Die Wise – A Manifesto for Sanity and Soul, is Stephen Jenkinson’s new book about death and dying. Die Wise does not offer seven steps for coping with death. It does not suggest ways to make dying easier. It pours no honey to make the medicine go down. Instead, with lyrical prose, deep wisdom, and stories from his two decades of working with dying people and their families, Stephen Jenkinson places death at the center of the page and asks us to behold it in all its painful beauty. Die Wise teaches the skills of dying, skills that have to be learned in the course of living deeply and well. Die Wise is for those who will fail to live forever.
Die Wise will soon be published by North Atlantic Books and is now available for pre-order. Pre-ordering ensures you will be among the first to receive a copy once released and the first 100 people to order will have their copy signed by Stephen before shipping.
As part of the release the of the new book, filmmaker Ian MacKenzie produced this beautiful video trailer with Stephen sharing his story about the meaning and purpose Die Wise is meant to serve.
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.
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.
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
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.
Upcoming Events: Stephen will be teaching at Hollyhock next month in a session called Old Time: Learning Elderhood. Consider attending.
At the Orphan Wisdom School I teach with one weather eye on the rhythm of the kitchen. That means that I time the ebb and flow of my teaching day to the menu awaiting the scholars and to the considerable labours that underwrite it. For a few minutes early in the morning I stand back and watch Nathalie Roy and her faithful kitchen crew begin their conjuring of the day’s meals. Often they are preparing things the day before they are served. Nathalie’s blessed madnesses include a love of herding a thousand details and nearly that many ingredients towards the kitchen’s steady, amniotic warmth and hum. She does this often by murmuring prayers and singing tunes unknown to me that probably have their roots in the same part of the world that the ingredients and the recipes do. And, just about every time, the food anticipates what I am to teach that day, or the next day. I don’t know how she learned this skill, but I am glad she has it, and it schools me. So I often take my cues from the clang of pans and pots and the old world patter among the scullery royalty that accompanies it. This has been going on for a few years. I remind the scholars regularly that what I’m doing in the teaching hall is me trying to keep up with what is happening in the kitchen.
Which is to say that food is the mother of our school, in every way that can be meant, and the few of us that run the place are servant priest cooks, and those who come to learn are patrons of the old mystery religions of the hearth. That is a lot of heritage to burden our rickety enterprise with, but that is the truth of the thing. At the hearth, all manner of attention and devotion is given to the direction the broth is stirred, and with what spoon (there are left and right handed spoons), to the sequence of cool and warm additions to the slurry, dry and moistened. There are chalices of vitrified micaceous clay (that is what the cooking pots become), squatty ones, fulsome ones, statuesque ones, each of them resembling faithfully the soon to be full bellies that await them and the working bellies of the scullery royalty whose hands do the conjuring. These pots are handled gently, warmed before use and after cleaning, soothed into rest between meals. Stone mortars and metates each have a place of honour in the kitchen. To one side is a shrine, wherein live all the spirits of the place, overseeing the work, blessing the plates.
Which brings us to the food. When we began the school we knew it had to be planted deeply in it’s place. I myself had years of being parachuted into homeless, generic conference centres and retreat halls behind me, and I knew that the school would only live as a home for learning the mandatory human arts of living deeply and dying well if we made a home for it by employing those same mandatory arts. This meant knowing all we could about the food we were to serve those who were to labour so devotedly to learn. Learning is always learning unwelcome things about what you know, and the travail in learning about your food in our day and age is epic, truly. As many of you probably suspect, there are considerable barriers standing in the way of finding out about the food that keeps you alive, and the food that might be compromising your life. After seeing that struggle to get underneath the machinery of the food service industry for what it was, we knew that we had to grow the food to feed the people.
And so we began to farm. Which meant, as I’ve written here before, we had to grow dirt from sand and soil sanity from the chemical enterprise that farming has largely become in North America. It meant fences, furrows, broken tools. Without a tractor, a pump, electricity or running water, we were running an Iron Age operation. We had to enter into holy negotiations with the creek that roars down the mountain behind our place in spring and threatens to disappear into the ground by mid summer, in hopes that we could take some of that snow melt and beaver swill as the summer wore on and the rains tapered off. Each year our spring and our fall included a gathering of Orphan Wisdom scholars into the precinct of our fields for ceremonies of opening and closing, pleading and thanking, taking and offering. And we gathered, bought and traded for seeds and weaned animals.
