On this you might rely: there are times when magic, mayhem and the mandate of your days gather themselves together and will make a claim upon your attention. If good fortune and good timing prevail, those times won’t be lost on us. Generally the visitation is a subtle one, and so it can happen that the habits of the eye and tongue require a more dramatic event. The hubris of our times can cause any of us to mistake this visitation for something we thought of. But the truth is that these moments are as clear an evidence as we’re likely to get that all our best realizations come from Elsewhere, that we have the great good fortune to have been thought, by whomever, wherever our best stuff comes from. These are moments both adamant and easily missed.
Some twenty five years ago a man who’d come to me for some guidance asked that I work through some ideas with him from a book I’d not heard of called Iron John. The next day I was invited by a set designer to be in a film with an author I’d not heard of called Robert Bly, and another called Marion Woodman. I asked what part I would be playing and was told: “Yourself” – often a challenging assignment. And so that autumn I had the blessing of sitting for days with two achieved people in the depth of their powers and purpose, two elders alight with the incandescence of noble speech and tethered to their time.
It was during that filming that I heard the phrase ‘father hunger’ for the first time. Robert Bly went on to a considerable writing and teaching career during which he was a sane and poetic beacon to many, but it also drew towards him implacable expectations of surrogate fatherhood by legions of men, an inevitable, impossible assignment given the desperate times we are in. I had a few visits with Marion Woodman in the subsequent years, and on one such visit she spoke of her encounter with cancer. She was fairly sure then that the illness had come upon her partly as a result of the blistering, adamant demands from legions of women reading her books and attending her courses that she re-mother them.
Since then I’ve wondered upon their examples as well as their learning, and upon the costs that seem to have accrued to them for having been turned into stand-ins or famous replacements for the remote, damaging or bewildered parents many people in our time were born to. Somewhere in there is a great misapprehension about what has gone missing, and what is needed and deserved. I am fairly sure now that it was not mother hunger or father hunger that was feeding upon their work and their persons.
I am often asked about the reasons that this modest endeavour of mine is called Orphan Wisdom. In answering I find I spend most of my time speaking about orphans. When I ask what it is that results in orphanhood, the automatic answer is: no parents. Which is never true, not culturally and not personally. We are guaranteed to have parents. That is the genetic assurance of our birth. Parents are both required and inevitable for this event, and our appearance on the scene is proof, and in some fashion, at least for a time, they are there and from them we proceed. Of course there are qualities of being parented that can be lamentable or worse, but the truth is that most of us come out of our childhood and adolescence with clear and direct experience with parents, and that has gone a long way in influencing how – and if – we parent, should our turn come. There are people who wish they had different parents, but few left wishing they had parents.
There is no hunger for what was. There is nostalgia, and lament. The kind of hunger Bly and Woodman and others detonated was a hunger for what hasn’t been, and it remains so. This is a hunger for elders. People in their teens have it. People in their thirties have it. People in their fifties and sixties have it, too. Imagine people in their fifties and sixties attending spiritual workshops and self help seminars, waiting for some kind of elder to guide them into the depths of their lives and turning someone who is willing to try into the mother or father they really deserved or should never have had. This happens, frequently. Their hunger is ample sign that, while parents are an inevitability, genetic and exemplary, elders are not.
Elderhood is not a consequence of what a birth certificate says, otherwise we’d be awash in them, with more on the way. It is not a consequence of not having died yet, nor of enduring a life. It is not what will happen if you or I stick around long enough. That condition I would call ‘senior citizen’. Seniors are a consequence of death not happening. Elders are a consequence of a lifetime lived in the presence of elders, with all the subtle training laying out a template for service instead of retirement. Elders are a consequence of a whole sequence – a fragile sequence- of things happening. This sequence has a soul, and this it seems is it: elders do not achieve their elderhood. For all their labours of learning they must still await elderhood being conferred upon them by those who seek them out. Elders are finally made by the willingness and the ability of everyone else to have elders in their midst, to have recourse to them.
Consider then how unlikely elderhood is in a time which medicates, resists and barely tolerates age instead of venerating it, in a time when being self made is king and queen of all aspirations, in a time when senior citizens are competing for jobs and life partners and the attention of the marketplace with people half their age. Elders aren’t self made. They can’t be. They don’t confer elderhood upon each other, for it isn’t theirs to confer. They serve the culture which has given them their lives, their elders, and their achievement as elders only flowers when they have some place to serve. That place is younger people.
Earlier this year I began to teach a little about this elder hunger, and at one of the first sessions something important happened. A good sized group of people gathered to hear a few of my ideas about elder making, and more than half of them were well into the second half of their lives. I asked the young organizer of the event to help me present some of these ideas by beginning with a kind of question/answer dialogue with me. Though nervous he took to it well, and brought us to the heart of the thing directly, with his first question. He told us that many of his generation lived with a grinding, undiagnosed and low grade depression that hovered at the edge of their days. He asked me why that was, where that came from. My answer: this depression is not a consequence of the impotence simmering in the presence of global warming or of the nefarious mayhem of free trade or the caravan of miseries that parade across the micro screens of their lives and masquerade as information, though depression is probably a legitimate response to those things. In fact, it isn’t depression at all. It is a longing for something not quite seen, a longing that has no container, no shape and no language these days. It is a longing for the vault of heaven to stitched back together. It is a longing for something enduring and honourable to precede them into the hall of ancestors and worthies, something worth being. It is elder hunger.
I don’t know if anyone heard that, or if anyone recognized what I was saying, or wanted to, or agreed in some fashion that this could be so, or was overly concerned about any of it. But I know this: a young man at the front of a room of older people confessed a sadness and a longing for elders on behalf of his generation, and he did so clearly and articulately, and no older person in that room came to him. No one took a chair and sat beside him and said, “Well, this is all true and not as it should be. But tonight you are not going to lament about this alone. I’m going to sit here with you and we will wonder our way towards a little sanity and companionship on this matter. And thank you for asking.” I do recall that some of the older people defended themselves against this hunger and the indictment that is clearly also in it. One older man said that he considered himself a good grandfather, that skyped his grandchild regularly.
So, there is a lot of work to be done. Would that the hunger for elders among young people not be extinguished by despair or hostile disowning of the current regime. Would that people of middle age give their peak income generating years to learning the etiquette of service to a culture that no longer seems to need them, readying themselves for elderhood. And would that old people keep a chair by the door of their ebbing years, and stay alert for a faint voice outside that finds a way against the odds to ask for real guidance and a reason to continue. Would that it were so.
Upcoming Events: Stephen will be teaching at Hollyhock next month in a session called Old Time: Learning Elderhood. Consider attending.
