Orphan Wisdom - Stephen Jenkinson

Stephen is a teacher, author, storyteller, spiritual activist, farmer and founder of the Orphan Wisdom School, a teaching house and learning house for the skills of deep living and making human culture. It is rooted in knowing history, being claimed by ancestry, working for a time ​yet to come.​

Stephen Jenkinson photo by Ian Mackenzie 1

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 - Danial Vitalis

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

Episode Breakdown:

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

Stephen Jenkinson - Die Wise - Dark Still

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.

Stephen Jenkinson

Stephen Jenkinson - Die Wise - Post

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.

Order Die Wise on orphanwisdom.com

 

Tim Wilson - The Life Giving Thing

What is life rooted in? – Tim Wilson, whose National Film Board of Canada feature documentary GRIEFWALKER about Stephen Jenkinson’s work, has put together an out take from the film with Stephen exploring the poetic and perennial mystery of soil.

Stephen Jenkinson - Old Hands

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stephen Jenkinson

2013 Stephen Jenkinson in Krakow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stephen Jenkinson - Learning Elderhood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stephen Jenkinson

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

Stephen Jenkinson

Ken Rose interviews Stephen Jenkinson about his work with Orphan Wisdom in a talk about Eldership and proceeding as if you are needed, not as being needy. Listen below by clicking on the orange play button to stream the podcast.

Photo: Ian Mackenzie