Author Archive

They used to call them ‘records’. I still call them records. People concerned with my cultural literacy gently recommend that I should use the word ‘cd’. It isn’t a word. I can tell that it isn’t a word, and so can you. It’s like ‘esso’, or ‘sunoco’: They told you it was a word years ago. There didn’t seem to be a synonym that did the job well, and so you buckled under and submitted to this baby-word sounding thing, and now its in the cultural landfill of things that, because they’ve been around for a couple of generations, must be true. They want you to be product-faithful, and they give you the lingo to do it: “Just ask for ‘gronk’”, they tell you, “and everything will be fine.” Before you know it we have ‘gronk’, and everything still isn’t fine.

Anyway, they’ll always be ‘records’ to me. I suppose it sounds a bit lost, bordering on dissolute, to continue using the word when the thing it referred to is just about nowhere to be found. Here’s an example: I was in New York – New-frigging-York, mind you – a few years ago during a teaching tour, and my host asked me what I wanted to do, and I said that I wanted to go to a record store. There was a strained silence that descended on the room, everyone looking at me and then looking away. “A record store”, he said. I thought his tone suggested that maybe there was something more New Yorkish we could do with this only open afternoon in my schedule. I thought about it for a second: It had been a long time since I’d been to a record store, and I was due for new tunes at home. “Yes, that’s what I want to do. This is New York. The selection’s going to be great.” It turned out his tone suggested something more like pathos, like I’d just made it clear that I was so desperately out of touch that my credentials for standing before a room full of strangers and talking about anything was in serious question. “Well”, he said, ‘there aren’t any.” I didn’t understand, obviously, because I asked him, “They aren’t open today?” “No, no. They don’t exist”, he said. “They’re gone.” And then I was filled in as to everyone downloading and the rest. Mournful news.

A record was an event in a young person’s life, back in the day. It was an artifact, part fact and part art. A part of one’s room was given over to their display and storage. There was a something called album design, probably, at the record company. There was enough creative real estate to establish the look and feel and the cool of what was inside. The jacket was an object of pride and literacy. The notes themselves were a literary genre. There were influences acknowledged, inside gags, stories from the studio, references to the last record. They were worlds. You could hear them.

A record is a sign. It’s tracks in the dirt, whorls in the sand. It means that, while you were busy, something happened. It is like a faithful witness to something that would otherwise come to naught. Hearing a record is like watching mist rise from yellowing leaves when the sun finally finds them on one of the last warm October mornings. It’s a telling. If it’s good, it’s a kenning, conjuring a language that grants the hearer a chance to attend something fireside and venerable, something old.

I’ve been granted the life of a performer the last decade or so. I have the good fortune of seeing parts of the world, hearing about the lives people are obliged to live, and I wonder aloud with them for hours at a time about how it has all come to this, and how it might yet be otherwise. The technology has been simplified now that even the likes of me can make a record of what he says on such occasions. There must be hundreds of them by now somewhere in the house. I’ve done so largely because the winds of consternation and inspiration blow through these events so frequently that later on I’m unable to remember much of what I said. I’m curious as to whether they were as good as I often remember them to be. People routinely ask for copies of the recordings, offer to pay for them. I tell them that the events are for them, but that the recordings are for me. They are for helping me get a sense of what I’ve been trying to do over the years, since I don’t have a master plan. We put out a few recordings in the early years. There was no editing, no fine tuning, and each of them would have benefitted from a bit of that. I haven’t considered doing so again since then.

But your mind changes. With luck, it changes in concert with your changing life. By means marginal and miraculous I acquired a band for part of this Orphan Wisdom enterprise, one Gregory Hoskins. Tours materialized. Wonder of wonders, philanthropic and government funding materialized, and this strange endeavor qualified for it. The application forms were utter torment: What even to call this thing that I was doing? Theater? Music? Spoken-word improvisation? I applied for visas to do this thing on the up and up, and came to realize that I was being vetted for the opportunity to offer cognitive dissonance to the general public. Roadies volunteered. People crowd funded roadies to accompany us. People offered their cars and their navigational devices, their connections. Strangers threw themselves into organizing gigs in other countries, on the other side of the world. Then the chance came to do a proper, gear-lugging tour of Australia and New Zealand earlier this year, fifteen or so gigs in a month, and we brought proper recording capacity with us. After a few gigs the kinks were ironed out, and it worked pretty well. Then came a tour of the U.K., seven gigs in eight nights, and more recordings.

