Author Archive

The life that awaits anyone who’d make a go of it on the road – even for a while, even when invited to do so, even when the venues are all but sold out – happens in a caboose on the Mystery Train of how it is. Add to that the strangeness of these days, the politicized grievance brigade setting up their barricades downtown, the enforcement of insecurity by all the security people … Well, this life is the very picture of a rock and roll tour. Minus everything you’d probably expect.

We’re half way through the Nights of Grief and Mystery Tour now, sitting in a questionable hotel in California with fellow transients and come-from-aways, with a string of extraordinary shows behind us, with a congregation of local organizers so committed to something Orphan Wisdom and so much desirous of sending their home places a love letter in an all but graceless age (which is how I make sense of the bottomless labours they’ve taken up on behalf of this mystery play of ours) that our utter and primordial debt to them threatens the incalculable. In other words, we’re doing beautifully, strangely, gratefully well, children of wild fortune as we have become during this run of good health and crazed luck.

So, with Tad Hargrave’s prompting, on a prairie drive from Edmonton to Calgary on a blazing sunny morning we recorded the first time Gregory Hoskins and I wondered aloud in any concerted way about what we were up to with Nights of Grief and Mystery. Maybe this could serve as a kind of spirit postcard from the front lines of the redemption wars.

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Tad Hargrave (TH): I am curious how you both have seen this evolve from your first gig to where it is now, or what you’ve noticed has changed or shifted or what has appeared that wasn’t there in the beginning.

Gregory Hoskins (GH: Do you mean how it is for us? Or what we have seen happen?

TH: I guess both. I am curious about your experience, but also just the shape of it. I just imagine it has changed in some way both in your experience and the consequence of it.

GH: It is huge. It is a massive arc. We have traveled a massive distance, is what it feels like right now. And I could say the same thing for how we have traveled with this thing. When we started I was basically noodling. That is where we started. I kind of was noodling behind this guy I didn’t know. My two amps and my looper and we are in the basement of a library in Aurora, Ontario.

Stephen Jenkinson (SJ): It was a step up from when he was accompanying paintings.

GH: Paintings were accompanying me actually. That was later. It is painful. Thanks for bringing that up. It was just me with these little sonics trying to stay out of his way. And that turned into a little tour which then turned into a bigger tour in the end of 2015 in the States, New York, Boulder and all that stuff.

And even within the context of that, the first one was sort of noodling. The second one I did a song. The second one was trying to refine the noodling and I did two songs. The third was one was: ‘Don’t noodle all the time.’

And we ended the first American thing which turned into about 11 gigs somewhere in between noodle and something else. Then we had about a year before we were actually on the stage together again. We took a bead on this notion of pulse for some reason. We didn’t quite know, but we knew that there was something in that.

Then we went from that one or two concerts in Ontario to the tour in Australia. That is really where the notion of pulse took over from some sort of esoteric interpretation on the guitar of what was going on in the words. The pulse became really important.

TH: How do you make pulse?

GH: Well, it’s exactly what the word means.

SJ: If you listen to a heartbeat, it is not 4/4 time. [0:04:39 beat sounds] It is not always regular, depending on who you are talking to, let’s say. I think we zeroed in on the idea of pulse. One reason was to relieve us from the real rough limit of the music accompanying something I was saying, which I never was satisfied with. I felt that it didn’t serve him (GH) well, because I was starting to get a sense of what he was capable of.

I didn’t want it to happen as if there was a kind of mood and he was in charge of mood. He would just inflect. Because what he was capable of was never well served by that. So the idea of pulse was not a mood thing. It was a sort of carving, you could say. It established a sensibility for us.

TH: Kind of like a meeting ground.

SJ: Yeah, it was a place where what we both knew how to do could finally show up instead of one trying to either back off of the other one, or … We got out of the footprint of accompaniment and started to breathe. It asked more of us. It is not like it was a relief, but instantly I think we knew at the time, even though we didn’t translate the word ‘pulse’. But we both knew what we meant with the word. It came pretty quickly after that.

I know at the beginning for me the biggest single challenge was that I was a one man act, and everything I did was just me. People who are unfriendly to the proposition will call that a control thing. My answer is to that is absolutely that is what it is. But it is not control for the sake of being in charge; it is control, given that you can envision where you could possibly get to.

I was never inclined to believe that there would be anybody who would want to go there, too, not really, not without just a terrible amount of process, emotional processing and all of that thing, who’s where and how is it built. Because here is the thing:  It is not like we were doing something that was already out there, and we are just going to jockey for whose name came first or anything like that. We were doing something that we had never seen.

I don’t know if that is true for you (GH), but it is true for me. I could imagine it, but it not from ever seeing it. I knew we weren’t doing a musical. I knew we weren’t doing an illustrated talk or an amplified talk. I know we were trying to make something, instead of fitting into something. One of the first consequences – and it has become very deep now – is that when I am signing the books people will routinely talk about their expectations.

