Author Archive

Stephen Jenkinson is a Harvard educated theologian, culture activist, educator, and creator and principal instructor of the Orphan Wisdom School.

For years he headed the counselling team of Canada’s largest home-based palliative care programme and he was assistant professor at a prominent medical school. Working with hundreds of dying people and their families, caregivers, nurses, doctors and social workers he encountered the deep death phobia and grief illiteracy that exists in the West. This motivated him to redefine what it means to live, and die well.

He’s the author of several books including: How It All Could Be, Money and the Soul’s Desires, the award-winning Die Wise: A Manifesto for Sanity and Soul, and Come of Age: The Case of Elderhood in a Time of Trouble. He’s also the subject of the National Film Board of Canada documentary, Griefwalker, a lyrical, poetic portrait of his work with dying people.

Most recently, he has been performing his Nights of Grief & Mystery Tour, a rich and powerfully nuanced evening woven together by deep storytelling, wondering and music, to sold-out venues across three continents.

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London Real is LIVE with Stephen Jenkinson, the Storyteller, Teacher and Author of Die Wise: A Manifesto for Sanity and Soul

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In this interview, Justin Bonnet comes to Stephen with his worries and angst around politics and climate change. Stephen gives counsel on the paralysis and ennui that can follow being attentive to the times we are in, and how the responses of misanthropy and self-hatred and withdrawing from your work in the world are iterations of self-hatred, not solutions.

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Interview Transcript

JL: Stephen, thank you so much for taking this time, I know you’ve just finished another interview and I greatly appreciate you taking the time here and I’ve been sat the last couple of hours in mild terror not knowing quite what to ask or how to begin.

SJ: Mild terror is manageable, Justin.

JL: Haha, it’s ok. It occurs to me that this mild terror is not unfamiliar and many of my friends in the UK have been in deeper anxiety for the past couple of years, what’s happening with brexit and you are shortly to come to our shores with the nights of grief and mystery tour as well. And I know from having attended in 2017 that it largely draws from your experience in your palliative work and yet there’s something deeply, it’s troubling but a very nourishing kind of trouble that breaks open the doors of wonder, or something like that, the stripping away of certainty. But there’s something very magical, that’s an over used word, but I’m struggling to find words, that happens in these nights. And maybe we’re just all very jaded and misanthropic and anxious and fed up and not knowing what to do and it’s almost half way through spring and I haven’t yet seen any bees and this is terrifying me on an almost daily basis, whenever I remember, I haven’t seen any bees yet, I have seen plenty of bee friendly plants and yet no bees, and this isn’t a question but maybe to start somewhere…

SJ: It’s something I could respond to though, if you’d like. Well you see, first of all it’s no news to anyone that we’re in a time now of a kind of uncharted degree and rapidity of change. Now the word change is a kind of neutral word, it simply suggests movement, but I think we know that it’s not just movement we’re talking about, we’re talking about a kind of rapid diminishment, and it cuts across a lot of the old boundaries, certainly cuts across national boundaries and, you know the weather is everybody’s sky, you could say. The changes are not, I don’t think, even principally ecological anymore, that’s changed itself in the last little while. Though I pretend no authority or awareness of the detail of what you folks are going through and what it means to you, but, you know, as a friendly outsider, I can certainly make this observation, that change is costly and we’re starting to pay and there’s just no diminishing that. And I think it’s the responsibility of people who will not live to see any strident corrective surgery or measures, I include myself in that number, it’s incumbent upon us, you know, to testify to the facts that things are changing in large measure because of the unthinkable ways in which we’ve come to the world in the last fifty, seventy five years, you could go back, but it’s accelerated during the course of my lifetime.

And, well, that’s what grown ups know, grown ups know that there’s such a thing as there’s consequence attached to action. And regardless of whether you intended it, or voted for it or whatever, it is the mark of being a citizen, in a relatively open or vaguely democratic country, mine, yours, it’s a condition of citizenry, that we testify as accurately and faithfully as we can to the circumstances as we see them. And to the extent that we can abandon, more or less permanently the instinct to find the bad guy, to attribute all of this change to, to recognise that first of all there’s blame enough to go round, there’s bad guys galore. That’s a given, but this is not a grown up orientation to life. A grown up orientation towards life is to realise that you may not have been in on the current regime and it’s establishment, but there’s no question at all that you have lived off the avails of it, nonetheless.

So it’s not a matter of guilt, but it is a matter of consequence. And grown ups traffic in consequence, is how I would put it. So the beautiful thing about consequence is that it leads you to certain fundamental considerations that might otherwise escape you when things are going well. I’ve never seen anyone take the opportunity when their personal life is going well to stop and look in the rear view mirror, or look through the windscreen and really begin to contemplate deeply what’s to be and how it has come to be what it is. Why? Well, because things going well is it’s own reward, it doesn’t prompt questioning. If things go desperately off the rails, there’s not a lot of questioning that prompts either, because of the desperation, the despair, the low grade terror, and lots of other reasons that seem to discount any upside to thinking about this deeply, which leads you to ask the obvious question, when’s the right time to engage deeply unwelcome, deeply inconvenient considerations and wonderings? The answer is, if it was left up to us, we probably wouldn’t do it.

So change, among other things, is a kind of harbinger and it says to you, it whispers one word and it is “now”, and we don’t get a vote and that is what the condition of being awake fundamentally comes down to. The condition of being awake has nothing to do with the opposite of being asleep or slumber or illusion. The condition of being awake, the word says it plainly, it means “of, or pertaining to the web of consequences that fans out behind everything you did, everything that was done in your name, everything that you didn’t do and maybe ought to have done, etc”. And, you know, this web of consequence is part of our belonging.

And, although there may not be an appetite for that, right out of the gate, something like the Nights of Grief and Mystery show that we do. It establishes a kind of grown up scaled appetite for the real thing, and the real thing turns out not to traffic in comfort, the real thing tends to traffic in wakefulness, instead. And I for one would trade a hundred hours of being reassured for a moment of genuine lucidity where the question of how it has come to be as it is. It isn’t a question of personal style or personal inclination, it’s a question of a willingness to see something broader than that which benefits you or diminishes you personally. So, it’s not much of a, huh, it’s not much of a promise to imagine that such an evening as we propose to bring to the UK, traffics in awakening of this kind, it’s not much of a crowd pleaser. But maybe this is not for everyone, maybe it’s for people whose understanding of what it means to be citizens and what it means to be grown ups now asks more of them than it grants them.

JL: There’s something about the evenings that brings the world and everything of importance about it into sharp relief in my experience, almost a turning of the ring on a telescope to bring the world into focus. Not in the context of global politics, just life.

SJ: Although you could take out the word just out of that sentence and you’d hit the money.

JL: Yeah, right, and that seems non partisanal with regards to any particular political stance and yet I again on an almost daily basis, sometimes multiple times a day, seem to be confounded with what seems a very obvious thing about life, that there are some deeply untrustworthy people in very high positions of power and authority. And it does seem to be that the populous is cast very broadly into two camps, those who, from my perspective, believe the words that come out of these peoples mouths and those who don’t and are deeply uneasy. And to make it more complicated, the other group have similar feelings about the kind of people who I would look to as leaders. So I take fully what you mean about not making bad guys out of people and yet it seems that there are some very bad actors, psychopaths even, pulling strings and maybe that’s just how it is and there’s nothing we can do about it right now. Is that a conclusion you would come to?

SJ: Let’s start with the last thing, there’s nothing you can really do about it. You know this is a recipe for letting yourself off the hook easy. I’m not saying that the feeling couldn’t be widespread, but despair of this kind is really a consequence of a certain kind of privilege. I don’t say that in a shaming way, but it’s proper to recognise that if you have time enough to engage a sort of low grade boredom induced ennui about the current state of affairs, you’re not doing too badly compared to, I don’t know, three or four fifths of the worlds population. Now, that’s just simply a wake up call. Me saying it that way is obviously a challenging thing to say. Look, politics is not a place where the best and the most committed people are likely to go, so why go to the hardware store for bread? It doesn’t condemn politics to be one of the outer echelons of Dante’s inferno, it simply says, well what do you expect, man? If the whole operation fitfully goes from one election to the next and the whole operation is designed to simply to get from you either a yes or a no and then leave you to your own devices for the following x number of years, well what do you reasonably expect such an arrangement is going to turn into, but a kind of folly?

I don’t know about your country but in this country politics generally is the sanctuary of once and future lawyers. So without shaming a particular profession, but the nature of law among other things is not to labour on behalf of a better day, but to be forever engaged in two things, the calculation of what kind of injustice can be born on the one side, and on the other side, how to prevail regardless of what justice is. I don’t think that is a cynical view of the undertaking but if politics tends to draw lawyers more than anyone else, well, you’re not going to get a different repertoire for an orientation to the work at hand.

So, if you go to the hardware store for bread, who’s the fool? Not the hardware store owner, who’s trying to sell you a screwdriver, even though you’re looking for rye bread. The foolishness comes down to the misapprehension that politics is somehow supposed to be all things for all people. It can’t be, OK, so given that, where are you going to work, man? I mean this is a fundamental question of citizenship, in a relative democracy, where are you going to work? And, I don’t mean employment, per se, although wouldn’t it be something if your heart’s desire corresponded to your paycheck at some level.

I suspect that men die at a younger age principally because of the disparity that exists between the kind of work that they end up with, which tends to do more harm than good to the world in some fashion, direct or otherwise. The gap between that and their longing to be able to do something that they believe in, to go out the door every day giving themselves something, instead of trying to calibrate the way in which they can not be stolen from by going to work. Look, these are really challenging things. But, when you’re laying there on your death bed, which is not a bad calculus to go by, what do you want to be able to remember? Do you want to remember that you were relatively easily defeated by a generic despair and that’s what you’re going to lay at the feet of people one third your age, when you’re in your seventies or your eighties, because you’re answering the question by how you proceed and how you mobilise now. It’s not a question you’re going to answer in the future, you’re actually answering it now.

So, maybe it comes to this, I wrote a book not that long ago about elderhood and in it I imagined the following scenario, that a young person comes to you with two questions only. And the first one is, when you were my age, did you know what was happening? Which is a genuine question and concern of a lot of young people today. Why? Because they want to believe at some level that you didn’t know what was happening, because how else to live with how we’ve proceeded, if we did know what was happening. And that becomes an unbearable proposition for a lot of young people. So that’s a question which is half rhetorical, please tell me you didn’t know. Well, what’s the authentic answer? Particularly in an age which credits itself with trafficking in information more than anything else. The answer is, when I was your age, given the technology of the times, even twenty or thirty or forty years ago this would be true, that anyone who wanted to know what’s going on, could’ve known. But not everybody did want to know, and so not everybody knew. And from what I can tell, things are not appreciably different now. That seems to me an authentic answer to that question. But there’s two questions, and the second question the young person asks is something in the order of, so what did you do, then, given that, what did you do? And, whether you feel it personally, whether you can afford to feel it personally, i think it’s an incontrovertible fact of life that we live a kind of subtle indebtedness that has not quite announced itself yet and our indebtedness takes the form of the generation that is born after us. We incur a kind of indebtedness and they are our debt, you see. So, whatever you have to say to them or be, comes down to how we live in the face of things like, you know, national calamities, personal travail, the kind of grind of things, and of course, if you lose your way for five seconds, just listen to Leonard Cohen for a minute. Not that it’ll fix anything, but it will really credit your difficulties, really credit them. And he’s got a line apropo of the political observations in your question, he said, “well the dealer wants you thinking, that it’s either black or white, thank God it’s not that simple”.

