Archive for the ‘Newsletter’ Category
It could be that some of you have been waiting for this small piece of news a long time, perhaps longer than a long time, or perhaps it has seemed that way. The waiting list for a new school grew to many hundreds while I wandered the hemispheres on the Mankiller Tour, (which began casually in 2015 and hasn’t come to it’s senses yet). No one on this end saw that coming. The waiting list folks have been chewing this bone for a few days, and now we are letting it be known that a new class of the Orphan Wisdom School here in eastern Ontario, Canada will gather in the coming spring (First session: May 3-7, 2017). There will be another new class for our friends overseas which will have it’s beginning in Wales, UK (First session: May 17-21, 2017).
It is news to no one that we are in some strange days. Strange days. I want you to be assured by one thing: that strangeness and these days will crowd the threshold of the Orphan Wisdom School, and they will get the harrowing and the heartache they deserve as we go about our learning. Perhaps there are mysteries tethered to the stake now. Maybe this is what it has come to. Perhaps some portion of this mystifying and sorrowed world is attending to the way in which we awaken, sorrowed as some of us are. This newest not-quite-yet-conjured Orphan Wisdom School will proceed accordingly, with little evidence that this is so or that what we do might consequence the deal.
Would that our endangered and dangerous days be remembered, years from now, as a time when some gathered and rose up and, truant no more, learned their lives. Then our learning together will begin to be tethered to something vast and thrilled, and burdened with purpose,
Stephen Jenkinson, MTS, MSW
Still, mostly. That’s where I sit tonight. Perhaps you are still, too. It’s already begun. There’ll be torrents, and the building up of memory, and the betrayal of endings. But not from here. It’s still, mostly, where I am. I made some pretty stout vows about this day, some rash and utterly faithful declarations. I questioned the merit of ploughing the field of any day that he did not awaken to. I have my reasons. I do not this night credit any ability – any willingness – to go on into a time, a world, no longer adored as he adored it. I did not meet him. I’m glad of that. I was in the same building once. I’m glad of that, too. I saw him doff his hat. He bowed. What else is there? This is not night. It isn’t day. This isn’t any kind of time. This is ending. Patron saint, unawares. Imagine: a master practitioner of sorrow, levelling with anyone who’d listen. Levelling with the Makers. I suppose he just asked to be let out. They let him out. How poor again, the world. And winter coming on.
I have – it is no secret, and there is no suspense – made something of a living by being troubled aloud about ordinary things. This has been my fortune. It could be that many of you reading this have had a hand in it; you have my thanks. There has from time to time been a fugitive notoriety that has gathered itself around these overly principled laments, Sancho Panza style. About this I am both guarded and grateful in fitful, equal measure. A while ago I was speaking with a friend who reminded me that he knew me – his phrase – before I was famous. ‘Stick around’, I told him, ‘you’ll know me afterwards too.’ That might sound sullen or untrusting, but think of it as my citizenship declaring itself, a northern version of how some of us keep ourselves in check, of not being bold. Envying them in ignoble fashion, some of us up here still tend to leave ‘bold’ to our American neighbours.
It is canonical to say that such notoriety doesn’t endear you to those with whom you share a neighbourhood. And it does make strange bedfellows of some workers in the sorrow fields, alas. Notoriety is hard work for everyone involved, and the work clothes rarely favour the worker. Would that they favoured the work instead.
Imagine though how the day might go if some of us were awakened to the unflagging sway of this grace: It may be that we are not emperors of intent, governed and governing by what we mean. Could we be people of consequence instead, purveyors of the waxing and the waning, properly in thrall to the alert, lucid and honourably troubled genius of our time? And more: Could it be that we are meant? Troubled people born to a troubled time, yes, but chosen by trouble as its balm. Chosen not for affliction but for anointing.