They routinely say two things about them. One: “I didn’t know what to expect”, and two: “It was nothing like I expected.” You just have to grant them that somewhere in there they are saying what they mean. But certainly Nights of Grief & Mystery is the end of expectation. There is no doubt about it within five or eight minutes. The end of expectation takes place in that invocation. That just puts it to sleep for the evening, the idea that you will have some association you can bring to bear whereby this thing immediately starts to cash out for you.

I think we were saying last night something like: I am starting to realize just how much this is asking of people. But I think it is one of the reasons that we are feeling, all of us are feeling it I think, that we can’t have done two shows and be at this stage (of fatigue). I think it is because we are dragging something enormous up the hill and I don’t think we know quite the weight and the kind of critical mass of it right now.

But this is our part: to lift it and then move into it. It is strangely exciting, but it is very taxing. I wake up with it. I go to sleep with it. I hear lines constantly because some part of me probably has been readying myself for something like this for 20 or 30 years.

TH: Something I have been curious about is that you were the band for Brother Blue, so there was something you were doing, and I am curious how this relates. I never saw you do that with Brother Blue, so I don’t even know what it looked like or sounded like. But I am curious what differences or similarities you see.

SJ: I was pretty young at the time and I was not in any way musically skilled and that hasn’t changed. His was a rough and ready scheme. He would just set up on the street corner, so it is the worst aspects of busking that you could imagine. But you don’t have the hat out because he’s not collecting; he never did.

TH: Wow.

SJ: No, he never did. So it wasn’t street performing. It was a kind of ministry. That is what he would have called, it because he was an ordained guy. He understood the street and the bar and the prison to be the chapel that had been vacated, that he had an obligation to. That is the way he came to it. We were in some dangerous places, man, I’m telling you.

To give you one example, I saw in the same moment there were people in the room who would have laid down with him right then, right there. I saw that. He was an old man by then but it went across all the obvious lines. In the same moment, reacting to exactly the same things that he was doing and saying, there were people in the same audience that would have killed him right in that moment, partly out of envy, partly out of – there is a racial thing involved, right, because he was a black man.

And he was always surfacing this stuff, just by his appearance, because he wasn’t under- functioning for the sake of getting by. So he was not a gentle Jesus meek and mild guy. And he was extraordinarily volatile, but not in any way that made you feel in peril.  Just unnerved. Because the guy was an uncharted guy.

He knew what he was capable of. He wasn’t asking for permission. He wasn’t trying to get over. In a consumer culture, what’s left? If you are not selling something, and you are not trying to get people to put money in the thing, and you are not trying to get people to join your thing, what else is it? The answer is: he was trying to make the world better, right then.

From that – if you are lucky enough to be in on it – you discover that if the majority of people in the world wanted the world to be better, it would be better. And because it is not better, there are reasons for that. To a certain degree the fix is in, and the scene as we know it today is working for way more people than we would ever have imagined that it is.

That is what he took on. I am not saying that he ever articulated that, because I never heard him talk this way. We never wondered about what we were doing, for example. He would introduce me as the band, sometimes the orchestra.

I am there with a kind of medium range acoustic guitar, and a capo for effect. That was it! Then one time I remember he said to me, “Have you ever played the tuba?” He literally said this.

I said, “I never played the tuba.”

He said, “I’m just thinking. Do you think there is any way to work it in?”

I said to him – and he told me later this is what caused him to love me at that moment – I said to him, “Look man, I have never played the tuba, but I will apply myself to the situation.” That is what I said. We didn’t get around to it, but I said I would apply myself to the situation.

He just looked at me and said, “I know you will.”

There is no comparison in any obvious way, because I would never make a parallel. What I would say instead is this: if you are lucky enough once in your lifetime to be in the presence of something like that, then you have been stolen from, and he stole from me. What he stole from me was my ability to mope around this life in my 40s and 50s and 60s as if nothing was really possible, and there was not really any point, and everything was about defeat or compromise. He stole that from me, and I have never had it since.

I don’t think it is really our place to know what the consequences are of what we are doing. But between you and me, I wouldn’t be shocked to hear something similar years down the road, that people say something like: “After that there is a different standard.” I won’t say higher standard, just different standard of life. It is like that story (A Love Affair in Reverse) says: This is stand and deliver time.

He just branded me that way with that. I suppose somewhere in there that is still alive. That touch of his is still alive on my end of things. But I think it is beyond my end of things. I think there is something that we are both old enough now to know about.

Another thing to say is this: When I was with Blue … he was in his late sixties probably when I met him. I never knew how old he was and he never told me. We never talked about it. But it turned out that the last time I played with him he might have been in his mid-seventies. That is kind of a Leonard Cohen-scale arc of life.

He was absolutely vital until his last days. Literally. His wife told me a remarkable story at his funeral, two touching little things about him. She said the day that he died he was sitting quietly in the chair in the living room. He looked up to her and said, “Ruth, get the tape recorder.” She taped him all the time, so it wasn’t unusual.