JL: May I come to you with some more of what I struggle with. So one thing I have it seems is a deep anger that’s particularly to older people, not exclusively and not all of them of course, but for example where I live in the communal gardens with how frequently the lawn is mown, sounds silly and simple but each time it’s mown the flowers, the weeds that have grown since the last time are killed, beheaded and I always want to scream something about not realising or knowing but doing it anyway, that we really do need these flowers for, to stop the collapse of insects that are going to be fertilizing our food, and on the other hand I can barely summon the energy to separate my recycling sometimes. And I know that if ever I update my, get a new computer or laptop or smartphone I know that that’s coming from child slaves in I’m not sure which countries but wherever the rare metals that go into the microchips are from… SJ: Chad is one place

JL: I know it, but I’m not a prolific updater but I participate in this just as much and I’m also passing this down to the next generations and I know better and I still do it, with the sense that it is a mostly futile thing, but it’s maybe reducing the stream to a slightly smaller stream, but I’m not able to dam it with my actions or to effect change. This is the hypocritical, omni-directional anger and inertia and confusion that I and many other people I am friends with and talk to find ourselves in.

SJ: Well, first of all, big answers are untrustworthy. Answers that cover all the bases is no answer at all. It’s just the Gods, you know. All wounds are local and specific, I think so. And if that’s the case then all responses should, at the end of the day, land in a local and specific way. It’s very difficult, you know, we live in a time where you’re so utterly inundated with the macro-level everything. And you’re held to a kind of strange moral code that obliges you to be one individual in a very particular place, beset with a global mind.

So if you take all of that, then imagine this scenario: I’m, with some frequency, approached by people who are either considering having children or have already procreated and they’re asking me essentially to engage in some kind of blessing ceremony or something like that for their children. And I stipulate a condition. And it’s a very taxing condition and it bears everything in mind, I believe, that you were just talking about, and it comes to this. I look them in the eye, which is my obligation and my responsibility to them, and I say, well let’s begin here, I won’t speak for other races or peoples, let them decide this matter, but it’s certainly true that the world does not need another white child, period. There’s not really a lot to debate. And of course, they look absolutely thunder struck, because what kind of blessing is this? I didn’t say it was a blessing, but I’m treating these people like they’re old enough to procreate, (so) they’re old enough to hear this. And you know, they’ve contributed directly to, by virtue of procreating, to, among other things, the issues that you have just talked about. Of course they have. So what does one do? Do you rely on abortion? Do you rely on abstinence? Well, what are you trying to fix?

Well ok, so you have to live in the world that is entrusted to you. And the way I try to do it, is I say to them, right then if we’re going to do anything by way of blessing, we’re not going to make it a discreet moment where I say various things and perhaps your parents say various things and so forth. I mean we’ll do that, but this does not in any way acknowledge or off set the fact that you’ve gone and contributed rather significantly to a development in the world that doesn’t need any contribution, over-population. So, here’s the condition, you find a place, not for me to say (where), I’m not going to superintend it, you find a place and you plant something like the number of trees you think your child’s appearance on the scene and the life they get to live in this world, somehow equates to. You do the math, you figure it out, you do the problem solving, you find the place, you do it all. Does that seem like a lot? Well then I guess you weren’t too serious about the blessing thing. You might have imagined a blessing to be nothing more than a kind of generic stamp of approval on something that’s already there. If, on the other hand, you understand blessing to be in the order of a deep affirmation that’s willing to be troubled by the way things are, then you take to heart what I’ve instructed you to do. And some people do it and some people don’t. And if they don’t, I’m not their guy.

So I’m saying the same thing about the flowers that you see disappear, so plant them somewhere else, man. Plant them in a place the blade can’t find them. No, you won’t find them either, no, you won’t see it, you won’t benefit directly from the rehabilitative or redemptive measure that you undertake. Because that’s the time we’re in now, because the fix is in in the short term. And I’m not lying about it. And I’m not telling you that you’re over responding or you’re exaggerating. I mean, that’s the word, the word responsibility means the capacity to respond. And the circumstances you’re describing they’re potentially paralysing. So paralysis is the kind of armchair affliction of the people living at one step removed from things that you’ve talked about. But, it’s possible to be engaged. And the last thing I’ll say about it is this, it seems to be the mark of grown ups, it seems to me anyway, that one of the marks of grown ups is that grown ups undertake difficult, challenging, heart-breaking work without requiring a prior assurance that by taking up the work there will be some kind of commensurate upside to be had, to be realised, to be felt, to be seen. In other words, grown ups don’t demand to be paid before they do the work. So sometimes you’ve gotta do the work you’re not gonna live to see consequences and we’re in such a time that we need more workers, I think, and fewer people who want to know that they’re in on a good thing and be rewarded ahead of time, with that sense of hope or encouragement or affirmation.

Being hopeful in a time like this is a kind of dereliction of duty, Justin, that’s what I’m saying in a nutshell. I understand the draw of being hopeful, but it’s methadone, it just traffics in a slightly less toxic material, that’s all hope really does, so the truth of the matter is if you’re addicted to hope as a prerequisite, then everything always has to have an upside. But we’re not in that time, you see. So me and this little band of mine, we’re travelling different places in the world doing a show. So what’s the point of doing a show in the teeth of this kind of storm? And the answer is, everything I’ve been telling you about is in what we do. So, I’ve taken a look at the circumstances, and this band materialised on my doorstep, and volunteered for something like heavy duty, and so I said, let’s go. And, you know, I’m doing what I’m doing as a consequence of what I’m saying to you. Nobody else has to do this, but I have to do it. And we have to do it and when this is done I will try to find something else. Because I’m trying to answer those kids who are going to come up the driveway asking me what did I do when the heavy weather started to blow in.

JL: Might I say that given the definition of what you just said a blessing is, really your whole work is a blessing, everything you do seems to be in that order.

SJ: Well, I have probably run out of curses… You know, not to elevate my endeavours unnecessarily, but, I mean you’re very kind to have said it, but the deeper matter at hand is, oh I had my time of trying to find the bad guys, and keeping calumny and the rest and I’m more than capable of it still, but it doesn’t make much of a claim upon me any more. And, I don’t say that a well placed episode of genuine anger and outrage isn’t absolutely called for, it’s absolutely called for, very occasionally it should be directed specifically at a person or people, but more often than not in the west these acts of outrage are actually impotence, and they’re often directed at people trying to make somebody pay so you can feel the consequence of your actions. But impotent people traffic in impotence, so there’s something about the willingness to bless, that is, to my mind is the antidote to impotence, it’s not the opposite, it’s the antidote. A blessing has real and genuine consequence, in the world, but you have to practice it, you know, it’s not a feeling. And blessing has nothing to do with proving of the way things are, it has everything to do with a kind of embodied advocacy, for a better day, this is actually what the word blessing is, as I understand it. And on my better days practise it. (34:34)

JL: So what are we to do when we have so few role models for blessing and living in that way, when most of the people who are activists or are agitating for change or a better world, are frankly very angry and to many people are off putting because of this, not to me personally, I sympathise with their anger, but that seems to be part of the stalemate of the whole thing. And there’s so little by way of knowing what this is and what it looks like and how it should function. In the modern day spiritual communities there’s a lot of emphasis on forgiveness and the sort of premature false unity that maybe is existing in a very sort of transpersonal, transcendental, universal state that doesn’t exist in the world as we are here and now between us. There are certainly some ideas of what such a blessing or living in this way might look like, but most of them half baked or misguided or avoidant or etc…

SJ: Well, listen, two little things about the tendency to think ill of the human race, misanthropy by another name. First thing to say about it is that it seems that only human beings have come up with misanthropy as a kind of solution reflex to the dilemmas at hand. No other life form would appear to harbour anything like the deep enmity for humans that humans are capable of, and we might want to take some instruction from all the life forms that we share this place with, because we’re the only ones who’ve come up with self hatred as a solution to the self. Second thing I’d say about it is, misanthropy or self hatred is the current form of self absorption, that’s what it is. It’s not a higher moral order, it’s not a deepened range of understanding, it’s an absolute unwillingness to inhabit the mystery days that were entrusted to you.

So misanthropy is overrated as an act of conscience, I would say. We have no obligation to misanthropy to a deep demeaning of humans. I’m not saying that there’s not ample opportunity to give vent to all of that thing, of course there is, you know, people are deeply disappointing, but don’t forget Dostoevsky’s brilliant observation in The Brothers Karamatsov, he has the grand inquisitor making the following observation, he says, well, the thing about humans, you humans, is that every time you start talking about how you love humanity, it’s generally because you have a very difficult time loving individual people. And the truth of the matter is you can’t find humanity, go look for it but you can’t find it. Because there’s no such thing. There’s individuals trying to make a go of the humanity that was entrusted to them, some of them do an absolute miserable and damaging job of it, but a lot of people are just in a degree of kind of confusion that doesn’t know how to proceed and that needs something in the order of that kind of blessing repertoire that we were talking about earlier, even though I understand as much, well, I have some understanding of what it means to feel that the only proper response is to give up, well if you must give up then do so, understanding, hopefully, all the while that by giving up you’re asking the rest of us to do that much more. But if it’s the time for giving up then do so. Experiment with giving up and find out how that works. Sure, there are moments you can’t go on, that is an absolutely accurate assessment of things, you’re not a co-axial cable of potential, you know, there are times when you cannot go on. But the mark of a sane society is that not everybody hits that moment at the same time. And the mark of a crazy society is that they do, so you’ve got to unplug a little bit, you see. So you’re not dragged to the brink by the information. That’s why I wrote the newsletter on my website a little while ago, called, Point, Shoot, Repeat, this is quietly what I was saying.

Look man, you know, the grandchildren of your neighbours will have more in common with people in Asia and Africa, by virtue of this so called smart technology, than they will likely have with people that they would recognise as their neighbours. It’s very terrifying what’s going on and one of the things to do is to see to it that they can’t get at you, to have their programming way with you. And I don’t mean to sound paranoid, but we have an old adage in the mental health trade, just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean that they’re not out to get you. And we know the metrics game and everything that’s going on now is basically designed to turn you into information that they can monetize. It’s very true, nothing paranoid about that. So you’ve got to find a way not to co-operate. Last thing I’ll say about it, if I was just to spin off balmy answers, solution driven vignettes, there’s nothing respectful about doing that. It’s simply not my responsibility to absolve you of the anxieties that you’re faithfully reporting on. You’ve earned them, they’re a part of the architecture of the time we live in, and if I were to steal them from you it would make me a thief. Not somebody who’s respectfully available for some kind of alternative vision of the regime, which I think is partly my responsibility. So, I don’t feel the obligation to have answers that instantly reassure, you see. Because why, well because you have more resilience, even in your distress, and that has to be traded upon from time to time it seems to me and employed, that resilience, even when there’s not the will to do it. So, this is not aversive answering strategy from me, this is respect you’re hearing.

JL: What I would say, giving voice and I’m coming to you with my difficulties, my struggles, my frustrations and so on but as I’m growing up becoming older, what you’re talking about isn’t completely foreign concept to me and so to link that perhaps in closing to the nights of grief and mystery that you’ll be offering us. My experience of attending those evenings and of your work generally, there’s something about the heartbreak that happens through the storytelling that you do and Gregory’s music that makes it possible to proceed or in some way carry everything that’s happening in the world. Even though you’re not telling stories about the whole world or the things that we have specifically talked about, it’s specific moments that you witnessed or were a part of in palliative work and other encounters with grief and death and dying and sickness, life and death and birth. And there’s something in that which is humanising and draws me out of the spell of, I’m not sure how to put it, everything that seems to be distancing and dehumanising and artificial and unimportant about my daily life and about how things are at them moment and into the very real, which is deeply mysterious, the nights are aptly named, and there’s, I don’t want to use the word awake because of the connotations of that, the various mystical or spiritual connotations, I don’t want to use it in that sense. But there is something about coming to an awareness of what’s important and just how real all of these things that happen anyway but are hushed away and hidden and cloistered away from polite conversation that the time that you give us and speak about these and in which Gregory performs his music, it opens up vistas of aliveness and deep feeling that can absolutely include wretchedness and misery, but can also include great beauty and joy and appreciation for magnificence of life containing. And that has been an antidote to my misanthropy, but hasn’t penetrated fully and as this is happening I am coming more deeply into turmoil about how things are, but it’s also not without succour and it’s a blessing.

