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 two 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 it tests patience and endurance to set off on an hour’s worth of wonder and perplexedness and grief without trafficking 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 my 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 frollick.
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.
Listen to Stephen’s recent interview with Chris Martenson from Peak Prosperity.
Read the full transcript of the interview visit valuewalk.com
When you have a website, all manner of phone calls and messages come your way. Some people seem to think that the internet is a mall of sorts (which it is, I suppose), and that if something of yours is there you have a stall there and must be selling something (which is so often the case), and that you are on call, and open 24 hours. So the subsequent discourtesies often apply. This can wire you in a certain fashion. It bends you to a certain intolerance when the phone rings and you don’t instantly recognize the voice on the line, which I don’t recommend. It isn’t the best way to answer the phone – I’ve thought of just not answering it anymore – but it seems to come with the territory.
A few weeks ago I did answer, and the man on the phone said something very close to “Yam faydesh”, followed by a more indecipherable phrase. I apologized and asked him to repeat it, which he did, with greater eagerness and the same inscrutable message: “Yam faydesh”, and the elaboration. Twice more he said it. Sure now that someone from Delhi was about to pitch me on an upgrade for an unnecessary something, I awkwardly passed the call to my wife, grateful in this new way to have her. Within a few seconds she had engaged her remarkable skill for UN-style spontaneous translation of mysterious human communication, for which she is famous in our house. And then she said, “Okay. You’re from Fed Ex and you can’t find our house”, and proceeded calmly to give him directions. Easy as that.
To keep the dogs calm I met Yam Faydesh in the driveway, and when he got out of his truck I thought instantly that I recognized something about his face. After signing for the packages and so forth I said: “If you don’t mind me asking, where are you from?” For a moment he did seem to mind. I said, “Well, it’s alright”, I said. “No, no”, he said, “is okay. I from Afghanistan.” These days his hesitation is understandable.
His face was a perfect moon, and his build squat and efficient and roundish too, like a wrestler’s, with nothing of the angularity that seems typical of many Afghanis . “I don’t think you’re from Afghanistan”, I told him. “Ah no, no. Really no,” he said, glad of the chance to elaborate, “we have only been there t’ousand years. But before then…”, he paused for effect, and then proudly said, “Mongol!”. By which he meant, I think: “and still Mongol”. And then we both said, at the same time, “Chiinghis Khan!”, and laughed. Within a minute we were in the house playing central Asian instruments together, comparing tunings and gut strings, and then sitting inside the ger by the river which is our school house having tea, happy to be alive and unexpectedly well met. “I never think I see this in Canada!”, said Mr. Yam Faydesh.
So this was a delightful moment for me, and I treasure it. The sheer elegance of that phrase – ‘We’ve only been there t’ousand years’ – the adroitness of that self understanding, the willingness to remember the old stories, the mixed ancestries, the many beginnings, was something I never thought I’d see in Canada either, a land of many beginnings if there ever was one. The idea of human purity – or religious or cultural purity, or the One True Anything – is so crazed and forlorn, really. It is more forlorn than it is dangerous, as forlorn as the idea of ‘mongrel’. Who doesn’t come from a score of places? Who isn’t in the midst of a journey of a few thousand years, trailing behind them, in William Blake’s beautiful phrase, clouds of glory? It’s just a willingness to remember you need, that’s all. And a willingness to be on the receiving end instead of the crafting end of what you usually think of as ‘myself’.
This is how it is for our identity, if we are willing to know it. This is true of our ideas, too. Though eager to lay claim to the cleverness or creativity or hilarity of what we think, it serves us well to wonder: Where was my brilliant realization, just before it came to me? Not that I didn’t work for it, not that I don’t have learning and discipline, not that I don’t deserve the great thought I have (not that I do, either) … but where was it, just before it came to me?
This is an important thought for me to think, and important that I think it regularly. If I am in any business, it is the redemption business. You could say my job is learning how we think about how we live, and then wondering what we do now, with the time entrusted to us, given everything, in our small corner of this world?
The truth is that I don’t know a lot of things, really, though I do have some skill in recognizing unannounced connections between things. I am glad of this ability, but it is built upon the willingness and the labours of others before me and alongside me to learn things and find ways to say them. That is where the things I work with come from.
If you look through what I’ve written on the Orphan Wisdom site with this in mind you’ll see the threads of ideas, discoveries and conjurings that I myself am not the author of, not the creator of. There are things there from James Hillman and Marion Woodman, from Robert Bly and Alden Nowlan, from Martín Prechtel and my Anishnaabe language teacher Linda Assiniwe, from Brother Blue and Ruth Hill, from Leonard Cohen and from farmers I know, and from others neither my contemporaries nor elders. There are some things from people you’ll never read about on the internet or anywhere else. Directly from them.
Some of it is well digested by now and probably recognizable, if at all, only to them. Some of it is more recent, or is still having its way with my thinking and my life, as it did when it first came to me. Those things are more easily traceable back to those from whom they came.
