As a child, listening to Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne in the gloriously golden evening, I’d find that now-familiar ache in my chest; a longing for the elusive horizon, where trees gathered themselves in florid shapes and the sun made a red dart to the eye. I’d sit in the lounge windowsill, swinging my legs and watching Dad wash the car in preparation for our journey North to visit my grandparents. There was a lyric I always misheard as “and you want to travel flying” as opposed to its reality of “blind.”
I prefer my version.
Flying is but one of the themes synonymous with this song, for me; that and travel, wandering the dusky woods surrounding my neighbourhood, all bare feet and quiet mind, cool earth and hot skin; the sort of balmy days which could go on forever, where no darkness exists but in the heart. Those warm sultry nights full of moths and gnats on the walls, spread out like little flags … and the cold stars, so near and so far, like love and loss.
Aged thirteen, I took out my A3 pad of cartridge paper and pack of graphite pencils, and tried to draw what I saw in my mind from Suzanne. I’d recently discovered a love of sketching, which lingers to this day. I wish I could say I still have that page of four little images, all stark lines and blurry shadows; but the darkness of my heart was becoming bitter little crystals, and I screwed the picture up, threw it away with disgust at my own ineptitude. A lot of my old journal entries went this way, too. These days, I know better than to throw away items of the past. They are often representative of who we are, as much as who we were.
I never got the hang of paints, a sore point for my soul, as I’d love to recreate the world in flowing waves of oil – like the hard ripples of the granite-coloured sea in my grandmother’s picture of a hulk, laid out to rest on the beach. The sky was brass between the masts, which were ragged and forlorn with tattered strips of sail. All around lay timbers like broken teeth. Seaweed skirled and bled into the sand. To run a finger gently over each layer of paint, was to feel the artist’s voice in your throat, their message in your heart. I used to sit and stare at that picture, hung up alone in its corridor of time. There was something about it that seemed more like a portal than a painting.
And 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
(No lyrics have ever spoken to me as much as this song.)
I don’t have the hands of a painter. Mine are meticulous and prone to cross-hatching, to smears of charcoal with the thumb (rubbed in absent-minded reflection over the nose, as I hunker back to watch the world and filter it between what I see and know, and what the world wants me to know, to send out again in another version of life.)
They are leaning out for love
And they will lean that way forever
While Suzanne holds the mirror
Who would dare, in this day and age? Who would lay down all they have, all that they have worked towards, for the tightly-wound braiding of breath on a space once empty? When words mean nothing more than their sum of phonetic parts on the tongue, it is actions which speak for themselves.
My landlady’s father worked with the United Nations Development Programme. He spent time in places where the food would often become black with flies, where he saw children die in their mothers’ arms. She told me this evening that in one village where he was staying, they had no toilets, and would often go out to the fields to relieve themselves.
One afternoon, she told me, he took the entire village and sat them before two bowls, telling them to be very quiet and to stay still. One bowl held white rice; the other a pile of human faeces smeared with the red dye used to daub the villagers’ foreheads.
Over the course of an hour, that rice turned red. The villagers watched in silence, their eyes growing round, as the flies did what they naturally do.
Afterwards, the villagers built latrines and covered their food at all times. That powerful image never left them, and I doubt it will ever leave me, too.
Actions jump the boundaries between language and translation. I do wish I could have met her father. He was strong-willed, politically involved, and apparently quite eccentric. What a glorious combination.
Not for him the comfort of plush hotel suites. He breathed the lives of those he worked to help.
I’d like to do the same one day.
But for now, it is dreams – not quite dead, only hibernating. There’s always the horizon to watch, and the brassy sky.
And you want to travel with her
And you want to travel blind …