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Stephen Jenkinson - On Being a Teacher

Paul Dolman interviews Stephen Jenkinson about death and dying and the manner of how one dies.

Stephen Jenkinson teaches internationally and is the creator and principal instructor of the Orphan Wisdom School, founded in 2010. With Master’s degrees from Harvard University (Theology) and the University of Toronto (Social Work), he is revolutionizing grief and dying in North America.

Stephen is redefining what it means to live, and die, well. Apprenticed to a master storyteller, he has worked extensively with dying people and their families, is former program director in a major Canadian hospital, former assistant professor in a prominent Canadian medical school, consultant to palliative care and hospice organizations and educator and advocate in the helping professions. He is also a sculptor, traditional canoe builder whose house won a Governor General’s Award for architecture.

He is the author of Die Wise: A Manifesto for Sanity and Soul (2015), Homecoming: The Haiku Sessions – a live recorded teaching (2013), How it All Could Be: A work book for dying people and those who love them (2009), Angel and Executioner: Grief and the Love of Life – a live recorded teaching (2009), and Money and The Soul’s Desires: A Meditation (2002), and contributing author to Palliative Care – Core Skills and Clinical Competencies (2007).

Stephen Jenkinson is also the subject of the feature length documentary film Griefwalker (National Film Board of Canada, 2008), a lyrical, poetic portrait of his work with dying people.

Stephen Jenkinson - Teaching

Tad Hargrave shares this interview with Stephen Jenkinson in a discussion about teaching and the readiness for being a teacher.

In February of 2015, I sat down to write a blog post that it felt ridiculous for me to be writing. It was entitled, 36 Reflections on “Who am I to teach and charge for it?”.

Being 39 years young at the time, and an elder in training at the very best, it felt like a strange thing to even presume to have an opinion on and yet, it was a question that rankled in the hearts of so many of my friends and clients – a silent torture of feeling called to teach on one hand but question their credibility to do it on the other. One on hand there is the call to proceed as if they might be needed, and on the other hand wondering what the best manner of proceeding might be.

And, so I found myself wondering what Stephen Jenkinson, author, speaker and founder of the Orphan Wisdom School, might have to say about it. I had interviewed him on the related topic of Right Livelihood in May of 2015 and hoped he might be willing to have another conversation. The request was made and sat on the heaping pile of the considerations of the days of Stephen and his wife Nathalie until a moment was found.

The conversation was sprawling and braided together the topics of teaching, culture, elderhood, globalization and cultural appropriation. The word ‘patience’ kept recurring like a caution in it all and reminded me of Wendell Berry’s line, “To be patient in an emergency is a terrible trial”. He implored us to see our cultural poverty and the woundedness that emerged from it but to ask that woundeness to earn its keep before giving it the megaphone and spotlight it might crave.

I hope these words are food for you and might enable you to provide food for others and all those yet to come.

“From whence comes the, let’s be frank, demand for more teachers?”

Tad: Greetings, everybody. This is Tad Hargrave with “Marketing for Hippies,” and I am joined by Stephen Jenkinson (pictured above). Stephen is a teacher, author, storyteller, spiritual activist, farmer, and founder of the Orphan Wisdom School, a teaching house and learning house for the skills of deep living and making of human culture.

It’s rooted in knowing history, being claimed by ancestry, and working for a time yet to come. Welcome, Stephen.

Stephen:  Thank you, Tad.

Tad:  It’s good to have you here. Months ago, as  a result of being in the Orphan Wisdom School, this question started to emerge, this wondering about being a teacher, coming from a lot of my clients wrestling with this, feeling like they’re looking at the world, and feeling like more teachers are needed, and feeling called into that.

And yet also feeling cautioned and not sure whether people asking them for wisdom or saying, “You should be a teacher,” is something that they should follow, or a temptation to avoid.

That, meshed with things I’ve seen in this scene of “In a weekend, you can become a reiki master,” people becoming life coaches in a year or two years. We just have this situation of people wondering, “Am I ready to be a teacher?”

A while ago I emailed you about this, and your reply was, “Who needs more teachers?”

Stephen:  [laughs] Yeah, a measured response.

Tad: Yeah. I guess I wanted to open it up to you to see what thoughts you had and reflections you had on this for people who are wrestling with these questions.

Stephen:  How about give me a located and concrete question to start with?

Tad:  Sure. There are people who are — and to think of people, I mean in the Orphan Wisdom School who I know people have come to and started saying, “You should teach what you’re learning here at the Orphan Wisdom School. You should be a teacher of that.”

Or people who are studying with various shamans or medicine people around the world. Their friends are coming to them and saying, “Oh hey, you’ve been studying this, and you know more than we know anyways, so why don’t you do a workshop or host something, and why don’t you teach a bit of what you’ve learned.”

They don’t know what to do with that. I think, from what I’ve heard from some of them, their wrestling with that. “Should I respond to that, and share some of what I’ve learned? Or should I demure and engage in some other way?”

I don’t know if that’s any better…

Stephen:  No, no better, [laughs] but let me not put you through it a third time.

One question, one place to begin is to wonder this. From whence comes this request? Not your request to me, but the request that you’re relating to me now? From whence comes the request/demand — let’s be frank — demand for more teachers, which I’m not sure that’s what it’s a demand for, but let’s start there.

The people who are asking for this, their request comes from? And the answer most certainly would be a combination of a proliferation of teachers already. Somehow that breeds the demand for yet more, on the one side. And on the other side, it comes from a fairly telling lack of familiarity with that thing that they’re requesting.

So the first thing to wonder about is whether this request is what it sounds like. I’m not inferring anything nefarious in here. I’m talking about something subtle, and the subtlety of a demand or an expectation for there to be more teachers is frankly a demand for what? It’s a demand for greater access to this thing that people are demanding.

That’s my first hesitation, is, “Look where this demand or expectation is coming from, and ask yourself whether or not it is to be served in that raw, frankly naked — and I might as well go the whole route and say — adolescent and uninitiated form.

Because any deep contact with a — let’s call it, in generic sense, a wisdom tradition, that’s really rooted somewhere, and at some place amongst some people in some particular time… I believe the first consequence of some kind of deep encounter with this is a more or less humble refusal to uproot it, to tear it from its home place and to insist that it proliferate where you live, where it has no kin, no homeland, no tradition, no history, no anything.

I don’t know if you can smell it… What I smell is something in the order of a kind of a conversion mentality, that most people who are making these kinds of requests or demands are ancestrally derived from them, and the conversion mentality — and I’m not just referring to Christianity, although it seems to take the biggest hit in this regard — but all of those religious traditions, and those traditions that claim not to be religious, who are engaged in some kind of transplantation, missionizing, almost across the board what you see there is it’s a kind of low-grade and maybe unintended assault on time, the specifics, the diversities, the rootedness of various times, of various places, and peoples and cultures.

*

“this expectation or demand for more teachers strikes me as utterly in keeping with the globalization mind that many people who are requesting it would understand themselves to be categorically opposed to.”

*

By which I’m saying that to my mind, this expectation — this is a bit of a leap here now, but this expectation or demand for more teachers strikes me as utterly in keeping with the globalization mind that many people who are requesting it would understand themselves to be categorically opposed to. Do you see what I’m saying?

This is a great dilemma, no? We fancy ourselves to be opposed to NAFTA, and because of that, we imagine ourselves to be free of the instinct to globalize.

Well, I’ll tell you. I see it everywhere, the assumption, for example. You can’t imagine how many times I’m approached on the road and elsewhere, usually in a kind of a conspiratorial fashion, as if I would be on the inside, obviously, of what they’re about to ask me, and very, very kindly disposed to it.

They’ll start talking about ayahuasca. That’s the big one, especially the further west I go on the continent. The general thing is, the tone of it is, “But ayahuasca’s cool, right? Me using it,” and then they go into detail about how Mr. Shaman took them aside in the Amazon, or maybe not the Amazon. Maybe the Fraser River, in BC, and because it was Mr. Shaman and he comes from x place, or she comes from y place, this all legitimizes the whole enterprise.

I think the underlying assumption of the whole thing is, “Well if it’s in the world, then it’s for everyone, right?”

Tad:  Mm-hmm.

*

The real learning of these things, in the places where they’re actually learned, means that you don’t have an undisturbed life, that the willingness to learn these things rules your days, and that your daily life is enthralled to this learning.

*

Stephen: I don’t think so. I think that these things are specifically in specific parts of the world for specific reasons, and why don’t we learn that instead? Why don’t we learn about diversity and locality, instead of generalized ability based on the extremities of bereavement, culturally speaking? That most people who are making these kind of requests are living in day in and day out, generally unawares.

So the old adage, food makes hunger, is absolutely accurate. It’s not just true in the kitchen, but of course, it’s true culturally, spiritually, and the rest. When you are in the presence of something that seems bonified, legitimate, rooted, planted, ongoing, and that it’s earned its keep, the instinct in there somewhere is, “Where do I sign?”, without any willingness to realize that the labor of preservation of learning, of memorizing, and more learning, of losing and learning, of being entrusted at too young an age because of cultural mayhem and learning. All of that goes by the wayside.

And if it’s in the world, and it can be reduced to a weekend — oh, let’s be fairer than that — it can be reduced to a two-year program, once a month and… whatever it is, my point is that the real learning of these things is not something that your undisturbed life would be amenable to.

The real learning of these things, in the places where they’re actually learned, means that you don’t have an undisturbed life, that the willingness to learn these things rules your days, and that your daily life is enthralled to this learning.

Maybe you know people who are willing to go that route. I, myself, given the travails and the slings and arrows of normal life in urban North America, I don’t know that many of them. But I’m sure that the people you’re referring to who are making these requests and demands don’t fall into that narrow and devoted category that I just described.

I’m not saying that they should. I’m simply trying to observe a dilemma that I think underlies this expectation, so there’s the first consideration, is ‘from whence comes the request or the demand?’, and the answer is it comes from a place where the things that are sought do not live. There’s the first one.

The second one is something in the order of the machinery of teaching. This is something I’ve thought a lot about myself, and for what it’s worth, at least to get it started, I’d offer this up to you.