I have a school here at the farm, and I teach a lot of things there. I bring in other teachers, Artisans of Deep Living as I call them. We consider farm work, Old English and medieval work, cuneiform and koine and Wendat work, plant medicine, music and etymology and metalurgy, the dead and grief and beauty and food and other things. But I am in truth not the creator of very much there. More I am a conservator of endangered wonder in a time much imperilled and imperilling. I am a herder of unruly propositions that kick at the stall, sometimes all night. I am a caretaker of what I have been entrusted with, and I suppose my job is to have some discernment in how and when and if I lift those things up into the light, for others to consider. And in so doing I try to keep lithe and well practiced the ragged hum of human wonder that can bind us in something very like kinship, to each other and to those who came before us. Especially to them. When I remember to, my teaching lifts up my teachers, but always it is a praise song to them and their teaching. And especially to their teachers, and to theirs, to the ones I don’t know and will never meet.
I know that many of you are about to enter the hothouse atmosphere of ‘the holiday season’. For some this means seeing a movie in a mostly empty theatre, or getting a table in a restaurant you usually need a reservation months before to get into. And for many this means you will be obliged to be with your family or extended family or family equivalent.
Some of you will do so eagerly, and some not. Some of you are in families in disarray or in peril. Some will come to this holiday for the first time without a father, or a brother, or a daughter. Some will come to the season for the first time as orphans. Some will be married or shacked up or divorced for the first time, or for the second. Some will have their kids or their kids’ kids, some will drop their kids off tearfully or with relief. Some will wish they had kids to drop off. Some will find a way to avoid the holiday altogether, and some will not.
Some will hold their breaths, wading into the family stream that pulls together people who don’t otherwise see each other much. And some will huddle for a while with people who will pass for a family of their choosing. Almost everyone will feel the gravitational sway of ‘family’ over the next while, and with it the bite of the mandate to be happy.
I don’t have much in the way of advice at any time, and certainly not for this time of year. I would recommend granting the darkness that is the proper libretto of this season as much presence as the light tends to get. The brief daylight now pleads for it. Beyond that, to be honest, the way things are these days in our corner of the world, given the fistfights over plasma televisions that have become the order of the day, given that Nelson Mandela has just left us to our devices, you and I are somewhat on our own to sort these things out.
But it might be useful to regard our families the way we might our ideas: They aren’t our ideas, not really, and they’re not our families either. No matter what the therapists say, they are not our creations, or our possessions, nor are we theirs. Instead, they are entrusted to us, and we to them, in all their raging glory, in all their mysterious habit and dappled array.
We could try to recall the brief history of the ideas and the families (and maybe the ideas about families) that make up our lives, just, say, those of the last thousand years or so. We could imagine the caravan of nobility and larceny and lunacy and honour that has traveled all those years and miles to come to us, now, in this troubled time, seeking a place at the groaning board, the banquet table in the meade hall of our days. We could be wowed by all that.
Gathering in this way, even reluctantly, once or twice a year, with reluctant companions, might still render us down with the alchemy of being human together into a bundle of wild ideas whose origin is mystery, whose power is entrusted to us for a time. That might be the beginning of readying ourseles to become ancestors, worthy of being claimed, worth coming from.
All blessings on your house and your road, on your people and on your table.
That most heroic bard, and exemplar non pareille of all he advocated, Dr. Hugh Morgan Hill, late of Cambridge, Mass., was a man steeped in the wild comedy rising always from being a true human, alive, in a time unfriendly to grace and to a deepened mind.
Which means that he was storyteller of the fundamental kind. If you had the vast good fortune of hearing him cast his stories as nets in the tempests of our time, trolling for a real, lived humanity, you were blessed for life.
He was, because of all that, inevitably a master of tragedy, mirth’s proper, faithful and unwavering twin. I do not mean by this that he was above tragedy, or in control of it, or free from it. I mean that he allowed tragedy it’s full rein and presence in all he saw and did. He was a master practitioner of tragedy, and as a black man living in America through most of the twentieth century also it’s faithful son and witness. He was a wizard, and a star, and a purveyor and guardian of the deepest stories entrusted to humans to live by.
As a young man I entered into an unannounced, never discussed and stout sort of apprenticeship to this marvel. I was in a nominal and unaccomplished way his band for some years, and I performed with him often during that time. I nominated myself protector of sorts for he and his wife Ruth, though I know now who was doing the protecting. Mostly, along with everyone else attending his revivals, I listened, and marveled. Later, when I set about making my Orphan Wisdom School, I committed us all to the practice of forced eloquence, an homage to him.
He had two degrees of performing: hot, and much hotter. He was a fierce one, but his ferocity was tethered to a life of service, and he had a great, demanding hope for his corner of the world.
Most times he would remove his shoes and socks before teaching, preaching, imploring and tirading. Sometimes he explained it, but every time he practiced it: All ground was holy ground, he would say. He would carry on for hours, barefoot. It was one of his many courtesies. His was an elegant, articulate veneration, and his example made you want to go out and find a life of devotion. If your luck held out you could live out your days in the ennobling glow of his example. That man set me on a rocky path that has delivered me to a life indentured to courtesy.