At the Orphan Wisdom School I teach with one weather eye on the rhythm of the kitchen. That means that I time the ebb and flow of my teaching day to the menu awaiting the scholars and to the considerable labours that underwrite it. For a few minutes early in the morning I stand back and watch Nathalie Roy and her faithful kitchen crew begin their conjuring of the day’s meals. Often they are preparing things the day before they are served. Nathalie’s blessed madnesses include a love of herding a thousand details and nearly that many ingredients towards the kitchen’s steady, amniotic warmth and hum. She does this often by murmuring prayers and singing tunes unknown to me that probably have their roots in the same part of the world that the ingredients and the recipes do. And, just about every time, the food anticipates what I am to teach that day, or the next day. I don’t know how she learned this skill, but I am glad she has it, and it schools me. So I often take my cues from the clang of pans and pots and the old world patter among the scullery royalty that accompanies it. This has been going on for a few years. I remind the scholars regularly that what I’m doing in the teaching hall is me trying to keep up with what is happening in the kitchen.
Which is to say that food is the mother of our school, in every way that can be meant, and the few of us that run the place are servant priest cooks, and those who come to learn are patrons of the old mystery religions of the hearth. That is a lot of heritage to burden our rickety enterprise with, but that is the truth of the thing. At the hearth, all manner of attention and devotion is given to the direction the broth is stirred, and with what spoon (there are left and right handed spoons), to the sequence of cool and warm additions to the slurry, dry and moistened. There are chalices of vitrified micaceous clay (that is what the cooking pots become), squatty ones, fulsome ones, statuesque ones, each of them resembling faithfully the soon to be full bellies that await them and the working bellies of the scullery royalty whose hands do the conjuring. These pots are handled gently, warmed before use and after cleaning, soothed into rest between meals. Stone mortars and metates each have a place of honour in the kitchen. To one side is a shrine, wherein live all the spirits of the place, overseeing the work, blessing the plates.
Which brings us to the food. When we began the school we knew it had to be planted deeply in it’s place. I myself had years of being parachuted into homeless, generic conference centres and retreat halls behind me, and I knew that the school would only live as a home for learning the mandatory human arts of living deeply and dying well if we made a home for it by employing those same mandatory arts. This meant knowing all we could about the food we were to serve those who were to labour so devotedly to learn. Learning is always learning unwelcome things about what you know, and the travail in learning about your food in our day and age is epic, truly. As many of you probably suspect, there are considerable barriers standing in the way of finding out about the food that keeps you alive, and the food that might be compromising your life. After seeing that struggle to get underneath the machinery of the food service industry for what it was, we knew that we had to grow the food to feed the people.
And so we began to farm. Which meant, as I’ve written here before, we had to grow dirt from sand and soil sanity from the chemical enterprise that farming has largely become in North America. It meant fences, furrows, broken tools. Without a tractor, a pump, electricity or running water, we were running an Iron Age operation. We had to enter into holy negotiations with the creek that roars down the mountain behind our place in spring and threatens to disappear into the ground by mid summer, in hopes that we could take some of that snow melt and beaver swill as the summer wore on and the rains tapered off. Each year our spring and our fall included a gathering of Orphan Wisdom scholars into the precinct of our fields for ceremonies of opening and closing, pleading and thanking, taking and offering. And we gathered, bought and traded for seeds and weaned animals.
All of this delivered us, as it would deliver you, to the irreducible, unnerving and mandatory altar of who plants and animals, seeds and soil are to us, and who we are to them.
I live and work in a culture where food is fuel. Pleasant fuel or not, tasty fuel or not, satisfying fuel or not, but fuel nonetheless. It is there to get us to the next monthly payment, the next appointment, the next day. It’s purpose in the world is to propel us through the world. When food becomes fuel – when anything becomes fuel – we lose sight of whatever once tethered it to the ground that gave it life, and we proceed as if it were in the world because our way of life requires it, as if it is an extension of us, part of the great need gratification engine that serves our relentless presence in the world. It becomes a homeless gorm of potential that carries cost but not indebtedness. Whenever we turn something into fuel, we make another slave in the world.
It will take a mighty and unlikely turn in our every habit for food to reacquire the old alchemical and hierophanic power that once bound your ancestors and mine to the land they lived upon and to the deepening mysteries that gave that land life. In those times and places food was medicine. That means that all sources of food were known to be doctors to life. Not slaves of the living, but doctors to life, and they were courted, cared for, fed, recompensed and prayed over accordingly. Once, food was known to be the elder, wiser brother and sister of those who gathered and grew and prepared and ate it. That means that plants, and the animals who fed upon them, were all the proof anyone ever needed of Gods in the world. The plant medicine people still alive and working today are a thin thread of practice wisdom and dedication which make the understanding of that older time a reliable, if remote, possibility for us still. This devotional wisdom is what is at risk in the ruthless global machinations of Big Pharma and Big Agra to replicate and synthesize forest and jungle medicine.
So for the last five years we’ve stood at the crossroads that people probably first stood at in the late Bronze Age or early Iron Age in Mesopotamia, China and Mesoamerica. Is it possible to grow plants and animals, kill them and eat them, propagate them, without enslaving them? Has it ever been possible?
Our way of cooking, feeding, farming and teaching the school is how we try to answer the question. The priesthood of farming, as Martin Prechtel has called it, is practiced and achieved by knowing, admitting to and trying to pay the inescapable debt incurred by farming, owed directly to the plants and animals, seeds and soil which together make the farm, and to Those which give life to seeds and soil … and by failing to bring the debt to zero. Ever. You cannot break even. There is a lot of grief in this way of farming, I assure you. But you cannot as a farmer buy your freedom from the spiritual debt of that enterprise by enslaving animals and plants and making them pay their way. Your debt accrues crushing interest in that enterprise, and that is exacted from your soul’s life.
So ours is a small mixed farm, which might be a part of the answer to the question. We don’t grow too much of anything, nor raise too much of anything. We rotate animals through pastures, plant in their wake, grow some of the food they will eat in winter, feed their aged dung to the plants, one eye on the sky and the other on the calendar, and from that endeavour feed the scholars and ourselves, and neighbours. The animals are fed organically and all the rest, but that doesn’t bring any human alertness to bear on the debt we owe to what gives us life. People concerned with food safety are generally mollified by the word ‘organic’ on the label. I am talking here about bringing honour to our deal with plants and animals; I’m not talking about food insurance for humans. This concern with food safety ushers us into a hall of barbershop mirrors, where every concern we get resolved brings another, more systemic concern forward, requiring another agri-solution, and so on without end: the system that enslaved the plants and animals sealing the moral fissures with more robust application of the enslavement system. ‘Organic’ likely has as much animal and plant indenturedness incurred as whatever it was intended to replace.
I don’t say that we’ve sorted any of this out; I say that we’re trying, every day, from the field to the plate and back again. It seems that what surrounds us here has some inkling of our effort. We’re not rewarded so much as we’re tolerated. So far, the plants and the animals have agreed to mate and bear their young close to our door, which might be their part of this deal we seem to have entered, a sign of some kind of fledgeling good faith on their part, a willingness to proceed towards a holy and honourable partnership with us despite the odds that civilized history demonstrates are against it all.