Teaching can be distinguished from other kinds of activity which would nominally, at first blush, might look like the same thing, but I don’t think they are. Teachers — and I have to generalize to say anything at all, so before anybody’s ready to take me down in flames, let’s just consider, before we vote, because I’m not voting. I’ve just been asked to consider out loud here, too, so let me see if I can do it.

Teaching as a function is a metaphoric function, by which I mean this. Teachers, even the best teachers, are conduit. I don’t know how to say it, plural of conduit — conduii, I suppose it is. They’re a pipe, and the things entrusted to them more or less flow unimpeded either to the next generation or the next semester, or whatever the arrangement is. That’s what the root meaning of the word “metaphor” is. It’s something in the order of to carry across, to transmit, if you will, this kind of thing.

There’s absolutely room in the world for that faithful function. Absolutely, that’s true. I think what’s missing in the function is a kind of discipline, if you will. Let’s start with a little etymology on this one. You’ve heard me talk about this one before, I know.

Discipline, the same etymologically rooted in the word “disciple,” and vice versa. People don’t like the word disciple in North America. They prefer teacher and student, I suppose, but disciple’s a little strong. It sounds a little mindless, right? A little abandoned, and the rest, a little slavish, and we’re not big on that thing.

The thrust of these two words happens something like this. It infers the following, that kind of quixotic combination of acquired habit and reigned in inspiration that you are willing to take upon yourself, for the sake of the — love is usually the word that is used here, but if that seems too strong, for the sake of the…OK, I’ll say it differently. Sorry.

That what discipline and disciple infer is that because of what you seek, in the name of what you seek, and from whom you seek it, you will take upon yourself a degree of studied, purposeful habit, and restraint, and all that goes with that, in the name of the devotion you have for the person you propose to learn from. That’s the kind of matrix of the thing.

*

The truth of the matter is that we are bereft of the institution of apprenticeship, really, and that’s to our deep, deep detriment, I think. We have workshopitis,

*

I don’t see the proliferation of teaching that goes on now as having, frankly, the patience and the belief in time in that such an arrangement, I think, probably requires. The truth of the matter is that we are bereft of the institution of apprenticeship, really, and that’s to our deep, deep detriment, I think. We have workshopitis, God knows, and we have weekend warrior syndromes and all the rest, but the idea of a long, unrewarded, unrecognized, unspectacular, ordinary, mundane, not-on-a-website kind of learning where there’s no sign that you are, in fact, learning, and the willingness to find the deep patience required in proceeding, minus any sign that what you seek is what’s happening.

That’s what’s missing, and that what I think the proliferation of teachers actually aids and abets, the unwillingness to slow down, to be an amateur, and to never graduate from that status.

So if anybody’s been in the Orphan Wisdom School and is presuming to turn it around, if you will — I’m not talking about the motivation now. I’m talking about the mechanics and the consequence. They’ve done so without ever asking me what I think about it, I could tell you that, because I’ve never been asked about what I think about that, or what my take on it might be. But you’re hearing it now.

Do people really imagine that as a consequence of one or two years, which amounts to between 10 and 20 days of sitting in the Orphan Wisdom School, that this is tantamount to the years that was required of me to be able to distill what I try to make available in those 10 or 20 days.

I don’t think anybody, when pressed, would ever say that they’re somehow similar, but yet the willingness to go ahead and teach this stuff after, frankly, nominal exposure to it, whispers that it is.

Or it whispers that the times are so desperate, that we don’t have time for time. [laughs] That could be true, too, and I would say to you, if that’s the sentiment, I understand it, but I would say, [breathes in] “It smells like more of the same to me.”

Does that get us started now?

Tad:  It’s, I suppose, a question that comes up for me is, given the incredible poverty that we see in our culture, the lack of elders, the lack of initiation, the lack of apprenticeship, the lack of culture, in any meaningful sense…I just finished reading “The Sibling Society” by Robert Bly, so it’s sort of the absence of that whole vertical structure. What might we better be asking for instead of more teachers?

Stephen: How about this, Tad? How about investigating this instinct of asking for? How about coming to that with more hesitation and less resolve than we’re accustomed to?

That would be my instinct first, not to, “Hey, here’s the new boss. Here’s the new thing. Here’s what’s going to replace the poorly sought other thing.” You know what I’m saying.

*

“I’m saying that the instinct to get it, to have it, to be it, to wear it, to eat it, to snort it, to festoon yourself with it, to bewitch yourself with it, to feather yourself, and fur yourself with it, that’s the thing to be wondered about, because I don’t see those instincts, to do all those things, informed by a real willingness to learn them. I see them as informed by a demand to have them.”

*

I’m saying that the instinct to get it, to have it, to be it, to wear it, to eat it, to snort it, to festoon yourself with it, to bewitch yourself with it, to feather yourself, and fur yourself with it, that’s the thing to be wondered about, because I don’t see those instincts, to do all those things, informed by a real willingness to learn them.

I see them as informed by a demand to have them. That’s the first thing.

It’s that demand that perpetuates this witheredness that you alluded to earlier, I think, and it’s not just delayed gratification. It’s, “Is the world really here, materially and in its spirited form? Is the world really here to enhance our sense of well-being? Is that the fundamental dynamic? Is that what’s granted to us?” It sounds awfully like Genesis to me.

“You name everything. It’s yours, baby,” kind of thing. If some shaman looks you in the eye and says, “You’ll do,” why should you take that as it’s your turn?” [laughs] What if they’re wrong about you?

  There’s a wonderful story that, I know it in a kind of Buddhist iteration, but I’m sure there’s other iterations of it. The gist of it goes like this. Somebody, let’s say, who’s Catholic or Jewish — it doesn’t matter what his ancestral affirmation was, and he’s seeking a path, the path, some path, and maybe he’s in an ashram, I don’t know, something.

  At some point, he asked the guy in the robes how can he, he — the young guy — get to the status of the fellow with the robes. The fellow with the robes says to him, “You’re Catholic, aren’t you?”, and the guy said, “Yeah.” He said, “Well, be a good Catholic, that’s how.”

  It’s so dispiriting, because what merit is there in being a good Catholic? Now, I’m not saying there is. I’m not saying there isn’t. I’m trying to say something else, which is…Well, maybe this is the heart of the beast. I see a lot of people who come to things that I do, and five minutes into any verbal encounter with them, you quickly discover that they’ve taken up all manner of traditions from the world upon themselves, either formal conversion or times in the wilderness, or whatever it is, whatever the compound fracture is. 

  They have it, and the thought that seems never to have occurred to anyone who’s done these things, when they speak at least with me about it, is this. Is there such a thing as real ancestry? Number one. If there is, is ancestry instantly and forever obviated, neutralized, withered, and rendered irrelevant as a consequence of dying? 

If the answer’s no, it means your ancestors, present tense, are cultured, and that part of them being the dead, as an honorific title, part of them being your ancestral dead is that they have not graduated from the ancestry that they themselves knew in life.

  I think this is very possible. Take all that and then wonder about the hordes of generic North American people who are seeking an affirmation from a religious, or spiritual, or cultural tradition that’s not their own, and ask yourself whether or not there’s any consequence at all that accrues to their ancestors who they so readily abandoned in the name of being from somewhere.

  And is it not possible, if any of these things are true, that the desire to seek out and seek out and demand yet again from the Amazon jungle, or from the Himalayas, or anywhere in between, doesn’t actually deepen the cultural misery and void that has animated, I think, a lot of what you’ve been doing in your life, and certainly has animated what I’ve been doing in mine.

  I think the answer’s yes. I think the solution that poverty whispers is, “More poverty.”

*

“Well, the Dalai Lama and a lot of other people know very well the old history of Tibetan Buddhism, and it’s not glorious.”

*

Tad: It strikes me, sitting with this that what I see, and I’m sure experienced in myself often is this. I’ve been looking at wisdom traditions. It feels like there are two impulses that it’s coming from.

One is this, “How can this help my life today?” I’ll actually read from something I saw online recently. It said, “What is shamanism? How can I learn from these ancient indigenous practices and incorporate them into my modern life? How can I embody a balanced relationship in all of my relationships?”

  But just that framing of it, of how can this help you in your life today… So, I feel like that’s one of the thrusts of ‘how do we use it?’, and I’ve heard it talked about as these ‘spiritual technologies’, in our modern life, and then this other thrust is something more about, “Yes, I’m critical about this culture, and so I want to get out of this culture,” because yes, North American culture, you’re right. It’s impoverished, it’s terrible. It’s destroying everything, and so I…

Stephen:  Count me out.

Tad:  Yeah, right.

Stephen:  Count me out, right? Sorry. I’m sorry to interrupt. Yeah, go ahead.

Tad: Yeah, there’s that, “I don’t want to be a part of it, and I see that the religions, whether spiritual or the religion of progress of capitalism, I see that that’s all bankrupt,” and so there’s this deep hunger and desire for a direction to get out of it.

Stephen:  Sure.

Tad:  So either it feels like these get used either to get me out, or help me get deeper in and be more successful in it, yeah.

Stephen:  Sure. Look, man. I don’t say these things out of any joy or malice. I say them with lament, with great sorrow, that so many of the solutions that we craft turn into more of the same.

  But how the hell could it be otherwise, though? If we are following our own bliss…I just hacked a fur ball to say that, but I risked it. If that’s what we’re doing, from whence comes this bliss?

  For 50 or more years now, there’s a segment in North America that’s believed, that has consistently believed that this idea of bliss, personal bliss, is somehow above the fray, is somehow and in no way tainted or touched by the malaise that you’ve just read from, that people are trying to escape, that somehow bliss is…Or your personal path, or personal truth — it doesn’t matter how you describe it, you understand the thrust of the reference.

  The idea that there could actually be a part of you that’s not impoverished, that’s deeply informed, and that would know the real thing when it saw it, and would know how to behave in the presence of the real thing. That’s absolutely breath-taking in its naiveté. To me, it is. That’s number one.

