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.​

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It could be that some of you have been waiting for this small piece of news a long time, perhaps longer than a long time, or perhaps it has seemed that way. The waiting list for a new school grew to many hundreds while I wandered the hemispheres on the Mankiller Tour, (which began casually in 2015 and hasn’t come to it’s senses yet). No one on this end saw that coming. The waiting list folks have been chewing this bone for a few days, and now we are letting it be known that a new class of the Orphan Wisdom School here in eastern Ontario, Canada will gather in the coming spring (First session: May 3-7, 2017). There will be another new class for our friends overseas which will have it’s beginning in Wales, UK (First session: May 17-21, 2017).

It is news to no one that we are in some strange days. Strange days. I want you to be assured by one thing: that strangeness and these days will crowd the threshold of the Orphan Wisdom School, and they will get the harrowing and the heartache they deserve as we go about our learning. Perhaps there are mysteries tethered to the stake now. Maybe this is what it has come to. Perhaps some portion of this mystifying and sorrowed world is attending to the way in which we awaken, sorrowed as some of us are. This newest not-quite-yet-conjured Orphan Wisdom School will proceed accordingly, with little evidence that this is so or that what we do might consequence the deal.

Would that our endangered and dangerous days be remembered, years from now, as a time when some gathered and rose up and, truant no more, learned their lives. Then our learning together will begin to be tethered to something vast and thrilled, and burdened with purpose,

Stephen Jenkinson, MTS, MSW

Learn more about all the new class dates and registration information on the School page.  

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Still, mostly. That’s where I sit tonight. Perhaps you are still, too. It’s already begun. There’ll be torrents, and the building up of memory, and the betrayal of endings. But not from here. It’s still, mostly, where I am. I made some pretty stout vows about this day, some rash and utterly faithful declarations. I questioned the merit of ploughing the field of any day that he did not awaken to. I have my reasons. I do not this night credit any ability – any willingness – to go on into a time, a world, no longer adored as he adored it. I did not meet him. I’m glad of that. I was in the same building once. I’m glad of that, too. I saw him doff his hat. He bowed. What else is there? This is not night. It isn’t day. This isn’t any kind of time. This is ending. Patron saint, unawares. Imagine: a master practitioner of sorrow, levelling with anyone who’d listen. Levelling with the Makers. I suppose he just asked to be let out. They let him out. How poor again, the world. And winter coming on.  

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I have – it is no secret, and there is no suspense – made something of a living by being troubled aloud about ordinary things. This has been my fortune. It could be that many of you reading this have had a hand in it; you have my thanks. There has from time to time been a fugitive notoriety that has gathered itself around these overly principled laments, Sancho Panza style. About this I am both guarded and grateful in fitful, equal measure. A while ago I was speaking with a friend who reminded me that he knew me – his phrase – before I was famous. ‘Stick around’, I told him, ‘you’ll know me afterwards too.’ That might sound sullen or untrusting, but think of it as my citizenship declaring itself, a northern version of how some of us keep ourselves in check, of not being bold. Envying them in ignoble fashion, some of us up here still tend to leave ‘bold’ to our American neighbours.

It is canonical to say that such notoriety doesn’t endear you to those with whom you share a neighbourhood. And it does make strange bedfellows of some workers in the sorrow fields, alas. Notoriety is hard work for everyone involved, and the work clothes rarely favour the worker. Would that they favoured the work instead.

Imagine though how the day might go if some of us were awakened to the unflagging sway of this grace: It may be that we are not emperors of intent, governed and governing by what we mean. Could we be people of consequence instead, purveyors of the waxing and the waning, properly in thrall to the alert, lucid and honourably troubled genius of our time? And more: Could it be that we are meant? Troubled people born to a troubled time, yes, but chosen by trouble as its balm. Chosen not for affliction but for anointing.

