Culture activist, worker, author ~ Stephen teaches internationally and is the creator and principal instructor of the Orphan Wisdom School, co-founded the school with his wife Nathalie Roy in 2010, convening semi-annually in Deacon, Ontario, and in northern Europe.
He has Master’s degrees from Harvard University (Theology) and the University of Toronto (Social Work).
Apprenticed to a master storyteller when a young man, he has worked extensively with dying people and their families, is former programme director in a major Canadian hospital, former assistant professor in a prominent Canadian medical school.
He is also a sculptor, traditional canoe builder whose house won a Governor General’s Award for architecture.
Since co-founding the Nights of Grief and Mystery project with singer/ songwriter Gregory Hoskins in 2015, he has toured this musical/ tent show revival/ storytelling/ ceremony of a show across North America, U.K. and Europe and Australia and New Zealand. They released their Nights of Grief & Mystery album in 2017 and at the end of 2020, they released two new records; Dark Roads and Rough Gods.
He is the author of Come of Age: The Case for Elderhood in a Time of Trouble (2018), the award-winning Die Wise: A Manifesto for Sanity and Soul (2015), Homecoming: The Haiku Sessions (a live teaching from 2013), How it All Could Be: A workbook for dying people and those who love them (2009), Angel and Executioner: Grief and the Love of Life – (a live teaching from 2009), and Money and The Soul’s Desires: A Meditation (2002). He was a contributing author to Palliative Care – Core Skills and Clinical Competencies (2007).
Stephen Jenkinson is also the subject of the feature length documentary film Griefwalker (National Film Board of Canada, 2008, dir. Tim Wilson), a portrait of his work with dying people, and Lost Nation Road, a shorter documentary on the crafting of the Nights of Grief and Mystery tours (2019, dir. Ian Mackenzie).
His books, recordings and DVDs are available for purchase at the Orphan Wisdom Shop.
To inquire about Stephen Jenkinson’s work, speaking engagements, live-streams, counsel calls, concerts, media interviews, and school, please contact us.
About The Writer
Conceived while the ash of the Second World War settled. A sustained and sustaining influence thereafter.
I am read to beginning then, and for years afterward. Some ability to story-hear and story-see comes to me, and persists.
Very young and, mysteriously, dying. Physicians can’t explain when, a week later, I don’t die after all. Eventually, everyone in the house gets used to this, and it is forgotten.
Shipwrecked in the Mediterranean. A stone mason in Gibraltar. An angel visits me in Notre Dame Cathedral. Other misadventures deepen my days.
Harvard University (Master of Theology): Fall in love with learning, receive an unearned scholarship and become a legal alien. In the normal confusion of such a thing I enlist in training for the priesthood, having never been to church. I am counselled otherwise, which was a good idea for everyone involved. The strange dream of a devotional life is traded for learning something of the history of the world.
Gathered up into an undeclared apprenticeship to a magisterial black storyteller in America, a man aflame, and from him learn the majesty of the spoken word. Here I see incarnate human courage conjured by an endangered, endangering time, and everything changes.
University of Toronto (Master of Social Work): Here I obtain a working visa that grants me entry to the helping professions. Years are spent learning the elaborations of human sorrow. Marriage and children. The limits of all things psychological become clear. The mythic and poetic poverty of my time becomes clearer. This is the principal affliction.
I begin a decade in the desert unawares. Learn some skills of the hand: stone carving, canoe making. Build a house and swear I’ll never do it again.
I write a book about money and what I imagine are the soul’s desires. The publisher goes bankrupt. The book is discontinued before it is continued. I buy cases of it from a bargain book outlet in a mall, and swear I’ll never do it again. Somewhere in there I enter the second half of my life.
Though clearly not organizational material I am courted into the health care system. Unwisely I accept. First encounters with the mysteries of palliative care. I am now in the death trade unawares, where no one wants to die. The unadorned madness of a death phobic culture invites me to dance, and I dance. I appoint myself its adversary. The beneficiary of administrative benign neglect, I inadvertently begin the revolution of death-centred care. For a while it works: creator of a centre for children’s grief, assistant professor in a medical school. The revolt is time sensitive: I am counselled otherwise again. Marriage again.
The National Film Board of Canada produces a documentary on my work from this time: Griefwalker. I build another house and swear…
People bereft of ceremonial tuition ask me to do their weddings, their baby blessings and house blessings and funerals, and I do them. The great longing for ancestry and for elders is under it all. An Anishnaabe elder calls me “a great rememberer,” another worthy assignment. I begin farming. Desirous of big learning I conjure a school for orphan wisdom that might teach the unauthorized history of North America and other things, certain that no one will come. I’m wrong again: they do. Teaching across the continent and in Europe ensues. Life resembles an extended rock-and-roll tour, minus everything you can think of. Grandchildren.
Somewhere in there I decide to testify to what came to me during my time in the death trade. My breathing is troubled, continuing to live becomes iffy, we go to Mexico in the event that this is it. I write the dying book in the shadow of an overlooked Aztec pyramid. I call it Die Wise: A Manifesto for Sanity and Soul. The “manifesto” part troubles some people, but I decide to be honest about it.
I don’t die after all, again. I go on.
Stephen Jenkinson, MTS, MSW
About Orphan Wisdom
Orphans are not people who have no parents. They are people who don’t know their parents, who cannot go to them from here. Ours is a culture built upon the ruthless foundation of mass migration, but it is more so now a culture of people unable to say who their people are. In that way we are, relentlessly, orphans. Being an orphan culture does not mean that we have no wisdom. But wisdom is being confused in our time with information, with opinion, with experience.
Not knowing where you are from is not the same thing as being from nowhere, but it does mean that there is work of all kinds to be done. It could be that the only way for successful refugees to make a culture from their flight is to first be faithful witnesses to what their ancestry now asks of them, instead of what it might have fated them to be. Our culture, if a culture it can be called, or all those things we have instead of a culture, has come to a time of savage despair, it seems. We’ve surrounded ourselves with the debris of refugeehood, to fill the hollow of orphanhood. We have become a danger to ourselves, and a menace to all who will come after us, and to the world. We abandon our dead to make our way, and we are mostly singular people. We might now be the twilight of our ancestors’ dream.
An orphan wisdom might be the only culture-making thing we can rightly, honourably or faithfully claim. There is immense grief in knowing this well and going towards it anyway. That grief could be our way of working now, our labour. It could be our beauty, too.
In an information-drunk culture like our own, knowledge must be the life-tested skill of gathering what is needed, truly needed, without killing life by getting what we want. Wisdom is endorsed by the ages, but it is crafted, curated and called to account by the travails and torments and temper of this very time.
This is Orphan Wisdom, the home of Stephen Jenkinson’s writing and teaching work. Orphan Wisdom is a teaching house for the skills of deep living and making human culture. It is a redemptive project that comes from where we come from. It is rooted in knowing history, being claimed by ancestry, working for a time we won’t see.