Early this spring, after some warm weather, the temperature plummeted again to -12C and lower, and these, as foretold by a farmer friend of ours, would be the nights (not the days) when the ewes would give birth. Up until those frigid nights the sheep kept well away from us, tolerating our presence during feeding time and otherwise bolting if we stood in one place in their pasture too long. But during those long nights, while emerald crystals hung in a cold black sky, our dogs assumed an uncommon calm and stood guard at the pasture gate, and the ewes seemed to give in to our intent to help the birthing. There was no skittishness. Nathalie rearranged those not yet born lambs that needed hooves pointed or legs straightened or heads pulled through. All the lambs lived, all the mothers lived. For two weeks or more, whenever we moved we could smell the ambrosial amniotic funk rise up from our clothes. It was in our pores, our noses, in the straw of the birthing stalls, everywhere, and it brought instant memories of those cold, holy nights.
It strikes me now that this was a kind of incense sparked by the Gods, a sign of recognition that we appeared willing to uncertainly, faithfully and at least this spring keep up our end of this riotous, grief soaked endeavour called caring for living things in the name of life. Life is fed by death, the world over, and animals and plants do die on our farm. Death is fed by noble, indebted treatment of what gives life, not by making sure that nobody dies. That scent of life, spilled over us and over a little corner of our farm, is a gift to those who keep the farm going day in and day out, and a bit of it hovers over the cooking pots of The Orphan Wisdom hearth. This is where the nourishment, the real medicine, is made.
Photo: Christopher Roy
Whoever is in charge these days might consider combing the populace for anyone still alive that has a reliable memory that goes back to the 1950’s or 60’s. A little later would be even better. Those rememberers should be given a stipend for life, and their only job would be to bear faithful witness to the relentless obscurantism that has blistered the last forty years, and to tell the rest of us what has changed. The madnesses have accelerated so that they’ve bent time, for a while, to their purposes, and it isn’t easy to remember that things – even in living memory – haven’t always been the way they are now. That would be revolutionary, to take on the discipline of faithful memory as an antidote for the spell we can fall under now: the strange certainty that our ways are universal and eternal and inevitable.
Lately I’ve been remembering the early 1980’s. Not the music. The shit storms that were blowing in central America, in central Europe, the ardent, obscene larceny they called NAFTA that was being conjured in Washington and Ottawa and Mexico City. I recall those good people of conscience with their nose in the wind – some of them – were beginning to bury their hopes in the backyard bomb shelters. In my little corner of the world I returned home in the midst of a recession of sorts and work was hard to find. I took a stint teaching in an ESL school, with a room full of kids from Guatemala, El Salvador and Chiapas. Ostensibly they were having their finishing year abroad, but really their parents had purchased for them a year of lonely safety from the terrible machinations of the right and the left, to keep them from the armies, the militias and the guerrillas.
The class had kids who the year before had flirted with guns in the countryside, with pamphlet writing and street demonstrations, with liberation theology and death squads back home. They were tormented by wanting to be with their families and by being grateful they didn’t have to be. Most of them weren’t nearly as politicized as they were scared. As kids do, they were trying on opinions and stances the way they’d do jeans in a clothing store, but the gravity of the scene at home strung out into the current of their days an undertow of guilt and urgency, and it made them unrecognizably substantial and too adult in the eyes of the Canadian kids they’d see on the street or in the bus. What was happening at home was so close to the bone, so painful to consider, that we rarely talked about it in class. They would lapse into unresponsiveness. There was just too much fear and loneliness, too much haunted uncertainty. Finding the words was hard enough in their mother tongue; it was impossible in the language they were learning.
And so we ended up talking about what was happening during those very same days in Poland. None of us knew anything about Poland, but the struggles in Gdansk and elsewhere and the marital law and goon squad street justice were in the news every day. The great gift of those struggles for my class was that they gave the kids a surrogate language to talk about their own lives, their fears for their future and the future of their towns and cities, their uncertain, drifting allegiances. In the early days Solidarity seemed like a doomed fantasy, and we waited for the Russians to plow that wild, unlikely flower under. But those tense months went on, and Solidarity began to look a little more like courage instead, like how it all could be. It carried with it a whisper about what was possible if enough people at the same time outgrew their bitter depression and defeat and decided, probably with nothing to lose, to act. Solidarity was contagious, at least in that classroom, and the kids would come to school daily with things they’d learned from the newspapers about what was happening in Poland. They were for a year displaced and homeless, but they still wanted to learn. So they learned someone else’s struggles and dreams, someone else’s enemies and allies, in someone else’s language, until they could learn their own.
Things went as they went for Poland, for Central America and for me, and by routes circuitous and unlikely this winter, thirty years later, I was in Poland for the first time, in the Krakov airport, heading towards two days of teaching. It was to be the first time I would try to plant my work in another language, a language I didn’t know five words of, and I was very unsure that we could manage anything of merit or use. There were a few stones in the road early on: the airport security guy asked me where my gun was, and things were strange and tense for a while; we passed a farm wall that had white supremacist rants spray painted along it’s thirty yard length; there was clearly a lot of borderline poverty in the countryside; almost half of the homes in Krakov burn coal to stay warm, and the air can be acrid and harsh. Our hosts had the heartaches that come from having kids and from not having them, from being young in a deeply uncertain time, from trying to make marriages and businesses work. They also had a canny alertness to what was happening in the world far from their borders, and with it a savvy willingness to try impossible things. My appearance there was once such impossible thing. The event took place on one of those European riverine freighters that seems a mile long and ten feet wide, but this one was tricked out beautifully as a teak and brass conference hall and restaurant, moored on the Vistula River. When the night came for the screening of Griefwalker in a language that was no one’s mother tongue, the place was packed. People came from all over the country, they told me. At the workshop the next day the same the place was packed again.
The organizers had hired a translator. She was nervous, capable and devoted. We conjured together that evening and all the next day a kind of syntactical dance, and it was marvelous. The people were curious, respectful and attentive. A good number of them chirped alternative translations of my opaque visions. When we came to the day’s end, the formal thanksgiving and farewells lasted a courtly and graceful forty five minutes. Very old world manners abounded. I received very fine applause. The organizers were abundantly lauded. But here is what I will never forget: the translator got a standing ovation, as was proper.
The people appreciated and honoured us for having come a long way to be with them. What was stirring and heart breaking, though, was the enormous regard and respect they had for the opportunity afforded them to hear something new, something from afar, and the veneration they had for learning, and for those who made it possible. Many of those people were of the generation that filled the streets for Solidarity and dared the Russians and their own secret police; the rest of them were the children of that generation. The early 1980’s were lived memories for them. The dreams for Solidarity were dangerous dreams in those days. There must be some real heart ache that many of them have not quite come true in the time since then. And still the peoples’ thirst for learning, and their respect for the chance of being taught, endures.