SJ: Well, you’re very kind to say that. I think, probably, though I don’t as a rule, describe what it is because it’s a mysterious enterprise when it happens, but if I’m pressed then I would say we’re probably testifying more than entertaining, and yet people constantly say, my god that was funny, how did that happen, for example, and I say well these are not opposites. We’re testifying to the way things are at a troubled time, it’s not the opposite to hilarity, hilarity is another way of understanding it, it’s another part of the repertoire of being a human being in a troubled time, in a time that would seduce you away from being a human. So, the last thing I would say about it maybe would be this, I was doing an interview and they were asking me to compare nights of grief and mystery to some other kind of cultural or musical event, and I said, well, I think it’s not theatre it’s from a time before we had theatre. How so? He said. Well, I said, you know the thing that makes theatre, theatre, when all’s said and done is the presence of an audience that we would all acknowledge that the audience has the consequence of casting the whole thing. In a kind of performative if not spectacle fashion. And it is in some way or other intended to have consequence upon the audience, but the audience consequence is very meagre, it’s to be present and basically vote yes or no, kind of election style. And not much more that that.

I think nights of grief and mystery comes from a time that’s ceremonial or ritual, which is, what ritual is, is ceremony minus an audience. We don’t have audiences if we’re successful in our undertaking. We demolish the notion of audience and try to replace it with co-conspirators of people who are in some fashion or another willing. You know, I think the night begins, I don’t think, I should say I know it begins, as I begin it, the band comes out, they establish a kind of musical pulse, if you will, and I come out and I join that pulse and the first thing I say is something which is invocation. That’s what it is, and I say, welcome friends, for friends we may soon be. For friends are forged on the dark road that’s headed out of town. And we’re headed there. Who am I talking to? I am not talking to the people who are sitting there looking at me, Welcome friends for friends we may soon be, I’m talking to everyone who’s ever been alive, I’m talking to peoples ancestry and I’m asking them to attend to us this evening before I get anywhere close to speaking to the people who are sitting there looking at me. How shall we be and what shall we say now that the summons and the plea and the prayer has gone out? It’s better if we make as though many a thing hangs in the balance and hangs in the rafters. As if how we are with each other tonight will be how the Gods of chance will be with us. That doesn’t sound like theatre to me, that sounds like ceremony. And we proceed that way and we call in the saints to the best of our ability and ask people to join us in doing so, and somewhere along the line, if we’re successful, there’s no more audience. There’s all of us pulling in the direction of a better day. And that’s not a bad expenditure for an evening in the equivalent of a couple of bad or questionable take out meals.

JL: Stephen thank you so much for your generous offerings of your time and your eloquence. I’m again in awe of your ability to tackle these topics and every time to say something that’s fully attentive to everything that’s happening. They’re not your stock and trade answers they are true responses. And that’s a rare thing.

SJ: Well your very kind, man and I think you’re doing the same thing on our behalf in your country too, I recognise it, you know, and we are doing what we can and a little more. We are doing some things we can’t do actually, and you’ve given an enormous part of your attention and your energy and your give a shit and a lot of things, in the last while to see to it that this might come (to be). Like you’ve heard me say, this is a kind of love letter that you’re writing to your country. And we simply are the ink and the paper and the pen and if the people come, that means that they have received that letter and are writing back. And if you can pull that off in one evening in a house full of strangers well then, why would you quit. That’s the very antidote to despair that we’re talking about. So many a thing is possible regardless of how likely it is. And the nights of grief and mystery is deeply unlikely. And it happens, and it’s going to happen again and we’re coming. So, let’s brag about that, and on the other side of it that’s exactly what we’ll do.

JL: Thank you, so much, Stephen.

We’re all living longer, and around the world the population of older people is rising. But do we have elders?

Canadian author and activist Stephen Jenkinson argues we’re missing out on the leadership and wisdom we once received from elders in the community.

In his book Come of Age: A Case for Elderhood in a Time of Trouble Stephen writes that becoming an elder is a skill. He’s in the country giving a series of talks this week, and joins us to explain his theory.

Interview with Drew Marshall on The Drew Marshall Show, April 13th 2019. Activist, Teacher, Farmer, Author of COME OF AGE: The Case of Elderhood in a Time of Trouble – Stephen Jenkinson has a Master’s degree in theology from Harvard University and a Master’s degree in social work from the University of Toronto. He is a former programme director and medical-school assistant professor. He is the subject of the National Film Board of Canada documentary film, Griefwalker. With Nathalie Roy, Jenkinson founded The Orphan Wisdom School in 2010, which convenes in Tramore, Canada, and in various places in northern Europe. He is the author of How It All Could Be (now translated into four languages), Money and the Soul’s Desires, Die Wise: A Manifesto for Sanity and Soul, and, most recently, Come of Age: The Case of Elderhood in a Time of Trouble. With Gregory Hoskins and band, Stephen has offered Nights of Grief & Mystery to sold-out houses on three continents, most recently during the 26-city Nights of Grief & Mystery North American Tour 2018.

Andrew Wilcox, from Exploring Wild Ideas, interviews the experts, explorers and luminaries that dive deep into the wild Ideas that are all over our world today. This episode is a one that may take and is well worth a few listens. Stephen Jenkinson is a teacher, writer, master storyteller, Leonard Cohen fan and so much more. He’s the type of person who, when he speaks, you’re not sure if he’s taking you to church or school or both. In this conversation we talk about the need for Elderhood in our society today, the need to ask the tough questions and seek the even harder answers.

An interview between Stephen Jenkinson and Brad Korpalski, Founder of Pure Immersions who is inviting Stephen back to Bali April 19-21, 2019 to speak on matters of eloquence and beauty.

Brad: All right Stephen, well hello there. How are you? Are you hearing me OK?

Stephen: I can hear you just fine now.

Brad: Alright, well let’s just start with me saying thank you for taking the time. I know you’re going to be hitting the road here for several months and probably have a lot going on, so… much appreciated for you to have made some space to have a little conversation.

Stephen: You’re welcome. It was now or never.

Brad: It was now or never. And so we’re recording this a few months in advance of your arrival in Bali, which will be your third trip there. We collaborated on “Die Wise” two years ago. Last year it was “At the Foot of the World Tree Withered”, which was an elder hood immersion, we could call it.

And this year it’s going to be “Seven Arrows in the Air”, which will be “a time for learning something of the skill and the gift of well-spokenness.” And we’re going to dive into that in due time here. But I wanted to start by hearing your thoughts about Bali.

You don’t strike me as somebody who is lured by the conventions of tourism. You’re not there for the coconuts and the beaches, so to speak. So I’m curious what’s the significance of Bali in your life?

Stephen: Well, before I went there, none at all. I couldn’t have found it on the map, even if you directed me to Indonesia. Couldn’t have found it, such was my ignorance.

And you know I think one of the things that struck me by the end of the second time there was a kind of beauty prevailing against the impossible odds. Given the tourism and all we both know is besetting the place, something seems inevitable about the eventual demise of the place. But for the time being its cultural beauty is so remarkably… I don’t know if resilient is the right word, but it’s just the most unlikely miracle of the willingness of a culture to persist with its beauty, to lead with its beauty at the expense of its longevity… It’s something that, maybe, I’ll never forget.

I was driving with Wyann, who you know quite well — he’s a lovely guy – and we’re going among the rice paddies, and I was telling him a story that happened the night before. I’d been to a kind of open-air theatrical presentation of one of the Balian Hindu epics, and I was noticing the crowd’s behavior. It was really distressing to me.

First of all, they really behaved like a North American audience, full of privilege, full of themselves, full of demanding to be entertained, no sense of any obligation to adapt their expectations to the fact that they were half a world away from their homes. And they came in tank tops and cut-offs, and a lot of the women had virtually nothing on. Many were taking their selfies and videos, flashes going off all the time in the eyes of the performers.

And you know, and I knew, we were in the presence of these old and deeply revered sort of spiritual works, and they were presenting them to these people who are drinking their Heinekens and smoking their spliffs and that sort of thing.

So I was distressed about it, seemingly one of the few. Yet another example of North American privilege. I asked him about it. I said, “How do you take that? How do you go ahead, when your holy things are on view like that and not seen?”

And his answer was deceptively simple.

He said to me, “Well, we did invite them.” And there was this long pause. And then there was nothing more.

And there was no rancor in it. There was no chagrin. He wasn’t gritting his teeth.

He was saying, so far as I could tell, “You know, the radical laws of hospitality, as we understand them and practice them, mean that if we’ve invited somebody into our house, then we don’t tell them how to behave. And perhaps they imitate us and perhaps they don’t. And perhaps they take their cue from us, or perhaps they stay just as they were at home. But regardless, our part to play is to be the host that we’ve learned how to be.” Extraordinary, eloquent spirit.

And that’s what I meant initially when I said that the Balinese seem to me to be these practitioners of a kind of radical beauty – a kind that I don’t know will survive the 21st century, frankly.

But I’m not sure it should survive at all costs. Maybe its way of going down is to do so being absolutely faithful to from whence it comes. That beauty, if it is overwhelmed by tourism and glob- alization as I suspect it will be, will bow out of here in a way utterly consistent with its understanding of life and beauty, and itself. So, if that’s the way it’s going … Mysteriously, I got to be a witness to perhaps the beginnings of a kind of elegant departure from the scene, which is that particular kind of Balinese beauty. And because of that, I’m extraordinarily lucky.

And you can see it’s a five-minute walk down the road from that realization to the subject we’re going to be approaching when we all get together in a few months’ time. I hold that up for you to consider as an example in this sorrowing world of the arc of eloquence in its hospitable form, tracing across the dark sky of the unconsidered, unfettered access known as tourism.

Brad: That’s a beautiful rendering of the place. And you know there’s something interesting in this the theme of “Seven Arrows in the Air”, which in loose terms is going to be around language and eloquence. I’ve been reflecting on the Balinese and their language, and it’s obviously gone through several conquests and a lot of impacts and it’s changed a lot, of course, from the original days when it was mixed with Indian Hinduism. And the Balinese, they speak the language of Bali, and then separately there’s the national language of Indonesia, of which they’re a part.

So Balinese has a couple of noteworthy characteristics, given what you’re coming to talk about. One is that the verbs don’t move in the same way English does. The Balinese don’t conjugate their verbs. So you’re not dealing in past, present, and future tense. And two: there’s no verb to be.

So it’s a very interesting dynamic, as it actually informs a sort of relational quality and I think informs a lot of the cultural norms and how the Balinese approach their life.

And I find that a very important window into the culture is through language. Obviously in the West we have a very different relationship with our language, so it makes me wonder: What is our language telling us about our own culture?

Stephen: Well, I’m not shocked or surprised at all that it’s “missing” the verb to be, although apparently it’s doing fine without it. And the fact that it doesn’t conjugate, and as such it doesn’t exercise the kind of English intolerance that tenses tend to exercise: that’s something. You know, we’re trained at a very early age – and the reward system is quite persuasive and intense – to line up with the idea that there’s only one tense at a time that you’re allowed to inhabit and make any sense at all. You can only occupy one tense at a time to make yourself understood, and to be lucid. And if you think about what the mental health standard is when they’re testing you, for example, for brain injury and things of the kind … What they’ll do is they’ll ask a number of questions designed to find out whether or not you can consistently identify yourself as occupying only one tense at a time. Now they don’t say it that way, but if you were to “confuse” the tenses, and for a moment occupy the position that we would call the past, and speak as such, they would be concerned as to whether or not you ‘d had some sort of brain trauma.