Taste that on your tongue: we are a meant people, we humans. I don’t say this is a recipe for heroism, or vainglory, or triumphalism. I don’t say that we are meant to rule, or prevail, or even continue, but only that we are likely on the receiving end of every good idea, good fortune or good day we’ve had. Just as a dream may be the murmuring of a neglected, quieter self, so may it be that the fact that we dream at all, and that we are bent at times towards the little altar of abandoned stones out behind the house that are regrets, and that on our better days still hanker after mercy and after justice, that all of this might be the murmuring of neglected precursors and unsuspected totemic lines of ancestors, human and otherwise, riding us into the world? The human-centered epoch, the anthroposcene era: the wags say that is what we have ushered in, everything made in our image. The anthroposcene era might be the loneliest time yet for humans in search of humanity. And yet we are crowded by throngs of the unclaimed, of Those Who Came Before – Those From Whom Our Meaning Comes.
Being vexed by the grim parade might only be a defensible line of work in a time crazed into stratagem and solution. In our particular strange days, in this tangle of mysteries granted us, I’ve seen that you can sell out the place if the programme promises schemes for deliverance. In so doing, there is the small matter of selling out the people who come when you do. You won’t often be forgiven if you are short on fix, though. It happens that way, frequently.
We’ve been trained from an early age to lavish whatever skill of the tongue we’ve managed on things we are sure of and succored by. Still, there is a certain eloquence that might yet be reserved for consternation, fit for it, and that eloquence, fix-free, serves the trouble and the troubled faithfully and well. That is the modest proposal of the Orphan Wisdom School: to be tethered to your time, serving its bloat and its sorrows best by sorrowing from time to time, arrayed in fineness of speech, ennobling to hear, on occasion giving up the day off, a recognizable denizen of the dismal and the dim. You might not believe it, but some people do grow something like a taste for this, and become practitioners of speaking and of hearing this elegant thing. They savour the sounds that sorrow no longer locked in the private and the personal plays down the length of their bones and their days. And it thrills me that they do.
All of it is confounding enough when people come to this school of mine, and that is why I have against good judgment thrown the doors open occasionally to convene another congress of wonder – something I may do again. It is unnervingly unlikely that I should be invited to bring this ramshackling torrent to other jurisdictions, other countries even. I couldn’t craft such a thing, even if I had designs to do so. Too presumptuous. Nothing in what I do, conjured in one little corner of this world, seems to favour translation to anywhere else, not to me. But invitations cross the threshold, and the honour is mine, and the troubles of these days seem to ask that once in a while we go out beyond where we might belong.
So early in the year, summoned by kindness and cajoled and prodded and listening, I am bound for Oceana: Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania, Bali perhaps. This time I am festooned with a band. Gregory Hoskins will lend his music and his road-tested grace to the cause. This cannot possibly succeed, certainly not financially, and it cannot possibly translate, I shouldn’t think, and I could not persuade myself of any necessity for it. But the grace of invitation prompts us both to risk notoriety and belonging and the chagrin of neighbours one more time. Cantos and controversy are in the offing.
What might we call an evening of mongrel sorrow and dappled magic and wonder, fringed with regard for the gift of the tongue entrusted to us, harkening and hortatory and bardic and greying, steeped in mortal mystery, uprooted from its uncertain home in the North of America and cast divination-style like bones on a dusty proving ground so far away?
We might call it: Nights of Grief and Mystery. Should we all be spared, we might see some of you there.
Stephen Jenkinson, MTS, MSW Founder of The Orphan Wisdom School
A Note: If you’re interested in hosting Stephen in your community while he is on tour in Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania and Bali, or elsewhere, please be in touch with us.
Photo courtesy of Ian MacKenzie.
I was at a film festival a few years ago, having just screened Griefwalker, and I was sitting beside Ian Tamblyn, one of Canada’s finest troubadours. We knew each other not at all, but it can happen that something like an Old Sorrow binds people for a time, to the moment of their meeting and to the uncharted lives that have brought them to it. And so Ian began telling me how it seemed that he had many people, friends of his own age especially, suddenly dying around him. I wondered with him whether it might not have come to be that he was old enough now that that was going to happen more and more, a sure sign that he wasn’t left out of life or its ways of carrying on. Ian Tamblyn and I sat quietly for a while after that, and then he looked off across the crowd of people and through the window, out onto the turning, widening gyre that is this world that we’ve been granted to, and he said, “Ahh, dying. That’s the Big Tent.”