Taste that on your tongue: we are a meant people, we humans. I don’t say this is a recipe for heroism, or vainglory, or triumphalism. I don’t say that we are meant to rule, or prevail, or even continue, but only that we are likely on the receiving end of every good idea, good fortune or good day we’ve had. Just as a dream may be the murmuring of a neglected, quieter self, so may it be that the fact that we dream at all, and that we are bent at times towards the little altar of abandoned stones out behind the house that are regrets, and that on our better days still hanker after mercy and after justice, that all of this might be the murmuring of  neglected precursors and unsuspected totemic lines of ancestors, human and otherwise, riding us into the world? The human-centered epoch, the anthroposcene era: the wags say that is what we have ushered in, everything made in our image. The anthroposcene era might be the loneliest time yet for humans in search of humanity. And yet we are crowded by throngs of the unclaimed, of Those Who Came Before – Those From Whom Our Meaning Comes.

Being vexed by the grim parade might only be a defensible line of work in a time crazed into stratagem and solution. In our particular strange days, in this tangle of mysteries granted us, I’ve seen that you can sell out the place if the programme promises schemes for deliverance. In so doing, there is the small matter of selling out the people who come when you do. You won’t often be forgiven if you are short on  fix, though. It happens that way, frequently.

We’ve been trained from an early age to lavish whatever skill of the tongue we’ve managed on things we are sure of and succored by. Still, there is a certain eloquence that might yet be reserved for consternation, fit for it, and that eloquence, fix-free, serves the trouble and the troubled faithfully and well. That is the modest proposal of the Orphan Wisdom School: to be tethered to your time, serving its bloat and its sorrows best by sorrowing from time to time, arrayed in fineness of speech, ennobling to hear, on occasion giving up the day off, a recognizable denizen of the dismal and the dim. You might not believe it, but some people do grow something like a taste for this, and become practitioners of speaking and of hearing this elegant thing. They savour the sounds that sorrow no longer locked in the private and the personal plays down the length of their bones and their days. And it thrills me that they do.

All of it is confounding enough when people come to this school of mine, and that is why I have against good judgment thrown the doors open occasionally to convene another congress of wonder – something I may do again.  It is unnervingly unlikely that I should be invited to bring this ramshackling torrent to other jurisdictions, other countries even. I couldn’t craft such a thing, even if I had designs to do so. Too presumptuous. Nothing in what I do, conjured in one little corner of this world, seems to favour translation to anywhere else, not to me. But invitations cross the threshold, and the honour is mine, and the troubles of these days seem to ask that once in a while we go out beyond where we might belong.

So early in the year, summoned by kindness and cajoled and prodded and listening, I am bound for Oceana: Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania, Bali perhaps. This time I am festooned with a band. Gregory Hoskins will lend his music and his road-tested grace to the cause. This cannot possibly succeed, certainly not financially, and it cannot possibly translate, I shouldn’t think, and I could not persuade myself of any necessity for it. But the grace of invitation prompts us both to risk notoriety and belonging and the chagrin of neighbours one more time. Cantos and controversy are in the offing.

What might we call an evening of mongrel sorrow and dappled magic and wonder, fringed with regard for the gift of the tongue entrusted to us, harkening and hortatory and bardic and greying, steeped in mortal mystery, uprooted from its uncertain home in the North of America and cast divination-style like bones on a dusty proving ground so far away?

We might call it: Nights of Grief and Mystery. Should we all be spared, we might see some of you there.

Stephen Jenkinson, MTS, MSW Founder of The Orphan Wisdom School

A Note: If you’re interested in hosting Stephen in your community while he is on tour in Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania and Bali, or elsewhere, please be in touch with us.

Photo courtesy of Ian MacKenzie.

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You die in the matter of your living. In poetic and soulful language, Stephen Jenkinson speaks of the moral imperative to contemplate and reconcile death as a way to inform how we live, reclaim our ancestral roots, redeem our past, and leave a legacy for those we love. Join Stephen at his upcoming Hollyhock retreat on July 31 – Aug 5, 2016.