And in other parts of the world that very same symptom would be a sign that you’re deeply well-adjusted to the comings and goings of a human life, and that you are in fact to be trusted, since by the dexterity of the use of your language you can speak with some authority about the presence of the past. You wouldn’t be hospitalized there.

It’s astounding to make these little observations, really. Linguistic differences are more than just windows and doors. Sometimes they’re barred windows and chained doors. Sometimes there are no walls at all. Sometimes they’re a little bit of a tent out in the desert, where everything is blowing through and the sky is there just above your head.

I don’t myself mistrust English at all. But I’ve worked an awful long time at becoming its friend and confidant, and I think that minus that discipline you‘ll likely inherit the kind of modern and post-modern laziness and deep misapprehensions and extraordinary prejudices that are part of the contemporary version of the English language.

And of course, this is something that we’re going to be approaching when we get together.

Brad: When I first sat in a room with you as you were leading the Die Wise teaching and we looked at the roots of words, it just opened up a huge gateway into the histories that have impacted language. And it was a completely different world, suddenly.

It struck me that we live in almost universal ignorance of the words in our language and where they come from. And I’m wondering: Is there any hope that we’re able to recover a semblance of that wisdom?

Stephen: Well, you probably know from the talk I did it on the dying stuff that I’m not the guy to go to for hope. But okay. Let me try.

We are able to proceed on behalf of the language minus any hope of “recovering” things that have slipped away. I don’t know that that kind of hope is necessary, because I’m not sure that what we’re really talking about doing, when you investigate a language deeply, is investigating its vanished past. I don’t think you are. I think what you’re doing is investigating the family jewels of the English language. And as long as the language is being spoken, especially with regard to its dappled history, the family jewels are on display. Whether they’re recognized as jewels or cinders, that’s a different question.

But you know a lot of contemporary people, many of them young, have no patience with the language and have given up on it entirely in favor of a kind of pseudo language– a brief and ever briefer language, the one that the YouTube and the email is friendly to.

If you just turn those damn things off for 10 minutes, you’ll find that there’s a part of your attention span that wasn’t completely plowed under by the 5 or 10 second sound bite of contemporary English. And as soon as that happens you realize the old eloquences are not really gone.

Common speech has begun to atrophy, the way an unused muscle will do. We might be half way to a linguistic equivalent of phantom-limb syndrome. There’s enormous consequence to ignoring it, to not taking care of it, as it would be ignoring and not taking care of a vehicle: you leave it on blocks in the front yard for three years, I mean, what do you think’s going to happen?

So that’s certainly true when people are asked, let’s say, to stand and deliver linguistically, lexically. They go through enormous amounts of performance anxiety and so on, being asked to do something that they literally do every day.

So it’s quite a jarring thing to realize. I have a school, as you know, and the school’s principal currency is eloquence. When I say “eloquence”, most newcomers to the school, who tend to be non- practitioners of eloquence, understand it to be fancy, or hopelessly elaborate, or cumbersome in its inability to “get to the point”, those kinds of things. But what eloquence really is, is a willingness to utterly occupy one of the chairs in your meeting either with another person or with a piece of poetry from 300 years ago. It is mandatory to beholding that ice clogged river that is just down the hill right now as I’m speaking to you. Somewhere in the study you start realizing that your half of the eloquence circuitry is to craft an eloquence of the eye. Your ability to have eloquence that’s beyond you register upon you: that is also the practice of eloquence, and its language-borne magic. It’s not a human product or creation. Eloquence is something that we’re entrusted with. But we’re far from its sole practitioners. The made world is thick with eloquence. The made world is made in and with eloquence.

Brad: I’m speechless in a conversation about eloquence [laughs].

I heard you say about technology that eloquence requires us to turn it off, to turn off the YouTube and turning all of it off is where the grace of eloquence is able to visit us. Is that a fair characterization of what you said there?

Stephen: Yeah. Yeah. You’re talking about an eloquence in the ear there. You could say that eloquence is a free floating life form, and when it attaches itself to a particular language or practice it’s mistaken for that language or practice. But you know all forms of deep artistic merit really require disciplined practice, of years-long duration, without an audience, without any witnesses, so that the depth of the thing, the depth of eloquence in the made world, has a chance to respond to the pleas which are the practice of disciplined learning and hearing.

Brad: In the description of Seven Arrows in the Air, you begin by saying, “some of the religions, the ones with good memories, teach us that the world was spoken into being by its makers.” I hear this as a present-day construct as well, that we’re speaking the world into being, and I’m wondering: What is the world we are speaking into being by the way in which we speak? And what of the ‘war on truth’ that makes up the news now, the divisiveness that takes away the strength in language, in words? And is this what’s happening when this discourse is bandied about in the media?

Stephen: Well I’m not much of a media guy. I’m not too plugged in. I don’t have a telephone, and it’s nothing to be proud of. But it’s just the fact of the thing, and it comforts me. I don’t recommend it to anybody else, not necessarily.

And one quick, second caveat I want to mention is this: Your characterizations are really heartfelt and so on, but they traffic a little bit in enormously broad generalizations. Frankly, I don’t recognize my own practice of the language in the characterization that you made. But I certainly recognize that it’s in the air. Still, generalizations that slander language use can easily be an extention of the sloth they’re intended to reveal.

And if you hadn’t said it, I was going to suggest to you that speaking the world into existence is not inevitable. And it’s not the inevitable consequence of opening your mouth either. In other words, the very same alchemy that we’re entrusted with, this kind of syntactical alchemy, can be turned towards practices of extraordinary invocation of darkness and obscurity and hateful misanthropy and worse, which is certainly part of the alleged moral order or moral high ground that prevails these days.

But spells are broken by the same way in which they’re cast, with the same repertoire. That may not be hopeful, but its good news. Worlds are done away with in the same way in which they are summoned and pleaded for, and that’s a vital realization to come to. A lot of people, for example, in my hearing, have sworn off the power of the spoken word, because they find it too easily swallowed up into nefarious purpose — politics being an obvious one, and advertising and economics being others.

I understand. But that’s like saying, ‘I’m not going to mobilize myself on behalf of any trees because the bad guys are using printed words on paper to kill the world’.

See, consider coming ever more vehemently to the defense of the tree when the “bad guys” are using the pulp and paper industry to lie to you. You don’t demonize the tree. You don’t demonize the language. You don’t give up on the language. Giving up’s for amateurs. Well, better to say, giving up for longer than an hour at a time is for amateurs.

This is essentially a beginner’s mistake. It’s an immature response to things, and it’s frankly not becoming of adults. So a deeper and more mature response is one that doesn’t try to forgo the heartbrokenness while it’s trying to get its work done.

Heartbrokenness today, I think, is one of the vital signs of life. And it is to be deeply trusted and practiced, frankly, so you can eventually be heartbroken aloud. And you know, when some people are kind to me in their assessment of my work, one of the things that they’ve said is that the degree of lament or sorrow that I present and practice from time to time is something that invites them, let’s say, downwards. Now, I do so for the purposes of entering into things mysterious: Not for the purpose of making it ‘worse’, but for the purpose of making it ‘so’. That’s eloquence, in fighting trim, I’d say.

It’s not clear to me that realizing how bad it is makes it worse. But it is clear, to use a phrase I read from an ecological writer named Tim Morton, that “there’s a way of saying we’re screwed, that makes sure we’re screwed.”

That’s true too. So those of us who are entrusted with the language or are allowed into the recesses of other people’s thoughts and considerations by way of being listened to have an enormous responsibility to conduct ourselves, first of all, as if this is a privilege. This confers upon its practitioners a real sort of weapons grade obligation and responsibility. Sadly, I don’t see the tv types and the bloggers for the most part being claimed by that responsibility and etiquette. It is an enormous privilege to be listened to, or to have your words read, even for a few moments.

Frankly, I don’t see that sense of privilege practiced very much, but it should be. And I stand for that. One of the signs of exercising that sense of responsibility is to be willing to know how easily misapprehended you can be, and how easily what you’re trying to breathe into the world can turn into a noxious fume when it’s misrepresented, or willfully misconstrued, and all the rest.


So you know I take my time, I suppose, when I’m speaking, and you know that in the old days people used to say to me, “You take a long time to say what you mean.” And I say, “Well that’s because meaning often takes a long time to appear.”

It’s not because I’m not sure what I’m talking about, it’s because the things in question deserve that time, that hovering, that lingering. It’s not a flagrant setting aside the limits or importance of someone else’s attention span. It’s setting aside the notion that you’d know the real stuff the instant that it appeared, or that the real stuff immediately appears, which is a rather promiscuous or even pornographic understanding of what language is for. It is not there to reveal itself entirely in the first 10 seconds, and if it doesn’t do so now it’s not wasting your time with a tease. The language itself bears its growth rings, its accretions, and it deserves some slowing down in the name of its murmurings appearing.

Brad: Is what you’re saying now the significance of the “Seven Arrows in the Air” title of the teaching?.

Stephen: Well it could be. Let me see if I can figure out if I am or not. But for the moment, I can tell you where the title came from.

Some years ago I was studying bow making from scratch from a wooden stave, and it’s an extraordinarily elegant, so-called, “primitive” skill, and it should raise your appreciation for its practitioners, and your own ancestral practitioners of the art form, to a very high degree. I’m not sure that it typically does, but it should.

Anyway, as I was investigating it, as is my want to an almost exhaustive degree, I came across a story whereby the guy said that one of the things that deeply practiced cultures that have archery in their repertoire come to, is they have competitions. And unlike us, where it would appear that the longest is the best, the farthest is the best, the highest is the best, you know, that kind of thing, they kind of retooled what real practice meant, and it came to this: Could they have more than one arrow in the air at the same time?

And they begin to elevate this practice, and they realize it wasn’t just a one shot, go-for-broke kind of thing, that there was almost a sort of a samurai elegance about it all, where the first shot set the timer, if you will, and it was straight up, or pretty close to it.

And the degree to which you could notch the other arrows, and get them airborne, and the speed, but also the precision of all of those things together, meant that the real competition looked upon time as an opportunity to be engaged in something honourable and skilled, not something that would defeat you.

So, I just love the whole proposition. The number of arrows you could have in the air at one time before the first one landed became to my mind a kind of practice of a kind of visual or cultural elegance, or literacy, or eloquence. I realized that I’ve probably been hankering after that very practice when I’m given the opportunity to stand in front of people, and wonder about things, and be troubled by things aloud. And you know I was never all that tempted to get to the point. It seemed to me that anybody can get to the point. It’s not that great an accomplishment. But how you get there, and whether or not you still intend to get there by the time you’re deeply into the journey … Well, that’s a whole other question. And that’s what the seven arrows proposition allows: the notion that the way you approach things determines what you find.

Brad: That skill as a storyteller was so apparent to me when first hearing you tell a story, because there are orders of depth to what’s being communicated. It piques such a curiosity, and interest, and almost brings you into a different phase of life.

Given that it’s such a rare skill, I wonder if you find any peers in the capacity to wield and deliver story?

Stephen: Yeah, well I would say–now this is a guess– and this probably lets you in on some aspect of my personality that I wouldn’t intentionally reveal perhaps, but it’s this: I’m not sure that highly eloquent people seek out other highly eloquent people, not very often. Because It would be a cacophony I suspect, and though maybe interesting in the short term, in the long term, perhaps it would be a car wreck.

Brad: There’s no conference for that? [laughs]

Stephen: [laughs] Maybe there is, but nobody’s ever invited me, so I don’t know what that means. But I just think it’s the nature of eloquence to require a lot of room and space, and you know, uncharted territory around it, such that it can appear as what it is: a deeply disciplined effort at trying to wonder about something, not a report on what’s already known.

Reportage is not really eloquence, most of the time. Most of the time it’s exercises in various kinds of certainty and so on. But eloquence doesn’t require that certainty, and in fact it probably dismisses it early on and thanks it for its for its years of service, but indicates that it’s no longer required.