We got home. I went about fulfilling book-contract obligations, readying myself for upcoming school sessions, worrying about the daily rains and what they were doing to the corn in the field. Mr. Hoskins turned his producing chops upon the tapes. (I know: They aren’t tapes anymore. I’m calling them tapes. Some things don’t change.) After a while he called and said, “Maybe you want to listen to this.” He’d done something more than clean up the sound, more than fine tune what happened when we walked out onto the stage: He’d made another event.

You’ve heard of dry lightning. The storm’s far enough away that there’s no rain, but your sky alights, and the rumble of elsewhere is there at the edge of your alertness, and something happens to your understanding of the world: It’s bigger than you remember, and there’s that miracle of the Other Place, not a copy of your own.

So there’s a record coming out in a few weeks. It’ll look like a cd, but it’ll be a record. It’s called: Nights of Grief and Mystery. That is surely what they were. But to me the record is dry lightning: A sign caught in a jar that things happened, and are still happening. When I get one, I’ll put it beside my other records, on that Wonders Never Cease shelf.

So we haven’t ‘cd’d’ anything here. We recorded it.

There are days that come – and surely they have found you – when assuredness about the aim and the reasons for your life is the first casualty of the giddy good fortune of awakening again and heaving to uprightness and bringing anything in particular to mind. You are suddenly awash in wonder at the ordinary unlikeliness of your days and your place in them. It isn’t confusion, exactly, that comes round. It is more the entirely mandatory happenstance encounter with The Reign of Chance. You wake up once more, but all the habits of your mind have not yet done so, and you come to first light as an amateur again, bereft of order and the easy stride it grants. You have a lightness to your limbs and to your first contemplations, an imprecision you’d never seek, so much like ‘sudden nothing’ does it seem, like the end of the old purpose and of the old clarity, and the beginning of something older.

I have, thanks to the persistence of he Mankiller Tour that began in earnest in 2015, become a denizen of the road. And so I’ve become prone to these kinds of encounters.  As on many another strange morning, I have washed ashore just now from ten weeks on the road, from the Oceania Tour, and awoke in this arrhythmia at yesterday’s first light. It began as you’d expect: “Okay. Where am I? Is there a gig tonight? Interview? Does today have an airport in it somewhere? Will I make the weight limit? What is my business? Is there anything of the Old Life standing?” But there was only a room not at once familiar, and a view of the river I once knew now free of ice and risen over its banks, and the particular quiet of an off-grid house that I’d over these months learned to live without. And the grace that comes with the end of momentum. In that quiet, I considered and reconsidered.

If you came to your age of majority labouring under the gaze of two parents who managed a steady fondness for you and your errancy, that’s probably because they managed a stout fondness for each other, and I trust you count yourself in fortune’s company and in something grown rare. And if as you came to the gates of your life’s saunter and sojourn as a young man or woman one or two others raised up the dragging hem of your soul and all its allegations and became your soul’s parents, then the Graces themselves had their way with your days. And if you awakened as you went to some retroactive reasons for your birth and the persistence of your pulse against the entropic odds of this jangled time of ours, you may sometimes be by turns giddy with the assignment of real purpose, and you may sometimes be rent asunder by only a glimpse of how the radical ramshackling beginnings of wisdom are more rarely sought it seems than they might have been in former times, and that they traded in so often now for personal style or for dominion. In those days the longing for companionship for your purposed soul is heavy.

