Leonard Cohen mentors me. Okay, I've never met him, never conversed with him, and (sadly) never even seen him perform live. But he mentors me. Often.
I learned about this kind of mentoring from another amazing artist-dancer-poet, Arnold Mindell. In his book, The Shaman's Body, he talks about a fellow who confessed to carrying Arnold's picture around as an indirect mentor. When he didn't know what to do, he talked to Arnold's picture. It engaged his deeper imagination, focused him on a certain type of advice, and spoke to him in ways that were irrational but helpful.
I decided there were a few people I wanted as my mentor. Though it was highly unlikely I'd ever meet them, let alone learn at their feet, I could do the same as Arnold's fellow. Leonard Cohen was at the top of my list.
With Leonard, it's not a picture I carry, but the songs that are in a continuous loop in my head and the stories I've made up about them. Here are six of my top takeaways for my working life.
1. When Leonard performed A Thousand Kisses Deep live in London (and then for me on youtube), I realized that there are things - important things - that words can't say directly. Some things you can only inch your way towards. I have to create a great dance of words, images, graphics, and poetic design that speak to the value of my offerings. It's not easy when there are others who appear to be in the same business as I am. With only so many words to differentiate the by-the-book rookie from the whirling dervish magic maker, I find my task is well served by at least attempting to go a thousand kisses deep.
2. There's this idea in the world today that if your work is really, really good, you'll get found, go viral, and be invited to be on the Today show. I was able to do that with one of my social change projects, but there have been a whole lot of my creations (well, all the rest of them) that found only a small, devoted audience. When I get down about that, Leonard reminds me that even top-level genius work like his can miss the appreciation of our mass culture. "I ran with Dizz, I sang with Ray, I never had their reach, but once or twice they let me play, a thousand kisses deep." I like to imagine Leonard giving me a good talking to about how, whenever he found a difference between what he wanted to create and what the mass culture wanted to buy, he went his own way. I nod and smile every time he sings "I never had their reach" because if Leonard didn't, it has to be okay that I don't.
3. I've read and listened to a lot of interviews with Leonard. He has said more than once (paraphrasing here) that he fights for his words. They don't come along in a string of darlings. They don't wake him up at night with angel's song in his ear. Leonard isn't up for that kind of ease and I appreciate that. He works. Hard. So when I have to fight for my words, for my work, for social change or whatever it is I am up to on a given day, I know I'm not above slogging it out. I can work. Hard.
4. When Leonard sings his massively beautiful song If It Be Thy Will, I listen to the echoes of painful surrender as if they were my own. I don't know the story, but I find myself imagining it was his voice, his literal voice, that might have been threatened. It was his tool, his gift, and his work all in one. Whatever it was, I let it assure me that frailty is not a failure. It is a part of every human life. Not everything is fair and it's actually a gift just to have another day to do what I love to do. I also let him remind me that I live in a massively complex and interweaving world. Contrary to pop-spirituality, I do not create my own reality - at least not alone. Not only do I have to tango with the realities of those I work with, but I have to accept that I am only one of 7+ billion who are creating the increasingly worldwide economy. I'd like to think I get extra points for creating something beautiful and/or useful, but at the end of the day, I'm not the only one to credit or blame. I don't know exactly who Leonard's "thy" of "thy will" is, but I do know WE are in this together.
5. "Ring the bells that still can ring, forget your perfect offering, there is a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in." Really, nothing further could add to this line.
6. When Leonard sings Hallelujah (and when all the other magicians like K.D. Lang and this group of young men sing it) I remember how my own offerings can and must be a kind of prayer. I remember that my work - and all work, really - must be about being human. About touching people and making their lives better, even if only a little. About the gritty raw peril in each of us and how no one worth their salt can rely on 5-Easy-Steps to address that. Even the doctor we rely on to heal us is going to die (one of mine did, in his 40's, just last month). When Leonard wrote "and even though it all went wrong I'll stand here before the lord of song with nothing on my tongue but hallelujah" I remember that yes, it could all go wrong. But in the mean time, the day is wide open and there's a hallelujah on my own tongue. It may not sound as sweet as it does coming from one of the true greats. But it's there and it will be offered up - thanks, in no small measure, to my mentor Leonard Cohen.
(This article first appeared in LinkedIn Pulse.)
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