Music for the Dying

Today I was trained to be a “visiting musician” for Serenity Hospice Care. It is a volunteer position, and one that, frankly, I am uncertain about my ability to do whatever a “good job” would entail. But the Director of Volunteer & Bereavement Services, Tanya, is, and will continue to be, a good guide for me, I think. I am the first such musician to respond to their call, and their Director of Music Therapy is looking for more. If you know of any, or are one yourself, please contact her:

It is a cliché to say that we all are dying, and that we all need music to get us across borders, but both are true.

I have just finished listening to Leonard Cohen’s new album, Popular Problems, all the way through. I said in the previous post that my favorite was “You Got Me Singing,” and I still like it. He writes

You got me singing

Even tho’the news is bad

You got me singing

The only song I ever had


You got me singing

Even tho’it all looks grim

You got me singing

The Hallelujah hymn                      

And on a day like today, when President Obama addressed the United Nations Security Council, begging them to join in the US fight (but never war) against ISIL, and when sage countrymen are explaining why such actions are madness but that there is no clear moral alternative, we need songs, we need new songs,  and we all need to sing them.

“So the United States of America will work with a broad coalition to dismantle this network of death,” Obama said today, this “cancer of violent extremism,” seeking, once again, balance (see post from Sept. 20) at this time of equinox.

But according to Cohen, the network of  death can not be dismantled:  It goes In places deep/With roots entwined.

“Nevermind” unfolds, as Jon Pareles of the New York Times writes yesterday, “a tale of war, deceit, divided loyalties, bitter betrayals and firm persistence:


I had to leave

My life behind

I dug some graves

You’ll never find.


Gentle backup voices join him, along with soul-music strings; eventually a woman’s voice arrives singing ‘Salaam’—Arabic for ‘peace’—to place the story in the Middle East.”

The lyrics of that song go on to say


My woman’s here

My children too

Their graves are safe

From ghosts like you.


Pareles seemed to find the album as a whole too depressing; curiously, I do not.

Cohen says that “Born in Chains” took him decades to write (see my last entry), so I was especially interested in the lyrics. In them  are echoes of his “Hallelujah hymn”:


I was idle with my soul

When I heard that you could use me

I followed very closely

My life remained the same

But then you showed me

Where you had been wounded

In every atom

Broken is the name


I’ve heard the soul unfolds

In the chambers of its longing

And the bitter liquor sweetens

In the hammered cup

But all the Ladders

Of the Night have fallen

Only darkness now

To lift the Longing up

What is it about the darkness that can lift? My friend Sandy writes,

 Autumn usually exhilarates me.  Good things happened to me in this season: two babies, marriage in late summer.  I arrived in Wisconsin in September.    

 So I sit here today with windows opened, listening to my five Leonard Cohen songs with a lump in my throat.  No tears, though I’m not trying to stop them. It’s almost a perfect day weather wise.  Peaceful and quiet here.

 Yet the world elsewhere is consumed in fire, flood, disease and war.  My tempests are small.  Guess Cohen is perfect for me today: Slow and You Got Me Singing (thanks to you and your blog), Dance me to the end of Love, Anthem and Hallelujah.  

 Life is just a series of contradictions.  You have to make your own way through them and go on.  And find the joy–especially in old age.

Cohen’s album, released yesterday, is dedicated to Kyozan Joshu Sasaki Roshi, a Zen Buddhist who died in July at the”old age” of 93, and who was apparently Cohen’s teacher.  When I looked up the particulars of his life, I found this in Wikipedia:

A former Buddha once said in verse:

Standing atop a soaring mountain peak is for the time being
And plunging down to the floor of the Ocean’s abyss is for the time being;
Being triple-headed and eight-armed is for the time being
And being a figure of a Buddha standing sixteen feet tall or sitting eight feet high is for the time being;
Being a monk’s traveling staff or his ceremonial hossu is for the time being
And being a pillar supporting the temple or a stone lantern before the Meditation Hall is for the time being;
Being a next-door neighbor or a man in the street is for the time being
And being the whole of the great earth and boundless space is for the time being.

And so, for the time being, we try to do the right thing without knowing what that is. We are probably going to make things worse, but, for the time being, who knows what that is?

 We “lift the Longing up,” play for the dying,  who, of course, include us.



One thought on “Music for the Dying

  1. Dear Visiting MusicianWorking with the dying may be the ultimate in generating an inadequate sense of self. We come quickly to the end of our words, they are too soon powerless so we tend to the simple actions of providing some level of comfort, a straw of water, a cold compress. We wrestle with our own need for them to take on nourishment and the difficult realization that they are weaning themselves from needing it.I remember sitting for those long times with my dying brother-in-law. He had accepted that his time was near and anticipated reuniting with his spouse. I had run out of words long before and somehow had arrived at a labored comfort with a silence between us. He was satisfied with quiet and I wrestled toward that satisfaction; memories that take me to a place of peace now.“Normal life” beckoned and our silence was broken with one of those feeble admissions, “I guess I need to go” which startled Bill back to my world. He had been so at peace and unaware of the passage of time, and genuinely lamented my leaving. Bill didn’t tell me then that he understood what pulled at me; he simply no longer shared them.While I wrestled with the decision of what to do & say, Bill found comfort in my presence and his own thoughts. I wish that I had come to that same awareness and peace. Slowly comes a sense of simply needing to “be” there while believing that comfort will come with the experience rather than before it.You head into this experience with an implied trust that the music you play is nourishment in perhaps the only form that is digestible for the dying. What a fine replacement for a time when words are loosing their value! Godspeed!


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