And if you’re gone away for a legion of days at the firm beckoning of the Old Worthies and the Ancients of Days, and if you arrive at a home where someone waits, candle in the window and heat in the hearth, and affords you a bit of room afforded should you have to find yourself again, you are of course fortune’s son or daughter. And all of this, all of it, comes bounding to you as portents and wonders, and signs that the Gods of Chance have rolled the knucklebones of fate and your worthiness has been agreed upon, and that you’ve only to submit, to wear the raiment afforded you by the travails and the truing of your time, burdensome and telling as it often is.

Now, for all of that, should the road find you in conclave with those who will conspire to take all your reasons up with theirs and prize a better day with them, you might just reel from the strange mercy of it all. And you might plead for mercy from that strange, Godly mercy. And that is what happened. The Nights of Grief of Mystery were granted me by the kindness of the peoples of Adelaide and Melbourne​,​​ Newcastle, Wentworth Falls, ​Sydney and Hobart and Auckland​, ​Gold Coast, Brisbane, Bangalow and Coorabell, Yandina and ​Fremantle​, and Bali and ​Maui, and all the other good places these last months, that is true. Still, the gold and the glint of those long days was finding myself in companionship of the Round Table kind. Companionship: it means – and still means – the way of being with bread, the table fellowship of kin. Scoring my mischief and my muse I had the good graces of a band, one Gregory Hoskins, and a road apprentice, one Aaron ​Berger. Concerts for Turbulent Times they surely were, sonorous hours and rapture.  I will tell you that these times were served by whatever talents of tongue and timbre granted the band and the bard, and by the raucous willingness of the sold out houses down under to be drawn into wonder and poetry and the kenning of these times. The doors were pried at night’s end, and still many lingered and couldn’t leave or wouldn’t, and there was something like victory in the air, and a weary, luminous midnight rumour that people heretofore unknown to each other can still join for the sake of the young among them and of the world still entrusted to them, and that the Mercies count us kin, and that wonder is the currency of the Gods. To all of you who wondered aloud with us these last two months over that vast country in the south: would that the storehouse of mystery out behind the house of your ordinary days be full, no matter how threadbare you’d grown certain it was, and that your neighbours hear tell of it and find their’s full too.

And now this caravan of consequence and conjure, these Nights of Grief & Mystery, are bound for Wales and for England in May​ (Fishguard, Totnes, Brighton, Norfolk, London, Sheffield and Bristol)​. Would that some of you come to hear these tales that those who parted from your Old Countries in centuries past came for in Oceania. Would that you grant us, two more sons Come From Away, the honour of your evening.

Stephen Jenkinson

Bold

Feb 13, 2017

by

One of the things that seemed to concern my mother during her parenting years was the danger of rearing children who turned out ‘bold’. That was the darkening term, as I recall. ‘Don’t be bold’: she didn’t say it more than a few times, but the caveat was thoroughly practiced, and I recall it clearly. ‘Bold’ was for the Mediterranean lineages. I had the impression then that ‘bold’ was for the Catholic kids too, though in the early going it wasn’t clear what ‘Catholic’ was. It was only clear that, whatever we were, we weren’t Catholic. ‘Bold’, as it was presented to us, wasn’t really a character flaw, though it flirted on the edge of that purgatory. It was more something like flamboyance, an uncalled-for drawing of attention to yourself. Just on the other side of ‘bold’ you’d probably find ‘gypsy’, and it was just downhill, morally, from there. It was a bit of a grim lesson in insignificance, something just short of unworthiness, though I’m sure no one who tried to cure us of being bold thought of it that way. They were looking out for their young, and that was how they did it then, enforcing a kind of radical reserve or reluctance that was known then as well-mannered, or shy. Surely what underwrote the whole enterprise was a dread of standing out.

I write all this down while deeply in the morning-after of a concert given in Toronto, one of the Nights of Grief and Mystery I am prone to. Three hundred or so people on a snowy Friday night, gathered with no promise of distraction or reassurance or continuing education credit – with no promise at all, really. I’m baffled by this, every time. And honoured. Coming into the city from the farm a few days ago, subject to the video-game traffic swarm I am now totally a stranger to, I was keenly aware again of the considerable distance there is between my daily life and theirs, and I wondered as ​I ​do each time whether there was anything in what I’ve been granted or entrusted with that could have any use for busy urban folk. Calving off from the glaciers of pure mystery there are very kind offers to have me appear in various countries in the last while, and they have crafted for me a life I wouldn’t have imagined: night after night the subject of intense and temporary curiosity and attention, being troubled aloud and mystified by ordinary things. This is pure privilege for me, braced by grace. They say that getting older is the time for calming down. If so, it isn’t working out.