So I’m not sure that you can get a conclave of eloquent people all doing that at the same time, and this being worth listening to.

Brad: I think for me it’s a wish that the skill (of storytelling) is not in such small supply in our world. That there are – and this sounds like it’s probably trading on the measure of hope that you so exhaustively try to fight against – corners of the world where eloquence lives.

Again, I look around and I see a peer group– and younger– who are pretty beholden to the short attention span and all of the developments that are happening in the technological world, and yet… young people are coming to you, isn’t that right? That’s a sign?

Stephen: It’s true. I’m not sure they’re coming to me, but they’re certainly coming to what I do, and I would prefer that that’s the choice they’re making, or at least to help make that distinction for them.

And yeah, I would suppose the way I characterize it is that they seem to be trying to find a small handful of older people to be wrong about, which is a very strange characterization of a goal: to try to be wrong about what you think.

But it’s the same thing I noticed years and years ago when I was working in the death trade. There were legions of card-carrying lifelong atheists coming to the ending of the days only to discover that their atheism was not all it was cracked up to be.

And they’re not sure any longer whether they should try to be consistent with their so-called ‘belief system’. They’re not sure that they want to be right anymore about what they once believed, that when you die that’s it, kaput. It doesn’t look like the heroic achievement that it may have done in your years of firing on all cylinders. And I think it’s the same thing perhaps now, with the kind of generic antagonism and sense of cynical futility that seems to pervade the general emotional and psychic landscape these days, that seem to coalesce very intensely in people in their 20s and 30s. And I find they speak with great authority from that cynicism, from that anger.

But I understand their almost involuntary appearance at things I do as an attempt to find a place where it can be imagined and established that their cynicism can’t carry the freight after all. Like I said, it’s a strange thing to want, but I see it in there somehow.

And you know this this kind of thing can’t appear with generic reassuring, and ego affirmation, and trafficking in hope, and all of those things. This kind of very strange sort of ‘spirit metabolism’ to my mind can only really appear in the kind of subtleties that eloquence creates and pleads for.

Eloquence is a kind of architecture, and there is the old adage that ‘God lives in the details’, in small places, in the space between the words, in the hesitations, in the punctuation. I mean, these things are all as mandatory to achieving deep eloquence as anything that’s between the periods and the commas.

You know that’s what punctuation is: It’s an attempt to recreate the vocalizing and the style of expression and the moment in which it’s expressed. That’s where those things all came from. Now of course it’s all horribly standardized, and there are style rules, and…

I’ll tell you a little story. I can’t remember which book, but one of the books I wrote, when I got it back from the publisher with the line edit, they were reorganizing my sentences and my paragraph structure and all of this. I said, “you know, you signed a contract with me based on the book that you saw, and now you’re trying to rewrite the book. And you’re certainly doing so in a voice that’s not mine. How do you make sense of that?”

And they said, “well we’re just trying to bring it in line with the style manual.”

“And which one would that be”, I asked. Because they’re talking to me like it’s the Bible, right?

And they say, “ The Chicago style manual.” And I said to them, “I’m a Canadian, I don’t give a shit about your Chicago style manual. You know this is what you guys are so good at. You globalize, and you standardize, and you call that freedom. Look. I wrote a book in Canadian, and this book is going to be published in Canadian.”

And they were completely dumbfounded that there’s such a thing as “Canadian syntax”, and all the rest. But that’s, of course, what localities and particularities, and so on – that’s what they are. And that’s where the gods live. The only kind of gods there are, are local Gods.

And when you have a standardized language, a standardized way of expression, this is a kind of grotesque monotheism of the tongue. You know, that’s that same kind of intolerance that I talked about earlier about past, present, future.

And, you know, nobody who listens to Bob Dylan thinks, “Well, fabulous singer.” Right? Because if you divorce the sound of the voice from everything else you get these ludicrous denunciations of his inability to sing

But the truth is that he can sing extraordinarily well, given the entire package that was entrusted to him, and he crafted some kind of sound, it seems to me, that carried what he was entrusted with, his capacity to see things in the way that he did.

And it’s ludicrous to compare him to John Denver or Pavarotti, or I don’t care who. Ask any of them alive or dead to phrase the way he does, such that what he carries in Desolation Row can appear operatically or in the conventions of ‘the good voice’, and they couldn’t do it. Because it’s a package. But this is no condemnation of them. They’re not supposed to be able to do it.

So, that’s what I mean by “standardization”. Real eloquence makes a shambles of standardization, and that’s one of the ways it’s really trustworthy.

Brad: Something you said once has always stuck with me. You were talking about the pursuit of knowledge, about the acquisition basis of factual learning, “learning” being how others might describe the acquisition of information.

You said, “knowledge is the death of learning.”

That pierced me, and it seems to have the same sort of personality as what you’re saying right now about this fluidity of eloquence and the lack of certainty in all things.

Stephen: Yeah, first of all you can guess that I haven’t had many university gigs, having said that. [laughs]

Well, the idea of it is this: Knowledge is basically an accumulating exercise. It’s acquisitive, and its purpose is to swell over time. This is a sign that things are going very well indeed – though there’s the occasional purge, right?

But, by and large, the idea is you’re supposed to know more than your parents did, more than you did yesterday. That’s a sign that things are working out. And then every once in a while somebody drops a bomb like: ‘The older I get, the smarter my father becomes’.

Some of these things are believed in now, and seen to be inherently progressive, simply because ‘time is passing’. So I guess I take my cue from a more sort of prophetic function, whose world view might be that learning is entrusted to us, and we are to see to it that growth as we’ve become addicted to it is thwarted and undone.

I’ll give you an example that occurred to me while I was writing the most recent book about elder hood. It came to me from winemaking. I just asked myself a question. I don’t know where it came from. I don’t presume to know wine making very well, but I know what I like, wine-wise.

I just wondered how the good stuff came to be, and, as is my want, I wondered about it in a non-technical fashion. And this is what I came up with.

Wine starts off its life as a hundred gallons of grape juice. And you know, by any standard that’s not the most pleasant encounter in life, a hundred gallons of grape juice. So they add what they add, and they put it in whatever containers they do, and the people who know these things are in the conjuring arts, right?

But here’s what struck me as a kind of subtle thing to wonder about: When two years, or three, or five years later, or whatever it is the vintage requires – let’s say five years later – they open one of these casks that the pros deem to be ready, the question of whether or not it’s good is one question, but the other question to my mind is whether or not you still have 100 gallons of anything. And it struck me that the answer’s probably, no.

The only way you can achieve the depth of flavor, and the deeply complex nuance that they bend over backwards trying to describe in the wine literature, is that complexity – or deeply achieved wine-ness – happens at the expense of volume.

In other words, diminishment is the midwife, and a reduction in volume is the mandatory condition, let’s say, for a deeply achieved something. So you have less of it, but what you have is deep all the way through. And this is an eloquence of consideration, and not so much of expression– that you consider from whence comes the deep of anything, a deeply human thing, a deeply beautiful thing. And it may occur to you that it doesn’t come from smooth roads, assurances, hope-filled existence, a guarantee that if you just put your paddle in the water you’d get where you’re headed, that the only limitations are in your imagination, all of these sort of puffy assurances with which people are being raised and parented and praised now, and have been probably for a couple of generations. This has produced an extraordinary scheme among its practitioners and products, a demand to be satisfied before there is any work done: ‘I demand to be paid before the labors undertaken. I demand to feel reassured that it’s worth it, that it’ll work out in the end.’

A friend of mine owns a kind of a national, topological treasure on Maui, and you know it’s on the Lonely Planet guidebooks and what not, so people find it all the time. And he says the most routine question he gets from people who are seeking out this, the item of extraordinary beauty up in the Highlands behind his house, they say to him when they see him on the path, is “Is it worth it?” That’s all they want to know! “Is it worth walking up there? Gotta know that before I start walking. Otherwise, no go”

One of the things that eloquence is, to my mind, is an antidote to an achievement, a pseudo-achievement, that is not willing to be demeaned and diminished – and sometimes even demented – by the slings and arrows of the way things are, such that it becomes a genuine child of its time, and not some kind of unerring hero story.

Another little vignette that comes from the time I was working in the death trade: I would routinely be chastised, yes by the doctors, but also by patients and families, and finally by audiences. They would say to me, “You know, you’re your depiction of this thing is awfully dark.”

I would say, “Well I just think it comes from the way it is, but why does that trouble you?”

“Well”, they say, “Look, I know a story …’ And they begin to tell me yet another hero story of somebody who didn’t die on schedule, somebody who defied all the odds and emerged on the other side. This is the one that you’re supposed to hear about. And they’d look at me like, “So what you got to say about that?”

And routinely I’d have to say something like, “Look, I don’t dispute with you that you know this person who defied the odds, and I’m not even going to talk to you about what odds actually are. But let’s just say this: you keep telling the story of the hero who didn’t die on schedule, and I’ll keep telling the story of the 399 other people, diagnosed at the same moment, of the same disease, who died on schedule, and if we both keep telling these stories, then the whole story will keep being available to everyone.”

You see, that’s another kind of exercise of eloquence. It’s not so much in vocabulary, in speaking, as it is in realizing that when the hero story keeps being told, the point is to banish everything that’s ‘uninspiring’.

Brad: [Makes unintelligible sounds of deep introspection.] (Stammering) Perhaps it’s now time for us to bring this chat to a close. Is there anything else you’d like to you’d like to say in reference to Bali and the Seven Arrows in the Air teaching, or anything else at all?

Stephen: Yeah. There probably is. Let me see if I can find it. I would say this. I’m looking forward to this, because this is not an exercise purely in reporting. This is going to be an exercise – if I’m if I’m successful at it – it’s going to be an incarnation of what I’m advocating. And not just on my part. If I can cultivate the notion that there’s as much eloquence in the ear as there is on the tongue, and there’s as much eloquence in the world as there is in the human mind, and that if these find each other, then that’s the sound that whispers to us, again, that we’re lucky enough to still be alive, and to have lived long enough to realize it.

And that’s the prerequisite, it seems to me, to taking on the extraordinary and heavy labor of being alive in a fairly troubled time. And we’ll take a few days to get together to wonder how we might proceed otherwise, troubled perhaps but not troubling ,without finding another enemy, and instead recognizing that it’s adversity that prompts the need for this kind of eloquence.

Its adversity. And all adversity is, is the rest of the story. We have this phrase “Antichrist”, and it’s mistakenly understood to be, “the devil”, or “Beelzebub”, or whatever.

Well, in truth, the whole characterization means this: the Christ, as a historical figure, got a lot of stuff done it would appear, in a rather brief sojourn among us, and put quite a number of things into motion. What’s been done with them since is lamentable, among other things. But certainly he was on it for a little while. But there’s a lot of stuff he didn’t get to, and a lot of stuff that went haywire, and went sideways, and the Antichrist is … the rest of the Christ.

That’s the function. The Antichrist function is to provide the rest of the story, the part that an over-dependence upon the Christ figure tends to cause you to lose sight of.

That’s an eloquent way of understanding what adversity actually is. Adversity is the rest of the story, the troubled part that your addiction to success will not tolerate. So, the beautiful thing about eloquence of all kinds is that it challenges the standardized way of seeing things. It challenges prejudice and, generally speaking, in a capable mouth and hand, eloquence is the end of conviction, and the beginning of wonder.

And that’s not a bad achievement for a couple of days. That’s what we’re going to give ourselves to: conjuring beauty, in the form of eloquence.

Brad: Not bad at all. I am looking forward to this, as you know, as always.

Seven Arrows in the Air will be in Ubud, Bali: April 19-21, and you can get more information at

Thank you again so much for your time, and thank you everybody who is listening or reading the transcription of the chat.

Matthew Stillman in conversation with Stephen Jenkinson and Gregory Hoskins on the road during the 2018 Nights of Grief & Mystery Tour.

