-called cynicism - I came across this poem. It hails from 1994 when Cohen realized he had to come to terms with a life out of control: four bottles of wine a day just to stop his stage fright, physical deterioration, no inner balance and too many broken hearts.
On the path of loneliness
I came to the place of song
and tarried there
for half my life
Now I leave my guitar
and my keyboards
my drawings and my poems
my new Turkish carpets
my few friends ad sex companions
and I stumble out
on the path of loneliness
I am old but I have no regrets
not one
though I am angry and alone
and filled with fear and desire.

For the next five years the artist lived as "the useless monk" at the Mt. Baldy Zen Center outside of Los Angeles. He described his extended retreat like this upon returning to performing again in 2008:

I wasn't looking for a religion," he says. "I already had a perfectly good one [his Jewish faith]. And I certainly wasn't looking for a new series of rituals. But I had a great sense of disorder in my life, of chaos and depression, of distress. And I had no idea where this came from. The prevailing psychoanalytic explanations of the time didn't seem to address the things I felt. Then I bumped into someone who seemed to be at ease with himself and at ease with others...

Slowly, without ecstatic diversions or physical distractions, Cohen learned to be at peace within his own skin. Working with a Zen master who refused to "put whipped cream on his bullshit" Cohen came to realize the promise of the Incarnation - the Word become Flesh in real time and space - the inner rest of the Sacred "pitching a tent in our neighborhood and taking up residence within." This contemplative persona had often danced through his soul during the previous 60 years, but now it was grounded in his core. And the blessings of this peace were born of the quotidian mysteries: cooking, cleaning and staying in the kitchen rather than chasing illusions, fears, demons or lovers. As Merton and others have noted, contemplation invites us "to take a long, loving look at what is real." And in Cohen's most ordinary experiences he found the truth that set him free. Something happened on Mt. Baldy that was not really a mountain top experience, but more like a return from exile:

The black dog of depression, "a kind of mist, a kind of distress over everything", which had dogged Cohen throughout his life, finally released its hold. Senescence appears to have brought serenity and a new contentment with the simple things of everyday life. When not working, the man who took Manhattan with 1960s hell-raisers such as Janis Joplin and Lou Reed can be found preparing matzo-ball soup in a pair of slippers and a suit at the modest house in a middle-class suburb of Los Angeles he shares with his daughter Lorca and several dogs. His son, Adam, a folk-rock singer like his father, is across town. His partner, the Hawaii-born singer, Anjani Thomas, lives down the street. Cohen has also gone back to his roots and now spends half a year in his native Montreal. "I feel tremendously relieved that I'm not worried about my happiness," he says. "There are things, of course, that make me happy: when I see my children well, when I see my daughter's dogs, a glass of wine. But what I am so happy about is that the distress and discomfort has evaporated."

I have long wondered what facilitated the public transformation of Leonard Cohen. It is my conviction that his world-weary honesty never changed. Nor did his abhorrence of sentimentality. But Cohen clearly had a change of heart that empowered him to practice acceptance. He sensed it in one of my favorite obscure songs back in 1970 and spent the next 35 years getting ready to embrace it. Hallelujah.

Monday, May 8, 2017

loving the airbnb groove...

Perhaps tomorrow I will return to my on-going reflections on Leonard Cohen. Today is clearly all about wandering through le Petit Italie in Montreal and wondering what surprises will be discovered....

... four hours later - during which time there was a bit of snow in a wintry mix, a stop at Milano's Italian Grocery Store (an exquisite journey into Old World charm) and an extended lunch at La Corniche (a Tunisian eatery @ we are back at our AirBnB "tiny house" for a nap. Where we're staying in Montreal has not been impacted by the recent flooding. In fact, I've been so cut off from the "news" that until I got a note from my man in Thunder Bay wondering how we're faring, I wasn't even aware of the challenges. One of our stops was to a newsstand to get a local paper and get up to speed!

Let me sing the praises of AirBnB for those not in the know:  it has become our preferred way to visit when we have more than an overnight. I was turned-on to this resource when our daughter mentioned it in passing as a fascinating way to live in neighborhoods at significantly affordable rates. Like many old guys, at first it freaked me out:  whaddaya mean stay in someone else's house? Yuck... But after giving it a shot about 7 years ago for a two week sojourn in Montreal, I've become a believer. It was the ONLY way we planned our sabbatical trip two years ago and has taken us to truly sensational homes.