How very odd it is now, me deep into the later third of my days, to be flirting when the occasion presents itself with being bold. I am as Anglo-Saxon as I ever was, to be sure, but I seem to be a lapsed Anglo-Saxon, more and more of the non-practicing kind, as time goes on, less and less claimed by those kin. Odder still, I get to do so sometimes with the blessing of a band, and a Catholic one at that, in the person of singer/songwriter Gregory Hoskins. The whole enterprise subjects me to wonder at the shape of my own little life, though it isn’t one my childhood, free of the bold, prepared me for.

We are some days away now from a tour of Australia, New Zealand and the surrounding jurisdictions, and we are ready. There have been some confused requests for more information about these Nights that we propose, and beyond what I’ve already written before now decorum and my old training restrains any claims I might make on their behalf. How to exercise dominion over something that has yet to happen? It is certainly true that whatever I’ve seen and done isn’t draped in the rags of universal truth. I’ve no reason to believe that anyone in my area code needs any of it, never mind those who live out beyond the dark and rolling seas. But I don’t question the invitations. I obey them. We aren’t poets, I wouldn’t say, but the evenings are poetic. They are musical and grave and raucous and stilling, which probably means they are theatrical. I would call them bardic, and I would call them timely. They are nights devoted to the ragged mysteries of being human, and so grief and endings of all kinds appear. You could say they have something archaic about them that remind many of ancestral nights around the fire. They are nights in which love letters to life are written and read. And bold, yes. There’s some boldness in them. They have that tone. It’s a risk, given my early education, but seems in keeping with what these times of ours ask of us. And that is what you could count on: these teachings and these concerts have the mark of our time upon them, and they’ve become  urgent, alert, quixotic, with some swagger.

You could say this: One day, someone a half or a third our age will come to you with two questions. The first will be something like, ‘When you were my age, did you know what was happening to the world?’ The fairest answer has to be: ‘Some did and some didn’t. Anyone who wanted to know could have known, yes.’ The second question will be, ‘So, what did you do?’ We in the stage light glare are of the age where these questions are starting to come. This Oceania Tour, these Nights of Grief and Mystery, ​and these teachings of mine I’ve come to call ‘Die Wise: Making Meaning’ and ‘Old Time: Learning Elderhood’ ​they are our answer. For those of you who buy a ticket and come, and spread the word a bit: Thank you for giving us a way of giving the young an honest, honourable answer.

Stephen Jenkinson, MTS, MSW

Find tour, dates, locations, teaching descriptions and ticket purchase for the Oceania Tour 2017: Nights of Grief and Mystery online.

Video: Oceania Tour 2017: Nights of Grief and Mystery Preview

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The Interview: It is a strange conceit. Someone is drawn to you because of something ​you said in another interview, and they want you to say it again, ​but this time more achievedly​, or more clearly​. The unenviable occupation of the interviewer is to work you around to a handful of moments wherein you outdo yourself, and in so doing eclipse what drew that person to you in the first place. And you, the interviewee, must allow yourself to be drawn into imagining several thousand chairs gathered semi​-​circularly and devotedly, occupied by several thousand willing conscripts who have been raised up out of their ordinary and mortal days by the sudden out-of-the-blue chance to overhear the unlikely and blessed murmurings that your life has entrusted to you, and all of you gathered ​round this imaginary fire of subtle salvation in this dark night of the collective soul that the current regime not very secretly has become. That might sound a little overblown, but that’s what’s come my way. In a consumer culture interview you​ ​​are obliged to imagine people ​out there, ​assembled by torment and by the hope that someone has it All Figured Out, and somewhere in the interview you are called upon to deliver the goods, and get it sorted, to sell certainty, to put up a road sign that reads: ‘The Way – ​a few moments ahead’.

