you got a way
"everybody has experienced the defeat of their lives."
If I called 2021 ‘a kind of retreat’ when I last wrote, what I meant was, I couldn’t quite get away from it. What I meant was, I watched from some great distance inside myself as it got away from me. All along I’ve been here, nowhere; caught between performance and its toll. My last letter of the year usually tries to look back and find something beautiful and true to make an offering of. I look back and see that nowhere and I think it’s not always beautiful, but at least it can still be true.
NOT ME CRYIN OVER LEONARD COHEN AGAIN!!! I texted some friends the other day, after sharing one of his poems. He became a recurring character for me this year and I didn’t realize it until recently. It started in February with Chelsea Hotel no. 2, from the 2017 tribute concert, sung between his son, Adam, and Lana Del Rey. I listened to it on repeat because sometimes you dig into someone else’s melancholy hoping it will put a name to your own.
“We all love a sad song,” Cohen said in a 2007 interview I found a little later. “Everybody has experienced the defeat of their lives. Nobody has a life that worked out the way they wanted it to. We all begin as the hero of our own dramas in center stage and inevitably life moves us out of center stage, defeats the hero, overturns the plot and the strategy, and we’re left on the sidelines wondering why we no longer have a part—or want a part—in the whole damn thing. Everybody’s experienced this. And when it’s presented sweetly, the feeling moves from heart to heart and we feel less isolated and we feel part of the great human chain, which is really involved with the recognition of defeat.”
I started another book immediately after releasing my last and every time I felt like my chest was caving in, I couldn’t tell, exactly, where the weight was coming from. When the new one was finished, I felt so emotionally fucking eviscerated it could only have achieved what it set out to do. Every exhalation after that was like pushing back against a bruise. What was this, I’d think, with my hand pressed flat against my chest. Why is it.
“Depression has often been the general background of my daily life. My feeling is that whatever I did was in spite of that, not because of it. It wasn’t the depression that was the engine of my work . . . that was just the sea I swam in.”
I like his humor, Leonard Cohen.
I’m no expert on the man, but I see a wryness in a lot of his writing that wasn’t afraid to hold up the absurdity of this whole deal. It’s a little funny, inventing worlds you end up burying yourself under, walking to an edge that you yourself created. If you spend enough time at your own mercy, you have to, at some point, laugh at the places your heart resides. At the fact that you have everything and nothing to say and how you’re so purpose-driven, you have no choice but to say it. It all carries meaning, even the most ridiculous parts. If you let yourself sit with only the anguish of writing, you’ll only feel its anguish, but if you let yourself sit with the joy of it too, each eventually takes its turn.
And maybe the work can still be an anchor, even if it’s not always your reward.
“If there were no more paintings,” he wrote, “Mine would be very important.”
I just finished re-reading The Flame, Cohen’s final collection of poems, lyrics, notes, and drawings. I first picked it up not long after Sadie released, a time in my life I thought poetry could help. It’s haunting; A Portrait of the Artist as an Aging Man / A Portrait of an Aging Man as The Artist. When I read it, I try to imagine what it might be like to reach a point in your life and career where you’re ahead of and behind everything all at once, but ever assured of the stage and your place upon it.
That’s relevancy, baby.
I feel very finite every time I reach its end.
I often try to articulate what it’s like working in an industry that moves at such a pace the impact of your work feels somewhere in the rear view, too far from you to glimpse. Half the battle of being an artist is sticking it out, which means it’s difficult to see past the feat of endurance, to move beyond the shock of still being here enough to begin defining what ‘here’ is.
My new art is done and things are taking shape. I’m trying to understand them in relation to the shape of myself. Cracked Up to Be came out thirteen years ago this month. I know less about what it means to be Courtney Summers in 2021 than I did in 2008. In 2022, I expect to know even less than that.
But to learn more.
When I ask, Google says the opposite of defeat is victory, success. I realize it’s not quite the right question. People also ask: does defeat mean win? Is defeat winning or losing?
What is the end of defeat, if not victory?
But what if I already know. What if it’s continuing past the point of it and looking back and seeing myself there, so that I could write this letter to you, telling you about it now.