Born in Norway, Marianne died in Norway yesterday at 15:11 taking a piece of my heart with her when she went as Marianne and I walked many of the same roads during the past almost fifty years.
[Photo below: Marianne, her Norwegian husband. Jan, and me, recently at a taverna in Greece late at night. Laughing, of course.]
Following, an interview I did with Marianne a few years ago in Greece (our common denominator) for my book Love in the Second Act – True Stories of Romance Midlife and Beyond.
“We’re the same and we change”
I am sitting at a kitchen table in the small house in Greece with Marianne Christine Ihlen; Marianne is a sweet Norwegian woman with a round face, an opulent body, platinum white hair. I read from Jane Juska’s book about sex rediscovered, A Round Heeled Woman.
“A long time later, months later, when I was able to think about Jonah and me without cringing,without crying, I considered the matter of age and passion and desire. Jonah, I’d bet anything, wondered if he still could; I was a way of finding out. More than that, like me, he was looking for a place for his passion. The world has little use for us; we are old, what business have we with passion? So we found each other and who would know? Who would care? Old people, they should be dry. But we weren’t.”
I watch her face for a response . She neither smiles nor frowns. Finally she speaks.
“I believe our sexuality never dies.”
“Does sex still matter to you? Still interest you?”
“Yes! In many ways it is the most important energy we have. As a young woman with a young body, everything has to do with what the body looks like. Later we ask what the body feels like and wants. And thanks to my body work and meditation I come into contact with my sexuality/energy. I’m old. I have an old body. I’m seventy soon. What I see around is people who can’t walk, can’t do this and that anymore. I can still fly like a goat.”
Marianne was born in Oslo, but grew up at her grandmother’s house by the sea during the war.
“I was happy when I lived with Grandmother. I really do believe that she allowed me to live, to dream. We had a walk-in doll house, and she would visit me. We had dried green leaves for bread, stones for meatballs and potatoes. We drank water out of tiny little cups. She would walk out and say, ‘Thank you for a delicious meal.’ We slept in the same bed. Early in the morning, in winter, she put all my clothes under her body to make them warm. She died when I was eighteen. She once said to me, ‘I know you will meet a man who speaks with a tongue of gold.’ She was right .”
The men in the first act of Marianne’s life were writers, painters and poets. For these men —especially the two long-term relationships with men she refers to as “husbands”– she took on the role of Muse. The first husband was a well-known Norwegian novelist Axel Jensen with whom she had her only child, also named Axel.
“Big Axel and I left Norway in 1958—he wanted to see the Oracle of Delphi. The first time I had the idea of myself as a Muse was when he sat in an Arab djelaba in front of his Remington typewriter and I went to the village to shop for green beans and potatoes. I got them going on the one burner so he had one meal a day. I would wash clothes and read all that he wrote. I was happy with that. I would sit with him, and he’d talk about Goethe and Jung and the universe. He was way out for the time. I had read Gurdjieff, Nietzche, Ovspensky from page one to two hundred fifty.”
The man Marianne calls her second husband, though they were never legally married, was the Canadian poet and performer Leonard Cohen. He wrote the following about Marianne for one of his album jacket notes: “Marianne gave me many songs, and she has given songs to others too. She is a Muse. A lot of people I know think that there is nothing more important than making a song.” During an interview, Cohen expounded further on how Marianne’s creative spirit inspired him: “It was really a great privilege to live in a house with her. It wasn’t just that she was the Muse shining in front of the poet, she understood that it was a good idea to get me to my desk.”
Marianne and Leonard lived together on and off during the sixties in a stone house on a Greek island. In still another interview, Cohen said of this time: “I found that my standard of living went down very sharply after I started to make money and become known. Before I had money I lived in a lovely white house on a Greek island. With the advent of money I found myself spending more and more time in taxis and airplanes and other unpleasant circumstances.”
I ask Marianne, “The song that he wrote about you that is so well-known with the chorus — “Now so long, Marianne, it’s time that we began, to laugh and cry and laugh about it all again” — what do you think about that?”
“It’s a beautiful song, but the title originally was ‘Come On Marianne .’ ‘Bird on the Wire’ is really my song. That’s when I got Leonard back to his desk again.”
I serve her a glass of wine, then I bring a plate of feta cheese and black olives to the table.
“Have an olive.”
“No, thank you,” Marianne says as she stuffs two olives into her mouth, making us both crack up.
“You’re like me. You have no willpower.”
“You were speaking about the song ‘So Long, Marianne.’ “
“The many other songs that were written to me, no one else would know because they don’t have my name on them. l’ve kept that time private. I’ve been approached by journalists, by magazines, by radio, and by television. I’ve never appeared, never accepted anything, never answered their questions.”
“Good for you.”
“Until today. There are things written about me but I had no part in it. I’m rather proud of my silence, of course. I was part of Leonard’s secret life. I knew better than to have babies with him.”
“I couldn’t give him Jewish babies. After Greece I went to New York. l got mugged in a doorway, faced a knife this size, on the Lower East Side, on Clinton Street. My son Axel went to P.S. 27. Leonard and I were drifting apart. He was starting to get very famous at the time. He was being pulled into quite another world. I didn’t go there with him. He saw me, he saw me …”
“He discovered you? Created you ?”