I have submitted to probably several dozens of interviews over the last decade or so, not many by the strange standards of celebrity, but enough to conjure in an unsuspecting ​interviewee’s ​mind rumours of ​personal ​glory and ​the ​possibility​ of notorious swagger. The interview is a seduction in the way that pornography is seductive: it is a conclave of strangers fated, probably, to remain strange, gathered by the rumour of spectacle but conjured by the isolating concern that they’ve been left out of the procession of beauty and insiderhood.​ The talk show is the overweight child of the interview, and the person being interviewed is encouraged to eat all the attention, all that ‘centre of the universe’ status temporarily served up to him or her.​

In the early going I’m sure I went along with it all, not very informed by the machinery and the chicanery of what is called these days The Conversation, throwing my tw​o​ cents into the maw of opinion, watching it disappear without a trace. What made interviews more troubling for me as I got older was the heady and ludicrous obligation to have The Answer, to show people The Way, to solve the thing​ I had showed some concern about​. To be able to wonder about what troubles, to craft a consternation which is articulate or a sorrow faithful to what sorrows: I treasure these things, and on my good days I practice them. But it is the lot of the interviewee to ​be asked in some way or other to ​collude with ​this bit of fog: sorrow or wonder or troubledness are preparatory, preliminary steps on the royal road to The Answer, The Fix. ​The truth is that in our time i​t tests patience and endurance to set off on an hour’s worth of wonder and perplexedness and grief without tra​ffic​k​ing in grievance, ​and ​without the infantilizing saccharine drip reward that promises the bright horizon at the interview’s end, the new dawn, where everything – anything – is Great Again.

​ ​Steer your way past the truth ​ ​You believed in yesterday ​ ​Such as fundamental goodness ​ ​Or the wisdom of the Way

That’s the recommendation of one patron saint of the Orphan Wisdom School (unawares), to get hip to the seduction of conviction and belief system and ​fix. It is an old ​woman’s or ​man’s wisdom. You could mistake it for bitterness or cynicism, but it has the tone of something road weary and road tested, something counterintuitive that has earned its keep. It is a grown-up’s way of going on, sometimes scarcely being able to.

Anyway, I write all of this to you by way of saying: Yes, here comes another interview. The interlocutor ​here was kind – not always the case – and he was concerned about what he was asking – also far from inevitable. A little behind-the-scenes for you about this one: the audience was one accustomed to finance-related themes, as I understood it, and I cautioned the interviewer that I had no useful notions or experience where ‘peak prosperity’ is concerned, and that I shouldn’t be relied upon to translate anything I’ve seen into that vernacular. That didn’t stop me from trying, as you’ll hear.​ Perhaps once or twice you’ll hear a ‘lord of the universe’ tone come in (some would say more than once or twice). But mostly what you hear is me trying to make some useful sense, again, of the trouble of the day, taking my respectful lead from those who invited me, carrying myself as if, perhaps, a few of you might be out there, listening.

So you have here a few moments pause from the fray, me turning the questions back upon themselves so that they could earn their keep as something worthy of the time you might give to listening, so that I could earn m​y keep. I like the laboured-over feel that shows up in this one from time to time. There is something here that reaches out to the possibility that you might recognize what I’m being asked about, or how I’m responding. I’m talking as if you’re out there. There isn’t a lot of ‘upswing’ to the thing, and you’ll not likely feel like dancing after listening. But at this darkened end of the year in the North, where I am, as the Litany of the Illumined and the Light banishes anything but obligatory joy from any family encounter, maybe the uncertain, brailed-out tone of the thing might be a welcome pause in the festivities. Afterwards, you can return to the merriment, perhaps with another take on happiness, another tempered and tuned gravity to lend to ​the f​rollick.

Would that the Mercies crowd the fortunes at your doorstep. Would that the Ornery Deities be granted their seat at the feast table this time around, so that they don’t claim all the others.