So she got the tape recorder. She set it up – one of those little Sony things where you have to press play and record at the same time, a little cassette thing. And he leaned in, and he didn’t tell her this at all, and he leaned in and he said, “This is Blue’s last song.”

He knew sitting there and then that he was going to die that day. He wasn’t sick. He was old, but he wasn’t sick. He knew he was going to die. The same day that he died, he told that story. That is the kind of guy he was. That is what kind of presence of mind he had.

The other thing; So we are at the funeral, which killed me, because they put together a kind of ‘best of Blue’ film thing. I couldn’t watch it’ because that was not the guy that I was with. And he did not survive translation to film. Or recording. Even that was pretty tough.

But of course there was a written programme for the event. Ruth didn’t know that Nathalie and I were coming down. I had heard about it through a publisher and we just dropped everything and drove however many hours from Toronto to Boston and found out where the gig was, which was in one of those big old churches on the Boston Common.

We went in and I could see her from a great distance. Of course she is surrounded by all kinds of friends and allies. She is an old, old lady by this time. Everybody is a little concerned that she is going to crack open like an egg but she was never that way. He was inconceivable without her in many, many ways. That’s true.

Anyways, when she saw us at the break, she said, “Come here at the end.” So we came at the end and all these people wanted to be with her because she was the rock star of the moment, and because she certainly could have used their help in getting home. She thanked everybody for all their attention, and then she pointed to Nathalie and I and said, “I’m going to go for a walk with them.”

We, who in some ways spent the least time with her, who weren’t fetching her groceries and stuff, she asked everybody to go home and “I am going to go with them.” We walked out of the church. It was a day like today. There was a little bit of snow on the ground, and it’s cold like this. We got about ten steps out of the church and there in the snow and the slush was a programme from the service that somebody had just tossed, or lost.

His face was on the front of it. She stopped. She couldn’t get up and down very easily. She stopped and leaned down. She picked it up. She wiped the slush off of it and put it in her pocket. I will just never forget that moment. It just chokes me up to even think about it, that she knew who he was, and she knew what he meant.

She never genuflected or anything. She knew who he was and she knew he was an eruption of something testamental into the modern world. And she knew herself to be … that her life was given over to seeing to it that he was out there. Today that would not be held in very high regard by most people, perhaps by some women in particular.

But she knew what she was doing and she was nobody’s flunky at all. So you travel with people like this and then suddenly years later – I know it’s funny – suddenly years later you find yourself in something that you could imagine is comparable. All I remember is how without a mediocre gear he was. He didn’t have it.

He was, I should say, impossible to be with. People couldn’t stand it after a while, because he never stopped. It is not like he had a performance grade, and then he was just quiet. He was never quiet. He thought aloud and, unless you indicated otherwise, he presumed that you were in, and that included attending to virtually everything he thought.

And he did it all the time. He took so much oxygen out of the room that people hated him for it. I hated him, because he was so hard to be with, and I loved him. And that combination was impossible. I was so young that his example was tyrannous to me. It just was like this was an impossible standard to accompany, never mind to live up to. But I felt the obligation to live up to the example, because I was in the glare of the attention and I realized while that I was in this place that half the people in the room would want to be sitting where I was, and would have traded me their comfort in a second.

They don’t know what it costs, mind you, and all of that. So I felt an enormous obligation to him to do what I could to serve his thing. That is the way I feel about this guy (GH). It is just the same. That is where I got it from. That is why I never felt any strain about whose thing this is. It is not even in the architecture. Whose thing is it? It’s God’s thing. How’s that? Or it is the thing that belongs to now, because we are in so much trouble. So it belongs to this field over here that we’re speeding past.

But if I hadn’t of seen it in my early twenties at a real vulnerable time, I don’t know what … I wouldn’t have become much, I can imagine. It is like trying to imagine that you were never born. It is the only fear that you don’t have to have. I don’t have to fret over what my life would have been if I had not met him.

I think about him, even now, and I feel like I am 17 – just inept, but not intimidated. I was in the presence of something great. If you are intimidated, you are a loser. That is not what it is for. It is for you to know that greatness is actually in this world, not to resent it because it doesn’t happen to be you …

You are grateful that it is in the world, man. That is where your gratitude comes from.

TH: One of the things that occurs to me, speaking to this earlier, of not having seen anything like this: I have never seen anything like it either, and this is very much its own genre of something. It is not spoken word. It is not a book reading, though there’s reading. It is not a music concert, although there is music in it.

SJ: I don’t think any of us should agree that “we don’t know what it is.” I think that is shorthand.

GH: I also don’t think we should be looking for a genre, or for what it is. Because we didn’t invent something. That is ridiculous. This has always been the way that you said it. It is just old, so it is not really recognizable, but it is certainly not reinvented. Not in any way. And it is so obtuse in that modern way of genre specific, as if we’ve created something new, something outside, something that challenges the sensibilities, though that is really true.