“No, no. I mean he saw me. He saw my value.”I drizzle olive oil onto the chunk of feta and sprinkle a bit of fresh oregano over it, then refill Marianne’s glass.
“During these Muse decades, I lived in Greece, New York, Mexico and Norway. There were many men beside Axel and Leonard. I was a lonely mother. I wanted someone to share …”
She doesn’t finish the sentence. We’re quiet for a moment, listening to the island’s sounds of crowing roosters, braying donkeys, of birds, the soft putt-putt of small fishing boats. After twenty years abroad, Marianne returned home to Oslo. As it turned out, she didn’t bring her Muse’s identity with her.
“Had you tired of being a muse? Were you looking for some thing different in love? Partnership perhaps?”
“I had no job. No money. I wanted to be independent. Yeah, I really mean it. I still want to be independent. At the time my son, Axel, was sixteen, seventeen, going to gymnasium. I was middle aged. I had to find a job. After all these days in dreamy places … when you live in a dream … when you run around for twenty years sitting at the poet’s feet, to be a secretary in an oil-drilling company with engineers building platforms in the North Sea … that’s where I ended up. At first, my new identity became secretary at an oil-drilling company and then wife and mother.”
She laughs gayly.
“It’s not to be laughed at.”
“You’re right. It’s honorable work, an honorable life. We have to wake up, pay the rent. After all those years of travel, I knew nobody. My friends from the past lived such different lives, so it was hard. They had cars, garages and diamond rings, or they were already divorced three times. I was very lost when I first came back. Very lost. Very lost.”
She spears a chunk of feta with a fork.
“In the midst of all these engineers, I saw this tall, dark and handsome man named Jan. There was something about him. I was fascinated by the intricate, technical drawings, that he could transform them into a drilling platform. He invited me to dinner. We went out with his friends. We went back to Jan’s flat. And I never left. I left the next morning to go to work of course but—metaphorically— I never left. His marriage was over two years before I met him. There were three daughters, the youngest was nine and lived with the mother. Jan is an engineer with a strong spiritual longing. A pillar, I tell you.”
“This falling in love with Jan, did you have a sense of destiny about him like you had about the others—the men with tongues of gold?”
“Destiny. Destiny, what does it really mean? I was back home in Norway and I couldn’t find a better man, a better companion, a better partner. My mother loved him, kept saying, ‘Why didn’t you marry him to begin with? This is the man.’ He was there for everybody and my son Axel too. A load was taken off my shoulders. We had a wonderful time together, lots to share. We got married.
“I think part of it was that we had so much to talk about. He had a tough life, a fantastic life, and I had had a life he didn’t know existed. Thinking back, there never was a dull moment.”
Marianne and Jan have been married for twenty-three years.
“When I first returned home after my youthful years of travel, when the glitter of my life abroad dissipated, I experienced some emotional rawness. At one point I tried therapy, but realized it wasn’t for me. Then I met Jes Bertelsen and his wife, Hanne Kizach, who started Vaekstcentret—the Center of Work, Growth and Meditation—in Denmark. They gave me the ‘tools’ through working, among other things, with body therapy, breathing exercises and meditation.”
“I had a lot to sort out to get to the core of myself. It gave me strength to help my son Axel, who unfortunately at the age of fifteen, during his first meeting with his father, was given LSD and got very sick. What had we done to these sensitive children in those early years of drugs and alcohol?”
Marianne pours herself another glass of wine. Someone in the neighborhood is listening to bouzouki music a little too loudly.
“Do you feel that you’ve been a muse to Jan?”
“Not in the way I once was. We have supported each other, have met somehow with our individual ‘luggage’ and grown with every difficulty solved.”
“And love in this second part of your life? Sex?”
“Love somehow gets deeper the more you work with yourself. And sex in all forms will grow.”
I read a quote from a book titled Leonard Cohen—In His Own Words: “At the age of 50 all you feel is a certain kind of strength, just the strength to go on, deeply. The heart becomes truly passionate as you get older and it gives you the deepest kind of appetite for everything.”
The features of her face soften.
“He’s still my favorite poet, him and Seferis, the Greek. I love short poems, Japanese haiku. Knut Hamsun started me off. If you read German you should read Hamsun in German. In love, though, I don’t think it has anything to do with a man all the time. I think it has something to do with knowing yourself, being able to stand your own company, being at home with yourself. I have a way to go but I don’t have to change partners anymore. I think it’s much more interesting to work it out. Can’t we change love to compassion? For the last twenty years I’ve walked in the Dalai Lama’s footsteps. If the world were Buddhist, we would have compassion and not kill.”
“You’ve stuck together, you and Jan. Do you love him as much as you did?”
“That changes too … love. In Norwegian—it doesn’t translate into English well—we have a word that means too much in love when you meet. It’s forelsket—too much love. Then after some time that is transformed into love.”
“You mean lower the flame? Is that a good image?”