Stephen Jenkinson

Listen to Stephen’s recent interview with Chris Martenson from Peak Prosperity.

Read the full transcript of the interview visit valuewalk.com

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

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

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

Stephen Jenkinson, MTS, MSW

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo courtesy of Ian MacKenzie.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Mankiller Tour began eons ago, in February, with a small huddle of expats and curious Mexica, a crackling sound system and doubtful, generous Buddhists, riven pilgrims, end-of-the-road outcasts, trollers of purpose to go with their days, all of us gathered under the mantle, the flayed-open cordillera of Morellos, under the unvanquished Aztec pyramid on the cliff edge that has seen so much. Then to Mexico City, that troubled open heart of the Americas, to a shuttered room in a suite of rooms that was once home to a family of prestige and now much reduced. There were eco-anarchists, militant seekers, Buddhists again, some of certainty and some of confusion, wavering Catholics and Old World Jews and genteel kids volunteering their young days to the cause. To my agile, straining spontaneous translator and to my being troubled aloud they bent their ears, some of them, and listened and considered.

Sometime during the course of that second evening I was obliged to know something I did not seek, or did not count on: I’m in Mexico, I don’t speak Spanish, I’m talking about death and its details through a translator, and people of speckled lineage and jangled conviction are leaning in, are considering, are giving me the gift of their evening. This caravan of unlikelies has prevailed ever since, as it has wandered America. I’m not likely the best judge of it, singing inside this small disturbance, but things seem to have gained a certain momentum. For a crucial while I had a band, my name for the remarkable musician Gregory Hoskins who graced my pleas for mercy and for grace under mortal pressure with his own faithful cantos of muscular sorrow. People came, jammed doorways and stood on chairs and they lingered afterwards, unwilling it seemed to go back to a home unchanged by an unlikely evening of mortal mysteries.

Today I’m on a plane again, this time heading to lands left long ago by those whose heirs I’ve become. It isn’t a homecoming, surely not, but it’s not another place on a list of places, either. This breezy little tome I’ve written, Die Wise, was graced with a noble introduction by a denizen of England and of times gone by, name of Martin Shaw, with whom I was briefly reunited a week ago for a riotous night of elegy and lament worthy of the ages. (Keep a weather eye for a film record of that boisterous event, crafted by Ian McKenzie, that might see light later this winter.) In the spangled generosity of his Forward Mr. Shaw took me for a citizen of the Other World. And this was to my knowledge the first time I was recognized, the first time this drizzle of sorrow and love for life that is my claim for Orphan Wisdom was seen and called by name. This stirred my gratitude. I have gratitude for him personally and specifically, surely, but I’ve another gratitude that arrived in this slurry of anticipation and pause, one that rises in the departure lounge as I make my way back across the Atlantic, tracing the furrows ploughed centuries before when We Who Left, who could not afford to stay, parted ways so deeply with You Who Stayed, to become the great European fantasy of America. And Mr. Shaw wrote of we who left: “To us, when you left you became spirits. How does dying wise function when to we who stayed you are already dead?” This is surely the arche of sorrow and longing and the uprooting of the world in search of home that America has become. It is to this wonder that I am returning.

So this is the whisper inside these evenings that I propose, the murmur inside the orphan wisdom for a troubled and troubling time that I bear: that the time may be dawning now, as we glimpse the myriad endings of the order that was so strangely born, for the old ancestries to be met and claimed, that we begin finally to occupy that seat reserved for us at the groaning board in the mead hall of life by our precursors, by the Old Ones of those who may gather with me and with each other these November nights for grief, for mystery and for the sake of an orphan wisdom for these strange and stranger days that may be striving to be born. Would that we wrangle from it all a memory worthy of this story of our scattering and our coming round.