But look, I am about as middle of the road as you can get. This highway here, I was born on the white line and I was raised on the white line. My whole culture lives on the white line. Musically that is where I come from, kind of the garbage receptacle of the world that we live in, in this part of the world, filtering everything from everywhere else. Middle of the road. White guy with a guitar.

I don’t know how much more safe you can get. What we are doing up there, musically, there is so much one, four and five going on that sometimes I get self-conscious. We are not stretching the fabric like that.

What is getting stretched is our intention, the intentions of doing it, the willingness to walk down for a couple of reasons, but just to walk down a fairly full theater to the stage, and negotiate the dark steps that you forgot were going to be dark when you got there, and pick your way across the place and begin without any of the formal salutations, any “Hey Cincinnati, how ya doing? Is everybody ready to rock? Haah!!”

We do that because we want something for the evening. There is a function to what we are doing and that is what is different about the thing. It seems to straddle because we are doing it in a theater. There is a logo of the tour logo up there, and the stage is set in this great lighting. I am wearing a kick-ass jacket, and Lisa is also wearing a kick-ass jacket and your (SJ) clothes are okay, too.

So there is this acknowledgement of the theater of the thing, but that is really old, too, because that picture on the bottom of that logo…

TH: Where did that come from?

GH: Well, as these things come together, they just come together. The deep dark secret is…

SJ: Get ready for it.

GH: I don’t know what I’m supposed to say now. The deep dark secret is that you kind of project forward. What this feels like right now only a few days out is how that little band of people in the tour logo look to me from a distance. There is a guy out front kind of proclaiming something from a book, if you look close enough. Then there are these three individuals, one playing a snare, one guy driving the mule cart and then the woman on the piano.

That is some Kreskin stuff right there. That is what I thought this would feel like, so that is what it is. We are this little band of people just kind of making our way in a much more modern way, but it feels like we are putting those miles in behind the mule, and that guy stepping out front.

The deep dark secret is to design the thing, because I am no designer. I am trying to find the proper images that I can steal off the internet like everybody else. I can’t find these forms. I spent hours looking through marching bands just looking for the right…

So do you know what I did? I put on a long jacket that I had and I set up my phone camera outside and shot against our neighbor’s house which was beige. I struck poses. I marched. I got a book in my hand. Actually it was your book. I put a hat on. I did that. I played the drum. I took a snare. The only thing I didn’t do was put a dress on and play a piano, because I couldn’t. I didn’t have a piano. I had a dress but I…

SJ: You’re telling me this now?

GH: Yeah, I’m going to show you the pictures, man, of me being you. It is awesome. Lisa knows how awesome it is with me being Adam. Do you know what the worst part is, the look on my face. I am going to show that to you. I’m you at the front. I can’t even describe it.

SJ: I didn’t even know this. It is a little bit troubling.

GH: It is just the little band of travelers, and why else to do this.

TH: What is the tree in the logo?

GH: Well, I don’t know. That’s not true. The truth of that is I saw a Lucinda Williams poster that was kind of like a Balinese shadow puppet kind of deal. There was a tree in that. Again, I am not a designer, so I don’t really want to spend any time pretending I am plucking the visual cue out of the universe and translating it and putting it on a poster.

There was just something about the tree and it was one of about a dozen things that I tried. When I started to combine it with this other stuff it just sort of morphed. And of course, beyond that, the tree, whatever it means, roots, I really don’t care.

There was something sheltering about the tree. It is four individuals underneath it, small. We are just passing by it. The tree’s the thing. That’s what that is.

TH: Do you have any thoughts about that tree, Stephen?

SJ: I’ll go back a couple of steps first. Nobody invents anything. If you are inventing something, it is all fantasy. But if you are trying to do something that is useful to the world, you are a combiner; you are not a discoverer. You are finding what has been found. But the sequence in which you find it makes it appear for a while like it is new or unprecedented. Then comes the memory work.

That is what we are doing, more than anything else. It is memory. We are remembering things that we don’t have a personal experience of. This is from the days before there was theatre, before there was this thing called ‘an audience’. This is from the ritual days, when the whole thing depended on how everyone carried themselves. That determined whether the Gods appeared, how They were when They got here. So it goes way, way back when there are people who combine the functions of a historian and a librarian and some kind of preacher function, if you will. Mostly it’s a willingness to keep memories alive, particularly the ones that are no longer sought.

There are genealogists, right, and there are keepers of the – they keep the royal houses honest. These people used to do that. They were kind of in their way court jesters. They appeared to be fools but they could get away with stuff that nobody else could. They assume a minor position in the scheme of things and they are the only ones willing to do so, which makes them prominent.

All of that is part of an old scheme, I think. We have been let into an old scheme. Music is ages old, obviously, so it is part of things. Mostly it is wondering without the pretense of not being sure, because you can’t get up there and not be sure. You are not going up there on spec. You are bringing it. You are just not waiting for somebody to ask for it.