And it is, of course, the Main Event, the gathering-in round which all others are gathered. We were both old enough that evening for all of that – the dying and the news and the steady parade making its way past us for now – to have deeply and truly begun. But no matter how many endings before our own have unspooled before us, none of this makes us ready to see it, not when all of that grinds away in a culture that resolutely does not believe in it. There’s nothing inevitable about getting it. There’s no microchip in your birth certificate or mine (though they are, I’ll grant you, probably working on this in the private sector, which might be the only sector left) that will prompt us towards candor or courage or wisdom or elderhood, or seeing what is there to be seen.
So, being ‘ready’ for a seat in the Big Tent is something that might come in after the fact – and maybe because of the fact – but rarely before so. And ‘sudden’? What makes one ending sudden, and another not so much? Well, ‘sudden’ doesn’t really come from how long the ending takes to end, no matter its brevity. A sudden ending isn’t sudden because it is quick. No, a sudden ending is sudden because, though it was there to be seen, and known, and lived, it wasn’t. ‘Sudden’, strangely, comes directly from the haphazardly guarded vault of what you claim to know. That’s where you’ll find it, in those times when you’re granted entry, that feel that something has occurred that careens out of the mists and into your days utterly, inconveniently and discourteously out of Nowhere. You seem to know it’s sudden, but you don’t seem to know why.
There are guards, you see, at the entrance to kingdom of what you know, Wizard of Oz style, whose vigilance is staunch but inconstant. And we could name them. Private Willingness is the corpulent one, the one without much on-the-job exercise, and Private Capacity is his generally gaunt and untested confederate. They oversee what goes in and what goes out of the unsecured trove of what you know, allowing in and out only what seems worthy. Endings are sudden when you slip past the guards, drop down into the musty ossuary of what you know and can’t seem to find the endings there. That’s why. Not feeling ready for the knowable heartache of ending, for example, sets us up for the prejudice, the certainty that we didn’t know about it because it was sudden and impossible to know, and not because we didn’t want to know about it.
Dying, a particular kind of ending, is a knowable thing not much known in our time. I don’t mean the day or hour of dying, though with practice and possessed of a certain burdensome gift these can be known. I mean the givenness of one’s death: that is entirely, mysteriously and calamitously knowable, and from what I’ve seen in the last few decades it isn’t much known. Someone wrote me recently and thanked me for this line in Die Wise: “You simply cannot tell from how most of us live that most of us know we will die.” And I would add now: “much less that most of us know we are dying when we are.” So, sudden death is sudden because it isn’t expected, or suspected, or in any way welcome, not because it is quick. The truth is that death is announced and pronounced, it is foretold and promised, and anointed with necessity and perfumed with purpose, a purpose that hangs suspended over the crevasse that opens between what you welcome and are comforted by on the one side and what you are given to realize and carry with you through the length of your days on the other.
This, to sound antique and continental and a bit belligerent, is all very well when we are bantering about Life over drinks or retreating in a retreat centre somewhere, but it is another thing entirely when we are dragged to the cliff edge of what seems just and merciful and knowable by something so scant in purpose that it conjures the Abyss, and offers us citizenship in Oblivion. One of those things, surely, is the suffering, and the withering unto death, of children. I devoted many pages of Die Wise to it, and I’m no more resolved or accepting of that withering now than I ever was.
Well, here may be the torment of the thing: Children are demonstrably not ‘too young to die’, no matter how often we might say such a thing. Children can as foreseeable die as the rest of us, and they do. Nor are children ‘at the beginning of their lives’, no matter their age. Children are as deeply in the fullness of their lives as some who are reading or writing these lines, perhaps in some instances more so. As many of you have heard me say over the years, children are incapable of ‘potential’, meaning that they are up until a few years before puberty incapable of calibrating the worth or the merit or the entitlement of their days according to how many days they haven’t yet lived, or won’t get to live. That particular disconsolate phantom comes to us a bit later in life, and once nestled in usually stays on for the duration.
Children’s capacity is in childhood, in not having yet learned the manner of ‘rights’, in mystification and ordinary awe, and they come to their trouble or their withering mystified and awestruck. Of course, they wish things were otherwise, especially when nursing those around them who are nursing grievance. But their example to the rest of us is not nostalgic, carried by a memory of a time less true or truer than this one. It is prehistoric, carrying a memory that what is true now has always been true, whether it was known and welcomed or not. Withering and dying children are for all this a powerful presence among us, a chance for us to get it right, a sojourn with the Gods.
