the leonard cohen factor

I have this Brazilian classic guitar, a Di Giorgio dated 1974 – with the crafter’s signature and telephone number still perfectly clear on the sticker in the cavity. It is 40-odd years old and looks it. But when I stick my nose into the sound hole (yes, that’s actually what it is called), shut my eyes and slowly pull in my breath, the memories roll in.

I am 19 going on 20 again and relive the indescribable thrill of becoming the owner of this magnificent instrument, purchased with my own earnings in my home town. My boyfriend from teen days is impressed and shares in my excitement. He presents me with the sheet music of ‘Marianne’ and says I should practise it so we can sing it together.

The chords progress from A major to B minor… to D major, to A major. To G major… Soon I have mastered it and it sweeps me along. “I used to think I was some kind of gypsy boy, before I let you take me home..” “We met when we were almost young – deep in the green lilac park. You held onto me like I was a crucifix, as we went kneeling through the dark..”

Leonard Cohen’s name became irrevocably engraved on my timeline. His lyrics arrested me; and the tunes tugged at my fragile heart.

Whenever I picked up my guitar in years that followed, “Marianne” was invariably the first song that would come to mind.

Sunday 27 November, 2016:

The early evening, less than a month away from Christmas, is hushed in the small coastal village of Pringle Bay and daylight is reluctant to depart. Inside the crowded little theatre with its low lighting and a few red-glowing solar lanterns dotted around, the chatter is cheerful and the anticipation is tangible. We are waiting for ‘Leonard Cohen Live in London ‘ (2008) to begin. Not exactly a live show! But for all who are gathered to share in the experience, time and space become irrelevant. It is almost three weeks since his passing.

When he appears on the screen – large as life, wearing his fedora low over his eyes and addresses us in a low, sonorous but barely audible voice, the magic begins. He clutches the mic in his right hand and shields it with his left as he lives in the sounds we have learned to love; he drops down onto one knee as his own words and music demand; then again rises and shyly removes his fedora to reveal the close-cropped grey hair and generously pours out his inimitable style…


The inimitable, the one and only…

“The birds they sang
at the break of day
Start again
I heard them say
Don’t dwell on what
has passed away
or what is yet to be.
Ah the wars they will
be fought again
The holy dove
She will be caught again
bought and sold
and bought again
the dove is never free.Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

We asked for signs
the signs were sent:
the birth betrayed
the marriage spent
Yeah the widowhood
of every government —
signs for all to see.

I can’t run no more
with that lawless crowd
while the killers in high places
say their prayers out loud.
But they’ve summoned, they’ve summoned up
a thundercloud
and they’re going to hear from me.

Ring the bells that still can ring …

You can add up the parts
but you won’t have the sum
You can strike up the march,
there is no drum
Every heart, every heart
to love will come
but like a refugee.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
That’s how the light gets in.
That’s how the light gets in.”

(Anthem, released in 1992).

He sways us through the passionate plea of Dance me to the End of Love; touches our souls with Hallelujah; stirs our imaginations with Suzanne; draws us into his honesty with Bird on a Wire…

We cheer. We are swept away. We see and feel what he does. An enigma who is no more; but who lives on in his legacy of hauntingly human agonies and ecstasies.

I quote Norman Lebrecht from “The Moral Strength of Leonard Cohen” as posted on The official forum of and , in September 2014:

“Cohen manifests a moral strength rare among the butterflies of ephemeral fame. No musician has maintained a more assured equilibrium through good times and bad, riding the swings and roundabouts of outrageous fortune and misfortune without falling prey to the temptation of an easy fix.

“Cohen’s lyrics hint forever at alternate meanings. His bird sits on a wire, perhaps the peaceful fence of a domestic property but also a front line, a prison camp, a place of extermination. In conditions of extreme privation and existential threat, Cohen sings of an inner liberation: ‘I have tried, in my way, to be free.’ He described the song with customary duality as ‘a prayer, and an anthem’.

