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Globe and Mail columnist Elizabeth Renzetti. (Randy Quan For The Globe and Mail)
Globe and Mail columnist Elizabeth Renzetti. (Randy Quan For The Globe and Mail)

elizabeth renzetti

The solace of art: Leonard Cohen in a time of darkness Add to ...

It didn’t seem that the news could get worse, and then it did. A week that began in hope, then sagged in disbelief, ended in tears with the news that Leonard Cohen was dead at the age of 82.

If you live without the comfort of religious belief, as I do, it seemed like the universe was playing a cruel joke by removing a force of light just when the world seems so broken. But the crack, as he so memorably taught us, is how the light gets in. I put his songs on shuffle and remembered.

I really think Leonard Cohen helped save my sanity at one point. Everyone has a time in their lives when they turn to art for comfort; some people spend their whole lives in art’s comforting arms, and they’re the lucky ones. A sculpture, a book, a TV show – it doesn’t matter. As long as it takes us out of the horror of the moment and reminds us that this, too, will pass.

On Sept. 11, 2001, I was living with my husband and infant son in Los Angeles. The baby was a mystery, but a beautiful one. The world, however, was a terrible, smoking mess: How had we come to this? What right did I have to bring a baby into this chaos?

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We lived thousands of miles from the Americans who suffered real trauma that day, but it still threw me into a tailspin. The baby was colicky. He cried. I cried. I put a Leonard Cohen CD on the stereo, picked him up and we started to dance. My son stopped crying. I didn’t. The cat, who had an anxiety disorder and required daily doses of Valium, watched us suspiciously.

What we danced to over the next weeks and months was Leonard Cohen. It didn’t matter which songs – Who By Fire; So Long, Marianne; The Gypsy’s Wife – we listened to everything. He was the patron saint of envy, the grocer of despair, and he was the only thing I wanted to hear. Every lyric suddenly became portentous (“I’m guided by the beauty of our weapons”). Some lyrics seemed to have been written for us alone, at that moment, dancing in that dingy apartment: “I held you till you learn to walk on air.”

The song I returned to most often was that one that begins, “Everybody knows that the dice are loaded …” The lyrics of Everybody Knows are so bitter, but set against the lush background vocals and the pretty mandolin, they seemed to perfectly encapsulate that moment, when terror stripped the achingly blue California sky of its airplanes. For a week there were no planes, and the city was deathly quiet.

As the months passed, I eventually stopped crying. We kept dancing, and I discovered the baby also liked Johnny Cash. My husband had interviewed Leonard Cohen a couple of weeks before 9/11, and came home raving about his kindness and generosity (and his handsome suit.) “He made me a chopped-egg sandwich,” my husband said in disbelief. “Leonard Cohen made me a sandwich.”

This kindness and grace is echoed by everyone who encountered him. Sarah Hampson interviewed him for this newspaper, and he gave her a sweatshirt and scarf so she’d be warm on the way home. Liam Lacey interviewed him twice, and came away with one of my favourite quotes ever. “The emergency never ends,” Leonard said. “Everybody’s heart gets broken. Everybody gets creamed.”

Even before I heard that he had died, I was thinking about the place of art in this crazy world – to make us feel better, to remind us that things have been bad before and do not remain that way, to encourage us to fight back. Or just to help us forget the darkness for a moment or two. All week, people on social media have been sharing poems as a coping mechanism: Wendy Cope’s Differences of Opinion and W.B. Yeats’s The Second Coming were both popular. Perhaps poetry can shed light where polling data failed.

Andrew is a doctor I know who works at St. Michael’s Hospital in downtown Toronto. He came across a patient this week who had come in through emergency, and was distressed. The man had had a hard life and was having a hard day. Andrew went home and got his copy of Zoe Whittall’s Giller Prize-nominated novel The Best Kind of People, and gave it to his patient. By the time the patient was discharged, he was a quarter of the way through the book, and left with it in his hands. Andrew plans to buy another copy. Maybe he’ll give that one away, too.

Words and pictures and music provide a particular solace, even in a crappy year that keeps taking away our heroes and failing to provide new ones. I’ve turned again to Leonard Cohen for wisdom and for the oddly heartening bleakness of his vision. We know the boat is leaking, and we know the captain lied. Maybe somebody is dancing to that right now, and finding comfort. Those are songs for the ages, and they will be here long after this madness has passed.

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