All of this delivered us, as it would deliver you, to the irreducible, unnerving and mandatory altar of who plants and animals, seeds and soil are to us, and who we are to them.
I live and work in a culture where food is fuel. Pleasant fuel or not, tasty fuel or not, satisfying fuel or not, but fuel nonetheless. It is there to get us to the next monthly payment, the next appointment, the next day. It’s purpose in the world is to propel us through the world. When food becomes fuel – when anything becomes fuel – we lose sight of whatever once tethered it to the ground that gave it life, and we proceed as if it were in the world because our way of life requires it, as if it is an extension of us, part of the great need gratification engine that serves our relentless presence in the world. It becomes a homeless gorm of potential that carries cost but not indebtedness. Whenever we turn something into fuel, we make another slave in the world.
It will take a mighty and unlikely turn in our every habit for food to reacquire the old alchemical and hierophanic power that once bound your ancestors and mine to the land they lived upon and to the deepening mysteries that gave that land life. In those times and places food was medicine. That means that all sources of food were known to be doctors to life. Not slaves of the living, but doctors to life, and they were courted, cared for, fed, recompensed and prayed over accordingly. Once, food was known to be the elder, wiser brother and sister of those who gathered and grew and prepared and ate it. That means that plants, and the animals who fed upon them, were all the proof anyone ever needed of Gods in the world. The plant medicine people still alive and working today are a thin thread of practice wisdom and dedication which make the understanding of that older time a reliable, if remote, possibility for us still. This devotional wisdom is what is at risk in the ruthless global machinations of Big Pharma and Big Agra to replicate and synthesize forest and jungle medicine.
So for the last five years we’ve stood at the crossroads that people probably first stood at in the late Bronze Age or early Iron Age in Mesopotamia, China and Mesoamerica. Is it possible to grow plants and animals, kill them and eat them, propagate them, without enslaving them? Has it ever been possible?
Our way of cooking, feeding, farming and teaching the school is how we try to answer the question. The priesthood of farming, as Martin Prechtel has called it, is practiced and achieved by knowing, admitting to and trying to pay the inescapable debt incurred by farming, owed directly to the plants and animals, seeds and soil which together make the farm, and to Those which give life to seeds and soil … and by failing to bring the debt to zero. Ever. You cannot break even. There is a lot of grief in this way of farming, I assure you. But you cannot as a farmer buy your freedom from the spiritual debt of that enterprise by enslaving animals and plants and making them pay their way. Your debt accrues crushing interest in that enterprise, and that is exacted from your soul’s life.
So ours is a small mixed farm, which might be a part of the answer to the question. We don’t grow too much of anything, nor raise too much of anything. We rotate animals through pastures, plant in their wake, grow some of the food they will eat in winter, feed their aged dung to the plants, one eye on the sky and the other on the calendar, and from that endeavour feed the scholars and ourselves, and neighbours. The animals are fed organically and all the rest, but that doesn’t bring any human alertness to bear on the debt we owe to what gives us life. People concerned with food safety are generally mollified by the word ‘organic’ on the label. I am talking here about bringing honour to our deal with plants and animals; I’m not talking about food insurance for humans. This concern with food safety ushers us into a hall of barbershop mirrors, where every concern we get resolved brings another, more systemic concern forward, requiring another agri-solution, and so on without end: the system that enslaved the plants and animals sealing the moral fissures with more robust application of the enslavement system. ‘Organic’ likely has as much animal and plant indenturedness incurred as whatever it was intended to replace.
I don’t say that we’ve sorted any of this out; I say that we’re trying, every day, from the field to the plate and back again. It seems that what surrounds us here has some inkling of our effort. We’re not rewarded so much as we’re tolerated. So far, the plants and the animals have agreed to mate and bear their young close to our door, which might be their part of this deal we seem to have entered, a sign of some kind of fledgeling good faith on their part, a willingness to proceed towards a holy and honourable partnership with us despite the odds that civilized history demonstrates are against it all.
