The air was balmy and clean. And the tree frogs were beginning to sing. And almost everyone had gone in for the night, muted their music, and opened a book. And the moon crept closer for a look, and I saw it right from my porch. And it whispered so softly I almost didn’t hear, “Things wax and wane and wax again, and turn in and turn away and become other things, and finally pass away. Only Love remains. The world is made of Love.”
Withdrawal is one very legitimate way of handling extreme disappointment. I am experiencing it this morning, as we have failed to win the 2016 presidential election against all odds – and worse, lost it to a man who seems so full of hate. It was all I could do to haul myself to the gym, and at the first sight of a friend I began to cry. I left before my exercise class was over. I went to a Cuban bakery and ordered a cortadito (my equivalent of hanging out at a bar I suppose), and then filled my car with gas and drove for a while. A German friend sent me her shock, dismay, and condolences, and I sent back my apologies for my country and my own sadness and fear for the world.
It seems as though I have come full circle, all the way back to 1945, or as though I have stumbled into the blank and pitiless gaze of Yeats’ rough beast, its hour come round once more.* As a result of World War II, the first conversations I remember hearing were about the personal decisions we may, in our lifetime, be required to make between conformity and integrity. My first lesson was this, and it has been a personal recurring theme for more than 70 years: It is never okay to be silent in the face of evil – injustice, cruelty, misogyny, or hatred. Even, and especially, if it becomes the law of the land.
Truth, honor, and justice have their home in us. I think we are now called to expand that home, and to find the courage and opportunity to make a place there for others.
Where does hatred stop? It can only stop here. Right now, with me.
*The Second Coming
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
In London recently, I listened to my granddaughter practicing “Hallelujah,” singing Leonard Cohen’s haunting hymn while playing its deep and somber notes as she sat at the piano. She played haltingly, sometimes starting again, sometimes repeating, sometimes pausing while she read the notes before moving on, her voice that of a 14-year-old, fresh with appropriate hopefulness and naivete of a girl on the brink of her life.
Back home in Miami, I could not get the song out of my mind. It played on, in the way of a girl practicing the piano, as my body sank into a post-vacation period of readjustment and recuperation that often follows, for me, an extended journey. I went to the computer to search for the song and found it in performances by a dozen artists. I also found a beautiful sermon written about the song by Rabbi Michael Sternfield, who also had been unable to get the song out of his head. He titled the sermon “A Broken Hallelujah.”
The song and the sermon came when I needed them. I was mourning the not-unexpected passing of a lifelong friend, and perhaps it was the song’s sadness that touched me as I heard my granddaughter playing. Then, a few days after returning home, came the devastating news of the murder of a young father, the husband of my friend and co-worker, a brand new mother and bride of less than a year.
Rabbi Sternfield writes,
Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ is a reluctant psalm of praise, expressing gratitude in the midst of the sorrows that come from the broken times in our lives, the failures that haunt us all, the disappointments that weigh more and more heavily us as we grow older. It is probably not so much a song for the young as for those who have dealt with the endless ups and the downs, and who can relate to the words from their own life experiences. In ‘Hallelujah’ Leonard Cohen struggles to affirm, in spite of all the pain and sadness that we have known, still life is good, every day is a blessing, and therefore we praise and express gratitude to God, even in our darkest hours. The important thing is not that God should hear our praise, but rather that we express gratitude for the gift of life itself, especially when we are feeling anything but thankful, because it is the only life we have.
Because it is the only life we have. It is the same idea expressed by Sheldon Kopp in “Hanged Man,” when he refers to “this one and only available life,” a short phrase that made me burst into tears as I read it alone in a hotel room 25 years ago. What kind of a world is it? Not much of a world, perhaps. But here we are, bitten and tattered, in the only life we know for sure we will ever have. We can choose to live it, or we can choose to stop.
In the words of Rabbi Sternfield,
Leonard Cohen ends his “Hallelujah” with a most humble admission:
I did my best, it wasn’t much. / I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch. / I’ve told the truth. I haven’t come to fool you. / And even though it all went wrong / I’ll stand before the Lord of Song / With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah.
May each one of us to be strong enough and, yes, also human enough to acknowledge our imperfections, to mourn our losses; and simply to be grateful for that mixed bag of blessings, the jumbled and bewildering amalgam of experiences that we call life and yes, in spite of everything, to express a heartfelt albeit broken Hallelujah.
Of all the renditions of Hallelujah I have heard, I like my granddaughter’s best – precisely because it is broken. She will learn to sing it perfectly some day. She will also learn, as we all do, other, harder lessons. We cannot protect each other, or ourselves. We can only choose to live, to lean into the fullness, of this our only life.
To hear Rufus Wainright’s rendition of Hallelujah and see a few verses of the lyrics, click here.
I once traveled for two weeks through the Four Corners area of the American Southwest with Hollis (Zeebeanz) Littlecreek, a member of the Anishnabeg Mediwiwin Society (a “medicine man” I guess you would say) who had his own ideas about things. For example, “If you own more than you can carry, you own too much,” and “Nature is a book. If you learn to read it you have learned enough.” And “If it is not good for the community, it is not good” (in rural Ojibway communities chronic troublemakers are summarily removed from the gene pool).
He had strong opinions about cameras and their users: “They come to see, and then they do not see because they are busy taking pictures. They take the pictures home, and they do not know what they are looking at because they did not see it.” He would sit and play his flute by the Grand Canyon for hours, but you took his picture at the cost of being shriveled by the withering stare and angry words of a Native American shaman.
Places, he believed, like people, should be approached with respect. One should stop short of a place to make note of its special properties and modify oneself appropriately. One should then ask permission to enter and on some level feel that permission has been granted before entering. One should sit or stand quietly in a space and allow it to speak to all the senses. This respectful openness to the essence of a place – actually becoming part of a place – is what Hollis Littlecreek meant by seeing. This essence cannot be captured by a camera, or by words. (Hollis had an equally low opinion of note-takers.)
But I try. After I have absorbed the essence, and sometimes before, I whip out my digital camera like any American tourist and take snapshots by the hundreds. Then I go home and tinker with them, trying to tweak some essence into them, some of the special properties of place I have gathered and tucked away in memory. It’s an impossible task. I add prose, poetry if necessary, and yet never feel that I have quite captured it. I do know what Hollis meant.
But if I could own only what I could carry, I would make room in my backpack, even at the cost of toiletries or clothing, for a camera and netbook. Sometimes (I’m sorry, Hollis) I do not experience the fullness of a place until I have lassoed it with words and pictures.