“]a. You learn to accept and forgive. We’re the same and we change. I had been back in Greece many times and have met Leonard many times. Some years ago when I was in Greece, Leonard invited me to his—our—house for dinner. He had just returned from India. It was pouring rain, and I looked like a drowned cat when I arrived. We shared a little meal that his maid had prepared .”
She gestures gracefully with her arms and hands.
“I watched him moving. I keep saying when people ask me ‘What is Buddhism?’—lt’s a way of life, not a religion. Seeing Leonard move … slow, he’s so into everything he does … was like a meditation. He walked over, and he was doing the dishes, and I was sitting there looking at what had once been my little kitchen. Nothing was changed in the house we’d lived in together for so long. There was the same box with a young woman blindfolded playing a harp without any strings. The lid is so tight because it’s rusted, you can’t get it up. On the back a short poem I have forgotten. I saw that the Christ that someone had given him was gone. It was a beautiful wooden Christ, old and rotten. Christ had hardly any hands, the cross was rotten, no feet.”
She touches my hand.
“But the church bell was still there, the one I’d brought with me when I moved in. He didn’t remember how I came by it. I did. He asked me to tell him the story. This is the story: I was working on a private yacht in between my two marriages, and we anchored up in Santorini. When we visited the volcano at the edge of the crater, I sacrificed an old Egyptian scarab that my first husband had given me. Then we ended being invited to a local wedding in the village. In those days, a wedding lasted at least three days. Late at night I slipped away into the forest to pee. I looked down and something caught my eye. I used my sandal to pull away some grass and earth, and there was an old church bell. On one side was an imprint of the Madonna and the Child. First I’d sacrificed something from my first husband, and then I find a Greek Orthodox bell.”
Suddenly the bouzouki music stops. There’s silence until we hear the sound of a small owl.
“When I moved into Leonard’s house many years later, I brought it with me. When I left, I left the bell. After I reminded him, Leonard said, ‘I’m happy that you told me the story because I’d forgotten about the bell.’ He walked over to the sink and finished the dishes, and I was sitting there still looking around my little kitchen in which nothing had been changed. I felt so calm and so relieved. I had no wish to go back in time. It was a very, very beautiful meeting. Next morning we met for coffee at Tassos coffee shop on the port.”
The sun begins to pour into the kitchen in an uncomfortable way so I get up and close the yellow shutters.
“Earlier I had come back to Greece with the Swedish author named Goran Tunstrom and his wife, the painter Lena Cronqvist. Swedish TV was making a documentary about Goran’s life and work. We all stayed at Leonard’s house. I knew Goran from way back when he first came to Greece in 1959. One night they filmed during dinner at Old Duskos taverna. I will send you a copy of this documentary. Goran appears with his grilled fish and cats at his feet. You zoom down, there are fifteen cats at his feet. The camera zooms down at the cats and then back at the table where you see us and hear me saying, ‘Before I sat at the poet’s feet. Now I sit at the poet’s table.'”
She takes a mouthful of wine.
“That’s where the thing has changed. In act one I sat at the poet’s feet, now I sit at his table … I sit at your table.”
Marianne takes another olive.
I ask, “Do you look like your father or your mother?”
“My mother. She had a sort of Mongol face. That’s why I’ve always looked down because I thought my face was too round. My first boyfriend used to say, ‘Have you lost something, Marianne?’ My father was fifty-seven when he died. He was a poet at heart. My mother was scared and spoiled and came out rough and tough just to survive, always finding something wrong with me, with my hair, with my way of dressing. She thought I lived in a sleeping bag in Greece. But before she died she had to ‘let go’ and thanked me for visiting her and bringing wine and fruit.”
Our glasses are empty.
“Jan and I were with her the night she died in September. She would have been ninety-four in April and she spent the eleven last years in an old woman’s home. She didn’t enjoy the first six years. On the night she was dying, I could find no peace in bed. I got dressed and asked Jan to take me there, just as my mobile rang and the message was: ‘I think our mother is going.”’
l ask if she’d like more wine; she shakes her head no.
“l was grateful to find a doctor who knew my mother, to tell him to help her, that I didn’t want her to have any pain. ‘Guaranteed!’ he said. He saw her first. Then we went in. This was about one-thirty at night. She died about six in the morning. Through the night we talked to her and, together, we read poems and laughed. She was conscious but could not speak. I thanked her and we talked about all the fun and all the good dinners she had made for us. I thanked her for being so strong through life. We held her hands and wet her mouth. I opened the window and told her to fly out. Thank God we knew that hearing is the last that goes, that dies. Now I am the oldest one in the family. Nobody should die in pain; nobody should have to die alone. If possible, we should all die in our own bed at home.”
She begins to gather her things to leave.
“I found a beautiful picture of my mother as a little girl with curly hair set in a golden frame. When I look at the picture l know, even my mother was once a little girl. We have all been little girls with curls. I can forgive my mother, I can forgive myself. Acceptance and forgiveness. Acceptance and forgiveness.
If music be
the food of love,
[Top photo: Marianne with Zoe in Oslo, a few weeks ago. Laughing and clowning. Of course. Photo by Helle V. Goldman. Bottom Photo: Biography of Marianne: A Love Story by Kari Hesthamar translated by Helle V. Goldman]