There is no accounting for what drives the engine of memory. In the midst of storm and danger, my mind went sailing again on a Swiss lake, on board one of the lovely old paddle wheel steamers. It was my first trip from Geneva to Montreaux by way of Luisanne, fresh out of the Army and happy to just play tourist. I stood for hours watching the bow wave curl back in smooth mustache of green water, probably dreaming of crossing an ocean in my own small ship.
Funny thing, the mind. Here in the middle of screaming wind and angry seas, I should have been remembering scenes of similar violence in my past. The shock of cold, swift water as my canoe overturned in the rapids of the Canadian sub-arctic; or crouching silently in the dark, waiting with Greta for East German guards to find us. Instead, I remembered my first entry into Luisanne by steamer, with swans slipping gracefully and unconcerned out of the way. Beyond the embarkation pier were parks and a marina where I had spent an hour admiring the sailboats. The swans had come to beg crumbs, and I had shared part of my bread-loaf lunch. Young swans – cygnets – as dark gray and ungainly as Hans Christian Andersen’s ugly duckling, trailed in their mothers’ wakes.
When I returned to the dock, two young femmes were sharing a park bench, singing to the guitar one of them was playing. They were perhaps fourteen, as fresh and awkward and innocent as cygnets. They were singing in English, with accents that said they were French. Suzanne, Leonard Cohen’s first real success, a song full of pain, disillusionment, and wry bitterness. Their sweet voices curled around his salt-sour words, singing of things they could not possibly understand. It made the words more bitter, and the beauty of their innocence more poignant.
When they sang that “the sun came down like honey”, the scene came together in my mind in one unbreakable gestalt. The awakened innocence of the girls, the honey warm air, the clear, flat green water with mountains rising up in the distance across Lac Léman. The sound of birds in the bushes; the swans parading awkwardly on dry land down near the marina. I took it all in – a small satori – and it was mine forever, to rise up again when least expected.
Like now, cold and stiff and a little fearful, caught in the midst of a gale a thousand miles from safety. With another girl, more awakened than innocent. With waves that rose up all around me, awaiting a moment’s inattention to destroy both of us. more tomorrow