Early this spring, after some warm weather, the temperature plummeted again to -12C and lower, and these, as foretold by a farmer friend of ours, would be the nights (not the days) when the ewes would give birth. Up until those frigid nights the sheep kept well away from us, tolerating our presence during feeding time and otherwise bolting if we stood in one place in their pasture too long. But during those long nights, while emerald crystals hung in a cold black sky, our dogs assumed an uncommon calm and stood guard at the pasture gate, and the ewes seemed to give in to our intent to help the birthing. There was no skittishness. Nathalie rearranged those not yet born lambs that needed hooves pointed or legs straightened or heads pulled through. All the lambs lived, all the mothers lived. For two weeks or more, whenever we moved we could smell the ambrosial amniotic funk rise up from our clothes. It was in our pores, our noses, in the straw of the birthing stalls, everywhere, and it brought instant memories of those cold, holy nights.
It strikes me now that this was a kind of incense sparked by the Gods, a sign of recognition that we appeared willing to uncertainly, faithfully and at least this spring keep up our end of this riotous, grief soaked endeavour called caring for living things in the name of life. Life is fed by death, the world over, and animals and plants do die on our farm. Death is fed by noble, indebted treatment of what gives life, not by making sure that nobody dies. That scent of life, spilled over us and over a little corner of our farm, is a gift to those who keep the farm going day in and day out, and a bit of it hovers over the cooking pots of The Orphan Wisdom hearth. This is where the nourishment, the real medicine, is made.
Photo: Christopher Roy
Whoever is in charge these days might consider combing the populace for anyone still alive that has a reliable memory that goes back to the 1950’s or 60’s. A little later would be even better. Those rememberers should be given a stipend for life, and their only job would be to bear faithful witness to the relentless obscurantism that has blistered the last forty years, and to tell the rest of us what has changed. The madnesses have accelerated so that they’ve bent time, for a while, to their purposes, and it isn’t easy to remember that things – even in living memory – haven’t always been the way they are now. That would be revolutionary, to take on the discipline of faithful memory as an antidote for the spell we can fall under now: the strange certainty that our ways are universal and eternal and inevitable.
Lately I’ve been remembering the early 1980’s. Not the music. The shit storms that were blowing in central America, in central Europe, the ardent, obscene larceny they called NAFTA that was being conjured in Washington and Ottawa and Mexico City. I recall those good people of conscience with their nose in the wind – some of them – were beginning to bury their hopes in the backyard bomb shelters. In my little corner of the world I returned home in the midst of a recession of sorts and work was hard to find. I took a stint teaching in an ESL school, with a room full of kids from Guatemala, El Salvador and Chiapas. Ostensibly they were having their finishing year abroad, but really their parents had purchased for them a year of lonely safety from the terrible machinations of the right and the left, to keep them from the armies, the militias and the guerrillas.
The class had kids who the year before had flirted with guns in the countryside, with pamphlet writing and street demonstrations, with liberation theology and death squads back home. They were tormented by wanting to be with their families and by being grateful they didn’t have to be. Most of them weren’t nearly as politicized as they were scared. As kids do, they were trying on opinions and stances the way they’d do jeans in a clothing store, but the gravity of the scene at home strung out into the current of their days an undertow of guilt and urgency, and it made them unrecognizably substantial and too adult in the eyes of the Canadian kids they’d see on the street or in the bus. What was happening at home was so close to the bone, so painful to consider, that we rarely talked about it in class. They would lapse into unresponsiveness. There was just too much fear and loneliness, too much haunted uncertainty. Finding the words was hard enough in their mother tongue; it was impossible in the language they were learning.
And so we ended up talking about what was happening during those very same days in Poland. None of us knew anything about Poland, but the struggles in Gdansk and elsewhere and the marital law and goon squad street justice were in the news every day. The great gift of those struggles for my class was that they gave the kids a surrogate language to talk about their own lives, their fears for their future and the future of their towns and cities, their uncertain, drifting allegiances. In the early days Solidarity seemed like a doomed fantasy, and we waited for the Russians to plow that wild, unlikely flower under. But those tense months went on, and Solidarity began to look a little more like courage instead, like how it all could be. It carried with it a whisper about what was possible if enough people at the same time outgrew their bitter depression and defeat and decided, probably with nothing to lose, to act. Solidarity was contagious, at least in that classroom, and the kids would come to school daily with things they’d learned from the newspapers about what was happening in Poland. They were for a year displaced and homeless, but they still wanted to learn. So they learned someone else’s struggles and dreams, someone else’s enemies and allies, in someone else’s language, until they could learn their own.