Here’s number two. The various traditions that respond most favorably to their search engines on the Internet, [laughs] ask yourself whether the old history of these traditions is known by these people who are seeking them out. I can promise you that each one of these traditions is very likely to have a degree of historical darkness, or enslavement, or cultural imperialism, that is has inflicted as well as been on the receiving end of, but man, who knows about those?

  Who knows about that part of things? Well, the Dalai Lama and a lot of other people know very well the old history of Tibetan Buddhism, and it’s not glorious, just to take one example, no?

So these things that we seek out more or less uncritically, hoping, believing, imagining, requiring that they are a kind of pollution-free zone, that they’re above the things that we ourselves are trying to get away from, that’s a very naive thing, man, because they’re there. That stuff’s there.

  I don’t say this, I hope it’s clear… I don’t say this to discredit any particular tradition. I’m saying the real, the deep practitioners of these are, I’m sure, doing their best to live this stuff out, to wrangle it as best they can in their devotions and in their daily lives. I’m sure they are, but I’m sure they’re not doing this, believing that they’re somehow on the other side of all that stuff.

  Think about this. There are a lot of religious traditions, spiritual traditions, or cultural, ancestral ones, that have a practice when people — mainly men — return from armed conflict, war, and the rest, that they don’t let them into the villages, that they have to go through a rather prolonged ceremonial sequence to, at one level, the obvious level, detoxify them from what they’ve seen and what they’ve been obliged to do. Yes, that’s true.

  But the deeper realization is none of these things are undertaken for the sole or even primary sake of the returning war veteran. They’re undertaken, a) for the sake of the village they’re trying to re-enter, and b) for the sake of the people that they killed and made homeless and all the rest, and orphaned, and… All of that, and the ancestors of all of those people, and the descendants of all of those people.

  You see, there’s a lot hanging in the balance, when you take a life, and the deep practitioners of real human culture understand that if you’re okay with it, [laughs] that’s nothing.

  If you get on the other side to your PTSD, that’s nothing, man, because the real root of PTSD is the kind of, you could say, ripple of consequence that you didn’t intend, but that ensued, nonetheless.

  Well, this is one little iteration of what I’m talking about when I say “when we seek out a tradition as if it’s pristine.” These traditions internally understand themselves to be otherwise. I’m sure of it.

  This is a degree of torment that perhaps when you thought about talking about this, [laughs] it didn’t seem it was necessary to visit, but here we are.

Tad:  It has me think about purity, and I think especially in the New Age, for lack of a better term, scene, there’s this idea of purity, and that that’s kind of the point of life, whether through our raw vegan diets that we eat, or the spirituality as pristine, and that pristine seems to mean a lack of culture, that it’s pure, in a way, and that this is cross-cultural, that this is just from a more evolved spiritual level, where everything is pure, and everything is untainted and intact, and…

Stephen:  It may be not really humanly derived. Maybe not really a product of human endeavor, but somehow granted from the forehead of Zeus or the equivalent.

Tad:  Yeah, and then there can’t be any cultural appropriation of that, because there’s no culture.

Stephen:  Because there’s no culture to appropriate, exactly, because it’s there for everybody. I can’t make a distinction between that and fir trees, or oaks, or anything that the people who are the MacMillan Bloedells of the world, see these things as a renewable resource.

  Tell me the difference between that and what you just described. I’ve never seen the difference. I think it’s the same orientation. The grandchild of the MacMillan Bloedel executive is the ayuhuasca king.

*

“My heart is broken. I never want it to mend.”

*

Tad:  One of the things you speak a lot about in the school is heartbreak and poverty, and it seems like the…I’ve noticed in myself, when there’s that inclination to — which I’ve had in various points and various forms in my life — that instinct to teach, that instinct to want to be in that role. I can also feel like there’s a way of avoiding the heartbreak and the poverty, and getting…

Stephen: By teaching?

Tad:  Yeah, because then I know something, or I’m trying to help people get out of that, and it’s something I just see a lot, I suppose particularly in the New Age scene, but I guess I could imagine in other religions, too.

  If the instinct for more teachers is driven by this poverty and heartbreak, in part, of where we’re at, and yet what’s being taught is the getting over the heartbreak, and replacing that poverty with some new fancy information. It just strikes me that there’s not a lot of room on the altar for the heartbreak or the poverty.

Stephen:  Who that you know seeks out heartbreak? I’ve told you a story about a guy I knew who prayed for it, remember?

Tad:  Sure.

Stephen:  When he and I watched the film “The Elephant Man,” that’s what came out of his mouth at the end of it. He said, literally, to me, “My heart is broken. I never want it to mend.” He was not seeking a pristine sort of post-morbid restoration of his self-esteem or something. No, man. 

  He was seeking memory, and he realized, I think, that his capacity to remember the deep things that he was born to and that were entrusted to him at some point in his life, required that his memory be engaged, active, and informed by the realities of his time.

  And from him, although this image is not his, but the understanding is, I’ve taken this in the last year or so…I fancy — I even have an envy where the practice of rosary is concerned. I didn’t grow up with anything like that. I didn’t grow up with anything to speak of. I sure didn’t grow up with that, and I think it’s cool beyond measure, and here’s why.

  It is a kind of choreographed memory. You might — not you, personally, but someone might find this inauthentic or contrived. Well, okay, then you try to remember on your own.

[laughter]

* “… you become recognizable to them the instant that you begin to resemble the time that you were born to.”

*

Stephen:  It ain’t easy, man, and all the heavy hitters, and all the heavy cultures in the world know very well how hard it is to remember how to be a human being while you’re out in the field trying to be one.

  Often it’s the first casualty. Your memory of how to be one is the first casualty of your renewed efforts to try to be one, so these rituals of all kinds are fundamentally, in part, a way of choreographing your memory without leaving it up to you. In other words, the distinction would be your being reminded instead of being expected to remember. Different function.

  The rosary is in that realm. I think it’s as funky as it gets, but here’s what I think. I don’t know that our time is any more fraught than other aspects of our time, but I don’t know that it isn’t. I would suggest this, that…

  Man, there’s an eagle right in front of my house, just diving into the water. That’s amazing. Just as we speak, right now. Literally, right in front of the house, over the river.

  I’m sorry, I got distracted, as I was watching there. [laughs] It’s a sign, baby.

  [laughter]

But I’m not going to say of what. I don’t know.

Okay.  So now, those beads. It seems to me that the particular afflictions of our time have to appear on those rosary beads, that in fact the beads are not a way of not being in the time that you’re in or solving the time that you’re in, or give you an alternative to the time that you’re in.

  I think that they must be an incarnation of the time that you’re in, and the way I’ve taken to say it is those beads have to be engraved with the nature, including the poverties of your time, etched into every bead, and when you feel them, your times, your contemplations, your yearnings, your strivings, your happiness, your deep satisfactions as well as your heartbreaks, all of those things have to, I think, bear the mark of your time.

  And this is what renders upon you the possibility of being a reliable human being, reliable to other people, reliable to the non-human world, which is, frankly, most of the world, reliable to everything that had granted us our days, which may not be overly visible, and maybe particularly reliable to those ancestors who have you in mind, who find that you become recognizable to them the instant that you begin to resemble the time that you were born to.

  Now I’ve never said anything that good in my life, I don’t think. That last sentence, that last sentence, if I die tonight, that’ll stick. I think that’s as true as anything that’s ever occurred to me. I’m very lucky that I heard myself say that.

*

“For what it’s worth. No elder wants to be one.”

*

Tad:  [laughs] It strikes me so much how that doesn’t get a chance to show up in a manner of understanding the world, or teaching, or wisdom. That’s the sort of universal “It’s always been true.”

  I supposed I find myself wondering…Gosh, I suppose a whole other thing, but in so many traditional societies it seems like teaching — and I don’t even know if teaching is the right word, but the elders who are the ones doing that, and that there’s so many people today who are drawn to that idea of being an elder, and then self-appointing themselves elders.

  I’m curious, to your understanding of from maybe a more traditional standpoint, it feels connected to this teaching piece of how does one know when they are one? How does one know when they are ready? How does one not get prematurely out of the gate and do damage as a result? Nobody wants to be Obi-Wan Kenobi.

Stephen:  Okay, are you ready?

Tad:  Yeah.

Stephen:  For what it’s worth. No elder wants to be one.

Tad:  Yeah.

Stephen:  The desire to be an elder is the particular purview of those who are not. It’s very counter-intuitive — crazy idea. Not that welcome an idea, but “how do you know if you’re an elder?”

“Hey man, that’s not an elder question?”

“Well, wait a second. You’d have to know in order to be one.”

“No, no. That’s what it looks like from here.”

  Here might be a good parallel. I used to work in the death trade quite a long time, and it became very, very sexy during that time to take upon yourself the self-appointed task, generally, of crafting a living will or advanced directive declaration. 

For those who are not entirely sure what it is, it basically means that when you’re no longer able to operate or articulate or what have you, that the caregivers around you and the loved ones are guided by what you would have wanted for yourself should you have been able to direct them in that moment.

It sounds very good. Here’s the dilemma. “Who wrote that thing?”  

“Well, I did.”

“Yeah, but where were you when you wrote it?”

“Well, I was able to write it, so that’s obvious, I was able to articulate it.” [laughs] “I was able to consistently express my wish over time,” which is one of the hallmarks of being sane, apparently in our culture.

“Yeah, but you weren’t at the time that you were instructing people about, were you?”

  “No.”

  “No, you weren’t, were you?”

  “No.”

  “In fact, you’d never been there, had you?”

  “No.”

*

“…The real skill of elderhood in a time as demented as our is, the real skill of elderhood is the skill of being able to have elders in your midst, not the skill of being able to be one of those people, you see?“

*

  And so all the articulation came from is an artifact of never having been there, which means you were engaged in a very volatile and probably useful fantasy about what “enough already” would look like, and you know what happened more often than not?

  When people got there, it bore almost no resemblance to what they imagined. This goes right back to the patience thing I was talking about at the beginning. The people who are longing for personal elderhood are the people who’ve never been there, because elders are not people.

  Elder is a function. It’s not an identity. It’s not, in that sense, an achievement. It’s being achieved by not being sought. It’s functionally servitude. That’s what elderhood is, functionally. It’s servitude. It’s mis-apprehended leadership. Our understanding of leadership is, to some degree, above the fray. Those are the people you trust, that kind of thing.