I have worked in many places across the English speaking world and beyond, and I’ve seen no equal to that thirst and that respect. It’s probably out there – I continue to travel as much as I do because I’m sure it’s out there – but I’m fairly sure it is uncommon. The irony is that teaching events abound in the English speaking world, minus that thirst and respect. Most of them are rootless, homeless, hovering in conference centres and retreats, belonging to nowhere, dedicated mainly to self improvement. Learning seems to be held in the same esteem now that food is: being so common it is more like a consumer good, more like fuel than medicine, tolerated when it is fast, sweetened and easy to process, and generally dismissed when it isn’t. A large crowd of North Americans attending an event given by an unknown teacher without any advance press or PR, in a foreign language, who doesn’t promise inevitable and instant personal transformation: that is an unlikely scene.
Teachers seem to have become more customer satisfaction engineers than living treasures. Teaching is trancing when it loses it’s ability to radicalize, and ‘radicalize’ means etymologically to draw one to the root of things. I hear that university teachers are now evaluated by their students, and that this determines a lot of job security. These days teachers – the radicalizers, at least – are paying, dearly, for being held to the artifice of conjuring novelty and schematizing wisdom. The day will surely come, if it hasn’t already, when the consequences will be more democratically disbursed.
I didn’t stay in touch with any of the Central American kids, but to this day their kinship with the Polish people I met thirty years later, unexpected as it was, is clear to me: it is forged by mayhem, and by a clear and present danger to the human ability for disciplined, purposeful wonder. Perhaps it took the predations and privations of the communists foreign and native, and before them the nazis and their collaborators, and before them the Austro-Hungarian imperialists, and before them I don’t know what, for the Poles of the present moment, at least the ones I was privileged to meet, to learn and relearn and remember and treasure the great privilege of learning. I haven’t given up on the outside chance that it might take something less catastrophic for our corner of this world to begin doing the same. What has been our increasing poverty during the course of my life time can one day again become our riches. All that is needed is a living, practiced understanding that the willingness not to know and the willingness to learn and to have real teachers in our midst – they are what conjure the teachers in our midst.
All blessings and praises upon the translators, and the great rememberers, and those who gather to hear them remember.
Photo Credit: Ian MacKenzie
Being the subject of a documentary film is not employment for the faint of heart, nor is it for those with average skin density. The camera catches you in odd moments – at least you hope they’re odd. It portrays you sporting questionable discretion sometimes, and dubious lucidity at other times. It makes for odd introductions when you appear at screenings. One of my most curious intro’s: “Here is Stephen Jenkinson, a character in the movie Griefwalker.” I wonder what character they thought I was playing.
The internet churns out so much frame by frame disposable eternity that anybody from anywhere can loom up out of the mist to claim a little of your attention, at any time. Play your cards right and one day you could be that anybody, looming. And then what you said or did will be a stand in for you.
The most challenging part of the whole thing for me is that what ended up in the film Griefwalker stands in many viewers’ minds as my final word on a few subjects. People imagine that I planted my feet firmly, smoothed my hair for the eternal close-up (or should have), and then crafted an elegy for the ages. More often what ended up in the film is something I thought was important on a certain Tuesday in late fall, paddling along a river in my early fifties, an hour before dusk.
But maybe that’s the way it is always: there are only ever particular afternoons, particular rivers, particular moments in the great arc of your days, particular things that came to you to say, and you didn’t stop saying them. You were wondering, that’s all, and you’ve had some practice at it by now, and it shows. And maybe that qualifies you for the documentary treatment. Someone thinks that what you said bears some scrutiny, and is worth repeating, and what you wondered goes out tottering on spindly legs into the world. Then you get emails from Burma and Belfast letting you know that someone else agreed, or didn’t, or could have said it better, or decided to live another day because of what you said one Tuesday in late fall, or because you carried on too. There’s a lot of companionship in going on, unexpected companionship. People often recognize that.
I was surprised a few months ago when I got an unexpected invitation to teach at an Anishnabeg reserve in northern Ontario. The organizer’s brother had seen Griefwalker on tv, and thought I might be a good idea. I was honoured to be asked, but I tried to persuade the lady that, at least politically, it probably wasn’t a wise thing to do. How could a white man stand up in a room of native people and teach anything, in any fashion, and not conjur memories and reincarnations of residential schools, Indian agents, pass books, land grabs, half apologies, Oka and Ipperwash and all the colonial and genocidal policies and practices that for many people on both sides of the divide are not ‘in the past’? Probably he couldn’t. But she persisted. She wanted me to talk about grief, about losing, and her community needed the chance to talk about it. With real misgivings I agreed to come for a couple of days.
Here’s the great mystery of what happened. First, people came. Lots of them. And they came again for the second day. Old people came. Parents came. Band council members came. Christians and traditionals and the undecided and unclaimed came. For a while they watched me, politely and intently. Without restlessness or boredom or disaproval they waited to see why I’d come and what I had.
For two days we walked a tightrope strung between two sturdy posts: one, the good intent and curiosity that we’d all brought with us, and the other, the last five hundred years that carried us there. We were all waiting to see whether this time anything could be different. I worked on it, and they worked on it too. There was a word I so carefully avoided using – we – and that was because it wasn’t clear yet in that room whether ‘we’ was even possible, or preferable.
Here’s the second great mystery of what happened. Slowly and softly and carefully people began to talk about their sorrows, about the unexpected and the violent deaths, about the break ups and break downs and all the endings and thefts and losses that happened weeks ago and generations ago. The great, unexpected marvel was that they didn’t keep their grief from me. They didn’t ‘circle the wagons’. I gave what I’ve learned about grief, and they gave their willingness to grieve in return. In that exchange we conjured a bit of the magic of deep human life. We didn’t ‘set aside our differences’, and we weren’t the same underneath the skin. But because everyone for a little while risked hurting together and remembering together, something like ‘we’ appeared.
There is a lot of work to be done now, right now, in our time. Some of it is ecological, some political and economic, but all of it is cultural. Work I think is best understood as ‘the thing you’re least inclined to do’, and so we have our work cut out for us. The dominant culture, as near as I can tell, is in the beginnings of a terminal swoon. I don’t think it can be avoided. It’s end can only be prolonged or prompted, veiled or midwifed; those are our choices. The dominant culture was not built as if the last five hundred years on these shores had happened; it was built in spite of those years. It was built with a shrug to the past, and with the view that the past is gone. That is the principal reason for it’s ending. A culture unwilling to know it’s ragged, arbitrary origins is fated to a kind of perpetual, uninitiated adolescence, and it is by this adolescent spirit of privilege and entitlement and dangerous amnesia that our culture is known in the world.
We have to be in the culture making business, and soon. Real culture is not built on bad myths of superiority or inevitability or victory. It is built by people willing to learn and remember the stories that slipped from view, the rest of the truth that the empire won’t authorize. That learning and remembering costs people dearly. The work of building culture is learning and remembering how things have come to be as they are, without recourse to premature, temporary fixes, or to depression and despair. The way things are now, despair is a laziness no one can afford.