There was a time when people I come from understood the withering and dying of children often as a consequence of the child’s proximity to the volatile presence of the Gods that grant us our days. They understood withering and dying children sometimes to be troubled by troubled, unsustained, unremembered ancestors. Children in the throes of afflictions we now have Greek or Latin sounding names for were once known to be in thrall to the Gods of Life and of Death, who were being crafted for deep service to life and to death by learning something of the mysteries of both. As it is, the Gods of Life and Death seem to have left us to our monolithic certainties, as perhaps have our unremembered ancestors, and we often gripe and grind in that orphanhood, free to concoct our own meaning of life and travail, utterly possessed of and by the untutored right to live, grudges at the ready.
I began writing this in the haze of interminable travel of the disembodying kind, in a departure lounge in LAX, a name which seems to raise anagram to the level of fate, bothered by a sound system so poorly achieved as to resemble a radio that can’t find a station. To make this trip I left tomorrow to get here now, such are the shenanigans forced upon us by the international date line that floats unclaimed and stateless in the Pacific. So the tone of the thing could be chalked up to fatigue. But I have this strange privilege now to be in many countries with many people forlorn and undone by their days, and I’ve also lived long enough to see the children of kith and kin wrangled by the mysteries of life, and some of them are dying now, and a few have done so, and this is what prompts me now. Sometimes at the bequest of those kith and kin, and sometimes without it, I have pleaded and made the case for these children’s lives being otherwise. And I’ve made the same case for a few of the countless ones that didn’t make it quite to their first breath. I don’t know why these things go as they do, any more than I know if the Old Gods will return to us and our abandoned ancestors might be inclined to forgiveness. What I’m counting on is that the meaning of these things is conjured and kept by how we live with them, and without them. That meaning is entrusted to us. We have things to learn about travail and endings, and children.
I end this writing sitting a few yards away from Nathalie Roy, co-conspirator of things Orphan Wisdom. She has been grinding shells into beads as I do so, thinking as she does of the children we know who are so far as I can tell being visited by the Gods of Life and Death, and petitioning on their behalf with her small, beautiful treasures. These words are my beads for now. Would that the children and their families and their peoples and Gods take them as mystified Amens.
This Mankiller Tour began eons ago, in February, with a small huddle of expats and curious Mexica, a crackling sound system and doubtful, generous Buddhists, riven pilgrims, end-of-the-road outcasts, trollers of purpose to go with their days, all of us gathered under the mantle, the flayed-open cordillera of Morellos, under the unvanquished Aztec pyramid on the cliff edge that has seen so much. Then to Mexico City, that troubled open heart of the Americas, to a shuttered room in a suite of rooms that was once home to a family of prestige and now much reduced. There were eco-anarchists, militant seekers, Buddhists again, some of certainty and some of confusion, wavering Catholics and Old World Jews and genteel kids volunteering their young days to the cause. To my agile, straining spontaneous translator and to my being troubled aloud they bent their ears, some of them, and listened and considered.
Sometime during the course of that second evening I was obliged to know something I did not seek, or did not count on: I’m in Mexico, I don’t speak Spanish, I’m talking about death and its details through a translator, and people of speckled lineage and jangled conviction are leaning in, are considering, are giving me the gift of their evening. This caravan of unlikelies has prevailed ever since, as it has wandered America. I’m not likely the best judge of it, singing inside this small disturbance, but things seem to have gained a certain momentum. For a crucial while I had a band, my name for the remarkable musician Gregory Hoskins who graced my pleas for mercy and for grace under mortal pressure with his own faithful cantos of muscular sorrow. People came, jammed doorways and stood on chairs and they lingered afterwards, unwilling it seemed to go back to a home unchanged by an unlikely evening of mortal mysteries.