Things went as they went for Poland, for Central America and for me, and by routes circuitous and unlikely this winter, thirty years later, I was in Poland for the first time, in the Krakov airport, heading towards two days of teaching. It was to be the first time I would try to plant my work in another language, a language I didn’t know five words of, and I was very unsure that we could manage anything of merit or use. There were a few stones in the road early on: the airport security guy asked me where my gun was, and things were strange and tense for a while; we passed a farm wall that had white supremacist rants spray painted along it’s thirty yard length; there was clearly a lot of borderline poverty in the countryside; almost half of the homes in Krakov burn coal to stay warm, and the air can be acrid and harsh. Our hosts had the heartaches that come from having kids and from not having them, from being young in a deeply uncertain time, from trying to make marriages and businesses work. They also had a canny alertness to what was happening in the world far from their borders, and with it a savvy willingness to try impossible things. My appearance there was once such impossible thing. The event took place on one of those European riverine freighters that seems a mile long and ten feet wide, but this one was tricked out beautifully as a teak and brass conference hall and restaurant, moored on the Vistula River. When the night came for the screening of Griefwalker in a language that was no one’s mother tongue, the place was packed. People came from all over the country, they told me. At the workshop the next day the same the place was packed again.
The organizers had hired a translator. She was nervous, capable and devoted. We conjured together that evening and all the next day a kind of syntactical dance, and it was marvelous. The people were curious, respectful and attentive. A good number of them chirped alternative translations of my opaque visions. When we came to the day’s end, the formal thanksgiving and farewells lasted a courtly and graceful forty five minutes. Very old world manners abounded. I received very fine applause. The organizers were abundantly lauded. But here is what I will never forget: the translator got a standing ovation, as was proper.
The people appreciated and honoured us for having come a long way to be with them. What was stirring and heart breaking, though, was the enormous regard and respect they had for the opportunity afforded them to hear something new, something from afar, and the veneration they had for learning, and for those who made it possible. Many of those people were of the generation that filled the streets for Solidarity and dared the Russians and their own secret police; the rest of them were the children of that generation. The early 1980’s were lived memories for them. The dreams for Solidarity were dangerous dreams in those days. There must be some real heart ache that many of them have not quite come true in the time since then. And still the peoples’ thirst for learning, and their respect for the chance of being taught, endures.
I have worked in many places across the English speaking world and beyond, and I’ve seen no equal to that thirst and that respect. It’s probably out there – I continue to travel as much as I do because I’m sure it’s out there – but I’m fairly sure it is uncommon. The irony is that teaching events abound in the English speaking world, minus that thirst and respect. Most of them are rootless, homeless, hovering in conference centres and retreats, belonging to nowhere, dedicated mainly to self improvement. Learning seems to be held in the same esteem now that food is: being so common it is more like a consumer good, more like fuel than medicine, tolerated when it is fast, sweetened and easy to process, and generally dismissed when it isn’t. A large crowd of North Americans attending an event given by an unknown teacher without any advance press or PR, in a foreign language, who doesn’t promise inevitable and instant personal transformation: that is an unlikely scene.
Teachers seem to have become more customer satisfaction engineers than living treasures. Teaching is trancing when it loses it’s ability to radicalize, and ‘radicalize’ means etymologically to draw one to the root of things. I hear that university teachers are now evaluated by their students, and that this determines a lot of job security. These days teachers – the radicalizers, at least – are paying, dearly, for being held to the artifice of conjuring novelty and schematizing wisdom. The day will surely come, if it hasn’t already, when the consequences will be more democratically disbursed.
I didn’t stay in touch with any of the Central American kids, but to this day their kinship with the Polish people I met thirty years later, unexpected as it was, is clear to me: it is forged by mayhem, and by a clear and present danger to the human ability for disciplined, purposeful wonder. Perhaps it took the predations and privations of the communists foreign and native, and before them the nazis and their collaborators, and before them the Austro-Hungarian imperialists, and before them I don’t know what, for the Poles of the present moment, at least the ones I was privileged to meet, to learn and relearn and remember and treasure the great privilege of learning. I haven’t given up on the outside chance that it might take something less catastrophic for our corner of this world to begin doing the same. What has been our increasing poverty during the course of my life time can one day again become our riches. All that is needed is a living, practiced understanding that the willingness not to know and the willingness to learn and to have real teachers in our midst – they are what conjure the teachers in our midst.
All blessings and praises upon the translators, and the great rememberers, and those who gather to hear them remember.
Photo Credit: Ian MacKenzie