In other words, culture is built by people whose wisdom is underwritten and sustained by grief. It is in grief that we can recognize the humanity of other peoples, and they ours. Not general, faceless discontent, but the ordinary, mysterious grief the rises in each of those this-worldly moments when we meet the g’chi manido, the great mystery of life, each time we are willing to remember what is no longer. The Anishnabeg people are here, at home, and their memories and griefs are a real part of their land title now. Any culture seeking sanity and belonging – especially any newly emerging culture – must consider apprenticing to their many skills of broken heartedness.
Stephen Jenkinson, MTS, MSW
There comes a time in the epic saga of parenting when you have to decide whether you’ll introduce kids to darkness, so that something of the mysteries of having a human life could be their companion, or whether you’ll let the world do that for you, so that they could be challenged for years as they confuse mystery for mayhem. Ah, parenting, whose landscape is littered with abandoned imperatives and loopy convictions which couldn’t endure the trial, professional provisos and talk show wisdoms that are designed to guarantee repeat business and not much more. It is a skittish business. Grand parenting, too. And aunting, uncling, eldering, mentoring, neighbouring and the rest. Our culture isn’t big on kids growing up, nor is it big on mystery. It’s big on mystery revealed, and our corner of the world is a torment, partly because of that. Insisting on having a One True God who’s in charge of the whole works doesn’t help much, unless you’re big on sin and disobedience. So, there’s work to be done.
In a culture like ours it is not an easy thing to contemplate, this idea of bringing children to darkness deliberately and with purpose. It is a culture drawn to light in the singular and driven way of the moth. Everything possible is illuminated and revealed. Pornography is a good example. Another is schooling. Most are programmes in ending uncertainty, building competence and extending mastery, by assaulting mystery and containing darkness. You cannot go to a restaurant without a soundtrack that guides your conversation by banishing any quiet you might seek. None of those guys trust you to your silence. Visually you are allowed very little darkness, city or suburb, in the name of security I guess. You can’t drive down a road without being signed, cosigned, designed, resigned and signed again, every possible subtlety articulate and glaring and declared. It’s relentless.
Darkness and shadow do not have good PR, as you know. Nobody wants to be left in the dark. Being lucid means being light bound, and both seem advisable. There’s a well known book that divides the humanity in simple and ruthless terms into Sons of Light (among whom you’d want to be included) or Sons of Darkness (reserved for people who don’t know what you know). A poet I admire, William Stafford, wrote with certainty that the darkness around us is deep, and you can tell he didn’t think that was a good thing. When psychologically attuned people consider The Shadow they are generally trying to do something about making it less shadowy, and frankly it is darkness that gives many of them job security. I supervised an employee once who announced with pride that she’d begun to teach dying people how to be comfortable with their discomfort – another secondment of human cleverness to the project of banishing shadows inner and outer.
And there’s Christmas: the most light-flooded, the most illuminated, the most shadow-banishing project of them all, whose timing – the winter solstice – is no accident.
I know that the world seems plenty scary enough, and dangerous, without subjecting children to darkness unmediated. But we could ease up on the anxiety long enough to consider that darkness, with all its mysteries, has always been the place where healthy cultures brought their children to learn life. It isn’t where they were brought to be warned about life or defended against it, but where they were given the chance to love it instead. That is what most initiation ceremonies are for, to give children the ability to love being alive.
One year, right around this time and full of the emptiness of Christmas, I tried to do something else with my kids. We ended up in the north country, a good distance from the ambient light pollution that many kids now think is natural, and it was cold. There were two feet of good snow on the ground, and we had a small cabin to ourselves. With great ceremony about mid-morning on the twenty-first we turned off all the lights, all the heating and electricity, and as the day went on we talked about how it must have been hundreds of years before us, right at that time of year, for people who lived right in that spot. When night came on the shadows grew mauve and, in the way real darkness has of being itself, luminous. The cold wrapped itself around us, the poplars cracked with frost, and standing outside with the last amber of sunset gone from the sky we could, gorgeously, see. The lake ice close by moaned and shattered in the gathering, frozen dark. It was a powerful thing, that night. It was full and alive. The kids complained a little and found this a strange thing to do, but mostly they were awash in awe, and somewhere in that night they met darkness’s true heart: mystery. They remember it still, and I am hoping that mystery has a presence in the lives they are choosing and forging for themselves. I hope that the solstice, if they take note of it at all, has a full darkness to go along with the livid street life they’re more and more used to.
Mystery is my mistress, has been for a long while. Whatever teaching I’ve offered over the years has enthroned mystery as a patron saint of all our meetings. At my school we wrestle hard the mysteries of being a human, alive. So far, the mysteries have always won.
On the night of the twenty-first we’ll stand outside again and listen to the dark, and watch the silence, and imagine some of you doing the same, maybe with some kids close by. Here on our end of things we wish for you rich shadows, wondrous darkness to go with your certainties, proper twins, faithful companions. Would that this time of year give us again a taste for such things.
I don’t know when I stopped being a young person, or when I started being something else. I do know that I never chose that particular ending, and that it ended anyway. The whole thing is mysterious: when do you begin turning into what you are now? And how would you know? And how long will that last?
Certainly there will come times in life when each of us are surrounded by people who mean well by us, who proceed with us as if not much has happened that really changes anything, as if we’re fine and will remain so, as if we’re likely to know whatever we need to know and probably already do, all the mandatory things. Those people we usually count among our friends. You may not see them for a while – if you farm, as we do, you may not see them often at all, or only when the green season finally goes white, and you find yourself like a migratory bird again in a season of visiting – but when you do they give you as you give them a clear signal that each of you is pretty much as you’ve been, that sustenance remains your reward. One of the great compliments we give to each other, once our aging has become palpable, clear and marked, is that we don’t look any older. Or, if we do, that it’s an improvement, and suits us well, which almost comes to the same thing.
Of course, this is not much of a map to set the compass of your days by. Friendliness of this kind can be confusing to all concerned, the same way offering gold bullion to someone trying to tread water can be confusing. The good intent doesn’t determine much. To know where you are in the arc of your life, in the caravan of your days, that can help. From what I’ve seen around me it isn’t often welcome knowledge, not the way my corner of the world piles up its treasure of no unwanted change. In my time of enduring the professionalized low grade trauma known as the palliative care industry, known to me as the death trade, I saw most dying people a-twist in their sheets, some part of them knowing that something was happening, but more of them adrift and clinging to the straw rafts their caregivers wove from maybe’s and not yet’s and we’ll see’s. And be positive’s, and don’t give up’s. The lunacy of that particular kind of friendly cheerleading led most dying people along an unremarkable trail of little uncertainties, and that became their last months. Though it was deeply, truly knowable, most dying people spent their dying time not knowing where they were, not knowing what this time of their life asked of them, mostly waiting to find out, to be told. Instead of learning.
