For some reason I got a yen to hear some Leonard Cohen a few weeks ago and during a spare moment downloaded The Essential Leonard Cohen. I used to have quite a collection of his music on cassette tape but I left all of that in an act of catharsis at the Salvation Army before one big move or another. I’m a real sucker for some of his earlier stuff: Suzanne, So Long Marianne, Bird on a Wire and of course, my favorite, the painfully melancholy Famous Blue Raincoat. Cohen’s music transports me to the soul of my early twenties when I was deeply involved in an angst-filled love affair with an older man. An artist no less. Our affair was doomed but painfully exquisite. And perfectly suited for a Leonard Cohen soundtrack. But life has changed a bit for me since those days. I don’t have a lot of time for free listening and when I do, Leo rarely suits the mood.
Fast forward a couple of weeks and you’ll find me listening to Cohen again. I’m on vacation in an unbearably beautiful spot but my mood is undeniably melancholy. The setting is ripe. Now that the children are older we’ve graduated again to the attic apartment in the old farm house owned by my mother-in-law. Normally a boarder lives in this small garret apartment but he has decamped to Southern France for a few months and so the apartment is ours for three weeks. The boarder is an intriguing fellow. In his mid-fifties, he has no regular job and by all accounts never has. He lives, as far as we can tell, on a small government pension. He owns next to nothing and his asceticism is evident in the things he has left behind: a small hot plate and tiny refrigerator, a cupboard pantry filled with the bare essentials: sugar, red table wine, instant coffee, saran wrap. His pillow and an extra set of shoes are covered in the corner of the outer room by a threadbare blanket. A sheet, roll of paper towels and a pair of scissors sit on a counter and a bare light bulb hangs above what must serve as his table but now holds my laptop -- a device that seems wholly out of place. The heavy wooden eaves and insulation hang above my head, moonlight streaming in from the skylight. A clothesline with sentential pins hang from the rafters in the far corner. A poster from the Spaghetti Western, Once Upon A Time in The West, hangs on one wall and a Political Map of the World hangs on another. The rest of his life is in whatever luggage he took with him to the South of France. I met Vernie on our last trip to Switzerland. He was quiet and unassuming with a gentle, self-assured smile. He helped my Mother-in-law with the weeding and yard work, he had extravagant patience with my children and he spoke English, German, Italian and French with equal fluency. He is the kind of person I always want to know more about because of the simple peace that he exudes.
I don’t know why I’m struck by this melancholy now when I finally have space to breathe; to just be. Such a change it is from the last few months. I don’t know why but I feel lost. If I go back to those earlier Cohen days I remember that the painfully exquisite feelings came from wanting intensely to inhabit a being that could capture the love of this person that had captured me so thoroughly. But a person cannot become a decade older, wiser and more confident just by wishing it so. And so it is for me with parenthood I suppose. Try as I might I have not become the person I want to be, the mother who accepts her role and her children in the simplicity of the moment. I want. If only. Why. I cannot seem to find the asceticism that makes living in the moment possible. I’m curious about Vernie because he apparently has what I lack: the ability to appreciate the gifts that come from the simplest of acts of living.
I am now a decade (or so) older than I was when Cohen was on regular rotation in my cassette player and hopefully I am also wiser and certainly more confident. But those traits only came by way of living. I had to earn them.
The greatest gift I can give my children is to accept them wholly for who they are, to not want and wish for them to be otherwise, even as I rejoice as they continue to learn and grow each day. I know this and yet the melancholy persists. I want. If only. Why. Is this part of the process? Is this the way I have to earn the next decade of wisdom?
I’m not sure.
But Leo? I think you’ve served your purpose. And you can take this melancholy with you!