Being the subject of a documentary film is not employment for the faint of heart, nor is it for those with average skin density. The camera catches you in odd moments – at least you hope they’re odd. It portrays you sporting questionable discretion sometimes, and dubious lucidity at other times. It makes for odd introductions when you appear at screenings. One of my most curious intro’s: “Here is Stephen Jenkinson, a character in the movie Griefwalker.” I wonder what character they thought I was playing.
The internet churns out so much frame by frame disposable eternity that anybody from anywhere can loom up out of the mist to claim a little of your attention, at any time. Play your cards right and one day you could be that anybody, looming. And then what you said or did will be a stand in for you.
The most challenging part of the whole thing for me is that what ended up in the film Griefwalker stands in many viewers’ minds as my final word on a few subjects. People imagine that I planted my feet firmly, smoothed my hair for the eternal close-up (or should have), and then crafted an elegy for the ages. More often what ended up in the film is something I thought was important on a certain Tuesday in late fall, paddling along a river in my early fifties, an hour before dusk.
But maybe that’s the way it is always: there are only ever particular afternoons, particular rivers, particular moments in the great arc of your days, particular things that came to you to say, and you didn’t stop saying them. You were wondering, that’s all, and you’ve had some practice at it by now, and it shows. And maybe that qualifies you for the documentary treatment. Someone thinks that what you said bears some scrutiny, and is worth repeating, and what you wondered goes out tottering on spindly legs into the world. Then you get emails from Burma and Belfast letting you know that someone else agreed, or didn’t, or could have said it better, or decided to live another day because of what you said one Tuesday in late fall, or because you carried on too. There’s a lot of companionship in going on, unexpected companionship. People often recognize that.
I was surprised a few months ago when I got an unexpected invitation to teach at an Anishnabeg reserve in northern Ontario. The organizer’s brother had seen Griefwalker on tv, and thought I might be a good idea. I was honoured to be asked, but I tried to persuade the lady that, at least politically, it probably wasn’t a wise thing to do. How could a white man stand up in a room of native people and teach anything, in any fashion, and not conjur memories and reincarnations of residential schools, Indian agents, pass books, land grabs, half apologies, Oka and Ipperwash and all the colonial and genocidal policies and practices that for many people on both sides of the divide are not ‘in the past’? Probably he couldn’t. But she persisted. She wanted me to talk about grief, about losing, and her community needed the chance to talk about it. With real misgivings I agreed to come for a couple of days.
Here’s the great mystery of what happened. First, people came. Lots of them. And they came again for the second day. Old people came. Parents came. Band council members came. Christians and traditionals and the undecided and unclaimed came. For a while they watched me, politely and intently. Without restlessness or boredom or disaproval they waited to see why I’d come and what I had.
For two days we walked a tightrope strung between two sturdy posts: one, the good intent and curiosity that we’d all brought with us, and the other, the last five hundred years that carried us there. We were all waiting to see whether this time anything could be different. I worked on it, and they worked on it too. There was a word I so carefully avoided using – we – and that was because it wasn’t clear yet in that room whether ‘we’ was even possible, or preferable.
Here’s the second great mystery of what happened. Slowly and softly and carefully people began to talk about their sorrows, about the unexpected and the violent deaths, about the break ups and break downs and all the endings and thefts and losses that happened weeks ago and generations ago. The great, unexpected marvel was that they didn’t keep their grief from me. They didn’t ‘circle the wagons’. I gave what I’ve learned about grief, and they gave their willingness to grieve in return. In that exchange we conjured a bit of the magic of deep human life. We didn’t ‘set aside our differences’, and we weren’t the same underneath the skin. But because everyone for a little while risked hurting together and remembering together, something like ‘we’ appeared.
There is a lot of work to be done now, right now, in our time. Some of it is ecological, some political and economic, but all of it is cultural. Work I think is best understood as ‘the thing you’re least inclined to do’, and so we have our work cut out for us. The dominant culture, as near as I can tell, is in the beginnings of a terminal swoon. I don’t think it can be avoided. It’s end can only be prolonged or prompted, veiled or midwifed; those are our choices. The dominant culture was not built as if the last five hundred years on these shores had happened; it was built in spite of those years. It was built with a shrug to the past, and with the view that the past is gone. That is the principal reason for it’s ending. A culture unwilling to know it’s ragged, arbitrary origins is fated to a kind of perpetual, uninitiated adolescence, and it is by this adolescent spirit of privilege and entitlement and dangerous amnesia that our culture is known in the world.
We have to be in the culture making business, and soon. Real culture is not built on bad myths of superiority or inevitability or victory. It is built by people willing to learn and remember the stories that slipped from view, the rest of the truth that the empire won’t authorize. That learning and remembering costs people dearly. The work of building culture is learning and remembering how things have come to be as they are, without recourse to premature, temporary fixes, or to depression and despair. The way things are now, despair is a laziness no one can afford.
In other words, culture is built by people whose wisdom is underwritten and sustained by grief. It is in grief that we can recognize the humanity of other peoples, and they ours. Not general, faceless discontent, but the ordinary, mysterious grief the rises in each of those this-worldly moments when we meet the g’chi manido, the great mystery of life, each time we are willing to remember what is no longer. The Anishnabeg people are here, at home, and their memories and griefs are a real part of their land title now. Any culture seeking sanity and belonging – especially any newly emerging culture – must consider apprenticing to their many skills of broken heartedness.
Stephen Jenkinson, MTS, MSW