We in the dominant culture of North America don’t practice those rites of losing that go a long way to helping other people in other, older places know where in the arc of their days they are. Often what happens is that, instead of learning what the poet Elizabeth Bishop called the art of losing, we learn ‘steady as she goes’, and rarely are things steady. Often we are drawn to each other by certain samenesses that we bargain won’t change: people who like the same restaurants or politicians, or live in the same kind of houses or collect the same kinds of memories for their shelves, often find each other and spend decades of their lives cultivating the No Random Change of their days. Swapping those samenesses looks a lot like constancy, and to a people hooked on competence, feeling good and being all you can be constancy can look an awful lot like a life. Certainly during my lifetime the great con that has resisted all evidence to the contrary is the one that mutters every day: ‘You have a choice. You have the deciding vote on what your life means, on what happens, on all the Great Supposed To’s. You have a vote on what’s true.’
Over the last couple of years one of the particular joys of doing Orphan Wisdom’s work is that more and more younger people are coming. Most of them aren’t spiritual tourists, wandering from one experience to the next, haggling over what a little enlightenment should cost, asking for continuing education credits before they vote with their feet. More and more they are beginning to resemble people no longer convinced and condemned by their cultural orphanhood, the very people I had in mind when I began our School. I don’t know how they’re finding the School and me, but they are. Many older people still come to this work steeped in doubt, muttering ‘Prove it and I’ll come’, but the younger ones often have some vestigial wonder about them instead, and their mantra sounds a lot more like: ‘Maybe’. They often sit at the front of the room. They ask questions, real questions, not lawyer questions, accusations tarted up to sound like questions. They don’t often come with a firmly entrenched right to know things, but with a more pliable desire to know them, sometimes even a willingness to learn them, and sometimes a longing for real work.
Something has begun to happen, because of this. The young people drawn to this work are aging the rest of us drawn to this work. They don’t mean to, and many of them don’t know they are doing it, but they are. When young people approach something that has for a time been carried by their elders, driven by whatever emptiness or rumour of nourishment might haunt them, older people have a chance to see themselves as worthy of that approach, as having done something with their lives that warrants that approach. Just as you began growing an ability to love by being loved first, which sent up into the light an unlikely and unsuspected shoot of green worthiness in you, so being sought out by someone younger than you gives you the chance to suspect what they suspect, that someone knows something worth knowing, that the whole enterprise might not be in vain, or if it is that there’s no need to go down into that vanity alone. It could be that those young people who are certain unsuspected sisters and brothers of mercy that the poet laureat of our moment, Leonard Cohen, wrote of:
If your life is a leaf that the seasons tear off and condemn, They will bind you with love that is graceful and green as a stem.
And so it is that elders do not elders make. That is more what happens in senior centres, where the elderly remind each other of what can no longer be. No, it is young people who make elders. They do it by proceeding as if there might be such a thing as elders, often without any evidence that this is so, and by not seeking only their own. Young people make elders, in spite of every whisper that discredits the Tower of Age, by seeking them out. In that way the young give to the aged among them a sign of where in the story of their lives the elders might be, by whispering:
‘You are here, now, at this moment in your life when you’ve seen more than you’ll see. Thank you for that. Can you spare a few moments of the moments you have left?’
And it may be that elders – not parents – are the ones who make young people, by readying themselves for the unlikely appearance of someone still keen in spite of it all, a sojourner after life who arrives without notice at their door. Elders must go through their latter days without much evidence that one day they might well be needed by someone younger, someone who quietly fears that it has always been as it is, and that there aren’t reasons enough to continue.
My teaching life here often obliges us to leave the farm and travel in hopes of finding evidence that something of what I’ve written here might be true. (We usually find it.) We leave our farm, all the plants, animals, the buildings, the whole barely orchestrated mayhem of the thing in the care of young people now. It has become a mysterious and unsought after pleasure, to return home and see what young eyes found needed doing, how their ways make a new kind of sense. It is great practice too for the end of all our days, when each of us will have to entrust everything we’ve known and done and loved in the care of those who don’t yet know what we place in their hands, but who in time to come might hold it in some esteem, maybe only because we preceded them, or because we tried.
All blessings on your wild years, on their wild ways of ending, on the road in and out of town, and on those to come.
Stephen Jenkinson, MTS, MSW Author, Spiritual Activist and Founder of The Orphan Wisdom School
The last ice age surely had its way with our corner of the world. They say the ice sheet was a mile or more thick here, which is a mind boggling verticality. It is almost beyond imagining that anything could emerge from that frozen compression with the ability to grow, but it did. Within a few thousand years the land here, in Gordon Lightfoot’s line, grew green dark forests too silent to be real – though real they were. They aren’t real now though, and the silence is a different one. In the early 1800’s this valley we live in was plundered with a gross efficiency that, if you really let it in, could complete the job of addling your imagination. From here came the straightest, truest, stoutest white pines there were. They were turned into spar and beam and board and mast, into war ships and slave ships and trading ships and salvation ships – pretty much indistinguishable one from the other. When they returned to this valley as purveyors and enforcers of the Old Order, sailing up the now tumult-tamed river that gives this place its name, they returned to nothing. Which means they returned to farms. I’ve wondered often: what is a farm to a tree? It must be a desert.
Most of my fields are deserts with a thin disguise of twitch grass in the summers. We get less snow every year now, and in winter the fields look like the shallow white lakes that might appear in your dreams, acres wide and inches deep. This past winter we stood on a wind blasted knoll and imagined our way towards grazing animals come spring. We had to build from scratch, since no farmer before me with an instinct for the possible would have grazed animals on that glacial till. We began by stomping the outline of a few buildings in the snow, trying to site them so that late winter sun would fill them with pale, thin light to warm the newborns some. But we ended up where pretty much every farmer does: siting fences. I submit to you that every planting or growing enterprise has and will in time come down to that, to a fence. It goes further: I’d guess that the rudimentary comfort and sense of safety our way of life affords us in the dominant culture of North America, the goofy sense of security that allows us for better and worse to plan and proceed, owes pretty much everything to a fence.
The kind of fences available now in the farm supply stores are models of ruthless efficiency, razor thin, almost invisible from head on, more persuasive and relentless than any politician or preacher you might name. Dig a few cedar posts into the ground, winch the wire with a come-along from the tow bar of a truck and nail the staples, and something happens to the place and to you. It has a shadowy, conjuring magic I hadn’t counted on: by the end of three days of work there was a proper field where there used to be sweet fern, gravel and the odd gopher hole, and I involuntarily had become a kind of lord of all I surveyed. There was order, suddenly, inside the line, and some kind of low grade chaos in the bush outside it, and ne’er the twain should meet, and I had done all that with wire. That, friends, is the unsuspected power of a fence.