+ There was a five story walk-up Zen apartment in the East Village. Right across the street was an Algerian restaurant with the best hummus in town (except for places on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn.)  Close to Alphabet City, the vibe of the neighborhood was eclectic and alive. Every day was an adventure - made all the more possible because of the reasonable rent (as well as the grant from the Lilly Foundation.) We took in local Latin jazz, ate NYC pizza, celebrated our anniversary, made pilgrimage to the old Fillmore East and hung out with our family in Tompkins Square Park.

+ The next major surprise was our stunning stay in Pittsburgh.  Our Steeltown hosts were two young hipsters and their children who were dedicated to reclaiming the neighborhood from both decay and gentrification. Our digs were 21st century bohemian with craft beers in the fridge.  He was a barrista, she an early childhood educator; they turned us on to the sketchy areas of my birth town that we needed to avoid as well as the groovy parks and galleries that were must sees. A highlight was the Conflict Café (sadly closing later this month) on my late father's alma mater.

+ Montreal has given us at least 6 unbeatable places to call home over the past 7 years.  We started out near Little Italy, moved to le Plateau, Mile End and Outremont and now find ourselves back in the old neighborhood where any obvious zoning regulations have long been forgotten. Our current "tiny house" was once a garage that has been converted into an artist's studio. It is vertical rather than horizontal space in another wildly eclectic area of town. Let me go on the record and say that we've scored big time with AirBnB in Ottawa, too with places that match our aesthetic and hosts who are full of compassionate creativity.

Perhaps my favorite thing about this way of visiting is living in a residential neighborhood. Wandering the streets where locals shop, sipping tea or wine on the non-tourist terraces of small neighborhoods and hanging out in the little parks that dot these communities is soul food for me. One of our hosts worked for Cirque de Soliel, another consults for water justice rights internationally; one was a veterinary doctor who gave her time and resources to the lay chapter of the Order of St. Francis, and our current host creates intricate works of art as a weaver.

There may come a time when I am too old, broken and cranky to make these quirky 
habitations work, but I hope that's not for a long time to come. Yes, there have been a few precarious stairways to negotiate - and some unusual showers, too - but WTF! Life is too short to play it safe, boring and bourgeois. (PS: I know the arguments against AirBnB and have seen some of the abuses in places like San Francisco where greed is crowding out affordable housing for quick cash. That said, like any innovation, new safe guards are emerging that are both fair and effective.) So, with a bit of careful research and a willing spirit, check it out - and have a ball.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

sinks beneath your wisdom like a stone...

For what its worth, I've been experimenting with playing two versions of Leonard Cohen's early masterpiece, "Suzanne." One is based on Judy Collins' popular iteration from her "In My Life" album in 1966 and the other is Cohen's own interpretation. "Suzanne" began as a poem first published in 1966 and later recorded by the artist for his Columbia album debut in 1967. Others have been drawn to it, too including Noel Harrison's pop chart version in '67 - I remember seeing him "do it" on NBC's "Hullabaloo" - as well as Nina Simone's unique reworking from 1969. Still, Cohen and Collin understand this song in clearly different ways. Their insightful performances define the breadth and depth of its poetry and emotional significance.

 Like many young guitarists in the 60s, Judy Collins introduced me to the magic and mystery  of  "Suzanne."  The "In My Life" recording was an audible blessing to many as she tenderly planed-down the rough places on songs like Dylan's "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues," Richard Farina's "Hard Lovin' Loser" and the wild "Marat/Sade" so that we might take in each song's significance. She and her arranger, Jeremy Rifkin, understood that not every 
soul could or would devote the energy necessary to search for pearls of insight hidden beneath the challenging aesthetics of these artists. Consequently, Rifkin and Collins did the hard work of discerning a composition's core so that it could be shared with integrity to the wider public. NOTE: this is NOT dumbing down a song or amputating it's complicated truths as so often happens with purely consumer driven musical production. Rather, this work strikes me as popularizing what is good, true and noble in marginalized music by helping the average listener cultivate an ear for what lies just beyond the status quo. Rifkin and Collins applied this genius in spades to Cohen's songs on "In My Life" and their efforts were fully realized on "Suzanne."

First, they changed Cohen's guitar introduction from a haunting three note melody that evokes loneliness to a descending guitar riff that feels warm and inviting. Second, there is no question that Ms. Collins' voice is truly lovely and honest while Cohen voice sounds wounded. This alone makes her version of the song more engaging for some - not better, in my judgment - but beauty is salvific as Dostoevsky wants us to recall. And third, the Collins' take on "Suzanne" is squared-off and rendered regular - like a hymn of a once popular folk song that formalizes a tune for  easier group singing - making this "Suzanne" not only simpler to  hear, but also less complicated to remember. The way Judy Collins interprets this song sounds to me like a gentle waterfall in a wood side stream: it's tone is bright, it's mood is nourishing and it's effect is warm and reassuring.  

