There are many great Leonards in the world. Nimoy, for one. Hofstadter, for another. But the one I’m most interested in writing about is Montreal’s own Leonard Norman Cohen.
I’m a proud Canadian woman, born in Newfoundland and raised partially in Ontario. My earliest childhood memories consist of cool ocean breezes and breathtaking scenery. I didn’t have the easiest upbringing, and I found the majority of my peace of mind by escaping into books. Of course, Mr. Cohen may be primarily known as a musician (and I’m a huge fan of his music) but the initial impact he had on my life was through his collection of poetry Book Of Longing.
I know a lot about longing. If you’ve followed my blog, then you probably came across my post about my father’s death in 1998. To say I longed to grow up with a father would be an understatement. Much of my teenage angst stemmed from losing him. There was a time in my life when I was so depressed I was unable to drag myself out of bed. I stopped going to school, and it got to a point where I was given an option: go to court or agree to alternative learning.
I opted for the latter.
At age fifteen, I joined Durham Alternative Secondary School through the SALEP (Supervised Alternative Learning for Excused Pupils) program in Durham Region. Our classes were held in the basement of the United Church in Uxbridge, Ontario. Most of the students were teenaged mothers, and my classes were punctuated with the screaming of children under two. I managed to attend enough classes to keep the school board off my mother’s back, but the minute I turned sixteen, I officially quit school.
In spite of my loathing of structured education, I still had (and still have) an insatiable thirst for knowledge. Several years later, I rejoined DASS and began attending my classes regularly. By that time I had moved out and with the improvement of my living situation, the bulk of my depression had disappeared. My new class was held once again in the basement of a United Church, this one located in Beaverton, Ontario. It was here that I truly connected with my teacher, a wonderful woman named Ruth Nelson.
Ruth had never given up on me, no matter how many times I’d failed to show up for a class. She fed my hunger for words, recognizing in me the potential to read and write fiction, non-fiction and poetry. She pushed me to push harder. We would play Scrabble on days when I didn’t have much work, and although she always beat me she never made me feel bad about it.
One day she came to class toting a bag full of books on various subjects. As I riffled through the pile, she pulled out a hardcover book with a bird drawn on the cover. “This one,” she said simply, and handed it to me. It was Book Of Longing. “Leonard Cohen?” I asked. “Who’s he?” She told me he was a Canadian musician and poet, and I decided to give it a go.
From the very first line, I was hooked.
Mr. Cohen is known for exploring religious concepts as well as analyzing human relationships. His descriptions of love and the act of love-making flew in the face of my self-imposed cynicism and made me feel something akin to joy. When I read passages about staying with monks and meditating in the mountains, I longed to shave my head and shed modern conceptions of beauty in search of something more. This is something that has stayed with me all my life.
When I sit down to write a song or a poem, I aspire to write with as much beauty and honesty as Mr. Cohen. His latest album Old Ideas is on my iPod and when I’m stressed, nothing soothes me as much as the sound of his voice. I missed the chance to see him play live a couple weeks ago and I just hope he hits the stage one more time so I can see him.
Leonard Cohen is a living legend, and if you haven’t read his work, you’re missing out.