Then there is some kind of pact or covenant that is struck. People agree to come, although many, many people continue to tell me at the book signings afterwards, like this young guy yesterday said, “My mother dragged me here.” A number of people use that phrase, “So-and-so dragged me here and I didn’t know what to expect … but my life is not going to be what it was, and I didn’t count on that.”

Somewhere in there we make a deal, and the deal is, I guess, that if you are willing to sit here for two hours and we are willing to stand here for two hours, there will be some consequence, just from the willingness. We won’t pretend that we don’t know what we are doing and you won’t pretend that we do. And we are going to meet somewhere.

That meeting creates that field of consequence. There is an old saying iamong the high end sports performers. They say there is a reason you play the game, because you don’t know what’s going to happen. Everybody knows the rules. Everybody knows the time and the place and the location. Everybody knows the shape of the stick or the puck or whatever it is. Everybody knows all that stuff.

But there is a fundamental thing that is yet to be known and learned, and that is called “What’s happening when we agree to proceed by those rules and give it our utmost”. It is very much like that I think. I know us to be lucky to be able to do it, because none of this is declared. It is all inferred. And not everybody comes along with you, but it looks like there are enough people that do that they are testifying to a hunger for something like this that only arises when something like this is around. Otherwise the hunger is so moot, and so subdued, because it is too painful to hunger after something of substance and not have the substance to vindicate the hunger. It turns into depression or anger or a sense of futility, or things of that kind.

But there is something about what we have been doing that compromises people’s capacity to be depressed and to give up and to go along with the kind of caravan of despair which is the news and all those things. I don’t think that is overstating things, because they tell me, and I am glad they do.

And when they tell me these things, I straight up thank them for not keeping it to themselves. They will often say, “Of course, you know all this.”

And I say, “Let me promise you something. If you don’t tell me, I don’t know of this. The best I can know is my end of things, but I sure don’t know what happened out there. I can’t even see you with the lighting being what it is.” Normally, if I am more in a teaching thing, I can see people and I am interacting with that constantly and taking cues from it.

But in these things I can’t see anyone, or maybe six or eight people in the front. So all the cues are audible cues. We seem to induce an extraordinary kind of silence which can be really unnerving, because we don’t have a lot to go on. We are not sure and we are an hour and a half into things … by the clock, at least, an hour and a half.

And we are deep into the thing, like right up to our chins, and ywe are not sure if they are with us. We don’t want to leave anybody behind, and that is the grail we are after. And if you don’t come, we won’t see you. And eventually the lights go up, and then everybody is on their feet after not having moved for two hours.

You don’t own something like that and you don’t command it. You are just lucky.

GH: Some of those letters from Winnipeg, the time of the program, like the timing of the show, the two-hour – do you know that had to be raised at least three or four times. Did you read that? People registering their own surprise at themselves for being able to sit for two hours. That is in those letters.

“I can’t believe it, man. The two hours went just like that, because usually two hours, unless I am at home in bed with Netflix or something, that was shocking to me.” People have such little demand from their time in a way, that they surprised themselves.

I wouldn’t take that away from them as a point of pride. You came to something you didn’t know and you didn’t die while you were there. It didn’t kill you. “This is going to kill me. Do I have to go? Oh, it is going to kill me. I will never get through this.”

It is like going to midnight mass when you are a kid. “Oh, I can’t do it.” That is an amazing thing.

SJ: We were talking about this last night. We have been wondering a little bit more than Gregory is comfortable with what is going on in these things. Because speaking for myself, I did find the deepening quiet of the evening a little troubling and disconcerting.

It mobilized me to kind of protective stance on behalf of the band, because I didn’t feel that … The diminishing applause with each song is really unnerving, because generally speaking the arc is supposed to go in the other direction. But I didn’t translate that silence very well, and they did, so they actually said to me, “You might want to relax a little bit about feeling distressed about that. Because it might be a sign that something is happening, not that something is withdrawing.” Man, as soon as I started thinking about it that way, I thought: “Of course. These are the consequences that we are putting into motion. Nobody knows if applause any longer is fitting or respectful even. I mean, the rules are gone.”

We are not doing a 3:28 song. So in fairness to them, if you blow up the format, there is a certain sense of lostness at the level of etiquette, but I don’t think there is a lostness in the sense of the direction of where this is headed. And that it is for real. That sense of for-realness really seems to be there.

I think one thing that audiences suffer from horribly is being catered to and pandered to and not respected deeply. So very little is asked of them, attention span-wise.They’re not imagined to be grownups, with grownup capabilities. If these things are not asked of you, then part of your routine as an audience is to be utterly passive and just be a Geiger counter, registering approvable. That’s all it is.

“Do you like it?” That is like eating sugar. “Do you like it?” That is the only standard. But maybe you don’t have to like it because ‘like’ has a broadcast bandwidth of about a quarter inch: ‘liking or not liking’, or ‘approving or disapproving’, or ‘feeling or recognizing yourself in it or not’.