  The elders bear the thumbprint of the makers of their time, and they’re wrought by that. Let’s go further and say overwrought by that, and it weighs heavily in a time like ours, to be an elder in a time that allegedly seeks it, but has no use for it when it’s present.

  The real skill of elderhood in a time as demented as our is, the real skill of elderhood is the skill of being able to have elders in your midst, not the skill of being able to be one of those people, you see? Because if elders are not sustained in their function, in their trouble-making function, they will never be there for you when you seek them, and there will be no elderhood for you to take upon yourself.

  The only way to become an elder is to seek them out, in that sense, to employ them, to recognize them and to give them something to do. How are you going to do that if you, yourself, want to be that elder that you seek? That you want the confirmation.

  I’ve said, using the word “pushback” these days, but I prefer the more authentic rendering of hostility, which I think is what happens. You can’t imagine how much pushback I get if I ever have the kind of marred judgment of talking about these things out loud. You can’t imagine the degree of offense that people beyond a certain age take upon themselves, and it basically comes back, Tad, to this.

  “When is it my bloody turn? When do I finally get to cash in? When does it…?”

  You understand what I’m saying.

Tad:  Yeah.

Stephen:  It’s so sad. The answer is, “Man, as long as you’re asking that, you ain’t never going to get there.” It’s an exercise in controlled futility masquerading as a pilgrimage. 

  These things are mysteries. They’re not strategies. They’re mysteries, even now, in a blighted time like ours. We have blighted mysteries, but we’re not bereft of mystery. One of the mysteries about elderhood is, “Well if you’re seeking elderhood for yourself, then this is an uninitiated understanding of what it means.” So then you have to go back to the drawing board.

  “Okay, so I’ll go get myself some initiation.”

  “Man, you’re 48 years old. What are you talking about?”

  “Yeah, but it’s not too late.”

  “No, it bloody is too late for what you’re talking about.”

  Do you know why it doesn’t work for people at 47 years old? Or 52, [laughs] or 29, or 21? Here’s why it doesn’t work, because they can put your ass out on the top of a mountain, they can freeze you to kingdom come, they can not feed you, they can expose you to the torments of the age, they can threaten you with the oncomingness of the demons of the dark, all of that shit, but, somewhere in there you’re going to be able to say, “I’m cool. I’m out of this shit on Monday. I’m cool. I can get in there. I can imagine myself on the other side of this shit right here.”

  Now here’s the thing. A 12-year old can’t, and that’s why these things, in certain fashion, are timed when they’re timed. There’s lots of other reasons, too, but that’s one. So you see, you get to a certain age, that the machinery of the deep molecular conversion to a deep humanity can not have its way with you, because you become too clever.

  Something like this, I was superintending the death of kids for a while. It was a pretty rough ride, and of course the parents were, needless to say, out of their minds with all of this and the great lament that the parents had, if you really obliged them to verbalize it.

  It was not so much that the kid was dying, but that the fundamental, the epic rip-off of this was that the kids were not going to get to have a full life. That was the operative phrase, “full life.” You’ll see why I think this is pertinent now.

  So I would usually say, “Well, why don’t we just go ask the kid?” Seven years old, dying of leukemia in the hospital, but let’s ask him anyway, and the parents would be horrified that you’d even think of it, and then they ask you to go ask him, because they couldn’t bear it, and properly so, they couldn’t bear to go and ask their kid, so I would literally do so.

  I did it many times, and I can tell you that kids, up to a certain age are absolutely mystified by this question of whether or not they are being deprived of a full life. It simply does not compute, as they used to say. Do you know why?

  Because they have no capacity for the understanding of potential life, that’s why. Because the only life they’ve ever known is the life under their fingernails. In other words, their life is a lived life, not a hypothetical life, not a possible life, not a “if” life. The life that they’ve inhabited is entire, and — maybe the word “complete” is not right — whole. That’s the word I’m looking for. Their life is whole.

Up to a certain age, which it looks to me to be somewhere between 9 and 11 is when they learn how to be crazy like the rest of us, when they learn how to nurse a grievance about not getting their allotment, their hypothetical allotment. When they open up The Book of “Supposed To” and start reading from it, when somebody at school looks at them between the eyes and says, “You’re not living up to your potential,” and they take that inside themselves as an authentic rendering of their lives, that their real life is yet to be.

  Something happens, and we seem to have to learn that. The big dilemma now for that is that the capacity to inhabit the functions of elderhood, or to be inhabited by them require your understanding of yourself not to be one of…You’re like a human in waiting, or you’re some kind of potential something, or if you just fill in the blank, then you will just fill in the blank.

  The plea I’m making, I suppose, is that the degree of patience that I’m talking about approaches the primordial. It’s not some delayed gratification strategy by another name. The patience I’m talking about is the likelihood of you getting what you want. Your want being informed so deeply by your bereavement, because of the troubled time you were born in, guarantees that the troubled time will continue in its current iteration.

  The willingness to forgo being delivered from it so that you might be of some use in it is the patience that I’m pleading for and kind of a secret intonation of that is that might be at the very least, a proto elder function. The willingness to forgo the payday that you were certain that enough feathers and enough ayahuasca and enough being approved of by a smaller browner person than you was going to give you.

*

“Sit at the door and see if you can discern the sound of knocking when it happens, instead of flinging it wide open and saying, ‘I’m here. Any dangerous work for me to do?’, or things of that kind.”

*

Tad:  Do you have time for one more question?

Stephen:  One more boss.

Tad:  Sure. In the school, you make the distinction sometimes between the teaching and being a practitioner.

Stephen:  Yes.

Tad:  And that feels relevant to this whole conversation.

Stephen:  That’s the part I left out at the very beginning. I was going to come back to it, so thank you for prompting me. Did you want to ask something about it, or do you want me to just speak to that?

Tad:  I notice when I said, “How do you know when you’re ready to be a teacher?”, and in the email you replied, “Who needs more teachers?” That’s the place my mind went to, was the, “Do we need more people at the front of rooms imparting information, or do we need people living this and weaving it into their everyday living, and practicing the arts of hospitality, and practicing courtesy, in whatever they end up doing?” I suppose that’s where my mind went with it.

Stephen:  Sure, and a fair response would be to say, “Well, we don’t have to choose between those things, do we?” It is possible that somebody could be a deep practitioner of human life and then on occasion have a breakdown of good judgment and talk to people about it.

[laughter]

*

“I think that’s what friendship is, and I think that’s what these practitioners, as a function among us, are, is they make the world somehow worth the trouble.”

*

Stephen:  You’d like to believe that those two things are possible, and I suppose they are, but I think what I’m saying is that teaching shouldn’t be a time out from what you’re teaching about, and too often, way too often, it is.

  So if you’re really have been entrusted with something that you’re absolutely persuaded is the stuff of the ages, let the world let you know that. Sit at the door and see if you can discern the sound of knocking when it happens, instead of flinging it wide open and saying, “I’m here. Any dangerous work for me to do?”, or things of that kind.

  It’s enormously seductive now. There are so many people willing, very temporarily, to listen to you, that the seduction is, “This must be the sign, that you should be talking.”

  Bob Dylan always said, when he was a young, young man, in one of his songs, he said, “I know my song well before I start singing it.” But he also said, “To live outside the law, you must be honest,” and that’s very compelling to me, because our normal understanding of law-abiding citizen is that you are honest, that you tell the truth, that there’s this faithful orientation to think, “Nothing of the kind, baby.”

  If you’re a law-abiding citizen, you don’t even need a conscience. You need a capacity for basic obedience, and that’s what the law requires of you, and that’s all it requires of you. It doesn’t require discernment. The enforcers of the law don’t say to you, “Now, Tad, which of these laws do you propose to obey today, because you know, it’s really up to you.” No, there’s no discernment at all.

  There’s no discernment at all. One thing only — “Obey,” and there’s no honesty in that, because there’s no discernment in the rest.

  On the other hand, if you propose to find yourself, or you do find yourself on the outside of the thing that you wish you could have been able to change, that outsider status, that’s the beginning of the possibility of you wrangling something that’s more authentic than obedience, and that, in his lyric, he called it honesty.

  So, yes, I think that the proper alternative to the multiplying of teachers is that if we had people practicing life instead of coaching somebody else in it…Let’s go one step further and say I propose to you that it is not a function of human being to teach human being to provisional human beings. I don’t think it is.

  I think that you have to take upon yourself as best as you’re able to a degree of humility that might be in the realm of…I think it was Rumi, but it might have been one of his cohorts over there, who regularly in his poetic kind of ramblings pleaded with people to wake up, and the way he often said it is he would end a particular iteration or plea or something with the phrase “like this,” and of course, you’re reading it on the page. You’re not exactly sure what the reference might be.

  But I think this is as close as a practitioner might get to teaching, is to, just in case you’re missing it, that practitioner might look up from the page or the spoon that he or she’s carving, or the shoe that he or she’s making, or whatever it is, and say, “Well, it’s like this,” and then look back down and keep going, because maybe you missed it, and they break form.

  So it’s not an orthodoxy I’m talking about here. It’s not the new ten steps or anything of the kind. It’s a kind of nuance, I guess, and the idea of being a practitioner, that’s the way I crafted an alternative that I thought might be available just with a phrase, that the mind could think something else, other than, “How do I impart this thing?”

  You don’t impart it. You practice it, and in so doing, see to it that it’s still in the architecture, and this means you have to rely on witnesses, not shanghai students, not…What’s that thing they used to say when they…Pressed. Not pressed students. That’s the old thing that they, when they would gather drunken guys off the wharf and turn them into sailors for the royal navy during the bad old days.

  So the press gangs of ashrams and the rest, maybe we could set that aside for a while, and entertain the subtler possibility that if there’s a real good practitioner, that if we’re willing to find practice and not inspiration, if we’re willing to find somebody who, in a much less spectacular way than we counted on, is seeing to it that the thing we’re seeking is in the world without them writing a book about it, or having a website for it, and that that way of seeing to it that it’s in the world is the thing that we’re seeking.

