Our Dance With Leonard

The story of our marriage began with a song, 'Dance Me to the End of Love'

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Mark and I were married on a moody August evening in 1997 on the coast of Gloucester, Massachusetts. At the end of our ceremony, with the sun setting behind us, we recited the lyrics to the Leonard Cohen song "Dance Me to the End of Love," ending with these lines:

Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin

Dance me through the panic 'til I'm gathered safely in

Touch me with your naked hand

Touch me with your glove

Dance me to the end of love

I insisted we leave out the third verse that begins, "Dance me to the children who are asking to be born," because I feared we'd jinx what I wanted as much as I wanted a life with Mark—to start a family together.

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Well, nothing got jinxed, and the following year, Mark and I stood on that same rocky coast and introduced our baby boy to the ocean. Two and a half summers later, our daughter was born and we spent our fourth anniversary staggering around at a Rhythm and Roots festival in Rhode Island with an almost 3-year-old and an infant. As we navigated the sticky summer crowd, trying to rally in that halfhearted way exhausted parents do, Mark hit his breaking point, opening an unusual chasm of mean.

"They call this dancing?" he scoffed as we watched the floor fill up with couples doing some cheerful cross between a shuffle and a swing. "This is not good dancing."

"So what's 'good' dancing?" I countered sharply. Bleary-eyed from being underslept for three years, I was primed for an anniversary fight.

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"Good dancing is what they did at my high school in New Haven," Mark said. "Those kids could dance." He nodded at the dozens of earnest couples twirling about. "This is ridiculous."

In that moment, I didn't like my husband's searing judgment of someone else's joy. I didn't even like my husband that much. "I'm leaving," I said, and headed out with the kids, certain that I'd never dance with Mark again.

Mark followed us out, the music filling the void of our pissy silence until we both paused, slightly stunned. One of the groups in a nearby tent was doing a bluegrass take on "Dance Me to the End of Love." While I had adored that song since its release in 1984 on the "Various Positions" album, I had never ever heard anyone cover it. But there it was, inserting itself into our anniversary anger, reminding us of the words spoken on the shore four years earlier: Lift me like an olive branch and be my homeward dove. Dance me to the end of love.

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"Goddamn Leonard Cohen," I said.

Mark smiled, "Yeah. He probably expects us to dance, too—the bad way."

That night, we did dance, on the sand, with all the forgiveness and gratitude that a long marriage requires.

Eight years later, I gave Mark an early anniversary present: tickets to see Leonard Cohen at the Wang Theatre in Boston. We gripped hands as the 78-year-old performer literally danced onto the stage to the angelic strains of that familiar Greek chorus opening: La la. Lalalalalala.

I had wept at concerts before, but never like when—two minutes in—Cohen's graveled voice was chaffing at a place inside me, one that held my love for Mark and hope that we had a lifetime of dancing ahead, Cohen-style, with the dark juice of passion, the clinging to each other in panic, and kisses that wear down the curtain of time.

Cohen once said he found the song's seed in learning that in certain death camps a string quartet was forced to play beside the crematoria as prisoners were being killed. If you're confused about how such an image could turn into a love song, then you don't understand Cohen's masterful ability to blur the lines between sex, death, passion, torture and the transcendence of the heart in our blackest moments.

A week ago, at midnight, I lay curled on the bedroom floor in fetal position. "I can't!" I cried. "I can't live in a country led by a bigot." Mark lay on the floor next to me and held me, dancing me through the panic until I was gathered safely in.

Two nights later, we were out with friends when my phone alert told me Leonard Cohen had died at age 82. We raised a glass to him and shared stories of what his songs and lyrics meant to us. Mark and I would remember how we saw him in concert at the Wang a second time on a cold December night in 2012. How his music, whenever we played it, beat like a shared heart.

That night, Mark and I went home to a quiet house and put on "Dance Me to the End of Love." With our teenagers out with their friends, we danced each other around the living room.

Tags: marriage