 “…the consistency of purpose is astonishing and the fundamental faith is unchanged. He wears the hat and the suit of a regular shul-goer. He is a Jew, first and last, a traveller, a seeker, eternally homeless. ‘I just move from hotel to hotel and by the grace of the One above sometimes a song comes,’ he said.

“…Leonard Cohen stands above his generation as a seer of lasting things, of values received and passed on. Other musicians have emerged richer, more famous. Some still twist and shout on stage, escorting their mob of semi-retired fans into a seventh age of twilight care.” And especially this part: “Cohen stands up there unchanged, addressing his audience with unfailing courtesy and curiosity, with a sense of continued discovery. At that desperate end-of-tour concert in 1972, having wept into the shoulder of every member of his entourage, he blew his nose, wiped his eyes and walked guitarless out onto the dark stage. “I just want to tell you, thank you and good night,” he said. Along with all that he had said and sung, it sounded like a blessing.” (Norman Lebrecht, 2014)


The slipping away

IMG_4900 - CopyThe mountain in her austere aloofness and rocky splendour, rising abruptly from sea level and allowing between herself and the ocean only a narrow strip of earth for human habitation and movement, today wears that softening, unhurriedly shifting veil of low cloud cover that renders her mysterious and shy.
‘Tis a favourite sight for me. It soothes. Reassures. Allows for quiet nostalgia and solitary reflection. Hushes.

Today it allows me an inward glance that urges me to contemplate life in the wake of a death. Not just any death. That of my father. But still – death.

Euphemisms have no place when the topic is death, nor do they serve a purpose, for to postpone or avoid the naked truth is to simply miss the opportunity of coming to terms with finality.

Often we use this word in everyday communication, to describe something commonplace like a conclusion. Or an outcome. We confidently or impatiently declare that we want to reach or gain ‘finality’ on a matter.
Death is the epitome of finality.

Perhaps it is the irrevocability that sets it apart from other matters of so-called finality. Once it has set in, there is complete and utter silence – never to be broken again in this realm of awareness.
There is, after all has gone still, no way of prolonging warmth; or conversation; or mutuality; or eye contact, that mystical merging of a moment or many moments in time by securing a shared channel of visual, sensual, emotional awareness of other. There is no way of prolonging anything known or unknown in a three dimensional world – once there is the termination of life as we know it.

What is however strange, is that when expected, death is presumably always preceded by waves and surges of hope, even in the face of the inevitable. This is one of the mysteries of life: that hope lives on while life lives on…
When not expected, it most likely deals a blow that is so devastating that it is oftentimes denied and mistaken to be an illusion – for a while at least.

We know of the awakening of Lazarus from death even after a few days; and the raising of Jairus’ 12 year old daughter; and we cannot help but wonder intensely if our own loved ones’ eyelids may start fluttering again and their blood vessels start pulsating with restoration.

When they are no longer here, we continue to see them coming towards us… and then we don’t. We hear their voices. Their laughter.

The familiar fragrances of their hair, their clothes, their after-shave lotions and perfumes remain in our nostrils.
The film of Tabac on my father’s skin even in his final hours still emits the beloved manly and reassuring fragrance that I had come to know as a child. I may simply not ever have noticed it on any other man; but in my reference framework it is unique to my father. And will remain that way.

In the last days – sweltering midsummer days during which the heat also causes unease for my dying father – I am aware of the contradiction of seeing and feeling him slipping away, yet willing him to hold on and stay. Heart and mind are in conflict. The one knows; the other is aflame with senseless hope against all odds.

It is clear that his race is almost done. He has run it superbly and all we can do – all we are able to do – is to remain by his side, day and night, in relays: encouraging; reassuring; accompanying;  knowing that finally he will have to cross the threshold – the Jordan – alone. Knowing that our journey with him will be over.

* * * *

Here I interrupt my halting thoughts to cycle at dusk; to breathe and reconnect with the new reality of only weeks.
What I see, is a manifestation of light and shadows and colour in nature… It makes me gasp.