  To know it’s in the world…Okay, maybe I’ll end with this. I have a friend. I’m going to name him. His name’s Peter von Tiesenhausen. Quite a handle. Peter von Tiesenhausen’s one of the most accomplished sculptors in this country now. He lives in rural Alberta, up in the north in the Peace River area.

  I just called him my friend. We virtually never see each other, and somebody could say, “What kind of friendship’s that?”, and I say to you, “Well, here’s what kind of friendship it is, that on occasion, if I’m writing to him or something, I’ll say to him the equivalent of,” and he’ll say something similar, “You know, as long as I know that you’re in the world, then it’s a good world to be in. And I don’t need, much as I’d love it, but I don’t need the ongoing hit of visits and flowers, much as I’d love it. But if I have to choose between, I’d rather know that you’re in the world,” and then I’ll say to him, “so you’ve got to let me know when you’re not, because then what binds me to this place would become a little looser than it was.”

  I think that’s what friendship is, and I think that’s what these practitioners, as a function among us, are, is they make the world somehow worth the trouble.

Tad:  Stephen, thank you so much for taking the time. I know you’re in the midst of a lot of things going on right now.

Stephen:  That’s very true.

Tad:   And I don’t feel like a very good interviewer, but somehow you have wrangled something wonderful out of my stumbles and attempts and my questions, and so I’m grateful for that, and so grateful for your time, and for all the time that you’ve put in to be able to make something of this conversation, and for all the time that people put into you to deliver you to our doorstep. I’m just grateful for all of it.

Stephen:  It’s a great heredity we’re in, isn’t it?

Tad:  Mm-hmm.

Stephen:  None of this happens, Tad, and I’m not blowing smoke up your kiester when I say this, and I appreciate what you just said to me, but none of this happens if you don’t ask and you don’t proceed as if maybe, maybe, I might have something that’s been entrusted to me that’s worth hearing. If you don’t proceed that way, who knows, including me, who knows?

  But when you ask, I’ve got something to live up to, and that living up to seems to me to be…That’s the partnership. You ask, which means…I’m not naive about it. I’m sure that some place in your life, you’re being hit up all the time to do these very things that I’ve been talking about, and probably slandering during the last hour or so.

  I’m sure you are, so I wasn’t talking about something that you’re vaguely interested in, but doesn’t really touch your days, and I know that’s a risk for you to wonder about these things, because people who are in on what you’re doing are probably looking to you for the very same thing.

  So we really both took a chance, and we’re both hoping that there might be some merit in having done so for somebody who might, by accident, come across this rambling enterprise that was our conversation, and if we both kept up our ends, maybe there is.

Orphan Wisdom - Stephen Jenkinson and Gregory Hoskins (1)

Gregory Hoskins, also known as ‘The Band’ who has been traveling with Stephen Jenkinson this fall on his DIE WISE tour shares some words about his experiences traveling and accompanying Stephen at various events.

Beneath the Truth Lie the bones Of a Truth More complete And I’ll bet everything I own It’s a Truth that’s bittersweet.

Tonight I will walk on to a stage with a remarkable man in a theater built in Austin, TX, in 1871. It will be the sixth tiime I​’​ve done so on this tour, and the first time I’ve ever strapped on a guitar in Austin. After the whistles and clapping die down, he will start talking, and I will wait.

I will make a few tentative sounds, my fingers trying to find the spaces between his words. My listening will turn into the kind that forgets the moment that has come before and is unaware of the one coming next. And I have a suspicion that this is the way it is ​f​or many in the audience, too.

At some point he will make room for me to sing and I will try to remember to sing softly so as not to break the spell cast on the room. It has taken me a while to understand that long, liquid, and legato notes are the order of the evening. Time will dance on through the night, or, in this case, will move properly and headlong toward the past. The end will come, book signing lines will dwindle slowly, and we will ask each other in a stolen moment “Well…how’d we do, Boss?”

You’d have to ask Stephen himself what these night “are” to him. To me, they are art and subversive acts of the highest order. Sometimes it is the building itself that is subverted: a recital hall, a stately ballroom, a modern concert hall, a conference room in a State Capital building, a bookstore, this opera house come Masonic ​t​emple…but mostly it is the thing that passes for Culture on this continent that is subverted, and most of what stands for Counter Culture, too.

It is not the kind of art designed to distract or entertain, nor is it the kind that takes some kind of severe gymnastics of the mind and heart to trust. It is the kind found on cave walls that simply and skillfully tell the story of the day with all of its’ sorrows, horrors, and chall​e​​n​ges along with its’ tenderness, victories, and graces. Over the course of the evenings, the pendulum swings a wide arc…sometimes unbearably so…and standing firmly at the center is Stephen​ Jenkinson​, more with the people than separate from them, w​h​ether they want him there or not. And given our proclivity to throw heroes up the pop charts and teachers onto crosses, the resistance to simply seeing him as a man of hard won truths and a gift for singing them is sometimes shocking.

From up where I’m standing on stage…slightly up stage left in a muted pool of light…there is only one way to measure the evening:

Was every moment, Every vein opened, Every chest cracked Every word spoken, Every note struck, Every clunker hit, Every word sung, Every story told True?

To a point, the answer is…and has to be…and IS Yes.

So here’s to the highs And here’s to the lows The human heart endures And so it goes… The bittersweet highs and lows.

​Gregory Hoskins​ Oct​ober​ 16, 2015 Austin, Texas

Learn more about Gregory Hoskins at gregoryhoskins.com

Orphan Wisdom - The Book of Supposed To - Photo by Ian Mack

To make my living, to support my farm habit, I travel. I understand now what Leonard Cohen probably meant when he said, “They don’t pay you to sing. They pay you to travel.” People who don’t travel to make their living – that would be most people, probably – might imagine these few of us gliding through airports, quaffing frequent flyer wine, rising in the departure lounge (you can’t really call that thing a lounge) at the first soothing tones of that sweet invitation extended to Star, Elite and Super Elite Guests to leave it all behind and board first, before the wheezy elders and mothers struggling with babes in arms, before anyone needing a little extra time to board. I got bumped up, once. Whatever the satiny privilege of the thing, I wouldn’t again go for it, enduring the glares from the boarding better-late-than-never economy folks, the ones I fly with. Super Elite: a strange idea, stranger than ‘some are created more equal than others’, a place where the withering of the idea of America might be more naked than usual. Super Elite: The hell of the superlative, so many consumers in a trance of accomplishment. Maybe Super Elite is a mandatory overture to ‘And the first shall be last’, and as reliable a sign of the end times as the times require. Imagine there even being a Super Elite. Imagine trying to get there, and stay there. Maybe that’s what the idea of America has become.

The road has probably always brought out the best and the worst in people: hucksters and shysters preying on mendicants and lost souls, yes, but innkeepers too stooping to rash and guileless generosities at the appearance of wanderers or pilgrims or single parents at their door. Rumi they say advised each guest house-keeper of the soul to keep the door unlocked, ajar even, and admit all. It might be hard on the furniture and the bottom line, but he’s confident that the entire human circus won’t likely stay in your house, even should you invite them to do so.

And there are sobriquets to this effect, good ones, that advise extending a kind of radical hospitality to all ‘lest you be treating an angel unawares’, which is a wise bit of insurance in the business plan of life. Well, the truth is that should there be such a thing as angels (I am persuaded) you will treat one or two unawares, given the heavy disguise the road tends to impose on them. Likely too it is, if occasional, that you will be that angel, unawares, prompting that table fellowship with your wandering. Imagine being an angel unawares. Given how desecration prevails, and how the Gods like dormant seeds have wisely gone to ground to await more welcoming times, perhaps that’s the most common kind of angel these days.

I am in the midst – I hope I am somewhere in the midst, but perhaps not quite yet – of a self initiated teaching swath prompted by the sudden and unheralded appearance on St. Patrick’s Day of this year of a breezy little tome I wrote called Die Wise. I’ve taken to calling it The Mankiller Tour, for grueling reasons you could probably guess.  Airport food has on occasion looked doable. I’ve crossed frontiers so many times, and appear to have achieved an age deemed innocuous to national security by those engaged in its protection, that I am often expedited, thrust to the front of the interminable X-ray lines, mistaken for someone super elite in inconsequence. I do intend consequence, but I haven’t corrected anyone on this matter. I am overlooked by the ruffians charged with protecting aviation. I am invited to participate in the current level of Alertness (yellow as of my last trip, if you are curious), and seduced regularly to report any suspicious activity I see, though I haven’t succumbed. I find those announcements – how they enthrone suspicion as the crescendo of good sense, self interest and patriotism – suspicious, but discretion and a desire not to blow my cover has restrained me from reporting it.

I have a number of road stories, and the one I’m thinking of this morning is the extraordinary privilege extended to me to appear in the midst of peoples’ ordinary lives as a kind of guest provocateur from afar. I am aided and abetted by the kindest of community organizers in each of the places I go. In a hand full of countries elsewhere, and in the several countries inside my own, I have been granted encounters with the ‘everyday’ of many peoples’ strivings and cares. It is an honour of the elevated kind, and it affords me a kind of radical education in the way it is for which I will always and gladly be the debtor.

I have learned by now that each of these places has a Book. It might be the same Book everywhere, for all I know. I haven’t seen it and don’t expect to, but so many people are quoting from it that the Book’s presence seems beyond dispute. Literate cultures ascribe an authority to certain of their books (and often to books in general) that they rarely ascribe to anything else. People quote the Book authoritatively and often and urgently. The Book itself has taken on an oracular, numinous hue in our time. You can tell that from the certainty that swells when the quotations circulate. And it seems to have a kind of integrity only cultures in thrall to the scribal and to the apocryphal bestow, and the places that invite me to appear in their midst are such places. Given how compelled people are by what it prescribes, I’ve come to call it the Book of Supposed To.