The bard is the one willing to learn, the one especially willing to learn unwelcome things about what the rest of us know. It is a burdensome, weighty proposition, one guaranteed to oblige the bard to run headlong into the blast of his or her time. In a song called ‘Going Home’ Leonard Cohen has God talking about Leonard Cohen in this way: ‘He does just what I tell him, even though it isn’t welcome. He just doesn’t have the freedom to refuse.’ And that is as it has always been for the deep storytellers. They pay a debt to life unsuspected by the rest of us. Part holy fool and court jester, part spiritual lawyer for the human encounter with the divine, the bard is the great rememberer, the librarian of all refused stories.
Bards are first and always story hearers, and story seers. The capacity for story lives in their eyes and ears, as well as on their tongue.
Here is some gorgeous etymology: our word ‘to see’ is found historically across all the northern European languages, where it has meant ‘to perceive with the eye’. But when the word arcs further south towards its older Indo-European root it has also meant ‘to point out, to say’. Even there, in the simplest description of the bard’s skill and service, you find the old kinship between seeing and saying.
That is the bard’s real, enduring, unquenchable skill, that he or she carries unbidden the ability to recognize the old stories, to know again the old knowns. Their eyes and their tongues are storied things, thrumming like tuning forks to their peoples’ beginnings. They are merchants of courtesy, and it’s keepers.
Alas, things done ‘as a courtesy’ are not held in particular esteem in our time. The phrase has become a synonym for ‘gesture’, ‘symbol’, even ‘affectation’, and there isn’t a lot of sincerity. But we have forgotten much that lies waiting to be recalled in our language, and ‘courtesy’ is waiting to teach us. The word has kin in such far flung places as ‘curtsy’, ‘courage’ and ‘courtesan’. And though the standard dictionaries don’t agree, there are spiritual kin in ‘courtyard’ and ‘courtliness’, too.
The root of them all is ‘heart’. Things done courteously are the heart’s most engaged achievements. Consider this: a slab of wood, with the heart wood still there, will with enough humidity, heat and time bend back towards the shape of the tree it was taken from. In this way the slab has memory, clearly, of its beginnings. In the same way words are fruit on the raggedly lived vine of a culture’s way of being itself, each of them trailing memory, each waiting like a seed to be breathed upon by a devotee of eloquence and speech. The bard breaks the dormancy of words by being a faithful witness to the memories curled around them, and then by giving his or her breath to those memories by telling their stories, while they are still able.
Bards, you could say, are those who run off at the heart. To them are owed all kindnesses, graces, subsidies, courtesies. Whole libraries burn to the ground when they die, especially when they haven’t had apprentices alongside them to learn the courtesies.
As many of you now know by now, the great Irish poet Seamus Heaney has recently died. I have been teaching Beowulf in my school for a few years using his bilingual translation, and there are students in the school who have begun memorizing long stanzas from the Old English, deeply inspired by Heaney’s work on behalf of the story. Many people have sought Irish citizenship, I am sure, from reading his poetry. They say that when the moment of his death was upon him he resorted to sending a text message to his wife who was sadly elsewhere, wherein he whispered to her a gift for all her life: ‘Be not afraid’, he wrote. In Latin.
In an early poem called Singing School Seamus Heaney is walking near his Wicklow home in December, mooding about and considering his particular bardic affliction. He wrote of the moment this way:
A comet that was lost Should be visible at sunset, Those million tons of light Like a glimmer of haws and rose-hips,
And I sometimes see a falling star. If I could come on meteorite! Instead I walk through damp leaves, Husks, the spent flukes of autumn,
Imagining a hero On some muddy compound, His gift like a slingstone Whirled for the desperate.
How did I end up like this? I often think of my friends’ Beautiful prismatic counselling And the anvil brains of some who hate me
As I sit weighing and weighing My responsible tristia. For what? For the ear? For the people?
Yes Seamus, and yes Hugh. Always for the ear. This is the storyteller’s vocation. And always for the people. This is the storyteller’s courtesy. The gift of the bard among us is just this: A slingstone, whirled for the desperate. And the cost to the bard of bearing the gift?: To wonder, often, How did I end up like this?
After life and international boundaries had separated Dr. Hugh Morgan Hill and I for some years I received an invitation to contribute to a book celebrating his life and achievements. It was published a decade ago. By chance I looked through it last night. And there, twenty four pages before my own, I found a contribution by – this had completely escaped my attention until then – the very Seamus Heaney. They knew each other. And Seamus quoted a sequence from his Beowulf translation, in praise of – what else? – the bard. Sometimes you are just awash in the courtesy of life itself.
I remember those few times when I phoned Hugh and he answered, how we would play out our courtesy. I would say, “How are you doing?” And he would say, “Man, I am the luckiest man in the world.” And I would say, “Why is that?” And he would say. “I found what I was born to do.” And he truly had done so, and knew it. I miss him, every day.
May this same birthright yet become the blessing our lives seek. Stephen Jenkinson, MTS, MSW