I have a strong memory of lying by the fire on the sitting room floor at the house in the Yorkshire Dales I lived in from the age of 13. I was listening to a Leonard Cohen LP on our fairly recently acquired record player – I think it was “Songs from a Room”, given to me by my first boyfriend. More recently I got to see him live (Leonard, not the boyfriend) on one of his last tours, which is another strong memory – surging forward in the rain when he finished the set as people started to leave, to listen up close as he carried on with a few encores. Magic.
So, saddened as I was after he died, I read as much as I could online about his last days. A friend in the US sent me a piece from the NewYorker in which he said something that struck a big chord with me.
“I am ready to die, Cohen said. He was already suffering from a number of health problems. “At a certain point, if you still have your marbles and are not faced with serious financial challenges, you have a chance to put your house in order. It’s a cliché, but it’s underestimated as an analgesic on all levels. Putting your house in order, if you can do it, is one of the most comforting activities, and the benefits of it are incalculable.” (New Yorker Nov 10 2016)
I read this almost exactly at the same time as I made the decision to cancel a 4 week course I had signed up for almost a year ago. As I started to think about packing I came down with a heavy cold and simply couldn’t get my act together. The decision itself was actually a relief. I realised my mind had been running ahead of my body for about two months, and I had to acknowledge, yet again, that I’d been doing too much. It’s such a familiar state, but in the “Lyme Disease recovery programme”, it’s completely unhelpful.
But as is often the case with these things, it’s been a gift to have 4 weeks with nothing specific in the diary. It has simply been a time of “putting my house in order”. In slowing down, looking around, taking note, I’ve found things I needed to catch up with, as well as other unfinished business as it turns out. I became aware that my grief for Jeanne, long term spiritual friend, is still with me. I’ve now had time to put up a painting of hers that I took as a memento from her flat. I’ve had time to catch up with a pile of “stuff”, rifle through odd drawers, take stock of clothes, and potter in the garden for a while. I’ve been able to attend a local meditation group which recently started. And just this morning I bumped into someone local I’d like to get to know, and we had time for a coffee. It’s not all a bed of roses though as I’ve also had to deal with a difficult situation that I was hoping to avoid til the New Year! There’s something important though about having more time to allow things to happen or emotions to arise that might not otherwise. As Leonard says in that classic line, “There’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”
But the most important moment, the climax if you like, came on Sunday, quite out of the blue as I was having breakfast and listening to the Sunday Service. My ears pricked up at the title -“Hear the Call” – although it wasn’t actually very inspiring. But something about the state I was in – relaxed, attentive, open – I felt a physical “dropping down” inside, a state which usually happens in meditation. In that place I feel centred, spacious, detached from all preoccupations. The best analogy is that it was as lovely as an unexpected orgasm. Both states are impossible to hold on to, but the sweetness of the experience is an encouragement to continue on the path.
And at the risk of pushing it, to continue the analogy of “la petite morte” as the French describe it, it reminds me yet again of the words of Cynthia Bourgeault’s teacher Rafe, to “die before you die”. It’s not just physical death that puts us in mind of putting the house in order.
And now 50 years later, I can light the fire, and lie on the sitting room floor and give myself the permission I didn’t need back then, to listen to Leonard Cohen.