The Book of Supposed To underwrites the moral order of our days here in the dominant culture of North America, such as it is. Unlike my own practice, the Book of Supposed To doesn’t waste time describing things as they are, but goes directly to what you could call the mandate of heaven, the ‘how it all must be if anything or anyone half way decent is in charge’. Here’s the surprise: This minor book of mine seems to exert a kind of provocative, lunar draw upon that larger tome that I neither conjured nor anticipated. As the various moons do to the maternal orbs around which they hover, so Die Wise seems to prompt the Book of Supposed To. I have found that when I begin to talk about dying, about what has become of it in our time, the tolerance for any faithful witness to it isn’t broad or indulgent. I can tell the intolerance is out there, because at every gathering allegedly devoted to the project of articulating an orphan wisdom of dying I am asked instead to elaborate from the Book, to finger the bad guys and reward the good guys, to come across with the blueprint for what we deserve, to open up the current arrangement to all these ‘rights’ – to be pain-free, suffering-free, burden-free, awareness-free, death-free – that the Book of Supposed To carves out for us. Some of the more popular claims​:

‘Kids aren’t supposed to die.’ ‘I am supposed to get to vote on anything that concerns me.’ ‘It’s not supposed to hurt.’ ‘I’m supposed to be okay.’ ‘You’re supposed to live as if you’re dying.’ ‘It’s my life and I’ll do what I want.’ ‘I’m supposed to be able to die how and when I want.’

In no time at all these gatherings are prodded to become staging areas for the demand to live, for exercising the right of utter self determination unto death, for being served an unbridled range of choices, for a kind of moral and ethical aloofness that masquerades as freedom and is untethered to anything beyond the antediluvian Self that this Book is dedicated to sustaining. There is nothing – and certainly nothing in Die Wise – that offers a comparable strategy for certainty that the Book of Supposed To is supposed to be. Though I haven’t really been ambushed by any of this, I admit that I’m surprised by how close to the surface it is in every place that grants me an audience.

So if you were read to from this Book as a young child (I certainly was), or if you are reading to children from it now in the belief that it will hold them in good stead later, then it isn’t likely that Die Wise will help shore up any of the ‘supposed to’s’ that won’t stand up to a little scrutiny. If I’m honest, most of the ideas in it will probably be disturbing. That’s what most of the testimonials I receive say about it: poetic when it is at its best, yes, but a hard read … and disturbing. And to fess up: in this book I’m offering nothing like The Book of Supposed To offers by way of a map to what you deserve. It more has the tone of a manifesto, an account of what is asked of you in a troubled time. It’s a book about dying, after all, so it isn’t surprising that it ends, more or less. But it may be surprising how it ends: as a supposed to-free zone. And Die Wise, like dying itself, proceeds as if we’re adults, elders in training, people who will soon enough, if not already, be needed by people half our age to stand and deliver. And should you by now be an elder in training: This isn’t a book I wrote for you. It is a book I wrote to you.

So I just wanted you to know that. Some of you have been very kind in your notes to me about Die Wise. I’m very grateful. I’m told too that the zany Marketplace of Attitude which is the Amazon book review includes a few offerings pro and con Die Wise. And there’s the Facebook (gads, another book), a running commentary of approval and disapproval, which I know the Orphan Wisdom site dallies with. I don’t want anyone thinking that I’ve got the goods on this dying business, or that I have a bunch of new supposed to’s to add to the mix. Interviewers try to pry those out of me, but I’ve run out. I’m down to questions now, and not much else.

If the Mankiller Tour doesn’t live up to its name and against the current odds I am spared and end up in your town with this book in tow before year’s end, I will without real justification probably lean on you for a little of that table fellowship, lost soul or mendicant or pilgrim or torch bearer that I am, and offer a bit of mystery of the human scaled – the mortal – in return. I hope that will do for now.

All honour to those who’ve so far made a place for this mortal wonder, and to those who may yet do so,

Stephen Jenkinson

Stephen Jenkinson - Sun Magazine Interview Spread

As We Lay Dying ~ Stephen Jenkinson On How We Deny Our Mortality by Erik Hoffner for Sun Magazine

Stephen Jenkinson wants to teach us how to die well. It’s a skill he believes we have forgotten in our culture. Though not a physician — he has master’s degrees in theological studies and social work — he served for years as program director of a palliative-care center at a major Toronto teaching hospital, where he provided counseling at hundreds of deathbeds. In his job he heard over and over from colleagues that “everyone has their own way of dying,” but he says he rarely saw any evidence of this. The default manner of death was for the dying person to endure — to not die — for as long as possible.

The other mantra he heard is “Everyone knows they are going to die,” but in Jenkinson’s experience the opposite is true: the vast majority of people are caught off guard, unprepared even after having been given a terminal diagnosis. Doctors are so accustomed to holding out the chance of survival, Jenkinson says, that they often encourage hope where there is none — and thus discourage patients from dealing with the difficult business of death. It’s an approach that arises from compassion, but for Jenkinson it doesn’t allow the end of life to be what it should be: an important event, like being born or getting married. “We end without any ending,” he writes. “We are gone without any leaving.”

In his most recent book, Die Wise: A Manifesto for Sanity and Soul, Jenkinson describes a visit with a minister who has terminal lung cancer and is still preaching sermons every week. “Are you talking about your illness in your sermons?” Jenkinson asks. “Oh, no,” the minister replies. “Too depressing.” Jenkinson points out that when Jesus knew his death was approaching, he didn’t keep going about his days as if nothing were wrong. He gathered his apostles for the Last Supper. He fed them. He told them he was about to die. It’s a defining moment in Christianity — and a stark contrast to the modern expectation that dying patients should ignore the inevitable, stay positive, and, as Jenkinson puts it, “not let them see you sweat.”

The documentary Griefwalker, produced in 2008 by the National Film Board of Canada, accompanies Jenkinson on visits with the terminally ill and also shows him paddling his canoe and working with his wife, Nathalie, on their Orphan Wisdom Farm in Canada’s Ottawa Valley. In the film Jenkinson talks about the truism that patients fear pain most of all. Even in the absence of pain, however, Jenkinson has witnessed a deeper fear: the fear of dying. We might think that everyone’s scared to die, but Jenkinson believes this anxiety is not universal. He says it’s far more prevalent in our culture, which persuades people to resist and deny the inevitability of their own death. In one scene he talks to a woman with terminal cancer who has had a hospital bed delivered to her home but hides it away rather than use it. When he asks why, she says she doesn’t want to be reminded of what’s to come. Jenkinson advises her not to “put away” her dying for some future date but to treat it as a “prized possession,” because it’s the awareness of death — and not happiness or positivity or stoicism — that allows us to live fully in the time we have. If we think there will always be more time down the road, we put off both our dreams and our obligations.

Born in 1954, Jenkinson grew up in a suburb of Toronto. As a young man he traveled the U.S. with street preacher and storyteller Brother Blue. The two had met while Jenkinson was attending Harvard Divinity School, where Brother Blue — whose real name was Hugh Morgan Hill — taught a class on preaching from the pulpit. Hill was also a familiar sight on the streets of Cambridge, where he improvised stories and verses for passersby. Jenkinson began to accompany the older man on harmonica, and they took their act on the road, performing in bars and jails as well as on sidewalks. It was an apprenticeship that helped Jenkinson develop the calm yet powerful speaking style he has today.

On his farm Jenkinson operates the Orphan Wisdom School, where he teaches his concept of living and dying well. In addition to Die Wise, he is the author of How It All Could Be: A Work Book for Dying People and Those Who Love Them and Money and the Soul’s Desires: A Meditation. A quietly charismatic man who wears his long gray hair in braids, Jenkinson often travels for speaking engagements that coincide with screenings of Griefwalker. I met him for this interview on a sunny afternoon in 2014 in a hotel room near Worcester, Massachusetts. The film had been shown the night before, and he was scheduled to give a talk titled “Grief, Then Gratitude.” Gratitude, for Jenkinson, is not just being grateful for what we have. It’s how we should approach all of life, giving thanks for the good and the bad, the beginnings and the endings.

Read the full interview online.

Stephen Jenkinson - Danial Vitalis

Stephen Jenkinson interviewed by Daniel Vitalis on Rewild Yourself. “I was humbled by my conversation with Stephen Jenkinson, teacher, author, storyteller and founder of the Orphan Wisdom School. This, my friends, is a very powerful interview. Stephen will make you re-think everything you thought you knew about dying.” ~ Daniel Vitalis. Listen and read about the full podcast details on danielvitalis.com

Episode Breakdown:

How to come to terms with death The hallmarks of “dying badly” What “dying well” looks like The consequences of being kept away from ground zero of human mortality We live our lives as if dying is the annihilation of life Considering “after-life” Understanding that your death does not belong to you A disconnection from our ancestors Learning from death

Stephen Jenkinson - Old Hands

Stephen Jenkinson, whose work with dying people is profiled in Tim Wilson’s, National Film Board (NFB) feature documentary Griefwalker, comes to the nub and quick of why end-of-life reckoning is often so hard.

New, not seen before footage of Stephen speaking with Tim during the filming of Griefwalker.

Stephen-Jenkinson---These-Very-Days-of-Wonder---Photo-by-Ian-Mackenzie

When you have a website, all manner of phone calls and messages come your way. Some people seem to think that the internet is a mall of sorts (which it is, I suppose), and that if something of yours is there you have a stall there and must be selling something (which is so often the case), and that you are on call, and open 24 hours. So the subsequent discourtesies often apply. This can wire you in a certain fashion. It bends you to a certain intolerance when the phone rings and you don’t instantly recognize the voice on the line, which I don’t recommend. It isn’t the best way to answer the phone – I’ve thought of just not answering it anymore – but it seems to come with the territory.

A few weeks ago I did answer, and the man on the phone said something very close to “Yam faydesh”, followed by a more indecipherable phrase. I apologized and asked him to repeat it, which he did, with greater eagerness and the same inscrutable message: “Yam faydesh”, and the elaboration. Twice more he said it. Sure now that someone from Delhi was about to pitch me on an upgrade for an unnecessary something, I awkwardly passed the call to my wife, grateful in this new way to have her. Within a few seconds she had engaged her remarkable skill for UN-style spontaneous translation of mysterious human communication, for which she is famous in our house. And then she said, “Okay. You’re from Fed Ex and you can’t find our house”, and proceeded calmly to give him directions. Easy as that.

