2003: I find my mom’s favourite station on her car radio and hear a strange voice, almost a spoken-word voice, singing a poem in a minor key: “Suzanne takes you down to a place near the river, You can hear the boats go by, you can spend the night forever
And you know that she’s half-crazy but that’s why you want to be there…” I listen all the way through, fascinated by the series of rich images. “The sun pours down like honey on our lady of the harbour, and she shows you where to look among the garbage and the flowers…”
“Who is that?” I ask Mom.
2007: The worst summer of my life. Stuck at home after three months of pounding the pavement, having finally given up on finding a job that isn’t a pyramid scheme and doesn’t require above-average fine motor skills. I’m an adult stuck inside the child me that my parents sent off to university the autumn before, and although I’ve tried by all possible means (from negotiation, to running away to Ottawa, to breaking things) to get them to see that, they refuse to. It’s hot and endless. I download a bunch of old Leonard Cohen songs and listen to them as I pour my teenage musings into the predecessor to this blog. I close my eyes and listen to “Un canadien errant,” its plaintive looping chorus like cold water down my back. I sing along, although I don’t yet speak French.
2009: It’s a frigid January night in St. Petersburg, and I’m on my way home from teaching an under-the-table English class. Although deep down I love the place, I’m more homesick than I ever thought I’d be and I’m beginning to wonder if the whole thing wasn’t a mistake. In the middle of my frigid commute from the end-of-the-line cement block metro station to the massive student apartment complex where they have us crammed five to a room (I find it cozy, but my father calls it the prison), I slip on a frozen puddle and fall right on my tailbone. My iPod, already half fried by one of the innumerable Russian power surges, gives up the ghost. As I catch my breath, I start singing out loud: “The sisters of mercy, they are not departed or gone. they were waiting for me when I thought that I just can’t go on…”
2011: In Montreal for a conference. The following day, my CouchSurfing host, who has to work, drops me off at Jean-Talon market. I’m looking for a daikon radish in a produce store when “Hallelujah” comes on the radio. A tuneful, bee-like noise fizzes up all around me; everyone in the shop, sorting through their cucumbers and eggplants, reflexively singing along. “Your faith was strong but you needed proof, you saw her gazing on the roof, her beauty and the moonlight overthrew ya…”
2015: At a talent show at the Alliance Française in Winnipeg. I have nothing prepared but people are asking me to sing, in front of an audience of mostly French-language learners. I reach back in my memory and find the only French song I know that doesn’t require a chorus. “Un canadien errant, banni de ses foyers, parcourait, en pleurant, des pays étrangers…” A handful of people, including a friend of mine, close their eyes, and I know I’ve hit home.
2016: At another conference. A news alert flashes across my iPad and I want to stand up and yell “Leonard Cohen’s died!” But everyone has found out anyway. Two minutes after the end of the conference I’m standing with a girl I met a minute before, singing the first part of “Suzanne.” I come home and notice that people are gathering around Cohen’s house in Montreal. I ask around and do a bit of online detective work to find the place, eventually noticing a standing stone with a painted peacock on it in a park behind the house. Parc des Portugais, off of St. Laurent. Half an hour later, I’m there. It’s nearly midnight, but there are close to 100 people. Many put candles, flowers or incense on the front steps. Most have been knocked dizzy first by the election and now this. We hug, cycle through several songs, pass around bottles of cheap red wine and a few joints. But mostly we lean on each other, sharing stories, crying a little, becoming friends and generally allowing ourselves to have a good time. “So long Marianne, it’s time that we began, to laugh and cry and cry and laugh about it all again.”