Orphan Wisdom - Stephen Jenkinson - DIE WISE - Victoria07

What constitutes dying well in a death-phobic culture? Stephen Jenkinson looks squarely in the eye of death. It is his experience from working with hundreds and hundreds of people who are actively dying, that, for the most part, we are encouraged by those around us not to let our dying be a big part of our life. He points out that this death-phobic culture “…prescribes [that] our understanding of the best dying is the one that messes with you the least, and the only way you can achieve that is to establish some kind of firewall of awareness whereby the realities of dying don’t intrude, and when they do, you’re losing a positive outlook that you have to reinstate.” In other words, in a death-phobic environment you are not allowed to know that you are dying when you are dying. Families are besieged by arguments over whether or not to tell their loved ones they are dying. In this dense and profound dialogue, Jenkinson offers this perspective when asked about wrestling with death as opposed to fighting with it: “As you are dying you get an opportunity to live in a way that your normal life has not granted you… [you] answer the bell and testify deeply to how radically blessed you were to be able to live long enough to realize how fine it was to be alive… You’re under no obligation to accept that you’re dying when you are, which is the current mantra. Hopefully you’d be heartbroken about the fact that you don’t get to live a lot longer, hopefully you wish it were otherwise, and occasionally you demand that it be otherwise. This is in keeping with dying well.” He also adds that life is a time-limited offer and the “obligation is to obey. Obey doesn’t mean submit; obey means attend to. What is this asking of me now?” There is much to ponder in this dialogue whether or not you are actively dying.

Stephen Jenkinson - Die Wise - A Manifesto for Sanity and Soul - Nautilus Award

We are thrilled to share news that Stephen Jenkinson’s DIE WISE – A Manifesto for Sanity and Soul, his new book about grief, and dying, and the great love of life published by North Atlantic Books is a recipient of the Nautilus Award.

Honourees are selected for their exceptional literary contributions to spiritual growth, conscious living, high-level wellness, green values, responsible leadership, and positive social change as well as to the worlds of art, creativity, and inspirational reading for children, teens, and young adults. In recognition for his contribution to the genre of death, dying, and grief, Stephen Jenkinson’s Die Wise was awarded the silver medal.

Nautilus Book Awards Silver and Gold Winners are carefully selected in a unique three-tier judging process by experienced teams of book reviewers, librarians, authors, editors, book store owners, and leaders in the publishing industry.

Nautilus award winning authors include Deepak Chopra, M.D., Barbara Kingsolver, Marianne Williamson, Thich Nhat Hanh, Eckhart Tolle, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu, Naomi Wolf and many other leading writers, speakers and thinkers. Learn more about the awards at nautilusbookawards.com

About the Author

Stephen Jenkinson, MTS, MSW, is an activist, teacher, author, and farmer. He has a master’s degree in theology from Harvard University and a master’s degree in social work from the University of Toronto. Formerly a program director at a major Canadian hospital and medical-school assistant professor, Stephen is now a sought-after workshop leader, speaker, and consultant to palliative care and hospice organizations. He is the founder of The Orphan Wisdom School in Canada and the subject of the documentary film Griefwalker.

Orphan Wisdom - Bodhi Be Interview with Stephen Jenkinson

Stephen Jenkinson interview with Bodhi Be’s Doorway into Light radio show about life and death as it explores the wonder in the fields of aging and dying and death and what brings meaning and purpose to life. Doorway into Light Founded by Reverend Bodhi Be, Leilah Be and Ram Dass (Dr. Richard Alpert), Doorway Into Light is engaged in advocacy and educational programs on Death and Dying on Maui, with families and professionals in the field, as well as actively engaged in helping dying people, their families and care-givers.

Orphan Wisdom - Suddenly, It's Now Again - Photo by Ian MacKenzie

I was at a film festival a few years ago, having just screened Griefwalker, and I was sitting beside Ian Tamblyn, one of Canada’s finest troubadours. We knew each other not at all, but it can happen that something like an Old Sorrow binds people for a time, to the moment of their meeting and to the uncharted lives that have brought them to it. And so Ian began telling me how it seemed that he had many people, friends of his own age especially, suddenly dying around him. I wondered with him whether it might not have come to be that he was old enough now that that was going to happen more and more, a sure sign that he wasn’t left out of life or its ways of carrying on. Ian Tamblyn and I sat quietly for a while after that, and then he looked off across the crowd of people and through the window, out onto the turning, widening gyre that is this world that we’ve been granted to, and he said, “Ahh, dying. That’s the Big Tent.”