How does the world come to you? It doesn’t come to you in iterations of you; it comes to you in all the ways that you are not. That is what the world is. I suppose for those two hours we become the world in some fashion, that way, to the people who are sitting there.

GH: Even if you look at the way the audiences are pandered to or trapped by the arc that is always at a thing that they go to, we will start slow, we will ramp it up, and there will be an orgasm at the end and everybody gets to feel relieved when they walk out. That is everything. Every show, every ‘Hamilton’ that comes out is all going to be about that. It is going to serve these little feel good moments, hit these marks.

And with a kind of manipulation of some kind of low grade sorrow which is really just sadness. It never gets down to sorrow. It just sort of sits at the top. When we come out, the first musical thing they hear … So what we do after the invocation, the first thing they hear is Take a Little Walk. Take a Little Walk, the things that we do in ‘Fishguard’ which is just a period at the end of the program in the last week or two or whatever it has been, it is kind of like the most fulsome song.

We actually flip the thing. The next thing is Shadow which has this groove, but we are going down the hill. The next thing from last night, let’s say, is Target. We are going down the valley. Then last night we get to Every Day, very swimmy, very soupy, down the valley again.

And musically in that way we end off at Witness, an acapella piece with my dad’s dying in the middle of it. We are now at the bottom of the valley. That is our trajectory. That is the exact … We flipped it on its head. That is not the way it’s supposed to go.

And that has just been by instinct. That is not a conceit on our part. It is an adherence to … We pay attention to an arc, too. And there are these convergent points between Stephen’s work and my work, and we try to make a conversation between those two things.

We can’t just slot anything in there. We pay attention to the theatrics, in as much as we understand that there is a container for everything, and we are going to acknowledge that. But it is just the way it has gone, when the energy goes that way. It truly is this: We are on a dark road heading out of town. That is so true. That is us up there. That is not some idea. That is what we are doing. We are heading out of town on a dark road.

That is not the way that it usually gets done.

TH: Do you think it doesn’t get done that way because people haven’t seen it be done that way, or because it would ask too much of the audience?

GH: At that point it is about the people up there. There is so much weird value placed on entertainment from the people doing this stuff up on the stage. It gets closest to religion, because you are relieving people of their worries for the day. Let’s just give them … or make them forget. That isn’t our job, man, to make them forget.

I have always been outside that stuff because even before meeting Stephen, my thing was always I think I have to bring you in.

TH: Ok. We’re getting close. Any final thoughts?

GH: Just gratitude. Here we go into another city where they’ve done more work for us than we’ll ever know. They’ve emailed everyone they’ve ever met. They’ve talked about it on Facebook. They’ve  wrangled with the venue – they found a venue in the first place. They’ve arranged our accommodations. They are feeding us. A thousand details. And you try to make sure they know how grateful you are but… How many ways can you actually tell people that all their work meant a lot?

SJ: I think when you are with the pros, one of the ways you thank them, and show your respect, is that you do your best and their best shows up in you doing yours.

Photos courtesy of Kathleen Dreier Photography – kathleendreier.com

I have lived long enough …

No. You don’t want to leave a sentence like that, sitting all by itself, without a back end. Unless you really mean that you have indeed – as of that moment – lived long enough (and writing it down in an email seems a lurid anti-climax to the allotment), then you want to push through the pause that drops in after “enough”. It’s not a bad thing to hear yourself say, though. For practice. So that the real thing doesn’t catch you unawares, as if you’d no way of knowing.

You do have multiple ways of knowing, as do I. All the limits and all the frailties, and all the endings, for example, and all the little camouflaged mercies that at first seem brutal and arbitrary, sending some reaching for a refresher course on the Serenity Prayer, are ways of knowing. Deciding that you don’t know about endings, that you’ve no way of knowing or caring about them, is a way of knowing. I’ve had many people in their fifties over the years tell me that they haven’t known anyone who’s died. Which is straight up impossible. It’s a confession that they’ve kept their distance, so as not to sorrow too much. It doesn’t sound like it, but that’s a way of knowing, too.

Sudden endings are for amateurs. They’re understandable, but they’re not really how it is. “How it is” is that we have plenty of notice that our corner of the enterprise will not last, cannot last. It isn’t kept from us. Just because we might duck some unwanted thing doesn’t mean that it is hiding from us. The “when” and the “how”: now, those tend to be kept from us until five minutes to our own personal midnight or so. And there’s mercy in that, I’d say. What do you imagine you’d do with the information, should you find yourself to be up closer to the front of the line than the rest of us? Most of the people who’ve spoken about this with me imagine that they’d begin firing on all cylinders, bucket-list style, crossing off the Big Doings. Well, I have seen what “knowing the time ahead of time” does to people, an awful lot of them, and based on the panic and the sense of betrayal that showed up I’d say that nobody really needs to know more than they already do about all this, and that more information probably won’t make most of us more capable. It’s like global warming that way: more information won’t make it more true. We have enough information, more than enough, to plot a course towards engaged, passionate, sorrowful sanity. We have more than enough information to oblige us to behave as if there are generations to come that will need some example of grace under considerable pressure when it’s their turn.

