Departures

So, Leonard Cohen died. I have a hard time putting into words what that feels like. I am surprised by how little sadness plays into it, though I am sad. I am surprised, too, by how little I wanted to talk about his death. Those two are related. Cohen’s death illuminates his great dignity and sadness seems a paltry thing in the face of it. So, too, that dignity’s passing from the living to the dead merits silence, because nothing else can properly encompass it. Like one of Walter Benjamin’s storytellers, he was already far away even though he leaned so close.

That this Leonard Cohen who sang “democracy is coming to the U.S.A.” stumbled, fell, and died, on the night of the United States elections freights his passing as a sort of election. His passing is intertwined with some fundamental shift, a tipping point toward a difficult future. His death defines one more point in a constellation of such deaths this year, but for me it also anchors and provides a terminus for that constellation. As Stacey reminded me this morning, “Blackstar” was released this day a year ago, the beginning of Bowie’s farewell album.

When a man such as Cohen passes, though, there is solace to be had in what his death entails. Death transmits the force and vitality of the person into the hands of the ancestors where they take up in spirit the essence they cultivated in life. What is lost from life is composed through death into an active, directive presence, and we need folks like Cohen working for us.

I thought about concluding this with a song, but I don’t want to do that. The songs are the tools that Cohen used in life, the tools he took up to shape himself and the world, and right now is the time for him to take action on the other side of that, in his death. I would rather end with the silence of the written word, encouraging you to take a moment to attend to the depths of silence from which the ancestors most often address us.

Take some time with that, if you would, then turn yourself back toward the world, turn yourself back toward your place in it, and to find your place again among the living, as one of those through which the presence of the ancestors finds new life. That is the secret of an ethos, a way of life, it is a direction and a mode, a process more than a product. Let us live, let us not see death before our time, let us be worthy of our death when it arrives.

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