Stephen Jenkinson

To make my living, to support my farm habit, I travel. I understand now what Leonard Cohen probably meant when he said, “They don’t pay you to sing. They pay you to travel.” People who don’t travel to make their living – that would be most people, probably – might imagine these few of us gliding through airports, quaffing frequent flyer wine, rising in the departure lounge (you can’t really call that thing a lounge) at the first soothing tones of that sweet invitation extended to Star, Elite and Super Elite Guests to leave it all behind and board first, before the wheezy elders and mothers struggling with babes in arms, before anyone needing a little extra time to board. I got bumped up, once. Whatever the satiny privilege of the thing, I wouldn’t again go for it, enduring the glares from the boarding better-late-than-never economy folks, the ones I fly with. Super Elite: a strange idea, stranger than ‘some are created more equal than others’, a place where the withering of the idea of America might be more naked than usual. Super Elite: The hell of the superlative, so many consumers in a trance of accomplishment. Maybe Super Elite is a mandatory overture to ‘And the first shall be last’, and as reliable a sign of the end times as the times require. Imagine there even being a Super Elite. Imagine trying to get there, and stay there. Maybe that’s what the idea of America has become.

The road has probably always brought out the best and the worst in people: hucksters and shysters preying on mendicants and lost souls, yes, but innkeepers too stooping to rash and guileless generosities at the appearance of wanderers or pilgrims or single parents at their door. Rumi they say advised each guest house-keeper of the soul to keep the door unlocked, ajar even, and admit all. It might be hard on the furniture and the bottom line, but he’s confident that the entire human circus won’t likely stay in your house, even should you invite them to do so.

And there are sobriquets to this effect, good ones, that advise extending a kind of radical hospitality to all ‘lest you be treating an angel unawares’, which is a wise bit of insurance in the business plan of life. Well, the truth is that should there be such a thing as angels (I am persuaded) you will treat one or two unawares, given the heavy disguise the road tends to impose on them. Likely too it is, if occasional, that you will be that angel, unawares, prompting that table fellowship with your wandering. Imagine being an angel unawares. Given how desecration prevails, and how the Gods like dormant seeds have wisely gone to ground to await more welcoming times, perhaps that’s the most common kind of angel these days.

I am in the midst – I hope I am somewhere in the midst, but perhaps not quite yet – of a self initiated teaching swath prompted by the sudden and unheralded appearance on St. Patrick’s Day of this year of a breezy little tome I wrote called Die Wise. I’ve taken to calling it The Mankiller Tour, for grueling reasons you could probably guess.  Airport food has on occasion looked doable. I’ve crossed frontiers so many times, and appear to have achieved an age deemed innocuous to national security by those engaged in its protection, that I am often expedited, thrust to the front of the interminable X-ray lines, mistaken for someone super elite in inconsequence. I do intend consequence, but I haven’t corrected anyone on this matter. I am overlooked by the ruffians charged with protecting aviation. I am invited to participate in the current level of Alertness (yellow as of my last trip, if you are curious), and seduced regularly to report any suspicious activity I see, though I haven’t succumbed. I find those announcements – how they enthrone suspicion as the crescendo of good sense, self interest and patriotism – suspicious, but discretion and a desire not to blow my cover has restrained me from reporting it.

I have a number of road stories, and the one I’m thinking of this morning is the extraordinary privilege extended to me to appear in the midst of peoples’ ordinary lives as a kind of guest provocateur from afar. I am aided and abetted by the kindest of community organizers in each of the places I go. In a hand full of countries elsewhere, and in the several countries inside my own, I have been granted encounters with the ‘everyday’ of many peoples’ strivings and cares. It is an honour of the elevated kind, and it affords me a kind of radical education in the way it is for which I will always and gladly be the debtor.

I have learned by now that each of these places has a Book. It might be the same Book everywhere, for all I know. I haven’t seen it and don’t expect to, but so many people are quoting from it that the Book’s presence seems beyond dispute. Literate cultures ascribe an authority to certain of their books (and often to books in general) that they rarely ascribe to anything else. People quote the Book authoritatively and often and urgently. The Book itself has taken on an oracular, numinous hue in our time. You can tell that from the certainty that swells when the quotations circulate. And it seems to have a kind of integrity only cultures in thrall to the scribal and to the apocryphal bestow, and the places that invite me to appear in their midst are such places. Given how compelled people are by what it prescribes, I’ve come to call it the Book of Supposed To.