Matthew Stillman (MS): So we are sitting here in Kripalu on our way to Turners Falls for the next show. You both have traveled from Winnipeg all the way west across Canada. You have been in all three continental time zones, traveled untold thousands of miles to get here. And you have done the majority of the shows that are going to be on the tour.

And the tour has been planned just about a year at this point.

Stephen Jenkinson (SJ): Wow, is it that long?

MS: So I might ask, based on where we are in the tour, and where we are in the year, what is your understanding of what has happened up to this point?

SJ: There’s a lot of strata. One thing is what has happened in the shows, what has happened to the show, what does the audience tell you as time is going on, what happens to them.

One thing is we went to the States after Canada and that changed things, as I knew it would, because the Americans have consistently been a more audibly responsive audience than in Canada. That just changes because you cross the border. Not only that but the kind of political – maybe that is not even a broad enough word – the kind of existential political melee that we dropped into is palpably different the nanosecond we went across the border.

I think that is there. I think it shows up without anybody referring to it, although I very subtly referred to it maybe twice in the whole two and a half hours just to acknowledge it and no more. For me it has turned into something, and it is not something I knew at the beginning.

There is a band where there wasn’t a band. There were people organized around some ideas and rehearsal time, but a band has happened somewhere along the way, probably after the first four shows or something like that. I could feel behind me a kind of momentum that could be called upon, not by me but by the people who were in its sway. That has definitely happened.

Not only that but I have seen the range and the scale of the enterprise take on a substance that is its own. It has a sort of snake oil tent show revival aspect to it that wasn’t there once upon a time. I don’t mean that in a trivial way. It is a genuine unapologetic conjuring as well as crafting.

I think what has happened is the show itself as a living thing begins to ask something of the audience: How do you propose to live, given this? If you are going to be dead soon – something we assure people about at the end of the night – what does this ask of you? Now that I think of it, that is how this evening begins, too: “Welcome to this cosmic constant of ours.” What does that mean?

Well, the word cosmic induces slack mindedness I think. As soon as you hear the words ‘cosmic constant’, the contemporary mind can go blank with reassurance. Nice alliteration, yes, but what are we talking about there? God, which is our frailties and endings: that’s the cosmic constant. And then that sequence of welcomings, at the beginning. Somewhere along the way I think all of those things that I intoned in the overture – what are we calling it?

Gregory Hoskins (GH): Invocation.

SJ: Invocation – they seem to come to pass – or they come to call. That is better. I think they come to call. “How shall it be now that the call and the summons and the plea has gone out? How shall it be?” The next two and a half hours answers it, and it is not entirely the audience’s decision as to how shall it be. I think these things have been attended to.

That is what I mean by ‘substance’. So when I was imagining it, when we first talked about this between Calgary and Edmonton, I was thinking about how is this not theatre. It is theatrical. It is musical. It is poetic. It is mythological. It is all those things as adjectives, but how is it not those things as nouns? The answer I came up with very tangentially a few weeks ago (is that all it is? A few weeks ago, a month ago?) Was that it was pre-theater.

MS: Yes, we spoke about this in Arizona.

SJ: Yes it is theatrical, but it is pre-theatre though. I think things theatrical predated theatre. Theatre became the atrophy of theatricality. It became a kind of ossification of it. It struck me when we first started talking about it. I wasn’t struggling to find adjectives. I didn’t really…

I don’t think I have ever been asked in any of these interviews: “What the hell is this?” People ask you casually. But in the formal setting like an interview or anything, I don’t think I have ever been asked, now that I consider it. So I asked myself what it was. And I could never settle on a conventional iteration of it. Attributes, but not its soul. But it hit me that the reason that I couldn’t find it right away was because I was looking to the current available iterations of ‘theater’ … which is a fairly high attribution to grant to your little enterprise anyway.

I appreciate the word, but I think it has real limitations, because of the audience problem. Or, to say it another way, because theatre requires the audience. It enforces an audience for the most part. And this thing of ours doesn’t seem to. This thing seems to thwart the possibility of witnessing or attending to it at a distance. When you get the occasional gnarling, gnashing complaint about sound from one guy, I think that is what an audience does. The guy who objects to my translation of Amen, and then writes to comment on that only,for example: That is an audience. An audience tends to sit in adjudication of things.

But no one who was ever in on a ritual would ever adjudicate the relative merits of how the ritual was done, for fear of botching desperately the ritual and everything that is at stake because of it. I think that is the zone we are in. I don’t think it has to be declared for it to be so, but “It is better that if we make many a thing hangs in the rafters and hangs in the balance.” That is a very still couple of minutes in the proceedings: “As if how we are with each other is how the lords of chance will be with us.”

And then I proceed accordingly. That is not an introduction. That is an induction. I think the audience disappears as a cross-armed adjudicating remote control event. And that is in the contemporary sense of the term. It is not theatre. It is ritualistic.

MS: It might be called dramatic, which is much more alive and tender and needs to be taken care of in a different way than theatre does. Theatre seems to have that oppositional listening quality. It has that structure because of the times. Gregory, what is your understanding of where you are in the proceedings or where we all are in the proceedings, having heard all this?

GH: I think Stephen and I have different a experience of things, as I listen to him. It’s not distinctly different, but I think he is much more attached to the front end, and I am in the wake. Organizationally I was out front, but in the actual doing of the thing I am in the wake. A wake usually fans out. Actually, physically, the band has gone from being on the side to being spread out. If you looked at it from above, it would actually look more like a wake actually with Stephen pretty much dead centre and then the band fanned out behind him.

That is where I am sort of being pulled along. I am also not talking to the people after the night. I am not getting – I am not seeing the heartbeat after the thing. What does that mean? It means that I am part of the machinery in a way that is comfortable for me, new for me, and it doesn’t really give me a perspective on the whole thing.

It really doesn’t. We always ask Stephen: “How is the book line?” It is kind of code for: “How did we do?” We can’t count on the responses, because during the night we are all contending with the fact that there might not be responses or they might, as they often do, diminish through the night. We have talked about it before, the diminishing applause as we go along, with the kind of wearied applause. At the end Stephen says something like: “This will never end.” It is a lot like dying at that point.

And of course it is like dying in a lot of ways, but in one way it is going to end, before you want it to. And then there is that weird, whether it is prodded or not, ending where we are giving ourselves a gift and we get all funky, and yet we kind of cut to the quick of the entire night, at least the dying part of the night. We are conscious that it is not all about death. It is not all about the act of dying. But it is about endings, even the stuff that comes from the new book, especially coming into America, where the feeling of ending is all over the place.

The fact that nobody talks about it like that is weird and amplifies the fact. So we go in talking about endings of a specific kind. Yet anything from the new book is also touching on the same thing, and then we get to the end of the evening and we are funking out and it is fun. These are times when the crowd has been on its feet, at the end.

It is a bit of … There’s a great line that came from I don’t know which show it was, but it was recorded, and so I was listening to it. Stephen is just in the midst of this thing and he is something else. I think the mic is off the clip and he is back and forth. He says, “I was waiting for a sign, and I can make a sign out of anything.” That is the time when the tent goes up and we are in a very true but very, well, one might say ‘theatricality’ at that point.

One could say it is the release in the ritual. Then they are up on their feet and we are thrashing away on an ending, and I feel like a 12 year old playing in a garage band. And Adam is not sure he is going to execute whatever fill he thinks in his head. And we all look like 12 years old. That is what I think.

And we end. The only thing I am clear about is for some moments we are all unclear as to what just happened. What was that two and a half hours? Because we find ourselves on our feet. We find ourselves in that same position that people find themselves in at the end of school plays and the end of a Broadway show and at the end of a concert.

MS: How did that happen?

GH: Well, people are on their feet and they are clapping. It is a kind of agreed upon signature move. “This is what we do. If you do this, we will do this.” But there is rarely an encore call. In our culture an encore is – well, it is a French word, again. Encore: Again, again. But who would want to subject themselves to what just happened again?

So there is not going to be that. Even after we played in New York, we were walking down the street back to the hotel, we were walking by and somebody yelled the words Avanti – some Italian declaration of something. I spun around and there were two women who were at the show. They were applauding us and doing this Italian thing.

That kind of praise, the encore in our culture, of course, has become: “Play the song that you didn’t play, that you kept from the set.” That is the automatic response. I found myself at the end of it with those people not knowing what just happened because I am in the wake, and Stephen is at the prow, and they are at the water. So everybody is having a different experience. Everybody has a different role. We are not all in one room having the same experience, not in this thing.

I know on the stage that Stephen and I are not having the same experience. We are not fulfilling the same functions. We are two different parts of a moving thing. I am pretty linear with my metaphors, so if it is a wake and Stephen is at the prow and I am in the wake, then they are the water. Is there another version of that?

SJ: The Titanic.

GH: Cool. That was New York. No, totally kidding.

New York was triumphant. I am still on that. For me … I have a pretty good self-bullshit detector. In making music, writing songs, making records, it is kind of the one place I can’t lie. I can lie everywhere else. I can lie to other people. It is not really great to know about me, but I can’t really do that. It is like a sacred ground. I have made it that way for myself, so that there is just one place I have to be everything that I am.

So we go to New York, and day after day after day I cannot help but I am feeling this triumphant thing. In this thing we triumphed. I think I wrote in the letter to you that we triumphed because actually the gig triumphed over us and how we operated within that was our triumph. I felt like something important happened to us as a duo to be honest. There is the band and then there is the duo as it were.

MS: So in some ways perhaps that triumphant quality might not have been able to emerge if it wasn’t for all the cooking over the last parts of the tour and last parts of the year. If the tour as a whole, the Grief & Mystery Tour, is a material or a substance that you were speaking of that is kind of a live thing, it is has been the working of that clay or steel or plasma that allowed you to be able to deal with the distortion, for lack of a better word, of what happened in New York, because of the skills you honed with that pulsing, magnetic, alive, dangerous, volatile material, and knowing something about how to be up close and how far away to be and when to wield it.

GH: When the wheels come off like that you are not in control of anything. For us, it is not like we have been doing this for 50 years together. So when the wheels come off like that, we are vulnerable, completely. What are we going to do? What do we do? I don’t know the answers. What do we do?

But even just the panic of turning speakers around and switching microphones, and Lisa in the melee comes up to me and says, “You should switch your microphone with the other one.” I can’t go find the box and get the microphone, stick it in the clip, nah, I’ll just use this. And of course we go on and I realize, I will just use Stephen’s mike, the mike that works, but my guitar lead wouldn’t reach. I couldn’t. I couldn’t get up to there. So you are just vulnerable.

It is a vulnerable thing. I think the gigs we did before didn’t really test us that way, but you become the thing that ended up – at that point you are just an artist. You are just an artist. This is the thing that I recognized in Stephen. I have always seen – that is what I have seen, is the artist, the pure artist. I know he is lots of other things to other people.

SJ: I was completely heartbroken. That’s is the best way for me to describe how I was through the whole two and a half hours in the New York show. One of the reasons, I remember very acutely now … When the night was interrupted by a few unhappy audience members who couldn’t hear too well, I wondered: “Where I am to rejoin that ruptured thing? Where am I to do it?” Because this is how – I don’t like the word organic – but this is how … Okay, it’s anatomical. The night is for me a conjuring of the architecture of a living body. I have started, you see. And the call is this: “You can’t do that again. You can’t do that again. It has nothing to do with whether you heard me. It is a ritual. You can’t ‘start again, from the top’.

MS: It is like the crowning of a birth. You can’t do that part again.

Stephen: You can’t push back and say: “Nobody is quite ready. Let’s get the duct tape out and tape everything up until we fix the sound.” It was absolutely horrific to me, in the sense of transgressive, not that I didn’t – I’m not saying I felt the audience was transgressed upon, because I don’t think they were. Let’s just be very candid and say that nobody benefited from that. It was a horrendous thing but there were no beneficiaries of it. In that sense there is no blame. None of that thing.

