Going Home and Leonard Cohen

Last week our family, all twelve of us, returned to my home in southeastern North Carolina. We stayed at Wrightsville Beach, one of my favorite places in all the world. I grew up in Wilmington, N. C., only a few miles from this beach. So this would be a time to come together with family to celebrate my mother’s life and to scatter her ashes in the ocean.

Wrightsville Beach, N. C.

Wrightsville Beach, N. C.

She used to fish in the surf next to the house we would be renting. It turned out to be a beautiful, hurricane-free week. Yet as much as I wanted it to be the same beach, the same place–it all had changed. Now my mother was gone, and I had become the matriarch. I missed sitting around our dining room table eating her home-cooked food. I missed the house I always returned to when I came to visit.  I missed that sense of life going on forever in a certain way. Not to say, that we didn’t have a great time. We walked the beach, swam, laughed, and enjoyed a great week. But I had lost my anchor to this place I loved so much.

Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen

In his song/poem “Going Home,” Leonard Cohen lends his distinctive voice and intellect to the idea of home. Cohen, our Renaissance man, is still writing and singing at age 79. In this poem, another voice enters:  “I love to speak with Leonard/He’s a sportsman and a shepherd/He’s a lazy bastard living in a suit.” In the song, Leonard becomes a conduit for this greater voice of wisdom that says: “Going home/Without my burden/Going home behind the curtain/Without the costume/That I wore.” This voice takes the idea of “going home” and lifts it out of a literal place and out of real time. It made me think about how my mother’s ashes looked when we tossed them in the surf on a moonlit night. It made me think of home in a different way.

Here is Leonard Cohen’s poem as it appeared in The New Yorker (1/23/12):

Going Home

I love to speak with Leonard
He’s a sportsman and a shepherd
He’s a lazy bastard
Living in a suit

But he does say what I tell him
Even though it isn’t welcome
He will never have the freedom
To refuse

He will speak these words of wisdom
Like a sage, a man of vision
Though he knows he’s really nothing
But the brief elaboration of a tube

Going home
Without my sorrow
Going home
Sometime tomorrow
To where it’s better
Than before

Going home
Without my burden
Going home
Behind the curtain
Going home
Without the costume
That I wore

He wants to write a love song
An anthem of forgiving
A manual for living with defeat

A cry above the suffering
A sacrifice recovering
But that isn’t what I want him to complete

I want to make him certain
That he doesn’t have a burden
That he doesn’t need a vision

That he only has permission
To do my instant bidding
That is to say what I have told him
To repeat

Going home
Without my sorrow
Going home
Sometime tomorrow
Going home
To where it’s better
Than before

Going home
Without my burden
Going home
Behind the curtain
Going home
Without the costume
That I wore

I love to speak with Leonard
He’s a sportsman and a shepherd
He’s a lazy bastard
Living in a suit

–Leonard Cohen

Listen to  Cohen sing/speak “Going Home” in his inimitable way. (Click highlight.)

 
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I wrote the following poem before my mother died. It is about an earlier visit home when she sat beside me at the same beach and sketched. I remember her saying that she needed an eraser. Even then I was feeling “erased” from this landscape that had been home to me as a child.
_______________________________________

Erased

“By now, I think I have been entirely erased.”
–Henri Cole, “The Erasers”

Time was when this piece of an island
(the blues of rolling surf,
the whites of shifting sand
its language with words like in the beginning
and holy, holy, holy
that stopped at that ridge of sand dunes)
owned me;
and I, it.

Today the dunes are feathered
with sea oats waiting
for the summer sun to fan their seed pods.
I smell fried chicken cooking for Sunday dinner
and hear Southern voices
and the birds—yes the birds.

I have forgotten this language, their language,
while these flitting, floating birds continue to speak
in the same codes—a genetic path that I cannot seem to find again.

I have been erased—the she who spoke this way
disguised now under a blue hat behind purple sunglasses.
I wear turquoise—only turquoise.

My mother starts her sketches in pencil
I need a good eraser, she says today.

And I am the one erased from this landscape
(the child running through the surf,
the young girl in love,
the good daughter,
who knew the language of wind
and of hurricanes and these birds.)

–Vicky Lettmann

____________________________________________

Writing Jumpstart: As you go about your life today, notice all the ways you see “home.” Then sit down for ten minutes and write as fast as you can using “home” or “going home” as your base. Try not to analyze or to write something “good,” just write first thoughts and observations. Leonard had to let another voice speak. It said, “He doesn’t need a vision.” Go.

Note about Jumpstarts: The idea grew out of my Sanibel writing classes: “Jumpstart Your Writing.” They are a way to stay in touch with your writing self. All you need is a notebook and a pen. Or use them as part of some writing project you’re working on. (For example, if you’re writing fiction, you could riff on a character who is going home or a character’s home.)

15 thoughts on “Going Home and Leonard Cohen

  1. Vicky,
    Your writing about NC always conveys your passion for the place, and so it holds a sacred power. Thanks for the teaching me to love NC too, on our many visits to visit your mother, Ruth. I miss her; the world is lonelier without her. Love to you, Mary

    • Thank you, Mary. And for your friendship. Ruth always called you her “second daughter.” From the early days, you encouraged me to write more about North Carolina; and I’m so glad you came to know and love North Carolina too. I will always remember the trip to Italy the three of us took when Ruth was 86!

    • Thanks, my friend. I have been down with the flu the past few days, listening to Leonard and drinking tea. Totally engrossed in his voice, his words. I was wondering how you liked his voice (since you are a singer and voice coach). You have to listen to him sing “Going Home.” The audio-clip didn’t come through on the e-mail post, but you can hear it on the actual website blog page. Or just go to You Tube and listen to him sing. I also downloaded his the album, “Old Ideas: Ten Songs,” that includes “Going Home.” I could write on and on about Leonard and how his life/work/creativity so relates to what we were all about when we put together our anthology.

  2. This is a lovely post, Vickie. And so relevant to me this week when my sister is coming
    “home” for a week even though the anchors are gone. We are all feeling a bit erased. You capture the nuance so well. And thanks for the writing prompt!

    • Thanks,Liz. Just when we think we’ve got some things figured out, it all changes. During that week, I kept thinking Ruth would show up and be so happy to see us.
      I hope it all goes well with your sister’s visit.
      “There is a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in,” Leonard Cohen wrote.

    • Thanks for taking me along on your pilgrimage to your childhood home. Your poem is beautiful. I may not have been lucky enough to know Ruth, but I can sense who she must have been because you obviously loved her and miss her so much. Going home without your anchor to greet you when you arrive amplifies your feeling of being erased. I prefer to think, though, that you haven’t been erased. I prefer to think that you’re more like the surf rolling in and out, bringing old memories as it comes in and making new ones as it rolls out.

      • What a wonderful analogy for the way memories work! Thank you, so much, Arlene–and for all your support and inspiration. You and I share a deep love for our mothers, who both lived such long and fruitful lives. I’m so lucky to have you in my life and look forward to many shared memories of good times in Florida.

  3. Such a touching post. I understand that feeling when Mother is gone and now, daughter is the matriarch, the one the family turns to. Home is never the same when our parents pass on. I’ve written poems and stories on this theme.
    Wrightsville Beach must be beautiful. I would love to go there.

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