Anyway, I intended to begin with this: I’ve lived long enough to see the day when dying and death has become – what else could you call it? – sexy. There’s a bit of rock star status that gathers around dying people these days, and around their helpers. People press in to be closer to them, as if dying people know more about life because they’re dying than the rest of us who aren’t dying right now do. I don’t think I saw a terminal diagnosis confer sagacity and a measuredness not otherwise practiced by people before they were “dying people”. It tweaked what was already there, intensified it often, sometimes to an unendurable degree.

Would-be helpers, advocates and death-trade workers are banging on the bars and the walls to get in. Not everywhere, of course. Not everybody. But enough to notice it. There are alternative death conferences all over that are keen on going mainstream. Somebody should bear in mind what happens when ardent and revolutionary things go mainstream. They tend to disappear. Or they become what the next round of revolutionaries are keen on bringing down. But going mainstream is enormously compelling, enchanting. It’s hard to resist: all those new chances to be heard, to get the message out, to change the discourse, to be an opinion leader. So don’t be surprised when dying has become passe, and boring. That’s what’s coming, I’d say. Maybe the spotlight will settle on elders next, and elderhood will get “the treatment” for a while, and legions will line up for their elder papers, and the whole business will go mainstream – sexy, in an unsought sort of way.

Sexy isn’t very sexy anymore. The dominant culture has done sexy by now. Done it to death, you could say, so that it’s become white noise wallpaper. The part of the culture’s adrenal apparatus called “sexy” seems mostly spent at this point. So it’s being politicized beyond recognition at this very moment – another sign that there’s not much left to wring from it, for now.

That’s an arresting thought, if you give it a chance to have its way with you. That’s how much sustained attention to detail the public discourse seems interested in. There’s only so much novelty you can bring to the daily architecture of our lives, only so much notoriety. After that, well, the hypesters and the hipsters move on to the next attraction.

And that’s when you can begin deciding where you intend to live out your realizations, your discoveries, your awakenings. When things become ordinary again, and the glare is gone and the heat is off, maybe (as Nick Cave put it) God is in the house. And that would be very good news. Or no news at all to those who’ve made their way through the squalls of notice and blame and trending and made landfall in the land of an ordinary day.

Where there could be grief there’s rancour. That’s often true. Where there could be mystery, there’s conviction abounding, and opinioneering. That’s true too, and it isn’t easy to live through. Here’s one antidote: imagine that ‘ordinary’ is the proper place for sex, and for death and for elderhood, and for all of the other sacred things. Imagine that ‘ordinary’ is where mystery lingers now, waiting to see if we’re willing to learn it again.

Imagine too that the sacred and holy things and all the Godly things are frail and vulnerable in their way, and that they won’t endure come what frigging may, and that they have a survival instinct, the same kind entrusted to all living things, and that their way of enduring is to go to the unGodly and the non sacred and unholy places to hide out for a while, waiting for the madnesses to spend themselves. In troubled times, maybe it is that the the Gods move to the suburbs, to the blight, to the ordinary places, to the places unbecoming. If any of that is so, then maybe the ordinariness of love making and of sorrow, the ordinariness of aging if you do and dying when you do is where you go to find the Lords of Life.

Come of Age

Jun 19, 2018

by

Some privilege, some burden and being tested by travail, some good fortune, and a full measure of gratitude for it all: a decent recipe for a salutary life. These Dusty Worthies have borne me across the gannet road, the slate sea, the whale’s wine-crested course. It dumbfounds me still. I have often been the proverbial half way round the world with self-appointed work, and in a nominal and transient way it is on the strength of my being troubled aloud and possessed of a sorrow scarcely my own that I’ve been summoned to the far shore. The invitations to bring that satchel of mystery I seem to have been entrusted with are genuine and generous, and I will not grow accustomed to them down the length of my allotment.

I am in Vienna as I write this. If that has a swishy sound to it, well, it’s a swishy place. I’m not in one of those cafés, though. I’m backstage. Griefwalker is playing, a late matinée screening. The audience seems to have carefully selected itself. As is true most other places, they seem leery and wary and drawn in by outrageous fortune as much as by choice. I introduced the film to little response. No one seems clear on the etiquette of the thing. The translator was relieved of her duties, the audience sure enough about their English or mine to go it alone. There’s no translating the strange and the sorrowful sometimes, no matter how familiar it seems. For all I know, and for all that my schedule reveals about my working future, after ten years of wandering this may well be the last time I go out into the world with the film, or with Die Wise either. I’m melancholic. Something of my days seems to be ending. So it isn’t a bad city to be in.