I think I said to you when the people stormed out – and a good number of them stormed out – that thankfully I was not there to catch that. I had enough to deal with. They reported that these people’s principle grievance was that they were amongst the first to buy the tickets. They bought so many tickets and they bought them so long ago, and it cost so much for parking.

I thought to myself when I was told that later that night or the next day: “If you were that keen on it, what is the measure of it, tonight, that you cared that much about being there, that you were the first gone when trouble came, when the thing was compromised, that you were the first one off the boat? That is the way it struck me. I don’t say that with any malice. I am just saying that, to me, this is a living thing. We need all the allies, all the midwives we can get. Because that is what a ritual is:

There is no audience. And those people who left, they withdrew from the deal, if you will, from the alliance, by re-invoking their rights as an audience to be satisfied.

Matthew: As consumers.

Stephen: As consumers, yes. And it really compromised – not us up there, as hard as it was –  the thing that we were trying to breathe over. That is what was compromised. That is what I mean by: How do I start again? I was in four or five minutes into the nurse story. I don’t even like to talk about it like that, but I was there, and then all of a sudden there is that woman in the lights and she is yelling at me that it is no good and all of that … Which is perfectly fine, to bring it to our attention, absolutely.

But what is at stake though? Your ticket’s worth? The value of the money that you laid down for it? Is that what is at stake? That was the hardest part to reconstitute in those few minutes when I was trying to figure out: To whom I owe what? As I think about it tonight, the parallel is to the story I tell on the Grief & Mystery CD, about this dying pilot, where he is laying there and he is clearly weeks away from his death.

His wife, who is in perfect health, sits behind him, and their three year old child is playing with the cars in the kitchen behind. And he asks me: “Am I dying?” And in this moment I have to decide: To whom do I owe what allegiance? That was that moment in New York just a few nights ago. To whom do I owe what the best part of me could possibly manage at a time like this?

In the case of the story, I owed the dying man the most relentless candour that he deserved, to give him a chance to occupy entirely the moment that he was in, and not to work up to it, and not to imagine he had weeks more of preparatory time and more blood tests and the whole thing. The parallel is that when I had to re-enter the night and the story we’d already begun, I was trying to figure out how I would plead for this thing to come back to life and not be an artifice.

How can I say the Invocation again? I kind of knew where I was. Because now it is a set piece, if I do that. I am no scientist but I can imagine when they are doing scientific experiments and there is a chemical chain that begins, and you can’t back it up. Like you said with a birth, you can’t back it up and start again. I couldn’t start again. So it was very, very – the challenge was so acute. I was in a world – a sea – of sorrow the entire night. Not regret. Just a sense that we were compromised by the least metabolic aspect of what we do: the sound through the speakers. It is the least alchemical aspect upon which the whole show depends, to be legible beyond six or eight rows from the front.

It is an amazing back and forth there. I don’t say that the sound is any less vital. I am only saying that it is the least, the most synthetic proposition of the entire enterprise. It would be like the stage collapsing when you are trying to ritualize. It doesn’t mean that the monkeys aren’t in the architecture. Somebody is pulling on the wires. Because that is what I think happened, frankly.

The thing that went on there went way beyond whoever was at the sound dials and the shape of the dome of the room. Looking beyond all of that, surely there’ve been big shows that have been very audible in that building before that night. No, we have been calling those Old Worthies who are very infrequently called upon I think in the North American context. You never know …

You try to give them a place right away that they can occupy. I am not saying that we did anything wrong that made that happen at the level of performing the ritual. But the volatility of it looks like that too. That can be the other half of the crowd being on their feet at the end of the night, the part you would really wish for.

Nobody would wish for this, but, man, I think I said gremlins at one point in the night. That is the part that was heartbreaking, but not regretful. If that distinction means anything to anybody.

GH: Well, it does because, we call this a show even though we don’t really want to call it a show. We fist bumped on the way out into the room in New York because we are in New York. We are playing New York. We played in Los Angeles. There is one part of this whole thing that kind of lives in that world that you are just a kid from Scarborough and I am a kid from Newmarket. Look at where we are. This is something we say to each other, to remind ourselves how lucky we are, how unlikely this all is.

But if there were monkeys in the architecture, and let’s say there were, what it led to is this sorrow drenched thing. As you are saying that, I’m thinking of the people who are now witnessing not just another iteration where we are on a dark road heading out of town, because that is what we do every night. It is hard. It is hard to…

Where is it? Sometimes you get stopped on the road, and you have to go back or you drop something. Something happens. You can go back a little bit, which is what we did, and then we kept going. But it is a different journey now.

So there is now this sorrow that wasn’t there before, maybe wouldn’t have been there, and maybe that is where my sense of the word that I will keep coming back to is. That is where the triumph came in.

I have fallen apart under much less stressful situations.I have fallen completely apart. There is a point that I keep referencing: Well this sounds like we sort of sewed it together. This stuff is going. We are there. We are there with everybody. There’s the boat, the prow, the people. We still have our light.

The light is shrinking, expanding on you, on me, a third time. I come up to sing. No light moves. There in my mind I say: This is just unprofessional. That’s a line that just got crossed. Now we are an unprofessional show. At the same time I knew that Matthew left the light because he had to attend to the troubles of the evening. I knew.

I knew. I just kept singing. There was no problem. And then before the light came onto my face, I realized I was smiling. And it is the first time I have sung and smiled. The smile wasn’t crazy. It was – that was the beginning of the triumphant feeling.

It was the feeling of ‘I am not dead’. I will be dead soon. But I am not dead now. And nor am I yelling into the storm. I am in it. I was listening to the band. We had turned out the monitors. You were just like waves crashing on a rock. I wouldn’t know where you were or what you were saying.

We were singing into that. There was no way to know. Everybody was kind of depending on what they knew and, more than that, who they were. And nobody on the stage bailed. Remember in the Gold Coast in Australia, that audience? And I said to you after that show: “I apologize, because I bailed.” I just looked at my feet the entire night, because I couldn’t hack that awful place.

But that wasn’t it. It was kind of more crucible-like for me. Your sorrow, you are speaking of your sorrow. That still makes it a crucible for me. It still makes it a prime ingredient.

MS: And if you are speaking of it as a crucible, this particular experience in New York, and in the context of the entire tour, the crucible has to be made of a material sturdy enough that it won’t melt in the presence of that plasma which is again a completely volatile material. It can destroy as well as it can cut artfully, or cook. Although, who cooks with plasma? Probably nobody.

SJ: Food Network – somebody does.

MS: Somebody does.

SJ: There’s a food truck that does.

MS: Yeah, there is definitely a plasma food truck.

GH: Probably near a hospital, I want to say.

MS: But again, something has been forged over the time that you have been together over the last couple of weeks, and over the last year, that has made that material hard enough to withstand, and to make something out of this.

SJ: Something is being forged. But I feel like it is very, very early days for us.

MS: But it is forged enough that you are doing something with it. I hear what you are saying.

SJ: I myself am very leery of overstating any firmness or any state to it really. I remember – no comparison intended – two stories that I heard Leonard Cohen tell about his life. A little short one: He said … He referred to singing So Long, Marianne, or  …what was the other one from that year?

Gregory: Suzanne.

Stephen: Yeah, I think it was Suzanne. He started to talk, and he then stopped talking about the song. He said: “That song comes from a very mysterious place, and it is not for me to talk about it.” It was 50 years down the road from when he wrote the song, and he was still talking about it like it was a golden well at the back of a garden that nobody can find again. That kind of thing.

I was really touched by that, the reverence he had for wherever that came from which he claims no authorship of, really. At least he didn’t that day. So that is what I mean by: Don’t touch it too hard. I take his example as an inspiration to not foreclose on what you mean, but I love the example, and timidity almost, that is in the story.

The other one is, and you can see the film for yourself. A guy made a film called A Bird on a Wire. Tony Palmer I think, and the tour ends in Tel Aviv I guess. He can’t do it for whatever reason. Boy I know this one, too. He is standing out there and he has his little band. The audience is all looking at him rapturously from right at his feet, and he is suffering somehow.

Then about the third song in he basically stops the show and says something in the order of: “It is not happening. And there is no point, there is no sense, there is no justice or mercy in just milking the thing as if we will get enough to drink. It is proper that we are stopped. So we are going to go back in the dressing room, and we will see if it comes.And if it doesn’t come, let’s respect that.” Then he just walked off the stage. You could see the consternation in the faces. Anyway, he brings the band back and everybody is kind of in a world of hurt themselves, because nobody wants to be in this moment. He is really acknowledging something alchemical: It hasn’t risen. The angels didn’t come. Whatever it was.

As the performer can only do so much. You want to tap into it. You want the Gods to appear so badly. And that is not enough.  So the band is back there crying. Apparently he takes LSD in the dressing room, which is kind of a wild response, but very appropriate for the times I guess. And the next thing you know, his manager is telling him come here to the stage door. He is listening, and the crowd is singing to him. He isn’t even out there and they are singing to him. I think there was some Hebrew song they were singing to him, and then one of his songs they were singing to him. They just wouldn’t even move, never mind leave. He wants to give everybody their money back, and he is just heartbroken.

He goes out there and the tears are just coming down his face and he is standing there by himself. He is trying to tell them that he can’t. I don’t believe he picked up the thing. He didn’t continue with the concert, but he testified. That’s my point.

He was truer to the music in that moment, by being willing to know what couldn’t happen, than he ever would have been I suppose by doing what everybody would have wanted, the management, the band, some part of himself, certainly the audience, the reviewers, etc. I would never want to be in that position. How do you decide that?

But I know the edge of that moment in a way that I wouldn’t have known it two years ago. It is not just a musical dilemma.  I have been in certain non-musical performances of my own where you can feel that you are literally – it is a circus act and you are trying to put the tent up over the top of everybody sitting there. That is how, early on in the doings, you are. You are basically trying to put that tent up by yourself, and everybody is sitting there with their arms folded, saying “So when does the show start?”

MS: Are you saying this makes you wonder what might it be that you started off the tour attesting to? And has that changed? Are you attesting to something new with New York and L.A. and Seattle? Has what you are standing for or attesting to changed or grown or been fed somehow?

SJ: Well, I love it in a way that I didn’t. I wasn’t without love for it, but my love was really uninformed. There was a generic allegiance to it before. But I am savagely faithful to it now. That has changed. I feel very – I don’t know if ‘paternal’ quite covers the territory of it. I know paternity from having two kids in the world, and there is some of that.

I don’t know what it is. Protective, but not defensive. There’s a radical difference in those two things for me. I feel deeply responsible and in love with it, and I know it is fragile. But there is no weakness to it. It is fragile, and it is very susceptible, but it is immensely powerful.

It is an easy image: the whole being bigger than the sum of its parts, and all of that. That is not really what I mean. There is something that has happened that decided that we were good enough to visit. It wasn’t gone the other night in New York. It didn’t just say, “I don’t like the sound either!”, and storm out the door. It is seriously still there. I couldn’t hear it just then and I had all the human scale sorrows of how to continue, but I didn’t feel abandoned by it in the least. That is very peculiar, because I certainly could have felt abandoned, if my understanding of its appearing is that I always feel sustained. But that is not what it means to be a proper midwife to something wild in this world.

I am not always sustained by its appearance. A person can be drawn down upon so heavily by its appearance that there is no sustenance whatsoever, except a vague sense that you are doing what you lasted this long to be able to do.

GH: I think that is where the smiling came from for me. Those moments. These triumphant things that you fight your way through to the place that you know. There is this notion that you are doing what you are supposed to be doing on the planet, which is the thing which we talk about or you talk about being what the first half of your life is for.