And it is, of course, the Main Event, the gathering-in round which all others are gathered. We were both old enough that evening for all of that – the dying and the news and the steady parade making its way past us for now – to have deeply and truly begun. But no matter how many endings before our own have unspooled before us, none of this makes us ready to see it, not when all of that grinds away in a culture that resolutely does not believe in it. There’s nothing inevitable about getting it. There’s no microchip in your birth certificate or mine (though they are, I’ll grant you, probably working on this in the private sector, which might be the only sector left) that will prompt us towards candor or courage or wisdom or elderhood, or seeing what is there to be seen.

So, being ‘ready’ for a seat in the Big Tent is something that might come in after the fact – and maybe because of the fact – but rarely before so. And ‘sudden’? What makes one ending sudden, and another not so much? Well, ‘sudden’ doesn’t really come from how long the ending takes to end, no matter its brevity. A sudden ending isn’t sudden because it is quick. No, a sudden ending is sudden because, though it was there to be seen, and known, and lived, it wasn’t. ‘Sudden’, strangely, comes directly from the haphazardly guarded vault of what you claim to know. That’s where you’ll find it, in those times when you’re granted entry, that feel that something has occurred that careens out of the mists and into your days utterly, inconveniently and discourteously out of Nowhere. You seem to know it’s sudden, but you don’t seem to know why.

There are guards, you see, at the entrance to kingdom of what you know, Wizard of Oz style, whose vigilance is staunch but inconstant. And we could name them. Private Willingness is the corpulent one, the one without much on-the-job exercise, and Private Capacity is his generally gaunt and untested confederate. They oversee what goes in and what goes out of the unsecured trove of what you know, allowing in and out only what seems worthy. Endings are sudden when you slip past the guards, drop down into the musty ossuary of what you know and can’t seem to find the endings there. That’s why. Not feeling ready for the knowable heartache of ending, for example, sets us up for the prejudice, the certainty that we didn’t know about it because it was sudden and impossible to know, and not because we didn’t want to know about it.

Dying, a particular kind of ending, is a knowable thing not much known in our time. I don’t mean the day or hour of dying, though with practice and possessed of a certain burdensome gift these can be known. I mean the givenness of one’s death: that is entirely, mysteriously and calamitously knowable, and from what I’ve seen in the last few decades it isn’t much known. Someone wrote me recently and thanked me for this line in Die Wise: “You simply cannot tell from how most of us live that most of us know we will die.” And I would add now: “much less that most of us know we are dying when we are.” So, sudden death is sudden because it isn’t expected, or suspected, or in any way welcome, not because it is quick. The truth is that death is announced and pronounced, it is foretold and promised, and anointed with necessity and perfumed with purpose, a purpose that hangs suspended over the crevasse that opens between what you welcome and are comforted by on the one side and what you are given to realize and carry with you through the length of your days on the other.

This, to sound antique and continental and a bit belligerent, is all very well when we are bantering about Life over drinks or retreating in a retreat centre somewhere, but it is another thing entirely when we are dragged to the cliff edge of what seems just and merciful and knowable by something so scant in purpose that it conjures the Abyss, and offers us citizenship in Oblivion. One of those things, surely, is the suffering, and the withering unto death, of children. I devoted many pages of Die Wise to it, and I’m no more resolved or accepting of that withering now than I ever was.

Well, here may be the torment of the thing: Children are demonstrably not ‘too young to die’, no matter how often we might say such a thing. Children can as foreseeable die as the rest of us, and they do. Nor are children ‘at the beginning of their lives’, no matter their age. Children are as deeply in the fullness of their lives as some who are reading or writing these lines, perhaps in some instances more so. As many of you have heard me say over the years, children are incapable of ‘potential’, meaning that they are up until a few years before puberty incapable of calibrating the worth or the merit or the entitlement of their days according to how many days they haven’t yet lived, or won’t get to live. That particular disconsolate phantom comes to us a bit later in life, and once nestled in usually stays on for the duration.