Today I’m on a plane again, this time heading to lands left long ago by those whose heirs I’ve become. It isn’t a homecoming, surely not, but it’s not another place on a list of places, either. This breezy little tome I’ve written, Die Wise, was graced with a noble introduction by a denizen of England and of times gone by, name of Martin Shaw, with whom I was briefly reunited a week ago for a riotous night of elegy and lament worthy of the ages. (Keep a weather eye for a film record of that boisterous event, crafted by Ian McKenzie, that might see light later this winter.) In the spangled generosity of his Forward Mr. Shaw took me for a citizen of the Other World. And this was to my knowledge the first time I was recognized, the first time this drizzle of sorrow and love for life that is my claim for Orphan Wisdom was seen and called by name. This stirred my gratitude. I have gratitude for him personally and specifically, surely, but I’ve another gratitude that arrived in this slurry of anticipation and pause, one that rises in the departure lounge as I make my way back across the Atlantic, tracing the furrows ploughed centuries before when We Who Left, who could not afford to stay, parted ways so deeply with You Who Stayed, to become the great European fantasy of America. And Mr. Shaw wrote of we who left: “To us, when you left you became spirits. How does dying wise function when to we who stayed you are already dead?” This is surely the arche of sorrow and longing and the uprooting of the world in search of home that America has become. It is to this wonder that I am returning.
So this is the whisper inside these evenings that I propose, the murmur inside the orphan wisdom for a troubled and troubling time that I bear: that the time may be dawning now, as we glimpse the myriad endings of the order that was so strangely born, for the old ancestries to be met and claimed, that we begin finally to occupy that seat reserved for us at the groaning board in the mead hall of life by our precursors, by the Old Ones of those who may gather with me and with each other these November nights for grief, for mystery and for the sake of an orphan wisdom for these strange and stranger days that may be striving to be born. Would that we wrangle from it all a memory worthy of this story of our scattering and our coming round.
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,
These particular days and and nights prompt me – as they do many – toward darkness and silence. This comes with the territory if you are to the boreal born, as I am. I’m prone to these twins of December. I don’t mean I like them, particularly. I love them, but they aren’t easy to love. The twins of December are for real. They proceed regardless of your plans. They make it a challenge or a futility to get somewhere. They can break down every gadget, every allegation of necessity that comfort has conjured in you until there is you, and the possibility of being warm again for a while if all goes well, and nothing else.
No, I come to them more as an advocate than I do as a practitioner. It may come as a bit of news to some whose paths have crossed mine, but I am not accomplished at darkness or silence. Each of these seasonal Gods needs a proper welcome, and we need thorough practice at maintaining a place at the hearth for them. There is little in the current regime that prompts most of us to either. But darkness and silence in December are the finest of occasions for welcoming life into our days, the great prompters of grace and obedience, the great crumblers of aloofness, cleverness and irony.
About now some who are still reading this may be growing a concern for my outlook, and others might have certain reservations they’ve been nursing about my work now sustained and vindicated. I’ve written about these things before, at this time of year. I admit again I am not good at them, at least not yet (Griefwalker is more an assignment than it is a description). I do have a devotion to darkness and silence, though. They aren’t far from me. The devotion isn’t mutual, at least not in any way I can discern. Silence isn’t easy to come by when you talk for a living, and the black cold of this time of year isn’t friendly to my lungs. It has begun to force upon me a seasonal, wandering life. If this keeps up, and I get good at it, my ancestors might recognize me when the time comes for our meeting. They might recognize the mark of the seasonal devotee, the one who obeys by moving.
There are misapprehensions galore in December. Here is my purpose in visiting this again with you, now: to plead for darkness and silence. And here’s why: They are psychologized in our time, but they are not interior conditions of the human psyche. Never have been. We are simply not built for either. The chassis, the human body, just has too much running through it to be amenable to darkness or silence. They are not human attributes.
This hasn’t prevented novelists and moralists abounding from forcing either or both of these things upon romantic individuals, or heroes, or upon humanity as a whole. It is compelling as an idea, and it is an easy idea to have, but the entire enterprise of ‘inner life’ – as so many of our enterprises do – requires the human being at centre stage at every moment, in every era, in every possibility. We are awash in similitudes – or in their slightly more sophisticated brethren, metaphors – and the twins of December come in for heavy and wrongful employment in a metaphor-drunk, mythologically impoverished time, which our time relentlessly remains.
The aching beauty of this time of year as it comes to northern born peoples, at least to those not utterly conned by the promise of January beaches as the booby prize for a boreal birth, is the beauty of a time that neither compliments nor condemns people’s plans. The season is another being, another presence. It is a God, nothing less, and the winter God’s presence is neither negotiable nor an extension of how we feel about these shortest days, this blackest sky, this stillest air, or anything else.
