The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Friday, September 23, 2011

The Holy and the Broken Hallelujah

So for several months now--since a friend of mine referenced it online, as a matter of fact--a particular song has been rattling around in my brain, inviting me to embrace its complexities.

I refer to Leonard Cohen's classic song "Hallelujah." One of the great things about the song is that there is no one correct version of it--the lyrics vary wildly in order of the verses and in content. (This is true, by the way, whether Cohen himself is singing it, or another musician is covering it. In fact, covers tend to be more standardized--John Cale, Jeff Buckley and Rufus Wainwright all use pretty closely similar versions).

Here is, for example, what is posted on YouTube as the "original studio version":

Note the verse:
You say I took the name in vain
I don't even know the name
But if I did, well really, what's it to you?
There's a blaze of light in every word
It doesn't matter which you heard
The holy or the broken Hallelujah
Won't be hearing that again.

Ok, let's go to John Cale:

(Quite possibly my own favorite version, though the next contender is close)

And, just for good measure, a really good late Cohen performance:

So, we have a verse introducing the story of David, singing before the Lord--but with a bitter edge. Then, the story of David and Bathsheba--"You saw her bathing on the roof/Her beauty in the moonlight overthrew you." And, just to complicate matters more, the story blends with that of Samson and Delilah--"she tied you to a kitchen chair, she broke your throne and she cut your hair". Bathsheba may have a verse herself--"I've seen your flag on the marble arch/but love is not a victory march," sometimes feels like a wry observation from a woman whose preferences were not, shall we say, consulted.

The other verses, in counterpart, speak of the bitterness of betrayal, the seeming meaninglessness life and love itself ("maybe there's a God above/but all I've ever learned from love/is how to shoot at someone who outdrew you"") can present at times, and our own crippling inability to "only connect." And throughout, the narrator refuses to accept the stereotype of an easy festal shout of "Hallellujah!" Life hurts, bucko. You may give that shout--but not easily, not without the experience of desolation that the spiritual life doesn't immunize us from.

The biblical references frame the song--in some versions they follow each other, in others not. They invoke Scripture but not in a simple re-telling--the scriptural story goes back and forth with a narrator who (as the verses quoted above shows, and ) is pretty jaundiced about life, and, as this and other verses show, about love--sacred at times (the "Holy Dove was moving too"and yet so transitory. But then what a finish--in the versions that use it:
I've done my best,
it wasn't much.
I couldn't feel
so I learned to touch.
I've told the truth,
I didn't come here just to fool you
And though it seems it all went wrong,
I'll stand before the Lord of Song
with nothing on my tongue but Hallellujah
George Herbert has gotta love that. Seriously, beat this as a theological rumination--it's a testament of a soul battered, not broken, hurt by life but choosing to love, and appearing before the Great Mystery with truth and a kind of hell-busted joy.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

A Decade Later

Everyone is, reasonably enough, looking back on September 11, 2001. Decades say something to us, in our desire to track events, and measure lives. My own experience was more opera bouffe than anything else, but here it is.

I was working, at that time, at a small Long Island law firm, and we had a office in the WTC. Fortunately, there was a whole-office meeting out in Nassau County, so that nobody reported to our Trade Center offices that day. Everyone was at the Long Island office.

Except me. But I was not at the WTC either; I had just completed a two day meeting with clients in DC, in which we began laying the groundwork for the litigation in which we challenged the Communications Decency Act's application of "local community standards" to judge the content of material posted online, and, especially, the Government's then-extant strategy of having government employees access websites from conservative jurisdictions, and making the artist/authors stand trial in that jurisdiction, under its standards, a policy under which the most conservative community essentially set the limits for what was permissible throughout the United States.

So, I was at the then-relatively-newly renamed Reagan National Airport, about to fly home. Did you know that RNA is quite close to the Pentagon? Neither did I, then.

About to board my flight, I saw the first plane strike the Tower. I thought it was an accident--an unbelievable accident. I even called home, and left a message asking if I had actually seen that. Then, a woman in an airline uniform ran out from behind the baggage area waving her arms and yelling "GET OUT GET OUT GET OUT!"

As far as I could tell, that was the evacuation protocol. Straightforward, at least.

I went to the main concourse. That's when I saw tape of the second plane, and realized this was big. And deliberate. Another guy, about my age now, maybe a few years older, said to me, "Damn. We'd better try to get a train before they get closed down, too." We walked back to the abandoned baggage area, got our bags, and began to head back to the concourse. All of the people in the airport were out on the tarmac, trying to work non-functioning cell phones. A low, dense black smoke rolled toward us--word of mouth had it that the airport had been bombed. And so, with no clear idea where we were headed, we walked across the grass, down a hill, across a highway, and then into the nearest town. My companion was taken ill on the way down-started feeling his chest tighten--so I helped with his bag. And a bunch of Americans streamed into an American town like refugees.

A nearby hotel (a Marriott) let us in, and started handing out water. My companion (forgot his name after all these years) was taken to a doctor, and I was on my own. I hate to admit it, but I immediately flashed on the Flashman novels, especially Flashy's dicta that if you look like you belong, people will assume you do, and carry yourself with a high hand. Rather than fold up my best suit for the trip home, I was wearing it. I closed my shirt collar, jacked up my tie, and hid my bag behind a chair. The, walking in a swift but unhurried manner into the manager's office, with a cool nod to the secretary, I closed the door behind me and made calls--I couldn't reach my parents, but I did reach my client's Executive Director, and she and her husband offered me a bed for as long as needed one.

From there, it became simple-- a short ride on the Metro--up again after only an hour or so, a walk from the station, and a refuge.

I had it incredibly easy.

My friends didn't all have it so easy. I knew several people, good friends, who had damned close calls that day, and one former work acquaintance who died. My silly little experience was nothing like that--yet I got a taste of something most Americans haven't--a loss of security at the most basic level. I understand the anger the attacks caused at a visceral level, because I experienced first hand the "this cannot be bloody happening" feeling that underlines it so often. Ten years ago, we learned what it was like to be vulnerable. We also learned that there were heroes among us--the passengers of Flight 93, the firefighters who ran in, the police officers who shepherded people to safety, or died trying. The clergy at St. Paul's and Trinity, and St. Peter's, who provided succor and hope. And we saw good in each other--the testy mayor rose to the occasion, and President Bush (not a favorite of mine, shall we say) gave a speech in which he refused the poisonous bait Bin Laden proffered, and rejected the framing of the attack as one done by Islam as a whole against the West, thus denying Bin Laden his dream of a clash of civilizations.

A lot went wrong after that, and history will bring its usual microscope. And so it should. But for today, tomorrow really, because I'm posting this the night before the anniversary, we should, I think focus, on not just our losses, all the losses worldwide from this terrible conflict, but on those who have chosen to strive to redeem the mess--those of all and no faith who have tried to bring peace, to, each in his or her own way, still the ancient brutal dream of Attila the Hun.

As for us, who benefitted from their services, or from luck, or both? We're still here. Peace be upon us all.