This may be fairly well known: the quiet little fact is that it was the invention of barbed wire – not disease, not locomotives, not wars of attrition or residential schools – that efficiently concluded the days of free ranging up and down the prairies of North America in the 19th century, and it was barbed wire fence that afforded the governments of the day the solution to their ‘Indian problem’. And it was farms and ranches, not cities, that killed off what was left of a centuries-old nomadic life on this continent within one lifetime, and it is farms and ranches that keep it killed in my lifetime. What is not so well known is the etymology of the Old English phrase ‘beyond the pale’. Now it means ‘unsupportable, intolerable, or not fit for proper company’, but ancestrally it meant ‘on the other side of the boundary, or wall, or fence’. Splice these two meanings together, and you find that from the days when the English language was in its infancy, and long before that, fences have been used socially, agriculturally and tribally to segregate what people prefer from what they prohibit, and to tame what they fear.
Fences are the high water mark of our notorious domestication of animals, plants, water, all manner of once-wild and running things – including our human competitors and neighbours, and our own human soul, if I speak honestly. The truth is not that good fences make good neighbours: good fences make neighbours irrelevant. They relieve us of the dirty work of working things out with neighbours, over and over. Watch how people living side by side, without a fence, calculate to the inch the likely property line and enforce it with a lawn mower. Somebody in that story is itching for a fence, for the remarkable power of kingdom-making that it has. I would guess that when the revolutions come again, if they are for real this time, they might begin by burning down the fences and declaring that the commons have been reinstated.
This morning we walked the perimeter of the field with the dogs, as we often do, the mist rising off the mountain behind the farm and the sheep nosing dewy twitch grass under the young white pines, and I wrestled again the ancestral pull of boundaries and intolerances. There’s nothing prudent about it, to be sure, but something of the old chaos lovers in my line rose up and whispered to me, “Well, what if you left the gate open?” I didn’t, but I might.
One of the running prejudices that shows no sign of fatigue or going away in the corner of the world I know something about is the idea that all, or most, of our principal lunacies and strategies for self defeat live in our cities. Cities, full of operatic potential and wizardry, are our crazy places. They are factories of delusion, heat and unspectacular human lostness. My two children live in a city, and I admit that these prejudices play across my mornings from time to time, and I wish they’d consider coming to live on the farm, or at least to something smaller, which will never happen in my life time.
One sane and sustaining response that continues to have currency, mostly among city people, is: get your crazy butt to the country. The country will heal the madnesses. It will coax your sorrow up to the surface and wash it away with the first pure, hard rain. If you demand bread and not circuses, no problem: cities are circuses, and bread (wheat, spelt, rye or what have you) comes from the country. Get yourself out to the country, where the water tastes like wine. The country will revive your early, untested solutions for personal happiness, relentlessly fixing you with its green self. As if it had nothing else to do. As if the rehabilitation of your inner life was its current, secret reason for being there. And when your time comes, and the end of your days are in sight, you’ll hardly notice, so commensurate with the manner of your healing will be the manner of your dying, and you’ll be gathered in by the Great Earth Mother’s loamy embrace, back from whence you came. No matter how you lived before that.
Well, one thing to mention is that there’s less country now than there was even twenty years ago, friends. The main reason for that is the Freedom 55 fuelled steady stream of people coming from the city to the country, or at least to the estate suburbs, when they can finally afford it, for healing. That’s the origin of the hobby farm, and hobby farms are where family farms go to die, severed and managed and finally unmortgaged. Another thing to mention – and this will probably sound unnecessarily harsh, and perhaps it is – is that most every idea of what sanity is and what health is that swirls around those seeking both often comes from them having lived without much of either.
Real health, real sanity for people and for communities, doesn’t come from being free of sickness or craziness, nor from getting as far away from it as you can. Wherever you go, they say, there you are, meaning that you bring yourself on your epic quest for selflessness, meaning that the instinct to get free of illnesses of all kinds itself comes from the illness and the craziness you’re trying to deke. The country, if you’ll forgive me speaking of it as a single, sentient being (it isn’t), isn’t nearly strong enough to pry from your grip anything you insist is you. It isn’t the country’s style to take from you, neither your gold nor your shit. Especially not your fear.
I’ve known more than a few people contemplating their dying in the country, and in truth I haven’t seen an appreciable difference from what I saw in my years in the urban death trade. The fear of dying is a powerful thing, especially and probably uniquely in a death phobic culture, and it doesn’t head for the door when you start learning about it. And it is at home wherever people are, city or country.
So, please consider this: Most dying people are not more knowledgeable about dying by virtue of receiving a terminal diagnosis, or from finding themselves dying. Being afraid of something and knowing about that something are not the same thing, not even close, but fear does an awfully persuasive job of sounding like knowledge: You don’t want that to happen, right? And the prompt is, of course: Well, no, I guess not. Fear isn’t discernment, and most dying people aren’t really afraid of dying. They are – maybe better to say, we will probably be – afraid of disappearing without a trace. Which really means: they are afraid of us being able to proceed, with some period of adjustment, as if they’d never been, something we usually call ‘getting on with our lives’. Which really means: they have great sorrow about what the rest of us will do with them after they die. And that isn’t fear. That is discernment. City or country in our corner of the world, most of us have lived as if the dearly departed have no real need of us, that dying has taken care of that, and it is only in our dying time, city or country, that we begin to catch a real glimpse of what it means for us to have lived that way, and what it may have done to us, and maybe to our dead, and what it means for us now.
One thing the country can teach you is how the dead – leaves, plants, animals, for a start – aren’t gone. There’s no soil without them, and no growth, and no food, and no life. Death – not the fear of death, but real, metabolic and spiritual death – is what feeds life. The country can teach you that this is not a metaphor. This is food. One balm for the fear of death in our time: that we consider joining this honourable, life giving caravan of dead things, so that life lives. Fear of dying isn’t knowing: dying is knowing.
All blessings on your city or country life and, when the time comes, on your city or country dying. And mine.
For years we’ve had beavers on the land, and so far the risen water and the beavers together have killed five acres of bottom land on our already small farm. I’ve broken the dam several times and found it rebuilt and stronger within a day. I’ve tried trapping them out winter and summer to no avail. Late one night a few years back I made the last turn up the gravel road to our place after four hours of eye burning, butt numbing driving from the city and very narrowly missed running down a beaver seated on his tail in the moonlight. I stopped, watched him for a few seconds in the rear view utterly undisturbed and at home in the dusty red glow of my break lights, put the truck in reverse, considered the ease of this solution and wrestled with the Great Beyond.
I didn’t make any noble decisions, and I didn’t get a sign. I just couldn’t do it. So after a minute or so I slid the truck into first and drove up the hill. The beaver never moved, never even looked up at the truck. Within a week all the beavers were gone out of the swamp, and they stayed gone for three years, and the bottom land began to regrow itself. I drained the swamp, cut some standing dead wood for the home fires, and pictured corn in the reclaimed field until early last fall, when the beavers came back and rebuilt their marvelous and immense dam and started mowing down the brush along the creek bed. Neighbours noted the rising water in the field, offered advice and sympathy the way people do when there is serious illness in the family. Nothing rivals beavers for changing the landscape irrevocably except humans, the same way nothing rivals sickness for changing life irrevocably except dying. Mostly because of harvest fatigue and my teaching schedule, I never got around to fixing the beaver trouble.
