Late at night, I'm winding down after leading back-to-back trainings and workshops for ten days straight. I click the monitor for the hotel TV set and channel surf until I see an elderly man with a black hat tipped over his forehead, holding a microphone like a mouth organ. He sings softly
Like a bird on the wire
like a drunk in a midnight choir
I have tried in my way
to be free.
I am watching Leonard Cohen singing one of his standards on a stage in London. Earnest PBS fund-raisers come on right after the song, offering DVDs and CDs of his "Live in London" concert to those who call in with contributions. I approve of the cause, but they go on for too long before the next song, and I switch off the set.
However, the songs stays with me. It becomes my default sound track for many days. And I continue to be deeply and strangely moved by the image of the old poet-singer in his black hat and black suit, and the way he held that mike. Like a mouth organ, I wrote. But his cupped hands remind me of something else, of a stunned or wounded bird being gentled back to life. I had seen that happen the day before, when a baby owl flew into the window of a lodge in the greenwoods where I was leading a retreat, and appeared to be dead until a young woman picked it up and cradled it in her hands, crooning. The baby owl sat up, stared at me, and then flew into the limbs of a red cedar.
As members of my dreaming family were gathering for a private circle I lead, I mentioned how deeply I had been touched by that glimpse of Leonard Cohen.
"How did you feel?" Sara asked, jumping into the Lightning Dreamwork process we use to discuss dreams, and also life events.
"I was deeply moved. I feel haunted, but not in an unpleasant way."
"What do know about the song?"
"I did some research. I learned that Leonard Cohen started writing this song in 1968 when he was in the midst of a deep depression when he was living on the Greek island of Hydra with his girlfriend. They had just started installing phone lines on the island. He saw a bird on a wire and this gave him his first line. It took him many weeks to complete the song - in a motel back in the United States - but writing it got him through his dark patch.
"The song is one of his standards, one of his signature compositions. I read that he sings it in every live concert. That's got me thinking about how it may be good for me, too, to have standards I can deliver year after year, together with all the new stuff. I have some stories that are like that, stories I've told many times that people are waiting for me to tell again in my programs."
Sara commented, "If it were my experience, I would also think about what are our standards in another sense - what is it that has brought us back when we were really down."
This observation traveled so deep I gasped when full recognition dawned on me.
"When I was nineteen," I now recalled, "I lost the first girl I really loved, and I wanted to die. I didn't plan to kill myself, because I have always known that there is life after life, so that is not an option. But I was starting to wish myself dead. I could only pull out of that by writing a poem, and the poem was about a bird."
I can't recite very many of my poems from memory, but my poem of a falling bird, written when I was nineteen, is indelible:
I love the bird with broken wings
it is young and has no pride
has no voice and yet it sings
enchanted by its spiral dive
and has the beak of hooded kings
that broke the leash before they died
cold goshawk at the heart of things
that tears because it is alive
and is remote from all that clings
because the seasons claimed its bride
falling through narrowing iron rings
through talons bared like knives
I don't recall whether there was punctuation in my original text; I think not. Bringing through that poem, however, was vital punctuation in my life, perhaps as vital for me as "Like a Bird on the Wire" was for Leonard Cohen.
I was grateful to Sara for helping me see the connection. And to another member of our dream circle who seized on the communications motif. Cohen saw his bird on a telephone wire. I said I would honor that element by blogging about the birds, the songs, and the life signatures.
By the way, Kris Kristofferson says he wants the first stanza of "Like a Bird on the Wire" as his epitaph. Not a bad choice.