All the minor chords

A few weeks after my father died, I received a letter from a friend. We wrote back and forth about injustice and pain, and in her last note, she said, “What is this world? If anyone can make beautiful sense out of strangeness and sadness, it’s you, but I completely understand if you wouldn’t want to.” I did not then have the strength to say this, but “want” has little to do with it. I’ve always felt an irrepressible need to find the through-line in the chaos. To make sense of the world around me, even and perhaps especially when there is no sense to be found.

I was introduced to Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” by the first man I ever loved. Well, Jeff Buckley’s version of the song. I’ve never had much of an ear for Cohen himself, but this song hits me in a way that nothing else does. When I’m despondent, when I’m conflicted, when I’m straining to uncover all that I don’t know how to explain, I put on some version of this song and listen to it over and over again: “The baffled king composing hallelujah.” My draw to it has become a kind of litmus test for the state of my psychological clarity. I have listened to it a lot over these past two years.

Two years. That’s what everyone kept saying when my father died: “Don’t make any big decisions for two years.” In three and a half months, it will have been that long, and I suppose that means I and the rest of my family will then be qualified to make big decisions once again. Except life must not have received that same memo because each of us has had to make many rather large decisions in these past years, qualified or not, and while the sting of the grief no longer cuts as an ice water shock to the lungs, it lingers. I do not see how it could ever stop coloring our perspective.

I remember having dinner with another friend a handful of months after my father’s death. I asked her how different I’d become, and she said, “You’re still you. But there’s a gravity to you now.” Even before losing my father, I’d never been particularly light-hearted, and though my relationship with him left much to be desired, his existence provided mine with a certain stability I did not fully comprehend until he was gone. To explain what it’s been like, I can only say this: My father died, and everything I understood about the world went with him.

In Walking on Water, Madeleine L’Engle writes of the artist as “someone who is full of questions.” She says, “Along with Plato’s divine madness there is also divine discontent, a longing to find the melody in the discords of chaos.” In these past years, I have dug ruts down miles of worn roads, working my hands until they’re bloody and bruised, in the hope of unearthing what’s been long-buried—the thing that, when brought to light, will label all the unnamed markers and set me back on a straightened path. It is my “divine discontent,” my need to “make beautiful sense out of strangeness and sadness.”

But lately, all my digging has been for naught. I have stood in the dirt with my shovel for some time now, feeling a mounting awareness of “wrong.” Whatever I used to do—however I used to seek the answers—isn’t working anymore. And if I read further in that chapter of L’Engle’s, I come upon this: “It is not that what is is not enough, for it is; it is that what is has been disarranged, and is crying out to be put in place.” Uncovering what lies beneath the mire is quite different from being handed a pile of bricks and being told to rebuild the road. But the more I think about it, the more I realize this is exactly what I’m being told to do.

If you read the Psalms (or really, the entire Bible) enough times, you can’t help but notice the tension between hope and despair: the writers’ unflinching awareness of just how bad things are, running right alongside an equally strong assurance that their God has not forsaken them. “From the ends of the earth I call to you,” David writes. “I call as my heart grows faint; lead me to the rock that is higher than I.” It is this same David who Cohen sings of in his “Hallelujah.” The baffled king. The man with faith, who needed proof. The one who cried a cold and broken hallelujah—but a hallelujah, nonetheless.

It seems to me that there’s a pattern here: looking up. Not in the trite sense of “a shift in perspective changes everything,” but in the very real sense that, if you strive to see how all of this must look to God, your vision, too, must alter. Your actions must also change. L’Engle concludes the chapter with this: “Perhaps the artist longs to sleep well every night, to eat anything without indigestion; to feel no moral qualms…But the artist cannot manage this normalcy. Vision keeps breaking through, and must find means of expression.” I do not think I’ll ever find that world I lived in before my father’s death, but perhaps I can assemble all the discordant notes and compose a hallelujah just the same.