The Book of Supposed To underwrites the moral order of our days here in the dominant culture of North America, such as it is. Unlike my own practice, the Book of Supposed To doesn’t waste time describing things as they are, but goes directly to what you could call the mandate of heaven, the ‘how it all must be if anything or anyone half way decent is in charge’. Here’s the surprise: This minor book of mine seems to exert a kind of provocative, lunar draw upon that larger tome that I neither conjured nor anticipated. As the various moons do to the maternal orbs around which they hover, so Die Wise seems to prompt the Book of Supposed To. I have found that when I begin to talk about dying, about what has become of it in our time, the tolerance for any faithful witness to it isn’t broad or indulgent. I can tell the intolerance is out there, because at every gathering allegedly devoted to the project of articulating an orphan wisdom of dying I am asked instead to elaborate from the Book, to finger the bad guys and reward the good guys, to come across with the blueprint for what we deserve, to open up the current arrangement to all these ‘rights’ – to be pain-free, suffering-free, burden-free, awareness-free, death-free – that the Book of Supposed To carves out for us. Some of the more popular claims​:

‘Kids aren’t supposed to die.’ ‘I am supposed to get to vote on anything that concerns me.’ ‘It’s not supposed to hurt.’ ‘I’m supposed to be okay.’ ‘You’re supposed to live as if you’re dying.’ ‘It’s my life and I’ll do what I want.’ ‘I’m supposed to be able to die how and when I want.’

In no time at all these gatherings are prodded to become staging areas for the demand to live, for exercising the right of utter self determination unto death, for being served an unbridled range of choices, for a kind of moral and ethical aloofness that masquerades as freedom and is untethered to anything beyond the antediluvian Self that this Book is dedicated to sustaining. There is nothing – and certainly nothing in Die Wise – that offers a comparable strategy for certainty that the Book of Supposed To is supposed to be. Though I haven’t really been ambushed by any of this, I admit that I’m surprised by how close to the surface it is in every place that grants me an audience.

So if you were read to from this Book as a young child (I certainly was), or if you are reading to children from it now in the belief that it will hold them in good stead later, then it isn’t likely that Die Wise will help shore up any of the ‘supposed to’s’ that won’t stand up to a little scrutiny. If I’m honest, most of the ideas in it will probably be disturbing. That’s what most of the testimonials I receive say about it: poetic when it is at its best, yes, but a hard read … and disturbing. And to fess up: in this book I’m offering nothing like The Book of Supposed To offers by way of a map to what you deserve. It more has the tone of a manifesto, an account of what is asked of you in a troubled time. It’s a book about dying, after all, so it isn’t surprising that it ends, more or less. But it may be surprising how it ends: as a supposed to-free zone. And Die Wise, like dying itself, proceeds as if we’re adults, elders in training, people who will soon enough, if not already, be needed by people half our age to stand and deliver. And should you by now be an elder in training: This isn’t a book I wrote for you. It is a book I wrote to you.

So I just wanted you to know that. Some of you have been very kind in your notes to me about Die Wise. I’m very grateful. I’m told too that the zany Marketplace of Attitude which is the Amazon book review includes a few offerings pro and con Die Wise. And there’s the Facebook (gads, another book), a running commentary of approval and disapproval, which I know the Orphan Wisdom site dallies with. I don’t want anyone thinking that I’ve got the goods on this dying business, or that I have a bunch of new supposed to’s to add to the mix. Interviewers try to pry those out of me, but I’ve run out. I’m down to questions now, and not much else.

If the Mankiller Tour doesn’t live up to its name and against the current odds I am spared and end up in your town with this book in tow before year’s end, I will without real justification probably lean on you for a little of that table fellowship, lost soul or mendicant or pilgrim or torch bearer that I am, and offer a bit of mystery of the human scaled – the mortal – in return. I hope that will do for now.

All honour to those who’ve so far made a place for this mortal wonder, and to those who may yet do so,

Stephen Jenkinson