This spring the runoff from the mountain, which usually lasts ten thunderous days and nights, lasted two, and the signs were everywhere to be seen, even during the rains of early June, that there wouldn’t be water this year. We planted anyway, but the old timers were already shaking their heads. I write this to you after five weeks of punishing heat and no rain. Only lately have the radio people begun to admit that the weather that pleases campers, cottagers and tourists is killing everything that feeds them. There’ll be little feed for livestock this winter, food prices for humans will rise, and no farmers in my area can see the bottom of this right now. Most fields around me for miles are the colour of bleached sand.
My fields of blue corn, red potato, peanut and chard are burnt at the edges, but they’re mostly green. There are two reasons. I’ve had a dozen or so scholars from our Orphan Wisdom School as undeclared apprentices in the Redemption Business, which is what we call farming in played out alluvial till, and they’ve tended to the crops every morning before the sun climbs over the granite mountain to blaze the fields. The other reason: every morning they haul by hand buckets of rank smelling, mineral rich, coffee coloured beaver water from the swamp to the fields, the same water I’ve tried to drain away for years, and every day there is reprieve. It wasn’t my prescience that granted us this water, nor is it any hope or prayer answered. I credit entirely the beavers and their Gods, and have a real gratitude for my late fall fatigue which I didn’t have then. My plans, my whole take on the beaver dilemma failed, and because I failed I have corn again this year, and so we can feed the scholars that attend our school this summer the way we’ve done summers passed.
I ask you to consider this: Our corner of this world is in bad shape, largely thanks to what we’ve done to it during my lifetime. We could withhold our labour and our Amen until the Great Solution to the gathering troubles shows itself, when the corporations humanize, the seed supply naturalizes, the chemically dazzled soil revitalizes, and all but the most egregious – and maybe them too – are forgiven and converted. We’d be sincere, principled paralytics. Or we could start, minus the reassurances. We could proceed without feeling safe, without certainty, without any promise of return, without any clear handle on the Big Story, without hope. I hereby declare by the power vested in me by no one at all that hope is no longer needed in order to put our shoulder to the wheel of the world for the sake of a better day. And faith, that blanket coverage insurance policy that promises moral victory before there’s any work done, I also declare tried and found wanting.
We could plant without faith or hope or water, without the promise of water, in the jaws of a drought – which may be the way of the coming days – and keep up our end of the Mystery. We could start a school dedicated to teaching the orphaned wisdom of our time. Or some of us could join one. With luck our most efficient and relentless planning might be unhinged by some other partner in the Mystery, our well meant scheming checkmated and life going on anyway.
All blessings on your wrecked plans and your hope-free days. And may it rain, should that serve.
My daughter made the many mile drive to our farm to be with me on Father’s Day, and I rewarded her by at one point talking about how I’m getting older. As is proper, she refused to have the conversation, which deepens my respect and admiration of her. Eventually we will have the conversation, hopefully quite a few times, and we’ll join hands as older parents and older children can do, each of us having made it to a certain ripeness that can come from hanging around long enough, each of us no longer undone by the gentler knowledge that our time together has a certain shine and depth that comes from knowing that those times won’t, can’t, shouldn’t stretch unconditionally and endlessly into a future we once thought ourselves and each other entitled to. They won’t last, in other words.
Things like Father’s Days, birthdays and anniversaries click by with relentless precision, and many of us seem bent on counting them, the ones left and the ones that have come, and this faith we seem to have in being able to calibrate our days I don’t think is particularly admirable, nor does it mean that we are finally ‘getting it’, nor is it a natural thing. It comes more and more from digital clocks, rolling tachometers, hand-held tyrannies and the utterly reliable admen and hucksters of nostalgia who plan our Big Days six months in advance by guaranteeing that a Big Sale accompanies them. There is a card for everything.
The real dilemma with time is the vague theology, the vague notion of Something Bigger Somewhere Else, that this culture clings to. Somewhere along the line each of us ‘learns’ that the past is gone, the best of it maybe perched at the right hand of the Divine. And that leaves the future as everything that hasn’t happened yet, and the present all there is. It is a savage, graceless thing that the elders among us are now obliged to see their lives as mostly ‘gone’, and that the rest of us are obliged to keep jogging, keep eating power bars and topping up our RSP’s so as not to be as ‘gone’ as our parents or grandparents or dead spouses are. This is the poverty that my culture has come to now: we don’t have to die to be gone anymore. We, with all the perishables in the grocery store, have a ‘best before’ date too. We have a peak of freshness. Aging gets us gone, well before most of us thought it would, and almost no one – certainly no one undespairing – wants to get there. I myself refuse all of this.
Leonard Cohen, though he doesn’t likely know it, is the patron saint of my Orphan Wisdom School, and its bard, certainly because of his many human skills, but mostly because, against the odds I guess, he is still with us, still testifying, having more and more faithfully begun to sing the songs of real age. He hasn’t sworn off the desires for which he is rightly well known. Instead he has with considerable labour allowed his age to render the younger desires into a more full bodied kind of longing. You could say that his example is one in which longing has earned its keep. He seems now to be longing for Life, not for more days to be added to his life. His wish seems to be for life to continue, whether his continues or not. This is wisdom, friends, and Mr. Cohen, bless him, isn’t keeping it to himself. His is a faithful witness, an undiminished witnessing to all in our time that would diminish us. I love the man deeply for it all, and would gladly carry his bags if ever given the chance. He is, I would say, more present among us, less gone, than he has ever been, a great gift and a national living treasure. He offers up another way of age, where nothing is shrugged off, abandoned or lost, where time deepens instead of passes.
I write this to you sitting on the shoulder of the summer solstice, another day for many, a time of gardening consequence for some, known far and wide as the longest day of the year. It isn’t the year’s longest day, of course. If you’re measuring, every day has the same number of hours in it. No, it’s the oldest day of the year, the one that carries the most, remembers the most, where the whole of the year is most present and generous. I sat for a few minutes yesterday in one of our fields planning for the new class of our school in August, thinking about the oldest day of the year, looking over the new sheep fencing we’d just strung across a pasture that probably hasn’t seen animals in forty years, to the lines of red pine seedlings we planted two months ago in hopes that we could bring this land that never should have been cleared to some kind of soil feeding health again. I won’t see those seedlings into trees, not likely, though my wife may. My kids, should Life grant them life, could. My grandchildren, should that come to pass, will. None of us, not then and not now, will be gone. I planted those pines with no despair, no futility, only a willingness to proceed as if life will continue. Which requires nothing to be gone. Such as it is, that is my longing.
All blessings on your Longing for Life on this Oldest of Days.