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 for 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 temple…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 challenges 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, whether 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 October 16, 2015 Austin, Texas
Learn more about Gregory Hoskins at gregoryhoskins.com
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.
Tim Wilson, the Director of Griefwalker interviewed Stephen Jenkinson about money at the time “Money and the Soul’s Desires” was first published, in a piece filmed for Vision TV.
(Tim) I want to talk about some of the deep difficulties that many people have with money. I recall a story you told me about the person you were training with as a therapist. You had a financial arrangement with him, and one week you decided on your own to put off payment for a short while. And he turned on you with quite a strong response…
(Steve) Yeah, he did. I thought it would just be O.K., and eventually he looked up at me in that kind of end-of-the-millennium tone he could invoke, and he said ‘Why me?’
I was so taken aback. And you see this is the naiveté we bring to these things. I thought we understood each other. I thought understanding would translate to the forgiveness of debt temporarily, and I thought that’s how he would translate his compassion and understanding for me. I mean his generosity of spirit was to make sure that I didn’t lose track of how awkward and difficult this moment was. But if you’re on the other end, you anticipate that generosity means you get off the hook gently.
So one of the things money does is keep you firmly impaled — unless we enter a conspiracy where neither one of us will talk about it. That’s how family life around money goes.
Nobody welcomes that kind of attention, because it’s unbecoming. All of us know that too much fascination with money is unbecoming. And then it has this kind of mysterious and filthy overtone, so we shouldn’t talk about it too much, because we become base by doing so.
Of course money isn’t filthy. Money isn’t anything, really. It’s as without identity as possible to be. It has no form, shape, or meaning in and of itself. Like Velcro it picks up everything you want to attribute to it. It can absorb infinitely all projections that everyone would make upon it, and that’s the genius of money. It’s not constrained in any way. It can be generosity one minute, betrayal the next, support one moment and domination and control the next ..
Money is conceivably potentially inexhaustible. There can always be more, there’s never enough. In that way psychologically it resembles what we call in this game the inexhaustible breast. The inexhaustible breast doesn’t mean it’s always there, which is one of the great cruelties of childhood that you cried and it wasn’t in your mouth immediately, but money has that way of working.
It can promise the world .. it doesn’t necessarily deliver. And in that promise everything inside us that yearns for what’s limitless, bounteous, the Garden of Eden in other words, comes forward, in spite of ourselves, in spite of our good judgment, and whatever we’ve acquired in the interim that tells us, ‘oh that not’s quite true,’ but you feel it anyhow ..
(Tim) What do you mean? What exactly comes forward in us?
(Steve) The longing to be cared for without measure, without limit, unconditionally. Like when I went into the supervisor’s office and I said ‘I’m sure you can let this one go.’ That was a gesture directly in that area. You’ll take care of me, and the sign will be, you’ll let me off with the money.
It’s welcome when it’s appropriate at a certain age, but when you become older and no one can take the place of the one who seemed to promise all, the bitterness over that seeming to be promised and not coming forward is enormous, monumental. Of course it happens most emphatically in families, and it happens in families most emphatically around these money questions, because money so clearly resembles that inexhaustible potential. If it’s inexhaustible, and I don’t have it, there’s cruelty in the universe, you see ..
(Tim) Well here’s a situation that many people our age are finding themselves in, to do with inheritances. When my father died, part of me felt I never got from him what in money terms what he might have owed me. And it was quite a tear, I was quite anxious about that. It brought up feelings of ‘I never got …’
(Steve) And probably the feeling that you should never have had that feeling..
(Tim) Exactly ..
(Steve) Here’s the thing, This is what happens in this room all the time. Something comes up like that, and the first thing is to wish that away, as if that’s undignified, unbecoming of your position as a son and the oldest, etc. Now he’s dead and you’re sticking the lance in, so to speak. See, the great service done to you by that inheritance was the opportunity to taste, very viscerally probably, your sense that he hadn’t done enough ..
Tim: Whether that’s true or not …
Yeah. And the answer is it’s true and not true. Of course it’s true he didn’t do enough .. But by what measure? By the measure of what you wanted and yearned for, and whatever his limitations as a person were, and however his generosity didn’t translate into your terms, and on and on. And money gave you that opportunity to see and feel all that, unwelcome though it may be. But what a wonderful thing ..
(Tim): Another thing that came up after going through ‘I didn’t get enough was ..’well, I didn’t earn this in any way’ .. and there was guilt around that, too …
(Steve): And now what? Whose money is this? What did I do for this? Oh yeah. There’s no safety, eh? No way to not feel these things. So of course the nature of my work is to invite people constantly into the feeling of it. And And in this way I say that money gives you the opportunity to experience yourself authentically in spite of your inclination to the contrary …
(Tim) In spite of my inclination not to look at it, like you with your supervisor ..
(Steve) … Not to be authentic with yourself. And you see we damn money for this — at our own peril. I’m not saying to elevate it, I’m just saying, let it use you in this way, as you attempt to use it, because it’s very reciprocal. It’ll use you to get the truth out, money will. I know I’m talking about it as if it has its own mind, but it has a genius. Its emptiness is its genius. and it magnifies that which you are anyhow.
If you refuse to be tainted by money struggles, then you give up an opportunity to become spiritually enriched, disciplined, informed, and then you cut yourself as a potential example of being that way to others, see? Why? All because you’d like it to be simpler than it is. You’d like it to be cleaner than it is, and a lot less confounding than it is.
Money has the wonderful power to again attach you to the world, when the spiritual inclination of course is to lift off, and glide. And money says ‘No, you were born in this world, in this flesh, and I will nail you again to the wheel of this world, so that you leave nothing behind, and you can stand finally some way of contending.’ That’s all. You don’t have to win, you have to play. That’s what money says — “Play.”
© 1996 VISION TV
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
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.