Trying to Be Free
Thoughts on the Shabbat Before Passover, 2017
"Free from what?" I ask myself, in my yearly meditation on freedom.
Like a bird on the wire,
like a drunk in a midnight choir
I have tried in my way to be free.
These obscurely luminous words by Leonard Cohen express some deep, beloved and tortuous mystery - the mythical allure of drunkenness.
I love Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn movies, such as George Cukor's 1938 gem "Holiday." Free-spirited Johnny (Cary Grant) and exposed-as-uptight Julia (Doris Nolan) fall in love and want to get married. In the process of meeting Julia's family (a family impoverished in spirit in direct proportion to its material plenty) Johnny meets Julia's free spirited sister, Linda (Katharine Hepburn). The condition laid down for Johnny is that he sell out - trade freedom for money. Buy his way into slavery. Linda is praying that Johnny does not succumb, that for once someone does not fall for the allure of lucre.
It seems that Johnny will cave in to Julia's imploring. Linda is disconsolate, and she turns to her drunken brother, Ned (Lew Ayres) to find out what it is like being drunk. He tells her (this is my paraphrasing from the dialogue):
It's grand to get good and drunk. It brings you to life. You begin to know all about it. You feel important. And then the game starts, a swell, exciting game. You think as clear as crystal, but every move, every sentence is a problem. That gets interesting. You get beat at the game, but that's good. You don't mind. You don't mind anything. You sleep. In the end, you die.
(Screenplay by Donald Ogden Stewart and Sidney Buchanan, from the play by Philip Barry).
Linda and Ned yearn to be free, inspired by Johnny, just as Johnny seems to walk into prison. Ned's freedom is a drunken stupor. Linda makes a break for it and in the most touching moment of the movie, Linda says, "I'll be back for you, Ned."
Is that what the drunk in the midnight choir is bellowing about? He does not have the words to express the misery of ephemeral freedom through liquid lies. He needs the hymnal, he needs the church, he needs the choir in order to sing a song of redemption.
I think there is a rip in the fabric of the heart of every conscious person. The heart is ripped open by a hymn trying to escape from a dark chamber of forgotten prayers. We don't know the words and we don't know the music and we don't know how to sing and we stay locked in. But we know there is a song written about us, we who imagine the drunk in the midnight choir, trying in our own way to be free.
In this mythic place, we don't only drink in order to forget, we drink in order to loosen the chains that stop us from entering those hidden chambers. We are not only locked in, we are locked out.
After a couple of tries, most of us realize that the freedom of the drunk is a metaphor, or a lie if you wish, a lie you believe only while drunk and while thinking about getting drunk.
We wake up when we think not about the drunk, but about the song, the hymn, the choir, and figure out some other way to break the chains locking us in and locking us out.
Every great poet, musician, writer - maybe every artist - is trying to sing that song, trying to give us a song to sing that will open up our own way to be free.
I hope you find a song to sing this year, or make sure to sing an old one. I hope your Passover seders are fun and interesting, but no Passover seder that I know of is going to give you that song. It will only give a cue.
There is a magic moment. You've earned the meal through some diligent - traditional or not - telling of the story. Then we have all the Passover songs.
Who knows one? Who knows one song, one poem, that will let the hymn out from the rip in the heart?
Who knows two? Who knows two lines, one couplet of one hymn that will break a lock like ringing a bell?
I know two lines that Bob Dylan wrote:
I see my light come shining, from the west unto the east
Any day now, any day now, I shall be released.
I don't yet know one. So I join the midnight choir.
Maybe your Passover be joyous and filled with song!