Strange how something you’ve heard a thousand times can suddenly knock you over. Maybe it’s a shift in the light, a stray fragment of head chatter, or a lack of sleep, but a familiar phrase can become vital and brand new. Tonight I sat by the window trying to rewrite my novel for the eighteenth time, but I was mostly staring into the middle distance and questioning my life choices while Leonard Cohen’s “Avalanche” played across the room. I’ve had this song in rotation for years because I admire how its spare guitar sounds like pure dread. Tonight this lyric in the fifth verse finally hit me:

I have begun to long for you, I who have no creed. I have begun to ask for you, I who have no need.

Those two simple lines capture what I’ve been trying to express in an 80,000-word manuscript. They describe my yearning to believe in something greater, some cosmic ethic or godhead. Is such a belief even possible in 2020? I’ve insulated myself with so many diversions that I wouldn’t know where to begin. What would it feel like to believe in the otherworldly? If someone truly believed in a hereafter or radiant glory, wouldn’t they go mad? Or at least struggle with answering emails or giving a damn about selecting the best dental plan?

But the logistics of belief aren’t nearly as interesting as the craving.

Leonard Cohen – Avalanche

Songs of Love and Hate | Columbia, 1971 | More

The internet says the lyrics are I who have no greed although one source says it’s creed, which makes more sense. I stopped pursuing the question after I glimpsed the insistent interpretations that say Cohen is singing about everyone from Christ to a serial killer. I worry my sense of the song would be destroyed if I tried unpacking it like an academic text—and to what end?