It is amazing every night: The joke is that it has worked out for us, and we get paid to do it. But it’s not the pay. You write some songs for a few months or something like that, but the moments of not being up there as a performer, thinking: “Without this I’d die.” It is not that kind of thing. That’s not it.

But to have these moments of actually being inside of the realization that you are doing what you are supposed to be doing is… I can easily start crying, because you gets that? Who gets to have that? How many people do you come across who get to have that?

MS: So your faithfulness to that attestation has only become fuller.

GH: Yeah, as a bloody gift, in the case of New York. Because that is not always there. We go out to do our best, if you want to call it that. We come off having done our best. In the language of Cohen in Tel Aviv: Sometimes the thing does not rise.

We have kind of beaten the discussion to death around what the expectation of the audience is. Our expectations of ourselves, what are our responsibilities and all that kind of stuff? We’re out on the dark road, heading out of town. That is what we do. That image is more than an image. That is our devotional act.

MS: It is the idea that is somehow a joke and somehow not a joke: You are considering doing an extension of this tour actually on horseback, with a caravan, going from town to town.

GH: One of the hard things with this trip for me has been what it costs, the staggering movement of the machinery and being a part of that and going from town to town.

MS: City to city, van rental to van rental.

GH: Airplane to airplane mostly, the invisible mechanisms under those airports and the moving of baggage. That is when it came to me, just feeling sick.

MS: I remember being in Sacramento, we watched all our luggage go on and wonder how that got there: “See you in Tucson.”

GH: There is sort of this weird ease that comes with that. I thought it would be proper for what we are on about how to occupy the miles in between. I play electric guitar. I’m not going to pick up a lute.

MS: The brave Sir Robin…

SJ: Where’s Gregory? Washing his tights.

GH: That’s real. I was writing today about the strangeness. When you take off on an airplane you rarely look. When you take off in an airplane leaving a place, you don’t look at the land that is disappearing under the plane the same way you do when you are coming in. That probably makes sense on some sort of DNA level. On some wiring level you are kind of looking, assessing the land.

I have had some strange experiences of alienation and sadness in the air. It’s a place where we are not supposed to be anyway, doing this thing.

SJ: You should never be able to see the ground from up there.

GH: It is strange talking about the thing we are talking about.

SJ: It is an emotional chem trail, just to be there. That is sorely wrong.

GH: I know we are going to get to the stage. We go through all the challenges around, and these are banal challenges. Will there be enough sound? What time is the sound check? We have to get the stuff there. Do we have drums? What if my thing doesn’t work…

But you know in the air that you are going to get on that dark road heading out of town. You know that when you are in the middle of the air, even up in the blue. That is where we are humbly trying to go. When you fly in over a place like Los Angeles and you know that you are going to be talking about endings of all kinds, as we say, and you are flying over an ending … Those are heartbreaking moments for me. Those right there, trying to bring those two things together gently.

We are night after night in one building or another, four walls and a sound system, saying at the end “You’re going to die, we’re going to die.” It sounds ridiculous.

SJ: You’re going to be dead soon. There’s a timeframe involved.

GH: Exactly.

SJ: That dark road language is no joke.

GH: No.

SJ: That’s sorcery language. That’s all blues language. Those are real places.

MS: That’s where Robert Johnson got his powers.

SJ: I don’t say anything about the likelihood. I say we are headed there. I don’t talk about it again. It is a very big deal. No one has ever commented. I think it is euphemism for most people who hear it, like all these things are today. It is just a shorthand way of saying: “This should be interesting. Like a roller coaster.”

MS: I think that is a little bit like the classic zen finger pointing at the moon. You can never actually make your way to the moon, and you can’t mistake the finger for the moon either …

GH: When I heard first heard that line about the dark road,  I loved it  …  But I have come to understand that is exactly what we are doing. And we disappear into the darkness. And at the same time we are just trying to hold this very human thing, where one of the things that is going to end is the concert, and then the tour. Here we are, a part of the ending. We are just a part of the ending. What we are doing that night is going to end, and then we will end … I didn’t get much further.

  The other thing that has been amazing about this trip for me … It is beautiful, listening to Stephen’s arc of loving something and then passionately loving something that will end, the growth of that or the expansion of that in the shows. For me, I have been a lot about landings, about things that settle gently and then things that land.

But the first half of the second half of my life: I’m in that. I am just so thick headed. We had this great moment in Ithaca. As a write of songs I have to measure up to not only Stephen’s work, but to the work of the people we admire.

On this tour, I realized how much work I have to do. What a gift that is, to be invigorated in that way. I knew it was out there waiting for me. That has been deep.

MS: It is undoing.

GH: Yeah, and that is the thing about the New York night. If nothing gets undone, if we had just come out and…

MS: …did a perfect show every place …

GH: … every place, it would be Mirvish. It would be Andrew Lloyd Weber. It would be Hamilton, or something that would be perfect every night. Who needs more of that?

This thing, the actual doing of the thing, is creating something as it goes. That gives the thing that we are doing a life that we are not in control of. This is not: ‘We roll into town, set the stuff up just so, so that when you pull this lever this thing goes, that thing happens.’ That was what was beautiful about New York, partly.

The code word for this tour has been ‘resilience’, from pretty early on. By the third show, I think we said it with Tad, by the third show we thought we had all been out there for five weeks.

SJ: That’s true.

GH: Completely.

SJ: I don’t feel that way now. It feels less, much less like that, than it did by the third show.

GH: That’s not because stuff gets easier to do.

SJ: It takes away the time sequence from you. It is not another show three weeks later. This show, the next one, the one tonight, has never happened. I don’t know how that might sound from a distance, but I can promise you that inside of it you are walking down that dark corridor towards where the curtains are and you have absolutely no idea what is going to happen.

You don’t know what kind of response you are going to get. You don’t know what is going to come out of your own mouth, or off the end of your fingertips, or what the people behind you are going to do, or what that looney in front of you is going to do, not to mention the wild card which is X-hundred people all facing more or less the same direction.

Forget about keeping it fresh: That is a nerve ending that is exposed.

MS: When you speak about Bird on a Wire, which you did earlier, it is a bit like you are landing on something live voltage every single time. And if you don’t land on it right, something different happens.

SJ: I quibble about the language of ‘right or wrong’ about it. You are trying to keep a certain kind of faith that you both summoned and agreed to abide by, to fold yourself into, to disappear inside of, so that you relinquish title but you exercise immense discipline without claim. That is how it is to me.

There is a sequence. We kind of know what we are going to do for one episode or movement to the next, but that tells us nothing about how to get there. These things literally, unlike a script, these little things literally stand in the air for a minute. They are almost visible. They require what you know how to do, but they are little more than that. But you have to inhabit their children, what comes after them. It is just the most insane high wire act, to try to do something like this night after night after night.

You can’t justify it, but you can be … Well, I like being a servant. I really do. I love being slayed by the thing and still not be dead. But there is certainly that feeling of being mounted and subdued, and there is an obligation to submit and still occupy that kind of central place that you agreed to conjure by appearing.

We were laughing the other day, remembering when we were doing a sound check once in Australia. The guy in the back yelled: “Can I have the lead singer”, by which he was anointing me. It was hilarious, because I didn’t sing a note in those days. The other night it was, “Can I get the poet at the front?” That is how I was designated that time.

Well, who knows what it is. There is a microphone that is out in front, and somebody better stand there, and somebody better assume some responsibility for what they cannot command. What a lunatic arrangement that is, but that is the arrangement. I would never want to be in a band behind a guy like that.

MS: You have three people. And you have volunteers in every city who are pulling for that to happen.

SJ: Go figure. I mean, revolutions happen this way. They really do. These are revolutionary cells of the spirit that have absolute political octane in them. When I say ‘spirit’, I don’t mean ‘ephemeral’ or ‘ethereal’. If these people turned this energy toward any other thing, that would be something. So I hope it is not entirely dissipated by the end of the evening, although there has to be some release obviously. It is building to something, but maybe it will happen later on that these people have more to do with each other than they ever imagined. The Night of Grief and Mystery could simply be the occasion for it, not the cause, not the reason. Just the occasion.

“The night ebbs, but the reasons why they did it amplify”: That would be beautiful.

GH: We have to attend to the death of the thing every night. This rolling into the town, and the sense of expectation from the almost bursting sense of the thing being accomplished by the people who have been on the ground who have been putting it together for months and months … We have to attend the death of that thing, roll out the day after, or the day after that. There might be a couple of smoke signals, a receipt for this or that.

MS: It is a fading trail.

GH: Yeah, the thing is over. Actually I think that is a really immature way to look at the thing. Partly we need to, for my own sense of keeping my – well, it is basic ego stuff – keeping that stuff in check. “It is just another thing.”

But this thing has matter. It dies when we leave and it leaves the impression. It leaves the impression that it makes.

MS: And we are the night before the election in the U.S., which is called the most consequential election. It is in the air.

GH: But like Stephen said, it comes up once or twice a show, and when it does, nobody knows how to – literarily nobody knows in the audience. I have seen people’s faces scrunch up near tears when he has mentioned the twisty reality of truth these days. It is like fear on steroids, but nobody is talking about what it means to express something other than fear of their times, of the ending of their times.

So many seem just interested in keeping with what they are comfortable with. I have always thought that what we did was countercultural. When I first said this, Stephen said: “What culture? Do you call this a culture?” Well, if this is the culture, then what we are doing is counter to that.

SJ: What we are doing is antimatter in an attitude universe. That is what this is.

GH: That is the next t-shirt.

MS: That’s the name for the next tour.

GH: It is awesome to do what we do in the context of these times. I am behind. Stephen is the one.

I got schooled on that. I don’t consider myself to be a small part.  I have this notion now that I have work to do, but I am not doing it now, on this tour. In the studio when you are making a record, you can have a producer and you can have a band, but you have to have the captain, the person who … That’s Stephen. It is absolutely not me. I know who I am in this thing. That has been another gift of this tour. Because that has not always been clear to me. Stephen knows – he knows – he knows what it is like to be near somebody who burns brighter. That’s all it is. And that is very personal stuff. But what a gift that is.

I have been near – I have been lucky like that in life actually. It is amazing that I am lucky like that again. I am 54 and I am supposed to be winding down.

SJ: What does that make me? Wound?

GH: You are tightly wound.

MS: You are fully spooled.

SJ: Sancho Panza is the way to go. That is the way to go, because you get to watch tilting at windmills. You get to learn how to do it. But Don Quixote had no idea how to do it. He had nobody out front. That was part of the tragedy of the thing. You want to be somebody be Sancho Panza, bringing up the rear. That’s the business.

GH: And here is something just vaguely interesting. I know you guys are going to roll your eyes. I am not the most well-read person as you might know. When I was a kid, about 11 or 12, I fell in love with the story of Don Quixote, but I fell in love with the Broadway version. I always identified with Don Quixote, not Sancho Panza, but here I am. I am Sancho Panza again which is not to say that Stephen is Don Quixote, because you are not, right? You are not tilting at windmills? You’re not mad?

MS: He’s shrugging.

GH: You do have the beard.

SJ: I have an idea where the monster is. When I say, at the top: “We are headed there”, I am not talking about the audience. Let’s see where the audience goes. But I know where we are headed, and I know we don’t have a choice, not really. So at the beginning I say to the audience: “We’ll see you, or we won’t.” That’s it really. I have an idea where the monsters are. That’s where we’re headed.

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. In this interview Stephen speaks with Christopher Ryan from Tangentially Speaking.

Music: “Still Water,” by Daniel Lanois; “Smoke Alarm,” by Carsie Blanton.

In this interview, author and culture activist Stephen Jenkinson speaks with Terra Informer Dylan Hall about death, grief, and his new book, ‘Come of Age: a case for elderhood in a time of trouble’, particularly in view of this troubling time we are in. Stephen will be on tour through Canada and the U.S. this fall with the Gregory Hoskins band, performing ‘Nights of Grief and Mystery’.