I don't hear any of that in Leonard Cohen's interpretation.  It sounds to me like Montreal: complex and brooding. This take pulsates through a city with unresolved longing while the other wafts through the woods with an invitation to rest. Cohen creates a mystical dance that treats spirit and flesh as equals, sometimes embracing, other times sparring and never fully at peace. I hear a sensuality here that is unashamedly human. It suggests paradox as well as unsettled inner contradictions: a lover who is half crazy, a Messiah who sadly grasps that "only drowning men can see him," heroes in the seaweed, children in the morning and trust born of touching perfect bodies with the mind. Listen to the undulating female chorus that starts with words of loneliness and crescendos when Cohen speaks of freedom only to fade away like mist on the St. Lawrence River where Jesus "sinks beneath your wisdom like a stone." Written in the shadow of Notre-Dame de Bonne Secours (Our Lady of Good Help, Montreal's sailor's chapel blessing seaman for hundreds of years) we're left to wonder is Suzanne "our lady of the harbor" or is it the Blessed Virgin? Or both at different times?  Who is bringing blessing? Where is there serenity amidst the garbage and the flowers? Cohen sings of both prayer and seduction, confession and confrontation, hope and bewilderment. 

Small wonder that this song hails from a 1966 poetry collection Cohen called Parasites of Heaven. The paradox of faithful living remains:  now we see as through a glass darkly, later we shall see face to face. Even though I owned Cohen's version of "Suzanne" back in the day, I couldn't really hear it. I was a child and "when I was a child I spoke and acted like a child" to paraphrase St. Paul. There was comfort and naiveté in Judy Collins's version and like the multitudes of that dreamy season, I wanted to believe. "But when I matured I put childish things away... faith, hope and love, these three remain... and the greatest is love." In 2017, Cohen evokes St. Paul's sober wisdom for me. I listen to Collins nostalgically, like watching the film "Woodstock." Oh, that it could have been. Then I put that recording away and sit for a spell with St. Leonard in the mystery of mature love. My daughter recently wrote that her mantra for this era comes from Cohen's "Anthem" - a tune we sang at my installation 11 years ago - that holds a hint of "Suzanne's" paradoxical truth:

You can add up the parts, you won't have the sum
You can strike up the march, there is no drum
Every heart, every heart to love will come... but like a refugee

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

taking it slow...

Today was "down time" in my wandering and writing visite de Montréal. Truth is, I was
worn out. Could be that walking another 6 miles was partly to blame after a few rainy days off. It might have something to do with going to bed after 1 pm most nights and then getting up
by 7 am to fix Di's breakfast and lunch. But, if I were a betting man, I would put money on my sluggishness being directly related to listening to truly inspired, wild-ass bop and free jazz last night till after 2 am. Plus walking my butt off and the whole domestic support drill, of course.

I had some excellent conversations with the wait staff who helped me practice French by speaking très lentement and encouraging me to continue d'essayer (keep trying.) And then two women sat with me at the bar who were friends of the band. They, too, were Francophones who were only too willing to help me get a little better with their mother tongue. We talked jazz, culture, politics and life in Montréal in French/English for a few hours. Two parts of this conversation are worth sharing:

+ First, there appears to be an increased number of Parisian immigrants flooding Montréal and breeding resentment among the Quebecois. One of my new artists friends spoke of it as the "second wave of colonization." More on this after a bit of study and research.

 + Second, there is a clear dividing line still active among the French and Anglo jazz fans (and in other areas, too.) "The scene when you cross over the Main (St. Laurent) is très Anglais - and you can feel the different groove." I've thought about that all day: taking in a set at the Anglophone Upstairs Lounge over near McGill University feels different than the scene at Dièse Onze.  To my way of being, the Francophone jazz realm cuts deeper and feels more soulful. My colleagues were pleased and quickly agreed. Both Di and I have discerned this, too when it comes to the neighborhoods we like to stay in. When we first started to visit Montréal our French was so bad that we always stayed West. Then we discovered Little Italy and
Marché Jean-Talon and grew more into the Francophone world. Then, for sabbatical, it was le Plateau and the East side of town in spades - and has been on the 8 trips we've made since back since that time.

As the music intensified, it came out that I played contre-basse (upright bass) and so did one of my bar mates (the woman friend of the killer bass man leading the jam.) So, once my bona fides were established I was invited to an "off the grid" jam session on Sunday night. Apparently, for the past 26 years a group of mostly Francophone artists from various genres have been running a small, under the radar club that has nothing to do with the market place. It started out with film makers and over the years has morphed into a much more musical event - and some of last night's young bop players are carrying the day. It was my hunch that if I hung out long enough, listened carefully, spoke enough earnest albeit bad French, kept my earrings in and made the acquaintances of enough jazz players such and invitation might happen - and now it has. I let all of this soak in today - and did a bit of house cleaning and grocery shopping, too.