It is the oddest life, or almost the oddest, to presume or count on or imagine something like a reception of any kind – or that people would appear at all – for a night of grief and mystery, say, where the instinct for applause is confounded, where feeling good takes second seat to feeling more. Calling out the mighty strikes me as an act so personal as to be intimate, and so it is a wonder to the Anglo-Saxon precinct of my soul that anyone welcomes a stranger into their midst who is counting the rosary of cultural neglect and trespass and truancy. They do, though.

When the questions are asked afterwards, three quarters of them begin with “How do you …?” Tonight will be no exception. What is striking in this is how much ache there is for certainty, for a direction unerring and constant, how desirous people seem to be to be given the map and told how to proceed. In a consumer culture, failing to tell people how to live can get you run out of town. It’s dereliction of duty. Somewhere in the questions maybe there’s dereliction of another kind, a secreted and sordid kind, something like a turning away from the work of being human in a time of trouble. There is a lot of chagrin and resentment over the fraying and the fading away of cultural wisdom. The flotsam that is left over – personal truth, as it is called – turns out to be drastically short, disastrously short, on wisdom.

There is authority galore, of course, and all manner of cheerleaders and purveyors of catalogues for elluding personal failure and vague fears about the future, shouting, “I’m not your guru. Now, follow me.” That authority gets its hearing, to be sure. But there’s anger about being left behind too, of being left on one’s own, no owner’s manual for the psyche, nothing that seems to have stood the test of time. The passage of time itself hasn’t stood the test of time. It’s going too fast now, the rate of change so relentless that anything bearing the marks of age is kicked to the curb as an obstacle to survival. “All the truth in the world adds up to one big lie”: one of Dylan’s recent pronouncements, with a lot of takers.

There’s shelter, properly so in times as strange as these. But there is no safety. How could there be? Run down Armageddon’s roll call, just the top five items that will, if the experts are even close to being right, make mournful ash of your corner of the world soon enough, and any kind of sanity is clear on the matter: the important safety announcement is that there isn’t any. We are awash in opinions and in pro/con arguments that are miserly exercises in democracy. We are adrift in a sea of ‘more’. The whole works can drive you underground if you’re prone to opening a newspaper.

And then, with all of the red letter, front page worry, there’s something like this, a little slight that seems nothing by itself: I’ve been kindly put up in a fine hotel, the Hotel France, two blocks away from Freud’s old digs. You go down for breakfast, and you’re in Old World finesse. The waiters are dressed very properly, down to shined shoes and crisp aprons. They have that slight bow of the head, that generous gesture of the hand that guides you to your seat, that soft voice of particular regard that tells you they’ve trained for this, for you. Many of them are old men, service of this kind seeming to be no longer in keeping with young peoples’ design. They take the job seriously, and clearly have pride in it. But the whole thing is given over to self-service. Hotel guests dressed in varieties of shorts and brand name t-shirts and running shoes graze the buffet, taking more than they eat, bent over their devices, ignoring their table mates and the old men caring for their comforts, leaving the waiters to do nothing much more than pick up after them. It seemed in its ordinary way to be more than just another old institution razed and ghosted by the efficiency wonks. It seemed like institutionalized disgrace. I’ve no idea if anyone involved is in any way sorrowed over this garish eclipse of the grace of old, whatever of it that is left. Its a small thing in a blizzard of Big Problems, it is true. But it struck me.

Last night in Berlin a young woman at the event took my hand and said this: “I’ve been reading your things for years now. I’ve never written to you, but I can tell you care about what is happening to my generation. It seems like you’ve made us a promise not to forget us. I want you to know how rare that is. How precious.” And then she wept. That struck me, too.

So for reasons like these, and for people like these, I went to the garret one more time over this past winter, and tried myself, and found out if I had anything left to say, anything to send out to my corner of the world. When I came back to my life a couple of months later, I had under my arm something like a respectful address to my fellow citizens, a plea for something like sanity in the craze, a case made for the office of elderhood, a gauntlet thrown to the aging and the old. I don’t know that it will sound respectful to many of my generation, but I believe it is. It seems to me that, under the bravado and the virtual blizzard of fret and information that pretends to be a community, a lot of young people are scared, and forlorn, and wondering what happened, and what is to become of them, and whether they’re in it alone. If I’m right about that, then this is reason enough to have taken up the pen and invited the opprobrium of my generational peers.

In a week or two there’ll be a book to add to the fray, one with my name on it. It’s called Come Of Age. I meant the title to be something like a plea, something like an exhortation. That’s clear. But I also meant it as mark of honour and a sign that there is a kind of heart deepened by diminishment and the coming on of time, something like the human version of old wine entrusted only to the old, that can only come to us through them. And that there must be such a thing, and that it must appear. And that it is so very needed by the young just now. Maybe it will appear.

Maybe there’ll be something in the book you can use.

Stephen Jenkinson

Come of Age by Stephen Jenkinson | Official Book Trailer

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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.

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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.