Children’s capacity is in childhood, in not having yet learned the manner of ‘rights’, in mystification and ordinary awe, and they come to their trouble or their withering mystified and awestruck. Of course, they wish things were otherwise, especially when nursing those around them who are nursing grievance. But their example to the rest of us is not nostalgic, carried by a memory of a time less true or truer than this one. It is prehistoric, carrying a memory that what is true now has always been true, whether it was known and welcomed or not. Withering and dying children are for all this a powerful presence among us, a chance for us to get it right, a sojourn with the Gods.

There was a time when people I come from understood the withering and dying of children often as a consequence of the child’s proximity to the volatile presence of the Gods that grant us our days. They understood withering and dying children sometimes to be troubled by troubled, unsustained, unremembered ancestors. Children in the throes of afflictions we now have Greek or Latin sounding names for were once known to be in thrall to the Gods of Life and of Death, who were being crafted for deep service to life and to death by learning something of the mysteries of both. As it is, the Gods of Life and Death seem to have left us to our monolithic certainties, as perhaps have our unremembered ancestors, and we often gripe and grind in that orphanhood, free to concoct our own meaning of life and travail, utterly possessed of and by the untutored right to live, grudges at the ready.

I began writing this in the haze of interminable travel of the disembodying kind, in a departure lounge in LAX, a name which seems to raise anagram to the level of fate, bothered by a sound system so poorly achieved as to resemble a radio that can’t find a station. To make this trip I left tomorrow to get here now, such are the shenanigans forced upon us by the international date line that floats unclaimed and stateless in the Pacific. So the tone of the thing could be chalked up to fatigue. But I have this strange privilege now to be in many countries with many people forlorn and undone by their days, and I’ve also lived long enough to see the children of kith and kin wrangled by the mysteries of life, and some of them are dying now, and a few have done so, and this is what prompts me now. Sometimes at the bequest of those kith and kin, and sometimes without it, I have pleaded and made the case for these children’s lives being otherwise. And I’ve made the same case for a few of the countless ones that didn’t make it quite to their first breath. I don’t know why these things go as they do, any more than I know if the Old Gods will return to us and our abandoned ancestors might be inclined to forgiveness. What I’m counting on is that the meaning of these things is conjured and kept by how we live with them, and without them. That meaning is entrusted to us. We have things to learn about travail and endings, and children.

I end this writing sitting a few yards away from Nathalie Roy, co-conspirator of things Orphan Wisdom. She has been grinding shells into beads as I do so, thinking as she does of the children we know who are so far as I can tell being visited by the Gods of Life and Death, and petitioning on their behalf with her small, beautiful treasures. These words are my beads for now. Would that the children and their families and their peoples and Gods take them as mystified Amens.

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Looking like Willie Nelson on a good day, Stephen Jenkinson is ‘on the road again’ telling our death-phobic culture that all the solutions for death that we come up with reinforce our fear of it.

After 20 years working alongside the dying, his manifesto, Die Wise (2015), tells us to stop making death ‘acceptable’ and learn to openly grieve it.

Grief Walker is the title of the Canadian National Film Board documentary about him, but Stephen answers to ‘Grief Monger.’

Originally posted on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation show The Spirit of Things

Stephen Jenkinson - A Good Goodbye

What does it take to “Die Wise”? How can we start the conversation in our death-avoidant culture? Stephen Jenkinson, the author of Die Wise: A Manifesto for Sanity and Soul, has a lot to say on the topic.

Stephen Jenkinson joins Gail Rubin for a special extended conversation on A Good Goodbye Radio in advance of his appearances in Albuquerque and Santa Fe coming up March 17, 18 and 19.

In this 33-minute interview, they discuss the death avoidance prevalent in the dominant North American culture, the drawbacks of having More Time as a hospice or palliative care patient, the consequences of being hopeful when dying, and ways to change language and to change behaviours related to death and dying.