Indigenous languages in the boreal corners of the world have elegant names for the particular months or moons of this time of year, and they are neither benign nor an extension of how these people feel about them. Instead, as indigenous ways of live tend to do, they have a precise attention to detail, an inclination to faithful witnessing, and a poetry and sensibility that has the world, not the human, at its centre. The Moon of the Shattering Trees. Now, that is an epic rendering of the thing. Completely accurate too, at least it has been until the climate changes now fully underway began showing themselves. Young trees get cold enough here that, with no prompting from wind, burst, raining bark and kindling down as if riven by lightning. If you are there when it happens you are entirely undone for a while, and the earth is alive again. The Moon of Moaning Ice. If you are out on the ice when it begins to shear and heave purely as a consequence of the darkness of this time of year, you hear our equivalent of whale talk. That is what it sounds like when the great contraction proceeds. The Starving Moon. Just in case you thought that ‘beauty’ means everything gets to live forever, the God of December and the twins that are God’s children come in for their portion and are fed, as every living thing is, by death.
So darkness is not a metaphor for some inner condition of a person, any more than an ancestor is a symbol or an image for how a person might feel about where or who they are from. Darkness – and this is all there is to see and learn, right now – is a living thing. Not a being, exactly. ‘Being’ is too static for this, too focussed on some essence or other. No, darkness is a way that life has of living according to its nature. Darkness is how life comes to know itself best, and we get to see life doing so. Stillness: stillness is how we get to overhear life murmuring to itself. Darkness isn’t where things nefarious and malevolent go to hide, laying in wait for innocence to amble past. It isn’t empty. And stillness isn’t waiting to be interrupted with purposeful sound, a staging area for eloquence or consequence. Stillness is where eloquence is headed. Stillness is eloquence’s midwife, and cradle, and resting place.
Right now it’s about -18C where I am, the sun ablaze and skirting the horizon. Yesterday there were bits of the river that the current had kept open. This morning at first light they were closed and no more. The place where the muskrat sunned himself a few days ago is today black crystal. Tonight the sky will be true, festooned with shards and stars, blue black velvet with light bleeding through from the other side.
As this continues and deepens the river ice amazingly grows down, slowing the water it meets until they join. This courtship goes on every evening and all through the night now, as courtship does. The beavers on the far side of the river are alert to this courtship, and their submarine industry is conjured by it. They venture onto land, which given their hesitations appears to be against their nature, to keep open feed paths below the ice and to reassure themselves that they have places to go should they need them. The wolves are alert to it too: the changes in sound under the pads of their paws is a new kind of stillness now. The ice changes underfoot, and sometimes they end up at the same place the beaver does, at the same time. If you come by later that day, or the next, the only sign of this midnight courtship and the quiet pageant of sustenance it lays out for its kin is a disturbance in the snow, maybe a bit of auburn fur or slate grey undercoat, the source still of the world’s best felt hats. All of this is easily missed if you are out for a walk hurriedly making your way back to warmth, if darkness is just a symbol, if stillness is just an absence.
And it gets better. This kind of darkness and cold makes the air slow down and thicken. And because of that you can hear for miles, if you lay your face on the biting cold as you’d lay your head on the track to catch news of the distant train, half hearing and half feeling. Dressing for these occasions means that your options for adornment and true style abound, layers of material aching for beading or embroidery, something t-shirts and flip-flops don’t know about. Seasonal affective disorder? A clever phrase that, translated, means: intolerance. I know there are remnants of ceremonies afoot in northern climes whose ancestry was engaged in trying to usher out – or force out – darkness and stillness. But these ceremonies were born in a time when human presence perched on the edge of life during those months. This isn’t true now. It isn’t a good story, this banishing of darkness. The story and the ceremonies of solstice have to change, as all the good ones have done, so as to recognize how much we have made the world in our image, to enthrone Darkness and Stillness as the proper visitations of what of the world still survives our presence.
So, all blessings upon the God who shatters trees. All gratitude to the twins of December for their invitation to stillness and to new eyes. And all fortune to you, who lived long enough to see it all, and to your house and your people.
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