To keep the dogs calm I met Yam Faydesh in the driveway, and when he got out of his truck I thought instantly that I recognized something about his face. After signing for the packages and so forth I said: “If you don’t mind me asking, where are you from?” For a moment he did seem to mind. I said, “Well, it’s alright”, I said. “No, no”, he said, “is okay. I from Afghanistan.” These days his hesitation is understandable.

His face was a perfect moon, and his build squat and efficient and roundish too, like a wrestler’s, with nothing of the angularity that seems typical of many Afghanis . “I don’t think you’re from Afghanistan”, I told him. “Ah no, no. Really no,” he said, glad of the chance to elaborate, “we have only been there t’ousand years. But before then…”, he paused for effect, and then proudly said, “Mongol!”. By which he meant, I think: “and still Mongol”. And then we both said, at the same time, “Chiinghis Khan!”, and laughed. Within a minute we were in the house playing central Asian instruments together, comparing tunings and gut strings, and then sitting inside the ger by the river which is our school house having tea, happy to be alive and unexpectedly well met. “I never think I see this in Canada!”, said Mr. Yam Faydesh.

So this was a delightful moment for me, and I treasure it. The sheer elegance of that phrase – ‘We’ve only been there t’ousand years’ – the adroitness of that self understanding, the willingness to remember the old stories, the mixed ancestries, the many beginnings, was something I never thought I’d see in Canada either, a land of many beginnings if there ever was one. The idea of human purity – or religious or cultural purity, or the One True Anything – is so crazed and forlorn, really. It is more forlorn than it is dangerous, as forlorn as the idea of ‘mongrel’. Who doesn’t come from a score of places? Who isn’t in the midst of a journey of a few thousand years, trailing behind them, in William Blake’s beautiful phrase, clouds of glory? It’s just a willingness to remember you need, that’s all. And a willingness to be on the receiving end instead of the crafting end of what you usually think of as ‘myself’.

This is how it is for our identity, if we are willing to know it. This is true of our ideas, too. Though eager to lay claim to the cleverness or creativity or hilarity of what we think, it serves us well to wonder: Where was my brilliant realization, just before it came to me? Not that I didn’t work for it, not that I don’t have learning and discipline, not that I don’t deserve the great thought I have (not that I do, either) … but where was it, just before it came to me?

This is an important thought for me to think, and important that I think it regularly. If I am in any business, it is the redemption business. You could say my job is learning how we think about how we live, and then wondering what we do now, with the time entrusted to us, given everything, in our small corner of this world?

The truth is that I don’t know a lot of things, really, though I do have some skill in recognizing unannounced connections between things. I am glad of this ability, but it is built upon the willingness and the labours of others before me and alongside me to learn things and find ways to say them. That is where the things I work with come from.

If you look through what I’ve written on the Orphan Wisdom site with this in mind you’ll see the threads of ideas, discoveries and conjurings that I myself am not the author of, not the creator of. There are things there from James Hillman and Marion Woodman, from Robert Bly and Alden Nowlan, from Martín Prechtel and my Anishnaabe language teacher Linda Assiniwe, from Brother Blue and Ruth Hill, from Leonard Cohen and from farmers I know, and from others neither my contemporaries nor elders. There are some things from people you’ll never read about on the internet or anywhere else. Directly from them.

Some of it is well digested by now and probably recognizable, if at all, only to them. Some of it is more recent, or is still having its way with my thinking and my life, as it did when it first came to me. Those things are more easily traceable back to those from whom they came.

I have a school here at the farm, and I teach a lot of things there. I bring in other teachers, Artisans of Deep Living as I call them. We consider farm work, Old English and medieval work, cuneiform and koine and Wendat work, plant medicine, music and etymology and metalurgy, the dead and grief and beauty and food and other things. But I am in truth not the creator of very much there. More I am a conservator of endangered wonder in a time much imperilled and imperilling. I am a herder of unruly propositions that kick at the stall, sometimes all night. I am a caretaker of what I have been entrusted with, and I suppose my job is to have some discernment in how and when and if I lift those things up into the light, for others to consider. And in so doing I try to keep lithe and well practiced the ragged hum of human wonder that can bind us in something very like kinship, to each other and to those who came before us. Especially to them. When I remember to, my teaching lifts up my teachers, but always it is a praise song to them and their teaching. And especially to their teachers, and to theirs, to the ones I don’t know and will never meet.

I know that many of you are about to enter the hothouse atmosphere of ‘the holiday season’. For some this means seeing a movie in a mostly empty theatre, or getting a table in a restaurant you usually need a reservation months before to get into. And for many this means you will be obliged to be with your family or extended family or family equivalent.

Some of you will do so eagerly, and some not. Some of you are in families in disarray or in peril. Some will come to this holiday for the first time without a father, or a brother, or a daughter. Some will come to the season for the first time as orphans. Some will be married or shacked up or divorced for the first time, or for the second. Some will have their kids or their kids’ kids, some will drop their kids off tearfully or with relief. Some will wish they had kids to drop off. Some will find a way to avoid the holiday altogether, and some will not.

Some will hold their breaths, wading into the family stream that pulls together people who don’t otherwise see each other much. And some will huddle for a while with people who will pass for a family of their choosing. Almost everyone will feel the gravitational sway of ‘family’ over the next while, and with it the bite of the mandate to be happy.

I don’t have much in the way of advice at any time, and certainly not for this time of year. I would recommend granting the darkness that is the proper libretto of this season as much presence as the light tends to get. The brief daylight now pleads for it. Beyond that, to be honest, the way things are these days in our corner of the world, given the fistfights over plasma televisions that have become the order of the day, given that Nelson Mandela has just left us to our devices, you and I are somewhat on our own to sort these things out.

But it might be useful to regard our families the way we might our ideas: They aren’t our ideas, not really, and they’re not our families either. No matter what the therapists say, they are not our creations, or our possessions, nor are we theirs. Instead, they are entrusted to us, and we to them, in all their raging glory, in all their mysterious habit and dappled array.

We could try to recall the brief history of the ideas and the families (and maybe the ideas about families) that make up our lives, just, say, those of the last thousand years or so. We could imagine the caravan of nobility and larceny and lunacy and honour that has traveled all those years and miles to come to us, now, in this troubled time, seeking a place at the groaning board, the banquet table in the meade hall of our days. We could be wowed by all that.

Gathering in this way, even reluctantly, once or twice a year, with reluctant companions, might still render us down with the alchemy of being human together into a bundle of wild ideas whose origin is mystery, whose power is entrusted to us for a time. That might be the beginning of readying ourseles to become ancestors, worthy of being claimed, worth coming from.

All blessings on your house and your road, on your people and on your table.

Stephen Jenkinson

2013 Stephen Jenkinson in Krakow

That most heroic bard, and exemplar non pareille of all he advocated, Dr. Hugh Morgan Hill, late of Cambridge, Mass., was a man steeped in the wild comedy rising always from being a true human, alive, in a time unfriendly to grace and to a deepened mind.

Which means that he was storyteller of the fundamental kind. If you had the vast good fortune of hearing him cast his stories as nets in the tempests of our time, trolling for a real, lived humanity, you were blessed for life.

He was, because of all that, inevitably a master of tragedy, mirth’s proper, faithful and unwavering twin. I do not mean by this that he was above tragedy, or in control of it, or free from it. I mean that he allowed tragedy it’s full rein and presence in all he saw and did. He was a master practitioner of tragedy, and as a black man living in America through most of the twentieth century also it’s faithful son and witness. He was a wizard, and a star, and a purveyor and guardian of the deepest stories entrusted to humans to live by.

As a young man I entered into an unannounced, never discussed and stout sort of apprenticeship to this marvel. I was in a nominal and unaccomplished  way his band for some years, and I performed with him often during that time. I nominated myself protector of sorts for he and his wife Ruth, though I know now who was doing the protecting. Mostly, along with everyone else attending his revivals, I listened, and marveled. Later, when I set about making my Orphan Wisdom School, I committed us all to the practice of forced eloquence, an homage to him.

He had two degrees of performing: hot, and much hotter. He was a fierce one, but his ferocity was tethered to a life of service, and he had a great, demanding hope for his corner of the world.

Most times he would remove his shoes and socks before teaching, preaching, imploring and tirading. Sometimes he explained it, but every time he practiced it: All ground was holy ground, he would say.  He would carry on for hours, barefoot. It was one of his many courtesies. His was an elegant, articulate veneration, and his example made you want to go out and find a life of devotion. If your luck held out you could live out your days in the ennobling glow of his example. That man set me on a rocky path that has delivered me to a life indentured to courtesy.

The bard is the one willing to learn, the one especially willing to learn unwelcome things about what the rest of us know. It is a burdensome, weighty proposition, one guaranteed to oblige the bard to run headlong into the blast of his or her time.  In a song called ‘Going Home’ Leonard Cohen has God talking about Leonard Cohen in this way: ‘He does just what I tell him, even though it isn’t welcome. He just doesn’t have the freedom to refuse.’ And that is as it has always been for the deep storytellers. They pay a debt to life unsuspected by the rest of us. Part holy fool and court jester, part spiritual lawyer for the human encounter with the divine, the bard is the great rememberer, the librarian of all refused stories.

Bards are first and always story hearers, and story seers. The capacity for story lives in their eyes and ears, as well as on their tongue.

Here is some gorgeous etymology: our word ‘to see’ is found historically across all the northern European languages, where it has meant ‘to perceive with the eye’. But when the word arcs further south towards its older Indo-European root it has also meant ‘to point out, to say’. Even there, in the simplest description of the bard’s skill and service, you find the old kinship between seeing and saying.

That is the bard’s real, enduring, unquenchable skill, that he or she carries unbidden the ability to recognize the old stories, to know again the old knowns. Their eyes and their tongues are storied things, thrumming like tuning forks to their peoples’ beginnings. They are merchants of courtesy, and it’s keepers.