  • * * * * *

In the last hours his unease deteriorates into severe and painful discomfort. Almost visibly his body transforms. Racked with the painful agony of the terrible disease, what remains is the silent dignity I know so well. I cannot do anything to help and it tears me apart. When his eyes focus, they pierce ours pleadingly; his blue gaze, now fading, mirrors ours. He recognizes this. He does not want to leave us, we sense.

He is thirsty, but can no longer swallow. We drip cool water into the corner of his mouth and brush it across his lips. We sing. It makes him peaceful. We sing more. We pray. I clasp two of his handkerchiefs in my helpless hands. They are soaked with the tears I cannot hold back. I cry for my own imminent loss. And for the sadness and seriousness of my father’s condition. But mostly we tell him with strong voices that he has been and given more than we could ever have hoped for. He has been larger than life.

The shape of his face becomes less and less familiar as physical resilience ebbs and the threshold approaches.

We hold his hands. Amazingly, he holds ours.


The spasmodic breaths are further and further apart until almost impossible to perceive.

The last one… oh… It is so faint and so final. Or is it? How can it be?

The line is so thin. Only the double-edged sword can penetrate to divide soul and spirit.






HOW proud I used to be to be called a ‘bookworm’. That was many moons ago. When I had deserved and earned the title – by reading whenever and wherever I could! Regrettably things changed with time. For many years I could no longer claim to be… that worm…

Today (8 September) being International Literacy Day, and this week being National Book Week here in South Africa, my thoughts cannot help but turn to this most desirable pastime that I now struggle, but am determined, to pursue. It is through no-one’s doing but my own!

I read like a caterpillar chewing on a green leaf long before I went to school! It continued into my early teen years. I knew the magic of the smell of a new book, the thrill of receiving a wrapped birthday or Christmas gift in the undeniable size and shape and feel of a book, I loved (still do!) the hush of a library and the wonder of shelf upon shelf of potential pleasure. And indeed not only pleasure, but also new insights, new worlds of wisdom, new ideas!

Oh, the joy of picking up a substantial hardcover book and turning the pages one by one, all the while immersing yourself deeper and deeper into other worlds and spaces; making your own pictures of places and faces! The reward and satisfaction of growing a collection, a selection, of books: your own library.


Mine exists. It is alive and well. It is thriving – mostly in neat stacks beside my bed and I have the doubtful habit of trying to browse more than one copy at a time! Frantic to make up lost opportunities, maybe? Daily my eyes dwell lovingly over the titles in shelves – also by my bedside! – that are waiting to be read or re-read. And on the landing of the stairs there are more enticing titles and volumes calling out to me. I AM a potential bookworm. I can convert again! I still experience the delight of ownership; the sensation of possessiveness.

Why the habit ever dwindled?

Late teens: boys… schoolwork… piano practice….

Early twenties: university studies… romance….

Late twenties: career obligations…neglect…marriage…

Thirtysomethings: motherhood…part-time (full-time!) professional writing practice…fatigue… neglect…burn-out… (the latter temporarily brought my concentration abilities to a nasty and grinding halt).

Fortysomethings: self-employment…life coaching (of my own, precious offspring)…writing (for additional earnings)…

All the while I knew, however, that love of reading, the hunger for solitude and silence with written words, had never died or gone away. Thank goodness for that!

And now – I am trying with a passion and a vengeance to put right what went wrong. I still yearn for books, for reading time. I nurture and cherish the time I manage to spend losing myself in a book. Autobiographies, philosophies, family sagas, thought-provoking non-fiction with one of the requirements being that the reading matter direct my thoughts to higher and worthier things than the mundane and the ridiculous.

Book Week! What an excellent campaign: there are few better ways than reading, to boost your vocabulary (for everyday use!), stimulate your thought processes, satisfy your need for knowledge and insight (to be able to think on your feet!)

Literacy is indispensable. It empowers. Period.

I really hope and trust that SA Book Week will see many, many converts! Here’s my pledge: I’m jumping on the bandwagon – watch me!