Di has two more days before her practicum is done -  and then it is our anniversary.  We'll do something fun and give her another week in town so that she can rest and join me in some wandering as well as at least two jazz gigs. (More Leonard Cohen soon.)

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

sweet intensity with leonard cohen...

For the past week I  have found myself going deeper into a long standing yet rarely considered interest in the music and motivation of Leonard Cohen. When I began playing the guitar I was smitten by "Suzanne," "Sisters of Mercy," "Bird on a Wire" and "Song of Isaac." There was such sweet intensity in every verse that listening became intentional. Sacramental. I soon found that I could only endure small portions. Like watching a Bergman film or savoring the exquisite flavors of the banquet table, my whole self was required for this music with no casual encounters allowed!

With minor exceptions, I favored Cohen's own renderings of his music more nuanced and passionate than the prettier cover versions.  Yes, we all give thanks to Judy Collins for her take on "Suzanne" - that guitar foundation is still enchanting - and her live take on "Joan of Arc" is arguably the most achingly beautiful recording of this song in the whole of creation. It fully captures the paradox of "beautiful losers" who learn of life and love by failure. The 
universe is unanimous, too in decreeing Jeff Buckley the owner of "Hallelujah" while Madeline Peyroux brings glory to "Dance Me to the End of Love." Nevertheless, whether it is the early semi-acoustic songs or the later full blown gypsy jazz, world music travelling circus approach: Leonard's own voice takes his songs to places no one else can even imagine. Others may make the artist's music more marketable than the original, but no one can reveal the truth of these songs better than the master himself.

Notice how Cohen uses women's voices here rather than inanimate musical instruments  like violins or organ to fill out the sounds of this performance: the combination of simple guitar playing minor chords against his own stark voice while surrounding the lyrics with the
angelic warmth of Sonia Washburn and Jennifer Warren voices creates an ecstatic tension aching to be released. In an updated manner, Cohen does much the same thing - adding synthesizers and a larger band to the equation - but still juxtaposing the heavenly harmonies of his female singers with his own earthy gravitas. What a smorgasboard of paradox!
One of the things I cherish most about Cohen's music is its spirituality:  it is fully embodied with heaven embracing earth, spirit dancing with flesh, and suffering as fully realized as joy and justice.  He may claim to be sentimental - affirming only a half truth - but there is nothing sentimental to his lyrics or sound. Like an Old Testament prophet at prayer, Cohen honors both the going out in sorrow and the return in joy where the trees sing and the mountains shout and shadows are no less real than light.  Like he proclaims:  this is soul music like unto "the staggering account of the Sermon on the Mount that I don't pretend to understand at all..."

Fr. Richard Rohr speaks of paradoxical spirituality as a maturing faith. Sadly, it is not one the Church often honors nor one that adolescent fundamentalists of any hue easily accept. In a reflection on the wisdom of the Cross, Rohr confesses:

I believe—if I am to believe Jesus—that God is precisely suffering love. If Jesus is the living “image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15), and if there is this much suffering in the world, then God is in some very real way suffering. God is not watching it, but in it! Did your church ever tell you that? How else can we understand the revelation of the cross and that our central Christian image is a naked, bleeding, suffering man? Christians strangely worship a suffering God, largely without realizing it; and Christian mystics even say that there is only one cosmic suffering, and we all share in it, as Paul also seems to intuit (Colossians 1:24).

Many of the happiest and most peaceful people I know love this “crucified God” who walks with crucified people, and thus reveals and “redeems” their plight as God’s own. For them, Jesus is not observing human suffering from a distance; he is somehow in human suffering with us and for us. He includes our suffering in the co-redemption of the world, as “all creation groans in one great act of giving birth”  (Romans 8:22). We “make up in our own bodies all that still has to be undergone for the sake of the Whole Body” (Colossians 1:24). The genius of Jesus’ ministry is his revelation that God uses tragedy, suffering, pain, betrayal, and death itself, not to wound you but in fact to bring you to God. There are no dead ends. Everything can be transmuted and everything can be used.

Clearly this is why Cohen's music speaks more deeply to me at this moment in life:  there are NO dead ends - everything from agony to laughter - is being used to move us into the embrace of grace.

playing for our lives: a concert to combat local homelessness June 15 @ 7 pm

In an interview with Krista Tippett a few years ago, the late Jean Vanier gave contemporary people of compassion his antidote for despair:...