Alas, things done ‘as a courtesy’ are not held in particular esteem in our time. The phrase has become a synonym for ‘gesture’, ‘symbol’, even ‘affectation’, and there isn’t a lot of sincerity. But we have forgotten much that lies waiting to be recalled in our language, and ‘courtesy’ is waiting to teach us. The word has kin in such far flung places as ‘curtsy’, ‘courage’ and ‘courtesan’. And though the standard dictionaries don’t agree, there are spiritual kin in ‘courtyard’ and ‘courtliness’, too.

The root of them all is ‘heart’. Things done courteously are the heart’s most engaged achievements. Consider this: a slab of wood, with the heart wood still there, will with enough humidity, heat and time bend back towards the shape of the tree it was taken from.  In this way the slab has memory, clearly, of its beginnings. In the same way words are fruit on the raggedly lived vine of a culture’s way of being itself, each of them trailing memory, each waiting like a seed to be breathed upon by a devotee of eloquence and speech. The bard breaks the dormancy of words by being a faithful witness to the memories curled around them, and then by giving his or her breath to those memories by telling their stories, while they are still able.

Bards, you could say, are those who run off at the heart. To them are owed all kindnesses, graces, subsidies, courtesies. Whole libraries burn to the ground when they die, especially when they haven’t had apprentices alongside them to learn the courtesies.

As many of you now know by now, the great Irish poet Seamus Heaney has recently died. I have been teaching Beowulf in my school for a few years using his bilingual translation, and there are students in the school who have begun memorizing long stanzas from the Old English, deeply inspired by Heaney’s work on behalf of the story. Many people have sought Irish citizenship, I am sure, from reading his poetry. They say that when the moment of his death was upon him he resorted to sending a text message to his wife who was sadly elsewhere, wherein he whispered to her a gift for all her life: ‘Be not afraid’, he wrote. In Latin.

In an early poem called Singing School Seamus Heaney is walking near his Wicklow home in December, mooding about and considering his particular bardic affliction. He wrote of the moment this way:

A comet that was lost Should be visible at sunset, Those million tons of light Like a glimmer of haws and rose-hips,

And I sometimes see a falling star. If I could come on meteorite! Instead I walk through damp leaves, Husks, the spent flukes of autumn,

Imagining a hero On some muddy compound, His gift like a slingstone Whirled for the desperate.

How did I end up like this? I often think of my friends’ Beautiful prismatic counselling And the anvil brains of some who hate me

As I sit weighing and weighing My responsible tristia. For what? For the ear? For the people?

Yes Seamus, and yes Hugh. Always for the ear. This is the storyteller’s vocation. And always for the people. This is the storyteller’s courtesy. The gift of the bard among us is just this: A slingstone, whirled for the desperate. And the cost to the bard of bearing the gift?: To wonder, often, How did I end up like this?

After life and international boundaries had separated Dr. Hugh Morgan Hill and I for some years I received an invitation to contribute to a book celebrating his life and achievements. It was published a decade ago. By chance I looked through it last night. And there, twenty four pages before my own, I found a contribution by – this had completely escaped my attention until then – the very Seamus Heaney. They knew each other. And Seamus quoted a sequence from his Beowulf translation, in praise of – what else? – the bard. Sometimes you are just awash in the courtesy of life itself.

I remember those few times when I phoned Hugh and he answered, how we would play out our courtesy. I would say, “How are you doing?” And he would say, “Man, I am the luckiest man in the world.” And I would say, “Why is that?” And he would say. “I found what I was born to do.” And he truly had done so, and knew it. I miss him, every day.

May this same birthright yet become the blessing our lives seek. Stephen Jenkinson, MTS, MSW

Stephen Jenkinson - Learning Elderhood

On this you might rely: there are times when magic, mayhem and the mandate of your days gather themselves together and will make a claim upon your attention. If good fortune and good timing prevail, those times won’t be lost on us. Generally the visitation is a subtle one, and so it can happen that the habits of the eye and tongue require a more dramatic event. The hubris of our times can cause any of us to mistake this visitation for something we thought of. But the truth is that these moments are as clear an evidence as we’re likely to get that all our best realizations come from Elsewhere, that we have the great good fortune to have been thought, by whomever, wherever our best stuff comes from. These are moments both adamant and easily missed.

Some twenty five years ago a man who’d come to me for some guidance asked that I work through some ideas with him from a book I’d not heard of called Iron John. The next day I was invited by a set designer to be in a film with an author I’d not heard of called Robert Bly, and another called Marion Woodman. I asked what part I would be playing and was told: “Yourself” – often a challenging assignment. And so that autumn I had the blessing of sitting for days with two achieved people in the depth of their powers and purpose, two elders alight with the incandescence of noble speech and tethered to their time.

It was during that filming that I heard the phrase ‘father hunger’ for the first time. Robert Bly went on to a considerable writing and teaching career during which he was a sane and poetic beacon to many, but it also drew towards him implacable expectations of surrogate fatherhood by legions of men, an inevitable, impossible assignment given the desperate times we are in. I had a few visits with Marion Woodman in the subsequent years, and on one such visit she spoke of her encounter with cancer. She was fairly sure then that the illness had come upon her partly as a result of the blistering, adamant demands from legions of women reading her books and attending her courses that she re-mother them.

Since then I’ve wondered upon their examples as well as their learning, and upon the costs that seem to have accrued to them for having been turned into stand-ins or famous replacements for the remote, damaging or bewildered parents many people in our time were born to. Somewhere in there is a great misapprehension about what has gone missing, and what is needed and deserved. I am fairly sure now that it was not mother hunger or father hunger that was feeding upon their work and their persons.

I am often asked about the reasons that this modest endeavour of mine is called Orphan Wisdom. In answering I find I spend most of my time speaking about orphans. When I ask what it is that results in orphanhood, the automatic answer is: no parents. Which is never true, not culturally and not personally. We are guaranteed to have parents. That is the genetic assurance of our birth. Parents are both required and inevitable for this event, and our appearance on the scene is proof, and in some fashion, at least for a time, they are there and from them we proceed. Of course there are qualities of being parented that can be lamentable or worse, but the truth is that most of us come out of our childhood and adolescence with clear and direct experience with parents, and that has gone a long way in influencing how – and if – we parent, should our turn come. There are people who wish they had different parents, but few left wishing they had parents.

There is no hunger for what was. There is nostalgia, and lament. The kind of hunger Bly and Woodman and others detonated was a hunger for what hasn’t been, and it remains so. This is a hunger for elders. People in their teens have it. People in their thirties have it. People in their fifties and sixties have it, too. Imagine people in their fifties and sixties attending spiritual workshops and self help seminars, waiting for some kind of elder to guide them into the depths of their lives and turning someone who is willing to try into the mother or father they really deserved or should never have had. This happens, frequently. Their hunger is ample sign that, while parents are an inevitability, genetic and exemplary, elders are not.

Elderhood is not a consequence of what a birth certificate says, otherwise we’d be awash in them, with more on the way. It is not a consequence of not having died yet, nor of enduring a life. It is not what will happen if you or I stick around long enough. That condition I would call ‘senior citizen’. Seniors are a consequence of death not happening. Elders are a consequence of a lifetime lived in the presence of elders, with all the subtle training laying out a template for service instead of retirement. Elders are a consequence of a whole sequence – a fragile sequence- of things happening. This sequence has a soul, and this it seems is it: elders do not achieve their elderhood. For all their labours of learning they must still await elderhood being conferred upon them by those who seek them out. Elders are finally made by the willingness and the ability of everyone else to have elders in their midst, to have recourse to them.

Consider then how unlikely elderhood is in a time which medicates, resists and barely tolerates age instead of venerating it, in a time when being self made is king and queen of all aspirations, in a time when senior citizens are competing for jobs and life partners and the attention of the marketplace with people half their age. Elders aren’t self made. They can’t be. They don’t confer elderhood upon each other, for it isn’t theirs to confer. They serve the culture which has given them their lives, their elders, and their achievement as elders only flowers when they have some place to serve. That place is younger people.

Earlier this year I began to teach a little about this elder hunger, and at one of the first sessions something important happened. A good sized group of people gathered to hear a few of my ideas about elder making, and more than half of them were well into the second half of their lives. I asked the young organizer of the event to help me present some of these ideas by beginning with a kind of question/answer dialogue with me. Though nervous he took to it well, and brought us to the heart of the thing directly, with his first question. He told us that many of his generation lived with a grinding, undiagnosed and low grade depression that hovered at the edge of their days. He asked me why that was, where that came from. My answer: this depression is not a consequence of the impotence simmering in the presence of global warming or of the nefarious mayhem of free trade or the caravan of miseries that parade across the micro screens of their lives and masquerade as information, though depression is probably a legitimate response to those things. In fact, it isn’t depression at all. It is a longing for something not quite seen, a longing that has no container, no shape and no language these days. It is a longing for the vault of heaven to stitched back together. It is a longing for something enduring and honourable to precede them into the hall of ancestors and worthies, something worth being. It is elder hunger.

I don’t know if anyone heard that, or if anyone recognized what I was saying, or wanted to, or agreed in some fashion that this could be so, or was overly concerned about any of it. But I know this: a young man at the front of a room of older people confessed a sadness and a longing for elders on behalf of his generation, and he did so clearly and articulately, and no older person in that room came to him. No one took a chair and sat beside him and said, “Well, this is all true and not as it should be. But tonight you are not going to lament about this alone. I’m going to sit here with you and we will wonder our way towards a little sanity and companionship on this matter. And thank you for asking.” I do recall that some of the older people defended themselves against this hunger and the indictment that is clearly also in it. One older man said that he considered himself a good grandfather, that skyped his grandchild regularly.

So, there is a lot of work to be done. Would that the hunger for elders among young people not be extinguished by despair or hostile disowning of the current regime. Would that people of middle age give their peak income generating years to learning the etiquette of service to a culture that no longer seems to need them, readying themselves for elderhood. And would that old people keep a chair by the door of their ebbing years, and stay alert for a faint voice outside that finds a way against the odds to ask for real guidance and a reason to continue. Would that it were so.

Stephen Jenkinson

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Upcoming Events: Stephen will be teaching at Hollyhock next month in a session called Old Time: Learning Elderhood. Consider attending.