THANKS FOR THE SONGS, MR. COHEN

“Darkness becomes me,” is how I start a recent poem. On a playful level, I mean that as I age I become better looking in the darkness. More seriously, I mean that darkness becomes me as an instinct towards balance — as a counterforce to the power of positive thinking.

I have my counterforce inspirations. The Bible, Moby Dick, The Scarlet Letter, the plays of Eugene O’Neill, to name a handful. More contemporarily, the dark music of Leonard Cohen. There was one period in my life in the early 90’s, right after “The Future” came out, that it was the only music I listened to for one entire fall and winter. “Get ready for the future, it is murder.”

But well before I was an ardent reader, or had even heard of Cohen, I had a burr under my saddle in reference to the positive thinking folks. As if you could think or will into existence those conditions regarded as positive, such as goodness, kindness, generosity, non-judgment.

As if you could will yourself enlightenment. Lucifer was the light-bearer, after all.

I remember, years ago, visiting my mother, who was dying in a cancer ward in a Grand Rapids hospital. On this visit, she wanted to talk about it — about dying — perhaps because she sensed in me someone who would listen.   “No, no, no,” her nearest ward-mate broke in. “We not going to give in to negative thoughts.” I could have killed her right then. Anyway, she ended up dying before my mother did.

And I remember my pleasant surprise in reading that the Buddha’s enlightenment required, as a prerequisite, his discovery of sickness, old age, and death. The story goes that as a boy Siddhartha Gautama (after his enlightenment, the Buddha), whose mother had died giving him birth, had been protected even from the sight of harsh realities by his royal father. But one day Siddhartha escaped from his benevolent captivity and saw a sick person. He asked his charioteer, what awful thing was it that he was seeing. The charioteer explained sickness, then, further down the road, old age, and finally death. He told Siddhartha that such is the fate of every person.

. . .

Darkness pertaining to progress also becomes me. In my youth, in the fifties, belief in progress was equated with mental health, or good citizenship. If you didn’t see things getting ever better, something was wrong with you. If you weren’t part of the solution, you were part of the problem. One cliché after another.

Then, as a college student, I read Ralph Waldo Emerson, who had seen through the myth of progress a hundred years before I was born. “Society never advances,” he says in “Self-Reliance.” “It recedes as fast on one side as it gains on the other…. For everything that is given, something is taken. What a contrast between the well-clad, reading, writing, thinking American [this in 1841], with his watch, a pencil, and a bill of exchange in his pocket, and the naked New Zealander, whose property is a club, a spear, a mat, and an undivided twentieth of a shed to sleep under. But compare the health of the two men and you shall see that his aboriginal strength the white man has lost…. No greater men are now than they ever were.”

And what would Emerson have to say about progress represented by television, the internet, Facebook, smart-phones; or nuclear bombs, attack helicopters, drones — about the losses entailed in these gains.

But very few young people read Emerson anymore. Fewer still are inspired by him. A few days ago, where I teach, I glanced into a classroom I was walking past and had an uncanny vision of the students sitting in there as unformed beings. It caught me by surprise, because I don’t feel this way about my own students, I suppose because I know them. Nonetheless, what I saw in that passing glance did not seem untrue to me. For all of their technical sophistication and apparatuses, these kids project very dull auras. Their eyes have spent too many hours of too many days of too many years looking at screens. The outdoors barely exists for them. The life force inside them has been compromised.

. . .

Later that day, over dinner with a friend whose mother recently died, we were talking about such matters. A couple weeks earlier, he was attending his mother during her final illness, in her last days sleeping on a couch in her hospice room. Though she’d had a stroke and couldn’t talk, he asked her to squeeze his hand if she could hear and understand him. She did, and from there they went on to have the deepest conversations of their lives, he said.

He asked her if she dreamed. Yes, she dreamed…. Did she know how much he loved her. Yes…. Did she hope, on the other side, to see her husband again? Big squeeze. He confessed to her that he knew nothing about where we went after death, but that if she could show herself to him after she died, he would be on the look-out.

As he was telling me this, the exhaustion of his vigil still showing in his face, I was reminded of the first noble truth of Buddhism. Life is suffering. Enlightenment starts with suffering. “There is a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in,” says Cohen, himself a Jewish Buddhist who flinched not at the human condition as a broken marvel to behold.

Sometimes my friend’s two sisters would be at their mother’s bedside, too, he said — but the problem was that they couldn’t stay off their cell-phones. They would be holding mother’s hand with one hand and texting with the other. When he would ask them to take their phones out into the hallway, it was as if they didn’t see what the problem was. They would put away their phones for a few minutes, but soon the pull of their addiction was too great.

They also wanted the TV on, because, as they said, the background of a familiar program would be a comfort to their mother. He asked them what kind of comfort could TV noise be when she is going through the perhaps the most significant experience of her life.

A few days after she died, my friend had a dream, he told me. Sitting in a familiar family restaurant, he saw his mother and father, at a distant table, having dinner together.

. . .

I got a motel room that night, since I live a good distance from where I teach and I had early Friday morning meetings. Even though I’m hateful towards TV, right away I turned it on, if for no better reason than to talk back at it. One program showed hunters in a heated blind shooting down a majestic buck with a high powered rifle; and then, upon finding its body, gloating over it, treating it with disrespect. There were a couple of shabby religious programs which were nothing more than a perpetual call for donations. There was an array of laugh-track, living room sit-comes, and news shows (they should have laugh-tracks, too) going on ad infinitum about how Trump won the election.

“Get ready for the future,”  I was scowling at the TV at the precise moment when the Trump news was interrupted with a bulletin that Leonard Cohen had died.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2 Comments

  1. Debbie Thompson

    Yes, let’s not talk about anything negative when we’re dying. It’s so bizarre that someone would say that. We’re all going to die. Does it have to be negative? I worked on an article for one of my magazines and discovered a brilliant guy–Dr. Ira Byock. Look him up. He writes and teaches about dying well.

    I’ve been very dark lately, so I’m glad you reminded me that darkness enables us to be enlightened.

    I’ve gotten to the point of not liking cheerful people most of the time. My mother always said, when talking about someone or other, that they’re “so dumb, they’re happy,” as if anyone with any sense would know better.

    I don’t know how you always manage to find these topics that relate to what I’m thinking, but thank you!

    Debbie

    Reply
    1. jamesralston@hotmail.com (Post author)

      Thanks for your thoughtful reading AND response, Debbie.

      Reply

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